Try as he might, Jester could not recall the last time he’d wept like this. Not since childhood, certainly. For the past hour he had made several attempts to dry his eyes and leave Jane’s turret room. Each time he’d only made it as far as the door before the wellspring of tears opened again and he found himself sitting back down on the edge of the bed, chest heaving, legs unsteady.
‘What is happening to me?’ He knew some of it: overwhelming relief on learning that Jane was alive; heartbreak that she might be sharing her affections with that ridiculously arrogant forester from the tavern. Who in the name of sanity was that man!?
These emotions he could articulate to himself easily enough. Yet there was another layer of confusion, a churning worry he couldn’t put a name to it, a feeling of foreboding and disorientation. The bedrock of his life was becoming unstable in ways he couldn’t express.
‘Yes, you can!’ Jester thumped a knee with his fist. ‘This is what you do. This is the one thing in all this world you are actually good at – finding words to make sense of everything.’
So, what was it? He looked up, taking in the room around him, Jane’s room, a place so familiar he could walk it blindfold. He knew where everything was - every token, trinket, and treasure that Jane had surrounded herself with since she had moved in here at the start of her training. Except! He frowned at the mantle above the stone hearth. Where was the wooden lion? The toy guards?
He pulled himself up and searched the room, opened the carved oak chest at the foot of Jane’s bed and stared at the contents. They were all here, all the things she treasured, all the touchstones and memories of the past five years. All put away, a box of memories.
This was it, this was the outward manifestation of his feeling of dread. Change had arrived in his world. This home he had come to love, come to trust, this dependable and gentle kingdom, set in a secluded corner of a turbulent world, was finally waking from a long, intoxicating dream. A sweet dream of family, of belonging; a dream of hope and everlasting peace.
Time here in Kippernia had slowed to a trickle. The kingdom was a quiet backwater, safe from the raging torrent of real time that drove the rest of the world into such giddy action.
Now Haroldus had come back and breached the dam. Jester could feel the cresting tide of the real-world thundering toward them. He would be swept up, they all would.
He walked to the window. That was what these tears were for. Tears of loss for a world soon to be washed away, and all his dreams along with it.
‘Jane?’ He leaned past the shutters and raised a hand to shade his eyes. In the distance, far off across the causeway, the silhouette of Dragon was flapping casually through the sky towards them.
‘Finally!’ Jester ran for door, threw it open and raced down the steps to the training yard.
Gunther was already there, and grinned at Jester.
‘Were you in her room?’
‘No! Well, yes, briefly. I was on the tower roof, I left by her stairwell.’
‘A good enough story,’ Gunther cocked his head to one side and studied Jester’s face. ‘And no doubt, the wind and dust from staring so long at the sky, made your eyes red and swollen?’
‘Fear not my foolish fool, your secret is safe with me.’
‘I was on the roof!’
‘Not that. Your BIG secret. I promise you that Jane will never learn of your hopeless affection for her, not from me.’
‘Gunther!’ Jester put his hands on his hips and thrust out his chin as he fumbled for a reply that would flip the conversation.
‘Oh do stop; your playacting threatens to embarrass us both.’ Gunther put out both hands and rested them on Jester’s shoulders. ‘We have to trust each other to be discreet. We are allies now.’
‘If you are referring to all that nonsense you spouted earlier in the village square.’
‘I am. And it was far from nonsense.’ Gunther glanced up at the sky, Dragon was getting close, Jane was moments away. He turned back to Jester, squeezing the young man’s bony shoulders a little before dropping his hands. ‘I have signed you up to my plans, I have given you an arrow to pierce me with. Why did I do that? Because we are orphan brothers bound together by mutuel deceit. All of it in a good cause.’
‘The cause being?’
‘In one move I will bring down my father, inherit his fortune, his position and his credit; save this hopeless little kingdom from its weak position and recue poor Lavinia from a dreadful marriage to Prince Juan of Granadilla who will reduce her to tears and motherhood.’
‘Is that all?’
‘It’s a start, Jester. And you have your part to play. This is our family, our small and hopelessly dysfunctional family. I intend to save it from itself because I need it. As do you.’
Jester was lost for words. He simply stared at Gunther. Had their conversation earlier been the trigger for all this unease he felt? This sense of doom and change?
