General Dal was waiting for me in the hall. His back was facing the door as I walked in. At the sound of my step, the old veteran grew very still. But he didn’t turn around.
“Your Highness,” he said, in an almost accusing tone, “Do I have the pleasure?”
He turned and bowed stiffly. “I wasn’t aware that I had taken the ‘Lost Princess’ in as my pupil.”
I hung my head. My mouth opened for an excuse, but none came. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“You deceived me,” General Dal stated, “A trust as been broken. And it’s with trust that a foundation is built between a pupil and his master. “
I nodded mutely, tears springing to my eyes.
“Nevertheless, I shall give you a chance to redeem yourself.”
I looked up sharply. “How? When?” I asked eagerly.
“Here.” The general tossed aside his draping coat, revealing two swords. One he threw at me. I caught it quickly with one hand before the scabbard fell to the ground. “Right now.”
My mind had barely made the connection when the general attacked.
My arm flew up and deflected the blow with the sword’s scabbard. Shuffling my feet backwards, I quickly unsheathed the sword before the general attacked my right flank. Again, I barely managed to block it. In the event the generals arm flew into a vase, knocking the delicate vessel to the ground where it smashed to a thousand pieces. I gasped.
“I’ll pay for the damage!” General Dal barked before taking advantage of my distraction. A sharp pain throbbed at my ribs. My hand flew to my side. My fingertips came back covered in blood.
“You nicked me!” I cried at the old veteran.
“Then keep your guard up.”
Perhaps it was the blood. Or the nonchalant answer from the unconcerned general. Whatever the reason, I was filled with hot-blooded rage. Grasping the hilt of the sword firmly, I charged, taking my turn to attack.
I was blocked easily, the blade of the sword digging through the tapestry behind the general. Ignoring the damage, I tugged the sword out of the wall in time to defend myself against the veteran’s oncoming assault.
Throughout the entire house, tearing into rooms and causing havoc wherever our swords met, we sparred and fought steadily. At first, I was sure that General Dal was holding back on me and viewing this as a valuable lesson to teach his pupil on probation. However, his heavy breathing and near misses to block my attacks seemed to become more of a challenge to him as the sparring continued.
“You’ve had another teacher,” the general muttered as I parried his thrust, causing a picture to fall off the wall and smash to the floor.
“None other than you and my grandfather,” I heaved back.
“Someone has been teaching you since last I saw you,” he re-stated stubbornly.
I simply shook my head as I tried to maneuver the veteran out the door. As our swords danced out onto the porch, Iyagi and Usan came running from around a corner of the house. As soon as they saw us, Usan started forward angrily, ready to come to my aid. Iyagi immediately grabbed the boy’s shoulders and pulled him back.
A darkness entered the general’s eyes and his movements began to grow desperate. We crashed down the steps and into the garden, where we fought our way ever closer towards the pond. When I deflected the veteran’s aim to my throat, something struck me about the man’s attacks. They felt real.
Another attack came. I went to deflect it as before. But the general had been faking. I watched as his blade came swiftly towards my heart. All thought left my mind. In an act of desperation, the sword in my hand slashed through the air in an arc. Not a circular arc. But a triangular one. Very similar to the one I’d made in the Hall when faced with that Incarcerate.
Immediately, general’s face grew pale and he stepped back. The darkness faded from his eyes.
“Where did you learn that?” he breathed.
I shrugged, but kept hold of my sword. “I’m not sure. Why?”
“I’ve seen that move before.”
I opened my mouth to ask for more, but Iyagi and Usan ran up to us. General Dal sheathed his sword. Such action made me give him back mine.
“What happened?!” Usan cried, wrapping his arms around me and squeezing my waist so hard that I found it hard to breathe.
“Nothing to worry about, Usan,” I croaked, giving him a hug back before gently pulling his arms away. “General Dal here, was just giving me a lesson. But I’m not sure I passed.” I raised a brow in the veteran’s direction.
