Cricket's hands moved carefully over folds of soft cotton, gently tugging this way and that as she coaxed the fabric to smoothness, the pale pink of her fingers standing out against its pure, bleached whiteness. Tsk'ing quietly, she gathered up a bit of the cloth and pinned it in place, then drew back to survey her handiwork.
"Can I put my arms down now?" asked Still Sky.
Cricket surveyed her friend critically, assessing the drape of her short-hemmed cotton robe. After careful consideration, she replied. "All right."
Sky let out a theatrical sigh of relief as she let her arms fall, the robe's loose sleeves cascading down over her hands. She looked herself up and down in the full-length mirror on the fitting room's wall, twisting her body side-to-side to examine the garment from different angles. She swished her arms, making her sleeves ripple through the air. She spun about and struck a pose, hands clasped to her chest, one foot kicked back, and batted dark eyes at Cricket. "Ah! So pretty!" she exclaimed breathily, her voice pitched artificially high. "My loveliness is like that of the Moon herself!"
Cricket raised a hand to her mouth, stifling a giggle. "I'm glad you like it."
"It truly is beautiful, Cricket." Sky's voice dropped back down to its usual alto. "You didn't have to do this for me."
Cricket waved her hand dismissively. "I wouldn't want my best friend to be seen wearing last year's robe to Festival. Besides, I had an extra one anyway. Someone ordered it a month ago, but never came to pick it up."
"You are a bad liar," Sky laughed. She stepped down off the dais and reached out, gently laying fingertips on her friend's warm cheek. "You blush too easily." She caught and held Cricket's gaze, her eyes warm and full of kindness. Cricket felt her face growing hotter.
"I know you don't have a lot of money," she mumbled, "and I wanted to do something for you. You do so much for me."
"You're my best friend, silly," said Sky. "You don't need to pay me to watch after you. But thank you." She dropped her hand from Cricket's cheek and pulled the shorter woman into a hug. "You make such beautiful things. It means so much for you to make one for me."
"You're welcome." Cricket returned the embrace. "And thank you."
Cricket and Kestrel
As the foot of the adamant wall came into view, Kestrel shook himself to full wakefulness. He'd managed to nap for a bit while his cloud whisked him toward the border of the Celestial City, surprisingly enough; the reason he'd called a cloud, rather than taking the ferry as he'd originally planned, was that he'd felt far too anxious to maintain a nonchalant facade. It had taken an effort of will even to walk down the street to the pier without furtively checking for pursuers. When he'd seen the small crowd of commuters gathered there, including several gods he knew from the Bureau, he'd immediately turned on his heel and headed across to the topiary park, where he'd summoned the fluffy white cloud which was now skimming along toward the Eighteenth Radiant Gate of Heaven at phenomenal speed. Travelling by cloud was far less unobtrusive than taking the ferry, but ironically, also less likely to make him draw attention by acting the fool.
Now that he'd caught a bit of rest, Kestrel found himself curiously invigorated. The urgency was still there, but his earlier anxiety had receded. He felt like a teenager, sneaking out of the house for a midnight tryst with the pretty girl next door. It was a kind of thrill he hadn't felt in a very long time. The fact that the father figure in his particular scenario was infinitely more stern and frightening than his real parents had ever been only added to the exhilaration.
Kestrel leaned into the wind, his hair whipping about. Far below, sunlight glinted off the silver canal whose course the cloud was following. At the brilliant thread's terminus, the alabaster columns and walls of the gatehouse were visible, rapidly growing larger as the cloud sped onward. In a few moments, Kestrel's ride was hovering over the outer courtyard. A few moments more, and the Sidereal was standing on the ground, watching it ascend back into the sky. He hefted his satchel and, with a jaunty wave to the onlookers who had watched his landing, strode briskly into the gatehouse.
"Name?" asked the gatekeeper, an obviously bored celestial lion.
"Summer Kestrel, Humble Functionary of the Bureau of Destiny, Second Assistant Secretary to Fourth Sub-Director Guen Sha of the Most Diligent and Scrupulous Exchequer of..." Kestrel began.
"Right, thank you, I know who you work for." The towering god crouched down, bringing its leonine face on a level with Kestrel's. Jade rank emblems braided into its golden mane clicked softly against one another with the movement. "If memory serves, Summer Kestrel, you passed through my gate not too long ago, on official business."
