There were eight Demons, actually. The other six were waiting outside Isodore’s room. They might have gotten her too, but my raising the alarm with the [Princess] saved her.
I learn that after I wake. That was still in Erille’s bedroom, the floor and walls still splattered with my blood and that of the Demon soldiers. There is no young [Princess], though. Just a [Healer] tending to me and the Fool, several guards, and the two dead bodies.
Later, I can remember trying to sit up, feeling the pain which makes me almost scream, and the [Healer] telling me to lie still while the potions do their work. Soon, the pain becomes a memory, but ah, what a memory.
In this world it’s possible to heal a wound in seconds where it would take months in my world. But the pain means that few people can stand to fight after taking such injuries. All but the best healing potions make you tired, sometimes nauseous—
And the agony of it can kill some people. The shock of it can stop a heart. I see the Fool convulsing as the [Healer] tends to him, crying out as his severed innards grow together and have to be pushed into his stomach before being healed.
But he is alive. And so is Erille. She is kept in a safe place, under highest guard while the entire palace and the rest of the city was put on high alert and searched. No other Demons are found, but watchful of more assassins, the Blighted King keeps his guards searching through the night and into the next day.
I don’t get to see any of it. I sleep after being treated, sleep through the night and late into the day. When I get up later, head spinning, feeling at unbroken skin on my stomach, it’s in a different room. Not mine, nor Erille’s.
A grand room. And I am lying in a bed, a large king-sized one. One with silk sheets. They’re oddly a refreshing light green color for some reason, and the bed is complete with plush pillows which are also green and embroidered with gold threads.
That is my bed. The rest of my room holds a large table and chairs to sit around it, a private bathroom, a bookshelf with a few books on it, a side table on which a few bottles of precious-looking tonics or other potions are resting…and a lot more. In short, I wake up in richness.
I get up, wobbling, and feel my knees trembling like jelly. I pat at my stomach again, feel it whole, and then remember.
“I did it! I—”
I laugh, and then shake, feeling hot, cold, and tremble at the memory of cold fear, of seeing the Demon with bloody sword, of fighting—
But I did it. I killed them. And Erille.
She’s alive. Right? And the Fool, I remember seeing him. But where are they? Not here, obviously. I need to ask.
I stumble to the doorway, then realize someone undressed me save for my underwear and pants earlier.
“Wait. Crap. This isn’t my old underwear! Oh god.”
Panicked, I have a crisis where the worst thought running through my head is that someone saw my private parts. Then I laugh and find some clothes to wear. After all I’ve just been through, that’s the least of my concerns.
I just really hope it wasn’t a guy. Or wait—would a girl be worse? An old woman? A young woman? I imagine an old [Butler] having to strip me down and shudder. I really, really hope no one talked about what they saw.
I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
“You may approach the throne.”
The voice echoes throughout the hall. It bounces off the black and white marble tiles, from the ceiling where a series of intercrossing stone beams hold up the rest of the palace overhead. I’d look up, but I know that there are guards with bows and arrows and wands standing on the beams overhead. Plus, I have to walk forwards.
So I do. I cross the distance to the twisted throne ahead of me. It sits on a dais, drawing every eye in the throne room. Those that aren’t fixed on me, that is.
The Blighted King’s throne. It is made of twisted ivory. The bones of some ancient monsters, carved into a huge seat and enchanted. Or maybe the magic is in the bones? The throne seems to shudder and grow as I walk towards it.
Just an illusion. But it makes the man sitting in the throne all the more foreboding because of it. I stare up at the Blighted King and remember how afraid of him I was the first time I saw him. Now I see an old man.
I kneel. The cold marble is hard on my knee, but that’s protocol. The Blighted King studies me, and then bids me to rise. Around me, I see the kneeling people getting to their feet.
The nobility, champions of the king, dignitaries, common people—that is to say, wealthy [Merchants] and servants and powerful individuals who aren’t nobility or sworn to the crown—and my friends look at me. I stare towards the Blighted King and the three people who stand beside him on the throne.
The Blighted Queen, imperious, stone-faced. Isodore, looking pale, but pretty collected, and Erille, who half hides behind her step-sister, peering at me. She looks sideways, and I see a flash of color out of the corner of my eyes. The Fool stands, healed, watching me.
