Loushan didn’t understand the king. As the fool it was his job to be abused by prestigious visitors, to have things thrown at him and drinks spilled on him, yet for some reason, the king always got upset about it. More than once an honored guest had been thrown out of the grand hall after insulting his race in front of him, despite the obvious insult he had sent their way beforehand.
“Insults must be funny!” he would growl as the guards dragged them out.
It didn’t take Loushan long to realize, but King Lune was well aware that the only reason he had won the war against the empire was because of the magical Disdust they had discovered beneath the kingdom. With that power he could do practically whatever he wanted, which involved freely insulting other rulers. Or in Loushan’s case, have his fool insult them for him.
“If one is not humble as a king, one risks losing reality entirely,” Baston, the head of entertainment, said as he dressed him in his leotard and coxcomb in the entertainer’s backroom.
“If that were the case, why would he be using his enemy’s heir as his kingdom’s fool?” Loushan brushed the comb and bobbed his head. “Other than creating animosity with the empire?”
Baston sniffed under his thick mustache. “Who’s closer to the king than his fool? If you killed him, your country would have his son to deal with and…”
Loushan thought of the lanky taunting king in waiting. “I don’t think even the Stilted Kingdom would want that.”
“Yet,” Baston said as though correcting him.
Loushan sighed and stood, moving out into the main hall to do his act. As soon as he entered through the curtains, he was juggling. He had become a lot better in the last year to the point that he could juggle five balls at once.
“Ah, there he is!” King Lune called.
The hall was lavish with too many curtains draped from the ceiling to the walls, which made juggling best done in the center of the room. King Lune sat with his two guests, Lord Jaso and his son Tao on their high seats. Loushan had seen both men when they had brought themselves before the king upon their arrival. Like the king, both men were fat and bearded, which in people from the south meant they were in the rare minority of wealthy people from that area. Needless to that say that because of the contrast with the poverty around them, they were used to getting their own way.
“Lou, come and provide us with your wisdom.”
Tao laughed and slurred, “Your fool is a Dunds!”
Loushan smiled widely, which wasn’t just a part of his act. A fool could get away with saying things that others could not. To some this made them seem wise, but in reality they just weren’t afraid of people they should be. To be under the king’s protection meant he was invulnerable to any repercussion, and what better protection did a hostage have against his captors than needing him alive to keep peace.
“Oh, Lune, your guests are sand merchants, if you really needed sand there is a beach not far from here,” he started. “Lord Jaso! How do you feel about the homeless?”
“Mala and Maseem, my third and fifth wives are always speaking about it, but you know women…” Jaso shrugged. “What do they know?”
“And how many unused rooms does your palace have?”
“Somewhere in the hundreds, I can never be sure.”
Loushan tossed one of the balls to Lord Jaso. Jaso tried and failed to catch the ball, as it rolled to toward his son. “If you can not think of a good gift for Mala and Maseem, see how many of those rooms it will take to shelter the ones your wife may see in a daily basis. Two problems will be solved very quickly.”
Lord Jaso looked to King Lune, who simply raised his brow. “Ha, ha-ha, your fool’s japes oversteps his bounds. Maybe you have not domesticated this Dund’s blood as well as you may think.”
“That’s the point of a fool. Their foolishness allows them to overstep, you would do well to add one to your own retinue.”
“Why do you not give your advice to your own king? Fool!” Tao picked up and threw the ball more forcefully at him.
Loushan caught it effortlessly, despite the speed it was flying at his leg. “Now that you and your men have had rooms, I beg you to try and find more than five rooms in this castle that are not currently being used. But it’s not your job to prove a fool wrong. Besides, if you looked you just might find a member of your harem you have not seen since she first caught your eye.”
Lune spat out a laugh as Jaso’s face went red. A knife appeared in Tao’s hand, and despite the rage in the lord’s face, Jaso lifted a hand for him to put it away. “Are you trying to insult me through your fool, Lune?”
The king shook his head. “Why do you think I bring out Lou first? He knows no tact, making him the perfect test for whether I can do business with foreign ambassadors such as yourself.”
“And did I pass?”
“Let’s just say your son would not have.” He gestured to Tao. “But we will see as the night goes on, please continue, Lou.”
