Guilford, when he was a soldier, was an exceedingly poor soldier, because he had held onto his damned sense of curiosity that had gotten him into so much trouble when he was young, too. He still has it as a Knight. Now, though, it is less of a liability, because Her Highness, tolerant of so very few things, is tolerant of his questions and explorations, his postulates and hypotheses, listening to them and dismissing them with nothing worse than a patronizing smile.
So that day, Guilford sits down to explore the enigma of Her Highness the Second Princess Cornelia.
She is a woman of angles, of sharp corners, a woman with a personality that might have been drafted by an architect with a protractor and a straight-edge. So he starts on paper. Perhaps he can find her in geometry?
Only twice, I've seen her vulnerable:
Once, after an audience with His Majesty her father;
Once, when I tell her her sister is dying.
But that's the middle and the end. Her beginning, as he knows it, is much more auspicious:
Her beginning is in the jungles of Area 6, in the Battle of Colca Canyon, the most disastrous battle in the short-lived Peruvian Rebellion. She's out of ammunition, almost out of fuel; her communication line is cut; her Knightmare's left leg is buckling and disintegrating with every movement; her back is up against a sheer drop, and she's surrounded by a dozen tanks, two helicopters, countless foot soldiers pressing in. She's engaged her speakers so that her enemies can hear her defiant laughter.
Though that's just her beginning as he knows it. He knows there was a point at which she was a baby, as well, where she gurgled and clucked, and he supposes he must take that into account as well. Still! How appropriate it would be if she sprang from the womb as he first saw her, wielding her empty gun as a club, laughing madly at man and nature.
He doesn't know who she is when he comes across her laughing. There were whispers of royalty taking part in this battle, but there always are, and there are no special markings on her Knightmare. (That changes in later days, not so she gets special protection but in order to put the fear of Cornelia in their enemies.) But she pilots so ably, even with the hindrances of a broken leg and Guilford's Slash Harken buried in her arm to steady her, taking out three enemies in a matter of moments, that he suspects.
When she dismounts, her legs don't shake. There's no trace in her of fear or even adrenaline. Rather, it's his knees that buckle; he falls before her, as he shall do so many times to come, and begs without knowing why he begs, "Forgive me, Your Highness."
She doesn't question his apology. She is simply a person to whom others apologize. She just regards him with her heavy eyes and says to him, "That was fine piloting, Captain. Your name?"
"Guilford," she repeats. Some, when they try a name, evaluate. Cornelia judges. "The keys to your Knightmare, Captain Guilford. We're returning to base."
Why did she trust him? Why does she trust him now? Is it the way he shot that anchor into her Knightmare's arm, so that if the ground crumbled beneath her feet he'd go with her? Is it the way he did that without knowing who she was? That seems unlikely; Cornelia loves loyalty, values camaraderie, but holds foolish sentimentalism in the highest contempt.
Perhaps it was this:
Upon returning to base, the two of them pressed against one another in a cockpit built for one, he summons at her request Colonel Masterson, his CO. The Colonel takes him aside, presses him for details on troop movements and geography, and then freezes when he hears Her Highness' voice.
"I must say, Colonel, the Knightmare you picked out for me personally was rather lacking." Both men turn to look at her. Her sidearm is drawn and cocked; her expression is unreadable.
And Masterson takes a moment, looks at her, and then turns and runs. Guilford is there. He catches the man by his arm and jerks him back, so that for a moment his feet are slipping on the oil-stained floor, running in place. And then there's a shot, loud in the hangar's confined spaces, and Masterson spits blood and clutches at his throat.
In the years Guilford served under Masterson, he'd always known the Colonel to be a jumpy man, paranoid. In the years to come, he can't shake the feeling that Masterson had simply panicked. (When he has the power to authorize such a mission, he'll send a team out to retrieve Her Highness' abandoned Knightmare to search for evidence of sabotage, but the results will be inconclusive.)
Guilford had read once about a gang where the Machiavellian leader would recruit in groups of four and have three of the new recruits kill the last as a traitor. They would have nothing but his word to go on. The act of murder, the greatest crime they could commit, would make all subsequent crimes nothing. The ensuing guilt - they'd grown up with this child, had ate with him and played with him and would always have lingering doubt over his guilt - would bind the children to the gang leader. They'd never leave the aegis of protection that their leader provided them, because they were as guilty as he.
Does Cornelia know about this?
Or perhaps it was this:
He comes to her and salutes until she nods to him. He stands at ease. He's forgotten that he's to kneel, not to salute, that he is no longer a common soldier.
She picks up on this and asks him what's wrong. His family is dead.
Those heavy eyes are sorrowful. She reaches up and presses her hand against the side of his face. "How did it happen?"
He explains; it was a carbon monoxide leak in the house that had left his mother and father and his poor pregnant little sister, visiting with her husband for the weekend, blue and gasping. Were they loving? Yes, very much so; his mother had held him on her lap and read to him when he was young, and his father would always play soldier, and his sister would cry until they let her join in. Were they proud of him? So very proud. His mother had wept through the whole ceremony when he graduated from Officer's School, and his father would bring him up at every opportunity even before Cornelia had made him her Knight.
