As preparations were made for the battle, all took to their assigned seating upon the royal table. Alais and the King were given the positions of honor, of course, at the very center. There were also those she was already acquainted with: Princess Adeline and her two sons sat to the King's right. A seat and setting had also been ceremonially reserved for Prince Cassius, though the King's brother was not in attendance. The absentee Prince even had a plate and chalice arranged for him, and so forlorn was the sight that even Alais found herself missing his company. She had liked Cassius, from what little she remembered of him.

But most of her new family were strangers to her and required introduction. There was, first of all, Adeline's husband, a Duke Randall of Skepye. Randall was a handsome and friendly enough fellow, younger than she expected, and seemed happy to defer to the opinions of his wife. There was also Duke Boris, the King's paternal uncle, a man of heavyset proportions and substantial size (and more substantial thirst for wine). Countess Lucille was, in comparison, a thinly drawn lady, frail and fair, and it was no surprise that she was the King's aunt from the other side of the family. Their dispositions could also not be more different; whereas Boris was generous with his hearty laughter, Lucille's face seemed permanently fixed in a slightly sour pout. Lucille's son made up the last of the table - a Count Gavin, of tall and shapely build with hair of gold like his mother, though remarkably more good-humored than she. Besides being the King's cousin, he also introduced himself as the Spymaster.

"The battle isn't to the death, right?" questioned Alais, once they'd all settled in. It had taken her handmaidens some careful wrangling to fan the long train of her gown around her. She didn't doubt the effect was flattering, but it did make it more difficult to move without disturbing the delicate arrangement; she settled for sitting quite still.

"Death is not necessarily required," said the King, "on this occasion."

This didn't explain much, but fortunately Count Gavin was more forthcoming. "Incapacitation or surrender is enough," he explained. "Though it is not uncommon for injuries to be grievous, given the - shall we say - passion of the fighters." He offered a smile. "Though I'm sure your champion will be hardy enough to weather the onslaught, and earn the blessings of the Gods for his troubles."

Alais felt a seed of discomfort lodge in her stomach. She had barely met Septimus, but he was oddly likable - he did not deserve to die because she had singled him out as a target for the others. He had claimed he could win, but what if he was a fool?

Duke Boris chortled into his drink. "Ah! How fickle our Gods are, to award lifelong happiness on the flip of a coin," he said, jovially blasphemous. "Eh?"

The King didn't seem to take offense; he only smiled rather indulgently. "I like to think it is more than the flip of a coin, Uncle," he replied. "I have faith in our Queen's intuition."

"Very much so!" contributed Randall.

As usual, she couldn't tell if the King was being serious.

From her high perch, she could see the gladiators being stationed at different corners of the makeshift fighting pit (the cleared out space that had previously been the viewing area). Their noble guests had returned to their seating on the other side - the rest must have filtered in in the meantime, for not a single of the three hundred seats remained empty, so far as she could see. She felt many sets of eyes upon her, and could only be grateful that most of them were too far away to observe for certain.

Alais looked away in time to see Titus testing the heft of what looked to be a sword as large as she was tall. Septimus was a few feet away, looking calm as ever (she wondered again how he could not even be slightly nervous). Each of them was being distributed a weapon and shield; she noted the distinct absence of armor.

"At least they all seemed very eager, these..." She was about to say gladiators, but recollected the formal name for the occasion. "These bride berserkers. Are they - "

"'Bride berserkers,' was it?" inquired Boris. He laughed in a jolly fashion, as he poured more wine into her goblet. "Ah, I have not heard that one yet! Your Majesty has a knack for names. Bride berserkers, indeed they are. Ohoho!"

"It does have a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Do you often come up with such inspired names?" said the King, innocently.

But he was the one who has said that that was the name of - oh. Her confusion must have lasted for a fraction of a second before a quickly dawning realization nearly compelled her to flush. It was only a light-hearted, casual flustering compared to the events of their shared nights, but the lapse in her composure could be felt to a keen sense nonetheless. Her eyes lowered to her plate for a moment, before she centered herself with a breath.

Of all the childish pranks... She looked to the the King, who raised his eyebrows at her, as if he'd had absolutely no share in the appellation himself. He was clearly amused though, and not at all ashamed.

If she had to be honest with herself, it was a little funny. And the mischief of it was boyish in a way that was almost disarming.

Toward Boris, she directed a soft-humored smile, even a laugh which might have passed for congenial. In spite of all his teasings, he was vaguely reminiscent of a fat saint who bestowed presents to well-behaving children during the Yuletide. It was almost impossible to be cross with him. Was he really from the same family that spawned the King?

