Cycle of the Moon: Part Four
Xinshi wasn’t sure what it was that woke him up, but he knew that it was still very late because the palace grounds outside his open window were silent.
The guest house was quiet as well, and Xinshi sat up in bed, feeling quite awake. He turned his face toward the open air, a gentle draft entering his room and making him shiver.
Then he heard something on the wind, so faint that it could have been imagined. It was a single sound, like a lone note from a song, and Xinshi pushed away his bed sheets and stood up. He walked carefully toward the window and leaned outside, thrusting his head and shoulders through the wide, empty space.
There it was again. The distant melody was like the unseen stars in the midnight sky, twinkling just beyond the Lutari’s reach.
He was completely awake now, so much so that Xinshi knew it would be impossible for him to go back to sleep. Without really thinking, he pushed himself so that he was sitting on the edge of the window. Then he swung his legs over and jumped onto the grass, which was wet from the fog that covered the hills of Shenkuu.
The tune floated to his ears on the wind’s breath. Xinshi wondered if anyone else would be able to hear it, or if perhaps his keen senses made him the only one. There was clearly no one else on the lawn, because the world was perfectly silent apart from the faint song.
The Lutari walked toward its source, away from the wide guest house. The notes never seemed to grow louder, yet he could feel them drawing closer. By now he was certain that it was someone singing in a very soft voice, yet the words were indistinguishable and the tune was impossible to recognize.
For a brief moment, Xinshi wondered if he was still asleep and this was all a dream, when his outstretched hands brushed against something prickly. He stopped and carefully felt what was in front of him.
It was the hedge. He was standing right in front of the thick growth of leaves and branches, and the voice was coming from the other side.
Someone was in the gardens.
The realization hit Xinshi like a gust of wind, and indeed the air seemed to grow colder as he pressed his face into the hedge, pushing the vines apart with his hands. A Neopet was singing in the royal gardens in the middle of the night, not knowing that a blind Lutari was standing just a few feet away.
He was certain that the singer was very close. Her voice, though still soft, could be heard just a short distance from the thick hedge. Xinshi guessed that she was sitting down, perhaps on a bench in the midst of a flower bed, calling to the stars in a language he didn’t understand. He wondered if it was ancient Shenkese, or maybe not a language at all, merely notes of a melody that had never been heard before or ever would be again.
A new voice came from the distance, somewhere in the garden but far beyond where the chanting Neopet was sitting. Her voice was cut off as if by a knife, and Xinshi felt his heart sink. He didn’t wonder why; he was absorbed in the moment, which felt heavier than the yellow moon which hung in the sky above.
“My lady.” The voice was much closer now, but it still seemed to be muffled, as if the speaker were facing the other direction. “You must return to the palace at once.”
It was the first word he had heard her say in his own language. Her voice was fragile, subdued—rather different from the rich freedom it had exuded before.
“My lady, you must retire.” Xinshi could hear footsteps now, so close that he was certain this new Neopet was walking toward the other behind the hedge. His voice was still faded, however, as if he were walking backwards and speaking to the palace instead of the lady.
“I only want to let my child feel the night air.”
There was something in her voice that could have broken Xinshi’s heart.
“Weiru has charged me with keeping you in your chambers, where it’s safe. Can you imagine what he’d say if he knew I’d allowed you to come out into the gardens?”
Xinshi could hear them breathing, one a bit more slowly than the other.
“Weiru says he is helping me to bear the child of the Emperor. But his instruments reek of magic and pain. I don’t want it to happen again. I don’t want to feel him pushing, prying, squeezing... all for the sake of that night.”
“I have dreaded tomorrow night for as long as I should have been celebrating the joy of a child. You could at least allow me to sit under the moon in peace. I... will not see it tomorrow.”
The air was perfectly still. Xinshi’s heart was pounding.
She bore the child of the Emperor. Sitting a short distance away from the Lutari was the Empress of Shenkuu herself.
Then he realized why the servant’s voice was muffled—he was indeed speaking toward the palace. His head must be turned away in reverence. Xinshi remembered Sayder’s words: To see even a hair on the head of the Empress with one’s eyes will cause them to be stricken blind. If he could see, Xinshi knew that he would be staring directly at the Empress through the leafy hedge. If he could see, he might be the only Neopet to have ever looked upon her face. If he could see...
