Chapter 22:


The Knight of the Golden Rose

We returned to the great hall with relatively little fanfare, for the court ladies had forgotten us amid the torrent of other exciting affairs related to some duke and his wife, and no one expected us to return in victory. Even the king looked at us in disbelief as we climbed the royal red staircase and knelt before his throne.

Anselm took out the hair, the blood, and the tusk from the old leather bag that had been with us for the entire journey and presented the objects.

"My lord, I have killed the creatures who have been terrorizing your lands. Here is proof of my deeds."

The king took the remains one-by-one and inspected them, even handing them over to his wife, who looked too disgusted to touch any of the evidence. I waited for a familiar reddening of the cheeks. Any moment, I expected him to hurl those objects back in our faces and denounce us as common criminals for our blatant disregard for honesty in providing what were obviously ordinary items.

Instead, a wide grin slowly spread across the king's face, and his eyes grew brighter and brighter.

"You are my son!" he threw his hands up and shouted. The fake remains scattered on the floor. "You have returned to me."

Then, standing up, he addressed the entire court in a prophetic voice. "This is my long-lost son Anselm, who has successfully completed a long and harrowing quest. He has finally become a man. Please welcome him."

Everyone in the hall froze. I felt hundreds of eyes instantly turn towards us. Sweat dripped down my back.

Turning back to Anselm, the king said, "Because we are so happy about your return, I will grant you anything you desire."

Anselm knelt down even further. "Please knight me so that I may serve you for the rest of my life." Pain tinged his words. It was like someone else was forcing him to say them.

The king's smile widened even more. "How noble of you! As expected from my son, whom I love."

Returning to his subjects, the king announced, "The ceremony will take place tomorrow!"

And there were gasps and then a frenzy of movement, of noblemen, of court ladies, of servants, of musicians. How exciting! How rare it was for the king to knight someone! Yet there was so much work to be done by tomorrow. The food must be pristine, the floors spotless, the music joyful, and the priests gathered.

The minstrel immediately began singing about Anselm's adventures, making monsters up as he went along, either blissfully unaware or shamelessly unconcerned that our quest was only filled with the mundane and had no magical creatures in sight. Then everyone nodded in approval and self-congratulation since wasn't it nice that we were still able to create new legends in this day and age? How wonderful that the spirits of Arthur and his knights still embodied us today!

Anselm was whisked away to a special room where he would bathe and keep vigil in preparation for knighthood, and I was left in the great hall, directionless and forgotten while court life resumed, until a little maidservant bumped into me and offered me a bed in the servants' quarters, which I gladly accepted.

I followed her to the far end of the castle. We arrived at a large room with hundreds of beds tightly crammed together. She gave me a short, unused bed in the middle of a row, where I sat for the remainder of the night and listened to the servants' chatter.

From the servants, I learned the details of Anselm's ceremony and how I could see him in all his glory.

The next morning, I woke up right at sunrise to attend mass at the church next to the great hall. There were so many people packed in there I thought the entire city had shown up to the holy hall! Despite the amount of people, the noise was surprisingly quiet and the mood relatively somber.

The inside of the church was just as majestic as the king's court. It had the same sharp rising windows and sparkling chandeliers. The same ceiling that surely reached the sky and let in a faint blue hue. Flowery details on every marble white wall and imposing support column. Beautiful stained glass windows with larger-than-life saints who watched us with approval. A sleek blue-and-white checkerboard floor.

The difference was that now, instead of a banquet table, the room contained rows upon rows of dark wooden seats, each topped with a little candle that lent the entire space a holy air, for it was not as bright here as in the great hall.

While the priest was giving some convoluted sermon on the holy virtues of chivalry, the duty of knights, and the importance of fasts and abstinence, I stared at Anselm who was standing right below the pulpit and flanked by several other priests in colorful garb. He was wearing a pure white shirt covered with a royal red robe, which seemed to be made from the same material as the king's clothes. Underneath, his shoes and hose were black as the death that so frequently visits us.

I couldn't quite make out his expression, but I wondered if he was thinking of me.

After a prolonged hour and a half, Anselm and the priests left the pulpit and moved over to the altar. The entire crowd all turned at once to watch him.

That altar was the most obscene thing I had ever witnessed in my life. It had a backing of gaudy gold so dark it looked bronze, with every detail carved in a manner that I can only describe as excessive. There were flowers and candles and crosses scattered all about. Behind the altar was a painting of The Last Supper, probably framed in pure gold.

An ugly green cloth splattered with yellow roses hung from the altar itself. On the surface were even more candles and various golden goblets.

The king suddenly appeared from the front row and stepped up to the altar with a sword and shield. The sword was truly beautiful. It had a delicate, silver hilt with a ruby gem in the middle, and the blade was made of flawless steel, molded in the most shapely figure. Anselm knelt at his feet in holy solemnity.

There in that sacred building, the king raised the sword and firmly hit Anselm on the shoulder with the flat of the blade. A thwack rang out, but Anselm gave no indication of pain.

"I dub thee, Sir Anselm," the king said with finality.

Anselm rose and claimed the sword and shield that were now rightfully his. A misty white light illuminated his face. His features were perfectly accentuated like he was a sculpture come to life. "Thank you, my lord," he said.

In that moment, I felt an immense pride at having accompanied Anselm all this time. Despite the lies we were given and the lies that we told, the little boy who I used to tease was knighted by the king himself, the highest of honors. I thought that I could experience all of our hardships a hundred times more if only to see this scene again.