Speaking of which, her gaze cooled noticeably as it flitted back toward her husbandon the other side of her, lips falling back into a humorless line. "Actually," she started, squinting at him incredulously. "It was His Majesty who thought of it. Either he does not recall his Majestic ingenuity, or he's making fun of me."

"Alexander, you're terrible," said Adeline, from his other side. She bounced little Edward on her lap, trying to quiet his protests of hunger. She flashed a smile at her sister-in-law. "You shouldn't tease poor Alais so!"

When her head ducked forward to catch the Princess' smile a bit farther off to the side, Alais smiled in turn, the sweetness in her returning all at once. "He also came up with wedding warriors." Personally, Alais liked Bride Berserkers a touch more.

The King was smirking, not looking too miffed that she had turned it back to him. "Yes, I'm the guilty culprit," he conceded. "I certainly apologize for leading you astray. But, to be fair, you were the one who believed me."

"Terrible," muttered Alais.

Her gaze wandered, absentmindedly distracted by a frantic waving from one of the nearer tables of nobles.

It was Duchess Evangeline of Toussaint, she who was mistress of poor Ser Emille and all those other knights who'd futilely attempted rescues. She had the glisten of weeping in her eyes as she waved her bright purple handkerchief with particular vigor. Alais stared back, before finally managing to wiggle her hands (with some semblance of gracefulness) in return. In the middle distance, Evangeline touched her heart with her sleeve - and blew back a tearful kiss. Perhaps one that was meant to be taken as a blessing of some sort.

"You invited my cousin?" she heard herself ask, almost baffled by the sight - as though she didn't quite believe what she was saying. "Why is she crying?"

"Oh, yes," the King recollected, following her gaze to the cousin in question. He looked amused. "Are you not delighted to see her? I thought you must have been close, given the persistent dedication of her knights to your rescue. I half-expected her to bring a full squadron to the feast."

"That isn't what I was worried about," murmured Alais, sinking into her seat with a resigned expression. Knowing Evangeline, the true gravity of...just about everything about this marriage (and about their presence in Obsivia overall) would be lost on her utterly. It was, in a sense, also a bit of a hidden blessing, so perhaps she'd been the best choice after all.

Those who were keen of hearing might have picked up the distant cries of the Toussaint table from all the rest: in particular, Evangeline's "My little girl is all grown up!" and the various consolations of "There there..." humming out from her accompanying ladies and lords.

"I say," said Boris, the sight of the delicately sobbing Duchess having quite taken him aback. He was quite tall - a trait that seemed to run in Alexander's family - which allowed him to peer quite easily over the heads of all these lesser nobles, at the Pearl of Toussaint that glimmered past them. He lowered his goblet for the first time since he sat down (there had been nothing uncivil in his introductions, and to the contrary he had been openly friendly, but his attentions had been quickly claimed by the fine wines before them). But now, he only had eyes for one. "I say. But what is ailing that handsome woman, that she weeps so? She must care deeply for Your Majesty?"

The Duchess was on the more curvaceous side of 'handsome,' with full cheeks and a fuller set of bosoms to match.

"A rather effusive display," sniffed Countess Lucille.

"She is a very..." Alais considered how to put it. "Sensitive woman."

Here, their conversation dwindled, as Bartholomew once again took command of the stage. "My lords and ladies!" He looked upon the sea of nobles before him, and then above in the balconies. "You are about to feast your eyes upon the clash of titans! Behold! Before you stands your fighters - each with the might of ten men, and the courage of twenty! Taken from the farthest reaches of the kingdom, and all brought before you on this auspicious day!"

He turned to gesture grandly at the ten warriors situated within.

"I give you... Titus!"

A smattering of claps sounded, as Titus heaved his sword into the air and rattled it with a roar.


More claps.

"Gallio! Kaeso! Everard! Gnaeus! Ulric! Alethius! Steris!"

Bartholomew paused, with dramatic intention. "And finally, the Queen's chosen champion - Septimus!"

Septimus stepped forward, throwing his arms high and grinning broadly at the applauding audience. When he looked to the royal table - to her - his grin seemed, if possible, to grow even wider.

"In honor of King Alexander and Queen Alais, the glory of Obsivia, and the Gods themselves!" Here, Bartholomew bowed deferentially towards them. "May the battle be as magnificent as this day's joyous union."

Joyous indeed, though Alais dryly.

As he stepped aside, the crowds quieted and the gladiators settled into fighting stances. She caught a flash of unease on Bartholomew's features once the performance was over and he was back to the side - clearly anxious that his handpicked men perform as promised.

