He had taken the little red table from the summer house—the one with the folding legs—and had set it up by the shore. The lake was calm, so he placed the table in the shallows, working the legs into the sand for support. Here they sat, the water lapping at their feet, lilac petals drifting by their heels like tiny, fragile boats.
The Princess had brought her teapot, still warm, a tiny little hint of steam seeping from its spout. She reached out across the table and poured the Knight his tea, and not a drop was spilled.
He studied the tea leaves floating in his cup. They were foreign to him.
The Princess set the pot down and ran her tongue across her teeth. “So tell me,” she said, “have you been practicing?”
“Yes,” said the Knight. He fumbled with his teacup, his armored fingers could not quite grasp the handle.
He set the cup down with a sigh. “No,” he corrected himself. “I try, and fail.”
There was a plate of scones set between them. The heat from the pot warmed the biscuits, rousing from them a heady scent that hung in the air like a fog. The Princess danced her fingers over the scones, unable to choose between them.
“But you make an honest effort?”
The Knight cradled his cup in his hands. “Yes,” he said. He took a sip of tea, his teacup clacking against his guard as he tried to drink through the slit in his helmet.
“Good,” the Princess said, deciding on a scone. “The rest will follow.”
The Knight swallowed. His throat burned. “It is difficult,” he admitted. “Memories, half-forgotten, come ringing clear again. And each one conjures forth two more.”
He fell silent. He stared into his tea. Thoughts swirled in his mind, like leaves caught in a current.
“Speak. Continue, please.”
He nodded slowly. Memories pooled together into narrative, into story. He knew stories. “Very well,” he said, “hark to the tale of the Thunderhorse.”
The Princess leaned forwards, resting her elbows on the table. “Oh?”
The Knight said, “It was many years ago, when I was still a good and noble Knight, fighting for King and country, head full and proud, enamored with the romance of chivalry. Always looking to prove myself, to show my valor and my virtue. Always seeking the next adventure over the next mountain—”
A gentle buzz was in the air; a dragonfly on the hunt for pond-skippers.
“One day I was called home again, and was asked to join the Bannermen on the front, and show my glory there. I thought it a chance to do my Lord proud.”
The wings of the dragonfly caught the sun and gleamed with light. The Knight watched it dart about, watched its reflection on the water cast a blinding glare.
He continued: “But upon arriving at the field of battle I found only disappointment, and a small, pointless conflict over a worthless scrap of land. Naught but a pitiful contest between my King and another Lord, each testing the other’s willingness to fight while all the same, parading their own pathetic might.”
He took another sip of tea, it was still too hot to drink. “Here, I thought, a Shining Knight’s talents were to be wasted. I was meant for greater things, surely, and so, on the eve of battle, I had want to stray.”
A sudden breeze blew the dragonfly off-course, it flew back towards the willows and the wild flowers. The Knight watched it go.
“I was restless, and bitter, and sleep could not find me. I snuck from my tent in the night. I walked, unrested, alone, surveying the waste upon which, come morning, we were to make our stand. A dark cloud had settled over the battlefield, hiding both the stars and moon, but in the distance I could see the flickering lights of the enemy camp—and they seemed just as far away to me as the heavens themselves.”
The Knight drank again and the burning in his throat gave way to numbness. “So I was in my misery, forlorn,” he said, “when, above me, the sky cracked with the sound of thunder. The very earth shook, and as I steadied myself, she appeared—the horse of the storm. Over the horizon she came, down into the valley towards me. She was massive, and mighty, and beautiful, with flaxen mane and blacken coat.”
He set his tea down. “An asp lay coiled at my feet. With a crash and thunder, she trampled the serpent beneath her hooves.” The Knight felt light, his heart beat proud. “It was a portent, you see, for the Thunderhorse was a steed like no other, head-strong and proud, untamed by man.”
He rose to the sun. “Power made manifest!” he cried. “Glory in form!”
The Princess nibbled her scone like a mouse.
“I placed my hand upon her snout and bowed to her,” said the Knight. “And in turn she bowed her head, bent her legs, and let me saddle her. I rode back to the war camp, where my countrymen had gathered, and at dawn, at daybreak—we formed the line and prepared for battle. The sky hung gray.”
The Knight sat down with a crash.
“Sword be my favored weapon, not pike or hammer or axe—but on that battle’s morn, I chose the lance! And when the Bannermen blew the horns of war, the Thunderhorse’s whinny drowned them out. And when all the King’s men drew their swords and cried as one, the pounding of her hooves drowned them out. All of heaven knew our coming!”
He motioned with his hands.
