Fool Chapter 13




Edmund. Edmund would have to be dealt with, forces turned on him, and I fought the urge to find the black-hearted fiend and thread one of my throwing daggers between his ribs, but a plan was already in place, or one of sorts, and I still held the purse with the two remaining puffballs the witches had given me. I swallowed my anger and led Drool into the castle.

"'Lo, Pocket! Is that you, lad?" A Welsh accent. "Is the king with you?"

I saw the top of a man's head sticking through the stocks set in the middle of the courtyard. His hair was dark and long and hung in his face. I approached and bent down to see who it was.

"Kent? You've found yourself a cruel collar."

"Call me Caius," said the old knight. "Is the king with you?"

The poor fellow couldn't even look up.

"Aye. On his way. The men are stabling their horses in the town. How came you to be in the stocks?"

"I tangled with that whoreson Oswald, Goneril's steward. Cornwall judged me the offender and had me thrown in the stocks. I've been here since last evening."

"Drool, fetch some water for this good knight," said I. The giant loped off to find a bucket. I walked around behind Kent, patted him lightly on his bottom.

"You know, Kent, er - Caius, you are a very attractive man."

"You rascal, Pocket, I'll not be buggered by you."

I smacked his bottom again, dust rose from his trousers. "No, no, no, not me. Not my cup of tea. But Drool, now he'd shag the night if he wasn't afraid of the dark. And hung like an ox, that one is. I suspect you'll extrude stools untapered for a fortnight once Drool's laid the bugger to ya. Supper'll dump through you like a cherry pit out a church bell."

Drool was returning now carrying a wooden bucket and a dipper across the courtyard.

"No! Stop!" shouted Kent. "Villainy! Violation! Stop these fiends!"

Guards were looking down from the walls. I scooped a dipper of water from the bucket and threw it in Kent's face to calm him. He sputtered and struggled against the stocks.

"Easy, good Kent, I was just having you on. We'll get you out of there as soon as the king arrives." I held the dipper for the knight and he drank deeply.

When he finished he gasped, "Christ's codpiece, Pocket, why'd you go on like that?"

"Pure evil incarnate, I reckon."

"Well, stop it. It doesn't suit you."

"I'm working on the fit," said I.

Lear came through the gatehouse seconds later, flanked by Captain Curan and another older knight. "What's this?" asked the king. "My messenger in stocks! How came this to be? Who put you here, man?"

"Your daughter and son-in-law, sire," said Kent.

"No. By Jupiter's beard, I say, no," said Lear.

"Aye, by St. Cardomon's scaly feet[35] I say, aye," said Kent.

"By the flapping foreskin of Freya, I say, bugger all!" said Jones.

And they looked at the puppet, confident on his stick.

"Thought we was swearing by whatever we could come up with," said the puppet. "Do go on."

"I say no," continued Lear. "'Tis worse than murder, to treat a messenger of the king so. Where is my daughter?"

The old king stormed through the inner gate, followed by Captain Curan and a dozen other knights from his train who had come into the castle.

Drool sat down in the dirt, splay-legged, his face even with Kent's, and said, "So, how've you been?"

"I'm in the stocks," said Kent. "Locked like this overnight."

Drool nodded, starting a string of his namesake down his chin. "So, not so good, then?"

"Nay, lad," said Kent.

"Better now that Pocket is here to save us, innit?"

"Aye, I'm a rescue in progress. Didn't see any keys in there when you were getting the water?"

"No. No keys," said Drool. "They've a laundress with smashing knockers works by the well sometimes, but she won't have a laugh with you. I asked her. Five times."

"Drool, you mustn't just go asking that sort of thing without some prelude," said I.

"I said [please]," said Drool.

"Well done, then, glad you've kept your manners in the face of so much villainy."

"Thank you, kind sir," said Drool in Edmund the bastard's voice, pitch-perfect, dripping with evil.

"That's un-bloody-settling," said Kent. "Pocket, think you could see about liberating me? I lost feeling in my hands a good hour ago and it won't go well for holding a sword if they have to be cut off from gangrene."

"Aye, I'll see to it," said I. "Let Regan vent some venom on her father, then I'll go see her for the key. She quite fancies me, you know?"

"You've weed on yourself, ain't ya?" said Drool, back in his own voice, but with a bit of a Welsh accent, no doubt to comfort the disguised Kent.

"Hours ago, and twice since," said Kent.

"I does that sometime in the night, when it's cold or it's too far to the privy."

"I'm just old and my bladder's shrunk to the size of a walnut."

"I've started a war," said I, since we seemed to be sharing privacies.

