Chapter 1: The Contest Begins
There was not a sound as fog draped itself over the land, encasing it in a grey mist. The birds stopped chirping, the wolves stopped their howling at the full moon. Everything and everyone was silent, waiting for something. Something important, something that would change so much.
At last it came, a clean break in the fog, parting as if cut by a knife. There was a soft melody coming from somewhere, but simply drifted along as if played by the breeze. It was silent once more as every animal gazed up into the sky, watching, waiting…
The whole country stopped as well.
The late-night shoppers looked up from their wares, the bartenders stopped to glance out of their shops, and even the kings woke up with a start, running to their windows to gaze into the distance. Everyone strained to see into the Forbidden Lands, where nothing had changed since the beginning of time, where magic was not controlled by man, and where huge beasts ruled the forests. A bright flash, like a bolt of lightning, suddenly shot up from the ground in the heart of the Forbidden Land, into the cloudless sky. It froze halfway, as if deciding what to do, and then slowly faded into the night sky, a beacon for unknown travelers.
That was the night the stepway appeared...
"Tayu! Tayu! Wake up, wake up!"
The girl simply rolled over in her straw bed and groaned. "Not now, Amy," she murmured. "Please, I'm exhausted... I couldn't sleep... Go and play with Slap... I'll just..." The rest of her sentence was cut off by a yawn as she rolled over and buried her head under her covers.
Slap, as if understanding, yipped in disapproval, hopping around the girl's bed. When it got no attention, it growled softly and tugged on her chestnut-brown hair.
She shot up, shoving the animal away from the bed. "Ow! No, bad dog!" Tayu scolded, rubbing her already sore head. "And you too, Amy. You left without my permission didn't you?"
The little girl whined in a typical five-year-old pout. "But Tayu, something happened! Everyone's really exited, and daddy wants you to come to the meeting."
Tayu was immediately alert. "On a rest day?" She rushed to her hand-made drawers, pulling out her best black cotton dress, one she had made herself for tomorrow's holiday. "Did someone die that I should know about?" Amy just rolled her blue eyes stubbornly and led Slap out of the room. Tayu sighed as she began to change into her new attire. That girl…
Tayu and Amy, her little adopted sister, were orphans. That was not so uncommon in such a big coastal city like Bayr, but at least they had a roof over their head from Tayu's job as a housemaid. Well, It wasn't so much of a roof as a straw mat, but they were thankful for it and for the few pleasures they could afford. Like Slap, their faithful guard dog. He was the most matted, scraggly, completely rediculous-looking dog there had been, barely two feet tall, and could hardly guard a lamp. But, he kept the mice and vermin away and entertained Amy while Tayu worked, and that was definitly worth a few scraps a day.
Tayu glanced out of the house's only window (located in the house's only room), into the busy streets of the downtown markets. Surprisingly, there seemed to be no traffic today, and the few people she could see were chattering excitedly to one another. What on Earth was going on?
"Hurry, hurry! Come see! Daddy's waiting!" the child insisted, trying with all of her three-and-three-quarters-feet to drag Tayu out of the house. Tayu sighed and took Amy's hand, leading her through the streets to the agora.
'Daddy' was Bern Lambrick. He was the local Duke, the man Tayu worked for, and was the closest thing to a father either of them had. In fact, he would have gladly paid for them to have decent food and clothing, but Tayu did not accept gifts from the old man. She was lucky enough to have a good job at his house in the first place--she wasn't going to ask for more than that.
Still, he wasn't expecting her to work today, was he? Tomorrow was Hollow's Eve. Tayu sighed. She was exhausted already from yesterday's fall cleaning. Maybe he just wanted to talk to her…
When she arrived at the agora, everyone was crowed into a tight circle around the huge message board that dominated the square, shouting and reading some new poster put up during the night. Tayu's shoulders slumped as she attempted to see through the crowd. How was she supposed to find him in this mess? She pulled Amy around the crowd to the docks that took up half of the city. She took a deep breath of salty air, and began her search again. She asked around several times over, but nobody seemed to know where the old man was.