“The beast had no hesitation, no fear, but drove headlong into battle, leader of the fray, the first to pierce the enemy lines—and I was its master! The ground quaked at our charge, the mountains trembled, the sky wept, the tide came early—and in their hearts the enemy knew true fear.”
The swans came looking for their crumbs, skirting between the lilacs.
“Thunderhorse—a stampede of one! And I, with my lance, crushing shield and bone alike. And I, full of vigor, with gnashing teeth and spit and burning knuckles! And I, full of fury, and boiling blood! And I, nevermore than on that day—was a Knight, true and strong. Fierce and noble! Glorious and terrible!”
The Knight stumbled over his words. “Everything I had promised to be. Everything I wanted to be.”
The Princess drank her tea, the Knight’s sat forgotten. “It was a short but glorious battle. A rout,” he said. “The day won, we lapped the battlefield, all wreaked to ruin: great gouges of earth ripped from the plain, the ground stained red, the marsh muddied by the dead.”
A warm nostalgia filled the Knight, it radiated out from his breast.
“The heavens broke open upon us, the victorious. Blood mixed with rain and all the filth was washed away. It soaked me through and through, cooled me and calmed me. I released the mare from her reins. She bucked and bowed and trotted off—across the field, across the hills—back to the myth from whence she came.
“My comrades protested, said I loosed a prize worth keeping, yet I knew that such a ride was meant for once, one time alone.”
His voice fell. “Yes—I felt swollen with oath and pride and honor, but it was not to last. Not long after I was called home again, and given a sword of peace.”
The Princess’s smile faded. The swans were arguing amongst themselves. One reared up and beat her wings, stirring the lake and splashing water over the table. The lilac blooms bobbed over the waves, and a pair of starlings, hiding in the reeds, took to flight.
“Is this how little you respect me?” the Princess hissed. “Less than a horse to free?”
“No, my Princess, no,” the Knight was quick to explain, “the mare was not mine to tame. Perhaps some dead god’s steed, lent but for a single battle—”
“‘My Princess?!’ I tolerate these words, but I see the truth of you. You claim some ownership of me? Ha! Sooner should you hold your breath and claim you’ve captured the wind!”
The Knight fidgeted in his seat, his teacup rattled in his hands. “I have captured you, yes, but I do not possess you, although that is my goal. To win your hand, good and proper, to lay kisses on your fingers, and on your lips and on your breast—”
He cleared his throat and tried again. “—to say that you are mine, like I am yours.”
The Princess laughed.
“You have captured me,” said the Knight. “I was yours from the moment I first saw you.”
“So you say, as if it were a boon.”
The swans bit and fought and splashed. The Princess ripped up a scone and threw them a pittance, if only to quiet them.
The Knight reached for her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve soured your mood again. Tell me, what can I do to rectify this? Some gift or present, some soothing word or caress? Speak, but do not ask for what I cannot give.”
Her fingers slipped through his. “Why? Why do you say such things to me?” she huffed. “I want my freedom. You know this, yet you mock me with talk of gifts, and other things I do not want or need.”
The Knight looked to the heavens in frustration. “Oh, how and who could win the love of such a soul?” he asked the blue sky. “What act will turn this stone to heart? What mortal could dare to win the love of Artemis or Athena?”
“Consider wretched Ixion, bound to a wheel of fire,” the Princess said stiffly.
“So he suffers down in Tartarus,” the Knight said, “for lusting after Hera. My crimes are not so great.” He added a spoonful of honey to his tea, stirred, and took a sip. “And Ixion was punished by Zeus, for ingress against his wife; you have no husband or master.”
The tea was too cold and too sweet to drink. He set it aside with a frown. “What has freedom brought you, but suffering and imprisonment?” he asked. “Had you a Prince to call your own, to warm and carry you, your freedom might still be yours.”
“Oh?” The Princess had a dangerous look in her eye.
“Or, a Monk. Or Sister of the cloth. Perhaps a handsome stable boy or even a more noble, courtly Knight than I. Any would do, any companion. But no, you have rejected the company of others. And so I found you easy to abduct, to carry away, to capture and to hold—for none were there to stop me.”
The Knight pointed an armored finger across the table. “No, Princess, my Princess—you opted to be free and let others be free. But I know the truth of this more than most: to be alone is to be free. To be free is to be alone.”
He studied the Princess in all her majesty: white-clothed, form full of light, no weight upon her shoulders but her own hair. “Do you consider this a sorrow now?” he asked. “Do you keep regret in your heart?”
The Princess cupped her hands. “Do not blame the victim for thy own sins.”
The Knight ignored her, and pressed on: “To love all as one—I think it a lonesome thing, to offer such kindness to other, yet take none for your own self, to reject all ties that might bind, and know not the warmth of a shared bed. All may love you, but it is a vague love, as a moth loves the moon. My affection is deeper. I alone know you—”
The Princess clicked her heels and her tongue.
