He didn't know what made him stop to spare more than a glance to the events unfolding in the courtyard; his guard didn't even realize that his attention had strayed from the stiffly formal discussion of politics and appointments. The sight in the courtyard wasn't particularly out of the ordinary, for the row of soldiers from the royal guard stood watching with expressions as cold as their suits of armor.
Yet it wasn't the soldiers that captured his attention, it was the group of trainee knights in their academy uniforms. They were participating in one-on-one sparring competitions for the royal guard. Some of the trainees watched the current match with worry, while others were clearly eager for their own chance. Captain Malik stood beside them, watching the performance of each of his pupils with a critical expression.
The two young men sparring were almost moving too quickly to be recognizable, but Richard couldn't have mistaken those bright, blue eyes for any other. They nearly shone with determination as Asbel Lhant countered his opponent's attack with a hasty, horizontal slash. A small smile pulled at the corners of the prince's mouth as he watched the match. It always felt like far too much time elapsed between the ephemeral incidents when he'd see the young knight-to-be. To make it worse, there was always too much distance to allow so much as a proper conversation between the two old friends.
It's been…five years already? He thought reflectively while observing. He's really grown a lot. He must be sixteen now; he's probably nearly finished at the academy.
The impatient inquiry from Victoria pulled the prince from his thoughts. He glanced away from the match just long enough to see her impatiently tapping her foot by the corner. As the heir to Windor's throne, he always had a schedule to keep – it just didn't seem terribly important at that moment.
"Is the royal guard selecting their new candidates today?" Richard questioned as he motioned toward the trainees.
"Yes," she replied, without sounding particularly interested. "They're only going to accept the best three of those boys."
The opponent Asbel was faced with looked to be at least two years his senior; the man moved quickly and reacted swiftly to Asbel's brusque attacks. Their swords clashed violently as the pace of the fight hastened, though the soldiers observed every movement closely. Asbel forced the other trainee several steps back before the man pulled away and spun to the right. The follow up attack was aimed dangerously close to Asbel's neck, but he evaded without a second to spare. The royal knights watching the fight, silently judging every step, but didn't have any comment on the questionable attack.
What happened to fighting to disarm only?
Richard frowned, though the question he asked aloud was a very different one. "Will I get to decide which of the candidates is allowed to train as my knight?" he asked simply.
"No," Victoria said with blunt honesty. "That is the royal guard's duty. The know what to look for among these trainees."
Asbel jumped to avoid a worrisomely swift stabbing attack, but the soldiers still said nothing. He moved forward when the opportunity to counter came and the two swords struck, but his opponent didn't stay on the defensive for long. While the match couldn't be called pointless, the older competitor continued to make attacks that pushed the regulations.
"They couldn't ignore a direct request though," Richard remarked.
"Then you can deal with that another time," she said dismissively. "Right now, Duke Dalen is waiting for you. You're going to be late for the audience."
Maybe I can catch up with him after this meeting… But even as the through passed through his mind, he knew that it was unlikely. It would end up like so many other chances, without so much as a hello or goodbye exchanged.
Even so, a distant moment was better than no moment at all. Asbel still looked as determined as ever and stubbornly adhered to the rules of the match, even when his opponent wasn't so honorable. Some things didn't change with the years that slipped away.
"Prince Richard, we need to go," she insisted with a deep frown.
His gaze lingered for another moment before he turned away from his friend and the match. The sound of clashing swords echoed in his ears, accompanied by Victoria muttering something about immaturity and incompetence. Her steps were hurried as she led the way down the corridor that turned away from the courtyard. He still paused to glance back to see sparks flying in the most literal way. The opportunity was already gone, shadowed with a hint of foreboding.
Maybe there'll be another chance sooner than I'm expecting.
There were certain times when staying focused was nearly impossible, but the worst time for such instances to strike was doubtlessly in battle. Regardless, Asbel couldn't shake the nagging feeling that his attention was meant to be elsewhere, somewhere more important than a match with second chances. There was too much on the line for him to look away. The feeling only got worse with every attack he blocked. He felt as though he would miss something terribly important if he didn't end the match quickly.
Sparks flew as Asbel's attack was blocked. He leaned forward to force the other swordsman a step back. Hateful eyes glared at him on the other side of the swords, but he couldn't help but glance away from them.
He scanned the corridor on the far side of the courtyard for scantly a second until he saw someone with long, blond hair disappear around the corner. He couldn't see the man's face, only the royal symbol on his cape as he moved out of sight.
Could that have been…?
Before the name passed through his mind, his opponent jumped away and prepared to retaliate. A violent blow came less than a breath later and Asbel felt the hilt of the sword slip from his fingers. The clatter it made as it hit the ground was deafening – at least to him.
The fight was over.
He had lost.
The royal guard politely clapped for his victorious opponent as he laughed and bowed. The victor casually kicked the younger trainee's sword away when he was reaching down to pick it up. Asbel pointedly reminded himself of the knight's code of honor as his opponent laughed a meaningless apology and went back to the line. Asbel retrieved his blade and replaced it in its sheath wordlessly as he returned to his place, though the disappointment still hadn't set in.
He looked back to the corridor, but it remained empty. The next two trainees took to the field as a soldier counted down to the start of the final match. Asbel watched out of obligation; even if he had no chance of being selected, it would reflect poorly to leave so abruptly. He tried to remind himself that he would have another chance to participate, as well as better chances of winning, but waiting months to do it was an unpleasant idea.
I wonder if that really was Richard…
I guess it's not that likely, but still.
Maybe I can still catch up with him.
The final match felt like the slowest out of all of them, but the one trainee looked positively terrified as the fight began. He waited impatiently for it to end, as well as the pointless clapping that resumed when the winner bowed to the soldiers.
"You all performed admirably," one of the royal guards said approvingly. "We will return with our selections in a quarter of an hour. Do not stray far."
Or just stray quickly and hurry back. As soon as each member of the guard had departed, Asbel hurried to the hallway bordering the courtyard. He was a step away from being out of the area when a strong hand came down on his shoulder.
"There's always next year, Asbel," Captain Malik said simply.
"I know," he said, making it a point not to sound brusque. "Thank you, Captain."
Malik nodded and didn't elaborate before he went off to congratulate the winners. Asbel hurried down the corridor and turned at the corner where the blond had gone. A few of the guards regarded him suspiciously, but he wasn't deterred.
It's been so long since I last saw Richard…It wasn't a particularly encouraging thought, nor was the fact that the corridor split into three directions. He picked the vacant right hall on a whim and ran down to look for any sign of the nobleman. He might not even recognize me now.
The solemn feeling that it wouldn't matter either way settled over him as he looked down two more halls. Other questions lurked in the corners of his mind, but like the others, they lacked answers. He ran back to check the left, but the seconds were ticking away into minutes and time was always lacking. He had only been inside Barona's great palace a handful of times, which left him without the slightest inkling of where he was going.
When that too was fruitless, he rushed to check one more corridor, but it was just like the others: empty. Too much time had elapsed and the person he sought was nowhere to be found. The royal guard would be returning at any minute and the person he chased was already gone. He listened to the silence in the hall and lingered for another reluctant few moments.
There was too much left to chance. Asbel shook his head as he started back to the courtyard, though the sense of disappointment was catching up with him. Every step seemed to bring it closer, especially when there was nothing but a hint of foreboding suspended in the air. Maybe I just got distracted over nothing after all.
There'll be another chance…and I'll catch up with him next time.