On the Cusp of the New Year
A thin layer of frost covered the branches of the cherry blossom trees. Empty of their leaves, they were nothing but bare bones, crackling with cold in the winter weather. Suvarie watched the trees through her perfectly rectangular window. It was glassless, like all of the windows in her Shenkuu home, and it framed the stiff branches in a deceptively orderly way. From this limited view, they looked so tame. But she knew that if she tried to climb them, they'd snap underneath her feet. Even a petite royal girl Mynci like herself was too heavy at this time of year.
Lilith, a red Wocky and a servant girl, tugged lightly at Suvarie's hair as she combed it. Suvarie sat cross-legged on a cushion, poised and still. Both of them were silent. Lilith concentrated on keeping her hands steady. Suvarie watched the window, seeking some sort of movement. Something.
The branches cajoled her. They stretched so high into the sky, so far beyond earth's boundaries. Suvarie bit her lip, scolding herself for the longing that made her feet itch. A blast of chilly wind burst through the open window. It sent goosebumps down her arms. When she inhaled the cold it felt sharp in her nostrils and lungs, but it also felt crisp and fresh. A warm tingle rushed through her body. She could see herself rising above Shenkuu with the wind rushing around her, through her...
"Oh dear, it's so cold in here." Amadora, a green Nimmo, stood in the doorframe, pulling her flowing kimono sleeves closer to her skin.
"Sorry, miss," Lilith said. She momentarily abandoned her task and closed the shutters. Suvarie blinked, shut off from the outside world.
"Here, let me help you," Amadora said. She grabbed the comb and ran it through Suvarie's hair, separating the strands until they shined. "You're going to look so beautiful, Suvarie. Everyone will be very pleased to see how you've grown."
Amadora was Suvarie's caretaker. She offered a tender hand when Suvarie's teachers were cross and much needed affection when her father was away or her sisters were busy.
Lilith began threading silk into Suvarie's hair. This was indeed a very special occasion. It was New Year's Eve. The New Year's festival was taking place that night. It was a tradition for all of the lords to be present at the Lunar Temple for a feast. The Twelfth Lord of Shenkuu always brought one of his daughters. That year, that daughter was Suvarie.
All of her sisters had spoken fondly of the feast, but they were not like Suvarie. They kept their painted lips sealed shut. They kept their feet on the ground.
"Just remember to be polite," Amadora said. "Don't speak unless spoken to. Smile. Accept compliments graciously. You'll get them, I'm sure.
"They'll be thrilled to see you," she continued. "Just do your part and everything will take care of itself." She started braiding Suvarie's hair.
Suvarie couldn't hold still any longer. The room around her was warm, but her breath was still icy cold. Her insides were frozen. They crackled like a glacier, splintering as if someone stabbed a stake in a frozen pond. The words burst out of her.
"Do you remember how we celebrated New Year's Eve when I was younger," Suvarie said, her voice breathy.
Amadora's hands stiffened for a moment. Then they set back to work, moving fluidly once again.
"I don't know if I do," she said calmly.
"We used to celebrate in town. There were all sorts of booths set up and lanterns lining the streets. We'd eat warm noodles with wooden chopsticks and watch the fireworks with the townspeople," Suvarie said.
And she could see it. Holding Amadora's kimono sleeve as a child. Traipsing through crowds of chattering Neopians. Many of them were wearing kimonos and yukatas. Children laughed as they tossed hoops over bottles to win prizes. There was a booth filled with Pandaphant things and another with origami petpets. She wanted to get her palm read by the fortuneteller, but Amadora refused.
Fortunetelling is for the townspeople, she said; the elite class do not participate in such nonsense.
When she had looked up, she had seen paper lanterns in glorious colors shedding light over the crowded streets. They were entrancing, pure bulbs of light floating over her head. They purchased a bowl of noodles to share; they were salty. And the fireworks. Colors bursting into the sky, like faeries casting spells, burning into her eyes and leaving nothing but loud bangs and a trace of smoke behind. The townspeople cheered. A few Pyguis were frightened by the cacophony. A man struggled to restrain them.
"I do remember, I suppose," Amadora said, "but it was a long time ago."
"I wish we could go again," Suvarie said. "It's boring staying at home."
