"KING OF FOOLS"
By M. R. Mathias
Copyright 2011 by Michael Robb Mathias Jr.
His movements were so swift that not a single person who was attending court the day he killed good King Rigert III saw him do the deed. None, save for the fool. But the fool was tight lipped, and always kept the myriad of things he'd seen and heard over his long life in the palace to himself. Especially what he'd seen the day the king’s head suddenly fell off, and tumbled to the floor.
In the silence that had followed the beheading, the under-aged, over-fed Queen exploded into tormented howls of anguish. Her sobbing moans echoed around the polished white marble walls of the throne room, causing even the most hardened of men to wince.
Since no one saw the murder, or the murderer, it was believed that the gods simply decided that it was time for a new king. Others believed that the third king, in a string of well loved and primarily good kings, had actually done something specific to anger the gods. A few of the more intelligent folks thought that somehow an invisible assassin, or some crafty sorcery, was behind it all. The working class in the cobbles thought that the Queen was involved, or that it was all just another false rumor being spread. Though not educated in anything more than their particular trades, even a commoner knew that a man’s head didn't just fall off in mid-sentence. None of them, though, were thinking correctly, and that was how it was intended. Only the fool knew the truth.
The fool tried not to think about what's or why's. He had seen the man, as plain as day, when he stepped out from the hanging tapestry behind the throne. He felt the world around him slow, and he heard the king's voice drop in tone, until it slurred into an inaudible jumble. The fool’s eyes met the killer’s for an instant, and the fool saw something powerful in them, something dangerous. The fool watched helplessly, as the demigod, or demon, or whatever the mannish thing was, stepped out to swing a clean, two-handed arc with a glistening blade before stepping back into nothingness. The world then snapped back into sync, but the king’s voice had stopped, and the several dozen petitioners, counselors, and nobles in the hall, all paused in courtesy, politely waiting for him to continue what he had been saying.
The words never came. Instead, the king’s mouth opened absently, and then snapped shut like a fish. His eyes closed and a thin, dark line of bright, dripping red formed like a choker around his neck. As the first gasps escaped from the onlookers, the king’s head fell off. It tumbled down the pedestal’s white marble steps, and bounced to a wobbling stop on the audience floor.
A small lake of blood pooled underneath the throne, and slowly found its way to the steps. While a handful of maidens stormed in to calm the queen, a dozen rivulets of crimson trickled their way down the treads. The blood contrasted starkly with the bleach white marble. The image froze in the fool’s mind. So powerful and all consuming was this picture in his head that he was ultimately compelled to try and paint the scene.
Now, he stood in front of his work in progress, adding a stroke here and a brush stroke there, trying to perfect it. He hoped that finishing the painting would free his mind of the morbid, yet beautifully glistening waterfall of blood for good. The only problem was that the fool saw the killer’s face in his mind’s eye. It peeked out from behind the tapestry, staring straight at him.
He tried to paint the face several times, but a hot discomfort churned in his stomach when it began to resemble the killer. Without the face on the canvas, the painting wouldn’t be complete. So the fool painted, and repainted. Sometimes he just stood there for hours on end, staring aimlessly at his work, until hunger or fatigue pulled him away.
For months and months this went on. The new king, a younger, more excitable king than any of the Rigert’s had been, found no use for an old, obsessed fool. The fool was moved to an old room in a nearly-deserted wing of the palace. He was replaced by a younger, more inexperienced court jester, who, along with the new king’s help, managed to offend several neighboring kingdoms at a variety of social functions. Some of these offended kings banded together in boycott, and the new king and his new fool were planning to wage war against them for their insolence. There was sure to be much spilled blood once winter was passed.
The old fool was unaware of these problems. He'd once been the true king of his kingdom. Knowledgeable in every aspect of politics, wise to those who were busily backstabbing, fornicating, or just plain too inept to do their part. He'd often whispered into the king’s ear the right things to say and do. He eased tension in the throne room, and entertained at gatherings with tricks and humor. He flattered the ladies with come-ons or well placed pinches, then steered their minds toward the kingdom’s goals, while planting seeds in their heads to share his opinions with their husbands and sons. He arranged marriages, did back flips across the court yard, and on one occasion even poisoned a visiting archery team just so that the king’s nephew might stand a chance at winning a widely coveted prize. He'd even talked down a veteran general. He spiked the man’s ale in front of all the nobles and then escorted his wife onto a hidden balcony for a romp.
The old fool had been the heart of the realm. Without his wisdom and charm the kingdom was crumbling. The new court jester could make the new king laugh, but that was all he could do. He was forever mocking the wrong person. When the new king laughed at this fool’s improper jests, someone important was nearly always offended. The new fool and his king were not evil men, but both were strong willed, both far too willing to embarrass smaller kingdoms publicly. The new king was also too willing to resort to the headsmen's ax when dealing with solicitors. The old fool could have gathered all the parties preparing to ride into battle, and with a few well told jokes, a little tumbling, a whisper here and concession or two there, and perhaps a few working girls, could have had them all ready to toast one another’s excellence.
Back in his little room the old fool was totally unaware of all the problems facing his beloved kingdom. He stood smiling at his masterpiece. Finally, it was complete. Exactly how he'd pictured it in his head. Even the face of the assassin was done just right. The old fool, for the first time since King Rigert lost his head, felt clean and refreshed. No longer was he weighed down and consumed with the gruesome vision.
He shuddered with fear as he looked at the haunting eyes of the swordsman looking directly back at him from the canvas. He thought the killer’s eyes blinked, then shifted away for a second. He cursed himself for thinking such a crazy thought, but there it was again! A glance to the side from the man-like thing he'd painted. This time the fool was sure he'd seen it.
