Cragdale centre was the bustling mess that it always was at just past noon and midsummer so I instantly regretted not throwing on a hat. I could already feel my scalp tightening as it boiled under the sun. Despite the gentle heat, I pulled at my collar so it covered as much of my neck as it was able to. It was sunny days like this when my skin positively glowed like I was some sort of ghoul.
The workers and shoppers rushing past me all had that sheen across their brows, dark stains between their shoulder-blades and hair slick around their ears. The sun treated their skin differently. Sunkissed was the expression. The sun bathed them and altered their complexions to something warm and healthy looking. For me, on the other hand, the sun’s rays seemed to brush against me then bounce right off me in horror. I never turned a nice shade. I would go from ghostly pale to painfully red and then back again.
When I first moved down to Cragdale, the townsfolk would linger around and openly gape at me. I had ‘royal skin,’ they would say. Surprised, elated gasps would shoot from their mouths when they grabbed at me. ‘Cold as marble,’ was a common statement, ‘like a living statue.’ I would have revelled in their wonder if it hadn’t added to my feeling of complete displacement. Ever since I was a child, my skin had been called ‘sickly.’ It wasn’t until I was given a place in the palace when I discovered that paleness was actually an attribute that people longed for. It was a show of wealth and nobility, because, why go outside in the sun when you could order someone else to go out for you? So my skin only further proved that I had been destined for greatness since the day I was born.
But at this point, the novelty of my appearance had worn on which was also unsettling in a different sort of way. I blended in now. I was one of them: a simple commoner. A simple commoner who just had a personal visit from the prince himself, mind you.
Blacksmith Jerome was the sweatiest of them all when I knocked on the post of his open-fronted shop. He didn’t hear me way back at his furnace, dunking something he’d just heated into a barrel off water. The hiss that came from the motion almost sounded animalistic – like an angry snake. Not a boar. Still not a boar.
I knocked again but I knew already that I wouldn’t be heard. So I opened my satchel and pulled out the sign, holding it in front of my chest like the poor sods that held up advertisements for sales outside the more crammed in parts of the market. How else would people know there were must-have bargains under the bridge down past three dingy side streets?
Finally, my painting caught Jerome’s eye and he placed his cooling whatever-it-was down on his anvil and lifted up his goggles. He blinked hard several times then pulled off his thick gloves and smoothed his dirty hands down his dirty apron as if to appear more presentable.
“Incredible!” His voice boomed as he made his way to me with ease through his cluttered shop front. He towered over me. The man was big, with round shoulders and muscular forearms. But the way he looked down at my creation made him appear like an awestruck child. His soot-covered face was bright as he studied the sign, an open-mouthed smile stuck in place. He reached out to touch the boar and there was that twinkle in his dark eyes, like he expected to feel wiry fur and not wood. “You are a miracle worker, Wallace.”
I grinned up at him. “So you like?”
“Of course! It’s magnificent!”
Life lesson: get all the compliments in life as you possibly can. Collect them and hold them close, you never know where life will take you. There may become a time when fond memories are all that keep you going.
Jerome reached out to grab the sides of the sign but then paused and pulled his eyes from the painting to ask softly, “May I?”
I lifted it to him and his smile somehow grew bigger as he took it.
“Does it meet your requirements?” I asked.
“Absolutely! It is almost too fine a piece for a dump like this. Wait there, I’ll get your money.” He took the sign with him, holding it protectively against his chest as he slipped behind the dirty rag of a curtain at the back of his shop.
When he returned, the sign was gone, most likely hidden in the back. I did wonder whether he would actually nail it to the front of the shop, so exposed and open to thieving hands. He dropped the remaining half of my fee into my open palm and I quickly dropped the coins into the inner pocket of my satchel.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Jerome. If you need anything else, or anyone you know is in need of some signage, you know where to find me.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I think I will be the talk of the street once my customers get a look at your masterpiece.” He grinned.
We shook hands and I felt the slight jerk of his muscles at the touch of my cold skin, but the pleasant softness of his gaze didn’t falter.
The brightness of the sky above was starting to make me feel a little lightheaded. I took a casual detour to the fountain where washerwomen were hurling and beating last week’s washing, laughing and gossiping among themselves. I sat on the stone edge, ignoring the protests from the sharp bones of my rear as I leaned over and splashed the cool water to my face.
I staged shows here on occasion. The fountain sat in the middle of a large, paved square. It was the perfect place for little skits. In those glorious moments, the townsfolk would stop in their tracks and linger, drawn in by my dancing and jibes. These same red-faced washerwomen would stand by and watch me for so long they would have to drop their baskets by their feet before the weight of them dragged them down. Some would even sit, cross-legged on the flagstones; chin’s resting on propped up dry, chapped fists.
But now? Now they don’t even lift their eyes to regard me as I perch beside them, tugging at the front of my shirt to stir some sort of welcomed breeze. It appeared that I was a different person in my motley. In the palace, I was always the fool. It didn’t matter if I was performing at a banquet or simply wandering about the grounds: the King’s Fool; the Court Jester. Do you understanding how powerful it feels to have your occupation be your name? There is nothing quite like it.
Here in Cragdale, I was the town jester when I was up there giving them a show but once it has ended, I was just Wallace Treager, gathering up my props. Like a lit match dropped into the fountain, my audience would lose interest in me and get back to their day. Just like that, I blended in once again.
I stood and continued on my meandering route home, pulling at the strap of my satchel so it didn’t knock against my sore behind. The little cottages were less clustered together as I made my way to the edge of town. I hardly ever walked this way, and I’m not sure what possessed me to do so on this particular day. I had no more signs commissioned so I may have been subconsciously seeking new work.
