Regina sat in her room a few days later, looking at her sword and armor. She held her family crest in her hands, fingering it absently. There was a problem with her plan. There was no way that she could enter the competition as herself. The King and Queen would never allow it and she would be killed before she even got started. Calls for registration were going out to the other kingdoms in the morning. The tournament itself would be in a fortnight. An invitation would not be sent to her homeland, she knew, but she could depend on gossip spreading the message farther than it was supposed to go. Her presence wouldn’t be questioned if she could find some way to disguise herself.
She walked across the room and caressed the helmet of her armor. She never wore it because it impeded her line of sight. But in this case, it might be her only way. But even then she would have to change her armor somehow. It was plainly the armor of the palace guard. Regina bit the inside of her lip.
Magic buzzed under her skin, calling to her. Perhaps it held the answer, but Regina didn’t know a certain spell that would transform her armor into something different. Even then, she didn’t know if she could reverse it. She couldn’t go walking around with her armor different all of a sudden. She wouldn’t have a reasonable explanation for it and that would invite unwelcome questions.
She hefted the helmet in her hand again. If she experimented on the helmet she could figure everything out and then apply it last second to her real armor. Her eyes tracked down to her sword. She’d have to change that too. A pang went through her. She didn’t want to alter her sword in any way, but it was necessary. Her sword was too recognizable.
Regina sighed. That would take care of her appearance, but what of her absence from her guard duties? She couldn’t just disappear and expect everything to remain on an even keel. She could make up an excuse, something personal. The head of the guard knew nothing of her origins. She could forge a letter from an ailing parent and that would take care of that, she supposed.
She began to pace her small room. Everything was so very risky, it hinged a great deal on variables she had little control over. This was not how she liked to plan things at all, but it seemed that this was the only way to fit all the pieces together in order to get her to compete in the tournament. She would continue thinking on it, but until a better idea came along this would have to be her plan.
Regina sat down on her bed once more and started to concentrate on her helmet. She pulled all of her magic to the surface and willed it to change the helmet into something that resembled the guards at the Dark Palace wore. The color rippled just a little to a darker grey, not the light eating black that she wanted. She sighed heavily. It was going to be a very long two weeks.
Regina looked through her helmet, pleased with the effect that she had achieved. She still had an unimpeded view, but no one could see in. Her magic had made it see through only in one way. Her armor was a tad bulkier, still molded to her body to make for easy fighting, but the design of the Dark Palace guard armor was different that the White kingdom’s. It had taken her long, long hours to get the design right. It had taken her days just to get the helmet to cooperate. To transfer the magic she had done to larger pieces had taken even more effort, but she had done it.
Now she walked towards the table where the contestants were registering. There were a horde of them. Regina’s eyes scanned over each and every one of them. Just from a look she knew that most of them would not pass the Princess’s written test. She was proud of Emma and the test she had constructed. It was fair, but weeded out almost every quality that wouldn’t be good in a husband or a king. Regina didn’t feel bad about the slight advantage she had over the other competitors for already knowing the test’s contents. She was here to win, not to fight fair. She had faith that she would have passed the test even without knowing what was on it anyway.
Regina placed herself at the end of the line. It wouldn’t do to assert herself just yet. Better to be unnoticed for now. Her hand fell to her sword. She’d let them know she was a force to contend with when the time was right.
When it was her turn to register she threw her family crest down on the table and just glared at the man at the table. He couldn’t see her eyes, but she was sure that he could feel the weight of her stare even through the metal.
“The Dark Kingdom, sir? There were no invitations sent there.”
Regina just kept silent. Sweat started to bead on the man’s brow. Sometimes her homeland’s reputation had its advantages.
“I’m sure that it would be alright if you competed, though. I’ve already let a few through from kingdoms further out. It wouldn’t do to start a war just over a little friendly bit of competition, now would it?” A hand came up to rub at his neck.
“Do you have a name, sir?”
Regina just shook her head.
“Well, what are we supposed to call you if you have no name? How are we to know that you’re of decent peerage to marry the Princess?”
Regina gestured to her family’s crest.
“Forgive me, sir, but you could have stolen this.”
Regina leaned forward planting her hands on the table. The man visibly swallowed.
