(Continued from Part I)
As he walked home through the silent city, Colter pondered how best to put the prince’s words into action. How does one kill a king without becoming an assassin, one of those cowards who strikes from the dark or who kills with poison? The only way to kill a man is to look into his eyes and drive the blade home. A man should know that he’s dying. More importantly, he should know why.
Colter looked around the quiet streets that passed beneath his iron-shod feet. Guards’ boots made a distinctive sound on the cobbles – Colter could hear them echo – and a moment’s thought reminded him why he was unlikely to have trouble: he was armed and armored. Woe, however, to the solitary woman or the unguarded merchant who walked these streets. Since the king had sent the city’s garrison to harvest grain on his estates, the disorder within these walls had become unbearable for most.
Colter heard the sounds of other boots approaching from behind. He stood aside and watched the company of Baron Monshasi pass toward the castle. “Company” was being generous – if its officers were drawing centurions’ wages they were being vastly overpaid. Most of the companies assembling for the king’s invasion of Tannin looked similar: dour and undermanned.
Colter thought the invasion would be a disaster, too. The prince had been very persuasive on that point. If Belden attacked an ally five times its size, Tannin would be wholly justified in its retribution. That retribution was sure to include seizure of the royal gem mines that provided most of Belden’s wealth as well as the matchless farmlands that could support Tannin’s bloated population. It might mean the end of Belden. To save Belden was why he needed to kill the king. Still, he thought, looking over the scowling infantrymen who took up places just inside the castle’s open portcullis, a soldier needs to do his duty, and without a frown, if possible.
A frowning soldier approached Colter. “The new Captain of His Majesty’s Royal Guard would like to see you,” the man said. “Would you follow me, please?”
Colter did. And he frowned. It seemed the prince had been misinformed.
Newly-minted Captain Maddas waited for Colter in the guards’ anteroom, wearing upon his proud chest the captain’s star. At his sides stood two guards collectively known as the Rookies. The name was no slight: all new guards were Rookies until someone newer than them came on board. Colter had gotten along with all three well enough – he believed in treating professionals professionally. But he was rather shocked that the King had promoted Maddas above him. Maddas was a nice enough kid, to be sure. He was big, handsome, and slavishly devoted to his Majesty. But it took more than a clean shave to be commander material, in Colter’s opinion. Maddas did not extend a hand. Colter placed his own back at his side.
Colter spoke first. “I understand that congratulations are in order,” he said. “The gate guards said you were looking for me.”
“Colter,” Captain Maddas replied, “I am not sure what to do with you.” He shook his head as if to emphasize the point. “As far as I am concerned, your loyalty to our master has always been above reproach. Still, His Majesty entertains certain doubts as to what extent that loyalty is shared with our late captain. Until His Majesty can be satisfied that you are loyal to his person and no other, I have a special assignment for you.” The Rookies smirked and shared a knowing glance.
The special assignment turned out to be guarding the kitchen’s pantry. Coulter fought the temptation to liberate some of its contents while he counted the minutes. Each one ticked away a chance to reach His Majesty for the good of the kingdom. He imagined where he might go once the deed was done. Tresten, perhaps, as Coulter had always enjoyed the mountains. He pulled his thoughts back to the present, mentally traversing the quietest way to His Majesty’s chamber and the fastest way out.
The sun had long set when his next assignment arrived: Colter was to guard the courtyard privy. Fetor smothered the hunger that Colter had built up guarding cheeses and hams, but it only intensified his desire to get to the king. He could hear troops assembling in the courtyard. Precious hours were ticking away before the troops would leave for their disastrous invasion. And here he was guarding a hole full of shit!
One of the Rookies approached just after dawn. Colter expected that the man would send him home after such a productive night’s work. But another emergency had arisen. The Rookie informed Colter of a threat against Ziglar the hairdresser. Colter’s new assignment was to ensure the royal barber’s safety until he left the castle at the end of the day.
Colter felt tired, hungry, and most of all frustrated. Captain Maddas had been jerking him around for a day, and the Rookies had enjoyed every minute of it. Besides finding His Majesty, Colter wanted nothing more than to punch this smug youngster in the face. He did not verbalize his doubts that anyone would threaten Ziglar – no one even wanted to be near the man.
Still, it could have been a lot worse: he could have been on his way to the cell. At least he was back inside the castle. Perhaps he would have a chance to approach His Majesty’s chamber. And a few quiet hours guarding a lonely old man could not be that bad, could it?
(Continued in Part III)
(Continued from Part I)