Session 1: 11/1/11, 1327 words, unedited
Legacy of the Pearl Dragon
Clouds poured over Tong Mountain like sticky rice candy. It flowed into every nook and cranny, wrapping al in a cold mist. It sank deep into the bones and belly of man and beast and dripped from noses and eyelashes to soak into icy ground. Such was the winter in Sangou Valley.
Li Ying-Ying stirred the soup over the fire with wrinkled fingers. The delicious aroma rose with the smoke, filling the tent with hunger. Ying-Ying's stomach rumbled in response, but she told it to be patient.
Her voice rose and fell in time with the bubbling stew:
Soup from stone, soup from fire
Keep up all from hunger dire
Fill us all with warm desire
And the dragon stays away
Let him come another day
Clad in black and gold attire.
Another rumble shook the tent. Li Ying-Ying glanced up as raindrops fell through the smoke hole. She signed and murmured thanks to the Water Elemental for His timely intervention. With one jerk of her hand, she pulled the flap to the smoke hole closed and banked the fire.
"Nai-Nai! Nai-Nai!" A cacophony of laughter erupted outside the tent. Ying-Ying smiled as a group of miniature whriwinds burst into the tent. Five in all, three girls and two boys, their cheeks rosy with chill. Five sets of eyes looked at her with glorious adoration. Brown eyes, brown eyes, brown eyes, brown eyes...and blue, blue like Ying-Ying's own.
It was this blue-eyed girl who spoke first. "Guess what we did today, Nai-Nai?"
"Yes, guess, guess guess," chorused the children.
Ying-Ying shook her head. "What did you do today, Shu Ling?"
"We found a pearl in the river and kept it for you! Show her, Ming Kuo!"
The youngest brother reached into his yakka-skin jacket and brought out a bundle wrapped in silk. He knelt in front of Ying-Ying and raised the gift over his head. The other children fell to their knees and touched their foreheads to the floor of the tent.
"Thank you, Meng Kuo." Ying-Ying accepted the bundle with trembling hands. The folds fell away to reveal a single, snow-white pearl, perfectly round and perfectly lustrous. As the embers of the cooking fire danced across its surface, they gave the pearl a bluish tint.
Ying-Ying gazed at it, her own gray-blue eyes soft and focused. Her full lips twitched like a landed fish, as if stifling a laugh or a cry, or both.
"So it continues, my children," she said softly. "How curious that this pearl should make its way back to me."
Shu Ling did not raise her head, but her voice betrayed her curiosity. "What do you mean, Nai-Nai?"
"It happened a long time ago, on the other side of Tong Mountain, when I--" Ying-Ying shook her head and laughed. "Forgive me, my children. I grow old. Here I am, telling stories while your bellies grumble! Get up, you all, and make warm by the fire."
The children unfolded themselves and shook feeling back into their limbs. As Shu Ling assisted the younger ones out of their fur-lined, waterproof coats, Ying-Ying ladled the stew into bowls. In moments, they were sitting around the fire, eating and sharing the events of the day.
"Chu Rao, tell Nai-Nai about the hare that got away from us today," said Meng Kuo.
"The hare was this big," Chu Rao mumbled through a mouthful of stew. He waved his spoon in an approximation of something the height of a caribou. "And it had a long neck and droopy ears, and puffy tail. And feet. Really big feet."
"And breathed fire," added Liu Bai in a breathy voice. "And had sharp teeth. Didn't it, Chou Mei?"
THe fifth child nodded in agreement. "But it still looked like a hare. I mean, it was still a hare. I think."
Ying-Ying smiled as the children jumped up and re-enacted their fantastic tale. Chu Ruo showed how they followed the hare across the valley. Liu Bai leaped and bounced and tumbled head over heels, eluding Meng Kuo's grasp. Little Chou Mei added her commentary, correcting her siblings' mistakes.
"Then it stopped at the river, took one big leap and splash!" Liu Bai made one final enthusiastic leap. "It landed in the water and swam away."
"Hares don't swim," Chou Mei said primly. "I think it floated away."
Meng Kuo tried to follow it, but the water was too cold," said Chu Ruo helpfully.
His brother glared at him. "I'm not that stupid. Besides, I can't swim."
"And that's when we found the pearl," chirped Chou Mei. "We had to come and show you, Nai-Nai."
"So that's how you ended up at the river," Ying Ying said, "by following the long-necked, fire-breathing, big-footed, sharp-toothed hare."
THere was a pause, then the storytellers burst out, "Dai!"
"And let me guess. The hare wore the pearl on a silver chain on its back right foot, and as it dove into the water, the chain broke, and the pearl landed in the mud."
Meng Kuo shrugged. "It was cold and icky mud, Nai-Nai."
Ying-Ying exchanged smiles with Shu-Ling. The blue-eyed girl said nothing, but her eyes lit up with amusement at her younger siblings' tale.
Ying-Ying sat back among the cushions. "Well, since you have told me such an entertaining story, I will tell you one. A tale from long ago, when I was a girl about Chou Mei's age."
She got to her feet and went to the back of the tent. A pile of newly-tanned hides lay in a corner. She pushed them aside to reveal a small box, the size of her hand. As she ran her fingers over the lid, the lock opened with a soft click.
"What is that, Nai-Nai?" asked Shu Ling, as Ying-Ying rejoined them around the fire.
"A Gift from the Pearl Dragon." Ying-Ying opened the box. Multicolored silk lined the inside of it and cushioned a velvet panel in the middle. The panel held three perfectly round pears. A Yellow Pearl of the East, A Red Pearl of the SOurth, and a Black Pearl of the West. The Northern Place still lay empty.
"The circle is complete, the story is near its end. But the ending is the beginning once more, my children."
Ying-Ying took the white pearl and gently set it within the velvet panel The Four WInds and the Four Directions. She murmured a single word and the fire burst from its embers into a warm, glowing blanket. The children jumped and Chou Mei whimpered in fear. Shu Ling wrapped her arms around the little girl while Meng Kuo, Chu Ruo and Liu Bai clung to each other.
"It's all right. There's nothing to be afraid of," Ying-Ying reassured them. "See?"
She held the box out to the light and an image formed on the inside of the lid. A long, snake-like creature with claws at the end of its toes and horns on its head. Its scales shimmered with bright color, matching its full, elegant mane. Two tendrils drooped from each side of its nose, like a long mustache. They all watched as the pictured ebbed and flowed like liquid glass.
"Is that the Pearl Dragon?" Shu Li whispered.
"Yes," Ying-Ying whispered back. "My greatest friend and my greatest protector. One of the Messengers of the Gods Themselves." Her smile was gentle, but sad. "Would you like to hear my story?"
The children glanced at each other. "Is it scary, Nai-Nai?" Chu Ruo asked.
"Some, but it is also happy and sad, too."
"May we hear it, Nai-Nai?" asked Shu Li.
The others, encouraged by Shu Li's enthusiasm, echoed the question. Ying-Ying coaxed them close to her in a tight knot, then wrapped a warm woolen blanket around them all. She held the Pearl Dragon's Gift between her hands.
"It happened a long time ago, on the other side of the Tong Mountain, when I was a young Maiden of the Li clan..."