Chapter Twelve: Ahimsa and Ataraxia

It was more than a week before she saw the Knight again, although she had no doubt of his inevitable return.

On Monday she woke with the sun. She stretched, and set about her day—calisthenics first, then yoga. She worked her muscles until they burned. She sat. Her breath was light. On her tongue she repeated OM until she fell deep within herself, until she lost herself, until the self had no meaning.

She bathed in the clear spring.

On Tuesday morning she ate rice and porridge, and was mindful of every bite. She retired to the summer house, pulling volume after volume from the Knight’s precious library. Romance, drama, sutra, astronomy—she had no preference. Sprawled on the hardwood floor, she read them all.

On Wednesday, before noon, she reduced suffering. She found a raven by the spring, struggling to breathe. She comforted it as it died. She lit incense, she offered prayer, she felt the wind and weaved it between her fingers.

On Thursday, when the sun was at its peak, she set about her work. She dusted the mantle, the fireplace, the tinderbox. She planted trees, she fed the peacocks. In the grove, with handsaw and hatchet, she cleared away an old dead oak. She tended the vineyard, she cleared the gutters on the roof of the summer house.

On Friday afternoon she reflected upon her misdeeds and forgave herself. In quiet company she brewed her tea and set a table for two. She practiced still-life and dance.

On Saturday, as the sun set, she composed poetry. She ate from her beggar’s bowl. She listened to the little brook, to the slow plips of water trickling and spilling over the rocks. There were voices in the stream—spirits, perhaps—that spoke without a human tongue and whispered secrets to those who listened.

On Sunday night she rested. She crept into her bed and pulled the covers tight. The summer house was silent, and she thought this to be a lonely thing—even the creak or groan of a settling foundation would have been enough to soothe her mind.

The sheets were thick but carried no warmth. She slept.

On Monday, she woke to the sound of hammering. She came outside and saw: the Knight had returned. He was pounding a nail into the sacred fig tree. “Did I wake you?” he asked, upon catching sight of the Princess.

He gestured to her lacquer birdhouse. “A gust in the night must have knocked it loose,” he explained. “But with a little thought and a little care, all can be set right again.” The sun rose behind him.

The Princess raised an eyebrow. She leaned against the doorframe, arms folded. His voice was softer today, she noticed.

“And I have brought you a present,” he continued. He laid down his hammer and took a step back, satisfied with his work. “Not to earn your favor, but to beg your forgiveness.”

She gave him a crooked glance, but approached, extending her hand to him. He bent to one knee. “Oh, Princess, I have hurt you,” he said, taking her hand in his. “I would make it right, if only I knew how.”

He squeezed her fingers as softly as he could. She bade him to rise, and beckoned him to follow her. Down the path they went.

“So you will let me go, then?”

He pulled the garden key out from under his armor. “Such a thing you ask of me.” He dug his sabatons into the dirt. “It is beyond all my power.”

“Hardly. All you have to do is give up that key.”

“And then what?”

“Then this story ends.”

He stared at the key. It consumed him. It was his heart, he realized—and in that moment the Knight knew himself to be a coward.

“I can’t.”

“You won’t.”

“I won’t,” he admitted. He pocketed the key.

The Princess raised a finger to her cheek and traced a line down her chin. “A prisoner I remain, then.”

“You need not be.”

“I will not lie with you,” said the Princess. They passed the purling brook, down to the winding path. Birdsong followed them.

“The chastity of a Princess—” the Knight lamented.

“Tell me, Knight, what do you know of chastity, or of love?”

They climbed the hill to the gazebo and sat side by side. The day-lilies slept, a warm breeze stirred the morning air, a pair of butterflies were blown off-course.

An ant crawled over a pebble.

“You would have me rush headlong to your company? To your bed?” the Princess asked. “Of all action and inaction, I have deliberate cause. My actions, their sum total, are but products of my waking mind.”

She bent down and lowered a hand to the ground, letting the ant climb up her fingers. “O Knight, know this: my feelings, my emotions, I do not hide or hold to shame. Yet, there is a filter between my passions and my actions.”

The ant ran down her palm. She turned her hand over and kept the insect on its track.

“Let us pretend that some Prince comes and makes me swoon,” said the Princess. “To him, should I run? I consider: what is this feeling that beats within my chest? Have I felt it before? What name shall I give it? Perhaps love, or lust?”

“A Prince?” the Knight asked.

The Princess smiled. “Come now, Knight, jealousy is unbecoming.”

She turned her hand once more, and watched the ant crawl across her palm. The Knight admired the subtlety in her movements; her nimble fingers, her little wrist. Did the ant think about the order in which it moved its legs, or was it all just instinct?

