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.
Such was Hanu’s lack of experience with people she did not know—and the fact that she never looked directly at Prince Enjai—that she missed the clues to the fact that her manner had the opposite effect of her intent. It could be said that Prince Enjai found her elusive, which was perhaps more intriguing than the most expensive perfume, or jewels, or flirtatious behavior. He left that interview more determined to get her to look at him, and smile.
Meanwhile, the prince’s house was decorated with red bunting and streamers and banners with golden characters for good luck, longevity, and family. And the day considered most auspicious for a wedding dawned, the prince having made his decision.
The monk said, “To everyone’s surprise, including Hanu’s—especially Hanu’s—she was told that the prince had chosen her. Hanu found herself summoned before the consorts and told that she had won. A parade of maids brought in a beautiful red dress embroidered with gold, with a jeweled headdress, and because she had no dowry, she was presented with ten bolts of silk, two cups of pearls, and a purse of gold to take with her to the wedding.”
Without listening to anything she tried to say, the consorts lectured her on proper behavior in a prince’s household as she was dressed in red and gold. She was conducted to an imperial palanquin and carried with great parade to Imperial Prince Enjai’s manor, where she was met by him, dressed as a bridegroom in red and gold.
The imperial relatives had all gathered at the prince’s manor, except for the empress, who never left the imperial palace. But the imperial relatives were intimidating enough. Hanu tried to protest that she had never sought this honor, but no one listened, or they put down her quiet words to modesty. Because she had been taught not to speak to her elders and those in rank above her until spoken to, she had to go through the bowing ceremony, and the next thing she knew she was sitting in the bridal chamber. This was when the prince did not find the amenable bride he expected.
At this point, the monk began generalizing as Mouse listened half-comprehending.
“Hanu repeated what she had said from the start, that she had come because she was summoned but had not expected or even desired to marry. She had no wish to marry, she only wished to return to her mother, Scholar Alk Bemti, and her life on Lighthouse Promontory on Butterfly Island, and finish her scholarly training. The prince first laughed, thinking she made a joke; then he was offended.”
“Why didn’t he just let her go? There were all those others who wanted to marry him, is that not right?” Mouse then nodded, and with the air of one solving a mystery, observed, “You said nobody had ever said no to him, so he had a temper tantrum?”
“Even princes can lose face,” the monk said. “To be refused by a scholar’s daughter was an insult not easily recovered from. Especially when he had done her the honor of choosing her. And imperial law was very firmly on his side. It was his house, the servants his, and he had bestowed honor on her and thereby her family. As you know, the laws against all forms of slavery had changed under the Sage Empress, but tradition is still strong, especially in imperial households, and so, had he wanted to be more, ah, insistent, any objections Hanu might make would have been as disregarded as if a night bird wailed.”
The monk recollected his audience, and said hastily, “Never mind that. My point is, Prince Enjai believed that a reluctant bride was an insult. She must come to him with gratitude and appreciation for the honor he’d done to her. When she remained steadfast in wanting to go home, he had her locked in the Justice Wing at the other end of the training court, which housed little stone cells not large enough for anyone to stand. They were furnished with nothing but old straw. There she was to stay until she came to him on her knees. Each day Danno was to open the door long enough to put in a jug of water and to ask if she had come to her senses . . .”
Mouse listened in increasing indignation as the monk described how, each morning for five days, Danno opened the cell, which was until then only used for miscreants, and took out the empty jug, for she drank half and used the other half to wash. And each of four mornings she sat on the limp, dirty straw that she had neatened, her form erect and proper, and she remained silent. But each day her eyes were duller, her pallor worse, and on the last morning, when Danno opened the door, he found her lying insensate, for she had had nothing to eat for six days—including that first one.
Meanwhile the entire household walked with silent step, and fled at the sound of the angry prince’s approach, avoiding his inner chambers unless summoned.
When the prince heard that Hanu lay on the stone as if dead, still clad in her bridal gown of red and gold, his anger changed as the wind in a tempest, and he threatened the entire household with being boiled alive if she did not revive.
A physician was called, who administered congee by tiny golden spoonfuls, and when Hanu roused, the entire household breathed again.
“She woke to awareness of her situation,” the monk said, “but she was no longer bewildered. She was angry. However, she had come to understand the difference between a prince being angry and a scholar’s daughter being angry, for tradition, and power, was all on his side. When Prince Enjai entered this room while she sat there still bedraggled, she betrayed no shame at her disarray, for she did not believe herself at fault. She knelt with her back straight and her hands folded, and gave him the same answer: she did not want to be married, but to go home.”
What the monk could not know, was how the prince looked at her there, as she waited in her ruined bridal gown, pale and thin and determined, and many in that household thought that at this time he became truly intrigued. He had always won every contest he entered—though there was still the great struggle for the throne, which must be won by wit as well as by prowess. Perhaps he thought that if he could not win over a slip of a girl, what would that say about his chances of winning the throne?
And so he changed his tactic. She was given a fine room, and handmaids to tend her. The bridal finery was taken away, and she was offered costly robes of a wife, but she insisted on wearing the clothes of a scholar’s daughter that she had arrived with.
He began to show her great respect, the bow of husband to consort when they met, even if she returned the maiden’s bow. At every turn she was to see benefits of living in an imperial prince’s household. Every meal was served on gold and the thinnest, most luminous porcelain, always twenty-five dishes to choose from. He brought in musicians, and these she enjoyed, and scholars, and these she listened to, though she refused to speak before them.
The monk said, “Like most nobles, Prince Enjai had been given a fine library. Hanu understood that this library had just come to him and offered to catalogue it, and he granted her wish. I expect that each was mistaking the other: she thought she was offering him a valuable service instead of herself, and perhaps he would find another candidate for marriage and send her back to scholarship, whereas he was amused, and indulged her because he thought it would win her to his side. When each night before they parted Prince Enjai asked what she desired, she said it was to go home to her mother.
“This went on until he ran out of patience. On the last night, he asked what was so special about life with her mother that could not be bettered as the consort of an imperial prince. When he spoke she saw the signs of anger in his eyes, and the smile that showed even white teeth, but she did not suspect what was to come next.”
“You promised that this was not a tragic lesson,” Mouse interjected here, voice thin, scraping the edge of tears. Mouse hated injustice, and besides . . . “Mother doesn’t want me reading any of those ancient stories in which girls sacrifice themselves for someone else’s good.”
“And I wouldn’t tell you one,” the monk promised. “Be patient, and listen. Imperials are raised to believe that the lives of the common people are theirs to use, reward, or dispose as they wish. There came a day, dark indeed, when Prince Enjai informed Hanu that Scholar Alk had slipped on the rocks and fallen to the sea below, so that there was not even a body to be buried, therefore no proper gravesite to be tended. Scholar Alk had been replaced by a new scholar who had a primary husband, two side-consorts with their own consorts, and all their children, who filled the entire house. Hanu had no vestige of a home to go back to.
“She collapsed at this news, and begged for mourning cloth. Perhaps Prince Enjai felt remorse, or perhaps it was only that he did not want to lose face, for we must remember he had the succession duel among the imperial princes and princesses still to be fought, and there was much speculation, even wagers, going on among them. At any rate she was given the least room on the servants’ side of the manor overlooking the training court and the Justice Wing, to be guarded only by Danno and his most trusted men during her mourning. Then Prince Enjai rode off to attend the spring hunt with the imperial family, hosted by the First Imperial Prince, who was renowned for his military prowess.”
What the monk could not know was how, during the mourning period, while Hanu was in this small room with one window, she could unlatch it and peer out each warm spring day and see Danno training with the elite guard, when he returned from where he had been sent away on orders.
She recognized Danno by now, though the bodyguards of the elite all wore black instead of the brilliant colors reserved for the imperial court. Even their headbands were plain and black, no decoration signifying rank, much less nobles’ headgear.
Danno’s manners were impeccable, as were all the servants’. They obeyed without murmur; they never spoke unless asked a direct question. They demonstrated less emotion than did their masters, but she was beginning to descry that they had their own thoughts.
There was nothing brutal in Danno’s actions as he tended her. By now she had heard tales of brutality in other elite guards belonging to other houses. Young as he was, Danno did not tolerate it in his own guard, or toward the weak and lowly. He looked out for those under his command, and she could see that though all were loyal to the prince’s house, it was Danno who had their personal loyalty.
The monk said only, “When Prince Enjai returned from his outing, he was busy with court ritual most every day, for the imperial court was in the midst of negotiating a marriage for the crown princess that involved foreign princes and matters of state. While Hanu watched Danno and the elite guard in their daily training, Danno brought her meals, and took away the dishes, and stood over her while she washed out her mourning garb by herself, so that certain of the servants could not torment her.”
“So the bodyguard was her friend?”
“Gradually they began to speak. Danno had not been forbidden to speak to her—he was so silent by habit that it probably never occurred to Prince Enjai that they might talk. And even if he’d thought of it, who could predict that a short conversation about the weather, how long things took to dry, and then small questions about the training, could lead to friendship in each of them?”
