|Image by Richard Schofield via Wikimedia Commons|
They had taken him in the night, and thrown him in an old well. His bare feet slipped in the mud and loose gravel, so the young prince had to brace his elbows against the crumbling stonework to keep himself up. He hurled threats and insults up at his captors, who laughed and dropped offal on his head. Rotten slops found ways down his clothes, slid into his ears, and threatened to slide into his mouth.
“What do you want?” he cried.
The faces pulled away, and a man in black came to the well’s edge.
The man asked questions that the prince had no answers for, and at each failure, more refuse was tossed down the well. Within an hour, the prince was shoulder-deep. He tried pushing himself higher by bracing against the walls, but his limbs found no purchase on the slick rock. The questions continued from the man in black and the garbage was replaced with loose mud, weighing down his arms.
He was going to die. His lungs would fill with mud and rot. He would never rule. He would choke and gag and die alone in a pit. He screamed.
“Oh, your’re no use to us like this,” the man in black said.
A rope fell before him, and he lunged for it, wrapping it around his arm and gripping as hard as he could with mud-slicked hands. He came out of the mud with a sucking sound, and was slowly hauled to the surface. His whole body burned with fatigue, arms numb and hands spasming, but he somehow held until hands pulled him over the well’s edge rolled him to solid ground.
“Thank you,” he said.
“To the block, boys,” said the man in black.
The prince struggled as he was hauled to a woodsman’s chopping block, gouged and chipped where an axe had fallen hundreds of times. The rope went about the prince’s neck and a man stretched him over the block while unseen hands pulled at his ankles.
“Wait!” he called.
“You’re no use to us at all, really,” said the man in black. He motioned, and one of the other captors picked up an axe with a sun-bleached handle.
“It’s dull,” the man said.
The man in black shrugged. “If it takes a few swings, so be it.”
The man with the axe spat into his hands and rubbed them together. The prince turned his head to keep the axe in sight, but was pulled back by a jerk to the rope around his neck. He heard an inrush of breath, then the whistling of the axe’s fall.
The world shook, and the axehead buried itself next to his head. Laughter swirled about him as he was tied hand-to-foot and propped against the chopping block.
“Get your rest, Prince Aldrich,” the man in black said, “Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.”
King Philip awoke to find himself in the kitchens. The moon shone through a high window, and a cook’s boy snored in a pallet in the corner. Rochester skulked about the kitchen with Puppetmaster Vilas, trailing behind.
“Back with us are you, Aldrich?” Rochester said.
“How did I get here?” Philip said.
“I assume you walked, unless you’re very good at hiding horses.” Rochester peeked under a rising loaf’s towel. “No, no horses here. Just the same, I’ll skip the pumpernickel today.”
“I was dreaming,” Philip said. “Dreaming of… of…”
“Food,” Rochester said. “Why else come to the kitchens, eh?”
Philip let out a breath. “Yes, quite.”
Rochester nodded. “I was having problems sleeping too. But where a king may get up and walk about with complete freedom, some of us have to scream and carry on until our servants can get their lazy bones shaking.” Rochester jerked its head toward Vilas. “He snores.”
“How could a puppet have problems sleeping? A king must worry about his land and his people, a puppet only the next rude joke.”
Rochester looked under another flour-dusted towel and sneezed. “You haven’t the smallest appreciation for how difficult it is to find humor in this place. The halls teem with self-important nitwits hurrying from one tea party to another, conspiring to fix the price of this commodity or that. They cower under their powdered wigs and watch the horizons for marching armies, barely noticing the crows stealing shiny objects from their pockets.”
“Cutpurses in the palace? I will tell Adrian about it.”
“Him? He’s the worst of the lot,” Rochester said. “Not a crow, but a raven. Smart, powerful, a mimic. And he has the shiniest bauble of them all: a diamond on a stick.”
Philip’s eyes narrowed. “He earned that mark of favor in service of the kingdom. He enjoys our complete trust.”
Rochester shrugged, and began primping its jester’s cap. Tiny bells at the curled ends chimed as Rochester shook them with its wooden hands. “Yes, I know. Saved a prince named Aldrich from his tormentors, and in return received a diamond marque of favor.”
“Could I have done any less?” Philip said.
“I wonder if he really rescued Aldrich, or just moved his cage into the palace.”
