The streets of Meru were filled with the roar of celebration. Revelers crowded the wide avenues of the great city, setting the city alight with the glow of essence driven street lamps that paled the Moon and dowsed the light of the stars. And in the center of the pulsing masses stood the grand marble and jade walls of the Calibration Hall of the Deliberative.
She gazed across the feast hall with pride. One hundred thick columns lined both sides of the room, supporting a high ceiling of Chiaroscuro glass that shimmered and swirled to the fancy of whoever gazed upon its surface. Arrayed between the pillars were multicolored curtains of silk, which lent a degree of privacy to the dozens of smaller adjoining rooms that lined the thick walls behind the columns.
From her seat, she wondered how Yaâ€™moire enjoyed the festivities. The Hierarchâ€™s specifications had been quite detailed. And extensive. She had arrived with much fanfare and was escorted by no less than eighty â€˜guestsâ€™ in various states of nudity, some of which had been selected out of the crowd that greeted her when she entered the city. The Zenith was sheathed in a gown of living flame that caressed her body as reverently as her many lovers. The priceless garment was probably in some forgotten corner by now. The two of them had traded a few words upon her arrival, as decorum demanded, but she was never comfortable with the Hierarchâ€™s more sensual excesses and left the Yaâ€™moire to her own devices soon thereafter.
Her own table was perched high upon a parapet of carved and painted marble that overlooked the main hall. Below sat the assembled might of the Solar Deliberative among no less than two hundred and ninety-nine tables, each were carved from the finest woods imported from the Eastern Pole and engraved with images that befit the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun that it hosted.
Many of the tables were only occupied by attendants and family members of the individual Solar to whom it belonged to of course. One could not expect everyone to just sit, eat and gossip in their seats for five days straight. Even their kind had limits. But each table was never without fresh delicacies from every corner of Creation. Nor was a single decanter ever left half-empty by the thousands of servants that toiled tirelessly in the kitchens, flitting gracefully among the banquet tables, or did whatever else that was required of them in the complexâ€™s more intimately sized side rooms and alcoves.
Yes, let them enjoy themselves to their fullest. For tomorrow will bring new crisis to solve, new threats to face, and the doors of this great hall will close, and remain so until the five days of Calibration once again fall upon Creation.
She heard the distinctive â€˜tinkâ€™ of a pair of jade chopsticks being set down on the table to her right. It drew her attention back to the gloomily silent man seated next to her.
He wore an outfit that consisted of a loose fitting silk shirt and pants. Both were a cool shade of blue that she liked so much, and had insisted he wear. It suited the sun darkened wrinkles of his clean shaven chin and his mane of grey hair that he wore in a single long braid. Ever the soldier, he wore his sword to the table, a habit that she found mildly irksome, but he was all the more interesting with his little quirks.
â€œYour glower makes you stand out all the more in this time of celebration, my dear,â€ she told him, knowing how he hated being pointed out.
That gentle prod seemed to pull him out of his brooding a bit, â€œForgive me,â€ he chuckled bashfully, like how an adolescent child would blush when theyâ€™re discovered with sweets. She had always found that charming. â€œIâ€™ve had a lot on my mind lately.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve been like this for five years, darling. Iâ€™m certain that they are overworking you, but you just had to stubbornly tough it out and not let me speak with your associates at the Bureau. Iâ€™m sure even General Mukilteo can put up with not fighting a mock war every three days.â€
â€œItâ€™sâ€¦Itâ€™s not that easy.â€
She took his face between her palms then, and looked straight into his red, star-glittered eyes; they were touched with a gentle innocence that she thought was so lacking among her peers and associates. â€œThen let me help you.â€
He looked almost aghast at the suggestion, â€œHelp me?â€
â€œOf course,â€ she replied with a smile of pure serenity, â€œHow can we possibly help our lessers if we cannot help each other first?â€
â€œIâ€¦No, this is something I alone must do,â€ he said sounding very tired, but there was an air of finality in his voice that held off her objections. They had had this discussion more times than sheâ€™d care to count and this would just be one more to add to the tally.
Instead, she turned her attention towards the feast hall, and promptly pursed her full, ruby lips. Almost half of her original guest list had failed to attend. Some had valid excuses; those like Kyvath had rebellions to put down and other catastrophes to tend to after all. But the number of no-shows continued to increase with each passing Calibration. The attendance situation over the past few years alone had led her to extend invitations to some of the more prominent Terrestrials, at the insistence of her Sidereal lover. At least all of them were present. The day a Terrestrial declines her invitation was the day she put the whole Calibration Feast idea to rest.
She drew a calming breath and pushed the dark thoughts aside. She will have words with her peers, but that was for later. Now is a time for celebration, not brooding, which reminded herâ€¦ â€œThe Academy is doing well,â€ she mentioned offhandedly to her companion, â€œYou really should visit it sometime. Issa and Helin are starting to wonder if they even have a father.â€
He smiled at that. A bit wane perhaps, but still a smile. It was good to see him smile again, though his voice when he spoke was still tinged with melancholy. How long has it been since she had seen him smile. Two years? Three? He did not answer immediately however, so she took the time to survey the halls.
