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White Jadea novel
By Anna Podhaski
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Anna Podhaski
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Chapter OneThe God of War
By the thousands they set themselves on fire and leaped from the top of the city walls like an endless shower of shooting stars against the night sky—stars that had somehow lost their glory by burning themselves out. The religious Taiping Rebellion that had once swept the nation had come to its own end. There would be no surrender. Those devotees who had not fled Nanking in retreat now rained down upon the earth and waterways like fireballs from the walls of the besieged and burning city. In this act of mass suicide, their shouts of resolute defiance echoed in the night air and would continue to resonate through the centuries to come.
Their charismatic leader, Hung Hsiu-Chuan, who had converted to his own form of Christianity, believing himself to be the number two son of the one God, had already ended his own life by taking poison. His body lay wrapped in silk, abandoned in a sewer underneath his palace. In the canals outside Nanking, piles of charred remains of his loyal dead and dying devotees floated like human rafts. A slow, steady current pushed them ever eastward, away from the chaos of the besieged holy compound, beyond the dragon gate, and out toward the Long River. In the shadow of a bridge, from among this steady stream of bodies and the stench of scorched flesh, Yu Wei reached out of the water and pulled himself onto the sloping shore.
Exhausted, he struggled for breath, his nose stinging as he blew out a spray of water. "Son of heaven," he uttered in disgust, looking back at the burning city. "You mad devil!" He choked out the words along with more canal water. Wei turned his eyes away from the flames, for he knew they were fueled by the devastated hopes and dreams of them all.
Pushing his body up with his arms, he leaned his head forward. He took a deep breath, forcing out the remains of the canal from his lungs. His stomach wrenched; water and bile spewed from his lips into the mud. When the spasms stopped, Wei leaned back on his haunches, wiping his forearm across his mouth and nose. He paused, stared at his sleeve, and then in a fury ripped off his yellow shirt, the last emblem of his allegiance, besides his long, flowing hair. Standing up, he wadded the shirt around his hand and threw it into the canal. The other Taiping emblems, his red turban and armband, had been long lost in the fighting.
Wei rubbed his face with his hands, then suddenly stopped. He cocked his head toward the sound of footsteps amplified in the night air, slapping against the clay path. He snapped around just in time to see a dark figure emerging from the shadows—quickly moving toward him along the edge of the embankment. Falling to the mud, Wei flattened his body, twisting his face to one side. He laid perfectly still, his eyes straining to peer upward. His heart pounded as his tense muscles surged with adrenaline. Slipping his hand along the side of his pants, he sought the ivory handle of his dagger. It was not there. "Aiya," he cursed under his breath. Digging his fingers into the mud, he readied for action.
The stranger drew near, moving with rapid yet faulted steps. As the man scurried past, the moonlight fell across his anxious face. Wei recognized him and lunged upward, catching the runner by the ankles. "Ah!" the man yelled, as he fell to the ground.
They struggled in the muddy vomit, until they were face to face. The man's eyes widened with recognition and terror. He gasped, fighting violently to get away.
Wei knew this spineless weakling to be no match for his own young muscles. They grappled, rolling down the bank into the water. Wei stood up with a firm grasp around the man's throat. "Tell me where it is, you murderous son of Satan!"
The man shook his head. "What? What do you mean?" Scrutinizing Wei's face he gasped, "Why, you're as mad as the rest of them."
"Stupid turtle!" Wei clenched his teeth, thrusting the protesting man's head beneath the water. The man's hands flailed wildly, grabbing at the air. Wei pulled him up, "If I were mad—do you not think—I would be as dead as the rest of them! Now tell me where it is!" He shook the quivering body. "Tell me or I will scatter your pieces where your clan will never find you!"
Clutching Wei's hands, the man gasped and sputtered, "It is of no importance." Wei began to shove his head into the water. "Wait! Wait, cousin!" the man screamed. Wei stopped but did not release his hold. "It is not here. It is at the home of Jong Zhenqiang in Sichuan, a gift for his daughter. I tell you this White Jade you seek is nothing, nothing—a mere bridal trinket!"
"Are you certain she has it?"
"Yes! Yes! I delivered it myself!"
Wei pulled the man toward him, staring into his face. "Tell me who else knows of this!"
"No one, no one else knows!" The man began breathing more easily.
"I know this man, this Zhenqiang of Sichuan," Wei muttered.
