Tournament of Losers | Chapter 15 of 19

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Rath stared at the horse as one of the two guards assigned to go with him offered the reins.

They seemed decent for guards. Rath had a checkered enough past that he preferred to avoid guards as much as possible, especially since, until only a few years ago, they'd been led by the most unreasonable, vindictive bastard the city had ever seen. The new bailiff was nice for a guard, always willing to let people go for a minor bribe after several hours behind bars or in the stocks. The old one and his favorite goons had taken far more unpleasant bribes, and usually they were just as happy to be as mean and brutal as they could get away with.

But Teller and Fynn were friendly and willing to chat, which was unusual for guards in Rath's experience. Teller was tiny, barely big enough to hold the sword at his hip, and constantly smiled like he'd heard a joke no one else had. Fynn reminded Rath a great deal of Jen, but friendly, and not one of Friar's favorite goons. She was definitely as big as Jen, which meant she left Rath almost feeling small.

The horse, however, looked like evil incarnate, and he wasn't getting anywhere near the damned thing. "I have gone over thirty years of my life without needing a horse. I wouldn't have ridden one yesterday if Their Holy Eminence hadn't insisted. I'd much prefer to walk."

The guards laughed, and Teller clapped him on the arm. "Walk, indeed. We'd be gone for the better part of the year."

"I don't see a problem with that," Rath said sourly. "I won't have to ride the horse, and nobody will want to kill me."

Teller's levity went out like a snuffed light. "Why would someone want to kill you?"

Rath almost didn't say; he should have kept quiet. That was what he got for not guarding his tongue. But they were meant to keep him safe, and it seemed malicious not to warn them of possible danger. "A couple of guys roughed me before the challenges started, said I should quit or I'd regret it. They haven't done anything since, but they can't be happy I've made it this far—especially after I told them I'd quit."

"Wait here," Fynn said and strode off back to the gate, where Lord High Constable Quinn and a cluster of other guards were talking while they watched the competitors depart. Quinn's easy demeanor was gone in the span of a heartbeat as Fynn spoke with her. They conversed for several minutes, then Quinn looked at Rath, gave a nod, and then turned and vanished through the city gates with the rest of her guards at her heels.

Fynn rejoined Rath and Teller. "Lord Quinn is going to look into the matter and will see that your family is protected. Competitors should feel safe at all times, and we apologize you were attacked."

"Thank you," Rath said. "I'm sorry for the trouble."

"It's why we're here; no trouble at all." Teller's smile returned. "Now, onto the horse, Master Rath. You don't want to lose because you were bested by a harmless beast."

"I'm not convinced it's harmless."

"Oh, now," Teller scoffed and patted the horse's side. "She's a good girl, this one. Thief, we call her, because if we don't keep watch and make sure she's securely in her stall, she'll wander around stealing whatever food she can."

Rath gave the horse another look. "Really?"

Teller and Fynn laughed. "Really," Teller promised. "Come on, I'll help you up. In a few days, you'll have the hang of it and wonder how you ever lived without her."

Rath very much doubted that, but he surrendered to the inevitable and let them help him up. After a brief lesson, still half-convinced he was going to suffer a horse-related death, Rath and his guards headed out.

Lord Quinn had told each of them the villages they were to visit in private, with strict admonition not to tell anyone else where they were going. They were to visit each village, complete the task, and move on to the next, in the order Lord Quinn had given them.

The only thing more terrifying than the horse was leaving the city. Visiting the Faded Temple had been adventure enough for Rath. Just thinking about not seeing his home for at least a couple of months left his stomach in knots, a gloomy cloud hanging over him.

"You'd think the highest-scoring competitor would look happier about his quest," Fynn said with a laugh, drawing Rath from his thoughts. "What's wrong, Champion?"

"I'm not a champion," Rath muttered, then said more clearly, "I've never been away from home. I don't think I like it."

