Monkey in the Works
pretty peaceful in the town – the real excitement was going on at
the Lords house, where everyone was rushing around desperately trying
to get everything ready for the rapidly approaching wedding. The Lord
was the kind of man who ordered things well in advance of when he
actually needed them, so from the day the wedding date was decided
the baker, farmers and merchants knew exactly how much they needed to
prepare. There were always the last minute changes of course (which
the retainers always blamed on the bride, but the foxes had their
doubts), but all in all, everything ran smoothly.
“Be sure not to step on any cracks today.” the priest told the children as he let them out to play after breakfast “And don't speak to any pixies!”
Junya stepped aside as the children ran past. The old priest cricked his back, sore from having carried one of the little ones from the kitchen.
“Trying not to jinx it?” he asked as he reported for duty.
“Jinx what?” the priest confirmed “And don't you dare say it! Your poor mother was forever troubled by your jinxes!”
“C'mon, you know I don't believe in that stuff.”
The priest grumbled in his direction, letting him into the temple so he could start work. Despite not believing in jinxes, he didn't say aloud anything about the wedding – just in case something did go wrong.
They used a lot more ice that day than they normally would – news of the wedding had spread to the neighbouring towns, so vendors and merchants from miles around had turned up to trade. In the summers heat, they all wanted some ice to cool themselves, and the more they wanted it, the more they were willing to trade. The priest was ecstatic.
“We've received some excellent fabric from the sheep.” he told Junya as he brought up a couple more buckets “And a great length of thread from some sparrows – all we need now is a seamstress and we can make the children some new clothes!”
“I'm sure they'll be thrilled.” Junya agreed “If we ask the tailors wife nicely she might help us out. By any chance, have you-”
The priest held up a small wooden box, filled to the brim with boiled sweets. He laughed through his nose, knowing full well that was what Junya was after.
“From the rabbits.” he confirmed “Only one before dinner, though: open up.”
The priest popped one into Junya's open mouth as he grabbed the empty buckets to take back downstairs.
When he re-emerged from the cold room some time later with more ice, the air had decidedly changed. From the second he stepped out of the trapdoor, Junya could feel the tension, cold and still, permeating everything like a bad smell. The children were inside, huddled behind the altar, staring warily at the open door, where the priest stood like a barrier.
Something was wrong. Something far out of the ordinary. A wolf? Silent as a shadow, Junya crept forward, putting the buckets on the ground and tapping the priest on the shoulder.
“Stay with the children.” he ordered immediately, not even turning around.
“What's going on?” Junya whispered.
The single word was enough to strike fear into any fox. Gorillas were bad news – what did they want? Those war mongers couldn't be here to trade... Junya did what he was told, herding the children back into the kitchen. He swore under his breath – this was a temple, there was nothing they could use to defend themselves from gorillas – anything bigger than a large dog spelled doom for an unarmed fox.
The smaller children hid themselves under the table, the elders grabbing whatever they could to defend themselves.
“What do you think they want?” one of the older boys asked, brandishing a piece of wood.
“I don't know.” Junya admitted, keeping the kitchen door opened just a crack so he could keep an eye on the front door.
“You don't think they'll be another war?” a girl asked, cowering as she tried to hide the little ones under the table behind her skirts.
“There's no reason for gorillas to start a war with foxes.” Junya assured them “We have nothing they want.”
“You think they're after the harvest?!” the boy declared.
“It's too early in the season.” Junya told him “Besides, they have plenty harvest of their own.”
It was a tense eternity that they waited, the entire town, merchants included, silent as a graveyard. It could have been ten minutes or ten seconds, but for how still everything was, it could have been some grotesque painting. Gorillas never came here – there was nothing here they could use. He hadn't heard of any famine or failing crops in the grasslands. What were they after?
Finally, slowly, the priest left the front door, closing it silently as he came back to the kitchen. Junya opened the door gingerly.
“They've gone.” the priest reported “But they'll be back tomorrow.”
“What did they want?” Junya asked.
“I don't know.” he admitted “But I'm sure we'll find out soon enough – one of their retainers went to the Lords house.”
This was bad. Junya felt a shiver of horrid anticipation run down his spine – them being here on official business could only mean bad things for the town. The priest immediately set the children some chores to do to keep them inside, which none of them argued with.
