The Jester's Journey
Exceptional people in history were just ordinary folk up until the moment they did something extraordinary.
Gerald had read that in a book when he was a young boy - well, a younger boy as far as many people were concerned. But he happened to be of the opinion that nineteen was plenty old enough to be considered a man.
For most of the years since he had read that short passage, Gerald had repeated it to himself in the mirror as he prepared for work each morning. At first it had seemed so important, as though if he could only remember it for long enough it would become true for him.
Not that Gerald could really be described as ordinary. After all, only a small percentage of the world’s population worked in a king’s court. And at that time only a handful of people on the whole continent could lay claim to the title of Royal Jester.
“Royal Fool is more like it,” Gerald muttered as he pulled open the desk drawer containing his makeup. He extracted his mahogany cosmetic box and stared at it for a moment before releasing a heavy sigh that slumped his shoulders. “A Royal Idiot. The Royal Joke.”
Obviously he had somewhat soured on that grand idea in recent years.
Day after day of people laughing at you - even if that was the end goal of your position - could really beat down a guy’s spirits. Especially when that guy harbored dreams of attaining loftier heights. Of carrying real responsibilities. Of being considered important among esteemed peers.
Of being respected.
Now, as Gerald pulled his messy brown hair away from his face and clipped it in place, he could barely remember the words that he had once found so inspiring. Turning his head to the side, he dipped a fresh sponge into the silver paint tub and began applying a thin layer, starting at the center of his left cheek and circling outwards. Once the left side of his face was fully covered, he turned to face the opposite direction and switched to the gold paint with a second sponge.
He worked quickly and without mistakes, his fingers almost moving of their own accord. When he was finished he studied his reflection for a few moments, wondering if anything else was needed. It wasn’t, of course, but he liked to keep up appearances. And he did enjoy the surprise and delight in the princess’ eyes when he added something unexpected.
So he plucked a fine pencil from his box, used it to stir the gold paint tub, and began to carefully draw the outline of a star on the silver side of his face. Once he was satisfied with the design, he used a small brush to fill it in and then turned to contemplate his golden side.
“A moon?” he asked the mirror softly. “No, too predictable. A sun? Not enough imagination. So what will it be?”
It took him a few minutes before a tiny detail from a brief conversation he’d had with the princess the week before crept into his thoughts. With a wide smile he set to work, this time with dark red paint. This second design was more intricate and took more time than all the previous work combined. But Gerald kept an eye on the rising sun out of his third story window and managed to finish it in time to dress and have a bite to eat before he was due to appear before the king.
Moving to his wardrobe, he pushed the heavy oak doors aside and perused his options for the day. He would have liked to have donned his silver and gold outfit, but the tailor still wasn’t finished with his repairs to that unfortunate tear Gerald had made two days prior. At least he’d earned a few extra laughs, even if it wasn’t how he’d meant to.
He ended up settling on a white costume with four big black buttons spaced evenly between the waist and neckline. Gerald let his blue bathrobe drop from his shoulders and shivered as his thin undershirt did a poor job of keeping the morning chill away. Fall had settled in comfortably all over the kingdom and Father Winter’s arrival was not far off.
Gerald stepped into his costume and pulled it up onto his slender frame before using the small interior clasps to draw the sides together, since the exterior oversized buttons were only for display. He crouched down and pulled out a pair of plain black shoes and put those on before moving across the stone tiles to his hat rack in the corner of his bedroom. Once there he picked out a four-pointed black cap with a golden bell dangling from each point. Taking it to the mirror, he placed it on his head, making sure to tuck in the three stray hairs above his right ear that always insisted on making a break for it.
With a final nod of approval at his reflection (if he no longer felt the part, he could at least look it), Gerald exited his room and headed towards the kitchen. It took him a few steps before he noticed that the tall candles lining the hallway were on their last legs, and a few had even melted away to nothing.
“Must be later than I thought,” Gerald said as he hurried his pace.
Reaching the top of the winding stairs, he descended them two at a time, the bells in his hat jingling a merry tune with each jerk of his head. At the bottom of the fourth flight of stairs he turned to the right, the smells emanating from the distant kitchen already strong enough to allow his nose to lead the way.
The corridor was not exactly busy, but there was a worryingly steady stream of people heading away from the kitchen. Maids and servants carrying breakfasts to late waking masters, a few guards wiping the remains of their meals from their mouths, and several squires snacking on warm buns snatched while the cooks were looking the other way. Gerald exchanged quick greetings with them all, remembering their names with ease.
“Good morning Madame Larue,” he called out as he arrived at the rectangular serving window. “My usual, if it’s not too much trouble for you.”
“Cutting it a little close today, aren’t you Jerry?” she asked in reply. A constant presence in the royal kitchen for nearly twenty years, Gerald couldn’t understand how she could be surrounded by such delicious pastries at all hours of the day and still maintain her slim figure. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to get the king to fire you.”
“Oh come on, I’ve got plenty of time! Besides, the king could never get rid of me - he knows I’m the best jester he’ll ever have.”
“He may be too fond of you for his own good,” Madame Larue told him as she slid across a plate with two buns and a slice of sizzling bacon, “but he will certainly not put up with tardiness for long. So you best get your skinny butt upstairs!”
