In almost any other situation imaginable, three apples hitting the floor would be an inconsequential inconvenience at worst. In the case of Clown Pietro, here in the royal hall, the three resounding thuds--bump, bump, bump--are akin to a death knell.
Whispers channel through the lips of the courtiers and Pietro can hear snippets of what is said, can hear things like, "I can't remember the last one who let that happen," and "Quite disheartening, eh?" and "Really? All three? All three?" It seems as though the only one in the room with no reaction is the King, whose silence is of the worst kind, is of the kind that speaks not merely of disappointment, but of furious intolerance.
Pietro tries to play it off like a joke; fools are funny, that was funny, no? He laughs, laughs and says, "Well, at least we can still make them into a pie!" A few pity laughs from the crowd, but the King's eyes remain stoic. Almost imperceptibly, his arm rises, a motion Pietro knows to be a precursor to his infamous Unkind Hand, a gesture that has signaled the execution of countless other Clowns.
Clown Jacques, Clown Alfonse, Clown Barnaby. Ten Clowns before them, twenty before that. Pietro has always wondered how clowndom compared to serfdom, how telling jokes and playing the fool could possibly be a fate worse than farming nothing plants on nothing land for nothing in the way of profit. What he'd signed up for had been an easy escape from the foregone conclusion of rotting in his hut alongside his failing crops. A chance at a public venue to showcase the jokes that had always entertained his wife and his children and his children's friends.
But children and men of renown, as Pietro is quickly discovering, have very different senses of humor, and the surrounding murmurs clue him in to the reality of the situation: Juggling again? And the apple pie joke? Next thing you know he's going to slip on a banana peel!
Countless Clowns--of course the King has seen fruit jugglers before! Of course some have failed, of course the pie joke would naturally follow. Pietro shifts nervously and tries to conceal the banana that he's now decided against using in his next routine. He wracks his brain for a closing gag that will coax some reaction--any reaction--other than the Unkind Hand.
The Hand is already halfway up. Pietro scrambles around in his trick trunk, pulls out the first prop his shaking hand can find: a wooden toy sword that belongs to his son. His desperation brings real tears to his eyes and he looks up--he has only moments before the King's gesture completes itself. Drawing on what he's studied of the ancient playwrights, of theatre, of tragedy, Pietro pantomimes a death that elicits a dramatic silence from the entire hall. It begins with the sword, and he stares at it with a face so genuine that all those present can sense his intent, and they await the impending climax with bated breath.
The Hand stops abruptly, not quite upright yet.
Pietro's sword slashes between his underarm and ribcage, though from the King's perspective it pierces both flesh and vital organs. Pietro coughs, staggers. Falls.
The Hand lowers.
The King rises to take leave. Pietro opens one eye, sees His Majesty in his periphery. Across the King's face is a look of dejection such as none that has ever graced the countenance of so eminent a figure and the Clown cannot help but feel as though his performance lacks the ending his royal company deserves.
He staggers to his feet and makes the triumphant declaration that the blade has missed his vitals; turns from crowd to crown and declares his miraculous survival. A happy ending! A pièce de résistance! The Clown beams, knows from his theatrical studies that this, this is what pleases crowds, this is what breathes life into flat finales, is what makes art.
Slowly, the courtiers' applause fades, slowly the King turns around, his eyes newly dark and narrow.