Princess Lisa had been kidnapped.
Granted, it hadn't been by a black knight, or even by a neighboring kingdom, but she had been kidnapped. That was undeniable. Even though such random abductions were decidedly rare in these modern times, the old protocol dictated that, as long as she wasn't in eminent danger, she ought to wait for a prince to rescue her.
Oddly enough, the fact she'd been taken by two horrible thugs, instead of a warring country, didn't manage to stretch her mind enough for her to imagine being rescued by someone other than a prince. That simply didn't happen. If an old milkman had come in for payment, found her there, and freed her, she would have married him to make him a prince. Some traditions were important.
Mentally bound by expectation, she hadn't worried too much about figuring out how to escape. After she had been left alone for the first time, she had done a cursory inspection of the dilapidated building she was being kept in, in case it seemed like they might actually hurt her. She hadn't found anything, so she had resigned herself to waiting.
A few days later, the thugs went out for a while and had returned carrying a dead body.
Mike dropped it unceremoniously on the dusty, straw-strewn ground. "Now, that's the kind of work I find valuable." He looked with disdain down at the corpse. "What a snot-faced idiot. I ought to get a prize for today's contribution to society."
Phil glanced over at Lisa when she stood up. For a moment, he considered warning her away, but then he thought about the value of terror as motivation for obedience. She certainly didn't seem inclined to listen to him out of respect, so a tyrannical approach might be best. "Come on, Princess. You're welcome to look if you want."
Lisa walked over and bent down. A princess knows how to stay composed, even in the most dreadful of situations, but it wasn't always easy. It certainly wasn't easy this time. The dead body had been Prince Ray, from Heltie Kingdom. He wasn't in good shape. She might not have managed to identify him if he hadn't still been wearing the crest of his kingdom on his breastplate.
"What did you do to him?" she asked, her voice filled with quiet horror.
"I didn't like him," Mike said simply.
"Do you like me, Mike?" Phil asked.
"I hate you the least, Phil."
"Oh? I'm touched."
"You were born dirt poor—your dad probably belted you for complaining that the mud soup was too thin—but you're always trying to improve yourself by reading all those books an' stuff. It's a spark of hope. And I admire how you stopped me from killing that guy back in Monstay, even though I had that rusty spoon all ready. I think you said something about how he might do good in the future and how he had a past that explained why he was like he was, so he should be given the benefit of the doubt."
It took a moment for Phil to remember the man. When he did, he seemed to recall that the only thing the man had done to offend Mike was to walk in on them while they were stealing all his valuables.
In the meantime, Mike had continued, "Me? I doubt it. He was a right dick, like every other dick on this mud-ball of a world. But I spared him, because you wanted to believe in him. That's how little I hate you."
"Well, thank you."
Lisa had listened to this exchange with a look of abhorrence frozen on her face. She couldn't figure out what was worse: Mike's fatalistic cynicism, or the fact that neither of them seemed to care that there was a dead body at their feet.
Phil looked down at her and smiled, showing all his small teeth. "If I were you, I wouldn't ask what he thinks of you."
"It looks like he did it with his bare hands," she said.
"Only because there wasn't any other weapon easily available."
Princess Lisa's face grew dark. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
Mike had found a spare handkerchief to wipe some of the blood off his knuckles. Phil had gone over to get himself a drink of whatever foul alcohol was left.
"This wasn't supposed to happen!" Lisa yelled.
Phil yelled back, "According to whom, Your Highness? You see, he was going to try and rescue you. I'm sure that sounds very nice and pleasant to some people, but if he'd succeeded, that would have ruined our plans. Let me tell you, Mike and I don't think that's supposed to happen."
"What is your plan?"
Phil smiled again and winked at the Princess. "All in good time. Why don't you go on back over to that corner while Mike and I decide what to do with the stiff."
She took one more look at the mortal remains of Prince Ray. Then she went back to the corner where she slept on a bed of old straw and ate her meals on a minuscule, wobbly table. Her mind felt as if it was spinning, but also as if it was curiously numb.
Mike wandered back over to Phil. "What is our plan?" the thug whispered.
Phil's smile became more forced. "I told you, I'm working on it."
Two days after that, Lisa was woken up when the two thugs slammed the door behind them to ensure there wasn't one second of their argument that didn't involve a loud noise.
"How was I supposed to know it'd be found so quickly?" Mike roared.
Lisa slowly sat up.
Phil wandered over to the large table in the center of the warehouse. "Let's dump it in the river, you said! It'll save us the trouble of burying it, you said!"