Gunther was a schemer like his father, the Merchant. The young knight had grown in kindness under Sir Theodore’s tutoring, but he was cut from the same cloth as his father, witness to the Merchant’s complex political games. Jester studied his face. Would Gunther pull him in to his schemes, then leave his head on a spike when it suited him? Of course he would.
‘Whatever games you’re playing, Gunther, leave me out.’
‘Hmm,’ Gunther dipped his head and grinned. ‘As you wish. Yet time will change your mind.’ They both turned to look up at the sky, watching Dragon’s approach. Jester frowned and, raised a hand to shade his eyes.
‘Is that a flock of birds pursuing Dragon?’ his eyes were not as sharp as Gunther’s. Pepper blamed his long nights spent reading by candlelight.
‘I believe it is, very odd birds though. And so many. No wait. Ha! What is going on here? Those are not birds. They are bats!’
‘Yes, hundreds of them, following in Dragon’s wake. Almost a procession. An escort of little black pretender dragons. What should we make of this, Jester, a sign of Dragon’s arrogance or something more sinister? Do bats figure in the warning and prophecies you are so fond of reading?
Jester didn’t reply. The sense of foreboding tightened its grip on his stomach. Bats were indeed harbingers of untold mischief, to see them flying in daylight, and in such numbers, was like walking under a ladder with a black cat strapped to your face! It did not bode well.
‘Oh! Now THAT is interesting!’ Gunther spotted him first. The extra rider sitting astride Dragon’s neck right behind Jane. Gunther turned and watched Jester’s face, waiting for the image to hit home. There! The effect was clear to see. Shock and pain. Gunther grinned and looked back up at the newcomer. He was sitting astride Dragon’s neck, his arms clamped around Jane’s waist. A good-looking man, and strong by the look of it. What was going on here?
‘You have a welcoming committee!’ Robert leant forward, shouting the words at the back of Jane’s head.
‘Yes, stay on Dragon when we land. I need to handle this very carefully.’
‘I can talk for myself.’
‘I know! At length! That is the problem. You are a master of hot air, self-importance, and vanity, none of which will serve you well. If you want the outcome you seek, you must do as I say and show the humility this royal family is accustomed to seeing.’
‘Not from you though, clearly!’
‘From everyone, me included.’
‘Ha!’ Dragon rolled an eye back. ‘Can I venture an opinion?’
‘No.’ Jane leant forward, gripped his horns, and braced for the landing. Dragon made a tidy attempt, not his best, but neither rider lost their seat. Jane leapt down and strode towards her friends. They looked thick as thieves, what were they up to? She smiled at Gunther, dipping her head, one knight to another, then opened her arms and embraced Jester. Goodness, he was shaking. And his eyes, had he been crying?
‘So Jester! I kept my word. I promised to take care of myself and come back safely, did I not?’
‘You did. And here you are,’ Jester returned the embrace and looked across at their guest. The forester seemed different to the swaggering man Jane had bested in the tavern last night. Had that been a piece of theatre? To what end? There were so many questions, but not here. He needed time alone with Jane. ‘Safe and well, yet half a day later than expected and carrying an unexpected package.’
‘Oh, first names already?’
‘I have other names for him, none of them very flattering. I shall tell you all about it. First, where is Sir Theodore? I need him to bring Haroldus back to the castle immediately.’
‘His old colleague is already here,’ Gunther indicated the ground under his feet. ‘Our noble captain of the King’s Guard brought him in, bound in rope, and took him down into the care of Master Gorga.’
‘What!’ Jane swung round and glared at Dragon. ‘You did give Sir Theodore my message.’
‘Yes. You were safe, and I was bringing home some bats!’
‘And that Haroldus had brokered all this in good faith.’
‘That bit, no.’
‘Maggots! Jester, please take our guest to Pepper. Robert has burns that need her care before they fester. Dragon, take the bats up to your cave and come straight back. Gunther, report my safe return to Sir Ivon and post it on the board.’
‘Alright!’ Gunther banged a fist to his chest in mock salute. ‘At your command.’ He winked at Jester and whispered. ‘I’m told rubbing salt into burn wounds is quite the thing.’
Jane ran for the dungeon steps. Poor Haroldus, he had clearly put a great deal at risk to help Robert arrange the meeting, and now Sir Theodore was interrogating him, and it was her fault! Again! Every time she followed her instincts, every time she broke Sir Theodore’s carefully orchestrated protocols – someone got hurt. Actions have consequences, Jane. Always map the field before you gallop onto it. Small victories are hollow, short-lived affairs when other folk die for your cause. The shadow of every victory speech is the wail that comes from the families of the fallen.
