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Kireg shoved Tiren in the shoulder, laughing and pointing up. "Here it comes," he said.
It was later at night than they were usually up, or earlier in the morning, but the long night often blurred into the short day without Birka noting when it happened, and the darkness seemed no more pressing than it often was while they were still traveling. Kireg was their time-keeper, shaking them awake in the twilight he called morning, and pointing out the constellations of the stars. He liked astronomy, and had spent extra time with the elders learning how the world rotated in space around the sun, with its satellite moons in attendance. He could tell what time of day it was from glimpses of the moons and stars, if the sun was not up to give them clues. He had a tiny bound book of birchbark paper that had notations of the celestial tracks, and had been deeply excited by this night's anticipated event: a full lunar eclipse. It had been heralded three nights prior by the trailing future moon winking out for several ticks, and Kireg said that the leading moon of the past would do the same three days from now.
The three of them were ensconced in a snowbank, happy to use the insulation of the snow against the biting cold of the winter air, as they leaned back to watch the show. "It will take an hour, at least," Kireg had warned, and Birka had taken that as a good reason to flop back and make herself a comfortable couch of snow, tucking her hood up over her head and drawing it close around her cold cheeks. Tiren settled at her side, and Kireg made a fussy reclined chair just past him.
The snow-unicorns drowsed standing up, not far away, and the sound of their sleepy snuffling was the only sound outside of the low creak of the wind. They were above the trees now, so it had only snow and rock to sound against, and besides the rustle of her own clothing near her ears, Birka felt like the anticipatory silence was deafening.
The quiet had been a welcome change from Itrelir, at first, with its cacophony of overcrowded people, but she found she missed the variation in sound. There were no children here, and the three travelers were generally too tired to make music in the evening. Even Kireg had begun to fall quiet, intimidated by the silence of the open spaces they journeyed through.
"There!" Kireg and Tiren said together. The very edge of the large present moon was beginning to darken in the lower left corner.
It was almost as if something were nibbling at the disc, and Birka reached a mittened hand to squeeze Tiren's.
"I have a sweet bread cookie!" Kivegei crowed in delight as he came up behind Denel at the railing. "I'm supposed to eat it as the moon disappears."
Denel reached down to take his free hand, asking sternly, "Where did you get that? Who gave it to you?"
Kivegei wilted, pulling his cookie away. "A man..." he began to whine, clearly anticipating that Denel was going to take it away from him.
"A man with a license," Jerumal said swiftly, coming in to tickle Kivegei from behind and make him smile again. Amanel was on his other side, holding a cookie that was clearly not going to make it through the eclipse, judging by the generous bite mark that already marred it. "We got them in the courtyard."
Denel, already not entirely convinced that the boys should be awake so late at night, frowned to think of their behavior with sugar added to the mix, but didn't say anything. Behind Jerumal, Dramanar came to the railing. "Councilor," Denel greeted him warmly. "Did you also get a cookie?"
Dramanar, a smile on his mild, round face, held up a round white cookie in affirmation.
Below them, the crowd was beginning to swell and grow anxious.
"The moon is going to go away!" Amanel said, delighted with the prospect. Denel caught herself tightening her grip on Kivegei's hand in unconscious alarm. She reminded herself that this was only a function of the world's shadow being cast over the moons that circled them, and let go of him, even as a wail of alarm sounded from below.
"Why are they afraid?" Kivegei asked anxiously. If grown ups were afraid, shouldn't he be?
Denel took his hand again, gently. "They are superstitious people," she said reassuringly. "They didn't pay attention to their geography classes, and think the eclipse means something religious." She exchanged a worried look with Jerumal. The gathering was supposed to be educational and cheerful, but the gray rags had rallied for more panic to the occasion than a simple astronomical event deserved, and made careless allusions and parallels to the destruction that was still occurring at the City of Lights. It was just the kind of cheap media pandering that the gray rags were wont to do, and Denel had not expected this magnitude of turnout. Many of the gathered crowd wore Purist garb, and there were speakers at every corner of the big courtyard, each trying to out-shout the others. What little Denel could hear of them indicated poor logic, based largely on fear and redemption from evil. One of them was Slunai, one a odd, eclectic combination of Mruuna religious trappings, and she couldn't identify the others.
