The First Test
Lucien expected the moment, but it did not stop his nerves.
Two days had passed since his conversation with Esmeralda in the flower garden. Since then he had only seen her at the fine dinners served each night. She called one competitor to dine with her each night, though neither night had been Lucien’s. Yet both nights their eyes met, she cast him a secret smile, and the perfume of flowers filled his senses.
Now a new day dawned. One of Lucien’s chamberlains, who brought him his modest breakfast, also came with news: “Princess Esmeralda has called all the contestants to come to the throne room in two hours.”
“And so, it begins,” Lucien said. “Prepare my clothes. I want to look my part.”
Fancy clothes had never been much of a concern for Lucien. The Alane family was no modest house in Theoria. Darkelm Hall, his ancestral home, was only a few days ride from Silina, the capital city where Valtair’s Elkhorn Palace stood. The Alane’s were an old and honorable family, trusted advisors of countless Theorian kings. Yet the family did not lavishly display their wealth on their bodies. The Alanes dressed in the same style as everyone in Theoria: wool, leather, and furs to keep warm. While they decorated their clothes with some precious stones and used somewhat finer materials, their attire was little different.
Lucien brought his finest with him to Grismere, as prepared as he could be. He pulled on linen tunic. Though mostly black, the neck and cuffs were trimmed in gray. Inside the gray bands were thin linen strips, dyed blue and done into intricate knotted patterns. He tied the laces on the chest firmly shut with another intricate knot. Last came his sword belt, a wide band of leather studded with silver circlets, and a simple necklace with a lupine pendant. His breeches were plain, his boots polished. His hair, only shoulder length, he left mostly loose, but tied back the frontmost part to keep it from his eyes.
He left his room with plenty of time to reach the throne room, and so he strolled casually. The guest quarters of the palace were located on the eastern side with the chapel. He made a brief detour to it to say a quick prayer for guidance, then went into the grand entry hall.
A few other competitors already waited. He recognized two other Vlidian nobles, one from BLAH, the other of BLEH, both more southern kingdoms. The third person was another foreign noble, a duke from a kingdom called BLUH, which was also across the Beartin Sea, though further south than the Bosnas Empire.
Lucien propped himself against a wall. The fellow Vlidian lords were chattering away with each other, though Duke SUCH-SUCH kept to himself, studying the swan fountain. Young Lord Alane bent his ear towards the gossip of the more local lords.
“I imagine it’s due to Bornesher’s age,” Lord SPANISH-ISH NAME remarked. “He can’t live forever. Perhaps he’d ceding his throne to her soon.”
“But why marry now? It isn’t as if Grismere hasn’t had a solitary queen before.” Lord BASICWHITENAME scoffed a bit. “They don’t care one bit about it. Could you imagine, a woman ruling alone?”
Lucien shoved off the wall, crossing the few steps to them. “What’s so wrong with that?” he asked, his voice chilled as the late autumn wind. “Can a woman not lead on her own?”
Lord BASICWHITENAME gave him a cutting once over. “Lord Alane. A pleasure to see you again. You still owe me a rematch.”
He replied with an equally chilled smile. “I won that tournament fairly, and you know it. You’re only bitter that I did it at eighteen years old. I’d like to know your answer,” Lucien persisted. “What’s so wrong with a woman on her own?”
“It’s obvious. Queens only care about balls and feasts and what their newest gown looks like. What does a girl know of war, of leadership? I wouldn’t trust her to defend a kingdom. And we all know Grismere is constantly teetering on the edge of conflict. Reynfrey was a fool to break off from Kaithis.”
King Reynfrey, the first king of Grismere, the man who went to war to defend the fae. Reynfrey was a legendary figure to all of Vlidious. He had been a lord of Kaithis, a kingdom in which every fae creature was hunted and killed for sport. The story went that, as a boy, Reynfrey had been lost in the forest around his family’s hall; he wandered all day, lost and frightened, until he met a fairy that helped him find his way home. Seeing the truth of the fae, that they only wished to live in peace and harmony with the world, he became a staunch supporter of peace. It led to great conflict with the Kaithian king, to the point that the kingdom grew divided and finally fell to civil war. Reynfrey led his own side, and though outnumbered nearly ten to one, he had the fae on his side as well. With fairy magic and elven weaponry, dragons in the sky and centaurs with his cavalry, he managed to defeat the king and carve off part of Kaithis for his own. He named the land Grismere and declared it a sanctuary for all.
