It was generally thought that a formal request from the king was a good thing—and for most; it was.
—But not in my case.
"Take my dear brother into the forest and execute him." His voice rang coldly throughout the metal-walled chamber, but only his closest advisors and guards were there to hear the command. The other guards wouldn't have obeyed.
Too bad the other guards weren't there.
I refused to flinch as arms hooked around my shoulders, locking my hands behind my back with cuffs that would shock me if I tried to pry them open. Three guards dragged me away.
My executors paused to close the door. A nearby guard hesitantly moved forward, as if he wanted to free me, but at the subtle shake of my head, he quickly stopped and shoved a dimpled cylindrical tube of some sort into my hands before returning to his usual position. I couldn't see it, but the surface was hard and cold. When I realized what the item was, I turned my hands to hide the bomb against my back.
They shut the door without realizing what had just taken place and nodded towards the guard who'd helped me. "Long live the King," they chorused.
The guard looked directly at me as he replied, "Long live the King." His eyes were hard and piercing, matching the decorative metals that were pinned to his jacket.
I swallowed and nodded subtly.
Sorrow, fear, anger—these emotions and more pinched something inside of me. I could do nothing. I was trapped in chains I was born into.
After being jerked through the castle, they forced me into a small white car between two of the three men. It didn't have any sort of markings on it, leading outsiders to believe it was a plain vehicle. I knew better.
Our destination was thirty minutes away, where the woods grew tall and thick outside the city like the bars of a cage. I slid out of the car after the guard and fingered the pin on the bomb behind my back, waiting to yank it out and toss it.
"Lovely spot you gentlemen selected," I commented, eyeing the dark, overhanging trees with moss that draped down like ghostly ribbons.
"Shut up and move," the guard to my right grumbled. I received a solid shove between the shoulder-blades and nearly fell—which would have been terrible since I still held the bomb—but I righted myself.
We trod through the brush for a while. Whether it had been five minutes or an eternity, I couldn't tell. Fear had a way of warping time when your life was on the line. I halfway expected them to shoot as I walked.
"Isn't there something we can work out?" I ducked beneath a low-hanging branch, my back grazing it.
Their silence continued until we reached the center of a clearing.
My heart felt as if it stopped momentarily.
Sun-bleached skeletons littered the area as numerous as if they were mere stones.
My thoughts were slow with shock, but sped up when I heard the cock of a gun and was forced to my knees.
I jerked the pin out of the bomb. I did not know what to expect, so I said a silent prayer as I dropped and rolled, making the bomb face my executors. Using the momentum from my fall, I tossed it and continued to roll, just as a hiss escaped the tube. A fraction of a moment later, it exploded.
I stopped rolling and tucked my head into my chest as a spray of metal shards shredded at my back. When I opened my eyes, a small, sun-bleached skull met my gaze, partially buried in the earth. I inhaled sharply and pulled myself to my feet. My back screamed with pain.
Two guards were dead—there was no doubt about it—but the other laid on the ground for a moment with a stunned, statue-like expression before shaking his head slowly and rolling over. His gun was knocked from his hands and now laid in the grass just a foot or so away from him. I jumped for the weapon and threw myself to the ground before rolling over it and clutching it in my hands. I leaped up and tried to train the pistol on him as best as I could.
"Toss me the keys to the cuffs!" I yelled. When he hesitated, I shook the gun behind me as if I meant to fire. "Now!"
"Okay, okay!" He slowly reached a hand into his pocket and I watched that hand like a starved dog would watch a steak.
Suddenly, a short blade of white porcelain whipped out from a flap of material that blended seamlessly around the guard's leg to conceal any weapons. It was something the previous king, my father, had designed. I ducked too late, and the blade hit my eye.
Reflex took over. I pulled the trigger.
Time seemed to slow as I dropped to my knees and released the gun. I saw the bullet—flying, flying, embedding, and then the guard fell, and suddenly, everything was over.
I tried to stop the bleeding from my eye with my shoulder, but it didn't work. I needed to un-cuff my hands. My eyes watered and the salt from my tears burned as I tried to awkwardly dig through the dead man's pockets. When my fingers closed around the key, I withdrew them and struggled with the lock until I was free. My hands immediately went to my eye to stop the blood.
Using the short sword that clipped my eye, I ripped a thick ribbon of material off of my shirt and stuffed it over the wound. The previous king had designed a special sort of short sword that could remain unnoticed in any metal detector, should the need arise. It was made of porcelain. He wanted to make more advanced weapons from the material, but any guns just shattered with the force, and the shattering often made the bullet miss its true target.
The moment I placed the wadded material over my eye, a stinging pain tore through my face and I hissed as more salty tears burned the wound.
My thoughts were clouded with agony and worry. I needed to get out of here before they realized something was wrong and sent more guards after me. The car probably had a tracker in it so I knew I couldn't drive it for the duration of my escape, but if I could use it, I could at least gain some distance—maybe even find a doctor for my eye. I needed one badly.
