Chapter 1: Twin Moon Festival

Chapter 1: Twin Moon Festival

“Where in the world did I put my shoes?” Sihara searched her cozy window reading nook and found a few empty tea cups and abandoned novels, but no shoes. The Twin Moons of Peace poured purple moonlight into her room.

“We are late!” Sebastian’s muffled voice called from behind her door.

“Pressuring me will not make my shoes appear any faster!” The most important event of the century would start without them if she didn’t find her only pair of red shoes. Sihara had auctioned off so many of her things to raise funds for the war. She didn’t have another pair of red shoes, and she didn’t have time to change into another dress. She wouldn’t risk a scandal by wearing mismatched shoes.

Esheinfo-icon! Why can’t you put them where they belong?” Sebastian made an exasperated noise, somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “At least have your companion help you!”

She hated it when he used the goddess’ name in vain. “I gave Noel leave today. So unless you want to come in here to help me, you will have to be patient!”

She chuckled at the thought of the thrashing he would receive from her guardian, Mikel, if Sebastian were to enter her room. Even if he was her fiancé.

She tucked a stray piece of dark hair behind her ear. Her elaborate updo wasn’t as tidy as that of the other highborn. She had inherited her mother’s curly Tezino Republicinfo-icon hair. It just wouldn’t stay put, no matter how many pins she put in it.

“There is nothing funny about being late, dearest!”

When I came back from the party last night, did I read on my bed or at my desk? Did I get a cup of tea first?

She maneuvered around tall stacks of old journals, ancient diaries, and court chronicles with practiced ease. She had lost track of time reading old records to help her fathkoinfo-icon with the seating chart for the upcoming allianace. They couldn't have enemies sitting next to each other.

At last, Sihara found her shoes and a telltale teacup sitting on a side table in a forgotten corner. “Ah, ha!”

Slipping her shoes on, Sihara bounded for the door.

The ancient builders of the Ambassadorial Halls had decorated the corridor with a mosaic of granite, shells, and polished stone depicting scenes of peace and prosperity.

Sebastian looked fit to burst, but one glance at her imposing guardian, Mikel, calmed him.

“You’re beautiful, as always.” Sebastian offered his arm to her as any gentleman would, but the gesture felt more possessive than courteous. “But we are nearly fifteen minutes late.”

“The way you obsess about time is not healthy. Doctor Quinto said the stress could lead you to an early grave.” The last thing Sihara needed was a fiancé whose ambition drove him into the ground before their wedding.

Mikel followed them at a discreet distance, silent as a nimrinfo-icon jaguar on the prowl.

A Mineraliteinfo-icon approached from around the corner. The man’s faded garb spoke of his long days in the sun, and his soot-smeared face spoke plainly that his occupation was a steam carriage driver.

“What are you doing here?” Sebastian asked.

“Ah, the stable master sent me to fetch you since you are fifteen minutes late.”

Sebastian groaned.

The driver continued, “Minerale has provided a carriage to escort you to the festival. Now, if you will follow me.”

Sebastian gave her a sharp glance and whispered, “No one, certainly no Mineralite, would have been sent if we had been ready at the appointed time.”

Creator, help me; Sebastian is going to strain my patience tonight.

“But there is no law forbidding his presence here.”

Sebastian tsked. “Priorities, dear, priorities.”

He turned to the driver. “You should remember this day. No common Mineralite has walked the halls of the Elementiinfo-icon wing.”

The Mineralite sneered, “In Minerale, we’ve got better wages and less spending on ostentatious things like this…”

Sebastian interrupted, “You would do well to keep your opinions to yourself, driver. The Followers Of The Creator built these halls.”

Am I the only one trained in diplomacy?

Sihara shot Sebastian a look. “Actually, I appreciate your candor. We have seen the benefit of the reforms you are implementing in your country.”

The driver raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Don’t encourage him.” Sebastian groaned.

Sihara ignored him. “The Elementi Council has appointed worker representatives, so we can hear directly from the people.”

The driver laughed. “What an Elementi way of thinking. Rather than give up your glittering halls, you’ll raise up a few choice people to keep the rest in line, with the hope that they too will get their turn.”

Sihara frowned. “That’s not what-”

Sebastian squeezed her arm and whispered, “You better leave the diplomacy to the Tajinfo-icon. A Mineralite will never understand our ways.”

