Jack knew he was on a fool’s errand. Just getting into the castle had taken every ounce of subterfuge he possessed and the dredging of a very shallow pool of inside help. Even then, he had been unable to enter with his weapons. It did not matter. A knife from the kitchen would get the job done just as well, assuming he could get to Arman, which was becoming increasingly unlikely.
Guards stood at every door. Three when Arman or his daughters were present. The serving staff tasted all his food and drink before bringing it to his taster, who then sampled it in front of the king, the meal remaining untouched for ten more minutes as he waited for any sign of adverse reaction.
In the end, Jack realized that all his skill and subterfuge was not going to work, so he strode confidently down the hall toward Arman’s bedroom door. He had not made it one third the way there when armed and armored soldiers surrounded him. He held up his hands and grinned at the men as an officer broke from the group and knocked on the king’s door. Arman’s head appeared over the soldier’s shoulder and he smiled, hitched his night robe tighter, and approached.
Arman stopped several paces away. “Jack, you do surprise me. What was your plan? Did you think you could kill all these men by yourself with your clever pistol-swords?”
“Kitchen knife, actually. I wasn’t able to get in with my own weapons. But once I got inside, I knew that was going to be impossible as well as most any other method of assassination I could think of.”
“I should hope so. I spent a long time putting this thing together, pulling your strings to get you to kill my enemies.” Arman cocked his head. “You did kill them didn’t you? I’m afraid you traveled faster than any courier could.”
Jack nodded. “The king and queen are dead.”
“But not the children?”
“Jack, you’re getting soft in your old age.”
“I suppose. When I realized I could not kill you, I hoped you would spare me a few minutes so that I might make an appeal to your decency.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t like my odds, but I’m curious.” Arman lifted his chin at the officer. “Strip him bare and search him—thoroughly. Then bring him to my study. He can wear one of my robes, nothing else.”
Jack suffered several indignities before being led to another room, a fur-lined silk robe the one article of clothing allowed for the sake of modesty. He figured it was more likely that Arman simply did not want a naked old man sitting on his furniture. The soldiers sat Jack down in a chair with his hands bound before him with leather laces wrapped so tight they cut into his withered flesh.
The soldiers departed, and for a moment, Jack thought they had left him alone with the king until William sat down in a chair next to him. “Hey, Jack.”
“William, assuming that’s your real name,” Jack said with a nod.
Arman’s ire showed in his eyes. “You two have met?”
“We had a little run in at one of the border towns,” Jack replied.
“You were not supposed to engage him, William. My orders were quite specific.”
William shrugged, not bothering to feign chagrin. “I spent my entire life hearing about the famous Jack Lazarus, and I wanted to test my mettle and see for myself how much was true and what was legend.”
Jack studied the younger man next to him. “You’re Buck Crosby’s boy, aren’t you?”
“You favor him in the face as well as fighting style.”
“He always said you were the one man he could never best in a fight.”
“I hope I didn’t disappoint you too much.”
“Only that I didn’t get to meet you in your prime.”
Jack grinned. “Then you really would have been disappointed…and probably a toddler.”
Arman cleared his throat. “I hate to break up this little reunion, but you wanted to appeal to my sense of decency? Go on and amuse me, Jack.”
“As I said, I let the two princes live. Kaiden has agreed to marry Elaine and join your two kingdoms. It’s a win for both sides.”
Arman cupped his chin in one hand and pretended to give the idea some thought. “It seems to me that it is a much bigger win for Auradan. See, I can marry Elaine off to Prince Edwin of Glisteran. With Thorburn and his wife dead, my armies should be able to regain momentum and defeat Auradan within the next two or three years. With just a couple of convenient accidents, I will control all three kingdoms.”
“The power, the wealth, when is it ever enough?” Jack asked.
“Why, when there is no more to be had, of course.”
“And I gave it to you.”
“I like to think I had something to do with it, but yes. Your intervention sped up the process a great deal, and since you were kind enough to try to kill me as well, I won’t even get the blame for it. You will. Thank you, Jack.”
