Derek was a year my senior at thirteen, and even though his parents and I knew that he was still a child, he thought being thirteen made him a man. He would walk around, trying to imitate his father’s commanding walk, which would only result in him falling and making me laugh. Derek was a little taller than me, with thick black hair that refused to stay in anything resembling order, which drove his mother crazy. His eyes were blue, like the sky right before sunrise. Derek wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the Queen’s Champion and head assassin, which meant he had to go through lots of training. And since he was my friend and I was the princess, I would disrupt his practices and drag him away to play. The head of the training grounds would shake his head and laugh and say things about that mysterious phrase “marriage when they’re old enough.”
Derek was where I thought he’d be, on the training grounds holding some weapon or other such item. Today, he was wielding a practice lance, trying to unseat a straw dummy on a wooden horse that went around in circles on a track. Derek hadn’t unseated the dummy yet, I could tell by the frustrated way he kept pushing back his helmet. That was the problem, the armor the trainer had him in was too big. And I was going to go correct him, because the sooner Derek unseated the dummy, the sooner he’d be willing to let me disrupt his practices to go play. I skipped down the stone path in-between training fields to the mock jousting arena where the wooden horse “galloped” around the track again, with the straw dummy still sitting on his back.
“His helmet’s too big for him,” I sang out as soon as I was in earshot of the man controlling the wooden horse. The wheel that moved the horse’s track stopped and the operator stepped out of the booth.
“Hello, Alyessia,” mumbled Derek. “I don’t want to play right now.”
I smiled and stood on my toes so I could reach his head to take off his helmet. “I know that, silly boy. I’ve come to make sure you can protect me if I get to become queen.”
Derek laughed. “Your mother could pick you, and if she did, I’d be the best champion any queen’s ever had!”
In Aquebonica, the king or queen picked their successor from their children based on who they thought was capable of ruling a kingdom.
I put my hands on my hips and my green eyes darted between the straw dummy and Derek’s lance. “I don’t know, that straw man seems like he hasn’t left his horse yet.”
The operator nodded. “Derek hasn’t unseated him yet.”
Derek glared at the man. “That’s because I couldn’t concentrate.” He grabbed his helmet.
“No, try it without,” I said as I took it from him and danced backwards a few steps. He rolled his eyes and shrugged, but gripped his lance tighter and returned to his spot. The operator walked back into the small hut where the controls for the horse were. The horse started up again started moving down the track toward Derek. He tightened his grip on the heavy practice lance and waited for the right moment to move. When the horse was a few feet away, he rammed the padded tip of the lance into the straw man’s stomach, unseating him as the horse continued down the track and back again. Derek stared at the straw man on the ground, and then back up at me.
He grinned. “Alyessia, you must be a good luck charm! I couldn’t knock him down until you came to watch.”
I laughed. “No, it was because your helmet was too big and it was distracting you.”
The operator came and took the helmet from me and walked away to wipe it down, with the same smile all adults got whenever Derek and I were talking together.
“Then when I’m Queen’s Champion, I shall never fight with a helmet on.”
I smiled. “Now that you’ve unseated your opponent, can we go play?”
Derek nodded and we raced to the pond.