Spoil the Rod
Don’t spoil the rod, my old master had told me. She’s insatiable and she’ll eat you alive.
As I lay for the thirteenth hour in the northeast corner of the castle courtyard, tucked in by thorn-filled blackberry brambles, exhausted and scratched to all hell with ticks burrowed in parts of sweaty flesh they should never have access to and my elbows only inches from soil soaked in my own rancid urine, it dawned on me that he may have been on to something.
Still, I wasn’t going to worry too much about it until the biggest job of my life was done.
For the forty-seventh time tonight, I watched Bartholomew, nineteen with not a whisker on his chin, stumble along the outside of the graystone, torchlit walls of the main hall, disappearing and reappearing in between thick columns carved to look like snakes winding up to swallow the second-floor balcony. Once past the columns, young Barty would round the corner and then I would see his counterpart, Malcolm, twenty-nine and built from superior stock. Malcolm is the type of guard one would seek to employ in every available position, but King Valdar likely had no idea such a greenhorn as Barty worked so close to the royal bedchambers. That’s a natural consequence of being the most powerful king in the High Hills–as power multiplies, so does duty and you have to focus on the big things while relying on others to take care of everything else. It leaves gaps to be exploited by fathers with connections and money to bring their unseasoned sons as close to the inner circle as possible. Gaps, that to a person like me, are like gift baskets filled with sweet cordials and perfumes.
Once Barty returned, I knew the time was close. He paused occasionally now to lean against the wall with one hand and bend over slightly at the waist, removing his helmet to rub the sweat from his head. Tonight, Barty’s queasiness came courtesy of one of those good women making a living at the Singing Coyote tavern just inside the city gates. Seeing that my friend Santia had done her job tonight brought a smile to my face. She’d lubricated Barty with alcohol and other tricks. It’s good to have people you can trust. Relationships are important in my line of work.
I wouldn’t have to put up with the smell of my own piss for much longer. That first cordial came my way when Barty released a juicy burp in the middle of the quiet night and quickly clapped his hand to his mouth. He looked around and the only potential kink to my plan was if he came running toward my corner of the yard to throw up. I could dispatch of him easily enough, but I’d rather he disappear due to natural consequences. Thankfully, he ran to the opposite end which was nearer to the guards’ privy.
As his legs kicked through the air, I carefully pushed myself to my feet and made sure my dagger was securely strapped to my thigh. Barty disappeared behind an opening leading toward the corridor between the inner and outer walls and I sprinted over the manicured garden, making for the closest winding snake. I had only seconds before Malcolm would appear.
The lengthy piece of leather rope that had been secured to my waist was already coiled with the noose-end ready to toss. I looked up. I had practiced this more times than I could count. I had one, maybe two shots, to get it before I would need to think about plan C.
The rope caught the snake’s stone fang on the first heave and I scaled the column like a hungry squirrel spying a lone acorn. As I stood on a dark edge of the balcony and pulled the remaining rope up, I watched Malcolm’s armor-cast shadow bob along the partially-lit lawn, unaware that his king’s dreams would soon continue indefinitely.
King Valdar was afraid of the dark.
At least that was my impression, seeing that no less than six brass torches crackled gently in between colorful tapestries spread over three walls of the bedroom. The lights illuminated the sparseness of the room, which also came as a surprise. I would have to be swift as there wasn’t much in the way of cover. The bed was the largest piece of furniture, itself also inornate except for Valdar’s flag stretched like a canopy over four corner posts made of polished, chocolate-colored oak. It looked comfortable enough to easily sleep a family of four, though the outline of the nearly naked, snoring king with sheets tossed aside indicated the king was alone. Not even a concubine at his side. Smart man. Those with heavy thoughts in their mind often talk in their sleep.
That was likely the reason for the lack of guards in the room as well. I knew that two stood outside the king’s chamber doors, Desmond and Michael, and I’d learned in the Singing Coyote that Desmond had been doing so for seven years, slightly disgruntled at having been pulled from the regular army due to a leg injury, while Michael had been there three. Whereas Barty was easily plied with alcohol, the same could not be said for Desmond, a consummate professional. Instead, I found that if you could get him talking about the science of war, he would go on for hours unless one was able to occasionally steer him in other directions, revealing truly interesting bits of information, piece by piece.
