Flier’s Heart

The new raiment of a kite rider of Heart-Home chafes under my armpits. Thick lamb-wool lining, soft and warm against the chill of high currents, waxed leather outside to stream the wind, and all the clips needed to carry kit and stay secure to the kite. I’d had my Maltese kit two years until Grimwerd cut it off me to get at my leg. I was just starting to wear it in and get used to the Maltese white and red. Heart-Home’s green and blue feel just as strange now. Teren’s boy tied the left leg in a knot so it wouldn’t trail. He even brought me a couple of crutches.

My head still swims, and my stomach slowly revolves, issuing a gentle warning that food will not be made welcome.

I wait in the antechamber to the Chancellor’s apartments. No steward stands by the door, and I’m not certain how to proceed.

It’s ten minutes before a servant enters on some errand and sees me. He pauses.

“M’lady?”

“I seek an audience with the Warden,” I tell him.

“She does not bed here, sir. She’s taken the Princess Mereg’s quarters. I can help you there if you’re expected-“

“No need. I know the way.”

*

Princess Mereg’s quarters is near the keep’s bottom, with its own door into the gardens and easy access to the stables. The Princess loved to ride. I never spoke with her, she was the chancellor’s daughter, but I would often see her and her entourage riding along the high paths of the Alps. She would wave to me as I passed and I would loop. It became a game. She would wave and I would loop. Sometimes her laugh would carry on the wind.

Her retiring room is draped in folds of forest green cloth. Layered carpets spread across the white pine floor. Several spindly and finely carved chairs sit near the fire and I wait in one, which groans like my wings in a cross-breeze. The panels of one wall have been decorated with a mural – the shapes of the Alps under a patchwork of clouds. The painting is inexpert in quality but resplendent with tiny details – the work of years. A set of paints sits on a little table beneath the mural. A bow and quiver hang from hooks above the hearth, painted in detail by the same hand. The quiver looks half-full.

I study the mural as I wait. The artist drew the hills full of knights, banners, ladies in costumes from past and present, and even a masquerade on a dance floor on the edge of a cliff. The sky of the mural is full of kite riders doing loops.

The door from the gardens opens and the Warden enters. I had expected her to use a different door. It’s gotten late and the moon silvers the door-frame.

I rise on my crutches and do my best to bow. “I beg your pardon, Warden, for calling so late in the evening.”

“Sit Sir Castor, God’s blessing but sit, it’s I who owe you the apology.” She closes the door behind her. The firelight makes the black of her armor like a shadow and the gold of its gilding shine. She seems a scarecrow made of shining briars. I did not expect she would still be armed at this hour. “When the servants said you wished to speak with me I went to the room we’d left you. Now I’ve made you wait as well as cost you a leg.”

“Sir has cost me nothing. The leg I cost myself.” I wait until she’s sunk onto a chair before I sit. The crutches make the action awkward.

“You seem well. One would think you had lost your leg years and not hours ago, by how you balance and move.” Her chair groans but holds.

Her greaves have leather soles set with tiny spikes. The articulation of the joints is extremely refined. I don’t recognize the black lacquer, but it isn’t scraping off at the joints where the metal plates meet. This is the finest armor I’ve seen. It shames Octane of Malta’s five-thousand florin harness, which took a half-dozen fine smiths two years to make.

“My Lady honors me.” I can think of no better reply and so turn my attention to the fire to gather my thoughts.

“You wish to return to your country.”

I clear my throat. “Yes. This night, if it please you.”

“So quickly? To fly at night seems a great risk, even were you not injured.”

“I know the route well. The ridge winds will carry me and the moon is good. I have been testing my strength. I believe I am able.”

A log in the fire pops and shoots out sparks. The wind whispers at a window.

“It seems I am a poor host,” she stands to go to a little table by the fire where a bottle of wine waits. She pours two goblets. “Will you drink with me?”

The armor leaves dents in the carpet – footprints that cradle tiny tears from the spikes. She turns back, offering the silver and jeweled goblet full of wine. I take it, but do not drink.

“If I am to fly My Lady, I- I do not often partake of wine, it dulls my balance. I’m sorry-“

“Do as you will.” She sips but then sets her own goblet down.

