The Tournament is Matthew Reilly's eleventh novel. It is a stand-alone story, following a young Queen Elizabeth the First as she gets caught up in a chess tournament gone wrong.
A short prequel titled Roger Ascham and the King's Lost Girl was released online about a month after this novel's release.
A second short story, a sequel titled Roger Ascham and the Dead Queen's Command, was released in 2020.
The year is 1546.
Europe lives in fear of the powerful Islamic empire to the East. Under its charismatic Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, it is an empire on the rise. It has defeated Christian fleets. It has conquered Christian cities.
Then the Sultan sends out an invitation to every king in Europe: send forth your champion to compete in a tournament unlike any other.
We follow the English delegation, selected by King Henry VIII himself, to the glittering city of Constantinople, where the most amazing tournament ever staged will take place.
But when the stakes are this high, not everyone plays fair, and for our team of plucky English heroes, winning may not be the primary goal. As a series of barbaric murders take place, a more immediate goal might simply be staying alive…
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I is bedridden as she approaches death. During her final weeks, she calls for her long-time friend and head chambermaid, Gwinny Stubbes. Elizabeth wishes to share a tale about when she was taken by her teacher, Roger Ascham, to the Ottoman Empire to view a chess tournament, and how events that occurred there helped to shape her into the queen she is. As the last-surviving participant of what happened, Elizabeth begins to tell Gwinny her tale...
In 1546, when "Bess" was 13 years-old, she was under the teachings of Ascham, who took her education seriously due to the fact that, however unlikely her rise to succession was, Bess still had a chance to become queen. As news of a new plague begins, King Henry VIII receives a letter from Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire. In the letter, Suleiman announces that he is holding a chess tournament and is requesting the leaders of various regions to send their best players to Constantinople to see who is the champion of the known world. Henry sends the letter on to Ascham, requesting that he send Gilbert Giles, a well-known player to him, ultimately determining Giles will be sent as England's champion. Because of the plague (and because royals threatening the line of succession often die mysteriously during such times) Ascham convinces Bess' overseer, Katherine Ashley, to allow the princess to accompany him and Giles to Constantinople. The good-Christian couple Llewellyn and Primrose Ponsonby are chosen to be her chaperone during the trip, and Bess is allowed to chose a single friend to accompany her. Instead of Gwinny, Bess selects Elsie Fitzgerald, an older and more worldly-seeming girl of great vanity.
Along with six guards, the travelling party begins its trek to the Ottoman Empire. During the journey, Bess is surprised by the complete difference between France (which her father ostensibly rules) and Britain, and continues to learn more about the greater world from Ascham as they go. Giles continues to test his skills in chess by challenging Ascham every night, while Mrs Ponsonby and Elsie are at odds since the pious woman finds the care-free girl's behaviour intolerable. As they approach the Ottoman Empire, Bess notices a man following them, whom Ascham suspects is an agent of Suleiman sent to determine Giles' skills at chess. While staying at an inn in Wallachia, the barkeep tells the group of a recent series of murders in Constantinople where the victims have had their lower jaws mutilated, and Mrs Ponsonby suddenly becomes ill, which Ascham confides in Bess is likely due to her drinking a poisoned perry intended for Giles.
A month after begining their journey, the travelling party arrives at the gates of Constantinople, and so, leaving the still-ill Mrs Ponsonby and her husband with their guards, Ascham, Giles, Bess and Elsie enter the Roman-built city and proceed to the Sultan's palace. The following day, the English delegation await in line with the other delegations to meet with Suleiman. As they wait, Bess meets a girl called Helena, whom the Austrian Duke intends to gift to the Sultun as a virgin concubine (Ascham is surprised at this gift, let alone the fact that that Austria chose to send a player at all given that the Ottoman Empire has taken much of the Duke's land over the last several years). Bess also meets the Grand Prince of Muscovy, Ivan, whom annoys her with his presumption that his delegation can proceed to meet with Suleiman ahead of everyone else. After rebuking him, everyone is stunned into silence as the famous artist Michelangelo arrives to bring the chess pieces that Suleiman commissioned him to craft. When it finally comes to their turn, the English delegation meets with Suleiman, whom is aware of Ascham's reputation and deduces Bess' identity (in German, which none of his entourage speaks, Suleiman suggests to Bess that if she should ever become queen, she should make herself a spy network as he has done).
