Falling in Love (is hard on the back)

It may be a story you've heard before. Medieval boy meets girl at a combat tournament. Boy banters with girl, girl then punches another man in the face… wait, what? AU

The crack of splintering wood should have been deafening were his hearing not already dulled by his helmet. The next thing he knew, he had a perfect view of the cloudless sky above him as he lay on his back. His breaths came hard and fast, impeded only by the weight of armor on his chest and he could just make out the whinnying of his horse in the distance, most likely being led away by his squires.

His appreciation of the varying shades of blue that stretched out above him was cut short when his line of sight was invaded by a dusty breastplate bearing a very weather-beaten, but familiar sigil of a cockatrice. Turning his head to one side, he saw the ever-present helmet of his opponent along with their outstretched, gauntleted hand, clearly offering him assistance. It had become somewhat of a thing between them, offering a hand to the other whenever they had the honor of facing off. With a nod that he doubted even translated through the heavy headgear he wore, he reached up towards them and used their sturdy grip as they grasped each other by the forearms to get his feet under him once more.

Now standing, he adjusted his armor from where it shifted due to his fall and made a mental note of what pieces would require extra attention from the blacksmith.

"I thought I had you there with that blow to the shoulder, but you still managed to unseat me after all," his admiring smile evident in his voice as he spoke to his diminutive, but equally armored, counterpart that still stood beside him. "Congratulations."

They only nodded once in response before slowly making their way over to where the prizes were being presented. Having gathered his wits, he hastened after them, arriving only a few seconds after they did.

"For their outstanding skill in having bested their opponents at the joust, the victory goes to Sir Bo."

There was a round of raucous applause and cheers all about them as the announcer gave the official tally of scores.

Clapping his gauntlet on the winning knight's uninjured shoulder, he leaned in so that he could be heard over the crowd, "Since you have this whole reputation of mystery to maintain, I doubt I will see you at the ball this evening. I suppose we'll meet again at the tournament next month?"

Sir Bo only nodded again.

"Excellent, I'll be sure to train extra hard," he grinned, then laughed. "It's probably my turn to win again, after all."

Patting the knight twice in farewell, he reached up to remove his helmet and waved at the crowd with a dazzling smile before leaving them to continue showering the triumphant Bo with their praises. He returned to his squires to find them feeding and brushing his horse. Once they caught sight of him, two men immediately broke away to help him out of his armor.

"Got pecked by the chicken, this time eh?"

"They fought well and were victorious," he shrugged. "We are the top two competitors after all."

"Still haven't gotten a peep out of them, have ya?"

He shook his head, "Not really trying to, to be honest."

"Their squires are just as cagey," the man to his left remarked. "They'll drink you under the table with plenty of sass to boot, but those Ishibashi boys are remarkably tight-lipped about their knight."

"They most likely have their reasons for not talking or showing their face," he gave the men a pointed look while unstrapping the bracer from his left leg. "Surely you can understand that."

Everyone present grumbled in agreement, not quite meeting his eyes, but said nothing further. His joints popped audibly as he stretched, now free of his armor. He held up one of his pauldrons to study his reflection for a moment, getting as close to the shiny metallic surface as he could to scrutinize his hair and face.

He was mostly worried about his eyes.

Most people looked at him from afar at the tournament so it was less of a worry in that sort of venue. However, with the ball that evening, he hoped he would continue to escape notice. The eyedrops he had acquired from his apothecary back home had run out that morning. He was supposed to put two drops in each eye daily. Unfortunately, there were only two drops remaining in the tiny glass vial. Thus, one drop per eye had to suffice for the remainder of the day. They still looked fairly brown, so he was safe for now. Still, he would dress accordingly just in case.

His mother always said greens brought out his eyes.

The ball was, as always, a lavish affair filled with rich fabrics, polished porcelains and glittering, jewel-encrusted metals. And that was just the decor. The attendees were equally, if not more so, adorned. The host spared no expense and served a sumptuous meal of meats, breads and roasted vegetables. Once the quartet of musicians began to play and all attendees milled about to socialize, he made a circuit of the room, exchanging pleasantries with those nobles he recognized and quickly introduced himself to those he did not.

