Luveon City, Cloris County, Echizen

April 9th

Two years ago, Dudley Bly was a young, small-framed, and timid teenager who simply didn't know any better about life as a purebred Echizenian standing at the end of this line. Today, he returned to this particular line when his sister Miori finally arrived at this unique and mandatory rite of passage: finding a future spouse.

This was no ordinary matchmaking rite that we speak of at this point. We speak of the fabled yet highly-praised Eros Council System of matchmaking established and currently operated by none other than a specialized organization of matchmakers simply known as the Eros Council. In most cases, it was customary for the every sixteen-year-old boy and girl to be accompanied by a parent of their opposite sex. Their mother accompanied her fiery-haired brother to this same rite two years ago. She herself wasn't so lucky for her one and only chance since their father disappeared twelve years ago in a still-unknown, unsolved incident. It would have been their mother's brother, Uncle Clyde, who should have taken their father's place, but because he had to attend to the family business of selling wool from their flock of sheep at a high demand, Dudley became the male escort for her in this rite of passage instead.

Dudley offered his right arm for her nervous sister to cling on to. Knowing every little detail since childhood, he can read her like a book. Five minutes passed as the line continued to stretch out from where they were currently standing, she shivered and quickly hooked her arm around his.

"We barely moved since we arrived at the end of the line, and you're already getting the jitters?" Dudley grinned while Miori hid her face against his arm.

"Pardon me for not speaking as a loyal Echizenian, Dudley, but why on earth are we required to go through this? We're required to do everything else, such us learning how to defend ourselves using self-defense techniques and other types of warfare, but this… just to find a potential lover?" Miori gritted her teeth while tightening her grip on her brother's arm.

Dudley gently patted her honey-colored shoulder-length hair. "We live in an empire known throughout Gaia for its immensely powerful military and its sciences and arts. Wars are never-ending everywhere. Other countries, kingdoms, and empires rely on our forces to aid them with their own conflicts. We're like the police force of the world, as they say."

"How on earth would other empires would do such a thing; always relying on us and our military. Don't they know how to defend themselves? Don't they have their own sense of national pride?"

"And yet, Echizen is also known as the most loving and romantic empire. People here in general know the ins and outs of romantic love, so they say. They take love and passion and loyalty to the heart seriously here. It keeps every Echizenian balanced between love and war, so to speak. Those are two of the reasons why all Echizenians our age must go through this rite of passage, so to speak. Our troops out in the battlefields, somewhere out there, are dying everyday, and of course, the royal families centuries past and even today just don't like their people to remain loners for the rest of their lives. They believe that every good Echizenian subject deserves happiness with a loved one that will eventually expand in to a family. The closer we are through love, trust, and friendship, the more we become intimidating, dangerous, and powerful as individuals in love and war. So they say, of course."

Miori sighed thinking of the words her brother mentioned. The line moved a few inches forward, but still they found themselves as a few of the last people at the end. Dudley looked forward while Miori scanned her eyes throughout the crowded city square area of Luveon City, the nearest populated town to their urban fishing and farming village, Sweet Apple Valley, just fifteen minutes walk down south. Luveon City wasn't exactly a high-rise city compared to Echizen's majestic capital city of Gratian, where Echizen's central government and the residence of their emperor, Emperor Gadiel, and his family. Meeting the Royal Family was one of the Bly Family's accomplishments for who knows how long, but for both Dudley and Miori, their goal was to meet the empire's most popular royals: the youthful and handsome future emperor, seventeen-year-old Crown Prince Dartagnan and his newly-betrothed, the angelic Princess Asuna of Exeter, a small vassal kingdom in the Echizenian Empire.

"Who would have thought that Crown Prince Dartagnan and Princess Asuna first met through the Eros Council also, Dudley? I mean, I always thought this tradition only applied to commoners."

"And here you are, also going through the same rite, Miori."

"But seriously, Dudley. I never really thought that the royals and the aristocracy are also required to go through the Eros Council as well. I thought everything is all arranged with fellow royal families for political reasons. Just like in the books and tales about royalty and the happily ever afters and…"

Dudley chuckled, shaking his head. "You read too many fairy tales, Miori." He cleared his throat to get in to the subject. "I don't know about all the other empires, but I do know that Echizen and the northern island empire of Lunaria go through the Eros Council system to find their potential soulmate. I have heard rumors though that other kingdoms and empires travel all the way over here just to find their special someone. In terms of the royalty and aristocracy, there are some limits."

Miori understood what he meant with the latter. "Of course. In a nation ruled by monarchy there are a lot of limitations in our society. As they say, royalty marries royalty. Aristocracy marries aristocracy. Everyone else can marry whoever they end up marrying, someone richer or poorer than them."

"Ah, don't worry about all that, Miori. We can't really say who the Eros Council will find for you. And there's also no reason for you to be nervous also. What you're doing now in this line is to get your name and your vital profile registered in to their database. Based on your profile and of course, your personal preferences in your ideal soulmate, they will find the right match for you. And the limitations aren't that bad actually."

"Dudley, how was it like when you had to go through this two years ago?"

The redhead placed his hand on his forehead, contemplating what he can remember from his experience with the Eros Council two years ago. "Nerve-racking, to tell you the truth." He lowered his head and turned to his sister. "The application part was not a problem. It's the one-on-one interview is where I thought I was going to die."

"Eh? One-on-one interview?"

Dudley nodded. "After you submit in your application, you will be having a one-on-one interview with one of the matchmakers. They will ask you a series of questions about yourself, your hobbies and interests, and among other things. This also helps because they would have a chance to get to know you overall as a person and how you look, of course. The way you dress, the way you use your eyes when you look or express your feelings, your gestures, and your voice, everything. And it's also recorded so they have a record of how you look and how you speak once they finally find their match. After the interview they record a video of you introducing yourself to your potential match."

"How so?"

"When they find you a match, they send you a letter through their council-specific couriers. They will give you the date and time that they will be visiting your home to discuss the lucky person they matched you with. In that meeting, the matchmaker will give you a chance to view a video of the person they matched you with. Unfortunately, you really don't have a choice from that point on. Once they find you this match, you have three months to get to know each other before you and this match can decide if you want to proceed throughout the relationship or break it and the entire matchmaking process starts again."

Miori's eyes widened in shock. "There's that too?"

"That's what the policies stated. The only thing is, since its establishment centuries ago in Gratian, the latter has never happened before. The matches that the Eros Council made were always perfect matches. Three months is an average time that most people would become interested with each other for them to decide if they want to continue being with that person or break up. Some people only take less than three months to hit things off. Some people may take a bit longer than three months. But from what I heard around the grapevine, the Eros Council has never failed with their matches."

"Amazing…" Miori's eyes blinked. "Miss Laine must have fallen in love with you just from the post-match interview alone, right when she began to watch your self-introduction video. And look at you two now! Once you hit twenty-one you can finally get married!"

Dudley smiled with pride. "I didn't expect that Laine would be the one they would match me up with. She was the prettiest girl in the entire Sweet Apple Valley village. All the better-looking guys were competing against each other for her attention, but once we finally met for the first time we just hit it off from the beginning."

"You two look so beautiful together, Dudley. I'm envious. And Miss Laine is so pretty…"

"Don't forget kind, sweet, open, and down to earth too. If it weren't for her you wouldn't be wearing that dress you're wearing now."

Miori gazed down at her simple shoulder-strapped lace and cotton white dress that stretched just below her knees, along with the white flat shoes and the white lace ribbon tied around her shoulder-length golden honey hair. The makeup that Dudley's betrothed and fellow schoolteacher, eighteen-year-old Laine Como, created on his sister's delicately fair face made her look like she wasn't wearing a single dye of color at all. Just a tint of the powder truly showed more of her natural colors even more. Absolutely perfect.

"I can't wait to have Miss Laine to be my new sister! We would have a perfect family then! I have you now and eventually I will have a big sister in Laine!"

"And you should fulfill my dream family also, Miori," Dudley snickered, gently nudging her on her side. "I want to have a younger brother too, you know. Well, that may be impossible too. He may become my older brother too depending on age."

"You're so silly, Dudley." The siblings laughed at the thought. The line moved once more again, as they followed along. They were only about ten people apart from the registration booth.

"Now I'm beginning to wonder, Dudley."

"Oh? What's that?"

"Everyone, especially our generation, has such grand fascination with Crown Prince Dartagnan and Princess Asuna. The girls in my school just couldn't stop talking about them. A year ago in middle school the girls swoon so much over the Crown Prince that they used to yell and scream at each other, competing each other to get his attention. But nevertheless, another royal has stolen his heart thanks to the Eros Council."

