Poetic Justice (Part 2 Rough)

I saw, too, that her hands clenched her flowery robe among her trembling fingers. I thought her fingers restless. Their lissome loveliness provoked much mischief in my heart.
“Should your fingers be restless for further play,” I said, “I should like to volunteer myself as the instrument of your joy.”
“My fingers are taloned,” she said, fluttering her fingers so that I might see their nails. “They will not stop for blood or bone or scream or plea.” She sighed. “Should you take them as wives to your fingers, however, they would serve as ever it might please you.”
“But I will not sell a false hope for such a delightful service,” I said, “no more than a kappa will sell his water to a thirsty man. I cannot marry you, as I have said before. Should not my honesty attest to some honor in my soul? I have ever been a servant of the truth, even when concerning you.”
“A poet’s truth always implies promises never fulfilled,” she said, “even when speaking of honor.”

I watched her leave, and not solely to look for a fox’s tail hidden beneath her kimono. Her stride beguiled, too, as did so many other aspects of her. Yet, I knew that wherever she walked, and however graceful, it was a path not my own. I walked a path plotted on paper and shadowed by ink. How else would I rival or surpass that famous poet, Matsuo Basho? His inky shadow obscured me from the fame I deserved.

***

I could not escape Lady Utano’s song. It was as a small centipede spiraling in my ear, gnawing at my mind. Thus I welcomed the distraction that Lord Gou offered later that evening.
“Come, let us think of other things,” he said. “We have more entertainment for tonight. Something special! Something enchanting!”
Lord Gou seemed quite pleased and excited. Perhaps the entertainment awaiting us was special, or perhaps he was merely relieved at having his house purified. Perhaps both. I followed his entourage into the main hall where his long, low table resided. At the head of the room was something new: a booth of lacquered wood, a red curtain drawn about it. It seemed we were to be audience to a Bunraku show. This diversion was at least worthwhile, I thought.
Lord Gou bid us sit. The musician took up a shamisen. Evidently he would be providing the dramatic atmosphere for the performance.
“Seat yourselves, my friends,” Lord Gou said. “The show begins soon!”
The show began immediately, and without further ado. Two puppets rose from below the curtained booth. One was a man and one was a woman. The man greeted the woman with a bow, and she bowed to him. He then came forward as the shamisen was struck affectionately. She tried to turn away, but the man bowed to her again and she simply demurred, then invited him to walk beside her. They strolled together as the music was struck placidly, like the falling of easy rain on a lake. The two puppets turned to one another and seemingly kissed. A beautiful note sounded, punctuating their moment with the grace of Heaven.
Suddenly, another puppet appeared. He wore a lavish kimono and a dark beard. A harsh note was struck upon the shamisen and several other puppets appeared with swords. There were so many that I marveled that so many puppeteers should not only inhabit such a small booth, but that they should do so while so adroitly manipulating their puppets. I fain believed that Thousand-Armed Kannon himself had to be squatting in that booth, arraying the simulacra of life.
The puppet woman was taken to the puppet man with the beard and he pressed himself unwantedly upon her. Her lover attempted to intervene, but was cut down by the warriors amidst discordant twanging of the shamisen. I looked at the musician, wondering if he was suffering a malady or paroxysm of the fingers. But his hands moved not at all, gnarled with terror as the shamisen’s strings trembled and shook of their own accord. I then noticed that Lord Gou had risen to his feet, livid with confounded rage.
“How dare you mock me in my own home!” he roared. “How dare you question my authority!”
He rushed forward and tore aside the puppet curtain. The puppets collapsed immediately through the air and fell limp upon the floor, the booth empty. Upon seeing this, Lord Gou fell back with a startled cry and the diviner rushed forward. Lord Gou quivered upon the floor, clutching at the diviner’s robe.
“Deliver me from these foul spirits!” our host pleaded.
The commotion drew the servants of the household into the main hall, followed by the true puppeteers. All were baffled and confused, including myself. Upon seeing the puppeteers, Lord Gou rose to his feet, the wrath in his face blazing and his teeth gnashing within his beard.
“You! You seek to make a fool of me!” He drew his tanto, ready to spill blood. “I will castrate the lot of you and throw your manhoods to the crows!”
The puppeteers ran from the room in a clumsy rush. Lady Utano intervened on their behalf, gliding forward into a low bow. She was like a prayer hushing a violent storm.
“My lord,” she said, “they are not the source of this mischief. They have been telling me of their travel from Kyoto.”
“I agree with the Lady,” the yin-yang diviner said. “This is the work of spirits. Yokai, possibly.”
Lord Gou sheathed his blade once again, turning upon the diviner with a snarl.
“And whose fault is that?” he said. “You were supposed to purify my home!”
“There is a darker stain on this estate than I realized,” he said. “I will resume my rituals immediately.”
Lord Gou merely grunted, then turned upon the musician. “Cease your noise, imbecile or I will have your fingers severed one by one and your tongue…” He did not elaborate on the punishment, for his last word fell from his gawping mouth like a dead bird. He saw that the musician had tossed the shamisen from himself and that the instrument played itself as it lay untouched on the floor. It played a dreadful discord before its noise died abruptly with the snapping of its strings.
***

I had a terrible dream about puppets. They pirouetted without hands in a great darkness. Men, women, children— all dancing as they floated in the air. Then, gradually, I realized they did have a master that manipulated them all, and that master gradually formed from moonlight within the darkness.
But before I could see the master I woke. It was late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, just before the dew could form. The room seemed crowded with invisible specters, all watching me. I told myself it was a ridiculous sensation born of childish fears, but could not slip from its clammy control. Rising, I went outdoors, into the garden, to pace a bit and to breathe the calming open air.
The man was on the moon bridge again, staring into the moon pond. He waved to me and I went to him, not really knowing why.
“Unable to sleep,” he said. “We share the same affliction. Doomed without rest and without end.”
His back was to the moonlight, and so his face was black shadow. His robe was richly red. It must have cost him much to have such a robe.
“Perhaps we should drink more,” I suggested, “or perhaps we should drink less.”
“Diviner,” he said, “you are not enjoying your stay in Lord Gou’s hospitality. Most would question why the navel of paradise should chafe so.”
“I am not a diviner,” I said, without much feeling. “There are kami haunting this place. But it is no matter. The diviner— the true diviner—is working to purify these grounds.”
The ghost was silent a while, staring into the moon pond. “Do not trust that diviner,” he said. “He is not what he seems.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
Before the man could answer me I heard a great flapping of wings near the roof of the manor. I turned and glimpsed a shadowy bird passing astride the air. I could not tell what kind of bird it was, nor its size. It plunged out of sight. Returning my attention to the man on the bridge, I found that he had gone. I dropped my eyes to the moon pond, among the moon and carp and lotuses. I saw no one there, either. Feeling even more greatly unnerved, I returned to my room and attempted sleep once again. It did not come willingly, but had to be wrestled for obedience. It was a losing battle for me, as well as it.

***

I had not slept well. My grogginess clung to me like a goblin. I tried to shake it only to find that it had crawled in behind my eyes. I did not attempt any of the Lotus Sutra that day, knowing such an endeavor was doomed from the start. Instead, I drank tea and sat beneath a red flowering plum tree, away from everyone. Lord Gou’s servants sought to better my health with remedial herbs and honey. I was informed that Lord Gou himself had suffered a bout of ill health also and was now resting in his room, tended by the yin-yang diviner. The musician and the minister seemed of adequate haleness, for the former played his music incessantly near the moon pond and the latter enjoyed the company of many prostitutes. I did not know which — the imbecilically joyful music or the oleaginous laughter of the minister while the whores giggled indulgently. I swooned with fatigue and what grew to become a fever.

***

I did not remember coming to my room, but there I lay, on the floor with a pillow under my head and a kimono draped over me. The silk was soft, but it burned like fire. Someone knelt next to me, my eyes too blurry to see their face clearly. To see was to hurt. To think was to hurt. To exist was to hurt. The Buddha was right: existence is pain and sorrow.
A breath passed across my face, sweet as plums.
“The flames of Hell can be felt in this life,” she said, placing a cool hand over my hot forehead. “We must not fan them with sin and vice or Hell will come for us before we can atone.”
“Utano,” I said.
“Rest,” she said. She laid a moist cloth over my brow and then sang a song. Even in my agony her song was beautiful. Her song was restive sleep after a grievous journey.

“The Wishing Jewel you gave to me
was as dew upon the tree
and it shines with a light all its own,
but now I walk alone—alone.

“The Jewel you gave fell with the wind
through leaves at our Summer’s end,
and though I hold it, the winds still moan
while I walk on, alone—alone.

“Foxes laugh among sunshowers,
haunting pagoda towers,
and while my heart becomes as a stone
I walk this night alone— alone.

“The Jewel is hot as a fresh tear,
yet, lover, you come not near.
Willful fox! You refuse to atone,
so I walk forever alone…”

I fell asleep in the lull of her lilting voice.

***

I heard wings—huge wings—thrashing the air. Something heavy landed upon the roof, and then leapt down into the gardens. A large shadow, like a bird, stalked the screen door, pacing restlessly.
“I smell death,” it said with a raspy voice. “So much delicious death in this estate. My brethren will wish to roost here, in time. But they indulge the great feast of the famine. So many starved dead— what good is picking their bones? Better for fat, juicy souls glutted on decadence. No piety. No blessings to choke you.”
The creature laughed, squawking like a crow, and then walked away. I was overcome with fear and fever and fainted beneath my fatigue.
***

Breath wafted over me like charnel smoke over a battlefield. It stank of death and hopelessness. I dared not open my eyes.
“I will attend the poet,” said a voice.
“I am attending him,” Lady Utano said.
“But my lady, it is not proper,” the diviner said. “Your uncle objects mightily…”
“He would object more mightily to a death in his home,” Lady Utano said. “And he has improved greatly in my care.”
“A sick man must be tended by one who knows the spirit realm and who can defend him from its malicious forces.”
“I am the only malicious force this man needs to fear,” Lady Utano said.
“I…see,” said the diviner.
I succumbed to sleep once more.

***

My fever broke, in time, and a new day was heralded by birdsong. Drenched in sweat, I sat up. Lady Utano’s kimono still remained upon me. The Lady herself sipped tea at my table. She wore only her white undergarments. My hand reached for her, unconsciously, and she offered me a cup of tea instead. I took it tenderly and sipped as if it was her bare breast. My thirst did not abate for many cups.
“You are so false, Toshiyuki,” she said. “I wonder if you also keep a little bottle of tears up your sleeves when encountering wiser women who are warier of a man’s sweet lies.”
“Only a bottle of ink,” I said flippantly.
“Then perhaps you should mark your face as becomes you: with whiskers of a dishonest kitsune. Your shadow is vulpine, Toshiyuki. Either you are possessed by a yako or you are a fox.”
“I have been told that I am a diviner,” I said. I laughed weakly, and it hurt as it rattled out of my chest. “Perhaps my mother was a tenko. I am of a vulpine nature, admittedly.”
“And my uncle is like the ocean,” she said. “Often even when calm there is a legion of sea giants warring below the surface. Imagine what might happen if he were to learn of our love?”
“This is not love,” I said. “It is a delightful dalliance. Nothing more. Nor did I promise more.”

***

Sometimes I felt as a Bunraku puppet in a theater, performing in accordance with the will of other forces. When Lord Gou summoned me to the main hall I thought it was to congratulate me on my recovery. Instead, he did not seem to know of my illness, but rather had invited me to witness a troupe of dancers from Kyoto that had come to perform for his patronage.
“Come, Toshiyuki!” he said, hailing me as I entered. “We have been awaiting you! A fine entertainment awaits us tonight!”
I took my seat at my host’s long, low table. There awaited me— as there awaited everyone at the table—a cup which smelled of strange earthly odors. I lifted the cup tenderly, for it was a cup of some fine resplendence. Made of smooth porcelain, it was white and had kanji upon its sides which read “remember”. I believed it was of the saikai type of pottery. Saikai meant “reunion”, but why such exquisite cups were called by such a name I did not know. As for the liquid within it, I knew even less.
“What is this?” I asked. “It is not sake.”
“No, it is not sake,” said the diviner, smiling. His rotten-egg face wrinkled terribly and his voice croaked harshly. No doubt the many prayers and cleansing rituals had strained it hoarse. “It is a special drink made from maitake mushrooms. I made it for this occasion. It seemed fitting, for why should we not partake of the ‘dancing’ mushrooms while watching lovely creatures engage in dance?”
“Exactly so!” Lord Gou said, raising his cup and draining it to the dregs. “Let us enjoy in all senses this entertainment I have arranged this night!”
The minister raised his own cup in agreement, though he could not drain his own cup as well as Lord Gou. He choked and coughed halfway through the quaffing of it. The musician drank his steadily, playing his hichiriki between sips.
Merriment was all well and good, but nobler works required my attention now that I had recovered my health. Kabukimono I was, but decadence chafes without hard work and sweat to lubricate the leisure. I resented the squandering of this time.
Yet, I knew better than to be an ungrateful guest, insomuch as could be perceived. So, I sipped at the maitake drink. It was not so sweet as it was salty. I managed to drink half of the cup before the dancers gathered at the head of the main hall, preparing to showcase their talents. They wore yukatas, for to dance in this Summer heat was to invite suffering. The women also held pretty little fans in their hands, masking themselves occasionally with them as they spun and gestured to the piping of flutes and the beating of drums.
And they danced well. As I drank I watched the robed figures perform. It seemed to be a Bon Odori dance. I had seen it performed once during the Obon festival in the Ugo province.
Lord Gou growled suddenly, and slammed his fist upon the table. “I did what was within my right!” he said. “The two of them belonged to me! I am the governor of this region!”
The minister swooned, smiling laxly like a drunkard. “I knew you were a kitsune, my love, but I do not care. I love you as deeply as the cherry blossoms love the winds. I tremble at your merest movement, your gentlest sigh…”
The musician had abandoned playing his hichiriki, and was instead arguing with someone who was not present beside him. “You may have taught me the song, but I brought it to life. What good is a thought of music until you breathe life into it? I breathe life into all of the songs you killed with your ineptness…”
It was all so bizarre. They sat at the table, yet seemed to be far away with their souls. Suddenly, the others vanished— as did the main hall, the table, and the dancers. I was standing in a hall, slowly walking down its corridor. I saw my father. He looked sad and he shook his head. I tried to ask him what was wrong, why he was ashamed, and he gestured to the hall beyond him. I followed it, coming to a lover of mine. She looked brokenhearted. I tried to explain to her that I was fated for things greater than being a husband to a courtesan. Many other lovers came, one after the other. They were a hall of Noh masks— some sad, some demonic. They accused me silently with their eyes. Flames spewed from their mouths and the vision lifted.
I was once again in the main hall, and I saw the dancers spinning in harmony with each other like Karakuri machines. The drums continued to beat and the flutes continued to pipe. The old diviner was staring at me with his beady eyes. A faint smile touched his lips and I felt angry, and afraid.
Lord Gou stood, then, and went to the dancers, joining them.
“Let us all dance!” he exclaimed, mimicking the graceful movements of the dancers with his own clumsy, heavy-footed parody. “Dance for your ancestors! Dance with a light soul and a full belly!”
The minister rose and joined the dance, grinning as if he was dancing with his kitsune bride amidst sun-showers. The musician staggered upright and stumbled into the troupe also, dancing vengefully as if to spite the apparition with which he was formerly arguing. The last to join in the dancing was the yin-yang diviner, cawing with laughter. I watched them all dance, wanting to quit their company and retire to my quiet room. As I stood to leave I noticed that there was something wrong with the shadows of those dancing. The dancers had shadows shaped like small animals spread upon the floor. Badgers and raccoons and monkeys. Lord Gou’s shadow, meanwhile, reeled in the form of a great bull as he twirled and gestured. But I had had too much maitake to drink, and still felt the weakness of the fever. Discreetly I returned to my room while my host danced a madness among his honored guests. The festivities disagreed with me.

