Yesterday, I drove into Washington D.C. to get my third tattoo. My first two are from years ago: hieroglyphs in a cartouche (2012) and my infamous death/rebirth half-sleeve (2014). Since I wanted my newest piece of ink to complete the half-sleeve, I went back to my previous artist, Fernando Prudencio of Britishink. He was really excited to work on it and whipped up a fantastic design, a better one than I ever expected. I had a very specific vision for my previous tattoo, which meant Fernando had less freedom to pick its elements and composition. But this time, for my latest ink, I had only an idea: a sword, shield, and crown, surrounded by roses. I told Fernando to go wild with the details, and he did not disappoint. I changed a couple of things when he showed me the sketch, but they were minor. Superficial.
I choose tattoos for what they represent. My ankle tattoo, my oldest one, symbolizes an oath of devotion to my main god, Anubis. The outside of my half-sleeve, with its crow and dog skull, symbolize death and rebirth — but are also secret references to stories and communities I valued growing up. This third tattoo… well, it’s a secret reference, too, actually.
I was rereading my favorite passage from George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first of his A Song of Ice and Fire series. In it, the protagonist Eddard Stark dreams of when he, as a young man, rescued his sister Lyanna from the Tower of Joy, the fort where her kidnapper Rhaegar Targaryen had imprisoned her while he was off fighting the war. The passage goes:
“Ser Willem Darry is fled to Dragonstone, with your queen and Prince Viserys. I thought you might have sailed with him.”
“Ser Willem is a good man and true,” said Ser Oswell.
“But not of the Kingsguard,” Ser Gerold pointed out. “The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arthur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.
We swore a vow. I get emotional thinking about those four words. My friends know my best trait is loyalty; they know I’m the kind of person who holds the keeping of oaths and promises in the highest regard. So, this tattoo was originally going to be more heavily A Song of Ice and Fire-themed, an homage to my favorite scene and the knights who protected Rhaegar and Lyanna’s secret romance, their tryst, and their bastard son.
But then I read another book, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. One of its protagonists is Dalinar Kholin, a middle-aged prince, brother to a slain king. Dalinar is the only lord in his nephew’s kingdom who eats, sleeps, and breathes by an ancient code of honor. In Dungeons & Dragons terms, he is the only Lawful Good Paladin in a nation of insatiable greed and narcissistic glory. I enjoyed his characterization since the beginning of the novel, but then I read this spoiler-free passage near the end:
“Death is the end of all men!” Dalinar bellowed. “What is the measure of him once he is gone? The wealth he accumulated and left for his heirs to squabble over? The glory he obtained, only to be passed on to those who slew him? The lofty positions he held through happenstance?
“No. We fight here because we understand. The end is the same. It is the path that separates men. When we taste that end, we will do so with our heads held high, eyes to the sun.”
He held out a hand, summoning Oathbringer. “I am not ashamed of what I have become,” he shouted, and found it to be true. It felt so strange to be free of guilt. “Other men may debase themselves to destroy me. Let them have their glory. For I will retain mine!”
And I knew my tattoo design had to change. I realized that what mattered to me wasn’t the specific scene from A Game of Thrones or the characters or the story behind their vow. What mattered is what Rhaegar’s Kingsguard represent, what Dalinar Kholin represents: the paladin archetype of nobility, honor, and loyalty. Of doing what is right, not what is easy. Of keeping your promises.