She took the steps two at a time, almost colliding into Princess Lavinia who was sitting at the bottom, her chin in her hands as she stared at the large oak door of the dungeons.
‘Woah!! What are you doing here?’
‘Listening. There has been a great deal of roaring and thumping and shouting. I am very upset about this Jane. The old black knight is hurting our friend. Do you suppose my brother is helping? Are they pinning Haroldus to a piece of parchment?’
‘What?! No, well I hope not.’ She paused and stared at the door as a loud thump and a roar echoed from the other side. ‘Now go back up into the sunshine, quickly, and make no mention of your visit down here. Your mother is forming a very poor opinion of my influence on you. She might decide to pin me to a piece of parchment if she finds out you’ve been down here!’
‘No. I’m staying right here. Poor Haroldus will need my help. I will mend him afterwards, like in the ballads.’
‘Someone needs that help right now,’ Jane knelt down and lifted Lavinia’s chin with a finger. The child was holding back tears. ‘Pepper is helping a man who fell into a fire and burnt his hands.’
‘Is he handsome? Like the portraits mother keeps showing me?’
‘Of princes. They all seem very handsome.’
‘I doubt he is a prince. But he has kind eyes. Does that count?’
‘Yes,’ Lavinia jumped up. ‘As kind as Jester’s?’ Without waiting for a reply, the young princess turned and hurried up the steps.
‘No,’ Jane sighed quietly to herself, got up from her knees and strode to the oak door. She took a deep breath to settle herself, and rapped loudly on the wood. The bellowing within stopped. Footsteps approached on the other side. Jane knew immediately who it was. Over the last few years she had spent many hours sitting outside Sir Theodore’s room on a small waiting bench. Sometimes alone, often with Gunther, preparing her excuses for whatever misdemeanor had caused her to be summoned before the old knight. The sound of Sir Theodore pacing the floorboards in his room was as familiar to her as breathing itself. Yet something was amiss. The rattle from the light armor he always wore was the same, the sound of his metal heels on the boards was the same. The gait was wrong.
The door to the dungeons opened and her captain stared down at her. He straightened, his face broke into a wide, genuine smile of delight, and the threw open the door.
‘Jane! Yes, great timing as always. Good to see you alive and in one piece. Come in, come in!’ He indicated the cellar rooms with a flourish of his other hand. Jane stared at him. The man was drunk! Never in all her years of training had she seen her Sir Theodore truly intoxicated. Even in the tavern, after a challenging day of patrols, he rarely drank more than two mugs of ale. Threats to the kingdom don’t wait on our sobriety, Jane, they come when they come, at all hours of the day and night. A clear head is your greatest weapon of defense!
It is why she so rarely drank herself, preferring honeyed milk to ale. His example had been a key part of how she conducted herself.
‘I am well enough, thank you.’ She eased passed him into the cellar rooms. ‘And you seem in good spirits, I was expecting a more difficult reception.’ She took in the dungeons at a glance. Haroldus and Master Gorga were seated on the far side where the ugly tools of trade were kept; chains and tongs; the hanging cages; the workbench with its manacles and carved drainage channels. To her intense relief, Haroldus was neither stretched out on the bench, nor chained to the wall. He was sitting on a wooden barrel, his heels rapping on the side as he raised his goblet of wine to Jane.
‘Here she is!’ Wonderful.’ Haroldus waved her over. ‘Come and tell us everything.’
‘Of course,’ Jane crossed the floor to join them, Sir Theodore followed. ‘In return you must tell me all about your part in Robert’s escapade, Haroldus.’
‘He already has,’ Master Gorga laughed and wiped spittle from his chin with the back of his sleeve. ‘I teased it out of him.’
‘Not with the bench, I hasten to add.’ Sir Theodore patted the inquisitors bench then perched against it for stability.’ Though I was prepared to use it. Then dragon returned and told me you were safe, so we shared a glass or two of Master Gorga’s best vintage. I find a good wine can loosen the tongue as swiftly as any metal implement.’
