The king looked down at the red, shrieking creature writhing in his arms. The creature responsible for killing his wife.

        “It’s a girl, Your Majesty,” said the midwife, her voice flat and exhausted. There was no congratulation in her tone.

        Brown. Even newly born, its eyes were brown. And it was a girl.

        The queen’s corpse was still laid out on the bed, unstopped blood pooling around her lifeless body. A wet cloth draped across her forehead. Her damp brown hair plastered across her face and pillow. The white chemise she wore clung to her, sticky with sweat.

        She’d never loved him. He knew that. While she had never rebuffed his advances, she also never made any pretense of enjoying them. But that had never stopped him from craving her touch. And now she was dead. Once again failing to produce a True Heir. One final snub to his affection.

        He was too old to begin again. Searching for a bride that fit all the signs had already taken most of his adult life. He had no choice but to accept that his line had failed. His kingdom would soon fall. All the Four Kingdoms would fall. All he could do now was struggle to postpone the inevitable.

        The queen’s Lady-in-waiting stood beside the bed. Her red hair hung in lifeless strands around her pale, stunned face. Her grey eyes filled with the empty horror of someone of little consequence losing their only real purpose. She was little more than a girl.

        The king strode to her and shoved the child into her arms.

        “You are now Lady-in-waiting to the princess,” said the king, “see that she’s cleaned up and choose a name for her.”

        The young woman’s eyes grew wide as she struggled to hold the screaming infant. She looked to the midwife then back to the king.

        “Your Majesty,” she said, her voice shrill, “I- I am not a wet nurse. I know nothing of children. I only came to serve as the queen’s companion.”

        The king narrowed his eyes, his jaw flexing beneath his thick grey beard.

        “That improved your rank, did it not, Lady Rosalind,” he said.

        “Well… of course, Your Majesty. But-”

        “Do you wish to keep that rank?”

        She glanced down at the child and tried to readjust it in her arms. Her eyes glistened and she quickly blinked.

        “Yes, Your Majesty,” she said so softly it could scarce be heard over the wails of the child.

        “Then you are now Lady-in-waiting to the princess. Once you’ve finished seeing to her, go tell Alexandrine that she’s still first in line.”

        He turned and left, assigning the servants standing dumbly by the door to clean the queen’s body and prepare it for burial.


        A ragged troupe of performers made their way into the town of Halberd. The growing crowd of eager onlookers stunted and dispersed when it became clear there would be no performance that day. Three men argued at the front of the haggard procession. The carts and wagons, clearly once vibrantly painted, were chipped and dull. Tense whispers floated through the caravan. The only smile among them was on the face of the boy being guarded at the rear of the procession. His hands were bound and tethered to a small wagon that must have once been yellow.

        “I still say we shoulda just killed ‘im and left the body in the woods,” said one man wearing a floppy hat with a tattered feather, “let ‘im get et by wolves or elves or whateversuch wanders ‘round about here.”

        “Elves don’t eat people, do they?” asked the youngest of the three men. He could have been little more than eighteen and proudly bore the beginnings of a faint blonde beard.

        The short, wiry man with the black goatee shook his head.

        “If I knew of any that did,” he said, smoothing his goatee, “I’d’ve tried to sell ‘im off as meat long before. He’s hardly been worth what I’ve had to spend to feed ‘im.”

        “Really?” asked the young man, “but he’s such a good acrobat for his age.”

        The man in the floppy hat slapped the back of the young man’s head.

        “No one wants to pay to watch a sulky tumbler.”

        “Neals got him to start smiling, though,” said the young man sullenly, rubbing his head.

        An old man in silvery robes stood at a nearby vendor’s stall, wrapping and sorting the various herbs he’d purchased and making a good show of not eavesdropping.

        “Now it’s all ‘e does,” said the man in the floppy hat, slapping the young man again for good measure, “it’s shuddersome the way ‘e glares daggers with that grin still painted on ‘is nasty little face. ‘Is eyes ain’t natural neither. Green as dragon’s scales. Bet ‘e was still grinnin’ the whole time ‘e was stabbing Corraidhin.”

        The wiry man shot him a look.

        “What?” asked the man in the floppy hat.

