A dripping sound awoke the jester. He groaned as he opened his eyes, his cracked lips parting to draw in a shuddering breath. He was lying on the floor of his own room and the only light seemed to come from outside, but it was strangely orange.
He sat up and raised his hand to touch the back of his head. It hurt, but his hand remained clean of blood. Still feeling too nauseous to stand, the jester crawled over to the window and looked outside.
It was night and it was raining, but the rain did nothing to douse the flames of four large pyres in the city square
Had a family of royal blood died? The jester couldn't recall. How long had he been on the floor, out cold? There was a strange taste in his mouth as well, like old blood and herbs. Pulling a disgusted face, he walked over to the bowl of washing water and took a large sip from it. The taste wasn't much better, but at least he could be almost certain it wasn't poisoned. He walked back to the window to spit it out, and that's when he heard it: the lamenting song that was only sung for the death of a king or queen.
For a moment it seemed as if his mind closed down. He couldn't breathe. He must be imagining things.
A gust of wind made him hear the words all the better.
"Oh Laird of Jun, oh glory of dragons, oh magical wisdom..."
The King was dead.
The jester stumbled away from the window, backwards, and nearly tripped over a goblet that lay on the floor. It left a thin trail of wine on the wood as it rolled away, and the jester dipped his finger in it to smell the substance.
It was a mixture of hemlock, poppy, mandrake and ivy, well known for its anaesthetic uses. He could have guessed. Combined with a little knock on the head, he must have been out for hours at least. How could he have been so stupid as to drink it? Had he not smelled it?
There were shouts outside, and with a soft sob the jester made his way back to the window and looked down. A horseman had arrived: a messenger from one of the three provinces, judging by the banner he held in his hand. Doors were opened and the messenger was led into the castle. The jester watched the doors close, and then was suddenly spurred into action. His green and gold clothing with bells lay on his bed, just as he had put them this morning – or was it yesterday evening? Time seemed a jumble, and he couldn't be bothered with figuring it out. The clothes for jesting took a while to attire, though, so he pulled open the doors of his wardrobe, took out a simple linen shirt and put it on.
He was still tugging half of it into his trousers when there was a gruff knock on the door.
"Jester. Lord Gwydion demands your presence."
He paused, thinking quick. Someone had knocked him over the head. Someone had poisoned him. Someone had killed the – but he didn't want to think of that yet.
Who was in on this plot? He had to get out of here, but not before he knew the truth. Tucking in the rest of his shirt, he strode over to the door and yanked it open. A knight stood in the hallway, his armour soaking wet. He was dripping on the carpeted floor.
"What has happened?" Isaac asked, taking in the man's face. There was a lot to be read out of the eyes of a person, or the twitch of their mouth as they spoke. This man looked genuinely miserable.
"King Brian's dead," he said, his shoulders sagging a little. "Died early morning, didn't you notice? He was brought back to his own world by Lord Jalim."
"Who killed him?" The jester's voice was no more than a whisper. He could feel the blood draining from his face. For a moment it seemed as if the knight wanted to answer him, but then he changed his mind.
"Nobody. He just got sick. Those are his royal advisors you see burning outside."
"He got sick and his advisors are dead as well. Sounds like poison to me." The jester's voice took on strength again as his anger built. "And we all know who works with poison, don't we?"
"No!" The man's voice reached up high as he took a step back and looked down the winding stairs as if someone was spying on them. "The doctors themselves concluded it was a disease. That's why the corpses are burnt so quickly, in case it spreads."
"In case someone finds out it was nightshade that killed them. Anyway, you can tell Gwydion that I'm not coming. My service is over." The jester raised his hand to touch the back of his head again. It was starting to throb. "And I think it would be common courtesy for Gwydion to allow me my three days of mourning before he evicts me."
"He's not about to evict you, fool," the knight said, suddenly smirking a bit at the double use of the word. The jester quickly re-evaluated his opinion of the man. "He's about to be coroneted tomorrow, and you should be present."
