Assemblyman Tate and his son were the first to receive their tattoos. Phineas introduced the idea of the mark to the villagers with a great deal of patriotic talk. He urged them to show everyone that they were loyal to the village and to Vulpine by taking the mark. He pointed out that it was free for everyone so the whole village could be united by this simple act. “For peace and unity” was again the explained inspiration behind the mark. No one could argue that peace and unity were not desirable things.
Most of the Brothers and Sons took the mark right away, though a few hesitated. Tate offered some bribes to get other more visible members of the village to take the mark. Tate also took his nephew out to the market stalls and encouraged each seller to take the mark right then in order to prove their loyalty to the others. Gabe’s mother was in one of the stalls selling Father’s woodcarvings. She looked around at the others and followed them in taking the mark on her right hand.
All of the sellers had taken the mark until they reached the farmers selling their produce. Many of them turned it down. Mother knew why. She shook her head, tsk-tsking them for being so foolish as to listen to her young son instead of listening to the king. She admired the dark V on her hand and was confident she was the wise one.
She showed it off at home. Gabe looked at it with sad eyes but without comment. His mind started thinking through the implications of a mark of loyalty, but he decided he couldn’t know what was to come of it. Instead, he refocused his thoughts on serving the King.
Serving the king was exactly what Vulpine determined everyone should do. While having rewarded Tate’s efforts to get the villagers marked for their allegiance, he was agitated that the doctor had yet to take the mark himself. He couldn’t sleep for want of knowing if his loyalties had changed. One sleepless night, he decided the doctor must be forced to take the mark or take his punishment for abandoning his oath to serve him until death. If the doctor no longer served him, death must swiftly follow.
Vulpine knew his personal appearance in the square would cause quite a stir, so he sent Phineas to complete the assignment—the doctor must be forced to choose. Phineas strolled into the doctor’s store front along the edge of the square. “I’ve come to see the good doctor,” he called out in a friendly tone.
The doctor pulled back the curtain to see who had entered and then closed it again to finish tending to his patient. He wasn’t in a hurry. He had expected Vulpine to make a move. He knew he couldn’t refuse the mark for long without being noticed by Vulpine’s eagle eyes, or at least his spies.
He locked the door after his patient left and invited Phineas behind the curtain for a private discussion. The doctor was the first to speak. “I know why you’ve come, but I’m not taking the mark. I’m not going to be permanently branded for Vulpine. He’s only a man.” He sighed.
“He’s more than just a man now. He’s the king, and he can do whatever he likes. And it’s your job to do whatever he likes.” Hearing Phineas talk in that sharp manner reminded the doctor why he had never liked Phineas, but he remained quiet and let Phineas deliver his message. “You made an oath in order to join the Brothers and Sons, and you have enjoyed the privileges of membership. You pledged to give your life to serve Vulpine, King Vulpine. You have only two options here. Fulfill your pledge or lose your life.”
Phineas thought the choice obvious, but the doctor didn’t respond. He pulled back the curtain and walked over to the front window. Looking out over the square, he reassured himself he was making the right decision. He turned and looked Phineas in the eye. “I can’t serve him any longer. I am a doctor, but in serving Vulpine I have used these hands to kill rather than to heal. That’s not what I agreed to. I agreed to use my skills to serve Vulpine and, by extension, the village. You know we all thought things would be better if we controlled the village. But now things are worse, and we don’t control anything. Vulpine just wants to control us. I’m taking myself out of his hands.”
“That’s not so easy,” Phineas retorted.
The doctor looked out the window and watched the villagers passing by. They were ignorant of the decision he had just made. He wondered how many of them had thought through the consequences of taking Vulpine’s permanent mark. He smiled faintly at the innocent children chasing each other, bobbing in and out of the crowds.
Suddenly, a man started kicking the door. He was carrying a small boy in his arms. Blood rushed from an open wound in the boy’s head. Phineas was the first to the door and used the key to open it. He talked to the man then slammed the door shut and locked it again.
“What are you doing?” The doctor asked Phineas as he approached the door to open it. Phineas blocked his path and held fast to the key.
“What? That man? He isn’t marked. He’s not loyal to the king and so does not deserve to see the doctor.” Phineas’ cold-blooded comment sounded every bit as if Vulpine had said it himself.
“I can’t do this. I won’t serve Vulpine any longer.”
Phineas saw that the doctor had made up his mind and shrugged his shoulders.
“What is to happen to me? What has Vulpine said?”
Phineas whistled in response. “I’m not sure he’s decided. Neither of us expected you’d actually refuse the mark.”
The doctor looked closely at Phineas. “Where is your tattoo?” The doctor’s eyes grew cold.
“No one questions my loyalty to the king.” Phineas returned the hard look.
“Do you have any loyalty to yourself?” Phineas made no response except to turn the key in the lock and let himself out.
The doctor looked out the open door and noticed Gabe and John walking through the square, carrying baskets of food on their way to the prison. Seeing Gabe with the food basket sent a picture flashing into the doctor’s mind of the kind boy who had brought soup during his lowest moment. As if by impulse, he dashed over to them. The sight of the gray-haired man chasing the boys across the square gave many a reason to chuckle, but when he stopped running and the amusement faded, they turned their attention back onto themselves without wondering further what had been the reason for his rush.
Gabe was surprised by the doctor’s approach, but he greeted him respectfully. Then, right there by the well in the center of the square, the doctor shared his heart with the boys. “Gabe, right?” Gabe only nodded. “I didn’t remember right away when you brought me that soup, but it came to me later who you were. You’re not marked, are you?” Gabe shook his head.
“Good. Good. You are a smart boy. I haven’t been marked either. I…I don’t want to serve Vulpine anymore. I followed him too far, until it cost others their lives. Now, in recompense, I am going to give up my life.”
Gabe and John had no idea what the doctor was saying to them, and they especially didn’t know why the doctor was saying it to them. They weren’t sure the doctor knew why either. They just listened in silence until they saw the desperation in his eyes. Gabe looked deep into the man through those portholes and saw the frantic searching of his heart. Gabe remembered the desperation he had felt before he had met the King.
Gabe reached out and took hold of the doctor’s arm and said, “The King says whoever seeks him finds him.”
The doctor blinked questioningly and studied the boy’s face. The peace he saw there was what he longed for, what he had lacked since signing over his life to Vulpine for a few perks and a feeling of power. “The King? You know the King is alive?” The doctor smiled. “Of course you do. You are the boy from the inn, and the inn had those meetings about the King until Vulpine shut them down.”
Gabe was startled that the doctor knew so much.
“You are right,” the doctor continued. “The King is alive. I know he is. I know the King’s death was faked. I know…I know too many things. Do you still have meetings somewhere?”
Gabe looked at John, who offered an invitation to come to his house for the meeting that night. The doctor looked relieved. They offered to take him to John’s house with them after they returned from the prison. The doctor took them up on the offer but made a further request.
“I don’t want to wait here.” The doctor glanced around nervously. “Could I walk with you? I could wait for you out by the lake.”
“Of course you can join us, Doctor. You can stay with us the rest of the afternoon and evening.” Gabe’s friendly reply comforted the doctor.
As they were walking, the doctor asked one last favor. “Please, just call me Robert. I’m not the village doctor anymore.”