Once again the court was filled with the deafening roar of laughter as the jester told yet another tasteless joke.
The horrible, rough throaty bellowing from the Marquess and his knights made Alladhiir Alkanthos close his eyes and sigh through clenched teeth.
The young Elf stood watch from the shadows, his thin, armoured arms folded over his chest, his enchanted shield slung over his shoulder, his sword of striking sheathed at his hip and standing as far from the festivities as his duties as a bodyguard would allow.
Marquess Falciate sat at the head of the long table on his overly ostentatious wooden throne, and laughed the loudest of all. He was once said to be one of the greatest swordsmen in Bretonnia, but those days were long since past, now a bulbous man, his rolls of fat wobbled and the throne creaked and rocked each time he announced his amusement in a horrible, "haww...haww! HAWWW!" accompanied by piggish snorts. Falciate had long ago exchanged mastery of the blade for the skill of politicking, to such heights that many an Asur noble would be envious. He treated the people under his rule with cruelty and contempt, over working and over taxing them but kept up the facade of a perfect affable and kind leader to the other nobles of Bretonnia and the king.
Alladhiir couldn't help but wonder how that chair had held together for so long.
With this thought, his attention slowly wandered to the woman sitting just down from the marquess. It was just as much a mystery how the marquess had sired such a beautiful young woman. Maiden Genevieve looked as unamused as he felt, her thin heart shaped jaw laid in the palm of her hand, her elbow leaned against the table, staring off into space.
His attention lingered for as long as he dared, by Asuryan she was beautiful even when bored, then his eyes began to linger down.
It was then that Genevieve's attention suddenly snapped straight to him, making Alladhiir flinch away in fright, blushing like all hell.
The roaring laughter from the Marquess and his knights finally died down and all attention was back to the jester, Alladhiir's included, now thankful he had a distraction from Genevieve's stare.
The Jester leaped, the bells hanging off his costume jingling with the jump, his fingers gliding over the strings of his Lute.
"And then duke Dio'tavli said to his mistress, "that is not me knee, that is me wife!"
The hall once more was riotous with laughter, the marquess's "hawww, hawww, HAWWW!"
above it all.
Alladhiir placed his face into the palm of his hand and shook his head with contempt, using it to further avoid Genevieve who still stared at him.
This new jester was Falciate's latest flavor of the month, he was utterly unafraid to tell jokes about the rest of the Bretonnian nobles, which Falciate loved, the dirtier the better and especially if they were of the current king; Louen Leoncoeur.
The spite Falciate held for the king was strong, so much so, that Alladhiir could not help feel the Marquess in one way or another was behind a botched assassination attempt on the king last year. But in all honesty Alladhiir didn't care, the pathetic plotting and politics of kings and nobles was of no interest to him, he had left Ulthuan to escape that and if fate would allow it, escape it forever.
"I was travelin' one day!" exclaimed the jester suddenly, abruptly bringing Alladhiir out of his reverie. "I was travellin' to Guisoreux from Moussillon one day and y'know what I saw on the road?"
The inevitable roar of, "WHAT!" enveloped the room making Alladhiir involuntarily flinch, despite mentally preparing for it.
"T'was one biiig, big! Big! Big! Stopped line of knights as far as the eye can see! So's y'know what I do? I go off the road, I walk into the forest, I walk around through the trees! I walk and walk until I spyyy!"
He paused to jump again, kicking his feet out and jingling the bells on his costume.
"The great king Louen Leoncoeur himself and y'know what he was doin'? Surrounded by twenty of his knights, he was squatting! Squatting! Taking a great big crap! And there it was was, on his arse, a gigantic boil!"
For some reason quite beyond Alladhiir, the Marquess and his knights burst out laughing at that. It took a few seconds for the laughter to die down before the jester could continue his joke.
"The largest boil I have ever seen!" he exclaimed, "bigger than my head!"
They laughed again, a few knights as drunk as drunk can be had their foreheads against the table, their bellowing muffled into the wood and smashing their fists hard against the surface.
It would have went on longer if it wasn't for the Marquess shouting out suddenly for silence.
He had to roar it out a few times before the knights finally stopped all attention directed to Falciate.
