The Phoenix Feather Book 1
by Sherwood Smith
This started out as a sanity-saver novelette when the pandemic began. Sherwood remembers thinking, this pandemic will last a couple months, just long enough to write a novelette . . . er, a novella . . . okay, a novel . . .
Eighteen months later, the pandemic is still on, and she’s still writing what started out to be “all the fun stuff tropes I love in Asian historical/magical stories and dramas.”
It was six years ago when Sherwood Smith first encountered Chinese television series and novels, with their complex manners and customs and long braided stories and the underpinnings of a yearning for beauty and justice and honor.
She was blown away–she said that this was the type of story she had been craving all her life. Even as a kid she loved braided tales, with characters growing and changing in a world both breathtaking and strange, where striving to become the best one can be matters. (And how that gets defined is what drives the story.)
After six years of happy immersion in Eastern history, language, literature and art, last year she wanted escape into such a world, so she began writing The Phoenix Feather as a xuanhuan (an offshoot of the far older wuxia genre, which borrows freely from various mythologies), just to see where it would take her.
Here is the blurb:
Twenty-five years ago a pair of lovers ran for their lives from an angry prince and washed up on an island where they adopted new identities–and found themselves blessed by an omen promising great things, a single golden phoenix feather.
Their eldest child, a natural martial artist like his father, seems destined for those great things. The second son, an artist and a dreamer, has no desire for greatness–he wants to be left alone to paint. And the youngest, a daughter, used to wearing her brothers’ castoffs and trotting at their heels, is the least promising, always scamping her studies in favor of sword lessons and play.
All three vowed to keep their parents’ dangerous secret. But in this first volume, Fledglings, the family learns that sometimes children must follow their own paths . . .
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Read a sample
The Phoenix Feather: Fledglings
It is said that tales are like rivers, always renewing as they flow out to join the endless waters of the sea. I think tales are more like the streams that feed the rivers, for they must have a beginning.
My tale begins with a monk and a child, who sat on mats under the low eaves of a thin-walled cottage. A single candle illuminated the young face and the old, throwing shadows against the bare walls of a room empty of other furnishings except for the neatly rolled bedding in one corner.
The child who was generally known as Little Third in the village, and Mouse within the family, exclaimed, “I get to hear a story all by myself?”
“Yes,” said the monk. “This story will not be like those I usually tell you.”
“How is it not the same? I hope it will have heroes, at least.” Mouse dug bare toes into the mat, knees pulled to chin.
“This story does not concern the acts of gods, demons, or ghosts. As for heroes, you will see. There was an imperial prince—”
“Oh, princes,” Mouse said on a sigh, suspecting a lesson hidden behind this story. As if lessons didn’t happen all day. “They’re like gods and demons and ghosts, all so very very far away.”
The monk replied calmly, “Is this going to be your story about my story, or will you listen?”
“Sorry,” Mouse said contritely.
The monk cleared his throat. “Enjai was one of several imperial princes. Unlike his various imperial siblings and cousins, some of whom were reputed to be handsome as long as the gifts kept coming, he truly was handsome . . . If you’re going to make rude noises, I will leave you to entertain yourself.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Mouse said, and then to the monk’s surprise, dropped face down, moaning, “This unworthy one deserves death—”
“You do not deserve death. Bad manners do not deserve death,” the monk replied tartly.
Mouse bounced up again, dark eyes round. “It’s how everyone talks to nobles in the hero tales.”
“You have picked up some regrettable expressions from reading those hero tales. Perhaps I ought to stop bringing them back—you are not the one who needs encouragement to read.”
At that Mouse looked very contrite. “I just thought it would sound extra sorry.”
“Do you see any nobles here?” The monk lifted a hand callused from hard work. “Didn’t think so. You are right that it is the humble speech expected by some nobles and imperials, which can be as false as the plainer speech of commoners like us. Show your contrition by listening politely, please.”
Mouse bobbed eagerly, and the monk cleared his throat once more. “When Second Imperial Prince Enjai turned twenty, as a second son—and a favorite of the empress—he was permitted to leave the imperial palace . . .”
