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The King and His Brother
I stood by to let her complete the mandatory curses, the required begging to retain custody over my person here in the assured safety of the Abbey, where we could not be stolen away in the night. Or rather, in theory the place from which we could not be stolen away. But now that the great man had dropped dead, now that his queen had slunk away to the sanctuary with her head bowed and her royal children trudging behind in the mud of skewed politics, now there was no real assurance of safety. Perhaps God would strike a soldier down within the sacred walls, but who was to say the enemy would not get in the one necessary shot required? Who was to say God would scar the body of his child, leave it desecrated, leave it unfit for honors? And even then, even then, who was to say that God could prevent a funeral procession carried out anyway, honors given out anyway to the family of the man who tore down the queen mother?
She played her part as well as she could for lacking the lines that had been honed over decades to get her through each twist and turn of her royal life: “My son, my son.” As if she thought that saying the words would create a reality.
She fought the battle against the men standing in the doorway bravely, and lost it, the way we all knew she would do. And then she bent down to me, the way she was supposed to, and murmured, “Richard, be safe. Be safe.” And she petted my cheek, and ran her fingers through my hair, and blinked away the blur in her eyes. She got a steely glint in them suddenly and when she spoke, it was in a lower register, and it betokened a new level of importance to her words. “You are my son, Richard. You are the Duke of York. You are the brother of the King of England. Don’t forget that. Don’t let them make you forget.”
I nodded my head hard. This instruction was more than a reminder to her son not to lose faith, not to be demeaned. This was my reminder that the stakes were higher than anything in the world. If I forgot, if I forgot who I was now, then mine wouldn’t be the only breath cut short. If I forgot, everything was over. For everyone. Except for Richard, the Duke of Gloucester.
“He’s just a boy,” Elizabeth Woodville was whispering plaintively, far above my head. She clutched tight on my shoulder. “He needs his mother.”
The messenger frowned tightly. “With all due respect-“
“What respect?” she spat. “What has happened to respect?”
“With all due respect,” he pressed on firmly, “this is not your son.” I felt each individual finger on her hand prick my skin in a sudden start. But above me, she didn’t move. Her fingers loosened. She almost smiled.
“And who, if I may be so blunt as to ask, do you propose this is?”
“Richard, Duke of York,” he said promptly, and her hand unclenched completely. “I simply meant that this boy is not your property. He belongs to England. He needs no mother.” He brushed his hand dismissively through the air. “He is no shepherd boy to come home to his mother’s stew and fondling. You may be less than royalty yourself, your marriage being as unorthodox as it was, but the Prince has been royalty from the womb. He doesn’t belong in hiding with women. He belongs at the side of the King, where, if it is of any concern to you, he will shortly be.” He turned his face down and I looked up at eyes that were not unkindly. “Come now, Your Highness. Your brother requires your presence.”
“Is he lonely?” I whispered, but I wasn’t thinking of Edward, the boy I didn’t know. When he spoke of my brother, I caught a breath of laughter in my mind and I saw my own brother for a moment. He was frolicking through the fields while Mum bellowed to him from the open window. Anthony’s cheeks were rosy from the giddy joy of running. I hadn’t thought of him a lot since I was fetched away in the middle of the night, but now I did and there was a hole in my heart and I was sure my blood was pouring through it. It hurt and I couldn’t even try to claw it away or I’d give up the game.
“Lonely?” The man almost snorted, but then he must have remembered that even if we weren’t hosting banquets and tourneys of jousting and tennis, we were still royalty, and it was still prudent to restrain unpleasant behavior if His Highness the King wasn’t behaving likewise. Anthony disappeared while I stared at his face and tried to figure out if they’d already gotten Edward drunk behind the walls of the Tower. They were right that Edward needed his brother. But he didn’t need me.
“Farewell, Richard,” the queen mother said softly, releasing her grip. The man with the not unkind eyes put his hand on my shoulder in the place hers had just been.
“Shall we go, Your Highness?” he said.
