CAST of main Characters in order of appearance:
Lord Spy, Chief Councillor to the Emperor.
The Twenty First Emperor of the Phoenix Dynasty.
Lord See, former Chief Councillor to the Emperor.
General Fang, Commander of the Imperial Army in the East.
Virtuous Gossamer, General Fang’s daughter.
Swimming Dragonfly, a village boy.
Sniffer, Dragonfly’s devoted friend.
Obedient Hummingbird, Aunt of Virtuous Gossamer, and General Fang’s Sister.
Venerable Bullfrog, Adviser to the Emperor and betrothed to Virtuous Gossamer.
Samark, Young Leader among the People of the Book.
Old Tea Leaf, a wise man.
Granite, a Junior Commander in the Imperial Army.
Master of the Cleansing Fire, a great teacher.
Isfara Dar Fara, Leader of the People of the Book..
The City of Golden Roofs is the beating heart of the Phoenix Empire and its huge, mud-brick ramparts glow red as the sun’s early rays strike inland from the coast following Long River upstream. Clustered outside its walls are the hovels of the poor. Inside are the single-storey homes of merchants, shop keepers and junior officials. At the centre, on a low hill, rises a Palace guarded by elite soldiers of the Imperial Guard and on its golden roofs of are the burnished symbols of power: the Phoenix, the Eagle, the Ox and the Bear.
The Imperial Palace has various courtyards, each with a sacred purpose. On this particular morning the Courtyard of Eternal Despatch has been prepared and six wooden blocks stand on its carefully raked sand.
The dawn quiet is suddenly disturbed by brass gongs beating from within deep recesses around the courtyard. Six doors open and from each emerges a procession with a bound prisoner at its centre, feet bare, head shaven, eyes cast down, dressed in black rags. The prisoners are flanked by members of the Imperial Guard, resplendent in multi-coloured tunics, bearing highly-polished weapons of execution.
The prisoners are made to kneel, their shaven heads placed upon the wooden blocks, their necks pulled long. The beating of the gongs reaches a crescendo, the swords are raised high, and a single, deeper-noted gong signals the final cut. Six heads roll upon the sand and the reverberations decline to silence.
A thin, elderly man dressed in black silks is observing discreetly from an upper balcony. He is Lord Spy, newly appointed Chief Counsellor, Master of the Imperial Seals, Administrator of the One Hundred Departments,. He enjoys watching death, the more so when the victims are traitors to the Empire, and particularly when they are personal enemies.
He leaves the balcony and hurries towards the Imperial Presence, guards falling back at his approach. The Imperial Secretary sees him coming and alerts his master, the Emperor.
“Lord Spy approaches,” he whispers reverently.
The Twenty First Emperor of the Phoenix Dynasty, Ruler of the Four Kingdoms, Interlocutor with the Council of the Ancestors, Possessor of Men’s Necks, is officially called The Eternal Warrior but is known to lesser men in the outer palace, who see him occasionally, as the Small Pigeon because of his short legs and rounded chest. The general population call him the Avenging Sword because he is highly sensitive to any suggestion of disloyalty.
At this early hour the Emperor is alone except for the Tongueless Scribbler at his feet and the Imperial Secretary standing uneasily beside him, peering through thick eye glasses.
The Emperor sits high on a throne of yellow brocade. He is clothed in silk robes of the Imperial colours, yellow, red and turquoise. His white hair is hidden by a cap of rare furs, studded with jewels. Despite sixty years as Emperor, the Twenty First member of the Phoenix Dynasty looks alert and as ready for revenge as ever.
Lord Spy kneels before him to deliver his message.
“The six collaborators have been executed according to your wishes your Imperial Highness. They were not tortured and their deaths were sudden.” After a brief pause he risks adding: “You have been generous to them and to the exiled Lord See.”
“I am never generous,” contradicts the Emperor sharply. “Nor am I mean. Balance, Lord Spy. Balance is everything, never too much, never too little.”
Lord Spy presses his forehead onto the stone floor briefly to indicate gratitude for this gift of Imperial Wisdom and to show that he has accepted the advice and will hold to it closely.
“It is true that I have shown mercy to Lord See,” continues the Emperor. “He tried to serve me well and he is very popular. He loved the Empire as a romantic young man loves a virtuous woman. He gave his heart completely to its service. To have removed his head, as you so earnestly advised, would have created too many enemies. So his life has been spared and now he languishes among my loyal supporters in the Kingdom of the North.”
The smallest movement of the Imperial hand bids Lord Spy rise from his kneeling position. He stands to listen, head bowed.
“But his so-called Judicious Harmony has failed,” says the Emperor, becoming angry and striking his fist on the throne. “Tolerating the intolerable! The People of the Book are no longer content to stay among the Mountains of the Stars. They threaten the Imperial Dams. Already we have had to keep water in reserve, starving the Great Canals of life-giving irrigation. At the other side of the Empire the Khan senses weakness and his horsemen press upon the Walls of Fierce Resistance.”
None of this is news to Lord Spy who has undermined his predecessor Lord See with the subtlety of a ghost and knows how serious is the situation.
“And the Jasmine Kingdom of the South. What do you know of King Long Beard’s intentions?” The Emperor speaks softly, deliberately, his eyes half-closed, his elbows hovering just above the padded arm-rests, his hands held in front of him meeting at the finger tips. He looks, as no doubt he intends to look, like a master strategist planning a critical move.
“Our sources in the south tell me that the kindling is dangerously dry but it lacks a match,” says Lord Spy. “King White Beard is as frightened as a new-born rabbit. He makes no decisions without the agreement of his wife. Since they can never agree on anything there are no decisions. The southerners groan and complain about their Imperial responsibilities but they won’t do much till the old King dies.”
“Lord Spy, you are a baker selling me yesterday’s dumplings with stories of how early you rose this morning to bake them.” The Emperor speaks softly, like a snake. “Have you not heard? King Long Beard no longer favours his wife and listens instead to this so-called Master of the Cleansing Fire. He spurns the wisdom and guidance of the Ancestors.
The Emperor rises angrily from his throne, shaking off the Imperial Secretary who scurries forward to assist. He seizes Lord Spy by the elbow, takes him to the viewing window at the end of the room and pushes open the screens. They look south across the golden roofs of the city, over the great ramparts, over bends in the Long River and the rice fields patterning into the distance towards clouds rising in the morning sky.
“A storm is coming. If we do not move quickly a tempest of violence will break upon the Empire that will sweep it into the sea. That is why Lord See is in exile and six weaklings lie dead in the courtyard. We cannot risk this so-called Judicious Harmony. We must strike all our enemies soon and we must strike hard if we are not to be shattered.” He takes a beautiful ceramic vase from a shelf and deliberately lets it drop onto the floor with an explosion of sound and fragments dancing across the tiles.
“Mobilise General Fang to crush the Khan’s horsemen before they dare to breach the wall. Defend the Imperial Dams and drive the People of the Book back into their mountain caves. Declare the Master of the Cleansing Fire to be an Enemy of the Empire to be hunted like a wild baboon. Prepare. You must be my eyes and ears. You must be as a snake in the grass and a vulture on the wing, always watching, always looking for signs of weakness and places that we can strike with minimum loss and maximum effect. That is why you are Lord Spy, my new Chief Counsellor. Fail and I may not treat you as leniently as I have treated Lord See, eating himself stupid in exile.”
The Imperial eyes turn upon Lord Spy who straightens his back and hardens his expression, even as his insides dissolve to the consistency of rice porridge.
The sunlight that is burnishing the golden roofs of the Imperial Capital is bringing morning warmth to Goatwash, a provincial town of the Northern Kingdom close to its border with the Imperial Centre. On top of a hill, just outside the town walls, is a large, mud-brick, fortified house. Inside, in the semi-darkness of early day, is a buffulo-sized man with black hair falling to his shoulders, eyebrows like two giant caterpillars, a broad chest and a proud stomach. He has a loud voice, seldom at rest, and a laugh which echoes through his throat as if in a mighty brass pot. He is eating.
His wife is busy upon duties she has faithfully carried out three times a day for over thirty years, supervising the preparation and the serving of yet another substantial meal for her beloved husband, Lord See. She is his opposite, thin where he is fat, quiet where he makes constant noise. But they laugh together.
His enjoyment of her labours is evident, and chopsticks fly back and forwards like a shuttle in a weaving loom. Freshly boiled noodles are being sucked into the voracious mouth, thrashing and flashing in the suction like snakes being swept down a storm drain. So vigorous is the sucking and so long are the succulent noodles that one slaps him in the eye on the way into his lips.
“These noodles are alive,” he cries, wiping his face. “Did you not strike them on the head first Wife?”
