"Pour more of that wax-oil on it!" shouted Konrad riding his steam bike.
With his right hand he operated the valve controlling the steam flow, ready to launch his machine at full speed across the jousting ground.
"Boiler's on full blast," replied Siggi loudly. "If I put in more keroselaion it could explode."
"Put more in, I'm telling you! I want to shoot out like an arrow."
"The lord of the caves is burning coal tar oil; can't you see the black smoke coming out of his chimney? "
"So, my fuel has at least a quarter more calorific value than his. When you hit him, he's going to feel like he's crashed into a wall."
"I don't care! I want more power."
Siggi shook his head in resignation, then opened another canister and poured his fuel through a nozzle into the coal-filled boiler. When he went to close it, a blaze of fire came out of it and burned his hand. He didn't even wince.
"chooka-chooka, chooka-chooka, chooka-chooka, chooka-chooka,..."
The steam bike seemed to go berserk. The centrifugal regulator was spinning wildly at full speed. Steam was pouring angrily out of the condenser exhaust pipe.
"Is Nina watching me?"
"Fuck you, Kunz! Focus on what you must do."
Konrad picked up his lance. When the judge gave the signal, he aimed his weapon at his adversary and opened the valve that allowed the steam to flow into the piston. His armored motorcycle shot out across the tiltyard seeking to ram Baron von Kobell, who was mockingly nicknamed the lord of the caves because of the number of mining operations in his fiefdom.
He felt his steam bike vibrating in overheat. With so much trembling he was not able to keep the tip of his spear well aligned towards his opponent's body. He could see him approaching at full speed. Fearing the worst, he crouched behind his shield and ducked his head, trying to keep his spear as straight as possible.
The impact was devastating. Both knights broke their lances against the body of their opponent. Von Kobell lashed out against his shield. Even so, the blow was so virulent that it almost knocked him off his seat. He could not see if he had knocked his opponent off his bike. He could only hear the restless, almost terrified murmur of the audience's voices distorted by the intense rattle of his engine.
When he reached the end of the jousting yard and turned his steam bike around, he saw that the lord of the caves was barely holding on to his velocipede, fallen backwards on his right side. He had to stop his machine to be helped to right himself so he could grab a second lance.
Konrad saw that he had broken his own against the baron's right shoulder. Since his bike was carrying much more speed than his contender's, he had almost shattered that part of his armor. As Siggi had told him, he only had to take good aim and avoid being knocked down by dodging the spears of the other knights. The power of the impact was already taken care of by his friend with his steam engine and his new fuels.
His bike was a three-wheeled velocipede. A smaller front steer wheel that allowed him to ride crouched over the vehicle, with his legs tucked in and his torso bent behind his shield, and two larger rear driving wheels, between which was the steam boiler that moved them. That igneous volcano was still throbbing beneath his body. He felt that its intense heat was scorching his backside.
He saw von Kobell switch his shield to his right arm. That was a sign that he had it shattered by the impact. He was forced to wield his spear with his left arm. His attack would now come from the inside. It would be more difficult to dodge, but its force would be less. The two-headed eagle on the baron's bike figurehead had also lost one of its heads.
Konrad again launched his monstrous steam-powered velocipede against his adversary's. This time he would aim well and not hide blindly behind his shield. He knew that if he impacted his spear against the chest of the lord of the caves, the speed he achieved with Siggi's machine would take him apart.
Indeed, he saw von Kobell go flying through the air after the impact, but at the same time, he felt an intense pain in his left leg. His opponent's lance had struck him there after sliding down along his shield. Then it had exploded into a thousand pieces and some splinter must have penetrated through a gap in his armor.
"Ffffffffffffffffffffff..." Konrad heard a loud whistling sound behind him. A cloud of steam seemed to be chasing him.
When he reached his end of the tiltyard, he saw Siggi running up to him waving his arms in anguish. He didn't quite know what was going on.
"Kunz, get down from there!" he heard his friend shout, pulling him by the arm.
Seeing that he did not react, Siggi grabbed him by the breastplate sticking his fingers through the gaps between the pieces of his armor, and pulled him with all his strength. Although he almost dismounted him, he couldn't get him completely off the velocipede.
"Okay, okay! I'll be right down," shouted Kunz to calm him down.
When he had only put one foot on the ground, Siggi lunged at him and knocked him to the ground.
"Boom!" at that instant the boiler of his steam bike burst, blowing up the metal part where the leak had occurred. The rear of the vehicle was on fire.
Siggi sat up and stared at his wrecked engine sitting on the ground.
"It's good that you want to protect me," Konrad said grumpily, "but I'm the one wearing the armor. You're not wearing any and you're lying on top of me, covering me with your body. You're out of your mind!" he reproached him. "Come on, help me up."
The judges declared Sir Konrad von Schottenstein the winner of the match since Baron von Kobell remained unconscious with a bruised chest. In addition, they considered that the damage to Konrad's vehicle had occurred after he had won the fight. But since he no longer had a useful mount at his disposal to face Sir Gottfried, they awarded the latter as the winner of the tournament.
"Damn it, Iron Hand has defeated us again!" bellowed Konrad angrily, kicking his semi-carbonized bike. He felt a sharp stab of pain in his injured leg.
"Kunz!" Siggi called his attention with a gesture.
Sir Gottfried 'Götz' von Bethmann, the knight with the iron hand, was coming straight towards them after collecting his trophy.
"You were lucky, Scott," Konrad was annoyed that he abbreviated in such a plebeian way the name of his illustrious family house. "You know that my hand never recoils and my blow is always deadly," he assured, raising his iron fist, in reality, an articulated prosthesis that served as a hand, driven by the stumps of his amputated fingers.
"Yes, Götz, I know you are very tough," using the diminutive of his name was his way of despising him, "but I assure you that this time I was prepared to give you the blow that would shatter your damned ego."
"You shouldn't have been given as the winner even in your fight against the baron. At the end of the day, you were knocked off your bike."
"It was a bloody accident."
"If it wasn't for your friend's concoctions, you'd be nothing. You would have bitten the dust a long time ago."
"Fuck you, Götz! You're not going to provoke me."
"I know that nothing affects the Insensitive Knight with the imperturbable face," he laughed.
Kunz gave him a look full of anger, he hated that nickname.
"I'll see you in Hornberg," he challenged him.
"No, my petty friend. I don't fight in minor tournaments anymore. I'll wait for you at the palace of the prince palatine, if you get there in one piece."
Kunz raised his middle finger with the most phallic gesture of contempt of which he was capable. Sir Gottfried turned and walked away smiling.
"I'll go get a couple of guys to help us tow the bike," said Siggi, giving his friend a slap on the arm to get his attention.
"He's right," replied Konrad still glaring angrily at Sir Gottfried as he walked away.
"I have a deadpan mask for a face. I'll never get Baroness von Hornberg to notice me."
"Well, she's no longer Nina! Now she must be referred to by her full name, Magdalena Isabel Vera Lydia Herta Baroness von Hornberg Schenk," said Siggi sarcastically. "Or does she have any other name that I don't know?"
"I am incapable of smiling, I can't even frown," complained Konrad bitterly. "When I win a victory, I cannot express my joy."
"Which is a great advantage in case of defeat."
"I have a bloody facial paralysis!" he shouted at his friend as if he didn't understand. "I don't have a face, but a mask. Look, take a good look at me! Now I'm smiling. Can't you see?"
"I must admit that as a buffoon you'd starve to death."
"I can't move my eyes laterally, I have difficulties in speech because I can hardly move my lips, sometimes I even drool," he said to himself with disgust.
"And yet you asked Nina to come and see you at the tournament and she has come. And now, you're not even going to get close to her? Are you going to stand her up?"
"I don't want her to see my cardboard face after this new defeat."
"It wasn't a defeat," Siggi shouted, grabbing him by the shoulders. "You were unlucky, there was a leak, and the boiler burst. Nobody defeated you."
"What happened to your hand?" Kunz asked in fright. "It's raw."
"What?" Siggi looked at his hand in surprise. "When I poured the fuel in, a flame came out of the boiler. Maybe I got burned," he said, playing it down. "It's nothing."
"You need to see a quack."
"Don't talk garbage. I'll put on a bandage and we'll tow the bike. Then you wash yourself," he said pointing his finger at him, "and go to court your baroness."
"And you, collect your drool."
Konrad was embarrassed and quickly put his hand to his mouth, but he didn't notice that he was drooling anywhere.
"No, not that one," said Siggi. "The one you drop when you think of your Nina," he grinned wickedly.
Konrad attended the dinner at the castle. He was limping. At least, he thought, that would give him an excuse not to dance. He felt like a clumsy oaf when he danced. Although he and Nina exchanged several glances, she was always besieged by throngs of boisterous suitors. So, Kunz did not even dare to approach. All the other ladies avoided him as if he had the plague or, worse, a hideously deformed face. Götz, for his part, took the opportunity to once again mock his expressionless mug. Over and over again, he reminded everyone present of how lucky the Insensitive Knight had been to blow up his bike and thus avoid having to face his formidable fist.
He returned crestfallen and in a bad mood. He lay down on his cot and began to toss and turn without being able to sleep, snorting and cursing. After a while, Siggi, having had enough, got up and started to heat some water.
"Drink this," he said angrily.
"What is it?"
Kunz, sitting on his cot, picked up the glass and raised his head to drink. At that instant, Siggi grabbed him by the neck from behind and squeezed his arm for a few seconds until he was unconscious. He slept peacefully for the rest of the night.
When Konrad awoke mid-morning, they were riding in a platform wagon. They had loaded the wrecked motorcycle and Siggi was working on it as they traveled, disassembling the boiler and removing all the charred parts. On the other side was he lying with the luggage and spare parts.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"We have a couple of days until Rottweil and then, from there, we will have to find some means of transport to Hornberg."
"You're a bastard. What did you do to me last night?" he asked massaging his sore neck.
"I made you sleep well and let the rest of us sleep."
"It's cold as hell. We could ride in a covered train car."
"That's where the maidens, minstrels, and courtiers go. Besides, it's much more expensive."
"And then they say I'm the insensitive knight. Would you believe it?"
When they arrived in Rottweil two days later, the bike was a clean skeleton, but with dozens of disassembled parts.
"We need a blacksmith to make us a new slide valve," Siggi announced, "the one we had was deformed by the explosion."
It took the blacksmith a week to make the valve for them. Siggi could only partially rebuild the velocipede while waiting for the new part.