"Daddy!" Amy cried out of nowhere, dragging Tayu across the pier. Tayu started to argue that there was no way she could have seen him in the ruckus, but sure enough, he stood at the door, of a large diner beaming with excitement. He was a rather old man, somewhere in his fifties, bat was dressed handsomely in the familiar garb of a duke. He was the richest man in Bayr, but was humble enough to keep a relatively small estate and hire the poorer people who needed the money. In fact, he had offered Tayu a raise several times, which she had refused. She had accepted only once, and that was only because she had just brought Amy into her small household. Not that the extra money really helped anymore, since housing had become so scarce in the bustling city that rent had shot up soon afterward.
"Amy!" the duke said, smiling widely. "There you are. And hello, Slap!" Slap said hello with a sloppy dog kiss on his face when he picked him up. He laughed at that, and turned back to Tayu. "There you are, Tayu. I was calling for you. I called all of the staff over for brekfast in honor of the good news."
Tayu's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry," she confessed. "I didn't hear about the breakfast. Actually, I still haven't even heard this 'good news'."
The man shook his head. "How could you not have heard? What do you think all of this ruckus is about? Look," he said, obviously excited as he handed her a piece of parchment. "Look at this. I think you may be interested…"
Tayu took it, still slightly confused, and read:
To the people of Bayr:
I, Lelouch of the Nightwinds, formally declare the search for my bride, my one and only. I have decided that I have lived alone too long, and I have decided to find my One by a contest of sorts.
For the next five weeks, I have allowed a gateway to be lowered into the mortal world. All you must do is climb the stepway, and I will take your hand in eternal marriage. However, the stepway is made for only the pure to pass. Any others will fall to dirt or death. Furthermore, the gateway is to be found in the Forbidden forest, where only the true may walk through, and only the determined may live to escape.
Any girl, be princess or peasant, from the ages of fifteen to twenty-five, may try my hand. There are no exceptions. Also be aware that if sorcery or charm is used, the user must forfeit their life. There are no exceptions here, either.
Please keep in mind that my hand means living with me in my world, with any two others you may choose. Also keep in mind that my hand means devoting yourself to the immortal life, and that you may very well never walk the world you live on again. If you are willing to give up your life as you know for me, than proceed wisely, and remember; I'm waiting.
"Sincerely," Tayu read, "Lelouch."
She stared at the letter, barely believing what she was reading. "Lelouch? The wind spirit?" she said, her voice barley a murmur. This was very, very big. The spirits had not even contacted the mortal world for years, and now this? He was marrying a human?
"Tayu, I think you should go."
She gasped and swirled up to her father. "Mister Lambrick!" She saw his amused expression, then sunk back into her chair. "Oh! That wasn't funny," she complained.
"Oh, come on now. Any girl, princess or peasant, may win his hand. You have as much of a chance as anyone," he insisted, taking back the letter. "Why not go? At least just to see?"
"That's considering I survive a trip halfway across the country and a treck through a Forbidden Forest," she sniffed, practical as ever. "With everyone in such a hustle on the roads, they're just begging for theives and such to gather. Every lovesilly girl in the entire world is racing for him right now, and only one, father, is going to be rewarded for the whole thing. There's only one girl in the world that will even make it to him. The chances are, I will fail. and if I fail, I could die." She took a sip of water and set it neatly back on its napkin. "Really, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Her father shook his head. "Tayu, I would gladly pay for everything. No, look at me and stop behaving like a child," he ordered when she looked away in concealed disgust. "Think about it. Really, think about it. This is the first time in nine hundred years a spirit has held a contest like this. You can't just pass this opportunity up!"
She waved a hand dismissively. "This... Lelouch... he must be hundreds of years older than any human alive now. I couldn't imagine trying to live with such an old man." She was backpedaling, not even considering it. Lelouch was one of the most powerful spirits, and was not exactly known for his tolerance. Just last year, a hurricane had killed thousands of fisherman here after his festival was postponed.
The duke just sighed at that, pulling Amy and her over to one of the free booths in the restaurant. "All of the spirits were mortal at one time or another, even Lelouch." Tayu's eyes widened. She had never heard that before. "And like mortals, " he continued, "they must die eventually. If Lelouch is offering a bridal position now, he must be nearing his three-hundred-year mark. So for a spirit, he's practically a child, and has a very long life ahead of him."
"That's still very old. And... how do you know all of this anyway? Don't tell me you've been digging in your storybooks again," Tayu accused, pulling Slap off of the edge of the table. He yapped moodily and sulked under her chair, his wet nose pressed against her ankle. She looked back up, hoping for an answer, but her father was ordering them some breakfast, talking loudly with the waitress. She sighed and watched Amy tug on Slap's ears. Tayu smiled. How could she possibly want to leave this?
