The day-lilies stretched and opened with the day. All along the bank of the knoll they bloomed, from foot to crest and all the places in between. Only a small stone footpath offered passage up the hill.
The Knight climbed slowly, his armor groaning in protest with every step. A pair of butterflies came to bother him, he swatted them away.
At the top of the hill stood a gazebo, the highest point in all the garden. It overlooked the meadow, the lake and even the spring beyond. Fifteen feet tall, with room enough for ten, it had never known more than the company of two.
And here she was, his Princess, fawning over a book. She did not rise to greet him, or look up, but merely extended her arm and hand and fingers as a welcome.
“Good morning,” she said, her words like silk.
“And to you,” said the Knight, his voice as rough as gravel.
Today, he noticed, the Princess had plucked a single lily for her hair. Her back was straight, her shoulders square, her summer dress rose above her ankles. Her toes wiggled as she read.
She had brought an entire stack of books with her, from the floor of the gazebo they came up to her breast. The Knight wondered how she’d managed to carry them all up the hill. “It took me the better part of a decade to gather my library,” he said. “Stocked with all that which wise men consider classic, and worthy of archival.”
“Squirreled away in the summer house,” the Princess replied, not looking up from her book. “Unread. I have liberated them.”
The Knight turned to her stack. They were all dusty, leathery tombs, long neglected, kept in the dark. Now freed, they puffed and breathed in the morning air, and their scent carried the musty memories of a long forgotten library.
“Ten years, and you pillage them.” He grimaced. “If it were by any other hand—these are rare and fragile things. Some of them are one of a kind, impossible to replace.”
“Fret not, Dark Knight. My hands are clean, my touch is gentle. No harm shall come to your precious books.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” said the Knight.
The Princess set her book down. “A field. A library. A Maiden. These are the things you hold in your heart?”
“They are precious to me, yes,” the Knight answered. “But if you asked it of me, I would burn these books for you, without even a moment’s hesitation.”
“Perish the thought,” said the Princess. “What an imagination you must have, if you think that is something I would wish for. No, I will indulge myself. You have an excellent collection.”
The Knight nodded. What else would she have said? He bent to one knee to inspect her pile. He ran an armored finger along spines of worn leather, over names and titles in gold leaf.
He stood. “No books of war, I see. I own a vast collection, pinned by the world’s most glorious strategists. You would find their insights fascinating—the machinations of man, set to gruesome work. A field of study without peer.”
“Gruesome indeed. I have curated a selection demonstrating man’s better qualities.”
The sun rose over the garden. The butterflies settled on the lilies. The Knight grabbed the topmost volume and ran a hand over the cover. He checked the bindings, the strength of the spine. Aside from a thin coat of dust—which had settled on the cover long ago, long before it had been brought to the garden—the book was in immaculate condition.
“War and violence,” said the Princess, “are two domains I have no interest in. They sicken me. I have better things with which to occupy my mind.”
The Knight disagreed. “War and violence are the principle domains of man. Not all are as pure and fortunate as you, to remain so willfully ignorant,” he said with the slightest hint of disdain.
The Princess smiled. “Ignorant? Hardly. Willful? Well, that I have been know to be.”
A breeze twirled her hair to curls. The hem of her dress rippled in the wind, the fabric clung to her thigh. The Knight tried to ignore such beauty.
He opened his book, and was pleased to find the pages had only the slightest hints of yellowing. “War is vital knowledge,” he said. “War is a way of life! Since childhood I have been trained to be an instrument of war, to find glory in battle, and honor in service of my King—”
His words caught in his throat. “Though dead he now lies, for want of the perfect Knight.” He snapped the book shut. “Deny it if you must, but a violent death awaits most men.”
“Needlessly,” said the Princess. “The ways of peace are simple. Love your enemies, and soon you will find you have none at all. Tell me, Knight, what good comes of war?”
“I adore your fervor, Princess, misplaced as it is. Conflict is the mainspring of progress. Mettle is tested on the battlefield, wisdom is born from experience,” the Knight explained. “And poetry! And art!”
“Poetry? Ah, yes, good, I will concede that point!” The Princess laughed.
“Yes! Epics!” said the Knight. “Of heroes born and bred, of life and death, victory and defeat! Immortal legends, and the countless shades of the dead and gone.”
The Princess reached out, and the Knight handed her his book. She returned it to the stack, then placed hers on top as well. She stood, and abandoned the gazebo, strolling down to the base of the rolling knoll, where the lilies thinned in number, where the grass grew tall.
The Knight followed her down the hill.
“The sacking of Troy, the rise of Rome. The history of war is the history of the world!” he declared.
The Princess spied an ant amid the flowers and lowered herself to it. “There is more beauty here than in all of war’s creation,” she said. The ant scurried along the delicate petal of a day-lily, all six of its legs working in effortless tandem.
“Even the timid ant will martyr himself,” the Knight replied, “if the cause is worth fighting for.”
The Princess rose. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” she whispered.
“Sweet indeed. Like dead Hector. An ant to his Queen—”
The Princess clasped her hands behind her back and started a slow circle around the flowers, searching for the ant’s home. “Cease your flattery,” she said, “I am no Helen.”
