Jerewar nodded forward, and the book slipped from his hands, thumping loudly on the table. Merrye winced as the Minder's head snapped around instantly. Jerewar affected not to notice, yawning loudly and rubbing his eyes as the Minder rose and started toward them, her plain gray skirt rustling around her ankles. The Minder had been beautiful once, and was still a handsome woman now, but Merrye never found her anything less than forbidding, especially given the relationship they shared. Even Jerewar was afraid of her, though he rarely showed it. At her approach, he only stretched and yawned even more elaborately.
"Come on, Aunt," he whined. The Minder was no relation of his, but they'd been together for so long that she, like Merrye, was virtually part of the family and addressed as such. "It's too hot, and this stuff is boring. Let's forget studying for today and go out."
"You have a duty to educate yourself," the Minder said with iron-edged quietness. "You may not forsake your duties simply because you find them dull."
Jerewar shoved the book aside petulantly. "No. I don't need to know this stuff."
The Minder's lips thinned. "You are slothful, and must be corrected." With those formal words, she moved past Jerewar to Merrye. Merrye groaned inside, but stood up as she approached. Shrugging his cloak aside, he put his hands on the nape of his neck and laced his fingers together. At least the punishment for slothfulness was a relatively simple one.
"Come on, Aunt, tickle his feet instead," Jerewar urged gleefully. "He makes such funny faces when you do that ... "
The Minder gave Jerewar a cold look. "Don't be impertinent. You know well the punishments are not mine to set." Merrye licked dry lips. Jerewar was very prone to impertinence, and if he were in the wrong mood he could be stubborn in his impertinence, which meant heavily multiplying punishments as long as he persisted. Not a month ago, Merrye had had to suffer an entire afternoon's tickling simply because Jerewar steadfastly refused to eat his soup.
"Whatever you say, Aunt." Jerewar leaned back into his seat, giving Merrye a familiar smirk. It was the "I'll get you later" smirk. Jerewar knew the schedule of punishments almost as well as the Minder herself, and he knew at least a dozen ways of misbehavior that would earn Merrye a foot-tickling.
Merrye knew the Minder bore him no malice. But she knew her duty, and she would never slacken in applying a punishment. After all these years, she knew well how to wring the maximum of ticklish torment from his body, and she would never settle for anything less. She looked into his face, unsmiling, as her busy fingers ran very lightly through each armpit, sending a shudder of anticipation through him. Slowly they returned, pausing to scratch that very particular spot in the center of each underarm. Before each punishment, Merrye always silently vowed to remain stoic, and always broke the vow mere seconds later. This time was no different. His shoulders shook as he giggled weakly, keeping his hands locked behind his neck only by sheer effort of will. That will was severely tested as the Minder began to move her fingers gently, but ever more quickly, filling the entire underarm with her wiggling fingertips. Merrye's giggles turned to outright laughter and his shoulders heaved and rolled as involuntary squirming took over his body. He could almost feel his knuckles whitening behind his neck as he strove to keep his arms up in the face of the terrible tickling. Jerewar was slumped back in his seat, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle.
The other part of the punishment for slothfulness was a rib-tickling, fast and merciless. It certainly woke Merrye up. There was no way he could keep his arms up against an attack like that, and the Minder knew it. She would tolerate it as long as he didn't interfere, but he had to constantly keep himself from trying to grab her arms or push her away, or he'd find himself tied and undergoing the punishment again, at greater length. So his arms flapped helplessly, he stamped his feet, he threw back his head and screamed with laughter--and the Minder's hands remained locked on his rib cage, fingers widespread and digging deeply in the same breathless rhythm that drove Merrye crazy. No matter how desperate his laughter became, or how violent his thrashing, she paused not for even a heartbeat--until finally she said, "That's enough" and withdrew, allowing him to sag back into his seat. Jerewar laughed unpleasantly and picked up the book again as the Minder went back to where she had been sitting.
Wiping his forehead with a corner of his cloak, Merrye could not help but think, as he always did after a punishment, how he had come to be here. It had long been the custom in the kingdom for royal children to be accompanied by "whipping boys." When the little prince or princess misbehaved, it was the whipping boy who suffered the punishment, while the prince or princess watched and presumably learned a lesson. But Jerewar's mother, the queen, so doted on her only son that she could not bear the thought of him having to even watch a whipping. So she had thrown out the old punishments and instituted her own, based on tickling, which she felt was much less likely to traumatize her darling boy. The queen's indulgence of her crown prince was almost embarrassing to see. Even now, when Jerewar was a man by most standards, he was still treated as if he were a child, acted as if he were a child--and had a "tickling boy," just as if he were still a child. And his chief delight in life seemed to be acting badly and seeing Merrye's life made miserable in consequence.