There were gasps, Kivegei clutched back at her hand, and Denel watched several of the people below drop to their knees before looking up to find that the very edge of the moon was beginning to shadow.
"How's your cookie going?" Jerumal asked the two boys, pointing up. "Does it look like that?"
Kivegei dutifully nibbled at the edge of his cookie, and Amanel said mournfully, "I already ate most of it."
The eclipse itself was draggingly slow. Birka stared, trying to watch the shadow expand over the sphere of the moon, but couldn't see it move. But when she looked away for a moment, and then back, the shadow seemed larger - a growing dark blight over the bright surface.
"How often does this happen?" she asked in quiet awe.
"Only once every few decades," Kireg said in equal reverence. "I've never seen one at night before - the last one I saw was during the summer, and it was only a partial eclipse. A sliver was always visible, and this one should be complete."
Birka shivered, and told herself it was only because of the cold, and being still in it. She pulled the fur closer around her cheeks, and tucked her thumb into the main pocket of her mitten. She could feel Tiren do the same, still approximately holding his hand through the thick fur.
The bright part seemed brighter, for the creeping shadow, and the moon took on an odd sense of roundness. She'd always known that the moons were round, because that was what they had taught her, but it usually looked like a brilliant, flat disc in the sky. Now, with the shadow wrapping up around it, it seemed to pop forward, no longer a flat shape, but a sphere in the sky, with terrain of its own that seemed more clear than usual.
"I wish we had one of the far-finders they've got at Irelir," Kireg said longingly. Birka had seen the item in question once, and had carefully looked through the glass lenses at the moon to see the ridges and craters that she could barely make out now in huge, unexpected clarity. It was a treasure passed down from the ancients, carefully remade in ivory and wood when the original metal stays had succumbed to rust and wear.
"What does it mean?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" Kireg asked. "It's the shadow of our world on the moon - it doesn't mean anything."
Birka sat up, hugging her legs to her chest underneath the thick weight of her coat. "Think about it - the shadow of our world. Doesn't it sound like a story?" Fala or Tetefii would have known a story appropriate for this event, she thought, and she had a pang of homesickness. They had already been away from the village far longer than a usual journey to browse the snow-unicorns in new territory and avoid overtaxing their usual feeding grounds. Birka caught herself longing for the bustle of the crowded round houses again.
Tiren sat up with her, though Kireg remained reclined. "It does sound like a story," he said gently. "But one with a happy ending," he insisted. "Because the moon comes back out of the shadow in a while."
"About an hour and a tick," Kireg added helpfully.
Denel was alarmed to find that some of the Purist-garbed demonstrators were up on the upper level with them, milling about in the general crowd, handing out flyers and sharing heartfelt rhetoric as the shadow of the eclipse slowly engulfed the moon. Surely they weren't licensed to be at this level? She herded Kivegei in front of her against the railing, and took Amanel's protesting hand, wondering how to tell Jerumal she was ready to leave without causing an argument in front of Dramanar. Amanel was beginning to get bored by the slow progress of the event, even though Dramanar had graciously exchanged his whole cookie for his butchered one. Kivegei was very studiously nibbling at his cookie, and holding it up frequently for comparison.
As the bright sliver grew smaller, the crowd swelled, both below and behind them, and Denel found herself being jostled up against the rail. Dramanar's look had turned from mild and cheerful to rigid and unamused, and he gestured to the uniformed monitors who were strolling about the deck. They drew towards him, even as the milling crowd behind them surged in volume and numbers. Denel swept Kivegei close in to her, and his carefully nibbled cookie dropped from his hand. His wail of protest was drowned in shouts from two of the competing factions below, and the monitors fell into nervous ranks close around them as Jerumal picked Amanel up and they began to make their way back through the crowds. Denel picked the crying Kivegei up, though he was quite big to carry any more, and her arms were protesting the weight after only a few steps. She had a moment of panic as he was lifted away from her, crying out and clutching him tighter until she recognized that it was Dramanar coming to her aid.