I looked at Elizabeth, quickly. I just needed to see the woman I was doing this for. She was beautiful. Of course she was. King Edward IV had noticed her beauty before anything else. There were lines there now that hadn’t been there before. There was resignation. There was an awful fear that stared blindly out of her eyes. She looked at me quietly. She just looked. She scrutinized me as though trying to take a picture. Then, keeping the same pose, she stared through me, past me. She was looking at her son. She was watching him as he strode down the dark alley. She saw his thin frame dart past flickering lanterns, around the small patches of people still out late, under archways. She studied him as he boarded a wobbly little fishing boat, carefully adjusting the face covering. She watched him become invisible and then she saw the boat go. She saw her child fade away forever. I was simply the façade.
She came near, and now, for the first time, she shook visibly. She stole me back away from the man and pressed me to her. I breathed in a scent that Richard had known his whole life, that Richard knew to be home. And it was strange to me. It wasn’t my mother’s ripe mixture of sweat, hay, flowers, and rain. Her chin sank onto my hair. Her arms held me tightly. “Richard,” she murmured. “My Richard. My dear, sweet Richard. My little boy. Where are you headed?”
I wasn’t sure how much she was okay with giving away in this real-life masque. “Only to the Tower, Mother. Only to be with my dear brother, Edward, the King.”
I sensed her nod. “Yes. Indeed, I was only being a mother, Richard.” She drew back and nodded to me. It was her thanks.
“Go on, Richard.” She waved to the door. “Go on. I cannot bear you to linger so.” She turned to my escort. “You torment me. Steal him away if you must but do not prolong this torture.”
The not unkind man looked at her carefully. “He will only be in the Tower, Your Highness. He will be kept well, with his brother. And he will have the place of honor at the coronation of Edward V of England. You will see your son crowned and you will see this son beside him. I promise you that, Your Highness. This is not forever’s good bye. Fate would not be so cruel.”
“Fate is always cruel,” she returned levelly. “But I am not worried by his taunts. He scares me not. It is the Duke who frightens me. The Duke and his henchmen.”
“The Duke’s henchmen will not be near to your sons. Please, madam, show me a little faith.”
“I’ll show you faith the day I hold my boys again.”
“I will wait for your faith then, if I must,” he smiled. “But I cannot wait to present your son. Come Richard. It is time.”
He took my hand as we rounded a corner. “I trust you do not mind that I am breaking protocol by touching your royal person?” He smiled again. “But you are so young to be so alone…”
“It’s fine if you hold my hand,” I whispered once we were safely past Elizabeth. This was not how a prince should act but I was no prince and I was young and alone.
The gates of the Tower yawned open. I couldn’t help but gape at the magnificence of the stone arches and the thick walls.
“You will be kept in the Garden Tower,” the man said smoothly, gesturing the way. He let go of my hand to grab up a lantern. “Here we go then. Come along, Your Highness.” It wasn’t a long walk at all but I was still ill at ease. The entire situation seemed quite peculiar. There could be no doubt that danger lurked all around me. It wasn’t coming from the man who had held my hand or from Elizabeth and it certainly would not be arriving from Edward. I should have been uneasy at the idea of standing in the presence of a king, in masquerading before him. Instead I wanted only to reach him so that he could set me at ease. If something was not wrong, I would not be here. Richard would be here in my place, studying the stones that no one like me ever saw. He would be anticipating the reunion with his brother. Would he be eager? Should I be eager?
“I should like very much to see him soon,” I announced, hoping I sounded excited.
The man smiled warmly. “He’s just here. He probably senses his brother. Perhaps he’s standing even now at the window to watch us.”
“I should like to think so. It shall be so nice to be greeted by my brother.” I felt so very tired all of a sudden. My legs were leaden and I felt my mouth open involuntarily to stretch wide. It was all I could manage to keep my eyes open to let the lantern flicker across them.
“Come along, Richard,” he said. The door creaked open. A twisted circular staircase yawned before us, the steps tight together and so very thin across. I couldn’t see the top; they curled around dizzyingly so that a defender of the upper room need only position himself perfectly behind the wall to be totally protected but for the arm bearing his sword, which could then flicker out into the emptiness below, and then back, before an attacker could even register the motion.
