I was seven years old when my father pressed a knife into my hand and told me how I was going to die.
It was after I found the raggedy girl in the stables, wedged between the horse trough and the wall. I offered her food and she offered me a view of her mouth, a cavern full of dried blood and stumps where teeth should have been.
So I ran to get my father.
He took one look at her, called a servant to him, and led me away to the sound of two metallic pops.
I couldn’t imagine that anyone was more handsome or imposing than my father, not even the king. When he crouched down to look me in the eye, I couldn’t resist the urge to run the palm of my hand over the plain of his face, relishing the roughness of his beard against my skin.
“Have you ever seen anyone like that girl around here before?”
I shook my head. I had never been allowed to leave the estate before, nor was I allowed to meet anyone who came in. That girl had been the first unfamiliar face that I had ever seen.
“Who was she?”
My father drew in a breath, buying both of us time.
“Practice for what?”
Slowly, he reached up an grabbed my hand, pulling it from against his cheek and pressing it against his mouth.
“She is practice,” he said, “For you.”
I realize now that the tears glistening in his eyes and the shake in his voice when he explained himself were fabricated. To this day I have trouble reconciling the father that I knew before that day and the one that calmly explained how he had no choice but to put me out to pasture.
“A long time ago,” he said, “I made a very important man very mad. I’ve done everything that I can to make sure that he doesn’t know that you exist. But I can’t hide you forever.”
He drew the wood-handled hunting knife that he always carried at this belt and held it out to me.
“One day he will find out about you and he will see to it that you suffer a hundred times worse than the girl in the barn. So you have a choice: you can give up now or you can fight.”
Then he pressed the hilt into my hand and his mouth to my forehead and left me alone with the choice that he hadn’t been able to make seven years before.
I stared at the knife for a very long time. I was no coward, but the simple act of pressing the blade to my wrists and saving myself the trouble of years of anticipation for the very same consequence seemed too dramatic for my small mind. Though my father had taken my freedom, he had bought me time.
I was going to learn to fight.
And as much as I could, when my time came, I was going to give them hell.