Mike followed him. "I don't like digging. I've never liked digging. Besides, it's not like we did anything wrong."
Phil slapped his forehead with one hand. "Do you think the guardsmen will agree with you?"
"Those knuckle-draggers? Who cares what they think? They didn't know the guy. He was a jerk."
Phil briefly pursed his lips together. "Did you learn a lot about him in those few seconds where your fists were beating in his face?"
"Everyone's a jerk."
Phil grit his teeth, forcing himself to calm down. "Mike, you know if it was up to me, we'd be hip deep in teeth by now, but our client has some expectations."
"Our client is a bloomin' idiot, and for half a copper piece I'd smother him with his own cloak."
"We've been over this; that's bad for business. You only kill the clients that don't pay."
"Come on, Mike."
Mike recited in a sing-song voice, "Killing clients means no one would want to be our client."
"Thank you." Phil leaned heavily on the table. "And now we have to deal with another polished ponce." Mike was about to say something, but Phil yelled over the very thought, "And we can't kill him."
There was a pause.
"Can we beat him a little?"
Phil struggled with himself. "Our client didn't say anything about that."
Mike looked hopeful.
"Oh, fine," Phil said. "But then we'll have to bring him back here and figure out what to do with him."
"You know, that meddling nimrod that gave us the gold never actually comes here."
Lisa stood up, trying hard not to make a sound.
"I thought you didn't like digging? Besides, we're not supposed to kill him."
"Then what exactly are we supposed to do with him?!?" Mike pounded one of his massive fists on the table. "Not harming people is a right pain in the—"
"It's another prince," Lisa said, "isn't it?"
The two men turned to regard their captive.
She stepped away from her corner and walked over to the main table. "Another prince is on his way to try and save me."
Phil pushed himself away from the table, crossed his arms, and stood up straight. He looked over his pointed nose at the princess. "And?"
"And I can help you."
Mike made a gagging noise. "We don't need to learn thugging from a bint like you."
Phil was less offended. "Why would you want to help us?"
Princess Lisa said softly, "Because I know how you can deal with them, without killing them."
Horas had been about to turn off the lamps and head up to bed when there was a loud thumping at his door. Despite his hesitation, he decided there was a slim chance it might be worth it to find out who was there. He laboriously turned around to start limping to the front of his shop.
Whoever was knocking was certainly insistent. He hoped the old wood and rusting hinges would hold against the strong blows.
"I said, I'm coming!" He reached the door and began undoing the seven latches and locks that kept the world from invading his little workshop. He opened the portal a crack. Peering out with a bleary eye, he said, "Yes?"
Two men stood on his threshold. One was very large and square looking. The other looked a little bit like a weasel.
Phil smiled at the old man. "Good evening to you, sir. Are you Master Horas Collier, the adept alchemist?"
"Yes, I am." Horas felt a little excitement rise in his bones. He opened the door wider. "Are you looking for goods or services?"
Phil pushed the door open the rest of the way. "Services, sir. Definitely services."
Mike lumbered through the entry and grabbed the old man by the shoulder.
Almost five weeks later, Phil was making his way through the alleys around the palace. He was alone, and for good reason; Mike was getting restless. While Mike accepted the fact he wasn't allowed to hurt their captive or any of the other "little problems" they'd encountered, he was talking very seriously about hurting the fool who'd put so many stupid restrictions on them. Phil thought it was best if he dealt with the client on his own. He agreed the man was a complete twerp who needed to learn what the word "thug" meant—preferably by having his nose forcefully ground into the "t" section of a dictionary—but gold had a marvelously calming effect on Phil. He could handle almost anything if enough gold was involved.
The client was still slinking around in that over-sized cloak. It certainly prevented anyone for knowing who he was, but Phil wondered if he knew how much it made him stand out.
The cloak jumped. "Good evening."
There was an awkward silence while Phil waited for the client to work up the nerve to ask the inevitable question.
Phil decided to hurry it along. "She's fine. The others are also alive, though in various states of what might be considered healthy. You know, it would be much simpler—"
"No. Do it only if you absolutely must."
Phil scowled momentarily, but nodded. At least that was out of the way. "We're working on finalizing the more permanent solution." The cloak seemed to dip its head once. Usually their client was far more interested in the end goal. Phil, who was all too used to how these tedious interviews were supposed to go, felt suddenly nervous. "What is it?"
"We may have a problem," the cloak admitted.
"What? Another one? When is he going to run out of them?"
"This may be a more serious problem." The cloak hesitated for a while before saying, "He's decided to call him in."