She cannot die. She will not die. Surely her father will come for her and whisk her away to a magical place where all is healed? Surely his blood makes her different, more hardy? But she has been wishing for so long, and still he has never made more than the occasional perfunctory visit. She steps into the village, hand over her abdomen, beginning to feel light-headed. There will be a doctor here, somewhere. He thinks she is strange. They all think she is strange. But he will treat her.
As she stumbles up the steps onto the street, her slow eyes take in the sights with confusion; the farmer curls over a body and shuts its eyes with heaving sobs as an unfamiliar man creeps toward him, knife drawn.
“Knox,” she says, her quiet voice as loud as she can manage. The farmer’s head snaps up, locks of brown-black hair whipping around, and he sees the soldier in time.
He roars, and there is a tearing sound, white splitting open and it is just his bedsheets. Knox lurches into a sitting position and pounds his fists onto the downy mattress, eyes casting about wildly for an opponent even as his mind registers with a growing feeling of frustration that he was only dreaming. Just as his heart rate begins dropping, the door cracks open and Agnes pokes her scared face in.
“I… I heard… Well, is all well?”
Knox grunts, muscles taut. “Just leave, Agnes.”
She hesitantly steps into the room. “I could get you a cup of wa-”
Knox hits his still balled fist on the bedside table which shudders under the pressure. It feels good to let out some of the caged aggression. Agnes quickly cuts herself off and scurries out of the room, and he immediately feels drained and guilty. Sighing, he pulls his heavy body out of bed and stares at his hands, slowly unclenching them. The sheet falls from his grip, a messy, frayed rip extending about halfway down the middle.
“I’m going to hurt someone,” he says aloud, his voice hushed and full of horror.
He quickly dresses without even thinking about the clothes he is putting on and takes to the halls aimlessly, thoughts churning. His panicked footsteps bring him outdoors, and several minutes of circling bring him within earshot of the clashing of swords. He jumps at the sound, then follows it with his eyes and sees young men sparring. For a brief instant they are bloodied and grim, but then he blinks and he sees the smiles, hears them teasing their comrades.
“C’mon, Xav, is that all you got?”
“You’re one to talk, asshole!”
Knox wanders closer. The boys don’t seem to notice him; their feet shuffle around the ground, more dirt patch than grass. He wraps his hands around a railing of the wood fence surrounding the enclosure and watches with fascination as their wrists flick and their bodies contort. He would not think violence to be so elaborate.
“Thinking of joining up?” asks an older man with interest as he sidles to stand next to Knox.
Knox furrows his brow and turns to face his new company. The man’s face is square and plain, the sort you’re sure you’ve seen before but haven’t. Thin creases warp his skin by his eyes and mouth. “Joining up with what?” Knox asks.
The man laughs. “This bucket of junk they call an army, ‘course. My name’s Hotch. People’re supposed to call me General though. Bullshit.”
Knox regards the man uncertainly. “I’m Knox,” he offers. “Honored to meet you, General.” It sounds like an important title, anyway, not that Knox would know.
“Pah!” says Hotch, frowning. He gestures to the closest pair of soldiers. “Watch them.”
They seem to wrap up their fight; the smaller one shoves the pommel of his knife into his opponent’s stomach, making him double over and wheeze, then brings the blade to his throat, whooping gleefully. Knox startles, moving to intervene before realizing the edges are dulled. The victor punches his fist into the air, cackling madly. “What was that about your undefeated streak, smartass? Wanna fucking repeat that?”
His opponent recovers his breath and rolls his eyes. “At least I don’t cheat, eh Xav?”
The pair make their way to a bench near Knox and Hotch, bantering. The smaller one – Xav – quickly straightens up and replaces his grin with a more polite smile when he sees the general, smacking his friend’s arm mid-sentence to elicit a similar effect. As they settle themselves down on the bench, Xav nods to the man. “Mornin’ General Hotch. Do I salute or…?”
“Fuck if I know, y’ lickfinger,” is the Hotch’s amused answer. He turns back to Knox. “See, it’s probably good you weren’t considering. You’d be out of place.”
Xav’s friend runs his eyes over Knox and grins. “I dunno, General, look at that scruff. He’d fit right in.”
“Doing my recruiting for me, Private Archibald?”
