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With my hand on the doorjamb, some buried-alive instinct thumps within my chest: this is going to hurt.
I take a deep breath and step inside.
The bedchamber of Prince-Regent Toa-Phelathon is really pretty restrained, when you consider that the guy in the bed there rules the second-largest empire on Overworld. The bed itself is a modest eight-poster, only half an acre or so; the extra four posts--each an overcarved slab of rose-veined thierril thicker than my thigh--support lamps of gleaming brass. Long yellow flames like blades of spears waver gently in the breeze from the concealed service door. I close the door soundlessly behind me, and its brocade paper-covered surface blends seamlessly into the pattern of the wall.
I wade through the billowing carpet of silken cushions, a knee-high cloud of vividly shimmering primary colors. A flash of maroon and gold to my left, and my heart suddenly hammers--but it's only my own livery, my servant's dress, captured briefly in the spun-silver mirror atop the Prince-Regent's commode of lacquered Lipkan krim. The reflection shows me the spell, the enchanted face I present: smooth, rounded cheeks, sandy hair, a trace of peach fuzz. I tip myself a blurry wink and smile with my sandpaper lips, ease out a silent sigh, and keep moving.
The Prince-Regent lies propped on pillows larger than my whole bed and snores happily, the silver hairs of his mustache puffing in and out with each wheeze. A book lies facedown across his ample chest: one of Kimlarthen's series of Korish romances. This draws another smile out of my dry mouth; who would have figured the Lion of Prorithun for a sentimentalist? Fairy tales--simple stories for simple minds, a breath of air to cool brows overheated by the complexities of real life.
I set the golden tray down softly on the table beside his bed. He stirs, shifting comfortably in his sleep--and freezing my blood. His movement sends a puff of lavender scent up from the pillows. My fingers tingle. His hair, unbound for napping, falls in a steel-colored spray around his face. That noble brow, those flashing eyes, that ruggedly carved chin exposed by careful shaving within his otherwise full beard--he's everybody's perfect image of the great king. The statue of him on his rearing charger--the one that stands in the Court of the Gods near the Fountain of Prorithun--will make a fine, inspiring memorial.
His eyes pop open when he feels my hand grip his throat: I'm far too professional to try to stifle his shout with a hand over the mouth, and only a squeak gets past my grip. Further struggle is discouraged by his close-up view of my knife, its thick, double-edged point an inch from his right eye.
I bite my tongue, and saliva gushes into my mouth to moisten my throat. My voice is steady: very low and very flat.
"It's customary, at times like this, to say a few words. A man shouldn't die with no understanding of why he's been murdered. I do not pride myself on my eloquence, and so I will keep this simple."
I lean close and stare past my knife blade into his eyes. "The Monasteries kept you on the Oaken Throne by supporting your foolish action against Lipke in the Plains War; the Council of Brothers felt, on balance, that you would be a strong enough ruler to hold the Empire together, at least until the Child Queen reaches majority."
His face is turning purple, and veins in his neck bulge against my grip. If I don't talk fast, I'll have choked him out before I'm done. I sigh through my teeth and pick up the pace.
"They have discovered, though, that you're an idiot. Your punitive taxes are weakening both Kirisch-Nar and Jheled-Kaarn--they tell me ten thousand free peasants starved to death in Kaarn alone last winter. Now you've bloodied the nose of Lipke over that stupid iron mine in the Gods' Teeth, and you're making noises like you want to fight a full-scale war over two crappy little eastern provinces. You have ignored and insulted the Lipkan trade delegation and have dismissed the Council of Brothers' admonitions. They've decided that you're no longer fit to rule, if you ever were. They are tired of waiting. They've paid me a great deal of money to remove you from the throne. Blink twice if you understand."
His eyes widen stiffly, bug out staring from his head as though he'd make them lidless if only he could, and his throat works under my hand. He mouths words at me that my poor lipreading skill can't follow beyond the initial please please please. He'd like to argue with me, no doubt, or perhaps request leniency or asylum for his wife and two daughters. I can grant neither; if a war of succession follows this murder, they'll have to take their chances along with the rest of us.
Finally his eyeballs begin to dry, and he blinks--once. Funny how our reflexes conspire to kill us, sometimes. In terms of my contract, I'm to ensure his comprehension; if I'm to do this properly, I should wait for his next blink. All proprieties should be observed, in the death of a king.