Kent struggled in the stocks to look at me. "What's this? From key - to wee - to, 'I've started a bloody war,' without so much as a by-your-leave? I'm bewildered, Pocket."

"Aye, which concerns me, as you lot are my army."

"Smashing!" said Drool.

The Earl of Gloucester came himself to release Kent. "I'm sorry, good man. You know I would not have allowed this, but once Cornwall has set his mind..."

"I heard you try," said Kent. The two had been friends in a former life, but now, Kent, lean and dark-haired, looked younger and more than a measure dangerous, while the weeks had weighed like years on Gloucester. He was near feeble, and struggled with the heavy key to the stocks. I took it from him gently and worked the lock.

"And you, fool, I'll not have you chiding Edmund for his bastardy."

"He's no longer a bastard, then? You married his mother. Congratulations, good earl."

"No, his mother is long dead. His legitimacy comes from the treachery of my other son, Edgar, who betrayed me."

"How so?" I asked, knowing full well how.

"He planned to take my lands from me and hasten me to the grave."

This was not what I had written in the letter. Certainly, the lands would be forfeit, but there had been no mention of murder of the old man. This was Edmund's doing.

"What have you done to anger our father?" said Drool, pitch-perfect in Edmund's voice.

We all turned and stared at the great oaf, the wrong-sized voice coming from his cavernous mouth.

"I have done nothing," said Drool in another voice.

"Edgar?" said Gloucester.

Indeed, it was Edgar's voice. I tensed at what might come next.

"Arm yourself and hide," the bastard's voice said. "Father has it in his mind that you have committed some offense, and he has ordered guards to seize you."

"What?" said Gloucester. "What dodgy magic is this?"

Then the bastard's voice again: "I have consulted the constellations, and they foretell of our father going mad and hunting you - "

At that point I clamped my hand over Drool's mouth.

"It's nothing, my lord," said I. "The Natural is not right in his mind. Fever, methinks. He mimics voices but not intent. His thoughts are a jumble."

"But those were the very voices of my sons," said Gloucester.

"Aye, but only in sound. Only in sound. Like a jabbering bird is the great fool. If you have quarters where I might take him - "

"And the king's most favored fool, and abused servant," added Kent, rubbing at the rash on his wrists left from the stocks.

Gloucester considered a moment. "You, good fellow, have been wrongly punished. Goneril's steward Oswald is less than honorable. And while I find it a mystery, Lear does love his Black Fool. There's an unused solar in the north tower. It leaks, but it will be out of the wind and close to your master, who will have quarters in the same wing."

"Aye, thank you, good lord," said I. "The Natural needs tending. We'll wrap him in blankets then I'll run down to the chemist for a leech."

We hustled Drool into the tower and Kent closed the heavy door and bolted it. There was one cathedral window with cracked shutters and two arrow loops, all set in alcoves, with tapestries pulled aside and tied to allow in the little light. We could see our breath in the winter air.

"Drop those tapestries," said Kent.

"Well, go grab some candles first," said I. "It'll be dark as Nyx's[36] bunghole once we pull the tapestries."

Kent left the solar and returned a few minutes later with a heavy iron candelabra with three lit candles. "A chambermaid is bringing us a brazier of charcoal and some bread and ale," said the knight. "Old Gloucester's a good sod."

"And survivor enough not to speak his mind to the king about his daughters," said I.

"I've learned some," said Kent.

"Aye." I turned to the Natural, who was playing with the wax dripping off the thick candles. "Drool, what was it you were saying? That bit with Edmund and Edgar plotting."

"I don't know, Pocket. I just says it, I don't know what's said. But Lord Edmund beats me when I talk in his voice. I'm an insult to nature and should be punished, says he."

Kent shook his head like a great hound clearing his ears of water. "What sort of convoluted wickedness have you set in motion, Pocket?"

"Me? This isn't my doing, this villainy is authored by that blackguard Edmund. But it will work for our plan. The conversations between Edgar and Edmund lie on the shelves of Drool's mind like forgotten volumes in a library, we need only prompt the git to open them. Now, to it. Drool, say the words of Edgar when Edmund advises him to hide."

And so we pried events out of Drool's memory using cues like a cat's paw,[37] and by the time we had warmed ourselves over the brazier and eaten our bread, we saw the pieces of Edmund's treachery played out as in the voices of the original players.

"So Edmund wounded himself and claimed that Edgar did it," said Kent. "Why didn't he simply slay his brother?"

"He needs to assure his inheritance first, and a knife to the back would have been suspect," said I. "Besides, Edgar is a formidable fighter - I don't think Edmund would face him."

"A traitor and a coward," said Kent.

