Chapter One: The Chicken and the Egg

Deran was watching Fernet the jester. Fernet the jester was watching the queen. The queen was yelling at the king, and the king was yelling back at her, striding impressively about the courtyard.

It's all your fault!

I'm not the one who had too much to drink with Lord and Lady Orneldon! The king shook his fist at the queen.

Well, I'm not the one who disgraced himself by breaking the vase they gave us on our wedding day!

Well, I'm not the one-- The king seemed to run out of steam. He motioned for his wife to come and they both walked away away from Deran, who was sitting out in the sun with a leather flask of wine, listening without much interest to this latest domestic debate. Ever since the king had decided to marry Queen Illariana, they had fought, as far as Deran could tell, pretty much incessantly.

Deran was fairly certain it had been a bad move for the king to marry Queen Illariana back when she was just the Lady Illariana, the wealthiest young woman in the kingdom at age seventeen, after her father died and left his vast wealth to her. Deran didn't have anything against being fabulously wealthy--in fact, he would've liked having a lot of money--but if it meant putting up with a woman like Illariana? He shuddered and took another sip of wine, lounging against he sun-warmed rock of the castle wall surrounding the courtyard. The king and queen had lowered their voices and walked off to the other end of the courtyard, but their argument, it was evident from the way they glared at each other, was no less vehement than it had been when they were screaming at the tops of their lungs.

Deran turned his gaze from the verbally battling monarchs of Avilia to the jester Fernet, also lounging against the wall, idly tossing a juggling ball from side to side and staring at the queen with a wide-eyed expression Deran well remembered from his own youth (now that he was thirty-five, his own youth seemed further away every year). The poor boy was infatuated with the queen, it was obvious. Deran snorted. That romance was likely to pan out!

Hey, Deran! Fernet said jerking his gaze from the queen and walking over to Deran, tucking the juggling ball in one voluminous pocket of his jester's costume. Deran groaned. He had been hoping the young jester wouldn't notice him standing there.

What is it now? Deran asked, taking a long slug of wine, then corking the half-full flask and hanging it back around his neck.

How long d'you bet they'll keep arguing this time? Fernet looked eagerly at Deran, jingling his coin-filled purse. I'll put ten gold gogs down on them going til nightfall.

Deran considered the proposition, glancing at the sky. The sun was hovering close to the horizon, so he shook his head. No, I'll not take a bet that stupid. Besides, I've told you a hundred times if I've told you once, I'm not a betting man. He took a sip of wine. Sure way to lose money, betting. Not to mention fundamentally stupid. Why tempt the Fates? That was all gambling came down to, really. Dumb luck and bad guesses.

Well, it's your loss! Farnet kept jingling his purse hopefully in Deran's direction, but the knight ignored him and took another sip of wine. C'mon, Deran, I'm broke! You wouldn't begrudge me a little bet, eh?

You're not broke, Deran said, rolling his eyes.

I am, I swear it! What, you think jesters get paid tons of gold? The young jester pouted. Honestly, Deran. Sir Deran. I'm broke.

And how did you lose all your money, then? Deran leaned back against the stone wall and shook his flask. Damn. Empty.

Well, see, I bet Shiren the cook that my chicken could fly higher than his... Fernet started in on a long and complicated anecdote involving catapults, chicken-flinging and for some reason, cheese knives. Deran decided he really didn't want to know, and while the boy chattered on, he tried to creep away, intending to get a refill for his wine flask. He'd have to pinch it while the cook wasn't looking, though; he was pretty well broke, himself.

The jester's loud whine reverbrated through the courtyard, and Deran sighed, sliding down the wall to sit on the hard ground of the courtyard. His sword hung at an uncomfortable angle at his side, and he was forced to slide back up again, scraping his back against the wall.

Yes, Fernet? Deran said with elaborate patience. What is it?

My story! You never let me finish telling it! Listen. So we took the catapults from the armory and decided to load on the chickens and see which one could fly farther. Personally, my vote was on the pure white one--can't go wrong there--but the cook thought the brown-speckled one was better. So we loaded them into the catapults and then we had the idea that if we were able to trim their feathers just right--that's what the cheese knives were for--they could fly faster. Fernet paused and took a breath beforerushing on. But the cook's knife slipped...

