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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Prey

by Thomas Grable

We take a sip of wine from Our goblet, and enjoy the pleasant tartness of a fine Kharmanite vintage. Its sharp taste contrasts perfectly with the subdued flavor of the filet of thresher shark that is the third course of Our midday meal. We turn to Our wine steward, and reward him with a nod of Our head and a slight smile. He positively gushes with pleasure to see that We are pleased. His predecessor had made the unthinkable mistake of selecting a Voormanish port to ac-company braised lamb in lemon sauce. The insipid fool had been fortunate that We had been in a forgiving mood that day. We had only had him dismissed after receiving his dozen lashes, rather than having him executed for his incompetence.

We finish Our meal at leisure, savoring the delicate taste of the filet, and welcome the arrival of dessert: strawberry sherbet. We suppose that We should be displeased that the chef chooses this so often, but he knows that it is Our particular favorite, and so he can be excused. Thus satisfied, We rise and accept a glass of after-dinner wine. We note with pleasure the choice: Moork-heshian apple wine, aged the ideal seven years. We then call for the guards to bring in the prisoner, and await the arrival of Our newest quarry.

The drumming of the guardsmen’s boots upon the stones mixes with the rattle of heavy chains as they drag in the prisoner. At their captain’s command, he is roughly dropped to the floor. The guardsmen take up a position of attention as the captain turns to Us and goes to one knee, bowing low in obeisance.

“The prisoner You requested, your Highness. The barbarian.”

“Well done, sergeant. You may rise and return to your men.”

The captain stands, then executes a sharp about-face, his heels clicking expertly with the maneuver. More heel clicks, and he stands at attention by his guardsmen. Gavilan, Our royal vizier, stands about shuffling from foot to foot. He is nervous to be in Our presence, as he should be; Our displeasure is a thing to be avoided and feared. And there is something about Gavilan that displeases Us. He has about him the look of a dog that anticipates the kick of its master at any moment. It is the very way he seems to inwardly wince whenever Our gaze falls upon him that makes Us wish to cuff him sharply about the head. The whitebearded fool grows more tiresome with every passing year.

A low moan from the barbarian attracts Our attention. We take a calm sip of Our wine as a brown hand begins to rub the back of a shaggy head. We observe these first stirrings from the barbarian with candid interest. Given the beating he had taken from the watchmen, he must be of hardy stock indeed to recover consciousness so quickly. The yellowish fangs, the long, pointed ears, the mud-brown hide, all point to orcish blood, and though his arms are prodigiously long, he does not have the short, bandy legs of the true Orc. In fact, the build is nearly human. Half-Orc. Interesting. Several inches over six feet in height, by the looks of him, and more than two hundred pounds of hard, sinewy muscle. An excellent specimen. He should do well in the Hunt.

Gavilan’s nose wrinkles in distaste as he, too, appraises the barbarian. He should be more circumspect in his opinions of Our pleasures. The old goat is an adequate advisor, but he tends to think too highly of himself. Perhaps a lesson in humility will be in order. Later.

“So. Tell me of this one.”

“Of course, your Highness.” Gavilan bows to Us, then brings forth some papers from his vo-luminous robes, and adjusts his spectacles. “Eh… yes. He is an outland barbarian, a Half-Orc, origin unknown, only late come to our kingdom. The harbormaster’s records show that he arrived yesterday afternoon on the Marisu, a caravel out of Coriol, though he is obviously not from that land. Shortly after making port, he entered the Singing Pig, a dockside tavern of, shall we say, questionable reputation. According to witnesses, he drank enough ale to intoxicate a regiment, then broke the innkeeper’s jaw when he demanded payment. In the fight that ensued, he struck four men unconscious, broke another’s arm, and set fire to the tavern when he smashed a lantern against the back of the bar. The conflagration consumed the Singing Pig, and caused varying degrees of damage to the adjoining buildings before the fire could be extinguished. Two men are as yet unaccounted for, and may have been killed in the fire, but this is as yet purely conjectural.

“The barbarian fled, and was cornered in an alleyway by the city guard. When they attempted to arrest him, he resisted, and wreaked considerable havoc until finally overcome. Three of the guardsmen have been excused from duty until they have recovered from the injuries they sustained. The report indicates that the subject accomplished this armed only with his fists and the broken remnants of a bar stool, having checked his sword with the innkeeper, as required by city law.”

“Tell me about his race.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Gavilan replies with a bow, then fumbles a bit more with his notes. “Orcs are often used as sword fodder by the dark powers. As such, they invariably suffer staggering losses, which are rarely of any concern to their masters. Yet, no matter how many are slain, their numbers always swell. They breed like flies, your Highness. Their amazing fecundity may be the single greatest factor in their continued survival. When not under the control of one of the great powers, Orcs squabble amongst each other in tribal warfare. It is only this that keeps their numbers in check. They hate each other worse, if possible, than they hate Elves or Dwarves, or Men. Only the influence of one of the great powers can cause them to unite in anything larger than a single tribe or clan. For this, the other races are grateful, else the Orcs would multiply and blacken the land like plague.

“It must be noted that Orcs suffer from several failings, including sensitivity to light, small size, cowardice, and low intelligence. There have been two significant attempts to improve upon the species. One was the creation of the Uruk-Hai, the great Orcs. These have been bred to be larger, stronger, and braver than their original forebears. The Uruks, however, must be difficult to breed, as their numbers have never been so great as those of the normal Orcs.

“A second attempt was made to improve upon the race, by different means. Orcs were inter-bred with human stock to create a hybrid race, the Half-Orcs. These were very successful, in that they did not fear the light of day, and were taller and stronger than normal Orcs. They have the endurance and ferocity of their Orc ancestors, combined with greater intelligence and cunning. Many are sufficiently human in appearance to pass undetected among Men, making them capable spies in human lands. In many ways, the Half-Orcs combine with best of both races, and the worst.”

“Thank you, Gavilan. You may remove yourself from Our presence, now. ”

The old fool’s face reddens in anger at the brusque dismissal, but he bows stiffly and with-draws. Excellent. Let him be reminded of who is in command. He must remember his place, or lose his head. A smile crosses Our lips. Power is so intoxicating, ever so much more than mere alcohol, or any drug. Laughter echoes from the court. They, too, love to see power wielded over their inferiors.

The barbarian is fully awake now, and blinking in puzzlement. The mouth is open and slack, as he gazes about in wonderment. Not much intelligence in this one, from the looks of him. Pity. It bodes not well for the Hunt. Ah, well, We shall have to make the most of it. We address the prisoner.

