“You look so fetching in blue,” my mother said and set about fiddling with my collar, then straightening out my doublet, even though it had been pressed that very morning. “You and Nikko are, without a doubt, the most handsome princes in the entire realm. Absolutely adorable.”
“‘Adorable’?” I cleared my throat and now spoke to her in the deepest, throatiest voice possible. “‘Fetching’ is suitable. Perhaps even ‘dapper,’ but most certainly Nikko and I are not ‘adorable.’ After all, I’m almost nineteen. I’ve commanded ships and fought centaurs and I’m first in line to become the next Velazian Emperor. Girls can be ‘adorable,’ not grown men.”
“I second that,” my younger brother, Nikko, said from across the room.
“Oh, all right.” She diverted her attention to inspecting my sleeves for lint . . . for the third time.
“Oh, we all know you’re soft and sweet like candy on the inside.” Saqoiya came in from behind and squeezed my waist in a tickle attack, making me jump and yelp.
“Hey! Stop that.” My hands went up in fighting mode.
I can’t believe I just yelped. I’m a warrior. A crown prince. And now my ego has been sufficiently deflated by the actions of a young maiden: my rascal of a sister.
Saqoiya chuckled and plopped on the sofa.
“Oh dear, get off.” Our mother quickly motioned for Saqoiya to get up. “You’ll wrinkle your dress.” She now began flattening my sister’s skirts and aligning her necklace.
The mother hen is at it again.
“This is an important day for your brother. I just want everything to be perfect.”
“Everything is perfect, Mom,” Saqoiya said. “Don’t worry.”
“The Royal Matchmaking Competition might be a month-long event, but the opening ceremony provides an opportunity to make good first impressions to our foreign guests,” my mother explained. “This isn’t just about Zadkiel choosing a bride among the eleven most eligible bachelorettes in the realm in order to serve a two hundred year old treaty, it’s a chance to appease the cities in our empire, make alliances and negotiate trade with our foreign neighbors, all while—”
“Yes, yes. We know, Mom.” Saqoiya huffed with her arms crossed. It wasn’t the first time our mother expounded upon the importance of this RMC, not only for my love life, but for the greater good of the Velazian Empire as well.
I pushed the list of eleven contestants that sat atop the solid oak buffet table to the side and dared not pick up their profiles again—eleven, because the city of Baylor wasn’t participating. Each city was allowed to nominate their own contestant. The first four girls were foreign noblewomen from the outlying queendom, kingdoms, and empire. Seven of the girls were noblewomen from the empire’s seven cities. The last contestant was a commoner from the capital, Velazia City, who had won the opportunity to participate during a contest held by the crown. In total, there were five princesses, two duchesses, two countesses, a viscountess, and a baker.
Already I had read their profiles too many times. After all, they were designed to impress me, but there was so much more to a human that cannot be properly described in so few words. And once the contestants did arrive, they would be on their best behavior. Simply put, I wanted to know the finer aspects about each girl, including their quirks and imperfections before I chose the one. Therefore, I had done a little research and asked about each girl with other nobles who had met them before, hoping to gather some juicy insights.
“Princess Grace of Tildon is extraordinarily refined, regal, and intelligent,” one woman from Tildon had told me. “She has no imperfections. She’s perfect for you!”
“Have you heard about the Centaurian contestant commanding ships?” Sir McKinley of Centaurus (our constable) had said. “She’s the perfect leader. No need to look further for a wife.”
“The Nololay contestant is your perfect counterpart,” my Nololay grandmother had said. “If it wasn’t for the RMC, I would have arranged this marriage myself.”
Alas, my questioning led me nowhere. Everyone was biased about the contestant from their own city. I would have to wait until the dates got underway to figure this out. My younger siblings had agreed to help and were pixieish enough in their ways to weed out the girls’ deeper, darker secrets too.
At the moment, my entire immediate family was gathered inside the purple drawing room, overlooking the front of the palace from the third floor—checking that their shoes were tied and every last hair was in place—before we headed to the opening ceremony. Or in my three youngest sibling’s case . . . pointing out the window at our noble guests as they arrived.
“What if we don’t like the girl who Zadkiel chooses?” The three conspired together. “Can we frighten her into not marrying him?”
On second thought . . . perhaps I shouldn’t involve them.
“Don’t judge the girls based on their portrait or profile alone.” My mother’s silky voice hummed from the side, drawing my attention to her.
“I am trying not to,” I said and shoved the contestants’ profiles inside of the buffet drawer.
“Such was a mistake I had made in the beginning of my RMC, when I had predetermined that I’d marry Prince Edgar of Baylor. But, of course, my cruel mother had ingrained that absurd notion into my head.” My mother pursed her lips.
“But luckily”—my father wrapped his arms around her, offering a kiss to her cheek—“Qloey wizened up and chose me.”
She chuckled as their noses rubbed against one another. Theirs was a relationship that I wanted to emulate with whomever I chose to marry. Love. Friendship. Political partnership. Spiritual soul mates. Surely I could find all of that with one of these eleven maidens.
“Can you two get your own room?” Saqoiya raised a single eyebrow at our parents.
“Oh, Saqoiya,” my mother sang with a chortle, waving her off as her cheeks flushed.
“I’ve been wondering, in the scenario that one of these girls refuses to sign the mutual rescission and leave . . . just as Edgar had done . . .” My words trailed off. This competition was a matter of international relations, therefore, I had to eliminate contestants carefully, with official documents stating that they agreed to it. Prince Edgar had refused to sign the papers three times, and hadn’t given up until my parents were officially engaged. What if one of my contestants would become overzealous about winning the crown and caused trouble?
