Note: Hello. (:
I really have no excuses for taking this long, but just know that I've been trying to make this as perfect as I can and that's going to take time. So I'm really sorry, but I hope you guys enjoy the rewrite (:
Once upon a time, a floating fortress hung in the sky…
She was a Pariah.
Hikari was born with a small birthmark on the inside of her wrist. All the people of her race were. The birthmarks seemed to be a symbol of some sort, and they were always different, but it didn't matter to Them what the symbol meant, or the unique quality of it. All that mattered was that it marked the Pariah as outsiders, aberrations, slaves. In other words, the Pariah.
The cycle of slavery was impossible to break. The children of Pariah would invariably be born with the Mark.
Right from the very beginning, those born with the Mark had been associated with minor magic capabilities. Not understanding how the magic worked and fearing the unknown, their ancestors were ostracized and eventually, were overthrown and the magic of their people was lost from lack of use. Thus began the enslavement and so it went on for thousands of years, this unbreakable slavery contract. Precious few were excepted from this iron law.
Pariah had a different upbringing than the average Citizen. The Centre was a school, but those who had lost their parents to overbearing masters could stay in the Centre so it served as an orphanage as well. Because of their Pariah status, certain privileges taken for granted by the Citizens weren't granted to them. The very idea of Pariah citizenship was a foreign concept.
Hikari grew up with the other Pariah, in the Centre, where she was educated in all the gentle arts such as cooking and sewing, because as a girl, it was highly likely that her future assignment would be that of a kitchen maid or serving girl. At least, that's the best she could possibly hope for. Most Pariah boys had it harder. They were entrusted with back-breaking labour, and worked from dawn to dusk, regardless of the unforgiving weather. They froze in winter and burned in the summer. At least in the kitchens, the Pariah couldn't freeze to death.
Even so, the future was uncertain. There were a few roads following a Pariah's release from the Centre. They could be taken in by wealthy families, becoming either a personal servant or one bound to the household. Those left unchosen would be taken in by the palace.
It could be so much worse. Hikari shuddered as dark images flooded her mind. Pariah thrown out of their master's homes, their bodies maimed and their spirits broken. She grimaced at the ice-cold chill that ran down her back. Yes, it could be much worse.
Basic defence skills were also taught at the Centre. In the unlikely event that defending their masters would become a necessity, Pariah girls were trained alongside the boys to handle weaponry from a young age. Even as Hikari proved herself adept with a sword and in archery, she was ingrained with the notion that if an enemy posed as a danger to her master, her body would invariably be the ultimate shield between her master and certain death.
To that, Hikari had her doubts. She often wondered if she would really be able to stand in the face of another's death and force an end to her own life. She could never imagine the want, no, the need to protect another at the cost of her own. She prayed that such a day would never come.
Today was one that would make or break Hikari's future.
The announcer would read from her black tablet the Pariah identification codes, and they would receive a roughly sewn bag filled with two new sets of standard Pariah attire, a small canteen of water, and as a special treat, a small piece of freshly baked honey bread wrapped in plastic. The bun would be a sort of prayer, a small piece of hope from the Centre that their masters would at least be civil, if not kind.
And if they weren't… When her thoughts reached this juncture, Hikari sighed. There was nothing anyone could do. After all, Pariah were not legally Citizens, and their lives were disposable to the rich and haughty.
Today would be Hikari's attachment, along with the rest of the sixteen-year-old Pariahs in the Centre. She awoke early in the long room she shared with thirteen others, feeling slightly wild and emotional. She hadn't had a decent shuteye all night. Her bed sheets were twisted and damp with sweat, soaked by a night of haunting dreams and disconcerting visions of dark oceans and eerie forests.
A deep unease replaced the fright. Her heartbeat slowed, but her mind raced on ahead. I guess the bravado I'd shown yesterday had really only been a brave front, she thought, her anxious, frantic mind racing through the spare moments of the past week where her mind had wandered into indefinite futures. Truth was, like everyone else, Hikari was scared.
All week long she'd tried to hide it, she really did. But as she stared at her thin clothes dampened by sweat and the memory of her anguished night still etched vividly in her mind, she realised she hadn't even managed to fool herself.
In the dim hours before dawn, she finally broke down. With the darkness as her shroud, she pulled her knees close to her chest, leaned her forehead down, and wept for her unknown destiny.
She remembered when she first held a sword.
