Princess Jin lived deep in a thicket of vines covered in enormous thorns. The thorns glistened with sap with an odor so profound that one breath would send any male into an impenetrable sleep. For some reason, Princess Jin was not affected by the perfume and conducted her daily business with a song in her throat and a smile on her lips.
Princess Jin did not just live in a thicket of vines, though. She lived in a tower created from vines that had twisted themselves upwards and fashioned a glorious green room at their lofty tip. Vine leaves had matted together to form a roof and ceiling through which no rain could fall and no wind could blow. When it was cold, the vines pumped warmth from its roots into the walls of the tower, and when it was warm, the leaves and tendrils breathed a bit and parted so breezes could keep her cool.
Jin (for she did not like to be called “Princess”) spent her days weaving diaphanous garments from the silk caterpillars delivered and from webs spiders left behind with their blessing. Her gowns were iridescent, catching the simple light of the sun and turning them into a spectrum of colors that gleamed out from the oriel windows, oilettes, and loopholes the vines made for her, then were sealed over when the vines shielded her against weather. On top of her golden braided hair, worn like a crown, she placed a circular lace cap inscribed with lessons she had learned from her life in a language secret to all but herself.
The vines oversaw her bed-making as well. When she rose each morning, tendrils reached in from the walls and refreshed the leaves they had placed the day before with new ones, long and wide, stacked one upon the other until the mattress rose to Jin’s waist. The bed was firm, though, and gave way just a little when she composed herself for a night’s rest, the top leaves folding over her peaceful form and keeping her warmth close in.
In the morning, a small leaf bearing a miscellany of berries had appeared on her table, just a pedestal bearing a plateau of petals at its top, poking up out of the tower’s floor, itself a seamless interlacing of thorns covered in soft, warm leaves. She had never seen how the berries and nuts arrived, but they were always there, her needs expected before she thought them, her hunger never more than a dim fear hidden away in her history.
When she was five and living a sheltered life in the nearby lands of King Conor, he had imprisoned her mother Queen Isa in the dungeons of the palace. She remembered visiting her mother there. She had only been visible by torchlight, which always burned webs and dust from the passageways she navigated with her guard. Queen Isa’s cell was smaller than a horse stall in the royal stables. There was a bed of straw, which smelled of mildew and offal, and a hole cut in the floor which allowed the Queen to answer nature’s call into a stream that trickled by below her. A crust of bread sat on the floor next to a wooden bowl of water. Her mother, the woman who bore and raised her—and who had married the King when she had turned fourteen to unite his kingdom with that of a neighboring lord—was clothed in a burlap sheath. Her face, arms, and legs protruded from her garment like broken kindling from a bundle on a forester’s back. Her eyes, sunken and dry from weeks of weeping, were gray in their hollow sockets. Her death was a certainty and, on the twenty-first anniversary of her birth, she was carried to the throne room and beheaded before the courtiers and the father of her child. Her head fell from her shoulders much like a petal does from a dry flower, not so much severed but free from the burden of imitating life for one more day.
Jin was raised by a series of tutors who would last for days or sometimes weeks, then disappear as completely as if they had never existed. From them, she learned courtly manners, including the proper way to address the multitude of courtiers whom she might see whenever she left her room. She was taught that knitting and crocheting methods kept demons at bay. They shared their belief that God was wise in selecting her father as monarch and the church showed its respect in supporting him above all other lords, ladies, and commoners, domestic and foreign-born. Most importantly, they ensured that she understood the importance of honoring her father first in all matters, public and private, even if she were to marry nobility from a distant demesne.
Her only friend, aside from her maids and ladies in waiting (who were not friends but sycophants and spies in her father’s employ), was one of the court jesters. Nature had been cruel to Arguello. He was a dwarf, bow-legged and hunchbacked, with huge, gentle hands and crooked fingers. Large, blue eyes peered out of his wart-embossed head. His smile seemed frozen in place when he was in the court pulling pranks at the behest of the head jester. He was treated worse than the court hounds by most, including the other jesters, but Jin had seen through his flaws into his funny and loving soul. He was just a child like her, after all, no more than a few years her senior when they first met, but they knew that their friendship and loyalty was steadfast from the start. Arguello would provide the latest court news and rumors, and she would share her fears and nightmares. He brought her books and helped her to read them, as she had not been taught to read by her many tutors, who always told her it was not necessary for a princess or queen to learn such things. He had learned to read by pretending to nap in the monastery library while secretly reading the sacred books as the monks read them aloud to each other to to prepare for the abbot’s test of their piety. It was in this way and no other that the princess discovered the outer world of cruel facts and wonderful magic.
When the court alchemist declared Jin fertile on her thirteenth birthday, her father summoned her and told her that she was to be wed to a noble within a year or two. Slowly, then with increasing frequency, earls, marquises, squires, princes, barons, knights, kings, and dukes came courting. They would visit her in a private chamber set aside for visitors. It was several stairways, corridors, and rooms away from the king’s court, ensuring privacy but also reminding her that she was just a princess, a pawn in the king’s quest for increased wealth and power, the daughter of a forgotten queen. The knights, squires, lords, and supplicants of all shapes, ages, languages, and descriptions would enter the room, bow, and tell the princess of their lands, riches, and plans for their future together. None of this mattered to her. She knew that several scribes were hunched behind the tapestries to her left and right, scraping down every word the visitors said to her. As her visitors completed their presentations, a set of guards would appear from a hidden door and escort them away before she said anything that might embarrass the king and his court.
