She sat under the sacred fig tree. The clouds drifted lazily above, the butterflies danced, a solitary ant crept across the lacquer face of the Princess’s birdhouse.
She folded her legs, she straightened her back, she rested her hands on her thighs. She sat in silence, the only noise the sound of her own breathing.
The air smelled of honeysuckle.
The Princess focused on her breath. In and out. In and out. Slowly, rhythmically. She did not control her breathing, did not force it, did not hold it. She merely was aware of it, of the steady rising and falling of her diaphragm, of the cool air she breathed in through her nose, of the warm air she breathed out through her mouth.
A thought crossed her mind. She acknowledged the thought and returned to her breath, to the breeze that tickled the tip of her nose.
Another thought. The Princess acknowledged this one as well, as one would a passing cloud, and returned to her breath.
A third thought entered her mind, and her heart beat a little faster. She frowned. Once again, she acknowledged the thought, as well as the sensations and emotions it had aroused in her.
She did not judge them—the thoughts, the sensations, the emotions. She recognized their impact, and then, just as she had done before, she returned to her breath. Her heart quieted.
Slowly she became aware that she was being watched. She opened one eye. A raven was perched on a branch above her. It cast a long shadow over the Princess, and when the bird spoke, it spoke with a rasp:
“Do you seek freedom?” the raven asked.
“All beings seek liberation,” the Princess answered.
“But you will not accept my brother’s help?”
The Princess considered the question. “No,” she said after a moment’s hesitation.
“Let me free you, then. I ask for nothing in return.”
“No,” the Princess repeated.
“You will suffer,” said the raven.
“Yes,” the Princess agreed.
The raven fluffed its wings and hopped up and down on one foot. “Well, what do you want?”
“The cessation of suffering.”
“For all living creatures.”
“For the Knight?”
The Princess nodded. “For the Knight.”
The raven turned its head sideways. “Do you love that Knight?” it asked.
“I care for all living creatures,” the Princess said.
“But do you love them?” the raven asked again.
The Princess breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. She felt the air on the tip of her nose, felt the air fill her lungs, felt the air escape her lips.
“You don’t talk very much do you?”
The Princess did not answer. The raven tried again: “A good little Princess aren’t you?”
“I speak when I have something to say,” the Princess replied, “and when I speak, the world listens.”
“Perhaps—were you not a holy woman, you’d make an excellent Queen.”
The Princess smiled. “So I have been told.”
“Why do you eschew violence?” asked the Waif. “It is not bad, it is not good. Violence simply is. It is the chisel with which men carve their destiny. Do you deny this?”
“No,” said the Princess, “I do not.”
“But you will not fight?”
“No,” said the Princess.
“Why,” asked the raven.
The Princess chewed her tongue. “When violence is chosen, it cannot be unchosen. You call violence a tool—yes, I think I agree with this. But if violence is a tool, then you must agree that it is a very easy tool to use. Too easy. If violence is ever an option, if it is ever given more than a passing thought, if it is indulged, it becomes the absolute, the inevitable, the ‘solution’ to all problems.”
The raven cawed.
“Yes,” said the Princess, “there are other ways of achieving your goals, other tools at one’s disposal. They are harder to use, maybe even painful, and certainly not as satisfying or as direct or immediate as violence—but the results, I think, speak for themselves.”
“Do you have any sisters?” the raven asked, its black beak shining. “I would very much like to be your sister.”
The raven blinked its beady black eyes. “Is that so?”
“I once had many sisters. But they are all dead or lost. And if any still live, I doubt they would now recognize me, or I them.”
The Princess uncrossed her legs. “After the fire, I went looking for my sisters. Far and wide I searched. The mountains and the valleys, the sacred woods and hidden temples, but nowhere were my sisters to be found.
“One day, I came to a river a sister had once called home. She was gone, but there, on the banks of the river, I met a man. A holy man. A wild man. He sought purification of the soul, and had sensed a magic deep within the current of the river.
“He told me of a new power, a new way, and that he could help me find it. And then—”
The Princess cleared her throat. “—and then he drowned me. He held me under until I died. And when I emerged again, coughing and sputtering—I was different. The world was different.”
“And now you’re here.”
The raven fluttered down to another branch. “You’ve made a very lovely birdhouse here,” it said, its sharp beak pecking at the box nailed to the fig.
“Fit for a pair of lovebirds.”
The Princess wrinkled her nose. “Is that what you think is happening here?” she asked.
“Ah, well, perhaps I’ve overstepped my bounds.”
“Ah, well, let me make it up to you, let me tell you a secret.”
And the raven told the Princess a secret. “What do you think of that?” it asked her.
The Princess did not answer. She crossed her legs again and closed her eyes.
The raven raised its beak and gave a little cry. “I hear my brother’s call, so I will leave you here in peace. I’ve enjoyed this little talk, but I do not think we will meet again.”
The Princess bowed her head a fraction of an inch. “Farewell.”
The raven fell from the tree, dead.
The Waif opened her eyes. Her head ached. She worked her palm into her brow until the pain subsided. She looked around, reorienting herself to her surroundings. They were riding through the forest, dim in the light of dawn.
“Princesses are a strange breed,” she said, “and I do not understand them.”
Her brother laughed. “One day you will. Have faith.”
“Faith does not come easy,” the Waif rasped.
The Prince smiled, then frowned. “You’re right.” He laid a hand on the traveling box where Halcyon rested. “If I had faith, I would not need this sword.”
He studied the box, as if it contained a viper. “I fear this weapon more than any other,” he said. “I do not fault the Knight for burying the blade, and even now I wonder if they were right to hide it.”
“You are a good person and you will do good,” the Waif assured her brother.
He smiled again, and this time it did not fade. “You shall be my Swordbearer! Keep me safe, my sister, and I will you.”
“You are outsider-borne, dear sister, and for this you should be thankful. You do not understand the subtleties of the triumvirate—Prince, and Knight, and Princess. Consider yourself lucky, to not be shackled by the bonds of name and royal title.”
“‘Waif’ suits me well enough.”
The Prince agreed. “For now.”
The trees were thinning ever slightly. Dawn crept in, and the world was waking.
The Prince shielded his eyes from the light of morning. “Yesterday we saw a naked secret,” he said. “What yonder Knight hides from Princess-fair.”
“What did thy eyes reveal, brother?”
“I saw a Shining Knight! Or rather, one who could shine again, given time and patience—” He trailed off. “And you, what did you see?”
“A Prince,” said the Waif.
Her brother raised an eyebrow. “Did you? Interesting.” His sister, he knew, was seldom wrong. “Well, it’s no concern of ours now.” He stroked his horse’s mane and spurred it on.
The sun was breaking through the trees, and all the forest was bathed in its light. The Prince welcomed it, took strength from it.
“Come to my side,” he cried. “In a distant land, in a tall, tall tower, a Princess awaits, guarded by a serpent most terrible.”
The sun warmed him through and through. “Does she need our help? Is she in need of a rescue most gallant? Come, let us venture forth, and let us ask her!”
The Waif smiled, a wide, toothy grin. They rode towards the rising sun and glorious days.