“Rochester,” Philip warned.
“Then you made him your Master of the Wardrobe, or did he suggest it? I can never tell who the servant of whom is.”
“That’s enough, fool.”
Rochester sighed. “Very well. Come along, Vilas. A puppet could get killed making the wrong joke around here.”
Four hours into the day and the Sandurian ambassador, Luthais Talbert, was still droning though his opening remarks. His counterpart from Voral seemed to be staring at a tapestry over Luthais’ shoulder. Philip shifted in his seat, attempting in vain to keep the gold braid lining his epaulettes from chafing his neck. Adrian had insisted Philip wear the uniform instead of his robes of state, citing the need to show strength before the delegations. Again, Adrian had picked up on something, since apart from the ambassadors, the delegations were composed of generals, admirals, and marshals awash in medals and gold braid. They were nearly identical, Philip mused, all dour men with white hair and long moustaches in uniforms identically trimmed but for the jacket colors. A door opened, and Adrian, still wearing the black jacket from the previous day, took up a station on the wall across from Philip. His Master of the Wardrobe clasped his hands behind him and looked attentively at Luthais as he droned on. The diamond pin at Adrian’s collar sparkled in the sunlight.
The shiniest bauble in the room. I wonder what Rochester would say about all this?
Philip dismissed the thought. He had always tolerated Rochester out of tradition and a certain boyhood fondness, but that was at an end. The fool and his master had gone too far last night, mocking what they couldn’t possibly understand. How easy it was to cast stones from the back row and tear down what others had built. What had Rochester and the puppetmasters ever contributed to the greater good?
Philip realized Luthais’ sonorous voice had stopped, and faces from both delegations turned towards him.
What was he supposed to do? Answer a question? Was it now Voral’s time for opening remarks? As panic crept in, Philip’s eyes sought out Adrian, who gave a barely perceptible nod and stepped forward.
“My Lords, before we take up the opening comments from Voral, it is His Majesty’s pleasure to adjourn for a quarter hour.”
As the groups broke up, Adrian came to Philip and leaned close to his ear.
“We’ve had troubling news, Majesty. The puppetmaster has been found dead, murdered. Careful–” Adrian’s grip tightened over Philip’s elbow. “We don’t want to show any weakness in front of the delegations.”
Philip’s jaw clenched as he fought down the anger boiling in his chest. He looked past Adrian’s face to the diamond at his collar.
“How?” he managed at last.
“Poison, Majesty, I’m almost sure of it.”
“The coward’s weapon.”
“Or the assassin’s.”
Assassinate Vilas? “Who would assassinate a puppetmaster?’
Adrian shook his head. “Perhaps the fool saw something he shouldn’t have, and was silenced.”
“What of Rochester?”
Adrian seemed confused. “I’m not certain, Majesty. We found the puppetmaster’s body in a passageway off the kitchens, but no signs of the puppet”
“Well find it!”
“Your Majesty,” Adrian said with an edge to his voice, “we have more pressing matters than a lost toy. If the assassin is still about, we need to secure the envoys and your royal person.”
“Is this some scheme to shield us from suspicion, Master Adrian?” Philip asked.
Adrian scowled and tugged at his diamond. “If Your Majesty believes that we would act against him, take this now, and remember my service when the headsman’s axe falls.”
“If it takes a few swings, so be it,” laughed the man in black’s voice in his head.
Philip shuddered. “No, Master Adrian, do whatever you feel is necessary, but the peace talks must go on.”
Master Adrian bowed low. “Majesty.”
That night in his chambers, Philip could find no sleep. He rose from bed and navigated the cold stone floor from carpet to carpet so as not to wake Master Adrian, sleeping just outside the door. The ambassadors’ litanies blurred together in his mind to where he could no longer remember whose claim to a particular territory went with whom, or which viscount’s insult to a duke, earl, or pocket baron could no longer be tolerated. And through it all, Adrian darting in and out of the conference with his investigation’s details, but no news of what had happened to Puppermaster Vilas and Rochester.
A draft passed through the room’s fireplace, bringing a glow to the coals. Smoke stung at his eyes, so Philip went to the windows and opened them wider to freshen the air. He wondered if there was an assassin in the gardens below with a rifle. Would his breakfast would be poisoned with cyanide in his salt, or adder’s venom smeared on a fork? Philip ran a hand through his hair. The night was lost; he may as well summon Adrian and his coterie of guards to take him to the library.
