Generally, after that, the revelers would scatter, burning their masks or hiding them, so to separate themselves from the wild misrule.
This year, Josa looked forward to Carnival with almost giddy excitement. The princess Condor had attended her duities as was proper during the day, as the servants threw open the heavy shutters. But, like the others, as soon as it was feasable, they had all dashed towards their quarters, eager to finish their costumes and slip out of the palace to join the wild, bawdy mob in the streets.
With special care, Josa slipped the wooden trunk from under her bed, having taken care to lock the door, more concerned about her prying little sister than anything. With exaggerated caution, she spread the costume out. A man's tunic, cut to reveal a well-honed chest and gaudy with silver disks winked in the noon light. Tight trousers and tall, beribboned boots sat next to it. Finally she pulled out a broad-brimmed hat, hung with a veil long enough to hide even the most stubborn hair, and a half-mask, with a grotesquely hooked nose.
Josa sat back on her heels with a grin. She wasn't sure if it was the presence of the mysterious Katze and the other Karans that had made her feel this daring, or if she simply had tired of Getsua's taunts as she would go out in filmy silks and ankle bracelets. Smoothly, she took off the amulet around her neck, and set it on the table. Josa looked at himself in the mirror briefly and squared his shoulders. Tonight he would, ironically - and oh, how mother would hate this, follow the tenents of Condor warfare, and hide in plain sight.
Berg'zaal sat behind a screened window, watching the bustle in the street. Thankfully, ze had been rid of Nanny for a blessedly long time. The clucking old fool had taken the self-appointed task of assuring no barbarian jester would set foot in their chambers.
Ze sighed heavily. It was a beautiful day, despite the ruckus. Blue sky, warm sun, a fresh breeze. Ze had gleaned enough to know that whatever was going on, ze would rather be a part of it, than cooped up here. Yama knew, what was the point of this exchange if ze couldn't sample *all* the local customs?
Ze grumped a little longer, attempting once again to compose a poem and once again balling up the coarse Gatchlaanish paper. Ze didn't want to write, ze wanted to go OUT. Heaving a frustrated sigh, ze got up and opened the door, stalking down the short hallway towards the rooms where zir servants were quartered. Ze stopped as a grotesque aroma assailed zir nostrils: Gatchlaanish laundering left a lot to be desired. Peeking through a heavy door, ze spotted a laundry hamper being delivered to the Karans' cloistered quarters. The Gatchlaanish servant was deep in conversation with a Karan guard. Neither looked towards the door. Neither took any notice of either the hamper of Karan clothes.. or the Gatchlaanish garments in the hamper beside it.
Quick as lightning, Berg'zaal's hand shot through the door and snatched up a couple of garments. Giggling madly, ze stripped off zir cumbersome robes and shrugged into the coarse, simple garments. The skirt was a faded blue, well patched and full around zir legs. The blouse had a drawstring neckline that left zir shoulders bare, but its puffy sleeves, ending at zir elbow, was full enough to hide zir stilettos easily. Many Gatchlaan wore blades, especially peasants and vassals -- ze found some of zir plainer daggars and girded them about zir waist. There had been no footware in the hamper and zir own were sufficiently opulent as to give zir away immediately. No matter; barefooted Gatchlaan servants were common. Berg'zaal admired zir slender white feet, turning them this way and that as though admiring new jewels. But what to do about a mask? And zir hair -- its white-blonde colour was highly unusual in this land of rainbow coiffures. Ze found a veil, a gift of a Gatchlaanish woman-at-arms: Though Nanny decried it as coarse and unsightly, Berg'zaal had admired the fine linen. This would serve. As for a mask.....
The sound of heavy footsteps pricked Berg'zaal's ears.
"Such barbaric behaviour.. I tell you, Katling, it must be the lack of proper genders that reduces these barbarians to such travesties.. Imagine, calling *this* a religious festival! Why, the very notion would make the Great Lynx curl Ses whiskers, katling! Katling, are you listening to me? Katling?" Fin'Gaa threw the door open in irritation. "........katling?"
It was empty but for a faint lavender haze.
