Chapter Eighteen: Happily Ever After

The Knight felt sick; his stomach quaked, his head swam—he blinked and blinked again but could not clear his eyes. He leaned against the trunk of a naked tree and waited. His mind was a war, filled with seemingly innumerable thoughts and feelings, all conflicting.

His eye twitched towards the garden gate. Today he’d left it open, just half an inch, a sliver, a fraction of a degree, but still—unlocked.

“This will call her attention,” he whispered, “for nothing is beneath her notice.” His words were swallowed by the wind.

He waited for hours, lurking in the darkness of the woods. Shadows retreated, inch by inch until they disappeared entirely. The wind whistled through the forest and through the gaps in his armor. Clouds gathered. He hid, still as a statue, and all the while his wild heart beat, and all his body struggled against itself.

The cold pressed in. His ears rang, his lungs burned. He blinked, and there she was.

The Princess was stooped over, gathering up flowers into a bouquet. The rhododendrons, the cherries, the lilacs—they all rained their petals down upon her as she made her way along the garden path.

A starling darted past her. She looked up and saw that the gate was ajar.

The Knight’s breath caught in his throat. “Today at last I shall find the truth of things.”

The Princess drifted over to the lock and ran her fingers over the cold, wrought iron. She swung the gate open and closed. The old iron hinge made a quiet, pleasant squeak that reminded her of a frighten mouse.

She looked out to the forest beyond, to the bare trees and the barren woods. To the gray and the cold. All was still. She turned and considered the blooming garden, alive with the thousand scents and songs of spring, an endless bouquet of color and life. Something stirred within her. She smiled.

“Will she run?” the Knight wondered. “Will I give chase?” He trembled, his tongue cut him, his throat ached.

The Princess placed a hand on her heart, and pushed against the metal bars, and shut the garden gate. She gave the forest one last backwards glance, then disappeared back again into the thick of spring.

This was all he’d ever hoped for. “She stays!” he choked. “She loves me!”

He threw open the gate and lumbered after her, his head ringing. He stomped past the rhododendrons and up the stone path and through the wildflowers and the hyacinth and the hemlock. One thought alone consumed him.

She was in the meadow by the silver spring, listening to the clear water as it spilled out into the pond, splashing over stone and brick before gurgling down to the rest of the garden. She sat, her eyes closed, her breast swelling with every breath, and with her thumb and forefinger she counted the beads on her necklace.

The Knight announced his presence with a boast. “Today, my Princess, I have discovered a secret you would keep hidden.”

The Princess frowned, wrinkled her nose, and continued to sit. “I keep no secrets,” she said with a wave of her hand. “You know this. I herald truth; I am truth.”

He loomed over her. “You speak of truth, my Princess, but I know what your little heart conceals. I have asked you once, I have ask you many times. This shall be the final time—lie with me now, and speak my name in ecstasy.”

“And if I refuse?”

“You will not.”

Her eyes flickered open. “Of course.” She rose and dusted the pleats of her dress. “I cannot stop you—after all, you are a Dark Knight, and I am but a weak little Princess, and we both have our roles to play.”

She straightened her dress and brushed her hair off her shoulders. “Very well,” she said, “embrace me, claim me, take your fill of me.”

The Knight was ecstatic. “All that I seek,” he whispered, “within my grasp.” He reached for her—to hold her, to clutch her.

This was his intent—but a nameless hesitation took him. It crept up slowly from within. It started in his heart, but spread to his lungs and breast and to his limbs, all the way out to his very fingertips. His hand, a mere inch from her cheek and blush, turned to rust, seized by some timeless force. His fingers froze, his heart stopped.

His throat burned hoarse, his voice escaped him. His back spasmed. Blood, heat, and life were drained from him in turn. His armor seized, he strained against it.

The Princess spread her arms, inviting him to her comely breast. Tears streamed down her cheek. “Whatever is the matter, dear Knight? I await your touch.”

He grasped and crawled and clawed for her, but caught nothing but the air. “I-I can’t,” he gurgled.

The Princess circled him.

“It is as I was afraid, my Knight,” she said. “You hath hidden within your armor for so long, and now it betrays you. So accustomed to denial, so full of misery, so hurt. In practice and in spirit you have ruined yourself.”

The Knight buckled, his knees broke. A sparrow cried, stretched its wings, and took to flight. The Knight slumped, defeated. The Princess stared down at him.

“I have shown you peace and stillness,” she said. “I have listened to you, I have comforted you. I have taught you, as best I could. I have come to know you. It is in this way I have defeated you. Without a sword, without a weapon, without violence. Such is my kindness.”

She stood tall. “Such is my compassion.”

This was too much for the Knight. “Please! Forgive me!” he wept, clutching at the hem of her dress. “I’m sorry! I beg you, I’m sorry. Run away, leave me to die, do whatever you wish, just please, forgive me for all that I’ve done!”

