The letter had arrived in the dead of night.
Jack had been woken from twisted dreams by a loud knocking at his door. He’d known immediately that something was wrong. Eyes still heavy with sleep, he had rolled awkwardly out of his narrow cot, stumbled blindly down the rickety old stairs, and flung open his front door with a haste that had almost tore it from its hinges.
But the street before him had been empty.
With an irritated frown that creased the narrow space between two bushy brows, he’d stuck his head over the threshold and peered up and down the sloping cobblestone street. But the only movement between the wonky rows of cramped terraced housing, had been the thin patches of mist that slunk through the labyrinthine streets of London like the scrawny cats that prowled and plagued it.
It was as he’d stepped back inside that he’d spotted the letter. Placed neatly, almost lovingly, on his doorstep, there had sat a small, cream envelope adorned with swirling scarlet letters that had spelled out his name and title: Jack.
All previous grogginess had disappeared at the sight of it. For a second, he’d considered the possibility of it being some sort of prank, but he’d tossed that thought out almost immediately. No-one would dare joke about this.
With trembling hands and shuddering breaths, Jack had swiped the envelope off the ground, cracked the seal in half, and tore the letter open. By the dazzling light of the large full moon, he had been able to read the three sentences underlined at the top of the parchment as clear as if it were day:
Read these instructions carefully. Follow them exactly. Burn this letter once the task is done.
At those words, Jack’s heart had stuttered to a stop. He hadn’t even realised it, but up until that point he had harboured the tiniest of hopes that the letter was wrong. That there had been some sort of mistake. But with those three short sentences, Jack had no longer been able to deny the truth:
The King was dead.
He had carried on reading, his eyes devouring the rest of the letter faster than his brain could keep up. What had followed was a list of orders. Knives were to be placed on Chapel Street, Warwick Row, and Ebury Lane. Pistols were to be taken to Castle Avenue, Saint James’ Court, and Park Road. Maces were to be left on Greencoat Drive, Grosvenor Crescent, and Hamilton Mews. The detailed instructions had listed hundreds of items that each corresponded to a site that would serve as a hiding place. It was a monumental task, with the locations stretching from the smallest alleyways on the outskirts of the city, to the stately Palace itself. He'd gotten to work right away.
Now, Jack found himself making his way through an eerily vacant Hyde Park with a satchel full of brass knuckles and a heart full of growing unease. He had almost completed his task, and the beginnings of a sunrise were just starting to peek out over the tops of the chimneys in the distance. As he hid the brass knuckles around a dozen stone statues, marble busts, and bronze casts, he thought about all the other Jacks across the country that would be doing the same as him, hiding weapons around their own cities until the whole of Britain was stocked full of armaments, tools of war hidden in every nook and cranny like the patterned eggs children hunted at Eastertide. He had caught hints of the other London Jacks as he’d been navigating the city – a flash of coattails rounding a corner, echoing footsteps a few streets away, a blur in his periphery as he turned his head – but they had been nothing more than ghosts in the fog. Whispers of the Jacks of the present, and remnants of the Jacks of the past. It was the latter his mind turned to as he hid the final weapon.
He had been just a boy when the last King had died, but he could still remember his father receiving his letter. When the knock had come in the middle of the night, Jack had crept bleary-eyed to the top of the stairs and watched through the banister as his father had opened a small cream envelope embellished with swirling scarlet letters. Watched, as his father had shrugged on his overcoat, rammed his cap onto his head, and shoved the letter deep into his pocket. The door had swung shut behind him before Jack had even had time to register what had happened.
His father had never come home that night, nor any night after. Perhaps he had just been unlucky, caught in the bloodshed that terrorised the city over those following weeks. Or perhaps he had decided to try his luck at the game himself, and wound up with his throat hastily slit in some dingy back alley only three hours in.
Either way, Jack would never know. He had spent the following month barricaded in his room, his only company – besides nibbling rats and scurrying cockroaches – the sounds of gunshots and screams that had echoed around the city. Not even the bolts of pain that ripped through his skull, or the pangs of hunger that stabbed at his stomach, had been enough to drown out those sounds.
But tonight, a sinister silence blanketed the city, and Jack savoured it as he left the park and began to make his way home, his breath misting in the cold morning air. It was as though every living being had simply disappeared. There were no guttering candles flickering on scuffed windowsills, no street urchins scrambling about in worn rags, no bedraggled strays scouring the streets with flea-ridden fur. The city was frozen, holding its breath, and Jack took some small pleasure in the rare stillness. He knew that in a few hours’ time, he would give anything to be able to come back to this moment.
His footsteps quickened on the cobblestones at the threat of what lay ahead, and he chanced a glance up at the Clock Tower that glowed in the distance.
He was cutting it close. Too close. In a few moments, the Bells of London would toll thirteen times, and the Battle Royale would begin. Anyone caught outside their homes would be entered into the contest, whether they wanted to be or not, and over the next couple of weeks the streets of London would be drenched in the blood of its champions. Competitors – drunks, daughters, and Dukes alike – would slaughter each other ruthlessly in a fight to the death, battling without rest or mercy or even dignity.
The last one standing would be crowned King.
Jack slipped in through his front door just as the first bell chimed, slamming the bolts swiftly shut behind him. He slid down his door as the bells reverberated through his skull.
This was going to get bloody.