Day five of the Nine Schools Competition arrived before Akiko realized it. She had been so busy preparing for the rookie events under her charge that the time just seemed to fly by.
It was so exciting! Akiko couldn't believe she was really here. It was such an honor to be chosen to Fourth High's engineering team in her first year of high school that when they first told her about it, she thought they were playing a joke on her.
Yes, she had tested highest in her class on the academic portion of the test, but she had scored fairly low in the practical skills portion of the test. Her total scores only placed her ninth in her class.
Unlike most of the other eight schools, though, where the practical skills were everything, at Fourth High it was high scores in the academic tests that were coveted. They leaned heavily towards knowledge and engineering. Practical skills were nice, but they were almost an afterthought.
Fourth High didn't expect to win this type of competition. They attended mostly to try out some of their newer ideas. That, and the government required them to compete. Fourth High shined at the Thesis competitions.
Her school believed that it was their duty to provide the country with first-rate magical engineers and not necessarily combat magicians. Let the other schools beat each other up. It was Fourth High's job to find new ways to do things with magic.
It was currently Akiko Tamura's job to find a replacement stabilizer for one of their CADs. She had brought two spares, but they malfunctioned and she had a problem. It wasn't uncommon for schools to actually help each other out with spare parts. You never knew when your school was going to be the one needing one. However, Akiko had never asked, and wasn't sure how to go about it.
She finally decided who she was going to ask. The idea scared her, but she was going to do it. She was going to ask him.
Tatsuya Shiba. Everyone had heard the name by now. The stories about his engineering wizardry were spreading like wildfire throughout the competition's engineering staffs.
New hardware applications, unbelievably efficient software tweaks. That generalized rifle CAD with the auxiliary sites wasn't even noticed by most of the audiences, but it had thrown all the engineering teams for a loop.
Akiko knew that there had been a mock-up of that same system a year ago, and it had been a complete failure. She had read all the documents that were released on that experiment and it had been a mess. It had been poorly designed, slow, and inaccurate. All of the more senior engineers knew all that.
Tatsuya, however, made it work somehow, and he made it work flawlessly. The design looked clean, it was fast, and it was accurate. All the things that the mock-up (designed by professional engineers) was not. Akiko guessed that it probably required a good bit of magic power to make it work, though.
And that was only one of Tatsuya's feats that were being talked about. At least, they were being talked about in the engineering circles that Akiko was in. The general audiences probably had no clue about this guy.
While the other schools wondered "Who is this guy, and how do we beat him?", the question gnawing at Fourth High was "Why was such a genius wasting his time at First High, when he should be here?"
Akiko knew the answer to that question, but she would never tell anyone that the reason Shiba Tatsuya enrolled in First High was because that's where his sister was going. She knew that she could not get herself involved in such a discussion.
Siblings with differing talents related to magic often went to different schools from each other. It made sense to go to a school that could help you improve on your talent. For example, a brother that was gifted in engineering might enroll at Fourth High, while his sister with combat proficiency might attend Third High. Akiko herself knew classmates that had siblings attending either First or Third high.
That could not happen with Tatsuya and his sister Miyuki, however. And that was a story she was forbidden to talk about.
Akiko Yamura was a happy child during the summer of her fifth birthday. She didn't know that she was from a minor branch of the Yotsuba family, and if she had been told, it wouldn't have meant anything to her. She was busy being a five year old girl. That was hard enough, sometimes.
But it wasn't hard on Saturdays, because on Saturdays she wasn't just a normal five year old girl. On that day of the week, she was a princess. Her friend, Prince Tatsuya, had told her so.
Akiko's mother had just been hired on as a maid in the Yotsuba mansion. Since her father had died, her mother had worked hard to sustain a life for her and her daughter. A proud woman, she did not want to rely on the charity of her family any more than she had to.
And so, she got a job as a maid that paid very well. She worked five days per week, plus a half day on Saturday. Saturdays were the only day of the week she couldn't find someone to watch over Akiko, so Akiko would be dropped off at the playground outside the mansion to play while her mother worked.
It was lonely on the playground. There were often other children there, but they were with other friends and Akiko just couldn't seem to fit in with them.
That all changed on her third Saturday there.
After she was dropped off, she noticed that the playground was empty except for one boy who was earnestly playing in the sand. She hadn't seen him before. Maybe he would be her friend!
