Cycle of the Moon: Part One
Clouds rolled in from the west, piled high upon one another as if in a hurry to escape the wind that chased them across the sky. A shadow Gelert melted into the darkness of the landscape, making his way through the hills toward the dim lights of a tiny village in the southern reaches of Shenkuu. His head bowed against the wind, the Neopet clutched the neck of his coat in one hand and a scroll stamped with the royal seal in the other.
The pale moon wavered as the first thin layers of cloud passed across it. The faint sound of rain could be heard in the distance, and the Gelert hurried his pace.
Remembering his instructions, the Neopet approached a small hut on the edge of town. Its low, curved roof shone dully in the gloom, and lanterns in the windows gave off a yellow glow. He knocked on the wooden door.
It was pulled away by a pink Lutari with large blue eyes. “Can I help you?” Her gentle voice softened the tension of the looming storm.
The Gelert inclined his head politely. “I come on behalf of His Highness the Emperor of Shenkuu.” He held out the scroll and unrolled it. “In a lottery of all Shenkese citizens, someone in your household has been selected to be a part of the Emperor’s personal party for the upcoming Lunar Festival. Is Xinshi here?”
“Yes.” She turned around and called into another room. A young Lutari appeared at her shoulder. He shared his mother’s eyes, and he had deep blue fur to match. “Xinshi, listen to what this Neopet has to say.”
The Gelert explained that Xinshi would be taken to the main city of Shenkuu and would be treated to two days of luxury before the night of the Lunar Festival. “You will be staying on the palace grounds, and during the Festival you will have prime seating and exclusive entertainment. Very few others have been granted this honor.”
“Wow, thank you,” said Xinshi, looking upwards. It was then that the Gelert realized he was blind. The blue Lutari’s eyes sought out the taller Neopet’s face, but they didn’t quite connect. It gave the impression that he was staring at something far away.
The mother squeezed her son’s shoulder. “This is a very great honor indeed,” she said with a smile.
“I just never would have imagined,” said Xinshi, his face lighting up. “The Emperor’s own personal party? I can’t believe it.”
“You will accompany me tonight,” said the shadow Gelert. “We should arrive in the city by morning, and you’ll join the other guests.”
“Tonight?” The pink Lutari glanced down at Xinshi, and then at their visitor. “That’s a bit of a journey, and you’ve already traveled far. Please, join us for dinner. It’s nearly prepared, and I’m sure you need a rest.”
“Thank you,” said the Gelert, inclining his head once more. “You are very kind, madam.”
“Yunli,” she said with a smile. “And you are?”
“Welcome, Sayder.” Yunli stepped back from the doorway. The Gelert walked inside and looked around. The home was modest and warm, a relief from the chilly night outside.
“The food is nearly finished,” said Yunli, hurrying away through another door. “Please excuse me.”
Xinshi turned to look up at Sayder. “Come in and meet my family. I’m sure they’ll all be really excited to hear about this. None of us have even been to the city before.”
Xinshi led the way into another room, which was wide with a low ceiling. Its wooden walls were decorated with simple artwork, and three Neopets sat in chairs before a crackling fireplace. Xinshi introduced them. “This is my father, Baiyang,” he said, pointing to a yellow Lutari with glasses. “This is my grandma Kaile.” An elderly green Lutari scrutinized Sayder with skeptical eyes. “And this is my little sister, Mingmei.” The red Lutari waved with a shy smile.
Xinshi quickly explained why Sayder had come, and Baiyang said, “So you work for the Emperor?”
“Not exactly,” said Sayder as he and Xinshi settled into two chairs. “I’m actually from Altador, and I came to Shenkuu to study. I’ve been working with some of the Emperor’s scholars and chief servants.”
“Ah, you must be a smart one,” said Kaile, “like my granddaughter.” The old Lutari leaned back in her rocking chair. “She was born in a year of Taste, you see. She has only an appetite for numbers! All day she gobbles up these numbers and spits out new ones.” She shook her head. “No number is ever good enough! Always she is wanting more.”
