Nico looked about him, silently cursing the climate of the Southron realm. The heat of the early morning sun was already enough to make sweat drip from his brow despite the relative shade of his current circumstance.
Truthfully, Nico was thankful that his father had planned this stunt for early in the morning. He was not so sure that he would have survived the heat if Aides had been insistent on starting the joust at noon.
Nico noticed that the knights that were supposed to participate in his tournament were spending the early morning milling about, talking to each other, and making acquaintances.
Nico could already see that some of the knights were approaching their competition. He noticed that where some were evidently sizing up the others, there were quite a few coming up to random knights and taking up friendly bets with drinks on the line.
Nico was distracted from his people-watching by a small man, the castle’s Master of Horses, tapping him on the ankle. “Are you ready, sire?” said the man. “And you remember when to begin, yes?”
“I remember, elder,” said Nico, with a smile. He looked down at the Master of Horses as he curtsied. “Not to mention, father literally says ‘begin’ to remind me.”
Nico heard a soft chuckle before the older man walked away. He turned his eyes back to the field and the knights that had already gathered. The stands were filled with people, already, as Aides had promised some sort of spectacle early in the morning to begin the day’s celebrations.
Desperately, Nico searched for the boy—man, now, he guessed—that had evaded him for the last ten years. He was finding it difficult for a singular reason: he had no idea what Will’s family crest even was, or if Will even had one to begin with. In ten long years, Nico had never figured out who the boy was, despite extensive education and research in all the prominent noble families of the Southron realms.
The only possibility now was that Will was from a minor noble family. The trouble with that was that there were so many—and a lot of them had multiple children that Nico just couldn’t find much about.
Nico’s wandering eye caught a familiar green tinted flash in the daylight. It was Perseus, the knight whom he’d spent the previous night with. There was a swagger in the man’s walk, a kind of confidence that could only accompany a man that had spent his life practically living the joust.
In the Southron realm, the House of Ennos was about as close to Tretalleri military culture as could be. It was no wonder the elves were drawn to them and their horses. It was also a matter of certainty that all noble sons of the house were accomplished horsemen.
Perseus had just dismounted his destrier and was now making his way toward one of the less occupied areas in the stands. Leaning against the heavy wooden fence that separated the spectators from the knights in the yard was another knight, chest emblazoned with the lightning bolt symbol of the House of Zovë—one of the first houses to capitulate to the Dominion and had come to embrace its ways openly.
Nico recognized the other knight. It was the blond, blue-eyed boy that he had almost mistaken for Will ten years ago: Jason. Nico couldn’t help but think to himself that Jason looked rather handsome now and was probably even better built than Perseus under all that heavy armour.
Nico watched with great interest as Perseus hopped up and sat on top of the fence beside Jason. It was a feat that left Nico, and apparently Jason, momentarily confused. There was no way that full plate armour was that light, and yet, Perseus had managed to jump a good three feet into the air to sit his ass on top of the fence.
Nico shook his head. The metal was probably something special. He doubted that any of the others that hadn’t been watching would be able to tell as apart from its tint, the only thing superficially special about Perseus’ armour was the black trident painted onto the front of it—the crest of the House of Ennos.
Nico couldn’t help but smile to himself. Displaying the crest of the Horse Lords of the Southron Realm was definitely a form of psychological warfare. It was the equivalent of Perseus standing on top of his horse and declaring that he would win the joust before it even began.
Nico watched the two interact for a little while, frankly intrigued at the way that they interacted with familiarity. It was clear that they knew each other, and, if Nico wasn’t mistaken, Jason was rather smitten with Perseus.
Of course, Nico had to concede that he could simply be mistaking the lingering, longing stares that Jason sent Perseus’ way whenever the son of Ennos was not looking as something else, but that was unlikely. Nico was fairly sure that Jason was pining after Perseus.
Nico smiled to himself, feeling a little bit better about the possibility of his sabotaging Perseus’ chances of winning in case Will showed up to fulfil the promise that he had made ten years ago.
Nico looked away from Jason and Perseus, who seemed to have taken to punching each other in what he could only assume was some brutish way of showing friendly affection. He scanned the field again, eyes drifting from one colourful family crest to the next. It was no use—all the ones currently visible were ones that he knew. Furthermore, he knew that none of them were Will’s.
Nico was about to give up hope of seeing Will again when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a knight dressed in what seemed to be plain armour. There was no paint, no decoration, no strange colouring other than a golden sun that was emblazoned on one of the shoulder plates.
Nico’s heart and mind raced. He distinctly remembered the mask that Will had held up to the moonlight all those years ago. It was difficult to forget such a puzzling piece of fashion. It had been relatively nondescript, nothing special save for a little decoration.
Nico could feel his heart hammering against his chest, and he could almost hear his pulse thundering in his ears. Was it possible? Could it be? He knew the crest all too well, too. The sun was the crest of Phoebus, a court physician that had been lorded by his father when he managed to cure Kore of an intractable disease.
Had Will really been living that close all these years? Phoebus was the governor of a small village, one that did not have any particular agricultural product of note, no more than twenty miles west of the capital.
Kyber, Nico’s black destrier, must have felt his excitement, because the horse immediately took to whinnying and stomping his hooves. Nico briefly considered dismounting and seeking Will out, but Aides did not give him the chance. The king of the Southron realm rose from his seat and declared, “Zanë`za!”
A hush fell over the crowd. Peasantry and nobility both fell quiet. Even the knights that had come to participate seemed quite surprised at the command from out of nowhere. Only then, Nico felt, did the people notice that there were two knights on opposite sides of the tilt.
Nico adjusted himself on his saddle, the heavy plate armour, of a rich obsidian colour decorated with gold highlights and designs, made it somewhat difficult to move. Nico did not need to look over his shoulder at the royal stage to know that there was a smile on his father’s face.
The spontaneous joust had had exactly the effect that Aides had wanted. As much as the tournament was in line with the tradition of their realm, Nico knew that Aides had had about enough with tradition and was intent on breaking from it in whatever way possible.
Nico hefted his lance and looked down the length of the tilt. At the far end of the yard, opposing him was the palace castellan, Rakan a’Dalganë, Master of Arms, Mentor to the Crown Prince—him, and Deathrider to the Dominion, mounted on a steed that was the polar opposite of Kyber.
Where Kyber was smaller and built for speed, Rakan’s mount, a Tretalleri warhorse, had been bred for power, endurance, ferocity, and most of all, unquestioning, unflinching, absolute obedience. More than that, where Kyber was a sleek black—the primary colour of Nico’s house, the warhorse was a pale icy white.
Prince and Castellan, master and student, nodded at each other. Simultaneously, and just as a great cheer came up from the peasantry in the stands, they dug their heels into the flanks of their horses and charged down along the tilt toward each other.
Nico heard a round of gasps from his audience as the decoration on his armour caught the sunlight and made it seem as though he was wreathed in the pale divine fire of the Stranger. Nico levelled his lance at his mentor, trying his best to compensate for the height of Rakan’s warhorse.
Time seemed to slow as Nico approached Rakan. Silently, he asked the Rider to guide his lance. As he did, he felt an insatiable rage well up in the pit of his stomach—the will of the Rider. His arm moved as though it had a will of its own, adjusting his aim to compensate not only for the fact that Rakan’s horse was taller, but that Rakan’s lance was longer and would hit him first.
Nico’s armour rang as Rakan’s lance hit him. The force of the impact almost dislocated his shoulder, where the impact was centred. Nico almost lost his grip of Kyber’s reins but an almost preternatural force kept his gauntleted fingers clasped around them.
Moments later, Nico’s lance collided with the upper left side of Rakan’s torso, just under the rider’s armpit. Another round of gasps rose from the crowd as the lance shattered and Rakan tumbled headlong from his saddle.
The imposing castellan had been unhorsed, and already, the crowd was murmuring about what had just happened. Rakan’s warhorse immediately dug its heels into the dirt, skidding to a stop mere inches away from where its master had fallen to the dirt. It waited, unmoving, for its rider to stand up and mount again.
Nico raised a gauntleted fist in the air as he rode past and around the far side of the tilt. He tossed his lance, tip broken to pieces, to the dirt. He rode with haste toward his mentor and hopped off of Kyber’s saddle with the grace of a predatory cat.
Rakan was on one knee, coughing and clutching the side of his head. “Well done, Nykos a’Aides,” said Rakan with a lopsided grin. He took the arm that Nico extended in his direction and rose to his feet. Nico felt as though the arm he had offered was being torn off at the shoulder when Rakan raised it to the sky, almost lifting Nico off of his feet.