"I!..." the Marquess trailed off, wobbling drunkenly in his chair, "I have...an...announcement...to make!"
It was then Alladhiir noticed that Genevieve was looking at him, with what seemed sorrow in her large brown eyes.
"I have finally...After, much, much, much. Much strife and toil! Much...strife and toil!"
Alladhiir couldn't help but roll his eyes, he'd met simple Empire militia with better speaking skills than the marquess. He grimaced and gazed slowly over the room, finding to his bafflement that every one of the knights sat with mouths agape and eyes as wide as saucers, utterly enraptured by the marquess's every word.
"I-I-I!" carried on Falciate. "I have, I have...Finally, finally. After much strife and toil..."
The Asur prince let out a barely audible groan and face palmed again so hard it connected with a entirely audible, clang! And sent sharp pain coursing through his forehead.
No one heard it, which he noticed as he looked back up, finding only Genevieve looking at him, still with that sorrowful expression.
His teeth clenched with the pain, Alladhiir raised his hand to his forehead as he felt blood running down his nose.
"Much, much, much...much..." Falciate's sentence wandered off, as his head fell onto his chest and his eyes slowly closed, then began to snore, loudly.
The Bretonnian knights sat silent for a few seconds, their mouths still drunkenly, idiotically agape. Even after the past few years under Falciate's employ Alladhiir still couldn't even begin to comprehend how the Marquess held so much respect and sway over his knights. Humans, it had be humans even after decades living amongst them, they still confused him. Well that was also true during his life in Ulthuan with his kin, but that was only because he was always head high in books, or practising his sword play.
Eventually, the Knights gave up their silences as they started to share confused glances at one another and hushed conversation began to start amongst them.
The only person at the table not sharing in the confused conversation was Genevieve, who was still staring at him, still with that guilty look.
Alladhiir did his best to keep looking away, to act that he hadn't noticed her, but he was about as good an actor as he was at socializing. Utterly terrible.
The hushed conversation started to amplify, the knights began to laugh and yell.
It was then that Falciate abruptly awoke, his snores transformed into snorts and he yelled at the top of his lungs; "I!"
Making Alladhiir and everyone, Genevieve included, flinch with fright.
"I have an announcement to make!" Falciate roared again, making Alladhiir groan again. "That after much, much strife and toil I have finally found for my beautiful, beautiful daughter! The perfect suitor!"
Alladhiir's heart sank, he unfolded his arms as his eyes widened with shock and yelled out despite himself, "what!?"
But his yell was drowned out as the knights of Falciate let out a deafening roar of approval.
A cold pain echoed through his very being, causing Alladhiir to clench his teeth and look to Genevieve, who was now looking down.
Then the knights began to bang their mugs on the table and yelled over and over, "who! Who! Who!"
Falciate wobbly stood up from his seat, raising his hand for silence and immediately he got it.
"The eldest son of the great Duke Viotolli!" Exclaimed Falciate with great glee.
The announcement was met with another great roar of approval from the knights, but Alladhiir felt physically sick. Viotolli was the very powerful Duke of Brionne, marrying Genevieve to Viotolli's son was yet another play for power by Falciate.
Alladhiir looked to Genevieve again and his heart sank as he saw her expression of utter despair, this wasn't about him being too foolish to ever try anything with her. It was as clear as day that Genevieve wanted nothing to do with the son of Viotolli. That soon she would be deep in a miserable, loveless marriage just for her father's insatiable lust for power.
He knew this wasn't uncommon, for Bretonnia or the Empire, but that didn't make him not feel for her, she didn't want this and he didn't.
Alladhiir clenched his teeth, his heart pounding in his chest, and he glanced from Genevieve to Falciate again and again, back and forth, back and forth.
He had to do something, he had to say something. His shoulders shook as he slowly worked up the courage, public speaking was never his strong suit, nervousness always overwhelmed him, but now, now was the time to face up.
Alladhiir opened his mouth to yell out at the top of his lungs, but it died in his throat, as the laughter began, an insane high pitched cackle which echoed over stone and straw.
Everyone fell silent and looked to the laughter's source. At the end of the table stood the jester, his shoulders bobbing as he cackled. Making many of the knights glance at each other, whispering in bemusement.
