The guard patrolling them expected no trouble - his Lord was not hosting any guests, there was no local turmoil and the castle was well protected by design, by location and by the ruling family's long-standing fearsome reputation.
He knew he was not good enough to be part of his Lord's personal guard, but he was still competent and experienced and took his job seriously enough to check the old grating that was, technically, a possible route inside.
Having examined it, he relaxed again, strolled back the way he had come and stopped by a torch gone dead in its sconce to see if he could bring it back to life again.
The figure that emerged from the shadows behind him was such a surprise, and slit his throat with a knife so quickly, he didn't realise he was dead until he saw his body slump to the floor.
"Hellfire," he said with annoyance but no real rancour, acknowledging he had been bested if not fairly, then at least professionally and cleanly. "I guess I'm dead, then."
The guard was devout in his religion and sincere in his beliefs, so he was not surprised by the presence or the appearance of the Death. "How did I die?" he asked.
The rotting figure, pierced by arrows and swords, bleeding from gashes, with bone showing through one cheek and intestines visible through a rent in its battered and torn armour, pointed. Further along the corridor, the guard saw the figure ghost along a corner. "Hellfire," he said again, with more feeling this time, when he recognised the set of the figure's wide hips.
The figure was wearing soft leather and rough silk, all of it fine enough to be light, soft enough to be supple and soundless and with a rough surface that refused to reflect any but the most direct light. It melted in and out of shadows and avoided three servants and two more guards before it came to a doorway with a permanent guard on it.
The second guard was younger, still being tested, and had been placed in a position of low responsibility and low risk of needing to exert it or, more importantly, think about it, and did not realise he was dead until he tried to shift the position of his pike and realised he was no longer holding it.
He was not devout in his religion and had few beliefs not directly connected to his Lord or his mother, so when the ghastly figure of the Death came he discovered that a mind capable of giving a spectre clothes could not quite stretch to a weapon, and he was left uselessly clutching at a hilt that was not there.
"No!" He wailed, sinking to his knees. "I can't die! I can't fail this too!"
YOU CAN AND YOU HAVE.
Once again the Death pointed, to where the figure had finished very carefully opening the lock on the door with a key it should not have had, and was slipping through. The dead need no light to see by and the figure's soft black costume, while not tight, was not loose enough to catch on sharp edges of masonry and so revealed quite a lot, even to a naive boy. The guard's horror evaporated in favour of an equally base emotion. "Oh, wow!"
The figure moved with purpose, showing prior knowledge of not only the castle's layout but its routine as well. It slipped without hesitation into a doorway, let a guard pass and moved swiftly and surely behind him down the corridor and into an alcove a second before a second guard turned the corner and would have seen it.
When the two guards met, nodded and turned back on the next leg of their patrol, the figure emerged from the shadows again and ghosted after the second guard, blade held at the ready, but was able to duck behind a statue without needing to use it.
The figure detoured through a nondescript door into a much less well-finished corridor and ran lightly through the servant's pathways, the sound of hurrying or tired footsteps giving it plenty of forewarning to find a hiding place, even back-tracking if necessary.
Unfortunately for the stable-hand trying to catch a breath without being shouted at, he picked the same hiding spot as the shadowy figure. He opened the door and slipped inside safely, but when he closed the door behind him he was seized around the chin and mouth and had his throat slit before the latch had fallen.
Those who work with animals are not strangers to death, and the Death who confronted the stable-hand was less of a shock than the dying had been.
"Devil's arsehole," he said violently. "Who was ..."
The assassin had to hide in the store-room for a minute as a maid passed with a tray of plates, so the stable-hand had time to see who had killed him. Everyone passed through the stables, eventually, so he recognised the slender legs, broad hips, and narrow waist. He couldn't help laughing, and clapped his hands soundlessly with delight.
"Hot damn! Touched me, finally!"
The figure ended up at a small window with no glass or shutters. It carefully scanned outside, then pushed its head further out, scanned around still further, scanned again, then, with no sound, smoothly pulled itself out the window despite not apparently being able to fit and headed up the outside wall, where the stonework was rough and weathered but close-fitting and, to a casual inspection, not offering any grip to anything larger than a lizard.