“Look upon your prince,” declared the castellan, voice booming across the arena, “He is as fine a warrior as any who challenge this tournament today.”
Nico ripped his decorated helm from his head and let it fall to the ground with a loud clang. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, but a quick shake of his head from side to side was sufficient to remedy that problem.
Rakan let go of Nico’s arm. Nico rolled his shoulder just to make sure everything was still in the right place. He looked around, eyes challenging instead of welcoming. This was the most important part of the whole thing, his father had said.
“If you thought that it was a pampered prince’s judgment that you would have to face today,” said Nico, his voice thundering across the yard. He silently thanked his speech coach, as well as Aides, who had been a great help with the matter of projecting. “You are sadly mistaken. Trust me when I say that I know a good warrior and a great knight when I see one.”
Nico took a step forward, locking eyes with the nearest knight. He thumbed the crossguard of his sword, freeing it from its scabbard before drawing it. It was a hand and a half long, made of steel that shone black in the sunlight.
The weapon was designed after the fashion of what most human soldiers wore to battle. It had been a deliberate choice, though Nico certainly preferred the curved kind that the Tretallë used. Made of elledtrillë, steel from a fallen star imbued with blood magicks, Nico possessed a blade to rival a Deathrider’s.
Nico spun the sword first to his right side, then his left, and then over his head. While the scream it made as it sliced through the air was not nearly as high-pitched as a Tretalleri blade’s, it was distinctive enough.
Nico swept his blade across the field, pointing it at every knight in attendance. “The terms set on this day ten years ago were that I would decide whether the champion of this tournament is worthy of my hand in marriage,” he said.
A man in red-tinted armour shifted into a very aggressive stance, teeth bared in Nico’s direction. Another knight, a woman by Nico’s judgment, seemed ready to jump on the clearly-angry warrior. “Do any of you have a problem with that?” Nico asked.
Nico turned to face the red knight, unsurprised to find the crimson raven of House Aires emblazoned crudely on the face of the man’s massive breastplate. Aires—and his children—were infamous in the Southron realm for near-barbaric violence at the slightest provocation.
Everyone had hoped that the Dominion’s arrival would pacify the House of Aires, but so far, it had not happened. There were assurances, of course, but it took time to bring ships across the Thundering Sea from the heartland.
“What do you mean that you get to decide whether the winner is worthy of your hand in marriage?” said the red-clad knight. “Of course the winner is worthy of your hand in marriage. He’s the fucking winner. Are you trying to say that we don’t get the prize, even if we win, if you decide we aren’t worth your time?”
“No,” said Nico, trying to put on as diplomatic a tone of voice as he could manage. “The gold that was promised to the victor will go to the victor regardless of my judgment,” he said, as he planted the tip of the sword on the ground between his feet.
Nico rested the palms of his hands on pommel of his sword, stylized to look like a sleek black three-headed dog. “However,” said Nico, “the real prize, marriage into my family, into my noble line, and into the wealth of my kingdom, is not guaranteed.”
There was a subdued, but clearly angry murmuring especially among the lords and ladies of other lands that had come to try their lot at earning a fraction of Aides’ wealth. “However,” said Nico, with a smirk, “In the interest of fairness, my father has given me the privilege of altering the agreement however I wish, within reason, of course.”
“So,” said Nico, looking at the lords and ladies that had now fallen quiet and were intently clinging to his every word. “I say this now. I can be persuaded to marry whomever wins the tournament regardless of my personal opinion on the matter.”
The son of Aires grinned, his teeth appearing almost bloody from the slight crimson-tinted light that was reflected off of his armour. “The conditions are simple. If these knights do not wish to face my judgment, then all they will have to do is draw first blood against me.”
Nico kicked his sword into the air, its black blade flashing as it spun. He caught it with his open palm and pointed the tip at the son of Aires. “Shall we cross blades, sir knight?” he said. “Or do you lack the valour to face me?”
The red-clad knight thumped his chest with a gauntleted fist. “I thought you would never ask,” said the giant of a man. A squire—one of the few that littered the yard—walked up to the son of Aires and held out a sheathed greatsword. The knight drew the weapon in a single motion, sending the poor boy flat on his back in the dirt.
The knight ran at Nico with great lumbering steps. Each footfall felt like a miniature earthquake, but perhaps the most impressing feat that the knight displayed was holding the greatsword aloft with a single hand when most men struggled to hold it with two.
