“I don’t like him. I don’t trust him. Who fights like that in a tournament, like it’s real battle? No one with chivalry or honor, that’s who.”
Kadir reared his arm back and hurled his spear. The spear struck the bull’s-eye and quivered there. Kadir stalked down the line, taking the next spear from his own squire. Lucien stood a few paces behind him, watching the scene unfold.
“Tearing off helmets, punching people. Yes, that’s all fine and good on the actual battlefield, but in a royal tournament? That kind of conduct is shameful.” Kadir threw his next spear, striking his mark once more. “And I swear on the moon and the stars, I’m not being sore about losing. He won certainly, and he’s a remarkable fighter, but he could just as easily have won by showing the same honor as anyone else.” Kadir stopped, wheeling around to face Lucien. “The way he pinned you down! There’s no honor in that.”
Lucien rubbed half consciously at the inside of his elbow. A rich bruise had blossomed overnight. The soreness reminded him with vivid clarity of Rasmus leering over him, axe poised at his throat. “No,” he agreed. “I’ve never faced an opponent like that in a melee. You’ve fought a Bosnan warrior before, haven’t you?”
Kadir passed back his latest spear, a clear sign he was finished. As his squire started to retrieve his spears, the Malkasar champion paced over to his friend. “I have,” he agreed, walking past Lucien; the younger lord fell in step beside him, following him off the training grounds. “I lost to them as well. They fought similarly, with the same sort of intensity and relentless power. It’s how they’re trained, I believe. But they followed our general rules of conduct.”
Rules. It seemed humorous to have them for such a wild and chaotic event. Yet chivalry had its place. Melee fights were understood to be mock battle, disarming the opponent but not killing them. Certain actions were considered rude or improper. Lucien’s head butt of the imperial prince had technically been improper, but not as glaring a fault as removing armor from an opponent. While tearing a helmet off on a real battlefield was a smart move, it had no place in the controlled environment of the tournament. Terrible handicaps had fallen on knights who lost their helmets in tournaments and took blows to the head. Removing that barrier purposefully on your opponent was a cruel and shameful move.
It had rubbed Lucien wrong also, as had the sharp twisting of Kadir’s arm at the end of the contest. Dirty fighting. It was not proper behavior from a prince, by any means.
He felt better to know Kadir felt similarly poor about it. Kadir was seven years his superior and had seen far more tournaments than Lucien could ever dream of. He knew the rules of controlled battle better than anyone else the young lord knew. If Kadir felt that someone had bent the rules, Lucien did not question it.
“What did he say to you at the end?” Kadir asked. “I saw you two lingered. Did he speak?”
“Yes. He told me we weren’t equals. I’m sure he was thinking that I don’t belong here. And he certainly thought I didn’t belong there beside him with equal honor and recognition.” Sitting at dinner that night, he had stewed over the prince’s words to him, tearing them apart and turning them over endlessly. Of course, they weren’t equals, he knew that well; Lucien was a lord who had not yet inherited his ancestral seat, while Rasmus was prince of the largest empire in the known world. It didn’t matter what Esmeralda thought. Lucien would never be seen as an equal by born royalty. He would always be a lord from a small, frostbitten kingdom, known only for their warhorses.
The medallion and gold coins Lucien had been awarded as one of the tournament victors meant nothing that night as he was forced to watch Rasmus at the head of the table. King Renard had laughed his booming laugh and smiled with the same benevolence and pleasure that he had shown Lucien the previous night. If anything, he laughed even more. Rasmus was perfect, charming and intelligent, quick witted and polite. Esmeralda had seemed happy, as well, never once looking down the table.
His only solace was that he did not see Esmeralda invite the prince to join her on the balcony. She had departed from his company almost as soon as dinner finished, and chose instead to socialize with her other suitors. But not with Lucien. He had slipped away early, his elbow sore and his pride tattered. He did not belong.
Kadir gave him a hard push, knocking Lucien abruptly back into the present. “Don’t get like that again,” the high knight chided. “You’re going to go moping off about your rank compared to that prideful little prince.”
“Rasmus would be a perfect betrothal, you know that as well as I do. The most powerful navy, a fierce army, riches beyond all our wildest imagination. The Bosnas Empire could support and protect Grismere forever.”
“You still think you don’t belong. You realize you aren’t the only lord here, don’t you? Guillen and Arthurius are your equals, Moan isn’t far above you, and I’m even lower than you all. Just because their kingdoms are wealthier than yours doesn’t mean they’re any better. You performed better than all of them, in both fields, and I didn’t fare much better than you in the melee at the end.”
