in which Horatio knows best
Am I a villain now? Rhema thought one dark morning a week after the wedding. Everybody is in love except for me. Everybody is doing right except for me. When I do my duty, it makes me miserable. Is it possible to be both right and happy?
She leaned against the balcony rail of Westbridge, no closer to a decision than she had ever been. Painful tingles of adrenaline coursed through her body, rebelling against the early hour, but her mind would not let her sleep.
The sky remained overcast. Not the heavy overcast, where varying shades of gray promise a spectacular show of a thunderstorm. Nor was it a light overcast, when whispy clouds allow the sun to make the sky glow with orange and purple. No, it was a dull, gray, flat morning that made the sunrise not more interesting than the lighting of a match.
Rhema fell into a rocking chair, closed her eyes, and attempted to will the day away.
“---ooorrniiinng!” The wind whistled in her direction. Rhema squinted at the flat horizon and the colorless silhouette of the castle. She suspected the voice was nothing but a dream that wasn’t done with her yet.
“Rhema!” the little voice on the wind said. In view was the west wall of Iderburg Castle, and on top of the wall was a figure, so far away he looked like an ant, waving his hand in the air.
“Good morning!” the ant yelled in her direction with cupped hands. It was Bastion.
He turned and said something to the two other ants there with him, then the three walked down the wall together, disappearing into a tower.
What is he doing, and why is he doing it this early?
The answer wasn’t ready coming. She resolved herself not to think about Bastion any more that morning, which is why it surprised her more than anyone to find herself riding out to meet him mere minutes later to join him on a hunt.
Her mood was as flat as the day. The hunting clothes Mara had picked out for her itched. Her riding cap hung too close to her eyes. The horse’s trot made her back sore. The turf she galloped over was still soggy in places from melted snow and splashed mud onto her boots, which she wasn’t entirely convinced she had tied correctly.
Bastion joined her in the field. Wherever his mind was, it certainly wasn’t in the gray place she thought they were in. His face shone as if producing its own light. His back arched like a knight riding out to victory. Even his horse, white of course, trolloped along as if it were in a bright meadow instead of a muddy, gray field. Rhema’s heart beat so suddenly and so quickly that she gripped tight to the horse’s reigns so she would not fall.
“Good morning, Baroness Rhema. I am glad that you could join us,” Bastion said. A beagle jogging along beside him yipped at her in greeting. Its great tongue slathered the air with oblivious delight.
“My pleasure,” said Rhema, attempting to appear comfortable on her horse.
“I have never seen you awake so early, or else I would have invited you to join us before.”
“I am not usually awake this early by choice.”
“You will not regret it. It is a fine day for a hunt.” Bastion smiled.
“If you say so,” said Rhema.
“I do say so. Come along, if you are coming. Horatio is already far ahead of us.”
Bastion kicked his horse into a run and rode down the hill toward the woods before Rhema could ask who Horatio was.
They came to the edge of a clearing of some tall, yellow grass that had survived the snow. They abandoned their horses there and continued ahead on foot. Their guards kept a respectable distance behind. A few yards into the grass, Bastion stopped and perused the sky. The beagle by his side stood alert, sniffing the ground and looking to his master.
“Do you regularly invite ladies with you on your hunting trips?” asked Rhema, carefully lifting the hem of her beige skirt to avoid it being snagged by stray nature.
“Dahlia enjoyed our hunting adventures, and I have gone with groups that included ladies from court. The VanGall girls are especially keen with rifles, but not very adept with animals. They tell me my mother was talented at this sport, before she passed. It is a sort of Van Sever tradition.”
“Somehow it is difficult for me to imagine Queen Maye, or Princess Dahlia, for that matter, going about with a hunting rifle.”
“Do you see such a rifle?”
Bastion wore thick leather gloves that covered his arms up to his shoulders, but his hands were empty. The only weapon on his person was a small pistol, which he frequently carried at his side whenever he was out.
“No. You have none, come to think of it. Just what are we doing out here?”
“You will see when Horatio gets here.”
“So this is not Horatio?” said Rhema. She indicated the dog, who busied himself sniffing the edges of the grass.
“No,” said Bastion.
Rhema liked surprises, but she did not like secrets, at least secrets that did not belong to herself. She folded her arms and glanced back at the guards, expecting whichever one was ‘Horatio’ to step forward with their hunting equipment. Bastion kept his watch on the tree line.
“I hope his handlers have not lost him,” he said. “While I was away, I think he forgot some of his training. Ah ha!”
Bastion whistled twice. He tightened the glove on his left arm. He whistled again and raised his forearm.