That night, during the banquet held to welcome the delegations and introduce the sixteen players participating in the tournament, Bess is surprised when Michelangelo comes over to their table to speak with Ascham. However, they are interrupted by Cardinal Cardoza, Rome's ambassador, who has been trying to obtain the artist's favour. After the Cardinal leaves them, Ascham questions why the other Cardinal, Farnese, was sent with the Roman delegation considering his statements about people of Moslem faith; Michelangelo believes the Pope did so to irritate Suleiman. Michelangelo then proceeds to introduce Ascham and Bess to the chef Brunello, who had been brought in to help prepare European meals during the tournament, as well as his wife Marianna and son Pietro.
Bess returns to the table where Elsie is conversing with Zubaida, a friend of the Crown Prince Selim, who invites her to Selim's Dionysian gathering later that night, and Elsie suggests Bess come as well, however the princess is uncertain. Once the opening ceremony begins drawing to a close, Bess, Elsie and Zubaida head to a courtyard to watch the fireworks, but in the reflecting pool is the body of Cardinal Farnese, whose jaw has been mutilated, and the girls are hurried away by palace guards.
Later, Suleiman comes to the room of the English delegation, and, having heard of Ascham's ability to solve crimes through the use of logic, has Ascham try to determine the person who had committed the murders in Constantinople before Farnese's death. Ascham is correctly able to determine the killer to be a simple-minded youth with a hare-lip, and Suleiman reveals that the killer was caught and detained in secret days earlier, thus someone killed Farnese and attempted to frame the killer to throw off the trail. Suleiman charges Ascham with identifying the real killer, giving him leave to explore the palace grounds and assigns the eunuch Latif to be his escort. Because she saw the body before it was moved, Ascham has Bess show him how the body was laid out before going to examine Farnese's body. In his examination, Ascham notes the Cardinal was an opium user and has no water in his lungs, suggesting he was killed before his body was dumped in the reflecting pool.
Elsie returns to her and Bess' room early the next morning, and excitedly tells tells the princess about Selim's gathering. Many people were performing sexual acts by themselves and with one another, which Elsie has found liberating compared to the never-tell attitude the English have, and she hopes to be able to snare Selim for herself and become his future queen. Elsie also mentions how the virgin gift Helena was present to watch the events, and how she later inadvertently discovered Suleiman's queen, Roxelana, having an affair with the wrestler Darius.
The next morning, Ascham and Bess visit Rome's embassy in the palace to speak with Cardoza and examine Farnese's room. Cardoza explains that he and Farnese were preparing to eat their meals in their room towards the end of the ceremony, but Cardoza was delayed and returned to find Farnese absent; Ascham determines that because Farnese' meal was partly eaten, he did make it back but there are no signs of a struggle. Later, as they wait for the drawing for the tournament, Ascham asks Michelangelo for his opinion on Farnese, discovering the visiting Cardinal was a sodomite. After the drawing (which Ascham suspects was rigged so that the Sultan's cousin, Zaman would draw an easy opponent in the first round while the people of Constantinople's champion, Ibrahim would be left with a difficult one), Ascham suddenly has a thought about the state of Farnese's body, believing he may have been poisoned. He and Bess go to speak with Brunello, only to find him and Marianna hanging dead in the kitchen.
Latif locks them and the kitchen hands in the room until Suleiman can come to assess the situation (which will not be until after the first match between Zaman and Maximilian of Austria). In the meantime, Ascham assesses the bodies and realises that while they have been poised to look like they have committed suicide, there are rope marks around their wrists, indicating someone killed them. Ascham finds the only clue to the killer's identity is an impression from a wooden sandal with a nick in the left sole. He then questions the kitchen staff, learning that the couple were mourning the recent suicide of their youngest son Benicio, and had been arguing with Cardoza, while also discovering that in the week before the tournament that Brunello had spoken with Maximilian and Helena a few times. When Suleiman finally arrives, Ascham informs him of his findings, and so the Sultan allows Ascham and Bess to go, before having the kitchen staff killed to prevent rumours spreading. Bess is horrified by this since all they did was see Brunello and Marianna's bodies, and Ascham sadly informs her that she would do the same if she were queen.