"Sir Gottfried was right," commented Kunz during the long wait. "We should have passed on going to Hornberg. It is a minor tournament."
"And not go to see your beloved Baroness? You wrote to her for her to come to see you in Auerswald and then you didn't even go near her."
"I wanted to offer her a victory," he justified himself.
"I think there are things ladies care much more about than a bloody victory."
"Fuck, Kunz! You're so insensitive."
Siggi knew exactly where it hurt the most. He was the only one he allowed him to talk to like that.
"Winning at the headquarters of her family house will allow you to offer her the trophy and make her see that you are doing all this for her. Women like romantic men."
"Romantic?" he repeated quizzically.
"Don't even think of asking me what that is," Siggi threatened him angrily, going back to work on his machine.
A few days later they were on their way to Hornberg sitting on a pile of sacks full of legumes on the back of an ox-drawn cart. They were towing their huge, half-dismantled bike behind them.
"You can't trust machines," the hawker they were traveling with repeated over and over again. "There's nothing like a good animal. Just as they shit, they carry you," every time he made a foul remark, he laughed his jaw off.
The castle of Hornberg was situated on a steep rocky outcrop overlooking a large beach. There, a good number of artisans were at work setting up the arena where the joust was to be held, the platforms for the judges and for the festival lord and his guests of higher rank, the ladies' gallery, and the grandstands for the populace.
"Do you know that your little baroness lives in a beautiful place to retire to?"
"I don't intend to retire here. It's the asshole of the world," Kunz replied at once.
Siggi made a resigned face, sometimes his friend was a bit obtuse.
"There's a lot of sand," he commented, looking worriedly at the beach, "that will slow us down. It's going to be an old-fashioned tournament, where what counts most is the knight's skill."
"Will you have the bike in time?"
"I need a couple of days to assemble it. We'll still have time to test it and tune it up. Until then you can devote yourself to courting your lady."
"I'm not going to present myself to her until I can offer her a trophy."
Konrad had to sweat to break his opponents. Some of them he couldn't knock down even after breaking the three spears. Still, the judges gave him the victory. Many of the bikes got stuck in the sand and slowed down the fights. A youngster from an almost unknown minor house, Wilwolt von Schaumberg, had shown unusual skill with the lance. He was the only one who had dismounted all his opponents. His steam bike was old and wide-wheeled, but it did not get stuck in the sand. His bravery had made him a favorite of the populace and the local nobles. The figurehead on his handlebars was an archangel, God's champion, which seemed an omen.
At the beginning of the morning of the second day, only four knights remained in contention. Konrad was anxious to settle the tournament. He wanted victory to offer as a pledge of love. Young Wilwolt sought only glory. To his surprise, Nina appeared with another lady in their pavilion.
"This is Sir Konrad," she said to the lady who accompanied her. "He is called the Insensitive Knight because he never expresses any emotion."
"My lady," Kunz nervously bowed stiffly in his heavy armor.
"You wrote me to come and see you in Auerswald and then you didn't even come close to say a word to me. Is it part of your strategy to be insensitive to the ladies as well?"
Siggi, rising to his feet, elbowed him from behind. He had been refilling a couple of carafes with his powerful fuel.
"I... I wanted to offer you... my lady... a victory."
"Insensitive and embarrassed in speech," laughed the other lady. She was truly beautiful with bewitching eyes. Siggi gawked at her.
"I don't know if your heart is as insensitive as your face. Maybe you don't deserve the victory today," Nina reproached him bitterly.
"We have just come from seeing young Wilwolt," said the other one mischievously. "He is really very handsome and gentlemanly."
"I... I do it for you," Kunz assured her, ducking his head.
"For me? I have never seen a knight joust for a lady. You only seek your own glory."
"That's why the Insensitive Knight remains unmoved by it," replied Siggi, the sleeve of his doublet was stained with fuel, "to show his contempt for the honors of men. For in his heart dwells only the unquenchable fire that the mistress of his soul has kindled."
"Who are you?"
"This is Siggi."
"No, not exactly. This is Siegfried von Collenberg, my friend and comrade-in-arms," Kunz seemed to have recovered his speech.
"Aren't you taking part in the joust?" asked the other lady. He had caught her attention.
"No, my lady. I help Sir Konrad preparing his machine and weapons."
"Then you are not a knight."
"Of course, he is," Kunz came to his defense. "However, his family house has suffered... continuous setbacks... for several generations... and he cannot afford the necessary equipment for a joust."
"So, you are a poor nobleman."
"To serve you with my life, which is all I possess."
"You are accurate with your tongue."
"Far from it. It is your beauty that inspires me," the lady smiled flattered.
"I have come to see you," said Nina to Kunz. "I hope I will be reciprocated, whatever the outcome of this affair."
"Do not doubt it, my lady," Siggi replied. "The fire of a heart sometimes consumes a man's soul and even if you only see ashes, you must know how to recognize the fire you yourself lit," now it was Nina who smiled broadly.
"I hope so."
The two women made a gesture to leave. Siggi jumped forward without thinking.
"The sun in your eyes has dazzled me. May I know the name of the owner of such beauty?"
"Your arm!" cried the lady in alarm as she turned around.
Siggi had passed by the brazier and his fuel-stained sleeve had caught fire like a torch. He and Kunz began to paw at his doublet in order to put out the fire. Finally, it was the lady who resolutely threw a basin full of water on him. It smoked and smelled of scorch.
