Eleven Years Ago
A loud, unwelcome sound, something hard crashing, jolted Sir Ezra. It told of some new act of violence, some new brutality to initiate a fresh breaking of his heart. It was deafeningly loud, even though it came muffled through the door. His eyes moved from the door to the four Knights of Erle who stood opposite to him with their hard eyes, curved swords, and straight allegiance to the man on the other side of the thick wood of the portal. He willed a tremor out of his hands, hands that wanted to reach of their own volition to the door and open it. The trembling warned of a potential that he could not allow to become real. Those hands that always wanted to reach against will and propriety to the woman, the Queen, on the other side of the door, and touch her.
I never have. I never will.
It was a burning pain, a heart-fluttering disturbance, but loving someone so great, so lovely, driven, strong, intelligent … so perfect … was a reward of its own. Honor was said to be a gift that you gave yourself. If so, it was one that Ezra gave himself every time he stopped his hands from reaching out, every time he stopped his lips from speaking forbidden truth, but it was a painful gift. Almost as painful as love. Honor was the gift he needed to give her, more useful than giving her his useless love, because if he kept his honor he could stay here. He could guard her.
I’m the only one. The only one left.
The other Knights of the Queen had been sent away at the Prince of Erle’s insistence. His supposed fear of betrayal.
Ezra had refused to go, was now her only guardian, and his ears strained to hear through his helmet of heavy-gauge steel for any sound she might make. The armor had always been a barrier between Ezra and the world, between him and her, but it was far from the only one. The door to her royal bedchamber was thick oak, an eternity of thickness, but not half as deep as the distance his choice had made between her and him.
There was another crash and now a scream.
Her scream, but different from the others he had heard, those screams of passion and release that had dashed and broken his heart so many times. This scream was of fear, and it was accompanied by a dark undertone he had only heard once before.
“Don’t touch it,” came the flat tones of one of the Knights of Erle.
Ezra had not realized that his hands had moved to the door on their own, that he was beginning to vibrate again, almost imperceptibly for now, that the potential was once more building.
The knights opposite to him all had their hands on their sword hilts, their knuckles white with tension.
They knew. They expected the scream.
Faster than thought, in unity of mind and body, Ezra drew sword, let slip his power, filled the room with a deep, violent bell sound—a sound like ringing thunder—and swung with all the resonant love and strength and ferocity he carried within himself.
Chapter Two. Eleven Years Ago, Later That Night
“It will be war, plain and simple, bloody and violent, the ending of which we cannot know the where or when of,” said Kay, calm and even despite her dark words and rhetorical eloquence.
“What will it take to win?” asked the Queen, her long blonde hair hanging down like drooping flowers around a tired garden. That delicate, limp, arresting fan of hair hid a darkening bruise over one blue eye and puffed lips.
Seeing the injury nearly set Ezra to trembling and chiming once more. But exhaustion aided will this time, and he kept his love and concern for her caged inside. Enough passion had been loosed, enough death delivered, for one night. He was utterly spent. It had taken hours to scour the palace with his one precious ally and hunt down and execute the remaining Knights of Erle. And kill their prince.
His Queen’s husband.
Morning had nearly come before Ezra was able to force open the gates that had been stealthily locked by Erle—locked by armed men in the hours that Ezra had stood guard, ignorant of the unfolding plot—to allow Sir Marigold and everyone else who had been sent away by Erle back into the palace. Some, like Marigold, had never lost sight of the palace walls, while others had been spellbound by the deep-pitched, ominous sounds of thunder coming from the Queen’s home.
The sounds of Ezra’s soul, unleashed.
Kay smiled unhappily. She had been among the first to reenter a secretly emptied castle, though she was no knight. “In war,” she said, “there can only be losers. Though perhaps we can ensure that we lose less than Erle.”
“What can we do?” asked Ezra. He was sitting in a chair in his now ruined plate armor. He should have been standing. In either woman’s presence, he should only ever stand, but he had lost too much blood.
Why am I here?
Ezra knew why. He was the only one who knew what had happened. He was the only one who had, bleeding and half-dead, burst through the Queen’s door to confront her and the Prince of Erle.
No, that wasn’t true. Kay knows. The Queen would have told her some of what had happened while his lacerated hairline, shoulder, hand and thigh, and knee were being sewn up by Sir Marigold, and the broken metal loops dug out of his skin where they had been hammered through plate and chain and soft underlayers from some subset of the numberless blows he had taken.