And it continued, week after exhausting week, her time with Arguello’s books diminished by these annoying men and their tales laced with outrageous lies.
One day, a man so fat and oily he made all others before him seem profoundly beautiful by comparison came to make his case. His face was ruddy with excess drink and his clothes smelled of smoke and weasels, for they were the pet he allowed to run freely in his ducal manse. After he had bowed, he waddled up to her throne and grabbed the front of her gown, ripping it away from her chest in one sweep of his arms. He clutched her by the hair and pulled her face to his, sticking his tongue past her lips, sweeping it about in her mouth as if he thought he had left his scullery key in her gullet. As she retched, coating his face with her breakfast, the hidden guards pulled him off and hurried him through passages she did not know. The dumbfounded scribes sat with their pens suspended in mid-air, useless and mute as always. As Jin screamed and started crying, Arguello appeared and threw a prayer shawl over her torso, hiding her from any other eyes that might arrive. He guided her from the throne and back to her bedroom, where she threw herself on the bed, sobbing and screaming into her pillow the rest of the day until she slept a disturbing sleep.
No other suitors came for a month after that. No word was ever spoken of the corpulent duke and his breach of propriety. Arguello knew that the duke’s life had been foreshortened and shared this news with her. She did not want to speak of him and her first kiss, so Arguello shared no more about his painful end at the hands of the kingdom’s cruelest hands.
Her father brought her to his court one day and told her how her life would be. Only a couple of guards and a gaunt monastic advisor was there to hear his announcement. She was to wed within the fortnight to a rich man from a nearby land. He was a duke with more acres under plow and ox, forests under bow and ax, lakes and streams to fish and row than could be visited in a week of riding. It was thought by all the king’s advisors that he would one day be king of his own lands if he were not to marry Princess Jin and merge his property with King Conor’s.
Jin was horrified. Was she to meet him?
“On your wedding day,” said the king.
Was he old, young, fat, thin, handsome, ugly, kind, or cruel?
“You will only know the answers as his wife,” said the king.
Can we go back to accepting suitors in my chamber?
“The duke will be your husband, daughter. Let us hear no more questions” said the king, and dispatched her from his presence.
“Arguello, what am I going to do?” asked Jin of her only friend.
“I know of a place on the edge of these lands that will keep you safe from your liege and his whims,” said Arguello, a grave look on his face as he held her shaking hands in his firm, soft hold. “We will leave tonight. The moon was new last eve and this night is clouded over and foggy. I will take you down a guard’s passage to a tunnel below the moat. It will not be a long walk, but we must go tonight!”
“I will come willingly, dear Arguello. What should I bring?”
“Bring your favorite books and simplest clothing. All else will be cared for; you will never know want again.”
Just past the midnight bells, they escaped down one of the poorly lit stairwells spiraling down to a narrow hall beneath the castle. A thousand steps later and another spiral staircase led them up into a copse of trees that hid a stone mound with an iron door. They emerged here, where the forest was thickest, but Arguello knew every step to take as they slipped, tree-to-tree through the wilderness, moving farther with every footfall from the king and his realm of bootlicks and pretenses.
After some hours, with the sky and air still hidden by fortuitous cover, they arrived at a thicket of tendrils covered in vines. As they approached, Jin heard a strange crackling sound amongst the undergrowth. The vines parted slightly, pulling the thorns into their thick, dark green surfaces and allowing them both to pass. They wandered another thousand steps into the broad leaves and spikes as the vines opened before them and closed as they moved ahead. Finally, they reached an area where a bed of leaves and petals had been placed as if by one of her chambermaids. It was thick and soft to the touch.
“Lie down, dear Jin. You have nothing more to fear from your father. You will be safe here in perpetuity. If you need anything, just say my name three times, and I will be here within a day. If you fear anything, say it backward twice, and I will be by your side.”
“How is that possible, Arguello? Are you a wizard?” said Jin, in awe of the powers Arguello had just revealed to her.
“No, dearest Jin. I am a servant to any who grow up in fear of those who should love them, as you have. I am a protector for all those who have known cruelty. I am a teacher of all those who were raised to be ignorant of the world’s ways, yet who were intelligent enough to learn. I am your knight errant and have wandered the earth saving those who need my skills since long before your father was born. Most importantly, I am and always will be your friend, simply and without explanation. Lie down, dear princess. Rest your eyes.”
Jin curled up on the leaves and petals and was soon in a deep sleep. When she awoke—although she did not know how long it had been—she was in her verdant tower in a bed much like the one they had found in the clearing. Her new life had begun. Slowly, with greater certainty each day, she put aside the fears that had grown within her as she had aged from infant to adolescent. She was unsure of her age but felt like many years had been left behind. Her life was a pleasant dream as she did only what she wished.
Every so often, she would say Arguello’s name three times, and he would be there within the day, always with new books and a basket filled with strange fruit and vegetable varieties; she could never empty a basket as it always seemed at least half-full. Best of all, he never told of the palace, of the king, of the duke to whom she had been betrothed, or the courtiers who had spied on her and told their lies to curry favor with their sire.
And he never told her his secret either. With her freedom from the palace had come his as well. While he had other charges to fulfill, other children to protect, other missions to complete, he was as done as she was with King Conor and his realm.
And that reward would suffice, the eternal friendship of Queen Jin being bountiful as well.
Featured image: United States Department of Agriculture via Flickr (some rights reserved)