It took a very long tense shuffle through the crowd, the monitors forging them a path through the restless masses. No one seemed actively violent, though there was much shouting and Denel thought she saw things being thrown on the levels below them. They made it to the back entrance to the observation deck, and the monitors put their shoulders into clearing them out, literally pressing people out of the way. Denel held fast to Kivegei's ankle, tucked up close to Dramanar's mass and close to Jerumal. Though Kivegei cried, tired and afraid, Amanel didn't seem at all concerned, and in an unexpected moment of quiet, said clearly, "Look how bright the stars are!"
The moon was a dim shadow of itself, slightly red-tinted, and Birka lay back again because her neck was tired from craning to stare at it, and it made a gap around her neck for the cold air to creep in.
"Look at all the stars!" Kireg said in excitement, turning his head from side to side in wonder. "Not quite a moonless night, but still, so bright! I should have known!"
Tiren swiveled on his snow couch to face the other direction. "Look at those streams of Others," he said in awe. "Looks like they're about to merge."
Two big streams of the glowing balls of other-worldly light were drifting towards each other. It wasn't an unusual motion, and both streams were safely far away in the sky, but they seemed brighter for the sudden absence of the moonlight. Unlike the stars or shadowed moon, they cast no light at the snow all around them. It felt almost smoky, with the eerie reddish cast, and Birka felt a stab of pain in her chest, remembering poor burned Itadesh, and the ashy bones of their old home. Sometimes, being cold felt like being burned, and she scooted closer to Tiren, who put a reassuring arm around her collarbone, all turned around backwards as he was.
"It will be back soon," Kireg said, misunderstanding her move for comfort. "See, the brightest bit has moved over to the left side now, even though the really bright curve isn't back yet."
Birka tipped her head back and looked at the strange moon, waiting for the light to return.
Kivegei fell asleep after crying himself out on Dramanar's collar, and Denel tried not to think of what tears did to silk.
The streets had been darkened in honor of the eclipse watching, and with no moon, it was tricky picking along the streets. Most of their honor guard of monitors dropped away as the crowd ceased to be a problem, returning to the site of the disturbance, and the sounds of unrest fell away behind them. There was no transport to hail, private or public, so the rest of the party settled in to walk back to their housing. It wasn't far from the university observatory courtyard to their rooms in the estates, but Denel found herself wishing for more comfortable footwear and a warmer coat against the autumn chill in little time.
Amanel, wound up past repair, was let down to walk under his own power, and he kept up a constant stream of chatter, skittering between happy blather with the monitors and complaining bitterly about having to walk so far.
Above them, the moon took a bright sliver on the opposite side again, and the shadow slowly began to drop away in mirror of the way it had come.
"Thank you so much," Denel said to Dramanar at the housing unit's door, as their housekeeper took Kivegei for the last haul to the nursery after a kiss and sleepy hug. "I... didn't expect the crowds to be so... wild."
"I should have," Dramanar said darkly, and there was just enough light from the rekindling moon to see that his eyebrows were knit together.
"You couldn't have known," Jerumal said, sending Amanel after Kivegei despite his continued complaints.
Dramanar looked up at the clear sky. The stars were beginning to retreat against the renewed brightness of the moon. "I should have," he repeated. "All the pieces are there for it."
"Well, it's over now," Denel said. The mother and father moons, looking barely brighter than stars themselves, bracketed the large returning child moon protectively. The crowd was behind them, and her sons were safe.
Dramanar gave her a sharp, unexpected look, at that, and said tightly, "I fear it's only just beginning."