Cycle of the Moon: Part Two
“So if we’re not living in the palace, where will we be?” asked Danye as she followed Sayder, Yalan, and Xinshi up the sloping path.
The shadow Gelert adjusted his grip on Yalan’s wheeled chair. “You three will be staying with the other members of the party in a guest house just behind the palace itself. It’s normally a residence reserved for workers; in fact, Huanyi and I both live there. But for this occasion, some rooms have been set aside for you.”
“What is the palace like?” asked Xinshi.
“You’ll see,” said Sayder, and then he caught himself. “I’ll describe it to you when we get there.”
“I hope it’s not too far,” said Yalan. The striped Zafara lifted her lidded eyes toward the towering green hills. “I wouldn’t want you to get tired pushing me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Sayder. “It’s a hike, but living in the city gets you in pretty good shape.”
“That’s for sure,” said Danye. “I can riverboard all the way from the spring to the base of the city without breaking a sweat.” The red Ogrin pointed at the nearby river, running down one of the many hills. “I should take you guys over there today and show you around.”
“You’ll have the whole day to give your new friends a tour,” said Sayder. “But first let me make sure you know your way back to the guest house. Like Huanyi said, we wouldn’t want anyone to get lost.”
The path continued to twist and curve, and the four Neopets passed several interesting buildings and landmarks. They saw beautiful gardens planted in terraces on gentler slopes, ancient houses with traditional Shenkese architecture, bold and colorful shops, and many, many Neopets on their way through the town. They crossed several rope bridges, from which the ground below looked farther and farther away as they climbed, and the path wound across many hills before finally arriving at a set of tall gates.
A stone wall circled the palace property, and the building could only be glimpsed through the heavy bars. A guard stood on each side of the broad gates; one of them walked up to Sayder as he led the way. “Well, look who’s here,” said the orange Kougra, who wore a wide grin that bared his straight, white teeth. “We missed you last night, Sayder.”
The Gelert pulled a wry face. “I had a job to do, Anyan.” He gestured to the Neopets behind him. “These are members of the Emperor’s personal party for the festival. Huanyi asked me to show them to the guest house.”
“Oh, so you’ve met my sister Huanyi?” The orange Kougra’s smile faded into something more like a smirk. “I’m Anyan,” he said, holding out his hand toward Xinshi. “Nice to meet you.”
The blind Lutari didn’t see the gesture, but he said, “You too.”
“Lucky you,” Anyan said as his hand fell, “to be a part of this special party.”
“Thanks,” said Xinshi.
“We’ll be going through now,” said Sayder, his eyes drifting toward the palace grounds.
“What’s the rush?” asked Anyan, but he unlocked the gate for them. “See you around,” he added as they passed through, his white teeth shining in the morning sunlight.
The four Neopets arrived on a sprawling lawn. One path curved around to the left before swinging back in toward the distant palace, which was partially hidden by small trees. The other moved to the right, and it was this path that Sayder followed, leading the three toward the side of the great building, where a tall hedge hid most of it from view.
Danye glanced around. “So where’s this guest house?”
“Just follow the trail,” said Sayder. “It’s at the back of the palace.”
The thick leaves on their left and the stone wall on their right made the Neopets feel almost as if they were walking through a tunnel. The sunlight became patchy and tinted with green. They passed the palace, whose stones could barely be glimpsed through the dense hedge, and continued walking. “We’re next to the gardens, now,” said Sayder. “That’s where the royal family can go to get some fresh air and still stay out of sight.”
The odd passageway stretched onward and then opened up, and the group finally caught a view of the guest house. The hedge curved away to the left as the outer wall maintained its straight course ahead, revealing a fair-sized area of grass where a building sat beneath a twin-peaked roof. It was made of rusty red stone, one story high but very wide with many windows. Some workers could be seen walking around outside, and a few of them were busy trimming the leaves that served as a thick barrier between the guest house and the royal gardens.
Sayder noticed a faerie Xweetok and acknowledged her with a wave. She climbed down the tall stepladder on which she had been perched and put down her clippers. “Sayder,” she said with a smile. “You’re back.”
“Guys, I’d like you to meet the very first friend I made in Shenkuu,” said Sayder. “Xinshi, Yalan, Danye—this is Huafen.”
The Neopet acknowledged each of them with a nod. Her eyes were a gorgeous turquoise, like that of her wings and much of her fur. “So you’re some of the lucky members of the Emperor’s party,” she said. “Sayder was telling me about the lottery this year.”
“They don’t do this every year?” asked Yalan.
“No,” said Danye, shaking her head. “The Emperor hasn’t done this for a long time. It’s only happened once since I was born, although I know it’s happened before that as well. I don’t know much about it, to be honest.”
