This is an excerpt from my novella, Golden Fortune, Dragon Jade. (c) Alan Baxter 2016
Near Jiangmen, southern China, April 1859
Li Yong Fa paused among pine trees on the ridge and gazed into the valley below. Nestled in a deep vee of pale grey rock, bisected by a clear, rushing stream, was Long-en, the village of his birth. The houses with their red and green roof tiles and tan burnished wood seemed artificial from his vantage, like toys for children. People and carts in the narrow streets were as ants. A melancholy smile tugged at Yong Fa’s lips. He’d spent most of his life at the Shaolin Temple, but he cherished returning home, seeing loved ones, even though it held a special kind of hurt as well. He always wondered what might have been…
He shook himself, straightened his saffron jacket and the heavy wooden beads around his neck, and started down the winding path. Strong legs and fit lungs made short work of the journey. He passed no one along the way and entered Long-en from the southern end. Villagers paid him the respect due a Buddhist monk, with bows and palms pressed together. Some recognised him and were friendly as well as courteous, but most did not. It had been a long time, after all. Then the old pork bun seller with his rickety cart, who had been supplying the village for longer than Yong Fa had lived, came hurrying up the road, panting and sweating behind his creaking wagon.
“Yong Fa! You’re just in time!”
The young monk frowned. “For what?”
“The Jade Dragon!”
“What of it?”
Yong Fa’s mouth fell open. Their most valuable artefact, the heart of the village for centuries, kept in the temple maintained by his Uncle Bao. “Gone?”
“Stolen! Go, go!” The old man waved a stick-thin arm frantically behind himself, gesturing towards the temple.
Such a theft was unthinkable. Yong Fa thanked the bun seller and hurried away, his pleasure at homecoming shattered.
The temple stood at the centre of the small community, a three-tiered pagoda paying homage to the many gods of agriculture and protection, health and good fortune revered by the local populace. Long-en was a simple place, removed from the bustle of modern life. But one thing set Long-en apart from others of its kind: the Jade Dragon, carved by the master artisan Yao Gailing, five hundred years ago when the area was first settled. Long-en was proud of its history.
A dragon took pity on Yao Gailing, so the story went, as he stumbled through the land, lost, alone and heartbroken. Yao had been in love, his life mapped out, his fortunes grand, until a terrible illness took hold of the woman he loved, and slowly wasted her away. All he sought was a quiet place to live, and peace to mourn his beloved. Yao had no taste for company. The dragon, heart-sick at the man’s powerful grief, had split a mountain in two, releasing a small river so that Yao might have his isolation in the peace of the valley. Yao settled there, safe in the arm of stone. In gratitude and homage, Yao fashioned a statue in his saviour’s likeness from a boulder of the purest jade that had been washed free from the mountain by that new stream.
Two-feet long, intricately crafted and of the most flawless green, the Jade Dragon was revered by any who saw it. And its auspicious creation and heartfelt intent made it powerful. For centuries it had brought luck and prosperity to Long-en. How the world was changing, Yong Fa thought, if someone would steal such a holy item. And for what? To try to use its powers of protection for themselves? Or even worse, to sell? The theft motivated only for personal gain?
He approached the temple and his cousin, Zi Yi, was the first to spot him. Her face was pale under long black hair tied back in a braid. She wore her trademark olive green cheongsam dress. Yong Fa had lived in Long-en for only five years. The first three with parents he no longer remembered, murdered by bandits on the road far from town. One day he had been left with his father’s brother, Bao, when his parents travelled to the city far away, for papers. For administrative duties even they could not escape. And they had never returned.
So for two more years Yong Fa lived with Uncle Bao, Aunt Hua, and precocious Zi Yi, one year older and ten times bossier. Yet to this day, his cousin remained his best friend. His smile broke free at the sight of her. Uncle Bao and Aunt Hua, unable to afford two hungry mouths, had sent him to be raised in the Shaolin Temple when he turned five. He didn’t resent them for it, despite the fear and loneliness he had felt keenly at the time. It had given him a better life than he might have hoped for otherwise, but he often wondered…
Zi Yi hugged him tight. “Cousin! Your arrival is fortuitous.”
