The roughshod gallop of Vrist slowed to a canter as Will guided him past the far post of the tilt. The poor horse was not quite used to the state of the soil here in the capital. Back in their own little hamlet, the dirt was a little bit less compact. It was understandable, though. As humble as their little village was, Phoebus still proudly and justly governed it.
For now, though, the job of governing the village fell to its elders. Phoebus reached up and caught the reins of Vrist, just as Will wrenched the heavy helm from his head. He hated the way it felt on his head, since it only made the heat of the Southron realm more unbearable. Unfortunately, he knew that it was necessary.
Will held out his lance for his father to take. The tip was splintered, but even Will knew—without having to look at his father’s face—that a splintered lance just was not going to cut it. If he wanted to have any hope of winning tomorrow’s tournament, he had to shatter his lance nine times out of ten.
Will groaned as he leaned over the edge of his saddle and patted Vrist’s neck. “I am so very out of practice,” he said. He looked longingly at the shortsword and shield that lay to one side of the yard—the preferred combat style of Di’Trevîssi when the charge was done.
“Qarë vatra vittë stirë Nari fitë`re1” said Phoebus, with a lopsided grin. Will was well aware of what his father was doing, but he wasn’t about to admit that it was going to work.
With a grunt, Will dismounted from Vrist’s saddle. He did so with the grace of a bear tumbling down the side of a steep incline. Even though he’d trained with one of the finest cavalrymen he knew, he had never quite managed to stick the art of the landing.
“Nari would think that I’m a pathetic weakling that wasn’t worthy of his father’s instruction,” said Will, “and then I would get angry, do better, and yell at him while he’s grinning at me like an idiot because he managed to motivate me into doing what he wanted me to do.”
Will sprinted to a nearby well, filled a skin up with water, and dashed back to his father. He took a swig before handing the leather pouch to Phoebus. “I am somewhat insulted that you wouldn’t answer me in Tretalleri, Wylder,” said Phoebus, with exactly the same sort of smile that Nari typically had on his face.
Will swung up into Vrist’s saddle with ease. He needed to work on getting off a horse, but whenever he had to get on one, he had cat-like grace. He rolled his eyes at his father. “And I’m somewhat insulted you don’t answer me in Terrelyndë, father,” said Will, digging his heels into Vrist’s flank and guiding the horse around to the other end of the tilt.
One of Will’s younger brothers ran up to him, carrying a fresh lance that he immediately held at the ready. He looked down the length of the yard to where Phoebus was standing, arm raised to the side.
Phoebus swung his arm upward, and Will tightened his grip on the lance and on Vrist’s reins. “Zane`za2” Phoebus yelled, as he swung his arm down. Dust billowed around Vrist’s ankles as Will masterfully brought him up to a gallop.
Moments later, Will’s lance hit the target, but once again, it only splintered at the tip. This time, he didn’t stop when he reached the end of the tilt. He tossed the used lance down at Phoebus’ feet before galloping all the way back to the other end. Another lance was handed to him.
Three more times this happened before Will decided that perhaps it was time to take a short break. He could feel Vrist’s lungs heaving from the effort. A mighty fine destrier, Vrist was, but he wasn’t a Tretalleri warhorse. He slowed down as he came by his father, again, and dismounted in his characteristically clumsy way.
Will patted Vrist’s flank as the horse whinnied and danced in place, hooves stomping at the well-trod earth. “Sh, sh,” he whispered, as he stroked Vrist’s neck. Eventually, the horse calmed down and took to nibbling on the shoots of grass that peeked out from the packed dirt.
Phoebus approached Will with the water skin, which Will took and eagerly drank from. “Perhaps you should give yourself some respite, son,” said Phoebus. “You may have been training in the art of war for 10 years, but you were still born a human—the son of a physician at that. Your disposition is rather different and more delicate than the elves you have trained with all these years.”
Will scoffed at Phoebus as he leaned against Vrist’s flank. The horse huffed, not appreciating the weight on his backside. “You forget, father,” said Will, straightening before he fell over as Vrist shuffled away from him, “I trained and kept up with Nari, and he is an elf. If there’s anyone with a delicate disposition here, it’s you.”
“Fîllë jirë Wylder idë`na3” said Phoebus, fingering the hilt of the decorative sword that hung around his waist.
Will knew that his father despised the battle regalia, but they both knew that they weren’t in their village anymore. It was expected of Phoebus, as was expected of any lord, that he display his status in public around the capital. They weren’t in public at the moment, but Apollo wanted to get used to wearing everything again.
“I am not insulting you, father,” said Will, “simply stating a matter of fact.”
Will smiled as he mounted Vrist again. “But you know as well as I do that if I want to have any chance of winning this tournament against that son of Ennos, I need to do better than just splintering the tip of my lance.”
Nico was too busy frowning at himself in the mirror to notice Kore and Aides not-so-subtly flirting with one another in one corner of the room. The races of Man had rather strange customs, he thought to himself. The strangeness of the thought—as he was half a member of that race himself—never once crossed his mind.
Truthfully, his deceased mother having been Tretallë, and his father a strict adherent to the ways of the Dominion, something as exorbitant as this masquerade ball sat heavily at odds with all the values that Nico held close to his heart. In the heartland of the Dominion, the nobility and the peasantry both were expected to be frugal; extravagance was to be saved only for the most auspicious of celebrations.
