The jester stood on the castle’s rampart, eyes aglimmer like the night sky. He inched towards the ledge, stories off the ground, close enough until he could see the rolling valley and cattle dotting the landscape far beyond the castle walls. Everything was illuminated by the moon (so generous was she in her light, but so cold and uncaring in her demeanor.) With a hand pressed to his heart, he sank like a stone to the ground.
The princess worked on her embroidery in the sunroom by the garden, her solace interrupted by the clamor of broken limbs and shattered spine. The candlelight flickered as if signifying the passing of an unhappy soul. She looked into the bushes to find the jester’s mangled body on display like meat on a cutting board. Her scream sliced like an arrow through the night.
Up from her chair, down the garden path, followed by frenzied attendants she went, until she was cradling the jester’s dying breath to her lap like some songbird.
“Why?” asked the princess as she stroked the jester’s hair.
He coughed up gore. “Because I have solved God’s greatest riddle, dear girl. Man was not meant to live past that discovery.”
Before the jester could utter that holy knowledge, his body’s hourglass ran out of sand. The princess wailed as attendants pulled her away from the jester’s corpse, trying to shield the innocent youth from life’s harshest lesson. She rocked back and forth in the arms of the king.
“There there. The jester was always an odd one, my daughter,” the monarch said. “But I suppose the angel of death had the last laugh, as he always does. I am sorry you had to see this.”
The princess shivered, feeling as if she was on the lip of some great cliff of knowing. “Was it his final joke, father?” she asked.
The king stroked his daughter’s hair. “Dear, I hesitate to tell you this, but our jester dabbled with my alchemist in the magical arts. He was the alchemist’s son, after all. I fear the jester fell too far down the rabbit hole and went mad. It is an easy thing to do, after all. Once we stray from God’s path, the Devil awaits just around the bend.”
The princess spent sleepless nights wondering what it was the jester had discovered. Late one evening, she snuck into the jester’s former quarters. They had been untouched since his death, at the request of his alchemist father. What strange science had happened in these rooms? Had lead been transformed into gold? Had angels been summoned to dance on the head of a pin? The air smelled of incense and forgotten things. She walked on quiet feet through, fingering parchment with magic squares and arcane diagrams. One drawing caught her attention – a book whose cover was illuminated with a girl holding a waxing moon, with molten silver pouring from the crescent like a cup. The princess brought hesitant fingers to the tome and, when she touched the surface, a shot of electricity zinged up her arm. Her hair stood on end, and she cried out, drawn inexplicably to the book.
“What in God’s name was that sensation?” the princess asked.
Gently, she opened the book to its middle. The vellum pages were glossed with a foreign, spidery language, and the binding smelled like myrrh. In the margins strange, phantasmagoric creatures ran through twisting vines. The princess traced the ink, and the moment her fingers met the page, the words twisted in on themselves, falling away to reveal a demonic face. She screamed. The grotesquerie poked its head from the page and bit her thumb.
“You taste sweet, princess. The jester thought you would,” the paper apparition growled.
“What are you?” the princess whispered, backing away.
“Something between God and the Devil. And now, my dear, I am yours.”
“Your… your name?”
“Laughter. I am God’s final joke, the Devil’s first prank, and I will be the sweet death of you, though in your search for the answer to my riddle, you shall find immortality.”
The princess closed the book. “I do not have much of a sense of humor, only common sense, and I refuse to live forever. Dignified royals are not endowed with good dispositions, only the sternness of ruling, and the king dies to give way to new lands, new wealth, and new rulers. I refuse to know the punchline.”
She threw the book into the dying hearth flame.
Laughter died down, and the flames quieted.
The princess chuckled and walked away.