‘Congratulations, your application has been successful. Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms and slayer of the Elisaad Dragon, has chosen you as her esquire. May you serve her well.’
The recruiter looks at me with his wisp of an eyebrow raised to a hairline combed so forward, the back of his head is practically bald.
Respond, dumbass. Grin. Emit joy and contentment.
‘I uh…that’s…I don’t…it’s…’
This wasn’t supposed to happen, not even if everyone under twenty-five just fell over and died. Go through the tests, the interviews, get free meals, meet women who would always find someone else attractive – do all that, enjoy your stay, but never expect to get the job.
Because that’s how things usually work out.
Then, thirty days of nonstop competition with a bunch of stuck-up baby knights later, they choose the guy who can’t swing a sword, can’t shoot a bow, can’t take punches, can’t run long distances, can’t sew, can’t hold conversations for longer than a minute, has a face that looks like a dirty frying pan, is shorter than the shortest girl by half a head, is so nervous around said girl that the recruiter gave him a tonic for the nerves – because he thought the shaky hands were due to the interviews.
They choose me.
What’s the deal?
So, esquire to the greatest living hero in the Realms; you’d think they’d hire someone who can swing their sword like a dinner fork – swish, splat, oops that cut right through those dragon scales and oh by the way here’s the head for you to take to the King and receive ten thousand crowns.
The Lions of the Marches, who can and did beat everyone down in under thirty seconds, were dismissed at the first round. A shieldmaiden of the Queen was told go home four days in because she didn’t score the highest in marksmanship with a bow she had to string with raw sinews.
Many, many talented people fell short, and that is the strangest thing of all, because the three finalists for the most sought after position for youths under twenty-five in the Realms – esquire to Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon – are, for some inexplicable reason, the three people sitting in this room.
Here they are. Hold your applause.
There’s the angry muscly man with the really long name no one remembers. Apparently a disenfranchised knight here to reclaim his title, he’s the type that lives in a delusion where everyone is inferior to him; excellent at everything, hated by everyone. Good-looking though.
Then there’s that girl, who as we speak is setting up a deep-boring operation in her right nostril. She’s a distant relative of Kathanhiel, and her existence has to do with knights swooping up trophies as they return from their quests. ‘Hey there, did you know I killed the Elisaad Dragon? Come sleep with me.’ Not that Kathanhiel would ever say something like that. Just an example. A Hypothesis.
Her name is Haylis. Such a pretty name, goes well with her pretty face, but there’s a reason why young knights of the Realms aren’t falling for her….buxomness.
It is with the sincerest regret that I must inform you of the fact that Haylis, in fact, cannot, and I repeat, cannot read.
She has also asked me if I ever wondered where the endless supply of substances in one’s nose comes from. A sincere and non-condescending answer was given, and do not say it’s because she’s good-looking, because then I’d appear shallow.
Then there’s me, the only applicant to fail more than half the tests.
Out of the most talented young people the Realms has to offer, we three are the finalists, and unless I’m in a dream and this is all happening inside my head –
‘Kastor? Still with me? You’re accepting aren’t you?’
‘The wha – the wha….?
‘Esquire to Kathanhiel. Do you accept?’
Well of course I accept, stop asking stupid questions. I will make an excellent esquire to Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon. Did someone mention three hundred crowns a month?
‘Yes…yes I do. Thank you. Thank you. It’s an honour to….thank you.’
A thick scroll materialises on the desk.
‘To confirm your contract, please sign here, here, and put initials here, here, then thumbprint below the red seal.’
Scrawl scrawl. Rigorous unrolling. Scrawl scrawl. More unrolling. Stick thumb in platter of red, stick it on paper. Done.
It doesn’t occur to me until later that perhpas I should’ve read the thing before putting my name on it. Three hundred crowns a months can make anyone as good a reader as Haylis.
‘Seems to be in order. Now, Miss Haylis, if you would also sign –’
‘I’m not signing nothing,’ she says wonderfully, ‘Aunt Kath said I don’t have to.’
‘So…excuse me, sorry but…she’s also…’
‘Miss Haylis partook in the application process at the behest of Lady Kathanhiel,’ the recruiter says as if it’s self-evident. ‘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 as her hair spin in cute curls. When swooning at an attractive woman, one must not overlook the details, such as her nose-delved finger rubbing on her sleeve and leaving a shiny streak. Does she even notice it?