The monk said “friendship” to suit his audience, but he did not quite comprehend how friendship could warm to something else. The truth was, though Prince Enjai was handsome, to her he could never be as appealing as Danno, his eyes well-spaced above the strong bones of his face. It was an interesting face to Hanu, and she began to feel rewarded as cups and pearls and gold could never match when she chanced to break Danno’s habitual impassivity and make him smile, however briefly. It was his eyes that smiled, rarely his mouth.
It became interesting to her to try to divine Danno’s thinking. Why he would choose to follow Imperial Prince Enjai, whose temper could change like the winds? She began to understand that Danno had been raised as a shadow brother to the prince, though he was the best swordsman in the imperial city.
Skill was important and admired, but rank was power. Hanu finally understood that the day would come when Prince Enjai’s patience would end, and so would her life. For living as she did with a view of the Justice Wing, she had also seen people go into those cells and not come out alive. Not all of these were thieves or petty criminals; a death was not considered murder when an imperial decreed it.
And so, alone in her room, she began to mirror what she saw in the training court, day after day. At first, her efforts were laughable. But not for long. As a girl she had daily clambered up and down the Promontory, and had danced all night at festivals. Though she’d been forced to be sedentary since her imprisonment, her muscles remembered how to move, and then she began the painful process of building new muscles, until she could mirror what the men did, though of course she had no weapons. But she brought to her study the determination she had brought to cataloguing that library—to which we will return.
“Hanu,” the monk said, “had come to the conclusion that she had two choices if she didn’t want to be carried out wrapped in white cloth like those victims from the Justice Wing: give in, or run. And if she ran, she must be strong and fleet enough to stay ahead of pursuit.”
Mouse had been curling into a small ball, but sat upright in hope. “Now I’m beginning to like this story.”
“The day she dreaded arrived at last, perhaps sped by Prince Enjai sensing something between the two, though he never saw either of them speak to the other. But as you have been taught, the language of muscle, of eye, is sometimes so subtle that the unobservant person still knows by instinct that there is hidden meaning. At any rate one night, after Hanu said once more that she wished to return to her mother, the angry prince said to Hanu, ‘Danno, tell her how her mother died. You were there to see it done.’ Then he walked out.”
“That’s horrible,” Mouse wailed.
The monk, seeing the sheen of tears, said, “I promise it will get better, but you must hear what each said.”
Mouse was caught up in the tale by then, thirsting for justice, as the monk related Danno’s speech to Hanu. “‘I did not find your mother at the lighthouse,’ Danno told her. ‘I sent my armed escort to search. Word soon was reported back that Scholar Alk Bemti stood on a cliff beside the waterfall, awaiting us. We proceeded there to confront her. She said only that she foresaw our coming, and that she would choose the manner of her own death. I stepped forward, drawing my sword, for I had been given a direct order, but I also knew that I could make the beheading with one stroke, which is as merciful as anything in the situation. But she stepped back and flung herself off the cliff.’
“Here he stopped, and gazed at the door instead of at her. When Hanu said to go on, he did. ‘We moved to the cliff and looked down. It was difficult to make out anything past the vapors rising from below, but there are those among the household guard who believe they saw her take wing and fly away. Others insisted that they only saw the streaming of her scholar’s sleeves and gown when she fell. I saw neither, and so I had to climb to the rocks below, with half my men. But search as we might, we found nothing aside from the treacherous water, and the sharp rocks.’ And then he dropped to his knees, and bowed forehead to the ground before saying, ‘I am sorry.’”
“What did she do?” Mouse asked, grinding chin into knees.
“While Danno told his tale, Hanu had been thinking very fast. The shock of her mother’s death was long over. There had to be a reason the prince had insisted on Danno telling her this story now. And she suspected that he would be asked to repeat her words. So she said only, ‘You were under orders.’ She knew by now that his choice, too, was to obey or die. Prince Enjai let five days pass. As they rode to an evening at an entertainment house given by one of the ministers, Enjai told Danno that on Harvest Moons Day—”
Perhaps craving a little distance, or relief, Mouse exclaimed, “When Phoenix Moon is biggest and rules the sky! I love moon cakes best of anything!”
The monk nodded. “It also signals the end of summer. Danno was told that the prince would put the question for the last time to Hanu, and if she proved recalcitrant, Danno was to strangle her, and they would give out that she had died of illness. The prince would try for another bride the following spring. After all, such stubborn stupidity would be an ill trait to pass down to his progeny. Danno bowed, as always, but his heart had turned to stone, for he had come to care for Hanu as she did for him . . .”
