Authors: Alan Gordon
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To my best friend, fellow traveler,
fellow parent, lover, wife, and in-house Muse,
And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!
We are fools for Christ's sakeÂ â¦
I CORINTHIANS 4.10
We were gathered in the tavern to taste the new beer. I had just taken a deep, satisfying draught when a stranger entered and drew our attention. To say that he stood out would be strange, for he was an ordinary-looking fellowâa dull gray cloak over sweat-stained breeches and weary brown eyes over a drooping brown mustache. But an ordinary-looking man will stand out when he enters a room filled with jesters, much as a single sparrow will seem bizarre when surrounded by peacocks and popinjays. His garb bespoke trade; his bearing, a soldier, but in these perilous times it is a small step from merchant to mercenary and back again. Amidst the exchanges of song, dirty jokes, and routines new and ancient, my colleagues and I sized him up as he picked his way through to see which one of us he would bless as a target. Then he sat next to me and begged my pardon.
“Pardon?” I said. “Name the offense before I determine whether it is pardonable.”
“I am looking for someone,” he said. He spoke passable Tuscan but with a pronounced Slavic accent. “A fool.”
“Look past the barkeep,” I said. He did and saw his reflection in the glass. “You have found him.”
“I seek a particular fool,” he continued doggedly.
“Then you seek nothing,” I said. “He cannot exist. If he be a fool, then he cannot be particular. And if he be particular, he is no fool.”
“These are but feeble japes,” he said. “I would expect better of one of the Fools' Guild.”
“I am between engagements,” I admitted. “When the time comes, I shall fetch the whetstone of my wits and hone them to rapier sharpness. But what fool do you seek? Perhaps I know him.”
“He has been described to me as a whoreson mad fellow, all in motley, with a dry wit that improved upon wetting.”
“Look about the room and you will find twenty such fellows. And fifty more passed out in the Guildhall.”
My colleagues saluted him with an astonishing variety of rude noises. As I said, off duty. Saving the good material for the paying customers. The stranger smiled wanly and spoke again.
“His name is Feste.”
The noises continued without interruption, nor was there any reaction to the name. Years of training to hide our emotions.
“I have heard the name,” I said, “but he has not been seen here in some time. Does anyone know where he makes his living nowadays?” None did. I turned back to the stranger. “All I can say is that he passes through at irregular intervals. A message left here will reach him by and by.”
The man studied me carefully. “I bring it only as a favor to a lady. I cannot tarry here, for I have business in Milan. The message is short.”
“The easier to remember. Out with it.”
“Orsino is dead.”
No reaction, no reaction, I admonished myself. “Of natural causes?”
“His body was found at the base of a cliff. He had been known to wander along the edge of it, deep in thought. It is believed that he missed his footing and fell. An accident.”
“And the Duchess?”
He looked at me sharply. “What do you know of the Duchess?”
“Where there's a Duke, there's usually a Duchess. How fares the lady?”
“She mourns him. For seven days she stayed by his casket, watering the flowers with her tears. Then she took to the villa and has not emerged since.”
“A sad state of affairs. And the affairs of state, state how they fare?”
“When I left, they were being held in abeyance. The young Duke is but eleven years of age, and a regent has not yet been chosen.”
“When did this occur?”
“He was found three weeks ago.”
I sipped my beer idly as if I were memorizing the message to pass on. “Well, if that is all you have to tell me, I shall spread the word. If this Feste comes again and is sober enough to hear it, and I sober enough to tell it, then he shall hear and I shall tell. More than that, I cannot tell.”
He looked at the barkeep. “Can this man be trusted?”
“I trust him in all matters, as long as he pays up front,” answered the barkeep. I lifted my tankard in salute.
“And, sirrah,” I added as the stranger turned to leave. He looked at me, and I waved my hand through a slovenly sign of the cross. “I pardon thee. Go and sin no more.”
He looked less than satisfied but left nonetheless. The sounds of my comrades' revelry followed him out the door and continued until he was safely out of earshot.
“NiccolÃ²!” I called, and one of the younger fools cartwheeled up to the bar. “Follow him, would you?”
He dashed off, and I placed a silver coin on the bar.