The Gelert hesitated. “What do you mean, a year of taste?” he asked, and Kaile’s head snapped forward.
“What are you saying? Have you never heard of birth sense?”
Sayder shook his head.
Kaile threw her withered hands into the air. “Nobody talks about birth sense anymore. When I was young, Neopets paid attention to it. It was something to be heeded, celebrated. Now if you mention your birth sense, it’s like talking about your—”
“Grandma!” cried Mingmei, blushing.
Xinshi turned to Sayder. “The Shenkese calendar is divided into sets of five years,” he said. “Each of those five years is marked by one of the senses. Babies born in that year are given strength in that sense, in one way or another.”
Kaile nodded. “I was born in a year of Hearing. Even in my old age, not a single peep goes unnoticed by me. My grandchildren will tell you that.” The green Lutari leaned back once more.
“The strength isn’t always so obvious, though,” said Xinshi. “I was born in a year of Sight, but I’m blind.” He was quiet. “I like to think that I see in different ways.”
Yunli could be heard clinking dishes in the other room.
“So, Sayder,” said Baiyang. “Tell us when you were born. We’ll figure out your birth sense for you.”
The Gelert smiled. “Well, it was the third day in the month of Hunting—”
Kaile let out a squawk. “Those silly Neopian months don’t mean anything,” she said. “The traditional Shenkese calendar is the only one that works.”
“I’m sure I could use some math and get the right date,” said Mingmei, reaching for a pencil.
Before the red Lutari could begin writing, Yunli’s head popped through the doorway. “Dinner’s ready!” she said.
Everyone filed into the dining room, where the wooden table was covered in an array of colorful food. As Sayder took his seat, Xinshi began to walk around, leaning toward the various plates as he moved. “Squibble berry salad,” he said, closing his sightless eyes, “chokato dumplings, negg noodles with extra spice, purplum buns, and...” Baiyang’s spectacled eyes shone as he watched his son hesitate. “And bamboo tea,” said Xinshi decisively, sitting down in a wooden chair.
“You got it,” Yunli said as Baiyang took his place at the head of the table.
The yellow Lutari leaned toward Sayder. “You know,” he said quietly, “I was born in a year of Smell, but Xinshi sometimes seems more acute even than me. Being born without sight has made his other senses much stronger.”
Sayder saw Xinshi smile at his seat across the table, and he knew that the young Lutari had heard his father’s comments.
“If I had known we’d have a guest, I would have done a much better job preparing everything,” said Yunli, the only one still standing up. “Please pardon the poor quality of the meal.”
“Preposterous,” said Baiyang, reaching for the negg noodles. “By my birth sense, I can smell that this dish is one of the best you’ve ever made.” He served himself some of the noodles and set the bowl down. All eyes watched as he sampled the food.
Baiyang closed his eyes as he chewed and swallowed. “My nose has never been wrong,” he said. “This tastes spectacular.”
Yunli beamed and sat down as Baiyang passed the negg noodles to Sayder. The Gelert took a generous helping, managing to scoop up a couple of the gold-colored neggs that were mixed in with the red sauce.
Passing the dish on, Sayder picked up his chopsticks and plucked out one of the small neggs, popping it in his mouth.
He chewed and swallowed. “Delicious,” he said, wiping his mouth on a napkin.
He paused when he noticed that five pairs of eyes were staring at him.
“Are you all right?” asked Mingmei, looking worried. “Do you need some water?”
“What’s wrong?” asked Sayder, growing anxious at the strange looks on the faces of the family members.
“Those neggs aren’t supposed to be eaten,” said Xinshi. “They’re really, really spicy. I mean, really. They’re just to flavor the sauce.”
“Oh,” said Sayder, raising his eyebrows and looking at his plate. “I’m afraid I don’t have any taste.”
After a pause, Kaile said, “That’s as good of an initiation to the power of Shenkese cooking as anyone could ever hope for. You can consider yourself an honorary citizen of Shenkuu, now.”
Sayder smiled, and the rest of the family laughed. As dinner continued, Baiyang asked how his son would enter the city and prepare for the Lunar Festival.
