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The Scent of Fate (The Final Musings of a Condemned Man)

It didn’t have to be this way. Things could have gone better; much better… or worse.

I had once been captain of the guard; an honor traditionally passed down from father to son. It has been so for generations. Had been so. Now, I sit in a cell, like a caged animal, awaiting my execution. The scent of the rusty iron bars filled my nostrils.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t know how I ended up here. I don’t lie. At least I will die with the truth on my lips, so perhaps there is still a chance that I will end up in… No. Not for what I’ve done. Not if all that we’ve been taught is true. I wish there was a reality where I could have died with more than the truth on my lips. But, that’s the reason I’m here, rotting in this cell.

One of the many duties of the captain of the guard is to protect the royal family. Not alone, of course. There were many fine guards under my command. However, when the royal princess left the palace, it was my duty to lead her contingent of guards. There were rules. Many, many rules. Rules, such as who was allowed to approach her, what distance they were allowed to be from her, and even what compass direction they needed to be standing to her in relation to the wind direction. This particular rule was my undoing.

The wind is the Devil’s tool; at least one of his many tools. He wields it as a master artisan; chipping away at his medium of choice, little by little until his creation evokes the response that he is seeking from others. A mountain of granite can be worn away by the wind. However, the Devil doesn’t wield his tools as randomly as does nature. When used in unison with the sun and the clouds, these fine tools became formidable weapons.

As captain of the guard, when escorting the princess, I carried a wooden staff that was topped by a small weather vane. The vane is so finely crafted that the direction of even the mildest zephyr could be measured and actions could be taken to correct the positioning of both myself and of others. Tradition dictates that all present must hold their breath until they are repositioned; lest they breathe in air that had passed by the princess. They held their breath at my command, which I issued in a single word, the moment the change in the wind was sensed. All present would walk to where I directed them, using my staff as a pointer. I, too, would reposition myself before taking my next breath.

But the wind. The Devil’s wind! Along with the sun and the clouds, they were wielded, that day, with infernal perfection. On that fateful day, it led to my ruin.

My task was simple. The princess was to be escorted to the royal rose garden. As this destination is within the secure palace grounds, only I, as captain of the guard, was required to escort her as she enjoyed her stroll. The wind, almost, but not quite still, came of the South. I maintained the appropriate distance from her, standing directly upwind of her. All went well until the Devil applied his craft.

Two things occurred simultaneously. One was that the sun emerged from behind the wall of clouds it had been hiding behind all morning, as an assassin stalking his prey, waiting for his chance to strike. The other was that the direction of the gentle breeze reversed itself. It did this so subtly that even I, who was trained to feel such things, was oblivious to it. Because the assassin sun assailed me so suddenly, I was momentarily blinded, as my eyes adjusted to the intense light. As such, I missed the weather vane’s visual cue. As my eyesight adjusted, but a heartbeat before I saw the vane’s indication of the wind’s shift, my mind was overthrown by a scent.

At first, I tried to convince myself that it was from the royal rose garden, as the thought of it being anything else was ludicrous. That is if I had been performing my duties as flawlessly as I always had. Then, upon seeing the weather vane, I realized, to my horror, that the scent that was caressing my soul was that of the princess. Even the freshness of the air immediately after the thunderstorm that had just passed, combined with the sweetness of the most highly prized roses, paled in comparison to what filled my nostrils at that moment.

I quickly held my breath and changed my location so that I was now North of her. However, the scent lingered in my nostrils and in my mind. I don’t believe that she noticed my transgression, as she seemed to be preoccupied by the flowers, which paled in comparison with her beauty, which I had never permitted myself to notice before. After barely managing to reel in my sanity, I continued to escort her through the garden, then back to the palace.

If this slip in my service was the only one, I may have escaped this fate. However, in the days that followed, I found myself taking in a final breath before moving upwind of the princess just a moment later than was safe. At first, I would only do this when we were alone. However, my obsession with her scent spilled over into situations when others were present.

I must have grown careless. No… reckless.. The last time that we were in the rose garden together, she noticed the smile on my face, after I had caught her scent, and she looked at me coyly and smiled back. Did someone observe my smile and inform the Grand Vizier? Did they see hers?

There is a tradition in our kingdom that I’ll now get to experience from a perspective that nobody wishes for themselves. Immediately before being beheaded, a white scarf is wrapped around the prisoner’s neck. Just prior to this, the scarf is blessed by our high priest. It is said that if the executioner’s blade encounters the blessed scarf before the prisoner’s neck, then the blade remains holy.

I was taken out to the royal courtyard, escorted by the guards who, until recently, I had led. As I had trained them well, they showed no emotion. No kindness or cruelty. Not even a sign of recognition. I bore them no malice. They acted as true professionals, as I once did.

I was presented before the royal family, who sat in a small reviewing stand that had been erected at the edge of the courtyard. I made eye contact with each of them, in turn, which is a privilege grudgingly allowed to a condemned prisoner. I first looked upon the king, who looked back at me with the steel of the executioner’s axe in his eyes. The queen’s eyes showed pure indifference to my plight. I finally made eye contact with the princess. To my surprise, a tear had welled up in the corner of her eye, though the rest of her face remained stoic. As if facing execution for the dereliction of my duties wasn’t enough. Now, I had to go to my grave wondering whether the tear in her eye was for me or for a stray bit of dust that had the audacity to find its way into her eye? Oh, the Devil must be laughing at me right now!

With the newly-appointed captain of the guard stationed to my right, and two other guards flanking us, I was escorted to the chopping block, where I was placed in a kneeling position before it; noticing for the first time the number of notches that were hewn into this old slab of wood.

With my head and upper body still erect, the captain of the guard wrapped the white scarf around my neck in the traditional manner. It’s at this moment that I had my most compelling reason ever for doubting my sanity. I smelled the princess’ scent. It seemed to have been coming from the scarf.

I looked up at the newly-appointed captain of the guard, who I had moved up in the ranks and trained to be my right hand during my tenure as captain. He responded to my desperate, questioning look with a stony, professional face, then quickly winked. I dared to hope that it meant what I wished it to. I then took a second look at the princess, though under the circumstances, only one look was permitted. To my delight, I saw that she was looking back at me. Her heavenly face was adorned with a bittersweet smile. A single tear ran down her cheek.

As I laid my head down on the cold, hard chopping block and awaited my fate, I couldn’t help but smile.

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