Sunday, December 13, 2009

Special Make-Up Post: "All the Blue in the World"

Okay, so the romance novel I just read isn't going to be reviewed until the 26th, per the request of the publisher who was kind enough to send me a free copy. Also, after reading all those Christmas romances, I feel the need to read some fantasy to cleanse the literary palate, so to speak. All of this means that there is a gap in my review schedule until I take up Caressed by Ice, by Nalini Singh.

To fill that gap, I thought I'd do something different. Some of my blogger friends know I'm an aspiring writer, and a few have asked to read something of mine. I'm still working on the second draft of The Duke of Snow and Apples and I want to get it all finished before it's picked over and critiqued, because it lowers the chances of a freakout. However, I thought I would post a story I wrote for a romance class, that I never submitted.

The reason I never submitted it is because it was for a class project, and because it was based on a pre-existing piece of writing. In my Romance English class in university in 2008, I read Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances, and while reading I noticed how weird to the point of creepiness some of these knights could be when in love with a woman. Like, a guy will see three drops of blood in the snow and will be reminded of his beloved, and will spend three hours just staring at that damn spot, dead to the world. Or a knight will push open iron bars to get with his honey, severing his fingers in the process. Seriously, these knights knew how to focus.

I decided to write a story based on it, called "All the Blue in the World", only seen from the characters' personal viewpoints. It's about love, and it's romantic - but I wouldn't characterize it as a romance. I always thought the romance in De Troyes' stories to be ludicrously destructive to the point of farce, so I tried to find a personal angle and play around with language. I'll warn you first, it's 4412 words long, and it is based on a pre-existing story so some of the plot elements (like crossing a bridge of swords or the knight stepping into a cart [a huge step down in social status]) may seem out of the blue.

Brief story overview from the de Troyes' version: Lancelot is super in love with Guinevere. Guinevere's been kidnapped by an evil prince and Lancelot goes over to rescue her. In the processing of finding her, he has to step into a cart (apparently a huge Arthurian no-no, the equivalent of sticking a huge Kick-Me sign on your back) and then he has to very bloodily cross a bridge made of swords. Guinevere acts like an ungrateful bitch when he shows up because of that stepping-into-the-cart nonsense but nevertheless when he warps the bars of her jail (slicing his fingers in the process), she processes to have hot, bloody sex with him. Lancelot very politely warps the bars back into place once he leaves. Guinevere tries to pass off the bloody sheets by saying she has a hella nosebleed (for reals) and Lancelot has to fight the evil prince in a duel to save her honour. Eventually, Guinevere's released but then Lancelot gets kidnapped - this time by nicer people who allow him to go and fight in a tournament so long as he pinkie-swears to return once he's done. He shows up at the tournament in disguise but Guinevere's, like, 90% sure it's him, but to make absolutely certain she sends him a note asking him to fail - which he does, spectacularly, that is until Guinevere changes her mind and asks him to kick ass, which he does with similar panache. Wow. Lot of story. Hope you my version!

He had been a man once. Perhaps. He had eyes to see and ears to hear and hands to grasp the hilt of a sword, the same as any man. Did it matter that tears blinded any vision that was not composed of the exact colour of her hair, the precise curve of her chin, the juncture where white skin and pink blush and blue eye met? That his ears stopped up at any sound that was not one of the syllables of her name? His hands trembled and pulled towards her presence like the compass needle towards the true north, whether they held weapons or no. It hardly mattered unless some less fortunate man proved himself an obstacle on his path, because if his hand happened to grip a lance or a sword, it would have no recourse but to dig a hole through that obstacle large enough to crawl through and continue onwards. He had put holes in a lot of people, he seemed to recall. No one had remained an obstacle long enough to need crawling through. At least, to his recollection -- which was not considerable.

She, she was the one who had chained his hands and chained his lips and chained his eyelids and chained his heart, chains upon chains, draped upon him like foreign treasure on a victorious conqueror. They pulled him along, dragged him, forced him into a continuous run that necessitated abandoning everything else to the wayside. His resistance had been stripped from his back, his name dragged out through his mouth. She had transformed him from a man into a missing piece, a moving forward until he reached either the empty niche reserved only for him or the emptiness where all roads run out.

