This time she was awake. It had all been a mistake, the first time. A misunderstanding. This time might be different.
Britomart lay awake over the covers, still in all her armor. Only her visor up. Staring at the low ceiling. Under all the armor, the mail, the cloth, she could still feel the arrow’s glancing wound, only one week old.
It had only been a week ago. She had not understood Malecasta’s seduction, then, but something about it had felt so right. It had not seemed possible. When they had first met in the great hall of Castle Joyous, Britomart had raised her visor in front of Malecasta, and a strange smile had spread across the loose woman’s face. In the noise of the throngs of carousing men and women, Malecasta had pleaded with Britomart, and she had said yes. It was courtesy to say yes to a lady, but also Britomart had wanted her. Wanted the loose woman with the loose hair, the loose limbs, the full red lips. The woman who outshone her own tapestry of Venus. Britomart had said yes, but she barely knew what that meant.
The next thing she remembered from that night was the dizzying fear of waking up with a stranger in an unfamiliar room, her own scream, the disorienting rush of other strangers pouring in. She stood with the Red Cross Knight against them all. It had taken a long time, then, for her to realize it was Malecasta who had been the one to creep into her bed. It was Malecasta, even during all the chaos, who stayed wrapped up in her blankets. The difference between Malecasta and any other stranger was that she, Britomart, had wanted her.
After it all, Britomart had come back to Castle Joyous, that den of lust and lechery. She lay in the same guest chamber as before, a week later, but this time she lay awake. She had realized that it was easier to search for a man you had only met in a mirror—surely your own true love—than to confront the unsettling reality that the men you met in real life were fools and boors. Maybe she was ready to do what was difficult, now.
But she had been waiting for hours, awake. It was warm in her armor, over the covers, and Malecasta had not yet come. Britomart passed the time breathing shallowly, thinking. She waited and listened to the scuffles of rats and the sighs of the sleepers in the rooms around her. She was still awake. Coming back was a mistake. Revisiting the scene of this old embarrassment was a mistake. Better to let the memory scar and fade in her mind, like the arrow-wound itself. It was only a glancing wound, after all.
She sat up, hinging at the waist, the armor creaking. She would leave the castle in the night, and spare them both the embarrassment. She stood slowly like an aching giant, the metal settling around her. Red Cross wasn’t with her this time. She could leave alone.
The hallways were empty, and they echoed with her steps. She wore her visor down so that when she finally reached the main hall, the few lingering carousers she passed—sprawled on the straw or the stone in various states of undress and insobriety—would not recognize her. She needn’t have worried; they were absorbed in their own fumbling pursuits, their own dreams. She trod among them, conscious of her heavy armored footfall all the same. It was only when she pushed the heavy door open to the courtyard—letting the cool night air in—that they collectively shivered, twitched in their sleep.
She turned left, outside, cutting through the gardens towards the stables. Her armor was heavy, but she was used to the weight. It had taken time, but she was used to it now; her movement was almost fluent, almost smooth. The rose bushes were high and dark at night. If they had a perfume, she could not smell it through her helmet. The hedges towered.
When she felt two firm hands grab her shoulders from behind she felt the familiar pull of mortal terror. The reliable adrenaline followed only a split-second later. Another monster, another enemy—something else that was not what it seemed. A knight’s work.
In a fluid motion she turned and drew her blade and opened her mouth to give a battle cry, but then there she was—standing in the grass, hands up—Malecasta. Unshaken by Britomart’s sudden movement and her drawn sword.
She was barefoot in the dewy grass. Her hair curled down in waves. She was beautiful in a way that made Britomart uncomfortable, made her unsure where to look. Her breasts were loose in her light shift. She stood there and she smiled and Britomart still did not know what to do. She sheathed her sword.
Her comfort in her armor had been no match for Malecasta’s bare feet, her silent running across the grass. She had heard nothing, seen nothing. Taken by surprise again.
“I’m sorry,” Malecasta said.
“You got hurt, didn’t you.”
It took a minute for her to realize that Malecasta meant the arrow that had pierced her side last week. Shot by one of Malecasta’s men. A violent corrective of the threat she had seemed to pose to their lady.
“Where?” Malecasta asked.
“I’m sorry, so sorry about everything that happened. I shouldn’t have—I didn’t understand.”
“Nothing happened,” Britomart said. “I was the one who didn’t understand.” A beat. She knew if she didn’t say something now then it would be the end. “Maybe something should have happened,” she said. It came out almost as a sob, and she feared that in that moment she had never been less of a lady knight. Malecasta just standing there. Britomart painfully aware of her own vulnerability. She had tried to tell her what she wanted, but the words had come out wrong.
“Will you be my lady knight?” Malecasta asked. She knelt down in the dewy grass and reached out for Britomart’s hand, sheathed as it was in her armored glove.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.” She did not know what would happen next.
But Malecasta—sure of herself as ever—slid the gauntlet off the lady knight’s hand, and Britomart took a sharp breath in. Her hand tensed. Malecasta gently pressed her lips to the tip of each finger, one at a time. Britomart exhaled. She brought the free hand tentatively to Malecasta’s cheek. The lady knight fell to both knees, mirroring the lady in the grass, all her armor creaking. Malecasta took the second gauntlet in both hands and removed it like the first.
“Can I see you,” the lady breathed.
“Yes,” said Britomart.
Malecasta put her hands on both sides of Britomart’s helmet, and drew it off in one easy motion. Britomart’s hair tumbled out and already Malecasta’s hands were in it. They were both laughing low in delight, a kind of laugh Britomart had never heard before.
“You are the loveliest knight,” Malecasta said. “The loveliest knight.” The lady touched her lips to Britomart’s own lips, and the lady knight opened her mouth without thinking. She could smell the perfume of the garden now—it was overwhelming. The softest lips.
And then Britomart’s breastplate was off, and she took the deepest breath. And somehow then the plates on her legs, her arms, her feet. The lady knight took off her own chainmail, and laid it carefully to the side. She would need this all again tomorrow—but not tonight. Then she, too, was only in her clothes.
And she picked up her lady in her arms and walked further into the garden on her bare feet to the deepest, innermost bower. A chaste knight, she had been warned about bowers like this, about loose women like this, about nights like this. But Malecasta was whispering into her ear and planting kisses on her cheeks, and Britomart knew that nothing would ever be more right.