“It isn’t them, Kadir,” Lucien snapped. “I know all that. It’s Rasmus, it’s yesterday. When Esmeralda called me to join him, he was ashamed. He won’t forget that easily. He’ll make this the dead forest brought to life for me.” The dead forest was the land of the damned, a part of the underworld where those who were cruel and broke the Mother Goddess’s commandments went after death. Texts and priests claimed it to be levels of horror and agony, eternal punishment for those who did wrong. It seemed the only fitting comparison to how he imagined the contest to go if Prince Rasmus took to disliking him further.
“You worry far too much, my friend,” Kadir said. “I doubt he’ll bother you. He seems to think much too highly of himself to mix with the lower rabble like us.”
Lucien only shrugged. Who could say? Only time would tell.
Kadir clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry so much. This is all an honorable contest. Nothing bad is going to happen. How about we get out of the castle, head into the city a bit? We can find a tavern or just look around. How does that sound?”
Lucien smiled a little. “I think that sounds like a fine plan.” If nothing else, the distraction would do him good.
The halls of Bornesher Castle came to life with the presence of visitors. Servants bustled throughout the halls, while the visiting nobles explored their temporary home. Esmeralda found she barely knew what to do with the increased motion. The castle had always been quiet, occupied only by her family, their servants, and a few other key members of the grand structure’s running.
Venturing out of the private hall that the royal family lived in was a sure way to be bombarded by her own guests. Esmeralda swiftly found in the first days that she preferred to approach them on her own, rather than be approached. Their enthusiasm to know her could be flattering, but also frustrating; in ways, it felt almost too enthusiastic, as if they put on a show of getting to know her in hopes of performing better.
The royal chambers were far more peaceful, and she lingered in them longer these past few days. Presently, Esmeralda sat in the solar, at the fine desk that King Renard often used for drafting important documents. She had sat at it to select her suitors and draft the letters of invitation, and now she sat at it to assess her chosen suitors. On one end of the table, on a thick, soft cushion, a petite white cat groomed itself. The cat was Esmeralda’s faithful companion, Luxa, her witch familiar as well as her pet.
Esmeralda assessed the list of suitors she had written down. Her penmanship for legal matters was flawless and flourishing, everything expected of a princess. The simple scratched script of her private list stood as a stark contrast.
It was by no means a long list; she only had ten suitors. The list was made longer by the large spaces between each name, space for her to make notes on their performances. Esmeralda brushed the feathery end of her quill against her lips as she assessed her notes so far.
Already some suitors were fading into the background, while others raced to the front of her attention. Prince Rasmus, though faltering in the joust, had reinstated himself in the melee with his fearless conduct. Yet the imperial prince remained stiff and distant on a personal level. In contrast was Delu, who performed in equal measure in the first trial, but was a cheerful and chattery companion. Esmeralda had grown fond of the other princess already. Delu had a unique advantage in conversation, as she understood the complex life of a princess in a way the men never could.
The finest performers of the first test, besides Rasmus’ intense superiority in the melee, were Sir Kadir the Bold, and Lord Lucien Alane. Esmeralda regarded her notes on each. Both fought with excellent skill and honor, and in person each was polite, respectful, and warm. It was no surprise to her that the two were friends; they were quite alike in many ways. And while she had taken a liking to Kadir’s respectful modesty, it was Lucien who struck her most strongly on a personal level. Though it took some coaxing for him to speak as an equal to her, once he began, he did not pause. He was kind, clever, and willing to speak freely about himself. It was refreshing.
With thoughts of Lucien came an unwelcome companion, another standout performance, though for no good reasons: Lord Arthurius of Aetheca. Esmeralda doubted that the lord knew, but she had seen his anger at being bested by Lord Alane. The poor conduct did not bode well for him. She admitted it to be a disappointment; Arthurius had been one she had promised herself to watch closely, as Aetheca was a directly neighboring kingdom. Aetheca had likely the finest army in Vlidious, and Esmeralda felt confident that the Aethecan troops could stand toe-to-toe with Bosnan warriors. Such an ally would be invaluable with the constant tension between Grismere and Kaithis.
Esmeralda skimmed over the list further. Many of the others had not left as strong an impression. As she regarded the other names, she noticed a trend. The others, foreign princes and dukes from other continents, had all been bested by Rasmus. She frowned over the knowledge, running a fingertip over the imperial prince’s name. Fearless and skilled, no doubt, but the number of fighters he had bested spoke of a ruthless edge.
Esmeralda heard the creaking of a hinge. She set the list down, twisting to see the door to her sister’s bed chamber cracked open, and Issabella’s dark head peeking through at her. The younger princess smiled through the tumble of thick hair that always seemed to fall in her face when not tied back.
Esmeralda laughed, beckoning to her sister. “Don’t stand creeping in the doorway! Come here, little fawn.”
Little fawn had become a fond pet name for the little princess. It suited her well. She was delicate and thin, long limbed and quiet, with large hazel-brown, deerlike eyes. Her quiet demeanor and soft voice played into the nickname also. As she bounded across the room, Esmeralda could easily envision a leaping doe in her place. Though gangly and awkward in her youthful body, Esmeralda did not doubt that when Issabella was her own age, she would be as graceful as her nickname.