“Sir Thomas. The [Clown]. You have done our kingdom a great service this day. You protected our daughter, Princess Erille, when our guards failed us. Against assassins. Demons.”
The Blighted King’s voice blazes with silent fury. The people around the room shift. I look up at him. I don’t want to be here, but I was spirited to the throne room as soon as I left my room.
At least I’m not required to really say much unless asked. The people in the throne room watch me as I stand, awkward, gazing at the Blighted King’s navel.
“You killed two assassins meant for my daughter.”
He says it like a question. The Blighted King stares at me.
“I…had a knife, your majesty. I killed one Demon with that. And I took the other one’s dagger.”
“You disarmed a soldier?”
“Yes, sire. I can steal things if I’m close enough. I can take a sword out of someone’s hands. It’s…well, a trick.”
There’s a moment of hesitation, and then Nereshal strides forwards. He has a dagger in his hand, the metal of the blade tinted light purple. He holds it, and I gingerly grab it out of his hands. I don’t need to touch his hands or the blade to do it. I hear a quiet susurration, and hand the blade back to Nereshal, hilt-first. He accepts the blade. The Blighted King leans forwards a bit on his throne, eyes narrowing.
“Intriguing. A trick indeed. We saw it performed before, but it seemed paltry, then. What do you make of it, Nereshal?”
The time mage studies me for a moment, impassive. He doesn’t seem wary of me so much as…intrigued. Everyone’s giving me that look, really. I guess saving Erille makes me important again.
The [Chronomancer] turns back to the Blighted King. He bows.
“It appears to be a Skill similar to a bag of holding, my King. The Fool can do the same. I have heard of other classes with similar skills. [Rangers] whose quivers can hold seemingly endless numbers of arrows. Classes like [Thief] who can create secret containers about their person. I suppose these—[Clowns]—are known for the same feats?”
I think of improbably small clown cars, tricks with coins behind the ears and a surplus of balloons for every occasion.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“A worthy Skill. Useful in battle. Tell me, Sir Tom. You claim to be no warrior, but you killed two elite Demon soldiers by yourself. Are [Clowns] truly entertainers and not warriors as you claim? Do they not fight?”
The Blighted King stares at me. I want to laugh in his face. Sir Tom? A warrior? I’m just…no.
His question’s ridiculous, but he doesn’t know our world. So I take it seriously and think for a moment before replying.
Do clowns fight? What a question. Are you counting movie clowns who have supernatural abilities and eat kids, or do you mean real life ones? Even then, there are serial killer clowns…
Rodeo clowns are known for being badasses. Dante told me about it—he’s actually seen them dodging bulls in arenas. But an actual clown who fights for a living? I shake my head.
“No, your majesty. [Clowns] have tricks suited for combat, but they—aren’t warriors.”
The Blighted King looks at me, eyes boring into me. I return the gaze. He nods slowly.
“A pity. We search for Skills that might aid our people, classes that might be worth taking. It is a shame that this [Clown] class is not suited to war. But we understand more of your nature. We give you our thanks, Tom the [Clown].”
He inclines his head a fraction. I bow, prompted by Nereshal’s whisper. The Blighted King looks at me a moment longer, and then dismisses me from his thoughts again.
“We invite you to join our personage in the gardens shortly. We shall deliberate on a suitable reward tonight. Now onto more pressing matters. Nereshal, summon the commander of the palace guard. Failure must be met with appropriate punishment.”
Like that, I’m ushered out of the throne room. I walk away as another man, pale and sweating, takes my place. Some of the people in the room disperse, and once we’re outside and the massive doors to the room have swung shut, I hear them cheering.
I wish they wouldn’t. But I’m still glad. My friends cluster around me, slapping me on the back, congratulating me. For killing the Demons? For being sane while doing it? I don’t know. I don’t really care. I’m happy enough for the praise, whatever the reason.
After that, I go to the gardens for lunch. I was dragged before the Blighted King before I could get anything to eat and I am starving.
Politics. Intrigue. Wait, are those the same words? They’re here even in Rhir, in the Blighted Kingdom. People vie to become the most important person, the most valuable asset to the Blighted King, or to control more power. Naturally, my friends and I are all small fry, but again, saving a [Princess] is usually a big deal no matter where you go.