Sihara would do nothing of the sort, but she would be more discreet. When was the last time I spoke freely with a Mineralite that wasn’t a part of the Lord Ambassador’s family or staff? A year? Two?

In the open air of the stables, the frosty fall night spoke of an even more frigid winter.

Sihara gasped at the sight of the Mineralite steam carriage. Bronze lace formed the outer shell, and underneath, a thin sheet of crystal allowed the onlooker to peer into the inner workings of the machine while also keeping sand and small stones from clogging the gears.

“Forget the scenic route, and I might forgive your blunders.” Sebastian tossed a pouch of shy’lls at the surprised driver. “Get us to the Twin Moon Festival in twenty minutes, and I will pay you double this amount.”

“Y-yes, Sikarinfo-icon!”

Oh, now he is calling people by their titles?

As with most people, the driver’s disdain evaporated as soon as he got his hands on the money.

Mikel took a seat next to the driver, vigilant for any trouble.

Sebastian offered his hand to help Sihara into the carriage. “Now we will be perfectly on time.”

Sihara leveled him with a glare and helped herself inside. “We're already late. Is it worth all the stress and rushing about?”

“Everyone will notice.” Sebastian said, setting his cane and top hat on the seat beside him.

"But is it worth the risk to your health?" If Sihara didn’t get married before her upcoming birthday, her family would lose everything, and her unko would become the ambassador. The same unko who hated the Mineralites after his dottirinfo-icon’s death.

"I'm not that old, dear." Sebastian dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand. “My family lives long. We do not die of trivial things like stress, and at our station, war cannot touch us.”

After a series of clicks, clunks, and whistles, the carriage lurched forward. The steam exhaust reminded Sihara of the heavy exhalation of a riding animal and the rhythmic sound of the steam engine akin to a beating heart.

"How can you say that?" Sihara crossed her arms. "Every day, the Animalians push the front lines further into the Balar Republicinfo-icon. It is only a matter of time before the whole republic falls. And you know they will set their eyes on the Ambassadorial Halls next."

“How many times have we argued about this?” Sebastian grumbled. “I gave you my word. You and your family will be safe. No war is going to stop me from keeping my promises. I will not risk losing you like I lost my-” Sebastian’s voice faltered for a moment. “-my late wife.”

Sihara softened. Even a decade wasn't enough to heal his broken heart. "I know you loved her very much. My cousin was like a sister to me."

"Once we are married, the Ambassadorial Halls will be guarded by a full troop at all times."

Sihara frowned. "I thought the military had already spared what few men they could."

“I don't care. You will be safe in these troubling times.” Sebastian picked imaginary dust off of his suit. A dark mood had settled over the cab of the steam carriage.

Sihara let her gaze drift to the floor of the carriage.

“Don’t do that,” Sebastian said, gripping his seat as a sharp turn almost toppled the carriage.

“Don’t do what?” Sihara worried they would crash if the driver did not slow. They made the steam carriages for travel over brick roads. This dirt trail was better suited to her water buffalo’s steady stride.

“Do not look at the ground. I cannot see your charming face.” Sebastian winked.

How did I fall for that one again?

“Oh, stop it.” Sihara’s eyes darted away from Sebastian. His compliments would be more flattering if they weren’t so cliché and often repeated.

“But why?” Sebastian reached across the space dividing them and grasped her bare hand.

“You are making me blush!” Sihara fought the urge to pull her hand away from his gloved grip.

“Perhaps that is my intention.” Sebastian grinned. He cut a handsome figure in the shadows of the carriage, with his dark hair and skin many shades lighter than her own dark complexion. His dark, flowing locks were common in the Etanian Republicinfo-icon of Elementi.

Her lack of elemental abilities made her an undesirable wife to every noble Elementi. Sebastian could somehow overlook the fact that their children may not share his elemental ability, and she couldn’t understand why. He kept his reasons to himself, a habit that Sihara wished she could help him break.

“Sebastian-” Sihara wanted to scold him, but the rest of the words caught in her throat when he rubbed small circles on the back of her hand. Even in the privacy of the carriage, the intimate gesture made her uncomfortable.

She put her hand on top of his and slowly slipped her other hand away. “So, what are you looking forward to most at the festival?" It will be my first time watching The Traveling Circus of the Rising Sun.”

Sebastian frowned at her change of subject. “I don’t know. There are so many eclectic little shops and fine art exhibits. I recently purchased a new table that could use a sculpture or vase, so I am looking forward to finding something."

