The princess bride, p.10
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       The Princess Bride, p.10

           William Goldman
 

  "My people, my beloveds, from whom we draw our strength, today is a day of greeting. As you must have heard, my honored father's health is not what it once was. He is, of course, ninety-seven, so who can ask more. As you also know, Florin needs a male heir."

  The crowd began to stir now--it was to be this lady they had heard so much about.

  "In three months, our country celebrates its five hundredth anniversary. To celebrate that celebration, I shall, on that sundown, take for my wife the Princess Buttercup of Hammersmith. You do not know her yet. But you will meet her now," and he made a sweeping gesture and the balcony doors swung open and Buttercup moved out beside him on the balcony.

  And the crowd, quite literally, gasped.

  The twenty-one-year-old Princess far surpassed the eighteen-year-old mourner. Her figure faults were gone, the too bony elbow having fleshed out nicely; the opposite pudgy wrist could not have been trimmer. Her hair, which was once the color of autumn, was still the color of autumn, except that before, she had tended it herself, whereas now she had five full-time hairdressers who managed things for her. (This was long after hairdressers; in truth, ever since there have been women, there have been hairdressers, Adam being the first, though the King James scholars do their very best to muddy this point.) Her skin was still wintry cream, but now, with two handmaidens assigned to each appendage and four for the rest of her, it actually, in certain lights, seemed to provide her with a gentle, continually moving as she moved, glow.

  Prince Humperdinck took her hand and held it high and the crowd cheered. "That's enough, mustn't risk overexposure," the Prince said, and he started back in toward the castle.

  "They have waited, some of them, so long," Buttercup answered. "I would like to walk among them."

  "We do not walk among commoners unless it is unavoidable," the Prince said.

  "I have known more than a few commoners in my time," Buttercup told him. "They will not, I think, harm me."

  And with that she left the balcony, reappeared a moment later on the great steps of the castle and, quite alone, walked open-armed down into the crowd.

  Wherever she went, the people parted. She crossed and recrossed the Great Square and always, ahead of her, the people swept apart to let her pass. Buttercup continued, moving slowly and smiling, alone, like some land messiah.

  Most of the people there would never forget that day. None of them, of course, had ever been so close to perfection, and the great majority adored her instantly. There were, to be sure, some who, while admitting she was pleasing enough, were withholding judgment as to her quality as a queen. And, of course, there were some more who were frankly jealous. Very few of them hated her.

  And only three of them were planning to murder her.

  Buttercup, naturally, knew none of this. She was smiling, and when people wanted to touch her gown, well, let them, and when they wanted to brush their skin against hers, well, let them do that too. She had studied hard to do things royally, and she wanted very much to succeed, so she kept her posture erect and her smile gentle, and that her death was so close would have only made her laugh, if someone had told her.

  But--

  --in the farthest corner of the Great Square--

  --in the highest building in the land--

  --deep in the deepest shadow--

  --the man in black stood waiting.

  His boots were black and leather. His pants were black and his shirt. His mask was black, blacker than raven. But blackest of all were his flashing eyes.

  Flashing and cruel and deadly...

  BUTTERCUP WAS MORE than a little weary after her triumph. The touching of the crowds had exhausted her, so she rested a bit, and then, toward midafternoon, she changed into her riding clothes and went to fetch Horse. This was the one aspect of her life that had not changed in the years preceding. She still loved to ride, and every afternoon, weather permitting or not, she rode alone for several hours in the wild land beyond the castle.

  She did her best thinking then.

  Not that her best thinking ever expanded horizons. Still, she told herself, she was not a dummy either, so as long as she kept her thoughts to herself, well, where was the harm?

  As she rode through woods and streams and heather, her brain was awhirl. The walk through the crowds had moved her, and in a way most strange. For even though she had done nothing for three years now but train to be a princess and a queen, today was the first day she actually understood that it was all soon to be a reality.

  And I just don't like Humperdinck, she thought. It's not that I hate him or anything. I just never see him; he's always off someplace or playing in the Zoo of Death.

  To Buttercup's way of thinking, there were two main problems: (1) was it wrong to marry without like, and (2) if it was, was it too late to do anything about it.

  The answers, to her way of thinking, as she rode along, were: (1) no and (2) yes.

  It wasn't wrong to marry someone you didn't like, it just wasn't right either. If the whole world did it, that wouldn't be so great, what with everybody kind of grunting at everybody else as the years went by. But, of course, not everybody did it; so forget about that. The answer to (2) was even easier: she had given her word she would marry; that would have to be enough. True, he had told her quite honestly that if she said "no" he would have to have her disposed of, in order to keep respect for the Crown at its proper level; still, she could have, had she so chosen, said "no."

  Everyone had told her, since she became a princess-in-training, that she was very likely the most beautiful woman in the world. Now she was going to be the richest and most powerful as well.

  Don't expect too much from life, Buttercup told herself as she rode along. Learn to be satisfied with what you have.

  DUSK WAS CLOSING in when Buttercup crested the hill. She was perhaps half an hour from the castle, and her daily ride was three-quarters done. Suddenly she reined Horse, for standing in the dimness beyond was the strangest trio she had ever seen.

  The man in front was dark, Sicilian perhaps, with the gentlest face, almost angelic. He had one leg too short, and the makings of a humpback, but he moved forward toward her with surprising speed and nimbleness. The other two remained rooted. The second, also dark, probably Spanish, was as erect and slender as the blade of steel that was attached to his side. The third man, mustachioed, perhaps a Turk, was easily the biggest human being she had ever seen.

  "A word?" the Sicilian said, raising his arms. His smile was more angelic than his face.

  Buttercup halted. "Speak."

  "We are but poor circus performers," the Sicilian explained. "It is dark and we are lost. We were told there was a village nearby that might enjoy our skills."

  "You were misinformed," Buttercup told him. "There is no one, not for many miles."

  "Then there will be no one to hear you scream," the Sicilian said, and he jumped with frightening agility toward her face.

  That was all that Buttercup remembered. Perhaps she did scream, but if she did it was more from terror than anything else, because certainly there was no pain. His hands expertly touched places on her neck, and unconsciousness came.

  She awoke to the lapping of water.

  She was wrapped in a blanket and the giant Turk was putting her in the bottom of a boat. For a moment she was about to talk, but then when they began talking, she thought it better to listen. And after she had listened for a moment, it got harder and harder to hear. Because of the terrible pounding of her heart.

  "I think you should kill her now," the Turk said.

  "The less you think, the happier I'll be," the Sicilian answered.

  There was the sound of ripping cloth.

  "What is that?" the Spaniard asked.

  "The same as I attached to her saddle," the Sicilian replied. "Fabric from the uniform of an officer of Guilder."

  "I still think--" the Turk began.

  "She must be found dead on the Guilder frontier or we will not be paid the remainder of
our fee. Is that clear enough for you?"

  "I just feel better when I know what's going on, that's all," the Turk mumbled. "People are always thinking I'm so stupid because I'm big and strong and sometimes drool a little when I get excited."

  "The reason people think you're so stupid," the Sicilian said, "is because you are so stupid. It has nothing to do with your drooling."

  There came the sound of a flapping of sail. "Watch your heads," the Spaniard cautioned, and then the boat was moving. "The people of Florin will not take her death well, I shouldn't think. She has become beloved."

  "There will be war," the Sicilian agreed. "We have been paid to start it. It's a fine line of work to be expert in. If we do this perfectly, there will be a continual demand for our services."

  "Well I don't like it all that much," the Spaniard said. "Frankly, I wish you had refused."

  "The offer was too high."

  "I don't like killing a girl," the Spaniard said.

  "God does it all the time; if it doesn't bother Him, don't let it worry you."

  Through all this, Buttercup had not moved.

  The Spaniard said, "Let's just tell her we're taking her away for ransom."

  The Turk agreed. "She's so beautiful and she'd go all crazy if she knew."

  "She knows already," the Sicilian said. "She's been awake for every word of this."

