Her Secret Friend never made mistakes, he simply took Jester the long way around.This was her reasoning at the moment that he ushered her away from the watchful glance of Blude, the Minotaur and her mother’s bodyguard, who’d been duped into a babysitter for the day, and towards a street that split into two lanes.
“To the left,” He noticed her hesitation, her wary glances at the tall buildings and the way she occasionally stumbled as she heard jeers from unfamiliar sailors. “Have faith in me. I found this surprise with you in mind.”
Jester Lavorre, armed with nothing but faith, darted to the left; looking over her shoulder when she heard the worried call of Blude
Cobblestone streets flattened to granite and limestone, with the tide smelling closer. The houses around her were unfamiliar, spread out in unorganized patches that did not resemble the orderly complexes around her mother’s chateau. She’d lived in this city for all nineteen years of her life and was drinking in each new sight that couldn’t be provided by her bedroom window.
“It’s closer to the heart of the houses, over there.” She couldn’t see her Secret Friend, but she could imagine where he was pointing. Her Secret Friend didn’t need to explain to her what she was looking for: a tower, spire like and rigidly straight, stood among the shacks and homes like a thorn embedded into the thumb of the humble and modest neighborhood’s hand. It was emerald green, fantastical and shifting.
“I knew you’d appreciate this.” Jester’s Secret Friend had been the one to listen while she read her favorite stories: tales of adventurers, and knights, and forbidden romances. “I thought you could--in a manner of speaking--add our special touch to it.”
Jester pulled out her paint set, a mural idea ready in her mind. Her Friend enjoyed it more when she surprised him.
“What are you doing ?”
Jester knew the sensation of being caught red-handed. Except the voice’s source wasn’t beside her. It seemingly encircled the area, but without the same power and thrall as her Secret Friend’s active magic. It also sounded less authoritative, and squeakier in nature with a bit of a rasp.
Jester looked up, at least twenty feet up near the tower’s peak, there was a balcony that hadn't existed before. Jester shielded her eyes from the sun, trying to catch a glimpse at the person who’d spotted her.
Jester kept her paints out, but started to fumble for a lie, “I dropped my ring ?”
There was a pause, before the scratchy voiced responded with evident hesitation and longing, “Do you need help ?”
“No, no, no I’m fine ! I found it right here see-”
“Too late, I wanna’ help !” Jester could hear a clamoring noise, shuffling coming from somewhere projected around her. The disconnect between the noise and the empty street threw her perceptions off.
Like a drawing from a scroll, lines etched and formed on the tower’s wall near her. A door, briefly flat and unrefined in nature, materialized with a pop and an authentic build. Jester could do magic: make windows fly open, fix small cracks in broken objects, and recently Her Secret Friend had begun to train in her making herself look like someone else. This was more powerful; the magic here was confident in itself.
But what came through the door was not a dashing and handsome prince, or a magical sorceress queen. The door slowly creaked open, and a girl about the height of Jester’s waist peaked out from behind it. She stayed absolutely still, but her eyes flickered to Jester expectantly.
Jester laughed, “I can see you.”
The small girl came out from behind the door, shocked. “I thought Tieflings could only see movement.”
“Eh, sorta, but I can hear you.”
“Clever, clever,” The small girl, maybe ten or twelve years old, was a messy and strange sight for Jester who was used to elegance in all parts of her life. Two thick, long braids of the girl’s hair came down the front of her red dress, which was decorated with faded yellow flowers attached by safety pins. Jester liked the girl’s bushy eyebrows, round face, and pudgy arms. It wasn’t often that someone was shorter than Jester, either.
Yet, there was clearly something off. The small girl was also wearing a scarf that covered the lower half of her face, and a long lady’s glove on only one hand. Despite the heat and the humidity, she also had a black hood and cloak covering much of her head. It wrapped around her like a cape pooling at her feet.
“Are you a leper ?” Plague ships and quarantined sailors was a frequent fear on The Menagerie Coast.
“Uh, yeah. I’m a halfling leper.” The small girl edged away, leaning into the frame of the door and the convenient story Jester had created for her. Jester had always been bad at lying, something her mama said came at the cost of Jester always knowing when someone else was being untruthful. A fair trade in the balance of things. “I think I have to go now, I’m sorry you lost your ring-”
Jester’s chest constricted, it had been months since she talked to anyone but Blude and her mama, “It’s okay if you're a leper. I could totally heal you if you needed me to.” Jester bounced forward, making sure the girl couldn’t flee through the door without hitting Jester’s foot. “I’m Jester, by the way. How did you do all that magic with the tower ? Are you a princess ?
“Are you making fun of me ?!”
The small girl twisted at the hem of her dress, the indignation and loud accusation giving way to a painfully shy and skittish reaction. “You’re really pretty, your skin being blue and your horns with all those shiny baubles. I thought you’d-...I’m Nott.”
“But you’re so cute too !”
“No, uh, I mean that’s what I’m called: I’m Nott .” Nott’s eyes darted to Jester’s tail, staring at the forked end that Jester’s mama had always compared to a heart.
This was someone in desperate need of advice from Jester’s Secret Friend.
Maybe that’s why he brought me here, Jester thought. Jester removed one of the hanging moons from her ram’s horns and handed it to Nott. She’d never done this before, never had anyone else to gift things to besides Blude, and her mama, and of course her Secret Best Friend.
Some of the weight in Jester’s chest, the one she’d grown used to having, lifted.
Nott looked perturbed, giving her a once over and holding out the crescent moon attached to the short chain. “What did I do to deserve this ?” It was difficult to hear her mumbling behind the scarf mask.
“We’re friends now, duh.”
“You don’t know anything about me.” It was true, in a sense. Jester couldn’t be bothered to really care.
“That’s why you gotta tell me more about yourself, and how you became a leper, and why you live in a big scary tower.”
“Let's find your ring first.” Nott held the moon in her palms, looking at Jester trustingly.
“Yeah, about that-”
Jester never got the chance to explain herself. The tower shuddered, with Nott also looking panicked.
“I gotta go,” Nott shoved the crescent moon chain and charm into a pocket, hands shaking. “Nice to meet you, Miss Jester.”
“But, you still have to help me find my ring !” Jester had her foot ready to stop the door, but couldn’t prepare for it literally phasing through her. It slammed closed, then phasing into the wall like a leaf sinking below water. She ran about the cylindrical tower, patting her hands against the stone petulantly.