Kestrel grinned. "Indeed I did, good sir. And while on that official business, I had occasion to become acquainted with certain young ladies of Sijan, with whom I very much desire to conduct some quite unofficial business." He leaned in closer, lowering his voice theatrically. "I may not work for the Cerulean Lute of Harmony, but it still makes my heart ache to think of all those beautiful girls marrying mournful, solemn Sijanese men and raising mournful, solemn children, without ever feeling true passion!" I am completely insane, he thought.
The guardian spirit rolled its eyes. "Heartbreaking. So it's personal business this time. I trust you have the appropriate documents and affidavits?"
Kestrel rummaged in his satchel and withdrew a papyrus scroll. "You'll find that I've no current obligations to the Bureau. This year's subdepartmental audit concluded last week, and my next mandatory turn at the Loom of Fate is not for another seven months."
The celestial lion accepted the proffered scroll, holding it between two claws and shaking it loose. "Everything appears to be in order," it rumbled, after briefly scanning the document. It daintily rolled the paper back up and returned it to Kestrel. "Are you carrying any artifacts, talismans, hearthstones, celestial fruit, or other regulated items?"
Kestrel wordlessly pulled down his collar to show his starmetal-laced necklace and its sparkling hearthstone. "Nothing else."
The gatekeeper flicked its tail, and a pair of lion dogs approached Kestrel, sniffing him up and down. "Truth," the first one announced after a minute. "Agreed," confirmed the second.
"All right," said the celestial lion. "In accordance with the oaths and precepts attendant to my station as Fearsome and Incorruptible Guardian of the Waygates of the Celestial City, I hereby grant you, Summer Kestrel, Functionary of the Bureau of Destiny, Chosen of the Maiden of Journeys, permission to pass my threshold. May your journey be untroubled, and your destination pleasing."
"I am quite sure it will be!" Kestrel gave the spirit a conspiratorial wink as he walked past it. If by "pleasing" you mean "fraught with unimaginable peril if I make even the slightest misstep..."
"May your arrival bring much joy to the hearts of all the womenfolk of Sijan," the spirit chuckled, watching him disappear through the gate.
"And you say he was talking about the Solar girl last night?" asked Sagacious Breath of the Heavens, stepping out of the alcove from which he had observed Kestrel's departure.
"Oh yes," purred Sauda, her form a deeper darkness in the shadows. "He simply couldn't stop prattling about her. It was so tiresome..." She sighed, a sound like black silk sliding over skin. Soft arms draped over Breath-of-Heaven's shoulders from behind, one slim finger toying with his oiled beard. "It was so fortunate that you had no obligations until morning."
"Hm." The Chosen of Secrets absently entangled the goddess' ebony fingers in his, drawing her hand away from his face while he smoothed his beard back out with his other hand. "You think he'd do something so rash? Risk the wrath of Chejop Kejak himself, simply for a pretty face? I think it's more plausible that he was simply trying to make you jealous. You have been rather less than faithful to him in recent nights."
Sauda's hand tensed in his, and she abruptly withdrew, fading back like a shadow. "I am the True Night, the Deepest Darkness in which all desires may be made real. My ways are my own, and I am no man's possession." Her voice was steel-edged velvet.
"True," Breath-of-Heaven replied mildly, "but our Kestrel does like to play games. He must have realized how much it would irk you to think that he might be capable of resisting your charms. I think it likely that he'll simply spend the next week or two cheering up a few of those 'mournful, solemn' Sijanese ladies, then come back when he judges you've had enough time to stew over the notion that he's abandoned you for the warm embrace of one kissed by the Sun Himself." He paused thoughtfully. "It really is quite a masterful ploy, when you think about it."
The Goddess of Midnight hissed. "I am not amused." The alcove darkened further, tangible indication of her mood.
Breath-of-Heaven turned to face her, smiling. "Let him have his fun," he chuckled. He moved further into the shadows, sweeping an arm before himself. "While he's gone, I'm sure you won't lack for attention." His hand brushed against skin, and he stepped forward, drawing the goddess' warm, supple form into his arms. "To hear you talk, you'd think he was more to you than just another lover. Perhaps Summer Kestrel has more of a hold on your heart than you would like to think?"
Sauda turned in his arms, leaning back into him. Her hair smelled of rain and moonflowers. "Summer Kestrel owns no part of my heart's affection. I merely find his... company... pleasing." She reached back, her hand slipping down his face to once again tangle in his beard. "And as you say, I will not lack for attention while he is gone." She lingered in his embrace for a moment, and then she was gone, her body dissolving into half-seen streamers of Essence, taking much of the recess' shadow with her as she departed.