Fynn smiled. "The homesickness will ease, don't you worry about it. First time I left home, I was stuck on a boat for six months. I cried and cried the first few days. The other sailors teased me mercilessly, but the captain was kind. After a few weeks, I was just fine."

"I spent most of my first trip away from home getting blinding drunk," Teller said. "Was either so drunk or so sick I didn't have time to miss home, and the rest of the time, I was being yelled at for my deplorable behavior. By the time I eased off the drinking, I didn't miss home quite so acutely. I think Fynn was smarter about it, but she usually is. Don't worry. You'll be so busy with your tasks and such, you won't have time to miss anything. If you want something to occupy your thoughts, just think about how much you're the talk of the castle! Talk of the city, I daresay. Your family and friends must be so excited to know you're doing well. And granted a boon! They say Lord Swinder swooned from shock."

Rath hunched his shoulders and wished he were back in bed. "That sounds like an overreaction."

"His Majesty doesn't hand out boons lightly," Fynn said. "The last time was ten years ago to a soldier, and he asked for a truly impressive number of crowns."

"That probably would have been a smarter thing to ask for," Rath said. But money could be taken, lost, foolishly spent. He'd rather his mother have a house she'd never lose. Fates knew they'd never had that.

"I think it was sweet," Teller said. "Your mother must be excited."

Rath shrugged. "Probably, but she lives above the teashop she works at in High City, and I haven't had a chance to go see her. Hopefully, when I get back, I can visit her in the new house." He smiled at the thought and clung to the warmth that curled through him, easing the sting of the city fading from sight and the unknown looming before him. "How far is it to the first village? Cartina, right?"

"Yes, Cartina," Fynn replied. "Good ale and bread—they have a watermill there that provides flour for the whole area, even sends some to the city. Should reach it tonight, hopefully before dark, but at worst, shortly after. It's the other two towns that will take days to reach. Tremark is about six days from Cartina, and Falton is about two weeks further on from there. The whole trip will take even longer if we get heavy snowfall. We're going to be sleeping on the ground a great deal." She sighed. "Wouldn't be so bad if winter wasn't coming on. Hope you brought a warmer cloak, Champion."

"I don't suppose there is any hope you will stop calling me that?" Rath asked. She grinned, and he sighed. "As to my cloak, this is all I've got. This is my only jacket, too."

Fynn looked at him in horror. "That won't do! We're headed for the mountains—it'll be snowing there. You need proper winter gear."

"Yes, well, not all of us can afford to buy clothes whenever we want," Rath replied, feeling stupid, even though he knew very well it wasn't his fault. "This is always enough to get me through winter in the city. I'm sure I'll manage just fine."

Fynn's frown deepened. "But what about the ten marks you were given at the start of the tournament?"

Rath's cheeks burned, and he stared at his horse as he tersely replied, "Taken by my father's creditors." There was only silence as he finished speaking, and Rath didn't need to look to know that they weren't quite certain what to say. He sighed. "I'll be fine."

"You won't," Teller said. "The mountains get cold enough your fingers and toes will freeze right off. Snow can come down so hard and fast in the mountains around here that you're warm one moment and frozen solid the next. We can buy you supplies in Cartina, and what we don't find there, we'll definitely be able to obtain in Falton." He grinned, winked. "Can't have our champion getting frostbite."

"I am three challenges away from being a champion," Rath said. "It's ill luck to brag about what the Fates intend. I could fail miserably at this challenge. I must be the least qualified to go gallivanting about. I can barely ride this damned horse."

"Aww, now don't be mean to Thief. She's sweet as can be when she's not stealing carrots. And you are champion so far—you performed the best in the first two challenges and did well in the preliminaries. Everyone is excited for you. None of the other groups have such strong, stand-out leads, though to be fair, there's a lot more of all of them."

Rath made a face, but didn't say anything. Even he knew he sounded ungrateful and cranky about a situation so many envied. "If I'm succeeding, the Fates favor me for reasons beyond my comprehension."