"They only became the major attention of every individual out there simply because it only took them a year to finally decide to be engaged to marry in the near future. They're both seventeen, with the Crown Prince turning eighteen in two weeks. According to the Eros Council statistics, majority of the people decide to get engage at age eighteen. Most people get engaged at the older ages other than eighteen. Not very many decide to get engaged younger than eighteen. The Crown Prince and his Exeterian princess gave the official announcement to the world just last week."

Miori shrieked softly as her brother hushed her to calm down her anxiety. "Now the thought of the Eros Council match results became an epidemic. Now all the girls in my school think that it's guaranteed that we'll be having really cute, hot guys as our match!"

"Oi, Miori," Dudley laughed. "Whatever happened to beauty is skin deep?"

"I'm not forgetting that of course, Dudley. It's just that… what if… what if there's a high chance that the match they find for me may be handsome and… and… charming and… alluring and… you know, maybe an equivalent to Crown Prince Dartagnan?"

"You don't even know the crown prince in person so you can't really say those things, Miori. But I can guarantee you, no matter how your match may turn out to look like, I'm very sure you would eventually like him."

"You're right about that, I guess."

After some four minutes later, the siblings finally reached the booth. The Eros Council matchmakers and even their supporting staff always wore somewhat eerie-looking deep maroon red silk hoods that cover their faces in the darkness. Anyone would think that they may have been visited by some evil warlock whenever they look at an Eros Council matchmaker, but it is by their regulations that matchmakers must always remain anonymous from the public. The people have come to respect that regulation, most especially the royal family.

The red-hooded figure behind the table collecting the names began to speak. "Good day to you. May I see your identification, please?"

Miori reached her wallet from her shoulder purse and revealed her vital identification card. Every Echizenian and Lunarian subject from both empires and vassal and conquered kingdoms are required to get themselves registered in the empire database for personnel records. Every ten years they must renew their IDs with updated photos and other stats, such as weight and height. Once she handed her ID to the registrar, he gazed at it and read the information indicated:

Bly, Miori. Date of Birth: August 10th. Height: 5'2", Weight: 115 lbs. Eyes: Brown. Hair: Dirty Blonde. Place of Birth: Sweet Apple Valley, Cloris County. Current Residence: Sweet Apple Valley, Cloris County. Nationality: Echizenian.

"According to the year of birth, you're currently sixteen."

"Yup. That's me!" Miori cheered. "Thank you very much, Sir!" The hooded figure handed her the application paper and pencil. "Oh, I need to fill this out now? Okay!"

"Please put in as much detail as you can in this application."

"Thank you!" Just as the siblings were about to head off, the hooded figure halted them.

"I also need to see your identification also, Sir."

Dudley blinked and turned. "My ID? But why?"

"We also keep record of the ones who escorted our candidates, Sir, for our records also. Considering how you look, you don't exactly look like near being Miss Bly's father."

"I'm her brother, Sir."

"It's standard procedures of the Eros Council, Sir. Your ID, please."

Dudley gave a slight frown as he reached for his wallet and handed him his ID. Carefully the hooded registrar read the information to himself:

Bly, Dudley. Date of Birth: February 13th. Height: 5'9", Weight: 141 lbs. Eyes: Hazel. Hair: Bright Copper. Place of Birth: Sweet Apple Valley, Cloris County. Current Residence: Sweet Apple Valley, Cloris County. Nationality: Echizenian.

"You don't look much, Sir. Although I assume that you too have gotten yourself registered on our database when you were sixteen, correct? According to your birth year, you just turned eighteen two months ago."

"Thanks to you, Good Eros Council, I am engaged to my soulmate. I trust that you would do the same for my sister."

"We will do all we can. We won't stop until we find the perfect match for her. Thank you very much for escorting her." The hooded registrar handed back his ID card. Quickly, the siblings headed to the tables, where all the others before them were already concentrating on filling out the forms. They found an empty spot where there was no one around but each other.

"So, I need to fill this out?"

"Yup. Especially the last part of the application where you write a summary and full description of your ideal guy."

"So long. Well, can you help me out with this when I need it? And I'd like you to read what I wrote to see if that's okay to submit or not."

"Take your time."

Miori began filling out the application with the pencil the hooded registrar handed her earlier. Most people who had to fill the application change their minds a lot when it came to describing their ideal significant other and using an inked pen wouldn't do any good at this point. At least with a pencil and an eraser, not only that they would be able to make the changes cleanly, but this may be a test to the durability of the Eros Council's specialized handmade paper. With her taking her time to fill out the application, Dudley slightly leaned back to relax and bask in the warmth of the morning sun and listen to the different whispering voices being carried out by the invisible breeze.

Apparently, his temporary sun and wind bathing got interrupted when he spotted a sight he did not expect to see it again. Gazing at the branches of a large oak tree overlooking the seats and tables, he spotted a giant black hawk with a red streak slightly above its right eye. He almost jumped up from his seat upon spotting it with just one look. This particular red-streaked black hawk first appeared to him this morning when he woke up at around seven in the morning and right after opening his window. When he first encountered it just outside his window, he thought this insanely dangerous-looking bird would fly in and attack him with its sharp beak and talons. Instead, it just sat there, staring directly right at him, and it remained that way until he and Miori left home to head up north on a fifteen-minute walk to Luveon City.

By gods, he muttered to himself. This same red-streaked black hawk flew all the way here and now it's staring directly at me again? He quickly closed his eyes and began rubbing it to be sure he wasn't just seeing things.

"Dudley!" Miori called his name out. He turned his head immediately to face her. "Here's my description. Will you read it?"

"Alright. Let's see it." She handed her application to him as he read the description to himself.

Moments later, he frowned. "Lame."

"Eh? What's wrong with my description?"

"'Someone reliable, someone dependable, someone funny and knows how to uplift my spirits by sharing his stories. Someone smart, someone cool, someone who isn't loud and not have a runaway mouth whenever we're eating dinner…' You're kidding with this, aren't you?"

Miori sighed. "But wouldn't you like a future brother-in-law like him? I mean, I mainly described you."

Dudley winced at the response. Sure, he knew that the only exposure Miori had with boys her age all her life, as far as he know of that is, was only with him and a few of his old school buddies. There was a lot of segregated places in Echizenian society, most especially with the youth. In elementary school years, the system was coed. By the time the children reach the middle school years, that was the time that they become segregated. Boys attend all-boys middle schools and girls attend all-girls middle schools. Their segregated school system continued through high school, and once students graduate from high school, everything is coed once again from attending universities to getting their own jobs.

"If you're asking me in regards to what an ideal brother-in-law I should have coming from you, Miori, it wouldn't be the type you just wrote on the application just now."

"Oh. I see." The blonde lowered her head, sighing in embarrassment.

He brought back the application back to her again. "Listen. Erase all of that and rewrite it. When you are being matched by the Eros Council, it should be the one whom you would be most happy with. You're doing this for yourself, not for me or for Mother or for anyone else. The world is a meadow, as people say. There are beautiful flowers laid out throughout the meadow, but there can only be the one and only flower that you deemed the most beautiful of all. Write about that beautiful flower and give all of your reasons why you find that flower the most beautiful of all the flowers you see throughout the field. Write it all from your heart."

Miori gave him a perplexed expression. "Flower?"

Dudley wanted to slap himself in the forehead at this point. Miori loved flowers equally as each flower has its own unique feature that sets them apart from one another, just like how it is with people. Bad metaphor. "Well, um, how should I put it…" He contemplated for a few seconds until he found another idea. "Alright. Forget about the guys you know or encountered in real life. Let's talk about guys you know by name and face but not in person. Name one guy who you really like and admire. How do I put it… celebrity crush?"

"That's easy," Miori grinned. "His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Dartagnan of the Empire of Echizen, of course!"

"You had a crush on him?" Dudley's eyes widened. "I didn't even know that…"

"Well… every girl did… until last month when the Princess Asuna of Exeter came in to his life. No wait, that can't be right. She was already there for a long time now. They were being matched by the Eros Council after all."

"Alright, alright. Let's use the prince, for example. When you look at him… well… when you used to look at him, what did you perceive him as?"

"Well…" Miori closed her eyes to contemplate about her former celebrity crush, the future emperor of the nation she and her brother were born and currently living right now. How she pictured Crown Prince Dartagnan being taller than her brother, probably about 5'11" or even 6'0", having a slight medium frame, chocolate brown hair normally slick-combed backwards that made it look like bent spikes, deep ocean blue eyes, and a smile to die for. She also contemplated his voice and his small gestures and mannerisms whenever he would make his live appearances and speeches at the giant screens around the main square of Luveon City. Since they live in a rural area where electricity was somewhat scarce, they would have to head to town just to watch these types of live appearances. With that in mind, she realized then that her crushing over the crown prince was not the type that most girls would crush over him for. She always admired his leadership, his inner strength, and his energy to lift up the moods of people whenever the chips were down.

