As morning broke, the observatory had all but cleared out.
Working under dimming candlelight, Yao Yu sketched the impression of a falling star into an aged ephemeris. The comet had soared across the last night’s sky and would not again for another seventy years.
Leona weaved into view from behind the rows of bookshelves. “Calling it a night?” she asked.
“In a bit. I have water boiling for a tea that encourages sleep.”
He caught a swish of her fluffy tail as a gleam flashed across her emerald eyes.
“Why don’t we do a reading to pass the time?” she suggested. “Come on, I’d like to practice with your deck. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.”
That was because Yao Yu made it himself. For nearly a month he spent hours each night harnessing the power of the Heavens and pooling that aether into characters drawn onto blank cards.
“Guide me,” Yao Yu said, matching her playfulness in his tone as he held out a small stack of cards.
“Past, pretend, future?” she asked, slipping into the seat across from him and shuffling the deck. When he nodded, she drew the first card.
But rather than placing it on the table, she held it between her long fingers. Another swish of the tail. “What if I place them all face down and we turn them one by one?”
“I welcome the suspense.”
Deciding to use the Present as the guiding point, Leona turned over the middle card first. Scooting to the edge of the bench, she rested her folded arms on the top of the table and leaned in over the cards. For the first time that night, Yao Yu caught a faint but sweet scent coming from the purple wax on her lips.
Leona’s sharp eyes narrowed with concentration. “The Tiger, a card with active characteristics.” She shot him a glance to make sure she was on the right track. “You’ve made great strides and accomplished much, but not without a struggle. You exhibited immense strength and overcame every challenge that fate threw at you.”
“Quite the challenge, that war was.”
She smiled and shook her head, lilac bangs falling against her face. “Now, the past.”
Turning it over, her eyebrows lifted. “The stars really must be guiding this reading. The Dragon is a symbol of power and generosity. To have reached where you are today, you devoted your life to helping others, even when you knew you could suffer for it.”
When she turned over the final card, the Future, her face twisted with confusion. “Now, here’s one I haven’t seen before. Is it new? …Yao Yu?”
He could not respond, for behind his wide eyes his mind was spinning and in his chest, his heart thundered away.
On the face of the card was a magnificent drawing: a golden dragon and a beautiful phoenix staring at each other, utterly transfixed.
The chill of Rimegard was bitter even on a mild day. Though there was hardly a breeze, the gray sky clouded the sun and had Jae shivering in his leather coat. As raven black as his hair, it had all the style but none of the insulation.
On opposing ends of a low-lying stone bridge leading through a small camp, two groups of soldiers had assembled. One of them was severely outnumbered. Jae stood with his two lieutenants, his sergeant, and their horses and readied to parley with the wall of infantry blocking their path.
“State your business,” the knight at the forefront hollered to them.
Touching his staff to the ground like some sort of sage, Jae’s taut voice boomed, “I am Marshal Jae Ahn of Seoju’s Phoenix Authority.”
His chest swelled with pride as the words rolled off his tongue. After the war, he’d changed his title from General to Marshal–a position which hadn’t existed prior–and spearheaded his own branch of the army.
The knight exchanged a look with the wizard at his side, then said, “And just what is this Phoenix Authority?”
“The greatest army in all of Erea.” And the world, he wanted to add.
“Which division do you command, Marshal?” The skepticism in the man’s voice was not lost on Jae.
“All of them.”
“All of them?” There were some words passed between the knight and the wizard. “Jae Ahn–I believe I have heard that name before.”
Jae’s Second Lieutenant sprung forward. “You ought to have, General Ahn is a decorated hero of the Great War! He led the Resistance–”
“Revolution,” Jae said on an exasperated breath. “The Revolution.”
“But, Marshal, everyone calls it the Resistance–”
“And how do we change that? Words are power, Lorenz.” Jae then turned to the knight once more and said, “Captain–is that what you are?–we seek passage into Laféron. Just up the road, not too far from here, yes?”
“Quite interesting. You see, there’s been a fair amount of trouble around here as of late. Heretics, cults, ruffians. Pardon my assumption, but with the Great War being some three years past, you’re likely out of work, short on coin, or woefully bored. Why should I believe that you’re not here to cause a disturbance?”
“Listen,” Jae said with growing impatience, “if I wanted to kill you, I’d have reduced every single one of you to cinders the moment I stepped foot on this bridge.” At this, his officers’ faces pale. Jae was undeterred.
“Did you not hear my lieutenant? I liberated these lands from the greatest tyrant in all of history. I have battled with gods, I have mastered dragons, I have ventured into the farthest reaches of the deepest hells–”
The knight rolled his eyes and whispered something to the wizard. A bolt of lightning shot from the man’s staff and struck Jae where he stood. With a yelp, he fell onto his back, muscles twitching involuntarily.
