I put up a poll over the summer (2010), asking readers who their favourite Yin sibling was, and Dire won – hands down. (Honestly, I kinda expected it. ;P) I thought it'd be useless to have a poll without some result from my part, so I planned a one-shot, a vignette, for Dire, but never actually got to writing it until yesterday.
Don't worry, there's not much in spoilers… I think.
P.S. Here are the results of the poll!
1. Dire (10 votes)
2. Ebony (3 votes)
3. Occult (2 votes)
4. Gash (Who had no votes… but I think it's because he's a jerk right now. Pre-fifth Nocte, he was cool, but post-fifth Nocte… not so much.)
The Boy Emperor and His Labyrinth
Once a year, a midnight sun hangs above the Arctic for the duration of twenty-four hours, a suspended disbelief of "Time" and the warping of what is known as "Space" in human terms. It is like spun glass, made blurry and convex-fluxed due to the extreme cold in light of the extreme heat of the star. When at its peak, it crests over the great glaciers like an all-seeing eye having just found what it's been looking for. At midnight, it is delayed over the waters, its reflection like the tail of a shooting star carving a fire-valley into the cold ocean. And finally, when the last second of the twenty-fourth hour strikes a lasting dry-ice echo, it sinks and the phenomenon does not occur until 365 days later.
365 days later, the sun becomes the midnight sun. 365 days later, there is no moon. 365 days later, sleep is hard to come by. 365 days later, and the Native Lamisian have nowhere to hide, and for a whole twenty-four hours, there is no darkness, and the definition of "lost" becomes… well, lost.
And so for decades the midnight sun is the imperial jewel in the sky once in every 365 days. For centuries the sun is worshiped like a deity by the ancient humans once in every 365 days. For millennia the sun watches, unblinkingly, the polar icecaps expand and contract, the ocean rise and recede, and the humans build their igloos that fade with wind and heat, once every 365 days.
But once, in the many cylindrical 365-day sequences the midnight sun has ever come across, it meets a tower… made of snow-bricks and ice-glass… bore through the top of the largest glacier in the Laqua Ocean. That tower, so pretentious, so unnatural – so human – is the beginning of, what the midnight sun understands it to be, the Lamisian Empire.
Carved out of broken axes, cooled in the bloods of innocents, and tempered by the thousands of invading soldiers marching in sync over the abandoned Native Lamisian tribes, the Lamisian Empire was forced into being, pulled from the ices and pushed into snow banks despite, perhaps even to spite, the natural forces that was the north. Such cruelty, such mercilessness, such disregard for others could only be compared to the tundra itself in its most raw form of winds and snows and blizzards – the threat of destruction so evident with each battle cry and bearing of arms and flag waving.
Within a year, the empire dug through the largest glacier like ants and their tunnels, and scrapped out the excess of frozen water to establish a colony that soon expanded into a village, town, city – the capital city of Diren where the emperor, in all his greed and meticulous cold planning, ruled over the northern glaciers, each one with its own town and city burrowed deep within their icy innards, reinforced by magic so wicked, mathematical precision so cruel, that it almost defied the natural laws themselves.
For decades the midnight sun is the imperial jewel in the sky once in every 365 days. For centuries the sun is worshiped like a deity by the ancient humans once in every 365 days. For millennia the sun watches, unblinkingly, the polar icecaps expand and contract, the ocean rise and recede, and the humans build their igloos that fade with wind and heat, once every 365 days.
And for the first time, once in the every 365-day cycle of the midnight sun, it reveals a surprise not many of the Native Lamisians, chased and hunted from their ancient tribal points into a nomadic life, know about. That the emperor, the man they fear and curse, the man they lose both sleep and relatives to, is but a five-year-old boy.
Small and frail, swathed with thick furs and multiple layers, he appears more like a polar bear cub than a human boy. He has a delicate bone structure and even softer features, made like a porcelain doll when he sits upon a throne thrice his size and a hundred-fold his weight. His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Dire Yin, fifth child and second son of the First Family of the Yin Clan, is not much of an emperor. He will never be handsome, but certainly beautiful given the limitations of his sex.