General Mukilteo was present. She had never failed to attend in the many years since the feastâ€™s inception. The fair faced and dark haired general was dressed in simple silks in practical cuts, and she wore no jewelry save for the fabled Swords of Creation that never left her side. The food on her table had been replaced with a long and well-aged scroll from which the great general enjoyed what appeared to be a poem. With a crystal sniffer cradled in one slender fingered palm, the First Dawn sensed her eyes upon her and looked up. The two Solars shared a smile and raised their glasses in silent toast before returning to their individual diversions.
â€œI think I will,â€ the Sidereal decided after a time, almost as though he were speaking to himself. â€œTomorrow.â€
She was delighted and her laughter told him as much when she encircled her arms around his neck and kissed him. His lips responded with hesitation, but yielded soon enough to the hunger they both shared for one another. â€œThatâ€™s wonderful news,â€ she breathed into his ear when their kiss finally broke. Her head rested on his shoulder, delicately rubbing her cheek against the soft fabric as she idly stroked the strong lines of his chin. Her gaze trailed to the rest of her table, noticeably empty save for her and her lover. A third seat had been prepared, but it was empty, showing no sign of ever having been used. She frowned at it, â€œJust like him to embarrass me like this,â€ she grumbled.
â€œPerhaps itâ€™s better this way.â€
â€œPerhaps,â€ she sighed and nestled closer. â€œOh, by the way, I spoke with Lytek last week. He confided a rather intriguing theory abo-â€
The rest of her words were drowned out by the explosive firestorm erupted from within the feast hall. Brutal heat ripped through the cavernous room and lashed at her face and skin as the great conflagration consumed the chamber, though they were safe from the flames at their height. Then the essence of the slain hit her like a stormy riptide. Over twenty of her companions murdered in an instant? Impossible! Who would dare attack the Lawgivers? Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, rulers and heroes of Creation.
She was on her feet in an instant and reached into Elsewhere for her weapon. At the same time she stretched out with her essence empowered senses, searching for the ones responsible for this atrocityâ€¦
Why? It was the thought that sprang to the forefront of her mind when the first lancelets of pain spread outward from her stomach. She looked down just in time to see the thin blade slowly draw out of her body like a bloody sheathe. Blood poured quickly from the wound, staining her pearl white dress crimson. The roar of the flames and the crash of battle began to fade. Then a pair of strong arms cradled her as she started to fallâ€¦
â€¦off the bed and land with a solid thud onto the cold, hard floor of the Wayfarerâ€™s Reprieve.
Fenris gasped from the shock and her bruised shoulder. Her breaths were shallow as she scrambled to press a hand to her belly and squeezed her eyes shut in relief when she found only clammy, unbroken skin. Vala appeared by her side after she pushed herself off the floor and had just started to catch her breath.
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ The Lunarâ€™s eyes, the only part of her she could see with clarity in the darkness, were frighteningly alert. They darted between her, the door and the many shadows that covered the modest guest room the two of them shared.
The Twilight let out a shaky sighed and shivered, but not from the chilly night air and cold sweat. She shuffled backwards on her bottom a short distance until her back was pressed against the reassuring presence of the bed frame. â€œIâ€¦I was dreamingâ€¦I think,â€ she finally said and realized how small her voice sounded. Then Valaâ€™s bare arm was around her. She felt its strength through her bedclothes and felt it bolster her own.
â€œMust have been pretty bad for you to roll out of bed like that,â€ Vala noted. The Solar could barely see her friendâ€™s face, faintly outlined by the silvery glow of Luna that had managed to filter in through the small window. The Lunar smoothed her hair like one would a childâ€™s, but she did not complain. â€œYou didnâ€™t make a sound. I wouldâ€™ve noticed. You just tossed over.â€
â€œIt felt so realâ€¦soâ€¦â€ she murmured and hugged her legs to her chest. As she moved, her shoulder brushed against the Lunarâ€™s generous bust. Her skin was warm, almost as thoughâ€¦ â€œVala, why are you naked?â€
â€œOh,â€ she replied casually, â€œClothes are too confining in a bed so I go without. You were already asleep by the time I got out of the bath so I guess you didnâ€™t see.â€
â€œI-I see,â€ Fenris said quietly and gently wiggled away from the Lunarâ€™s arm. Her face burned like fire at the thought of being so close to the taller womanâ€™s exposed flesh and was glad for the darkness that obscured her vision. â€œWould you please, I mean, it is rather cold andâ€¦â€ she started to say while mentally cursing her tongue for stumbling like it did.
Vala chuckled at her, which probably made her all the more red faced than before, and stood. Her movements made the Twilight look away, even though she could barely see anything beyond an outline. â€œYeah sure, if itâ€™ll make you feel better,â€ Vala said. She sounded a little distracted when she ducked behind the other bed in the room.
