The Prince move, snake quick, and skewered the ruffian like an empty coat nailed to the wall.
Then the Prince withdrew his sword, and the body fell, still disgorging blood onto the floor. The Prince touched him gently with his sword tip at the shoulder and said, “He never learns.”
Blood detached itself from the sword in heavy droplets and fell until the blade was clean. Slowly, the sword ceased to moan.
The Prince reached down to where the casket had fallen and returned to the table. T’slalas had come back from relieving himself. His face was pale as he looked narrowly at the Prince. The Prince placed the casket before him. It was cunningly devised, but the oak from which it was made had discolored with age and the brass of its hardware was green with corrosion. Spidersilk clotted the catch.
T’slalas’ eyes slowly left the Prince’s face and settled on the casket. The Prince said, “What do you see?”
Ferret eyes glanced up, seeking the jest. T’slalas said, “I see what is before me, a casket of gold, chased in silver, but locked with a key of brass.”
The Prince nodded slowly.
Again, T’slalas hesitated, and again his greed overcame him. He fumbled with the catch and threw open the lid. A foul odor spread from inside, but T’slalas’ smile was as wide as a river. He raised his eyes to the Prince, and the Prince said, “It is yours.”
The casket was filled with ashes, and misshapen lumps of ivory-grey that were half burned bones. T’slalas grasped a handful of ashes and let it trickle through his fingers. His face was full of joy and cunning. He said to the Prince, “These jewels are a King’s ransom.”
Sudden anger crossed the Prince’s face and he said, “What would you know of the price of a King?”
T’slalas never saw the anger or heard the words. He had forgotten the Prince altogether as he sat sifting ashes through his fingers, and seeing jewels.
As the weeks of late summer rolled by, the King clung to a life that had grown hateful to him. Every hour his body was filled with pain. Yet he hung on, for surrender was a skill he had never learned. For eighteen years since his wife’s death, he had never known a day without loneliness. He had not given in to loneliness, and now he would not give audience to death.
Every day, the priest Croayl called for his repentance, and every day the King cursed him.
“You have made the rivers run with blood,” Croayl said.
“I have defended my lands and my people,” the King replied. “Because of me, you are alive. Who are you to whimper like a virgin at what it takes to hold a kingdom?”
“You have lain with women who were not your wife; you have sired bastards; you have drunk to excess; you have lusted . . .”
“Yes,” the King cried, “and if I could raise myself from this bed, I would do it again.” more tomorrow