The Consolation Prize – Alice Coldbreath

For God’s sake, thought Armand despairingly as his opponent swung wildly, overextended, and nearly lost his balance. If he wasn’t careful, he’d end up winning this bout. He feigned a slide even though the grass was dry and parched and dropped to one knee, letting his sword fall with a clatter. Surely even Farleigh couldn’t fuck this up. He watched the other’s eyes light up behind his visor as his competitor bore down on him with wild enthusiasm. At this rate, he’d end up losing an ear to this bloody young fool! “Do ye yield?” Farleigh panted, clumsily setting the point of his blade at Armand’s throat. “Watch my chin, for fuck’s sake, Farleigh, you oaf! Of course, I bloody do!” Someone in the crowd booed and others followed suit. Too bad, Armand thought, clambering to his knees. The crowd always hated it when he lost. But they’d had good entertainment from him this past quarter of an hour and no one could say they had not. He always put on a good show, and it wasn’t like his life had not been endangered. Not with an inexperienced hand at weapons like Farleigh. He pulled his helmet from his head and shrugged eloquently to the masses. A few lackluster cheers went up for him, though they turned to boos again as Farleigh held up his sword, turning in a circle for adulation. Feeling a stab of pity, Armand grimaced and approached his foe to hold up his arm in a show of sportsmanlike defeat.

Farleigh looked gratified as the crowd cheered for that gesture at least. He’d better make the most of it—whoever faced him in the next round would surely beat the living daylights out of him. As Armand knelt for the royal box, he scanned the crowd for that weasel Fulcher who owed him half of his takings. He was sure it would be a fat purse this time. After all, he had been runner-up at Tranton Vale and placed highly in the last three rural tournaments. No one could have predicted Armand de Bussell would go crashing out in the first round to a nonentity like Sir Douglas Farleigh, even if his form was sadly unpredictable. “De Bussell!” He gave a start, noticing that Farleigh was hissing at him out of the corner of his mouth. “What?” he snapped irritably. “The king speaks!” the other said hoarsely. Oh.

Armand lifted his head and noticed King Wymer had come to the front of the royal box. “… Grave disappointment.” The King was finishing. “But you must take heart. Fortune may be a fickle mistress, but I have no doubt she will smile on the house of De Bussell again one day soon.” Armand arranged his face into an expression of brave and noble suffering in the face of defeat. For some reason, Wymer usually gave him some word of favor at these events. Probably on account of his great-grandfather being one of Wymer’s grandfather’s staunchest supporters back in the day or some such thing. Besides, people always did like Armand. He was damned if he knew why.

His gaze wandered from the king, who was sadly shaking his head, to the queen regally waving to the crowd, to the third figure seated in the box, the reviled Northern princess. Armand winced. What the hells was that monstrous headdress, which stuck out like two cow horns on either side of her head? She looked totally out of place in the royal box, jarringly foreign with her barbarous trappings of a bygone age and utterly incongruous in comparison to the sophisticated Argent royals. It was ironic that it was her forbears, the Blechmarshes, who had been the ones to actually build this palace, while Wymer’s ancestors were merely poor relations. Funny how the world turns. He wondered if the wide and rigid construction she wore could possibly be fashionable in the North. It made her look more like a pavilion than a woman. She looked three times as wide as Queen Armenal, and that peculiar mass of frizzy hair didn’t help matters. For a moment he felt something akin to pity for the frumpy royal cousin. For a few years, it had been touch and go whether she would keep her head on her shoulders after the Northern forces fell.

