Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Names Of The Stars: A Tale of the Far Lands

Read the new short story "The Names Of The Stars" after the cut!

It was an excellent breakfast. Michiko Koyama, the Monkey Queen, and her best friend and partner in adventure, Beth McGill, had wrapped up a quest early that morning, and Princess Jiao's men had found a restaurant near the Bridge of Magpies with an owner who was all too happy to wake up early and get paid for feeding royalty. There were seven of them at the table—Michiko, Beth, Jiao, Prince Yun, Merchant Sheng and his girlfriend, the wizard Jade Crane, and the elderly priestess Auntie Ting.

The priestess had taken a liking to Beth during their quest, and had been telling her some of the classic tales of the Far Lands. She had finished eating before the others, and now stared intently at Michiko and Beth. They had been quiet during the meal, letting the others carry the conversation, glancing nervously at each other. Auntie Ting shook her head slightly, sipped her tea and waited for a lull in the conversation before she spoke. “Wizard!”

Yes?” Jade Crane smiled slightly.

Not you! The other wizard! And the Monkey Queen!”

I'm not a wizard,” Beth muttered.

Auntie Ting smoothed out her white priestess' robe. “I've realized that I have one more story left to tell you. Would you indulge me this last time before we go our separate ways?”

Beth looked at Michiko. The Monkey Queen nodded, and Beth shrugged. “Sure. I just hope it's not too sad.”

Auntie Ting smiled. “Spread your ears, then, as I tell the story of the woman who wanted to know the stars' names!”

Oh! I love this story!” Princess Jiao exclaimed, and with that, the table fell silent as Auntie Ting began her tale.

* * *

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Zhen Yi who loved the stars. Her family lived in a hut in the woods near a range of mountains, where her father chopped wood to earn a living, and her mother wove silk and sewed clothes. At night, Zhen Yi would slip out of their hut, take a short walk to a hill where her father had cut down all the trees, and lie on her back. She would stare up at the sky and see the stars, all placed perfectly by Heaven, some arranged in constellations such as the Ox and the Scholar, some shining faintly or brilliantly on their own. Even at a young age, she could pick out the constellation of the Golden Monkey, sent there by the gods to keep him from wreaking havoc in Heaven, and tell which star was the Sentinel, set in the center of the sky to keep watch over the Far Lands.

Her father was skilled in how to spot a tree ready for chopping, and her mother was a fine seamstress, but neither of them had a classical education. They knew the names of some of the stars, and the legends behind them, but others were a mystery to them, and they couldn't be bothered to find out what their names might be. After all, they were just stars, and stars can't wield axes or spin silk.

Zhen Yi listened to them tell her this with sadness. It did not seem fair that some stars had names but not others. She applied herself to her studies, and learned that all the stars did have names, and there were stories behind them that she hadn't heard. She also learned that there was so much more to learn, about so many subjects, and she happily absorbed it all.

As Zhen Yi grew into her teens, she earned a small scholarship to the Imperial University in Xiang, now the capital of Nui, where she majored in astronomy. Her teachers were pleased to know a girl who was so eager to learn, and share what she learned. As time went on, she took over as the professor of astronomy, passing all that she knew along to her students.

One of Zhen Yi's first students was from Faerie, on the opposite side of the world from the Far Lands. He told her that in Faerie, there were different stars in the sky, with different names. He gave her a book on Faerie astronomy when he left, and as she read, her head was filled with new dreams.

Now, the continent of Faerie is the largest known anywhere. Many different races call it home, far more than here. And the Courts that rule much of Faerie look upon us of the Far Lands with disdain. To comb that continent top to bottom to find all the names of all the stars there would be a daunting task, and even more so for someone who was an outsider.

Zhen Yi took a sabbatical at the end of her term and set off on the next scheduled ship from the Far Lands to Faerie.

By the time the ship docked at the court of House Astrida, Zhen Yi had started to doubt herself. Faerie was so large, and to say that not all its people got along would be a gross understatement. She wondered if she would be able to complete her quest.

Fortunately, she was quickly blessed with two strokes of luck. A woman named Reine, a wealthy heir of Astrida, had heard of her from her cousin, who had given Zhen Yi the book that inspired her quest. Reine joined her as her assistant and financial backer.

