The next time the Blanc siblings were reunited was not on friendly terms. Sally really tried to hold back since she knew it hit Tom hard, “So, how did the tourney go?”
“You won first place,”
“I know that now. How did it go for you?”
“I did not win first place,” Tom had outdid Sally finally.
“What was the name of my opponent? You had the luxury of meeting yours, and on quite friendly terms, too.”
“You were lucky that our enemies were both squad mates. She was said to be stronger. Katherine Lowe. I think that was it.”
“I will remember that name; I will also remember how you left me in my dorm and took the driver.”
Sally continued on, even though the dialogue had been built up for that last remark, “I couldn’t even buy anything because I couldn’t find an ATM. I planned to get money when I took care of the stuff I forgot to do at home.”
At this point Tom couldn’t tell whether she was hurt or being oversensitive. Stein had told her and apologized about their outing, Sally would have probably been too tired to go anyway.
Today was graduation day, and to nearly everyone’s dismay, it was being held early in the morning. Sally thought about how common the day was. She woke up much earlier, but other than that, she ate the same breakfast with the same two losers at the same table. They would grab their certificates or whatever, say goodbyes, return home, and apply for the Lodestone knights with their newly acquired credentials on their own time. Or so they thought.
The ceremony itself was simple. There was no opening or closing speech. The instructors present all had grim faces, and the woman who made all the other speeches was missing. Students simply lined up alphabetically and unceremoniously received an envelope. They were told to check it before they left campus.
Tom checked his and saw that besides the certificate having the proper information, there was also a beautifully embroidered note that asked for presence in front of the Royal Palace. On it was the Lodestone flag and a drawing of a lance. Tom had never seen a lance like it, but it seemed similar to his sword.
It was slim and ornate and it also had what appeared to be a gem in the same location as the swords. Some powerful magic of anticipation kept Tom from reading it, so he asked Sally if she had a note in hers too. Without a word she flashed her note and so they initially thought that it was nothing special: perhaps some thank you with a royal signature or something of the sort.
With enough confidence to open it, it was a request that the persons be within the lobby of the Royal Palace at eight o’ clock. However, Tom remembered that it closed to visitors at that time.
Doubts ran through their minds when Stein got it too. He and Tom discussed as they packed their things. There wasn’t much to do, since the irate Stein urged Tom to organize his things so often. Almost everything was neatly packed into boxes and drawers before they started.
“Well, if you were personally scouted, it would be because you two took part in that tourney.”
“That’s fine, Stein. But how did you get one too?”
“You haven’t seen just anyone with one of those letters, right?”
“No,” Tom said truthfully. There was no one else he could’ve asked. Even since the first day something held him apart from the others.
At the same time, Sally chose not to worry, and instead used her last day to enjoy some of the cafes and restaurants near campus. She did what she did every day, and for nostalgia’s sake she ordered the same things she liked the most: a cup of tea with a loaf of bread and a croissant without supplements.
From the dorms it was quite a march and the trip and meal back took about forty five minutes. She could’ve had something from the cafeteria it would not be like usual, especially without Tom or Stein. Even if she had suffered so many years with her elder brother, who acted like he forgot the fact, it was the only time she talked with Stein, mostly about useless topics.
All her life she had been expected to go and learn how to behave at work, but now her schooling was no more, and it was not like her college graduation, because that had only been a prerequisite for her time here. No more could she think, “I’m going to know how to act when I’m done,” because she was done.
She felt like something new was going to happen to her, and the feeling was crushing. Getting the letter was only more painful since it made her exceptional. That could lead to exceptional suffering, even above an average knight’s work. She read it with her own eyes:
To all recipients,
You have been personally selected to participate in a further scouting program. This is an important and imperative step for your career as a knight for the Kingdom of Lodestone. To support confidentiality, no details are enclosed with this note. Rather we hope to meet recipients of this most-esteemed honor. Contact the administration of Oakwood Academy if the following information is incorrect.
Name: Blank, Sally
Sally frowned. She was certain she wasn’t the one to misspell her name anywhere, but she guessed it wasn’t important; at least they got the right person. It was more likely that it was a joke than a real obligation, but since there was nothing more to do than apply for the job, it could not be a waste of time.
Sally didn’t have anything to do, and unlike Tom who believed that he had to entertain Stein whenever they had free time, she took a nap.
She imagined that it was the morning of the first day at her first job, which was rather truthful, and hoped that she could be lazy forever. For the first time her resolve waivered and her conscious did nothing for her, paralyzed by the decisions of its higher-ups.
Unbeknownst to Sally, again, Tom sat in his empty dorm alone, since Stein had to fix how they switched his first and last names. Quite frankly, neither of them thought of their time at Oakwood as something to be nostalgic about. Tom knew himself to be right because of how sorrowful graduation seemed to be.
