I told the king the truth before I’d grown old enough to understand lying.
Since, he’s come to rely on me. I sit at his knee on a three-legged stool, my ankles together, hair oiled and braided into as much of a crown as I’ll ever receive, in a plain but finely made dress there’s no question everyone can see. From there I observe his court, and when the king asks what I see, I tell him. For my eleventh birthday he bestowed upon my mother a small retirement cottage outside the city, and my uncle who helped raise me a stipend to open his own clock shop. When I turned fifteen I was granted the title Truth Sayer, and a tiny sapphire and emerald ring with the king’s seal. I’ve always striven to serve His Majesty well, never skimping on the truths I see or sparing anyone. My word has led to executions and revelry, to the king’s fury, consternation, and eternal gratitude.
Tonight will be the last time.
The moon hangs low and orange over the garden. I stare at it, listening to the voices from this afternoon echo in my chamber. Three hundred and seventeen dead, Violet. His priorities are changed. You know this is the truth. You always do. Three hundred and seventeen. Do you have to tell their mothers why they died?
My heart pinches, cutting off the memories. I shudder and stand, taking up the dagger from the windowsill. Its jasper hilt is cold in my palm and slippery. I slide it into my skirt pocket, through the thin slit. There’s a hilt strapped to my thigh, an assassin’s tool.
Bennett waits for me in the hallway, his fine jacket gathering dust for how still he stands. Like a shadow he peels away from the wall and holds out his hand. I ignore it, for the truth is I won’t accept any comfort for what I’m about to do.
We walk silently through the royal corridor. My skin feels expansive, billowing off my body to collect all the sensations around me: thick carpet through my slippers, a warm draft from the sconces, the scent of roasted meat and lavender perfume when we pass the princess’s suite.
A small group of courtiers sits in the round hall outside the king’s bedchamber as always, chosen for the honor by currying the appropriate favors with His Majesty’s staff. Red-suited guards stare at everything, their elegant long axes cradled against their shoulders and ever-ready.
The difference tonight is that I see the same truth on every courtier’s face: death.
It was the king’s niece Amber who began it, three weeks ago when the messenger rode into the courtyard wearing the uniform of her husband’s soldiers and a white armband tied tight to his wrist. All eyes of the court locked onto that signal and knew the general sent to us that the war did not go well.
She sits in a narrow chair with her hands folded in her lap and no pretense of being busy with anything while she holds the king’s dream vigil. I’d read the private letter the general sent her, detailing the facts from the front line. The truth had been in her tears and in the vacant smile my king offered when I told him we were losing.
Each of the five courtiers studies me as I enter, reassuring themselves their conspiracy is safe in my hands. But they all know once I see the truth it’s everything to me. I’ve become my role.
Edden Baxter the court physician keeps his mouth in a flat line, and he wants to say, This is not the only way. Let me do it, Violet. Not because he wishes to save me from it, but because he knows if one of the guards asks me why I’m visiting the king in the middle of the night I’ll tell him. Safer for Edden and Amber if I’m not here. But it must be me.
When I finished reading the general’s private letter it fell out of my numb fingers, fluttering to the rug, and I closed my eyes. A tear fell from each, hitting my cheeks with splashes I imagined were as loud and wide as fireworks.
No, Amber whispered, gripping my shoulders. I didn’t want to be right.
But she was. This was the truth: we were losing our war and the king couldn’t see reason, no matter what I or anyone else said. We were better off without him. With new leadership. They showed me the letter knowing I would not be swayed by my love for the king, or the general. That I would look through the layers and even if it was horrible, even if every breath of mine wanted to scream out against it, I would be loyal to the truth I found.
I am the nation’s safeguard, not the king’s.
Before I step up to the bedroom door, Bennett’s finger whispers against the nape of my neck.
A shiver streaks down my spine and I falter, but only for a moment. A fraction of a moment. I think of his mouth and its constant disapproving frown, of the square set of his shoulders and his constant silence as he does his job. Protecting the truth.
But I keep going, and neither guard challenges me. The one on the left, older and named Horace, flicks his eyes back to Bennett because where I have passage, he does not. I leave everyone behind and enter the king’s bedchamber alone.
The door clicks shut behind me and I’m in the dark but for that gentle blue light that’s the moon pushing through the king’s stained-glass window. Blue and pale green glass are cut together to create the ancient crest of his family. Just as is on my ring. I glance at it, wondering if I’ll be able to wear it in the morning, then make a fist and go to his canopied bed.
There is my king, my handsome Alistair. Who I saw for the first time when I was seven, strutting on the balcony before his people, as naked as a baby. Now he’s old enough to be my father, but with his face slack that’s easy to forget. He grew a beard last year and I touched it lightly, saying, It’s more silver than brown, sire.
Does it make me look older then, Violet?
Definitely. Though no less handsome.
He preened at that, but had his man shave it off the next day.
I perch on the edge of the broad bed. In his sleep he shifts toward me. Hair flops over his forehead and the one hand atop the blanket reaches blindly before settling again. His own signet ring clings to his middle finger, thick as my thumb knuckle, but it fits his hand as if grown there naturally.
My hand hovers over his face, and I imagine putting it to his cheek, stroking under his eye until he wakes so that I can tell him he created a monster in me. That maybe sometimes the truth is the wrong thing to rely on. That there are many kinds of truth. It’s true that he was never the best king. It’s true that the war will end if he dies.
It’s true that is this is wrong.
“What is the most true thing?” I whisper. I’ve never been so naked before.
The king’s eyelashes flicker and as he wakes I reach into the pocket of my skirt for the dagger. Edden said, You’re not strong enough to be sure of hitting his heart. Amber said, Here is a poison. You only must cut his skin.
Bennett said, This will change you, in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard from him.
“Alistair,” I say. “Wake up.”
He blinks hazily. “Violet? What are you doing here?”
I show him the dagger. “I came to kill you.”
Even the air between us freezes when the king stops breathing.
We sit. My blood rushes in my ears, and His Majesty sucks in a fast gulp of air. “And are you going to go through with it?” he asks evenly, as if there’s no fear.
“I don’t know.”
“Do I… deserve to die?” In his voice is the measured tone he uses when asking me for a truth he knows he doesn’t wish to hear.
Because he asked, I know the answer. But I can’t say it, so I shake my head, no.
Fast as a falcon strike, Alistair seizes the dagger from me. He throws it across the room where it clatters against the marble hearth. The king is on his feet, pacing so tightly he might as well go in circles. His nightshirt flaps around his knees and his hair flares messily.
“What should I do, Violet?” he asks.
I could say a hundred things that are all true: You should step down. You should end the war. You should let me go far away, far from you. Bennett will take me. Maybe in the mountains I can find the truth again.
But instead I avert my eyes and only say, “Put on some clothes.”
This month’s common prompt is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
picture via malias, flickr CC.