Parts I to IV below.
I have had a lifelong affliction: naivety. As a small child I was easily gulled, believing anything told me by an adult and most things said by a child. Later, and then later again, I reflected on this and I came to the interim conclusion that it wasn’t that I believed the preposterous; I simply did not guard against deliberate lies and skullduggery because I could not fathom why anyone would use them.
Throughout my life my structure of belief has toppled and come crashing down several times. Am I the worse or better for it? I don’t know. I have an in-built faith and optimism, and then an accumulation of experience brings it undone, and I am left wanting. Most of our problems, it seems, are not real but are caused by illusion and the worst inside us. Is this all there is? To have snippets of happiness that make the insidious drudgery of life tolerable? I hope for more, but I suspect I hope in vain. Everyone wants honesty but no one wants to tell the truth.
Yes, today my thoughts are sour. It occurred to me that the lies I spread after my mission were not just my lies. The others had been willing participants, too, and they seemed to feel less sensitivity over it than I do. I think it’s because they understand the practical realities of the world we exist in, where I am more a cloud dreamer who occasionally crashes back to reality. To me, I am a Queen’s Guard. I draw meaning from this and everything it implies. I seek to live up to the impeccability of that credential, to embody the spirit and the vast history of it. To be the best, not in competition but in what my soul compels me to do. And then I realise I am a weapon of a brutal Royalty; an occasional means to whatever political end has currency. And in that crashing back I long for my home, for my people, and for our freedom from the sly determinations of the Saxian and their systems.
“You think too loudly,” said that same voice I had heard months ago in the hallway. In the minutes that followed I upended my room, searching out the source of the voice. I heard a tinkling, musical laugh that seemed to emanate from everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. Frustrated, I stood still, closed my eyes, and attempted to concentrate on listening for the slightest sound; a scrape, a movement, an intake or exhalation of breath. “That’s better,” the voice said, and the whole searching pantomime began again. “Who are you?” I asked inside my mind. Nothing. No answer.
I was still somewhat weak, and at times I wondered if I would ever be fit to return to service. I have seen and heard about what happens to Guards who can no longer serve. If by advanced age, they are pensioned out and they seem to live a comfortable life, surrounded by years of fond memories. If by catastrophic injury, they are cared for; nursed where its needed and kept company by appointed carers. Those two categories fill the majority of living ex-Guard. The third category has never been spoken of in my presence, and it took me some time to make the connection, but finally I did.
The third category belongs to those who have kept secrets in the service of the Queen. Age and infirmity has little or nothing to do with it. If the secret is large or there are many, the Guard simply disappears and hard looks are made until others stop inquiring. Succinctly, those Guards are killed. It seems our loyalty is questioned, after all. I suspect that is to be my fate someday. I cannot imagine the Queen would allow one of her ‘wet workers’ to loll about once his or her usefulness has declined.
How did it come to this? It’s a question I ask myself often of late, and one that has no answer. I was taken into service, assessed, trained, trusted, and tasked. I did what was asked of me, and faithfully. I wondered if I would know it when my time ran out. If my suppositions were correct, I would not see my home again, at least not as a returned Guard who had faithfully completed his years of service to the Crown.
I ventured out from my room and into the Regimental Library. An avid reader, I often chose the tomes that recorded the lives and times of those who had come before me. Now, I wondered if they were heavily edited to exclude those who were killed by the long arm of the Crown. I felt drawn to seek out entries that had been made about me, curious about how they might be expunged in future. I resisted the urge, and I’m glad I did. Any variation from my usual reading choices might be noticed – might even be noted – and might well speed up my day of reckoning.
Leaving the library after spending sufficient time on books I was no longer interested in, I made my way to the Physician. “Ma’am,” I said when she ushered me into her Rooms, “I am at something of a loose end. My body heals apace and well enough, but I am experiencing some oddities.” I told her of my auditory oddities, the un-bodied voice, and my maudlin moods. She said they might well be features of the poisoning I had taken, or perhaps mental shock from the dreadful condition I had been in. Having checked me thoroughly, she said that at the end of this moon’s cycle I could return to my Unit. In the meantime, she wished to introduce me to a counsellor who might know what to make of my latest symptoms.
Counsellor Kirsten had been an active Queen’s Guard before her skills took her in a new direction. It had been noted, time and again, that her words had healing in them as well as the power of reason, and her reputation among the Guard was stellar. It eventually came to the attention of the Queen, and Kirsten was interviewed by her and then, at the Queen’s request, by Scribe, Philosopher, and Physician. Kirsten was given some training by each, totalling two years of study, before she was given Rooms of her own. A warrior poet, the Guard valued her as having one hand in the Regiment and the other in Heaven. We called her Souldier.
