Book I The Seaside Song

Chapter 4

The Moon Festival

The Moon was getting fuller each day. Untouched Snow saw this as he stood at the edge of the bamboo forest, looking up at the dazzling night sky. It was a beautiful sight. He breathed in the warm night air. It really was a hot summer, at least for him. Before he could release his breath, Snow's shoulders tensed when he noticed the faint glow of an approaching lantern. He turned and watched a shadowed figure emerge from the forest path behind him. "Good evening," the man holding the lantern greeted him. In the lamp light the man's hair looked gold in some places, in others gray and black.

"Good evening," Snow responded.

The man wore a black, silk scarf over his hair. The material and the shadows from the wavering lantern obscured more than half his face from sight. However, the first thing Snow took note of as the man stepped into the moonlight was the black eye-patch over the man's left eye. The man's right eye swept over Snow in a lazy slide down and then up again to meet his gaze, but Snow saw how sharp the expression in that one eye really was. "Heading into town?" the stranger asked him with a tilted head and an unseen smile, eye crinkling around the corner. Snow nodded, adjusting the load on his back. "Mind if I join you?" the man asked amiably, easily passing Snow to light the path ahead.

"Please," Snow answered politely before following.

"It's not often woodcutters stay out so late," the man in front of him commented as they walked down the side of the mountain together. "Usually they're telling stories by now over drinks at the tavern. Didn't those old hands warn you that it's not safe to stay out so late on your own? Don't you know there are tigers in the forest? I hear they like the taste of young woodcutters, more than anything."

Snow watched the muscles bunch beneath the material of the stranger's jacket as the other walked smooth and sure-footed in front of him. The light of the moon was clear and sweeping, rendering the lantern to be almost an accessory, which was why Snow had stayed out so late. If it weren't for the bright moon tonight, he might have missed how fit the man was beneath his dark clothes, though Snow would certainly have seen that the other had a fighter's body. This was a man who knew combat, Snow was sure of it.

"I'm more of a fisherman than a woodcutter," Snow confessed, wondering if the man was one of the last four to challenge Red Orchid in the upcoming festivities. Somehow, he hadn't imagined the suitors to be real warriors like this one. He could see now why Sparrow and the angry-boy at the orphanage had been so worried.

"I heard cats prefer the taste of fish, more than anything. Don't they?" the man in front of Snow asked innocently in response. The other spoke in the same manner as before, when he had been talking about woodcutters. The stranger looked back at Snow to gauge his reaction.

Snow shrugged under the scrutinizing stare. "There are stories that say tigers like spirits too, but I've never seen a tiger drink." He answered, looking the stranger in the eye. The other's one dark eye looked back, evenly meeting his gaze. It seemed to almost shine silver beneath the bright moon.

"Ho," the man hummed, finally turning forward. Snow could no longer see the man's face and had to judge the other now from his voice. "That's too bad. It's definitely something you wouldn't forget once you've witnessed it." The stranger's tone was soft and serious, without a hint of humor.

Snow raised a brow at this. Was the man hinting that he had seen a tiger drink? He doubted anyone would have ever seen such a sight. Still, the stranger did give the impression that he would try to feed a tiger spirits, if given the chance. "You've seen it? A tiger drinking spirits?" Snow asked in response, knowingly rising to the bait.

The stranger in front of him stopped and Snow stopped too. The other turned to him with the one eye crinkled in that familiar fashion that hinted at a smile. "Tigers like spirits the way house cats like catnip," the man explained, eye smoothing into an intent look. "I was watching one just now, drinking his fill. It was such a sight that I had almost forgotten to head back into town until it became so late, but luckily I had brought a lantern with me to light my way back."

How naive does this man think he was? Snow wondered as he looked back with equal seriousness at the stranger. "Liar," he replied calmly. "You were coming from the head-man's house up the mountain. There are no tigers in the bamboo forest, at least not that way. I also doubt that you'd need a lantern to go back to town. The moon is almost full and you walk like a man who could manage to find your way back in your sleep."

The stranger sighed when Snow was finished. "How naive," the man said. "There was at least one tiger living in the head-man's house. They like to prowl your bamboo forest too, even if you don't know they are there. With the Moon festival coming up-" the man continued with his dark eye glittering from both the moonlight and the glow of the lantern "-there will soon be other carnivorous beasts in town as well. Anyway, the Moon isn't the Sun. You can't prepare for everything when there are so many shadows about."

A warm wind blew down the hill then, breaking the silence between them and swaying the lantern in the stranger's hand.

The man finally tilted his head and crinkled his eye. In a smooth motion, the man turned away from Snow before lifting the lantern up to face level and blowing it out after removing his scarf. Without another word, the stranger straightened his headwear, swung the darkened lantern over one shoulder and resumed walking towards the town without a backwards glance. Snow watched him go for a little while before following. The man had a very sharp gaze and a dangerous aura.

