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The Reluctant Dark Knight/Part 9

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Dangerous Affairs

"Golly,” Clumsy started while they trailed the wagon on Feathers, “Whadd’ya think Gargamel’s gonna do to the knight at King Gerard’s party?"

His companion was eating a muffin he had brought along in a knapsack, so between bites he answered, “Beats me – we don’t even know which knight he’s talking about!” He paused to finish his treat and added, “But whatever it is, it can’t be good, right?"

An hour of riding and flying passed by the time the wagon stopped in front of King Gerard’s castle – that’s when Gargamel and Scruple fled for the nearest tree as not to be caught for freeloading. Likewise, the Smurfs hid behind a bush and watched their movements closely. Sadly, they only knew who was hidden – they saw none of their actions until they stepped out from the shadows. Behind the tree, Gargamel brought out the two vials of blue liquid and uncorked them.

“These should last us a few hours,” he explained, giving one to his apprentice, “Just long enough to do what we came here for and be on our way.” Scruple let his master take it first – a swirling red cloud engulfed him for several seconds, and then died down to reveal a chef’s servant. He was fascinated.

“Wow, Garggy, if I didn’t know it was you, I’d hardly recognize ya!”

“Exactly the idea, my boy, now take yours and let’s get inside!” he commanded in a new voice. Scruple did as he was told and externally became Peewit in a matter of seconds, so they set off. As soon as the coast was clear, they strolled across the path and approached the drawbridge; suddenly Gargamel identified the guest greeter to be the very knight they were looking for and stopped his apprentice.

“Let’s use the back entrance, Scruple,” he whispered, turning away. As if on cue, Johan raised his arm and proclaimed, “You two – why are you not yet inside? Come here, please!” Cursing to himself, the wizard turned around again and led the boy over the drawbridge.

“Is-is-is-is-is anything wrong, sir?” he asked, trying to keep his character. The knight looked first at Scruple, somewhat confused, and asked, “Peewit, I thought you were helping Falla set up the last of the decorations. What are you doing out here?” The boy stuttered for a minute, and then he thought of a worthy excuse.

“Oh, right, I was just going to – uh – pick some daisies for the vases,” he said, liking how much he sounded like the jester. He held up his hand with a nervous smile as he added, “But I didn’t find any patches near enough to the castle, so I gave up a minute ago.”

Johan seemed suspicious at first, but then with a sigh he gestured for him to enter, telling him to find Falla. Scruple nodded and scurried past him, promising to do what he said as he disappeared down the hallways. Gargamel, on the other hand, had no trouble fooling Johan – all he told him was that he had been running late for his duties and was let in.

The Smurfs made their way to him next and stayed hidden in the shadows, whispering, “Johan, down here!” He looked towards his left foot and saw, at the edge of the moat, his friends.

“Smurfs,” he cried softly, placing his hands on his knees, “What brings you here?” Vanity put down his mirror for a moment to tell him, “We heard about the Grand Ball and simply could not miss it.” Grouchy nudged him, so he added, “Oh, and we think that nasty old wizard, Gargamel, is lurking somewhere inside.”

“What business would he have here?” he asked. Before they answered, he stood up and greeted another arriving princess and her personal escort – both of whom he knew from a previous occasion. Then he returned to the Smurfs so Greedy could say, “We heard him talking about doing something terrible to a knight in King Gerard’s castle,” he paused to munch on a Smurfberry cookie, “and Papa Smurf said the potion he was working on could be deadly.”

Grouchy cut in with, “I hate deadly!” Johan furrowed his brow and, with mild discontent, asked them what he should do to stop their treachery. The Smurfs exchanged uneasy glances and finally admitted they weren’t sure. “Fact is we don’t even know which knight he means…”

"Then I’ll keep my eyes out for any suspicious activity.” He straightened up as another member of royalty came into sight. “Rest assured I won’t let those goons get past me. Thank you, Smurfs, for the warning.”

“Aw, it’s nothin’, Johan,” Clumsy gushed. Vanity quickly added, “We’ll go inside and smurf an eye on the party while you’re out here.” The young man agreed with a smile, so they bid Feathers good-bye and dashed inside – they hoped to find Gargamel and Scruple after losing them before.

. . .
Meanwhile, King Gerard socialized with Clockwork sitting on his shoulder; he was giving the boy-king words of encouragement when he showed signs of shyness. They had so far met and talked with about half the ladies invited, and for the most part he liked them all for different reasons.

