Author's Note: The Settlers: Rise of an Empire belongs to Blue Byte and Ubisoft, most definitely not to me. That said, I can't help but feel somewhat responsible for them after putting them through all this torture.
It is highly recommended you read my previous story, Hopeless Sincerity, before this. It serves as an indirect prequel and the events in that tale are repeatedly referenced.
This is a very heavily updated version of the original The Mathematics of Deceit posted on this site.
If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
Sir Henry Southmere, castellan of Tios, surveyed the tournament ground with satisfaction. Banners hung from every tree and the sides of the lists, pavilions filled the giant field, and squires swarmed around like bees as they desperately tried to accomplish all the tasks required of them before the jousting began the next day. It was a grand spectacle, and he was responsible for it.
Well, partly. The other person who could take credit was coming across the main lists to him right now.
"Castellan, you've outdone yourself," Lady Alandra de Westerlin said with a smile. The red and white cloak of her order framed her face and floated around her armour. "I am sure the event will be a great success."
"Thank you." Sir Henry bowed. "I would not have been able to accomplish anything without your kind assistance."
"Thank my liege for sending me. Managing Tios was really no trouble."
"I find that hard to believe, but please convey my warmest thanks to your monarch."
"Certainly." Lady Alandra appeared about to speak again, but closed her mouth and turned as a horseman galloped into view from the Tios road. Her smile broadened and she raised a hand in salute as the newcomer approached.
"One of your number, I take it?" Sir Henry asked.
She nodded. "Lord Marcus of Challia."
The horse and rider drew near. Lord Marcus appeared to be little more than twenty, but his crest, armour and palfrey proclaimed his lofty rank. Sir Henry considered himself to be somewhat of a connoisseur of horseflesh, and this particular specimen was one of the finest examples of its breed he had seen.
Lady Alandra stepped forward and took the reins of the stallion as its rider brought it to a smooth halt.
"Good afternoon, Lord Marcus," she said. Her smile was unusually warm. Sir Henry suppressed a frown. Lady Alandra was a much too sensible young woman to be involved with a mere boy.
"Please tell me I'm the first from Westerlin." Lord Marcus dismounted and took the reins from Lady Alandra's grasp with a nod of thanks.
"Except for myself, obviously." She gave an amused frown. "Why do you ask?"
"Thordal, Kestral and I had a difference of opinion as to what would be the fastest route from the harbor."
She shook her head laughingly. "Lord Marcus, may I present Sir Henry Southmere, Castellan of Tios?"
The young knight stepped forward, offering Sir Henry his free hand. "Delighted to meet you."
The castellan took it somewhat limply. So far, he was not overly impressed with Darion's second representative. "The pleasure is mine."
Marcus nodded with a grin, apparently not noticing Sir Henry's cold manner. "The lists look excellent. I'm looking forward to trying them out."
"I'm sure you will have an opportunity tomorrow." The castellan stepped away. "If you'll excuse me, I have business at the main pavilion. You must have much to discuss."
He withdrew with a slight grimace.
As soon as the castellan was out of earshot, Alandra turned to Marcus, voice urgent. "Is there any news from Janub?"
He shook his head. "Not recently. The last word we had from Lord Hakim was that Crimson Sabatt had abandoned the siege of Juahar."
"Well, that's a slight improvement." Her smile crept back into place. "I must admit that I have been rather concerned about the situation there."
"I'm sure Hakim has it all under control."
"Of course. Are Kestral and Thordal the only others coming from Westerlin?"
"Yeah." Marcus gave a lopsided grin. "Her Majesty thought it was best at least one knight stay at the castle, and Elias drew the short straw. He wasn't too thrilled."
She laughed. "I can imagine."
Hoofbeats rang out again. The pair turned to see Kestral and Thordal cantering into the tournament ground.
Marcus waved cheerily. "I'm going to be in big trouble with them later."
Alandra rolled her eyes. "Of that I have no doubt."
Marcus positioned the curry comb on Athos's back and turned to face Kestral. "Good morning! Ready to – what are you wearing?"
Kestral grimaced, tucking her helmet under her arm and shifting uncomfortably. "Armour, idiot. You didn't seriously think I was stupid enough to joust in a jerkin, did you?"
"No, but -" He shrugged, then laughed. "You know the shoulder guard is supposed to be the other way up, right?"
She glared at him, then shoved her helmet into his hands and started unbuckling the offending piece of steel. "How on earth do you wear this every day?"
"You get used to it. Wrong buckle."
She poked her tongue out at him briefly, then snatched back her helmet. "I was going to ask if you wanted to go see who we've been pitted against, but then you started being rude."
He bowed in elaborate mock apology. "Madam, I humbly beg your forgiveness."
"Apology accepted if you buy me a drink."
"Agreed. Let's go."
The pair headed out of the temporary stables and wandered towards the main pavilion, speculating improbably about potential opponents.
"Perhaps Her Majesty is coming and intends to joust!" said Kestral, still laughing at Marcus' dry suggestion that the Grandmother of Grandmothers would attend the archery competition.
"Oh, please," sniffed a nearby voice.
