If you’ve read here for any length of time, it will be no surprise to you that I love to see stories grow and change, like this from Sarah Rees Brennan.
The submarine drifted to a stop not far from the island, the periscope breaking the surface of the water like the lifted nose of an inquisitive pointer dog. After a few minutes, a man emerged from the submarine and got into a boat, one not at all like the children’s boats arrayed on the shore.
When the boat sliced through water to white sand, the man stepped out of it.
They had given him a number, and taken away his name. Unfortunately for him, his number was 69.
This was a subject of many tasteless jokes in the Service, but nobody would have known that from 69’s serious face and his extremely dapper black suit.
He took a few purposeful steps along the shore to the forest, then looked down. Under his feet, and under a layer of the black grease of age and filth were pebbles like jewels, and children’s toys, and human bones.
There was a barely perceptible shift in the air before his face, but the men and women in Her Majesty’s Secret Service are extremely highly trained. 69 looked up.
The boy before him was beautiful in a slightly terrible way, like a kiss with no innocence in it.
More to the point, he was holding a sword as if he knew how to use it, and floating about a yard above the ground.
“Dark and sinister suit,” said the boy. “Have at thee.”
“I am afraid I do not have time to indulge you,” 69 said. “I am here on a mission from her Majesty.”
“Ah,” said the boy, tilting his chin. “I know it well.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Majesty,” the boy said, waving his sword vaguely. “Belonging to… her. I know all about it.”
“Her Majesty the Queen,” 69 said with a trifle more emphasis than was necessary.
“I knew that,” the boy informed him.
“She feels that the Service has a need for a man—”
The boy hissed like a vampire exposed to the sunlight, lifting his free arm as if to protect himself from the word. Man.
“Excuse me. A boy of your special talents,” 69 said smoothly. He had been raised in diplomatic circles.
The boy spun around in a circle, like a ballerina with a sword in zero gravity.
“My talents are special! So awfully special!”
“Indeed,” said 69. His countenance remained unchanged. 69 was very highly trained, and also a gifted amateur poker player. “And the Queen needs—someone of such talents for a job.”
The boy started to laugh, a high lovely laugh that wavered between a baby’s gurgle and the peal of bells. It did not sound quite sane.
“A job?” he asked. “Make a man of me, will you? Oh no, oh no. You sailed your boat to the wrong shore.” He made a quick, deadly gesture with his small sword to the island around them, the dark stones and trees with branches like bared claws. “This is no place for men.”
“So I see,” said 69. “And I see there is nobody here who would be brave enough to risk all for her Her Majesty’s sake: nobody who is enough of a patriot to die for their country.”
Peter was not entirely sure what a patriot was, but he would have scorned to betray this fact. He did not even acknowledge it to himself, really: Peter’s thoughts always moved like a stone on water, skipping and skimming along the surface until they hit a certain spot.
69 had turned towards the sea, but he was not entirely surprised when a sword landed, light as a very sharp butterfly’s wing, on his shoulder.
He turned back to meet the sight of the lovely, terrible smile.
“To die for your country,” said Peter. “Would that be an awfully big adventure?”