Regina walked down the hall, armor clanking gently. Sweat poured down her back. She hated summer. Wearing a metal can wasn’t exactly cool, even with the few subtle enchantments she’d put on her armor to keep her as cool as possible.
She slipped into the council chamber, tapping the guard on the shoulder that she was to relieve. He shot her a grateful smile and scurried out of the room. Regina tried not to roll her eyes. Half the guards here weren’t worth anything. They could barely defend themselves let alone anyone else and forget about acting in a decorous manner even while on shift. Her mother had been right about the White kingdom taking in strays, but that also meant they’d taken her in when she needed it. So she supposed she couldn’t complain.
Regina surveyed the room carefully. Old noblemen surrounded the King and Queen, blathering on about this and that. She’d heard it all before years ago. None of them were a physical threat to the King and Queen so she relaxed just slightly. She set her face in her typical indifferent mask and scanned the room every few minutes while her mind wandered elsewhere.
Two hours later even Regina’s limit of boredom was being tested. Usually there was some random happening in the kingdom that drew her interest, but this meeting was all talk of the princess and suitors and who was best for her to marry. They needed someone who was noble and could defend the kingdom, but perhaps a prince from another kingdom was too much. They needed to concentrate on their own kingdom, not have interests split between two. Regina rolled her eyes. Of course they needed to concentrate on their own kingdom. Snow White had practically driven the kingdom into the ground financially with her overly compassionate ways.
That idiot princess wasn’t going to be able to fix it either. Regina felt her face shift into a scowl. Stupid girl always made her job that much harder, running off or insisting that she had to go out at a moment’s notice to ride around the countryside. Didn’t the idiot know that there were people that would gladly kill her so they could take her parent’s throne more easily? Of course not, that would take brain power.
So Regina tuned out yet again and tried to find something else to occupy her mind. Hopefully the meeting would end soon so she could at least walk around with the King and Queen while they attended to their business for the day. At least that would give her feet a slight break. Metal shoes were not exactly the height of comfort. There were some things about her old life that she missed, and comfortable shoes were definitely one of them.
The meeting ended an hour later and the King and Queen swept out of the room. Regina followed at a respectful pace behind them, thanking the gods for the change in pace.
The captain of the guard came up to her a few days later. Regina cocked an eyebrow and waited for the man, just a step up from a wolf, to gather his wits to speak. Everyone in this guard was slow, she was sure of it.
“Regina, the King and Queen are assigning more guards to the Princess on a permanent basis since suitors will be arriving soon.”
Regina hoped and prayed he wasn’t saying what she thought he was. There was no way she could guard the princess every single day and not kill her. She was much too foolish not to drawl Regina’s ire. She knew what being a princess took and the girl did not have it in her. She liked her job now, filling in in the blank spaces in the guard. She changed places frequently, if not every day. It kept her sharp and kept her from biting people’s heads off. All she had to do was think that she wouldn’t be there the next day and she could manage to hold her tongue. A permanent assignment was the opposite of that.
“You’re one of my best, so I’m assigning you to one of the new spots.”
Regina could scream. Of course. She had a slew of expletives ready.
“It would be my honor,” was what came out instead.
Graham nodded. “Good. Your shift starts tomorrow at dawn and ends at sunset.”
“I’ll be there.” Regina turned on her heel and fled towards her bunk. No, she couldn’t be stuck on night shift. Of course she had to be on the shift where the pretty little princess was going to want to go on one of her little adventures every other day. When she finally entered her small room she threw a fireball at the stone wall.
As it fizzled out on the stone she felt slightly better. Slightly. She sighed heavily and started to remove her armor. She threw her sword on her bed for later. Cleaning her sword, the blade she’d named Noir long ago, cleared her mind and relaxed her. With the last of her armor kicked off she stood and took a few deep breaths, feeling cool for the first time all day. She desperately needed a bath, but she’d attend to that later. She sat on bed and unsheathed her sword and grabbed her cleaning cloth.
The blade already shone from the attention she gave it. It was the only thing that was truly hers in this life, the only thing that had come with her from her old life. The black blade acted like a mirror it was so polished, but still Regina started polishing it again. She’d have to sharpen it again soon, the edge felt slightly dull from the practice fields, but that could still wait a few days. Leave it for a day when the princess inevitably pissed her off beyond all reason. She’d need a consuming task so she didn’t kill something.
Regina sheathed her sword again when she was done. Her mind felt clearer, at least marginally so. She’d survived much worse than guarding a thoughtless, stubborn princess. She could survive this for however long was necessary. She had survived her mother for eighteen years with her only solace being sword and riding lessons. This would be a walk in the park comparatively. It would all be over after the princess found a good match and married. Then she could ask to be switched back into the rotating order and no one would deem her unworthy. And knowing how quickly royal match making went, she’d be free again before month’s end.
The thought comforted Regina enough for her to slip into a restful sleep.
The first crow of the rooster woke her. She pulled herself out of bed and quickly got ready for the day. No matter how much she was not looking forward to this post, it wouldn’t do to be late to a day of protecting the crown princess. When her last piece of armor was in place and Noir secured to her hip she strode from the room and made for the princess’s chambers. She wouldn’t be out of bed until the sun was much farther in the sky. She’d have a least a few hours of peace and quiet to prepare herself for the day, thank the gods.
She relieved one of the other guards who shot her a tired smile and walked off. At least he hadn’t been gleeful about being relieved of his post. Regina always did hate when they almost did a little dance after being relieved of their post. It should be an honor to them, not some kind of burden to be joyful about getting rid of, to serve their King and Queen.
Regina shook her head and stood by the doors to the princess’s rooms, quickly falling into her normal demeanor while she was on duty. An hour later a handmaid approached the doors. Regina gave her a once over quickly but carefully. She’d seen the girl before around Emma, so she allowed her in without a fuss once she saw no weapons hidden on her person. People thought there were prime spaces on a body to hide weapons, in the curve of their back, strapped to their legs, but they were all obvious if you had had any experience protecting someone. The girl nodded at the guards before pushing into the room.
An hour later a still yawning princess was ushered out of her rooms.
“Why do I have to be up this early?” the girl whined.
Regina had to suppress the urge to roll her eyes. The girl didn’t know what early was.
“Because your parents have invited a suitor to visit you today. I’ve already told you this three times, your highness. Is your memory alright?”
Princess Emma rolled her eyes. “It’s fine, Ruby, and you know it. Just. Suitors. Before noon. Not sure I can do it.”
Ruby didn’t say anything but tugged the princess down the hall gently. Regina sighed and followed. She was sure that whatever man had come to court the princess would spout so many sickly sweet comments that it would make her sick.
Regina entered one of the many parlors and surveyed the room quickly. A man stood at the window, bedecked in all sorts of finery, clothes screaming wealth, sword at his hip, but the scabbard and hilt had no marks on it so Regina deduced it was more for ceremony than actual use. An old matron sat in a seat in the corner for propriety’s sake, but since the woman was about two minutes from falling asleep Regina wasn’t quite sure how guarded propriety would really be. These meetings were exactly as Regina remembered them.
She found her place along the wall and set to steadfastly trying not to snort every time the git in front of her quoted a line that was so contrived anyone with a brain could see through his advances.
“Why, Princess, you look stunning today.” The man bowed, taking the Princess’s hand and kissing it. “I’m Lord Marberry, at your service.”
The Princess drew back her hand as soon as was proper. “I’m well aware of who you are Lord Marberry. You’ve made quite the name for yourself at court.”
“All good things I hope.” His face broke into a roguish smile.
Regina had to hold back a snort. Even she had heard of the cocky air head in front of her. People with good reputations didn’t attract the gossip of the guards. They tended to like more…improper gossip.
“I suppose if your version of good is that you’re very friendly with all manner of ladies, then yes it’s all good.”
The man paled. “Princess, those rumors are untrue. I am nothing but a gentleman.”
The princess pinned him with a skeptical look, but continued on. “So you’ve come to seek my hand.”
“Indeed I have. You’re the most beautiful woman in the land. When your parents sent a summons out to the nobility of the land for eligible suitors I was overly delighted.”
“Ah, I’m pretty and that’s why you seek my hand. Of course.”
The man started to sputter, “But, that’s not all your Highness. There’s also, um…”
The Princess rolled her eyes. “I think that’s quite enough, your Lordship. It was a pleasure meeting you.” She turned to exit the room.
“You would be lucky to have such a man as me!” His hand twitched to his sword.
Regina was in front of him in a second, eyebrow cocked, daring him to make the next move. His hand stilled almost immediately, but the look of anger on his face remained.
“We all know how you are in the outer reaches of the kingdom. You’re barely worthy of being called a Princess. You surely act nothing like it. You aren’t fit to run the kingdom. I am! You should marry me so this kingdom has a fighting chance.”
Regina took a step forward. “Lord Marberry, we’re all entitled to our opinions, but I do believe you should hold your tongue before it gets way from you. You verge on treason.” Not that she didn’t agree that the princess was not fit to run the kingdom, but such statements were not allowed. Besides, this prat was not fit to run anything either, even less so than the princess.
Lord Marberry stepped back and bowed his head. “Excuse me, my temper gets the best of me at points.”
Regina nodded her head and turned to find the princess, but she was nowhere to be found. She sighed heavily and hurried to the door. It wouldn’t do to lose the princess on her first day. Of course she had to run like a small child. The girl really did need to learn how to take an insult.
She made her way down the halls, asking other posted guards which way the princess had gone along her way. Regina ended up in the gardens just as she saw a flash of golden hair disappear into the woods on the edge of the property. She rolled her eyes and broke into a jog. Gods only knew what kind of trouble the girl could get into in those woods. She would probably find a bear or worse and get eaten. That was just what Regina needed.
Regina caught up with her easily. Dresses were not fit for a walk in the woods and the skirt got caught on a branch every few steps. Regina stepped up and freed her dress from a particularly eager branch. The princess turned around and glared at her.
“I do not need your help. I do not need to be babysat.”
Regina couldn’t hold back a snort this time. “Of course not, your highness. I forgot that you had the training, not to mention the weapons to fend off one of the many assassins who would love to see your lifeless body on the ground, forgive me.”
The princess stepped forward. “I could have you killed for saying such words to me.”
“I’m only trying to do my job, which you make incredibly difficult running off into the woods. You should realize by now that as the only heir to your parent’s throne you need to be extremely careful with running off unescorted. Someone kills you they could have your parent’s crown easily.”
“You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t know that they’re trying to marry me off to someone who will help save the kingdom from financial ruin? You think I don’t know I’m just some sick sort of show pony? Do you think I want to be a pretty face while someone else does the job I was raised for because of course no man in this kingdom sees me as an equal?”
Regina stepped forward. She was only a few inches from the princess at this point. “Then you have to make them see you as an equal. And this,” She gestured around the woods around them. “does not make you seem like an equal. It makes you seem like a weak woman who cannot take an insult. Lord Marberry has any number of weak points that you could have used to strike back and put in his place, bring up the illegitimate children he has and he would have been putty in your hands. But no, you ran. Politics means being one step ahead of everyone else, Princess, and being good at politics is the only way they’ll see you as anything more than a weak little girl.”
She stepped back. “And now you will get back to the palace and make it seem like you never went on this little adventure and that Lord Marberry was not worth your time and that’s why you left so quickly.” She motioned for the princess to go in front of her.
The princess just glared at her. “You aren’t the boss of me.”
“Until you actually decide to take command, what’s stopping me?”
“You think you know everything, don’t you?”
“Well, I certainly know more than you at this point. That job you’ve been ‘raised for your whole life,’ well princess you’re not very good at it.