Satisfied that he'd accomplished the minimum required interactions, he sequestered himself in one of the dimmer lit corners of the room. He stared absentmindedly at a nearby candelabra, swirling the last of the wine in his goblet and taking no heed of the person who quietly sidled up beside him.

"I'd extend my congratulations, Sir Ren, but it seems your victory was stolen from you today."

At the sound of the familiar, teasing voice, one side of his mouth tilted upward and he looked away from the dancing candle flames to meet the impish, golden gaze of the woman who stood next to him in an elaborate gown of deep blue and gold with her dark hair in an expertly braided crown encircling her head.

"It would only be stealing if my opponent did not compete honorably. Seeing as they did, I have no complaints or regrets," his crooked smile transformed into a brilliant grin. "A pleasure to see you as always, Marquess de Mogami."

Though she did not offer it, he reached for her hand and swooped into a deep bow before placing his lips gently on the back of it. She quickly pulled away with a huff making no small show of wiping off her hand in the skirts of her dress. Ren brought his hand up to his chest in mock offense before laughing at her theatrics.

"The pleasure is all yours, I assure you," she muttered.

"I would remind the lady that she approached me, but I do not wish to incur her wrath."

"A wise decision," the Marquess smiled in satisfaction and turned to look out into the room. "It seems you continue to have such kind words for that elusive knight whenever you two compete."

"They have done me no insult."

She made a small noise of indignation. "That does not seem to be a requirement for many of the other competitors to disparage them."

"Alas, I can only speak for myself and the others are free to think as they wish," his voice lowered and he leaned closer, missing the wince on her face as he brushed against her shoulder. "And, unfortunately, what I could say about the other men is not suitable for polite company or delicate ears."

"And you are saying that I'm one or both of those?" her eyebrow tipped upward in amused query.

"Of course not, my dear Marquess, after the incident with Sir Taira following the tournament several months ago I have since abolished the notion that you are either. I think he still walks with the occasional limp after you drove your heel into his foot," his laugh was deep but short-lived. "I merely wish to spare anyone else who might overhear us."

Her sigh was nearly a growl, "I've no use for knights."

"And, yet, you are at almost every ball. Furthermore, you are still here talking with me."

"You irritate me the least," came her brusque reply. "As for my continuous attendance of these events—why are you suddenly so close to me?"

His smile was, somehow, both sheepish and taunting at the same time. "I feel as if I'm about to be privy to a grand secret, so I was not about to miss a single word."

She groaned.

"The more time I spend travelling to tournaments, the less I have available to attend the Royal Court."

"... I am afraid I don't understand," Ren admitted.

Another groan wormed its way out.

"It is the opinion of my contemporaries that I am of marriageable age and should be spending my time amongst other nobles so that I may be courted."

Finally, he nodded in comprehension. "And you are not of a similar opinion."

"It seems that your prowess in combat did not replace your deductive abilities after all," her delivery was straight-faced up until a wry smile formed on her lips.

"You flatter me, Marquess."

"Do not get used to it."

The group of musicians playing in the opposite corner of the room had paused to welcome a minstrel to their group who invited all of the guests to pair up for a dance. Ren held out a hand to the lady at his side, inviting her to join him. Her face colored for just a moment before her lips bowed into a frown and she shook her head.

"Unless you wish to be invited by one of the other eligible bachelors here," his smile was polite, but his eyes betrayed the ultimatum. "I believe the Earl of Koga was looking at you about as often as he was glaring at me."

"This abhorrent coercion will not stand," she hissed at him.

"Yes, but will it dance?"

He led her to where the other couples had congregated, pulling her along despite her reluctant steps. The first few notes of a branle began and he chuckled at the elongated sigh of disappointment from his companion. Her left hand was held in his right as everyone stood in a circle. Side-steps to the right began, followed by equal steps to the left and, while he did pay the errant, polite compliment to the duchess that stood on his other side, his focus was mostly on the marquess.

"If you could have your choice of pairing," he murmured so that only she would hear. "Who would it be?"

"Why, the Prince, of course."

Ren did his best to finesse the misstep he made at her reply and continue dancing.

"Have your eyes on the throne, do you?"

"Goodness no," she replied before turning away.

He waited anxiously for the rest of her explanation, biding his time until her steps turned her to face him again.

"He is a safe option because he is unattainable."

"Explain," he more mouthed it than said it before clapping his hands and turning about.