Though Ascham wishes to speak with Pietro and Cardoza, when he spies the Cardinal arguing with a local whoremonger named Afridi, Ascham decides to speak with the whoremonger instead. He then learns that Cardoza keeps several young boys for his own private gatherings for the visiting dignitaries, which Afridi is annoyed at because it steals from his business. Upon hearing that Cardoza will be hosting another gathering the night after the first rounds of chess are completed, Ascham decides to try and observe. That night, Elsie tells Bess she has just returned from another of Selim's gatherings, and having now properly met with the crown prince, believes she can seduce him and become his queen.
The next day, during the final matches of the first-round matches (including Giles' successful victory over Talib), Ascham briefly inquires Ignatius of Loyola about Cardoza, finding he also dislikes the Cardinal for his earthly vices. Ascham and Bess are then invited to join Ignatius and Michelangelo in exploring the city, during which they have a discussion about the differences between the Christian and Moslem faiths. Michelangelo also notes how in the scarlet letters Suleiman sent out, he demanded a ransom be gifted to him when a player arrived with their delegation or face an invasion after the tournament; Bess was already ashamed to realise their delegation was the only one not to bring Suleiman a gift, and now she and Ascham ponder what Henry might have replied in the letter they returned to Suleiman. Later, while looking for vantage points to view the Catholic embassy, Latif informs them that Pietro has not been seen since his parents were murdered.
When nights falls, Ascham and Bess use the Sultan's viewing balcony to look onto the embassy, and Bess is horrified by the sordid acts occurring, leading Ascham to teach her historical instances of high-ranking people using their positions to satisfy their sexual desires and how it has caused problems, as well as noting it is less likely for a queen to be in such a position since they are often married off and do not get to fall in love. When they realise Darius has been brought to the proceedings as an obviously unwilling participant, Ascham decides they have seen enough. When he voices his wonder at why Darius is involved, Bess shares what Elsie learned about Darius and Roxelana's affair, and thinks Cardoza might be blackmailing the wrestler with the same information. Ascham is now convinced that Farnese was killed by mistake, and resolves to speak with Maximilian and Roxelana.
With the day being an intermission before the second rounds begin, Bess is surprised to be invited to see the Sultan's menagerie by Ivan. She initially refuses to go because of the Muscovite's rude behaviour, but Ascham and Elsie press her into accepting. With Elsie offering to chaperone (after hearing Selim will be there), the two girls make their way to the menagerie. As they walk, Bess notes that from what she has seen during their time in Constantinople, that marriage and religion have serious negative impact on sexual relations, the horrific reality of prostitution, and even the antics described by Elsie of Selim's gatherings suggest selfishness when engaging in mutual pleasure. As she wonders if she might be better off being completely sexless, Elsie disregards Bess' findings and tells her she is overthinking.
Upon meeting with Ivan at the menagerie gates, Bess is quite surprised by his apology and pleasant attitude, and accepts his apology while claiming she never makes a final judgement based on a first meeting with someone (Elsie barely suppresses her amusement of Bess re-using Ascham's advice to her). When Suleiman arrives, the party heads into the menagerie to observe the Russian bear Ivan's delegation brought as their gift to the Sultan. Ivan tells Bess he admires her father for being an actionable man, and hopes to be a leader like him. While unsettled by this aspiration, Bess realises Ivan is much like her father in some regards, and that her father may truly be depressed behind his public face, and so agrees to Ivan's request to let him write to her after the tournament.
When Bess returns to their room, Ascham tells her he has attempted to speak with Maximilian, only for he and Latif to discover the chess player and Helena dead in the former's room, apparently from overindulging in opium. However Ascham noticed bruises suggesting they were forced to consume too much, and while Latif wasn't looking found a note hidden in Maximilian's sandal written in German. Bess reads it, and from the contents it becomes clear that the pair were sent to Constantinople by the Austrian Duke to spy on Suleiman; Maximilian was speaking to Brunello as a source of information on the city and military capabilities while Helena was to assess Suleiman's moods.
