The Line Between

by Alaena Hope

1: Day of Origins

They lay in the harbor, their long, sculpted bodies rising and falling on the gentle swells of the sea. There were seven of them, their elegant heads turned towards the distant horizon as though in anticipation. The skies themselves were awash with pale streams of orange and soft pink that bled into the sea so that there was no sea at all but sky both above and below.

Pausing on one of the white, stone walkways that ran beside the docks, Kavin Shoriasti cast his gaze down at the restless boats. He saw them once every year, but, no matter how many times they came and went, their beauty never waned. Gold gilded feathers and glistening, plated scales swept along gently curving sides. Proud heads were raised well above the lapping waves, their painted eyes bright.

"You thinking of volunteering, Master Kavin?"

Tearing his eyes away from the bay, Kavin nodded a greeting to the speaker. "No. They'll probably need me on standby anyway, if tradition holds."

"I suppose they would at that," the man agreed, heaving the two bulging, cloth sacks he was carrying a little higher up on his shoulders. "Origins always brings in the business."

"Indeed," Kavin replied, voice dry and eyes darkening. "Not that the incursions aren't doing that already."

This elicited a startled then guilty look from the older man before he glanced away. "Sorry, I wasn't thinking—just thought…"

Kavin cut him off with an upraised hand. "It's all right. Just forget about it. At least I know I'm doing some good."

The problem was that there was only so much any one person could do, and it didn't change the fact that things were getting worse. Even here in the heart of Kwair, a city that had always been protected by the presence of the largest of the Skylin Temples, tension ran under the surface of the streets and swords hung at almost every side. It was enough to make any healer wince.

"Well, if you ever need a break, you're welcome to come by and have a drink. Mali'd be glad to see you too."

Kavin felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. "I will keep that in mind."

"Good. I'll be on my way then. Got to get the shop ready for the festivities." That said, the man waved and left. Kavin watched his retreating back for a moment before, with one final glance towards the boats in the harbor, he too started down the wide, flagstone streets.

A bamboo dragonfly went spinning past over his head, its two painted wings whirling into a single unending circle. A pair of laughing children came chasing after it with their eyes glued to the little toy and no mind for anything else. Kavin could see a bruise darkening on one child's knee, but the boy himself didn't seem to have noticed.

All around him, the city was beginning to wake. The scent of fresh baking seeped into the air from the myriad of bakeries and household windows scattered along every street to stream through the skies alongside the vivid banners bidding the old year farewell and welcoming it back as it was born anew. Beneath the tantalizing aromas and dazzling colors, the city folk hurried to arrange themselves, their homes, and their wares. No shop would be closed this day, and even the most unskilled of trade masters would be presenting their masterpieces. Above them all, the distant roof of the Skylin Temple loomed white and blinding as it snatched at the light of the rising sun.

Turning down a side street, Kavin ducked under a string of paper lanterns, the familiar route home drawing his feet onward despite the call of the holiday wind. Catching sight of the young man sitting on his doorstep, he sighed and picked up his pace.

"You know, Amayo," he said, coming to a stop before his visitor. "I have eighty-year-old patients with fewer health problems than you."

His visitor glanced up then bowed his head in shame, cradling his arm all the while. "I'm sorry. It just kind of happens…"

"Never mind. Just come inside, and I'll take a look at it."

The door creaked a little as it was pushed open to reveal warm, wooden floors and furniture all bathed in the soft glow of the sunlight spilling in through the windows. Stepping inside, Kavin gestured for his guest to take a seat. He himself moved to the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room and grabbed one of the many bowls strewn about the surface. Glancing over it to make sure it was clean, he turned to the hearth where he always kept a pot of water simmering over low flames.

"Hold out your arm," he instructed, taking a seat across from his guest and opening the chest of supplies that sat on the table between them. Amayo obliged, revealing that someone had wrapped a piece of torn cloth around the limb. Kavin set about unwinding it with careful fingers. "I thought the Temple assigned you to the players' guild this time. After the incident with the boats last year…"

"They did." Amayo looked away in embarrassment. "It was an accident. I tripped."

The healer's eyebrows rose as he studied the injured arm. "And the stage swung a sword at you."

