We passed through the Western Gate of Khotya at around half past twelve, part of a great press of pilgrims swarming eagerly into the city. Less than three hours later we had located the hidden door and another room of Sturridge’s prison had been successfully knocked off the list.
It was pure blind luck, rather than any genius of planning or miracle of deduction, which brought about this unexpectedly swift result. The coordinates on the inter-dimensional travel drive narrowed our search to a dense warren of lanes in the South-Eastern corner of the city. But with the festival in full flow even this relatively insalubrious quarter was soon crowded with visitors and progress was slow to start with. After a couple of hours being buffeted this way and that Michael and I paused by one of the many snack stalls that had sprung up to cater for the needs of hungry pilgrims. And it was while I was digging around in my backpack for the price of a bag of roast chestnuts that I discovered that the inter-dimensional travel device was suddenly flashing like a pervert in a lonely park.
A little further investigation led us into the blacksmith’s shop which stood behind the chestnut stall and which, on closer examination, was found to contain not only the hidden door we were searching for but also, after a certain amount of haggling with the blacksmith, the tools for its destruction.
And that, essentially, was that. Job done, case closed, time to move on to the next set of coordinates.
But the only way out of Khotya was back along the tough mountainous route by which we had come. And faced with another arduous trek it seemed sensible to fill up with a hearty meal and stock up on some provisions before we left. So it was that by late afternoon we found ourselves in one of the many riverside taverns where the volume of customers was such that we were obliged to share our table with a grey-haired old pilgrim by the name of Azat.
Not that we minded particularly for Azat was a cheerful soul who proved to be good company. And when he found out that it was our first time at the festival he was more than happy to share the wisdom of his years whilst we got on with the serious business of filling our stomachs.
“Oh, I’ve been coming every year since I was a boy and I’ll keep coming for as long as I can,” insisted Azat enthusiastically, “though it’s a three day journey from my village and the legs aren’t what they used to be. It is both a privilege and a duty to be here in Khotya for the festival. You must know the story, of course, of how the Great Khan enabled the first golden moon to rise?”
“Well, not really,” Michael sheepishly confessed between mouthfuls.
“No? You really know nothing of the history? Well, I suppose I’d better start at the beginning then.” Azat’s outrage at our ignorance swiftly gave way to a certain glee at the opportunity to recount the tale. “You see, many years ago the moons of these lands regularly rose red with blood. The country was divided into many petty fiefdoms and the lords and princes squabbled endlessly over territory and prestige. It took the coming of the Great Khan, noble ancestor of our own Emperor – may the Great Lord in the Sky bless him and all his progeny – to bring the barons to heel. At the Battle of the White River it was he who finally united all the tribes under one banner.”
“Well done him,” I murmured, contributing what I considered to be the requisite quota of polite interest whilst still concentrating most of my attention on what was a really excellent yak stew.
“They say that on the night after the battle was won the moon rose a bright gold in colour to signify the pleasure of the Great Lord in the Sky at the outcome,” continued Azat. “Since then the Emperors have declared this festival be celebrated every year in thanks for the peace and prosperity brought about by the golden moon.”
“It certainly seems to have caught on,” noted Michael, sparing a quick glance around the excitable crowd filling the tavern.
“Oh yes, it is indeed a great thing,” insisted Azat. “The people are right to come and make their offerings while they can. One must enjoy the moons while they are golden for one cannot tell what the future may bring.”
There was such an unexpectedly wistful tone to his voice as he said this last line that I looked up momentarily from my stew. “You’re not suggesting the Empire is in trouble, are you?” I asked in surprise.
Azat smiled a rather thoughtful smile. “It’s hard to imagine when you look round at all these smiling faces, I know. But…” He hesitated for a moment, then continued in a slightly lowered voice. “Our Great Emperor has been a fine leader of his people for many years but now he grows old. He scarcely leaves his Palace these days and is rarely seen by his people. Someday soon he will surely be called to join the Great Lord in the Sky and I fear there are signs that the moons may turn red again once he has gone.”
“Why?” asked Michael. “Has he no successor, a son or a daughter perhaps, to follow him?”
“The Emperor has five sons and three daughters so we cannot accuse him of neglecting his duty in that respect,” remarked Azat with a wry grin. “But it is said that while each of his children is worthy in their own way there is no single Prince or Princess with the quality to stand out as the Emperor’s true heir. All but one have now come of age but still they bicker and squabble as though they were all in the nursery.”
Azat sighed. “It would not be so bad perhaps if the Emperor would simply anoint a successor, whoever that may be. For all their disputes and differences the Great Khan’s word still means all and I believe if one were chosen the others would fall in line. But so far the Emperor keeps his own counsel on the matter and so rivalries and factions grow unchecked at court.”
