Costis woke with a start. He rolled over and peered into the darkness, hand grabbing automatically for the dagger he'd taken to sleeping with under his pillow, and closing on air. "Your Majesty?" he said groggily.
Silhouetted by the faint moonlight coming through the courtyard window, the king flipped Costis's dagger into the air then caught it, one-handed as ever. "Fine blade," he said. "Good work. Old. Your father's?"
Costis nodded, swinging his legs off the bed. The stone floor was cold. "And my grandfather's. He gave it to me when I left for training."
Attolis handed him the dagger, hilt-first. "How appropriate."
Training for the the Attolian Army was brutal. For a year, recruits woke before dawn to run up and down mountains, across fields and rivers. There was swordwork, of course, endless swordwork-most recruits were oklai, completely untrained in any weapon but the pitchfork. Then archery, spears, some elementary horsemanship, more running...
On especially hot days, or Festivals, when sunstroke or the gods' disfavor threatened any who dared to make an effort at work, did recruits have time to themselves, to rest and write letters home. But only the truly confident dared not spend these days practicing whatever they'd fallen behind in, or, more importantly, cleaning their gear. For any man foolish enough to aspire to the Queen's Guard, rest days were figments of the imagination.
In short, when Costis was fighting for every inch of ground on Thegmis, when he was finally assigned to the palace, even when he was caught up in the making of the King of Attolia, he occasionally comforted himself with the thought that nothing could possibly force him to that level of exhaustion and despair again. As long as he kept reasonably in shape, his days of training were in the past.
Then, in a fit of patriotic and probably concussed fervor, he swore himself to his king and his king's god.
It was reminiscent of the first few days after Costis hit the king, when he thought his position was to be the only one lower in the pecking order than the former Thief. Like then, he had to fulfill all the duties of a lieutenant of the Queen's Guard as well as suffer what indignities the king thought up in his spare time.
The nightly excursions did seem to match up to days Costis heard, by rumor, were particularly irritable to the king. Except sometimes they didn't. The only thing Costis knew for certain was that they in no way correlated to his duty schedule, except that the king never seemed to appear but when he was asleep or nearly so.
He had thought continuous repetition of first position exercises was difficult. At least he had already know how to use a sword. He thought he knew how to use his feet as well, how to walk and jump. but it turned out that by the standards of the former Thief of Eddis, he was barely a crawling babe.
At least there was no one to watch these indignities, like falling off the railing for the hundredth time in one night. On the other side of the coin, there was no one to distract the king's attention from the sight of Costis falling from the railing for the hundredth time in one night.
Finally, he cracked. "Your Majesty, why are we doing this? Why do I need to balance on a log halfway through the dog watch?" A tiny voice of self-preservation in the back of his head told him that now would be an excellent time to stop talking, but a louder (sleep-deprived) voice argued that it was too late for that anyway. "Why will I ever need to balance on a log halfway through the dog watch?"
"You never know," said the king from his seat on a rafter, feet dangling just above Costis's head. "I crossed the Seperchia on a log in the middle of the night when I stole the Gift for my cousin who is Eddis."
Costis stared up at him.
"Well, I crossed during the day," the king admitted. "But I was stabbed at the time. One of your guards."
Costis nodded. He'd heard about that, albeit mostly belatedly. If the details had been more well-known, he doubted the king could have convinced them of his lack of swordplay so effectively.
The king sighed and jumped to the floor. Costis barely moved. He'd gotten slightly more used to the king's habit of movement, or at least given up trying to be on guard against it. "I could say it's because I need you," he mused.
The king touched him on the shoulder. "I do, you know. It's not enough to not have the barons at each others' throats. The Mede are going to come back."
Costis nodded wordlessly. None of the Guard really doubted that.
"If you truly don't think you can do this, we can stop."