Sagacious Breath of the Heavens smoothed his beard down, and smiled. It was not the same smile he had worn only moments ago, full of amusement and conspiratorial lust. This smile was a cat's smile, calculating and inscrutable, and his eyes flashed green.
Shadows outside were growing long, and Cricket was beginning to put things in order for the evening. Still Sky had gone home some time ago, so the seamstress was alone with her thoughts when she heard the bell on the door jingle. She raised her eyes from the folded robe she was wrapping in paper, and looked toward the shop entrance.
"Hello there," said the old woman standing in the threshold. "I hope I'm not too late." Her practical coat and pants were drab but well-made, and she carried a large satchel.
Cricket straightened up. "No, of course not. Please, come in."
The woman's warm smile crinkled the corners of her sapphire eyes. She stepped fully into the room, carefully closing the door behind her before crossing to the counter. Seeing her up close, Cricket realized that she was not an old woman at all; her face was young, her skin smooth and healthily flushed. Only her gray hair, and the faint smile lines around the edges of her eyes and mouth, suggested that she was much older than Cricket herself. Cricket felt a slight warmth rising in her cheeks at her misjudgment, even though she hadn't said anything out loud.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I can see you're getting ready to close," her customer said affably, "and I don't want to impose, but I am in a bit of a bind. Tomorrow is the day of the Festival of Resplendent Blossoms, yes?"
Cricket nodded. "Yes, I've been very busy all month, filling orders for new festival clothes."
"That is the very nature of my problem," the gray-haired woman said, her voice and smile wry. "I've heard many wonderful things about this holiday, and had hoped to take part in it. However, my journey to the city was not as swift as it might have been, and I find myself with only travelling clothes."
"I'm sorry," Cricket apologized, "but I don't really have time to..."
"I am willing to compensate you for the inconvenience," said the woman. She placed a hand palm-down on the counter. When she withdrew it, three fat coins were revealed. They didn't have the sheen of silver or gold; it took Cricket a moment to realize what their pale green, matte finish signified. When she did, she almost choked.
"I, uh, um," she stammered. "Are you... making some kind of joke?"
"This is very important to me," said the woman, her smile fading away. The look that remained was gentle and melancholy, and matched her eyes better than the smile had. "I may never again find myself in Sijan at the proper time to witness its cherry-blossom holiday. I do not wish to look back, years from now, and remember it as less than the thing of great beauty I know in my heart it could be. That is why all the money I have is a small price to pay for the assurance that I will be correctly attired for the occasion, in clothes made by the finest seamstress in the city." She quirked a smile at Pale Cricket, her look of serene sadness receding. "At least, I am told that the woman called Pale Cricket is one of the finest."
Cricket blinked, searching for a proper response. "This is all the money you have?" The woman tipped her head in affirmation. "I can't take it." Cricket pushed two of the jade obols away from her. "Even one is too much for a simple cotton robe, even if it's past my regular hours. I have some money in the back; I'll make change for this one."
"Don't bother. I am here on business, and I will leave this city with more money than I had on my way in." The woman picked up one of the coins, but pushed the second back. "Consider this a token of my appreciation for your kind thought."
"All right..." Cricket hesitated, but then gathered up the pair of jade coins, mentally slapping herself for being so indecisive. If a rich foreigner wants to literally throw money at you, you don't try to talk her out of it, you thank the gods of fortune and take it! "I, um, still have the right kind of cloth out. But I'll need to take your measurements. Please come this way."
"The people who called you one of Sijan's finest were not lying," observed the blue-eyed woman from where she sat on the opposite side of the fitting room, tipping her chair back on two legs, her coat draped over the backrest. The slim, athletic form under her camisole gave the lie to her gray hair even more thoroughly than did her youthful face. "Your hands have both grace and skill."
"Hm," Cricket replied absently, not looking up from her work on the cloth laid out before her. She'd managed to scare up an almost-finished robe that was roughly her customer's size; unlike Sky's, this one actually had been ordered, then cancelled. Cricket was grateful for that, since she didn't think she could have sewn an entire robe in a night, even with magic -- which she wasn't foolish enough to use in front of a complete stranger, in any case. She made a few last stitches and tied off the thread, then picked up the robe and held it out at arm's length for a quick inspection. "All right. I think this should do it."
