“His Lordship the Duke of Muiroc, popularly known as the Knave of Hearts, is charged with having wilfully and in full knowledge stolen the King’s most beloved and royal children, the Prince and Princess of Corium, while they lay defenceless in their cradle…” et cetera. The Knave listened intently. He had heard these same charges read earlier in the morning, while he waited in his prison cell. He would give the same answer now.
“…were such a deed committed in jest it might perhaps be pardonable; but since the Duke denies all knowledge of the whereabouts of the two children, he is manifestly not in jest. Have you any reply to these charges?”
“I did not do it,” said the Knave.
There was a gasp, followed by confused murmuring among the spectators. The mallet thumped again.
“Your Lordship agreed to plead guilty!”
“To plead guilty to the theft of those” – the Knave indicated a table where stood two trays of pastries made by the Queen's own hand – “those tarts of her Majesty the Queen, which I have already brought back and vowed never to steal again. About the kidnapping of the royal children I know nothing.”
Stunned silence throughout the hall, as if the court could not believe the Duke's audacity in pleading innocent. The councillor, too, was silent, gaping in amazement, till an impatient gesture from the stand reminded him of his duties.
“Will his lordship kindly inform the court as to why he stole the tarts?”
The Knave frowned. Every courtier knew the King's favorite pastime was to set the Knave some feat of cunning: to steal the best horse from his stable, or the royal slippers from his feet, for instance. He would then take absurd precautions, setting a triple guard round the stable, or wearing the slippers all night. Yet next morning the Knave would turn up in the throne room, riding the horse or wearing the slippers; whereon the King would laugh a great laugh and set him another, harder task. But if they chose to forget – very well.
“The King had challenged me to try and steal the tarts her Majesty would bake for the christening feast,” he said. “He had them placed directly in front of him at the high table so as to guard them himself. Midway through the feast, I presented the King with a rare delicacy (of my own invention, I may add): a pie baked with twenty-four live blackbirds. I thought to cause a confusion long enough to take the tarts and escape. It worked, of course – the simplest tricks always do. The pie was cut, the birds flew up singing – and I was able to make off with the tarts unnoticed.”
“How did your Lordship leave the palace?”
“I climbed out a window and over the Queen's garden wall.”
“Did you know that the chamber where the children slept opens directly onto the Queen's garden?”
No, he had not.
“When did these events occur?”
“Three o' clock, perhaps quarter past.”
“Precisely the time the babies disappeared.”
“Is your Lordship aware that two black feathers were found lying near the cradle after the children were stolen?”
It took the Knave a moment to understand what his prosecutor meant. Black feathers from black birds:
“It can’t be so!” he cried out.
“Ah, but it is.”
The councillor turned away. But the Knave shouted after him.
“Have you not considered that every person at the feast had his share of black feathers? How is my guilt then proven? It could have been any courtier, any servant – Great Goose, the King himself could have done it!”
“Enough!” bellowed the King, rising in his chair.
Now came witnesses. Molly, the Queen’s nursemaid, who was hanging out the wash when she saw the Knave climb over the garden wall. A stableboy who had glimpsed him riding furiously over the fields towards his own county of Muiroc. Various servants, including the one who had found the telltale feathers near the empty cradle. Finally, the Queen, who had seen a tall, dark figure, “like to the Knave in form and build”, flit past the open door of the parlor where she was sitting, shortly before the babies were stolen. She broke down at the last and was led away weeping.
The King arose. His face was stern, but his voice when he spoke was sad.
“Any other man would be executed for this deed,” he said. “But you have been like a brother to me. You shall be imprisoned: until death, or such time as the children are discovered.”
The Knave stared at his judge, uncomprehending. Then, close beside the throne, he saw another face. It was his brother Rodrigo's, and he was smiling – actually smiling; but it was a cruel, mocking, self-satisfied smile. A ray of light touched his cap, outlining the shapes of the feathers sticking up in it, six black feathers the Knave knew well. Stupidly, he counted them. There were four.
Then in a flash the Knave understood.
At the same moment the words of the King’s sentence struck him like a blow.
“Any other man would be executed for this deed. But you have been like a brother to me…”
Guards were already coming for him.
Quickly he bowed his head.