The Tale Of Jon Handshaker, Chapter Three
The Tale Of Jon Handshaker, Chapter Three
Parade Of Fools
The long night of physical labor gave Jon plenty of time to think. The future was clear. He would have to put up with this Handshaker business for a long time, perhaps even right up till he took his final, royal, name. That was always the last name. Young as he was, Jon was all too aware of his rapidly approaching and quite inevitable end.
There were not any wars right now. The present king was considered rather mild tempered; there had been few wars in the recent years of his long reign. Hardly any since the Bandit Kings of the Free Cities had been put down, before Jon was even born. The most recent had been a mere border dispute the previous year, but even that had thinned the ranks of the Lambs considerably. Who could say when the presence of royal blood, even if only bastard blood, would be required on some distant field of honor. It was, after all, what he had been born for, his purpose in life. Well, anyway there's still a bunch ahead of me, Jon thought, to quell that unpleasant but all too frequent line of thought.
The immediate question was how to handle his newfound infamy. Certainly, he would be a topic of gossip and jest for days throughout the city, and remembered far longer. To his mind, there were two ways to deal with such embarrassments, depending on the situation at hand. The first was to just pretend that nothing had happened. Ignore the jibes and jokes in the assurance that people would eventually find something new to talk about. Wait for it all to fade away.
The other option was to face the event in question squarely, accepting all the jests in the most casual and offhandedly joking manner, even making fun of himself first, before others got around to it. The stupid bullies and teases never seemed to figure out why their best shots just bounced off, when the object of those barbs just laughed along, or told better ones himself.
For an event this big, known and talked of even by total strangers, the only course was the second. Fame of any kind, even infamy, could be put to good use, Jon quickly decided. It always seemed that the bad boys, the boys who tried to look bad without really being all that bad, had the most luck with the cutest girls. Girls liked the spice of a little make-believe danger as much as boys, he figured.
"Yes, this might just turn out okay after all," Jon muttered to himself, as he shoveled coal from one half empty bin to it's neighbor, preparatory to stuffing the newest rat holes in the back wall with steel wool and glass shards. He had already done that once, just a few days before, but the rats already had new ones dug out. "Do they have them already started before I even stuff up the old ones?" Jon wondered aloud.
"The old sewers are just beyond that wall," replied the Head Master, in a conversational tone. His earlier anger seemed to have dissolved into late-night weariness. Jon wondered why he was still here watching, when he could check in the morning to see if it had been done right. Maybe just to put on pressure. "We can never keep the rats out. Too much food stored down here, and nowhere else to put it. Tried cats a few years ago, but these rats just chased them right out. Too tough. Maybe dogs?" His voice sounded as if he were a bit proud of the rats.
"Yes, I imagine that wall is more rat hole than brick by now. It has been seventy years or more since the King had the sewers walled off in favor of the sewage haulers." Mention of the sewage haulers caste brought him back to himself. His mood shifted visibly, and Jon was already digging into the coal with renewed energy when the Head Master snapped out "Back to work, Jon the Handshaker."
At dawn, after a scant two hours of restless, exhausted sleep, Jon Handshaker was rousted from his soft bed by a scruffy newcomer. He was unwilling to touch Jon, due to his famous uncleanness, so he used a broom handle to poke Jon, with increasing force as his first few tentative taps failed to gain any response.
Jon’s hand suddenly shot out to the broom handle, and he roughly yanked the boy in nose to nose with himself. "Don’t do that again," he said softly to the only slightly younger boy, so new that he wasn’t even fattening yet. He released the broom handle. It had apparently not occurred to the boy to simply let go of the broom, when Jon pulled him close. Now he stumbled back in reaction, to crack his head sharply on the low doorframe.
The pleasingly audible thump of bone on wood woke Jon completely, and he swung his legs over the side of the goose feather mattress. The boy had slumped down, momentarily stunned, but with Jon’s movement he came to himself, jumped up, and ran from the room.
Next into the room to confront the still groggy Handshaker was the Master of Corrections, the short, slight, unfashionably pallid man who was responsible for finding and punishing, or correcting, as he liked to call it, the peccadilloes of all the Lamb's Household.
Today would not be for punishment, of course. That would come later, after Jon’s spiritual filth had been removed. Washing, both ritual and physical, plus plenty of good works to demonstrate for all his devotion to the public good.
The gift of healing blood would be required. The healing blood, true sign of descent from the First Captains, and symbol of the King’s right to rule, a double taking to make good his stain of impurity. I'll be bled white.
Jon had plans of his own for the day, devised during the long night's labor. He would take the name Handshaker by both hands. After finishing a quick washing to get some of the remaining coal dust off, Jon dressed in his usual bright clothes. He didn’t like them much, cheap imitations of the royal garb, but they suited his plan for the day. He dressed with unusual care. The Master looked on with an impassive face.
