Dawn light creeps across the Great Sea into a valley guarded at its mouth by a military Citadel that towers on the cliffs above. Banners of the Imperial Phoenix flash red on the Citadel’s grey walls. Astronomers confer anxiously in the highest tower to determine the precise timing of sunrise. 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 damp 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.
The General 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 small waterfall nearby. Washing vigorously, the General issues instructions which the Secretary strains to hear above the running water while making notes on his writing-tablet with a piece of chalk.
“Ensure that tomorrow’s 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 occasionally 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,” repeats the Secretary 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 their summits. As cunning as a snake, 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 keep her Aunt away from me. 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; she will ensure we have a voice in our favour at court.”
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 senior commander in the Imperial Army. The Secretary begins to buckle 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 firm hand on the sword now buckled at his side and adds quietly, “I have no choice. Our family honour and the security of this Citadel depend upon her.”
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 the Citadel form the shape of a sleeping lion. Crags create a shaggy mane and the smooth sandstone shapes a muscular back and haunches that slope towards a beach where the lion’s tail is formed by a harbour wall that curls into the sea, a wall whose carefully carved 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. The grandest building is the Village Temple with golden tiles and ornate decorations glinting in the morning sun. It stands at the back, furthest from the beach. In a small, warm home two boys are getting ready. One is crouched over a fire stirring rice in a pot and grilling two small fish. His limp black hair hangs over a thin face, his simple tunic looks carefully patched. He sniffs and wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
“Once called Sniffer always called Sniffer” he says.
“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 status I’ll never have.”
Sniffer arrived in the village 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 an important name. She says the tests will be harder than you imagine.” He turns the grilling fish. “She’s on the beach already chatting to the Elders.” He slops rice into two bowls and puts the fish on top.
The boys eat hungrily and are soon outside juggling stones in the 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.
“The General’s daughter! She’s never spoken to you, never come to our village. She watches your antics from a distance like you watch dolphins jumping the waves. It means nothing.”
A messenger walks purposefully up the sandy path towards them. He is a tall, serious-looking man called Elegant Willow, a fisherman and a good musician but today dressed as an Imperial Village Elder in a long black silk tunic fringed with red. He pretends 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 crowd of chattering villagers towards the Meeting Tree which 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 waving his arms and running towards an old lady leaning on a stick, her back bent like the prow of a fishing boat.
“You’re late,” she says, hitting him gently on the leg with her stick.
“I’m not frightened of you, Grandma,” he laughs. “Now that I’m taller than you.”
“You were never frightened of anything. Your mother and I had to do all the worrying,” she grumbles. “Ever since you were born you’ve been like a firework, fizzing and shooting about the place. Today you must concentrate. Prove yourself special and they will name you Soaring Seabird like your Grandfather. Now go.”
She follows her grandson into the shade beneath the Meeting Tree.
Under 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 golden fingernails. He coughs, making the small yellow decorations hanging on his black hat shake. He clears his throat noisily and speaks in an unusually 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 turns to run, two glass globes are upturned by a junior Elder and sand funnels steadily from the upper to the lower. The boy turns and runs into the waves. He can feel the villagers watching him. They are expecting him to run all the way, breast high, fighting the foam towards the Sentry Rocks out to sea where the waves start to break.
He turns for a moment to look at the cliffs along the coast. There, way up high, he sees a horse and a girl standing on its back, not moving, her arms stretched upwards.
With a shout, he turns again and runs leaping into the waves. But he trips and disappears beneath the water. Completely. The villagers’ laughter becomes a gasp.