***

I dreamt that night of Mt. Asama erupting into the sky. Its mouth expelled a fire-froth that spilled over all lands, from sea to sea, and the black smoke became a million crows while the liquid-fire marched forth as red-faced Onis. They conquered the world, stamping underfoot all beauty there was to behold. It was an army of land and air come to blight the earth with death and corruption.

Poetic Justice (Part 1 Rough)

I, Toshiyuki, renowned poet and famed calligrapher of the Lotus Sutra, whose works had assured the succession of many lords, ladies, and even the Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu into Heaven, and for whose esteemed accomplishments came recognition in the Far West of Mystical China and subsequent benedictions by the Buddha with Enlightenment and prosperity, needed to piss. My loins burned with an excess of drink from the festive evening prior, and the weight of my Lady Utano’s slender, pale legs as they laid athwart my abdomen. Thus, yawning, I gently pushed aside her legs and rose from the tatami-spread floor of my host’s guest room, generously provided by my most recent patron, Lord Gou. Rising unsteadily— for my head swam with sake and my back ached with my Lady’s passions— I walked to the sliding screen that led out into the courtyard and slid the screen quietly, stumbling onto the veranda. I glanced over my shoulder as I heard Utano stir, then sigh, softly as a paintbrush across a scroll, and then settle again into her dreams. I wondered if she dreamt of me. I had dreamt of her, and I dreamt of the many women whose embrace I had known.
The courtyard garden was a ghostly affair of mist, moonlight, and chrysanthemums. I stumbled out into the garden, toward a weeping willow whose mournful height begged at the edge of a moon pond. While I relieved myself I watched the orange carp float lethargically in the water, and my thoughts moved as the carp moved among the lotus blooms. I hoped no one saw me, for the garden was illuminated brightly with the on-looking moon. Most of my host’s guests were asleep, for sake had gushed generously during yesterday’s celebration. I heard one guest yet awake— an official sent by the shogun, I believed— indulging a maid in Lord Gou’s household. This noise soon ended with a porcine snort and groan so that thereafter only the chirping song of crickets remained. As I shook myself dry I composed a haiku, compulsively, for that choral moment of solitude and peace.

“Carps float silently,
heeding cricket garden song—
legs shiver in mist.”

It was not a truly lovely poem, but my mind still ached from the happy thunder of yesterday evening. My mouth was parched, also, my tongue dry and rough as scroll parchment. I was foggy-headed, you see, from drink and grogginess, and the garden was likewise dreamy with mists.
Lord Gou had been quite fortunate in his karma, for his province had yet to starve as other provinces had. The famine reigned, as did the bleeding disease. Some believed that Oni, released from the hellfire of Mt. Asama, had cursed the world. Yet, no such demons claimed Lord Gou’s household. To the contrary, the Buddha seemed to have granted his blessings to all that Gou owned, including this lovely chrysanthemum garden. Their white petals reminded me of the moon above, and both moon and chrysanthemum seemed to glow as if calling to one another, mother to child. Indeed, all evidence I had seen of Lord Gou’s province suggested prosperity and good fortunes. The merchants thrived with their trade, and the samurai were without war, restless and idle. This I thought good, of course, for the Buddha favored harmony and nonviolence.
I had finished my cleansing and was soon to return to my Lady Utano, but I happened to glance up at the moon bridge that arched over the moon pond. To my chagrin I saw a man upon the bridge, leaning over the railing as if in contemplation of the lotus-dotted water. I could not see his face, for the moon was at his back and the mists rose around him thickly. Thinking I had shamed myself, I hurriedly tucked myself away and attempted to flee, but he called out to me.
“It is a mischief we all do by moonlight,” he said.
Thinking him one of Lord Gou’s men, I surrendered myself to my shame and hoped for mercy.
“We can only ask forgiveness from the Buddha,” I said.
The man remained silent a moment. His face was nothing but shadows and mist.
“And we must strive to be worthy of his forgiveness,” he said.
Having thus engaged me in conversation, he beckoned to me and I— fool that I was— approached him, circling round the pond and coming to the edge of the moon bridge. I did not step upon it, however, for it felt as if I was trespassing. Instead, I lingered at its edge, watching the faceless man as he leaned over the railing. He was attired in what would have been a very modest robe if not the for rich dye of dark redness that colored it. As he spoke he continued staring into the moon pond.
“There are demons about,” he said. “They can be very hospitable, and very mannerly as they devour your soul.”
I did not understand his meaning, but my body seemed to. My skin was as gooseflesh, a clammy coldness stealing over me despite the Summertime heat.
“I have had too much to drink,” I said, “and too little sleep for talk of demons. It is a late hour, and the only reasonable people to linger by moonlight are lovers and diviners.”
“That is true,” the man said. “And I am a lover. You, in your own way, are a diviner. So here we meet and linger by the will of the Buddha.”
“I am no diviner,” I said. “I am a poet and calligrapher. Toshiyuki. You have heard of me, no doubt. They call me Ink-Between-Stars and Rainbow-Within-Black. I paint the truths of this world with ink on parchment.”
“I have not heard of you,” the man said, unassuming and unforceful in his impudence. “I have no need of a poet or calligrapher. But a diviner, such as you, will do.”
I was now impatient to be done with this man. Lady Utano’s legs awaited me, as did her cherry blossom breath and her milky breasts. Moreover, this misty sojourn upset me, and not only my impatience. I was afraid. His talk of demons, and his facelessness, and the chill silence of the garden frightened me. Even the crickets had ceased their song. Now only this man’s voice broke the silence, and though he was atop the bridge I felt his voice at my ear. My own voice startled me. All was jumpy anticipation.
“Enough from madmen,” I said. “If I am going to postpone sleep, it will be for the lotus lips of my Lady Utano, not the words of a drunkard.”
“Neither drunkard nor madman,” the man said faintly. “Only Ren, lover of Ren, met by moonlight and cold steel to separate destined hearts…”
As I turned away I skimmed the moon pond with my eyes, glimpsing a woman’s face in the undisturbed waters. She appeared mournful as she looked up at the moon bridge. I, too, looked up at the bridge, and saw that the drunkard had vanished. Looking down at the waters, the woman had vanished as well. Yet, the man…Ren…his words haunted me into the depths of sleep.

***

The next morning I knelt at the low table in my guest room, my brush in hand as I wrote a poem upon a sheet of parchment. Lady Utano stood behind me, eagerly watching my hand as it dragged the ink-kissed brush here and there.

“How sad the lotus
plucked from its native waters—
withers without love.”

“Lovely,” she remarked. “Your kanji is so lovely.”
I grunted.
“Is it about me?” she said, her tone suddenly sad. “Are you to leave soon?”
I grunted again. I never liked these discussions. She knew, before our night together that we were cranes at the same pond for a brief sojourn; nothing more.
She knelt down beside me, quietly. Her movements were always graceful and unhurried; silent and smooth as the silk kimono she wore. Her black hair lay laxly about her shoulders. She had not yet done it up with her comb, the tresses hanging over her brow. I preferred her to look this way— this dawn look after a night of passions— as I had preferred it in all of my lovers. Her black hair framed her pale, rounded face perfectly. Lady Utano was doubtlessly beautiful. I only ever courted beautiful women. Yet, her lips were longer than most women’s, and hung down mournfully, even when she smiled. It gave her a uniqueness that summoned her often among my forethoughts, whereas other men valued small, rosebud lips. Her lips should have been disagreeable, but they were not; not unless she used them to speak what should have been left unspoken.
“I will always await your return,” she said, sadly. When I did not respond, she rose and went to the sliding screen. “We have become as intimate as husband and wife,” she said. “Yet, you behave as if there is still a screen between us.”
“There must always be a screen between us,” I said. “Even when we embrace. And, sooner or later, there will be more than a mere screen between us. There will be many lands between us, for that is my destiny.”
She said no more, but withdrew discreetly into the courtyard garden. I sighed and set aside the brush, taking up the parchment. The ink strokes were smooth and the characters perfect, but the abrupt change in position caused the ink to run, like tears, down the page.
It was at this time that a servant of Lord Gou called from the corridor.
“Our Lord requests your presence,” the servant said.
“I will arrive shortly,” I said.
I was of two minds, however: one, to go attend Lord Gou, and the other, to seek Lady Utano. No good would come of the latter, I decided, so I pursued the former.
The servant led me to the main hall with its long, low table. Lord Gou was seated at the head of the table, as were his other guests. I will not recall names here, but there was a famous musician known for his skill with a hichiriki, as well as a famous yin-yang diviner, and a servant of Emperor Kokaku. They had already eaten and were talking politely amongst themselves. My plate of food awaited me and I sat to partake of it, for I was famished. As with all of Lord Gou’s hospitalities, the fish and rice and fruit were all very excellent and generous of portion.
“Toshiyuki has quite the appetite this morning,” Lord Gou remarked, grinning through his black beard. His lips were already wet with sake, though the sun had yet to rise above the first tier of the Western pagoda. “Was it yesterday’s festivities that provoked such a hunger, or was it a hunger in the night?”
“Hunger can beget hunger,” the diviner said, stealing furtive glances around the room, “or so they say.”
“I dreamt of many sweet things,” I said warily. I began to eat, staring down at my food in the hope that they would abandon this conversation.
“And what form did your dreams take?” the musician said, smirking with mischief at Lord Gou, for the musician was a sycophant if ever there was one.
“Mist and shadow and moonlight,” I said. “Ink and parchment and hard work. Nothing more.”
The four men chuckled knowingly and drank from their sake cups. They had been drinking for the last three days, halting only for sleep and laughter. I, too, had been drinking similarly, though I restrained myself from equal measure for the sake of clarity. After all, I had a purpose here, as did the diviner and the musician. We were guests, and so had functions to serve. I was to copy the Lotus Sutra for Lord Gou, and to write original poetry in honor of his esteemed personage. The musician was to provide music, naturally. As for the diviner, I knew not what his purpose was. Perhaps Lord Gou feared that the Oni of Mt. Asami might eventually reach his province and, so, the diviner would be employed to march them out of this hitherto untainted region. He was a very renowned diviner, and wrinkled with age and experience. His bald head elicited respect among many, but it merely reminded me of a peeled, rotten egg.
I composed a poem in his honor.

“Jealous blades seek blood
as does the swallow its nest,
yet eggs do not hatch.”

Lord Gou believed I had indulged in the concubine he had selected for me. She had been a lovely woman, but Lady Utano had beguiled my eye with a greater light. Thus, I sent the prostitute away and had, instead, dared the courtship of Lady Utano instead. She was his niece, though he cared little for her as much as he had for his concubines.
“How go my scrolls?” Lord Gou asked, leaving off the former subject at last. “I expect my Lotus Sutras to be peerless, for my sins have been peerless indeed.” He laughed, and so, too, did the musician. He then stopped laughing, glowering at the musician until the latter’s voice died like a mouse in a fox’s teeth.
“There is nothing funny in it, boy,” he remarked. “You would do well to hold your tongue or else you will never work song upon it again.”
The musician stared at his lap, his head bowed. Lord Gou scowled at him a moment longer, then turned to me again, smiling. His smile was without humor.
“How have you progressed with my Lotus Sutras?” he asked.
“They go well,” I said. “They are some of the best I have ever made.”
“That is good,” he said, “for your sake as well as my own. I am paying you handsomely for them, and so I demand that they be of extraordinary beauty.”
“This version of the Namu Myoho Renge Kyo shall be my finest version,” I promised. “When I write it the very sight shall absolve you of whatever negative karma you have collected. Like water carrying away tea leaves, you shall be poured out as a cup and cleansed.”
“That reminds me,” said Lord Gou said, motioning toward his servants. “The Tea Ceremony. We have much entertainment arranged for today, but we must also observe tradition.”
Sweets were brought forth, as were the Lord’s personal porcelain water kettle and his silver ladle. Cups were distributed as well, each filled with water and matcha, stirred to perfection. Lord Gou did not prepare the tea himself, but had his servants do it. This was not true to the ceremony, but none of us dared say so. Having our own cup, too, was not in keeping with the ceremony. In truth, none of it was really in keeping with tradition, but then again neither was I. I was, after all, a kabukimono of the floating world. I wrote the Lotus Sutra for a living and spent many of my days practicing it for my own vanity and pride rather than the call of the Buddha.
We drank of our tea slowly, to show appreciation of the tea and of our host. I did not eat the sweets, however, for I had yet to finish the food already provided to me. Soon sake was offered, and readily accepted, and we all drank ourselves silly throughout the day and night.

***

The next morning I awoke, alone, in the dimness of a predawn murk. Groggy with sake, I stood unsteadily, walking toward the sliding screen door that led out into the garden. I reached for it, then halted, gasping in fright. Above the door, hanging by a piece of thread, was a Noh mask. I reached and took it down, looking over it. It was like most Noh masks. It was made of wood, fashioned in the visage of a smiling woman and painted white with red lips. Her eyes were black. Thinking I must have somehow hung it while in my drunken stupor, I laughed at myself and set it on my table, beside my parchment and ink well.
It was a hot, sweltering sort of day. The sun lacquered the world with its hot resin. My host and all of his guests retreated indoors, to the main hall, where his servants fanned us until the cooler evening hours when the sun could set, the moon could rise, and the shadows could steal over the courtyard. We then went to the garden to walk among the Chrysanthemums and the cherry blossoms. Lord Gou spoke to the minister sent by the Emperor while the musician played his hichiriki. The yin-yang diviner performed some rituals and put ofudas here and there, over every screen door on the veranda. I stared into the moon pond, wondering if I would see a woman’s face in among the lotuses and the carp. I saw no woman. And then I did. It was Lady Utano. She said nothing, but stared into the water, much as I did. When I opened my mouth to say something, however, she walked away, leaving me to my reflection in the still water; looking lonely and sad. I turned away from it in self-disapproval.

