Sunday, May 15, 2016

Women of Stone and Steel - Chapter 1

If you do not see it then you cannot reach for it
If you do not reach for it then you cannot grasp it
If you do not grasp it then it cannot be yours
And if it is not yours then you cannot let it go.

- Stone Teachings

A young woman walked up and down the aisles, checking each student as they rolled up their bedding, placed their sitting mats on the floor, and prepared their desks. Some practiced their calligraphy in anticipation, even at this early hour with only the light of the fire and oil lamps to reveal their efforts. If a promising stroke appeared on mulberry paper, the teacher would recognize the student with a soft pat on their head as she passed by.

The appointed time was marked by sunlight peeking over the windowsill, and the teacher clapped her hands once. The students straightened their blank papers and laid their brushes down, and then rose from their mats to stand at attention.

“Children, we shall offer a gracious welcome for a special benefactor who honors us today.” The teacher turned towards the doorway and in a single, graceful movement brought her palms together and bowed low. All the students did their best to echo her motion.

An old, stooped woman slowly walked to the front of the room and stood at the window, staring outward. She briefly closed her eyes to capture the sun's warmth from the far horizon, and then turned to face the children. She pressed a closed fist to an open palm in a gesture of thanks, and then motioned for the children to sit.

“Good morning students,” she said, her voice low and soft but carrying to the edges of the large room.

She wore a white shenyi that was void of any design except for the red tips at the edges of her collar. A black silken sash was wrapped around her waist three times and knotted on her left side. The knot held a small scabbard from which protruded an ivory handle with faint black arches tracing up the shaft and ending in a swirl around a red gemstone pommel. The children could not see that the ivory had been worn smooth over the many years the dagger had been wielded by this woman and others before her.

“Thank you for granting me this visit,” the old woman said, bowing slightly towards the teacher who sat tending the fire pit. She turned back to the students, noticing the few who had already taken up their brushes, "and for your indulgences during our time together. Some of you may grow hungry and some of you may grow weary long before I am finished. Even so, I pray my stories are deserving of the beauty and strength of your script.”

She looked at each girl who sat before her. She knew in that look which student would sneak from their lunch, which would fall asleep, and which would anxiously raise their hand so that the old woman would pause long enough for their scribbling to catch up to her words. She sought in each face for the student who would be elevated by her stories, and whose imagination would render themselves within the crisp and delicate strokes of ink on paper.

“What I tell you now is true, and I offer my stories as proof that no matter the scoldings of your parents, no matter the constable's threats. Whether you are from the wealthiest of families, or punished for the crumbs you stole for your family's dinner. May each of you become what you desire. A mother, a teacher. A warrior or, perhaps, even an Emperor.”

Her gaze flickered over two girls with close-cropped hair, wearing plain hemp outfits, and who sat in the very last row. They resembled each other nearly to perfection in their looks and in their bearing. She addressed them as she addressed the whole classroom.

"For you, desire and destiny may yet intertwine."

The Sapphire Throne

A keening wail was heard coming from the bedchambers of the Empress. A dream that was not a dream had struck the young woman in her sleep, and she rose with tears streaming down her face. She waved away her Courtesans who tried to console her but knew not why their Empress was so distraught.

In the throes of her premonition, the woman stumbled blindly through her chambers until she touched upon her desk. She felt for and then grasped a long, sharp letter knife and began to shear the hair from her head. The long black strands floated to the ground, some still clinging to patches of bloody scalp. Her Lady-in-Waiting tried desperately to keep the Queen’s hand from slicing and cutting, and received a large cut on her own hand for her efforts.

The other Courtesans ran screaming from the room, scurrying towards the outer chambers and calling for the few Royal Guards who had been charged to remain and protect the Emperor's palace when he had gone to rouse his armies so many months ago.

“What is it, my Queen,” the Lady-in-Waiting pleaded as she wrapped a strip of cloth around her bloodied hand, “please tell me what distresses you, so that I may vanquish such troubles?”

The Empress stopped her cutting only because there was no more hair and just a few patches of stubble remained. She moved her head as if in response to the other woman’s voice. But she did not hear, nor did she see her Lady.

“My son,” the Empress moaned, “who would do this to you? Who will spend his arrows, to bite into your chest? Who will take up their blade, to cut away your manhood?” With each question she stabbed herself with the letter knife, drawing blood from her own chest and abdomen.