        The old man shuffled about the stall for another moment while they spoke, rubbing at the poorly trimmed scruff that ran along the sides of his leathery face, before gathering up his parcels.

        “I apologize for interrupting,” said the old man as he approached, “but I couldn’t help but overhear. Might I see the boy in question?”

        “Who the ‘ell are you?” asked the man in the floppy hat.

        “I am the king’s alchemist,” he said with a slight nod of his head.

        The wiry man raised an eyebrow and looked the alchemist up and down.

        “Whaddaya wants wiv ‘im?” he asked, suspiciously.

        “For now,” said the alchemist, “I’d like to meet him. It sounds like you gentlemen are looking for a means to remove him from your party. I might be interested in providing a solution more lucrative for you than killing him.”

        “We aren’t slavers,” said the young man, wrinkling his nose with distaste. “we aren’t just gunna sell-”

        The wiry man raised a hand to silence him and looked the old man over again.

        “How much do you plan on payin’?” he asked.

        “First I should like to meet him,” said the alchemist, straining his eyes toward the back of the caravan where the boy leaned against a wagon wheel with strained nonchalance.

        “You sure you wan’im?” asked the man in the floppy hat, wrinkling his forehead. “‘e killed two grown men and a defenseless woman stupid enough to give ‘im a kind word.”

        The wiry man smacked the back of his head so hard it sent his floppy hat flying. The young man grinned at that.

        The wiry man raised his voice so he could be heard by the tail end of the caravan. “Bring the boy up!”

        A murmur passed through the group and a few moments later the boy was led to stand before them.

        “Hullo, Neals,” said the boy, his hard bitter eyes in sharp contrast with the wide smile stretched across his teeth, “decided what to do with me yet? I still recommend having me drawn and quartered. It’s good weather for watching someone get torn into bits.”

        The wiry man, Neals, slapped the back of his hand against the boy’s face.

        “You keep a civil tongue in that mouth a yours, boy,” he said.

        The boy turned back to face him, his smile unwavering.

        “I thought that was pretty civil, given the circumstances,” said the boy, “were you hoping I would serve you tea in greeting?”

        He slapped him again.

        “Are you sure?” said the boy, tears pricked at the corners of his bright, green eyes but his smile only grew. “We could have a tea party every time I say ‘hullo’ from now on.”

        Neals raised his hand again.

        “There’s no need for that,” said the alchemist, his voice dangerously level.

        The boy turned to look at him and cocked his head.

        “Who’s this?” he asked.

        “My name is Merdwick,” said the old man. “Is it true you killed three people?”

        The boy stiffened.

        “Nope,” he said with forced joviality, “Only two.”

        “Only two?” asked Merdwick, raising a bushy eyebrow.

        “Yup,” said the boy with strained flippancy, “I tried to… violently get Corraidhin to stop raping Nasrin. He slit her throat to spite me. Or maybe it was accidental and he was just graceless in his use of the dagger meant for me. In either case, I took it from him and gave it a new sheath in his eye… and then his other eye. Lucus heard the commotion and tried to stop me from killing Corraidhin.”

        “So you killed him too?” asked Merdwick.

        The boy looked down and itched at his nose with his bound hands.

        “That one was an accident.”

        “Was Nasrin your mother?” asked Merdwick

        The boy shook his head.

        “Who was your mother?” asked Merdwick.

        “That hardly seems like your business,” said the boy, looking up.

        “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

        The boy said nothing. He simply smiled and glared.

        “He was a stray,” said Neals. “Found him wandering the woods little more’n a year ago, half-starved, covered in soot, and bawling. Took more’n a month to get ‘im to say a single word.”

        “Now the trick is gettin’ ‘im to shut up,” said the man who now lacked a floppy hat, “and keeping ‘im from killin’ ‘is rescuers apparently.”

        The boy’s grin dwindled to a cutting smirk. He looked down at his ragged bare feet, failing to hide the glistening in his eyes.

        He whispered so softly Merdwick almost didn’t hear. “I was trying to save her.”

        “Anyway,” said Neals, “I trained a smile into ‘im. Boy’s a decent tumbler, quick as anything, an’ obedient enough once you show ‘im the right side of your hand. He’s not a bad pickpocket neither if you plan to use ‘im for less legitimate things. How much is ya willin’ to pay?”