The chair's front legs went clump onto the floor as the woman stood up. "Excellent." Taking the proffered garment, she shrugged into it, tied off the waist cinch, and smoothed out the wrinkles with a few quick swipes of her hands. She pivoted on her heel, right and left, examining herself in the mirror. "Excellent," she repeated. "This is very fine work. Thank you."
"It's not quite done," said Cricket, looking back over her shoulder as she rummaged through the wall nooks which stored her cloth. "Are you married?"
"I beg your pardon?" The woman's tone was bemused.
Cricket's cheeks burned; she ducked her head to hide the blush. "I mean, that is... the Festival of Resplendent Blossoms is a matchmaking holiday. Traditionally. Married people wear special sashes. If you aren't married, and you're a girl, you don't wear one. If a boy likes you, he gives you his."
"What a delightful custom," mused the woman. "No one told me about that aspect of it. In answer to your question, though..." She held up her left hand. A silver band shone on the ring finger. "Yes, I have a husband."
"Then we'll need purple..." Cricket reached for the cloth.
"He's been dead for several years," added the woman. Her voice was neutral.
"Oh. I'm sorry." Cricket felt even more blood rushing to her cheeks.
"There's no need. He was at peace, and I was with him. His last words were beautiful. It is not a painful memory for me." The look of melancholy happiness flitted across her face once again. "You don't need to feel embarassed," she added as an afterthought, not unkindly.
For a minute, the only sound in the room was the faint hissing of the lamp flame.
"Widows' sashes and ghosts' are both white," Cricket volunteered. "But a lot of young widows dress the same as unmarried women, if they're finished mourning."
"I'm not that young, and I loved my husband very much. I do not feel that I will need another one. So white it is."
Cricket nodded, and busied herself with fishing out a length of white silk -- she paid a year's wages for it, I shouldn't give her anything cheaper -- glad of the excuse to do something other than stand in uncomfortable silence. After quickly hemming the piece of cloth, she brought it over and knelt down to tie it around her customer's waist in the correct manner.
"So, what color sash will you be wearing tomorrow, Pale Cricket?" asked the woman.
Cricket stiffened, and concentrated very hard on tying off the sash just so. She could feel sky-blue eyes looking down on her.
"I've upset you. I apologize."
Cricket shook her head, unbound hair slipping over her shoulders, curtaining off her face from the woman's gaze. "It's all right." She took a long breath. Her fingers didn't falter, and as she let the air sigh from her lungs, she completed the knot, patting it once before drawing her hands back. "Did you see how I tied it off? It's not very important, but it is something that will be noticed."
"Yes, I think I will be able to do it. Is there anything else I need to know?"
"No. That's everything."
"Thank you. It has been a privilege to see you at work." The woman deftly untied the sash and folded it up; the robe soon followed it. "I won't need a package for these." She placed the outfit on the chair, and pulled her coat back on.
Cricket rose to her feet and pushed her hair back, giving a wan smile. "It is I who should be thanking you. Your generosity was both unexpected and appreciated. I hope that you find the festival as lovely as you expect it to be."
The woman paused midway through buttoning up her coat, and regarded the seamstress with kind, sad eyes. "I really am sorry that my words brought you pain. It was inconsiderate of me."
"It was a fair enough question for you to ask." Cricket kept her voice level and calm, despite the ache building in her throat. "You didn't have any way of knowing it was something I didn't... I couldn't..." Her voice broke, and she angrily wiped tears from her eyes. "I think I need to go to bed now, if I'm to be rested for tomorrow."
The woman watched her thoughfully. She picked up her satchel. "You know," she said, "I, too, am something of a craftsperson. Here, sit down and let me show you."
"No, no. I've hurt your feelings. You shouldn't go to sleep with that hurt. A person's day should end with a beautiful sunset, not with rain." She gently took Cricket's arm, and guided her to the stool behind the counter. "Look." She undid her satchel's fastenings, and unfolded it on the countertop. The things held by the case's leather loops were bone-white and obsidian black, angular and curved, big and small. No two were alike.
"What are they?" asked Cricket. She reached out tentatively. "Some kind of... knives?"
"This one, yes," said the woman, lightly touching a piece of ivory, cunningly carved into the shape of a serpentine dragon. Cricket looked at it another way, and saw that its tail was a wavy blade, its extended front legs a crossguard. "Also this one" -- she touched an obsidian shard whose facets glittered like stars on a winter night, then a dagger made of both white bone and black stone, its blade two human silhouettes fitted together -- "and this. All of these, as well. These are arrowheads. These are hair combs. These are needles for acupuncture."