The Lady-in-Waiting screamed in horror as she witnessed the indelicate carvings the Empress applied to her body and who finally slumped to the ground, having cut off her breasts and sliced down until the knife cleared the space between her legs.

The Royal Guards rushed in, the Courtesans jabbering behind them until they saw their Queen a bloody mass on the chamber floor. Some screamed, some fainted, others wept as they fled from the room. The Lady-in-Waiting called for the Doctor but the Guards could only shake their heads and tell of the Emperor’s requirement that the Doctor ride with their King to war.

The Lady slapped the remaining Courtesans from their faints, and the guards retreated as the women took up their Empress and began administrations. Herbs and spices were ground between mortar and pestle. Cooking fires were built and copper pots bubbled and boiled over. Stone chimes were strummed so that the five healing tones flowed throughout the room, and all manner of cloths were stained red and taken away.

The Lady-in-Waiting ignored the pain of her own injured hand, and used every lesson her Empress had taught to cauterize the wounds and stop the bleeding. She force-fed tinctures to ensure her Queen would sleep through the pain, though she would not be entirely numb to the worst of it. The needle had to be replaced many times, growing dull too soon to complete the sewing of so much muscle and skin.

For many days and nights the Courtesans held vigil, and the various occupants of the Royal House prayed outside the Queen's chambers. The Lady-in-Waiting ordered the guards to allow no one to pass through the chamber doors except the Courtesans who would fetch food, water, and supplies as needed. But the Lady's orders would, of course, be usurped.

When the Empress awoke, groggy and still under the influence of strong medicines, she barely recognized her husband standing over her. She whimpered only for her son.

“Here he is,” the Emperor said, pulling the boy to his side, "the Crown Prince of the Sapphire Throne." He stared at the woman whose countenance so affected their son, as if they could be twins, and hid his anger of her for the boy's lack of courage and cunning.

The Empress sighed and reached for the boy’s hand, ignoring the pain it caused her. But her husband pushed the woman’s hand away.

“He has no time for your remorse,” he said gruffly. “We must return to war where his deeds will be worthy of his title. He will lead, and he will fight.” He turned away and dragged the boy with him, striding out of the room with regal purpose.

“But he is not prepared,” the Empress whispered as the man disappeared with her son. She did not resist the sleep that was not sleep, and was not dream.

Weeks passed as the physical ministrations of the Courtesans healed the Queen’s body. She became well enough, but did not take up her duties in the Royal House. She did not join the managing of the kitchen and chamber maids, nor the tutors and nannies. She did not seek counsel with sages and priests, nor request the comforts of artists and musicians. Instead, she moved through the halls and rooms of the palace, her head fully hidden under silken scarves, and occasionally surprising an unwitting resident who had not yet heard of her aimless wandering.

Her Courtesans followed with apologies, and except for her private chambers, two guards shadowed her everywhere and watched her every move. The Emperor's most recent order was for their lives to be forfeit should any further harm come to his belongings. He had not mentioned his growing preference for his wife's demotion after he returned from war in resplendent glory. A woman who could no longer give him womanly pleasures had no place in his bed, nor in his court.

The Emperor’s messenger came often with the braggings of the King's feats in battle. One late summer day, the note that came disturbed the Empress as soon as she touched the paper. The armies of the Sapphire Kingdom were marshaling to attack the main city of their treacherous neighbors to the north, and the Crown Prince would lead the onslaught.

She slept fitfully that night, more so than any night before. She awoke before dawn with stabbing pains where the scars knitted red on her skin. She rang for her Lady-in-Waiting and ordered the best horse in the stable, packed only a few belongings from her chambers, and was soon galloping away towards the north. The Royal Guards and the Lady-in-Waiting gave chase on horseback, while the other Courtesans remained to anticipate their quick return.

The Empress travelled without stopping even as the guards lagged farther and farther behind. Only her Lady was able to catch and keep up with her. They shared herbs with each other and with their horses, for strength and stamina. They ate dried apples and meats, and drank cold tea from their flasks while still in their saddles, stopping only to relieve themselves and let their horses nibble at the grass.

