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The Knight's Honor
Twill hated Sun’s Day. That was when the popes came in with their bibles and crosses and bought out the whole supply of medical herbs that cured “demonic possessions.” They were noisy and fat and always asked if Twill was being a dutiful child of God.
She had nothing against them personally, and any other day she would have been happy to see them. But Sun’s Day was the day she wasn’t allowed to leave the Kimber Spiritual Apothecary. She was forced to sit on her stool, boiling hot, and stirring a mixture of Lavender and Pig Flesh that cured pimples in the stupid cauldron behind the wooden desk.
She sighed wistfully and watched the popes discussing a recent witch burning that happened in the square. She perked up a little at the news and strained to hear as she continued to stir the Lavender and Pig Flesh stew with her long wooden spoon.
There were seven popes in total, all wearing scarlet robes rimmed with gold and silver, and each one was assigned a district in Kimber. They had apothecaries in their districts, but none as good and knowledgeable as Damascus Bean. He knew every plant that grew on Kimber soil, how to harvest them, when, and what part to harvest. He was brilliant, and Twill knew she was lucky to be his apprentice.
“She was an ugly thing,” Pope Lislow remarked, “but you couldn’t help but feel bad for the old wench.”
“I agree,” another, much older pope, nodded, “she shrieked till daylight broke! Poor old woman!”
“Come now, we don’t want to be thought of as witch sympathizers. Do we?” Twill shuddered as Pope Kismae, a greasy man with sticky hands that always smelled like tar, tapped his long fingernails against Twill’s table, “They’re unnatural. Unclean.”
Twill nodded vigorously, refusing to look at him.
“Leave the poor girl alone, Kismae,” Lislow said gently, “wouldn’t want to scare her.”
“No,” Kismae grinned slowly, very much intending to scare Twill.
“I am not afraid of witches. But I do think it is silly to burn so many women without proper evidence against them.”
The popes shifted uneasily, and Twill was lucky that Damascus Bean chose that moment to leave the storage room lined with corked bottles of plants on the shelves and drying roots hanging above.
“Twill, please check the Peruvian Nightshade Root and confirm that it looks rotted.”
Twill nodded and stopped stirring. Damascus often asked Twill to confirm things he already knew as a test. Sometimes he lied, though, so Twill knew to pay attention to her nose as well as her eyes.
Once she had stated that the Dimilly Flower had bloomed enough to be harvested. It had been sold in a mixture to cure stomach aches. The man who took it died three days later and Twill had taken it to heart to never ever merely glance. Damascus was very tough in his tests. But that was what made him brilliant.
“Of course, Damascus.”
He patted her on the head affectionately, making her deep red curls quaver, and she smiled before stepping inside the storage room and shutting the wooden door behind her. The room was dark except for a single candle on a small wooden table in the left corner. Twill took it up gently, shielding the small flame with her left hand, and peered up at the roots and flowers hanging down. She spotted the Nightshade instantly, recognizing its pinkish shade, and stood on a stool to take it down. She sniffed it first. It smelled spicy and somewhat like body odor, but she detected nothing that smelled even faintly of rot. Just to be sure, though, she pressed it against her nose and inhaled deeply. Nothing. But to be even surer, she studied it from top to bottom. No discoloration of any kind.
Twill returned it to its place and blew out the candle before leaving the room.
“It seems fine to me,” she told Damascus, taking up her stirring once again.
He stopped labeling a bottle of Rumiline to nod, “If you say so.”
She smiled secretly and strained to hear the popes once again. They were only talking about how long it was taking Damascus to label the medicine.
But something else sparked her interest. A normal customer waiting for Twill to finish her pimple medicine was holding a flyer that Twill could read through the back.
The Knights Honor to commence Tyr’s Day.
Twill pursed her lips and dismissed the dangerous thought blooming in her brain. Women weren’t allowed to be Knights. That was common knowledge. But Twill wanted excitement. A bubble of anger turned inside her, but she refused to let it show on her face. Knights were heroic, fancy men anyway. Too high and mighty if you asked her.
But her heart yearned to be brave, to fight for her kingdom.
Then she had an idea. It lit inside her and sparked, waiting to be stoked by her willing and confident hands. Her stirring halted as the idea started to take shape.
