"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they prove that dragons exist, but because they prove that dragons can be beaten." - G.K. Chesterton
The broadsword came down with enough force to dent the armored shoulder of the tall knight. He stumbled back, and Sir Tavers latched onto the advantage like a leech, beating the other into near submission. The crowd cheered when the taller knight regained his bearings and parried the movements of the Tavers with style and grace.
Rising up from the arena, the stands held hundreds of people of all classes, but the packed bodies did nothing for the heat of the day. Asaria Emery watched, pressing her fingertips to her lips as her heart threatened to leap out of her throat. The court members around her placed bets with an eagerness that disgusted her, their slender fingers trading coins like they were precious life; she would never understand why watching two men aim to kill each other was considered entertainment.
Her father leaned down from his elevated chair and pointed to the taller fighter, his hazel eyes twinkling. "See how he waits for Sir Tavers to lunge first?"
"Yes," she said, her eyes never leaving the arena.
"In doing so, he gives himself more time to gauge the other man's movements, while in time tiring Tavers out. Tavers will eventually be put on the defense, just wait."
"I am," she said.
Beside her, her lady-in-waiting and confidante, Imalda, tittered. She was a sweet-looking girl with strawberry-tinted hair that was always pulled back into a severe bun. A smattering of freckles decorated her nose, and her eyes were warm and friendly despite being the color of a stormy sky. She was chewing on her thumbnail with vigor.
A roar emitted from the crowd, drawing Asaria's attention back down towards the arena. Her stomach heaved as the taller knight swung his sword, embedding it into Sir Tavers's neck. Blood spurted out from the wound, splattering on the gravel and sand. The other ladies sharing the awning of the king gasped as Tavers remained standing, swaying a little. The tall knight pulled his sword out, spinning as he did so. Sir Tavers crumpled.
The arena erupted in cheers so loud that Asaria resisted the urge to clamp her hands over her ears. The victorious knight ripped his helmet from his head. Golden hair met the light, fluttering in the sudden breeze. He grinned, revealing gleaming white teeth set in a swarthy complexion. In their shaded spot, the men cheered and the women delicately clapped their hands. A red-haired girl, a daughter of one of the noblemen whose name Asaria had forgotten, leaned towards her.
"It must be a grand thing, having a brother so han - heroic," she said, covering her wide smile with her pale fingertips. His Highness is certainly something!"
She smiled politely, nodded once, and waited for her stomach to stop roiling. Two attendants dragged Sir Tavers out of the arena while her brother continued milking the attention of the crowd with bows and fists thrust up towards the sky.
"Great showing, Your Majesty. Really excellent," Lord Vestweather said, still clapping his meaty palms together. His face had a ruddy sheen to it, probably from too much sun, or, more likely, too much wine. "You have quite a son."
Asaria tapped her fingers against her armrest, able to keep her mouth shut, but not her mind. Ah, yes. A future king who kills his subjects for glory and entertainment. Splendid.
"I cannot argue with you there, Vincent. I am eager to see Lord Jappelin's son next. Camir Jappelin and Xander grew up together in the schoolroom, you know."
Lord Vestweather nodded. "And what say you of the show, Your Highness?" he asked, directing the question towards Asaria.
"A great form of entertainment for everyone involved," she replied automatically, the answer she'd been rehearsing all morning.
Her father smiled at her. "A fine wife she'll make a man one day, yes?"
Vestweather looked her up and down. "Oh, yes, Your Majesty. Has she reached her maturity?"
"Her eighteenth year is next week."
As if I'm not even here. She sighed.
Several minutes passed until Camir Jappelin came out into the arena. The Glaramian-based nobleman had skin the color of cocoa beans and wide set eyes that seemed to drill into those of his opponent. Applause rang out, but tapered off when the other knight, Sir Winver, reached the center of the arena. The trumpeter looked at Asaria's father, who nodded. A short blast sounded, and the next battle commenced.
