“There he is!” Vestil greets me with a smirk. “As punctual and knightly as ever, my friend. I’d just arrived here myself not even a minute ago.”
“I had to pick up the pace to make it, but it seems I’d kicked up quite a bit of dust, hadn’t I?”
“There you go again! Worrying so much about being punctual to see your fiance you’d rather die than be tardy by a single second! I suppose all this time apart has made you yearn for her. You’ve likely come to realize more than ever just how precious she is now that you’ve once more had her stripped away from your loving arms. I can only imagine how much more you’ll adore and cherish her once she’s returned to you!”
“You really do have the flair for the dramatic.” I sigh at her theatrics.
“After everything I’ve ever bore witness to, I’m fairly confident in my own understandings. Even if it’s held down deep in your heart, locked away, I know it’s there inside of you! I’m not wrong!”
I have no words. I can’t even conjure up a single response or quip to bat her away. As my pause carries on, Vestil’s bright smile slowly slides into a look of astonishment.
“D-Don’t tell me I’ve hit the target dead center…!”
Even if I know from experience that she’s just giving me a hard time, the way she can perfectly fake her expression at the drop of a hat causes me to second guess whether or not she’s being facetious. That ability of hers is used for evil more often than it is for good.
“Y-You have some absurd fantasies. Better get that imagination of yours under control.” I reflexively take my eyes from hers but just barely catch the malicious grin she wears from my peripheral.
✩ ✩ ✩
As Juna’s testing is still underway, Vestil and I had taken to the central courtyard. We’d both purchased a drink and so we relax in each other’s company. While she leans against the railing and tastes small sips of her juice, I rest near her with my back to it.
“I hope Juna is doing well in there.” I say with a sigh.
“Juna is Juna. Of course she’s doing just fine. You’re always such a worrywart.”
“I know you’re right but I can’t help but have these nerves.”
“It’s sweet you think so deeply about your wife.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Another sigh squeezes from me while she snickers.
A gentle breeze rustles the tops of the trees which line the path. Their gentle singing gifts me a small bit of calm yet the foreboding feeling I have tangling inside continues to pester me. An insidious sensation that feels like a shadow hanging at the corner of my heart, ready to leap and dig its claws into my soul.
“But that’s what makes you Khiron. Ever since I’d first met you you’d dote on others even though you were such a shy guy. You were like a dad to the underclassmen. Even some people in your own bracket.”
“I suppose it was a bit in thanks to you that I’d began to toughen up. Your constant jabs and teasing really made everything else feel less mortifying in comparison. At first I was just so shocked anyone could have the guts you did to say such outrageous things.”
“The look on your face was always so priceless! I wouldn’t sell a single one of those memories even it’d make me king of the kingdom! You’ve always been prime prey so it was a blast to hang around you.”
Reminiscing on times past, Vestil’s pure, delightful energy eases my rigid edges down a little bit further. We admire some of the flowers blooming in their bedding. With summer in full swing all the majestic colors of the fauna are at the peak of their brilliance. It brings to mind the soon approaching carnival. The vast assortment of flowers isn’t unlike the lights that shine during that celebration.
Vestil takes another small, listless sip while watching the petals sway in the breeze before she speaks up.
“Celestial Knight and Celestial Maiden, huh? So you two kissed yet?”
My drink shoulder charges my throat and scrapes its way down my windpipe. I sputter and wheeze for a moment as I spray a mist into the air.
“C-Celestial…?! Wh-What?!” My words sputter out in tandem with the droplets of my drink.
“Nothing much. Just wondering how you two are doing together with those new, fancy duties you’ve got. Kiss yet?”
“You’re really going to ask that like it’s nothing?! How do you even know about-”
“Being the daughter of a high ranking general does have its perks. I’ve known for a while since my last promotion. I’d known about it a good time before you’d gotten your dream job but I couldn’t exactly indulge you in such niche information so simply. Kingdom secret and all.” She giggles in merriment at my stupefied expression. “Plus I couldn’t resist the thought of how hilarious it’d be when you’d finally learn the truth. Just wish I could have been there to have seen that with my own eyes. Must have been a side buster!”
“You really are a sadist, aren’t you?”
“What can I can I say? It’s the winning team.” She slaps my back and snickers some more.
I’d expect she’ll outlive all of us with how much laughter her heart gets on a daily basis. Her presence alone is like sunshine that melts everything that it shines upon.
“Just how much do you know?”
“A modest amount. I’ve heard about the other maidens by name but have yet to meet them formally. I’m wondering if I’ve gotten lucky being the friend of the Celestial Knight himself. A nice opportunity just may be on my plate now that you’ve got your lifelong wish.”
