By his count it had been two weeks—two weeks since he’d last slept, two weeks since he’d bathed, two weeks since he’d eaten anything more than a passing morsel. Now he stumbled home, his breath caught in his throat, his legs like iron. A terrible languor had seized him.
He stripped off his armor piece by piece by piece, laying it on the floor of his cabin. He loosed his gambeson, he threw away his boots. He fell into bed and sleep found him at once. It was a deep sleep, and he dreamed of darkness.
It was a cold darkness. A darkness that pressed in on him, that muffled out sound and sight and thought. Suffocating, it left no room for even fear. But then there was light—a single white light, dancing, flickering in the distance, like the delicate flame of a forlorn candle, just about to go out. And to this light he ran—grasping and struggling he reached for it, but always was it just beyond his reach.
And when he woke the next morning, he found his fatigue had only doubled.
He stretched and his body creaked, as if his limps had rusted in the night. His breast ached—there was a tightness there, so he removed his gambeson and all his bindings and worked his palm into his breast until the stiffness had gone away, until he’d worn his chest red and raw.
Next he took a damp cloth and wiped the sweat and grime from his skin. The cool water stung and bit at his wounds, the cloth scraped and tore his flesh.
He choked down a scrap of bread then bound himself up again. Helmet secured, sword in sheath, with fifty pounds of armor, anonymous—the Knight was himself once more, stood proud once again.
He set upon the forest. Summer sun streamed down upon him, filtered through the canopy in great, wide rays of light.
His steps were heavy.
It seemed to him that the forest was empty and endless—a restless place without comforts, of ancient oaks and cedars. They’d grown thick and tall over the nameless centuries, and reminded him of the marble columns of a ruined temple.
He wandered on until he came to his garden of spring, his Princess’s prison. Key turned, gate opened, all his burdens were lifted.
The asphodel was blooming in the meadow, white heads and petals peaking through the tall grass, speckling the field with splotches of light. It was here he found her.
She was painting today, a canvas and easel before her, a paintbrush dangling from her fingertips, momentarily forgotten as she stared at the sky—the blue sky—where great cumulus clouds bloomed like cotton flowers.
He hung back a moment to take his fill of her, to watch as she played with her paints, mixing oils and colors on her palette.
“What are you doing, lurking there?” she called over her shoulder. Her voice floated on the air, all other sounds seemed dull and distant.
The last weight was lifted, the demons were excised from his bones, an honest pleasure took him. “I apologize,” said the Knight, approaching, “I was merely watching—but surely you radiate some aura, invisible, tantalizing, enthralling. I could not help but stare.”
The Princess huffed and turned back to her canvas. “Don’t try to flatter me,” she said. “Why do you always try to flatter me?”
“Because I love you,” said the Knight.
The Princess ignored this. She gestured to her easel. “I have been tasked,” she said. “Today I will paint the clouds.”
The Knight peered over her shoulder. “A masterpiece soon to be born.”
“And yet more flattery.” The Princess sighed.
She dabbed her brush in blue. “Although I am curious,” she added. “Why? Why do you love me?”
“How could I not?” was the Knight’s reply.
“That is not an answer.”
“What answer would you have me give?”
The Princess raised her brush. “I don’t know,” she admitted, “but I command thee, Knight, all the same! Tell me of your love! I do not ask from vanity; I have no need for praise. Why have you pursued me? What of me stirs your heart? Be honest.”
She flicked her wrist and made a swath of blue. “I’ve had my admirers, of course,” she said, “but all of them have had the wisdom not to chase what cannot be caught. But you, Dark Knight—very audacious.”
“This is true,” the Knight said with a mark of pride, “there are few like me.”
“That was not a compliment,” the Princess called back to him. She made another brush stroke, lighter than the last.
The Knight thought it best not to contest this. “When did my heart first stir for you?” he wondered. “When did your legend first reach my ear, carried on the tongues of a thousand Pilgrims? Dames and Knights and Knaves. King and Queens. All of them speak, and whisper, of a Princess, a Damsel of such allure that they consider themselves blessed just to have laid eyes upon her.”
“A fragile beauty, a unicorn in Maiden’s guise,” he continued. “Next to you even the brightest stars are dimmed, naught but twinkles in the sky.”
The Princess smirked. “So, it is my beauty that you seek?”
“Beauty is but one of your many charms,” said the Knight. “But O! Were I that shepherd boy Paris, to you I would have awarded the golden apple, and suffered happily all the wrath of heaven!”
“Yes!” he cried, raising a fist to the sky, “blessed from above; a rival to Aphrodite herself!”
The Princess mixed a dash of white into her blue. “You as well, Dark Knight,” she said, “you have also had blessings placed upon you. I see it.”
“Blessings that help me persist and endure,” said the Knight. “They are of a different kind, and of ill-compare to yours.” He stared at his fingers, where even now he could feel the cold metal of his gauntlets digging into his skin. “Blessing that have helped me suffer through both misery and pain.”
“No,” he said, “nothing of mine can compare to even the slightest of your graces.” He watched her brush dance across the canvas. “The standard of all women, they feel shame in your presence—Pygmalion’s true love!”
The Princess tapped the end of her paintbrush against her hip. Blue stained the asphodel.
“And your face!” the Knight continued. “All features in golden ratio—”
The Princess threw down her brush, it fell amongst the wildflowers. “Enough!” she cried. “Enough flattery, enough praise! Others may seek it, But. I. Do. Not.”
The Knight reached down and picked up her brush for her. “I beg your forgiveness,” he said. “My tongue is apt to wander in your praise. You possess innumerable virtues, Princess.”
She took the brush without comment and returned to her painting.
The Knight continued: “The people of all these far-reaching lands would have you as their Queen and Sovereign. Their hearts ache for compassionate rule. You could be the greatest of Queens, and lord over all mankind, yet you have rejected the seat of power.
“You shun the kingdom of man; nature is your domain. Wild animals grow tame in your presence, birds sing sweeter, they sing of you. You wander the forest of the world barefoot, without trepidation.”
He loomed over her. “You fear nothing and none fear you,” he said, “for you trumpet penitence, and peace—but any sinner would rather cast himself into the sea to drown, than live, and suffer knowing he has invoked your fury and your wrath.”
“Well,” the Knight laughed, “any sinner but I.”
“Hmm.” The Princess lowered her brush, satisfied with her blue sky. Next she choose a silver-white, and began her work on the clouds. “For your crimes, you alone have earned an ire,” she said. “I suppose you consider that a victory.”
“Yes and no, my Princess. It serves as both badge and burden. Proof that I have roused your passions. Proof that I have hurt you. Hate me if you must—but even your contempt is a sweet fruit.”
A stroke of white.
“I adore you,” the Knight continued. “I am filled with love, as are all who have been graced by your presence. Men, women, they love you more than they love themselves.”
“But why?” asked the Princess.
“Why?” the Knight asked. “Why? For you a Sin-Eater, a Saint-Walker! Tender to the sick, the needy, the wretched, those with want for charity. A helping hand in time of need; the last who wanders. In your presence time has no meaning—an hour, a century, both are meaningless. You pass along, thankless, from town to town, for the whole world is thy home—”
“My ‘home’ is a cage now,” the Princess interrupted, “and it is small.”
The clouds were forming well, she placed them on the canvas, in the heavens. The smell of sweet grass filled the air.
“A necessity,” said the Knight. “Your ire, your imprisonment—casualties in pursuit of a goal most noble. How else could I claim your heart, to know and be known by a Princess?”
The Princess made the slightest noise of protest. She lowered her brush, dipped the tip in paint, and raised it again. “Well,” she said, “you have certainly proven your devotion. But your love has been twisted into a lecherous, deceitful thing. No good shall come of it.”