"Young lady," Amadora scolded, "have you forgotten the honor that's been bestowed upon you tonight? How dare you be so ungrateful? And the past New Year's Eve celebrations in this house have been wonderful, if I do say so myself."
Lilith helped Amadora place a golden lotus pendant in the center of Suvarie's head. They threaded the braids into the lotus, creating an elaborate, spidery hairstyle that made her feel heavy and unbalanced.
"There," Amadora said.
Now Lilith worked on Suvarie's face. She covered it in pale paste. Amadora brushed pink powder onto her cheeks. Suvarie held her lips firmly as Lilith painted them a blistering blood red. Her eyelids were layered in blues.
When they finished, Amadora sighed happily and Lilith pressed the wrinkles from Suvarie's kimono.
"Now," Amadora said. "You look beautiful. Just try to behave yourself, please."
"Of course, Madame," Suvarie said. She stopped for a moment but couldn't hold back. "I'll be so disenchanted with New Year's Eve by the time this feast is over that I won't have the strength to say a single word."
"Selfish brat!" Amadora cried. "Do you know what this means to your father?"
"It means that I'm the current prize petpet on display," Suvarie said, "but there's no need to worry. I'll hold my tongue, just as I always do."
"Lady," Amadora said, gently placing her hands on Suvarie's shoulders, "please. I know well how you feel, but you must not think on such things right now. Do as your teacher tells you and think of your family. You spend too much time dwelling on yourself."
Suddenly, Suvarie heard her teacher's stern voice in her head.
Ladies do not snivel. If she must cry, she should cry quietly and discreetly, like so. Teacher hid her face in her sleeve for a moment, but she wasn't crying.
"I do think of this family," Suvarie said, her voice quiet. "But-"
"Enough," Amadora said. And that was that.
The steps to the Lunar Temple were framed by paper bag lanterns that cast a warm glow on the stone. An enormous banner lit by torches welcomed the guests, wishing all of them a Happy New Year. In the courtyard, fountains bubbled and strings of paper lanterns bobbed in the breeze. Diplomats dressed in silk and gold chatted and dined. Waiters passed between the guests with sushi and sparkling drinks on silver trays. The twelve lords wove through the crowd, each displaying his family crest.
Suvarie's family crest was the Biyako. It represented courage and loyalty and daring.
If you saw my life, you wouldn't think of it as courageous. Courage is about taking risks. I never have that choice, Suvarie thought.
She wandered idly; her father had vanished to speak with a wealthy lord, probably to seal a trade. Groups of trained Lightmites swarmed the fountains, their glow pooling in the water's surface. Suvarie had to admit that they were beautiful, even though she felt sad for these captive creatures. She let a small Lightmite land on her finger.
"They're remarkable, aren't they?"
Suvarie turned to see a lord with a Pandaphant crest around his neck. It was Lord Mong, the richest of the lords. She knew that her father would be dying to impress him. Suvarie bowed politely, but staring at his jewel-encrusted shoes made her heart seethe.
"It's remarkable how someone could be so cruel. These creatures will never see freedom," she said. Her throat tightened, but Mong wasn't offended.
"Is freedom really so desirable? They serve a purpose here, one that they would never have in the wild," he said.
"A purpose that they never wanted nor chose," Suvarie said.
"Are they not beautiful?"
"No," Suvarie lied. "It's not natural. And forced nature can never be beautiful."
Mong chuckled. "You have a harsh tongue for such a lovely lady. And a stubborn mind."
"Stubbornness is admirable in the Blurgah. Otherwise, our carts would never reach the top of the mountain," Suvarie said.
"You're not a Blurgah," Mong said, "But you have a sharp wit."
A gong sounded. It signaled the start of the annual performances.
"Shall we go?" Mong said, offering Suvarie his sleeve. She took it begrudgingly and followed his lead toward the temporary stage. Each lord hired performers as a show off his wealth and taste. Suvarie watched each of the displays pass with detached amusement.
Fire breathers, followed by sword dancers, followed by contortionists. Each performance was dazzling and opulent, flashy and skillful, but lacking substance. Suvarie's own father provided a famous Shenkuu singer, whose operatic voice reached startling heights. However, Suvarie longed for a falter in the tone, for a genuine break, a slip of a note for something resembling emotion to rise to her lips. The last troop to perform was Mong's.