“I will strike you on the head.” She gently taps him with her fan while a young servant girl hurries from the kitchen and lays a dish of steamed vegetables garnished with black mushrooms and oyster sauce on the table.
“What a feast! You and my food are the only enjoyments left. I will soon roll down the hill like a huge ball of fat and you will have to roll me back up to my bed,” cries Lord See, helping himself to the mushrooms. “It’s so quiet here I can hear myself chew.”
“You talk so much I am surprised you have time to listen,” says his wife.
“Well I do listen. I love to hear the dawn chorus of bird song. ” He stops talking and rises to throw open the shutters for a better view of the trees immediately below and the birds among the foliage. The morning’s first sunlight sends long, bright fingers across a gentle landscape of small fields, and patches of scrub woodland. Still hidden in gloom is a thin river winding between low hills and through the little town below.
“I think your peace is about to be interrupted.” says his wife.
Along the road towards them is a horse being ridden by someone urging it up the steady incline. Lord See abandons his breakfast and seats himself in the reception room, belching loudly, in time to receive the breathless horseman who enters. Heavy wooden shutters are being opened by two servants shedding enough light that Lord See immediately recognises this new arrival as an assistant to the Emperor’s first born son, Prince Watchful Eagle – a name seldom used by anyone outside the Imperial Palace, where he is widely known as Prince Rabbit.
The Prince’s Assistant bows low. “Greetings my Lord. I have been asked to tell you that the hunting of birds is particularly successful today on the low hill by the marshes across the bridge.”
“That is within the Imperial Centre. I am banished and risk my life crossing the river. Horses are also forbidden to me,” replies Lord See.
“You may borrow my riding robe, my horse and my bow. If you put on a large hat to shield yourself from the sun, you will pass unrecognised.”
“By Everything that’s Sacred! I am as big as a small house. It’s a very stupid man who cannot recognise me squeezed on to your horse.”
“My master is owed a particular favour by the Commander of the Royal Troops. The guards will ask no questions of a large man on a small horse.”
“Very well,” says Lord See, rising quickly with a grunt. He strides out into the courtyard, gathers his robe about him, pushes his large hat firmly onto his head, mounts the horse and clings tightly to the saddle. The Assistant’s small, tired horse groans beneath its new burden, staggering reluctantly down the hill, skirting the town and across the bridge. The Assistant walks hurriedly behind. Two soldiers in turquoise and brown uniforms of the Royal North stand like stone at the bridge, their eyes fixed before them.
The sun has risen higher by the time the ill-matched horse and rider reach the woods. From a group of pine trees comes the cry of a man pretending to be a bird. Lord See smiles to himself at the signal, dismounts, removes his hat and enters the woodland, coming soon upon a group of eight men, their horses tied to nearby trees, Prince Watchful Eagle at their centre.
“Your Highness,” cries Lord See, as if surprised and bowing to the ground. “I was hunting and somehow have become lost. I have wandered across the river without realising. I must honour your Father’s Imperial Command and return immediately.”
“You must,” says the hesitant voice of the thin young man in rich robes. “I am shocked and displeased to see you here,” he continues without betraying a hint of either emotion. “But since you are, let me ask you quickly before you go…are you well?”
“I am perfectly well Your Highness. I am enjoying the peace of the countryside after so many years of loyal public service in our great capital city. Here in the provinces I have time to read classical literature, to reflect upon the state of things, and to observe the movement of the stars.”
The Prince stamps his foot and twists his hands in anxious displeasure. “We need you Lord See. It is screeching madness to have you here contemplating the stars while the Empire trembles itself into collapse. For twenty years you have been the pillar at the centre. Your care reaches to every corner of the Empire. Without you my Imperial Father’s passions are like an angry bull. First we charge this way, then that. The Kings are becoming very impatient with the Empire.”
“What of the new Chief Counsellor?” asks Lord See. “Surely my successor can advise caution.”
“Of course not. As you know perfectly well! Lord Spy has never lifted a sword in his life but is delighted to encourage others to fight. The Emperor thinks he is more obedient than you and less frightened of war.”
“Frightened of war? Me?” bellows Lord See. “I was not frightened when I led the Royal Army of the North against the Great Khan and we routed his Wild Horsemen across the grasslands, blown like dust.” Lord See calms, smiling at the memory of success. “The Khan has behaved himself for twenty years since. I know the value of a well-timed battle. But I also know the high cost of maintaining an army ready for war and I know the cost in lives and the misery of fighting. With the very greatest of respect, Lord Spy does not.”
“That is exactly the trouble,” says the Prince nervously, not a man to relish the prospect of battle, despite his youth and Imperial blood. “As his eldest son, the Emperor cannot ignore me completely, but he listens to my warnings with the face of a hungry tiger being urged not to eat a kid goat. He is determined to fight on three fronts at once: in the North to destroy the Great Khan. In the South to burn the followers of the so-called Cleansing Fire to ashes even if it means destroying the Southern Kingdom and King White Beard with it. And in the West to drive the People of the Book back deep into the Mountains of the Stars.”
Lord See shakes his head. “A rock to kill three beetles. But the violence of the blows may shatter the rock.” He wipes the sweat gathering on his forehead. “If your Imperial Father must have war let him make it in the East against the Great Khan. But encourage him to unite the other Kingdoms of the Empire in the cause. If you are about to cut off your foot, reassure your hands that you are not about to cut them off as well.”
“Yes,” smiles the Prince. “That expresses it clearly.”
Lord See adds, “A common cause can help reunite friends inclined to argue.”
“Also true,” says the Prince. “Although I don’t think he regards any of the four Kings as friends. More as servants bound to do his bidding.”
“Remind the Emperor,” continues Lord See, “that confronting the Khan will send a strong signal to others plotting harm against the Empire – the Master of the Cleansing Fire may become less ambitious and the People of the Book will withdraw further into the mountains, at no further cost to the Empire. Implore your father to talk directly with his Generals. Those with courage like General Fang will tell him they need time to recruit and train. We have been at peace for years and grown idle.”
“I fear that Lord Spy is trying to stir up those fights with such enthusiasm it is almost as if he doesn’t care if much is lost,” says the young man, his face creased with pain at the prospect.
“Prince Watchful Eagle, you are well named. Your vigilance will warn against the danger of fighting on three fronts at once,” says Lord See bowing low to encourage the young Prince with a mark of respect.
“Well,” says the Prince, trying to sound confident. “I will explain these points to my father the Emperor in the terms you have used. He must surely listen to me.”
“He must,” agrees Lord See with powerful emphasis. Then, sensing the interview to be over, bows low once more.
“I am sorry we could not meet,” says the Prince. “We saw you across the marshes and, knowing you had lost your way, waved a warning not to cross the bridge.”
“I was not even sure it was you, but I was grateful for the guidance,” says Lord See, playing along with the Prince’s caution.
“I may return to these parts. The hunting is good; in which case we might pass close by again.”
One of the Prince’s companions passes him a cloth bag, whispering a reminder.
“Oh yes,” cries the Prince with a smile, “I happen to have some roast pork buns freshly prepared by the Palace cooks. Your favourites, I know. Please enjoy them.”
Lord See accepts the gift courteously with two out-stretched hands and lowered head. “Prince Watchful Eagle is most generous. I will savour each one.”
Lord See rides homeward in thought, the Prince’s Assistant walking behind to retrieve his horse. The villa is shut and silent as they approach; the servants remain within its red walls, as instructed. Only four guard dogs bark a welcome in the courtyard. After the Assistant has left Lord See feeds each dog a roast pork bun. He mounts the stairs to the upper floor where his anxious wife awaits, fanning herself in readiness for the rising heat of the day. Lord See chuckles to reassure her.
“I have just had a meeting that didn’t exist with Prince Rabbit, who is as nervous as ever. He was surrounded by his entourage. No doubt he thinks the meeting will be kept a dark secret. But his Imperial Father will soon learn of it.” He walks to the window overlooking the courtyard and adds, “So too will Lord Spy. At least one member of that group wishes me dead. Look!”
Madam See hurries to the window. On the polished stones of the yard below lie the four dogs, guarding no longer, their spirits departed.
To the east lies the Great Sea where a grey fog swirls along the coast. Emerging through the gloom, high on cliffs is the outline of a Military Citadel. Above its walls Imperial banners hang limp like damp ghosts. Astronomers confer anxiously in the tallest tower to determine the precise timing of the Rising Sun. On the flat roof above them is a large brass gong and, beside it, a Gongsman, his bare chest and thick arms twitching in readiness for the signal to wake the soldiers asleep in the stone rooms below. The smell of boiled rice for breakfast hangs in the courtyard.