        “Pay?” The boy’s head shot back up.

        Merdwick crouched, his knees crackling loudly in protest. He searched the boy’s face and eyes for a moment before making up his mind.

        “How would you like to come live at the castle?” Merdwick asked.

        The boy raised an eyebrow and glanced up the hillock to the stone edifice that crowned it.

        “Umm… sure?” he said, still eyeing the castle.

        Merdwick smiled and returned to standing.

        “Unbind him,” he said, fishing a fair sized purse out of one of his copious sleeves, “I’m certain this will be sufficient payment.”

        He plopped the purse into Neals’ hand with a heavy clang. Neals pulled the strings to look inside and his eyes widened.

        “Well, get to it!” said Neals, waving his free arm at the young man who was peering longingly at the shining gold coins.

        Neals whacked the back of his head and the young man hurried to cut the bindings around the boy’s hands.

        Merdwick nodded.

        “Good day, gentlemen,” he said and turned away, trusting the boy to follow.

        The boy glanced back at the caravan once before trotting after Merdwick.

        “So…” he said once they were out of earshot, “what’s my new role, then? Slave labor? Human experimentation? I wouldn’t complain if I wound up with a pair of wings.”

        Merdwick gave him a sideways glance with a raised eyebrow.

        “Well, I wouldn’t,” said the boy, kicking a rock and watching it skitter across the cobblestones.

        “For now, we need only think how to get you into the castle without the king knowing and how to keep you there without him having you thrown out or executed.”

        It was the boy’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

        “Am I to be an assassin then? What’s a little regicide amongst friends, eh?”

        “No, it shouldn’t come to that,” said Merdwick with a smile that left the boy unsure whether or not he was joking.

        They walked in silence for another few moments. Merdwick stared thoughtfully at the castle while the boy wondered whether or not he should run away now or wait to see what would happen. He was awfully curious. And it wasn’t every day raggedy cast-offs like him got invited to live in a castle.

        “It is almost the princess’ birthday,” Merdwick mumbled.

        “Ah. So… I’ll be a concubine?”

        “What?!” Merdwick stopped walking and glowered at the boy.

        So the old man took great offense at the prospect of sexual slavery but was nonplussed (possibly even amused) by the mention of regicide. The boy found that information quite interesting.

        “The princess is a child,” said Merdwick, “she’s not even as old as you, I would guess. Are you not from the Third Kingdom?”

        The boy shook his head.

        Merdwick pursed his lips and continued walking.

        “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me where you are from?”

        He trotted along beside Merdwick and shook his head again.

        “Well, that will come in time, I’m sure,” said Merdwick. He scratched at the several-days-old white stubble on his chin before speaking again, “I think I have it. I’ll have more… interesting quests for you in the future, I’m certain, but, for now, your only assignment is to befriend a lonely little girl.”

        The boy raised an eyebrow.

        “You want me to defy the king and infiltrate the castle to… befriend a little girl.”

        “For now, yes. That’s all I ask.”

        The boy’s brow furrowed and his smile very nearly began to wane. “You’re aware that none of this makes any sense, yes?”

        Merdwick smiled.

        “That too will come with time.”


        I perched on the edge a small silver throne, my feet scarcely brushing the ground. My skirts twisted around my ankles as I aimlessly swung my legs. Piled around me were walls of elaborate packages, wrapped with meticulous care. Many sat empty, already eviscerated by my eager little fingers. Boxes of elaborate gowns, priceless jewelry, and delicately crafted toys (that would doubtless be broken within a week’s time) lay strewn about my feet. Shreds of glistening paper carpeted the cold, black and white stone mosaic of the floor. Yet more scraps clung to the low hanging banners and coated my slippers (which had long ago abandoned my swinging feet). The air was thick with competing perfumes and the buzzing conversations of indifferent nobility.

        As far as I could tell, every noble of the Kingdom was there. Granted, in my eight long years of life, I could only remember a handful of times that any of the nobility had visited the castle. But still, there must have been upwards of fifteen, maybe even twenty people in attendance (I couldn’t be bothered to count them all). They mulled around in uncomfortable looking clothes, nibbling on delicacies like fire salamander tail or drinking wines with simple enchantments placed upon them to make the liquid swirl and change colors. A few gazed on with mild interest as I rummaged through the gifts. Though, I imagine their interest was more in comparing who had spent the most lavish amounts.

