I watch the recruiter’s wispy eyebrows soar into his receding hairline.
‘Kastor,’ he says, ‘Lady Kathanhiel has chosen you as her esquire. Congratulations.’
That’s me. He just said my name. The slayer of Elisaad has chosen an esquire who can’t swing a sword, can’t string a bow, can’t take a hit, can’t run a mile without asphyxiating, can’t hold conversations for longer than a minute, can’t stop his head from spewing endless monologue –
Respond, idiot! Grin! Emit joy and contentment!
In an attempt to act composed I swivel my head about like a startled rooster. Maybe the others have heard what the recruiter had really said – that I should pack up and go home.
To my left sits the chivalrous knight with four last names that no one cares to remember. If not for the poison in his eyes and his eyebrows scrunching into a fleshy gulch filled with old sweat, he would be considered moderately handsome. His gauntleted hands are wound tight, as if about to snap an invisible neck.
To my right sits Haylis, Lady Kathanhiel’s distant cousin…allegedly. She’s in the middle of a deep-boring operation into her right nostril. From the experience of having seen her do this eleven times a day for fifty-odd days, this particular operation looks to be a success. This time she’s using her index finger – got to keep track, might have to shake her hand later.
Both of them are finalists, same as I – chosen among two hundred other candidates that came to the winter palace for the final-round exams. Neither of them are saying a word, which has to mean –
The recruiter leans forward, slamming his hands on the desk. ‘Kastor!’
‘The wha – the what….?’
‘Esquire to Kathanhiel. Do you accept?’
“Do you accept”? How many times do dreams come true with a salary of three hundred crowns a month?
‘Yes…yes I do. It’s an honour to thank you – I mean, sure, of course, categorically.’
The recruiter pulls out a thick scroll. ‘Your contract. Please sign here, here, initial every clause, and thumbprint underneath the red seal.’
There are more words on this scroll than the Maker’s scripture; I could spend a week going over the content and not comprehend half of it. Plus, nothing on here is going to change my mind.
Five minutes of scribbling later, I hand back the signed contract. The recruiter nods. ‘Seems to be in order. Now, Miss Haylis, if you would also –’
‘I’m not signing nothing,’ she says. ‘Aunt Kath said I don’t have to.’
I put my hand up. Why am I putting my hand up?!
‘So…excuse me, sorry but…she’s also…’
The recruiter looks at me. ‘Miss Haylis partook in the application process at the behest of Lady Kathanhiel. She has been accepted regardless of her results, which are, incidentally, quite impressive.’
‘Aunt Kath invited me to be her esquire,’ Haylis says. ‘Thought you were special did you?’ She crosses her arms and looks the other way, her hair spinning in cute curls. When swooning at an attractive woman, one must not overlook the details, such as her index finger rubbing on her sleeve and leaving a shiny streak.
The recruiter persists. ‘Miss Haylis, without a signature the treasury can’t authorise your salary.’
‘Nope, not signing. You can’t make me.’
At that moment the knight veritably explodes. ’You would choose them?! These idiots?! I should be Kathanhiel’s esquire, not this -’ gesticulating at me, ’- trash you picked up in the slums! And her! Her! Open your ears! Do you not hear how she speaks?! What kind of senile fool would pick these morons over me, me, semi-finalist of the Games, youngest knight in a hundred and thirty-five years –’
I speak up because I’m an idiot. ‘Sir, that’s unfair. We both worked as hard as you did.’
He stares at me like an angry goldfish, all pop-eyed and flushed red. ‘Shut your mouth. You will speak when spoken to.’
Haylis is still looking the other way with arms crossed, admiring that plain white wall. Her fingers tap so fast on her lacy sleeve the threads are starting to come loose.
The recruiter rubs his face with one tired hand and rings a bell with the other. Two burly guardsmen enter. ‘Escort Sir…whatever his name is, out of the palace. Make sure he does not return.’
The room overflows with curses, thumping fists, banging boots, sputtering spit, and colourful expletives that must be nascent amongst the entitled. Quiet awkwardness returns ten seconds later. Just the three of us in the room now.
The recruiter tries again. ‘Miss Haylis, if you would be so kind…’
‘I told you I won’t sign nothing.’
I speak up with the expert timing of a great comedian. ‘You heard the lady. She won’t sign nothing,’
Now she turns around, eyes narrowed as if examining trash that was picked up from the slums.