“Then again, your armor is of the palace guards. We’ll just call you the Black Knight, is that suitable?”
Regina nodded, smiling. Yes, that name worked splendidly. It would serve her well later in the competition. Everyone knew the legend of the Black Knight of her kingdom and he was feared for a plethora of reasons.
“Right, then. I’ll just tie this entrant band on your arm and then you can go off to that tent over there for the first part of the tournament.”
Regina held out her arm, waited for the man to tie the ribbon around her arm, grabbed her family crest, and stalked over towards the tent, still smiling.
She entered the tent. The boy handing out tests visibly started at her appearance. He shook himself after a second and handed her a sheet of parchment.
“Find a place with an ink well and quill. You have as long as you need to complete the test, but the Princess said to mention that she had no time to read a novel, so keep that in mind.”
Regina nodded, took the piece of paper, and walked further into the tent, picking a place as farther from the others as she could. She scanned the sheet of parchment quickly. The questions were still exactly the same as when the Princess had handed her the paper to check over weeks ago. She smirked even though no one else could see her pleased look. Oh yes, this would be quite easy.
People continued to trickle in as she started to write her responses. What would they change about the kingdom? How did they view the peasants place in a kingdom? What were important qualities in a leader? Why did they think that they deserved the hand of the Princess? What was the place of a Queen in a kingdom? Of a King? What could they contribute to the running of the kingdom? The questions were simple and straightforward for Regina. She was sure that they seemed straightforward to everyone else, but what was straightforward to them was not what Emma was looking for, she was sure. Looking around the tent at the scoffing faces of the other contestants as they read over the test only confirmed her suspicions.
Regina finished quickly and handed in her test. She wandered out of the tent and bit her lip. What to do now that she was done? The competition wouldn’t start until tomorrow after Emma had looked over the tests and selected the few that had passed. She wondered what would happen if only one person passed the test. The Council hadn’t exactly considered such an option. Regina rolled her eyes. Of course they hadn’t, that would have required forethought beyond the absolute minimum to save their own asses.
She shook her head. She might as well wander into the palace so she could be assigned her temporary quarters. All of the fighters were being housed in the guest wing. She knew that the guards were being stretched thin and she felt a little bad for leaving them in a small rut with her absence, but it was worth it to save Emma from everything. So she walked into the palace and a scared little page boy showed her to her modest quarters. She settled in quickly and tried to clear her mind of all lingering thoughts. The fights would come soon enough. But her legs still twitched with restless energy. They wouldn’t come soon enough.
The Princess stood on a dais high about the contestants’ heads. She stood tall, gazing out at the crowd with an impassive face, the picture of royalty. Regina had to remind herself to breathe as the sun bounced off her golden curls. She signaled for quiet and almost immediately the crowd fell silent. Emma took out a piece of parchment and unrolled it.
“The following ten contestants have passed the written exam,” She called out in a clear voice.
Everyone in the crowd shuffled a little closer, eagerly awaiting their names to be called. Regina stood near the back of the mass of people and rolled her eyes. She didn’t quite know how most of them could be so idiotic to think they passed. Some of them looked barely literate.
“From the White Kingdom Lord Gwaine, Baron Antonis, Sir Covington, Earl Tudor, and Viscount Fannington. From the Kingdom of Isles Chief Mannato. From Illyria Lord Twyrion and Baron Edgar. From Oceania, Laird McKinley. And finally from the Dark Kingdom, the Black Knight.”
Everyone in the crowd shouted their descent, screaming that they should have been accepted into the tournament proper. Regina waited and so did the Princess, cooling watching the crowd with one eyebrow cocked until the crowd managed to grow a brain and quiet down again.
“The rest of you, thank you for you for your participation. You’re welcome to stay and watch the remainder of the tournament if you would like, your rooms are yours until the tournament ends. If you would rather return home, then have a safe journey.”
A large group of men turned and stalked off at those words. Emma’s nostrils flared and she sent a glare their way. It was perfectly within her rights to have them all flogged for such a display of disrespect, but she held her temper.