When the next day of chess begins, Ascham and Bess are invited to sit next to Suleiman. After Ascham notes how successful the tournament has been in drawing crowds and attention, Suleiman, out of respect for Ascham's intelligence and candor, admits to being concerned about the state of his land, as the growing schism in the practices of Moslem faith makes him fear his empire may soon collapse. When he asks how Ascham's investigation is going, Suleiman dismisses the deaths of Maximilian and Helena, revealing he discovered their identities as spies (thereby admitting he had them killed for it) and showing off the note Ascham had found to point out further intel the spies had uncovered. When Zaman loses the first of his seven matches to Vladimir, the Sultan takes his leave of them, allowing Ascham to boldy request a word with Roxelana.
Ascham asks if the queen is aware of Cardoza's blackmail of Darius for their affair; she responds that she did not, as Cardoza had been blackmailing her so that she would use her influence with the dungeon guards to have his priests freed if caught molesting boys. Ascham suggests that she may have tried to kill Cardoza but poisoned Farnese by mistake, and Roxelana informs him that, while she will see Cardoza dead, she would not have made such a mistake. After she dismisses them, Ascham makes a passing suggestion to her that while she may have been intending to be paitent in dealing with Cardoza, Darius may not have been so inclined and been the one to poison Farnese.
As Zaman's second and third matches come to losses as well, Ascham becomes suspicious and briefly wanders off, returning to note Zaman will be making a comeback against Vladimir, which he does and wins his round. While having lunch in the open courtyard, Ascham informs Bess that the Sultan has someone listening to everything that goes on in their room (which is how Suleiman got his hands on the note that Ascham had taken from Maximilian) and that Zaman is cheating; a group of people are watching hidden from above the Sultan's alcove and devise methods of beating Zaman's opponents for him. Next, Giles has his match against Dragan. Despite the Wallachian's attempts to fluster the Englishman by making various insults, Giles' only responses are to smile back, and soon he wins the round. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, Ascham and Bess attempt to find Darius to speak with him, but now the wrestler is also missing.
During the night, Elsie invites Bess to accompany her to watch the next of Selim's gatherings, however Bess and Zubaida are denied entry (to the latter's disappointment). Instead, Zubaida leads Bess into the old Roman cisterns beneath the palace so that they might be able to find another way to watch the proceedings. While in the cistern, the pair encounter a dozen young children who live in the dark underground, led by Omar, who is unhappy with their intrusion and demands payment for safe passage out. Spying Pietro among them, Bess offers information on his parent's deaths, which Omar begrudgingly accepts. Pietro had suspected that his parents were murdered and that he might have been next, hence why he vanished, and also reveals his father and Cardoza argued because the Cardinal would not give Benicio a Christian funeral for committing suicide. As Bess and Zubaida prepare to leave, a group of priests arrive and offer food to the children in exchange for a few of them going to Cardoza's next gathering; Bess is disheartened to learn this is how the children survive.
After leaving the cistern, Bess heads back to their room, only to witness Ascham sneaking out, and so she follows him into the menagerie, as someone sent Ascham a note offering to reveal the reason for Farnese's death. Unfortunately, this is a trap, as a trio of wolves have been set loose, and the pair have been locked inside. Luckily Ascham manages to hold them off while the Russian bear kills one of the wolves when it and Bess get too close to its cage. After locking themselves in the wolves' cage, Ascham and Bess wait out the night until the menagerie keepers arrive the next morning to recapture the remaining two wolves. Upon examining the area by the gate that was locked behind them, Ascham spies the same imprint of the nicked wooden sandal. Bess tries to get some sleep before the chess tournament, however the returning Elsie excitedly tells Bess how she has finally managed to have sex with Selim, and how he appears interested in making her his queen.
With the semi-finals and finals set to be played out during the day, Suleiman's Sadrazam arranges a set of guards to remain by Ascham and Bess during Giles' and Ibrahim's round, apparently to protect them due to public threats on Giles. While Bess informs Ascham of her encounter with Pietro and what he told her, they become distracted as they notice Giles stressing and losing despite his and Ibrahim's equal matching. During a brief break, Giles admits that the Sadrazam has threatened to have their delegation killed if he does not let Ibrahim win. Ascham deduces that, in addition to having the draw rigged, Suleiman wants the final to be between Zaman and Ibrahim, so that regardless of whichever one wins, the tournament will be won by a player from his empire. Unwilling to be party to the rigged tournament any longer, Ascham convinces Giles to throw the match, since he has nothing more to prove after already beating two tough opponents.