He was quiet until food was brought: apple-cinnamon oatmeal cakes for him, a bowl of warm gravy and biscuits for her, a poppy seedcake for Amy, and two links of sausage for Slap.
"You know," the duke said out of nowhere, making her jump and barley swallow her bite of biscuit. "Can you possibly imagine what it would be like if you did become his bride? He said clearly that you could bring two others. You and Amy could be so much better off than you are now. A nice bed, food, clothes that weren't abandoned in a house fire…"
Tayu scowled, twirling the hollow reed in her water before taking a sip. There was nothing wrong with her clothing. She had patched the burns up, and they were comfortable enough. All the money she could spare for clothes went to Amy; she was still growing, while Tayu had stopped while still rather short for her age. Being skinny as a twig did nothing to help her looks, either. She was a plain, brown-haired, short, skinny peasant girl. Nothing new. There were a thousand copies of her walking by her house every day.
"There's nothing wrong with my clothes," she repeated aloud. "And wouldn't a spirit want a pretty bride? Someone… exotic. Like the white-haired people up north, or the green-eyes in the south. I'm hardly able to pass as regular." She frowned saying this aloud, and this upset her father.
"You are hardly ordinary!" he objected. "Did you see yourself at the New Year? When you had a decent dress and combed your hair out, you looked amazing." He then glanced around and leaned over the table to whisper to her, "I saw plenty a nobleman look at you, and not a soul recognized you afterward. Besides, you have the most astounding eyes of anyone in the entire city."
Tayu flushed and unconsciously covered her eyes. "Stop it! And don't talk about my eyes," she hissed, self-consciously glancing at her reflection in her glass.
Her eyes were a light honey-gold with bronze flecks... now. They tended to change color at their own will, and she had seen them in shades from coal black to pale yellow. But she could hardly call it astounding. It was more of a creepy trait, and discouraged many boys from approaching her. No one wanted to be seen with the girl who could be faerie cursed, or worse. It was undesirable no matter how she looked at it.
Tayu sighed and dug back into her food, not hungry anymore. But she ate anyway; this could be the last decent meal she would have this week, since most of her money was being saved for climbing rent costs and, for the future, a miniscule permanant home fund.
She felt a tug on her shoulder and looked over at Amy, who was gazing up from under her strawberry-blonde hair with puppy-dog eyes. Tayu sighed and pushed the rest of her food over to her. She was full, anyway, and it was nice to see her happy. "Don't eat too much," she warned. "There's going to be candy at Hollow's Eve tomorrow, remember?" Amy nodded eagerly and took a huge bite of gravy-smothered bread.
Her father sighed again, pushing Slap off of the table for her. "Tayu, I'm serious. Won't you at least consider it? I told you, I'll pay for everything, and… well, if you… fail, then I'll just take Amy in. She would be a bit more comfortable…"
Tayu nearly chocked on her water. "Your wife hates children," she objected, startled by his sudden eagerness. "That's why you couldn't take her in in the first place. And she probably would be better off with you, but… I honestly don't want to marry a spirit. I'm perfectly happy here," she murmured, and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "We should let him have someone who wants him back."
He shifted in his chair as well, looking slightly frustrated for a reason she couldn't imagine. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped and pushed aside his plate. He had hardly eaten a thing. "Perhaps," he murmured. "Just promise me you'll think about it. Maybe Hollow's eve tomorrow will have you in higher spirits. Which reminds me, have you picked out your pumpkin yet?"
Tayu nodded, giving in to a smile. It was tradition to carve a pumpkin on Hollow's eve to ward off the spirit of bad luck, and she had found a perfect (if slightly bruised) pumpkin for the job. She explained quickly that she would be at the carving ceremony a bit late; she promised Mrs. Taylor that she would help her set up her candle displays around noon. He sighed but nodded, although secretly wishing she would just let herself be spoiled every once in a while.
When Amy was done, Tayu dug into her pocket and searched for her food money. She handed a thirty hem coin to the duke. He started to refuse, but then sighed and accepted it. She never accepted any gifts, that girl. He wondered who her parents had been, and if they were as money-conscious as she was.
He watched them leave sadly, Slap darting between them, the picture of happiness. Ah, but she would go to see him eventually. She would go…