Crosa was not far from the Auradan border, but it was several days of hard riding before he reached the kingdom’s capital city of Dombarton. While not as expansive or populated as its counterpart in Lusan, the city was bustling with people. Jack guided his mount to the back of the queue leading to the primary city gates.
The guard was heavy, and every petitioner seeking entrance into the city had to pass through a security station to get through. However, the war had been raging for ten years with neither side coming anywhere near the other’s capitals, so security had become a bit lax. Or so Jack hoped.
The papers Mirna drew up were good but hasty, and Jack’s knowledge of Auradan’s official writs and seals was not as current as those used in Lusan. He just hoped it was enough to get him inside, or at least simply turned away and not get him arrested on the spot. There were other ways into the city, but at his age, he preferred using the gates.
Jack double-checked the folded blanket draped across his horse’s rump hiding not just his weapons but the brand that identified the animal as belonging to the Lusan guard before guiding it forward to speak with the soldiers at the gate. He should have traded it for an unbranded mount, but it was a good horse, strong and well-fed, and Crosa did not have any suitable replacements.
The gate sergeant held his hand out for Jack’s papers, clearly bored with his duties. Jack handed the forged travel documents over and waited while the soldier read them.
“These are rather old,” he said, his eyes flicking from the papers to Jack.
“So am I, but I still have to work. Probably will until the day I die. That’s just how it goes for us common folk.”
The sergeant grunted and handed the documents back. “Look on the bright side, your retirement probably ain’t far away from the looks of ya.”
Jack grinned and tucked the papers into his coat. “You have no idea the truth of it.”
The man jerked his head, gesturing Jack onward. The assassin urged his mount forward and entered the city. Other than the soldiers stationed on nearly every street corner, one might not realize there was a war raging just a few days’ ride from here, one that had surged and receded across the border with Lusan scores of times over the last decade.
Contrary to common sense, Jack chose an inn near a soldiers’ barracks. He handed the reins to a young man working the inn’s stables before retrieving the swords wrapped in the blanket. He stopped when the stableboy gasped and stared at the brand burned into the horse’s haunch.
“There a problem, boy?” Jack rumbled.
“Why—why does your horse have a Lusan brand?”
Jack grinned and flashed the boy a wink. “Because I stole him from a Lusan soldier.”
The boy’s eyes went wide and he gazed at Jack with rapt attention. “You did?”
“Yep. Him and two others, all at the same time.”
“Did you kill the soldiers who owned them?”
“You don’t think they just gave them to me do you?” Jack asked and shoved the laden bedroll into the boy’s arms.
The stableboy’s eyes flicked down at the unexpected burden in his arms and spied the hilt of one of Jack’s swords peeking out of one end. “You killed three Lusan soldiers all at once? But…you’re so old!”
Jack chuckled. “Some things get better with age.” He straightened up and rubbed his lower back. “Not many, but some.”
The boy leaned closer and whispered, “Are you a king’s agent?”
Jack tucked his chin to his chest and gave the boy a stern look. “I can’t divulge that information to a civilian.”
“Oh, no, of course not! Sorry.”
Jack laid a hand on the boy’s shoulders and nodded at the weapons he held. “I need you to keep a close eye on those for me. I’ll be back for them later. Don’t tell anyone, and I mean anyone, anything you’ve seen or heard. Lusan has men like me as well, and you’ll never know who they are until they put a knife in you. I have urgent, secret business with the king, business people right here in the city would kill to keep me from conducting.”
“You mean spies? There are spies in Dombarton?” the boy asked in a hushed, frightful tone.
“Of course, just like King Thorburn has spies in Lusan. What I’m bringing to the king can change the outcome of this war, and those enemy agents will stop at nothing to keep me from doing my duty, so I’m counting on you to help me. Can I do that?”
“Yes, sir! I won’t say a word to anyone.”
The old man set a silver coin on top of the bedroll. “Good lad. Some of the kingdom’s greatest heroes are the ones no one ever hears about.”
Jack got a room and had plenty of time to take a bath and look presentable before taking the next step in his plan to overthrow two kingdoms and end a war. The idea as a whole seemed ludicrous, but as the parable about eating a dragon went, you do it one bite at a time.
Night fell and the common room filled up, a large number of the patrons being soldiers, just as Jack expected. The old man sat alone at a small table, casually observing the room and sipping at his beer until he found what he sought. A small knot of officers came in and commandeered a table from a group of commoners who surrendered their territory with nothing more than a few grumbles and scornful looks.
Jack flagged down a serving wench and had her bring the men shots of the inn’s finest whiskey. When she served the officers their drinks, Jack caught their eye and raised his glass. After the third round he bought them, the ranking officer of the three dragged his chair over and took a seat across from him.
