Black Forest

A/N: My entry for the Writing Challenge Contest this December on the Review Game forum. Word Count: 1994.

If there was anything she was completely convinced of, it was the fact that the Academy's war prince Rhys Ilmarinen was capable of disarming her without a weapon. He just had to stare at her with his keen blue eyes, and Solar would feel as if her legs had been deboned. Rhys was undoubtedly good-looking - in the simplest sense of the word, largely thanks to his razor-like gaze and jawline. He was currently in a clearing in the middle of a small field beside the Academy, practising his wrestling skills on a poor scarecrow, and he was wearing nothing but a black robe with shorts underneath. The robe meant that he was a member of the Academy Guard, a highly-skilled group of students who were training to be fighters and soldiers of the State, but the fact that he was in that specific getup in an unlikely location doing an unlikely thing was what caught Solar's attention in the first place. She often passed by the field on her way home from the Academy, but this was the first time she had encountered a scene like this.

Solar was no fool, though, to believe that the fine impression his looks gave would always last.

Such was the impending dilemma a girl had when she thought of the man to whom she was betrothed. The members of the State Council had yet to announce their betrothal publicly, and she herself would have never guessed the condition she would find herself in had she not chanced upon the State Council's documents on her father's desk on one sunny (and lonely) afternoon. It was customary for the State to search and choose amongst the new adults every eighteen years a talented young man and a woman who would be trained for public service until they were ripe enough to lead the State. When those in Solar's age understood that the eighteen year mark would coincide with their batch, a lot of them started to become competitive, and they strived to earn good marks in the Academy, participating actively in classes, undergoing physical training of some sort, and even volunteering at community events. The State Council kept a close eye on each student, which Solar was usually awed by considering their unwavering dedication to each generation, so the boys and girls knew what would come their way if they gave the right kind and amount of effort in that year.

This was why Solar was perplexed as to why the State Council had picked her. Although she was doing well enough in the Academy, focusing mainly on social research as her field of interest, and volunteering regularly at the main orphanage called Charity Forest, she did not stand out as much as the other girls her age did, girls who had scored perfect marks in exams (whether in arithmetic or literature or in the sciences), girls who had volunteered to arrange State parties during certain holidays, and girls who participated weekly in the public debates at the Citadel Square.

Her biggest worry was that her father's position somehow influenced the decision of the State Council. In his time, he had been the selected along with her mother to be the next 'public service trainees' (a humbler euphemism for 'future King and Queen'), but they had unfortunately been involved in a scandal when her mother was found pregnant (with her) a couple of months later despite only having been betrothed for a few weeks. Such acts deserved public humiliation, and therefore, both of them were demoted from their status as the future leaders of the State, and were physically separated from each other at that time. They had to continue their schooling, watched closely by all teachers, and after their graduation, they found themselves at the bottom of the public service ladder. Solar was sent to the orphanage and was raised there, visited everyday (but not at the same time) by her parents until they had gained stable jobs in public service and was pardoned by the Council after a decade. They had married officially, took a ten year-old Solar into their new home, and lived as a family ever since. Her father sought to regain some semblance to his former status by contributing radical project proposals to the economic and military divisions of the State and by overseeing them with great care until he was eventually inducted into the Council. (Her mother had no such ambition and served to take care of not just Solar, but her two very young sisters who came after her.)

"Did he manipulate the Council into picking me as future Queen?" she thought loudly to herself, rooted to the spot. And what a fear it produced within her when she thought of it that way! For her father had always been kind to her and her two younger sisters, never pressuring them to aim for perfection but taught them to accept responsibility whenever it was given them. Had she misunderstood her father's character all these years? O, she hoped not!

"Who manipulated the Council into picking you as future Queen?" asked Rhys all of a sudden, his voice out of breath as if he had just exerted a lot of strength. Stunned, Solar met his eyes – he was a couple of steps away, the scarecrow flat at his feet – and remembered that this entire time she had been watching him wrestle the scarecrow on her way home.

"Oh, er, I don't understand what- hm, sorry for bothering you," she replied lamely, waving her hand as if to dismiss him. But to her dismay, he pushed back his sweaty hair from his face and began to approach her, tightening the robe around his body as he walked over to her.

"You can't fool me. You were watching me the entire time, looking as if you either wanted to run over to me, or run away from me but couldn't. Am I your future king or what?"

"Ha ha, how astute of you-" she started with a roll of her eyes, but he cut her across.

