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.
The gongs rang on both sides of the arena with ear-splitting echoes. Both elephants threw their trunks up and trumpeted at each other, kicking up clouds of dust as they stamped their feet in threatening displays. Longwei took a few steps back in retreat, letting Nofret strut forth with the boldness of a bigger animal. There was no way Huan Xi’s steed could topple his Khamitan opponent’s in a head-on confrontation. No, they could trample Longwei into a bloody pulp without effort.
If one could not beat the enemy with brute strength, one had to beat them with speed or cunning. So had spoken the teachings the Prince had received in his adolescence.
Huan Xi prodded his elephant in the neck with the butt of his lance. This prompted Longwei to revert his back-stepping course and start charging towards Nofret with louder, more ferocious trumpeting than before. The Khamitan steed turned and burst into an opposing gallop of her own, her brow tilted down in readiness for a ramming collision.
By tugging on the harness around his mount’s neck, the Prince got him to veer rightward as they neared Nofret. Instead of smashing straight into his adversary, Longwei ended up brushing past her. The two elephants’ armor scraped against one another, and the blades on Longwei’s tusks grazed the exposed areas of Nofret’s hide. She reared her head up with a shrill cry of pain.
The Zhongguans roared with glee, the Khamitans with disapproval. Huan Xi grinned. Against his first expectations, he had drawn first blood.
He steered his elephant around and prodded him into another charge, aiming at Nofret’s flank while she still reeled from their last attack. They had almost reached her when her Khamitan rider spun aside to thrust his lance’s tip onto Huan Xi’s breastplate. The Prince of Zhongguo jolted back, grabbing onto Longwei’s harness to keep himself from falling off. That yanking pull was enough to halt his elephant in his tracks. It bought Nofret enough time to turn and slash Longwei’s breast with her tusk-blades.
It was the Zhongguan animal’s turn to stagger away in hurt. With frantic cursing, Huan Xi hammered onto Longwei in a desperate effort to knock him back to his senses. Nofret, trumpeting with renewed bloodlust, stormed and shoved them across the arena until they crashed against the right wall. Huan Xi could hear his steed’s ribs crack from the collision.
“Use your lance!” the Empress of Zhongguo cried. Her cheeks glistened wet with terrified tears.
As Longwei struggled to balance himself again, Nofret started another charge to finish him off. Huan Xi drew his lance back until it stretched his arm muscles and chucked it into the Khamitan monster’s brow. The blunt shaft splintered without penetrating the elephant’s thick hide, but nonetheless she stopped and recoiled from the impact. In that time a recovering Longwei battered away at her breast with his trunk.
With no lance to prod his animal anymore, Huan Xi used slaps of his hand to further urge his attacks against the staggering Nofret. His people joined him in chanting a lyric to build up Longwei’s bestial courage, stamping their feet like the drums of war.
A bump of the Khamitan champion’s lance into the side of his helmet, and the Prince of Zhongguo fell off his elephant onto the arena’s sandy floor.
He had lost the joust. As the rules had always stated with plain clarity, a joust ended when either a champion or his elephant fell to the ground. That Longwei still stood counted for nothing as long as Huan Xi did not.
The two gongs sounded together again, and the Khamitan drums thundered in triumph afterward. The people of Khamit sang and clapped with joy while the people of Zhongguo wailed. Huan Xi could hear both the Pharaoh’s laughter and the Empress’s weeping.
He had let his own mother down, as well as his people. And he would never have his Berenib.
A voice yelled and screamed, for Longwei’s unrelenting beating against Nofret had knocked her rider off. Huan Xi hurried over and held his arms out until the Khamitan champion fell into them. They had almost fought to the death a moment before, but with the match finished, he could not let his former nemesis die.
A deafening trumpet suppressed all other clamor in the arena. It had come from Nofret. She had regained consciousness and toppled Longwei over with a ram of her skull. The earth trembled, with dust and sand flying up to sting Huan Xi’s eyes. With his elephant thus collapsed, he stood petrified with terror as Nofret began to advance onto him. She brandished her trunk and tusks, stomped her feet, and blared with a savage hatred that could crush him like a beetle.
Something blurred through the air and banged into her jaw. The gigantic brute stumbled until she landed breast-first onto the floor, with a pair of arms pulling Huan Xi out of the way.
The ground stilled, the dust settled, and both elephants lay groaning on the ground. On both sides of the arena, everyone stayed silent with awestruck disbelief.
“Thank you, for saving me…whomever you are,” Huan Xi said with heavy panting.
His Khamitan counterpart began to undo and slip the bronze armor off. Much to the Prince’s surprise, the gentle curves of a female form appeared in its place. When the Khamitan champion took off “his” lion mask at last, there was no mistaking the beautiful face that gazed back at Huan Xi.
“Princess Berenib? You were jousting me this whole time?” Huan Xi rubbed and blinked his eyes.
Smiling with her full and luscious lips, Berenib embraced him with her glistening ebony arms. “My father wanted it to be a pleasant surprise for you. A reward for your courage and cunning, if you will.”
“But I, I’ve lost. This cannot be!”
“It doesn’t matter, my love. You don’t need to win a fight to win over a woman. How about we celebrate over some roast elephant tonight, my betrothed?”
The two pressed their lips together and kissed with their fullest passion as both their peoples cheered and clapped on both sides of the arena, drowning out the final ringing of the gongs.