“The bun seller told me. Truly, it’s stolen?”
“My father is beside himself. He manned the temple all day yesterday, as usual. He locked up in the evening and returned home.” She gestured across the street to the small Li family house. “But this morning, the dragon was gone.”
Yong Fa squeezed her arm. “We’ll find the thief.”
They entered the temple to find Uncle Bao talking urgently with the village elders.
“Nephew!” Bao said. “ It is so good to see you, but today is a terrible day.”
Yong Fa’s expression was hard. “I will track down the culprit.”
“There are precious few clues,” Bao said. He shook his head. “There’s no sign of forced entry. Nothing. It’s as if a ghost spirited the Jade Dragon away.”
“May I search?” Yong Fa asked.
His uncle gestured widely with both hands. “Be my guest.”
“I will continue my own investigation,” Zi Yi said, and returned to the temple steps. Yong Fa watched as she removed some icons from the cross-body satchel she habitually wore, filled with the tools of her trade. Her geomantic skills were strong and her ability to commune with spirits unrivalled. While she learned what she could, Yong Fa would investigate the material realm.
He searched among the altars, checked the doors and shuttered windows. All were locked, as Bao had said. The central plinth where the Dragon usually sat was shocking in its nakedness, the blasphemy of the act stark in its absence. The place was immaculately clean, no traces of dirt on the floor, or dust on the furniture. No greasy fingerprints marked the gleaming wood. His Uncle did a superb job of maintaining the temple. Yong Fa sighed and looked up. The second level of the temple was mezzanine-style and the third had no floor, just a row of shuttered windows high above. An open column through the building allowed light in via the slats of all the shutters and showed the conical roof atop the temple, the underside of dull terracotta tiles supported by a hexagon of thick, polished wooden beams.
Yong Fa jogged up the internal stairs on one side and examined the windows there. They were all locked and undisturbed. The next row, some twenty feet above, could only be opened from inside by a long, hooked pole. Yong Fa squinted at a thin line of sunlight leaking crookedly through one of the high shutters.
He leaned over the railing and called down, “I think the thief came from above.”
Bao and the elders crowded around Yong Fa as he made his way outside and walked a circle of the outer temple wall.
“Surely no one could scale this building?” Bao said.
Yong Fa grinned. “Let’s find out, Uncle!”
He jumped up and caught the lintel of one window and began to climb. Ignoring the cries and admonishments from below, he concentrated on gripping with hardened fingers, relied on intensely trained muscles, and slowly ascended from window to beam to decorative addition. It was an arduous climb, but he made it look easy, until he found himself on the wall of the second floor, squatting on the top of a window frame. He was separated from the third row of shutters high above by smooth wooden boards, offering no handholds at all. The roof flared out over him, six sections of sweeping tile, a sloping polished beam between each one. At the end of each beam, a dragon’s head, beautifully carved, watched out over the village in every direction.
Yong Fa paused, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, using his mastery of the meditative practice of qi gong to calm his adrenalised pulse. He exhaled slowly, opened his eyes, concentrating only on the wooden sill of the small window directly above him. With a powerful push of his legs he jumped, stretched, and caught hold of it with confident hands. The gasps and shocked voices from below were as distant as the stars as he focussed only on securing his grip and bracing his feet against the wall. He glanced around, the valley stretched out behind him, pine trees and curling mist.
He spotted the one shutter that was ajar, its ledge scored and gouged as if by a giant bird’s claw. The paint was scuffed and scraped where something had been jimmied in the gap between shutter and building to flick the catch.
Yong Fa’s grip began to weaken, a tremor in his fingers.
“Uncle Bao,” he called. “Could you please unlatch this one?”
Bao nodded, and disappeared inside. A few moments later there was a rattling as the long pole was deployed. “Be careful, Yong Fa!”
The young monk grinned. “I will.”
He leaned over, opened the cover, and hauled himself inside to land lightly on the second floor. His Shaolin-trained skills made the drop easy.
“You’ve always been a risk taker,” Uncle Bao said with a frown. “Even when you were a baby before your parents…” Uncle Bao smiled sadly. “You gave them the run around, eh? And then me and your Aunt Hua.”