Outside the Citadel’s Great Gates is a red tent containing the garrison’s ever-vigilant commander. A loud fart from within, some rustling noises and a high-pitched belch alert the ageing military Secretary waiting dreamily outside that the day has begun for the General of the Eastern Imperial Army. The Secretary signals to the Guards and they withdraw to a greater distance.
General Fang emerges suddenly. He is a small man, naked except for a white cloth around his loins and a pair of large leather sandals. He takes a fierce breath and stretches upwards like a stick insect reaching for its prey. His Secretary says nothing, averts his gaze and then follows as his master strides towards a stone water trough nearby. Washing vigorously, the General issues instructions which the Secretary strains to hear above the splashing.
“The guests will arrive soon. Ensure that the feast arrangements are in such order that we could entertain the Ancestors were they to return to this world. The announcement of my daughter’s betrothal must be a great and memorable occasion. I want that ugly old bullfrog to understand that he’s about to marry the most beautiful girl in the Empire. And I want him to hear her sing.”
The General finishes washing and moves to the next stage of the morning ritual, vigorous drying with rough cotton cloths. “He thinks because the Emperor listens to him he can threaten to call the engagement off”. He bursts into a fit of coughing, clears his throat with a gurgling retch and spits onto the grass. “When he hears her sing his heart will melt into the mould of love.” Then he adds after a moment’s reflection and some more muscular rubbing, “Virtuous Gossamer, a beautiful name for a most beautiful girl, you must agree?”
It is hardly a question, but the Secretary takes the precaution of breaking his silence for the first time that morning to say, “Most certainly.”
The General is now dry and he strides back to his tent, pink and refreshed. The Secretary follows obediently. “Most certainly,” he repeats lest his profound disagreement be detected. How could a girl be called Virtuous when she so obviously enjoys making every man in the Citadel fall in love with her? And as for Gossamer, the Secretary grunts to himself, the fine filament of an early morning spider’s web sparkling with dew is not her kind of beauty. The General has raised his only daughter to handle a sword like a feather, shoot arrows at full gallop, swim cold lakes, run up mountains and recite ancient poems from the summit. As quick as a monkey, as tough as a tigress, as mysterious as the moon and as beautiful as sunny dawn on a high mountain: what name could capture the glory of such a girl wonders the Secretary. Certainly not Virtuous Gossamer.
The General is back in his tent, dressing himself and shouting through the felt, “And tell her Aunt that she must ensure my daughter is thoroughly prepared and perfectly dressed. She thinks my daughter is too young to marry. Donkey dung! There comes a time when a girl must obey the wishes of her Ancestors. Marriage to a top civil servant is a great honour. The Venerable Panda. What a fine name for a future son-in-law. He will calm the Emperor, convince him we need time to prepare.”
After a great deal of heavy breathing, grunting and a final cough the General emerges like a proud peacock, resplendent in the red silks and golden sashes of a top commander in the Imperial Army. The Secretary begins to tie to his master’s side a silver sword while the General continues, “Duty to the Ancestors! The careful observation of ancient traditions! These are the stones with which our Great Empire has been built. I love my daughter as I love my right arm; but she must do what is required.”
He places a tough, scrawny hand on the sword now secured at his side and adds quietly, “I have no choice. The security of the Eastern Kingdom depends on it, perhaps the Empire itself. The Emperor wants me to challenge the insolence of the Great Khan immediately. But we are not ready. A snake doesn’t strike until it has coiled itself and steadied its head. That old bull frog must convince the Emperor that we need more time. Now go. Prepare!”
The Secretary bows submission and departs, sad for the father whose sense of duty commands great sacrifice and regretting with every beat of his heart that he must now finalise preparations to place a most beautiful young songbird in a cruelly small cage. Once tomorrow’s Betrothal Feast is over, she will be carried in triumph to the City of Golden Roofs, far from her beloved sea and married to a man twice her age with a huge mouth and greasy hair.
The cliffs beside General Fang’s Citadel form the shape of a sleeping lion. Crags create a shaggy mane. Smooth sandstone shapes a muscular back and haunches that slope towards a beach. The lion’s tail is formed by a harbour wall that curls into the sea, a wall whose stones have been added to by a hundred generations of fishermen to shelter their boats.
The village of Humble Haven lies just inland among dunes and low hills, homes of stone and wood with roofs of grass and tiles. There is a larger building with red tiles for Village Administration and another still larger called the Grand Hall of the Magistracy where punishments are made against those who break the law. On a slight hill in their midst stands the grandest building of them all, the Village Temple with a golden-tiled roof and ornate decorations, glinting in the morning sun.
In a small cottage with a bamboo door, two boys wake to a very important day for one of them. The other is crouched over a fire stirring rice in a pot and grilling two small fish. He is thin with limp black hair, his simple tunic carefully patched. He sniffs and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Once called Sniffer, always called Sniffer”.
“The name suits you,” says the other boy standing in the gloom, naked but for the white cloth he is carefully tying about his waist. “At least you don’t have to have a Naming Day, doing stupid challenges just to be named Frog’s Bottom or Goat’s Breath. Doesn’t seem something to want.”
“It’ll give you a position I’ll never have,” says Sniffer who arrived in the village as a small, hungry, homeless orphan with a runny nose and has made himself useful ever since. “Your Grandma has worked hard to convince the Elders to give you a big, important name. She says you must eat well because the tests will be harder than you imagine.” He turns over the fish grilling above the embers. “She’s on the beach already chatting to the Elders. Hurry.” He spoons rice into two bowls and puts a small, crispy fish on top of each.
They eat hungrily and are soon outside juggling stones in the early morning sun to keep their minds focused and their bodies from feeling worried. “Please don’t do anything crazy,” says Sniffer. “Just do what they ask you”.
“She’ll be watching,” grins his friend.
“Who?’ says Sniffer. “The General’s daughter? She’s never spoken to you. She watches your antics from a distance like you watch the dolphins jumping waves. It means nothing. Just concentrate.”
At last the Village Messenger they have been waiting for walks purposefully up the sandy path from the beach. He is a tall, serious man called Elegant Willow, a fisherman and a good musician but today dressed as an Imperial Village Elder in a black, silk, full-length tunic fringed with red. He seems not to know the boys and addresses no-one in particular when he says in a loud voice, “The sun has risen on your Naming Day. The Elders await.”
He turns and strides back towards the beach. The boys follow, mimicking his big strides. Sniffer drops behind as they make their way through a group of chattering villagers and approach the Meeting Tree. It stands like a mountain of dark green leaves between the sand dunes and the beach. Around it are bright, colourful banners fluttering in the breeze.
“I’m here, Grandma,” laughs the boy, bursting out of the sand dunes onto the beach and running towards an old lady, her back bent like the prow of an upturned fishing boat, as she leans heavily on a gnarled stick. He is as brown as a polished nut and as thin and supple as a young tree. The new white cloth around his middle leaves his arms and legs bare.
“You’re late,” she says, hitting him gently on the leg with her stick.
“I’m not frightened of you, Grandma,” he laughs. “Not now that I’m taller than you.”
“You were never frightened of anything. Your mother and I had to do all the worrying for you,” she grumbles. “Ever since you were born you’ve been like a firework. Today you must concentrate. Prove yourself special and they may name you Soaring Seabird like your Grandfather. Now go.”
She follows her grandson into the deep shade of the Meeting Tree. Beneath the wide-stretched branches stand Village Elders dressed in silk robes of power and self-importance. The Chief Elder is the grandest of all with his high black hat, his aquamarine gown, white sashes and long fingernails. Grandma bows lower than her grandson has ever seen. The Chief Elder coughs, making the small yellow decorations hanging on his black hat shake. He clears his throat noisily and speaks in a grand voice.
“You know the tests we have set in manliness and village history. You will be timed on the first by the sand clock. Now go.”
As the boy begins to run down the beach a glass timer is upturned. He can feel the villagers watching him as he charges into the water. They are expecting him to wade all the way, breast high, fighting the foam towards the Sentry Rocks out to sea where the waves start to break.
Diving forward as he has practised in secret so often, he lunges into the waves, passing from the world of splash and sparkle to one of blue-green and muffled sounds. Few villagers can swim, none of them underwater, and they will think he is drowning. This is a mysterious world reserved for fish, sharks and monsters but he has made it his world. Chest and knees almost scraping the sandy bottom, he pushes strongly through the water. The currents are less down here and he surges forward but at last he has to burst up for air. His grandmother will be pleased he is still alive. The rocks are much closer now. Back under water small fish dart away. He has measured this journey in the dark and in secret. Four more breaths and he will be there.
When he reaches the rocks he clambers out looking for the hiding place. The long, thin raft is where he put it last night and he quickly carries it above his head to the sea as he has practiced so often with Sniffer on remote beaches.
