Chapter 8 | A Venom Vice
(This is from several drafts ago, back when A Venom Vice was still called Jack of Hearts, Bel’s name was Belindaleolindarne, and the story was more of a caricature of medieval fantasy than it was a story in its own right. Still, it will always hold a special place in my heart. Realistically, Jack would never be allowed to come to the ball after kissing Bel, let alone be allowed to dance with her all evening. And it’s not like the guards could miss him. He kind of stands out. Aside from that, this was before I had really rounded out Merdwick and made him responsible for Jack. The Merdwick I now know quite well would not let Jack get away with endangering himself in the tournament, kiss or no kiss. And Merdwick is perhaps the only person that can actually get Jack to do as he’s told. Plus, while fun, the food fight is a little juvenile and unrealistic. I think the main reason I have a lingering fondness for this chapter comes from all the bird puns at the end.)
(Sidenote: Holy adverbs, Batman!)
That kiss was the most astonishing, astounding, and altogether alarming thing I could ever remember happening to me. If it had been my choice I would have remained where I was, unmoving and staring at nothing in particular for the rest of eternity. But, sadly, I had to get ready for the banquet so I floated inside and managed to get my feet back on the ground in time to be shoved into my most extravagant dress yet (a huge dark green thing that could have easily hidden three people ‘neath the skirt) and an emerald tiara (almost as brilliantly colored as Jack’s eyes).
When I finally managed to escape Rosalind’s obsessive grooming, I hurried to the dining hall where everyone of note (and a few others that had managed to sneak by) were anxiously awaiting the princess so they could begin to gorge themselves. As soon as I burst (a little less than gracefully) through the doors everyone stood and bowed.
I curtsied in return and then signaled that they could begin. Instantaneously, everyone began to eat and dance and sing and make themselves merry (not all necessarily at the same time). Before I would even consider partaking in any of the aforementioned revelry I had to find Jack. I was not entirely sure what I would ask him once he was found but when your best friend kisses you full on the mouth in front of a vast audience something simply must be said.
I waded through the guests in every inch of the room until I at last found Jack in a corner. He had apparently had a chance to change back into his normal motley attire. I guessed that shortly after running inside the guards had been distracted by some other duty (or by all the food, wine, and women at the banquet). He was also wearing, draped over his arms, every last one of those obnoxious maidens that had been sitting behind me during the tournament. They were all complimenting my jester on his strength and making other flirty little comments while draping themselves all over my jester’s arms and shoulders, and, in general, making a disgusting display of themselves in front of my jester. I grimaced at them as I approached but they didn’t appear to notice.
For some reason I had thought that once he was dressed like a fool again the spell would be broken and the stupid maidens would no longer find him attractive, but somehow even the belled cap couldn’t deter those female buffoons.
“Well, well, Jack of Hearts,” I said in an innocent voice laced with venom, “It would appear that you’ve finally lived up to your title.” The girls quickly detached themselves in order to curtsy in my direction (though their eyes never left Jack).
Jack grinned sheepishly and did his best to shrug while six maidens were clinging to his shoulders (they had reattached themselves immediately after curtsying). “It certainly seems that way,” said he, “but at least I’m not alone in that. All present have lived up to their titles.”
I frowned quizzically and Jack clarified by introducing me to the imbecilic creatures attached to his arms. “May I present Countess Chrysanta the Coy, Madam Orabela the Impish, Mistress Caitlan the Kissable, Baroness Eirian the Excitable, and Duchess Anwen the Affectionate.” He pointed to each maiden in turn and then pointed to me. “And, of course, you, Princess Peacock, lived up to your title the moment it was given to you.”
The girls giggled and my frown deepened (most especially at ‘Mistress Caitlan the Kissable’).
“So, ‘Princess Peac-” began ‘Mistress Caitlan the Kissable’ before I gave her a glare hot enough to melt flesh. “I beg your pardon, Highness,” she said looking down at the ground and giving an apologetic curtsy. “I meant to say, so, Princess Belinda-leo-lin-darn-ay,” she stumbled all over my name, “Where can one find a jester such as Jack. I have never before found his like.”
“He was a gift,” I said shortly, folding my arms.
“Oh,” said ‘Countess Chrysanta the Coy’, “How lucky you are. My father would never get me anything so grand.” She blushed slightly and batted her eyes at Jack.
“He was not from my father,” I said sharply, “in fact, my father despises him, and anyone other than me caught speaking with him may be beheaded on the spot.”
The girls looked at each other and looked back at me, unsure if I was serious. My stern, glaring face made them certain of that and each quickly gave me a polite curtsy and all but fled to the other end of the room. Jack couldn’t help but laugh.
