Fool Chapter 4
THE DRAGON AND HIS WRATH
“Don’t despair, lad,” I said to Taster. “It’s not as grim as it looks. The bastard will stay Edgar and I’m relatively sure that France and Burgundy are buggering each other and would never let a princess come between them – although I’ll wager they’d borrow her wardrobe were it not guarded – so the day is saved. Cordelia will remain in the White Tower to torment me as always.”
We were in an antechamber off the great hall. Taster sat, head in hands, looking paler than normal, a mountain of food piled before him on the table.
“The king doesn’t like dates, does he?” asked Taster. “Not likely he’ll eat any of the dates that were brought as gifts, right?”
“Did Goneril or Regan gift them?”
“Aye, a whole larder they brought with them.”
“Sorry, lad, you’ve work ahead, then. How it is you’re not as fat as a friar, with all you’re required to eat, is beyond me.”
“Bubble says I must have a city of worms living up my bum, but that ain’t it. I’ve a secret, if you won’t tell anyone – “
“Go on lad, I’m hardly paying attention.”
“What about him?” He nodded to Drool, who was sitting in the corner petting one of the castle cats.
“Drool,” I called, “is Taster’s secret safe with you?”
“As dim as a snuffed candle, he is,” said the git in my voice. “Telling a secret to Drool is like casting ink in the night sea.”
“See there,” said I.
“Well,” said Taster, looking around as if anyone would want to be in our miserable company. “I’m sick a lot.”
“Of course you are, it’s the bloody Dark Ages, everyone has the plague or the pox. It’s not like you’re leprous and dropping fingers and toes like rose petals, is it?”
“No, not sick like that. I just vomit nearly every time I eat.”
“So you’re a little chunder-monkey. Not to worry, Taster, you keep it down long enough for it to kill you, don’t you?”
“I reckon.” He nibbled at a stuffed date.
“Duty done, then. All’s well that ends well. But back to my concerns: Do you think France and Burgundy are poofters, or are they, you know, just fucking French?”
“I’ve never even seen them,” Taster said.
“Oh, quite right. What about you, Drool? Drool? Stop that!”
Drool pulled the damp kitten out of his mouth. “But it were licking me first. You said it was only proper manners – “
“I was talking about something completely different. Put the cat down.”
The heavy door creaked open and the Earl of Kent slipped into the room, as stealthy as a church bell rolling down stairs. Kent’s a broad-shouldered bull of a fellow, and while he moves with great strength for his grandfather years, Grace and Subtlety remain blushing virgins in his retinue.
“There you are, boy.”
“What boy?” said I. “I see no boy here.” True, I only stand to Kent’s shoulder, and it would take two of me and a suckling pig to balance him on a scale, but even a fool requires some respect, except from the king, of course.
“Fine, fine. I just wanted to tell you not to make sport of feebleness nor age tonight. The king’s been brooding all week about ‘crawling unburdened to the grave.’ I think it’s the weight of his sins.”
“Well, if he weren’t so dog-fuckingly old there would be no temptation toward mirth, would there? Not my fault, that.”
Kent grinned then. “Pocket, you would not willfully hurt your master.”
“Aye, Kent, and with Goneril and Regan and their lords in the hall there’ll be no need to jest geriatric. Is that why the king has kept company only with you this week, brooding upon his years? He hasn’t been planning on marrying off Cordelia then?”
“He’s spoken of it, but only as part of his entire legacy, of property and history. He seemed set on a course to hold the kingdom steady when I last left him. He bade me leave while he gave private audience to the bastard, Edmund.”
“He’s talking to Edmund? Alone?”
“Aye. The bastard drew on his father’s years of service for the favor.”
“I must go to the king. Kent, stay here with Drool, if you would. There’s food and drink to hold you. Taster, show good Kent the best of those dates. Taster? Taster? Drool, shake Taster, he appears to have fallen asleep.”
Fanfare sounded then, a single anemic trumpet, the other three trumpeters having recently succumbed to herpes. (A sore on the lip is as bad as an arrow in the eye to a trumpeter. The chancellor had them put down, or maybe they’d just been made drummers. They weren’t blowing bloody fanfare, that’s all I’m saying.)
Drool put down his kitten and climbed to his feet.
“With grave offense to daughters three,
Alas, the king a fool shall be,” said the giant in a lilting female voice.
“Where did you hear that, Drool? Who said that?”
“Pretty,” said Drool, massaging the air with his great meaty paws as if caressing a woman’s breasts.
“Time to go,” said Kent. The old warrior threw open the door into the hall.