“You are in the presence of Albrecht, Crown Prince of the Realm, dog. Bow down before Us.”

The eyes narrow dangerously. Good. We do so love spirit.

“Thargá is not dog,” he mutters angrily. “Thargá is Thargá!”

“We care not for your name, dog. Bow.”

The barbarian does nothing, and We look to the guards. They respond appropriately, striking him with the hafts of their spears, yet he still struggles to rise, hampered by his chains. What fire! What a marvelous choice for the Hunt after all. We watch, smiling, until the rain of blows be-comes too much for him. If he is injured too seriously, it makes for little sport.

“Enough,” We cry, and the blows cease. “Rise, Tharga.”

“Thargá,” he says, stressing the second syllable. A spear haft catches him in the back of the head for his impudence.

“Very well. Thargá. Rise, and hear Our decree.”

He regains his feet slowly, warily. Heavily laden with chains, he cannot defend himself, and he knows it. So, he can learn. There may be hope for him yet.

“You have broken the King’s Law, and as such you must suffer the consequences. Normally, you would be condemned to the salt mines, there to labor for a space of fifty years.” We wait as the look of apprehension is seen on his face. Good. We continue. “But, We are nothing if not merciful. We have therefore decided to grant you a second chance, Thargá. You will be given an opportunity to earn your freedom.”

The shaggy brows knit in confusion. “Thargá be free?”

We smile. “Not yet. You must survive five days in the Royal Gardens, first.”

The barbarian was baffled. “Survive in garden? What Thargá got to do, eat cabbages?”

The court laughs with Us at this jest. We shake Our head. “Not quite. You must survive the Hunt. You see, Thargá, you will be set loose in the Royal Gardens, and given an hour’s head start. Then, the Hunt,” with a sweeping gesture that encompasses the assembled nobles, “sets out in pursuit. Your task, Thargá, is to elude Us. If you successfully avoid capture for five days, you will be given a full pardon for all crimes you have committed in Our kingdom.”

“What if Thargá get caught by Hunt?”

We smile Our most beautiful smile. “If you are caught… you die.”

We wait as the full significance hits home. The look of a caged animal, the look of fear, so marvelous. At length, the barbarian musters up his courage.

“Thargá not want to work in mines. Thargá choose Hunt.”

Excellent.



Part Two.

A golden shaft of sunlight crests the hills, signaling the start of a new day, and a new Hunt. The hunting party is arrayed about Us, in their finery. Five Lords of the court will accompany Us, plus the usual retainers and servants. We are garbed in a doublet of orange velvet and dark brown leather trews, which contrasts so nicely with the pristine white silk of Our shirt. The polished wooden stock of Our crossbow gleams from its place on Our saddle, next to a case of quarrels. We gesture absently to a servant, who places a jeweled goblet of wine in Our gloved hand. We address Our fellow huntsmen.

“My Lords, a toast! To the one who shall give his all that we may be amused for another day! My Lords, We give you, our quarry, the erstwhile… Thargá!”

At this, the guards bring out the barbarian. He is naked, of course. We note that he shows no apparent distress at his nudity. Most of the victims are ashamed, trying to cover themselves, but this one cares not at all about it. Given his mongrel origins and barbaric upbringing, this should not be a surprise. This will be most amusing.

We gesture to the guards, and they remove the prisoner’s chains. He rubs his wrists, and looks about in wonder. Ah, yes. He is taking in the vista presented by the Royal Gardens. They are, admittedly, unusual in the extreme; indeed, We believe them to be unique. Whereas other kingdoms have striven to create tranquil areas of fragile beauty, Our gardens are, instead, a wild tangle of forests, rugged hills, and murky swamps. To this place We have had brought all manner of game, for Our amusement. Here We have hunted the leopard, the tiger, the cave bear, and the wild boar. We have slain great serpents, able to strangle an ox in their steely coils. Once We even hunted a wyvern, though its wings had been clipped to prevent it from flying away. These had brought Us great joy, but in time even this became stale and uninteresting, until We decided upon a new game. A new Hunt.

We decided to hunt men. Certainly, even a Crown Prince cannot slay His subjects out of hand, or the people will revolt. But, they will cheer as We hunt down fugitive criminals. We have done this two score times, invariably with success. The first few were too easy, though, so We de-cided to choose only strong, capable victims. Our noble friends in the court were only too willing to accompany Us on the hunts, driven by their own decadent needs and desires. Our father, the King, might not approve, were he still rational. His failing health and advanced senility give Us free reign to do as We desire. The older Lords disapprove, but they dare say nothing. We are Crown Prince of the Realm, but wield the authority of the King.

Our brother Michael is here to wish Us well. “To your health, brother,” he says, raising his cup. “And to a successful Hunt.” We smile, and return the toast.

“Would you care to make a wager, brother?”

Michael smiles, as if at some private jest. “Why, yes, Albrecht. How much did you have in mind?”

“A thousand gold sovereigns that We have the barbarian by nightfall.”

“A thousand, brother? Accepted.”

“You surprise Us, Michael. You are usually too cautious for such a sum.”

“I have wagered more than that, brother, and I think this will be a day for surprises.”

“Indeed? Would you care to accompany Us on the Hunt?”

“No, brother. You know that I ride poorly, so I fear I must decline that offer. I shall instead remain here, to celebrate your victory when you return.”

“As you wish, brother. Make ready the celebration; this should not take too long.”

We return Our attention to the barbarian. He is still looking around in dumbfounded amazement, his gaze moving from the forest to the huntsmen on their mounts, and to the growling pack of hounds held by Karl, the hound master. Time to begin. We speak.

“The Hunt will begin in one minute. You will then begin running. One hour from then, the hounds will be released, and We will then set out in pursuit. If you can stay alive for five days, you will be set free, with a purse of a hundred gold sovereigns in hand. Note, however, that armed guards man the walls surrounding the Gardens. If you attempt to scale the walls, they will kill you with bows. You must remain in the Gardens for the entire five days to win your freedom. Is that clear?”

“What other rules to this Hunt?”

We laugh, and are answered by the other hunters.

“There are no other rules, barbarian. None are needed.”

“How many others survive Hunt?”

We laugh again. “None.”

“Thargá survive! Thargá strong!”

“A pity he isn’t intelligent, too,” laughs young Lord Dremen.

“Thargá not dumb,” the barbarian says in an injured tone. “Thargá smart! Thargá the genius of his race,” he says, his ugly face splitting in an idiot grin. More laughter rolls out from the hunting party.