Why couldn’t she be a knight? They never removed their helmets, and no other knight was allowed to ask deep questions about another. They bathed separately in the bathhouses and had their own rooms.
Who had to know she was a girl?
Gwith sighed to himself, tapping his fingers against a cross made of a pope’s bones. The day was lazy and piping hot and Gwith wanted nothing more than to leave his cart of fancy things and jump into the fountain spewing cool, sparkling water about seven feet in front of him. But his mother was an apt believer in manners.
Don’t do this, Gwithy. Don’t do that. Or this, she would warn. As of yet, Gwith had not once disobeyed her orders. Except one.
Whatever you do, never, and I mean never fall in love with an apprentice.
Gwith never knew why his mother objected so strongly to apprentices, all he knew was that his father apprenticed a woodcarver. And that was all. He honestly hadn’t meant to break it, she had just showed up. And Gwith couldn’t help it. His mother had always called him weak-hearted, and he knew it was true. He couldn’t help that either.
Gwith immediately perked up when he saw her step out of the shop she apprenticed at, wearing her signature red cloak that made her look fierce and undeniably beautiful. He sighed all dreamy like whenever he saw her.
But he had never really talked to her. He didn’t even know her name.
Gwith stiffened carefully and set down his small, curved carving tool as well as the cross of bones. She visited often, easily pleased by the designs Gwith carved into ivory and wood.
She stopped before him and pushed her hood back. Gwith tried desperately not to look her in the eyes for fear he would draw in his breath at the sight of her oval face.
He cleared his throat gently, “We have new carved, ivory rings. I know you tend to like those.” She nodded, the movement reflecting the sun off her milk chocolate skin. Gwith’s heart constricted. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out the words he had spent an hour composing in his head, “I won’t be here tomorrow, but my mother will be with the cart.”
She glanced up at him, surprised, “Oh?”
He flushed, “What I’m trying to say is that there will be no new carvings.”
Twill took up a ring with a bird carved into it. The Nillolian Lark. Her favorite.
She looked up at him, and Gwith could only ever guess what she was thinking. But Twill knew exactly what she was feeling.
The merchant boy was familiar. Safe. And a comforting sight. Twill was used to seeing him in his woodworkers apron, wearing his circular glasses, with his honey hair and matching eyes flashing the sun back at her. Twill would never ever admit this; but she thought he was beautiful.
Gwith would have cried at this revelation, but Twill never told him. Even her eyes refused to talk.
“Where are you going?” She asked, fitting the ring onto her right thumb.
Gwith adjusted his glasses, “To Malevoia.”
Twill’s eyes lit then faded back into their glittering near-black, “Me too.”
Gwith tried to suppress a grin, “Then you won’t miss out.”
“No. How much for this?” She held up the ring, slender fingers tilting it this way and that.
“How much do you have?” Gwith asked, grabbing a twine pouch from one of his pockets and taking the ring. He already knew she was going to get it. Whether she paid or not.
Twill dug around in her small, red purse and set three silver pieces down on the table. A treasure to Twill, but was barely worth a thing save an ivory ring.
Gwith finally released his dazzling grin, “You have the precise amount.” He took the silver pieces and the ring to slip it into the little bag he had made specially for her only a few nights ago.
The corners of her lips twitched as Gwith handed her the bag, and her slender fingers brushed his as she took it.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. And then she did smile.
Gwith’s two brothers knew of his infatuation with the apprentice and had said she was stiff and hardly worth his time of day. They thought Gwith belonged with someone who smiled all the time and cooed over flowers. Because that was what was expected of the romantic that was their brother. They had also told him she never smiled. Her smiles were only reserved for Damascus Bean. But here one was.
Gwith felt his heart ba-bump against his chest as he wondered if he was one of the lucky few who ever saw her pearly teeth.
“Bye,” she gave him a small wave and started walking away.
Gwith pressed his hand against his heart, trying to calm it down, and studied the silver pieces. He frowned. Four. There were four. That was too much. He must have counted incorrectly. He knew she had little. Every silver piece counted! He had to return it!
Gwith hurriedly slipped off his apron and locked up his cart before running after her.
