Short story: The Assassin meets his match in the King

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The night grew old, a bold moon mirrored in the still pools within the palace grounds, as the Assassin struck a man lifeless when he passed, threw on the guard’s shadow, and slipped into the sleeping citadel as a moth takes to virgin flame.

He darted between glimmers and the dark, through halls of arrogant faces and musky remembrance, up staircases silver with broken starlight and rooms that did not want him. He heard the tell of voices, met at a great stone door two laughing soldiers. They suspected of him falsehood, for they did not recognise his face, and so he spat into their palms, told them it was finest wine, and left them to drink themselves into the back of their imaginations.

He found the chambers well enough, and went inside. Great tapestries and parchments were draped on every wall. The bricks that bound the room were old and cracked and worn, and among them there stood a bed, an obscene, majestic thing, wherein two figures dreamed; one a woman, pale and youthful, the other a man, old and bearded, with scars decrying his stolid countenance. The Assassin crept to the bedside, and trickled a river of sand into the eyes of the woman, deepened her slumber, from a pocket drew a smooth dagger, and rounded the bed to the side of the man. As he made to cut the noble throat, his quarry spoke. ‘Is it custom now, to kill a king as he sleeps?’

The Assassin, who knew much of custom, started, and stepped back.

The King looked him over, learned his would-be killer, knew him. ‘So, you mean to end my life this night,’ he said, without conviction. ‘You are not the first. Is it the way you have always done it, or was there a time when death was orchestrated well?’

‘You ask many questions for a dead man walking,’ muttered the Assassin. ‘Life is fleeting and to embrace it merely forestalls the inevitable. As it has always been,’ he added, in afterthought.

‘Do you truly believe that?’ asked the King.

‘I do.’

‘Then why is it that you stand here now, poised to release me from this mortal coil? If you honestly believed the words you articulate then surely you would have taken that blade to your own heart long before now.’ The Assassin did not answer. The King went on. ‘I have seven sons, each one nobler than the last and all far nobler than I. I will not go unmissed.’

‘I am not a simpleton,’ replied the Assassin. ‘Please do not patronise me with wanton threats and incongruities, sir, for they do no more good than a stick does in a tempest. I know full well of your heirs. It is you who I am here for.’

‘Apparently so.’ The King reclined back in his pillows. ‘Pray, why me? What is it that I have done to warrant such exclusivity?’

At this the Assassin laughed. ‘Done? It is not only what you have done, for there is much of that too that could readily be held to your detriment, but what you are. You are a barbarian. A killer of women and children. A pillager, a looter, a thief, a man so far turned from goodness as to be almost questionable as a man at all. The woman who lies beside you...’ He pointed to the steadily breathing shape beside the King, ‘you took her as your bride. You hanged her father and her brothers from the city walls, threw her mother to the rats and the stench of death your dungeon holds. I cannot conceive how she must hate you.’ The Assassin moved closer. ‘Your sons would readily take your place, that is true, but any man would stand better as a leader and a champion than such a tyrant and a fiend as you.’ The blade edge glanced in the brightness of the torches. ‘You asked me if I believed my own pessimistic claims of life and death, and to this question posed I make an answer: if I acted on such claims then I would not be here to kill the King who has burned this world and the people within it. It is by my own hypocrisy that I can do what must be done.’

The King stared at the knife, and grinned slyly. ‘It would seem that you have assumed for yourself the privilege of being the last to try to kill me.’ His eyes grew colourless and grave. ‘I am a selfish man,’ he said, slowly. ‘Let it be told that before I was said and done that was made clear by my own admission.’ The blade dropped down. ‘But…’ It halted, moments from his neck. ‘The world will always burn. It is we who simply coax the fire to roaring from its cinders. Remember that, boy, and know it when you make your peace.’

And with that the Assassin took his leave of the palace through an open window, his mind adorned with trouble and paused for poignant thought, leaving behind him a royal bedchamber for a living, breathing soul, and another flying with him into the bitter wind.