***

Rain fell for three days, washing away the ofudas. It cooled Lord Gou’s house, though, the wet breath of the persistent storm both refreshing and inspiriting. Many poems did I write, and many passages from the Lotus Sutra did I copy; and quite beautifully, I must add.
Yet, it was not altogether pleasant. A melancholy fell upon the others, including Gou and Lady Utano. Gou brooded, listening to the musician’s incessant songs. Lady Utano avoided me whenever she could. But we were trapped indoors by the rain. When we passed in the halls she often paused and gave me a despondent frown that instantly darkened the day more sadly than any storm cloud.
Upon the second day of rain I sat on the veranda and sipped tea, enjoying the sweetness of the rain and the bitterness of the tea leaves. The garden was fragrant with flowers. They welcomed the showers as a leper a balm. I saw that drunkard upon the bridge again, seemingly unmindful of the downpour. He brooded worse than Lord Gou, staring as always into the moon pond to see— I could only surmise—his rain-shattered reflection.
A servant to Lord Gou’s household arrived, just then, bringing more tea.
“The fool is at it again,” I said to him.
“Fool?” he said, apparently afraid that an honored guest had spoken ill of Lord Gou.
“On the bridge,” I said, pointing…and nearly spilling my new cup of tea in my lap.
“I see no one,” the old man said.
“That is because you are drunk, too!” I said, scolding him before sending him on his way. As I blew upon the hot cup of tea, I stared at the man on the bridge. He was a puzzle demanding that I solve it, and yet there may have been little mystery to him after all. He seemed such a hopeless soul, and I did not pity him.
“He will catch his death in the rain,” I remarked aloud to myself.
“Tears earn as many deaths.”
I was surprised to find Lady Utano standing beside me, behind a screen. She stood quite properly, and at a distance, for the sake of propriety. It was absurd to see her this way, stiffened with formality and manners, for we both knew each other’s bodies and pleasures and neither screen nor pretense should ever hope to undo such strongly established intimacy.
“Your presence is as refreshing as Spring rain,” I said.
“That is too obvious a compliment for a poet of your renown,” she said, rather flatly. “Perhaps you should apply more skill.”
“As I applied skill to you as I had you in my arms,” I said, rather boldly.
She did not seem taken aback, her husky voice rolling smoothly as honey down a Zen garden rock. “Do not credit yourself with all of that night’s pleasures,” she said. “What good is a brush without a satisfying well of ink? It will run ragged and dry on the page without a proper dip.”
I could not help but smile. “Indeed,” I said. “You deserve as much credit.” My smile faded, however. “And yet I know that you are not as satisfied by that night as I was. You feel I have abused your heart. For that…I can only say that it was a pleasure between a man and a woman of their own minds. Just as you cannot credit me solely for the pleasure, you can neither credit me solely for the pain. That we must depart was well known to you prior to your having come into my room.”
Lady Utano was quiet for a long time.
“Things are always more rapturous by moonlight,” she said. “And how often we find the flaws by dawn’s lantern. Yet, I should like to be at your side, despite the flaws that come to light.”
“Perhaps you know that wayward man,” I said, seeking to steer this conversation elsewhere. I pointed to the figure on the bridge. He looked almost as if made of mist, so awash was he in rain. “Perhaps it is you for whom he swoons like a waterlogged rat.”
“I do not know whom you mean,” she said, “unles you speak of yourself.”
I laughed once—a short, hearty guffaw. “I would never mope as he does. Not for love lost. For my life’s work, perhaps, but never a broken heart.”
Lady Utano was quiet, again, for a long time. When she became so quiet it was as if the world was biding as she gathered her thoughts.
“Perhaps I shall become a demon,” she said, offhandedly. “Then I could gather bones and saikai cups and ash and make a man like yourself to be my husband. Or perhaps I will simply torture him for eternity.” She turned away, her tone soft as rain on Chrysanthemum petals. “No, that would not be right, or satisfying, for I would always know he was not you.”
She sounded as if she had quietly gone mad, and it struck me keenly. I tried to explain to her, as evenly as possible, the impossibility of a conjoint life.
“Lady Utano,” I said “I am of the floating world. I am a kabukimono. You do not belong in my world. No respectable woman does.”
“And yet you have invited me in for a moon,” she said.
“What is dared by moonlight may never be dared by daylight,” I said. “You know this. The Shining Lord of Letters must seek the Sutras with a hand unencumbered by another, no matter how graceful or dainty.”
“You are no Genji,” she said. “Your luster dims upon repeated viewing, and closer inspection.”
She abruptly left. I tried to rise to follow her, but then spilled my tea on my sleeves. What a shame! It would stain, no doubt.

***

The next morning I woke to another surprise. It was another Noh mask, this one’s smile strained more greatly than the first. The ruts of its cheeks were deep, painful at the edges of the woman’s mouth, and there was a desperation in the brow around the eyes of the mask. It was as if the mask was being tortured, and still trying to smile. I had not drank enough the prior evening to forget myself, and I knew that I had not hung the mask in my room. Someone else was taunting me. Perhaps it was that mischief-maker upon the bridge. If I ever caught him out there again I would flog him. I promised myself thus as I gave the mask to a servant to do with as he pleased.
The rains departed, leaving in their wake an effusive envelopment of mist. It made the manor seem a haunted, lonely place upon cloud-wreathed mountaintops. Sometimes it seemed that I walked through the halls without ever coming upon any other person. The mists seeped into the house, and isolated us all. My calligraphy failed me often while the chilly mists clung to my hands and I felt as if there were hands in the mist tickling me, distracting me, fiddling at my ear to ruin all my enterprise.
When the mists finally lifted, Lord Gou summoned all of his guests to the garden. We sat upon the veranda, near the moon pond, and basked in the sun finally woken from its long slumber. Lord Gou appeared tardy, however, carrying with him a tea pot and ladle. His servants presented to each of us cup. Lord Gou addressed us.
“The rains now gone,” he said, “and the sun risen and brightening my home, I should like to properly perform the Tea Ceremony for you all. My melancholy has not allowed me to be a good host as of late and this, I hope, will make amends.”
The musician and diviner attempted to explain away Lord Gou’s inattendance, offering excuses and pardons for him in turn.
“No!” he said, nearly stomping. “I will not hear it! I have been disgraceful, and so allow me this small atonement.”
Lord Gou then proceeded to perform the Tea Ceremony— precisely, methodically, almost humbly. It took some time, for he seemed obsessed with observing all of the protocols of the ritual exactly, and the rest of us waited as patiently as possible. However, I could not loosen the irritation I felt at this protracted waste of time. I had the Sutra to write; I did not wish to squander time on tea or pretense.
The sun was at its zenith, blasting the garden with its heat, when Lord Gou had served us all so that we might finally drink. The yin-yang diviner was the first to sip thoughtfully at his tea, for he had been enraptured by Lord Gou’s gesture and wished to reciprocate immediately in gratitude to his host. I was hesitant, being distracted by another poem that wove and unwound itself in my mind, and so was slower in partaking. I never did partake, in truth. Instead, the diviner sipped, then spat the tea back into his cup, his sleepy eyes suddenly agog with fear and disgust. The musician was less subtle. He gulped at his cup, then sputtered it out all over himself, gagging and coughing and then finally scooping up water from the moon pond to rinse out his mouth.
Lord Gou was outraged.
“What is the meaning of this insolence!” he screamed, drawing a tanto he kept ever at his belt. Its blade gleamed, but not so fiercely as the fury in his eyes. “I will have you two gutted like fish and thrown to the dogs!”
The musician and the diviner begged mercy. Meanwhile, I raised the tea to my nose, sniffing. It was much bitterer than matcha ever had right to be. But what was wrong with it? I sniffed at it some more and realized that it smelled of iron, and of blood.
“Lord Gou,” I said, rising to my feet. “There is something wrong with the water. It smells of…corruption.”
Lord Gou turned upon me, his apoplectic rage not unlike an Oni’s. “Corruption? What nonsense is this?!”
“It tastes of blood!” the musician wailed, prostrating himself on the veranda to beg mercy for his mouth. “There is a curse upon the tea leaves!”
“Or upon the water,” the diviner said, struggling to stand and rally to explain. “Wherefrom did you retrieve the water, my lord?”
Lord Gou turned upon one of his servants, grabbing the young man by the collar of his robe and brandishing the tanto. “Where did the water come from, little whelp?”
The hapless servant stuttered and yelped like a dog being throttled. “From the rainwater, your esteemed glory!”
“I see,” said the diviner. “So what I sensed was amiss after all.”
Lord Gou released the young servant— with a violent shove that sent him sprawling upon the veranda— then addressed the diviner. “What did you sense?”
“There is a curse upon your house, my lord,” the diviner said, bowing. “There is a matter unresolved among spirits here. They seek a toll. They seek revenge.”
Lord Gou’s face paled but a moment, then darkened with redoubled rage. “That is ridiculous,” he said, sheathing his tanto. “I have no sins with shadows to fear. This is a house of honor! A house of nobility and pride! Spirits would do well to flee here or else be cast out by the Buddha from all realms but the most infernal.”
“I do not doubt you, my lord,” the diviner said. “But I sense something terribly wrong here. My talismans have all been repelled by an evil force. I cannot even prepare new ones no without the paper catching fire in my hands.”
He proceeded to demonstrate, setting a paper talisman upon the table and using a stick of charcoal to write a benediction. No sooner than charcoal finished the characters for blessing the talisman flared and dissolved into ash and smoke.
All stood and stared, amazed, including myself. Why had my Sutras been spared by this malevolent presence?
“Worry not, my lord,” the diviner said. “I will exorcize these spirits soon enough. Wherever they lurk, they shall be expunged.”
The Emperor’s minster comforted Lord Gou with promises to seek more diviners to help the one already in his employ. Thus, he wrote a letter and had it dispatched to Kyoto. In the meantime, the diviner set about Lord Gou’s household, performing cleansing rituals. The musician stayed with them, and most of the servants attended them, as they attended Lord Gou. As for myself, I retired to the garden, for I felt that I would only intrude.

I saw Lady Utano playing a shamisen beneath a red flowering plum tree. She did not see me, for she was turned away, looking out over the moon pond as she played in the purple shadows of the tree. Her profile was lovely and forlorn, her fingers gingerly striking with their pick upon the taut strings of the shamisen. The chrysanthemums were by daylight no longer pale white bulbs, but glowed brilliantly in many colors. Yellow, orange, purple, red.
I would never attain the same status as Matsuo Basho if I took a wife. Rather, I would need to renounce urban life and venture into the countryside, heading wherever poetic inspiration might greet me. Yet, I was too enamored of city life and its easy pleasures. And I was too enamored of women. Especially Lady Utano. I could see, even then, her black hair flowing like ink upon the pale, smooth silk of her body, the latter gleaming and lustrous as the dreaming moon. Her skin was immaculate, with neither an inky droplet of a mole nor the obscene crease of a wrinkle. Her eyes were dark and hot like burning incense. What was her fragrance if not plum petals cloyed with dew? Her voice— which I loved most of all—was husky and heady, lacking the childish squeak of so many other women when in the throes of passion. She had a heavy breath, and her voice was a primal spirit echoing from deep within the cave of her mountainous bosom.

This was her song:

“Lotus, fair, upon the water,
so lonely now, at the midday hour,
my unmarried daughter;
Lotus, fair, in the silken shade,
such a lonely flower
to do as you are bade…”

She saw me, and pretended to ignore me. I did not mind, for she continued her song, and I yearned for nothing half so much as her song.

“Lotus, fair, in the vase,
taken by a giant’s greedy fist,
O you weep in this dry place;
Lotus, fair, in the dust,
saved not when kissed
by the dew of lust…”

Abruptly— almost violently— she shoved aside the shamisen against the trunk of the tree and turned her back to me. Yet, I would not be put off so easily as a musical instrument.
“I think you could play a fine song upon most anything,” I said, “even a blade of grass, if need be.”
She remained with her back to me, yet there was a coquettishness to her posture that seemed to invite me. Perhaps it was the serpentine curves of the spine beneath the robe— .
“Yes,” she said, “but crude, lowly things often presume that they make that music alone, and so we must be selective of the instruments we play.”
Doubtlessly, she was speaking thorns at me. It did not matter, though, for they delighted me as much as her petals might. Her mind was a delicious dish, too.

Tricked

He walked with his eyes toward the moon
and his hand upon the knife in his pocket,
thinking of his wife, who left him much too soon,
now embosomed in his heart, like a photo in a locket.

Out beyond the farmhouse and barn,
where the cows had laid in their straw bed
and the crows nestled among stolen strands of yarn,
in the field, she lay, three weeks dead.

He struck a flint to light a putrid candle
made of boiled fat from a black hound
and held his knife by its deer antler handle,
and slit one wrist above her unsettled mound.

The wind died and a silence befell the field
while the black earth blackened darker to soot
and stars and the moon and the clouds reeled
with the mania of such a diabolic ritual afoot.

He stayed in the candle’s light as the voices rose
all around him, in the dark of the isolated field;
groans and moans, shrieks, screams, and bellows,
but among them one cut clean through, shrilled.

She spoke to him: “You will lose your soul.”
Her voice tolled sharply like a funeral bell,
and he spoke: “Without you there’s nothin’ but a hole
worse than anything waiting for me in Hell.”

The many voices spoke as a choir together:
“If you wish to save her from the inferno
then you must willingly cut your final tether
and open your heart completely—then she may go.”

He heard the swelling of those bestial voices
like goats and cows, pigs and donkeys that brayed,
and he thought of his life, and all of his bad choices,
and with a simple slash he welcomed the trade.

She laughed, then, caterwauling into the night,
and the earth quaked, the grass burned,
a portal opened that eclipsed his tear-blurred sight
while a great fire rose in a pillar that gyred and churned.

The moon and the stars flickered and faded,
leaving all as tomblike darkness—all except
the blazing gate, like hellish flames braided
and toward which he was irresistibly swept.

His father found him at sunrise the next day,
limp and pale upon the scorched grave site.
Stooping, he picked his son up, looking with dismay
at the hoofprints, still burning bright.

Teacups, Collars, And Petticoats

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Disclaimer: This story is rife with sordid things meant for an adult mind…and likely a puerile mind, too.  Manners are herein detailed, as well as etiquette, and many a Victorian pretense.  And nudity.  There is nudity, both textual and illustrated, though mostly for comedic effect.  This is a short story concerning juxtaposition and contrasts between overt behavior and latent compulsion.  Consequently, it is a story about Freudian suppression and the “return of the repressed”.

The rain fell heavy and the Thames breathed its fog in heady sighs through the glistening gaslight murk of London. Despite the dark, misty labyrinthine streets, her red dress and overtopping hat exploded with colorful distinction like a crimson carnation bountiful with bloom in a wet grotto. She was a walking fire embodied and emboldened by her own self-regard. The rain itself struck her umbrella but apologetically. Perhaps it knew better than to provoke the grudge of Jane Augusta Petticue. Most Londoners seemed to know such things.

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Jane entered the restaurant with her hoopskirt swishing left and right, such was her haste to meet Sarah at the dining table. Brusquely, she shoved her small umbrella into the unprepared arms of the nearest waiter, ignoring the waiter’s protests and bounding buoyantly toward the usual corner of the restaurant where she and Sarah exchanged their fruitful gossip. Her demoness stood upon her shoulder; a small, impish pinkish creature with a large-lipped mouth, always puckered in relish of wry mischief. At that moment the demoness was wringing her taloned hands in excitement, eagerly eyeing Sarah as Jane navigated the other tables in the crowded restaurant— tables clustered with patrons and their own demons— and sat down in her habitual chair. Her cup of tea awaited her obediently, its steam swaying as if a cobra mesmerized by the piping of a flute.
Jane’s eyes, and the eyes of her demoness, glimmered with glee. A very fine, thin, and long silken thread laced the demoness’s neck, tying her to Jane. Diamonds gleamed there, studded like stars.
“You will never guess what mayhem I have accomplished today,” Jane said, sipping from her tea. She was an older woman, and graying, whereas Sarah, sitting across the table from her, was to her a protege—young, pretty, unmarried as Jane once was.

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“Do tell me it was of the provincial sort,” Sarah said, eyes sparkling in near equal sheen to her idol’s. Her demoness was sitting upon the floor beside her chair, chained to the garter high upon her thigh. Her demoness was voluptuous and tempting, as if following the precedent that was herself, despite horns and naked disregard for convention; which is to say, a literal naked disregard for the convention of clothing. As men glanced toward Sarah, her demoness spread her legs in a most vulgar display while tugging at the lacy hem of Sarah’s petticoats as if to invite them in for a grand show. Several men looked away, talking amongst themselves at their table, yet their own demons sported priapic extravagances, standing in a circle around the table to compare and measure the most manly among the present competition.

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“It is mayhem of the lordly sort,” Jane said, smiling broadly with deep satisfaction.
Sarah gasped in pleasant shock. “You do not mean Lord Clovenhill?”
“The very same,” Jane said, her smirk so taut it could hang a man in its noose. “It will come out soon enough, but for now there are only four individuals who are aware of his great misfortune. Him, myself, yourself, and the young lady Anna Lynn Maywell.”
Sarah’s eyes were agape. Even her demoness ceased spreading legs and sat up, listening intently.
“Have you spoiled that courtship through…bold means?” she asked. “I should have liked portion of such a delicious endeavor. Lord Clovenhill, for all of his stuffy and stiff bearing, is a handsome man, and I do not doubt, when coaxed sweetly enough, a beast abed.”
“No, it is not a carnal matter of drama,” Jane said, shaking her head and thinking her protege too hedonistic in some ways to be proficient at true sin. Her graying ringlets brushed against her demoness, who was too pleased with their accomplishments to notice.
“Then did you induce him to take liberties with Lady Maywell? Surely not. The innocent little creature keeps her demoness in a canary cage, feeding it on crackers, instead of vice, and teaching it choir songs. It is the cutest of things, for a demoness, and so…unfailingly harmless. Why, it is almost as small as your demoness, Jane.”