And a gremlin inventor named Skyward had conceived and built the first airship. Zhen Yi and Reine were able to purchase an early prototype from him, getting a bargain price in exchange for the publicity. They hired a small crew and set off to travel through Faerie by air.

As the airship rose into the sky to take them to their first destination, Reine asked Zhen Yi, “This will be a difficult task. Why do you wish to do this?”

And Zhen Yi replied, “Someday, I will answer that question, but not today.”

It took years. Zhen Yi and Reine met with resistance from several of Faerie's courts, and scorn from some of its people, who wondered why the stars were so important. They persevered, walking with spriggans deep in the forests, standing by dwarves in their rocky hills, sharing meals with brownies in busy restaurants. They learned about the constellations of Faerie; court wizards told them of the significance and symbolism of the Stallion, pixie scholars recounted stories about the clever Hummingbird, and hobgoblin storytellers laughed as they spoke of Skux the Thief. By the time they were done, they had books and scrolls and charts filled with all the information they had gathered, all the names of the stars of Faerie and the stories behind them.

But while they had crisscrossed Faerie, they had talked to more than one person about the multiverse. There were worlds beyond Faerie and the Far Lands, worlds reached not by foot or boat or airship but by stable passageways called auldgates. Zhen Yi sold her airship, shipped all her books and scrolls and charts back to the Imperial University, and set off with Reine to find an auldgate to start another journey.

When they reached the auldgate, Reine said, “Zhen Yi, this will be one of many long journeys, and there might be danger ahead. Why do you wish to do this?”

And Zhen Yi replied, “Someday, I will answer that question, but not today.”

It was the trip of a lifetime. Zhen Yi and Reine, joined by others along the way, traveled to every world they could. They breathed the faintly metallic air as the sun rose over Padaglien, where they saw the constellations the Sword and the Shield, and watched the firebats and mokono silhouetted in the orange sunsets of Fip, where they saw Sliw the Grand Lizard smiling far overhead. They waded through the swamps of Oshk, where the civaloks eagerly pointed out the Mighty Wombat, and sailed the seventeen seas between the reefs and docks of Marble, setting their course by the constellation of the Great Eel. They dined with the wealthy merchants and sorcerers of Twilight Isle, high in their towers, and worked the fields with the farmers of Annwyn, and learned that the skies of both worlds had constellations called the Plow. They talked of art and meaning under the red stars on Gwnyr, and of wisdom with the sage-kings of Emrith as stars spun across the sky, and they learned how best to handle a camel as they crossed the deserts of Skala, with the brilliantly bright Star of Peace showing the way. They asked questions and took notes, and learned the names and the stories of the stars that shone in every night sky of every world they visited.

And as they traveled, Reine asked, “We have already accomplished so much in our lives, my dear Zhen Yi. Will you tell me now why you continue on this quest?”

And Zhen Yi replied, “Someday, I will answer that question, but not today.”

Finally, the day came when, on her fourth request, Zhen Yi was finally allowed to enter Hulm. Escorted by the eldest dragons, faithful Reine by her side, she stood on top of the highest mountain and asked the dragons of the names and the stories of the stars of Hulm, writing in her book and smiling all the while.

When her visit to Hulm was completed, Zhen Yi returned at last to the Imperial University. In her absence, it had grown along with her legend. Her reputation and her extensive notes had drawn the best and brightest of the Far Lands, and many from other places, to learn and teach there. She was showered with honors and awarded the title of Professor Emeritus, her life work completed. She now knew all the names of all the stars.

Zhen Yi spent her last years with Reine, speaking of their journeys and writing their memoirs, not resting on her laurels but ensuring that what she had done would not be forgotten. Finally, the end came for her, and she made a final request: That her bed be brought outside, so she could see the stars one last time. She was carried to the plaza of the university, and the lights were put out, and she was lit only by the stars she loved.

Reine, who stood by the bed as she had stood by Zhen Yi for so long, asked the question, “Why? Why, dearest of companions? Why did you need to learn the names of all the stars?”