“Let’s hope you are,” We answer. “The Hunt begins… now!”

The barbarian looks about in a moment of surprise, then remembers what he is to do, and be-gins running towards the trees. He looks over his shoulder to see if we pursue. We smile. Though stupid, the barbarian is strong. He may last longer than most, if he can keep his few wits about him. Already the nobles are placing wagers on how long this one will last. Most think he will not survive more than four hours. The highest bid is nine, and that from Lord Randel of Karsely, who will wager on anything, however unlikely. The record time was two and a half days, set three months ago. That one had been quick, and clever. At the end, he almost escaped from Us yet again, but Dremen struck true, and impaled him on his lance. The lapis lazuli thumb ring was Our reward to him for the kill. He prizes it almost as much as he loves killing.

Our attention turns to the hourglass. Its sands are half gone now. The hounds are restless. They strain at their leash, and the hound master struggles to hold them. They want blood. We, too, feel the stirring within Us, and long to see blood flow. We shall both be satisfied, soon.

Other wagers are placed. Who shall make the kill? Which way shall our quarry go? We laugh at the sport, and hope that the game shall not be ended too quickly. We see Gavilan with the guardsmen, shaking his head in disapproval. He has not the stomach for this, but We have commanded his presence. His competence is the only saving grace about the man. One day We shall dispense with him altogether. A pity he’s so old and feeble; he’d make for a very dull Hunt.

The last grains of sand flow through the hourglass. We gesture to the herald, and he raises the horn and sounds a long blast to start the hunt. The hound master lets loose the dogs, and they tear off into the forest. We spur Our mount forward at a brisk pace, and feel Our pulse quicken with excitement. The faces of the other huntsmen are flushed with anticipation. This is so marvelous, better even than fornicating with temple courtesans.

The hounds turn to the right once inside the forest. Salens cries out that Brenton owes him fifty gold sovereigns. We see the stern face of Yotan, the tracker. We have never seen him smile, nor seen anger, fear, or any other emotion cross his craggy features. As a boy, We tried to crack his stony expression, but were never successful. He served Our father for many years, and now he serves Us. If he has any doubts about the Hunt, he has never voiced them, and likely never will. He knows his place, which is more than can be said for Gavilan.

The hounds turn from the path and bound into the rough. Excellent. Too often a prisoner keeps to the trail, hoping to outdistance his pursuers, but the hounds soon overtake him, making for a brief and unsatisfying Hunt. In rough terrain, the hounds can go no faster than a man can run, and the horses are slowed considerably.

“Make this a good Hunt, you ugly brute,” We murmur. “Run far, run fast, and make the chase exciting. Make it last. Make it last.”

The hounds, now in heavy forest, soon outdistance the huntsmen. We hear their baying as they run, and so have no problem keeping a true course. Of course, Yotan could find them, even if they disappeared into thin air; his woodcraft is legendary.

The baying is farther now, and the trail begins to curve. Sometimes a confused quarry will run in circles, hopelessly lost until found by the dogs. This one should have been better than that, given his barbaric origins, but perhaps his lack of intelligence has led him to fatal error. After a time, We hear the dogs again, closer. Their sound has changed to confusion. As We approach, We see them ringing a tree, sniffing about and turning their heads all round. We look up, but do not see the quarry in the tree. The other hunters stare upward in a futile attempt to locate him.

“Where is he?”

“Can you see him?”

“I can’t see him anywhere. Are you sure he’s up there?”

“The hounds are sure. See how they are!”

“Silence,” We command, and the huntsmen cease their prattle. “Yotan, see to it.”

Yotan dismounts, and kicks the hounds aside from the tree. “Back, you miserable brutes! Hound master, leash your dogs.” Karl gathers his dogs while Yotan stares silently up into the foliage. His face, as always, is unreadable. He looks about at the surrounding trees and ground, then returns to looking upward. Then, taking firm handholds, he begins to climb the tree. Past fifty, his agility is better than men half his age, and his strength is still a thing of legend. He halts his ascent to move out on a limb some thirty feet up, apparently unconcerned about his precarious position. After studying signs invisible to anyone else, he looks about at the neighboring trees for a time, then returns to the ground. He approaches Us, and awaits Our command.
“So, Yotan, he went up the tree; that’s obvious. The question is, where did he go?”

Yotan replies in a voice like grinding stone. “Highness, by the signs I found, he climbed the tree, hand and foot like an ape. Then he went out on that high limb. He did not return the way he came. There are no signs on the ground of him falling. There is a limb from another tree some fifteen feet distant. The only possibility is that he leapt from tree to tree.”

“Astonishing. Could you have made that leap, Yotan?”

“In my younger days, I’d have said so. To do that took strength and agility, and not a little daring.”

“So, then he gained a little time. Get the dogs on the scent, so we may renew pursuit.”

“It’s not that easy, Highness. He didn’t come down from the second tree, either.”

We give a look of consternation. “So he moved on to a third tree.”

“Or a fourth, or a fifth. It will take me some time to find the trail again, but find it I will. He can’t move through the trees indefinitely, even if he is half ape.”

“Half Orc, Yotan. Our quarry is half Orc.”

“A very resourceful one, your Highness.”

“Merely animal instinct, Yotan. A monkey could do as much.”

“Perhaps, Highness, perhaps.”

“While we stand here discussing his merits, Our quarry is gaining distance on Us. See to re-gaining the trail.”
Yotan nods and obeys, while We return to the other huntsmen. They are amazed at the news. We are pleased; the barbarian will be a good choice after all.

The hound master, Karl, leads his dogs in a wide circle around the tree. Yotan is looking at the trees. We call for wine, and a retainer brings a wineskin. We drink deeply, and pass the skin to Dremen. It is over an hour before the trail is found again. Yotan reports that the barbarian had gone through no fewer than six trees before returning to the ground. The hounds are set upon the trail again.

We feel the thrill of the chase once more. The first few victims had either run in a straight line until the dogs caught them, or tried to hide until found. By choosing hardier prisoners, we improved the quality of the Hunt. This one was reared in the wilds, and so is at home here. He will be a tougher quarry than most. If he only had brains to match his brawn…

At one point, Yotan raises a callused hand, calling a halt. He points off to the side.

“Look, Your Highness. That stand of bamboo. Do You see?”

We turn Our gaze to the bamboo thicket, originally brought from distant lands, long ago. It grows at an astonishing rate. We note that a few of the bamboo stalks have been broken off.