Absently, Alladhiir gripped the strap on his shield and laid his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. He didn't like this, he didn't like this at all.
"Good! Good!" Exclaimed the jester, his voice suddenly hoarse and throaty. "That is good!"
Falciate, still standing, barely glared down at the Jester, "What is so funny," he asked. "What is so good?"
"It is good...It is good that your daughter will have someone there to console her."
Falciate exchanged confused glances with his nearest knights, "console her for what?"
"For the untimely death of her fat foolish father!" The Jester snarled as he drew a knife from his boot, lunged onto the table and lightning fast descended on Falciate, knife raised. None of Falciate's faithful knights even raised a hand, all too slow, too drunk and too stupefied to do anything.
The knife fell stabbing down toward Falciate's throat.
The clang! Reverberated through the room as the knife tip sheared off the tempered steel of Alladhiir's sword of Striking.
Immediately the assassin rallied, leaping out of the range of Alladhiir's blade and fell into an extremely low defensive stance.
Alladhiir stood, shield held up front in his left and in his right, sword pointed tip first at the would be assassin.
For a few short, silent seconds they studied one another. Even at a glance, Alladhiir could tell his opponent was extremely skilled, he smiled as he felt the familiar fire of the fight warm his heart.
This was what he waited for, an opponent who would truly test his skill. One which if Alladhiir defeated, would contribute to the elf swordsman's overarching goal, to be the greatest sword master in all the world.
Then the would be jester turned and ran out the door, leaving only the sound of jingling bells.
Alladhiir stood, slack jawed, and just as confused as everyone else in the hall, then he felt a hand tug on his cloak and looked down, seeing much to his embarrassment, it was Genevieve.
"Are you not, perhaps, meaning to chase him?" She said.
He only managed a nod.
"Well go you fool!"
Her words certainly made him move, he sprinted down the table, his feet smashing aside plates and cutlery in his haste, much to the distress of those at the table.
Alladhiir leaped off the table's end, out the entrance and bounded up the steep stone stairs, two at a time, following the slight sound of jingling bells.
He ran through the maze of the castle, after his prey.
The assassin was only a few metres in front of him now, the bells on his jester costume jingling all the way.
Shoving aside two house maidens, the assassin twisted in mid stride, throwing a knife at Alladhiir.
The young Asur didn't hesitate, he abruptly raised his shield and the knife only bounced away.
Alladhiir lowered his shield in time to see the assassin dash around the next corner and again, he gave chase. Up another small flight of stairs, out a door and onto the battlements beyond. That was when the assassin struck.
He only caught the attack in the very last second as the assassin lunged from the side of the door, the thrusting knife glinting in the moonlight as it blurred toward his skull.
Alladhiir reacted, just dodging aside so the knife didn't stab through his skull, but agony flared through his forehead as it gashed across his scalp.
With a cry of pain Alladhiir struck back, swinging out with his sword wildly.
The assassin swiftly ducked under the attack, slipping in and stabbed again, aiming at the Asur's throat.
Although in agony, Alladhiir reacted accordingly, bashing away the blow with his sword he stumbled back, the pain was overwhelming, like eight inch long needles stabbing into his temples.
But this did not earn him any respite from his opponent, who kicked out against Alladhiir's chest throwing the Asur careening off his feet and onto the floor with a clang! and knocking the wind from his lungs.
Gasping for air, Alladhiir desperately kicked out to keep the assassin at bay, blood was now running into his eyes making the world an eternal shade of crimson.
When his kick hit only air, he whipped the blood from his vision with a shaking hand, just in time to see the assassin attempting to sprint away again.
Snarling a spree of frustrated curses in every language he knew, (which were quite a few) Alladhiir clumsily climbed to his feet. Spurred on by Genevieve's words and a need to heal his beaten pride, he gave chase.
His opponent was running straight for the castle's edge, preparing to dive into the moat, the bells on his jester suit jingling almost violently.
The young Asur clenched his teeth and sprinted after him, the Assassin was fast on his feet, but even amongst the Asur, Alladhiir could sprint quick and so, despite the added weight of his armour, Alladhiir gained the ground between them easily.
