Dance of Darkness
"But I'm hungry now!" Juudai protested.
Yubel laughed softly. "Listen to you. You can be such a child, sometimes."
"Grownups get hungry too," Juudai pointed out - quite reasonably, he thought. It earned him another laugh from his guardian.
"There will be plenty enough to eat, soon enough," she assured him. "You can last until then."
"You're right," Juudai agreed. He gave a sigh and squared his shoulders, like a man taking on a heavy burden. Then he raised his pleading eyes to meet Yubel's. "But it smells good!"
Yubel smiled at him. "Steal something. Or I will. No one will stop me. And you can't be expected to do your part on an empty stomach."
"Good thinking!" said Juudai.
The two of them struck out for the kitchens. They could hardly be blamed for thinking about food, not when the whole castle smelled so powerfully of delicious things being cooked. Baking and roasting had been going on ever since the night before, with more dishes being added to the preparations with every passing minute. Everyone was, in fact, so busy with the cooking and decorating that they'd scarcely had time to eat their meals, and there wasn't anyone who wasn't looking forward to the feasting that would begin once the sun went down. Even Prince Juudai was not exempt from the preparations. He had spent most of the morning helping lesser men hang up the lanterns that would surround the castle and burn brightly throughout the night. There had been other preparations, too, duties that were unique only to him, but he had been rehearsing these for weeks and knew his role by heart. Now there was nothing left for him to do but wait until sunset. And filch food, of course.
They reached the kitchens and found them alive with chefs and chefs' assistants and innumerable other servants who had been dragooned into helping with the preparations. Juudai accosted one, catching her by the elbow and giving her a soulful look. Harried as she was, she responded with a smile and a giggle. Aside from being a prince, Juudai was growing up into a handsome young man, and more than one young lass had been known to blush when he looked her way.
"Can I have something to eat?" he asked her. "Please?"
"I'll see what I can do," she assured him, and darted away.
She returned a few moments later carrying a platter full of pastries stuffed with meat and spices.
"Will these do?" she asked.
"Perfect! Thanks," said Juudai, flashing his most dazzling smile. "Joy of the season!"
"The same to you, your highness!" she replied. She gave him another sparkling-eyed look before dashing off again. Juudai waved to her before scampering out of the way with his tray of purloined treats.
"Oh, stop looking at me like that," he said to Yubel, as he busily stuffed pastries into his mouth. "I have to be nice to her - it's the Solstice!"
"I suppose there is that," said Yubel, subsiding a little. She fluttered her wings as though brushing aside uncomfortable thoughts.
"She's not as pretty as you are, anyway," said Juudai cunningly. He knew well that the transformation had been hard on Yubel. As a human boy, Yubel had been known as a handsome youth, and had been more proud of it than he really wanted to admit until he'd been forced to give it up. Now that Yubel had become something else entirely, something neither male nor female nor human nor beast, she worried about whether or not Juudai would stray away from her, lured by a pretty face and a shapely body. Juudai had to admit that it had taken some time to adjust himself to Yubel's new shape, but now, four months after the transformation, he found her quite striking, even beautiful in her way. It was certainly worth his while to flatter her a bit on occasion.
Yubel smiled, softening a little. "It will be less crowded outside."
"All right, let's go out," said Juudai. "I want to see the decorations."
They went out. The castle, always dazzling even on the most ordinary days, had been transformed into something that could only be described as magical. Garlands of evergreen boughs with bright red or gold berries had been strung across the walls from window to window and wound through the bannisters of the balconies. Lanterns had been hung wherever they could be fitted, adorning every window and doorway. Every path and walkway had been lined with lamp posts with lanterns hanging from them. They weren't lit yet, but when they were, Juudai knew, they would fill the whole city with light. The villagers, too, were decorating their homes with more modest wreaths and garlands. Every intersection had a heap of wood for a bonfire piled in it, and a few in the dimmer corners of the city had already been lit, sending up tendrils of fragrant smoke. The town square had been elaborately ornamented, not only with evergreen branches, but with twists of ribbon and gold bangles. Juudai sat on the edge of the castle walls and watched as the sun set and the lamps and bonfires flickered to life one by one.
