This is part 2 of my Nanowrimo 2011 excerpts. Each writing session is unedited. I'll post the rest of this novel at the end of November, whether or not I manage to make it to 50,000 words or more.
The Temple of the Silver Bells stood high on Tong Mountain, its shining citadels visible for miles around. Nine delicate spires extended through the air, each one painted a different color, according to the Four Directions and Five Elements. East, South, West and North. Earth, Fire, Air, Water, Spirit. The soft chime of bells echoed over the valleys in a strangely wonderful nine-part harmony.
“How do they do that?” Li Ying-Ying marveled. She closed her eyes and savored the otherwordly sound. It seemed to reach out and touch her, making her tremble in its wake. The walls of the carriage vibrated in time.
“No one knows. It is one of the secrets of the Priestesses, I suppose,” answered her mother. Li Wai kept her gaze riveted to the view beyond the window curtains. She shivered at the damp chill and tightened her brocade robe around her slender form. Li Wai blew out a relieved sigh at the enraptured expression on her daughter's face: mouth open, head tilted to one side to hear the bells, eyes closed.
Yes, her eyes are closed. Li Wai felt the familiar stab of guilt at the thought. It was easier to look at Li Ying-Ying when those eyes were closed. Those weird, colorless eyes, so unlike Li Wai's own velvety brown. It gave Ying-Ying an exotic look, accented by high cheekbones, glossy black hair and perfect porcelain skin.
She is Goddess-touched. It will be better if she serves at the Temple, instead of being groomed as an administrator's wife. Again, Li Wai tried not to feel the relief as she remembered the soothsayer's words. She had glanced at Won Jia, the prospective bridegroom at nine years old, and nearly smiled at his shaky sigh of thanksgiving.
His father, Won Chu, had hid his disappointment well, but a match with the clear-eyed beauty of Tong Mountain would have enhanced his reputation. After all, Won Chu was the Emperor's Minister of Antiquities, and such an unusual addition to his family would bring curious academics to his door.
Li Wai thanked the Goddess for Her intervention. Ying-Ying was no precious artifact to be paraded around the Empire. The girl wouldn't last more than a month under envious eyes. The Goddess's Chosen dwelled within Her Temple, safe behind walls, protected from the greedy eyes of Man.
Ying-Ying opened her eyes. Li Wai flinched internally at the steady gaze; could her daughter read her mind and the tumultuous emotions within? The innocence in that gaze made Li Wai's throat tighten in pure dread.
“Mother...will they approve of me? Will they like me? Will they accept me as one of their own?”
“I don't know, my child. It is up to the Goddess herself, whether or not She finds you worthy to dwell within Her temple.” Li Wai wanted to stroke Ying-Ying's hair, like when she was a girl, but Li Wai kept her hands clenched within her lap. “I certainly have high hopes, but of course, that is a mother talking.”
Ying-Ying sighed as the deep vibrato of the bells resonated in the small carriage. “I hope so as well. I do love the sound of the bells. It's as if they have their own melody.”
Despite herself, Li Wai smiled a little. “Don't tell me that they speak directly to you.”
Those strange eyes regarded her with honest bewilderment. “Not in words, Mother, but they comfort me nonetheless.”
Li Wai shivered again, but still didn't extend a hand for comfort. “Then perhaps the Bells will choose you, then.”
The road turned from hard-packed dirt to stone and the wheels rattled in its wake. A pair of silver gates parted to allow the carriage through. The driver stopped at the guard house and exchanged words with the captain in low tones.
“Identification,” the captain said brusquely.
Li Wai reached into the beaded purse at her side and pulled out a bundle of elegant ivory slats, linked together with strong woven cord. She parted the curtain and passed the bundle into the captain's impatient hands. The soldier's eyes skimmed over the characters, blood red against the hard white, paying particular attention to the words outlined in gold leaf. After several tense minutes, the captain nodded to himself and pressed the slats back into Li Wai's hands.
“My apologies for the delay, Lady.” He turned and snapped an order to the phalanx of soldiers directly in front of the carriage's path. The men parted like leaves in the wake of the wind. The driver nicked softly at his horses and the carriage continued forward into the city.
Li Wai drew the curtain back over the window, but Ying-Ying peeked around the edge of the fabric on her side. “It is curious, Mother...the way you described the Temple grounds, I thought it would be less crowded than this.”
Li Wai chuckled and shook her head. “Tell me what you see with your clear eyes, Daughter.”
