The Burden of Nobility

[Made with Anna Anthropy's journaling game "Princess with a Cursed Sword", available here: ]

The Princess drifted through the museum, bare feet six inches above the floor.

Such lightness - psionic levitation - is the birth right of the noble houses; bare feet a signifier of nobility. Some nobles go further and have their feet pierced or broken, or bones and sinews twisted by a flesh-mage, so that it is obvious to all that this worthy did nothing so vulgar as walking. The Princess's feet were yet unbroken, she was young, and the lightness of youth can falter.

If one were, somehow, to miss the levitation, and the feet, then the dress alone would inform you of her station, for its materials could feed a poor family for a year or more. It was dark; midnight blue, deep ocean green, red like old blood. The top was close fitting, brocaded, studded with seed pearls, and tiny jewels, and beads of precious metal, shot through with fine gold and silver wire. The lower part was lighter, ruffled and flowy, to show off her feet. Her governess had explained, at tedious length, the symbolic meaning of each pattern and motif; the embroidered acts of her ancestors. The Princess had ignored her, thinking only of how fine and how uncomfortable it was.

This museum was not open to the public, of course, but only to the nobility. As a child, the Princess had explored it; room after room of artefacts from conquered lands and vanished people. The nobles used it primarily as a venue for lavish parties, like the one the Princess had drifted away from. Her party, in fact.

Something about this glass-fronted cabinet of swords had caught her eye. It took the Princess a moment to work out what: the front was unlocked, and stood fractionally ajar. The Princess went to push it closed then stopped, and instead opened the cabinet fully. The swords looked brighter, sharper, without the intervening glass. One sword in particular caught her attention; it was not the largest, nor the flashiest. If anything, it was rather spare, but radiated elegance and purpose. It looked like it belonged in a hand, and the Princess reached for it. She did not look to see if she was observed; neither of the two people in the castle that had the rank to reprimand her would care.

As the Princess's hand closed on the hilt, her fingers spasmed, and the sword jumped against her palm with an electric snap. Her fingers locked; she could not let go.

Perhaps the sword did belong in a hand, but not her hand, the fit was ill, off-balance. Her feet hit the cold tiled floor with a slap.

* * * The Chariot * * *

Her servants were all dead now, and the Princess steered the coach herself, reigns in one hand, sword in the other. It was not easy, anvilheads are difficult beasts to steer, but there are few creatures as hardy.

She missed them, her servants. Her maid had been the first to die; at least the Princess assumed that she was dead - they hadn't returned to check. The same bandits had left one of her guards with a nasty arrow wound; she had sickened and died -unpleasantly- over the following days. One morning they had found only bloody clothes where the coachwoman had slept; there had been no screams. There were, however, many screams when gravebeaks -corpses with the heads of vultures, and ragged talons- took the second guard. They would not approach the sword; indeed, they almost seemed to bow to it. The death of the final guard was prosaic by comparison; the coach hit a pothole and she was tossed from the roof, snapping her neck upon the flagstones of a ruined plaza. The Princess had taken her boots; she did not think to call it stealing.

* * * Page of Cups * * *

The woman is intoxicated, of that the Princess is sure, but she is too tired and too hungry to refuse the invitation. The same fire that roasts two large and silvery fish, also gives forth a fragrant smoke, which swirls and tarries on its way to the chimney hole at the top of the yurt.

The woman is dirty; hair unwashed, and stuck through with black feathers.

As the Princess eats the fish awkwardly with one hand, the woman eyes the sword as if she is not sure that it is real.

"You'll have someone's eye out," she says, with the tiniest slur to her words.

"I'm afraid I am unable to put down my sword," said the Princess, almost in apology.

"It is not your sword," observes the woman, grimacing.

The Princess was hungry enough to eat the second fish as well; the woman did not complain.

* * * Ten of Swords * * *

The remaining anvilhead refused to set foot on the ancient battlefield. It stood at the edge, and grumbled mournfully. The Princess did not entirely blame it; a miasma of psychic unease lay across this place. But she had ridden that anvilhead for days, and slept against its grey flank for nights. She felt something for the beast that, in another heart, one might call affection.

She considered whether the the point of the sword might persuade it, but its hide was tough, and besides…besides…well, the Princess could think of no reason not to try, but nevertheless she walked onto the battlefield alone. This, she knew, was the way that the sword wanted to go.

It had been snowing all morning, a dry and dusty snow, easily windborne. It did not settle like a blanket, but blew and curled like silk around the broken helms and bent spears and shattered shields that littered the battlefield.

Not so much a battle as a massacre, the Princess reflected; most of the helms were pointed to accommodate the beaked faces of the people who had once lived here. She was sure that many of her people had died too, but their bodies had not been left on the battlefield.

She walked on, hugging herself for warmth, picking her way carefully through the antique detritus. A fat crow watched from the carcass of an overturned chariot.

"It's not fair," said the Princess, "I should not have to walk. I should not have to carry this sword. I should not be cold, and hungry, and … a little afraid. It's not fair."

"Fair. Fair," called the crow.

In the centre of the battlefield stood the ruins of a hall, or temple, now just ten crumbling pillars thrust into the air. Around the base of the pillars were bas-reliefs, mostly shattered, but some still showed processions of bird-headed people, a great city, and lush fields. Some carried swords not unlike her own.