The next afternoon, when he'd finally talked himself out of believing that the king slayer’s eyes had moved, the ancient servant woman who'd been bringing him his meals appeared to gather his laundry for wash. He told her that he thought he was ready to return to his duty as the kingdom’s jester. He explained that since the painting was now complete, he could get back to work without being distracted. The kindly woman didn't have the heart to tell him that his old job was filled, and that there was no room for his joyous humor in a kingdom busy gearing up for war. Instead, she told him that she'd take him to see the new king on the morrow. He could learn on his own of the terrible state the new king and his jester had the kingdom in. She wasn’t even sure the new king would see him. He certainly hadn’t sent the old fool to this vacant wing to live. She, and a few others, had done that out of love for him. For all she knew, the new king might think him dead, or in the dungeon, or even long gone from the palace. He probably didn’t think of the old fool at all.
She smiled at the old jester and was rewarded. He turned a sudden cartwheel then flipped over backwards and struck a perfect landing. Then he bowed to her as regally as any ever had before. Her smile broadened. She hoped the new king wouldn’t put him in the streets. She wasn’t sure that the fool should even be let back into the throne room, much less in front of the king. His obsession with painting King Rigert III’s murder scene seemed quite insane to her.
The old fool watched her disappear down the long hallway, then turned back to his painting. He tried to scream when he saw it, but no sound came. He stood frozen in shock, with bulging eyes and a wide open mouth. Never, in his long, well- traveled life, had he been this scared, or amazed. Not even the day the king lost his head. The killer’s face was gone from the canvas. Even the slight bulge in the tapestry that the killer hid behind was gone. Vanished.
An icy, cold hand suddenly clamped down on his shoulder. Without a thought, the fool flipped forward into a cartwheel, then spun around to make a break for the door. He found the doorway filled with the huge, leather- clad body of the king slayer.
The man put his hands up in a show of passiveness. "I think, of all people, a fool would be smart enough not to paint the face of the one who killed the king." He shifted to an even less threatening position. "Especially a face that only one certain fool happened to see."
The fool was scared. He was well aware of the abilities of some of the northern wizards. He'd read the reports from nearly all of the kingdom’s many exploration charters. They told of numerous strange and wild creatures that possessed all sort of magical and supernatural abilities. But he'd never heard, nor read, of a person able to step right out of a painting. He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this was a powerful thing standing before him. The cobwebs of his mind, gathered in the months of inactivity since the king’s death, faded like a shadow at high noon.
"Good sir," the fool said, hiding his nervousness completely. He bowed deeply, then raised his head and smiled. "You've startled me…I must say." The fool straightened himself and raised his fists in a mock gesture of aggression. He stepped forward, then back-flipped into the farthest corner of his room. "I assure you sir, that my painting, however immaculate, wasn’t bound to be displayed to anyone! Why, I may be the only one who saw what you did, but cross my heart, and hope to die, I am also the only one who's seen the painting!" The old fool paused, and with a silly, shameful expression, looked down at his boots. "Well, save for Maralyne, the servant lady that feeds me…and…well…maybe Dudle the Gardener. He got a glimpse of it the other day when he brought in the tators." The fool paused again, then, suddenly burst into laughter, spun around in a circle, and raised his arms triumphantly. “Oh…oh…But, it wasn’t finished when Dudle was here. So, he didn’t see you! Don’t you see?"
"A true and wily fool you are!" The leather clad man said with a grin. His perfect teeth were so white that it made the rest of his weathered, sun-darkened, face seem even more sinister. He brushed his long, dirty, brown hair back with his hand. His arm was as big around as the fool’s waist. Then he stepped out of the doorway and sat down on the fool’s bed.
The length and width of his worn leather scabbard wasn’t lost on the fool. The fool figured right then that he had a coin flip of a chance at getting by the man without getting cleaved in two.
"I had to kill him." The king slayer said, flatly. "They didn’t give me a choice in the matter. And it was for the best in the long run."
"I had to kill him…" The fool mocked the man’s sincere voice. "It was for the best! Bah!" He stepped backwards, and plopped down on a small wooden chest, putting his arms across his chest like a pouting child. "Who, or what, could make a man, with powers such as yours, do something they didn’t want to do? Why did you have to kill King Rigert?" The question was asked severely, without room for humor or evasion.
"I am an assassin of the void!" The man replied. "I have lived three hundred sixty nine years. I have ended more lives than you could imagine, but I've given as many lives hope and freedom. A chance to grow and prosper. I wield my blade in the name of righteousness. My only masters are the gods of life and death, and my only limits are the limits of the void in between!" He looked long and hard at the fool, then his eyebrows narrowed into a scowl. "You'll do well not to mock me, little one… It was surely you who influenced that idiot of a king to make peace with each and every kingdom in the realm!"
Confused, but not showing it in the least, the old fool barked a laugh of disgust. "So, he was an idiot for making this land a land of peace!" The fool stood and turned, then bent over and pointed his buttocks at the man. He looked through the gap between his legs and said, "If you truly fight for what is right, mighty assassin, then tell me why you killed the king for making peace?"
The assassin cocked his head and grinned again. "A fool, such as you, should be able to reason that out. In a day, or two, anyway. Here's an answer for you though, so I don’t have to wait here in the physical realm for you to figure it out." The huge assassin of the void put his elbows on his knees and stared straight at the fool with hard intense eyes. "Can a man and his family live in peace, and still go hungry? Still live unsheltered? Can a slaver operate without a war? Can war bring hope and change to those who need it most? Can peace leave those in need unheard and unseen? Can war force those who abuse their status to listen, and see those that they are blind to? Can war bring change? Does peace really ever exist, little fool? You have to open up your eyes wide enough to see more than what is right in front of you. A river of blood may mean that some may suffer, and that some may die, but it also means that others have found hope, pride, and that change has a chance to occur… It’s the balance that I am sworn to keep!"
