Chapter Seven: Festival of Kites
Not many spies would have dared to infiltrate so deeply into Dictator Seto's territory, but the best two of Pharaoh's spies were driven to complete the special mission given to them. Dressed up in the guise of common Draconian monks, no one took a second look at the pair in their customary cloaks. It was a holy day, after all, and everyone was out and about for the festival.
They prowled the alleys, eyes alert and ears open for the possible thieves of their lost little mage.
Banners of dragons lined the Town Square and bright sapphire streamers, occasionally caught by the wind, decorated the stalls. Vendors were selling their finest wares: pewter statues, handcrafted jewellery, and elaborate tapestries. Incense wafted heavily from the temples, in honor of the Great Dragon and the warriors who sacrificed their lives for the kingdom.
Although the people enjoyed themselves, there was bitterness as well. No one dared to openly express such thoughts, for speaking against the war could be seen as treason. However, it could be seen in the faces of widows, orphans, and loners alike, whenever their expressions became haunted thinking of the ones who would never celebrate with them again. Loud talk and laughter pressed them into the shadows as the majority of the revellers were determined to have at least one day of happiness out of the months spent making war.
Hundreds of dragon kites, guided by children and adults on the ground, zoomed high in the air at midday. It was a unique tradition, solely practiced in the Dragon Kingdom.
As such, this meant that it was Mana's first time seeing the sky filled with such a rainbow of colored paper (though the primary color remained blue). She watched with awe from her room in the attic as dragons of all shapes and sizes flew with wild freedom, at times crossing the path of the setting sun.
Just as the two magician spies passed under her window, Mana pulled away from the spectacular sight in search of Amelda.
Meanwhile, said thief was gazing intently at the parchment with the new clue written on it, head in his hands. No matter how much he had tried to focus, no matter how he kept telling himself that the little disruption from before was past, he still found himself struggling to concentrate, and had yet to come up with any answer to the riddle. And of course, the Dictator wasn't well known for him patience, so that didn't help matters either.
"Well, we're off mate," Varon mumbled as he walked by the chair where his comrade was sitting. "With the festivities on, we can keep our fingers crossed he won't be so edgy tonight, but you better hurry up and solve that," he insisted, tapping the paper lightly as he walked away.
"He's right Amelda, we can't keep him distracted for too long. If we don't show results he might even come back for another surprise visit," Raphael warned.
With that, the red haired male could twitch slightly as he heard the door close softly, his friends away to the meeting with Dictator Seto. He knew they were right of course, the last time the wicked ruler had come by was a very close call. No doubt he was still suspicious, especially with Amelda constantly missing on meetings to watch Mana. The cruel and dominant man was cunning, enough to seize an entire country! In comparison, the mercenary was quite sure his intellect was nothing against the Dictator's, so there was little chance that he had fooled him completely.
Sighing, the man looked back at the paper, trying to think of anything that he could link to the location of the next tablet piece. He was so focused, he didn't even notice the other person creeping up behind him.
Mana had spent the previous moments after the other mercenaries had left hanging back on the stairs, just watching Amelda thinking about something, a slight frown crossing his lips. Frustration seemed to make the young man's face much older, though it couldn't take away the youthful determination in his eyes. 'Definitely looks like something really, really important he's reading. Maybe I shouldn't bother him?'
While she was thinking that, her feet moved of their own accord, quietly tip-toeing over the space between them. 'Or maybe I should.' She smiled then. 'There's a festival out there, after all!'
Impulsive as ever, the magician girl embraced him from behind. Unlike her other hugs, this time she didn't move away so quickly.
Instead Mana looked over Amelda's shoulder quite nosily (as her teacher would have pointed out) to get a glimpse at what he was reading. "Whatcha doing?"
Needless to say, the thief wasn't expecting to be taken by surprise, and the sudden feeling of arms around him made him almost jump out of his skin. Unfortunately, he had been tilting the chair he was sitting in, and in shock, fell off his seat, landing on the floor with a thump, and pulling Mana down with him.
As he shook himself to gain composture once more, he instinctively grabbed the parchment with the tablet clue on it and stuffed in promptly into his pocket before the mage could see anything written on it.
