Moonlight HeatBy Jia Li LabyrinthPrologue
Every five years, the Count will take in one mortal into his castle.
All of us believe that he has sent wards to different parts of the valley, although no one has claimed witnessing any of his messengers before. But it's a ritual fact that whomever chosen is selected after much consideration on the Count's part. And once he finds his candidate of the term, different reactions submerges, from the people aquatinted to the candidate as well as from the candidate.
I had witnessed firsthand the reactions from others before I was sent off. All of them knew the nobles were well-known with their dreadful strength and capability of vengeance, yet at the same time they settled with an enigmatic life style that separates themselves from the common realm. All of them knew that these people's lineage traced back way before our own history was even put into writing. Hence, these beings -despite all the fear, contempt, and fascination surrounding them - left behind them a culture that never failed to humble those who witnessed it, be it architecture, literature, paintings, sculpture, or records on scientific researches.
It all comes down to one question: What do they see in me - and all the human candidates before me, for that matter - to admit me into their forbidden realm?
One of the reactions me and my family had expected was fear. Typical. The one chosen by the Damned must also be damned as well. Who would have thought the sweet kid next door would one day join those lurking in the dark? Some of the kids started to keep their distance away from me, and some were kept away by their parents, all with one intention - so that none of the youngsters would unexpectedly fall as my first victim of.... whatever.
Needless to say, those who got on my bad side were particularly smug over this. I don't even want to go through the details of putting up with their silent sneers and upright taunts - it's pretty much the same game with different cards.
The next reaction I got from many people was pity. Yes, all those people who came over to my house, comforting my mother - whom had been weeping herself dry ever since the messenger knock on our door. Each of them, be it family friends or my own, had different approaches to make things better, but all looked upon me as if I had one foot in my grave - which was why my sister's adamant request for me to write her often was much appreciated. Sometimes I loathed how their good intentions ended up depressing me even more. Sometimes I loathed how I allowed myself into such self-pitying at all.
What surprised me, however, was that some people harbored envy for me.
I have to say, in comparison with what you will normally expect between nobles and humans, the Count's relationship with us humans here have been a peculiar one. There are rumors about how these nobles spend their night searching for their nourishment as they blend themselves into the human population, followed by the living reality of someone's mysterious disappearance or someone's bizarre death. For us, the only thing that reminds us of the Count's existence is his routine recruitment, for that seems to be his only connection with the outside world as well. Doesn't make much sense, does it? But during my life here, the thought of a noble suddenly descending upon you on your way home seems quite unreal. I guess the Count and the humans in this valley have long made a pact between themselves, as the Count will take one human every five years with given notice, the humans know they will be safe from his wrath. It has been the way for generations.
Once and awhile, we had those daring souls who desired immortality, and would travel all the way to the castle, asking for patronage with whatever they could offer - as minstrels, artisans, scientists, clerks, or down-to-earth servants. None of them, or none of which I'd heard of, had succeeded in that pursuit, and usually came back empty-handed. Their accounts varied. A lot of them ended up in circles in the forest. Some of them swore they could make out a silhouette of a towering castle, and the path to it simply had no end. Some even claimed that they had indeed reached the castle, only to find themselves in the middle of the forest seconds later.
Either way, the message is clear. You don't come for the Count; the Count comes for you. And just by being the chosen one, I've won a chance that others have sought for so fervidly and in vain.
Perhaps the charisma of the Count had something to do with the fact that most of these people were women of young age. None of us had the chance to see the Count in person, but from all the rumors based on those who had (which was quite debatable, since we didn't know for certainty if anyone could enter and leave the Count's castle freely. Alive, I might add) and from some of the paintings and records left from the past since he existed, it was fair to say that this man possessed an unearthly beauty commonly found in all nobles. Yet at the same time, he was not like those of his kind.
I'd only had a glance of one of his portraits. I'd expected to see someone detached and aloof, calm and cold - as all nobles were. Sure enough, that was how the background looked, as were his attire and posture. Take a deeper look, however, and you would find something quite different. The dark burgundy cloak wrapped around him hinted a hidden fire of passion and lust, while his blue eyes, icy and chilling at first, sent a challenging message to the onlookers, inviting them to tread through the darkness surrounding him for that flame.
......... Would you listen to that?
I'm about to be sent to a noble's castle, which could also be my death, pretty much doomed to an unholy existence. And here I'm admiring the Damned like some pubescent schoolgirl. Fancy what Father Luva will say to that.
Okay, I confess. I'm not being as fearful as I should. Maybe it's because I'm young and know nothing of fear. Maybe it's because since the Count rarely interacts outside his realm, we don't know what he's like, and hence I don't know exactly what to fear for. Maybe it's because of my blind faith on God, convincing me that I'll be protected no matter what comes up. As Father Luva once told me in private, there's a reason why I have to go to the Count.