The two men circled each other, each unwilling to make the first move. The crowd was shouting and jeering, urging them to begin. Finally, Camir lunged, aiming diagonally for Sir Winver's shoulder.
The ladies under the awning gasped and made cooing noises as the back flap opened and Xander ducked in, taking his place on their father's right side. He was washed and dressed in light finery to combat the heat of the day.
As Lord Jappelin and Sir Winver spun, their swords scraped each other's, a sound that grated on her nerves. In a flash, Jappelin switched hands and brought his weapon down. In a move that was almost laughable, Winver ducked and lumbered away, the armor hindering his movements.
"Congratulations once again, Your Highness," Lord Vestweather intoned, his eyes shining. "Your skills are above all."
Xander inclined his head. "Many thanks. Tavers was a worthy opponent; I'll have to make note to send a good sum to his widow."
"Your generosity knows no bounds, my son," her father said, patting him on the shoulder.
Asaria opened her mouth and then closed it, knowing anything she said would not get through to these people. She waved her fan a bit faster in front of her sweating face and returned her attention towards the arena. It seemed that Lord Jappelin had bested Sir Winver, backing him into a corner, but Winver gripped his sword with both hands knocked Jappelin's weapon to the side. A few cheers and jeers rang out for the knight and Jappelin rolled to the ground, quickly recollecting his weapon.
Their blows and parries seemed to last for hours, the noise of the crowd heightening with the tension, and then Asaria held her breath as Lord Jappelin rushed at Sir Winver. Winver dropped to the ground and caught Jappelin's knee with his sword. Blindsided by the move, the young lord went flying head over heels to land in a crumpled heap a few feet away from him. At the same time, the crowd seemed to draw in a single, stunned breath.
"Oh," she breathed a bit late.
Xander's mouth hung open and his leonine eyes were wide. Their father frowned deeply. Lord Jappelin rolled over onto his back with difficulty, pulling off his helmet. Blood flowed from his nose and his knee was bent at an awkward angle. Asaria winced.
Jappelin staggered to his feet, and the crowd roared their approval. Winver backed up as he hobbled towards him. In a move that stunned Asaria, the nobleman slammed his sword into Winver's side, and she fancied she could feel the blow herself. Winver fell, face planting into the sand and gravel.
The nobleman raised his sword and the crowd went wild.
"Wait!" The word was out of her mouth before she could stop herself, and all eyes flew towards her. She flushed and her fan fell out of her suddenly numb fingers. "I just meant - er - why don't we let Sir Winver live? It was a valiant showing, no?"
"Asaria," her father said sharply, eyes narrowed.
Mutterings broke out through the crowd. She stood up, and her knees knocked together. Sir Winver took off his helmet and struggled to look up at her. Graying brown hair spilled forth and he spat out sand. "These knights come and put forth their best effort for the entertainment of their monarchy and the loyal subjects," she said, her voice gaining strength with each word. "Is killing them really necessary?"
Someone booed. The ladies and lords under the awning regarded her with contempt. Xander kept his eyes downward, and the king's face had taken on the hue of a mottled grape. "Lord Jappelin," he said, looking down into the arena. Then he nodded.
Jappelin plunged his sword into the back of Winver's neck so that it came out of the man's throat. Asaria sat down and covered her mouth with her shaking hand. The crowd broke into cheers and hurrahs as Lord Jappelin took his bows.
~ * ~
The Rear Gardens
"It was a heartfelt attempt, milady," Imalda said as she hastened after Asaria, lifting her gray muslin skirts an inch off the ground. "No one else would have done what you tried to do."
"Exactly, and that is why Sir Winver was murdered. That's all it was, Imalda. Cold-blooded murder, and for entertainment, at that. Those people are no better than the barbaric cultures of centuries before."
She paused for a moment and sat down on the stone bench that had been erected on the cobblestone path. On either side of them, luscious pink roses accompanied by vibrant violets, cheerful daisies and shy orange tulips that sprouted through the well-manicured emerald grass. Deeper into the garden, fountains with stone figures of faeries spouted clear water. Birds sang in the trees. The sky overhead was clear and blue. It was very scenic and relaxing, but she was so angry that she was set to boiling. Her hands shook in her lap.
