"The Villain and the Saint" by Benjamin Smith
Originally published in Elements Magazine
Su'aal stood within the depths of the courtyard, his vision within the depths of the fountain before him. A fig tree swayed in the wind to his left; a willow swayed likewise to his right. And directly behind him, hidden within the vast shadows of the courtyard pillars, stood the Princess Ahmar.
She watched him admire the fountain composed completely of ruby and diamond. She watched him admire the water, the purest in the region. But most of all she watched him admire the scene appropriately: not as a show of artistic achievement, but as a symbol of political power, adamantine and immaculate.
The Princess stepped forward. “Peace be upon you.”
“And peace be upon you.”
“You're exactly on time. I trust your flight was fine?”
“I'd rather travel by train. Zeppelins are so – bourgeois.”
“So it goes. Will the University be suspicious of your absence?”
“They think I'm attending a funeral.”
“Very funny. Now then!” she said with a clap of her hands. “You already know from my messenger why I've summoned you here, and that I promise to pay you well for your work: twenty thousand dirhams, to be exact. But you must bring me back his head,” she added emphatically. “I'll need that as proof.”
“Most of my customers demand the same.”
“For her, I had to bring back two heads.”
“At half the price I am offering you for one? She's always so cheap,” the Princess sighed. “But she speaks very highly of you and I'm pleased with your history. Before we begin with the final details, could I offer you anything?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“How about some tea?” she asked.
“How about some wine?” he asked back.
The Princess froze. “What did you say?”
“How about some wine?”
“You are... are you not a Muslim?”
“Well of course I am, by law. I'm just not a strict one. Are you?”
“Of course!” she hissed in disbelief.
Su'aal smiled yet looked hard in her eyes. “We both know I could die trying to help you with your problem. So I would like some wine! And we both know you've summoned me in secrecy to carry out an intensely illegal operation – an assassination. This could cause you trouble with others here in the West Sands, even with members of your own royal family. Your uncle, the Sultan, is keen on being a peaceful man helping out a peaceful world. And last of all we both know that you too secretly drink wine. By the ocean. So please give me one last glass.”
“Slave!” the princess screamed, clapping her hands. “Slave!”
A woman in a long robe came up the path.
“Give us two glasses of wine.”
The slave looked at her, then at Su'aal, and then back at her.
“Give us two glasses of wine.”
The slave turned and walked away.
“Thank you for the favor,” said Su'aal. “Now I have to ask a delicate question.”
She led him from the fountain to the labyrinth of red and white rosebushes growing in the center of the courtyard. The two entered the single visible entrance without a sound, finding themselves within a realm of deceptive doors and corridors. Only the sky above was constant and clear.
After what seemed a lifetime of left and right, they made their way to yet another courtyard. It was small – entirely enclosed by the tall rosebushes – and in the center was a bench beside a stream, placed in shade beneath two opposing statues of fighting lions. He followed her within and they both took a seat.
“We can speak more openly here,” the Princess said.
“Do you not trust your own walls?”
“Deception lurks everywhere. Even here in New Tehran.”
“Especially here in New Tehran,” Su'aal said with a grin. “Your towers and surrounding lands are majestic, but the actual city is – unsavory, to say the least. And your police are useless.”
“Corruption lurks everywhere, too. There is nothing I can do.”
“Besides summoning people like me. That shows the real power lies back in Mecca. Not Now Mecca, but Old Mecca. And power can only go so far – go only a certain length or distance – before it becomes weaker. Like light, or any other force in Life.”
“So it goes. Now what's this delicate question of yours?”
Su'aal pulled out a photograph of a man from his vest pocket. “It's about him. Of all people – Abyad Ibn Noor? It doesn't make any sense to me. He's just a fool.”
The Princess cleared her throat. “More harm is done by fools through foolishness than is done by evildoers through wickedness.”
“Sure, but I still don't understand. He's a simple holy man of no importance.”
“He's of great importance to me.”
Su'aal paused, and squinted at his target's face. His lips curled around his mouth. “Perhaps I might understand after all. When I look at this picture I see some starving bald man with a beard, sitting on a mat and dressed in rags – yet you certainly see something else. We must always remember that nothing is really what it seems. Our great Sufi thinkers talk and write of this: objective truth, subjective truth, distorted truth. And the confusion between truth and knowledge. Perhaps this Abyad isn't a fool after all.” He leaned toward the Princess. “Could this be true?”
The slave entered the inner courtyard, balancing a tray carrying two glasses of red wine.
