‘I hear your argument my dear,’ the king smiled and patted his wife’s arm. ‘And though it is well spoken, I would venture that it is flawed, based as it is, on the logic of a gentle heart.’
‘My heart if far from gentle,’ the queen turned to her husband, releasing Jane from the intense scrutiny of her blue eyes. Jane felt her body relax a little, as if a wolf had been sizing her up and had moved its attention to some other prey. ‘There is nothing in this world less gentle that the heart of a mother, my king. Our current debate testifies to that.’
‘May I ask the nature of this debate?’ Jane leapt at the chance to move the discussion away from herself.
‘The exchange of our daughter’s happiness for the security of the kingdom,’ the queen put her drinking horn down, reached out and cupped one hand over the king’s. ‘I am not the reluctant parent in this matter?’
‘Well put, yes indeed!’ The king glanced around the table, his eyes addressing everyone in turn. Jane saw tenderness there, and confusion. Embarrassment too. ‘I must declare a reluctance to marry our little Lavinia at so tender an age. She has a lot more childhood still to enjoy, here, with us. With me.’
‘On the contrary,’ the queen turned back to Jane. ‘Lavinia is no longer a child. She is an impressionable young woman, one who has developed an unhealthy appetite for tales of adventure. A few more years of watching Jane challenge every convention there is, might render her completely incompatible for a new life in another court.’
‘Good!’ Prince Cuthbert banged the table. ‘I want her to stay here with us, not be sold off for an alliance.’
‘Sold off?’ The king reached out and rubbed his son’s head. ‘Lavinia is choosing her own husband, we have portraits arriving from every eligible family in the near kingdoms.’
‘She is playing along with your nonsense because it is all a game to her. We agreed who she will marry years ago.’
‘Agreed?’ The queen smiled across at her husband. ‘What exactly did we agree?’
‘Not you.’ Prince Cuthbert threw his arms up as if exhausted by the dull wits of his parents. ‘My sister and I made the agreement. When I become King, I shall marry Jane, and Lavinia will marry Dragon.’
‘Is that so?’ The queen turned to Jane and raised one eyebrow. Jane pushed he lips together to stop herself from smiling, and raised an eyebrow in return.
‘An interesting proposition,’ the king nodded and stroked his chin as if giving the idea some thought. Everyone knew this reaction, the king used it to gain time and rally his thoughts when he was posed a challenging question. He looked at his captain of the guard for help. ‘There would be some issues with this proposal would their not, Sir Theodore?’
‘Not that I can see, your Majesty. The idea has merit on all fronts. Both Jane and Dragon would be bonded in service to the crown. The idea should be tabled for debate.’
‘Well spoken!’ Prince Cuthbert gave the old knight a grudging nod of thanks, then paused, frowned, and cocked his head to one side. ‘Is this the start of one of your clever lectures where you start by agreeing with me and then turn my mind around inside my own head?’
‘No, I see nothing but merit in the idea,’ Sir Theodore reached for his drink. ‘But my mind is not as astute as it was, perhaps Jester can take issue with some small piece of it.’
‘Which piece did you have in mind?’ Jester tried not to glare at the old knight. ‘There are several pieces that don’t exactly fit on the game board of real life.’
‘Please don’t tire your brain, Jester. My sister and I are quite decided on this. Nothing you can say will change our minds.’
‘Excellent, then I will remain silent and pass the debate back to your father.’
‘Hmm,’ the king looked from Jester to Sir Theodore. ‘Thank you both for your support.’ He seemed at a loss for how to continue, and was saved by the arrival of Pepper who had come with a fresh pitcher of apple juice. ‘Ah, more refreshments, excellent!’
‘And where is your sister?’ the queen took the moment to change the subject. ‘I expected her to join us for this meeting.’
‘I don’t know,’ Cuthbert grabbed the pitcher of apple juice and filled his goblet.
‘I believe I do, your majesties,’ Pepper wiped her hands on her apron. ‘the Princess instructed Rake to build a nest for the pig egg. She has been watching over it all day, on and off.’
‘A pig egg?’ The King frowned. ‘I never knew of such a thing. We have one here in the castle, do we?’
‘We do. That is to say, Rake think’s we do. It was a gift from Haroldus, round like an egg but with stiff brown bristles like a pig.’
‘And where is this nest?’
‘In the hayloft above the stables, shall I run there and fetch her little majesty to you?’
‘No!’ Jester jumped up. Everyone stared at him. ‘I mean, let me do it, Pepper. You are busy enough serving the table.’ He paused briefly, waiting for a signal from the King, who nodded to give him leave. ‘Thank you your Majesty.’ Only then did he glance at Jane. Her face was a giant question mark, one of her eyebrows arching up towards a frown that curved down to meet it. He shrugged, strode away past the central fountain, and set off down the steps to Rake’s garden. When he was out of sight of the table, he broke into a run.