"You must have been burned," she assured him worriedly. "Let me see your wounds."
"It was nothing, my lady, I felt no pain. The fire did not lick my skin."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, you have been my savior," she looked at him between troubled and pleased.
"Siegfried is a rock," Kunz boasted of his friend. "He is incapable of feeling pain. What for others is a serious injury is only a slight discomfort for him."
"You are not insensitive too?"
"Far from it, my lady. I am the most sensitive of men. And now I have an unbearable pain that tears at my heart for you still owe me... your name."
She broke into a smile so bright that it seemed to light up the whole room. Mischievous, she made a fleeting gesture to walk away and leave him with the anxiety. But at the last instant, she turned back.
"You have earned it. For you I will be... Carly," and she left with the quick flutter of her cloak. Nina went after her giving them a last smile.
The departure of the ladies left the tent in the stillness of the most absolute silence.
"How did you dare to ask her name?" Kunz reproached him.
Siggi shrugged his shoulders without coming out of his rapture.
"Don't you know who she is?"
Siggi shook his head, still lost in thought.
"It's Charlotte Amalia Henrietta Wittelsbach, the Princess Palatine."
Siggi opened his mouth as if he wanted to utter a word, but was unable to articulate a sound.
"They call her the lady of hearts. They say she collects the broken hearts of her many suitors."
"Well, now she has mine too, which bleeds uncontrollably."
Kunz looked at him and slapped his burned arm. Siggi didn't feel the slightest pain.
"That makes two of us who are suffering. Come on, let's go get that trophy!"
Konrad had to face young Wilwolt in the final match. In the first round, they both broke spears, but the young man's blow was much more accurate. In the second clash, Kunz hit him square in the breastplate, but Wilwolt's spear struck him in the helmet and shattered his visor.
"Open my helmet! Open it!" Kunz shouted to Siggi when he reached the end of the jousting yard where his barracks were located. "I can't see anything!" he shouted in desperation.
Siggi had to pry the deformed visor. Inside the helmet appeared the bloodied face of his friend. His nose was broken and there were deep wounds on his forehead and cheekbones.
"You can't go on like this. You'll have to get off the bike and give up the fight for lost."
"Never! I can't humiliate myself in front of my lady, especially now that I've got her back."
"He knows he won't be able to dismount you, so he has decided to go against your head to stun you and make you fall."
"He won't succeed!"
"I assure you he is very accurate. I've never seen anyone with such a steady pulse."
One of the judges held up a flag. It meant he was asking if the knight could continue.
"Give me another lance!"
"I won't be able to lower your visor. If that guy hits you in the face, he could smash your head in."
"Give me the damn lance!"
"Let me wipe your face."
The judges raised a second flag. One more and he would be disqualified.
Siggi pulled out the blood-soaked rag. He stared at it in a daze.
"Give me the lance!"
"Kunz," he said, showing him the handkerchief.
"If you are my friend, give me that damn spear and get out of the way."
Siggi could see it even before it happened. Wilwolt's lance went right through the small gap in the helmet and impacted against his friend's face ripping him off his bike.
"Kuuuuunz!" Siggi shouted in desperation and ran to his aid.
When he reached the place where he had fallen, he tore off the helmet from him and removed the bevor. He had a huge bruise on his face and two large splinters stuck in his cheekbone and eye socket. He was bleeding profusely. Kunz was not moving, but he could see that he was still alive.
He spent the rest of the afternoon in the hands of the healer who removed the wooden fragments from his face, made him drink infusions, applied various poultices of medicinal herbs, some to reduce the bruising and others to scar the flesh, then stitched the wounds and finally bandaged his face.
"It is almost certain that he will lose his eye," said the quack to Siggi. "It may even be worse and the blow and all that blood inside his head may end up killing him or make him lose his mind forever."
Outside were Nina and Carly, along with other maids, knights, pages, and servants.
"How is he?" Nina asked the healer.
"Resting. Now we will have to trust in God."
Nina burst into tears because she knew that when her healer said that, it was because the situation was critical. It was his way of saying that there was nothing more he could do.
"I told him he didn't deserve the victory," she sobbed mortified.
"Let me stay and take care of him," the princess offered.
"You are very kind," thanked Siggi, "but he is my friend. I must take care of him, just as he would do for me. I will not leave his bedside."
"Now I see that you really are a knight."
A week later, only their empty tent at the end of the beach remained, flapping in the wind. Konrad rested in a room in the castle and Siggi slept on the floor at his feet by the fireplace.
"I fervently hope that your friend recovers," said the princess, who had remained in Hornberg even after her retinue had left.
"The healer does not hold out much hope. He thinks that if he survives, he will remain as a vegetable. I fear he will unwittingly live up to his dismal nickname, he will be for the rest of his days the insensitive knight."
"Why do they call him that? Was he so insensitive?"
"No, my lady. He has facial paralysis. After generations of marrying each other, the noble blood has accumulated all sorts of disorders."
"And you, do you also have any disorders?"
"You saw it in our tent," she frowned uncomprehendingly, "when I burned my arm," he explained. "I am insensitive to pain. I have to be careful not to hurt myself because if I don't feel pain, I can suffer very serious wounds and do nothing to heal them."