“Why’d she leave ?” Jester slumped to the ground, hoping her Secret Friend would do what he usually did, take pity on her and give her a funny explanation. He was always good at explaining away the nights her mama couldn’t spend time with her.
“We could go on a trip and find out ?”
“Wait, like spy on them ?” Jester was never truly alone, she’d play in the crawl spaces of the Chateau while peering through crevices and holes. Her Secret Friend loved those activities and found ways to make things easier with his own magic.
“Spying is one way to put it. I like to think of you and I as more so...investigators. The only issue is...I may have to take a leave of silence.”
"But you'll be back ?"
"Of course. For you ? Always I will come back."
“Okay I’m ready !” There was no doubt in her mind that he could get her to what she wanted. Her Secret Friend had once told Jester that her lack of doubt was what made their bond so strong.
If anyone had been watching her they’d have seen a teenage tiefling babbling to herself before getting oddly quiet and having her eyes grow distant. To Jester, she and her Secret Friend were growing to impossible sizes and lengths, swimming through magnetic walls, till eventually snagging themselves onto a break in the repellent: Nott, the halfling.
Nott was in a, well a room for sure, the walls were hazy to Jester. It was like being sure of seeing someone in the corner of your eye, just to turn and meet darkness.
Nott twisted her hands and looked up at something difficult to focus on, potentially a person.
“She was really sweet, and she didn’t even ask about Yussah at all.”
The person responded in a way that made Nott roll her eyes; someone was lecturing her.
“It’s a boy; red haired, doe-eyed, fancy clothes, stick too far up his ass.” Her Secret Friend could perceive more than she could. Jester laughed behind her hands, knowing Nott and the boy couldn’t hear her, but doing so reflexively from so many pranks practiced at the Chateau.
“No, she didn’t hurt me,” Nott smugly pulled out the crescent moon on a chain. She rolled her eyes again. “He won’t take it away because he’s not going to find out.”
Jester hummed angrily, hoping whoever this asshole was that he wouldn’t take away the gift.
Nott’s eyes dropped to the floor, “Yussah wouldn’t know unless you told him...”
“The little one has him wrapped around her claw. ”
Jester nodded, not exactly understanding what her friend was seeing but filling in the blanks as she went along. Maybe Yussah was their dad ? Was the boy her brother ?
Nott’s form faded, and Jester awoke to Blude picking her up and carrying her home.
She wouldn’t see them again for three months, she didn’t look for them from her window because she knew they were too far. She’d sometimes get a glimpse of the tower though, and think of them in passing.
The Traveler, Her Secret Friend now dubbed officially with a title of his choosing, encouraged her to find the strange halfling girl and the boy.
“I’m hoping to watch the way you make the scrawny one squirm,” The Traveler said, levitating the colored liquid from the cup Jester was using for her watercolors. He no longer remained unseen, his green cloak and masked face took up a spot hovering above her. “ I wonder how red you could make him turn. ”
“I could make him blush so hard,” Jester tossed her hand amidst the floating colored water. It was orange and coral from her painting the sunflowers her mother’s last suitor brought. “He’d be redder than his stupid hair !”
Mama had been frazzled over her escape from Blude. Jester had promised to take a breather, for her mama’s sake, and stay in the safety of The Chateau.
The Traveler failed to understand why Mama’s health was so important, and pestered her to go out on her own.
“Would you like to see them next time you’re released ? ”
“You can do that ?” Jester whispered to him in the dark of her room. He kept her company tonight: her mama had an important client who'd wanted a full dinner and night experience.
Blude, had a good nature and vowed to protect Jester from anything that brought her harm, but he didn’t learn from his mistakes. The next day Jester and the Traveler executed their mission. The Traveler set off a series of firecrackers and ushered her towards an abandoned jetty near the beach, laughing in her ears while Blude and a crowd of Nicodranus merchants jumped about.
The retainer wall between the cobble stone and sand invited her to jump up and play a balancing game.
“How about you try looking a little distance ahead, see what I’ve found for you this time.”
Jester recognized Nott first, huddled ten feet away from the water and shouting. A pasty boy with red hair, maybe two years older than Jester, was leaning forward and splashing a little bit of the foamy surf to the sand. He appeared to be trying to coax Nott in.
He only had his boxers on.
“Your face is darkening.” The Traveler whispered in Jester ear, making her shiver. He’d never snuck up on her like that. “I thought you’d be used to seeing a little skin.”
It was true. Her mother’s clients couldn’t wait to get their clothes off.
Jester could make out Nott shaking in all her layers despite the blistering heat of the coast. The boy sighed and walked up to her, leaning down to pat her head covered by her hoodie. Jester's questions piled up: Is Nott adopted ? The boy’s skin is pasty and Nott’s is dark. Is that Yussah ? Is Yussah not their dad ?
Nott threw her arms around the boy's neck, allowing him to lift and carry her to a spot on the beach they’d set up with an umbrella.
The overpowering need to meet them, spend time with them, and give up the advantage of hiding overcame Jester. She bounded forward, clumsily taking off her shoes to skip across the hot sand.
“Nott ! Hey ! Nott,” Jester yelled, catching both of their attentions. The braid Nott had been sucking on dropped from her mouth in shock. “Look, I found my ring.” Jester turned the last word into a tune and held up her hand (adorned with a piece of jewelry her mama had gotten for her).
“Caleb, I told you she lived here.” Nott boasted at the red haired boy when Jester came close enough. He wouldn’t look at her, keeping his arms crossed and head down.
The boy kept his eyes trained at the sand on the ground, “ Ja, you did say that.”
Jester rocked back and forth on her heels, expectantly waiting to be invited to sit with them.
“Sooo..Did you get to keep my moon charm ?” Jester hated the long pauses filled only with surf breaking against the shore.
Nott and Caleb flinched in unison. They looked at each other; Nott took that as her cue to explain: “Yeah, yeah it’s under a floorboard right next to my bed. I have it with my broken pottery and stamp set.”
Why’s he pissed off at me, Jester thought, not missing how the boy was ignoring her. The Traveler is right. He needs to be messed with.
Caleb, eyes still looking at the sand, nodded a bit. He’d started rubbing his arms and adjusting bandages that ran up and down from his wrist to his elbow, like stripes on a jungle cat.