Right then, she wrote the words "Please see the back of this paper" on the black space at the bottom underneath the question of Describe to us your ideal soulmate. On the back of the paper, she wrote down what it looked like a letter. Minutes later, she handed the back side to Dudley as he read what she wrote to himself:

Dear Eros Council,

I know you may think that I'm an idiot for writing the details of my ideal man on the back of this paper, but my brother insisted that I should write it straight directly from my heart…

"Miori, you really had to mention me in here, didn't you?"

The grinning blonde shrugged her arms. "Well, I'm very sure they will question me about it once I get to the interview part."

"Right." He sighed and continued on reading:

Please find me a very special boy who resembles a prince. What I mean is, I'm not asking for a prince, but someone anyone would mistake for a prince. He should be tall, filled with strength and confidence outside and inside, responsible, respectful, courageous, adventurous, active, someone who isn't afraid to stand up for what he believes in and someone who knows how to take control of things in any situation. Someone smart, clever, funny, of course. He also needs to be sweet and gentle, most especially if I'm in a bad mood or sinking to the sea of loneliness. He needs to be caring, loving, of course; someone who would love and respect me for who I am and how I am. Well, an optional detail also— he needs to be really cute, really handsome, of course— but that's optional. He doesn't have to be.

Oh, and he must also love music, especially singing. I know that singing is becoming a dying art here in Echizen as everyone opted to do dancing or acting. It's hard for me to survive in the Echizenian arts in school because almost all the girls in my school put me down just because I chose singing over the more popular acting or dancing. I love to sing. And books also. He needs to like books too so we can have plenty of things to talk about whenever we're out of topics whenever we're together and just talk.

You helped my brother find the girl of his dreams and are now engaged. You also helped my hero, Crown Prince Dartagnan, find his Princess Asuna and are now engaged too. Please find me a boy whom I can call my very own prince. Thank you very much for all your hard work for all the lonely and naive Echizenian youth out there.


Miori Bly

Dudley scratched his head after reading and then handed it back to his sister. "Well then. That's a lot better. It's a whole lot more detailed and completely different from your first description. You're all set."

Miori swallowed and sighed out the extra air within her. "Whew. Okay then. Let's go!"

The siblings headed back to the booth, where they wait until they reach and speak with another maroon red-hooded registrar responsible for collecting the finished applications and set up the one-on-one interviews with the matchmakers at the tents set up just behind them. While they waited at the end of the line again, they overhear the girls chatting right in front of them that caught the siblings' attention.

"Did you know? There's a rumor that the Crown Prince Dartagnan is here right now at Luveon City— along with the three other heartthrobs with him!"

"Really? Well, what I heard is that since Crown Prince Dartagnan's engagement to Princess Asuna, the three heartthrobs are now getting themselves registered through the Eros Council database so they may be matched also! Heck, in fact, I heard that the Crown Prince of Lunaria is present right now— in secret, of course!"

"Now that our crown prince is no longer in the top list of most wanted eligible bachelors, a very close friend of his, as well as a representative of the Lunarian Empire, is now the most sought out boy among every teenage girl out there!"

"Really? Even better-looking that the Crown Prince of Lunaria?"

"No one knows what background he really comes from, but I heard that he's a very powerful, domineering warrior, always clad in black. Even his personal sword is also black!"

"Really, who is he? What's his name? I have to know how he looks like!"

"I also heard that he's here right now at Luveon, also having his name registered in the Eros County database! Oh I hope the Eros Council matches me with him…"

Miori quickly snapped her head towards Dudley. "Did you hear? It looks like Crown Prince Dartagnan is no longer in the picture. Engaged or not he still is my hero."

Dudley shook his head, chuckling. "Why on earth are you telling me this, Miori? You would normally talk about boys with Mother and Laine and even a few of your schoolmates, but why on earth are you talking to me about guys? You know I have no knowledge of all that."

Immediately she clung around his arm. "Dudley, I'm so nervous now! What if my match ends up to be one of them?"

"Eh? One of who?"

"If not Crown Prince Dartagnan then maybe I may be matched with one of his heartthrob friends!"

"Miori, the chance of you being paired up with one of those guys is one in a billion. From what I was told, those guys in the crown prince's circle are all of other royalty and aristocracy from Lunaria and all throughout our vassal kingdoms. I wouldn't bet on it. Most likely you'll be paired up with a middle class city boy or even a village boy."

She dropped her head, already feeling rejected by her brother way before her own interview. "It's not a bad thing to dream…"

Dudley gently rubbed her head. "I'm just kidding, you know. But hey, you may get lucky. Maybe they will find a prince for you."

She sighed, now listening to more of the gossip that these girls in front of him kept babbling. Eventually some minutes later, they finally reach the booth and Miori handed her application. The hooded registrar skimmed through the application until he saw the final field of the form. He flipped over to read the letter. Moments later, the registrar burst in to laughter.

"My my, a prince for a match!"

"Well, not literally a prince, I mean obviously I have no chance with getting matched with an actual royal, hehe, but… you know… like a prince! A prince in shining armor!"

Dudley dropped his head and sighed, slightly shaking his head at his sister's naivete. "You're asking for the impossible, Miori. It would probably take years for the Eros Council to find you a match that would resemble that of a prince."

"Ahem," the hooded registrar coughed. "Actually, Miss Bly, let me ask you one question. Do you not have any preferences in terms of nationality or does this match have to be Echizenian?"

"You mean, there's a possibility that my match may be from the aristocracy?"

"Well, in Echizen, sadly, no commoner will be matched up with someone of royal blood. However, an Echizenian commoner may be matched with an Echizenian aristocrat. In Lunaria, on the other hand, marriage is very open to the Lunarians there including the royals. Royalty may marry commoners and they're even open to see which one of them will be upgrading or downgrading?"

"Um, when you say 'upgrading' or 'downgrading'… you mean…"

"He means that the royal may have the option of stripping off his royal title and be a private citizen or the commoner may have the option of living as a royal and earning a royal title. Lunarians are so open with each other. Interesting."

"Therefore, if you truly want a prince-like match, Miss Bly, it would most likely an Echizenian aristocrat or a Lunarian altogether." He cleared his throat. "Despite Echizen's reputation of having the empire with the most powerful military force in all of Gaia, Lunaria is actually the wealthiest, most developed empire, even more so than Echizen. It's like a true utopia over there. There were no poor and helpless there. Regardless of the way they live, they were always prosperous and bountiful. Well, consider all the options and possibilities when you do request for a match."

Miori immediately shook her head. "Nope. I'm open. Echizenian, Lunarian… in fact, I would love to meet a Lunarian person. I've never met one before."

Dudley coughed to offer his words. "I'm glad you're open with nationalities. I'm a bit of a staunch Echizenian and chose to have me matched with another Echizenian. Well, I ended up with Laine, of course."

She immediately shook her head. "Please, find an Echizenian or Lunarian for me, Good Sir!"

The hooded registrar nodded. "Well then. Shall we set you up with your one-on-one interview now."

"I'll wait at the seats over there until you're finished with the interview, Miori."

"Alright then, Dudley. I'll see you later." The siblings split, with Dudley making his way to the waiting area, where visitors waiting for their candidates sat and rested, doing their own thing to keep themselves from getting bored just waiting. He took note that the warmth of the sun was getting warmer as the hour reaches noon and found a few seats shaded by a nearby oak tree.

He took a seat next to a middle-aged man reading today's newspaper. He neglected reading today's newspaper because he and Miori were running late this morning and that they didn't want to be stuck all the way outside the archways of Luveon City for the Eros Council rite. He noted to himself that he would buy a newspaper on the way back home. Once again he stretched his arms forwarded and then lifted his head to soak more of the fresh air. What he forgot at that moment was the unexpected visitor who had been following him since this morning. Once he lifted his head, he gave a soft shriek once he saw that same black hawk with a red streak just above its right eye. Just like before, the hawk simply gazed directly right at him.

Good Gaian Gods! You again! Why do you keep on following me? I'm already alone, completely defenseless and open to become your prey. Why won't you do what you're supposed to do?

Gritting his teeth at the hawk, he heard the middle-aged man leaving his seat. Lucky for him, the man left his newspaper on that same seat. Dudley waited for the man to walk out all the way from the waiting area, and then immediately grabbed the newspaper so he can have something to read and to kill his waiting time for Miori.