"So, in reality the insensitive knight is you."
"I have already told you, my lady, that I am the most sensitive of men. I feel the terrible pain of having lost my only friend and now I must also see the mistress of my heart depart."
Despite the compliment, she looked at him sadly.
"I would like to see you again, Sir Siegfried. If your friend no longer needs your care, come to our palace in Mannheim. Will you do it?"
"If it were up to me, I would be your slave, but it will depend on providence."
Nine days later, on the healer's orders, Konrad was lifted for the first time, seated in a large armchair, and taken up to the terrace of the keep. From there, they had a magnificent view of the coast and the great beach. Siggi felt that this was the best place in the world to retire or die. Kunz had involuntarily chosen it. His head was bandaged. The eye he had lost was covered by the bandage and the other remained unperturbed with a blank stare. He did not make a gesture, not even a wince. It did not resist or help in any way. It was an empty body whose owner seemed to have departed this world forever.
Siggi spent his days repairing and tuning the steam bike. It was his clumsy way of fighting despair. He used his lonely tent on the beach as storage and workshop. Then he would race the velocipede across the sand at full speed under Nina's watchful eye from her quarters in the castle. It had been days since she had stopped visiting Konrad. It was unbearable for her to see him like this. His face was the pure reflection of pain. It made it clear that she would have preferred her knight to have died in the fight than to see him wasting away like a vegetable.
"You must leave for Mannheim and take part in the tournament," she said to Siggi when he returned from one of his races with his jousting bike.
"I will not abandon Kunz," he replied.
"You can do nothing for him. Nobody can."
"Still, I will not abandon him."
"He is no longer Sir Konrad, but just a lump of flesh."
"He loved you. How can you be so cruel?"
"Life is cruel, much more than death."
Four days later, when he returned from a new excursion with the steam bike, Siggi found the healer and his apprentice in Kunz's room. With them was Nina, very serious, her father the baron, three of his guards, and two maids with basins and shrouds. Siggi instantly understood what had happened.
"You have given him something to end his life!"
The healer shrugged his shoulders and looked at the baron with compunction.
"We thought it appropriate to free you from your bonds," replied Nina.
"Mine or yours?"
"We live in a society that defends courage and honor," argued the baron. "There is no honor in his condition. It is an infamy."
"We also stand for loyalty and generosity, qualities that your family apparently lacks."
"How dare you insult my noble house?"
"Father, his friend is dead. His harsh words are only a reflection of his grief."
"You wanted me to leave for Mannheim to secretly end his life," Siggi accused.
"What Sir Konrad had was not life, only indignity and dishonor. Now you may leave and behave like a knight. Sir Konrad has provided you with the means you lacked."
"Up to the last moment I have behaved like a knight," Siggi assured bitterly. "To abandon my friend would have meant to cease to be one."
The next day, shortly after dawn, Kunz's body was cremated on the beach. The huge fire of the funeral pyre mingled with the reddish tones of the sunrise. Siggi did not bother to dismantle his tent. He left it there as a silent accuser in front of Castle Hornberg, with the rampant unicorn banner of House Schottenstein fluttering in the wind. He placed his gear on his jousting bike and departed without saying goodbye.
It took him a week to reach the seat of power of the Princes Palatine. He had plenty of time to think and digest his rancor. As soon as he arrived in Mannheim he registered for the tournament. Now he understood Kunz, he could not appear before the princess empty-handed. He felt the shame of one who has nothing and is nothing.
Despite having inherited his meager possessions, he could not compete under his friend's banner. After a thousand fights, the unicorn on the figurehead of Kunz's steam bike was unrecognizable. Its horn was split at the bottom, its rampant legs were also gone, and with its dented nose it looked more like a pig than a horse.
The coat of arms of his house, Collenberg, was a griffin with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. It had been years since his wretched family had proudly displayed their coat of arms, but he felt it no longer represented him.
He spent the night awake meditating on the futility of life and the whims of destiny. He woke up embittered by the fickleness of providence. He thus decided that the only flag under which he would fight would be his lady. Not that of her family house, but herself. Her beautiful face would be enough for him, even if it was unattainable to him. He knew well that he could never escape doom and misfortune.
He designed a new figurehead for his steam bike with the face and torso of a woman. Half beautiful and half rotting corpse, thus uniting his unattainable beloved with his unhappy fate. A craftsman spent a whole week working intensely on his design before finally assembling it on his velocipede.
They had placed the tiltyard for the tournament in the magnificent main courtyard of the palace. The four sides were surrounded by buildings with impressive facades decorated with pilasters, arches, pediments, and entablatures, as well as countless statues of ancient heroes. All this is an ostentatious manifestation of the power of the palatine princes. From the windows of the buildings, the princes, the ladies, and their most noble guests could watch the tournament comfortably sheltered. The populace crowded into a pair of facing grandstands built for the purpose or simply stood in expectation at both ends of the jousting yard.
When the Knight of the Dying Lady, as everyone now called him, came out into the tiltyard and broke his first lance, Princess Wittelsbach had a feeling. That knight with a fast steam bike and a figurehead of a half-living, half-dead lady reminded her of someone. In the second run, when she saw Count Gneomar smash his lance against his chest, she felt as if she had been stabbed through the heart with a knife. In the third round, it was the mysterious knight who knocked down the count with an accurate blow. It was the most talked about confrontation of the day. Everyone wanted to meet the victorious knight and to know who his lady was.