"Oh, um, sorry Mana. I was lost in thought, you scared me a bit," he stuttered nervously as he stood, before leaning down to help pull the girl to her feet once more.
"Whoops, I'm sorry too!" she giggled, taking his hand. Their tumble distracted Mana from inquiring further into Amelda's work, at least for the moment. As the servants at the palace could attest, her curiosity was as boundless as her energy, and just as difficult to keep up with. "Didn't mean to scare you, I promise."
Nervous butterflies decided to dance in her stomach at that very moment. She only wanted to ask him a question, but seeing him so startled made her hesitate for once. She didn't usually worry about pushing her luck; she usually knocked it boldly off the cliff to watch it fly. This time was different... and she didn't quite understand why yet.
She wanted to be more considerate with her requests, but she also wanted to find more excuses to spend time with Amelda.
Attempting to distract herself from these confusing thoughts, Mana put on a smile and looked to the window. "Looks like there's a festival today! Can we go and see it, or um, did you have stuff to do, 'cause I don't have to see it, I can watch it from upstairs or practice my spells and stuff..." She heard herself babbling once again.
Still, Amelda only smiled lightly at her clear excitement. Then again, he assumed that she had never seen anything quite like annual festival of the Dragon Kingdom. It was surprising though to think that the Magicians didn't have such festivities; if a ruler like the Dictator could allow such a joyous and happy holiday, you would expect the Pharaoh to hold an all year party.
Finally recognizing the question in the babbling, he tensed slightly. He was supposed to be working on the clue, since they didn't have a lot of time left to delay Seto. And yet, he felt a strong pang of guilt in having to tell Mana she couldn't go out and enjoy herself. She couldn't go about on her own, and she was his responsibility, plus he wasn't getting very far with the riddle anyway...
Varon and Raphael were going to kill him tomorrow.
"Well, I guess I can finish working later, if you want to go out for a little while," he suggested, before suddenly feeling himself being tackled, trapped in a strong embrace that caused his face to turn quite pink in color.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Even Mana couldn't believe how relieved and happy she was in that moment. The magician girl squeezed him extra tightly, as if she could infuse her joy to Amelda through her hugs. She realized that she really wanted him to fell the same way she did. "We can see all the pretty kites together! It'll be so much fun, I know it will!"
Being so close at the time to the thief, she began to notice his scent. It wasn't bad at all; in fact, it reminded her of the magician warrior's back home, who'd train under the harsh eye of the sun, picking up the dust of the desert and the spice of the marketplace. There was something sweeter about his, though... making her all the more confused.
Each night she spent away from home, a darker feeling had begun to make itself known while she dreamt.
Never had the little mage been so far from the palace, not even for a day. Now the days were catching up with her. Worries were fluttering around like frantic moths trapped in the cobwebs of her mind. Was the Prince all right? Did Mahaado miss her? What was happening in the Magician Kingdom? Were her fellow mages still engaged in battle?
'No, no, I don't wanna think about home now,' Mana thought as she pulled away and took her captor's hand, leading him to the door with a pleasant, hopeful smile.
Amelda only had a moment to shake off the red tint in his face as he found himself being led towards the front door, quickly recalling how dark and cold the evenings had been getting. Despite her new disguise, Mana still stood out quite a bit amongst normal Dragon Kingdom citizens. And there was still the risk of someone coming to look for her...
"Wait," he said, stopping her before she could reach the door, quickly grabbing the long dark blue cloak hanging nearby, carefully wrapping around her form. "It's quite cold, I don't want you catching anything," he mumbled as he tied the ribbon at the collar. Still, he seemed more concerned for the mage's well being than his own, not even thinking of wearing something to keep himself warm.
Even so, as they finally got outside, climbed up on the newly saddled horse and rode into the town, all he could think of was to keep his arms safely around the girl, just in case she was feeling the late night chill.
In the Magician Kingdom, most people didn't continue working or loitering in the marketplace during the night. Only the guards on night duty remained awake as the weary escaped to private, more pleasant dreamscapes. This was not so for the people of the opposing kingdom. Wide-eyed with fascination, the little mage scanned the revellers and tried to take in everything at once. The music, the chants, the dragon masks...