"Most other women have a number of fantastical designs on the Prince, but I prefer the reality that he will most likely be married off to some foreign princess as part of some treaty and they will live happily ever after producing the heirs required by their parents whilst dallying with their concubines in the interim."

Ren groaned. That sounded desolately plausible and his stomach twisted into knots. Still, he pressed on.

"And this benefits you how?"

"If I declare my intentions for a man I will never be able to marry, I've saved myself the heartbreak of taking a chance on any other man."

Her tone was airy and hopeful and it made him strangely sad.

"You're doing this to avoid ever falling in love?"

She laughed, spinning around once before rejoining her hand to his.

"Oh, no, I've fallen in love once before," she leaned over to whisper. "It was absolutely horrid. I do not recommend it."

He was so bewildered by her words, his only reaction was to laugh. The dance continued around them and they participated to the extent that their hands and feet mimicked the others at the appropriate time. But, they were wholly invested in their conversation with each other and, despite the numerous other people in the room, it was as if they inhabited a realm comprised of only themselves.

"And how do you think the Prince would feel were he to know you were using him as an unwitting scapegoat?" He asked eventually.

"I met him once when we were children and he seemed nice enough," she smiled fondly at the memory. "I doubt he would mind."

This was definitely a story he needed to hear.

"Did you really? How did that go?"

"The King had paid a visit to the lands neighboring my father's, I believe. We met in a glade along the stream that bordered both territories. When he told me he was a prince, I did not believe him and asked if he thought he was prince of the fey folk."

Ren's snicker was louder than he intended it to be. "Apologies, please continue."

"Well, he was surprisingly accommodating to my misconception for the remainder of our meeting and we played together for some time until he announced that he had to leave," her brow furrowed as she abruptly frowned. "It wasn't until my mother harshly corrected me when I tried to call out to him in the market a few days later that I realized my mistake."

The dance finally ended and they turned to one another. Her eyes looked both guarded and vulnerable, the gold glimmer that usually resided in them had dulled. While he could have left her to steep in the silence that settled between them now that there was no music or movement to fill in the background of their surprisingly honest conversation, he was nothing if not a gentleman. He smiled and offered her his arm, leading her away from the others who still milled about, ready for the next dance.

"Since you befriended His Majesty so easily as a child, I doubt you'd have any difficulty in winning him to your side now," he said once they'd reached the corner where they had previously stood.

The Marquess narrowed wary eyes at him.

"I do not think I'll be meeting him any time soon, so it's really not a concern."

He couldn't stop the giddy chortle that escaped his mouth even if he bothered to try.

"As always, you are a delight to converse with," he said by way of an excuse for his mirth.

Their banter was disrupted by the appearance of an intruder. A wiry male made his way over to them with the confident saunter of someone twice his size. Flipping his pale hair out of his face with a toss of his head, he directed his attention to Ren.

"I don't know why you still insist on wasting your time with this one when more than half of everyone here would've happily retired to your chambers with you within the first hour of this gathering."

"Does that number include yourself, Count Reino?" he asked with a grin. "I loathe to disappoint you, but I don't believe you are my type. You do not seem the sort who would want a summer wedding."

The other man spluttered for a few short moments before composing himself again.

"I was simply offering to relieve you of this unfortunate soul so that you could pursue more… fruitful endeavors."

Ren was about to retort with whatever witty reply his mind instantly concocted and delivered to his tongue when the Marquess shifted to stand between him and Reino. Thus, he choked on his words and could only look down at the irate woman who stood in front of him as she surveyed the other man from head to toe as if she towered a foot over him despite the opposite being true. He knew that look and he knew that stance as he had seen it a few times before. Instinctively, he took one step back to protect his feet.

"This 'unfortunate soul' does not like being talked about as if she is not present. Moreover, she does not appreciate people interrupting her conversations when they were clearly not invited," her words were clipped and dripping with anger. "Now, if you would excuse us Count Reino."

Ren marveled at the way she said the man's title, as if she questioned its validity and accused him of being a fraud. The fact that she could do it simply by altering her tone was admirable.

"My sincerest apologies, Marquess," Reino's imploring was overwrought, as was his wont. "I only wanted to inform a fellow colleague that his intention to bed you was a lost cause."