“Up there, then,” he said. “You may lead the way, Your Highness.” I thought I could make out thin voices wafting from above. “What is it? Why have you paused?”
“I’m only anxious that the king should be greeted in just the right way.”
“Oh, but you are brothers, and so young! He won’t have any expectation of you!”
“But I have not seen him since before he set out for London and was ambushed by Gloucester! Surely he has changed in such a duration!”
“Oh, he has changed, Your Highness, of course he has changed. He had not learned to be the leader of his country then.”
“Has he now?”
“He is learning. But he is just a boy. He will be happy to see you back.”
“Would it be so very strange if he was not?”
“Yes, indeed it would. Do not worry yourself about things that won’t pass. He is awaiting you. Let us proceed.”
“But should he be discontented by my presence, should I then be returned to my mother and sisters?”
“Do you wish to be?”
“Yes.” He raised his eyebrows. “For there I am the man and head of the house,” I amended hastily. “Here I must always be second to Edward. I shan’t much like that if he has learned to be cruel and aloof to me, I should think.”
He patted my hair before he remembered who I was and looked about hastily. “He has not learned to be cruel and aloof to you, dear boy. He wants your company. Come now. I will go up. Should you not follow, the warders may not understand your presence here and attempt to accommodate you elsewhere.”
“I would like to see a true king.”
“Have you forgotten your father so quickly?” But he said it warmly and I knew it was not as terrible an accusation as it sounded. “Now, come.” And, finally, I did.
There were many stairs but since I was afraid of what was to come, there were too few for me. All too quickly the world began to open up into a chamber. The voices were much louder but none of them sounded quite young. And they were hushed as if none of them were important conversations either, but the talk of servants. And then the light fell just right and there was a young boy, standing beside an open window in the shadow of the night.
Edward V, the twelve-year-old heir to all of England, was tall and thin, dressed all in black garments which caused his complexion to appear even paler in contrast. His skin was white like the ivory that had come in as royal gifts from other nations on the continent. His brown hair was long and curly, softening the lean angles of his face. All in all, he was quite nondescript. A person to be easily replicated. But wasn’t that just what I was doing? Wasn’t I embodying Richard, even now, surrounded by the people who had surrounded his person for nine years? Wasn’t I passing as Richard? Had even a soul seen fault enough in me to think of raising an alarm? Was it truly so easy? Was there really only this last obstruction to be leapt before my safety could be assured?
The only part of his figure that stood out was the heavy gold chain wrapped around his neck, the pendant sitting lightly on his chest as it moved with his breathing. That and the thin band wrapped around his calf. I fingered my own, matching jewelry as if to inform myself of our similarities. So here he was. This was Edward V. This was my king. I felt a sudden, instinctive urge to bow before him, and it took all my willpower to curb the desire. I was not a country boy like Anthony who would cow before royalty. I couldn’t. This boy’s brother would not bow to him. Even if he was a king.
He spoke solemnly, the way he probably thought a king was supposed to, measuring his words and his tone, but I still heard the masked excitement when he breathed, “Richard!” and then I knew I had a good disguise because his eyes gleamed the way eyes only do around people you love. He moved closer and was about to throw his arms around me when the eyes changed. They dimmed and sparked with curiosity, and then he checked himself because he knew the danger, and he threw his arms around me anyway and carefully whispered nonsense to me so that it would look as if two brothers were sharing a secret, rather than two strangers sizing each other up. “Dear brother,” he said finally, and broke apart. His eyes were falsely bright again, but it wasn’t the true brightness. That had disappeared.
“Edward,” I said firmly.
“It is I, Richard,” he told me, echoing my tone. “I am so happy to have you here. I am so excited.”
“Are you prepared?”
“For the coronation? Of course, for after I am truly king in word and act, then I shall not be confined endlessly to this palace but shall hold court wherever I should like! I will follow the seasons so that we shall have hunting all the year round and only snow if we should wish it! I will gather the finest cooks in the kingdom and have a banquet every day of the year, and extra courses on special days! I shall prohibit drink unless I am given some token of faith – and then there shall be endless wine! I will raise an army and dress all the men in suits of pure gold and hand them shields and swords inlaid with rubies and stripes of silver and then – once we are renowned as the finest army in Christendom – I shall take France for myself!”