If anything, Snow felt like he had just met one of the carnivorous beasts of the forest, and the beast was heading into town for the Moon festival.

The second time Untouched Snow heard her voice was on the second night of the Moon festival. He had been dragged to the festival the night before to listen to the contestants this year. Four men stood on the stage with various instruments in their hands, and none of them had been the man Snow had met on the forest path. Each man was different, though not all of them left a remarkable impression. The most striking man had long dark hair that reached the small of his back and eyes so pale that one could almost mistake him for being blind. However, the way they swept over the crowd told Snow that the other saw more clearly than most. There was something about this man that reminded him immediately of Sparrow, and he wondered if the two were related in some way. Another young man, nowhere near as handsome, but striking for the vivid green of his jacket, had jet-black hair and eyebrows so thick that Snow noticed them first, despite being far back from the stage. The third man was unremarkable in appearance in every way, except unlike the others he was slouching and looking like he wished he were anywhere else but on-stage. The last man was bigger than all of his companions, and Snow remembered that the man's name was Bear, the only name he managed to recall as it fit the man's appearance so well.

The first man played a haunting song on an erhu so beautifully that Snow asked Little Dragon what the man's name was after the song was over. "Moon Stone," the old man answered with tears in his eyes. The second man played drums, and while rousing, none of the performances after Moon Stone was especially memorable. "That one's gift is music," Little Dragon said as they were walking home. Sea Lotus hummed Moon Stone's song to herself all morning the next day.

It had been a beautiful song.

The second night, Little Dragon and Sea Lotus didn't have to drag Snow to attend. He willingly went with them, now intrigued more than ever on what talents the other men had. It was, however, Red Orchid's night to reply to the challenge the four men sent her way. He saw her go up to the stage with her eye-catching hair just as brilliant as the first time he had seen it. He still did not have a clear view of her face considering how far he was from the stage - more people had shown up for this night than the night before. He did, however, hear that distinct voice of hers. The crowd was hushed into an unnatural silence but the stage was set up in such a way that it sounded almost as if she was standing next to him. She was holding a beautifully crafted pipa, and the pear shaped instrument was held with a delicate grace. Her movements were skilled and perfected. Snow could tell after the first few notes that her song would be beautiful as well, just like her instrument.

However, he had not expected the purity of her voice. Snow did not think anyone could have prepared him for it. He had heard her speak but he had never heard her sing. He had never imagined that there would be a song that could out do what Moon Stone had played the night before. The man had done it with so much skill and talent that Snow had rarely heard anything close to that quality, despite all the places he had gone. Only Older Brother had been on the same level, and Snow had not heard such skill in so long that he had almost forgotten how much beauty could be in a song.

But Red Orchid's voice was a gift on its own. One could say that her song was less beautiful than Moon Stone's; her voice was more beautiful than any instrument and she was just as skilled with her pipa as Moon Stone had been with his erhu. The subject of her song was also a shock for Snow. Her words were almost a blur to him but Snow saw the peach orchard clearly as her voice washed over him, sweeping him from the village and back to that faraway place he had once called home. He could almost see the bright moon shining down onto the heavily scented grove, peaches white and red, gleaming pale and gray in the moonlight. There, Older Brother sat in the embrace of the dark branches, staring up at the same sky Snow was under now. He wondered then if the wind could carry such a sweet song to his brother's ears, and almost faintly, he imagined that he could smell the over-sweet scent of peaches brushing past him on the gentle breeze.

Snow could not remember more than a handful of words after the song was over. For a long time no one said anything. Only when Red Orchid rose and bowed did the thundering applause snap Snow out of his trance. He could only clearly recall a few lines from her song...

"...I used to dream of the peach grove
The sweetest scent in my sleep

The night is inky and starless
The moon is my cold, pale light
Lacking the colors of the day time
You wait in the gray of the peach grove..."

In those lines Snow remembered Older Brother so strongly he felt that he could almost touch the other in his memories.

"That was her mother's song," Sea Lotus told him as they walked home that evening. "She hasn't sung that song in a long time. Moon Stone must have made her feel like he was giving her a challenge." The old woman's voice was very grave.

"Was?" Snow asked softly.

"Seven years ago, her mother passed away from this world," Sea Lotus answered.

"Was it that long ago?" Little Dragon asked suddenly. The old couple shared a look, full of sorrow and unspoken things. "Seven years already, hm?" The old man said with a sigh, looking suddenly older than Snow had ever seen him. "She doesn't sing that song very often anymore," the old man echoed at last. "Too many memories, I suppose."

"Far too many," Sea Lotus agreed.

Snow looked up at the moon, almost full, remembering how the home he left behind so long ago had suddenly came to mind so sharply in the sound of her voice. It had been a song full of memories for him too. Good memories that can so easily turn into painful ones. Snow wondered then what kind of memories the old couple shared concerning a song about peaches when there were no peach groves for leagues around.