"Changes can be made without war!" The fool snapped. He did a half-flip sideways and landed seated back upon his wooden chest. "Some of that hubbub may be true , but you didn’t have to kill King Rigert!"
"There you’re wrong, fool," the assassin said as he stood up. "Another ruler is coming, one that has ruled before. A man that’s fair, good, and not blind to the consequences of his actions. A man that can find and keep the balance of power tilted toward the people that need it most…at least, I hope he can. So far, he's proven to be stubborn, and hard headed. At least he's able to entertain those with whom he holds council with, even if he hasn’t bothered to look beyond his nose."
"A new king, a wonderful king, blah! Blah! Blah!" The fool mocked. "You still haven't told me why you had to kill King Rigert!" The fool’s eyes turned sad. "He was my friend."
The assassin smiled sadly and his expression softened a bit. "Had I not ended his life when I did, King Rigert would have killed this coming ruler. This new king, it seems, had a problem keeping out of the queen’s quarters at night. King Rigert was about to eliminate his personal problem, and in the process, kill the hope of the common people."
The old fool’s eyes nearly crossed as the assassin’s words sunk in. He'd bedded the plump young queen regularly, and had to whisper many a word into many an ear, and still owed a dozen favors to keep it all a secret. Had someone betrayed him? Had his friend, King Rigert, been planning on putting his head on the chopping block? The man didn’t love his queen, and he had sixteen whores, so the fool doubted jealousy had been an issue. He wasn't sure that he believed all of this. He knew, or at least thought he knew, everything that had been going on in the kingdom back then. It was almost impossible for such a thing to be planned without his knowledge, almost.
The fool shivered, and started to speak, but caught himself. The assassin surely wasn't speaking of him being this new coming king. The whole idea of that was ludicrous! He wasn't presumptuous enough to entertain the notion. Besides, he had never ruled before. The assassin had plainly said that this coming king had ruled before. He was curious, though, as to whose head the old king had been after. If not his, then who's?
"You look confused, fool." The assassin laughed. "It is you that I speak of! The gods of life and death must have been too far into their cups to decide it, but for whatever reasons, you are the one who must regain control of this kingdom before it destroys itself."
The fool was aghast with disbelief. The assassin saw this, and laughed even harder. "Don’t worry little man. I will be there to help you when you need me the very most."
"What do we do?" The fool asked, incredulously, "I'm an acrobat, a juggler. All I know is a bunch of silly jokes. I'm not fit to be a king, or to save the land from war." He glanced at his painting. A chill of realization ran through him when he saw that the king slayer was still missing from the canvas completely. "Will you kill the current king?" He asked, nervously. "Will you come kill me if I mess it all up?"
"Be quiet you fool, fool!" The assassin said harshly, then broke out in a smile. "You are no king, nor king of men will you ever be!" He sat upright, and stretched his back, then put his arms behind his head, and leaned back against the wall. He opened his mouth to speak, but had to stifle a yawn first. "On the morrow we…well you, will have audience with King Hamrick and his new court. You must have all the wits you've ever had readily about you. Hamrick's snotty little fool will be jealous, and spiteful. You must best him before the king and court. You'll have to make a fool out of a fool, you fool!" The assassin laughed, then slipped partly into the void, leaving his physical body there for the fool to ask all his silly questions. Even though the assassin never responded , the fool kept on asking them.
*** *** ***
The fool woke the next morning to find the assassin gone. There was a glossy bundle of clothes next to a finger bowl on the table.
The fool hastily untied the silver string on the bundle. His eyes were like saucers as he took in the assassin’s gift. It was a jester’s suit, but no ordinary one. This one was wild, with prismatic colors that changed and shifted as they caught the light. There were hundreds of sparkling sequins along the seams, and the matching motley had bells of silver and white gold at its floppy tips. All of the buttons and buckles on the suit, and even the curl tipped shoes, were made of white gold. He wasted no time washing and getting into the perfectly fitting clothes. He was nearly startled back out of the suit by his reflection in the looking glass. He barely recognized himself. Never, in all his days, had he thought a jester could look so wickedly intimidating. Somehow the swirling hues of blue, purple, and red made even his eyes appear sinister and powerful.
The suit wasn't only special in appearance, it was also magical. Patterns of luck and spells of protection were woven into the fabrics. The buttons, buckles, and bells had been forged by dwarves then etched with dweomic symbols that radiated charisma and charm into the wearer.
The old fool could feel the suit’s magical power invigorating him, but had no idea the source of the feeling. He didn’t question it though. He was too busy being thrilled by it. He was also pleased, and even a little scared, at what he saw in his reflection. That was no mere fool, but a jester of menace, a wild joker. He could see the depths of weary intelligence in his own eyes. Around them, the weathered look of times passage was beginning to fade. He felt stronger too. He felt like the king of the world.
"No," he whispered to himself. "Not the king of the world, I am the Lunatic Fringe, the legendary mad man of the ages. I am the Joker! I am the King of Fools!"
The true King of Fools, he'd read, had been the personal jester of the gods. They had bestowed upon their jester a suit of magic, and had given him the power of prophecy. They'd also gifted him with a tongue of silver that allowed him to speak freely to the kings of men without fear of repercussion. Stupidly, the fool stuck out his tongue, and checked it in the looking glass. It wasn’t silver, nor was he getting premonitions of what was to come. The assassin had given him the long dead Joker's magical costume, but it seemed as if the gods themselves were the only ones who could grant him more.
Not disheartened in the least by this realization, the fool raised his head and howled out in maniacal laughter. The wild sound was accompanied by the soft tinkle of the motley’s bells. He felt more eager to meet the new king, and his fellow fool, than he ever thought possible. The worries of the previous night were forgotten, replaced now with an almost deranged sense of confidence. This was laced with a growing urge to do something crazy. Something that only the true Joker could get away with, something so wild, so insane, that the new king and his court would have no choice but to listen.