“Ah, thank you, now my arms can have a rest. Though, I must say, that was not a terribly kind lie.”
“It’s true enough,” I said moodily, nearly forgetting the reason I had come to find him in the first place.
“My, my, Bel,” he said cheekily, “you appear to be looking quite green. If I didn’t know you as well as I do I might assume you were jealous.” He grinned very smugly.
“Certainly not!” I said in tones of utter disgust, “‘Tis simply because those mindless buffoons annoy me more than tongue can tell and I have had more than enough of them for one day. And I’ll have you know Rosalind was the one to pick this dress and I had no say in the matter.”
“But of course, Peacock,” he said still looking very smug, “What else could it possibly be?”
“Oh, don’t go thinking I have any kind of romantic thoughts about you, fool. Who kissed whom might I ask?” I crossed my arms triumphantly and stuck my nose in the air.
“You mean Mistress Caitlan?” he asked with a curious cock of the head as though he had entirely forgotten about the tournament. “Well, she kissed me, of course. Though it was only on the cheek and I suspect her friends put her up to it.”
“No,” I said with fierce annoyance, “I mean at the end of the tournament.”
Jack did a wonderful job of twisting his face, very comically, into pretended confusion. “The prince?”
I couldn’t help but laugh and I shook my head in relaxed exasperation.
“Oh, never mind,” I said, feeling a slightly less perturbed. The minstrels began a new song and Jack offered me his hand.
“Shall we?” I asked as I took his hand.
“Shall we what?” he asked, mocking ignorance before beginning to lead me in a dance I was not at all familiar with (and which was actually far too fast for the song being played but it worked out well enough).
We danced through four more songs (still not doing any dances I had ever learned in my etiquette class, and I can tell you, I had learned a great many) and I had a delightful time watching all the knights and princes eyeing me jealously. One (a handsome, dark-haired lad) asked to cut in. Jack gave him a queer look, glanced back at me for a moment, and released my hands to take his. The knight instantly pulled away.
“No! I wish a dance with the princess.”
“Oh. Well then, certainly not. I won, not you. Go away.”
The knight looked completely flummoxed by such a response but slowly turned and wandered away. I don’t know that I’d ever seen Jack’s grin quite so wide.
“That’s not entirely fair,” I said after I had finished laughing, “They all came very long ways for an opportunity to woo me, whereas you see me every day.”
“I’ve never been any good at sharing.”
“You’ve always shared with me.”
“That’s quite different.”
He spun me around and leaned me back in a dip.
“Of course,” he said sighing, “if you really wanted to dance with someone else I suppose I could let you go. It appears Mistress Caitlan is lacking a partner.”
I glowered as I turned to see her sitting demurely with properly pouted lips obviously trying to catch an unsuspecting man in an awful trap. I tightened my grip on Jack’s hands.
“Just as I suspected,” he said laughing at me, “Though perhaps I should dance with her anyway. I imagine her grip would be less painful.”
“Ja-A-ack,” I pouted, hoping I looked more demure than Caitlan.
“Don’t fret, Peacock,” he said with a chuckle as he twirled me again, “you are my preferred partner.”
I looked up through my dizziness to see him looking oddly serious. As we returned to more stable dancing I cocked my head in curiosity and he hesitantly opened his mouth to elaborate. At that moment the fanfare sounded and my father regally waddled in wearing a cape made of far finer (and far more) fabric than my own dress. (Heaven only knows why it took him so long to appear.)
Of course, everyone ceased what they were doing to bow or curtsy (Jack curtsied) and my father waved a hand to allow us to continue what we were doing after seating himself at the head of the largest banquet table. Jack and I prepared to continue our dance just as one of the heralds approached us.
“Your father, his Royal Majesty the King, requests that you join him at banquet, your Highness.”
“Oh,” I looked back at Jack who obviously had something he wished to say, “can’t I have one more dance?”
“His request was that you come promptly, your Highness.”
“Immediately, to be more precise, your Highness.”
I frowned and dropped Jack’s hands.
I followed for about three steps before glimpsing Caitlan out of the corner of my eye. My frown deepened and I turned desperately back to face Jack. He simply smiled.
“I shan’t, Bel.”
I sighed and followed the messenger to the seat beside my father, prepared to be immensely bored. He had already begun eating which meant that I would have no appetite, and no doubt one of his pompous councilors would be on my other side to lecture me about some wrong or another I had committed recently. I didn’t even bother looking up as I sat down.