"And those are his assets," said I. "Or we shall use them thus." I patted Drool's shoulder softly. "Good lad, excellent fool-craft. Now, I need you to see if you can say what I say in the voice of the bastard."

"Aye, Pocket, I'll give it a go."

I said, "Oh, my sweet lady Regan, thou art more fair than moonlight, more radiant than the sun, more glorious than all the stars. I must have you or I shall surely die."

In a wink Drool repeated my words back to me in the voice of Edmund of Gloucester, the intonation and desperation in the perfect key to unlock Regan's affections, or so I'd wager.

"Howzat?" asked the git.

"Excellent," said I.

"Uncanny," said Kent. "How is it that Edmund let the Natural live? He must know he bears witness to his treachery."

"That is an excellent question. Let's go ask him, shall we?"

It occurred to me, as we made our way to Edmund's quarters, that since I had seen the bastard, the power of my protection, being King Lear, had waned somewhat, while Edmund's influence, and therefore immunity, had expanded when he became heir to Gloucester. In short, the deterrents to keep the bastard from murdering me had all but evaporated. I had only Kent's sword and Edmund's fear of ghostly retribution to protect me. The witches' pouch of puffballs weighed heavily as a weapon, however.

A squire showed me to an antechamber off Castle Gloucester's great hall.

"His lordship will receive only you, fool," said the squire.

Kent looked ready to bully the boy but I held up a hand to stay him. "I'll see that the door is left unlatched, good Caius. If I should call, please enter and dispatch the bastard with lethal vigor."

I grinned at the spot-faced squire. "Unlikely," said I. "Edmund holds me in very high esteem and I him. There will be little time between compliments to discuss business." I breezed by the young knight and into the chamber where Edmund was alone, sitting at a writing desk.

I said, "Thou scaly scalawag of a corpse-gorged carrion worm, cease your feast on the bodies of your betters and receive the Black Fool before vengeful spirits come to wrench the twisted soul from your body and drag it into the darkest depths of hell for your treachery."

"Oh, well spoken, fool," said Edmund.

"You think so?"

"Oh yes, I'm cut to the quick. I may never recover."

"Completely impromptu," said I. "With time and polish - well, I could go out and return with a keener edge on it."

"Perish the thought," said the bastard. "Take a moment to catch your breath and revel in your rhetorical mastery and achievement." He gestured toward a high-backed chair across from him.

"Thank you, I will."

"Still tiny, though, I see," said the bastard.

"Well, yes, Nature being the recalcitrant twat that she is - "

"And still weak, I presume?"

"Not of will."

"Of course not, I referred simply to your willowy limbs."

"Oh yes, in that case, I'm a bit of a soggy kitten."

"Splendid. Here to be murdered then, are you?"

"Not immediately. Uh, Edmund, if you don't mind my saying, you're being off-puttingly pleasant today."

"Thank you. I've adopted a strategy of pleasantness. It turns out that one can perpetrate all manner of heinous villainy under a cloak of courtesy and good cheer." Edmund leaned over the desk now, as if to take me into his most intimate confidence. "It seems a man will forfeit all sensible self-interest if he finds you affable enough to share your company over a flagon of ale."

"So you're being pleasant?"


"It's unseemly."

"Of course."

"So, you've received the dispatch from Goneril?"

"Oswald gave it to me two days ago."

"And?" I asked.

"Evidently the lady fancies me."

"And how do you feel about that?"

"Well, who could blame her, really? Especially now that I'm both pleasant and handsome."

"I should have cut your throat when I had the chance," said I.

"Ah, well, water under the bridge, isn't it? Excellent plan, with the letter to discredit my brother Edgar, by the way. Went smashingly. Of course I embellished somewhat. Improvised, if you will."

"I know," said I. "Implied patricide and the odd self-inflicted wound." I nodded toward his bandaged sword arm.

"Oh yes, the Natural talks to you, doesn't he?"

"Curious, then. Why is that bloody great oaf still drawing breath, knowing what he does about your plans. Fear of ghosts, is it?"

For the first time Edmund let his pleasant and insincere grin falter. "Well, there is that, but also, I quite enjoy beating him. And when I'm not beating him, having him around makes me feel more clever."

"You simple bastard, Drool makes anvils feel more clever. How bloody common of you."

That did it. Pretense of pleasantness fell when it came to questions of class, evidently. Edmund's hand dropped below the table and came up with a long fighting dagger. But alas, I was already in the process of swinging down hard with Jones's stick end and struck the bastard on his bandaged forearm. The blade went spinning in such a way that I was able to kick the hilt as it hit the floor and flip it up into my own waiting weapon hand. (To be fair, that is right or left, whether it was the juggling or the pickpocket training of Belette, I am agile with either hand.)