Jester pinched her lips and said, “You know if you go swimming with those on they're gonna’ smell bad and get crusty.”
“I have just met you.” He responded, mumbled and barely intelligible.
Jester crossed her own arms, trying to mimic him.
Nott started to babble as a means of filling the tension in the air, “Caleb can do magic and he’s real good. He’s even teaching me. Yussah picked him out, only him because he knew how good he’d be-”
“Nott, maybe- perhaps don’t.” Caleb’s stumbled words overlapped Nott’s. Jester couldn’t see Nott’s mouth behind her scarf, but could hear the small ‘sorry’.
When The Traveler first started teaching Jester magic it was in tiny samples. Flickering lights and windows moving; she didn’t need to move her hands, or speak too many words, it was more along the lines of imagining in her head that The Traveler or her Mama was watching and that she was putting on a show.
The sand on the beach vibrated and Jester’s voice grew to an amplified proportions. Jester made sure her voice was loud enough that it could drown out a hundred annoying Caleb’s, “I can do magic too !”
Jester’s mother couldn’t do Divine works like she could--but she could sing, listen, learn. The biggest difference between Jester and her Mama, unfortunately, was a standing ovation. Every night her mother received applause, people would cry with joy occasionally.
What Jester received for her magic: an old woman with an apple cart, who raised an eyebrow before quickly wheeling away. Nott’s eyes were flickering towards Caleb, gauging his reaction. Caleb stayed painfully still, embarrassed even though they were the only three people on the beach.
“I can also paint, and play piano, and dance, and forge legal documents; and if you want I can make creepy whispers surround us if you guys want-”
“Jester, you should walk home with us.” Nott leaped up and took her hand, pulling Jester a few feet away from Caleb and towards the street. Turned out Nott was a great thief, she showed Jester a few baubles she’d snapped away from other people in town. Caleb, of course, trailed a few feet behind them.
And when Jester told Nott that stealing was one of the worst crimes you could commit in Nicodranus, right next to murder and piracy, Nott winked at her and muttered something along the lines of, ‘Only if I get caught, and only if they find a way into Yussah’s tower.’
“I like this one. The goblin knows what’s good.” The Traveler whispered into Jester’s ear, and she smiled in agreement, briefly wondering why he was calling Nott a goblin. Jester shrugged it off as a nickname and continued listening to Nott talk about how she'd learned that wine could go stale after a year.
Jester buried her head in her pillow. Everything had been going perfectly with William before that stupid fucking waitress.
Jester wasn’t allowed entirely free reign of The Chateau, but it was getting harder for her mama to keep her secluded to the upper levels. The crawl spaces that Jester had loved when she was five were tightening each morning.
And the staff and guests were complaining of a ghost.
William had been cleaning dishes in the kitchen and spotted Jester on one of his shifts. They’d been friends. Only friends. Friends were okay. Friends were fine. Had they been friends ? Or did William just like when Jester brought him pastries ?
“моя любовь, my Little Sapphire...Oh, my sweet.” Jester’s mama cooed over her, brushing Jester’s hair while she lay face first against a pillow. “Do you remember what I tell certain customers who get heart sick ?”
Jester raised her head, snot dribbling down her chin. She felt safe being gross in front of her mother and The Traveler--no one else. “You say ‘Make sure you take a piss after we finish or else’-”
Her mother chuckled and rolled her eyes, “Don’t sell the sun for a candle, my Sapphire.”
She tucked Jester in, leaving the blinds open for her to watch Nicodranus by night. No one except Jester would know how much it frightened and pained The Ruby of the Sea to leave the blinds open, to not check and be certain that there were only three people on the stairwell to her chambers. Even going out onto the walkway of the Chateau caused her mama to sway and clutch at her shawl as a lifeline.
To let the world have a view into their sanctuary was a battle.
Jester was dozing, but sat up quickly with her fists ready and alert when she heard a tapping at her window.
“Jester, is that you ?” Nott, the little halfling, sat crouched at her windowsill with a tiny globe of light floating in a jar. She was dressed like a burglar.
“Are you breaking into my house ?”
“It was more like I was visiting your house.” Jester’s window was three stories up and towards the back. Watching Nott teeter on the balls of her feet gave Jester a sensation of mild awe and envy.
“Will Caleb be mad that you're out ?” Nott and Jester had a few rendezvouses after the beach incident. Caleb trailed them too, a book in his hands. He was usually intently reading, staring into space, counting to himself--when he did grace them with a comment it was to remind Nott they had to be ‘back to the Tidespeak soon’.
“He’s the one who helped me find you,” Nott pushed open Jester’s window and kept talking, despite Jester’s gasp at the broken latch that was bent and altered from Nott’s tools. “He remembered exactly what you look like, so he started a ritual and gave me directions and kept a balcony open for me. Yussah’s out on errands and Wentsworth is dumb as a sack of rocks.”
Jester couldn’t imagine Caleb being anything but smelly and boring. Any prank or offering to the Traveler was marked by him looking around annoyed and then lecturing them afterwards.
Nott squinted her eyes at Jester, “Were you crying ?”
Jester and Nott loved trouble; it was a shame they were both horrible liars.
Nott set her glowing orb on Jester’s writing desk, clamoring up to Jester’s bed to sit beside her. For a little halfling girl she was amazingly nimble on all fours.
Nott pulled a flower from one of her ratty braids and stuck it by Jester’s horn, “Did William do something ?”
Jester shimmied her shoulders, trying to shrug and pretend. It was easier to be funny and make a joke than admit that she’d kissed William, and been shoved away.
“Want me to kill him ?” Nott put another flower in Jester’s hair. “I’ll bust his fucking knee caps in. I’ll shoot him with rocks and then make goblins haunt his house.”
Jester shook her head, wiping away tears that she knew Nott shouldn’t be able to see in the dark. Another weird trait about her halfling friend.
“How’d you even get to my window ?”
“The power of friendship.” Nott pulled from her belt a round copper flask. Ah, that explained the smell coming off of her, Jester realized. “Here, try some.”
“You’re like twelve.”
“I’m fourteen tomorrow.” Nott shoved her flask under the cloth scarf hiding her lower face, took a gulp and swayed before leaning her head against Jester’s arm. Jester sputtered, frantically looking around her room for her jewelry box. “Jessie, I don’t have enough flowers to exchange for all the rings you give me.”
