The King’s announcement continued on Eva’s phone as we all watched in a collective trance. The image of a blonde boy had transitioned into footage of him at what looked to be political events and royal ceremonies. Cynthia’s expression was overcome with a look of dread as her father concluded his announcement, saying, “that’s right! It is with great honor and excitement that I can announce the first competitor in the upcoming gauntlet is Prince Emil LeClair of the beautiful kingdom of Gliyrhiel! Expect more details shortly. Thank you!”
With that, the feed returned to the studio and normal news programming resumed. A stray breeze blew through the field and chilled me unnervingly as the four of us broke our huddle.
Cynthia buried her face in her palm. “This is really bad…”
Eva slipped her phone back into her pocket and, with a nervous disposition, asked, “Shinsuke, do you not know who that is?”
“He’s the prince of Gliyrhiel, of course I know who he is. But aren’t all my opponents bad news? What makes this guy any worse than the others?”
“He’s a master of defensive magic,” answered Cynthia. “He’s the absolute worst possible first opponent for someone as inexperienced as you.”
I growled and pulled at my face. I had no doubt in my mind that the decision to choose someone like him as my first adversary was intentional. In fact, I had it in my head that the Queen herself likely had the prevailing vote in the matter.
“This is a major setback, I won’t lie. But this won’t stop us,” Eva declared. Her finger curled against her lips as her blue eyes radiated focus. “I’m going to study everything I can about Prince LeClair and adjust my training plan accordingly.” She turned to me with a serious expression. “Shinsuke, I’m giving you fair warning here. This training will be brutal and highly specialized. We need to make use of every second we have.”
“That’s exactly what we need to do here,” Cynthia said. “Things will begin to move quickly now that his opponent has been selected. But we do still have a little time left to play with.”
“Do we really?” I asked, afflicted with an acute case of doom.
“A venue for the fight will need to be chosen, as well as the date for the event. There needs to be enough time to disseminate tickets and inform people of attendance details. The other candidates will also be brought in to watch the match live as well.”
“Tickets? This isn’t a damn sports game! Are you telling me this is going to be turned into some kind of three-ring circus?!”
“Did you think it would be anything else?” Cynthia asked, irritably. “That’s all this whole situation is, after all. Also, I’ve heard there will be a mandatory face off between you and your opponent before the fight. It will be televised.”
“A…what? Gods, this is all such a pain in the ass!”
Mizuki tugged my shirt and locked eyes with me intently. “Shinsuke, don’t forget that I’m here with you. You aren’t alone, and I believe in you. If anyone can do this, it’s you.”
“She’s right,” Evangeline added. “Trust in your team, we won’t steer you wrong. No need to panic, just focus on your training for now and leave the rest to us.”
I looked across the field, making note of the faces around me. Hearing the word “team” used to describe the four of us was surreal for several reasons, but the determination on the expressions of Cynthia, Eva, and Mizuki made the word seem appropriate. Each one of us had a vested interest in emerging triumphant through what was, by all measures, a ridiculous situation. With a unified goal, despite differing motivations, what else were the four of us but a team?
I sighed and said, “yeah, I will.”
“Communication will be the key to success here, remember that,” Cynthia instructed. “Anyway, it’s time that I return home. I have much to do on my end of this.”
“Same here,” Eva agreed. “Tomorrow will be a day off, Shinsuke. I’m going to study hard on Prince LeClair and go over my training plan for you. We can meet up on Saturday and get to work then.”
“Oh, and Mimi?” Eva continued, turning to my best friend. “I was thinking… maybe earlier that morning, you and I could catch a matinee of that new movie with Raven Blackwell! I love her so much—I mean, who doesn’t, right? But anyway, what do you say?!”
Mizuki’s posture stiffened and her pale features blushed. “Wh-what? Me?”
“There’s no other Mimi~”
“Shinsuke, come here,” Cynthia beckoned, distracting me from the scene unfolding with Eva and Mizuki.
I followed the blonde a short walk up the field until she stopped. “I wanted to say thank you, Shinsuke.”
My eyes shifted awkwardly as I processed the words that came out of her mouth.
Did hell just freeze over?
“Thank me? You? For what?”
“For confronting me about Eva’s situation. I had no idea she was pressured into such a cruel contract like that, and I get the feeling I would have never known unless you told me about it.” A frustrated guilt flickered in her eyes as she spoke.
“I see. Well, it’s nothing to thank me for. I just want her out of that situation. She doesn’t deserve it any more than you or me with this stupid White Knight Contract.”
“You’re right, and that’s exactly why I’m thanking you. I get that you aren’t competing in this gauntlet out of the goodness of your heart—not for me, at least. But I respect that you’re fighting for your family. Now we can add Eva to that list as well.”
I scratched my arm and looked away, unsure of how to respond.
Cynthia took a breath and spoke in a measured tone. “I’m starting to feel lucky that you’re the one I’m stuck in this mess with.”
Shocked at her words, I glanced at her. She stood across from me, arms crossed, and eyes averted. For someone as proud as her to say something like that…I couldn’t disbelieve it if I wanted to. For reasons I couldn’t explain, I felt oddly compelled to reward her for stepping down from the pedestal for a brief moment.
“Thanks, I guess,” I said, not quite the way I intended. “I’ve been thinking too. You really do care about Steylia, and I can tell you want to be a good leader. I admire your drive.”
“I mean every word,” she replied, firmly. “When I take the throne, I will change everything for the better. Not just for us here in Steylia, but for everyone in this world. That is the responsibility of the leader of the largest, most prosperous kingdom.”
My dark gaze met her jade eyes and we seemed to freeze that way, studying one another, and finding sincerity.
“Hey, Shinsuke, can we go now?” Mizuki asked, her demeanor flustered. I hadn’t noticed that she apparently made her way over to me.
“Yeah, let’s head home,” I replied, my eyes still not removed from the regal blonde’s.
“Remember, stay in contact,” Cynthia said. She spun elegantly, sending her golden hair twirling with her, and it swayed in the soft wind as she walked across the field and reunited with her guards.
“Saturday morning it is, then! See you two this weekend!” Eva shouted, leaving Mizuki and I alone.
“So, you’re going to the movies with Eva?” I asked through a grin.
“Don’t remind me…”
I chuckled and rubbed her head gently. In the distance I could see Cynthia’s royal car departing, and my mind filled with thoughts of a blonde. Not a princess, but a prince.
The first roadblock on the path to freedom.
My first fight.
Thanks for reading! What do you think of our newly formed team and their plan for Shinsuke?