“Now, that the uncouth rabble have left us.” Emma glanced back to the crowd, mask slipping into place again. “The tournament will begin in one hour. There will be three rounds, jousting, archery, and sword fighting. Places will be assigned in each round according to your performance, the higher the place the more points it is worth. The person with the highest number of points at the end of the tournament wins my hand in marriage. Those announced as competing please come to the front of the crowd at the end of this announcement and you will be taken by a page to get ready for the competition. May the best man win.”
The Princess nodded once and turned and walked off of the stage.
Regina walked forward, shoving aside those who got too much in her way. The other men were already waiting when she managed to push through. She surveyed them all carefully. They were mostly all well-built, muscular men. Two were short and stocky and didn’t quite look like they could cause much harm to anything but a plate of food, but Regina knew that looks could be deceiving. Men from Illyria were renowned fighters despite their small, heavy stature. She’d watch them as much as she could so she wouldn’t be surprised when the time came to fight them. She had to wonder at their prescence. If Illyria was the kingdom that was rumored to want to attack the White Kingdom than what was their purpose sending men to compete at such a competition. She’d been watching them for more than just fighting purposes it seemed.
A page boy, no older than six tugged on her arm. He smiled up at her, front teeth missing. Regina felt herself smiling back at the boy. He was utterly adorable.
“This way,” he said, his s’s whistling slightly.
Regina followed him until they came to the stables. One of the palace mounts was saddled up waiting for her. She knew this horse. He would do well in a joust. He was calm under pressure and fiercely loyal. She ran her hand over his nose. She felt the horse’s eyes on her and he neighed. She could fool the rest of the people here, but she wasn’t fooling the horse. He nudged her shoulder with his nose fondly. She scratched between his eyes gently and turned away to get ready. The little page boy turned out to be quite the little helper and she was ready in short order.
She swallowed as she swung up onto her horse, saying thanks in an overly gruff voice to the little boy as she rode towards the arena. The page boy trotted alongside her horse, smiling at her thanks. He chatted animatedly as they walked along. It was clear that he idolized the knights around the palace from the way he talked almost constantly about them. He even shot a few admiring glances up at her. The child was precious. She wondered why she’d never seen him around the palace before. She thought she’d known all the page boys.
The other contestant were gathered around a large board, murmuring to one another and sending furtive glances around the small group, assessing. Regina rode up and joined them, getting a clear look at what the group was looking at. It was the brackets for the jousting competition. She quickly found her moniker and the man she was facing. A scowl crossed her face. She was against one of the heavyset men from Illyria. Of all the rotten luck. Their extra weight and lower center of gravity would make them harder to unseat. She’d have to plan her hit carefully in order for it to have the maximum effect.
In the arena proper she heard the King’s voice booming out, quieting the crowd. He announced the tournament as officially started. In the group of competitors two page boys called for their charges attention and led them into the arena. The rest of the men crowded around the narrow entrance to try and get a look at the match that was about to happen. Regina took one look at the jockeying going on and decided to abstain. She bit the inside of her lip. There was more than one way to watch from afar. She waved her hand just slightly at the area right in front of her eyes turned into a viewing screen, arena projected clearly in front of her. She looked around for a few seconds, finding the two men who had just left adjusting themselves, the page boys at their side holding their lances.
Regina surveyed the men’s riding posture carefully. One glance at the chief from the Kingdom of Isles and Regina already knew who was going to win this fight. The chief had horrible posture. He looked like he was going to unseat himself even without a long piece of wood shoving at him. Then again, it wasn’t surprising. The Kingdom of Isles was exactly that, a kingdom made up of many islands. They didn’t exactly have the right structure for horses to be a big thing. The chief would be a factor during the archery competition she was sure, but for now he was not a worry.
The other man, a Lord from this kingdom looked very at ease on his horse and holding his lance. He would be one to look out for later. The man trotted to the starting line and nodded to the King.
The King called out for the joust to begin and both contestants shot off, galloping towards one another. As expected a second later, the chief was on the ground staring up at the sky cursing loudly in another language. He stood, nodded to the King and stalked off to find his horse which had trotted off happily after he had fallen.
Regina watched the rest of the matches with a careful eye. She predicted most of the wins, being wrong only twice when the other competitor utterly surprised her. In the upcoming rounds she would have some actual competition if she wanted to place well.