“Am I covered?” I asked.
“Until you come back,” said the barkeep, placing it in my tankard and putting it on a shelf next to those of other colleagues on missions. “It will be waiting for you.”
I made my farewells quickly and walked briskly towards the Guildhall, thinking. It was an unusually cold December in that first year of the Thirteenth Century. We had somehow made it through the Twelfth without the world coming to an end, much to the disappointment of those hoping for a better one. There was one overly devout sect that calculated the world would last a century for each of the Disciples. They are now recalculating. Last I heard, they had decided it would take another century for the Apostle Paul. Their membership is dwindling rapidly as no one expects to be around that long. Anyway, as I fully expect to fry when my time comes, I am just as happy to keep the present situation going. Especially when the new beer is coming in.
Nevertheless, my head cleared quickly in the chill, and I thought back fifteen years. A good man, Orsino, once he had been shown his folly. And with herÂ â¦ Enough. No time for reminiscences.
The village was not exactly off the beaten path. In fact, there was a very fine beaten path that took one southwards through the concealing forest. We were tucked into a fold at the beginning of the Dolomites, and a traveler would have to go well out of his way to find us.
The Guild had quietly bought up the area over the centuries, funded by the erratic contributions of its members and the odd bequests from some grateful benefactors. There was just enough farmland and mountain pasture to sustain us without resorting overmuch to trade. The village contained a crossroads surrounded by a minimal number of shops: a wheelwright, a carpenter, an apothecary, the all-important tavern. North, the direction I was walking, led to the Guildhall itself, a large, irregular structure on the western slope of a smallish mountain. It had been built centuries ago, burned down once or twice, rebuilt several times, and added on to so that not even our historians could point to an original timber. The main hall, which towered some fifty feet high, was used for instruction and performances. Sleeping quarters were to the rear, stables to the right, although more than one of us has confused the two after a day of carousing and ended up sleeping in the stables.
Brother Timothy was conducting a juggling clinic when I entered the main hall. The young initiates sat enraptured as he flipped four clubs through increasingly intricate patterns. I thought he had not noticed me, but as I passed some twenty paces from him, a club came flying at my head as if by mistake. I caught it instinctively and tossed it back. Another came at me, then another, and before I was quite aware of it, I was in a duet.
“With two jugglers, six clubs should be the absolute minimum,” said Brother Timothy as he brought two more into the pattern. “Simple, really, it just involves an outward throw instead of a vertical one, and an inward catch as well. You should practice with each hand.â¦” The thrown clubs shifted from right to left and back again, and I had to scramble to make the returns. “Now, for sevenâ¦”
“Wait!” I yelled, but his assistant had already tossed him another, which immediately came to my left hand in a perfect arc.
“It's all a matter of rhythm,” continued Timothy calmly. “You should learn to feel a natural seven, rather than dividing it into twos and threes. It will make for a smoother transition. Don't you agree, Theophilos?”
I was starting to sweat new beer. “I've always thought of seven as eight with one missing,” I panted as the pattern started to get ragged on my end.
Timothy shook his head. “You see the error of his ways. He's losing the rhythm and overcompensating to keep the clubs in the air. But since he's more comfortable with eightâ¦”
“I didn't say,” I started, but another club was already flying through the air. I was moving as fast as I could, but each catch was a close call. I threw them at odd angles to throw Timothy off, but he caught them adroitly and whipped them back at me even faster.
“Now, with nine,” he said, slipping one foot out of its sandal and maneuvering a club onto his toes.
“I can't do nine,” I implored him, but it was too late. Desperately, I tossed two high above me, hurled one back at Timothy, flipped the club in my left hand to my right, and caught another in my newly emptied left. That meant that the sixth club, which had been given an extra hard toss, caught me squarely in the chin. I stumbled backwards, and the remaining clubs rained ignominiously down on my embarrassment.
“You're right, you can't,” observed Timothy as the apprentices laughed. I stood up with as much dignity as I could muster, took a step, and promptly returned to a supine position as I slipped on a club. As they laughed some more, I used my momentum to carry me through a series of backwards somersaults ending in a flip into a handstand. They applauded as they realized that the second fall was no accident.