Amayo winced. "No, no, I ran into one of the acrobats practicing a sword routine and ended up knocking us both off stage."

"Be glad you missed anything vital, but I suggest you be more careful—not that you ever seem to listen to me. Will I be seeing this acrobat here shortly as well?

"No. He's fine."

"That's good then. Hold still. If this isn't clean, you're going to have a lot more to deal with than a little stinging."

Amayo left once his arm had been bound in fresh bandages, saying he had to get back to the theater. The players wanted one last rehearsal before the evening show. Kavin waved him away and set about cleaning up. It seemed barely five minutes had passed when he heard a thud against the door. Thinking it was Amayo back again for whatever reason, he flipped the latch on the miniature supply chest and headed to the door. But when he pulled it open, a greeting already on the tip of his tongue, he was met with an empty street. Frowning, he stepped outside.

His foot caught on something that skittered off over the edge of the doorstep. A surprised breath hissed through his teeth as his eyes focused on the offending object. The hiss turned into an irritated sigh. It was a sword, its flawless steel blade gleaming bright in the morning sunlight. He hesitated for a moment, debating just leaving the thing where it lay on the cobbled street, but years of experience told him that that would be pointless and probably offend someone.

"I tell them and I tell them, but do they listen?" he grumbled as he scooped the blade up and turned back into the house. Warriors were all the same. If he'd told them once then he'd told them a million times that he had no use for weapons, but they still insisted on bringing him all sorts of the things. The only difference was that now they didn't wait around after bringing the things so he couldn't give them back. He knew they were acting only out of concern for his safety, but hadn't any of them stopped to consider the fact that he had no idea how to use all these weapons? And that was assuming he wanted to, which he didn't. Now his back room was stuffed with an armory's worth of weapons he had no use for. At least the axes could be used on the firewood. Yes, he knew that just about no one went about unarmed these days unless he or she was a mage. It was a precaution that many were beginning to consider a necessity. For his part, however, Kavin would call it paranoia.

He considered the sword in his hand for a moment. This particular sword was light despite having a long blade, and the hilt was simple but elegant. A single, clear green stone was set into the pommel, its flawless depths hued faintly amber. Heading to the hearth he placed it across the mantelpiece. Maybe if there was at least one sword in plain sight then they would stop giving him new ones.


The docks were a riot of activity. Toshin ducked as one of the long oars that would be used for the race went swinging over him. It just brushed the top of his head. Toshin didn't mind though. If he did, he wouldn't have volunteered.

"Hanari!" he shouted, catching sight of a familiar face amidst a cluster near the far edge of the docks. "Hanari!"

Yet though he was shouting at the top of his lungs, the girl couldn't seem to hear him. Frustrated, he shouldered past a crowd of particularly excited women and sprinted the last few yards to his quarry. Hanari caught sight of him as he approached and waved, a grin spreading across her face.

"You made it!" she cried out as soon as he was close enough to hear her through the general commotion. "Are you on the roster then?"

"Yes, the tiger," Toshin replied, the thrill of excitement racing through his veins. It was a pleasant, tingling feeling that was making it hard to stand still. "And you?"

"The same. Luck must be on our side today. Come on, I'll introduce you to our shipmates."

There were seven of them so that altogether they made nine. From the tailor's son with his nimble fingers to the blacksmith's daughter, who could shoe a horse faster than her father by the age of seventeen, they were a motley lot. Then again, all the crews were arranged on the spur of the moment by the race coordinator. Half the fun was never knowing who would boat with whom until the time came to get it together and go.

"All crew members, report to your boats!" a voice boomed out across the docks. Heads turned towards the sky where a man dressed in golden robes sat astride a windrunner. The magnificent, black and silver steed arched its neck to gaze back at the humans arrayed below it, dark eyes bright in its elegant, horse-like head. "The sun is almost at its zenith."

Excitement hummed through the air at his words, and the activity on the docks resumed with a vengeance. Toshin found himself being swept towards the waiting vessels where he all but toppled into the tiger boat. He, along with seven of the others, dispersed themselves amongst the oars. He found himself near the prow where Hanari, as their crew's Skylin mage, had been positioned so that she could direct them and keep an eye on the competition.

