Chapter 15 - Red Water
Now I’m not going to lie to you, dear reader, I was nervous. Butt-clenchingly nervous. And that was not at all like me. Usually when I was in my motley, I was proud. I liked to think I was a very proud person back then. Head held high, curtseying at every gawking onlooker. Everyone was so drab in the town. It was nothing like the palace.
But as I stood by the fountain in Cragdale’s town square, covered head to toe in bells, I winced every time they rang a little too loud. There was something in the air. It was thick and stifling, giving me a bad case of neck sweat. It had robbed everybody of their smiles. Jaws were clenched. Knuckles were white.
The tension. It was like a boiling pot. A simmering flame.
I don’t know what had possessed me to do this. No, that was a lie. I knew exactly what had possessed me to do this. Guilt. It was festering within me, growing, mutating, gnawing at my very insides.
As soon as I threw on the cape, patch-worked with cut offs of blood red and forest green to get into my character of the king- a gift from Alta the previous summer- I was spat at. Spat at. Humiliation is all part of being a jester. You are a fool, after all. And mine and Kaspar’s bedroom antics hadn’t been for the fainthearted but that filth was consensual. Being spat on by a total stranger on the other hand? Now that wasn’t a great start to a show.
But I was a professional. I donned the makeshift crown and played my part.
What kind of person runs away at a time like that?
“This is a time for us all to stick together!” I mimed gluing my palms together. Yes, the taxes were being raised. Yes, the kingdom was starving. Yes, King Cedric was being very secretive. But he was doing it all to keep us from being raided from overseas.
I stumbled about as I tried to prise my hands apart. I tripped over the lip of the fountain and unstuck my hands just in time to reach out and grab at the round rump of the bathing lady in the centre with the flirty smile.
“Oh, I am terribly sorry, Your Ladyship!” I cried, knocking off my paper crown. I shrugged off the long cape, revealing the smaller one underneath, symbolising the prince. “You would have thought with all my schooling I’d be a much better-behaved husband! But I’m afraid I have as much experience with the fairer sex as a strumpet does with a church!”
I caught Mirabelle in the crowd, still with that bag slung over her shoulder. She paused, watching me with a furrowed brow. In the back of my mind, I wondered if she had even gone home after I had seen her but my best guess was that all this uneasiness was making her restless. It had taken me the time it took to boil a pot of nettle tea to make me raid my wardrobe for my costumes. Anxiety made my hands shake as I pulled out outfit after outfit. Fear then struck me down at my doorway and I was close to giving in. As I watched the audience circle me like a pack of hungry wolves, I wondered if I had made a deadly mistake.
“My people! My people mypeoplemypeople,” I chattered on, throwing on the crown and the cape, once again becoming the king. In the corner of my eye, I could see Mirabelle watching me. My heartbeat thrummed in my ears. “My love of this great kingdom runs through my very blood! My love for you all has never wavered! Times are tough but we must stay united! Believe in your leader, we will get through this-”
I was cut off by a rotten tomato to the face. It exploded on contact; the juice stinging my eyes, the impact bruising my cheek.
“Quit your hollering!” shouted someone. I couldn’t see.
“Why you even on his side? The king fired you. You freak!” called another.
I rubbed at my eyes.
“Hey! Back off!” Mirabelle yelped, loud and shrill.
I managed to clear my vision just enough to capture Mirabelle being shoved by someone and then her retaliating with a swift kick to the knee and a punch to the throat. The man crumpled like paper and dropped to the cobbles.
A smile cracked on my lips, momentarily distracted, before I was rudely yanked back to reality as more vegetables came flying my way. Hard and full of vicious intent. I dropped to the ground and curled up into a ball. Punches and kicks followed. The pressure of people above me was suffocating. I felt them enclose over me like a coffin lid as they continued to hurl abuse. Heavy boots connected with my spine, trampled on my knuckles, stomped on my legs. Curling into myself, I tried to make myself as small as possible. I pressed my chin into my chest, covered my head with my arms and just waited for it to be over.
