(I know this says Chapter Two but it's chapter three including the prologue XD Thanks for reading!)
That day, I saw the castle in a different light.
It was normally bustling with activity. The constant movement made it appear as if it were flooded with color amongst the glass banisters and crystal chandeliers. But now that I looked at it—really looked at it—it was cold and dreary. Why is it so empty? I absently picked at a scab on my thumb to get my focus off of the empty room.
One question burned in my mind. The burning only grew as we walked. Why did the king want me? Had I done something wrong? I considered myself a pretty by-the-book person and tried my hardest not to get into trouble. Had I forgotten something?
The door they led me to looked nothing at all like the throne room; it was thin, and metal—very unlike the thick, carved-glass door that covered the enormous throne room on the first floor—and we'd rode two sets of escalators to reach it. Two guards stood on the door's sides. When they saw me, they scanned the slim, silver ring on my finger with a black tablet and opened the doors. All castle workers wore a band, as well as visitors.
"Should we go in?" one guard asked on my left.
"Yes," the guard near the door replied. "He's been pacing the floor with impatience. Go in quickly." He knocked loudly against the towering door and paused a moment before swinging it open and bowing. "My Lord, the guard Ulysses MacDoone is here at your request."
I couldn't see the king from the angle I was standing at, but I heard his voice eagerly filter through the door. "Good. Send him in!"
The guards ushered me into the room ahead of them and I found that the nervousness from earlier had cast an iron rope around my feet. Despite all my years of training, the floor now felt uneven and hard to walk on. This time, it went beyond my limp.
The king was a tall man, with white, pasty skin that clung like dough to his thin, skeletal frame. His hair—blond, with silver streaks of what I guessed was dye, since he wasn't that old—was neatly trimmed but receding at the part. His green eyes seemed to have more color to them than the rest of his entire person did.
He chuckled. "Ulysses, how much you've grown!"
I bowed until my nose was practically touching my knees. "Thank you, Sire."
"Rise, boy. I did not request your presence for a mere social call!" He clapped his hands together.
I straightened. I had a substantial amount of respect for my king—after all, he'd spared my father's life and gave me a place amongst his own guards to help me and my family. If it hadn't been for him, Catherine, Jem, and I would be in the streets, and Catherine—fragile as she had been at only four—would never have survived. I owed my life to him.
"I did not expect you had, Your Highness." My hands were clasped behind my back and my stance was stiff--just like I'd been trained.
"I have a job for you." He turned away from me.
It was then that I noticed the invisible weight that seemed to press on his shoulders. I grew even more curious. What job was I supposed to complete? Why did he want me, of all people, to complete it?
"You are aware of the rather. . . tense relationship between us and New England, yes?" His old-world French accent made it hard to decipher his words at first.
"Good. Word 'as reached my ears that they are planning to join forces with China by marriage. If that ever happens, we could have another twelve-day war on our hands. We would be destroyed." He narrowed his eyes at me. "We can't have that, can we?"
I shook my head and continued to eye my steel-toe boots. Any Drill Sergeant would be happy to see how still I kept myself.
He leaned back in his throne."I thought not. Just think of the lives lost." I didn't reply. If I replied, it would have been to remind him of the riots, the constant lack of supplies, the unending loss of our military. Those were lives lost. He inhaled a rattling breath. "I've been watching you ever since you joined my guard and I 'ave decided that you are my best man. I could use your help if you wouldn't mind lending it."
After all he'd done to save my family, I owed him more than my life. But. . . I couldn't stop wondering why he wanted me to help him.
"Of course, Highness, but I'm really not the best. Especially with my leg—Polio, you know. It's shorter than my right." I had an awful case of the stuff when I was a small child and it had never been the same since. We couldn't afford treatment, even with my dad home.
The king waved a dismissive hand at me. "It has only made you a better warrior, Son! You never let it stop you before, why start now?"
The other children had practically tortured me night and day over my leg, so I forced myself to be more. I forced myself to be better. Was what he said true? Was I really the best? I didn't think so.