He commands an army of thousands, a navy of hundreds, and an air force of tens and tens of the greatest Arctic dragons in all of Erisire, enough even to keep the Zyrish away from his airspace. He has a court of the ablest ministers, a platoon of the fiercest generals (perhaps even rivalling those of his brother), and a palace so complex and large that very few make it out alive. Many sing him praises, speak of him in shadows, and hate him secretly for what he's been able to accomplish in his five short years where many can only dream of their whole life, and the life after.
His life revolves around his empire, his people, his ongoing need for more than just a number of glaciers. And amidst all that urgency to conquer, to administer new laws and balancing the treasury, his ministers, his generals and his people occasionally forget that their emperor… is just a five-year-old boy.
He is just a boy.
And as he sits upon his empty throne, looking out into his empty hall, and closes his eyes to the empty silence – once he knows that he is alone – he lets himself be that boy again. He sheds himself of his emperor robes and dons the familiar black slacks he wore a year ago. He transports himself from the innards of his dark winter palace to the maze of his mother's summer forest he was at a year ago. He calls forth that one prominent memory he holds most dear and immerses himself into it because, alone, he will never be as long as he had the memory.
He is four again, and it is summer. He is neither poetic nor sensitive, so he cannot describe his surroundings any more elaborate than being in a forest. He is lost. He has wandered off in his quest of studying the travel migrations of an ant. The ant has led him astray. He is alone. It is getting warmer as the day goes by, and he refuses to be uncomfortable in his black blazer and bowtie. He does not discard any of his clothing; nature cannot trump him. He decides to find a way out, the trees three to six times his height, but they do not hinder him.
He is a Yin.
He refuses to admit that he is worried. He knows that an hour has passed; he keeps perfect time inside his brain, alongside the periodic table, the ones and zeroes of computer code, and the rules (and how to bypass those rules) of alchemy. He continues to trek through the forest, even knowing that it is best to stay still in order to be found. He refuses to panic. He thinks briefly that he should always keep a compass with him at all times. He refuses to admit he is panicking.
He does not understand fear. Yins do not fear. He does not understand the acceleration of his heart beat or the increase of breaths he is taking. He thinks he is becoming ill, perhaps from hunger, although Yins are never hungry. Yins do not need much of anything to be strong. Yins are self-sufficient, almost mechanical, in their ways. They have want of no one and nothing, and triumph over other puny clans that cannot grasp what power means – the Paines, for instance.
He hears the unnatural rustling of grass and bushes, and stills, not out of fright (Yins do not fear), even though his heart hammers and pulse jumps. He begins to formulate a plan if he is to meet a bear or a wild dog – he touches the pockets of his trousers; his gun is still there. Like all five-year-old Yins, he takes out his gun seamlessly and waits… and waits… and waits-
He jolts when he sees his sister trampling around the trees, her eyes steady on him with a smile threatening to burst. It is still strange, he supposes, to see any of his family smile quite like… that. The way she smiles is not how their parents smile, or their siblings smile, or their clan smiles. Hers is… weak. It is the kind of smile that hides nothing and coaxes others to take advantage of her.
It is not a Yin smile.
"Dire!" she calls out, laughing.
He freezes when she grabs hold of his shoulders and pulls him into a hug. It is not a Yin hug.
"Nocte," he replies curtly, smoothly replacing his gun in his pocket.
He is not shaking. He refuses to feel gratitude. He does not believe that a single person can bring so much relief in him. He would have found his way out on his own eventually. He does not need her.
"We were so worried!" she says, releasing him from the hug.
He forgets how warm her hugs are in an instant. It is not a worthy hug. It is not Yin.
"I see," he comments.
She looks at him then, quizzically with… amusement(?). He is jarred by her expression. It is too open. It is not a Yin expression. Her one year at Athena Academy has tainted her, and he is tempted to abandon her in the forest. It will do their clan good to rid of her.
"Apology accepted," she quipped whimsically.
He is confused.
"You made us worry, so you should be sorry," Nocte tells him, and then she grins. "Hey! That rhymes!"