She cautiously approached him until she was standing right in front of him. He didn't look up, nor did he give any sign that he noticed her. Until he spoke.
"You are blocking the light for my castle. Please move."
She moved to his side and got a better look at what he was doing. Sure enough, he was building a sandcastle. It was early enough in the morning so the sand would be moist enough to work with, but soon the moisture would evaporate and the sand would be unworkable.
She looked at his work critically for a moment before venturing a comment. "You forgot the loopholes."
For the first time, he looked up at her. Her first thought was that he had really beautiful blue eyes.
"What's a loophole?"
"Loopholes are holes in the walls of a castle that let archers shoot arrows from them. So the castle doesn't get invaded."
She knew a little about castles because of the stories her mother and sometimes her uncle would read to her. Folktales about armies and brave men and women. And castles.
She plopped down on her knees beside him. "If you like, I can help you with that."
He looked at her. Then he looked at his castle. "Okay."
With that, the two worked diligently for the next hour until the sand had dried and they could make no more changes. They hadn't spoken a word to each other until then, happily engrossed in their building.
Satisfied with their efforts, they sat back to admire their work.
"What's your name?"
"Are you a prince? Only kings and princes build castles. You don't look old enough to be a king yet."
To a five year old boy, this was a serious question. Tatsuya thought for a moment.
"No, I am not a prince, but I think I will be one when I am older."
He looked at Akiko. "But I bet you are a princess."
"No! Why would you think I'm a princess?"
"Because you are smart and you will probably grow up to be beautiful, just like the stories."
"I wish I was a princess."
"Well, here, you are a princess. I dub you Princess Kiko."
Akiko let out a giggle before composing herself.
"Every princess has a prince, so I dub you Prince Tatsuya."
Every Saturday after that, Prince Tatsuya and Princess Kiko played together until Akiko was picked up by her mother. They played games, they ran, they even had "feasts" when Akiko's mother would bring them some snack from the house.
Other children would come to the playground and Tatsuya and Akiko would ask if they would play, but they would look at Tatsuya and politely decline. This was a surprise to Akiko, but Tatsuya looked as if he expected that.
That was okay. They had each other to play with and they enjoyed each other's company. It was her favorite day. She found herself spending the other six days of the week wishing that it was Saturday already.
It stayed that way for the next six weeks. On the seventh week, however, Tatsuya did not come to the playground. Akiko was sad, but she just thought that Tatsuya was sick and couldn't come out to play.
After the second week that Tatsuya did not appear, Akiko asked her mother what had happened. Her mother looked very sad at this question. She sat with Akiko at the kitchen table to give her the news.
"Tatsuya won't be able to play with you anymore."
"But...why?" This didn't make sense. She couldn't be a princess if she didn't have a prince.
Her mother tried to come up with something her daughter would understand.
"An evil curse has been cast on Tatsuya by evil witches. Any friends he talks to will be turned into frogs! So, you must never, ever speak to or be around Tatsuya again. Do you understand?"
It was probably the worst story ever told to a child by an adult, but her mother wasn't known for being very creative. The only thing that Akiko understood was that she wouldn't be allowed to play with Tatsuya again.
After that, a cousin was brought over to watch Akiko on Saturdays. She was never allowed to go to that playground again.
On the following few Saturdays, Akiko would find herself home crying. She missed her friend. She missed her prince. She could never be a princess if she didn't have her prince.
The pain began to ease as she entered school and made new friends. She never forgot Tatsuya, though.
As the years went by, Akiko began to hear and understand what had really happened to Tatsuya. It turned out that the truth was even worse than the story her mother had told her. She had to admit, though, that her mother got the part about the witches right.
She heard the pieces of the story late at night on the weekends. Her uncle came over to visit her mother at those times, and they drank after Akiko had gone to bed. Like most young girls, Akiko would not go to sleep, but would listen to the adult conversations through the thin walls.
When they did talk about Tatsuya it would always start with "...horrible what they did to that poor boy." And then her uncle would drunkenly tell some part of the story.
Her uncle had been the attending physician during Tatsuya's "operation". A medical doctor was required at all times to assure that the "patient" was stable. Akiko wanted to lay part of the blame on her uncle, but she was old enough to understand that whenever Miya or Maya told you to do something, you did it. You didn't ask questions, either.
