Prince Shoma received his first pair of skates the day he turned three. The rink was his favorite place in the palace and since he started to walk, his parents were sure to find him here, day dreaming while watching his cousin Lady Mao dancing on the ice. That day, he was trying to fit in his father’s skates, eager to imitate his cousin. He would have fallen head first on the royal rink if not for his father catching him just in time. The king put him down on the little bench near the rink’s entrance, affectionately tousled Shoma’s hair and presented him with a small box painted in the rich blue of the Uno family: “Here, try these ones, they should work better for you.”
The box contained the smallest pair of skates Shoma had ever seen, and they suited him perfectly. He was beaming with joy as he rushed to the rink.
As the little princeling took his first tentative steps on the ice, his mother the queen scolded her husband:
“A pair of skates, darling? He is a prince!”
King Uno only laughed at that : “So what if he is a prince? He is just a little boy who wants to have fun! It is the most popular sport in the country, even if he can never compete as a prince, he ought to know a little bit about it.”
“But he is so little for his age, and so frail! What if he hurts himself?”
“It can only toughen him up and improve his health. Look, he is a natural! And I’ve asked Mao to keep an eye on him.”
And indeed, prince Shoma was already gliding to the center of the rink, trying to imitate his cousin’s Mao spins. His mother sighed in defeat, her hands tense against her pregnant belly.
That was, to this day, the best birthday of Shoma’s life.
Fifteen years later
Shoma was running late. Once again he had overslept and his mother was going to kill him for missing the official breakfast, especially since there were envoys from the three leading clans of the country. He so wished he could lead a carefree life like his little brother Itsuki! Sadly, he was the crown prince, the heir, the example. He had duties, responsibilities, expectations. His whole life was planned out, preparing for the day he would become his father. His mother was in charge of his education, and boy, she was not joking about it. Every single day was packed with an overwhelmingly long list of compulsory lessons about the land, its people, governing, accounting, war strategy, riding, fencing, archery, and so on…
The only precious time of freedom in his days were the late night hours after dinner, when his mother thought he was sleeping and escaped to the ice rink. Figure skating was his hobby since forever, and he was fairly good at it. At least much better than at all the other king-to-be classes he was attending. According to his cousin Mao, and his best friends Kaori and Keiji, the only persons who knew about his secret night escapades, all three of them figure skating stars who had won a number of international competitions, he could even be an elite skater, if he had not been born a prince. So really, who could blame him for skating until his legs ached and getting to bed a little too late and finding it mighty hard to wake up at dawn to attend a boring breakfast? Plus, today was his birthday, he should be entitled to some freedom on his special day… his mother’s stupid breakfast be damned.
Speaking of the devil, it was just his luck to stumble into his mother as he grabbed a pastry from the kitchen (a man had to get some food, especially after the harsh training he went through last night)
“Shoma, where were you? You were supposed to entertain our guests this morning! And for god’s sake, how many times do I have to remind you to brush your hair? You are a prince, not a bird’s nest! And your lips? I had this lip balm prepared just for you, and they are as dry as ever! Shoma, you are 18 today, you are not a child anymore! At this rate you will never be ready to take over the crown!”
And happy birthday my darling, Shoma thought bitterly. It was not like he asked to be crown prince. It was not like it made him happy to be this huge disappointment in his mother’s eyes. And so what if his hair and his lips were a mess? He really did not have time to spare for such trivial matters. He knew she was worried and that the media were not finding his aloofness as endearing anymore, now that he was turning from a boy to a man. He knew his people were not ready to accept him as their king, and really who could blame them? All he ever wanted was to skate. But none of that mattered to his mother and there was no use angering her more than she already was so he just took the most contrite tone he could and said: “I am sorry, mother”
And so he went on with his “special day”, falling asleep through his history lesson (knowing the names of each clan today, he did not see the point learning the names of the clans from 1000 years ago, thank you very much), getting caught doodling instead of completing his mathematics lesson (who needs integrals to run a country anyway?), watching enviously Itsuki chatting with his friends (because Itsuki had actual time to make friends) while aiming what felt like the 500th arrow of the day at a stupid target (not that he was really bad at archery, it just bulked up his arms, which destabilized his skating, especially his jumps), and butchering the words of the common tongue (he had no intention to leave Japan ever, so why bother?). A very normal Shoma day in the grand scheme of things. Until dinner came.