Nico fingered the garish golden feathers that sprouted from the corner of his obsidian mask and frowned. As far as he was concerned, the fact that he had come into the age of thirteen that day, traditionally the age at which betrothals were arranged, was as far from auspicious as a day could possibly get. And yet, here he was, preparing for a night of forcibly smiling at nobles and princes and princesses that wanted to have his hand in marriage.
The only consolation that Nico got was the fact that Aides himself seemed entirely uncomfortable with the proceedings. Nico was only vaguely aware that the only way some of the more “traditional” lords and ladies of the human kingdoms would come was if there was some lavish feast prepared for them.
Nico appreciated the move from his father. He really did. But, he was entirely convinced that it was unnecessary. He was entirely capable of finding his own match, but last he had heard, his father’s court was clamoring for it in order to, apparently, “show the populace that the kingdom has not forgotten its roots and traditions.”
Nico faintly remembered that shortly before she had died of an incurable disease at fifteen, that his older sister Bianca had never caused such an uproar from the council, so he had to wonder what was up with him, this time.
Nico also remembered the amused expression on the Imperator’s Avatar’s face when Aides had petitioned for permission to hold such a grand event. He remembered how the Imperator had told Aides, in the middle of chuckling, that there was no need to petition for such a thing. The Dominion, the Imperator had explained, encouraged the many different realms under its rule to partake in and preserve culture that had existed before the Dominion arrived to deliver the will of the Imperator and the Stranger to them.
Nico sighed and picked at his mask, again. He was not particularly fond of it, but he had to admit that the golden-trimmed, deep obsidian tunic that had come with it was utterly majestic. He might have been thirteen, but he knew how to dress in the characteristic brooding fashion of his family.
Nico looked over to where Kore was busy tidying her hair, and Aides was picking at his richly embroidered raiment as though it were a coat of itchy wool. Nico would have never placed his father—his king—for a man that knew how to dress well, but seeing Aides’ dashing looks and crisp dress, it became clear that he had been mistaken.
Nico puffed out his chest, trying to look as imposing as his father, but he didn’t quite manage it. The ponytail that hung over his left shoulder certainly didn’t help things. Truthfully, he had no idea what to do with it. Thankfully, Kore seemed to notice him fiddling with his hair and solved the problem for him.
“You are looking rather handsome tonight, my little prince,” said Kore, sweetly, as she took Nico’s ponytail into her hands. “Are you hoping to find, perhaps, a prince to marry among them tonight?”
Nico smiled despite himself as Kore settled his hair in between the blades of his shoulders. “Mother,” he said, cheeks warming, “you know father would never allow it. Not like this. You know how protective he is. He’s not going to accept just anyone unless he knows that they can stand up to traditionalists like you do.”
Kore laughed, the sound almost like the trilling of birds in early spring. Aides, still fiddling with his clothes, looked over at the two of them with a raised eyebrow. Kore waved Aides away and only got a shrug in response.
“Forget what your father wants—and what your father will allow, little prince,” said Kore. The endearment deepened the flush on Nico’s face as Kore squeezed his cheeks and turned his head to face the mirror. He looked into his own dark eyes as his step-mother said, “go out there and find the one that has been destined for you. All will follow after that.”
Will hefted his lance, making sure that his grip was true. Phoebus dropped his arm and Will dug his heels into Vrist’s flank. The horse took off on a gallop along the tilt. Vrist’s hooves dug into the dry, well-trod earth, kicking up small clouds of dust as horse and rider sped down the length of the yard.
As the target neared, Will braced himself against the impact that was to follow. Will tightened his grip on Vrist’s reins and on the body of his lance. He remembered what Nari had told him about jousts in the Human realm—unhorsing an opponent was mostly for show, but ultimately, what decided a match was how well a knight held on to his own horse and whether he was able to shatter his lance on his opponent.
Will breathed deeply as the blunt end of his lance crashed against the armour of the heavy training dummy. For a brief, utterly disheartening moment, only tiny cracks appeared down the length of the lance’s wooden tip. And then, in a shower of splinters that flew over his left shoulder, the lance broke clean in half.
Vrist whinnied and charged forward, Will desperately clinging to the reins as they approached the end of the tilt. Vrist came to a halt and stomped his feet, rearing his head in triumph. Will felt like celebrating too, which he did by pumping a gauntleted fist in the air.
“Well done,” said Phoebus, coming up to Will with something that he had found in Will’s things earlier. It was a circlet strewn with pearls and glittering gemstones, an object of great beauty that Will had spent ten years trying to craft with his own two hands.
The craftsmanship of the piece was evidently lacking, but Will was pretty proud of the way he’d managed to plait and weave the metal to create nests for the gemstones that he’d collected.
“Is the champion’s garland of roses not enough for you, my son?” said Phoebus with a small, knowing smile. He might not have been there to see his son slowly falling in love with their prince, but he knew infatuation when he saw it. “I take it that the boy asked for the stars?”
Will shook his head, a singular tear leaking out from the corner of one of his eyes. Ten long years of hard work was coming to a head. Now, he just had to master his jousting. “No,” he said, with a small smile, “I promised him the stars.”
Phoebus grinned, his pearly white teeth flashing in the light of the setting sun. The lord patted Vrist’s flank and said, to his son, “You better keep up the training, Will. The only way you are winning this tournament is if you unmount that son of Ennos. He is a formidable foe, as you might imagine. There is a reason his father is known as the Lord of Horses.”