While her companion dressed, Fenris got off the floor and sat on the edge of her bed. After she warmed herself with the covers, she glanced back towards Vala. Her silhouette revealed her lacing up her shirt. The Twilight snapped her head forward when the Lunar looked up at her. Then the young clanswoman huddled further into her blanket. â€œThank you.â€
â€œSure thing. Sorry for that, guess Iâ€™m still not used to it yet.â€
The remark made her raise an unseen brow. â€œNot used to itâ€¦?â€ she asked but Vala waved dismissively as she came around the bed and sat down next to her. The mattress dipped under her weight, causing both of them to lean into each other.
She glanced out the window. All was quiet; the city was asleep under the blackness of the night. The sky stretched out like a sheet of coal save the presence of the Moon, like a silver candle, hidden by the roomâ€™s walls, but illuminated the black into a dusty midnight blue. There were countless tiny pin-pricks of light that twinkled faintly against Lunaâ€™s halo on the pitch backdrop. The ones found further away from the Moon shined stronger and brighter, as though emboldened by the lack of the revealing silver light.
â€œWhat happened?â€ Vala asked. Her velvety voice was soft yet clear in the silent room.
â€œI-,â€ Fenris started then stopped, the vivid scarlet stains of blood and the smell of choking smoke and fire still fresh in her mind. â€œI died. There was some kind of celebration for something called calibration. There was an explosion and then I was stabbed. Iâ€¦I do not know how else to describe it. It felt so familiarâ€¦the names, the faces. Everything felt so real. The taste of the wine, the smell of perfume, the heat of hi-â€ she realized what she was about to say and stopped herself short with a hot blush, â€œt-the heat of the flames. I do not know what to make of it all.â€
â€œThe Calibration Feast,â€ Vala explained. â€œMyâ€¦mentor once told me stories of that fateful night. It was when the Dragon-Blooded betrayed us. They murdered the Solars and drove the Lunars beyond the edges of Creation. It was a dark time, one that still scars the world more than millennia later.â€
â€œAnd that is why they hunt us. To continue the act of betrayal that began so long ago.â€
â€œThatâ€™s the gist of it.â€
Fenris frowned, â€œBut why would I dream of some a thing?â€
â€œIt must have been a memory from your exaltation,â€ Vala replied simply, but went when Fenris replied with a quizzical look, â€œWe inherit the Exalted shard, I guess itâ€™s the metaphorical source of our power, from the heroes of ages past, all the way to the very creation of exaltation by the Incarnae. What you dreamt was probably a strong memory from the shardâ€™s previous host, whoever she was.â€
â€œYou make it sound like a parasite.â€
â€œIâ€™d like it think it more of a symbiotic relationship,â€ Vala replied with a smooth grin, which made her laugh a little despite herself. â€œDonâ€™t worry too much about it; we all get them at one time or another.â€
â€œWhat have you seen?â€ Fenris asked and looked at her curiously.
â€œOh, hehe, well,â€ the Lunar said with a shaky laugh, â€œThereâ€™s not much to tell really. Itâ€™s mostly sex. Really good sex. Like this one timeâ€¦â€
â€œI-I get the point!â€ she sputtered, her face searing under a grin she knew was there, but could not see.
A cloud veiled Lunaâ€™s gaze then, like a linen cloth to a candle, deepening the shadows. It reminded her of the ever-present darkness of her childhood. The thought gave her pause. Can she really consider her life so far as mere adolescence? So much has happened just this past week, and yet it already felt like ages ago. Then the sad face of the man in her dream returned. His was the only name she could not remember, yet the emotion on his face and in his starry eyes was something she did not think she could ever forget, nor the womanâ€™sâ€¦
â€œShe wasâ€¦so sad,â€ Fenris whispered into the dark. â€œIn the endâ€¦when she reached out to the Sun and He did not answer.â€ She shivered and felt a dull ache in her heart that struggled to have voice. Vala must have noticed because she wrapped an arm around her shoulders just like before, but this time she did not break away. â€œWas this why I did not see the Unconquered Sun during my exaltation?â€ she asked the Lunar, feeling very small. â€œAm I unworthy of His gifts?â€
â€œHey now,â€ Vala soothed, â€œIf you were not worthy youâ€™d be dead by now. How I understand it is that exaltation only goes to those worthy enough to use it. So you fit the bill. And besides, I only said thatâ€™s how Luna does her thing. Maybe the Sun doesnâ€™t work that way.â€
Fenris nodded into the warrior womanâ€™s shoulder but said nothing. She scooted closer and silently offered some of her covers, which Vala took. The Lunarâ€™s face was solemn as her eyes slowly drifted between the shadow-filled wall and the window, now only filled with glittering stars as Luna continued her nightly journey. They sat together, each caught up in memories that refused to be forgotten until the dawn finally lit the sky alight with golden fire.
Zhao Yi, "Venus! Will you look at the size of this closet?"
Midnight Rose, "Sifu, we're looking for booze here."
Current story is Sun and Stars
which can be found in my notebook.