“Daughter,” he said with (surprisingly) an empty mouth, “may I present to you-”
I raised my eyes from my plate to see which it would be to lecture me that night but to my astonishment I found, seated beside me, Prince Armelcadeyrnemyr. He nodded politely, a gentle wave of golden hair brushing his forehead, his full, beautifully shaped lips parting in a smile.
I narrowly managed to prevent myself from gasping and tried to smile charmingly despite the ridiculous blush I felt glowing on my cheeks. He was far more handsome up close than from the distance I had seen him at the tournament.
“Prince Armel-” but before Father could finish trying to pronounce that ridiculous name, Jack suddenly leapt up onto the table and began to dance the silliest jig I had ever seen, somehow managing to avoid all the food.
“Fancy feet and a fancy feast up upon the table.
To sing and dance I love to do, and do whenever able.
But toes and treats don’t get along and antsy feet may strike them
And send them sailing through the air until they meet you shirt’s hem!”
And with that, Jack back flipped over the suckling pig and simultaneously kicked two bowls of unknown food-like substances into the air to land on several important bystanders.
“Ha ha! Or face, in your case.”
Several belligerent (and now very messy) knights rose to their feet, wiping food from their eyes. I’ve no doubt that they would have drawn their swords had they been permitted to bring them into the dining hall. As the case was, however, the first things they thought to use as weapons were the various foods surrounding them.
Jack, of course, easily dodged the majority of the flavorful projectiles just in time for them to strike someone else, adding more participants to the frenzied fight of food. Those who could, ducked beneath tables or fled from the room. I, myself, stared in dumb awe at the confusion until I received some sort of fruit pastry to my face at which time I threw myself beneath the table and covered my head with my hands.
While I listened to the steadily growing shouting and splattering above me I was startled by a hand on my back. I looked up to find Jack beside me, laughing so hard there were tears running down his cheeks.
“Jack! Do you- How you- That was- Why would- What were you thinking?!”
He completely buckled over and his contagious laugh drew mine out. We remained beneath the table, rolling with mirth, for quite some time before Jack regained enough breath to sing,
“Now fancy feet must run away and leave the room in chaos
For the fancy feast now seeks revenge and we mustn’t let it slay us!”
He took my hand and we sprang out from beneath the table and ran (despite the bombardment of food) until we were free from the dining hall. I had expected to stop then, considering I still could not breathe for laughing, but we continued running until we were out in the courtyard.
We collapsed on the grass and resumed enveloping ourselves in merriment.
“You should,” he gasped, “have seen,” (gasp) “your face!”
A new torrent of unladylike guffaws burst from me.
“What,” I was practically sobbing with glee, “on earth,” (wheeze) “possessed you… to do that?”
He wrapped his arms about himself and curled into a ball.
“I,” (guffaw) “was,” (breath) “bored!”
We continued on in similar fashion well into the evening until our sides were aflame and our smiles ached. Conversation flowed much more easily as we began to be able to breathe but any time we looked at each other and saw the food on the other’s face we would begin to laugh again. Finally, the sun set and it grew dark, solving the problem of seeing.
“I haven’t had an audience that big since your last birthday,” he said, a laugh still on the edge of his voice.
“That’s not true. There were far more people at the tournament than at the banquette. Or did you not consider that a performance?”
“Oh no, no. That was one of my greatest performances.”
I could practically feel him grinning.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t the way everyone expected the tournament to be. Heaven knows I wasn’t expecting it.”
There was a pause and so I let out a last chuckle and looked up at the newly appearing stars.
“Bel?” he asked quietly after another moment or two.
I turned my head to face him.
His remarkable eyes seemed almost to glow in the dim light of the moon but they lacked their usual mischievous glitter.
“Who did you want to win the tournament?” he asked slowly, carefully watching my face.
“I don’t recall,” I said, wrinkling my forehead, “I had a few preferences at the beginning, of course, but once I saw you there I spent the duration of the tournament praying you wouldn’t get yourself killed.”
My answer seemed to satisfy him and so he gave a sigh and turned back to watch the sky.
“We should stay out late like this more often.”
“Only on nights when I haven’t had to wake at unholy hours of the morning,” I said with an exaggerated yawn.
He laughed (I loved being the one to make him laugh) and went back on his hands to fling himself to standing so he could help me up.
“So it’s not ‘Princess Owl’ after all then?”
I took his hand and lifted myself off the ground.
“I thought it was ‘peacock’.”
He shrugged, “They both have feathers. All I know is they’re both fowl.”
“Foul, or fowl?”
“What’s the difference?”
“I thought it was meant to be a compliment!”