Jack said, “Seems to me that you would be a bit more grateful.”
“I wish I could, but I think you would just kill me if I let you go. Besides, justice requires that I see you dead.”
“I knew I wouldn’t live to see this thing through to its conclusion, and I’m not asking to.” Jack turned his eyes to the liquor cabinet. “That’s a mighty impressive collection of booze you got. At least give me a drink before you have William put a knife in me.”
“I wouldn’t mind a belt myself,” William said.
Arman shrugged, went to his liquor cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of whiskey.
Jack scowled at his selection. “Come on, Arman. I just handed you two kingdoms on a silver platter. You can do better than that.”
“You know, you’re right.” The king exchanged the whiskey for a dark liquor in a plain bottle. “My father said he had this brandy distilled on the day of my birth and bottled for my wedding. I only drink it on truly special occasions. As you can see, there have been very few of them, but I think this counts as one.”
Jack smiled when Arman handed him a glass. “Now that’s more like it.”
“Yes, it is. It’s a shame assassins do not get better with age as fine liquor does. If you did, you might have succeeded in killing me.” Arman took the full shot in his mouth and swished it around before swallowing it.
Jack doubted the king would be generous enough to refill his glass, so he rationed the drink into three large sips. “Oh, that is good. The flavor is so rich and full you can’t detect so much as a hint of the poison.”
Arman froze, flicking his gaze from the drink he held to the old man without blinking. “You couldn’t have.”
“Can and did.”
“It will do you no good. I have been ingesting antidotes for every poison known.”
Jack tipped his glass and winked. “Unless I used soran two-step.”
“What is soran two-step?”
William said, “It’s a rare poison that requires two different agents to be present in the bloodstream in order for it to become toxic. You put the base toxin in someone’s food or drink and let them consume it, usually for at least a day or two to age properly. Then you slip them the catalyst. Alone, they are harmless, but once both are present in the bloodstream, they combine and create a lethal poison.”
Sweat began to bead on Arman’s brow. “No. Impossible! You haven’t had time! I know the exact moment you rode into the city and gained entrance to the castle. Hell, I allowed you in!”
“Yeah, I know you did…the second time.”
“Second time? What are you talking about?” Arman demanded.
“I’ve been here for two days.”
“Impossible! William only arrived just this afternoon. How could you have beaten him by that amount of time?”
Jack shrugged. “Every time I woke up to piss, I rode another five miles. It’s amazing how far you can travel when you get in an extra fifty miles a night.”
Arman’s face paled and he reeled on his feet. “Get my physician!”
William shook his head. “Won’t do no good. There’s no antidote for soran two-step. Sorry, Highness.”
The king pointed a shaking finger at William. “You traitor! You helped him kill me!”
William shook his head. “Nope. I figure he probably got me too. Didn’t you?”
“You didn’t eat any of Arman’s food or drink his wine did you?”
“No, not since I returned today.”
“You’ll be fine. I suggest not consuming anything in the castle for the next few days just to be safe.”
“Don’t listen to him! Do not let him leave this room alive!”
“There’s no chance of that happening,” Jack said. “I dosed myself as well. I knew it was my last ride when I chose this course. Besides, I’m hoping I get the chance to torment you in hell.”
Arman coughed, his breath coming in heaving gasps as he crumpled to the floor.
“William, I don’t have much time. Do you see now why your father and I did what we did?” He pointed his chin at Arman’s twitching body. “That is what happens to unchecked power. We are that check. The boy, Kaiden, he’s going to offer marriage to Elaine, join their two kingdoms, and end this war for good. I hope you were paying attention, because it might fall on you to do something similar in the future.”
“I will, Jack. I’ll make sure it happens. It was an honor meeting you.”
“I’ll say hi to your father when I see him.”
Jack closed his eyes and let his soul drift off into the void.
I hope you enjoyed this little tale and those to come. These are all off the cuff adventures for some light reading. While unlikely to earn me any literary awards, I hope you find them entertaining and worth your time.