The princess stepped into her personal space again. “One word from me and you’re dead. Why aren’t you afraid?”
Regina just smiled. “Death is only a motivator for those who fear it. I haven’t feared death for a long time. Besides, Princess, the only one of us who is in real danger of being killed is you and I’m the only one standing between you and the arrow destined for your heart. I’m the best guard here, you might want to keep that in mind.”
The Princess continued to glare but stepped back and stalked towards the palace. Regina smiled and walked behind her. Well, perhaps this assignment would not be too horrendous. She could get used to arguing with the Princess and winning.
Regina barely saw the Princess for the next three days. Uncharacteristically she stayed in her room for most of the day only coming out for meals. Regina was delighted. Her job was so much easier when she didn’t have to go running through the woods after an idiotic child. It was worth the death glares that the Princess sent her ten times over.
But then her relatively easy job was interrupted by a visit from another suitor. It annoyed Regina to no end to have to sit through the meetings, but at least if the Princess was trapped in the jaws of some equally idiotic man then it was almost the same outcome, just with more hot air. So she walked behind the Princess and her handmaid to another one of the many parlors and took up her position without too much inner complaining.
Regina looked over the man in the room and almost had to hold back a snarl of disgust. He was an old man, easily old enough to be the Princess’s father, maybe even grandfather. How nobility ever thought it was acceptable to marry a girl to an old man she would never understand. It was sickening.
“Ah, Princess, you’re as beautiful as they say. The last time I saw you, you were but a girl.” The man bowed as deeply as possible, which wasn’t much. He moved as stiffly as a man made from stone.
“Earl Grandower, how pleased I am to see you again.” The Princess’s tone was cool and detached. She glanced down at the man like he was so far below her he didn’t really merit notice.
Regina looked her over. Her posture was straight. Her attitude was much better this time around. Perhaps the girl had listened after all. If she didn’t lose her head halfway through, she might make it through this alive.
“How are your parents? I must say I was surprised when they sent out their summons for suitors. I quite thought that they would let you marry on your own terms.”
The Princess walked over to the window, steps slow and controlled. “That makes two of us, my lord. But needs of the kingdom must be put before my own in this case.” The Princess turned around and swept her eyes up and down the Earl significantly. “Not all choice is lost to me at this juncture. There is still a silver lining.”
“Right, right, there always is in these types of situations. I did come to quite love my wife, gods rest her soul.”
“I remember her, lovely woman. I would have loved to get to know her better. Perhaps in another life she could have become like a second mother to me.”
Regina had to stop her eyes from rising to her hairline. My, my, the Princess had taken her lecture to heart. She was playing this game much, much better this time.
“I’m sure she would have loved to be so close to you, Princess.”
The Princess nodded slightly. “How are your other children? I heard your oldest just had a child of his own. It’s always lovely to see a loyal noble line continue on into the new generations. The old guard is valuable of course, but I shall need the younger generations to help me make this kingdom as great as it should be.”
Bringing up his age, his wife, and family in rapid succession, Regina had to admit she was impressed. Those were his biggest weaknesses in this suit, most assuredly, but of course the most obvious. But for only having just started this was quite good progress. Perhaps she wasn’t quite as stupid as Regina had thought.
“Ah, but age and wisdom have their own benefit.”
Emma’s cool gaze met the Earl’s. “Perhaps, but someone thought it was wise to spend almost all of the kingdom’s gold on a war we could not win and then spend the rest on too much aid to the peasants, and that most assuredly wasn’t the younger generation fault. We were small children at best, most of use weren’t even born when those decisions were made. And it’s been quite a few years, but the problem is not fixed. The only new ideas I’ve heard come from the young. The old guard are content to sit back and let the problem fix itself, but that is no way to rule.”
Regina knew enough about the kingdom’s politics to know that years ago the Earl had been on the war council that had advocated the war against the Maratinia kingdom. The guards still talked about the war and those who advocated for it. So many people had been slaughtered that anyone involved had been disgraced. The King and Queen had had to dismiss the entire war council for fear of revolt. What they were thinking going to war against a kingdom that not only allowed the use of magic but whose soldiers could turn to mermen as soon as they hit water was beyond her.
“All of the fixes they propose are preposterous. They are not worth trying.”
“Are you saying that you would rather keep the kingdom in abject poverty than try something new? No solution is foolproof, but fixes can be made. Flexibility is quite the virtue when running a kingdom.” The Princess walked to one of the trays of baked goods and picked off a scone casually. “But then perhaps that isn’t obvious to the older generation. They are quite stuck in their ways.”
Regina saw the instant the moment realized that he might have met his match in a twenty year old girl. His face started to turn an interesting shade of red and he stepped back from the Princess. The girl for her part took a dainty bite of her scone, looking as innocent as can be.
The man sunk down in one of the chairs. “So tell me of your parents. It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen them.”
From then on the conversation stayed to safe topics, mainly the King and Queen. He made no move to steer the conversation back to the Princess’s eligibility for marriage. Regina had to admit he was one of the easier men for her to dodge, the age gap was a formidable opponent, at least in this case. Regina was quite sure Emma’s parents would not foist someone so old on her. They generally tended to try and be as good as their name implied, but still letting a suitor down gently was key to keeping allies in the long run.
She swallowed hard. If only her own mother had been so understanding. Her fists tightened at her sides. She would not think of this now. On the job was no place for personal thoughts.
When the Princess finally said her goodbyes an hour later, Regina followed behind at her at her normal interval. The door to the parlor shut behind her, obscuring the defeated man’s face. She didn’t know what had possessed him to even try to court someone who could be his youngest daughter. Nobility. She rolled her eyes.
Regina caught the tail end of the Princess’s dress flitting through a doorway that Regina knew wasn’t there normally. She made for the door but it shut in her face. She wanted to scream. The idiot had been doing so well, but she couldn’t just keep it together for a few more minutes. It seems the politics lecture had taken root but gods forbid the safety lecture actually get through her thick skull.
She searched the wall for a switch or anything that would open the door again so she could track the Princess but found none. For the Gods’ sake there had to be a way to open it somewhere, but she did not have time for this. She resisted the urge to kick the wall and scream. She was going to document every single secret passage after this. For now, she had to find the Princess. Then she was going to scream until she thought the stupid girl actually got it through her head that she couldn’t just run off like this.
She had one sure fire way to find the girl, but it was risky. At this point, she’d have to take it, though. Regina’s eyes darted up and down the hall. No one was coming or going, but it was better to find somewhere more secluded.
Regina dashed down the hall until she found one of the many hidden alcoves that dotted the castle. She took a few deep breaths and cleared her mind. She had to be completely focused for this. She pulled out her sword, letting the light catch it so it reflected her face clearly. Regina closed her eyes, still keeping one ear out for footsteps. If anyone caught her she would be dead before morning.
An image of the Princess filled her mind as she channeled her energy towards her sword. The sword started to glow under her hand as Regina blinked her eyes open. For a minute all she saw was golden light but finally the image resolved into the Princess sitting on the edge of a fountain trailing her hand through the water gently. Regina looked over the fountain carefully. It looked familiar, but not overly so. It couldn’t have been in the gardens proper. She made her rounds through there often enough that she knew every nook and cranny of the place.
Regina cocked her head to the side. There was only one area of the garden that wasn’t patrolled. The Princess’s garden was at the center of the garden complex, surrounded by a high fence covered in ivy and flowers. She had been in there only a handful of times the other times she was guarding the Princess. That’s where she had to be.
Her sword stopped glowing as she put it back into her scabbard. She set off quickly. The Princess was not in danger in the middle of the garden patrolled by a legion of guards, but if the idiot decided to go anywhere else she needed to be nearby.
Regina made good time into the gardens and rushed to the middle. She came to the gate, still locked by a padlock that only the Princess had a key. She scowled. The secret passage had to have lead into the garden itself then. A good fact to know for later, but for now quite irritating.
Again Regina glanced around and saw no one. She waved her hand over the lock quickly. It unlocked easily and she quickly slipped the lock off and opened the gate to the garden. She set the lock on the inside of the wall and set off towards the center of the garden.
Regina looked around. She could see why the Princess would come here. It truly was beautiful and if the girl had only waited for her she would have been perfectly agreeable to escort her here and let her be for a little while, but of course that was the sensible thing to do so of course it didn’t happen. Regina let out an aggravated breath and stalked forward.
The Princess was exactly where Regina had seen her. She glanced up at Regina but didn’t say anything, just kept trailing her hands through the water listlessly. Regina took up position right in front of her, hands on her hips.
“Princess, I do not like having to repeat myself, but it seems I must for you must be quite dense. You cannot run off without me. Ever. Or at least one of the other guards if you do not want me.”
“I didn’t run off into the woods. I came to someplace safe,” the Princess interjected.
“You do not know that this place is safe. You never know if a place is safe until you’re there. Just because this is in the middle of the palace gardens and locked tight doesn’t mean that it’s safe. If someone wants in here there are ways.” She would know. She had gotten in here quite easily.
“In fact, this would be a perfect place to hide if someone wanted to assassinate you. It’s isolated, you’re the only one who comes here with maybe one or two guards. Were in not for the fact that it’s in the middle of the palace grounds this would be the most dangerous place for you to be.”
The Princess deflated. “I just needed to be alone.”
“You don’t get to be truly alone, Princess. No one of royal birth ever does. That being said I could have given you the space you needed. This garden isn’t that small that I couldn’t have found a place to stand where I could have been at a good distance to protect you but still not have been in sight. That’s as alone as you’ll ever get. Get used to it, it will only get worse when you’re Queen.”
“I didn’t ask for this.”
Regina laughed. “No one ever asks for the station they were born into, but you just have to suck it up and deal with it the best way you can.” Regina sighed heavily and looked at the girl. She looked utterly defeated. Regina sat down beside her on the edge of the fountain.
“You were doing so well, Princess. You were defending yourself using his political downfalls. You were playing the game wonderfully. For only a few days’ time your improvement was remarkable. I could believe that you’ve been trained to be Queen since you were born. Granted, you still need much more practice, you only saw the most obvious things, but you have time to come to grasp the subtleties. You held yourself as the young royal you are, that was the most important part.” Regina turned to look at the Princess in the eyes. “But you threw that away the second you decided to run from me again, then you became no more than a child again. And children do not live in this game very wrong.”
The Princess looked at her, eyes widening slightly. “You really think I did ok in there?”
Regina nodded. “You acted like a true Princess who knew the ins and outs of politics.” She paused. “Until you decided to run here.” She motioned around the garden.
The girl swallowed. “Yeah.”
“I know this isn’t what you want, having old men trying to force themselves on you, but unless you want to end up marrying one of them, you have to get better at this game. You cannot run. They will eat you alive. They will go above your head, tell your parents you’re a foolish girl who can’t decide what’s good for the kingdom and suddenly your husband will be as old as your father. You play the game to shut them down cold. You play the game so you can choose the least offensive option and you have a shot at happiness. Or you end up miserable.” Regina stood and started walking towards the gates. “Or worse.”
She felt the Princess stand behind her and follow her out of the gardens without her having to say a word. Regina bit the inside of her lip. Perhaps the girl wasn’t quite as annoying as she had first thought. There were quite a few parallels between the Princess’s life with her own life. She glanced over her shoulder and the downturned head of blonde curls. Regina swallowed, she was doing what she could to help the girl, she assured herself. The rest was up to her. She couldn’t protect her forever. She had been coddled until it was too late and that hadn’t gone well at all.
By the time she locked the gate behind them, the Princess was composed again, head held high, serene expression firmly in place. Regina glanced at her and nodded slightly. That was exactly what she needed to do. The slight spark of warmth in the girl’s eyes baffled her, but she brushed it off and headed for the palace.