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Jane nodded only once, but did not afford her own demoness an appraising glance, knowing the smile on her small face the selfsame smile upon her own.
“Nor is it in that particular area of interest,” Jane said, “though the broad topic is keen to the happenings I have devised and set into motion.”
Before she elaborated she raised a gloved hand, signaling a waiter hereto.
“A bit of crumb cake, please,” she said to the waiter. His demon’s head was bowed, but muttered discourtesies and insolence toward all of the patrons in the room. When the young man turned to inquire after Sarah’s wants, however, and upon seeing the bulging bosom heaving up and down within her bodice, his demon sprouted his own absurd priapism.

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“And the young lady?” he said, blushing.
“Nothing so delicious yet, dear sir,” she crooned with a coy smile.

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The waiter hesitantly went to fetch the cake. Jane’s demon, taking umbrage at the waiter’s choice of distinguishing Sarah with the pretense “young” and not herself, whispered in Jane’s ear. Jane smiled, less pleasantly than before, and waited until the waiter returned with a plate of her cake, and a fork. She accepted it with a broad, beaming smile and inquired after his name.
“Jonathan, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded, once, dismissing Jonathan from the table, yet her small mouse-sized demoness glared balefully after him until he receded to the other side of the restaurant. Jane began to vengefully eat at the cake, cutting it spitefully with her fork and chewing as if relishing her own vexation.
“Why would you seek such ploys to undermine a pillar of London society?” Sarah asked, hoping to press Jane toward unforthcoming details. “Why, Lord Clovenhill is praised every day for his charities. There has yet to be a philanthropist in measure to him. And the legislation he has put forth in the House of Lords is famous for its social reforms. Truly, even I know of their commendable nature, though I find politics exceedingly tiresome and banal. Moreover, he is neither arrogant nor a boor. I have met him upon multiple occasions, in balls and soirees and such, and never had a disagreeable word with him. True, he is, as I have stated, stiff in his manner, but so are many young men of his rank. He is…”
Sarah fell to a sudden, embarrassed silence, noticing at last Jane’s icy smile of patience, which, like ice, could crack and dunk the unwary traveler at a moment’s glance. Jane set her fork down, next to the half-eaten cake, took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled.
“But that is the precise reason for my plot,” Jane said quietly. “He is praised for so many superficial services to society, and to the Crown, but I know his embosomed secret. I know what poison grows in the bloom of his heart.”
Sarah leaned forward, rapt. Her demoness stood beside her, leaning forward, too, their bosoms swelling against the edge of the table. “Do enlighten me, Jane.”
Jane glanced about the room, seeing that they were unattended by unwanted ear or eye from the overcrowded restaurant. There were too many conversations for eavesdroppers. Even the rain was speaking to itself as it splattered loudly against the windowpane, chatting away in inane elemental jabberwocky. When Jane was satisfied that the dining hall was too clamorous to overhear her, she spoke. Her eyes glittered like a wildfire happily betaken to woodland.
“Lord Clovenhill is beholden to a massive personage,” she said. “Indeed, his demon is positively gargantuan. It is the ugliest, foulest, most infernal creature I have ever seen. Jack the Ripper would give pause to witness it. It is so dangerous in its appetites that he has partitioned half of his countryside estate to imprison it.”

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Sarah gawped in incredulity for the longest moment. The men at the nearest table grinned to one another, to see such an expression upon her visage, and their demons scrambled to satisfy themselves to the wanton image.
“But he seems such a fine gentleman!” Sarah remarked. “How does he retain servants in his manor if such a creature resides there?”
“They seem to not fear it,” Jane said with a lax shrug that made her demoness sway indifferently. “I suppose they are foolish enough to believe he can contain it forever, and I suppose they can somehow separate the man they know from the demon they should rightly fear. But I saw in it the truth. However strong the shackles placed upon it, it exists, and so the man is owed needful comeuppance.”
“And how did you manage such divine retribution?”
“By simply calling on him,” she said, her smile broadening again, “while in the company of Lady Maywell.”
Sarah gasped. “Surely you did not.”
“Surely I did. I could see it chafed Lord Clovenhill considerably, that breach of etiquette, but moreover I could see the fear behind his stoic mask while he hastily bid his servants to ‘prepare the house for guests’. As if any preparations could be made to spirit away his unsightly secret! My delight was devilish and deserved, especially when—in the Lord’s fleeting absence to see to a domestic matter—I led Lady Maywell to the secret he so feared in its discovery. The poor delicate girl was a crumpled pile of fright by the time Lord Clovenhill retrieved us. He attempted to console her, and chastise me, but the revelation proved beyond his powers of excuse or explanation. It was a triumphant hour, and my greatest pleasure. All of London knows he has long been courting Lady Maywell in the hopes of ascertaining the childish-minded girl as his bride. She has no fortune, but she has infinite prospects to resettle her to her advantage. After all, where wealth is wanting, beauty and obedience may suffice. Now she will assume the worthier bond of another attachment and all will be happier for it. Except Mr. Clovenhill, of course.”
“Pardon me, Jane,” Sarah said, “but they have been the talk of town of late. The men all wish to be Lord Clovenhill and the women all envy her natural, innocent charms. Nor is he bereft in endowments. She will not overcome the attachment easily. It was only a month ago that he startled the Wickfield Circle by holding Lady Maywell’s demoness in his hands, stroking it affectionately as no one ever has another’s demon. The darling little imp purred in his care. As a cat. No one has ever seen the like!”

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“Yes,” Jane said irritably, “but had his demon been there I assure you he would have devoured her little imp, the Lady herself, and all among that presumptuous gathering. Forgive me, Sarah, but you are ignorant of his truer nature. You have never seen his demon. And I would not allow him the pleasure of parading about, lauded by everyone, while he hides his demon from the light of day.”
“But Jane, even you leash your creature,” Sarah observed. The scowl rewarding this observation was twofold— madam and demoness, both— and Sarah cringed, but yoked her tongue to truth. “I only mean to say that is it not commendable that he should take such precautions? Is that not what we all do?” She lifted the golden chain that bound her demon to her garter. “That his demon is so large and frightful, as you say, should he not be applauded for countering its potential transgressions with such elaborate means? Sometimes to acknowledge one’s foibles is as divine as not possessing them in the first, for you may remedy them with greater exercises of volition.”
“That it exists at all is proof enough of his wickedness,” Jane said, snorting in contempt. “But even so, I should have done as I have done were he not beholden to such a large demon. It passes the time, you know, in this widowed age. Errors and etiquette can only do so much to entertain me in my waning years. At times it requires a bit of mischief to embolden the flavors of life.” She reached down under her petticoat and produced a flask, the contents of which she poured into her tea. The aroma of liquor wafted across the table. “The milk of human kindness cannot spice my tea. It only dulls and dilutes, and produces in me a most awful stomachache.”
She set her teacup down on the saucer abruptly, porcelain biting on porcelain sharply, like teeth clamping shut upon bone. She lifted the plate upon which her half-eaten crumb cake sat.
“Excuse me, Sarah,” she said. “I must do something about this cake. It is…too sweet.”
Rising from the table, she walked the length of the restaurant, navigating the crowded tables with her hoopskirt. The other patrons in the restaurant naturally avoided her gaze, and inched their chairs away from her expansive garments. She came, briskly, to the manager of the restaurant. He was an older gentleman, his demon sitting upon his shoulders, one leg to either side of his head, in piggyback fashion, while its protuberant belly pressed down upon his nape, bowing his head forward under the unwieldy weight of its appetite.
“Sir,” Jane said.
“Mrs. Petticue,” the proprietor said, bowing lower while steadying himself with a hand on a window sill. He always stood next to the window, commanding a view of both his restaurant and the bustling London streets. “How is your evening seeing you?”
“Most inhospitably,” she said, tucking a curly tress behind her hair with the affectation of unrest. She set the cake down “Indeed, one of your waiters has been uncharitable in his service. When I asked him for a slice of cake he saw it a happy mischief to bring me but a small, worn morsel of which he had taken liberty to satisfy his own stomach. As you can well see, there is scarcely a mouthful left.”
The old man reddened instantly upon the charge, his eyes flaring spitefully as if to catch his white whiskers aflame.
“I see,” he said, in a tone belying his ire. “Do tell me the scoundrel’s name.”
“Jonathan,” she said.
The old man nodded once, then took the proffered plate of half-eaten cake from Mrs. Petticue. “I will have a fresher slice brought out to you, my dear, of more generous portions. And Jonathan will be brought out, as well. He shall be made to apologize.”
“Oh no, no!” Jane said, affecting a flight of swooning. “I cannot abide the sight of him, even were he groveling to me as Judas to Christ. He has already abused my good nature with his supercilious airs. When I asked him, begging his forgiveness, what happened to the cake he assumed a derisive tone and told me…” She affected to wipe away a tear. “…told me I was of figure not in want for cake.”
“This is an outrage!” the old gentleman said. “I shall have him flogged through the streets!”
“No, I shan’t have his bruises on my heart,” she said. “Just…just show him to the streets, if you could be so kind, and in the Christian fashion. I should like to forgive him, in time.”
The old man nodded fervently. “You are a dear sweet lady, Mrs. Petticue,” he said. “Such sweetness is rare in this world.”
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “As rare as cake, but not so easily crumbled when engaged.”
He escorted her back to her table, sending another waiter to fetch a larger piece of cake, untouched, and two waiters to fetch Jonathan. Jane sat and ate her new slice of cake silently, relishing the sweetness and the view as she watched the old gentleman reprimand a perplexed Jonathan by the door, shortly before shoving him beyond its threshold and out into the misty, cold, dark London street. Jane’s demoness waved goodbye, a serrated grin between her lips. Sarah, whose back was turned to the whole incident, asked Jane if the cake was truly so good as to have second servings.

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“Absolutely, Sarah,” Jane said. “And a third serving, and a fourth, and endless until my time is done and my eyes, and mouth, close forever.”
A tremor abruptly shook the restaurant, rattling plates and teacups and constitutions. In the ensuing silence the patrons at the restaurant gawped toward one another for an explanation, only for another tremor to seize that fine establishment. After its echoing tremble, all visages were nervous, quivery, their demons jumping up and down like disquieted apes in a zoo. Only Jane sat still, and her demoness, too, a self-satisfied smile slowly spreading across her face and giving it dimples such as she had not donned since a young woman.
“No doubt lightning,” the proprietor of the restaurant said, chuckling nervously. His demon nearly tore his whiskers out at the roots in fear.
Another tremor and several patrons stood.
The proprietor raised his hands, trying to calm his patrons. “Just a disgruntled storm,” he tried to reassure them. Another tremor shook him and he steadied himself with a hand on a chair. “My, but they do seem to strike close, do they not?”
The tremors followed one another in rapid succession, drawing closer to the street. The rain had stopped and the windowpanes were rattling themselves dry in the quakes. A decisive concussion to the earth caused the lights in the restaurant to flicker, blinking ominously. Another tremor struck, stronger than the others, and rattled teacups and teeth alike, echoing through the restaurant and the patrons. A few patrons rushed to the door in a frantic crush of struggling bodies, shoving and scrambling out into the misty tumult of night. Others looked to one another, oscillating in indecision and the demands of properly comported etiquette.
“My word,” Sarah whispered. “What is that?”
Jane’s eyebrows arched as the corner of her mouth twisted with wry humor.
“Why, Jane, I do believe that is the true Mr. Clovenhill come to call.”
A roar, like that of a tempest’s gale, rent the uneasy silence, deafening the cries of panic as the patrons in the restaurant fled to the door, crushing together in a struggle to exit and flee down the street. Another tremor shook the clog loose at the door, and so the trickle of patrons became as a gush. Even the waiters and the proprietor joined the exodus. Only Jane and Sarah remained, Jane clutching her demoness in her lap as she watched through their corner’s window, seeing a river of people hastening helter-skelter down the street.
“Do not fret, Sarah,” Jane said calmly. “He would never condescend to visit this establishment. It is, as you know, beneath him.”
The gigantic demon stomped down the street, roaring and rattling the bones of London. It was only as it passed by the window that Sarah realized that there was a bewailing tone to the creature’s roar; as if it was in great pain.
“The poor creature is wounded,” Sarah remarked.
“Quite,” Jane said. “And perhaps it is a mortal wound, though I dare say I would rather it live on, enthralled to its suffering.”
As the demon stomped and moaned, buildings and streets crumbled around it. It was as if another terrible fire was destroying London.

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“What devastation!” Sarah said, her face a paler shade than any French makeup could ever accomplish. “What mayhem!”
“Thank you, my dear,” Jane said quietly. “Being the busy socialite that I am, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce London to the true Lord of Philanthropy in his most esteemed form. Mark how destructive he is. Mark how self-conceited with his woes. What an utterly bestial personage. What catastrophe in his wake. What a monstrous demon with which to share a heart.”
But as Sarah looked from the clamorous devastation beyond the windowpane to the quiet satisfaction on Jane’s face—and the selfsame smile imprinted upon her imp—she marveled at how so much mischief and mayhem could be wrought by such a small, petty demon.

Heart’s Desire Part 1 (Part of the Tangleroot Universe)

“It seems his blade was no sharper than his wits,” quipped Marcellus. He was holding the peasant’s knife in his gauntlet-gloved fist. The emeralds on the gauntlet glimmered, even in the dim light of the tavern. The peasant was sprawled out on the tavern floor, one leg dangling from an overturned stool. Blood mixed with beer, pooling together beneath the peasant’s head. The other squires laughed, like a great gaggle of geese. I sat in my corner and remained distant, silent, as I often did whenever my brothers of Gran Stone proved themselves less than knightly. The peasant’s friends lifted him up and carried him outside, into the rain. The man’s nose had been displaced by Marcellus’s emerald-encrusted backhand. I could not but have blanched at that sickly sight and sound: the splattering eruption of blood from the poor man’s nostrils like the splash of a large catfish upon the water. Worse was the incongruity of our supposed aspirations as squires working toward knighthood and the petty predation that had recently concluded. It was not becoming of our ideals. We did not behave like true knights.
But it was to be expected— at least from my fellow squires. The scene reminded me too much of our days of training under the tutelage of our various mentors. Such predations were frequent then, and always beneath the guise of knightly notions. The smaller, weaker squires were smashed thoroughly during our arms practice— smashed beyond what was a becoming measure—and yet it was justified as being “Good for each in his turn”. Often the knights would laugh while a novice boy was pummeled beneath the edgeless sword of his opponent. I never laughed, nor did I strike any harder than I ought to have, but to the lot of them it was all such merriment as befitted a festival. Bruises and blood were just festoons for the festivities.
“What are you doing sulking in the corner, Aegis?” Marcellus said to me. He dropped the peasant’s knife onto my table, the rusted blade clattering unpleasantly. “Do you disapprove? He had overstepped his position and was reprimanded within appropriate means.”
“He was drunk,” I said. “And you goaded him with mockery.”
Marcellus grinned widely, his green eyes wheeling about the room and finding the rest of the squires in equally devilish moods. “I was merely offering him advice for self-improvement.”
“By telling him he ought to take his wife to market?” I said quietly. I knew full well the impact of repeating the insult, even quietly, and was not disappointed. The whole company of squires laughed anew, as if having heard it for the first time. I could not hide my disdain. It was very much like when they mocked Edmund, the Cloth squire, during training. Endless amusement for them and endless debasement for their victim. And yet how was I any better? I did not partake of their joy, but neither did I shield their victims. That two-headed goat, Hypocrisy, chewed at my earlobes.
“Some men are born for other men to beget jokes upon them,” said Marcellus. “Just as women are born for men to beget heirs upon them. It is all Fate’s decree. We should follow its arbitrations in due course. And if the fools of the world do not accept Fate’s determinations then it is for us to remind them of their place in life.”
I felt my lips tremble. Whether it was fear or anger or both, I knew not. “And yet I labored under the impression that knights were fated to protect the weak,” I said.
“Only the submissive are worthy of protection,” Marcellus said, and the other squires nodded, including those who had been treated poorly during our training. “Only those who do not succumb to uppity notions and misplace themselves in higher regard than they merit.”
“Virgin maidens!” a squire shouted; most likely Aiden, the Carmine squire.
“Hear, hear!” shouted the other squires in agreement.
“And the monks!” cried another squire— perhaps Barric, the Bronze squire. “Because they make us our beer!”
Another roar of approval and a lifting of mugs, the downing of draughts and dregs, and the false chumminess of shoulder-to-shoulder bumping and singing.