“And your mistress passed,” the old man replied gruffly. He turned to me. “Training resumes tomorrow morning.”
“Where?” I asked.
“We meet at the Palace gate and shall continue our sessions in the forest,” he ordered, before remembering my status, “Does that suit, Your Highness?”
“Of course,” I replied graciously.
“Until tomorrow then.” The general bowed, again somewhat stiffly but more amicably, before marching out of the garden.
“What was that all about?” Iyagi asked.
I rubbed my forehead anxiously. “I don’t know.”
* * * * *
After a few weeks in our new home, we adjusted to a comfortable routine. The prince, Usan, and I took our meals together regularly every noon and night with Nalda. Often Iyagi or I would play a game with Usan in the garden. At times we’d take a walk around the Palace, just the three of us.
And I had my lessons with General Dal.
Though the general was gruff, I assumed that I would learn a lot under his tutelage. However, his training, though specific, was strictly rudimentary. At times, I felt as if the veteran didn’t want to see me advance in the skills and mystery of martial arts. And his keen eyes were always watchful.
He never sparred with me again.
One day, as I was walking back home, I decided to take a different route for a change and happened to come across the Palace Library. Its doorway hung wide open like a giant mouth, inviting and yet, somewhat foreboding. Nevertheless, a strong feeling throbbed in the pit of my stomach and I eagerly stepped inside.
A chill immediately enveloped my senses, as shelves of old books, with their crusty, yellow old pages and stale, mouldy smells, called out to me in whispers. Thick, tallow wax candles strained their flaming wicks to burn brightly. Yet, their little rays of light could not reach the farthest dark corners nor the deepest shelves of the room. Stroking the ancient texts with the tips of my fingers, I walked slowly and aimlessly, occasionally picking up a book before putting it back down.
Jumping high in the air, I turned around sharply, sword in hand. There was nobody there. Nothing but an old book lying on the boarded floor. I sheathed the sword with a low chuckle and bent down to pick up the bounded volume. I was about to replace in back in its empty spot when I caught sight of the title.
The Memoirs of Forsythia,
Daughter of Chieftain Kacheinagh
That was my name; what was a book doing with my name? Curious, I started to open the book to take a look inside. But then a step sounded just outside the doorway.
I quickly hid the volume behind my back. A tall, uniformed guard appeared with a heavy spear poised. The weapon was lowered immediately as soon as the guard made me out in the dim light.
“Oh, Your Highness!” he exclaimed, “I apologize. I did not recognize you.”
“It’s quite alright,” I replied, “I’m sorry for startling you, but I couldn’t help looking over this collection.”
“Yes,” The guard agreed heartily, “The most important documents and histories are kept here. I am the librarian; can I be of any assistance?”
“Was that why you are carrying that spear?” I asked.
The man carefully laid the spear against a wall. “No, no,” he said with a nervous laugh, “They are merely décor. At times I get a little carried away with my position.”
I nodded. “Well, actually perhaps you can help me,” I said, showing him the book. “Do you know who wrote this?”
“Ah!” The librarian didn’t even need a good look to recognize it. “The author of those memoirs would be the late queen’s mother.”
“Yes. You were named after her, at least that’s what everyone said. But nobody except for the immediate royal family can read it.”
The librarian leaned forward and whispered, “I believe it’s very personal.”
“Oh.” I caressed the cover gently. “May I read it?”
“Of course, Your Highness.” The librarian bowed.
“Thank you,” I said, holding the book close to my chest.
“If I can be of any more service . . .?”
I shook my head. “No, this is all I want. But I hope to see you soon.”
“It would be a pleasure, Your Highness.” The librarian bowed again.
I gave him a happy nod before rushing home quickly. Entering our garden, I dashed across the bridge, up the porch steps and into the house, giving Nalda a quick greeting before closing my bedroom door behind me.
Sitting in the middle of my bed, I eagerly unwrapped the cord that was strung around the covers, binding them together. Putting the cord on the pillow beside me, I carefully pulled back the pages eagerly.
They were all blank.