“The Warden is most gracious, but the wind is my wine-“

“And flight your song,” she finishes, and the heels of her grieves click together.

My brow furrows. To keep our heels together is our first and most thorough training. She must have interviewed other kite riders. The silence lasts a breath too long but I’m not certain how to proceed. Weighted words have never been my domain. I prefer the voice of the wind which understands only the conversation of action and reaction.

“You study my feet,” her voice has quieted and holds a note like sadness, “as though my face were above your station. Are you not a knight, as I am?”

I lift my eyes. I hadn’t realized I was doing it. Her eyes glint in the firelight. Her hands rest on the arms of the chair, making the metal of the gauntlets seem like manacles.

“Begging my Lady’s pardon,” I stammer, “but she has not offered me a name.”

She nods, expecting the question. “I am one of the thousand Paladine of Charlemagne. We surrender our names when we enter that order and so I have none to give you. But when I must be distinguished, I am called Rabbit.”

I blink. Gears in my thinking which had stood too-long frozen grind back into motion. Paladine of Charlemagne. I had not heard the order was renewed. To renew a chivalric order in these late days, when gonne, cannon and ship have ended the age of heavy horse and heavy armor, would seem at best a bit of pomp – a prize to gild the chests of political favorites. But if all the Paladine can move as she has moved, then they will be the first legitimate challenge to the Knights Round in five hundred years, since the age of Arthur the Great.

A thousand of them. The Knights Round famously have never more than one hundred and forty-nine. I see now why she caught me in broad daylight before the eyes of the city. This was proof. This was a message all would remember. Not a night action of blood and chaos as it was when the city surrendered, but a clear and undeniable demonstration of her awesome power.

Then she took me prisoner, called me friend, and treated my wounds. The action is clear: resist and you will be crushed, surrender and you will be treated fairly. There is no escape.

The Holy Emperor intends to challenge Celtea.

She sits before me with the flickering light gentling her features, but in the metal of her hands I see the continent drowning in a rain of fire.

“You think deeply Sir Castor.” She wears a half-smile and her eyes seem bottomless.

“Octane’s keep will be your next step. From there Grenoble is in reach and from there Lyon. Before or just after, a separate force will move into the Friesian Seelande to challenge the Pax Celticus more directly but here, along the French border, the Templar stronghold at l’Écluse will resist to the last. That will be a bloody action even for you, but if you are lucky then the Celts will be too busy in the Seelande to directly intervene. Your Emperor must hope King Philip of France will capitulate. I do not think that hope is vein. France has no airship fleet and no weapon like the Paladine or the Knights Round. His only action can be to wait, try to play both sides and pay tribute to the victor. By Christmas the Holy Emperor’s flag could fly from every tower between Toulouse and Lodz.”

“I cannot speak of my Emperor’s thinking,” she says carefully. “But your assessment of my order’s significance honors me.”

“Perhaps The Warden will forgive an impertinent question-“

“I will answer what I can, but it would please me if you would use the name I have given you.”

I blink and struggle for a moment. “My Lady Rabbit-“ it sounds ridiculous.

“Just Rabbit, Sir Castor.” Her eyes twinkle but she doesn’t smile.

“Sir Rabbit?” I ask but it still doesn’t sound right.

“If you must.”

“Sir Rabbit,” I can’t do it. “It’s a strange name, forgive my saying.”

“Have you known no-one named Rabbit?” Her head tilts slightly.

“Well, no My- uh Lady Rabbit. I- there was a friend once… We as kite riders sometimes give each other familiar names. I had a friend, Mary Winder, whose body was very small. Her kite would buffet her and she would bounce suddenly up or down. We called her Rabbit for that but it wasn’t…”

I’ve trailed off.

The room’s stone walls close like the fingers of a fist. Firelight makes the clouds in the mural drift and the hanging drapes seem dark sails in a moving world. The smell of the wine in my hands makes my head spin. I can nearly smell the pine smoke over the Eiffel and see the fires of the Roman encampment. She’s harder and her nose angled by old injury. A slight dent mars where her left cheekbone was broken. The armor makes her seem larger than she is but she still fit in the spindly little chair. The close-cut hair… I should have seen it. I should have seen it right away, but I was afraid to look her in the face. It’s been five years.