He has no words. For once, speech escapes him. She is too flighty.
"C'mon, we gotta get back. Mom and dad are waiting," she says.
She then reaches a hand out to him and he does not know what to do with himself. He simply stares. He is wary. He thinks that it is a trap. Her hand will kill him and then she will have less competition for their parents' affection. It will be useless, he thinks, for she has already (however unknowingly) stepped out of the competition by attending Athena Academy.
She does not wait for a response and takes him by the hand. He is mildly shocked, but says nothing as his body responds accordingly. His legs move to follow her. His body shakes. He does not believe it is because he has been found, but rather because he is troubled by how forward she is. He refuses to believe that he is… happy that he is not longer lost. It seems she knows where to go, and it is troubling considering her low intelligence quotient.
"H-How did you find me?" he asks, ignoring the slight tremble in his voice. He is parched, that is all.
She looks back briefly and flashes him a smile. She even decreases her strides so that he may keep up in his leather shoes and black slacks, but he does not recognize this… at least not aloud.
She shrugs. "I was lost here once too."
He shakes again and says nothing when her hand squeezes his. She is nothing, he tells himself. She is not like any of their clan. She is not slim like Ebony, but rather flabby. She is not delicate like Occult, but rather big boned. She is not hard like Gash, but rather fleshy. She is weak and unworthy and not Yin.
And yet, when she looks back at him again, as if to reassure herself of him being found and safe, he notes how the sun hits her temple and make her translucent and otherly. She is not Yin, but she is something else entirely that makes him feel…
He shakes himself then and remerges back into his empty throne. Gone are the summery forests, replaced by his wintry ice palace. Gone are his black slacks, replaced by his emperor robes. The memory fades and he is suddenly aware of a presence on the other side of the door, afraid to knock, that foolish servant.
"Enter," his cold voice slithers along the icy caverns of his palace.
The servant enters, head down and will never dare to meet him in the eye, as per protocol. He shuffles forward and trembles when he is within his emperor's audience.
"Speak," Dire says. There is no reason to prolong this.
"Y-Your Imperial Majesty," the servant speaks. "You have a message from the Princess."
Dire nods and takes the letter from the servant's hands. "Dismissed."
The servant leaves and the hall becomes silent and ghostly. When the door closes and he is once again alone, Dire looks to the letter – plain off-white with a black wax seal. The servant did not say which princess, but the Lamisian Royal Palace understands that it is her. "Princess Ebony" is Ebony. "Princess Occult" is Occult. "Princess" – just "Princess" – is her.
He opens the letter and unknowingly opens up all the memories of her in the past year, and even the years before. Even before Athena, she had been different. When their parents told her to watch him, she really watched him. She paid attention to his needs, whether he was hungry or thirsty or bored (she had given him a cube puzzle to solve, if he remembers correctly… and he always did), and was always aware of the dangers around him, taking care to remove sharp objects from his surroundings when he was a babe. With Gash, Dire had once been placed in an obstacle course of knives and flamethrowers Gash, himself, had built for the sole purpose of "playing" with him.
Dire sighs and reads her letter, remembering how that past year, after she had found him in that forest, they had been… kind. Their siblings were never close – closer than any other First Family in any other clan of course, but not significantly close by civilian standards. But that past year… something happened. His own logical explanation is that she does not know what "personal space" means, or how he likes being alone, or how "No, Nocte, I do not want cake" means that he "does not want cake." She is so… determined to be with him.
It would have been irritating if, as he is reading the letter, he does not understand what it is like to… not have her. He knows far and well by now how… silent it is when she is at school and he is at home… alone. But he will be damned to say that he misses her, or that one of the resounding factors to his taking of Lamise was because he was bored without her.
He is not so… sentimental and not Yin as to make his decisions based on feelings-
Three days later he finds himself back at his childhood home, the Yin Manor, staring at the wide expanse of one of many empty grasslands on the Yin estate. His sister, Nocte (of course), chose the particular empty land that could be seen from her room. She chose it because then she would be able to see it "inside." It is a well-known fact that his sister hated physical activity and "going outside" would constitute as "physical activity." "Walking" is not her strong point.