Souldier is one of those rare people who can immediately put you at ease. I told her the story of the disembodied voice and she looked surprised, and then she didn’t. She asked me more questions about it than I could answer, and I thought by the end of our session she was more fixated on it than I had been. I left that meeting with the impression that hearing voices during a fevered sickness is not that unusual, but hearing that particular voice at any time is.
“Go back to your duties,” the disembodied voice said to me when I had buried myself in my bed that night. “Who are you?” I asked. It was a reasonable question but I didn’t expect an answer, and I didn’t get one. “Show your usefulness, before it’s forgotten,” the voice said. Sleep eluded me that night but as the sun rose I took the advice and donned my uniform. I had no notion of my roster; nothing had been posted for me because I was not expected to return for several more days or perhaps a week.
“What are you doing back here?” said Guard Ned when I walked into the armoury. “Protecting the Queen, Protecting the Palace, Protecting All,” I said with a grin. “Someone has to guard the Guards,” I added, and the stern look fell from Ned’s face to be replaced by a wide grin. He looked a little ragged, and I realised our journey must have gone hard on the others, too. “Is there are duty for me to perform?” I asked. There was.
Out in the rear of the Keep, far away from prying eyes and assorted dignitaries, practice grounds were dotted about that represented particular terrains and close quarters situations. “Lead a few Guard in practice, but join in only if you feel you can contribute,” Ned said before marching off on some other business. Vanessa and Bronwyn were present, along with several Guard I knew, but not well.
“Hail Guardian! Well met!” thundered Vanessa, smiling and striding toward me. Bronwyn saluted me with her sword but kept at her practice. “How goes it?” I asked when Vanessa sided up to me. “Better now,” she said. “Perhaps Bronwyn will become tractable again,” she whispered, a sly smile on her face. My eyes tore themselves away from Vanessa and immediately found Bronwyn who, frowning, was making a subtle show of not looking at me. “My shoulder is stiff from arrow and inactivity. Would you partner with me to unloosen it?” I asked. “Only if I want to do main battle with Bronwyn for the honour,” she said. I kept my counsel; women know things men never will, but a spark of hopefulness leapt in my chest.
“Guard Bronwyn,” I called as I walked toward her. “Would you partner with me for a warm-up session?” Bronwyn nodded abruptly, sheathing her sword and adjusting her shoulder and side plates. I noted she didn’t look at me and I suspected I was in for a hell of a workout. In that, I was not mistaken. Bronwyn is something of an expert in the ‘fast draw’, a considerably difficult move considering the length of a sword. I jumped sideways, my own sword flashing out and over, barely protecting my healing shoulder from the hard edge of her steel. In main battle my dagger would have been out and at her throat on the parry; she left her defences wide in favour of a main cut.
I stopped her right then, pointing it out, which was the right thing to do but which seemed to provoke her. “Show me the Oriental way of it, then,” she growled at me. I didn’t know if she spoke in anger or focus. “Alright, but we must slow down the attack now, dissect the movements, and then we may speed up,” I said. She glared at me and with a single curt nod she stepped back a pace. Trying to ignore the way she was lacerating my heart with her curtness, I took her through the paces until she had the insight into them. Her muscle memory of the movement would come with time and practice, just as it had for me.
“Show me all else,” she said, when I called time on our session. My shoulder ached and I was breathless. I knew what she meant. “It’s not a thing that can be shown in an instant. I practiced privately for a thousand hours before my competence grew,” I said, puffing. “Then it should take me little more than a week to learn it from you,” she said, smiling for the first time. We arranged daily time, allowing for differences in our rosters. “Guard Bronwyn,” I said as I bowed to her, a formality we make when a practice session is over. She did not bow to me, but took her leave without looking back. It was unheard of, such a lack of manners from Guard to Guard.
“It went hard with her after you left on your mission,” Vanessa said when she joined me in the sunshine for a brief respite. “She was furious, questioning how we could leave one of our own on what was a suicide mission. In the end, Guard Ned foxed her into handing over her sword and dagger, and Guard Aiden and I chased her down when she rode off, prepared to join you unarmed. I think she has not yet fully forgiven us,” Vanessa laughed, punching my arm. “Or me,” I added, which sent Vanessa into gales of laughter.
We stood then, each of us ready to continue practice. “I think you might practice at talking to Bronwyn,” she said. “In the famed words of Congreve: ‘Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turn’d, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.’” That took me by ambush. “Love? A woman scorned?” I asked, my voice rising in surprise. “You are, my friend, a complete soldier. And a complete idiot, you blind fool,” Vanessa said, looking at me as if I were a bug she was pinning to a board.