“For knights are known throughout the land
as soft of heart and heavy of hand
and should day come that knights may fade
then the world shall fall and be unmade!
For knights are known as lords of lords
with shields and spears and bows and swords
and upon the day that knights should die
there be no honor between earth and sky!
For knights are known as heroes to all
who obey the laws, both big and small,
and should day come that you disobey
the knights will come to make you pay!
For knights serve order in the realm
encased in armor, mail and helm,
and should day come you forget your place
then we will break your knees and face!
For knights are known…!”

This song was an interminable refrain that was always growing, like a sea dragon in warm waters as it traversed the world and ate of its many fish. I merely sat there, silently, and abided. I knew well how possessed my fellow squires could become when in beer and in boasts, especially after a brawl. The stormy song of their pride swelled and deafened the storm beyond the tavern walls. Had I not fear of rust and lightning bolt I would have gladly exchanged one storm for the other and ventured forth into the elements. At least the wild elements were fair with their humiliations. The squires were not. Many patrons in the tavern left due to the ruckus and the promise of more mischief, and I did not doubt that the tavern’s owner would have booted us out had he the men to do so. My fellow squires were intolerable at the best of times.
Nor was it surprising that they should be so cruel. I had trained with them for over ten years now, under the guidance of my own mentor, Sir Brenold, the Brass Knight. He taught me much, including the fickleness of the hearts of men.
“Ideals,” he often said, “are the reins upon the Heart, but once the flames rise and the earth shakes and the Heart bucks and shies, many find their Ideals wanting and cannot rein in that compulsive beast as it retreats, crowned in cowardice.”
I knew even then that Sir Brenold was speaking of not only my brothers, but his own brothers in arms. He had fought alongside many of the knights whose squires trained with me, and he did not say anything remarkable about any of them. His discretion was a matter of his aversion toward engaging in criticism and did not owe to any virtues embodied by any of his brothers. Had they virtues, Sir Brenold would have extolled them readily, as he often did of many people whom he admired. But his silence was as much a loud condemnation as a town-crier’s early morning vociferations. So, too, were my habitual silences.
Naturally, we squires had taken after our mentors and their propensities. Marcellus was the Emerald squire, and so his mentor was the Emerald Knight, which explained Marcellus’s unbridled enmity toward the peasantry. The Emerald Knight had no compunctions about beating a peasant senseless, and would often provoke a peasant’s ire if only to tenuously claim himself wronged as he struck same such hapless peasant down for defending himself or his wife’s reputation. It was a snare with decoy bait, to be sure.
Presently, I felt outrage on the peasant’s behalf, but I did nothing. I only wished the peasant’s knife had not been so dull. Perhaps then Marcellus would have been righted by his own wrong. But there was little accordance with justice in this world, especially where peasants and knights were concerned. Having been born one and raised to be the other, I can attest to it from both sides of the helm.
“A toast!” Barric boomed, raising his mug yet again. “To Princess Felicia and the Knights of Gran Stone!”
“May we find them and glory!” Aidan added, raising his own mug.
Another cheer went up and another draught of beer went down.
It was a strange journey I was on with my brothers. To rescue not only the Princess from the mysterious Black Knight, but to seek our mentors who had disappeared while pursuing the same purpose. Many among my brothers hoped that they would be knighted in place of their mentors, and while I wished to be knighted, I did not wish that it happen for many years, and certainly not that it be hastened because something mortal had happened to Sir Brenold. I cared too much for that virtuous man to aspire toward rank upon his ruin.
Did I not?
Marcellus returned to the other squires at their long table and ordered another round of drinks. I knew, with dawning dread, that with their drinking would come more brawling, perhaps even amongst themselves, and so I retired early from the tavern to my room upstairs, wanting to avoid the ensuing combat. Hopefully, I thought, swords would not be unsheathed.
Upon my ascent I passed a rather fetching young maiden with raven hair and a pallor of face that contrasted so sharply with her red lips that had she not been moving I would have thought her dead. She was as white as birch bark. Her eyes were an uncanny shade of gold that seemed to glow in the dim illumination of that corridor.
I will not deny that I glanced over my shoulder, following her beauty with a beguiled eye. She disappeared down the stairs and I opened the door to my room, entering. As I was closing the door I realized that someone was standing at the threshold, their face obscured with shadows. I was so startled that my hand instinctively clenched for combat.
“What is it that women most desire?”
The voice was gentle, soft, musical, having the same effect as a mother’s song on a child. I felt myself lulled by the cooing croon of her voice. I could not but answer honestly.
“It depends on the woman,” I said.
The figure stepped toward me, and the shawl of shadow was peeled away by the candlelight of my room. She was the beautiful maiden I had just passed in the hall.
“And what is it that you most desire?” she asked. With a tug and a shrug she had slipped out of her robe and stood before me, denuded, like an ivory statue sculpted by in accordance to a lecher’s most debauched dreams.
“I…”
She slipped her hands over my shoulders, pulling me down, gently, toward her face until I could see nothing in the world except her strange golden eyes.
“I…I most desire to be a true knight,” I said.
The enchantment was dispelled and her beautiful face snarled like a hound’s ready to snap for throat and life. She donned her robe quickly, like a turtle retracting into its shell, and left my room with only a hiss and the slamming of the door as a farewell.
I knew not what to think of it. I was as shocked as a cat in water. I retreated to bed, taking off my chainmail and my armor plates and slipping in between the sheets. Beyond the window the storm raged, yet it was not half so fierce as that beautiful lady with the golden eyes.

***

That night I slept but restlessly. My mind was beset with fears and frets and visions. Vividly, I dreamed of the day that Princess Felicia was taken away. It was to have been a tournament in her honor. She was newly come of age and we all were attending to present our wishes and our oaths of fealty to her, and to batter each other in contest for her personal blessing. That poor fool, Edmund, had humiliated himself in front of the whole kingdom by giving the Princess a rose he had woven himself from fabric. Everyone laughed, and the Princess blushed in embarrassment. I felt sorry for the audacious fool, but also knew that he brought much of his suffering upon himself. There was nothing worse in a squire’s mind than to be proud of womanly work. We were supposed to pride ourselves on sword and shield, not thread and needle.
Be that as it may, the celebration’s proceedings were soon thrown to chaos. The Black Knight came riding in on the very air, green flames rushing up from his black stallion’s hooves and eyes. Green fire billowed out from his armor as well. He was a tall, imposing figure with a helmet adorned in dragon horns, a demonic chestplate, and a voice that boomed from within that night-black armor like a troll beneath an abyss-straddling bridge. To see him was to see Death embodied and emboldened.
“NO MORE WHIMSY!”
That was a puzzle in and of itself. What did he mean by “No more whimsy”? It was a curious thing, and continued to confound me. Regardless, the diabolical brute snatched up Princess Felicia without hesitation and rode away with all the haste of the stormy winds.
“NO MORE WHIMSY!”
I awoke in a cold sweat to find myself in a room flickering with fulgurous illumination. The storm raged on outside, splattering the window with rain, and the foreboding I felt was as a storm in my own skull. I sat up and wiped my forehead. I heard noises in the next room. Grunting and groaning, just loud enough to be heard beneath the pounding storm outside. Which squire was in that room? Aidan? Zanton? I could not remember.
My mind unsettled, I took a turn about the room, pacing while my thoughts raced. I thought about what ensued after the Black Knight had departed. The wailing of the Queen. The roars of the King. The nervous chatter among the spectators. The loud proclamations of the knights to restore the Princess to her kingdom.
There were few people that were quiet during that uproar. I was one, and I minded the others. There was Edmund, of course, who was quieter than me. There was also Master Avon who merely smirked at the proceedings and then walked away from the tourney grounds as if he had seen something utterly humorous. For being the Master, he did not seem to care much of human affairs. Perhaps having unlimited magical powers, and eternal life, made a man so detached. He was said to have power enough to rule and right the world, but he chose instead to dabble in innocent nothings. Sir Brenold said it was his wisdom that determined his life, but I could not think that Fate always seemed to impart power to those most likely to misuse it, or to not use it at all.
Eventually, the King of Gran Stone gathered his knights about himself. He promised them their heart’s desire if they should return to him his golden-haired daughter. They each pledged to do so, and to do so in privilege of rank, the Gold Knight setting forth the first week, and the Silver Knight the second week. It was our custom in Gran Stone. Rank and honor were hand-in-hand, even if one hand dwarfed the other.
One by one the Knights ventured out from the great rock walls of Gran Stone to rescue Princess Felicia from that mysterious phantom. Yet, a year later and not one among them had returned; not the Silver Knight or the Bronze Knight or the Diamond Knight, or the Gold Knight. My mentor, Sir Brenold, had also vanished, too, though he did not receive as much concern voiced on his behalf as the more celebrated Knights of the kingdom. The Brass Knight was esteemed sparingly by the people he protected.
We squires were bound to remain behind, for we were not of age nor of experience to aid our mentors. Instead, they took with them soldiers from among the army, ten to a knight to serve him. None of these soldiers returned, either.
The King despaired at no word from his knights. Fretful, he finally relented and charged us with seeking out our mentors, and, in turn, his daughter. Thinking it safer for us to travel together, we did so. The only exceptions were the most illustrious squires of the kingdom— Gold, Silver, Diamond, Sapphire, and so forth— who ventured forth alone due to pride and their own privileges. Edmund, the Cloth squire, also did not ride with us. He disappeared shortly after the abduction. Perhaps he hid himself in shame after embarrassing the Princess with his flower. Perhaps he doubted his mettle in meeting the task.
Taking another turn about the room, I continued to pace and to remember. Suddenly I stopped, wondering what it was that my mind found amiss. I realized, shortly, that the grunts and groans were no longer coming from the one side of my room, but now had found their way to the other side. It seemed that a different squire was making jollies on his own maiden. Was it that golden-eyed maiden that approached me? The thought of her bare body made me surge with envy and other ignominious passions. Who she could be, I did not know, but that beastly vigor and ardor were dreadful to think on. Perhaps there were many women involved. Yet, the only woman I saw besides the golden-eyed temptress was the innkeeper’s wife, and while she was not ugly of face or of figure, I doubted she had the endurance for multiple squires, particularly after a long day of cleaning and cooking for the visitors to the inn.
It was no matter. I returned to bed, thinking no more of it, and soon feel asleep, albeit with fits and starts and impatient yawns.

***

The rains had ceased, much to our relief. A fellow traveler had assured us that it would not rain for at least three more days. I wished to believe him, but who knows how men determined such things? Sir Brenold spoke of an ache in his elbow that could tell him when the day was to be deluged. Being young, I had few aches with which to discern the future, except that ache of a longing for fame. All squires suffered that ailment, it seemed.
We were traveling on horseback through an ancient woods given to an unsettling silence. If not for keeping in such a large and garrulous company I believed the rest of my fellow squires would have been as perturbed as I was. The shadows moved unnaturally in this ancient forest, following neither form nor light, but as if living creatures of their own will. I could not help feeling that we were stalked on all sides.
There had been too much rain and too much shade in that ill-founded forest. Mushrooms bulged everywhere like the heads of subterranean terrors peeking up from the earth, searching for prey. Lichen, too, glowed ominously upon the blackened bark of the trees. It reminded me of the Black Knight with his shadowy armor and green fire. Unnatural things, one and all. But my brothers paid them no mind, so taken were they with their braggartly banter.
“It would take no more than a good swing of my ax,” Barric said, grinning. “And I’ll fell that Black Knight like a sapling taken to rot.”
“My arrows will meet their mark in his eye,” Zanton said, “ere you unsling your ax.”
Barric laughed dismissively. “It will be hard to meet your mark with so much frightful trembling. You’d be more likely to feather friend than foe.”
“I always have a true aim and a steady hand,” Zanton said. “Were I adrift in the whirlwind my arrow should find its mark.”
“My arrow always finds it mark, too,” Barric said, “between a maiden’s thighs.”
The rest of the squires erupted with good-natured laughter and Barric guffawed indulgently. Even Marcellus smiled. Everyone was of a loose mood, except myself. I began to suspect the camaraderie was owed to more than brotherly bonds. Every one of my fellow squires had upon his face a boyish grin which only ever meant either mischief or the intent for mischief. Since I was the only one excluded from understanding, I assumed I was chief among the mischief’s victims.
“What are you all so pleased about?” I asked Aidan.
“I cannot speak for my brothers,” he said, still grinning widely. “But I had the most pleasant rest last night.”
“As did I,” said Barric. “The…hospitality of that inn was lovely.”
“No one enjoyed such hospitality as I,” said Marcellus, hoisting an eyebrow arrogantly. “A most welcome sort, I assure you.”
“Did you make victim of another peasant?” I asked, restraining my anger as I assumed this mirth to be at the expense of yet another innocent fool.
“I would say I hardly made victim of her,” Marcellus said. “Rather, she invited herself into my room for a nightly conquest. I gladly obliged her. Nor was she wanting by the end of it.”
Marcellus continued to grin broadly, but the grins belonging to the rest of the squires faltered into uncomfortable bafflement.
“Are you saying that a young maiden visited you in the night also?” Aidan said, turning redder than his Carmine cloak.
“Indeed,” Marcellus said. “And with the loveliest golden eyes I have ever seen. In fact, the only golden eyes I have ever seen. Like Gildread coins, those eyes.”
The other squires gasped and gurgled in dismay, exchanging fretful and furtive glances of unease.
“A golden-eyed maiden visited me in my room last night, too,” Barric said. “She prattled some nonsense about a woman’s desire and then doffed her clothes in utter shamelessness. We made congress and I fell asleep shortly thereafter. When I awoke she had gone.”
“So too did it occur in my room last night,” Aidan said, wide-eyed with wonder.
“And mine!” said another squire.
“And mine!” said yet another squire.
Every squire was either blanching or blushing. Some steadied themselves on their mounts, lest they pass out from nausea.
Marcellus’s face lost its grin, gradually, and he reared his horse about, confronting the other squires contemptuously. We all halted, and Marcellus’s voice struck at the air like his warhammer on rocks. “Surely she did not sleep with everyone here?!”
I could have interjected to say that her advances toward me went for nought, but I said nothing. Wiser was it to remain silent.
“Perhaps she has a twin,” another squire offered. “Several twins. One for each of us.”
The squires again exchanged uneasy glances. Some were perturbed. Others were outraged and mumbled curses. Even Marcellus’s confidence was shaken briefly until he rallied himself.
“What is it to us?” he proclaimed. “What is it if a wanton passed between our beds? We have shared beer and bread before. Why not beauties, too? That is what we are owed as defenders of the realm, is it not?”
The squires nodded meekly, doubt still veiling their faces.
“We do not baulk at what would give other men pause,” Marcellus continued. “Think of her as no more than a mare we rode in turns, if you must think of her at all. It does not besmirch us our honor in the least. We are true squires of Gran Stone. Such is our privilege. Such is our duty.”
The squires nodded vigorously now, forcing themselves to concur with Marcellus’s conclusion even if they privately doubted it. Yet, I saw them for what they were: young men lost in the woods, trying to convince themselves that they were set upon the right path.
I remained silent, going unnoticed as each squire tended to his conscience. Though I did not engage any of them, I must confess that I was curious as to their answers to the golden-eyed maiden’s strange questions. No doubt she asked them the same questions that she put to me. Yet, she had not left them in such a furious humor as she did when I answered. Nor did I regret her abrupt departure. Rather, I was relieved to be spared that shared experience with which my brothers were attempting to reconcile themselves.
Or so I told myself.
We continued on our way, riding beneath the tall columned trunks of that ancient forest. The squires passed the hours by recalling the night’s pleasures, as if by speaking of the encounter somehow nullified its power over them.
“She had a shapely rump,” Aidan said. “Far greater than any I have seen in Gran Stone.”
“That is because you do not look at your sister’s rump,” Barric said. “She has the best rump in all of Gran Stone, though I must admit that the golden-eyed maiden had a rump of nearly equal roundness.”
“I have told you not to speak of my sister,” Aidan said, chafed. “Unless you wish to be unmanned.”
“Most men would be unmanned by your sister,” Marcellus remarked. “She has a dragon swimming about her moat, if rumors be true.”
Aidan could only fume. Against Barric he might win a duel, but Marcellus was the best fighter among the present company of squires. That was why Marcellus assumed his position as leader of our group. His warhammer was arbiter of everything.
“Her breasts were a lovely pair, too,” continued Barric. “Ripe like plums and tipped in cherries. The most delicious fruit I have ever tasted.”
“Your mother’s breasts are far larger, though,” Aidan said, pouncing on his own chance to humiliate Barric. “It is such a shame that only you and your father have had the privilege of the cream from those mountains.”
“That’s how I grew big and strong,” Barric said, unashamed. “A wet-nurse gives a boy her strength, and my mother gave me her strength. What floppy-tittied wet-nurse fed you, Aidan? She must have given forth runny swill to beget your girlish frame.”
Aidan scowled at Barric, but Barric was too amused by his own jest to heed it.
My mind turned again to that golden-eyed wanton. She filled me with misgivings, even as my brothers spoke so idolatrously of her. I was unsettled by more than her unnaturally golden eyes and her promiscuity. The way she hissed after I told her my heart’s desire hinted at something inhuman. It was not that she was a wanton— for wantonness was surely a human trait as much as jealousy or honor or love of family— but it was the method of her wantonness that I misliked. It did not seem that she was a meretricious maiden compulsively seeking partners in congress. Rather, it seemed as if she had done so in accordance to some unfathomable plan or strategy. It all stank of malice and machinations.
“You foul-mouthed SWINE!”
I was shaken from my thoughts by Aidan’s curses as he leapt off his horse and onto Barric. Barric’s horse bucked, dumping the two of them to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs and capes.
Had I been of higher rank among the squires I would have halted the ensuing fight, but Marcellus was the leader and he merely turned his mount about so he could better watch the scuffle. The rest of the squires halted and watched, too, cheering the two combatants onward. It was a one-sided battle. Barric was too taken with laughing about Aidan’s sister to offer much retaliation, even as he took several mail-meshed fists to the face. Aidan, meanwhile, was undeterred by Barric’s impervious laughter, striking him harder and harder the louder he laughed. After the seventh blow, Barric sobered from his laughing fit and struck Aidan across the cheek with an open hand. Aidan flew backward with the slap and fell on the mossy forest floor, dazed while Barric’s large handprint glowed red, even in the shadows of that woods. It was like a birthmark, so long-lasting and vibrant was it on Aidan’s face.
Some of the squires groaned, knowing the fight was over. Barric stood up, walked over, and picked Aidan up from the ground. He then tossed the Carmine squire on the back of the red-saddled horse, prostrate and backwards, Aidan’s arms and legs hanging to either flank and his face resting against the horse’s hindquarters.
“Let him awake at the behest of his fair mare’s sweet whispers,” Barric said. He guffawed loudly, despite the blackish knots that were crowning his bald head. He then took his own horse by the reins and pulled himself upon the saddle.