A week passed by. The Princess seemed to heed her advice, always consulting with her guards before going places, even if it was still more spur of the moment than Regina would like, the girl was trying. The glares thrown her way had shifted into unreadable looks. Regina wasn’t quite sure what in the world her looks could mean, but as long as the Princess wasn’t running off to get herself killed, she didn’t quite care too much.
Ruby walked into the room where the Princess was reading, curled up in a window seats in one of the sitting rooms. Regina read the stiffening of her posture easily. Ruby was the girl’s friend, but rarely showed up in the middle of the day just to talk. The handmaid had other duties to tend to during the day. So when she showed up while the sun was still above the horizon, it was usually to fetch the Princess for something the girl wasn’t particularly fond of. Suitors meetings seemed to be the only thing she was fetched for anymore. There had been three more within the week that had passed. She had beaten them off effectively, if a little heavy handed, just as Regina had suggested.
“There’s another suitor to meet you, your highness,” Ruby said.
Emma sighed and closed her book. “Of course there is. They seem to be coming out of the walls like common vermin anymore.”
“Oh, but this one is handsome.”
Emma leveled her with a look. “So were two of the last three, but they were absolute gits.”
Ruby shook her head. “This one is different, trust me, Princess. Just meet him, you’ll see.”
“Since I have no choice in meeting him, yes I suppose I will.”
Emma stood and strode from the room, Ruby running to catch up and lead the way. Regina followed after. She had no illusions that the man the Princess was no different than the others, except maybe a better actor. She wondered if the Princess would see through the façade or not.
The parlor Regina had stood in for many hours this week looked exactly the same. The prospective suitor popped up from the couch as soon as the Princess entered the room, a light blush coloring his face for being caught unaware. Regina’s eyes flicked up and down, appraising. He was in no way a threat; he didn’t even wear a sword and there were no outlines of hidden weapons anywhere. She did have to admit he was quite attractive, if pretty boys were your thing.
Regina glanced over at the Princess, who was quite obviously taking him in and enjoying the view. The knight had to stop herself from snorting. Of course the Princess liked pretty boys. Princesses were always supposed to go for the pretty, charming ones.
“Princess,” the man bowed. “I’m so glad you decided to grace me with your presence. I know I showed up on quite short notice, but I wasn’t even aware I was making this journey until a few days ago.”
“It is no problem. I’m seeing quite a few suitors, one more is of no consequence.” Emma looked him up and down once more. “But I do not recognize you. I haven’t seen you around court it seems.”
The man shook his head. “You wouldn’t have. My father, Viscount Weschecer, and my older brother were the ones who frequented court while I stayed at home and made sure our affairs stayed in order.” The man swallowed hard.
“What brings you to court now? Your father and older brother have no interest in the courting of a princess?”
“They would were they alive, your highness. But they died a week ago in a carriage accident.”
The Princess took a dainty step back, mask slipping for just a moment to reveal shock. “I’m sorry to hear that, my lord. I offer my condolences though I know they mean little.”
The man nodded. “Thank you, your highness. They mean more than those who have come before you.”
“Please, sit.” The Princess motioned to one of the couches and the Viscount sank down immediately and Emma took a chair near to him.
“I only resolved to go on this trip because it was the only way the advisors would let me leave our provinces so soon. But I found that I needed a chance to breathe before assuming all of their duties, some time to grieve, if you will. It served as an easy excuse to go amongst the people I preside over and see what I could do to improve their condition. The advisors don’t look too kindly on such ideas. Since I wasn’t raised as the heir they say I have no idea what the province needs and are trying to plow right over me, but the peasants don’t deserve that. I wasn’t quite in the state of mind to fight when I left, but I find I feel better now that I’ve had time to absorb everything. Being in your presence doesn’t hurt, your highness.” He smiled shyly.
Regina could see that the girl was utterly taken with that line of drivel. She rolled her eyes since no one was watching. Yes, he was obviously such a sensitive soul who just wanted to help the peasants and deal with his family member’s deaths. No ulterior motive at all. Still, out of all the suitors this one seemed to have the most promise, drivel or not, the Princess seemed to actually be intrigued.
The Princess blushed lightly. “I’m glad you’re feeling better after such a terrible tragedy. The peasants really do need us to fight for them. There are quite a few things that need to be changed in this kingdom regarding their treatment.”
The Viscount lit up. “I see I have a kindred political soul.”
“Indeed you have. My parents are wise people, but not always so wise politically. I seek to strengthen our rule while strengthening our kingdom. They are not two mutually exclusive things.”
“So I believe as well.”
The Princess smiled. “So, Viscount Weschecer, perhaps you should tell me a bit more about yourself?”
The man returned the smile. “It would be my honor.”
Regina held back a snort and tuned out. She did not need to listen to such mindless flirting. So the Princess had finally found herself a husband it seemed. At least she could be on her way back to her regular rotating job soon. Her eyes tracked over to the girl.
But perhaps maybe she didn’t want to go back now.
“Would you like to go riding?” The Princess asked later, the sun high in the sky.
Regina perked up once again, actually listening to the conversation again for the first time in hours. The Princess looked at her with questioning eyes. Regina nodded, held up a hand to indicate for her to wait for just a moment, and started to walk out of the room. Before she exited, though, she managed to catch the Viscount’s reply.
“I-I, um, that would be lovely,” came his halting reply.
The corners of Regina mouth turned up slightly. Well, that was the most hesitant she’d heard the man all day. She wondered exactly what that was about as the door to the parlor shut behind her.
Once in the hall she grabbed the other guard assigned to the Princess, and another random guard from the hall just to be sure the Princess and her suitor would be adequately protected. She caught a page on the way by and told him to run to the stables so all of their horses would be ready when they made their way down. With that done she returned to the interior of the parlor and nodded once more at the Princess.
She smiled at the guard before turning back to her new little crush and hopping from her seat. “The trails around here are excellent for riding. It’s one of my favorite things to do when I need to get away from the idiocies of court.” The Princess was glowing from all the positive attention she’d received from the Viscount.
The man himself looked quite pale all of a sudden. “So I’ve heard. My father and brother used to talk of the trails they visited when on their stays here, but I’ve never been myself.”
The Princess grabbed the man’s hand. “Come then, my lord, it’s time you saw them for yourself.”
“As my Princess bids.” He gave her a strained smile.
The girl for her part didn’t seem to see the man’s discomfort, but instead shot off down the hall, Regina following at a much more sedate pace. The knight had a feeling that this was going to be an interesting afternoon.
Their horses were already saddled and waiting, held by a few stable boys. The site of their hay covered clothing and ruddy cheeks sent a pang through Regina every time, but she had learned not to show it. She took the reins from the boy holding her horse instead and dismissed him brusquely. Regina swung up on her horse easily, petting the animal’s neck and saying hello. The beast under her wasn’t Rocinante, but he was still a lovely animal who Regina had become very fond.
The Princess quickly slipped off and changed in a side room of the stables into a riding outfit. She kept a couple changes of spare riding clothes there just for occasions like this when she wanted to shoot off into the forest at a moment’s notice.
Regina, for her part sat, patiently waiting. The Viscount, however, seemed to get greener by the second. Regina looked him up and down quickly, assessing his posture. He was much too stiff, sitting completely straight on the horse, reins gripped tightly in his hands. He was lucky that the stable hands had given him one of the gentler horses that the palace had. Any of the fierier mounts and he would’ve already have shot off into the woods without his conscious command or bucked off before they even started. It was extremely clear that the man had rarely, if ever, been on a horse. Oh, this was going to be delicious indeed.
The Princess emerged from the stables smiling brightly, dressing in tan riding pants and a deep green riding coat that set off her eyes. Regina thought the ensemble looked quite fetching on her. She shook her head, that was not a thought to be having at the moment.
The girl swung up on her horse easily and looked over at the Viscount, who had managed to loosen up some when the Princess had emerged from the stables. The man smiled weakly and nodded. With that the girl clicked her tongue and tapped her heels against her horse’s sides and the white mount took off at a trot.
Regina and the other guards hung back. She took the point of their formation with the other two guards behind her, riding easily, armor clanking as they clopped along. Regina idly wondered just which of the trails the Princess was going to take them down. Most of the trails were easy, mostly used for their beautiful scenery more than their difficulty. She supposed that the man would make it through such trails, if only barely, and hardly able to walk afterwards. Regina would pay to see the man walking around bow legged and saddle-sore. Then again she wasn’t going to have to pay for the pleasure, in fact she was getting paid to watch. Sometimes life was lovely in its little victories.
Though, if the Princess took them down one of the more difficult trails the man would be unseated easily. From her few times riding with the Princess she knew that the girl preferred the harder trails. Hardly anyone was ever on them, the visitors to the palace sticking to the more scenic ones. Regina didn’t know what she wanted to see more, a humiliated man on the ground exposed for a fraud, or the man walking around saddle-sore. Probably the first one.
As her horse turned to follow the Princess’s, Regina smiled widely. She knew the exact trail they were heading for now. It was the only one this way and one of the most difficult at that. She was going to get her wish indeed.
Up ahead the Princess chatted with the Viscount easily, the girl hardly paid attention to where she was going, but she barely needed to, her horse knew the way already. The man had relaxed just a little more as the Princess started to talk to him again, taking his mind off the steed below him. But as the trees started to close in on them once they had entered the trail proper some of the tension that had left seemed to seep in again.
The trail was narrow, only allowing two horses at a time through and that was only if you were very comfortable riding within less than two feet of the rider beside you. Branches seemed to be down all over the place from the latest storm. She heard the Princess remark about how the palace gardeners usually attended to this trail last after a storm as it was the least frequented. The horses had no problem picking their way through, though, since none of the branches were very large.
They rode for two hours, hitting the halfway point of the trail and circling back slowly towards the palace. Regina had to hand it to the man, he was determined. A few close calls to slipping off his horse as they went up and down hills was all that he had. She had seen the Princess’s eyes track up and down the man at each and every slip up, though, brow scrunching. Regina was sure there was something else behind her eyes besides just dismay that a nobleman couldn’t ride excellently. Perhaps he had lied to her while they were conversing in the parlor about loving riding while Regina hadn’t been listening. It hadn’t been the first time a man had lied to a pretty woman.
The Viscount could have passed it off as just a bad day until just a little before three fourths of the way up the trail there was a tree across the trail too large for the horses to just walk over. The man halted, hands twitching to pull the reins and turn around to go back the way they came. The Princess for her part lit up at the challenge in her path. She gripped her reins slightly tighter and turned towards the man.
“It seems like we get to have a little bit of real fun today.”
The man’s face scrunched, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s nothing better than a jump or two to really make a ride fun.” The Princess smiled.
“You mean to jump over that?” The Viscount’s eyes widened.
“Well, of course, what else would I do?”
“Go back the way we came?”
The Princess rolled her eyes. “That would be idiotic. Besides, if we did that we wouldn’t get home until sunset or later.” She turned towards the tree and stroked her horse’s neck fondly for a few seconds, whispering the plan to the animal who whickered in reply.
“But what?” The Princess turned towards him again.
“Should a lady do such a thing? What if you get hurt?”
Regina saw the ice enter the Princess’s gaze. “Why would being a lady prevent me from making such a jump? The tree is not so large, nor does it have a great many branches that the horse could get caught on. It’s perfectly fine and nothing I haven’t done before.”
“But why would a lady do such a thing? You’re quite delicate.”
The Princess’s chin rose. “I don’t think anyone has quite ever called me delicate, nor should they.”