The hawk made a lazy loop over their heads before finally diving down to a sudden perch on Bastion’s arm. He gripped the string hanging from the hawk’s claw and fed him a small piece of meat.
“This is Horatio?” Rhema ducked from the bird’s wide, flapping wings.
Bastion stroked the bird’s back with pride. “Horatio, say hello to the baroness.”
Horatio squawked at Bastion’s hand, looking for another piece of meat.
“I did not know you were a falconer.”
“You do not know everything about me.”
“You do not know everything about me either.”
“That I am certain is true.” Something about the way Bastion said it made Rhema blush. Horatio shifted his weight between his long-taloned feet.
“Is he safe? Can I touch him?” she asked.
“Gently. He is skittish.”
Rhema ran a single finger over the feathers on Horatio’s back.
“Do you want to hold him?” said Bastion.
“May I?” Rhema reached out her other hand.
“Woa! Not like that. He’ll hurt you. Here—“ Bastion pulled an extra glove out of his bag. “Take this.”
Rhema took off one of her riding gloves replaced it with Bastion's glove. It was too large for her, going well past her elbow. The heavy, warm, and thick material made her feel as if she were inside of Bastion’s arm.
Her heart collided with her rib cage. It hurt.
“Good. Now hold your arm up like mine. Be very still,” said Bastion.
He nudged Horatio in her direction. Horatio flapped his wings and would not move.
“I apologize. He can be rude. Try this.” Bastion took a piece of meat from his pouch and gave it to her. With coaxing, Horatio relented and stepped over to her arm.
“He is heavy,” said Rhema. Horatio unfurled his wings. Rhema ducked, but not fast enough to avoid the bird knocking her hat off her head. His feathers tickled her face. She giggled.
“I’m sorry. Did he clip you?” Bastion asked.
“No. I am fine. He surprised me.”
The bird was so heavy that she didn’t know how long she could hold him. She wondered if Bastion would help her. She wanted Bastion to touch her arm. She blinked in shock at her own thoughts.
“Watch this,” said Bastion. “Baxter, go!” The dog was away like a gunshot into the grass. Only the speed of Baxter’s tail exceeded the speed of his legs.
“Quickly, Rhema, but not too quickly. Lift Horatio up as high as you can, and hold him away from your face.”
Rhema did as he said. Baxter barked in the distance. Bastion took hold of Rhema’s wrist and shoulder and pushed her arm toward the sky. Baxter’s tail circled in the grass. Flutters of small wings signaled the launch of a cluster of quail flying away from him.
“Let go of him, Rhema,” Bastion said in her ear.
“What?” she said, distracted by Bastion’s touch on her shoulder.
“Let go.” He loosened her grip on the string attached to Horatio’s leg. Her hand opened. Bastion whistled, and Horatio leaped. The power of his ascent shoved Rhema’s arm back and left a mark in her glove.
Bastion let go of her too – Why does he always let go? – and watched Horatio’s flight. The cloud cover prevented the sun from getting in their eyes, and each stroke of Horatio’s wings were clear and set apart from the gray canvas. Bastion became quiet. So quiet. It wasn’t the sort of quiet of not speaking. It was a breathless quiet, as if the entire world had disappeared and the only ones left were him and the bird. He wasn’t there. He was somewhere else. Hovering between the immense, invisible space between heaven and earth. Rhema understood this kind of quiet.
At that moment, she also understood that no one is more attractive than when they are doing something they love.
“There!” Bastion exclaimed, pointing. Horatio closed in on an unfortunate quail. It panicked and dashed below a hill. Horatio dove after it.
Bastion ran over the hill after the birds. A series of muffled thumps ensued, followed by Bastion expressing several impolite expletives.
“Bastion,” Rhema yelled. “Are you all right?” When he didn’t answer, she snatched up her skirt and ran. A dread gathered in her, as if someone had torn a hole in her chest. She crested the hill and looked down. She found Bastion laying flat on his back at the bottom and singing. He lifted his head, saw Rhema half running, half sliding down to him, and laughed like a drunk man. Rhema rolled her eyes, which made him laugh even harder.
“This is less than dignified, I am afraid,” he said, coming up to his elbows.
“Do not move. You may be injured.” Less worried for his welfare, Rhema slowed her run to a careful walk down the snow-sopped hill.
“I assure you, nothing is broken except perhaps my pride.”
On reaching the bottom, Rhema put her hands on her hips and said, “I thought we were of the understanding that if there were any falling to be done, I am the one to be doing it.”
“You do have the better practice,” said Bastion.
