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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #1592082
Cailean thought he could become Armelle's knight in shining armor.
The stadium crowd applauded while Cailean directed his horse past the finish line. Hawks soared under the cerulean sky as though in celebration. Cailean tugged his reins, and his ride slowed to a halt. Lifting his chin, he stared down at his trailing opponent. A whistle blew as the armored judge declared Cailean’s victory. The defeated jockey exited through the wooden gates, and the spectators clapped. Cailean bathed in glory while his horse huffed from fatigue. The crowd’s cheering made him want to cup his ears, but his pride forbade him for performing such an act. He loved living in this world of Xun, where racing ruled above all else.

When Cailean raked a hand across his black hair, the women in the crowd swooned. They screamed as he cast his black eyes upon them. A teenage girl bounced off her seat and dashed onto the track toward him. The security arrived and dragged her off the arena. Not this again.

Cailean pointed toward the podium stationed above the back row. The crowd followed Cailean’s finger and found their king. A crimson robe draped his shoulders. The crystals on his crown glittered under the afternoon sunlight. Popcorn scraps glued to his grey beard and bulging belly while he ate.

Cailean’s dark armor clanged as he raised a muscular arm into the air. “You looked down on me when I was a homeless child. How do you like me now? I’m the fastest man in the country. Once the princess turns twenty five, you shall hand her over, just like you promised.”

The king threw his popcorn against the marble floor. Cailean wagged a finger, as though reprimanding a child. For years he had strived to make the emperor pay for disrespecting him. He wished this moment would never end.

The king opened his mouth to argue, but a female voice interjected from behind the gates. “You have not beaten everyone yet.”

The gate creaked open, and a horse emerged from the shadows. Cailean recognized the rider’s charming voice. He winced upon meeting her face. “Princess Armelle?”

The women observers frowned at Armelle’s jockey attire. They gasped when she dismounted her horse and planted her boots apart. Cailean spotted dirt all over her costume. He knew no other woman who refused to have their ears pierced. It baffled him why Armelle denied her feminine nature.

The king sprung off his chair, knocking it onto the ground. He commanded his daughter to act less masculine, but Armelle ignored him. Her golden ponytail danced as she steered toward Cailean. “You claim to be the fastest man on these lands. How about racing against a woman?”

The male audience, including Cailean, chuckled at the princess’s joke. Cailean knew Armelle enjoyed riding, but he assumed she raced at a leisurely pace. He dismounted his horse and picked a rose from the garden outside the oval track. After smelling the flower’s scent, he stalked up to the princess and offered it to her.

Armelle slapped the rose off Cailean’s hand. Her emerald eyes ignited with resolve. “You would do well to not treat me like a little girl.” She positioned her horse behind the white line.

As the crowd fell silent, Cailean’s embarrassment boiled into displeasure. He considered riding casually, but Armelle’s attitude made him decide to crush her. With a snort, he climbed onto his ride and moved it beside the princess.

The judge stood between the two horses. He peered toward the king, who sighed at his spoiled child. Cailean grunted, urging the referee to initiate the count down. Armelle’s smug expression maddened him. She needed to learn how professionals differed. The judge performed as Cailean instructed. After counting to zero, he blew his horn skyward.

Cailean and Armelle’s horses hurtled past the official. The force sent him tumbling onto his backside. As Cailean widened the gap, he shook his head. What possessed the princess into such a futile act? He contemplated slowing down again.

Armelle’s yell echoed from behind, interrupting Cailean’s thoughts. Her horse’s hooves grew louder. Cailean wished they raced on a shorter course. His eyes cheated him as he envisioned the track lengthening, granting Armelle the space needed to surpass him. Sweat beaded his brows when Armelle’s horse lined up with his. He whipped his ride, but it failed to accelerate.

Armelle snatched the lead. Cailean lashed his horse again, this time with all his might. The animal shrieked and swerved off course. Cailean pulled the reins, but the beast’s strength proved superior. The horse tripped over its own hooves and crumpled. Cailean rolled along the dirt, staining his armor with filth. His kneepad cracked during the fall. He studied the splintered armor, shuddering at the thought that it could have been his knee. The fear of riding during his beginner days returned to haunt him. After surging onto his backside, he confronted the towering Armelle. The sun glared behind her, making Cailean squint.

Armelle stretched her hand toward Cailean. The females in the crowd chanted their princess’ name. Cailean’s ears flushed, feeling like he had shamed the male population. He gathered to his feet without Armelle’s help. After spitting onto the sand, he stormed off the stadium. Though Armelle said nothing, he sensed her laughing behind his back.