When it was finally time for her match she rode out into the crowd after taking a deep breath. The crowd went totally silent at her entrance. She felt the weight of a thousand stares on her, but she didn’t let it get to her. She kept right on riding to her place and adjusting herself slightly into a better jousting position. Regina grabbed her lance from the boy and readied it with ease. She was ready before her competitor even managed to take his place at the other end of the jousting lane.
It seemed to take a small eternity for him to get everything strapped on. It seemed that what the man was wearing was barely even a precaution, he tacked on at least another layer of armor over the already full armor he was wearing. Regina had to wonder if that was to help him keep on the horse or because he truly thought that one layer of armor wouldn’t do it. She rolled her eyes at his antics.
Soon enough he was ready and the King was calling for the start of the joust. Regina shot off, pushing the horse to a gallop as quickly as possible. The lane got shorter and shorter before Regina could even quite comprehend it. She adjusted her lance aiming it directly for the other man’s chest carefully. If she could hit him square in the chest and throw off his balance he would fall and victory would be hers easily. She saw the other man’s lance aiming for the same spot on her chest. She shifted just a little bit, not enough to get out of the way and ruin her already perfect shot but enough to take the brunt of the blow away from her body. She would stay on her horse with a minor bruise to her chest and hopefully the man would already be on the ground.
Another second and the two of them were in that perfect range. Regina knew it was all or nothing now. There was no changing her aim at the last second without certain failure. She felt the other man’s lance colliding just a fraction of a second after she had thrust her own lance into the man’s chest with as much force as she could exert in that half a second. She was knocked back slightly, but not enough to matter much as she continued to ride forward. Her lance tip broke off so that she carried only a stub now in her hand.
When she reached the end of the lane she turned around quickly and saw the other man on the ground. She smile and rode away with her head held high. Jousting wasn’t her specialty, but at least she had proven herself to be physically superior to someone, thus given her more points. One step closer to the Princess being free from this mess. If all her jousts were this easy she had a very high chance of taking the first event for herself, only increasing the odds of her plan working. She smiled wider at the thought.
Regina advanced through the rounds, each person she faced was more difficult to unseat than the last, but she prevailed. Now she sat atop her mount staring at the other finalist. She hoped that he could feel her glare even from a hundred feet away even though he couldn’t see her eyes. Her horse pawed the ground under her, ready to get this run over with. He had been a lovely steed throughout all the rounds, steady and sure. She hoped desperately that together they could work together to unseat this last man and take the first round of the tournament easily.
She fought the urge to rub at her chest. There were going to be more than a few bruises in the coming days from all the places she had been struck. Her bones still rattled with some of the harder hits she’d taken throughout the day. The rounds where she hadn’t been able to unseat her opponent immediately had been the worst. She hadn’t had the time or space to heal herself even the slightest bit and the pain from the last hit lingered. Even with her high pain tolerance it had been quite the annoyance.
The King called for them to start and Regina snapped back into the moment with razor focus. She kicked her horse and was off at a gallop a second later. Regina drew a deep breath in and released it. The ground disappeared from under her horse’s hooves as they charged forward. Another breath and they were close enough that Regina could see the whites of the other man’s eyes. Her eyes took everything about him in, in an instant. He was seated firmly. It was clear why he had advanced so far in this competition. She gripped her lance tighter and angled it to hit directly in the middle of his chest. There would be the best she guessed for this man since he didn’t show any particular weakness anywhere.
Another breath and her lance was striking home. A gasp and his lance hit her chest, directly between her breasts, pressing her armor into her painfully. She felt it immediately, her balance was shifted. Warning bells started to go off in her head. She tried to shift back, to right herself, but she started to fall back anyway. She tried harder, gripping onto the horse with her legs. It slowed her fall, but not enough. She kept falling and falling. Regina knew that one little spell and she would be right back up on her horse, but she couldn’t risk it in front of so many people. Were she actually maintain this façade past the end of the tournament she would consider it, but she couldn’t shoot herself in the foot.