“Me neither,” said Sayder. “I was only told about it a few days ago, when the names were drawn. All I know is that the group has special seating in the pavilion.”
“Well, you’ll all find out tomorrow night,” said Huafen. The faerie Xweetok gave a radiant smile. It seemed to cast a spell over the group, because there was a long pause before Huafen broke the silence. “I’ll see you later.” She walked away and picked up her clippers, returning to her work at the hedge.
Sayder watched her, and the other three followed suit. “Why does she turn her head like that?” asked Yalan. Huafen could be seen holding her face at an angle so that she wasn’t looking directly into the leaves.
“You never want to stare through the hedge,” said Sayder. “The royal family often walks in the gardens. It’s very rude to look at any of them. In fact,” he lowered his voice, “it is said that to see even a hair on the head of the Empress with one’s eyes will cause them to be stricken blind.”
Xinshi raised his eyebrows, and Danye nodded. “Of course,” continued Sayder, “there are many disputes between ancient Shenkese tradition and modern culture. The line between them has become a little blurred, and no one really knows what to believe anymore.”
The Gelert started pushing Yalan’s chair again, waving to Huafen as he headed across the lawn toward the wide guest house. “I’ll show you to your rooms now.”
The group passed several Neopets as they walked through the main door. A common area was filled with sets of tables and chairs, as well as sofas occupied by resting workers. A silent fireplace rested in one wall.
Sayder turned down a hallway that was covered in thick red carpet. He pointed to closed doors on each side as they walked. “This room is where Huanyi lives,” he said, motioning to the left. “And this one is mine.” They continued further, until he stopped and pushed open a door on the right side of the corridor. “Here’s where you two will stay,” he said to Yalan and Danye. “I hope you don’t mind sharing. There’s not a lot of space here, since the workers as well as the guests have to live in the house now.”
“We don’t mind,” said Danye, grabbing the back of Yalan’s chair and pushing her inside. “I’m sure we’ll have a great time together.”
“And you,” said Sayder, showing Xinshi the next door down, “will stay here.”
Xinshi walked into the room, and Sayder helped him find where everything was. The bed was next to a window that looked out toward the veiled gardens behind the palace. “Thank you,” said the blue Lutari. “This is great.”
“Now, I want the three of you to stay together,” said Sayder. “Danye knows her way around the city. I have work to do at the palace and the pavilion, so I need to get going. Will you be all right?”
“Sure,” said Xinshi. He followed Sayder back into the hall and stepped into the girls’ room. “We’ll be fine.”
“Alright,” said the Gelert with a smile. “Have fun. Be sure to return to the guest house by nightfall.”
“Bye,” said Danye, and Sayder walked away.
The three young Neopets were left alone. Xinshi walked slowly to the open window, poking his head outside. The fresh air was invigorating, and for the first time since his arrival in the city, the reality of the situation set in. “This is incredible,” said the Lutari, turning to his new friends. “We’re in the center of Shenkuu, right behind the royal palace, and we’re going to be members of the Emperor’s personal party for the Lunar Festival.”
“I know, isn’t it crazy?” The red Ogrin grinned and shook her head.
“Amazing,” agreed Yalan. The striped Zafara leaned forward in her chair, looking out the window at the workers outside.
A breeze entered the room, and Xinshi closed his eyes.
“Come on,” said Danye. “Let’s go. I’ll show you around the city.”
The Ogrin took hold of Yalan’s chair, and Xinshi followed closely behind as they went down the hallway and outside, onto the grassy grounds, and toward the path that led out of the walled palace property and into the network of roads and bridges that connected the tall green hills of Shenkuu.
* * * * *
It was afternoon when Danye knocked on the wooden door of a building in one of the crowded Shenkese neighborhoods. Houses were squeezed very close together on the narrow hills, and the roads curved in spirals up and down the sloping grass. Xinshi and Yalan waited behind the red Ogrin, who stood on the front step.
A green Lupe opened the door. “Oh, hi Danye,” he said, breaking into a smile. He was a bit older than the three Neopets outside.
“I want you to meet two of my new friends,” said Danye. “Their names are Xinshi and Yalan, and they’re winners of the lottery like me.”
“I’m Ganduo,” said the Lupe. “You three are lucky. I’m going to be down at the pavilion tomorrow night like everyone else, but you guys are going to have the best seats and everything.”
“I’m showing them around the city,” said Danye. “Want to come with us?”
“Sure,” said Ganduo, stepping outside and closing the door behind him. As Danye took hold of Yalan’s wheeled chair and the group started walking, the Lupe added, “So have you two been to the city before?”
“Never,” said Yalan. “It’s worth seeing, though.”