A thick tension settled over the room, and she could spy a few of the lower aristocracy craning their necks for a better view.

The King took a casual sip from his chalice, before setting it aside.

"Begin," he commanded.

At once, Titus bellowed and charged in the direction of Septimus, weapon at the ready. He wasn't the only one, either - others converged with the same intent, singling out the champion the way her handmaidens had forewarned.

But Septimus was not waiting for them. He shifted into motion himself, clashing his shield into his first attacker as he went - as the man stumbled back, he rammed the pommel of his sword toward the other's temple in one fluid movement. Gasps sounded from the crowd, as well as light applause.

"Such swiftness," Randall remarked, leaning forward in his seat.

Alais was inclined to agree. She knew little of swordplay (and less of gladiator-style battle), but still she could tell that Septimus was possessed of an uncanny speed; even as his opponent fell, he had already sidestepped to surge forward. But could it be enough, when he was surrounded on all sides?

Tullus was next, but Septimus merely evaded his blows and slipped past him. Two more assailants were given the same treatment - he barrelled past without engagement, at one point dropping to a roll to avoid contact.

"What is he doing?" said Duke Gavin, curiously. "He does not fight?"

Lucille tittered. "Perhaps our 'champion' grows fearful."

"No," said the King. He watched the proceedings with a thoughtful eye. "He grows cunning."

Lucille furrowed her brows in confusion, but it only took Alais a moment longer to trace Septimus's intended destination and reach an understanding of her own.

Once he reached the eastern end of the room, he righted himself immediately, shifting into a defensive position with the wall at his back.

"Oho!" declared Boris. "Protecting from a rear attack! Of course!"

It made sense. The risk for a single combatant against many was always to be surrounded and outflanked, and he drastically increased his chances for survival if he was able to make use of a natural barrier.

The first two combatants to reach the champion were dispatched with startling ease. Septimus's sword danced and feinted, taking a vicious slice of a man's stomach in the process; nimbly, he weaved out of the reach of another attacking, ducking under the swing to hammer his shield into his opponent's knee. Both toppled within moments of each other, and Septimus was already on the move, sword up in time to meet the next onslaught.

Applause rang from the seated nobles, and more than a few were now on their feet.

"Incredible!" boomed Boris. It must have been, for his goblet, for once, remained on the table as he stared at the sight of Septimus doing battle with three more gladiators. "I've never seen such dexterity. He moves as if water!"

Indeed, Septimus's instincts appeared to be almost unnatural. He was constantly countering every attack, forever dodging at just the right moment. In fighting three opponents, he used the space and their numbers to his advantage - he was continually moving along the wall, forcing them to make obstacles of each other as they attempted to keep pace.

By this time, he had withdrawn far enough to stake out a corner, thus further limiting the ability of his opponents to attack on different sides. A few contenders were kept at bay, unable to attack with others blocking their vantage. As it turned out, some were more impatient than others.

A sickening cry rang out from the improvised arena as the mighty Titus rid himself of one obstacle - with the efficacy of a hammer, his sword cut clean through another gladiator's forearm. The wounded man attempted to flee, blood streaming gloriously from his stump, and slipped on the puddle of his own making.

And oh. Oh, that was a lot of blood.

Alais looked away from the (literally) disarmed man, unsure if she could stomach the sight of more. But what she managed to avoid witnessing with her eyes, she couldhear: the sickening sounds of flesh being cleaved from flesh. Bones breaking. Smashing. Below the table, her legs were on the brink of squirming underneath the mass of her wedding skirts.

It seemed to go on forever, and still, no one else at the royal table appeared remotely bothered. The King's detached interest was no surprise, but it felt eerie to see his manner echoed. Duke Randall had leaned in toward the Princess, and seemed to be noting to her points of interest in the battle. ("Can you believe it - he may actually win!" she heard). At least the children had been taken away. Lucille was muttering unimpressed commentary to her son. In the distance, she could see Bartholomew sporting a grin from ear to ear.

"This must all be very...much for you," Duke Boris said to her, consolingly - the effect only slightly lost by the slightly loud quality of his (probably intoxicated) voice. "And for...hrm." His eyes wandered, none too subtly, to the Pearl of Toussaint. "It is unfortunate that - the Duchess' husband is not, ah, here to console her?" Circumspection was evidently not his forte.

"The Duchess is..." Alais glanced at the Duke critically, for a heartbeat, her brows knitting together in response to his oh so subtle cues, but the brunt of her attention seemed ostensibly vested in the fine craftsmanship of her chalice. "... A widow. Spring fever, I think it was."