“But first you shall spend the days at education and swordsmanship until you come of age to rule the realm,” I reminded him calmly. Perhaps his dreams would have burned in Richard’s heart, kindling his own fantasies, but I would never see any of these things. By the time they came to pass, I would be safely home with Anthony and my own family who would not banquet every day with extra courses for each holiday of the year.
“And you will not?”
“I will too. I would like to master every language in Christendom!”
“That should not take long,” he said, dismissing the idea. “For you are already competent in Spanish, Latin, and French, or have you forgotten your own learning while you idled in the Abbey?”
“I did not idle!”
“What then?” But suddenly it wasn’t banter. Suddenly it was very real and we were very aware of the very real people listening to us from the darkness. And this was dangerous territory.
“Nothing, Edward. Tell me of more of your dreams!”
“First I shall have all my servants dismissed!” he said loudly. “Take yourselves to bed – or to the alehouses if you should like! I would have some time alone with my dearest brother, the Duke.” There was a scurrying in the darkness, as the men crept down the stairs like mice, their boots squeaking on the floorboards. “I am sorry, Richard,” Edward told me when they had gone. “That was well handled. We shan’t speak of the Abbey. I know it pains you to think of Mother and the girls.”
“It does,” I agreed. “Very much so.”
“Then let us not even think of it! Let us spend our days joyfully. I am to be King!”
“You shall be a wonderful one.”
He studied me keenly. “You have developed your skills of language quite adequately, Richard. Did you study often in the Abbey?”
“I wished to impress you with my learning.”
“You have done. I do dearly miss my dead brothers,” he added bluntly. “Where do you think they have gone, Richard?”
“I should think,” I began carefully, considering, “that they should have congregated in France to torment the royalty over there until they acquiesce to your demands, dear brother.” He nodded gratefully. We both knew what had happened. Where is Richard? he had asked. And I had replied: on his way to France. I couldn’t be sure but it seemed the logical destination, and at least he could know that his brother had not simply died tucked away in the Abbey, and been replaced by a living boy.
“Should we to bed, Richard?”
“Might I ask you something, Edward?”
“The coronation will proceed?”
“Why shouldn’t it?” he whispered, his face whitening even more. “It’s all in order. I’ve been measured for my clothing. I have beheld the scepter and have vowed before my chaplain to do well by my station.”
“It will. It will. I only wondered if anything had happened. What is the date? The days in the Abbey – they passed one after another and all we did was to worry after you. The whole family misses you dearly.”
“Well I shall see them soon,” he said. “Dear brother, it is 16 June, 1483, and it is a happy day for you have joined me here. I have felt so very alone.” He blinked furiously. “This is so hard, Richard. This is so hard.”
I needed to hug him. He was so small – even though he was larger than me – and he was so frightened and trying so hard to be brave. He needed his brother so badly. No friend in the world can replace your brother. This boy needed his Richard and I needed my Anthony. Neither of us wanted the other, and yet, this is all we had. We were stuck in the Garden Tower, at the heart of the Tower of London, awaiting 22 June, the glorious day when Edward could be crowned and released from this prison to take his rightful place at the peak of England’s hierarchy. And all I had in the world was Edward. And all he had in the world was me.
But I couldn’t hug him. We were strangers. “I am sorry, Edward.”
He nodded. “I know. You are the finest brother a king could have. I should like you to be to me as Uncle Richard has always been to our father. I should like to believe in you that way.”
“You can, Your Highness. I swear on my honor that I will be the truest brother you could have.”
“Thank you,” he smiled wanly. “To bed, brother?”
“And tomorrow we shall frolic on the grass and think of the days when we shall host those unending banquets and compete in the tourneys, and win the hands of the most beautiful women in the world.”