Different nights of drinking produced different tidbits of information. Eventually, Akiko had what she felt was the whole story, though there were some parts of it that she couldn't stand to hear. When those parts were discussed, she would run back to her room and cover her ears. She couldn't bear some of the horrible things they did to her prince.
She did see Tatsuya from time to time, though as her mother ordered, she never made herself known to him. He was usually jogging or doing exercises. She watched him grow from afar. He may not be a true prince, but she felt he certainly was growing up to look the part.
After awhile, she started seeing him with another girl. Around his same age, maybe younger. Definitely his sister. Miyuki. Now she definitely looked and carried herself like a princess.
What caught her attention, however, was how they seemed to relate to each other. Or rather, how they didn't. She would see them walking, but instead of walking together, she would walk ahead and he would be a couple of paces behind. The sister would look straight ahead, never speaking to him. He would walk behind, unconcerned while he idly scanned their surroundings. She understood what that meant. That wasn't how a brother walked with his sister. That was how a Guardian walked with his master.
This relationship was a mystery that Akiko had never solved, but she still felt badly for him. She was sure it couldn't possibly be a good situation for Tatsuya.
After thinking she would never be a princess, she felt that she owed it to Tatsuya to at least try. A princess was smart and beautiful, right?
She couldn't do anything about being beautiful (in her own eyes she was rather plain), but she could do something about being smart. So, she studied. She eventually found herself drawn to magic and engineering, and found that she had an aptitude for it.
Her mother had no magic in her family tree, but her father had some. Akiko had inherited enough magic to allow her to pass the tests for Fourth High.
Of course, her mother couldn't afford to send her to a private school like that, so it was fortunate that tuition was free. It was a government school after all. Room and board would be another matter. It was too far away for her to commute and her mother wouldn't be able to afford to put her up in an apartment.
Luckily, the Yotsuba had a policy that stipulated that any family member that was accepted into a magic high school could get their room and board paid for by the family, along with a small allowance for necessities.
The only caveat was that their connection to the Yotsuba family must never be divulged to anyone. It must always be a secret. If this rule was broken, the student would immediately be brought back home.
Akiko now found herself a first year student at Fourth High and participating in the Nine Schools Competition when her prince had suddenly appeared.
And she really needed that stabilizer.
It was still forbidden. She was to have no contact with him or his sister. But, she couldn't resist. She had to see him. Did he even remember her? Probably not, but she had to know.
It was evening now, and she found herself at the lodgings of First High. Her mind must have blanked out because when she looked up again, she was outside his door. Her mind snapped back, but her legs were shaking. Should she do this?
Telling herself it was too late now, she knocked on the door. She prayed that he was alone, while at the same time praying he wasn't there.
"Who's there?" His voice was rough; a little tired, maybe.
She cleared her throat twice before she was able to croak "Akiko Tamura from Fourth High engineering team. I need to ask a favor."
There was a hesitation before she heard footsteps approaching. The door was open and there he was. She hadn't been this close to him in years. His eyes were the same, though.
He looked her up and down in a completely disinterested way before giving her a blank stare. No sign at all that he recognized her. Well, what did she expect, really?
"How can I help you?"
Her eyes went immediately to the floor. "Well, umm, our spare stabilizers malfunctioned and if you have an extra we would truly appreciate it."
"Which version do you need?"
He didn't close the door, so she took the opportunity to peek inside. Fairly messy. Lots of parts. Not much else to see. After a moment, he returned with two small boxes.
"Here is a CS-3. The other is a CS-4. It's a slightly better model and you might want to try it first."
Akiko bowed. "Thank you very much."
She turned and ran. Her cheeks were flaming and she didn't have the slightest idea why. She just knew she had to leave before she said something stupid like, "Do you remember me, Prince Tatsuya?"
Her mind was a blur until she managed to get into her room and close the door behind her. She leaned against it gratefully and tried to recover her wits.
An hour later, as she lay in bed trying hopelessly to get some sleep, she heard her phone. She knew by the tones that it was a text message. Who would be contacting her at this hour?
The sender's name had been scrubbed. That was odd. She clicked on it to see the message.
I was right. You did become a beautiful and smart princess.
I am happy and proud of you.
Unfortunately, I can never be a prince worthy of you. You must find another.
No signature, of course, but it obviously wasn't necessary.
She read the text over and over until she could no longer read it past her tears.
Note: Akiko Tamura does not exist in the Tatsuya/Miyuki universe. I made her up.