The light from the single candle flickered over the round, unprepossessing face of the child, and smoothed the wrinkles from the monk as he went on to describe how Imperial Prince Enjai’s father had died when the prince was young, so he was much indulged by a loving mother as well as by the empress. No one had ever said no to him, the monk added, and Mouse thought, here come the lessons, though we aren’t spoiled.
But instead, the monk went right on with his description of the prince, who, being young, restless, and hot-blooded as many young people with too much wealth and too little opposition tend to be, decided to marry. Eyeing his small charge, the monk was vague about how the prince could (being a prince) summon up female companionship at the snap of his fingers, but he knew that imperial marriages required the assembly of the most beautiful and talented among the possible choices. He wanted the most beautiful and talented consort . . .
The monk paused. “Did you say something?”
Mouse had groaned, thinking that a romance was coming—even worse than a lesson. Too many romances ended with the woman drowning herself, especially in the older stories. “My stomach was rumbling.” Then apologized, half-expecting the monk to stop the story because of bad manners.
But he started right up again. “All the noble clans were required to send a well-born, properly trained, comely daughter between the ages of sixteen and twenty, if no previous marriage treaty had been contracted, but you can be sure that the most ambitious discovered auspicious signs in ten-character birth lines, and found ways around betrothal treaties.”
Mouse said, “The families wanted their daughters to marry a prince.”
“Not just the families. The provincial governor of Butterfly Island decided that one of the twin daughters of Scholar Alk Bemti would represent the honor of the island, as they were well-born and beautiful, with features considered perfect, eyes the much-prized shade called teak. If they had one flaw, it was the color of their hair, which, though black, was not the true blue-black considered to be the pinnacle of magnificence.”
Mouse had heard that before. If there was any tinge of red in it (like Mouse’s), it wasn’t considered perfect hair. Though the monk went on to say that in every other respect their hair was like silk. Of course it was, Mouse thought.
One daughter had chosen the temple path at an early age and vanished from worldly life. The scholar’s second daughter, Alk Hanu, was required to travel all the way to the imperial island, a long and difficult journey. But she was not alone, for other girls traveled as well, many of them wealthy. She fell in with some of these on the boat during a slow, treacherous passage. Though the Alks had been connected to the imperial family five generations before, she had not been raised to insist upon being first, and as a scholar’s daughter, she was full of entertaining stories, so she was welcomed by the other candidates.
A storyteller? Mouse sat up straight.
The monk went on to describe the journey, which was of necessity slow. The sun was warm, and as young people will do when time hangs heavy on idle hands, their mouths kept busy. They talked a great deal, and Hanu began to learn how young nobles behaved. She did not think of marriage at all.
Mouse was liking this Hanu better and better. Except if that lesson was lurking somewhere. “I thought nobles all want to marry princes or princesses.”
“Not this one.”
“I do like her,” Mouse declared.
The monk explained very briefly that Hanu’s mother, the last of the Alk clan, had dutifully taken a consort in order to have an heir, but she had chosen a man a step lower in rank so that there could be no clan trouble when she parted with him after her daughters’ birth. “Scholar Bemti preferred the world of books to the noise of the outside world, and had raised her daughters to reflect that preference, one leaving the world entirely—”
One of Mouse’s shoulders jerked up. Here came the lesson about the Importance of Scholarship—as if those didn’t happen every single day from Mother.
The monk, interpreting this reaction, cut himself short (he had been about to describe how much the Alk daughters had prized learning) and resumed the story. “Hanu only wished to fit in rather than stand out, but such was her beauty that she stood out anyway, especially as she observed the others closely, for she had been trained to notice detail. Quietly she shed her rustic customs along the journey, for she was filial, and did not wish to cause ill reflection on the Alks.
And now we come back to Prince Enjai and his bodyguard Danno. Imperial guards are forbidden to marry during their time of service, except for Spring Festival babies, who are always considered auspicious—”
“I don’t get why everybody says it’s terrible when babies come if people aren’t married, except for Spring Festival babies,” Mouse said.
The monk eyed his small charge, deciding to keep it simple. “Many believe that if the gods decide to slip a soul back into the world as a result of Festival celebration, that child will be lucky, especially if it’s born right on the new year. Even if it comes a few days early or late, tradition is firm about considering it inauspicious to go against divine mandate.”