        My father was probably in the room somewhere. He had been announced and everyone had stopped what they had been doing to bow. I’d stood up on the seat of my throne to try to get a look over the crowd but my Lady-in-waiting had scurried over from flirting with a duke or something to remind me to be ladylike. Father never joined me in the large throne that stood beside my little one.

        I kicked my heels back and forth against the throne, enjoying the rhythm. A herald stood to my right, announcing the name of the gifter each time a package was hefted onto my lap or as someone of import entered the throne room.

        He had a very loud voice and his perpetual shouting was starting to make me grumpy.

        My eyes wandered the room. It seemed to me that all nobles were either old women trying to pretend to be young ladies or old men who liked to have competitions to see who could come up with the most boring topic of conversation. There were five richly dressed girls about my age in attendance, all wearing varying shades of pink or orange with excessive amounts of ribbons. However, when we had been introduced earlier in the evening they all seemed to think that being nine or ten years of age was far superior to being a mere eight years of age, princess or no.

        I rather hoped they would all spill cake on themselves and ruin their garish dresses.

        I kicked my heels a little harder and muffled an unladylike cry of displeasure.

        Where was Merdwick?

        Merdwick was our court soothsayer and alchemist. I rather suspected that he was also a sorcerer of some kind but he had often refused the title of “Court Wizard.” The best presents always came from him.

        On a previous year, he had given me enchanted wings (that had been destroyed when I landed in the moat). Another time, he had crafted me a delicate silver harp the size of my hand that would play any song you asked (I left it on the throne room floor once and my father stepped on it). On my sixth birthday, he gave me a shimmering gold toy dragon that could breathe a heatless flame (I discovered, however, after an unfortunate incident with a window that it could not fly). And on my seventh, a thin silver ring that transformed whatever I was wearing into whatever I wished to be wearing (it may have rolled under my bed, or perhaps I lost it in the bath).  A few days before this birthday celebration, I had tried to sneak into Merdwick’s workshop to see what he was creating for me. He caught me in seconds and shooed me away.

        I was pulling absently at the ribbons of a small box from Duchess Something-or-Other when the tall double doors ponderously opened to reveal the ancient man. The groaning of the doors drew the attention of a few onlookers who murmured together hoping for something entertaining.

        The herald did not bother announcing his arrival, in part because everyone knew who he was and in part because he held no rank and, while certainly considered clever and even useful, he was not considered of any great import.

        Though old and thin, Merdwick walked proudly and upright without a hint of fragility as he made his way through the host of (largely indifferent) nobility to stand before me. His simple, silvery robes were a little too short for his height and revealed his spindly, hairy ankles and curling blue slippers. His pale eyes twinkled from beneath scraggly white brows and his smile made his leathered face look like someone had carved a white scar into the bark of ancient tree stump.

        “Merdwick!” I called, tossing the small box aside and leaping to my feet.

        He bowed low and removed his pointed hat to reveal long, thinning white hair.

        “Happy birthday, Your Highness.”

        My bare feet slapped against the stone floor as I scrambled through the mess of opened and unopened boxes to kiss him on the head.

        He stood and gave me a smile that looked like it would crack his face.

        “What did you make me?” I beamed at him and could scarcely keep myself from bouncing in excitement. “I mean… thank you.” I gave a quick curtsy. “What did you make me?”

        He chuckled (sounding a bit like a coughing pheasant) and directed my attention to the servants coming in behind him. The crowd parted for the four men hefting an enormous box and the murmurs of interest increased. The box was large enough to easily hold a grown man and, while it was not wrapped, it was painted with elaborate, nonsensical patterns and swirls of rich shades of blue, green, and purple with occasional teasings of gold or silver.

        My eyes widened. “What is it?”

        The servants gingerly lowered the box to the ground with a hollow thud. They bowed to me in almost perfect unison and withdrew a polite distance. It still smelled of freshly sawn wood that was not quite covered by the smell of newly dry paint.

        “Turn the crank and see,” said the old man.