“Junya, I want you to go to the blacksmith and borrow a sword.” the priest instructed him.
“Is that wise?” Junya responded “I mean, against a Gorilla? You're not exactly a young man, and with my bad leg-”
“I know.” the priest interrupted, almost snapping in his stress “I pray it doesn't come to that, but if it does, the worst thing we can do is nothing. Now please, get down the blacksmith.”
Junya obeyed, using the path around town to get to the blacksmiths yard at the other end faster. It seemed the rest of the town had had the same idea as the priest, as the poor blacksmiths yard was crowded with reactionary youths, better-safe-than-sorry wives and really-should-know-better older men. Of course no-one kept weapons in the fox village – they were farmers, merchants at best! The only guards were up in the Lords house, and there couldn't have been more than six in total.
Being on the tall side, Junya could see over the heads of the crowd – the blacksmith looked haggard, stood with his arms over his chest as he was harassed by demands: he didn't have enough swords for everyone. Spotting Junya, however, he beckoned him forward. The young fox solicited more than a few poisoned glares as he fought through the crowd.
“For the priest?” the blacksmith asked bluntly.
“Yeah.” Junya confirmed.
“You know how to use a sword?”
“No, but what choice is there?”
The blacksmith grunted in agreement. He reached back to his worryingly small pile of not-even-close-to-new swords, pulling a smaller one from its sheath to check its sharpness before giving it to him.
“Hey, why does he get a sword?!” the baker demanded, almost barking in disgust.
“The priest is protecting the orphans!” the blacksmith barked back “What are you protecting?! Bread?!”
The baker grimaced. Junya thought it in his best interest to leave quickly.
Walking back through the town, he examined the sword – it was old, heavy, nicked and dented here and there. The blacksmith had kept it sharp, but when was the last time it was actually used? Maybe even never. Did the priest know how to use a sword? If God was righteous, they wouldn't have to.
The priest stood at the door of the temple when he returned, barring entry to one of the Lords retainers, who stood with his hands on his hips self-importantly. The priest looked happy to see him, but the retainer huffed.
“So what, you're setting your errand boy on me now?” he huffed “You have your orders!”
“And I refuse!” the priest declared, clearly not for the first time “I am not leaving the children unprotected!”
“Leave this one to take care of them!” the retainer demanded, gesturing vaguely in Junya's direction.
“He's barely more than a child himself!”
“What's the problem?” Junya interrupted.
“Never you mind!”
“The Lord wants me to go to the house.” the priest told him, annoyance rife in every syllable “He wants spiritual counselling at a time like this!”
“It's none of your business what he wants!” the retainer insisted.
Ignoring the idiocy of that, Junya thought a moment.
“I'll go.” he offered “I'll explain to the Lord why you can't attend. If he really wants to see you, he'll have to come here.”
Ignoring the retainer again, the priest stepped forward and took the sword from Junya, struggling under its weight much more than he had. When he had it firmly in his hands, he turned to Junya seriously.
“Hurry.” he bid “But be careful.”
He left, the retainer spluttering after him as the priest shut the door in his face. He went as fast as his bad leg would carry him, but it soon began to pinch and ache, causing him to limp.
When he reached the front gate, it stood wide open – no gorilla used a side gate. The perfect, weed free stone yard, where he and the young Lady had played as children, stood empty, not even the shadow of a blade of grass having stuck around when the gorillas arrived.
No-one stopped him from opening the front door, entering the formal foyer. Where was everyone? Everything had been so busy yesterday... Still limping from the pain in his leg, he made his way to the Lords official chamber, using the wall to steady himself, but stopped when a particular noise met his ears: the sound of a young woman crying.
He followed the sound, coming to the room where the young lady was keeping her wedding dress. She lay at the foot of her gown, weeping uncontrollably, her husband-to-be rubbing her back uselessly. The Lord sat, pale and harrowed on one of the pushed aside chairs, hand over his mouth, surrounded by silent, grey-faced retainers. Aside from the fancy man, the foreigners were nowhere to be seen.
Junya was afraid to intrude, like his presence would shatter everything like glass. However, he couldn't stand the hear the young Lady crying, and with great reluctance, rapped his knuckles on the wooden part of the door. The spell of silence broke, everyone looking at him. He immediately wished he hadn't as a dozen pairs of eyes bored into him.