"You want…" he trailed, raising a brow. It is a habit he has learned from her.
"A labyrinth!" she cheers enthusiastically.
It is the Ninth Month. She should be in school. He should be back in Lamise terrorizing the natives. They should not be back at home to plan for a garden. But, to Dire's chagrin, they are. He will not say it is because he misses her, or that he feels guilty when he read her letter that stated, "We haven't seen each other for a while, what with you taking over Lamise! Did you forget me?"
Dire is not sentimental and he is a Yin through and through. His sister cannot make him move mountains or develop a machine that can rip the fabrics of Time and Space just so they would have more time with each other. No. She does not influence him to that degree.
She did, however, get him to cross the Laqua Ocrean though, but that is a minor detail.
"A labyrinth?" Dire mumbles.
"Not just a labyrinth," Nocte explains with a grin. "But the Labyrinth."
"From the Ancient Yhaekail myth?" he asks.
He thinks for a moment. It is a challenge, more so when the myth is based on a lost city that is nothing but a pile of ruins today. But, His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Dire, is not one to cave under a challenge. In fact, he lives to undermine equations, disprove theories and drive the academia back to their undergraduate years to review the basics of math, science, summoning, charm-making and the occasional demonology… Dire is going to relish the idea of constructing the real Labyrinth, and in his own backyard no less.
Genius at birth, and genius for the rest of his life!
"I was thinking of getting a fountain," Nocte says. "What do you think?"
Dire nods. "It will be aesthetically pleasing near the entrance. You may want to include a bench with flowers." Nocte smiles. "I will leave that to you. I will have to design and reconstruct the Labyrinth by winter."
"Okies!" she says and then brings him paper and pen to design on; the mutated servants pulling over a table and chair.
It is a rigorous task, but not impossible. "Impossible" is not a word in the Yin dictionary (copyright in pending). It takes weeks of research and observation of Ancient Yhaekail ruins to get the maze in proportion to paper, and then months later to construct it according to his meticulous plans. In various stages, his sister brings him a cup of cocoa (he will never understand her fascination with sweets), asks him for his opinion on flowers, have lunch and dinner together (and the occasional breakfast if she is able to wake early enough), and sometimes – a lot of the times in fact – she gives him a hug.
It is not a Yin hug.
He is getting used to them.
Then, finally, in the late days of the Eleventh Month, with the wind turning cold and the air biting, he has done it. The Labyrinth is complete – the Yin Labyrinth is complete. It may be without a minotaur, but it certainly had his father's trademark Venus Mantraps in select places that many would never suspect. And as he stands in the dead centre of this colossal work undertaken in such a short time that is humanly impossible (Yins are more than just human), he can only see the blue sky when surrounded by the fifteen-foot tall bushes of the Labyrinth.
It is a masterpiece.
He wanders the organic passageways, lost in his own genius. He wonders briefly if he should show the world of this miracle, but then decides against it. It is not just his Labyrinth, but his sister's as well. It is their garden, and…
He pauses down one hallway and realizes that he is lost. If he was one prone to curses, he would have cursed at being fouled by his own creation, but all he can do is stare blankly at the sky and the cold sun above with a slight narrowing of his eyes. He is cast back to that time in the forest and the feeling of… insignificance in the grand design of nature, and decline to accept the familiar acceleration of his heart beat and the increase of breaths he is taking.
He is not panicking.
He is only lost.
He forgot to take a compass, much to his own self-hate.
He does not wander off this time, knowing that staying in one place is better. He knows that if he does not show up in a few hours or even to dinner, his parents will send the servants to look for him. He knows that he will eventually be found and that there is no need to be discomforted in his situation. He hopes briefly that in their search for him, that they do not destroy the Labyrinth "unintentionally." (He has seen the way Occult has been looking at him. Her envy at him being under their sister's constant attention is almost physically crushing, made more real by her psychic abilities being so sporadic lately. It is not Yin of her to feel so.)