We continued for an hour or so, and Aidan woke with a start.
“By the blazing throat of Mathara!” he exclaimed. “Why am I reversed upon my horse?” He sat up in his saddle, backwards, and rubbed his cheek. “And why do I feel as if I have been kissed by a donkey’s hoof?”
The squires sniggered and exchanged furtive glances, waiting for memory to dawn upon him. His confusion was short-lived. The moment he saw Barric’s grin his memory returned to him, and with it his fury.
“You jest-festering jackanapes!” Aidan’s fury launched him senselessly off his horse, like a floundering fish, and he fell face-first into the mossy mud.
Another round of laughter greeted Aidan as he stood up and wiped the mud off his chin.
“Nay, keep it!” Barric said. “You shall never grow a beard half so manly with your fair hair.”
Aidan’s blue eyes were ablaze. He stooped and scooped up a clod of mud, balled it together in his fists, and hurled it at Barric. Aidan had a deft aim, but Barric ducked and the clod struck another brother— Lanwell, the Amethyst squire— whose jewel-cluttered sarong was his most prized possession. Lanwell cursed, then immediately dismounted his horse and took up a clod of mossy mud for his own aim. Unfortunately, his aim with mud was as sure and true as his aim with his spear and it went awry of its target, striking Zanton, the Tin squire, in the chest. Zanton leapt down from his horse, stooped and scooped and lurched, throwing his own clod with the full momentum of his body. The missile flew apart and struck two other squires who, enraged, clambered down and sought their own missiles. Soon everyone had dismounted and was digging up the fetid earth for salvoes to hurl.
The horses distanced themselves from the warring humans, banding together near a thick copse of trees. I, too, stayed out of range, watching from afar and wondering if my brothers would keep to this childish skirmish until dusk. It was ludicrous. We were supposed to be seeking our mentors and our Princess in earnest, and yet my brothers were running about, hiding behind trees and flinging earth at one another. Sir Brenold had often warned me of the effect of idle hours on the minds of men.
“Paranoia, pettiness, and petulance,” he had said. “And, of course, the further peopling of the earth.”
At length, I tired of being witness to such folly and fetched twigs and branches with which to strike a comfortable fire for the coming night. We would not be breaking free of the forest before nightfall. It was obvious by the doubling of the shadows and the darkening of the canopies overhead. Despite how much it displeased me, I knew we would have to sleep in that untrustworthy woods at least once. Nightfall came prematurely in that deeply shaded woods.
I made ready the fire— after much toil with flint and stone—and then sat down. We were fortunate that the forest was heavily comprised of birch trees here, for even when wet they were good for striking up a fire and sustaining it. Their oils, I have heard, make them excellent firewood.
Once the fire had blossomed to a fulsome bloom, I entertained the idea of hunting for prey. Wild game roasting over the flame would have been better than stale biscuits and salted meat. But it would not have been wise to venture off in search of quarry in this haunted woods, so I chewed on a dried biscuit and thought of better meals ahead.
Gradually the other squires tired of their childish war and came to sit down by my fire. They were like gruesome phantoms from some bloody battlefield. In the flickering light the smeared mud and moss on their faces looked like horrific mortal wounds struck by merciless blades. It was an ill omen. They sat down, grinning and bleeding mud, and I wished I had either gone on this quest alone or else just forfeited my title as squire. I could not look at them without being disgusted by every wrong in the world they represented.
It soon became too dark for the throwing of mud and the rest of my brothers came to crowd about my fire. They squabbled over space. They bemoaned their “ruined attire”. They voiced their irritation at having only salted meat and hard biscuits to eat for their supper. In time, they became quiet, chewing bitterly on their meat and their resentments. Then Lanwell rose to his feet, distraught.
“This is not mud!” Lanwell exclaimed, sniffing at his sarong. “It is horse shit!” He cast a baleful eye around the circle of squires. “Who did it?! Who threw feces on my sarong?!”
Barric snickered unto snorting, then erupted with explosive laughter that sprawled him out on the ground. His laughter rose and echoed in that arboreal night.
“Barric, you imbecile!” Lanwell raged. “You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined my family’s most important heirloom!”
Had Lanwell’s spear been in his hand, and not sheathed on his horse’s saddle, he would have impaled Barric on the instant, without hesitation. That much was plain in the murderous hate of his eyes.
“Do not fret it overmuch, Lanwell,” Marcellus said calmly. He raised a hand out toward the aggrieved squire. “I know the means by which you can clean horse shit from any article of clothing.”
Lanwell was still glaring daggers at Barric from across the fire. “And what means is that?” he asked, his voice thick with skepticism.
Marcellus’s voice was all sweetness. “Hand it to me and I shall show you.”
Lanwell regarded Marcellus with a suspicious frown.
“Do you not trust me?” the latter asked, as if injured. “Surely you can trust me, Lanwell.”
“Very well,” Lanwell sighed— a seething sort of sigh. He doffed his sarong, with some effort, and handed it to Marcellus. “But if you cannot purify it then I will have satisfaction from Barric. In lashes or gashes.”
Marcellus nodded. He then peered at the sarong, with exaggerated care. The amethysts glittered in the firelight. I awaited the next bit of devilry with my breath held. I knew no good would come of this.
“Pretty enough for a maiden to wear,” Marcellus remarked. “I always wished to have it as a boon for a lady of worth.” Holding the sarong in one hand, he slipped his dagger out with the other and began popping the amethysts off of the sarong.
“Stop!” Lanwell cried. He stepped forward, but halted. There were tears in his eyes, and they glistened like the amethysts that Marcellus plucked and pocketed. “Please…”
When Marcellus had finished, he threw the soiled sarong into the fire I had built.
“You may have neither lashes or gashes,” Marcellus said, “but you may have ashes.” He then sat down and smirked up at Lanwell, obviously pleased by Lanwell’s gawping helplessness. “What is the matter?” he added, goading Lanwell. “It is what you wanted, is it not? To purify your heirloom?”
“Why?” was all Lanwell could muster. He dared not say or do more.
“It is your own doing,” Marcellus said. “You hit me with a clod and dirtied my cape.”
“Accidentally,” Lanwell said.
“You hit me with dirt,” Marcellus said with a matter-of-fact tone, “so I threw the horse shit on your sarong. It was what you deserved.”
“But you were throwing mud, too…”
Barric was still sprawled out on the ground, and he laughed even more loudly now, shaking a tree near his head. “He thought I did it! Ha ha hah! He…ha hah…thought…ha hah…it was me!”
Some of the squires laughed. Others remained quiet, like myself, and stared into the flames. Eventually, Lanwell sighed and sat down, defeated. He stared into the flames, too, though I knew he was not seeing the flames, nor anything near at hand. He was seeing his father and his mother waiting for him at home: their disappointed faces when their son returned without the symbol of his family’s proud heritage draped across his chain-mail.
Would any of this have happened if I had not made that damn fire?

***

The next morning we awoke to find Lanwell gone. He had taken his horse, and his pride, and either gone on, alone, or returned to Gran Stone. I knew not which, but I hoped it was the latter. It was a dangerous journey for someone as unskilled as Lanwell to venture forth alone.
“What a petty child,” Marcellus remarked. “He will never be a true knight if he flees from every little reckoning.”
I bit my tongue and mounted my horse. There was no use in warring with Marcellus, especially since he was so obviously hungry for battle. He hoisted his warhammer and gave it a few strikes against a tree. The tree shuddered, groaned, and fell with a crash. The other squires gave up a cheer. I felt a chill in the marrow of my bones.
“This,” he announced, “is how the Black Knight shall fall.”
Dutifully, the squires cheered him again.
We breakfasted as we rode, nibbling biscuits and salted meat as we continued on through that twilight forest. As we went I could not help but think of Lanwell and his mistreatment, as well as my own inaction. I felt that two-headed goat, Hypocrisy, chewing at my ears. It was a persistent beast, Hypocrisy, and always had a hankering for its due.
Uncomfortable with such thoughts, I turned my mind to the forest and its dubious stillness. This did not ease my me, but it did distract my conscience.
“How big is this forest?” Zanton asked. He also seemed unnerved by the shadows that clung to everything in the woods.
“Not so wide of breadth as your mother,” Barric replied, laughing.
“Nor so explored as your mother, Barric,” Zanton retorted. “Or so well mapped.”
Barric’s face wrinkled with a confused frown. Then the light of comprehension flashed in his eyes, and he laughed. He was always laughing, it seemed.
“A worthy riposte,” Aidan remarked.
“And it deserves another lunging thrust,” Barric said, “as does your mother.”
On we rode, halting only to obey Nature’s demands. Occasionally someone would glimpse something in the corner of his eye and exclaim in astonishment, but upon turning to look at it directly would find nothing but the colonnades of trees endlessly receding, and the strange shadows pooling and crawling in the distance, ever beyond semblance and seeming. This happened so often to me that I began to suspect the forest of playing a game of shadow puppetry. Perhaps they were phantoms manifested from a guilty conscience. My conscience was heavy of late.
Then came a figure that was not a shadow or a shame. It came hobbling at us like a wounded crow unable to fly, and just as black. Though it was but a short, bent figure, the horses were spooked to a halt and we all drew our weapons.
“Have mercy! Have mercy!” cried the blackly draped figure in a voice like cracking timbers. “Have mercy on me, please!”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“What are you?” Marcellus demanded, more loudly. He extended his warhammer high in the air. “Speak quickly or I shall bury you with one blow.”
“I am a victim of black magic,” the figure said. Her voice sounded almost like a woman’s; an old, old woman’s. “I have been ensorceled and cannot save myself!”
Marcellus squinted, in both suspicion and curiosity. “Show me your face,” he said.
“You do not wish to see it,” the bow-backed figure said, trembling.
“Show it now or be gone from us.”
The figure raised two spindly arms with gnarled hands toward the black hood that covered its head. Fingers like birch branches slowly, reluctantly, peeled back the hood from the head. What was revealed was human in general outline, but horridly aged in texture and color, like the ragged bark of an ancient, weathered tree. The nose was long and angled painfully to one side, as if twisted there by the constraining skin that hardened like bark on the face. The hair that fell from beneath the hood was white and dry and cracking, like summer-roasted straw, and it was evident that her back was humped, a clenched mass of flesh bulging under her muddy robe.
A gasp of disgust rose like a sudden wind among the squires. Nor was I exempt from revulsion, though it shamed me as I grimaced. Marcellus raised his warhammer above the old hag’s head.
“Have mercy!” the hag cried, shrinking away. “I am not evil! I am wronged!”
Marcellus dithered, the warhammer’s emerald-inlaid head hovering uncertainly.
“Stop, Marcellus!” I yelled. I climbed down from my horse and approached the old woman. Marcellus did not look pleased with me, and I suspected he might well bash my brains upon the forest floor for daring to speak out against him. I ignored him, however, and addressed the old woman. Her eyes were the color of wet dung. “How have you been wronged?”
The hag’s eyes widened with hope. When she spoke I saw rotten teeth in the black hole of her mouth. “My beauty has been stolen from me!”
“Too true,” Marcellus said. “But one doubts such a creature as you ever had it to begin with.”
The squires all chuckled and snorted.
“I was not as you see me now,” the hag said. “But the mirror erred in its reflection! It entrapped me! It is the mirror’s fault! That beastly mirror with its conniving and its stealing and its magicking me away from myself!”
“A mirror?” I said, at a loss.
“The mirror that shows and takes,” she said, wringing her birch-fingered hands anxiously. “The mirror that makes manifest dreams!”
Aidan jested flippantly. “There have been many women who have been wronged by a mirror, showing them what they do not wish to see.”
“This mirror showed me what I most wanted to see!” the hag said, rallying in anger. “And so gave life to what I wanted!”
Barric laughed. “One should hardly think you would want to look in a mirror at all.”
There was a round of chuckles and the old woman cried out in frustration and sorrow. “It did me wrong with my reflection! It showed me as I was not, and made me not as I am!”
“She speaks in riddles,” Aidan remarked.
“Or perhaps she speaks a spell,” Zanton suggested. “One to bind us all.”
“No spell,” she said, “but what has misplaced myself!”
“Enough!” Marcellus said, losing his temper. “Aegis, if you wish to rescue this…damsel in distress…then be off with you. The rest of us have a Princess to save, and our legends to write.”
“A knight is charged with aiding whosoever requires it,” I said.
Marcellus snorted, but lowered his warhammer. “Then do so. I am sure you are knight enough to handle this old wretch’s woes by yourself.”
I looked again at the old, unnatural hag. I felt my own reluctance keenly. Yet, my stubbornness was also bolstered by Marcellus’s taunts. My conflicted heart knew only shame on either side of impulse and the restraint: restraint in being repulsed by the old hag’s appearance and impulse at being driven to defy Marcellus. There was no honor in my reasoning for either choice.
“I will stay and help you,” I told the old hag, regretting it upon the instant, especially as I watched that wretchedly wizened and twisted face crinkle and crack ever more with what I assumed to be a needy smile.
“Oh thank you!” she effused, her voice like a tall timber splitting down its center. “Thank you so much, my young, pretty boy!”
“‘Pretty boy’ she calls him!” Marcellus laughed. “She’s a fancy for you, Aegis. We will leave you two to get better acquainted. Is that wedding bells I hear? And so soon!”
I blushed, from embarrassment and hatred. The old hag affected to wipe the tears from her eyes, which only deepened my shame.
“Come, brothers,” Marcellus said, spurring his horse to a trot. “Leave the fool to his maiden. We have superior aims at mark.”
The squires hurried their horses forward, eager to be away from the loathly lady. Some of them spared me glances of pity. Others merely grinned at my misfortune. Barric blew a kiss at me. Sadly, as stricken as I was with such petty puerility, the old hag was equally self-aware and quickly shrouded her head in her hood and seemed to shrink in upon herself. This again shamed me and rallied those twin sensibilities, humility and compassion, and thus compelled my honor to see right done by this old, humpbacked hag.
Or so I told myself, even as regret fettered me with its tight shackles.