There was a plaintive tone to his voice that Costis had never heard before, a genuine sadness. Costis tried to keep his face blank as he realized why he was awake three hours before dawn trying to learn how to fall into the hands of a foreign god. He had heard from Aris, who had it from another guard, that the king rarely locked himself in his rooms to look towards Eddis anymore, but that was because he was trying to bring it to Attolia. The Thief of Eddis was a family position, passed down through countless generations, but any heir the king had now would be just that––the heir. Trying to make a new Thief, and all he had to work with was Costis Ormentiedes.
"No, My King, of course I can. I mean, I will." He pushed himself once more to his feet. "Shall I try the handstand again?"
Relius looked up at the soft knock on his door. Most would knock on the outside of a door and then enter, but rules like that never seemed to apply to the new King of Attolia, not even with the spymaster's (purposely chosen) least-oiled door hinges in the palace.
He rose and bowed. "My King," he said, still marveling at how comfortable it felt to say those words.
The king nodded acceptance at the greeting and draped himself into the only other chair in the room, sitting for all the world as a sloppy apprentice on dinner break, as usual. He waved his hand at the figure still hovering in the doorway. "Costis, come in."
Costis stayed where he was, one foot over the threshold. For all the esteemed personages and intrigue he'd been involved with since the Thief of Eddis became King of Attolia, the office of the Secretary of the Archives still had an air of the cave where goblins took naughty children.
He shook himself mentally and stepped firmly into the room. "Sir," he said politely to Relius.
The Secretary barely took notice of the guard, attention still focused on the king. "Do you have a task for me, My King?"
Attolis shook his head. "A gift, rather." He waved Costis forward once more. "Irene mentioned that you're still having difficulty rebuilding up your network, particularly in the Mede court."
The King had once described his trailing of guards and attendants as yapping showdogs, and Costis had never felt it more than now, as the Secretary of the Archives eyed him head to toe. "We are exchanging ambassadors next week."
"Of course," said the king, "but ambassadors need guards, do they not?"
"Then I'd like to recommend Costis here, if Teleus agrees to let him go. He looks properly guard-like, doesn't he? Thick and dull and honorable?" Costis stood stock still, ignoring the jibe as the king went on. "I can vouch for his skills at guarding myself, though he still lowers his point in third"––this time Costis did blush, but remained silent––"He even trailed me through some terribly dull classes in Mede."
That interested Relius more, as Attolis had known it would. No one was a better listener than one who looked like he didn't understand.
"Where did you grow up?" he asked in thickly accented Mede.
"On a farm," replied Costis with a more polished accent, if simpler vocabulary.
The king grinned like a small child with a toy. "He can do a couple more tricks as well, if you need further proof." He turned lazily in his chair. "Costis, why don't you stand on one hand?"
Check that, now Costis had never felt more like a showdog.
Thankfully, Relius had slightly more sense for others' dignity than the king. "That's fine," he said hurriedly. He came out from behind his desk and bowed deeply to the king. "The ambassador's retinue is not yet fixed. I will discuss the matter with Teleus."
"Thank you, Relius," said Attolis, rising. Costis backed up to stand behind him. "I'll see you in the council meeting tomorrow. Have it arranged by then."
"Of course. Thank you for the suggestion." murmured the spymaster.
Costis followed his king out of the office. He barely paid attention to where they went, so used to wandering the palace in the dead of night had he gotten, and so full were his thoughts. Any plans he might have had for his life had been lost the day he hit the king, but he had never thought it could possibly lead to this. Elevated for show to lieutenant, then back to squad leader, then lieutenant again, this time on his own merits...and now amateur Thief and, it seemed, spy in a foreign country.
He trailed the king to the royal chambers then returned to his own small room, still lost in thought. He hadn't known what the king was going to say when they went to Relius' office, but now that he did, it was no surprise. Of course Teleus would let him be sent off to the Mede Empire. A foreign land, far stranger and further than Eddis or Sounis, with whom they were practically at war, to play the dumb guard and try to find out as much as possible to prevent or at least win the coming conflict.
Falling asleep the instant his head hit the pillow, Costis reassured himself that no matter how different the Mede court, it couldn't possibly be more peculiar than Attolia since the Thief became King. Somehow, it was not as comforting a thought as he had hoped.