He knows the type of wave to look for, bigger than the others, already breaking as it moves around the rocks and heads towards the beach. Seeing the perfect horse mane of foam and with a thrust that tips the raft forward he jumps aboard, forcing the tip down into the leading edge of the wave, catching its thrust; lies along its length, foam creaming around the sides; kneels, arms out-stretched to balance, and then stands, legs apart, racing towards the shore.
In a single glance he can see the villagers crowding around the tree, the flags fluttering, the huts huddled among the sand dunes. On the cliffs beyond the harbour, a white horse and the girl. She is tiny in the distance but he knows she is standing on the horse’s back.
The raft scrunches onto the beach and he leaps and runs, laughing at the surprise he knows he must have created. He has been faster than any could imagine. Dripping and gasping for breath he bows before the Chief Elder.
“I present myself for the Village History Examination”.
General Fang’s arrangements for the Betrothal Feast of his daughter, are in place. The guests have been arriving at the Citadel all morning, on foot, on horse, and a few in curtained palanquins carried by bearers in bright uniforms. The Great Hall is filled with a hundred circular tables each occupied by twenty eager faces, most talking at once. There are Army Officers and Village Elders, Magistrates and Merchants. High above the roof beams reverberate with the noise of their chatter and the sharp light of a spring afternoon cuts in through open windows, sparkling on ladies’ ornaments, shimmering on silks, and shining on silver platters. In recesses along the walls are brightly coloured lanterns shaped like yellow butterflies, golden carp, peony flowers, dragonflies, and multi-coloured peacocks.
The guests are supposed to be elegant but they eat like locusts. Dishes heaped with steaming food, bowls sloshing with soup, and skewers of roast meat are hurried to the tables while empty plates are clattered out of sight. Exotic foods appear and disappear: steamed fresh-water crab, minced meat of young deer, lotus seed dumplings, sweet lavender rice. Men gnaw on roast pigs’ trotters and drink warm rice wine. Ladies eat fragrant vegetables and sip green tea made from delicate leaves grown at high altitude.
On a raised platform is the Head Table at which General Fang presides, small, thin and fierce. He has surrounded himself with men of substance. Beside him sits his future son-in-law, Venerable Panda whose black hair is greased tightly onto his big round head. His lips are thin and his mouth is wide.
General Fang is silent and glowers until a junior official approaches, bows and talks softly in his ear. His daughter has returned it seems and is preparing to sing, obedient to her father’s wishes. The General grunts and nods approval.
In an anti-chamber divided from the Great Hall by thick curtains, Virtuous Gossamer is undressing quickly out of her riding clothes. Her Aunt, Dutiful Hummingbird is behaving more like a flustered chicken.
“I thought you’d never return. I was about to jump into the sea from a high cliff. Seriously. Don’t smile. Your father holds me responsible. Quick rub yourself with this cloth. You’re so damp.”
“I saw him Aunt. He rode the waves like a dolphin. It was beyond everything wonderful.” Her face shines and smiles. She is breathless.
“Forget about village boys. You are about to be a married woman of distinction. Now quickly, turn around so I can fasten your dress.” Aunt lifts a shimmering garment of deep red velvet, helps Virtuous Gossamer pull on the sleeves and girdles it about her slim body.
“It’s like a battle suit.”
“Marriage can be a bit of a battle,” sighs Aunt pulling the ties at the back of the dress as tight as possible. “You have to be ready”.
There is a sudden roar from the Great Hall and the two ladies hurry to peep through the curtains. Virtuous Gossamer sees her future husband for only the second time and gasps.
“No wonder behind his back they they call him the Not-so-Venerable Bullfrog,” she whispers fiercely. “How could my father do this to me?” she continues above her Aunt’s attempts to soothe her. “How could he give me a boy’s education, allow me to read the classics, study the art of war, learn swordplay and archery, then marry me off for power? And I am expected to sing a song of love and faithfulness in front of all these hypocrites. I’m eighteen summers. Not ready for marriage.”
“It’s an honour to be married,” says her Aunt, nervously stroking the long dark hair, trying to calm a temper she has learnt to fear. “I was married off to your uncle when I was seventeen summers. It wasn’t so bad once I got used to his huge stomach and prickly chin.”
“But Aunt, at least you were brought up to it. They didn’t try to educate you.”
“I may be uneducated but I have feelings.”
“I know you do Aunt. You are a very clever, caring, darling Aunt. I’m sorry to be sound ungrateful. But my heart is going to burst,” she moves towards a window with distant views. “My spirit wants to fly high into the hills. It wants to ride a boat down rushing torrents of the Long River, out into the Great Sea. Do you understand Aunt? I want to study at the feet of the Master and learn about his Cleansing Fire. I wat to sleep in the Mountains of the Stars and learn from the People of the Book. I want to see the world, meet strange people and fall in love with a god.”
“A senior Imperial Civil Servant is almost a god.”
“Don’t joke about it Aunt,” explodes Virtuous Gossamer. “Why should I obey my father? Why should I have to worry about duty to the Ancestors so much? What have the Ancestors ever done for me? My mother dies before I can remember her. My brothers all die.”
“Hush. Don’t upset yourself. You must be ready to perform”.
“I can’t sing in front of that bullfrog. He looks at me like an insect he’s about to eat.”
“You must. You must be strong. You must be true to your destiny”, whispers Aunt urgently.
The raft scrunches onto the beach Dragonfly leaps off and runs up the beach laughing at the surprise he knows he must have created. He has been faster than any could imagine. Dripping and gasping for breath he bows before the Chief Elder.
“I present myself for the Village History Examination”.
The old man strokes his beard. Perhaps he is trying to look wise but one of his long fingernails gets caught for a moment in the grey curly hairs.
“Who was your father’s mother’s father?” says the old man.
“Sand Owl. He became Sand Owl the Wise, a Village Elder but never the Chief,” says the boy quickly, still gasping for breath.
“And who was your father’s mother’s mother?”
“Elegant Crane, but known in old age as the Croaking Snail. She lived through ninety cold seasons.” Still panting but his mind is working fast.
“And your father’s mother’s mother’s father?”
“We do not speak of him because of his crimes. He was sent into exile and was lucky not to have his tongue removed.”
“Not just his tongue,” adds one of the Elders softly.
“Tell me about your father’s father?”
He had hoped this question would not be asked and from the snort just behind him he can sense Grandma getting angry.
“He was called Soaring Seabird. Cleverest in the village he passed all the Imperial exams and served many years in the City of Golden Roofs. He became Trusted Clerk to Lord See. Some say he should have used his position of influence to benefit our village. He put loyalty to the Empire first”.
The Chief Elder grunts. Perhaps he has eaten his early meal too greedily.
“Which is the oldest building in our village?”
“Some say it is the Village Temple. But in fact the deep well outside the Temple was built before the altar and the walls.”
“Enough,” says the Chief Elder suddenly and loudly. “You have too many of your own ideas. Everyone knows that the Village Temple is our oldest building. It is the sacred foundation of our village. Our water well!” he coughs angrily. “A well is not a building”
“But the well is beautifully lined with bricks and carefully carved rocks.”
“Silence! You try to be too clever. Where other young men run through the waves, you think it will impress us to swim like a fish and hover above the waves like a dragonfly on a pond. Very well.” The Chief Elder pulls himself even straighter, obviously readying for a grand pronouncement. The chattering villagers fall silent. Only the cry of a single bird and the waves breaking on the beach shoreline disturb a moment of silence.
“You are to be called…………….. Swimming Dragonfly.”
Everything happens at once. The Village Elders clap gently, trying to look wise in their agreement at such a sensible name, Grandma screams and throws herself on the sand, and some of the villagers burst into laughter.
“Not a dragonfly,” pleads Grandma from the ground. “It’s so small. A dragon, yes! But not a dragonfly”.
“Not such a bad name” thinks Dragonfly. “I have a proper name at last”. He has always loved the rich, magical colours of dragonflies flitting with magical speed and hovering above the water. But Grandma seems so angry, so humiliated and some of the villagers are laughing, calling his name so disrespectfully. He wonders what his father, Old Turtle would think of such a name.
“Not bad my son, not bad. Make the best of it.” And then he would return to mending his nets. He was always mending his nets. Even on the deck of his fishing boat as he sailed away for the last time he had a net over his knee and was threading twine.
The Chief Elder is talking again. “And now you will make peace with the Ancestors. A day and a night alone in the Village Temple will accomplish this. Come”
The Village Messenger, Elegant Willow raises a banner high and leads the way up the beach through the village and towards the Temple. The crowd parts to let the procession through. Beautiful silk robes of the Elders contrast with the dark simple jackets and baggy black pants of the fishermen and the wide black hats of the women who will soon go to work in the vegetable patches and rice fields behind the village.
