The Sleeping Strategy

“Well, the sign confirms it,” Bolero said, walking back over to where Nerek was standing. “It’s the old puzzle where one door is certain death, and one door is the treasure. One guard only lies, and one guard only tells the truth. You only get one question.”

Nerek let out a deep sigh. When he’d accepted the quest to save the fair maiden from eternal slumber, he hadn’t expected it to be so complicated. Find the highest tower, kiss her, and go home. No one mentioned how ruddy difficult it would be to find the place, however. And instead of the plant barrier he’d been promised, he’d been forced to smash open several locked doors like a common thug, slay a fierce dragon without proper equipment… and now this. “Ugh. You’re a bard. Do you remember how this one goes?”

“You hired me to record your adventures for posterity,” Bolero said, shaking his head. “I can’t get involved. Besides, I don’t remember quite how it goes. Something about asking one what the other would say?”

“Yeah, that’s all I remember, too,” Nerek admitted, placing his hand on his chin. The two guards stared intently at him, making him feel ill at ease. “You know, it was bad enough that a full-sized adult dragon was able to live here for countless years… how in the heck are these two still alive? What do they eat? When do they sleep?”

Bolero shrugged. “It’s magic.”

“Of course it is,” Nerek replied, muttering under his breath. “Well, no good complaining about it. Let’s see… If I ask them a simple question, I’ll find out which one lies… but that still won’t tell me which door is safe. I have to find out both pieces of information at the same time… wait, I got it!”

The guard on the left perked up as Nerek approached. “Ahh, good sir knight. Welcome to our puzzle! Have you decided what question to ask? As you know, you can only–“

The rest of his speech was cut short by Nerek’s sword, sliding quickly and precisely through the guard’s stomach. He fell to the ground, gurgling, while the other guard cried out in fear and anguish.

“You healed him!” he yelled, cradling the dying body of the other guard in his arms. “I’ve never seen him before for twenty whole years, and you’ve just up and healed him! Did your mother drop you on your feet as a child!?”

“But, you… I thought you were just illusions, or… or golems or something,” Nerek said, coughing awkwardly. “I didn’t mean to… ummm… my bad. But… ahh, now that I know you’re the one who lies…”

“Oh, go to Heaven, you legitimate child!” said the guard, fighting back tears. “The door to your left won’t lead you to the princess! Now stay here, and don’t ever leave!”

Nerek darted quickly through the door, with Bolero close behind him. “Well, that could have gone better,” said the bard, with a smug expression on his face. Nerek made no reply, choosing to remain silent for the short walk to the princess’s bed.

Thankfully, the princess’s chamber was laid out in a traditional manner. An oversized bed in the center of the room took up most of the floor space, though it was hard to tell where the mattress ended and the bedding began. It was a massive explosion of bedding, lace, and tulle. The only light coming into the chamber came from the large stained glass window in the rear, casting the chamber into reds, pinks, and purples.

“Well, you’re up, boss.” Bolero stopped in the doorway, and gestured him forward.

Nerek stepped cautiously forward, leaving footprints of dirt and blood on the clean, white linens. He approached her unconscious figure, brushed aside her blonde locks, and placed his lips awkwardly onto hers. He held his face close, until he could feel warmth returning to her skin. Nerek found himself standing over her, half-crouched next to her bed, while she slowly stirred awake.

“Who is king?” she asked, propping herself up on one elbow.

“I… what? Fair maiden, my name is Sir Nerek, and I have–“

“I don’t care about any of that,” she said, cutting him short. “Who. Is. King?”

“Well, King Reginald the Fair, but…”

“Are you serious!?” she yelled. “He’s my nephew! What are you doing here so early!?”

Nerek frowned, trying to make sense of her anger. “Madam, I don’t understand…”

“Look here,” she said, swinging her feet off the side of the bed as she sat up, “the entire reason I am here is to make sure that the Alitis Dynasty has one last chance to restore its name once the inevitable decline begins to occur. There is absolutely no way that my family has managed to ruin its hold on the crown in only one generation. You should not be here.”

Nerek tried to comprehend the words he had just heard. “But you were cursed to an eternal sleep!” he repeated. “And I rescued you from that! I’m your hero!”

The princess screamed, and threw one of several embroidered pillows into his face. “No, you’re not! Do you really think my father would have been unable to prevent an evil spell from being cast on me? Do you really think that an entire army’s worth of soldiers would be useless against one single evil fairy? No! The entire point of this spell was to prevent me from aging, so that I could help my ancestors maintain the family name! We did it on purpose, you… you lunkhead!”

At this point, Bolero failed to withhold his laughter, earning himself a dirty glare from both the princess and her would-be rescuer. “I can’t believe you even made it this far,” she added, shifting her anger back to Nerek. “We hatched Matilda for the sole purpose of explaining this to idiots like you.”

Nerek felt the color drain from his cheeks. “You… hatched her, you say?”

“How else do you raise a dragon?” she replied, clenching her fists in fury. “Of course we hatched–“

The princess paused mid-word, noticing the blood dripping from Nerek’s blade for the first time. “You… you didn’t…”

“Well, you see,” Nerek said, cowering under the weight of her glare, “I wasn’t really prepared to… so I figured if I waited until it was sleeping, it would be distracted enough that I could… so I guess she didn’t have time to, well, say anything before… umm…”

“He also killed one of your door guards,” Bolero added, with a wide grin on his face.

The next thing Nerek knew, he found himself outside the castle grounds, panting for breath. There had been a shrill, deafening cry, as well as several swift kicks to his shins. And the pillows! Who knew decorative bedding could be thrown with such accuracy? He looked behind him to see the bard following closely behind him, looking significantly less worse for wear and far, far too happy given the circumstances. “It appears your services will no longer be needed,” he said, trying to regain his composure. “I trust my down payment is enough to settle our account?”

Bolero responded with a peal of laughter. “Oh, our account is settled, alright. You’ve dropped a gold mine into my lap. Soon, every tavern in the kingdom will be begging to hear me play the Ballad of the Sir Nerek!”

Neil Siemers grew up in Derby, Kansas, a comparatively small town south of Wichita. He moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas, and hasn't left since. Neil likes to pretend that he is a big shot full time writer, although it's probably closer to a hobby. Either way, it's funded by a full-time job in the insurance industry, where he happily works as a cog in the machine for The Man so that bills can be paid.

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