Cricket lightly ran her finger along a blade, chasing the light down its obsidian edge. "These are very fine," she said, her pain momentarily pushed aside by a genuine appreciation for the artistry on display. "Who do you make them for?"
The woman grinned. "Anyone who gives me money, pretty much. It's one of the reasons I'm here; your Funerists' Order commissioned many of these. I assume they will have some kind of ritual use. The only ones I make for myself are the arrowheads." She indicated the row of white and black triangles, neatly fastened to the leather with thin wires. "When I was a little girl, I found some old stone arrowheads in a streambed near my home. My father told me how the tribesmen made them, and showed me. I thought it was wonderful, how a rough stone could become something so delicate, with such a purity of form and purpose."
"I like this one," said Cricket. Her finger rested on a heart-shaped sliver of ivory, carved with thin veins. "It's a flower petal, isn't it?"
The woman smiled. "It's a petal from a cherry blossom. I made it on my way here. It's one of my favorites, too."
"It's simpler than the other ones," Cricket said, gesturing at the obsidian geese, ivory frogs, and other complicated designs which ranked to either side of the petal-blade. "Well, except for the one that looks like some kind of tooth. But it's better than the tooth, because..."
"...teeth don't fly," finished the woman. "But cherry blossoms do, on their way to the ground." She began to fold the case back up. "I hope my crafts have left a pleasing image in your mind."
"They have," said Cricket. "They're beautiful."
The woman gathered up her robe and sash, and turned to go. "The whole world is beauty. Pain is part of all our lives, but we should never let it blind us to that truth."
"Wait!" Cricket half-stood, her hands on the counter. The woman stopped and looked over her shoulder, on the verge of opening the door. "Who are... I mean, I don't know your name."
Blue eyes softened. "I am Five Tears of Forgiveness. I feel that I will certainly see you again tomorrow, Pale Cricket." The door closed behind her, with the jingle of a bell.
The howling cyclone of air and Essence deposited Kestrel a mile or two outside Sijan's walls, its unruly winds dissipating into gentle spring zephyrs as his feet touched the ground. Shading his eyes, the Sidereal quickly checked the position of the sun in the clear blue sky. He'd made good time; noon was still several hours away.
"Don't dawdle around," he muttered quietly to himself. "You're still at least a day behind. Better hope whoever it is believes in taking his time, because if not..." Images sprang unbidden to his mind's eye, as they had for the entirety of his hundred-mile journey from the gate: Cricket lying broken on the ground, her long hair spread over her like a funeral shroud; slumping bonelessly to her knees, eyes wide and staring as she watched the blood drip from her assassin's hands; screaming as she was run through by a hundred invisible spider threads, in a horrid parody of her own craft. He saw a vision of himself, following a string of flaxen light to the Grand Mausoleum, where Pale Cricket lay cold and still in a stone sarcophagus, her face a mask of dead serenity, made-up by the embalmers in an imitation of life grotesque in its near-perfection.
"None of those things are going to be true," he growled savagely. "I won't let them be."
Shaking his head to banish the visions of death and failure, Kestrel reached into his satchel. He produced a blue silk sash, a comb, and a copper bracelet with a single link of chain dangling from it. He untied the saffron sash he was already wearing; it changed places with the other sash, going into the bag while the blue one went around his waist, cinching shut the unadorned, white silk robe -- actually his nightgown, but fine enough that no one would suspect -- he wore over his regular clothes. He clasped the bracelet around his right wrist, and picked up the comb. He combed his wind-ruffled hair smooth, then began to carefully pick at it, painstakingly rearranging it into a tousled mess which somehow managed to look artful and elegant.
As he worked, he could feel the Resplendent Destiny of the Lovers looming closer, resonating with its trappings. It was the same destiny he'd constructed more than a month ago, before he'd left for Sijan the first time. A likely lad, handsome and unattached, exotic but nonthreatening, the perfect man to draw a shy Solar seamstress out of her shell. He'd never used it for its intended purpose; he wasn't sure if he'd actually don it today, but it was an option he wanted to have. If nothing else, the robe and sash would allow him to blend in better with the Sijanese festival-goers.