His gaze shifts minutely--the old warrior is going to make a try for me, a last desperate convulsion of his will to survive, calling on other, more recent reflexes to rescue him.
When it's a choice between observing the proprieties and getting caught in the Prince-Regent's bedchamber, nine infinite floors up the spire of the Colhari Palace, the proprieties can fuck off.
I jam the knife into his eye. Bone crackles and blood sprays. I use the knife to twist his face away from me: a bloodstain on this livery could be fatal, on my way out. He flops like a salmon that's found unexpected land beneath an upstream leap. This is only his body's last unconscious attempt to live; it goes hand-in-hand with the release of his bowels and bladder. He shits and pisses all over himself and his satin-weave sheets--another one of those primordial reflexes, a futile dodge to make his meat unappetizing to the predator.
Screw it. I'm not hungry anyway.
He quiets after a year or so. I brace my free hand against his forehead and work the knife back and forth. It comes free with a wet scrape, and I set about the grisly part of this job.
The serrated edge slices easily through the flesh of his neck, but grates against his third cervical vertebra. A slightly altered angle of attack puts the edge between the third and fourth, and a couple seconds' sawing loosens his head. The copper scent of his blood is so thick I can smell it through the stench of his shit; my stomach twists until I can barely breathe.
I uncover the golden tray that I'd carried up from the kitch-ens, gently set the plates of steaming food to one side, and put Toa-Phelathon's head in their place, picking it up carefully by the hair so that none of the gore that drains from it will stain my clothes. I replace the golden dome and strip off my bloodstained gloves, tossing them carelessly onto the body beside the discarded knife. My hands are clean.
I lift the tray to my shoulder and take a deep breath. The easy part's over. Now I have to get out of here alive.
The trickiest part of this escape is the first hurdle: getting away from the body. If I pass the pair of guards at the service door cleanly, I'll be out of the palace before anyone knows the old man is dead. My adrenals sing to me a potent tune that makes my hands tingle and raises goose bumps up my back. My heartbeat thunders in my ears.
In the upper left corner of my vision, the red Exit Square blinks. I ignore it, even as it moves with my eyes like an afterimage of the sun.
I'm only halfway across the room when the service door swings open. Jemson Thal, the master steward, starts talking before he even clears the doorway. "Your pardon, Majesty," he begins in a hasty breathless gabble, "but there is a rumor of an impostor among the serv ..."
Jemson Thal takes in the headless corpse on the bed, he takes in me, and his gabble trails into gasping. His eyes go round and the color drains from his face; his mouth works like he's strangling. I close the distance between us with a long, smooth croise and kick him in the throat. It drops him like a bag of rocks, and now he's strangling for real as he tries to breathe around the splinters of his larynx, clawing at his throat and writhing on the service-passage floor.
I didn't even tip the tray.
One of the guards is, will be, easy. With a wordless exclamation he drops to one knee beside Thal and tries stupidly to help him. What's he think he's gonna do, thump the poor bastard's back until he coughs up his windpipe? The other isn't in sight; smarter than his partner, he's pressed against the wall of the service passage, waiting for me.
Both of these guards wear long sturdy hauberks under their mantles of maroon and gold, with padded chainmail coifs reinforced by studded steel skullcaps. Toa-Phelathon spared no expense in outfitting his Household Knights; my knives are useless against them, but hey, that's all right--I'm deep in it, now.
The waiting is over. I'm happy again.
The smarter guard has a brainstorm and begins to shout for help.
I uncover the tray and gravely regard Toa-Phelathon. The lower third of his flowing hair is soaked in blood, but his face isn't too contorted; even with the ruin of his eye he's still clearly recognizable. I thrust the tray through the doorway about chest high; the sight of its cargo cuts off the shouted alarm as efficiently as an arrow down the throat.
While the portion of the guard's brain that handles signal processing still struggles to assimilate the concept of the disembodied head of his king, I skip out into the service passage; I have two seconds, maybe more, before Smartguard there can use his mind for anything beyond saying, "Huh?"
