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The Tragedy of Oswald, Prince of Volinar

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There are more things
In heaven and on earth, Sebastian,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
--The Tragedy of Oswald, Prince of Volinar

Sam spends most of the day working up his nerve. He wouldn’t have thought it would be so hard to ask a friend (so much as anyone in the Guild considers anyone else a friend) a simple question, but – well, it’s Cata. She has that effect on people. Besides, the simple question he’s got in mind could easily be taken as a personal request, and if she’s not interested that has high odds of ending badly.

Finally, just before dinner, he decides he might as well do it if he’s going to and heads for Cata’s room. She only just finished her practical exam, so the Guild hasn’t shifted her out of the building yet, but Sam’s sure she’ll only need a contract or two to get herself a nice set of rooms.

“Cata?”

She turns from whatever it is she was doing at her desk – sometimes it’s better not to ask – and smiles. “Hi, Sam.”

Oh, gods, he’s losing his nerve already. “I was wondering – there are some traveling players in town. If you’d want to go. Celebrate passing your practical.”

“Possibly. What’s the play, have you heard?”

“‘Tragedy of Oswald,’ I think. It’s supposed to be pretty good.”

Cata grins. “All right. It ought to be good for a laugh.”

***

He wonders what she means about it being good for a laugh – after all, they call it a tragedy – until the next afternoon, when they go to the square the players have set up shop in. Cata insists they stick to the back of the audience; at first, Sam assumes that’s so they can leave without causing a disruption if they have to, a practice anyone with an assassin’s training learns quickly.

The play starts out simply enough: Prince in mourning, ghosts, that sort of thing. Sam’s never encountered a ghost before, but then, it’s possible to bring people back from the dead; one can never tell. He doesn’t even mind the ghost talking to the prince.

It’s when the ghost says how he died that Sam splutters.

“Poison through his ear?” he says, trying to stay quiet enough not to disturb everyone else. “Through his ear? How did the author not know that was ridiculous?”

Cata smiles at him. “You see why I said this would be fun?”

“I think I do, now.”

When the prince agrees to avenge his father’s poisoning by ear – honestly, there’s no poison in the Six Lands that would be caustic enough to actually do a person any damage; they’d have had to use acid for that to be remotely plausible, and acid’s far too difficult to work with – Cata snorts. “You’d do better to hire someone to fix that for you.”

Sam considers that, wrinkling his nose a bit. “Would there be a plot if he did that?”

“A shorter one, I’ll grant you, but it would make more sense.”

It turns out the prince’s uncle killed his father and married his mother. Sam may not be the world’s greatest expert on a standard family, but he’s fairly certain that’s a bit extreme. This Oswald fellow also can’t seem to decide if he’s mad or not – or if he wants to live at all, which doesn’t strike him as a trait to look for in someone looking to end another life.

“Something’s rotten in the state of Volinar, all right,” he mutters. “Where is Volinar, anyway?”

“It doesn’t exist anymore,” Cata says. “I think it’s part of Kwart, now.”

Sam nods. “That would explain the lack of assassins. They probably couldn’t get through Kwart and out the other side to help.”

Still, it’s not long before he’s agreeing with Cata that what Oswald needs is professional help, not to confuse everyone around him by trying to do it himself. Everyone’s spying on everyone else, he’s sending the girl a particularly nasty set of mixed messages, and then he can’t even decide whether he imagined the ghost after all.

“You’re solving this problem with another play?” Cata says. “Really?”

“Well, he is trying to corroborate what the ghost told him,” Sam says. “But it does seem a little counterproductive.”

The poisoning scene in the play-within-a-play is so outright ridiculous that Sam can’t help laughing. He ignores the audience members glaring at him for it; they’d be laughing too if only they knew. It does seem to prove what Oswald wants it to prove, though.

Right up until the fellow takes action and kills the wrong person.

“Really?” Cata says, loud enough to draw a few glares of her own.

“If these weren’t actors, I’d say you should offer to help them get it sorted out.” Sam would himself, at this rate, but he hasn’t taken his practical yet. Some days he thinks that’s a little ridiculous; after all, he’s been training longer than some of the people who took the practical in Cata’s group have even been at the Guild.

Then again, not everyone starts training at five.

Oswald’s uncle the king is more willing to let other people do his dirty work, as it turns out; Sam’s starting to see how he managed to pull off his grab for power. He tries sending Oswald off to his death in another kingdom to get him out of the way – still not hiring an assassin, but it’s more competent than anything Oswald’s tried up to this point, and at least when that goes wrong it’s not the king’s fault.

Then the girl Oswald was giving mixed messages comes back, more than half mad, and Sam winces.

“Are you all right?”

“I’ll be fine,” he says, “it’s just... she’s reminding me of Mother, a bit.”

Cata frowns. “If I remember right – ah, yes, they just confirmed it – the going theory in the story is she was so struck by grief for her father she tried to magic herself better.”

“Oh, please, that couldn’t work.”

They move on from that quickly enough, as it turns out Oswald’s not going off to his death after all. The king’s smart enough to get a backup plan in place, involving the mad girl’s brother and a duel.

“Finally, a sensible poisoning,” Sam says. “Though putting it on the end of one’s sword is still awfully risky.”

“So is having a goblet of poisoned wine sitting about,” Cata points out.

“I didn’t say it couldn’t all still go wrong, you’ll note. But this is so much better than pouring acid in someone’s ear.”

Sam’s not sure what to make of all the fuss in the graveyard, other than thinking that the king really should have hired professionals himself; the girl’s brother nearly does Oswald in before the appointed duel.

“It’s a wonder anyone gets these things squared away when they can’t just put out a contract,” Cata says.

“No kidding. Have you – got one yet?”

“Unfortunately, no. I think someone else snapped up the one I had my eye on before I could, and everyone’s saying there’s less work to be had lately. But I’ve got nothing but time – something will come along soon enough.”

The duel turns out to be every bit as much of a cart wreck as Sam was suspecting, given the way the earlier poisonings and murders went. By the end of the duel, nearly all the characters are dead (including Oswald), the Kwartan warlord Oswald had bumped into when he was headed for another kingdom has come and assumed rule of Volinar, and Cata and Sam are both laughing so hard the audience nearest them has moved away as much as possible. He thinks some of the players are shooting them nasty looks, but he doesn’t much care.

It’s not their fault they have such an unfortunate play to work with, but really, they can’t expect assassins to take this seriously.

“You were right,” Sam says, as the audience starts clearing out. “That was good for a laugh. I can’t believe anyone thinks that’s plausible.”

Cata shrugs. “Well, if one lacks the training, it might work, at a stretch. But when you know a thing or two about how to do these things cleanly, particularly by poison, it loses its charm in a hurry. Want to get some dinner?”

The question’s so casual that it catches Sam off guard. “I – you – what?”

“Well, it’s early enough yet that the Frothing Otter won’t be too crowded. Not to mention it’s a lot less complex than eating at the Guild.”

“That... is very true.” Sam knows himself; he’ll end up checking his food for unwanted additives anyway. It’s a reflex, by now. But he can’t say he minds the idea of not having to be quite so careful for one night. “Sure.”

“All right then.” She starts in the direction of the tavern, and Sam follows, sure he’s grinning like a fool. But he can’t quite bring himself to care.