She was five years old. After months of swinging light wooden swords about in the tattered backyard of the Centre, most of the Pariah children were impatient to be upgraded to the advanced class. As much as the society didn't care for individual Pariah lives, they were obliged to ensure that they could protect their masters.
The bustling Headmaster of the Centre entered with ten subservient Pariah behind him, each holding a plain wooden box. When he reached the front podium, the Headmaster unfurled a tight parchment scroll and began to read from it. It was written in elegant, florid language, and Hikari's attention had begun to disperse when her five-year-old mind grew incapable of absorbing much of what he read. The only thing she gathered from his speech was that the council had consolidated those "worthy and ready" to receive their swords and those chosen would be receiving those swords that very day.
A burst of adrenaline trembled through her body as she began to quiver with anticipation. A single notion dominated her thoughts: Eons of Pariah before her had heard this speech and received their swords. She clenched her fists into little nervous balls as she waited expectantly, praying with all her heart that she would be of the chosen children.
The chosen children would be called up to the front podium and would receive their swords one by one. Hikari bit her lip nervously and grew desperate as Headmaster neared the end of his scroll.
A small yelp of excitement escaped her lips. She clapped her hand over her mouth as the Headmaster glared disapprovingly in her general direction. She took a deep breath and tried her best to compose herself. However great the honour of receiving her very own sword was, Hikari knew, even at the tender age of five, that she could not afford to breach propriety. It was the only thing that kept her alive, and not ruthlessly left to be trampled on the streets outside.
She hauled herself up the steps to the podium carefully, trying her best not to trip on the wide steps while not wanting to keep the Headmaster waiting. As she stepped up onto the podium, one of the servant Pariah stepped up as well with her wooden box. Her head was bowed low in reverence and she stopped just behind the Headmaster. Unable to contain her excitement, Hikari inched over slightly to peek and the woman gave her a small smile, unseen by the Headmaster, before she unlatched the box. The Headmaster turned when he heard the click and reach out to push the case open.
Hikari gaped at the subtle shimmer of the sword that had been chosen for her as it lay quietly in its case. It was made of an extremely durable crystal unique to Caldicon. Thus, like all the other crystal swords meant for Pariah girls, it was cheap, yet Hikari knew that it would slice through steel as gracefully as if it were water.
Where light hit the sword, it gave off a silvery blue hue in the shade as the night sky, and its hilt was modestly decorated with opal shards. This sword was hers. My sword, Hikari thought to herself repeatedly. She knew it would stay with her for life, and her life force would be chained to it during the special initiation ceremony. It would grow in power as she became stronger, but would similarly be reduced to cheap plastic if she were to die.
She knelt down on clumsy knees and raised her arms to receive the sword. The Headmaster placed it ceremoniously into her hands. Her weak arms nearly yielded; the heavy crystal sword was too much for the five-year-old. The sword began to pulse as the Headmaster chanted the binding contract, and Hikari saw what no one else did.
Runes flew and circled her, casting a mysterious pink light. A gasp escaped her as she was gently embraced by the rose-tinted light. The Headmaster showed no sign of acknowledgement at the irregular phenomenon in front of him. Immediately, Hikari could feel the warm, warm touch of the new bond in her chest, and the safe, safe feeling as the sword was bound to protect her. When he reached the last words, the sword stopped its pulsing, and became lighter in her hands. It was now the perfect weight for her, of course.
Afterwards was the chosen children's first practice session with the new swords. They'd already had some practice with a wooden sword before, of course. But in Hikari's arms was a strong, sturdy sword. A real sword. The dark blue blade glinted in the evening sun with a silvery gleam.
Her first attempts to swing the treasured blade didn't go too well. Concentrating all her energy into the sword, she swung it hard, only to see no effect whatsoever. Frustrated, she kept up the trying swings. With each swing she felt a pull within her. Each time she resisted the unfamiliar pull, she felt her energy snap. By the time they were done, perspiration ran down her back, but she had only managed some weak cuts through the air. The sword was still unconvinced by its new ownership. The attacks had no soul. They would do no real damage.
Hikari smiled as she remembered this encounter, and patted the now ten-year-old sword next to her. Reminiscing gave her some comfort, as even though she was all alone; there would always be that precious sword. The sword that almost seemed to pulsate with life of its own as it began to glow subtly, warmly, resonating with its owner's thoughts. She wiped the tears from her eyes and thought, No, I am not alone.