Prince had told her about the parades in her homeland, but she had never been allowed to attend them. "When you're older," Mahaado had always promised each year at the summer solstice, and each year, Mana had to watch from afar.
This time, in this unlikely place, she could be a part of it, a part of something special.
Some distance behind the two newcomers to the party, a monk gestured to his partner, whispering frantically, "I think that's her."
The spies kept walking slowly through the crowd, heads still bowed beneath their cloaks. "Are you sure, Amon?"
"Yes, Rasui." With Amon's tone, the other didn't have to ask twice. Amon knew Mana's features relatively well, seeing her from time to time during the years he also studied under the wing of the Pharaoh's advisor Mahaado. He caught the profile of her face and her familiar blue eyes. "We need to move closer before she gets off the horse, so we can she where she's going..."
"And who she's travelling with," Rasui noted ominously. 'Her kidnapper? Taking her to the Dictator now?'
They attempted to quicken their pace without drawing notice from the crowds. It seemed they would soon have their chance as the mysterious rider made his horse slow down...
That flicker of movement temporarily caught Amelda's eyes, and he turned his head suddenly to see any sign of disturbance. However, all that he could see behind him was the mob of happy and excited people, celebrating to the full.
'Must have imagined it,' he thought to himself. He had been working hard of late, with still no idea what the riddle that would lead to the tablet piece meant, so it was no surprise he was seeing things. Maybe taking Mana to the festival was a good idea after all; he could at least relax a little, then go back to work with a clear head.
As they finally stopped, Amelda jumped off the horse's back, before gently helping the magician out of the saddle, enjoying the warmth from her form as he held her for that moment, before placing her on the ground.
"So, where would you like to go first?" he smiled at her, falling into a state of blissful unawareness that he hadn't enjoyed in years.
"Hmm..." Mana couldn't help but glow in the light of Amelda's smile. Needing no more encouragement than that, she took his hand and began to pull him through the crowd.
They didn't have to go far before coming upon a fascinating attraction. Four musicians poured their hearts into the music of their culture and ancestors with instruments made of wood and metal. Drums beat a wild tattoo while the flutes weaved a song that could bring tears one moment and laughter the next. Mana recognized the instruments from similar ones she knew the court musicians used, but the flutes sounded like nothing she had ever heard before in her country.
'I wish the Prince could hear these. Oh, oops, not supposed to think about that.' Building up yet another layer to keep away thoughts of home, Mana swiftly turned to Amelda and said, "Dance with me, Amelda!"
Meanwhile, Amon kept losing sight of the lost mage. The people were no help either, surging in droves at very inconvenient moments.
All the while, the couple were completely oblivious to anything strange, too lost in the festive enjoyments.
Well, Mana was. Amelda on the hand was trying to fully comprehend what had just been asked of him by the young mage.
"Um, dancing isn't really my strong suit," he stuttered, but immediately felt guilty for any disappointment he would make Mana feel at his words. He had offered to take her out to have fun, and spend time with her, so it was rather unfair to deny such a simple request.
Still, the thought of having the girl in arms, holding hands, pressed close to him...could he trust himself after what occurred the last time they were in town together?
After a moment of thought, Amelda sighed deeply. One look at Mana and he knew he would cave in anyway, why fight the inevitable.
Gently taking her hands, he pulled her closer into the dancing position smiling. "But I suppose I can make an exception for today."
Two thoughts briefly crossed Mana's mind; one, that the dancing style was different in this kingdom, and two, that she had never danced with a young man like this before. For a moment, she panicked that she wouldn't know what to do or where to step, or that she'd make Amelda or herself look like fools...
Once the musicians began to play a new song, however, her worries disappeared, as if a spell had been cast over them.
This was definitely a different kind of magic. His warmth, their movement together as if they were one spirit, and the dreamy quality quickly spreading over the evening...
Sadly, this was broken by snickers and giggles coming from the nearby crowds. Youths, probably no older than Mana, Amelda thought, were watching the pair dancing from a distance, whispering to each other with wicked glints in their eyes.