Sure enough, he saw Mouse promptly lose interest in the subject.
He went on. “Danno’s mother having been an imperial guard, and Danno a Spring Festival baby, he was given over to Imperial Prince Enjai’s mother’s household. Danno and Imperial Prince Enjai shared a milk nurse. Danno was to be Prince Enjai’s bodyguard, his only purpose to protect the prince with his life, and consequently became his closest companion . . .”
He went on to relate how the prince’s guards trained every day in the training court. Part of the day Prince Enjai trained with them. The rest of the day, the prince was tutored in scholarship, poetry, the arts, and imperial annals, while Danno continued his martial exercise—for the personal guard of a prince or princess must be among the best.
Mouse’s entire demeanor brightened. “How different is it from our training?”
“That you shall discover. Danno’s skills and talent showed early. By ten he could beat all the other boys in the court, and by fifteen, he was winning competitions against the lowest rank of the imperial guard. The Golden Armor General who commands the imperial guard even tried to lure him away, but he was loyal, and refused to go. And Prince Enjai would only trust the safety of his body to Danno. Before Danno turned twenty, he had twice been acknowledged the best swordsman in the imperial city, and twice he had saved the prince’s life . . .”
The monk said that when Prince Enjai was given his own household within the city, Danno, also twenty, was appointed head of the prince’s bodyguards. Usually an older, wiser man was given this stewardship, but Enjai did not want old men around him, and he extolled Danno as his brother.
Mouse said cautiously, “He doesn’t sound bad. If he was loyal to Danno, too.”
“That, you will discover. To resume. The prospective consorts and aunts assembled in the imperial city as the prospective brides arrived to be examined and tested.
“Some girls were rejected out of hand for being too tall, or too short, too thin, or too fat. This one’s nose was too prominent, and that one’s too undistinguished; this one’s eyes too close together, that one’s too far apart. One smiled too much, displaying her gums. The imperial consorts and aunts rejected anyone with what they considered physical flaws, for the sake of the family: they did not want such traits passing down to imperial children and tarnishing the purity of the imperial name. All those girls were sent back home. At the third round of tests, more candidates were sent away for ill-made letters, or clumsy stitches, or dull answers, or poor dancing. Finally they were down to those considered perfect in every way.”
Mouse scowled in perplexity. “How do they actually judge beauty once all those flaws are done away with? Second Brother says beauty is—”
“How indeed? By this point in the selection, judgment becomes more subjective, a matter of taste, and of political necessity, and finally the mystery of attraction. All were praised for the perfect melon-seed oval of their faces, the willow line of their brows, the smoothness of their skin, and so forth.
“Though the imperial consorts favored this or that daughter of important ministers or nobles, it was Hanu whom no one could find a flaw in, except for her lack of an influential clan. But her birth was distinguished enough to make up for it. And though she had not been trained in all the subtleties of the court bow, and how to command movement from room to room, she won favor in the royal consorts’ critical eyes not just for her polite manners, but for her thoughtful brow, and the way she did not giggle or flirt her fan or hair ornaments. The choice was at last reduced to five, at which time the prince was summoned to converse with the prospective brides from behind a silk screen, looked on by his mother.”
What the monk could not relate, but I can tell you, is that the first daughter of the Household Minister made languishing eyes at Imperial Prince Enjai, and flattered him with dulcet tones. The fifth daughter of the Minister of War managed to loosen her garments and tried to peek coyly behind the screen, for you have to remember he was very handsome as well an imperial prince, and she was desperate to get away from her crowded home where pride in a distinguished family history was about the only commodity in plenty.
The daughter of the Governor of Five Rivers Island waited complacently to be chosen, for she had been told from birth that she was more beautiful than the Morningstar God, and that her family—the Su clan—was destined for imperial rank.
The daughter of the Harbormaster from Crescent Moon Bay giggled incessantly, even when the prince’s mother asked her to sit down, and would she take a cup of scalded gold leaf?
In contrast, Hanu sat with her head lowered, replied in the voice of a scholar’s daughter, and employed no arts to attract or allure. They talked of books, then of history, of poetry and music, and he admitted to finding himself hard put to keep pace with her.
That led to a second interview without the screen.