Cycle of the Moon: Part Twelve
Anshu the Ruki herbalist was asleep in a low wooden chair with his head resting on a round table. Powders, roots, pastes, bowls, and labeled jars were scattered on its surface, and every time he let out a faint snore, two dried leaves were blown closer to the table’s edge. They crept farther and farther until at last they slid off the wood and into the air, and fluttered together to the floor.
A short hallway led from the area where Anshu sold his restoratives to another room at the back of the building. Outside its closed door were two chairs, occupied by a shadow Gelert and a faerie Xweetok.
They were silent, both staring at the opposite wall, which was a plain, creamy color. Occasionally, the Gelert would start to nod off only to blink and straighten up again. The Xweetok remained steady, lost in deep thought.
The Day of Sleeping had dawned on Shenkuu. The entire population were wrapped up in their blankets, resting from the long night of festivities that had ended only a few hours ago. Outside, the streets were deserted and the mists had risen back into the sky.
The Xweetok turned to look at her companion. She watched him for a moment, his elbows resting on his knees and his chin in his hands, looking down at the floor with heavy eyelids.
He noticed her gaze upon him and met it.
“I saw her three times.” Her hands were folded in her lap, and she glanced down at them. “I never told you, Sayder, but I did.”
He watched her as she looked up at the wall and stared into the distance, as if some image were being projected on its off-white surface.
“When I was very young, I saw the Empress in the royal gardens. I flew over the hedge, and there she was, beneath a cherry blossom tree. I looked her in the eyes, but didn’t go blind.”
Sayder glanced at the wall, and he could imagine the scene there, as if Huafen were painting it for him on the blank canvas.
“I stopped believing in spirits after that. I wasn’t afraid to go outside during the Lunar Festival, though I never tried it until last night because I knew I’d be in trouble if I was seen. And aside from that celebration, when do the Shenkese speak of spirits at all? They are only brought up during birth, death, and the festival. So I stopped believing.
“Then, I saw her again just two nights ago with Xinshi. But because he was already blind, my questions were still unanswered. My doubt remained.
“And last night, I saw her for the last time.” She was silent. “I may be the only one ever to have seen her face, to have looked into her eyes. Just those three times.”
Huafen closed her eyes, as if the wall was no longer a suitable backdrop for the memories that were being summoned by her words. “She was beautiful, you know. No one was able to see it, only me.”
Sayder closed his eyes as well.
“Every time, and forever now, it was under the shade of cherry blossoms. Even her bedchamber had them sewn into the curtains. Now, that’s all that will remain of her beauty. Tomorrow, the royal gongs will cry out the tragedy of her loss, and a path will be cleared through the streets from the palace to the base of the hills. Crowds will flood that trail, weeping as Neopets with faces of stone carry her on a final journey, hidden from view by layers of silk and wood.
“They will throw pink petals into the air and on the ground, but that’s all they will know of her. They will surround the cemetery on the hill, encircling the crest where the royal sepulcher lies. And they will turn away as she is laid to rest, and the weeping will echo from the mountains and reach across the sea.”
She opened her eyes.
“But their tears will dry, and the grass will grow over her, and she will be forgotten. She will fade into time and tradition, just another name attached to the Emperor’s lineage, and no one will ever know her face again.”
“No one but me.”
Sayder opened his eyes and looked at her, and he could see that she was crying.
“It’s just one more thing to make me feel alone. One more thing to separate me from the rest of Shenkuu. Even if I climb the hill every day and throw cherry blossom petals on the ground, I can never bring her back. She has left me with more loneliness than I have ever known.”
Sayder reached into her lap and squeezed her hand. “But you’re not alone.”
She looked at his black fur, squeezing back. “I believe in them now—spirits. I could feel them in the palace and out in the gardens.” She hesitated. “And when the child was born, it was unmistakable. But still, I don’t know if I understand. Shenkese tradition is a fog, and I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Some of it I have experienced to be true, and some to be completely false.”
“That’s what we do in life,” said Sayder. “Seek the truth.”
She met his gaze. Her face was tragic, but in her eyes was a hope. “I think I can do that.”
Inside Anshu’s small room, a bed was surrounded by four chairs. The window had been opened, and a cool breeze crept in, laden with the silence of the city outside. Yalan’s head was resting on a white pillow while her wheeled chair sat by the closed door. A low table held the remnants of the herbalist’s medicine: a cup with green dregs at the bottom, a bowl of clear ointment, and a stick of incense that had burned out.
Shiru, Xinshi, Danye, and Ganduo were seated in low chairs around the bed. All of them were asleep except Xinshi, who was staring out the window.
Yalan slowly opened her eyes. The striped Zafara looked at the Neopets around her, trying to sit up as best she could. “Xinshi?”
He turned around. “You’re awake.” He grinned.