With this newly ascertained fact, Hikari wiped the last of the tears from her eyes. She quickly folded her blankets and changed into her day clothes, ready to face the day.
They walked in a single file down a long dark corridor to the Sorting Room with a warm belly of food, a first for everyone. It was customary on the Sorting Day that the Pariahs to be Attached would have a full breakfast. It would be the whole deal – eggs, ham, toast, milk. They had to work their hardest on their first day. No refunds.
It was ironic though, because on this one day where they could feast to their fill, few could feel the appetite for it. They ate nevertheless. Who knew where or when their next meal would be? Hikari voiced it to Miyako, her bunkmate and best friend. She just shrugged and said vaguely, "Still, it feels like a new beginning, don't you think?" She gave her an unconvincing half-smile. Miyako was battling nervous demons of her own.
Hikari took a deep breath and tried to keep an open mind. She bit her lip and kept her thoughts to herself. She knew she couldn't burden Miyako with more problems now.
As they continued down the corridor to the dingy lit room, they were abruptly stopped. The low, deep voice of the Headmaster boomed down the corridor.
"30340392, Yagami Hikari?"
Hikari's heart stopped in her chest. Her entire being was thrown into panic mode. Why am I being singled out like this? Did I fail the Attachment tests? Did I do something wrong?
"30340392, Yagami Hikari."
The command in his voice was unmistakable now. It reverberated around the stony walls. Hikari raised her hand shakily, and the Headmaster motioned to one of the guards flanking him to pull her out of the line. Once Hikari was brought to his side, the Headmaster stepped aside and waved the rest of the queue on. Miyako gave Hikari a worried glance as she passed her. Hikari tried to give her a smile to reassure her but even she could tell that it was a feeble attempt.
Wrongdoings in the Centre were punishable by anything, the most common being whipping, caning, etc. Death sentences weren't uncommon either. But something seemed strange here. Usually those singled out to be punished were publically shamed as their sins were flung verbally back at them in the Headmaster's booming voice. Their whipping was usually a public affair, with four to five Pariahs at the town whipping post at one time. It sort of served as a reminder to the Citizens that they managed to conquer the unknown.
Hikari followed the Headmaster down another corridor, where it was lit by wall torches powered by fire gems. The warm light was usually a welcome sight, and Hikari had always loved them. Today, however, the light was just an unwelcome distraction.
Usually the passageways that the Pariahs here were used to were the dimly lit ones. It wasn't much of a problem because they were so familiar to the passageways and rooms, not to mention used to the dark. As it was, the fire gems, though welcoming in their soft orange glow, were like daggers to Hikari's eyes. They stopped in front of a glass door. The Headmaster began fumbling through his pockets for his key card to open the door. Through the frosted glass, Hikari could tell that there were at least two people in there.
The door slid soundlessly open, and a breath of cool air washed over Hikari. She badly wanted to reach up and chafe her arms to keep warm, but she kept them stiffly at her side. Whatever trouble she was in, it wasn't of the ordinary variety, and she didn't want to make it worse with any unnecessary actions.
As her eyes adjusted, Hikari realized that the room was lit by cool blue light crisscrossing warm pale orange. Water gems and fire gems. The effect added more decorative purpose to the otherwise plain walls of the round room. It was a simple discussion room with some maroon chintz armchairs and couches and a glass coffee table in the middle. One of the two men she had seen was seated at the table, while the other stood by his side. While both men were dressed rather extravagantly, the seated man was clearly of a higher position.
The Headmaster moved, and as he did he placed a firm hand on the girl's back and nudged her forward with him. As he sat down in the armchair across the men, Hikari stood behind him, hanging her head in respectful silence.
When the man spoke, it was with warm candour that he said, "Yagami Hikari-san? Could you look up, please?"
It was a request, not a demand.
Hikari was confused. The man was unbelievably polite to her despite her status. She raised her head in curiosity and compliance, but promptly looked down again when her humble brown eyes met the man's shocking blue ones. Sudden warmth crept through her body, and she was suddenly shy. There was something else. A sharp pang in resonated in her chest. A flopping twist in her stomach. A hot, tickling sensation ran along her wrist. But this man, obviously a Citizen, was telling, no, asking her to look up, and Hikari knew she couldn't refuse. She tried again.