"Tragic," muttered Boris, not convincingly at all. "Very tragic." He coughed. "You must not think me -" His voice broke off, distracted by the view before him. "Ah! To use his own hand?!"

Unable to help herself, Alais looked up.

A grotesque vision swam before her: heaps of fallen men were now clustered here and there upon the ground, some moaning and others utterly still. A few, ghastly enough, were missing entire appendages altogether, including a crippled Tellus not far from their table.

Only two remained: Titus and Septimus. She saw what Boris was speaking of - Titus had grasped Septimus's blade with his bare hand. Blood flowed steadily from the wound, but Titus seemed indifferent to it. As she watched, he tightened his fist and used it to pull Septimus toward him, hefting forward his own weapon to strike.

But rather than attempt to wrestle for the sword, Septimus simply released his grip. Grunting, Titus stumbled back, two blades in hand.

"Is he not done for now?" Lucille looked faintly irritated, as if the champion's survival so far was somehow a personal affront to her. "He is disarmed."

"Have a little faith, Mother," said Gavin, more gamely.

Septimus backpedaled, far out of the reach of Titus's weapons. The giant man clambered after him, swinging the dual blades wildly - but he was heavier and slower, and his target too quick on his feet. Septimus circled him deftly; whenever Titus seem to find a rhythm, he would unexpectedly reverse direction and leave him frustrated. He was tiring him out.

After a few rounds of this, it was clear even to Alais's unpracticed eye that Titus was getting sloppy - whether from fatigue or impatience. He was making wider swipes, leaving more of himself unprotected.

Then, as Titus jabbed his sword forward, Septimus suddenly dropped and swept his foot in an arc, taking advantage of the giant's forward momentum to trip him. Even as the larger man fell, he grabbed hold of his wrist, twisting so that pain forced the grip to loosen. By the time Titus recovered, a blade was pointed at his throat.

Titus panted for breath, staring up at the sword and its wielder. Both eyed each other for several long seconds. Finally, Titus grunted, "Yield."

At once, Septimus's features relaxed into a friendly grin. He shifted the sword away, offering a hand to the other man - which went ignored, for Titus pulled himself up with a resentful look in his eye. This did not, however, dampen the victor's spirits at all, and he turned and bowed with exaggerated deepness toward the royal table.

A hushed silence fell over the crowd.

Then applause thundered out, so loudly that Alais felt the tremors of it in the very table.

Belatedly, she began clapping as well. She felt like she was catching her breath herself, even though she hadn't remotely participated in the fight. Violence aside, it had been close. She had not been certain until the last moment that herchampion would survive, and that he had ultimately prevailed was a terrible relief. She was already responsible for enough unnecessary deaths, wasn't she? (She hoped the knights of Toussaint would halt their rescuing efforts now that their Duchess had actually participated in the wedding.)

"Incredible," Gavin was saying. He clapped heartily, shaking his head. "A champion victorious. When was the last time that happened? More than a century ago, I wager?"

"An inspiring display!" agreed Randall. He looked to the King. "The Gods must have truly blessed your marriage, to make it so."

"Yes, a fine choice of champion it was," said the King. He applauded lightly, appearing well-entertained by the battle. His gaze drifted to her, however. "I did not know my Queen had an eye for such things."

"I don't," answered Alais automatically. She did not know anything about gladiators or swordplay at all. She knew people though, and it was a little gratifying to see that she had not misread Septimus - that she had been proven correct, despite Bartholomew's misgivings. Perhaps fate had grand plans for her after all.

Even she had not anticipated the degree of his skill, though. He must have had some Gods-given talent, this Septimus - she did not need the excited chatter of the nobles or the commentary of her royal family to know this. She had seen it with her own eyes.

She turned back to the King, all sweet humility as she continued, "It was luck."

The King smiled. "Oh, I doubt it."

"Truly, I have seen nothing like it before," uttered Boris. He chortled, glancing at his nephew. "Well, except the King's own performance at that Midsummer Tourney. But perhaps he's even as good as you, eh?"

"The man is naturally gifted," the King allowed. A smirk crossed his lips. "But not that gifted."

The applause was finally dying down, fading to smatters here and there. Bartholomew retook the stage, all his worries turned to glee. "The Gods have spoken!"

Septimus was bloodied and exhausted, but it was clear he enjoyed the attention all the same. His grin was irrepressible, and when he looked to her direction, it was with an expression of gratefulness.

Bartholomew took hold of Septimus's arm, raising it high above. "The Queen's champion has triumphed!"