That evening, Cailean loitered in a park outside the castle. Lying sprawled on the hill, he gazed upon the crescent moon. The grass tickled him as he shifted to one side. He listened to the river flowing in the distance. With his armor removed, the breeze penetrated his singlet. His body reeked of sweat. He found no mood to shower, as his wounded pride hurt more than the cuts he obtained from the horse accident.

Cailean wondered why Armelle desired to humiliate him. He recalled his childhood spent in the orphanage. Armelle always visited him, despite the king ordering her to avoid such lowly places. Cailean vowed he would climb to the top for her. Every townsfolk agreed that the two belonged to each other. Convinced of this notion, Cailean never considered Armelle’s feelings until now. Perhaps she didn’t want to marry him? His heart ached when he imagined her wearing another man’s ring.

Cailean heard footsteps advancing from behind him. He veered and found Armelle standing by his side. She donned her jockey outfit. The stench of horse sourced from her. “I hope our race today taught you a lesson."

Cailean gritted his teeth upon seeing her face, so he shut his eyes. “If you don’t want to marry me, you should’ve just said so.”

Armelle tilted her head. “I never suggested such a thing."

Armelle’s voice fed displeasure into Cailean. “If I’m bumped off the mountaintop, your father won’t approve of us.”

He clenched his fists. The bottle containing his anger shattered. “I hate women like you, trying to act all manly.”

Armelle’s eyes darted between Cailean and her boots. Then, tears swelled her eyelids, and she sank to her knees. “Why must you all force me to behave like a princess?”

Armelle’s tears vanquished Cailean’s wrath. He sat up and rested a hand over her shoulder. ”I didn’t mean what I said. You know I don’t hate you.” Seeing Armelle cry pained Cailean more than losing.

Armelle brushed his hand off. “Sometimes I wished I was born a man. Is it a sin for a woman to love riding?”

When Cailean met Armelle’s glittering eyes, he recognized he lost to her passion. Guilt consumed him when he reviewed his mentality. He trampled the racers he defeated, and begrudged those who outmatched him. So much for playing the role of Armelle's knight in shining armor.

“Whenever I dress up, you all treat me like an object.” Armelle snuggled against Cailean. “The winner scores the princess. I’m sick of being a prize.”

"I just want you to be natural.” Cailean apologized for viewing Armelle as a medal of success. He wrapped an arm around her. "What was I thinking? Nothing is worth the price of our bond.”

Armelle blinked when Cailean kissed her forehead. Blood suffused the princess’ cheeks. "How could I have forgotten myself?" She chewed her lower lip and closed her eyes.

Cailean untangled some brown substance from Armelle’s head. “You’ve got horse dung in your hair.”

“Way to ruin it.” Armelle pouted, but a smile played across her lips.

Cailean drew his face toward Armelle’s again. Under the moonlight, the lovers traded a kiss.

“Let’s have another race tomorrow.” Cailean stroked his fingers through Armelle’s locks.

Armelle raised her brows. “Is that a challenge?”

Cailean shrugged. “Think of it like a date.”

With a giggle, Armelle said she shall meet him on the track at sunrise.

The following morning, Cailean returned to the stadium with his horse by his side. He caressed the animal’s fur and apologized about yesterday.

Cailean surveyed the empty seats around him. The deserted arena paralleled his purged mind. Sunlight reflected off his silver chain mail. He hoped to employ his newfound mentality into this race.

The stadium’s gate squeaked open, earning Cailean’s attention. Armelle stepped onto the tracks, towing her horse next to her. Jewelleries decorated her white dress. As she untied her ponytail, her hair collapsed across her shoulders. Birds chirped while they circled overhead. Armelle’s presence robbed Cailean of his breath. Now he understood how his fan girls felt toward him.

Cailean swept a rose from the vegetation underfoot. He presented the flower to Armelle. She accepted the rose, smiling as the rose’s scent graced her nostrils. Her fragrance matched the plant’s aroma. “I will not lose to a man.” Habit kicked in, and she stood with her dance slippers apart. Good old Armelle.

Cailean and Armelle mounted their rides. The horses took off at the same time, as though their riders read each other’s minds. Armelle matched Cailean’s pace, but he focused on the track ahead, racing with himself. As the rushing wind soothed him, he wished the track would stretch on forever.

Side by side, the couple galloped toward the finish line.

Word count: 1669
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