To continue the Story of the Phoenix Feather, we shall visit each of the children whose parents still treasured that gift all these years later, though neither had ever been sure what it really meant.
We begin with the youngest of the three: after seven years away, Afan Arikanda was going home.
The knot in her heart ached as if seventy years had passed since the day she walked so easily behind her First Brother Muinkanda onto the army ship and sailed north to army training. The harbor at Imai looked so much smaller than it had when she was ten years old!
She stood at the rail of the trader on which she’d bought passage as it drifted in on the tide. She scanned the harbor slowly, hungrily, noting every detail both familiar and unfamiliar—including two places where she might rent a one-person sailboat.
She had thought hard about whom to visit first. Filial piety dictated that she ought to go to her parents, and yet she knew they would both want to know the latest news from Ari’s Second Brother Yskanda, serving an apprenticeship at a scribe house not far from the governor’s mansion.
Ari smoothed her sleeves and robe, then checked that the front part of her hair was neatly bound up in its ribbon and hanging more or less orderly down her back in the style typical for young maidens. The only part of her appearance that might be amiss would be her battered martial artist’s boots, but the hem of her outer robe came down to the toes of those boots, and if she remembered to walk in small steps, surely no one would notice them.
It was habit to stride along, shoulders shifting from side to side, a walk she’d consciously mimicked at Loyalty Fortress while she lived in the guise of a boy, until it had become her normal gait. As a small child she had run everywhere, a shadow at her older brothers’ heels. She hadn’t learned to dress and walk like a girl until this year, and she still thought of the clothes and the walk as a disguise.
She hitched her pack higher on her shoulder and looked around. Ayah! She spotted a girl her own age carrying a basket, head bent against the sea breeze coming off the ocean, and imitated her walk. Smaller steps, balance point in the hips, all as Madam Nightingale had taught her. Ari minced her way past the central square, the Justice House, and up the grand street with the fine stores. Master Bankan’s scribe house was here, that much she remembered.
The street didn’t look so grand now. Though this was harvest time, and she had expected it to be much hotter so far south, the ship had finally landed after a series of violent thunderstorms. Puddles lay everywhere. The crimson of the year’s luck and fortune couplets still affixed to doorways looked tattered in many places. She skirted around a couple teens her own age wearing the aprons of apprentices, as they took down banners of Hungry Ghost Month.
She sketched hungry ghost wards as she passed, then forgot them all when she saw BANKAN HOUSE.
Would Yskanda be very tall? Might he even be starting a beard? No, he wouldn’t, if he was living among people of rank, she reminded herself as she mounted the stairs to the front entrance. Young men stayed clean-shaven till they married, or were appointed to their life’s work, whichever came first in their family tradition. She could not imagine Yskanda with a large, drooping mustache, and snickered nervously.
“Greetings of the day,” a girl her own age said from behind the counter, her gaze raking down Ari from braids to her wet hem and back up again. The blob of light around her shimmered and fluoresced until Ari impatiently blinked it away—at least she had learned to suppress seeing those distracting lights around people.
With the aura gone, Ari mentally followed the counter tender’s gaze, assessing her own appearance: dark brown hair, blob face dominated by a pair of fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows, plain-woven rose-colored robe edged with magnolia blossoms. Hopefully she did not notice the travel pack Ari carried over one shoulder, with wrapped implements sticking up that could be anything—but were, in fact, a very old sword and the two halves of a fine fighting staff made by Ghost Moon monks. Ari had sketched deflection wards on that pack and on the weapons as well.
The counter girl’s expression reflected her assessment of Ari: not noble, which would require service obsequiousness, but not a beggar to be booted back out, either. “What service do you seek?”
“Greetings,” Ari said, consciously going back to the local dialect. For all these years she had been speaking the common version of Imperial, first the military dialect, and then that of the gallant wanderers. “I’m looking for my brother. He should be in his last year or so of apprenticeship. Or maybe you could tell me where he is, if not.”
The counter girl’s eyebrows shot upward. “Afan Yskanda?” she repeated, and her complexion changed as she said, “Please honor us by waiting a moment while I fetch the master.”
Ari’s happy anticipation cooled to curiosity, even a little worry. That girl hadn’t said Yskanda’s name so much as exclaimed it. Of the three of them, eldest brother Muinkanda was expected by the entire family to achieve greatness—a phoenix feather drifting down from the sky on her parents’ wedding day had augured that—but Ari had never expected anything more challenging than spilled ink to happen to quiet, dreamy, gentle Yskanda.
A very short time later a man came out. He was dressed in four layers of silk, the sleeves not only knee length but tasseled. This could only be Master Bankan himself.
“My brother?” Ari asked, too worried to remember her manners. “Did something happen to him?”