  Buttercup lay under the blanket, not moving. How could he have known that, she wondered.

  "How can you be sure?" the Spaniard asked.

  "The Sicilian senses all," the Sicilian said.

  Conceited, Buttercup thought.

  "Yes, very conceited," the Sicilian said.

  He must be a mind reader, Buttercup thought.

  "Are you giving it full sail?" the Sicilian said.

  "As much as is safe," the Spaniard answered from the tiller.

  "We have an hour on them, so no risks yet. It will take her horse perhaps twenty-seven minutes to reach the castle, a few minutes more for them to figure out what happened and, since we left an obvious trail, they should be after us within an hour. We should reach the Cliffs in fifteen minutes more and, with any luck at all, the Guilder frontier at dawn, when she dies. Her body should be quite warm when the Prince reaches her mutilated form. I only wish we could stay for his grief--it should be Homeric."

  Why does he let me know his plans, Buttercup wondered.

  "You are going back to sleep now, my lady," the Spaniard said, and his fingers suddenly were touching her temple, her shoulder, her neck, and she was unconscious again....

  Buttercup did not know how long she was out, but they were still in the boat when she blinked, the blanket shielding her. And this time, without daring to think--the Sicilian would have known it somehow--she threw the blanket aside and dove deep into Florin Channel.

  She stayed under for as long as she dared and then surfaced, starting to swim across the moonless water with every ounce of strength remaining to her. Behind her in the darkness there were cries.

  "Go in, go in!" from the Sicilian.

  "I only dog paddle" from the Turk.

  "You're better than I am" from the Spaniard.

  Buttercup continued to leave them behind her. Her arms ached from effort but she gave them no rest. Her legs kicked and her heart pounded.

  "I can hear her kicking," the Sicilian said. "Veer left."

  Buttercup went into her breast stroke, silently swimming away.

  "Where is she?" shrieked the Sicilian.

  "The sharks will get her, don't worry," cautioned the Spaniard.

  Oh dear, I wish you hadn't mentioned that, thought Buttercup.

  "Princess," the Sicilian called, "do you know what happens to sharks when they smell blood in the water? They go mad. There is no controlling their wildness. They rip and shred and chew and devour, and I'm in a boat, Princess, and there isn't any blood in the water now, so we're both quite safe, but there is a knife in my hand, my lady, and if you don't come back I'll cut my arms and I'll cut my legs and I'll catch the blood in a cup and I'll fling it as far as I can and sharks can smell blood in the water for miles and you won't be beautiful for long."

  Buttercup hesitated, silently treading water. Around her now, although it was surely her imagination, she seemed to be hearing the swish of giant tails.

  "Come back and come back now. There will be no other warning."

  Buttercup thought, If I come back, they'll kill me anyway, so what's the difference?

  "The difference is--"

  There he goes doing that again, thought Buttercup. He really is a mind reader.

  "--if you come back now," the Sicilian went on, "I give you my word as a gentleman and assassin that you will die totally without pain. I assure you, you will get no such promise from the sharks."

  The fish sounds in the night were closer now.

  Buttercup began to tremble with fear. She was terribly ashamed of herself but there it was. She only wished she could see for a minute if there really were sharks and if he really would cut himself.

  The Sicilian winced out loud.

  "He just cut his arm, lady," the Turk called out. "He's catching the blood in a cup now. There must be a half-inch of blood on the bottom."

  The Sicilian winced again.

  "He cut his leg this time," the Turk went on. "The cup's getting full."

  I don't believe them, Buttercup thought. There are no sharks in the water and there is no blood in his cup.

  "My arm is back to throw," the Sicilian said. "Call out your location or not, the choice is yours."

  I'm not making a peep, Buttercup decided.

  "Farewell," from the Sicilian.

  There was the splashing sound of liquid landing on liquid.

  Then there came a pause.

  Then the sharks went mad--

  ***

  "She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time," my father said.

  I looked up at him. "What?"

  "You looked like you were getting too involved and bothered so I thought I would let you relax."