"I think more than a bit of skill is involved," Fynn replied. "Come on, I think you've got the hang of riding enough that we can go a little faster."

"We're going plenty fast!" Rath protested and held on for dear life as he was overridden and his horse increased her pace alongside the others.

They stopped for a brief lunch a few hours later, sitting by the side of a large stream that teemed with fish that Rath wished he knew how to catch and clean. Fish was one of those things he didn't get very often, even though the city was right against the ocean, and he hauled the damned things from time to time when the fishermen needed help. His favorite pub sold a decent fish chowder for cheap, but otherwise, he mostly didn't eat it.

"Shall we push on?" Fynn asked as they all finished eating, brushing crumbs from her hands and pants as they headed back to the grazing horses.

Rath groaned at the idea of getting back on his horse, already sore in places he wasn't accustomed to being sore and still a long way from convinced that the horse, no matter how sweet, wouldn't be the death of him. He was too old for things like learning how to ride and questing and freezing to death on mountains.

Of course, he was also too old to do something as stupid as have an affair with a noble, but that hadn't stopped him.

And there was the main source of his misery. He hadn't gotten to see Tress before leaving, had been too exhausted to go out in the hopes that Tress would find him as he always seemed to. Bad enough he'd barely seen his friends and hadn't had a chance to visit his mother, but now he would be missing Tress as well.

They stopped for one more break to refresh the horses and stretch their legs, then made the last stretch as quickly as Rath could manage, reaching Cartina village just as the sun was setting. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do now. It seems a little too late to trouble the village chief. I suppose we should find a place to rest for the night and speak with him in the morning?"

"Whatever you feel is best, champion. I certainly wouldn't mind a meal and a bed before we go traipsing off to slay a dragon."

Rath laughed, and Fynn rolled her eyes. "There'd better not be any dragons. I'd have to figure out who imported them," Fynn said. "And we'd have to delay the quest to arrest smugglers."

"It'll probably be something much simpler," Rath said. "Or so I hope, anyway. Where should we bed down for the night? I have no idea where to go. This place is so small."

"This way, Champion. Follow the sound of drunk people laughing. Those can be found in even the tiniest village."

"I didn't know they could be this small," Rath said. "I can count all the houses, even in the dark."

Fynn snorted. "Come on." She led him down the street—if it could even be called that—to a building that seemed larger than all the rest, with raucous laughter and the smell of roasting meat drifting out. Dismounting, Fynn tied her horse to a post in front of the building. Rath tried to follow suit, but in the end, Fynn had to help him because the knots she used were beyond his ability to duplicate.

The chatter faded into silence as they slipped inside, and Rath tried not to notice—or show that he noticed—the stares that followed them as they took a seat at an empty table. They'd barely done so when a tall, broad-shouldered man with graying brown hair and dark skin with scattered, paler patches strode up to their table. "Begging pardon, weary travelers, but one of you wouldn't happen to be a tournament competitor, would you?" He looked at Rath.

"That's me," Rath said with a laugh. "Are you, by chance, the village chief I'm supposed to speak to?"

"That I am, son," the man said with a grin and pulled a much-folded, smudged piece of paper from his jacket. "What's your name?"

Rath winced. "Rathatayen Jakobson."

The man laughed. "Devout parent, huh?"

"Just romantic and sentimental," Rath said. "Rath is fine, please."

"Well, nice to meet you. I'm Gennis, and if you're not too tired, then I think we can get you some food and get right on with the challenge. We've been having a bit of a village-wide squabble, you see, and when we were approached by His Majesty to participate in the tournament, well, we knew just how to settle the squabbling once and for all." He winked and motioned for them to stand. "Everybody, everybody, the royal competitor has arrived!"

The pub went silent for a beat, then everybody cheered and lifted their cups, then rose and started moving the tables and chairs around. Several went around the bar and through the door behind, appearing shortly thereafter, rolling out small barrels and stands that they set up against the far wall.

