Inspired by Wendy Walker
Matko was carried into the entrance-hall of the mad Duke’s mansion. Well, nobody was sure if Duke Kavarinn of Cavollo had really gone mad. The young man was notorious for his secrecy, and the only evidence anyone had of his madness was how he’d acted during his most recent visit to Salvesti that past autumn, when he’d sprinted out of the ballroom and dove headfirst into the royal frog-pond.
Whatever the truth was, it was important for the kingdom of Salvesti to find it out, since they had made tentative plans to arrange a marriage between the Duke and the Salvestian princess. That was why the kingdom officials had wanted Matko to spy on the Duke, and that was why they had cast a state-of-the-art transformation spell on him.
Matko had been a handsome red-haired man. He was now a handsome red pot, a bit on the heavy side, with jewels covering his body. The spell he was under enabled him to see and hear and think, but not to speak or move. Since he couldn’t move, someone else from Salvesti had to carry him into the Duke’s antechamber, claiming he was a gift for the Duke. She had set Matko on a shelf, next to a hideous marble figurine of a puffy-cheeked bird.
When he saw Duke Kavarinn’s haggard face, Matko knew immediately that the man was a nut. First of all, he didn’t seem the least perturbed by all the glimmering jewelry strewn willy-nilly around the room. Second of all, he started every word with an oppressed-sounding hiccup. Third, and most disconcerting of all, he paced around the room, mumbled feverishly, and wrung his hands. Only a madman would do things like that, Matko concluded, because never in his right mind would he have done such things.
Thus, it was easy for him to determine that Duke Kavarinn was mad. However, Matko had been sent here to discover not just if, but why he was mad. That would be harder to do, Matko knew. Fortunately nobody would suspect a pot of spying, so he could stay and listen to all the Duke’s secret conversations for a fortnight, after which point he would be smuggled out of the antechamber and turned back into a human.
So Matko sat on his shelf beside the hideous bird-thing and watched the Duke hiccup and mutter and wring his hands. Behind the Duke, Matko could see the double-doored entrance to the mansion, and the large window above the doors. The day was cloudy, so only a gloomy-looking light made it through the window to shine feebly on the floor’s pale granite tiles.
Matko tried to distract himself from the miserable ambiance by thinking about his wife. She was a ballerina. Matko’s father had thought being a ballerina was one of the least respectable careers one could ever have, but Matko had married her anyway.
He had always felt a bit ashamed since the marriage. He didn’t know why. Whatever the case, he had no reason to be ashamed, because he’d gotten a respectable position as a royal spy. Matko felt that ought to have compensated for his choice of a wife, and surely it did. At holiday feasts, his father no longer pretended to be deaf whenever Matko asked him to pass over the platter of plucked goshawk. Their differences had thus been settled, and they had evidently been settled in the most sane and upright manner possible. That made Matko proud, in spite of whatever shame he might still have felt.
Matko observed Duke Kavarinn. The dark-haired man kept glancing at the double doors, and Matko concluded that he was waiting to receive a visitor. However, the Duke’s manner of waiting to receive a visitor was pacing around before the doors and hiccup-mumbling under his breath. That made Matko wonder if Kavarinn had always been mad. The Duke did come from a land of excessive wastefulness. Matko had even heard that in Cavollo, they broke plates to celebrate weddings.
Someone knocked from outside. The Duke flinched, hurried forward, and yanked the doors apart. A tall brown-haired woman came in. Matko recognized her as the Duke’s sister, Lyudika. She was just as secretive as her younger brother, but everyone in Salvesti knew she was sane. She hadn’t taken to diving into the royal frog-pond during her visits.
“Mother won’t go to your wedding,” she said to Duke Kavarinn.
“Why?” Kavarinn looked at her as if he’d been stabbed in the heart.
“You’re marrying a commoner.” She sat in one of two empty chairs. “That’s been taboo for ages.”
The Duke sighed, ignored the other empty chair, and rambled around the room again. When he spoke, his voice had somehow become even more feverish than it had been. “Mother should have more decency.”
Lyudika nodded. “Of course she should, but she doesn’t.”
Matko could have sworn that he saw a mad glint flash through the Duke’s green eyes. “But she’s my mother, and she’s treating me like I’m a murderer,” the Duke said. “I haven’t done anything wrong!”
His sister steepled her hands in her lap. “Marrying a commoner is crime enough, apparently.”
The Duke gave up wandering around the room and collapsed into the chair. The room went eerily silent.