“Because Caleb takes them all away,” Jester threw her jewelry box on the bed, dumping out tangled pearl necklaces and tarnished silver. She opened a box with a locket with more force than necessary, causing it to fly somewhere in the room. “And still you give me shit when I cast spells on his cat.”
“Why do you have it out for him ?” Nott never failed to defend Caleb. Behind every one of Caleb’s annoying reminders to be home soon, Nott would whisper to Jester something along the lines of, ‘He gets cranky without his books,’ or ‘Yussah made him stay up late. He’s tired.’
“It’s my job, Nott ! The Traveler gets more magic when people like Caleb are... pushed. ”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Nott curled up around one of Jester’s pillows. “He’s actually a really good guy. I think he’d be nicer if Yussah didn’t lock him in the lower floors.”
This was new information for Jester. Any mention of Yussah, the wizard who owned the Tidespeak Tower, was breezed over by Nott.
“Why does he do that ?”
Nott thumbed at her hoodie, “Caleb said I overshare with you.” Jester poked Nott with her tail. Coaxing her drunk friend to gossip. “Caleb’s a real good liar. Brilliant liar,” Nott slurred her words. “He could sell fish back into the sea.”
“Any time Yussah is about to send me to our room, or whatever, Caleb steps in and tells Yussah whatever I did was him.”
“That’s nice of him.” Jester remembered watching Caleb and Nott that first day on the beach. The way he’d picked Nott up and carried her away from the water.
“I told him- I said, ‘Cay, you don’t gotta do that cause Yussah won’t lock me in the lower floors. He’ll just roll his eyes and yell at me a little.’ But he doesn’t listen.”
Jester chewed on that thought. Her mama never yelled at her, never chastised her about haunting the guests, or talking too much about the Traveler. Sometimes Jester wondered how far she could go before her Mama told her to stop.
And then Jester would forget that strange idea. It was too depressing and the Traveler wouldn’t approve.
Nott continued, “He makes Caleb stay awake for some days. Yussah’s an elf and doesn’t have to sleep, I guess.”
“Nott, have you ever kissed a boy ?” Jester didn’t like thinking about Caleb outside of the role she’d given him. He was a smelly jerk. That was it.
“Yeah, and a girl one time.” Nott didn’t mind the sharp transition of subject.
“Was it nice ?”
They spent the next hours talking about everything important: if two guys were on the moon and one killed the other; would Nott take an arrow for Jester; does ravioli count as a sandwich; the worst sea monsters that lived in the ocean; and the best looking customers Jester had seen come through the Chateau.
When Nott finally stumbled her way to the window (knocking a chair over and giggling through her hands) Jester swore she spotted a claw poking through Nott’s glove.
The Traveler the next morning shrugged his shoulders coyly when she asked about it.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
She found out the next week.
The Chateau was historically boring during the morning hours, she watched servers fret over the order of forks and her mama was always sleeping off the night prior. Tutors occasionally came to give her lessons, but Jester had chased most them away in the last year.
Jester sat on the front steps leading to her mama’s secret apartment, head in her hands, waiting for a potential victim of her mischief to appear.
“ N-Nein --no, you don’t understand !” A heavily accented voice yelled from the front lobby entrance. Jester perked up, snobby guests were good targets for a joke. She contemplated creeping to her peephole in the attic, or risking tip-toeing there herself. “I know she lives here--It’s impossible that she doesn’t.”
Jester recognized the voice then, surprised by how uncharacteristically loud it was, “Caleb ?” She bolted in, knowing her mama would be flustered if she learned that Jester’s friends were coming over to the Chateau to harass the employees--that was Jester’s job, anyway.
Jester didn’t like the Caleb that stood before her. His plain clothes were rumpled, as usual, and he looked every which way unable to focus--all very typical. It was the panicky and puffy eyes that threw Jester off. His nose and face looked a flushed tone.
The butler at the concierge desk’s face turned red, “Miss Lavorre, may I please ask you to-”
“Nott, told me you had arcane healing.” He had a bundle of rags in his arms, rags that she realized was Nott disguised, her yellow dress peeking out and a small groan coming from her. Caleb didn’t look very strong, but Nott was small so he must have carried her.
“I’m hurting. You can respond to this message.” Nott mumbled and Caleb started shushing her.
“I mean, like, I am a really good healer. But, I don’t know-”
“Miss Lavorre, your mother will not appreciate this.” The concierge chimed in.
“Now we have to help them.” The Traveler buzzed in her ear. He was invisible, but even Caleb looked around as if he too had felt a presence. “I’d much rather see that bell-hop turn red than the boy. Ah, look at that--it’s already happening.”
The Concierge had gone crimson in the face.
“Come this way,” Jester lead Caleb away from the concierge, who was frothing at the mouth. ”We can take my secret elevator.”
“That’s a dumb waiter.” Caleb corrected, and Jester was reminded that she was doing this for Nott.
She brought them to her room, motioned for Caleb to unravel Nott from the blankets, but he froze in place at her doorway, holding Nott closer to his chest.
“You’re squeezing me.” Nott’s head popped up over the blanket.
“Entschuldigung... I’m sorry--sorry” He looked around at Jester’s room, his eyes darted this way and that like a frightened animal. Jester had painted the entire place herself. Doodles of The Traveler and flowers were her primary pieces...Also a few crude elements and naughty symbols. “You have to swear you won’t make a big deal out of this.”
Jester rolled her eyes and patted her bed, “You’re so fucking dramatic, oh my god.”
“I know, right ?” The Traveler invisibly swirled around her, Caleb looked pale.
He practically marched to Jester’s bed, gently placed Nott down, and then pointed at her to Jester like a general commanding a seargent. “Her arm is broken.”
Nott sheepishly shrugged, her mask over her face still and her arm clutched at her side. “I got a little tipsy again. Not a good combo with the stairs.”
Nott and Caleb were giving each other their ‘looks’. The ones that they had for when only they were communicating through their own thoughts.
“Jester, please don’t be mad at me.” Nott looked to Caleb for reassurance.
Jester would have chastised Nott about her drinking, but she realized what she was referring to was her mask and her long sleeved cloak. Caleb rubbed his left arm, but stopped when he saw Jester examining him and Nott’s reactions. Jester, with a non-verbal nod of permission from Nott, started rolling up the sleeve of the broken arm.