"I'm not coming," the jester said simply. "And you should dry yourself off, you're dripping on my doorstep. Good-day." He closed the door and leaned against it, closing his eyes again. They burned, and he brought the back of his hand to his cheeks to wipe them.
Apparently the knight had not left yet. "Gwydion said that if you don't come before him, consequences will be dire. He'll pick another jester from your tribe, he said."
The jester froze in his movements, hand still suspended in the air. He then fluently turned around and ripped the door open, his upper lip pulled up in a snarl. "Fine. Let's have it."
Without even thinking about putting on some decent clothing, he preceded the knight down the hall towards the winding stairway that led down.
As could have been expected, the throne room was filled with nobility. The jester ignored the indignant whispers and stares as he entered, hands clenched into tight fists and a stern expression on his face. At the other end of the room, on the throne where normally the King would have been seated, now sat a man in his mid-twenties with a smug expression on his face. As he looked at the jester, he smirked.
"Why, it's our court fool! How nice of you to come and join us. Although you might have thought about putting on an overcoat, first." Some people laughed politely, but the jester's expression remained the same.
"What can I do for the murderer of my King?" he asked, bowing down mockingly with a flourish. The room erupted in soft whispers and gasps. Gwydion merely let his smile fade from his face, and raised his eyebrows. "Murderer? Do you have grounded proof for me being so? It is, after all, a pretty dire accusation."
"I know what you are," the jester said, tilting his head to the side and narrowing his eyes. "I don't need proof."
Gwydion seemed to consider him for a moment, all pretended amusement now gone from his face. Then he stood up from the throne. "Nobody loved the King more than I did. If you need proof of my innocence and grief because of his death, I will show you. Leave us." This last command was spoken against the assembled royalty in the throne room, and they filed out disappointedly. It did seems strange that Lord Gwydion didn't want to share his 'proof' with them, but in the end he was to be King. Nobody dared oppose him.
As everybody had left except for the guards, Gwydion descended from the dais and started to saunter towards the jester. "I would have your tongue cut out right this instant if it wouldn't render you useless."
"Useless for what?" the jester replied, crossing his arms over his chest in a defensive manner. "My contract has ended. There is no need for me to remain at court."
"That's where you're wrong," Gwydion said softly, standing still in front of him and smirking lightly. They were both of about the same height and lean build, but that was where their similarities ended. Narrowing his golden-coloured eyes, Gwydion looked steadily at the other man and pulled a scroll from his belt. He unfurled it and read out loud:
"I hereby vow to serve the ruler of Junipen for the span of a lifetime. My services include barding, juggling, jesting, story-telling, spying and giving advice based upon observations. I will also act as secret-keeper and vow to never utter anything that might harm the ruler of Junipen. Hereby I sign, as decreed by... Need I read on?" Gwydion turned the scroll around and held it in front of the jester's face. "It carries your signature."
"You are not the legitimate ruler of Junipen. It is a heritable title."
"The King did not spawn any children," Gwydion said, chuckling lowly. "Even you must know that. His wife died six years ago."
"His wife died after she bore his child," the jester said, the corners of his lips curling up in a smirk. "A daughter. She is the heir to the throne, and I will serve nobody but her." The smirk became a real smile now, as he looked at Gwydion's dismayed expression. "And I believe you'll find I'm not the only one who knows you're a fake. She'll come, Gwydion. She'll find her way here and unveil your treachery."
The sound of Gwydion's fist hitting the jester's jaw resounded through the throne room. The jester spun and tumbled to the floor, giving the other man a reproachful look as he sat up. Gwydion sighed deeply and then grinned. "Tomorrow you'll be present as I put the crown on my head. You will jest and smile and be merry. If you are telling the truth and that little girl does come to ruin my party, you'll also be present as I tie her to a pole and burn her alive. See if you can make a joke out of that."