That afternoon the princess appeared alone in her humble tent.
"I knew it was you," she told him as soon as she saw him. "I recognized your bike and your despair."
"Do you know me so well?"
"I heard of Sir Konrad's death."
"It was not by the hand of providence," he said bitterly.
She looked at him in silence, understanding the indescribable pain that this vile act must have provoked in him.
"I know how much you cherished your friend, and though your body may not feel the pain your heart must be torn."
"My only consolation is to see you again," he replied chivalrously.
"But you have not come to see me at the palace," she reproached him with affection.
"My lineage is insignificant and my family is ruined. I could not present myself to you as a beggar."
"Did you come to win the tournament?" She instantly grasped the point. "Do you think you will only have my favor if you are a champion?"
"You overestimate my abilities. I only aspire to be among the four knight finalists."
"You are as stupid as Sir Konrad," she shouted at him, "he put his life on the line for an unnecessary trophy. There are other things much more important."
"I know. The way you look at me gives me life, but without a good cradle or a good purse only honors and fame open all the doors."
"Not the doors to my heart and that's all that matters."
"You are very kind. But your family will not think so, much less your brother, the Elector."
"I don't want you to risk your life uselessly and end up like Sir Konrad."
"Don't worry, it won't be like that. I know very well how far I can compete. If I were to suffer any mishap I would withdraw. I would not insist like Kunz on jousting to suicide."
"How will you know that you have suffered a mishap, you are the Insensitive Knight?"
"No, my lady, that knight died in Hornberg. I am the Knight of the Dying Lady. Are you that lady?"
She smiled tenderly at him.
"I am. I am dying for you," and they melted into a kiss.
On the second day of jousting, Siggi had no trouble disposing of his first contender in the morning. The afternoon's victory was much more hard-fought. He faced a free knight named Gerson Bleichröder. He did not even use any noble title. He was as hard as a rock and well-skilled in the arts of combat. Twice he came close to knocking him down. In fact, in the second round, he pulled him off the seat of his bike, and only the fact that one of his feet caught on the footrest prevented him from being knocked off his velocipede.
In the third clash, Siggi put his steam bike at full speed, making himself a more difficult target while multiplying the force of his blow. Bleichröder missed him this time. Instead, he was able to impact his lance against his shoulder with such force that, although his opponent never let go of his bike, it skidded, jumped into the air, and rolled over on top of him.
He had won a great victory at maximum risk. Everyone applauded him excitedly. He looked at the window from where the princess was watching him and saw her pale face flooded with tears. Siggi understood that he was beginning to behave like Kunz. She turned and ran away to hide her tears. He felt ashamed of his foolish behavior.
That night Carly did not come to see him. He also did not feel up to attending the dinner in the large mirror-decorated hall on the second floor of the palace to which the victors of the day were invited. He spent the night alone in his tent repairing the minor flaws in his machine.
At mid-morning of the third day of jousting the fanfare announced one of the most eagerly awaited confrontations, that of the young and handsome Wilwolt von Schaumberg, victor at Hornberg, and the execrable Talacker von Messenbach, known as the bandit knight, highway robber, plunderer and organizer of pillages, famous for his raids in which he claimed alleged feudal rights to obtain money and booty by force of arms and extortion. It was very clear whom both the nobles and the populace supported. To everyone's surprise, in the previous round he had defeated the loud-mouthed knight of the iron hand, Sir Gottfried von Bethmann.
Knowing the character's nature, the judges ordered the herald to publish the laws of the duel again aloud. Then they carefully measured the weapons of each contender and took an oath from both of them to fight with loyalty. Finally, they allowed the two to express the motto of their enterprise.
"For my honor and that of my house," cried young Wilwolt. "For my lady and glory."
No sooner had he said this than a buzz ran through the whole jousting yard, wondering who the lady was who had captured the heart of the dashing young man.
"For the prize purse," replied Talacker shamelessly, "and for the immense pleasure of seeing your filthy face bite the dust," and he skidded his steam bike throwing dust and sand on judges, heralds, and contenders.
In the first clash, they both broke their lances on each other, but Wilwolt did it against his opponent's helmet. Siggi noted that he had even refined his technique. But that accurate blow only enraged Talacker. In the second round, the bandit knight lashed out with extreme violence against the reckless young man. Even so, he was unable to dislodge him from his bike. The boy was a formidable fighter. In spite of having received such a tremendous blow, he had managed to strike again with his lance the face of von Messenbach, who came out of the confrontation somewhat dazed.
The young man had a good plant and was liked by everyone, Siggi thought, but he was as ruthless as the villain. He would not like to have either as an opponent. If he had to face either of them, he had to locate their weak point as soon as possible in order to take them down soon or else retire with honor. He could not get the last image of Kunz's face bleeding inside his helmet out of his memory.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!" Talacker emitted a mighty scream of rage that echoed through his helmet and plunged the tiltyard into the most eerie silence.
He raised his visor and his wrathful face could be seen, tinged red with blood pouring from his wounds. His eyes were of fire. His teeth were so tightly clenched that it seemed they would burst like crushed glass.
He snatched a new lance from his squire's hands, lowered his visor, and opened the valve that allowed the steam to pass to his engine. He set off at full speed. He had a good velocipede, Siggi thought.
