he girl began to snore gently. A wheezing unpleasant noise that seemed almost a plea for pity. It was the smell of her more than the sound that disturbed him. The fetid and cloying smell that accompanied all her sex. The smell of sweat and urine and discharge. Smells telling, more accurately than any book, the true nature of woman. The secret inner nature, that women with all their powers of concealment and dissembling strove to keep hidden away from the eyes of men. And of course they succeeded, for men are easily fooled by outward show; a plump bosom, a flash of teeth, a whiff of scented breath.

But the truth was ever there, for women could never quite rid themselves - despite all the powders and perfumes - of the smell of their own decay.

Kylock rose from his bed, seeking to distance himself from the telling candor that was the stench of women. He would have liked to shake the girl awake and bid her go, but that did not suit his plans, and indeed, after all he had put her through this night, he was not entirely sure that a good shaking would waken her. Oh the girl would recover: physical resilience was yet another trait of her sex. They outdid and then outlived men.

He moved across the room to where a copper washbasin waited, as it always did, and began to wash his hands. Scrubbing with a small, but coarse boar's-hair brush, he meticulously cleansed his hands of the taint of woman. Fingers, that a candle length earlier, had so eagerly sought out fleshy openings and swellings, were now soaked in the lye laden water. Kylock took extra care on this occasion. It was a mark of respect for what he would do this night. Not for the person he would do it to, but for the nature of what would be done.

He looked at his hands. Pale and long they were; elegant in finger, delicate in shape. Not his father's hands.

A half smile stole across his lips, and he turned his face to the mirror. Not his father's face, not his father's eyes or nose or teeth. With a sudden violent movement he slammed his fist into the mirror. The glass shattered with a satisfying crack and splinter. The girl on the bed momentarily stirred and then, perhaps deciding she was safer in oblivion, settled herself back with the minimum of movement.

The blow had not even drawn blood. Kylock was pleased. It seemed fitting that no blood should be drawn this night.

The mirror now presented him with a disjointed array of images. His mother was there as a ghost in the fragments. There was no doubting he was his mother's son. The plain of cheek, the tilt of brow, the swell of lip: they all spoke of his mother.

He didn't bother to search for traces of his father: there would be none to find. There never had been. He was not his father's son. It was as plain as the nose on his face. Indeed it was the nose that gave everything away: a grim irony, but a truth nonetheless.

Kylock turned from the mirror and readied himself. There were no special requirements. He donned his usual black; so out of place in daylight, so very appropriate at night. The color of secrets and stealth. The color of death. He needed no mirror to tell how very well it became him, how flattering and suitable the hue. Black would suit his mother, too. Like mother like son.

He was so close to where he needed to be, a mere corridor away, but he would not set foot on that hallowed hall, would not feel the cool touch of the bronze doors upon his palms. He must walk a subtle path.

Kylock left his chambers and made his way to the ladies quarters. Any man who spied him on his way would turn a blind but winking eye: thinking to himself that it was only right that the heir to the Four Kingdoms had the audacity to flaunt the rules by visiting a lady in her chambers after dark.

Kylock had no lady on his mind. He knew an entrance to the passageways was to be found in the ladies quarters. It was only natural that there be one: where else in the whole castle might a king want to visit more, and yet be seen doing so less?

The kings' chancellor had shown him the ways of the castle. One Winter's Eve, many years before, Kylock had been caught setting the royal hounds on a newly born foal. As punishment, his mother had confined him to his chambers for a week. Thanks to Baralis, he never had to stay there. By opening a wall with a touch of his disfigured fingers, the man had given him the precious gift of secrecy. Even now Kylock could remember the thrill of revelation, the sense that he had found what he had always searched for amidst the stench and the stealth.

It had changed his life. So much had been revealed to him, nothing passed his greedy eye. He'd spied noblemen rutting with chamber maids, heard servants plotting against their masters, and discovered marks from the pox concealed beneath many a great lady's face-powder.

Nothing was as it seemed. Corruption and greed lay close to the bone. Flesh masked a world of sins, and by allowing him access to the hidden passages of Castle Harvell, Baralis had shown him the whole tawdry inventory of them.

Kylock located the wall. He imagined he could hear the click of the mechanism as he drew fingers over the stone. An alluring cavity presented itself. Kylock entered and chose his path.

The sudden chill and smell of rot brought visions of his mother. Surely in all eternity there had never been born a greater whore! Queen Arinalda, the beautiful, the aloof; always pretending to be so correct, so impeccable. How far from the truth appearances so often are. The smell was there, though; unmistakable, stronger than in any other woman. She reeked like a whore. Sometimes the smell was so overpowering that he couldn't bear to be in her presence. How many men had she slept with? How many lies had she told? How much treachery had she practiced?

That she had slept with men other than the king was obvious. He, Kylock, was proof of that. There was no Harvell blood in him. No fair hair on his head, no short and stocky limbs attached to his body.

His mother had found her pleasures with other men, and he was a result of her lack of control. Women were the weaker sex, and the source of that weakness was their all consuming lust. They were disgusting: a thin layer of skin stretched over a foul inner self that boasted the same cravings as a beast. He expected the tavern wenches and street girls to give in to these desires, but a queen? His mother, who should have been above every woman in the realm, was a cheap whore. And he was the son of a whore. He could never look in the mirror without the truth staring back at him.