The Princess’s heels dug into the side of her horse and it took off. A few long, fast strides and the horse was sailing over the tree easily, the Princess flying with it, golden hair flowing behind her. The two of them came down on the other side of the tree gracefully. The Princess turned around and shot the Viscount a loaded look and mock bowed on the back of her horse.
“Perhaps you would like to show me how someone not so delicate can top such a jump, Viscount Weschecer.” The Princess motioned for him to go ahead, backing her horse out of the way easily.
The man swallowed audibly. He stared at the tree for a good long time before turning to the group of guards.
“The Princess shouldn’t be unguarded. Perhaps one of you should go first.”
Regina didn’t hold in the snort that crept up from her lungs. A second later she was sailing over the tree, adrenaline spiking and a smile gracing her face. She landed a second later and rode to the Princess’s side. The girl glanced over at her a slight smile on her face.
“How delicate of you,” the Princess said, deadpan.
Regina laughed quietly. “Yes, I’d say so. This armor also compliments my delicateness. This sword as well. Really, it’s all quite dainty.”
The Princess smiled at her before turning back to watch the Viscount. He was still frozen, watching the tree like it was going to come to life and eat him alive. Minutes passed and she felt the Princess getting restless beside her. Regina felt this was an even better show than unseating himself would be. No matter what, at this point he lost even if he did manage to make the jump.
“Come now, My Lord, ‘tis but a tree. Such a big strong man should be able to clear it no problem if two delicate women can make it,” The Princess called.
A deep breath left the man as he spurred his horse forward. The horse galloped forward, sprang into the air, but the Viscount didn’t quite follow correctly. He titled sideways and fell in slow motion, landing just on the other side of the tree in a woosh of breath while his horse continued on to land easily on the other side, trotting forward a few paces before stopping and turning to look at her former rider and neighing loudly.
The man groaned and sat up stiffly, propping himself on the downed tree. The Princess rode over to him and looked down, expression fierce. The Viscount looked up at her and swallowed hard.
“That was quite a strong landing, my lord. I suppose now your tough ego will have to be taken care of, if not your manly bones. But that’s must be done by someone less delicate than I.” Her hands twitched on the reins as she leaned down just slightly. “Perhaps next time you won’t think women are so delicate. I can be your equal in politics but not physically?” Emma laughed once. “That might hold if you could perform a simple jump. Expert horsemen, yes I can see that.”
Regina could see the move coming, as Emma sat up again. Her hands pulled the reins to the left and her feet swung out just slightly. Regina mimicked the movements just a half a second behind, shooting a glare at the Viscount and motioning for the other two guards to take care of the man before she took off right behind Emma, rocketing towards the palace.
“Perhaps you’ll be able to keep up with my delicate pace!” The Princess shouted over her shoulder.
Regina caught up with the Princess easily, feeling the adrenaline flowing through her as it always did as she galloped across the land, one with the horse below her. They galloped for a long time, almost making all the way back to the palace before the Princess tugged on the reins and slowed her horse to a slow walk. Regina was a half a second behind, stopping her horse until the Princess caught up with her once again.
The horses’ sides heaved under them as they walked slowly down the path. By the time the Princess spoke the horses had caught their breath, slight coating of sweat drying on their fur. She looked over at Regina.
“You aren’t going to berate me for riding off like that?”
Regina laughed once. “Besides the fact that you ran off from me, I have no problem with your little stunt. A leader needs to be strong mentally and physically. You showed that admirably while putting down someone who doubted you and lied to you.” Regina shrugged. “I know you well enough now to know what was coming when that idiot landed hard on his pride, so no real harm done. Next time, signal to me instead of making me read your body language and everything will be perfectly fine.”
The Princess let out a heavy breath. “I think I can manage that.”
“Good.” Regina nodded.
They continued riding slowly for a little while in silence.
“Are they all going to be like this?” The Princess finally asked. “All…pompous, idiotic fops who either think women are stupid or weak or both.”
Regina looked over at the girl, eyes sweeping up and down, taking in her slumped posture and downcast eyes. “I find that there are very few truly good men who think women are people just as they, especially in the higher classes. Some of it is breeding, some of it is their own idiocy, but it leads to the same result.”
“I thought…” The Princess shook her head.
“That he was someone who you could actually tolerate getting married to?”
“He did look rather promising at first, I’ll admit. But first impressions can be wrong on further inspection.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Another heavy sigh escaped her. “I just wish I didn’t have to be subjected to this, choosing the least offensive person to marry just because our kingdom needs stability and heirs for the throne.” Her hands gripped the reins tighter. “After telling me my whole life that true love is the most powerful magic of all, my parents just expect me to drop all of their teachings and marry the first eligible bachelor in the kingdom because they are the ones who mishandled the treasury and politics of the kingdom. I know it is my duty as princess to do what is best for the kingdom, but I can’t help wanting something for myself. So little is just for me.”
“That’s the nature of the beast.”
“Everyone acts like power makes up for the fact that I can hardly ever be myself. It doesn’t. It only makes it worse.”
“It does. Everyone uses you for that power and it’s so hard to find those who won’t or at least are trying to use your power for the right reasons.” Her eyes met the Princess’s. “Let the person you marry be someone like that, Princess, and perhaps you yourself won’t be happy, but your kingdom will. It won’t be much, but it will be something.”
“I’m trying, but you’ve been there, it’s not exactly been easy.”
Regina nodded. “I know.” She broke eye contact and stared at her horse’s mane. “Just be thankful you have the opportunity to choose. Your parents might be fools who are forcing you to marry, but they are kind fools. They could have paired you with someone…more unsavory than any of the ones you’ve been so far.”
“You’re right, but it’s hard to remember when I’m being treated like the main course of a meal or like spun glass.”
She looked up at the Princess again. “You have no idea what it feels like to be eaten, not yet.” She added quietly a second later, “And never on my watch.”
The Princess cocked her head to the side, but Regina didn’t go on. There was no way that she was going to tell the girl her darkest secrets. Best that she protected the girl from repeating them and leave it at that. No one needed to know how black she had become all those years ago.
They rode the rest of the way back in silence, Regina lost in the past and the Princess looking on, concerned and confused.
Heads up for passing mentions of rape in this chapter.
Two weeks and seven more failed suitors later Regina found herself walking to the council chamber once more. The Princess slipped into the seat directly to the right of her parents and surveyed the old men in front of her with a calm, detached gaze. Regina found her place against the wall and looked at the old men with almost the same look.
Regina wasn’t exactly sure what this meeting was about. She had been too out of the loop of court politics while guarding the Princess and overseeing her visits with various suitors. Seeing as how this wasn’t the normal time that the council met and the requested presence of the Princess, it couldn’t be a regular meeting. The old buzzards who sat around the round table hardly wanted the Princess to sit in on meetings of the utmost importance, claiming that the girl was idiotic and still had much to learn before she understood court politics. The Princess herself didn’t fight it, preferring to wander outside instead of listen to idiots prattle one, and Regina didn’t fault her, but she was going to have to challenge them very soon to keep her credibility intact.
The Queen called the meeting to order and the low buzz of chatter around the table fell silent.
“Councilors,” The older woman nodded to the rest of the table. “Shall one of you state why you’ve called this meeting today and what it has to do with my daughter.” Her green eyes bored into each and every one of them.
The oldest member of the council Marquis Darringer stood stiff and bowed slightly. “Your Majesty, over a month now it has been since we urged you to have the Princess find a respectable man to marry.”
“Yes, my lord, I am well aware.” She sat up straighter and clasped her hands in front of her on the table.
“Well, a great many of us are quite worried at the lack of progress that the Princess has made in this venture. Perhaps it is time that Your Majesty intervened.”
The Queen’s brows descended just slightly into a scowl. “My lord, I have talked with my daughter after the visit and dismissal of all her suitors thus far and I agree with my daughters actions. Our kingdom has many eligible bachelors, but none of them have proved to truly be material for a future king. They are either lacking in political tact or physical strength, both most assuredly required to lead a kingdom such as ours with any degree of success. The whole purpose of this venture is to strengthen this kingdom, not weaken it because a few council members think it only takes a few days to find a suitable husband.”
A few council members grumbled at that, but the Queen quieted them with a glare.
“I will not hand my daughter over to anyone who is not worthy of her,” The King finally spoke up, meeting the eyes of everyone around the table.
“And a father’s dominion over his daughter is one of the greatest and most scared of our customs, but the kingdom will suffer more than it already has if she doesn’t marry soon.” The councilman put his hand on the chair of the man next to him to help support him.
“And as my wife has said, it will suffer more if she rushes into things. She is a reasonable girl who has great visions for our kingdom’s future. Let her find the person who is right for the job and our kingdom will be better than it has in many lifetimes. Rush her and we could end up worse than the Dark Kingdom.”
Everyone in the room shivered just a little bit, save Regina. She still found it just a little amusing, the reactions her homeland garnered. Regina’s eyes tracked over to the Princess again. She was sitting, still as a mouse, hands clutched in her dress so hard that her knuckles were white. A strange feeling overtook Regina. She wanted to go over to the girl and comfort her.
“Be that as it may, Your Majesty, there are more than a few kingdoms prowling around our border just waiting for the wrong move to be made. The sooner your daughter is married with an heir on the way, the more secure we will all be.”
The Princess glanced up at that, glaring at the old man for all she was worth. Regina knew the feeling, resenting just being used as a broodmare. They both were so much more than that, but old dotty men did not see that.
“The wrong man and the kingdom will be taken over sooner than we can blink, my lord.” The Queen unclasped her hands and sat forward. “I do not understand why you fail to see this point. You are a wise man. You have dealt with politics of this delicate nature a thousand times. Why do you keep pushing when you know you shouldn’t?”
“There are rumors, your majesty, nothing substantial just yet, of Illyria gathering an army to attack. The Princess is already in her twentieth year. They see your failure to have married her off by now as weakness.”
The Queen sat back. “Why wasn’t I informed of this before?”
“As I said, this is just a rumor, but it has the council on edge.”
The Queen bit the inside of her lip and shot a glance at her husband. They seemed to exchange a whole conversation in just those few seconds of eye contact. The Princess looked on, hands twisting in her dress beneath the table. It was clear she was worried about the silent exchange between her parents.
The Queen turned back to the council a second later. “What do you propose as a solution, or have you all been foolish enough to come before me without one?”
The Marquis shook his head. “No, no, your majesty, we have a suggestion. Perhaps if we held a tournament for your daughters hand and invited all the eligible nobles from the kingdom and maybe a few from each of our bordering kingdoms just to appease them, that could solve all of our problems. Someone who is fit physically and mentally could be found quickly and the kingdom could be kept safe.”
“I see how that would find someone physically fit, but how does a tournament find someone mentally fit to be king?” The King asked. “Most tournaments I have attended do not take quite the brain that running a country does.”
“A test of some sort could be engineered, your majesty. To be eligible for the physical part of the tournament one must pass the test. It eliminates two birds with one stone.”
The King nodded. “Fair enough.” He looked at the Queen who nodded as well. “Make the arrangements.”
The Princess’s eyes widened as she looked over at her father. Regina waited for her to bolt, waited for her to forget everything she had told her in the past month in the wake of such overwhelming news, but she didn’t. She sat there and took a few deep breaths before the political mask she wore slipped back on easily.
“Father, if I may speak to the council?” The Princess asked just as another council member stopped talking about all of the tasks that had to be organized as quickly as possible.
The King looked over at the girl for a long second before nodding.