Ying-Ying inclined her head as she gazed at the tightly packed crowds. Li Wai didn't have to look out her own window to imagine the chaos outside. Goats bleated as they were herded to market. Sellers argued with buyers, musicians strummed their instruments, and military officers patrolled the streets. The smells overwhelmed Li Wai's sensitive nose: roasting meat, animal dung, fresh-cut flowers from the garden stands. She wrinkled her forehead, but Ying-Ying stared and drank in the hustle and bustle.
“I see all sorts of people: the young and the old, the strong and the weak. Ordinary people living extraordinary lives within the city walls. Has it always been so?”
“For eternities before, and most likely, for eternities to come.” Li Wai said. “Some lives are quite ordinary, my daughter. With any luck, yours may be.”
Ying-Ying regarded her mother again. “What if I do not want just 'an ordinary life'?”
“That is the Will of the Goddess, not yours,” Li Wai reminded her. “Being extraordinary brings misfortune and unwanted attention. There is peace in anonymity.”
“As one of the Chosen in the Temple? Is this the best place for me?”
Li Wai wasn't sure how to answer such complicated questions. She only said, “We shall see.”
Finally, the carriage began ascending at a steep angle, as it left the city behind in the mountain valley and headed up to the Temple proper. Ying-Ying gave in to tempation and pushed the curtain aside. She marveled at the narrow, paved road as it spiraled up the ridges of the Tong, and it wound tighter and tighter into itself. The sound of the busy city died away, and soon the clamor of the Bells surrounded them as completely as the mists. Ying-Ying watched as the wind snapped through the evergreens and skittered through babbling brooks. The view was indeed breathtaking.
She was very aware of her mother's intense scrutiny. There is peace in anonymity, Li Wai had told her. Of course, when one's eyes differed from the other girls in the family, being anonymous wasn't an option. Ying-Ying endured the rude stares and whispered titters for as long as she could remember. She told herself it didn't matter at all; what mattered was what she Saw on the inside.
The Sight was both a blessing and a curse. It warned her about potential dangers from unscrupulous people. It showed her what lurked deep under a false facade. It also set her apart from ones who considered her talent as unnatural. She avoided mistakes and dodged danger, so much that the gossips wondered if the Gods had cast her from a perfectly golden mold.
She was not infallable or invulnerable. It wasn't her fault that she paid attention to details that others ignored or missed,
Ying-Ying shook her head to herself. The mantra of the Shinwa maidens repeated itself in her mind. Be brave, but not boastful. Be gentle, not ghastly. Be precise, but not proud. Be dutiful, not daring. This is the code of the Shinwa people.
“Be ordinary, not extraordinary,” she murmured under her breath. There were men like Minister Won Chu, who saw her as nothing more than an exotic toy to be possessed, not cherished. If it weren't for her blue-gray eyes, the color of mountain mist, she would be ordinary indeed.
Again, she wished the Goddess would have made her a plain, homespun village girl. Her life would have been more difficult, but at least she would have been ordinary, as far as the world was concerned.
A painful pressure made her ears ache; she swallowed hard to relieve it. The nine separate chimes of the Temple Bells blended into a harmonious symphony, nine individual melodies contributing to the whole. Ying-Ying yearned to lose herself within that overwhelming sound.
And out of the mist rose the final gates leading to the Temple of the Bells. A cadre of guardians kept diligent watch at the entrance. As the carriage made its final approach, a sole shadow walked forward to greet it. Ying-Ying stared at the slight, muscular form that was meeting them. The gray armor was adorned with an elaborately carved breastplate of some sort of red metal. Two swords were slung behind the guardian's back, and the front baldric held a row of wicked-looking knives.
The guardian halted at her window. The cool, composed gaze weighed and measured Ying-Ying in one fell swoop. Before Ying-Ying had time to panic, the rosy red lips quirked upward in a dry smile.
“Be welcome, my Lady,” the guardian said in a soprano tone that carried across the path. “I am Captain Jiang Xia. I will accompany you the rest of the way to the Temple.”
Ying-Ying struggled to keep her jaw from dropping. Captain Jiang was a woman and a Temple guardian. She looked across to her mother, but Li Wai had a pleasantly neutral expression on her face. It hid her distaste at the fact that a Shinwa woman would dare defy the usual conventions. Ying-Ying, of course, wasn't fooled by Li Wai's polite demeanor.
Neither was Captain Jiang. The guardian's black eyes crinkled in wry humor, as if she had encountered such a reaction before. Ying-Ying found herself matching the wry smile; so much for being ordinary. If Captain Jiang served the Goddess, then She had a very funny sense of irony.
“Of course, Captain,” Li Wai said. Her mouth pursed as if she'd eaten an overly sour peach. “We are grateful of your protection.”
“My cadre protects the Temple grounds, Lady. No harm will come to you or your child, I swear it.” Captain Jiang nodded, then walked to the front of the carriage, where she swung herself onto the platform beside the driver. The carriage continued forward through the gates and into the courtyard.