He could almost hear his chains tinkling musically, each link an invisible ring of glass or crystal -- he could almost hear anything now, for the woman composed of the only colours he could see, the only sounds he could hear, the only warmth in the world for him, sat on a bed only a few feet away, with her knees drawn up to her chin, like a child. The startlingly clear sight of her, his vivid awareness of her being, slowly bled from her to colour and shape the form of her surroundings until he could see that she was imprisoned in an ugly cage of stone and iron.

She came to him dressed in a simple shift so white he experienced a sudden, vivid memory of winter, with only a mantle of twisted wool and marmot fur to cover her. Unbound, her hair tumbled about her like the wealth of the world’s treasure. Her hair was gold -- at least he thought it was gold. During his endless days driven onward, some people who were pleased or grateful or relieved when he put holes in the right people would press weapons and armour and coins into his hands, all said to be gold. The metal was cold in his hands so he usually dropped it, unless it was armour, in which case he would put it on. His endless chase had worn his first suit of armour to pieces long ago, and it took longer to put holes in people if he wasn’t wearing something that would prevent them from putting holes in him.

She looked at him for a long time with eyes that were wide and blue. He loved blue -- it was his favourite colour, and the only time he was allowed to see it was when she looked at him. When she looked at him with the only blue eyes in the world he could pretend he remembered the sky at daybreak, the petals of forget-me-nots, the sheen of lakes in the summertime, the light on a raven’s wing. For several moments he could only look at her without speaking, until at last she looked away and all the blue in the world went with her.

She extended a hand through the bars, and he latched onto its pale softness with a delicacy amazing for the amount of force and frustration he could feel building up in him like a tide. He felt like a boulder checked in its downhill progress by wall or a fence. All that was natural in the world was crushing him against an obstacle that could only be unnatural, man-made, that was keeping him from the only space into which the broken fragment of himself would fit and be made whole. He must have made some noise or speech that expressed this pain, although he could not hear it himself, because she reacted.

“Can’t you see that these bars are too rigid to bend and too strong to break?” she said, and for a moment he remembered music. He could almost hear the links of his endless chains chiming as if in accompaniment.

“You could never wrench or pull or bend them enough to loosen them,” she continued, her voice so new and loud in his ears that he could only barely grasp the meaning of her words. The silence that followed her statement was equally painful.

She was asking him to wait, to endure this fraying pull at his soul in order to kill this Meleagant, this thief-of-the-world’s-treasure, to fill him full of holes. But he could not wait, not when his colour blue, his true north, was separated from him by only shadows and cold. He could deal with shadows and cold. Indeed, he had often dealt with worse. He murmured boasts and comforting nothings as he struggled to find the bars in his hands. She was so close that the cold iron in his hands felt almost familiar, reminiscent of the life that had been worn away from him by the scouring currents of need.

He pulled. He pulled and he pulled and as he pulled she looked at him, with all of the colours of her being, gold and blue and pink and white, until he was lost in the glare of sunrise and the spray of a storm-rent ocean and the scent of a rose blooming in a valley of snow. And then there were no more bars and he was through and there was nothing to prevent him from drinking in, gorging himself on, and burying himself in gold and blue and pink and white and warmth and sighs after an endless journey of grey, cold silence.

For one night, he was still, at rest, his face fitted to the curve of her neck, his shape perfectly moulded to hers. In that one night of wholeness, of fulfillment, the tattered remains of his life had a chance to catch up to him. Murmuring her name, he remembered his own. Lancelot. He was Lancelot. Like a ground spring dug from the earth, his memories seeped up to pool on the surface. He recalled the mother who had blessed him with a name, the companions and masters who had doled it out in either greeting or command. His king. All lost to him.

Pain, his long-lost guide, rose up within him in a hot flood. First in his hands, deeply scored by the iron bars that had kept her from him. His life blood, so unimportant to him before, trailed the progress of their lovemaking on the sheets in crimson drops and smears. Next, the burn of memory progressed to his heart, as he looked at his treasure of gold and blue and pink and white and recognized it as a woman, and another man’s woman at that.

Waking, she cast her eyes towards him, and neither could hide from the other how much she had taken from him. How she had cursed him. He could feel that cold, glittering chain that bound his heart and trace its intricate links all the way to where it was welded around her wrist. They could tell themselves that she had only intended to make a light knot, like the lead on a hound, enough to keep him faithful to her but capable of being untied to let him run and hunt until he came back to her on his own. But that knot had grown, and tangled, and tightened. Perhaps he had stretched it too far by trailing behind, perhaps she had warped it by pulling too hard. It was impossible to say now.

