The Space Between Breaths by Rebecca Roland

You are the king’s champion, and have been for years. Everybody knows of your skill, your seeming ability to read your opponents’ movements before even they know what they’ll do. What nobody knows, however, is that in that open space of anticipation between exhalation and inhalation, in that space between breaths, people’s minds are completely open to you.

You’re facing a new foe today in the tournament field, surrounded by a crowd hungry for a fight to the death. All you know of him is that he has great promise and has passed through Hasheburg several times, but never had the opportunity until now to face you. His helm covers his face save for his mouth and gray-blue eyes the color of storm clouds. Even ten paces away, too far to make out his thoughts, the intensity of his gaze discomforts you, but you don’t dare look away. He gives nothing away in his bearing or movements, but the way he studies you makes you fear that you reveal more than you wish. You’re not used to being the one laid bare.

He takes three steps in, and you do the same, and now you’re close enough to know his mind. Most people think of their moves, or anticipate glory. You’ve seen lovers, mistresses, and children flash in the minds of others, especially in those who know they’re about to die. You’ve felt cocky assurance, terror, and doubt from your opponents. The burden of these intimate moments have grown heavy over the years, and you wish you could share real, tender moments instead of steal thoughts in order to kill someone.

But unlike most of your opponents, this man’s mind is as calm as a lake on a windless summer day. It unsettles you as you draw your sword, the metal blade sliding out with a hiss. There is nothing there for you to grab onto, to anticipate.

You begin on the offensive, hoping to rattle loose his plan. His breathing is fast but deep as he blocks every one of your blows, his body and weapon working together, and you can’t help but admire the economical grace with which he moves.

His thoughts, at last, penetrate his calm. There is a flash of sadness. A flash of admiration. He is, you realize, holding back. He does not want to kill you even though he could. As much as you admire his strength and beauty, he admires yours. He admires you. He is, in fact, soaking up everything about you with that intense gaze, storing it away in his mind, in his heart. He is considering losing the battle on purpose. He doesn’t want to die, but he wants you to live even more, because he has, in fact, admired you from afar for a long time.

You see now that his reach falls short, that his movement could be so much faster, that he could land his blows with much more force. You see now that his gaze is not meant to flay your spirit, but is lovingly, tenderly memorizing everything about you. You see, through his eyes, that you are amazing, glorious, powerful–you have never been so, and you don’t know what to make of it–and his ache is now so palpable between breaths that your own heart throbs in pain and you do not know if you can bear the burden for much longer.

You cannot kill him. He cannot kill you. If you forfeit, the king will have you executed. In the next space between breaths, you see where your opponent will move. And so you meet his blade with your body, letting it slide into your side, away from lungs and heart and organs. But it is spectacle enough that the crowd shouts, and their shouts cover your whisper as you lean in, fighting the sharp, blinding pain.

“You are the better fighter,” you say. “I know you are holding back.”

His eyes are wide and filled with fear as he lowers you gently to the ground. You drift in and out of awareness as the crowd cheers their new champion and then disperses to feast and get drunk, and later as strong arms carry you off, and later still in a quiet tent lit by candles and smelling of blood, sweat, and pungent herbs. Your entire body aches, but especially your side, and you groan as you struggle back to full consciousness.

He is there in an instant, leaning over you. He is holding his breath, leaving his mind wide open. You shy away from it because you will not delve in again without his permission.

“Do they think I’m dead?” you ask.

“Yes,” he says. “Why did you do that?”

 You raise a hand to his face, his stubble scraping your palm. “I didn’t want you to die.” Your breath hitches as you wait for his reaction.

His hand closes over yours, and he leans in closer. “You foolish, brave warrior,” he says with infinite tenderness in his voice. You exhale, and it feels like the first time you’ve truly taken a breath in years.

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