As they left the Handshaker’s small room, private and comfortable as were all the boy’s rooms, they began meeting people in the halls. Boys, all them the King’s bastard sons, and the people who looked after them and kept the house, both seemed to be out thick in the halls this morning. It was very early for the boys, who were usually encouraged to sleep late. But on this morning, everyone wanted a chance to say the name, while striving for the nonchalant appearance of just happening along that way.
The first to present himself, almost in front of the door, and with his nonchalance very thin indeed over his mischievous grin, was Big Greg Big. His name was very simple and usually doubled, because of his extraordinarily large body, mouth, and opinion of himself, even for this house full of overfed King's offspring. He was senior now, since the recent skirmishes had taken so many of the older boys, and his future was staring him in the eyes. His ready good humor had turned sharp, and sometimes mean, since the last senior had achieved his royal name.
Big Greg Big and Jon had usually gotten on well, though Jon was much the junior in a house where age meant everything. Greg had a lot of swagger, but he had never before been a bully except for the occasional joke gone too far. Jon Handshaker had seen right through his bluster almost from the first day. Jon had grown up in the Reservation Lands, where outsized swagger, ego, bluster and bluff, was the way of life. Big Greg Big would have fit right in there, except for his height and girth.
As Big Greg Big opened his mouth to smirk out “Good morning, Jon Handshaker,” or something equally inane, Jon, with something of a hunting cat's shocking speed, came to him in two smooth, quick strides. Before Greg could move or even think, Jon was pumping his hand firmly and saying “Good to see you up so early, Greg.”
Big Greg Big was left gaping, with no smart remark or snappy comeback to save him. He had been had, and he knew it. Now he would have to parade the city with Jon and share at least some of the purification exercises.
Jon did not stop there. Still moving smoothly and sharply, he released Big’s pudgy hand and grasped the hand of the next nearest boy in the hall. Three abrupt pumps, no time for talking, and he was on to the next victim. He managed to shake the hands of four boys before the last held on tight, giving the rest time to catch onto what was happening and run shouting. Their intended prey for a day's fun suddenly turned predator, they scattered like mice. In seconds, the only people left in the hall were the servants, who would not have to take on any prolonged cleansing rituals no matter what they did. The day's prayers sufficed for the common man.
Jon had temporarily forgotten the Master of Corrections, but when, with surprising force for one so apparently frail, the little man’s hand clamped onto Jon’s wrist, he stopped pursuing the fleeing boys and stood to await the tirade. It did not come. He looked down into the Master’s jut-nosed face. It was so reminiscent of his Reservation Lands folk, that he had once called the Master, "Uncle."
The Master looked at him with an unreadable expression and said simply, "Stop." Jon wondered if the prim little man could be holding in a grin. He was a stickler for the rules, of course, but who wouldn't find it funny to see such a perfect turning of tables?
Jon schooled his face to match the Master's, but inside he was howling. He really was the Handshaker now, for true, but those four boys would become the butts for all the jokes, buffoons garnering fool's names that would follow them for weeks. All the while throughout the city, people would be admiring Jon for his neat play.
The Master held him for a moment as if to re-enforce the word, then he said mildly, "Come along now," and led Jon down the broad wooden stairs and out the wide gate of the building. Not one boy was to be seen, except for flashes of faces at corners, but servants and menials flocked the corridors.
Each one, respectfully and formally said “Good morning, Jon Handshaker.” Jon politely, and with as straight a face as he could manage, replied to each, "Good morning to you," and shook their hands three times, equal to equal.
The Master of Correction's face grew tighter and tighter, but he said nothing more as he led Jon out of the building and down the streets towards the memorial to the First Captain. His power over any of the royal blood was sharply limited, and as long as Jon was not actually breaking some specific rule, his power was zero.
In fact, thought Jon as they walked, taking his wrist, as he had in the hall above, might be a breaking of the rules in itself. Only the Head Master was allowed any kind of corporal punishment, and even that was limited. Seven stokes with a light cane was the maximum. A light cane had plenty of sting, but Jon had had as much and more from his mother practically daily, or so it had seemed.
They developed into quite a procession as they headed down the street. The four boys that Jon had handshaken soon caught up with them, and, hanging back a bit as if not wanting to be seen together, followed them to the memorial. The group was of course the center of a great deal of attention. Some servant from the house must have darted ahead to spread the joke.
The Handshaker strode confidently at the front like a true king, his four flamboyantly dressed victims in train. Jon solemnly shook the hand of everyone who presented himself, and everyone backed up his joke by offering to shake the other boys' hands too. They were sullenly refused, provoking undisguised mirth.
All in all, it was the finest day in Jon Handshaker’s young life.
Here's the next link! Chapter Four. Have at it. Here is where the blood and violence starts...