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. Clustered outside are the hovels of the poor. Immediately inside are the single-storey homes of merchants, shop keepers and junior officials. At the centre, on a low hill, rises the splendour of the Imperial Palace guarded by elite soldiers of the Imperial Guard. On its golden roofs, are the burnished symbols of Imperial power: the Phoenix, the Tiger, the Eagle, and the Bear.
The Imperial Palace includes many 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 quiet is suddenly disturbed by brass gongs beating a steady rhythm 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. They 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.
Lord Spy, newly appointed Chief Counsellor, Master of the Imperial Seals, Administrator of the One Hundred Departments, is observing discreetly from an upper balcony. 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.
“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 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 this 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. To have removed his head, as you so earnestly advised, would have created too many enemies. So 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. The Imperial Secretary produces a low stool for the Chief Counsellor to sit beside the Imperial Feet. Clearly the Emperor is in an expansive mood and intends to lecture his new Chief Counsellor at length.
“Lord See loved the Empire as a romantic young man loves a virtuous woman. He gave his heart completely to its service. But as he grew older, his affections began to wander. He thought he could make peace with the People of the Book in the passes of the Mountains of the Stars in the west, and tame the Khan’s wild horsemen in their northern grasslands. I was prepared to let him try but when the Master of the Cleansing Fire appeared in the Kingdom of the South with his teachings against Ancestor worship, things had gone too far.”
Lord Spy feels uncomfortable on his little stool. None of this is new to him. He undermined his predecessor, Lord See, with the subtlety of a ghost.
“Lord See’s so-called Judicious Harmony has failed,” says the Emperor, becoming angry and striking his fist on the throne. “Tolerating the intolerable! Arming the enemy! We cannot risk such accommodation. The Empire was built by our Ancestors and it is they who must guide its path. There can be no other way. Ignore the Ancestors and the Empire will fail. What then?”
The Emperor seems to address this question to a small fly that has settled briefly on the Imperial Knee.
“The Empire is the mother of our civilisation,” he continues. “Upon her teats the suckling citizens feed and grow strong. The Kingdoms are four rooms in the House of Empire. It is the Empire which provides the roof, giving shelter to our people. If the roof is neglected, the House will fall. Ruin and chaos to millions of people. The dams would break and the irrigations of the plains would fail. Floods in summer, drought in winter, famine all year round. The Kingdoms would fight among themselves and our enemies would soon pick the bones of this land clean. Too much is at stake to tolerate stupidity, Lord Spy.”
Taking this to be an Imperial signal, the Chief Counsellor slips from the discomfort of his stool to kneel once more but is signalled to stand.
“The Khan plots raids and pillaging from his northern grasslands. The Kingdom of the North is strong but he will burn through them and pillage the rich the Kingdom of the East where our people have become fat and complacent. Tell General Fang he must prepare to strike soon and hard. He is my fiercest General but he seems reluctant to move. He must defend the East and crush the Great Khan.” The Emperor is addressing the four corners of the room. Lord Spy appears to draw breath for a moment but stays silent.
“And in the West they have also grown soft. That useless King Long Bottom has forgotten that the Imperial Dams hold the water that feeds the most fertile of our lands. If the People of the Book control them we will be flat on the ground and they will be standing on our necks. Let us remind him. Close the Imperial Dams. No more water to be released. That will wake them all up.”
“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 Long 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. Then we must be ready for war. His son will try to break the Southern Kingdom away from the Empire. He has been much attracted by the teachings of the Master of the Cleansing Fire.” The Administrator of the One Hundred Departments delivers this analysis with the confidence which comes of carefully checking all the facts.
“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 back, like a snake. “Have you not heard? King Long Beard no longer favours his wife. He has found a new toy, a young and beautiful one who is filling his empty head with dangerous ideas. She too is a follower of this Cleansing Fire. The King will hold a private betrothal ceremony very soon.”
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 throws 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 will break upon the Empire creating floods 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 his so-called Judicious Harmony. We must strike 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 tiled floor with an explosion of sound and fragments dancing across the tiled floor.
“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 the North.”
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 a provincial town of the Northern Kingdom close to its border with the Imperial Centre. On top of a bare hill 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 giant 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 its way to 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 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. Heavy wooden shutters are 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 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 of the long hill. 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.
“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 standing at the centre of the group. “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 dusty leaves.” 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 battle and I know the cost in lives and misery of the battle itself. 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 Long Beard with it. And in the West to drive the People of the Book back 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 south. 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 the Kings of the North, West and East as friends. More as servants bound to do his bidding.”
“Remind the Emperor,” continues Lord See, “that extinguishing the Cleansing Fire will send a strong signal to others plotting harm against the Empire – the Khan will become less wild and the People of the Book may 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 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 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 seven guards and his Assistant. 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 thick fog lies heavy on 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. 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 on 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’s 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 wise 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 and 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 Safe 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 still larger the Grand Hall of the Magistracy where court cases are heard. In their midst and on a slight hill 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 humble dwelling nearby 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 and says, “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 grilled fish on top of each.
They eat hungrily and are soon outside the door 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 and running towards an old lady, her back bent like the prow of a ship, 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.
“Stop grinning,” she says, hitting him gently on the leg with the 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 by a junior Elder and fine yellow sand flows. 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 an underwater 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 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”.
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 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 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 is so angry, so humiliated and 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 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 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 hovers outside the mighty red doors. He can see little through the gloom inside but he can feel a flush of anger on his cheeks, hear the pounding of his heart and the sting of tears in his eyes. He steps over the giant wooden entrance.
Oil lamps flicker. Incense sticks burn red dots through the smoke. As he gets used to the semi-darkness 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. Towering above 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 disappearing upwards towards light cracking through distant roof tiles. The Temple seems at least twice the size inside. 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.
“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 angry strength into the centre of the gong.
The Temple roars like a dragon. The Log of Calling swings back striking Dragonfly in the face. He falls backward on to the stone floor. Waves of dazzling darkness close about him. And then silence.
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 now 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.
They are the 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. His 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 with emotion.
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 so heavy, 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 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 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,” says 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.
Gongs suddenly crash in the Great Hall. The roar of laughter and conversation dies. Virtuous Gossamer and her Aunt hurry back from the window to peep through the curtains once more. Every eye looks upon the stiff, slight General Fang 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, Virtuous Gossamer, only surviving child of this Imperial General, me, and surely the most beautiful young lady in the Western Kingdom.”
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 again about duty and destiny. 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 Virtuous Gossamer 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 soft sounds.
Carry me gently on dreams of poetry.
Take me from care and sorrow.
Carry me to high mountains.
Where the air is pure and only 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 alabaster, over mountains whose peaks are among the stars. She raises her arms higher in a gesture of supplication as the song continues.
“Love will release us, unlock the doors, let freedom sing”.
At the word unlock, among the unrecognized faces she finds herself looking directly at the Keeper of the Lock, the man whose job it is to keep the Citadel Gates firmly locked 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 he seems to accept an unasked request. A surge of joy and confidence rushes through her. She turns her face up, stretches her arms 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.
The sky outside is turning pink. 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 like a hunted animal perhaps, but feeling wild and free.