‘Right enough!’ The master of the chains reached behind him and raised a pair of long pincers, the kind Smithy would use to pull a troubled tooth from one of the horses. Gorga laughed and snipped the air. SNIP, SNIP. ‘Though I had them at the ready in case the wine had failed us. These can loosen the tongue all the way – right out from your mouth.’ He roared with laughter and stamped one foot. Haroldus cheered, slapped his knees, and rapped his ankles on the side of the barrel seat. Jane stared round at all three men as they dissolved into a fit of laughter. So this was the noise poor Lavinia had been hearing as she sat alone on the steps outside. The poor child.
‘I shall make my full report, Sir Theodore, but first I must see to my guest. I brought Robert back with me, he has burns to his hands that need tending.’ Haroldus stopped laughing and studied Jane’s face.
‘Mine. At least in part. We were fighting. Can I tend to him?’
‘At once, yes.’ Sir Theodore pointed to the door. ‘I will follow shortly, we have a great deal to discuss, do we not?’
‘We do.’ Jane dipped her head, hurried from the cellar rooms, and ran to kitchens. She found Robert sitting at one of the benches, surrounded by a wall of onlookers. Pepper was seated on the bench beside him, dressing his hands. Rake was next to Pepper. He was grinding herbs and oils in a small stone bowl. Jester was standing, his arm folded, his face a picture of misery. and completing the circle of spectators were Smithy, Gunther, and the Princess.
‘Does it hurt very much?’ asked Lavinia.
‘A little.’ Robert smiled up at Pepper. ‘Less now, thanks to your ministrations.’ Pepper smiled shyly and glanced sideways at Rake.
‘And Rake’s wonderful herbs,’ said Pepper. ‘Rake and I are to be wed one day; aren’t we Rake?’ The young gardener nodded, then frowned, seemingly confused by her need to share this information.
‘Jane!’ Jester glanced up at Jane as she walked over to join the group. ‘How is Haroldus? Will Rake need to pound his entire garden for salves and ointments?’
‘Thankfully not. Our master of the chains has tortured him only in so far as forcing him to sample every vintage in the cellars. What damage there is can be repaired by night’s sleep.’ Jane peered down at Robert’s hands. ‘Your repair will take longer, I fear.’
‘Yes,’ Robert glanced up at Pepper and smiled. ‘I believe this young lady has been trained in the dark art of torture by an expert.’
‘She washed his burns with vinegar!’ said Princess Lavinia. ‘Now she’s going to feed him honey for being so brave.’
‘Not feed him, your Little Majesty,’ Pepper took a wooden spoon and trickled honey into Robert’s upturned palms. ‘We spread it on the burns, honey speeds the healing. Then we wrap his hands in cotton strips soaked in the herbs Rake is preparing.’
‘Sounds perfectly delicious,’ Lavinia beamed at Robert. ‘If you get hungry in the night you can eat one of your fingers.’
‘Sound advice,’ said Robert, ‘let me close my eyes and picture that for a moment.’
‘No,’ Lavinia reached out and tipped his head up. ‘I want to look at your eyes a little more. Are you a Prince? Mother has promised me my Prince has kind eyes. Jane says you have kind eyes.’
‘Does she indeed,’ Robert looked up at Jane and flashed his white teeth in a huge smile of genuine delight. ‘How encouraging.’
Jane said nothing, she glanced up at Jester, who turned away and set off towards the stairs. Pepper, Rake and Smithy looked up at him, then at Jane. Their expressions were the same, puzzlement mixed with disappointment.
‘Yes, she does,’ said Lavinia. ‘This has been a very odd day full of whispers and ugly dungeon business. Jane has been away since first light on a very secret undertaking. So, did my mother instruct Jane to bring you here? You don’t look much like your portrait.’
‘Portrait? What portrait is this?’ Jane put a hand on Lavinia’s shoulder and turned the girl to face her. ‘Who are you talking about?’
‘Prince Juan of Granadilla, the man my mother has chosen for my husband.’
Jester was halfway up the stairs, his mind reeling with self-pity and confusion. He stopped. Prince Juan!? He spun around and stared down at the group. Gunther looked up at him, shrugged and tipped his head to one side. Then he smiled and spread his arms wide in a gesture of mock surprise.
‘See you tonight, Jester,’ he said. ‘In the tavern. SO much to discuss.’ Jane looked at him, then at Jester. What in the name of sanity, was going on between these two?