“I know my limits, Uncle. This was well within them.”
“Have you learned anything from your crazy acrobatics?”
Yong Fa smiled ruefully. “These windows here,” he indicated the second floor, “are locked with a hasp, but those above have a simple hook, because no one can get to them, after all. They don’t even really need to be locked, the hook simply to prevent them banging in the wind?”
“Quite so,” Bao said.
“Well, someone managed to get a grapple onto the window from outside and used a knife or similar to flick open that hook. They would have lowered themselves inside with a rope, I imagine, and escaped the same way, with the Jade Dragon. Except the damage their grapple made to the wood meant they couldn’t close the shutter properly.”
Bao used his pole to pull the shutter in and, indeed, it sat a little crooked in the frame.
“Whoever stole the dragon knew this temple well,” Yong Fa said.
Zi Yi, long accustomed to ignoring the noise of the world around her, sat in meditation. She was glad her crazy cousin was here, though who knew what he was up to. She let her mind’s eye wander the valley, circling gently outwards from the temple. Not far away, above the house of the local herbalist, a disturbance in the ether caught her attention. She respectfully acknowledged it.
“Greetings, Seeker,” the spirit whispered, its voice like a summer breeze through tall grass.
“Greetings,” she returned, and waited patiently, politely, her astral form hovering.
“We may converse if you wish,” the spirit said.
“Thank you. Were you here through the night?”
“And did you see any activity around our temple?”
“I saw your dragon leave.”
Zi Yi’s heart quickened. She needed to be careful with her wording, capricious as elemental spirits were, they often preferred games to simple facts. “Mighty Wind Spirit, master of all the air,” she said, buttering it up, “did you see who our dragon left with?”
“Who was it?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Kindness?” Zi Yi suggested.
“Why would you think me kind?”
Never would a spirit give anything, even the simplest of news, without exacting a price.
“What favour might I offer?” Zi Yi asked. In her thirty-one years she had racked up a sizeable debt of this sort, but luckily not many had yet come to claim their due. Those who had gave her nothing but trouble. But this was how the game was played.
The element danced in the air, formless but showing ripples like clouds reflected in water disturbed by a stone. “I need nothing from you, tiny flesh.” The conversation was clearly over.
Zi Yi sighed. “Very well. Thank you for your time.”
She pulled her spectral form away from the soft zephyr of laughter and pushed her perception along the main road out of the village. Several crows sat on one rooftop, cawing lazily. Opening her physical eyes, she looked through the real world at the dark birds. She pulled some fine paper, thin as hope, from her satchel and carefully crafted it, fold after fold until she held a tiny simulacrum of a corvid on her palm. She tapped it once on the head and whispered, “Crow Spirit, to me.”
With a shiver, the paper bird flapped its wings once and cocked its head to eye her.
“Thank you for coming,” she said with a smile. She nodded up to the birds on the eaves down the street. “Your friends might have seen someone leaving in the night. Someone with our jade dragon?”
“They might,” Crow Spirit replied cautiously.
“Could you describe the person?”
“He wore burgundy spun with threads of gold. The top of his head shone in the moonlight. He had a toxic shen, unkind.”
Zi Yi frowned. Such a description might fit any number of people. “Could your friends fly now, find him, tell me where he’s going?”
“They could,” Crow Spirit said. “But why would they?”
Zi Yi smiled. “I would owe you a favour if you help me until the man is found and our property returned to us.”
Crow Spirit hopped from paper foot to foot as he considered her offer. “I owe Fox Spirit a life.”
Zi Yi’s eyes widened. “A life?”
“A rabbit meal we stole from her, that she means to collect. Present Fox Spirit with the debt I owe her and your favour will be granted. I’ll stay with you until the man you seek is found.”
Zi Yi carefully kept her relief hidden. This bargain came cheaply. The interests of animal spirits often seemed laughable, but they drew no distinction between a rabbit or a man or a village, so it was ever wise to be cautious. “Very well,” she said. “I will supply a rabbit life for Fox Spirit.”
“And we will watch this man for you.”
(c) Alan Baxter 2016