“You should be dead, idiot,” Marigold had said. “This artery,” she spat while sewing the inside of his upper left thigh, “I don’t know how you didn’t bleed out. It was too close.”
Kay and the Queen would have had plenty of time to talk while his only friend had cursed him, finished sewing the ripped skin closed, helped him hastily to don once more his scrubbed, dented, grievously fatigued armor and return to his apprehensive position beside the Queen.
“There is a way out of war,” said Kay, looking sadly at Ezra. “Perhaps.”
Ezra knew that whatever that way out was, it had already been decided by these two great women. Both ladies were gazing directly at him. He asked, “What must I do?”
As the Queen abruptly looked away, thoughts hidden by bruises and hair he would have died to touch, Kay told him.
It felt like death. But death would have been less painful. Death would have been without the broken heart that preceded the end of thought and self.
Honor is a gift I gave myself.
Gone now. I have one gift only left to give.
Love is the gift you give to someone else.
Chapter Three. Redirection
“Don’t fight the steel, Gilbert,” said Ezra, his words echoing from within his own steel helm. “It has a way that it wants to move. Denying that won’t help you in a fight.”
Gilbert paused, sword over his head in position to strike downward on the thick wooden dummy. “My sword has a will?”
He was only thirteen years old, so Ezra tolerated the silly question. It’s my own fault, anyway. “Not exactly. Come to rest, and I’ll lay this out more objectively for you.”
Ezra knew that he could not be perfect, no one could—not even the Queen whom he tried so hard not to think about—but it was important to try to be perfect. And although he held a lie deep inside himself, although he hid his feelings every moment of every day, he knew that the truth should be spoken whenever possible. Even against such romantic half-truths as personifying a weapon. Fairy tales would help no one.
“Your sword has no will. There is no magic in the world.”
None without a cost.
“Magical swords are not real—but momentum, mass, weight, speed, direction are all real things that you must understand and know how to make use of. How you change the direction of your blade is affected by its balance, and your balance by your feet, your shoulders, and your wrists. To move from one direction to another, quickly and with killing force, must be done correctly.”
“Or you will be very unhappy, like our knight and your master, Sir Ezra!” came the bright girlish tones of Rachel, Lady Kristen Province’s youngest daughter, from the edge of the practice ring.
“I’m perfectly happy,” Ezra lied, then regretted letting himself be baited by her. She had been—bit by bit, through her increasingly aggressive attention—forcing his lies to the surface. Rachel was older than Gilbert by more than four years, but about the same height, though she appeared much more the finished of the two. She was a woman, and Gilbert was a boy. She had very long dark hair. Beautiful hair, Ezra had to admit, and was fit and strong in the way of active youth. It was her bright eyes that were the problem now. Eyes that followed him.
Ezra checked that his many layers of armor were strapped tight about himself.
“I see you are dressed for training,” Ezra said to her. These words, at least, he could speak truthfully. She wore long dark hose and one of her old tunics with an additional over-the-shoulder padded piece. “Throw on a vest and a leather skirt and join us.” Though paying attention to her training when he first arrived at the Province estate eleven years past had likely been the mistake that initiated her infatuation with him, he could hardly deny her interest in sword combat now.
It would have been wrong to do so.
He turned back to Gilbert, who was waiting, eyes flickering between Ezra and Rachel. Gilbert had a huge bent nose that would have put some trainers off; it was proof that accidents happened to the boy. And they might happen again. But Ezra had often thought that others jumped too quickly to conclusions. No one knew what might come of the boy, just as being kind to an ignored youngest daughter should never be viewed as a mistake.
Kindness and love are never a mistake.
Ezra still believed that, even if it had resulted in misdirected affection from Rachel and a deeper love in him that he was forced to hide.
“Where were we, Gilbert?” he asked, seeing that Rachel had donned the vest and skirt. “Helm,” he said to her and gestured to the leather-lined helmets on the rack to her right.
“Uh,” Gilbert said, “don’t fight the movement of the metal?”
“There’s something I don’t understand about that,” the boy said.
“Well, if there are right and wrong ways of redirecting—”
“Let’s say better and worse, faster or slower,” Ezra said.
“Right. Well, if these ways are known, won’t it make us predictable?”
Ezra did not rush to answer such a good question. The boy might have more potential than I thought. It was a naive question, but also one for a wise master to heed. “It could, Gilbert,” Ezra admitted. “You might say that we can be anticipated and manipulated by our tendencies. The tendencies of physics, scholars would say. But there are enough movements and transitions between movements to confound prediction. Especially once you master the basics and can move on to style and expression.”