A breeze blew, and something tickled at the edge of his hearing. He stuck his head through the window and turned until he saw a wooden hand dangling from the stonework. Tiny bells at the curled ends of the fool’s cap rang in the breeze. Philip balanced on the sill’s coping stones and reached, coming away with Rochester in his hand.
Philip went to sit on his bed and stared at the puppet’s painted eyes. How had it gotten there? Had Vilas hid it there? He slipped Rochester on his hand and moved the puppet’s hands and head awkwardly, the inner workings more complex than Philip had imagined. Then his index finger brushed against something that didn’t seem right. He peered into the puppet and saw a folded piece of paper jammed into Rochester’s right arm.
Philip removed the paper and brought it to the fireplace, adding a log to the coals to give him a light to read by. The mysterious paper was a letter in Adrian’s hand, and what it contained left Philip shaken: secret alliances, promises of power, treachery.
The final line: As always, I will deliver the king's compliance.
Philip looked at the limp puppet on his bed.
“Would that you could talk, Rochester,” Philip said to it.
Can you not imagine what I would say? Rochester’s mirthless laugh echoed in his head. You’ve certainly known me long enough.
Philip went to his bed and sat next to Rochester.
“How long have you known?” he said to it.
“But he saved me from those highwaymen. The man in black was going to kill me any minute.”
Funny how Adrian, a common soldier who never strayed from the garrison, one night claims he hears a noise and spies his commander skulking into the night. Strange that he follows the fellow through a mile of dense underbrush to come directly upon the bandits’ camp in the middle of the night.
“Providence,” Philip said.
Philip rocked Rochester’s head from side to side. Providence? That Adrian, with a year’s training, single-handedly slays half a dozen men and his commander, a veteran of two wars?
“He had surprise on his side. The men were drunk.”
The puppet’s permanent smile seemed to widen. Perhaps. Funny how he’s managed since then. From savior of the day to Prince Aldrich’s personal bodyguard, and now the Master of the Wardrobe. Funny how he can mesmerize with the diamond pin you yourself gave him. Funny how he dresses in black when you two disagree, rather like his old commander, wouldn’t you say?
“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
Even puppetmasters, with all the protection of the fool’s truth, worry about their own heads. Not that it saved Vilas in the end.
Philip nodded. He stared at the door. Adrian slept outside with a squad of hand-picked men, men whose first loyalty would certainly not be to their king.
“And what shall I do now?”
Why ask me? I’m just a puppet.
Philip laid his finger aside the puppet’s hooked nose.
“How true, how true.”
Philip pushed at the dungeon floor with his foot, sweeping the reeds into a pile. Above, a square hole no bigger than his hand allowed a weak shaft of light to fall into a corner. In the shadows, something scampered behind the wall.
“At least they cleaned the place first, eh Rochester?” Philip said to the puppet.
Adrian looked at him with pity. “Your Majesty, you’re not well, talking to that toy as if it were your closest friend. It’s not too late for you to seek help.”
“Help?” Philip said. “And what help would you bring, Master Adrian? A draft of poison perhaps, or something that would merely eat away at our faculties until we would sign whatever you placed before us? No, we do not need your help anymore.”
Adrian spat at Philip’s face. “You blathering idiot! Who do you think has been holding the kingdom together? Without me, you’re just a boy who shat himself at the chopping block, not a king.”
Philip slumped as his newfound courage failed him. “Perhaps you’re right, Adrian. I guess we’ll find out together, won’t we?”
“Finally, some sense!” Adrian said, and turned his head. “Guard!”
“I was talking to Rochester.” Philip said, and straightened. “Though I suppose I should thank you for teaching me something about ruling a kingdom.”
Adrian scowled. “What was that?”
“How to stage a coup.” He turned his back on Adrian and pounded twice on the cell’s door. The guard opened the door and bowed as he passed through. As Philip walked down the row, Adrian shouted incoherently and rattled the chains, becoming fainter as Philip turned a corner. He walked without hurrying, Rochester tucked into the crook of his arm. As he gathered his shredded courage, he wondered what the fool would say, and the words sprang into his head.
King Philip holds sway!
Here cometh the light
Driving darkness away!