They stood all around the great table – round after the tradition of some long forgotten king – the center open to the floor where servants served, orators orated, and Drool and I performed. Kent took his place near the king’s throne. I stood with some yeomen to the side of the fire and motioned for Drool to find a place to hide behind one of the stone pillars that supported the vault. Fools do not have a place at the table. Most times I served at the foot of the king, providing quips, criticisms, and brilliant observations through the meal, but only after he had called for me. Lear had not called for a week.
He came into the room head up, scowling at each of his guests until his eye lit on Cordelia and he smiled. He motioned for everyone to sit and they did.
“Edmund,” said the king, “fetch the princes of France and Burgundy.”
Edmund bowed to the king and backed toward the main entrance of the hall, then looked to me, winked, and motioned for me to come join him. Dread rose in my chest like a black serpent. What had the bastard done? I should have cut his throat when I’d had the chance.
I sidled down the side wall, the bells on the tips of my shoes conspicuously unhelpful in concealing my movement. The king looked to me, then away, as if the sight of me might cause rot on his eye.
Once through the door Edmund pulled me roughly aside. The big yeoman at the threshold lowered the blade of his halberd an inch and frowned at the bastard. Edmund released me and looked bewildered, as if his own hand had betrayed him.
(I bring food and drink to the guards when they are on post during feasts. I believe it is written in the Obfuscations of St. Pesto: “In nine cases out of ten, a large friend with a poleax shall truly a blessing be.”)
“What have you wrought, bastard?” I whispered with great fury and no little spit.
“Only what you wanted, fool. Your princess will have no husband, that I can assure, but even your sorceries won’t keep you safe if you reveal my strategy.”
“My sorceries? What? Oh, the ghost.”
“Yes, the ghost, and the bird. When I was crossing the battlement, a raven called me a tosser and shat on my shoulder.”
“Right, my minions are everywhere,” said I, “and you’re right to fear my canny mastery of the heavenly orbs and command of spirits and whatnot. But lest I unleash something unpleasant upon you, tell me, what did you say to the king?”
Edmund smiled then, which I found more unsettling than his blade. “I heard the princesses speaking amongst themselves about their affections for their father earlier in the day, and was enlightened to their character. I merely hinted to the king that he might ease his burden with the same knowledge.”
“Go find out, fool. I’m off to fetch Cordelia’s suitors.”
And he was away. The guard held the door and I slipped back into the hall and to a spot near the table.
The king, it seemed, had only then finished a roll call of sorts, naming each of his friends and family at court, proclaiming his affection for each, and in the cases of Kent and Gloucester, recalling their long history of battles and conquests together. Bent, white-haired, and slight is the king, but there is a cold fire in his eye still – his visage puts one in mind of a hunting bird fresh unhooded and set for its kill.
“I am old, and my burdens of responsibility and property weigh heavily on me, so to avoid conflict in the future, I propose to divide my kingdom among younger strengths now, so I may crawl to the grave light of heart.”
“What better than a light-hearted grave crawl?” I said softly to Cornwall, villainous twat that he is. I crouched between him and his duchess, Regan. Princess Regan: tall, fair, raven-haired, with a weakness for plunging red velvet gowns and another for rascals, both grievous faults had they not played out so pleasurably for this teller of tales.
“Oh, Pocket, did you get the stuffed dates I sent you?” Regan asked.
And generous to a fault as well.
“Shhhhhh, bunny cunny,” I shushed. “Father is speaking.”
Cornwall drew his dagger and I moved along the table to Goneril’s side.
Lear went on: “These properties and powers I will divide between my sons-in-law, the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, and that suitor who takes the hand of my beloved Cordelia, but so I may determine who shall have the most bounteous share, I ask of my daughters: Which of you loves me most? Goneril, my eldest born, speak first.”
“No pressure, pumpkin,” I whispered.
“I have this, fool,” she snapped, and with a great smile and no little grace, she made her way around the outside of the round table and to the opening at the center, bowing to each of the guests as she went. She is shorter and rather more round than her sisters, more generously padded in bosom and bustle, her eyes a grey sky short of emerald, her hair a yellow sun short of ginger. Her smile falls on the eye like water on the tongue of a thirst-mad sailor.
I slid into her chair. “A handsome creature is she,” I said to the Duke of Albany. “That one breast, the way it juts a bit to the side – when she’s naked, I mean – does that bother you at all? Make you wonder what it’s looking at over there – bit like a wall-eyed man you think is always talkin’ to someone else?”
“Hush, fool,” Albany said. He is nearly a score years older than Goneril, goatish and dull, methinks, but somewhat less of a scoundrel than the average noble. I do not loathe him.
“Mind you, it’s obviously part of the pair, not some breast-errant off on a quest of its own. I like a bit of asymmetry in a woman – makes me suspicious when Nature’s too evenhanded – fearful symmetry and all. But it’s not like you’re shaggin’ a hunchback or anything – I mean, once she’s on ‘er back it’s hard to get either one of them to look you in the eye, innit?”