"My poor Guilford," she whispers, and pulls his head down to rest against her shoulder. She strokes his hair. "My poor Knight. My poor, poor Guilford."
Or perhaps this:
Him, his shirt pulled open and his pants unbuttoned; her, fully-clothed, above him, her forearm pinning down his chest, her other hand wrapped around him and pulling with painful force. A knowing smile plays on her lips. He pants and groans and writhes, trying to buck her off, trying to gentle her, trying to thrust, trying to lick a bit of sanity from the air. She is calm, and watches him.
"I do like your Knight, Cornelia," Euphie says, unaware that he's on the discreet other side of the door. "He doesn't seem very friendly, but he's actually really nice."
"Are you blind without these?" Her Highness asks, her fingertips curled threateningly around the arms of his glasses.
"Near enough, my lady," he answers.
"Helpless, even," she muses. He's relieved when she pulls her fingers away. "And so much more handsome with them."
"Always so serious," she whispers, tracing the firm corners of his mouth. She is not the first to comment on this, but she is the first to make him obligingly smile.
She supports him home, her steps still steady even though he's stumbling drunkenly over his own feet.
He's close enough to hear her hum as she watches the waves break on the Caspian.
He angles the point of the blade right against his heart before she takes it and knights him. She smiles as though she could tell.
He says to the smooth skin and curve of her back, "I love you."
She just laughs and pulls on her clothes. "Up, Knight Guilford. There are things that need doing."
She's pale; her hands are shaking; her eyes are brimming with tears that she's only just managing to swallow. Guilford is terrified like he has never been before, and furious like he has never been before. He might batter down the doors of the throne room, might leap unarmed upon the Emperor and strangle him, and damned be the consequences; damned be the fact that Cornelia will hold him in contempt for the rest of his (short) life.
But he has duties more sacred than revenge. He goes and kneels before her, and waits. It's several long moments before Cornelia says to him, "Rise," and when he stands she is Her Highness again. But for the red around her eyes and but for Guilford's memory, she might be exactly as she was before.
I love her earnestly, painfully, Guilford writes, and then scratches it out. His observations keep straying back to himself, which is of no help whatsoever; he has no illusions about his impact upon her. He might as well still be the boy who watched the haughty young princess on the television and wondered what she was like.
("I love you," he'd murmured. All he heard in return was that ringing laugh that had echoed once through Colca Canyon.)
He writes above that, Is this love or simply masochism? But again, this is not the mystery of Guilford, for Guilford is no mystery at all. He says what he means and is helpless without his glasses. This is Cornelia. So he tries to turn it around, scratching out the last word and writing above it sadism.
Is this love or simply sadism?
He draws a single line through that. That's a question to which he already knows the answer.
("Shh, shh," she whispers, rubbing the back of his neck, lifting his face to pull off his glasses so his eyes can touch the fabric of her shoulder. "Shh, shh," she whispers as his face contorts and his throat aches. "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right. My poor Guilford. My poor sweet Knight.")
A single line, but nothing more. It's a question that bears revisiting.
The people she trusts:
And that's it. And the latter two -
Euphemia is dead. Cornelia said, once, of Euphemia, "She is the only person I know who is capable of only love," and yet there was very little of love that day in the arena.
Darlton, now, is dead as well. They found his body this morning, still strapped into his mangled Knightmare. Cornelia has said nothing, but by this time they've compiled an almost overwhelming body of evidence that indicates that he betrayed her to Zero.
What is it about this country that turns people into madmen?
The people she loves:
He'd like to add more to that list, but there's nothing more to add.
The people she hates:
This is an interesting category, because he realizes for the first time that he doesn't really know if the list extends further than that. Hating Zero is natural, of course, one might as easily say "I breathe air," but beyond that - Even when she executed Colonel Masterson, the man who betrayed her personally or not at all, there was nothing in her face of hatred.
Cornelia is wrathful, and she is proud, and her memory is long. Even so, she doesn't hate. When she kills - and she often kills - it is in the service of efficiency, not vendetta.
(Is that worse?)
Who knows her?
Euphemia, of course. Perhaps the Second Prince. Perhaps Darlton.
Andrea Li Britannia, nee Cornwall, by her portrait a proud and upright woman. Guilford would have said she looked unpleasant if he didn't have more information than just her portrait to go on. For Andrea Li Britannia, unlike so many of the other consorts of the Emperor, hadn't aborted her girl children so that she could immediately try again for a boy. Whenever she had gone to one of the subjugated areas, she had taken the trouble of learning to converse in the area's indigenous language, and she had written a five-volume history of Britannia's presence in Africa which Guilford had found quite thought-provoking if a little dry. And Andrea Li Britannia had given the world Euphemia and Cornelia.
(He's been thinking about this topic for some time. The concluding sentence of the preceding paragraph had sounded considerably better a scant three days before, when Euphie's legacy was untainted.)
Perhaps her mother in abandoning Cornelia had left her unwilling to trust.
What can be said about the Emperor? Guilford is as loyal a citizen as anyone, but even so.
Perhaps her father, being as he is, ruling his family harsher than he rules his empire, has taught her too well.
