The Royal AssassinThe crowds had been gathering all night at the sides of the road. By mid-morning the mass of humanity stretched back for hundreds of yards on both sides, bright festival colours swirling under the burning sky as later arrivals jostled for a place. The roofs of the capital were near collapse under the sheer weight of people.
In the castle a few miles from the outskirts of the city, the hubbub of the crowd penetrated even through the thick walls to the room where Prince Callas lay awake, staring at the wall, one tense hand reflexively caressing the bare shoulder of his sleeping wife.
It would begin soon. Soon he would ride in procession to the Royal Palace, his sumptuous finery unbearable in this dusty heat. Then he would exchange the Prince's coronet for the heavy crown of the Kings of Bathory. And then, like his father, like his grandfather before him, he would die.
Deep in the bowels of the Royal Palace the heat was unbearable, and the cooks and their helpers dripped sweat into the courses they took from the huge ovens for the celebratory feast. Elsewhere servants cursed the dusty air as it blew into the rooms they were airing: rooms which had not been opened in twenty years.
But in the old dungeons, unused for decades, there was quiet as Duke Orris entered a large chamber where the servants rarely ventured. His torch flickered as he placed it in one of the empty sconces and turned to face the other members of the council. Behind him his protégé, the young Duke Ardent, followed suit.
"Everything is going as planned," the grey-haired statesman announced calmly.
A sigh ran through the assembled Dukes, who between them held the power in Bathory. "There will be no problem with the assassin?" one asked.
The Duke shook his head, his experience with two previous kings giving him certainty. "He is ready. He will answer for his crime."
"He?" one of the younger lords enquired with an assumed air of disinterest.
Orris favoured him with a small smile. "Or she. You will find out soon enough." His face returned to its accustomed solemnity, but there was a hint of regret in his voice when he added, "Either way, the King will die."
Over a hundred years ago the last of the tyrants known as the Blood Kings had been assassinated on the day of his coronation. The killer had been hanged the day after for the crime of regicide. Since that day every coronation had brought two deaths - that of the King, and that of his assassin.
Even so, the realm had not been untroubled. Half a century ago, Prince Callas's great-grandfather had waded in the blood of Bathory nobles in his few hours of absolute rule. The madness had only strengthened the custom.
The logic was simple. The land must have a king, the living representative of the gods, ruling by divine right. The king could not be allowed to become a tyrant. The life of the king was sacrosanct.
So every generation a man, a woman, a child was chosen. Trained in assassination and in the fanatical loyalty of any martyr. Taught to kill and to die. The training had not failed them yet.
A movement beneath Prince Callas's stroking hand distracted him, and he turned to his foreign wife who, awake now, was looking at him with dark, frightened eyes.
"There is still time to go," she told him. "My people would shelter us."
Callas shook his head. "Even if I managed to escape the assassin, I'd start a war."
"See?" The Princess sat up, black hair spilling over her shoulders. "You are a good man! You will never be a tyrant, you need not die!"
Callas smiled resignedly. "I'd like to think so, too. But how are they to know? No." He sighed. "The King's Assassin will do his job again tonight, and Bathory will thank him for it."
He rolled over and pulled on the rope dangling by the huge bed. A few minutes later his two body-servants bustled in, arms full of clothing. Callas stood and waited patiently, not looking at his wife as his servants dressed him in his accustomed silk.
At last, weighed down with robes of mink and velvet, the Prince turned once more to his wife, who lay unresponsive with her back to him.
"Will you come?"
"I don't think so." Her voice was muffled by the pillows. "I have done my duty, have I not? I need not watch you die as well. I am sure your beloved Duke Orris can take care of that and our son both. After this, I am going home."
Callas stilled for a moment, involuntarily half-reaching towards the Princess. Then he sighed and shook his head, his face full of sorrow. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I never meant it to be like this." Then he turned and walked off, through the dark halls of the castle, to the courtyard where the procession was waiting.
The King remembered little of his coronation. Through heat and fear there were glimpses of the Archbishop's old face shining with piety, Duke Orris's solemnly bowed head, and a noise like the roaring of the sea, passing like a wave through his people, as he rose with the heavy crown of Bathory gleaming on his brow.