Almost too soon he was there. The nucleus of the castle, the source from which all else flowed, or should have flowed if things were not as they were. The king's chamber.

Kylock released the mechanism and stepped in. The smell of the sick room assailed his senses. The smell of a man slowly losing himself to death. Too slowly.

Quietly, for he knew that the Master of the Bath would be in the adjoining chamber, he stole across the room. His heart was pounding wildly; excitement and fear mixing on every beat. He approached the bed. The crimson silk monstrosity had been home for the king for the last five years. Kylock drew back the curtains and looked upon the face of the man who was not his father.

As he gazed at the king he felt pity. Thanks to the physicians the man had neither hair nor teeth. He was a pathetic figure with hollowed out cheeks and a constant drool. Kylock saw where the spittle had wettened and stained the pillows, and pity gave way to disgust. This was no king. His mother was king. His whore of a mother had been rewarded for her sins by being made sovereign in all but name. He wouldn't have put it past her to have caused the king's illness in the first place. Woman's middle name was treachery.

Well tonight all things would change. He would not only be ridding the country of a useless king, but also a fallacious queen. Tomorrow his mother would find herself devoid of her power. There would be a new king, and she would be a fool to try and rule the Kingdoms through the reign of this one, too.

Kylock picked up one of the many pillows. His fastidiousness insisted that it be be one untouched by the king's drool. There he was, the man who was not his father. Would I do this if he were my father? Kylock molded the silken pillow in his hands, smoothing the shape to what he needed. Yes, I would do it anyway.

He leaned over the the bed. As the shadow of the pillow crossed the king's face his eyes opened. Kylock took a step back in fright as the light blue eyes of the king looked upon him. A fresh gob of drool rolled down his chin as he tried to speak. Kylock couldn't move. The pillow burned hot in his hands. Eye of man and boy met. The king's jaw worked slowly, and the drool fell on his chest.

"Kylock, my son." The words were barely intelligible; a mixture of rasp and spittle.

Kylock looked upon the face of the king. The light blue eyes were more lucid than any words: they spoke of love and loyalty and forgiveness. The boy shook his head sadly.

"No, Sire. No son of yours." Kylock felt control coming back to his limbs, the pillow was cool once more.

Kylock's beautiful hands pressed the pillow into the toothless, hairless face of King Lesketh. His fingers spread out against the scarlet silk as he held the pillow firm against the feeble struggling of the king. Lesketh's good arm flayed like a gentle bird. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, and then rose no more.

Kylock took his first breath as the king was denied his last. He was trembling. His knees felt such weakness, and his stomach fluttered and threatened to turn. He willed himself to be strong: now was not the time for weakness. He was king now and he doubted if there would ever be time for weakness again. He lifted the pillow. Death had finally put a stop to Lesketh's drooling. The man who was not his father looked better, more dignified, more noble. More like a king in death than he ever had in life.

Kylock patted the pillow back into shape and placed it, drool stain up, beneath Lesketh's chin. The bedclothes were in disarray; twisted and untidy. He straightened the sheets, drawing them up so they graciously adorned the dead king.

Satisfied that all looked as it should, Kylock took his leave. Down he went, his feet finding the path that his eyes did not see. His sights were full of other images; images of a glorious coronation, of comforting his distraught mother, of winning the war with the Halcus. His reign had started well. He had already performed a great service to his country: ridding it of a weak and sickly king. It was a shame that one of his greatest acts was destined to go unlauded by history. Never mind, he thought, he would give the historians plenty of other things to write about in their dull and spineless books.

He found himself back in his chamber. The girl was there, exactly as he'd left her. He went straight over to the washbasin and once again cleaned his hands. The smell of death was easier to wash off than the smell of woman.

Drying his hands on a soft cloth, he moved over to his desk. A quick look back served to assure him that the girl was still sound asleep. From under the foot of the desk he took a key. Delicately filigreed in gold, it caught and played with the candlelight. A jeweled box opened upon its turning. With hands long and agile he took the tiny portrait from the box. There she was; beautiful and innocent, far above any other of her sex. Her purity of soul clearly marked on each perfect feature: Catherine of Bren. Not for her a woman's lusts. She was pure and unsullied, the most perfect of women: and she was his.

Just the sight of her likeness threw the girl on the bed into tawdry relief. Catherine would not smell like a whore. She would not be forever damned in hell like other women. Like his mother.

Kylock tenderly replaced the portrait, careful not to scratch its unblemished surface. He was king now. Catherine would be his queen.

Off came his tunic and his fine silk undershirt. His image beckoned him from the shattered mirror, but he paid it no heed. A black desire came upon him, and if he had but looked in the glass he would have seen his eyes glaze over and grow dim. He would not have known himself. There was a hunger within, and he had no choice but to feed it, lest it feed itself upon his soul instead.

He drew near the bed. The girl moaned and turned away. He stood above her and, with hands that had killed a king, he ripped the linen shift from her back.

Spiraling downward to a place where fear and desire met, Kylock lost himself to his need. The sound of his mother's voice was in his ear and the face of Catherine of Bren in his eye.