"This is my favorite night of the year," said Juudai as he licked the last few crumbs off his fingers.
"It would be," said Yubel. "This is the night of Darkness, and you are the living embodiment of Darkness. Your life force is at its strongest tonight."
"Maybe that's part of it," said Juudai, "but you've got to admit, the party is nice, too."
Yubel laughed. "That part is nice too."
"I'm sorry you can't share the food," said Juudai. He had discovered, somewhat to his dismay, that after her transformation, Yubel no longer felt any need to eat. She seemed to feed only on pure darkness, and she got all she needed just by being near him. To someone who loved a good meal as much as Juudai did, this seemed a true tragedy. This would be the first year of her life that she would not be able to join in the feasting.
"I am sorry too," she said, a bit wistfully. "You will have to enjoy my portion for me. I will enjoy the lights, and the Dance."
"The Dance," Juudai repeated thoughtfully. "Do you think they've found a partner for me, yet?"
"I hope so," said Yubel. "They have to. There can't be a Solstice without the Dance."
"It wouldn't be the same," Juudai agreed.
"It is vital," Yubel said. "The Light and the Dark must remain in balance."
"But does a dance have anything to do with it? How can two people dancing in this city make the seasons change all over the world?"
Yubel smiled knowingly. "Perhaps you will have to perform the Dance to know how it is."
"I dunno," said Juudai, running a hand through his hair thoughtfully. "I've been rehearsing for days and days and nothing has happened. It's just a dance."
"You didn't have a partner. Someone must carry the Light as well as the Dark. And it wasn't Solstice."
"You might be right," said Juudai, in a way that suggested that he wasn't really sure.
There was a pattering of footsteps behind him, and he turned to see who was coming. There was a servant in bright holiday livery watching him, panting slightly, his face red.
"There you are," he said. "We need you in the courtyard. Your dance partner is here."
"Go on," said Yubel. "You need to rehearse. I will be waiting for you at the main square."
"You aren't coming?" asked Juudai, surprised. It was highly unusual for Yubel to leave his side voluntarily, or even involuntarily.
"It isn't my place," she said. "I am a being of Darkness, almost as much as you are. My presence would only lead to imbalance. Don't ask how I know. I feel it in my bones."
She didn't look happy about it, which made Juudai believe she meant it. He nodded and hugged her tightly, which seemed to cheer her up somewhat, and then turned to follow the servant. They walked in silence toward the courtyard, and Juudai let his gaze wander while he thought about the Dance.
The Solstice was a favorite holiday in his kingdom, celebrated by a number of ancient and time-honored traditions. The old legends held that on the longest night of the year, the elements of the universe became tipped out of balance as Light and Dark vied with each other for dominance. As the Dark grew in prominence, the people would express their support for the Light by lighting lamps and bonfires to fill the city with brightness. The people would express their confidence that the night would end and longer, warmer days would come by feasting lavishly and giving out gifts to their friends and neighbors, as though they had no worries that their larders would soon be filled again. Children would leave small tributes to the elemental spirits: bundles of feather for the spirits of the air, a pan of water for the aquatic spirits, a candle for fire, a bit of bread for the earth. In the morning, they believed, if the spirits chose to bless them, their offerings would be paid for with small toys and gifts. The evergreen boughs were hung as symbols of the greenery of summer they hoped for. But most important of all was the Dance. At exactly midnight on the longest night of the year, two people who had been chosen as the living avatars of Light and Darkness would perform a ritual Dance, where the Darkness would symbolically pass his power on to the avatar of Light, thus bringing a peaceful end to the yearly struggle and ushering in an end to the winter. Legend held that if the Dance did not take place, the Darkness and the Light would continue to fight each other, and the world would slip into an eternal winter night. One belief held that the world itself would grind to a halt at midnight on the solstice, like a stone that had rolled into the bottom of a valley, and the Dance was the force that would set it turning again, rolling back up to the top of the peak that was summer.