His preparations complete, Kestrel closed his eyes and held the image of his destination in his mind: Cricket's shop, her wares displayed in the windows, the sign above the door emblazoned with needle, thimble, and her namesake insect, all in white. When his eyes opened, he could see the citrine light of Mercury glimmering off slowly-drifting lines of Essence, marking a cobweb path that began at his heart and stretched out toward the city. Kestrel drew a deep breath, filling his lungs with misgiving and doubt, and exhaled. Squaring his shoulders, he began to walk briskly toward the city, following a yellow path only he could see.
"What a perfect day," Sky sighed, turning her face up to catch the bright morning sun. Even though springtime was far from becoming summer, the day was warm, its sky a clear, cloudless blue. The light breeze carried the scent of cherry blossoms; the occasional petal wafted past the two young women as they climbed up the hill toward the Ten Thousand Blossoms Pavilion, lugging a picnic basket between them.
Cricket smiled at her friend's contentment, but the expression quickly faded to a grimace as she thought of what awaited her at the top of the hill. Although the Pavilion was not the largest nor the most impressive of Sijan's cherry orchards, she had never spent the holiday anywhere else; the grove was part of a fairly large graveyard, and her mother was on the committee of ghosts who looked after its maintenance. If I missed a year, I'd never hear the end of it, she thought. Mother would hound me about it until the day I died... and probably after that, too.
Sky smiled ruefully at Cricket's sour look. "It can't be that bad," she said, without much conviction. "Maybe she won't have a suitor for you this year."
"Oh, no." Unlike Sky's, Cricket's voice was filled with certainty. "She'll have one. He'll be the great-grandnephew of one of her friends from the committee. He'll probably be handsome, and maybe even charming. He'll compliment my beauty. 'You are like a blooming lily, beautiful and precious.' 'Your face shines like the moon on a winter night, your hair like breath frosting on a glass.' And so on."
"You know, you could always just give whoever it is a chance..."
"No, Sky, that's not going to happen. Not in this place."
Sky sighed, unhappily this time. "Cricket, it's been three years now. I know how deeply Mea... he... hurt you, but you need to put your past behind --"
Cricket hunched her shoulders. "I really don't want to talk about it." She closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples with her free hand. "Even though I don't really want to be here, I want to make the best of things. I want to find some kind of beauty to see in this day, and I can't do that if I'm busy reopening old wounds. Please give me that."
"All right." Sky's voice was quiet and compassionate. Then she brightened. "But I'll be watching you. If you mope too much, Cloud and I will rush in and carry you off to our hidden lair. The diabolical torments we have devised will make you cry out in anguish, begging us to return you to your dearly departed mother's nagging!" She laughed malevolently, throwing her head back and raising a hand in front of her mouth like a stage villain.
Despite herself, Cricket felt the corners of her mouth twitching up into a smile. "Promise?" she asked, stifling a laugh.
"Promise," Sky replied firmly.
Kestrel came to the top of the hill, passing by the perimeter markers with their fearsome-looking stone gargoyles and into the graveyard proper. At Cricket's shop, he'd abandoned his golden thread and attuned himself to the flows of fate, searching for the ripples and eddies he'd come to know so well in recent weeks, the tell-tale wake of destiny which followed the Solar's passing. They'd led him here, to a large hill just outside the city, its flat top crowned by a grove of cherry trees and stone plinths, surrounding the modest mausoleum at the center.
The trees, planted artistically amid the stone monuments, were in full bloom, their branches completely wreathed in clouds of delicate blooms. Every breeze shook loose a new shower of petals, which danced and drifted on the wind before becoming part of the pale carpet which already covered the ground and the tops of the tombstones. Kestrel wended his way through the flowering trees and solemn stone markers, paying only cursory attention to the people around him: married couples with their purple sashes, comfortably set up with blankets and picnic baskets, often accompanied by frolicking children whose robes were cinched with yellow; white-sashed ghosts, their bodies appearing not quite solid in the bright sun; young lovers exchanging blue sashes, or stealing off into the blizzard of petals to be alone together. He normally would have paused to make eyes at the pretty girls with unadorned waists, simply as a matter of form, but he was too focused on his goal to take the time.