All the Traveler’s mentions of goblins suddenly made sense: Nott’s arm was perfectly normal until about the elbow, there the skin faded from brown to a forest green. Jester removed the mitten Nott was wearing, the ones that had confused Jester when she’d first met her. The hand was crooked, taloned, and four fingered with the same green pigment. The whole thing was twisted at an odd angle, and Jester didn’t need to be a doctor to know that wasn’t right.
Nott sighed, “Might as well do the rest.”
A shoe came off, and not a halfling foot but a chicken styled, three toed thing was revealed. Next was her hoodie, long and large green ears popped out from the side of her head. Finally (with the longest amount of hesitation, and Caleb having to come help her untangle it) the scarf as well. Needle sharp teeth jutted this way and that, peeking out from under her lips.
Caleb started folding Nott’s scarf, “Please.. Bitte, don’t tell anyone. Don’t make a big deal of this, please.”
“To be honest, I was expecting leprosy.” Jester joked and Nott smiled, for the first time she was seeing Nott smile and even with the jutting teeth it still looked cute. “You said you weren’t cute, Nott. Why did you lie to me ?”
Jester slowly placed her hand on the curved twist. Nott had been sweating the entire time, likely ignoring the pain as best she could.
Nott shrugged, “You were lying about your ring and I didn’t want to feel left out.”
“I’m glad I found this one for you.” Unknown to Nott, the Traveler’s hands were atop Jester’s--guiding their movement to channel the magical healing. “It pleases me to see you being my conduit. I’m proud.”
The arm twisted back into place, animated from a radiant light that shallowly hummed through Jester’s hands. She’d fixed cuts, bruises, a back ache for her mama. This was very, very new.
It was pleasing. It was wanted.
No one applauded for Jester, though. Nott swayed and passed out. Caleb yelped in horror and started checking her pulse.
“You practically snapped it back into place-” Caleb started running his hand through his curly red hair. “You didn’t say it was going to- just animate !”
“You’re welcome.” It was easy to forget how annoying and whiny he could be. One second he’d be caring for Nott, gentle, earnest. The next he was insulting. “Maybe I’d have done it better if you weren’t giving me shit !”
His face twisted and something like an apology started to form in his demeanor, “You must swear that you won’t share this information.”
“I already said I wouldn’t,” Caleb began itching at his arms again. “I mean--really--who’d believe me: ‘Yeah a little half-halfling, half-lizard-goblin girl lives in the castle’.”
Caleb paused, staring at her like she was a puzzle. “I would believe you.”
Jester shook her head at him and crossed her arms.
“Yeah, because the secret wizard in the tower also has a wizard son--and by the way the tower gets bigger and smaller like a bad erection.”
Caleb winced, missing her joke entirely, “You also must...Please don’t- Ah, scheibe... Nott loves you so much.”
“I’m super lovable.”
“She talks about you all the time. She was wilting, before.” A potent silence filled the room. Caleb must have felt it too because before Jester could make another joke he started a full monologue. One part for Jester, the other part clearly for himself. “It’s not her fault she fell. We were messing around and playing a game of mine. It’s funny; she scales walls and bookcases everyday, but this time she slipped. I wasn’t fast enough to slow the fall. We can’t go to a real doctor, they’d be angry and Yussah would figure out sooner or later that we broke into his potions cabinet. He can sense when things have been changed and I didn’t want to contact him. I don’t understand how she fell. ”
“It’s called alcohol, Caleb.” He nodded. Reluctantly accepting what Jester was implying. “What even were you guys playing ?”
“A game I’d learned a while ago. Grounders.”
“I know Grounders ! Infection Tag is so fun !” Jester had fond memories of watching other kids play in between the buildings of the Chaetua. The person who’d been ‘it’ having their eyes closed, listening to try and find their friends who couldn’t touch the ground, scaled alongside window frames and on top of garbage cans. Jester’s mama had complained of how dangerous it was.
Jester had always wanted to play.
“ Ja, it’s fun.” Another silence developed. Nott breathed heavily in her stupor, the pain and a drastic shift in her arm had put her entirely to sleep. “That was incredible what you did. Thank you.”
“The Traveler did all the work.”
“Is that who I felt moving about ?”
Even Nott, who helped Jester with worshiping the Traveler with graffiti, hadn’t sensed him. “You noticed him too ?”
Jester shimmied closer to Caleb, he was taller than her and she had no qualms about entering his space, standing on her tiptoes to interrogate him properly.
Caleb rubbed the back of his neck, he restarted his sentence a few times to find the right words, “Yes, fey dybbuks. Frumpkin told me of the energy bound to you.”
“The Traveler is way cooler than your cat.” Jester poked his chest and Caleb wrinkled his nose.
“No one is cooler than my cat.”
“Not even Nott ?”
He shrugged his shoulders, a tiny smile peaked out from his face, “Nott is a close second.”
He didn’t leave after that, though a few times he started to pick up Nott and try when she woke up. Her response had been wanting to stay and sleep off more of the healing, and Caleb had folded for her instantly. Jester would loop him back into a conversation, prod at him and tease. He started asking about her drawings, and then she started asking him about Frumpkin, his cat. He snapped the cat into existence, the magical creature bounced about and they watched him chase dust around the room.
“I’ve been here for exactly eight hours and eleven minutes.” Caleb said at random after they’d settled into a more comfortable quiet watching Frumpkin. It wasn’t like their awkward pauses, but when Jester tried to describe the differences to herself they didn’t formulate. It felt right. And that’s all the truly mattered to her.
“How do you keep track of that ? You just know the times.”
“I start calculating the moment I wake up.” Caleb told her, like it was perfectly common and reasonable to expect that.
“Shit, what time is it ?” Her mama hadn’t come to check on her. The stars outside indicated she was about to perform. “You wanna see something special and for free ?”
Caleb hesitantly looked at the resting Nott. He’d undone her braids for her when she’d woken up, “Okay, but not for long…”
Was it sacrilegious to show Caleb the crawl spaces that she and The Traveler had discovered and honed ? Or was this what he’d expect of Jester ? The Traveler explained to her that the more they did, the more he could teach her. He’d promised wonders like bringing people back from the brink of death.
She couldn’t know where she’d need either of those skills, but with Caleb’s hand wrapped around hers--cobwebs and dust between them--she liked the idea of someone believing her about her powers and The Traveler.
