Chapter Three

22 2 0

Fireworks exploded in bursts of gold and red like celestial chrysanthemums strewn across the night sky. Throbbing drumbeats accompanied the taste of ash and gunpowder; ceremonial lions posed and danced while brightly-sequined dragons spiralled and spun. Everyone turned up for the festivities held in my honor, from the lowest of savants to the high-ranking officials. Those with links to the Clan, either bloodkin or extant, related by the ties of trade and business.

I watched impassively. There was a cold hollowness in my stomach. I left the food and the obligatory wine untouched. Children clapped and laughed at the fireworks. There would be a hunt later. I could feel the electrical charge in the air. Yet I remained unmoved. Numb.

April sat beside me. She felt so distant to me. She refused to look at me. Instead, she played with Lien and Mog. What happened to the April I knew a few days ago, when we ran on the field, care free and happy?

I felt Mother's eyes on me, the familiar and unpleasant heat of judgement, of unspoken anger. Did I fall from her expectations?

I stared beyond the fireworks. I wished I were onboard Starfang and away from all this pretense and posturing.

One of the ceremonial lions, rimmed with thick black faux fur, danced before me, bowing its head. Lion fur colors had meaning. This black lion wasn't the Guan Gong lion. This one signified youth, like a headstrong teenager. What was Mother trying to say with the lion? That I was headstrong and had to be restrained, chastised.

Then the red lions appeared, dancing in tandem. Courage? That I needed this virtue?

I hid my puzzlement behind my whole hand. Lien gasped with delight. She loved lions.

When the lions paced away with the drums vibrating in our bones, I leaned back in the lacquered chair. The performance of the lions drained me. My mind circled and gnawed at the nuances. Layers upon layers. Typical of my race and of Mother's love for symbols and meanings. I hated it.

"Tea?" April's voice now, breaking the silence. I inhaled the sweet fragrance of jasmine.

She finally spoke! Her voice was warm honey and the caress of sunlight.

And yes, I wanted tea, to cleanse my palate. "Yes."

She poured hot tea from a light blue porcelain pot, a Black Talon export item and sold system-wide. I held the cup close to my chest, watching the faint steam drift away. I also found myself famished and I quickly polished off a plate of sweetmeats: steamed dates stuffed with glutinous rice cake. I gave one to Lien who nibbled it and wrinkled her nose. She wasn't that keen on sweet things.

"Beautiful fireworks," April said, her tone demure. Mundane questions. Neutral.

"They are," I replied. This time, I caught her profile, outlined by the flashing fireworks. Was she crying?

"Hey," I whispered, my heart softening.

April shook her head. She was silent once more, retreating back into her shell.

I was about to speak when the lions returned. The drums were louder, the cymbals piercing. The night festivities were coming to an end with the usual Clan flamboyance. Cheering erupted amongst the Clan kin and officials.

That night, sleep was interrupted by dreams of loss and crying.

~*~

I woke up aching and snappish. Still clad in my sleeping shift, I padded to the gymnasium with my pole. After stretching and flexing my muscles, I launched into the drill, letting myself go with the flow. The dreams frightened me. I had never woken up crying before... until last night. My pillow was damp.

Was that I afraid?

My head spun. Suddenly I hit the practice mat hard, my right elbow cushioning the impact. Pain still lanced up the bones and muscles. For a long while, I simply sat and closed my eyes against the hot rush of tears. Did I trip? Did I fail?

Why did I fail?

Even the luxury of turning eluded me. I couldn't run in my true form.

Sighing, I lay on the mat, staring at the ceiling. I could hear the household slowly waking up. Time to put on a brave face and be Captain Francesca Ming Yue, shipmaster of the Starfang.

Not this failure I had become.

Not this disgrace to Clan and family I had turned into.

~*~

I had no appetite for breakfast and had some watery rice porridge with slices of pickled cucumbers. Then with a curt word to Mother, I went running in the forest.

The wind had the hint of burned leaves. I ran bare foot, eschewing the need for shoes. I stripped off my shirt. I was in Clan land. Nothing would harm me.

I ran and ran, until I reached the top of the grassy knoll beside the forest. There I let loose a howl that welled up deep from my stomach. Everything – my pain, my sorrow, my rage and my frustration – came out and filled the sky.

April, April, April.

Failure.

I am a disgrace!

The energy of the howl tore through my being. I felt myself turn. I screamed, the agony of my insides being twisted and pulled apart.

I drowned in the sea of pain.

When I came to, the sun was on my bare skin. I rolled up on my back, wincing at the sore limbs. My right hand throbbed miserably, stiffened and arched like claws. I stared at patches of black fur on my legs, aftermath of the failed turning. Even my body reflected my failure.

I slunk back to the Clan House, defeated.


Starfang: Claw of the ClanRead this story for FREE!