In the dark, he speculated on how beautiful Red Orchid must be to accumulate such varied solicitors for her hand. Was he mistaken in thinking that a merchant's daughter could not match the painted city beauties he had already seen on his travels? He had underestimated her and her suitors before, but now he knew he had been wrong to do so. Snow began to wonder what other surprises this small town held for him in the days to come.

The third night was literature. Snow saw people crowd around the lantern selling stalls and remembered how excited Sparrow had been on hearing that the lanterns were selling well. Little Dragon was teasing Snow earlier on who he thought the best poet was in the four suitors he had already seen. "Moon Stone," he had said automatically. The man was obviously well educated. However, as the night wore on, he began to wonder if Moon Stone might suffer the same affliction of bad poetry his brother had.

Then again, no one was really like Older Brother...

The first contestant was the man with the thick eye-brows. The man had played the drums quite well, but it paled in comparison to Moon Stone's skill and Red Orchid's voice. He was, however, rather awful at poetry. Granted, Snow had seen worse. The villagers clapped politely, but Snow could tell no one was very impressed.

The second contestant was the bored looking man. The poem was surprisingly funny and accurately observed their town-life with flare. Snow was unable to hold back a smile when it was over, and several times he had heard some of the men, Little Dragon included, chuckle over the word choices. This man, Snow realized, was far cleverer than he looked.

Then, it was Bear's turn. Snow almost cringed when the man opened his mouth. The other's voice was deep and nuanced as he began to tell a tale. Snow felt his eyes widen with surprise with each passing line. He had thought that Bear's talent would lie in fighting. The man certainly had the girth for it. While the man had awkwardly played the flute two nights earlier, Snow had not thought that literature was where Bear would shine. But shine the man did. The story was more beautifully put together than the song Red Orchid had sang the night before.

Snow could almost feel the magical forest that Bear spoke of spring up around him. The rough feeling of bamboo under his palms returned to him, as did the clear, crisp smell. Snow recalled the feel of the grass being crushed under foot. He could see, in the distance, a young hero fighting a mighty tiger. Men and women chuckled over the cleverness of the small hero, and gasped over the might of tiger as Bear acted out each part with his deep voice and surprisingly agile body.

The story ended and it was Moon Stone's turn. The man wasn't as bad at poetry as Older Brother, but after Bear's performance, nothing but exceptional would have left an impression.

"What a delightful surprise," Little Dragon said as they walked home that evening. There was deep admiration in the old man's eyes for the performance Bear had shown them that night. "I would not have guessed that such a large, awkward looking man would take over the stage so well."

"Red Orchid always has the most interesting suitors," Sea Lotus agreed. "I don't think there's been a year where I'm not surprised who the final four turns out to be."

Snow grinned at the memory of Bear's story. "I was wrong," he agreed easily. "Bear was the most talented tonight," he admitted, thinking how Older Brother would have enjoyed himself if the other could witness this sight. If this was how the suitors contested, Red Orchid's father was truly a brilliant man. His daughter...

No, Snow thought. It was too early to judge her now, but he looked forward to being proven wrong. Snow was still grinning when they reached the hut, and though he did not notice this, the old couple did.

The fourth night Red Orchid did something unexpected. She replied to each of the four men's composition. Her reply to the thick-browed man was full of the beauty the other's writing lacked. Her reply to the clever man's humor was equally humorous, though not nearly as cutting. With Bear, she answered with a story of her own. Where Bear had told it from the perspective of the young hero, she told it from the perspective of the tiger. A drunken tiger.

Snow remembered suddenly the man with the lantern stopping in front of him and telling him how the other had seen a tiger drink. Funny enough, the way Red Orchid told the tale, Snow could see it too in his mind's eyes. It was such a vivid image that, for the first time, he joined the laughter that flowed over the audience, missing the surprised look Sea Lotus and Little Dragon directed his way.

With Moon Stone, somberness replaced the playful look on Red Orchid's face. In an instant she changed the mood of the crowd from laughter into sorrow. Her poem in reply was full of wishes with prices and losses without gain. A bleak picture she painted, full of the sense of unspoken promises and the endless depth of the sea. At the end, Snow saw from the corner of the stage, Moon Stone walking away in angry strides and wondered what else was in that reply that the audience was not privy to.

"I didn't think she would reveal so much to strangers," Sea Lotus said in the dark, on their way back to the hut.

Little Dragon grunted but added nothing else to the conversation. Snow looked over to his hosts and wondered what they had meant. Somehow, he sensed that if he had asked they would not have answered him. So, once more, he held back the questions at the tip of his tongue and stored them away with all the others that this festival had given him.