That’s probably why I got the fancy new room. Richard, Emily, and the others certainly didn’t get an upgrade. And that’s also why I was invited to the gardens. Again, no one else from my group was. And finally, that’s how I ended up sitting with a bunch of the nobility of Rhir, listening to them gossip and talk over matters of the realm while the Fool performs for their children, some mages display illusions, and a [Bard] plays soft music in the background.
I don’t care. I’m here for the food. The servants offer me a cut of meat from a weird, long tongue. I take it and chew the soft meat without a second’s thought. It resists in my mouth for a second, then it’s soft, juicy. Succulent. I’m too hungry to quibble about the tongue bit.
“—Naturally we must retaliate in kind. I am not debating that point, Lord Yebior. But I assert that it would be a mistake to use [Assassins].”
There’s a light debate raging on at the moment. I’m sitting in a circle of about sixteen nobles, one of many groups in the gardens. Others are strolling about, talking, and the Blighted King has his own group of course. Since I have bad allergies I’m staying far away from the flowers and whatnot as possible. The people around me are some form of important, and my only input to the conversation has been to nod when everyone else does.
The woman who’s speaking is Lady Zekryia, wearing a pink and red outfit that looks a lot more practical than the dress I saw her in last time. As in, you could probably run in this one without tripping. It’s a cross between a riding dress and trousers, which looks great on her. I try not to stare.
Red. It’s the color she’s wearing, as is her sister who sits next to her, chewing on some tongue, and quite a few other ladies in the gathering. It appears as a splash of color whenever I see it.
Miscarriages. I wonder if the corruption on Rhir causes it? But Lady Zekryia is fierce, even in mourning.
“It is a fact that Rhir cannot field the same quality of [Assassins] as other continents. Purely because there is no Assassin’s Guild in our nation. Infighting of that sort is too detrimental of course, but it leaves us with a deficit of such killers in moments like these.”
Lord Yebior, a big guy with a beard and a scimitar at his hip, frowns. I take a plum tart from a plate and bite into it. Yum. I wonder what he’s gonna say? I have no idea.
“I don’t disagree, Lady Zekyria. However, how else would we send a message to the Demon King other than by stealth? I am not proposing we send low-level [Assassins] either—but surely we could contract the Assassin’s Guild on another continent?”
“For a suicide mission into Demon territory? And to send one of their best across the sea? Assuming it could be done, think of the cost!”
Zekyria scoffs openly and I nod along with some of the others. Good point. Hey, is that a fruit drink I see being served? I could use a glass.
“And what do you think your reward from his Majesty will be, Sir Tom?”
A voice speaks and I nearly jump out of my skin. A [Lady] leans over to me, elegant, eyes on my face. I start sweating as I realize I’ve lost track of the conversation.
“Me? I uh…I have no idea. I don’t really need a reward.”
The others make polite scoffing sounds. Lady Zekyria tosses back her hair, which makes me sweat harder. Beautiful women talking to me is not a normal occurrence, and all the women around me are [Ladies]. Steady on, Tom.
“Surely there is something you desire? The Blighted King’s gifts are no trifles. I imagine he might present you with a dagger from his armory, perhaps a powerful artifact? Do you have a preference for enchantments, Sir Tom? I’ve always been a fan of ward enchantments myself, but for a knife specialist, perhaps you prefer contact enchantments?”
I stare at her blankly. What is it with people in this nation? The nobles are bloodthirsty. I guess being at war for thousands of years makes this kind of thinking normal. I cough.
“I’m not an expert at uh, enchantments. All of my knives are non-magical.”
“What? Then you surely need better equipment. All of the King’s champions have artifacts of their own—I shall petition his Majesty that you be awarded a blade worthy of your accomplishments tonight!”
“What? No, that’s really…I wouldn’t want to take a valuable weapon. Not when someone else might need it, you know?”
The others laugh. Lord Yebior gives me a pitying look.
“Sir Tom, his Majesty has enough arms to outfit an army. He has opened his armory in the past in times of need, but in safer times…it is an honor to receive an artifact from his vaults, not a burden, I assure you.”
“Oh? There’s a lot of artifacts?”
