The next morning Gerald left his room earlier than he had all week, dressed in a red and black outfit with a hat (no bells) to match. His face had a base coat of white makeup with a red flower on one cheek and a black sword on the other. He wasn’t entirely sure what the weapon was all about, but it had felt right and so he had gone with it.
“Good morning Madame Larue,” he said with a quicksilver bow as he reached the kitchens. “The usual, but with a couple of eggs on the side this time, if that’s all right?”
“You fattening yourself up for the winter or something?” she asked as she filled his order. “I don’t suppose you brought your plate back yesterday? I know you certainly didn’t while I was here.”
“Ah, no… sorry, I got distracted. What with all that happened in the Great Hall.” Gerald knew better than to bother asking if she had heard the news. “And you are always telling me that I’m too skinny; I just thought it’s about time to do something about it.”
“Well you’re going to need more than a few eggs with breakfast to manage that,” Madame Larue said as she looked to her left and then her right. With a conspiratorial wink, she added a large chocolate chip muffin to his plate and covered it with a cloth before sliding it over. “If anyone catches you with that, I shall claim on my life that you stole it.”
“And I shall claim that you are the kindest woman in the kitchens,” Gerald replied, then counted to three in his head before adding: “So of course, everyone will believe you.”
“You, young man, are something else,” she said with a shake of her head. “So how is the princess handling the news?”
“She’s coming to terms with it,” Gerald said, grabbing his plate and turning away. “She’s a strong one; I’m sure she will be just fine.”
“And how about you?”
“Me? Why would I be bothered, I’m just the royal fool,” he replied before walking off.
“Oh, my dear boy,” Madame Larue said too softly for him to hear, “you are so much more than that. I hope you realize that before it is too late.”
As the sky was clear and the sun was already peeking over the rooftops, Gerald took his meal to the royal gardens and found an empty bench in the sun to sit on. In between an arrangement of yellow and orange marigold flowers and a yellow rose bush (that appeared to be missing several blooms since the last time he had looked at it), he hunkered down to eat in peace. The bacon was devoured first this time, before it went cold in the frosty air. Then the buns were crammed into his mouth, leaving only the concealed muffin. He reached out and began lifting the cloth upwards, his belly rumbling with anticipation.
“Good morning, Jerry!”
“Hello David,” he managed to reply without allowing his heart to leap from his mouth. He watched the guard approach, off duty and looking relaxed in brown breeches and a green tunic, and covered up his treat. “Sure is beautiful out, isn’t it?”
“That it is, that it is,” David said, looking around happily before taking a seat next to the jester. Gerald set his plate down on his opposite side and tried to focus on the conversation, not on the waiting dessert. “As long as you stay out of the shade, you could be fooled into thinking it’s still summer!”
“Very true,” Gerald said, desperately trying to think of a polite way to escape and find a better hiding spot to eat the remainder of his breakfast.
“Quite the day yesterday, wasn’t it? It will go down in history and we were there to witness it! The moment that will lead to the crowning of the next king - and it could end up being just about anyone! Well, anyone who can lift a sword and is at least a little bit crazy.”
“Will you be going off chasing the dragon then?” Gerald asked, an unpleasant feeling settling into his stomach.
“Not a chance,” David replied without hesitation. “I am perfectly content in my current position - the pay is decent, people respect me, and I don’t have to deal with all the headaches that power brings with it.” The guard shook his head and laughed. “Besides, my lady would not be very happy if I married the princess!”
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t realize you were courting someone. I’m very happy for you.”
“Do my delicate ears detect a note of sadness in your voice when you say that?” David examined the jester out of the corner of his eye for a moment. “I suppose you’re getting to that age when young men begin to think of such things. I take it that area of your life is… less than ideal?”
“That would be one way of putting it,” Gerald said, massaging his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. “Another, more accurate way, would be to describe it as pathetic.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, Jerry. I think, in another place or at another time, you would already have yourself a bride. But as the Royal Jester your free time is limited and the company you keep during your working hours is… would ‘out of reach’ be a fair assessment?”
Gerald only nodded, scuffing one shoe on the stone path. It was strange for him to think of his situation from that point of view. Would he really be married if he was just a commoner in some remote village?
“That’s a great design you’ve got there,” David observed, snapping him out of his daydream. “Have you been practicing, then?”
