I lift my head from the barn’s straw-covered floor. A muddy pair of boots step around my goats, and the suit of bells rattles down upon the ground.
‘The king wants his jester.’
I don’t say a word; they took my tongue many years ago. I simply undress and pull on my second skin. The faded velvet feels ever snug against my expired body. The guardsman leads me through the city and past the East Gate – open for the first time since the infant princess’ sudden death. The streets glint with the polished armour of knights in the morning sun; the ears of noblewomen droop beneath peach-sized pearls. A delegation from the South is heralded by the trumpeting of an enormous elephant, its body wrapped in copper-coloured armour. A procession of dignitaries stride behind it, shaded beneath umbrellas made from peacock feathers.
At the palace gates, a minister measures the loyalty of the King’s subjects by the weight of their purses. I abandon my escort and make the familiar climb to the Great Hall – my aged knees throb with each laboured step. Inside, the hall is thick with courtesans and ambition. I remove my rice-filled balloons from my pocket and juggle them high into the air. My performance begins.
Our King arrives at the middle hour. His sunken cheeks confirm the rumours of untouched platters being returned from his chambers.
The crowd hushes.
‘Five full moons have passed since my Elmeria was poisoned.’ The King of Axes’ voice has withered to weeds. ‘A father ought never know the anguish of burying his own child.’ He turns to the bronzed doors behind him. ‘But today, we shall restore justice.’
The trial is swift. Each of the nameless cooks confesses, undoubtedly desperate to spare their families the horrors of the dungeons. The sentence is clear and immediate. Dinah the Executioner swings her scythe truly, and the palace floor is painted red with vengeance. When the headless corpses are removed, joyous music bursts from the band, wafting up to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. My King’s dark eyes glitter toward me.
‘Cattelus – my trusted performer – would you dance for your King?’
I hobble into the room’s centre and begin my jig. The musician’s quickened pace betrays me, and my brittle bones creak as I rock ever faster. The audience’s complicit grins gurgle into laughter. My King beams from his throne. He has long forgotten the man imprisoned within this suit of bells: the youngest brother of a conquered rival. A man whose own wife and children were slain to avoid imagined future uprisings. My King is right – no father should ever know the horror of burying his children.
The music hastens; the wails of laughter lash my sweat-drenched back. They see Cattelus, the dancing hound – not the childless father who plots his revenge while delivering milk to feed their children.
I dance faster for my King – breathless and revelling in his sweet laughter.
© Matthew S. Wilson, October 2021