“The work of the barbarian, Yotan?”

“It can be no other, Your Highness. The quarry’s footprints show clearly, and the breaks are fresh.”
“What, does he think to eat them?” remarks Brenton. “This barbarian thinks with his stomach!”

Laughter bubbles from the hunters, but Yotan remains grim. “No, Your Highness. Not food. Weapons. There are chips of flint there as well.”

“So the barbarian will fight Us with sticks and stones! Excellent! It is always more enjoyable when they try to fight. This animal is most entertaining. Press on, Yotan!”

Yotan bows his head in acknowledgment of Our command, and We resume the chase. We hear the cries of the hounds grow distant. The barbarian seems to instinctively avoid the open areas, keeping to the most overgrown portions of the forest, thus slowing the horsemen. Yotan, ever vigilant, keeps us to the trail.
Far ahead, there is a change to the baying of the hounds. The hound master’s brows knit as he listens to their sounds. We hear yelping, and spur the horses on faster. When we arrive, the only sounds are the plaintive whining of two dogs. They are crippled, their legs broken. Two others have been transfixed by crude bamboo spears. Another has had its head staved in from a rock or club, but the last is the most remarkable: its throat has been torn out, evidently by the barbarian’s yellowed fangs. The hound master dismounts, tears filling his eyes. Yotan looks on, impassive as always. The huntsmen are aghast.

“This one has fight, Your Highness,” remarks Lord Randel, an excited grin lighting his patri-cian features. “He is not a back alley cur, but a wolf!”

“Smart, too,” says Yotan. “He killed the dogs first. Now he’ll be harder to track.”

“Smart, Yotan? This is not intelligence,” We answer. “This is brute savagery. We do not hunt a man, but an animal.”

“A cunning animal.”

“This merely means a more exciting Hunt. That which is obtained too easily loses its flavor. Continue on, Yotan.”

“Yes, your Highness.”

We turn to the hound master. “Finish them.” He looks up, his face a mask of anguish. He gives a curt nod, and draws his knife. We turn aside as he bends to his task. Lord Randel rides up to Us.

“This is positively thrilling, Highness! The wretched beast seems to be a better quarry than we had imagined! I think we shall have to rethink our wagers. He may last a day, or even two!”

“You think so, Randel? Then shall we say a thousand sovereigns that we have him before nightfall?”

Randel is taken aback, but recovers quickly. “A-a thousand? In gold? W-why, yes, yes, your Highness. I’ll take that wager. I think this one has already turned out to be more resourceful than any of us had guessed.”
“You mistake subhuman savagery for intelligence. The brute may try to assault Us in a similar fashion, to his undoing.”

“Be warned, Highness,” spoke Yotan, “that you do not underestimate this barbarian.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Yotan. A naked savage with a pointed stick and a rock may be able to kill a dog, but he can hardly be a match for a Prince of the blood. If he is so foolish as to attempt an attack, it will simply mean a quicker end to the Hunt. Do not forget that We are one of the fin-est blades in the kingdom.”

“I forget nothing, Highness. I only caution You to be careful.”

“Let Our brother, Michael, be the one to live carefully; We yearn for excitement and adventure. This is true sport!”

“As You say, Highness, as You say.”

We give chase until sunset, but without Our anticipated success. Night falls, and with it comes a strange mixture of feelings. We are displeased at having lost Our wagers with Lord Randel and Our brother, Michael, but We are excited at the prospect of a truly challenging Hunt. Yotan admits that we are no closer to our prey than before. In fact, he has gained ground once more. We decide to set camp for the night, to rest and make ourselves fresh for the chase come the morning.

It is likely that, spurred on by fear, the quarry will run through the night, tiring himself with-out getting appreciably farther away. This has been so before, as those few who managed to sur-vive the first day were found exhausted and helpless the next.

We are attended by Our servants, and a repast is set. The others are engaged in animated discussion as to the condition of the quarry.

“What do you think our barbarian would do with a thousand in gold?” asks Lord Jasren.

“I think he’d try to eat it!” replies Brenton, to the guffaws of the others.

“I think we should keep the head, and have it stuffed and mounted as a trophy!” suggests Salens.

“Yes, yes, with an apple in his mouth!” adds Randel, giggling at his own wit.

“Imagine the creature’s head mounted in Our trophy room, with that look of vacant stupidity fixed upon its features for all time. What an amusing notion! Perhaps We will use it for a hat rack. It’s obvious that that empty head has never been put to other use.”

More laughter erupts. “Maybe you should mount Gavilan’s head next to the barbarian’s,” suggests Lord Dremen, “so they can keep each other company.”

“It wouldn’t take much for old Gavilan. He’s practically sawdust as it is.” The hunters laugh while We imagine the old fool, stuffed like a prize fish, his wrinkled face set in a perpetual grim-ace of displeasure. We snicker over Our wine. “We could still get some use out of the old sot; he’d make a fine target for ring toss!”
More laughter. The jests grow stale and repetitive soon, and We grow weary, and retire to Our tent. It has been laid out properly, of course; a few errant servants flogged made a memorable impression some time ago. Our servants undress Us, and We slip beneath the covers, rest Our head upon the pillows, and drift off to happy slumber, to dream happy thoughts of tomorrow’s chase.



Part Three.

We awaken to sound of shrill screams. The horses! We seize Our sword, and burst from the tent, to discover the camp in chaos. The Garden is a place of constant danger, so We look about for the source of the disruption, and see a shadowy form on the edge of the firelight, next to the picketed horses. The barbarian, here? A brief flash of steel is seen as he hamstrings a hobbled horse with a dagger, taken no doubt from the dead guardsman beside him, a crude stone axe bur-ied in his neck. We cry out to the other guard on watch, and he hurries from his side of the camp. The barbarian dives for the dead guard’s crossbow, snatching it up and firing it in a single fluid motion as he rolls into a kneeling position. The second guardsman is hit in the throat by the iron-fanged bolt, and he collapses to the ground as his life’s blood bubbles from his lips. One of Dre-men’s servants attempts to seize the barbarian, and receives the butt of the crossbow to his face for his troubles. As the others close in, the barbarian regains his feet and flees into the night, pausing only to retrieve the dagger from the ground as he runs by.