“Of course! This is Rhir, after all. We have accumulated treasures for generations. Each champion is accorded items worthy of any Named Adventurer if they did not have one already. Consider Sir Hesseras, over there. The Naga. You see him? He holds the Battleaxe of Caxel. A fascinating weapon—if held, the blade doubles in size but swings as fast as any hatchet. And Lord Meliore? The Shortsword of Weeping. Poisoned, obviously, which is why he has to keep it sheathed at all times. But my favorite artifact is perhaps the King’s own blade, Blightbane, which has several enchantments. I haven’t seen it drawn in years, but it is a sight…”
Lord Yebior begins talking enthusiastically about the artifacts around him, the others chiming in their examples. I blink and stare from person to person in the gathering. And I’m going to get a weapon like that? Well…it would be cool.
One of the people in the gathering is the old woman who dueled Richard earlier. When I ask about what she got, the others laugh. Zekyria leans over to me and whispers.
“Before she became a [Marchioness], Lady Xersia was known far and wide as a Named Adventurer. She was called Xersia the Scorpion. She has her own spear—I believe she was gifted with an amulet from the treasury for her service.”
“Oh. Named Adventurers can become nobility?”
Zekyria looks puzzled.
“Naturally! For their services against the enemy, famous adventurers are often granted lands and wealth. It is one of the things that draws them here. Alas, we lose them to age or battle too frequently.”
I look over at the old woman. She’s happily chewing on a tart. I don’t think she has many teeth.
“She looked pretty good when she was dueling the others last night.”
“A Named Adventurer never loses their Skills of course, but age is a limiting factor. Lady Xersia can only fight at her best for a few minutes before tiring, which is why she seldom returns to the front. If only Lord Nereshal could halt the aging of multiple individuals in our realm…”
“Does he do it for only the Blighted King?”
“Him, and perhaps the Queen. I believe Nereshal uses the spell on himself, but his mana may not extend beyond that.”
The [Lords] and [Ladies] nod. One of them clears his throat.
“Speaking of warriors, Sir Thom, her Majesty was a famed warrior on the battlefield before she became the Blighted Queen. No doubt it was one of the reasons why his Majesty was so enamored with her.”
I glance at the Blighted Queen. I can imagine her smashing someone over the head with a mace. Yup, yup. Next to Zekyria, her sister, Lady Theras sighs longingly, her eyes on her King.
“Ah, if only I had become a [Lady] suited to the battlefield, rather than the manor…far better to die with a sword in hand rather than waste away in old age.”
“There’s many uses for your Skills outside of battle.”
Zekyria reassures her twin, smiling. Yebior nods.
“A warrior is not all that is needed in service of the realm. Consider the role the Lady Reinhart occupies in her lands for instance….”
Theras scoffs openly.
“The Flower of Izril? Hah! That brazen hussy—”
Zekyria tsks softly.
“She’s an ally of the kingdom, Theras. Remember that.”
“Nominally. She’d be far better off halting her squabbles for power with the Drakes and sending support here. But her complacency is costing her. Did you know I heard she was being targeted by [Assassins]?”
“Surely not. I’d heard they were under her thumb.”
“So you might think. But it seems her manor was attacked. Now I don’t know the details, of course…”
The talk turns towards some woman I’ve never heard about. I settle back into my chair, and hear a cheer going up. I look over and see the young children gathering around the Fool, who’s just performed a triple backflip, much to their amazement. I see heads turning, and the faces of the nobles around me are pursed with disapproval at the break in decorum.
“Tactless as usual. I suppose the Fool is recovered if he can move around like that…”
“A waste of a healing potion if you ask me. Why use such high-quality items on him?”
“He is a guest of the palace and entertains her highness. Still…I can understand given his level, but a [Fool] is nonetheless a fool, is he not?”
“His level? Is the Fool…a high-level?”
“One would imagine so, but his performances are usually decidedly lacking.”
Theras sniffs and the other nobles seem to agree. Zekyria explains as she eyes the Fool juggling twelve balls this time. As if that’s easy.
“Before he came to Rhir and pledged himself to his Majesty, the [Fool] was an noted entertainer who travelled across Baleros and Terandria, putting on performances. There are tales of the grand feats he would perform. However, these days he seems content to entertain children. Worthwhile of course for her highness’ sake, but if he cannot even repay his debt to our king with his life…”
I cough, feeling obliged to defend the Fool.