Dragonfly tries to look relaxed as he walks behind the Chief Elder through the crowd of familiar faces. Some are laughing, perhaps happy to see his family humiliated, others just stare. Sniffer is running among them, appearing at various vantage points to give encouragement.
“Dragonfly is great,” calls Sniffer jumping up among the crowding villagers to be seen by his friend. “Long live Swimming Dragonfly.” He waves a small cloth.
At the rear of the procession comes the Harmonious Music Band making a terrifying noise with gongs, horns and pipes, a challenge to any evil spirit lurking nearby.
The Village Temple stands aloof, normally guarded by the old Temple Keeper and his dogs. There is no sign of them and the building looks grander than ever, its huge roof of golden tiles carried by ornately carved pillars along the sides and at each corner by a bronze dragon. Before the two great, red, wooden doors is a large brass pot of freshly lit incense sticks filling the air with pungent smells and dense smoke.
The villagers drop back as the Elders file each side of the Chief to stand in a row on the Temple’s lowest step. Dragonfly is required to stand a step higher and they all face upwards towards the entrance. The band stops playing and in the sudden silence the Chief addresses the Village Temple and the Ancestral Spirits within.
“We bring you Swimming Dragonfly, newest of our number. He has come to meet our Ancestors and pay his respects.” The Chief speaks quietly now, even kindly. “Swimming Dragonfly. Your time for manhood has come. Go into the Temple. Kneel before the Village Gods. Tell them all that is in your heart. Seek their help throughout your life. You will see statues of your ancestors along the walls. Do not disturb them. You will eat nothing and drink nothing. In the darkness you will hear many things. Keep a steady spirit and remain silent. When the sun rises we will be here to greet you back.”
Slowly, solemnly Swimming Dragonfly ascends they stairs towards the dark mouth of the Temple, the incense smoke swirling about him. He can feel the Elders watching silently behind him. And then a small anxious voice cries, “Good luck my Dragon.”
“Dragonfly, not dragon,” says another voice. Some villagers laugh. “Silence!” growls the Chief.
Dragonfly can imagine his grandmother’s feelings of anger and shame but he keeps looking forward, hovering outside the great dark entrance. He can feel a flush of anger on his cheeks, hear the pounding of his heart and sense the sting of tears in his eyes. He steps over the giant wooden entrance.
Oil lamps flicker. Incense sticks smoulder red and smokey. As he gets used to the gloom he sees the looming shapes of statues, each one a god. He has never been allowed here before but Grandma has told him every detail. By the door hangs the great Temple Gong. Towering in the nearest corner is the fierce, black grimace, bulging eyes and raised weapons of the God of War and Justice, over there are the softer lines of the Goddess of Love and Motherhood, and that squat, ugly-looking statue must be the God of Village Administration. There are others: the Guard of the Temple, the God of Royal Obedience, the Spirit Guardian of the After Life.
He moves cautiously through the smoke, surprised by the height of the blackened pillars pointing up towards hints of daylight among distant roof tiles. The Temple seems at least twice as big inside as it looks from the outside. Here is the wall of the recently deceased, little alcoves each bearing a name and a small statue. He looks for his Grandfather, Soaring Seabird. Grandmother told him exactly where to look. The name is clear, but there is no statue in the alcove. All the other alcoves have statues in them. Why do they dislike the memory of his grandfather so much and why do they keep trying to humiliate Grandma ?
“I will not be silent,” yells Dragonfly. He runs to the mighty Gong by the door, climbs on to the ringing platform, draws back the suspended wooden Log of Calling and drives it forward with all his strength into the centre of the huge brass disc.
The Temple Gong roars like a dragon. The Log of Calling swings back striking Dragonfly in the face. He falls backward on to the stone floor and waves of dazzling darkness close about him.
Gongs suddenly crash in the crowded Great Hall. The roar of laughter and conversation dies. Virtuous Gossamer and her Aunt from peep through the curtains once more. Every eye looks upon the stiff, slight General who steps to the front of the main platform, chest puffed out, features hard, eyes fixed ahead.
“Praise to the Ancestors of the Great Empire,” he barks. “Praise to the Twenty Third Emperor of the Phoenix Dynasty. Praise to Lion Heart, King of the East.” He keeps other preliminary remarks brief and moves to his goal. “This occasion marks a very significant betrothal between two special people. Venerable Panda, of Imperial lineage, is appointed by the Emperor to be his Military Mind, adviser on matters of warfare. And he has chosen as his Wife the most beautiful young lady in the Eastern Kingdom, Virtuous Gossamer, only surviving child of this humble Imperial General.” He bows to make sure that they all understand he is referring to himself.
The guests murmur approval. Virtuous Gossamer resists the screaming temptation to flee. But Aunt is right. She must be true to her destiny.
“Let her sing,” they cry, perhaps thinking this is the best way to stop the General from preaching about duty and destiny as he has done so often in the past. He consents with a grand gesture towards the curtains at the back of the hall.
Virtuous Gossamer makes herself as tall and straight as possible facing into where the curtain will part. Her mouth feels as dry as a lizard’s back. Aunt adjusts the headdress of pearls before pulling back the curtains. The guests gasp and then applaud softly as the young girl walks slowly past the tables. She can hear comments of approval and jealousy.
A small orchestra of piped and stringed instruments has assembled below the raised platform. She stands beside the players watching her father. He nods, she walks up steps onto the platform, bows to the High Table and faces the room. The guests’ upturned faces are like stones on a beach, waiting for the waves.
The orchestra begins a tune she has practiced with them a hundred times. She feels their music clustering about her, familiar, reassuring and then she begins.
“Come to me on tuneful sounds,
Carry me on dreams of song,
Take me from fear and sorrow,
Bring me to mountains soaring.
Air is pure and eagles live.”
She senses the audience, wrapt, attentive, enchanted. Her words take them on a journey through forests of black pine, over lakes like polished marble, over mountains whose peaks are among the stars. She raises her arms high in a gesture of supplication as the song draws to a close.
“Love release us.
Unlock the doors.
Let freedom sing”.
At the word “unlock”, among the many faces, she finds herself looking by chance directly at the Keeper of the Lock, the man whose job it is to keep the Citadel Gates firmly shut and bolted at night. She sees a look of fear on his face as if he senses that he is being asked to do something that will betray a sacred trust and may cost him his life.
She had not dared to ask such a favour. But a surge of new possibility rushes through her. She turns her face up, stretches towards star-shaped lanterns above and sends her voice to the rafters.
“Our love is freedom.
Together we fly.”
Cries of approval burst like a storm cloud. Virtuous Gossamer bows in gratitude to the orchestra and courteously to the guests. She can feel her face flushed, her body suffused with energy. She bows low once more to the Head Table. Her father is busy drinking a toast with Venerable Panda. Let them drink she thinks triumphantly to herself.
The sky outside is turning pink in the late afternoon light. The guests will soon be drowsy from feasting. When sour heads in the morning are asking difficult questions she will surely be in the mountain passes, running. Running like a hunted animal perhaps, but feeling wild and free.
Swimming Dragonfly wakes with his head in flames and someone putting a cool cloth on his forehead. He opens his eyes slowly to see the familiar wooden beams of the hut ceiling and his family crouched around, younger brother Oyster Catcher, sister Little Orchid and Grandma. And Sniffer, of course.
Grandma explains that he has been accused of desecrating the Village Temple and that a travelling Magistrate will hear the case this very morning. She speaks softly at first but Dragonfly can sense her concern and displeasure.
“What mad spirit made you swing the Log of Calling at the Gong? How often have I told you how sacred that is? Why must you always do exactly what you are told not to do?” She asks more questions but Dragonfly knows she does not expect an answer to any of them.
At last Grandma’s temper cools and she says, “You must recover your strength quickly. You will soon be called to appear before him.”
“But my head is going to burst,” replies Dragonfly, carefully touching the damp cloth on his forehead.
“You’re lucky you still have a head,“ Sniffer murmurs. “That swinging log could have knocked it over the Citadel“.
Dragonfly rises slowly, groaning and giddy. Grandma slips a white tunic over his head and gives him a bowl of chicken broth which he slurps like a hungry puppy.
“What’s the punishment for desecrating a Village Temple?” he asks and for a while the only response comes from twigs crackling nervously beneath the rice pot. Oyster and Little Orchid avoid his glance, staring at the fire as if searching for an answer among the flames. Finally, Grandma says, “We don’t know. It’s a matter for the Ancestors.”