“—although not as well as I wish,” the Knight finished.
The Princess set her tea down with a clink. “Why me, though?” she asked. “There are higher causes worth pledging to, avenues beyond earthly attachment. What need have I for the affections of others? I don’t need your eros.”
“And so you remain closed,” the Knight bemoaned, “like a coffin.”
The Princess leaped to her feet, slamming her fists on the table. The swans scattered, the china jumped into the air. “My heart is not cold,” she said. “My heart is not stone. It is warm! It is bursting with love for all mankind!”
She looked down. She’d spilled her tea all over the table. She quietly took a step back and sat, her back straight as a ramrod. She held two fingers to her breast and found her pulse. Her heart was beating fast. This was a failure.
Her face red, her neck flushed, her hair a mess, the Knight thought she was more beautiful now than ever.
The Princess breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. She kept her fingertips pressed against her chest until she felt her breathing slow, until her pulse was once again as calm and steady as a pendulum clock.
She blinked, gave a little sigh, then poured a new cup of tea for the Knight and offered it to him. “I do not expect you to understand,” she said, “all your deeds revolve around yourself. You, Knight, breaker of oaths, seek to satisfy only your own desires.”
“Desires? Ha! What would you have me do?” the Knight asked, defending himself, “give my supper to the beggars and starve? Relinquish my tunic and my cloak to someone in need, and go naked throughout the land?”
He thumped his breast and it rang hollow. “All that I am, you see before you now. My possessions I count on finger three: a cabin for my rest, a garden for your keeping, and armor for my protection. All else I have forfeited, for what gem or treasure could compare to your beauty?” he asked the Princess.
He reached out across the table and brushed her hair from her shoulder. It shimmered in the sun. “The depth of gold pales compared to even a single strand of your hair,” he said. “What need have I for riches? What need have I for anything else?”
“No, not wealth,” the Princess said, “that is true. You do not cling to wealth. But still, you cling.”
The Knight frowned and cupped her hair in the palm of his hand. “So you say, Princess, but I do not think we are very different, you and I. Are you not clothed in the finest of gowns, with perfumed hair and oiled skin? The folds of your dress that entice me so—they are not peasant worn.”
Her hair trickled through his fingers. “You cling as well. You have not shaved your head. You have not taken the vow.”
“No,” she said, “I have not. I am a Princess and must remain a Princess. It is the burden of station. A burden you know as well.”
A butterfly circled the table. “Would a mouse reject a crumb?” the Princess asked. “Who am I to reject a gift, freely offered? This dress, these oils—presents, alms. Charity I give, so charity I receive, freely.”
A cold wind blew over the garden, down the bank and over the water. The bulrush bent low, bowing to the east, almost, but not quite, meeting the surface of the lake.
The Princess frowned. “No, that’s wrong,” she said. “I have my indulgences, and remain imperfect.”
The Knight reached for her again. “Yet you will not accept the gifts I offer.”
She brushed away his wandering hands. “You give in hopes of receiving in turn. That is not charity.”
“I would speak more, Knight, and you would do well to listen. Men think it foolish to starve one’s self, yet knowingly withhold food from the hungry. We have wealth but waste it on frivolity. We cause suffering, and violence. What is the root of this? Man holds bias towards himself, thinks himself trapped, a soul within a body. He is blind, having only ever known the experience of being himself.”
She stood and walked around the table to him. He rose to her.
“I ask you, Knight—what is the difference between the self and not-self? I will tell you. The question is a trick, a false dichotomy. To be without ego—truly, completely without ego—is to know the river’s current. We flow as one. The illusion of self, the illusion of distance—no, nothing separates us.”
The Princess, with heart and bosom full, grasped the Knight’s hand and held him close, stared into him, not blinking—pleading. “I am you, Knight, and you are I, or could be. Only fate and circumstance divide us, divide mankind. Why hold me different, separate or above any ‘other?’ It is a simple, limiting bias. I am not unique; you are not alone.”
“Please!” she cried, “hear me! My love will not save you, my love cannot save you, so why cling to the dream of it? Your love for me, your longing for me—it has trapped you. Your romance, this garden—it is so small, a tiny beauty. There is so much more out there.”
She reached out and laid her hands upon his chest. “The world is waiting! It can’t just be me, it can’t!” There were tears in her eyes.
“Please!” she cried, as the robins sang in the poplar trees, as the wind teased the asphodel, as the spring shined with silver light, as the rhododendrons bloomed, as the butterflies danced over the summer house. “Please!”