Juudai wasn't sure he believed this. He had met some elemental spirits and they had never shown any interest in candles or bits of bread or feathers, and he had a shrewd notion that any miraculous gifts owed more to generous parents than to elementals. The feasting and decorating seemed to him to owe more to people who were bored and tired of living on the tight rations demanded by a winter when there was nothing to harvest. But the Dance... that was something else. When he had been a child, he had always watched it with wonder and a frisson of awe, a sense that something huge and miraculous was happening in front of him. Even now that he was older and wiser, he found himself growing mildly nervous about the whole thing. What if he did something wrong? If he made a misstep and the world came to an end because of him....
Well, I'm the Haou. This is something I have to get used to. The world is always going to be depending on me....
A sobering thought. For a moment, he found himself wishing that he was a little boy again, and could watch the celebration without worrying.
But before he could get too lost in those gloomy thoughts, he came to the door to the courtyard, and the servant pushed it open for him. A gust of sharp winter air rolled over him, clearing his mind. The courtyard was shadowed now, beyond the reach of all but a few pale rays from the sunset, and most of what light remained came from the lanterns that had been lit around it. There were a few people milling around, all of them intent on some task or another, and Juudai found himself scanning their faces wondering which of them was his partner.
Then a boy separated himself from the crowd and ambled over to meet them. Juudai recognized him at once - not by his face, because he was utterly unfamiliar to him - but by his garb. He was definitely a foreigner, Juudai knew that at once. His clothing was in a style very unlike the tunics and hose that were favored by the people of his kingdom. This boy was dressed in a loose shirt that was gathered in frills at the wrists and waist, with a vest fitted over the shirt, and a pair of slim pants with tall boots. His clothing was pure white trimmed in gold, even down to his boots and gloves. He appeared to be about Juudai's own age, with fairer skin and luminous blue-green eyes. His hair was a few shades darker than his eyes, and looked darker still in the uncertain light. The resemblance to his old friend was so strong that for a moment, Juudai thought he was seeing Yubel as a human again. Then the stranger stepped into a puddle of lamplight, and Juudai's thoughts caught up with reality.
"Are you here for the Dance?" he asked.
"That's right," said the newcomer, grinning. He had an easy smile that made Juudai relax. "I'm Johan. You're Juudai, right? I'm glad to meet you!"
"Nice to meet you, too," said Juudai, and he smiled back.
He looked around to see if there would be any further instructions, but the servant he had been following had vanished, and everyone else seemed to be busy with other tasks. It looked as though he would be on his own until the time of the Dance.
"You're a stranger here, right?" Juudai asked Johan. "Do you want to go explore the city?"
"Is it all right?" asked Johan. "They only told me they needed me for the Dance. I don't know what else they need me to do."
"Just dance, I guess," said Juudai. "That's not until nearly midnight, though. We can have fun until then. Come on - I'll show you around!"
He seized on Johan's hand and began hauling him out of the courtyard, and Johan followed, laughing. They wound their way together though the crowded halls of the castle and out the front gate, which had been opened wide so that servants could carry tables from the inside rooms out into the street. These were already being arranged all around the road surrounding the palace, spread with white tablecloths and piled with candles and food. Juudai and Johan looked eagerly at these as they walked past them, helping themselves to whatever caught their fancy.
"What do you think?" asked Juudai, munching happily on a cream bun topped with berry jam. "Want to go spiriting?"
"Aren't we a little old for that?" Johan wondered, though not with much conviction.
Juudai grinned. "I'm the prince - who's going to tell me I can't go spiriting if I want to? And anyway, you're obviously a spirit. Nobody's seen anyone around here like you before."
Johan laughed. "And no one would really believe the Prince is visiting them just for cookies, is that it?"
"You got it!" Juudai agreed. "Anyway, I haven't got Yubel with me, so I can't possibly be Juudai."
