Vapid. That’s the word that came to mind. Soon they’d be gone and he could stop playing this tiresome game. Duke Rathstone hid his smile by stuffing a bit more of the delicious bread pudding into his mouth. A drizzle of honeyed brandy sauce on the surface, and the dried fruit within, made every bite a pleasure. He was glad he’d had the foresight to have Chef Herven write down his recipes before he’d had his throat cut. It was a shame really, but he couldn’t risk the kitchen staff bearing witness to the night’s events. He was certain he could find someone to recreate the chef’s delicious deserts. They really were to die for, he thought, then choked on the pudding at the unintended wordplay.
“My goodness duke, have some wine!” said Lady Garfan as she rushed to his chair.
Coughing uncontrollably, and red-faced, the duke reached for the proffered cup to wash down the offending morsel. How undignified, he thought as he was able to catch his breath. Perhaps Herven was getting his revenge.
Everyone at the table was looking at him, as he dabbed his eyes and mouth with a napkin. The duke shook his head. How ironic it would be, if all my plans were undone by a bit of pudding. He took a moment to compose himself, and looked down the long length of richly embroidered linen covering the trestle table. Suppressing a frown, as he pondered the cost of all of this extravagance, he raised his cup to Lady Garfan and the other assembled nobles. It was a master stroke to get this many in one room.
The duke raised his hand to silence the musicians, who had been playing a light tune. “My dear Lady Garfan, I do believe you saved my life!”.
Lady Garfan blushed and hid a smile behind a delicate hand while many of the guests at the table rapped their forks against their cups in approval. “Here here Lady Garfan!” several called out, while others laughed good-naturedly.
“Well if something happened to you duke, where would we go to enjoy such culinary marvels as we’ve had at this table?” Lady Garfan quipped, to more merriment and tinging forks.
Duke Rathstone laughed heartily in response. “Ah, gentle lady, I think I will miss your cleverness most of all.” He chuckled at the confused looks around the table.
“Are you leaving us Duke Rathstone?” asked Baroness Verani.
“Perhaps he is going to visit some shy country maiden!” shouted the slightly tipsy Baron Regur, which brought loud guffaws from the men and tittering from the ladies – testifying to the potency of the duke’s wine, and the relaxed atmosphere he had deliberately cultivated at these affairs. Normally the competition among the aristocracy would make gatherings more formal and showy, as each vied for favor and position. It often seemed to the duke, that these inflated and carefully coiffed fish bladders, had dinners for no other purpose than to establish a pecking order. It reminded him of the great Horned Seals he had hunted with his father, on the northern beaches of the Ice Lands. The aggressive displays of the males, and the fin biting females, caused the groups of animals to be in perpetual motion as dominance was asserted, lost, and then reasserted.
“Alas my friends, I wish it were so. As much as I have enjoyed having you empty my larders and wine cellars, on a regular basis, it is you who will be going.” said the duke.
At that moment a loud thud and scraping sound at the door caused the guards to look at each other.
“What rudeness is this Rathstone?” asked Duke Baerson “Or is this the wine speaking? Come let us …”
The guards turned towards the door with halberds slightly raised. There appeared to be a commotion in the hallway.
The duke nodded to one of the attendants who had been serving wine. While the guests at the table asked questions and wondered out loud what was happening, the small man set down his tray and casually lifted a knife from a silver platter, piled with sliced meats. The guard opening the door suddenly stiffened, the swiftly thrown knife sprouting from the nape of his neck. A spear thrust from the hallway, took his companion in the throat, as the doors crashed open to reveal a score of heavily armed men.
Shock turned to disbelief, and then to terror. Most of the seated and inebriated guests fell quickly. Delfegar and Tritun, twin brothers who were respectively fourth and fifth in line for the throne, kicked back their chairs and armed themselves. Baron Regur displayed surprising alacrity, by leaping chairs and running in circles, while two armed men attempted to corner him. He finally held up his left hand, signaling a moment’s pause, then drank down the last of his wine – which he had miraculously managed to hang on to while running. “Not a country maid then, eh Rathstone?” His falling head seemed to stare at his cup with regret, as it tumbled away from his body.
