I came into the king’s service on Sunday, February 11, after his guards informed me that I was no longer welcome at my own home. Although perhaps “informed” isn’t exactly the right word. His Highness, it seemed, had recognized my talents and wanted to offer me a position. Although perhaps “offer” isn’t exactly the right word here, either. It was kill for the king or be killed by the king, and so I opted for the less career-ending of the two.
Castle life wasn’t so bad, anyway, what with the sumptuous feasts and courtly ladies and the kindly serving woman in charge of my quarters. One of her first comments to me was about how much I resembled the king, and thereafter, she jokingly referred to me as her Little Prince.
My first target as a royal employee was His Highness’s younger brother, an act which, he assured me, averted a civil war. My next two jobs were also family members, but familial squabbles are nothing new for a royal household, and it wasn’t until my fourth assignment that my curiosity was piqued. I was to eliminate two brothers of whom His Highness seemed to want me to remain entirely ignorant. Their age, occupations, relationship to His Highness, I was left in the dark on every detail. Given the amount of information he had supplied in each of my three previous royal assignments, his silence on the matter was puzzling. Indeed, in the case of his brother’s wife, he had given me rather more information than I had desired to have. With the brothers, however, mum was the word, and so I decided that some research was in order before I brought their short lives to an end.
The sole piece of information His Highness had granted me was the address at which I might find the boys, and so it was to there that I made my way.
The house was located in a neighborhood wasn’t too far from the castle itself. Its clean streets and tree-lined curbs reminded me of my youth, of all the things I’d wanted so badly but never could have. The building in question had a wrap-around porch and was painted a subdued nearly-purple. The grounds seemed rather well kempt. It must have cost a king’s ransom to upkeep. I slunked into a quiet vantage point beneath a tree in the neighbor’s yard and watched.
As I watched, two boys came running through the front door and started down the street. They were young, but not children, perhaps in their late teens, and lean as only youth can be. They continued jostling each other, shoving and giggling as they made their way along the sidewalk. With one last glace at the house, I started out after them, trying to shake the sudden sense that I had seen them somewhere before.
They wound their way through the downtown markets, buying up anything that caught their fancy and arranging for delivery. They seemed on friendly terms with every merchant they visited, chatting it up and even exchanging kisses with some of them. Perhaps His Highness was trying to send a message to some wealthy detractors?
The aimless wandering continued for a good portion of the day, and I began to suspect that they had discovered me. I hadn’t gleaned much more than the fact that they must truly be rich beyond imagining, and was ready to give up for the day, when they took an unexpected turn and ended up at the main gate of one His Highness’s private residences.
I hung back by the road-side shrubs, where I had an epiphany. My eyebrows came together in consternation as I realized why they were chatting it up with the guard as if they were old friends, why they showed up at the king’s private residence as if they lived there, why they had so much money. I turned back and started back for the castle, but couldn’t seem to point my feet in the correct direction. It was nearly midnight before I ceased wandering and arrived at the front gates. I was grabbed before I could finish crossing the outer courtyard and hauled before His Highness, who was not exactly pleased to see me.
“What the hell’ve you been doing all day?” he asked, barely masking his wrath.
“Trying to find out why you’ve got me killing children,” I said.
“They’re not children.”
“They’re your children.”
His Highness’s eyes narrowed. When he spoke, his voice was nearly monotone. “I told you to kill them, not to find their life history.” I could feel the anger radiating off of him.
“You didn’t tell me not to.”
“I didn’t tell you anything!”
I cocked my head to one side. “Why not?”
His Highness paused to consider. “How did you find out they were mine?”
I shrugged. “They spend money like water, they visited your house on Cyning Street. They look just like you. Why?”
He sighed, sounding oddly relieved. “They may be young, but they’re not children,” he said. “I need you to take care of them, Renee.”
The pleading tone in his voice and his first recorded use of my given name shocked me into acquiescence, and I left with little more than I had come in with. I climbed into bed, still consumed with curiosity, and dreamt of my father, strong, kind, and dead before I was even born.
The next morning, I awoke feeling groggy and discontented with life. Dreams of one’s dead father and one’s suicidal mother will do that to one, I suppose, and the fact that I’ve always preferred never to have any emotions whatsoever doesn’t actually make such a state easier to achieve.
I took my time with breakfast, shopped for a new jacket, and spent lunch wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I was stalling, and it wasn’t like me. True, I’d never killed anyone under twenty-five, but I wasn’t attached enough to these boys to risk my own neck for them, and if I was, then things were even worse with me than I thought.
Making up my mind not to be bothered about it any longer, I made my way back to the previous day’s lookout post under the tree and waited. After an hour or so, an elderly woman with a cane hobbled her way down the lawn towards me. At first I assumed she was there to kick me off her property, and I readied my supply of cunning rebukes, but instead she just stood next to me, staring at the purple house the same as me.
At length, she said to me, “I saw you here yesterday. You shouldn’t be ashamed. They could use someone like you to guide them.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“They’re not bad boys,” she continued, apparently oblivious to my question. “It’s just that they never had to learn self-discipline. They’re clever and full of energy, they just can’t focus.”
“What are you talking about, old woman?”
Finally, she turned to me. “They could use a father figure,” she said. “An older brother, someone to look up to.”
“And this involves me how?”
The woman’s confidence faltered. “Aren’t you related?” she asked. “You look just like them.”