On the fifth night he noticed more prominently that the crowd was still singing verses from the song Red Orchid had sang two nights ago. Some hummed Moon Stone's tune under their breath. A few times, he overheard eager young children acting out the parts of Bear's story and Red Orchid's reply. This was, however, the night for Strategy. The games had been going on since morning, but three of the four contestants had already been beaten. The last game was centered on Go and the too-clever man from two nights ago was the last one standing.

"What is his name?" Snow asked Sea Lotus.

"Cloud," Sea Lotus answered as they browsed the shops lining the streets. A few young women passed them and giggled at each other when they saw Snow's face. He ignored them and gave his full attention to Sea Lotus. Little Dragon had wandered off to talk to some of his friends, and they had left the old man there as he happily exchanged gossip and heated debates about tradition with other leathery looking men of his age. "I've met him in town before," she told Snow, "when I was shopping. He is surprisingly good mannered and has a silver tongue. I had thought that literature would have been his to win, but Bear has turned out to be a surprise for everyone." The old woman smiled at some memory before looking at Snow. "Cloud, though, is more clever than a fox, and I think this year he'll be the first to beat Red Orchid in Go."

Snow raised a brow. "The first?" he asked.

"Don't you know?" Sea Lotus stopped and asked him. "She's never lost in Strategy. No one's come close."

"But this year, you think Cloud will beat her?" he asked, unable to mask how surprising this news was to him. He had never met a woman truly skilled at Go. Granted, most of his cousins had never been interested in the game, but his mother liked it well enough and so did Older Brother, who excelled at it. However, having seen the caliber of Red Orchid's suitors and the skills they had already shown, he realized that to say that Red Orchid was unbeatable in this game was really something to take note of.

"Is her father very good?" he asked.

"Well," Sea Lotus said with a small smile. "Perhaps the only one who used to challenge her at all was her father. I don't know if he plays any more though. He used to come into town to go at it with some of the men at the tavern. The best of them used to lose so quickly to him that they have banned him from being able to place bets for the game, especially on himself."

Snow raised a brow at this. "He gambles?" he finally asked.

Sea Lotus laughed. "Not since two years ago. Red Orchid had caught him red-handed in the middle of a cards game. It's the only one he's allowed to put money on anymore. The villagers still talk about that incident some times. She's got a bit of a temper for some things, so don't believe my husband when he tells you that she's a delicate blossom without thorns."

"She knows how to fight," Snow said reasonably. "I don't think one can consider a woman to be delicate if she can hold her own against a man like Bear."

Sea Lotus grinned. "She'll still be able to surprise you," the old woman replied. "She surprises me every year and I've been watching her do this since she was fourteen years old."

Snow smiled back, causing the old woman to blush and look away. "I look forward to it," he said softly with anticipation seeping into his voice.

At the apex of moon-rise, Cloud won the game of Go as Sea Lotus had predicted. He won by having captured a small square of living stones more than Red Orchid. It had been a close game till the very end. There had been an unguarded look of respect and speculation on Cloud's face while the stones were being counted. The man watched Red Orchid, but even with the results announced she had only bowed gracefully with a gentle smile on her lips. Snow was not sure what went on between them, but Cloud had bowed in return and, eventually, shrugged away that sharp, studying gaze on an otherwise ordinary face.

On the way back, Snow saw that Sea Lotus had bought them three lanterns from the lantern stall.

"Those kids get better at making these every year," Little Dragon commented as they looked over it the next morning.

"Kids?" Snow asked, thinking he knew the answer as soon as he asked it.

"Yeah, those brats you met at the orphanage," Little Dragon answered as he inspected the construct of his lantern with a critical eye. "Didn't they brag to you when you were there? Helps them raise money for as much as a third of the year when they started this activity ten years back. I remember when Red Orchid used to make the prettiest lanterns when she was a little girl." The old man sighed dreamily at the memory. "Her father used to sell those to all his merchant friends who came to visit during the Moon festival. Made a lot of money for the orphanage back then when she wasn't so busy preparing for the games."

"Her mother made the prettiest ones of all," Sea Lotus said as she served them breakfast. "That woman used to paint red orchids and peach blossoms onto hers. She really loved flowers, and those were her two favorites."

"Why did she open an orphanage?" Snow asked.

The old couple looked at each other and Sea Lotus finally answered when her husband gave her a grave nod. "It was something of a promised boon," Sea Lotus began. "She had wanted a child, you see," she continued hesitantly. "The head-man and she had tried for many years, but was unsuccessful. In the end, she laid out offerings to the Sea Emperor. She had offered an orphanage in the bargain while trying to gain the Emperor's aid."

Snow stilled, tilting his head at this story. He had never heard of this before. While each place believed in different gods, he had never heard of gods allowing humans to bargain with them. "Was the sum of it a heavy price in the end?" he asked, knowing that what he was being told was not the whole of the story.

Sea Lotus looked to her husband then and it was Little Dragon who answered. "The Sea Emperor would never accept a price you cannot pay, Snow. But you must understand, one does not go asking the gods for things easily gained. At that point, if you want something," the old man paused with a weary shrug, "you may offer anything."

