A man sat quietly in a far corner of an inn. It must have been a busy day, as it had been the innkeeper who had brought him the plate that contained his dinner. He stared at the seemingly filthy plate with utter disbelief. “How can so many people be okay with that?” He thought. Where he lived, they would clean every single plate, spoon, fork and knife with warm water and soap. In that town, no one seemed to be bothered by eating from a plate someone had used right before. He forced himself to look natural. He forced himself to bring some food into his mouth, trying to avoid direct contact between the fork and his lips.
He had been trained to pass unnoticed, to avoid any attention. He knew how to survive in any situation, if the emergency was grave enough. It sickened him to think of what he was doing, but he did it regardless.
Around him, people ate. Others spoke loudly, and often played strange games that seemed to involve more alcohol than chance. In the other side of the room, there was a man playing mediocre tunes and singing – or attempting to sing – with a voice that hardly ever made the right tone, and yet managed to get tipped. The man guessed it was due to the satirical content of the song, which appeared to be able to entertain those who bothered to listen.
The fireplace burned bright and hot, and smoke escaped from it, filling the ceiling and the lungs of anyone fool enough to stand too tall. Not all the smoke came from the fireplace though, as a reasonable number of people had their own personal sources. They must know they were killing themselves, since there was no way inhaling such smoke could ever do anything other than turn your lungs as dark as the soot that covered the ceiling and walls.
He somehow managed to hear some conversations, despite all the noise. One of them in particular caught his attention. He made sure not to appear to be listening, and focused his mind on the words.
“Hey, did you hear the big news, yet?” a man said, almost yelling, trying to be heard by his companion. “They say the King is dead, killed by an assassin in his sleep.”
He sliced another piece of the steak in his plate, as he kept on listening. “The Royal Guards are looking for the assassin, who was seen fleeing the palace right after the alarm. The witnesses who saw the fleeing man say he was wearing black boots and a black coat with a strange rune sewn on it. But no one saw his face because of the hood. They are offering a huge reward to anyone who helps them find the man.”
Even though there was nothing in that description that could ever point to him, he decided that as a stranger he may draw too much attention if he was seen sneaking around, and someone may think to look inside the one bag he didn’t want anyone to search.
He used his experience to cause the waiter to trip and spill a large jar on top of a large man, without anyone ever noticing he had been involved. His plan was simply to take this chance to stand up and leave, while everyone else was too busy wondering if anyone was starting a fight. The problem was, a fight did start. The big man pushed the waiter back into another table, and food went flying. The people who were eating said food were not happy, and blamed the big man – with their fists. And then everyone was up and punching things and throwing people around. And all the man could do was curse and avoid being in the way until he reached the door.
Outside, everything was quieter. The noises from the ongoing brawl could easily be heard, muffled by the wooden doors, which were kept close to avoid the heat from escaping. He walked softly, avoiding making too much noise, sticking to the shade of the buildings, cast by the night’s bright moon. He felt the men waiting at the far end of the street, hiding around the corners waiting for their prey, and hoped his training would serve him well. He kept walking without ever changing his rhythm or bearing, until he saw the first sign of someone moving, with the rush of battle already filling every one of his muscles.
He produced a small pocket knife and slashed at the closest of his attackers, aiming at the right weak spots. He pierced and slashed repeatedly, and bodies started dropping. The attackers noticed their numbers were dwindling fast, and decided to scatter, each their own way. In the ground, those who were conscious were moaning. He didn’t kill anyone, as it was not his style, but he did ensure those men would think twice before attacking a stranger. If their companions had the sense to come back and check on them, they’d recover. But even then, the cuts they had received meant if they ever tried to participate in a street fight, they would feel extreme pain in certain parts of their body they didn’t even know exist.
He cleaned the knife on one of the man’s shirts, tucked the knife back in its hiding place, and resumed his path. Shortly afterwards, he felt the presence of someone trailing him. As usual, he kept his cool and kept on walking, until he reached a well-known brothel. He went in, and closed the door behind himself. Inside, he asked for a certain kind of service, the same way he had done in the past, when he was young and foolish. They called a girl who fit his requirements, and after ensuring she was clean and healthy, he paid the money and followed her to their designated room.