“After him!” We cry, and the hunters, clad only in their nightshirts as are We, attempt to give chase. The night swallows up all sign of our quarry, and he is gone, vanished like a ghost in the night. We give vent to a cry of frustration, then call Our fellow huntsmen back to camp. The guards have been roused, and Yotan looks on, impassive as always, at the carnage. Two guards-men are dead, as is Dremen’s manservant. The bridge of his nose is shattered, and his eyes stare up unseeing into the night sky. The blow had been instantly fatal, sending splinters of bone into the man’s brain, killing him instantly. Half of the horses have been lamed, their tendons cut by the barbarian. We are incensed.

“The brazen audacity of the creature! He actually dared to attack the camp! What manner of brute is this?”
“A cunning one, Highness,” observes Yotan. “Cunning, and dangerous.”

“What, Yotan? Cunning? No, this is savagery. Unlettered, unschooled, uncivilized, this creatures is only responding as an animal would, attacking the very ones that threaten it. This merely means better sport.”
Yotan draws close, his voice a low rumble that reaches only Us. “For whom, Highness? You, or him?”
We laugh at this idiotic notion. “What are you babbling about, Yotan? You make this barbarian out to be some sort of mastermind, not the ignorant savage that he is. You’ll have Us starting at shadows next.”

Yotan’s stare was hard. “You would do well to beware the shadows, Highness. He’s better armed, now. He has the guard’s dagger and crossbow.”

“A dagger, to face Our sword. A crossbow, without quarrels to fire. Oh, yes, Yotan, We shall truly fear him now. Shall a Prince of the Realm tremble before a subhuman savage with a knife? We think not, Yotan, and We are surprised that you would even suggest such a thing. This is entirely unlike you.”

“This one You hunt is unlike any You’ve faced before, Highness. He looked stupid enough, when we set him out as prey, but he’s acted with considerable intelligence since. He used a clever trick to gain him time, used that time to make weapons, then used those weapons to kill the dogs, thus removing the greatest threat to him. Then he attacks our own camp, hamstringing half our horses, making us choose between leaving half our party behind, or going on foot. Either way, he gains the advantage. That, Your Highness, is not the action of a stupid, uneducated savage. And that is what worries me.”

“Yotan, you shall speak no more of this nonsense. You exist to serve Us, not to counsel Us. We have Gavilan for that task, inasmuch as he is a pompous old windbag. Remember your place, and do not question Our commands again.”

“Yes, Your Highness. As You wish.”

“Yes, Yotan. As We wish it, so let it be written, so let it be done. Now, see to the camp, and double the guards. We need Our rest for the morning.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” he rumbles, with a bow of his head.

In irritation, We return to Our tent. It was not the actions of the savage that made Us angry; it was the uncharacteristic response of Yotan. Never before has he contradicted Us, nor given an opinion of any kind without it being asked of him. His loyalty has never been in doubt, but We are Prince of the Realm; we rule by divine right. Our word is law, never to be questioned or disobeyed. For Yotan to do this flies in the face of all reason. We cannot understand what he fears from this animal. We have faced far deadlier threats before, from man and beast. Something must have unsettled Yotan. Perhaps it’s merely a touch of senility; he must be nearly sixty, for all that he still looks like rough-hewn granite. We let the matter go, and drift back to sleep.

We awaken, stretching luxuriantly in the warm light of the morning sun. Our servants attend Us, rubbing Us down with scented towels, then clothing Us in hunter’s garb. We break Our fast with black bread, poached eggs, sausages, and fresh fruit, and wash it down with wine. Thus satisfied as to Our needs, we exit Our tent to greet the other hunters. Yotan waits, silent and impassive, like a statue in which only the eyes show life. There is some consternation among Our fellow huntsmen, which becomes clearer as We approach.

“I tell you, Salens, it is unthinkable to leave our retainers behind. Who shall attend our needs? Who shall buff our boots, or prepare dinner? This business of going native, of doing for one’s self, may be all well and good in theory, but it still means washing our own socks, and that, my dear Salens, is quite out of the question.”
“But, Lord Randel, you must concede that, with half the horses lamed by the barbarian, we cannot continue at any reasonable pace if we must contend with a baggage train that is on foot. The servants are slow as sloths; they shall be as millstones about our necks. This barbarian has been difficult enough to keep pace with while on horseback; let these stupid clods slow us up any more, and our quarry may elude us at a walk.”

“Lord Salens is quite right,” We interject. “Our concern should be for the chase, and let the hardships fall where they may. It shall be well worth the inconvenience when the Hunt is concluded, and we have the barbarian’s head as a trophy. It shall be the six of us, plus Yotan, of course. So, gentle sirs, ready your spears and saddle your horses, for we ride hard this day!”

We happily shoulder aside the servants as We tend to Our steed, thus setting a proper example for Our fellow huntsmen. They pick up the spirit, and the servants look on in dumbfounded amazement as they behold noblemen and a crown prince saddle their own horses. It is a rather pleasant thought, letting them know that We do not need them, but that they surely need Us to rule them. Perhaps We shall make it an annual event, to do without servants for a day, to keep the plebeian fools in their place. Once readied, We mount and call for the others to follow. Yotan is silent, as always, and accompanies Us in his own dour way.
“Well, Yotan, find us a trail. The barbarian could not have gotten too far; he needs rest like any man, or perhaps more accurately, like any animal. I rather imagine he is tempted to lift his leg upon each tree he passes, like the brazen dog he is.”

This brings a titter from the noblemen, but only a grunt from Yotan. He has picked up the trail, and we are soon moving along at a steady trot along a game path. Yotan has never failed to amaze Us over the years. He still has the strength of an ox, and the ferocity of a cave bear in bat-tle. His eyes have not grown dim with time, and his skill as a tracker remains positively uncanny. After a time, he stops, dismounts, and departs from the path into the rough. He rummages about for a bit, poking here and there, while the noblemen mutter questions that will no doubt be answered in time.

He returns, his brow furrowed in thought as he peers intently at something in his hand. He draws near, and We see that he has several shards of flint in one calloused hand, and some plant fibers in the other. He gazes up at Us, but is silent, awaiting Our command to speak. After an appropriate interval, We give him leave to do so.

“Very well, Yotan, speak.”

“Your Highness, this is what I feared. He’s making more weapons.”

“Yes, yes, Yotan, that is obvious. What is your point?”

“My point, Highness, is that he escaped last night with a crossbow with no ammunition. He’s rectified that now.”

“Can such a crude arrangement pose a threat, Yotan? A proper quarrel bears a head of steel, not flint.”

“A quarrel of stone and bamboo will kill as surely as good steel, driven by a strong bow. This one is preparing to fight.”