The carriage cleared the trees, and the dance of the fiery and aquatic moons became visible through the window.

“The appearance of both moons is not a sight most will live to see twice.” Sihara wished she could explain how the sight made her feel. It was as if someone had opened her eyes to the great chasm above her head. The sky opened like the mouth of a giant, showing its teeth in the form of moons. One tiny bite, and the universe would swallow her whole. How big could her problems be in the grand scheme of the universe? She was just a tiny speck on the surface of a planet with a thin skin of atmosphere—a blood cell in the body of a planet who danced in the heavenly court of the Creator.

They rounded a bend in the dirt road, and all at once, the Twin Moon Festival revealed its splendor. Paper lanterns drifted delicately through the air, representing every color of the spectrum. Everyone wore their best clothes, each trying to outdo each other.

All along the main street, vendors, artists, and musicians had set up shop. Candlelight flickered inside the brightly colored Elementi tents. The brick-and-mortar Mineralites shops must have been built days before the festival. Their artificial lights shone like beacons in the night. What delightful treasures would she find inside?

The screech of the brakes ruined the moment.

Sihara held onto the quilted fabric of the carriage and whispered a prayer as they skidded to a halt.

Mikel opened the carriage door and stood to the side, ready to defend them if the need arose.

Sebastian retrieved his hat from his seat and set it atop his head with a swift, practiced motion.

Fall leaves made a satisfying crunch underneath her feet. The trees were like skeletons. Sihara's mind couldn't get away from war and death.

All the rest of the steam carriages were empty and cooled.

The driver rubbed his hands together. “I got you here as fast as the machine could go.”

Sebastian checked his timestone and grimaced. “You took twenty-five minutes to travel to the Twin Moon Festival. We're still far behind schedule.”

Sihara could not believe his audacity. “Oh, by the moons, just pay the man! He risked all our lives getting us here.”

Sebastian tsked. It didn’t escape her notice that he shorted the driver a few shy’lls. The return journey would not be pleasant. Perhaps she could ask to return with her fathko in his carriage, letting Sebastian reap what he sowed.

Sihara gritted her teeth and resolved to enjoy herself, regardless of his behavior.

"There you are." Noel rushed to greet them. Her Etanian Republic dress was all frills and layers. "Your fathko has already opened the festival with the Lord Ambassador. They couldn't hold the guests any longer."

Sebastian's posture stiffened. "This is the most important event of the century, and I will always be late."

"I'm sorry I couldn't." Sihara started to explain, but Noal cut her off with a shake of her head.

Noel grabbed her arm and led her away. "It doesn't matter, let's get you over to your fathko."

Musicians played ten different tunes, each trying to outdo the other. A million voices melded into one, hissing and roaring like the ocean with its ebb and flow.

Her fathko's furrowed brow softened when he saw her in the crowd. "Please tell me that the wheels fell off your carriage and you had to wait for a replacement to pick you up."

"I tried, sir," Sebastian said curtly.

Sihara's ears burned with embarrassment. "It really isn't his fault. I couldn't find my red shoes."

Tarak's eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his head. "No one will notice if you wear the wrong shoes."

"No one would care if you wore mismatched shoes, dear, but we women are held to a different score." Elena kissed her forehead, "You look stunning."

Tarak grumbled under his breath, "I thought we agreed-"

"Later, I said later. There are ears and eyes everywhere." Elena shushed her fathko. "Shall we greet our patroned artisans?"

Thankful for her majkainfo-icon's intervention, Sihara pulled Sebastian along, gushing over at the art displayed in every form imaginable. Stories from fantasy and reality alike adorned earthenware vessels. In their startling, lifelike mimicry, the clay sculptures were equally impressive as the tapestries woven with the most precious thread in all the countries.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Sebastian relax.

We can get along; we just needed something to enjoy together.

One of Master Artisan Grio’s sculptures captivated her. He had captured the happiness and freedom of a small sparrow in mid-flight. Painted in bright colors, it inspired a sense of whimsy.

“What do you think of this one, Sihara? Isn’t it striking?” Sebastian held an earthenware vessel painted with the image of the goddesses of life and death, locked in a battle over the souls of the world.

How morbid!

Sihara thought hard for a diplomatic response. “I suppose it would go nicely with your map of the Outlandsinfo-icon.”

Sebastian frowned and motioned to the other art pieces. “Which one would you choose?”

She smiled and pointed at the sparrow. “I know you don’t like Grio, but even you must admit that one is fantastic!”