On the sixth night, the four men fought each other. Moon Stone had beaten Cloud and, surprisingly, Bear was defeated by thick-brows. "What's the name of that man?" he asked Little Dragon.

"Hm," the old man thought as he scratched his chin, "I think... Sharp Jade?"

Snow raised a brow. It certainly explained the color green that the man wore so prominently. Moon Stone and Sharp Jade faced off and the level they fought on was intense and, had Snow been like much of the audience, it would have been too hard to follow. But even he was startled at their level of skill. It was crystal clear why Sparrow and the angry-boy had been so worried about this part of the competition. Sharp Jade, who had never truly impressed Snow in any of the earlier contests, impressed him now. Moon Stone fought with the same grace and skill he had shown earlier in his playing. It was a beautiful dance, indeed, but it was obvious that this area was Sharp Jade's specialty.

In the end, the man with the thick eye-brows won.

"I admit, in the beginning, I thought Bear would have won this," Snow said as they walked home that evening. He wasn't smiling tonight. Even though he did not know Red Orchid, he didn't think he would really want to see the fight the next day. Not when Sharp Jade was so strong. If she put up any fight at all, Red Orchid would be injured for the effort.

"That man does have the look of a bear, doesn't he?" Little Dragon asked with a forced chuckle. It was obvious from the concerned murmurs when they left town no one was looking forward to the next day.

Sea Lotus looked worriedly to her husband. "I never like this part of the contest," she admitted quietly.

Little Dragon snorted at this. "Well, that stupid fox didn't even bother to show up this year for the mess he's created."

Snow paused at this. "Does he show up every year then?"

"Since four years ago," Sea Lotus answered. "He's one of the few who has beaten Red Orchid in two categories. We all thought he'd be back this year to be the first to beat her in three."

Little Dragon hmphed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Even if he beats her in all four, I'd still not accept him as worthy of her. She never got bruised once before he showed his ugly mug. This is the fruit of that idiot's ideas."

"I don't think he ever meant for her to fight anyone else but him," Sea Lotus said softly.

"Well, he's not here now, is he?" Little Dragon asked heatedly.

"If she's not very skilled, it would be a quick fight," Snow cut in before the argument could escalate.

Sea Lotus sighed and Little Dragon looked at Snow with annoyance. "You don't know Red Orchid," the old man grumbled. "To say that she's as stubborn as a mule is to be unfair to the mule." Snow quirked a brow in reaction. He had heard the head-man's daughter being described like this before. If he remembered correctly, it had been Sea Lotus at the time too, though it didn't quite sound the same now that Little Dragon was saying it. "If there's one thing I have against Fox, it's that he's made her worse. Now she won't stop until she's unconscious or dead." Little Dragon said the last part so seriously that Snow could understand the other's worry.

"It's why Dance was moved to be the last event in the Moon festival," Sea Lotus explained, worry marring the space between her brows. "It used to be the event that opened the contests. Everyone loved the way Red Orchid danced. It would get the audience excited about the rest of the events. She would end it all with Music and people would be humming the songs the suitors played for days after the Moon festival was over. But ever since Dancing included fighting... well, it had to be the last event. Since then I'm not sure if our Little Orchid is awake for the lanterns going up when she loses."

"I'm not sure if she's awake for it when she wins," Little Dragon butted in. "Sometimes she's in bed for days after the festival," the old man lamented. "Last year, she broke her arm and wore a sling all through the ninth month."

"The first year she cracked two ribs as well," Sea Lotus recalled.

"Why doesn't she just concede that she can't win this event then?" Snow asked. By now, at least, he had learned the futility of asking why her father hadn't stepped in and stopped her.

"Because," Sea Lotus answered while reaching for her husband's hand. "When she wins-" the old woman paused and a pitying look came over her face "-I don't think I've ever seen anyone look happier."

It was the last night of the festival. Snow didn't want to go but the lantern lighting would end the festivities. It was the pinnacle event of the week, and to not attend was to dishonor the Moon Maiden. A part of him was also curious to see Red Orchid's skill as a fighter, even though he also didn't want to witness the discrepancy between her skills and Sharp Jade's.

Reluctantly the three of them went to the festival. Grim faces came into view all around and, for the first time, Snow was able to get closer to the stage and separated from the old couple who wanted to stay farther back. Not many people wanted to be that close to the fight, even though that was the opposite of a crowd's usual reaction to fighting. There were, of course, a lot of the younger people and foreigners up close to the stage. Some of them managed to wear excited expressions, though a few of them got glared at for exhibiting too much enthusiasm. Snow wasn't sure what they were excited about. After all, it was a man fighting a woman, and Sharp Jade was a skilled fighter on a whole different level than most men could ever hope to be in their life-time.

