Xan fidgeted in his new robes. A fine gray outer robe with gold trim, a wide red sash and red and black leg wraps over his dark gray trousers. It was very much like his Seeker uniform, only much nicer.

“Stop squirming.” Cho said as he finished tying the yellow leg wraps on his dark brown pants. He stood up and looked at Xan critically. “You look fine,” Cho told him and pulled on his dark brown robe and tied it closed with a yellow sash. “There. Now, how do I look?” he asked.

Xan glanced at him. “You look good,” he mumbled.

“What was that?” Cho mocked him.

Xan rolled his eyes then said clearly, “You look good. And by that, I mean, you look like you in fancy clothes.”

Cho laughed, “Come on. Let’s go have some fun. You’ve earned it. We both have, I suppose.” He clapped his friend on the shoulder. “As for me, I’m hoping to take a walk around the reflecting pool.” Cho winked at Xan, who just shook his head.

They headed to the front area of the dorm to meet up with Cho’s date. They didn’t have to wait long before Li Mei came out. She was wearing a dark red robe with a cherry blossom pink shirt beneath. Xan could tell that Cho was smitten and he felt happy for his friend.

“You look amazing!” Cho said, and Li Mei blushed. “Shall we?” he held out his arm for her. She took it and the pair headed out the door, not a care in the world. Xan followed behind the couple, giving them a bit of space to talk but keeping up.

The dance was being held at the events hall. It was on the opposite side of the tower from the dorms, over by Sifu’s building. Other students trickled over to the building, serenaded by the evening calls of the various birds in the twilight.

The entrance to the large hall was framed by a pair of huge doors, each twenty feet in height. The trio went up the six granite steps and entered the building. The inside was brightly lit with paper lanterns that hung from the walls. Xan could make out the symbols for illumination bound with colors on the closest lamp.

He shook his head. Magic like that was commonplace here, and even more amazing was that he knew how it worked. A year ago, he would have marveled at such a construct.

Xan stopped walking as he realized it was the better part of a year ago that he had gaped at everything in this wondrous valley. His world view had adjusted radically during his time here at the school. A pang of sadness rippled through him thinking about his family, but he shoved it aside and took a deep breath. This was a dance of celebration. It wasn’t time for mourning or reflection. He had made it to the trials. He and his fellow students were about to complete their first year of studies.

Xan glanced around, his spirit feeling light. The long hall was occupied by a drink station at either end of the left wall. The far end was filled by musicians, wielding a variety of instruments—many of which he couldn’t even put names to. They were currently playing a slow dancing ballad. Cho and Li Mei moved to the dance floor and started in, joining the other couples in the center, moving delicately to the music. Xan wished he had payed more attention to the dance lessons Mistress Hon had shown him in the library.

On the other side of the hall groups of people were clustered around talking. He could make out several of their instructors scattered amongst the groups. For a moment, Xan’s anxiety peaked and he reflexively reached for his father’s sunburst pendant. Internally, he came to a resolution. “This isn’t for me.” He whispered and turned to leave—

Xan stopped dead in his tracks, his fear suddenly forgotten.

Walking up the entrance stairs to the dance was Wang Sue. She wore a vibrant blue robe with gold trim. Her shoulders were bare from the way the sleeves were attached. Her trim waist was wrapped with a wide blue and gold sash and tied closed with a thin golden belt that ran along the middle of the wider cloth. Her jet black hair was done up in twin scalp braids that wove together into a single braid. Knee high, soft black boots whisked on the stone. When she saw Xan, her face lit up with a smile.

Xan’s breath caught at the sight of her. She was radiant. He felt as if he had tapped Jin. His heart sped up, his face flushed, and he felt a wave of heat spread through his body. She stopped in front of him, a gorgeous beacon of womanhood. Perfection. With a jolt, Xan realized she was talking to him.

He coughed into his fist to cover the fact that he hadn't been paying attention. Or rather, that he’d been transfixed by her looks. “Excuse me.” He stole a second to regain his composure. He had always liked Sue, but what the heck was this? “Sorry, you were saying?” he asked, his voice cracking. He took a calming breath and tried to smile.

“I was asking how you were?” A flicker of a frown crossed her face, like a cloud darting across the sun. But in a flash it left her. Xan was speechless again, drowning in her eyes.

“Um, I’m okay,” he replied weakly. Doubt crept into her eyes. “You look beautiful,” he offered quickly, trying to reassure her. She blushed a bit and dropped her gaze. The doubt banished in an instant. Hesitantly, Xan asked, “Are you here with someone?”

She shook her head. “No. I wasn’t asked,” she said softly, a little sad, Xan presumed, at not being asked. She peered at him, “What about you?”

Xan huffed a rueful chuckle, “I was so preoccupied with studies that I completely forgot about the dance until I was reminded this morning.” She nodded and glanced at the decorations.

She’s becoming bored. I need to do something.

Xan looked around quickly. No one was nearby. “Ah, would you…” He thought desperately and spied Cho. “Ah, you… you like to dance?” he asked. Are you crazy? We can’t dance!

She blushed again, then to his surprise, she looked him directly in the eyes. “I’d like that,” she said.

Xan quickly stepped next to her and held out his arm, just as he’d seen Cho do a few minutes before. She giggled, and moved to his other side, the correct side for an escort. He suppressed a groan and flushed as they headed to the floor.

They stopped on the floor and Xan took her right hand in his and put his left hand on her waist. She put her left hand on in his shoulder. He glanced down at his feet, then up at her. He was lost on how to start. Sensing his near panic, she smiled and whispered to him. “Step forward with your left foot.” Xan relaxed as Sue gently took the lead and got them going. After a couple of minutes, he felt he had the hang of it enough to talk quietly with her.

“You really do look amazing,” he confided.

 “Thank you. But I think you may have mentioned that already.” She giggled when he blushed.

They danced on, circling and twirling as they made small talk—weather, dinner plans, who was here with whom. It was nothing important, but it was also magical in its way. Natural.

Xan caught a glimpse of Cho and Li Mei ducking out of the dance.

They had been dancing non stop for the better part of an hour when they finally decided to take a brake.

“You dance very well,” Xan told her.

She smiled at that. “You do too… now.” She had an impish glimmer in her eyes.

Xan laughed, his spirits nearly soaring. “Yeah, I had an excellent teacher.” Building up courage, he took her hand. “Sue?” She looked at him earnestly. “I was wondering—”

The music screeched to a sudden stop. A massive gong chimed from the tower.

“Everyone!” Instructor Aer called out, his voice amplified with power. “The school is under attack! Form into teams and head to the tower.” He gazed out at the students. A sorrowful expression made him look ten years older. “You are the last line of defense. The tower must not fall. Go!” With that, he and the other instructors ran out of the hall.

Xan locked eyes with Sue for a long moment, then glanced down. Sue was still holding his hand. Reluctantly, he let go. He jumped as if stuck with a needle. “Cho!” Xan exclaimed. “He and Li Mei went to the reflecting pool,” he explained.

Sue’s eyes widened with the realization of what Xan was telling her. “We need to go get them,” she declared.

A note from MarkStallings

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. If you would like early access to whole chapters, they are available over at Patreon:

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About the author


Bio: I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.

When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.

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