“I feel a lot better now.” She glanced at the table. “I think Anshu’s restoratives have done their work.”
The others slowly emerged from sleep to the sound of the two voices. “Feeling okay?” asked Danye as she stretched.
“Yeah,” said Yalan. “I’m sorry you all had to sleep in chairs like that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Ganduo. “I wouldn’t stay in that guest house if you paid me.”
“Speaking of which,” said Danye, watching Shiru as he blinked several times. “What do we do now? What happens next?”
The Gnorbu frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, somebody has to do something about all this,” said the red Ogrin. “I mean, we can’t just let this happen and not tell anybody. I know you ordered Rubo to send word to the Emperor, but seeing as the Emperor was the one who told Weiru to do what he did in the first place...”
Shiru shook his head. “What would you suggest? That we proclaim all that has happened to the Shenkese population and demand justice?”
“That sounds fine to me,” said Ganduo.
The Lunar Temple master sighed. “Take some time and consider the situation. With the loss of the Empress, the Emperor of Shenkuu will have no more children. What has transpired cannot happen again.”
“That doesn’t make it all right,” said Ganduo.
“No, it doesn’t. But at least we are assured that this has been the last time.” Shiru paused. “Weiru has lost power to speak; I’m sure he will be removed from his position as chief minister, and possibly be banished from Shenkuu forever.”
“That’s better than he deserves.”
Shiru glanced at Ganduo. “He has done wrong, but he has paid the price. Would you punish him further?”
The Lupe was silent.
“As for putting blame on the Emperor, who would believe you? It took long enough for even me to learn of my brother’s plans. They were complicated and rooted deep in ancient customs. Do you expect to be taken seriously with your testimony, without any proof?”
None of the four Neopets could give an answer, but Xinshi asked a question: “I know you and Weiru are brothers, but you can’t possibly have the same blood, can you? How did you break the enchantment?”
“We are twins,” said Shiru. “I know we don’t look it, but we were born identical. We had the same blood, the same appearance, the same upbringing. We both studied under the Emperor’s scholars, and this was when we parted ways. I took charge of the Lunar Temple, and Weiru began to dabble in magic. That’s what eventually made him go white, and what allowed him to develop close ties with the Emperor. He studied the aspects of Shenkese culture that were based on spells and spirits. I studied the books about the moon and stars.”
The Gnorbu frowned, and the others could see that he regretted his brother’s betrayal deeply. “I had been notified that Weiru was going to be the chief minister, but that was years ago. I’ve heard no word from him since then. He had slipped my mind entirely. I... when you came to see me in the Temple I should have remembered. I should have known.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Yalan softly.
“You must understand,” said Shiru. “The Neopets of Shenkuu cannot lose confidence in their Emperor. Even if you were to reveal all that he has done and everyone was to believe you, there would be no good to come of it. Can you imagine what would happen if there was a revolt? The land would be thrown into chaos.” He hesitated. “The Emperor is not evil. He does these things to separate himself, to raise his family to a higher level. I don’t think he knew what was happening when he gave Weiru the power to execute his orders. I think he just wanted his children to be special. They will be taking over when he is gone. The line must continue.”
Ganduo sighed, and Danye put her hand on his shoulder. “I know it doesn’t seem fair, but I think I understand,” said the Ogrin. “What’s done is done. Shiru’s right; it won’t happen again. We just have to try to pick ourselves up and move forward.”
The Lunar Temple master nodded. “Life is a cycle. Just as the Emperor and Empress must fade and their children rise to the throne, we too must continue to survive. For every low, there is a high. In any dark time, there is a light on the other side. For every loss, there is new life.”
Ganduo continued to stare at the floor. The room was quiet.
“I think I can accept that,” said the Lupe after a long silence. “But not yet.”
* * * * *
As the sun passed its peak in the sky, the path that wound down the splashing course of the river was silent except for the muted clicking of Yalan’s wheeled chair. Xinshi’s feet padded silently across the grass, and Yalan guided him with her voice. They stopped in the shade of a wide, leafy tree close to the water’s edge.
Xinshi sat down and leaned against the rough trunk. Now, all that could be heard was the gentle rushing of the river as it flowed past them.
Both were silent at first. The bond that had existed between them for those brief moments the night before had not faded entirely. Xinshi and Yalan knew that they would never be able to forget that feeling, that connection. It seemed to transcend time, this knowledge that they had been one and the same for even the shortest of instants.
“This didn’t turn out like I expected.” Yalan’s voice hovered on the air. “I thought this was my chance to be independent. I came to the city with all these hopes. I imagined the great story that would unfold, and the good times I would have, and how it would all be wrapped up when I realized that I could finally do something on my own.” A wisp of faraway cloud passed over the sun, casting a fleeting shadow on the hills of Shenkuu. “But it turned out just the opposite.”