He lay down again and spread out his arms in the grass. She knelt next to him, assessing that there were no visible injuries.
“What are you doing now?” said Rhema.
“I am lying in the dirt,” he answered.
Rhema could clearly imagine the sound of Mrs. Delannoy’s voice disapproving of this entire situation. ‘The indignity!’ she would exclaim. ‘This absolute childishness is entirely unbefitting of a monarch!’
Could he have a head injury? Bastion’s hat had flown off in the fall. His grass-covered hair peaked and scattered like the feathers of an excited bird. His face was so content, so simple and beautiful. Why did he have to look that way? It made everything more confusing. Life was much simpler back when Rhema found Bastion common.
She suddenly had an urge to lie down in the dirt with him. She wanted to put her head on his chest, close her eyes, and listen to wind in the grass and the rhythm of his heartbeat....
She shook such notions out of her head. Her back and arms stiffened.
“What is it?” asked Bastion.
“What color are your eyes?” Rhema heard her mouth saying.
“Can you not tell?” He looked directly into her eyes. Blue.
“That’s all. Just blue?”
“Why on earth do you ask?”
They were blue. Shockingly blue. Insensibly blue. Not like Jonathan’s. Not like anybody’s. How could she not have noticed that before? Rhema tightened her lips.
“I do not know. It is not—“
“Not important? Whatever you say.” He looked back at the sky. “Do you know what I think?” he said.
Rhema crossed her arms. “Astonish me.”
His hand moved over hers.
“Your Highness!” someone yelled. The guards finally caught up with them.
“I am well,” Bastion answered. He sat up with a slight groan. The guards shuffled around them, each pushing the other out of the way to help the prince to his feet.
“His Highness has said he is well. Give him space.” Rhema stood and scowled at them with frightening authority. They bowed and stepped away. Bastion’s smile went all the way across his face.
“Mr. Longfellow,” he said, “Thou art as wise as thou art stubborn.” He sprang to his feet and shook the grass particles out of his distressed hair. “Where is Horatio?”
“Over here, sire!” shouted a guardsman, pointing behind a bush.
Bastion and Rhema hurried over to the place and frowned. There was Horatio, happily disemboweling what had formally been a fat, white rabbit. His talons wrapped the rabbit’s head, and his beak was red with its blood. Rhema had to turn away. The sight made her stomach wretch.
“That is not a quail, my rascally friend,” said Bastion. He offered a piece of meat to distract Horatio so he could take the rabbit. Horatio snapped at him. Bastion kept trying until Horatio climbed onto his arm and took the meat he was given.
“Sorry for that,” Bastion said to Rhema. “You cannot really train birds like this. He is a natural hunter. Sometimes he needs to be reminded where his home is.”
Bastion put a hood over Horatio’s head and carried him back to the horses.
Why does it feel as if nothing changes even when everything does?
If Rhema had been restless before, it was a seaside retreat compared to the tempest that grated her now. She spent the day with needles in her bones as she attempted to go about her usual activities. She hoped Bastion would ask to see her again, and then she hoped that Bastion would not ask to see her again. As she couldn’t decide on that, she certainly wasn’t going to approach the idea of calling on him herself.
By late afternoon, she made her way back to the west tower and the broken garret. The floor had been swept in her absence and the furniture dusted. The hole in the wall was covered with wood beams and translucent paper so that she couldn’t look out any more.
“I can decide on something,” she said. “This room will have a use.”
Her blueprints were gone, but a flimsy, wooden ladder had appeared at the center of the room leading up to the second level and the wall-walk. But since the stairs were reopened, who would climb in that way anymore?
“Hello,” said Bastion, strolling on the top level by the wall. “How did you get here?”
“I walked. You?”
Bastion knelt by the edge and looked down on her as they talked. Rhema shook her head and smiled.
“I see you found your hat,” she said and pointed at his head.
“No, but I have lots of them. I have a closet just for my hats,” said Bastion. He took off the cap, examined it briefly in his fingers, then threw it against the translucent paper over the hole in the wall.
“What did you do that for?”
“I am in the presence of a lady. It is only proper that I remove my hat.” He made himself more comfortable and dangled his feet off the ledge next to the ladder.
“If you are being proper, then I suppose I must as well.” Rhema curtseyed. “But if I have to do that one more time, I think my knees will fall off.”
“Then stop,” said Bastion. “I like you better with knees.”
“Your Highness, you are not drunk are you?”
“Ha! No.” Bastion slapped the stone below him. Dust fell on the garret below.
“I would not do that. You already fell once today.”
