They say that all sorts of men walk into a tavern, and I’m not going to argue it, but they do still fall into two groups. The first one is the social drinker. He’s there looking for friends and drinking with friends. You can spot them by the grin on their faces and the expectant way they look around a place as they enter.
The other sort is trying to drink alone. He wants to get away from something, wants to hide. He wants to drown out a woman, a mistake, a life badly lived. That sort will walk in without looking at anything, head to the far end of the bar, and wait to give their order.
That was the sort of fool who walked in last night. He was utterly gray and featureless, his clothes were a drab, weatherbeaten motley. They looked like rags torn from a dozen bright dresses and stitched together without care. Mud and sweat and ceaseless wear had sapped them of their fine colors. His long, pale face blended perfectly with the gray of his former finery.
Pale, haunted eyes were set deep within dark rings that framed a long, thin, imperious nose. A kind of blonde stubble had gone to gray around his chin, looking not so much like a beard as part of a charicature of a man that the painter had smudged with lack of care. Dark lines dragged from the sides of his mouth, looking as much like wine stains as palsied skin. His gray hair was long and wispy, trailing down to his shoulders on the sides and radiating from a wide bald spot in the center of his pate.
He moved slowly and without care, drifting down to the end of the bar as though he didn’t see us. He didn’t sit down at the stool. He just picked that spot to stop.
Once he was settled, I headed over to him. My part was clear, and I knew how to play it with his sort. I moved to the end of the bar and stood across from him quietly, still cleaning a glass with my apron.
Behind him, a minstrel had given up on wooing the candlemaker’s wife, and had switched to a jaunty tune meant to enflame the people with gaity and dancing. The tone of the room lightened as people clapped and laughed and sang with the lyrics they knew. I just watched the gray man. He moved not an inch.
I waited as a courtesy, knowing the drink choice before he spoke it. I reached for the fortified wine and gave him a cup, leaving the bottle within arms reach. He filled the cup twice while I stood there and waited. Some wanted to drink alone, lost in their thoughts. Some wanted to share their sorrows as a form of exorcism.
“A fool is the joy of the king,” he muttered. I nodded sagely and waited. He took a deep breath, “A fool doesn’t just bring joy to the king. He is the joy.”
I nodded for a moment, then sensing that he was done, I shook my head, “I don’t get that. Are you the king’s fool?”
The old man looked up at me, as if seeing me for the first time. “I am no man’s joy. Not anymore.”
He looked around us, at the merrymaking tables, “A king can’t do this, you know. He can’t dance with ordinary people or sing bawdy songs. Every ball, every dance, every movement must be carefully measured out so that he does not offend this lord or that. He cannot dance with one woman too much, for fear that they be seen as courting. He cannot dance with her too rarely, or he is thought cruel. He can’t tell a joke without fearing that the wrong one may laugh. He can’t laugh at jokes without considering the subject, the teller of the tale, and the diplomatic situation with one group or another. A king measures out his vitality, and shares it with few.” He shook his head slowly, “There is no joy in that.”
I nodded, “A lonely life, to be sure. But that’s what you lot are for, yes? Everyone laughs at the fool.” He glared at me for a moment, “No offense, brother. But that’s your place, isn’t it?”
“No.” He said it flat and emotionless, and it seemed to punch a hole through the gaity around us. He gripped the cup and looked back down at the wine within, “A king must mete out his attention, even to the fool. A good fool knows this, and learns when to tell the jokes. A good fool knows who can be made fun of, and when.” He looked up at the beaten brass mirror behind me, and stared himself down, “A good fool becomes the joy of the king. He can tell the jokes the king cannot. He can insult the people that the king cannot. When a king laughs along with his jester’s jokes, he supports the jesters position without actually saying it himself. A good fool can find the strong petitioners and the weak. He celebrates the ones that the king wishes to prosper, and humiliates the kings secret enemies. A good fool makes sure that every joke he tells is one the king can laugh at, and in doing so, he learns the king’s business just as surely as the king does.”
“I can see you’re one of the good ones.” He frowned at me, and I smiled, “Well, you’ve got me in stitches already.”
“You don’t understand. The king . . . he knows the fool’s place. The king watches his every move, measures his every reaction. He wearies of watching all the intrigue and treachery. After a time, he just wants to let someone else do the choosing for him. He wants someone to tell him who to trust and who to fear. He wants an advisor who has no political stake.”
I frowned now, and placed the glass on the bar, “Are you saying the king listens to the fool?”
“I’m saying that the king can be led by his joy.” The gray man pulled his hands back away from the cup, and stared down into the open palms. “My king trusted me. He knew I saw with clear eyes and listened to the whispers behind his back. More than once, in times of troublesome conflict, I saw his eyes dart to me, to see where I would stand. If I mocked one side, he would agree with the other.”
I think the music was still playing, but I couldn’t hear it. The soft words of the gray fool captured my attention, and I was aware of nothing else. He kept staring into his hands as he said, “I doubted, of course. How could a fool have that kind of power? What kind of King would follow the wishes of the fool? So, I tested my mad idea. When next I saw a lordling come to call on the King, I targeted him.”
One corner of his mouth quirked upward for a moment, as he stared at his hands, “The lordling had the largest, most ridiculous red ears, so I deliberately ignored them. I found other things to ridicule him about, and I mocked him ruthlessly. I said his family name reminded me of an old bay my father had ridden. I asked him if his mother had known the horse, as he was a randy beast. The court laughed as I asked him impossible questions like, ‘Do you still patronize the stables with such vigor?’ The lordling laughed along at first, but grew redder and more upset by the minute. When I was done with him, the court had turned against him with suspicion and bile. He excused himself from the royal presence in haste, and I worried little, for the king had done nothing to him. I thought, briefly, that if the king had acted against him, I would stop and through my words, redeem him in the eyes of the court.”
The old man looked up at him, his bottom lip shaking, “I slept the untroubled sleep of the dead that night, and by morning the lordling was dead. Pulled from his bed by a pack who had heard the tales and spun them into accusations of perversion which were presented before the king. My king. . . my king passed judgement and sentence that night.”
The old man looked down at his cup and sobbed. I watched him for a moment, then walked away. I knew that, if there was justice in the world, the gray fool would find his end peacefully.
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