The courtyard was quiet – which made sense because half the town was dancing to Fusane’s fiddle playing. But the people who were dotted around whooped and cheered as the carriage rumbled to a stop in the centre of the grass. Pires was standing there in a long black and purple dress, and she greeted them all as they clambered out.
“It is wonderful to see you again, Erson,” Pires said, reaching out to clasp his hands with both of hers.
Erson was still for a moment, but eventually he swallowed and said, “And you, my lady – Pires. I am glad to return to this fine city.”
“And you must be Myal. Why, it shall be an honour to have you for my sister.” Pires smiled and gave Myal a slight bow.
“I love this place,” Myal said. She tittered and shuffled her feet. “Er, your Grace.”
Pires grinned rather wide at that, Buck noted. He wondered if the two of them would in fact get on – he hadn’t thought about how much time they’d be spending together. But then Pires turned to face him.
“And who might you be?” Pires asked, loudly. Buck was proud of her for not winking at him, for he was sure she’d have desperately wanted to.
He shook her hand and said, “My name is Buttane. This is my mother, Dorrea, and my mother’s – er – friend, Victane.” Erson looked around at him, frowning. His gaze drifted to the side as if he was thinking something through. Buck focused on Pires. “I’ll be advising the princess on a little quest we’ve devised. She wishes to bring more life to her newly reformed court, and since I have spent time here before I am going to be her guide in this endeavour.”
Pires nodded calmly as Buck relayed the speech he’d practised to Simone at nights on the way here. But he could sense the tension radiating from Erson – a quick glance showed a popping vein in his forehead and another on the side of his neck.
As they made their way inside to get ready for the welcome ceremony, Erson sidled up to Buck, letting the others get slightly ahead.
“Can I talk to you, Buttane?” he muttered.
“Uh… sure,” Buck said.
They had reached the small meeting hall, which was often used as a staging area for ceremonies taking place in the main performance hall. Pires was standing on the dais, presumably waiting for Erson to join her.
“I’ll just be a moment,” Erson called, then dragged Buck out the room by the top half of his sleeve.
Since Buck couldn’t let on that he knew all the best places to have a quiet chat, they just stepped a few yards away from the door to talk.
“They were calling you Bucket, those people dancing to the music of that boy wearing face paint,” Erson said. Buck would have expected a question, but as he’d learned the previous week a stressed Erson was a particularly blunt Erson.
“Uh… you’re not asking, are you?” Buck said.
“I was asking if you have an explanation for this that isn’t what I’m currently thinking,” Erson said, his jaw clenched. “You’ve spent so much time in Resador, been this popular – you can’t possibly not have heard of Resador’s most famous Bucket.”
Buck rubbed the back of his neck so hard that some of his hair got pulled out. “I… yes, I know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, do you have an explanation?” Erson glared at him, hands on his hips.
“I had one, once,” Buck said. He sighed and lowered both hands firmly to his sides. “I had scripted exactly how I would explain this. In fact it’s probably on a piece of paper in my bucket, which is under my seat in the carriage. I was going to go get it when I got the chance.”
“So you are that Bucket. The one with the actual bucket,” Erson said. “I can see it now, I think, if I just imagine you in brighter colours, with paint on your face, looking irritating and smug.”
“Yes, that’s me,” Buck said, “And I’m not going to lie to you anymore.”
Erson put his thumb and index fingertips to his forehead and just stood there for a moment, breathing loudly. Then he said, “But you are still going to try to manoeuvre my marriage to your precious Duchess?”
“That was your idea!”
“Like you weren’t loving it! How am I to know you didn’t get rid of Raddig on purpose?” Erson was spitting with every angrily pronounced consonant.
“We spoke to Ikilyn, remember?” Buck exclaimed, stepping backwards to get out the way of Erson’s spittle and his wrath.
“No! Buttane and I spoke to Ikilyn!” Erson screamed. “My friend, Buttane, with whom I shared intimate details of my personal life and who gave me guidance and advice. Not Bucket the court fool whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to play with the people in his city like a selfish, callous board game!”
“I – that was me! That’s me, now – who I am. I was going to help Myal properly. I thought about everyth–”
“And it is the whole city,” Erson went on. The whole place is so fake, even your names. Buttane, Victane – wasn’t your other friend called Hilene or something? What sort of city co-ordinates literally all its names by the last three letters? A vowel then ‘ne’, right?”
Buck nodded. “That is the custom.”
“It’s alarming, is what it is. What puppeteer stands over the cradles of newborns and scratches the last three letters onto the birth certificate?” Erson exclaimed. “And except from Pires – what is that about?”
“Pires – Resador,” Buck murmured. “All the nobles have names ending like that.”
Erson shook his head. “This place is ridiculous.”
“Are you leaving then?” Buck’s voice sounded quiet and thin after Erson’s ranting.
“I can’t! You think my mother will let me go back on this now?” Erson shouted, waving his arms around.
“So what will you do?”
Erson finally went quiet, staring at him. Buck could only take it for a few seconds, before he had to focus on the tips of his shoes. They were chunky and grey, and he’d been so looking forward to getting his green and yellow ones back out. He’d thought about maybe fitting them with little bells to celebrate his return to the life of foolery.
Erson never answered the question, instead marched back into the meeting room. Buck ran to catch up, just in time for Erson to shout up to Pires, “This ‘friend’ of mine here has just admitted to being your fool, Bucket! And I reckon you knew this all along. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if you sent him up north to manipulate me into this very marriage! Actually, in case he hasn’t told you, he did very little to affect the situation and just sort of tagged along as the mess unfolded. But I will not have such a charlatan in a place that is to be my home. I demand that you banish him as you did before!”
Erson leaned over slightly, shoulders heaving as he caught his breath. Pires met Buck’s eyes, and Buck desperately held her gaze. She wouldn’t… not again. There was no way he could help her from outside the city anymore. Although, it wasn’t like she needed help, now that the betrothal was official. But still, they were friends, weren’t they?
“Dismissing the linchpin of my court was harmful enough to this city once. You saw it yourself – the palace is deserted. My people spend their time in the vicinity if his treehouse, dancing their sorrow at his absence away,” Pires said. Buck couldn’t help but smile. That was what the haunting violin had been mourning? Pires added, “I will not grant you this.”
“But – but you did so before!” Erson exclaimed. “It is what I require to remain here.”
“Yes, but before you could leave at any moment. Somehow I’m guessing you don’t have that option anymore.” Pires raised an eyebrow.
Buck winced as Erson glared at him. He raised both hands. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t say that to her. We just have similar thought processes.”
“Ugh, you do, don’t you,” Erson muttered.
There was an awful silence that went on so long Buck accidentally glanced at Myal. He had heard a scraping screech and instinctively looked to his right to see her stumbling into a chair and putting her head in her hands.
Finally the silence had gone on too long and Buck had to do something about it. But all he could think to do was repeat himself from earlier.
He said to Erson, “So, what will you do?”
Erson turned to face him, then farted. He farted long and loud, loud enough for everyone to hear. He even lifted one leg.
Then much quieter, he said to Buck, “I shall play the fool.”