Skip rubbed the hilt of the knife, nervous. The room was so dark and so quiet - how was he ever going to get across it without waking up the prince? Well, he had gotten this far. But he didn't want to do this. He still didn't understand... If Prince Laylen was as evil as the bald man said, why did a slave like Skip have to kill him? Why couldn't the king just jail him?
The bald man had told Skip that King Alrin's youngest son was a menace. He had said that Prince Laylen was planning a rebellion because he wanted the throne for himself, even though he was far down - fifth - in the line of succession. The bald man had told Skip worse things too - that Laylen was guilty of obscenities and perversion, and of practicing religion.
His fingers found the knife again. The hilt was becoming slick with sweat. Could everything the bald man said be true? And even if it was, why did Skip have to be the one to kill the prince? He thought of his mother. If Skip failed, she would be sold to Prince Rathan. That was what the bald man had said. There was a conspiracy. No matter what, Skip had to kill Prince Laylen to save his mother.
Skip started to suck in a deep breath, but stopped when he realized it might make a noise. The bald man had said the prince would be drugged - he had arranged for it. Skip knew all about the kinds of drugs that made a man sleep; the slave children were often given such medicine when they got too rowdy. He probably didn't need to worry about waking Prince Laylen up... but still.
No more excuses. Summoning the image of his mother in his mind, Skip stepped out from under the curtain. Nothing happened. His foot didn't strike a creaky spot in the floor; the prince didn't wake up and accuse him of murder.
He crept closer to the huge feather bed. He could hear the prince's deep, regular breathing as he slept. Skip made it around the edge of the bed and started inching up toward his intended victim's pillow.
He stopped. He would be a murderer if he did this.
But his mother would not be sold away. He raised the knife.
A shadow separated itself from the others and rose in front of him. He barely had time to register the cold glint of steel reflecting moonlight.
"Halt where you are."
Skip froze, his knife half-raised. This was it. He'd failed. He was done for.
The bald man had told him the prince would be drugged. He'd said it would be all right; it would be a simple thing, and when it was done the murder would be blamed on some petty lord the prince had a quarrel with...
There were sounds of movement in the darkness, and then a light. Skip gasped as he realized the glint he'd seen before was a sword, and it was pointed at his throat. He backed up a step. Eventually his wide eyes traveled up the sword to the person holding it. Laylen was blond, blue-eyed, and beautiful. He'd seen the prince before of course, but not this close up. His would-be victim regarded him with eyes like ice.
"I should have known. You're a slave, right?"
Somehow, over the panicked pounding of his heart, Skip found his words.