The days passed almost in a blur. At one moment I was begging the King of England to be allowed to share a bed with him, for fear of being alone. I was creeping beneath the covers and scooting nearer to him in the hopes of sharing his heat. He was twisting around, and encompassing me in a hug, and it was nice but he was too young and too small and too weak to protect me the way I wanted to be protected. I remembered how I would crawl into bed between my Mum and Dad during thunderstorms, when the whole house would rattle and I would emit squeaks at every startling clash of thunder. Dad would grip me between his arms that were as hard and thick as tree limbs, and he would hold fast. I always knew I was safe. It did not feel that way tucked into the arms of the king.
At the next moment, Edward and I were squatted underneath one of the tower archways while the hot June sun baked the ground and flushed our skin red. Edward flopped down in the center of a shadow and swiped at his thick hair. It was matted now; he’d need a long combing later and he’d probably ask me to tend to it. Since I’d arrived, he’d kept my company at all times, dismissing his true servants at odd hours with the promise that “My brother the Duke is here to attend my needs. Don’t worry after us; we are fine.”
He was panting a little bit as he grinned at me. “You’re supposed to allow the king to win in the contests, Richie.”
“But then they aren’t true contests,” I pointed out, snapping a few pieces of grass from the ground. I wound one around my finger. “It is hardly my fault if my person is faster than yours, Ed. It’s only a vessel after all, hardly mine at all. The only thing I truly possess is my soul.”
“And your mind,” he added stoutly. “You have an aptitude for the sciences that I don’t understand at all.”
“Understanding the stars is hardly a difficult science.”
“Perhaps I have been more restricted in my study of them,” he said pointedly. “For though your servants may have been too lazy to do so, my servants had no qualms about preventing any midnight prowls I may have taken.”
His tone was tinged with a sullen edge that made me uneasy. “Only because you are four times my value,” I told him, and our friendship was saved.
“Have you been measured for your clothes?” he asked curiously, laying back to watch the clouds float across the sky.
“Yes, but it was rather rapid. I don’t have any sort of idea what I’m to actually wear.”
“Oh, nor do I,” he said casually. “They hope to surprise us with their grandeur.”
“Have you seen the record books? Have you seen the purchases for the fabrics and gemstones?”
“No. Why should I? I hardly need to deal in expenses. It’s a coronation! It’s supposed to be grand! I need to welcome in a time of surplus and wealth and what better way to do so then to have a coronation bursting with wealth and surplus?”
“It’s not the expenses that matter. But what if no cloth has been purchased for our garments?”
“Then they are saving the sewing a bit later than we’d like, but what of it?”
“Edward,” I said stiffly. He sat up at once.
“Come now, Richard,” he warned. “You have something to say. Go on.”
“Perhaps there isn’t to be a coronation. Not for you.”
He grinned. “I’ll have a new jester brought in after the coronation; you hardly do. I don’t know what you can be thinking. It’s as if you don’t know Uncle Richard. He’s the Lord Protector, Richie. He’s wearing the crown for me – not instead of me.”
“How do you know?”
“I know Uncle Richard.”
“What if he wants the crown?”
“He doesn’t. Father’s wish was for me to have it. Nay, not his wish. All of England has already crowned me in their minds. I can’t be washed away in the night. What would the Duke do? Kill us? He’d hardly dare. We have special blood. We can’t be touched.” But I remembered all too well how the not unkind man had clasped my hand in the full belief that I was who I claimed to be. He had touched my person and he was still alive and well, standing just across the courtyard from us, secreted in the shadow of another arch.
What? He was just across from us? I wasn’t sure when he had come to be there or if our voices were high enough or loud enough to carry to his ears. I wasn’t sure he hadn’t heard us.
“Edward, how long has that man been there?”
“What man?” His head whipped around, the wet curls sticking momentarily to my sticky skin.
“That man.” I pointed and the man inclined his head to acknowledge the gesture. Then, slowly, looking furtively about him, he beckoned to the king. “Edward, he has something to tell you.”
“Come with me, Richard.” He stood up. “Do I look all right?”
“Fine. He doesn’t care. Just – I think it’s important. We have to find out. He knows what’s going on.”