Daren rolled his eyes. So how did you lose the bet? With the cook's chicken dead?

Fernet paused. It turned out dead chickens can go faster than live ones when shot out of a catapult. So I lost ten gold gogs, and I need desperately to be reimbursed somehow. And I doubt the king, in his present mood, will decide to give me a week's pay in advance.

No, I doubt that indeed, Daren said, eyeing the king and queen, who had wandered over to the ornamental fountain in the courtyard and were shouting at each other, their words drowned out by the sound of the rushing water. Deran decided this was probably a good thing. He didn't really want to hear what the monarchs were saying to each other at that moment.

Well, I'll think of a plan somehow, Fernet said, pushing himself away from the wall and turning to stare at the queen. His forthcoming words were lost somewhere in that moment.

When Fernet had done nothing but stare at Queen Illariana for several minutes straight, Deran tried once again to make his escape, edging quietly off around the corner to the kitchens. Unfortunately, Fernet caught up with him.

the jester said breathlessly, running to catch up with Deran. You're not going yet, are you? I was just about to tell you my plan!

Deran turned around, stifling a sigh. And your plan is?

Well, I thought I would challenge Shiren to another contest. Egg juggling! What do you think of that? There's no way I could possibly lose! The jester grinned. I mean, juggling is part of my profession. It's a done deal. He turned and started off toward the kitchens at a dead run. Wish me luck! he called back over his shoulder, and Deran was left standing slack-jawed in his wake.

Well, at least this provided him with the neceessary distraction. With the cook occupied in an egg-juggling contest, Deran could just sneak out of the courtyard, around the side of the castle, into the kitchen by way of the side door, and fill his flask again. He set out to do just that, whistling to himself, one hand on his sword. Behind him, he could hear the king and queen raising their voices in anger once more.

The kitchens were large and usually manned by a full complement of servants, but dinnertime was hours away and only Cook Shiren remained. Deran waited at a safe distance until he saw Fernet and Cook Shiren leave the kitchen and walk out through the castle's side door, carrying three eggs each. Then he slipped into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of wine. He deliberated on whether or not to steal the whole bottle, then decided it was best not to be greedy and took only as much as would fill his flask. Well, that and a couple of sips directly from the bottle. It was a sad day when one of the king's most respected knights had to resort to stealing wine from the castle kitchens. A sad day, indeed.

Deran sighed and made his way out the side door of the kitchen. Just as he was shutting it behind him, a flurry of curses split the air. Deran turned to see Fernet, standing in the grass near the entrance to the courtyard, completely covered in slimy raw eggs.

Damn your eggs to a rotten stinking hell! Fernet cried, dancing in place, spitting, and trying to rake the slimy egg out of his hair. How could I lose, I'm a jester!

Deran laughed quietly at the sight and tried to sneak by back to the courtyard. Watching the king and queen fight was truly the best form of entertainment he'd seen yet, and that included Fernet the jester's performances.

Hey, you! the cook said, dropping his own eggs and running up to Deran. Did you just come out of my kitchens? He reached for Deran's flask and shook it. If you've taken any more of my wine, I swear it's your neck on the block next time His Majesty needs meat for a roast!

Deran noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that though the cook had dropped his eggs smack on the ground, they hadn't broken. Probably boiled, in which case... there was a way to divert attention from the fact that he had indeed stolen the wine!

Deran said, pointing to the cook's eggs. Look! He cheated you! He used hard-boiled eggs!

Fernet leaned over and picked up Cook Shiren's eggs. He felt one, cracked the shell, and scowled at the clearly hard-boiled egg that came into view. All right, Shiren, he said, walking up to the cook and grabbing him by the arm. What do you have to say for yourself, eh?

I didn't know the eggs was hard-boiled? the cook said sheepishly, shrugging. Deran snickered to himself as Fernet started gesturing extravagantly, ranting on about the unfairness of rigged contests, pacing up and down on the grass. Meanwhile, Deran was able to escape back into the castle's side entrance and all the way up to his rooms unmolested. Once in his rooms, he settled down to sharpening his sword and finishing his second flask full of wine.

He fell asleep late that afternoon and didn't wake for dinner. Nor was he awake in the dead of night when Revern, evil minion of Lord Querliz, came and kidnapped the queen, who had been out stalking around the castle grounds, still angry at her husband.