Cycle of the Moon: Part Five
The morning of the Lunar Festival was overcast, with low clouds lingering just above the green hills of Shenkuu. Anyan nodded to Xinshi, Yalan, Danye, and Sayder as they passed out of the palace gates; the orange Kougra’s eyes smiled despite his locked jaw. As they traveled down the winding path, the group could see the great pavilion spread out at the base of the city. Danye nearly toppled over the edge of a narrow rope bridge as she peered down at the colorful preparations that were being made.
“Come on, guys,” she said, waving to her friends, who were lagging behind. “Look how much they’ve done since yesterday!”
Sayder carefully pushed Yalan’s chair across the wooden slats of the bridge. “There’s no rush,” said the shadow Gelert, his smile sparkling white in the morning sunlight. “You’ll have all day to spend at the pavilion.”
“And all night,” said Xinshi. He hadn’t told his friends what had happened the previous night; he’d decided that it was best to remain silent about eavesdropping on the Empress.
When they arrived at the pavilion, Huanyi was already there. The pink Kougra was busy giving orders, and several palace workers hurried to move tables, stage pieces, and banners according to her directions.
The enormous curved roof had ladders branching off of it in many places, where squinting Neopets carefully carved intricate designs in its rich wood. Other pets hung fine silk tapestries and streamers from its support beams, adding splashes of color to the space. Some of the banners hung all the way down to the floor, their fringes nearly brushing against the smooth wood.
A few booths were being constructed near the outer edges of the pavilion, and already there were Neopets serving food and drink to the busy workers. The rest of the area was occupied mostly by countless chairs and round tables, with the very center space covered in a wide stage. “That’s where the performances will be held,” said Sayder as he showed the three young Neopets around. “There are songs, dances, stories, and poetry all night long.”
“Last year there were eight Neopets who did the most amazing dance routine I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Danye. “It was incredible. I had a pretty bad spot to watch from, though. That’s why I’m so excited about being in the Emperor’s party.”
“That’s right,” said Sayder, pointing to two rows of elaborately-carved chairs that were placed directly in front of the stage. “You and the other lucky few will have reserved seats for the entire festival. You’ll even have catered food from the best chefs in Shenkuu.”
“I bet they go all out for the Lunar Festival,” said Xinshi.
“They do,” said Danye. The red Ogrin pointed to several of the booths that had been set up. “All kinds of cooks try to show their stuff here. If you’re a hit at the Lunar Festival, you’ve got it made.”
“Ohh, this is beautiful,” said Yalan, reaching out from her chair to touch a long tapestry that hung down from the ceiling. It was a deep, rich blue, sewn with branches, leaves, and birds in yellow and white thread. “Do artists compete as well?”
“Not only artists who work with fabric,” said Sayder, “but also those who paint, and draw, and dance, and so much more.” The Gelert laughed. “You know, I think I’m just as excited as you are. This will be my first Lunar Festival too, after all. I’ve only been living and working in the city for a few months, though I’ve done enough reading about the festival to feel like I’ve already attended it.”
“Sayder!” A faerie Xweetok appeared from behind a table that was covered in finely-painted paper lanterns, which would be hung throughout the pavilion during the night. “Xinshi, Yalan, Danye, so good to see you.” Huafen’s lips pursed into a honeyed smile as she approached.
“Huafen,” said Sayder, his face lighting up. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Where else would I be this morning?” said Huafen. “I needed to secure a spot to show my project for this year’s festival.” She gestured behind her, where rows of low wooden tables were quickly being filled with assorted sculptures, knit pieces, drawings, and other work. “I designed the whole thing with twigs and leaves from the hedge around the royal gardens.”
A small, green sculpture of a faerie in flight could be seen on one of the tables near the edge of the pavilion, and next to it a card that must have born its title and Huafen’s name.
“You guys can split off and look around on your own, if you want,” said Sayder, looking down at the three younger Neopets. “Just make sure to stick around.”
“Thanks,” said Xinshi as Sayder and Huafen walked away.
The Lutari, Zafara, and Ogrin were watching a group rehearse a performance onstage when Huanyi approached them. “I’ve been looking for you,” said the pink Kougra. “There’s a lot we need to go over to prepare you for the festival tonight.”
“What’s going to happen, exactly?” asked Yalan as everyone sat down around a bare table.
“You’ll meet me and the other members of the Emperor’s personal party at the guest house,” said Huanyi. “That should be a bit before sundown. We’ll proceed to the pavilion, where you will all be seated here in front of the stage.” She gestured to the two rows of fine wooden chairs. “One of the Emperor’s advisors will give a speech, and exactly at sunset the Lunar Festival will commence.” Huanyi gave the three a significant look. “Now, you should remember that it is very important that you meet me at the guest house on time. I don’t want anything like last night. It would be horribly rude to leave any of these front row seats empty for the opening speech, and I’m certain that none of you would want to be caught outside when the spirits are released anyway.”
“Definitely not,” said Danye.
