The Knight stared out the window at the sun as it blazed away in a cloudless sky. It baked the grapes as they ripened on their vines, it shimmered and shined on the surface of the lake, it forced the swans to the north bank, where they pruned and fussed under the shadow of the willows.
The bees were in the clover.
“What an oddly hot day,” the Princess said, as she cooled herself with a paper fan. They sat in the summer house, taking shelter from the heat.
The room contained a hearth, a chaise lounge and a small red table, scarcely big enough to hold a tea tray. Today, in place of a teapot, two flowers floated in a glass pitcher.
The Princess draped herself across the chaise lounge, her bosom rising and falling as the heat washed over her in waves. Her scent wreathed through the tiny, stuffy parlor. “Tell me a story,” she cooed. “My heart longs for a tale of fancy, and thou are well suited to the task.” Her dress rested in folds.
“Perhaps,” the Knight replied, “we can come to some arrangement.” His armor was an oven, and within it he sweltered; his bindings were soaked in sweat.
He crossed the room to where a bookcase had been built into the far wall. “I have a desire,” he said as he reached behind the bottom row of books, “not so profane as all my hopes, but an indulgence I believe will not offend thee.”
“Oh?” The Princess sat up to see what he was doing.
He grabbed a small satin bag from behind the hidden recess. He loosed the string and knot, and withdrew a comb; one solid piece of carved ivory. He held it out for the Princess to admire. “I wish to comb your hair,” he explained.
The Princess cupped her hands. “My hair, you say?”
“Yes.” The Knight nodded. “How it taunts and teases me, with slightest bob or flow—”
He cradled his comb, admiring the flawlessly cut ivory. Each tine was intricately carved from the whole, an immaculate row of teeth, all impossibly thin, almost transparent. It took all his effort to hold; his gauntlets made him clumsy.
“Oh,” he whispered, “how it catches the light—”
“More adulation,” the Princess chortled. She laughed, and her hair bounced lightly off her shoulders. “Why do you persist?”
The Knight knelt by her side. “I would not cease, I cannot cease! A monk knows in his heart of hearts the glory of his god, yet still prays daily—a similar drive compels me.”
“Enough!” the Princess cried. “Enough! My hair; your hands? I find these terms acceptable.”
The Knight was overjoyed. He immediately set the comb down and began unbuckling the leather straps that secured his gauntlets.
They were ugly things: the fingers were clawed, the knuckles maced, cruel spikes swept back from interlocking plates. They, like the rest of the Knight’s armor, had been painted black long ago, but now were worn silver along the joints and folds.
He set them on the table.
Next, he unwrapped the bindings from his hands, long strips of herringbone cotton. From around thumb and between fingers and under palm the cloth unwound, yellowed from age and use. These strips too, he set aside.
He studied his freed hands.
Entombed, his armor had seemed like a second skin, now his fingers tingled as circulation returned to them. He flexed his hands and felt the bones, the muscle, the sinew. His fingers felt foreign to him.
“Your hands—” the Princess cried, seeing where the cotton wraps had cut into his skin.
He hid his hands from her. “A Knight’s burden,” he said, “do not worry.”
He wiped the grime from his hands as best he could, then turned his attentions to the comb. He shifted the carved thing from one hand to the other, running a finger down the row of ivory teeth, each one finer and more delicate than the last.
Satisfied, he turned to his Princess. “Ready?” he asked.
She brushed her hair off her shoulders. “Where did you get that comb?” she asked.
“That question I will answer,” the Knight said, “If you will be still and quiet. The teeth are delicate, unaccustomed to use. Let me go about my work, and hurry me not, for I wish to linger here, and take my fill.”
The Princess nodded, and shifted in her seat, until she was facing away from him.
He ran his fingers through her hair for a moment, testing it, teasing it, letting it catch the light. Then he raised the comb and brought it to her crown. Between each tooth naught but a single hair was caught.
His hands shook. “If only I were a poet.”
“You are a Knight,” the Princess reminded him, her eyes fixed, her shoulders square, “and I am owed a story.”
“Of course.” He combed down to the very ends of her hair, near the small of her back, then he started again from the top. Each pull through was effortless. He watched for any errant twitch or nervous spasm, but the Princess did not squirm, or stir—she was, as always, perfectly at ease.
This calm of hers—he both loved and hated it.
“Once upon a time,” he began, “I was a good and loyal Knight. Chivalrous and true, honorable and brave. And I was tasked, by my King and master, to escort a convoy along the Spice Road to the Glittering City.”
The Knight flipped up his visor, exposing his eyes to the light. The slats were blinding and he wanted to see everything.
“An errand most unbecoming and unworthy of my talents. I felt it beneath me, I detested my use as… guard dog.” He teased a finger through the Maiden’s hair to test his progress with the comb—she cocked her head and set him back to work.
“It was a three-month journey to reach the spicelands. Three months of thankless travel, with no sight or sound of real action, just an endless stretch of well-beaten road. A dull, tamed land. I ached to wander.”
Condensation formed on the glass pitcher, and wet the cloth below.
“I craved war, and glory,” said the Knight, “but most of all, I wanted adventure.”
The Princess touched her cheek. A stray hair was stuck to her temple. The Knight instinctively reached for it, to tuck it behind her ear. His finger glanced the side of her neck and caught a bead of sweat.
He paused for a moment, lost in thought. “Even back then—yes, bound to the merchants and their wagons, I had wont to stray—” He trailed off.