Merrye had been chosen from among all the boy-babies born on the same day as the prince. The royal seer had declared that he would grow to be the most ticklish in the kingdom, and so far her prediction had turned out accurately. He knew nothing of his real family. His true name had been long forgotten, and Jerewar had mockingly named him "Merrye," saying that he must be good-tempered since he was always laughing. The two boys had been raised together, but they could scarcely be more different:
Jerewar tall and slightly fat, with long blond hair, a loud voice, and a face made for pouts and sulks; Merrye small, slim, and quiet, with auburn hair kept short (so the Minder could freely tickle his ears and neck if such was the punishment called for).
Merrye's clothes were tailored with an eye to providing maximum access to his many ticklish places. He wore loose sandals, held on only by straps at ankle and toes and easily slipped off and on. His loose pantaloons fell to just above the knee. He wore no shirt. Since it would be unseemly for the prince to be accompanied by a half-naked man, Merrye was required to wear a light white cloak that covered him from shoulder to toes and provided a semblance of modesty ... until he opened it. Pockets sewn inside the cloak held silken scarves, feathers, brushes, and the other tools the Minder needed to deal out the punishments Jerewar earned. Merrye hated having to carry the instruments of his humiliation next to his skin like that and meekly hand them over when the Minder asked for them. Their presence was a constant reminder of his weaknesses and what was done to him every day.
After they left the library, the Minder declared it time to rest.
The three of them walked through the castle's dim corridors until they reached Jerewar's rooms. Merrye seated himself on a stone bench next to the door as Jerewar and the Minder went in. As a commoner, he was forbidden to enter the prince's private rooms. Truth be told, he liked the chance to be away from Jerewar, if only for an hour or so. He leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes.
And then the Minder was shaking his shoulder. Merrye glanced up in nervous confusion, jumping to his feet. "Lady? Has--" he began, dreading the prospect of another tickling so soon.
"The prince wishes to speak to you within." She gestured to the door.
"But I may not--"
The Minder's lips thinned. "Did you hear what I said? He will not object. Go."
"Yes, Lady," Merrye said, and stepped through the door hastily as the Minder took his place on the bench.
There, on the bed, was Jerewar, staring at Merrye in astonishment. The pale blue silk sheets were rumpled under him. He was bare except for his smallclothes. His wrists were lashed to the gilded headrail with his own garters, and his belt had been looped around his ankles and made fast to the footrail.
"What are you doing here?" the prince said sharply.
"The Minder sent me ... " Merrye said, unable to take his eyes from the bizarre sight.
"She said you wanted me ... "
"Well, stop gawking and untie me," Jerewar said. "And then I'm going to have her flogged for doing this to me! I could have been hurt-- starved to death here, even!"
Merrye wondered why he hadn't heard a struggle. Jerewar must have shouted, certainly. But the door was thick, and the walls were heavily muffled with tapestries. And as he thought of that, he also remembered that the Minder would allow no one, not even the queen, into the room while the prince was sleeping. He felt a dreadful smile cross his face. She must have guessed that he could never pass up the opportunity she'd just handed him.
"But if the Minder did this to you," he said, slowly approaching the bed, "you must have done something to deserve it."
"Have your brains leaked out your ears? You get punished, not me."
"Yes ... " Merrye said, sitting down on the bed next to the prince. "Maybe that should change."
"What do you--AAAAAAAA!" Jerewar yelped and jumped almost completely off the bed as Merrye gave him a quick poke in the ribs.
"What do you think?" Merrye asked, and laughed aloud as Jerewar's furious expression swiftly melted into a horrified shock.
"I'll scream," Jerewar said apprehensively.
"I certainly hope so." He reached for Jerewar again, and the prince flinched away, straining hard against his bindings, his entire body curving aside. Naked terror was in his eyes.
Merrye suddenly realized why Jerewar was squirming so desperately, even though he'd barely touched him. The prince had probably never been tickled since he was a baby. Who would dare lay insulting hands on the royal personage? So he had no idea of what it was like to be tickled ... except from watching Merrye himself take his punishments. He must think of it as something horrible, awful, and unbearable ... and now he was going to experience it himself, at length. No wonder he was scared. Merrye smiled slowly. He hadn't been Jerewar's scapegoat for years without learning that being nervous or uncertain usually made the tickling feel more intense. This was going to be even more fun than he'd first thought ...
