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Prince Carlos Charles Charming could feel droplets of perspiration forming on his brow. He clenched his teeth. His eyes flashed with panic. His ankles began to shake.
“Whoooa!” he yelled.
Carlos’s words bounced against the walls of the empty ballroom, so as he yelled “whoooa,” a bunch of whoooas yelled back at him.
It was a little disorienting. And now was not the time to be disoriented.
As Carlos whoooa-ed and wobbled, Jack the Jester sat crisscross applesauce upon a large purple velvet pillow. Jack nodded, making the bells on his red-and-green hat jingle-jangle.
Carlos found the jingle-jangling disorienting, too.
“You’re doing fine, kiddo,” Jack said. “Just relax. Just keep moving.”
“I-I don’t know if I can relax!” Carlos sputtered. “Every time I move, I— WHOA!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa…” the walls replied.
It was as if Carlos was relearning how to walk, which was pretty much what he was doing.
“Let the stilts become part of your body,” Jack instructed.
Weaving on his shaky stilts, Carlos blinked a drop of sweat out of his eye. “Is it hot in here?”
“That’s stress sweat, boy,” Jack said. “Don’t worry. You’re only three feet off the ground.”
Carlos’s feet may have been only three feet off the ground, but his head was eight feet off the ground. And it felt much, much higher. Also, the feet at the end of his new, unsteady legs were not his normal size-nine shoes but two skinny poles no thicker than a silver dollar.
The very thought made him dizzy.
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it, Carlos thought.
But trying not to think about it made Carlos think about it even more.
“Don’t lose focus,” Jack warned.
But the sweat, tension, and dizziness made Carlos less focused than ever.
“Keep moving,” Jack said.
Carlos took a step, but his stilt couldn’t find the floor. He felt his weight shift. He felt himself fall. He caught a glimpse of the stone floor rushing up to meet his face.
Oh! That fall was kind of pleasant, Carlos thought. I didn’t know stone floors could be so comfortable.
He blinked once, then twice. He found his head resting on a large pillow made of purple velvet. His eyes flicked to where Jack the Jester sat, though Jack wasn’t sitting anymore. He was on his feet, with his left arm outstretched before him, as if he had just released a bowling ball.
“Thanks for letting me borrow your pillow,” Carlos said.
“Thanks for falling where I threw it!” Jack replied. “Your parents have enough problems with our jester lessons. I don’t think they’d like it if I returned you to them with a dented head.”
Carlos’s parents, Carmine and Cora Charming, were the king and queen of the peaceful and happy land of Faraway Kingdom. That meant Carlos was a prince. That also meant that Carlos was expected to do princely things.
Jestering was pretty much the opposite of being princely, but Carlos loved it. And King Carmine and Queen Cora were good parents as well as good rulers. So they allowed the jester lessons to continue as long as jestering didn’t interfere with Carlos’s royal responsibilities.
Jestering, they told him, must only be a hobby. A very private, very secret hobby.
But jestering was more than a hobby to Carlos. It was his passion. And he was good at it, too. For the most part.
“You need a little more practice with the stilts, I see.” Jack jingle-jangled over to where Carlos lay. He offered a hand, but Carlos didn’t take it.
“Can I just lie here for a minute?” He was comfortable on the floor and still a little woozy.
“Sure.” Jack smiled down at his student. “You earned a break. Would you like a little water?”
“Yes, thank you,” Carlos said.
The flower on Jack’s vest sprayed water in Carlos’s face.
“HA-HA! Gotcha!” Jack wheezed with laughter.
Carlos dried his face on his sleeve and shook his head. How did I fall for that old gag? he thought.
Nonetheless, Carlos couldn’t help but smile.
Jack plopped himself down on the stone floor. He was the only adult Carlos knew whose knees never made cracking noises. The jester scratched his chin and studied Carlos’s face. “You do look a little glassy-eyed,” he admitted. “Tell me a poop joke.”
“Why?” Carlos asked.
“Poop jokes make the mind sharp,” Jack said.
“They do?” Carlos asked.
Jack shrugged. “How should I know? I just wanna hear a poop joke.”
“Okay.…” Carlos tried to come up with a good one. “What do you call a fairy using the toilet?”
“What?” Jack asked.
Jack’s brown cheeks stretched into a wide, merry grin. His dark eyes crinkled with delight. He let out a long, appreciative laugh. “That’s a good one! You, kid, are a natural jester.”
It was Jack’s highest compliment, but Carlos couldn’t fully accept it. “I don’t know, Jack,” he said. “I’ve been working with stilts for a month, and I still can’t get the hang of them.”
“You will,” Jack assured him. “You got the hang of everything else.”
This was true, but somehow stilt-walking was different from everything else. Every time Carlos got up on the stilts, his eyes would get blurry and he’d start to shake. No matter how much he practiced, the feelings never went away.
“You’re a fine jester, Carlos. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.” Jack raised a mischievous eyebrow. “In fact, I have news.”
Jack paused, letting the word news hang there for a moment to give it a little extra oomph. He peered over his shoulder. He lowered his voice. In Fancy Castle, spies could be anywhere. “Wanna work on your hobby in the village tonight?” he asked.