Zhen Yi smiled as she answered, “So I could tell you what they were, dearest Reine. You, and everyone else here, and all their children, and their children's children, and all the children everywhere who want to know, just as I wanted to know when I was little, and lay on the ground to watch the stars. And maybe knowing the names of the stars, and their stories, will inspire people to keep learning, and to keep discovering, and to keep sharing what they learn and discover, and to make the world a better place by doing so.”

And Zhen Yi closed her eyes for the last time, and she whispered, “Perhaps the stars are different in Heaven. I hope that the gods will allow me to join them there, so I can learn the names of those stars as well.”

* * *

The kitsune had been sitting on the floor in a lotus position, hands on knees, listening with her eyes closed. She had long brown hair, and the fox ears that stuck through it were twitching. She wore a purple kimono and a bandage on one hand.

Auntie Ting sat across from her in a simple bamboo chair, hands in her lap as she ended her tale. The priestess stared at the kitsune for a long moment. “Baka!” she snapped. “Were you even listening, kitsune?”
The kitsune opened her twinkling brown eyes. “Of course I was, Auntie,” she said. “It was a beautiful story.”

We'll see about that!” Auntie Ting said. “When I told this story last, to the Monkey Queen and her friends, I stopped before the end and asked them why the girl who asked her parents for the names of the stars did what she did. Did you think about why, kitsune?”

I did. I also think that Reine knew why all along.”

Perhaps she did,” Auntie Ting said as she hid a smile, “and perhaps not.”

What did Michiko and the others say?” the kitsune asked.

The others with the Monkey Queen and her wizard friend had trouble understanding why. Merchant Sheng thought it was research! To help prepare navigation charts!” Auntie Ting snorted. “The wizard had some odd theories, such as that Zhen Yi wanted to talk to the stars, and needed to know their names to do that. As if stars could talk! The Monkey Queen was the only one who got it right.”

I see,” the kitsune said slowly. “But thinking about the question led me to another question.”

It did?” Auntie Ting raised an eyebrow.

Why was it so important to Zhen Yi, to devote her life to learning the names of the stars? What reward did she gain from it?”

Auntie Ting rested her hands in her lap. “The Monkey Queen asked that question as well, and I was surprised when her wizard friend had the answer. Kitsune, what is your answer?”

That the quest of knowledge, and the sharing of that knowledge, is its own reward.” The kitsune smiled.

I see,” Auntie Ting said as she rose from her chair. “Perhaps the gods were right to send you to me for mentoring. Perhaps there is hope for you.”

Thank you! What is next?”

This lesson is over. It's time for chores.”

Chores?” The kitsune stood, her white-tipped tail poking out from under her robe.

Auntie Ting folded her arms. “You will learn about patience and order and the virtues of hard work! You will sweep and scrub these temple floors until they are spotless!”

I will do your chores for you so you can take an afternoon nap?” The kitsune grinned and winked.

The priestess grunted and started to walk out of the room. She stopped in the doorway and looked back. “Kitsune...of late, my memory for tales I was told decades ago has been better than for things that have just happened. Tell me your name again.”

I am Yanagi.”

Yanagi.” Auntie Ting smiled very slightly. “That's a very pretty name.”

The kitsune smiled. “Thank you, Auntie Ting!”

Now get to work!” the priestess said as she walked off. “And manual labor! No kitsune tricks!” Yanagi nodded, humming happily as she ran to the broom closet.

I had been giving some thought to writing a story about Auntie Ting and the kitsune she crossed paths with, and I had also thought about writing another tale of the Far Lands in the same vein as “The Author, The Archer, And The King Of Magpies”. Inspiration struck, and most of the story wrote itself. I did have my own trouble answering Reine's question, so I emailed friends for help. Although the act of writing them seemed to clear my mind so I could find my own answer, the answers my friends provided were quite useful, and I hope I did them justice.

So: Thank you to Willow, whose wonderful drawings of kitsune inspired Yanagi. Thank you to Shei Darksbane, whose support and enthusiasm is always welcome and appreciated. And thank you to the mysterious “M”, who helped inspire some late additions to this story, and is an inspiration in her own right. I hope this story pleases all of you; it's a bit different from what I usually write, but I think it works well.

Thank you for reading, one and all! If you liked this, please comment and share, and help support Michiko and Beth, and future stories, by buying their books and spreading the word.

© 2015 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those granted by “fair use” laws where you live.

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