Chapter 5 – It’s a Sign
Lit candles covered my work station by the time there was a knock on my back door. Still bundled up under two rough-spun blankets, I shuffled across the room.
Kaspar stood there, hidden beneath a thick, dark cloak. He pulled down the hood. Behind him, the sky was a cool indigo.
“Very presumptuous of you to assume I had no other plans this evening,” I said, clutching my blanket tightly at my chest like a shawl.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Am I keeping you from something?” he asked, sizing up my attire. I paused, and the longer the silence grew, the wider his smirk became.
“Well, considering you’re the prince, I figured I should reschedule my other pressing matters.”
“Of course, and I thank you for that.”
I scowled and shifted to the side to let him pass. He wandered over to my work station and studied my current project with an impressed nod before his eyes found me again. I closed the door, keeping the cold out and moved closer to the hearth.
“So, I’ve heard you are to compete in a jousting match,” I started.
He rolled his eyes. “Indeed. I’ll be training my knights non-stop until then. Father is very excited to show me off like some show pony.”
“Well, at least you will have me there.”
He smiled. “You’re happy I threw your hat into the ring to perform?”
I blinked, affronted. “Are you saying there were other hats?”
“They were truly clutching at straws. I put them out of their bumbling misery. You were always the clear choice. But we are strictly prohibited to be seen together.”
“So, like every other moment of our lives?”
A hopeless crease sliced down the middle of his brows but he said nothing to that. A silence fell and it was thick and heady with unspoken words. I threw my blanket onto the bed and crossed to my wardrobe.
“I need an outfit,” I said, throwing the doors open. “There are no specific requirements, no? There was nothing on the invitation.”
“Not that I know of.” I heard him settle himself on the bed behind me.
I pulled out a dress, made lovingly by Alta a few months prior for one of my skits.
“I have something to ask of you.”
“Does this shade of red make me look like a harlot?” I grabbed the hem of the dress and pulled it out to inspect more of the lacework in the mirror. It was nowhere near as bright as those of the royals. In fact, the shade reminded me of old ham, “I specifically requested Alta to make me her most daring dress and this is what she comes up with?”
I spun to face Kaspar, allowing the dress to swoosh around me. I was so slim it nearly wrapped around me twice over.
He was sitting in the centre of my bed, boots kicked off with his legs crossed, looking like a wilted flower. I dropped the dress onto my chair and crossed the room.
“There is a reason I wanted to stop by tonight, before I get caught up in all this tournament business. Do you know what is coming up soon?”
I thought about it. It was lamb shank day at the tavern on Friday. That was always a special treat.
“It’s my mother’s birthday. Next week.” Kaspar answered for me.
I sank onto the bed. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” He started to pick at the frayed edge of my discarded blanket. He couldn’t look at me. “I do this thing every year. It’s nothing really.” It clearly was something. “I just… because of how she died. I just. I guess. I just… I take a ride into the woods. There’s a really nice clearing. You can see the whole palace from up there.” He peered at me. In that moment, he looked like a boychild. Furtive and vulnerable. “I usually go there alone but I was wondering.” He grabbed my hand and I was surprised by the sudden warmth of the touch. My instincts screamed for me to pull away, but I didn’t. “Would you like to go with me?”
I knew about the lone rides every year. Everyone in the kingdom knew. It was all word of mouth. Kaspar had never told me directly. Had never specified the reason himself. Until this moment. It was something he never spoke about. He would just disappear for the evening alone and return at nightfall. I guessed he told the king but no one else. Only the king… and now me.
“I’d love to go with you,” I replied, the weight of the subject in question making me a little uncomfortable. He gave me a tight smile that pinched the corners of his eyes. I thought he was going to embrace me and I mentally tried to prepare my reaction. There had been many a time where he had hugged me and I had just seized up in his hold. But he knew me well and only squeezed the hand he was holding.
“Thank you,” he said in a whisper, the emotions in those two words were as deep as the roaring sea.
Kaspar left shortly after, pulling his hood back up and disappearing into the darkness. I sat down at my work station and got back to work until I was struggling to see. All the while, my heart felt too big in my chest and my smile had my jaw aching.