As he was about to meet young Wilwolt, he lowered his lance and rammed it with all his might into the front steer wheel on his bike. The vehicle was instantly stopped dead in its tracks, lifted off the ground by its hindquarters, and went flying spinning in the air on itself. The velocipede made several dizzying somersaults. Its young rider flew off like a rag doll and crashed headlong into the ground. He went completely limp inside his armor.
The bike continued its rapid somersaults and climbed up one of the bleachers, taking the spectators with it. It flew over the grandstand and with one impetuous leap crashed into the window from where Princess Wittelsbach was watching the tournament. On impact with the building, the steam engine exploded with a huge flame.
"Noooooooooo," Siggi shouted as he watched the scene in terror.
The whole of that part of the building was engulfed in flames. The room was adorned with fine fabrics and velvets that burned like torches. The fire was spreading at full speed and with extreme virulence. A woman on fire threw herself screaming into the void. Sitting on his bike, Talacker looked with satisfaction at his monstrous work.
Siggi was out of his mind. Fate had once again played a trick on him. Without a moment's thought, he ran, put on his helmet, mounted his steam bike, and sped off across the tiltyard. He lifted the front wheel and climbed up the grandstand that had been swept by young Wilwolt's velocipede and, at top speed, jumped with his bike onto the burning windows.
He landed on the second floor, swerved, and skidded surrounded by fire. When he saw that he could not stop his bike in such a short space he jumped off, rolled on the ground, and let his vehicle crash into the opposite facade. The explosion opened a huge gap in that wall as well.
When he stood up, he saw three burning bodies lying on the ground. He feared the worst. One was a man and the other two were women, but none of them was the princess. He ran madly around the room looking for her.
The wooden floor was burning more and more furiously. The furniture had become cyclopean torches that raised the flames up to the coffered ceiling designed to make the room appear taller. Within minutes the room was transformed into the most accurate representation of hell.
He was surrounded by flames as if he were inside the boiler of his velocipede after generously dousing it with his dense fuel. Smoke was pouring out of the joints of his armor. The metal was red hot. It must have been scorching, but nothing mattered to him anymore.
Desperate, he walked slowly through the fire and the dense smoke. He was willing to search every inch of the room even if it cost him his life. So, he reached the corner where there were fewer flames. He moved an armchair that had just begun to burn and under it lay the vanished body of his delicate princess.
He went to grab her but realized that the metal of his armor could burn her. He ran through the flames to the next room fearing that the floor would collapse under his heavy feet. He tore off some large curtains that had not yet burned and used them to wrap the princess in them. Then he took her gently in his arms. When he wanted to get her to safety, he saw the floor sinking in front of them. Soon the ceiling would also sink and drag them down into the abyss.
They were trapped. There was no escape, except to try the impossible.
Siggi took a running start and jumped with the princess in his arms through the gap his steam bike had opened in the rear facade when it exploded. That facade led to a large terrace with a beautiful view of the town and the river at the foot of the palace. For a very brief moment, he felt the happiness of flying.
He landed on his feet. Embedding his two feet in the stone, making a thousand splinters jump. Then, by inertia, he bent his body forward and fell to his knees. Without strength, he opened his arms and dropped the princess who rolled on the floor of the terrace unrolling from the protective curtain. Siggi gazed at her in joyfulness, sweetly asleep.
A couple of minutes later they came to their aid. The Knight of the Dying Lady was fuming, on his knees, leaning on his two fists, and with his feet nailed to the rock.
When they tried to remove his armor, the first servants burned their hands. The metal was still incandescent. Using rags and their own shirts and doublets they managed to remove his helmet, bevor, and breastplate. His face was disfigured by the fire and his hair was almost completely burned. They immediately tried to free him from the rest of the armor, gauntlets, armlets, shoulder pads, thigh pads, and greaves.
When they managed to get his feet out of the sabatons, they laid him on the ground and began to remove his coat of mail and gambeson. His whole body was scorched, with burns of varying degrees in multiple places. His flesh was still smoking as if it was still cooking. They could not explain how he could have endured such torture.
"How is the princess?" he asked in a quiet voice.
"She is fine. No harm has come to her."
"She fainted from the smoke."
"Don't worry. You saved her," the voices of one and all told him as he was carried away on a stretcher.
A few hours later, Princess Wittelsbach, without even having washed herself, stood at the foot of his bed, staring in horror at the charred body of the Knight of the Dying Lady.
"You have saved my life," she said, taking him by the hand, "at the cost of yours."
"Your kiss has already paid for my life," he assured her.
"I told you I didn't want you to risk your life uselessly."
"Uselessly? I have never taken a more profitable risk."
"Look at the state of you!" she squeezed his hand while tears came to her eyes.
"Although I did my best deed," he smiled with difficulty, "I believe that now I can never be your knight."
She fell on his scarred chest, weeping profusely.
"Providence has saved you."
"It was not providence," she protested. "I simply withdrew from the balcony because I did not want to see again the knight who killed Sir Konrad and broke your heart."
"Providence..." repeated Siggi, "killed Kunz and consumed me... to save you."
"Be quiet!" and kissed him gently on his blistered lips.
"You never thought you would love the most horrible of men and the worthiest of knights."