“‘Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth,’” the Princess quoted, her palms open. “This is my truth, but what is yours?”

The Knight hung his head. “I don’t know anymore.” She reached up and unfastened the clasp on her helmet, and laid bare her face. “I am tired of this weight.”

Her detested helmet crashed to the ground and was swallowed up by the flowers, covered and buried. Her hair fell over her eyes, a tangled, matted mess, long greasy bangs stuck to her forehead.

The Knight tried to stand, but found her legs were shaking. The Princess extended her hand.

“Here,” she said, “lean on me.” She helped the Knight to her feet and led her to the water. She pulled the Knight’s sword from its sheath and threw it to the ground.

She cooed, a cry of pity: “Come my Knight, remove thine armor, cast it into the water to drown. Be cleansed by the pure spring. I will lay my hands upon you, and wash away your filth.”

The Knight slipped into the spring. She sunk up to her waist. The cool water seeped between her armor plates and soaked deep into her skin; a fire soothed and smothered. She welcomed it.

The Princess slipped in beside her, her dress sopping and wet. She felt no cold, only the sun’s warmth. She knelt, and cradled the Knight’s hands in hers. She tugged at the Knight’s black gauntlets until she’d worked them free. She tossed them aside.

“Oh—your poor fingers.”

She unraveled the Knight’s handwraps and ran her fingers over her swollen knuckles and pale calluses. The webbing between the fingers was raw, welts rose on red, angry skin.

She laid kisses on her wrists.

Next she loosened the leather straps and brass clasps that bound the Knight’s faulds and breastplate. She peeled the armor off, and let the cold steel sink to the bottom of the clear pond.

The Knight’s gambeson was in tatters.

“So tightly wrapped, my Knight. How can you even breathe?” the Princess asked.

She cut the Knight’s bonds, and went round and round her chest with slow, steady hands, gathering up the yellowing linen into a fist-sized ball. She flung the ball away, it turned to ash mid-flight.

The Knight clutched at her breast. She choked, and coughed up a lungful of black and oily liquid. The ichor fell into the pool and dissolved away to nothing.

The Princess ran her hands down the Knight’s naked back and felt the muscles there, the stiff shoulders, the hard, worn skin. She counted bumps down her spine.

“Come now,” she said. “Stretch thy legs, so you might run again.”

She wrapped and weaved her little hands around the Knight’s legs, and took from them their armor—cuisses and greave fell into the water, ripples spread and settled across the surface of the pond.

She cupped her hands and lowered them into the spring. The water was crystal, and caught the sunlight. Within her hands the water was still.

“Come now, lower thy head to me, and I shall wash your hair.”

“Now you lavish affection upon me,” the Knight murmured, “after long drought.” She bowed her head.

“Have you forgotten the feel of a friendly touch?” the Princess asked. “I will wring my fingers through your hair and you will know the touch of them.”

She poured water over the Knight again and again until she was clean, until the water ran clear. Little beads of water clung to the frayed ends of her hair. They too, shined with light.

“Now,” the Princess said, “stand, and let me look at you.”

The Knight stood. She emerged from the pond still sick with wet, and felt strength return to her limps, felt her heart beat anew. She stared at her hands as if seeing them for the first time—red and raw, with awful patches of blisters and peeling skin.

The Princess brought a finger to her lips and studied the Knight’s weary frame, considered weight and posture and poise all as one. She looked without condoning or condemning, without judgment of any kind—only understanding.

The Knight wrapped her arms around her chest in a tight self-embrace. Water fell from her naked body.

“Do not look upon me,” she said, “there is nothing there to see.” She sniffled as water beaded on her nose and bare shoulders. Her toes, still wet, mucked about in the dirt, and turned the ground to mud.

The Princess was silent for a long time. She watched the Knight’s eyelashes—crumbled, short, they fluttered in the wind. A broken nose. Her red, rashed breast. A flat stomach, quaking with unease. Old scars. Bony elbows and trembling thighs. Bruised knees, pointed toes.

She was beautiful.

The Princess stared and stared until she saw the Knight’s gleaming heart, so plainly hidden.

“You have told me many stories, now today I have one for you,” the Princess said. “I am not privy to all the details, but I believe the tale goes something like this:

“Once upon a time there was a Princess. She was beautiful and delicate and witty and fierce. But she did not care for castle life, she had dreams of adventure in far-off lands. So she went to her father, the King, whose only wish was to make her happy. She asked him to make her a Prince, and give her the freedom she so desired.

“But the King said this was impossible, and the Princess despaired. For weeks she paced the castle corridors, restless. Then, she had an idea. She knelt before her father, and said, ‘if I cannot be a Prince, make me a Knight, like my mother before me, and I shall be your right hand.’ And the King consented.

“And so the Princess became a Shining Knight. She traveled far and wide and had many adventures and fought many battles. And for a time she was happy. But then her father, the King, called her to his castle, and gave to her a sword of responsibility, and she realized that a Knight is no more free than a Princess.