In the morning, I was up early for Tax Day. The one day of the month everyone dreaded. I slipped into an embroidered shirt and matching britches, attempted to detangle my hair, and left with my new creation tucked lovingly inside my satchel. My money pouch jingled in my pocket as I made my way to the town square. I never had money troubles. With my sign business and my general needs taken care of by the palace in exchange for my silence on the real reason behind my losing my job, I was a well kept man. I wanted for nothing. Well… no material possessions.
Tax Day was never an orderly affair. We all had to queue up while tax collectors sat behind set up desks dispersed around the square and tallied up what we all owed the palace. The preference was to pay with coins, but they also accepted material possessions, and sometimes livestock. That’s when things got messy. It was like the animals knew they were being traded and so would kick up as much fuss as possible on a day where tempers were already running high.
On my way to the shortest queue, I narrowly dodged a bucking goat and a chicken to the face. I didn’t know chickens could leap that far. As I waited, I had to keep adjusting the strap of my satchel. Sweat pooled beneath the thick leather, making my shirt rub uncomfortably against my skin.
The sun was beating down and the bodies were packed tight. I tried to dodge and swerve as many people as I could but they just kept coming. Queues became groups – masses of sweating bodies smelling like salt and livestock. I spotted Mirabelle by another tax collector’s desk but didn’t bother calling for her. There was no way she would have been able to hear me over the ruckus. I would catch her later. It struck me then how I had never spotted her at all the other tax days. It was most likely because I had not been trying to seek her out.
Things were taking longer than usual. More people were debating and arguing with the tax collectors, and getting a lot more brazen. Several women dropped to their knees at their feet, begging them to lower their payment, and one man tried grabbing the tax collector by the collar to shake him but caught himself when the knight at the collector’s side stepped in to intervene.
I was five people from the front. The couple before me were wheeling a cart of possessions. A bundle of clothes, some pottery, and an assortment of carved wooden trinket boxes.
“This can’t be right,” the man at the front snapped, his meaty finger stabbing the ledger on the desk. “That’s almost double last month.”
“Not double, I can assure you,” replied the tax collector with practiced ease. It was clear this was not the first time having this dispute.
“Practically double! This is outrageous. I want an explanation.”
“The cost of things ebbs and flows. You have good land, and good land comes with a price.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“That’s the answer I am providing. Now, are you paying or will you be heading to the cells?”
The man’s cheeks glowed red. His jaw worked several times before he shoved his hand begrudgingly into his pockets and smacked a handful of coins onto the desk. The tax collector slid them into his palm, counted, nodded, and gestured for the furious man to leave. A similar ordeal happened with the next lady, but she just tutted under her breath while handing him what she owed.
A scream and a shout peeled from across the square. Everyone turned to look, but from where I stood, I couldn’t see where the sound originated. Then I caught sight of a man carrying a women kicking and screaming down the street while a knight shoved another man in the opposite direction towards the palace. Towards the cells.
This was new. No one was ever sent to the cells for underpaying. No one ever underpaid. There was no need to. The taxes King Cedric had initiated had always been reasonable.
By the time it was my turn to pay up, I was expecting the increase but my brows still hit my hairline when I was told how much I owed. I was in no place to argue, I had the money, and I handed it over with no questions. But when I turned to leave and caught sight of the queue behind me, I knew not many others were in the same fortunate position as I. I thought of Mirabelle and her family, their little farm. Her mother’s twisted fingers, and her father’s tired eyes. My bag hit against my thigh as I strode away. Every slap made my throat tighten.
I could fix nothing. So why even try? I suddenly felt incredibly stupid, but I continued on my search for my best friend.
She wasn’t in the square, so I headed to the first logical place she would be. On my way to her farm, I passed the mural that had taken me over two weeks to complete. It had rained part-way through, causing all the paint to run and I had to start almost from scratch. It was quite a piece. When the sunlight hit the golden wings of the eagles at just the right angle, they could be considered a health hazard. Looking directly at them would surely blind a person. Was it wrong to be proud of making possibly lethal art?
Mirabelle’s mother had been out back, on her hands and knees scrubbing the inside of a chicken coop with such vigour I found myself wincing for her poor joints. Her face lit up when she saw me and I begged her to stay seated but she insisted on forcing herself onto her feet and shuffling over to the fence to me.