Lancelot found he could not bear it - this was worse than being separated from her by iron and shadows. As the rags of his former self settled down upon him like dead leaves after the wind dies, they lent a sharpness to the bridge of her nose, a harsh light to the curve of her chin. He was bound to a woman of knives, forged from the swords of truth, justice, loyalty, honour that had been cast at her feet in homage to her role as Queen, and wife of Arthur. Any closeness to her would only cut him to pieces on the very vows he had made to the realm, to Arthur, and more importantly, to her.

After she had fallen back asleep he tried telling himself that it was better to love from afar than to have that which you love that destroys you. But telling himself that was not how he managed to rise from their bed like a man forced to cut off his own gangrenous arm. He pulled and pulled and pulled until once again the bars of iron restricted her lovely form and the pain in his hands faded as the tension of her absence scattered the remnants of his self once more. No, given the freedom, he would dash himself against her like a Grecian hero against the rocks of his beloved shores at the sight of a black sail on the horizon. But the day was rising, the servants were stirring, and in his dark tower Meleagant would be turning thoughts of her over and over in his mind like the precious coins of a stolen horde. If they caught her like this, they would drag her out and cut her to ribbons on her own swords of truth, justice, loyalty, honour.

No, he could only rescue her, only claim this destructive woman of knives, with the very swords of truth, justice, loyalty, honour that made every moment with her an ecstatic torment. He would go out, and he would challenge Meleagant, and he would put as many holes in him as it took to crawl through and find her waiting.

She had been a woman, once. As ordinary as any other. Beautiful, perhaps, and fortunate. She had been given to a king, after all, and not a cow herder. Her hands remained white and soft as she sewed her husband’s shirts with fine silk thread, instead of chafing them raw on the handle of a butter churn. Her husband took his pleasure with her in rooms bright with candles and tapestries, instead of on a straw mattress before the cows had to be milked. Her babes would be born in beds of linen and velvet and breathe only air flavoured with incense and honey, instead of on a dirt floor amidst the stink of animals.

They had given her to a statue, to a holy relic. A man of greatness, impossible not to love. But it was a love that would not stay small, that wouldn’t allow her to keep it hidden in a pocket or nestled in the palm of her hand for her to cherish and examine. It was a cumbersome love, a love that spread and grew and swallowed everything and everyone. To love a man who was already loved by all was to be just another subject, one among many.

She had toyed with the idea of a small love, a kept passion. A champion tamed to her affections, who would ride into combat with his love for her guiding the point of his lance or the edge of his sword. A spark of warmth that she could nurture into a flame at will that would never have to be shared with anyone.

It pleased her to distribute her marks of favour like jewels to the impoverished, to toss out her smiles and choice words like handfuls of diamonds and laugh at her own wealth. It pleased her when knight after knight took up her proffered treasures and rode into battle with them glittering around their throats like ropes of emeralds spelling out the letters of her name. The entire realm fought for Arthur -- but a small circle fought for her and that was enough. Even Kay, Arthur’s seneschal, whose heart dripped loyalty while his tongue dripped poison, charmed his viper’s tongue into obedience around her.

She kept her knights bound with strands of pearls, braids of silk, affectionate ties of beauty that were not binding enough to be treasonous, that weren’t strong enough to prevent them from being shrugged off or severed to serve the greater good. She loved Arthur and she loved Camelot. She was a Queen, diamonds and pearls and silk flowed through her hands like water -- they were trifles, only.

But then, Lancelot. This shining knight had entered the court burning with the sheer force of life and strength, unbeatable, unquenchable. While others simmered, he blazed -- and she found she liked feeling that pleasant, unfamiliar warmth in a world gone cold with politics. She had gravitated towards that flame too late to realize the consequences. She threw her chain, she cast her net, she reined in that man and his furnace of spirit.

She had not known how hot he had truly burned for her – how could she have known? Everyone at court fluttered around him like moths around a candle, bathing in the joy and comradeship he dealt to all. Perhaps it was because he also loved Arthur – almost as fiercely as he loved her – that made him hide his true light under a bushel, until she foolishly tried to capture it for herself. She had doomed him, and herself, with a meaningful glance from her eyes, two exquisite sapphires. Like a pair of blue sparks on a pile of kindling, her offer had stirred Lancelot’s love into a conflagration that had melted her chain into an iron cage around his heart.