“And so she killed her father, and became a Dark Knight, and became truly free, and truly miserable. She commissioned a suit of armor and hid inside of it. She became a villain, a legend, bringing misery and death wherever she went. She lived like this for many years, each more pitiable than the last.

“Then, one day, quite by chance, the Dark Knight meet the most beautiful Princess she had ever seen in all her life. She fell in love with the Princess and carried her away to a secret garden and tried desperately to win her heart.

“But the Princess’s heart was not so easily swayed. Gifts, grand gestures, adoration, the Knight tried everything to win her hand, but nothing seemed to work. It was only after many days of idle talk that the Princess, much to her own surprise—”

The Princess stopped herself here. “Well—is that how the story goes?” she asked.

The Knight answered with lowered eyes. “Yes, but—” She worked her fingertips into her palms. “But do the Knight and the Princess live happily ever after?”

The Princess laughed. She grasped the Knight’s sword, twirled it in her hand, and held the blade to the Knight’s throat.

“Ever after? Does such a thing exist, I wonder.”

She raised the sword to the sky. The edge gleamed in the afternoon sun, the tip pierced the heavens. She brought the blade down again, resting the flat edge upon the Knight’s bare and naked shoulder.

“Now—” she commanded, “swear an oath to me. Make vows and promises.”

“Swear!” the Princess demanded. “Swear to uphold the code of chivalry! Knight of honor! Swear!”

“No! Please no—” the Knight cried, tears in her eyes, “don’t make me take that oath again. It leads to ruin.”

The Princess smiled down upon the Knight. “Very well,” she said. She raised her sword again, and laid it to rest on the Knight’s left shoulder. The sword sang as it cut the air.

“Then swear!” she repeated. “Swear to the Middle Path! Make solemn vow—of right view. Of right intention!”

The Knight bowed, and stooped to one knee, water falling from her form, goosebumps on her skin. “To that, I swear.”

She raised her head, and met the Princess’s eyes. Her nostrils flared, her shoulders were square.

“SWEAR!” the Princess commanded. “Commit to right speech, right action, right livelihood!”

“I swear.” Spine straightened, muscles flexed, cool breath escaped pursed lips. Her knuckles were white, her eyes were clear.

“SWEAR! Hold to right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration! Follow the noble path!”

“I swear,” the Knight whispered, her brow on fire, her heart beating like a drum.

“Now—” the Princess adjusted her grip. “Now make a private oath to me, and I will, in turn, to you.”

“I swear.”

The Princess nodded, satisfied, and lowered the sword.

“The pledge is made, the oath is sealed, a contract formed. Now, rise—reborn! I invoke your birth name, long since uttered by human tongue: I name thee, Psyche, Knight of Butterflies!”

The Princess extended her hand, open palmed. “For that was once your name, a long time ago, was it not?”

The Knight took it, and stood. She held the Maiden’s hand in hers and spoke with breath renewed:

“Psyche, yes—how many years has it been? Since I’ve hear my own name spoken aloud—neglected, discarded in favor of title, of station. I’d almost forgotten it.” The Knight smiled softly. “But I’m not sure the name suits me now. It was discarded with purpose.”

The Princess intertwined her fingers with the Knight’s. “Choose another, or none, if it pleases you to,” she said. “And mine! Speak! I demand it! Princess ye call me. Maiden. Damsel, and more. Say my name! You think a civil tongue will protect you now? Invoke! Speak!”

The Knight breathed: “Rosemary.”

“Rosemary! Yes, call me that forever more, and leave all thought of title behind.”

“You will forgive me, won’t you?” the Knight asked.

Rosemary smiled. She touched her hair, touched Psyche’s; sighed contentedly. “I desire a very long walk,” she said. “A pilgrimage. To the old places of the earth.”

“And if some Knight or Prince were to seek you out?” Psyche asked.

“None would, none will. They would see me as a unicorn, and know I must be free. But—” the Princess said, “I will accept the company of a wanderer, a simple traveler who carries no burdens and wears no armor. For is not the sea calmer, the weather mild, the road smoother, the thistles dull—when one has company to call their own?”

Psyche reached out, and stroked the Princess’s cheek. She ran her fingers down Rosemary’s chin, met her lips and kissed her softly.

The Princess smiled, kissed the Knight’s fingers, and weaved her hands around them ‘til they were warm.

Snow was falling in the forest. It filled up the woods, covering branch and bush and forest floor. It piled, softly, silently, until the sun’s white light laid upon the earth like a blanket.

The garden gate was open, and snow fell over the vineyard, the lake, it drifted over the meadow, it dusted the roof of the summer house. It stuck to the rhododendrons, the asphodel, the day-lilies. The gazebo filled up, the little stream that ran through the sacred grove grew a skin of ice. The swans shook snowflakes from their wings.

Caught in the sudden chill, the butterflies died. Winter had come, and the world was beautiful.