Rath stared as Gennis guided them out of the way. "Um. What did you say the challenge was, good sir?"

Laughing, Gennis clapped him on the back and said, "Why, you're going to select a few ales for us, of course."

"I'm going to what?" Rath replied.

Gennis clapped him on the back again, hard enough that Rath wondered if he was perhaps related to Montague in some way. "The biannual market competition is coming up this spring, and we've got a whole slew of new ales to submit to the ale competition. Only problem is, we've got too many, and the village is so divided between them all that no clear favorites shine through. So, competitor, you are going to select the three ales we'll submit to the competition."

"You want me to drink ale and tell you which ones are best," Rath said slowly. "Is this some village prank?"

"Not at all. Sit, sit." Gennis laughed as he ushered Rath into a chair at a long table that had been improvised from three small ones. The tavern was much more crowded than it had been when they'd first arrived. Tension coiled in Rath's shoulders, and he ducked his head to avoid all the staring.

But it was hard to stay completely miserable as people carried trays full of cups of ale poured from the barrels they'd set up. Teller and Fynn sat to his right, and Gennis sat to his left, rambling through introductions to the various brewers and all about the different components of the ales. It all went right by Rath; the only thing he cared about when it came to ale was that it was cheap and not too sweet.

"All right, then, that's that. Now try the first one." Gennis pushed the first cup toward him.

Rath vaguely remembered being told there'd be food, but he let it go, unable to refuse when so many eager faces were watching him. The first ale was slightly sweeter than he liked, but there was a bit of apple flavor to it that was unusual. "Delicious," he said. "I like the apple." A small group in the corner cheered and shoved and squeezed each other.


This one was darker, less sweet, even better than the first. Rath said as much, provoking even louder cheering from another group. By the time he was done sampling the first, second, and third rounds, he was drunk. They were just getting started, however, and he had to do it all over again, whittling down the remaining six. That left his head spinning and his stomach so full of beer that it had momentarily forgotten the lack of food.

And by the time he had picked the three ales that would go on to the competition, he could barely stand, let alone walk. That was not going to make traveling fun in the morning. Teller and Fynn helped him to his feet, and he thought he heard one of them calling for food. He swayed as people came up to thank him, talk for a few minutes, and say things he barely understood.

He could have wept from relief when he was finally upstairs in a quiet room inhabited only by him, Teller, and Fynn. "That was… interesting." He really wished the room would stop spinning.

"Drink this," Teller said after he'd had Rath sit on the bed furthest from the door. "It'll keep you from feeling completely awful in the morning." He turned to Fynn. "I could string them all up by their damned genitals for doing this to him the very moment he arrived. They couldn't wait until tomorrow, spread it out over a few hours with plenty of food and water? What were they thinking?"

"Eager… to please…" Rath mumbled. "King doesn't even pay much attention to Low City, I doubt he's ever really noticed the people out here. They're probably lucky if they see any sort of royal official. Think how much they'll get to brag if I win the tournament." He laughed a bit. "Unless they lose the market competition." He distantly felt his head thunk against something, but paid it no mind, vastly more interested in letting exhaustion have him.

When he woke later, it was because his stomach was protesting the way it had been treated the previous night. Rath retched into the chamber pot until his stomach hurt and his throat was raw. He stumbled over to the table and sat down, picked up the small hunk of bread on a plate and slowly ate it, chasing bites with some of the strange tonic he vaguely remembered Teller trying to make him drink.

Across the room, sharing the other bed, Teller and Fynn were fast asleep. He hadn't woken them; that was good.

Shoving another bit of bread in his mouth, he wandered over to the window and looked out at the village below. There wasn't much with only moonlight to see by, but he could see shades of the houses, movement of some stray animal darting from one shadowy corner to another. It was so quiet. The city was always noisy, even in the deadest hours of the night and morning.

