My apprentice found me in the evening of the second day, in the Elephant. She wore her disguise, of course, and saved me from the two drunk knights, the fat one insisting the tall one should learn juggling from me, and the idiot kept dropping things on his own head, to the fat one’s delight.
“Fool, a song,” she commanded, playing only too well the part of cocky boy in the duke’s service. And from the coin I got, I could tell her character was doing rather well in its new position.
“This is remarkably generous,” I commented, and I wasn’t talking just about the money, I really could use some rescuing from the duo. “You know what would be even more generous? Offering a fool a drink,” I said, taking a seat opposite to her, pretending to force my company on the “boy”.
“Fine,” her character agreed, humoring the fool as long as it was entertaining.
“How are things going for you?” I asked, too low for anyone else to hear.
“Good. The man talks a lot and I seem to say ‘uh-hum’ exactly when he needs it,” my apprentice reported, in a discreet tone, but the smile on her face made it harder for me to tell whether she was serious. Her laughing didn’t help either. “It’s true!” she promised, very amused by how strange the truth could sound. I nodded, and started singing.
The song caught the attention of some men in the tavern. Once it was over, a few of them asked for a bawdy song. Sir Andrew, the thin knight, asked for juggling, and the fat one, sir Toby Belch, they called him, felt particularly inspired, and suggested juggling knives. My apprentice, who hadn’t learned that skill yet, loved seeing me do it, and looked ready to be delighted. So I decided to improvise a little.
I borrowed one knife from the fat man, and turned to my apprentice. “Ever thought of becoming a fool, young master?” I asked the “boy”. “Help me with a trick,” I said, holding her hand on the table, and hitting the knife between her fingers to the ever speeding rhythm of a rhyme I had learned long ago for moments such as those. “Don’t move your fingers,” I advised. My apprentice’s character screamed as I went on, terrified to be in the hands of a fool, and I wasn’t sure how much of that screaming was acting and how much was honest. The others laughed and applauded, especially when I got to the end, and “Cesario” still had all of her fingers.
A few more songs and an improvised epic satyre later, I noticed she was leaving. I gave her a few minutes’ headstart while I decided if I could afford to leave at that point of the evening. The drunk men in the Elephant were beginning to leave as well, so I did the same, looking for my apprentice.
"Don’t you think that’s an obvious spot?” I asked, facing the dark corner where I could hear her breathing, waiting for me.
“Obvious to you. But it’s not you I’m hiding from, is it?” she replied, upset at my criticism. But in the same breath she shrugged, and let it go. “Will you walk with me?” she asked, with an excited smile on her face.
“Won’t you get in trouble coming back to the duke’s villa this late?”
She shrugged, or maybe her character did. “Only the kind of trouble a boy like me is expected to get into.”
I nodded. “So you got close to the duke? What can you tell me?”
Viola shrugged again. “It was luck, I suppose. I’m not sure what I did right, but the duke really enjoys telling me about everything he both loves and can’t stand. He’s very contradictory.” I chuckled, unsurprised by her finding. “You know, I’m glad your original plan didn’t work out.”
“Why?” I encouraged her to go on speaking.
“Because if the countess had taken me in, I would never have been able to walk these streets at this time, and certainly never in your company, but as the duke’s serving boy, no one cares what I do.” I nodded, it explained her excitement at something as ordinary as visiting a tavern. “I like it.”
“You like not being cared for?”
“I like this freedom. And I know I’m cared for. There’s you, I know you care about me. It would be a bad look for you letting your apprentice die so fast.”
I laughed. It was a lot to unpack in her words. “Let’s make one thing quite clear: I do care for you, not just what the others will think about me, but don’t get yourself in danger thinking I’m always there to help you out. And one thing more: people still care what you do, so be careful when experimenting with this freedom you’re talking about.”
Viola nodded. “I’ll stay in character,” she promised.
“And what have you learned so far?”
“That the duke believes himself in love with the countess.”
“That should make things easier,” I said, not grasping at the full meaning of her words.
“I think that will make things worse,” she disagreed. “If he wanted to marry her because he understands it’s the safest for his country, I think that would’ve been better.”
“Well, yes, but then they wouldn’t need our interference.”
“Sure, but now we have a man in love with an idea, and confronted with reality, he might give up on her altogether, and then we’ll be back to zero.”
“I’m certain you’ll find some subtle way of reminding him she’s a person, if he likes talking to you so much.”
“He likes making me listen to his monologues, that’s not the same as having a conversation. But fine, I’ll wait for a breach, and swoop in with all the honesty only fools and little boys are allowed to have.”
I chuckled again, mostly because her company was easy, and I had missed it for the past two days. “If you can, try and let the emperor know he’s naked before he leaves his rooms.” She laughed, and nodded in agreement, as we kept moving uphill. “Well, now that you’re all settled, it’s my turn to try the countess’ house.”
“Oh, wait,” Viola said, stopping in her tracks. “That tall knight told me to give this to you when you were rhyming.” She handed me the sixpence. I put it in my pocket. “We can’t meet so publicly again,” I decided. Her confusion at my words was written on her face. “It’s best if we’re not seen together,” I reminded her.
“It’s not like I was the only one drinking with you,” she argued, instead of simply trusting my judgement, but I was getting used to that.
“I think it’s too out in the open when the man dropping things on his own head can tell we’re together.”
She sighed. “I see.” After a few more steps she asked: “Why did you let him hurt himself?”
“He doesn’t need my permission to hurt himself. And I already have an apprentice, who’s way more promising.” She chuckled at my partially honest flattery. “Those knights are in need of a fool, no doubt about it,” I went on with my plans.
“I don’t know, they make fools of themselves with such enthusiasm,” Viola remarked.
“But no technique. I’ll show them how it’s really done.”
“I’m sure you will.” There was always that note of amusement in her voice, which I liked so much. “Are they going to be your way into the countess’ house?”
“I hope the countess herself will allow me in the house, but I’m sure her drunk cousin won’t mind my company even if his lady turns me away.” She nodded in agreement.
We finally got to the villa, where we parted ways. “I hope Cesario won’t get into too much trouble for being out so late.” She laughed and shook her head. “So do I.”
I turned around and started making my way back to my lodgings. I missed her company already, which made me wonder how old most people usually are when they start wishing they were younger.