It was dangerous having rival claims upon someone else’s throne. Inconvenient for the king that her claim was legitimate. Armand found himself wondering for a moment if she could possibly be as placid and bovine as she appeared, considering the blood of warlike kings that flowed in her veins. Then a trumpet blasted, and he was jerked out of his reverie. He needed a drink. And to find that rat Fulcher before he started spending their winnings. * “A pity, a great pity,” Wymer tutted as he sat back in his gilded seat. “If only De Bussell could conquer this wild inconsistency in his performance, he could be a fine champion one day.” Queen Armenal, sat at the King’s left, did not bother responding, so Una sat on a seat behind the two of them, leaned forward to give a murmur of agreement to her royal cousin. “He looks a fine figure of a man, cousin,” she commented in her most colorless tone.

She did not lie, for not only was De Bussell’s build athletic and muscular, his tanned face was also undeniably handsome. He looked the very image of knightly prowess, and it was a sad fact of life that appearances could often be deceptive. Wymer gave a bark of a laugh. “You’ll catch cold looking in that quarter. His family has been loyal to the Argent throne for centuries,” he said, jutting out his chin. Which meant they have also been an enemy of mine, thought Una. Wymer never failed to rub such things in her face where he could. If only he knew how much she loathed any loyalty to her own family’s cause, she thought with wry amusement. Northern followers were the bane of her existence. Their insistence that she was the true ruler of all Karadok had nearly sent her to the executioner’s block on several occasions over the years.

Would her royal cousin, as she was now bid to call him, ever forgive her for existing? She had such hopes for reconciliation when she had first come to court eighteen months ago. But now, her only wish was to marry some obscure knight and be allowed to sink into obscurity, tucked away in some remote spot where she could at last be free of her bloody heritage. She felt her stomach lurch as the next two combatants took to the field. Surely, that was Otho. What on earth was Otho doing here? And why, oh why, would one of her own half-brothers be fighting in a contest to find her a bridegroom? It made no sense! Craning her ears, she made out the name the herald announced: Sir Bavistock of Leigh. Una’s heart sank, he was fighting under a false name. What on earth was she going to do if he made it through to the final? Could she really denounce Otho, the only one of her father’s numerous bastards, who she actually held some affection for? She certainly could not marry her own brother! “Never heard of this pair,” Wymer muttered irritably, jerking her out of her thoughts. “Northerners?” Una hesitated. “I do not know them, cousin,” she answered and wondered if she was, once again, setting her head on the axman’s block with this lie. Would it never end? Wymer waved a hand and a servant darted forward.

“Fetch me Vawdrey,” he said plaintively, asking for his chief advisor. Una’s heart sank. Most people knew Earl Vawdrey was also His Majesty’s spymaster. She felt a good deal of anxiety whenever she caught sight of his tall, elegant figure about court, dressed head to toe in unrelenting black. What if he recognized Otho as one of her half-blood siblings? She wouldn’t put such knowledge past him. He knew so many unexpected things, that people sometimes whispered he was in league with imps and demons. Not that Una believed in such things. She was all too aware of the horrors men were capable of, to start inventing ghouls and beasties to account for them. “Can you not go one morning without consulting Vawdrey?” Queen Armenal sniped with a roll of her eyes. “Why should I?” Wymer asked shortly.

“Besides, he organized this May Day debacle.” He shifted restlessly in his seat. “It’s an insult having this damned bunch of no-names competing!” “You’re just cross because De Bussell went crashing out,” Armenal said with a tinkling laugh. “All because he looks exactly to you as a knight should. Did you wager on his winning?” She sighed. “You never learn! Just because he looks the part, you’re determined to back him, despite all evidence to the contrary.” Wymer’s glower increased and Una guessed the Queen had guessed right about the wager. A footfall behind them had Wymer swiveling around in his seat. “There you are, Vawdrey!” the King cried out as Earl Vawdrey appeared next to him with a smile on his handsome face. He bowed his dark head to Queen Armenal, who nodded coldly, and to Una who responded in kind.