Ren's plan was to step around her and escort the man outside so he could turn him into a lost cause, but he stopped his advance when he saw her arm lift. In the span of time it took to inhale a breath, her hand had clenched itself into a fist and collided forcefully with the count's nose. His first instinct was to check on her and the moment he saw her pained face and the fact that she was cupping her elbow with one hand while the other remand clenched and trembling, he swiftly ushered her out of the room and ignored the gasps and murmurs that followed behind them.

"You didn't have to do this."

Not knowing where to go, they ended up in the kitchens, sat upon sacks of grain while he wrapped a rag soaked in cold water around her knuckles.

"I believe those words were meant for me to say," Ren retorted in a soft tone. "I was prepared to deal with that terrible man on my own. Now I'll have to endure the jeering of my peers because my honor was defended by a lady."

Her eyes snapped to his, indignant for only a moment until she caught the teasing expression on his face. She shook her head with an ungainly snort.

"He had no right to talk about you in such a manner. I've no use for rude people."

"I suppose," Ren agreed, drawing out the last syllable to buy some time before continuing. "However, what if his assumption was actually correct?"

She looked away before he could catch on to her discomposure.

"You've had ample opportunities to try over the past year and you have not," she said, staring intently at her hand, which was still clasped in his. "I don't believe you would suddenly decide to start now."

Slowly unwrapping his hands from around hers, he let his fingers trail along the dampened cloth before fully pulling away, causing her to look up at him once more.

"I thank you, my Lady, for protecting me. I am in your debt," he said it with far more solemnity than he'd meant to and none of the levity.

"Has anyone ever noticed that your eyes have a bit of green in them?" she asked, brushing aside his words and the heavy mood that threatened to pervade the air.

His sigh smoothly transitioned into a laugh.

"Mother often said she noticed it whenever I wore green," he gestured to the moss-colored damask of his sleeve. "But I could never tell the difference so I had a hard time believing her."

"Why wouldn't you believe your own mother?"

His laugh was low and quiet. "You should hear the tales of incurable illnesses she concocts when she's decided I've been away for too long and she wants me to return home for a visit."

She smiled again, finally.

"Ah, and now that I have lifted your spirits, permit me to send them soaring by removing myself from your presence."

Her smile only widened and she shook her head.

"You are too kind."

"Just don't tell anyone else," he winked. "I have a reputation to uphold."

A tender smile formed on his face at the sound of her giggle and he stood up to bow in farewell.

"Safe travels, Sir Ren, I suppose I shall see you again in a month."

"You as well, Marquess," he nodded as he straightened up. "Try not to break the nose of anyone else. At least until I'm present to witness that spectacle again."

Everything that could go wrong, did on their way to the next tournament. The wheel of their cart stuck fast in a muddy ditch during an unexpected storm. When he went to help his squires with freeing the wheel so they could be on their way, the drenching rain leeched the dark brown pigment he'd brushed into his hair and the majority of it was now soaked into the front and back of his tunic. Additionally, his bottle of eyedrops broke during the commotion leaving behind a scant bit of liquid polluted with shards of shattered glass.

Still, he would not withdraw from the tournament. His father had bidden that he return immediately after the competition as they were expecting guests from a neighboring kingdom. It was intimated that he would be required to entertain their princess for the duration of her stay. Following that bit of news, his horse couldn't go fast enough to get him away from the palace.

He would just have to be creative.

"My helmet suffered a bit of a dent when it fell from trunk while we were offloading and I haven't the coin to spare to repair it," he lied to the officials without any hesitation. "It stays on just fine, but it's the removal part that is a bit difficult."

He tugged at his own helmet to demonstrate, thankful that the blacksmith — who was paid exceedingly well by his squires for his discretion — was able to create both a believable dent as well as a harness that made it nigh immovable unless you knew just how to unfasten it. With that, his story was neatly corroborated and he was allowed to compete. His usual confident strut was a bit more energetic as he happily made his way out towards the field to watch the bouts that preceded his.

The whispers among the other competitors at the lists was that the chicken was out for blood that day. It certainly seemed to be true from what he could tell. Sir Bo was trouncing their opponents with a newborn ferocity. He winced as he watched the knight's most recent challenger take a perfectly aimed lance tip to the helmet, sending him flailing backwards atop his horse for a few seconds before he struggled to sit upright once more.