After a while, he asked the little Smurf for the time; he estimated it was close to the ninth hour of the night. He acknowledged the information, and then in his peripheral vision noticed Falla standing beyond the doorway to the tower entrance at his right.

“Falla,” he called, walking her way, “may I speak with you alone, please?”

She looked up and replied, “Of course, your majesty. Is anything the matter?” He held her arm in one hand and led her up the flight of stairs only asking to follow him, so she did.

She lifted her dress with her free hand as they ascended and glanced at Clockwork with an expression reading, “What’s going on?” The mechanical Smurf shrugged quietly.

They entered his bedroom and he told her to sit on the bed. She hesitated at first, but with his second instruction, she obeyed and took a seat. He removed his advisor from his shoulder and gently placed him on the ground in the doorway.

“Please attend to the guests in my absence, Clockwork. I’ll return soon.” For a moment the doll questioned him. “Go, Clockwork – I’ll come back downstairs later.” This time he was serious, so he briskly turned and left.

King Gerard sighed as he closed the door and locked it; he rotated on his heels to see the young lady sitting on his bed. He smiled weakly as he approached, removing his crown when he plopped down next to her. He lightly tossed it onto the pillows at the head of the bed set, keeping his eyes cast down as he spoke in a tone far different than he had been using in the crowds – it was softer, and somewhat depressed, which confused her.

“Falla, I can’t do this anymore,” he began, “I’m not the best when it comes to romance, but I know when to listen to my heart, and right now I hear it telling me I’m not comfortable. I shouldn’t have tried to meet every nearby suitor at once – I ought to have met each individually, like how I met you.” He shifted his eyes in her direction for a moment when she rested her hand on his.

“I – I don’t think I’m ready to settle down yet, either, but I’m at the age where I need to seriously think about it. The trouble is, who can I trust when I’ve been betrayed by loved ones before and how can I be sure I’ve made the right decision after learning ‘looks can be deceiving’ the hard way? It’s just…it’s all so much to take in, you see. I’ve never been so stressed in my life – not even being locked in the dungeons by my aunt Imperia compares to the fears I have about marriage!”

His heart beat faster in his chest; he moved his other hand over hers, still keeping his eyes away from hers.

"I remember trusting the wrong family members, too: Imperia, Uncle Leopold, and Cousin Malcolm… I suppose I’m trying to say I’ve been naïve to the evils of those around me.” He shrugged. “I wish I didn’t have to work with these princesses as if they were all pawns on a chessboard.”

For several minutes he was silent, and so was his companion.

“Sometimes I wish I weren’t a king. Rather, a servant or a peasant, free to set my sights on anyone at all. After all, it’s possible the girl of my dreams will turn out to be a commoner – no princess or lady of high status – but if I focus solely on the girls downstairs, I’ll never get the chance to find out.

"Perhaps I should just end this now and get to know them individually. I don’t care how long it would take, to be honest – months, years – because I know all good things come to those who wait, Falla. And in my position, I can do that. I can do practically whatever I choose to, and no one could tell me otherwise.”

Finally he lifted his head and they locked eyes.

"I think that’s what I’ll do. I think I’ll take things slow and write to each girl first, just to establish a basic relationship so I can get to know their likes and dislikes. If any differ too greatly from me, I can carefully eliminate the unappealing suitors until it comes down to one or two potential matches.

“And who knows? Maybe in the end, I’ll find the right girl.” She smiled at him, but within seconds his gradually vanished.

“…Then again, maybe I won’t. What if the one I give my heart to is like all the others and ultimately betrays me? She might marry me knowing she’ll have control of half my kingdom, or have me killed when I turn my back, or she could even have an affair down the line. With such real possibilities to consider, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of falling in love with a truthful woman or a wicked harlot, and that scares me.”

She noticed his eyes were shinier than before and worried if he would start crying. His heart ached now that he was thinking about the “what-ifs”, so he lifted her hand and drew in a deep breath to fight the tears.

“Forgive me, Falla, but I believed you would understand my viewpoint if anyone could here. I hope you don’t think of me any less than before after hearing me reveal my innermost concerns – it’s just that, well…I have only Clockwork sometimes and I know he can only sympathize for me. He can’t understand me because he hasn’t experienced the situations and emotions I have so far in life. That’s why I had him leave us alone.

