By Beka Gremikova
Jessmina had faced tough crowds before, but a squadron of war-torn soldiers? That just felt unfair. She loitered at the bar, though—unfortunately—drinking on the job wasn’t allowed.
She sighed glumly at her situation. Outside, gray gloom and swirling snow. Inside, a table full of scowling warriors with rifles strapped across their backs.
Aldo slung an arm around her shoulder. “Why so shy? You’ve distracted people from their woes plenty of times.” He lowered his voice. “Think of the tips!”
Her gaze flicked to her audience. Three men murmured over mugs of ale. And beside them, a sharp-faced woman glanced at Jessmina, stiffened, and stared pointedly away.
Jessmina raised her brows at Aldo. “So, it’s that easy?”
“Not the first stick-in-the-mud we’ve had.” Aldo chuckled. “Ignore her and focus on the others. Say the first silly thing that comes to your head. You’re don’t have to be clever all the time.” He winked. “‘Laughter heals sooner,’ remember?”
Hmmm. Maybe Aldo was right. Maybe she just needed to pretend she didn’t care. Like she had the last five years of the war while her sister constantly risked her life for a self-serving king—bound to a job Jessmina could never do.
Stop. Think of a joke! Jessmina forced her legs to move, strolling up to the group and leaning her palms against their table. The bells on her jester’s cap chimed. “Evening, folks! Ready for a laugh?” Her voice soared, high and trilling.
“Oh no,” the youngest soldier muttered. “It’s a jestie. Hide, boys. Maybe Selka can scare her off.”
“Don’t be rude.” The eldest man frowned, and the younger ducked his head.
“But, Kormin, she’s being rude, waltzing up like everything’s all right—”
“Oh hush, Erving. She’s just doing her job.” Selka’s voice was colder than the howling wind.
Black spots danced before Jessmina’s eyes. She inhaled deeply. Don’t let Selka get to you, she told herself. This was just another job—and everyone encountered difficulties at work, right?
Everyone. She glanced at Selka again. Deep lines gouged her cheeks. Redness puffed around her eyes. Her shoulders hunched with defeat.
Jessmina’s mouth went dry. Her heart suddenly ached. “I—”
“Well, where’re the jokes?” A short, middle-aged soldier leaned forward. “I’m up for ‘em!”
“Of course you would be, Irko. Then you can boo her.” Erving scowled.
Kormin rubbed his forehead. “Forgive us, Lady Jester. We’re… out of sorts.”
Jessmina swallowed. “It’s fi—”
“A joke, please, jestie. We don’t have all night.” The shorter man smirked as he raised his mug. “Now, that was a joke.” His fellows groaned, but he continued, “Perhaps I should have your job, all cozy while soldiers bleed out in battle—”
“Shut up.” Selka leapt to her feet, scraping back the bench. She glowered at Irko, her lithe frame quivering. “We chose our lot. You cannot blame others for not joining us any more than they can judge us for going!”
She glanced at Jessmina, who felt rooted in place, her ears buzzing.
“I didn’t realize you felt that way, Selka.” Irko tilted his head.
Selka sat back down, folding her fingers together into a fist. “Sorry. I… just don’t like it when you pick on… people. Not everyone deserves your ire.”
Irko sniffed. “That remains to be proven.”
Jessmina’s cheeks heated. She felt like she’d failed a test. Why did she want to make them laugh, anyway? So she could feel better? So the king could pretend he’d done enough, hiring jesters to “heal” his soldiers with merriment?
I haven’t done enough, Jessmina thought. I haven’t done anything. Except…
Except toss spiteful words in her sister’s face five years ago, hoping anger would keep their family from being wrenched apart by the king’s manipulative ambition. It hadn’t worked, and now, who knew if her sister would ever acknowledge her, or even smile at her, again?
Laughter neither hid nor healed that pain.
“Truthfully…” Jessmina bowed her head, removing her jester’s cap. “I don’t even want to be here.”
Kormin raised his head, studying her. “No?”
She flushed under the gentle scrutiny. “Laughter shouldn’t be used to hide from honesty.” She wrung the cap between her fingers, her eyes watering. These soldiers didn’t need her jokes right now. They needed her honesty, so they might share theirs. “Erving was right. Things aren’t all right, in… so many ways. With the war.” Her vision swam. “With… things I’ve said.”
“Here, lady.” Kormin stood, gently guiding her into a seat. “Will you be all right?”
Jessmina rubbed her eyes. “Just remembering my own stupidity.”
“Hey.” Selka’s voice was soft. “We’ve all had our moments.” Her lips twitched. Jessmina’s heart leapt at the unfamiliar expression on that familiar face.
Selka’s gaze slid to Irko, and she smiled widely. “Irko more than most.”
Irko scowled. “Often in defense of your honor, my dear.”
“Appreciated, but unnecessary.” Selka crossed her arms. “I think you scared off half the recruits.”
“Beasts, the lot of them!” Erving jumped into the verbal fray.
Jessmina listened in wonder as the group bantered freely without the aid of a single joke. They didn’t need her to bring them laughter. They needed her to appreciate the joyous connection they already shared.
A connection she had no hope of understanding.
Her throat closed. She glanced over her shoulder. A group of cloaked travelers stumbled into the tavern, shivering and stamping snow from their boots. Aldo would need her again soon.
She rose. “I’m—sorry to have imposed.”
“Nonsense.” Kormin patted her arm. “’Laughter heals sooner—but honesty heals truer.’ Consider us your brothers, now.”
“And your big sister.” Selka stood, fingering the strap of her rifle. Her eyes glowed in the firelight. “And that won’t change.” Then, after five long years, Jessmina’s sister smiled softly at her.
Jessmina’s legs wobbled. She rubbed her sleeve across her watery eyes. So much for them laughing away their pain—she was about to cry for joy.
Not such a tough crowd after all.