During the remaining semi-final match between Zaman and Brother Raul, Elsie is invited away to join Selim for lunch, and Ascham ponders if Cardoza's refusing to provide a Christian funeral for Benicio was enough for Brunello to attempt to poison the Cardinal. However, while glancing at Cardoza, Ascham comes to the realisation that the multi-coloured horse-hair whip he carries does not actually contain horse hair, but strands of hair from the various boys the Cardinal has violated, including Benicio. Ascham believes he has come to a conclusion, and asks Bess to lead him to Pietro while also asking Latif to keep an eye on Cardoza, who has been drawn away by a palace guard to the Catholic embassy.
Upon meeting with Pietro in the cisterns, Ascham asks him only one question; did Benicio always delivery Cardoza's meals to his private rooms? Confirming this to be the case, Pietro breaks down and confesses to being the one to try and poison Cardoza. When the sweet-but-dim Benicio eventually realised that what Cardoza was doing to him was an atrocity, he slit his wrists, and as he bled out he confessed why to Pietro. After Cardoza's refusal to give his brother a proper burial, it was the final straw for Pietro. However, upon discovering he had poisoned the wrong man, Pietro tried to cover it up by mutilating his jaw like the fiend who had committed the murders around Constantinople to throw off an investigation. Ascham concludes that after his examination of Farnese's room, Cardoza realised he had been the intended target and, believing it had been Brunello, arranged to have the chef and his wife killed. Pietro is horrified to realise he is the reason his parents are dead. Ascham assures the boy that while he will report his findings to the Sultan, he will give him a chance to flee into the city.
As Ascham and Bess prepare to leave, Bess finds the body of Darius, having been weighted down so that the wrestler would drown in the shallow water. Before they move on, they are confronted by Sinon, Cardoza's manservant, and whom is the one wearing the nicked sandal. Sinon, having been the one to kill Brunello and Marianna, has been given leave by Cardoza to finish Ascham and Bess. As he grappels with Ascham, the teacher manages to topple a pile of rubbish, causing a discarded iron gate to smash into Sinon's face and pin him beneath the water's surface so that he drowns.
Upon exiting the cistern, Ascham requests Bess to find some guards and send them to join him and Latif in apprehending the Cardinal. The first guards Bess finds, however, she recognises as been stationed in the dungeon, and are watching the embassy nervously. Bess realises that Roxelana is enacting her vengeance on Cardoza for blackmailing her and Darius, having had the guards loyal to her release the hare-lipped fiend into the embassy to kill the Cardinal. Rushing in to warn Ascham, Bess sees her teacher, Latif and Cardoza on the floor unconscious (the latter having been mutilated first), and is chased around by the fiend. Though the hare-lipped fiend pins her and prepares to slaughter her, Ascham regains consciousness and fires arrows into the fiend, killing him.
Suleiman and a number of guards soon arrive, and while the injured Latif is escorted away (Cardoza is left where he is to continue suffering), Ascham gives his final findings on the murders to the Sultan; Pietro's inadvertent poisoning of Farnese, Cardoza's employing of Sinon to hang Brunello and Marianna, and the Sultan's already admitted arrangement for Maximillian and Helena. After suggesting that Suleiman leave Pietro be since he only sought to end the live of the despicable Cardinal, Ascham continues by noting the death of Darius, which until the wrestler's body was found, he believed was Cardoza's doing in case Darius had also been suspected of the attempted poisoning. Now, however, he boldly states how Suleiman had him drowned, after the spies listening in to his delegation's room overheard Bess informing Ascham of Darius and Roxelana's affair passed the information on to the Sultan. Suleiman is unconcerned with Ascham's knowledge of this, however Ascham pushes further by revealing he knows the chess tournament is rigged and calling it a disgrace. Though affronted by Ascham's rudeness, and though he has had men killed for less, Suleiman decides that since he owes Ascham a debt for uncovering the truth (and will have Cardoza imprisoned the rest of his life), he will give him one day to leave Constantinople.
