Lionel let out a hearty laugh that resonated throughout the restaurant. Darius didn’t respond, simply wearing the same grim expression he had maintained throughout their entire conversation.
“Well, I’ve been waiting to hear you say that all day.” The Prince chuckled.
Darius, however, wasn’t in the mood to talk. The only thing left in his mind was to get all of this over with.
After some time, Lionel constrained his happiness as his, almost involuntary, laughter subsided, save the occasional chuckle.
The prince himself was a very happy-go-lucky kind of guy. His life of wealth and privilege had made him cheerfully carefree, resulting in his irresponsible and often brash demeanor.
Although he was third-in-line, which meant him becoming Emperor was quite plausible, he felt his two older brothers had it handled, so much so that Lionel didn’t actually want to become the Emperor because of all the actual work and energy he would be forced to put in, meaning he would relinquish his carefree life, which, to him, was not an option. He shuddered at the very thought.
Darius had decided he would have to accept Lionel’s happy attitude. After all, he would soon have problems much bigger than that if the test were as dangerous as Lionel had made it out to be.
An awkward silence permeated the booth as the two men quietly sat there. At least, that was how Darius felt about it. Lionel was clearly lost in his own thoughts while still eerily beaming at Darius. Lionel never felt awkward, uncomfortable, or out-of-place excepting a few instances such as when his father would ask for his input on matters of the kingdom. It was clear that these were tests to gauge his leadership capabilities, and each time, intentionally or not, Lionel failed miserably.
It wasn’t because Lionel was incompetent or a bad leader, although that’s what everyone was beginning to think. In truth, Lionel was quite intelligent and capable, which was how he had found the test’s loophole in the first place. Lionel only failed those tests because he had wanted to look unfit to be Emperor. This way, no one would ever consider him for the role. Lionel could easily take the job and succeed, but he was just too lazy to do so.
‘Who in their right minds would give up my life for a fancy title and endless problems and responsibilities?’ he had always thought.
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the noble examination was one that even he couldn’t avoid.
“So, when do we get started?”
Darius’s voice jolted him back to reality. Darius had been sitting quietly up until now, examining Lionel and contemplating his own thoughts.
“Well, I need to give you my qualifications.” Lionel extracted a card from the inner pocket of his blazer and handed it to Darius.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Darius asked as he examined the blank piece of paper Lionel had handed him.
“You’ll see.”The Prince replied as the card lit up in Darius’ hands, a capital ‘N’ appearing in gold on the card.
“Identification required.” A female voice emerged from the card. Darius glanced at Lionel, unsure what he should do since it wasn’t his card.
“It’s fine. Just say your name.” Lionel whispered as if trying to not be heard by it. His eyes never leaving Darius as he picked up a glass filled with purple liquid off the table and sipped it through a straw. Surprise flashes across his face as if whatever the drink was had been better than he had expected.
“Identification required.” The card repeated. Darius hesitated, watching it, before taking a deep breath and saying, “Darius Omen.”
Darius looked back up at Lionel, who had been drinking the purple liquid so intently that he had almost forgotten Darius. Lionel was surprised to find Darius’s gaze fixed on him when the Prince finally remembered to check the proceedings.
“Oh, yes, err, uhm… it’s a royal substitute or something like that.” He whispered nonchalantly before focusing back on his drink, this time keeping his eyes on Darius and offering a thumbs up.
Darius raised an eyebrow before turning his attention back to the card.
“Please hold the card in front of your eyes.”
Darius held the card up, and two circles replaced the golden ‘N,’ each moving in sync with Darius’s irises. The card flashed green and reverted to white as the golden nobility icon reformed.
“Identify royal member.”
“Royal identification required.”
“Give it to me,” Lionel said as he gestured with his hand for Darius to hand him back the card.
“Lionel Farline.” he said quickly, eager to return to his drink.
“Verification failed. Please identify.”
Lionel sighed in annoyance and repeated, “Lionel, Farline.”
“Verification failed. Please identify.”
Lionel ran out of patience now, “Lionel Farline!”
“Verification failed. Please identify.”
“It’s me, you idiot, Lionel Farline!”
“Verification successful. Please hold the card in front of your eyes.”
Lionel snorted as he held the card a few centimeters from his eyes. Once again, the golden ‘N’ disappeared, transforming to two circles in its place. The light flashed green, and the ‘N’ returned.
“Retinal scan successful. Good evening, Prince Lionel.”
Lionel completely ignored it as he thrust the card back into Darius’s hands.
“Darius Omen, you will be temporarily granted the rank of Baron, royal substitute status. Your training will commence at ten AM tomorrow. Good luck and try to be the hunter, not the hunted.” The card retorted before going blank.
The look on Darius’s face contorted into pure terror as he looked up at Lionel.
“Lionel, what did it mean by ‘hunted’?” A chill ran down Darius’s spine at the very word. He could feel the fear creeping deep within him.
Lionel heard Darius’ question but pretended that he hadn’t, trying not to reply.
“Lionel, what did the card mean by ‘try to be the hunter, not the hunted’?” Darius became uncharacteristically stern as he questioned.
“You know, people get exiled for simply using my first name.” Lionel retorted part of him annoyed by Darius’s blatant lack of respect and the other part trying to evade the question.
“I don’t care if you exile me. Just tell me what I’ve gotten myself into!”
Lionel sighed as he set his drink down on the table, “Well, if you really must know, there have been rumors…”
“What rumors?” Darius asked as he leaned forward, intent on hearing what Lionel would say.
“Look, Darius. These rumors are from some really shady sources; you don’t really wanna know…”
“Damnit! Lionel, just tell me!” Darius half-shouted, staring Lionel in the eyes.
So rude. It’s as if he’s actively trying to get me to kill him. Although, he’s of no use to me dead, and then all this would’ve been for nothing. Damn this stupid test! Lionel thought as he glared at Darius.
“The rumors are” Lionel took a deep breath before forcing out his words as fast as he could, “That they’re going to stuff you in an arena with a bunch of spirits.”
“What?!?” Darius was immediately gripped with fear at the word ‘spirit’.
“Don’t worry about it; they’re just rumors. It’s probably not even true.”
Lionel was lying through his teeth, and Darius could tell.
“Tell me the truth, Lionel. Is that what the test really is?” Darius was desperate for a straight answer.
Noticing Darius’s fear, Lionel decided to tell Darius the whole truth. “Yeah, that’s what the test really is. My brother Erik told me.”
“So last night when you said that even you didn’t know what the test was…”
“I was honest; I only found out today. My family has no idea that I’m going to use a substitute, so they all came today to watch me take the test. I can’t wait to see the look on Father’s face when he finds out. You have no idea how lucky I was to find someone to use like you, haha.” Lionel scoffed as he took another sip of the purple liquid.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Darius muttered. “I’m not going to do this! I can’t do this! Lionel get me out of this!” He begged.
Lionel, who couldn’t care less about Darius’s state of mind, simply said, “It’s already done, Darius. There’s nothing I can do about it, and if you run, they’ll just send you there anyway. Since there’s nothing you can do about it either way, why don’t you just calm down and have a drink?”