“Hear ye, hear ye! The king has sent a message to all male suitors of the age sixteen!”
Pinch faced and with a nasally voice, the royal messenger read from the scroll in his hands. “His Majesty has decided that it is time to wed the young Princess Juliecta. As she is the third daughter, he has decided to have a bit of fun. The king has made a declaration allowing a man of any upbringing to try for her hand in marriage. But-!”
He paused for dramatic effect. “It will not be simple! The king has prepared a series of trials to determine who is worthy enough to be called his son-in-law, as well as a prince! All who dare to compete for the princess’s love must report to the west gates of the palace in two weeks time. That is all, good day.”
When he had finished, every man’s mouth dropped open in shock. All except one particular man’s.
Twenty seven year old Zachary Abelson remained blank faced, until the messenger and his partners left the area. He chuckled, and announced, “No challenge can keep me from winning the princess! I am the perfect man, of course! No woman can resist me!”
He flexed his muscles, formed and toughened from years of forging weapons for the militia. Two wide eyed and rosy cheeked girls giggled and batted their eyelashes at him. He flashed a smile at them, causing them to swoon.
Standing not too far away was a younger boy, older than sixteen but still baby faced. Ezra Keim looked on at the crowd. The men talked amongst themselves, laughing and goading each other on. A group of school age boys griped about the age requirement, claiming that they were as good as anyone else that was over sixteen.
Ezra exhaled softly, and turned away from the town center. He slipped into the shadows, trying not to be seen. Not that anyone would notice this homeless, shabby boy anyways.
He shed his boots and socks, he and rolled up his pants before wading through the shallow water in front of him. The small fish that lived there parted as he passed by. The waterfall that fed the pool glistened in the sun. The drops looked like liquid gold to Ezra. No matter how many times he came here, he was captivated by its beauty every time without fail.
Shimmying around the waterfall, Ezra was met with a wall that was covered and overgrown with moss and greenery from above. He slid the tips of his fingers along the moist rocks in front of him.
“Password?” a light, breathy voice requested. It sounded like the voice was behind him, but Ezra knew better.
A small smile crept along Ezra’s lips as a pale, slender fingered hand pulled him into the hidden alcove.
“You took longer than usual. I’ll have to be back soon.”
Ezra shrugged. “Well, I got held up. The royal announcement came today. I wanted to see if it was just as bad as you said it was.”
A sigh sounded around him. “And how did the men react?”
“Most were stunned, but one seems quite confident in himself. Don’t be surprised if the king mentions a certain Zachary Abelson towards the end of this competition,” Ezra said loftily, crossing the space.
He looked back at the entrance. A girl stood there, sullen. Adorned in golden jewels, hair done up in an elaborate twist, and petite facial features, she greatly contrasted to Ezra. His once white threadbare shirt, rough and calloused hands from the labor he did daily, and his soft jawline but crooked nose, broken once in a fight after school stood out like a sore thumb.
“Spare me the details,” she told Ezra gently.
“Of course, Princess,” he replied.
He eyed the food laying on the table. “If I may…?”
“You need not ask,” Princess Juliecta replied. “I certainly didn’t make it for anyone else.”
Ezra stuffed his mouth with airy bread and creamy soup, brought from the palace. The princess looked on, and picked up her flute delicately. She began to play a soft tune, something reminiscent of a song her mother and sisters sang for her when she was younger.
“Ah, Princess, I think I should give up on my dreams and become royalty. The royals eat this everyday?” Ezra peered at her.
Juliecta stopped her song, and laughed. It sounded as clear as the water outside the cave and just as bright as the sun. Setting the flute down beside her, she nodded. “I'm nowhere close to his skill level, but I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear that he's teaching me well.”
The royal cook was one of the only ones that knew of Juliecta’s adventures. He was the one who taught her how to cook, and made sure to cover for her, if need be.
“Now, all I need is a way to be royal,” Ezra said thoughtfully. He glanced at Juliecta and then grinned. “Oh, I could enter that contest!”
Juliecta laughed in his face. “You? Against all of those men? So silly.”
Ezra wiped his mouth, and stood up. He took Juliecta by her hand, and twirled her in a circle. “Maybe I’m not as tough as the others, but could I still be your man?”
He relished in the pink flush in the princess’s cheeks. She shook her head with a sad smile and pushed him away. “Please, remember your place, Ezra. You can’t be saying things like that.”
“But what if I could?” he asked boldly. “I know you want it too.”
“Ezra,” she said in a firm tone, “remember your place. What I want doesn’t matter. If I had my choice, my father would never have thought of such a contest. He never would have made his own daughter, me, the prize.”
Juliecta looked past Ezra, right through him. Eyes lowered, she quietly said, “I need to go soon.”
“Princess, please forgive me.”
Ezra bowed his head in shame. Juliecta sighed and replied, “I’m not, I promise. I must go now, unless I want to be caught by the guards.”
With a curt nod, Juliecta gathered the leftovers, placed them in a basket, and breezed past Ezra. He watched her leave with great longing.
How nice it would be if I could win that contest, he thought with a sigh.
Sadly, though, Ezra knew that there would be no way he could win against "real" men. If what the princess said was true, the contests were that of bravery, strength, and everything else that made a man who he was.
Ezra handled her flute with great care and began to play. He finished the song she had started, and then he put it down. Disgusted with himself, he walked far away from it.
Men were not supposed to play those kinds of instruments. Flutes, violins, and other sweet sounding instruments were only for the female entertainers of the royal court. Erza had only learned because Juliecta had insisted that it was okay.
She made him feel at ease when he went against the current. Only she could calm his nerves when he felt like he was drowning.
And with newfound courage and the princess in mind, Ezra turned towards the flute and said confidently, “I have got to enter that contest.”
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