I clear my throat but it doesn’t stop my eyes from watering. “…her name, your name is Mary Windor.”

The wine cup seems too heavy. I set it down but it takes extra care – my left leg’s absence almost unbalances me.

When I’ve straightened she’s still not spoken. Her fingers grip the chair-arms as if afraid she’ll fall out.

The gap stretches on and the wind whispers at the window. Her truncated cry tears my ears. The snapping of pine branches.

She clears her throat. “You married Elena of Malta.”

I have to pry my answer from someplace deep like a scrap of cloth from a patch of briers. “I did.”

“Had you met her?” A fierceness underscores her question.

“I had not.”

“Do you love him?”

“I do.” The last answer is heavier than the first.

She searches my face for a moment before turning her eyes to the fire.

“One of the Paladine trainers saw our flight over the Eiffel and was impressed. He sent a squire to see if I had survived the crash. I had, though my body was broken. I should have died except for secrets the Palladine keep. I was offered the same choice that we faced on joining the Kite Orphans and I made the same decision.”

The curtness in her tone speaks of a pain she’s tried to swallow but hasn’t entirely sat in her stomach. I cannot tell if that pain is old or present.

“To forsake your country-“ the anger in my voice surprises me.

“To live,” she cuts me off as her eyes flash like cannon. “To have a place, and the chance to earn the skill by which I might own some measure of control over my destiny. We made the same choice in joining the Kite Orphans. I do not apologize.”

I shake. Her eyes try to swallow me.

“We held vigil for you.” It comes a whisper. “We lit the candle lamp.”

“One of countless you’ve sent into the sky. How many? One a month?”

“Not so many as that.” It hurts to talk, but not in my throat.

“The training with the Palladine was not so dangerous.” She turns her eyes to the fire. “I was respected. They tried to call me Fearless, but I would answer only to Rabbit.”

“That’s why they sent you here. You knew the city. Even with your power you would have needed to know the keep’s byways and doors.”

Her eyes twinkle, reflecting the fire. “Shall I tell you a secret? Like we once did?”

Countless horrors surround this tiny room. My past is conquered by my enemies, my future will be flames, but her smile kindles a warmth in me I haven’t felt in many years.

She leans forward. Her lips turn up, baring teeth which, on the left side where her cheek was broken, are knocked slightly askew. “There were ten of us. Ten came at night, wearing the same armor. We moved quickly. When the city surrendered the other nine left – all before dawn. It was a trick, you see.”

I cover my face with my palm. Fencworth, Tallow, Jestings, and the others who fell – none were friends precisely, but all were pillars of my childhood. Those mighty figures in their armor were the defenders of my home. We served as their eyes, they served as our sword and our wall. We were the wind, they the fire.

I’m surprised to find metal touching my palm. My left hand, which hangs from my armrest, is wrapped in the metal fingers of her gauntlet. Articulate plates pinch my skin. She’s slid forward, going to one knee so she could reach my hand. The metal of her gauntlets is dry. Her eyes are not.

“They believe it was me.”

Some barrier in her eyes gives way. The amused smile on her lips cracks like porcelain. She lets go my hand, but I catch her by her wrist. She starts to rise but I hold on and she sinks again to her knees.

“You did what you had to,” I tell her.

She blinks and looks to the fire. “They shouldn’t have fought-“ Her tone curls like a broken lute string.

“They had to,” I say.

She glances at her hands, where her fingers have made fists.

“I’m glad it’s you here. It wasn’t hard you know. Killing them. But now I can’t sleep. Sir Tallow sponsored me my first wings, did you know that? Sir Tallow gave me my first wings.”

Tears come. She covers her face with a metal-gloved hand.

I slide from my chair to put my arms around her. She tugs at the loop of my harness. “Downdraft,” she whispers. “Fart cannon. You’ve made me cry in my armor. You’ll get your leg-blood all over it.” But she doesn’t let me go.

We rest our foreheads against each-other, and her gauntlet cools the back of my neck. No words need be spoken. Breath and whispering wind converse with the crackle of the fire. She turns her face so her lips brush mine.

