This queen reigned supreme in her court. That much was obvious. Without question her will was carried out as she trekked through the issues presented to her. Each one was tackled with the proper ceremony and ritual required by tradition.
I clearly do not belong here.
Elsewhere I am a king in my own right, though my court is a court of back alleys and dark cellars. I reign supreme on the high rooftops and in the dank drainage tunnels under the city. I have been both under and over this courtroom many times, but never inside, until now.
Soon, the issue for which I am here will be brought her attention.
The queen’s power has been called all encompassing, yet it does not extend into my domain, and as powerful as I am in my own realm, I have yet to extend my influence over the members of this court. For both of us, those days are at an end. One of these statements will cease to be true, and shortly, we will learn which will come to pass.
Though her power may seem limitless, I know better. There are orders she cannot give and actions she cannon take, no matter how strong her will, for fear that she may lose the support of her people, her armies, and her allies. But so long as she retains the favor of her people, her armies, and her allies, they will seek to protect her and preserve her power. And today, while she might be tempted to wave the issue with me, it is her people, her armies, and her allies that force her hand. They hold certain expectations regarding her stance on the matter, and she knows her choice is limited to one.
Like her, I too find myself restrained by similar limitations. They offered me my life in exchange for some names and places, but were I to comply, I would have no life to return to, and certainly no court to rule over. My people, my armies, and my allies would no longer recognize my leadership, indeed my life would be forfeit for my actions, and so I am bound in my options here at this moment.
And it is for that reason that I do not fear the sentence they cast on me today. It is that bond that causes me no worry, for my people will come for me. My sentence will be an announcement that I have not refuted all the tradition and ceremony that comes with ruling over a court such as mine. They will come or I will die, and one ruler’s influence will finally be felt by the other.
Are eyes are locked as she condemns me, however we both know the real trial is yet to come.
A person in my position rarely has to get their hands dirty. Since I attained my status as Nightmaster, the majority of my wishes are carried out for me. How I came to be here, now, in front of the queen is not as interesting as one might think.
They did not catch me in the act, nor find any evidence to implicate me. They showed up one day at my door and dragged me off to the castle to await the queen. Now, my face was not known as well as my reputation, it’s not good for business, but somehow my face became associated with my occupation, otherwise I would not be in this position. If I manage to get back to the streets, I’ll figure out how this happened. Right now that’s looking like a pretty big if. For now I must try and ascertain what they know.
“Pantharos Aslan you stand accused of being non other than Panther the Hand, Nightmaster of the Sleepers. As leader of our land’s thieves and assassins, we hold you responsible for all acts attributed to your organization, and for these acts, which are too numerous to mention, you will stand before the queen and be judged.”
So they know everything. They know who I am, and they know who we are.
“My queen, you must be mistaken—”
“Silence!” The marshal interrupted me. “You will not speak until the queen has given you leave to speak.”
All eyes turned to the queen. “Do not insult me with lies.” She spoke calmly in contrast to the marshal. A trait that comes with knowing you have power rather than knowing someone who has power. I would have made the same choice should my men have brought a criminal before me. People yell to make you think they have power. People with real power merely exert it rather than try to impress it upon you.
She continued. “I know who you are. My information is good, I spent many years accumulating it, I followed your career closely, and now I have reaped the benefit of my work. We have put a face to the name. The name that inspired dread among the rich when you became our capital city’s most infamous burglar; the name that inspired fear among the local politicians when the Sleepers made you their First Knife and assassinations rose to an all time high; and the name that caused this court to beg for my intervention when the name became associated with Nightmaster.”
Her knowledge was good and it made her more powerful than any swordsman. She knew and I could see it in her eyes, there was no doubting her information. She did not act on rumor or gossip. She had the hardened gaze of truth and there was no point trying to convince her otherwise. “Am I to be executed?” I asked.
Her eyes didn’t move but she knew the court hung on her answer to this question. She silently cursed me for cutting to the chase so soon. She knew what she had to do. And she knew it would invite a war. A war she had no experience fighting, a war her armies had no experience fighting. A war that would be fought in her cities instead of on her borders; in the dark alleys of the night rather than the day lit streets. Her enemy would not come in squads, brigades, or regiments, and there would not be a front line. In fact, they may never see more than one or two of us at a time, and they did not know how many of us there are and who, outside of her court officials, could she trust. But she was prepared, I’m sure of it. She did not move lightly to apprehending me, and she would not move lightly to war, not without preparation.
“Yes. You will be executed for your crimes.”
“Then yes I admit to what you say. But my death will not solve your problem, someone will replace me. The Sleepers will continue.”
“Your sense of strength is noble, but we have never before brought such a powerful criminal to justice, much less the leader of all criminal activity within our borders. We believe this will send a message. We also believe you will tell us about others in your organization.”