Almost as obscure as she is. At age eleven, her mother dies. At age sixteen, she takes up training in the art of Knightmare piloting, at first under the tutelage of Marianne Vi Britannia, later under Darlton himself. Was she then like she is today, or did she once cry after scraping her knee?
A set, she seems to believe, best kept to herself. It's clear she holds the Purists in contempt; she takes as much pleasure in handing down her judgment on that fool Gottwald as Guilford does delivering it. But is it what the Purists believe in that she finds distasteful, or is it the Purists themselves?
Perhaps she doesn't believe in anything at all. She kills for efficiency, not for vendetta. She accomplishes what must be accomplished, and then she's finished.
Her favorite book
"Reading?" she scoffs. "A womanish pursuit! I have better ways in which to spend my time."
Her drink of choice
A cognac aged for over eighty years in a process started by master distillers and ended by their grandchildren. It's perfectly blended, perfectly balanced, and imported through the black market from the EU. Guilford would have to forgo eating for two months to buy her a drink.
When that's not available
Cheap sake in large quantities will do.
Impeccable. He's had the honor of watching her post-bath regimen several times, and she spends an incredible amount of time on her skin. Under her hands it comes to shimmer.
Smells incongruously of roses. Is very thick but also very soft. The days she doesn't want him, he almost comes to crave the feel of her hair.
Long. Callused on the trigger-finger but nowhere else.
Low, passionate, usually quiet.
High and loud and a little bit mad.
I love you.
Up, Knight Guilford. There are things that need doing.
A beauty with a gun in her hands, laughing.
A moment of weakness that takes her from the realm of myth, strips her of her status of a goddess but makes her something more.
Guilford can't shake the feeling that if she'd heard of the massacre in time, she'd have gone down and helped Euphemia. She loved her sister so. Cornelia would have sooner believed that an entire nation deserved to be purged than believe her sister did wrong.
"She's clearly simply a product of her environment. Her mother died so early. The other consorts of the Emperor hardly cared for her, so where was she to find affection? From her father, that beast of a man who is the only one who's ever made her cry? Even her sweet little sister came out of that environment with hatred enough for murder. It's a wonder Cornelia has the capacity to love anyone. To think she might love more than one person is just too much to hope."
"This is an absurd exercise. You keep trying to find reasons Her Highness doesn't love, when you should be looking for reasons she doesn't love you."
"But I'll always be here. One day she'll recognize that I've always been here."
"It doesn't matter. I still love her."
He's filled up the page, but has yet to find her in right angles. Her Highness is still curved into question marks.
How does she feel towards him?
A bit of affection, perhaps, as one might feel towards a favored pet.
A guard dog or a lap dog?
Elements of both, perhaps? While they both know how readily he'd tear at her enemies with his bare teeth, mostly he's just there to look at, to tease.
Then why that laugh, that mad high Colca Canyon laugh, after "I love you"?
"Never get attached, Euphie," Cornelia, also unaware that he's so close by, says. "He may be my Knight, but he's still a soldier. They never live long."
(Why, then, is he the one who's looking down at her now? That he might have taken her blow. Oh, my poor sweet Princess!)
What if he were to not love her, but just to serve her out of loyalty?
That's an absurd question.
And what if she had been gentle, sweet, pliable, like Euphemia? What if she hadn't shed a man's blood over his face and hands, like the ritual christening of a warrior? What if she weren't a killer, hadn't made him into a killer, hadn't driven from his head all thoughts of good and evil, of the children this man might have waiting at home - what then? What if she didn't smell of roses and blood?
Would he love her then?
Why, then she wouldn't be Cornelia, and it's Cornelia with whom he is in love. (God! What does that say about him?)
And what if he hadn't seen her vulnerable? And what if he hadn't known how capable she was of love? What if she weren't so warm and protective? What if he hadn't seen her crack and crumble when she heard Euphemia was dying, hadn't buried her face in her hands and started to shake and to laugh her high shrieking laugh that echoed off of canyon walls? What if she hadn't left her comm line open so that he could see Her Highness the Second Princess Cornelia trembling on the lip of madness, too far away, this time, for him to anchor himself to her, in the hopes of drawing her back in?
Why, then she wouldn't be Cornelia.
And what if she hadn't been able to save herself?
Why, then she wouldn't be Cornelia.
And what if she hadn't gone off to fight Zero alone, when she couldn't have won?
Why, then she wouldn't be Cornelia.
And what if she allowed herself, in the entire time he's known her, more than two solitary moments of vulnerability?
Then she wouldn't be Cornelia, indeed. Because even as he writes all this, even as he darkens in corners and edges and comes no closer to solving the mystery that is her, she lays dying. Her face is pale, her eyes sunken, her pulse a weak beat on the monitors -
Yet even so, there's a slight smile at the edge of her lips, like she's waiting for victory to be declared, and her hands are clenched as though in anticipation. At any moment, she might sit up, and she might say to him -
"Up, Knight Guilford. There are things that need doing."
And until then, Guilford sits back, and he looks for her in curves and corners. Perhaps by the time his princess wakes, he'll have found her.