Marcus swung around. Lord Fanshaw of Geth, whom he knew by sight, was leaning casually against a hitching post.
"I beg your pardon?" the Knight of Darion asked suspiciously. He knew little of Lord Fanshaw, but what others had told him was not positive.
"Won't you introduce me to your friend?" Fanshaw asked, with a sardonic smile.
Marcus gritted his teeth. All that he had heard was rapidly being confirmed. "Lady Kestral of Gallos, may I present Lord Fanshaw of Geth?"
"Other way around, my dear boy. I'm an earl."
"So am I!" said Kestral indignantly.
"Forgive me, my lady. I had assumed that a bandit would not be elevated much higher than, say, sheriff."
"Excuse me?" she bellowed. A few heads turned to look at them.
Marcus grabbed her arm. "Come on, let's go."
"Wise of you, Lord Marcus. Better to avoid confrontation than risk losing."
"Are you calling me a coward?"
"Not at all."
"Good." Marcus turned around and began to march away.
"After all, one must hold peasants to different standards than nobility," Fanshaw continued. "The settler classes are sadly naturally inferior."
Marcus whirled around, voice now dangerously calm. "What was that, Lord Fanshaw?"
"I beg your pardon; I must attempt to speak up. I had forgotten deafness is common amongst the settlers of Challia."
It was Kestral's turn to restrain Marcus. But Fanshaw wasn't finished.
"I was merely stating that the lower classes obviously do not have the same capacity for understanding or honour as the more gently bred. A regrettable but inevitable natural state of affairs."
"I beg to disagree with you." Marcus spoke through clenched teeth, pulling his arm free of Kestral's grip.
"Oh, well, if you prefer to state that it is a happy state of affairs, I shall not dispute with you."
A steel clad fist slammed into Fanshaw's lower jaw. He reeled and grasped at the post for support.
Kestral grabbed Marcus, but she was shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse had bolted. Squires, knights and spectators were all turning their way. Marcus swallowed, backing away a little.
Fanshaw steadied himself and stepped forward, eyes blazing. "Why, you -" he cried and lunged forward. Marcus dodged, but the oncoming fist connected with Kestral. Fanshaw had hit her armour, but that hardly mattered to her friend.
This time, Marcus punched Fanshaw in the stomach.
"That's an excellent idea, Lady Alandra," the castellan said as he exited the tent. "I think that the – what in the world?"
Alandra stepped out behind him, following his stare. The entire tournament ground was in an uproar. A crowd was rapidly developing around the lists; people were running to the northern end of the jousting area from all parts of the field. Sir Henry ran in that direction as fast as it was possible for his corpulent body to move, Alandra following.
She soon outstripped him and shoved through the crowds, reaching the centre of the commotion within a few moments.
The Lord of Challia started guilty at the familiar voice and backed away from Fanshaw's latest punch as best he could. His opponent was not deterred, and would have swung at him again had a tournament official not restrained him from behind.
The castellan broke through the crowd and faced the combatants, face a perfect picture of righteous fury. "What is the meaning of this?"
A hush descended. Marcus opened his mouth, then shut it again. Fanshaw spoke first.
"Sir Henry, I was attacked without provocation! I demand -"
The castellan held up his hand, and Fanshaw silenced. "Who struck the first blow?"
Marcus cringed, but denial was not an option. "I did."
Kestral stepped forward, raising her voice. "Your Lordship, Lord Marcus may have struck first, but he was severely provoked."
"Are there any other witnesses of this?"
No one was willing to volunteer themselves. Marcus' pulse was beginning to settle, but his stomach was tying itself in knots. He looked at Alandra. Her face was white.
"Very well," said the castellan. "I shall discuss this with you gentlemen later. Be glad I am not banning you from the day's activities." He spun and marched back to the main pavilion. The crowd slowly began to disperse. Fanshaw shot a venomous glare at Marcus and stalked away. Kestral made eye contact with Marcus, shrugged helplessly, and jogged off towards the stables.
Marcus was about to follow her, but Alandra stepped in his way. She looked even angrier than the castellan had been. "What in the world do you think you were doing? A Knight of Darion, brawling in public …"
He shrugged much the same way Kestral had. "I didn't have a choice."
"Of course you had a choice!" Alandra snapped. "I dread to think what Her Majesty will say."
"You're not going to tell her?"
She raised her eyebrows. "I don't have a choice. Conduct like this has to be reported." The fury faded from her face somewhat. "You better have had an extremely good reason."
"I did." He hesitated. "My honour and descent was called into question, as was Lady Kestral's."
"Kestral is perfectly capable of looking after herself."
"I know that. I regretted it almost instantly - I intended to halt the fight until Fanshaw hit her."
Alandra's expression altered, her tone suddenly strange. "I see. I'm sorry; I should have realised." She turned and followed the castellan, leaving Marcus staring blankly at her back.
It took him a moment to realise what conclusion she had jumped to. His heart promptly decided to jump up into his mouth.
She thought he was in love with Kestral.