Xinshi adjusted his position against the trunk of the tree, pushing his legs against the grass. He glanced at the Zafara next to him, whose feet rested motionless on the base of the chair.
“Yalan, I think you’re stronger than you know.” Uneasy speaking this way, he kept his head positioned toward the river in front of them. “I think you’re a great Neopet. Even in just a couple days, I’ve never met anyone as thoughtful as you are.” He smiled. “But sometimes, it seems like you think too much.”
Yalan sighed, and the tension was dispersed by her gentle breath. “I guess.”
“You’ve made it through an experience that no one else will ever know. You’re going home stronger than before. And you’ve got new friends.”
“What’s going to happen after this, anyway? Shiru said we shouldn’t tell anyone, but that doesn’t mean that this never happened.”
Xinshi twisted a piece of grass around his hand. “I don’t think any of us are ever going to forget it. I think the hard part is just going to be keeping it all inside.”
“I’m good at that already.”
Xinshi snapped the blade of grass. “Me too.”
The river rushed by, and the two Neopets sat in silence in the shade of the leafy tree.
“I don’t want to go home.” Yalan took in a deep breath. “I’m not ready to go home and have everything be just the same as it was before. I feel like, you’re right, I am different now. I don’t want things to go back to the way they were. If I had to go through this, I want there to be a change.”
“Nobody else is going to change. We’re the only ones who can.”
Yalan’s voice betrayed the tear that streaked her face. “I wish it didn’t have to be like that.”
Another cloud passed over the sun.
“You and I, we’re the same in a lot of ways. And right now, neither of us knows what to do next. But, I think we’ll be okay.” Xinshi grabbed the hand that was dangling over the arm of the wheeled chair. “We’ve just got to keep on living. Keep on growing. Keep on...” He struggled for a moment to find the right word.
They both knew. The wordless promise, to keep on, would not be forgotten. As the two friends watched the river flow past below and the sun float past above, they knew that some moments would not be forgotten. Not the pain of the night of the Lunar Festival, not the rush of the moment that they were joined, not the wordless vow on the banks of the river that ran down through the hills of Shenkuu.
* * * * *
A mound of brown earth was just another bump on the slope of the great hill to the east of the city. Framed by the snowy, grey mountains, it was a peaceful place to honor the departed and reflect on the lives that had run their course.
A green Lupe was the only figure standing on the hillside. His head was bowed, his hands clasped, his tears already spilled on the damp soil.
The time to deal, to gather the pieces and put himself together, would be later. Now was the time to grieve.
A red figure approached from the west, standing out sharply against the green hills of the sleeping city. The sun was behind her, on its way toward the horizon with the distant sea. She came and stood next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
The warmth of her touch wasn’t even close to overcoming the cold pit inside of him, but for now it was enough.
They stood, two figures alone on the empty hill which would soon be swarmed with mourners for the Empress.
But the two were enough—for each other, and for the one they remembered in silence. No more could be asked for, than simply enough.
* * * * *
The sun had set by the time the group was gathered at the base of the hills. With the pavilion behind them, the curved roof shading its abandoned tables and bare stage, the Neopets bid each other farewell as they exchanged hugs.
Sayder stood with Xinshi, and Huafen with Yalan, poised to follow two separate paths to return the younger Neopets to their families. Ganduo and Danye stood next to Shiru as the Lunar Temple master rested with a hand on his curved staff.
“I will miss you both,” he said to Xinshi and Yalan. “We all will.”
“I’ll miss you all too,” said Yalan. “I wish I didn’t live so far away. You’ll all be together and Xinshi and I will be alone.”
“We’ll see you again,” said Danye. “Maybe next year for the festival. We can celebrate the right way this time.”
“We’ll keep in touch, I’m sure,” said Sayder. “Even when I have to return to Altador, I’ll never forget the friends I’ve made in the past days.”
“I guess it’s one good thing that’s come from all of this,” said Ganduo.
Shiru smiled. “If there’s one thing you remember of this experience, let it be this. Life is a treasure. Whether it be lost or gained, and we have experienced both, you must never forget its value.” He stroked his tufted mustache. “I think you will look back on this time with a happier eye in the years to come. More good has come from it than ill, I am sure.”
The others were silent. Sayder glanced into the darkening sky. “We should go.”
There were no more goodbyes to be said. After a hesitant moment, Sayder and Xinshi set off down one path and Huafen pushed Yalan down another. Shiru, Danye, and Ganduo waved until their friends had faded into the shadowy hills beyond the city.
The Ogrin and the Lupe turned away to walk together back up the path. Shiru remained, leaning on his question mark staff, staring up at the heavens.
The old Gnorbu sighed.
“And so, life goes on, as certain as the cycle of the moon.”