"You'll die for this," Jerewar hissed as Merrye studied the helpless prince, trying to decide where to start.
"Have me executed, and you'll have to take your punishments yourself." Merrye scrambled the fingers of both hands swiftly up Jerewar's sides, from hips to underarms. The prince's breath caught in his throat, and he shuddered convulsively. "You might get revenge that way, but I'd have the last laugh." He slowly walked his hands back down, pausing to probe around the ribs with his forefingers. Jerewar giggled foolishly, then stopped himself, then broke out in fresh, helpless giggles as Merrye continued his gentle prodding. "Or maybe you would ... lots of last laughs. Imagine having this done to you every day." Quickly he buried ten fingertips in Jerewar's ribcage, tickling with a relish that came from years of payback being discharged.
Jerewar broke out in agonized laughter, twisting and flailing this way and that, but the Minder's knots were solid, and the young prince was unable to escape from Merrye's unmerciful, knowing touch. "Stoooopppp! STAAAAAHHHHHHH--NOOOOOOOOO! -- " he yelled. "I CAAAAAAAAN'T STAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA -- !"
"The nobility can bear burdens us commoners would fold under," Merrye said with a smile. Just as Jerewar's laughter began to flag and his struggles to weaken, Merrye grabbed him by the waist, hands just above his hips, and began to tickle him there vigorously. Jerewar let out a fresh yelp that quickly rose to a soundless shriek, his body arching on the bed and slamming back down with enough force to draw a creak from the bed frame.
"No more," Jerewar whimpered as Merrye drew back again.
"No more?" Merrye sneered. "I've taken worse for you every day of my life. I'm not going to stop until you understand what it's like to be me." He fluttered a fingertip in Jerewar's underarm, making the prince jerk and chuckle feebly. Bracing his knee against Jerewar's side and putting a hand on the prince's bicep, he began to tease the now immobilized underarm with a single circling finger. Jerewar began to giggle again, his muscles working as he strove to pull away. "This, for instance, is half of what I just endured in the library. Except I didn't have the luxury of bonds. I had to restrain myself." He had four fingers wriggling under the arm now, and Jerewar was choking with laughter and squirming ineffectually. Merrye leaned partly over the prince's struggling body so he could tickle both armpits at once, four fingers in each and his thumbs occasionally digging into Jerewar's sides a little lower down. The prince was already begging incoherently for mercy and breaking off into an agonized screech with each thumb-dig, "Of course, you wanted my feet tickled. Do you know what that's like?" Merrye paused. "Well, you're about to find out..." He twisted around, lying down on his stomach and reaching for the prince's feet. Jerewar's broad, flat feet were soft, pale, and smooth, having never touched anything harder than a silk slipper or a deep carpet in all his life. Merrye took firm hold of one and delicately drew a knuckle down the length of the sole. The prince closed his eyes, breathing heavily as Merrye's knuckle glided up and down. After a few moments, he opened one eye again.
"This doesn't tickle?" Merrye asked, trying to sound disappointed.
"Only a little." Jerewar's relief was palpable. "I guess I'm not ticklish there...."
Without warning, Merrye began viciously scribbling all five fingers across the sole. Jerewar let out a scream and practically levitated off the bed, his foot suddenly twisting violently in Merrye's grip as Merrye continued his unmerciful attack. "You never know!" Merrye laughed over the prince's howls of mirth, slowly scra-a-a-ping a thumbnail down Jerewar's arch and watching his toes spasm. "You ought to be the tickling boy, not me," Merrye taunted. "You're worse than I am! Why, this"--he curved his fingers to tickle the undersides of Jerewar's toes while simultaneously scratching the arch of the same foot--"barely makes me crack a smile!" That was more than a slight exaggeration, but the prince's reaction to the two-handed attack was much louder and more pronounced than Merrye's would have been.
