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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

For Nick

The thirteenth Jester sweated in the center of the hall like a single rat in a room full of terriers. He removed his belled hat and mopped his bald head with a nervous jingle. It was a stalling tactic. Everyone over the age of seven probably knew that it was a stalling tactic but the Jester was only worried about the Prince.

The Prince was exactly seven.

"I'm sorry," the thirteenth Jester squeaked for his mouth was as dry as the firewood piled up around the stake that stood in the courtyard outside. He tried to clear his throat. Nothing happened. He tried again. Just to make sure, he gave it a third attempt but his throat was acting as if there was a rope already knotted to it. There was a long silence broken by a man chuckling. It was not a nice chuckle. It was the chuckle a man might make if he saw a bullfighter flying through the air in a fight where the bull won. The Prince scowled. The Jester sprang into action!

He dashed across the room like a man who ate footlong burrito and has just spotted the bathroom. The courtly crowd fell out of his way as if he were a man who had eaten a footlong burrito and will probably not make it to the bathroom. His path clear, he ran, skipped a step, stumbled just a little and then fell gracefully face first into the punchbowl. He drank like a lost walrus crawling across the desert who finds a fishbowl. For a few seconds all that was heard in the Great Hall was the sound of his mighty gulping. He drained the bowl and then smacked his lips with a relieved smile. His eye's met those of the royal steward. The Steward was not smiling. Remembering where he was and what he was supposed to be doing, the thirteenth Jester slinked back to the center of the Hall like a puppy who had made a puddle in the kitchen but thought he might get away with it. His face and motley dripped crimson punch. His belled hat, hung limp and askew like a wilting flower. He cleared his throat, successfully this time, and in a bold voice that echoed in every corner of the Hall, he asked, "I'm sorry, sire. What did you say?"

The Prince squinted like he thought he was being stalled and said the four most terrifying words ever uttered in the kingdom of the Oaks. The last four words the twelve Jesters before him had heard: "Tell. Me. A. Story."

"Ah. A story. Of course. A story," the thirteenth Jester took off his hat and looked in it as if the story might be hiding there with the swishing punch. All his life he had loved, read and listened to stories but now as he tried to remember just one, all he could think of was what had happened to the the twelve Jesters before him. For the first time in his life he wished he had become a carpenter like his father and his grandfather and his grandfather's father and his grandfather's father's father before him. What made him think he could do this? Why had he not just stayed in his little village and learned to make cabinets? It would have been dreadfully boring but there was very little risk of ever taking off your hat one day and your head coming with it. What kind of story would the Prince want? His mind was as blank as an unmarked grave.

The Prince grew impatient. "Welllll?"

There was nothing for it. The Jester would have to tell the truth... sort of, "In the land of Pennslobovia, in the village of Chalfont-along-Neshaminy, there lived a boy who didn't want to be a carpenter," he began.

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