The Line Between
By Alaena Hope
2: Dance of Moons
"It—it's an omen!"
The murmur raced over the walkways and down onto the docks. It washed over the city folk in soft, clinging waves and sank into wide, paralyzed eyes. Kavin noted this with a sort of detached calm. He himself was surprised—it was impossible not to be surprised when something one had seen happen regularly every year over and over without fail suddenly failed to happen—but there was little that could be done for that. Instead, he shouldered his way through the crowd and towards the docks. When he got there, he found the dockhands standing just as frozen as the rest of the audience. Striding up to the man who appeared to be in charge, he cleared his throat loudly. The man's eyes turned slowly towards him before coming to a stop on the healer's face in a manner that showed he wasn't really looking at the younger man at all.
Growing impatient, Kavin thumped the man on the shoulder. "Hey, snap out of it and send someone out there to pick up the phoenix's crew before they drown."
The man's face grew even paler, though he seemed to really see Kavin at last. "It—it sank. The phoenix… It really sank."
"That is precisely why they need help!"
The man jumped and stared at Kavin. Then the healer's words finally sank in, and he hurried to get a handful of dockhands into a boat and out to fish up the crew. Kavin watched them go. It wasn't until then that he noticed the dull buzzing that had begun to saturate the air. He could almost feel the uneasiness thrumming against his skin, ready to burst into full pandemonium with the slightest of pushes. He closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath.
The half-drowned crew of the sunken boat were set back on the docks just as the remaining six boats were being moored. Those of the audience who could flooded onto the docks, and the buzzing became a roar. Lord Baiyu himself came elbowing his way through the crowds. He ran all the way to the edge of the water and flung his arms around one of the dripping members of the phoenix's crew. The boy burst into tears and clung to the front of Lord Baiyu's clothes. An island of quiet grew about the two. Somehow, it seemed to calm those near enough to see. Finally, assured of his son's safety, the lord stood and turned to face the anxious faces amassed around him.
"This was an accident," he said clearly, his voice ringing out over the people with the strength of confidence. "An unfortunate accident which shall no doubt leave its imprint forever upon our memories, but an accident nonetheless. No one has been injured." He glanced at Kavin and the two healers who had joined him for confirmation. "It means nothing but that we have not been as careful as we ought."
Toshin watched as Lord Baiyu talked to the people of the city. He had been almost afraid to step off of the boat, half expecting to see blame in the eyes of the masses, but it seemed they were more interested in the lord than the boats. It was strange, he thought as one of the dockhands gave him a hand up, but he hadn't thought winning could ever feel this awful.
"Come on!" Hanari hissed into his ear, one cold and slightly damp hand closing on his arm. She began to pull him away from the boats. Her face was still pale, but she no longer looked horrified. Just worried. "Let's get out of here."
Together, they wormed their way back out onto the open streets. No one paid them any attention. They broke into a run the moment they were free of the main body of onlookers and didn't slow down until they had rounded several corners and were standing in the middle of an almost deserted street. Coming to a stop, Hanari let go of him and tucked her hands under her arms as though cold. Her brows were furrowed, and she was chewing on her lower lip—something she never did unless she was extremely upset.
Toshin shivered. "Do…do you think it means that something bad is going to happen?"
Hanari blinked and turned her frown on him. "Don't be ridiculous. It's just a ceremony. There's no real magic in it. You need human intention for that."
"But the phoenix never loses! And they say—"
"That it represents the shape of the year to come," she finished for him as a sigh escaped her lips. "I know, and it's strange. But even if it did mean something, all the boats represent incarnations of the One, so none of them are bad. I mean, the tiger's the incarnation of the wild. Maybe it just means the next year's going to be one for growing."
It was Toshin's turn to frown. He didn't see the connection at all. But Hanari was the Temple apprentice, and so perhaps she did know what she was talking about. Still…he couldn't seem to shake the feeling that everything had gone suddenly and horribly wrong.
Now you just sound like a scared little kid, he told himself sternly. Wrong boat or not, Hanari was right. The tiger wasn't one of the darker incarnations.
