"The King's Man"

By James Berardinelli

    He couldn't shake the feeling that he was destined for greatness. The sensation had pursued him for nigh on two decades with the tenacity of a hound with the hare's scent. There was nothing about his current circumstances that led him to believe he was closer than he had been during his years as The King's Man, but he had long since learned not to ignore his intuition. In an era when the gods no longer ruled in the heavens, that was all men had left.

    His childhood had been unusual. From his earliest days, he had been a big lad with a thick midsection and arms and legs to match. People looked at him and assigned to him a stereotype based on his appearance without recognition that his intellect equaled his physical prowess. He fought in many fights and won nearly all of them but he derived his greatest satisfaction when the victories came not as a result of pummeling an opponent into submission but outsmarting him. Those who perceived him as a witless dullard because his biceps were twice the size of those of a normal child often learned their mistake too late. Gambling was where he made his biggest mark. People saw him as an easy target and were left scratching their heads in bewilderment after he walked away with their week's pay. That went on for some time… until he crossed the wrong man.

    That was the day his life change, when he ceased being a street urchin and gained a sense of urgency. That was the day circumstances determined he would live his entire life as a virgin.

    Langashin never cheated in gambling. There was no need to. He calculated the odds and played in a way where they favored him. There were times when he lost but his losings were never as great as his winnings. His favorite haunt for gaming, a run-down inn in Vantok called The Drunk Doxy, was always a good place to play but the stakes were rarely higher than a free round of stale, watered-down ale. Langashin didn't have the rank or status to get into the silver-and-gold games (as they were called) so, in order for him play for more than a piddling payout, he had to go to poorly lit rooms with back-alley entrances. Not the kinds of places where respectable people would be found, but Langashin was anything but respectable. He was cunning but not nearly as hard or worldly as he fancied himself to be. Intellectual superiority bred arrogance. Although not yet having reached his Maturity, he had no parents (at least that he knew of) and was physically developed enough to pass for someone three or four years older than he was. Depending on how much money he had at any given time, he might spend his nights in a rented room, in a stable, or out in the fields.

    On that fateful night, his purse contained two silvers, three bronze, and nine brass studs. Odd that so many years later - more than fifteen - he still remembered the count. The clerk guarding the door tallied Langashin's coinage and let him in. Anyone with less than a single silver would be turned away. The table he approached had four players. Three were inconsequential. Langashin couldn't remember a thing about them except that the piles of studs in front of them were small and beads of sweat dotted their foreheads. But Slither - he remembered Slither.

    The man looked like a veteran of more than his share of bar brawls and knife fights. The scars on his face were a map of a violent past. Langashin couldn't tell his age but the gray in his stringy dark hair indicated he had passed through his middle years. His split lips, cleft at some point by a blade, never turned upward in a smile and his breath stank of hard spirits. He played "stone maiden" like a man with something to prove. Every lost stud caused the latent anger in him to coil more tightly. And he lost repeatedly to Langashin, whose luck that night was phenomenal. Problem was, Slither didn't believe in luck. He got it into his head that he was being cheated. Langashin should have realized when he left that Slither wasn't simply going to let him walk away but overconfidence had always been a failing. Truth be told, it still was.

    They jumped him not far from the gaming house and pulled him into the darkest recesses of an unnamed, unlighted alley. There were three of them - two mute brutes who held him down and Slither. Langashin couldn't read the man's features in the darkness but his voice held no hint of kindness. "You took something dear to me in there, pup. Now I'm going to take something dear to you. Remember that next time you think of cheating a man of his money. There's worse things you can lose than a purse of jingling silver."

    Slither brandished a weapon. It was a frail looking thing but the edge was sharper than any razor and, when he went to work with it, its bite was more precise than that of the finest dagger. The first cut didn't hurt much but the blood started flowing freely and by the time Slither lazily brought the blade back for a second taste, Langashin was screaming in agony.

    When Slither had completed his handiwork, he negligently wiped the blade clean on Langashin's tunic and motioned for his companions to let the boy go. "You might want to see a healer about that," he advised. "Or you'll bleed out. No reason you should die this time. But try it again…"

    That was the night Langashin became a gelding.

