Kouren squinted as the bright setting sun peeked out from the orange and purple clouds. Her ears rang with the sound of her heartbeat, thumping rigorously and tirelessly. Every breath she took caused her chest to ache, but she couldn’t call an end to this just yet. Feeling the burn in her arms and the aching of her shoulders, she stood tall and took steady breaths. It was the evening before her 24th birthday, so the following day would be filled with pointless chatter and carefree merriment. Twice the amount of training to make up for it was necessary.
The dark-haired, scarred man standing before her stood calm, resting his hands on top of the hilt of his sword, which stood pierced into the ground. She could guess that Neguro’s long years of training and service allowed him the fortune of being able to go at this with her for hours on end. It was most useful. He was the perfect sparring partner. With a grin, she picked her sword back up after a moment’s rest and pointed it at him.
“This will be the last spar. Are you ready?”
He nodded and grabbed his sword, swinging it as he got ready to block her blade. With a lunge, they clashed.
She pulled back and slashed, grunting as she was blocked again. She shouted as she swung her body and aimed for his right side.
He parried the blow and then went on the offensive. He thrust straight on, aiming for her gut. She gasped and was quick and hit his blade. It rang in his grip and left him teetering on his feet, but he was quick to recover his footing.
As she thrust forward, he shifted his body to the left, evading the attack. Swiftly dodging another thrust, he bent his knees, and within close range, he lunged upward.
They locked eyes and stood not near motionless as they both breathed, Kouren’s heavy and Neguro’s light. Kouren had wedged her blade between the both of them with that last upward lunge he made and both blades were locked tight.
“You’re shaking,” Neguro said.
“I’m just tired.”
“The sun is about to set,” Neguro commented as he swiftly slid sideways, retracting his sword.
Kouren loosened the grip on the hilt of her sword and pierced the blade into the ground. She hunched over and coughed with almost every breath she took. As far as she was concerned, this counted as Neguro’s victory even though he retracted. He was sweating, but he remained composed and surely would have taken up the offensive with ease if she attacked again.
She fell backward onto her back, causing him to hurry to her side. “Your Highness, are you all right?” he asked worriedly.
Her coughs had subsided and she was allowed to let out a small laugh. She looked up at him and gave him a thumbs up. “I’ll live.”
She held out her hand. Without exchanging a word, Neguro grabbed it and helped her to her feet. She stretched and grabbed her sword. She sheathed it and carried it as they both walked off the training grounds.
“How long will it take for me to have the stamina you have?” Kouren said after a long sigh.
“Train like that for the next few months and you’ll probably have it,” he answered.
She clicked her tongue and curled her fist into a ball. She made a mental note to be diligent in her training.
“Just,” he interrupted, “just don’t overdo it. Straining your body may do the opposite of what you want to achieve.”
With the night air settling in, she could feel the sweat sticking to her skin. Such a trivial thing wouldn’t have bothered her normally, but since she trained twice as long on such a blistering hot day, the feeling was unbearable.
“Neguro,” she began, “I’m taking a bath. Would you care to join me?”
He stayed silent for a moment, looking as if he was thinking about it. Nodding after contemplating it, he swept her off her feet and began whistling.
“I can walk on my own,” she said as she pouted.
“Her Highness is sore and has ordered me to help her get to the baths.” He was monotone all the way through the statement, but his face and ears turned more and more red.
She sighed and folded her arms. “Whatever you say.”