The old fool took another long look in the glass. The fabric of his costume glimmered and shifted like oil spilled on gently rippling water. His eyes were full of insanity and deep with wisdom. His face looked as it had a dozen years ago. From under the floppy tipped motley, his once gray streaked hair now shone glossy black and hung carelessly in tangled disarray over his face. He shook his head from side to side, listening to the magical bells as they tinkled.
"A fool’s crown!" He laughed. "My crown!"
He suddenly felt irresistibly mischievous. Without a care in the world, he skipped and tumbled his way toward the throne room. The lunatic fringe was loose again, and the chaos and mayhem he was about to unleash were the only things on his mind. He sang as he somersaulted and flipped through the palace halls, bringing smiles and laughs as he went. The words to his song were a play on the last words the assassin had spoken to him.
"I'm off to make a fool of a fool, and a fool of a king as well.
Only a fool can fool a fool, but, with a king’s wits, who can tell!
I'm off to make a fool of a fool, and a fool of a kingdom too.
I might lose my head by the kings-man's ax, but I'll try to fool him too!"
*** *** ***
"What do you say, pooch boy?" King Hamrick growled, "Should we restore this man’s land to him, even though he's behind on his taxes?"
"Oh no, m'lord. Woof! Woof!" the court jester barked. He was on his hands and knees beside the king’s throne, panting. This was one of King Hamrick’s favorite amusements. The jester, nicknamed, “Pooch Boy,” put his hands on the arm of the throne, and rose up with his tongue dangling. "Woof! Woof! M'lord," he barked, and then tilted his head stupidly. "Did this man have his lands before he decided not to pay his taxes? Woof!" The jester dropped back to all fours, and began sniffing around the base of the throne. He let out a whimper, like that of a hound.
"Why should this be, Pooch Boy?" The King asked. He projected his voice so that all could catch his sarcasm. "Surely, a dog such as yourself, would show mercy, and grant this beggar his land back. He swears he will work the whole acreage this season, and use the profit to pay back his kingdom for the protection, and support, that the land taxes were created for."
A murmur of disapproval could be heard rumbling through the section of the crowd that held the petitioners whose circumstances were similar. A handful of spineless, boot-licking nobles commented to each other. Their words were inaudible, but their expressions showed their approval and support for their brave new king. It was obvious they only did so in hopes of gaining his favor. A few of the more civil Dukes and Earls began whispering amongst themselves as well. The young Prince Antwon, of the distant southern isles, went so far as to cough loudly and stare at the king with an expression of open disgust. If, for some reason, King Hamrick didn’t produce an heir, he was the one who would inherit the throne.
"Woof! Woof! Wise king." The jester barked above the din. He crawled down the steps of the throne pedestal, and ventured over to the nervous farmer. He looked back up at the king and barked again, bringing a roar of laughter from his majesty and his supporters. "This silly old dog has to wonder how this man can accomplish all of this by just getting his lands back.” He paused to sniff the petitioner’s backside. "It seems that he couldn’t do it when he had the land before. Woof! Woof!" The laughter increased, so the jester circled the frightened man, and lifted up his leg. "Permission to piss, m'lord?" He asked the king in a tone so serious, that even the people who hated the new king had to stifle their laughter.
Prince Antwon wasn’t laughing. Nor were the group of minor nobles from the farming lands of the west. They, and many others, were fed up at the way things had been of late. King Hamrick's judgments were usually ludicrous. They were sure this would be no different. The only thing that might have surprised them was if the king restored the pathetic man’s lands to him.
The poor farmer’s uncle had died unexpectedly, and left him the lands in question. He was already responsible for tending the crops on the huge acreage that supplied most of the capital, and even the palace itself, with vegetables and wheat flour. There had been no time for him last year to try to harvest the meager land. Had the king, the fool, or the king’s aide paid attention to the man in the first place, they'd have known that the land really had little or no value at all. Before the tax collectors had taken it, the young farmer had come up with a bold plan. He would plant shallow rooting berries on the parts of the land that weren’t rocky and actually held some soil. On the remainder of the acreage, he planned to raise herds of goats. The area wasn’t mountainous, like the terrain the goats were used to, but random clumps of vegetation grew through the rocks. It was enough for them to feed on, to thrive on, even, if properly managed. The goats had already been captured and counted by the man's cousin in preparation for this. It was a clever plan, with a real chance of success. The king’s Pooch Boy, though, had barked all through the man’s entire explanation. The king had not even bothered to listen to him.
Prince Antwon had heard, so had the western land holders. They were forced to listen very carefully, and tune out the jesters’ obnoxious noises. Now they were waiting in disgust for the king to pass judgment.
The petitioning farmer was frustrated and furious, but he was also afraid. His plan had been mocked, and drowned out by an idiot who acted like a dog. The incompetent king had no concern for what was right and just. The farmer had already invested heavily in the lands the tax collectors had taken, and it cost him nearly everything he had. He had men who were working that very moment building fences and clearing out rock for the goats. Dozens of men and their families depended on him. How would he pay them now? What would he do with all those wild goats? He had been loyal to his king and kingdom all of his life, just like his father had. He felt betrayed. King Hamrick and the kingdom he loved so much had now embarrassed and humiliated him. Now they were about to pass judgment.
A howl from the jester brought another outburst of laughter. The King often threw little cherry tomatoes at his fool and any petitioners that dared voice an opinion against him. One just exploded against the jester’s side. The idiot was rolling around at the miserable farmer’s feet, bellowing in mock pain. The hope that the jester wasn’t faking his hurt made those that were fed up with King Hamrick’s injustices smile, despite themselves.
