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The rain poured down throughout the day, hard and grey as cathedral stone. One by one, we dragged to a halt. I stopped dancing first, then Annette, our skirts hanging in damp folds, tangling in our legs.
"It is like walking with dead fish," I said. "Slip-slap."
Annette giggled. But then she found everything amusing. Even in the rain.
Taking the tin whistle from his lips, Bertrand flicked it several times, trying to rid it of water. Nadine's tambourine went still, and she shifted little Jean to her other hip.
Now Pierre alone kept going, flinging the clubs into the air. One and two, three and four, five . . . I wondered if he were going to try seven at once, here on the drowned streets of Rheims where no one would see him fail.
"What are you doing?" Uncle Armand cried out, and began hitting the rest of us for stopping. "Troupe Brufort does not stop for mere rain!" His hand was like some small, fierce, whey-colored animal nipping and pinching where it could.
Pierre dropped one of his rain-slicked clubs. It landed with a loud splash in a puddle at his feet. He stooped to pick it up.
Uncle Armand turned and slammed Pierre on the head with the gold-topped cane. "Clumsy fool! Did I tell you to stop?"
Stepping to Pierre's side, I began, "But Uncle, there is no one on the street. Even the beggars have left the road to seek shelter. We have come to the holy city for nothing, and . . ."
Whap! This time the cane fell on my head, and I saw stars. Pierre had been smarter, going right back to his juggling. Would I never learn? One day Uncle would kill me with his cane.
"Mademoiselle La Bouche du Sud," Uncle said, meaning Miss Mouth from the South, "says we have come to Rheims for nothing. But she is the nothing, not we."
This time I bit my lip to keep from answering back. One day, I swore, I would break Uncle's cane over my knee.
Uncle was not finished speaking, though. His nose wrinkled as if he had smelled something foul. "We have come to Rheims for the young king's crowning. Fortunes will be made here. The new queen loves pageantry, songs, dances, mummery. All of which Troupe Brufort can supply."
"But Uncle . . ." I began, wanting to remind him that the city was draped in black for the old king's death-"A lance in his eye while jousting," a walleyed beggar girl had said. "The new king insists on a long mourning." So none of the grand folk racing to the coronation had heart or coins for street players.
"Dance!" Uncle commanded. "Now! Good will come of it."
"Wet will come of it," I mumbled. But not so he could hear.
Bertrand began to play a three-step on the pipe, and Nadine beat the tambourine against her sodden skirt once more. Annette and I shuffled our feet obediently in time and Pierre tossed up three clubs in a rotation he could do even in a pouring rain.
"Bon!" sang out Uncle, a rare compliment.
Just then a well-dressed merchant and his three dark-clad daughters hurried past us, holding cloaks over their heads. The girls squealed in their distress.
"Papa! My boots!" cried both the eldest and the youngest.
"The rain is ruining my skirts," the middle one added.
"Talk less," their papa responded. "Run faster."
Uncle insinuated himself into their way, smiling. He is like a serpent when he smiles-all lips, no teeth. "Pause for a moment, good sir. Witness the wondrous skills of Troupe Brufort, only recently returned from the courts of Padua, Venice, Rome."
Of course, Troupe Brufort had never been to any of those places. Only I, born in my papa's beloved Italy, had traveled beyond France. But Uncle always dropped great names like a horse with too much grass in its mouth letting fall the extra bits.
The merchant spun around Uncle and hastened his whining daughters homeward, the backs of the girls' tufted dresses looking like a dark rolling ocean.
"This is stupid, Papa," Pierre muttered, wiping his clubs one at a time on his shirt, a useless action, as his shirt was as wet as the clubs. "We will all come down with a fever, and for nothing."
Ignoring Pierre, Uncle strode over to Bertrand and snatched the pipe from his mouth. "Enough tiddly-piddly, boy! Do your tumbling. Nadine strike up a beat."
Annette and I clapped in time to the tambourine, making soft smacking noises. One and two and one-two. On Nadine's hip, little Jean awoke and tried to catch the raindrops.