“I tell you, Aiden, I have no understanding of women,” I said a few weeks later, after it had become substantially obvious that I was on the mend but my ‘relationship’ with Bronwyn was not. Oh, she paid me the pleasantries well enough, while at the same time conveying that she would like to practice separating my head from my neck. “They are a breed apart and make no sense,” was his sage reply, “But there exists no need for you to quote me to her until, oh, the end of the world,” Aiden said, smiling.
Bronwyn had kept to our schedule, arriving at practice as arranged and working, all the time working, to improve her understanding and skill. I had invited Aiden to join us and as keen as he was, he suggested it might be best to wait a while. I saw no reason for it, and I said so, but he is not slow. If ever you have been the only one not in on a joke; the slow one in the class, you will know how I felt. It seemed that everyone knew something of the Bronwyn situation, and yet I knew nothing of it. Her might was strong and her focus, intense, but simmering underneath it and not far from the surface I sensed her anger at me. It was Souldier who opened my eyes when she summoned me to her Rooms.
“You are a right twit,” she greeted me with that as I opened her door. “My thanks to you, Souldier,” I said, “And I hope your day is as effervescent as mine.” Souldier inquired after my health and mending before coming to the first of the two topics on her agenda. “Have you heard the voice again?” she asked, and I said that I had not. “I must be rested well, then, and returned to my Self,” I said. She rolled her eyes at that. “Or you are a right twit, and fill your days with so much activity that you have no time left to see or hear,” she said. “Souldier,” I smirked, “I vaguely sense a theme in your words.” It was the wrong thing to say. “All speak highly of you,” she said. “I have no notion why, though. I have seen month-old curds that are less thick than you.”
One of the beauties of being insulted is that you may go just about anywhere to meet it. “There is a thing I’m aware of not understanding, a thing I’m missing that others appear to comprehend, and yet I have no notion of what it may be,” I said, finally voicing my thought. “Perhaps it’s because you are a breed apart and make no sense?” the disembodied voice said from behind me. I swivelled, leaping from my chair and bringing out my dagger as I did so. There, she who was behind me was now facing me, smiling like a maniac. The disembodied voice had become embodied. “Guardian, meet Vickilin,” Souldier said. Vickilin curtsied, still smiling, and brought forward the long round bat she held firmly in her hand. Still smiling hugely, she said: “Want to fight me? I’ll try not to hurt you, but I can’t promise.”
Vickilin was an odd little thing; three parts cute and one part dangerous. She was dressed oddly, like a harlequin with the sleeves torn off, displaying four long and deep scars running from her shoulder to her elbow. The huge smile never left her face, and her demeanour spoke of someone who had seen madness and scared it off.
Souldier had me billeted to an adjoining room for the next few days where, she said, she wanted to observe and assess my demeanour. “Does the Queen know of this?” I asked, at a loss as to what was occurring. “Indeed, she does,” said Souldier, “Because it was she who recommended it.” That wasn’t quite true. As I came to discover, it was Souldier who had suggested it and promoted it. The Queen had merely agreed to it, and in such a way as to make her think she herself had thought of it.
What was my demeanour being observed and assessed for? It’s a straightforward question but what answers I received were obtuse. On that first day I spent long hours alone. I did not return to my room and I did not have to; all I might need had been brought to me, and it seemed I’d be here for longer than a few days, or else whoever had brought my things had been overzealous. After a few hours I wondered if there was a plot afoot. Was it naive to think so, or naive that it had taken me so long to think it?
Lunch time came and went, and in the fullness of time dinner followed it. The day dimmed into the night and the full darkness of a moonless night enveloped my room. I sat there, wondering what tomorrow would bring, until the seeping cold became so discomforting that my thickly piled bed seemed the best option.
I lay in it, warming myself, my mind still full of questions and the type of dread that only cold and dark nights can bring. Perhaps another sleepless night would ensue, unless I willed myself into the quietness of the night. I relaxed myself with the time-proven breathing technique of four slow breaths in, hold for a long count of seven, and expel for a long count of eight, repeating the process four times. It stilled me, and I found the Silence.
My dreams were awkward that night. I felt myself rise from my bed and my spirit walk through the wall, into a dim passage that smelled of dust and vague decay. Descending, I heard faint scratchings and murmurs until a hundred paces on the murmurs grew louder. Ear to the wall, I could not recognise the words but I could recognise those speaking them. Ned, Aiden, Vanessa, Bronwyn, and Souldier were there. I willed myself to walk through the wall, surmising they would not sense my presence, but I failed in that endeavour.
I have no recollection of returning to my room, but I strongly recall Vickilin being there when I arrived back in it. “I didn’t know you could do that,” she said as I came through the wall. “What?” I said, startled. “Shape shift,” she said, and then she melted into the night. The next morning on awakening my first task was to check the wall thoroughly for hidden exits. I think I found two of them but I could not find a way to open them.