I tried to run, but the action made the throbbing in my head grow. I forced myself to walk back to the vehicle, then turned the key and sped away.
The Art of Deception
Catherine always did like roses, I thought as she shoved the flower towards me.
The wind carried a playful push to it as it slid across the grassy hill, causing the grass to bend under the invisible weight in the warm sunlight.
"It's the perfect gift for your girlfriend, don't you think?" she asked with a teasing smirk, her mismatched, green-and-violet eyes twinkling.
I snorted and pushed the wild rose away in embarrassment. "I told you—that was a long time ago. I don't even like her that way anymore! She's a friend, Catherine. A friend." If that! Jaine hated me now.
She ignored my words. Her expression was mischievous. "How many children will I be the aunt of? Six? Seven?" Her grin widened. "Oh! What if you have all girls! Your house will be so much fun. Make sure you invite me over a lot." She hummed, twirling the rose against her cheek. "I hope the girls look like Jaine. They'll look gross if they turn out like you." She paused and thrust her chin pridefully into the air. "Maybe they'll even look like me. Wouldn't that be nice?"
I shook my head, pressing my lips down on a grin as I plucked a blade of grass and pulled it apart. "If they look like you, dear sister, I will scream." That wasn't exactly true, but it was best not to let her head get bigger than it already was. Catherine—or Cat, as Jem and I called her—had some of the prettiest, deep-red curls, and at sixteen, she was very beautiful—a fact that Jem and I remembered whenever we caught the looks of the boys in town.
"If you screamed, it would be from joy." she flipped her hair behind her head with a sniff.
I barked out a dramatic laugh. "Joy? You little—"
"Alright! That's enough." She held up a hand and stood from the grass before placing her fists on her hips, one hand still closed around the rose.
I stood as well, my laughter ebbing. "I'm just messing with you."
"Well, I won't speak to you until you apologize." Her lips were pulled tight, but her cheek twitched in a way that told me she was fine.
"Well, your silence will be a reprieve," I replied calmly, dusting the grass off of my pants. It didn't matter that I would soon be twenty-five. Mom would have a fit if I paraded into the house in dirty clothes.
"Ulysses! Look!" she called suddenly. My head snapped up from my pants to find her pointing towards the hill-covered horizon, where a driver rode an old, noisy scooter that hovered over the ground and dashed towards us. Once near us, the driver sped up and roughly jerked the vehicle to a halt, causing the gears within to grind and squeal.
It was Jem. I couldn't help the annoyed sigh that escaped me.
"Brother!" he called with that fake, crisp accent of the nobles that he so desperately wanted. It wasn't that he was fond of the accent's sound, he just wanted something that differentiated him from the rest of his boring, poverty-struck family.
"What is it, Jem?" I made my way towards him.
He straightened the collar of his shirt. "The king has sent guards to the house! He has requested to see you! Hurry 'ome!" He twisted the handles of his scooter and zoomed away, the rusted gears grinding.
I sighed, worry weighing on my chest. I was supposed to be off today; what happened that made the king summon me?
"Race you home?" Catherine asked, her smile hesitant.
I shrugged. "Why not?"
She ran ahead of me, leaving a path of bent, tall dry grass in her wake.
Our home was nothing much to look at, but it was ours, and it was a home. The shingles needed to be repaired—I needed to do that soon, before it rained—and the faded blue paint was bubbling up and peeling away in patches. Paint was not a necessity, so I never spent money on it that should have gone into paying for food, taxes, clothing, and other essential items.
We boarded one window up from a time when a couple of young brats tossed rocks at our house. I was going to use the wood to make a separate bed for Catherine, but since it had to be put to better uses, she still slept in the same bed as Jem and I.
Two black scooters—both sleek, stately, and very unlike our own rusted scooter—were locked to a tree just outside the house. They whirred quietly as Catherine and I passed, panting from the exertion of our run.
"I win," I declared as I raised my knuckles to the cracked wooden door.
Catherine huffed. "Only because I fell, and you, like the proper gentleman you are, didn't bother to help me up!" The door opened slowly, revealing my mother's worn, tired face. Her eyes—eyes Catherine had obviously inherited—brightened when she saw us. "Come in! Quickly now." She stepped aside.
A brown rug made of loosely-stitched scraps of fabric covered most of the floor, save for the area around the small stove in the corner. Two guards rested on wooden chairs around our kitchen table, leaving Momma to stand and watch. We only had two chairs, since I'd cut the one up to help with Catherine's bed. The thick legs of the chair would have worked perfectly for the legs of the bed.
I hesitantly stepped into the room and nodded towards them. "Long live the King."
They chorused the greeting and returned my nod. "The king requests to see you as soon as possible," one grunted. "We're to accompany you to him."
For a moment, my brain didn't quite process the information it had just been told. Why would he want to see me? Had I done something wrong? Fear, curiosity, and worry battled within my chest.
I gave a parting nod to my family and, stepping outside, fetched Jem's scooter from beside the house.
I followed them.
READ CHAPTER THREE ON MY PROFILE!