Instinctively, the thief's grip on the mage's frame tightened slightly, hoping Mana was enjoying herself too much to notice the attention they were receiving. He was unsure if etiquette and discretion was so strict in the Magician Kingdom, but he knew quite well how critical the Dictators subjects could be on such matters. Public displays of closeness or affection were subjects of gossip and scandal, and the young woman caught up in such things were seen in a less than innocent light. It was cruel and ridiculous!
But as the beat drifted through the evening air, the mercenary found his resolve comforted and strengthened by the music. With a final defiant glare to chase away the lingering teenagers, Amelda twirled the girl around in his arms and brought them into close proximity, swaying gently together, lost in the rhythm...
He could handle a little embarrassment at the moment.
'Where is she?' Amon cursed silently. Fighting his instincts to push through the crowd was difficult. Luckily, he hadn't been trained as a spy overnight and made no expression or sign of his desperation.
"She's not from around here, that's for certain!" an irritated female's voice hissed. The words turned Amon's head. "If she's with that boy, it means trouble..."
An older woman, mother of one of the teenagers ogling Mana, was gossiping with another friend at the edge of the crowd. Rasui overheard her as well and was just in the right position to see the ones she was disapprovingly pointing at. After a nod from his partner, Rasui made his move.
Meanwhile, even though the song was ending, Mana's heart was still singing about how it had never felt so alive before Amelda. To think, if they hadn't met, if her spell hadn't accidentally caused the temple to collapse, she wouldn't be on this little adventure. She'd still be cooped up, waiting in the palace for her day to enter the war. Instead, she was here, with the thief who had kind hands and sad eyes.
People began applauding the musicians for their song and cheering praise for more. Amon caught up with Rasui, who was about to reach out to pull the girl away quickly.
"No! That's not her!" He grabbed Rasui away from the mistaken couple and pointed in Mana's direction, about a dozen feet away. It was as close as they had been able to get to her, but with so many people around them, the distance to her rescue seemed much farther.
In that moment, of course, Mana had decided that one dance had been enough for her. "Amelda, I see something over there! Let's check it out, okay?"
Any uncertainties and displeasure the thief had been harboring due to the nosy villagers quickly evaporated at her words. Smiling, Amelda allowed himself to be dragged from the square as the music began once more, watching happily as Mana giggled gleefully, eyes alight in wonder at the sights around her.
Despite moving through the busy crowds, it felt like they had their own little world, constantly content and connected by their interlinked hands.
Finally, the mage stopped in front a small stall, the mercenary turning his gaze towards her as she ceased walking. Looking down at her, Amelda's expression became one of concern, seeing the slight, subtle change in the girl's demeanor. Her bubbly happiness faded for a moment as she looked at the items on display, a flicker of an emotion the male couldn't quite place in those large blue eyes. It was as if the light from the lanterns above was reflecting a small ripple of water across the magician's azure irises.
"Mana, what's wrong, are you all right?" he asked softly, giving her hand a light squeeze.
"Hmm? Oh yeah, it's just..." She quickly rubbed the few tears that had been threatening to form from her eyes with her free hand. A smile re-appeared on her lips, but it wasn't quite as happy as it normally was. "That pendant reminded me of the ones we have back home..."
Her finger traced the face of the moon, the Dragon Kingdom's symbol etched in silver. A memory broke through her defences - one of warmth, one of a woman holding a golden pendant above Mana's head. It wasn't as bright as the actual sun, but the smiling icon was just as beautiful.
She had no idea where the memory had come from...
"Are you buying that?" a terse voice demanded. The girl shook her head as she retracted her hand from the pendant and moved closer to Amelda.
Looking softly at her as her hand moved slowly away for the pendant on display, the thief gently put his hand on her shoulder in reassurance. The message seemed to be pretty clear; she was beginning to miss her own people, her kingdom, her home.
Inwardly, he cursed himself. They really should have made more effort to get Mana back home by now. Still, with the Dictator being so nosy of late, slipping her across the border was not going to be easy. Not to mention, if they just dropped her back at the palace, he doubted the Pharaoh or his Magician followers would let them leave quietly.
He knew what had to be done, and yet, out of all the reasons and issues for returning the girl, there was still something that bothered him, something he couldn't quite place. Yes, the soft ache in his chest, the one that flared up every time he thought of riding away and never seeing Mana again...