“Well, this is an interesting development, isn’t it? It shall make for some excitement, then. We follow a tiger, my lords, and this tiger has claws. But We have hunted tiger before, and wolf and bear, and ever have emerged victorious. We shall have this beast’s head stuffed and mounted, and that before long if he dares to attack Us again. He escaped with his life once; he shall not be so lucky again.”

Yotan grunts in response, eloquent as ever. We resume our ride, and it half an hour before Yotan stops again, this time to check out a tree. He climbs, looking about intently at something or other, and at length returns once more to Us. We impatiently motion for him to speak.

“He holed up here last night to sleep. It’s a good spot, with decent cover and a workable escape route. If he’d been found, he could have gone down that ravine there. It’d have been a hell of a tumble, but this one’s not too particular about that sort of thing. It would have been impossible with horses. It looks like he’d set up a telltale, some rocks piled on top of each other, easily knocked over by anyone trying to climb the tree. It would have made enough noise to rouse a light sleeper, and given him warning to dive into the ravine. Smart, Highness, very smart.”

“You sound positively enamored of this barbarian, Yotan. Perhaps you’re falling in love.”

The others laugh at Our jest, but Yotan is unmoved. “Sire, what is your command?”

“Follow the barbarian, Yotan. Lead Us to him, that We may kill him.”

Yotan grunts in assent, and begins to track the barbarian again. We follow, a smile of satisfaction playing about Our features. This has proven to be the best Hunt so far, without a doubt. The barbarian has proven to be unpredictable and dangerous, the very qualities that make him an ideal choice as the quarry. Indeed, he has set Our very blood afire with desire for the kill; and, being Crown Prince of the Realm, what We desire, we obtain. The barbarian, like all else in this kingdom, serves Our will, though he knows it not. He satisfies Our urge for blood, and he will die to please Us. Soon, you uncouth savage, soon. Soon you will grow bold again, and dare an-other attack. Then you will die.



Part Four.

Night has fallen again, without further sign of our quarry. Though on foot, he continues to stay ahead of our party, despite the advantage of our mounts. He instinctively chooses routes that slow pursuit, that make tracking difficult. Yotan thinks we have gained on him, but the trail is still hours old. An elusive animal, this barbarian. How much longer can he stay ahead of Us? How long before he is spitted on Our lance? How long until his empty head hangs from Our saddle?

“Enough, Yotan, We grow weary. Let us make camp here. The barbarian will keep ‘till morning.”

“Yes, Highness,” he rumbles, and sets work to making camp. Salens and Brenton are sent to gather wood for the fire, while the rest take care of the horses.

“A warm fire and a good night’s sleep will renew Our strength for the chase tomorrow, Yo-tan.”
“Indeed, Highness,” he grunts in assent.

“Our quarry will likely find cold comfort in the fork of a tree,” opines Jasren, “with little more to keep him warm than his hairy hide.”

“Perhaps he’ll find a nice warm bear to snuggle up with!” offers Salens, a load of branches in his arms.
The others twitter at this, but Lord Randel seems concerned. “But what if he’s eaten by the local fauna before we find him? Won’t that spoil the Hunt?”

“You need have no fear of that, my Lord,” answers the gravel voice of Yotan. “That one was reared in the wilds; he’s more at home here than any of you.”

“Oh, tosh,” retorts Randel. “Any fool knows a nobleman is worth a hundred of the rabble, and our prey is less than a peasant. Why, he isn’t even human. He’s a mongrel and a barbarian, and if he isn’t eaten by a tiger or a bear, he’ll die at our hands, howling like the beast he is.”

The others toast Randel with their wineskins, and We join in. He has the proper noble spirit, and We are pleased. That the barbarian continues to elude Us will only make his inevitable death all the sweeter. He has no real hope of escape, after all, for We pursue him, and none have ever eluded Us, nor ever shall.

The wine flows freely, and We drink as deeply as any, heady with the thrill of the Hunt. We answer jest with jest, and laugh aloud at Our courtiers’ quips as we partake of cold meat and bread, a hunter’s repast. At some point, though, We notice that something is amiss.

“Where is Lord Randel? Has anyone seen him?”

“I think he went out to relieve himself, your Highness,” answers Jasren.

“Yes, but wasn’t that a while ago? He should have been back by now. Can the silly sot have gotten lost?”
“I’ll go fetch him, Highness.”

We return to Our conversation with Lord Dremen, and are finally learning the reason of Lady Storla’s recent indisposition, when Jasren returns, his face ashen with fear.

“What is it, Jasren? Where’s Lord Randel?”

“D-dead, your Highness. He’s dead. I f-found his body, not a dozen paces from our camp.”

“Dead? How?”

“Highness, he’s been stran-GGUHH!!!” Jasren’s head snaps back as something strikes him from behind with a meaty thump. Like a comic marionette, he fumbles vainly to reach behind him, then falls on his face, a thin trickle of blood coming from his mouth. We see the feathered shaft of a crude crossbow bolt protruding from his spine. Pandemonium sweeps the camp.

“It’s the barbarian! He’s back!”

“He’s killed Jasren! My lance! Where is my lance?”

“Where is he? Can you see him?”

Our sword is in Our hand in an instant. With Yotan by Our side, we snatch a brand from the fire and set off into the darkness from which Jasren had emerged. No sign is found of the bar-barian, but We do find Lord Randel. His swollen tongue protrudes from a mouth set in a horrible rictus of death. His hands clutch a cord of woven fibers tightly knotted about his throat. His trousers are undone and bunched about his ankles. His belly has been exposed and slashed open. There is a mixed stench of urine, feces, and blood. The other hunters look queasy; Lord Brenton seems ready to faint.

Putting aside Our anger, We quickly deduce what happened. Evidently, Lord Randel had been relieving himself when the barbarian had surprised him, and garrotted him from behind. Yotan uses the tip of his hunting knife to lift aside a flap of skin over the wound in Randel’s belly.

“His heart’s gone,” rumbles Yotan. “Liver, too.”

“What?” asks Dremen. “What on earth for?”

“I’d say he ate them,” answers Yotan.

“How ghastly,” says Lord Salens. “To think, murdered and mutilated, with the rest of us only a few feet away. A Lord of the realm, food for an inhuman cannibal!”

“That could have been any one of us,” opines Brenton. “That could be me lying there.” Fear is evident in his voice.

“You’re right, Brenton,” We answer coldly, “that could be you, and it will be, if you don’t stop sniveling. You are a nobleman! Act like one!”

“This isn’t a game anymore,” whines Salens. “We’re going to die.”