The Princess turned towards the table of old me and looked at them, cold murder in her eyes. “I do not understand how exactly you expect me to lead this kingdom well when you do not trust me to pick my own husband. I do not know how you expect me to do anything without the proper information to make informed decisions. You have shut me out of these meetings on the grounds that I am a foolish girl without the slightest head for politics. That ends today, I am your Princess and you do not get to dictate where I can and cannot be. I will be running this kingdom one day and you will all bow to me. As such, going over my head in this manner is not appreciated, even if it is understandable. No more, I will be informed just as my parents are.” She stood. “Now, if you excuse me, my lords, but I will be making up that test for the suitors and I will be the one grading it. As time is of the essence I shall be leaving. You will have it by the regular council meeting on the morrow. Good day my lords. Mother. Father.” The Princess nodded at them in turn and walked off, back ramrod straight and chin held high.
Regina followed after her quickly, but not before she heard the council explode behind her.
The Princess was waiting for her right outside the door to the council chamber. As soon as she exited the room the Princess started walking at a controlled pace. Regina caught up to walk at her side.
“Where would you like to go Princess?” Regina asked quietly.
The Princess swallowed hard. “First to my rooms to gather some supplies, then to my garden, if that is alright.”
“It is, I’ll send a few guards to make sure the perimeter hasn’t been breached while you are gathering your things.”
“Thank you.” The girl nodded stiffly.
They continued on in silence until they reached the girl’s rooms. Regina waited outside, grabbing a passing page and sending him to the garden to make sure the guards there had properly done their rounds. She’d need to inspect the inside of the garden when they got there, but that couldn’t be helped. As long as the perimeter wasn’t breached everything should be in order anyway.
The Princess emerged a few minutes later, carrying a few sheets of parchment, a bottle of ink, a quill, a book large enough to serve as a writing surface.
“Ready?” Regina asked quietly.
The Princess nodded and started down the hall. Regina once again caught up and looked over at the girl. She was holding it together admirably, face still a mask of indifference, but Regina could see the turmoil swirling in her eyes. Regina felt bad for the girl, to be thrust into something so unsavory without a choice. But at least there was still a chance of something good. She hadn’t been promised to someone almost three times her age. With a tournament it was unlikely that she ever would. There were still small favors.
They made good time to the Princess’s garden. Regina held her hand out for the key after being given the all clear by one of the patrolling guards. The Princess handed it over easily and waited without complaint as she went to survey the inside of the fenced area. She motioned the girl through the fence after she had found nothing amiss. The girl sighed heavily and shut the gate firmly behind her.
The Princess walked over to a bench, bathed in sunlight and sunk down heavily. She took one deep breath, then another, and suddenly she was sobbing. Regina bit her lip, she didn’t quite know what to do. She had not dared to cry in a very long time. Her mother had beaten the tendency out of her. Was she supposed to do anything?
Her instincts drove her forward. She sat gently beside the girl and put a gloved hand gently on her shoulder. The Princess turned to look at her, still sobbing. A hand came up to grab her own and laced their fingers together.
“What do I do? You’ve had so much advice in the past, what do I do now?”
Regina let out a sigh. “Exactly what you said you would do, write the test for all those invited to compete in the tournament and grade them according to how you think the kingdom should be run. It’s all you can do now.”
“But how is this…” The Princess shook her head. “It isn’t fair, nothing about being a royal ever really is. I keep having to relearn that it seems.”
Regina squeezed her hand lightly and nodded. “All you can do is try to make this as tolerable as you can. Words can tell a great deal about a person, pick the handful that sound genuine and what you imagine a king should be, and hopefully you will get along with them.”
The Princess closed her eyes slowly. “Ok.” She lowered her head onto Regina’s shoulder. The guard stiffened for a few seconds at the contact before slowly relaxing again.
“You did well telling the council off today. They needed to be reminded that you are their leader, not the other way around.”
“They’re all pompous idiots. They could use more than a telling off.”
“As Queen you’ll have the power to replace them if you so desire, but that could have consequences.”
“As everything does.” The girl nuzzled just a bit more into her shoulder.
Regina caught a whiff of sandalwood and closed her eyes. Images of a childhood long gone by returned to her. The Dark kingdom always seemed to smell like the trees that grew abundantly there. It filled her with a slight warmth. She could almost feel Rocinante below her galloping through the trees as the fresh air whipped around her.
“What if my parents don’t back me up?”
“They will. They have to, or else they will make you seem weak. It’s the last thing your family needs at the moment.”
The Princess nodded. Green eyes turned up to meet brown. Her head lifted slightly off of the knight’s shoulder as it cocked to the side.
“How is it that you know so much about such things anyway? A knight usually doesn’t concern themselves in political affairs beyond the basics to get by. You’re advising me on the subject, you must know more than the basics.”
Regina looked down at her for a long second, the smell of sandalwood still assaulting her senses and she made a snap decision. “Before I came here I was once a princess myself. The conditions, though, were nothing like they are for you. Had I stayed, I’m quite convinced I would have been killed after I bore my first child.”
“I haven’t heard of a kingdom losing a Princess recently. You can’t be that much older than me, surely we would have heard about it here.”
A humorless smile tugged at the corners of Regina’s mouth. “Ah, but you have heard about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“They mentioned the Dark kingdom earlier in the council meeting, did they not?”
“They did, but what do those people have to do with you?”
“Once upon a time I was their princess.”
The Princess’s eyes scrunched. “What?”
Regina sighed heavily. “It’s quite the long story, Princess. You have more important things to do than listen to a disgraced princess.” She motioned to the pile of things that the Princess was still holding.
“No, I believe I have time for this story.” The Princess’s eyes bored into her. “You have been advising me, I do believe it’s important to know where my information is coming from.”
Regina smiled slightly, this time genuinely. “Very well, you have a very good point. Your parents already know my story, but it is more important that you do in this case.”
Regina took a few deep breaths. Delving into her past wasn’t something she ever did. Five years ago when she had arrived in the kingdom she told the King and Queen her story and offered her allegiance in exchange for shelter. That had been the last time she had uttered a word outside of her own thoughts. That first night here in the White kingdom she had collapsed in a bed emotionally exhausted afterwards and cried until there were no tears left. She had known then that it would happen again if she ever truly delved into her past. So anyone who asked was either ignored, threatened, or given such a vague answer they never asked again. But here she was, going to tell this tale to the spoiled Princess. And yet, there was no one else who would understand except the girl beside her.
“My parents’ marriage was like most royalty, one opportunity and not one of love. Many a prince and princess are born into such circumstances and turn out fine.” Regina laughed, a grating sound with no happiness behind it. “None of those other princes and princesses had my mother. My childhood was not particularly a happy one. My mother had magic and she used to ‘keep me in line’ and seeing as she was the Queen and she left no visible marks, no one ever questioned it.
“My father did what he could, but he didn’t have the power. Before the marriage he was only a second son of a very, very rich Baron. He could do nothing against the true ruler of the realm. But he did love me in his own way and while I hate to admit it, I understand what he did. He did manage to get my mother to agree to horseback riding lessons as all ladies should ride, and sword fighting lessons as well. Our kingdom’s guards…they are not as loyal as the ones here. The royalty and nobility all learn to protect themselves somehow. So those lessons, along with what little love my father could show me in my mother’s absence became what kept me sane in the walls of the Dark Palace.”
Regina gripped the hilt of her sword tightly. “I became the best swordswoman in the kingdom. I could outride people who had been riding twice as long as I had. For a time I thought I was happy. Until it all came crashing down.”
Regina took a shuddering breath. She traced the braided cloth that covered the metal that covered the grip absently.
“I turned eighteen. My mother upbraided me as an old maid and demanded to know why I hadn’t attracted any suitors yet. Never mind that she hardly let me out of the palace, it was my fault that I hadn’t married yet. So she set up an arrangement that she found beneficial. We needed to ally with Nordia, we needed access to their steel mines badly. What better way to get it than to ally the two kingdoms through marriage. I was to marry the widowed son of their King. He was almost three times my age at that point. I was horrified. He could have been my father, a few more years and the man could have been my grandfather. I still harbored foolish thoughts of marrying for something other than political reasons, but even then I thought if I would marry for some political alliance at least he would be younger and we might have a chance at something.”
Regina swallowed down the bile that had crawled up her throat slowly as she’d been talking. She had long ago learned to control her rebelling stomach.
“The first moment I saw the man I knew that nothing of the sort would happen. He looked at me as little more than a piece of meat. We did not marry immediately, however, and I thank the gods for that. The terms of our alliance were still being hammered out. It took months. Both of our kingdoms were not used to being told no in anyway so the compromise that was reached was after a bitter fight. I used the months to try to find any way at all that I could end the marriage without sabotaging the alliance. All the while I had to act as the perfect princess for fear of retribution from my mother. I had to simper over my prospective husband.”
Her hand clenched around the grip of her sword so hard it turned white. The magic flowing through her bubbled to the surface. She had to calm down or something would be burned to a crisp. She took a few deep breaths.
“I had to allow him to touch me in ways I never wanted and yet still be able to persuade him not to take my virginity and make it seem like it was his own idea. I learned a great deal about politics in those few months.” Regina looked up and blinked a few times. “I didn’t have much of a childhood in the conventional sense, but what I had before those days was so much better. I was still innocent in some ways. I aged decades in those months.” She shook her head and looked back at the Princess. “That’s how I know so much about court politics. I had to play the same game you are playing right now, except the stakes…they were much higher. You may be threatened by outside kingdoms, but you have your family on your side as much as they can be.”
Regina snorted and unclenched her hand from her sword and brought it up to card through her hair, pulling the wisps that had escaped her bun away from her face. “Everyone was my enemy except my sword and my horse.” Her hand dropped back down and traced the edge of the scabbard.
“That’s the sword you had at home?” The Princess asked, falling to the weapon.
“Yes, it was one of the last things my father gave me.”
The Princess’s eyes rose to meet hers. “I’m sorry, Regina.”
“So am I, Princess, so am I.” She looked away. “But it happened, so there’s no use in wallowing over it now. At least my knowledge could help you.”
The Princess grabbed the hand that was still tracing the edge of the scabbard. “Call me Emma. At this point I think you’ve earned it.”
Regina met the girl’s eyes. “Emma.”
The corners of the girl’s mouth turned up. “Good.”
They sat for a while just holding hands. Emma’s head ended up on her shoulder yet again. Regina was too tired to care. She leaned her head on top of the girl’s and shut her eyes. She wished she could just stay like this. It didn’t hurt quite so much sitting here with Emma holding her hand. She wasn’t going to think of why that was, though.
“I know the story of what happened in the Dark kingdom when you escaped, but what really happened? The tale that reached us has to be exaggerated. The peasants love to exaggerate.”
Regina snorted. “That they do, but in this case there wasn’t a lot that they could exaggerate.”
“What do you mean?”
Regina sighed and squeezed the girl’s hand, settling in to tell the final part of her story. She had hoped to avoid this, hoping that just why she was so wise in the area of politics would have been enough of an answer, but that never happened. Everyone always needed the whole story.
“That most of what you hear is true, even if it seems like something fictitious.” Regina swallowed again. “I was approaching nineteen, the treaty was days away from being finalized, my marriage was set for the day after it was signed. This time when that old bastard came for me he wouldn’t be persuaded to not take more than he deserved. I was young, I was scared, I didn’t have my sword or even a dagger. I knew that my mother had magic, but I didn’t know that I did, not until that moment.”
Regina looked over at the Princess, watching her face carefully at the mention of magic. Her face scrunched, confused, but there was no sign of the normal disgust that people exhibited on mention of magic in this kingdom. Regina took another deep breath, this one a little looser than the last.
“It burst out of me in a wave of bright violet. He flew across the room and hit the wall hard enough to crack his skull and then it was just over. Even if I had wanted him to stop, to just go home and not force himself on me, to not marry me, I never wanted to kill him. I hadn’t killed anyone before, I never saw the point in any of my mother’s killing and I never wanted to be anything like her. But I looked down at his body and I saw my future laid out before me. I’d turn out just like her.”
