Short Story – Delicacy of Touch

This is another story focused heavily on action, in an indistinct fantasy setting. There are elements of wuxia here, and elements of Japanese culture, and certainly elements of European nobility. I did not want this to be clearly identifiable as any one culture transplanted into another world, because what interests me in writing fantasy is trying to remove the social and cultural signifieds from signifiers; fantasy is at its best when recognisable things are not quite so recognisable.

So in a world where there are spiritual, manicured courtyard gardens, one of hiding behind screens and long sleeves, there is also fencing and theories of swordsmanship that feel intensely European.

Delicate, crystalline silence, like the hesitation of breath at the shock of an ice-cold morning or the unwillingness to step into an icy pool to bathe, made the air in the small courtyard feel even more oppressive than normal. This place was a retreat, a garden of almost sacred tranquility, and on a summer’s day when the temperatures were so hot that one could barely move, it was welcome to be able to find a place of such delicacy. Yet delicacy is antithetical to relaxation, it was respite without true relief. Delicacy was the sort of silence that invited held breath, fear to move lest something break.

This was a garden where everything felt so precisely positioned, every branch and leaf and stone in its paths in such tense equilibrium, that all one could do was wander with close steps lest the stillness be disturbed by the snapping of a branch. There were no benches, no expanses of ground on which one may sit. It was not a garden for those who wished to relax, or pass the time. It was a place of reflection and of simply being away, the embodiment of the dilemma of court. In the endless heat of summer one could be comfortable or one could have peace.

The other gardens, the ones which this served as a retreat from, were places where one wished to be seen, places of conspicuous relaxation, where those capable of being idle could do so before the eyes of their peers. They had open lawns, once claimed to be tactically advantageous but now only useful to those looking to be on display. The palace’s interior seemed to promise privacy behind screen and curtain, but those in turn were overlooked by places where observers might pry, or accessways by which one could always be troubled at a moment’s notice. Simply retiring would invite gossip, hushed fear of illness, and ultimate shame. It took a specific kind of nobility to stave this off with a mere harsh tone. So one had to find these small retreats to pass the time in an acceptable fashion. Quiet, solitary reflection. A reflection that necessitated some measure of discomfort to define itself.

The standing and the walking should hardly be problems, since one sat so much at court. Yet all those hours spent creased up beneath long skirts, feet crushed in delicate shoes, had an atrophying effect. Not physically, but a general malaise of the body and mind that made exertion a greater effort than it should be. Delicacy was the ne plus ultra of this place, this world apart, and it was in its fragile balance that all had to stay. Thus circling a small garden, dragging out each pace to afford maximum time lost from it, was in itself wearying even as it was supposed to be respite. One had to find other ways to remain alert, to not calcify and diminish, in a world of immobility. Tests of skill were one way, a way which comfortably provided an excuse for those of lower status to lose and still look good; those more atrophied in luxury than their ruler would never need to worry about winning when they should not.

However, even if the field of competition was a fair one, all observers agreed one had to travel far before finding any true competition for Her Grace. In an almost paranoid fear of becoming nothing, she had decided to rage against the dying of the light. Critics, for all rulers had those, had said she was burning a candle at both ends, trying so hard to turn herself into a warrior that she would die in battle before too long. Others mocked someone who had learned all the arts of swordsmanship and combat but who had no love of war, failing to notice that ultimatums were more effective when backed with threats than clumsy gestures.

The delicate suspension of tranquility was broken. The Serene Garden was not some trick floor with distinctive sounds of warping and footsteps to alert guards, it was a very ordinary, albeit impeccably laid out, courtyard. But when one is supposedly alone, and very conscious of how one walks, to hear gravel moving is alarm enough.

“That the only respite one may find from court life is in spiritual reflection, an inherently unarmed pastime, and one pursued alone in secluded places, is most fortuitous for assassins.” Suddenly the implacability of vanity was a virtue, because it could mask defiance. Clearly this man believed his job was easy, and as a result was not doing the sensible thing and striking.

The crunching of stones suggested he had realised this and was seeking to strike now, his piece said. She turned to look at her killer, and was unsurprised to see it was nobody she recognised. None of her enemies were stupid enough to try their luck themselves.

“A regicide either dies a hero or lives as saviour of the nation.” He drew a long knife and prepared to drive it home.

Fighting with knives was nothing like fencing. If anything it was easier. Her Grace met his blade with one of her own, stored in a diaphanous sleeve, and fell into a stance taught to her by a soldier, not a coiffured swordmaster.

“I had heard rumours that this queen fancied herself a soldier.” Parried, the assassin had fallen back. “What next, contemptuous words about how behind a lacy cage beats the heart of a-” As he talked, his guard had slipped slightly, his elbow sticking out at an easy to hit angle. Striking for that was classic fencing technique, only slightly less applicable to a blade less than half the length. “-a true man.” He was good. His wrist had bent in ways that seemed not quite possible to meet her lunge and all she had cut into was silk.

They were once again at a blade and a half’s length, the sun clearly weighing heavily on both of them, the delicate, drawn-breath silence once again crushing the garden. It was as if they were simply both awkwardly trying to share an intimate space, two rivals at court forced into one small antechamber awaiting an audience. In this moment of shared reflection, Her Grace realised how lucky it was today had not been a ceremonial day, how fortunate it was that she wore only an everyday (for royalty) dress. Knives met again. If swords sang with bell-like voice, daggers scraped and sawed at each other like a cook preparing to carve a joint. This time the scraping continued, their arms locked together, each side deciding that this was the moment where the fight would end. This time, Her Grace had the imperceptible advantage. She realised this as they drew close. Her measured, bored pacing of this postcard of delicacy in the midst of the palace had meant she knew every stone of the path, every detail of its layout. Her assassin clearly did not. On soft gravel, he could not keep his footing. Forced back, he was now in plants up to his knees. The immaculate planting was swiftly ruined, but it was all that an attacker needed. Finding his footing, he stumbled, and suddenly blood was pouring from the wrist that held the knife.

An assassin, looking to kill, aimed his blade for the heart or throat. A torturer or butcher looking to cause pain would aim for the gut. Someone fighting to survive, remembering both the visceral immediacy of military sparring and the formal sport of fencing, would see no issue with aiming for the sword-hand. It served double purpose, a death sentence – if properly aimed – and a disarming blow. Clutching his wound, the assassin tried to turn tail, and this time the knife entered his back.

The garden of serenity was so distant from the court, Her Grace so adamant that it should be inviolate, it took some time for any guards to realise what had happened. It was the sight of her returning from her meditation, clothes in disarray, that first raised the alarm.

Of course, to her critics, her arrogance in personally fighting off an assassin, in accepting that at court one was either alone or comfortable, in not wanting to see the sanctity of spiritual life interrupted by the intrusion of soldiers, all of those were faults. What manner of monarch both played at soldiers and had the strength to kill herself?

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