Kaithis remained, though, still the neighbor to the west. Skirmishes broke regularly on the border as Kaithians chased fae creatures into Grismere, wanting to kill them still after centuries of hunting. Henesta, just north of Kaithis, also bore animosity towards the fae and to Grismere. The two kingdoms were a constant threat to the haven, and the political strain never ceased.
Yet the implication that a woman could not defend a kingdom, when there were other Grismeran queens who had done just so, made Lucien’s blood simmer with anger. “I would trust her,” he countered. “I imagine she has the same teachings as any other noble. Or did your tutors not teach you the art of war and defense? Is that why I so easily beat you back in that tournament?”
For a moment, Lucien felt certain he was going to be punched. BLAND’s hands balled into fists and his face turned red. But the color faded fast, and a second later Lucien felt a hand on his shoulder.
“What’s this about warfare?” Delu’s gilt voice purred. “Are we discussing battle strategy? I bet I know more than all three of you combined.”
“Surely,” SPANIARD agreed. “The warriors of Bemmed are only rivaled by the Bosnans, though I’ve heard stories you’re far fiercer than both, Princess Delu.” So saying, he bowed deeply to her.
“I am,” Delu agreed. “And I’d have you know a woman is a far better battle strategist than a man.” She jabbed a finger in BLAND’s chest. “The next time I hear you disrespecting the princess will be the last.” Her hand cinched around Lucien’s arm and she pulled him away.
“Men,” Delu sneered once they were out of earshot. “What makes them think a woman can’t carry a blade or defend a country? And why am I asking you? You’re not a fool who thinks that way. Thank the gods you and Kadir have that in common.”
“I don’t think we would be friends if we didn’t,” Lucien admitted. “BLAND best be careful if Kadir’s around. I’ve seen him beat men for saying less.”
“What’s this I’ve done?” Kadir asked, coming across the room. He cut a similarly simple elegance as Lucien, wearing another long silken tunic and sash across his chest, this time in red and gold, his own family colors. His hazel eyes sparkled with amusement at being the focus of their conversation.
Lucien gave a summary of the incident. Kadir’s hazel eyes darkened as he spoke. Lucien was far from surprised. Kadir’s father had died when he was young, leaving him to be raised by his mother along and his older sisters. He had always respected women, and never tolerated any disrespect. As Lucien finished, he grabbed Kadir by the arm, stopping him from storming across the room. “It isn’t worth it,” he finished. “Delu already put the fear of her in him.”
“I’d rather put a bit more fear into him,” Kadir muttered. But he relaxed his posture with a low sigh. “What sort of contest do you think we’re facing?”
“Who can say?” Delu replied with a shrug. It sent a ripple through the light cape that cascaded off her dress. Much like the first one she wore, it left her arms bare, revealing her luminous dark skin. She was beautiful, and the imperfections of her only added to it. Up close, her nose proved to be a bit crooked, and her grin showed a slight gap between her front teeth. Her bare arms bore some scars, a testament to her warrior status, just as the golden headdress declared her as a princess. It covered the top of her head with diamonds dripping onto her forehead. Her voluminous hair rose above it, a crown in and of itself. A golden net covered her chest as well, and wide cuffs clasped over her wrists. She glowed like a sun. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
They did not have to wait long before the doors to the throne room opened. All ten contestants filed in and marched down the hall to stand before the throne. King Renard sat in the throne, with Queen Aleinora beside him. Esmeralda stood at the bottom of the dais, and the suitors stopped in a line before her. Her dark eyes skimmed over them all.
“I have called you here to announce my first test,” she declared. Her voice, soft and sweet in the dining hall, now resonated throughout the hall with a core of iron. “I will first test your skill in combat. We shall host a tournament, and you will be scored by your placement in it.
“The tournament shall have two parts: a joust on horse, and melee combat. Whoever wins shall be given gifts and honor and shall be crowned the Knight of Swans, be that one or two of you.
“This shall be a public tournament,” she added. “The citizens of Ivermon shall also be in attendance. As with all tournaments, there are rules. Jousting lances will be provided by my castle and shall be blunt. In the melee, you will be eliminated by being disarmed. There shall be no maiming or killing,” she said, the words sharp and loudest of all. “I am doing this contest to form allies, not enemies. You will fight with honor, or you will be dismissed. My captain, Michael, shall be overseeing the tournament and judging your conduct.” She gave them all a cool glance. “Do you understand my rules?”
A chorus of “Yes, your Highness” followed.
Esmeralda smiled, resembling more the woman in the garden. “Excellent. The tournament shall be tomorrow. You have today to prepare yourselves. I shall see you all tomorrow.”