And now he dragged on behind her, a shambling patchwork prince who lost a piece of himself for every step he took in her wake. Anyone following would find a scattered trail of detritus -- here was a scrap of Lancelot’s laughter, there was the last battered shard of his memory of springtime, here a frayed thread of how autumn apples had tasted on his tongue.

She had to love him -- how could she not? The chain that was burned into his heart was knotted to her wrist as well. Once, she thought she might have been able to break their bond through ill-usage. After Meleagant had stolen her away to that castle beyond a bridge made of blades, she knew that Lancelot’s inexorable quest towards her would bring him along as well. By the time Lancelot crawled across that knife’s edge to stand bloodied before her, she had known everything about the terrors and pains he had been dragged through for love of her. Lancelot, that burning brand of a knight, could not place a foot upon the ground without a dozen stories springing up like flowering weeds around it.

He had hesitated before getting into the cart. Alone, haunted, his heart crushed between the two millstones of his longing for her and his fear for her safety, he had been offered passage by a dwarf in a cart who knew the old ways of knights and quests and bridges built out of knives. Instead of immediately seizing his chance, Lancelot had waited two steps, possibly the first two steps he had not taken in her direction for years. To step into a cart was to step out of the world of honour. He had, for two blessed moments at least, denied the shackle that bound them both for the honour that bound him to Arthur. So much hope in two minor gestures. She had snatched the seed of that tale out of the air as it had wafted past her tower, before the winds of gossip could have blown it away. She had tended it like a sapling tree while trapped in Meleagant’s keeping, so that by the time Lancelot arrived she would be able to show him its dark fruits and hope the sour juice of her ingratitude would revolt his heart and rust the chain and break him off from her forever.

But she had been wrong – their bond was no longer a dead thing, to be continuously battered by their resistance to the wrongness of their love until it broke under their hard usage. No, now it was a sinuous, wily, defensive creature, and her ploy had only caused it to writhe and wrap its coils around Lancelot’s heart even tighter until she was sure he’d go mad. She could not cause Lancelot pain without doing damage to herself. She had no choice but to forgive him, to feed their love so that it would stop crushing Lancelot’s soul out of him. She gave him her hand and he pulled apart iron bars to be with her, only to leave the bed of their lovemaking stained with his blood.

He vanished on the way to Camelot after answering Meleagant’s challenge to preserve her honour. Upon hearing the news, her husband Arthur and her tame viper Kay and the knights of the court all gave up a loud cry, certain that he was lost. She knew better – she could still feel the chain. Distance had pulled it as taut as a bowstring, true, but she could feel every tremble and vibration as somewhere, somehow, her patchwork prince was putting one step in front of another, over and over, on without end, ever towards her. That is not to say that she did not worry. The white-hot core of him could never die, she knew, but so many other, no less important pieces of his being had been eroded from him already. In what shape would he inevitably return?

It was in spring when she found her answer. The court simmered with the insufferable heat of both the season and young romance. A knight could not tip his head in greeting without setting a dozen maids to blushing. Her ladies blossomed with colour, pinks and greens and blues replacing the staid colours of winter wool. Sleeves rustled with ribbons, corridors echoed with giggles and sighs, the air turned soup-thick with the scent of tears and honeysuckle.

She decided to approve of and attend a tournament, to drain the court of its intoxicating mood of fancy like bloodletting a man of his fever. Let her ladies, with their eyes bright with dreams, find clean loves, bought loves, loves paid for with steel, the way things use to be in days of old. Give them a little romance, a little magic for a day, before settling them into decent marriages for a lifetime. Marriage was nothing to complain about, it was a love all its own, a salt and butter love, a bread and table love. It shored one up instead of tearing one down.

Amidst the glittering tumult of the games, the glory and excitement of men playing at war, a man in a suit of armour the colour of blood appeared on the field. She knew instantly who he was, for she felt that twang of his presence throughout her body like a giant harp string being plucked, like a tension being released. Hot shame welled up in her like blood to a fresh bruise, for she realized that she had not called this tournament for the sole reason of settling her female charges before they cast nets of their own. She knew that the invisible hook that kept him stumbling forward also kept her standing still, rooted to the ground, because she wanted him to find her, and stop running, at last.

She loved Lancelot, whose name was written on the inside of her eyelids and underneath her fingernails and in invisible lines across her skin. It was the love of the leaf for the hurricane, the pebble for the landslide – she knew any union between them would only sweep her away and destroy anything she had ever known.

