The Sleeping King
I heard their feet shuffling against the stone flood before I saw them. My first instinct was the freeze in place and remain immobile, hope they'd pass me by. It occurred to me that standing stock still in the middle of the hallway was a good way meet the gallows.
Despite my best efforts I couldn't slip past them unnoticed. My internal clock told me the king would be asleep within the next few minutes, if my trusted informer told me true. Like clockwork, the king was. He went to bed earlier than most to get a head start on the next day of polishing his crown.
The main problem I faced was that I didn't trust my trusted informer to keep his mouth shut. The man had a loose mouth, it usually served me well but I'd rather silence it permanently than lose a chance after the king. With the bounty on the lord's head even his own men would be after him if he didn't bribe them. I had to get up there before someone else did, guard or someone of, ah, lesser dispute.
I took my chances with someone getting there before me.
"Survival trumps avarice," I murmured, the words going no further than my ears.
I quickly, quietly, ran back and hid behind a corner to buy a bit more time. The steady rhythm of their roughly cobbled boots against the floor assaulted my senses. It took me further away from my goal, but I could regain that ground when I wasn't in danger. Their footsteps grew louder. I saw my opportunity. A dark corner with a steel suit of armor gathering dust. Probably one of the worse spots I had seen, twisting in there created more noise than I'd have hoped. Every slight squeak sounded like the axe man sharpening his blade. The fear of discovery was immanent.
The guards passed within feet of my hiding spot. I caught a glimpse of their scarlet tunics over mail through the gaps in the armor.
I waited a few more minutes for their feet to tell me where they were, praying they wouldn't stop and rest. Time wasn't in my favor right now. If I didn't get there first…
A sigh escaped my lips in the same breath as my silent mantra. I wanted to vent my frustration to the world and let them feel my impatience with it, but survival trumps avarice every time.
Straining my ears I couldn't hear the soft pattering of the guard's footsteps fading away. When I couldn't hear their boots against the floor I quietly moved from my hiding place.
I was almost there. The king's door was still closed when I arrived.
I checked the hinges first. The door opened outward with the hinges facing me. Finding them dry and rusty, I took a small vial of grease and oil and a blue rag from my front pocket and carefully oiled the hinges. Coming this far meant nothing if I was given away by a door. With that task was done, I wiped the sweat from my forehead and listened for the patrolling guards in their crimson suits yet again.
"Survival trumps avarice," I whispered into my hands.
Nothing. Not even the distant echo of boot nails. I could hear the king snoring through the door. It sounded as if he wouldn't wake without a claxon.
I eased the door open. A millimeter at a time. A centimeter at a time. A braced myself for the sharpest screech that didn't come. I was thankful for that.
Closing the door behind, I bolted it to prevent any unwanted guests. On the north was there was a window I might be able to make my escape from. After giving a little sigh of relief, I made my way to the sleeping king.
His snoring had stopped. He looked so peaceful in his white cap and gown, the canopy of his bed and the red silk drapes carefully parted. There was even a slight grin on his docile features.
I heard a sound behind me. Whipping out my knife I peered around the darkness of the room. If there was only a bit of light I would be able to see what made the noise. I felt the soft touch of a tabby cat against my leg and turned back to the sleeping king with the knife still in my hand.
The sleeper didn't move, the only sign of life about his was the rosy glow of his cheeks.
I felt giddy with excitement. I knew I had to be quick, but the primal part of me wanted it to last. If he was able to call for help I wouldn't make it out alive.
Survival trumps avarice, I reminded myself. Even if I died rich.
The king's head was tilted back slightly. I could slit his throat, but he would still be able alert the guards. I could smother him, but he could thrash around a bit. He'd be dead, but I wouldn't be able to collect my reward.
Finally I found my way. The tip of the knife tickled the king's chin, and I held a pillow against the top of his head. I slowed my breathing, forced myself to move slowly, surely.
One, two. Three!
The blade slid easily upward, through the smooth, beardless skin, the muscles in his jaw, the tongue, the hard palate, into his soft, spongy brain.
I waited for a sound, a movement, anything. Nothing came.
I sighed in exhaustion and slipped ring with massive rubies engraved in it from the king's finger. Proof of the kill. I was half tempted to take the finger with me, but my stomach couldn't take it.
My first instinct was to relax. The tension, ceased, my muscles knew their job was done. The long chase was finally over, the prey run down and the hunter had his fill. All manner of axioms and maxims saying, "Good job! Go ahead and let your guard down, the danger's gone!" Relaxation would get me killed. Waiting around with a dead body was a surefire way to be connected with any crime.
More importantly, the cold aura of death was already surrounding the king's still form.
"That was pretty funny," a bubbly voice said by the hearth.
I whipped about to face the voice wishing I had brought an extra knife. My only one remained embedded in the former king's head.
It was a small girl of no less than eight. She wore a black maid's dress with an apron and a pretty blue shawl her mother might have picked out for her. She smiled happily at me in a chair by the cold fireplace, her legs swinging back and forth, not reaching the floor.
"Will you join me?" she asked, gesturing a hard looking chair softened by a red cushion. "It's been quite a night."