Too see two men actually die…
Xander strode up the walkway then and raised his hand in acknowledgement as Imalda curtsied low and murmured, "Your Highness."
"How angry are you with me?" he asked, clasping his hands behind his back and looking down at her. Same as hers, his amber-colored eyes were perfectly innocent.
Asaria had to resist the urge to deck him in the face then as she stood. "Xander, you did not even stand by me. I looked like such a fool!"
"Wouldn't it have seemed hypocritical for me to do so, considering I had just participated in the act that you condemned? Not to mention that arena activities are a tradition much supported by commoners and nobles alike. Admit it, sister. Your actions were sorely misjudged," he said, shrugging and tossing her a sword.
She caught it by the hilt as she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. "Fine, maybe they were. But what you are doing is not entertainment, brother. It's murder."
He regarded her as he ran a hand through his golden waves. "Of course you would think that way; you are a female."
"Thank you, I definitely needed reminding of that."
Xander ignored her barb. "Asaria, the tradition is not going to change anytime soon. It's the way of our world. Shall we practice, now?" He unsheathed his sword and pointed it at her face.
She lifted her chin and delicately pushed the blade away from her face with her index finger. "Changing the subject for now will not get you out of this, but yes, we'll practice."
They walked further off the path into the small patch of forest that led to Riverwyn Village. Behind a tree, she stripped out of her dress and revealed breeches, boots, and an ill-fitting tunic from one of the smaller stable boys. She pulled her dark brown hair back and tied it with a ribbon. Asaria folded up her dress and handed it to Imalda for safekeeping.
"How much longer do you expect me to keep this secret for you?" the lady grumbled, tucking the frock under her arm. "I swear I am already getting gray hairs from this. If His Majesty found out - "
"But he won't," Asaria said, "so cease worrying."
Still muttering under her breath, Imalda sat down at the base of the huge tree, positioning her skirts to cover her ankles. She took a needle and thread out of her woven sack and set to work at a miniscule tear in the hem of Asaria's dress. "I must reiterate that I haven't the faintest idea why you continue these practices."
Asaria let a short breathe flare out her nostrils. "Because, Imalda, what am I to do if someone tries to harm me? Wave my fan at them?"
The lady scoffed. "Riverwyn Palace is the most formidable fortress in all the South. You need not worry about a thing."
Asaria sighed, knowing there was no use arguing with Imalda, and met Xander in the clearing away from the path. He had about ten inches and sixty pounds on her, and sparring with him was always a daunting but necessary task. "First position," he ordered.
She set her feet shoulder-width apart and loosened her muscles. She spun the Coseton-steel blade and maintained the sword in the standard practice: the hilt at the bottom of the torso, the tip of the blade away from her head.
"This time, I want you to make the first move and lead the fight. If it becomes too much, signal me. What is your chosen safe word today?"
Asaria glanced at the fruit of the trees. "Peaches."
Xander snorted. "That'll do, I suppose. We'll begin now."
The siblings circled each other warily, and several moments passed before Asaria made her first move. When Xander slackened his elbow a bit, she thrust, but he recovered quickly and parried her blow. They grappled a few times, and Xander sneered at her. "Come on, then. Great-Grandfather Primus could do better, and he reaches his ninety-first year next month."
Asaria grunted and slammed her sword into his and going for her neck only because she knew he would avoid it. Indeed, Xander ducked expertly and caught the ankle of her boot with his blade. Asaria tripped and hit the ground hard on her side before rolling and popping back up, spitting a leaf out of her mouth and breathing hard.
"You're certainly out of it today," he said, not a hair or breath out of place.
At that point, Imalda looked up from her needlework. "Asaria, pull yourself together; you're better than this!" she snapped, and then turned pink when they both looked at her.