“The coronation isn’t off,” Edward said uncertainly.
“Of course not.”
“Your Highnesses,” the not unkind man said, bowing swiftly.
Edward waited. “What is it?”
“Some news from beyond these walls, Your Highness. It isn’t good news.”
“What’s happened? Is my mother all right?”
“Still in the Abbey with your sisters. They’re all fine. But the Lord Chancellor-”
“Robert Stillington,” Edward said immediately. “Bishop of Bath and Wells. Whatever could be of consequence concerning him?”
The man shuffled his feet for a minute. Then he looked straight at Edward, squinting because of the sun. I instinctively felt that I should grasp some part of my companion, lest he should fall over at whatever was reported. It could only be bad news for this boy. “The Lord Chancellor has had an audience with the Duke of Gloucester.”
“Yes, indeed. He has had an audience with your Lord Protector. To be frank, Your Highness, he has cast doubt on your eligibility to rule.”
“Based on my age? That is why Uncle Richard will head the realm’s politics until I am of an age to take command of the nation myself…”
“Based on the circumstances of your conception,” the man said bluntly. “Dear Chancellor Stillington has cast doubt on whether your parents were married.”
“What? There is not a soul in the country-”
“Edward IV was, evidently, precontracted, and, perhaps, even married to a Lady Eleanor Talbot in 1461. She was still alive at your birth. Should Stillington be accurate in these claims – and there’s no certain evidence that he is other than your father’s loose ways around women, which hardly mean as much as he’s making them out to – then you are, in fact, a royal b*stard, and, as such, cannot take the crown while a more… eligible.. man lives.” He turned slightly. “The same applies to you, Richard. I’m sorry, boys. Gloucester wants the throne. I can’t promise that he’ll be faithful to the bones of your father now that they’re deep underground and unable to retaliate.”
“Edward?” I whispered in the dark. He acknowledged my voice by curling into me, huddling against me like a child.
“I am so afraid,” he said quietly. “Before you arrived, when I was so very alone here, I was afraid too. But I was afraid for such different reasons. Now I am afraid for my life.”
“There is no reason for Richard to rid himself of you.”
He chuckled dryly. “You are so naïve. Gloucester-” he spat the word “- will grasp onto any gossip that gives him a claim to the throne. But the common people will not. I am already the king, Richard. The coronation is just for show. If Gloucester shows his true colors, there will be a rebellion, and it will continue until I am dead and buried. I will die. And you will die with me.”
This was no petty fear. He said those dark words without emotion, in the dead of the night, while the rest of the world snored in their beds or drank their wine. Did anyone think of us? Did anyone wonder where the King of England and his brother were laying their heads in the darkness? Was I the only person in the world who felt Edward’s hot tears on my arm and knew why they lay there?
“When are they going to come for us?”
“Who knows?” He laughed again, harshly. “Tomorrow? Or tonight. They may be tramping up the steps right now. How will they do it? With swords? Or will they grab iron spears and roast them in the fire before stabbing our hearts through like skewers? Will they chop off our heads to be set on spikes and left to rot on the side of the bridge?”
The liquid spilled hotly over my arm. I felt it scalding me. My arm was on fire. But the rest of me was ice. “Edward, what day is it?”
His voice was the voice of a dead person, lacking all the luster and excitement of life. “20 June.”
In the darkness his head bobbed. Something stung my eyes. I tried to hold it in. But I was so afraid and then my tears were mingling with Edward’s and we were holding each other all through that eternal night, trying not to feel our hearts beating together, and trying to forget that in death our bones would likely clutch each other just this way, and never let go. Never let go.