    At the time, for a boy already gripped by the stirrings of manhood, it seemed the worst possible thing. After the injuries healed, he found he could still perform with a woman, although with difficulty. But, with the passage of time, he discovered he no longer had much interest in that aspect of human congress. Sex, which had been a favorite pastime of his before the encounter with Slither, was no longer an interest. Over the years, he came to view his castration as a boon. All the time and effort other men devoted to carnal pleasure could be channeled elsewhere. Slither's "lesson" became a defining moment in Langashin's life.

    Not long after that late night encounter, he left Vantok. Shame, more than anything else, drove him away. The physical wounds healed quickly but the scars on his psyche remained. His favorite whores regarded him differently and he imagined them commiserating on his deformity. He no longer visited gaming houses for fear that he might again encounter Slither. And he imagined that everyone he passed in the street knew about his emasculation. The humiliation was too much to bear although, all these years later, he recognized it to have been all in his mind. Slither would have wanted to keep the story quiet rather than exposing himself to the ridicule of being duped at the gaming table.

    Langashin's destination was Basingham, the nearest of the great cities to Vantok. There seemed little point in going further. To his way of thinking, one stinking bastion of humanity was much like any other. His accumulated winnings from Vantok allowed him to purchase food and ale at local inns and taverns but he didn't bother to pay for lodgings. One place was as good as any other for a night's rest - why pay for surroundings that mattered little to a sleeper? In the summer, he'd find a fallow field to lie in. During the winter, he'd sneak into a stable and curl up with a mangy dog or burrow under the hay like a mouse. He lived like that for nearly a year. His hoarded monies were nearly gone when the gods or chance offered him an opportunity.

    He had been watching an elderly merchant for some time. The man was wealthy and influential but careless. Not only didn't he hire bodyguards but he was modest and, as a result, his routine was to venture through a narrow, winding alley to reach a secluded privy pit to relieve himself. Langashin had noticed that when he made those trips, typically twice each day, he kept his coin purse tied to his belt. At a guess, it contained the equivalent of several dozen silver - an amount that would allow him to continue a life of relative comfort for the immediate future. If the old man died as a result of the robbery, he would have to quit Basingham but that wasn't a major inconvenience - the money would be as good in Earlford as it was here. Studs pressed in any of the great cities were recognized in all.

    He made his move late one afternoon in mid-Harvest when the days had grown short and the alley was shrouded in shadow. As was his wont, the man temporarily turned over his stall to an assistant and, with the aid of a walking stick, hobbled toward the nearby alley. Langashin followed at a discreet distance, doing his best not to call attention to himself. For one of his size, he could be uncommonly stealthy. He loitered near the mouth of the narrow backstreet for several minutes before venturing in. What he discovered there surprised him - the merchant had not passed through unmolested. He was in the process of being robbed by two thugs.

    They were thin, reedy men who, at least from the back, reminded Langashin of Slither. Gripped by a wave of indignation, he surged forward. A small knife, the only weapon he owned, was more than sufficient to dispatch the first thief - his throat was slit from ear-to-ear before he knew of his jeopardy. The other turned to face Langashin, the look of shock on his face turning to terror when he saw the size of his attacker.

    Langashin grabbed the man's arm and wrenched it, nearly ripping it off at the shoulder and certainly dislocating it. The robber uttered an animalistic cry of pain and dropped the dagger he was menacing the merchant with. His shout was loud enough to be heard outside the alley but no one would come to his rescue, not even the Watch. There were places where decent folk didn't venture and this was one of them.

    A punch to the face broke the man's nose and stunned him. When Langashin released his arm, he fell to the hard-packed street like a marionette with its strings cut. In reality, he bore only a superficial resemblance to Slither but, in his agitated state, Langashin saw only his past tormenter and decided to exact his revenge upon him here and now.

    It was a bloody business and the man didn't die easily. Langashin used his knife not to hack but for more precise cuts. All the while, as the screams escalated and the blood flowed, the merchant looked on with a combination of fear, relief, and fascination. He was grateful for his rescue but wondered what sort of man his savior was that he could dispatch someone in such a cruel and gruesome manner.

    Langashin started by doing to his victim what had been done to him in the Vantok alley. He lacked Slither's finesse but it didn't matter. Once the balls had been cut out, he sliced off the cock for good measure. From there, he moved on to other easily removable body parts - ears and fingers in particular. In order to more easily cut through the knuckles, he broke the bones before applying the blade.