“Here I was thinking that I’d be breaking the news to you in a few minutes, but once again you’ve somehow managed to have the upper hand. How typical.”
“In order to have the advantage in battle you must be prepared with as much intel as possible. I’d like to believe I’m a fairly capable knight. You were working up the nerves to say it, weren’t you?”
“More or less.”
“Anyways, you’re not going to weasel yourself away from answering my question so easily. Have you and Juna made out yet?”
“I… That’s just…” I lightly shake my head and rattle my gears back into alignment before snapping my response. “You can’t just go around asking people questions like that! You’d even changed it from a k-kiss to something more obscene!”
“Obscene? What’s so obscene about kissing your fiance? But you’re acting a little more evasive than usual. That’d be a yes to my question then, wouldn’t it?”
“A-Ah. Well… You see...”
“You two absolutely have! You totally kissed Juna!”
The amount of excitement she displays is enough to put the heat on my entire body. I can barely look her in the eyes no matter how much she attempts to peer directly into mine as I dodge away.
“Don’t jump to conclusions! It’s not that simple! I…!”
“Oh come on already, Khiron. You’ve always been such a bad liar to begin with given all that knightly honor you’ve got. Just the thought of lying is an intense moral issue to you, isn’t it? Bet lying about the color of your own underwear would keep you up for hours at night. I expect they’re blue today.”
“M-My… They’re… They’re...”
A saucy look overcomes her as a smug grin pulls at the right of her lips and arcs it into a sly angle that somehow pierces me right down to my soul. The slight dip of her eyebrow paired with the flicker of mischievous light in her eyes is unbearable.
“Jackpot. Looks like I’m two for two today! I know you well enough to know you’d probably end up wearing plenty of blue beneath those black clothes of yours. It’s a fitting color for you, gotta say.”
“What is that even supposed to mean?! And it’s not like something like that would end up keeping me from sleep! I-It’s just underwear! It’s not like I have pride in some collection of them or anything!”
“That sure was a specific denial. So you have a collection, do you?” Her smug smile only intensifies, but she lets it drop from her face while her voice falls a bit mute. “To think it took you two ditzes the pressure of having the kingdom on your shoulders to finally do it.”
“What are you about mumbling now? A-And… please don’t tell anyone that I have a… collection of colors and patterns.”
“Nothing particularly important. And your secret is safe with me. Promise.” She gives me a thumbs up and a wink of her eye. “It makes plenty sense I’d ask if you and Juna pressed your cute lips together. The entire fate of our kingdom hangs on it, after all! I’m just checking up on the Celestial Knight to see if he’s been doing his duties properly like a good boy is all.”
“Yeah, yeah. There you go again with that ‘is all’ thing. That’s a surefire way to tell when you’re just making excuses for your sadism.”
“I’m glad to see that I don’t have to worry about you getting your magical strength from one of the maidens. I’m betting she was your first too, wasn’t she?”
“E-Enough with these questions! Juna’s testing should be done by now, right? Shouldn’t we be going to greet her?”
“You really are too cute, Khiron. You make it so easy to love you, you big dweeb.” She pats me on the shoulder again and pushes herself off of the rail with a strong heave. “I really was so happy to see my best friend get that dream he’d always ramble about. You deserve it and I know you’ll do everything for this kingdom and its people. Just have to get a little bit serious for a moment to let you know that.”
No matter if she’s jesting or if she’s dead serious, she always seems to find the holes in my armor to thrust a sword right into those openings. Even while she’s complimenting or praising me she can always manage to get my face to flush pink. Perhaps that’s why she’s possibly one of the greatest swordsmen in all of the kingdom. She really knows how to read the person in front of her. And battle is more about reading one’s the opponent than it is about strength.
“It’s not like I have to be that strong of a psychic to get into your thoughts. You’re just easy to read is all. Though it does help a bit to have psychic powers.”
I jump as she answers my thoughts which I’d had good reason to believe were private.
“So you’re a mind reader now too? There’s no way you’re psychic… Or did I accidentally speak that aloud?”
“Nah. Your lips were sealed. Which is one thing you’re good at when it matters. But you really need to work on fighting that tendency you have to panic when it comes to hiding the truth. Psychics really are rare, aren’t they?”
“I suppose you’re right. I’m just never sure what to do about it…” I pause as her casual statement itches inside of me. “You’re not actually a psychic, are you? I mean, it would explain a few things.”
