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.
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