The miles passed under hoof as the first signs of fall revealed a land turning orange and red and brown. They cantered warily through a smothering black smoke and fog, avoiding as best they could the dead and severed corpses that lay on the ground. Too many wore the colors of the Sapphire army. Few men still lived and sat looking blankly towards the horizon as the women rode by. The Empress quickened their pace and they galloped on to the main camp, flying past the soldiers who called after them to halt, though let them pass when they saw the royal colors of blue and gold.

The Doctor and General were arguing in front of the Emperor's tent when they were startled by the two women who reigned in and slid down from their saddles. The Empress whispered to her Lady and handed her dagger to the Courtesan before running into the tent.

“Hold here,” the Lady ordered as she stood outside the door, “no one is allowed inside until the Empress bids it.” She drew the dagger from it's scabbard and slapped the blade flat on the Doctor’s hand when he tried to follow the Empress into the tent.

“But I must prepare her,” the Doctor cried, sucking on his fingers that now smarted and reddened from the blow.

“Hold here,” the woman repeated, and brandished the Queen's blade as the General came up to her and laughed in her face.

“You cannot keep us out,” the man bellowed. His leather armor was dirtied in few places, and otherwise untouched by the battle that had occurred. The top-knot on his head was tied with a blue and yellow scarf, and accented with a yellow feather that signified his rank and importance. He was the Emperor's brother and third in the line of succession.

The General drew his long sword and pointed it at the woman who stood in defiance of him. He hesitated, hearing others riding up behind him, their horses breathing hard and stamping their feet in the dirt. He looked sideways and recognized the Royal Guards of the palace.

A keening sound came from the Emperor's tent as the Doctor stood precariously between the blades of the General and the Lady-in-Waiting. The fury in the face of the General warred against the fierce protectiveness in the eyes of the Queen's Courtesan.

“Your benevolence admits the Empress to grieve in solitude,” the Doctor said gently to the General, "and we shall avail ourselves when she calls upon us. May your strength bear the burden of all our sorrows even as you must light the imperial pyres.”

The General begrudged the Doctor’s conciliatory words, and sheathed his sword. But the Lady-in-Waiting remained with the dagger in her hand, and the guards drew down from their horses to stand at the side, unsure of whom to follow.

They waited as the Empress' sorrowful moaning continued. The Doctor motioned away the few soldiers who came to him for his care, sending them to his assistant to repair their wounds without his help. The General paced out the time as it passed, his patience evaporating when the mournful cries fell silent. He called out loudly towards the tent.

“Empress, let us help you in your grief. Let us -” and before he could utter his next words, a figure stumbled out of the tent and past the Lady-in-Waiting.

The Doctor’s jaw dropped, and a startled cry escaped from his throat. He raised his hands as if to ward off a ghost.

The General stifled his own surprise, recognizing the boy who stood before them holding two arrows with yellow tail feathers, and then letting them slip from his bloody hands to the ground.

“Do you think I would not know of your betrayal,” the boy rasped. He straightened his legs and back, and raised his head high, knowing such posture was expected of the Crown Prince even though it caused him great pain. His bloodshot eyes were steady and fierce as he stared down the General.

“As I lay there, drawing in my mother’s last breath, your words echoed in me even as the voices of the Gods argued against her dying wish. While you raged for my father’s crown, so she raged for my life. And I yet breathe because my mother willed it so.”

He grasped his tunic and tore it away from his body, revealing the deep and bloodied wounds that marred his chest.

The General’s eyes grew wide as he looked from the boy and then to the Doctor whom he had most recently shouted his justifications for taking the Sapphire Throne as his own. The Doctor had admonished him to be patient until the boy had joined his father, the Emperor, in Heaven. Yet here the boy stood for all to see, with his bloodied shirt thrown wide and at his feet the arrows that should have killed him.

With a flick of the boy’s hand, the Royal Guards snapped to attention and shifted their positions to flank the Crown Prince who, in one quick, fluid motion, took the spear from the nearest guard and flung it with all his might. It flew fast and strong and true, and pierced the armor of the General, driving deep into and through the man’s heart.

The General, anger and surprise still on his face for the boy whom he had advised his brother of being too weak and too womanly to wear the crown, fell to his knees and died. His posture remained as one of supplication, the haft of the spear preventing his body from falling face first into the dirt.

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