The Knight tried again. “You are matched in beauty and wit and grace. Were I able, I would launch ten thousand ships in your name, the force of which the oceans could not bare, a terrible flood of oar and war, enough to drown the world. And gladly drown it I would—if I were able—if such actions would win your heart.”
The Princess laughed again as she tiptoed through the day-lilies. “More foolishness. My love cannot be won. Love can never be won. Only given.”
“Or taken,” the Knight grumbled, “I could take it, if I wished. Is that not what Dark Knights do?”
As soon the words left his lips he regretted them. The Princess paused on a half-step, and dug her heel into the earth. Her little body shook, she balled her fists until her knuckles were white.
“That,” she said, “would be unwise.” A wind swept through the flowers.
The Knight felt poison in his veins. His body seized, his blood curdled. The ant clung to the stem of a day-lily.
The Princess worked her foot into the soil. “To call a war upon me—you called me ignorant, before. Is it your wish, then, to educate me on such matters?”
“No!” the Knight choked out with the last of his breath. “No!”
The Princess turned to face him. “Ha! See now, the spoils of war? Of violence? The history of the world, you say. Yes—for like a cancer, see it spread.” She sighed, then added: “Not easily cut out.”
He felt sick. “It was nothing,” he tried to explain, “a passing thought, like the wind, given voice. Ethereal, profane, fleeting, shameful—”
The Princess cocked an eyebrow. “Intrusive?”
The Knight nodded. Yes, this word seemed appropriate. “Thoughts I do not want. And anger,” he said.
He felt the weight of his armor, it was crushing. He could not bear to look at the Princess, and all that she was. He turned to leave, to run, but she stopped him with a word.
“Wait,” she said, “wait.”
She brought a hand to her chin, and considered her words. “I, too—well, perhaps I can help. Thoughts—both wanted and unwanted—” She started over. “Thoughts can seem overwhelming, but given distance—not the distance of time or the distance of space, but the distance of non-attachment—we can see them for what they really are.”
“We sit, and breathe.”
The Knight looked around. “Here, now?”
The Princess sucked her teeth. “When better?” she asked.
She took him by the hand and lead him to the meadow. And although her voice was calm and her steps were light, the Knight saw red marks on her palm, where she had dug her fingernails into her skin.
She found a particularly pleasant spot amid the hyacinth and beckoned him to sit, a smile on her face.
“Close your eyes,” said the Princess.
The Princess folded her skirt and crossed her legs and sat down across from him. “Close your eyes,” she repeated, “and breathe.”
The Knight took a final glance around the meadow before closing his eyes. There was no wind now, not even the slightest breeze. The air was fresh and pure, the scent of flowers was everywhere. The sky itself was cloudless, a perfect blue. Quiet pervaded, calm pervaded; a peace had settled over all the garden.
How had he not noticed it before? It was perhaps the calmest day he had ever know, and he felt a renewed revulsion for having spoiled it.
“Breathe,” said the Princess.
“I am. How could I not?” the Knight asked.
The Princess straightened her back. “What I mean to say is, take a deep breathe. Breathe in through you nose. Hold it for a moment, then breathe out through your mouth. Feel your diaphragm, feel it rise and fall, feel you breast swell.”
“I can’t.” The Knight ran a hand over his breastplate. “I can’t feel my chest, or my diaphragm. There is only a tightness there, and pain. I can’t breathe deep. Every breath burns me. I can’t—”
The Princess frowned. “Try.”
The Knight breathed, slowly, but found that every breath he took was harder to draw than the last. It burned him, it felt as if his lungs were fit to burst. His heart ran wild—what was this new poison?
He choked on something foul.
The Princess was deep in concentration. “Breathe,” she repeated. “Take your thoughts like breath. In and out, a continuous cycle, ever renewed, and fresh. Do not let the air grow stale in your lungs; let violent thoughts pass and empty from your mind.”
She breathed in, she breathed out.
The Knight felt like a drowning man—his mind desperately grasping and clinging to any thought it could, be it an itch or pain, a nagging obligation or worry. His brain rapidly switched between thoughts of food, of sex, of fighting, searching for something it could settle on—anything to avoid the terrible, oppressive calm.
“At first it may seem a symphony, a flood—understand, that all thoughts pass, that they have no power over you. If you can learn to let a thought go, then you will be not afraid to let one stay, for a while, if it pleases you to.”
The Knight shivered. Memories bubbled up from deep within—of Kings and swords, of thunder and blood, of lonely towers.
He leapt to his feet, a cold sweat stuck to his brow.
“Of course,” the Princess continued, still seated, “to let thoughts pass, like breath, like air, like clouds, transient like morning dew, like ripples of the surface of a lake—you must accept them for what they are, be they pleasant or unpleasant.”
Anger crept into the Knight, spurred by her tranquility. “I don’t want to play your little games!” he said. “You think of peace as sitting? A horrible dredge of memory? I will find no peace here. You’re taunting me, aren’t you? I’ve apologized, but that’s not enough is it? You want me to suffer for my sins.”
“Hardly,” the Princess said, her face like stone.
“But suffer I should!”
“Sit,” the Princess commanded, “and breathe.”
But the Knight found that he could not sit, or even breathe. There was no air, there was no ground to sit upon. There was only the suffocating weight of his black armor.
That night, alone in his cabin, the Knight chastised himself without mercy, and counted himself amongst the wretched.