For once, it was a peaceful dinner. Just his mother, his father and Itsuki. Apparently the envoys, whatever they came here to do, had gone back to their clan’s lands. Good riddance. He could do with a little respite from politics. He was ravenous. He grabbed the first piece of meat he could find, took a huge bite out of it, savoring the taste of his favorite meal (beef!)… until mommy dearest interrupted him:
“Shoma, a prince must be courteous and wait for everyone to be served before starting to eat.”
Shoma sighed, putting down his fork and knife.
“And you will take some vegetables tonight. A prince has to set a healthy example.” Clearly, she had not forgiven him for skipping breakfast.
“But mother, it’s only the four of us tonight… and I hate veggies… and it’s my birthday”, Shoma said, using his castle famous puppy eyes technique. No one could resist the puppy eyes.
“Exactly, it’s your birthday. You’re 18, you’re not a child anymore, I won’t tolerate anymore tantrums!” Correction, apparently his mother had developed a new found immunity to the puppy eyes. He was so doomed. He shared a look with Itsuki, who gave him a sorry smile while chewing his own piece of beef (the unfairness!)
As they were getting to dessert, in the shape of a beautiful strawberry cake, with an elegant 18 written in chocolate icing, a servant came to the room, bearing a platter with three letters. Her mother started reading them and Shoma took the opportunity to take a second serving of cake (he would have to train extra hard on the rink to compensate but he really needed the emotional support). His mother turned to his father: “Darling they all accepted!” She looked suspiciously happy.
“Who’s accepted what, mother?”, Shoma asked.
“Itsuki, you are excused.” This did not sound good.
“What did I do now?” Shoma was starting to get worried.
“Your father has something to discuss with you” This did not sound good at all.
His father choked on his drink
“So, Shoma...” He had a big fake smile on his face and it really started to worry Shoma that something was extremely wrong.
His mother sighed: “The lords are presenting their sons as suitors for your betrothal!” She looked ecstatic.
“What?” Shoma could not believe his ears.
“The clans have accepted!”
“Dad?” Surely his father would not approve of it?
“What? Uh… She! Darling?” How could he be foolish enough to think his father would have any kind of authority over his mother?
“Honestly Shoma, I don’t know why you’re reacting this way. This year, each clan will present a suitor to compete in the games for your hand!”
Shoma was fuming: “I suppose a prince just does what he’s told!”
“A prince does not raise his voice! The clans of the cricket, of the eagle and of the duck are very prestigious households. Their sons are very accomplished young men. It is a great honor that they all accepted. Shoma, this is what you’ve been preparing for your whole life!”
“No! This is what you’ve been preparing me for my whole life! I won’t go through with it! You can’t make me!”
Shoma ran out of the room. All the way to the ice rink, he ran, barely holding the tears in his eyes. He put his pair of skates, and started skating, failing to land jump after jump after jump until he fell exhausted on the cold ice, his back soaking in the cooling sensation. How he wished to stay here forever, to never see his mother again, and to never meet his brand new suitors! How he wished he could exchange his life with Keiji’s, or even Itsuki’s!
He laid on the ice until Kaori, Mao and Keiji came around him and yelled “Surprise!”. He opened his eyes to a beautiful chocolate cake. He rose to join them outside the rink (no state of despair was enough to turn down a chocolate cake!). They even prepared a gift. As he opened the box to a pair of brand new skates, Mao was explaining: “Your skates were getting old, and these ones are the best of the best. I had them tweaked a bit and I am pretty sure you will be able to land a quad flip with them. That would make you the first ever to land one! Pretty cool, no?” And that was it, that was the moment Shoma could not help but burst into tears. He cried and cried as he told his friend about the big news. Sadly, no amount of chocolate cake or hugging could make the suitors go away.
That was, without a doubt, the worst birthday of Shoma’s life.