“Miss!” He called, catching sight of her red cloak disappearing around the bend. “Miss, wait!”
He skidded around the bend and saw her slip into an… alleyway? Gwith slowed as he neared it, feeling like an intruder. He didn’t want her to get hurt, but he also didn’t want to find out that she was doing something illegal. His gut told him to turn around. He wasn’t a part of her life. What did it matter if he kept the silver piece? But his heart beat toward the girl of his dreams, and he knew it wasn’t a decision.
He followed her.
Twill wasn’t sure what she was doing. It was reckless, stupid, life threatening. But it sent a shiver of excitement through her, and the grin on her face wouldn’t go away. She had hurriedly bought a set of boy’s clothes and borrowed some muddy boots from a neighbor she usually washed laundry for. And then she had slipped into an alleyway to change and cover her face with the mask she had worn to a ball Damascus had let her attend.
It had been nothing short of boring. The food was too elegant for her, and the mask made her nose itch. But at least it was going to come in handy.
As she had stashed her dress and cloak in a barrel that was mostly clean in the same alley, she had felt a prickle on the back of her neck. Like someone was watching her. Twill didn’t believe in superstition, but she still found herself glancing over her shoulder every so often.
Just to be sure.
When she made it to the sign up booth, her stomach gave a jolt of expectation and she took her time to make sure her dark red hair was covered by her cap and the frills on the mask had been cut off completely.
Then she squared her shoulders and stepped into line. Her answers to every question were sorted out perfectly, and she knew how to talk like a boy. Gwith had taught her that much. She liked to study his movements and imitate his voice when she sat in front of the apothecary. Just in case. Twill was always doing things no one else would “just in case.”
The line seemed to move quickly and, in a little over an hour, Twill was presented before a knight in shiny armour.
Twill deepened her voice, “Eighteen.”
The knight nodded and scribbled something onto the piece of parchment before him. Then he took a long look at Twill’s slight form and delicate hands made for picking plants and digging up roots. “You are aware that this is no place for a man without a lick of muscle?”
Twill tried to feign annoyance, “I’ve got plenty of meat on my bones!”
The knight grunted, “Are you apprenticing?”
“No,” Twill lied, glad her mask covered the blush rising in her cheeks.
“How can we contact you?”
Twill shifted awkwardly, thinking. She couldn’t answer truthfully, then the knight would know she was lying about being an apprentice and Damascus would find out she was lying about her gender in order to join the Knighthood. There was only one other address Twill could give.
“My home. In Farolia.”
“Be more descriptive.”
Twill nodded, “Of course.” She grudgingly gave him the precise location, feeling like she was stealing or something from her cousin. The house was Twill’s, after all, and she could use it to her liking, but it still felt wrong. She was content to let her cousin, Maud, manage it as well as rent it out, but she would have to kick the renter out if she wanted her letters to go undisturbed. Mrs. Glen, the renter, was a nosy woman and Twill knew she would read the letters and then tell Damascus.
Then where would Twill be?
Hanged. Because Damascus wasn’t the sort to let a woman do anything worthwhile. She couldn’t hold it against him, though. Nearly everyone felt the same, and if Damascus tried to hide Twill, his apothecary would be burnt to the ground.
The knight handed her a small slip of red with the number fifty-seven on it, “We’ll contact you if you’re drawn.”
“Yes, drawn,” the knight waved her away and shouted for the next person to step forward.
Twill gave a huff and stepped out of line with her little slip. Now all she had to do was pray.
Only a few paces behind her, Gwith felt sick as he watched her leave the line of people and the crowd shuffled forward. He had strained to hear the words she spoke with a gruff voice to imitate a man. The bag he was wearing with holes cut out for eyes muffled everything.
But he got the jist.
She was trying to get herself killed!
Gwith was so lost in thought that he didn’t hear the knight shout next at him until the man behind him gave him a little push. Gwith stumbled forward.
Gwith felt his heart thump against his chest. From what he could tell, he had two choices; tell the knight that Twill was a woman or keep silent and walk away. But he also knew there was a third choice. Enter to protect her.
“Age, boy!” The knight snapped.
Gwith took a deep breath. There was no choice, actually. His heart had already decided for him.