    He didn't stop until the man expired. As he rose from the mangled corpse, his clothing stained crimson, the feverish look in his eyes reflected his ecstasy. Not since being emasculated had he felt this alive. In fact, the act of butchering the robber offered more pleasure than he had experienced with a whore. He took a deep breath to calm himself before addressing his attention to the man whose life he had saved. He could have continued where the thugs left off, but he saw the glint of an opportunity and seized it.

    Thinking back on that first killing, Langashin recognized how inept it had been. The clumsiness, the inexperience... Since then, he had developed a precision in his craft he never would have imagined possible in that alley. It all began with the grateful, admittedly terrified merchant offering him a position. Seeing Langashin's ruthlessness, he determined that having a man of that sort working for him could reap benefits far in excess of what he would have to pay by way of a salary. Thus was a career born.

    Langashin worked for Caleb the merchant for more than a year before asking his employer for time off "to attend to a personal matter." During his time serving Caleb, he refined his capabilities. He started off as a brute enforcer but became adept at using torture to extract information. This intelligence was important to the merchant; it allowed him to outbid his rivals for contracts and intercept goods at below-market prices. For Langashin, the benefits were twofold: becoming a master torturer not only made him invaluable to Caleb but the artistry of the profession filled a void. He hardly remembered what an orgasm felt like but he couldn't imagine it to have been more satisfying than hearing the screams of someone as he meticulously carved away their flesh. Under Caleb, he evolved from being a crude wielder of sharp instruments into a maestro of suffering.

    Now, with his skills honed to an acceptable degree, Langashin decided to return to Vantok and resolve the matter in his life that haunted him. Thinking about what he had endured at the hands of Slither made him cringe with shame. The only way to erase that blotch was to repay the man who caused it. That meant taking a hiatus from his position for Caleb and retracing his steps to the city of his youth. He had left Vantok frightened and disgraced. His return would be different. He was now one of the most feared men in Basingham.

    Langashin didn't go alone to Vantok. He brought with him two of Caleb's most intimidating bodyguards, the brothers Bryan and Tyran. They idolized Langashin and sought to emulate him but they lacked the intelligence, creativity, and patience necessary to be successful as torturers. They were, however, good at brute force activities. Since Slither rarely traveled unprotected, Langashin believed Bryan and Tyran's presence would be useful. It had been difficult getting Caleb to agree to giving them a leave of absence but Langashin made it worth his while by negotiating a lower fee for his own services over the next year. He was making a small fortune as it was; a reduction wouldn't hurt him. After saving the merchant's life rather than killing him, Langashin had developed a loyalty to Caleb. He had turned down more lucrative employment opportunities, including one from the palace. Perhaps more than others, kings needed good torturers; demand vastly outweighed supply.

    Finding Slither wasn't a challenge. Emboldened by a fearsome reputation, he no longer hid from anyone - neither the Watch nor his numerous enemies. When Langashin learned the location of his favorite gaming house, he and his companions found the back entrance and loitered in the shadows until the door swung open a few hours past midnight. Somewhat unsteady on his feet from a few too many sips of strong spirits, Slither emerged, flanked by the same two men who had manhandled Langashin on that fateful night. A mirthless smile creased the torturer's features. The force filling the vacuum left by the departed gods had provided him with a gift.

    At an almost imperceptible gesture, Langashin's companions moved toward their quarry. Slither's bodyguards, not anticipating trouble, didn't realize the threat until too late. They toppled in concert, their throats slit from ear to ear. Langashin advanced on a nonplused Slither; overpowering the smaller, lighter man presented little difficulty. In fact, it was done almost gently. Slither would die but only after Langashin had played with him a little. Quick deaths, the kiss of mercy, were only for battlefields.

    "What's the meaning of this?" Slither's shaky voice failed to intimidate. Bound and on his knees in several inches of bloodsoaked mud, he wasn't remotely fearsome. Langashin's minions stood behind him, blocking a retreat.

    The once-victim moved his face to within a foot of Slither's so his features might be visible even in the ally's dim light. "Remember me?"

    The blank expression betrayed the lack of recognition. Langashin meant no more to Slither than the pig he had consumed for dinner the previous night.