"What say you, Pooch Boy?" The King asked through his laughter. He plucked another of the little tomatoes from a bowl at his side. The farmer’s family had exclusively supplied the palace with these tomatoes for generations. He threw it at the jester and missed. "Ask the farmer, m'lord," The jester rolled onto his back, still holding his arms and legs in the crawling position. "Ask him why he didn’t pay the kingdom’s tax. Ask him why he refused to reap the lands bounty when he had it."
The farmer shook his bowed head in despair. He'd explained it all twice now, once to the king’s aide, and only moments ago to the King himself. The damned jester, he was sure, had made so much noise that nobody heard a word of it.
"Yes, man!" the King yelled, irrationally. “You’ve had the land for a full year, and you didn’t use it!"
A king’s voice, speaking the words of a fool, the farmer thought. His situation wasn’t looking good. He would accept whatever fate dealt him, but he prayed that his family, and the families of those who depended on him, would be unharmed and able to carry on. It was a selfless prayer, a wise prayer.
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for the king to fine or imprison a person who hadn’t paid the kingdom’s tax. The farmer had recently seen a man sent to the headsman for evasion. The thought was unnerving. The fact that he believed the gods to at least be just was all that he was hanging on to. He looked up defiantly at the king, nearly meeting his gaze.
"So, my little dog…what is it to be?" the king yelled impatiently. He threw another tomato at the fool. It missed and hit the farmer in the face. The farmer turned red with rage, but held his tongue. An outburst would get him sent to the chopping block for sure.
"What shall we do with this man’s land?" The King asked.
"Woof! Woof!" The jester barked from the farmer’s side. He then undid his breaches, lifted his leg back up, and began to urinate on the farmers leg. "Woof…Ahhhh… woof, woof…Ahhhh!" The over-dramatized "Ahhh's" sent the king into fits of roaring laughter. "The man is…Ahhh… lazy, or he would have harvested these lands last…Ahhh…season, and been able to pay the miniscule taxes that the land…Ahhh… accrued." The jester fixed his pants and quickly rolled out of the way of his pooling urine.
When the king’s laughter died down, the jester sat up and continued. "He should be flogged for his laziness. The lands, and all other properties he claims to own, should revert to the kingdom for auction. The taxes he still owes should be earned by him personally, on a real farm, such as the one that grows your little red balls of ammunition, my good and righteous king." The jester stood up, using the farmer to pull himself to his feet. He had no idea that the farmer he had just pissed on did own that farm. "And after his flogging, he should be publicly beaten for coming into the palace covered in dog piss! We must set an example for any other lazy folk who might try to cheat the kingdom of its due!"
The jester did a little dance, which sent the king’s mirth over the edge. A moment later, when his majesty’s laughter began to subside, the fool started to sing. "Woof, woof, woof, something’s amiss. Woof, woof, woof, it smells like piss!"
The King was laughing so hard that he couldn’t manage to sip his brandy wine, much less pass judgment on the flabbergasted man. The bright red drink spilled from his cup. It went down his chin and stained the white and gold robe at the neck. To those who had witnessed King Rigert’s death, it appeared to have happened again, or at least, they hoped so. The king stood angrily and threw his goblet. It smashed against a white and gold banner and the remaining contents of the goblet stained that as well. The stain was shaped like a swooping dragon that completely covered the kingdom’s crest. It was an omen; the stain had formed so perfectly, it left no room for doubt. The king, however, was unaware of it. He assumed that the sudden silence of the entire throne room was in anticipation of his judgment.
He started to repeat his jester’s recommendations, but was struck by the looks of confusion and horror on the faces before him. He found that he had forgotten what the jester had said to do. "This man…is to be flogged on the morrow for not paying the kingdom’s tax," he said hesitantly. He looked to his group of bootlickers, hoping to get at least a nod of agreement. Instead, he saw nothing but looks of fear, and the back of his jesters’ head as he danced crazily by. "He will pay what he owes…" The king’s voice faltered as he tried to figure out what was wrong with the people in the audience. Only moments ago, hadn't they all been joyously laughing with him?
"He'll pay by the end of the mid-summers collection term, or be…or be…" Aggravated now at this farce, the king wanted the business before him to be finished. His voice was as hard as the marble walls around him. "…or he will be put to the block, and made an example of! This is my judgment, and it is final!"
The jester, not used to having his suggestions ignored, spun to look at the king. Instead, he saw the wine stain on the banner. The jester gracefully cart-wheeled across the floor, came to a stop in front of the banner, and began to examine it.
The farmer kept his head held high as he was escorted out of the throne room. He felt that his punishment was unjust, and he wasn’t looking forward to what was about to happen. The king had left out the part about taking his lands away though, and that was all that mattered to him now. He and the people that depended on those lands would be able to continue. The pain of the flogging would pass in time.
As they exited the throne room, into the noisy throngs of other petitioners waiting in the great hall to see the king, a woman shrieked out. The large crowded hallway fell into silence, save for a lone voice that was merrily singing, and the soft tinkling of magical bells.
"I'm off to make a fool of a fool, and a fool of a king as well.
Only a fool can fool a fool, but, with a king’s wits, who can tell!
I'm off to make a fool of a fool, and a fool of a kingdom too.
I might lose my head by the kings-man's ax, but I'll try to fool him too!"
The room parted hastily for the old fool as he skipped, tumbled, and danced his way toward the throne room’s entrance. The shifting colors of his costume, and the tinkling of the bells on his motley, were eerily hypnotic. The old fool was a startling sight. No one in the kingdom had ever seen anything like him. They all may have remembered King Rigert’s old fool, but the jester before them hardly resembled that person. They weren’t sure whether to be afraid or laugh at the silly, but intimidating little jester.