Josa wandered the streets behind the gathering throngs, soon to be a mob of jeering, laughing, celebrating people. He could not keep the smile off his face: Safe in his mask and hat, the late-afternoon breeze fresh on his bared male chest, he felt almost free. He talked to people in his real voice, showed his real form. Why hadn't he thought of this before?
A commotion made him look up and stifle a smile: Even masked and disguised, the Princess Eagle was easy to spot, being the only reveller surrounded by a platoon of armed guards. The other Chosen.. who knew where they might be? They would be disguised as heavily as he himself, and even the reserved Owl might cut loose into uncharicteristic lunacy on a night such as this. He spotted Getsua, her body draped in gauzy cloth and her nose held high -- her attitude gave her away more than anything else.
"Do you have anything.... without lizard?" The cringe in the question made Josa look 'round. A pie man was offering various savory pies to a lady buyer, who was inspecting his wares with obvious distaste.
"*Without* lizard??" the man cried in surprise, "Why would you want one *without* lizard? You can't have a meat pie without *lizard*! What's wrong with lizard?"
"I don't like it," the woman returned evenly. The man started into a tirade and Josa sauntered over.
"Maybe not a meat pie," Josa interrupted, "But his aren't the best quality anyways. Would you be interested in a vegetable pie? The vendor over there makes good ones and his pastry isn't a soggy doorstop." While the stall-keeper spluttered indignantly, Josa turned to meet the lady's gaze.
She was very tall, a little taller than Josa himself, and he a tall youth. Her faded blue peasant skirt was well-patched and too short: Her legs showed ivory white from the calves down, tapering to slender ankles and small, slim feet. Each slender toe was tipped by a slightly perlescent nail and the veins showed blue through the transluscent skin. Her shoulders and arms, revealed by her blousy top, were as white as cream. Her hair was hidden beneath a fine linen veil and her face was hidden beneath a stylized catbird half-mask.
"Thank you. That would be very fine indeed." Her silky voice turned Josa's knees to jelly and her smile dazzled his eyes.
She was beautiful; the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
"Thank you for your assistance," Berg'zaal smiled as they approached the vegetable-pie vendor, "Its so easy to be taken when one is unfamiliar with the city."
"Oh.. uhm.." Josa cursed his ineptitude with words, made even worse by his sudden bout of shyness, "You're not from here?"
"Oh no, I'm from - " the half-lie came seamlessly to Berg's lips, "The mountains around the Condor region."
"Condor?! That's where *I'm* from!" The woman smiled her dazzling smile again and Josa blushed, praying it didn't reach the unmasked portion of his face. Hastily he drew out his purse and paid the seller for two leek and cheese pies. His companion protested, but Josa insisted, claiming host's priviledge to guest a visitor.
Berg'zaal had sized up the Gatchlaanish man and zir instincts pronounced him trustworthy. Here was zir chance to learn more about this Gatchlaanish festival and about single-gendereds. Taking zir pie, ze checked the positions of zir stilettos, though ze was certain that if ze needed them, it'd not be against this youth. Ze smiled at him again. "I am from rather deep in the mountains, and not altogether familiar with the festival," ze said and laid zir hand upon his forearm.
"The Spring Festival? You must be from quite a remote village, then. The Spring Festival is practiced everywhere in Gatchlaan, that I know of." The young man seemed surprised by the touch and he fell into a stammered, hasty explanation of the festival and its significance. The disguised Katze listened, head tilted with fascination. Karakoram practiced something similar, if less rowdy.
The first Clowns had appeared, the approving roar of the crowd drawing their attention. Berg'zaal brushed the pastry crumbs from zir lips and smiled at zir companion. He blushed charmingly, then shyly offered his arm. Berg took it, and together they joined the throng.
The Clowns began their twisting route through the city, starting from the center of the city. Their every movement was heralded by the tiny copper bells sewn to their particoloured garments. While their faces were entirely masked by stylized bird's heads, their arms and feet were bare, powdered white. Jingling copper and bronze bangles weighted their wrists and arms.
There were five Clowns...one for each Chosen, for each Protectorate, for each Aspect of Tengu. One carried a smoking brazier, redolent with burning spices, another, a bowl of water from Tengu's spring, sprinkling both revelers and homes with the blessed water. Of the others, one beat a drum, setting the pace for Clowns' stylized, exaggerated movements. The other two tickled revelers with great feathers harvested from Tengu's sacred birds, and dusted them with red ochre.