Elen. Who won’t push my wheelchair.

I take a deep breath.

“Forgive me for having lost my leg,” I jest. “I hope its oozing isn’t a minor inconvenience.”

Mary smiles and lets me go so she can lean back on her hands. Mary who danced with the high wind, who threw her tiny body from the cliff face with a trebuchet, and who would sleep with her hand in mine to keep the shadows away.

“I convinced myself that you must have perished by now,” she says. “I never expected I’d live to have you sitting in my lap.”

Indeed, I sit across her legs.

“It’s not the most comfortable,” I admit.

“We train to sleep in this steel but the sleep is never deep.” She shrugs, something I’m amazed the metal permits. “But it takes two to remove it and for the appearance of the thing, I have come without even a squire.”

“There’s a good song in that,” I muse, “The fall of Heart-Home to a lone knight unaccompanied even by a squire.”

“I hope so.” Her eyes are flat. “That was the plan.”

“A plan which required you to attack your old home-“

“It would have been much worse had I left it to the others.”

“-and then stay here alone, sleeping in your armor until your squires arrive?” I finish, frowning.

“Yes. I expect them in a few more days.”

I shake my head. “You keep many mysteries.”

“There’s a woman under this armor,” she answers, her head cocked to the side.

“A woman who can throw me with the strength of a catapult?”

“If you swear not to return to Octane, I may satisfy that question.”

Though spoken softly, her declaration hits me like a sudden headwind.

My left pant-leg is tied in a knot which makes the stripes of Heart-Home’s green and blue criss-cross. Under those colors, the bandages were white. My wound offers no threat of marring her armor with my red or white humors. That was a jest. This is not. The war is not. Elen is not. Octane is not. Octane’s keep will fall. I should return to them to bring word of what I’ve seen. They’ll surrender. They must. If I don’t return, they’ll have no word but rumor – rumor they won’t believe. They’ll fight and soldiers who might otherwise live, will not.

She should want me to return. It will save her a battle.

I see nothing in her face but tear streaks, scars and reflected firelight.

“Taking Heart-Home had a cost,” she admits. “Taking Octane’s keep won’t, if you’re here.”

On the mural behind her the winged figure loops over and over again. Among the dancers in the painted masquerade, one wears a kite rider’s raiment.

“Say yes,” Mary urges very quietly. She rests on her hands with her shoulder-plates nearly touching her ears. “Stay here. Doctor Grimwerd has already begun work on a new leg for you. He went on and on about proper balance, to not impair your flying. He feels as I do that you’re a symbol of Heart-Home. You belong here.”

I meet her eyes and my head shakes of its own accord.

I will, cries my heart.

“I can’t,” say my lips, my duty, my husband.

*

Dawn breaks over the Alps and I stand on the keep’s pinnacle balcony. I watch the golden fires of morning spread through a low hanging haze that boils between the hills and makes white waves over the peaks. The haze makes a rout I know well seem foreign.

I test the flex of my wings. They’re unharmed. I’ve checked thrice.

Fear boils in my gut. I’m not sure I know how to fly. I’ve seen it happen. A flier survives a crash but their body forgets how to balance, how to do the things it once did without thinking. There’s no good reason for the loss, except fear. If they don’t conquer the fear, then they have to learn again as if for the first time. Few survive trying.

A hand holds the loop at my back, keeping me balanced on one leg – assisting with the weight of my harness and wings.

“You’re ready,” she says – not a question. An assurance.

“Yes,” I answer without confidence.

She does not say “please stay.”

Sudden acceleration. I tumble, angle my head down. The wind claws at me. Rocks rise like a great hand. My wings spread, catch, cut the wind. I wobble. The balance is wrong – like I wear a badly packed messenger bag. Muscles strain to angle my weight in compensation. I level – turn away from stone fingers. I’ve never flown under a worse burden, but my wings carry me.

I pass the outer wall. Chevalier’s Folly opens below. My heart tumbles away down that chasm.

A thousand times I’ve left the city. I’ve even moved away with no thought to return. Never have I felt I was leaving it behind.

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