This is a serialize story, collected in one part every five posts. Below are Parts 1-5
There was once an ancient empire. Crossing into the ends of the earth, it was crowned with a City of Legend, built solely to house the grandeur of the Ruler of all Kings, the Commander of the Elements, the Incarnation of Justice, the High Caliph of the Law: The Emperor. In his palace of high smooth walls there was a garden fenced with towering white marble where he kept the most beautiful woman from each of his many dominions. They were paid to him in tribute, every 10 years, chosen by the people of their native land, and reflected the many ways in which the subjects of the Empire understood the word “beauty”. The tall, proud people of the North sent their bravest woman; she was fierce and pure of heart. There was a woman more graceful than a swan gliding across a mirrored pond in springtime, sent from the jeweled forests of the East. There was a woman with round, clear eyes and a heart filled with kindness from the Isles in the West and a woman with a broad laughing smile and agile wit from the plains of the South. There was a woman from the rocky steppes who could bend sunlight around her curving hips and melt butter with the arch of her eyebrow. There were women from each corner of the empire, each a prize, each a walking demonstration of the might and reach of the Emperor.
He enjoyed the company of each of the women of of his garden as he saw fit, for Emperors did not take Empresses. He would chose in time, as his father had chosen before him, of his many sons the one who was best suited to rule. The Emperor himself had 5 brothers: the eldest of the same mother served as Steward of the City of Legend, Housecarl to the Palace of the Emperor; youngest of the same mother commanded the Imperial Army. The Emperor also had a half brother, nearly the same age, who wandered the Empire at will, bringing news from the furthest reaches of the realm. Another half brother was gone, disappeared into the darkness of a battle lost, fallen into death or enemy hands; they did not speak of him. The youngest brother was still young. Young and foolish enough to think he knew the world better than all of his learned tutors, and so he, too had vanished. The Emperor had a sister, married to a nearby lord, chosen only for the virtue of his proximity to her adoring brother, and six more for whom he cared little. These girls had either been sent home to their mother’s native land at the death of the old Emperor, or disappeared into the labyrinth of the City of Legend.
Lately, news had been brought by the wandering brother of new, exotic lands across the sea and of a people fit enough to be graced by the rule of the Emperor. Ships were dispatched, and officers of the Imperial Army charged with conquest and of bringing back to the Emperor the new province’s most beautiful woman. But the people of the far Eastern Isles cared little for the notion of conquest; the officers were welcomed as guests, and feted with humble hospitality. With their first mission so easily completed, the officers asked the people of the far Eastern Isles who was their most beautiful woman? Here the new language failed them. What did the strangers mean by “beautiful”? Your most valued woman, they said, but when the people pointed to the oldest and wisest woman among them, the soldiers shook their heads. A woman who is like that, suggested one of the officers, and pointed to a fantastically beautiful and ornate tropical bird. Ah, the people said, an “oni”, which in their language meant “united”, and pointed to a woman who was both man and woman in one body, arrayed in beautiful and ornate clothing, for the “oni” were sacred to them. No, the officers insisted, your most pleasing woman, the rarest and most precious to you. The storyteller?, suggested one of the children, and several of the people nodded in agreement, but we cannot do without her. Bring her to us, the soldiers demanded, or we will kill your wisest woman, and your “oni”, and every girl child on this island. Reluctantly, the storyteller was sent for.
The storyteller spent most of her days wandering the wild jungles, and this is where the soldiers found her. She was plain, ordinary to look at, with thin, limp hair and thin, limp limbs. When she heard the threats against her people she agreed to go at once, and promised the distraught villagers that her journey could only breed better stories. With their work complete, the officers of the Empire loaded their ships with strange birds, strange fruiting plants, strange shells, strange precious stones, and the strange woman. Throughout her long voyage across the seas she plied herself with the strange new language of the soldiers, re-learning her trade noun by verb, so that by the time she arrived in the City of Legend, the officers understood why her people had held her as the rarest and most precious of women.
The woman from the Far Eastern Isles, the newest tribute to the greatness of the All-Knowing, All-Seeing Emperor alighted from her sea-worn vessel in the dead of night. Weary from dank water and stale victuals, shaky from months of tossing seas, she was allowed to rest before being given formally into the ownership of His Greatness. Behind the high walls of the Palace, inside the towering fence of pure marble, she gazed at familiar stars and felt alone. What is your name?, called a clear voice in the Empire’s language from the depths of the garden, a tall figure crowned with white hair following on its heels. The-moon-as-it-is-waxing, in my people’s language, replied the storyteller, and you? Amused, or pleased, at the frankness of the storyteller’s reply, the woman of the people of the North answered, In the language of my home, The-evening-star-in-Winter. Already, they were friends.