The day of the ball rolled by far too quickly and after minutes of sifting through my wardrobe, I had to settle with wearing the tailored gambeson I had worn to Kaspar’s wedding. I hadn’t liked wearing it then, and I didn’t like wearing it now.
As I looked upon myself in the full length mirror, my upper lip upturned in a sneer. With my hair styled with scented oils, pulled back out of my face so it curled behind my ears, and my deep green, muted attire, I did not look like myself. Even my eyes, which had never been exceptionally bright, somehow looked even more lifeless.
I slipped my hands down my front, feeling the quilted texture of the outfit. I wished I had taken it to Alta for alterations. She could have added some detailing about the high collar and cuffs. But, in truth, I feared stopping by her shop to find her more drawn out than I had seen her last. My jaw clenched and my hands turned to fists. So much for being there if she ever needed someone to talk to. I was a coward.
Thankfully, I had a dark leather studded vest courtesy of Big Reynard himself, which I had used in a skit where I played a sexual deviant found living under the palace grounds. The play was a little too vulgar for the town and so the vest had been given an early retirement. As I slid it on, I smiled despite myself at the soft weight of it. Paired with the gambeson and my simple dark trousers, it looked much less scandalous but still had a hint of me. The three silver buckles down the front were thick and accentuated my thin frame when I pulled them tight.
Stepping back, I assessed my attire, wondering if I would get away with just not showing up. Who would notice I failed to attend?
Kaspar would notice.
And the king.
My eyes slid to the invitation still tacked to my wall. It was time. I pulled it off, folded it and slid it into my trousers pocket.
Heart thudding violently, I headed to the town in hopes of acquiring a horse because I was not walking all the way to the palace like a simple commoner. I would be a simple commoner on a horse.
It wasn’t far to the palace on horseback, but as I rode, I realised this was the first time I had taken these pathways since being fired. It all looked exactly the same. Same cobbles filtering out to paved roads, same dirt, same copse of trees. The closer I got to the palace, the more obvious the festivities became. I had been alone on the tracks for most of the way, just me and my bay mare, Judith - a truly ridiculous name for a horse. She was no Peaches.
Oh, Peaches. The fair lady is currently settled on the floor at the foot of my bed. I could not, with good conscience, leave her outside to be a victim to the elements. Not with her bad joints and thinning coat. I am pretty sure it is hailing by the way my windows are being battered in. I will get used to the damp smell she has brought in with her. I hope.
It was when I passed a crossroads of sorts on my way to the ball when we were lost amongst the carriages. Some drivers even had the audacity to try and steer me off the road, waving their meaty fists and yelling at me to get out of the way as if we were not heading in the same direction- to the same event.
I slowed Judith down to a stroll and pulled her to the side to let all the carriages pass.
“I get it, I’m not as important as you,” I muttered beneath my breath. The invitation was a lead weight in my trousers. It began to taunt me again. You don’t belong here. You should turn back.
Sighing, I nudged Judith along and we wound our way up the road carved through the hillside.
By the time we made it to the white stone pavilion before the palace, most of the carriages were parked and empty, the drivers talking amongst themselves in a huddle of fancy hats and tailcoats. The guard turned his nose up at me as I passed Judith’s reigns to him.
“Can you take her to the stables and make sure she’s watered? Thank you kindly,” I said with all the confidence I could muster.
His eyebrow quirked up as he assessed me. “This event is invite only.”
“Indeed, it is.”
He watched me for a moment before walking Judith over to a young boy lingering around the shrubbery who I recognised as one of the stable boys. As I watched Judith being taken away, part of me wished to go with her. I was sure I would have had a much more entertaining night with her, Bucky and Peaches than all the fancy lords and ladies flaunting their riches up in the ballroom.
The sun was low in the sky. Its light bounced off the gleaming white stone of the impressive building before me. The huge windows were alight and even from out here I could hear the melodic string music playing within.
Even when I worked here, it was very rare that I would use the main entrance. I had my own hidden doors and walkways so I could disappear and reappear as if by magic.
The front entrance was a huge affair. The steps fanned out into a semi-circle several carriages wide, which thankfully allowed a lot of space for the trickle of later guests to pass without acknowledging me. But I could feel the eyes of the drivers at my back as I took the first step. At either side of the entranceway were two raised, stone flower beds. The bushes rose to the height of the windows and were expertly trimmed into neatly coiled springs. I tried to think of how long they would have taken to sculpt as I climbed higher, in the hopes I could trick my heart into calming its erratic palpitations.
I had spent most of my time alone when I had lived in the palace, and there was a separation between me and everyone else in my job that was purposeful and almost enjoyable. But now, as I passed the armoured guard at the door my invitation, I felt my throat close with fear. He scrutinised the paper for a moment too long and my eyes couldn’t help but drift to the short sword at his hip. But then he stepped aside and allowed me through with directions to the ballroom, as if the trail of party-goers were not telling enough.