Ying-Ying couldn't speak; not only was the captain's behavior unladylike, but had she winked at Ying-Ying before she moved out of sight? This encounter was nothing like she'd ever had before in her short life.
And then she saw the Temple of the Bells in all its glory, behind the mists that kept it hidden.
And it was beautiful. Blue and white stone, with steep green roofs inlaid with jade tile. The porches and railings were carved out of some sort of reddish wood, with emerald dragons twining over the surfaces. Round windows decorated with delicate latticework to match the large round door portals. Unlike the chaos of the city at the foot of the mountain, each detail stood out in pristine calm.
The bells finally tolled their customary greeting and fell silent. The quiet was louder than the noise, and Ying-Ying suddenly missed the chorus of the bells. Every soft footfall was magnified a thousandfold, every burble of water and sigh of the wind. The horses neighed softly as they halted in front of a steep stone staircase. It led directly to an elegantly wrought iron portal.
“We are here,” Li Wai whispered, as if raising her voice was tantamount to sacrilege on these sacred grounds.
The carriage door opened and Captain Jiang extended a hand to her. Li Wai took it with the same caution as if she was handling a poisonous viper. The captain assisted her to the cold stones of the pavilion, then offered the same courtesy to Ying-Ying. Ying-Ying accepted that courtesy; Captain Jiang's grip was sure but strong, respectful yet protective. When she was safely out of the carriage, Captain Jiang squeezed her hand briefly before letting go.
“Make sure the horses are groomed and wel-fed in the stables. I'll escort our honorable guests myself.” Jiang bowed her head to the ladies and added, “Please, follow me.”
They slowly climbed the steps to the iron portal. Ying-Ying held the hem of her robe up to keep it out of her way. Captain Jiang had no trouble keeping up; she could probably have leaped up the stairs without a care, heavy armor and all. Ying-Ying envied her, in a way.
She paused briefly at the threshhold of the portal, then took a deep breath and stepped over it. As soon as her feet touched the marble within, a current of warm air rose up and enfolded her. The abrupt change startled her...how was that possible? The heavy curtain of mist evaporated and gave way to bright sunlight.
Sunlight...and the scent of flowers in bloom. Ying-Ying tiptoed forward like a girl in a dream, eyes wide to take in the view in front of her. It was as if she had stepped into another world, one different from the cold reality outside.
“This is the Orchid Pavilion,” said Captain Jiang, as she removed her helmet. “The Temple Priestess know we have arrived; she will come momentarily.”
“How can this be?” Ying-Ying whispered, as she ran a finger down a trumpet-shaped lily. “Is this a dream?”
“It's whatever you wish it to be,” Jiang answered. “Your surprise is understandable. I reacted the same way, forty years ago, as a little girl newly arrived.”
“Forty years ago?” Li Wai raised her eyebrows at the white streaks through the captain's hair. Jiang's carefully braided crown ended in a topknot high on her head, with the remainder of her hair spilling out over her shoulders. Ying-Ying took a closer look at the laugh lines etched at the corners of Jiang's eyes and the lustrous glow within them.
“I've been in the service of the Goddess for most of my forty-six years,” Jiang confirmed in a matter of fact tone. “She decided to lay Her hand on me as a Temple guardian. I've had no regrets in Her choice.”
Ying-Ying marveled at the older woman's steadiness. “Perhaps I may become a guardian as well?”
“It is for the Goddess to decide, not for we mortals,” Jiang reminded her. “If that is your fate, then so be it. I think She may have other plans for you, little one.”
Li Wei shifted uncomfortably at the words. “As long as Ying-Ying lives without fear or shame, I will be content with whatever She decides.”
“We shall find out what Her intentions are, my Lady.”
An unexpected voice echoed in the pavilion. “Ah, Captain Jiang, these are our visitors? Be welcome, Lady Li Wai and Lady Li Ying. The Goddess smiles upon you both on this auspicious day.”
Ying-Ying glanced over her shoulder to see a woman in the ivory robes of a Priestess. The shimmery material floated like clouds around her tiny frame. As the Priestess glided forward, Ying-Ying saw that she was barely taller than her mother Li Wei. The Priestess raised her hands and dropped the hood to reveal her face.
She appeared to be perhaps fifteen years old, her skin like flawless cream, but her eyes were completely black, with tiny, diamond-like pinpricks of light, like heavenly stars.
Ying-Ying stifled a scream and took a step backwards. She tripped over the hem of her robe and landed hard on her back. Mortified, she tried to scramble back up, but her muscles froze on her. All she could do was stare, terrified, at those eyes that were windows to the cosmos. That one look paralyzed her vocal cords; not a squeak escaped her throat.