He yawned and padded back over to the bed, lay down, and settled comfortably, pleased that his stomach did not try to act up again.

The next time he woke up, it was to sunshine and noise. His room was empty, but given it looked to be fairly late morning, even early afternoon, Teller and Fynn had probably been up and about for some time. He hauled out of bed, found his bag where someone had put it at the foot of his bed, and used a basin of warm, soapy water left on the table to wash up before pulling on clean clothes, shrugging into his jacket, and packing the rest. Slinging the bag over one shoulder, he headed downstairs.

In the tavern, practically everyone there lifted their cups or called out greetings, a few playful jibes. "Like none of you have ever gotten that drunk," Rath retorted. "You make the ale. Don't try to tell me you're not at least partially drunk all of the time." That got him several laughs and a bowl of porridge with honey and cream, along with a cup of hot ale that he almost refused, but in the end, it was too good to pass up, even if his stomach tried for a moment. "Thank you," he said when he was done, and pulled out a penny.

"You're paid up," the barkeep said with a smile. "If you're looking for your friends, I think they went in search of supplies for the next leg of your trip."

"Thank you," Rath said again, tucking the penny away as he left the tavern.

He could not get over how small the village was. Did they all know each other? Rath knew his own little circle of friends and shops that he saw and spoke with nearly every day, but he knew almost no one in West End, and nobody in High City, except Tress and a couple of the people his mother worked with. It would be strange to know every single person he encountered; no wonder they'd stared so hard at him and the others last night.

The sound of Teller's laughter caught his ear, and Rath followed it around the edge of a small house to what proved to be an open area featuring a large well and several open cook fires, where people were busy baking and roasting food enough for at least half the village. Must be their equivalent of the way everyone in Low City took what they made to the nearest baker to have them cook it.

Teller and Fynn stood near one of them, speaking with the two women watching over the food. Rath headed toward them, keeping to the edge and well away from the fires, and lifted a hand in greeting when Teller saw him and smiled. "Merry morning! How are you feeling?"

"Too old for this nonsense," Rath replied, smiling when they laughed. "Thank you for tending me."

"An honor to assist you, Champion," Fynn said, giving him a playful half bow.

Rath made a face at her. "So what are we about today?"

"Leaving, unless you prefer to linger here today and leave tomorrow."

"Tempting, but I should probably press on."

"We bought you a cloak and some boots that seemed about your size," Fynn said. "Already packed with the horses. We just have to add your bag to the pile and we'll be all set."

Rath frowned. "Isn't that against the rules? You aren't supposed to help me."

Fynn shook her head. "Our duty is to keep you safe and healthy. If you don't have proper equipment when we get to those mountains, you will die. That's no exaggeration. Buying you necessary supplies is no different than buying food and seeing to room and board when we stop."

"It's appreciated," Rath said quietly. Fynn and Teller smiled. They bid farewell to the women they were speaking with, and Rath fell into step between them as they led the way to the stable behind the tavern.

Teller pushed the door open, throwing a grin over his shoulder. "You look—" he broke off as someone slammed into him, and made a faint, pained noise before dropping to the ground.

The man who'd run into him scowled and looked up, a bloody knife gleaming in one hand.

Fynn shoved Rath out of the way and drew her sword. Rath fell to the ground, face in the dirt, and by the time he managed to stand, the man was dead, Fynn's sword wet with blood. Her face was drawn tight as she dropped down next to Teller. "You stupid bastard, you'd better be alive."

Teller groaned, clutching at his side, blood seeping from between his fingers. "Not for lack of trying on his part, the Fates-rejected bastard. He got me good, but I don't wear armor just to look pretty."

"You could wear royal temple garb and you still wouldn't look pretty, Teller," Fynn said with a slightly-wobbly laugh. "Get on your feet, you sorry excuse for a soldier." She didn't give him a chance, however, simply set her sword aside, got hold of him, and hoisted him up herself. "Come on, let's get you to a healer." She looked to Rath. "Can you help him so I can stand point and take care of anyone else who might come after us?"