And so began the long series of insults that Lou was famous for. From insulting his many wives, to insulting his country’s state, to insulting Tao, his son, until the young man was escorted out of the room by two of the king’s guards. It wasn’t such an uncommon occurrence. Loushan could see the shock on King Lune’s face at the amount of self control Jaso had over himself, although he doubted the fat man could do much about it with his bulk weighing him down, one of many things Loushan had decided to pick on.
“I can see why you have a beard to cover your neck, if your neck still exists that is! Beware as you sleep, my king, that you are not haunted by the ghost of the lord’s lost neck. T’was it drowned perhaps?”
“That’s enough, Lou.” Lune smiled at his seething guest. “It seems Jaso is at his limits, please leave the hall.” He then waved to Baston, standing against the wall. “Bring in the feast now!”
Loushan bowed and turned to leave. He had not expected the noise he heard coming from Jaso as he walked from the hall. The lord was bellowing with laughter. Whether it was from him being dismissed or relief that he had lasted throughout his onslaught, Loushan didn’t want to guess. As Baston had told him on the king’s request, he had not held back. However, if King Lune were to release him as his ward now, he would be a dead man. If not by Jaso himself, then undoubtedly by his son.
He moved into the backroom, breathing heavily as Baston’s aid passed him a towel to wipe the sweet from his forehead. “That was very good, Loushan. You really did roil up the Durk Lord. The king will be pleased.”
“He better be. I’ve insulted lords before, but never a Durk. You better believe that the lordling Tao will be having a Joh-ken after my head by morning. It will be a miracle if I make it through the night.”
The curtain to the room was pushed aside and Baston walked through. “If that is the case, all trade with the Durks will break down.”
Loushan whirled on him. “But why me? Is he trying to paint a target on my back… or is it the empire he wants to make enemies between?”
“It could be seen that way.” Baston stroked his mustache. “It could also be seen that Jaso wasn’t the only one being tested this evening. I believe your loyalty was being put on trial, the mettle of your emotional control that King Lune has been trying to teach you all of these years. And I believe you passed with flying colors.”
“Really? What makes you think that? It seems he just wanted an excuse to laugh at his guest again.” Loushan removed his coxcomb and threw it across the room. “What you believe doesn’t matter when my life is the one on the line!”
“Well, you can tell him that yourself when you go to his chambers. He has commanded you go there for a private meeting after the lord retires.”
“Private?” Loushan’s brow knitted together. “Why?”
Bostan shrugged and walked from in front of the backroom’s mirror, showing the confusion on his lean, darkened face.
Loushan hadn’t spoken alone with the king since he had arrived as a child. Even then, it had been a brief meeting where the king had given him to Baston in order for him to learn the art of foolery. Besides the juggling and simple trickery with slight of hand, all it pertained was being honest in a way that was shocking and revealing. Doing this he had been at the king’s side during most of his meetings with foreign dignitaries and had been able to say things to them that any other person in the room could not.
However, this had also given him time to observe the king himself. With his tactical taunting and guffawing at his visitor’s expense, he received his title: the Laughing King. To say King Lune enjoyed it to laugh was an understatement. The more powerful the ruler, the more funny he found it.
Loushan thought that this was one of the reasons why his proud father, the emperor, took him to war when the Disdust gave them a clear, dominant advantage. All he wanted was to have a joke at the emperor’s expense, and the end result was the empire losing its honor and its heir becoming a fool. As disgraceful as it was, Loushan achieved a new understanding of the king because of it. To him, nothing was sacred, and with the power of the Disdust, nothing need be.
He contemplated his lessons from the king as he moved through the corridors toward his chambers later that night. The walls leading up the spiral stairs were draped with tapestries portraying Lune’s victories over other nations. When he arrived, he opened the large doors and walked in to see Lune sitting at a long dining room table.
“Lou, come and eat your last meal with me. I made sure to save the best cuts.”
Loushan sat down at the table and began picking through the meats with a steak fork before piling them on a gilded plate. “Why have you requested my presence?”
“Good. No formality with my meal, just as I like it. I have taught you well.”
“Do you realize you have sentenced me to death by having me say such things about the Durk lord?”