“What is love?” the Princess asked. “Is it born from loneliness? A desire of the soul, or a need of the body? A search for belonging, or understanding, perhaps? Ask these questions, and more. Is love a good thing, and, more importantly, why is love a good thing? And then: is this instance of love a good thing?”

She lowered her hand again and let the ant go on its merry way. “These are my thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. They do not linger,” she said. “I study them, I learn from them, and then—”

She watched the ant disappear into the lilies. “—and then I let them go.”

“I have chastised you for thoughtless thinking,” the Princess continued. “Might you accuse me now of idle thought? I say no! My thoughts are focused, logical, precise. My mind is a knife. All ends I seek to satisfaction, all thoughts to their conclusions. I do not act upon my feelings until I understand them.”

The Princess paused and collected herself, not used to such exposed thought. She swept her hair back off her shoulders.

“My emotions are more precious to me,” she said, “for knowing what they are, and where they might lead.”

“I see,” said the Knight. So this was her secret, he thought.

“And yours?” the Princess asked.

“My passions?” The Knight considered the question. “My passions are like two wild horses, reined to a rickety chariot, the rider long ago thrown. Never do the beasts agree, one pulls left, the other right. They buck and bicker and fight.”

The Princess nodded thoughtfully.

“And behind them,” the Knight continued, “the wheels are rutted deep, the chariot drawn violently, inexorably towards a terrible precipice.”

The more he spoke the looser his binds became, and he felt the joy of freedom.

“And what do you know of love?” the Princess asked him.

The Knight shifted his weight. “I am no expert. I eat when hungry, sleep when tired and follow my passions wherever they lead.”

“A sensuous life you live,” the Princess said. “Admirable in its simplicity. I was once like you, in days long past, but I found that, like a moth to a flame, my desires only ever burned me.”

A warm wind blew over the pair. It carried a fresh, clean scent.

“Oh!” The Princess looked out over the field. “The day-lilies have come out.”

The Knight masticated on his words, meeting her eyes for the first time in a week. “Is that why you deny yourself?” he asked, “because you’re afraid of your passions?”

“Afraid? Never.”

“You say your mind is a knife, but you refuse to hold one. You’ve been passive, dear Princess, for all the days you’ve dwelt within this garden, not once have you tried to escape me. Perhaps I’ve weakened your resolve.”

“Resolve?” The Princess laughed. “I will show you my resolve.”

She slowly extended her index finger and held it to the Knight’s breast. She applied no pressure, but still, through his thick armor, the Knight could feel a weight press against him. It dug deep, a splinter in his heart.

“Do not mistake restraint for weakness!” the Princess said, her voice booming, her arm steady. “Truth implies love. Matched with resolve, these are weapons of the strong. Force does not bring victory! Not anger, not cruelty, not violence. Only compassion!”

The Knight tried to stand, but found that he could not. He was held in place, paralyzed by her finger. His heart raced, a terror seized him.

“You are the one trapped within this cage, not me!” the Princess bellowed, her dress billowing in the wind. “I am free, for the mind is born in liberty! My body may be trapped but my spirit still soars!”

Her bosom heaved, her voice grew, it echoed throughout every corner of the garden. She pressed against the Knight, and held him down.

“You, Knight! You are prisoner! To your own desires! To your cravings! You, with the power to leave this place, always returning!” She glared down at him, her eyes were fire.

He could feel the passion in her breast, the fury of a wild animal.

They stayed like this for a timeless interval, the Princess above, the Knight below. “You refuse me, you refute me, but you do not resist me,” he said. “Why?”

“A hunger strike, or vow of silence—” the Knight picked his words carefully, “you have chosen neither.”

The Princess blinked, and her anger was broken. “‘Do not resist an evil person,’” she said. “‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’”

The Princess blinked, and was surprised to find that she was crying.

She bit her lip, withdrawing her finger from the Knight’s breast. “Such is the teachings of the Buddha.” She stood up.

“You speak of harm and no harm. And calm—yet anger, on occasion, seeps into your words, and with mean spit, you curse me.”

“Momentary lapses,” the Princess sniffled, drying her eyes on the cuff of her dress. “Perhaps you love these thorns of mine, but I do not. They prick me.”

She turned to the sun. She felt its warmth in the air and on her skin. She took a long, deep breath.

“Tell me, Knight, where have you wandered this past week?” She ran her fingers through her hair, down the pleats of her skirt. Her hands shook. “You spoke of a present?”

“Yes.” The Knight nodded. “A gift of wine, given to me just yesterday. An offering of peace from the Prince and his sister.”

The Princess stared at her trembling hands. She smiled a very small smile. “Please,” she said, and leaned towards the Knight, “please, a story if you would, and perhaps a drink as well?”

The Knight bowed. “As you wish.”