Kingdom Of The Blazing PhoenixBy: Julie C. Dao
The messenger came at dawn, riding up to the gates with a scroll in his hand.
Jade tensed as his looming black-robed figure emerged from the wintry forest mists, thinking at once of the bandits who had tried to attack the monastery three nights ago. They had been hungry and desperate enough to attempt to rob the monks of what little they had, and even after Abbess Lin had chased them away, the women lived in fear that they would return. Jade tightened her grip on her bucket of animal feed, wondering if it would be heavy enough to disarm him so she could sound the alarm.
But her fear turned into curiosity as the man approached. Not only was he by himself, but he rode an elegant black horse and his robes were trimmed with gold.
Auntie Ang hurried past with a lantern in her hand, breath emerging in the frigid air, her glance at Jade both reassuring and apprehensive as she approached him. “May I help you, sir?”
“I have two letters to deliver. One is for the abbess,” he told her in a deep, strident voice, passing the scroll through the gate. “She will know for whom the other is meant.”
The middle-aged monk accepted the missive, her eyes widening at something she saw upon it. “My goodness. This is from . . .”
Jade craned her neck. In the dim lantern light, she could see only a large black circle on the thick roll of paper. There could be nothing shocking in a seal. Abbess Lin had an entire shelf of rusty-red wax sticks in her quarters for correspondence.
But the messenger seemed to understand Auntie Ang’s awe. “See that it is delivered immediately.” As the monk bowed and left, the man caught sight of Jade standing in the shadows and went still. Even his horse held its breath; the little columns of smoke puffing from its nostrils disappeared. Something gold gleamed on his chest, an emblem that looked strangely familiar. It was clear he served someone of great importance.
Jade tried to remember her manners, but couldn’t find her voice and bowed instead. In one fluid motion, the messenger swung off his horse and returned the bow, much more deeply than hers. He wore a black hood that hid all but his eyes. “Princess,” he murmured, before climbing back on his horse and disappearing once more into the trees.
Now, there was a word she knew well.
There was often a princess in the children’s tales Amah still insisted on telling her, even though she was almost eighteen. It was a word meant for old stories and faded texts, a word that belonged to the outside world. It lived in the shaded leaves and branches of the Great Forest. It did not fit into her life, into the rough robes she wore or the sound of the morning’s first gong, waking the monks for prayer and meditation.
Jade pressed her face against the gate, watching the treetops shiver in the icy wind. Everything outside the monastery, from prowling bandits to cold-eyed messengers, seemed like a realm apart she was content to know only through Amah’s fables. She let out a slow sigh, wrapping her fingers around the bars that protected her.
Still, the coming of the messenger and the word he had uttered unnerved her.
It was as though the Great Forest had reached through the gates with branches like eager hands . . . as though that other world had, at last, found her.
Jade shut the door on the winter morning, puffing warmth into her cupped hands, and walked down a narrow corridor to the sleeping quarters. None of the rooms had doors. The floors and walls were of heavy stone, each with a small window set high above one or two straw pallets. Abbess Lin discouraged all ornamentation except flowers, with which Jade readily decorated her chamber in warmer months. When the frost came, however, she had to improvise.
Amah looked up when she entered, and clucked disapprovingly at the snow-kissed branches in her hands. “We have enough weeds already, little mouse.”
“They were so lovely, I couldn’t help it.” Jade placed them in a jar, then bent to kiss the old woman’s wrinkled cheek. “And don’t you think I’m too old for that silly nickname?”
“Don’t slouch. No woman in your family ever walked with anything but a straight back. And you’ll be my little mouse whether you’re seventeen or seventy.”
The nursemaid looked at her so fondly, Jade couldn’t find it in her heart to argue. She straightened obediently, pulling her shoulders back and her chin up. “You’ll hurt your eyes sewing this early with so little light. Is it something for my birthday, perhaps?”