The front page indicated its today's headline: "VASSAL ATTACKS VASSAL," with its sub-headline: "Unannounced Calaberian Vassal Breaks Through Borders of Anatolian Vassal."

An invasion! There hasn't been an invasion of any sorts for as long as he can remember! There had been civil wars within the empires, a small vassal kingdom against another small vassal kingdum serving the same emperor, but never a vassal kingdom against another vassal kingdom belonging to a different empire. He began to read the article silently, ignoring the frightening red-streaked black hawk looking right at him.

While reading through the article, a sudden commotion came into the scene. There were stern-toned men blocking off a group of screaming girls calling out for three particular names his ears caught, but decided not to give any attention to them. Regardless, his ears caught the men's voices tending off the screaming girls:

"They are here on an official business. They have no time to socialize and chit-chat with all of you. Now leave!"

Dudley sighed, unable to concentrate with all the loud voices. He slowly lowered his newspaper and snapped his head towards the bustling crowd. The men taming these uncontrollably noisy girls donned in trooper uniforms consisting of charcoal gray armor, white garb with a red-outlined white coat of arms emblem at the front with that of a black dragon imprinted at the front. Any Echizenian would recognize that particular coat of arms as it represents and signifies their empire, but with the arrangement and the color schemes that these men were wearing, they were the low-leveled Echizenian Footmen. This only meant one thing: They were there on a low-leveled duty, such as escorting a very important person present in the premises; a royal, in particular.

Once the girls moaned sadly and were forced to leave the area, the footmen sighed in relief. These same men caught sight of Dudley due to his extremely fiery red hair, as the village teacher saluted them with a timid nod and a few words.

"All in the days work, good sirs. Thank you for keeping the peace and order of our homes."

The troop leader present acknowledged Dudley's words and bowed. "Always a service to the great people of Echizen."

Immediately Dudley gasped and stood up. "Oh… that… that must mean that I must leave as well!"

"Oh no no, we were just escorting four important individuals present in the Eros Council rite. One of them is having a one-on-one private meeting with the council head at the moment, but the other three will be heading here in a moment. Those ladies you just saw earlier were avid stalkers of these important men, so to speak. Our orders were to keep them away from them as much as possible at this important matter."

Dudley nodded quickly, feeling the nerviness already filling up within him. "I… I… I see. It's just that… well you see I've never been in this situation before. I mean this is the waiting area after all."

"You are of no threat, good sir, please, just proceed with your reading."

"I… I will." Dudley bowed his head. "Have a good day, good sirs!"

The men saluted back at him as they remained standing still. Dudley sighed in relief and went back to his newspaper reading. He looked up again to see that the red-streaked black hawk was still there, still staring at him. Without realizing it, he called it out loud to the bird.

"Goodness, you powerful black hawk! You staring at me that way scares me more now than the way you did earlier this morning! Why on earth are you still here looking at me like that?" He buried his face with the newspaper, closing his eyes to calm himself before he breaks in to panic.

Calm down, Dudley. It's only a bird. Hawks don't attack humans… or do they?

Quickly he turned to hiding his face again behind the newspaper and continued on reading. Eventually he found himself immersed in to the printed articles that he got himself withdrawn from reality and in to the story in itself. A vassal kingdom attacking another vassal kingdom which both currently serve the same emperor was one thing, but a vassal kingdom one empire attacking another vassal kingdom of another empire was serious bad news. According to the article, the coast and sea patrol of Calaberos Empire's island vassal kingdom, Sullaria, were attacked by small destroyer ships with emblems of green and black with a sea dragon imprinted on it. Dudley didn't know much of the world outside Echizen or any of his home nation's vassal kingdoms, but thanks to his general knowledge of geography back in elementary school, he knew that the kingdom that holds the blue-green sea dragon imprinted on a circular emblem of green and black was none other than Anatolia Empire's southern peninsula vassal kingdom, Monrovia.

With that, something rang inside his mind. The last time he heard the name Monrovia was when his father was called in by the Echizen empire's government twelve years ago on a special mission. It was also that day that the battalion his father belonged to was ambushed by some unknown force that cost them a significant number of casualties. Among the bodies recovered, none of them belonged to his father. As he grew up and then celebrating his father's birthday with the absence of his father year after year, it upset him deeply that his mother kept calm about their father. She kept reminding them that if their father already died, the emperor's men should have at least passed on the message to them. For twelve years they waited and there was no development regarding the search, although they did get reminders from the government that they would not give up until they find their father, dead or alive. Should they find him dead, their wish was to bring back his body back home so he may be buried on the same land he was born and raised. Nevertheless, they believed that Fenton Bly was still alive up to this day.

Dudley lowered down the newspaper. He attempted to contain all his emotions regarding his father deep within and not cause an inner scene. Just as he sighed out in relief and finally released the stress, he felt a strong force that led him right out of his seat and felt a thud on the ground.

"Watch out!"

The redheaded youngster felt another body on top of him. The body was quite light and smaller than he was, but the impact was overwhelming that he didn't even see anything coming his way.

"There! There he is! Don't let him get away!"

Dudley blinked in surprise as he tried to get himself up from the ground. The body that crashed in to him from out of nowhere also found himself getting up slowly. Once that figure got up, Dudley looked up to see who it was.

Right in front of him was a rather short, small-framed, yet very charming baby-faced boy with caramel-brown hair and ice blue eyes, approximately around the age of his and Miori's youngest sibling, thirteen-year-old Drake Bly. The way he dressed gave a chic and swanky vision for today's young generation that made Dudley perceive that he was a son of an aristocrat. He gently wiped off the dirt from his black pants and then gazed at the young teacher.

"Sorry, I'm sorry I bumped in to you, Sir. Are you alright?"

Dudley gently rubbed his head to ease the slight pain he felt when he fell from his seat. He stood up and wiped himself off of the dust. "I am now. Why on earth were you running through the waiting area?"

The stylishly-dressed young man bowed his head. "I… I'm chased by a group of girls! They have been after me for the past few days! But I'm only thirteen and too young to fall in love!"

Too young to fall in love, huh? The teacher sighed. Immediately they both become startled when they heard girlish cries calling out the mysterious boy's name: "Lord Kyon! Wait! We just want to get to know you more… please, Lord Kyon!"

So, Kyon is his name, Dudley thought. A young lord, to be exact. He also noted of Kyon's small dark brown leather backpack. This immediately gave him an idea.

He snapped right at the angel-faced boy and cleared his throat: "You're late, Kyon."

Kyon blinked in confusion, wondering what this redheaded stranger was up to. Dudley then winked at him: "The dark cardinals will be migrating to another forest away from Southern Echizen when the hour of the noon is finished. Do you have your sketchbook and pencil with you?"

The boy gasped and nodded his head. "Sir, yes, Sir! I'm ready to… write more poetry about the black cardinals, Sir!"

Just in time, those same Echizenian footmen guarding the area right on time and blocked those rabid girls who were about to close in on them. Once again, the footmen warned them that the area is off-limits to wild-screaming young girls such as themselves, treating them as they were treating another group of girls he encountered earlier just as he was about to read the newspaper.

Kyon then hid behind Dudley and called out to those girls: "I told you, I'm very busy and I need to go somewhere very important! Now my private tutor is scolding me for being late!"

Tutor? I'm not exactly a tutor but how did he figure out what role I was trying to portray? Then again, Dudley needed to pat himself for being such a good actor in this scenario.

"You heard the young lord, now leave!"

The fanatic girls moaned after they were warned once more as they leave the scene. With that, both the eighteen-year-old and the thirteen-year-old sighed out in relief. The boy gave out his thanks to the footmen and then cleared his throat once he faced Dudley again.

"It's hard being popular these days," the boy sighed. "You don't look that old, Sir, so I'm pretty sure you can relate… somewhat."

Oh he can relate to that, alright. Dudley didn't exactly have a joyful and memorable childhood, especially with the rest of the kids his age. His short and scrawny build back as a child, his silent innocence and his noticeable red hair made him a target for bullying and abuse of sorts. He spent most of his life being an errand boy to the bigger boys; lower-leveled aristocrats included. He did not meet a single kid whom he could call a friend for life until he reached middle school, where he saved a higher-ranking aristocratic boy from being chased— and possibly hounded and be killed— by two wild hyenas during a ecological science field trip in the forest not too far from Luveon City. He got lucky that he was slightly armed and using his sharp eyes and concentrated precision, shot and knocked down those hyenas down with a slingshot and two sharp pebbles. It wasn't until two days later that Dudley discovered that the boy he just saved from the hyenas was none other than the most talked-about eldest son of the respected mayor of Luveon City, Lord Galen Gulliver. Despite his popularity, he and Dudley remained friends all the way up to today.