Spiriting was an old tradition based on the notion that on days of power, especially on the Solstice, spirits of all descriptions would roam through the city in search of food and shelter from the cold and the dark. Since a spirit could make itself look like anyone it wanted to, it was safest to assume that any visitor was a spirit in disguise and treat them accordingly. Everyone kept a stock of cakes or other treats on hand to offer any visitors, and it was common for children (as well as hungry adults) to present themselves on doorsteps offering good wishes for the season in exchange for food. Juudai, and in other years, Yubel as well, had often spent their Solstice evenings rushing from one house to another and stuffing themselves on sweet treats.
"Who is Yubel?" Johan asked as they walked.
"My best friend. My guardian," said Juudai. "She - he - I get confused... anyway, Yubel used to be a boy who lived here in the palace with me. We would always play together when we were kids, and when we got older, he became a page so he could train to be a knight and protect me. Then my father said that I was going to need a special guardian, and Yubel volunteered, even though it meant that he wouldn't be human anymore. So now Yubel is a dragon. That was only a few months ago... it's still strange."
"Yubel sounds interesting," Johan observed. "I'd like to meet him. Her?"
"Her. Mostly," said Juudai. "It was a very big change."
"It sounds that way," Johan agreed. "She must be a very good person, to agree to change so much for you."
"She is good. Yubel's the best person in the world," said Juudai firmly. "You'll meet her later. She didn't want to come with us, for some reason. Something to do with darkness and balance."
"I have a dragon friend, too," said Johan. "Not like your Yubel, I think, but he's still a pretty impressive dragon."
"I should come to your kingdom someday," said Juudai. "I don't get to leave this city very often."
So while they patrolled the city in search of snacks, Johan told Juudai everything about the kingdom where he lived, and Juudai responded with tales of his own life. They watched the people celebrating around the bonfires, singing old songs and passing around mugs of cider or spiced wine. A few people had arranged circle-dances in the crossroads, and there were musicians and jugglers performing on street corners. The two boys took it all in with delighted gazes and joyous laughter, and by the time midnight drew near, they had become fast friends.
"What was that?" Johan asked, gazing up at the clear sky. A bell had rung, echoing across the city.
"That's the signal that the Dance will be starting soon," said Juudai. "We'd better get moving."
"Let's run," Johan agreed.
Juudai agreed, and they took off at the best pace they could manage. Running turned out to be more difficult than it sounded in the crowded streets, and it took longer than they would have liked to finally reach the main square. There was a platform already set up there, its sides draped with colored ribbons and evergreen garlands, and torches lit on each of its six corners.
"Why six?" Johan wondered, as they approached.
"Seven," Juudai corrected. "The six outside points are for earth, fire, wind, water, light, and darkness. The seventh point is the invisible point in the center, for the soul. That's where we're going to be. See?"
"A little," Johan said.
"I don't really get it either," said Juudai, "but that's the way it's always been done."
While they were discussing this, Yubel rose up from the crowd and glided over to them, making disapproving noises.
"Look at you," she said to Juudai. "You've gotten your costume dirty. Is that how a prince behaves?"
"It's all black. Nobody will notice," Juudai protested, but Yubel fussed over him anyway, brushing away dust and smoothing his clothing into its proper place. Johan, looking slightly embarrassed, did the best he could to make his white outfit pristine once more.
The bell chimed again, sounding much louder in the echoing courtyard, and Juudai, feeling his nerves beginning to jangle with stage fright, separated himself from Yubel and began walking towards one end of the stage. Johan went the other direction, and was met at the stairs by a servant offering him a coil of rainbow-colored ribbon. Juudai, on his end, was given an unlit torch. At the center of the stage, someone walked over to a circle of stone where a pile of wood had been laid, and he carefully poured a jar of oil over it and set it aflame. Then he darted quickly away, leaping off the edge of the stage. Juudai and Johan walked carefully to their places. A hush fell over the audience. From somewhere, a flute began to play, and then a chiming of bells. The mellow voice of a woodwind joined in.
The Dance had begun.