After a lengthy conversation that consisted of mostly Laina hurling compliments at me, I managed to excuse myself and head into the direction I was instructed.
The tavern was almost empty. Mirabelle was tucked neatly into a cool corner, sat alone at a large round table. A tankard was held tightly in her grip but her eyes were far away as she stared down at her beer.
I made sure to scrape a few chair legs across the stone flooring as I made my way over to catch her attention. She blinked slowly and her eyes drifted to me.
“I shouldn’t have bought this,” she said and narrowed her eyes at her drink accusingly. “Father insisted. I’ve done good. The farm’s done good.” She dropped against the back of her chair. “It hasn’t. He’s lying to himself.”
I took the chair opposite her, placing my satchel carefully at my feet.
“I haven’t told him the collector took almost all our monthly income.” She lifted her drink and took a sip. “And I’ve just spent the rest on this watered down crap.”
“I can get that for you.” I offered her a smile, to which she returned. It was weak and lacked heart.
“Can we pretend I declined your offer before you forced me to accept?”
I took a coin from my money pouch and slid it across the sticky table. “Please, I beg of you. Take my money.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Well, if it means that much to you,” as she retrieved it and slipped into her handy pocket at the front of her smock.
“I just don’t understand why it has been raised so high. The collector refused to answer the question. He was definitely hiding something. Do you know anything?”
My heart fumbled. “Why would I know anything?”
She shrugged. “You’ve been inside the palace. Maybe you know something we don’t.” It was just a question, there was no malice in her tone, but still I felt my collar sticking to my skin with sudden sweat.
“I don’t know anything. Sorry.”
“Was your tax raised?”
“And you’re alright?”
I nodded again, feeling like anything I said in response would sound like I was bragging.
My foot nudged my satchel and it slid down the table leg, clattering loudly on the stone floor. Mirabelle arched her eyebrow.
“What do you have in that thing? Rocks?”
“In a way.” I reached down and pulled out its contents. The sheet of stone, about two fingers thick, was awkward to manoeuvre and made quite a bang when I placed it as carefully as I could on the table.
Mirabelle’s lips twitched. “What’s this for?”
The sign had taken me most of the night. Beckett’s Farm was written in cursive with three chickens nestled beneath.
I slumped in my chair, my eyes on my work. Suddenly, I hated it. The beaks weren’t right. The name could have been bigger. There was too much empty space.
“I don’t know,” I replied. It was a lie.
Mirabelle watched me, her intrusive eyes finding the hidden words in my pinched expression.
It had been an apology. An attempt to make up for leaving her back in Greysmarsh and never even reaching out with a letter. In my downtime, I could have gone to visit. I could have borrowed a horse and made a day of it. But I didn’t. The thought never even crossed my mind. I wish I could go back to that day in the tavern and say it all out loud but the words had refused to pass my lips.
I’m sorry, Mirabelle. I’m sorry for everything.
You deserved so much better.
You were the best friend anyone could ever have the pleasure of having. You were far too good for me. Your friendship and devotion was misplaced.
It was wasted on me.
The stone scraped against the wooden table as she grabbed the edge and turned it to get a better look.
“Well, it is definitely something.” She smirked.
“You hate it.”
“I love it.”
I grabbed it. “You don’t have to take it to make me feel better.”
“I’m taking it.” She slapped my hand away and held my gaze. My collar felt like the boggy swamps on the outskirts of Greysmarsh.
How could the two of us have spent nearly three years apart yet our uncanny ability to have conversations within conversations still thrived. Every interaction with Mirabelle felt like a carefully choreographed dance. The both of us studying each other’s meticulous footwork while keeping a perfect count.
She read me easily and I took that as an excuse to hold things back. To keep things bottled up until it was too late. And it is too late now, isn’t it? Now you’re gone and all I have are these memories. These memories that taunted me until I put pen to paper. I sleep better now. But I shouldn’t. Why should I?
“We’ve never had a sign before.” She studied it cherishingly. “Mother will love it. She’s always adored your art. No doubt she will name the chickens.”
(Sorry for the length but this was the best place to cut the chapter in two)