When he walked in, he had no intention of making use of the services, but after he saw the merchandise, he was really tempted to have one last night of pleasure before he embarked into the long arduous journey that awaited him, in a small clearing of the forest to the west of the town.
When the girl removed the remaining of her scant clothes, certain processes in his body convinced him it was okay to delay just a little bit longer. His worries were temporarily forgotten, and after he was done he let himself lie down for just a few moments to get his strength back. It had been good service – much better than he would have ever expected from an establishment in such a low part of the town.
By the time he opened his eyes the girl was gone, and a man who felt like the manager of the place was asking him to vacate the room so they could make use of it for other clients. His delay had been much longer than anticipated, but that was for the best. He didn’t trust the man who followed him not to stick around waiting for him to exit. He paid a reasonable tip to the man, in exchange of being allowed to exit through the window and having it closed after him. It was never wrong to be cautious.
Back in the streets, he tried to be aware of every movement, and walked at a much faster rate than before. The sky was starting to get lighter already, so it was long past midnight. The people who waited for him didn’t know he’d delay this long, and they would be worried. They didn’t know, either, that the plan involved the death of a king. If the news had reached them faster than him, they may do something stupid. He hoped they had enough sense to trust his judgement and wait for him regardless of what they had heard.
The delay had had an unforeseen advantage. Since it was not far from dawn, some people were already moving, and the town gates had just been opened. The guards were checking the permits of the merchants waiting outside, and speaking to the acquaintances. He made sure to look like just another worker walking to the fields, uninteresting and unimportant, and the guards never looked his way. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be so late that it would be hard to join the road without raising suspicion.
He trailed a group of men on their way down the western road, trying to look like one of them. Close enough that people may think him part of the group, but far enough that the men wouldn’t think to notice him. At a certain point on the road, he purposefully drifted towards a tree, and took the chance to empty his bladder while he allowed for the group he had been trailing to walk away. Obviously, the men of the group did not wait for him, and if anyone ever thought that he was being left behind, they’d think it was not their problem. When he was done, instead of returning to the path, he walked into the forest, leaving behind the road and the noises of civilisation.
He knew exactly where he was going. He had memorized the location and knew how to navigate a forest. It was still a relatively long stretch before he reached the clearing. He fought against nature’s bad jokes, in the form of insects, thorny vines, and stray branches, often bound together to form foot traps designed to inflict the most pain to the unwary adventurer. Finally, one of the scouts he had selected for the group spotted his movements, and raised a nearly silent alarm. He knew the signs, and replied with the right noises. Instead of shooting him down, they gathered a welcome party, and escorted him to the camp, where she was waiting.
“My King! You made it!” she said. “Did anything go wrong? We were about to give up and leave. It wasn’t in the plans for your highness to delay so much.” “Please, don’t be so formal, girl. It may never be known outside this group, but you are still very much my daughter.” The man said.
“But we heard things. The people on the road spoke of the King’s demise. We feared, just maybe, we had failed….” “Yes, I know. But in order for me to leave, I had to make sure no one would search for me.” “You knew that, and so did my guard. They found a suitable warm body, and placed it in right spot. The king’s grave must not be empty, least someone suspects the king never actually died.”
“But, why did you take so long? Castle is not that far away…” “I had to be sure of some things. First, that the right news were spreading, and the king was believed to be dead. Then, that the man they believed to be the assassin was seen at the right time, but would never be found. And last, that I wasn’t followed.” Of course, he didn’t tell her that he’d stopped by a certain place, and asked for one specific type of girl, that reminded him of her mother. She didn’t need to know that.
The group finished packing the camp, and made their way toward a less busy road. They waited for the right moment and joined the road without being noticed. The scouts mounted their horses, and joined the guards. To anyone on the main road, it would look as if a lucky merchant or minor nobleman was riding back from the temple.
No one would think inside the cabin was the man who planned the King’s demise, the same man who had been the king himself, the man who had crossed too many of his own lines, and decided to let his people rest easier, while he roamed the world atoning for his sins.