“Besides, I got a good feeling when I met you. The kind of feeling about someone when one can see the gentle soul of another and know that it’s true. Well – what I mean is, the moment you spoke to me, and I to you, I knew right away that you were my friend and always will be, and I hope I never lose you.”

His hands were shaking, but he paid no mind. He took her other hand so he was holding both in his and squeezed them lightly as he said, “So, now I must ask: what do you think I should do?”

Falla fell speechless from a combination of being honored to be who he considered to his closest friend, and from the complexity of his feelings. She pondered her answer for several minutes, and while she did, he held her hands firmly, but gently.

“I think,” she began slowly, “you ought to listen to your heart.” He blinked and sat up straighter, asking for her to continue – to make him fully understand what she was thinking, so she did. “The way I see it, we’ve already put so much time into preparing for your Grand Ball, so you should at least meet the remaining princesses. Than draw the curtains on the evening and follow up with whomever you thought might suit you individually.”

She couldn’t help but smile looking into his gentle eyes, and when he saw it he mirrored her with a light chuckle.

“I’m sorry, Falla,” he murmured, “I can’t help it.”

She rolled her eyes playfully and put her hand on his shoulder as she assured him, “I can’t help smiling when I see you, Gerard. You just seem to make me happy.” Then she switched back to what she was saying before.

“Regardless, just finish tonight. You don’t ever have to do this again afterwards, and then you can focus on one at a time. That’ll help you rule out the best of them for a future bride, okay?”

“Thank you,” he said with a nod.

“Anything for you, sire.” She stood up and immediately her arm was taken hold of – she looked at him and followed his face as he took to his feet, too. The way he was gazing into her eyes seemed strange since she had never known someone as closely as she now knew him.

It occurred to her that he was showing sincerity in its raw form and, through his eyes, she discovered someone so vulnerable and strong – someone scared and daring – someone with so much wisdom for such a young age – and she liked it.

They were the same height, too. It reminded her that she was a year older.

“You have no idea how much your help means to me, Falla,” he said, walking towards the door. He pulled out a key and inserted it into the knob. When the locks clicked, he softly added, “I wonder how I survived without you.”

She heard it and tilted her head with her smiling growing, leading herself out. She was about to respond when one of his guards appeared from the stairs and breathlessly told the king that both the Clockwork Smurf and court jester, Peewit, were missing.

Immediately, King Gerard’s face became gravely disturbed and serious as he put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Stay up here with him until I get to the bottom of this.”

At first she wanted to protest, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I have a bad feeling something’s going on and I won’t risk losing you in the midst of it – stay up here and lock the door. Here –” he gave her the key and closed her hand, “– I’ll handle this.”

“After all,” he continued, nearing the stairs, “I’m the king.”

With that, he disappeared and a gradual rise of commotion could be heard from where she stood. Falla glanced at the guard, disregarded him, and went back into the king’s room. As she locked the door, she huffed and turned around, intending to lie down on the bed.

“But you’re still just a boy, Gerard,” she murmured to herself.


. . .
Gargamel, disguised as one of the servants, witnessed the king and Falla’s removal from the crowd and seized the chance to signal the phony jester. Scruple responded with a nod and raced off to find the real Peewit – his task was to get rid of him before getting near their target knight.

He weaved his way through the lords and ladies until he wound up at the door leading to the kitchen down a hallway; he looked over his shoulder to assure he wasn’t being followed, and then kept moving.

"If I know that stupid kid, he’s stealing food from the cupboards,” he grumbled, now in the actual kitchen. And there was Peewit under the rack of knives, munching away on the pastries yet to be presented to the dance floor. He heard the other boy’s footsteps and looked over his shoulder only to see nothing – Scruple hid behind the nearest food cart until he went back to eating.

Then he spotted a table cloth and grabbed it, sneaking closer to the jester; when he stood right behind him, he quickly thrust the cloth around his head to cover his mouth, therefore muffling his cries. His target struggled immediately, so he tied the knot and reached over the counter for something.

He ended up holding – and striking Peewit’s head with – a small pewter saucepan. It knocked him out almost instantly to his delight, and then he tossed it into the sink; there was no blood on it, but there would certainly be a bruise on Peewit’s skull by the time he woke up.

Scruple searched the pantry for a potato sack and managed to trap his victim inside, next tying the opening shut, and dragged it into the storage room beyond the pantry. His timing was perfect because at that moment Johan entered looking for his little friend; he was startled by his sudden arrival.