The king nodded. “But it is unlikely that he will get the chance to exact his vengeance, even if that were the case.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’re a bad fool, Lou.” King Lune lifted his wine glass. “Not foolish enough to be my fool, but I am very proud of the investment I have put in you, and now that your father is sickly, I would love to let you loose on the Dunden court.”
“So that’s it, you wanted to teach me to become as tactless as possible and then send me back to become the heir again. Why?”
“Why did the war between the Stilted Kingdom and the empire begin? Because the emperor had such thin skin with such a prickly stick up his ass to boot. When you win the empire, if you win the empire, you might prevent a war being created from such pettiness in the future.”
Loushan couldn’t get his mouth off the table. “So that’s it? To make it so wars don’t start over… foolery?”
King Lune shrugged. “Of course. I want my heirs to be able to have a laugh at the next emperor without risking war. Can you think of anything better than stopping that? Petty insults should never lead to war simply because of a ruler’s frail esteem. If power means you should get what you want, then I want to be able to laugh at my enemy and not risk thousands of lives in doing so.”
Loushan could see the point he was trying to make, but wasn’t confident in the likelihood of him becoming the next emperor after the enemies he had made during his years in the stilts.
“So are you sending me home?”
“I said last meal for a reason.”
Loushan looked around the king’s chambers. It was large and furry, like the king, as one would expect of the bedroom of royalty, but when comparing it to the emperor’s four leveled chambers, it almost seemed humorously small. After years living in an entertainer’s quarters, he would never feel at home in such a place.
“Will I be getting a royal entourage to accompany me?”
King Lune raised a finger. “Oh no, you’ll be going by yourself. I wish for you to return to your kingdom on your own merits.”
“But I was taken when I was a boy, no one will recognize me now!”
“I know,” he said, stuffing his mouth with ham. “It will be my final jape at the emperor. Sending his own son back to him without him even knowing. Don’t fear, I will provide you with enough coin for you to pay your way. I won’t have you becoming a beggar.”
Loushan punched the table. “Will my whole life end up being a joke at my father’s expense?”
“I thought you would be happy!” Lune waved a fork at him. “You’ll be home tonight, in a matter of hours.”
The king bellowed. “What? You thought I wasn’t giving you an entourage to spite you? I love you like a son, Lou, but it’s very hard for more than three people to move through the Naywhere without wasting a heck of a lot of dust. And after the awful, awful things you said to Lord Jaso and his son, I think that it would be best for you to do this as soon as possible.” He reached down and tossed a brown pouch onto the table in front of him.
Of course, it was under his demand that he said such things, but that didn’t change the fact that he was going waste some of the substance that was becoming riskier and riskier to mine under the kingdom in order to send an enemy’s heir home.
Back when it had first been discovered under Tamryen, what the country had once been called, entire wars had been fought on the back of Disdust. A once-believed unlimited supply of the mineral existed and was used to position entire armies when besieging the capital after the emperor had used an Joh-ken assassin to kill one of Lune’s sons.
In that time the dust has been forged into way-blades, which had worked to create magic weapons that could teleport their wielders, people snorted it in the belief that it would give them supernatural abilities, which had only worked to give soldiers a pounding head ache. Disdust had even been used for entertainment. Loushan himself was familiar with the use of way-sticks which he had used to vanish in and out of the naywhere in order to show off in front of foreign jesters.
But now the dust was in short supply, it’s price had shot up. The amount he had just been given was ridiculous.
“Thank you.” Loushan took the pouch and rose. “I don’t suppose we’ll see each other again.”
The king gave a pained look and pointed to the table. “At least take some food with you. You might want to make a lunch of it tomorrow.”
Loushan took some beef and the pouch of Disdust, and left to prepare his jump back to Dunden. He stopped as King Lune called from behind him.
“If you wish to to take this chance to go into hiding, I will tell no one where you’ve gone, but I would be very disappointed if you did,” he said through his chewing. “After all, my dreams of a more humorous kingdom are in your hands now.”
Loushan raised the pouch before he left. “The dreams of a loon.”
He shut the door behind him to raucous laughter. His plan was simple: find a map and get the hell out of the Stilted Kingdom before an assassin found him, and attempt an audience with his father. He would have to leave behind the wards that had been sent with him, but he would be able to send for his friends once the empire knew what had happened.