I held Edward in my arms and wondered where the Duke of York was. Had he landed in France? Was he in some safe house, learning his German and geography, preparing to face off against his uncle over his brother’s dead body? When we died, when Edward and I died, tomorrow, the commoners would rally around Richard III as he returned to wrest his inheritance from Gloucester the usurper, the false Richard III who would never truly deserve that title. Elizabeth had known, then. She had known what the boy next to me had refused to know. Gloucester was no friend. Elizabeth Woodville had sacrificed me to his enmity, but I couldn’t hate her. I couldn’t hate her for forcing me into her son’s shoes, for forcing me to share this burden with Edward. She had done what she had to do. This was my destiny. As Anthony’s brother, I would have grown up beside the cows and sheep, hearing of Richard’s doings as king once the boys were dead and all opposition was gone. But now – now I would die bravely beside Elizabeth’s treasured son, who would also die bravely, the way he had been raised. And I would do so much more than live a farmer’s life, or die a sacrificial death. I would lower Gloucester’s guard, and I would be the piece of the puzzle that would allow the real Richard to stab a sword through his uncle’s heart and take his rightful inheritance as Richard III, King of England, the brother of Edward V.
“We’ll be together, at least,” I whispered.
Like a child, he cried back, painfully, “Why would I want you? I want my brother. I want my brother at my side. I need my brother.” He stared at me. His eyes were wide and ravaged. Wet liquid streamed down his face. “I can’t do this. I need my brother.”
I hated myself. With all my heart I hated myself. “I’m right here, Edward.”
“Stop it,” he cried. “Stop it. I need Him. I need Him. Why did she send you? What good are you?”
“She had to save him. She couldn’t send him here. Everyone knew something was going to happen. Everyone knew-”
“Why didn’t she save ME!? I thought she loved ME! I thought I was going to be the king! I thought I would have my banquets and tourneys and wars with France. I thought I was supposed to be the king. Did she plan to betray me all along? Did she plan to turn me over to Gloucester all along? She’s always hated him! Did they plot to get me out the way so that my brother could take my place…?” he subsided into an awful fit of choking tears. He shook his head, laughing like a person who has lost control of his mind.
“She couldn’t save you,” I whispered. “You were already lost, Edward. You were lost from the first.”
“I know,” he said bitterly. “I know.” And all the anger fled him and he was just left staring at me in terror. “It’s not your fault. You’re going to die with me. What do you think about that?” He grinned again, that strange, terrible smile. “Are you happy? Is this what you always wanted for your life?”
“There is no greater honor for me than to die beside you, Edward. If I had a life to trade for that honor, I would do so. Knowing you for a week is worth losing every day after that I could have had. Now that I have known the king that England is going to lose tomorrow, I could never have lived through the next regime. It is nobler for me to die beside you as a sacrifice then to die in bed as someone too afraid to live.”
“I don’t deserve that,” he said quietly.
“Yes you do. This is that token of faith that you spoke of. And now, Your Highness, I should like my life’s supply of wine.”
“You will have it,” he told me. “We will drink all day tomorrow and perhaps death will come easily.”
“We can hope.”
“We will be so drunk we’ll be dead already. Then it will be no fun to kill us because we’ll just give in and die quickly.”
“I should like that, Edward.”
“To die beside you, Richard,” he murmured. “That is the true honor.”
“You’re going to have such a wonderful coronation,” I whispered softly. “There’s going to be dancing and singing and only the finest wine. There will be feasting all night and all day and no one will sleep for excitement. The children won’t obey their parents. They’ll be too eager. And you’ll ride in a golden chariot, and when you accept the crown, the cheers will go up to the heavens and won’t stop for hours, even though everyone’s hands will start to sting. They’ll keep cheering and God will hear them and know that he chose the right king. And we’ll return to the palace for a tourney, and all the girls will fall over themselves in their haste to meet you, and they’ll kiss your hand and praise you for your handsomeness. Everyone will beg to serve you your food. You’ll have the finest meat. And we’ll spend the summer hunting. And we’ll start to design the armor for your men. You’ll have the grandest army the world has ever seen! France will crumble before you! You’ll be remembered as the finest king England has ever had….”
He sighed at the idea and grasped me tightly again. I wrapped my arms around him. His breath fell lightly on my skin, reminding me that there was still a little time left to be had. It was not quite over. I felt his heartbeat, and I listened to life pour into him. And then it was possible to sleep.