“Perhaps,” the Knight said cautiously, “my love would do you good, if allowed to flourish proper.”
“Flourish? Your love is a prison.”
A grasshopper was sunning himself on a long stock of grass, he rubbed his legs together and contemplated the sky.
“You load upon me such lofty titles and I want none of them,” said the Princess. “You extol my virtues, but ignore my flaws.”
The shadow of a cloud passed over the meadow. “Yes, that’s it!” she cried, clutching her brush. “Knight! I command thee: tell me my faults, my failings. Speak truly.”
“Oh, you must.”
The Knight considered his words. “I am not so bold to claim that your reluctance to love me is a flaw,” he began, “that would be foolish indeed.”
He paced. He kicked at the dirt with his heel. He thumped on his breastplate. He rapped his knuckles against the side of his helmet.
“What is flaw?” he asked, his pace quickening. “Consider a masterpiece, a painting—whole, complete. All those swaths of color, so delicately placed, together forming something greater than themselves, something whole. A work of art; not one single brushstroke to be added or undone.”
He was fidgeting now. “The rug makers of the east!” the Knight cried. “For sixty years the weavers hone their skills! They are men of art, their creations are threaded with care, and reach unrivaled lengths—but they leave a single thread loose, undone. Unruly and uncouth. Imperfect.”
He fretted. “A symbol that perfection is impossible, an ideal to strive for, unreached and unreachable. The flaw, the foil—the loose thread keeps the rug unfinished. The flaw makes it great.”
“Am I petty, am I vain?” The Princess stamped her foot. “What are my sins? What are my hindrances?”
The Knight stumbled over his words. “Understand my quandary,” he said, “I would call you perfect, but that would be a disservice. Such a label blinds one’s eyes; they see the forest but not the trees. Is it not enough to say that I love you, that I love all of you?”
The Princess dabbled clouds on her canvas. “Flattery spills from your lips, unending.”
“I know you better than most, Princess. I have studied you carefully. Within this gated garden, I have come to know you well. What of flaw and facet? Even on a diamond, not all sides shine with equal luster. Your blemishes only serve to compliment your virtues.”
“Ah ha,” said the Princess, “so you’re not blind to my failings, but would rather trivialize them all away?”
The Knight snapped to attention. “Princess!” he cried, “you live below your station. You reject the company of others. You think that life—that living is simple. On cold nights you sniffle, your nose grows red, but you are not moved by warmth, but rather wait until the cold has passed. You appear aloft, almost without care, yet this cannot hide the compassion that abounds within!”
His voice raised to a shout. “You dismiss my propositions, limp and listlessly! You rouse such passions within me, yet refuse to quell the flames. Worse, you pity me! Me, who is free beyond all measure!
“If you think you’re better than me, say so, Princess! You mock me like a stone—silent and cold. With your held tongue and pursed lips—you give me hope to think, to dream: ‘Perhaps she sees some strength in me that I cannot. Perhaps she will place her hands upon me, and name me her equal.’ You cloud my mind with dreams and doubts! What torture it is! What gives you the right to toy the with hearts of men?”
He turned to the Princess, expecting some clever retort or cool dismissal. He received neither. No—instead, she lowered her brush and wet it in a water bowl. She ran her fingers and thumb through the bristles, cleaning them, working out the paint. She packed away her palette knife and kit.
“Say something!” the Knight yelled.
The Princess smiled and offered him her painting. “Here,” she said, “for your little cabin. Be careful, if you please, the paint is not yet dry.”
The wind was ripped from his sails. He bent to one knee and accepted her gift.
“I am no master of the art,” the Princess continued, “yet I hope this satisfies. It is messy, bordering on the abstract, but therein lies the charm.”
The Knight pondered this. “And yet, fair Maiden, you would not add or take away even a single brushstroke?”
“No,” said the Princess, “I would not.”