Huanyi nodded. “Now, once the activities begin, you’re pretty much free to do as you wish. The seats will be reserved for you, and you can watch whatever performances are being held onstage. You can go visit the various booths, walk around, it doesn’t really matter.” The Kougra briefly glanced toward the path that led up into the city. “All that’s really important is that you’re on time. Once you’re here, you’re here, and you’ll be treated to all that the Emperor and the city can provide.”
“Will the Emperor himself be here?” asked Yalan.
Huanyi looked down at the striped Zafara. “Certainly not,” she said. “The royal family and their most trusted attendants remain in the palace. Can you imagine what would happen if the Emperor or the Empress were to be seen in public?”
“Sorry,” said Yalan quietly, just as a Ruki with long black hair approached Huanyi from behind.
“Excuse me,” said the Neopet, “but are you in charge of helping the members of the Emperor’s personal party? I was picked in the lottery, and I’m not quite sure what to do.”
Huanyi hesitated, looking briefly at Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye, before saying, “Don’t worry, everything will be taken care of. You have reserved seats.” She nodded at a Mynci who was directing some other Neopets as they lay tablecloths on the round tables. “That Neopet over there is a palace worker too; he can answer any other questions you have.”
The Ruki blinked. “Okay,” she said, turning away. “Thank you.”
Huanyi’s eyes darted once more toward the road into the city. “Any more questions?” she asked the three Neopets. No one spoke. “Good. Just remember to be—”
“Huanyi!” called Sayder. He and Huafen walked up to the small group in front of the stage. The Gelert smiled. “Did you tell these three everything they need to know for tonight?”
“Yes,” said Huanyi. “I’m glad that you’re here. I need you to deliver this—” she reached into her pocket for a small scroll— “to my brother Anyan.”
Sayder took the roll of paper. “Will he still be at the palace gates?”
“If not, leave it in his room, where he’ll see it,” said Huanyi. “If you didn’t know, his is two doors to the right of mine.”
“Alright,” said Sayder. “I’ll get it to him.”
“Don’t lose it,” said Huanyi as the Gelert walked off through the crowd of Neopets. Huafen lingered for a moment before excusing herself, and Huanyi turned to Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye once again. “As I said before, do not, under any circumstances, be late to the guest house. You should arrive an hour or two before sunset at the latest. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Danye.
“Don’t forget,” said Huanyi. The pink Kougra turned around and began walking toward the Mynci, who was still busy laying tablecloths. “I’ll meet you there,” she said over her shoulder, and then the three Neopets were alone.
“This is pretty exciting,” said Yalan. She stared at the stage, where the group of dancers was still rehearsing. “I can’t wait for tonight.”
“What should we do now, though?” said Xinshi. “Sayder told us to stay at the pavilion. What do you two want to do?”
“I want to go get Ganduo,” said Danye. The Ogrin shrugged. “I won’t be away for long, and it’s not like Sayder is here anyway. Let me just run up to his house. It’s not far.”
“Okay,” said Xinshi, and Danye hurried away through the crowd.
The blue Lutari settled into one of the front row seats, next to Yalan’s wheeled chair. He listened to the feet of the dancers on the wooden stage as she watched them leap gracefully through the air.
After a while, they decided to get up and look at some of the booths. Yalan had to carefully guide Xinshi as he pushed her chair through the crowded pavilion. They sampled some delicious food at several of the stands. Xinshi was even able to find some spicy negg noodles that reminded him of the first night he had met Sayder and learned that he’d been chosen to be in the Emperor’s party for the festival.
They eventually found another Neopet who had won the random draw—a blue Chia named Dacheng. His wife was managing a beverage booth and had been serving the two friends small cups of river wave breeze when she mentioned that her husband had been selected. Dacheng sat them down at a nearby table to talk.
“So you’re from just south of the city,” said the Chia, nodding at Xinshi. “And you live in a village far to the west.”
“Yes,” said Yalan. “It’s the first time being here for both of us.”
“And on such special terms, too,” he said with a bright smile. “I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other tonight, then, eh?”
“Do you know how many Neopets are in the party?” asked Xinshi. “We haven’t been told.”
“I’m not positive,” said Dacheng. “But I’ve been at the Lunar Festival in the past when this has happened. If I recall, there were about thirty pets chosen randomly. Everyone meets down here at the pavilion, and we get the best seats in the house.”
“We were told to meet at the guest house, where we’ve been staying,” said Xinshi. “Were you told that?”
“I haven’t been told anything,” said Dacheng, stroking the short beard on his chin. “In the past, I don’t remember there being any procession down to the pavilion or anything of that sort. Though that’s not to say that nothing special will happen.” His eyes twinkled, and the two younger Neopets had to lean forward in their chairs to hear him as he lowered his voice. “One of the times that the Emperor held a lottery to choose a personal party, it was the night Princess Lunara was born. Can you imagine? That’s something special—a child born on the night of the Lunar Festival. That’s why she was given that strange name.”
“That’s amazing,” said Yalan.