It was time. I figured that I had less than two minutes to slit King Valdar’s throat and leave through the open window I came in before suspicions were raised regarding young Barty. I moved quietly on my toes, the dagger already clenched tightly in my hand.
Under the canopy, it was a little more difficult to see. Not that it mattered. I had been doing this for so long and so often, it was like my blade’s steel edge was drawn to the neck’s veins as if they were magnetic lodestones.
But, I knew immediately that something was wrong based on the solid resistance and slight clinking sound of metal on metal. My eyes adjusted in time to see an iron clasp wrapped around my target’s neck followed by his wide-open eyes and toothy smile.
“He’s here!” yelled the grinning man who was not King Valdar.
“Thank you for your assistance, Roman.”
With my hands bound and one arm held by Desmond, the other by Michael, I watched the portly, naked man who passibly passed for the king kneel before the real Valdar and kiss his fat, emerald-encrusted ring. He then left the room with the clever neck shield in hand.
I felt blood drying on my upper lip and tasted its bitter copper-like flavor in the back of my throat. I was pretty sure my nose was broken, so I tried to focus on breathing through my mouth. Desmond had been under the bed the whole time and when the alarm was sounded, he had taken hold of my ankles, yanking me the ground. Michael had emerged from somewhere and before I could react, the bottom of his boot found my face.
Now that King Valdar and I stood only a meter away from each other at the foot of the bed, I could see more pronounced differences between him and his double. The king’s gray beard was more neatly trimmed and his mustache slightly covered his upper lip. He had a bulbous nose and his face was ruddy. For a man of his age, wrinkles were in the expected places. The king certainly looked older than the statues and sculptures placed throughout his empire implied.
All I cared to know was the one thing that any surprised professional needed to know. “How?” I asked.
“Even though you’re obviously the best among the guild,” the king replied, “seeing as they sent you here, did you think my own son could ply my men with alcohol and sully my courtyard with piss without my knowledge?”
His words didn’t register at first. There was no concept in my brain of any relationship with Valdar beside someone who had once been more of a legend than a real person for most of my life, and who had only recently become a stipulation in a contract.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I think you do,” Valdar replied. He nodded to Desmond and Michael. I sensed a moment’s hesitation, but my arms were released and the two guards backed away to a comfortable distance. “Did you think the masters of your guild taught you your skills for free?”
I would play his game if only to extend my time to think of a way out of this. Brute force wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I was not one for honorable combat. I could get out of a scrape or two, but it’s just not how I was trained and it was obvious that Desmond and Michael were good at what they did.
“My mother paid them,” I said.
“And she earned her money, how?”
I thought about the question and realized I couldn’t answer it.
“I don’t see why the High Hill’s most powerful king would pay the one organization which adamantly declares no loyalties,” I replied.
“It’s true, they are rather obstinate when it comes to their principles,” the king said. “But they’ve always been the best at what they do and,” he nodded toward me, “I found a way to use them to my ends.”
“Why are you only telling me all of this? Son or not, of which I’m sure you have many throughout the Hills, I don’t think you’re willing to send me on my merry way.”
“You’re correct. It does seem your options are poor at this point.” King Valdar sighed. “Oh, if there was only a way out of all of this.” He grinned at his men. I turned to see each of them grinning back.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Come work for me.”
I started to laugh but coughed instead as I choked on bloody phlegm. “Just kill me now, please. The guild isn’t going to greet me with wet kisses if I return without fulfilling my contract.”
“I can keep you safe,” he said. “I need your skills.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I hate to see good men go to waste. I want you to take all that you’ve learned and start a new guild under my purview. It’s obvious my enemies are numerous and I believe it would be prudent to have an assassin of assassins, so to speak. I’m sure there is much you know that would be useful in the right hands.”
I knew the ins and outs of my own guild and of course, I knew of others, but none had the reputation. After what I’d seen tonight, I’m sure Valdar had scores of corpses providing fertilizer for his beautiful greenery.
My choice was obvious. The rod was insatiable.
I spread my arms and whispered.