“He was taken hostage, right? And he tried to warn me when the Demons attacked.”
There’s not much sympathy from the others. Zekyria tosses her head dismissively.
“His injuries are of course regrettable. Still, he would do well to learn from your example, Sir Tom. You two are akin, are you not? But he was taken prisoner while you fought. Most admirable.”
Is she…hitting on me? She leans over and I do my best not to edge away. I know Zekyria has a husband. She had a kid. But I’m getting a vibe—then again, I’m not good with picking things up. But it seems like—
I’m saved from any thoughts in that direction by an interruption. The people around me rise and I hastily get to my feet as none other than Erille and Isodore approach. We all bow as the [Princesses] stop before me.
Isodore’s voice is polite and her smile appears genuine. But it’s probably fake. She nods towards me, and Erille.
“Erille wished to thank you personally for saving her life yesterday.”
She nudges her sister, and Erille steps forward. Her hands are in her dress, and she twists them together nervously. She looks up at me, and mumbles.
I can’t hear the first part of the sentence. Erille curtseys quickly, looking upset at being the focus of all this attention. I see the Fool grimace as he stands, juggling across the garden. He’s watching her sadly. I bow towards Erille, not wanting to draw out the moment.
“I’m honored to serve, Princess Erille.”
She nods at me and then flees. Isodore curtseys quickly and follows her. I hear a sigh from the other nobles.
“It was a stroke of fortune that the Demons did not kill her, truly. I fear she has so many years to grow, though.”
“Lady Isodore is promising, if young. A few years and she might…”
Zekyria turns to me with a bright smile.
“I’m sure Princess Erille is truly grateful. And perhaps we shall learn what reward will be bestowed on you tonight? I would be most grateful to sit with you at the banquet.”
“Ah! Lady Zekyria, I would put myself for the same honor!”
Yebior interrupts. The other nobles turn and begin fighting over me like one of the snacks. I try to excuse myself. Jeeze. Save a [Princess] and suddenly everyone’s your friend.
I wait for a reply in my head and hear none. I smile.
After more conversation, more talk and eating and a good deal of time, it’s late in the evening. Just before dinner, which makes me regret eating so much in the gardens. But I can get away at last for a little bit before then, so I make a beeline to my room. There’s something I have to do.
I get lost on the way. I went back to my old room before Richard reminded me where I’m staying now. He grins at me as I throw up my hands.
“It’s a gift, Tom. You should enjoy your new place.”
“I guess. Is anyone else upset? I don’t want them to think I’m asking for special treatment. I could ask the King or Nereshal…”
Richard shakes his head.
“Emily’s salty, but we all know you deserve it. Besides, we can’t complain. And you did nearly die.”
“I guess. I’ll see you at dinner, then? I’m supposed to sit with some of the nobles, but I think I can get away.”
I turn to go. Richard stops me.
“You did it. You saved a [Princess]. And you did it…without having a problem, right?”
He looks at me. I look back and nod, slowly.
“Yeah. I guess I did.”
His grip tightens a bit on my shoulder. Richard smiles.
I smile as well and walk away without another word. It takes me twenty minutes to find my rooms, and they’re not that far away in the palace. So many corridors and so far to walk…you could get all your exercise just going from one part of the castle to another. When I finally get to my door, I walk in, a bit tired, elated, and thinking of a nap.
But my eyes are drawn to one thing in the room besides the bed. The dresser. It’s much like the one in my old room and is, in fact, decorated with my possessions from my old room as well. I stare at the perfect mirror and get out of bed to hobble over to it. I touch my fingers to the cool glass and stare into my eyes.
The Tom in the mirror doesn’t respond. After a minute he raises his hand. I press it against the glass.
“I killed them. Me. It was…I had to do it. And it was terrible and it hurt. But it was me, get it? I did that. Me.”
I finish speaking, stare at myself. I stare back, looking a bit tired, a bit triumphant. I wait, but I don’t reply.
“I won’t be afraid of you anymore. I won’t listen. You’re in my head. You’re a part of me. But you don’t control me. I control myself, and I’ve taken responsibility for my actions.”
