THE LAST JEST

Copyright (c) 2009 by Laura J. Underwood

All Rights Reserved

The fairytale begins like this.

There was once a king named Aldonis the Brave whose only daughter became ill, leaving him to believe that she had fallen under a curse. As in all such stories, he looked far and wide for a cure. But in spite of all the physicians and magister who ministered to the beloved Lydia the Fair, no cure could be found. So it was in a moment of desperation--and perhaps knowing his own mortality would soon draw to a close, for this king was very old--that Aldonis the Brave decreed that whomsoever found a cure for his dear daughter would be given half his kingdom and the hand of Lydia the Fair in marriage.

Now this king had a jester, a crippled fool burdened with the name of Bartleboom the Bawdy. Bartleboom was not so fair to look upon, but he was wiser than most men in many ways. He had a good heart, and he dearly loved Lydia. He had come to court while still a orphaned lad, apprenticed to the old jester, the late Master Harold the Howler, and immediately became a favorite of the late Queen Solana the Lovely. As soon as Bartleboom saw the little princess with her raven locks and her sky-blue eyes, he knew from that day forward that he must wed her or die.

Before becoming the king's personal jester, Bartleboom found himself always in the company of the queen. Right away, Solana taught her sweet daughter not to fear the misshapen youth who played with her in the gardens and the halls. So Lydia befriended him and grew to love him like a favorite brother, seeing beyond the cruel facade nature had inflicted upon him and finding the gentle heart within.

Small wonder Bartleboom was filled with sorrow when Lydia fell ill. But being wise beyond his years Bartleboom knew it was no curse. All her life, Lydia had suffered when she ate certain foods. They would cause her to break out in a terrible, burning rash, and she would swoon and grow feverish.

Queen Solana, who possessed a great knowledge of herb craft, knew the mixing of a potion, that when fed to Lydia with water and bread, would bring the girl back to health. Solana even taught the making of this wonderful potion to Bartleboom, and saw to it that he knew as well the instructions one must give to the cook concerning what Lydia could and could not eat.

Alas, Queen Solana died of a fever just the winter before this tale begins. She left her grieving king a widower and her daughter at the mercy of the cook. Oh, Bartleboom tried to make certain the cook did not prepare meals that would make Lydia ill, but after Master Harold's death, his own duties to the king meant that he could not always amble down to the kitchen to oversee the preparations. As spring warmed the kingdom, poor Lydia was suddenly seized by a terrible rash, and rapidly weakened under the illness. The king knew it had to be a curse, and he was still in mourning from the untimely death of his wife. Because he was in mourning, he had little to do with anyone other than his personal manservant, and even that one reported that the royal temperament was not easy to deal with. The king was no more open to the council of his wisest administrators than he was that of his jester.

But knowing the cause and the cure, Bartleboom went to the king before all the court on the day that Aldonis came out of mourning to declare his daughter's hand would be given to the one who cured her.

"Your Royal Highness, my king, Great Aldonis the Brave," Bartleboom said with a bow. "I know what will cure Princess Lydia the Fair..."

King Aldonis merely frowned. "Away, fool, I am in no mood for your jests."

"'Tis no jest, my king," Bartleboom insisted. "In fact, Lydia's problem is no curse at all but..."

King Aldonis suddenly became furious. How dare this lowly jester speak his daughter's name with such familiarity? In a rage, the king struck poor Bartleboom across the mouth, and the blow did rock the jester back so that he tumbled down the dais stairs and filled the hall with the clatter of small bells. King Aldonis then lunged to his feet and reached for his sword, only to stop himself and put one hand to his chest as he felt a small twinge of pain.

He rallied himself quickly enough and descended the stairs at a less hurried pace. To murder a jester, even one who had crossed the boundaries of propriety, would not be wise, especially with so many witnesses. Besides, he was Aldonis the Brave, not Aldonis the Butcher. So he took a deep breath and stopped next to Bartleboom who crouched upon the floor and trembled visibly as though expecting the worse was yet to come. Kneeling, the king looked into the jester's eyes and whispered, "What makes you think that I would consent to allow my precious daughter to wed one as uncomely as yourself?"

No harsher blow could King Aldonis have dealt an enemy, let alone a loyal servant. Those words went to Bartleboom's heart like a dagger. He closed his eyes and fought his tears as the King rose and glared.

"Away from me, Fool, and do not darken my sight unless I call for you," Aldonis declared.

Clumsily, Bartleboom picked himself up of the reed-strewn floor, and with a heavy heart, he ambled from the hall. He wandered the back corridors and chambers in a daze until he came to a shadowy storeroom set about with odd bits of furniture, old trunks, and draperies of dusty cloth. These were Queen Solana's things, hidden away in this back corridor room so as not to grieve the king with the memory of her loss. There, Bartleboom found an old mirror coated with a fine patina of dust, and through the haze, he looked at his mutated form. The bowed legs and thick torso. The mismatched angle of his spring-green eyes. Powerful arms and giant hands. I look like a toad, he thought. Even his coppery hair would not always lie as he willed.

"You are so ugly," he ranted at himself, shaking angry fists. "And because you are so ugly, she will die!"

In a rage, Bartleboom surged at the mirror, intending to shatter it with his bare hands, when he heard a startled voice squawk, "Please don't break it, or Master Griswell the Seneschal will think I did it!"

Bartleboom stopped and spun towards the sound with a squawk of his own. He had thought he was alone, and now to know he had been seen and heard had turned his rage into embarrassment. His face flushed with blood and he stumbled back a step or two, staring in fright at the shadows closer to the door.

To one side of an old chair crouched a young man who was not much older than Lydia's sixteen summers. The lad had golden hair and eyes the color of bluebells. To say he was handsome was no waste of breath. Slowly, he stood up, his body lean and muscled and well formed from labor, and proved himself nearly as tall as the king. At once, Bartleboom was seized with momentary jealousy. Why could I not have looked like you? the jester thought. Then he sighed. It was only Will the cook's son, and not some prince errant.

"What are you doing here, boy?" Bartleboom asked, recovering his wits and quelling his thoughts.

"I got lost," Will said, his eyes wide in the faint light of the lowering sconces.

Bartleboom almost smiled. Lost? Granted, Will was sometimes more fool than not. He could follow instructions, but he must have been cursed with a terrible sense of direction to find his way here and not be able to locate the kitchen. Then again, though this lad lacked any mother wit, he did have every scullery maid at his beck and call. Was it not possible Bartleboom had merely disturbed Will dallying with one of his wenches and he was now distracting the jester so the lass could escape detection.

Well, no, there was no one else in the room that Bartleboom could see, and Will's eyes were rather beguiling in their innocence. He looked more like a lost calf than a startled Lothario. Perhaps I've misjudged the lad. And anyway, Bartleboom needed the distraction. "Come, I'll get you back to the kitchen," he said.

"Thank you," Will said. He fell in beside Bartleboom, walking at an uneven pace lest he end up striding well ahead of the crippled jester. "I...know it sounds silly, but I was looking for a short cut to the hall, but it turned into a long cut instead, and then I found myself here, and I got frightened when I heard you coming... Who are you angry with, jester?"

The question came so abruptly on the end of that stream of inane chatter that Bartleboom stopped and looked up at the handsome face that held no visible hint of mockery. "I was angry with myself, and with the cruelty of a fate that would give me a brilliant mind and a tender soul, and stuff them into such an ill-made form as this. For were I as tall and handsome as you, perhaps all women would flock to me instead of running away, and those in power would listen to my counsel instead of ordering me to hold my tongue."

He paused. A strange sort of humor briefly settled in Will's eyes then fled. The young man took a deep breath and said in an honest voice, "I would listen to your counsel."

"What?" Bartleboom frowned, suddenly in no mood to be mocked. Yet Will remained open-faced as a simpleton. "What do you mean, boy?"

"My father said you were a wise man, and one worth listening to in all matters," Will said with a smile. "He said that men who could not look beyond the outside of one such as yourself were the real fools."

"Did he now?" Bartleboom said. He kept looking for some sign that this was all a jest and found none. No wonder the lasses sought Will out. He was handsome and open and honest... the perfect man to pull the king's ear. A plan formed in Bartleboom's head right then. "Tell me, Will, how do you feel about Lydia the Fair?"

"The princess?" Will said and shrugged. "She's pretty and all, but... I like a woman with more meat on her bones, if that's what you mean. Which is to say, I don't feel anything for her, except the respect my father taught me to have for her... Why?"

"That aside," Bartleboom said, waving one meaty hand, "you are still her father's man, are you not? Loyal to your king?"

"Of, of course," Will said, squatting so he did not have to hunch over to meet Bartleboom's gaze. "My father the cook says the king must be obeyed in all things."

"Then, as you are the king's man, would you be willing to listen to my counsel so you could save his daughter's life and earn his favor as well as mine?"

Will blinked as though thinking this through. Or perhaps just trying to make sense of it all. His face suddenly broke into a most radiant smile, and again, a twinge of envy course Bartleboom's heart. Quickly, Will nodded. "Aye, Jester. Just tell me what I must do..."

"Come with me," Bartleboom said, his plan growing by leaps and bounds. Cruel fate had just given the jester the alternative he needed. If he could not save Lydia himself, he would work to cure her ills by other means. He would make Will his messenger and send him to the king with the "cure." Will would be instructed to let the king know who had come up with this cure. Surely then, Aldonis could not refuse his jester the reward he craved... Lydia the Fair's hand in marriage.

It took part of a day to prepare the potion, and the greater part of one to prepare Will as well. The kitchen lad could not read nor write, skills Bartleboom had gained as a lad under Queen Solana's tutoring, so Bartleboom had to write out the list himself, and rehearse Will in what to say. But within a day's time, the jester had his messenger scrubbed and cleaned, and dressed in finer clothes than he normally wore. Draped in such finery, with his hair combed and tied back, Will looked ready to stand before the king.

The next morning, Will was presented to the king. He looked more like a handsome knight than a kitchen lad. Bartleboom watched from the shadows of the gallery that lined the Great Hall as the young man gave the king the list and the potion, and declared it was an ancient cure. There was a moment when Bartleboom swore he saw the king's brow quirk, as though the royal eye recognized the jester's hand. Indeed, Aldonis cast a quick glance around the hall. Then straight away, without questioning where the potion came from, King Aldonis called the Master Physician and ordered him to give the potion to Lydia and to make the changes listed in the letter.

Within a few days, Lydia's terrible rash faded, and she felt strong enough to sit up in bed. A sen'night later, all evidence of her illness had fled.

The king, of course, summoned young Will into his presence, and this time, Bartleboom hid himself in a niche near the throne to one side of the dais, ready to step forward and receive his reward when Will let it be known who had actually come up with this miraculous cure. From his shadows, the jester could see Lydia as well, and she looked radiant in her white linen gown with its myriads of gold embroidery.

King Aldonis stood proudly beside his throne. "Will the cooks son," he said. "You have broken my daughter's curse, and now the time has come to reward you for your good deed."

Will leaned close to the king and whispered so only those closest could hear, "'Twas not I who cured her, my king. I only did as Jester Bartleboom instructed. Should he not be the man to receive this reward of kingdom and princess?"

For a moment, the king was silent, and he rubbed his left arm as though it pained him. From the shadows, Bartleboom saw the furtive dart of royal eyes and the cording of royal muscles in the king's neck. Aldonis took a deep breath. "Be reasonable, lad," he said, his voice lowered. "You will have my daughter's hand and half my kingdom where you will rule as a prince of the realm, and once I am dead, you will be king over all..."

In that moment, Bartleboom witnessed a change in Will's countenance that made the jester curse. Gone was the moon-faced honesty, and in its place a sinister smile spread. The glow of greed and triumph filled those bluebell eyes. Will drew back and straightened himself.

"It shall be as you will, your Highness, for I am the king's man and will obey him in all things. I accept the offer of your daughter's hand and half your kingdom to call my own..."

"No!" Bartleboom cried and rushed out of his niche. "Traitor! You know it was I who cured her! I made the potion that drew out her rash! I..."

"Silence, Fool!" King Aldonis shouted. "Did I not banish you from my sight? Guards! Arrest Bartleboom the Bawdy and throw him into the dungeons at once. Perhaps a few days alone in that terrible place will still his wicked, lying tongue!"

"No! Lydia! It was I who cured you, not this lecherous kitchen buffoon!" Bartleboom called as he sought to reach her side. She stared at her father as though unable to believe her ears.

But a crippled fool was no match for royal guards. They seized Bartleboom and dragged him into the cells below the castle walls. There, they left him, chained in heavy irons and locked up in that dark and dismal place.

For days, he remained, fed little more than bread and water. His spirits fell under heavy remorse. Alternately, Bartleboom would weep like an abandoned child and rattle his chains in moments of fierce rage. This fate that made him warped in body now took its toll upon his mind. He should have been wiser than to trust one as handsome as Will. Now the truth came to Bartleboom like an executioner's sword, swift and sharp. Will must have been in the Great Hall that day and heard the jester's declaration. The chair next to which he had crouched, pretending to hide, had been quite close to the door of the storeroom. Will could have easily slipped in while Bartleboom raged at his image in the mirror.

May he truly become lost in the halls of this wretched castle! May he find a poxy wench in his wedding bed instead of my beloved Lydia...

More days passed, stretching into fortnights. Bartleboom ceased to weep and rage. Instead, he stayed in a small heap in once corner of his cell, sharing his meal with the rats and letting his weary mind plot revenge...

As if the fates would allow me any sort of vengeance for my own folly.

He should never have trusted Will to remain an honest man. Should never have believed the kitchen lad. Oh, he could see why the kitchen lad had turned traitor as he did. What man would not do so for the chance to be king? But Bartleboom knew in his heart he had underestimated the young man's purpose all along.

My counsel indeed. You played me for the fool that I am.

Bartleboom ceased then to count the passage of time, but he felt the seasons change, and soon, there was enough of an autumn chill in his cell to force him to burrow under rags and straw like an animal. Often, he fell into fitful dreams of his precious Lydia wherein he would see himself at her side, wearing a fine gold doublet as they wed... but then the dreams would turn into a horror as he became a lapdog or a cockatoo or a chained monkey, watching Will take Lydia to his bed...

He was having one of these dreams when a voice called his name.

"Bartleboom?" Lydia's dulcet coo filtered into his visions.

Bartleboom blinked and pushed up from his bed of rags and straw. He was not asleep.

"Bartleboom."

Oh, no, I have gone mad.

"Bartleboom, can you hear me? Are you ill?"

Oh, yes, he thought, ill with love and loss. Ill with remorse for my mistakes.

He rose and turned.

She stood at the bars of his cell, dressed in somber wifely robes. Bartleboom squinted. "My princess?" he said and coughed. "Lydia?"

Lydia the Fair smiled weakly and said, "Oh, Bartleboom, I am so sorry..." She stepped back and gestured. "Guards, bring him out of there at once."

It was the voice of the Captain of the Guards that rang through the cells in response. "But your Highness, your father the King..."

"Is on his deathbed," Lydia interrupted in a stern voice. "And as I will soon be your sovereign queen, would you dare disobey me now?"

The Captain of the Guard spluttered then spoke to his underlings. At once, the cell door was opened, and Bartleboom was hauled from the depths.

His legs did not want to work at all, and the guards looked disdainful to be forced touch the filthy rags his doublet had become. His bells had so much muck in them, they no longer chimed. But Lydia would not hear of waiting for a litter to be brought. So they bore Bartleboom out of the cell with mutters of disgust for the terrible smell, and carried him all the way to Lydia's old bedchamber. There, he was bathed and finely clothed, and all the while, Lydia waited in the outer chamber. Once he was decent and being fed the first real meal he had seen in moons, she came into the room and seated herself across the small table from him. He watched as she dismissed the servants and guards with a regal gesture of her delicate hand. They filed out with worried looks, but soon the doors closed, leaving Bartleboom alone with her. And it occurred to him that he had never been truly alone with her before.

She looked so lovely now. Gone were the dangling raven tresses. They had been braided and coiled up on her head and captured in a net of silver with pearls. Those same gems were sewn into patterns like moons and stars upon her deep blue velvet dress. She looked every inch a queen, except for the sadness haunting her eyes.

"How fares the king?" Bartleboom asked.

"Not well at all," Lydia said, arranging her hands in her lap as though she knew not what to do with them. "I fear he will not live through this next night."

"I am sorry," Bartleboom said. "How did he fall ill?"

"It is his heart," she said. "It has always pained him since my mother's death. He has never truly gotten over her loss, you know, and now that I am wed..." She spoke the word with bridled contempt. "...I think he wishes to join her."

"And so you will be queen," Bartleboom said and offered a smile as he raised a goblet of wine to toast her.

Blue eyes like a sky fixed him with a stormy stare, and he froze in the gesture. "And William will be king," she said in a voice that raged beneath its soft-spoken words.

"So, it's William now," Bartleboom said with a quirk of his head. He lowered the goblet to the table, though his fingers worried the stem. The meal was now forgotten.

"Aye," Lydia said. "One would never have believed such lofty airs could be found in a mere kitchen lad. But now, he thinks himself better than all others...unless, of course, he needs them..."

There was a woman's spite in the way she said that. A hint of jealousy seethed beneath the calm demeanor. It was the kind of tone to make a man take careful stock of his food and the kitchen knives.

"How long have I been wasting in that cell?" Bartleboom asked.

"Five moons have passed," she said. "Spring and summer are gone, and autumn is on us now. And in that time, my husband has come but three times to my bed. Yet, almost nightly, a bevy of scullery maids have him at their beck and call. By day, he lolls about and barks orders at the servants and the guards that are a useless waste of time. Sometimes, he goes riding or hunting and wears every horse in the stable to a pitiful state. He cares not for me at all, Bartleboom. He will not even say he loves me..."

That is because he does not, Bartleboom thought, remembering that ill-fated night.

"And now," she continued, "I am wed to this mockery of a prince, and my father is dying, and this unworthy, lazy creature will be king..."

And I will be to blame. Bartleboom released the wine goblet. This is all my fault. I chose him because I thought he was loyal to the king. Because he said he would listen to my counsel. Instead, I have created a monster.

A monster with half the kingdom at his command, and Lydia the Fair's hand in marriage.

My Lydia...

She leaned forward with a quiet sob and put her hands over her face with her head bowed. Her coiffed hair was but half an arm's length away. Bartleboom stretched fingers thick as sausages, and gently touched the delicate strands. She did not draw away. Instead, her own hand took hold of his and drew it passionately to her lips. The electricity of that warm kiss made him gasp and stirred his ardor. She looked up, tears in her eyes, and he saw not the child with whom he had played tag and sung silly songs, but the woman he desired. The moment that thought entered his head, he felt like such a fool for not pressing his suit to the king. For allowing a lowly kitchen lad take the credit instead.

"I knew it was you who saved me, even when William brought the potion to my father," she said. "It is you who should be my husband and my king."

Slowly, she rose from the chair, never releasing his hand. From that moment, he seemed to float. The awkwardness of his body was forgotten as she took him to her child's bed, which was five times the size of his own. There, she stripped them both of their clothes, and him of his will as flesh to flesh, they became one. He had never dreamed his greatest desire could come true, and with such power.

At length his passion was spent, and they lay together, arm in arm, candles lowering to leave only the mid afternoon light seeping through the windows. She plucked at his wayward copper hair, kissing the strands from time to time. He let the memory of her body against his in a rhythm of creating new life play over and over in his thoughts. As though he feared it would never be his to enjoy again.

"Do you love me?" she asked abruptly.

"As dawn follows darkness, I have always loved you and always will," he said. "I fell in love with you, Lydia, the first day I saw you at your mother's side, and I vowed then that I would move heaven and earth for a moment such as this..."

"Pretty words for a jester," she said with a soft smile. "As you love me so well, will you do something for me?"

"You have only to ask, and I swear on the sun and the moon and the stars that if it is within my power, I will grant you whatever you desire," he said.

For a moment, there was silence between them. Then he heard the sigh of relief that lifted and lowered her firm breast. She rose from the bed, sylph-like in the rays of sunlight, and drew on her garments. He wondered if he reminded her of a toad splayed on its back like he did himself.

"What I desire," she said as she faced him from the foot of the bed, "is to see William dead."

Bartleboom pushed himself up onto his elbows. "Tell me that you do not jest," he said.

"I am not the jester here," Lydia said with a cold smile.

By all that was sacred, had a mere five months truly hardened her this way?

"I want William dead before my father's last breath is expelled," she said. "And as you love me and have given me your solemn vow, I now charge you to take his life before he can destroy all. William does not know what it means to be king."

"And you think that I do?"

"Tenfold," she said. "Kill William before my father dies. Once I am queen, I will make you my king, for I have never loved any man half so much as I have loved you."

"But I do not want to be king," he said. "I only want you."

"Then stay my fool, if it pleases you, Bartleboom. But William must die before he tears the kingdom apart. Do this for me, and I will make you my consort instead and always listen to your wise counsel. As you have vowed that you love me and will do as I ask, then kill him and set me free."

She turned before he could answer, rushing from the room. For moment, he laid there, watching dust motes swirl in and out of the light, uncertain. What he has wanted was now his for the asking...but the price. Oh, he would not deceive himself into believing that he had not thought daily of Will's death, and that in those imaginings, he had made himself the arbitrator a thousand times over.

But now, to be asked to do this deed by the woman he loved more than life itself.

I gave her my word.

Slowly, he drew on his new clothes and made for the hearth where moving the right stone would open a wall and lead to a myriad of hidden passages. He knew every one of them, of course. Queen Solana had shown Bartleboom these secrets when he was still a lad. "...So that if we are even invaded, you can spirit my precious Lydia to safety..." The queen had put so much trust in him in those days. There were times he made jest of it. "I am neither warrior nor knight," he had said with a grin. "I have no skill with manly arms, save the strength in these two arms that I was given, but I will certainly endeavor to keep our precious Lydia safe, even if I must make our enemies laugh themselves to death." Now, he wondered how Queen Solana could have seen him as Lydia's champion?

Some champion, he grumbled to himself. Perhaps he could openly challenge Will to combat, but Bartleboom lacked the proper skill of sword, so it would be a one-sided fight. Will might have only been a kitchen lad, but nearly all boys raised in the castle of Aldonis the Brave were taught the use of arms so that they could be sent to war, or could defend the castle in times of invasion. The only weapon Bartleboom was even allowed to learn was the use of a dagger, but that required getting close to a man. William would never allow the jester so close with a weapon.

And I am not a man who would ever thrust a knife into another's back like some common footpad, no matter how ill I thought of him.

Not even for love.

He had given his word to Lydia, though. He would find a way. All manner of possibilities ranged through his head. Poison, for starters, but poison would likely be construed for the murder that it was. What if blame should fall on Lydia instead of himself? If he could make it look like an accident, only he and Lydia would know the truth. But how? A fall from a horse? A tumble down the stairs? All possible, but to carefully orchestrate them would take time. And time was the one thing he did not have, not with the old king on his deathbed.

Bartleboom's wandering brought him to the king's chambers. Quietly, the jester worked the mechanism that slid open the wall behind a tapestry. With caution in every move, he pushed one edge of the tapestry aside.

Aldonis the Brave lie on his bed bolstered and propped upright by a mountain of soft pillows that threatened to engulf him. His face was as pale as a corpse's, and every breath he drew was shallow and had the rattle of death. One hand would clutch the coverlets, then release them in pain. At once, Bartleboom felt the hand of grief wrench his heart. This old king had been kinder to his jester before that fated day, and Bartleboom knew that all that had transpired could not be blamed on those royal shoulders that were now a sagging shadow of their former glory.

Bartleboom stood watching from his sanctuary as the Master Physician and his assistants did what they could to make the king comfortable.

King Aldonis drew a sudden breath and opened his eyes. "Where is Bartleboom the Bawdy?" he asked in a rasping voice. "Guards, bring me my jester. I need him now. He always made me laugh."

The physicians cast puzzled looks among themselves, for there were no guards in the chamber at present. Then the Master Physician gestured to one of the younger assistants, and was about to him to fetch a guard when Bartleboom brushed tears from his cheeks and stepped out of hiding.

"I am here, my king," he said.

One hand released the blankets and feebly waved Bartleboom forward. The jester ambled cautiously across the floor, ever aware of the puzzled looks of the physicians as he passed among them. At the edge of the bed, he stopped. The king stretched his hand, and it shook so that Bartleboom was impelled to seize it to stop its tremors as much as in a gesture of comfort.

"My dear Bartleboom," the king said. "How I have missed you. My castle has been so dull without your wit. Where have you been?"

Bartleboom blinked. "I have been in your dungeons as you decreed, my king," the jester said, and broke into a bitter smile.

"Why?" King Aldonis looked genuinely puzzled. "Why did I do that?"

"You have forgotten?" Bartleboom said, and gently squeezed the royal hand. "It does not matter now, my king. I am free."

"Oh, but I do remember," Aldonis said, rheumy eyes flamed with pain and remorse as he met the jester's verdant gaze. "And I was wrong."

"Wrong, my king?" Bartleboom said and glanced at the Master Physician. The man nodded and turned away, drawing his retinue of assistants to a discreet distance from the royal bed.

"I was wrong not to listen to you, Bartleboom," King Aldonis the Brave said as tears leaked out of his eyes. "My beloved Solana always reminded me that beneath your unkind shape, you were a wise friend and good council. I should never have turned you away as an unfit suitor, for misshapen as you are by nature's decree your heart and soul were pure and just. But in my grief for my own loss, I did not look beyond your mask, no more than I looked beyond William's handsome face and figure. Here, I thought, was a man who would make a fine king. Had I truly looked within him, I am sure I would have seen otherwise. He has a dark soul behind the beauty. He mistreats my daughter and makes a mockery of their wedding vows. He mistreats the servants from which he came. He even abuses the peasants and serfs my foolishness placed under his care. He is not worthy of the station to which he attains, for he is a cruel and thoughtless man. Now, I will soon die, and he will be king."

Bartleboom sighed. How sad that this great man had seen the truth too late. The jester took another deep breath and leaned closer. And then he whispered, "Not if I have any say in the matter, my king. I have given Lydia my word, and I will give it to you as well."

King Aldonis quirked his brows and broke into a slight smile. "You jest," he said.

"No, my king, I do not," Bartleboom said.

Aldonis nodded slowly as though understanding all. "Be careful, Bartleboom. He has skills as a man that you lack."

"And I have wits he does not," the jester said and smiled.

Again the king nodded then closed his eye. Clearly, this exchange had tired him. His hand relaxed, as did his breathing. Bartleboom laid the king's hand at his side and gave it a reassuring pat. Then quietly, the jester slipped away, and as he stepped behind the tapestry, before he closed the wall, he saw the Master Physician approach the bed to continue his task of making the king's last hours comfortable.

Bartleboom wound his way through the dark passages with purpose in mind. It was clear to him now that he had to make all right before Aldonis the Brave became Aldonis the Mourned. And he knew exactly what had to be done.

Here and there alone the way, the jester used various murder holes and secret nooks to peer into rooms and corridors. The castle folk went about their business, though he could see they were under a pall. In one chamber, he found Lydia with her ladies, all stitching the king a fine linen shroud as tears scoured their cheeks.

At last, he found Will the cook's son, prince of the realm. The kitchen boy who would be king was not alone. He had claimed the best chambers overlooking the gardens well below. As Bartleboom slipped through a panel behind the head of the giant bed, he saw Will was out on the balcony with a scullery at each side. His fine shirt, doublet and hose were all askew, as though he had pulled them on in haste. Before him on the balcony stood the Captain of the Guard who had protested Bartleboom's release. The Captain wore an expression of thinly disguised disgust.

"So she set him free," Will said with a drunken smile. It was not even late afternoon, and he was staggering like a market whore. Even from the corner of the door where Bartleboom hid himself in the shadows, the jester could smell the sharp tang of old wine that permeated the chamber within. This was a place where Bartleboom had entertained the family over the years. It was now a wreck, with wine bottles and goblets and bits of clothes strewn hither and yon. "What do I care if he is free," Will said with a snort. "He is only a jester, ill-formed and weak. I have no reason to fear him."

"But my prince..."

"I will soon be your king!" Will snapped. "Even a king needs a fool. If you find him, bring him to me, but he is harmless."

"My prince," the captain said firmly. "There are those who whisper that the princess loves him, and that he should have been given her hand."

Will's face went dark. He shoved the women away and staggered over to face the captain. "Let them whisper," Will said. "When I am king, all who dare to speak such treason will die. As for Lydia, let her love him. Let her be thought the queen of fools for all I care. Now leave me! I am bored with you. And do not let me be disturbed!"

The Captain of the Guard bristled, but he offered a curt bow and marched for the door, passing within a finger's breadth of Bartleboom's hiding place as he deserted the chamber. The slam of the door fluttered the draperies. Bartleboom waited.

Will staggered back and reclaimed the lips of one wench while his free hand snagged the breast of the other. Beyond the balcony, Bartleboom could see the outer walls and palisades where guards walked. Some stared like lechers while other kept their eyes on their duties and ignored the prince's escapades. The gardeners worked with their heads bowed, as though they feared looking up would condemn them to treason.

"I am still bored!" Will said and suddenly thrust the wenches away. "More wine. I need more wine!"

The maids traded bold looks. One sauntered into the chamber to fetch a flask, only to find it was empty. With a sigh, she took the container and headed for the door.

"Go, help her, you slut!" Will barked at the other with a lewd smile, and slapped her arse to encourage her. "Bring back lots of wine... and anyone else pretty that you can find."

The girl giggled and ran after her companion. Will looked out at the world and stretched, his rumpled clothes flapping loose in the breeze. Quietly, Bartleboom stepped out onto the balcony. He took a deep breath.

"Heigh ho, here we go!" he cried. "The jester's come to play!"

Will spun on his heels, startled by the words, and fumbled for a sword that was not there. Bartleboom merely struck a comical pose, bowing his nose to the ground with his arse poked in the air.

"Good afternoon, my prince," the jester said. "How goes the day? I heard you were bored, so I've come out to play."

Will swayed a bit, looking cautious. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Did you not send for me?" Bartleboom asked, straightening up and looking as disappointed as he was able. “Did you not just tell the captain to come fetch me straight away?”

“Well, I...” Will looked confused. “Yes, I did tell that stupid captain to bring you here, did I not...or did I?” Will rubbed his face as though trying to remember.

Yes, you are too drunk to even care, Bartleboom thought.

“So, why are you here?” Will asked again.

Bartleboom leaped and cavorted clumsily about the balcony. "The old king dies. A new king will rise. And every king needs a jester to make him smile."

"So you really want to be my jester, do you?" Will said.

"You once swore to take my counsel," Bartleboom said. "Well, my counsel is this. All work and no play makes for a dull and surly king." He danced across the balcony to the bench that sat inside the rail. There, he crawled up and wagged his arse at the world.

"So it does," Will agreed with a half smile and a chuckle. "I'm not even king yet, and I'm already bored. Since the old king fell ill, all his counselors come to me and ask me about the affairs of state. What care I for affairs of the state?"

"Only for affairs of the heart, eh?" Bartleboom said. He clapped hands to his chest in a mock pose of a lover forlorn. "How dare they expect you to keep the kingdom running like a mill wheel, eh?"

"Indeed," Will said. He staggered over to the rail and seated himself on the bench at Bartleboom's side, and looked up at the jester with bleary bluebell eyes that hinted of animal cunning. "I have no head for such things."

"Then let me be your head, my prince," Bartleboom said and danced a jig in place. "And you can be your heart. Let me counsel you."

Will cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "And why should I trust you, jester? After all, the last time you counseled me, you ended up in the dungeon and I ended up the royal prince and heir in your place."

Bartleboom crouched and wagged his head and arse like that of a faithful old hound. "I am but a jester," he said. "An ugly little freak of nature. But I am not so foolish as to believe I could ever be a king. I was raised to make a fool of myself for the delight of others. Without that task, I am nothing."

"Ah, but they say my wife really loves you," Will said and wagged his finger.

"Then she is a greater fool than I. Or merely as blind as an old nurse," Bartleboom said, even though it ached in his heart to say so cruel a thing about his beloved. "For who could love one as ugly as I, if not a fool. Let me be your jester, my prince. Please? Pretty please?"

Bartleboom leaned closer and puckered his lips as he spoke. He wriggled like a giggly wench, and Will broke into a hearty laugh.

"You are funny, Bartleboom," Will said. "Now I see why they call you The Bawdy..."

Will pulled upright, leaning against the stone rail, which only came as high as his thighs.

"All right," he said. "I'll let you be my jester, and I'll let you counsel me secretly...but under one condition."

"Condition me, my prince!" Bartleboom clambered astride the rail as though it were a hobbyhorse. There, he bounced up and down and wriggled obscenely to and fro.

Will crossed his arms and swayed back a bit. "You must never again speak to or be seen in the company of my wife," he said.

"That's all?" Bartleboom said and leaned back, looking stunned. Inwardly, he thought, Not even if you threatened my life. But outwardly, he kept his saucy smile. "Easier done than said, my prince. Tally ho! Away we go!"

He started the wild gyrations on the rail once more. Will laughed while Bartleboom sang off-key:

"I will be jester to the king,

And I will make him laugh!

I will ignore his lovely queen

Though men shall think me daft!"

"You are absolutely insane!" Will said.

"My madness is my gift," Bartleboom said. "My wit is my joy." His face went comically pained, and he whined, "But humping this rail now makes me wish I'd found a softer toy."

Will laughed again, great peals of guffaws that brought tears to his eyes. He swayed drunkenly against the low rail. Bartleboom clambered off and dropped to the balcony so that he was between Will and the door. There, the jester squatted, fanning his manly virtues with his hands.

"Hot! Hot!" he cried. "I have fairly burned my cock with the friction!"

Will howled like an ape and rocked back, too far to recover. His laughter turned into a startled squawk as he tumbled over the rail, flailing his arms in vain, and dropped the distance to the stone path below. The cry was broken by a wet crunch, then silence. Bartleboom heard the startled voices of gardeners and guards alike. Slowly, he stepped over to the rail to look down. Will was a heap of tangled limbs on the path. The angle of his neck looked wrong, for his bluebell eyes stared back instead of forward.

Bartleboom closed his eyes and put his head against the stone rail in silent relief.

***

The old king died that very night. But he died with a smile on his lips, for Bartleboom lay on the bed beside the king and whispered all that had transpired into his ear. Lydia was now a queen in mourning, though she clearly grieved more for the loss of her father than her husband. And once the time of mourning passed, she offered her own hand to the jester.

Bartleboom the Bawdy married Queen Lydia the Fair and became known thereafter as Bartleboom the Just. He refused to be king, content to give wise council to his wife concerning the affairs of state as her consort and husband. He knew quite well that rumors that said he had murdered the prince and heir would follow him to the end of his days, even though there had been enough witness to attest that Prince William had died of drunken laughter, and that no one should really be blamed, not even the jester who had made him laugh.

And so it was that Bartleboom and Lydia lived as man and wife, happy to the end of their days. In time, Queen Lydia birthed two lovely children. The firstborn was a perfect boy with a ready wit, sky-blue eyes and raven hair. He would one day be a good king. The other was a nearly perfect girl with the bawdy sense of humor of her father. She had verdant eyes and fiery hair that would never quite lie as it should...

But that is another story.

END

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