She watched the wind blow through the garden, stirring the plants around them. Regina blinked a few times, eyes scratchy.
“I panicked even further. My magic got away from me yet again. Everyone in that wing of the palace…they didn’t make it out. When I figured out what I’d done I knew that my mother was going to kill me, plain and simple. It didn’t matter that I was the only heir to the throne. There was no way that she could allow me to live. She loved power and she would have lost the kingdom if she didn’t string me up. So I ran.”
“So you came here?” Emma looked up at her, eyes almost an ethereal shade of green in the sunlight.
“Not immediately. I was a princess with barely any money and a sword to my name. I had no idea where to go. I just knew I had to keep moving or my mother would find me and end me. Eventually, I came to a village where managed to steal enough food to feed me and a warm place to stay in one of the local barns. I thought I was fine for the first time in a while. Except even under the grime I was still a woman travelling alone. I attracted unwanted attention. The men who tried to ambush me ended up dead just like the man who had tried to marry me. An old woman found me weeping in the middle of their bodies. She knew exactly what had happened somehow. She took me back to her hovel and sat me down and told me that I had to gain control of my gift.”
Regina snorted. “Of course I never thought it was a gift, the magic inside me, but she taught me how to control it. The old woman herself had magic as well, but it was nowhere near as powerful as mine. Regardless, she still had enough skills to teach.”
Regina summed a small fire ball into her palm. She gazed down at it a second before snuffing it out. The Princess sat beside her, still staring at her hand.
“It took a little over a year for me to gain ahold of my magic. After that the woman told me I had to go. She had been shielding my presence from my mother’s scouts, but it was better if I made it out of our realm. Between my kingdom and this one I discovered that I had a knack for being a guard. Bested more than a few royal guards in order to keep myself safe and fed and to keep more than a few village women safe from the guards as well. I took minor jobs for money to protect this person or whatever object of value while it was being transported. So I made my way here slowly. When I crossed the border to this kingdom, I can’t describe it. I felt safe for the first time in a very long time. I was three kingdoms away from my mother. It was unlikely she would find me here. It had been two years. I wasn’t certain that she had stopped looking, but it was highly likely. I joined the guard here as an extra precaution against her. She couldn’t touch me as a member of the royal guard unless she wanted to incite a war. And here I’ve been ever since.”
“All of that caused by a forced marriage.” Emma shook her head. “I’m sorry you had to go through all of that, Regina.”
Regina shrugged. “It’s as I said, life happens.”
Emma stayed silent for a long while before laughing once. “Minus the death our stories are similar in a lot of ways. Fate has an interesting way of doing things, pairing us together like this.” Emma squeezed her hand once, lacing their fingers together. “At least you’ll be with me through all of this. Perhaps we can stop past mistakes from repeating themselves.”
Regina looked over at the Princess. Perhaps she could keep the past from repeating itself. Perhaps she could keep Emma from having to marry someone she didn’t know that could wield a sword well and write pretty words but treated the Princess herself as a glorified broodmare. A plan started to form in her mind. There was an easy way to do it. She thought back to the crest of her family, the one she had ripped from her swords scabbard long before, but had never thrown away. If she used that and entered the tournament and won…well the King and Queen would have no choice but either letting Emma choose her own husband or marrying their daughter to her. They couldn’t go back on a royal decree, only the Princess had any political wiggle room where that was concerned.
It was risky. She would probably be beheaded after the Princess was married to the man of her choosing, but if it kept the girl from being like her, then so be it. Emma didn’t deserve this, even if it was just another element of a princess’s reality. She was foolish, stubborn, and naïve, but she had grown so much over the past few weeks. She deserved to keep growing into a loving and caring Queen who would do wonderful things for her people.
The Princess’s head found its way back to her shoulder. She squeezed the girl’s hand. She would do this for Emma, for the girl she’d come to care for. She shook her head slightly. No, it wasn’t quite care, it was stronger, but she didn’t want to define it. It didn’t matter anyway. She would sign up for the tournament and protect the girl in what small way she could, feelings didn’t matter in that plan.
She leaned her head on Emma’s and breathed in the scent of sandalwood and felt at peace for the first time in a very long time.
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.
Regina stood with her bow by her side. She fingered the smooth wood below her fingers absently. She wished the she could take off her gauntlets and actually feel the wood. It always brought her an odd source of peace feeling the glossy surface. The bow hadn’t been her first weapon, but the precise sequence of movements that had to be repeated every time one fired to guarantee an accurate shot soothed her. There was something methodical about considering how the wind and weather would affect your shot and adjusting for it. Sword fighting was her love, but archery was what she turned to when she needed to clear her mind for a while.
She looked up and down the line of her fellow competitors. Some were holding bows with confidence, others like they were about to bite them. Regina was pleased to see some of the ones holding bows like something poisonous were the same people who hadn’t done extremely well in the jousting competition. If they really did poorly that would put them out of the running for the Princess’s hand. All the better news for her.
Again the Princess stepped before them and regarded the field coolly. “I congratulate all of you for making it through the first part of the competition. Today you shall continue to prove your physically worthiness as a candidate my hand in marriage. A King must be able to lead his people into battle if needs must and archery is just as useful a skill as combat from horseback. I thank each and every one of you for your continued participation and wish you the best of luck today.” The Princess nodded and walked to the side where her parents were stationed, well out of the range of stray arrows.
“Ready your bows!” A gruff man behind all of the competitors said. “Best score out of ten shots wins. If need be there will be a tie breaker of three shots to determine the winner.”
All of the competitors quickly readied their bows and took aim. Regina breathed in deeply and drew back her bow. She lightly touched the thumb of the hand drawing back the arrow to the corner of her mouth, anchoring it. She could feel the arrow feathers moving back and forth across her gauntlets as her fingers moved slightly on either side. She felt the breeze on her face. It was gentle and blowing diagonally from the left. She adjusted her shot to compensate.
Regina let her arrow fly with a twitch of her fingers. It sailed the hundred feet to the target and sunk itself directly into the bullseye. She took a deep breath of relief. The first and hardest shot was out of the way now. If she could continue on this groove she would be fine.
“Ready your bows!”
Regina repeated the process, taking another deep breath.
It repeated eight more times. Each time Regina’s arrows found their way into another small part of the tiny bullseye. At the man’s command all of the competitors walked forward and surveyed their handiwork. Regina smiled smugly when she saw that some of her arrows barely had a hairsbreadth between them. Her father would have been quite pleased with her progress from her first fumbling attempts with a bow years ago.
The man came by each of their targets, documenting their scores. He gave her an impressed nod as he saw her target. He continued on to the other contestants. One tie breaker was needed so Regina stood back as it happened, watching three of the less skilled archers shoot off. The tie was broken easily since one of the men fumbled and shot an arrow into the ground.
The official came up to the group of men and read off the list of leaders going into the second part of the competition. “The Black Knight came in first, followed by Chief Mannato, Lord Twyrion…”
The man went on but Regina didn’t hear him. She was first. A smile crawled up on her face. She was redeeming herself from yesterday’s loss, thank the gods.
The competitors quickly dispersed to gather their mounts for the next part of the competition. Her mount looked happy to see her, even happier after she held up a shiny red apple on her flat palm and offered it to him. He snatched it up and munched it happily. Regina smiled and scratched his head and set about readying him. Her little page boy appeared, handing her the necessary equipment when needed, chatting happily at her. She never replied for fear that someone would recognize her voice even through a modification charm. Some things, like patterns of speech, were just too hard to shake.
She rode out a few minutes later, making her way back to the range. About half of the men were already ready and waiting. Regina joined them and sat waiting for the rest. She was good at archery, yes, but archery from horseback was much more complicated. She wasn’t quite as good, but then again she doubted anyone was better shooting from a moving animal than standing stationary. She would be fine, she thought as she looked over them men around her. She was of a better caliber than all of them. She would be better for the Princess.
She shook her head slightly. No, she was going to let Emma choose. That’s what this was all about. She wasn’t actually doing this to win the Princess’s hand. No, she wasn’t doing this for the girl who had grown so much in the last month who was stronger and more beautiful than she knew and would be a great Queen one day who sometimes made her mouth go dry. No, she was doing this for a fellow Princess so she didn’t have the same fate as her. A friend, nothing more. Not that she would mind marrying the Princess, but that was only a very slight possibility if the King and Queen made them follow the decree to the letter, which wasn’t going to happen. They couldn’t marry their one heir to a woman. They needed their daughter to be able to produce an heir of her own to stabilize the kingdom of course. That couldn’t happen with them unless they were true loves.
Regina swallowed hard at that thought and forced it to the back of her mind. She had a competition to focus on.
The others had trickled in while she had been lost in her own head. The official started shouting, organizing the competitors into a line. Regina was shuffled to the back and those who had scored worse were in front. She bit the inside of her lip. She wasn’t sure if this was good positioning or bad. She would know the score she had to beat going in, yes, but that could be to her determent. She could over think her shots trying to get to where she needed to be and she couldn’t have that happen.
So she took a deep breath and retreated into herself again. She cleared her mind and focused on her breathing. If she focused hard enough she wouldn’t hear the scores when they were tallied up between runs. She would go in with a clean slate and she would perform her best.
A hand tapped on her leg sometime later. Regina opened her eyes and turned towards the man standing beside her horse.
“Your turn, sir.”
Regina nodded, readied her bow and arrows and took off. The trees flew past her. Her breathing synced easily with the strides of the horse. Up ahead she saw the first target and drew her bowstring back. She traced the path that she would take relative to the target and fired a little behind what she thought would hit the middle. The thunk of an arrow into wood hit her ear a second later, but she was too far past the target to see where she’d hit.
Targets passed by her, left, right, and above. Every single one she fired at. Every single one she hit, even if she wasn’t sure of where the arrow landed on the target. That was much better than some of her competitors she was sure. The breath she released at the end of the run as she turned her horse to head back to the starting point was a little easier than before.
She saw men scurrying to view the targets, recording where she hit them, but she ignored them. She would know how she did soon enough, no need to gawk and slow herself down. She had a mystique to pull off, she couldn’t very well ruin it by whipping around like some sort of common peasant.
Again the official gave her a nodded as she returned to the group. Regina took that as a good sign, but didn’t let her hopes soar too far. One man ran up to the official and handed him a slip of paper before darting off again. The man looked up once more at all of them and started to speak.
“There needs to be a shoot off between Lord Twyrion and the Black Knight for first place.”
Regina tensed slightly. Well, that wasn’t her preferred outcome at all. She looked over at the short, heavyset man sitting easily atop his horse. He smiled at her cockily. Rage flared in her. She could end him before he ever saw it coming. She took another deep breath and calmed herself once again. She couldn’t kill him, that would ruin everything. She couldn’t let some pompous bastard get to her. She would wipe the floor with him in the shoot off and that would have to do.
“Since the Black Knight came last this time he will go first in the shoot off.”
Regina grabbed her bow again and rode towards the starting line again.
“But first the targets have to be changed around for fairness sake. If you would give us a few minutes sir it would be appreciated.”
Regina nodded but stayed where she was. The horse under her sensed her restlessness and started to paw the ground below him. She reached out a calming hand and stroked his neck and he settled quickly.
The man appeared at her side again and nodded. “Anytime you’re ready.”
She was gone before the man was finished speaking.
This time she flew through the trees even faster. Her anger was channeled into her bow and her aim. Arrow after arrow hit home, the sound even more satisfying now that she was imaging Lord Twyrion’s head was in the middle of each target. How could such a fool think he was good enough for Emma? He wasn’t worth a common kitchen maid. She let another arrow fly and even though she couldn’t see where it hit, she was sure it was a bullseye.
