Writing Catalog

Shreya Chellu

Grade: 10

Beachwood High School

Instructor: Joshua Davis

That Unforgettable Night

Short Story

That Unforgettable Night

Tonight was a particularly gorgeous night, and one I remember all too well. I passed a booth and purchased a small lotus-shaped tea light and made my way to the pond that held a lantern exhibit, one of a garden balancing atop the water. The glowing green trees circled the animated animals that gazed at the strangers that passed by, each representing its own symbol. The brightly lit forest was supported by the large, unfurling lotus flowers that stood in the water.

I smiled and picked up the tealight. The light I saw all around only reminded me of the past. The merchants' faces lit up with joy as they explained the symbolic meaning of their lanterns. I chuckled, fondly remembering my parents' excitement for the Lantern Festival; starkly contrasting to my younger self's dismay. Back then, I couldn't have cared less about my family's attendance at the festival, but I now understand that it was the one time of year we rejoiced alongside our citizens, free from the burden of ruling.

The aroma of sizzling street food was incredible, blends of spices infused with the fresh scent of the night air. When I was a child, I'd always believed the merchants had attracted townspeople through their food, but now, looking back it only brings me the scent of home.

I hear the children running through the streets jumping excitedly around one another and swinging off the lamp posts that gladly showed them the way. I heard their laughter, vaguely remembering my own as a child as I ran through the same streets, clutching a sparkler in my hand, my sister Mei tailing me and Feng always looking to jump out and scare me.

My heart lurched. Just the thought of Feng triggered countless memories and emotions that waited to be unlocked. A friend. A brother. A protector. Half of my soul, slowly tearing away with his absence.

I gasped, unable to control my emotions. I quickly stood and turned towards the music exhibit that had caught my eye resonating as a symbol of joy. Here, couples danced together to honor their love and children danced to celebrate their friendship. Then there were the musicians, from string players to vocalists who gleefully accompanied the tourists. Their music was so powerful, that the joy was said to have echoed throughout the entire world as everyone experienced the same rhythm and melody. My eyes wandered through the crowds, longing to join their blissful dance.

Feng had once brought me that joy. A quick-witted, silver-tongued orphan who had nothing and to whom I provided everything in return for his guidance and comfort. He'd been the one to show me bravery when he'd helped me meet others my age, and truly explore the city for the marvel it was. My father had always kept me in the castle, tending to my studies and sword fighting to which I indulged days long. He'd never been one to allow me to travel through the town to see my kingdom which I'd rule—but Feng had given me that. He'd been my source of happiness that miraculously robbed me from the palace to see the outside world, to see my people, and to see my kingdom. We'd experienced it together.

I turned to face the floating forest once more. The glimmering trees had been completely lit up, however, dimmed as they were closer to the skies. I looked up to find a massive raven shadowing the moon, looming over the quiet grazing animals in the field. A raven was said to resemble death and destruction.

I'd seen the raven multiple times. When my parents had died three years ago after karma had finally traced my trail and when Feng's anger reached a breaking point where he vowed to never see me again after the orphanage burned down. The Knives of Bane. They'd left their emblem carved onto the door of the small orphanage as the flames hungrily devoured it till only ashes remained. The bandits used it to threaten my father so that he could provide them with more wealth and power. It'd failed though and Feng had blamed me for the wanton destruction, telling me I hadn't protected my people. I knew what the orphanage had meant to him even if he kept leaving it in hopes to stay on the streets. In the end, he'd always return, caring for the children when they couldn't sleep or when he'd 'gather' (steal) food from the market and bring it back to the orphanage. I thought I'd never see him again after that day.

Soon after, my father and I began my training for the crown. I was to attend every council meeting and accompany him in the royal chambers where he would sort through mountains of paperwork requiring the royal seal. It quickly tired me; however, I continued to do it all for Feng. I approached him one day when I'd managed the courage to ask him about our kingdom's safety. He'd said nothing and could neither station more guards to the towns as he said would prove to be a threat and would quickly run the number of soldiers dry. We'd argued about it for hours, my father shouting at me like he'd never before, telling me that I had no authority over the kingdom while I'd lost control of myself and questioned his bravery.

He'd shown plenty of bravery though. I'd been the cause of his death, for him to venture south in hopes of building a stronger relationship with our sister kingdoms. The council members' reactions fared no better. They forbade me to attend the meetings and had repeatedly coaxed me into abdicating. I still haven't completely earned their trust as they'd always thought my decisions to be risky and impractical.

