The gong rang and reverberated, and the gates to the arena ground open. In rode Huan Xi, Imperial Prince of Zhongguo, on his elephant Longwei. Both he and his mount glimmered with platelets of polished leather armor under the afternoon sun, with bronze blades glinting on the elephant’s tusks. Spreading a proud smile across his pale yellow-brown face, Huan Xi waved with lance in hand to the audience that filled the terraced seating to his right.
Everyone on that side of the arena waved back with cheering and hooting of his name. These men and women were all Zhongguans, Huan Xi’s subjects, come to see him joust for the prize he desired more than anything else. From the lowermost seating there watched the Empress herself, his mother, with a bright pink robe of silk and cherry blossoms in her bun of graying hair. Her eyes twinkled with both Imperial pride and maternal love, but Huan Xi noticed her wringing her hands together with nervous anticipation.
He would make her so proud. This he swore by Zhongdi, Lord of all the Heavens.
Another gong rang from atop the arena’s far end. Afterward there thundered exotic drums as an opposite pair of gates began to part. The right side of the arena fell silent, but the spectators seated along the left erupted into cheering and chanting in a very different language. These other people, dark brown-skinned with brief linen garments, hailed from the ancient kingdom of Khamit far to the southwest of Zhongguo. On their lowest seating was their old Pharaoh Kahotep, with his blue- and gold-striped crown and braided goatee. He flashed a smirk in Huan Xi’s direction.
The Prince of Zhongguo searched the Khamitans’ ranks for a glimpse of Berenib, the Pharaoh’s lovely young daughter. It was over her hand that the joust had been arranged, yet Huan Xi could not make her out anywhere. He could not even find her next to her father or any of his officials. From what he knew of her character, she did not seem like the type of woman who would avoid the sight of blood in the arena, but he was at a loss to explain her curious absence otherwise.
Maybe Kahotep had meant to present her only after the event, for whatever reason. Regardless, as long as Huan Xi had the memory of Berenib’s exquisite beauty in memory, he did not need to be reminded of why he fought.
Longwei the elephant raised his trunk with an anxious rumble. Huan Xi patted his brow while whispering the most soothing words he could muster. In spite of their size, elephants could be skittish animals, but the Prince had to wonder what had intimidated his steed all of a sudden.
The answer came once the other side’s gates had fully opened. The animal that lumbered out onto the arena floor was the strangest and most enormous elephant Huan Xi had ever seen. It dwarfed Longwei by at least one head in height, but the oversized fan-like ears it had outspread gave it the appearance of even greater size. The scaled bronze armor that this hulking southern monster donned almost blinded the Prince of Zhongguo with its dazzling brilliance, as did the blades fitted onto its tusks. And these tusks, of course, ran longer and thicker than those of Longwei or any other elephant Huan Xi had observed.
On this bizaree specimen rode the Khamitan champion, a slender youth with bronze bands around his torso. A mane of black dreadlocks ran out from behind the gold lion’s mask that covered this individual’s entire face. He waved his own lance at the Khamitan audience, and they too cheered and waved back, but none hooted anything that sounded like a name. Huan Xi could not imagine any reason for that odd omission.
“Magnificent steed you got there, Khamitan,” Huan Xi called out. “May I ask for your name?”
“My champion is one of few words and a hidden name, I’m afraid.” It was Pharaoh Kahotep who spoke from his seating. “But you may call the elephant Nofret. Believe me, it was a small mercy on our part not to send a male of her breed here.”
Longwei had his head lowered and legs huddled together in submissive intimidation. Nofret on the contrary held herself high before him, still keeping her big ears outspread, and the rumble she gave was rough like a menacing growl. Huan Xi did not even want to guess what a male of her breed looked like.
“Shall we begin?” Kahotep asked out loud.
There was a pause of silence across the whole arena, except for the whisper of the wind and the rumbling of the elephants. The Empress of Zhongguo had her hands wrung to their tightest as she looked towards her son. The sweat on his brow had turned cold, and he hugged his lance close to his armored chest. But he could not let his dear mother or their people down. Much less his sweet, beautiful Berenib.
Huan Xi nodded, as did the Khamitan champion.
Continue reading “The Elephant Joust”