“So bad you can’t tell me. Come on Sniffer help me to the Grand Hall of the Magistracy and let me look down the Dark Throat of Justice,” smiles Dragonfly, trying to sound brave but annoyed that his voice betrays fear.
Outside a cool wind is blowing and the sky is the colour of a donkey. Grandma leads the way to he second largest building in the Village. Dragonfly leans on Sniffer. Oyster Catcher and Little Orchid follow. Ahead villagers chatter around the Magistracy doors. Uncle is there and smiles a worried welcome. He is a small, round man with short black hair and a red face that is usually creased with smiles. Dragonfly treats him like a father and bows in respect. But Uncle hugs him as if he were a small boy once more.
“The Village Council have been in there for so long I’ve had to piss twice while waiting,” he says, sounding determined to be his usual self. “They’re bound to call for you soon. I’ll try to come in as well. Don’t even glance at the Magistrate. Go in, kneel down, put your head on the floor and get as comfortable as you can. You may be there a while.”
They wait, peered at suspiciously by the two County Militia who stand guard at the doors. Dragonfly has never been so close to soldiers before, even local ones like this whose job it is to tour the County with the Magistrate. They wear dark metal helmets and leather shoulder protection. Their arms are clad in highly polished bronze and they each hold a long spear. But the way they lean on the door and look about them, and the half open mouth of the larger one makes Dragonfly wonder if they are real soldiers.
At last the sound of a metal bar being pulled back prepares them. At a command from one of the County Militia, Dragonfly enters the great, gloomy Hall, eyes down, almost ready in his heart for the death sentence to be pronounced and determined to show no emotion. He can hear his heart it is beating so fast. He risks a quick glance towards the Elders of the Village Council who stand like disobedient children before an angry parent, lit by weak light from high windows and two large fire brands. They are grouped slightly to the left of a raised platform on which sits a giant man.
The County Magistrate is like the brightly coloured statue of an angry god. His face flickers red in the light of the fire brands. His extravagant black whiskers curve downwards in stern disapproval. He is wearing the full plumage of a senior Judge. On his head is a high black hat with side flaps that reach to his padded shoulders. His tunic is made of red brocade and black silks, ornately embroidered with the symbols of justice and discipline. The wide sleeves are so long they fall over his knees. His legs are clad in loose black trousers tucked into the largest boots Dragonfly has ever seen. County officials with scrolls and writing implements sit at a table to his right, and the two County Militia now stand erect behind him.
Dragonfly feels Uncle with him, a gentle hand helping him to the ground. Kneeling, he lowers his head to the cold stone, and puts his hands near his cheeks. He is looking at his right hand beside him and finds it resting on the simple pattern of a flying sea bird carved into the stone. He forces his attention on to the pattern, trying to drive out all other thoughts, watching the bird in his mind flying white above high cliffs on a sunny day, balancing on a sea breeze, hardly moving its wings, an effortless freedom.
“Listen to the judgement,” says the Magistrate in a voice like large waves booming in a rocky cave. “I speak with the authority of the Great Court in the Royal Capital of the West. The details of the case have been heard; the laws have been consulted; the demands of justice have been measured against the cries for compassion.”
There is a moment’s silence and then the two County Militia come noisily off the platform, seize Dragonfly by the clothing on his back, drag him to the floor directly before the Magistrate and throw him to the ground, giving no more respect than they would to a sack of rice. One of them places a heavy foot on the boy’s shoulders, pinning him down lest he try to escape.
“Swimming Dragonfly, you were raised by caring parents in a responsible village which has long revered its Ancestors. You were trained in the arts of reading, writing and astronomy,” rumbles the Magistrate. “You have attended the County Academy to learn the disciplines of War and the Duties of a Citizen. You passed the exams. And yet you dare to desecrate the Village Temple, Dwelling Place of the Ancestors. The law provides a clear remedy for those who desecrate a temple. The criminal is to be tied by each limb to four horses driven in opposite directions, tearing the limbs from the torso. The bowels are to be removed and the head severed from the shoulders. The different parts are to be carried to the corners of the county, ensuring that the offending spirit is condemned to roam forever in search of its bodily remains.”
The Magistrate pauses before pronouncing his sentence. Dragonfly is faint with terror, his limbs shaking, his tongue so dry it feels like a small dead animal in his mouth. He has never thought seriously about his Ancestors before, never really meant his prayers. Now he pleads with them in his heart, desperate for their forgiveness and help. He offers to serve them faithfully if only they can give him life. He imagines himself begging earnestly in the Ancestral Temple.
“On the other side,” says the huge voice, “I have heard how Swimming Dragonfly gave courage to the crew of a village fishing boat on a journey home through a rising storm and helped save the lives of ten fishermen by his boat-handling skills.”
“It is therefore the Judgement that you, Swimming Dragonfly be exiled from this Village of Humble Haven, and from this County for the rest of your life, except by a pardon of the King of the East, or the Emperor himself. Should you return to this County without such a pardon, you will be executed in the manner proscribed in law for those who desecrate a temple. You must depart before the sun reaches its highest point tomorrow.”
The Magistrate pauses. Dragonfly feels relief flood his body. His heart is still racing but at least he is not to die. Then the Magistrate shouts in a voice so loud it seems to shake the building, “Go!”
The two County Militia seize the clothing on Dragonfly’s back lifting him so high his feet hardly touch the ground, take him through the great doors and throw him onto the dusty ground outside.
Virtuous Gossamer lies beside Aunt, snuggling closer for warmth, wrapped in a blanket beneath dark, dripping, low-hanging pine trees. Aunt is asleep and snuffling. The rain has stopped and Gossamer senses the grey light of dawn but down here the shadows are thick and the forest is creaking. Then a bird starts to sing, and she lies still in the warmth imagining it perched on a tall branch looking across tree tops towards the grassy slopes of high hills sparkling in the dawn sunlight. She tries to look for the source of this beautiful whistling without waking Aunt, twisting her neck, squinting through half closed eyes, seeking the bird, happy to be free, happy to be alive, wanting to get going.
In the darkness they had slipped through the Citadel Gate, were helped onto her horse by two strong young men and the Keeper of the Lock who clapped his hands noisily to hurry the horse on its way. Aunt hung on tightly behind Gossamer who guided the horse along paths into the hills where she knew of a small village where she could expect a warm welcome. The villagers were so surprised to see them and delighted to swap a small pony and some provisions for a beautiful white stallion. They offered a bed and a chance to rest but Gossamer insisted they get going, this time on foot, leading their new pony, scrambling up steep hillside in the light of a half moon, gasping for breath, Aunt hanging onto the pony’s side-straps for help up the steeper slopes.
The trees grew thicker about them, the gentle moonlight disappeared, and the darkness became as black as the inside of a dragon’s stomach. Aunt began to whimper like a lost child, pleading for rest. At last the slope lessened.
“We are near the top Aunt. Let’s sleep until dawn and then we can find the ridge path”. Together on soft pine needles each wrapped in a blanket they slept, barely aware of passing rain until dawn finds them in the forest gloom.
Aunt’s eyes open slowly. “Are you sure you know where we’re going?” she asks, pulling the blanket close about her face.
“We are going to find our destiny,“ smiles Gossamer trying to encourage and surprised when she thinks she can see tears trickling from Aunt’s eyes. “Please don’t cry Aunt. I have been trained for adventure. I can look after you. Great things will happen. But first we must find grass for the pony to eat while we have our breakfast“.
They reluctantly leave the warmth, rise, stretch, fold the blanket and strap it to the pony. Then they pick their way through the shadows towards sunlight ahead. Soon they emerge into a clearing of brightly sparkling, dew-soaked grass
Gossamer stops to feel the sun’s rays on her face. Her heart sings in the fresh morning air, but she is alert to danger and senses a presence.
She turns quickly to see three men emerging from the trees, almost exactly where she and Aunt had just been. How had she missed them? The pony moves away in alarm. Aunt screams. Gossamer crouches, arms raised ready to fight.
She has seldom seen men with such prominent, sharp noses, such piercing eyes and such high cheekbones. They are young and tall and strangely dressed in colourful rags, almost like street entertainers. But they are not smiling and move towards her.
“ Get back,” she shouts. The tallest of them continues to advance towards her saying something with such a strong accent she cannot understand. She drops low onto all fours, her hands on the ground as a central pivot and with all the power of a mill-wheel driven by a torrent of water, she swings her legs in a full circle. The outflying right heel crunches into his stomach and he crumples to the ground as air rushes from his lungs. The second man pauses but she has already started to swing the other way, her hands on the ground her legs gathering speed until the left heel catches him between the legs. His howl joins Aunt’s screams. One more to go she thinks and he is backing towards the woods from where they came. She runs, then jumps to seize a branch just above him. Using momentum she kicks his head but as he falls there is a crack as of thunder. The branch breaks and she falls onto him. She rolls quickly onto her front but the other two must be hardened warriors and have recovered already, jumping onto her arms and back, stopping her from moving further.