"Of course," Rath said and traded places with her, both of them ignoring Teller's grumbling that he could walk just fine on his own. Whatever he said, Teller's skin had taken on a sickly green-yellow undertone, and there was still blood dripping from between his fingers.

Because of Rath. His heart was drumming so loudly in his ears he could barely hear his own thoughts. Someone had tried to kill him, and if he'd gone first into the stable, they might have succeeded. What if they had succeeded in killing Teller? It was one thing to beat up Rath in an alleyway and threaten him with worse, quite another to hurt people who had nothing to do with the matter.

Then again, everyone knew Rath had nothing to do with his father, but they still harassed him time and again, both to get their money and to punish his father by hurting the people he cared about. Supposedly cared about, anyway. Rath would have corrected the mistake if anyone had ever bothered to ask or listen to him.

It took them what felt like an eternity to reach the healer, and when they did, Teller was closer to unconscious than awake.

"Put him there," said the healer, a woman with red-brown skin and stiff, curly, reddish-brown hair. She pointed to a narrow bed in one corner of the room.

Fynn hovered in the doorway. "Master Rath, I'm going to take care of the dead man and speak with some people about him. Lock this door behind me and let no one in until I return, all right?"

"All right," Rath said and did as requested once she'd left. He stood near the bed, but well out of the way, as the healer briskly set to work, removing the layers of Teller's clothing and armor, then clucking and tsking at the wound. Rath winced as he got a good look at it: a slash that angled slightly downward along Teller's side, like the assailant had meant to stab, but had wound up slicing instead. A very near thing. If that knife had gone deep like intended, Teller would have already bled out. "I'm so sorry, Teller. This is my fault—"

"Bugger that," Teller said. "The only ones to blame are the bastard who stabbed me and the Fates-rejected shithead who paid him to do it. Stop looking so upset; I've had worse."

Rath shook his head but remained quiet, not certain what to say, anyway.

"Fate-favored, you are," the healer said. "This wound requires stitching, and you will need to stay abed a day or two, but after that, you should be well." She rose and turned away, mixed something together at her work table. "Drink this. It will dull the pain while I clean and stitch you."

Teller made a face, but obediently drank the unappealing, gray-brown concoction. His expression when he was finished said it tasted as awful as it looked. The healer took the bowl, then sat on her stool once more and set to work. Teller grumbled and muttered but within minutes, was fast asleep. Pausing in her work, the healer glanced at Teller, shook her head in amusement, then looked at Rath. "I didn't even give him all that much. It really was just enough to dull the worst of the pain. Better if they stay awake to let me know if something is wrong."

"You should see what happens when someone gives me murgot," Rath said with a smile. "I'd be out for three days."

"Don't see that much out here, unfortunately." She bent back to her work, sewing up Teller's wound as deftly as any seamstress.

By the time she'd finished, Fynn had returned. "How is he?"

"Well enough," the healer said as she began to clean up. "He'll probably sleep most of the day, which is all to the good. A couple of days' rest, not more than light movement, and he should be fine. The stitches can come out after about five days."

Fynn nodded. "Thank you. Can I carry him back to the tavern to rest there, or should I leave him here? I can pay you for the trouble."

The healer scoffed. "A penny for the potion and stitching, if it's no trouble. I'm sorry for whatever happened. Usually our village is so quiet. The worst we get is some young fool getting drunk and falling off something." She gestured at Teller. "You can take him. Just have a care and see he doesn't do much moving until day after tomorrow."

Fynn set a penny on the little table by the door, then gently scooped Teller up and headed out. "All should be safe now, Rath, but have a care and stay close until we're safely back in our room."

Nodding, Rath thanked the healer one last time, then followed Fynn outside and back to the tavern. "I'm sorry this happened. You're supposed to be over-precaution, I remember the crier saying that. No one should be getting hurt because of me."

