Chapter 1: A Game
Breathing heavily, Arain ducked as another group of his pursuers ran past him. His hiding place had been secure so far but he wasn't going to trust to it remaining undetected for the rest of the day. As he waited, Arain thought back to how he'd gotten forced into this in the first place.
"No. Absolutely not! I'm not doing it and you can't make me!" Arain said, crossing his arms over his chest. Every inch of his posture spoke of defiance and stubbornness.
"You will do it. If you don't certain lessons I was reluctant to allow you to start will be cancelled. And you will be barred from working in all healing facilities."
"You wouldn't." Arain whispered, shocked. He couldn't believe his father would go that far.
"I would and can. My word is law. You've wasted enough of your life gallivanting about playing at magic when you should have been in weapon's class. It is time for you to grow up, either by dropping those ridiculous magic lessons or by choosing a bride. It's your decision."
Arain glared at his father. "Fine. I'll do it."
Smirking his triumph, his father continued. "However since this will only last from sunrise to sundown if you manage to elude all the contestants until then you'll be allowed to remain single for as long as you want."
The young man opened his mouth to protest and then shut it. His father knew damn well he could only maintain spells to cloak himself for a few hours. Obviously he was counting on Arain's magic to run out before the sun set. "When will it start?"
"Tomorrow. Everything's already set. It will be held in the old ruins. You can go anywhere within its bounds as can the contestants. First person to touch you wins. It starts at sunrise so you'll need to be in position before then."
"Then I'm going to go get ready." Arain said, bowing once to his father before marching straight-backed from the room.
Down through the brown stone hallways he strode, heading for his rooms. Once he'd reached that haven, he barricaded himself in his room, flung himself onto the bed and began sulking. He'd known from the beginning something was up about his being single what with every eligible female in the surrounding lands seeming to be in the city not to mention the looks he'd been getting from the female courtiers, but he hadn't thought his father would set something like this up.
He knew why his father was doing it. Arain didn't fit the prince mould very well. He was neither tall nor muscular, instead of having raven black or golden yellow locks his hair was a plain brown. Instead of having soulful blue or even brilliant green orbs he had eyes that matched his hair. He didn't like fighting, drinking or courting ladies. He was learning magic, a strictly female occupation, and loved to dance and sing. He had no interest in tournaments or competitions save those of dance or song. In short, he was his parents' disappointment. What made things worse was that his parents' couldn't have another child to take his place. They were stuck with him.
Sighing, Arain rolled over onto his back to stare up at his ceiling. Sometimes he wished he could be different, be like his parents wanted him to be. Other times he was angry at them for not letting him do what he wanted. Not that it mattered now. He was going to end up with some girl he'd never met before in his life for a wife and if he was lucky she'd be an idiot or completely submissive. If he was unlucky she'd either be controlling or ambitious.
Arain really only had one option. Hide out in the ruins until a nice-looking girl was near enough and let her catch him. If he didn't, one of the scary ones would get him and his life would become an even greater trial then it was now.
Getting up slowly, he began to pack up things he'd need. His water skin, his cloak, his spell books, his magic supplies and his flute. He didn't think he'd need it but if his father found it, he'd melt it down. Lastly, Arain pulled out his most comfortable clothing. A set of dark gray riding leathers with matching boots. They'd blend nicely with the aged stone of the ruins. The less magic he had to use, the more of a chance he had to be able to last the whole day. Finished, Arain went to bed. He was going to have to get up very early the next morning.
The prince snorted at his former idiocy and then froze as another group of girls passed by. Too close this time. Arain quickly whispered the cloaking spell before slowly slipping out of the shadowed recess he'd been using as a hiding place since the game had began. Knowing that some of the girls had to be mages, Arain kept to the shadows allowing the spell and his own natural stealth to help him sneak into one of the other hiding places he'd scoped out after first being dropped here, two hours before sunrise.
This hiding place was on the roof of one of the old houses. It had a little alcove in the chimney where a hot-weather oven would have been. It was a tight squeeze but it was a great hiding place. With his grey leathers covering most of his body and with the powdering he'd given his hair and exposed skin, Arain would blend right into the rock. He settled himself in for a long wait. From where he was sitting he could see the sun. Much to his dismay, Arain realized it wasn't even noon yet. He had more then half the day to go still. Repressing a groan, he gazed out and noticed a few of the girls using the few intact roofs as vantage points.
I hope none of them come up here, he thought. Especially a mage. As if the thought had summoned it, Arain heard a slight scuff of leather against stone and recognized the sound of a footstep. A very stealthy, trying to hide themselves, kind of footstep.
