(Continued from Part II)

A few quiet hours guarding a lonely old man could not be that bad, could it?

It could. Colter found himself in an ornately furnished square room with a large open window looking east. The beautiful view did not help his mood. He stood next to the hallway door, “guarding” the venerable hair snipper. In the center of the room stood an empty chair, and beside that chair stood the royal barber. After five hours of the royal barber saying, “I’ve never had a guard before,” Colter suspected Ziglar was going to need one soon. But there is something about consciously trying to cut off one’s entire environment – every sight, every sound – that allows one to think.

Colter reflected seriously on his promise to the prince. For reasons that remained clear to him, he had promised to kill the king. He did not doubt it was best for the kingdom. What he began to doubt was that he could do it. He had sworn to protect His Majesty the King, with his life if necessary. He had not added any exceptions to his oath. Nor had he subsumed that promise to any laws, any traditions.

It was not to this king, necessarily, that he had made that promise, but to the position itself. It didn’t matter that this king was unworthy or a murderer or even that he was mad: as soon as a king had to earn his position, he was no longer a king in Colter’s opinion. Colter did not know what he was, but he was certainly…Ziglar’s voice broke through his thoughts.

“Excuse me?” Colter said.

“I said, ‘Do you want a haircut?’”

Ziglar waved him to the single chair and pulled a heavy bench, covered with blades and scissors and liquids of various sorts, toward it. Colter sat upright as Ziglar covered his whiskers with something slimy and took a straight blade to them. Colter tried to hide his trepidation; he was not used to men holding razors at his throat. But Ziglar seemed almost wholly unaware of his presence, yammering into the air about cutting the king’s hair, about all the times he had cut the king’s hair, and finally about why he was not cutting the king’s hair anymore.

king

…since he got the snood.

“I have not serviced His Majesty the king since he got the snood.”

“What manner of disease is that?” Colter asked.

“It’s not a disease,” the barber chuckled. “It’s a growth such as you might see upon a tom turkey. Except that it’s not growing over His Majesty’s nose but behind his ear.” He poked Colter behind the ear with his scissors, as if to emphasize the point. Colter winced, but did not dare move.

“I noticed it when I lifted his hair to wash it. The snood was crimson and hairless, and some two inches long. Fat little thing. I touched it and it wriggled of its own accord. When I did so, His Majesty the King stood and announced that he no longer desired a haircut. That was two months ago. He has not returned since. I suppose I should have told his physician, but that’s not really my place. His beard is getting along quite well, I might add.”

“A snood?” Colter asked. “Something like a leech?”

“Well, I suppose it might have been like a leech, but I’ve never seen a leech out of water. Then again I’ve never seen a snood behind a king’s ear, so there is that. Have I told you about when His Majesty started to develop a bald spot? Now, that’s a story…”

Colter was again beyond hearing. It was not something like a leech, it was a sway leech. Of this he was certain. While his former captain had known, Colter had never bothered to tell anyone else that his previous employment had been as a Red Guard, a bodyguard to a red-faced warlock and member of the Red Brethren. Their port wine stained faces served as evidence of their magical prowess, and they had inevitably taken the crimson as their symbol.

They wore their robes red, though the clothing might be lighter or darker than the color of blood. Their bodyguards, some of the best trained men in the land, dressed in that color as well. Colter had worn crimson armor until the day his employer passed away. The wizard had died of old age; Colter was very good at his job. Colter had then taken the Second Captaincy of His Majesty’s Royal Guard and sworn to protect the king. Not to kill him. To protect him at all costs, he reminded himself.

Colter had seen a sway leech, just once, and only long enough for it to give him nightmares. The leech was swimming in a jar of clear golden fluid, streaked with blood. Its crimson body reached barely two inches from its rounded tail to where its head wasn’t. At that end its fat, hairless torso ended in concentric circles of teeth, which it used to anchor itself to its host.

As with many things magical or not, the Red Brother had been willing to explain the leech’s utility, if only in vague terms. Colter did not know how the sway leech controlled its host. He did not even know the extent to which it controlled its host. But he did know that the talkative old Brother had valued it highly. Why would he not, if such a creature could give him at least partial control over a ruler?

Colter could not imagine how the leech had become attached to the king. Certainly His Majesty would not let a Red Brother place it behind his ear – there was a reason the king kept mages far from his court. But what if a servant had been corrupted into doing so? Surely the barber could, though Colter was convinced he had not. What about his physician? His bathers? Colter shook his mind clear. He was not here to solve a crime but to prevent one. If he could cut the sway leech from behind the king’s ear, he could bring His Majesty back to sanity.

The second Ziglar left for dinner, Coulter sought out his Majesty. Upon being informed that he was locked in conference with a pair of nobles, Colter went to find the prince.

(Continued in Part IV)