His comrades leaped forward, ready to defend their marshal’s honor with weapons drawn. But from the ground, Jae thrust his fist into the air–the sign to hold.
Is this it? he wondered. Is this how I die? Bested by a meager spark from a lesser wizard?
His head dropped gently back against the stone bridge and slowly he unclenched his gloved fist, spreading his fingers out against the grayness above.
“Like many great heroes,” Jae groaned weakly, “it seems that my life has come to an abrupt end.”
The sky above him suddenly darkened as if to storm. A low crack of thunder roared in the distance. The knight and his men looked up with alarm.
All the while, the three-colored gem seated at the top of Jae’s staff began to radiate.
“Lorenz, Ye-rin, Slaebar,” he said to his officers, “I would tell you to make sure that history doesn’t forget me, but… I know it never will.”
Five bolts of blinding lightning shot down from the dark clouds and entered Jae’s fingertips. Not a moment later, he threw his hand forward and unleashed all five bolts at the men across the bridge. They cried out as it jolted them through their armor, striking faster than anyone could even blink.
After hitting the initial targets, the bolts broke off to strike the next closest body. Soon, the whole squad was ensnared in a chain of lightning that brought them to their knees.
“You damn fool!” the knight choked out, still reeling from the blast. “That spell of yours could have killed someone!”
Jae stood up and dusted off his cherished coat. “I weakened it considerably so that it wouldn’t. You’re welcome. Now, will you grant us passage?”
Growling with frustration, the knight knew there was no point in further escalation. He was just about to cave when his mage, none too happy about being so magnificently outperformed, lurched forward to lob a massive fireball at Jae’s party.
They braced for a searing burn.
It never came.
A protective bubble, its surface surging and rippling with blue aether, covered them in an instant. When the fireball made contact, it was eaten by the magical barrier.
Jae scanned around for the source of the protective spell, catching sight of someone channeling magic just below the bridge.
His heart stopped. His face twisted with horror.
“Don’t bother trying to parley with this one, Tedric,” Yao Yu said with a smile, eyes settling on Jae. “He’s rather bad at diplomacy.”
Tedric, the knight, looked absolutely stunned. “You know this man?”
Cheers coming from Jae’s party answered that question. Lorenz and Slaebar jumped down from the bridge to greet Yao Yu, clasping hands and sharing smiles.
“Marshal,” Ye-rin said, “you never told us that your husband was here!”
Jae’s eyes shot open wide like he’d just been stabbed.
“Estranged!” he corrected her, voice bordering on shrill. “Estranged husband. And just so we’re clear, I had no idea either.”
That didn’t seem to dampen her mood. Following the other two down, she hugged the Dragonborn warmly. Jae’s lip curled as he watched the four of them laugh and joke like old friends.
Over the years of fighting together during the war, his officers had fallen in love with Yao Yu. Unsurprisingly so, Jae had to begrudgingly admit. Yao Yu was indispensable on the battlefield, intelligent almost beyond compare, selfless and kind, and–worst of all–beautiful.
Groaning in defeat, Jae made his own way down. He waited at the edge of the river until Yao Yu looked up and caught his gaze. In those golden eyes, he saw profound longing.
Breaking from the group, Yao Yu walked over to Jae and threw his arms around him without saying a word. Jae took a sharp breath as he was pulled into the embrace, their bodies pressed together for the first time in three years.
Almost naturally, he brought his arms around Yao Yu. The familiar scent of sandalwood hit Jae’s nose, flooding him with memories and feelings he had tried to forget.
“I knew I’d see you soon,” Yao Yu said in a whisper. He eased the embrace but kept Jae close. “Last night during a reading I drew your card.”
Jae felt a small pain in his heart. Long ago during the first and only reading Yao Yu did for Jae, he’d drawn the Dragon and Phoenix. The card was never drawn again after that day. Yao Yu joked that it was celestial intervention, that the card was somehow linked to their love for each other and their shared fate.
That love faltered. Not long after the war, Jae left. To think that all these years Yao Yu had been loyally waiting for the day he’d see his lover again–it must have been agonizing. The separation wasn’t easy for Jae, either.
“I would call it a spectacular coincidence,” he started, voice weaker than he would have liked, “but I know you don’t believe in those.” Yao Yu smiled and Jae felt that pain again. “Well, how have you been?”
“It’s dreadfully cold,” Yao Yu said, looking around, “but I’ve settled into the observatory well enough.”
“Still chasing stars, are you? You’ll get a permanent crane in your neck if you’re always looking up.” Though the words seemed an insult, Jae’s even tone kept the mood light.
“I’ll have a bent neck the day your face finally gets stuck in a scowl.”
Just then Leona stepped out of her cabin, rubbing her eyes. “What’s all this noise for? You ruined my sleep, you know.”