They didn’t bother to keep silent. They pounded up the stairs and there was no one waiting halfway up to slide a sword into their paths, even though someone could have guarded it easily, never even showing himself. The man who was not unkind could have done it. He could have kept us alive. With those stairs, he could have singlehandedly saved the king from his gruesome fate. But they just stomped up the stairs unhindered. A light wavered in the doorway. A gruff voice informed his companions that our outlines were there, huddled on the bed, trying to escape the confines of our rigid bodies and escape into one being so that we might never part. In all of the world, we were all we could trust. The Duke of York was far away tonight, as distant to us as Gloucester had become in only a day. The Duke of York was just a child. He was not here. He was not fully aware of his last breaths. He was not clutching his brother like a lifeline. No, I, the complete stranger, was clutching his brother’s royal person, trying not to hyperventilate. Anthony and Richard were far away. It was just us.
Edward V was a ghost as he turned to the men. He was as white as snow, and as perfect as a painting. He was no more alive than a painting. “Leave this boy be. I’m all you want.” His voice was raspy and old.
“Our orders were to take both of you,” a disembodied voice retorted. There was no sense of respect, no admiration. Edward was not his king.
“How dare you,” I said, and my voice quavered. “How dare you speak to the King of England as you would a commoner? He is God’s anointed. Show proper respect.”
The chilling voice echoed around the room, feasting on the tension. “Would you say it’s worthy of a king to be killed first, then? I think that shows proper respect to the reincarnation of the divine… do not you agree?”
“Don’t bandy words. You have no right to even stand in his presence. He is eighty times the man you are.”
“He is a child. In fact, you both are. You’re b*stard children. Whatever royal blood courses through your veins is tainted by the blood of that common wh*re.”
“You are a pig,” Edward said venomously, sliding off the bed to stand as regally as he could in his nightclothes, shrouded by darkness. “You are a dirty pig. How dare you slander my father and his queen? Kill me now before I find the unnatural strength in me to do away with you first, as is your due.”
A shape suddenly burst out of the darkness, straight at the king. I acted by instinct. There was one day when a wild beast had accidentally found his way into our fields and cornered Anthony. I had reacted instinctively then too. The blood had boiled inside me, preventing rational thought, allowing me to barrel headfirst at the animal. I took it entirely by surprise then, hurling it away, sending it far, far away from my brother. Once again there was a beast in my field, hunting a child, and the one thing I could not do was stand by to watch. Time froze while I sprang at the man who dared to murder the king. I knocked him off his feet, but then there was another man upon us, rising out of the darkness from nowhere.
“Fine, you first then,” he grumbled roughly, snatching at me in the half-light of the flickering candles. I felt heavy hands on my neck and felt the slime of his skin. He was breathing sharply and I inhaled the fumes of ale that wafted off him. Drunk, then. Was there an occasion to celebrate somewhere out there in the darkness – or was living in a half-conscious stupor the only way for him to carry out this task? The hands wrenched my neck around as something black poured into my skull like ink, making the world outside my eyelids hazy and fantasy-like. I felt like I was drifting backward, like I was melting into the ink and it was tugging me deep into something that wasn’t up or down or backwards or sideways, but in. I was crumbling in, I was a liquid mingling with the black ink, flowing far away. Life was a fantasy and this death was the only real existence. It was so dark. It was so black. And I heard Edward scream somewhere far away and I knew they were upon him and the twelve-year-old King of England was drowning between the hands of his own subjects, swallowed up beneath their bulk. And for a moment I thought about how wrong it was to kill the King of England, especially when it was only this boy who didn’t even have the strength to fight for one small moment. I saw Anthony for a second, and he was floating in all the ink, waving at me. There was a big smile on his face. And then I tried to bite down on one last bit of air and for one instant my eyes met Edward’s and he tried to smile and then he just stared deep into me, sadly, and right then, for that instant, we knew each other better than anyone in the world, and we were best friends, and it was a weird moment, because, while I stared at him we suddenly became brothers. We both knew it. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know me and I didn’t really know him. And then my eyes went black and I couldn’t see anymore but it was okay because that was the only place in the world that I wanted to be and the only time that I wanted to die – at my brother’s side.