The hayloft! He had completely forgotten about the ridiculous pig egg and the nest Rake had built. So much had happened today, and it had slipped his mind. Such a little thing. Trivial. And yet, how the fortunes of a kingdom could turn on such moments. What had the poor child overheard?
‘Trouble,’ Smithy called out from the forge as Jester sprinted across the training yard.
‘Have you seen Princess Lavinia?’
‘She was in the hayloft last I remember. Trying to hatch that little puzzle gifted to Pepper.’
‘Pestilence!’ Jester swore under his breath and hurried on. He tried to remember his meeting with Gunther, the whole confusing conversation. Pieces came back like hammer blows and he felt sick as he entered the stables and called out Lavina’s name.
‘She’s not here.’ Rake’s voice. Jester climbed the steps to the hayloft and peered across at the young gardener.
‘Do you know where she went?’
‘She said she had important thinking to do,’ Rake patted the coconut. ‘I think I might be wrong about this egg.’
‘Did she say anything else?’
‘No, but she had her serious face on. This one.’ Rake did a passable impression of Lavinia looking thoughtful. The jutting chin, the furrowed brow. ‘She was sad, too. Her eyes were red.’
‘Rubbing tears away?’
‘Perhaps. Do you think I upset her with this pig egg? It looks dead. Maybe Pepper can crack it open and cook it?’
‘Ham and eggs in a single package?’
‘Oh yes! Do you believe so?’
‘No Rake, and I don’t believe you upset her, either.’ Jester sat down on the straw beside him and sighed. ‘The fault is entirely mine. Gunther and I were having a heated argument down in the stables and I believe she overheard us.’
‘That is the issue, Rake. Gunther laid bare one of his schemes to me, he was trying to enlist my support. If he pursues it, there are consequences for the whole castle. Now that I am aware of his plans I face a dilemma. Who do I confide in? If I run to the King, Gunther will face banishment, if I say nothing, I will be a silent partner to his scheme. If I tell you, then you will face the same problem.’
‘And the princess, who will she go to?’
‘The poor girl’s head must be fit to burst, she won’t go to her father, she knows it would imperil Gunther. She might go to Jane.’
‘No,’ Rake looked down at the egg. ‘She won’t ask Jane, she will BE Jane. What would Jane do? That’s what her Little Majesty will be saying to herself. What would Jane do?’ Rake looked up at Jester. ‘We know the answer to that. Jane rushes at things like a bull.’
‘She would confront Gunther!’ Jester jumped up and almost fell from the hayloft as he scrambled down the ladder. What in the name of madness would Gunther do if Lavinia were to challenge him with what she knows!
‘Is she there!’ Jester was racing back across the training yard when Jane called out to him. She was striding through the archway on the far side.
‘No,’ Jester slowed to a walk and did his best to compose himself. It didn’t work, Jane knew him too well.
‘What’s wrong?’ She planted herself in front of him. ‘You took off from the table like a startled rabbit!’
‘I need to tell you something.’ He looked passed her. Smithy was crossing towards them from the forge and Sir Theodore was coming down the steps from the Royal Garden. ‘When we’re alone.’
‘Well!’ The old Knight called out. ‘Where is she?’
‘Sorry, no sign. Rake saw her not long ago, in the stables. So she can’t be far away.’
‘This is quite the commotion,’ Smithy sauntered over to them, wiping his hands on his leather apron. ‘The usual game of hide and seek is it?’
‘It is,’ Sir Theodore took a moment to catch his breath. He put his hands on his hips, arched his back, and smiled. ‘That girl is a challenge to us all. So, any ideas, or do we spread out and search her many hiding places.
‘One suggestion,’ Jester tried to keep his voice light. ‘Rake thinks she’s gone looking for Gunther.’
‘Whatever for?’ Sir Theodore held up a hand. ‘No, forget that. How can you know? How can any of us fathom the many minds of that young lady?’ He paused, looked at the ground for a moment, then shook his head. ‘No doubt she will lead us all on a merry chase, but the queen has urged me to rally the guard and search her out.’
‘We have no time for this!’ Jane kicked the ground. ‘Why does she always do this at the most inconvenient moments. We have so much still to discuss with Robert and Haroldus.’
‘The queen has directed us to find her daughter, so find her we will, even if it takes the rest of the evening.’
