This is a serialized story, collected in one blog every 5 posts. Part 1 can be found here
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.
On the seventh day after the return of the Grand Imperial Flotilla from its year-long mission to the newly discovered and most loyal Province of the Empire, Ruler of all Kings, the Commander of the Elements, the Incarnation of Justice, the High Caliph of the Law, The Emperor was presented with the most precious and rarest of all women of the Far Eastern Isles. She stood in the center of a crowded portico the size of a cathedral, arrayed self-consciously in what flowers, leaves, and textiles had survived the journey from her home and waited, patiently yet nervously, for the Emperor to bid her begin the task she assumed she had been brought so far to fulfill, and tell the story of her people. He did not. Upon his dais of the 47 steps, flanked on his right by his older brother, the Steward of the City of Legend, and on his left by his younger brother, the High Commander of the Imperial Army, the Emperor gave half a glance to the woman of the Far Eastern Isles as he turned his head to give a raised eyebrow and a knowing glance to his sister, Grand Duchess of the neighboring Valley of the Sun, as she stood before her fat and aging husband and smiled at him in derision of his newest acquisition.
The most precious and rarest of all women of the Far Eastern Isles was confused, and sad, as if she had failed the trust of her people far away and the expectations of the strange new people of the City of Legend. She felt as faded as the flowers in her hair; creased, then smoothed, then creased again. Was she not the most precious and rarest of all women? Was she not chosen from all the women of the Far Eastern Isles, and was her presence not so desperately wanted that the lives of every girl child, of every important woman of her people were put at risk? The-evening-star-in-Winter waited just inside the towering marble fence, and saw these questions burn a familiar path across The-moon-as-it-is-waxing’s face, as the roots of a burned stump, igniting underground, changing it from hope to insecurity. She did not wish this for her friend. Moon, she called, her back as straight as her resolve, we are leaving. And the storyteller looked up at her friend, and cooled the fires inside her, burning with a fuel she did not know she possessed, and nodded in agreement.
The Grand Duchess of the Valley of the Sun had a golden goblet in the keeping of the Palace of the Emperor, for her use when she visited. The Duchess had a golden laugh released with effervescent delight while in the Palace of the Emperor, used only when she visited. The Lady of the Sun smiled over her golden goblet, threw her golden laugh over the noisy banquet, and spoke in turn to her brothers. How are the refurbishments progressing dear brother?, she considerately inquired of The Steward, who suddenly felt ill-prepared for the next phase of construction. How has the winter treated your soldiers encamped?, she perceptively asked the High Commander, and suspicions of mutiny suddenly played at the corners of his mind. And how does your newest tribute rank against the other flowers in your garden?, she playfully enjoined to The Emperor. I would not know, he quipped with shrug, this is the first I have seen her, as she has been recovering from her long journey. Oh I see, returned the Lady of Gold and Light, what a pity. And The Emperor rather quietly yet swiftly felt a measure of his omnipotence lacking.
When the morning had broadened into day and the duties of the Empire allowed for a pause, The Emperor, the Incarnation of Justice, made it known that he would visit his garden of the rarest and most precious women of his vast dominion. Word was speedily sent, and the women prepared themselves. The-evening-star-in-winter, most beautiful of the women of the North, knew at once what this visit meant for her friend. Hide yourself, she instructed The-moon-as-it-is-waxing, wrap yourself up and go to your bed and do not show your face to anyone. The sternness of her tone frightened Moon, and she obeyed. The Emperor was preceded by trumpets, then guards, then lavishly dressed courtiers. Engaged in conversation with the Grand Duchess of the Valley of this Sun, he swung into the garden on wide strides of studied nonchalance. The women of the garden cooed; Star bristled. She allowed the abundance of greetings to ebb before informing The Emperor that his newest acquisition was unfortunately unable to present herself on this most gracious visit; having dined yesterday on foods so lavish and exquisite her stomach, used to far coarser and simpler fare, was in revolt. The Emperor was flattered and relieved of the obligation to impress the Duchess; he barely repressed a smirk, taken for amused condescension, and turned to delight himself with the company of the woman from the rocky steppes. The Lady of the Sun narrowed her eyes knowingly at Star, and led the courtiers’ exit.
The rarest and most precious of all the women of the tall, proud people of the North, who valued courage and purity of heart above all other virtues, was about to prove her worth. Star was brave, but not reckless. Long had been her tenure on the paths of the marble fenced garden and heavily ground the hours of inactivity; she was not made to be looked upon, she was made to watch. She sensed the rhythm of the Palace of The Emperor as one would feel the slow but steady inhalation and exhalation of a cohabitant dragon, whose slumber meant survival. She waited for her moment in the blindness of the fenced garden – The Emperor at last made ready to leave, and a phalanx of servants ready to tidy the remains of his enjoyment perched just beyond the periphery of his awareness. Star went to her friend. Do you still have the clothing you arrived in? she whispered. Yes, replied Moon, although they tried to take it from me. I’ve hidden it away. Then find it now, and quickly, rasped Star, we are leaving, but we must go now. And Moon was frightened by the prospect of escape, of stealing back herself, but she felt alive for the first time since she had arrived in the City of Legend and she gathered her things.