And now the monk leaned forward, talking fast. Danno, he explained, still had not been forbidden to speak to Hanu, so he warned her what was coming, which grieved them both. Seeing their grief mirrored in the other, at last they spoke their hearts.
They decided to flee, for his heart had so materially changed that he was willing to give up his entire life rather than kill her, and they laid careful plans. That much the monk knew.
What he did not know was why those plans did not succeed. That is because Danno was as inexperienced as Hanu in recognizing desire or intent. When dealing with the household servants, he’d quite properly avoided the gazes of the women, and paid no attention to those who would have gotten closer to him if they could.
There was one maid of the wardrobe with a nature as vindictive as it was ambitious. When he’d failed to respond to her advances, she had begun to spy on him, and discovered how long he remained in that room at the end of the Justice Wing. So she was watching when Danno took from the laundry area the dull blue and undyed garments worn by servants, to which he had no right.
As soon as she was certain the two had departed in disguise, she took time to dress in her best and do her hair becomingly before she went to the prince and fell at his feet, crying out her discovery. Enjai, infuriated both at the escape and in the delay in the telling, scarcely listened to her protestations of loyalty and devotion; in anger he ordered out horses and swordsmen, but he paused long enough to tell one of his guards to strangle the maid, for he would tolerate no spies in his house whom he had not set there himself.
“Though they had most of a day’s head start, they had no horses, of course, and run as they would, they were caught up by the next morning. Danno could feel their approach under his feet as they ran, and though the cause was fairly hopeless, he would not surrender their lives easily. He watched for a likely spot for defense. And now we come back to the library.”
“The library?” Mouse exclaimed.
“Hanu had made her own preparations. While cataloguing the library, she had discovered that much of it was trunks of very old scrolls and books that had been passed along the generations on his mother’s side. In some, the writing was in the ancient script—”
“I know that script!”
“Yes, you are learning it. And now you will discover how it can be useful. Alk Bemti, having been one of the islands’ foremost experts, had taught her daughter about the mysteries of Essence, which is . . .
“Inside all living things,” Mouse said impatiently, wanting to get to a good ending. “That causes us to live, and that powers the sun, the moons, and the world that is invisible as well as the visible world.”
“Correct. Before departing with Danno, Hanu had slipped into the otherwise unused library and written certain charms out on hoarded scraps of Essence paper found at the bottom of one trunk. “
“Did she remember to use the oldest paper?”
“Indeed! She knew that the older the paper, the more Essence it would have accumulated over the years, so she trusted these to be powerful charms indeed.”
“Good!” Mouse breathed in satisfaction.
“But even the most powerful charms are useless if not used effectively, and few will retain the presence of mind to apply them when confronted by an angry prince with armed men at his back. The pursuit had taken them all outside the city, Danno and Hanu’s goal having been to take the river road up to one of the temples for refuge, until they could figure out a destination . . .”
Danno understood very well that Prince Enjai was the more angry for the sense of betrayal he felt, added to his rejection. How could his own sworn brother turn on him? And how could this woman who had refused him, an imperial prince, claiming she had no wish to marry, then turn to a no-clan bodyguard who had not ten words to say for himself?
“The prince,” said the monk, “dismounted to vent his feelings, keeping his men well back. When Hanu dared to answer his question that love was like lightning—it struck when it would—he retorted, did she not understand that Danno was an assassin, with bloody hands. Her mother had been among his victims.
“She replied that the sword was not the murderer, only its wielder, and that Danno had been wielded by Prince Enjai as surely as Danno had wielded the sword. At which time Prince Enjai lost his temper entirely, and claimed that he would defeat Danno before killing them both with his own hands. He might have believed himself to be the better swordsman—”
“What strokes did they use? Did Enjai try the Serpent’s Sting? I’ll bet he only thought he mastered it—”
“This is not a sword-lesson story,” the monk reminded Mouse, trying not to laugh. “Unless you wish to take over and make it one? I’ll listen courteously.”
“Sorry, I’ll listen, I’ll listen.”
“Prince Enjai was good, as I said before. Good, perhaps very good, especially for a royal, but not great the way Danno was. No doubt Danno had let him win from time to time in their practices, if he deemed the prince’s efforts worthy, but Danno was by far superior. Prince Enjai soon knew it, they all could see it in his eyes, as sweat rolled down his face. But Danno could not entirely overcome a lifetime of training, and could not kill his prince, who was very near weeping, for they had been like brothers. All this Hanu saw, and was glad she had prepared . . .”
