Rudi waited anxiously for Lady Tamara’s response. Her face was twisted into determined rage, eyes blazing with ire. Then, she suddenly closed her them and composed herself. Returning to her original, cold expression, Lady Tamara replied that one or two Altens was better than being completely surrounded by them. Silently, she spun around and strode out of the room.
“Um, Count?” Rudi asked tentatively, “do I still need to carry her things?”
Count Stephan sighed. “No, Rudi, you don’t have to. I only wish there was a better option for foreign weapons training. I wanted to have Ritterlich teach you all, but his hands are full enough at Reysa, and Sir Thorsten is planning on taking a squire this year.”
The only thing Rudi could think to say was an “oh.”
After another sigh, the count offered Rudi a second piece of candied fruit and sent him back to the entry hall. There, with the number of incoming knights dwindling, he found Vinnia loitering about with a few other pages. She seemed to notice him as soon as he entered the room.
“Rudi!” she called, waving a hand to get his attention, “Rudi, I found a knight to judge Axel and Elizabeth’s competition!”
Intrigued, Rudi jogged towards her to listen.
“So you know that lady knight I was helping earlier?” Vinnia asked excitedly. She didn’t wait for a nod. “Well, I told her that Axel and Elizabeth were looking for a knight to propose and judge a competition between them, and she told me she would be very interested in that sort of thing. I think she might be looking to take a squire next year, though she didn’t say it, and I think she’ll be quite fair.”
Unsure of what to say, Rudi nodded.
“And she’s so nice, too!” Vinnia continued, “I wish I could have her as my knight-teacher someday, though I doubt anyone will actually take me willingly. Oh, and she told me all sorts of things about Selim and even places further east than that! Like a humid place with lots of spices, and the place where they first made china.”
As he listened to Vinnia’s rambling, Rudi couldn’t help but wonder what she would think of their new foreign weaponry teacher. He only hoped there wouldn’t be too much tension between them.
Suddenly, a delicate hand swooshed across Rudi’s vision. “Hello?” Vinnia asked, “Are you even listening to me?”
“Oh, sorry Vinnia. What did you say?”
“I said that we should introduce her to Axel and Elizabeth today, since she told me the knights would be joining us in the mess hall. That way she can tell them the challenge and they can have time to prepare for it. I mean, from the looks of it, she was already plotting something evil for them to do.” Vinnia’s eyes gleamed with mischief, and Rudi got the idea that she had picked this lady knight simply because there was a possibility of trouble.
Straining his voice like Axel did whenever he tried to imply his disapproval, Rudi told Vinnia that hers was a lovely idea.
Later that night, however, Rudi found himself sincerely believing in Vinnia’s plan. Lady Naomi, as she was called, had joined Axel’s group of pages for dinner. Gesturing excitedly, she told fabulous stories of all the places she’d traveled to.
“And that,” she said, finishing a tale about the Nordrusk tundra, “is how I slew the largest spirit bear known to man.” With a swig of water—which she for some reason kept in a wine flask—Lady Naomi turned to Axel, a grin decorating her face. “Now then, you’re the fifth year page Vinny told me about, right? The one whose challenge I’m judging?”
Axel nodded, though his unease was clear as day.
“Well, why don’t we get your friend over here so I can explain how everything will work? I’ve got it all worked out with Count Stephan already, so you two are bound to have a good fight. In fact—actually, hold that thought. Got to wait for your friend before I spill the beans.”
Someone, though who it was Rudi didn’t know, fetched Elizabeth from her group. Her blonde head poked out among the many younger pages, but even from Rudi’s low viewpoint, it was clear that Bridget nearly matched her mentor in stature. As she came to a stop in front of Lady Naomi, she straightened and gave Axel a hard, haughty look.
“You’re Axel’s friend, I presume?” the lady knight said, smiling ear to ear. How a person could be so happy without their cheeks hurting was beyond Rudi. “It’s very nice to meet you. Now then, about that challenge. I’ve cleared it all over with Count Stephan. This will be an official, three-part contest between two fifth year pages. Each of you will declare one challenge, and then a neutral party, that being me, will decide the last, correct?”
Axel gulped. “We weren’t aware that this would be official.”
“Well, it is now. You’ll live. From what I’ve heard, it’ll be a fairly even match. Now then, have you two thought over your challenges yet?”
Both fifth years nodded, their faces stone as they tried to suppress anxiety.
“Good. So, ladies first. You’re Elizabeth, right? What’s your challenge?”