Archibald frowns. “Arch, General, it’s Arch…”
Embarrassed, now, Knox runs his hands across his unshaven jaw. “I ‘pologize, I just…”
In the same breath, Xav asks, “Long night?” and Arch asks, “Rough morning?” After a beat of silence the two smirk and thump each other’s shoulders twice with their fists in unison, some sort of secret gesture between friends.
“Er…” Knox rubs the back of his neck. “Yes?”
The three men laugh, and Knox stares at them nonplussed.
“Knox! Brother, I’ve been looking for you!”
Knox turns to look, but he doesn’t need to. He knows Mikhail’s voice. The other three follow his line of sight and Hotch’s face turns impassive, Arch pales, and Xav glances back at Knox and mutters, “Oh, shit.” The two soldiers jump to their feet.
Mikhail steps briskly over and smiles at the gathered men. “Good morning, Knox, General Hotcher. I see you’ve met already.” He glances to the two soldiers. “Good morning, Privates. I trust training is going well.”
Each of them bow as they are addressed, with Knox being no exception. As Arch and Xav nod vigorously, Knox icily responds, “Morning, Prince,” and begins striding away.
Mikhail follows. “Knox! I would speak to you, if you please.”
Knox grits his teeth, thin patience running low. It is difficult to remind himself that Mikhail is royal and should be afforded respect, when he remembers the man as a hopeful farmhand from Connerick.
“Of course, Prince,” he says in as controlled a voice as he can manage, stopping in his tracks and turning to face his half-brother.
Mikhail’s smile falters, but remains. “I didn’t see you after the counsel, last night. How are you? What are your thoughts?”
Frustration flares in Knox’s gut. The meeting had shocked him; how could they bury their head in the sand so completely? Laughing bitterly, Knox repeats, “Knife Riverton, Mudwater, Daxville, Renaria, Langa. And Aedra.”
The smile drops from Mikhail’s aristocratic features entirely, wariness replacing his expression. “Knox-”
“No. No. Shut it, just shut it. That’s five towns came before mine. That’s five chances you had to stop what was happening before it came to my town, my family.” Knox doesn’t particularly care that the three military men are still within earshot; he almost laughs as they suddenly become uncomfortable and find other places to be. He continues coldly, “You’re guilty as the soldiers. You killed my people.”
Mikhail glances down at Knox’s hands, and he realized they’ve balled into fists. He wants to swing. In the theater of his mind he pushes Mikhail to the ground, lands one on that delicate, princely face to split his cheek open, punches his teeth in, leaves a shiner – leaves two shiners –
With difficulty, he pulls himself away from the image. The violent urge scares him. He is no stranger to ugly anger hot in his belly but this…
Mikhail is quiet for a moment, then simply says, “You’re right.”
Knox studies his face and finds sincerity in those eyes; the fight goes out of him and he feels limp. Groaning, he crouches to the ground and puts his head in his hands. “Look…” he says. “I don’t know what you’re doin’ exactly. But it sounds like you’re doing somethin’. That’s all I wanted, and I’ve got no part in the rest.”
“Actually,” Mikhail cuts in, “I wanted to talk to you about that.” Knox takes his head from his hands and stares wordlessly, so the prince crouches to his level and continues. “You’re… you’re a fighter, aren’t you?”
Knox might not have said so a week ago though he’d been in a bar brawl or two. But he thinks back to the night that paints his dreams red even now, to the morning before when he brandished a letter opener at the maid, to this morning when he destroyed his bedding. What if it is Charity in his grip and not a piece of cloth? What if a door suddenly opens as he holds Junior in his arms? What if someone surprises him when he has worse than a letter opener at hand?
Tiredly, he nods.
Mikhail presses on. “You can use that. You can fight back. Father and I, we thought you may want a part in it… to lead the soldiers from your area. We would put you on the border-”
“I’d be far from my family?” Knox interrupts.
“It… it would be a bit of a ride, yes, but your soldiers would be from the same area – even some from Aedra. I got word last night that there were several enlistees.”
Knox stands and stares into the sky as it turns to pearl. It would be for the best for him to stay away, he thinks.
“You keep your head in a crisis. You’re watchful, pragmatic-”
Mikhail takes Knox’s second interruption in stride, clarifying patiently. “Practical. You would be well suited to it, Knox, and anything you needed to learn we could teach you.”
It would be best to channel his rage, Knox thinks.
“Would you do it?”
This is for the best.