The Princess shook her shoulders, her hair danced with light.
“Ah, but I digress—the comb!” the Knight cried, remembering his story. “So such was my delight and joy when we arrived, at last, after travel long and lame, to our destination. I will never forget crossing the gate into the Glittering City, that grand bazaar.
“All around me was the hum of activity, of peddlers and their wares—of life, and abundance! Trinkets and tools and tapestries, spices and silks, garments and gowns, perfume thick in the air like mist, music everywhere, scents and sensations and—ah, amidst such finery I was lost.”
A wave of nostalgia rolled over the Knight. “One could wander through those crowded streets, stopping at every stall and store and merchant they came across, and not experience in a month but one-hundredth of the wealth and wonder on display.
“Indeed—that seething mass, that endless splendor—one could never truly know it, for every day and week it was renewed a thousand-fold, as fresh wonders and peoples spilled in from distant, exotic lands. A true crossroads, it was, and a true adventure.
“And for a moment, I was happy.”
A thought occurred to him. “Have you ever been there,” he asked, “to the Glittering City?”
“Once or twice,” said the Princess, “but it was different then, and smaller. I did not linger long.”
He ran the comb through her hair again.
“I’m enjoying this,” said the Princess. “It is soothing, a small comfort. Tell me, is this the quality of the instrument, or your skill with the comb?”
“Both, I should hope,” answered the Knight.
The Princess raised an eyebrow. “And have you much experience with the combing of a Maiden’s hair?”
“Perhaps. I hope that does not stir your jealousy.”
“Hardly. I was simply curious.”
“Of course,” said the Knight. “Now, where was I? Oh yes—the people!” he cried, “and me, in my armor. What a stranger I was. Even the most traveled of them—they did not know what to make of me, never had they seen a Knight, proper and tall—as I was in those days.”
His hands were shaking again. “All around me were men and women who had sublime, refined tastes, and I was a dullard in their company. That code of chivalry I so clung to, was so entranced by—what had it made of me?
“So many years spent without softness, or grace, only the discipline and pain of training.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead. “Is it enough to know the silk is soft, or must I know of the silkworm, the looms, the Maidens in their sewing circle? There is so much I have let slip away. So much I have ignored, in favor of death and glory.”
He hung his head. “Amid that throng—a strange nausea came over me. I wandered the streets, disoriented, overwhelmed and sick. Until, by chance, I found this comb. It was just sitting there, tucked away in a side stall on a side street in a small and quiet quarter of the city. Ignored. All others seemed to pass, as if blinded to its majesty. Did they overlook? Misjudge? Were they accustomed to such beauty, found it mundane? Here, shaped for service, a minuscule thing, a delicate tool—”
He set the comb down. “And so I bought it,” he explained to the Princess, “a reminder, I suppose, of my tastes, of appetites beyond war and recklessness.”
Her hair was like spun silk. Each individual strand slipped through his fingers with the upmost ease, and together they formed a harmony, and the Knight was reminded of a river, or perhaps a waterfall.
“My head was full of duty and adventure and fame and renown and I would have been happy enough to go through all the days of my life alone,” he whispered. “Admired but unloved, without the desire for love. But now I seek something deeper, something greater; an intimate knowledge.”
“Of me?” asked the Princess.
He brush her hair aside, exposing the nape of her neck. “Of you, and all that you are.” He leaned forwards slightly, and thought to kiss her there, but then he remembered his helmet, and his armor. He withdrew.
“Fine and finished,” he said. He cleared his throat. “See thy hair and how it shines.”
The Princess ran a hand through her hair, curling a lock around the tip of her finger. “An admirable job,” she said.
The Knight reached for his binding tape. “Having demonstrated my gentler qualities,” he said he wrapped his hands in cotton strip again, “have your affections grown? Will you spend this evening here with me? I have more stories, I could whisper them to you.” A strip of herringbone dangled from his fingers.
“No,” the Princess answered without hesitation or malice.
The Knight grumbled as he wrapped the cotton around his wrist, around his hands, through his fingers.
A shadow passed over the summer house, and for a moment the room was dim. “Free me,” said the Princess. “Let me go.”
The Knight did not answer. He lowered his visor, hiding his eyes. The Princess seemed further away now.
She leaned back against the chaise lounge. “A question,” she asked. “That comb—before you were a Dark Knight, you were a good Knight, yes?”
The Knight blinked. “Shining, even.” He grabbed his gauntlets.
“And what, precisely were you before you were a Knight at all?”
“I was a lie. No—worse than that! I did not exist.”
“How delightfully cryptic.” The Princess laughed. “Come now, Knight, there is no need to be coy with me, I know how these stories go, I’ve heard them all before.” She leaned forwards. “Why do you hide your face from me?”
He tightened the straps on his vambrace. “Take the comb,” he said. “A gift. I trust you will care of it, as I once did. Use it, if it pleases you.” He offered the Princess a quick bow, then left without another word.
“Until tomorrow then, I suppose,” the Princess called after him.
An evening cool had begun to settle over the garden. The swans had come out from under the willows, and were preening on the bank by the bulrush. The day-lilies were swaying gently in the wind, a last languid dance under the lengthening shadows. Somewhere a thrush was calling for a mate.
In the waning light the Knight flexed his hands. A stiffness was returning, his fingers were numb. “How odd,” he thought.
That night, alone in his cabin, he wrapped and rewrapped his hands a dozen times, but no matter how hard he tried, the cotton constricted him, and he could find no comfort.