When she returned to the group she just looked over at the Lord Idiot and tilted her chin up just slightly. The meaning was clear, though, “Bring it on.” His eyes narrowed and his hand gripped his bow harder. Regina smirked and turned away. He wasn’t worth her time.
He went on his run, but Regina didn’t glance away from adjusting and fixing her gauntlets. She heard the quiet murmurs around her, the other competitors remarking on her blatant disregard of the other man. Good, let them talk, she thought. It would only benefit her in the long run.
When one of the attendants handed another paper to the official she knew in that instant that she had won. She didn’t need to hear it announced. Still, it was lovely to hear.
“The Black Knight has come in first place, Lord Twyrion in second. The rest of you remain in the places that were announced earlier.”
Regina smiled bright behind her helmet. Yes, a first place, that would do just nicely on her quest to win the Princess’s hand. With the sword competition next she was positively giddy. She could do this. She could win. The light feeling that filled her chest accompanied her long through the ceremony of point awarding and into the night.
The day of the sword competition dawned fresh and clear. Regina strode through the dawning day inhaling deeply. This was her favorite time of day before the sun burned off the morning dew and the day turned hot once again. Her hand fell to her sword. Today was the day. This was the make or break day. She took another deep breath of damp morning air and the corners of her mouth twitched up. It was a perfect day for it.
She made her way to the arena. The stands were already filling with people despite the early hour. This was the day everyone was excited about. Jousting was exciting, archery a little less so, but sword fighting, especially the life or death sort, that was what drew the biggest crowds. The competitors were all there, warming up all around the main area in light tunics already soaked with sweat with their armor nearby for later. Regina critiqued everyone’s form as she walked by, heading for a wide open area where she herself could limber up. Most everyone had exceptional form, to be expected of noble men. They all learned sword play from an early age. The Chief from the Kingdom of Isles didn’t look to be wholly comfortable with the weapon in his hands, but he looked to be a natural born fighter, adapting quickly. No one was going to be extremely easy to take down, but that was just fine with her. She could always use practice with her sword skills. The guards around the yard were good, but not exceptional for the most part.
She reached the wide open area she’d been heading for and started to stretch out her arms and shoulders. Next came her thighs and calves. Her sword came out of its scabbard a minute later and she heard a few people gasp at the sight of it. The pure white blade caught the light was so bright it practically glowed. She smiled. It would only be more dazzling as the day went on.
She practiced a few forms, feeling her muscles warm and loosen as she went through the movements that they’d gone through a hundred times. She worked lightly until the King and Queen showed up. With their appearance she sheathed her sword and looked on. The competition would start soon now.
Regina’s breath caught at the sight of the Princess. She had been dressed up for the last two days since the competition was in her honor, but today she was stunning. There were no words for her. Her golden curls were hanging loose around her bare shoulders, tickling the top of her bodice with its off the shoulder sleeves. A swan pendant hung around her neck, catching the light from its place nestled between her breasts. The dress she was wearing was bright white with gold stitching. Regina saw clearly what the King and Queen were trying to say by making Emma wear such a dress, marriage was close at hand, but that didn’t matter. The dress hugged all the right places, flared out in the rest. It was the perfect Princess dress, truly. Emma’s make up was even more stunning than usual, lightly applied to make her look young and fresh. Everything together made it hard to catch her breath.
But when she looked into the Princess’s eyes she finally caught her breath once again. There was sadness there, well masked to anyone who hadn’t spent so much of the last month and half with the girl, but it was enough to bring her out of her reverie of how beautiful she looked. An image of herself in a pale blue dress, beautifully made up, with the same exact look in her eyes flashed up behind her lids as she blinked. Beauty often hid the truth. She knew that.
She was going to put the smile back in those eyes, though. A few sword fights were between her and her goal. She wasn’t about to stop now. That look only steeled her resolve further.
The Princess stepped forward, calling out to the competitors who were strapping on their armor now with the help of the page boys they’d been assigned. “Today is the final day of the competition, at the end of the bouts one of you will today be proclaimed my husband, having won my hand in this grand competition. I look forward to the end and wish each and every one of you the best of luck today.”
She stepped back again and her parent’s stepped forward together. A slight sneer graced Regina’s lips. Couldn’t they see what they were doing to their daughter? The girl had barely gotten through that speech with any poise. Regina had spotted the girl’s hands trembling just slightly by her side. How could her parents not care? It seemed she had been asking herself that same question for quite a few years now.
“The sword fighting portion of this competition will work much like the jousting competition. There will be brackets and the winners advance, while the losers duel for the lower places. The first bout will be between the Black Knight versus Earl Tudor. The rest of the brackets are posted where the jousting brackets were posted the day before. This is a no holds barred competition. Lethal force is allowed, though not encouraged. With that, good luck to you all and let us get the first bout started.”
Regina took a deep breath and made her way to the center of the arena. One of the other men who had done moderately well in both parts of the competition so far joined her. He had good technique from what she had seen, but she was about to get a much more intimate feel of just how good he was. Her magic hummed in her veins, making her feel alive and more alert than she had in ages. Every end was a live wire. She felt ready for anything.
The Earl stepped forward, hand extended. Regina stepped forward and grabbed his hand, shaking it a few times.
“May the best man win,” the Earl said.
They both stepped back and drew their swords. Both barely heard the King call the official start to their fight. It had truly started as soon as swords were drawn. They watched the other’s every single twitch. The Earl started to circle and Regina followed suit. They were both skilled, much would be determined by the first move of this fight, perhaps even the whole fight. So Regina waited patiently. She had learned early on that waiting for the opponent to come to her was always better, and men almost always lost patience eventually and made the first move.
She didn’t have to wait long. One seemingly false move on her part and he was lunging towards her. Regina smiled widely as she quickly turned what seemed like a misstep into an easy block of his lunge. She threw up her hands, sword coming up, grinding against the other man’s, sending sparks everywhere. He stumbled back, but quickly regained his footing enough to block Regina’s next offensive attack.
As soon as his sword was free of hers once more he swung towards her once again, this time aiming towards the side of her non-dominant hand. Regina easily blocked it once again. That was an easy, predictable move. He was testing her now, trying to ferret out her weakness. He wanted a long drawn out fight then, testing her and testing her until he found the right place to strike and biding his time until then.
Regina lunged forward, suddenly much closer to the man than she as before. The man took a step back, not landing in the correct, stable fighting stance. Being a woman meant having to have a great bit of speed to make up for the difference in strength. She swung quickly towards the man shoulder. He managed to block her once again, but it was shaky. Regina pressed in harder, their swords coming close to both of their faces. The Earl had to take another step back, unsteadying his stance further. Regina saw him try to correct, but she wouldn’t let him, attacking once again quickly.
She kept attacking in rapid succession, each time her opponent took another step back, never managing to get back into the proper balanced stance. Regina knew that she only had to wait for one little slip up. His stance wouldn’t leave him with the leverage to block her attack, he would unbalance, something. So she kept attacking, never letting him regain the upper hand.
For his part, the Earl defended himself admirably. Regina could tell he was skilled, but this fight had not fallen in his favor and that was sometimes hard to come back from. One attack more, two, they were almost at the border of the arena now. Three more steps and his back was against the wall. There was nowhere left to go.
Regina smiled and lunged forward yet again, twisting her blade to the left. Her opponent tried valiantly, but he couldn’t maintain his grip on his sword. It went flying, landing several feet away. He glanced over at it, but Regina’s sword was already at his throat. He stared hard at her for a long moment.
“I concede,” he finally said.
Regina nodded and stepped back. The Earl slunk off, retrieved his sword and exited the arena. Regina turned to the King and Queen, nodded once at them, before following. She looked down at her sword as she sheathed it. The faint flicker of black flames surrounded it. The effect was hardly noticeable now, but as she advanced it would become quite striking. When she’d played around with enchantments and had found this particular one that would intensify upon every win she’d been quite happy. She put a little more magic into the blade just to see the black flames flash before she fully sheathed her sword and made her way to the box where all the noncompeting contestants were watching the fights. The next pair were already walking to the center when she sat down. She settled into wait. For coming in first in the last competition she had earned a bye to the semi-finals. She didn’t know what she preferred, the automatic advancement or fighting an extra round. At least then she’d be moving.
She looked across the arena to where Emma sat. But no, the automatic advancement was better. She crossed her arms and watched as the two men battled, taking in weaknesses she could exploit later and waiting.
The semi-finals rolled around and Regina lucked into having the easiest opponent of the three. She finished him with little more effort than she had expended in the first round. But as she watched the other match play out a feeling of dread formed in her stomach. Laird McKinley was huge, with muscles that rippled as he swung his great broad sword. Normally, Regina wouldn’t worry about such a large man, counting on her speed to overtake him, but the man’s size did not slow him. He was a great deal faster than his smaller, lighter opponent. She was sure that he was going to win and that he was going to be the one to face her. Regina searched frantically for some sort of weakness, but the man was well aware of where his guard was weak and was able to close the openings he left too quickly for them to be used.
It was going to take a gods damned miracle for her to get out of this one. If he swung at her with full force she wasn’t quite sure that she would be able to block it. She would need to finish the fight quickly, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. The other option was to wear him out, but that meant that she herself had to keep going and somehow keep enough strength in her arms after blocking blow after blow to keep swinging.
Regina’s eyes tracked over to the Princess. She actually looked interested in these fights unlike the other parts of the competition. She’d noticed the Princess’s habit of watching the guards practicing. She had just taken it for a young girl staring and swooning at half naked men with fine musculature, but perhaps she actually was interested in the sword play. After all, there were no half naked men here. The girl was so full of contradictions and surprises.
Her eyes fell back to the Laird. She had to find a way to win for the girl with bright green eyes that reflected the same color as the leaves one second but the next second were so light they looked like jade, who followed every single sword stroke with vested interest. It was plain and simple. Points wise she was first in the competition right now. She took first here and she won with no question. One more fight and she had it.
She went back to watching the Laird and hoped that she would see something she could use.
He’d won. The other man had put up a good fight, but it wasn’t near enough. After a twenty minute break she walked into the ring. The Laird was already standing in the middle, just grinning at her. Regina was slightly unsettled by the display, but she never broke stride. He wouldn’t get her that easily.
She walked right up to him and stuck out her hand, the other resting firmly on the hilt of her sword. He extended his meaty hand and grabbed hers, squeezing and shaking her hand much harder than necessary. She didn’t let out the hiss of pain that wanted to escape. The man was playing for keeps and she wasn’t going to let him have any points without a fight.
Regina stepped back after he released her hand and she drew her sword. The black flames were darker now. The crowd had almost lost it at the end of her last battle as what could have been considered a trick of the imagination intensified into real looking black flames. She hoped it might come in advantage here. Perhaps as a distraction to her opponent. She glanced up at him, but she highly doubted that.
The King yelled out for them to start. The man charged ahead without so much as a blink. There was no need to wait around and feel out an opponent when you were planning to overpower them with brute strength. Regina stepped aside, just barely managing to dodge the man. She lunged at his back, but he was expecting the move and ducked. Regina pulled back quickly. Expected moves weren’t going to cut it in this fight, but her fighting style was all by the books. Improvising was only something she did in the direst of times.
As the huge man swung around, almost catching Regina in the side before she managed to jump back, she thought that this could probably qualify as the direst of times, if not now then soon. Regina was tired of the defense game. She stepped forward and started to test the man’s guard, but he repelled each and every thrust of hers like he was swatting away an annoying fly.