  "Oh, for Pete's sake," I said, "you'd think I was a baby or something. What kind of stuff is that?" I really sounded put out, but I'll tell you the truth: I was getting a little too involved and I was glad he told me. I mean, when you're a kid, you don't think, Well, since the books's called The Princess Bride and since we're barely into it, obviously, the author's not about to make shark kibble of his leading lady. You get hooked on things when you're a youngster; so to any youngsters reading, I'll simply repeat my father's words since they worked to soothe me: 'She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time.'

  ***

  THEN THE SHARKS went mad. All around her, Buttercup could hear them beeping and screaming and thrashing their mighty tails. Nothing can save me, Buttercup realized. I'm a dead cookie.

  Fortunately for all concerned save the sharks, it was around this time that the moon came out.

  "There she is," shouted the Sicilian, and like lightning the Spaniard turned the boat and as the boat drew close the Turk reached out a giant arm and then she was back in the safety of her murderers while all around them the sharks bumped each other in wild frustration.

  "Keep her warm," the Spaniard said from the tiller, tossing his cloak to the Turk.

  "Don't catch cold," the Turk said, wrapping Buttercup into the cloak's folds.

  "It doesn't seem to matter all that much," she answered, "seeing you're killing me at dawn."

  "He'll do the actual work," the Turk said, indicating the Sicilian, who was wrapping cloth around his cuts. "We'll just hold you."

  "Hold your stupid tongue," the Sicilian commanded.

  The Turk immediately hushed.

  "I don't think he's so stupid," Buttercup said. "And I don't think you're so smart either, with all your throwing blood in the water. That's not what I would call grade-A thinking."

  "It worked, didn't it? You're back, aren't you?" The Sicilian crossed toward her. "Once women are sufficiently frigh
tened, they scream."

  "But I didn't scream; the moon came out," answered Buttercup somewhat triumphantly.

  The Sicilian struck her.

  "Enough of that," the Turk said then.

  The tiny humpback looked dead at the giant. "Do you want to fight me? I don't think you do."

  "No, sir," the Turk mumbled. "No. But don't use force. Please. Force is mine. Strike me if you feel the need. I won't care."

  The Sicilian returned to the other side of the boat. "She would have screamed," he said. "She was about to cry out. My plan was ideal as all my plans are ideal. It was the moon's ill timing that robbed me of perfection." He scowled unforgivingly at the yellow wedge above them. Then he stared ahead. "There!" The Sicilian pointed. "The Cliffs of Insanity."

  And there they were. Rising straight and sheer from the water, a thousand feet into the night. They provided the most direct route between Florin and Guilder, but no one ever used them, sailing instead the long way, many miles around. Not that the Cliffs were impossible to scale; two men were known to have climbed them in the last century alone.

  "Sail straight for the steepest part," the Sicilian commanded.

  The Spaniard said, "I was."

  Buttercup did not understand. Going up the Cliffs could hardly be done, she thought; and no one had ever mentioned secret passages through them. Yet here they were, sailing closer and closer to the mighty rocks, now surely less than a quarter-mile away.

  For the first time the Sicilian allowed himself a smile. "All is well. I was afraid your little jaunt in the water was going to cost me too much time. I had allowed an hour of safety. There must still be fifty minutes of it left. We are miles ahead of anybody and safe, safe, safe."

  "No one could be following us yet?" the Spaniard asked.

  "No one," the Sicilian assured him. "It would be inconceivable."

  "Absolutely inconceivable?"

  "Absolutely, totally, and, in all other ways, inconceivable," the Sicilian reassured him. "Why do you ask?"

  "No reason," the Spaniard replied. "It's only that I just happened to look back and something's there."

  They all whirled.

  Something was indeed there. Less than a mile behind them across the moonlight was another sailing boat, small, painted what looked like black, with a giant sail that billowed black in the night, and a single man at the tiller. A man in black.

  The Spaniard looked at the Sicilian. "It must just be some local fisherman out for a pleasure cruise alone at night through shark-infested waters."

 
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