The recruiter continues, ‘your contract must be signed, or the treasury won’t authorise your salary.’ A very, very convincing argument, if I do say so myself.
‘Nope, not signing. You can’t make me.’
At that moment the muscly man veritably explodes. ‘You would give her the contract?! That little scum?! I should be Kathanhiel’s esquire, not this -’ gesturing at me now, ‘- piece of trash you dug up from the streets!’ rather tame, far as insults go, ‘and her! Her! If you think that little bitch can do what I can do and not chop her own toes off out of stupidity then you’re one dumb idiot. It should have been me! Me!’
Perhaps he does not realise that calling someone “dumb idiot” is redundant. As to the accusation of my origin as trash, well, sure. Doing odd jobs once a week, spending my plentiful spare time sitting outside expensive taverns to hear the bards sing for free – that’s pretty trashy.
But for someone who won’t shut up about being a knight, about how much better he is than everyone else, that outburst is pretty un-knightly.
And to be honest, the biggest dumb idiot in the room is me – because I’m about to reply to him.
‘Sir, that’s unfair. We both worked as hard as you did for the position.’
He stares at me like an angry goldfish, all pop-eyed and flushed red. ‘Shut your mouth. You will speak when spoken to.’
I look around, expecting to see Haylis give me at least a grateful look, but of course she’s still looking the other way with her arms crossed. Maybe I should try it too; you call me scum? I turn around and ignore you and hope you go away.
The recruiter rubs the side of his face with one tired hand and rings a bell with the other. Two burly guardsmen come into the room.
‘Escort Sir…whatever his name is, out of my sight. Make sure he does not return.’
The air instantly fills up with curses, thumping fists, banging boots, sputtering spit, and other colourful sounds that need not be elaborated on since no one cares one way or the other.
There are idiots, and there are dumb idiots. The former are tragically born that way, the latter walks into a wheat field with a torch and complains that everything is burning.
Just the three of us in the room now, me, the recruiter, and her.
‘Miss Haylis, if you would be so kind…’
‘I told you I won’t sign nothing!’
‘You heard the lady. She won’t sign nothing,’ I speak up with the expert timing of a great comedian.
Now she spins around to look at me. Those eyes are calling me a dumb idiot.
The recruiter sighs heavily, a picture of resignation. It’s clear as mooning buttcheeks that he didn’t want to pick me either – which means it was Kathanhiel herself that chose me as her esquire.
What in the world? Does she think being a hero too easy? Not saying that I’m utterly useless, but if given a choice between travelling with anyone else or with me…I’d pick the former.
Pessimistic? No, realistic. What could I possibly do to help the greatest hero of our age?
The recruiter stands. ‘If you insist. Come with me now Kastor. We shall go to the Lady and show her your signed contract. If you don’t mind waiting awhile, Miss Haylis, she will see you next.’
My hands are shaking. They’re putting on a dance routine, the kind that belly dancers from the south do in those short skirts, except instead of exciting and erotic it’s just plain pathetic.
Repeatedly muttering the phrase ‘esquire to Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon’ under one’s breath doesn’t seem to calm the nerves.
A few doors open, which lead to more corridors, which lead to more doors that lead to more corridors. We’re inside the King’s winter palace after all, the kind of property lease only a hero of the Realms could acquire.
It’s a shame that when the King returns in three months the bathing suite won’t be there to greet His Majesty. Did I mention the Lions of the March? The older one accidently ripped off the porcelain tap when he tried to turn it on, and didn’t tell anybody about it until the next day when all the servants came fleeing from their flooded quarters.
The bath is built on top of a hot spring you see, and the minerals in it stain really well – some chemistry with the paint. So when the King sees his favourite end table covered in squishy purple blotches….shall I use the phrase ‘heads will roll’? Because they really will.
It’s being taken care of, thankfully. Craftsmen have been called, replicas made, the tap fixed. Not the nasty stains in the lower corridors and the servant’s quarters though. That’ll take months. One peak inside his maid’s room is all it will take for the King to realise that something’s amiss…not that he would ever peak inside his maid’s room. Would he?
Did I mention that I think about all sorts of random stuff when I’m nervous?
We arrive at a final set of doors. The recruiter opens them.
Or at least the closest thing to it I’ve ever seen.
Shining under the autumn sun is a half-garden half-zoo. None of the applicants have ever been this part of the palace; they would’ve said something about the white peacocks roaming amongst birds of paradise, the spider monkeys swinging from one side of a vine-encrusted pergola to the other, the pair of caracals roaming underneath the arches and eyeing the monkeys hungrily, or at least mention the bronze-scaled dragonling dozing inside a gilded cage.