This boy standing right in front of him, the boy called Kyon, reminded him a lot of Lord Galen Gulliver when he was his age. In fact, with his unexplained sharp eyes, he could see a lot of Galen in Kyon: same eyes, same colored hair, except Galen had a slight bigger build at that time.

"Oh…" Kyon muttered and slightly backed away. "You look familiar, Sir…"

Dudley stared at him blankly. "Am I…?"

"I think I've seen you somewhere… well, we haven't really met, but you seriously look awfully familiar."

"Now that we're on the subject, you do remind me of a good friend of mine… that is… my only friend…" Dudley sighed, trailing his words in to a whisper.

"Ah!" Kyon snapped his fingers. "Then I was right! I have seen you before!"

Dudley still gave that same blank look on his face. "You must know my brother then! Very well!"

"Brother…? Actually, I don't know that many people and…"

"Kyon! So you did end up here at the waiting area…"

Just as this rather awkward conversation was about to continue, they were interrupted by another third party voice. Only this time, it was the voice that made Dudley smile.

"Brother! You're here!" Quickly, Kyon ran past Dudley and right towards the voice right behind him. "I see you were able to evade those fan girls on your own!"

"By running through the somewhat populated waiting area of the Eros Council event, you would think that you can finally evade them from chasing you. Clever."

"But… I was careless… and I ran in to this good man who was just relaxing while reading the newspaper…"

The older brother of Kyon chuckled, then suddenly changed his tone. "I must apologize for Kyon's carelessness."

"No worries. I should've been aware of my surroundings first before I start concentrating on the newspaper," Dudley stammered. "But… everything is okay now." The voice still made him grin with glee.

"Still as timid as ever. How can you be a good teacher if you continue to hesitate when you talk to people, Dudley?"

Right then, Dudley slowly turned to face the older brother. He began to snicker once he saw the face of the voice that called for the young lord Kyon from him. "It's been awhile… Galen."

Kyon gazed in curiosity towards Dudley, and then turned to his brother. "I knew he looked familiar! Somehow when I saw his blazing red hair, I automatically thought 'teacher,' so I ended up blurting out to those girls that he was my private tutor…"

"How on earth would my red hair be related to teachers, I wonder?" Dudley asked curiously. All that the young lord Kyon could do at this point was to smile.

Moments later, they sat at the seats at the waiting area. Those already present at the area gasped and shrieked with excitement and happiness to see Luveon City's admirable eldest son, Lord Galen Gulliver, arrived on the scene at the city's town square. With the Echizen footmen still present, they knew that this was no time to do any casual chit-chat with an important official. Dudley learned that the reason why the Echizen footmen were being courteous to him all this time was because Galen himself, along with special important guests present at the Eros Council event, gave them a list of names of certain people along with their photos whom they should not bother with. Dudley Bly's name and photo just happened to be in that particular VIP list.

"I didn't know that you're back home," Dudley began, just as a servant of the Gulliver Brothers served them mugs of refreshing hot mint green tea. "You could have contacted me somehow when you arrived."

"I wasn't able to send you a letter when I was still back at the university in Carme," Gale said, sipping on his mug of tea. "Studies and among things just kept piling up and I spent most of my entire university life in the dormitories than hang out with friends or participate in school activities. My father recently received a letter from the University of Echizen Gratian stating that they finally have a spot for me to be admitted in to their wizardry program, meaning I can finally hang out with you whenever you're on campus!"

Dudley nodded, grinning. "Just like the old times!" Galen nodded in agreement.

Kyon stood up from his seat. "Well, I need to go now. I promised my friends I'd help them with their mathematics homework in the library. It's just at the other side of the square fountain. I'll let you buddies catch up."

"Thank you for keeping us company, Kyon." The two brothers, as well as Dudley, exchanged waves with one another as Kyon made his way to his destination. Meanwhile, the two best friends went back to their conversation.

"As far as I know your parents are both graduates from University of Echizen Carme," Dudley began. "You always loved talking about politics all the time, but it seems you're now heavily concentrated in wizardry." He took a sip of his tea once again.

"I don't plan on entering politics, nor become the next mayor of Luveon City at all," Galen answered. "My family are very aware of my special case, so to speak. I was born with immense magical powers within me, so the doctors and the subject registrars noted in my birth certificate, and yet I don't exactly know how to harness them. If I did you wouldn't have to kill those hyenas with your slingshot."

Dudley chuckled. "Well, both of us passed the required melee training classes in school, so we shouldn't worry about defending ourselves."

"Not with wild animals like that, Dudley!" Galen exclaimed. He cleared his throat and changed his tone. "It's amazing. I really did plan to make a surprise visit at your home later this afternoon, but I've forgotten that Luveon City is hosting this month's Eros Council rite. But to see you here in this very spot…"

"It's what the Gaian Gods planned for us, I guess."

The tall, slightly medium-built young man, exactly at the same height as the redhead, gazed around the scenery at the waiting area. Dudley waited for him to say something to continue on with the conversation.

"I apologize for being impolite. I should've called you and your brother as Lord Galen and Lord Kyon, respectively, right in front of these footmen."

Galen chuckled. "You're the most special case among us former schoolboys, Dudley. Even after high school graduation, you're the only one still allowed to refer me by my name alone. That goes the same with Kyon, of course."

"You're my only friend around my age, Galen," Dudley admitted. "Of course, I now have Laine, whom I considered my best friend now, but what I mean to say is…"

"I know what you mean, Dudley. At least you're no longer an errand boy like you used to be with those other guys back when we were kids. They're not even of the higher-level aristocracy, for them to have the nerve to boss commoners like yourself around."

"I also know that even though you are the only friend I made growing up in school that I am not your only friend overall."

"Naturally, Dudley. My other friends don't attend the same school as we did before. They were all of higher aristocracy than my family. Two of them are from the same vassal kingdom. One of them isn't even from Echizen or anywhere within our empire. And the other…"

"The other…" Slowly, they faced the direction northwest from where they were sitting. That particular direction they were gazing at was the main path from the center of Luveon City to an open path leading to the capital city of Echizen and the entire empire, Gratian.

Galen gave a soft chuckle and changed the subject. "Can you imagine that exactly two years ago, we were here ourselves, getting ourselves matched by the Eros Council?"

"Even until now I still couldn't believe that I would return here on this exact day…"

"That reminds me. Why on earth are you here, Dudley? You and Laine recently got engaged three months ago. Are you two…"

Dudley broke in to laughter. "Galen, I'm not here for me. I came here because you know… it's my sister's turn…"

His aristocratic best friend's eyes widened. "By golly, Miori is sixteen now?"

"She's been sixteen for two weeks now."

"Ah, I feel really bad now! I forgot about her birthday!"

"No worries, I'm sure with you returning here from that academic city of Carme would be a great birthday gift for her."

"Has time really gone by? Last time I've seen Miori, she was just…" Galen placed his hand at a lower level, indicating his estimation of Miori's height the last time he had seen her. "By golly, Dudley, we really are getting old…"

"Speaking of engagements, when will you introduce Lady Larisa to me? Is she here with you?"

Galen laughed. "Be patient, my friend. Larisa will travel here this weekend. When she learned that I've requested a withdrawal and transfer from Carme to Gratian, she decided to make the transfer to Gratian as well. Ah, we just couldn't live without any one of us near… Love really does make you crazy."

"It does, but as for Laine and me, we balance things out. We're not always lovey-dovey if you know what I mean. We both have the same ambitions, so we speak of ambitions as well."

"Good for you and Miss Laine."

"Now that we're on the subject of me being here, why are you out here yourself? Are you here to help your father facilitate the Eros Council rite?"

The servant arrived with the tray, as the two best friends handed their empty mugs at him. They continued on right after the servant left the scene. "No. My three friends have come for a visit in order to get themselves registered through the Eros Council database."

Dudley's eyes widened. "Your three friends, you mean the vassal kingdom friends and the non-Echizenian friend?" Galen nodded.

"The two lords from Lindblum are sixteen. The non-Echizenian friend is from Lunaria. Age seventeen."

"Seventeen. Late bloomer?"

"Erm, the Lunarian friend, well, it's… quite complicated to explain. I'll let him explain to you if wants."

"Oh? You're going to introduce me to your highly sophisticated friends then?"

Galen gently patted his friend's shoulder. "Of course I am! You're getting married to the lovely Miss Laine. It'd be more fun if you have a lot of people attending your upcoming wedding, whenever may that be, so you need to make more new friends."

Dudley lowered his head and muttered his timidness. "W-well… y-you know how I am with… with people… I… I don't want to be treated like an errand slave again…"

"Forget the past and forget those jerks, Dudley. You're with me now. Screw them! And soon you'll be one of us!"