The recruiter sighs, gathering up my contract. ‘Fine. Come with me now Kastor. You will be presented to Lady Kathanhiel. She will see you in due time, Miss Haylis, so please remain here and…be as you are.’
My hands are putting on a pathetic dance routine, shaking and gyrating and grasping at invisible eels. Repeatedly muttering “esquire to Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, dragon slayer” under one’s breath doesn’t seem to calm them down.
A few doors open, which lead to more corridors, which lead to more doors that lead to more corridors. The King’s winter palace has two hundred bedrooms and twenty-three baths, but thanks to a pair of twins from the Vassal States whose ignorant biceps were a little rough on the fixtures, only three are still functional, while the lower levels – servant quarters, baths, three cellars full of century-old wine – are left with ankle-high sewage. It’s the fifth worst thing the applicants have done to the place.
Don’t think the King would want to rent it out again, not even to the slayer of Elisaad.
We arrive at a final set of doors. The recruiter opens them.
Shining under the autumn sun is a half-garden half-zoo. None of the applicants have ever been to this part of the palace; they would have said something about the white peacocks roaming amongst myriad-coloured chrysanthemum, the spider monkeys swinging from one side of the vine-encrusted pergola to the other, the pair of yellow-eared caracals roaming underneath the arches and eyeing the monkeys hungrily…or at least mention the bronze-scaled dragonling dozing inside its gilded cage.
This pony-sized creature has a crocodile head, a thin, frail-looking neck, a ridged spine that merges into its barbed tail, and translucent insect-like wings attached to its forelegs. It actually looks kind of cute, yawning and baring its teeth like a sleepy cat, shooing away a curious spider monkey with a swish of its tail.
The garden path leads around the cage, up a sizable hill, and ends in a circular gazebo that overlooks the vast prairies of the kingdom’s heartland and the entirety of the winter palace.
What a view: an ocean of gold and green warmed by the distant embrace of sun-touched mountains, and at the fore, gleaming white spires around which birds of every colour and size gather to sing their songs.
I see none of it.
I see none of it because Kathanhiel is sitting right there, looking at me.
Looking at me.
Before this moment, every day of my life had been the same: sitting at the same grimy dinner table every day, chewing stale bread, listening to the same folks nagging the same nags about the neighbours, the economy, the price of meat, talking the same talk about when Kastor is going to get a real job, why isn’t he out there looking for a wife when he’s twenty-two and not touched a woman all his life...so on and so forth. Every day the same.
In that dreary repetition, reality becomes very well defined.
Coming home after a long day of being treated like a shovel with a mouth, sitting down at the table, hearing the talk, then immediately going to bed because there’s nothing worth being awake for – that is real. An inescapable prison.
The tales of Kathanhiel, however – how she put a knife to the King’s throat and “borrowed” from him three thousand troops to march on the lair of Elisaad; how the divine sword Kaishen came to her in a flash of lightning; how she slew the mad dragon by burying Kaishen through the nape of its neck – they are fantasies. Bards make a killing telling these stories over and over, because fools like me, sleepwalkers who never really wake up, keep asking them for more of the same.
In that timeless limbo between waking and sleep, when I’m lying there with eyes closed trying to blur fantasy and reality in order to convince myself to get up tomorrow, she’s always there…but of course Kathanhiel didn’t really exist. Not for someone like me.
This opulent gazebo, with its golden columns and mosaic ceiling, has to be real; so is the woman with the perfect smile sitting in front of me. She’s wearing a white skirt and a sleeveless doublet that bares proudly her scar-riddled arms. Around her neck is a tooth pendant, a dragon’s incisor. Her eyes are an unknowable grey, and the faded scar over her right eyelid is almost glowing beneath her cropped golden hair.
‘I appreciate the compliment,’ she says.
In the name of the Maker, did I just speak?
Indecipherable sputters of a choking chimney spew from my lips.
She gestures to the seat opposite. ‘Kastor, I look forward to working with you.’
I pinch myself on the thigh, then the face. Both hurt as they should. Not good. Why did I just pinch myself?
‘Kastor is rather prone to bouts of nervousness,’ the recruiter says helpfully, ‘so please forgive him if he displays….unorthodox enthusiasm.’
‘You’re Kathanhiel,’ I speak politely with ne’er a stutter, ‘and I’m Kastor.’
Why is she smiling? What did I say?!