“Can we spar?” asked Rachel.
She wants to beat Gilbert in front of me.
“Let’s try a new form first.” An old form came to mind, one he had used once in real combat. “This is called Carried by the Cyclone.”
“Ohhh, I like the sound of it,” said Rachel with a sly edge. Gilbert looked away from her.
“I will demonstrate,” said Ezra. The cyclone form was arguably not well suited to either of his students. It required tremendous amounts of energy and balance, but it was good for building both, and also … it might help him. He had been called out quite accurately by Rachel.
He was unhappy.
He took a long slow breath and deliberately stilled his mind. She had told him he must, all those years ago, and she had been correct. The only escape from the bottomless well he found himself in, the hole in his soul caused by his banishment from her, was to still his mind.
Without judgment, he took in his surroundings. A man who wanted to ride a cyclone should know what was within reach. He was positioned inside a set of stone buildings, in a ring of sand, bounded by a cobbled square with equipment and weapons stacked in wooden shelves and racks. A tall, open building stood adjacent. A few men and women trained inside, Ezra’s older students and members of the household guard, all pupils in one way or another. The shadow of the Province castle fell across the building opposite the square. This was where Lady Kristen and her daughters lived, where the business of the earldom was conducted.
Of all the stone buildings in the compound, Ezra’s private residence was farthest from the castle. It was set apart from the others, nearest to the gate, farthest from people, as Ezra had requested when Lady Kristen had taken him in. This was where he had lived for eleven years, though his idea of home was elsewhere, along with his heart.
Ezra drew his sword and set himself in motion, stepping and thrusting as the form dictated, in a set of movements not unlike a dance, but with a very different meaning. The cyclone form involved many spinning moves, spinning blocks with a special hardened and flattened vambrace, and spinning attacks in which incredible retracted speed and torque were translated into terrific rotational velocity at a suddenly extended sword point.
A stilled mind was one of two things that protected Ezra from the pain and unhappiness of his banishment by the Queen. The other was its diametric opposite and incongruous equivalent: a mind perfectly and fully occupied. Such perfect attention also left no room for pain or obsession.
Only when perfectly still or completely focused, did Ezra escape the fact and consequence that his heart beat only for the woman who had sacrificed him.
He spun his sword in a tight whirl about his wrists, within a spin about his shoulders, within a rotation about his hips. There was a joy in it, an unwinding of tension and a release of kinetic energy. A high-pitched whirring followed the sword’s blurring motion, splitting the quiet morning air. It sounded like a sharp birdcall or the wind of a storm through a pipe.
It was the closest to a chime that Ezra could allow himself, emanating partly from his being and partly from the incredible angular momentum of the sharpened metal. It was an expression of joy in the world, a release of power and freedom, which the man, encased so tightly in layers of metal, so badly needed.
The form built to this release nine times, one for each of the silent, dead gods. Nine times, Ezra split the air, parted its heavy stillness, and brought it to singing life.
Rachel and Gilbert both clapped when he finished, as did the guardsmen who had come out to see what could possibly be producing such a piercing, lonely, haunting sound.
“Now I will show you how to do it,” said Ezra, panting.
“Sir Ezra, you are summoned,” came the voice of Pontes, Lady Kristen’s secretary, through his door.
Ezra was deep in the rows and columns of the treasury book that Pontes had entrusted to his care, and he had been working by lantern light. “I’m almost through, Pontes. Does she need me right now?”
Since being banished, Ezra had learned accounting and devoted many long evenings to performing audits for Pontes. It occupied his mind in the darker moments, which he desperately needed. But this was not the only reason Ezra did it. Someone he loved had also spent long hours poring over ledgers. When he was occupied in the late hours of the night by the procedures of finance, he could almost imagine that, instead of sending him away, she had kept him by her side to help her with her endless tasks.
“I am afraid so, sir,” came the muffled tones.
“Are you alone?”
Ezra walked to his barred door. His outbuilding had few windows—and those with tight shutters and heavy curtains—and an even heavier woolen carpet. “Then come in, Pontes,” he said, opening the door.
Pontes was perhaps thirty, with a dramatic widow’s peak of thread-thin brown hair and a spare build. Ezra had thought many times that the secretary’s careful personality suited his looks. Both had a kind of parsimony about them.
“Take a look at the ledger while I change, would you,” Ezra said as he went to find something more appropriate to wear than old pants and a sweater with holes in the elbows.
“This is excellent work, sir,” Pontes said wonderingly after a moment, though Ezra had helped him many times in the past.