“Shut up!” barked Goneril, having turned her back on her father – which one is never supposed to do – in order to scold me. Bloody clumsy etiquette that.
“Sorry. Go on,” said I, waving her on with Jones, who jingled gaily.
“Sir,” she addressed the king, “I love you more than words can say. I love you more than eyesight, space, and liberty. I love you beyond anything that can be valued, rich or rare. No less than life itself, with grace, health, beauty, and honor. As much as any child or father has loved, so I love thee. A love that takes my breath away and makes me scarcely able to speak. I love you above all things, even pie.”
Who had said it? I was relatively sure it was not my voice, as it hadn’t come from the normal hole in my face, and Jones had been silent as well. Cordelia? I scooted out of Goneril’s chair and scampered to the junior princess’s side, staying low to avoid attention or flying cutlery.
“Bloody buggering bollocks!” said Cordelia.
Lear, refreshed from his shower of flowered bullshit, said, “What?”
I stood then. “Well, sirrah, lovable as thou art, the lady’s profession strains credibility. It’s no secret how much the bitch loves pie.” I crouched again quickly.
“Silence, fool! Chamberlain, bring me the map.”
The distraction had worked, the king’s ire had turned from Cordelia to me. She took the opportunity to poke me in the ear-lobe with her fork.
“Ouch!” Whispered, yet emphatic. “Tart.”
“Do you have to pay to be a whoremonger? Because strictly speaking – “
“Shhh,” she said, grinning. She poked me in the ear again, then nodded toward the king, that we should pay attention.
The king pointed to the map with a bejeweled dagger. “All these lands, from here to here, with rich farmlands, bounteous rivers, and deep forests, I do grant to Goneril and her husband, Albany, and to their offspring in perpetuity. Now, we must hear from our second daughter. Dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall. Speak.”
Regan made her way to the center floor, looking down at her older sister, Goneril, as she passed, as if to say, “I’ll show you.”
She raised her arms out to her sides, trailing the long, velvet sleeves down to the floor so she described the shape of a grand and bosomy crucifix. She looked to the ceiling as if drawing inspiration from the heavenly orbs themselves, then pronounced: “What she said.”
“Huh?” said the king, and verily “huh” was echoed around the room.
Regan seemed to realize that she should probably go on. “My sister has expressed my thoughts exactly – as if she may have looked at my notes even before we here entered. Except I love thee more. In the list of all senses, all fall short, and I am touched by nothing but your love.” She bowed then, looking up a bit to see if anyone was buying it.
“I’m going to be sick,” said Cordelia, probably louder than was really necessary, as were the coughing and gagging noises she perpetrated thereafter.
Deflecting, I stood and said, “She’s been touched by a bit more than his majesty’s love, I dare say. I mean, in this very room I can name – “
The king shot me his best Must I chop off your head? look and I fell silent. He nodded and looked to the map. “To Regan and Cornwall I leave this third of the kingdom, no smaller or less valuable than that bestowed upon Goneril. Now, Cordelia, our joy, who is courted by so many eligible young nobles, what can you say to receive a third more opulent than your sisters?”
Cordelia stood at her chair, not making her way to the middle of the room as her sisters had. “Nothing,” she said.
“Nothing?” asked the king.
“You’ll get nothing for nothing,” said Lear. “Speak again.”
“Well, you can’t blame her, really, can you?” I interjected. “I mean you’ve given all the good bits to Goneril and Regan, haven’t you? What’s left, a bit of Scotland rocky enough to starve a sheep and this poxy river near Newcastle?” I’d taken the liberty of going over to the map. “I’d say nothing is a fair start for bargaining. You should counter with Spain, majesty.”
Now Cordelia moved to the center of the room. “I’m sorry, Father, that I can’t heave my heart into my mouth like my sisters. I love you according to my bond as a daughter, no more, no less.”
“Be careful what you say, Cordelia,” said Lear. “Your dowry is draining away with every word.”
“My lord, you have sired me, raised me, and loved me. I return those duties back, as is proper: I obey you, love you, and most honor you. But how can my sisters say they love you above all? They have husbands. Don’t they have to reserve some love for them?”
“Yes, but have you met their husbands?” said I. There was growling from various points around the table. How can you call yourself a noble if you’ll just start growling for no reason. Uncivilized, it is.
“When I shall marry, you can rest assured that my husband will get at least half my care and half my love as well. To say anything else I’d be lying to you.”