The guard on one knee claws at his sword as he surges to his feet. I drop the tray with a clang, and the head bounces away as I get a hand on the dumb guard's wrist and keep that blade where it belongs. I follow with a sharp headbutt that rings in my ears with a slapstick bonk; Dumbguard's nose spreads like deviled ham, and his eyes drift together. I wrap both forearms around his coif and pivot away from him, twisting him sideways into a hangman's throw that sends him tumbling forward to crash into Smartguard. The padding behind his chainmail coif didn't give his neck enough support to save him: his neck bones parted with a sharp pop as I levered him over my back. He twitches out the last of his life as I leap lightly across Jemson Thal's convulsing body to go over and kill Smartguard.
That's when Toa-Phelathon gets his piece of me, a bit of petty revenge that must have him snickering in the afterlife.
I'm coming down--it's just a little jump--but I've got my eyes on Smartguard, who's disentangling himself from Dumbguard, and my foot lands on Toa-Phelathon's head.
It rolls out from under me, and I upend like Elmer Fudd.
I barely manage to take the fall on my shoulder instead of the back of my neck, and only the narrowness of the service corridor saves my life: when Smartguard swings his broadsword at my head, its tip hangs up in the woodwork. I try to roll away, but I come up against Jemson Thal, who's still choking, and this time Smartguard gets it right. Instead of swinging his sword, he lunges with a stiff arm and drives a foot of steel through my liver.
A sword in the belly is a disconcerting thing: it doesn't really hurt, much, but it's really fucking cold, it radiates freezing cold that surges through your whole body and drains the strength out of your legs, like the brain freeze you get from chewing up an ice cube only you feel it all over, and you can feel the blade sliding around in there, slicing things up, and frankly, the whole process sucks, if you ask me.
A couple of pounds of steel in the belly also plays fuckass with the forcepattern of the spell that makes me look like a teenage eunuch. The magick flickers like a dying CRT, and the discharge lifts hair on my neck and makes my beard tingle.
Smartguard pulls the blade instead of twisting it around in there--a mistake of inexperience that I'm going to kill him for. It scrapes a rib on the way out, a sensation that's analogous to fingernails across a blackboard combined with having your teeth drilled without anesthetic; screaming clouds of blackness bloom inside my eyes. I moan and shudder with pain, and Smartguard mistakes these for death rattle and convulsion--more inexperience.
"There, you bastard, an easy death is better than you deserve!" he says.
Tears well in his eyes for his fallen lord, and I don't have the heart to tell him that I agree with him. He bends toward me a little as the enchanted disguise finally fades, and his eyes go wide. There's awe in his voice when he says, "Hey, you could be ... you look like, like Caine! You are, aren't you? I mean, who else would ... Great K'hool, I've killed Caine! I'm gonna be famous!"
I don't think so.
I hook my right toe around his ankle to hold his leg while I stamp his knee with my left. It snaps, loudly, and he collapses into a wailing heap. That's the trouble with chainmail: it's no defense against joints bending in ways they're not designed to bend. He doesn't drop his sword, though; the kid has heart.
I come to my feet with an acrobat's kip, tearing something inside my wounded belly. He jabs at me with the sword--but from the ground he's slow, and it's easy to slap my palms together around the flat of the blade, kick his wrist, and take it away from him. I flip the sword end-for-end and neatly catch the hilt.
"Too bad, kid," I tell him. "You'd've been pretty good, if you'd lived."
I shortarm the swing, and it takes him across the top of the ear, half an inch below the studded rim of his skullcap. The edge doesn't penetrate the chain coif, but it doesn't have to; I'm good with swords, and the impact alone is enough to fracture his skull and kill him.
I pause a bare moment to get my breath and take stock of my situation. I'm bleeding, front and back where he ran me through, and no doubt internally as well. I figure I've got ten minutes of useful action before I hit shock. Could be longer, could be a lot less; depends on how much damage that broadsword actually did and how badly I'm hemorrhaging.
In that time I must descend eight heavily guarded floors of the Colhari Palace and lose myself in the crowds of Ankhana's Old Town--all while carrying the head of the Prince-Regent. The alarm's been raised, and I'm probably bleeding to death, but that's no reason to leave him behind; without the head, I don't get paid, and besides, carrying a severed head won't make me any more conspicuous than I already am. With blood running down my legs, I can't bluff, I can't hide, and I'll leave a trail behind wherever I go. Now I can hear the pounding of booted feet approaching at a run.
The red Exit Square is back at the upper left corner of my field of vision, flashing on and off.
Yeah, all right. Time to go.
I get the rhythm of it and start triggering my blink reflex in synch with the flashing. The service passage and the dying men around me fade into nonexistence.