Coseton Fairgrounds

Riverwyn Territory

The sound of steel hitting steel, coupled with the roar of the crowd, was nearly deafening. In the rectangular-shaped arena, two men covered in head to toe armor battled it out. The shorter of the two used the brute force of his muscular body, but the taller one parried his movements with grace and expert style.

Asaria Emery watched, bored out of her mind, as the court members around her placed bets with an eagerness that annoyed her, their slender fingers trading coins like they were precious life.

She'd never voice her opinions out loud, especially with her stepmother and father sitting close by, but The Games were a bit of a joke.

And she would prove it.

Her father leaned down from his elevated chair and pointed to the taller fighter. "See how he waits for the other man to lunge first?"

"Yes," she sighed, fanning herself so that the fine dark strands by her temples fluttered with the motion of it. The air was still and hot, and their tent did little to ease the heat.

"In doing so, he gives himself more time to reciprocate the other man's movements, while in time tiring the other man out."

"Genius."

Beside her, her lady-in-waiting and confidante, Imalda, tittered. The two glanced at each other and hastily looked away, lest either one of them break out in giggles.

A roar emitted from the crowd, drawing her attention back down towards the arena. The shorter man lay flat on his back, and the second triumphant knight stabbed the sky with his sword, tearing off his constricting helmet.

Golden hair met the let, fluttering in the sudden breeze that stirred the place. He grinned, revealing gleaming white teeth set in a swarthy complexion. In their tented spot, the men cheered and the women delicately clapped their hands. A silly red-haired girl, a daughter of one of the noblemen, leaned towards her.

"It must be so grand, having a brother so…virile," she said, covering her wide smile with her pale fingertips. His Highness is certainly something!"

Asaria smiled politely and nodded once, and when the girl looked away, rolled her eyes. Of course, her brother was the most sought out bachelor in all of Riverwyn. Being the Crown Prince had its perks. In the arena, the second knight was staggering to his feet, and in a show of good sportsmanship, Zander helped him.

"Great showing, Your Majesty, really excellent," Lord Vestweather said, still clapping his meaty palms together. His face had a ruddy sheen to it, probably from too much sun and too much wine. "You have quite a son."

Obviously the other knight was paid to lose, idiot, Asaria thought, tapping her fingers against her armrest.

Was all bloody stupid, really.

"I cannot argue with you there, Vincent. I am eager to see Lord Jappelin's son next. He and Zander grew up together in the schoolroom, you know."

That was her cue. "Father," she said, making it a point to sound exhausted. "The heat. I simply cannot bear it for much longer, and I would not be too keen on passing out in front of anyone. May I go to the retiring tent?"

Icy blue eyes locked with hers, gleaming with calculation, but Asaria remained stagnant in the face of her stepmother, Sella.

Her father nodded without question. "Please do, my dear. Lady Winver, see to it that Her Highness reaches the retiring tent without inciden]t."

Imalda curtsied low, keeping her gray eyes on the ground. "Yes, Your Majesty."

They were off, walking briskly through the grass. Her gown trailed along, picking up dust and dirt, but she paid that no heed. Overhead, the sky was a violent blue that caused one's eyes to burn when they looked at it, and the sun blazed prominently in the center.

Asaria squared her shoulders. Her mind was set on one purpose, and as her heart rate kicked into overdrive, she promised herself that she would not back down.

"Remind me once again why you are doing this?" Imalda panted, struggling to keep up. Strands of honey-blonde hair had escaped from her coiffure, and beads of sweat dotted her pale forehead.

Once, Asaria had been self-conscious of how her skin had tanned so easily in the sun and how many shades darker she was compared to the other girls, but it was just something she had learned to embrace—along with other questionable attributes.

"I need to prove that The Games are a sham. It is wrong, what these nobles and my father are doing. And it is wrong of my brother, who is to be king one day, to gain admiration in pre-orchestrated duels! Pathetic, is what it is."

They entered a tent that was most certainly not the retiring one. A stool and a knight's uniform occupied the space that smelled slightly of sweat and lemongrass. A young, spotty man barely taller than her was halfway dressed. Imalda gasped, turned crimson at the sight of his bare chest, and averted her eyes. Asaria locked gazes with him.

"Are you Sir Getty Renly?"

The lad swallowed several times, his prominent Adam's apple bobbing almost grotesquely. "Y-Yes, Your Highness," he said, bowing.

"You are to fight Lord Camir Jappelin in twenty minute's time?"

"C-Correct, Your Highness."

She smiled, going for the sweet one that had gotten her out of trouble several times with her father. "Fantastic."

She punched him in the face as hard as she could.

He fell backwards, out cold with blood flowing from his nose. As she drew back her fist with a hiss of pain, she felt a small drabble of remorse—but just barely. The young knight had no honor or ambition if he was taking money to lose, and what was the purpose of that?

"Nice shot, my lady," Imalda clapped her hands, her eyes wide.

Asaria bobbed a curtsy. "Why, thank you, dear. Mind standing guard?"

Imalda assumed position near the opening flaps of the tent, drawing them tightly closed behind her.

