Day Eight

Owen led the way through the castle’s twisting and turning hallways, up four flights of stairs, and finally to the room that only a handful of people in the whole world had ever seen. Gerald spent the entire trip alternating between wondering what had motivated the king to invite him into his private sanctuary - to share a meal with him there - and trying to find an appropriate place to direct his gaze.

This second problem was brought about by the princess walking in front of him all the way there. Well, that and the fact that her gown was doing an impressive job of showing off her figure.

“After you,” the king said, pushing the door open and holding out an arm to guide them inside. Estelle entered first and Gerald followed, though this time he had no difficulty keeping his eyes on his surroundings.

The study itself was created entirely out of various kinds of wood, including some from trees Gerald had only heard of. It was like stepping out of a cold, dark cave and into a warm, bright forest.

The candles lining all four walls were safely ensconced in glass lamps to prevent a fire that would surely have had devastating results in such a combustible environment. Towering oak bookcases lined the walls to their left and right, full to bursting with thick tomes and a multitude of small gifts the king had received over the years from visiting dignitaries. Gerald spotted at least ten ornamental daggers on the nearest bookcase alone.

The far wall consisted entirely of a half circle balcony filled with cushioned chairs and potted plants. As the days were growing colder, there was a glass barrier drawn across it in order to keep the rest of the room warm without taking away the spectacular view over the city.

“Wow,” Gerald murmured, moving to the glass and staring down at a city preparing for Father Winter’s arrival. “This is… wow.”

“It is one of two rooms in this castle that I have chosen to invest a sizeable amount of gold in,” Owen said with obvious pride as he took a seat on one of the interior chairs. “The other being the Great Hall, of course.”

“I much prefer this one,” Estelle said with a smile as she lowered herself gracefully into a chair across from her father. “Come have a seat, Jerry. Lunch will be here shortly, I’m sure.”

“Oh,” Gerald said, not moving from his position. He looked first at Estelle, then at Owen, and then down at his own garb. Clearing his throat, he said, “Perhaps I should leave you two to dine alone. I feel rather… silly dressed up like this while you two are in such fine garments.”

“Oh, do not worry about that,” Owen said with a wave of his hand. “I have sent for Colin to bring you a change of clothes and some supplies to clean your face with as well. He should be here… well, he should already be here, as a matter of fact. I wonder where he has wandered off to.”

“It almost seems as though you had this planned out well ahead of time, father,” Estelle observed, looking more amused than angry. “What is on your mind?”

“In due time, my child, in due time,” the king replied. “The meal first, the conversation after; that is the way I do things. Besides preventing the food from getting cold should someone get carried away with listening to their own voice - that would be me, by the way - it also avoids anyone talking with their mouth full. Disgusting habit, that.”

Gerald had no idea what to make of all this, so he took up a position by the door and waited for either Colin or the food to arrive. He needed to intercept the boy before he saw the princess was also present or he might panic, thinking he was in trouble for the previous night’s activities.

Gerald had seen his helper panic once before - it was not a pretty sight. Too much talking, not enough thinking. A complete and total loss of coordination. Things tended to get broken into a surprising number of pieces. Best to avoid that sort of mess at all costs. Especially around the royals.

On top of all that, he also really did not want the king finding out that his jester had sent his daughter flowers and chocolate. It wasn’t the least bit difficult to see how he might get the wrong idea about that.

Even if that wrong idea was at least a little bit right.

As it turned out, Colin arrived at the same time as the food. Apparently the two servants had met up along the way and had become fast friends. Gerald took his change of clothes and washbowl and told his helper to wait outside while the other boy delivered the food. He felt terribly guilty that Colin was robbed of perhaps his one and only chance to see that magnificent room, but the desire to keep his head attached to his shoulders won out.

“There is a door to another room tucked in between those two bookcases,” Owen told him after the two servants were safely outside the room (already chattering away again). The odors wafting from their waiting meal were already filling the room. “It is not very large, but you should have enough space to change in there.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Gerald said as he moved to the indicated bookshelves. Despite the direct order, he was still surprised to find the door there - it was so well camouflaged he never would have found it if he hadn’t been told where to look.

“I do not stand for honorifics in here, Gerald,” the king said. “When I am within these walls, I only answer to Owen.”

“And ‘father’ too,” Estelle pointed out with a wink.

“Right. Of course, Sire… Owen.” The name felt completely foreign in his mouth, as though he had never spoken that combination of letters before in his life. In fact, there was a better than decent chance that he hadn’t. “In that case, I must insist on you calling me Jerry. In here, that is. Sire. Owen.”

Gerald ducked into the room before he tripped over his tongue and fell flat on his face. While he was gone, Owen turned to his daughter with a raised eyebrow.

“Is he always like that?”

“Only when he is nervous,” she replied, reaching to lift a cup of steaming tea from the serving platter.

“There are some days,” Owen replied as he did the same, “that I grow tired of making people nervous.”

“I am beginning to know how you feel,” Estelle said with a sigh. “Aside from you and Grace, I think Jerry is the only person in the castle who is comfortable around me.”

The king didn’t reply, instead choosing to sip cautiously from his cup. Finding it too warm still, he leaned forward and returned it to the tray. He looked over to find Gerald returning to the room and bolted upright.

“My goodness, boy!” he said, placing one hand over his heart. “I thought I had seen a ghost! It has been too long since I have seen you without makeup - you have grown into your father’s doppelganger!”

“Thank you for saying so, Sire,” Gerald replied, concealing the stab of pain in his chest that always accompanied any mention of either of his parents. “I only hope that I can follow his footsteps in more than just appearance.”

“I dare say you already have,” Owen said as Gerald took a seat, still holding his washbowl and outfit in his lap. “Your father was an invaluable friend to me in the days leading up to my crowning. Just as you have been to my daughter.”

Gerald and Estelle exchanged a silent look as the king lifted his meal from the serving tray. Straightening, he motioned for them to do the same. The jester suddenly found himself trying to figure out a way to eat his meal with his things in the way.

“Oh, you can put that down on the floor - anywhere will do,” Owen told him. “Just be careful not to spill - my maid would have your head for that!”

Gerald did as he was told before digging into his lunch eagerly. The chicken was tender enough to pull apart with his fingers (which he wisely resisted doing) and the vegetables had obviously been carefully selected for both their appearance and flavor. As he took his first forkful of apple pie, he finally remembered the muffin he had left behind in the garden. By that point, all he could do was hope that whoever had found it had enjoyed it as much as he would have.

“Fantastic, as usual,” the king declared once all the plates had been emptied. “Be sure to pass on my compliments to the kitchen staff next time you are down there, Jerry.”

“It would be my honor,” Gerald told him with an involuntary dip of his head that Owen was magnanimous enough to ignore.

“May we now discuss why we have been summoned here?” Estelle asked.

“Summoned? I would hardly say that I… fine, fine,” the king relented upon seeing the scowl on his daughter’s face. “I asked you two here so that I could talk about… you two.”

“Sorry?” Gerald felt like his heart had just tried to touch his toes.

“I was deeply concerned when I learned that my actions yesterday lead to an argument between you,” Owen said, looking at each of them in turn. “It would appear that you have already patched things up but I wanted to do what I could to make sure I never cause another one.”

“I am not certain that is really something you can control,” Estelle said quietly, folding her hands in her lap.

“And I am quite certain that you are correct,” her father said with a wide smile. “However, I will take this time to point out two things. First: your friendship has seen you through many trials already. You are more important to each other than I think either of you fully realize.”

Gerald stared at his hands, willing them to hold still, as he felt Estelle’s gaze on him. He held his breath and waited for the king’s second point.

“And two: with an incoming king likely to know more about riding a horse than ruling a kingdom, you will need each other more than ever before. Estelle, you will need Jerry’s counsel and humor when your husband is wearing you down. Jerry, you cannot be a jester for the rest of your life, but I hope that you will find a place in this court and continue to show your value to the crown.”

“I promise you,” Gerald said with only a slight waver in his voice, “I have every intention of taking up a new role in the Great Hall when my days as a jester are through.”

Wisely, Gerald did not explain exactly what he meant by that. He was, however, beginning to grow ever more certain that it would become all too clear in the coming days.

Whether or not his planned actions were wise themselves, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.

Chapter Eight

The three went their separate ways after lunch, as Estelle was required to make another appearance in the tea room and Owen had a meeting with Henry to attend. Gerald was left to find his way back to his room (which lead to him discovering several previously unexplored hallways, thanks to multiple wrong turns), where he dropped off his things before setting off into the city.

If he was in fact going to rush off to his death, he had decided, he might as well make the necessary preparations.

The streets were crowded with commoners going about their daily business with only a handful of soldiers keeping the peace. Gerald made his way through the throngs, happily anonymous without his uniform on. Thinking of the tremendous transformation he could achieve simply by removing his makeup, he remembered the king’s earlier observation about his father.

His father Gregory, he had learned many years after his untimely passing, had become friends with a young Owen while the two were training at swords. Despite the sword master’s insistence on everyone having a new partner every day, the two had always found a way to pair up.

They had remained in contact after their lessons had ended, even though one was being groomed for the throne and the other was battling to elevate himself from a foot soldier to a higher placing in the royal army.

The End

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