"Yes! Yes! That is he, a man from your very own province, a friend of your own father, no doubt, and I his confidant. I tell you, it is of no use to you. It is long gone from Nanking. Forget about it. I can get you treasures far more valuable, cousin, right from under the eyes and the ears of the imperial palace!"
"You have told no one of this?"
"No one, believe me, cousin."
Wei stared like a bird of prey into the anguished eyes of his captive, then nodded his head. "I believe you," he said, shoving the man's head beneath the water, holding him down until all movement had stopped, until there was nothing.
"It will be in my hands soon," Wei muttered, gazing toward the city, trancelike, as he released the body into the slow, steady current of the canal.
With new hope, oblivious to the thunder of horses approaching and the shouting of men, he raised his fist into the air.
"Pitiful, barking dog, that we should have ever followed you to our destruction! Die, and with you your mad dreams and foreign gods! I shall lead my brothers"—he hit his fist against his chest—"and our allegiance will be only to the House of Ming and, as for a god, to Kuan Kung, the god of war!" He screamed his words. "This will not be the end for me—this, this is the beginning!" His whole body began to shake with laughter. "Did you think this would be the end of me too? Not so, my brother! Not so!"
He bent over, holding his sides, with this sudden, uncontrollable laughter. When the laughter ceased, he raised his face slowly, his eyes ablaze with a vision of purpose. "I shall have the White Jade—and all of its power and luck—if it takes eternity! I am a patient man, and one day everyone shall know of me! Do you hear me? Everyone!" He pounded his chest.
He waded three steps closer toward the flaming walls on the horizon, and with each step he thrust his fist into the air yelling, "Hoi! Hoi! Hoi!"
Behind him the embankment swarmed with imperial soldiers, some on horseback, others on foot. "That crazed one over there. Don't let him escape," one man shouted, "and do not lose him from his head. We do not want his crazed spirit free to give us trouble." Several men on horses splashed through the shallow water.
Wei turned and upon seeing them started to run, but they ran him down. Several foot soldiers surrounded him, grabbing his arms and dragging him to shore.
"Put this one with the rest of the prisoners," ordered the captain.
A soldier tied Wei's hands to a long rope and hooked it on his saddle. Barely managing to stay upright, and again laughing, Wei, alongside other prisoners who, for one reason or another, had been spared an instant beheading, ran behind the horses—back toward the burning city.
Chapter TwoBrave Flower of Springtime Coming
Jong Meili sat on a bench in the shade beside the courtyard pond, her heart and mind consumed with the fears her lips were forbidden to speak. Her turbulent eyes tracked a sprinkling of red leaves spiraling down from the bamboo trees.
Though she watched with half expectancy as they dropped in a cluster on the pond, no golden or spotted koi darted under the water's surface nor bobbed wide-mouthed, hungry to inspect the intrusion. The young woman sighed, missing the things that had once populated her family's pool—the fish, the turtles, the floating lilies and pink lotus plants. Even the reflections of happy and prosperous times for the Jong family had vanished.
"Now that your emperor is dead, you too shall be banished from the kingdom, just like all the rest," she murmured to her own murky likeness staring back at her from the water. It was a halfhearted attempt at playing her old childhood game of warrior empress. "What do you have to say? I see.... What's this? You refuse to speak? Do you want to be lose of your tongue! Perhaps I shall be merciful this time, for I already know your thoughts, and they," she sighed again, "are as dark as my own." Her eyes filled with tears.
The round face staring back at her was almost unrecognizable. A professional barber summoned to the house earlier had shaved Meili's hairline, producing a desirable broad and prominent forehead. He finished by powdering it lightly with white rice flour.
She ran her fingers along her eyebrows, which had also been carefully plucked by the barber into thin arched lines resembling the wings of a bird about to take flight.
She remembered how her amah, Lao Mu, had clapped her hands at the barber, with anger spewing from her lips. "You incompetent fool! You call that contorted donkey turd a chignon! A mad dog could do as well! Out!" she had screamed. With her red-rimmed eyes bulging, she threw two coppers at the man. The barber had quickly gathered up his utensils along with the half payment of coins and darted out of the gate, chased by the wrathful spirits of Lao Mu's words.
Meili's thoughts suddenly awoke from that morning's recollections as her tall amah's reflection appeared in the water beside her.