“And why would I do that? Your advisors already proposed such an arrangement before this formality of a trial. They offered me my life and my freedom for names and places. What could you possibly offer me now that was not offered already?”
“A quick death.”
“So then you expect me to talk to your jailer? You are not as informed as I thought. If you were, you’d know that I am a much more resilient man that that.”
“You will tell us what we want to know and then you will beg for death. Away with him.”
I saw her breath a sigh of relief. She believed that one way or another, she was done with me. Either I would talk or die silent, and she would never see me again. She was counting on executing me and so she turned her thoughts elsewhere, maybe to the oncoming war. I think she thought I would act like any other captured noble and await my rescuing army.
In my cell where I was to spend my last night there was nothing save the straw on the floor for sleeping. A guard laughed as he placed my final meal through the bars.
He watched my face for his entertainment. He wanted to enjoy the look on my face when I realized he had eaten my last meal. I grinned at him. He walked away laughing.
Chicken bones. I was so grateful. The stone I found completed the set.
The queen did not rest easy that night. She woke in the small hours of the morning, before the sun rose. She knew she was starting a war, one the she was not sure how to fight. Her experience in this area was limited. She paced the halls in her castle unsure of how to proceed. She had done a lot of preparation but all plans were untested.
Standing on a balcony overlooking her great hall she caught the conversation of some guards below.
What she heard alarmed her.
“You there! Do not move. I wish to speak to you.” She raced down to the hall to question the guard. “What did you say about the prisoner?”
“I was just talking about his latest meal, your highness. I had a little fun at his expense.”
“What did you do?”
The guard seemed to sense the concern in her voice and his apprehension grew. “Same kind of thing we always do. Gave him less of a meal that he’d like. But you never said we couldn’t deprive them of a meal here and there.”
“What exactly did you give him?”
“Just some old chicken bones, you highness, but he’ll hardly starve.”
The queen was irate. “I specifically instructed your superiors to give him nothing but a water skin and breads!” The guard apologized profusely, but it was obvious they did not realize the implications of what they did. “Go back and check on him and report to me at once!”
In the dungeon, the guard cautiously approached the cell. The gate was slightly ajar and there was lock pick protruding from the lock. The guard felt his heart sink into the pit of his stomach when he realized it had been fashioned from a chicken bone. He turned to run back down the hall, but was surprised to find someone standing right there blocking the way. He never made it back to report to the queen. His throat was pierced by a finely sharpened chicken bone. He died with a gruesomely quiet gurgle. Pantharos retrieve the lock pick and then searched the body. He took all the keys he could find, and a dagger. “That’s all I will need.” He said to himself.
I was out, and I had two options. I could attempt to get out of the castle and run to safe havens, or I could do what they’d least expect of an escaped prisoner, invade the very heart of the castle, the most secure place in the land, and leave my mark, a symbol of my strength for all to remember—I would kill the queen!
They’d be guarding all the gates, but I won’t be leaving quite yet. Am I exercising bad judgment? Maybe. But when would I ever have an opportunity like this again? She builds impenetrable walls around her to protect herself from the likes of me, and then parades me into her sanctum. As crazy as it may sound, I would never have another shot as good as this one.
Patience will be the key. The safest course of action would be to remain hidden until I could make a clean get away. But, I must resist the urge to be safe. Stagnation will only get me caught and the safe choices will not bring me to her deathbed. Instead I must step strongly into dangerous situations, situations that defy better judgment. Natural instinct warns a person to stay out of the dangerous wilderness, but the hunter resists his instincts and plunges into the wilderness seeking his prey. Tonight I enter a wilderness unknown to me, but the prize is great and worth the risk. Should I emerge victorious, I will carry a trophy that none can match. Should I fail to emerge from the wilderness…well, I have not the luxury of speculating on failure. My success demands that I stay focused on the goal I have chosen.
“My Queen!” A guard returned to her after being dispatched to check up on the first who was taking an unusually long time to report. “He has murdered the guard and escaped his cell. I have taken the liberty of ordering all exits securely guarded. He will not escape us.”
The queen thought silently for a moment.
“My Queen?” The guard begged for instructions.
“Yes, secure all the exits. Also secure the rooftop and the walls. You are correct, he will not leave tonight.” The guard turned to fulfill his charge. “Also,” she halted him, “wake Captain Shane. In fact, wake the entire royal court and call them to an emergency session. I want every noble in the castle in my courtroom as soon as possible.”
“Yes you majesty.” The guard was awed by this course of action. He didn’t think that an escaped criminal warranted such an action, but one guard had already underestimated the prisoner. He had faith in her majesty. She must know best, she was the queen after all.
Unfinished notes: The queen creates a ruckous, has secret meeting. Panther works his way in and is tricked into dying.