"I'm going to bet on Red Orchid," he heard a young man say to his friend.

The young man's friend snorted at this. "You're a fool for her," the other answered but took the proffered coins. "But I'll take your money. Sharp Jade will definitely win this one."

"Did you forget how she fought last year? She tied with Fox!" Another young man said pointedly.

"Why don't you bet on her too then?" the second man goaded silkily.

"I'm not betting on anyone this year," the third man refused. "I'm just saying you shouldn't discount her."

Snow raised a brow at this and looked around. He saw that a few others around him were also making and taking bets. The older people in the back wore varying degrees of worried expressions, though there were a few excited faces from foreign looking visitors in the back. As his gaze swept around, he saw the man he had met at the edge of the bamboo forest. The man still wore a black scarf around his face and an eye-patch. The other was casually leaning against a tree, but his eye was intent on the right hand side of the stage and he looked rather intense, despite his face being mostly hidden.

It was also the side that Red Orchid emerged from soon after. For the first time Snow was close enough to see her face clearly. His eyes were drawn to her hair first. The long crimson strands were braided and looped out of the way of her face and combat. His gaze finally was able to trail over her features. She was fine-boned with high cheek-bones, a delicate nose and full lips. Her skin seemed to glow in the lamp light in that same way it had glowed in the sun. Her eyes were green, so dark a green it was almost black and gold in the fire light. She wore men's clothes for the fight, light pants and a light jacket that obscured her figure more than it revealed.

She was beautiful. It was muted by the clothing and hairstyle she sported, but even so he could see it. Snow felt his breath catch in his throat at the sight of her. She was not expertly painted to have any particular feature enhanced nor was she wearing jewels or silken gowns, but she did not need it. If she wore the make-up he had seen women in the cities wear, he would not doubt that she could outshine the best of them.

The thing he noticed next was that she held a sheathed sword in a plain, wooden scabbard polished to a rich dark shine. He had seen Sharp Jade fight the night before. The man used fists and not weapons, which made the other far more skilled and far more deadly in close combat. However, with a sword, if she was skilled, perhaps she had a chance...

Sharp Jade came out from the left. His face held a worried expression, but as soon as he saw Red Orchid draw her blade his features relaxed and he nodded at her with the barest hint of a smile. Snow paused too, for Red Orchid held no ordinary wooden or bronze blade. Her sword was living steel, brightly glowing, pale as the full moon overhead. There was no doubt that she was serious about this fight, and Little Dragon's words the night before came back to him.

This was a woman who neither asked for mercy nor played at the games of war.

"Your father would be proud to have such a daughter as you," he heard Sharp Jade say to Red Orchid as he bowed to her respectfully.

She smiled a calm and beautiful smile at her opponent and returned the gesture before she changed her stance, as graceful and precise as Moon Stone's had been. Snow wondered then if she was of a similar caliber. "Let's make sure Father enjoys the show then," she answered and then struck.

In the blink of an eye she was across the stage. It was rare for Snow to see a fighter move so quickly, but in that moment as Sharp Jade caught her naked blade with his naked hands, Snow knew who the winner of the fight would be. Red Orchid didn't look surprised and kicked out at Jade without blinking an eye. She was experienced, Snow realized, for she did not attempt to pull her blade out of Jade's grasps. Whoever taught her was a skilled fighter too.

Sharp Jade's legs responded, blocking her kick for kick and avoiding her feet as she tried to catch his on the way down. Red Orchid changed her tactics quickly, seeing her disadvantage in being within his range. She attacked Jade's upper body, knowing he would deflect with hands and arms, and through a series of quick, precise movements, her blade was freed and she was circling mid-ranged instead.

Snow saw Jade look down at one arm and flex his fingers experimentally before a smile of respect came over the other's lips. The man looked to Red Orchid and his stance changed. Her dark-green eyes sharpened and she responded with a stance of her own. Snow recognized both and he frowned. What was Red Orchid thinking? This time it was Jade who attacked first, and if Red Orchid had been fast in crossing the stage, Sharp Jade was even faster.

The crowd gasped. In a green blur Jade was across the stage and in front of her. Despite how quickly she responded in retreating, Jade was faster. When he caught up with her, Jade struck and Snow realized that the other man's hands were like blades. Snow finally understood the reason behind the relief on Jade's face when Red Orchid had revealed her sword. This time it was Red Orchid who dodged, and she flowed as fluid as water. Snow could see that while Red Orchid was not as skilled as Moon Stone had been in attacking, she was specifically trained to dodge. It really was as graceful as a dance, but where Jade could risk a few hits from her, Snow doubted that Red Orchid could afford the same. She would always be at a disadvantage in closed quarters. He could see her struggle to disengage but Sharp Jade was not allowing her to get away. He matched her step for step, and every time she shifted to dodge, Jade was on her from the other side. While Jade was not able to land a hit on her, the man did not show an ounce of frustration and was quick enough to prevent her from getting out of reach.

