The Paper Crown

Sequel to Double-Edged Swords

He fingered the slick hilt of his long stiletto dagger contemplatively, waiting, watching old rainwater slither out of the gutters into the cobblestone streets. He looked like any other criminal-for-hire – cloaked and hooded, hiding in the gloom of the side-streets. He was anything but.

When a scream pierced through the heavy fog, he barely flinched; the noise was abruptly stifled with the sharp hiss of steel. His lip curled in some disgust. He hated this land of intrigue, of violence, of shadowed intentions: Yarr. Murder was normal; no authorities controlled it, mostly because the officials were the ones who killed in the name of Queen Ha'nai. Luckily, he wouldn't have to stay in this hell-hole for too long.

Before he had time to become too impatient, his employer came into view, walking with that stiff hurried gait he knew so well. He waited for her expressionlessly, judging her urgency by her clenched fists and narrowed eyes.

"Your ship will leave tomorrow," she said quietly, coming up to him so that no bystanders would see her face. He noticed fresh lines on her face, stress no doubt incurred by the demands of the queen. Indeed, he could imagine her strain: Alazne, for that was her name, had failed her country last year. He knew all about it. Two months ago, Alazne – a trusted diplomat and spy – had been foiled in her attempts to murder the rulers of their enemies. Queen Ha'nai was, to say the least, displeased. Alazne's life hung on this next plot, and if he were the type to sweat in the face of danger, he might even feel intimidated by her cold glittering cruelty.

Yarr, an island country, was traditionally hungry for the rich lands of the mainland continent. There was Narayar, his warm host country, with its strategic ports and vast fertile lands. To the west of Narayar was Harat, the feudal society with rich metal deposits and mountains – it had just been through a civil rebellion, and it frustrated him that Alazne had not been able to take advantage of it. If Queen Ha'nai had given him the job, Yarr would have taken over the entire continent by now. Even Sorang – the modern, intelligent country with the most formidable army – would not have been able to resist. Cliadis, the tiny principality between Harat and Narayar, was not even worth worrying about. The Cliad army was well-trained and disciplined, but its size was no match for Yarr. But now that they had come to him – things would get done.

"Stir up the continent. Do all you can without obviously killing anybody. Queen Ha'nai is not ready to accept failure again," Alazne continued, looking at him coldly.

"I was not the one who failed the first time," he replied, relishing the way his poisonous words brought color into her bloodless, papery cheeks.

"Go, then," she ordered harshly. "For the glory and power of the monarchy."

For personal glory and power, he amended in his own mind. Accepting his heavy payment from Alazne's bony fingers, he turned to leave. She would find out about that soon enough. The whole world would.