We give Salens the back of Our hand. He falls to the ground, nursing a split lip. “Shut up, you spineless cur! This is what you wanted! You wanted excitement and danger. This is excitement! This is danger! How can you call yourself truly alive if you don’t face death once in a while?”

“I didn’t want this!” cries Salens. “I wanted sport! I wanted the thrill of the hunt! But only as the hunter, not the prey!”

“You whining fool, we are the hunters! The barbarian is the prey!”

“I’m not so sure about that, Highness,” says the granite voice of Yotan. His stare is hard as stone. We return a look equally hard, and ready a scathing reproach, when we hear the screams of the horses from the camp.
“The horses! He’s at the horses again!”

“Curse me for a fool!” cries Yotan as he charges back. “We’ve fallen for the same trick twice!”
We return to the camp to see the last of the horses hamstrung by Randel’s sword, now in the hands of the barbarian. We cry out, and he returns a feral snarl and bolts into the dark. We give chase, but the beast has the swiftness of a greyhound, we soon lose him in the night.

“Yotan! Find his trail! We’ll not lose him now!”

“I can follow his spoor, even in the dark, Highness, but not quickly. He’s a tough one to track.”

“Then track him, Yotan, and lead Us to him! We’ll not rest until We have his head!”

Yotan nods, and bends to his task. By torchlight, he follows a trail few others could discern, and none other so quickly. We set a hard pace, and the others soon complain of lack of rest. We are incensed at their behavior; is this how they thought to please Us? Perhaps they would best replaced at court with others more to Our liking. A suggestion of this serves to silence their whining. The trail leads on, taking us on a twisting route. Yotan’s pace slows from time to time as the trail becomes more difficult to follow in spots. We come to a stream, and Yotan must spend long minutes finding where the barbarian exits. Sometime later, he re-crosses the stream, and curves back on his trail. A canny beast, this barbarian, but not canny enough.
We’re on a deer path, moving swifter now, as the trail is suddenly more clear. The tracks are fresher, too, notes Yotan; we’ve gained on him. The excitement is felt by all, and We pick up the pace, eager for the conclusion to the Hunt. It won’t be long, now. The barbarian’s endurance must be flagging, finally.
Lord Dremen spots the barbarian ahead on the trail, resting by a tree in evident exhaustion. He is startled by our sudden appearance, and nearly drops Randel’s sword as he bounds off down the trail, with Dremen in hot pursuit.

“I’ve got him now, Highness! I’ll make You a gift of his scalp!” Dremen cries over his shoulder, then gasps in sudden pain as his body is slammed back with terrific force. We ap-proach, to see Dremen’s still form slumped over the tree limb that has swung into the path. His blood drips from the spikes that impale his chest, and his eyes are glazed over in death. Yotan coolly examines the device, evidently some form of Malayan gate trap. We turn to the remaining huntsmen, and see Lord Brenton muttering to himself, while Salens has dribbled down his leg in fear.

“Dremen is dead!” cries Salens. “Randel is dead! Jasren is dead! We’re all going to die! He’s going to kill us all! He’s going to kill us all!”

We are incensed at this display of utter cowardice. “You simpering, spineless fools! You dare to call yourselves Lords? You are unworthy to lick Our boots! From this moment on, you are stripped of your titles and your lands. You are Lords no longer. Worse! You are banished, ban-ished from Our realm! Get you hence from Our sight, or We shall have you flayed alive! Go!”

Brenton and Salens look to us in fear, then stare about in dumbfounded panic before fleeing into the dark. May their souls rot in Hell, that they dared to insult Us so with their cowardice. Only Yotan remains, steadfast and true, unyielding as the rock. Only Yotan.

“We are well rid of them, Yotan. Come, let us finish this.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no? We command you, Yotan, and you obey!”

“No, Your Highness, not this time. I’ll not allow You to throw Your life away. I’ve tried to warn You, but You wouldn’t listen. Think! The barbarian appeared a simpleton when captured, but has displayed far greater intelligence since. He’s obviously skilled enough to have escaped long before this, but he hasn’t. Time and again he’s risked all, attacking when he could have fled. He’s methodically whittled down the odds, until it’s just us two. Why? Because this is a hunt, your Highness. He’s the hunter, and we’re the prey.”

“No, Yotan, you’re wrong! We are Crown Prince of the Realm! Our word is law! Our judgement is never wrong! We are in control, now and always! We face an animal, nothing more! It is not even a man! It is a mindless beast, acting on nothing more than savage instinct!”

“Think again, Highness. What was it that Gavilan said? The best qualities of both races; the ferocity of the Orc, combined with the intelligence and cunning of Men. Enough cunning to play the role of the dumb beast, to make us underestimate him. But why? Why does someone that smart, that skilled, that dangerous, get caught by the city guard after a drunken brawl? Why?

“Because he knows of the Hunt. You have food tasters, and have the finest guards watching for hidden crossbows wherever You go. There is only one place where You do not have a company of guardsmen about You at all times. During the Hunt. The one place where You could be killed without arousing suspicion.”

“Nonsense, Yotan. We’ll not hear of it. You shall speak no more of this, do you understand?”

“Highness, I…” he begins, before the quarrel buries itself in his neck. Blood bubbles out over his lips, and he falls to his knees. He looks up at Us, his granite features composed in a mask that valiantly hides his pain, his eyes showing both sadness and reproach. Our eyes blur with tears. “No, Yotan, no! This mustn’t be! It can’t be!”

“It is.”

We turn to see the Half-Orc standing with the crossbow in the crook of his elbow, a sardonic smile playing about his lips, revealing the sharp, yellowed fangs. Gone is the vacant expression. Gone, too, is the hunched, shambling posture. He stands tall and confident, now. With curious detachment, We note that he is still naked but for a pouch of crudely woven plant fibers, and the sword belt that holds Randel’s blade. We watch as he calmly cocks the crossbow, and places an-other makeshift bolt in the slot. He raises it to his shoulder, and sights along it at Us.

“Run,” he suggests.

“No. We are Albrecht, Crown Prince of the Realm. We do not run.”

“Then, die,” he answers as he discharges the crossbow. We hear the sound of an angry bee in flight, and the stone head of the quarrel sinks into Our breast. We stifle the gasp of pain before it passes Our lips, but Our knees buckle beneath Us. Through a bloody haze, we stare up at Our slayer in defiance.

“We are Crown Prince of the Realm! We are of the blood royal! We shall not die like a dog!”

