Looking over the competition, Alex felt confident this joust would go well. Last year, he lost to Count Estvern’s son by judge decision. This year, Brendan had been sent into the King’s Cavalry, the same place Alex would go after his eighteenth birthday in three more months. It left him as the one with the most to gain from a win and the most to lose without one.
“Boy, just make sure to–”
“I know how to joust, Father.” Alex stifled down a roll of his eyes so the Baron wouldn’t see it. He patted the neck of his horse, a steady beast he’d trained himself. “Is Mother here?”
The Baron of Killendy spat on the churned dirt, missing his polished black boot by an inch. “She’s off husband-hunting for your sisters.”
And, Alex suspected, looking out for wife material for him. His lip curled at the idea of scouting eight-year-old girls to find the one with the right breeding to be suitable for him in another decade. He’d marry whoever she told him to, of course, but he didn’t have to be happy about it. “Ah. I suppose this isn’t terribly important from her point of view.”
“Of course not. She’s a woman and can’t be trusted to understand what’s important.” The Baron rolled his eyes and turned away. “Don’t embarrass me.” With that rousing endorsement, he walked away to take his place in the box reserved for the nobility. His finery allowed him to claim the seat beside the Duke of Northlund and below the Duke of Cadogawr. Poorer nobles had to sit on the other end.
Alex noticed a woman with a young girl clinging to her red velvet dress as she sized him up. He nodded and pushed his visor down to avoid letting her see his revulsion at her obvious intention to catch his eye for her daughter. The woman leaned over and pointed at him. The girl nodded and smiled at him. Because he knew his part to play, Alex lifted a hand and waved to her.
Turning his horse away, he led the parade circuit of the pitch. He waved to the crowd, as was expected of him, and stopped to the side of the King’s booth. There, he waited while the rest of the jousters lined up. Beside him, the son of the Count of Endwyfr held the reins of his black stallion tight while it stamped and shook its head.
Alex’s chestnut mare stood rock steady for him. He had a thought to point out that the stallion wanted more lead, but if the boy didn’t know better, that would reflect on the Count. The Baron would enjoy taunting him for it.
“On the north end, Alexander of Killendy!” The King’s Seneschal, an aging jester in King Brannon’s green and black, boomed his announcement out, sending the crowd into an anticipatory hush.
Alex urged his mare forward and waved to the crowd. As he snapped her reins, his steward hurried to the north side of the pitch with his lances and shield. He wondered why they chose to send him out first, since they had to know he’d win today. The best usually waited until last.
“On the south end, Kevin of Orilwyn!”
The boy who wrestled his horse to the opposite end of the pitch, the son of a Count, made Alex’s blood boil. He and his father both had been insulted by this first match against a fourteen-year-old with no experience. Alex scanned the box and saw his father reach the same conclusion. To his surprise, the Count of Orilwyn had gone pale, suggesting the King chose to use Alex to punish Orilwyn for some reason. Mother would know why–she kept up on all the gossip.
“Don’t kill him,” Edward suggested as he handed Alex his shield and lance.
“It’ll be hard to avoid, but I’ll do my best.” Alex hefted his lance and watched Kevin fumbling with his own. He’d meant his response in jest, but as he noted how poorly the boy held his shield, he genuinely feared Kevin could be killed in this contest designed to entertain the commoners and designate the pecking order among the noble sons.
“Riders to your marks!”
Alex’s mare snorted. He lowered his lance across her neck and braced his shield. When the Seneschal blew his horn, the mare launched into a gallop without needing to be spurred. Kevin’s horse fought him and only lurched in the correct direction for two steps before Alex’s lance slammed into Kevin’s shield with a thunderous crack and knocked him ten feet back to land in the soft dirt. His head clanged against the ground and the boy lay still.
The mare whinnied and pranced for the roar of the crowd. Alex pushed his visor up to smile and wave, and noticed his father taking the opportunity to shout angrily at the Duke of Cadogawr. At the other end, the Count of Orilwyn jumped to his feet and gripped the railing with white knuckles.
Kevin’s steward reached the boy and pulled the shield off his arm. He struggled with the boy’s helm, prompting Alex to urge his mare to their side. “Is he breathing?”
“I can’t tell, m’Lord.” The steward fumbled with the helm still.
Alex tossed his shield and broken lance and swung off the mare. Taking a knee beside the boy, he shooed the steward’s hands away and gripped the helm. “Have you never squired a joust before?”
“No, m’Lord.” The steward’s face turned pink. “It’s our first match ever.”
Yanking the helm off, Alex flung it aside and patted the boy’s cheek with his gauntleted hand. “He should have declined the invitation until he could run in a smaller match.”
“I don’t think the Count had the option, m’Lord.”
That news raised one of Alex’s eyebrows. He’d never heard of such a restriction before. Standing, he raised a hand for quiet. “He needs a Healer, Your Majesty.”
King Brannon waved a bony hand to allow the intervention. As his hand fell back into his lap, he met Alex’s gaze and the old man’s mouth quirked into a cruel smirk for half a second.
The expression cemented the suspicion he’d been used as a tool to shame Orilwyn. That thought left a sour taste in Alex’s mouth. His steward handed him the reins for his horse and he turned away, content to let others handle the boy. Nothing else would consume him half so much for the rest of the day, though, as discovering why Kevin had to be humiliated and why he’d been chosen for the task.