"Be quiet! Be quiet!" and she kissed every part of his blackened face as she repeated her sweet command over and over again.
The princess spent her days at the foot of his bed nursing his wounds. By now everyone identified her as the dying lady for whom her knight had risked his life and burned his body. The thought that his sister had fallen in love with a commoner knight with a disfigured body, even though he had saved her life, irritated the prince-elector to no end. So, he decided that the wisest thing to do was to marry her off as soon as possible.
"So, you want to sell me!" the princess shrieked angrily at her brother.
"I have spoken to our cousin-uncle Frederick. He is willing to pay your dowry and wants you to marry him immediately."
"He is a slimy old man and I would already be his third wife."
"He's only fifty years old."
"More like sixty."
"He's of our social standing. He's the prince of Eulenburg."
"And how much will he pay you?"
"We have agreed on fifty thousand thalers."
She looked at him indignantly, realizing that she would have no escape.
"I want the entire dowry to be given to Sir Siegfried."
"That is madness! The Collenberg house is insignificant," protested the prince. "If you want to show your gratitude to him, five hundred thalers would be more than enough."
"It's not a handout. It's payment for a lifetime."
"With that amount of money, he could buy a fief and rebuild his house."
"That's exactly what I want. He saved my life at the cost of his own. Now you're selling it at a high price. I think we have an obligation to compensate him with a new life," she sentenced and left the room.
Siggi did not attend the wedding. He had built a new steam bike, piece by piece, calmly for months while he recovered. He left Mannheim at dawn.
The night before he left the princess entered his bedchamber.
"I come to give you what should always have been yours," and naked she climbed into his bed.
"How can you desire a deformed man?"
"I love the person, not merely his flesh."
"But it is an insensitive and putrefying flesh."
"I don't know if you know it, but all these scars and the way you have obtained them," she said touching his cauterized chest, "make you extremely interesting for the ladies."
"You mock me."
"Far from it. Every day some lady comes to the footprints left by your feet on our terrace when you jumped, and lays a bouquet of flowers on them."
"For me it is enough that I am still of interest to you."
"That's right, don't doubt it. Besides," she assured playfully, "you're a much better choice than the old man I'm going to marry tomorrow."
A year later, Siggi bought Hornberg Castle from the baron and erected a tomb in memory of Kunz on a small cliff on the other side of the beach near where they had pitched their tent for the tournament. He led a solitary and secluded life. He spent his days building ingenious steam engines and contemplating the magnificent coastline.
Because of his appearance, full of scars and with cauterized skin, and his increasingly melancholic and taciturn personality, he had once again been nicknamed the Insensitive Knight. Some remembered how he had gotten those terrible burns and that, for a brief period, he had also been the brave Knight of the Dying Lady. Now, however, it seemed that it was he who was agonizing with sadness and grief.
Five years later Princess Eulenburg suddenly appeared at his castle accompanied by her entire entourage.
"You are still as handsome as ever," she said, touching his disfigured face, with an expression that was somewhere between complimentary and ironic.
"Do not mock me, my lady. It is you who are still so beautiful, I would say even more so than I remembered in my memory."
"You are still very gallant. I want to introduce you to someone," she took a boy by the hand of a maiden and brought him to Siggi.
"Who is this young man?" he asked, trying to put on his best face. The boy looked at him in fright.
"His name is Siegfried."
Siggi was petrified. His eyes were riveted on the little boy. When he was able to overcome the shock, he looked questioningly at the princess and she nodded her head.
The Insensitive Knight almost fainted. He had to lean against a wall and catch his breath.
"Last month my stupid brother died," the princess explained. "Returning from a hunt, probably drunk, he had the idea of jumping with his steam bike over the barge his family was on. It exploded and they all drowned. Now I am Princess Wittelsbach again," he looked at her without understanding. "My husband is also very ill, about to die."
"I am very sorry. I did not know..."
"Fortunately, he will not recover," she interrupted him coldly.
"Are you sure?"
"I can assure you," she confirmed firmly.
Now Siggi looked at her with surprise. This ruthless side was new in her. He found it fascinating.
"In a few days, I will unite in my person all the titles of the houses Wittelsbach and Eulenburg. I will possibly be the Lady of the greatest fiefdom these lands have ever known."
Siggi was perplexed.
"What about your husband's two previous sons?" he dared to ask.
"They both suffered misfortunes. You know well enough how the hand of providence works."
The Insensitive Knight was struck dumb, speechless. He seemed to have before him a mythical basilisk capable of killing with a simple glance. In an instant, the woman of his heart had completely transformed his world.
"I come to offer everything to you," she said, "together with my hand. Our son will be the most powerful prince there has ever been in these kingdoms."
Siggi was stunned. When he pulled her out of the flames, he had been more serene than at that moment.
"Why have you stayed away from me for so long?"
"Because of our son. I could not allow anyone to question his lineage."
Siggi knew all too well what it was like to fall from grace. Rejection could be even worse if one was a bastard.
"I assure you that, from now on, all noble houses will not have seen scars more beautiful than yours," she said forcefully as if she knew exactly what he was thinking.
"My lady," Siggi told her with the utmost frankness, "I don't need any of those things. I have always loved you, ... only you," he stressed.
She broke into that beautiful, radiant smile that seemed to illuminate everything around her.
"I know, that's why ... I am dying for you."