Othram, the Minister of Defense and an old soldier, was giving a good account of himself. His sword, unlike those worn by most of the other guests, was not some sparkling showpiece with a fantastical sculpted guard. It was brutal steel. Forged for only one purpose. To kill. Three men lay dead at the minister’s feet while several others circled warily. All were injured. The minister parried a curved Hetani sword, and jabbed quickly below the assailant’s ear, piercing the jugular. The man screamed and crashed to the floor, his blood brilliant against the tiles. But the minister was old, and tiring. Blood stained his shirt in several places, and his sword forms had become defensive.
The duke reached beneath the table to pull out a small one-handed crossbow of intricate and complex design. The slim metal box on top held multiple bolts and the gearing gave evidence that this was not the weapon most were familiar with.
I considered asking you to join me, the duke thought as he triggered the crossbow’s drawing mechanism. But you are too bound to the King.
Minister Othram was staggering now. He looked up as the duke leveled the crossbow. The certainty of his death galvanized the old warrior and he charged his antagonists yelling “Illia!” He cut through a spear shaft with a powerful swing and rammed the knife he held in his off hand into the man’s stomach. Screams and cursing played counterpoint to swiftly ringing steel as the minister spun and cut with blurring blades. The terrified attackers fell back as he dealt a massive overhead blow that clove a man’s head all the way down to the jaw.
For the briefest of moments, it seemed the minister might reach the door. An iron tipped quarrel punched through his eye ending the illusion.
Duke Rathstone looked around for a moment, and laid his hand on Lady Garfan’s blood spattered head. “Check everyone and make sure no one is left breathing.” He stepped over a musician whose limp body cradled an unbroken mandolin. Not a bad nights work, he thought. All the guests, and potential witnesses, were dead. Of course, he’d also lost fifteen of his raiders, and Chef Herven he reminded himself with regret. Othram and the twins had proven deadlier than he would have guessed, piling up a substantial stack of bodies before being brought down. He hadn’t wanted to hire the best fighters, otherwise he might have a hard time eliminating them when this was over. He couldn’t really take the chance that the hard drinking and vicious mercenaries would not betray him.
Two men peeked in from the hallway and the duke signaled them forward. “Menistus, Calvius, master playwrights, it is time to employ your skills.”
Menistus looked slightly ill, his sallow face haunted and drawn. He generally wrote light comedies and nothing had prepared him for the horrible sights and sounds of so much carnage. He ran to the corner and retched violently. Calvius, whose works were rife with politics and intrigues, seemed unaffected. In fact he appeared to be considering the possibilities of the scene before him.
“Remember” the duke said, ticking of each point with a lifted finger, “We want to implicate the Hetani and Yahata’ai, demonstrate my heroism and make my survival credible.”
Calvius nodded his head and clapped in swift staccato. “Those not injured report for assignment now!” He pursed his lips then strode over to speak to Menistus. After a brief conversation, he pushed the pale and shaken Menistus towards some tables, then began giving directions to the remaining men.
The duke smiled. It had been a stroke of genius to involve Calvius. His work was intelligent but also belligerent, dark and acerbic. It matched his own world views quite nicely. It was Calvius who had suggested using mercenaries whose heritage would allow them to pass for Hetani or Yahata’ai. They had been provided clothing and weapons that would facilitate the ruse. The only odd note was Calvius’s insistence that they involve Menistus – his bitterest rival. The aristocracy seemed to favor frivolous humor and poetry over the harsh realities that Calvius provided.
Calvius watched with manic intensity, as the remaining mercenaries placed various Hetani and Yahata’ai items on his stage.
“Replace the crossbow bolts with the arrows! Stick the Hetani sword in Count Rolod’s back! No the next body over, with the green vest! Move the twins!” yelled Calvius, his arms swinging and pointing like a wind vane in a storm. He took a deep breath then turned to the duke. “This is where you’ll lie.” he said, pointing to the area where the twins had fallen. “The pile of bodies around you will give testament to your singular bravery.”
The duke considered the scene carefully. “Grab a few more bodies from Minister Othram’s pile. He was well respected. I don’t want his funeral casting a shadow on my heroic actions.”
“You’re quite right duke. The people can be fickle.” Calvius said, then rushed off while he called out instructions, “If you are going to use that body you have to bring the head! Holy Builder’s Beard – a man’s head you idiot!”
Duke Rathstone looked around and then at the Alfhiran pocket watch he always carried. Time to wrap up, he thought. He’d arranged for Minister Othram’s adopted son, General Kurfan, to meet him in an hour under a pretext of discussing rumors of rebellion. Rumors which he himself had started, of course. He needed someone to discover the bodies. As an added bonus, when Kurfan found his father’s body, any distrust he might have for Rathstone would be set aside.