He smashed his shield into the back of the assassin, sending the attacker flailing face first against the battlements.
Seeing red, (both figuratively and literally) Alladhiir slashed out at the assassin, who managed to recover enough to get out the way.
The Asur prince cut back wildly, all his formidable skill lost entirely to his anger and the attack, slashing a gash across the assassin's chest.
With a grunt of pain, the would be jester flailed back in a last ditch attempt to leap off the edge of the castle.
But the Asur wasn't done yet, with his shield arm, Alladhiir grabbed the jester by the scruff of the neck, snatching him back and kicked the assassin, hard, straight into the soft tissue at the back of the knee.
The assassin cried out, his leg buckling out from underneath him and Alladhiir grabbed the assassin by the knife hand and bent it back at the wrist, causing him to yell more.
"Drop it!" Alladhiir snarled, forcing the jester's hand further back making him scream all the louder.
Hesitantly the assassin did as told, the knife clattering to the stone.
Alladhiir placed his blade against the incapacitated assassin's throat, his vision began to blur and the Asur had to shake his head to force it away. Then it hit him.
"You bastard!" He roared. "That knife it was, it was..."
"Poisoned?" growled the assassin.
"Well of course it was, fool," he said. "What do you think I am?"
"Sh-shut up!" Alladhiir snarled, his words extremely slurred and barely staying on his feet as the world spun around him. "Who do you work for!"
"I do not work for anyone," said the assassin with a casual shrug.
"Bull!" roared Alladhiir. "Someone must have sent you!"
"If anything sent me, Elf, it is justice."
"W-what?" with that Alladhiir stumbled on his feet and his body began to turn numb.
"Do you have any idea who you work for?" demanded the assassin. "Do you have any idea what he has done in the name of power?"
Alladhiir had an idea, but all he could manage was a drunken nod.
"Okay then, elf." The assassin said "elf' like it were a curse. "What if I said I was once a lord under his rule, that sixteen years ago Falciate decided to increase taxes with only the intention to line his coffers?"
Alladhiir nodded with a slurred, "mm hmm!"
"Okay, what if I said for my people not to pay the extra tax," he said. "And so while I was away on business, Falciate sent in his soldiers. They slaughtered my people, burnt their homes to the ground!"
As the would-be jester talked on, more and more emotion built in his voice and tears shone in his eyes. "Then his men attacked my estate, raped and murdered my wife, my daughters! And now he is selling his only daughter for his ambitions! That is who you work for!"
Alladhiir's fingers went limp, his sword fell from his hand, clattering onto the stone and he in turn collapsed to his knees as he lost all feeling in his legs.
"And that," said the Assassin as he slowly climbed to his feet. "I am sorry to say, it is who you will die for."
He turned away limping to retrieve his knife, and grinned through bloody teeth. "Although of that I am not sure. That poison, elf, is from the Blatis flower, it is a potent killer, although I have never seen what the effects are on an elf."
The assassin picked up his knife and staggered for the buttress. At the edge he stopped and turned back to Alladhiir. "So you may survive, you never know! So, If you do, we will meet again el-!"
The crossbow bolt flew less than an inch past Alladhiir's face. The on rush of air, blowing the Asur's long brown hair into his face then the tip stuck fast straight into the Assassin's chest. The man gasped, his eyes bulging in their sockets, and for a heartbeat he stood, looking almost accusingly at Alladhiir. Then he fell off the edge and splashed loudly into the moat below.
Alladhiir fell as well, dropping abruptly onto his back, gasping for air as the poison began to numb his lungs.
The last thing he saw with his bloodied, blurred vision before everything went black was Falciate, looking down at him, smiling and holding in his left hand; a gaudy golden, jewel encrusted goblet and a crossbow in the other.
He awoke, his eyes slowly opened, his blurred vision revealing the stark stone walls of the room around him.
Alladhiir let out a groan as he felt pain echo through his skull, his voice a husk as it came from his dehydrated throat.
Immediately, a serving girl walked through the door, carrying in her arms a pail of water.
She stopped in her tracks as she saw Alladhiir was awake, her eyes widened, then she placed the pail on a large table, turned and walked back out the door.