All at once, a clatter of hooves on the cobbles to our left, and a dark carriage approached, drawn by two dappled horses, their backs so wet, the hair looked black. On the carriage door was a coat of arms and a motto, but as I could not read, I did not know what it said. I glimpsed a red uniform under the driver's cloak, the only bit of color I had seen in the city so far. Then the driver drew the cloak more firmly around his shoulders and that brief flame was quenched.
Beside the driver was another man shaking as with an ague.
Uncle nodded. "Ha!" he cried, as if the appearance of the carriage vindicated all the beatings.
The carriage pulled up close to us, so close that Bertrand hesitated in his tumbling for fear of frightening the horses. A gentleman peeked out of the window. He seemed very short for someone who carried himself so proudly. Toying with his thin mustache, he watched us for quite some time.
"Do not stop!" hissed Uncle.
Bertrand leaped up again, doing first a double twist, then a series of no-handed cartwheels.
Annette and I added some shuffling steps to our hand claps, and Pierre lofted five clubs.
"Climb," I whispered to Annette.
"But my skirts . . ." she began.
"To the devil with your skirts," I said, locking my fingers together and holding my hands down low.
Annette was so shocked at my swearing, she climbed without further comment, scrambling to my shoulders and leaving muddy footprints on my bodice. I gripped her ankles. Luckily she was only six years old and very light.
"Smile," Uncle hissed.
The shaking man climbed down from his station on the carriage and stood at attention by the carriage door. He had a disgruntled air, as if he dearly wanted to be in a warm, dry spot.
The gentleman in the carriage just sat there, rubbing his mustache, while his servants got soaked, and all for the sake of our poor show. If he were to throw us a good-sized purse, Uncle might let us stop and find someplace dry. I smiled again, what Pierre calls my "winning smile" and Uncle calls "Nicola's grimace."
Finished with his routine, Pierre gathered in the five clubs. But Uncle pinched his ear to get him started again.
"Enough!" the gentleman announced abruptly. "You will do."
Gratefully I lowered Annette to the ground. Her little golden curls were now hanging in long, wet strands. Pierre tucked the clubs under his arms and Bertrand-at the long end of a tumbling run-came back unhurriedly.
"Do?" Uncle brightened.
The gentleman pursed his lips. "As I have seen no other troupe on this forsaken street, you will have to do. Jacques, show them the way to the palais." Then he banged his cane against the carriage roof and called, "Get me home before I catch my death."
The servant Jacques jumped aside in time to avoid a splash of water from the carriage's wheels as it pulled away, though Bertrand had no such luck and was drenched to the knee.
As soon as his master was gone, Jacques let his shoulders droop. Glancing sourly at us, he rubbed his nose with the flat of his hand. "Follow me, and try to keep up. I do not want to dawdle in this weather."
"Whom have I the extreme honor and privilege to be addressing, monsieur?" Uncle asked in the oily voice he used when speaking to rich people.
"It is no honor addressing me," Jacques answered, turning away and saying over his shoulder, "nor privilege neither. You had best save your fine manners for the new king."
For a moment Uncle froze, his lips silently forming the word "king".
The king. I thought. With the pretty queen who loves pageants.
Then Uncle stirred, bowed and waved at us, his face suddenly exultant, open like a dried flower bed after a good shower. "Come along. Do not just stand there. The king is waiting for us. And," he added, "remember-obey my every word if you wish to make a good impression. Nicola, you especially, do not open your mouth."
Pierre and I hurried to the wooden cart, each taking hold of a handle. The ancient cart creaked and protested, but for the first time ever it sounded like music to me.
Bertrand, Annette, and Nadine grabbed their sacks off the ground, slinging them into the cart, then followed behind us. For once there was no chatter. We were going to entertain in a palace. How could anyone complain-even of the rain?
Perhaps we had come to Rheims for something after all!
Chapter 2: In the Palace
Marching ahead of the cart, a step behind Jacques, Uncle went proudly. His balding head was tilted at such an angle, he looked as though he were leading a parade rather than following a sullen servant along a rain-soaked backstreet.
Jacques looked as if he had a bean stuck up his nose. He never even glanced around to see if we followed. Clearly he wanted no one in Rheims to think he had anything to do with our ragtag troupe.