The man reached across the table with his hand. “Commander John Norville.”
Jack shook his hand and replied, “Finley Landon.”
“Not that I’m complaining, but why the free drinks?” the man asked.
“A couple weeks back, I was moving a load of goods along the border and got waylaid by a platoon of Lusan soldiers. My men were competent enough to deal with brigands, but we were falling to the soldiers. Just before our defenses collapsed, a group of our boys rode in and cut the bastards down to a man. I just got into the city today and it’s the first chance I’ve had to show my appreciation.”
“Not very smart travelling along the border these days.”
Jack nodded and smiled. “Yeah, but profitable if you make it. Since I made it thanks to men like you,” Jack stood up and announced, “every soldier here drinks for free on my account.”
Cheers met Jack’s pronouncement, and soon the serving women were busy bustling between tables in an attempt to keep up with the sudden increase in consumption. Jack accepted Commander Norville’s invitation and joined him back at the table with the other two officers.
The group drank long into the night, exchanging stories and complaining about the war. Jack was no stranger to drinking, and more importantly, knew how to appear to be doing so without actually imbibing and getting drunk despite outward appearances. He watched the commander get up and stagger toward the inn’s back door.
Jack downed the remnants of his tankard and stared into the empty vessel. “Well, my cup is empty and my bladder is full. Being an efficient man, I will plot a course that will enable me to correct them both.”
He stood, tottered a moment on unsteady legs, and made for the same door John had passed through a moment earlier. The door opened into an alley where the inn had installed a public urination trough for the sake of city sanitation. John stood at the trough, bracing one hand against the wall to steady himself. He glanced over his shoulder at Jack before returning his attention to the task at hand.
Jack looked up and down the alley, noted a few forms lingering in the darkness, but paid them little heed. He raised his heavy mug and brought it crashing down against the back of the soldier’s head. Jack ducked beneath John’s outstretched arm and caught him before he could fall.
The old man spotted a few eyes looking at him and slurred, “Looks like my friend is done for the night. Best get him home.”
No one said a word as Jack carried the man away while singing an off-key rendition of Auradan’s national anthem. He found a suitable spot to stash the body where no one was likely to stumble across it and stripped off his uniform.
Now in the guise of a high-ranking Auradan officer, Jack stood over the unconscious man and waged an internal debate over whether or not to cut his throat before getting on with the rest of his grisly business. The man had been one or two drinks away from rendering himself unconscious. Jack figured he was unlikely to wake before midmorning, and if he wasn’t done and out of the city by then, it likely wouldn’t matter by that time.
Jack knew men who enjoyed this line of work, enjoyed the killing. He never did. He accepted it as a required course of action, but he never killed someone who didn’t need to die. That wasn’t to say that everyone he killed deserved death, but it was what was required at the time. He left the commander with a nasty lump on his head and the unpleasantness of his eventual hangover and retrieved his swords from the stableboy who did not even bother to ask about his change of attire.
It was an easy walk through the castle gates and into the palace proper. A stern look and bearing the appearance of someone who belonged there was all it took for him to pass through several guard stations until he found himself in the hall leading to the royal bedchambers.
A young officer manned his station near the entrance hall. Farther down, just outside the door, stood a pair of halberdiers. The lieutenant stood at attention when Jack approached his station and saluted.
“At ease, lieutenant,” Jack said. “I have urgent business with the king.”
The officer’s eyes darted to the royal bedchamber. “Sir, I have orders not to allow anyone access to the king while he is in his rooms.”
Jack’s face creased in a fierce scowl. “Boy, do you know who I am?”
The lieutenant looked Jack up and down, noted the rank as well as his rumpled appearance. “No, sir. I’m sorry, I do not.”
Jack reached into his coat and pulled out a leather-bound packet of papers. “I have ridden halfway across two countries to deliver this dossier, compiled by our agents in Lunaris, that will change the tide of this war, in our favor if I get it into the king’s hands without further delay, or for Lusan if I do not. Which do you choose?”
Sweat beaded on the lie
utenant’s brow before flowing freely down his face. “I will need to be present, sir. The king’s safety is my responsibility.”
“Out of the question. You do not have the proper clearance, and I will not risk the lives of my agents for the sake of making you comfortable with making a command decision. Order your men to stand down here with you. They can guard a door from this position just as easily.”
The lieutenant looked to be about to argue once more, but a stern look from Jack turned him on his heel. He took a key from his pocket, unlocked the chamber door, and led the two halberdiers back to his station at the far end of the hall.
Jack placed his hand on the door handle, brushed the hilt of one of his swords with the back of the other, sighed, and stepped inside.