It thirsted for strange blood!
|"The Red Knife of Hassan," intoned the robed and turbaned museum guide. "Emblem of the House of Alborz. Totem of the Empire of Urudak. And, according to lore, one of the most potent occult artifacts of antiquity. Behold." He swept his hand at the display case with a practiced ease.
It rested on a cushion of purple, upon a pedestal of marble, under a dome of glass. It was a curved blade, like a crescent moon, and half unsheathed within a scabbard of ivory. The silver-gray blade glinted with a crimson sheen.
"The time of its fashioning," continued the guide for the National Museum of Masoudabad, "is known only to the gods. Forged, it is said, by Sumu-abum, the first king of Babylon, with metal saved from drowned Atlantis. Legend says it was the knife with which Abraham was tasked with killing his only son Isaac; that with it Moses slew the slave-driver; that it was one of the treasures of Solomon. It is a historic fact that it was wielded by Constantine the Great, and descended from him by devious ways to the Republic of Qazvin, to which it was given by the grandfather of Princess Gulshan. Its value is inestimable."
"Who was Hassan?" asked one of the visitors. "And why was it named after him?"
"It was most famously carried by Hassan-i Sabbah, founder of the Order of Assassins. Much blood has it shed. To which"—the guide again gestured at the knife—"is often credited its hue."
He gave the group of twenty another minute to study the knife, then ushered them on.
But one man remained, to scowl at the knife with close-knit brows.
"All highways leading out of the city have been closed," the Security Minister was saying to the Princess Gulshan, "and all departing passengers are being searched at the airport."
"My family and I appreciate the Republic's efforts," the princess replied. She affected an indolence as she reclined on the divan, but her expression was tense, and both her legs and arms were crossed. "Especially," she added, "as the Red Knife is no longer our property."
The Minister tipped his head. "It belongs to the people of Qazvin," he agreed. "But when it is stolen, courtesy dictates—"
"Dictates?" The princess sprang to her feet and paced the marbled floor of the receiving room like a caged panther. "Courtesy should not dictate, Colonel, it should bestow." He bowed, but she paid no attention. "You mean security dictates!" She stopped to give him a shrewd glance. "But why? The Red Knife was only ever wielded against tyrants, and my great-grandfather abdicated the throne of Qazvin almost a century ago."
"Your family still wields influence."
"Influence is not tyranny."
"Fanatics may disagree. Or they may have other reasons to turn the Red Knife against Your Highness."
The princess gave the Minister a very steady look.
"The Republic is officially secular and socialist," she said. "To what fairy tales do its officials lend ear?"
"To those fairy tales that excite dangerous elements. Every school child in Qazvin knows the Red Knife was not fashioned from the red silver of Atlantis to strike down petty tyrants. The mustadhyib—"
"—wears many forms. But it is when clad in kingly raiment that its hunger is to be most dreaded. You do have political ambitions," the Minister added after a pause.
There was a lengthier pause from the princess. "So I am to be struck down by the Red Knife? As a werewolf who seeks to regain a throne?"
The Minister shrugged. "To certain diseased minds—"
"And that is why you not only keep me informed of the search for the stolen dagger, but why you have thrown a cordon about the Old Palace." The princess gestured at the window. Outside, in the courtyard, mustachioed men with machine guns sat in Jeeps and smoked cigarettes.
"We have had information—"
"I think, Colonel," she said in a cold voice, "that it is your ambitions, not mine, that you seek to protect. Should I really expect to see the dawn?"
Before he could reply, a figure burst from an inner apartment.
"Assassin!" the Minister cried, and from his jacket pocket he snatched a Luger. The pistol barked, and the man spun and fell and sprawled on the marble floor. "Your Highness!" he called as the princess ran toward the man.
He was by her side in an instant, and fumbled inside the dead man's clothes, drawing from them a revolver. "Intended to turned on you?" he said to the princess as he showed it to her.
"Perhaps intended still," she replied. "You shot him—or so you would plead—after he shot me."
The Minister pretended puzzlement for a moment. Then he shrugged with a smile.
"An improvised solution," he said as he turned the revolver on her. "But a neat one. I will say that I tried—though failed—to save you from a rogue member of your own security detail."
"But who would believe Ammar a traitor to me? When I trusted him enough to bring me the Red Knife?"
She drew it from her pocket, and showed it to him.
The Minister snarled at the blade. For a moment, where his face was, a gray muzzle appeared.
They stood only a foot apart, and she struck deep and true at his breast. He fell with a gurgle.
"My great-grandfather slew his eldest son and forswore the throne himself," the princess spat at the Minister's corpse, "to save Qazvin from a beast of blood!" She wiped the blade on the Minister's tunic. "Could I do less?"
She struck a small gong, and two servants entered. They turned white at the carnage, but kept their tongues as she ordered them fetch another blade, which she folded into the hand of the dead Ammar.
"As for this," she said as she presented the servants with the Red Knife, "return it to its place of keeping, there to sleep until it is needed again!"