Fields rolled out ahead of me, dotted with muddy pens full of pigs, cows and chickens. The air felt clearer without the clammy heat from close bodies and the smoke from chimneys. Clearer, yes, but not exactly pleasant. The stinging scent of manure replaced the sweat.
As I continued on my merry way along a dirt path along a squat, little farm house, I was finally noticed.
“Well look who it is, Mr. I’m-too-good-for-Greymarsh himself,” came a voice I instantly recognised. I spun and found her standing in a doorway, a basket hanging in the crook of her elbow. Her hair was still as straw-like as I’d remembered, but it was long now and was piled in a messy nest on top of her head.
I smiled broadly. “First of all, I never said that.” I strolled over to her, “and second of all, how long have you been living here? How have I never seen you?”
“Moved here a few summers after you left. Greysmarsh just wasn’t the same. There wasn’t enough work in the Clove for father so we moved up here,” said Mirabelle. “I don’t get out much. The farm takes up most of my time.”
My gut twisted a little. This was the first time I had thought about the Treager’s since I moved and the realisation made my heart grow cold. “So, the inn’s not doing well?”
She shrugged. “It wasn’t as busy as it used to be but they were getting by. Don’t think they’re falling apart without you.”
She was smirking and speaking light of the past but seeing her was bringing a lot of things back.
“Were you mad at me for leaving?” I blurted even though I was not really sure if I wanted to know the answer.
Her mouth twisted and she looked down at the eggs in her basket for a short moment. “Yes.” The word was weighted with shame. Her eyes found mine again. “But I didn’t blame you. If it had been me, I would have made the same decision.” She smiled that tight smile she had when I told her I was leaving. “So, what’s it like, living in the palace, being waited on like royalty?”
I smiled at the arch of her eyebrow, and then shook my head. “I’m not the court jester anymore. But it had been fun while it lasted.”
“What happened?” She stepped outside, looking up into my eyes. I was a head taller than her now. She hadn’t grown much in our time apart.
A part of me wanted to tell her. It was Mirabelle. She was my best friend. Even after all our time apart, conversing with her like this, I know we were still as close as we were. And we never had any secrets from each other. Seeing her, I felt like the child I was back then. Back when we made up routines in our den in the inn’s loft. The words were on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to tell her about the prince. I wanted to gush and gossip and laugh and cry. But I had made a promise to Kaspar.
So, I just shrugged, wincing slightly at the tightness in my chest. “Apparently I wasn’t the right fit.”
She pulled a face. “Excuse me? Does the king have no sense of humour?” Then she stage-gasped. “Have you lost your spark?”
I mock gasped back, throwing my hand to my chest for good measure. “How dare you even suggest such a thing!”
We both laughed and my heart soared at the sound. And then we were laughing at our own laughter. Our gazes locked and I could see my thoughts reflected in her eyes. Just like old times. Our laughter turned into throaty cackles and Mirabelle had to press her palm to the doorjamb to keep her balance.
After a long while, we wound down, coughing and heaving as we struggled to regain our breath. My ribs hurt, and I pressed my hands against my sides to ease them. She rested her head against the doorjamb and watched me fondly, her eyes raking over me, taking in what I had become. She was wearing a floor-length smock of a dusty grey. She still had a petite, boyish figure – sharp shoulders and flat chested. And beautiful. Still beautiful. Her cheeks were rounder now, flushed pink from laughing.
“So, what brings you down here?” she asked, her eyes drifting across her land.
“I live in town now.”
I smiled. “I never walk down this way. Now I know why my feet brought me here.”
Her light eyebrow quirked up, intrigued.
“I found you again.”
Her lips split into a grin. “It’s almost like we are destined to be together.”
“The Treager’s were right all along. This is clearly a sign. We must marry at once.”
“Your dress cannot be nicer than mine. You will not outshine me on my wedding day.” She mock scowled.
“Our wedding day, darling,” I replied in my most charming, gentlemanly manner. “And I am not promising anything, I have an incredibly dressmaker.”
“Oh you do, do you?” She folded her arms. “Can take the boy out of the palace but you can’t take the palace out of the boy.”
My heartbeat stuttered and the falter must have shown on my face because Mirabelle’s forehead creased slightly.
I laughed, but it came out weak and pathetic. “It appears so.”
I could see that she had questions, but Mirabelle knew me well. Even after all this time apart, she knew not to pry.
“I saw a mural in town a few weeks ago,” she said, changing the subject. “I knew you were close by. I would recognise your work anywhere.”
I knew which mural she was referring to. A majestic stag and two golden eagles in a flight behind crowded the side wall of a tavern that faced the town square. It was a beautiful piece – if a little garish. The king had commissioned me to paint it after the wedding nuptials and the official joining of Kalmador and Ullswood. The two eagles were the sigil of the latter.
“It’s quite a piece,” she commented.
I smiled bashfully. “Oh, that old thing?”
“Your… talent, it has bloomed since I last witnessed it.”
A shadow passed over her features. “You are being careful, aren’t you, Wallace?”
My insides quivered slightly but I laughed off her concern. “Of course, it’s just a painting. People know no better. I make a living off it now. So if you are in need of any signs, I’m your man for the job.”
She watched me for a moment and then seemed to push the matter aside. She looked back into her home.
“Mother and father are out right now,” she changed the subject. “But they would love to see you.”
“I’ll make sure to pop round sometime.”
“You’d better. Here.” She threw something at me and I caught it right before it smacked me in the face. I unfurled my fingers to reveal an egg. Mirabelle pushed herself off the doorjamb with a smile. “You’ve still got it.”
I threw it softly into the air and let the egg land carefully on the top of my hand, in the groove of my knuckles, before flicking it back up and catching it with my fingertips so she got a good view. She applauded and I bowed, my satchel swinging to my front and ruining my chance at a graceful exit.