"Thank you, Your Highness." My tone had the faintest note of confusion in it. No one—not unless it was my direct family—wanted me to help them. I was the son of a thief who'd deserved death and was spared. I wasn't rich by any means of the word; in fact, it took every ounce of energy in my body to keep us all out of the streets. Between doing odd jobs for the men I worked with and working as a guard to the King, we were only a few steps away from losing our home. The landlord had made it abundantly clear: we miss one more payment, we're out.
"Well, as I've already told you, New England is about to announce their soon-to-be union with China. Both places hate us, and once combined, they'll be more than able to take us down." It was then that I finally looked up into his cloudy-green eyes, and the stormy anger I saw within them startled me. "I want you to kill the princess of New England and save your country. They'll be hosting a masquerade in honor of the union. If you plan it right, you should—"
My voice came out startlingly hard, a blade of ice flung across the distance between him and me.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked with a surprised face.
I felt my cheeks flush in embarrassment, and I once more looked at my feet. "I-I-I can't do it, My Lord," I said in a more timid voice this time.
I shook my head slowly. "In all my ten years of serving you as guard, I have never killed a person. I. . . I couldn't change that now—not so needlessly."
The king remained silent for a moment, and then his eyes darkened angrily, and his brows furrowed. "Ulysses, remember your father?"
I felt the icy fingers of dread trail down the back of my neck at those words and feared what would come next. Did I remember my father? Of course, I remembered him. I remembered him every single day of my life. I remembered how pale and slight his figure had become, how dull and greasy his red hair now appeared, and how the dungeons had taken that spark of light-hearted mischief and life that once filled his eyes. He said he wasn't guilty of his crime, but. . . sometimes I doubted him. My father was—is—a good man, and I felt sure that he wouldn't steal a single button from anyone, but we were in a hard place during the time of his supposed theft, and my blind trust sometimes faltered.
Either way, I was grateful he didn't have the death penalty for the crime.
"Yes," I finally murmured, so softly, it could almost have been mistaken for the wind outside. "I remember him well, Sire."
The king nodded with a cold gaze. "If you do not do what I ask, I shall revoke the mercy I have given him and your family."
I think I'd only ever been truly terrified of anything just a few times in my life. Once, when Catherine fell off a neighbor's scooter and hit her head—hard—on a rock, another when dad was framed for stealing and promised death, and the third time was when I realized that I'd have to take over his place at fourteen in caring for my family.
Then there was now, as the king stared into my face, waiting for an answer.
—But I couldn't answer.
Killing a princess was a crime punishable by death—torture before death. But standing still and letting the king kill my father? I definitely couldn't live with that—knowing I could have saved him, and chose not to.
I think the king found in my gaze whatever it was he searched for because he gave a brief nod to himself as if satisfied and then turned to settle into his throne, unaware of the lives that were being ripped apart by his own hands.
"I'll give you one week to think it over," he added firmly. "Should you decide to agree with me, the job will happen at a masquerade in England, hosted by the king himself on the twenty-third." I thought he had finished speaking, but then he lightly tapped his thin beard and added, "Should you decide not to agree with me. . ." His tone grew ominous. He silently slid an invisible "dagger" across his throat. "I doubt I need to go into details."
Did I really have to think about this? No. It was my father against some princess I'd never even seen before. Did that make the idea of killing her easier? No. No, it didn't.
The image of the kind ruler I'd had only yesterday quickly shattered to pieces in my mind.
My heart hammered with fear inside my chest, and my itching palms felt cold and clammy. Was this the king I'd served for so long? Was this the same one who took me into his guard when my father was found guilty? It didn't seem true, and yet. . .
I heard myself saying the words before my brain fully processed them. "I'll do it."
His green eyes lit up with a heartless joy as he clasped his hands together on his lap. "Wonderful!" he exclaimed. "You know, you'll be promoted to captain of the guard if you complete this task!"
A sarcastic reply sat on the edge of my tongue, but I bit it back. "Thank you, Sire."
When I returned home, I was a nervous wreck.
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