The Prince looked, simply to Tom who had never seen him in person, like a bigger more aggressive Nicholas, and he was right to think that this one didn’t mean any good. His blue eyes sparked in the dim light of the inner palace, and he wore a smile, but it curled up at the sides in a twisted grin that almost physically harmed Tom when he looked at it.

“This person snuck here yesterday somehow. He was very rude to the King. Maybe, he had some criminal attention that time.”

“Hey. Neil. That was uncalled for and I’m sure he had good reason for being here,” Nicholas stepped between Tom and his strong gaze.

“Not at all Nicholas. I fully understand that this person is nobility and thus deserves some time with our father. But have you heard some of the rumors,” As Neil said this the parlor maids stammered but became silent soon after.

“It’s said that he was poisoned deliberately as an attempt on his life. Now, it wouldn’t be so farfetched to imagine that someone hired a measly Baronet where they failed, right?”

“No. That is something that would never happen. Tom is one of my men and has nothing but respect for the king,” said Nicholas, “What’s got into you? I know you never liked me but don’t bring Father into this.”

“Well, if he’s tricked you, then maybe we should ask him directly?” he said dismissively, as if to say, that Nicholas’ status didn’t matter compared to his own.

Tom remained silent, until Neil said, “Good answer.”

“Well, little brother, I have no plans to pit your reputation against mine, but I will say that I can’t let this assassin remain in your care. So how about a bargain. I’ll take a duel against him and it will all be over.”

“I don’t know what you’re planning. But I’m not going to let you get away with it. I’ve just lost a friend, and I’m not giving away another. So, I’ll challenge you instead. In front of witnesses. Hmm, Neil. What will you say when I tell the world that you had a personal slight against me?”

“Oho. You think you can fight against me. I’ll make it easy then. It will be a Knights’ Duel. With our mechanical spears,” Neil said, and seemed bigger in that moment than any human could’ve been.

He walked away, the nonparticipants shuddered away quickly, but Tom and Nicholas remained. They finally got the doctor’s okay, but the doctor looked confused. At this time the King was seated upright, weakened truly by what they found to really be poison.

“Father. Did this person threaten you in any way?”

“No. He merely asked me about his grandfather that I served with as a Knight.”

“Do you think he would wish you harm?”

“I’m sure that no one that you picked for your team would ever do any evil.”

“That’s not what Neil thinks so I’m going to set it straight.”

“Nick. Please. He didn’t seem to be himself. He’s just doing what he thinks is right.”

“I’m going, by your leave. I don’t want to disturb your rest. Get well, father.”

Nicholas and Tom curtsied, but when they got home everyone, Eleanor chair bound included huddled to him and chastised his anger. They told him by doing anything, it was incrimination and that Tom would have been fine and was just a target because it would get him to fight. And he knew that they spoke the truth, but he could not sit by.

Tommorow Tom and Sally discovered that the palace really did go infinitely deep and contained somehow, a set of rooms especially for different martial competitions and seating for watchers. Nicholas dressed in the wraps of a Knight and found that not only was his brother decked out in full plate, but also was using a normal spear that was not dulled or lightened in any way. Changing, he faced Neil, and confirmed mostly to the staff, Zero Squad, and a fleet of lazy Barons and Baronets why they were to have a duel.

Tom tried to remember how these duels typically ended, as artifacts from a less rational time where personal slights had to be answered honorably.

Usually, both duelists would shoot into the floor, or to their backs and it would end with an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and then mutual forgiveness. Or, someone would shoot first and impale the other on the spear-like tool that seemed very effective on even darklings.

He had no questions about Nicholas’ aim. He had picked out points of concentrated substance fairly reliably when on patrol so far, but he remembered Eleanor had a sort of respectful admiration for Prince Neil, but now she said, “I thought I was a good judge of character,” and tutted.

“Hey, everyone. If things get hairy I’m going to help,” she whispered.

“No. Let’s just let him be injured if it comes to it. This is a matter of honor and we’re not supposed to intervene,” but Sally wanted to add that despite her rank duels were outdated and honestly she didn’t even know.

The princes took their places on a roughly ten-meter arena of hardwood that shined. Also shining was a close servant that seemed to follow Neil, with his black uniform positively sparling in the setup, with a mallet and bell in hand.
Tom saw the servant signal Neil, but it was too late to say anything.

Instead, they took up their lances, drew breathes and waited for the bell to ring, each facing so their backs were to each other. But Neil cheated, and knew before hand when the bell would ring. As Nicholas heard it he turned around, but Neil was already facing him and aiming, and aiming high.

They were wearing face masks, but there was no way it would help against the lance heads.

Nicholas felt a cold wind but luckily he was just a moment better, and he shot, half-scared for his life.

He struck Neil square in the chest, making him grunt and then he should have stopped, but he still acted like nothing had happened. Instead, he took aim and fired.

There was a flash of crimson.


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