Ren's hand touched the underside of his own helmet where the hidden harness was and hoped it would withstand a strike like that when it was his turn.

Two day's worth of wins finally brought him head-to-head with Bo. It would've been a sizeable lie if he said he hadn't eagerly awaited this opportunity. He eyed the familiar horse across the field through the slit in his visor, it's black coat and mane freshly brushed and gleaming in the sun beneath the armor that protected it's chest and face. Sir Bo sat atop their horse in their usual, perfectly-postured manner, awaiting the start of their first round.

It wasn't long before his lance was placed in his hand by one of his squires and he was galloping full speed towards his opponent on the other side of the tilt. They met somewhere near the center and he only just noticed the slight trajectory change of the lance bearing down on him and managed to adjust the grip on his own to slide alongside it, guiding it to glance off his shoulder. The tip of his lance hit the left side of his opponent's breastplate, and it shattered in a shower of wood splinters.

That was one point for him.

The second round, he was not so lucky and the tip of Sir Bo's lance collided with his helmet, sending him sprawling backwards against his saddle. Thankful that he managed to stay seated on his horse, he pulled himself upright and shook his head to clear the jarring vibrations that still echoed through it. He turned his horse around to bring it back to the starting point with his still-intact lance in hand.

That was two points for Sir Bo.

Ren had to think hard for the next round. Would they try to go for a blow to the chest? They only needed one more point to win and that would give it to them. Plus, it's a larger and easier target to hit. Then again, another hit to the head or a complete unhorsing would seal their victory many times over, but it was risky. What would he do in this situation?

Unfortunately, he did not have a surplus of time to consider all of the possibilities and decided to go into it extra cautious and prepared for almost anything. He still had to even the score, after all.

Rather than crossing lances on the inside when they met each other along the tilt as he'd done before, he instead aimed his on the outside. His lance slid up the side of the other, putting him in perfect range to hit Bo's helmet. At the same time, he used the weight of the lance to push his opponent's lower and off to one side. He was so excited to be able to land a helmet strike, he missed Bo's sudden course correction and they struck each other simultaneously at full force.

The air disappeared from his lungs and his horse disappeared from underneath him. He was falling backwards with very little time to brace for what was sure to be a less than graceful landing. His upper back hit the ground first, followed by his head and then his legs. A flurry of wooden shards followed his path downward, scattering over him.

Groaning, he sat up, expecting to see Sir Bo across the field, most likely dismounting from their horse before silently basking in their victory. Instead he saw no such thing. But he heard plenty.

"Sir Bo isn't a knight at all!" someone cried out.

"They're not even a man," supplied another.

Finally regaining his bearings, he managed to stand after much effort and awkward flailing. He staggered towards the tilt, placing a hand on it and using it to help keep him on his feet as he made his way to the other side. Drawing closer, he saw a body laying sprawled and supine on the ground just ahead of him. A helmet sat upside down more than an arm's length reach away and long, dark brown hair spilled across the ground between said body and said helmet.

The person sat up and he got an eyeful of a face he knew only too well. Confident that he was able to support his own weight, he stepped away from the tilt and moved closer. Bracing one hand against his knee, he bent forward and offered the other to his opponent. They looked up at him, dusty and bewildered and hesitated for a moment before placing their hand in his. Once they were both standing, he proceeded to then collect their helmet, handing it off to them while they adjusted their twisted armor.

Marquess Kyoko de Mogami refused to look at him, her cheeks red with embarrassment. Ren chuckled at the whole predicament and shook his head.

"Since you so valiantly defended me at the last tournament's ball, I believe I stated that I am in your debt. As such, I'm inclined to return the favor," he offered, grinning behind his helmet. "Would you like for me to create a distraction?"

"Unless you can stand on your head while singing a song backwards, I doubt you'll be able to surpass the spectacle I have made."

He laughed again. "That was not exactly what I had in mind, but if you wish it, Marquess, I'd be happy to attempt it with one of those bawdy tavern songs."

The Marquess narrowed her eyes at him. "And what, exactly, did you have in mind?"

"I was going to level the playing field, as it were," he removed his gauntlets and tapped a finger against his helmet.

"And how would that help? Everyone already knows your face."

