THE CELL GUARDS reported to the dungeon guard, and the dungeon guard reported to the underguard. The underguard reported to the castle guard. The night guard, the kings guard, the wall guard, and the garden guard also reported to the castle guard. As soon as one guard noticed anothers absence, the alarm would be raised, and if Katsa and her men werent far enough away, all would be lost. They would be pursued, it would come to bloodshed; they would see her eyes, and she would be recognized. So she had to get them all, every guard. Oll had guessed there would be twenty. Prince Raffin had made her thirty pills, just in case.
Most of the guards gave her no trouble. If she could sneak up on them, or if they were crowded in small groups, they never knew what hit them. The castle guard was a bit more complicated, because five guards defended his office. She swirled through the lot of them, kicking and kneeing and hitting, and the castle guard jumped up from his guardhouse desk, burst through the door, and ran into the fray.
"I know a Graceling when I see one." He jabbed with his sword, and she rolled out of the way. "Let me see the colors of your eyes, boy. Ill cut them out. Dont think I wont."
It gave her some pleasure to knock him on the head with the hilt of her knife. She grabbed his hair, dragged him onto his back, and dropped a pill onto his tongue. They would all say, when they woke to their headaches and their shame, that the culprit had been a Graceling boy, Graced with fighting, acting alone. They would assume she was a boy, because in her plain trousers and hood she looked like one, and because when people were attacked it never occurred to anyone that it might have been a girl. And none of them had caught a glimpse of Oll or Giddon: She had seen to that.
No one would think of her. Whatever the Graceling Lady Katsa might be, she was not a criminal who lurked around dark courtyards at midnight, disguised. And besides, she was supposed to be en route east. Her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, had seen her off just that morning, the whole city watching, with Captain Oll and Giddon, Randas underlord, escorting her. Only a day of very hard riding in the wrong direction could have brought her south to King Murgons court.
Katsa ran through the courtyard, past flower beds, fountains, and marble statues of Murgon. It was quite a pleasant courtyard, really, for such an unpleasant king; it smelled of grass and rich soil, and the sweetness of dew-dripped flowers. She raced through Murgons apple orchard, a trail of drugged guards stretching out behind her. Drugged, not dead: an important distinction. Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Council, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, shed argued that killing them would gain no time.
"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.
Prince Raffin had been offended. "You doubt my medicine. They wont wake."
"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded.
"I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, shed held up her hand. "Enough. I wont kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else."
Oll had smiled and clapped the young lord on the back. "Just think, Lord Giddon, itll make it more fun for us. The perfect robbery, past all of Murgons guards, and nobody hurt? Its a good game."
The room had erupted with laughter, but Katsa hadnt even cracked a smile. She wouldnt kill, not if she didnt have to. A killing couldnt be undone, and shed killed enough. Mostly for her uncle. King Randa thought her useful. When border ruffians were stirring up trouble, why send an army if you could send a single representative? It was much more economical. But shed killed for the Council, too, when it couldnt be avoided. This time it could be avoided.
Excerpt from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Copyright © 2008 by Kristin Cashore. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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