“He was the first in RMC history to do so,” my father said. “It’s unlikely to happen again. But if it does, we’ll support you in whatever way we can, Zadkiel.”
“I appreciate that.”
The grandfather clock on the wall slowly ticked along. Every second made me more anxious to leave this suffocating room and begin the process.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The closer it came to the top of the hour, the slower the hands moved.
I grabbed a string off the coffee table and began pulling my black, shoulder-length hair back.
“What are you doing?” Saqoiya rushed over and took the string from me. “Trust me . . . the girls will love to see your long hair down.”
“Oh, yes. Do keep it down,” my mother agreed. “Your hair is . . . strapping.” She finally used my own terminology, even though it didn’t quite work in this context.
I was outnumbered now, so I let my hair hang loose around my shoulders. Instead of fiddling with my hair, I decided to inspect my doublet and . . . really, anything to pass the time.
My attire today was made of royal blue velvet with slit sleeves that hung loosely down my arms. Occasionally, white fabric peeked out from underneath. Several military medals adorned my chest. Black leather boots reached up to my knees with matching trousers underneath, and a metal belt and scabbard hung loosely at my side so I could carry my sword. I wouldn’t dare go anywhere without my sword. In times like these, with so many guests, I had to keep an eye out for the safety of myself and others. Being the crown prince of the Seven Cities meant that everyone had an interest in me, whether it be to attain my influence, my money, my heart, or my life. Nevertheless, I was not a suspicious man, simply a well prepared one. I would rather trust my companions than be suspicious of them.
My garb was perfect, so I experimented by putting on a serious facial expression, like I was headed into battle. No, the angry look will turn the girls away. Instead, I lifted my eyebrows and revealed a cheesy smile, with all of my teeth showing. Now I look creepy. So I put on a neutral face. This expression was the most suitable of the three. Maybe a slight smile would suffice.
To finish it off, I placed my crown upon my head—with a jewel that represented each of our empire’s cities embedded on the gold rim: amethyst, diamond, ruby, emerald, aquamarine, rainbow moonstone, and citrine.
“By the way, have any of you heard the rumors about Baylor?” Saqoiya asked while inspecting her red nail polish.
This was the perfect distraction from my man-vanity, so I pulled myself away from the mirror.
“A Baylorian contestant might show up today,” Saqoiya said.
My mother’s eyes darkened, telling me she hadn’t heard.
“Which is worse,” I asked, and made my way toward the window, “the city of Baylor boycotting the RMC, declaring their long-desired independence from the empire, or them sending a last-minute contestant, potentially taking the throne back through marriage?”
My mother growled, liking neither option, one considerably less than the other. “The latter will never happen. Rest assured.”
I glanced outside. No carriage from Baylor was parked outside. Their carriages were easy to spot, with green and yellow flags that clashed with their red rubies. An ugly combination.
Because of our inimical relations, the Baylorian royalty originally planned to boycott the RMC. That action, however, only gladdened my mother’s heart. She happily accepted their withdraw by announcing the satisfying outcome to the press. Perhaps it was because we were gloating about their intended slight that Baylor had suddenly realized the importance of this occasion, and thereafter admitted Prince Edgar’s daughter into the RMC. In response, Empress Qloey sent a letter stating that, “Because Edgar had tried to manipulate the previous RMC outcome, he won’t be allowed to attend with his family.” His daughter sent her withdrawal letter stating that, “If my father cannot attend, then Baylor will no longer recognize the RMC’s legitimacy.” There was, however, no legal basis in this and we replied that we could still “charge Edgar with treason for his actions years ago.” They dropped their accusation after that. Since then, we’d been back to square one, with nobody from Baylor participating.
“They have a right to be here,” Saqoiya said nonchalantly.
“It’s all hearsay. No respectable lady will show up unannounced. It’s time, everyone.” My mother headed toward the door, yet her eyes remained downcast. I held compassion for the pain she carried from her past. But at some point, she would have to forgive, heal, and move on, instead of letting Baylor push her buttons so much.
The grandfather clock ticked on.
It actually wasn’t time yet. We still had one hundred and forty-four seconds and several milliseconds remaining.
Did she expect me to stand idle for that long?
My father came to stand next to me. He looked directly at me through the window’s reflection and smiled comfortingly. “It’s your big moment. Are you ready?”
Side by side, it was easy to see how my half-human body differed from his; I had broader human shoulders and more muscular arms than his slender, elven frame. But it was also because I practiced sword fighting, archery, and other sports several hours every day that I had built a bulky physique. I had similarities to my father as well; my siblings and I inherited his glowing blue eyes, his height, and his pointy ears.
“I’ve been impatient all day.” I took a few deep breaths. “But I also grow weary wondering what they are like in person.”
“Don’t worry, every single woman is feeling nervous about the ceremony,” he said. “Perhaps to an even greater extent than yourself, since they’re vying for your attention.”
“Did you feel nervous during your RMC’s opening ceremony?”
He scratched his temple, going over the memories with a contorted expression on his face. “My time was a little different. Another elf had put me under her charm and . . . really, I don’t remember much about the opening ceremony.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot.” An elven woman had wanted to marry him to become queen of the elven city, Nololay, so she had put him under hypnosis. “All right. I’m ready.”
Truly, I was excited. I was ready to get married and build a family, to know a woman in full.
A trumpet sounded.
All of my family rushed to the door to line up.
Then a commotion could be heard at the entranceway outside. Instead of lining up, I glanced out the window to see dozens of guests heading inside the palace’s front entrance, but one particular attendee stood out among them all.
Several aristocrats surrounded a young woman in a brilliant red dress, all trying to get her attention at once. She then began to spin around, causing the hem of her gown to ripple like water.