The foul, hopeless mood of the kingdom’s people rolled over the fool like a steamy tidal wave. He knew it was impossible to take away all of their frustration and fear. Nevertheless, he would try, for that’s what a fool is for. He began turning slowly in a circle, howling for a stool to be brought to him. The farmer, and the men guarding him, stopped. A table appeared, and the fool climbed atop of it and began doing flip after flip. He landed in the exact same place, over and over again, as the crowd gathered around him. He landed in a one-handed handstand. Seeing that he now had everyone’s attention, he slowly righted himself and looked around. The crowd was hushed, and in their silence, the fool went into a series of gravity defying spins that ended with a forward somersault. He stopped by stomping his feet loudly down on the table with his arms spread open wide, and called out, “People of my kingdom, have no fear, for I am here now!” He leaned forward and made a bouquet of flowers explode from his hand. He frantically shredded their petals, then turned in a circle and danced a quick jig, causing the bells on his motley to tinkle. The petals he was throwing fluttered down on the crowd like snowflakes.
“I’ve come to relieve our new king’s fool, and rid us of the smell…
And, when that’s done, I’ll relieve the king, why not, I might as well!”
The old fool looked out at them, grinning like an idiot.
“Who are you?” someone yelled. The sentiment was echoed by a hundred murmurs.
The sentenced farmer shouted over all of them. “It’s not the new fool who is the foooo…” his statement ended when one of the guards elbowed him in the chest.
“Un-hand that man!” The fool danced a tantrum and pointed at them. “He has done no wrong! I command you to let him go!”
“Who are you to command anybody?” One of the guards yelled back.
“The king will love this crazy bastard!” the other guard added.
“If the king you serve told you to cut off your leg, so that he could watch you bleed to death, would you do so?”
The guards looked at him stupidly while several people came filtering out of the throne room to see what the commotion was in the hall. From the back of the group, the new fool wiggled and wormed his way toward the door so that he could see for himself.
“If that king in there said that stone was water, and water was stone, would it be?” The old fool did a flip and jingled his motley bells, drawing everyone’s attention back on himself.
“If our king was to poop in a plate, and call it pudding, would you still eat it?” The tinkling of his bells danced merrily through the soft sound of the people’s stifled chuckles. “I’d bet all the money in your pockets that our king, even though he is a king, is only a man. And, from what his mistress tells me, he’s not even a very big man, if you ladies know what I mean.” The last was said in a mock gossipy whisper.
The crowd’s laughter was louder this time, and the fear that had been restraining their mirth was starting to melt away. The madman making the jokes on the table was the one who would surely lose his head, not them for laughing at him. Besides, his expressions, his gestures, and his mockery were just plain comical.
“As a matter of fact,” the fool said, with a finger raised high in the air. “It is the King’s nasty little fool, I hear, who can tell us just exactly how big of a man our king really is.” His hand lowered, his pointing finger coming to rest on the new King’s jester, just as he squirmed into the open area around the old fool’s table. When the new fool realized that he was the butt of the joke his face turned red.
“You’ll lose your head for this, man,” the new fool yelled. “And I will personally make sure that the king shows you just how big his manhood is, just before the ax falls.”
“My little, little friend,” the old fool condescended sadly. “What do you do here but mock the people, and kiss the arse of a king that has no kingdom left to rule?”
Some of the gathered people found themselves shouting out in agreement with the strange old jester’s words. Others found themselves heart heavy, in anticipation of the colorfully blunt character’s upcoming death.
“There!” the new fool said, pointing at some familiar people in the crowd, then, at some others. “And there, and there, and there, those are the king subjects, and he rules them well, and just. They should be grateful.”
“Grateful!” the king of fools stomped the table and yelled with a voice as deep and hard as thunder. “Well and just?” He put his hands on his hips and glared down at the new fool, like an angry mother scolding a child. “You’re too stupid to be a fool!” Some of the people were laughing again. “I’ll wager your job against mine that you can’t make a single person in this entire hall laugh out loud. And I will even get them laughing for you before you try, so that they will be in the mood.”
“You’re crazy!” the new fool said, hotly. He rushed at the old fool aggressively. “A fool I am!” the old fool said, before leaping into a twisting flip, which carried him over the charging jester. He planted his feet solidly on the floor, directly behind the new fool. With a disappointing shake of his head, he tapped the new fool on the shoulder, just as his tackling arms came closed on the thin air. The room exploded into laughter again. The new fool spun, and swung a wild fist as he turned, but the old fool dropped into a split, and the fist missed its mark. The new fool spun, off-balance, and the old fool helped him with a well timed push, sending his counterpart twisting and tumbling to the floor at the feet of several laughing people.
The merriment was brought to a sudden halt when the king and half a dozen guards swarmed out of the throne room into the hall. The King shouldered his way past his guards and found his fool floundering on the floor. King Hamrick pounded the butt of his staff on the floor. The deep, thumping sounds silenced the crowd immediately, save for a few people in the back whose laughter was still ringing out.
The old fool did a back flip and landed directly in front of the King. When he planted his feet on the wooden table, he stomped them three times in the exact same tattoo the king had made with his staff. The old fool bowed with a flourish, his face full of mock severity. “King Hamrick, I hate to tell you this in public, but your witless fool seems to think that he is actually funny. I can’t imagine that a wise, righteous king, such as you, could find any humor in such a dolt.” The old fool paused, and looked around with a sarcastically timid expression at the crowd of on lookers. “You… you don’t… You don’t actually think he’s funny do you?”
“Kill him, at once!” the new fool commanded, as he pointed up at the shimmering Lunatic Fringe. “He said that your manhood was small! “Put him on the block, bend him over, and show him how large you are, my King.”