The redhead raised his eyebrow in curiosity. "One of you? Could you explain?"

Gale coughed. "I'll tell you more about it some other time."

"What? Why not now?"

"Well, um, you see… we're not supposed to talk about this in public. But we'll get together again, Dudley, once Larisa arrives here at Luveon. We can set up a double-date or something with Miss Laine. And of course, my four friends."

Dudley scratched his head. "Your four friends. Your Lindblumian friends, your Lunarian friend, and… him?" Galen nodded.

"Ah, make that triple date! He'll bring his princess along as well! Here's your chance to make more new friends!"

"Thank you for your concern, Galen…" Dudley sighed and dropped his head. "I don't know how I can repay you for all your kindness…"

"That's Lord Galen Gulliver for you!" An unfamiliar voice interrupted the conversation. Galen turned his head to see three young men around their age.

"Ah, you lads are done with your interviews?" Galen grinned. The four boys gave each other hi-fives as part of their ritual greetings. Like Galen, the three also donned the type of sophisticated, intricate style of fashion that many higher-leveled aristocrats, even that of royalty, would only wear in public. Just by gazing at them standing next to each other, Dudley already felt intimidation on his part.

"It's so unfair," the one wearing olive green ensemble spoke, placing his hands in his pockets. "The mysterious hooded Eros Council matchmaker who interviewed me got a sweet voice. I mean sure, I can't see her face because of that darn hood over her head, but the voice… I even asked her if she was single. She slapped me right after just for asking the question."

"Always a flirt, Marlon," Galen smirked. "You're here to let the Eros Council matchmakers find you your soulmate, not to flirt with the female matchmakers themselves!"

"Other than that," the one in the ensemble of beige spoke, "the interviews were quite interesting. I got so excited all of a sudden to see who my destined beloved is." He sighed after. "I wish the Eros Council has special powers that they would be able to find my match as soon as tomorrow."

"Ha ha, unfortunately, it doesn't work that way, Ferris," Galen answered. He turned to the silent one, the tall one clad entirely in black from his inner ensemble to his trench coat. "Why Erlich, so silent?"

The one in black simply gazed at the gleeful Galen. Then, he answered. "Just contemplating on some things after that interview."

"Oh, and what would that be?"

The bluish gray-eyed youth in black continued. "Your matchmaking tradition sure is… unusual."

"Welcome to Echizen, Erlich!" Galen gave the somewhat soft spoken teen a thumbs up. "Where is he?"

"Ah, him?" Ferris, the one in white, spoke. "Still having that meeting with the council leader, I guess. We'll have to wait here. We were told that we'll be safe in this area from all the rabid… fans…"

"Been there, done that! Just you wait. Once the Eros Council finds your matches, those girls will be hounding for other unfortunate handsome boy to chase with," Galen shrugged his arms.

"But… but it's pointless!" From out of the blue, Dudley stammered. "I mean… those girls must be under sixteen which is why they are still clueless to realize that there can only be one girl for one guy. That's why the Eros Council exists. Right?"

The four aristocrats turned their direction towards the redhead. Immediately, Dudley suddenly backed out in nervousness. "Um… um… I… I was just stating an opinion… d-don't mind me!"

Galen snickered, shaking his head, and approached his timid friend. He placed an arm around Dudley to calm him down. "We're over there together and you're over here. That's not right." Gently he forced his friend to join with the rest of his group of friends.

"Friend of yours?" Marlon, the one in olive green with slight spiked up platinum blonde hair asked curiously. "Good day to you!"

"G-Good day…" Dudley gritted his teeth in nervousness, which eventually turned in to a grin.

"Guys, this is the man," Galen began his introduction of Dudley to his other aristocratic buddies.

"The man?" Dudley's eyes widened in shock. "What on earth do you mean by that?"

"Ah! This is him!" The bowl-cut orange-brown haired Ferris exclaimed, pointing his finger towards Dudley. "Well now, so we finally meet!"

Who on earth are these guys? Dudley's voice began to question inside of him. Galen's been telling these guys about me?

"This is Dudley Bly, my best friend from school of eight years. He's both a student of the University of Echizen in Gratian studying Educational Sciences, therefore as part of his schooling, he works as an elementary schoolteacher at his village, Sweet Apple Valley. Dudley, these are three of the four buddies that I told you about."

The rather handsome and irresistibly attractive young man in black decided to go first with the introduction.

"Erlich von Siegmund of Lunaria. I'm afraid I'm not very good with your culture, so, I do hope you could teach me a thing or two about Echizenian culture." He offered a handshake, as Dudley grinned shyly and shook his hand.

"Good to meet you, Sir."

"Erlich is fine. I don't really believe in titles and formalities myself."

From out of the blue, Ferris interrupted. "Even if he insisted for everyone to call him by his first name with no titles whatsoever, Erlich here is higher-ranked than the rest of us here. This here is Lord Marlon Pondercherry and I'm Lord Ferris Crichton of Lindblum. Technically by nationality, we're Echizenian like yourself, Mr. Bly, but by ethnicity we're Lindblumian. But you're pure Echizenian, so you have the right to just refer to us by our first names. Plus you're Galen's best friend, so you should have the right to call us however you want."

Dudley nodded. "Well, since you all insisted, I'm just Dudley Bly. That's all."

"Just Dudley Bly, huh?" Erlich gave a slight smirk on his face. "We'll just see about that."

"Eh?" Dudley blinked curiously. "What do you mean by that?"

"My instincts seem to tell me that you're not… just Dudley Bly. I believe you're more than… just Dudley Bly."

Dudley simply grinned. "Well… nothing special about me, I'm not an aristocrat and all that."

"Well then!" Galen quickly interrupted and then changed the subject. "Since we're still waiting for others to arrive, let's just hang out here, get to know each other, while we wait for him… and of course, Dudley's sister."

Marlon quickly jumped up. "You have a sister, Dudley? Is she pretty?"

"I… I'm the wrong person to answer that, Lord Marlon…"

"This must be the reason why Dudley Bly is here at the Eros Council rite then," Ferris noted. "We were told that your betrothed is of intricate beauty!"

"Eheh… well… I guess you could say that…" Dudley shyly grinned.

"Will you show us a photo if you have one?" Marlon suddenly became more jumpy than usual.

"Don't demand, Marlon, it's rude," Erlich made his statement, holding himself from laughing.

"No, it's alright. I'm happy to share." Dudley reached for his wallet, then flipped the plastic sections and then revealed a current photo of his soulmate-turned-betrothed, eighteen-year-old Laine Como, university student and also a schoolteacher at Sweet Apple Valley.

"Aaah!" Both Marlon and Ferris gasped in awe. "So beautiful!"

"Well," Erlich chuckled. "I have to admit, if you and your betrothed weren't engaged now, you'll be having all of us as your competition for her heart."

"Ack!" Dudley quickly withdrew the photo from their sight and brought it back in his wallet. The rest of the boys burst in to laughter. In the end, Dudley himself also joined in the gleeful laugh.

"No worries about that, Dudley. Once the Eros Council finds a match for you, you know how the rules go. You are given six months to get to know each other and such, and when you reach the end of the sixth month, that's when you make a decision to proceed with your relationship or if both of you feel that it won't work out that you may request to the council to break it off and then be brought back in to the database so you can be rematched again."

Erlich's eyes blinked. "Six months? Just six months? But six months may not be enough for some people to determine whether they decide to stick to that person or not. Some people may take a year or even more."

"Erlich, considering that the Eros Council rite is originally an Echizenian custom, it's by factual statistic that it is very rare that an Echizenian would take more than a year to decide whether he would like to stay with his soulmate or not. Besides, it would be difficult for two people to decide together to end their ties in the first place. After all, one person can't end the bind alone." Gale explained the basic regulations and then turned to Dudley. "How long did you and Miss Laine took you to decide that you're made for each other."

Dudley blinked his eyes. "Not too long. About five months." He sighed deeply. "I had to admit I was very hesitant because I was too shy around Laine… but she continued reaching out to me, giving me confidence, always letting me know how much she loves being with me. Ah, it's a long and complicated story."

"And Lady Larissa and I only took three months to determine that we were truly meant to be. Of course, we had to wait until the end of the sixth month to confirm with the Eros Council that we will be staying together. Anyway, Dudley and I are solid living proof that the Eros Council matches are foolproof. They have stuck to their motto of 'A perfect match or no match at all.'" Dudley nodded in agreement to Galen's explanation.

"Well then!" Ferris smirked. "That works well enough for me. Just any decent girl for me as long as those crazy fanatic girls who kept trailing us for who knows how long would just… get off our backs."