At last, he stirs. The other Tom looks into my eyes, and his lips grudgingly move.
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“Shut up, you idiot. You don’t know anything. You killed two Demons and everyone’s praising your name. But you know you’re not in the clear yet, don’t you?”
I stare as Tom steps back a bit. My hands go up; he adjusts his shirt.
“It’s not over. Do you really think it is? Don’t be stupid, Thomas. I might be insane, but I’m not an idiot. Neither are you.”
“What do you mean?”
He stares at me, and then walks out of the mirror’s range. I sit on the bed, hearing his voice, my voice, in my ears.
“Think about it. Demon soldiers, appearing in the middle of the night? How? And they just so happen to know where the [Princesses] are sleeping? That’s hard to do, even for assassins. If they were assassins.”
I remember seeing the dead guard out of Erille’s room and shudder.
“They seemed pretty intent on killing to me.”
I feel my eyes roll.
“Yes. I guess they did. All two of them. And there were two for the other princess. None for the Blighted King, his Queen, or anyone else. Why’s that?”
No response. I get back up, go back to the mirror. Tom stares at me. The black pits of his eyes are dark. Fathomless. I look away.
Someone organized my belongings, such as they are. I glance down at my tin of grease paint, play with the freshly laundered clown suit as he talks.
“This is just the start. You know that. And you might have killed two Demons, but you know you’re nothing without me.”
“I’m me. You’re in my head. And you can’t control me. I proved that just now. Yesterday, I mean.”
He laughs. I look up and glare at him in the mirror. He glares back, and then grins. And then the grin freezes. It slides off my face and I study myself. I shake my head.
“It’s all me. See?”
I wait. The reflection doesn’t respond. I go on.
“Me. I pretend. I get it now. I’m doing this. And I can stop. It’s my choice. Maybe I like thinking I’m insane. But I’m not. And if I don’t let you have a thing, you can stay a voice in my head for all I care.”
No response. I smile bitterly.
“Good chat. Let’s never do this again. I win. No—there was never anyone to play against, was there? Just me.”
I turn. I hear no voice, no mocking reply. It is just me.
Then I hear a whisper in my head.
So you say. I left a little present for you, though. A little reminder I’m here. Want me to tell you what it is?
I ignore the voice. Turn. What’s the old expression again? Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words…
Words can hurt. Of course they can. And thoughts can be terrible. But they will not control me.
It’s time for the banquet. I absently get ready in front of the mirror. I don’t have many good pairs of clothes, but I do make sure I have a few knives up my sleeves. Just in case.
And then I go. Voiceless. I stride out of the bedroom, feeling better than I have in months. A new room, a friend in the Fool, and some measure of respect. And who knows? Maybe things can get better than this. I don’t know, but I’m hopeful.
I might just enjoy tonight after all.
I get lost on the way to the banquet hall again. It’s my new room. Plus, I never got to know the old one that well. It’s also hard to get directions. All the servants just stare at me and point. I guess they still don’t think I’m that much of a hero. I know I’m not.
But I still get to the banquet hall in good time. The [Chamberlain] blinks when he sees me, but points me to the table with my friends.
I sense heads turning as I enter the room. People watching me, murmuring. I hate that. But I also know that they’ll stop as soon as something else happens. Give me a week, a month, and people will barely remember my name, let alone call me a hero.
My friends are sitting with their backs to me, laughing with the Drakes. I know I should sit with the nobles, but I want to talk to them first, say hi. Maybe ask if Lady Zekyria has a husband. I dunno, I’m feeling very lucky. Although that’s probably pushing any amount of luck I’d ever have.
“Hey guys. What’s up?”
They turn, laughing, at the sound of my voice. Then freeze. Richard pauses, a cup halfway to his mouth. Emily turns pale. Keith and Eddy nearly fall out of their seats. And Cynthia—
The sound cuts through every other noise in the banquet hall. It’s pure, genuine terror. I see guards start to run towards us, and sense every eye on me. But why?
“Cynthia? What’s wrong?”
I take a step towards her. She backs out of her seat, hand knocking away plates, dishes—she tries to climb over the table to get away from me. I stop and turn towards Eddy. He’s shrinking back in his seat. And then Richard—he has a hand on his sword. His face is white as he stares at me.