“Your Majesties,” he murmured. “Are you enjoying the festivities?” He swept a hand eloquently toward the competitors. Before the competition of arms, there had been dancing of maidens around a pole decked with ribbons and accompanied by musicians. In the North this was traditionally done around a white hawthorn tree, but things were different here in the South. Or maybe it was just here in the palace that they dispensed with trees. Una wasn’t sure. “Enjoying it, be damned!” burst out Wymer. “I don’t know half of these fellows who have thrown their hat in the ring! What do you mean by allowing these nonentities to compete for my cousin’s hand?” He glanced at Una. “She’s a princess of the blood, I’ll remind you!” “I’m not likely to forget,” Vawdrey answered coolly. “But you must allow the criteria for entrants has prohibited many of our brightest competitors from entry.

” The King frowned. “If you recall,” Earl Vawdrey added mildly. “They must be unwed, distinguished by birth, own their own estate, and be loyal to the crown.” He counted the points on his long, elegant fingers. “And?” barked Wymer, clearly in a confrontational mood. “What of it? Admittedly Orde and your brother are out of the running, but Kentigern’s not married to my knowledge and neither is De Crecy. Even young Renlow is conspicuous in his absence. Where are they, sirrah?” “Perhaps they do not wish to be saddled with a wife?” suggested Queen Armenal, sotto voce. Una was glad that she was not easily put to the blush. The implication was clearly that they did not wish to be saddled with her.

“Renlow does not own his own estate,” Earl Vawdrey put in smoothly. “He’s a younger son. As for Lord Kentigern … he was a prominent figure during the war, was he not?” he suggested delicately. “It would perhaps seem impolitic for him to compete.” Una did flush at that. Lord Kentigern had suffered grievous wounds in service of the Blechmarsh forces. His lands and his ancient seat had been confiscated after crushing defeat. Doubtless looking on her face every morn would serve as an unpleasant reminder of all he had lost. She did not blame him one bit for shunning this tournament. Who would? “And De Crecy?” Wymer snapped.

Oswald pursed his lips. “I have heard a rumor that Sir Jeffrey is already married, sire, though as to its veracity, I could not say.” “Humph!” The King sat back in his chair. “I suppose I shall have to accept these sundry excuses,” he said grudgingly. “But I am sorely vexed there are not more prominent knights of the realm to be seen this day. What of Bevan of Knollesley? Or Sir James Attley?” “Alas”—Vawdrey spread his hands wide—“unforeseen circumstances do arise, Your Highness.” Una stared straight ahead of her, grateful for the stiff jeweled collar that kept her head upright and the cumbersome headdress that meant she could not see the Queen’s expression unless she fully turned her head. No doubt Armenal would be vastly amused. The Queen did not appreciate having to share the dais with another female these days. Una hardly blamed her for her knowing smirk though.

’Twas obvious to all present, that these Southern knights did not wish for the dubious honor of being wedded to a dethroned princess, besmirched with ill fame. Even her dubious royal status would be lost as soon as they married her. Her unpopularity at court probably did not help either, she acknowledged unflinchingly. She had heard echoes of some of the cruel jibes and whispers about her, though no one dared say to her face that they found her ugly, her accent unattractive, and her Northern manners stiff and outdated. She had heard the court jester refer to her as “the Northern mare” or “the warhorse of Blandivar” and the guffaws that had greeted these words, though she had pretended to be quite oblivious. Fortunately for her, Una’s upbringing had been so dire that a few tittering courtiers were hardly enough to make a dent in her armor, which had been twenty-four years in the making. For someone who had spent the latter part of their childhood dragged from one battlefield to another and had languished the last three years under house arrest, being shunned at court was like a flea bite after being savaged by a pack of ravenous wolves. She found her stoic calm mostly unruffled by the experience, although it wasn’t pleasant to be a social pariah. It beat waking every morning in draughty fortresses to the clash of swords, never knowing when she might feel a dagger at her throat or be forced to mount the gallows as a traitor. “Sir Bavistock?” mused Earl Vawdrey, rousing her from her reflections with a jolt.