“Junya?” the Lord asked, perhaps blinded by the tears in his eyes.
“Sir.” he greeted.
“Where is the priest?” he asked slowly, looking around as if the elderly fox could be hiding in his shadow.
“He's protecting the children.” Junya informed him “He can't leave the temple now.”
The Lord looked devastated, shaking his head, but after a moments thought he came to an acceptance. He nodded, eyes clouding over, and put his hand over his mouth again.
“Then I really am alone.” he mumbled.
The young Lady cried harder, the fancy man as useless as ever to comfort her, rubbing her back ineffectually. A knot of fear and guilt growing in his stomach, Junya couldn't do nothing.
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
The Lord shook his head sadly. With great difficulty, as if his grief were physically weighing him down, he stood. He stumbled across the floor, taking Junya by the arm as if to steady himself.
“T-They want my daughter.” he sobbed “The Gorilla King... he heard she was beautiful, and he wants to marry her.”
His sentence was punctuated by a howl of despair from the young Lady.
“We can't refuse.” the Lord went on, knees buckling to the point that Junya had to grab him to stop him from falling “They'll kill us all... Merciful God, what am I to do? How can I give my daughter to that brute?”
The young Lady... but she was already engaged! She was to marry the fancy man in less than two days... As she continued to wail, the gravity of the situation sunk into Junya' heart. This was worse than terrible – he couldn't let this happen! Those gorillas were such brutes, the young Lady was sure to be killed one way or another! She had been so happy... What could he do? He loved her like his own sister, they had grown up together, they...! They looked alike.
A grim epiphany dawned on him. They did, in fact, look remarkably alike. Junya was tall, but lacked the bulk of mature men. He had a horrible idea, and he didn't like it one bit, but he could never stand to hear the young Lady cry. He gripped the Lords arm seriously, causing him to look up.
“I'll go.” he told him “I'll put on her gown, and I'll go to the Gorilla King.”
The Lord regarded him like an angel from heaven, the retainers gasping and murmuring uncertainly. It was the young Lady that reacted first, leaping to her feet and grabbing Junya by the shirt.
“Junya, you can't!” she shrieked “You'll be killed!”
“I'm aware of the risks.” he insisted.
All too aware.
“But God only knows what they'll do when you're found out!” she went on “Being killed may be the least of your worries!”
The Lord looked unhappy, as if that thought hadn't occurred to him, but Junya had made up his mind.
“Do you want to marry the Gorilla King?” he challenged.
“Of course not!” she answered “But he may not kill me!”
“Being a Gorillas bride is surely a fate worse than death.” he insisted.
“The boy is right.” the lead retainer declared.
They all looked at him – his wizened brow was knotted unhappily, hands clenched, but he agreed all the same.
“It's a peasants duty to serve the Lord.” he pointed out “Even if the Lady and her betrothed run away, without a distraction the Gorillas will catch them.”
“With all due respect, the boy thinks too much of himself!” one protested “He may have an effeminate face, but he's far from being a 'beauty'!”
“Nothing a little make-up won't fix.” Junya insisted “All I have to do is keep my mouth shut and keep still – it'll fool the Gorillas long enough that my Lady can marry, and leave by ship for her husbands land.”
“Of course!” the fancy man declared, as if it had been his idea all along “My ship can be ready in as little as three hours – all we need wait for is the tide!”
“Then it's settled.” the Lord finished grimly “Summon the seamstress: we'll need to alter the dress to fit him.”
“But father-!” the young Lady tried to argue.
“I know.” he assured her “I don't wish to sacrifice Junya either, but I would give everything I have to save you!”
She went silent, no longer able to argue. The retainers and the fancy man fled from the room to make arrangements, leaving them alone. The Lord, steps lighter, but shoulders drooped with guilt, patted Junya on the shoulder, giving him a meaningful look before leaving. The young Lady looked like she didn't know what to say.
“Aren't you afraid to die?” she asked.
“Of course.” he said honestly “But how could I live, knowing I allowed such a thing to happen? It's better that I die being useful to you, isn't it?”
He tried to smile to reassure her, but his face had gone numb. All down his spine rung the truth of what he was facing – in the next few days, perhaps even tomorrow, he would die. And it was his own damn fault. His hands wouldn't stop shaking.