“Double-grip swordfight, Lady Naomi,” Elizabeth said seriously. Her lips were tight with worry, and Rudi could see sweat shining under her bangs.
With a sip from her flask, the lady knight turned to Axel. “And you?”
“A mage-duel with even-contest rules.” Rudi didn’t know what that was, but the surrounding pages immediately turned to whispering. Even Lady Naomi raised her eyebrows in surprise.
Vinnia’s hair brushed against Rudi’s cheek as she leaned towards him. “Even-contest is when the duelists have an averaging transmutation painted on both of them. It’s supposed to even out contestant power, but I’m not totally sure how it works.”
“Well then,” the lady knight suddenly declared, wrenching everyone from their conversations, “Here’s my challenge for the two of you. I’ve arranged for Count Stephan to remove both of you from the dance card lists.”
As other pages called out ‘no fair’s, and groaned, Elizabeth’s mouth curled into a smirk. Excitement danced in her blue eyes, but Axel’s face reflected pure dread. He knew nothing good could come of this.
“Of course, this doesn’t excuse you from dancing. In fact, that’s the challenge. The two of you are going to dance as many consecutive dances together as possible—don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get refreshments at allotted intervals. You’ll tally the number of times your partner suggests quitting, and whoever has more points at the end will lose the round.”
Elizabeth was aghast. Her gaze darted towards Axel just as his nervous one searched for hers. They locked eyes for one tense moment before the crowd of pages dispersed to finish the meal.
The next morning, Rudi found himself seated in the front row of the jousting field bleachers. Colorful fabrics billowed in the morning breeze, and fellow pages whooped and hollered in favor of either Elizabeth or Axel. Rudi yawned, his stomach grumbling as Vinnia flounced into the seat next to him.
“Simon decided to sleep in,” she said haughtily, “I hope he realizes he’s going to miss this. Idiot never understood that a challenge between pages will always be before breakfast so we can still get all our work done for the day.”
Still drowsy, Rudi nodded in response. He watched as another fifth year page walked onto the jousting field, closely followed by the two duelists. New, louder cheers erupted from the stands, blasting Rudi’s eardrums. He was starting to wish he’d slept in too, like Simon.
The neutral page held up the hands of both Axel and Elizabeth, showing off the blurry, black lines etched onto their palms.
“Let this duel be fair, and let it end in good sport!” the page announced, before clasping the contestants’ hands together. Switching to his magic sight, Rudi watched as streams of Axel and Elizabeth’s magics entwined around each other, combining until all Rudi could see in either of them was a convulsing, marbled mixture of lilac and brass. It looked a little gross, to be honest.
The audience quieted as the neutral page returned to the sidelines, and Axel and Elizabeth walked to their respective ends of the field.
Several moments of silence passed before Count Stephan’s voice echoed through the stadium. “Begin!”
The reaction was immediate. Elizabeth threw her hands forward, magic streaming ahead in a wave so hot it distorted Rudi’s view of the ground. It raced across the field, nearly hitting Axel. But it didn’t. With one arm, he split the wave in two, hot air rushing on either side of him.
His opponent wouldn’t just sit there while he countered though. Elizabeth reached upwards, snapping her fingers as she did it. Suddenly, roots sprang up by Axel’s feet, wrapping themselves around him. He struggled for a moment to pull them off, to no avail. The roots began lifting him off the ground, carrying him to Elizabeth’s side. The crowd held its breath and waited to see what Axel would do.
“Why is he smiling?” Vinnia asked. Rudi shook himself from the duel to look at her.
“Axel is smiling?” Rudi repeated.
Vinnia nodded. Then, without notice, her eyes widened. Rudi whipped his gaze back to the field just in time to see Axel slip from the roots’ hold. He dusted himself off and cocked his head, looking at Elizabeth expectantly.
Screwing her face into a rage, Elizabeth shouted that she hated Axel. She flew towards him, fire curling around her fists. Her first punch came fast, though Axel caught it. He hadn’t prepared correctly though, and he winced at a newly burned hand. She threw a second. This time, Axel caught her arm. He pulled her closer, holding her arm up so she couldn’t move.
Silence was the only sound the crowd made as Axel whispered into the struggling Elizabeth’s ear. She inhaled sharply.
It was as though time slowed. Rudi watched through his magic sight as Axel brought his burned hand to Elizabeth’s stomach. Magic surged through both of them, bursting from Elizabeth’s back in streaks of jagged lighting. She collapsed onto him the next moment, and suddenly, the count’s voice rose about the cheering.
“Axel of Baden has won the first match!”