He shrugged, "Well, they know one of them. Actually, I misspoke, they know both of them."

"You're still not making any sense."

"Do not worry, it will all become clear in a moment," he said in a light, flippant tone. "Tell me, Marquess, what was the name of that cluster of rocks near the stream on your father's lands again? The one with the large, flat one that towered over the others. I seem to have forgotten it."

The helmet she had been passing nervously from one hand to the other nearly dropped when she froze at his words.

"I never told you about that."

"You didn't have to, because I was there."

He'd kept her talking long enough to unfasten the harness under his chin. His hair was plastered to his head with sweat and grime, but the golden blond strands still gleamed in the sunlight when he raked a hand through them. A brand new wave of gasps erupted across the crowd, moving through the field like small explosions which were followed by the expected outbursts of shock and dismay.

Standing before them was the heir to the throne and their sovereign, Prince Kuon.

The Marquess looked around at the stunned crowd for a brief moment before her eyes finally rested on him, her lips pursed in thought.

"You owe me an explanation," her voice was surprisingly stern for her flustered state.

"And you shall have it but, first order of business..." He grabbed her by the arm and began to move them both away from the field. "We should probably run."

They found a small nook behind one of the stables that was not easily noticeable by passers-by. Panting from sprinting away in full armor, they leaned against the stable wall while trying to catch their breath. Having divested himself of both his helmet and gauntlets in their escape, Kuon was faring slightly better than his companion. However, despite the disheveled hair and sand-streaked face from her fall, he thought she still looked a far measure better than he did. Then again, he was probably just being biased.

"I say," he remarked between breaths. "What a way to end our respective tournament careers"

"Ah, it's just as well," the Marquess dismissed, her chest still heaving. "Some stuffy Duke apparently had his eye on me and was ready to part with three-quarters of his lands just to wed me. There were supposed to be official negotiations upon my return from the tournament," an unruly snort left her. "I doubt he'd be so smitten once word reaches him about this."

"Is that what made you so… aggressive recently?"

Her armor clanked softly as she lifted her shoulders in resignation.

"It matters not," she sniffed. "I've no use for a husband."

He thought about her words for a few seconds, watching her lean her head against the wall and look towards the sky.

"I do not doubt it. However, I have use for a knight."

"I… beg your pardon?" Her eyes slid to his in an instant.

Kuon nodded to himself as he surveyed her from head to toe with a scrutinizing eye.

"Yes, one that can be assigned to my personal guard, of course."

Kyoko removed her gauntlet and sharply slapped it against his arm before her eyes widened in horror as she realized what she had just done. And to whom.

"What in the world are you going on about?" she asked with a voice subdued by shame.

"Since you and I will, most likely, be summarily banned from any further tournaments and since you are not of the inclination to be married, I have to come up with some other way to keep you in my life."

"But, you're the Prince. Surely you could just order me to appear at the palace."

"That may be true, Marquess, but I am not one to use my title wantonly to get what I want."

She snorted again. "... says the man who rendered an entire crowd speechless just by removing his helmet."

"I'm sure you will agree that it was an emergency situation."

The Marquess scoffed. "Hardly."

"Oh, so you wanted to be placed in the stocks and jeered at while onlookers hurl spoiled foods at you? I'm sure I can still arrange for that to happen…"

"Your Highness, please!" she pleaded, her face colored with embarrassment.

"Well, all that is to say you are free to choose. Much as I would like to, I will not force you."

She was silent for several moments.

"Were you insinuating that you would consider marrying me?"

He nodded. "It would take some convincing of my parents and their advisors, but I would've tried at least."

Shaking her head, she disagreed. "But you could, most likely, have your pick of any beautiful foreign princess."

"While that may be true, I doubt any of them know how to joust, much less how to break a man's nose with their fist," he reasoned with a grin. "And, even if they could, none of them would be you."

"Your highness, please!" she said again, turning an even deeper shade of red than before. "All of this pointless flattery is really not necessary."

"I hadn't known that telling the truth was considered flattery. Surely my tutors have done me a great disservice," he feigned shock before his expression was serious once more. "I stand by what I said and I maintain that the choice is still yours. Now, I know you are eager to get back to your squires and make haste away from here before any trouble follows you and I should probably do the same. But, when you make your decision, you know where I can be found."