Alladhiir desperately reached out for the pail, long lithe fingers curling just out of reach.
With a frustrated snarl, the Asur pulled back his hand.
He was alive, bedridden and hurt but somehow, still alive.
The Asur sighed, placing the back of his hand against his bandaged forehead as the memories flooded back. Was what the assassin claimed true? Did Falciate set his dogs to slaughter his own people, merely over tax?
He knew that Falciate was capable of much evil for his ambition but being capable of committing such a horrific crime? And not just that but those knights, the men that sat at Falciate's table, who sang and drank wine, the men that Alladhiir sparred against in the yard on countless occasion were able to slaughter their own people.
The thought made Alladhiir feel sick. Sick not just to his stomach, but to his very soul, he knew it was true, he just knew.
For twenty years he had travelled the old world working as a mercenary, a sword for hire, he had always tried to work for the nicest most benevolent of leaders, Falciate was the worst, he knew the marquess was corrupt but not this much, not this much.
He heard another enter the room and he looked up just in time to see the Marquess himself walk through the door. At his side the serving girl and behind him two of his knights.
"Oh by the Lady!" he yelled. "Why did you put the water there wench! Give my good savior a drink. Now!"
"Y-yes my lord," she stammered as she quickly picked up the pail, poured some water into a beaten wooden goblet and handed it to Alladhiir.
He snatched it from her grasp and drank greedily, sculling down the water within a second.
He found it hardly helped so handed her the goblet back, she took it and poured him another drink, which he gulped just as greedily.
She poured him a third and he took it, supping now more conservatively.
"Okay that is enough," growled Falciate, "everyone out, I wish to talk in private."
The serving girl nodded, her eyes briefly meeting Alladhiir's as he nodded his thanks, then she slipped out the door with the two knights following in her wake.
Alladhiir sat up in his bed, eyeing the Marquess with no small amount of disgust.
"Thank you," said Falciate. "I appreciate what you did for me in the hall."
"I was only doing what I am paid to do," growled Alladhiir.
"And you did it well!" said Falciate as he pulled up a stool and sat his bulk on it heavily. "if it was not for you I would not be sitting here today."
Alladhiir's jaw clenched, knowing what he knew now he truly wished that he didn't "do it well."
"You are the epitome of what all soldiers should be," carried on the marquess in his overly syrupy way. "I appreciate-"
"You can appreciate what I did by letting me leave your service," interrupted Alladhiir hardly in the mood to put up with Falciate's foolishness.
Falciate's eyes widened and his face turned beat red with barely contained rage.
"You want to know what the assassin said to me?" asked Alladhiir, shaking his head.
The Marquess breathed out heavily.
"Nothing, he told me nothing," snarled Alladhiir, the lie coming easily.
Falciate smiled, leaning back on his stool, "good, that is good."
Then his smile turned cruel, "but even if you are lying to me and he did tell you something, you say that something to someone, anyone, they will not believe you. Because you can believe as much as you want that I am stupid, but that does not necessarily make it so, do you understand me Alladhiir Alkanthos, prince of Ulthuan?"
A sudden cold, animal fear gripped Alladhiir's heart.
"I have friends," interrupted the Marquess. "Friends in very high places. So let us say if you keep my secret, I will keep your's, understand?"
Alladhiir only managed a wide eyed nod.
"Good!" He exclaimed, slapping his thighs enthusiastically then he got off his seat. "I will let you leave Alladhiir Alkanthos, but I only do so knowing that you will not talk of what you heard."
Alladhiir couldn't contend a coherent reply, he was so taken aback.
"You have been sleeping for a week," announced the marquess as he made for the door. "And during that time my daughter wed her rightful husband and has left for his estate. You are free to leave whenever you are inclined. Your armour and your other belongings are still in your room, I faretheewell, young prince."
With that, the Marquess was gone.
It took two days for Alladhiir to gain enough strength to leave the castle, and he did it with a heavy heart.
However he could not help but wonder, how the hell had the marquess discovered his secret? But he vowed in one way or another, he would know and one day Marquess Falciate would be brought to justice for his crimes.