I followed the narrow, blood red carpet runner through the main hallway and turned down the appropriate corridors, all with my head bent low. The floor to ceiling marble amplified the music and haughty laughter from the ballroom. In the moments I did lift my eyes, I caught sight of guards posted at each set of closed doors, just in case guests decided to wander and snoop. It did make me wonder if they were also guarding my old secret walkways. Did anyone even use them anymore?
I passed one of the many stairwells that lead to the floors above. They were all roped off and guarded. This particular one was a narrow spiral stairwell, situated within one of the smaller towers. My steps faltered. I could remember with perfect clarity where it led to - an exposed stone veranda that ran a short length of the palace, and I was currently looking at the exact spot where Kaspar and I were first caught by the king.
I had been discovering new parts of the palace in my downtime as the court jester. The layout of the building had still been a mystery to me, and that particular stairwell had never looked exceptionally inviting. There was a coldness to it, the stone a shade darker, stained by the elements. The harsh winds from above would whistle through tiny fissures in the wall that the ear could mistake for ghostly whispers.
One day I had felt equal parts bored and brave, and ascended those creepy steps. Little did I know that the prince had caught me wandering around and had tailed me through several corridors. It was then I understood why his hunting trips were so bountiful.
As my foot hit the veranda, the wind knocked the breath from my lungs, shocking me still for a second.
The view was of the back of the palace. The wondrous gardens stretched out below me. The palace sat on a hill, part of the structure cut straight into it. From the gardens, the palace looked like it had been carved from the hill itself. This meant there were lower levels than the main entrance and the gardens were set far below the front of the building.
I walked with unsteady legs over to the stone balustrade, my eyes scanning the greenery.
“You can’t see it from here.”
My heart nearly leapt into the bushes below. I spun and caught sight of the prince leaning in the doorway in that casual way of his. He was wearing a deep green stiff looking tailcoat over a simple white linen shirt.
“The pond. The bench. Your spot. That’s what you are looking for, right?”
I turned back to the gardens, my hair whipping my cheeks. He was correct. When I got my bearings, I realised my spot was hidden by the opposite tower at the end of the veranda.
“I’ve never been up here before.”
“Not many people have. These are watch towers. It’s only really guards and the knights who are placed up here.”
“Then why are you here?”
He grinned at me. “Because you’re here.”
He made his way over to me like a cat stalking a mouse, shoulder rolling and eyes aflame. My breath was stolen from me for a second time when he pounced, trapping my body between him and the balustrade. His big hands caught the stone beside my own.
His nose touched mine, nuzzling me playfully.
“We could make this another special spot, hm?” he murmured, his lips against mine. Soft as flower petals.
“Uhm,” I agreed, not trusting myself to form a coherent sentence with his manly scent enveloping me so.
The kiss was careful at first, the both of us savouring the memory the way we savoured all of our stolen moments. My fingertips dug into the balustrade, the feeling of the rough stone at odds with the pillowy softness of the prince’s lips.
It was not long until the tentative nature of our lip-locking drove me to near insanity. My hands were soon behind his head, urging him to kiss me harder. His laugher was stifled by my tongue and he gave in, submitting to my brash show of dominance.
I followed the prince back down the dank stairway, tucking my shirt back into my britches and smoothing out the back of his rumpled collar. When he reached the marble corridor, he spun and caught my chin, stilling me on the final step. Now that we were the same height, he looked me straight in the eyes and surprised me with another kiss.
“Kaspar, I’ve been looking for you everywh- what…”
We both turned to see the king slowing his stride. He was dressed similarly to his son, but he wore a tight fitting long sleeved tunic instead of a stiff coat. They looked like a matching set of crockery.
The king’s eyes slid from his son to me, still half hidden by the shadows of the stairwell. The prince abruptly stepped back, his hand falling from my face and the cold breeze from above bit into the uncovered skin there. He cleared his throat.
“Father-” The fear in the prince’s voice set my heart to ice.
A bark of laughter flew from the king and the two of us jumped. The smile that filled the king’s face was genuine but was so unlike the reaction I had expected that it took my brain a moment to register it.
“So, this is where you sneaked off to? And with my jester, no less?”
“I erh.” The prince’s mouth clamped shut, his cheeks reddening, “You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad? I was young once myself.”
The prince pulled a face of mild disgust.
“But I will not have you neglecting your duties, son. You are needed in the map room.”
The prince nodded, hurrying into a step beside his father. “Right, I’m sorry, Father.”
They both turned and headed down the corridor, their boots clacking along the marble. After a few paces, the prince looked back and sent me a shrug that read I guess we’re all right. And we were. The king did not mind our relationship so long as I did not jeopardize the prince’s work and we kept things professional when I was entertaining guests. I was perfectly content with this set up and was perfectly happy to continue living my life that way. But, of course, once the princely duties meant marriage to someone of promise, I was tossed out like a broken toy from a crib.