Dudley then snapped his fingers then. "Then… all three of you are sixteen, correct?"

The three turned to one another. Erlich began to speak. "Marlon and Ferris are both sixteen. I'm seventeen. As you know, matchmakers aren't exactly very common or even mandatory in Lunaria. The Lunarian royalty and aristocracy do rely heavily on their own matchmakers. I was told though that the Eros Council are more organized and precise with their matchmaking system, which was why I was brought here and test it out myself."

Ferris snickered. "Erlich here has very high expectations from the family and even the entire Lunaria. I mean his family is more desperate with him finding his one true love than he was. It must be very difficult for someone of that high position to have such pressure and expectations, don't you think?"

"Lord Ferris, you make it sound like Erlich is a…" Just as Dudley was about to complete his statement, both Erlich and Galen hushed him. At this point, Dudley may have figured out Erlich's true origin and background and not just some Lunarian belonging to the elite.

With that, Dudley became curious about the rather enigmatic Lunarian donning in black at this point. Erlich seemed to be the calm and collected type who took everything humbly, not revealing his noble title when he introduced himself and acted cool while Galen, Ferris, and Marlon seemed carefree with the way they exchanged their words. While he noticed that Ferris and Marlon wielded a long saber and a two-handed broadsword in their strapped scabbards on their waist and back, respectively, Erlich wielded two swords: one black and one ivory, criss-crossed on his back. He knew that Galen is well-skilled in melee fights with a pair of daggers while aiming to be a full-pledged mage at once, the only thing that Dudley was good at other than teaching children and running away from intimidating-looking strangers was basic open-handed melee self-defense skills and a hunter rifles. His father trained him how to hunt using a slingshot, and eventually with guns and rifles as he grew up as a child. When his father disappeared, his Uncle Clyde continued on with the training up to today.

Dudley had no right to brag about his self-defense expertise to the likes of the four elite-class young men standing in front of him, however, he did have the right to be curious and ask more about them. But how would he be able to bring up the subject without getting himself humiliated in front of them?

Oh! Dudley exclaimed to himself. Somehow the corner of his right eye immediately detected a particular emblem of gold with a star-shaped spark on its right eye and a hawk with a particular stick that looked a spear grasped by its powerful talons and an olive branch carried by its beak. Right away, as a loyal Echizenian subject, he already recognized the emblem.

"Ah!" Dudley exclaimed, pointing towards the black handle of Erlich's black longsword, where he spotted the small emblem with the unusually telescopic vision of his right eye. "That emblem."

"Hm? What emblem?" Erlich asked curiously. The redhead pointed his finger towards it.

"On your black sword. That looks like a hawk with a sharp shining right eye carrying a branch and a spear, surrounded by a circle behind it."

"Oh! Ah, yes. The emblem."

"Are you… well… are all of you members of the 277th Crown Regiment?"

Erlich blinked his eyes as he drew his black sword from its scabbard. "Would you like to see it?"

"Are you or are you not, Erlich?" Once again, he and Galen hushed him once more.

"Not in public, remember?" Galen whispered quickly.

"I… I'm sorry…" Dudley realized his small mistake and looked down.

"No worries, Dudley. Here." Still, the owner of the intricately-crafted black-bladed sword still insisted for Dudley to examine it. Without hesitation or a second thought, Dudley took the sword by its handle.

The redhead stared at the majestic shape and durability. In fact, for a sword that looked so light to carry turned out to be quite heavy, but nevertheless, he was still able to swing it around at random but careful not to hit anyone around him. "What… what craftsmanship…"

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Erlich grinned with pride.

"I have learned from school that Lunarians are true masters with the art of the sword from its smithing to becoming a skilled, tactical sword warrior. The books do not kid!"

"The base of the sword is actually very old. It's been passed on through my family from generation to generation. Recently though after my father passed on this sword to me, I had it upgraded with rare materials and such in order to restore and even exceed this sword's capabilities in combat. Its name given is 'Shadow Sinclair.'"

"This sword must be very exclusive to your family, Erlich. Or maybe exclusive to Lunaria?"

He shook his head. "Well, if you consider it exclusive, the base material for the forging of this sword is Lunarian Onyx. I'm not very good with smithing basics, but I do plan on having this appraised, just for the record."

Dudley handed the sword back to the owner. "Th-thank you for showing me your sword. I'm not a swordsman myself or anything, I'm… I just have high fascinations with different types of weaponry from all around the world, I mean…"

Galen patted Dudley on the shoulder. "It's an Echizenian thing, boys. I too have high interests with different types of weaponry around the world."

"Understandable," Erlich smirked. Just as he placed his Shadow Sinclair sword back in its scabbard, Dudley gave a soft gasp.

"Ah, Erlich! Now that you've shown me the Shadow Sinclair, will you show me your other sword?"

Erlich, as well as the other three aristocratic boys, gave a blank stare at Dudley. "Well, I mean… if it's alright with you, of course. Y-you don't have to if you don't want to, heh…"

Ferris and Marlon gazed at one another with panicked eyes as Galen also showed a more worried expression. "What… what are you talking about, Dudley?"

"I only have one sword, Dudley," Erlich answered. "What do you speak of?"

Dudley pointed his finger at the white sword, well, whatever that white long thing may be crossed underneath from the Shadow Sinclair. "Then… if that's not a sword, then what is that?"

Galen burst in to laughter. "Y-you must be seeing things, Dudley. There's no white long thing that you speak of… I mean… I don't see anything white and long on Erlich's back—"

"I'm not seeing things, Galen," Dudley insisted, with his eyes directly aimed at the exposed end of whatever that white long thing may be. "I'm looking at it now: ivory white with black and silver streaks…"

"Oh boy…" Ferris and Marlon gritted their teeth in nerviness. Galen slapped himself on the forehead, while Erlich, still calm and collected as always, gave a soft sigh.

"Will you… describe me what you see… Dudley? On my back?"

Dudley scratched his head. "I swear, I'm not seeing things. I understand if you don't want to show it to me, but I swear to you that I can clearly see it with my own eyes: Something white, with silver and black lining…" In fact, to his vision, that particular white long thing continued to glow brightly as if it was some heavenly item that was recently sent down by the Gaian Gods.

"Erlich…" Marlon muttered. "He's… he's not lying… I… what are you gonna do…? I mean he can see it…"

The black-clad swordsman gave a nod, then reached for the white long thing Dudley referred to from his back and then revealed it directly at the redhead. That's not a sword, Dudley thought. It's a rifle! A white rifle!

"Would you like to… take a look at it?"

Immediately, an unexplainable force began to force-pull Dudley towards the white rifle in Erlich's hands. Dudley had no intention of getting any closer to the boys at all, but somehow, this pulling force, along with hearing sweet sounds along with it, drew him directly to the rifle.

"M-May I…?"

"Go ahead." Freely, Dudley grasped on the rifle. Once he placed his hands on it, his right pointer finger naturally placed itself on to the silver trigger. And with that, that same controlling force immediately forced Dudley's body to adapt the rifle as if it was his very own and now found himself aiming the rifle at a particular target: a thick trunk of a nearby oak tree where that red-streaked black hawk had been sitting there for a long period of time. Once he spotted the red-streaked black hawk through its riflescope, the hawk shrilled its call voice, spreading its wings temporarily, while still eying towards the redhead.

"What… what's happening…" Dudley muttered, forcing himself to release the rifle from his arms. "I… I can't let go of the rifle…"

What was happening to Dudley at this point made the rest of the boys gasp in so much shock. Seeing that it had been on Erlich's possession before, Dudley already felt that he was already disrespecting and violating the Lunarian aristocrat. On the contrary, to Galen, Erlich, Marlon, and Ferris, Dudley's forced stance with the rifle resting on his right shoulder with his right eye already aiming through its black miniature rifle scope. In short, this mysterious ivory rifle indicated that Dudley is its true owner and no one else.

Just as things were to become extreme, Dudley finally found his own power to let go of the rifle and quickly handed it back to Erlich forcefully. With fearful eyes, he backed away, finding himself shivering. "I… I… I… I'm sorry… I swear it's not me!"

