No warning, just as bloody usual. That simpering boy the Baron calls his valet is so used to waking me in the middle of the night, he even knows when and where to jump back when my stiletto hand thrashes out.
"Same as before," he says, skipping the more flowery message the Baron gave him to repeat. He stopped that after I threw him to the ground and threatened to shove the stiletto up his nose for wasting my time.
I pull my tool bag out from under the cot. "Clean or dirty?"
"The Baron said clean if you can manage it. He said there will be a state funeral."
My room's as dark as the inside of a dead cow, but lighting a lamp would waste time and draw attention. I retrieve two vials of poison from the sack by feel, and tuck the stiletto into a sleeve.
"Tell me," I say, reaching for my boots.
"Two," says the boy. "A nobleman and his mistress, already asleep. I'll lead you there."
"You always do," I say. "Let's get it over with. The beans need staking up tomorrow."
We leave my room at the back of the garden-shed and walk with light feet on the flagstone path. It's too overcast for the moon or the stars to show the way. Something squishes under the toe of my boot, so now I know I have slugs to deal with on top of everything else.
The boy leads me to one of the guest houses that lay hidden in the forest beside the castle grounds. They're supposed to be secluded, but the dozens of servants who work for the Baron all know where they are.
The door from the great stone patio to the dining-hall has been left unlocked; we slip in, and almost wake the entire household when the boy trips on the rug. I yank him back by his collar to keep him upright, and we creep up the stairs.
The second-floor corridor has a torch lit in a wall-sconce, so at least we can see our way. The master bedroom is at the end of the hall.
The open doorway lets me see a man — my main target — asleep on his side, facing the door. His body blocks the view of the mistress, but all is quiet, so I figure I'll risk it. I nod at the boy to watch the door and tiptoe in.
The first part of the job is simple enough. Since the nobleman is on his side, I unstopper the appropriate vial and carefully pour the contents down his ear. Then I hold his nose and mouth closed in case he wakes up and tries to complain about the concoction eating out his head. He spasms a little but dies before he wakes up fully. I can smell he pissed himself on the way out, but that doesn't count against a "clean" job. The Baron just wants something that will be pretty for the state funeral. A body that needs washing fits the bill.
The mistress stirs beside the corpse, so I hurry to the other side of the bed. She's lying on her back, and I get the feeling she'll wake up at any moment, so I press her forehead down firmly with one hand and shove the stiletto up one of her nostrils with the other. She gasps awake as the steel touches her upper lip, but it's piercing her brain before she can cry out.
There. Done right quick and both clean. I wipe the stiletto off on the bedsheets and return to the doorway. The boy glances a question to me and I nod back an answer.
I know he hates this part. He has to confirm they're both dead. I've never messed up that part of a job, but supposedly it was a problem with the last unlucky wretch who held the post.
The boy returns, and even in the torchlight he looks a bit green. He just never learns to have a stomach for the checking. I shrug, he looks like he's going to say something, but in the end he just starts down the hall, which means I'm free to follow him.
Just before we get back to my room the clouds part, and the moon comes out. We hurry into the shadows and my room.
"He said to give you this," says the boy, pulling a small leather bag from his satchel. It will have the usual number of coins in it. "This too," he adds, and hands me a small wineskin. I open it. It doesn't have wine, just flat ale.
"Good," I say, "I'll feed this to the slugs. They love beer so much they're willing to drown in it. At least they die happy and leave my raspberry bushes alone."
"How did you wind up killing people at night if you're the gardener?" the boy says. The way it pours out of him, it sounds like he's been waiting a long time to ask.
I shrug and sniff at the aroma of ale coming out of the wineskin before replacing the stopper. "The Baron saw me wring the neck on a chicken one day and asked if I could do the same to a man. You know the Baron. He doesn't like it when he asks a question and the answer is 'no'."
"But you're a gardener. You make life."
I snort. "When I was your age, I let a cucumber rot where it grew. And you know what happened? All these little cucumber seedlings came up, too many for them all to live. They crowded each other to death. But if I'd picked that cucumber like I should have, someone would have eaten it. No new cucumber plants from eating. I make life, but I make death too. That's what gardening is."
I pull my boots off and lie back on my cot. "Be off now. I told you I have to stake up those beans tomorrow morning, and the Baron will be wanting to be dressed sooner than you might be ready for."
The boy looks like he wants to say something else, but he leaves anyhow.
I think about drinking the ale to put me to sleep, but something smelled off about it. I tuck my stiletto in its usual sleeve, and fall asleep dreaming of a slug-free broccoli patch.