Dire begins to sit and wait, but something tells him not too. He turns when he hears the unnatural rustling of grass and bushes. This time, he does not take out his gun, but rather waits patiently for her to come. How he knows that it is her, he cannot say, only that it is a… feeling, almost an expectation that it is her.
And he is never wrong, made evident when she turns the corner, spots him and laughs. She surprises him with a ball of string in her hand, a simple device used to mark her way through the maze. It seems she knows what to do, even with her low intelligence quotient.
"Lost again?" she teases, taking his hand.
They ignore the way his hand shakes in hers, and he barely registers the relief he feels to be found. It is starting to be a familiar feeling.
"How did you find me?" His voice does not tremble this time.
She shrugs. "I got some help."
He frowns. "Did you drink a luck potion?"
She laughs and shook her head. "No! The Venus Mantraps told me where to go."
He nods understandably. Their father's experiments had always been fond of Nocte.
"You cold?" she asks as they retrace her steps.
"No," he lies.
A wind blows by and he tries to mask his shivers. She stops and he knows that he has been found out. She takes off her jacket (she always wears layers, even in the summer) and drapes it across his frail shoulders. It is like she is hugging him, he notes, and then feels his lips curve when she does. It is not a Yin smile and it is not a Yin hug. They make quite a pair that afternoon, in their garden, in their private place.
She is not like any of their clan. She is not slim like Ebony, but rather flabby. She is not delicate like Occult, but rather big boned. She is not hard like Gash, but rather fleshy. She is weak and not Yin. But she is not nothing, he realizes, leaning into her. She is everything their family is not:
She is not Ebony, who is flighty and walks by him without a glance. She is not Occult, who glares at him as if he is a pest and not her brother. She is not Gash, who forgets he is there sometimes. She is not their parents who are there, but never really there. It is how they were raised, he reasons, and then he realizes that it is not how he wants to be raised.
It is getting better, they have all noticed. In a year since she has gone to Athena Academy, it is getting better. Ebony less flighty and more aware of others. Occult less pretentious and acknowledging her own weaknesses. Gash less bawdy and more brotherly. Their parents… Their parents more parents than their begetters.
They are becoming a family no other Yins have ever been before, and they are a little nervous as to what it will lead them to, and a lot excited to know how they are getting there.
And when Nocte draws back from the hug, Dire notes how the sun hits her temple and make her translucent and otherly. She is spiritual in that one second, however brief, and for once he feels safe, not just in-a-tower-and-away-from-a-hero safe, or surrounded-by-thousands-of-bodyguards safe. But safe. Really safe. As if nothing and no one can touch him even if he were out in the open being cornered by hundreds of heroes.
As she pulls him along the twisted corridors of their Labyrinth, Dire suddenly comes to a conclusion about his sister, a conclusion that has eluded him for over five years.
She will always find him, he realizes.
"Have you seen a midnight sun yet, Dire?" she asks.
He shakes his head.
"We should watch it together this year," she says.
He can only nod.
And so, once in every 365 days, the boy emperor will come out from under his palace tunnels, a maze unto themselves, and brave the winding tower of snow-bricks and ice-glass that breaks through the top of the Diren glacier to watch the midnight sun. The first time, he is not alone; his sister is there to bring him a mug of cocoa (he will never understand her fascination with sweets, but he drinks it for her), but the years after, she is not. School drags her in, and Christmas activities make it hard for her to travel to him, but he relieves them both by travelling to her instead.
But that is fine, because the boy emperor cheats. In the northern hemisphere, he watches the midnight sun by himself in the Twelfth Month. In the southern hemisphere, he watches the midnight sun with her in the Sixth Month. He sees two midnight suns within 365 days – one by himself to remind him of her, and one with her to reassure him of her.
It is not until years later does he understand that in birth, he is his parents'. In life, he is his sister's. In death, he knows irrevocably, he is his clan's. It is convenient, however coincidentally, that both his parents and sister is a part of his clan.
And so the midnight sun continues its 365-day cycle, and for one day in the 365 days in a year, Emperor Dire knows that he cannot be lost… because there is no darkness to be had.
And his sister will always find him.
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