‘Jane! Enough! The queen spoke gently to you earlier, more gently than her true opinions might suggest. She has championed you all these years, but you are marching across thin ice. She puts the blame for her daughter’s behaviour entirely at your feet. So no more discussion. We search, is that understood?’
‘I have an idea,’ said Jester.
‘When do you not!’ snapped Sir Theodore. ‘Do you mean to voice it?’
‘If I may, yes. If Lavinia is looking for Gunther, we should stake him out in full view of the main castle, like a goat. She will spot him from any of the battlements and most the rooms in the royal apartments.
‘Ha! Very good,’ the Captain of the Guard slapped Jester on the shoulder. ‘Strategy is half the battle. See to it. Take Jane with you, and bring Gunther up from the cellars. He and Sir Ivon are watching over our guests. Have Gunther circle the Royal Fountain.’
‘How many times?’
‘Until our princess spies him there, or I tell him to stop.’
They were halfway down the stairs to the cellars when Jane grabbed Jester’s elbow.
‘Tell me, now!’ She sat down on one of the flagstone steps. ‘Sit beside me, I can tell it’s serious.’
‘How? I am a master of deception.’
‘Yes, of deceiving yourself, that’s why the whole staff trust you. Right now you have the distant look you always wear when you are busy chasing down a problem that is far too big for you. So sit and tell me everything.’
‘This is so…’ Jester almost stamped his foot. ‘All day I have been filled to bursting with the need to speak with you. Then, finally, when you do come back, off you trot with Robert, and then with Sir Theodore. I seem to be the last…’ he sighed, dropped his shoulders, and laughed at himself. ‘Very well!’ He sat down beside her. ‘And in return, you must tell me everything - your whole day’s adventures with Robert Pretty Face. Everything!’
‘Agreed.’ Jane punched him lightly on his arm. ‘What a pair we make. Alright, I’ll go first.’
The only light in the stairwell came from the entrance above. The sun had dropped to the horizon and all but the tower keep was in shadow. A single ray from the setting sun bounced from the glass of the upmost window of the keep. It sent a shaft of brilliant orange down into the stairwell where it reflected off the stone wall above their heads. Against the dark grey of the stones, Jane’s hair shone like a bush fire.
Jester listened quietly as Jane recounted the key events of her day. When she was done, Jester let out a long sigh, as if he’d been holding his breath the whole time.
‘Very well,’ he looked up, smiled weakly, and told Jane about his strange conversations with Gunther, and how Lavinia might have overheard every detail.
‘What a complete bag of madness!’ Jane stood and smacked her forehead. ‘Even for Gunther. It’s treachery at worst, deceitful at best. Why would he trust you with that, share it all with you? There’s no sense to it.’
‘There’s a kind of Gunther sense,’ Jester stayed sitting on the stair. ‘I think he wanted to shock me into offering an opinion. Who else can he talk to about this? Perhaps he was relying on me to talk him out of it. It’s early enough. Or it was, before the princess heard the whole thing.’
‘You think she’s looking for him to confront him?’
‘I’m certain of it.’
‘Then we must get to him first,’ Jane grabbed Jester’s elbow and pulled him to his feet. They hurried down the remaining steps and approached the heavy oak door of the cellars. It was open. Jane pushed through and took in the situation at a glance. Four men lay on the floor. All were snoring loudly. Jane stepped over each in turn, checking for signs of a struggle. There were none. The only assailant appeared to be the volume of wine they had consumed.
‘Drunk!’ Jane almost spat the word. Gunther and Sir Ivon lay close together, as if they had fallen while trying to prop each other up. Haroldus looked more composed. He lay stretched out, flat on his back, his hands folded on his chest.
The Dungeon Master lay on his side, a full goblet of wine on the floor beside him. Of Robert, there was no sign.
‘What happened here?’ Jane spun round and confronted Jester. ‘How hard can it be for four people to guard one man?’
‘One very sober man,’ Jester pointed to a fifth cup that was standing on the edge of the workbench. ‘It appears your new friend Robert sat here on the bench.’ He reached down and hoisted up a leather bucket of sawdust. ‘Look in this.’
‘Master Gorga’s improvised piss pot? No thank you.’
‘Really? So the fearless Jane assumes a lady’s sensibilities in some matters. Very well, I will share what I see.’
‘Maggots! Show me.’ Jane crossed to her friend and stared down into the bucket. The sawdust was red, not yellow, stained from the wine Robert had been quietly tipping from his cup as his guards rendered themselves senseless.
‘He has the run of the castle,’ Jane raced for the door. ‘A man we hardly know.’ She turned and charged up the stairs. ‘
‘Yes,’ Jester whispered to himself. ‘And you brought him inside on your big green Trojan horse.’