Jester wasn’t stupid. She knew her mama sometimes was smiling through Jester’s explanations of her secret friend. It was Caleb who had believed her instantly, beating even Nott.
It was strange, placing him as the ‘first’. Firsts weren’t always momentous; Jester’s first lost tooth passed by with little fanfare, but her first time outside the Chateau had included her mother wringing her hands and almost crying.
“It’s tight in here.” Caleb’s breath was hot against Jester’s nose and they had to shove their heads against each other to see through the hole in the wooden grain. “I don’t smell too bad, right ?”
Jester remembered whispering to Nott about how Caleb fluctuated from looking pristine to a bum, then laughing at the way he’d ducked his head and feeling good at being able to win against him. Why had she seen all her interactions with him as a competition ?
“You smell, uh,” this close he did smell nice to her. They were both on their stomachs, arms tucked under their chests, staring through a quarter sized hole in an attic above the dining hall. “You’re like a matchstick.”
He smelled like a bonfire sometimes. Other days he smelled like the sulfur around a fire.
One of her mother's clients had written to her once and said that her red skin was a pyre he wanted to burn on. Caleb smelled like a fire. But that to Jester was where the similarities ended. Fire couldn't be timid.
“You smelled me ?”
Jester began to think of an excuse, but was saved by the beginning of her mother’s performance. She’d seen her mother act a thousand times, but watching it with someone else made it feel like the first. Her mother’s song was held on a dangling swing, creating the illusion that she was in a blooming grove.
The performance continued into its second part. Jester turned her head towards Caleb wanting to see his reaction, but he was not looking through the hole in the attic. He’d been staring at her, unable to turn his head fast enough away before Jester caught his quick and clumsy attempt at hiding it.
What a weirdo.
“He’s got an eye for a better show.” The Traveler explained.
Adam was her first kiss, and it went horribly. Not as bad as William shoving her away before her lips could graze him. Still, horrible, though.
He’d pointed and laughed at her, so of course she’d gone running to go break things with Nott.
“I’m such a dumb ass. He wasn’t even that cute. Seriously who gives a shit about boats and sailing.” Jester was mostly telling this to herself. Her heart had told her that Adam being a sailor was meant to be. Her mother and father had met that way and Jester wanted the same.
Everything except the part where her dad left, though.
“It’s because you weren’t playing spin the bottle.” Nott patted Jester’s shoulder. They sat at the base of the Tidespeak. Jester threw another glass bottle, and without looking Nott fired her crossbow. The bottle shattered upon impact in air, and both girls shielded their eyes. They laughed with crazed glee at their homemade fireworks.
“We’re creating a lot of work for the Zolezzo.” Caleb peered out from a fabricated door. Jester didn’t miss the deep and dark circles under his eyes. It was a new factor of their friendship, realizing how exhausted Caleb always looked.
“You’re supposed to be in bed !” Nott had a funny habit of climbing over and on top of Caleb’s back, ruffling his hair and hanging onto him as she checked for signs of weariness.
“Wentsworth is in a fit cleaning before Yussah gets back.”
Jester had seen Wentsworth once, a small goblin man wearing a fine coat and clutching a pocket watch in his claw. He’d been the one to open the door for Nott and Caleb one afternoon, fussy looking and ready to enter a Caleb style lecture about being on time. Yussah was never seen. Rarely mentioned too. Jester could tell when he was home though, Nott and Caleb would be absent for weeks at a time.
Nott never had a kind word for him either.
They always came back to her though, so Jester ignored the things she didn't want to dwell on.
Caleb was scratching his arms furiously today, fresh bandages applied too. He sat cross legged beside them, thumbing at some of the broken glass spread around the ground.
“We could go out ?” Jester had actually been planning to go dancing with Adam. Nott had noticed her pretty dress, but Caleb made no mention of it.
Nott caught what Jester was implying, “Caleb, Caleb we have to go dancing. They opened this new shore side dock thing. It’s fancy.”
“I don’t know about that.” Caleb absently touched at the scarf around Nott’s neck.
She shoved his hands away, “I can use magic !”
Caleb had been teaching Nott about illusions and arcane skills. Jester couldn’t miss the way he smiled at her when she summoned a spectral hand to tie someone’s shoelaces together.
The dancing hall had opened on the docks for one week and one week only. A Dwindalian band of soldiers had arrived and Nicodranus Marquises were scrambling to make them feel welcomed.
“Ah, ignoring darling mother’s orders.” Jester couldn’t see The Traveler’s face, but his voice implied he was smiling as he observed Nott and Jester’s destruction of glass and their plans to go dancing.
He’d started telling Jester about the world outside Nicodranus. Jester spoiled her phantom with attention and in turn he gave a glimpse of the future.
“Caleb, I can teach you how to dance !” She couldn’t bear going back home, sitting alone in her room, throwing out drawings of another boy or girl who she’d put so much hope into.
“I know it may seem hard to believe,” Caleb rubbed the back of his neck and looked in the direction of the street that lead directly to the docks. “But, I know how to waltz, and the tarantella isn’t hard.”
Nott and Jester had let that be the final say. They’d dragged him to the docks and felt victorious when they marched up to a Zolezzo who looked at them like he’d rather not be there.
“The floating docks are full. Come back next year.”
Jester could see lanterns bobbing in the water, tinted a warm orange like gigantic fireflies. Their allure was too much for her to miss out on.
“But it’s my birthday !” Nott hadn’t gotten better at lying, even with an illusion spell that could hide her green ears and needle teeth. The Zolezzo guard narrowed his eyes “Um, I’m terminally ill and will die tomorrow ?”
“Even if I could, there’s no way I’m letting her in,” He pointed right at Jester, and she for a second didn’t understand what he meant. “Dwindalian Soldiers don’t mingle well with infernal blood.”
Yet, they’ll hang all over mama like she’s a goddess. No, like she’s their goddess.
Nott kicked at the dock, but Caleb cocked his head to the side. An expression she’d caught glimpses of over took Caleb’s demeanor: low simmering anger.
“Mein Freund, how rude. ” His words were punctured by an energy Jester recognized. Jester’s own magic had The Traveler’s touch: a whisper, a giggle, a hint of holy chaos. Caleb’s was warm, like opening an oven door and turning as the blast of heat wave washed over you.
The Zolezzo’s eyes glazed over, he smiled at them and became numb to Caleb’s explanation that it was Nott’s birthday and that they’d hate to miss the marvel of a dance floor that floated on water.
