Quinton gazed out his bedroom window, watching the smoke of a hundred fires curl up over the rooftops sprawled out beneath him. He looked down on them, the haphazard structures of stone and wood, built by lesser men. He looked down on them, the men and women who choked the streets day and night, suffocating the pathways to the upper circle where he lived. He looked down on them all, and wished silently that he was seeing them through the smoke of consuming fires, and that he would awake in the morning to find all that he loathed had been burned to ash so that he may build his city anew.
Pulling the curtain closed, he turned and let out a gasp, taking a step away from the hooded man who stood only feet away from him.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” Quinton said with a nervous laugh, straightening himself and brushing his hair out of his face. The Hooded Man crossed his arms.
“No one does.”
Quinton nodded, looking the man over. He was dressed all in tatters. Rags wrapped around his arms, legs, and feet, close fitting clothes that were a patchwork of grime and dirt, all browns and mud colors, and the hood that covered his face, leaving only shadows.
“I suppose not,” Quinton remarked, drumming his fingers on the window sill. “Have you finished your task?”
The Hooded Man nodded, pulling a letter from his wrappings and tossing it to the Lord’s feet. Quinton huffed as he bent to pick it up.
“Mind yourself,” he said as sharp as he dared. “You are still in my employ, and I am still your lord.” The Hooded Man crossed his arms again as Quinton broke the wax seal and began reading.
After a few moments, his brow knotted. He began to open and close his mouth, making exasperated noises. He looked from the letter to the man, who stood silent, watching. Finally he crumpled the letter in his fist and snarled, “You knew about this?” The Hooded Man said nothing.
The Lord’s eyes began scanning the room, not focusing on one thing or another. “They’ve been planning this for weeks,” he said, starting to pace. “Haven’t they?” He didn’t wait for the Hooded Man to respond, knowing that he wouldn’t. “Those lowly maggots. Those festering vermin. They’ve been clawing at me from underneath my nose for weeks, waiting for me to look the other way so they can drive their knives in my back.” He stopped walking and turned to the Hooded man. “How many of them are there? How many in charge?”
“A dozen,” the Hooded Man replied. “The people call them the Builders.”
“The Builders,” Quinton scoffed, shaking his head. “How like sheep to follow.” He turned and threw back the curtain of his window, leaning on the sill with a sneer. “How like rats to swarm. The Builders. Yes, of course. The ones who built squalor and filth. The ones who piled mud and stone upon one another and called it home.” He looked back and gestured at himself. “What do they call me, eh? The one whose lands they rot away on? What is my title to them?”
The Hooded Man stood silent for a moment. “They call you the Plague.”
“HA!” Quinton barked, returning his gaze to the city. “HA HA HA!” he yelled out, leaning out of the window further with each syllable. He hunched over, his dark hair hanging about his face. “The Plague. They call me a disease while they wallow in shit and farm in piss.”
He straightened and pushed his hair back with both hands. “These Builders will have to be dealt with before they can act.” He uncrumpled the note in his hand and held in up to the torch nearest him. “They say they plan to gather arms and take me by force.” He looked to the Hooded Man. “It doesn’t say when.”
The Hooded Man made no move, no sound. Quinton watched him for a moment. “When do they plan to…” his words trailed off as his eyes narrowed. Slowly, he looked back out the window, looked back at the smoke of a hundred fires. They were closer. Moving. From his perch in the high tower he could see them, the rats of his city, scurrying through the streets. He could see them, gathering in numbers as they went, the fires of hundreds of torches glowing together in the night. He could see them, the weapons they held in their hands, even from the tower where he stood.
Pain shot through his back, sharp and hot. Quinton gasped as a strong hand grabbed him by the neck. “They attack tonight, my Lord,” The Hooded Man whispered in his ear. The hand fell from his neck and Quinton staggered, slumping against the window frame.
“I BOUGHT YOU,” Quinton screamed, grabbing at the curtains. “YOU WORK FOR ME! I OWN YOU!”
“It was your error, my Lord, to hire a rat to spy on his pack.”
Quinton reached back and pulled the knife from his back with a yell that turned into a scream, first of pain, then of rage. He spin wildly, brandishing the bloodied blade. The Hooded Man was gone. Quinton howled in frustration, stumbling away from the window, reaching his free hand out towards the door.
“G-Guards!” he barked, fumbling with numb fingers at the iron ring on the door. “Guards, I-“ his words failed him as he pulled the door open and saw his two guards laying in the hall, sprawled in an ocean of their own blood. Quinton tried to run down the hall, but his body did not obey. He fell, slipping on blood and fear. A crash echoed through the tower, the sound of wood splintering and breaking. The dying lord pushed himself away from the corpses and began crawling back into his room, incoherent words tumbling from his lips.
Scurrying. He could hear them scurrying through his halls, crawling through his castle, coming for him. And he had let them. He had hired a rat to spy on rats. Hired a brother to prey on his family. He looked down at the dagger he still clutched in his hand. The Hooded Man hadn’t killed him, he realized as the sounds of townsfolk began to echo from his hall into his chamber. He had killed himself.