        I noticed then on the side of the box a long, black and white striped crank. I scurried over to it and began the arduous task of lifting it above my head and bringing it down once more in a circular motion. It began to make a tinkling sound like pebbles bouncing off glass and it took me several exhausting turns of the crank to realize it was following the bouncing tune of an old folk song. I furrowed my brow and turned back to Merdwick, hoping it was more than an oversized music box.

        “Go on,” he said, “It’s a… Jack-in-the-box.” His eyes glittered with an unspoken joke. I pursed my lips and continued my work on the crank. As the jingling song continued, the five girls my age squealed with recognition and began dancing in a circle, clasping hands.

        “A Diamond for the Princes Four

“A Diamond for the people

“A venom vice that kill’d ‘em thrice

“Pop-”

        The lid flung open at the climactic note, shooting a boy six feet into the air. All at once, the room filled with gasps and startled noises of amusement. The girls’ voices stumbled over each other as they tried to both finish the verse and scream from surprise.

        I fell back onto my bottom.

        The boy, dressed all in black and white motley, twisted in the air and tumbled gracefully as he reached the ground, ending in an elegant kneeling bow before me.

        I gaped at him, sprawling and rather alarmed.

        A few members of the audience gave tentative applause at his acrobatics, but the rest seemed to be waiting to see if it was appropriate.  

        After a moment, the boy lifted his head slightly to peek at me with eyes more green than any emerald in my father’s treasury. The bells on the drooping pinnacles of his silly hat jingled with the movement. He could not have been much older than me, certainly no older than the pink puffs of girls I had met earlier.

        “What-” I began.

        He looked up with a jaunty grin just before catapulting to his feet. Giggles began to bubble out of me as I recovered from my startle. His dimples deepened and he bowed again with a dramatic flourish.

        “I am Box and that is the jack and you are my jester royal,” he declared, standing back straight, his arms wide with presentation.

        An unladylike snort burst out amongst my giggles.

        His brow furrowed in a display of exaggerated confusion.

        “Wait, no. That’s not right.”

        Gazing up into the rafters, he put one hand on his chin to ponder while he proffered the other to help me to my feet. I took his hand and began to pull myself to standing when he jerked his hand away and snapped with realization. I toppled back into a heap. Several nobles gasped and several others stifled laughter. But my surprise, instead of angering me, only made me laugh more.

        That’s right!” he said, bending to stand on his hands and pointing his feet up into the air. “I am Jack, that is the box, and I am your royal jester.”

        He made a cartwheeling circle around me while I laughed myself silly before he stood still and helped me to my feet. Before I regained my balance, he suddenly twirled me as though we had been dancing and let go. I stumbled forward, only just keeping my balance. The room was full of amused smirks and laughter stifled behind fans. Only my father (who had at last come out where i could see him) kept a scowl. Even the extra guards that had appeared at his side were having pretended coughing fits.

        I turned back around to face this ‘Jack’ but only saw him for a second before he put both hands on my shoulders and pushed off to flip himself over my head. The force of it nearly sent me back to the ground but I managed to keep my feet and hurried to turn around again. He was kneeling in an awkward upside-down fashion, with arms serving as legs and feet as hands. The bells on the curled toes of his slippers jingled harmoniously with the ones on his hat. Murmured amusement and mild applause from the audience (paired with another fitful burst of laughter that left me breathless) made it so that I nearly did not hear his question.

        “And what is your name, fair damsel?”   

        In a feat of contortion I had never seen, he gently took my hand between his feet and lowered it to his mouth and gave it a formal kiss, in mockery of an archaic custom. Doubled over as I was to reach his lips, I could scarce breathe for laughter.

        “Bel-” I gasped, feeling my eyes start to water.

        My name is, in fact, Princess Bellardia Andryala Pimpernel, last daughter of King Oaulafe, of the Third Kingdom (my Lady-in-waiting was exceptionally fond of flowers) but that is rather difficult to say whilst giggling uncontrollably.

        “Bel?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow. He released my hand and tumbled backwards to sit cross-legged on the ground. His hand briefly returned to its pondering position on his chin before he threw it into the air, one finger extended in triumphant realization. “You mean…” His shimmering green eyes darted around the room. Without any obvious provocation, he jumped up and took off in a dead sprint, barreling toward a very alarmed nobleman. Half a moment before they collided, the little jester leapt straight up, pushing off the man’s shoulders to grab a dangling gold and red banner.