And the sound of bells rose up around her, the nine-part harmony of the Four Directions and the Five Elements, nine separate strands woven into one. Stars blossomed and died, galaxies whirled around in a cosmic dance, and planets spun in their orbits. It was deafening, it was overwhelming.
It was beautiful, with colors vibrating in time, fighting and surrendering at once.
Then Ying-Ying was plunged into a blue ocean, underneath an even bluer sky. The scream of sea birds filled her hearing, punctuated by the steady rhythm of the bells. An oddly detached part of her mind marveled, The ocean, the sky, are shades of the orbs I see in the mirror each day.
With a stomach-churning lurch, she found herself sitting up in the middle of the Orchid Pavilion. Li Wei knelt on one side of her, Captain Jiang on the other. A man with the green robes of a Healer hovered above her, his brow wrinkled in concern. The Priestess gazed down on her from her left...
Ying-Ying stared up into a pair of honey-brown eyes, set in a face that was old and young at the same time. There were no stars, no galaxies, no oceans hidden deep within. Did I imagine it?Was I overcome with fatigue and overexcitement? Lady Goddess, have I shamed myself in front of Your Priestess?
“No, you haven't,” the Priestess answered softly. “No, my child, you are not at fault. It is completely understandable.”
“What happened to me? I don't understand--”
“Every person who is touched by the Goddess receives a message. Nearly all do not understand it at the time, but when the future comes, all will be clear. You are so painfully young, Li Ying. You may not divine its meaning for years to come.” The Priestess gave her a reassuring smile. “We have not been properly introduced, child. I am Wang Sui Hei, and I am remiss in my duties as a hostess. Can you stand?”
“I think so.” The Healer and Li Wei supported her as she shakily got to her feet. Ying-Ying caught a look of utter dread on her mother's face and wondered at it.
“Healer Song, Captain Jiang, we will take her to the Lightning Hut. Li Wei, please come with me. We must talk.” Wang Sui Hei's voice remained soft, but there was a hint of steel through it that brooked no opposition.
Li Weil bowed low in obeisance and replied, “As you wish, my Lady.”
Captain Jiang also bowed her head, then turned to Ying-Ying with a reassuring smile. “Come. Lightning Hut serves the best tea and crackers. When was the last time you ate?”
“I had some noodles and a bit of wine for lunch--”
“--which was hours ago, I'm sure. Little wonder you felt faint.” Healer Song's words were blunt and kind at the same time. “A growing child needs sustenance. Captain Jiang is correct about the food and drink...we could all use some.”
Ying-Ying managed a nod, but said nothing more.
'Lightning Hut' reminded Ying-Ying of an elegant tea shop, with dark lacquered wood tables and padded cushions arranged in pleasing patterns. The sharp smell of black and green teas filled the air, a complement to the clean, astringent smoke from the braziers. The proprietor ushered them to a private room near the private gardens. Ying-Ying sat cross-legged on a huge cushion, as the proprietor mixed the tea and served it herself.
“Please, eat as much as you want,” she urged Ying-Ying. “A growing child is like a vine. It needs much sunlight and sustenance to grow strong and healthy.”
Ying-Ying tried not to roll her eyes at how fussy the proprietor seemed to be. The only thing that made it tolerable was the fact that the woman genuinely meant well. It wasn't like Li Wei's family, who mistook politeness for deceit. The sense of goodwill was welcome, but ingrained habits were difficult to break.
Healer Song pressed his hands around his tea cup and studied her from across the table. Ying-Ying tried to convince herself that this round-faced, gray-bearded man had the most honorable intentions. He seemed to pick up her unease and made no move to touch her.
“You know, hearing your accent brought me back to my own childhood,” he commented. “You sound like you're from the south...Siang Plateau or so?”
She snapped her eyes to him. “The Lis own land along the eastern edge of the Siang Plateau.”
“I know. My maternal ancestors include the Hukans, directly opposite you in the west.” Healer Song chuckled and smiled, revealing cheery dimples in his ample cheeks. “Don't worry; I'm a Healer and not a warrior. The best I can do is break bottles over stubborn heads.”
Ying-Ying's mouth twitched despite herself. The Hukans loved conflict; they were regarded as skilled fighters. Of course, not every one of them was in love with war. At first glance, she wouldn't have guessed he came from Hukan stock. In fact, he appeared very much the opposite.
“Then I should consider myself quite fortunate in your presence, sir.”
“Make no mistake: being a pacifist doesn't mean I'm passive. I'm a warrior for life, not death.” Healer Song sipped at his tea.