Galen patted him on the shoulder while Erlich simply hushed him. He held on to the rifle and then began to speak. "This is the Starblazer, Dudley. This is a very special rifle that had been carefully crafted by a powerful gunsmith and it possesses unexplained but very intimidating magical powers. It's not really my rifle, I simply am carrying it for safekeeping… is… all…"

"Star… blazer…?" To Dudley and to every single person around Gaia, the rifle that possessed the name of Starblazer was not just another fancy-named rifle, but a legendary rifle that had been mentioned many times through a very well-known legend known as the Phantom Hawkeye. Gaia's legendary gunner hero, the Phantom Hawkeye was said to be the one destined to restore peace by killing the rising sorcerer currently in power and existence by the means of the fabled celestial silver bullets that can only be cased within the Starblazer rifle that needed to be shot twice: once through the head and one through the heart. To make things more complicated, only four celestial silver bullets can be loaded in the rifle, even though the rifle itself may be loaded with standard bullets and other types of bullets. Its powers only allowed the gunner to have two sets of chances with the two targets: twice towards the head, twice towards the heart.

"When you said the name, Starblazer… as in… the legendary Starblazer rifle owned by the legendary Phantom Hawkeye?"

"Well, that would be it, Dudley," Ferris muttered. "But… according to legend, only aristocratic warriors are chosen as the guardians of the Phantom Hawkeye. That is, the Starblazer is most of the time invisible to the general public, but those who are deemed worthy of becoming the guardians of the Phantom Hawkeye are the only ones who are able to see and able to touch the rifle. The Phantom Hawkeye though is the only one who can operate and use the rifle itself."

"It makes no sense at all," Marlon sighed. He then turned his head in different directions to make sure that no one was watching. He then got closer and huddled to a whsiper. "This is the reason why we four became a part of the 277th Crown Regiment. Us four and… him… it's simply because the Starblazer decided to make itself visible to us. Even with his princess, she too can see it through her naked eyes." He then gazed right at Dudley again. "But… but how are you able to see it yourself?"

Galen sighed. "Marlon, there's only one explanation as to why Dudley here is able to see the legendary rifle. Maybe the Starblazer also found Dudley worthy of becoming a Phantom Hawkeye guardian too."

Dudley shook his head. "But I am not a swordsman or a soldier of any kind…"

"That's a possibility, Galen," Erlich added. "There's also another possible reason why the Starblazer decided to make itself visible to Dudley."

"Oh, and what's that?"

Erlich chuckled. "The Starblazer is trying to tell us that Dudley here is another addition worthy in becoming a Phantom Hawkeye guardian… that… or maybe Dudley is the Phantom Hawkeye himself."

"What?" Dudley gasped while all four already had their eyes directly at him. "You've got to be kidding. I'm a nobody, it's impossible!"

Galen sighed along. "Dudley, you do part-time hunting with guns, you know. Believe it or not, even if you see yourself as a humble teacher, you're already a gunner due to your almost daily duty of hunting animals for food."

"I only hunt on occasion," Dudley explained his position. "My Uncle Clyde does most of the hunting. When I'm not teaching or studying I help my sister tend the sheep."

"And your village always have those competitive marksmanship contests also."

"They only happen once a year in June!"

"One way or the other, whether you're hunting for food, hunting for game, or shooting for the sake of competition, you, my friend, are a gunner."

Dudley continued to argue. "But that doesn't explain fully that I'm the Phantom Hawkeye." He backed away once more and then stared at the rifle, in which Erlich placed it back on its case strapped on his back. "Or maybe you guys are playing tricks on me and that rifle I just held isn't really the legendary Starblazer."

"Now you're going a bit overboard there now, Dudley."

"Galen! Any gunner can be the Phantom Hawkeye! What happened earlier just doesn't give explanation that I'm the chosen Phantom Hawkeye… there has to be more than just being able to see the Starblazer right before your eyes while not everyone can."

Erlich then hushed the two in order to break the argument. "Calm down, the two of you." He paused, then turned to Dudley. "You may be right, Dudley. But this doesn't dismiss the fact that you are able to see the Starblazer. There is still a fifty-fifty chance that you may either be the Phantom Hawkeye or a guardian of the Phantom Hawkeye. But for now, let's just assume that you are destined to be a guardian of the Phantom Hawkeye, whoever that may be."

The two Lindblumian lords sighed in relief. "Th-there's just no way Dudley Bly can be the Phantom Hawkeye— I mean throughout history of all the Phantom Hawkeyes for centuries, they were always of the noble class! Dudley is a simple villager," Marlon muttered.

"Although the legend never stated that the Phantom Hawkeye should always be of the noble class," Ferris added. "Maybe it's a fluke. We should meet again tomorrow or the next day, and if Dudley can still see the rifle in the flesh, then we can be very convinced."

Dudley sighed, then gazed right at that same oak tree that the Starblazer was aiming directly at earlier. That red-streaked black hawk was still there, sitting patiently, and as always, gazing at him without any type of reaction. Although he did notice something earlier. When he had the Starblazer aimed towards the trunk of that tree, the black hawk reacted by spreading its wings and made its shrilling call, as if it was trying to announce something to the entire world.

Maybe you have the answer to this, grand hawk? Dudley's voice wondered as he stared at the black hawk for a few moments.

At that point, a few aids who were with the three guests earlier upon arrival at the Eros Council rite came and spoke to the nobles. Erlich nodded and turned to Galen. "He's done with his appointment. We must head back to Gratian now."

Galen nodded. "I understand. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to escort you guys here."

"You're actually coming along, Galen," Marlon chuckled. "He wants to throw a little tea party for your homecoming at his… home."

"Plus, he needs your help in planning a grand event that is to take place in two weeks. He's received word that you're very good with organizing grand events based on the festive events that Luveon City always held," Ferris added.

"Alright then, I better get myself ready." Galen then turned to Dudley, who overheard them, and smiled. "I'm happy to see you here, Dudley, but…"

"You have to go now, I know," Dudley chuckled nervously. "It seems you have become an important figure to him. You should be proud."

"Maybe, but very soon, you will become more important to him than the rest of us four. Just you wait and see."

Dudley shook his head, still grinning. "I don't expect anything life-changing that will occur soon for me!"

Erlich, Ferris, and Marlon bowed at their new friend. "It's good to meet you, Mr. Dudley Bly," Marlon said. "Hopefully we'll see each other again."

"I hope so too, Lords Marlon and Ferris… and Erlich too."

"Bah, we'll hang out one of these days," Galen gave a huge nod. "We'll even invite him and her as well."

Him and her… right.

With that, the boys exchanged their goodbyes, as the four noblemen made their way out, with Dudley waving at them. But before they disappeared from his sight, he called out to them.

"One question to the three of you: Lords Ferris and Marlon and Erlich."

The three visitors turned with curious faces. "Oh?"

"Do any one of you love singing?"

The three young men turned to each other with perplexed faces. Few moments later, Erlich cleared his throat. "I… I do."

"Erlich? Is that so?"

"Yes, Dudley. Why do you ask? Do you have a song to sing for us?"

Dudley chuckled lightly. "Nothing in particular."

"Alright then." With that, the boys waved at each other their goodbyes as the four aristocrats made their way to their next destination.

Moments later, his sister arrived at the waiting area after finishing her rather lengthy one-on-one interview.

"That was so long, Dudley. I'm sorry to keep you waiting. Were you bored?"

The two siblings began heading south of the square to the archway leading to the exit and right at the trail. "Bored? Nope. In fact, I ran in to an unexpected friend moments ago."

Miori's eyes widened in shock. "Ah! Galen Gulliver is here? He's home?"

"I'll tell you more when we get home."

This is actually a rewrite of the first draft of chapter 1, based on the first reviews I received. There are plenty of changes with my initial plot sequence and characters, but hopefully this would have a better beginning than the one I uploaded before this one.

First and foremost, I would like to wish everyone, all fellow writers and readers out there, a very joyful and prosperous New Year! We really did survive the end of the world and are now in the beginning of a brand-new era! Second, I would like to thank all the readers and friends who took the time to read and review STARDUST HOUSE (both the first book and the second book) even though it's very lengthy and I do hope you would be able to read my future stories also, such as this one.

I began writing THE PHANTOM HAWKEYE on its early stages not too long ago. I actually started writing a few samples of the first chapter back in early December. This was in due to my latest re-obsession to playing MMORPGs (re-obsession meaning I *was* a major addict of playing MMORPGs back in the past) and I recently watched the talked-about anime of the year, Sword Art Online. At this point I'm already reading the translated light novel series and already finished the first volume. I decided to write a "light novel" of sorts (Stardust House was originally a light novel attempt but it turned out to be really long...) once again starting with this one.

This story isn't a MMORPG style or anything like that, but the fantasy/sci-fi mix themes, as well as a few concepts from your standard MMORPGs are added in here. In short, this story takes place in an alternate universe where magic and science are blended together. Aside from the adventure theme, there's the usual comedy and romance in here as well. It's my first attempt at this genre, so if you're an expert with this, a good feedback would truly help me fix and improve this.

So, enjoy! Please don't forget to provide me your reviews and comments. Thank you so much!