For a moment Gossamers’s racing thoughts turn to her father’s collection of butterflies, each pinned to a board, wings outstretched, captured in beauty for ever. Her heart sinks and her struggling ceases, but her mind is racing faster than ever.
Silence for a moment as Dragonfly picks himself up from the dust, and then an explosion of questions and a single loud answer from Uncle “Banished!”.
Grandma howls as she rushes to hug her Grandson. Villagers gasp and murmur, repeating the word to others who hurry over to hear the news.
“For how long ? Where to? “ weeps Grandma.
“Until he gets a pardon. And out of the County. Not too bad,” consoles Uncle.
“At least no death penalty,” says Dragonfly, and then he can hold back the tears no longer. Thoughts and feelings tumble about inside causing his shoulders to heave and sobs of pain so loud he can hardly believe they are his.
“Come, “ says Uncle putting a hand on Dragonfly’s shoulder. “Let’s go home and we can decide what needs to be done.“
The family makes its way down the path and through the familiar blue doors. Everything seems very precious to Dragonfly, seeing things for perhaps the last time. Little Orchid throws kindling on the almost dead embers. Sniffer brings an armful of dried buffalo dung and takes charge of breathing life into the fire. Oyster Catcher opens the shutters on the sheltered side of the house to let in light. A much-loved neighbour brings freshly cooked pork buns on a large woven tray.
“Your favourite,” she says, smiling to Dragonfly who settles cross-legged by the fire and takes two.
“Leave us some, you pig,” laughs Little Orchid cuddling beside him while grabbing a bun.
“I don’t know whether to sing or sob,” says Grandma.
“Don’t do either,” says Old Turtle, sounding harsher than he means to. “We have much to plan in a short time. Dragonfly must leave soon after sun up tomorrow. Where should he go? and what can we give him for the journey?”
Dragonfly has been so relieved at escaping death that only now does he think about leaving his family for exile. “Am I really to be punished for the rest of my life? How can I leave home forever? The Ancestors must surely hate me.”
“No,” says Uncle firmly. “No. This can have nothing to do with the Ancestors if they truly care for this village. They know that your father gave his life at sea trying to find food for his family and the village. They must surely know that you are already one of the finest fishermen this village has. In a few more years you could have become a legend along this coast for the way you handle a boat. What have we done to so displease them?”
Uncle sits heavily on the Father’s Chair, giving him an air of authority. The family grows quiet. Even Sniffer stops sniffing.
“You all know I have long had my doubts about the power of the Ancestors. I try not to say too much because I don’t want to offend them. But I spend hours at sea on the Steering Oar. I listen to the whispering of countless stars in the great dome of a clear night sky, to the howl of the lonely moon. I look at the Great Sea that stretches to the rising sun: on a summer day the water can be as still as a blue mirror of polished azure; and yet, when the spring wind is strong, each wave is more savage than a thousand beasts. And it seems to me that the Spirits of the Ancestors are no more powerful than rose petals in the vast passion of this world, and they share our fate. There must be far greater forces at work. Dragonfly will hear more about them if he travels across the Empire. Perhaps he can learn to ride them as he does the waves.”
“Yes Uncle,” says Dragonfly, eyes shining in the firelight. “I have always dreamed of travelling. Now I must. I want to visit new places, to study from the wise and listen to the humble. I want to learn in great cities. I want to meditate with monks and talk to teachers of ancient knowledge.”
“So!” cries Uncle “This is the thin boy who made us laugh with his antics and who cried when his father beat him for losing a pig. He is now a young man with stars in his eyes”.
“Uncle,” says Oyster Catcher. ” My dear brother will need a companion. Can I go with him, at least at first?”
“No!” cries Grandma. “I can’t lose both grandsons. Oyster, you are my eldest. If your Uncle is taken from us to be with the Ancestors you must be here to lead the family. We need your strength. You are very precious.” She hugs him tenderly. “Inside this Oyster is a pearl of rare strength and beauty.”
“But you are right,” says Uncle. “This Swimming Dragonfly needs a companion. A lonesome traveller is a sad one.” He glances sideways for a heartbeat. “Sniffer will accompany you, Dragonfly.”
“If I must,” says Sniffer, smiling so broadly his head is in danger of splitting. The two boys hold hands very briefly, looking firmly into the eyes of the other.
“Do not go to the Royal Capital of the East,” says Uncle, “at least not at first. The so-called Garden City is known to be the arsehole of the Empire. Go to Blue Lake City. It is no further and my cousin will look after you for a while. He is a miserable man but quite wealthy and has a kind heart for relatives. He will help you find work. And since you are hungry for wisdom you can visit a famous wise man that lives by the shore of the lake called Old Tea Leaf. He will advise you about life, and about the waves of destiny you must ride if ever you are to return to this village. He has journeyed to the Kingdom of the South where I believe he studied under the Master of the Cleansing Fire”.
“That is eight hard days’ walk Uncle. We will surely need some food to help us get there.”
“Come! Let’s what I have in the store room,” says Grandma taking Dragonfly by one hand and Sniffer by the other. Dragonfly glances at Sniffer. He has never seen him look so happy. The family clusters into the store room all talking at once, Little Orchid the loudest.
Outside the cool winds of spring blow from the far north east. They have passed the fire mountains of Ye Da So, they have crossed the Great Sea, and now they beat upon Humble Haven, urging travellers to go inland and south.
They release their hold and Gossamer stands up, angrily brushing grass off her clothing.
“Who are you?”she asks.
“It is we who ask the questions,” says the tallest of the three men. She thinks he looks ridiculous in his patched and colourful clothing and wonders how she could have been overcome by three men dressed as village entertainers. “Please tell us who you are and why two ladies are wandering the hills with a small horse? And why you want to attack us so violently?”
“ I will tell you nothing,” says Gossamer still panting for air.
“Then perhaps the old lady will.”
“She is not old. She is my Aunt, my beloved Aunt and you must respect her,” says Gossamer sharply as if addressing a snotty-nosed child.
“ Of course I will respect her. I respect all living creatures. Now, beloved Aunt, please tell me your name.”
“ Obedient Hummingbird,” says Aunt very quietly.
“For a hummingbird you have a very piercing scream. But it’s a respectful, beautiful name,” says the young man bowing slightly. And then he adds, “And this young lady’s name?”
“Virtuous Gossamer” says Aunt. Gossamer looks angry while Aunt stares at her feet.
The young man bows again and says, “Gossamer. A soft, delicate name. Not very appropriate for someone who can kick so hard.”
“I am Virtuous Gossamer. It is a very appropriate name. I am proud of it,” she replies trying to look as confident and as proud as possible.
“Well! May I invite Virtuous Gossamer and Obedient Hummingbird back to our humble camp? With the pony of course.”
“Do we have a choice?“ asks Gossamer angrily. “If we are to follow you at least let us know your names and who you are.“
“My name is Samark. I will tell you more about myself and my friends when we have offered you tea and something to eat. Now come.”
The ladies follow him across the meadow, back among trees and along a tiny path which wriggles through the undergrowth. Samark is leading silently, tall, decisive, his long limbs moving quickly. Gossamer is next. She looks quickly round at Aunt and makes a face which she hopes conveys the message: “Don’t trust these people.”
The other two men follow with the pony, talking quietly in a language which Gossamer decides sounds like a deer with a cough.
The trees get taller and closer together, the undergrowth thinner. It is gloomy but easier to walk. A small outcrop of rock appears and suddenly Samark ducks into a cave mouth calling behind a simple instruction, “Come!”
The entrance is dark and slightly smokey but a red glow ahead reveals the cave growing as it deepens. Gossamer finds that she can stand upright and look around. This is so different from anything she has ever seen and as perfect as anything she could ever imagine. She tries to look angry but can feel wonder in her face. Samark is bringing life to a lamp and candles that throw gentle light on warm, richly patterned carpets, cushions and an animal skin rug. The orange red embers of the fire make brass kettles and pots gathered around them look magically rich. In one corner a brighter, white-flamed candle illuminates a large book held open on a wooden stand.
Most fascinating of all to Gossamer are three musical instruments she can just see among the shadows, hardly visible; also a large knife or sword by the fire. This cave must fill with magical sounds if these young men are musicians. But they might also be thieves.
Samark is pouring boiling water onto leaves in a bowl. “This and our fruit dumplings will help you recover from your cold night under the stars. Sit on those cushions”. He passes them each a dish of tea and dumplings in a bamboo basket. “ You want to know who we are. Well, listen.”