    That one night meant nothing to him. Nothing. Yet it changed my entire life. And now it will rebound and take his.

    "Let me see if I can rattle your memory." So saying, Langashin lowered his breeches to display what remained of his manhood. The paroxysm of terror that transfixed Slither's countenance was sufficient indication that he had stirred the recollection. "Never thought you'd see me again. Thought me properly cowed. Maybe even dead. Bled out in another ally not much different from this one."

    Slither's tongue flicked nervously across his upper lip. "I'm an important person. If anything happens to me, I'll be missed. I have friends in high places…"

    "I don't doubt it. I piss on your friends in high places. I'm more important that all of 'em. Let me show you a little something about what I've learned since we last met. I'm sure you'll find it educational, although perhaps not entertaining. I owe you a lot - more I can express in the short time we have together. I wish we could take the whole night but Vantok has a Watch and I'm sure they'll visit even this gods-forsaken ally once or twice afore dawn."

    Before getting started, Langashin searched Slither, ignoring coins - he had enough of those - and other items until he found the nasty little cutting device Slither had used to geld him. It was a sharp, precise instrument - smaller and sharper than a knife. Some might use it for a benign act like the shaving of whiskers. Langashin could think of a number of more creative ways it could be employed. Time to practice.

    It took Slither about an hour to die. The first thing Langashin did was cut out his tongue then stuff a rag in his mouth to muffle his screams. No need to call undue attention to his activities - he didn't want to end up in a skirmish with the Watch, although most of their members could be bribed to turn a blind eye.

    After doing to Slither what Slither had once done to him, Langashin began toying with different cuts to other parts of the body. A slice here, a slit there. Crimson flowed. Bowels emptied. The tool was excellent when it came to soft tissue but a knife was more effective when bone was involved. Langashin had brought along his favorite blade and added it to the mix. Despite being rushed, he was relishing the experience, but it didn't last. Slither met his end prematurely when Langashin accidentally clipped a critical artery and couldn't cauterize the wound fast enough to save the already weakened man. Slither died in the ally, covered in mud, blood, and his own shit. It was less satisfying than Langashin hoped or expected but, as he learned over the years, that was often the case with revenge. In fact, the screams of others were more pleasurable when the person was a stranger. Torture was an intimate process, forming a deeper bond than sex between the participants.

    The Watch didn't investigate, at least not while Langashin was present. The next day, as he was wandering around the city re-visiting old haunts, he heard rumors about "the grisly business" in the ally. No one seemed upset by it. Slither wasn't well-liked and the general feeling was that he had gotten what he deserved and Vantok was probably a better place without him. It pleased Langashin to believe he had committed an act of civic value.

    After a few days, Langashin grew tired of his birth city and decided to return to his adopted home. He passed through the gates of Basingham a few days shy of four weeks after departing and was greeted by grim news. His employer, the high merchant Caleb, had met with an unfortunate accident a few days after his departure. Accounts varied, but Caleb apparently lost his balance while wandering around on a rooftop one evening and tumbled over the side, landing head down on a cobbled porch some twenty feet below. His empire had been dismantled and divided before his ashes were scattered and Langashin was quite unexpectedly without a job.

    He sometimes wondered why he made the choice he did for his next employer. His services were in demand; he could have commanded a massive salary and lived a life of luxury. Instead, however, he answered a summons to the palace for a meeting with King Durth. He recognized beforehand that the Crown wouldn't be able to match the richest merchants coin-for-coin but he hoped there might be… fringe benefits… to sweeten the deal.

    The king, a middle-aged man with a full beard and false smile, greeted him warmly in an audience chamber where he was surrounded by a dozen armed guards. Langashin considered that an honor although he never would have been stupid enough to make a move against a sitting ruler. He wasn't an assassin nor would this have been an opportune time to become one. His skills required time and patience not lightning quick reflexes.