I flipped the blade and held it ready for a throw. "Sit! You're exactly a half-turn from hell, Edmund. Do twitch. Please do." He'd seen me perform with my knives at court and knew my skill.

The bastard sat, cradling his hurt arm as he did so. Blood was seeping through the bandage.

He spat at me, and missed. "I'll have you - "

"Ah, ah, ah," said I, brandishing the blade. "Pleasant."

Edmund growled, but stopped as Kent stormed into the room, knocking the door back on its hinges. His sword was drawn and two young squires were drawing theirs as they followed him. Kent turned and smashed the lead squire in the forehead with the hilt of his own weapon, knocking the boy backward off his feet, quite unconscious. Then Kent spun and swept the feet out from under the other with the flat of his sword and the lad landed on his back with an explosion of breath. The old knight drew back to thrust through the squire's heart.

"Hold!" said I. "Don't kill him!"

Kent held and looked up, assessing the situation for the first time.

"I heard a blade clang. I thought the villain was murdering you."

"No. He gave me this lovely dragon-hilted dagger as a peace offering."

"That is not true," said the bastard.

"So," said Kent, paying particular attention to my readied weapon, "you're murdering the bastard, then?"

"Merely testing the weapon's balance, good knight."

"Oh, sorry."

"No worries. Thank you. I'll call you if I need you. Take that unconscious one with you, would you?" I looked at the other, who trembled on the floor. "Edmund, do instruct your knights to be pleasant toward my ruffian. He is a favorite of the king."

"Let him alone," grumbled Edmund.

Kent and the conscious squire dragged the other one out of the chamber and closed the door.

"You're right, this being pleasant is the dog's bollocks, Edmund." I flipped the dagger and caught it by the hilt. When Edmund made as if to move, I flipped it again and caught it by the blade. I raised a suspicious eyebrow at him. "So, you were saying about how well my plan had worked."

"Edgar is branded a traitor. Even now my father's knights hunt him. I will be lord of Gloucester."

"But, really, Edmund, is that enough?"

"Exactly," said the bastard.

"Uh, exactly what?" Had he already set his sights on Albany's lands, not even having spoken with Goneril? Now I was doubly unsure of what to do. My own plan to pair the bastard with Goneril and undermine the kingdom was the only thing keeping me from sending the dagger to his throat, and when I thought of the lash marks on poor Drool's back my hand quivered, wanting to loose the knife to its mark. But what had he set his sights on?

"The spoils of war can be as great as a kingdom," said Edmund.

"War?" How knew he of war? My war.

"Aye, fool. War."

"Fuckstockings," said I. I let the knife fly and ran out of the room, bells jingling.

As I approached our tower, I heard what sounded like someone torturing an elk in a tempest. I thought that Edmund might have sent an assassin for Drool after all, so I came through the door low, with one of my daggers at the ready.

Drool lay on his back on a blanket, a golden-haired woman with a white gown spread around her hips was riding him as if competing in the nitwit steeplechase. I'd seen her before, but never so solid. The two were wailing in ecstasy.

"Drool, what are you doing?"

"Pretty," said Drool, a great joyous, goofy grin on him.

"Aye, she's a vision, lad, but you're knobbing a ghost."

"No." The dim giant paused in his upward thrusting, lifted her by her waist and looked closely at her as if he'd found a flea in his bed.


She nodded.

Drool tossed her aside and with a long shuddering scream ran to the window and dove through, shattering the shutters as he went. The scream trailed off and ended with a splash.

The ghost pulled her gown down, tossed her hair out of her face, and grinned. "Water in the moat," she said. "He'll be fine. Guess I'll be going away half-cocked, though."

"Well, yes, but jolly good of you to take time from chain rattling and delivering portents of bloody doom to shag the beef-brained boy."

"Not up for a spirity tumble yourself, then?" She made as if to lift her gown above her hips again.

"Piss off, wisp, I've got to go fish the git out of the moat. He can't swim."

"Not keen on flight, neither, evidently?"

No time for this. I sheathed my dagger, wheeled on my heel and started out the door.

"Not your war, fool," said the ghost.

I stopped. Drool was slow at most things, perhaps he would be so at drowning. "The bastard has his own war?"

"Aye." The ghost nodded, fading back to mist as she moved.

"A fool's best plan

Plays out to chance,

But a bastard's hope,

Arrives from France."

"Thou loquacious fog, thou nattering mist, thou serpent-tongued steam, for the love of truth, speak straight, and no sodding rhyme."

But in that moment she was gone.

"Who are you?" I shouted to the empty tower.

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