The rain began to ease at last, but the evening was drawing in. Rheims was still grey above, grey below, and grey in the middle, but there was a small, hopeful, golden glow in my belly. Each step I thought: But one more step and one more and one more towards the warmth.
I was so concentrated on getting to where we were going, I had no idea where we were, and so I was entirely startled when Nadine cried out, "Look, children, there is the king's palace."
Jacques sniffed at her. "No, madam, that is the palace of Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine and Archbishop of Rheims. The king and queen are but guests here. But it is our destination."
The cardinal's palace was certainly large, but not nearly as large as some we had seen in our travels. As for that stone wall-we were connoisseurs of walls: cathedral walls, palace walls, the walls of fortresses and castles. They were often the backdrops for our performances, though we had never actually been invited inside before.
Still-walls meant roofs. Roofs meant shelter. Suddenly I was filled with new energy. Grabbing my cart handle, I gave it a hard shove which skewed the cart so that it wobbled on the cobbles.
"Easy," hissed Pierre. "Do not overturn the cart. Not now."
"As if I could!" I countered.
"Amazon!" he said.
And then we looked at one another and laughed. We were as close as brother and sister. Closer, really, for although we were not the same age, we were of the same disposition. We had chosen one another as confidante and friend.
"Be quiet, all of you," Uncle said, "and Nicola especially." He raised his cane as a warning, for Jacques was talking to two guards at a small portal.
"Servant's gate," Pierre whispered to me.
"Peasant's bolt-hole," I replied.
The two guards stepped aside, lowering their spears, and Jacques waved us through.
After crossing a gravel-strewn courtyard, we parked the squeaking, protesting cart and took from it only those items we would need for our show.
Then we followed Jacques inside. The passages were narrow, whitewashed, but dimly lit. I had expected something grand, I suppose, but it was like a rabbit warren, with lots of doors along the halls. At last Jacques stopped in front of one door and pushed it open.
This was no luxurious apartment, but a plain room with a bare stone floor, bare walls, a single long table, and a couple of chairs.
"Not even rushes or hangings to take away the cold!" I complained, for in the fairy stories my mother had told me there were always such things in a palace. How I missed her stories. How I missed her and Papa, almost two years gone.
Jacques glared at me as if to say: What do you know of such things? And I blushed deeply-for shame, and for anger, too. To treat us so when we had done nothing to him.
Uncle made a quick movement with his hand in my direction, promising a beating. Then he turned and said to Jacques in his deepest voice, smooth as oil, "I thank you on behalf of our troupe for these excellent accommodations."
Jacques merely grunted in response.
"I am thankful, too," I said, trying to make amends. After all, there were three basins of water, several towels, and two small cakes of scented soap on the table. A warm fire crackled in the grate. What were rushes and wall hangings compared to those?
But Jacques' face got its bean-up-the-nose look again. "Try to make yourselves respectable," he ordered curtly. "If that is possible. Someone will come for you in a short while."
As soon as the door shut behind Jacques, Uncle wheeled on me. "Your mouth will get us all in trouble, mademoiselle," he said, with a finger flick at the side of my head. It stung, of course, but I did not care. We were out of the grey rain, the fire was beginning to dry our clothing, and perhaps there would be food as well.
Bertrand, Annette, and Pierre all made for the fire. As I went to join them, Uncle hauled us back, directing us to the basins.
"Clean yourselves first." He mimicked Jacques' voice exactly. "If that is possible. Only then dry your clothes."
"But Papa," Annette began, fingering her strings of wet curls.
"There will be no buts," Uncle told her.
So we did as we were instructed while Uncle Armand had the fire all to himself. I swear that if he could have, he would have soaked up all the warmth and left none for the rest of us.
After placing the sleeping Jean near the hearth, with a rag under his head, Nadine fussed over Annette and me, trying her best to wipe every spot of mud from our faces. Then she turned her attention to Annette's hair, spinning the curls around her finger and blowing on them.