        “As in a bell?” he called back to me as he began to swing. “Bing bang, dingaling dong!” he sang, swinging back and forth with exuberance.

        I gasped, tears pricking at my eyes as I shook my head and breathlessly tried to explain.

        “No?” he called back, still swinging, “Hmmm… Bel, bell, belle… belated, belittle, belligerent, belie…”

        A tear had appeared in the fabric of the banner almost the moment he began swinging. Each motion of the jester’s dramatic back and forth tore it more and more until, at last, as he was amid the word “below,” it ripped free of the beam suspending it. Jack was sent flying. The banner draped itself across a line of shouting nobility (ruining and frizzing their carefully coiffed hair). The jester, however, landed on my father, sending them both sprawling.

        “Thank you for the soft landing, your copious majesty,” Jack said with a small salute.

        Several guards grabbed at him while the others worked to assist my father back to his feet. Jack dodged and rolled out of reach of the pursuing guards and tumbled back over to me.

        “Are you perhaps named ‘Belly’ after your father the king? Or, most of him, anyway.”

        I could hear the desperate attempts of shocked non-laughter from the rest of the audience. I, however, held no such reservations and all but fell to my knees with crippling, unbridled mirth.

        The boy grabbed my hands and tugged me to standing.

        “Well, mysterious nameless lady, I must now evade capture. Will you flee with me?”

        I grinned back at him and nodded. I stumbled behind the strange boy as we fled the room, abandoning the party, guests, and unopened presents, not even looking behind to see if the guards were chasing us.

*****

        It did not take long before our “fleeing” evolved into a race. We ran up and down stairs, raced circles around the courtyard, and darted through hallways until we reached the corridor of the King’s chambers and I was forced to finally admit defeat.

        “Fine. Stop,” I wheezed.

        He skidded to a halt a few paces in front of me. I slumped to the floor, most of my amusement drained out of me by my loss.

        “But you cheated,” I said, pouting. “I would have won if you hadn’t made me laugh so much first. It made it hard to run.”

        Jack just grinned and slid to the ground beside me.

        “What shall we do now then, Bel?” he asked.

        I shrugged. Most days, I simply went from one boring lesson to the next. When I was allowed free time, I would usually play in Merdwick’s workshop for as long as they’d let me and then go sit in my room to fumble with embroidery while my waiting lady, Rosalind, would watch and cluck and speak for hours at a time without seeming to stop for air.

        “We could go back and I could open more presents,” I said before adding, “and my name’s not ‘Bel,’ it is Princess Bellardia Andryala Pimpernel.”

        Jack nodded, pursing his lips slightly. “Yes, I do believe I shall never call you that. And while we could go back and I could idly watch you open gifts you obviously care nothing about, it might actually be more fun for me to crouch in the black silence of that box for another few hours.”

        I wrinkled my brow. Before I could ask for clarification, we heard a raised voice from down the hall and a softer voice responding.

        Jack’s eyes lit up.

        “Let’s go listen,” he said, crawling toward the door.

        “Why?” I asked, trailing behind him.

        “Why?” He turned back to look at me. “You live in a castle. People must say all sorts of interesting things behind closed doors. Haven’t you ever eavesdropped before?”

        I shook my head.

        He raised an eyebrow. “Well, we’ll have to remedy that.”

        We crept closer to the door (perhaps not as stealthily as we might have liked given the inconvenience of crawling in a dress and the number of bells adorning Jack’s motley) until we could hear the voices clearly.

        “…wine was too sweet for you, my lord,” we heard Merdwick’s gently grating voice.

        “I was thirsty,” came an angry, deep voice that could have only been my father.

        “Perhaps some water-”

       “Stop trying to divert the subject, alchemist,” my father spat the last word. “You have deliberately disobeyed my wishes by smuggling that child into my court. Not only that, but he humiliated me in front of all the nobles I had carefully selected to invite. The point of bringing them was to dissuade rumors of my illness, not make me into a laughing stock. I want him removed from my castle immediately.”

       “Here is your potion, sire,” Merdwick said.

       There was a moment of silence and then grumbling acceptance.

