CHAPTER 2: HARLEQUIN (continued)
Harlequin walked through the narrow tunnel. The pitch-black passage smelled musty, and the uneven slate floor made walking hazardous. She had scars from when she was learning each crack and step, twist and turn of the lightless tunnel system that snaked through the Palace. Now she navigated them without need of light.
Irritation quickened her pace. Someone had drugged an army messenger, causing troop movements to be delayed.[i] As a result, Prince Damien’s main force had slipped through the net she had been preparing for weeks.
All of Harlequin’s intelligence pointed to an insurgent plant in the palace. She was sure it was old Lord March, who was still holding a decades-old grudge against Empress Savant for turning down his marriage proposal. Of course, there was the more recent snub when the Empress refused to consider Lord March’s eldest daughter for the prince’s hand in marriage.
That Prince Damien didn’t want to marry March’s daughter was beside the point. In Lord March’s mind, Savant had cheated him out of his rightful place of influence in the Empire: in command. If he couldn’t weasel a place at Savant’s side, or as Damien’s father-in-law, he would try to do it by becoming a trusted ally of the rebel prince.[ii]
Unfortunately, Harlequin didn’t have any proof that this sabotage was March’s doing. Nonetheless, she knew. But would Savant take her word for it? No. Despite nine years in charge of intelligence with a perfect record (well, almost perfect), Savant wouldn’t take action without ‘proof.’ March was still a Lord, and certain formalities must be observed before he could be executed for high treason.
Harlequin heard the echo of her own footsteps, and forced herself to move more quietly. She was confident that she was perfectly safe within her tunnels, but there was no excuse for noise. One of her harlequins might be roaming down here, and she had to set a good example.
She came to the hidden door that led to the guest wing of the palace. It was usually empty, so it was useful for entering and exiting the tunnel passages.
She needed to regain her composure. Her irritation with March had made her move carelessly, and that was unacceptable. She stood still and did breathing exercises until she was perfectly relaxed. Only then did she move the peg that covered the peephole in the door.
All was clear. She carefully opened the door and stepped out.
As her left leg moved forward, she felt a whisker of pressure on her left ankle. Without thought, she back flipped to the right, landing in a crouch flush against the wall in the tunnel.
‘What the . . .?’ Her mind replayed her sensory input as she spider-crawled backwards in the blackness. The pressure on her ankle. Her reaction. The sound of a missile weapon firing. A whoosh of air under her in the middle of her flip – right where her heart would have been if she had followed through with that step. A clatter as the projectile hit the ground behind her, skidding along the floor before it came to a rest. And then . . . nothing.
She stopped ten yards from the door, which was still ajar, and stayed still, counting to one thousand as she listened.
On count seventeen, she became aware of the faintest trace of a smell. She opened her mouth to inhale the scent more fully.
She smelled the vinegar and musk scent of venom. Specifically, the venom oftheblack asp that was common in the swamps to the southeast of the capital. It was easy enough to procure – there was probably some in the armory. Footsoldiersliked to use it on their weapons, because it gave a little extra insurance that their battle strikes would be fatal. It was illegal for civilians to own in any quantity, but that didn’t keep it from being readily available for the right price.
The scent had faded by the count of one hundred and twenty one.
She heard no other sound, registered no other sensory input besides the venomous odor that had now dissipated.
The missile must have come from a booby trap. No one else could have stayed as silent for as long as she had. Therefore, there was no one there. She crept deeper into the tunnel until she reached the point where she heard the missile land. She tasted the air. Her nose led her un-erringly to where the projectile lay, and she picked it up by the shaft. It was a crossbow bolt, thickly coated at the point with asp venom.
She moved back to the doorway, and peered around to the hall of the visitor’s wing. Light filtered in from a distant window. Her eyes followed the trajectory that the bolt had traveled.
There. If she hadn’t known exactly where to look, she would never have seen the crossbow.
She looked down. The trip wire she triggered was still intact, although she was pretty sure it was designed to break when she stepped out of the passage. Whoever set up the trap made it too sensitive. A rodent or even a change in the humidity could have triggered the bolt.
She stalked to the crossbow, and examined the workmanship without touching it. It looked like the work of Master Stelton, or one of his journeymen. She peered underneath for the brand that would reveal the craftsman.
It had been sanded off. No matter. Stelton would recognize the product of his guild.
Harlequin smiled to herself. It was time to set a snare to catch the booby-trapper. Sooner or later someone would come to see if the trap had been successful. She went back to the doorway and sprawled on the floor as comfortably as she could while maintaining a fair range of visibility, and still looking like a corpse.
The guard at Empress Savant’s door knocked quietly. The rhythm signaled that the Harlequin sought an audience. An extra rap at the end indicated that Harlequin was accompanied by one person.
“Enter,” Savant called from within her records room, and the guard opened the door. Harlequin twisted the wrist of the man at her side and maneuvered him into Savant’s chamber. He was taller than Harlequin and about 60 pounds heavier, but she controlled his movements with a firm wristlock. When they faced Savant at her desk, Harlequin executed a jaunty bow that was quickly copied by the man in her grip when she gave his wrist an extra twist.
“My liege,” Harlequin announced, as though she had an audience of hundreds. “It is my honor to present Maxwell, who was, until very recently, indentured to Lord March as his Captain of the Guard.” Harlequin smiled broadly and nodded to the man at her side, whose face was a sickly shade of green. His fast, shallow breaths created a miasma of halitosis. “Try not to pass out,” she said to him in a stage whisper. “You would regret it very much when you had the misfortune to regain consciousness.
“Maxwell has a most interesting tale to tell,” Harlequin continued. “Full of intrigue and daring. Loyalty betrayed by treachery. And the redemption of a lowly servant who sees the error of his ways, choosing the good of the Empire over the orders of a harsh master. It’s well worth hearing, if I may be so bold. Perhaps your Highness would care to take a short break from your duties to hear his tale?”
Savant smiled wickedly at Harlequin. “You are very bold, indeed. Few would dare such a presentation, and fewer still would survive it.”
Harlequin nodded cheerfully. “As it should be, my lady. Shall I leave Maxwell here to regale you with his story?” She gave his wrist another little twist. “I wouldn’t want my presence to interfere with his recall.”
Savant rose, and stretched out her hand. “I would find that most agreeable. Tell me your tale, Maxwell, over here where we can be comfortable.”
Harlequin felt the man sway, and she reached up and twisted his ear hard. “Obey your Empress, Max. And remember. Don’t pass out.” She gave him a nudge in Savant’s direction, and he staggered towards her. Harlequin bowed low, and Savant nodded.Harlequin exited with a jaunty spring in her step.
[i] Wait. What? A paragraph ago, she was talking to Empress Savant. No transition that could orient the reader. I should have shown Harlequin receiving the field report in real time – it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of paragraphs, and hopefully it wouldn’t leave the reader with that WTF feeling. Another example of my impatience as I drafted, rushing through the necessary setup to get to the action I wanted to write about.
[ii] Sigh. More info dump. Again, about things that I could have made interesting if I would have slowed down and taken you through the action.