The Story That Almost Was
An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason is the story of Katherine Arundell, a vengeful Catholic involved in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I; Toby Ellis, a spy who is tasked with finding the queen’s would-be assassin; and Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play that pulls these characters together, apart, and together again.
But it didn’t start out that way.
When I first conceived of this book, it was about Toby Ellis, a reluctant assassin who, after murdering friend and playwright Christopher Marlowe, grows repentant and turns on fellow assassin and love interest, Julian Marks, which eventually causes Toby’s own downfall. (An aside: this is still an awesome storyline, one I wonder if I can turn into another book!) However, I really wanted to use a Shakespeare play-within-a-play concept and in 1593, the year Marlowe was murdered, not only was Shakespeare still a relatively up-and-coming writer, the plays that encapsulate the themes I had chosen to work with (the damaging affect of ambition—Macbeth; the conflict of honor, duty, and friendship—Julius Caesar; love, jealousy, and betrayal—Othello; and death, revenge, and madness—Hamlet) were years away from being written. While I could have made Marlowe a nameless, faceless character, he is my favorite poet (sorry, Wills) and I wanted the challenge of weaving his beautiful prose throughout the narrative.
So I bumped up the timeline, made Marlowe Toby’s mentor and (unrequited) love interest, kept the themes of death, revenge, and the conflict of honor and duty, and replaced Julian with Katherine. More than a small deviation from the original, but I think it turned out pretty great! But for nostalgia’s sake, let’s take a look at a (very) first draft scene from the Book That Almost Was.
God, I hate them. They didn’t tell me that, either. That I would grow to hate them and grow to hate this job and then I would grow to hate myself.
They didn’t tell me I’d have to kill one of my closest friends.
Even now, as I hover over his body, still twitching on the mud-strewn cobblestone in the still-bleeding twilight, the look of shock and betrayal still on his face, I wonder why I’ve done it.
Money? Glory? Advancement? Isn’t that why anyone does anything? Not that I’d need it. I’d never want for anything, not with her in my corner, as long as I stayed in hers. Poised like a widow in her web, watching, waiting for one false move to swoop down, entangle me in my own mistakes, my own lies, before delivering the sting of punishment, then maybe something like this: A friend approaching me in the alley, one arm slung around my neck, the other clutching a knife, a laugh and a joke before an apology and a cry, a blade in the eye (a poet killed by a poet, the irony) and the deed done.
The mightiest kings have had their minions.
Rain drips like a song on my neck.
“Jesus Christ, Toby.” Julian’s whisper echoes like a scream, coming from everywhere and nowhere. “Are you trying to get caught? Get up.”
“I should get caught.” I say it, but even as I do I don’t mean it. I’m already on my feet, fishing a handkerchief from Marlowe’s pocket (you don’t get to call him Kit anymore, not after this) and wiping my blade with it before sliding it back into my belt. “I deserve to get caught.”
“So melancholy.” Jules is beside me now, his hand crumpled in my sleeve, tugging me down the alley, empty of everything but the dead. He loves this job and everything that comes with it, no matter what comes with it. “You really need to lighten up.”
“Just because you have no soul.”
“I’ve got a soul and a care for it as much as the next person. I’ve just got a bigger care for my neck.” He grins and after a second I do too. Damn him. “Look, this is part of it,” he continues. “You knew that coming in.”
“You know I didn’t.”
Julian shrugs. “You should have. Queenship is a dirty business. You don’t get pomp without the circumstance, you know that.”
“Is that what she told you? Or is that what they told you?”
“Doesn’t really matter, does it? They’re one and the same, after all.” Julian releases me and kicks back against the wall, legs crossed at the ankle, arms folded across his chest, reckless smile on his face. You’d never know that just thirty feet away from us lies the dead body of a poet, a playwright, one of the greats; that forty feet away lies the tavern that Julian arranged for us to meet, where he arranged the excess of ale and the angry patrons and the reckoning of the bill and the perfect alibi so that when his body is found, not a single finger will lift toward me.
“You know what you need?”
Julian thinks the answer to everything lies in the stews and the brothels and the opium dens and for a while I did too, but now the thought sickens me. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Not that.” He slings his arm around my shoulder and tugs me down a side street, then another, winding through them the way I wish we could wind back the clock: Knowing and deliberate.
What have I done?