Grimacing, Asaria removed one of Renly's stockings and stuffed it into his mouth in the event that he woke up. With his other stocking, she secured his hands behind his back with a triple knot. It wouldn't hold for long, but it would suffice if she needed extra time. Rolling him onto his side, she shoved him into a corner and covered him with a horse blanket.

When that was done, she was gasping. The lad was heavier than he looked. Signaling Imalda, the maid came in and undid the ties on her gown before going to stand guard again. Asaria slipped out of her gown, bunching it up and stowing it in the opposite corner.

Underneath, breeches hugged her legs and one of her brother's lawn shirts fell to her knees. Hastily, she pulled the knight's chainmail over herself and was able to get dressed to the waist before she needed Imalda's help once more.

"Good heavens, my lady. Where do I even begin?" she said in dismay, holding of the breastplate.

"Er…I am sure you're just to tie the sides. I think."

Together, they did the best they could, and when Asaria finally tied back her long, mahogany colored hair with a black ribbon and put the helmet on, she felt…different. The armor was heavy and awkward, and she wondered how anyone could fight in this to begin with. But when she gripped Renly's sword, a familiar, welcoming weight, her confidence boosted and her resolve hardened.

Imalda giggled. "You look positively idiotic."

"I feel that way, too," she muttered. "You'd best get back to The Games before anyone notices your absence. Tell my father I am resting for a bit."

"I will." She bit her lip. "Be careful."

Asaria spread out her arms, knocking over the stool in the process. "Seriously, how can anyone hurt me in this?"

Imalda laughed once again before ducking out of the tent with a swish of her skirts. Asaria righted the stool with some difficulty and sat, waiting for her—other rather, Renly—to be called into the arena.

When the flaps of the tent began to rustle again, Asaria slammed the metal grate shut on her helmet. A squire poked his head in, his dark bangs plastered to his forehead with sweat. "Ready they are, Renly!" his sweet voice announced.

She nodded and made her way out of the tent, realizing soon that her vision was severely limited within the helmet. She was only able to see the things directly in front of her. It felt surreal, and with her nerves, grew a bit light-headed. Shaking her head to clear it, she gripped her sword and steeled herself.

From inside, the arena looked a lot bigger. The gravel and sand crunched under her boots, and she could feel sweat collect on the small of her back. She risked glancing up and saw her father and his comrades in the tent, talking amongst themselves with silly grins plastered to their faces. Sella stabbed a thread into her needlepoint work, and Imalda's face was strained and white, her hands clasped in her lap.

In the center, a man stood, churning out an attention-grabbing melody on the brass horn he held. "Ladies, gentleman, and Majesties! In a first showing, our own Lord Camir Jappelin will take on Sir Getty Renly, a renowned brother of the knighthood!"

The double-doors on the other side of the arena, reserved for the royal fighters, opened wide and Camir walked out, his hands raised. The people in the stands cheered, and Asaria thought. Camir Jappelin was one of her brother's closest friends, and he possessed a unique sword style: he was talented with both hands.

"Begin!" the announcer said, and scurried out of the way.

They circled each other, each unwilling to make the first move. The crowd was shouting, ordering them to begin, jeering, but Asaria tuned them out, focusing on her opponent. And finally, Camir lunged, aiming diagonally for her shoulder. She turned, bringing up her blade to meet with his. The reverberations traveled up her arm and through her body, and just a month ago, she would have dropped to sword in shock, but intense (if secret) lessons had taught her otherwise.

As they spun, their swords scraped each other's, a sound that grated on her nerves. In a flash, Camir switched hands and brought his weapon down. In a move that was almost laughable, she ducked and lumbered away, the armor hindering her movements.

At one point, he nearly had her, gaining the upper hand and beating her back into a corner. Something bubbled inside her, something animalistic and new, an outright refusal to be beaten. Before she become helpless and immobile, she gripped her sword with both hands knocked his weapon to the side. A few cheers and jeers rang out for her and Camir rolled to the ground, quickly recollecting his weapon.

Their blows and parries seemed to last four hours, the noise of the crowd heightening with the tension, and then Asaria noticed an opening. As Camir rushed her, she dropped to the ground and caught his knee with her sword. Blindsided by the move, he went flying, head over heels, to land in a crumpled heap a few feet away from her.

At the same time, the crowd seemed to draw in a single, stunned breath.

Camir rolled over onto his back with difficulty, pulling off his helmet. His deep brown skin and thick black hair showcased his Glaramian roots, but blood flowed from his nose. His knee was bent at an awkward angle.

Asaria winced.

In a move not used in many months by royals in the arena, Camir held up two fingers, signaling his surrender.

The crowd booed and jeered their disapproval, calling for the punishment of the knight.

Her father surged to his feet. "Remove your helmet and drop your sword at once, knight!" His voice boomed around the arena, silencing the crowd.

Imalda's mouth hung open.

The sword hit the gravel.

Asaria reached up.

Pulled off the helmet.

Gasps.

She untied her hair, letting it flow down her back. Without any apology in her gaze, she met her father's eyes.

Camir swore.

His Majesty, Joreth Emery, looked ready to kill.