It did not take Nico very long to see the weak spot in the knight’s admittedly poor armour. It was clear that the warriors of the House of Aires were more interested in offense than defense and there was a very prominent lapse in protection behind the knight’s knee.
“Remember,” said Rakan, gently. The Deathrider walked by Nico with his horse in tow, unfazed by the duel that was about to happen. “The bigger they are, the longer it takes for them to stop.” Nico smiled. He knew that his master knew that. It was more a thinly-veiled insult of the son of Aires, whom the Tretallë looked at with barefaced disdain. “Use your size to your advantage, little prince.”
Nico laughed. He kept track of the son of Aires from out of the corner of his vision, but he was not concerned at all. He was more than glad to keep the conversation going.
“Master,” said Nico, “Kore stopped using that name for me years ago.”
Rakan smiled. “But is it not the truth, D’Felli Aides? Shall I find some other suitably truthful name that you might not find as pleasing?”
Nico shook his head. “Good,” said the castellan. Nico knew that he was never going to be as tall a man as his father, but Rakan had done a good job teaching Nico how to use his relatively humble height to his advantage.
Where Rakan’s fighting style was focused on a delicate dance between offense and defense, deception and evasion lay at the heart of Nico’s. Nico waited until the last moment before he sidestepped the son of Aires’ charge—as well as the swing of the greatsword that followed—and walked forward.
“Hey!” the red-clad knight yelled, recovering from the missed charge. “don’t turn your back on me!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” said Nico, without looking back. He raised his blade to the sun, revealing the crimson that clung to its obsidian tip. A chorus of gasps erupted from the spectators nearest to him, as well as the ones directly behind the son of Aires. From some distant place, Nico heard Perseus call out what he could only assume was supposed to be a “manly” compliment. “You have already lost.”
“What?” said the son of Aires, genuinely confused. “What do you mean? Come back here, you brat!”
“Check the back of your knee,” said Nico, matter-of-factly. He swing his sword up over his shoulder, the blood from its tip splattering across the ground. “You will find that I have, in fact already drawn first blood.”
Nico heard angry breathing followed by an incoherent howl of rage, a baseless, nearly-incoherent accusation of cheating, and then a choked scream that ended with a loud clang and a thud.
Nico turned about and saw that the son of Aires’ face was firmly planted on the ground, Rakan’s boot square on the knight’s back. Of course his mentor had been able to disarm and subdue the brute within seconds.
“Is he the only one fool enough to challenge me?” said Nico, turning to the rest of the knights as he held his blade to his side. None of the men stepped forward, and Nico couldn’t help but pout. “Oh,” he said, trying to sound genuine. “You disappoint me.”
Nico took a few more steps toward the royal stage before turning to lock eyes with the man that he was certain was Will. “No one else?” he sighed, deeply. “Good. Then, the agreement stands. You may win this tournament, but I still choose who it is that wins my hand in marriage.”
Behind him, Nico faintly heard Aides say to Kore, “See? Having him take charge of his own tournament was a great idea. Now I don’t have to do anything but watch, and the people are loving him.”
Nico stepped out of his armour with the help of his squire. In only linen breeches and a tunic that left little to the imagination since it was soaked with sweat, Nico climbed up the side of the royal stage and jumped over the banister to stand behind the podium that should have been Aides’. Sure enough, just as Aides had said, the peasantry erupted in cheers.
Nico waved at them and bowed as graciously as he could manage. “It is my honour, today, to welcome all of you to this tournament of champions,” he said. “We will adjourn for two hours to make preparations for the proper beginning of the tournament, but I hope that all present enjoyed our rudely-interrupted spectacle.”
The cheers grew louder. “IstLertys gureh dinë,1 said Nico, rubbing his throat afterwards. He didn’t know why, but his body always found speaking IstOrryk offensive.
Regardless of Nico’s attempt to speak the language of the masses—the one that people remembered from before the Dominion arrived—the crowd went wild. “Urkë domen,2” they responded.
1 IstLertys gureh dinë — Stranger protect you.*
2 Urkë domen — And you.*
* Unlike the translations in previous chapters which were of the Tretalleri dialect of the Language of the Elves, these translations are from IstOrryk, the language of the races of Man. It is universally spoken among the three races of Man: the Dwarves, the Orcs, and the Humans.