“It takes more practice to get the timing down but I’m sure you’re more caught up on the morality side of things.” She teases me and chuckles some more all the while ignoring my question. “Anyways, I’d heard that Juna was a maiden the moment that was discovered. I’d been told of her potential before either of you had learned about that.”
“Your father let that loose too?”
“Yup. Sometimes he can have a hard time denying his cute little girl.”
“Sounds like a problem for the kingdom’s secrecy in the makes.” I grumble to myself.
“It’s been a pretty great time hanging around with you. Testing should be finishing shortly and I don’t want to be the reason you wind up late to congratulating your victorious wife. Let’s get going.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I sigh to myself in a jesting exaggeration.
She skillfully tosses her disposable cup into the receptacle without so much as glancing back. Just as finessed and precise as ever be it with her swordplay or teasing others red. She really knows how to get the advantage.
✩ ✩ ✩
“Juna!” I call out the very second I see her.
She peers to me and reveals her eyes which are uncharacteristically dull. Slowly raising to her feet, she walks towards me with little purpose in her steps. Though she keeps her eyes trained anywhere but my eyes.
“Khiron. I’m glad you’re here.”
“You don’t seem all that spirited. I was expecting you’d be practically beaming. Did something happen?”
“I’m still nervous is all. I’ve been feeling a little bit… lacking in confidence today.”
“What’s all this about?” Asks a curious Vestil as she approaches from close behind. “You were our ace mage back in the academy. Heck, you’d even scored higher than me in magical aptitude several times over.”
“I feel like I’d messed up one too many times.” Juna sighs. “Maybe I do need more training… A lot more training.”
“Last time we’d met before today, you’d more than persuaded me that you were prepared. Able to perform moderate healing magic, a great control over all of the elements and then you’d proved you’re well versed in utility spells as well. Though you had those few advanced types to improve upon I can hardly believe that being a bit unrefined with those sorts would hold you back from being acknowledged.”
“At that, when I’d taken her to practice just yesterday she’d already seemed to have mastered those spell types she’d struggled with.” I inform Vestil.
“That’s to be expected from our fantastic magician. Even if you’re feeling a bit lacking with confidence you’ve already gotten a good handle on magic that usually takes most people years longer to even reach your level. In fact, the average age of new mage knights is usually about 22 years. Most of them are kingdom knights first but you’re skipping that step entirely as well. To say all you’re doing is impressive would be underselling it.”
Vestil gives Juna a thumbs up in approval with her handsome smile on her face that most often makes maidens swoon. It does gratefully earn a small smile from Juna. It even so slightly lightens my heart and what was once a more painful stinging from the scar returns to its usual tone.
“But shouldn’t you be doing your job, Celestial Knight?” Vestil turns to me and tilts her head with a smirk as she places her hand on my back.
“My job as the Celestial Knight?”
“You’re right. I’d gotten a bit confused. Pardon. Allow me to correct myself and rephrase. Shouldn’t you be doing your job as her husband?”
“What do you me- Woah!”
Vestil gives me a shove and I stumble into Juna. I catch my balance but find my arms around her body. She yelps lightly as she feels my embrace.
“There we go! Just as a husband should be doing: comforting his beautiful wife!”
The knights lounging about the waiting room catch the exchange and soon whispers and chuckling begins to fill the air. All eyes fall on us. To make matters even worse I can swear I know some of the faces from my time in the academy. In a moment my cheeks begin to grow hot.
“Y-You…!” I speak with a hint of frustration to mask my embarrassment.
Vestil snickers even more at my reddened face. Meanwhile Juna’s own is buried in my chest; likely to avoid meeting the eyes of all of our company.
“I’m sure she feels even better already with her cute man holding her near! Right, Juna?”
“W-Well...” Her voice is muffled in my jacket as her nose is buried against my bosom.
With the pressure of an audience locked on Juna and myself, we stand still. She remains silent in my arms, but she gradually reaches up and embraces my body.
“Y-Yes...” She mumbles.
“Just as planned! See? Nothing to it! So then, how about you fulfill your second duty as the special knight with a special maiden?” Vestil jeers me as she kisses her palm and sends it out to emphasize her point.
“Aw! And here I was looking to see our special knight sweeping a maiden away into a chivalrous romance!”
The room erupts into laughter. Doubtlessly by now plenty of people are in the know of Vestil’s teasing spirit. Though there was a risk of more common folk being tipped off to the other special duty of the Celestial Knight, it’s more likely they’d just contribute it to Vestil’s sense of humor rather than an actual fact.
As Juna looks up to me from my chest, she smiles a bright, flushed smile that makes my heart pick up into a jog. My worries are carried away by that lovable sight alone.