I walked over to her suspiciously. Who was she? The king's maid? His niece? I knew he didn't have a daughter. Just a bastard son who'd grown ambitious.
I sat down in a chair adjacent to her. "Excuse me, Miss…"
"Emily," she provided. She seemed giddy at the thought of talking to me.
I was just confused.
"Yes," I said, puzzled. "Well, Miss Emily, what are you doing here?"
She giggled. Pointing to the man with my knife in his skull she said "I saw a poster with him on it in town offering a big prize for anyone who could kill him, so I killed him."
She said it so simply. I had seen a similar sign. I assumed the prize she spoke of was the eighteen hundred gold royals. Our king hadn't been popular.
I looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and anger. No craftsman likes someone else claiming his work. "You didn't kill him," I said firmly. "I killed him. With that dagger I put in his head. See, people don't tend to survive when you put cold iron in their skulls."
"No," she said. "I poisoned his wine."
I looked over to where the king lay. There was indeed an empty glass sitting on the carved rosewood table next to him with a red trace of wine laying stagnant in the bottom.
I glanced back and forth from the dead king to the glass to the girl.
"Miss Emily," I began. "I don't know who put you up to this, but you didn't kill him."
"Yes I did," she said, pouting. "You just want my prize!"
"Miss Emily," I said again soothingly. "I promise you, whatever you put in his wine didn't kill him." I didn't think she'd be able to get to anything that could kill so quickly. His body had still been warm when I had put my knife in him.
"Yes I did!" she said stubbornly.
I hushed her, the guards could be right outside the door for all I knew. My instincts told me to run away as fast as I could. No one would believe the girl, not with my knife in the king's head and his ring in my hand. If I could've managed it I had a dark blue bag for his head, but there wasn't enough time. Not enough time.
"Alright, then," I soothed. "What kind of poison did you use?"
"Hemlock from my uncle," she said, the giddiness back in her voice. "Lots of it."
I considered it. Hemlock would have killed him, but it would have been a much more violent death than what it seemed to be.
"Once he was dead I remade the bed to make it look better. I didn't want the people to be scared of him in the morning," she said, as if reading my mind.
I stared at her. What kind of person would summon forth this hellchild? Perhaps she was a dwarf of some sort?
No, I thought, She looks too young and doesn't have the stunted look about her.
I got up and walked over to her, kneeling down so I was on the same level as her.
"Listen," I said. "I don't know why you did this-."
"I told you," she said. "I wanted to prize."
"Well, yes, but…don't ever do this again."
"Why not?" she said, her tiny hands curled into fists. "It was easy and the old man died smiling."
I glanced back at the corpse and shivered. It wasn't what she said, just the proximity of the corpse. I preferred to leave quickly after a job. The guards could also happen in at any moment and a locked door wouldn't hold them for long.
I shook my finger at her. "It may have been easy this time, but it gets harder later."
She giggled. "You're just mad I beat you to it. Don't worry, mister. If you ask nicely, I'll share some of the prize with you."
That struck a nerve. I had done a lot of hard work to get in here. All she had probably done was pretend to be a sweet little girl the king could take advantage of. That didn't take skill, only a lack of morals.
Or perhaps a sweet innocence, I reasoned. Perhaps she didn't know what he wanted.
The thought made me laugh. If she killed the poor bastard like she said she did there was nothing innocent about her.
A put my hands on her shoulders. "Listen to me," I said. "Don't ever do this again. It's wrong, evil, and it will kill you. It's not worth it. Survival trumps avarice."
She laughed again. I don't think she even heard what I was saying. I don't get mad easily, but my patience has never been my strongest point.
"Stop laughing," I hissed.
"Or what?" she giggled. "You're going to kill me like you did grandpa?"
She laughed louder. I thought I heard the faint footsteps of guards nearby. If they heard the cacophony in here they might investigate. I knew that would only lead to my death. Maybe not hers, but definitely mine. The old king had always been kind to children.
I hushed her. She didn't listen. The footsteps grew louder. I knew I must act quickly.
My hands moved with a life of their own, seizing her by the neck and squeezed as if my life depended on it. Guards were on their way, I could hear their footsteps outside the door, whether it was real or not I couldn't tell. Maybe it was my heart beat I was hearing, thumping in time to the girl's tiny hands beating against my chest, slowing down and, finally, stopping…stopping.
Gingerly, carefully, I took her in my arms and laid her down on the bed, safer in the arms of the sleeping king than she'd been in mine. Somewhere along there, her blue scarf found its way around my neck. There was the sickly sweet smell of decaying flowers about it from the dead roses in her pockets.
Laying next to her, I saw a satiated expression on the king's face I hadn't noticed before. It was a grin, but not like she thought it was. You saw it sometimes when men hung.
The thought of the noose made me wince. I slid my knife out of the old king's head as gently as I could, not wanting to disturb the morbid scene in front of me. The little girl in her pleated black dress looked like she was sleeping beside someone who could be her grandfather, they were so alike he could have been her grandfather.
She stayed in my mind as I slipped out the window onto the stable roof. So young, so young yet dead like any other. It didn't seem fair. I didn't like what I had done, but survival...
I thought of the money.