Juudai took the first few steps, a few measured paces to the right, and Johan mirrored his movements. Together they tread a pattern around the fire as the sparks leapt up from it, circling and spinning in a dance that echoed the turning of the earth around the sun, the moon around the earth, the turning of the world on its axis. Then the tempo of the music shifted, and the pattern changed. Suddenly they were dancing face to face, looking at each other across the circle of fire, and as the music reached a crescendo, Johan tossed the end of his ribbon, and Juudai caught it neatly in his free hand.
Now they began a new set of spinning steps. Darkness and Light moved in harmony with each other, and between the poles of black and white was every color of the rainbow. As they danced, the ribbon became twisted around their wrists, binding the two dancers more and more closely together, drawing them nearer to the fire.
Suddenly, just as their toes came to rest against the very edge of the fire pit, the music stopped. The only sound was the crackle of the fire and the high hollow echoes of a bell tolling midnight. Juudai looked across the flames at Johan. Their eyes met.
The earth stopped moving.
Then Juudai bent, very slightly, and reached down into the fire to touch his torch to the hottest part of the flames, and he heard a rush as it caught.
In the beginning, there had been nothing, and then, out of the darkness, life had been born.... He had heard the story before, but in that instant, Juudai had a flash like the echo of a memory, and he knew that all this talk about Darkness and Light wasn't just a legend. It was more real than anything else had ever been, and he, somehow, had been the one who started it. His human mind didn't remember anymore, but his soul did, and the flare of the soul-fire had illuminated the memory for an instant.
Then he raised his eyes again and slowly, deliberately, passed the torch to Johan. He felt the other boy's hands close around it, felt him take the weight of it. He felt Johan's fingers graze his, and as their eyes met again, Juudai thought, I remember you too. You were there. You and me, we did this together....
Then the music started again, and they began to dance again, lowering the ribbon into the fire until it caught and burned away, freeing the pieces to rise up as sparks: red for fire, orange for earth, yellow for light, green for wind, blue for water, violet for shadow, all set free to go where they would. The boys danced apart again, until Juudai was left kneeling on one end of the stage, and Johan, holding the light of day and summer in his hands, raised the torch aloft so that all could see that the power of winter had been given up freely and that warmer days would come in peace. The crowd cheered, and the last few notes of the song were drowned out by them.
Juudai barely heard it. He felt suddenly tired, as if some power really had gone out of him. He was relieved when Yubel came to gather him in her arms, and he rested his head on her shoulder.
"Poor Juudai," she murmured. "I was afraid it would be hard on you."
"It wasn't hard, exactly," said Juudai. "I'm just tired. Can I get something to eat?"
Yubel laughed. "You've been eating all night, haven't you?"
"Yeah, but that dancing takes it out of a guy!"
Johan reappeared, darting through the crowd.
"Hey, are you okay?" he called.
"I'm fine," said Juudai. "Just a little tired, that's all."
"Yeah, that was... different than I thought it would be," Johan agreed.
The boys' eyes met for a moment, and they read each others' glances: Did you feel that? Did you see it too?
"So... do you have to go home again after this?" Juudai asked.
"In a day or two," said Johan. "I'm not leaving right this minute, anyway. I wish I could stay longer."
"It's okay," said Juudai, filled with a sudden knowledge. "We will see each other again. Maybe not soon, but someday."
Johan looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "You're right, we will."
"If that is settled," said Yubel, a bit impatiently, "what will you do now?"
Juudai gave his guardian a reassuring smile, to let her know that she had nothing to be jealous about.
"I don't know about you," he said, "but I'm going to get some more of those little cakes with the nuts in them, and then we can go look at the jugglers. You like jugglers, don't you?"
Yubel smiled back at him. "That would be acceptable."
"So let's go, then!" said Juudai.
He seized his two friends by their hands and began hauling them into the crowd, intent on enjoying the festivities for all they were worth.
And overhead, the stars moved in their eternal dance, light across the dark sky, until at last the night waned and the city was lit by the first light of a new day.