But it was the encouragement she needed. She met Xander's blow and parried it, pushing him back three steps before he regained his bearings. They both grunted as steel met steel, and she had to hold onto the hilt of her weapon with both hands when he dealt a particularly vicious strike her way.
Then, "Xander? Asaria?"
They both froze upon hearing their father's voice. Asaria's heart seized in her chest. If he found them out here, Xander would probably get off with a warning, but she'd be locked in her room for at least a month. Imalda gasped and threw the dress in Asaria's direction. She struggled into it, shoving her rough-sewn tunic past the fine muslin material. Imalda pulled a thick tome out of her bag.
When His Majesty happened upon the scene with a bevy of attendants and guards, the three were sitting in a crooked circle. Xander reclined against, his arm resting on his knee. Imalda sat with her hands folded in her lap, but jumped up and curtsied at the sight of the king. "…and obey unto the Lord for all eternity," Asaria read before closing the book.
The siblings made the sign of the cross.
"Father!" Asaria said, smiling. "What a pleasant surprise."
The older man stroked his mahogany-and-gray beard, narrowing his eyes. "So it would seem. While it pleases me that you are passing your free time reading His word, you seem to have forgotten that Lady de Haville and Lord Kendryk will be here for dinner in an hour's time."
Asaria almost groaned out loud. "Oh. Yes. That."
Xander shot her a warning look. "We'll get ready," he said, standing and executing a short bow that their father acknowledged with a nod. Xander took his leave them, striding down the path.
Traitor, Asaria thought. His Majesty waved off his entourage and Imalda until only he and Asaria remained. He offered her his arm and they followed suit down the garden path. "Do not think I have forgotten your transgression from earlier. Christ, girl, what were you thinking?"
She swallowed. "I - I am truly sorry, Father. My emotions bested me in that moment," she said even as the anger inside her renewed. "I will watch what I say from now on."
"As well you had better. I am doubly sure Lord Vestweather will not appreciate an outspoken wife."
Her anger turned to dread and she yanked her arm away from her father's. "Lord Vestweather? Are you serious?" she asked, her voice rising on the last word.
"Asaria," her father warned.
Her promise from all of ten seconds ago flew from her thoughts. "Vestweather is six years older than you are! Likewise, have you not read the papers? His last three wives ended up in the marsh behind his house when they failed to birth sons. His oldest daughter is even older than I am! I cannot - "
"Asaria Emery," her father thundered, gritting his teeth
She clamped her mouth shut.
"The match is an idea I am weighing; nothing is set in stone. But if this does come to fruition, you will bear it with a smile. It is your duty, and truthfully, you have been spoiled in the matter. Lord Jappelin's daughter Kasiana was married the day after she turned sixteen, seven years ago. She has two sons and three daughters now."
"How fortunate for her," Asaria commented, unable to keep the sarcastic bite from her words. "But like you said, we have guests coming over. I must get ready."
She stomped down the path, a bit surprised when her father didn't yell after her.
~ * ~
The yellow muslin and silk dress had been a gift given to Asaria for her seventeenth birthday. The neckline was square-cut and the corset underneath was akin to a torture device hell-bent on reshaping her ribs. If she took shallow breaths, she found it didn't hurt as much. Cream ribbons criss-crossed on the bodice, and the skirts swished around her ankles. The matching yellow heels were positively garish.
"Please sit still, milady," Mayda said, her tone a tinge exasperated. She was so flustered that she miscalculated and stabbed a pin in Asaria's scalp.
"Oh dear, I'm so sorry, Your Highness. Look here, I'm almost done." She placed the offensive pin into the mass of tresses that she had collected into a braided bun. As a finishing touch, she tucked a pearl-spotted headpiece into Asaria's hair.
Asaria looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was pulled back so tightly her eyes watered a bit. "Thank you, Mayda," she said, her voice a bit higher than usual. She dotted balm onto her full lower lip and pressed them together. "That'll be all for tonight."
"Yes, milady. Enjoy your dinner."