Several months passed and Prince Kuon endured the company of at least two princesses in that time, much to his chagrin. However, his luck had done an about-face right around the time the second princess had packed up her gowns and departed with her family. One of his knights arrived that evening with a message, bearing a seal that took the unmistakable shape of a cockatrice. Taking the message to his quarters to peruse in private, he smiled to himself upon reading her words.

Only she would've come up with such an elaborate plan as this. He almost couldn't stand to wait until she'd arrived for everything to take place.

And take place, it did. However, the details of said events were less important than the result. At least, to him, the result was everything. The result was what allowed him to promenade with her in a slow, basse dance during the ball that celebrated the arrival of a fresh crop of nobles to the palace. Of course, not everyone knew it was her. Her long hair was now a rebellious shade of burnt orange, courtesy of the use of a few choice chemicals, but it was still braided neatly around her head. She had also done away with her title, preferring that others use 'Lady' if it they absolutely refused to use her given name.

But, he knew it was her. And that was all that mattered.

"When you said you wanted me to join your personal guard, this was not what I imagined," Kyoko said, taking slow, measured steps beside her companion.

"Well, I specifically wanted someone that can both protect me and blend seamlessly into social events, that's all," the Prince replied matter-of-factly.

She raised an eyebrow at him. "That's all? Really?"

"Really," he insisted. "It just happens to be a bonus that you also look fetching in a formal gown."

"Why did I ever agree to do this," Kyoko lamented, looking away from her dance partner, not quite hiding the rose hue that scattered across her cheeks.

"I seem to recall that you were the first to make contact by sending a messenger to the palace."

"Yes, but I didn't think you'd accept such a ridiculous request," her eyes swooped towards the heavens before coming back to Earth. "I was hoping you would laugh at my incredulity and politely ignore me."

His laugh was hearty, its volume unregulated and echoed joyfully in the room.

"I already said I would have done anything to keep you in my company, up to, and including, marrying you. You just went and made everything much simpler," he said with a warm, but teasing, smile. "How could I not accept your challenge?"

"Clearly, it was because I didn't think you were serious," she grumbled.

"I hope you realize the truth now. I wouldn't have accepted the challenge of just anyone. Then again, I don't often get challenged to a trial by joust by a beautiful woman with the caveat that, should she win, she becomes my guard and, should she lose, she becomes my bride."

"But you didn't even win!" she somehow managed to keep the screech in her voice fairly quiet.

"Didn't I? You're still here with me. I consider that a win," his smile stretched into a dangerously wide grin. "You were the one who set the terms, after all."

She abandoned her argument with a shake of her head, knowing he was right and, most likely, not wishing to discuss the rather hastily prepared ultimatum she'd presented him all those months ago. He would continue to be thankful for her brashness, but she seemed to be unable to accept his—at times, rather profuse—gratitude.

"And whatever will you do when you're, inevitably, forced to marry?" she asked with a teasing lilt.

His eyes lowered for a pensive moment before they looked back into hers with a glint of mischief.

"I suppose I'll have to devise some way of evaluating the candidates."

He paused, taking in the warily confused look of his companion. However, having spent the past two months in his constant company, she had almost achieved a type of clairvoyance when it came to his scheming thoughts. Her expression soon changed and she opened her mouth, no doubt with an admonishment ready on her lips. Of course, he beat her to it.

"A kind of tournament, perhaps."

- END -

ANY OF YOU REMEMBER THAT AWESOME MOVIE, 'A KNIGHT'S TALE'? I watched it recently with a friend and I still love it so much. Anyway, it gave me an idea for this story. I wanted it to be sorta similar but not exactly because Kyoko was better as a kickass knight rather than just a pretty face for Ren to pine after.


branle - a type of French dance popular from the early 16th century to the present, danced by couples in either a line or a circle.

basse dance - a popular court dance in the 15th and early 16th centuries in which partners move quietly and gracefully in a slow gliding or walking motion without leaving the floor.

lists - also called the 'list field' but, basically, it's the arena in which jousting and other combat tournaments took place.

tilt - the barrier used in jousting that separated the lanes that each opponent occupied when they galloped towards each other. Sometimes it was made of wood, other times it was simply some rope held up by a few posts.

I had a fun time researching all of this. Can you tell?