Jim Hawkins wasn’t the sort to do bad things.
Well, alright, Jim wasn’t the sort to do stupid things-the sort who did bad things badly. The things Jim did were nefariously, maddeningly, clever, and never things that would get him caught.
Jim invented fertilizers for sweet old Mrs. Robin’s tulip garden that let off pheromones to aggravate the native bees whenever the local delinquents went stomping through it. Jim used a homemade sound-magnifier to listen through the dormitory walls of the local academy to ferret out the students who cheated on tests (there was no harm in thinning the competition, even when you were as bright as Jim Hawkins). Jim burned a hole in the back pocket of a bachelor (who refused to believe Jim’s mother wasn’t looking just because she was single) with only a belt-buckle, a mirror, a third-story window, and plenty of spite.
He had never, ever gotten caught.
So of course it would be something he didn’t do that would get him caught in the end.
Something that put his face on all hundred “wanted” posters that had made it from the kingdom’s capital to small town Montressor, one of which was slowly crumpling in Jim’s hand. He’d torn them down wherever he’d seen them, and the paper strips were still dangling from the Benbow Eatery’s billboard to show where he’d found it.
Unfortunately, not before the Benbow’s owner had found it-the owner who happened to be Sarah Hawkins, the mother Jim came home to every day from classes at the academy.
“Jim, you’ve really gone too far this time,” she was insisting furiously, hands akimbo amid the overturned chairs she’d been putting up for the evening. She was furious only because she would be crying otherwise. Jim was furious, too, but only because he was furious.
“You’ll be expelled from Argentum, and the only way we ever got you there was with your test scores paying half the way-”
Also Jim would be arrested, but clearly she wasn’t letting herself think that far, because if Jim was arrested, then…
“I’m not going to be arrested,” Jim blurted out desperately. As soon as he realized he’d done it-for his own benefit, really-he mentally slapped himself. His mother cut herself off sharply and stared at him, strained. Jim’s tongue stumbled a moment around his mouth.
“I mean, I’m...I’ve never even been to the capital! There can’t be any witnesses!”
Well, he had, once, on a sponsored academy field trip, but that was only for a day and that had been months ago. And obviously there were witnesses, if there was a portrait of him.
Jim’s skin always felt hot around his face when he was doubting himself. With his mother studying him so harshly, he felt like he might be sunburning. He got hotter.
“And…and anyway, I must have been set up!”
Jim brandished the poster in front of him. It uncurled sweatily from his hand and he straightened it impatiently. He didn’t look like that. Jim blinked, held the paper up to the light; squinted-did he look like that?
Who had even drawn this picture? The artistry was of an expert quality, obviously capital-employed, but despite its unmistakable imitation of Jim’s face, down to the distinctive deep angles his cheekbones made beneath his eyes and the almost-frown of concentration he wore so frequently, it looked like someone’s fanciful rebel daydream. Since when had Jim’s haircut been that side-shorn and roguish? Since when had Jim’s shoulders been that hearty and muscle-corded? He was a scholar, not a fighter.
From his mother came a shaking gust of a sigh. She wrung her dishtowel through her hands, over and over, half-muttering a lecture or a frightened diatribe.
“Being human in Argentum is hard enough as it is, you know our business can’t keep up with everything the Fel or the Ave can do-”
She wasn’t shouting, at least. And she still hadn’t cried. Even in her complete despair (not far removed from hysteria), Mrs. Hawkins always kept a sort of tight-mouthed reserve that never let her voice get too loud or her will too weak. She fell apart only one piece at a time, and never all at once. This might have been the closest she’d ever come, maybe even the closest since Jim’s father had left, but Jim knew it was only because the Benbow was falling apart nearly as much as she was. It had been in need of repairs and funds to make them with for years-even the bulb Jim had held the incriminating leaf of paper was scratched and badly flickering.
She hadn’t mentioned anything about proving his innocence, though. A pang of alarm went through Jim, followed closely by a pang of hurt. “Mom, you believe me, right?”
She blinked out of her thoughts, dishtowel still tightly twisted against her apron. She started to speak, shook her head, and bit at her lip. “The only mercy is that your name isn’t on this,” was all she eventually said. Jim was stung.
“What does it even say I stole?” Jim tried to shuffle the paper straight again-he’d clenched his fist around it unconsciously-and his mother snatched it away from his frustrated efforts, stepping to the light of an unshuttered window for help in deciphering its sweat-smeared ink.
“‘A personal effect of King Longinus’s’,” Mrs. Hawkins read off-as decreed by King Argentum, who was apparently besides the ruler of their country a giant bloody idiot.
“You see!” Jim pounced, stabbing his finger and nearly cracking one of the café’s old floorboards with the force of his stomping. “There’s no way I could have been in the castle! Who would have even let me in to Argentum Castle?”
Argentum was the oldest, most rumored and most revered blood of the whole kingdom-its founding rulers. (Well, not the oldest. Somewhere in the murky history of the kingdom’s founding the name Flint seemed to surface occasionally, but no one really talked about that.) Somewhere in his head, Jim was always in a bit of a tiff with the King of Argentum. If you were going to put such a ridiculous tariff, Jim would imagine himself saying smugly while he read the latest on harbor exports, you shouldn’t have put it on such a ridiculous product.
You’re right, the king would admit, shame-faced. But I am royalty and must do ridiculous things for no reason.
Jim imagined this more than most boys his age imagined what household items they could fit their penises into, but he was sure that didn’t mean anything.
Why the king? Because authority was an easy target, and Jim lived an entire suppressed life of petty rebellion under rules. Also because the king-His Highness Longinus Ionathan Argentum-was, well, an Argentum. The Argentum, the very symbol of their country, above any other race of Fel, who was unmistakable for the lumbering feline languor of a big cat-the pride cat, the lion: the greatest, proudest strain of the noble kingdom.
“Jim.” His mother was pleading now, she moved forward and took him by the arms, leaning close in her intensity and shaking him with each word. “They will hunt you down. You’ll be caught. Who knows what will happen if you’re tried? There’s no reason you should even be a suspect to begin with! And who will listen to the people from Montressor, especially about a human living with them?”
“I won’t get caught,” said Jim, “if I get there first. I’ll prove my innocence, to the king himself!”
Sarah’s fingers stopped pulling and, instead, seized. “Jim, do you think you can just walk in and demand an audience with the king?”
But Jim was wild in his anger. “I’ll fight in if I have to,” he retorted, adrenaline-flushed and purpose-pointed.
And right then, he meant it.