Yao Yu held out his arm to her. “Jae, this is Leona. We work together at the observatory.”
Jae smiled at the Felidae woman, but there was nothing warm about it. “Oh, is Yao Yu your apprentice?” he asked.
Leona smiled back, bemused. “Colleague. I’ve been learning a great deal from him.”
Jae waved a hand. “You don’t have to lie to make him feel better about himself, it’s alright.”
She arched an eyebrow at Yao Yu. “This is the same Jae you’ve told countless stories about? The man you call your ‘Sun’?”
“Charming, isn’t he?” he said, suddenly embarrassed that she had spilled his affectionate nickname for Jae.
Leona looked like she was going to say something but then broke into a yawn. “Gods–please excuse that. We astrologers are a nocturnal bunch.” Waving, she said, “I’ll leave you two to your lovely reunion. I can sleep easy now knowing we’re not under attack.”
When she was out of earshot, Jae turned to Yao Yu. “What stories have you been telling about me?”
“Only the most unflattering ones,” he said teasingly.
This coaxed a smile out of Jae. When he realized what he was doing, he quickly straightened his lips and tensed his posture.
“Yao,” he said with a sober voice, “I can’t stay here.”
He expected his husband to protest. But when Yao Yu’s face light up instead, it caught him off guard.
“Did I hear that you are headed for Laféron?”
“Oh, you can’t seriously be thinking of coming along–!”
“This may sound ridiculous, but a week or two ago I received a strange, blue letter–”
“A blue letter?” Jae nearly shouted, earning them odd looks from the others.
Yao Yu narrowed his eyes and whispered, “Yes, that’s what I said. I couldn’t identify who sent it. There was no name and no discernible markings.”
“Did it tell you to find the House of the Rose? In Laféron?” Jae nearly stumbled over his hurried words. “Was it signed with a kiss?”
The excitement, or perhaps astonishment, was contagious. Yao Yu grabbed Jae’s shoulder and said, “All true! You don’t mean to tell me that you received one too?”
Jae dug into his coat pockets and eventually yanked out a piece of folded, expensive parchment. He straightened the letter and held it out for Yao Yu to inspect.
Brave Hero of the Great War,
I seek your aid. Something terrible is coming and I cannot stop it alone.
Go to the city of Laféron in the northern region Rimegard. Once there, find the House of the Red Rose. I will be waiting.
“The selfsame letter I held in my own hands,” Yao Yu said, noting the ruby-red imprint of lips in the bottom corner. “There’s no mistaking it.”
Silence came upon them as they both stared at the strange message a while. Jae was the first to speak.
“This is ridiculous. It has to be some trick.”
“Or someone really does need our help.”
Yao Yu looked out over the expanse of frosted land. Beyond the scattered trees and the abandoned stone structures, Laféron’s towering Holy Chapel pierced the horizon. He thought back to the falling star he’d seen blazing through the night sky just hours ago.
“Whichever it is,” he said, “I would like to find out.”
Featured photo by Gerduke via Pixabay.
So, I was looking for a name to call the race of cat-like people that Leona is part of and through Wikipedia I discovered the word Felidae. Because this sounds awesome, I am appropriating it. Apologies to zoologists everywhere. And sorry to Akif Pirinçci who wrote a book called Felidae, the existence of which I was unaware until after already deciding to appropriate the word.
The dragon and phoenix together represent love, harmony, and togetherness. Often times they are used to symbolize a healthy marriage. In Korea, the Double Hee serves a similar purpose, again alluding to the concept of yin and yang. The phoenix is also significant in Korea politically; there are twin phoenixes on the president’s seal and a phoenix fountain outside the Blue House.
Tarot reading wasn’t historically used in Chinese astrology, so I took some liberties. To make Yao Yu’s deck, I worked off the skeleton of traditional tarot and made tweaks. Every tarot deck has a Major and a Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana is normally a 22 card set, but I replaced it here with a 12 card set to match the animals of the zodiac. I based the card’s characteristics on the legend of the Great Race. The Minor Arcana, which was not introduced in this story, is a bit of a work-in-progress for me.
Normally, the Minor Arcana is a group of 56 cards (16 of them face/court cards) divided into 4 suits. For this, I was thinking of adding an additional 5th suit and incorporating Wu Xing (also known as the Five Elements or Five Phases).
Because I still want to honor and respect the actual principles of Chinese astrology, I will continually incorporate non-tarot elements into Yao Yu’s divination. Using a “falling star” to predict a big event is just one example of that.
The gem on Jae’s staff looks something like this:
By Mysid [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Yep, that’s the taeguk. The colors of it in this fantasy world represent the three different kinds of elemental magic that Jae conjures: fire, lightning, and ice. He had it specifically designed this way.