“It gets better,” said Dacheng. “The members of the Emperor’s personal party were given an express message from a palace attendant himself, on that very night! They were the first to hear the good news. No one else had even known that the Empress was expecting a child, you see. Nobody even knows what the Empress looks like!” The Chia was growing excited. “And better still, those lucky few Neopets were given a private tour of the palace the next morning. They even got to enter one of the Empress’s chambers, the very one in which the Princess was born.”
“Did they get to see the baby?” asked Yalan.
“Don’t be silly,” said Dacheng, waving away her question with his hand. “But just think! Aside from the privilege of getting prime seating and catered food, we might get to hear a special announcement from the Emperor. Perhaps he’s going to sponsor the construction of a new project in the city. Or maybe we’ll get to visit the palace. Who knows?”
“Dacheng!” A purple Chia was calling for her husband from the beverage booth. “Dear, you need to fetch more ice!”
“I’ll see you two later tonight,” said Dacheng, shaking their hands. “I can hardly wait!”
Xinshi and Yalan stayed at the table for a while, talking quietly as they watched the preparations being made around them. The day wore slowly on, and the pavilion transformed before their eyes into a majestic backdrop, filled with vibrant colors and delicious smells. Yalan spotted Huanyi supervising the arrangement of a stack of ancient scrolls nearby.
After a while, Danye finally found them, with Ganduo trailing behind her. The Ogrin and Lupe sat down at the table with Xinshi and Yalan.
“I’m really sorry that took so long,” said Danye. “Did Sayder or Huanyi ask where I was?”
“No,” said Yalan, glancing behind her where the pink Kougra seemed busy with the piles of old scrolls. “We looked around and talked to some Neopets, that’s all.”
“It’s my fault,” said Ganduo. “My parents and I were trying to make plans for the Lunar Festival, but Grandma Vinta is hard to deal with. She’s completely deaf, but she rarely pays any attention to the notes that we write for her, and she refuses to write anything of her own. It took us forever just to come to the agreement that she’ll stay at home and the rest of us will come down to the pavilion. I hope she doesn’t walk outside and get possessed by an evil spirit.” He chuckled.
“That would be bad,” said Xinshi.
“Honestly, she’s completely deaf, and being born in a year of Hearing hasn’t made her any more likely to listen to what we try to tell her.”
There was a papery clatter as the stack of ancient scrolls toppled from the table behind them. Everyone turned to see Huanyi staring at Ganduo.
The pink Kougra took a step toward their table. “Did you just say that you have a deaf grandmother who was born in a year of Hearing?” she said.
The green Lupe hesitated. “Yes, why?”
“Does she live here, in Shenkuu?”
Ganduo shook his head. “No, she lives in Terror Mountain. But she was born and raised in Shenkuu, and she stays with us every year for the Lunar Festival.”
Huanyi smiled at him. “That’s nice,” she said. “Now, I have business to attend to, so I won’t be around the pavilion any more this afternoon.” She glanced at Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye. “You three need to make sure that you meet me at the guest house this evening before sunset, all right?”
“Another member of the party that we met said he was told to just meet here,” said Xinshi. “Should we tell him otherwise?”
“I’m sure he’s been caught up,” said Huanyi. “Just make sure that you are where you’re supposed to be.”
“We’ll remember, I promise,” said Danye.
Huanyi smiled again. “Very good,” she said. “Enjoy the rest of the preparations. I’ll see you all later.” She quickly departed, walking off of the pavilion and starting up the path into the city. Another worker began to pick up the scrolls from the floor where they had fallen.
Ganduo leaned his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand. “I think that’s the first time she’s spoken a word to me,” he said. “That was sort of weird.”
“Why do you think she was so interested in your deaf grandma?” asked Yalan.
“Well, it’s pretty rare for someone to be born deficient in their birth sense,” said Xinshi. “I mean, my family makes fun of me all the time for being born blind in a year of Sight. I guess she was just curious.”
“It can’t be that uncommon,” said Yalan. “I was born in a year of Feeling, and I have no feeling in my legs.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Ganduo. “But still, it’s strange that she would get so excited about it.”
Danye had been staring at each Neopet as they spoke. The red Ogrin’s mouth was closed and her eyes were unblinking. She licked her lips and opened her mouth slowly. “I was born in a year of Smell,” she said quietly. Everyone turned to look at her. She took a deep breath. “I have no sense of smell.”
Gravity seemed to double, and the four Neopets felt pressed down into their chairs by the weight of what had been said.
“I don’t understand,” said Yalan quietly. “How could we all be the same?”
“This can’t be a coincidence,” said Ganduo. “There’s no way.”
“But why would Huanyi—or anyone—care about all of us being deficient in our birth sense?” said Xinshi.
“I don’t know,” said Danye carefully, standing up. She turned toward the path that led up into the city. “But I think I know who might.”
The others followed her off of the pavilion. As she led the way, Danye’s eyes stared up toward the peak of the highest green hill, where the Lunar Temple stood framed against a backdrop of heavy clouds.
To be continued...