She'd already ordered Imalda to retire, for the lady wouldn't be needed for the rest of the night. Taking a breath, she exited her powder room and bedroom and walked down the carpeted hallway. In the foyer, a multitude of voices bounced off the vaulted ceilings and reached her ears.
"…to see you again, Joreth," Yvor Kendryk greeted her father.
The two had been friends for as long as she could remember; Kendryk was the duke of the sprawling though decrepit Shadowmor Manor up in the North. Sella de Haville was his widowed sister and evil in the flesh. Alright, perhaps that was taking it a bit far, but Asaria had never trusted the woman. Her icy eyes always held a calculating gleam near Asaria's father and her lips were always twisted into a knowing smirk.
"Ah, there you are, Asaria," her father beamed, their earlier spat apparently forgotten.
"My gift," Lady de Haville said, her lips stretching into a wide smile on her pale, slender face. Her white-blonde hair was piled high on her head and her sea-colored dress nearly matched her eyes. "You look like a ray of sun."
Asaria gave a small smile. "Thank you."
As Xander escorted her into the Great Hall for dinner, he muttered, "Actually, you look like a lemon puff left out for too long."
"Shut up, you."
Fifteen minutes later, they were seated at the long table and tasting the potato and leek soup. "Your children have certainly grown, Joreth," Kendryk said, regarding them both with eyes as black as night. He was, by honest accounts, a handsome man. His hair was the same color as his eyes save for the streak of silver at his right temple. He was dressed in the Shadowmor colors of red and black, and boasted a tall, muscled figure similar to her father's. "Xander will make a fine king one day, and any man would be proud to have your daughter on his arm."
Asaria let out a polite laugh and downed the rest of her red wine.
"You're too kind, Lord Kendryk," Xander said. "I can only hope to one day be as great a figure as my father is."
"You'll be that and better," His Majesty grinned at him. He turned to Kendryk. "I am aware I sent you a letter, but I'd like to again offer my condolences on your son's death. His passing was untimely."
Dimly, Asaria remembered the young lord of Shadowmor as a footman refilled her glass. He'd been pale and skinny and angular. They had meant once years ago when she'd been ten and he seventeen. The younger Lord Kendryk had been ejected from his horse last winter during a race around the dangerous Mericliff Mountains.
Kendryk swallowed visibly. "It was indeed a difficult time for me. It still is."
Lady de Haville gave him a sympathetic look and covered his hand with hers. "Pray allow me to change topics, Your Majesty," she said, her tone smooth and cajoling. "I'd heard word of your recent victory against the Oleysians. Your conquering of the Espoir Sea will be the talk of decades to come."
The king smiled. "It was no easy feat, let me assure you. The Oleysians are a brutal lot, but there are only so many times you can kick something before it relents."
"Do not undermine your victory, Your Majesty," Lady de Haville cooed, lowering her lashes. "They say you were in the thickest parts of the battle. Every man feared the wrath of your broadsword."
Her father waved his hand. "You are too kind. And enough of that 'Your Majesty' business. Pray call me by my Christian name."
"If you insist…Joreth," she tittered.
Asaria's stomach roiled even as the main dish was presented and set down. "Oh my gosh, lamb! Xander, do you remember how much Mother loved lamb?" she asked loudly.
Everyone paused. Xander cleared his throat. "Er…yes."
She laughed a bit. "Of course you'd remember. She only died four years ago." Asaria took another long sip of her wine.
Lord Kendryk nodded. "Oh, how the kingdom grieved for the loss of Laiyna. Such a tragic event."
"Death is such unsuitable dinner talk," Lady de Haville cut in once again, and Asaria narrowed her eyes. "There are so many other things to discuss."
"Sella is right," her father said. "We'll remember your mother at another time."
Asaria's mouth fell open, and she stood, swaying a bit. "Please excuse me. I've suddenly lost my appetite. Lord Kendryk, Lady de Haville…it was a pleasure seeing you both again," she forced out.
She quit the room in two seconds flat.
~ * ~