“My lady, I beg you.” The servant’s voice was strained with worry. Xinshi wondered who this Weiru was, and how he was able to inspire such fear. “You must come back to the palace.”
In the silence, Xinshi could hear the Empress draw a long, deep breath.
She let it out in a tragic sigh, which seemed to set the world in motion. The wind rustled in the leaves of the hedge, and Xinshi could hear the Empress slowly getting up from where she sat. She was standing directly in front of him now, no more than a few feet away.
He listened as, with soft, slow footsteps, she followed the servant back through the garden toward the palace.
“You have seen her,” breathed a voice in Xinshi’s ear. The Lutari felt as if his blood had turned to ice for a split second—never in his life had he been taken by surprise like that. His keen senses had always alerted him when another Neopet was near, but this time he had been completely absorbed by the scene behind the curtain of leaves.
His heart hammered in his chest as the panic subsided, and he stepped back out of the hedge to face the Neopet beside him.
“So I’m not alone.”
Xinshi recognized the voice, but he had to concentrate for a few tense seconds before he remembered: “Huafen?”
The faerie Xweetok took a breath of cool air through her mouth. Her voice was hushed. “Did you look into her eyes?”
Xinshi’s heavy breathing was beginning to slow down. “I’m blind,” he said. “I can’t see.”
He could hear the air catch in Huafen’s throat. “But we met this afternoon. You didn’t look blind.”
“Well, I am.”
“But you were looking right at her.” An anxious tone edged her words. “I saw you staring right into her face. She was sitting right through there, on the bench. When you pulled the leaves away, I could see her too.”
Sayder’s words crept into Xinshi’s mind again, and he said, “But you weren’t stricken blind?”
Huafen was silent for a moment. “No. But I wondered whether it was because there is something wrong with my spirit, or because the tradition is a lie.” She swallowed. “I heard her singing from my room in the guest house, just as I’m sure you did. I saw you walk across the lawn and stand in front of the hedge, so I followed. I came up behind you and saw that you were staring upon the Empress herself. I thought... I wanted to know if you would keep your sight as well.”
“But I never had it.”
“And now, I’ll never know.”
Her voice was as sad as that of the Empress, but in a different way.
“Know what?” Xinshi rubbed his arms as the midnight chill began to crawl up them.
“I want to know what’s true and what isn’t. I want to know if it’s me or if it’s them.” Huafen spoke slowly, her lips giving fullness to every word. “I want to know why.” The wind picked up, and it beat against Xinshi’s face for a few moments before settling down. “When I was only a child, I heard someone singing in the night. I was so curious that I used my wings and flew over the hedge and entered the palace gardens. And there she was.”
Neither of the two Neopets moved. Like before, Xinshi felt himself drawn to Huafen’s voice. “The Empress was singing under a tree that was covered in cherry blossoms. When I set foot on the grass, she turned and saw me. I had always been told that to see the Empress was to be stricken blind, and yet it didn’t happen.” Huafen paused. “She looked at me, right in the eyes.”
For several long moments, the night was utterly silent.
“And then she smiled a little, turned around, and walked away.”
Xinshi blinked. His eyes were moist from the cold. “And you can still see.”
“Ever since that day I have wondered why I didn’t lose my sight. Either the tradition is false, or my spirit does not belong in Shenkuu.”
Xinshi remembered what he had learned from Shiru that evening, and said, “Do you mean, the spirit that gives you your birth sense?”
Huafen smiled—he could hear it in her voice. “No,” she said. “My true spirit. The one you have even before you’re born.”
Xinshi felt something tingle beneath his eyes.
“Since that day, I haven’t used my wings. And I never again saw the Empress, until tonight.” She sighed. “And still, I don’t know what to believe.”
“Couldn’t you just ask? Isn’t there anyone who would know?”
“If anyone knew I had looked upon the Empress, I would be in grave danger. And so would you.” Huafen touched Xinshi’s cheek. “Some Neopets hold tradition above all else. Some ignore it completely. But I have never known what to believe.”
“You have to believe something,” said Xinshi quietly.
Her hand left his face, its warmth lingering for a few moments.
The still night gave no reply. Huafen turned away and began walking toward the guest house. Before long, Xinshi was alone in his blind darkness, with her question still echoing in his mind.
To be continued...