This was Edmund’s doing, I was sure of it. Somehow he’d known that Cordelia would answer this way and had convinced the king to ask the question. And she did not know that her father had been wrestling with his own mortality and worth for the week. I hopped over to the princess and whispered, “Lying now would be the better part of valor. Repent later. Throw the old gent a bone, lass.”
“So this is how you feel?” asked the king.
“Aye, my lord. It is.”
“So young and so untender,” said Lear.
“So young, my lord, and true,” said Cordelia.
“So young, and so bloody stupid,” said the puppet Jones.
“Fine, child. So be it. Let your truth be your dowry, then. For by the radiance of the sun, the dark of the night, all the saints, the Holy Mother, the orbs of the sky, and Nature herself, I disown you.”
In his spirituality Lear is – well – flexible. When pressed for a curse or a blessing he will sometimes invoke gods from a half-dozen pantheons, just to be sure to catch the ear of whichever might be on watch that day.
“No property, land, or title shall be yours. Cannibals of darkest Merica, who would sell their own young in the meat market, shall be closer to me than you, my used-to-be daughter.”
I wondered about that. No one had ever seen a Merican, being as they are mythical. Legend goes that in the name of profit they did sell the limbs of their own children as food – that was before they burned the world, of course. Since I didn’t expect a state visit from the merchant cannibals of the apocalypse anytime soon, it appeared my liege was either herniating the metaphor or speaking the tongue of a frothing nutter.
Kent stood then. “My liege!”
“Sit down, Kent!” the king barked. “Come not between the dragon and his wrath. I loved her the best, and hoped that she would take care of me in my dotage, but since she doesn’t love me enough, only in the grave will there be peace for Lear.”
Cordelia looked more confused than hurt. “But, Father – “
“Out of my sight! Where is France? Where is Burgundy? Finish this business! Goneril, Regan, your younger sister’s share of the kingdom shall be divided between you. Let Cordelia marry her own pride. Cornwall and Albany shall divide the power and property of a king evenly. I shall retain only my title and enough of a stipend to maintain one hundred knights and their carriers. You shall keep me from month to month in your own castles, but the kingdom shall be yours.”
“Royal Lear, this is madness!” Kent again, now making his way around the table to the center floor.
“Careful, Kent,” said Lear. “The bow of my anger is bent, don’t make me loose the arrow.”
“Loose it if you must. You’d kill me for being bold enough to tell you that you’re mad? The best of loyalty is that a loyal man has the courage to speak plainly when his leader moves to folly. Reverse your decision, sir. Your youngest daughter doesn’t love you least because she’s quiet, any more than those who speak loudest are the most sincere.”
The older sisters and their husbands were on their feet at that. Kent glared at them.
“No more, Kent,” the king warned. “On your life, not another word.”
“What has my life ever been, but a thing I risked in service for you? Protecting you? Threaten my life as you will, it will not stop me from telling you that you do wrong, sir!”
Lear started to draw his sword then and I knew he had truly lost all sense of judgment, if turning on his favorite daughter and closest advisor and friend hadn’t shown it already. If Kent decided to defend himself he’d go through the old man like a scythe through a wheat straw. It was unfolding too fast, even for a fool to stay the king’s blade with wit. I could only watch. But Albany moved quickly down the table and stayed the king’s hand, pushing his sword back down into the scabbard.
Kent grinned then, the old bear, and I saw that he wouldn’t have drawn blade on the old man at all. He would have died to make his point to the king. What’s more, Lear knew it, too, but there was no mercy in his eye and the madness had gone cold. He shook himself free of Albany’s grasp, and the duke backed away.
When Lear spoke again his voice was low, restrained, but palsied with hate: “Hear me, thou traitorous ferret. No one challenges my authority, my decisions, or my vows – to do so on British land is death, and in the rest of the known world is war. I’ll not have it. Your years of service noted, I give you your life, but only your life, and never again in my sight. You have five days, Kent, to provision yourself, and on the sixth day, turn your back on our kingdom forever. If twelve days pass and you are still in the land, your life is forfeit. Now go, this is my decree and it shall not be revoked.”
Kent was shaken. This was not the blade he had braced for. He bowed then. “Fare thee well, king. I go, for I dare to question a power so high that you give it away for a flattering tongue.” He turned to Cordelia then: “Take heart, girl, you’ve spoken truly and done nothing wrong. May the gods protect you.” He turned on a heel, putting his back to the king, something I’d never seen him do before, and marched out, pausing only a second to look at Regan and Goneril. “Well lied, you spiteful bitches.”
I wanted to cheer the old brute, write a poem for him, but the hall had fallen silent and the sound of the great oaken door closing behind Kent echoed through the hall like the first thunder of a world-breaking storm.
“Well,” said I, dancing to the middle of the floor. “I think that went about as well as could be expected.”