“At swords. I thought that might be why you had that on your cheek. Either way, I quite like it. Makes you look a bit fierce, you know. Like one of those barbarian warriors in the south. You know, the ones that carve designs on their faces?”
“Thanks, I think.” Gerald was deeply embarrassed to be discussing weapons and warriors with a man who was trained to handle both. He was just playing with makeup and fantasies. “No, I’m not practicing. I’m not sure why I put that on there, to be honest.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” David said, easing to his feet and surveying their surroundings. Finding no one within hearing distance he said, “I should get going - there will be big trouble if I keep my lady waiting for me!” He looked down at Gerald for a moment, weighing his next words carefully. “Keep your head up, Jerry. I was wrong earlier, you know.”
“After the king’s proclamation yesterday… they’re not all out of reach.” He held Gerald’s gaze for several seconds, neither of them blinking. “I’ll see you around.”
Gerald watched the man weave his way out of the garden, his muffin suddenly forgotten. Absentmindedly, he touched the sword on his cheek as he considered David’s words.
“He couldn’t possibly have been suggesting,” he muttered to himself, “what he… very obviously was suggesting.”
He was so stunned he almost didn’t see the king’s herald walk by, about thirty feet to his right, on his way to the Great Hall to announce the king’s arrival. Bolting to his feet, Gerald raced off to get to work on time, his plate and muffin abandoned where he had set them down. He was so caught up in making his way there as quickly as possible that he forgot he was about to be face to face with the princess until the guards opened the entrance door for him.
“Oh, right,” he mumbled when he saw her seated at the far end of the hall in an elegant vermilion gown, a matching pendant hanging around her neck. Even at that distance she threatened to take his breath away.
Gerald managed to make it to her without tripping over his feet, a feat he considered rather impressive under the circumstances. He bowed as deeply as he could safely manage, took a deep breath, and opened his mouth to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” they said in unison.
The stared at each in silence as the hall continued to fill with noblemen and ladies of the court. Aware that the herald would be arriving at any moment, Gerald tried again.
“You have nothing to be sorry about, Your Highness,” he began. “I was completely out of line and -”
“Jerry,” Estelle said firmly, “please do not make me command you to only call me by name and not some tedious honorific. We have known each other too long, and been through too much.”
“Of course, Your… Estelle. But as I was saying -”
“But I would suggest that it is still unwise to interrupt a royal,” she said with a brief scowl before a smile completely ruined the effect. “Jerry… I should not have said what I did. I was angry and looking to lash out, but I should have saved that for my father. You have never been less than a loyal friend to me… you deserved better. I am truly sorry.”
Gerald blinked once, then again, taken completely off guard. His lips parted but no words were able to coalesce, so he pressed them back together. A small voice in the back of his head told him to accept the apology and call it a day, but that wasn’t sitting right with him.
“Estelle… I think this is one occasion where we were both in the wrong. So I shall accept your apology, as long as you accept mine.”
“That,” Estelle began, but paused upon seeing the herald arrive. She pursed her lips as she rose to her feet. While the fanfare played she whispered just loud enough for Gerald to hear, “That will have to do for now.”
Gerald, dropping to one knee as the king entered the Great Hall after his traditional introduction, could only smile in relief. Unfortunately, with that matter settled in his mind, there was now plenty of room left to consider what had been bubbling below the surface since the previous night.
The rather ridiculous notion of a jester facing off against a very lethal dragon in order to stop another man from marrying a princess.
That morning’s business was much less dramatic than that of the previous day (though it was difficult to imagine what might have topped it - the princess committing regicide perhaps?) and so Gerald found it very difficult to pay attention to. Thankfully his services were not called upon, as he was not feeling particularly entertaining or funny.
Contemplating killing a dragon could do that to a fellow.
After the last citizen of the kingdom had aired his complaints to the king - something about an unruly neighbor, Gerald thought - Owen called for a break for lunch. As he turned to leave the hall, he paused, turned to Gerald and Estelle and made an apparently impromptu decision.
“Would you two care to join me in the study for lunch?” Estelle and Gerald exchanged a silent, bewildered look. The king looked back and forth between them, forcing an expectant expression on his face. “I should remind you that it is poor form to keep a king waiting.”
“Of course I’ll join you, father,” Estelle finally managed with a quick curtsy.
“And I wouldn’t dare turn down such a generous offer,” Gerald said with a dip of his head.
“Excellent,” the king said, looking very pleased. “I hear they are serving apple pie for dessert today. Come along.”