“Better yet, your highness, put your manhood on the block,” the old fool blurted out. “I’d bet you all the gold in the land that the ax man couldn’t even strike flesh!”
From the back of the crowd, more than a few people laughed out loud. Not a single person there could completely hide their smile, especially not the Prince of the Isles. Even the Duke and Earl that had followed the king out of the throne room chuckled.
The King’s angry glare wiped away most of the mirth in the room, but the Prince of the Isles only laughed harder as he moved toward the table. “You have to admit it. He is funny, King Hamrick,” the Prince chuckled.
The King ignored the Prince. The commerce from the islands was too important to risk a controversy there. “Who are you to speak to me so?” King Hamrick roared at the old fool. “I’ll let my pooch boy keep you for a pet for a while, before I personally flay you for your insolence!”
The room was silent again as everybody held their breath, waiting for the King to sic his guards on the funny man in the colorful jester suit, but apparently the King wanted to hear an answer.
“A bit of advice, sir,” the old fool said. “It’s better, when threatening a person, to snarl, or growl, or something similar. The jiggling of crimson-flustered jowls does not convey your rage well. Oh... and… ah, being Pooch Boy’s pet, and being flayed by you personally, well… It just doesn’t work for me.” The old fool looked around the room with a smirk, and shrugged his shoulders. “I mean… I mean, I’m not frightened. Can’t you do better than that?” He crossed his arms, looked towards a ceiling, and put a finger to his chin in contemplation. “How about, I’ll boil your manhood while you watch, then feed it to Pooch Boy?” He comically cringed with his crotch at the thought of it. “Or, no, wait… How about, I’ll chain you to the dungeon walls, and make you listen to Pooch Boy tell jokes, until you die of old age? Now, that is a frightening threat!”
“That is enough!” the King yelled over the laughter of those brave enough, or far enough back in the crowd, to let their mirth show.
The young prince was doubled over, slapping his knee, and the duke standing next to him was chuckling, even though he forced himself to do it quietly.
“Guards, seize . . .” the King started, but the old fool shook his motley bells and drowned out his voice.
“Guards, seize the King! He is guilty of making boring threats, and forcing you all to endure the sad, pitiful antics of Pooch Boy.”
“Why, I’ll have you flogged…” the King’s fool started to yell, but he too was talked over by the old fool.
“I’ll have you flogged with cheese, beneath the tower.
And when Pooch Boy farts, we will all smell flowers!”
The King of Fools spun around and launched himself into the air, leaving all eyes staring at the empty table and a colorful blur that took a moment to fade.
The new fool started purposefully toward his king, but stopped and seized his buttocks with a wide-eyed look of surprise spread across this face. The loud, wet sound of flatulence erupted from his behind. His expression worsened when he took another step, and a handful of lily petals fell out of his pant leg, onto the floor.
People were laughing riotously, and even the King had to bite back a laugh when Pooch Boy started hop-stepping, farting loudly with each step, leaving a trail of fragrant petals in his wake.
Everyone’s attention was drawn back to the throne room, when the court announcer tapped his staff on the floor nervously. The old fool, the King of Fools, had taken the royal throne. From there he called out, “By order of the King, Come lick my boots, you silly pooch!”
The king spun around, and started back into the throne room with nothing less than murder on his mind. Behind him, Pooch Boy’s flatulence filled the air with the smell of a spring garden and a trail of colorful petals littered the floor. Behind him, people crowded through the entry to get a better view.
The old fool had served in the throne room for years. He knew every hidden passage, every secret exit to and from the throne room, but even if he had not known how to get away, he probably would have stayed seated where he was. After all, the King of Fools is the King of Fools.
“King Ham-stick, you’re no longer ruler of this kingdom,” the old fool commanded from his seat upon the throne. “You are appointed the position of piss pot. So, find yourself a corner, kneel down, and open wide.”
The guardsmen were smiling broadly, but did not slow their aggressive approach toward the throne. The old fool wasn’t worried though. Right behind him, behind the tapestry where the assassin had stepped out to remove King Rigert’s head, was the passageway he could reach after a back flip over the throne.
“And you, Pooch Boy, let’s freshen it up in here.” The old fool started to sing, “Drop those pants, dance around the room, and shower us with lilies.”
“Get that fool, or I will have all of your heads removed,” the King yelled.
“Hurry!” the new fool shouted. “Tell them King Hamrick, tell them-” he tried to continue, but another burst of flatulence erupted from his behind with such force that it caused him to choke on his words.
Glancing down at his fool standing in a pile of petals, King Hamrick couldn’t help but start laughing again. The old fool screamed down at him, “Hey, King Piss Pot, your people are scared, and hungry! Your Allies want you removed from power.” The old fool had to speak quickly, for the guards were almost on him now. He stayed calm. Escape was only a back flip away. “You’re King Idiot, Your throne was taken over by a single fool, and you make an arse out of yourself each time you open your piss pot to speak!”
“You’ll die slowly, fool!” the king spat. “I swear on my life, that you’ll die before the sun sets this day!”
“You heard him,” the King of Fools said. He pointed at the dragon shaped stain. “He’s marked with a curse, and he swore on his life!” The fool knew that any king who broke his sacred oath was no true king at all. The gods themselves would demand his removal from the throne. If he could stay alive until after the sun sets the king would be an oath breaker.
They all had heard it, and they had heard the King of Fools too. The lunatic in the shimmering motley was surrounded now, and would surely die in moments. As the guards closed in on him, he leapt up into a back flip, clearing them easily. The King’s eyes shot open in disbelief, and the guards’ formation broke into chaos.