“I’ll take him myself,” said Sayder, glancing at Xinshi. “If we leave right after dinner, we’ll arrive by midmorning. He’ll meet up with the other guests, and I’ll show him around. He’ll have all day tomorrow to explore, and at night he’ll be accommodated in one of the guest houses on the property of the royal palace. The next day will be filled with preparations for the festival, and that night he and the other guests will be treated to the best that the city of Shenkuu has to offer.”
“Do I need to bring anything?” asked Xinshi.
“Everything will be provided for you,” said Sayder. “You’ll have tailored clothes for the festival, and all of your needs will be taken care of by servants of the royal family.”
“Isn’t this exciting?” said Yunli. “Our own child, selected out of thousands to be a member of the party of the Emperor himself.”
“It’s an incredible honor,” agreed Baiyang. “We’re very proud of you, Xinshi.”
“Thanks,” said the blue Lutari. “I guess I’m pretty lucky.”
The evening progressed into night, and by the time everyone was finished eating, Sayder was growing a bit restless. “We should leave soon,” he said, glancing out the window. The dark clouds had all but covered the sky, and he was certain that the rain was not far off. “It’s a long walk to the city.”
“I’m ready,” said Xinshi, standing up.
The rest of the family followed, until they were all crowded just outside the front door. Sayder had put his jacket back on, and Xinshi had been persuaded to take his own coat with him. “You’re going to get soaked,” said Yunli, looking hesitantly at the sky.
“I’ll be fine,” said Xinshi, standing next to Sayder on the soft grass. “I’ll be back in a couple days.”
“Have fun, son.” Baiyang stood with his hands in his pockets. “You watch out for him,” he added to Sayder.
“He’s safe with me,” said the Gelert. “Enjoy the Lunar Festival, all of you.”
“Bye, Xinshi,” called Mingmei, waving as her brother followed the shadow Neopet toward the dark hills.
“You’ll have to tell us all about the city when you return,” said Kaile. “And remember to stay indoors! You know that spirits lurk on that night.”
“Goodbye,” called Xinshi, turning around even though he couldn’t see his family as they huddled together in the first drops of rain that fell from the sky. “I’ll miss you.”
Sayder instinctively put his hand on Xinshi’s shoulder as they began to ascend one of the hills, made slippery by the water that tumbled from above. “You’re pretty good at walking,” said Sayder. He wondered if the Lutari could detect that he was grinning by the sound of his voice. After all, Xinshi seemed able to notice everything else.
“I’ve been blind since birth,” said Xinshi. “I’ve learned how to function pretty well. I only need something described to me if it can’t be felt by any of the other senses.”
“Well, how about this,” said Sayder, and he began to speak as the two made their way through the sheets of rain that now poured steadily down upon them. “The sky is dark, black dark, and the clouds are piled on each other so thick that the moonlight can’t shine through.”
They walked on, Sayder leading the way, keeping a gentle hold on the young Lutari next to him. “The hills stretch in all directions, growing flatter toward the south and west. Distant mountains stand far off to the east. You and I are heading north, where the hills rise up, toward the main city of Shenkuu.”
The night wore on and, as Yunli had predicted, both Neopets were soon soaked. After a while, they settled into a comfortable silence, broken only by the squelching sounds their feet made on the soggy ground as they journeyed through the night.
* * * * *
Like green fingers reaching for the cloudy sky, the tall, slender hills of Shenkuu towered above two Neopets as they approached the city.
At the highest peak, brushing against the mists that had risen from the ground and now hung in the morning air, the Lunar Temple made an impressive sight. It clung to the crest of the tallest hill, with its lone pennant fluttering in the breeze. Below the flag was a rounded room filled with windows, and beneath that was the base, where the entrance opened up to a dusty path that spiraled down the steep grade and joined the rest of the city.