Shrugging into his padded shirt, Ezra said. “Well, it’s important that we account for every horseshoe, every pickaxe, every plank of wood, isn’t it?”
“You may be the only other person here who would say that,” Pontes said under his breath, still looking at the book. He ran a long, bony finger along a row of numbers. “Every number does tell a story.”
“It does,” said Ezra. “A story with no words.” The phrase reminded him of something the Queen had said to him eleven years in the past.
Pontes closed and locked the ledger, turned around smiling, and froze.
Ezra was halfway into his plate armor. “I need you to help me with this,” he said.
“Sir,” Pontes said in his always proper, always deferential tone, “I believe that Lady Kristen would like you to attend her without your armor.”
Which meant that she had given the secretary explicit instructions.
“I can only give her my best effort,” Ezra said, organizing his helmet and gauntlets.
It’s safer this way. For everyone.
“But sir …”
“Formality is important, wouldn’t you agree?”
This Pontes could not argue with. He was the soul of propriety. Without another word, he lifted—with some difficulty—Ezra’s double-strength breastplate.
A quarter of an hour later, Sir Ezra and Secretary Pontes stood on the verge of the great stone hall of Lady Kristen, looking through its open door and down a long, straight passage.
“We cannot go until we have conducted our interview,” sounded a querulous male voice from within. “We simply will not. This is too rare an opportunity, and we have been put off for far too long. Give us just two days. One day to interview him, and it will be done. As a service to natural science.”
Ezra did not recognize the pedantic voice, but he knew that speaking in that way to Lady Kristen was a hazardous breach of etiquette. He did not hear what she said in response, but—looking down the long aisle—he saw what happened next.
Sergeant Estes and another guard had taken the man by either arm, hard enough that he yelped and dropped a strangely shaped something. It was, unaccountably, a birdcage to judge from the squawk that echoed down the hall. There was a scuffle, and the man’s companion, a woman, crouched over the cage, made some comforting noises, picked it up, and followed the man as he was bundled ungracefully down the hall toward Ezra and Pontes.
They retreated a pace to hold the doors open as this strange quartet approached. The bird began to sing, warbling beautifully from within its shrouded two-foot-tall cage. Sergeant Estes grimaced as he neared Ezra, his face-wide mustache turning up with it.
No helm. Ezra pointed at his own heavy helmet and Estes bobbed his head, knowing he would hear of the breach in protocol later.
The two guests looked out of place. Both wore long robes, like some sort of priest or academic. An embroidered patch above their right breasts showed a tall rose bush sheltering a large, stalking cat—a puma perhaps. Neither of the two was young, though the woman’s face told Ezra she was older despite her full red hair and slim build. “You played that ill, Parsons,” she muttered as they passed by.
In seconds they were gone, though Ezra could hear the bird singing long after the night swallowed them all.
“Academics, I would hazard,” said Pontes.
Setting aside the strangeness of academics and birds in cages, Ezra stepped fully inside. Except for a few servants and the lady herself, the hall was now empty. As they crossed the long open space between door and dais, Rachel rushed in from a side door and went to her mother’s high, padded throne. Both women wore sleek blue dresses, and their faces were animated in discussion.
“I must leave you now,” whispered Pontes, “but thank you for your help.” He gestured with the ledger in a kind of salute.
“You’re welcome,” Ezra responded, sensing a strange gravitas from the other man.
Pontes smiled fractionally. “Good fortune to you, Knight.” He carried the accounts that Ezra had been reconciling with him but, instead of leaving, as Ezra had expected, he seated himself at a side table. Close enough to be called upon by Lady Kristen but far enough away to feign ignorance of what was said by her.
“Why?” Ezra heard Rachel cry. “No!” she hissed to her mother.
He looked closer and saw that there were tears in the girl’s eyes.
Ezra slowed as he neared the lady and her daughter, giving them time to end or escalate their argument, halting at the edge of the dais. They abruptly ended their discussion, and as one, gazed directly at him. Rachel’s eyes were wet. Kristen’s were … difficult to read. Lady Kristen was a striking woman. Raven-haired like her daughter, but wise in the ways of the world and infinitely more sophisticated.
“Come closer, Ezra. Kneel at my feet.”
It was a command both intimate and domineering. Ezra had always wondered if Lady Kristen might have meant it to be taken both ways, for when her halls were empty, she always asked him to take a knee before her. At first, she had done it a few times in front of others too, but this had stopped when, during one of her periodic visits, Sir Marigold had witnessed the request. She had called out, “What is it precisely that you would like kissed, Lady?”
That was the only time that Ezra had ever seen Lady Kristen blush.
Kneeling in plate armor was difficult, but Ezra wore his armor every day. When the Knights of Erle had taken him down and tried to murder him on the ground, he had regained his feet despite their numbers. He suppressed feelings and memories of that night every day, every hour. But some part of him remembered and would not allow weakness to creep in. Some part of him dreamt that the Queen would one day call him back, and if she did, that part demanded that he stay strong for her. He sank quietly and gracefully to his knee before the lady.
“You wore your armor,” Rachel complained, which caused her mother to scowl at her.
Ezra did not answer. He was here for Kristen. When she returned her gaze to him, he said, “To better serve you, Lady.”
Kristen extended her left hand, and Ezra removed his helm, placed it on the floor to the side, and kissed her gently on the knuckle. He maintained eye contact with her as he did this. Her fingers very lightly covered his and held him there.
“Knight, do you enjoy your service here?” she asked, her hand still in his, her eyes not leaving his.
“Yes, my lady,” he said, though the truth was more complex. He did not wish to hurt her or Rachel with his past, or with truths they could not hear. He wanted to release her hand. The contact was uncomfortable. It implied a relationship he did not want, but she was the lady of the house, and he did not wish to embarrass her. Ezra was certain that Pontes was surreptitiously watching, but the secretary was no brash spitfire in the mold of Sir Marigold, who would have spoken up no matter what.
What is the etiquette?
“Good. Pontes tells me that you have a keen eye for finances.”
“That is generous of him,” replied Ezra, meaning it. Few were kind to the bookkeepers. “It is my pleasure, my lady.”
Lady Kristen smiled. There was something of the predator in her upturned lips. “He also says that you work long into the night, every night, on my behalf.”
What is happening here? Ezra knew that his work habits were well understood by the lady. He did not break his shared gaze with her to check Pontes’s expression, but he thought of the lesson earlier with Gilbert and Rachel. He suspected some manipulation was coming, and he worried that he had never mastered the basics of the game being played to even hope to turn it aside.
“I have decided to make you my seneschal, Sir Ezra. What do you think of that?”
Dread seized Ezra, but he suppressed any show of it, as he knew he must. “I am . . . surprised. There must be better men for that than I.”
Lady Kristen released his hand, finally, and said, “I think not. You will have to move into the castle proper.”
No, no, no. That would not do. What if I dream of her? What if they hear? What if they feel it?
“May I think on this, my lady?” he asked, wondering how to get out of it. Trying to think what act of physics or momentum might redirect events.
She smiled again. “By all means, Knight. Consider it on your trip to the capital where you will assist Pontes in negotiating our new wheat taxes and iron rates.”
“No!” said Rachel.
Ezra was too shocked to say anything. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists to still the vibrations welling into life in the core of his being.
Lady Kristen maintained her smile, only widening it, sensing and seeming to enjoy his discomfiture. “You will need new clothes. You know Danielle Stonehouse, of course. She is the finest seamstress in the earldom. Go into town and have her fit you with formal dress.” She caressed his metal clad shoulder with the hand he had kissed. “You won’t need this armor anymore.”
“But I have been banished,” whispered Ezra, struggling to hold old wounds closed. He felt like the air his sword had split so often. Sundered. Exposed.
“No,” said Kristen. “That has been rescinded.”
Ezra felt like he was in a dream. Rescinded? He wondered what had changed politically to allow his return. His banishment had been the sacrifice necessary to avoid war with the Kingdom of Erle. Had enough time now passed to allow his return? Had Erle forgotten about his murder of their prince? Or was the Queendom now powerful enough that his banishment was no longer required?
These were surface thoughts. Deeper down, Ezra was reeling, fighting the wound that had suddenly burst. He struggled to hold his feelings inside and listen to what Lady Kristen was saying.
“Go to the city of the Queen one final time.” She leaned forward and presented her hand to him for another kiss. “And put it properly behind you.”
Ezra did not remember if he kissed her hand or not before he took to his feet. He could not say whether he had nodded to Rachel or Pontes. His mind felt like it was whirled in a cyclone, turning on Kristen’s ill-conceived notion that going to the city would allow him to achieve some sort of closure, turning on the question of why his banishment had been rescinded, turning on his suppressed memories of the Queen, and on the decade and more of feelings he had denied.
He turned and turned inside, fearing that his carefully nurtured balance had been lost, that a massive, dread potential was building in him again to some new, unknown, uncontrollable purpose.