Though by the next morning they are prepared to depart, Elsie is missing. After Bess wonders if Selim has in fact asked Elsie to marry him, Ascham becomes concerned when he learns Elsie and Selim had relations the night before she went missing, and has a horrifying realisation. Before they go in search of her, Latif thanks Ascham and Bess for saving his life and gives Bess a letter from Suleiman, before informing them that when guards went into the cisterns to look for Pietro, they found that he had drowned himself.
Ascham leads the group to Afridi's brothel, and they are sickened to find Elsie tied up and drugged to be used by customers, as an endorsement reads "As used by the Crown Prince". Ascham determines that Selim and Afridi have a deal to let the whoremonger use the foreign women Selim beds in exchange for shared profits. After they release her, and in order to get by Afridi and deter pursuit, Ascham informs the whoremonger (correctly assuming that he has connections with the gamblers putting wagers on the tournament) to view the final match between Zaman and Ibrahim from Suleiman's private balcony. By the time the group reaches the city's gates, the word has already spread about how Afridi saw and exposed the men helping Zaman cheat, causing a riot that saw Zaman trampled to death.
After rejoining the Ponsonby's and the guards, the delegation starts their return journey back to England. Elsie is subdued and refuses to speak (Bess suspects that she has been broken emotionally and would later come to believe that Elsie would never indulge in sexual pleasure again), and Bess opens the letter from Suleiman. The Sultan has revealed that in response to the demand that King Henry provide a gift of face invasion, Henry challenged him to try, earning Suleiman's respect, and he also wishes Bess good fortune and his hope that she might one day become queen of England.
Following Elizabeth's passing in 1603, Gwinny has now realised from her queen's tale why she was so different upon her return. Gwinny also recalls a time when Elizabeth sent a delegation of ambassadors to Constantinople to meet with Suleiman, only to learn that the Sultan had become melancholy and distrustful of everyone, and that the Ottoman Empire was no longer a threat. In the days following this, Gwinny would notice Elizabeth how had a gold chess pawn among her possessions, a piece of Michelangelo's crafted chess sets that had been recovered after the riot of the failed tournament.
- Princess Elizabeth I
- Roger Ascham
- Elsie Fitzgerald
- King Henry VIII
- Gilbert Giles
- Primrose Ponsonby
- Llewellyn Ponsonby
- Gwinny Stubbes
- Katherine Ashley
- Sultan Suleiman
- Queen Roxelana
- Crown Prince Selim
- Suleiman's Sadrazam
- Iman Ali
- Afridi the Whoremonger
- Darius the Wrestler
Delegations & Tournament PlayersEdit
- Italy / The Papal States
- Wilhelm of Konigsberg
- Pablo Montoya of Castile (Spain)
- Dragan of Brasov / Wallachia (Romania)
- Lao Tse of the Han People (China)
- Prince Nasiruddin Akbar of The Moghul Empire (India)
- Talib of the House of Wisdom (Baghdad)
- Mustafa of Cairo
- Ali Hassan Rama of Medina (Saudi Arabia)
- Brother Eduardo of Syracuse
- Marko of Venice
- Michelangelo "Michel" di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
- Chef Brunello of Borgia
- The Harelipped Fiend
- Horse (Equus ferus caballus)
- Domestic Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)
- Suleiman's Menagerie
- This is the first Reilly novel to be told in first-person perspective.
- This is the first novel to feature a lead character who is female.
- However, both Ascham and Elizabeth share the position as lead protagonist.
- At this stage, this novel has been confirmed to be a stand-alone novel.
- Later, in the interview included in the published edition of Troll Mountain, Reilly notes that could potentially write a sequel to The Tournament in the future.
- The Tournament is also the first of Reilly's novels to be completely set in the past.
- In the interview in the back of The Four Legendary Kingdoms, Reilly mentioned that he had written a screenplay for a film adaption of The Tournament.
- During The Three Secret Cities of the Huntsman series, Iolanthe notes Elizabeth I had a diary recounting her and Roger Ascham going to a chess tournament in Constantinople, revealing that The Tournament is set in the same fictional universe as the Huntsman and Scarecrow series.