The Dungeon Keeper’s Mission
by Charles C. Cole
One-eyed Gus, carrying a long menacing poker, which he used to knock down mats of cobwebs, escorted his new assistant, nicknamed “Handsome,” into the dim dungeon.
The apprentice stumbled as the stench hit him. “I don’t think I’m ready,” he said, wiping his hands with a fine linen kerchief.
“Ready enough, or they wouldn’t have sent you,” said Gus, “though you’re bit refined for these parts.”
“How do you get used to it?” asked Handsome.
“It’s all part and parcel to the rule of law,” said Gus.
A weak, muffled moan rose from an adjacent chamber. “Quiet down!” Gus yelled.
“Avoid eye contact,” he advised Handsome. “They’re less likely to look like people that way.”
“But they were,” insisted Handsome.
“No longer. Most don’t know their own selves. But I keep track,” said Gus, pointing to his head. “Sometimes the dungeon master gets orders to give a famous fella another go-round, in front of guests, to show we’re serious; only he’s forgotten what the fella looks like. But I know. I can see the order in the chaos. Remember that.”
“Done,” said Handsome.
Gus looked suspiciously at Handsome. “Don’t think that threats can woo me. I work in hell every day. How can things get worse?”
Handsome risked a dark joke. “I hear the cat-o’-nine-tails can leave quite an insistent wound.”
“The secret is,” said Gus, “not to care if you live or die. Pain is just your mind’s resistance to dying. Don’t resist, and it won’t hurt.”
“Must be a big scandal brewing,” said Gus. “Nobody ever questions my work ethic, so I’m thinking either you’re here to break someone out — which is laughable — or you’re here to make sure there’s room for a fresh crop. Maybe His Highness is doing a little housecleaning.”
“No housecleaning,” said Handsome.
“We got plenty of room. We can even stack them like firewood when they’re really far gone. A door stop’s got more humanity.”
“You’ve got the wrong idea,” said Handsome.
“If you’re here to break someone out...”
“Just to help,” Handsome insisted. “So, as your assistant, am I holding, tying, gagging?”
“None of that. We got specialists for that. If they calls ya, it’s with a bucket and mop you’ll come running. Gets slippery after a while; all the blood-letting. ’Truth will out,’ the man says, but he don’t mention nothin’ about it spurting.”
“Do you know their stories?”
“Best not to know.”
“But sometimes there must be a fellow who fell from grace, from riches to rags, that gets your attention.”
“Best not to remind ’em of their roots in that case. It rekindles their sense of outrage. They get uppity, like you’re not worthy of changing their rags. ‘It’s just a job,’ I say. ‘I got to put food on the table. No hard feelings.’ But once in a while, a fella descends so far in disgrace, the transition is a little awkward.”
“If they were royalty once themselves, you feel like you owe them to keep up the pretense, to be respectful. Take this boot-scraping of a man. A duke he was. So high up, more than once I saw him in life with moon dust about his shoulders. But he didn’t know his place.
“A ship wrecked near his castle. A body found half-dead. Everyone said, ‘Leave well enough alone, your royalness. Nature’s made her opinions known. Don’t be appealing the decision of the highest court.’
“But he fancies himself a doctor, wants to be known for healing, so he has the body brought up and nurses the invalid to health, scientifically. Then can’t help but brag. The king stops by for a peek and hell if the duke hasn’t rescued a captain for an opposing armada.”
“But he didn’t know,” said Handsome.
“He knew to leave well enough alone.”
“Duke Tristram, are you alive?” Handsome blurted.
“Here now! Don’t be using their real names. They get wound up, moaning and groaning for hours, missing the good ol’ days.”
Handsome straightened, hand on his hip over a concealed weapon. “The duke is leaving with me.”
“The guy who lets that one escape,” said Gus, “will probably take his place, if you know what I mean.”
“I thought you weren’t afraid of death.”
“I’m not afraid of pain. Death scares the religion out of me. Why don’t ya bribe me? You look like money. Why is he worth getting your hands dirty?”
“I’m the queen’s agent. She needs assistance from someone outside the court, someone scientific, like the duke.”
“You couldn’t pick someone more reputable?” asked Gus, confused.
“She fears the king is being poisoned by someone close to him. He hasn’t been out of bed in two days. We’re running out of time.”
“So why not just order me to hand over the guy?” asked Gus.
“I’m here in secret,” Handsome explained. “She doesn’t want the king to think she’s overruling his authority. If he’s not being poisoned, if it’s just indigestion, he may not approve.”
“In that case, maybe you ought to ‘overpower me,’ tie me up, give me a good story to tell.”
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Handsome.
“What about a tip, for my services?” asked Gus.
“I didn’t think he’d be alive,” said Handsome. “I didn’t come prepared. I have no money.”
“But you came prepared to kill me,” said Gus. “I bet you have a pretty knife with a sharp blade.”
“Enough. Help me move him before we’re caught. Find me in the Rusty Nail around closing. I’ll make amends.”
“But what do I tell the dungeon master when he finds his favorite pincushion missing?”
“Tell him,” suggested Handsome, “the man ascended to be with his lord. Let him think what he wants.”
“That’s a good one,” said Gus. “The biggest trick anyone’s ever played on me, and I can’t tell a soul. Up you go, Sir Duke, ascend. My best with the king’s business. May we all benefit. Best wishes to Her Highness. From all of us.”
Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole