A ragged man stumbled into the grand hall, bringing with him a draft that carried the sounds of a storm. His sudden appearance disrupted the festivity of the royal harvest festival, causing neat pairs of dancers to misstep and break apart, while the normal murmur of conversation spiked in a chorus of whispers. Silk, the king’s steward, pounced upon the source of disorder. His long legs carried him from the king’s side to the door, which he closed quietly. With the sounds of the storm banished, he slipped his arm under the shoulder of the intruder and shepherded him away. The rest of the party-goers were quite glad to put the storm battered figure out of their minds. The young men returned to dancing with the young women, while their elders reclined on couches and resumed their conversations, attended to by smocked kitchen urchins who scurried here and there with platters of food and wine.
The old king hadn’t noticed the disruption at all. His royal attention had been thoroughly arrested by the antics of Patchwork the clown. Said clown stood on the toes of mismatched shoes, his long arms engaged in juggling a trio of dumplings for the king’s amusement. Almost as engaging as the flying dumplings were the clown’s garments. His tunic and breeches, his cloak and gloves, and even his hat and shoes all consisted of multicolored sections of cloth, expertly sewn together. Most of the squares were gray, or black, or brown, peasant colors, but here and there shone patches of powder blue, turtle green, crimson, and, shockingly, imperial purple. One could easily get lost, staring from patch to patch, wondering, perhaps, just who the cloth had belonged to before the clown had taken it for himself.
Though the morsels never slipped from his gloved hands, Patchwork’s gaze flitted here and there about the room, eagerly seeking some drunken folly he could turn into a pun. Instead he saw Silk’s piercing gaze, and with a gracious bow to the king and his two sons, he neatly tossed each of them a dumpling and set off to assist the steward. He scurried between the revelers – who gave him a wide berth, not wanting to lose a square of their party clothes – leaving the rest of his troupe to amuse the king with a rousing song. Patchwork caught the ragged man’s other arm and, as the room about them burst into a chorus of tipsy voices, helped Silk guide him into the chamber behind the king’s throne.
An old orange cat feasting on a fowl’s leg dropped by some boisterous reveler and watched the three men as they stumbled into the king’s private office. Silk was careful to sit the man on the small bench at the end of the room, keeping him well away from the royal desk or the ceremonial robes and weapons that adorned the chamber. He gazed at the royal items by instinct, assuring himself that they were all in their proper place and turned in time to see Patchwork step away from their tired charge, grinning wildly. His sharp scissors glinted in one hand while, with the other, he held up a square of muddy cloth for examination.
“You!” The steward sputtered, “get away from him!”
“Just taking my fair wages,” Patchwork said, hiding the square of cloth in his pocket. Silk advanced on the clown, stabbing his finger at the door.
“Make yourself useful, at least. Get him some food and drink.”
Patchwork saluted the steward and slipped into the festivities again, his high voice joining the music the moment he stepped into the light. Silk watched him, ignoring the intruder who, until this moment, had remained silent.
“Please, sir,” the man said, nodding his head, “I need to speak to the king.”
“His royal highness is engaged,” the steward replied, his sharp gaze still raking the festivities, “You shall tell me what you need to tell him, and then you shall be given a bed in the barracks. For your sake,” he added, “I hope your news is worth disrupting the royal harvest festival.”
The messenger gaped at the steward, but before he could respond, two men strode into the chamber: the King’s elder son the prince, dressed in sky blue clothes, followed by Gruff the constable, his one clouded eye standing out like a flash of lightning on his dark face. Patchwork danced in behind them, juggling a leg of meat, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine, all while balancing a full goblet on his pointed nose.
Silk scowled at the clown and snatched the goblet before it had a chance to fall. Patchwork expertly tossed the pieces of food to the messenger, keeping the bottle to himself. The man caught them and stared from the bowing clown to the steward with a look of astonishment on his face.
“Here,” Silk said, pointedly refusing to look in the direction of the capering clown, “take this and drink. Then tell us what you came to say.”
The messenger nodded. Struggling to hold his rations in one hand, he took a swallow of wine.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing to Silk, then to the prince, then Gruff, and, hesitantly, to Patchwork, who returned an even more elaborate bow, sweeping the floor with his patched hat.
“Get on with it, lad,” Gruff snarled, “what’s happened?”
The messenger’s face paled, looking strangely wax-like next to his muddy cloak. “The shiroean,” he said, “they’ve broken the treaty, sir. I’ve ridden all the way from Havers to tell you. They’re burning Woll to the ground as we speak, you can see the smoke even in this rain. Peasants have been streaming in from the countryside, all brimming with horror stories. Captain’s not sure, but we think they might try to take Havers itself!”
“How dreadful,” Silk said, his elegant fingers drumming against his throat.
“Damn those shiro,” Gruff muttered, clenching his fist.
“Well, we must strike back,” the prince said.
Patchwork was standing on his head. He seemed a bit sad that nobody had noticed his trick.
“Of course, we must,” Gruff said, “can’t let those shiro sneak over our borders. I’ll draft the orders immediately. The garrison at Havers will retake Woll at once. We’ll need to rally the horsemen at Manoros and Prollos as well; this won’t be their last strike.”
The heavy constable pounded over to the desk, snatching up a piece of parchment. He hurriedly scribbled out the orders while the messenger watched, his cheeks bulging.