    Durth acknowledged what Langashin expected. "If it's just money you're after, I can't pay what Goodman Lykle or Earl Spoonford can. The treasury is healthy but they seem to mint their own coins. But I can offer something they can't: a royal commission for every activity you engage in. No fear of arrest. Access to the palace dungeon. As many assistants as you require. The ability to command the Watch to capture miscreants. Master Langashin, I have spies aplenty but my intelligence network needs someone like you who can loosen the most stalwart, stubborn tongues. I have enemies within and without the city and I must know their plans to keep my family safe and Basingham secure. Currently, my… procurer of information…"

    Langashin interrupted him. "Let's not play with words, Your Majesty. Torturer. That's what he is. That's what I am. I don't pretend to be anything else."

    Durth nodded. "As you wish… torturer. The man currently holding that position is a butcher. Most of his victims die long before they give up any useful information. He's an able soldier on the battlefield but a bad choice for extracting information. I need an expert. I need you."

    Langashin recalled pretending to consider the offer when, in fact, he had made his decision before agreeing to the meeting. "I have only one precondition, Your Majesty: a writ of universal pardon."

    Durth raised an eyebrow at this. Few documents were more prized than writs of universal pardon. Only the six kings could offer them and it was rare that one would agree to do so. The writs were acknowledged across the continent and effectively wiped clean a man's past, expunging his sins no matter how heinous.

    "What you ask for…"

    "… is well within your power to grant," said Langashin.

    "You could earn a fortune by selling one of those."

    "I could but that ain't the reason for my request. It's an assurance that if I practice my skills on someone of great power, I won't go to the hangman's noose for my actions."

    "In such a case, I would pardon you."

    Langashin smiled inwardly. How did the saying go about the promises of kings? "I'm sure you would try, Your Majesty, but unforeseen circumstances occur and a posthumous pardon ain't of much benefit to me."

    After a little more wrangling, Durth capitulated. Langashin began work within a week much to the chagrin of the many merchants who had been hoping to become his next employer. Those who toiled in the dungeons initially regarded him with a mixture of suspicion and skepticism but that evaporated after they saw the effectiveness of his methods. The first prisoner Langashin operated on was a hardened bandit captured after robbing and killing two farmers in a nearby village. The Watch believed him to be in possession of valuable information about the location of a nearby band that had been staging raids on Basingham's satellite villages for several seasons. After nearly two weeks of methodical cutting, burning, gouging, and piercing, the bandit revealed everything before slipping into unconsciousness and dying. The Watch, acting on the intelligence, was able to surprise and decimate the bandit group. Langashin's expertise was confirmed. Durth offered him a night of wine and women. He accepted the former and passed the latter to his fellow dungeon-keepers - an act that earned him their undying devotion.

    For nearly five years, Langashin reveled in his position as Basingham's premiere torturer. King Durth, well pleased with his results, often gifted him with coins, spirits, and other items of value. Both in the city and across the continent, his reputation grew. His rapid ascent came at the expense of the standings of others and, as a result, he made some influential enemies. Technically, all nobles in Basingham were outranked by the king. As a practical matter, however, the dukes with the largest land holdings and deepest pockets took orders from no one. And, after a distant relative to one of those families met his end in Langashin's dungeon, the torturer became a target.

    Looking back on it, Langashin rued the day he put the man on the rack. He should have ordered his release and sent him home. At the time, however, he believed his position to be unassailable. Not only was he feared in every quarter of Basingham but he possessed Durth's writ of universal pardon. But the members of Family Sangura weren't intimidated by Langashin and they began a campaign to bring him down. Had he been more politically savvy, he would have recognized it immediately and might have been able to take steps to counteract it. However, by the time he learned that forces were being mobilized against him, there was nothing he could do except flee.

    What bothered him the most about losing his post as Basingham's "Procurer of Information" was that he no longer had a legitimate outlet for his prodigious talents. To him, torture was an art. His victims weren't just unfortunate people - they were the canvasses upon which he practiced. Serving Durth allowed to him to rise every morning with the promise of being able to try something new. Screams were his music, blood his paint. When he lost his post, he lost his patron. As a renegade, there was little opportunity for torture. The merchants who once clamored to employ him now recoiled from a potential association. The Family Sangura was thorough in smearing Langashin's name and ensuring he became a pariah in Basingham. And, since their influence was strong in the other Southern cities of Vantok and Earlford, Langashin found himself unwelcome seemingly everywhere.