Grinning, Merrye scooted closer to the prince's bound feet so he could tickle both at once. Jerewar's legs lifted from the bedspread and slammed down again, and his feet flexed and twitched wildly, but the Minder had tied the knots with all the art she had, and try as he might there was nothing for him but a seemingly endless tickling. Merrye glanced back up the prince's body, taking sheer vindictive delight in the sight of his sweat-streaked torso, the dark smears on the silken spread under him, the way his chest heaved as he struggled to breathe amidst near-constant laughter. Merrye almost felt sorry for Jerewar, remembering all those times when he had been driven into a screaming frenzy by having his feet tickled. Almost, but not quite. He continued to trace his fingertips up and down the feet lightly, denying his victim a complete respite.
"Noooooooo," Jerewar pleaded, shuddering violently all over.
"Stop tickling me, please. I swear I won't get you punished any more if you let me up now ... "
Merrye pursed his lips. "I almost believe you." Then he grinned and started tickling Jerewar's ribs ruthlessly again. "But not quite," he added over Jerewar's shrieks of laughter. "I can't trust you. So I'll just have to enjoy tickling you for as long as I can, until the Minder comes in and stops me. And it's probably going to seem like forever to you ... " He sat back, letting the prince collapse into a puddle of gasping, giggling flesh. "Have you seen what I carry with me?"
Merrye unlaced his cloak and tossed it over Jerewar's legs. Then he began emptying the pockets, laying their contents on the silken bedspread. Jerewar's eyes went wider and wider with each new production. There were probes for scraping along soles, prodding ribs, or tracing around sensitive places. There were brushes, from big stiff ones that could torture an entire sole at once to tiny fine ones for ears, navels, and between toes. There were cords and straps of all lengths and sizes, enough to hold nearly any part of the body immobile even under the most merciless tickling. And of course, there were feathers in endless profusion, both soft and sharp-pointed, curved ones for slipping into hidden places and stiff ones for tickling what lay vulnerable. Merrye had felt nearly all of them on his body, and he knew well what they could do. But which one first? He sorted through them, noting with amusement how Jerewar cringed each time he picked something up, and eventually settled on one of the thin little brushes. The Minder had used that one on him just a few days ago, and the memory still tingled.
Merrye put two fingers on Jerewar's soft tummy, one on either side of the navel, and spread them apart, drawing the navel wide open and making the skin taut. "No," Jerewar whimpered as the small brush in other hand approached the waiting recess. His belly quivered under Merrye's hand with weariness and barely suppressed laughter.
"You don't even know if you're ticklish there yet," Merrye teased.
"I'm ticklish everywhere. I just know it. Please, Merrye ... "
"How many times have I begged you not to get me into trouble?"
Jerewar rolled his eyes, bit his lips, shed a couple of tears. "But it's not fair!"
"Oh, it feels very fair to me. Tickle, tickle, tickle ... " To judge from the way Jerewar shrieked and rolled his torso from one side to the other, he found the feel of the brush tracing the rim of his navel just as intolerable as Merrye himself did. Still twirling the brush in the heaving bellybutton, Merrye picked up a stiff feather and ran it down the seam between Jerewar's feet, brushing it back and forth a few times over the vulnerable arches. "No more! No more!" the prince screamed, the muscles in his legs standing out in sharp relief as he fought the bonds with mindless strength.
"Lots more," Merrye laughed, dropping the toys and reaching for Jerewar's feet again. "This is just a beginning ... " His gently wiggling fingertips slowly approached Jerewar's tightly curled, flinching soles ...
Then there came a sharp rap at the door. "Is all well in there?" came the Minder's firm voice. Merrye and Jerewar froze in mid-torment. Then slowly, reluctantly, Merrye straightened up and began to undo Jerewar's bonds. Time to pay the price for his fun. Jerewar watched him with an odd expression as he was freed. When the last knot was undone, Jerewar slipped off the bed without a word to Merrye, strode to the door on unsteady legs, and threw it open. Merrye trailed after him unhappily. The Minder was standing there, cool and remote as ever.
"Aunt," Jerewar said, still flushed and gasping, "I've decided that when I earn a punishment, I want to take it myself."
The Minder bowed her head. "That's very mature of you, Highness. Taking responsibility for one's actions is a large step on the road of life."
"And"--the prince hesitated a moment--"I want Merrye to give them."
Merrye stared at his erstwhile nemesis in astonishment. The Minder only smiled slightly. "I can think of no one more qualified, Highness," she said gravely. "In truth, I have been getting too old for my position, and I would be glad of the chance to spend more time in the garden."
"We'll go to see Mother and get everything put right, then," Jerewar said, and started down the hall. Merrye glanced at the Minder. The old woman winked at him, or perhaps it was just a tic of her eyelid, before following after her prince.