Only a beat of the crow's wings saved her, the sound causing her to look around. A battle-cyclops was almost upon her, supernaturally quiet for all that it was twice her height. Forged from metal, leather and strong magic, these had been a favoured weapon of her ancestors; but this one was old and mad, it did not see her lineage.

It swung a spindly and blade-like arm at her. The Princess ducked beneath it, stumbling back. She felt the point of some discarded sword sink into the side of her foot, and cried out. The creature craned its head towards her, teeth snapping. The Princess flailed the sword at it. She was no swordswoman, but by some idiot luck the point of the cursed sword pierced the creature's dark eye.

It howled and reared back. The Princess ran. It beat the ground, and screamed, and cast about, but the Princess was already limping away from the battlefield.

* * * The Empress * * *

The Princess had forgotten that she had ever not walked, that she had ever not grasped the hilt of a sword, that she had ever not been cold.

Battlefield had turned into foothills, which rose and broke into sharp-edged mountains. The sword led her.

When she stopped to sleep, she did not remove her boots. She did not want to look at her injured foot. The bleeding had stopped soon enough, to be replaced with a bright point of heat, like a single coal. But this heat had spread, first to the rest of her foot, making it strain against the leather, then slowly up her leg. Her sleep became feverish, so she began walking through the night instead, dreams dogging her footsteps.

She thought at first that she was imagining the palace that nestled at the base of the mountain. Some trick of moonlight, or of the poisons in her blood. But it did not vanish with the daylight.

That the palace was empty did not surprise the Princess. Never unduly aware of others anyway, she had seen no one for months, and had almost forgotten that such things as people existed.

She walked through empty courtyards, gardens gone to ruin, deserted plazas, echoing marble halls, until she came at last to the throne room. The vaulted roof had partially fallen in, and winter sunlight filled the room.

A woman sat on the throne. Her hair was clean now, though she still wore feathers in it.

The Princess collapsed onto her knees and fell forwards.

* * * Two of Swords * * *

The Princess awoke on a straw bed in a white stone room, sword still in hand. She felt no pain from her foot, but when she pulled back the blanket she recoiled in horror. It was huge, and black and yellow and green, puffy and weeping.

"It will need to come off," said the woman, from the doorway. "I can slow the poison, but not reverse it. I am no flesh-mage."

"Amputation?!" exclaimed the Princess.

"Or death," said the woman, "Your choice."

"It's not fair," said the Princess.

"I thought you nobles did not care for your feet, anyway?" said the woman, "So you have an easier choice than many. The draught that I gave you will numb the pain."

A small fire burned in the stone hearth, pine branches and fragrant smoke.

"Okay," said the Princess, "Okay, do it."

"You have the sword," said the woman, her voice hard for a second. Then, relenting, "I will help."

She assisted the Princess in manoeuvring herself to sit on the edge of the bed, leg swung out, foot resting on a small stool.

"Quick and sure, Princess," said the woman, "Imagine it as if it were a servant that you're letting go, or a child being executed for theft."

The Princess bit the inside of her mouth, and raised the sword. She brought it down, and just for a second it felt as if it belonged in her hand. She slumped back.

The woman sealed the wound, and bundled the noxious foot away in a sheet.

The Princess flexed her hand again; the sword was still stuck fast. She moaned in frustration.

"I thought that it might have come free," she said.

"No," said the woman, "You will not be free until the sword returns to the hand to which it belongs."

"And where is that?" asked the Princess, "Where is the person that it belongs to?"

"Beneath that battlefield, I should imagine," said the woman, "At any rate, long gone. Those people are no more. None remain, not even me. You will find, Princess, that taking is simpler than giving back."

The Princess began to cry, "Then I will never be free of it?"

"No princess, no noble, even the meanest, is ever free from the actions of their ancestors," said the woman, "Despite their desire to remain above such things."

"What shall I do?"

"The same as any peasant or servant faced with a burden, I suppose," she said. "Bear it."

The Princess sobbed. "It's not my fault."

"No, no-one's birth status is their fault, none may choose the nature of the life and lineage into which they were born," she said, "But you are late to that opinion, Princess."

"Then it is hopeless?"

The woman sighed. "Frequently," she said, "But what can we do but continue? And help one another."

"You can help me?" said the Princess.

"Only a little, and against my better judgement. My magic is the magic of transformation," the woman said. "Not arbitrarily, of course, but according to divine law. I cannot free you of the sword, even if it were my place to do so, but I can transform it."

"Into what?" asked the Princess.

"You are missing a foot," said the woman.

"Will it be heavy?" said the Princess.

"Oh, yes," said the woman, "As heavy as the sword."

"Then I will not be able to float?"

"No," said the woman, "That lightness will be closed to you, as it is closed already to all who are hungry, or sick, or exhausted, or go without being accorded the smallest dignity. All would float, if they were as unencumbered as a noble."

"Me being burdened will not bring those people back," said the Princess, "Nor will my regret … and I do, I find, regret it."

"No," said the woman, "The dead will hear no apologies. But the living get to live, so I say they got the better part of that exchange."

"What can I do then?"

"What we all do," said the woman. "We walk in atonement."

* * *