I was left on my own, first drying my hair with a towel. If we were to perform before the king and queen, I would have to make myself presentable. Uncle often told me that I was the least talented member of Troupe Brufort, adopted and not born into it, but still I would not disgrace the others with my looks. However, when I tried to comb my plaits out with Nadine's hard brush, every tug hurt enough to make my eyes smart.
"Do not stop brushing," Uncle commanded. "Make something of that bird's nest of yours."
"It is harder work, Uncle," I said brightly, "tidying what is on top of my head than keeping straight what is inside it." I thought to make him laugh, but the look he gave me was so cold, I returned to the brush with a will.
My hair finally in order-though much was left in the brush-I went over to the fire to dry my still-damp skirts and sandals. The smell we made steaming out was musky and familiar. Many a time Troupe Brufort had taken refuge-like the Holy Family-in a farmer's stable, and glad of the shelter.
I closed my eyes and, despite my excitement about performing before the king, fell fast asleep in front of the fire standing up, like a horse.
The door opened creakily and I was startled from my sleep. An elderly woman with a heavily-lined face came in. She was dressed in a black silk mourning dress without a hint of ornamentation. Her eyes were the color of stone and her lips but two thin lines, one atop another, like folded linens. She glowered at us, as if adding up our virtues and finding us lacking a full measure. Then reluctantly, she stepped aside to admit a tall, delicately-boned young woman into the room.
This woman had amber-colored hair, enormous green-gold eyes under heavy lids, and a lovely long neck. Unlike her companion, she wore a dress of white and pale green. As she moved-spring to her companion's winter-the skirt swelled out with close-set pleats like a bell that parted to show a smooth green underskirt. Her velvet overbodice was embroidered with gold leaves and green florets. The ruff at her neck was tinged with green from which jeweled ropes of pearls and beads hung down. She was like the fairy princess in one of Maman's tales, and I drew in my breath in wonder.
The older woman made a downward gesture in our direction with the flat of her hand.
Only Uncle understood. He bowed deeply, motioning us to do likewise.
So I bowed, just like Uncle and the boys, and was embarrassed when Nadine and Annette each performed a graceful curtsy. I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks as I blushed again.
Uncle scowled at me. I think he would have beaten out his displeasure on my poor head, but the cane was lying too far away.
The tall girl did not seem disturbed by my bow. In fact, looked positively amused to see me act like a man. Perhaps she had made a similar error in not wearing mourning? I felt a sudden compassion for her.
"What pretty young women and what handsome young men," she said brightly to Uncle. Then for the first time she looked around the room. "But why is this room so plain? So . . . empty? I must have rushes and hangings sent down at once to warm it up."
"Rushes and hangings-I asked for such," I blurted out.
All of Troupe Brufort glared at me.
But the tall girl smiled. "So should you all!"
I turned and grinned at the troupe, but no one smiled back.
The tall girl continued. "I am delighted that you have come to us. Pray, do your very best to bring some joy into this dark day." She shook her head and a wave of perfume wafted over us, like a wind over a flower garden. "This should have been the happiest of times for our new crowned king. But with his papa so newly and horribly dead, he can take little pleasure in it."
"So the beggar girl said," I put in. Pierre grabbed my skirt and pulled me back and I realized I had gone too far, so I gave a quick curtsy.
But the tall girl nodded, as if she had heard from the very same beggar. "Still, we must have some celebration today, a small token, do you not agree?" She smiled again. "So tonight do not hold back, Troupe . . ." She hesitated, looking for the name.
"Brufort, Your Highness," put in Uncle, his voice deeply oiled.
"Brufort," she said, dimpling at him.
Having finished her little speech, she turned gracefully and left the room. Her silk skirts sounded like a rivulet rushing over stones, but softer and more intimate and much more welcoming.
"Highness? Highness? Who was that?" I whispered to Nadine.
The elderly woman raised her eyebrows at me as though I had just spat upon the floor. "Stupid girl. That was the new queen, Mary. It is at her insistence this entertainment has been arranged." The scowl on her face was evidence that she did not herself approve.
"Queen Mary," I whispered with the kind of passion one reserves for a life's pledge.
Reprinted from The Queen's Own Fool by Jane Yolen and Robert Harris by permission of Philomel Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Jane Yolen and Robert Harris. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.