The King of Fools landed on his feet. “Your reign is marked for death, Piss Pot. The dragon is coming for you!” he yelled, just as he ducked a guardsman’s hands. He spun and darted for the secret passage. Less than a few steps behind him, two guards were charging. One of them dove to tackle him, missing by a fingers breadth. If the old fool would have breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the tapestry, if he had time. The guards were right on his heels. He didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t falter. He yelled out one last jab, “A true king puts the people first!” The King of Fools pulled back the tapestry and turned to run full force into a wall of freshly-laid granite blocks. In true jesterly fashion, he went stiff as a board and spun on a single heel. With his eyes rolling up into his head, he collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
The new fool was laughing riotously now. King Hamrick, thoroughly disgusted with the smell of fart-tinged lilies, backhanded Pooch Boy to the floor. “Go, find my wizard, and have him plug your arse. I don’t want to see you until your problem is solved.”
*** *** ***
The King of Fools woke with his head pressed tightly to the chopping block. He blinked away the haze that was still threatening to swallow him. His people were watching silently as he fought to keep himself from the blackness. The Kings’ punishments, and killings, had become well attended events as of late. Whether this was due to the frequency of them, or the horrific nature in which the headsman and whip masters went about their duties, it was hard to say. Nevertheless, a grand stage had been erected, with plenty of room for commoners and nobles alike to bear witness to the more macabre of King Hamrick’s decrees.
The old fool tried to wiggle and squirm away, but it wasn’t to be. Not only was his upper body held down by heavily muscled arms, he was bound in leg irons and manacles as well. The people watched him, looking sad and helpless. If he rolled his eyes and craned his neck enough, he could see the King gloating. He was speaking from a platform, only a dozen paces away from the chopping block, and his words were droning on and on and on. The old fool found himself wishing the ax would hurry up and fall already. He couldn’t bear to see the hopelessness on the faces of the people any longer.
I must truly be a fool, he said to himself. I thought I could actually save these people from the monster king, and his pet clown. A fool might get a lot of attention, but it’s a hero who always has to come and save the day.
He wondered why the assassin had abandoned him, and he cursed his foolishness for expecting his aid. He was about to surrender to the misty fog in his mind when he heard a terrified scream from the crowd. He saw several people pointing up at something as they backed away in a panic from the platform where the chopping block was located. All this time, the King’s flat dull voice still droned, echoed by agreements from the new fool, who was standing nearby.
The King of Fools wondered what the people were all looking at. Then a roar resounded, long and loud. It was far too powerful to have come from anything even remotely human. The sound, and the smell of brimstone, filled the air. Then the crowd turned into an unorganized mob of terrified people, trying to flee.
The old fool wished he could see what was blasting such hot air all around him, and suddenly his wish came true . The hands holding him down let go. The fool rolled over and looked up, nearly relieving himself in his fancy trousers. He stared into the huge, gaping maw of a red scaled dragon that blasted a spew of flames across King Hamrick’s path. The King froze in terror and the dragon reached down, and took King Hamrick into his mouth. After a few crunching chomps, the dragon raised its head high, and the tyrant king was chugged down the wyrms gullet.
“I must apologize for my tardiness, Master Fool,” a familiar voice called down from somewhere above. The fool looked up. It was the grinning assassin sitting proudly on the dragon’s back. In one swift, fluid motion, the man leapt to the fool’s side, and pulled his sword.
The old fool watched him blankly, half expecting the assassin’s sword to finish the headsman’s job. The assassin couldn’t help but laugh. “The chain, man,” he managed to say. “You really are a fool. Just because I am an assassin, doesn’t mean I cannot be a hero too. Put your chain on the block.”
As soon as the fool did so, the assassin’s sword separated the iron bindings. In one swift chop, the fool was free.
“The other dolt is yours to dispose of, my king,” the assassin said, bowing with such respect that it sent goose bumps rippling down the fool’s spine. “You may not ever be the King of Men, my friend, but you will always be the King of Fools. Didn’t it cross your mind that after King Rigert lost his head, they might block that passage up? What were you thinking?”
The fool started to answer, but then saw the feet of the new fool protruding from underneath the cloth of the covered podium where the King had been speaking. “Bah!” he scoffed at the assassin, and cartwheeled away.
The assassin laughed, “Be wise counsel to your new king, fool.” He climbed back onto the dragon’s lowered neck. “He is young and hasty, but good hearted, and fair. He will listen to you.”
The old fool reached down to drag the new fool from under the table by the feet. He stopped, however, when the dragon leapt into the air, coming to hover just overhead.
“Always remember, the king is but a glorified pawn. A true ruler of men needs no crown, only his wits, and a good heart. You have plenty of both, my friend, plenty of both.” With that, the dragon veered into the sky, and carried the assassin away.
A while later, the King of Fools heard the voice of the Prince of the Isles speaking to him, softly. “He’s done, my fool. You’re done.” The prince looked down at the limp, bloody body of King Hamrick’s fool. “Come, let’s rest, and feast. Then we’ll try to rebuild what they destroyed.”
“You’re just the prince of some little bitty islands,” the fool said, stupidly. “Why do you care about these people?”
“Yesterday, I was only a prince,” the man said, as he helped the King of Fools to his feet. “Today I am the king of these people. King Hamrick was my uncle, and since he had no heir, the crown falls upon my head.”
“Yesterday, I was trying to paint a picture from my mind, and rambling like an idiot,” the fool grinned. “But, today, I was also a king. Today, I was the King of Fools.”
The new king smiled and laughed lightly. “Once a fool, always a fool,” he jested.
“Aye,” the fool chuckled back. “Once the King of Fools, always the King of Fools. And don’t forget, the King of Fools is the jester of the Gods. He wallows in their favor!”
“That he must,” the new king agreed. “That he must.”
M. R. Mathias is the author of the best selling Wardstone Trilogy and The Saga of the Dragoneers you can find those books and more about the author at http://www.mrmathias.com