The moon was still in the sky when Aran awoke, visible against the warm colors of dawn. He took a deep breath and focused on it, trying to ignore the bright sun flooding the horizon with golden light. The moon had always been his friend when the light of day put him on display.
He heard the knocking at his door that was undoubtedly a servant sent to wake him up, so he climbed out of bed and started his morning stretches. "Come in," he called.
The door opened slightly and Aran recognized the unruly mop of auburn curls visible through the crack and smiled. "Kieran. Come in." The door opened a little bit wider and the teenager slipped into his room holding a silver tray with a plate of muffins, a cup of tea, and a sliced apple.
"It's time for you to get ready, my prince. Your parents expect you in the courtyard to meet the competitors in an hour and a half."
Aran grunted and released his hold, switching to a new one. "They do remember that I'm a competitor, don't they?"
"I think they're hoping you change your mind, my prince. You haven't won since you started this nine years ago. Don't you think it's time to give up?"
"No," Aran answered shortly, grabbing an apple slice off of the tray the servant was still holding and sticking it in his mouth. Kieran set the tray on Aran's bedside table and stepped back. "I'm not a child anymore. I can do it this time."
The servant's mouth twitched into something that looked like a smile. "What?"
"Nothing, my prince. I just don't think your 13-year-old self would appreciate be referred to as a child."
Aran swallowed his apple and scowled. It was true, no doubt, but that wasn't the point. "You have no place to talk. You're barely sixteen yourself."
Kieran nodded, his smile fading as fast as it arrived. "Of course. Do you need help dressing today?"
"No, I think I've got it figured out after all these years."
"Very well." Kieran bowed to him carefully. "Enjoy your breakfast. I'll be by to help you change after your introduction."
The redhead vanished, shutting the door behind him and Aran finished his stretches in between bites of food. Changing out of perfectly clean clothes into others for the sake of appearances was ridiculous, but he needed to dress nicely. He was going to be on display; stared at and admired and gossiped about. If he didn't behave nicely, his parents would have him disqualified from the tournament. They already wanted to, knowing what he'd claim as his reward.
Unfortunately for them, they had no official reason to and the crown prince competing in an open tournament for all was popular with the people. Most of them rooted for him, he knew, even the ones that didn't know what he wanted.
It was probably because of his appearance. Everyone thought the handsome, determined, young prince should be victorious. And he certainly looked the part of a hero, built for dueling with chiseled features softened by rare golden hair and blue eyes.
He took a long time in deciding his clothing. He wanted to simply don his armor and take a place among the knights and other competitors, but he couldn't yet. Today he was on display, and tomorrow he could fight as hard as he wanted. It was the tentative deal in place with his parents.
Instead of roughly woven cloth and armor, he chose soft, expensive fabrics in colors that set off his fair skin and hair. Instead of the heroic prince, he was a fashionable idiot. Well, he could be two things at once, and it was what his parents would want him to look like. He needed to keep them happy before pissing them off.
Kieran had been correct; the best he'd placed in the last nine years was third place—and runners up didn't receive the prize: any request from the king and queen they could imagine. But this was his year. He had better training than any of his competitors likely had, he had more time to practice, and he wasn't a child or gangly teenager. At twenty-two, he was at his physical peak and well adjusted to his body.
And he wanted it badly. He'd been waiting nine long years, but it would be over in a few short days.
He was going to win the tournament this year, no qualifications necessary.