He turned to the stables, head swimming. It was an insane thought to have. Kestral was a sparring partner and enjoyable company. Nothing more. He didn't even spend that much time with her.
Actually, he thought rather guiltily, he did. Particularly recently. But there was nothing in it at all! There was no way he could love someone he didn't trust more than an inch.
He toyed with the thought of setting Alandra right immediately, but she was still furious and he needed to prepare for the jousting. It could wait a couple of hours.
He entered the shade of the stables and headed over to Athos' stall. Whoops. He'd left the curry comb on his stallion's back. For the third time this week. Picking it up, he began to complete the grooming process.
"What was that all about, lad?" Thordal's voice from the next stall over was a mixture of amusement and annoyance.
Marcus sighed and lent against his horse. "Not you too."
"My natural curiosity about brawls can't be helped."
"Got into a fight with Lord Fanshaw of Geth after he made some less than respectful remarks about my parentage."
Thoral laughed heartily. "Good lad. Though I suppose Lady Alandra won't echo my praise."
"No," Marcus muttered. "She didn't."
"Well, I just came to finish gearing up. I'm in the first bout with the new Baron of Randalfingen. Should be a pushover. You're in the second, I think."
Marcus placed the saddle on Athos' back and fastened the girth. "Did you see who against?"
Thordal's grin spread. "You won't like it."
"Spit it out."
"One Lord Fanshaw of Geth."
Marcus' jaw slackened as Thordal doubled over laughing.
"Will the first four riders mount and enter the lists?" bellowed the herald, a young man in full regalia, sporting the Tios crest.
Marcus shoved his foot into the stirrup and swung up into the saddle with practiced ease, then nudged Athos' sides. The stallion trotted obediently over to the designated waiting area for combatants.
Thordal was already there, mounted on a massive palomino. He grinned at Marcus, who returned the smile weakly. The Baron of Randalfingen was double-checking all his tack and armor before his spar with Thordal. Fanshaw sat on a black gelding. As Marcus entered the ring he turned his horse and moved as far away as possible. A pair of pages jogged up, carrying Thordal and the Baron's lances.
A trumpet blew. The herald had quite impressive lungs. "If all the spectators will take their places, the first jousts will commence!"
Marcus watched the non-combatants jockey for the best positions at the rail. Once everything had settled, the herald began to yell again, calling out the rules of the joust. Marcus let his mind wander. He'd heard it all before a hundred times. No signaling your horse before the word was given, no sharpened battle weapons, no interference from spectators …
The tournament organisers were seated in a pavilion at the far end of the lists. Alandra was there, discussing something with the castellan. Him, probably, judging by the castellan's red face. He wasn't out of trouble yet.
"The Castellan of Tios may punish any infringement of these rules as he sees fit under tournament law," the herald finished, flourishing his trumpet. "Let the jousting commence!"
The first joust was uneventful. No lances were broken and no one was unhorsed. Thordal was declared the winner and trotted out of the lists triumphantly, humming a Narlindir battle anthem. "Good luck, lad!" he called to Marcus as he rode past.
Marcus acknowledged him with a slight salute, then turned back to the lists. He felt slightly sick. Despite his previous resolution to inform Alandra of the truth after the day's activities were over, the misunderstanding was weighing on his mind.
How could Alandra think that he and Kestral … oh, he didn't even want to think it. But what if Kestral thought that too? That would be almost as bad as Alandra believing it.
"Are you all right, sir?"
One of the tournament staff was staring at him curiously.
"Perfectly, thank you," he replied quickly. He slammed down his visor, reducing his vision to a tiny slit.
Something was pressed into his hand. "Your lance, sir," said a voice by his side. He nodded his thanks without looking at the lackey and urged Athos into a trot.
Marcus took his place at one end of the lists, while Fanshaw rode over to the other, shooting Marcus a quick glare before he closed his visor.
The entire tournament ground had seen them fight earlier. This was going to look awful. Everyone would think that this joust, whatever the outcome, was an attempt at petty revenge.
Alandra would think that.
"On three, gentlemen!" bellowed the herald. Marcus readied his lance and shifted in the saddle. "One, two, three!"
Marcus slammed his heels into Athos' flanks. The stallion leaped forward, surging along the lists. He rose in the stirrups, raised his shield and aimed his lance.
Impact. Fanshaw's lance glanced off Marcus' shield. The Darion knight's weapon ran true and hit Fanshaw's chainmailed chest.
To Marcus' horror, it sunk in.
Marcus reacted instinctively. He wrenched his arm back and whirled Athos to remove the point of the lance from Fanshaw's chest.
Fanshaw slid from his saddle and crashed to the ground in a limp heap. His horse bolted to the other end of the lists. Marcus hauled back on his reins and examined the point of his lance. Instead of the harmless training weapon he had thought he bore, it was a fully sharpened battle weapon. The tip was freshly stained with blood.
The herald sprinted over to Fanshaw's inert form and bent over him, raising his visor. Marcus lifted his own, mouth dry. If he had killed him …
The voice of one of the lackeys raised above the general commotion. "Call a surgeon!"
The herald stood. "There's no point," he said heavily. "He's dead."