As the clowns danced down the cobbled streets, Josa was busy pointing out places of interest to his mysterious, lovely guest. The Clowns passed by them, but Josa gently guided his guest back from them. He didn't want to alarm her, but the last thing he wanted was to get caught in the shower of holy water and red ochre. As unfamiliar as the lady was with the carnival, she was bound to be distressed by the inevetable stain that would occur... and for Josa's part, this part of the ritual was distressing in it's own way.
It dated back to a fertility ritual practiced since before Crescann had been built by the shores of the Lake. A fertility ritual. Josa covered his snort with a cough. That was *all* he needed. But the lady was such pleasant company, his thoughts soon turned to happier matters.
Fin'Gaa stormed through the streets of jeering, laughing people. Masked one and all, the barbarians seemed to be mocking the etiquette of civilized Karan folk. Not that Fin'Gaa was garbed much better at the moment: So great was kes distress, so great was kes haste that ke had left the castle compound without mask, robe or beloved fan.
Ke stormed through the crowded streets garbed only in kes leggings, boots and tunic. Kes beady eyes gazed unshielded, searching the throngs of costumed single-gendereds. The setting sun reflected off kes unsheltered balding head. Ke feared ke would get a sunburn.
The problem with searching for Berg'zaal was that ze was a master of illusion -- all the Katzes had to be and Berg'zaal was one of the best. Ze could trick your eyes into seeing things that weren't quite there, make use of a glint here and a shadow there to fool you. With the power of the Lynx, ze could vanish into thin air. And with the nation's treasure, the Karakoram Jewel, ze could take on any face ze wished.
Knowing zir, it'd be Nanny's.
Berg'zaal was so astonished by the sight of Nanny's naked face that ze actually dropped zir water-ice. The sight, though shocking, was highly amusing: The burly Karan, currently male, was even uglier outside of kes mask than ke was with it and the effect was heightened by the sheen of sweat, the setting sun, and the expression as ke fought to contain kes indignation as costumed Gatchlaan revellers hurled taunts and teasing insults. It was all Berg could do to keep from doubling over laughing.
"Condor! Princess Condor! That *has* to be you in that ragged garb." Berg choked down another swell of laughter even as her companion startled. Fin'Gaa ignored the young man, however, stomping to glare up into the lady's catbird mask. Nanny thought ze was Condor? Oh wonderful.. granted, Condor was very nearly zir height.
As Nanny ranted and raved, ze tried to think what Condor would say. It dawned on zir that Condor wouldn't know this unmasked male from Yamaneko Semself. Allowing a puzzled expression to cross zir features, ze modulated zir voice and in Condor's dulcet tones inquired, "Who are you?"
This brought Fin'Gaa up short and drew another startle from zir companion. Ze patted his arm lightly. Ze chewed on zir lip as Nanny groped for an appropriate response.
"I am a retinue of the Katze," ke declared finally, "The Katze is missing from z..kes rooms and I fear harm may befall..kem."
"Thieves! Rapists! Murderers!"
"I'd pity anybody who tried to mug *him*," the young man muttered under his breath.
"WHAT??" Berg had to bite zir lip: Nanny's face had purpled so that it now resembled a bloated grape.
Zir companion groped for a response, "Uhm.. rumour.. gets around ...About the Dead Place. The Katze's.. pretty powerful stuff." Berg began to wonder whether halting, blunt delivery was a trademark of Condor peoples.
"You're in a religious observance, right?" Berg asked, enjoying Nanny's wince at Condor's charicteristic bluntness, "He's probably hiding somewhere. More privacy. Y'know, for prayer or something or whatever it is you do."
Evidently this was more than Nanny could take. "Yes. Of course. You're probably quite right. I shall return to the palace and search for zi.. kem again."
"Uh huh," Berg replied, then turned away, muttering loudly enough for the retreating Fin'Gaa to hear, "Geez no wonder they wear the masks.."
Zir companion had restrained himself until Nanny was out of earshot, then dissolved into hysterical laughter.
"You do that really well," he said finally, wiping his cheeks, "How is it that you don't know about the Spring Festival, but you can imitate.. Princess Condor to voice and manner perfectly?'