       “I assure you, sire, the boy is no threat. He is merely a companion for your daughter. It’s unhealthy how little she smiles. This will be good for her. You have my word that the boy will spread no rumors and will do nothing to undermine your rule. I shall be responsible for him.”

       My father gave a sigh that was almost a growl.

       “I’m too tired to argue with you. Fine. The gypsy boy may stay. For now. I have more important things to worry about. Just keep him away from me. Now, fetch me some water.”

       “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

       Footsteps approached the door and Jack and I scuttled away as quickly as we could.

       Back out in the courtyard, we hid behind some barrels and drew pictures in the dirt with our fingers.

       “Is your father sick?” Jack asked as he added a final spike to the club of the ogre he’d sketched.

       I scrubbed away my failed drawing of a horse and shrugged, wiping my hands on the silky fabric of my dress. “Dunno.”

       Jack raised an eyebrow at me again, only a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Aren’t you curious about it?”

       I cocked my head at him.

       “No, not really. If he is sick, Merdwick will make him better. If he’s not, then… he’s not.”

       “Huh,” he wiping his cheek with the back of his hand and leaving behind a smudge of dirt. “Well, how come only certain nobles were invited to your birthday celebration?”

       I shrugged again. “Those were the ones he liked? Normally we don’t have any nobles at the castle.”

       “You have a serious lack of curiosity,” he said, pursing his eyebrows. “Don’t you at least wonder who I am? I’m asking a lot of questions. I could be a spy or an assassin or a changeling come to kidnap you and take you to the faerie realm.”

       I crinkled my eyebrows at him.

       “No, you’re a jester.”

       “Well, yes,” Jack said, glancing at one of the bells dangling in his face, “but you’re not curious at all? What else could I be?”

       “A… boy…?”

       Jack gave a short laugh.

       “Ha! Well, yes. That too. But where’s your imagination? I mean, what about these barrels? What do you think is in them?”

       I looked at the pile. “I dunno. They’re just barrels. I suppose they have wine or something. Maybe apples?”

       “Or,” Jack said with a dramatic flourish of hands, “they could be filled with enchanted bees so you can throw a barrel at a besieging force and send them fleeing in panic. Or they could each be a magic doorway into another realm. Or there could be an unlimited amount of custard inside each one.”

       I started to giggle. “But they’re just barrels.”

       “Yes, and that’s boring. It’s your turn now. Guess what I am.”

       “You’re my new jester,” I said, still puzzled.

       “Nothing is just one thing. Merdwick isn’t just old. Your father isn’t just blubberous. Come on, I haven’t always been here. What else am I? Where else have I been?”

       I strained to think of something clever. It was difficult to think the way Jack did. My father was sick or he was not. Merdwick was an old man. Jack was a jester. I supposed after a moment that he must have come from somewhere else. Everything at the castle must have.

       I simply had not considered it before.

       I frowned in concentration. A memory surfaced of a bit of gossip Rosalind had been telling to a servant when she thought I was not listening.

       “You’re… the son of a nobleman that he had with someone who wasn’t his wife? But he still wanted you in court?”

       Jack gave a slight nod of interest. “Not a bad guess. A little sad. Also a little common. What else could I be?”

       I frowned again. “You… didn’t come from someplace else. Because you’re actually a magical toy made by Merdwick to make me smile?”

       Jack’s grin widened and he nodded again with approval. “That is much more interesting. Very clever, Bel.”

       “Wait, was I right?”

       “Keep guessing. After you’re one-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-thirty-second guess, I will tell you if any of them were right,” he hopped to his feet and dusted off his hands on his black and white checkered pants.

       “Why that number? Are you a magic creature and that’s the cure to a curse you’re under?” I asked, my mind suddenly churning with ideas.

       “Another good guess. You’re already three down.”

       He offered me a hand and I took it, pulling myself to my feet.

       “But now I’m curious!”

       “Good,” he said beginning to jog away, “but now that I have no unfair advantage, it’s time for another race.”

       “Hey!” I called after him.

       “Better hurry along, Your Highness, you wait much longer and I’ll have an unfair advantage again.”

       I ran after him. He laughed and his jog immediately became a sprint.

       “You’re a cheater!” I cried, though I began laughing as well.

       “That doesn’t count as your fourth guess,” he called behind him.

 

Mary T. Whipple, Author, A Venom Vice

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