Coming to the end of a row of alternating trees and statues, he emerged into a large open area, devoid of either trees or graves. Soft music drifted through the air, a slow but cheerful melody. Kestrel faded back to the shadow of one of the cherry trees, quickly inspecting the field and the crowd of people on it. His eyes skimmed over the ghostly musicians who were the source of the music, past the cluster of parents and young children near the middle of the field, all the way to the far side of the clearing, where a pair of young women sat on a blanket. They were accompanied by an elderly ghost and two young gentlemen. One of the lads was sitting with his arm around the brown-haired girl's shoulders, and his sash around her waist; the other was being studiously ignored by one whose face was lovely and ghost-pale, her ruby eyes full of life and sadness. Upon spotting Cricket, Kestrel barely suppressed the urge to dash across the field, sweep her up, and hustle her off to a safer place.
"Down, boy," he admonished himself under his breath. Pale Cricket was obviously still quite alive, and that meant the assassin had to still be out there. Kestrel scanned the area again, more slowly this time. No foreigner lurked in the trees, her presence unremarked despite her unusual appearance. No one moved through the crowd too smoothly, as though forgotten the moment he left onlookers' sight.
Kestrel raised his eyes to the mausoleum whose broad marble steps formed one side of the field. Although fairly small by Sijanese standards, it was still an impressive building. Its design was simple and elegant, the only obvious decoration the elaborate bas-relief worked into the massive doors; its columns were smooth and slim, making the building seem taller than it actually was. At the apex of its peaked roof sat a human figure, a strung bow resting across its lap. No one below seemed to have taken note.
This time, Kestrel didn't hold himself back. He dashed through the gentle storm of blossoms, weaving between tree-trunks and gravestones as he skirted the border of the clearing. In a matter of moments, he was approaching the mausoleum. He briefly registered the startled look on the faces of a young couple as he leaped over their heads, landed nimbly on a branch of the tree beneath which they had been embracing, and sprung off it, his robe and sash streaming out behind him as he arced gracefully through the air and alit on the building's stone roof, thirty feet above the ground.
The woman sitting on the roof turned to look at him. Gray hair framed a young, blue-eyed face. "Summer Kestrel," she said, smiling softly. "What a surprise." She was dressed as he was, in Sijanese festival garb.
Kestrel walked toward her, his stride just as confident as if he'd been taking a stroll along a smooth path, rather than the narrow peak of a tall, steep roof. "Five Tears of Happiness," he acknowledged her. "You are not the one I expected to see here."
"I am not called that anymore," she said mildly, turning to once more regard the festivities below. "My name now is Five Tears of Forgiveness."
Kestrel came to a halt, five paces behind her. "You were sent to kill her."
"The young Twilight, yes. I met her last night, and she made me this robe." Her fingers plucked at the neck of her garment. "She carries a great burden of sorrow. In a better world, I would have liked to know her, to win her trust and tease out her pain, and help her see that she does not have to define herself in its terms. There is much that is good in her." Five Tears of Forgiveness' voice softened. "But in this world, powers beyond my control have decreed that she must die. In a short time, she will get up and retreat into the orchard on some false pretext; her real motive will be to escape the attentions of the young man who is wooing her with such a spectacular lack of success. She is a private creature, and I feel that she cannot truly see the beauty of these flowers unless she is alone.
"When this happens, I will kill her. She will fall, a white flower among white flowers, a red blossom on her breast, her heart pierced by an ivory petal."
"I can't let that happen," Kestrel stated flatly.
"It is unlikely that she will even have time to realize that she is dead. All she will know is that she has found her solitude, and that the cherry blossoms falling around her are beautiful. My aim is true enough to ensure that she does not suffer. In its own way, her death will be a thing of beauty, which is all one can hope for in this imperfect Creation."
Kestrel folded his arms. "I don't care about your aestheticism. I meant what I said. If you nock an arrow to your bow, I will stop you."
Five Tears of Forgiveness made a sound which might have been a quiet laugh. She carefully set her bow aside and drew herself to her feet, turning to face Kestrel as she did. Inquisitive blue eyes peered into unfaltering gold. "You seem to have acquired a sense of resolve since I last met you. I'm glad." Her smile was genuine. "Let me ask you, though: what is Pale Cricket to you? By even being here, you risk censure. The Summer Kestrel I knew would not do such a thing; what has changed in your heart, that you would stand between your colleague and this Anathema?"
Kestrel looked away. "I'm... not sure. It doesn't make sense." He raised his eyes, meeting her gaze strongly. "I barely know her, and she represents an evil I've worked my whole life to guarantee is never visited on the world again, but I can't let you harm her. That's what I feel in my heart. It's real, and I can't ignore it."