I peeled my eyes from the sky and searched the sea of animals. A serpent. A symbol of betrayal and distrust. Most would fail to recognize its thin coiled body wriggling itself in the fields, always perfectly poised to strike its prey.

Was Feng a snake that'd used me for his own personal gain? My mind sighed in frustration as I once again wondered why he willingly joined the very same gang that'd burned down the orphanage. I'd received an anonymous letter weeks later informing me about his acceptance into the gang. And the very next night, he'd approached my window, camouflaged in darkness, and whispered a vow to kill me. To him, I am his snake, a friend who failed to protect him and an enemy that'd let him burn. I sighed and admired the lanterns that lit the night and guided the travelers from far and wide. I knew that somewhere in the shadows, Feng lurked, awaiting to end my life. And though my sister tried to stop me, she'd never been as quiet as him. "Jiang," she said. "It's not safe to stay here. Come back to the palace, where I can protect you."

Ignoring her warnings, I asked, "Do you remember, Mei, when we'd always visit this lantern exhibit first with mother and father? Everything was so simple and whole then."

She sighed knowing I'd be unwilling to leave. "It was whole for us." We sat in silence, relishing the memories that flooded through our heads as I felt the wind tickling my cheek, seeming as if our parents stood silently beside us.

"I'm not going back. I can't. Fight me as you wish, but I must confront my enemy tonight. I believe he's not too far from me yet." "Brother, who is to say that he is not in the elite circle of Bane? You cannot sway his mind just because you were once his friend. When anger consumes people, it is often difficult to escape its clutches. I know you care about Feng. Whatever happened the day the orphanage burned down was no fault of yours. Father and the council made the mistake of prioritizing his borders, not his people."

"He still blamed me, Mei. I should have gone to father sooner. I should have aided him with the burden of ruling. Perhaps, then I would have been stronger."

"You're plenty strong. Feng cannot blame you for something that hadn't been your mistake," she replied softly. I turned away from her and drew my sword. Half of my face stared back at me and in the other, I saw it blank. "I do not believe that he has the will nor the intent of killing me, sister. The best way to rid an enemy is to make them your friend, especially if they were a former one."

"Jiang, whatever you're about to do is out of the question! He is not to be trusted—"

"Please, Mei. If you are still my sister, then you will trust me. Please get a message to Feng and tell him to meet me by the cherry blossom tree across the palace at precisely a quarter to 12. Tell him that I will light a firework signaling my lonely presence and that he should do the same as well. I want to talk with him alone, that is all."

"I do not wish to see you hurt, Jiang, but I risk losing my brother far more," Mei replied, lowering her eyes as she stood. When I heard her footsteps fade into the wind, only then did I utter my thanks. ⚬ ⚬ ⚬ The moon is partially obscured by the clouds; the chilly breeze only intensifies my nerves. Taking a deep breath, I crouch and light the firework that stands in front of me. I hear it laugh playfully before it shoots into the sky and explodes into a million little yellow lights. I clutch my sword a little tighter as I walk towards the tree. Near it, is a water fountain and I place a lantern and my sword against the base. Moments later, I hear another firework explode, this time bursting into a million green sparks. Then, I hear a pair of footsteps and my heart suddenly starts to beat faster.

I know he's behind me but still, I keep my back to him. "Feng."

"Emperor." I hear his footsteps stray to the cherry blossom tree, so I follow him and finally turn to face him. We study each other for a moment or two and I notice that Feng remains my height and is dressed in black tonight. He wears a blue belt—Mei was right that he is in Bane's elite circle—and his black hair is still ruffled as it always was. "You're not in the position to be bargaining right now. If I recall correctly, tonight is the night you die."

I stare at him, then pick a cherry blossom off the tree. I cup the petals in my palm and place the flower in his hands. His expression remains stone-cold, but I still pluck another cherry blossom off the tree. I grasp a petal and blow it away. "Do you remember all of this?" I ask finally.

"Unfortunately, yes. Oh, little Jiang. He was always scared of going outside. His parents were always out to get him." Feng's hands were in the shape of claws as he reached out to scare someone, but he still clutched the blossom I'd handed him. I laugh. Taking another petal in my fingers, I blow it away and then lean against the bark of the tree. "Listen, Feng. I know that my fate is sour tonight. But I wanted to see if I could share it with you one last time. I made some mistakes during these last couple of months and I haven't corrected them fully. I wanted to continue what my parents had tried to do, but I needed to look at what was in front of me instead."