Whoops!!!! Berg thought fast, realizing ze'd trapped zirself. Ze shrugged, "It's not so difficult. Fear of the mountains keeps most people away, so we don't get much of festivals, but all know of the bravery of Condor." Would that do it? Was that too much? Berg sweated, praying ze hadn't tripped zirself up. _________________________________________________________
Josa turned the explanation over in his mind, wondering what to make of it. It was true that there were many remote villages in the mountains around Condor, some so remote he wondered how people had got there in the first place. It was also true that some celebrated only the most major festivals for that very reason. Likewise it was true that he knew of these villages because he had been there. The wings of Tracker, his great peshai, could lift him to all but the highest peaks. Where the peshai could not go, his own legs could carry him. Condor had personally toured almost all of his Protectorate in his constant yearning for freedom.
Still, the woman's familiarity with Condor's manner was entirely too accurate to be based solely on rumour or a few chance visits. This woman was more than she appeared.
Much more. Josa repressed a sigh as she took his arm once more. During the course of the evening, while others laughed and taunted each other, they had talked and wandered the stalls. She was easy to talk to, a good listener -- which surprised Josa. He wasn't used to talking, yet he found himself babbling on about the Crescann market square, explaining how the lizard-sellers braided the tails onto baskets, to display their wares as enormous hats. Much as the lady loathed lizard, she was fascinated by his descriptions of their trapping and subsequent vending.
When a bolt of colourful fabric caught her eye, Josa found himself explaining the unusual cloth, spun of vegetable wool from the warmer regions of the Protectorate of Swan. This wool, he explained, was plucked from the trees looking like tiny sheep, and had to be spun on the small, fast wheels of Condor, for only they would spin fast enough to keep the short fibers together. For the very finest of gauzes, such as those presented to the Katze, a treadle wheel could not be used. Josa guided his companion to an awning that sheltered several spinners. A crowd had gathered to watch them demonstrate their trade.
Each spinner sat upon the ground, next to a tiny open box. The box contained two wheels, the largest the size of a spread hand, the smaller the size of its palm. Jutting from the side of the box was a tiny spike, a spindle that whirred so fast it could barely be seen. Berg'zaal's jaw dropped in delighted awe as the spinners drew out a thread nearly as fine as spider-silk, winding it onto the tiny spindle. The thread originated from what looked, for all the world, exactly like a cloud caught and held in the spinner's hand. It was the most magical sight ze had ever seen.
"You're at court, then?" the lady asked, as they drifted away from the spinners. Josa blushed, realizing he'd caught himself. Unable to think of a way out of it, he nodded.
Berg'zaal smiled. The breeze had picked up and stirred the young man's veil. A lock of hair had worked its way loose and tugged ever so slightly in the breeze. It glinted a golden green.
The boy in the marketplace.
Berg could hardly contain zir delight. The boy had been sitting on a crate in the Crescann market square, dressed in good clothes and watching the world go by. He had caught the Katze's eye and upon realizing it, had smiled a shy, but inviting, smile. Berg had been about to take the invitation, about to go over and talk, when a woman burst upon them, shrieking, and chased the young man away. She had chased him in the direction of the palace, and Berg had thought ke recognised her as Condor's nanny, but wasn't sure. Now, ze knew. This boy had some connection to Princess Condor. Same hair, same mannerisms, same bluntness...
Same pleasant company. Perhaps even more so, since Condor was less inclined to talk or explain her people's customs. Berg'zaal felt zir heart tugging in two different directions. Perhaps it was just as well that they were masked this night, anonymous. Ze was mixed up enough as it was, about Condor. Ze did not need to garner more trouble with Condor's brother, if that was who he was.
Josa, too, was of a mixed heart. Grateful to Tengu though he was, or this chance to feel like a real man, at the same time he felt his isolation even more keenly. This lady was so well-spoken, so elegant, so intelligent and lovely, he feared he would fall in love. It was as well they weree anonymous, hidden behind concealing masks, not even asking each other's names, in accordance with tradition. That would be too much for his heart to take.
They stopped by the stall of a llama-breeder, to look at the long-necked, wooly beasts and admire the soft, downy yarns spun from their wool. Josa bought his lady-friend a pair of wooly socks, to keep her delicate feet warm in the mountains.
