Everyone at the table directed their attention to the king, and the excess staff began to exit the room. The waiters and waitresses remained, presumably awaiting the call to bring in our meal.
“I’d like to formally thank you all for joining us here in our beautiful kingdom of Steylia,” the king announced. “I can hardly fathom where the time has gone when I look at your faces! My dear Luitgard and I have known you all since you were practically newborns. And look at you all now.” He paused to shake his head with a nostalgic smile. “You’ve all become the spitting image of your parents!”
The queen ushered one of the waiters over to her side and gave the order to serve dinner. After they filed out of the room, the king resumed speaking.
“It does my heart well to know that someday the world will be in your promising hands. In fact, one of you will fulfill your role as future leader as the king or queen of this great kingdom.”
As if on cue, the other guests at the table directed their attention at me, staring holes through my face. I met their gazes briefly and quickly turned mine towards Cynthia. She shifted in her chair a bit and positioned her head so that only I could see her face. Her glossy pink lips mouthed, “remember, I’m with you.”
The awkward moment was mercifully interrupted by the wait staff returning to the room with carts full of covered, silver platters. The many sharply dressed men and women found their way beside each of the guests at the table and began deploying platters and drinks before each of us. I was stricken with food lust the second the tops of the platters were collectively removed. Generous helpings of top-quality seafood comprised a beautiful, colorful arrangement upon the canvasses of our plates.
“I hope that you find the feast our wonderful chefs have prepared to your liking, young ones. Eat up!” the king said, preparing to dig into his own meal.
The waiters and waitresses moved on to serving the other guests in the room as everyone at our table readied their flatware. No one spoke for a short while, thankfully, as it seemed we all silently agreed to focus on tasting the delicious food plated in front of us.
I was beginning to relax a bit and enjoy my dinner, when, from the chair directly across from me, my soon-to-be opponent, Emil, spoke with a mouth half full of food. “So, you’re the infamous wa…wata…what was your name again?”
His tone was flippant, and a smirk tugged at the left corner of his semi-full mouth. It was immediately clear the direction interacting with him was about to take—the one I knew it would take from the beginning.
You know my name. But fine, let’s play this game.
“Watanabe. Shinsuke, Watanabe. But good try,” I replied, looking him straight in his blue eyes.
“Ah, right! That was it. It’s good to finally meet the guy who went nuts on international television. I must say, that was quite funny. Are you a comedian, by chance?”
Cynthia sighed quietly and began to move her lips to speak. She never had the chance to, however, because I responded to the smug prince immediately. “No, I’m not. In fact, the only thing funny about me is that I seem to have better table manners than a prince. Do you always talk with food in your mouth, by chance?”
He grinned and swallowed what remained in his mouth. “You’re quite right, how shameful of me. There’s no excuse for behaving with lower class than a miscast commoner. I was just a tad distracted by your grotesque eyes. I must ask, is that a condition? Or is it simply genetics?”
“You’re an original one, aren’t you? Tell me, which one of your court jesters came up with that one for you? Because that hideous suit you’re wearing makes it pretty clear you can’t identify grotesque when you see it.”
“Ooh!” Ife exclaimed. “Is this the entertainment for the evening~?”
“It’s sure looking like that to me,” Eli added, shaking his head and snickering.
Liam scoffed and flashed a haughty expression towards me and Emil. “Embarrassing is what it is.”
“I’d say it’s disrespectful,” Octavio started. “Disrespectful to this delicious meal that we should all be consuming right now!”
“I don’t know why you’re all wasting your time chiming in about this,” Sylvia wondered aloud. “If you choose to contribute to foolishness, then you are also fools.”
“Sylvia’s right, everyone,” Siegfried declared. He focused his gaze on me and Emil and continued. “And you two shouldn’t be arguing. I know you’re both going to fight each other soon, but isn’t the face off the proper venue for this? You should be more respectful of Cynthia right now. Especially you,” he concluded, looking right at me.
“What?” was all I could muster in response to his oddly targeted remark.
I expected the aforementioned blonde beside me to say something, but instead, she looked down at her plate with absent eyes.
“Okay, okay,” the king interjected with two loud claps. “While I’m happy to see everyone in such high spirits, this banquet is supposed to be a celebration of having the entire future of the world within a single kingdom’s borders. This isn’t about the gauntlet.”
“That’s not entirely true,” the queen stated. “Aren’t you forgetting something, dear?”
The king chuckled and palmed his face. “Ah, yes, that’s right! Forgive me, there is one small part of this night that concerns the gauntlet. While I have you all here this evening, I’d like to share with you the date of the gauntlet’s first round.”
Everyone set their flatware down and a palpable sense of intrigue washed over the room. With all eyes on the king, he announced, “the first round of the gauntlet will take place one month from now to the very day. The face off between Mr. Watanabe and Mr. LeClair will occur the evening before the bout.”
A month?! How the hell am I supposed to be ready for this fight in only a month?!
“Fine by me,” Emil declared. “If anything, that’s too much time. I’m ready to do this tomorrow if need be. What about you, Watanabe~?”
“That won’t be happening,” the king asserted. “One month from now to the day, remember that. I will provide the remaining details to all of you along with the rest of the world tomorrow. Now then, no more talk of the gauntlet. Let us feast and be merry!”
Chatter overtook the table as the meal resumed. For some reason, Killian, the only guest at the table to remain silent the entire time, was staring at me with cold, sharp eyes. Not wanting to demonstrate how unnerved I felt, I returned his tense stare for a moment and then turned to Cynthia. It seemed she had regained her senses, but the look on her face was far from pleasant.
We gazed at each other in horror. It was obvious we were both thinking the same thing.
One month was all we would have to prepare for a fight with life-changing implications. Whether I won or lost would determine if the two of us even had the opportunity to achieve freedom for ourselves and my family and friends. Freedom from arranged marriage, freedom from poverty, and freedom from military servitude—all of it was on the line.
Everything or nothing.