Snow could see that if this was a fight concerning stamina, Jade would also win.

Still, Red Orchid's face was serious and concentrated, equally not frustrated nor panicking. She had been trained by a warrior and she moved as one who had spent hours perfecting each movement of the body till the movement became ingrained. He had seen some women fight during his travels, but he had never seen a woman fight a man as skilled as Sharp Jade and hold her own for so long. It would be a feat for most men to have lasted as long against Sharp Jade, Moon Stone had proven this, and had it been any other man then Red Orchid would have won. Still, Snow wondered if she knew that she would not be victorious in this but her face revealed nothing of her thoughts.

Suddenly Red Orchid struck out at Sharp Jade's wrist, landing a hit that Snow almost missed seeing occur. Without warning Red Orchid was out of range again and, again, Sharp Jade was flexing his other hand, a puzzled look on his face. However, she did not strike her opponent down at this opportunity. Instead, Red Orchid panted, trying to catch her breath in this brief moment of respite instead. Jade looked up, this time his expression was serious. Without taking a stance, Sharp Jade moved and this time there wasn't anything held back. Red Orchid's expression was grim but her arms rose in response even as she jumped back again from the high kick Sharp Jade aimed at her chest. Snow saw her wince as she struggled to get out of range, her sword rattled where she had stopped Jade's foot, a hair's breadth from her face with the flat side of her blade. Her arms quivered from the impact and Snow guessed that her fingers were numbed by the deflection.

Jade had not touched her. However, the man didn't need to. The force of the other's kick had made the very air a weapon and thin lines of red appeared along Red Orchid's delicate cheekbones. Then she was pulling back again, both hands griping her sword this time. It was more evidence to Snow that she could barely hold onto the weapon that gave her just enough room to run away but not enough time to gain the upper hand. Jade, surprising Snow even more, increased his already incredible speed. He was ready for her when Red Orchid landed, following her backwards retreat with such quick, deft steps that Snow could not help but wish to slow down the fight so that he could admire the other man's footwork. She still dodged beautifully, her eyes studying Jade's moves and mimicking the other like a mirror so perfectly that Snow could tell she had a gift for this.

Jade grinned at her cleverness, boyish and endearing. The tension in the fight left his face and her shoulders. For a little while they played at this and Snow was not sure when the contest became a lesson. However, Red Orchid shot Jade a look. Again they parted and changed their stances accordingly. This time, Snow did not recognize either. The tension was back again, obliterating the playful mood that had been there earlier. Red Orchid was holding her sword one-handed again, the way it was supposed to be held.

This time she struck again. While it was obvious that she was out-classed in attacking, Red Orchid also knew that for her to gain ground she had to attack. In this type of fighting she could not wait for the opponent to come to her. Despite all that she must have already realized, she advanced without hesitation in her swing, though her speed was slower. Jade was a wall of offensive attacks and he was almost as good at dodging and parrying as Red Orchid was, without a sword for aid to enlarge his range.

Still, the determined look was back, replacing the grim line of her mouth. Red Orchid lashed out with her sword in precise lunges and expert thrusts. She was quick enough to pull back before Jade could catch her blade again, but it meant she had to plan her moves ahead instead of taking full advantage of unexpected openings. There were, unfortunately, no unexpected openings anyway. They danced, back and forth, Red Orchid staying out of arms' reach with Jade blocking her sword swings and thrusts. Then, one of Jade's deadly legs was flying out again. The shift had been so slight that it had caught even Red Orchid by surprise. She blocked the high kick by instinct, but the ashen look on her face told Snow that she had paid the price for it too. Her sword clattered to the ground, and this time it was not just numbed fingers she struggled with. Snow would not be surprised if this year she wore an arm sling all through the ninth month again.

Even as he thought this, Red Orchid was kicking out herself. The worried concern on Jade's face disappeared as he instinctively backed off from her flying and then harshly descending foot. She would not yield. The face she wore now was one of pained determination, even though it was obvious to Snow, Jade, and probably Red Orchid, that this would not last.

Her defenses were much stronger than Moon Stone's had been. That man had incredible defenses too. But this skill cost her, for Red Orchid's offenses were almost halved by the intense training she must have under gone to gain the skills she had. Jade allowed her a moment to collect herself and Snow could see the ire on her face for this small mercy. Then her opponent attacked again. With each passing moment Jade added a little more speed to his attacks, but still Red Orchid dodged him. Snow could see why the old man had said she wouldn't stop until she was dead or unconscious. She was persisting through the pain admirably, more than he had expected from her, more than he could have expected from most warriors.

She had been proving him wrong all week and Snow was almost becoming used to being wrong about her.