The village was connected by curving roads and narrow bridges, suspended by ropes across the slender hills. Because of the varying heights, the paths and bridges turned in bends and arcs like strands of a Spyderweb draped over the land. The terrain gradually evened out near the lower valleys, following the splashing course of a river which flowed down from a hidden spring. At the base of the city, a wide, flat area had been cleared. Neopets scurried around it, busy constructing a large pavilion with a wide, curved roof.
Sayder led Xinshi toward it, describing the city as best he could. The young Lutari absorbed every word, turning his head as if he could actually see everything that the shadow Gelert was talking about. When at last they arrived at the pavilion, Sayder said, “And this is where the Lunar Festival will take place. Many of the citizens are helping to assemble a grand curved roof over rows of wooden posts. They should finish today, and tomorrow everyone will be setting up booths and tables and stages and all kinds of things for the party.”
“Just how big is this place?” asked Xinshi, listening to the chatter of the Neopets as they worked.
“Huge,” said Sayder, as they stopped to stand in the midst of the crowd. “The whole population of the city will be crowded under this one roof tomorrow night.”
“That’s incredible,” said Xinshi, just as the two were approached by another pair of Neopets.
A pink Kougra waved to Sayder as she came forward, pushing in front of her a Neopet in an odd seat. Four wheels had been attached to a wooden chair, two small ones in the front and two larger ones in the back, one of which made a muted clicking sound as it turned. A striped Zafara sat in it, looking around with wide eyes.
“Hello,” said Sayder cheerfully. He turned to Xinshi. “Xinshi, I’d like you to meet a coworker of mine. She’s one of the servants of the royal family, and she handles a lot of important jobs around the palace and the city. Her name is Huanyi.”
Xinshi reached forward with his hand, and the pink Kougra immediately shook it. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m glad to see that another member of the Emperor’s special party is young.” She nodded at the Zafara, who looked about Xinshi’s age. “This is Yalan. She was picked in the lottery as well, and I brought her into the city during the night.”
“Hi,” said Yalan, smiling at Xinshi from her wheeled chair.
“So, how many Neopets were selected?” asked the blue Lutari. “Are they all here?”
“I think there were about twenty total,” said Sayder, touching his chin. “Many of them lived in the city, of course, but workers like Huanyi and I were sent out to the nearby villages to escort anyone who didn’t live close by.”
Huanyi nodded. “You’re the last ones to arrive,” she said. “Xinshi, Yalan, I think there’s one more Neopet that you might want to meet.” She turned Yalan’s chair and pushed her through the crowd.
Some of the workers nodded politely at her as she passed, and the Kougra led the group away from the pavilion, toward one of the paths that led up into the colorful city. Sitting on a bench, watching the activities, was a red Ogrin. “Danye is also a lucky member of the Emperor’s party,” said Huanyi. “The three of you should get along well, I think.”
Introductions were made all around, and Danye gave Xinshi and Yalan a big grin. “Gosh, isn’t this exciting?” she said. “You two must be even more thrilled than I am, being from outside the city and all. I live here, and the Lunar Festival is the biggest event of the year by far.”
“Sayder, why don’t you show our three guests where they’ll be staying tonight?” said Huanyi. “I have a lot to do.”
“Sure,” said Sayder.
Huanyi nodded. “Make sure you three don’t get separated,” she said, arching an eyebrow as she faced the young Neopets. “We wouldn’t want anyone to get lost and miss the celebration.” The pink Kougra hesitated, gave a small nod, and then turned away, disappearing into the throngs of Neopets on the pavilion.
Sayder turned to Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye. “Alright, let’s get going,” he said. “It’s a long walk up to the palace.”
“The palace?” gasped Danye as she began to follow Sayder up the path. The Gelert pushed Yalan’s chair, which clicked softly as it rolled along the dusty trail. Danye and Xinshi walked behind. “We get to stay in the palace?”
“No, but close,” said Sayder. They began to ascend one of the hills, and the road curved in a switchback pattern.
The four Neopets climbed higher and higher, passing under trees that clung to the hillsides and houses bunched together on sloping roads. In the distance, the sky burned with the warm colors of the morning sun, and the yellow flag atop the Lunar Temple fluttered in the breeze.
To be continued...