***

I walked with the loathly lady through the woods, leading my horse by the reins. I would have offered to let the old woman ride, but my horse was skittish around her, keeping its distance. This did not ease my mind as to my choice. They say that horses are honest animals, and so possess a natural aversion toward dishonesty and wickedness. Was this hag leading me toward peril? Having trained with aristocrats and peasants alike, I was naturally given to a certain prevailing suspicion about everyone in the world. I was well aware that Man was beholden to latent motivations that were not often easily discernible. Thus, I was suspicious of the haggard woman as she hobbled ahead of me. Deceit and counterfeit affectations were rife in the King’s court. Sir Brenold had educated me to their diversities, but I was not yet possessed of the acumen or experience to distinguish them. What I did know, or at least suspected, was that the old hag was leading me into an ambush or trap.
“What is your name?” I asked the old woman.
She was silent for a long time and I thought she had not heard me. I repeated my question, raising my voice for the sake of her hearing.
“What is your name?”
“I do not know,” she said at last, her voice quivering and crackling.
“How can you not know your name?” I asked.
“I do not know,” she answered again.
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“I do not know,” she answered once more.
This perplexed me, and deepened my suspicions. “Surely you do not live here all by yourself,” I said. “Have you children in a nearby village? Family?”
“I know nothing but what the mirror left me,” she said, trembling. “I remember the pane, but not the reflection.”
I recalled what Master Avon told us of names and their supposed power. He said some wizards believed knowing a name gave you power over a being— such as a fairy or a witch or even a wizard— but he said that was true in some instances, and nonsense in others.
“It may work for dogs,” he said. “And it may work for reputations in courts and kingdoms. But dragons are not dogs. Hydras care little for reputations. Trolls are deaf to their own names. It is much the same as with any willful beast, such as a cat. You may call to a cat, but if it is disinclined to come you will be calling a long time for nought. Most dangerous things care little if you know their names. To them it is nothing more than the same fearful cry of any other prey before claw and teeth find them.”
I wondered if the same was true of some humans. Knowing a man’s name might mean nothing as he brings his hammer down upon your head.
As we walked I thought of what jokes the squires might be enjoying at my expense. Doubtlessly, they considered me a fool. Yet, were I to die as a fool led astray into some witch’s stew then I could console myself as not providing a fire for their cold night. That was revenge enough against judgment, I suppose. True, it was petty, but even I had to succumb to human nature occasionally. Ideals could only do so much.
And, truth be told, most of the knights in service to Gran Stone were less than ideal. The Bronze Knight, Sir Wallen, was a chauvinist if ever there was one. He might have trained boys to be men devoted to saving women, but he entertained rather dismissive notions of the fairer sex. I had overheard him jesting about a washerwoman’s breasts as she bent over a stream. In a most vulgar, suggestive tone he spoke of wanting to help spread her“sudsy froth”. As was often the case for him, whenever he spoke so bawdily, he did so with a leer and a high-pitched chortle that contrasted sharply with his portly frame and deep voice. Barric’s ribald tongue flourished under Sir Wallen’s tutelage, as did his propensity toward merrymaking at the expense of other men’s prides. Aidan, having a lovely sister, was often the target of Barric’s more friendly mockery. The rest of us, with the exception of Marcellus, were victims to his more malicious mischief. Often Sir Wallen and his squire worked conjointly to humiliate someone with mean-spirited jests. I had been one such collaboration when I found my sparring helmet full of manure. Luckily, I made the discovery before I had donned the helmet. When I had voiced my rage, Sir Wallen asked for the helmet, which I handed to him. Immediately upon receiving the sullied cap he righted it up and stuck it on my head, plastering my hair with manure. He and Barric laughed endlessly. Sir Brenold was as angry at me as he was Sir Wallen. He told me I should have fought for my honor. But I was so astonished that a sworn knight would do such a thing that I could only stand and gawp in dismay, like a slow-witted imbecile.
Nor was Barric’s mentor the only knight that had trampled what I presumed to be knightly virtues. Aidan’s mentor, Sir Ruttel, the Carmine Knight, was of a gentler approach, but no less dishonorable intentions. He was considered by many women to be both gentlemanly and charming, and was considered by many more to be handsome. Consequently, he tipped his jousting lance in more nightly tourneys than any man had right to, especially a man beholden to knightly principles. His eloquence with women was legendary, for he could speak whole epics in praise of a single woman who had flared his fancy. Yet, when he spoke to squires— if he had to, for whatever reason— it was with a terse, sneering tone of intolerance and condescension. When Sir Ruttel had to train us for melees he did so with few words and many whacks. I had the audacity to block his practice sword when he was correcting me, and he struck at me in such a rapid and violent succession that he would not have satisfaction until he had knocked my helmet backwards about my head and then, for further satisfaction, doubled me over with a strike to the gut with the flat of his blade. Sir Brenold nearly came to blows with him over it, but the Carmine Knight merely snorted and walked away, a swagger in his hips. Hence forward, whenever he corrected me, he did so with a more resounding smack than the other squires. He despised me, and I despised him.
If I was honest I would have admitted to some pleasure at the thought of Sir Ruttell having run afoul of some man, beast, or mishap. If any knight was in need of an impediment to his swagger, it was surely the Carmine Knight. Often I dreamed of being a goodly knight just so I might better shame those who tarnished the gleam of that esteemed shield of protection. Sir Wallen and Sir Ruttel were but two of many stains upon that shield, and I should have very much liked to be the one to strip them clean from it so as to better its virtuous shine.

The loathly lady and I continued deeper into that dark forest. It was midday and yet it was ever twilight in that colonnaded court of oaks and elms and ashes. There was no underbrush, besides the mushrooms that cluttered bark and stumps. So little light penetrated that thick foliage overhead that few things grew up from that mossy forest floor.
“It lies ahead,” the old hag said. “The beastly mirror. Beware its reflections. It is not to be trusted.”
My horse whinnied and would not go further. Thus, I let it stay and graze on whatever grassy shoots it could find upon that mossy ground. The hag and I continued afoot, pressing further within that black veiled bosom of the woods. The closer we came to the heart, the more crowded the trees became.
And then, quite unexpectedly, the trunks fell away into the darkness, even as we continued walking into that abruptly spacious umbral glade. I peered into the sky above us and saw nothing but eternal night there, and yet there should have been no canopies stretching over us. It was as if the shadows themselves had forged themselves together and formed a dome to entrap the earth.
“Where are we?” I asked.
But the old hag shook her head. Her lips were sealed into a grim, wrinkle-notched frown. I misliked it very much: her frown and the glade. The cold air of the woods was suddenly subsumed by a warmth. It was not the reassuring warmth of a Summer’s day, or of a mother’s . The warmth was mocking me upon every nerve and inch of skin. My hair stood on end, though I felt no chills, and the warmth teased me forward into that grand darkness that lay all about us.
And then I saw a light in that darkness. The light was like a sudden revelation in one’s heart; a fanciful euphoria akin only to the rise of a Summer’s sun in the dead cold of Winter, or the radiant discovery of true love while in the lonesome depths of despair. It was a sensation both intoxicating and irresistible, not unlike realizing one’s great destiny. As we approached the glade I saw the mirror first and foremost. It was an ovular sheet of flawlessly clean glass that shined even in the dark murk of that woods. I could not see but edges of the tree in which it was embedded, nor did my eyes linger long on that peripheral insignificance. What mattered most was the mirror. It entranced me. The old hag spoke to me, yet I did not understand her words. I did not care to understand them. She grabbed hold of my wrist, and though I thought she meant me harm it was meaningless in the reflection of that mirror. I approached it, dragging her as she attempted to wrest me away. In its perfect shimmery reflection I saw elucidated the limpid dreams and desires of my heart. I saw myself victorious in my return to the great rock steps of Gran Stone, the walls and parapets and streets crowded with people cheering my name. In my arms was the Princess Felicia. On my body was the lustrous armor, helm, and shield of the Gold Knight. Behind me, in an envious procession, were the squires and the knights that had failed in their mission and in their morals. Marcellus was downcast, loping along like a beaten ape. So, too, were Sir Wallen and Sir Ruttel, their arrogant visages as broken and stripped as their Emerald and Carmine armor. I carried the Princess to the King, and the King took his daughter in his arms and embraced her. Then he entreated me down from my horse and, on that very spot, in front of the whole cheering kingdom and the envious knights and squires, he proclaimed us bound in marriage and in kingship…
A horrendous blow to my chest staggered me and dropped me to my knees. Breathless and clutching my chest, I looked up to see the old hag holding my shield. Her eyes were wide with fear, but not of me. Before I could glance up again at the mirror, she stepped between myself and that magical oval, blocking my view with my shield. I saw the crest of Sir Brenold’s upon the shield. It was of a brass turtle shell with a crenelated ridge. Fortress and defense. Carapace against the onslaught. Protector of the innocent. Humility and self-sacrifice. Shield to skin to blood to bone to soul. Brass soul. Brass Sir Brenold’s tenets came to me, shaming me and rallying me against the allure of the mirror.
I rose and took my shield from the hag. She looked afraid, thinking I might harm her. She cowered and shrank from me as I approached the mirror a second time.
“Do not worry,” I said. “I have come to my senses.”
The mirror’s glass showed me again what I thought was my heart’s desire. I looked beyond the vision in the pane, searching the edges of that bewitching glass for the make of the tree in which it was embedded. I did not realize how tenebrous the woods were until now. I could not see well beyond the mirror. Its glow darkened by contrast the rest of the woods beyond it, the area circumscribing it being like a moonless, starless night. The umbral depth struck me as unnatural. It was the dark heart of the woods, and its silence was mischief.
Lifting my shield, I struck the mirror at its center, where Princess Felicia and I kissed before the joy of the crowd. My shield rebounded, the mirror cracked diagonally across its face, but it remained strong. Suddenly, the mirror quivered, and a great roar bellowed from above, the sound of it deafening and painful. The trees shook all around, and so too the ground beneath me. The old woman fell, moaning and clasping her ears. I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder and fled from that dark glade. As I glanced back I saw the mirror moving, jerking this way and that with the contorting tree. Then I saw, to my horror, that the tree was uprooting itself; that it was no tree at all, but some ghastly creature that was struggling to free itself from the ground.
When I found my horse I took its reins and put the old woman astride the saddle. She clasped onto the affrighted horse’s mane and the horse neighed wildly. The horse was upset from the quakes, but certainly did not want the hag on its buck either. I allowed it no time to protest. I lifted myself atop its back and then spurred it forward, through the woods and away, at full gallop. There were moments when I fought to keep the horse under control. There were moments when I fought to keep the old hag in the saddle. There were moments when I yet fought the enchantment of that dream deferred in a glass darkly. Even now, in my fright, I felt its power calling me back to it.

***

At midday we finally broke into broad daylight, coming to the Easterland fields. They were vast and rolling, with windswept grass billowing in pulse to my heartbeat. To see such widely yawning space after the crowding woods gave me pause. The ribbony grass was like the soft hair of a maiden in recline, the wind covetous of her attention. The very air itself was more filling and warmer than that stagnant cold air that lingered in the shadows of the woods. It was like being reborn into the world, and I was thankful for it.
I slowed the horse to a walk and hopped off to ease its burden. Taking the reins, I led it away from the woods, still fearing that the creature with the mirroring heart might emerge to menace us once again.
The wall of the forest ran for leagues behind us, North to South. As we left it behind my eye caught upon a singular ruin atop an up-sweeping hill that overlooked the wide meadows beyond it. The stone structure was like a broken tower felled disjointedly by a great missile cast down from the heavens. The base remained, and half of its circular stones, shattered like some broken fang.
“A tower,” I said.
“A bridge,” the old hag said.
“Bridge?” I said, confused. I looked out as far as I might across those receding lowlands. “But to where? There is no ravine, nor river or chasm or great fortress held aloft at a distance. The earth itself is safe to cross for miles hence forward.”
“It was not made to cross lapses in the earth,” she said. “It was made to cross the lapse that is the sky.”
I looked up above the ruined tower, toward the thin cirri that floated across that blue sphere like downy feather upon a lake. I knew not what I meant my eye to see, nor could I fathom the hag’s meaning.
“Wherefore the sky?” I asked.
“To commune with the most high Sylpths,” she said, “or perhaps less charitable creatures of immortal make. No doubt, the bridge displeased one of them and they smote it down in spite.”
As we moved closer to the ruin there came to light many figures standing within the stone ruins. Their plates gleamed in various colors as a volley of voices contended with one another for dominance of ear and heart.
“My brothers,” I said. “I would have thought that they would have made longer strides than this.”
Approaching yet closer, I could finally discern their voices from that otherwise silent ruin, and the imperius silence that ruled in all directions therefrom.
“You must tell us where you obtained that armor,” Marcellus said. “To deny explanation is to admit guilt to nefarious means.”
“Just tell us the truth,” said Zanton, “and we will believe you. If you acquired it by accidental discovery, there is no shame in it. We will return it to its rightful heir and…”
“And beat you through the streets like a dog!” Marcellus said. “Because there is no chance that you acquired the Gold Knight’s armor without wickedness. Not one so ill-skilled as you!”
The newcomer was indeed encased in the Gold Knight’s armor, with the exception of his helm. The helm remained cradled under his arm. Yet, I could not see his face, for his back was to me.
“I have bested all knights,” said the newcomer. His voice was arrogant, not unlike Marcellus’s, and yet it seemed familiar for another reason I could not rightly affix. “I have bested all and claimed all. I am the greatest knight in this land. I will rescue Princess Felicia and marry her and . This is my dream, and this is my destiny. So will it be manifest.”
The squires all around him scoffed and roared dismissively and booed him.
“I will ask you only once more,” Marcellus said, the edge of his voice striking like the edge of his warhammer. “Where did you obtain that armor? If you do not answer truthfully, I will answer you with force.”
“Then bring on your force,” said the newcomer, “and feel it wither in the shadow of a superior warrior.”
Marcellus donned his Emerald helmet and hoisted his warhammer, walking toward the Gold Knight. The Gold Knight donned his helmet, also, and took his shield from off his back. He used no other weapon— only his shield against the hammer.
And that was what told me the identity of the Gold Knight.
“You will lose, Aegis!” Zanton yelled above the hooting of the other squires. “Pray, reconsider!”
I saw…myself. I saw my facsimile fighting Marcellus atop the ruined bridge that rose like a broken tooth from the hilltop. It was me, yet it was not me. I had a full set of armor that shimmered brightly in the sun. It was not brass, nor bronze nor tin nor simple iron. It was Golden. I was the Gold Knight. I was the most venerated knight in the whole of Gran Stone.
Half of the squires cheered the fight on. The other half stood by in fearful stupefaction. Marcellus raised his warhammer and slammed it against the Gold Knight’s shield. But regardless of however well it fell trees, the warhammer could not crush my twin. His shield halted and turned aside those powerful strikes like rocks turning aside the tides.
“You have gone mad if you believe you can defeat me!” Marcellus shouted furiously. He swung overhead and the hammer met the Gold Knight’s shield, to no avail. “That hag has clearly enchanted you and given you power. But it will do you no good against me!”
My twin spoke, then, with a voice like my own, but louder and dripping with pride. “Had you the means of defeating me, you would have done so already. Now you talk to delay the inevitable.”
The clash continued, thunderous and violent. It seemed to me the whole ruin should collapse beneath them ere a victor was established. But then my mirrored image caught the warhammer with a hooked edge, just beneath that massive head, and with a well-timed tug and astonishing force, he wrenched the warhammer away from Marcellus, unbalancing the Emerald squire and catching him across the jaw with the return-swing of the shield. Marcellus followed his jaw, twisting to the side and diving headlong to the ground. There was an arc of crimson that traced his fall, promptly splattering the cobbled ruins beneath him. I thought him dead. Surely he had to be dead. But no, he tried to rise, his jaw twisted unnaturally and his mouth trickling blood. He was barely conscious— barely alive.
“You son of a whore!” Barric roared.
The biggest among the squires, Barric grabbed up his ax and came on like a whirlwind upon my double. He fell, too, my twin ducking beneath that crescent blade and ramming his shield into Barric’s knee. The knee caved inward, like a snapped reed, and the Bronze squire collapsed to the ground, screaming in frustration and agony.
What did I feel as I saw this? To think that I could have bested Marcellus and Barric was always a fancy I entertained. I never dared fight either of them, except in practice, and even then with prudent restraint, and yet I secretly reveled in the fancy as if it was as true a notion as ice melting to water and chickens laying eggs. I felt gratification. I felt pride.
And then I felt horror. My twin strode over to Marcellus, with the most casual gait, and raised his shield. There was a great gasping silence from the other squires, their shouts suddenly evaporating like frost beneath wildfire. My twin laughed.
“As easily said, so too easily done.”
Down upon the base of Marcellus’s skull he brought the shield. The Emerald squire’s neck snapped and severed audibly, like the clean breaking of a branch in tornado winds. My brothers cried out. I let loose the reins of my horse and began to run toward the ruin, my nerves afire with fear and fury and the numbing realization of floundering futility.
My twin was raising his shield over Barric when I called out to him.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Stop, you imposter!”
He turned to face me. I turned to face myself and found myself as stunned as I was when I gazed into that beastly mirror. Suddenly, my anger was replaced by the rapturous thought of what I could be. I wished to be him. I wished to be the ideal me.
But was he the ideal? He was all arrogance and cruelty. He served none of the tenets that Sir Brenold had given me.
“Who are you?” he asked, his golden eyes glaring.
“I am Aegis,” I said. “The Brass Squire.”
“Another foolish squire that wishes to challenge me? The peasantry is breeding overmuch in this part of the world.”
“I am Aegis,” I repeated. “Son of Unsel and Siri. Squire to Sir Brenold, the Brass Knight. Protector of the weak. Shield of the innocent. Defender of homes, hearts, and the humble.”
My brothers were all agog, gawping at my double and I like we were two-headed goats.
I raised my shield. I needed no other weapon, for I was trained a shield-hand, defending and defeating foes with the same heave and hoist.
“I challenge you!” I said.
He laughed and raised his shield.
“You claim to be me,” my golden-eyed twin said. “But it is no matter. A flawed reflection is soon reconciled. We will see the difference between the golden-hued wheat and the profligate chaff.”
He came at me with the flat of his shield pumping to and fro. I knew the attack for what it was: a feint to bewilder the enemy. Instinctively I stepped aside, and swung my shield with all of my strength against the upper edge of his shield. This diverted his shield downward, affording an opening for a blinking moment, but before I could strike his elbow he had stepped back and raised his shield once more, covering his flank. As I knew his moves, he knew mine, and could better them with greater skill and strength.
Again he rushed me, ever-smiling and unfazed. The gleam of his golden armor blinded me and I was forced to retreat as he struck toward my head and my torso and my knees with intimate knowledge of my strategies, guided by a superior skill. When I attempted a double-handed shield-smash, he sidestepped and brought his shield down toward the back of my skull. I leaned to the side and tried to roll away, presenting my plated shoulder. The meager armor did little to soften the blow. My shoulder exploded in pain and I tumbled to the ground, flattened out on my chest. MY shoulder was a searing ball of knotted agony and I feared that it was dislocated. I pushed myself to my feet with my good arm.
My left arm was useless now. I felt defeated, but knew I could not allow my cruel twin victory. Reluctantly, I threw aside my shield and drew my sword from its scabbard.
“You are going to use a sword now?” he taunted me. “And what good will it do for you with one arm? You cannot both defend and attack with one arm.”
“It is not ideal,” I said. “But I do not feel ideal right now.”
I rarely used a sword. I did not like to, not because I was a poor swordsman, but because I did not wish to kill anyone. The other squires never knew how deft I was with a sword, for I never used anything but my shield while training with them. To unsheathe my sword was to promise death, either to my opponent or to myself, for Sir Brenold had me bound by oath never to use it except when I had no choice.
“Only in mortal circumstances,” he had said. “When the threads of two lives threaten to undo one another, and one must be severed.”
A searching sword, I knew, needed a morally clear mind to rightfully guide it, and few instances in life were morally clear, even for a knight.
“I am a defender,” I said. “From shield to skin to blood to bone to soul, I fight. Come blade or arrow or dragon’s breath, I fight.”
“You think too highly of yourself,” my twin said, missing the irony. “You have less chance of winning against me than you do any volley of arrows or dragon-fire.”
“Only because you are too cowardly to fight a cripple with blade alone,” I said.
“No, merely better skilled, and having advantaged myself on my skill.”
“There is hardly skill required in slaying a one-armed boy,” I said.
“True,” he admitted. He tossed aside his shield. “Very well, then. Let foil find flesh on equal footing. A single-armed duel will make it more satisfying when I slay you.”
Our blades met and rebounded with a scintillating, metallic scurry of sparks. From the start I knew I would be yet disadvantaged. The throbbing ache of my shoulder slowed my movements and weakened my attacks. Time was not my ally, nor anything else for that matter. The only advantage I had, I realized, was the arrogance of my opponent. I decided I should beat him by doing what was not ideal. I would taunt him.
“I wonder if you shall defeat me ere the sun sets,” I said. “You are surely slow about it.”
“I wish to savor your death,” he said, thrusting.
I countered, striking air, evaded another attack, and riposted. “It will be difficult to savor anything when I cut your tongue from your mouth.”
He laughed, and sidestepped, thrusting at my face. I circled about, jerking my head away from the long, thin blade that darted at my nose like a heron’s beak.
“It will be difficult to be so witty once I have pierced your heart with my blade,” he said.
“Whereas I will always have wit, you are but a poor imitation,” I said. “A reflection as adorned and yet hollow as a gilded mirror’s reflection. I wonder if that armor you wear is but brass painted gold. Or perhaps it is fool’s gold. You seem deficient of the sense to discern the difference.”
This vexed him. “I am genuine in all things,” he growled. “Particularly in my hatred of you.”
“Merely because you know you are not the original,” I said.
“No, I am the bettered specimen,” he said, thrusting and back-stepping before thrusting again. “I am the aspiration. I am the ideal. You are the impoverished reflection. The imperfect little miscast miscreant in my narrative. You tarnish my existence with your continued existence.”
“That may be true,” I said. “You are better than me in every way. Except as a human being. You are an errant dream. You are a myth. You are not real. You will never be real.”
My twin roared. He feinted toward my good arm, then thrust toward my wounded side. I caught the blade with my forearm before it could stab my eye, the slender fang biting deep through the mail into the flesh and further, stopping only at the trembling bone. Before he could withdraw the blade, and before I could gasp out in pain, I thrust my sword into the arrogant glow of his golden eye. The blade slipped into his brain like a . His impaled head vibrated around the blade, then shattered into glass, his whole body crumbling down into glittering dust. None of him remained intact, nor his armor or his sword or his shield. All was gone to dissembled glass.
Then did I scream in pain and drop my blade, falling to my knees and clutching my crimson arm.
The old hag approached me while the other squires stood at a distance, still gawping at all that had transpired. Grabbing my arm, she inspected it. I openly wept at the pain.
“I must see to your wounds,” she said. Her spindly, birch-like fingers slipped over my uninjured shoulder and she ushered me away. “I will make a soothing poultice for your shoulder, with herbs and sap. For your bleeding wound I will staunch the bleeding with moss and burn the wound clean. It will fester otherwise.”

***

It was an agonizing hour before the hag had cauterized and bound my arm and soothed my bruise-blackened shoulder. I was upon the ground, on my back, recovering from the ordeal. The hag had made a fire and was sitting nearby, silently watching the woods. Meanwhile, I was watching the other squires. They remained at a distance, making a splint for Barric’s broken leg. None had ventured to see to my health, and all eyed the hag suspiciously. Soon, they buried Marcellus in the earth, making a cairn from stones torn from the ruins. After they had said a few Matharist prayers, they banded together— two squires helping Barric walk among the others— and approached us.
“That hag did this!” Barric said, his face wrung with pain. “She has slain Marcellus! With Aegis’s help! We must avenge Marcellus!”
The other squires nodded, but none moved. I stood up, with great effort, and approached them. I tried to speak calmly, even as the pain bit at my arm like a wolf.
“You may blame me for what happened,” I said. “But surely you must know that
“Who was that golden knight?” Zanton asked. “Why did he look like you? Did the witch summon him to kill Marcellus?”
“No,” I said. “It was the mirror in the woods. That…creature with the mirror upon its underbelly…”
“He is lying!” Barric bellowed. “That damned witch summoned his double to kill us all! She gave Aegis magical armor and weapons to slay Marcellus. We all know that he could never have beaten Marcellus without her help!”
“But why did he fight himself?” Zanton reasoned. “Why did he risk his life to save your life, Barric? It makes no sense…”
“It is a demoness you face,” the witch said. “Vanus, the seductress of wants and desires. A vacuous, fickle creature, she desires no more than mischief and malice, like most imps and demons.”
“Not unlike young men,” I muttered, looking at my brothers in arms. “How can we defeat her?”
“WE?!” Barric thundered. “WE? No, we are not going to fall prey to your lies!”
Aidan stepped forward, looking at a loss and yet still trying to keep peace. “I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “It was all very…jumbled. What I do know is that we should not linger near these woods. They are cursed. Aegis, I do not believe you wronged us. But I do not trust that hag. So, if you are to keep in her company you should keep apart from ours.”
Several squires nodded at this. It seemed the fairest conclusion. Even I had to admit it, though I was disappointed yet again by my brothers.
“I do not break my vows,” I said. “I will see this mischief to its end, one way or the other.”
“Then good luck upon your errand.”
“Do not come back to us!” Barric said. “Should you survive, never return to Gran Stone, or I will tell everyone how you betrayed Marcellus in favor of this hideous witch! Everyone will know and your skull will be crushed upon the Judgment Pillars”
Barric’s eyes blazed with hatred, even as the two squires ushered him away. I knew that I would never be welcomed back among my brothers. They all thought I was a fool, or worse.
I could not overlook the irony that this final secession between myself and my brothers occurred at the remnants of a ruined bridge. It was no matter. A knight becomes his duty. If he must set out alone, then solitude becomes his brother where no other condescends.
***

My brothers had left us. The old hag and I remained at the ruined bridge-tower, sitting near the fire as night fell over the vast fields stretching out before us. The sky was purple, and then it was blue, and finally black. The stars shone, and the half-moon was like a demon’s malicious grin in the darkness of the cosmos. The hag sat across from me, the fire between us. The orange light and the dark shadows lined her face like a harrow in a field.
“Who are you?” I asked her. “Who are you, truly?”
“An old woman,” she said. She watched me with eyes unblinking in the flickering light.
“How old are you?” I asked, my skin crawling with some nameless fear.
“A long time,” she said. “That is how you become old. Living a long time.”
“Unnaturally old?” I asked.
A corner of her wrinkled mouth lifted with what seemed wry amusement. “It is unnatural to be old at any age,” she said. “When you age, you still believe you are young, and that you will remain young forever, even as your body wilts and withers all around you.”
She cackled and my horse neighed and tried to walk away, its hooves clopping loudly on the stone. I had tied my horse’s reins to one of the many trees that were growing up through the wreckage of the bridge-tower.
“You are evasive,” I said. “And it makes me uneasy. I have risked my life to help you, and I will continue to do so insomuch as you are honest with me.”
The old hag still did not blink. “I have lived for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she said. “Loneliness has been my crux for millennia. I have known no home but the birches in the inner heart of the forest. For I am the Birch Witch and I am the keeper of that darksome forest that you so detest.”
I tried to keep my face impassive, like a bluff of rock upon an ancient mountainside. I felt that my honor had been betrayed, but I would not allow my expression to betray the feelings of betrayal that I felt. “How did Vanus come to be in the woods?”
The old hag averted her eyes. “She has always existed there.”
“You are lying,” I said. “You have been lying to me all along.”
She looked at me, then, her eyes shrewder than they ever had been. “I summoned the demoness into my woods,” she said. “I made a pact with her. I wished that she should restore my youth. But she deceived me. She summoned my youth, but left me as I am.”
“And then you saw my brothers and I and thought to put us to use.”
“Yes,” she said. “And though you were the only fish I could hook, you proved to be the more useful whole than filleted.”
“How do I destroy the demoness?” I asked, trying to ignore her insults even as they irked me.
“By shattering its glass heart,” she said. “You nearly accomplished it earlier, but then you shrank from its fulfillment.”
“I was worried about your duplicitous hide,” I said. “I must venture back there. Alone. So I may engage the creature without concern for anything but her destruction.”
“No, I must go with you,” she said, standing up hurriedly. “You succumbed once before, and you will do so again. More importantly, I wish to be there when that deceitful creature dies. I wish for her to know it is because of me.”
I would not allow her to accompany me. As manipulative as she was, she was yet a life I had to preserve. Thus I abided my time, and slept until just before the early morning’s rise. Then, while the hump-backed witch was still mumbling in her sleep, I fetched my horse and hurried toward the woods at a fleet-hooved gallop.