    Running away didn't sit well with Langashin. It was the way of the coward. But if he stayed, he would die. Duke Sangura had the best trained private militia in all of Basingham, numbering 200 strong. He reached a deal with the king that the royal troops would step aside to allow his men to "do what must be done." The plan was for Langashin to die by "accident" since he couldn't intentionally be killed because of the writ. Durth wouldn't act directly against his torturer, but all Sangura required was that he not act. Had Langashin not been tipped off by one of his underlings, he would have fallen into the trap. As it was, by the time Duke Sangura made his move, Langashin was 12 hours east of Basingham on a fast horse.

    Necessity took him north to the part of the continent feared by every poorly educated child of the South. He thought of the cities beyond Widow's Pass as places of ice and ogres. Upon arriving in Obis, however, in the middle of Summer, he decided things weren't that different after all. There were fewer farms in evidence, the walls were taller and mightier, and the people were rougher but there were few fundamental differences. Langashin wondered whether the Iron King, Rangarak, might be in need of a new torturer.

    The writ of universal pardon was sufficient to earn Langashin an audience with Rangarak. He came before the Crown in a cold, cavernous throne room before a sparse crowd of curious onlookers.

    Rangarak skimmed over the writ while Langashin waited on bended knee in front of him. The guards - ten armored, sword-bearing men flanking the king and an equal number of archers on a balcony - watched Langashin with infinite caution. He wondered if they were so attentive to every supplicant or whether his reputation had preceded him to Obis' court.

    "I'm impressed you got that sack of shit Durth to give you one of these although I'm sure you realize by now this isn't worth the parchment it's written on. A writ of universal pardon sounds good but, even as rare as they are, they're routinely ignored. Still, I'm willing to take it at face value if you're willing to abide by a few conditions." As was his reputation, Rangarak didn't bother with fancy talk or royal etiquette. Obis was a warrior city and its kings typically had little patience for such things.

    "Begging Your Majesty's pardon, but King Durth provided me with that document when I entered his employment. I worked as his…"

    "I know who you are, Langashin. I'd wager pretty much every high ranking official in all of the six cities knows your name and reputation. Notoriety of that sort has its curses and benefits. You've experienced the latter, now you're getting to know the former. No king would outright defy a writ of universal pardon, but it's easy enough to contrive an 'accident' with little accountability. I know about your situation. My spymaster gave be a briefing when I saw your name on the audience list. Apparently, you angered some noble with enough influence to persuade Durth the Spineless to turn a blind eye to your assassination. Not the first time something like this has happened.

    "When I issue a writ of universal pardon, I adhere not only to the document but to the spirit in which it was written. Otherwise, it doesn't mean shit. Know how many I've given out in my two decades on the throne?"

    "No, Your Majesty."

    "One. And those were peculiar circumstances. But I digress. My point is that I'll honor this writ provided you surrender it to me and seek legitimate employment within Obis. You start with a clean slate but you no longer have Durth's fake scroll to protect your ass. I'd suggest joining the militia but the choice is yours. I wouldn't recommend seeking an occupationan occupation in your former line of work. I have no need of a torturer and there's a law against privately engaging in those practices. If you want to torture, go somewhere else. In this city, it's a hanging offense."

    That audience led to the beginning of Lagashin's military career. Taken as a whole, it was undistinguished. He spent nearly three years rising through the ranks but his heart wasn't in it. Being a soldier involved doling out death, but it wasn't the sort of killing he was familiar with. There was no art to it. It was pure brutality - the faster, the better. He feared that his skills, honed over the long period he spent in Basingham, were eroding from disuse.

    Eventually, despairing of what he had become, he left the service of King Rangarak - an act that led him to his current position. And where was that? Now, for the first time since his last mission for King Durth, he was going to be given an opportunity to return to his first love. There was money involved, to be sure. And, having left all his wealth behind in Basingham, he needed the gold. But it was more than that. He was excited about the prospect of renewing his acquaintanceship with the nasty little tool he had taken from Slither. He had waited for this, wanted it for so long... His skin tingled with the prospect of creating the special bond that only torturer and victim shared.

    Smiling, Langashin took a moment to compose himself. Now was the time. The long years of waiting were over. Screams and whimpers, then stench of blood and charred flesh… how he loved it all! And, if only in this one instance, it had been given back to him. The gods were dead, but to Langashin, this felt like a gift from above, and he wasn't about to squander it.