Arain was frozen with indecision. Should he run away or hope they didn't notice. Should he risk using a cloaking spell in the hope they weren't a mage or did he try some other way to escape. These thoughts chased one another round and round his head until he gave himself a headache.
When the person finally came into view, Arain couldn't help but relax slightly. It wasn't a girl at all! It was a man. He was wearing well used leather armour, a scuffed brown cloak and had a sword in a plain sheath at his side. The way he moved screamed professional fighter and given where he was, Arain concluded he was another travelling mercenary who'd heard the fanciful tales of there being buried treasure here.
The man's sharp grey eyes flitted about. He'd noticed the girls scoping out the landscape as well as a few groups running around below.
"So you going to tell me what's going on, or just keep pretending you're not there." He said without turning around. Arain was in shock. He hadn't thought the man had seen him.
"I'm trying to hide." Arain said softly, trying to move as little as possible.
The stranger turned around and with a casual air, flung himself down beside Arain's hiding place. "I noticed." He replied, lips barely moving. "So what's going on? All these girls can't be here treasure hunting."
"There's no treasure here. That's just a myth. There're here to win the contest."
"A contest hmm? What kind of contest?"
"The contest is to see who can find me first. It's why I'm hiding."
"So like a great big game of hide-and-seek, huh?"
"Yes. Except only one hider and lots of seekers." Arain replied, watching the stranger out of the corners of his eyes. He had very aquiline face. Never once during their conversation did his eyes stop moving. They were half-closed but were tracking every kind of movement within the area.
The stranger stretched out as if he was going to settle in for a nap while flashing Arain a grin. "Must be tough having hundreds of pretty young ladies chasing you about. I'm Mion Pakaul, by the way. A travelling merc."
Arain resisted the urge to smile back. He'd ruin his hiding place if he did. "I'm Arain. And I'm…" he began to reply when he heard the sound of several different people's running footsteps.
Several girls appeared at the top of the stairs and ran towards Mion. The man took a step back, effectively shielding Arain from view. The girls flew at Mion, all their hands stretched forward to touch him. When they'd all tagged him repeatedly and nothing had happened, one of the girls whined. "You're not Arain!"
"No. I'm Mion. I'm a travelling hire-sword. Now as much fun as having a group of toothsome ladies pounce me and try to feel me up, I'm under the impression it wasn't my stunning good looks that drove you to do this." The man said, grinning broadly.
"Have you seen a young man around here? He has brown hair and eyes, is short and skinny and we can't find him!" Another of the girls piped up.
Arain was worried. A stray breeze had blown some of the powder on his face up into his nose. His nose had begun to itch horribly.
Mion shook his head. "Nope. Haven't seen anyone matching that description."
The itch turned into something else and Arain was horrified to realize he was about to sneeze. He struggled to keep from doing it, knowing it'd damn him.
The girls collectively sighed and turned around to head back down the stairs. The foremost girl had just put her foot on the first step when Arain lost control and sneezed, sending powder flying all about him.
As one, the group of females whirled about and stared as Arain lunged out of the hole and spun about to look for a new hiding place.
"He's here!" One of the girls screeched as they ran towards him.
"I'll help you up." Mion told Arain gesturing to the upper roof, unreachable save with the aid of someone else. "You'll be safe up there for a little while."
Arain shook his head as he backed up a step. "I can't." He said.
"Nonsense. I'll help you." Before Arain could back away anymore, Mion had grabbed his arm. A flash of light accompanied by a chiming sound that could be heard throughout the ruins as soon as Mion's hand connected with Arain's arm.
"What was that?" Mion asked as the girls just stared in shock.
"It means you won. You were the first person to touch me." Arain said through the hand that was now over his face.
"Really? So what'd I win?"
Before Arain could reply, another flash of light appeared in front of them. When it cleared, the king, queen and several councillors were standing in front of them.
"Today is a joyous day! Today is the day my son finally has a bride. Now which of these lovely girls is your new fiancée?"
"None of them." Arain replied.
The king gave him a sharp look. "The contest is clearly over. Someone managed to catch you."
"I know that. Mion meet my parents. Mother, Father, this is Mion. He's the one who won the contest."
For a long moment, not a sound was uttered, then, "That's a man!" The king shouted.
"He's was the first person to touch me. They were your rules. This was your contest. You figure it out. Mion you might as well come with me." With that, Arain turned about and headed out of the ruins, a very confused Mion following after him.
"So what just happened?" The mercenary asked once they were sitting down in the grass outside the abandoned city.
"The contest's whole purpose was for me to find a bride. The first girl to catch me was supposed to be it. However, you were the first person to touch me so until my father can figure things out, you're technically my fiancé."