For a moment, all I could do was blink at her. “I what?”
“You’re not related to them?”
The woman’s expression turned to one of anger. “Then what are you doing on my lawn? Get off!”
She raised her cane at me, and I decided to flee rather than cause an incident. As I made my escape, her words kept ringing in my head. “You look just like them.” She sounded just like my cleaning lady. If I looked just like the brothers, /and/ I looked just like His Highness…
I shook my head. What ridiculousness. Simply because I looked like three people who all happened to be related to one another did not mean that I was related to them. It was time to go home and get some sleep.
My own home had been under surveillance ever since His Highness “hired” me, and so I’d never bothered to go back, instead taking up residence in the castle. Now, however, I found the idea of returning to the castle unpalatable, and yearned for my own room and my own sheets. Not giving a damn who saw me or what they did about it, I headed straight home and crawled into bed, where I curled up into a ball and fell asleep.
I dreamt I was being compared to a series of less and less savory men in an attempt to discover which one of them I was related to. After each one was discovered to be a false match, there was a series of three loud thumps and I was led along to the next chump.
After one of them, the series of thumps was especially loud, and I thought for a moment that this meant we had found a match, but I opened my eyes to find that it was someone knocking on my bedroom door. “Mmn?” I mumbled, stumbling out of bed and getting to the door.
I don’t know who I expected to see on the other side of that door, but it was certainly not a disheveled royal page. The boy looked as though he’d been crying, and he was panting like he’d run here the whole way from the castle.
“Sir?” he said to me. “They need you at the castle right away, sir.”
I raised my eyebrow at him.
“The king, sir, he’s…” The boy hiccuped and started to tear up.
A knot began forming in my stomach. “He’s what?”
“They’ve killed him!”
I was off like a shot to the castle, running the whole way like the Devil himself was at my heels. I burst through the gate and found the entire place in chaos. People were skittering to and fro, bumping into one another and generally being disorderly.
Skipping that mess, I headed straight for the king’s chambers, where I ignored the guards’ warnings not to go in.
His Highness was laid out on a stretcher in the middle of the room, with two doctors cleaning up in one corner and some of his generals whispering to themselves in the other. I burst through the door and suddenly felt many pairs of eyes on me.
One of the generals detached himself from the pack and came over to me. “I’m sorry, boy. We called the doctors as fast as we could, but…” He trailed off, shrugging.
“Did anyone see them?” I asked.
He gave me a questioning glance.
“Did anyone see the perpetrators? Two little boys.”
His eyes widened and his head whipped around to stare openly at one of his peers. The object of his attention joined us. “What?” he asked.
“Where did you see them?” I asked before the first general could get a word in.
“The boys?” the second one asked. He looked relieved. “One of them was across the courtyard from me when the shoots went off. I had just turned the corner, I don’t think he saw me. It looked to me like he was signaling someone, and when I looked up, there was an older boy in the window across from His Highness’s chambers.”
“We sent some guards out to look for them,” the first general said, “but, frankly, we’re having a hard time imagining two teenagers assassinated the king.”
“They’re not children,” I said.
I headed for that nearly-purple house, where I found the two boys frolicking in the yard as if nothing were wrong. Instead of taking my previous post beneath the tree, I went right up to the old woman’s door and knocked.
She didn’t seem happy to see me. “You again? I told to get off my property!”
“Ma’am, I’m here to apologize,” I said. “You were absolutely correct. I had no right to loiter on your property, and I am very sorry to have disturbed you.” I gave a little bow and turned to go. It was a risk, but if I could pull it off, it would be worth it.
My gamble paid off, and she put her hand on my arm before I had even managed to turn all the way around.
“Wait just a minute,” she said. “It’s so rare to see a polite young man these days. Please, won’t you come in?”
I followed her in, and she seated me in one of her comfortable dining room chairs and continued into the kitchen. “I’ve got some cookies if you’d like one,” she offered.
“That would be wonderful, thank you,” I said, and after a minute, “That’s a nice large window you have. You must know just about everything that goes on across the street.”
“Indeed I do,” she said, coming back with a tray of milk and cookies. “I try to keep to myself, but as you said, it’s a nice large window.” She winked at me and we shared a smile.
We sat there in silence, enjoying the cookies, which really were delicious, and watching the boys play for a long while. Finally, though, I couldn’t take it any more, and I had to put my plan in motion.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but where’s your restroom?”
She directed me up the stairs to a little room with just the view I was hoping for. I took out the small blow gun I’d been concealing in my coat pocket and loaded it with a tiny bullet. I opened the window with a great push and took careful aim. The bullets were loaded with a slow-acting poison and manufactured to disintegrate at body temperature.
The boys were playing at assassination, taking turns playing the king and his killer, and then collapsing into giggles.
The first shot was easy. The boy was already playing dead. He simply rubbed his neck, probably assuming he’d been bitten by a mosquito, and moved on. His brother however, playing the role of the celebratory assassin, was quite flighty and required some work to take care of. I was starting to get frustrated, imagining that the woman who’s bathroom I was using would begin to wonder about me, when the boy suddenly flopped to the ground laughing and pointing at his brother, who had apparently done something quite funny. I took my shot, hitting the target spot on.
Flushing the toilet, I hurried back downstairs. The woman didn’t ask, so I didn’t offer any explanation for what I am certain was the longest bathroom break I had ever taken, and we carried on with our snack as if nothing had happened.