Matko had expected a more exciting explanation for the Duke’s madness than forbidden love. Oh well. He had to take what came to him. In any case, his news would surely cause a tumult back in Salvesti.
“You know how much I respect Mother,” the Duke was saying. “She made me who I am. But this goes against every notion of freedom known to humanity!”
“Stop being dramatic,” Lyudika said. “Don’t marry the commoner and everything will be fine. It may hurt you in the short-term but it will be much better for us all in the long run.”
Pain went through the mad Duke’s eyes, but he shook his head.
Lyudika leaned back in her chair, un-steepled her hands, and crossed her arms. “Well then Mother won’t go to the wedding, and you’ll likely lose whatever power you might have commanded in the royal court. Are you really so stupid as to let that happen?”
“It’s not that,” the Duke said quietly. “It’s just that I wouldn’t feel whole for some reason.”
Lyudika blinked. “What?”
“When you go against yourself, I mean. I’ve been living this way my whole life and always felt like there was a gap in me that kept getting wider every time I did something according to Mother’s wishes. Selling my summer home in Ofthan, for one. But I always went along with it. I always thought, ‘She’s my mother, so what else can I do?’ but I can’t think that way after this past autumn.”
“Why don’t you just call it off?” asked Lyudika.
Duke Kavarinn met her gaze. “I have to go ahead on my own and damn whatever comes of it, or else I feel something will break within me,” he said.
Lyudika was silent. She seemed surprised at the earnestness of her brother’s reply.
They were silent for a long time. Kavarinn rubbed at his right temple and Lyudika stared down at the granite tiles. Through the window over their heads, the clouds shifted.
Matko got to thinking of his own wife. They’d never honeymooned for some reason. He didn’t know why. They just hadn’t gotten around to it, he guessed. Well, he decided, they would get around to it after he finished this assignment. They would go to the Dillusioniyal islands or something, and they would be happy for the first time since their wedding-day. And then, when they returned, he would go on more espionage assignments, and get more glory and fame and wealth and stability, and at the meal-table his father would pass him whatever Matko wanted, and would even order for a second serving to be prepared specially for him if it came down to that.
“I’m not going to be a Duke anymore,” the Duke announced, and smiled.
“What?” Lyudika asked.
“I want to be a jeweler.”
Lyudika looked at him in astonishment. “A jeweler?”
The Duke’s smile widened. “You know that I’ve always wanted to be a jeweler.”
“But what about your position in court?”
Kavarinn’s eyes got a faraway look in them. “Who cares about that?”
“But…” she trailed off, gazing at the jewelry strewn everywhere. “Won’t you regret it one day? Won’t you wonder why you ever had such a foolish idea?”
“Lyudika, this ‘foolish idea’ makes me feel more whole than I have ever been in my entire life,” said Duke Kavarinn.
Lyudika seemed to have no response for that. Kavarinn stood and walked around again, saying more things to her, but Matko had stopped caring about what the words were.
He was too busy thinking about how he would not be a waste, he would not be a waste. He was just a few years older than Kavarinn at this point, and he would devote his life to submitting to the whims of others, as long as they were respectable whims, and so he would become old and grey and pain-ridden, and decay into a hollow frame of shambling bones, with no flesh or spirit left within it, just a vessel that would be ideal for carrying out respectable whims, because respectable whims would be the only whims worth obeying, and he would obey anything to get rid of the aching within his soul.
Matko was surprised to discover that there even was such an aching in his soul.
The Duke’s sister was still looking at her brother in astonishment. Whatever haggardness there had been weighing down the Duke’s face had vanished, replaced by happiness. He seemed lighter on his feet, too, as if he could lift himself off the tips of his toes and hover in space. Somehow, he no longer seemed mad. For a moment, Matko felt as if he and the Duke were kindred spirits, because something within himself felt lighter, too.
Then he thought of his wife and his position and the lightness vanished, and Matko felt that aching within him again, and it was a desperate kind of aching that he realized might never leave him, no matter how hard he worked, but he had to work. He had nothing left he could do but work.
The Duke was beaming, and his sister was smiling now, too. Through the window, the clouds parted, and the room shone bright with sunlight. The Duke started humming something.
He had nothing left.
The Duke was humming something. It was ballet music.
And Duke Kavarinn traipsed over to the handsome red pot with jewels in its body, lifted it from the shelf, and shattered it against the floor, laughing with joy.