"Lord Baiyu's here!" Hanari reported as she peered up at the stone walkways that looked out over the bay. "I heard his son's rowing for the phoenix this year. Oh! And there's Master Kavin! I wonder why he looks so grim."

"He always looks grim," the tailor's son called back, laughing. "Oi, did anyone bring water? I forgot."

"Here, you can have some of mine," someone else answered, passing him a jug.

The cheerful banter drifted over the waters as the crews settled themselves into their respective boats. Toshin ran his fingers over the smooth wood of the oars and traded grins with his companions, the nervous light reflected in all their eyes binding them together with a sudden feeling of kinship.

"Is everyone ready?" Hanari asked, though Toshin could tell that it was more to give herself a moment to calm down than to fulfill any desire for an answer. Still, he nodded and clutched the oar more tightly. "Let's hear it from everyone who wants that second ribbon!"

Their crew cheered.

"Good." She laughed and waved at the dockhands. "Cut us loose!"

The man saluted and untied the mooring rope. Eight oars rose, and their boat slid towards the starting line.


Kavin arrived on the walkways just before the man on the windrunner called for the crews to get to their boats. The crowds milling around the bay were still relatively mobile, and he edged his way through the whirl of activity until he reached the marble railing. He found himself standing beside the lanky city librarian and his delicate, bird-like wife. They greeted him with warm smiles.

"They have you on standby this year?" the librarian asked, his broad, open face bright with curiosity.

"Not officially," he replied. "But I thought I'd make myself available."

The man nodded sagely. "Good, good. We don't want another collision like the one last year. I don't think I've ever seen so many people with broken bones come out of one event."

Kavin winced at the memory. Broken bones had been the least of it. On the bright side, the combined efforts of all the city's healers had kept anyone from needing a funeral service.

"And remember that boat that caught fire the year before that?"

A frown flitted across the healer's face. "It is difficult to forget."

"And of course there was that—"

"The race is about to begin, dear," the librarian's wife cut in, tapping her husband on the arm and sending Kavin an apologetic smile over the man's shoulder. "Let's leave those nasty memories where they are and enjoy the celebrations."

Kavin mouthed a 'thank you' at the woman and turned his attention back to the boats. Yet he couldn't help but scan the faces that occupied the walkways to either side of him until he found two of Kwair's other healers amongst the audience. The librarian was a good man, he thought with a wry smile, but he treated everything like it had come out of a historical text—separated from reality by a shield of paper and softened by the passage of time—and therefore spoke with a carelessness that often made people uncomfortable. Fortunately, for the librarian at any rate, he had been gifted with the ability to not notice or care what others thought.

"We stand here awaiting the rebirth of time!" the rider in the sky shouted, and the crowds below fell silent. The cool, salt-touched breeze brushed across upturned faces and ruffled hair like the hand of a fond father. Only the liquid swelling of the waves answered the rider's cry. "Let us welcome the next incarnation as the heavens will!"

A horn sounded as the last word was swallowed by the sky—a single, clear note that pierced the heavens, and the boats were off.


Fifty six oars rose and fell as one. Salt water sprayed into the air, and Toshin felt the entire boat lurch forward beneath him in a leap that was both awkward and graceful. With it came a rush of pure exhilaration. The water pressed against the oar in his hands. The ocean air flooded his lungs with power. For that first endless instant, he felt like he could do anything.

They were flying forward side by side with the raven and the horse. They were even. Then they were pulling ahead. Something flashed as it barreled into the ocean in front of them, and water exploded in every direction. Toshin squeezed his eyes shut instinctively to keep the salt water from getting into them, but only a few drops touched his skin. He opened his eyes to find Hanari standing straight and proud at the prow, one hand held high. Her rice white robes shimmered with a sheen of silver light that seemed to dance across her skin and wreathe sparks through the dark strands of her hair. Toshin couldn't help but stare at her and the way the water sloughed away from her—and their boat—as though off of the surface of an invisible bubble. So this was magic.

"Keep rowing!" the blacksmith's daughter hissed at him from behind. Flushing guiltily, he launched himself back into the motion of the oars with a vengeance.