The duke poured a cup of wine and drank it quickly. He wasn’t really looking forward to this next part. He called over the man who had thrown the knife which killed the guard at the door. The man who obviously did more than serve wine. He was in fact, a very deadly, and very expensive, Zharan assassin.
Calvius approached Menistus who had been walking around the room, arranging bodies and the props chosen to aid in the deception. Just now, he seemed to be wrapping Lady Garfan’s hand around a three pronged pastry fork, whose tines were buried in the eye socket of one of the raiders dressed as a Hetani.
“What are you doing?” asked Calvius
Menistus jumped and looked up. “Oh, sorry Calvius, got caught up in the story.”
Calvius looked at the tableau and scratched his chin. “I must confess I don’t understand the setting.”
“Oh” Menistus said “Well, I always thought Lady Garfan was nice. At least she claimed to like my work. I thought I would make her heroic and work in a bit of irony so her tale would be more memorable.”
Calvius looked for a moment and burst out laughing. “Ha ha! I see it now. Irony and a play on words! The delicate lady bringing down a Desert warrior with a Dessert fork. Ah, you are subtle Menistus. A true master.”
Menistus looked up with a cautious smile, a bit of dry vomit on the edges of his thin beard. “I’m pleased you think so. To be honest I always thought you disliked me.”
“Disliked? No.” Calvius tilted his head pensively. “To be honest I suspect I’ve been jealous of you. How odd. Even as the sole surviving playwright, I suspect your death will likely only serve to make you more famous.”
“My dea…” Menistus gasped, and clutched with a suddenly weakened grip, at the handle of the knife that Calvius was driving between his ribs.
Calvius held Menistus upright until the body stilled. “Fear not Menistus.” Calvius said as he lowered the body behind Lady Garfan. He carefully wiped his blade and worked a Hetani knife into the fatal wound he had just inflicted, then arranged Menistus’ hands to cover his face, as if in fear. The look of horror on Menistus’ face helped. “You will be remembered in the same breath as Lady Garfan, cowering as she kills your assailant with a dessert fork. Now that my dear Menistus, is comedy I can appreciate.”
Across the room, Duke Rathstone grimaced as the Zharan assassin carefully pushed another arrow into his body. It didn’t hurt, thanks to the needles that the Zharan had placed at various locations on his body. The discomfort from the tugging and pushing of the arrow heads through flesh and muscle was another matter. There had been some debate about whether the use of the Yahata’ai bow indoors would be believable, but the value of the iconic fletching in establishing blame could not be denied.
The duke looked down. Several feathered shafts protruded from his body. There were other convincing wounds, carefully placed to avoid serious injury, and minimize blood loss. The assassin completed his work, removed the needles and sat back on his heels, his eyes on the duke. The duke carefully turned his head, eyelids drooping from the wine and the sedative which had coated the needles. He surveyed the scene, his eyes seeking Calvius. The playwright stood with an unreadable expression on his face. Calvius met the duke’s gaze, looked about, and nodded. Turning to the small deadly man at his side, the duke said “Finish it.”
The Zharan picked the two nearest blades from the floor as he stood. Turning gracefully, he launched himself at the mercenaries – so swiftly that the duke caught his breath. They look surprised, he thought, as the small man landed in their midst. The men, violent and accustomed to fighting, readied their weapons. They seemed confident when they saw the size of their opponent. One of them however, perhaps recognizing the small man for what he was, turned as if to run. The Zharan smiled, weaving his weapons in a complex pattern then struck with blurring speed.
As the duke drifted towards sleep, he watched the final dance of death with appreciation. Worth every coin I paid.
Spinning, air whistling, slicing blow. Hot blood squirting. Swinging, ringing steel, broken blade. Sliced neck. Red dripping edges, cut, cut, cut. Screaming, begging, crying. Dying. Bodies falling like scythed grass. Sweep, block, counter, hack. Duck, spin, kick, slash. Silence.
All of the mercenaries lay dead. The duke watched with detached interest as a final tear tracked down one of the still faces. He thought fuzzily about what remained to be done and drifted into sleep.
[Note: This bit occurs several years before Maggie is forced to escape across the continent to Thracos. It needs to be worked in with a few changes to tie Maggie into the scene and then I’ll move it where it belongs in the main story-line.]