"You kept muttering that you've been chosen as future Queen, so now you're hoping I'm gonna be your partner and that's why you hunted me down," he replied with one eyebrow raised, as if scrutinising her. She didn't like how self-assertive he was, and his stance just made her blood boil in ways more than one.

"You're insane!" she scoffed at him and took a step back as she could feel the embarrassment creeping up her neck. He looked good in this post-wrestle form, flushed and giving off heat. But she didn't allow her thoughts to go there any further.

"I'd think I was insane, too, if I had suggested that a girl like you become the future Queen of this mighty State."

"Look, I was just passing by here, like I normally do, to get home," said Solar, hoping that her sentence would veer him off track, "So, whatever you think about whatever I said, just keep it to yourself. I don't have to deal with your nonsense."

With that, she turned away from him and briskly walked ahead, when –

"You've got a period stain on your skirt, Sunspot!"

Caught off guard, she quickly craned her neck to check her beige gala skirt and saw nothing. Her ears had turned red in shame, and she heard Rhys snigger in victory. She felt stupid for reacting so speedily at his remark when she knew that her period had just finished last week, and that she had recently completed the ceremonial cleansing ritual for it.

"You really shouldn't make fun of girls that way, you bozo," she shook her fist at him, and he laughed even louder at her action.

"Y-you look like a- a- batty old l-lady when you d-d-do that!" he insulted her, sniggering in between.

Solar couldn't take him anymore. She picked a tiny pebble from the ground and threw it at him while he laughed, and it hit him squarely in the forehead. He yelped in pain and looked at her with the most piercing look she had ever seen on his face.

"Didn't your father ever teach you when you were a kid not to pick a fight with someone you can't handle?" he said this as he balled his fists in irritation.

"Didn't your father ever teach you when you were a kid as to how you should treat girls properly?" she retorted.

He didn't reply; he just kept looking at her with his sharp blue eyes, and she decided that their conversation was a complete waste of her time, energy, and feelings. She turned away from him more resolutely this time and tried to calm down by breathing in and out, her fists clenched at her sides, his first insult still ringing in her ears.

"I'd think I was insane, too, if I had suggested that a girl like you become the future Queen of this mighty State."

It had really angered her how much he had looked down on her and expressed it so naturally. Solar knew she was a simple lady with unordinary aspirations in life (one of which was to make sure all of the kids from the Charity Forest would end up in a new home, a new family), but it wasn't as if she were dumb or completely undeserving of the title. It irked her even more that his opinion bothered her so, that his taunting could still affect her after all these years. It brought back to memory one of the worst insults he had given her.

"What kind of a stupid name is Solar?" an eight year old boy muttered as he got introduced to each kid he was going to live with at the orphanage. Solar had proudly introduced herself to him as she had always done so when she met a new kid for the first time, and she could remember the condescending look he had when she happily came up to him, with his platinum blond hair gelled and parted slightly in the middle and his icy blue eyes looking down on her as she said her name, his crisp white polo shirt buttoned up to his neck.

"B-but my p-parents chose that n-name…" her voice trembled at his offensive words. She loved her name; her parents said they named her that way because of her gold hair and gold eyes.

"If you've got parents, why are you even here?" he expressed bitterly, shoving her aside.

Solar was to be stuck with Rhys Ilmarinen for two whole years before her parents had her withdrawn from the orphanage. Luckily enough, he was not always outwardly mean as a child; he simply chose to sulk on his own for a great duration of his stay. It was during play time that his rough, competitive side would emerge, and he would bully other kids so that he could win at whatever game they were playing. Solar was always one of those who would stand up for the victims, but he would just brush her off and cease his antics when the workers approached.

By the time they entered the Academy at the age of thirteen, no attempt at civility was made on his part whenever they encountered each other, and her attempts would dissolve at his provocation, just like what had happened a while ago.

"Puberty may have done him well in terms of looks, but it didn't do squat in terms of mental maturity," she huffed, hoping to relieve herself of her anger. She reached for the golden chain around her neck and glanced inside her pocket watch, a gift from her parents when she turned eighteen, but it only reminded her of the looming catastrophe she would face once the betrothal was announced.

How could she move on from her past with Rhys if, in the future, he would still remain her nightmare?

A/N: How was it? Is it something worth continuing? Is the idea of an arranged marriage as a theme of the story interesting? Let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks xx