As the fight progressed, the guards staying well back at the direction of their prince—and in truth, they probably did not want to be the one to kill their former captain, to whom they had been loyal, and with whom many might have secretly sympathized—Hanu darted in a circle around the duelists, wailing and throwing up her hands. Each time she lowered her hands, she dropped a charm along the folds of her robe to the ground, then trod it into the dirt.
When the circle was complete, and the prince desperate for breath, Hanu suspected that the guards would soon be ordered to cut them down. She released the last charm into the air, a light ribbon of paper, and fog rose out of the ground, entwining horses, men, trees, shrubs.
Danno, seeing what Hanu had done, reversed his weapon and clubbed the prince across the back of his head. The two escaped into the fog, led by Hanu, who had marked out a path of retreat.
The men, enfogged, had to wait there for their silent prince to give orders, for they could not see that he lay unconscious on the ground.
“And they didn’t want to chase Danno and Hanu, did they?” Mouse interrupted.
“Some, perhaps. Others might have hoped for promotion or reward. We do not know their stories. Only that they were under orders to remain in that circle, and remain they did. Meanwhile the two made it down the cliffs to the river, and there they exchanged Hanu’s fine hairpin, which her mother had given her, for a small boat . . .”
The boat carried them straight to the sea, where they were first becalmed, and then overcome by a fierce storm. Behind them, the prince roused, and seeing in the dissipating fog that the two had fled, ordered a search, but he thought only of roads; when the storm overtook the searchers, nearly driving them off the road, they returned empty-handed to the capital.
Danno and Hanu spent days driven before the demon winds, desperately fighting to keep their craft afloat until their strength failed. Both expected to die, and at last fell into one another’s arms at the bottom of the boat, too exhausted to fight any more.
But the craft remained on the water, and they woke up at last on a beach amid the washed-up remains of their boat. While Danno struggled ashore to seek sustenance, Hanu crawled on her knees down to the tumbled wrack, until she found a stone studded with the remains of shells. This she took in both hands, and scraped it across her face. Then she took sandy salt water and rubbed it into the bleeding wounds, before she collapsed, not just from pain—she had already been in pain—but grief for her parents if they looked up from the underworld to see how she marred the body they had given her.
“It was then,” the monk said solemnly, knowing what reaction was to come, for he had told this story twice before, “that Hanu and Danno were discovered by the Sweetwater fishers going out to sea.”
Mouse gasped. “Here? OUR island? Wait, is that about my own mother and father? Is that how Mother’s face got ruined? I thought it was fire.”
“You shall hear what was said, and why. Danno was also near collapse, for they hadn’t eaten for days, and had only drunk rainwater. But he roused himself, staggering, to try to protect her with his bare hands, thus winning conditional respect before he, too, collapsed.
“They were nursed back to life. When left to rest, they held a whispered conference, deciding that their own names had brought them nothing but ill luck—and might even bring death, if Prince Enjai put them on a criminal list. Hanu would give up her claim to her family name, though she and her sister were the last of the Alk, five generations ago connected to the Empress Lam, who had married the first emperor of the Jehan Dynasty. They settled on Iley, or Dawn, for her, and he became Olt—”
“Which means carver in the village tongue! That IS Father and Mother! But I thought they came from the south, and her scars were from a fire . . . no, sorry, go on.”
“—which means ‘carver’, for the villagers had assumed that his calluses were due to toolmaking. Iley and Olt built a story about migrating from a crowded island suffering from drought, far to the south, which had too many people and not enough food, and escaping after a fire in which your mother’s face was burned by a flaming piece of roof that fell, and when the villagers assumed they had come from Anan or Min people (the first most common in the southern islands, and the second known mostly in the Eastern islands, but spread everywhere), Iley and Olt did not deny it.”
“Father! Mother,” Mouse whispered. This wasn’t just a story, it was real.
The monk went on to explains that, as the two regained strength, they learned the island language while hiding as much as they could the fact that they both spoke Imperial—she the ancient form often called scholarly, as well as the modern form, and he the accent and idiom of the military—though there was small chance the islanders would recognize it.
But all it would take is one person who did. They tried to repay their rescuers with work. It was soon observed that neither of them knew anything about cooking, or the making of cloth. But Olt, on recovering some stamina, proved to be very strong, and as he was exceedingly good with his hands—he was an expert at spear fishing by the end of his first day—he was much valued, and soon mastered wood-working.