Five Tears of Forgiveness sighed. "I'm disappointed to hear you say that. I'd hoped that our time together would have taught you that a feeling can be true, without being right."
Sounds of revelry drifted up from the field below, filling the silence that stretched between them.
"I may not have changed," Kestrel said slowly, "but you have. You were so carefree, full of joy in life. How did that turn into this... resignation? It's like your soul turned gray along with your hair."
It was the other Sidereal's turn to look away. "Brown Dove died," she said.
Kestrel shifted uncomfortably. He cleared his throat, but she continued before he could speak. "After the last time I saw you, I went to him and told him all of it. I was sure he would leave me, but he wasn't angry at all. He just held me, and cried with me, and said he was so glad he hadn't lost me. That's when I stopped being Five Tears of Happiness.
"There's an Immaculate heresy which teaches that every one of us is only half a person. In order for our Essence to reach true harmony, they say, each person must find the one who carries the other half of her soul, and never leave him. They're right. Brown Dove was the one in whom I was complete. When I heard the forgiveness in his voice, even after I'd told him the things I did, I knew in that moment that I could never love anyone as truly as I loved him.
"And then he died."
"He was mortal," said Kestrel, uncertainly. "Love won't keep a man alive once his time is up."
Five Tears looked up. Her eyes were bright with frustration. "I know that, and that's why I am no longer the woman you knew. In what kind of world does a woman find her true lifemate, only to have him grow old and die, leaving her to face the centuries in the knowledge that she can never be as whole as she was with him? In what world do we hunt down inoffensive children because we fear the monsters they might one day become? In what world do you, Summer Kestrel, stand ready to fight me in order to protect a girl to whom you've spoken no more than a dozen words in your life?"
"I thought I knew," said Kestrel, "but this girl to whom I've spoken no more than a dozen words in my life has made me doubt."
"This world is mad," Five Tears of Forgiveness stated. She sighed, and the fire in her eyes subsided. "Mad and broken, and nothing we can do will repair it. All we can do is try to make it a more beautiful madness. That's why I'm here to murder that girl, and why you're here to stop me."
Kestrel half-raised a hand, as if to reach out to her, but let it fall to his side. "I'm sorry," he said.
"I forgive you." She smiled sadly. "So. I see that while I was telling my little story, our Cricket has done exactly what I predicted she would do." She knelt down and grasped her bow. "What is our course of action going to be, Summer Kestrel? Unless you've gained phenomenal martial skills along with your newfound sense of romanticism, I don't think you can stand against me."
"Probably not," admitted Kestrel, shifting his feet apart and bringing his hands up into a guard position. "However, I'm willing to wager that you can't beat me without killing me."
Five Tears studied his stance, still kneeling. "I believe you are correct," she concluded. "I assume that you also feel confident in your ability to interpose yourself between Pale Cricket and any attack I might aim at her?" Kestrel nodded. Five Tears smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. "Today, it is a good thing that you are just as clever and reckless as I remember you," she told him. "It is also good that our elders frown so strongly upon internecine violence. I don't wish to be sent off to die as Ahn-Aru was, so I must withdraw." She rose to her feet, bow dangling loosely at her side. "I'm sure we'll meet again. In the meantime... do what is right, Kestrel." She leapt lightly down from the roof, disappearing into the trees.
When he was sure she was gone, Kestrel collapsed to his knees like a rag doll. He wiped his forehead with a shaking hand. "Thank the stars I'm not dead," he breathed.
Cricket reached out her hand, catching a blossom as it fell. The delicate pink petal was almost invisible against her skin's pallor. She turned her hand, allowing it to complete its fluttering descent. Leaning back against a cool gravestone, her feet tucked underneath her, she closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply of the flowers' aroma. She'd managed to find a spot secluded enough that the noise of the festival-goers was nothing more than a dim whisper at the edge of hearing, attenuated by the trees, the stones, and the gentle stirring of the breeze. Here, away from her mother's good intentions and her would-be suitor's increasingly awkward attempts to engage her in conversation, away from all the talking and the bustle of people around her, she felt at peace.
It was a fleeting contentment, as impermanent as the fragile petals sifting through the warm air to collect on her head and shoulders. Soon enough, she'd get up and find her way back to her mother, and Sky, and Sky's beau Cloud, and Something-or-other Orchid, the boy whose sash she would not be wearing today. But for now, she could simply be here, watching the cherry blossoms fall like snow.
I did find beauty in this day, after all.