The man was dressed in an emerald green tailcoat with a wide collar with gold trimmings. Lace edged his flared sleeves and intricate gold designs bordered his coat. Under the coat was a matching waistcoat and a silken white shirt with a ruffled front. He was clearly an aristocrat. The green closely complimented his blond hair. On closer inspection, the man was not really as old as his flamboyant clothing made him out to be. In fact, he seemed about sixteen. My age.
Yet, what a world of difference.
During this observation, he smiled. The smile was most definitely meant for Hikari. Somehow, it greatly reassured her, and warmed her up from the inside. Unused to the attention from Citizens, she felt her cheeks flush and ducked her head immediately, hiding behind the shaggy brown hair that framed her face.
The conversation between the Headmaster and the aristocrat was long and rather boring. Now that her future seemed secure with the kindly boy, her mind slackened in concentration. Hikari tried to pay attention but her sleepy mind soon drifted off. The excerpts of conversation that she did manage to glean seem to place her in the ownership of this boy following a contract of some sort. Some money changed hands and after they stood up and shook hands, the Headmaster gave her a slight push from behind towards the boy in the emerald green jacket.
After the meeting in the small room, a small duffel bag was handed to Hikari and she was led by Greencoated man and his follower to a carriage outside. The sudden daylight stung her eyes.
If Hikari had had any doubts about my new master's financial ability, they would have been blown right away to the wind when she saw the carriage sitting quietly by the roadside. The carriage was blond wood, polished and glossed till it shimmered where the morning sunlight caressed it. Rich tapestry peeked out from the sliver-glided windows. Hikari stood breathless in front of the beautiful piece of workmanship, marveling at its quiet magnificence.
"My my, Takeru-sama, I think she likes it."
A soft chuckle. "Yes I think so too." A flash of green, and in the next moment, 'Takeru' was by her side. She was startled by his sudden appearance, but he smiled kindly, easing her shock instantly. There was something about his smile that calmed her.
"A good thing too, because this is my favourite carriage," he said casually.
The other man scoffed. "You have no taste. The dark blue one with the fiery stripes shows way more spirit," he said.
"Yeah, not to mention it's ostentatious, but hey, that's just like you, Daisuke."
An indignant snort. "It's classy."
Takeru placed a hand on her shoulder and gently wheeled her out of the way as the other man pulled open the carriage door. Hikari flinched from the unfamiliar touch, but he hadn't seemed to notice, or he just chose to ignore it. She knew she couldn't afford to offend her new hosts. Instead, she composed herself and leaned slightly into the touch, just barely, just enough to lift the prior offense but not enough to be overly-familiar. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw 'Daisuke' stick his tongue out at Takeru.
Takeru took an easy step up into the carriage, then bent down slightly with his hand extended towards Hikari. She was confused. Was she to take that hand? She was beginning to feel overwhelmed. It went against everything she'd learnt at the Centre. Pariahs weren't supposed to be treated so gently and kindly, and in this case, like a lady even.
Was he doing this for the sake of the people around watching? Maybe once out of the public eye, he would be cold and unfeeling. Yes, that had to be it. She remembered that reputation was of extreme importance to one's respectability. In that case, should she be cooperating with him? It was obvious that the suspense was beginning to draw attention around them, not to mention that it would be rude and disrespectful to reject…
The frequent and sincere smile on his face was a deterrent to her theory, but Hikari chose to dismiss it as a habitual gesture, and not a certainty of kindness.
She took a deep breath, and placed her hand in his. His hand was warm and soft, and unexpectedly, slightly calloused. Overall, it was rather reassuring, tearing her theory to bits altogether. She rested her weight in his palm for a moment before hoisting herself up into the carriage.
She could almost feel his smile growing wider.
He made sure Hikari was comfortably seated before he took a seat opposite her. She was glad that he didn't take the seat beside her. The distance gave her more breathing room. The other man let himself into the carriage as well, then closed the door and rapped the wall behind him. The carriage took a slight surge, then plodded steadily on.
The man had taken a seat next to Takeru, which seemed rather strange for a manservant. Moreover, they were joking and happily chatting away. They could almost be brothers.
Meanwhile, Hikari began to observe. The other man had dark messy hair and was in a more subtle suit than Takeru's. He was decked out in dark blue, accented in white. A ruffled white shirt peeked out from the blue. He seemed to be slightly older than Takeru. His name was Daisuke, repeated a few times throughout the course their conversation, and once out of the public eye, he addressed Takeru without any honorifics.
Oh I give up. These two just didn't make any sense.