Then, she took a risk and her hand shot out and struck Jade on his thigh. The man deflected too late but still managed to hit her wrist so sharply that this time she did not bother to retreat out of range. Red Orchid's face had gone completely white with the pain of Jade's strike but she did not cry out. However, Jade was not able to follow up. He was down on one knee and looking up in surprise at her. If she had not been blinded with pain, if her eyes had not been so glassy and lost as she fought off her body's reaction, this fight could have been hers.

Instead, Red Orchid swayed and held her broken wrist to her chest. Her long pause was enough for Jade to get back on his feet again, albeit unsteadily, and the man moved. She was so close that Jade did not need his legs to move. Otherwise this might really have ended in a stand-still. The edge of Jade's palm was suddenly resting against the side of her neck, and the man's form was flawless despite his own unsteadiness. "Yield," he saw Jade form the word, though Snow could not hear it this time from where he stood. Jade had spoken those words so quietly that it was obviously meant only for Red Orchid's ears.

But Red Orchid's green eyes blazed darkly instead with defiance as she regained a bit of her senses. Before she could even shake her head to respond Jade struck, hitting the back of her neck with a precise movement of hand. The man had seen that same fire and Snow guessed that the other knew what the look had meant. Red Orchid finally fell forward into unconsciousness. Sharp Jade caught her falling form awkwardly in his arms, stumbling under her weight and ending up on his knees again. Only then Snow realized that whatever Red Orchid had done, her strike had indeed left its own mark. Sharp Jade, however, was looking a little redder in the face than before as a few servants scrambled onto the stage to help him with the unconscious Red Orchid.

In the end, the result was as Snow had predicted, but Red Orchid's skill had indeed been worth seeing; her will was as strong as Little Dragon had warned him about. He watched the judges of the fight declare Sharp Jade the winner of the round, though it was not necessary. A few people clapped and Snow had been among them. The man deserved it, even though parts of the crowd seemed to express disapproval over Jade's victory.

"It's too bad she didn't win," he heard the man from earlier say with a sigh.

"It's a good thing you didn't bet on it," his friend commented.

"Her smile would have been worth it," the young man who had lost the bet said softly, not looking away from the stage as he spoke. Instead, the other longingly watched as the unconscious Red Orchid was carried off by her servants.

"Yeah," his friend agreed, clapping his shoulder as they watched the servants with envy. "But not this year, friend. Not this year."

The people left the town after the stage was cleared. In chattering groups they headed for the beach, though most were sobered by the results of the last contest. When the moon rose to its apex, people clustered around the lit torches placed in the sand already, everyone going with lanterns in hand. The dark waves came in and sparkled under the light of the full moon. Lighting their lanterns from the torches, Snow watched as waves of lighted lamps were cast into the sky. His own quickly disappearing from view as it was swallowed into the masses of other lighted lanterns rising.

He watched couples, young and old, holding each other as they too watched their lanterns float up to greet the Moon. Young children laughed, chasing each other on the beach and on the edges of the waves when they got bored of watching. Friends joked and quietly talked amongst themselves, their voices often drowned out by the crashing sound of waves hitting the surf. A song began to be played in the distance and, slowly, voices all around Snow soon rose to join it. He did not know this song, so he listened as he watched the lights ascend into the illuminated heavens overhead.

"Dear Moon Maiden,
Beautiful and bright,
Your face is full of light tonight

Pull in the tides for us
Bless our rice to be sweet
and our wines sweeter still
Don't turn back home tonight

Lovely maiden of the Moon
We light a thousand fires in your name
With our voices we will send
A thousand wishes to the skies
To keep you company

You are the one light
On the darkest nights
With only dreams to accompany you
Tonight we honor you with our voices too
Your endless watch

Kind lady of the Moon,
Clear and cutting,
No shadows mar your face

Let our fires kiss your cool visage
Bless our joys to be sweet
and our tears sweeter still
Don't turn back home tonight

Bathe us with your soft white light
Night maiden in the black silk skies
Linger just a little longer
by our side
Oh nightly, constant friend..."

to be continued...

Untouched Snow = Sasuke

Red Orchid = Sakura

Moon Stone = Neji

Cloud = Shikamaru

Sharp Jade = Rock Lee

Fox = Naruto

I think you can guess who the unnamed/eye-patch man at the start of this chapter is.

Bear, Sea Lotus, and Little Dragon, as well as the town's people, belong in the fantasy of this tale and do not come from the Naruto-verse.

The songs they sing belong to the story. The rest of the peach grove song may be revealed in later chapters.

Orchid's instrument is the pipa: en dot wikipedia dot org slash wiki slash Pipa

Bear and Snow's instrument is the bamboo flute.

Sample of pipa and bamboo flute: www dot youtube dot com slash watch ? v = RJqZIkvShdc

Moon Stone's is the erhu: en dot wikipedia dot org slash wiki slash Erhu

Sample of the erhu: www dot youtube dot com slash watch ? v = L _ K54nEqfSo

Sharp Jade played the drums.