That last one really stands out from the rest.
This pony-sized dragon barely resembles the world-scouring beasts of legend: crocodile head, slim neck devoid of spikes, ridging spine that ends in a long tail and a pommel-shaped tip, and translucent wings like those of an insect stretching behind the forelegs. It’s kind of cute actually, gently snoring in the sunlight and shooing away a curious spider monkey with a swish of its tail.
Tough to imagine that when this creature grows up it might wipe out entire towns just for fun; I mean, just look at it – it’s yawning and baring its teeth like a sleepy cat.
The garden path leads right around the cage, up a sizable hill, and ends in a circular gazebo, which 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, a pristine canvas for the palace’s gleaming white spires and the distant mountains bordered with crimson.
I see none of it.
Because Kathanhiel is sitting right there, looking at me.
Looking at me.
Now, I’ll try my hardest to convey what a surreal experience this is.
Imagine growing up eating the same piece of bread every day, looking at the same folks sitting across the table nagging the same nags about the neighbours, talking the same talk about when Kastor is going to get a real job, why isn’t he out there looking for a wife for himself when he’s twenty-two and not touched a woman all his life. So on and so forth. Every day. The same.
Now imagine listening to the bard tell the same story about dragons and heroes every day. You would think that’s equally repetitive, and therefore boring. Not so.
The bard sings of Kathanhiel, how she held a knife to the King’s throat until he agreed to lend her three thousand troops to march on the lair of the Elisaad Dragon, how the magic sword Kaishen came to her from the sky in a flash of lightning, how she slew mad Elisaad by stabbing Kaishen through the nape of its neck, so on and so forth.
I’m obligated to say that equally plentiful are the tales of her fifty-two lovers, one for each week of the year, and her seduction of various princes and dukes using even more various contraptions and ingenious physical aids. It is not a shameful thing to enjoy all aspects of a story. Get off my back.
Now imagine coming back home after a long day of being treated like a shovel with a mouth, only to sit down at the family table eating stale bread and hearing that same talk, then immediately going to sleep because there’s nothing else worth doing in my life.
What part of a day like this would be considered valuable? That is, worth recollecting in that moment between waking and sleep, when you’re lying there with eyes closed but still thinking?
That’s right, Kathanhiel. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have thought about Kathanhiel more than anything or anyone else in my twenty-two bland years.
You see, for someone like me, she’s not real. Why? Because she’s too good to be real.
When you stop in the middle of manual labour to wipe off your stink, you don’t think about what Kathanhiel would look like if she’s standing over there with a shovel.
When you chop the one thousandth onion of the day you don’t picture her sitting next to you peeling the potatoes.
She just doesn’t belong in this kind of life, this reality, and that’s why people love her. That’s why I…
What if, through a set of impossible, bizarre, and completely awkward circumstances, you enter the same picture as her and land yourself in the middle of a fantasy?
What if, not only is the fantasy real, but the woman you dream about almost every night is looking at you and is probably breathing in the same air that just passed through your nose?
What do you do?
For twenty eternal seconds, I freeze with one foot in the air, gazing at her face.
It’s not real. This isn’t happening. I apply as an esquire, survive the first round, the second, the third, the fourth, then become a finalist, get accepted, stroll into the King’s garden, see a pet dragon, then I climb this stupid hill standing in the middle of the plains and look upon the most beautiful woman ever.
It’s not real.
Kathanhiel smiles. She’s wearing a white skirt tied with a blue ribbon and a sleeveless doublet cut low and baring proudly her scar-riddled arms. Around her neck is a tooth pendant, the incisor of the Elisaad Dragon. Her eyes are playful and of an unknowable colour, with a faded scar over the right eyelid; they’re perfectly complimented by golden hair shorter than my own. She can’t be younger than thirty, but that smile…help, I’m melting.
Wait, did I say any of that out loud?
‘I appreciate the compliment,’ she says.
In the name of the Maker, what did I just say to her?
Indecipherable sputters of a choking chimney escape my lips.
She waves to the seat opposite. ‘Kastor, I look forward to working with you.’
Did…did she just say that she is looking forward to working with me?!
I pinch myself on the thigh, then the face. Both hurt as they should. Not good. Not good at all. Why did I just pinch myself?
‘Young 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?!