Issabella joined Esmeralda at her desk, taking the other chair for herself. In private, the younger princess had no shame in propping her elbows on the desk and her chin in one hand. “What are you working on?”
“Not much. Thinking, is all.” Esmeralda pushed her list towards her sister. “They’re all so different.”
Issabella picked up the list and began to read it off. Esmeralda had written the names down in order of arrival. “Lord Arthurius: proud, arrogant. Skilled jouster and swordsman, but bested in both by Lucien. Angered by his loss, or that he was bested by someone younger? Lord Guillen. Quiet. Average performer in the first test. Prince Seyi. Loud and boastful, but humorous. Decent jouster, strong and bold fighter.” Issabella rolled her eyes a little. “This is dull,” she declared, handing the list back. “Where’s the best details?”
Esmeralda shook her head at her sister. “I’ve only known them for a matter of days, you know.”
“Those first three have been here for weeks! Surely you know more than a few words about them.”
“Perhaps I do. Ask after someone, anyone.”
Issabella looked over the list again. “Moan, Thane of Cainkirk.”
Esmeralda raised her brows slightly. “Tell me what a thane is, first.”
The younger princess groaned. “You know I’m no good at politics yet! Isn’t that like a lord?” She caught something in her sister’s glance, for she hastily corrected herself. “No, a duke more like. Higher than a lord.”
“Correct. Moan, let me think. He is headstrong, bullish I might say. I haven’t spoken to him too much yet, but he strikes me as honest and sincere. He’s a rough fellow, but I think there’s kindness in him.”
Issabella propped her chin in both hands, her smile and eyes going distant. “He’s very handsome.”
Esmeralda couldn’t help but laugh. Her sister was most of seven years younger than her, but it wouldn’t be much longer before it was time for her to consider marriage, as well. It seemed she was already well on her way to admiring potential suitors. Still, Thane Moan? Her grin grew irresistable. “He’s a bit old for you, don’t you think?”
Issabella’s eyes came into focus, and she reached across the table to smack her arm. “I can fancy looking at him still! That doesn’t mean I’m going to marry him!”
Esmeralda laughed, loud and unbridled. “I’m only teasing you, little fawn. Who else do you fancy looking at?”
Issabella hesitated, but relented; gossiping about people was far from unusual for the two sisters. “Princess Delu is the most beautiful, but the Malkasar knight is quite pretty, too.”
“Oh yes, Kadir is lovely to look at.” Esmeralda reached over to tug on her sister’s black hair. “You two would match well.”
Issabella blushed right red as she tugged the strand of hair back. “Who do you fancy most so far? That’s the more important question.”
Esmeralda looked down at her list again, tucking her blonde curls behind her ears. “I’m not sure. It’s so early, and I barely know any of them. I think everyone expects me to choose Prince Rasmus, but… I don’t know.” She considered a moment longer. “I like Lord Alane. He surprises me.”
“He’s so… simple.”
Issabella did not lie. Compared to Moan’s broad physique, or the beauty of Kadir or Delu, or even the icy handsomeness of Prince Rasmus, Lucien was understated. He stood out mostly for his height, standing at least a head taller than Esmeralda. His brown hair fell in loose waves to a bit past his shoulders, and he always wore it with the front strands bound back from his face. He dressed in simpler clothes, without the flash and splendor that most of the others showed. Yet she conjured him easily in her memory; the one or two strands of hair that fell into his left eye, too short to keep tied back, and his eyes, bright and blue and intent on her when he listened. Perhaps he was more average than his peers, but she could not deny there was something about him.
Esmeralda replied with a shrug. “I don’t need a fancy king. I don’t need a king at all. You know I’m doing this for an alliance.”
“You could still do better than Theoria. Their cavalry is excellent, certainly, but there’s no easy way for them to arrive with aid.”
“I know.” She knew all too well. She had already studied each suitor for the benefits and detriments of alliances with their kingdoms. Theoria was far from the worst choice, but there was also better.
Esmeralda folded her list and set it aside. In its place, she scooped up Luxa, who gave a mewl in response. “I don’t want to think of it more right now. I think I’ll head to my garden, if you’d like to join me?”
Issabella leapt from her seat, poised and ready like a deer about to bound across the field. “I’ll grab my sketchbook and meet you there?” In contrast to Esmeralda’s gardening, Issabella performed the far more acceptable hobby of art. Esmeralda lacked the patience or talent for it but admired her sister’s replicas of her flowers.
Esmeralda stood, cradling her cat in her arms. “So you shall.” She grinned, sunny and radiant as her hair. “Whoever gets there last is a toad!”
Issabella squealed in protest before bolting for her bedchamber. Esmeralda laughed as she scampered off to race her sister.