"I'm going to go back to the Temple," Hanari said abruptly. "I should report this to Master Faven. He said he wasn't going to the race today, but he'll want to hear about this."
"I guess I'll head home then," Toshin agreed reluctantly. That morning, he had looked forward to a day of excitement. Now he wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but he wasn't in the mood for celebrating. Even the thought of all the delicious festival foods he had originally planned on eating just made him feel ill. Still, he saw so little of Hanari these days that it would have been nice if she'd stay a little longer. They had, after all, grown up together.
And he had wanted to enjoy himself today, he thought with a touch of bitterness as he watched Hanari's retreating back. A last day of just having fun and doing things before he ended up trapped in his father's workshop for the rest of his life, crafting metal and gemstones into useless trinkets. Turning away, he started to make his way back home, his feet dragging so that his shoes scraped the streets with every step.
The shop doors stood open like every other set of shop doors on the street. He slouched his way over the threshold. His father sat at the counter across from a man whose clothes spoke of fat purses. Both men looked up when Toshin came in, and the jeweler's face lit up as he waved the boy over.
"Toshin! Just in time. This nice man here was just saying how much he admires the work you did on this broach."
"The craftsmanship is truly exquisite," the man agreed with an easy smile. "Would you consider selling it to me?"
Toshin nodded mutely, his stomach clenching. Mistaking his silence for delighted surprise, his father beamed and returned his attention to the customer.
"It amazed me when I first saw it, you know," he rambled with a smile. "I didn't realize the lad had it in him. He always insists he's no good."
Fighting the urge to tell his father that that was because he had hoped he would be allowed to do something else if the man thought him a failure at the jeweler's trade, Toshin slipped through the back door and up the stairs to his room. He thought he heard his mother calling to him as he passed the kitchen, but he ignored her.
They were like living shadows: black and sinuous and silent. It was almost possible while watching them spin and flow and leap to think that they were not human at all but entities from beyond reality. Bright, white lights trailed behind them, streaking through the air behind gloved hands. In and out they wove, mesmerizing, drawing in the mind. Captivating all thought. When the dance finally came to an end, the darkness rustled with the audience's collective sigh of pleasure and disappointment.
Their sighs gave way to gasps of wonder as gold light plumed out from the middle of the stage to splash across the floor, a fire that did not burn. Acrobats clad in red, orange, and gold came bounding forth. Long, silver blades flashed. Over and over, the audience was drawn into enthralling exhibitions of motion and color only to be lowered back to earth with a thirst for more. When the intermission rolled around, the cheers were uproarious.
Sitting back in his seat, Kavin found himself smiling. Most of this crowd had been among those watching the race, but the thrill of the performances had apparently wiped their minds clean of their earlier trepidation. It was really quite amazing.
"Are you enjoying the show?"
Glancing over at the source of the question, Kavin found Amayo flopping into an empty seat. "Yes. I've always found they have a kind of power to them. What about you? How're you holding up? You look tired."
Amayo made a face at that. "I've been afraid all evening that I'm going to ruin the whole show. At least I get to stay off stage. You know that part before the blade dancers came in? Well, during practice yesterday, I accidently set one of the dancers' clothes on fire. At least I managed to put it out before she actually got burned. They've set up five huge pails of water where you lot can't see them just in case it happens again tonight."
"Are you expecting it to?"
"I don't know. I'm hoping not, obviously, but it's so hard not to imagine all the things that could go wrong. And then, well, they do."
The healer gave his friend a comforting pat on the back. "Think about it this way. You haven't made any mistakes yet this evening."
Amayo turned this over in his mind for a moment then his face lit up. "You're right. And the show's halfway done." Now looking much more cheerful, the apprentice mage relaxed into his chair and grinned. "So how was the race?"
Kavin cast him a surprised look, but, knowing Amayo, it was entirely possible he had been too nervous to hear anything anyone said all day. "It was…unusual. No serious injuries this time around, but there are many who would probably have preferred there were if it meant the phoenix won as it usually does."
"The—what?" Jerking around in his seat, Amayo stared at the healer. He didn't appear to be joking. "You mean…"
"The tiger won the race." Kavin had his eyes fixed on the empty stage. "If that was all though, I don't think it would have bothered people so much. But the phoenix didn't just lose. It sank."