At six o‘clock, when the daylight was still thriving, Tom offered Stein a ride to the Imperial Palace, and he accepted readily since he couldn’t find any other arrangement. Even the driver was surprised that the young master would offer so casually.
Tom regretted it as soon as the words left his mouth. He hadn’t been driven anywhere since he had the last episode of panic, and he was positively afraid that it might happen again. He couldn’t decide whether having company would decrease his chance because it felt more secure, or it would increase because there was more ‘pressure’ around him.
He was cautious to avoid thinking about anything morbid, but the feeling was nauseous. Tom breathed heavily upon arrival.
The Royal Palace was exactly how it should’ve been, without any security guards or other staff. Lights were out and no one could be inside either. On the contrary, it did seem like there would be something inside.
For one, eight o’ clock was the standard closing time today. They wouldn’t turn off the lights so early, especially for the city’s largest tourist destination, since it has to be cleaned daily. It was sure since it opened at six o’ clock, not early enough to clean before the day.
While Sally and Stein conversed, Tom tried to pull on the door, but it didn’t budge. Without so much as a noise, the lights flicked on for a second and a blond-haired figure opened the door, and closed the lights as the three stepped through.
Before anymore of the stranger could be seen, it became dark, with the only source of light being from the large windows to outside, and the sterile fluorescent glow of a lightbulb deeper inside the building.
After walking through the dark, a mutual sense of fear could be observed at a glance, but the fear of Tom, Sally and Stein was blunted after seeing that the stranger’s outline against the light wasn’t larger than a small teenager’s.
At first glance, she, or he, had wavy blond hair past the ears, and carried a long regal scepter, one that made a pitter-patter as it sampled the dark. In the full light, the boy turned to face them, with a soft but angular face, and decided to punish them with deep piercing eyes. He leaned backwards unto a ribbon that marked off an important display piece, the royal dining hall.
His expression held a slight smile, one that didn’t give off any malice, as if to say, “You’re at the right place.”
He had a sunken nose, and sleepy blues in his eyes, and the latter betrayed the seriousness of the meeting. His childlike and slim figure made it hard to estimate his age. He seemed familiar to Sally, perhaps someone she saw at the Oakwood-Water-Lily tournament.
His scepter was shining brilliantly since it was in the lighted room, and it had some crest on it. Tom looked above the seat of honor of the table and found that the crest of the royal family matched it.
At first he thought the knave had stolen the scepter, since his civilian clothes and demeanor didn’t match any prince or princess he knew.
Tom scared him with an apprehensive look, and Stein and Sally both stared blankly. After waiting for the shock to wear off, he started reading off a card, “My name is Nicholas. You may call me by my name, but ‘Nick’ is preferred. I can’t read the rest of this, so I’ll tell you in my own wards. Ahem, in my own words. I am the second prince of Lodestone and from now on you’ll be working directly under me as knights.”
Usually he worries whether the candidates get nervous and opt out too early, but this time he slipped a few times and was on the receiving end. Something about the group in front of him was strange. They didn’t seem like graduates straight from Oakwood. They were adults, a characteristic that he so dearly lacked.
“And how may we know we’re talking to the real deal?” Stein said meanly. Tom meant to stop him, but he couldn’t blurt out in front of the prince.
“Well for one I have the royal crest on my scepter, and I also have clearance to use any heritage sites as I see fit. I’m not trying to sell you anything, and there’s no way I could do anything without any weapon, or backups, or even motives. That’s okay, not everyone believes me on the first try.”
“Stein,” Sally wailed, “He has to be a prince because I saw him scout around the tourney earlier this week. If anything his stealth skills have to be improved.”
Nick said sheepishly, “I wasn’t supposed to acknowledge you, especially since you were on my watch list, but I panicked and forgot and it would be easier to do something.”
“Sincerest apologies, Your Highness.” Stein said as if he was addressing the reigning monarch. Lacking a noble title of any degree made more responsible, he thought.
“No, No, No!” He forced the last one but overall his tone was conversational, “There will be none of that. No your majesty or milord either.”
All the while, his slight smile never left his face, “Okay. So, after a week of freedom, I’ll call you here again in the exact same matter, and then you’ll be taken to my headquarters’. After that, don’t expect to see your home and family every day. We try, but it’s not always possible. Mostly, my knights don’t have a reason to leave, and I try to make everyone’s wishes come true at home, so I honestly don’t what will happen with you three.”
He kicked a piece of trash against the wall, “Will you still accept? You don’t have to tell me now,”
Sally had to help people even if it wouldn’t help her. Stein wanted to become a knight so badly, that it outweighed all his other desires put together. Tom simply had no reason to ever visit his family home; it was desolate and empty now.