Now he sat at the head of the table, idly turning the heavy gold in his hands, as the nobles of the realm got raucously drunk around him. There was a feverish excitement to their celebration, an excitement fed by suspense and fear. There was a King in Bathory once more, an absolute ruler who might at any moment succumb to the madness of his line and command a bloodbath - or who might at any moment fall on the table in sudden death.
Callas, unsurprisingly, had no appetite for food or wine, or even for the pretty serving women who flitted past, avoiding his glances. Since this afternoon he had been as good as dead. He breathed quicker as he tried not to look everywhere for knives in the smoke.
At last he slammed his crown down on the table and rose. The noise in the hall stopped for the briefest of moments and then resumed, louder than before as everyone tried to avoid looking at their King. For a moment he was seized with a sudden, irrational desire to make some lunatic royal decree, to make them look at him, to leave the mark of his short reign on history. Then he pushed back his chair, stumbled slightly over his unaccustomed robes, and strode out. Behind him Duke Orris quickly retrieved the crown before it rolled onto the floor. He held it in his hands, looking at it pensively, for a long moment before surrendering it to one of the servants.
In the relative coolness of the corridor Callas paused only to let the ceremonial robes slide unceremoniously from his shoulders onto the floor before continuing.
Far away from the celebrations he found a small room, unfurnished, the quarters of some long-dead page. The lavender sky opposite the setting sun cast a little light through a small window, high in the wall. The King slipped into the tiny haven and closed the door behind him.
Many Kings had tried to evade their assassins. Some had met their deaths with weapons in their hands, some had met it on the frantic journey out of the country. Yet knowing the futility Callas did not leave, but sat down on the cold stone in the corner, able to see window and door both.
The evening wore on, the dark lavender sky giving way to matt black, a few stars appearing, then giving way to others as the sky slowly turned above the palace.
No assassin came. And yet with every moment nearer to midnight Callas grew more nervous, more certain that death approached the room on stealthy feet. He began almost to long for the assassin to appear, to cut short the agony, the painful beating of his heart within its cage.
The shadows slowly lengthened, touched, and divided as the faint lights of the gods continued their stately dance outside. Darkness spread like a bruise gradually down the door, and crept into the corners of the room.
Callas shifted uncomfortably then stilled, as if the movement itself might bring death to him. Infinitely slowly he reached into the dark folds of his own clothes and pulled out a knife, then hurriedly covered it with his hand as it picked up the starlight with a faint gleam of its own. He laid it in his lap with his cold fingers loosely curled round the hilt.
Hours passed by, slow with the weight of fear and tedium, as the shadows fell over Callas where he sat. The unfairness of the ancient death sentence dragged at him. He would have made a good King. He knew it, deep within. Trained to his duty from birth, as Prince he had been fair, just, merciful. And the crown of Bathory was only metal, after all. It could not have changed him.
The shadows reached out, and he remembered his momentary urge from the hall, the urge to do something, anything, no matter how wrong. And they would have done it, followed his merest whim, for he could not be gainsaid. He toyed with the idea, with all that he could do, would do if he lived, his febrile daydreams wandering from one scene to another, through justice and war and peace, then changing, out of his control, as such half-dreams often did, taking in his fear and his desperation and the darkness and transmuting them into anger, and delirium, and bloody revenge on those who had decreed his death.
Callas recoiled from where his dreams had taken him, trembling, horrified at what lurked within. Then, like the snap of a whip, his dreams and tension broke together - in the distance, the midnight bells had started tolling.
The assassin had not come.
The crowd of people parted, the commotion stilling as Duke Orris strode down the torchlit corridor, Duke Ardent his shadow as ever. Strained faces around the open door turned to look at him as he entered, his cloak whirling behind him. Ardent gestured to the crowd in clear dismissal before he followed.
The two stared down at the body huddled in a corner, the knife hilt protruding from his chest.
"The doublet will need to be remade again," Orris commented, the near-flippant comment covering a depth of feeling.
"But the assassin lives!" Ardent said hoarsely, his voice sounding strangled.
Orris shook his head. "The assassin died in the same moment as the King, of that I assure you." He turned from the corpse to the man he had chosen to follow in his footsteps. "It took years to arrange things this way. But I think this is how it will be done now."
He started to walk out of the room then paused in the doorway, looking back at the young Duke, who was staring in horrified enlightenment at the body of the King. "Come along, Ardent. We have a state funeral to arrange."