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“The King’s Garden” by Alan Brown

Alan Brown, Author

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Deep within the palace, a chamber was dimly lit with glowing crystals. The king’s private garden contained many exotic flowers, ferns, and other such plants. In a desert kingdom like this, such flora is never seen by the commoners. The beautiful specimens were given to the king as gifts from foreign nobles and painstakingly preserved in all their beauty, grown in antique vases and shielded by glass bubbles. It sure would be a shame if somebody were to try and steal them.

The infamous thief Zalinero looked down on the gallery from the skylight above. Clad in black, he had stalked his way through the night to find this treasure trove. He pulled a curved dagger from the sash around his waist and gently cut a ring in the window to the room below. The circular section he cut out fell down to the floor below and shattered with a soft tinkling noise. Zalinero cringed. Hesitating for a moment, he let out a quiet sigh of relief when no guard came to investigate. Zalinero was a peculiar sort of person in that his luck was extremely polarized. Extraordinarily unlikely things happened around him, but they were as catastrophic as often as they were fortuitous. He never could be sure whether a small accident was the start of something great or the signal for disaster.

He silently dropped from the ceiling and tiptoed up to the vase in the center of the room. The soft stockings he wore over his feet made no noise as he sauntered toward his target. It was a navy blue urn etched with zigzagging patterns, placed on a marble pedestal. A beautiful purple chrysanthemum grew in it, but he didn’t care. This was a special vase, one that had been passed down through the royal family for generations. On the black market, it would be worth at least two thousand rupees.

He gingerly removed the glass covering from the flower and set it aside. He scooped up the big vase and thought to himself, No traps? Laaame. This was almost too easy. He took two steps toward the clay arch decorating the room’s only exit, but then something sharp stabbed into his foot. “Dammit!” he exclaimed. The broken glass left by his entry had cut up his left foot. He hopped up and down on his right, then lost his grip on the vase. Swiftly diving, he was able to catch it before it hit the floor. Instinctively, he reached out with one hand to stop himself from falling face-first, and his reward was a palm full of broken glass. “Damn it all!” he exclaimed, springing to his feet. He shook the glass out of his cut hand, but in the process he accidentally knocked over another one of the vases. A green pot containing several blue roses shattered with a loud crash.

He sighed. Easy come, easy go. “What was that?” a guardsman bellowed. The guard, spear in hand, appeared in the archway. The big, burly man saw a short, thin fellow dressed in black standing next to a mess of scattered dirt and broken terra cotta. With the blue urn under one arm, Zalinero used his free hand to pull down the bandana covering his face. “Well, you see, um, I’m a security system appraiser that your king hired to…”

The guard didn’t listen. He pulled a bugle off of his belt and lifted it up to his mouth. With puffed up cheeks, he sent out a loud signal that echoed through the palace halls. Zalinero triggered the compact crossbow he wore on his right forearm with a flex of his wrist. The bolt cut into the guard’s jugular, killing him instantly, but it was too late. He could hear other guards in the palace blowing on their trumpets to relay the signal to every one of their comrades: intruder alert! Zalinero ran out of the room and down the hall. He didn’t know where he was going, but his mind was quick at work figuring that out.

Within minutes, the palace was in uproar. Zalinero killed one guard after another, swashbuckling with a stolen scimitar. The thief fought using hit and run tactics. Any time he was discovered, he would swiftly dispatch a guard and disappear into the shadows, never stopping no matter how many cuts and glancing blows the guards inflicted on him. Search parties swept through the halls, trying to corner him. After twenty minutes of watching bodies pile up, the guard captain himself stepped into the fray.

Sarkesh was a veteran soldier. Before being promoted to the cushy position of captain of the palace guards, he fought in hundreds of battles. He had a certain kind of wisdom that few warriors ever achieve. Once his men had cornered Zalinero in a cavernous ballroom, Sarkesh stepped in, wearing full plate armor lined with silver accents. He put one hand on the pommel of the sword sheathed at his waist and stared down the thief.

It was hard for him to believe that this scrawny little man was the thief Zalinero, spoken of in hushed tones as if he were a living legend. The thief had bleeding cuts all over his body. His lungs heaved and huffed as he pressed his back against a corner, clinging onto the vase with one hand and brandishing the scimitar with the other. His fierce eyes issued a silent challenge to the captain: Come closer and I’ll kill you.

“Zalinero, I have heard many tales about your heists,” Sarkesh announced. His soldiers watched from the sides of the room. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to cream you myself.”

Zalinero’s face twisted in disgust. He mockingly turned one ear to the captain. “What did you just say? You pass out when you cream yourself? Buddy, you really ought to see a doctor about that.” One of the guards stifled a laugh.

Sarkesh furrowed his brow. “I wish to fight honorably whether you are taking this seriously or not. The way I see it, fighting a wounded opponent is a coward’s strategy.” He pulled a small glass bottle from a pouch on his belt. Red liquid swirled inside. “This potion will heal any wounds you have, plus invigorate you with energy to make up for any lost stamina. Take it, and we can duel as gentlemen… but if you want to catch it, you’ll have to put down that vase. Or drop your weapon. Which will it be?”

Zalinero eyed him suspiciously at first. After a moment of hesitation, he slowly lowered the vase to the ground and held out his hand. Sarkesh tossed him the potion, and he caught it. The thief uncorked the bottle with this thumb and gulped it down. It felt warm, dribbling down his throat. A strange sensation overtook him. The room around him swirled, and his legs felt like jelly. “What did you do?”

The guard captain laughed a loud, booming laugh. “You dumbass! That wasn’t a healing potion, it was a sleeping potion! What a sucker!” All the guards joined their captain in laughing at the thief as he collapsed on the floor.

The next day, Sarkesh presented the stolen vase to the king. The flower was still firmly planted in the soil, even after all it had been through.

“Did he take them out of the bottom?” the king asked, rising from his throne.

“Take what?” Sarkesh was confused.

The king snatched up the vase. He pulled the flower out of the soil and tossed it to the ground. Sarkesh watched, astonished, as the king shoveled fistfuls of dirt out onto the immaculate tile floor of the throne room. “My liege, what is wrong?”

“It’s gone! He took them!” After the king emptied the vase, he threw it to the ground with enough force to shatter it. His face was red, and a vein was bulging out of his forehead.

“What’s going on, your majesty?” Sarkesh had never seen his master this upset before.

“In my father’s time, there were many spies in the palace. Treasure kept disappearing no matter how many guards we put in front of the royal vaults. Since that time, we’ve hidden most of our kingdom’s wealth in the garden’s flowerpots. Rubies! Emeralds! Sandworm pearls! Each vase contains a satchel of jewels because really, who would think to steal a garden?”

A guard ran into the throne room, panic in his eyes. “My lords, there’s an emergency!”

The realization hit Sarkesh like a ton of bricks. “Zalinero,” was the only word he could muster.

“He’s escaped? But how?” The king thundered.

The guard got down on one knee, trembling. “I’m sorry, but we don’t know. He was just gone, but he left a note.” He offered the scrap of parchment to Sarkesh.

It read: Joke’s on you, sucker.

“What does it say?” The king asked Sarkesh.

The guard captain blushed and crumpled the paper up into a ball. “Nothing. Nothing at all, sir.”

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The student news source of The University of Alabama in Huntsville
“The King’s Garden” by Alan Brown