Fynn snorted. "No one should be murdered because they're doing well in a tournament they've every right to be in. Stop apologizing and instead be angry that someone dared to try to kill you for no good reason. Come to that, you've been remarkably calm about an attempt on your life."

"My father's creditors have been threatening to kill me, and leaving me half-dead in alleyways, for almost as long as I can remember," Rath said. "It never stops being terrifying, thinking you could die, or that you almost died, but sadly, you still get accustomed to it."

"Yeah, it's not so different being a soldier, but at least we're paid for the pleasure of being terrified," Fynn said with a sigh. "I am sorry. I should have been more on guard. Hopefully it'll ease off the further out we go."

They reached the tavern and headed up to the room they'd only recently vacated. "So who was the man you killed?" Rath asked.

"No one recognized him," Fynn said. "Probably followed us from the city and was waiting until your death could be made to look like a theft or something, since killing us on the road from the city would have looked more than a little suspicious." She gently removed Teller's boots and tucked the blankets around him. "I've sent word to the Lord High Constable about what's happened. You and I can resume the journey; someone will come to watch over Teller and see him home, and another will catch up—"

"Do we have to leave him?" Rath cut in, frowning down at Teller. "I mean, he's injured, of course he probably doesn't want to continue on, but I don't want to simply leave him here alone. What if the wound gets infected? It doesn't feel right to abandon someone who got hurt protecting me."

Fynn stared at him. "You can't afford to delay, Master Rath. The challenge—"

"Fates bugger the challenge. I would rather be certain he is well. I won't abandon someone who was hurt because of me."

Fynn huffed softly, a smile tugging at her lips. "Well, it's your challenge, Master Rath, and to be honest, Teller would be crushed to be left behind. He was the first to volunteer to help with this challenge, and there was no containing him when he was assigned to look after you. But he would take no offense if we went on without him. Everybody I know is cheering for you to win."

"I never thought I'd get this far," Rath murmured. "It's more than a little disconcerting."

"Well, don't dwell on it too much. Keep moving and doing. Don't let the thinking set you stumbling. I meant it when I said everyone I know is cheering for you. If you really insist on remaining here until Teller is on his feet again, I promise we'll do all we can to make up for lost time."

Rath nodded. "Thank you. Shall we go fetch our bags and settle in? I can't say I'm sorry I get to avoid the horse for another couple of days."

"You need to get over your fear of horses, Champion. Don't think because you're staying here a little longer that you won't have to ride—this is the perfect opportunity to practice. If you become a hoity-toity, you'll be spending a lot of time on one, so best get used to it." She laughed at the face he made and slung an arm across his shoulders as they headed out.

Rath eyed her warily. "Why would I be spending a lot of time on horses? The royal family never leaves the city, not that I've ever heard. Even if they did, don't they usually travel by carriage?"

"For one, it's easier to get around the city on a horse. Second point, rumor has it that His Royal Highness Prince Isambard is going to be traveling the kingdom on behalf of the king and queen, visiting all the towns and villages to address problems and simply let the people see at least one member of the royal family. The crown prince can't do it, and Princess Vivien is set to go abroad not long after the end of the tournament. Prince Harrow is pregnant and has other obligations. So it's fallen to Prince Isambard, and whomever he marries will obviously be going with him. Some parts of the kingdom can only be reached by horse, and others a carriage can reach but a horse it just easier."

"I see," Rath said. So much traveling sounded exhausting, but not as terrifying as it might have just a day ago. Though he hoped it came with a lot less stabbing.

Holy Fates, why was he thinking about it like it was going to happen? It wasn't. He wasn't going to win the tournament. Staying until Teller recovered was going to set him back by days, and the trip had only begun. His luck had never been going to last forever. After this challenge was over, it would be back to life as usual.

When had thinking that started bringing disappointment instead of relief?


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