Feng's hands curl into fists and the flower crumpled. "I thought you'd be different from your parents. I thought you'd actually care about what you're protecting. But no, that's what it is with all emperors. Always more, more, and more."

He wasn't wrong, but I still look him in the eyes. I grab another petal and blow it away. "Let me tell you something, Feng. I know that I made mistakes even though I've only worn the crown for two months. But I did it now. I ordered my advisors to relocate all the children from the orphanage to be taken care of at the palace until a new one is being constructed. And as for their safety? Well, they are under my protection. So kill me if you still intend on holding your honor in that puny little gang, but I'm trying to fix my mistakes. Even though I may not be as strong as my father, I still saw more than he did and that is what has helped me rule so far." I plucked the last petal and blew it away. I let the bare stem flutter to the base of the tree, swaying in the wind.

I go to the water fountain and pick up my sword and lantern. Feng doesn't utter a word and only fiddles with the cherry blossom in his palm. After a minute of silence, I yawn. "If you have any decency left, please kill me in my room. But, if your heart has still not changed, then let me try once more to soften its steel." I pause to take a deep breath. Then I continue, my eyes still not daring to make contact. "You pushed me into fencing. And whenever I wield a sword, I only see half of myself. In the other half, it's blank in your absence." I stand, motionless. Feng doesn't say a word, nor has he made any move to pursue me. So I walk back to the castle, only looking back once to gaze at the bare blossom leaning against the tree, begging the wind to not be swept away.

Feng hasn't shown up after all this time, but I still wait because I know that he will either arrive to kill me or rejoice with me tonight. Anxiously, I go to the window and look out at the moon.

I stifle a scream when I see a large black figure, yet when I look closer I can make out a friend. Hunched on the same pine tree standing all those years was Feng. He balanced himself across the branch and finally jumped inside. I generously make way for him.

We stand there awkwardly, avoiding each other's gazes. Feng starts first though. "I like what you've done with the place. It's nice. Still that same bundle of red...ah more red...oh there's gold over here. Oh no, blue completely clashes," Feng blurts, smiling. He walks around pointing to each of the things in my room.

I roll my eyes and approach him from behind. He doesn't see it coming, but I wrap him in a tight embrace. At first, Feng stands as still as a statue, but then slowly curls his arms around me as well. We stay like that for a couple of minutes until I hear a violent rap on the door.

"It's Lieutenant Mei. Don't bother opening—". Mei strolls into my room, only to see that Feng has a hand placed on my shoulder. She gapes and finally clears her throat. "My emperor, we've located all of the bandits except one and I should say you've got to him before us." She stands there awkwardly, probably wishing to leave, but I still hold her here. Feng doesn't know what to say either and instead he bows before Mei and mumbles his respect which eases my sister, but not completely.

"Yes, Mei. I want all the bandits to be placed in custody. Anyone under the age of sixteen must be sent to the orphanage and please clear Feng of all charges."

"Brother, I mean, my emperor, do you really want this supposed former assassin to be free of all charges?"

"Hush, sister. I'm relieved that you trusted me. Now, will you join me? You certainly know the occasion."

"Very well." Mei nods and accompanies Feng and I from behind. I can still see her staring daggers at Feng, but she makes no move to disrupt him. We pass the guards who point their weapons to Feng. My hand forces the weapons down—every single one of them. All of my advisors stare at me dumbfounded as I enter the main hall. And when I pass the other bandit members, they don't dare look me in the eye. Finally, we go outside only to step into the moon's light. The whole kingdom had heard of who was to be my assassin, but walking with me right now was just my friend. My brother. And one of the few people I trusted.

When we reach the cherry blossom tree, I see that the bare blossom is long gone, but instead, Feng's blossom lies at its base. Peeling my eyes away from the tree, I look to find thousands of flickering lanterns lying on the grass. Mei picks a lantern and studies it in the moonlight. The people are so surprised to see the three of us; soon a circle surrounds us. Mei passes the lantern to Feng who lights it and finally to me. I'm the first to hang a lantern on the night of the lantern festival and also the first emperor to humble himself before his citizens to celebrate an occasion that is well respected throughout the land.

At the base of the cherry blossom tree, I reach up and spot a bare branch with no blossoms. I hang the lantern there. The tree begins to sway and slowly, the people join in, with some telling the tales for each lantern. Once being dark, it seems as if the kingdom is gradually being lit afloat in the night sky, washing away the sinister darkness and welcoming the warmth of light.