Berg'zaal was touched.
They had laughed and talked and shopped and fed and danced on the fringes of the celebration long into the night. Berg's feet ached from dancing on the cobbled streets and zir cheeks ached from smiling. Ze had never, *never* had so much fun in zir life and made zir last dance an offering to the Lynx, who had permitted zir this outing. With flashing legs, whirling skirts and feet that tapped so fast they blurred, ze showed Yamaneko how thrilled ze was to be alive at this moment. When zir companion stopped at a shrine to make an offering to Tengu, ze joined him. The Gatchlaan goddess had not interfered with zir outing nor with the exchange; Berg'zaal made prayers and offerings to Her, acknowledging the cooperation of the deities and praying for similar cooperation of their peoples.
Josa's chest was sheened with sweat and heaved from doing the strenuous mountain dances. He pushed himself harder, each physical feat thrilling his audience, bringing applause from his lady. He felt like a peacock, strutting before the female, hoping to impress, but he couldn't help it. He felt like a man, was being appreciated as a man. Was being appreicated, and approved. He wished he could see the rest of her face; she was so beautiful when she smiled.
At last the hour grew late and the celebrants began to disperse. It was time to return to their lives; time for him to return to the amulet, time for her to return to... who knew what. Josa gazed at her. He didn't know her name. He didn't know her face. He didn't even know where she was from, beyond "the mountains." He would never see her again, could not court her... And even if he did he could not court her. He felt the pressure of tears and blinked furiously.
"I had a wonderful time," the lady whispered in her silky voice.
"So did I," Josa admitted.
"I have to go now. I'll.. miss you."
Josa nodded, his heart breaking. He felt her arm slide around his waist, her finger under his chin and looked up. Her face, her full soft lips, were very near.
Thirty skyrockets and a Swallow-candle went off in his head.
He stared after her, watching her feet twinkling behind her as she ran delicately into the night, her laughter falling like crystal on his ears, fading into the cool air. Her veil had fallen off and her long hair streamed behind her. Colours were shifty in the moonlight. It was probably silver, or the pale green sometimes known to appear in the Condor mountains, but right now it appeared to be white-blond. His lips still tingled.
Josa felt the emotion welling strongly in his heart, bubbling up into his throat. Ripping off his hat he flung it high into the air.
It had taken some careful calculation but ze had done it and now ze was trying not to choke on zir own smoke. Teleporting into a closet was highly dangerous, carrying the risk that ze might imbed zirself in the wall or the closet door. Listening carefully, ze determined that the room outside was empty and cracked open the door, hastily fanning out the purple smoke so ze could breathe. *That* had never been a problem before. Nor had losing zir veil and one of zir hairpins. Damn! Moving rapidly ze shrugged out of zir peasant clothes and stuffed them beneath zir mattress, later to be smuggled back to the laundry room. Then ze struggled into zir night robe and, hearing Nanny's approaching footsteps, dived back into the closet.
"Oh, Katling.. katling.. wherever can you *be*.."
A muffled mrph answered kem.
"Katling?" Fin'gaa blinked and opened the closet door. There, curled amid the stacked linens, was the Katze. "What are you doing in *there?*"
"I. have. cramps."
Fin'gaa blinked. The Katze's moon-tides were usually short and usually ze had zir cramps on the first day. However, it was far from unusual for zir to have cramps this late into the tide. It was even less unusual for zir to find somewhere to hole up, prefering to suffer away from prying eyes. So that's where ze had been. Condor had been right after all, ze'd been here all along. Nanny felt like a fool. "Of course, katling.... I'll.. get you some tea.. Here I'd feared you had gone into that barbarian carnival.. hah! Such humiliation! Wandering about like a barefaced fool, searching for my own face, when you'd been here all along, suffering and needing care.. Serve me right if you trimmed my hair.."
Berg poked zir head out of the closet, watching the old fool mutter away down the hall to get the pain-numbing tea. If nothing else it would soothe zir feet. Ah, if only ze *could* trim Nanny's hair! Ze frowned; "searching for my own face," what had ke meant by that? Did ke think ze had gone out wearing Nanny's face as a disguise?
"Aw, fuck," Berg pouted, "Why didn't *I* think of that?"