Once the mass of people left the church, the festivities began. Minstrels came streaming in from left and right, singing and playing the lute to crowds of eager listeners in the courtyard. Food and beer burst from the kitchen like it was an endless fountain. There was dancing and laughing both inside and outside. Many of the younger nobles flocked to Anselm to admire his new sword. Servants were run ragged trying to keep up with the demands and clean up all the trash.

While I enjoyed hearing the music and stuffing my face with bread pudding, at that moment, I wanted to do nothing more than to talk to Anselm alone without all of this distraction just like all those previous sleepless nights we spent together.

So I waited and waited in a shaded spot under a tree until the sun came down and everyone was tired of dancing and laughing and left to their beds. Anselm, too, stayed until only the servants were left and found me, just like he always did.

"Congratulations," I said.

"Thank you," he replied. Then, he grabbed my hand and pulled me up, saying, "Come, we must speak in private."

He took me inside the castle and we ran through long empty corridors with endless doors on each side until we arrived at Anselm's door, which looked no different from the hundreds of other heavy oak doors.

I stepped inside his room and marvelled at the size; it was even bigger than our family house which held four people. A blue rug carpeted the floor, and a single chandelier gave the room a warm glow. There was a bed, a table, several chairs, and even a wash basin. A couple of books were stacked in a bookshelf.

"I'm sorry I didn't show you this room before," he started. "They never gave me a chance to leave."

"It's okay!" I said. "I can make it on my own, you know. I slept with the servants last night."

"That's good. I think." He sat down on the bed and stretched out his limbs. "That was tiring!"

"But it's official now. You did exactly what you said you'd do." I hopped on the bed beside him. "What now?"

"That's what I wanted to talk about." He took out the golden brooch that had given us so many opportunities. Somehow, it had not lost its sheen. "You know this is fake, right?"

My heart stopped. The warm and happy sensations that were currently filling my body instantly vanished. All those times he refused to show the insignia suddenly made sense — it was not just responsibility but also shame that weighed him down. He had never wanted to own the golden rose because it signified that he was a criminal trying to cheat the king rather than a true royal son.

Another lie exposed. How many more to go until I stopped my foolishness? Once more, my image of Anselm was shattered. He lied to complete the quests; he lied about his heritage. He was not a knight but a crook. I stared at him like he was a complete stranger.

Anselm hung his head. "I'm sorry," he said. A tear fell from his chin. "This is something I should have told you a long time ago, but I didn't want to ruin your image of me. You seemed so happy with me as your knight that I couldn't say anything."

After several long minutes, sense slowly returned to me. Hadn't this entire journey already been full of lies? What was one more stacked on top? And Anselm had shown that he was just as capable as any royal son, saving me so many times, so what did his real parents even matter?

Plus, the king was just as complicit in this web of lies. He who knew the quest was a fool's errand must also have been aware that Anselm was not his real son, for who would send their flesh and blood son on such an outrageous mission?

And wasn't it my fault in the first place for never questioning anything, for always taking everything at face value like a stupid little girl? If I had simply asked, he would have told me the hard truth. But because I was so eager to believe in the false realm of magic, dragons, and perfect knights, he was forced to keep up the illusion and let me fall in love with an Anselm that never existed.

The candles flickered above us, casting specks of light and shadow over the room. I looked at his face, still so impossibly kind despite everything. My anger dissipated like steam.

"I asked the king if I could marry you." He suddenly said as if he were desperate to change topics.

"He said no, didn't he?" I said with a weak chuckle. I had never been good enough for Anselm, and any thoughts of our marriage were simply delusions.

"Yes. He said that nobles should marry nobles, and I don't think he's in the mood to adopt another child."

"So I'm getting kicked out?"

"I guess you could stay in hiding in my room, but I don't think that's a life you want to live," he said.

Suddenly, he let out a frustrated yell and wrapped his arms around me. "I don't want this to end! I wanted to spend as long as possible with you."

"Then why even do this at all...?" The question at the root of all our problems finally made itself known. "We could have stayed together in the village."

"My parents need me, and I'm the eldest son. My siblings are growing. We always need more food. The village needs more food. Don't you see how every year the lord demands more food from us? Soon we won't be able to feed ourselves. We can't let something like the famine happen again. I would never be able to live with myself.

"So my parents came up with this plan: they would give a small portion of every harvest for the next ten years to the goldsmith if he made them that brooch. Honestly, I was surprised at the quality myself. He could work for the king.

"If I became a royal knight, I could provide for the village. The king cannot ignore the place where I was raised, and it comes at no cost to him to send a little more food there every year. That way, even when the crops are bad, we can still eat. The entire village can still eat. We will not die of hunger."

The final word rang in my ear. Anselm had not only the weight of my expectations on his shoulders but also the lives of his entire family. What a heavy burden for someone to bear. I looked at myself: the only duty I had was to marry well, and I couldn't even bring myself to do that. How pathetic I was compared to him!

"The grain shipment is in two days," he said.

"I'll go with it."

I was shocked by how quickly I made my decision. Was this not the boy I once vowed to spend the rest of my days with? But what could I do? I could not live out my entire life under his bed. Just like Anselm, I had a family I was responsible for. I could not keep playing these make-believe games. We had separate lives to fulfill.

"I figured you'd say that." He smiled. "Can you do me a favor? When you get back, can you tell my parents that we were successful and they are going to get food every year? And that their son has become a famous knight?"

"Of course. I was going to tell them that regardless." I smiled.

He started to say more, but his eyes filled with tears, and he could not stop crying, not caring at all that he was a grown man and not a child. I caressed his back.

"And that one day, I'll come back to the village where my family is and where you are. I'll kick that fat lord out of his job, and we will all have a big feast to celebrate," he finally said through choked sobs.

"I understand," I said softly. Then, I blew all the candles out. We kissed in the dark.

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi