At the king’s request, the rest of dinner was devoid of further talk about the gauntlet. I had somehow managed to tune out the presence of my competitors around me and lose myself in the majesty of the night’s meal. But that distraction only lasted until the last bite. Once the feast was over, we were all allowed to disperse from the ballroom. Some of the royals returned to the main hall to indulge the media who were still waiting to assault us like rabid animals. Meanwhile, Cynthia, a few of the other royals, and I made our way upstairs to escape the media frenzy.
Cynthia pulled me aside and spoke in a tense, hushed tone. “One month… I knew my parents weren’t going to give us much time in this, but a month is bordering on unreasonable!”
“Bordering?” I remarked.
“We can’t waste any time. You need to see Evangeline first thing tomorrow and speed up the training.”
As if I could go any faster than training near daily.
“Right. In that case, can I go home now?”
Before she could reply, Eli approached the two of us and extended an offer. “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but me and a few of the others are heading out to the casino to play a few friendly games of cards. You two interested?”
“I’ll pass,” Cynthia replied without a second thought.
I had a different idea, however.
“I’ll go,” I declared, eliciting an immediate reaction from the blonde beside me.
I was beyond ready for the night to be over, but my confrontation with Emil at dinner and the subsequent responses from the rest of the table kept replaying in my mind. They viewed me as an easy target, someone they could talk down to and pick on as they pleased. And that thought enraged me to my core. I wasn’t about to let a bunch of pampered royals think they scared me, even if I had no clue how I would defeat any of them. Thus, I chose to accept Eli’s offer and prove I wouldn’t shy away from their attempts at intimidation.
“Could you give us a minute?” Cynthia requested. She pulled me aside and addressed me. “Shinsuke, are you sure? Do you even know where they’re going?”
“I have no idea.”
She sighed and shook her head. “Idiot. There’s a casino resort in the newer half of Alofast called the Constellation. That’s also where they will be staying during their visit to Steylia. Anyway, why do you want to go with them?”
“You saw what happened during dinner. It’s only been a few hours and I’m already sick of these spoiled snobs. They’re trying to get in my head and I’m not going to let them. I’m going so they see I’m not afraid to stand my ground.”
“Wow, look at you all fired up. Fine, do whatever you feel you need to do. Just don’t get yourself into any messes.”
“I’ll avoid cheesecake at all costs, no worries.”
“Real funny,” she hissed. “Whenever you’re done proving whatever this is, text me. I’ll send a car to bring you back.”
“Don’t you mean to send me home?”
“Look at the time, Shinsuke. You’re spending the night here.”
The two of us returned to Eli who had seemingly kept himself busy with his phone. He grinned when he saw me and asked, “so, what’s it gonna be?”
“I’m going, she’s staying,” I clarified.
“Cool. Hey, Siegfried, you coming to the casino with us?”
The brown-haired prince shook his head and smiled softly. “Thank you for the invitation, but I’ll pass. I was hoping I could stay here and catch up with Cynthia before it was time to leave. If that’s okay with her, of course.”
Cynthia played with the ends of a small bunch of her blonde locks and replied, “o-of course it is.”
“All right,” Eli started. “Let’s get going then, ‘White Knight’”.
“Teehee,” I deadpanned and began following Eli through the hall. I looked over my shoulder, expecting Cynthia to wave to me or something, but she was more than occupied chatting away with Siegfried.
Eli’s entourage of guards helped us push through the swarm of media on our way to the parking garage, and we were able to board his vehicle relatively quickly. The car pulled out, and once we had finally put a good distance between us, the paparazzi, and persistent news airships, I leaned back into my seat and sighed.
“So, let’s not waste any time here. Why did you invite me out like this?” I asked.
“Relax, man. I just want to get to know you. If you thought I was taking you to be fitted for some cement shoes or something, you can breathe easy. It ain’t that deep.”
“The water you’re planning on dumping me in, or your intentions?”
The prince burst into laughter and shook his head. “All right, first lesson learned about Mr. Watanabe: he’s pretty damn funny. Anyway, look, man. I’ve known the rest of the royals my whole life. I know nothing about you except that you went nuts on international television in front of your own king and queen. I’d like to fix that.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it…
“I get why you’re apprehensive. We’re rivals after all, right?” he acknowledged. “Assuming you survive this fight with Emil, then yeah, at one point we’ll be enemies. But tonight, we’re all good.”
“If you say so.”
“On the topic of Emil,” he continued. “That moment between you two at dinner was hilarious.”
I rolled my eyes and turned my attention outside the window beside me. “Glad you found it amusing.”
“Let me say it a different way. I didn’t expect you to have that fire in you. Though, I guess I should’ve known after the way you acted at that press conference.”
“Would you let that go already?” I groaned, receiving a snicker in response.
“All right, all right. I think I’ll just let you enjoy the ride now.”
I watched as our car’s journey over cobblestone and past architecture of yesteryear gave way to a modern, lavish display of neon and bright colors. I had never been to the “new” part of “old” Steylia before. The castle, and most of Alofast surrounding it, was largely untouched from how it had been for generations. But there was a whole other portion that was certainly not stuck in the past. And it definitely put the “rich” part of Valport to shame.
Seems I’m always surrounded by money, but I never have any myself.
It wasn’t too long before we reached the Constellation Casino Resort. Yet again, I found myself stepping out of a vehicle and into a parking garage.
“Hey, look. Sylvia and Emil are already here,” Eli pointed out. The other two royals were further ahead in the garage, exiting their cars with their security surrounding them.
Eli nudged me and said, “c’mon, let’s get up there already. I’m ready to play!”
I followed him to the elevators where, thankfully, the other two royals had already boarded a separate lift. The two of us boarded the open one, and Eli hit the button for the VIP floor.
“You ever been a VIP before, Shinsuke?”
“Have you ever been poor?”
The elevator doors opened and so did my mouth when I glimpsed the room that was revealed to me. Brilliant marble floors glistened under the glow of an uncountable number of “stars” on the ceiling. Fitting to the establishment’s name, constellations could be identified between the random assortment of heavenly lights. Gorgeous galaxies patterned rugs that neatly separated the walkways from the game areas, and slot machines, roulette wheels, and card tables populated the vast expanse of the room.
Gods, look at this place…
I tried not to wear the wonder on my face as Eli and I made our way to a blackjack table and sat. Sylvia joined us as well.
“I meant to say this sooner, but you do realize we’re too young to gamble, right?”
Eli chuckled at my question and replied, “you’re killing my sides, man.”
Ah, right. Laws don’t apply to royalty. Silly me.
“Glad you decided to join us, Sylvia,” Eli said.
“I’m surprised to see him here,” she remarked, looking directly at me.
“I didn’t think he’d come along either, but I’m glad he did!” He turned to me and said, “let’s see what type of man you are, Shinsuke. Are you lucky, or not?”
“Have you seen the situation I’m in? Maybe the question we should be asking here is if you have the ability to identify the obvious.”
“Man,” Eli started through a snort. “Quit your stand-up routine and put your money on the table already.”
“You didn’t think we were playing for free, did you?” Sylvia asked.
“And do I look like I have the money to bet against a couple of royals?”
Eli ushered over one of his guards and whispered something to him. The man in black passed the prince a silver suitcase. Eli cracked it open, and a plethora of cash practically spilled out of it.
“How much you got on you? I’ll spot you this once.”
“Yeah… that ain’t gonna cut it.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
Eli combined my meager offering with a wad of his plentiful, pristine bills and placed it on the table in front of me. After both he and Sylvia placed their own cash on the table, we asked for change and received our chips from the dealer. We placed our bets, and the dealer began to dole out the cards.
“Best of luck, gentleman,” Sylvia said.
“And to the lady,” Eli replied.
The game was in full swing, and I had a combined, unlucky number thirteen. I hit until I ended up at eighteen, where I decided to stay. Eli had the same amount and also chose to stay with that. Sylvia, meanwhile, had twenty. Completing our perfect, linear order, the dealer had nineteen. In other words, Sylvia had emerged victorious.
The dark-haired princess smirked as she collected her winnings. Eli rubbed the back of his neck and said, “maybe we’re both unlucky, Shinsuke.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “There’s still a whole suitcase of your cash left to lose tonight.”
Eli grumbled. “Man, if you don’t… Anyway! I got a question for you.”
“So, I was thinking about that press conference and—”
“This again?” I groaned.
“Relax, I’m not picking at you!” he snickered. “I was just gonna say, you made it pretty clear you don’t want to marry Cynthia. Now, I know there’s rules to this gauntlet preventing you from just taking a fall. But if you lose, you’re good to go, yeah? Why are you so motivated to win the whole thing?”
“I have my reasons, just like I’m sure you all have yours. Let’s leave it at that.”
Sylvia seemed intrigued by my response and Eli nodded before replying, “yeah, I got mine. We don’t need to discuss that, though. All in good time, I was just curious. Just know I need you to survive until it’s my turn to beat you.”
I frowned. “I figured you all had ulterior motives. Unless you all happen to be in love with Cynthia or something.”
“I am,” a familiar, slimy voice interjected.
Emil seated himself at the blackjack table and grinned at me. “I think I’ll join you three~”
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for part 2 of this chapter!