The young Lady finally seemed to accept the circumstance, nodding sadly and wringing her hands in her lap. She looked at Junya pitifully.
“Come with me.” she repeated sombrely “I'll do your make-up.”
No-one in the Lords house got any sleep that night. It would be fair to assume that most people in town were awake as well, dreading the dawn and the return of the gorillas. The crickets and cicadas sung on, oblivious to the fear and tension in the town. The young Lady, dressed in Junya's clothes, was evacuated to the temple under the cover of dark. God only knows what the priest had to say about the whole fiasco...
Seeing her in his garb, Junya reconsidered the feasibility of his plan – she was much smaller, much slighter than he, would it really work? It wasn't until he saw himself, dressed in the hastily altered wedding gown, hair neatly trimmed and face completely made up, that he once again had faith in the plan.
He wished he could talk to the priest one more time, say goodbye and thank you and best wishes, but there simply wasn't time. What would he do without him? He was sure one of the older boys could take over his ice selling duties, but the thought made him terribly sad – he was so replaceable, so small, and when he died the world would keep spinning without him. Would he even really be missed?
He pushed away the dark thoughts, comforting himself with the knowledge that he was saving the young Lady. It was little comfort as the hours of darkness stretched forever on, the dawn breaking like a glacier, but he clung to it all the same.
Breakfast was prepared, but no-one could eat. The gorillas didn't say exactly when they would be coming back, just 'tomorrow', prolonging the tension further. It was shortly after breakfast, soon after the work bell rang, that one of the guards ran in, pale and sweating: the gorillas had arrived.
Junya's heart stopped – he could die right now, were he discovered. The servants hid themselves in the back rooms, the retainers shaking in their fancy robes. Junya sat in a low chair to minimise his height, legs elegantly to one side as instructed, hands folded tightly in his lap if only to stop them shaking. He was sure the sweat on his brow would cause his make-up to run, giving the whole thing away.
The ground shook, the windows rattled, as they marched towards the house. Every fox for a mile round held their breath. A young retainer, shivering like an autumn leaf in the wind, opened the door to the reception room, bowing his head.
“M-m-my Lord.” he stammered “My y-young Lady, p-please allow m-me to introduce th-the k-k-k-”
“Yes, yes.” the Lord interrupted, sparing the man's poor heart “Show him in.”
The retainer bowed, a little too low, and eagerly stepped aside. Junya stopped breathing. His mind went blank. His spine and resolve turned to dust as he sat, paralysed with fear.
He had never seen a gorilla up close, and he had never wished to – as tall as Junya was, he was dwarfed by the mountainous hoard of gorillas, to tall and too broad to get through the double door without stooping sideways. They had thick, coarse black hair and squashed grey faces, dangerous looking fangs jutting out from their lower jaws. They were all dressed to the nines in armour, the kings distinguished by its gold colour and fine patterning.
Junya was terrified – he really was going to die. He kept his eyes on the ground, hoping his quaking shoulders wouldn't betray him.
“Lord Fox.” the Gorilla King greeted, voice so deep and full that it echoed right into Junya's bones “I'm glad to see you've seen sense.”
“I didn't have much choice, did I?” the Lord replied defensively, as if he really were defending his child.
The king made a strange noise, somewhere between a huff and a growl. Everything in the room shook as he stepped forward, all the retainers falling back as he stopped in front of Junya. As if he were a creature of civility, the gorilla got down on one knee before him.
“Young Lady Fox.” he greeted “It brings me great joy that you have agreed to marry me. I see the tales of your beauty were not exaggerated. Blue eyes on a fox are such are rare treasure.”
He reached up one mighty hand – his palm was only just smaller than Junya's face – and tilted his head up so Junya was forced to look straight at him. The king had the good grace to remove his helmet indoors, but all it did was reveal his rough cut thatch and a deep scar across his brow.
He smiled, and it was horrific.
“I'm sure you will be most at home in my castle.” he assured “You'll have more servants there than you did here.”
The king tilted his head to the side, dark brown eyes clearly examining Junya's face. Junya tried not to stare, but couldn't tear his eyes away: was he going to be found out? His heart skipped uncomfortably as the king got back to his feet.
“Have no fear, Lord Fox.” he bid “I will take good care of your daughter. Say your goodbyes – we have a long way to go. I'll wait for you at the door. Don't keep me waiting.”