“It sounds to me like somebody needs to have a word with this Emperor of yours,” I casually remarked. “Remind him what needs to be done.”
Azat smiled again. “The Emperor has all the advisors, councillors and shamans he could wish for but in the end it is no small thing for a man to tell an Emperor what he must or must not do.”
“Well, if the Emperor really is the great man you say he is then he’s sure to realise himself what needs to be done sooner or later,” suggested Michael optimistically.
“I hope so,” said Azat sincerely. “But in order to select his successor the Emperor must contemplate his own end and no man, no matter how wealthy or powerful, likes to do that.” Azat seemed to drift off into his own thoughts for a moment, gazing pensively down into his drink, before he suddenly looked up with a resolute grin. “But in the end it is not our place to worry about such matters,” he heartily declared. “All we can do is drink and sing and make the most of the moons whilst they remain golden.”
“Amen to that!” I said with conviction.
We talked for a little longer of this and that but the press of customers in the tavern was such that it was impossible to linger for long and so, once our stew was eaten, Michael and I said our goodbyes to Azat and headed outside. Our bellies now full we just had some provisions to gather before we would be ready for our onward journey. But the bustle of the city in full festival mode made it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. There seemed to be a fresh distraction around every corner and the more I contrasted the warm, lively streets with the cold, remote mountains the less enthusiasm I was able to muster for our imminent journey. Eventually, when we seemed to be in danger of running out of things to buy, it occurred to me that I had better say something to Michael. “You know, when I think over what Azat was saying back in the tavern,” I began cautiously, “it does seem a bit of a shame, don’t you think…”
“…To go rushing off quite so soon, you mean?” The speed with which Michael picked up on the hint was certainly promising.
“After all, we did figure on probably being here for at least a couple of days anyway,” I mused.
“That’s true,” conceded Michael, clearly warming to the idea. “I don’t suppose it could do Sturridge any harm if we stopped for just a little while and had a bit of a look around.”
“And if Azat is right about the days of the festival being numbered…” I suggested, sensing the argument was all but clinched.
“Then we really ought to make the most of the moons while they are still golden,” agreed Michael decisively.
So together we turned away from the city gates and the lonely mountain pass and plunged back into the crowd of pilgrims. Of course, as we eagerly debated which of the many sights to see first, it never occurred to either of us to consider whether or not the moon might be in danger of turning red before our brief vacation was over.
There was only one slight spanner which was gradually revealed within the machinery of our spontaneous decision to enjoy a couple of days rest and relaxation in Khotya. The Festival of the Golden Moon was a big deal and folks came from every corner of the Empire to join the celebrations. Consequently, every inn, tavern, hostelry and guest house had been booked up for months. What was more, we soon discovered that every shed and outhouse had been commandeered and each scrap of ground that might possibly accommodate a tent or temporary shelter had already been staked out. The chances at this stage of our finding so much as a park bench to kip on for half an hour at any point during our stay were minimal indeed.
At first the lack of available rest was not much of an issue. On the first night we gravitated with the crowds to the main square by the palace walls and the main temples. Here, beneath glorious starry skies, there was so much to see and do that we had little thought of sleep. But by the following evening the pace of the festival was beginning to catch up with us. Having snatched no more than a couple of brief naps during the day we found ourselves by evening drifting instinctively away from the busier locations, until we eventually pitched up at a place called The Twisted Tree which lay along a narrow alley in the riverside quarter.
The inn sprawled around an open courtyard, from the centre of which sprouted the wizened old cherry tree which gave the place its name. It was an altogether more relaxed, rather homely affair than the bigger, more central establishments, run by a genial middle-aged couple named Amak and Zia, and suited our weary mood perfectly. By tradition there was no official entertainment laid on, instead the guests themselves took their turn to sing or dance, recite or in some way or other perform for the benefit of the rest of the tavern.
Michael and I were eventually obliged to provide our own contribution to the evening’s revelry which, after prolonged debate, finally came in the form of our rendition of the Sonny & Cher classic, ‘I Got You Babe’. I can’t, in all honesty, say that our performance was an unmitigated triumph, although whether this was due, as I contend, to the fact that Michael kept forgetting the words and was obliged to make them up as he went along or was a result, as Michael asserts, of my inability to stick to anything resembling the correct, or indeed any, key remains a moot point. Still, the audience, mostly well-oiled with rice wine by this stage, were inclined to be kind and we were rewarded with a heartening round of applause nonetheless.
Sadly even our sterling musical efforts were not enough to save us at closing time, when only those with enough foresight to have booked one of the guest rooms were allowed to stay and so, by the chill light of dawn on the third day we found ourselves wandering once again, now rather hollow-eyed and all but done in, along the city streets.