But the thought of what might happen to my family had kept me awake during nights. The union of my parents had been controversial to start off with, and during their times here, they had as many enemies as friends. Coming across those who had always seen my parents with prejudice eyes, they were only too glad to see me proving them right, as I became God's punishment years after my parents exchanged vows under his eyes.
Worst yet, my sister, herself being too innocent and young to understand what was going on, had been returning home more frequently with tear streaks on her face. Children could be cruel sometimes, that I knew, but at that point I was more than willing to throw everything I learnt from Church into the wind and beat the living daylight out of whoever was responsible for this, had it not been my father to stop me in time.
Father Luva had been checking on me more ever since the first word about the chosen candidate reached this town. I was truly in debt to him for all the compassion and understanding he had shown during the agonizing period where I had to wait for the Count's messenger and see my world fell apart - even though I might have, from time to time, acted somewhat ungrateful. After all, during the majority of the time when we were together, all I did was vent: About how those who I thought were friends suddenly pretend I'd never been; about how I realized who were my true friends, and how I was reminded that I would never see them again; about the pain I never meant to bring upon my loved ones......
"The last candidate two years ago was a girl! Was it not?!" I was almost howling, "Wasn't it true that her family was evicted after she was sent off?!"
"Her situation is different from yours," the poor, patient man assured me, "Her family had only moved in to that area. They are practically foreigners. You and your sister, on the other hand, have spend your entire known lives here, and people here know your parents. No matter what stand they take about your being the chosen one, none of them will have the heart to have your family suffer the same way that girl's family had." Judging from the way he stared at me, I must have looked unconvinced. After shaking his head and letting out an exhausted breath, he turned to look at me again, this time with a stern tone, "And if it really comes to that, I'll see to it that it won't happen."
Slowly I pulled a smile, somewhat weak due to my exhaustion, but his promise truly made me feel better. Everyone in town reverenced him for his knowledge and insight, and he respected my father, so I knew I could count on his words.
On the way to the Count's place, I found myself fumbling upon the scene when I departed. I swear on all, I'd never felt that numb in my whole entire life. My mother was shuddering, her tears already wasted up since last month. I could tell that my father was breaking up inside, but he instead concentrated on pulling my sister away, who was gripping my arm for dear life. One should normally feel a lot of emotions at a time like this, right?
Isn't that right?!
Then why had I chose to say nothing that time, when I knew this would be our last time together? Why couldn't I respond to my sister's wailing? I had promised to myself that I wouldn't let my grievance bog me down, but instead leave with smile no matter what, if it were to assure my mother I'd be strong and to convince my sister that things would be okay. I know I've failed half of it already.
Maybe all the unnamed emotions I felt back then were all too much, to a point that I couldn't feel anymore.
And I felt the motion of the vehicle for the first time since this long journey started. God...... how far are we now? How long have I been dazing off?
I glanced at my surroundings. We were somewhere in the forest, though I had no idea which part. It was barely dawn when I left, and now the sun was midway in the sky. The forest was filled with fresh green and the carefree chirps of birds. By comparison, this buggy I sat in truly didn't fit into such cheerful scenery. It had a Baroque design, elegant yet simple. It was of modest size, barely big enough for two passengers plus my luggage. However, the combination of black, blue, and silver made this carriage stand out.
I glanced at the person sitting next to me. The coachman was wearing a hooded cape that hid his face from my view. He looked like a tall man, and seeing how he kept his posture straight when driving the buggy, I guessed he was of strict (if not high) bearing.....
Hold a second, though...... Is this guy human? I mean..... no noble can walk under broad daylight, even with that cape he's wearing.
That was when I noticed the castle. We were going down the hills, where we were greeted with the levitated view of the forest below. At the other end of the carpet of trees stood the tiny tild form of the castle.
"It's there," I said, more like wondering aloud than trying to start a conversation with the man, who had been ignoring me as far as I knew.
He only grunted, and the buggy took a sharp turn to the right, almost throwing me off balance. I was going ask him what he was up to, but held my tongue after seconds of reasoning. He IS the coachman here, so he must know what he's doing. With that, the view of the castle disappeared behind the leaves and branches again.
The following had been a ride that felt like six hourglasses. Bird chirps turned into crow croaks and the grayness from the sky gradually descended upon the forest. Seeing the retreating tangerine hue on the west, I was beginning to wonder if this was going to take all night when a clearing could be seen at the end of the road. The buggy made its way swiftly under the trees. As we entered the clearing from the tunnel-like forest path, I felt the air in my lungs condensing in a way that made me feel weak. The Count's dwelling, looming against the dusk sky, stood across a moat like a proud mountain. The dark forest surrounded the back of the fortress, and the approaching night casted a velvet screen upon the building.
Noticing my dumbfound expression, the coachman smirked and spoke to me for the first time, "Welcome to your new home, Mortal One."