She noticed, uncomfortably that his gaze was trained on her now rather thoughtfully. “I do not think I’ve ever heard tell of him before today. Now, what was the name of the other?” he said, casting his name down a list he carried. “Ah, yes, Sir Walter Skeffington. I fancy the Skeffingtons are descended from the Borlois family, a minor branch of less distinction.” “Indeed?” the King grunted. “Well, Sir Walter looks a spindle-shanked fellow. This other—” He waved a hand irritably, clearly having forgotten Otho’s assumed identity. “Bavistock,” supplied Vawdrey helpfully, a smile playing about his lips that made Una uneasy. He surely could not know him for her baseborn brother, or he would say something, would he not? “This Bavistock will soon have the best of him, I’ll wager.

” When no-one argued, King Wymer looked disgruntled. He soon cheered up though, when after a few moments of swordplay, Otho beat the unfortunate Sir Walter in an ignominious defeat. “There, did I not say so?” he demanded, gratified to be proved right. Earl Vawdrey inclined his head. “Just so, sire,” he said, smothering a small yawn. The King drummed his fingers against the arms of his chair. “Who else competes?” he barked. “Surely there is some half-eligible knight, who will win my cousin’s hand outright?” Wordlessly, Lord Vawdrey passed him the list of competitors. Una watched with some perturbation as Wymer’s face turned increasingly more purple as his gaze traveled down the list. “Intolerable!” he burst out at last.

“Not to be borne! I don’t recognize a single name among this bunch of hedge-born churls!” “My King,” said Queen Armenal reproachfully. “You cannot blame Earl Vawdrey entirely for this fiasco, for it was you yourself who set the criteria. You alone insisted it must be a combative knight who must win her hand in marriage.” Wymer’s jaw thrust out angrily. “I am aware of that! But I had thought—” He broke off impatiently. “However, that can’t be helped. They did not come to compete, and it appears I cannot force them to.” Una’s color blazed and she realized she could be mortified after all. “Not one of these low-born knaves can be permitted to win my royal cousin’s hand!” the King hissed. “It’s an insult to sovereignty!” “Your Highness—,” Vawdrey began placatingly.

“I won’t have it! A damn bunch of country yokels with nary a decent connection between them! Half of them could scarcely have been presented at court!” “I am persuaded that you are not in earnest,” Vawdrey said calmly. “For you gave your word the princess’s hand would be awarded at the outcome of this event, and every man present knows the King’s word is law.” The King’s face turned even more violently purple, and Una felt a sudden alarm that he might be taken off by apoplexy. She turned her eyes on the queen, but Armenal was murmuring behind her hand to one of her ladies in waiting. “You must not upset yourself, sire,” Vawdrey said with a shrug. “For there is always some way of negotiating around these things, if needs must.” Wymer looked up sharply. “I do not take your meaning.” he barked, a gleam of hope now in his eyes. “Do you tell me you’ve hit upon some way out of this damnable mess?” Earl Vawdrey smiled a rather wintry smile.

“Let me consider the matter, Your Majesty.” Wymer grunted but relaxed back into his chair. “Aye, well see that you do, that’s all!” he said pettishly. “For I won’t abide by the winner of this piece of mummery, and so I warn you!” Una risked another glance at Lord Vawdrey and found him looking thoughtful. She glanced back down at Otho who raised his sword to the restless crowd. They too did not seem happy that there was no clear favorite to cheer for. It seemed almost that they picked up on their King’s palpable displeasure and took it for their lead. None of these competitors knew how to play to the crowd like the seasoned favorites did. In the last eighteen months, Una had come to a pretty shrewd knowledge of how fond these Southerners were of their pageantry. Caer-Lyoness was used to the flamboyance of the King’s champion, Sir Roland Vawdrey or the proud Jeffrey de Crecy.

If they were to cheer for an anti-hero, they preferred the arrogance of Sir Garman Orde or the brutality of Lord Kentigern.

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