“If you want to see a flying bird, you can look out the window.” Sebastian shook his head. “And not have your eyes assaulted by those colors.”

Tarak laughed, and Elena nudged him. "What? The man has a point."

Elena rolled her eyes and turned to the apprentice standing nearby. "Please ignore them and don't let that get back to Grio."

The apprentice snapped a quick bow to her majka. "Of course, Tajainfo-icon."

“Perhaps we will find something we both like in some other art display.” Sihara tried to sound optimistic, but she doubted they would agree on anything.

Children laughed and shouted as they ran through the tent, their bare feet slapping against the packed dirt. One boy paid no mind to his surroundings, entirely absorbed by his sparkling stick, and collided with Sihara.

"Oh!” Sihara smiled and turned the boy around.

Sebastian hissed. “Watch where you are going, boy!”

The boy stuck his tongue out at Sebastian. “My father says I do not have to listen to you, Elementi!”

Sebastian shot him a sour expression.

The boy laughed and ran to join his friends.

Sihara shook her head, not sure if she should scold Sebastian or the boy. “First the driver, and now that boy. I worry you may have underestimated how difficult it will be for the Mineralites to agree to the alliance, fathko.”

Tarak tugged on his sleeve, betraying his own thoughts mirrored hers. “Let’s leave such worries for Ambassadorial Halls and focus on enjoying ourselves at this wonderful festival.”

Kamdarainfo-icon Lucia Kaur waved, “Taja Sihara, I am glad to see you could make it. I almost thought you weren’t coming.”

“Now, dear, I am sure these two lovebirds have a perfectly good reason to be late. I’m sure you remember our engagement.” Worker Representative Rafael tipped his wide-brimmed hat with a mischievous smile.

Sebastian rolled his eyes.

Sihara’s cheeks grew hot, thankful that her complexion hid her blush. “It is good to see you again, Kamdara. And you too, Rafael; it has been too long since you visited the Ambassadorial Halls.”

“Too long indeed. I have been busy keeping the Elementi highborn responsible.” Rafael gave Sebastian a look.

Sebastian glared right back at him until Sihara nudged him in the ribs.

Do I even want to know what that is about?

The two men were from the same republic, and Rafael seemed as if he was privy to things about Sebastian that the rest of the world wasn't.

Sebastian glanced at his timestone. “We should head to the circus if we want to get seats for the first performance.”

The big orange tent at the end of the main street was hard to miss. Inside, flowery perfume undercut the faint smell of stale confections. A semicircle of benches served as seating. Candles provided a little light among the seats, and the bonfire that roared in the center of the tent provided the rest.

Sihara excused the group multiple times as they made their way past the rows of seated highborns towards the available seats.

“Men, women, and children from every country…” The ringmaster wore a billowing white shirt and dark pants. Glittering elemental dust sprung from his fingertips. With a flick of his wrist, the dust whirled around the audience, and he snuffed out the candles before returning to his hands.

The crowd hushed in the darkened tent.

The air magic left behind a tingling sensation. Sihara reached inward for her own elemental magic but only found the familiar emptiness where her magic should be.

A cloud of glowing orange elemental dust lit the figure of a young fire-controlling acrobat.

Where is the net?

The acrobat glided through the air, with the elemental dust following him like a comet trail. His fingers slipped, and he plummeted through the air.

Sihara gasped and gri1pped Sebastian’s arm.

The acrobat landed on an unseen platform. The platform held a giant glass lens and enough kindling to set the whole tent ablaze if they weren’t careful. He positioned the lens to focus on the light of the fire to spotlight the ringmaster.

The ringmaster wore a new outfit with a heavily embroidered red coat and a cocky grin to match. “Welcome to the Traveling Circus of the Rising Sun!”

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thank you for reading Chapter 1 of Shadows Of The Ambassadorial Halls! This series has been a labor of love for over twelve years and I am excited to share it with the world. I would love to hear what element you would like to control in the comments!

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Don't miss Chapter 2: An Explosive Meeting

Tag along with Jaden to a secret meeting

A WEAPONS SMUGGLING RING, STEAMPUNK VIGILANTES, AND A BRIEFCASE FULL OF CASH

Jaden would not let a black market ring selling weapons to the enemy ruin his kingdom’s slim chance of winning the war. He hoped the peace which would come after the alliance and resolution of the war would give his people a chance to heal their wounds.

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