The carriage plodded on. A combination of a restless night and the smooth clattering of the carriage soon put her straight to sleep.
Takeru didn't know what to say. So he said nothing. Just let her have some space, some time to herself to sort this new Attachment out. After all, all this was probably overwhelming her. So when they got into the carriage, Takeru let her make herself comfortable, and just kept up a running conversation with Daisuke in the mean time. Hopefully she'd be able to relax, knowing that the conversation wasn't focused on her.
She sat just opposite him in the carriage, barely an arm's length away. Her clothes were standard Pariah attire, grey and tattered, and she was covered in dust. It was no wonder too, because from what he knew of the Centre, most of it was underground. It was obvious that she'd made an effort to stay clean though. Her hands and face were clearly cleaner than the rest of her.
Amidst the cropped brown hair, her face was small and thin. But it was undeniably pretty, with long dark lashes around her russet-coloured eyes and rose petal cheeks. Everything about her just about screamed innocence. Even more so at this very moment with her head leaning again the cushioned sides of the carriage, the veil of sleep hanging her. She seemed much younger than she did a while ago, when she was guarded against a stranger. She had to be tired. She couldn't have slept well the night before, if the dark circles around her eyes were of any indication.
He watched her sleep even as he kept up a running conversation with Daisuke. He couldn't believe that she was right there in front of him. Takeru couldn't bring himself to take his eyes away from her. He feared that if he looked away, she might disappear, and he may never see her again. An irrational thought, he knew, but nonetheless, it occupied a prominent place at the foremost of his mind.
After a while Daisuke snickered, and Takeru turned to look at him quizzically.
"You told me to keep chitter-chattering with you, but you stopped responding because you're just watching her!"
Takeru was surprised. "I did?"
Daisuke just stared at him. "Yes buddy, you did. You stopped responding five minutes ago," he said. "You really didn't notice?" Takeru shook his head. Daisuke stared at him for a moment.
"The great Takeru-sama has been enthralled by a pretty girl at long last!" With that, Daisuke just about exploded into laughter. Hikari stirred slightly in her sleep. Takeru immediately clapped a hand over Daisuke's mouth and said, "Quiet, you idiot! She'll wake up!"
Daisuke's eyes were beginning to water from trying to contain his laughter. Just as a precautionary measure, he held his hand there until his laughter subsided. When Takeru removed his hand, he wiped it playfully across Daisuke's dark blue jacket. "You're like a dog, Daisuke! Drooling over everything!"
"Hey I don't! That was clearly water vapour. Do you even pay attention in Professor Joe's classes?"
Takeru laughed quietly. "And where does the 'water' come from?" Daisuke stopped and stared at me. I laughed and said "Saliva! It comes from your saliva! So effectively, you're still a drooling idiot!"
"No I'm not!"
"Yes you are."'
"No I'm not!"
"Yes you are."
...And so the banter continued to flow.
Takeru smiled to himself. Daisuke was too easy.
Takeru allowed his train of thought fall back to Yagami Hikari. Back in the meeting room, he'd seen how she'd averted her eyes. He'd been confused at the beginning, as soon as he realised that she didn't know him. She might've lost the memories of their earlier encounters. Though worrying, Takeru decided to shelve it. It was difficult to gauge what might've happened to her in the ten years that they'd spent apart.
Takeru fingered the starchy collar of his formal jacket, pulled the bowtie out from its former neat knot. He supposed the fancy clothes might have startled her a little. He wouldn't have bothered with the formal jacket if he could, and the ruffled shirt was unbearably uncomfortable, but people had expectations. The Headmaster wouldn't have given in as easily otherwise. Clothes maketh the man, Lesson Number One, Aristocrat studies, he mused, as he continued to watch her sleeping face.
Innate shyness may have had a part to play as well. She probably didn't have much contact with the outside world. But her intrinsic tenacity took over, as she continued to struggle to maintain eye contact with him. The ghost of a smile tugged at Takeru's lips. He couldn't help but find that endearing.
Takeru settled back in his seat. Undeniably, she was the girl from his dreams. It wasn't difficult to find her, especially since he had glimpsed her Pariah mark in hisdream. The girl seated opposite him had her wrist flipped outwards as she slept, and her crest resembled a flower, with a round center and sharp petals pointing outwards.
It was as though his dream had crossed into reality. Takeru knew this was the girl from the prophecy. The girl he had been waiting for all his life. This was the girl with the crest of Light. Hikari.