“Did the shiroean give any warning of the attack?” The prince asked, ignoring the flecks of food the ravenous man spat as he ate. The messenger glanced up at the prince, suddenly struck by the royal presence. He stopped chewing, swallowed, and nodded.
“The shiro? Not in heaven or hell, your highness. They just appeared in the night.”
“Here,” Gruff said, giving Silk the papers. “We just need the king’s sign.”
“Yes,” Silk said, “of course. He wavered on the spot, taking a step toward the noise of the party. Then he took his foot back, his long fingers clenching about the written message, “He seals papers after breakfast,” he said, flattening out the paper again, “We should have the troops moving by late tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” the prince said, “isn’t that a bit late? Couldn’t you seal the message, Silk?”
As one, they turned to the king’s desk. The royal signet ring sat where it wouldn’t chafe the king’s finger, beside the small jar of sealing wax that sat over a small flame.
“That… that would be tantamount to treason, sir,” Silk said, shaking his head, “I could be hanged for suggesting it! I am simply the care taker of the king’s home and person. I wouldn’t dare imagine I had the wisdom or authority to do his divine duty.” His fingers drummed against his neck again. “Good, Gruff,” he said, offering the orders to the constable, “you’re his constable. Surely you would have the authority to command the troops?”
“Nay,” Gruff said, scratching his neck and scowling at the offending paper, “I’m just the king’s advisor, same as you. He’s the only one what can tell us men-at-arms what to do. I’d be overstepping my boundaries. You, m’lord,” he said, bowing to the prince. “You’re his eldest son; you shall sit on his throne one day. Perhaps you should seal the letter.”
The prince remained silent for a time, staring at his father’s ornamental weapons as though for courage. Patchwork snuck up behind him, scissors opened, but he retreated at a skewering glance from Silk.
“The people of Woll won’t care whose hand seals the letter,” the prince said, at last, “all that they’ll care is that the king’s men were there to defend them in their hour of need. And won’t they be my subjects, one day?” He seized the ring and slipped it on. It fell all the way to his hand, fitting poorly on his young, slender fingers. He walked for the desk, reaching for the sealing wax, and held out his hand for the orders. As he took them from Silk’s grasp, a voice rang through the gloomy office, overpowering the singing of Patchwork’s troupe. The king’s younger son, for a brief moment, belted out a mangled solo that seemed to resonate in the office before falling back into obscurity among the general noise.
“Sir?” Silk said, stirring the king’s son from his reverie.
“It would be treason, wouldn’t it, Silk?” The prince asked.
“Well, sir, only treason in the law’s eyes,” Silk said, running his hands together.
“Right, well, it would be treason until the king pardoned you,” Gruff said, “which he’d surely do, once he understood the circumstances.”
The prince frowned. He took the ring off his finger and laid it beside the unmarked paper.
“No,” he said, “no, it is not my place to presume to be my father. If a king cannot trust his eldest son, who can he trust?”
“May I suggest we return to our diversion?” Silk said, “the paper will be ready in the morning. What is Woll but a collection of huts and sheep, regardless?”
“Right,” Gruff said, “right, there’s no hurry. They won’t take Havers in a night. Fight them today, fight them tomorrow, they’ve never been able to cross the river without getting licked.”
“Tomorrow father will be ready to seal the letter,” the prince said. “Patchwork, my good clown, see to it our friend finds his way to the barracks, would you?” He bowed to the messenger again, “thank you for your swiftness. What is your name?”
“Cardo, my lord,” Cardo said, standing, bowing, and sitting rather quickly.
“Good. I’ll remember you, Cardo,” the prince said, and he left the room.
“You did well, lad,” Gruff said, following the prince.
Silk left as well, giving Patchwork one final meaningful look. Cardo glanced after them and drank the rest of the wine. He set it aside only to find his goblet being replenished by Patchwork.
“Tell me, Cardo,” the clown said, “would you be terribly inconvenienced if the king were to decide to seal that letter after all?”
“Well,” Cardo said, “if I had the seal, I’d be ready to ride, quick as lightning. I even told a stable boy to have another horse ready, as I thought I’d be coming back with orders.”
“Good man,” Patchwork said. He skipped to the desk and plucked up the sealing ring. He held it to his eye, framing the bright party in the signet ring for a moment. He expertly folded the message and poured on a blob of sealing wax. He jammed his finger into the ring, gave the wax a stamp, leaving behind the king’s seal.
“Very good, man. I shall remember you, Cardo,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his muddy cloth, “I’ll be sure to sew this patch over my heart. Here you are then.” He shoved the papers into a leather tube and thrust it into the messenger’s hands. Cardo seized the tube and nodded.
“But, isn’t this treason?”
“I’m the king’s clown,” Patchwork said, “If a king can trust his clown then, well, then who can say what else is wrong with his kingdom?”
Cardo nodded, shoved the message into his cloak and hurried from the back room. Patchwork made to follow, but stopped, noticing the bottle he held still had some wine. With a sigh, he sat beside the fat orange cat, who had not let the sudden meeting disturb its feast. Scratching the cat’s ears, Patchwork began to drink from the bottle, staring out at the colors and sounds of the party in the grand hall.
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Photo by Rachel Dotson. © All rights reserved.