So she continued to fall, fall, fall. Regina let go of the reins. She didn’t want to hurt the horse as well on her way down. God, she hoped she didn’t hit too hard. The last thing she needed was for her back to be bruised along with her chest. It seemed to take a veritable eternity to fall from the height of the horse until the ground. She wasn’t quite sure that the gravity of the world was even working. She felt her horse slipping out from under her. He continued galloping on, even as she herself wasn’t with him. She watched in slow increments as she inched towards the earth.
When she hit the ground time started once again. The air left her lungs. Her body jolted hard, bouncing once before coming to rest on the ground. Pain shot through her back and limbs. She sat there for a few long seconds before she could actually breathe once more. Regina stared up at the sky, anger flowing through her veins. How could she have been so stupid? She was literally an inch from the first victory, but here she was on the ground instead of in the winner’s circle. How the hell was she supposed to rescue Emma from terrible marrying prospects if she didn’t actually win? She would have to get full marks on each of the next two parts of the tournament in order to guarantee her win. She thought she could do it. Archery wasn’t her strong point, but she was comfortable enough. If need be she could always enchant the arrows to hit the middle of the target if she was having an off day. She wasn’t going to be deterred by anyone of anything.
Regina finally pulled herself off of the ground just as a few fumbling fools started to get up to help her. She nodded at the other rider before stomping away. She needed to be alone for just a few seconds before she had to put up with the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony that was going to honor the top two winners. She hadn’t won anything, not in her mind. If she kept getting second she wasn’t going to accomplish her goal.
Once outside the arena she took a few deep breaths and leaned against her horse. He whickered softly at her and tried to turn to nudge her comfortingly, but he couldn’t quite reach her. Regina extended a hand and scratched his nose. The competition was only a third over, she could do it. She could still do it. But all her brain wanted to scream at her about was the fact that she had failed.
She took another few deep breaths and was able to push her negative thoughts away from her mind. She would deal with those later, long after this tournament ended. She had no room for doubts right now. She would do it. She would win. And that was that.
Regina walked back into the arena just as they put the finishing touches on the two tiered podium. Her opponent proudly leaped upon the top level. Regina continued at a more sedate pace and settled herself on top of the second tier. She could feel the eyes of the other eight competitors behind her, glaring at her through the armor she wore.
“To the winner of the jousting competition, Lord Gwaine, ten points will be awarded to his score for the competition. To the Black Night eight points will be awarded.” The King came over and shook both of the top two competitors hands before moving away once again. “The rest of you will be assigned points from zero to seven points according to your place.” He nodded at the group.
The Queen came forward in their viewing box. The crowd, which had been mumbling slightly at the point assignment scheme fell completely silent once again. “The archery competition will begin tomorrow after breakfast. It will feature two rounds, one shooting at a stationary target and one shooting from the back of a horse while riding through an obstacle course.”
The King appeared at the Queen’s side once more and grabbed her hand. They both turned to each other for a few seconds, smiling. They turned back to the crowd and spoke together.
“For now, rest, and may the best man prevail tomorrow.” They both nodded and stepped back.
The crowd erupted into clapping and talking. Regina hopped down from the raised pedestal and fought the urge to shake her head. The two of them were always prone to showmanship. She glanced behind her to see Emma scurrying down from the viewing box and striding off towards the palace like she had somewhere more important to be and this had just been a waste of her time. She wasn’t quite pulling it off, but it was much improved from the running she had done just a month before.
Regina sighed and made her own way back to the palace, making sure the Princess had a good lead on her. She was sure that she would be questioned by the girl if she saw Regina anywhere near her. After all, what was a Dark Kingdom emissary doing here in the White Kingdom? Her mother absolutely abhorred the two lovesick twits. No, she couldn’t have any questions. She was sure that she could disguise her voice well enough that Emma wouldn’t know it was her, but she wasn’t going to risk it.
Once inside her room she stripped off her armor and cleaned herself up magically. She healed herself as best as she could, but healing magic wasn’t natural to her and she could only displace so much magical energy in her body before something else was damaged and caused her more pain. She fell into bed and was asleep before her head hit the pillow. Dreams plagued her all night of her fall from the horse and her failure of the Princess. She had to win Emma’s hand if it was the last thing she did. She tossed and turned until morning’s first light.