“It sure is,” said Ganduo. “Danye, why don’t we go up to the river? I bet Xinshi and Yalan have never seen riverboarding before.”
Danye quietly informed her friend that Xinshi was blind before saying, “That’s what I was planning on. Although, now that we’re getting close, it looks like some other Neopets had the same idea.”
The city of Shenkuu was crowded to begin with, but it seemed even more congested as the path curved up toward a spring at the top of one of the taller hills. Clear water rushed and splashed down a winding course of pools and waterfalls. Neopets flooded its banks, and brightly-colored riverboards flashed in the clear sunlight.
“That looks like so much fun,” said Yalan. The Zafara stared at the Neopets as they whizzed around bends and through carved wooden arches decorated with red banners that fluttered in the wind.
“It’s fun if you’re good at it,” said Ganduo as the group arrived at a small building near the top of the hill. Several Neopets flooded in and out of its wide doors carrying riverboards. “Danye and I will show you how true athletes conquer the river.”
The Lupe and Ogrin disappeared into the building and came out with their own boards; Ganduo’s was a vibrant red and Danye’s a deep green. “You two might want to head downriver,” said Danye as she eyed the crowds that packed the water’s edge. “I think you’ll find a better spot there.”
“And you can watch us come all the way down,” said Ganduo with a wink.
Yalan nodded excitedly, and Xinshi took the back of her chair. “You’re going to have to direct me,” he said as their two friends hurried off to get in the long line at the start of the course.
“No problem,” said the Zafara. She guided the blue Lutari with her voice, telling him which way to turn as they made their way slowly down the curving path.
“You know,” said Yalan after they were nearing the base of the hill and other Neopets were growing scarce, “it’s sort of weird to actually have control of where I’m going.” She laughed softly. “I normally just go wherever the person behind my chair wants me to go.”
“Well, now you’ve got all the power,” said Xinshi. He walked slowly to make sure of his footing, and their journey was a relaxing one. For the first time since he had entered the city of Shenkuu, things had started to settle down. “You pick out exactly where we’re going to stop and sit.”
Yalan glanced around. The flowing water was lined with lush bushes and sparse trees, one of the only places in the city that was devoid of buildings. A few houses squatted nearby, but for the most part the riverbank was sheltered, its silence interrupted only by the faint buzzing of insects and the sound of the stream, which was much gentler here where the land began to flatten out.
“Turn a little to your left,” she said. Xinshi pushed the chair carefully, its large wheels clicking as they turned. “Now off the path, onto the grass.” The Lutari’s feet brushed against the soft green carpet, and for the tiniest moment, like a familiar smell sparking a distant memory, he thought of the rug in his bedroom. Thoughts of his home and family flashed through his mind, and he felt a tiny wave of homesickness even though it hadn’t yet been a day since he had departed for the city.
Xinshi let go of the chair. He could hear the bubbling sound of the river very close now, and he knew they were poised right on its bank. A few other Neopets could be heard talking nearby, but for the most part the two friends were alone.
“You picked a nice spot.” Xinshi stepped to the side of Yalan’s chair and sat down; he was able to dangle his feet into the cool water.
“Thanks.” Yalan let out a sigh, and they were silent for a few moments.
“When do you think they’ll be coming down? It took us a while to walk here.”
“I’m not sure.” Yalan peered up toward the top of the hill. “The line was long, and I was watching to make sure they didn’t pass us. It seems like a lot of the riverboarders are stopping higher up, though. I hope Danye and Ganduo know to come all the way to the bottom.”
“I think everyone else is stopping because they’re falling.” Xinshi chuckled. “I could hear their splashes every so often as we were walking. Danye and Ganduo grew up here—I’m sure they’ll make it this far.”
A bird began chirping in one of the nearby trees.
“It’s nice not to be the only one sitting out.” The striped Zafara continued to stare upriver as she spoke, watching the distant Neopets standing along the grass and surfing through the rapids.
“I know.” It was also nice to be able to talk to someone his own age; life as a blind Neopet in a small village made it difficult for Xinshi to get out and make friends. He paused, and both of them were comfortable in the silence. “So where are you from? Huanyi said that she brought you in from the countryside, like Sayder did with me.”
“I live south and west of the city. It’s pretty far. Huanyi and I traveled for two days and nights to get here.”
“Wow.” Xinshi grinned. “That’s a long way just to come to a party.”
“It isn’t just some party. It’s the Lunar Festival, the most important night of the year.” Yalan’s soft voice almost melted into the whispering sound of the water, carried delicately on the air like a wisp of cloud.
Xinshi nodded. “The Lunar Festival is the best night of the year—the first night of the New Year. I remember when I was little, my mom and grandma would prepare a huge meal and my sister and I were allowed to stay up all night, until the sun rose and the next year began.”