The figure made its way easily up three floors' worth of stonework until it came to a much more expensive set of windows, all glassed and all closed and all shining with torchlight.
Moving at the pace of growing moss, it pushed its head up, froze, then just as carefully withdrew. It moved sideways, underneath another window and to the next, and repeated its inspection.
Apparently satisfied, it reached up, fiddled with an unremarkable patch of stone and the window opened smoothly. The figure pushed it wider, producing no noise from the frame or hinges, and flowed inside with a cat's liquidity.
Once inside, the figure closed the window and moved silently to the door, where it listened intently for 100 heartbeats before trying the door and, finding it silent, opened it, slipped out and closed the door again.
The Lord of the castle, sitting at his desk in his bed chamber with papers strewn in front of him, pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been poring over reports and correspondence for long enough to get tired, and he had just caught himself having to read a sentence twice.
That was not good. That could result in mistakes. It was time for bed.
He shuffled his papers together, opened a drawer and put the neat bundle inside, closed the drawer, blew out the candle on his desk, and stood up. Only the keenest of watchers could have seen the Lord palm from out of the desk drawer a long, curved dagger of the kind favoured for close-quarters fighting by the desert tribesmen he had finally been able to conquer only the previous year.
The figure in black slipped into another corridor, closed the door behind it and then stood stock-still for a long moment, a twitch in its hands betraying an inner turmoil, before abruptly but still stealthily pivoting on its heels and moving one door along from where it had emerged into the richly carpeted and decorated corridor - the door corresponding to the window it had avoided.
Once more, it bent and began its listening.
The Lord of the Castle moved around his bed-chamber blowing out the remaining candles and torches, checked the shutters on his windows carefully, checked the door and then, in a darkness relieved only to the most sensitive eye by light filtering in from the sky outside, sat down on a chair in the darkest corner of his room, next to his bed, and became perfectly still and, apparently, instantly invisible.
The figure in black lifted the door's latch with glacial slowness and the quietness of a shadow falling, waited another 100 heartbeats and then tried the door. Finding it silent, the figure pushed the door open and slipped inside.
The Chancellor, engrossed in maps and trying to plan multi-level political games with up to seven players and the constant threat of war, spotted something at the bottom of his vision and glanced down to see his body falling backwards, his throat the wrong shape. He spared a brief moment of reflection for the professional note that there was no blood on the table or any of the highly valuable documents it held, before turning to see who was dragging his body into a corner, out of immediate sight.
The shock of that sight was the first time in his career he had been rendered entirely speechless and he was left with the bitter knowledge that, at the end, he had been comprehensively outplayed.
The Lord of the Castle waited 10 times 10 times 10 heartbeats and, hearing and seeing absolutely nothing, deemed it safe at last to go to bed.
As he pulled the covers up, not even the most astute watcher would have been able to detect where the exotic fighting dagger had gone to rest.
The figure's final barrier was the pair of doors leading into the Lord's chamber where, from the time he closed them at night to the time he personally opened them in the morning, nobody was permitted to go on pain of deeply unpleasant death.
Two guards stood before the doors, and another two at the other end of the antechamber. So it was quite surprising that none of them saw, heard or felt anything and they all, in fact, survived the night.
The figure had, apparently, disappeared.
Two hours later, the Lord awoke instantly a heartbeat before his right wrist was pinned to the bed. His left arm came up, but it was not even clear of the bedclothes before there was a knife at his throat.
He prudently froze. The moon had been uncovered by clouds and there was now enough light for him to see the figure crouched above him. It waved his trophy fighting dagger in front of his face and then held that to his throat while sheathing its own. It kept its knee on the Lord’s wrist.
The figure's face was completely covered. There was even a gauze, woven coarsely from fine thread, over its eyes. But he recognised the set of its head and shoulders anyway.
His voice was commendably neutral.
"Who else did you think could get through?"