If we’d had any sense we’d probably have packed in the festivities at this stage and headed off up into the mountains in search of a nice quiet cave where we could enjoy a good long uninterrupted kip. But a lack of sleep generally leads to a lack of clear-thinking. By this time we’d heard from several quarters that the highlight of the Festival of the Golden Moon was a dazzling lantern show that was held at dusk on the final evening and at this stage, unable to retain any other sensible thought, we clung with weary stubbornness to the notion that we really must stick around to witness this spectacle.
Having spent the morning stumbling wearily from street to street we found that soon after midday some sort of homing instinct brought us back to The Twisted Tree and we slumped down at an empty table among the lunchtime crowd. Zia, one half of the tavern-owning couple, soon came bustling over to take our order and she’d launched cheerfully into her usual spiel before she recognised our faces from the night before. “Greetings friends! What’ll it be? Our lunchtime specials are… Why, if it isn’t my favourite singing duo! Glad to have you back!”
Michael and I responded as best we could to her boundless enthusiasm but, given the circumstances, our return greetings were perhaps a little lacklustre.
“Dear me, here’s another pair who’ve been over-doing it, I’ll say!” Zia good-naturedly declared. “I’d say you two are in need of a good night’s sleep before you want anything else. I like to see people making the most of the golden moon, I really do, but it’ll all catch up on you eventually, just you see.”
“We would very much like a good night’s sleep,” confessed Michael wistfully. “Only there’s nowhere for us to sleep.”
“Of course! I forget you were the couple asking after rooms last night,” recalled Zia. “Now what kind of pilgrim is it that comes to Khotya on the Festival of the Golden Moon without arranging somewhere to sleep?”
“It was kind of a last minute decision,” I explained wearily.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance a room has come up since last night?” suggested Michael without much hope. “Perhaps one of your guests has decided to leave early.”
“Leave early!” Zia’s husband, Amak, paused on his way past our table to join in the conversation. “By the Great Lord in the Sky, who would think of leaving the festival before the lantern show?”
“Oh yes, the lantern show,” murmured Michael. “That’s supposed to be quite good, isn’t it?”
“Quite good! Quite good, he says,” repeated Amak with a hearty chuckle. “It’s only the most dazzling spectacle you’ll see anywhere in the whole Empire.”
“Though I’m not sure you two will be in a fit state to see anything by sunset,” noted Zia with an air of motherly concern.
“You’re sure you don’t even have a spare bathroom or a broom cupboard we could rent for tonight?” I tried hopelessly.
Zia shook her head regretfully. “I wish I could help, I really do. It doesn’t feel right to refuse hospitality, particularly under a golden moon, but you can see how we’re fixed…” She threw a hand out to indicate the busy tavern. “There isn’t an inch of space we don’t have a use for.”
“There is, I suppose, always our room,” Amak said thoughtfully after a moments pause.
“Our room?” repeated Zia.
“Yes, our room. Yours and mine. It’s the one spot in the whole place that isn’t used on the last night of the festival,” said Amak. “You know that whatever we say we’ll never get a wink of sleep ourselves tonight. You always insist on making a start in the kitchens as soon as the last guest has gone to bed and then as soon as we’re done there it’ll be time to start on breakfast.”
“Well, those pots can be the devil to get clean if you don’t start soaking them straight away,” returned Zia defensively.
“Exactly, I’m not disputing that,” replied Amak cheerily. “I’m just saying that if we know we’re not going to make use of it then perhaps we should, in honour of the golden moon, offer up our room to these worthy pilgrims just for one night.”
Zia considered the proposition carefully. “Well, it’s not very big and it’s hardly in the best of condition,” she said.
“Oh, we wouldn’t mind,” I said hastily, gazing up with an expression that was aiming for appealing but I feared might be in danger of sliding into desperate. “We’re not that fussy.”
“And we’d be more than happy to pay you the going rate,” added Michael eagerly.
There was an agonising pause. “Well Zee, what do you say?” asked Amak.
“Oh, I suppose I don’t see why not,” conceded Zia with a warm smile. “In honour of the golden moon.”
“Thank-you,” I said. “Thank-you so much.”
“You don’t know how grateful we are,” added Michael with feeling.
“You’ll have to give us half an hour or so to get the room swept and clean bedding put out,” warned Zia.
“Of course,” I replied, blinking hard as I considered the chances of keeping my eyes open for another half hour.
“Don’t worry,” said Amak with a friendly nudge. “You have yourselves a good lunch and I daresay there’ll still be time for you to catch forty winks or so before the finest lantern show you’ll ever see.”
To be continued…