"This is a favorite of mine," he said, "I hope you'll be impressed."
Suvarie rolled her eyes internally but was surprised when a single, limber Nimmo in light silk took center stage. In her hands she held two chakrams. She took a deep breath.
Drums began to play, their steady beats tumbling into the crowd. The Nimmo danced and turned at first, much like the other performers, but there was ferocity in her movements, a chaotic grace. She tossed her chakrams in the air and caught them. And then, she cartwheeled off the stage, climbed a post and hoisted herself onto the strings that held the paper lanterns as if she was light as air.
The crowd gasped, pointing up at her as she balanced in midair, the ropes dipping under her weight. She bounced a few times then sprung onto another rope parallel to the first one. A few guests screamed as she took flight, but the Nimmo caught a lantern expertly and swung herself onto the rope.
She continued this way, flipping and spinning and dancing on the ropes as Suvarie watched, mesmerized. Each time she jumped, the Nimmo's eyes were fierce and focused, but wildly alive. In the finale, the drum beats growing faster and the Nimmo's movements growing more chaotic, she grabbed both of her chakrams and tossed them high into the air. She caught them, hanging upside down from the rope, her legs stretched into a split with only her toes gripping the rope.
The crowd burst into applause.
"Well, what do you think?" Mong asked.
""Who is she?" Suvarie said, amazed and beside herself. "I would like to speak with her."
"Is that an order?" Mong said, his eyebrows raised, and Suvarie's cheeks flushed with shame. Then he laughed, his face softening. "That's the first thing you've said all night that hasn't been cynical. I suppose I have no choice but to honor your wish."
Mong lead Suvarie to the Nimmo, who was still bowing to the guests.
"Miss Kaya, this is Lady Suvarie, daughter of the Twelfth Lord of Shenkuu," Mong said. Suvarie and Kaya bowed to each other. Suvarie wondered how Mong knew her name. Had her father been speaking about her?
At that moment, another diplomat gestured to Mong, and he waved goodbye as he was sucked back into the crowd.
"It's an honor, Lady Suvarie," Kaya said. "I hope you enjoyed my performance."
"I did indeed," Suvarie said. "You looked so free, so fearless." She blushed. What was coming over her? This unbridled waterfall of passion gushed from her lips. "What I mean to say is, it was lovely and I'd be honored to make your acquaintance, and"- she could resist no longer- "I want you to teach me how to be as strong and graceful as you are when you balance."
Kaya stepped back, visibly shocked.
"Lady," she said. "My performance is an art, but it is a necessity of the lower class, a lifestyle. It is not a hobby to be trifled with for leisure."
"You think so lowly of me?" Suvarie said. "I envy your art and your lifestyle."
"With all due respect," Kaya said, "I find your support more cushioned than a palace footrest."
"How dare you speak to me this way," Suvarie said. "Do you realize who..." She trailed off. "I'm not just another spoiled brat," she said, calmer now. "I'm not just bored and idle. I'm completely lucky and entirely empty," she said.
How this felt, to be so free. To say what she really felt, to be honest in words. She wasn't silent, nor masked in cynicism. Neither complacent nor jaded. Just true, pure, restless.
"I don't have time to teach," Kaya said, "I have to make a living, to survive. I apologize for what I've said."
Before Kaya could make an exit, Suvarie's father approached the pair.
"Miss," he bowed to Kaya, "and Lady," he said to Suvarie. The two returned his bows.
"Mong is quite impressed with you, Suvarie," he said. "He told me he plans to send you a Pandaphant as thanks for your company tonight."
"Are you going to sell it then?" Suvarie asked.
"Of course not," he said. "The Pandaphant belongs to you, and it is yours to keep or sell as you wish."
"Ah," she said, eyeing Kaya. "It must be worth a great fortune. I will have to assess my prospective trades carefully before I make a decision."
"Wise words," he said. At that moment, the fireworks struck, exploding into the sky in a plethora of bright colors.
"Ah my lady, it is the new year!" he said.
New year. New life. In the glow of the explosions, Kaya nodded deliberately in Suvarie's direction. Suvarie smiled for the first time all night, her feet itching, the ropes above her looking lower than they ever had.