Chapter 4 | A Venom Vice
(I still think this chapter is fun, but it is predominantly fluff and I decided that there was already more than enough character development and backstory in chapters 1-3 and that it was time to get to the main event. I went back and forth for a long time trying to justify it because it does do some cultural world building and it makes a reference that ties in with Tales from the First Kingdom, but, ultimately it just didn’t make the cut. Also, there are some aspects that just don’t make sense. For instance, why would Merdwick not bother to explain all this to Jack? Who took Jack’s hat and replaced his motley?)
Jack and I fell into a routine through that spring and through the end of summer. Most of it consisted of singing, laughing, racing, eavesdropping, tormenting my tutors, and sneaking in the occasional alchemy lesson with Merdwick (with a pretended sick day every few weeks so we could play in my chambers).
There was, however, one day near the end of the summer where we were not to caper about in the usual manner and I think it nearly drove Jack mad.
A proclamation was sent throughout the Four Kingdoms that it was to be a time of mourning, for the Queen of the First Kingdom had died.
Tradition in the Third Kingdom dictated that, when mourning, everyone was to cover themselves in black robes and veil their faces. There was a day long fast in which no one was to speak, no one was to laugh to laugh, no one was to sing, run, skip, bound, jump, hop, canter, flip, flop, cartwheel, or otherwise show signs of any sort of merriment.
Needless to say, Jack had trouble with this tradition.
Rosalind woke me that morning with a finger pressed to her lip. She was dressed all in black but she had not yet donned her veil.
I blinked at her and she handed me a note. I blinked at the note. She sighed and whispered in a barely audible voice.
“The Queen of the First Kingdom has passed on.”
I furrowed my brow and began to form a question when she put a finger to her lips once more.
“We’re in mourning, of course, Your Highness.”
She presented me with a heavy black robe. The cultural lessons I’d been given flooded back to my mind. ‘Everyone mourns equally and everyone is equal in mourning,’ Sir Oglthorp had said. I still didn’t know what he meant, but I did know it meant I was doomed to a long day of boredom. I wrinkled my nose and gave a silent groan as Rosalind tugged me out of bed to dress.
I wandered hither and thither through the halls without a particular purpose in mind. To be negative, I was terribly bored. To be positive, I had no lessons that day. But to once more be negative, as I did not have lessons, Jack could not come and rescue me from my first lesson (etiquette), which is where we usually met each day. Though I suppose it wouldn’t have really mattered. Jack was bound to make me happy and if I were to show any signs of happiness I would certainly be punished. So, I simply continued to wander, sighing occasionally and watching my feet.
In time I came to a corner and turned somewhat too abruptly and rammed directly into a fellow black-clad person. I was trying to think of a way to silently apologize when the person gave a gleeful cry of, “Bel!” and I looked up from my feet into the wonderfully sparkling green eyes of my dearest friend.
An insuppressible smile assaulted my lips and I tried to motion for him to be silent without laughing.
“Finally! I’ve been wandering for hours and no one will so much as greet me. And when I acknowledge them they glower at me with the sourest expressions I’ve ever beheld on human faces. And when I woke this morning I’d found that my normal attire had been replaced by this monstrosity,” he gestured to a robe of black linen, tied about his waist with a silk sash. His hat was missing, and it was odd to see his head moving without the usual accompaniment of jingles “What’s more, they’ve hid my hat from me and that is something not to be tolerated. Bel, stop shushing me and tell me why everyone is acting so peculiarly and why neither you nor Sir Oglthorp were in class this morning. I should think it very rude to skip etiquette class.”
I tried so very hard not to laugh. Truly I did. But, alas, I did not succeed and covered my mouth with my hands as Jack hailed another passerby.
“Mistress Dumblton, would you please explain to me why everyone in the castle has suddenly gone stark raving mad?”
Instantly, I stood erect and silent. Leaving one hand over my mouth, I used the other to clap over Jack’s. I offered an awkward curtsy to the world’s cruelest sewing mistress and backed up into a nearby room, dragging Jack with me. Mistress Dumblton sniffed in distaste but continued on her way. Once I had closed the door behind us I released a sigh of relief (which was foolish, of course, because she could not reprimand us at that moment but I was bound to get a stabbingly stern lecture the following day).
Jack tapped his foot with mock impatience, his hands on his hips and his lips playfully half curled. “Well?”
I bit my lip and tried to pantomime what was expected of us for that day but that only succeeded in getting me a very queer look from Jack. After several more failed attempts I sighed and decided I had already broken the rules anyway and since the First Kingdom’s Queen was both dead and probably unaware of my existence I assumed she would take no offense.
“It’s tradition,” I whispered at last.
“What’s that? Speak up Bel!”
“Shhhhhh! We’re not supposed to speak. We’re in mourning.”
“And for whom are we mourning?” he asked, his voice lowering to match mine.
“The Queen of the First Kingdom.”
Jack furrowed his brow and did not respond for a moment.
“Not to be insensitive, but might I ask why we are mourning for a woman that none of us have ever met?”