She loved Arthur, too. And Camelot. So did he. But it was fated for them to drown together, she realized. Hundreds of years later people might find their remains as a single pile, the bones of one’s ribcage entwined with those of the other, two spiderweb-fractured skulls pressed together, their spines braided around each other. Those people might look at their remains and think, “This was love.” They’d never know how the queen and the knight had ended up that way, fevered and gasping, pressing so hard and yet knowing they would never be close enough to the other until one’s bones cut into the other’s skin, until one’s heart emptied the last of its life into the chest cavity of the other, until blood mixed with blood and brain with brain and the skin burst to eliminate all fleshly boundaries to their joining.

At least from the position of the pursued, rather than the pursuer, she had time to think, and remember, and also to act. As the red knight galloped onto the field, effortlessly cutting down the opponents before him, she took aside one of her maids.

“Damsel,” she said, “you must take a message, quickly and without wasting words. Hurry down from these stands and go at once to that knight bearing the red shield; tell him in secret that I bid him ‘do his worst’.”

She then stood and watched from her throne as the knight in the red armour spurned lady fortune and opened his arms to receive his opponent’s lance unarmed. More than anything she wished she could have aimed that lance herself, aimed it at his heart as surely as if she plunged it into her own. He could not live with her love, but to die for it – to die for a lover’s hand would grant him everything she could have wished for him. He would die with all the honour of a knight, a full knight, a man whole and unscathed, instead of the wasted wretch who would sever his fingers with iron for the pleasure of one night with her. It would not matter what happened to what was left of her – she was Queen, she already did not matter.

The lance connected, sending him flying off of his horse and into the dust. But he revived. He revived and he did his worst, which was far worse than even she had imagined. He quaked. He cowered. He ran from his opponents like a milk-fed boy with the jeers of all the stands snapping at his heels, this man who had defeated twenty of the best men not an hour before. She could almost hear the tinkling, spiteful music of the chain that whipped and cut him as he trembled and dodged, and she might have heard it if the razor-edged catcalls and insults of the crowd had not risen to a deafening pitch.

In one fell swoop he had doffed his honour, the only thing that had mattered to him as much as she had, the honour that had fed him like bread and ale, clothed him in righteousness and courage, sheltered him from the machinations of lowly worms like Meleagant who could not see that their own dishonour left them starving, naked, vulnerable. His face was hidden beneath the crimson helmet, but nevertheless, he had stripped himself down to show the entire court the shambling puppet he had been reduced to for her sake. Everyone from the son of the King of Ireland to the lowliest milk maid pointed and laughed at the loss incurred on King Arthur’s court by her vanity and foolishness, which was only a small fraction of the loss incurred on her own heart, which beat against her chest like a bird against its cage at the sight of him left with nothing.

She pulled aside her serving maid and reversed her message. By God and Fate, let him do his best! Let him recover his honour if he had nothing else!

Everyone in the stands was soon forced to gulp and swallow the poison of their words as the red knight just as suddenly rose from coward to legend. His lance flowed like water in his hands, striking out with the swiftness and grace of a raindrop in flight. She could only watch as the sneers of her ladies turned to sighs, then to vows. She saw that look in their eyes, that blind, hopeless longing that sends moths to the flame of a candle, or a desperate seagull into the arms of the sea.

The red knight won – and then the red knight disappeared, returning, no doubt, to resume whatever confinement he had set his honour on enduring. For the women of King Arthur’s court, however, there would be nothing. No tournament weddings, no covert gifts of rings and handkerchiefs, no solid, assured romances for them. For she saw that all their eyes had turned to stone, rows upon rows of hard little jewels that refused the honest advances of hardworking, genial men. They had glimpsed the love that had transformed a beggar into a king, and now no other love could satisfy them. They saw that change in his heart and mistook it for power in the woman who held it. To have that kind of hold on a man would be worth far more to them than any hearthstone love, any cows and ale and milk and babies love.

She had no way of warning them. She had no way of convincing them. She felt turned to stone, a beautiful statue that everyone would look at but hardly anyone notice. She bowed her head and clasped her hands, acknowledging her defeat. Love has won, and we have lost, more than we can ever understand.


  1. I love this story -- the reader is driven on to the end...



  2. Vorkosigrrl1:06 PM

    Really creative treatment. . . highly dramatic. I look forward to reading more of your work.