“Then I may catch up with you yet.”
Rhema threw her arms in the air.
“I give up! Why are you here? How are you doing this? Do you have me followed? Is that it? Have you placed a spy in my household that reports to you everything I do?”
“No,” said Bastion. “That is the thing. My dear Mr. Longfellow, I believe we have the same thinking spot.”
“My dear Mr. Tennyson, I was here first.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“Yes.” With a smug cock of his head, he pointed at the cupboard. “Have you looked behind the cupboard yet?”
“Why should I?”
“This room is slightly bigger than you think.”
Rhema didn’t know if it was her lack of sleep, the overabundance of stone dust, or her general lightheadedness in the company of the prince, but she was inclined to believe anything. She went to the cupboard and kept her eyes on Bastion, lest he disappear again. She shoved it as hard as she could. Its age and emptiness made it easy to move. Behind it was a tiny hole, only big enough for a child.
“This is what you wanted to show me? A hole?”
“I did say only ‘slightly’ bigger.”
Inside the hole, Rhema found a small pile of rubbish. Child’s toys, useless mechanical devices, notebooks, and bits of wood.
“What is all this?” said Rhema.
“It is my cave of wonders. I used to play here as a boy.”
Rhema picked up the closest item to her, a wooden angel the size of her hand. It was roughly carved in a plain wood, the same color as the beams. A black insect crawled across the angel’s folded wings. Rhema banged the angel on the cupboard until the bug fell off. She stepped away from the hole.
Bastion continued, “Years ago, when my father found out I was playing here, he had the stairs blocked off. Of course, that did not stop me from sneaking in from above. There was no ladder then, of course.”
“Why are you telling me this?” said Rhema. She gripped the little angel to her.
“I thought it might help you to know what this room was before you decided what it was going to be.”
Bastion squinted at the angel. “May I see that?”
The angel was plain, detail-less, and chipped in many places. She gave it to Bastion on his perch. He snickered.
“I made this, you know,” he said, fondly turning it about in his hands. “A long time ago. I do not have much time for wood carving anymore.”
“It is lovely.”
“It is rough.”
“What were you going to do with it?”
“Nothing. It belongs here.” Bastion stood the angel up at the top of the ladder.
“You are quite the pair up there,” said Rhema, crossing her arms and looking up at Bastion and his little angel in the dim light.
“You can join us.”
Rhema pushed on the base of the ladder to check if it was footed.
“A ladder. How unconventional,” she said. She stepped upwards.
“Do not fall,” said Bastion.
“Do not kick the ladder,” said Rhema. “Woa.” The ladder wobbled as she got near the highest wrung.
“Do you require assistance?”
“I do not, thank you.”
Rhema folded herself over the top of the ledge. Bastion leaned over to help her.
“I still do not require assistance.”
Rhema knocked the angel aside and with a great wobbled rolled herself onto the allure.
“Your grace astounds me,” said Bastion.
Rhema sat up and brushed the dust off her front. “Does it? I was aiming to astonish.”
They looked at each other. Then suddenly, for no reason at all, they laughed.
Rhema had never laughed like that before. She thought an explosion had gone off in her heart and the fireworks were shooting through her veins, tickling her from the inside. The next thing she knew, her arm was over his shoulder. He supported her. She rested her forehead on his chest. She could feel his lungs move and his heart beat.
Neither of them could stop laughing. They laughed because they were there. They laughed because they knew. That knowledge was so full of joy that once it had been leaked, it could not be blocked. For Rhema, the sensation was better than the stories she had read – stories full of solemn people who cry and fight and kill and die for passion. The real thing was nothing like that. It was simpler, and beautiful for its simplicity. It was knowing that they were not perfect and loving that they were not perfect. It was, quite simply, love.
“Your Highness?” said a voice from another planet. Bastion’s steward stood below by the stairwell, looking harried, and a bit confused by what he was witnessing. Bastion forced himself to stop laughing, guided Rhema back from him, and got up.
“I am coming,” he said, willing away the flushness of his cheeks.
“Bastion, I—“ Rhema could not think of a thing to say to keep him from vanishing again.
“Later,” he said, hopping down the ladder. “I have.... things to do.”
“Important princely things, I am sure.”
He grinned. “Yes, important princely things.”
He fetched his cap from the ground. “Good day, Baroness de Frees.” There was a smile in his voice as he said her name. He bowed, pulled on the cap, and followed his steward down the stairs.
Rhema absently picked up the angel and rolled it between her hands. She could no longer remember who she was or where she was or when she was. All she remembered was laughter and his hand on hers.