“You may leave now,” said the Princess as she took the glasses. The slave obeyed and disappeared from sight. “Let us drink to your luck.”
“Will I need it?”
“Your job will not be easy,” she said after a sip. “Abyad is a serious danger. You will also have his friends and students to contend with. There is a fantastic chance that they will defend him from your attack, hunt you down, and kill you.”
Su'aal shook his head. “That's only your opinion, based only on you own observations. I personally doubt the strength and skill of him, his friends, and his students. Yet I must admit that's only my own opinion based only on my observations. I wonder which of us is right?”
The Princess finished the rest of her wine, concentrated for a few seconds, then spoke in a hushed tone barely audible over the sounds of the stream. “Unlike you and I, Abyad is truly devout. That's what makes this problem so... problematic. Do you know what I'm saying?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Faith and devotion are beautiful things, yet during the wars each religion and government exaggerated them into hideously destructive weapons. Afterwards our side allowed the Unbelievers to assimilate at a small cost. In order for our religion to be accepted by them without more bloodshed, our religion became more moderate. Because of this, there's been little civil unrest for several decades. Although he is not outspoken yet, I know Abyad wants the old ways back.”
“So you want me to stop the source of a potential fire.”
“New Tehran is a wasteland waiting to burn. Even if I eliminate him, another one will set the city to flames. This is inevitable because rulers build nations based on foundations other rulers later remove. Or at least that's what I think.” Su'aal held up his glass of red wine to the sun-soaked sky for a better look at its color. “You know, it's entirely possible that this isn't wine, but blood.”
“This could be the blood of my God – that is, if my God were a bunch of grapes.”
“You are a donkey.”
“Perhaps – but in this world, it's hard to know what anything really is. You say this liquid is wine, but I say that this could be the blood of my God if in fact my God were a bunch of grapes. Which of us is right? Both of us. You believe Abyad is dangerous for spreading his ideas, but he probably thinks you're dangerous for interfering in his religion. Which of you is right? Both of you. It depends on how one sees the situation.”
“Enough of this!” the Princess said. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips. “Your job is not to philosophize. It is to pull a trigger. Or to slice a throat. Or... whatever. But just kill him.”
“But the problem with perception is incredible! How do you know I'm actually an assassin? Sure, I say that I am – but do you really know? Perhaps you've been lied to. Or perhaps I actually work for your sister! Her jealousy of you is common knowledge. Or perhaps I actually work for poor, foolish Abyad.”
Su'aal shrugged his shoulders.
She opened her mouth to scream but wasn't quick enough. He pounced at her, placing a hand on her mouth while raising up a knife.
“Don't call for your guards,” he said.
The Princess stood motionless.
“Don't call for your guards. Understand?”
Slowly she nodded her head, so he released her.
“Do you really work for Abyad?” she asked.
“How much has he paid you?”
“Nothing – at least not yet.”
She spat on him.
“How elegant,” he said, wiping the saliva off his face. “I should cut out your tongue for that.”
“Go ahead then.”
Su'aal raised up his knife again.
“Three times,” she said, panicking. “I'll pay you three times whatever he's paying you.”
“He isn't paying me anything.”
“What do you mean?”
“You're willing to pay money for his head and seem to think he's willing to pay money for yours. You both have your reasons and you both can be seen as right. But real truth only rests with me. One of you is the villain, and one of you is the saint.” Su'aal reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a large silver coin. He held it up next to his knife for the Princess to see. On one side was an image of an angel; on the other side was an image of a devil. “One of you is good, and one of you is evil – at least in certain terms. At least in terms of impact on society. It's for society's sake that I have to decide which is which.”
“So what will you do?”
“And then I'll walk into the desert to pray for real truth. If it doesn't come I'll just flip this coin and place my trust in chance.”
“I could send men after you.”
“Yes, and I could kill them.” He replaced his coin into his vest pocket, then turned around with his unsheathed knife to leave.
“But what guarantee could you have?” she asked.
“Guarantee of what?” he asked back.
“Of killing the right one?”
But Su'aal only laughed, vanishing before her eyes between the walls of red and white. Princess Ahmar turned to walk and think beside the stream. A gust of wind blew into her inner courtyard, sweeping up some of the scattered rosebuds into a moving swirl of colors, looking to her like a swirling pool of thick rich cream marred by dark drops of blood. And as she looked down at this she felt a hope in her heart that the villain really would be killed, blended with a fear that this was actually the antithesis of her assassin's intentions.
Benjamin James Smith is a writer and editor living in Maine and writing a novel about Soviet time-travel schemes.