The nearby bird continued its chirping as memories returned to the two Neopets sitting on the riverbank.
“This will be my first time celebrating away from home,” said Yalan. “It feels a little weird. On the one hand, I miss the curiosity and wonder that all of this tradition and culture used to make me feel when I was little.” She sighed. “But then, it also feels like I’ve finally started to grow up.” Yalan turned her gaze from the river to the blue Lutari beside her. “I’ve spent my whole life in this chair, and I’ve always needed someone to push me. Someone is always showing me where to go and what to do, no questions asked. Being alone in the big city like this... I feel like I’m on my own for the first time in my life.”
Xinshi didn’t say anything; he didn’t need to. Both of them knew that his story was the same as hers.
“I guess being picked in that lottery was the best thing that could have happened to me.” The Zafara’s words seemed to silence the very wind. The bird had stopped chirping.
A new voice lifted the spell that had encircled Xinshi and Yalan, and the two of them turned to face a Neopet who had stepped out from behind the green bushes.
A wizened Gnorbu approached them, leaning on a wooden staff carved in a shape similar to a question mark. The Neopet had pale brown skin and a long white beard, as well as two small tresses of white hair on either side of his nose. “I apologize,” he said. “I couldn’t help but overhear a snatch of your conversation.”
Yalan watched him curiously as he walked across the grass and came to stand before them. Xinshi pulled his legs out of the water and stood up.
“So you are two of the lucky few,” said the Gnorbu, “who have been chosen to be a part of the Emperor’s personal party for the Lunar Festival. It is an honor indeed.”
“It is,” said Xinshi.
“I think,” continued the old Neopet, “that it is even greater than you know.” His clear, blue eyes flashed as he smiled beneath the odd mustache. “My name is Shiru. I live and work in the Lunar Temple, on the highest hill of the city. I am well versed in Shenkese tradition, and I know better than anyone the importance of the Lunar Festival.” As he spoke, the Gnorbu motioned into the distance where the Temple could be seen shining in the early evening sunlight. He wore a blue robe with two strips of white fabric hanging over his chest, and he continued to lean on the question mark-shaped staff. “When I am not watching the stars, I often spend my time here at the water’s edge. It’s very peaceful, don’t you think?”
The Neopet had a kind face, and the two friends were already starting to like him when Yalan suddenly cried out, “Oh, look, look!”
Two shapes could be seen hurtling down the rushing river at top speed, navigating effortlessly around rocks and under wooden arches. A red Ogrin skimmed across the rapids on her dark green riverboard, occasionally catching the tip of a wave and shooting through the air before landing with a splash. Just behind her, a green Lupe on a crimson board cut intricate patterns around logs and mossy boulders.
“They’re incredible,” breathed Yalan, watching as Danye and Ganduo surfed down the steep hill. “Look at that.” She shook her head, unable to take her eyes off of her friends.
“They’re good, all right,” said Shiru, and Yalan excitedly waved her arms through the air as the two Neopets came near.
Danye was in the lead, and she spotted the striped Zafara on the riverbank immediately. Bending her knees, she leaned back and turned her board, kicking up a spray that sparkled in a rainbow of color. The Ogrin expertly navigated into the shallows and hopped off her board, landing on the grass without setting a foot in the water.
Ganduo was close behind, and he carefully surfed up to the spot where the others were standing. “What did you think?” he asked, running a hand through his damp hair.
“You were amazing,” said Yalan. “I loved it.”
“I wish I could do that,” said Xinshi with a smile.
“Who’s this?” Danye asked, glancing at the Gnorbu who rested with a hand on his staff.
“Danye, Ganduo, this is Shiru,” said Xinshi. “He’s the master of the Lunar Temple.”
“Wow, really?” said Danye, her eyes widening. “I’ve always wanted to go up there and look down at the city. I bet the view is phenomenal.”
“It is,” said Shiru. A twinkle came into his blue eyes. “Since two of you are going to be special members of the Lunar Festival, perhaps you’d all like to have a look around the Temple?”
“Actually, it’s three of us,” said Yalan. “All of us but Ganduo were picked. That’s how we met, just this morning.”
“So much the better, then,” said Shiru. “What do you say? Would you like to see it?”
“Definitely,” said Xinshi.
“Lead the way,” said Ganduo, taking the back of Yalan’s wheeled chair.
“Follow me,” said the Lunar Temple master, and he began to walk toward the path, using his staff for balance.
The sun was making its way toward the western horizon, and the glass windows of the Temple shone brilliantly in its light. The road could be seen at the peak of the tallest hill, winding its way down in a gentle spiral until it disappeared amidst the countless bridges and buildings of the city.
To be continued...