"I've never seen you dressed so ..." the Lord, unusually, had to grope for the right word.
The Lord's eyes dropped to the figure's chest. "Constrictingly."
"Lots of strapping."
"They get in the way, otherwise."
"Oh, I can imagine."
"And, since you have avoided the issue, no, I have not spent the past ten years merely whoring my way from bed to bed, no matter how many reports you may have received from your spies."
"I am sorry to hear that."
"I bet you are."
"How?" From the tone of voice, this was evidently a change of subject.
"I arranged the ceiling when I was eight."
"That would have meant corrupting ... Oh, I'm not surprised. Eight would still have been barely young enough."
"It was well worth it."
"I am sure it was, even with him. I must compliment you on your planning, then."
"Oh, it was just inquisitiveness, then."
"Then I must compliment you on your opportunism."
"That is such an ugly word."
"Then I must ..."
As his blood spread across the sheets, the spectre of the Lord balled its fists and began swearing with a depth, breadth, fluency and volume that befitted a man of his broad and comprehensive education.
The Chancellor was missed first, when he failed to be the first to assemble for their Lord's daily emergence from his chambers. Then he was found.
The castle was sealed and every occupant roused.
When the Lord failed to appear, a small battalion of minor dignitaries and nobles, none of whom wished to admit to cowardice, tried to evaluate each other's standing, authority, and ability to be coerced, and someone may even have broken before the head of the guard remembered that, in the absence of the Chancellor or an immediate successor, he was only one with authority to knock on the doors to the Lord's chambers. There was no heir apparent to the Chancellor's position, and no other member of the ruling family in residence.
The head of the guard swallowed and then knocked, and then shouted, and then deputised two petrified junior guardsmen to open the doors while he shouted "Lord! Murder! Calumny! The Chancellor has been murdered!"
There was no response, so five mid-ranking guardsmen crept, terrified, inside. Only one was killed by the traps but three were injured, two severely.
Then they found their Lord.
With no wife (an unfortunate and unexpected accident while riding) and no offspring (same accident), and the Chancellor not there to manipulate matters otherwise, the title passed to the Lord's sister. She was eventually found, after a frantic hunt, halfway through a whirlwind, largely unscheduled and entirely unpredictable tour of the plains cities and surrounding fiefdoms.
She rushed back, suitably distraught, and proved surprisingly fast at settling into her inherited duties, immediately rearranging the upper echelons of castle authority, appointing a new Chancellor and grieving appropriately for her brother.
There were many who questioned (privately) how such a notoriously hedonistic and flighty member of the otherwise famously hard family could possibly replace her brother and survive, and although she wore the traditional personal dagger at her hip, there were many who hinted (privately) that the wear on the handle and the scabbard had been put there by a lover who had gifted it to her.
The fact that some people from both groups either mysteriously disappeared or were caught plotting sedition and faced swift and final trials, was probably coincidence.
The fact that many plotters, seeking to charm or flatter their way into her good graces, proved fatally distracted by her own abundant charms on constant and carefully posed display (she had picked up many skills, as well as dresses, in the warmer and frequently amoral southern cities), was undoubtedly not a coincidence - after all, had she not survived childhood with her brother and ultimately won a stipend from her father to travel and study, a stipend not later cancelled by her brother when he won the throne?
Some were even sufficiently informed to comment that she had, really, been serving as an ambassador in other courts. Those who were inclined to question her efficacy in this role, given the stories that came back about her exploits, kept their doubts to themselves, which showed that they were learning.
And nobody, absolutely nobody, voiced the thought that, as she sat upon the throne in her elaborate and revealing dresses, the smile she bestowed upon her court was a little like a pampered cat who had, undetected, stolen the cream and gotten away with it.
© December, 2012 Jonathan Hepburn
Jonathan Hepburn has recently returned to writing after an unconscionably long time away. He has a story in the upcoming beer-themed anthology A Six Pack of Stories from Story Brewhouse as well as one in the Coming Together charity erotica anthology Arm In Arm In Arm. He is a journalist interested in science and a writer across a range of speculative fiction genres.