It’s a whisper. And suddenly, my heart’s pounding. Why is he looking at me like that? Why is he looking at me like—
“Richard? Why are you all staring at me?”
He looked shocked. Tongue-tied. Unable to explain. He looks at Emily and she breaks the silence.
“Tom. Your face.”
I slowly raise my hands to my face. Uncomprehending. Then I touch my cheeks. Feel a bit of oil, sticky slickness blended with a powder. I stare at my fingers and see white.
I look around. Faces, staring. The world blurs. I lunge for the table and people draw back around me. Cynthia screams again. But I just want to see.
There’s a plate holding some grapes. I dump them off and hold up the shiny surface, polishing it with one hand. Why—why is my sleeve yellow? What am I wearing?
And then I see. Then I hear laughter in my head, and feel the world shift.
A clown stares back at me. Face pale and white, eyebrows drawn in black. Shadows under the eyes. A red nose. A crimson splash. And red lips, just waiting to smile. The clown stares back, horrified, dressed in a bright yellow suit, splashed with faint stains the best washing couldn’t remove.
A clown. And then I turn, and see the horror on my friend’s faces. The confusion, the look of unease on the others. The guests of the Blighted King have seen the Fool, but they’ve never seen a [Clown]. Never seen a man who dresses himself up to mock the world like I do.
And I feel the floor breaking up underneath me. I didn’t know. I thought I was getting ready. I didn’t—
Is he real? Am I insane?
No. This is just—
“It’s just me, guys. I—sorry.”
I back away from the others. Richard’s still staring. Cynthia’s sobbing. Some of them are just staring at me, nervous. Others…some of them saw me afterwards, laughing. They’re the ones who look truly frightened.
I walk away from them, hearing Richard try to explain to the guards what made Cynthia scream, sensing conversation resume in the room. But the eyes follow me.
What could I say to them? What can I say? This was a joke? No. That I didn’t realize I’d put on my costume and the paint? That’s worse.
I don’t know if I should stay. But as I’m debating running for the doors and burning the costume and washing myself, I hear someone call out.
Lady Zekyria. She’s waving to me. She doesn’t appear to be bothered by my appearance. She laughs as I walk over to her.
“What a look! And what entertainment, Sir Tom! Is that what a [Clown] is supposed to look like? You’re far more diverting than a [Fool]!”
Sir Yebior sits across from me, eying me appraisingly. He gestures for me to sit. Dreaming, walking in a nightmare, I do.
It’s like I’m in one of those dreams where I go to school and realize I’m naked. Only this time, no one at the table cares. They joke about it, asking why I scared Cynthia so, listening to my garbled explanation with polite smiles. They don’t know.
But I do. I feel cold certainty gripping me at last.
I am not in control.
What can I do? What should I do? I stare towards the head table. The Blighted King is watching me. He’s supposed to present me with a reward, right? I don’t want it. I need to leave, to find somewhere alone to think—
How angry will he be if I leave now? How rude would that be? I don’t care. The nobility are laughing around me. I go to push up my chair. And stop.
“Demons are attacking!”
A man screams the word. I turn, the world slows. I see a soldier, armor covered in blood, one arm hanging limp, running into the hall, shoving aside the [Chamberlain]. Again there is silence. He rushes towards the Blighted King’s table, blocked by a wall of guards who rush towards him. He stops there, and the Blighted King rises.
“The courtyard, your Majesty! They appeared out of nowhere. A spell—they’re invading the palace and securing the courtyard as we speak!”
I hear screams now, but the Blighted King is on his feet and another man with a greatsword leaps up and roars for silence. He and four other warriors including Xersia the Scorpion race out of the hall, their forms a blur.
The King shouts one word. The [Chronomancer] runs across the hall and two other mages, a female Centaur and a male half-Elf, run over. Nereshal raises his hand and speaks a word.
A picture floats in the air, clearer than any video, large enough so that I can see it from where I side. I see the courtyard from above, dark, melting snow covering parts of the flagstone. And dark shapes, hundreds of them, streaming towards the palace. More still hold the gates while others race along the courtyard walls, swords flashing as they cut down the guards stationed there.