Their moment of triumph lasted only for an instant as the seven apprentice mages participating in the race really got to work. The use of fire had been banned after the accident two years ago, but that didn't stop the water and wind from coming to sudden and violent life. Waves surged skyward to twist themselves into spinning columns ringed with foam only to collapse and smash at gilded, wooden sides. Salty screens of spray were caught by the wind and sent sheeting over faces and into open mouths.

"Duck!" Hanari's voice cried out over the roaring of that manmade storm, and every rower in the tiger boat bowed their heads just in time to avoid a lash of fragmented ice. Hanari shot to her feet the moment it had passed and retaliated with a blast of concentrated wind so powerful its movement was all but visible. It crashed into the side of the wolf boat, lifting it clean out of the water to land again in a mighty splash with its prow pointed in the wrong direction and its oars sticking out every which way. Someone behind Toshin whooped, and he found himself laughing uncontrollably as he heaved at the oar with every muscle in his body.

Later he would remember that as being the last point of the race where he could actually say what was going on with any certainty. He could feel it as their boat rolled and lurched, seeming to be going in a different direction every moment. He could remember Hanari's voice shouting directions from the prow ahead, but even she barely registered in his mind as a vaguely human shape wreathed in light and sea spray. At one point his oar hit something that sent vibrations of force racing up his arm, and he nearly let go out of surprise, but he remembered himself in time. A quick glance over the side of the boat revealed the gilded form of a different vessel, and he thought he must have hit one of that other vessel's oars, but he couldn't be sure. It didn't matter anyway.

His entire body was beginning to burn with exertion. His lungs heaved for air but got almost as much water. Another boat came careening into them, this time making contact and sending a violent jolt through everyone onboard as the benches beneath them tilted so far to one side that Toshin thought for a fleeting moment that they were going to capsize. But then they were rocking back the other way, and Hanari was shouting for them to just keep rowing. The minimal part of his mind that could still think coherently wanted to laugh because it seemed half of what came out of Hanari's mouth was that same mantra to "Row!", but he didn't have the breath to waste on mirth. Then even that part of his mind went blank as his ears filled with a roar he couldn't even begin to describe. The very air itself pulsed against his back. Something dark went sailing over their boat to go crashing into the waves. The shape struck his eyes as being some kind of figurehead—one of the birds, and then it was followed by a few splintered planks of wood.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized with a cold shock that one of the boats must have sunk. But his heart was pounding with exhilaration, and he didn't want to look back. Besides, he knew that the onlookers would fish the sunken boat's crew out of the water. Instead, he focused on the oar in his hands and the feel of the water straining against him.

The explosion, for explosion it must have been, was the last major disturbance they encountered. When Hanari called out that they could stop rowing, it took him a moment to register her meaning. His arms kept moving until the rower behind him smacked him on the shoulder. Blinking out of a trance, he sat back slowly and turned to look out across the water. They were just past the floating line of brightly colored barrels that marked the finish line. The sea itself was a rippling expanse of liquid sky. It was Hanari's voice that finally drew his attention back to his crewmates.

"We…we won…"

"We won?" A slow grin began to spread across his face, but it stopped when he realized that Hanari's face was deathly pale. No one else in the boat was smiling.

"We're first." Her voice shook. She had to swallow before she could continue. "We—we passed the phoenix."

He stared at her. The words made no sense. "What?'

"It—it was the one that sank."

Slowly, feeling oddly as though he were moving through a dream, he stood and turned to survey the waters around them. All the boats had reached the finish line by now, and he counted them once, twice, three times, and still there were only five other than their own. But that couldn't be right. The phoenix couldn't have lost. It always won. It didn't matter what happened to the rest of the boats, the phoenix always reached the finish line first. It was a given. It was why the rest of them raced for second place!

Turning around hurriedly, he scanned the waters on the other side. Perhaps the phoenix had overshot the finish, but it was still not there. A look towards the docks showed that it had not returned to its moorings early either. What was worse, all the faces arrayed along the walkways that overlooked the bay wore the pale, shocked expression that adorned his crewmates' visages. The cheers that usually greeted the end of the race were conspicuously absent.

There was only silence.