"Now we shall see what can be done. Stupid barber, donkey of a man, what does he know? I do not care how lucky he is with many sons; I will take care of this myself," her amah declared, holding a shell comb and a pottery jar of pomelo oil. She placed the jar and the comb on the bench, while her purplish lips were still in motion with the muttering of more indistinct profanities.
With a look of marked determination, Lao Mu scooped from the jar a generous handful of pomade and began rubbing the oil diligently into Meili's thick, waist-long hair. As she worked, the delicate scent of white sandalwood wafted from the perfumed strands. Next she combed them until they glistened a bluish black. She rubbed her hand from the forehead to the base of Meili's skull, ensuring that every wisp of hair lay flat, glued to the scalp by the pomade. "There! Everyone can see with his own eyes that you are one with a smooth head. No bumps shows that you are one with smooth, even-tempered thoughts," the amah boasted, pulling the bulk of the hair to the back of Meili's neck.
"Ow!" Meili cried out.
"Oh, squawking chicken, excuse this old amah. She must be confused today. It seems she has mistaken you for her young mistress with proper manners," the nurse chided.
Amused, Meili snickered, then crinkled her nose and winced as her amah pulled on her hair while pushing the top of Meili's head downward to get at the nape of Meili's neck. "Now, keep your head down!" the old woman ordered, arranging the strands of hair into a perfect marriage chignon.
Looking down into the pond, Meili smiled at this new look, revealing an indentation in each of her round cheeks. At least, she mused, they have not plucked out my dimples. But those dimples faded once again, as she thought of how desperate times had changed not just her own face but the face of the entire Jong family. Their once lavish lifestyle, like the hairs of her eyebrows, had been yanked from them as well. Each precious belonging, piece by piece, had left their compound, sold or traded away.
"Why must everything change?" she complained aloud.
"Hold still," her amah ordered, ignoring the question as she positioned a beaded comb in Meili's hair.
"They have traded me for this thing they were wanting, haven't they?" she burst out, twisting around on the bench, throwing her arms around her amah's hips and pressing her face against the woman's long cotton shirt. Lao Mu's hands flung upward in surprise.
"Aiya, you will make a mess of all I have done!" She looked down at the girl with a furrowed brow that slowly softened. Meili clung to her, weeping. Lao Mu's hands fell gently upon her young charge's head and shoulder. Sighing and caressing Meili, she gazed across the stark courtyard.
"Ah, now, what words can this old amah tell you? Only that what you question is the li of life, which runs its course like a steady, winding river. A defiant undisciplined nature cannot change that. All must take the journey. There is nothing to be done about it. One must remember: no matter which way the river winds, happy or sad, in the end it always returns to the sea. Always, everything comes to its own end. You must be diligent and make the best of what befalls you in this life." Her voice cracked.
Meili looked up to see the woman wiping away tears. "I will miss my little flower who bloomed under my careful eye in this courtyard." The old woman shook for a moment in silent weeping.
"Lao Mu, I will not leave you!" Meili cried out. "They cannot force me to go." Tears streamed down her face, lining the delicate touch of rice powder that had been so carefully applied.
Sniffing, the older woman scolded, "Do you want such a wild tongue to make a spirit beggar of you? Such insolence of daughters and wives has gotten them blue faces, strangled by their own families! Stupid wives who lose favor with their husband's families have ended up with their necks tied to the bottom of water barrels! Daughters who cause their own families to lose face," she bent down and whispered, "have even been buried alive right in their own coffins!" Her eyes flashed at Meili.
It was true—Lao Mu knew the worst of all things that could happen to a person in this life, Meili thought, as she shook her head no.
Pausing her tales of punishment, the middle-aged woman, holding one nostril closed, blew out the contents of the other into a spittoon sitting beside the bench. She went on: "Do you not think my heart cries out to the Goddess of Mercy, pleading with her, not yet, not yet? But the barren courtyard whispers back, 'It is time for Little Sister to leave.'" She sighed, "The beauty of this place has died with your father. You, my little flower, can thrive only in a courtyard full of life."
"Then come with me! You are my amah!" Meili sobbed.
"Ay, I shall always be your true amah, and you the flower of my heart, just as you were the flower of your father's heart. If times were different, I might well have been a part of your trousseau. But as things are, my duty lies here. I have your brothers and nephews to attend. I cannot leave. Who would do this task?" She shrugged, throwing her hands up in the air.
Excerpted from White Jade by Anna Podhaski Copyright © 2010 by Anna Podhaski. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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