Shaking himself back to his senses, he fixed his gaze on the piece of jewellery before turning to the mage again. "Would you like me to buy it for you?"
Mana thought about it for a moment, then resolutely shook her head. The offer had touched her, but she thought, 'I don't wanna bother him with silly trinkets! Silly trinkets that make me think of home and…' Well, he needed the money more, anyway.
She looked up at him with a grateful smile. "Thank you anyway, Amelda, that was really sweet of..."
Movement beyond the crowd distracted her, drawing her eyes away. She gasped and said, "Look at that! Let's go see them!" Once again, she led Amelda to the new attraction, excitement returning to race through her limbs and activate her hyperactive imagination.
Amon, desperate to catch up with the 'captive' mage, launched himself towards the stall. Instead of reaching the elusive couple, the magician spy tripped on his robes and fell, face-first, into the neighboring stall selling dumplings. Food flew everywhere and people laughed at the flailing monk before his partner finally pulled him away, fearful that the owner would cause a scene.
Fortune smiled on them then, however, as the chaos caused by the fall gave no one a chance to see the guilty monk's face. Cursing himself for having to admit defeat, Amon melted with Rasui into the shadows of an alley.
The little mage had been far enough away to not notice the commotion behind them. Her eyes were on the skies, filled with the wings of dragon kites. "Aren't they amazing?! All of those kites, and all the beautiful colors!"
They flew high above the spectators while controllers on the ground guided their colorful dance.
"Those colors remind me of something...like the paintings in the palace," Mana mused.
The musing of the young magician barely registered in the thief's mind at that moment. He was just grateful she seemed happy again, even though she was still clearly feeling homesick and trying to ignore it. He really wouldn't have minded getting the pendant for her, but he couldn't force her to accept it either. Perhaps there was something else he could get for her to make her feel less upset...
Still, seeing her smile and marvel at the sights before her was enough for the moment, as he gazed fondly in return.
Finally recognizing the fact she had been speaking, his curiosity perked slightly, turning to her with an expression of questioning.
"Paintings? There are such things in the palace?" he blurted out before he could stop himself. It all seemed so strange to him. In his many visits to the stronghold of the Dictator he was used to seeing the bland and blank walls. The idea of colorful images decorating a structure was not something Seto would approve of, that was for certain, and to Amelda himself, the concept was rather bizarre.
"Oh, yeah! Almost every wall is covered with them!" said Mana. "My favorite ones are in the hallway next to the library. They were done by an ancient Pharaoh, I forget his name, and he was the first one to paint murals in the palace. He loved art so very much, and because of his passion, all my people still love art, too."
That was a part of a story the Prince used to tell her when they were younger. It made her so proud to be a magician at the time, before she had to train for the war. She yawned and wrapped her arms around herself in a comforting self-hug.
"I hope they always will, too," she murmured, her eyelids starting to feel heavy.
"Oh, that's very..." Amelda was about to reply, when suddenly, something clicked inside his head.
The third line of the clue...didn't it say...
'The first one to paint', yes! The next piece, it must have something to do with that Pharaoh! I'm sure I could figure something out, and then... he thought to himself, before finally noticing the tired look on Mana's face. Momentarily side-tracking from his train of thought, he smiled slightly before placing an hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, you look tired, ready to go home?" he asked, still pondering over the new development in his mind. However, he had to admit, it was now second to the sleepy girl standing next to him.
She yawned again and rubbed her eyes. "Yeah, I think I am..."
Too tired to think how it might look otherwise, Mana leaned against her thief for support. As they began walking "home," she wondered if she would really see hers again, and if the war would ever see a peaceful end.
The horse didn't have such thoughts, but he did watch them with an almost accusing eye and snort, as if to ask, "What took you so long?"
Once again ignoring any funny looks cast in their direction, Amelda carefully helped Mana up into the saddle, before settling behind her and taking the reigns.
As his mind drifted during the ride back to the house, he felt the weight on his chest become heavier, seeing the young mage had fallen asleep already. Smiling, he pulled her into a stronger hold so she wouldn't fall off the horse, but gentle as not to wake her.
She just looked so peaceful, innocent...
And that made him feel even more guilty for what he would have to do once the sun went down.