Carlos’s eyes brightened. “You know I do,” he whispered. “When, where, and what?”
“Five o’clock, Village Hall, the Zimmerman bar mitzvah,” Jack said.
Carlos’s heart leapt. “Five o’clock. Hm. I think I can sneak out.” His stilt-walking worries faded away. “One way or another, I will sneak out. I am so there.”
Jack winked. “It’ll be our little secret.”
“And the Zimmermans’ secret.” Carlos winked back.
“And their fifty guests’ secret.” Jack chuckled.
“And the secret of the one hundred guests at last week’s Stravini wedding.” Carlos chuckled louder.
“And the secret of the thirty guests at little Bobby Vapors’s birthday party two weeks ago.” Jack snorted.
“And the secret of everyone at the grand opening of Corky’s Pre-Owned Catapults.” Carlos snorted louder.
“And the secret of everyone at the annual Moat-Diggers’ Convention!”
“And the secret of everybody at the Renaissance Faire!”
“And the—” Jack began.
“And the—” Carlos began.
But Jack and Carlos were unable to continue. They were too busy laughing.
To put it another way, Carlos and Jack’s secret wasn’t much of a secret. In fact, nearly everybody in Faraway Kingdom knew that Carlos secretly worked as a freelance jester.
Only two people didn’t know: King Carmine and Queen Cora. If they found out, Carlos would probably be grounded forever. So every farmer, villager, merchant, and aristocrat in Faraway Kingdom kept their yap shut whenever the royal family was within earshot.
“What are the Zimmermans looking for?” Carlos asked.
“A little of everything,” Jack replied. “But mostly juggling.”
“Cool,” Carlos said. Juggling was his specialty.
Carlos began to work out his routine in his mind. However, he was soon distracted by a rapid series of approaching clickita-clickitas.
“Hark! What’s that noise?” Jack made sure his voice was loud enough for the owner of the clickitas to hear. “Is that Fancy Castle’s new puppy?”
Jack winked at Carlos. Carlos grinned.
The clickitas stopped abruptly and were replaced with a small, impatient “Harrumph.”
“Here puppy, puppy!” Jack called.
“I keep telling you and telling you! I am not a puppy,” responded the distant voice. “I am a dragon!”
“A dragon?” Jack asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yeeeeeeees!” the voice said.
More clickitas echoed down the hall. Moments later, Smudge galumphed into the ballroom.
Smudge was indeed a dragon. He had colorful scales, bat wings, a long tail, and sharp black talons that clickita-ed on the stone castle floors. The only thing about Smudge that wasn’t very dragonish was his personality. Smudge had a lot more in common with a golden retriever than with a ferocious beast.
“See?” Smudge said. “Dragon!” To prove it, he let out a huge ROOOOAR!
Jack nodded. “Oh, yes! I see it now.” Normally, Jack wouldn’t stop teasing someone so soon after he got started, but teasing Smudge was a lot like teasing a toddler—it didn’t take long before the jokes stopped being funny and started being mean. “You, Smudge, are clearly not a puppy.”
Smudge nodded. “Dragon. A little boy dragon. Don’t forget next time, okay?”
“I won’t,” Jack promised. But, of course, he would forget, because forgetting is funny.
Jack gave Smudge a little skritch under his chin, making the dragon purr a puff of smoke. Smudge could hardly ever resist a skritch, but he steeled himself. He had a job to do. He pulled himself away from Jack and clickita-ed to Carlos’s side.
“Oh, hai, CC!” Smudge chirped. “You sleeping?” (Carlos was still lying on the velvet pillow.)
“No,” Carlos said. “What is it?”
“Mama wants you,” Smudge said.
Carlos tried to stifle a weary sigh but didn’t do a very good job of it. “What does she want?”
“Something about being princely,” Smudge said.
Carlos’s sigh was replaced with a groan so loud that the ballroom groaned back at him. He sat up and began to untie his stilts. “I hate prince training.”
“No, you don’t,” Smudge protested.
“Yes, I do.” Carlos tossed the stilts aside, allowing them to smack the stone floor with a satisfying clatter. He pulled himself up into a standing position. His knees cracked.
“But if you didn’t have prince training, we wouldn’t be bestest friends!” Smudge said.
This was true. Carlos met Smudge on his very first prince assignment. Now the dragon lived full-time at Fancy Castle, lighting chandeliers with his fiery breath, organizing a knitting club with the housekeeping staff, and accepting cuddles wherever he could find them. (Smudge found cuddles pretty much everywhere.)
“So … so … so maybe something fun will happen this time, too!” Smudge went on.
“Maybe,” Carlos said, although he didn’t really believe it. “At least I won’t be falling off of stilts.”
“It will be fun, CC,” Smudge decided. “And I’ll come with you! I make things funner.”
“Yes, you do,” Carlos agreed.
“And maybe we’ll even meet a new bestest friend!” Smudge said.
Carlos scratched Smudge’s head. “Maybe,” he said.
And, with a quick parting wave to Jack the Jester, the two of them toddled off to find the queen.
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