"So there you are, Peewit,” he started, skimming over the sprawled food near the knife rack, “You were ransacking the cook’s wares, just as I suspected.” He walked over to the boy and pushed him out the door back towards the dance hall.

“I can’t leave for two minutes without you sneaking off and stealing something, can I? Well, we’ll soon fix that. I’m not letting you out of my sight for the rest of the night.”

That gave Scruple an idea.

“You’ll have to keep up with me then,” he jested. Before the knight got a word in, he dashed into the crowd, snickering.

He heard the knight shouting after him, and when he glanced over his shoulder he saw him darting in between other members of royalty. Knowing he would catch up soon, the boy turned abruptly to the right and went down a corridor leading to the courtyard outside.

“Okay, from the courtyard –” he panted, “– I can reach the gardens and maybe lose him through the rosebushes –” huff, “– he should need water by then!” He exited through the sturdy wooden door and became immersed in the courtyard where the gates to the back gardens were. He pushed it open and looked to the sides to be sure no one else was there.

“Peewit, get back here!”

“Yikes!”

He ran head-first into the thicket, not bothering to stop and smell the roses no matter how lovely as some of them were. With Johan hot on his trail, he schemed and ultimately decided to jump into a berry bush four feet ahead to hide. Then he waited, and stuck his foot out the exact moment he came running by. Johan crashed into the little apple tree growing just to his right and, in an attempt to resist gravity’s pull, broke off a branch, which he held in his hand.

Scruple burst out laughing, but ceased the moment he opened his eyes and saw the young man standing over him with a most intimidating frown. He gulped, pleading, “Hey, can’t you take a joke, big guy?”

Johan flung the branch into the ground and lunged forward, fiercely grasping the small boy’s black tie and lifted him off the ground.

“I will not be made a fool of, Peewit,” he warned him through gritted teeth. He stared into his eyes for a minute and leaned back as he pressed the boy against the tree he’d run into, noticing something odd.

“…You’re not Peewit.”

“What makes you say that?” Scruple asked, already devising a plan to escape. His captor’s eyes narrowed, searching through him for something, and then slowly widened. He dropped him and instantly withdrew his sword from its sheath, pointing the shimmering tip of the blade in the dead center of his neck.

“When I look into Peewit’s eyes, I don’t see malice and hate,” he explained. “I see cunning and mischief, but certainly nothing evil.” He paused, keeping his free arm raised halfway. “Now tell me who you really are and what you’ve done with my friend!”

“What if I don’t tell you?” The blade touched the boy’s neck, making him gasp. “Y-you wouldn’t kill a child, would you?” To his amusement, the knight’s expression showed a glimpse of guilt, which was just enough to work with, so he continued.

“After all, I’m nothing more than a pawn in this charade – a decoy for the real plan. My job was to lead King Gerard out here or else my master would let me starve…” He faked a whimper.

Johan bit his lip and lowered his weapon, asking, “What was supposed to happen to the king on this night?”

“If you must know…” Scruple began, making up every word as he spoke them, “I was to bring him into his garden – here, alone – and my master would arrive with several men disguised as a princess, extra chef, and two children – one being me, made to look like your friend, Peewit. They didn’t tell me what they were going to do, but I poked around and found out they wanted to kill him and overthrow the kingdom!”

He tugged Johan’s tunic and pretended to cry. “I didn’t wanna do it, but they made me! I didn’t wanna starve, but I didn’t wanna let the king die either!”

Johan’s unwavering heart leaned towards forgiveness, so he consoled the boy. He assured him he wouldn’t let anything happen, and that he will do anything in his power to find and arrest his master.

“Before I point out my master, I need a drink,” Scruple said. “All that running made me thirsty.”

“I admit, I’m rather parched myself, “Johan replied, following him back into the castle. “Water is most favorable, if you please."

“Oh, indeed, young knight! I’ll run ahead and tell one of the servants to fetch water for you.” He fled the scene before giving him a chance to protest or agree, but rather than return to the kitchen, he ventured through the crowds in search of Gargamel.

Author's Note

At the time this was written, it was my longest monologue. For several days afterwards, I couldn't write Falla's response because it was just so much to take in, so I thought on it until I could come up with a suitable conversation. And, finally, the villains are actually setting their plans into action!

Continuation

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