“No, Prince Albrecht. You die like a fool. You should have listened to Yotan when you had the chance. He was right all along. But then, your bloated ego would never let you entertain the notion that you could be wrong about anything. The infallible prince, the peerless hunter, could never believe himself the hunted. And so it ends.” The barbarian draws a dagger from his pouch, bends over Us. We feel a sharp pain in Our right hand, but that pain, like the other, is fading with each passing moment. He bends down, and We feel his hot breath against Our ear, and hear him whisper, “Good night, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing you to your rest.” We hear the barbarian’s mocking laughter; it grows faint, and the darkness closes in…



Epilogue.

Prince Michael ascended the stairs to his apartments in the castle, a flickering candle in his hand. His head still echoed with the frightened words of Lords Salens and Brenton. After their panicked flight into the Gardens, they had stumbled in the dark, uncertain of direction, until their headlong scramble took them back to the clearing where they’d left Prince Albrecht and Yotan. Salens had tripped over a still form in the dark, and Brenton had fallen over Salens in his panic. At that moment, the clouds had parted, revealing the light of the crescent moon. It illuminated a scene of utter carnage. Albrecht was dead, as was Yotan. Both had been butchered, their chests rudely hacked open. The moonlight showed only black cavities where the heart and liver should have been in each. Unnerved, and almost unhinged, Salens and Brenton had fled the nightmarish scene, screaming in utter terror until they’d found the guardsmen at the gate. In a confused babble, the noblemen told the guards of the death of Prince Albrecht. They entered the Gardens and found Prince Albrecht, but found no sign of the barbarian. He’d vanished like a phantom.

Michael unlocked his door, and entered his apartments. The fireplace lit the room with a dim, ruddy light, creating deep shadows. He closed the door behind him, turning the key in the lock, and put down the candle on the mantlepiece. Settling into his favorite chair, he let out a deep sigh of fatigue, and held his head in his hands. It was the space of a minute or more before he realized that he was not alone in the room.

One of the shadows moved. In the reddish light of the fire, he could make out the tall form of the barbarian, the one called Thargá. His brother’s killer. Michael remained very still as he realized that the Half-Orc held in his hands a loaded crossbow, leveled at his heart. The barbarian crossed the room, silent as death, to sit in the other chair. Michael noted that the crossbow did not waver for even a moment as he did this.

Their eyes were locked on each other’s. A killer’s smile played about the lips of the barbarian, revealing sharp teeth, yellow in the firelight. Michael’s bowels felt loose with fear, but he fought to maintain composure, to appear calm. Despite his efforts, his palms felt sweaty, and his mouth felt dry. His eyes strayed to the bottle of wine on the table between them. The barbarian’s smile widened.

“Drink?”

Michael nodded mutely. Keeping his right hand on the crossbow, the Half-Orc reached with his left hand for the bottle. Without taking his eyes from Michael’s, he brought the bottle to his lips, pulled out the cork with his teeth and spat it out across the room. He leaned forward and poured the wine into the goblet on the table, then leaned back and took a drink straight from the bottle.

“Ah,” he exclaimed with a sigh, “excellent flavor. You’ve good taste, Prince Michael.”

Michael reached for his goblet, then hesitated, looking to the barbarian with guarded suspicion. The Half- Orc laughed, “Oh, go ahead, Prince, drink up. Or do you fear I’ve poisoned your cup?”

Michael looked again at his goblet, then back at the barbarian. Angered at this taunt, he lifted the goblet and drained it at a gulp, then set it down with a ringing thud. His gaze was defiant.

“What now?” Michael asked.

“What now? Now we conclude this little game. Here, catch!” The barbarian tossed something small that gleamed in the firelight. Michael caught it, and beheld the royal signet ring, with Albrecht’s finger still in it. He swallowed uneasily.

“Satisfied?”

Recovering his composure, Michael answered. “Yes. You’ll find the rest of your payment under my bed, in a strongbox. You’ll need this key.”

The barbarian laughed, raising the crossbow from Michael’s chest. “No need, your Highness. I’ve already opened it. It’s all there.”

Michael’s face flushed with anger. “Then why did you wait for me, with that infernal thing pointed at my heart?”

Thargá laughed again. “A touch of the melodramatic, Prince. You’ll forgive me, I’m sure.”

“It was foolish of you to come here like this,” opined Michael, his eyes narrowing. “I could have you killed for murdering my brother.”

“Oh, I’m sure the thought has crossed your mind, Prince Michael. After all, I’m the only one that knows you hired me to kill dear Prince Albrecht. And, if I stay alive, I’ll remain the only one.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that if I die, or don’t return to Charkhand, evidence will be discovered that clearly implicates you in your brother’s murder. Moreover, you’d have to face the vengeance of the Left Hand. We don’t like to be double-crossed, and even a Prince should fear our wrath.”

“What’s to stop you from using that information anyway?”

“I’m sure you’ve reasoned that one out, too. For one thing, I’m an assassin, not an extortion-ist. Not my line of work. Even if I were to try it, it would doubtless occur to you that one more murder would be cheaper than supporting a blackmailer for life. And last, but definitely not least, the Left Hand would have me flayed alive if I compromised a client in good standing. Bad for business, you know.”

“I see. But what’s to keep you from returning some day to kill me?”

“The day may come, Prince, that someone pays the Left Hand enough to send an assassin for you. I can assure you, though, that it would not be me.”

“Sentimental feelings, Thargá? Who would have thought it?”

“Not in the least. I’m very good, Prince. In fact, I’m one of the best in the business. But I like an edge, and my favorite one is to get the target to underestimate me. The ‘dumb barbarian’ ploy has worked well over the years, but it doesn’t work if the target knows about it.”

“Point taken. I suppose that also means you cannot continue to work for me here?”

“I’m afraid not. Even if you officially hold to the bargain your brother made to grant me a full pardon for all crimes committed, including regicide, that won’t stop an angry mob from lynching me at the first opportunity. Your brother Albrecht was a self-absorbed pompous fool, but he was popular.”

“Let us not speak ill of my late brother, Thargá. I deeply regretted the necessity of killing him, but it was necessary for the good of the kingdom.”

“Yeah, right. It was necessary, dear Prince Michael, because he stood between you and the throne you desired. I don’t have a problem with that; it’s the natural order of things, especially among my people. If you need any more ‘wet work’ done, you can contact the Left Hand, as be-fore. They’ll have others that can fill your needs. And if you have work to do outside the kingdom, I’ll be happy to oblige,” he smiled, “for the right price.”

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