The Motley Mask


With the contests at SFF World, I have a tendency to take what was meant to be a serious topic and go goofy with it.  So of course, when the topic for April was jokes, I went in the complete opposite direction.  It didn’t start out that way, but as I went on, that was where the story pulled me.  You really never can tell with these things.

The castle windows were shrouded, the dirges sung day and night in the great cathedral, and, sensing his end, King Bosric called for his fool.

Tatterpatch had traded his motley for somber black, and had removed the bells from his hat and shoes. Where his gait normally seemed moments away from bursting into a jig, today his stride was purposeful, heavy. He paused a moment outside the ornately carved door, just as he had for so many years, but not to plan a dashing entrance capped with a clever turn of phrase. Instead, he dreaded what he’d see when he stepped inside.

Tatterpatch knocked softly. A ragged cough bracketed a weak voice. “Come in.”

The widening shaft of light from the opening door knifed into the sickly gloom of Bosric’s bedchamber. The king had long since banished the mediciners from his presence; their ministrations made him feel worse than his illness did, and he had little desire to spend his final days with his mind clouded and half-asleep. He could bear the pain if it meant facing his death like a proper king.

“Teppin. You came.” Tatterpatch felt a chill at Bosric’s use of his real name.

“My king commands, and Tatterpatch lands,” he said, offering his greeting with none of the usual flamboyance.

“You can drop the pretense,” Bosric said in a breathy rattle.

“I was tense ‘ere I had pretense, sire, and so was pre-tense–”

“Enough!” There was a bit of Bosric’s old fire, even if left him wracked with another coughing fit. “I know, Teppin. I know.”

Teppin glanced around the room. They were completely alone, yet he felt certain guards lurked in every shadow. “You know a great deal, my liege, much more than a fool like me.”

Bosric sighed. “You play your part well, Teppin, right to the very end. But the curtain has come down on the play. And I’ve called you to let you take your bow.”

Teppin sketched a modest bow, his mind racing.

“I began to suspect on the day I saw you playing at swords with him, down in the gardens, when he was just a boy,” Bosric went on, every word an effort. “The eyes, Teppin. The eyes do not lie. He did not have mine. And he did not have Allesta’s.” More coughing, for what seemed like eternity. “But your eyes, Teppin. I looked at my son and saw your eyes.”

“My lord, I –”

“Spare me your protestations of innocence,” Bosric said with a weak wave. “Allesta told me everything.”

“She … she did?”

“My queen is the only reason you lived out that day.”

Bosric’s voice trailed off, lost in a memory. Teppin watched the king’s chest rise and fall with his labored breathing. This king, this man, whom he’d hated and loved in equal, baffling turns. A good, kind man who had done no wrong save marry the woman Teppin loved. That she loved Teppin in return meant nothing to the diplomats and statesmen who saw only in terms of alliances and treaties. A final night, just before her wedding to Bosric, and then she was his no longer.

Or so he’d thought.

“Do you remember the day I named you my fool?” Bosric said.

“I do, my lord.” Allesta had thought it a mad plan, when she’d come to him with word of her condition, and he’d made his vow. He would see his son grow, even if he had to do so from behind a fool’s mask. Even if it meant she would be lost to him forever.

“Oh how you made Allesta laugh. I would have done anything for that smile. And so you became my fool.” He paused. “And I became yours.”

“Your majesty, you must know –”

“Hush, Teppin. I didn’t summon you here to cast you into the dungeon, or to have your head.” He pulled himself up onto an elbow with considerable effort. “Gods know I wanted to. But I see the Green Lands before me, and I would walk those fields without your death on my soul.”

“When it is most assuredly deserved,” Teppin said, bowing his head.

“Is it?” Bosric said with a small grin. “For what crime? Loving someone before another did?” He shook his head. “I have no claim on where a heart goes. If I did, Allesta would have loved me as she loved you. Not as her duty demanded.” His voice sounded so very tired, and not just from his illness. “But there is only so much a king can command.” He cleared his throat, and Teppin could not tell if it was illness or emotion that filled his voice. “Teppin, I brought you here to thank you.”

“Thank me?” Teppin said. “For lying to you these last sixteen years? For letting you believe you’d sired an heir? For standing at court every day and staring with nothing but longing at that which I desired, but could not have? No, my lord, I deserve no thanks.”

“Well, it’s my thanks to give, at death’s door or not,” Bosric said. “And I thank you. For giving Allesta to me. And for letting me be the best thing I’ve ever been, better than a knight, better than a king. Thank you for letting me be a father to Morrit. He may not have my blood, but he has my heart. And that’s enough, I think.”

With a long, slow breath. Bosric fell onto his back, eyes fixed skyward, a peaceful smile on his face, on his way to the Green Lands.

A week later, they laid King Bosric to rest. Queen Allesta cried as she held her son’s hand, the young Prince Morrit struggling to hold back tears he feared would be less than regal. She searched the gathered mourners, and far away, behind the dignitaries and priests and guardsman, she found him, one lone fool. A look passed between them, volumes said without a word, and she held their son’s hand all the tighter.

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One thought on “The Motley Mask

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