“He’s gonna be pissed when he finds out we did that…”
“Yussah and the Zolezzo already have a running tally.” Caleb’s smile was familiar to a cat who’d just eaten a canary. “Hell, he might even praise us, Nott.”
Jester could see herself reflected in that face. How strange, to ever compare herself to Caleb Widogast.
“I don’t need you to protect me, Cayleb. ” Jester punctured his name out.
“I know that, you could punch that guard through a wall. Plus, if the spell had failed we’d be fucked pretty badly.”
Jester couldn’t place it, but she could tell he was happy to be there with them. It could have been the way he leaned over the dock to poke one of the lanterns, or how he began counting the harmless sparklers stationed around the pier.
The dance floor was a series of twenty two, circular floating docks connected in a ramped manner adjacent to the main wood pier pillars. Nott took one look at where they were, realizing they were surrounded on a swaying dock by water, and bounded over to a precariously stacked champagne tower.
Caleb could reach out and stop her, but was too late. Her tiny form disappeared into the crowd, leaving Jester and Caleb pushed together. The Zolezzo hadn’t been entirely lying about the crowded floor: if they moved too much they’d be in the water.
“You can dance, but can you swim ?” Jester waggled her eyebrows at Caleb; he was too easy to tease.
“Ja , I can swim.”
“Did Yussah teach you ?” Since Yussah was training Caleb in magic, it made sense that hat he’d also teach him to swim.
“No,” Caleb’s Cheshire demeanor burned out. Note to self, never mention Yussah around Caleb, Jester was reminded. “I learned in a stream. A lake up north.”
“Blude taught me, but my mama first gave me lessons in her bathtub.” She grabbed for his happiness, too quickly fleeting.
They weren’t actually dancing, it was impossible to do anything but sway next to each other. The space lessened and lessened, till Jester’s wrapped her arms around his waist.
“I’m sorry about William.” Caleb said, talking into the top of Jester’s head as her face leaned into his chest. “Nott told me you were sweet on him.”
“It’s Adam this time.”
“I’m sorry.” He repeated, his arms were hanging awkwardly at his sides. Jester would have laughed at him for this, could have commented that she felt she was hugging one of the pier pillars and not a person. “Do you want to talk about it ?”
She didn’t. Jester wanted nothing more than to get over it. She was exhausted and unable to come up with a creative joke. It shouldn’t have been a big deal; her mother could take a new client every night and maintain her love for Jester’s lost father. Except, it wasn’t just William, or Jennifer, or Adam. It was the thought of only the Chateau that scared her, “I don’t know anymore, Caleb.”
“This might be out of my realm of experience.”
“Did you ever have a girlfriend ?” She loved talking about herself, but only on her own terms.
He tensed, but didn’t pull away from her. His voice cracked with the exertion of his answer, “Yes, once. She was very handsome. She would have gotten along with you.”
Jester rubbed her head into his stomach, she could tell that it was the end of what he was going to tell her. She could get him ranting about books, and Nott, and cats, and magic, and sometimes birds or history. This was an impasse they both had not breached.
Jester had once asked Nott about it, but Nott admitted that Caleb didn’t pester her about her past and she gave him the same luxury.
“The are pieces that are obvious, though. His scars jut out of him.” The Traveler knew them all best, it seemed. “ He’s not good at hiding it, unlike his goblin friend.”
“Thank you for being Nott’s friend.” Caleb squeezed Jester’s shoulder and she laughed.
“Friends don’t thank each other for being friends. And I’m your friend too, you know that right ?”
He cocked his head to the side, “You don’t have to lie to me...I know I haven’t been high in your opinion for a while.”
Jester bit her tongue, “That was before I knew that you cared so much about Nott, and before you started acting only sorta weird.”
“People use bread to warm their hands all the time.” Caleb once during a day at the market had proudly taken off both sides of the loaf they'd purchased, and then stuck his hands into the warmer softer center. Jester gave him shit about it whenever she could.
“Yeah, and people talk to their cat’s and pretend they’re fairy kings all the time.”
“Because he is a prince, Astrid !”
“There he goes. No poker face in sight.”
“Astrid ?” Jester asked, knowing the answer.
Caleb mumbled an apology, horror written across his features, just in time for Nott to burst through the crowd panting, “Time to go, time to go, time to leave, time to-”
Towards the champagne table two older gentleman pointed at their trio, the Zolezzo they’d charmed marched towards them, fighting against the couples pressed against each other on the dance floor.
“Don’t strangle them too harshly.” One of the older men said. He had long white hair, a jaundiced yellow skin, and a grin like from who came to the Chateau. His voice was familiar too. He wore a foreign symbol on his cloaks forearm, one that Jester saw matched the soldiers who'd stopped by: the Dwindalian Empire.
“Caleb that old bag has the same accent as you..."
“No time for a Zemnian Schuhplattler, we’re about to be fucked in five seconds.” Nott held up a fist full of tangled necklaces, pocket watches, and a wallet. “Especially when the whole dance floor realizes I five finger discounted them.”
Caleb choked. Frozen in place.
“Caleb, I know I said you didn’t need to protect me, but I really don’t want to punch a Zolezzo out-”
“Caleb, please, please wake up.” Nott tugged on his sleeve, and like an incantation Caleb was recalled to his body--except not the Caleb Jester knew. The set in his shoulders was the same way it had been when he magically manipulated the Zolezzo. “Caleb, please don’t let them take me back to-”
“Do you have the water walking ring I enchanted for you ?” His stammer was gone, the way he hunched in on himself was replaced by certainty. Nott had called to Caleb, but brought out an entirely different person.
“We’re not going to. Please say we’re not going to-” Nott twisted on her fingers, hidden under mittens no longer disguised with illusory magic. Their tricks had run out, and Jester was reminded of a story about a carriage turning back into a pumpkin.
Jester reached for Caleb’s hand, he squeezed back and they jumped into the harbor waters.
Caleb wouldn’t make eye contact with her, he sat with his legs pulled to his chest and back against the Tidespeak’s stone work. He couldn’t see her in the dark and couldn’t see her livid scowl.
“He’s been feeding her at least, right ?” Jester loathed the Traveler’s sudden silence. She needed him to help her tear down the walls of this wizard tower. She wanted the Chateau to come down with it.
“You think ?!”
“I’ve been trying to cast messages towards her,” He twisted a copper wire through his hands. Nott’s first spell had been what she called ‘the walkie-talkie’. With nothing but a small copper wire wrapped around her finger she could whisper messages to anyone she wanted, as long as they were fifty feet away. Caleb had helped her finalize the details and they’d taken to the streets to help Jester cheat at cards and cup-ball guessing games. “I think he’s magically barricaded it from me.”
He’d explained that it was his fault. When Nott angered Yussah: Caleb took the blame and let himself be isolated to the lower floors. When Caleb angered Yussah it became clear that of the duo, Caleb was the least prepared for his friend to leave his life, even if it was for a few days.
“You really had to go and ruffle through his library, huh ?” Jester couldn’t help her anger at Caleb. He’d held Nott back from so many of their games, so much of life in Nicodranus, but he was fine with risking punishment for his books.
“She’s locked in a room alone.”
“Yeah ? What’s wrong with hanging out in your room ?” Jester knew the insult was coming. She’d sensed it in his thoughts during their early days, during the days when she still thought he was only an asshole.
“Because she’s not eating caviar and playing princess with a Minotaur !”
She didn’t think about punching Caleb. He’d yelled at her and so she’d struck him with something more than her fists. Not all The Traveler’s gifts were holy, nor were they all fun. This gift took the form of a rippling current, a dark force that had encircled her fist right as she’d connected with Caleb’s rib. It wasn’t supposed to be her friend; it was meant for every annoying man or woman who demanded her mother’s attention, every butler and concierge who acted like Jester’s existence was the worst crisis they’d ever face, it was for the people who kept leaving.
She regretted it the moment she heard his pained wheezing, he laid on his back unable to even feebly curl into a ball.
“Caleb !” She cried out, running towards him to administer the opposite magical energy. She shook, the necrotic forces had come to her in the way old friends come to your aid: no hesitation. “Why did you say that ? Why do you always say dumb garbage at me ?!”
“Jester,” He sat up, not mad at her. How the hell does he not hate me, she thought. “Is everything okay ?”
She choked out a laugh, not her usual giggles, but a sob mixed in with it.
“Did I break your brain ?” Jester cupped his face, calling forth more arcane light. "Nott's gonna kill me !"
I could have killed him. I could have killed one of my best friends.
“Why aren’t you home right now, Jester ?” He knew. He saw through her tricks too well. A confusing level of annoyance for him, the same kind she’d felt when she first met him, returned to her.
“I wanted to hang out with you guys.”
“Your mother’s going to perform in five minutes.”
He ruined her disguise in less than ten words.
It was humiliating. Jester cried into his shoulder and explained about her mother and Lord Robert Sharp. She wasn’t being a leader of the Traveler and spreading his joy with her wailing, yet Caleb didn’t hold that against her.
She hiccuped into the space between Caleb’s neck and shoulder as he rigidly sat--his nose was still bleeding from her punch and Jester could hear its drip on the ground.
“Maybe, we’ve outgrown this place.” Caleb whispered, talking once again to himself and not directly at Jester.
“I’m not letting that asshole marry her and replace me.”
“True, but maybe there are other homes for you, me, and Nott.”
She remembered the Traveler's last message to her, in six months time he would introduce her to a convert of his--past Rexxentrum, past the confines of what the Traveler called ‘the bleak Empire’.
“I’m sorry I punched you, and sent evil magic energy through your ribs, and made your nose bleed.” Jester coughed and reached to squeeze Caleb’s hand. They’d started holding hands more after the dance hall incident.
“You were upset. You didn’t really mean it.”
Jester couldn’t fathom how he could let go.
He’d rather be hit than argue with me ?
Caleb pushed one of Jester’s hair pins back into place, it had ruffled free in her anger. “It’s nothing more than what I’ve already...experienced.”
Jester would tear down the Tidespeak , then the Chateau, then Nicodranus.
“Why did Yussah adopt you guys if he was only going to be a huge dick ?” The fairy tales always had the kind uncle, the mean step parent, the children lost in the woods.
Jester would be turning twenty in a few days, and yet she felt like she’d been ill prepared for what the rules of the actual story were.
Caleb took a deep breath, “He thinks I have a connection to a- to a specific strain of magic.”
Jester lifted her head off his shoulder and wiped her eyes to give him her full attention.
“When he, ah, hm. How do I say it--” He picked at one of his fraying bandages. “He found me. He believes I’m attuned to an arcane source he’s unfamiliar with.”
“What about Nott ?”
Caleb ran a hand through his hair and grimaced, “She’s to make sure I don’t pitch myself over one of his fucking balconies and onto the cobblestone like a smashed egg.”
“There’s no way mama will marry him now.” Jester danced alongside the road, with Nott riding on her back and tangling flowers into her hair, and Caleb counting each piece of silver in the palm of his hand.
She’d left Nicodranus in a whirlwind. One prank had set Robert Sharp over the edge, and the Ruby of The Sea had cast him out of her house.
Also, unfortunately a nearly avoided death sentence had also expelled Jester from her home.
“It was worth it.” The Traveler had been unusually chatty on their trip.
“Do we need to recharge these ?” Nott lifted the amber necklace around her neck.
“No, and don’t show people it. It’s an immediate target on our backs.” Caleb looked at his hand and the coins. He narrowed his eyebrows. “I need to restart counting…”
“You think we’ll meet any handsome sailors, Caleb ?” Jester would never admit it, but she was more than grateful to have them with her as she traveled. She couldn’t imagine doing this by herself.
“We are leaving the ocean. There will be no sailors wherever we go to find your Traveller Convention, I assume. Maybe no soldiers if we're lucky.”
“What a shame. We’ll have to make our own ocean.”
“You sure you want to be seen with us, Jester ?” Nott tied another flower to Jester’s horns.
“What do you mean ?” Despite the sharp sensation that came with watching the coast get further away, Jester felt giddy movement inside her to combat the other foreign sadnesses.
“Caleb and I are sketchy and have a crazy wizard who might come after us.”
Caleb kept counting, but spoke up as well, “Don’t forget the death sentence against Jester.”
“That too,” Nott started tying more flowers together. Perhaps in the hopes they’d be a talisman to protect them. “We’re in it now, aren’t we ?”
Neither Jester nor Caleb responded. The Traveler chuckled, though.