She saw it a second before he moved. His arm twitched up and back, high enough that the blow, if it landed, would be the end of her. It left his body open, though, for a long time. She stared up at the sword that would be her certain loss for a millisecond that felt like an hour before she made a decision. Instead of stepping backward and dodging the blow she stepped forward. She brought her sword up quickly and slammed the blade into the joint of the man’s armor. Small shards of chain mail flew everywhere. The Laird grunted and dropped his sword arm to his side, taking an involuntary step back. Blood started to drip down his armor from his armpit.
Regina smiled to herself. She’d managed to wound him, that could only work in her favor. A breath came easier to her. Until he looked back up at her from his free hand, covered in blood. A smile that bordered on insane covered his face. Regina’s eyes widened. The urge to step back overwhelmed her, but she didn’t give in.
The man’s grip on his sword tightened and he lunged forward again. This time he was even faster than before. His injury hadn’t deterred him, only set him off. Regina jumped out of the way, hitting the ground and rolling until she was on her feet again. This was not good. This was so not good.
He turned around, that creepy smile still on his face. Regina gasped in a breath. One long lunge was all it took. Her sword went flying through the air. She watched as it made a slow arc and hit the arena floor ten feet away. There was no way she’d get there in time, not with how fast her opponent moved. She was royally screwed.
A sweep of his legs and she was on the ground. She stared up at him. Her skin crawled as he hovered over her, smiling, always smiling. He shot her a look that said she had no choice but to surrender now. And she didn’t have a choice.
Anger flowed through her veins. She couldn’t let Emma end up with a man like this. If he ever ended up angry at the girl she shivered to think what he would do. The smile did not comfort her in the slightest. It spoke of a man who had no limits for hurting others.
His sword was coming to her neck to force her surrender. She shot up before he could place the tip at her throat. She slammed into his legs, throwing him off balance. He took a step backwards. That was all Regina needed. She kicked a leg up as hard as she could into his crotch, shoving his armor painfully into him. The man went down on one knee, sword clattering to the ground. Regina lunged to pick it up. It was heavy, much too heavy for her liking, but she swung it quickly and put the tip under his chin.
The smile finally dropped from his face as he looked up to Regina. The look in his eyes said that he didn’t quite understand how they had gotten here. Then it shifted to he wasn’t going to accept that he was the loser. He started to reached for her. Regina had the sword through his throat before he could get halfway.
His body dropped heavily to the ground, gurgling as the man lived his last moments. Regina dropped his sword beside his body, nodded to him respectfully, and went to fetch her own sword. She sheathed it, the flames around it now a light eating black around the bright white blade, before turning around to face the King and Queen.
They were looking at the Laird’s body, still bleeding out onto the dirt. They glanced up to her after a few seconds. The King had to clear his throat before he spoke.
“The Black Knight is the winner of the sword fighting portion of this competition. We shall quickly add the results of this part of the competition and return with the verdict of who has won our daughter’s hand.”
Regina took a truly deep breath for what felt like days as she looked over at the Princess. At Emma. She knew she was in the lead. She had to be, she’d won two out of three of the rounds. She had managed to save Emma from all of the other vile men in this competition. She had done it. She felt like jumping up and down as the adrenaline from the fight and winning coursed through her. But she kept her feet firmly planted on the ground. It wouldn’t do to celebrate early. After all, she still had an image to maintain, even if it wasn’t for that much longer.
It took them ten minutes to come back into the arena. The King and Queen resumed their positions and Emma came to stand with them. The King handed Emma the scroll with the names on them. She looked out at Regina, still in the ring, and the other competitors who had filed in in the interim.
“In third place and receiving a cash prize, Lord Gwaine, and in second Laird McKinley whose prize shall be gifted to his family,” Emma paused and swallowed. “And in first, the Black Knight.”
Regina stepped forward and bowed deeply.
“If my future husband could remove his helmet, I’d quite like to see your face.”
Regina clenched and unclenched her fists. Now was the moment she’d been dreading. She’d sign her own death warrant with the removal of her helmet. But that was ok. It would only be after Emma had picked her own husband. Emma’s happiness was what mattered, not her own life.
She lifted her hands to her helmet and pulled it off. The crowd gasped as everyone took in her appearance, even more gasped as they recognized her.
“Regina?” Emma asked, not believing her eyes.
“Regina?” Emma asked, not believing her eyes.
Regina just smiled sheepishly and nodded. Emma’s mouth flopped open a few times, doing her best impression of a fish. The King and Queen were doing the same. The King snapped out of it and jerked his head towards her.
She felt them coming before she ever saw them. Regina didn’t resist as her fellow guards grabbed her. She knew how this would end. There was still a little time before it would all be over soon. Royal decrees were written in stone. They’d have to find a loophole or have her agree to dissolve her end of the deal. She wouldn’t do it until Emma found herself a husband, one that she could live with, damn the cowardly council and trying to save their own hides at the price of Emma’s happiness.
“Take her to the dungeons until we decide a course of action,” The King said.
Regina walked with the guards, head high. The crowd roared their disapproval as she walked out. Well, at least she had someone on her side, if only it was the peasants. The guards kept sending her glances. They didn’t quite understand why she’d done this, she could see it in their eyes. She didn’t quite understand it herself, but that was of no consequence.
The dungeons were a dark and dreary place. She supposed all dungeons were, but for the dungeons of the local “good guys” she thought that their dungeons were quite barbaric. They gave her one of the better cells. Better being a relative term. The bottom of it wasn’t filled with two inches of slimy sludge and instead was covered in dirty straw and it only smelled a tad bit like death. She walked over and sat in the corner quietly and leaned against the wall. She was going to be here for quite a while she figured, might as well catch a nap. The fights had left her a little tired. She closed her eyes and tried to tune out the groans of the other prisoners. With a little trouble she managed to fall asleep a little while later.
She was startled out of her nap when a loud tapping came from the front of her cell. Regina squinted against the darkness and tried to see what was going on. There was a figure standing in front of the bars. Regina stood up and walked over.
“Princess? What are you doing here?”
“I found the dungeons preferable to the council chambers.”
Regina snorted. “That’s not hard to believe. The atmosphere down here is much better.”
Emma laughed quietly. She stopped and looked at Regina for a long second. “They’re trying to find a way to kill you for what you’ve done.”
“I know. I knew that would happen when I started this.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Because I didn’t want you to end up like me, not when I could stop it. The only way out of their decree is to get me to break my end. Well, the only way they can do it without looking weak or having the peasants revolt. You can find a husband that’s actually worth you and the kingdom. You can choose.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“I think that this is the only time that you can say that to me and it actually be right. Enjoy it, Princess.”
Emma reached through the bars and grabbed Regina’s shoulder, pulling her flush with the bars. “I’m not enjoying this.”
She let go of Regina and turned, striding from the dungeons, head held high. Regina smiled, even if she did die for this then some of her would remain in the Princess’s bearing. There was a measure of comfort in that.
Regina wasn’t sure how much time past. The dungeons in their perpetual twilight weren’t exactly conducive to keeping track of time. Meals were served whenever the guards felt like it, so they weren’t exactly indicative of time either. She figured it had to be at least a few days though no more than a week and a half when Emma swept down the stairs once again. Regina had taken to watching them. It was the only thing that provided her with a modicum of entertainment to pass her day, watching the guards come and go.
Emma made her way to Regina’s cell, steps purposeful. Regina stood and walked over, but not too close. She knew how she looked and smelled after days in the dungeon. She wasn’t exactly her well-coiffed self.
“You did this so I could choose.” Emma grabbed the bars, looking at Regina, eyes burning through her.
“Yes.” Regina’s voice cracked from disuse.
“What if I choose you?”
Regina’s eyes widened. “You can’t choose me, Princess. I’m not someone who can rule a kingdom. I’m not someone who can ward off other kingdoms who think we’re weak.”
“That’s bullshit, Regina, and we both know it. The only reason I know to act like half the princess I am is because of what you’ve taught me in the last month and a half. You know politics, you know the main players in the kingdom and what they want, you know how to deal with other kingdoms, you know everything.”
“I thank you for the compliment, but I hardly know everything. I’m not marriage material.”
“You’re a Princess.”
“Who’s been disinherited. I’m no better than a regular knight.”
“Your mother hasn’t disinherited you.”
Regina stepped forward. “She would have had to.”
“She didn’t. She framed it to make the man from Nordia look like he killed all of those people and then kidnapped you but was killed along the way and you’d run off, terrified or already dead somewhere they couldn’t find.”
“But the stories…”
“Are just stories told by the peasants. Officially that is the story your mother tells.”
“I can’t marry you for that reason, then, Emma. My mother can’t know I’m alive.” A shiver wracked her body.
“She doesn’t have to. You just have to be some sort of royalty to appease the council and their stupid sense of blood purity.”
“They’ll never accept it. Besides the fact that I’m from the Dark Kingdom, I’m a woman. We could produce no heir.”
“There are ways. I’ve looked into them.”
“Emma.” Regina stepped forward and placed her hand on the girl’s. “You can’t marry me. It’s a stupid move. More stupid than running away from enemies who think that you’re weak.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing right now? Running away? You’re better than every single man I’ve seen. I know. I’ve spent every day with you for the last month and a half. I know you better than I ever would any other person who would seek my hand. We agree on most policy and you have a grip on politics that surpasses my own. I have the blood right to rule the kingdom. You have the knowledge. If we pair up we could be the greatest set of rulers this kingdom has ever seen.”
“The people would revolt.”
“The people would revolt if you were killed.”
“That’s not true.”
“You’d be surprised how many fans you made during the competition. They’ve been outside the palace letting us know.”
“Who roots for the person from the Dark Kingdom?”
“The people who don’t like seeing page boys and horses abused. The kind that hands over extra food to poor peasant girls passing. The kind that overcomes the odds to beat an opponent three times their size. Peasants don’t miss much.”
“Neither did you it seems.”
“Well I…” Emma blushed.
“You were watching me the entire time.”
“You were the most interesting one there. Every one of the others passed the written test, but only barely. Your test was the only one that showed true potential. Then you were the best one in the physical competition. I watched you everywhere you went because I couldn’t quite figure you out. I still can’t fully, but I get a lot more now. And I just—” She locked eyes with Regina. “I choose you not just for political reasons. I think…I think I really could be happy with you, Regina. I’ve been happier in these few weeks than I have been in a while.” She swallowed hard. “When you took off your helmet a few days ago…I felt like I couldn’t breathe, you were just so stunning.”
Regina stood there, speechless. She didn’t know what to say. If Emma was implying what she thought…
Her heart sped up.
“So I choose you, for more than one reason. And I don’t care what the idiots say. They can’t find a way out of the decree. If I don’t want out of it and you don’t want out of it they have to swallow their damn pride and accept it. I’ll just get rid of all of them when I take the throne and damn the political backlash. I need forward thinking people anyway.” She took a deep breath. “So what I need to know is if you choose me. And I don’t want you to choose me just because it’s your duty, but because you think this could work out.”
Regina reached through the bars and rested her hand on Emma’s cheek. “I chose you the moment I entered the competition.”
Emma smiled widely. She reached up and squeezed Regina’s hand. She stepped back and turned towards the nearest guard.
“Unlock the door. My fiancée and I have an announcement to make.”
The guard hesitated just slightly but unlocked the door and Regina stepped out. Emma grabbed her hand and started to drag her up the dungeon stairs. Her face scrunched as she caught a whiff of Regina’s odor.
“Something to announce after a bath, anyway.”
Regina laughed and followed Emma up the stairs, feeling lighter than she had in a very long while.
Um, that epilogue I was writing turned into a whole entire new story, and the first chapter is posted so head on down.