Iley claimed to be an assistant to a ninth-level librarian, with herb-wife skills, which explained her lack of homemaking skills. And though she was deemed ugly, she was respected as a scholar; she freely shared her herb-knowledge, as there is no trained physician here, as you know. She was also willing to work the Pillars of Destiny for village births, though she was no augur, but as the villagers agreed, one small shrimp is better than a handful of seawater, and so the pair was welcomed into this village.
Mouse burst in, “And this is where you came to us, and make the best food, and teach us as well as tell us stories.”
“Not quite yet. Because island custom has it that all families must be sealed before the Snow Crane, God of the Abandoned, there was a village wedding which also made them part of the community. And when a phoenix feather dropped between them during the ritual, the shaman interpreted it as a sign that their union was blessed, and surely one of their children would bring greatness to the world, and the shaman appointed them a new branch of the Afan, or Feather clan, to acknowledge the propitious sign.”
“A real phoenix feather? Can I see it?”
“A real phoenix feather. You can, but you must ask your mother if you may, for she keeps it.”
“A phoenix feather. Of course it is an omen of greatness! Is that why everyone calls First Brother the future great one? I thought it was because he was born the Year of the Dragon. And all the heroes in the tales seem to be born the Year of the Dragon, or the Year of the Tiger.”
“It is indeed the real reason. Though you will not hear the phoenix feather talked of directly, for everyone who witnessed it falling that day agreed that to boast of it would be to invite bad luck for temerity. So it became a village secret.”
“I won’t tell. I have never told anyone about our lessons with Father in defense.”
“I know. Which is why you are hearing this story now. As for what happened after, Olt and Iley made their living as healer and a carver. And ten years later, their family began to increase, one, two—”
“One, two, and me.”
“One, two, and you.”
“First Brother Muinkanda. Mother told me it’s because of him we have ‘Kanda’ as our generation name, for Kanda who first wrote The Twenty-Five Virtues, and Muin with the pronunciation for ‘strong tree’.”
“And so it is.”
“Nobody in all three villages is better than First Brother with the wooden knife, except Father. And First Brother is as good with a spear as anyone, even the boys so big they’re getting hair on their faces—he once spread a fish as long as he is. The whole village feasted off that fish!”
“I remember. It’s good that you are proud of your brother. He is worthy of that pride.”
“Second Brother Yskanda, born year of the Horse, got ‘Ys’, which means in the old language ‘blessed’. Mama wants him to be a scholar.”
“It is so. Your second brother has clever fingers, and a very fine eye.”
“And I am me, Arikanda, with ‘Ari’ for peace, but I’m not very peaceable, which is why everyone in the family calls me Mouse. Born Year of the Dolphin. We will help First Brother on his path to greatness.”
“You help one another because that is a virtue. But you ought to remember that the shaman never said ‘their firstborn’, though everyone assumes it because that is tradition, and as you say, the Year of the Dragon is always regarded as auspicious for those with ambition. So it could very well be First Brother whose path was signified by the fall of the phoenix feather, but his story is his story, not told yet. This is your parents’ story, and my story is my story. Which someday you may learn, but not tonight.”
“That was a good story. I’d like to hear it again. Especially the last part, when they escape the evil prince.”
“Perhaps again, but there is a lesson after all. Which is: this story, and the phoenix feather, are your family secret, like your self-defense lessons. The three of you now know the truth about where you came from, and about why your parents never leave the village. Which is why, if anything should happen here and you find yourself separated from your family, you must make your way to any Snow Crane temple, and they will help you get to the great temple at Burning Rock Island. Remember that, the temple of the Snow Crane, God of the Abandoned, at Burning Rock Island. Remember, but never speak of it.”
“Keep that vow. You have learned how people in the village all know what everyone else does, says, or thinks, if they’ve once told someone. Because if one person talks, and the second person only tells a third, and the third tells only a fourth . . . before you know it village gossip is overheard by someone who is paid to overhear such things, because nobles and royals tend to have very long memories for insults, and the deep purses to fund their grudges. Your mother will never say so, but her dreams are haunted by the fear of the Imperial Guard showing up and hauling her and your father off to be executed in Lotus Blossom Square, and you children forced to your hands and knees to scrub up their blood before being sentenced to bondage for the rest of your lives.”
“I was going to ask if I could see the phoenix feather, but now I don’t even want to. I like knowing Mother and Father were heroes, even better than all the tales of the gallant wanderers, but I won’t talk about it ever, ever, ever.”