“That’s not quite true,” I said in small defense, “My father met her once.”
“Ah, and there we have it. A perfect reason to mourn.”
I thought I heard footsteps outside the door and quickly replaced my hand on his mouth before speaking almost inaudibly. “Please, Jack, we must be silent or we will be punished.”
“Why?” he mumbled through my hand.
“I already told you, it’s tradition.”
He lifted my hand from his lips and asked in a whisper, “And what other aspects of this tradition should I be aware of?”
I quickly (and very quietly) explained each and every one of the things that we were not to do that day. Jack’s eyebrow rose progressively until it was practically lost in his tousled black hair but he did strain to dim his smile.
“Would walking on my hands be considered impudence?”
I considered for a moment. “I suppose it would probably be all right so long as you did it in a solemn manner.”
His suppressed smile burst wide again at the concept and he had to spend another long moment shrinking it down (though the most serious he became was a small, crooked smirk).
“And that is all we are going to do today? Simply wander about acting solemn?”
“Well,” I began hesitantly, knowing he would not enjoy the next portion of the tradition, “actually, when we hear the Great Bell toll, we’re all to gather in the great hall.”
I intended to leave it at that.
“…And?” prompted Jack.
“And then we sit very still… and completely silent… until the bell rings again.”
Jack’s face flushed with horror… yet maintained his crooked smile. A horrified smile: a look only Jack could pull off.
“And when does the bell ring again, pray tell?”
“…Usually not until after dark.”
And at that moment, during that lovely afternoon, the bell began to toll.
Everyone in the castle walked silently and soberly (save for the wine keeper, who was rarely sober) into the great hall in a remarkably long, single file line. Each step echoed mournfully and in the silence I finally realized the enormity of the hall.
Perhaps that is why they call it the ‘great’ hall, I mused as I made the trek to the opposite end where my throne sat beside my father’s.
After a short eternity, I seated myself and prepared for the excruciating monotony to come. I realized then that this tradition of mourning really was an effective way of making one miserable for another’s death. I’ve no doubt that everyone in the room wished very much that the Queen of the First Kingdom had not died. Very. Very. Much.
A moment later, as I brooded, I glanced over to see Jack making himself comfortable on my father’s throne and not trying very hard to hide his smirk. I had to turn away and purse my lips together to prevent the giggles swelling in my throat.
I turned to face forward just as my father arrived to take his place. Even through the veil the face my father made… I can scarcely describe it. If you have ever taken a very fat, snub-nosed cat’s favorite possession, thrown said possession, and then told the cat to “fetch it”, its face might look similar to my father’s at that moment (though more hairythe cat’s face might look considerably less hairy).
A snort burst from my nose and I had to slam a hand over it to prevent further sounds of merriment. Good heavens, you never realize what a joy breathing is until you have to prevent yourself from doing it.
Two guards approached and simultaneously grabbed Jack’s arms and removed him with a considerable amount of force. Jack did not moved a single sinew of his body as they lifted him off and carried him to his proper place (the floor beside my chair) and he continued to sit in the air as though the throne was still beneath him.
I bit down harder on the insides of my lips but had to let a gasp in through my nose lest I die.
Several hours passed. After a while the hilarity of the moment was consumed by utter tedium and I was able to breathe normally. Eventually Jack’s legs began to tremble and he at last sat down cross-legged on the floor. An occasional snore from the congregation would startle us all into sudden straightness but those were usually silenced within a moment or two by the person beside the sleeper.
Oh, how I mourned for the queen. Why would destiny have her leave us like this? Why could she not have lived so that I could be playing merrily outside instead of trapped in the big awful cavern?
I fear Jack’s lot was worse than mine. He twitched periodically and received glares from those seated in the first row. He shifted position to prevent his legs from losing their feeling and received even hotter looks. He raised a hand to scratch an itch above his eyebrow and had to stop in mid-air because I had no doubt that he had been burned by the hellish glower of certain individuals in the front row. I believe his record for perfect stillness (after his joke with the guards of course) was roughly thirty seconds, though it’s very hard to judge the passage of time when so painfully bored.
About five hours in, Jack began to bounce slightly where he sat. His audience’s ferocity had seemingly burned out the last of its heat and reverted to using ice instead. This was apparently much easier for Jack to stand (or perhaps he had entirely stopped caring). His bouncing increased until he began to lose contact with the floor. Then he stopped. He became completely still. But before anyone had time to relax their animosity, Jack sprang up from the floor and dashed down the isle towards the great double doors. Instead of opening them to his freedom, like I thought he might, he leaped and took four stabbing strides up the face of the door. In a tall arch, he flung himself back in a backflip. He landed in stride like a cat fleeing from a wall’s top, sped back to my side, and performed the queerest pirouette to resume the crosslegged position he had been in not a moment before. I stared in stunned silence — as did the whole of the hall — but he simply gazed at the floor as though nothing had happened. No one, not even my father, knew how to react to that — so no one did. We remained in silence.
I reflected that stunned silence is much more pleasant than forced silence.