Each man picks up a musical instrument. Samark cradles a small, stringed lute, one man has a larger version of the same and the third a reed pipe. In the light of the candles and the lamp they start to play, softly and slowly at first. Gossamer senses they are praying to their god. They sing in deep voices, an echoing sound among the notes of their instruments. Gradually they speed up until they are playing tunes which Gossamer half recognises. She cannot resist singing gently with them. They do not look up but adapt their songs to bring her in. She starts to feels completely at home, warm and fed, drenched in red light, deep in the Earth, absorbed within gentle music of the type she learnt from her mother. And then suddenly they stop.
Samark raises his eyes. “That is who we are. Travelling musicians. Entertainers. We had hoped to play before the guests at a big betrothal feast in the Citadel of the East but they didn’t want us. Do you know who did entertain there?”
Gossamer feels her face turn the colour of the brass pots around the fire. She looks down to avoid Samark’s eyes. “What betrothal feast?” she asks.
“Surely you know. We saw the guests travelling there yesterday morning and only two ladies on a white horse returning this way at the end of the day. That was you wasn’t it?“
“You are spies,“ snarls Gossamer jumping to her feet and spitting like a cat cornered by fierce dogs.
“Your reaction confirms what I suspected,” Samark speaks softly. “I am not a spy but I do listen to villagers. I have heard them talk about the General’s legendary daughter, how beautifully she sings , how opposed she is to being married to her father’s choice”. Then, rising slowly to his feet, he asks with what Gossamer suspects is a smile, “How much would the General pay to have his daughter returned?”
Gossamer leaps forward to pick up the knife by the fire and kneels to fall on its point. “I will die before you ransom me like a slave in the market,” she hisses.
Three hot days the two boys have walked along dusty paths, through simple villages, around fields of grain, and have been guided by wrinkled peasants in the direction of Blue Lake City. Two nights they have slept in the open beneath clear skies spangled with more stars than they could ever hope to count. Restless on the hard ground Dragonfly has dreamt of Humble Haven, the sea, his family and familiar food. Walking all day he feels like a dry leaf blown by unceasing wind with nowhere to stop.
On this third evening rainclouds have drawn a dark cloak from horizon to horizon and the friends have decided to spend a little money renting shelter for the night. An elderly farmer agrees to put them in his smallest barn and his wife gives them bowls of steaming noodles in a sauce so spicey it makes tears burst from their eyes. They sit outside in the growing darkness slurping and coughing.
“I think my throat is on fire,“ says Dragonfly. “My lips are swollen. My eyes are like a village water pump. I can hardly see you but I think your face is glowing red.“
“I’m fine,” sniffs Sniffer, sniffing more than ever. “I was often given food like this.”
“Do you think you come from around here?”
“No idea. All I remember as a little boy is wandering from village to village. I lived off the kindness of strangers. A bowl of spicey chicken rice here, some dumplings over there. I learnt very young that people are generous to the needy, but not for long. The secret is to keep moving on.”
“I can’t get used to moving on,” chokes Dragonfly glad that the spicey food can be an excuse for his tears. “At least we have a roof over our heads tonight.”
“The hut smells like the dirty end of a water buffalo,” says Sniffer. “In fact I think they moved out a pig to make room for us. But if it means you can rest better it’s worth it. I’ll take these empty bowls back to the lady. You get your head down on that little bit of clean straw.”
Sleep falls upon them as swift as an executioner’s sword. But in the darkness of deep sleep Dragonfly is disturbed by dreams of rats rustling and wild birds screaming in the night, of thunder growling like a bear in a deep cave, of the clatter of horses hooves and the shouts of men.
He pulls upwards through layers of sleep, forcing himself to believe that these are real sounds and not a nightmare. Voices cry in strange accents calling for food and fresh horses. He hears the farmer and his wife, shrill with alarm, explaining that they only have two horses and little food. The men curse and insist. Lamps hurry about casting giant shadows. Horses snort angrily and harnesses rattle.
Peering out cautiously Dragonfly sees in the light of the farmer’s lamp two strangely dressed men who remind him of fisherman returned from stormy nights at sea, staggering with exhaustion, except that these men seem to be wearing light military armour. They are arguing with the farmer and taking fresh horses out of the larger barn opposite. The farmer’s wife comes with a flagon of something to drink and bundles of food. They take them with barely a word of thanks, talk in strange accents of generous payment later, mount two horses and hurry away with flapping cloaks and angry shouts like dragons on the warpath. The farmer’s wife bursts into tears.
“What in the name of everything holy was that about?” asks Sniffer who has finally emerged, scratching and sniffing.
“Those were the King’s messengers,” says the farmer. “They were in a great panic. They said that some of the Khan’s horsemen have broken through the Wall of Fierce Resistance and are pillaging southward.”
The farmer’s wife returns to the darkness of their home, moaning and bent.
“The Khan’s horsemen may come this way,“ says the old man, the lantern in his hand shaking in the light breeze. He continues as if talking quietly to himself, “My sons are in Blue Lake City. I must stay here. We can burn the thatch before the horseman arrive. We have somewhere to hide, even the pigs. But not my horse.“
“How can we help?”
The farmer looks at the boys, long and steady; so long that Dragonfly wonders if he has heard the question, or if his head has been emptied by panic.
“You can take the horse to my eldest son. He is known as the Butcher King. He sells meat in the market by the lake. Everyone knows him.”
“But we don’t know how to ride a horse,” mumbles Sniffer.
“Yes, we do.“ Dragonfly is breathless at the idea of not having to walk for another three days under the hot sun. Sniffer coughs and sniffs. Dragonfly adds, “Not well, but well enough.”
“ Really?” says the farmer, but before getting an answer adds, “I have no choice but to trust you. It’s a very fine horse. My son will look after it well.”
“Upon the good name of my Ancestors,” says Dragonfly, “we will deliver your horse safely, provided the Khan doesn’t find us first.”
“Don’t say that,” says the farmer. “The horsemen are wild. They kill for pleasure. You must go quickly. Sleep until first light and then speed away. We will give you food enough.”
The boys return to the dark, rustling hut. “They kill for pleasure,” repeats Dragonfly, as he lowers himself onto the straw, hoping Sniffer has words of comfort. But with a single, long sigh his friend settles to sleep and Dragonfly is left to fight with alarming thoughts and half dreams until grey light fills the doorway.
Gossamer holds up a hand as if signalling to Samark that if he moves she will fall onto the knife’s sharp point. They are all as still as the cave walls. She can hear her blood thumping and breath roaring in her nostrils. She looks down at the knife and draws it closer to her stomach. Aunt whimpers.
Then Samark says, “We know your secret and you know ours. Yes, we are spies, although we prefer to think of ourselves as scouts and lookouts”
“For the People of the Book?“ asks Gossamer. Samark nods a yes.
“I have read your Book. It speaks of love but your warriors kill women and children.”
“Never” barks Samark like an angry dog. “Never. We protect our homes in the Mountains of the Stars. We fight honourably. We do not kill defenceless people.”
Gossamer grips the knife harder. She had thought Samark handsome but now she sees his fierce eyes and pointed nose like a threatening eagle, hovering above its prey.
“You don’t trust us,” says Samark. “And we don’t trust you. There are three choices. We kill you.”
“Please not,” Aunt whimpers.
“Or you kill yourself,” continues Samark. “Or we stay together.”
“In this cave?“ says Gossamer. “Like animals?”
“Our work here is done. We know the Great Khan will attack, and sooner than General Fang knows.”
“He knows everything,” cries Gossamer, angry that a young wanderer could claim to know more than her father.
“We must travel south as fast as travelling entertainers can,” says Samark. “Our new task is to learn about the Master of the Cleansing Fire. What are his plans? How many followers?“
Gossamer scowls and looks more closely at the knife she is now pressing hard into her stomach, kneeling into its point.
“You will be our singer,” continues Samark. “Then our disguise will be as complete as the spots on the leopards that creep in the Jungles of Green Darkness.“
“So! I am to be a spy.” groans Gossamer, her face now close to the cave floor. “ And Aunt?”
“She will be our mother, looking after us, making sure we are all safe, a hen clucking encouragement and warning.”
Gossamer shakes her head as if in disgust, but deep inside her heart is singing. To study at the feet of the Master is her greatest wish. To bring the Cleansing Fire into her soul and clear away worries about what her Father and the Ancestors think. To be in control of her own destiny.
She must hide these thoughts from Samark. But let him take her on the journey south, away from the Great Khan, around the Blue Lake, across the Great Canals and Rice fields to the fabled Jasmine Kingdom, there to find the Master of the Cleansing Fire.