Amayo went pale. "But the phoenix is the incarnation of life!"
"Keep it down," Kavin hissed, shooting him a warning look. "There's nothing anyone can do about it, and it wouldn't do any good to remind people. It would be best if they could just all remember that accidents happen. They don't have to mean anything."
"Still…that on top of the whole Hikoma attack…"
Kavin's eyebrows rose. "What Hikoma attack?"
"You haven't heard?" Amayo asked, surprised. "I would have thought… Well, a messenger bird came in this morning. There was an incursion in the Hikoma region, only it got out of hand. The entire city was overrun by a clan of vesori. They managed to fight them off in the end, but there are too many casualties for their healers to handle. They're asking for any healers who can spare the time to go and help."
"And this news came in this morning?" Kavin fought to keep his voice level. Amayo would need every ounce of concentration he had for the rest of the performance if they were all to survive it unscathed. Besides, it wasn't his fault the Temple had so conveniently neglected to mention the matter. The anger was still there though, burning bright and harsh and sudden, and he found his fists clenching despite his efforts to make them relax. Amayo's nod of affirmation came just as the theater lights went out. The mage excused himself to hurry back to his post. Kavin let his eyes drift back to the stage, but, though the rest of the show was just as vivid and breathtaking as the first, he didn't see any of it.
The palace grounds lay silent, bathed in the soft shadows of night. Emilu breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the cool, clear air, and let her eyes drift over the expanse of the gardens. They were laced through with smooth, stone walkways and dotted with still pools that caught the white circle of the moon in their depths so that it seemed there was not one but several moons casting their silver light over the sleeping world. Nothing stirred out in that tranquility but the soft, whispering wind. It was how it should be.
Nodding to herself in satisfaction, she turned and proceeded down one of those many walkways. The soft soles of her shoes made little sound against hard stone. Her round was almost complete for the night.
Another member of the Royal Guard passed her on a circuit going in the other direction. They traded salutes and continued on their separate ways. The interior of the palace was just as still as the gardens. The time of day was only partially at fault for that—or so Emilu believed. It must, after all, have been different when there was a king. She wasn't old enough to know what it had been like back then, but surely the palace would have been a much livelier place. For one, it wouldn't have been so full of empty rooms and far too much open space through which far too few people could walk.
Making her way down one wide and empty hall, Emilu imagined the richly dressed men and women who would have walked there, their faces either serious or merry as they discussed the Kingdom and its affairs. The walls would have been hung with tapestries and the painted scrolls of poets and artists alike. Perhaps there would even have been flowers set regularly along the walls in those tall, elegant vases they crafted in Quanri.
Rounding the corner, she found herself facing a small door that had been carved with the image of a phoenix. She extracted a key from a pocket hidden in her sleeve and unlocked it. The key was inserted into the keyhole hidden amidst the feathers of one of the phoenix's wings and turned a quarter circle to the left then half a circle to the right. A soft click greeted Emilu's waiting ears, and she pushed lightly on the door. It swung inward without a sound. Three more similar doors and different combinations of turns later, she was inside a circular chamber whose walls had been covered with paintings of the seven incarnations of the One.
The only light in the room came from a glass sphere filled with light that hung suspended near the ceiling in its center. Seeing the sphere always sent a shiver down Emilu's spine, though by now she knew she should be used to it. After all, she had been seeing it once every other week for the last six months. Yet, no matter how many times she told herself it was held aloft by magic, she still found herself searching for supports that weren't there. She'd never had much contact with mages before she'd joined the Royal Guard, but the neighbor's son back home had been a Reilin mage, and her few encounters with him had left her with a dislike for mages in general.
Giving herself a hard shake, Emilu pulled her eyes away from the sphere and scanned the rest of the chamber. Everything was where it should be.
Her heart almost stopped when she saw the deserted altar in the center of the room. A few long steps and she was standing right beside it, but there was still nothing there. The king's sword, the greatest treasure of the kingdom, had vanished.
Sprinting back out into the hall, she pulled the small horn from her sash and blew it.