“Yes ma’am!” Gerald told her with a crisp salute and a wink before taking his plate and heading back the way he had come.
“And don’t forget to return your plate this time!” she called after him, earning only a nonchalant wave of assurance in return. She sighed deeply and shook her head, though a smile had made its way onto her lips. “Well, that’s the last we’ll see of that dish then.”
Gerald had already devoured the first bun and was working on the second when he reached the bottom of the stairs again. By the time he reached the main floor all that remained of the buns were the crumbs clinging to the front of his shirt and the bacon was hanging out of the side of his mouth.
“Well I must say,” a voice said from his left, “that is certainly a good look for you Jerry.”
“Mornin’ Henry,” Gerald said around the bacon before slurping it up. “How’s the king feeling this morning?”
“Anxious, hopeful, pessimistic,” the king’s advisor replied. He ran a weary hand over his bald head, his pearl signet ring reflecting the flames from a nearby candle. “You know, the usual for days when courtiers are scheduled to appear in front of his daughter.”
“Ah, more of them are lined up for this morning then?” Gerald asked, doing his best to ignore the sudden pang in his chest. “They just don’t know when to give up, do they?”
“Are you suggesting that the princess is destined to become an old maid?” Henry countered with an arched eyebrow. “That she will never find her match?”
“No, no - not at all!” Gerald threw up his hands to ward the advisor off. “It’s just that after two years of inquiries, from all shapes and sizes of men, with only a handful of second meetings between them, it’s hard to imagine what a fellow must be thinking when he decides to take his shot. Like, ‘Oh, all those other men were rejected but not me, I have to be the one she’s looking for!’ Seems a bit… overly optimistic or something.”
“Indeed,” Henry said, his eyes narrowing slightly. “And of course you’ve had nothing to do with all those rejections, have you Jerry?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. You had best be on your way, young man - it’s not wise to keep the king waiting.”
Gerald paused for a split second, torn between staying and ferreting out what the king’s advisor was getting at and running to the Great Hall in an attempt to actually be on time for work. Henry’s expression had gone blank and he was giving no indication he would be willing to clarify his comment, so Gerald gave him a polite bow, turned on his heel, and ran.
The corridors on the main floor of the castle were blessedly empty, so he was able to make good time as he passed between portraits of all of the kingdom's previous rulers and their queens. As he approached the final corner before the Great Hall, he realized he was still carrying his breakfast plate under his right arm. Skidding to a halt, he found a nook behind a suit of armor and left it there, making a mental note to return for it during the lunch break.
Checking his reflection in the recently polished armor, he brushed a few crumbs from his chin and then dusted off the front of his costume. After a quick inspection of his face paint, he straightened his back and strode confidently around the corner.
“Good morning David,” he called out as he approached the two soldiers standing guard on either side of the entrance door. “And a very merry morning to you, Derry!”
“Morning Jerry,” the first replied with a quick smile.
“It’s Derrick, you bloody fool,” the second said, the muscles along his jaw line tensing visibly. He didn’t bother to look in the jester’s direction before he added, for quite possibly the hundredth time, “I won’t remind you again.”
“My sincerest apologies, good sir,” Gerald said with a bow so deep that his bells gently tapped the stone floor tiles at his feet. “I will do my utmost to remember next time I see you.”
Derrick offered a grunt in reply while his partner covered a laugh with a short cough. Gerald gave him a wink and a smile, which produced another cough, then pressed his palms together and brought them to his heart.
“I humbly request access to the Great Hall, so that I may serve my master, the noble King Owen, to the best of my modest abilities.”
“Access granted,” David said before his partner had a chance to make things difficult. “You may proceed, though you may carry no weapons past this point.”
“I solemnly swear on my mortal soul that no weapons are concealed on my person.” Gerald paused, trying to fend off temptation, but finding little success - as usual. So, deviating from the traditional exchange, he added, “Although I must admit that breakfast is not sitting too happily in my belly this morning, and my belches can be deadly.”
David loosed a snort of laughter and even Derrick’s lips twitched a fraction upwards before he was able to regain his stony expression. Shaking his head, David turned and pulled one half of the great oak door open for the jester and nodded for him to pass through.
“Thank you gentlemen,” Gerald said, giving them both a nod and a smile as he approached the door. “I’ll see you both a bit later. But right now it’s time for me to go to work.”
Once it had been closed behind him, Gerald stood just inside the door and took a moment to drink in the Great Hall, as he always did. He may not have had much desire left to continue serving as the Royal Jester, but he would have given his right leg and the big toe of his left foot (which, truth be told, he never really cared for anyway - he always seemed to be stubbing it on something) to work in a more respectable position within that cavernous room.
Exactly sixty-six feet separated the walls to either side of him (as six was considered a very lucky number at that time) and the marble floor, covered with burgundy and grey emblems of all the counties within the kingdom, stretched out before him for what seemed like a mile. The massive banquet table had been brought to the left side of the hall and covered with a heavy burgundy cloth, the king’s crown and sword crest displayed at its center. High above him wooden rafters as thick as he was tall arced across the ceiling, while between them resided impossibly intricate paintings of important historical battles. The ornate throne stood at the far end of the hall and Gerald was relieved to find it unoccupied.
The chair to its left, however, did hold an occupant. And the look she was giving him at that moment was not a pleased one.