“They really got you good.”
I winced and tried to pull away from the wet cloth being dabbed at my cut temple. Kaspar grabbed my shoulder to still me and I gave in.
I was sitting, knees up to my chest in the bath by my hearth. Kaspar was kneeling by my side, inspecting the ugly welts that covered by body and trying his best to sooth them with dabs and kisses.
“Why did you even go out there?”
I sighed and looked over at my ruined motley on the floor. I was in so much pain from the beating, Kaspar had had to help me peel out of it.
I stank. The vegetable juice had turned my usually lovely red locks into dirty sticky strings that plastered to my face and neck. My body pulsated, the heat of the bath making me lightheaded.
“Things are going to get worse,” I said. “Just thought I’d use the one tool I had at my disposal.”
“And what is that, exactly? Mocking me?”
I peered at him through my hair.
“Yeah, I heard what you were saying.” He poked one of my bruises and a weird mewl escaped me. “Apparently I have as much bedroom prowess as a eunuch?”
I shrugged. “What can I say? I’m only repeating what the Lady told me.”
He laughed. “Like you’ve been anywhere near Lady Delphine. My father would have your head.”
I bit back the truth and swallowed it whole.
“Well we’re not supposed to be near each other and I came home to you heating my bathwater for me.” I faced him. I had had to pick myself up off the cobbles and hobble my way back, half blind. Of course, Kaspar hadn’t helped me out there. Hadn’t helped me try and fish out my props from the fountain. Not out in the open. I was his little secret. Dirty. And no matter how much he scrubbed me, he will never make me any less so.
He had come to the square with an array of guards. They dispersed the crowd. Not taking anyone this time but instead ushering them all back to their homes. The strained look Kaspar had given me as I picked myself up only to collapse back down to my knees was more painful than any of those perfectly aimed kicks to my ribs. Then he had turned Bucky away and trotted off with the guards back to the palace. Or so I had thought.
He was looking at me in the bath like I was a wounded puppy he’d found on the streets.
He smiled at me sadly, his green eyes roving over the cuts and scrapes that had made my usual ghostly pale face a hodgebodge of reds and purples.
“Your job is to entertain, Wally,” Kaspar said. “Not to get involved in the king’s business.” He rang out the cloth beside me. Red water ran down his forearm.
Oh, if only he knew how deeply rooted I was in everyone’s business.
I fell silent, my eyes on the murky bathwater. All these secrets were eating me up inside. If Mirabelle continued riling everyone up, she was going to end up in dire trouble. Kaspar could prevent that. He could talk to her. Try and calm her down.
Or he could tell his father and she’d be charged with treason.
“What’s going to happen to the people the guards took?” I murmured.
Kaspar let out a heavy sigh. “They’re in the palace cells. To be honest, Father doesn’t know what to do with them. I think he’s leaving them to sweat it out.”
Well, that was something. Or was it nothing? The king could just be buying himself time so he could cook up an exceptionally severe punishment for all of them. Oh, how I wished I was not so clueless.
“My dressmaker is in there. She’s my friend.”
“I was there that day. I could have been taken.”
He paused his cleaning, the cloth braced against my jaw.
“Why were you there?”
“Like I said, my friend was in the protest. There were others there I know. I didn’t know the group had gotten so big. I didn’t think it was going to get so out of hand.”
“You were part of the protest?” He dipped the cloth back into the water. His tone was gentle. It sounded forced. He was trying to coax information out of me.
There had been a bitterness in my jibes out in the streets. It felt good to mock Kaspar, despite how it simultaneously squeezed my heart. But when I had opened my door to see him wandering around my house with such ease, I had given in instantly. He disarmed me in ways I still cannot fathom. But sitting there in the bath, the resentment bubbled up again and my teeth gritted whenever his skin brushed against my own. I shook my head, knowing I had already said too much.
(Author note: Sorry I had to cut this off mid conversation but it was hard to find a good place to break and I didn't want to put the whole 12 page chapter as one upload)