"Of course I can't say for certain what the last official who was here has told you about our conversation, except, naturally, that he was not fully satisfied by what I told him. If he had been, you would not have come to my cell, would you? It is simple logic. I take full responsibility for this shortcoming. I did not perhaps answer his questions as fully as he would have wished. I will remedy that fault completely, I can assure you. I have an abhorrence for pain and am not eager to be given over for more torturous examinations. You may have also been told that I am a confidence trickster, a notorious charlatan, a reknowned swindler and brazen liar. I can only hope that you remember what it was like when you yourself were a victim of unfounded rumor, and..."

The Prefect interrupted. "How did you know about that?"

The prisoner lifted his chin, curiously. "How did I know about what?"

She replied. "That I had been a victim of unfounded rumor."

He nodded, understanding entering his tone, even warmth. "Ah. I knew that because you are not a child. Anyone who is on this earth long enough has been a victim of unfounded rumor. An Imperial official does not reach your exalted position without arousing the jealousy of inferior persons."

"But you did not come here to learn about the power of rumor and lies, for those are surely familiar to you already. You came to hear how a pornographer, drug dealer, and lowlife such as I came to know and love a Virtuous Sword Princess, and why in the end he betrayed her love, and left her behind."

The Prefect interrupted fluidly this time. "And where she is now. Perhaps we can start there."

He sat back on the threadbare cushion on the stone floor. The afternoon sun fell in through the skylight above them like a golden sheet through the dust. "I am only a poor criminal, and not trained in the arts of detection and investigation, as you are. Perhaps in my telling of the story you will be able to deduce her whereabouts, even if I cannot. Shall we begin?"

RACKS OF DRYING FLOWERS LATER TO BE MADE INTO GRACEFUL ARRANGEMENTS

A Story Of The Jade Empire

I. Freshly Cut From The Stem

The prisoner began his tale. "When Melodious Ivory was born, to her noble family in the Imperial City, it is said there was a comet in the sky whose fiery tail traced a wild streak across the heavens, between the constellations of the Hunter to the Diamonds Of The Empress. Her father was a devout and learned man, and named her for a brave ancestor. He believed as a result of the comet in the sky that she was destined for great things, and so she studied under the strictest tutors and fiercest warriors."

"Her family, the great House Chu, had been given its noble name two generations ago during the great drought, when the inventiveness of an ancestor had created an aqueduct which brought water from the high mountains where it was frozen in ice for many years before the snows stopped falling, to several parched valleys. In the intervening years, her family had continued to serve the emperor and these valleys in many ways, and had gained as reward for their service both the power of ruling these valley kingdoms, and the loyalty and favor of their subjects. Thus Melodious Ivory was loved not simply by her family, but by their subjects, and for her beauty, talent and drive, which only seemed to blossom as she grew."

"On Melodious Ivory's fourteenth birthday, in accordance with a prophecy, she woke at midnight and descended the stairs silently. She took her clothing, and two short daggers, and rode on her family's fastest horse to the cave of Oni-Gam, the bound demon prince of the Hell of A Thousand Frozen Lashes. In this cave, a dozen heroes had attempted to defeat the demon prince and recover the mystic blade Golden Blossom, which Oni-Gam had stolen from heaven when he was expelled for his insane ambitions a thousand years previous. Her blood sang with the daring of the truly fearless. Her body taut with youthful energy and the training of the best masters of the Valleys, she entered the cave without hesitation. Why should she hesitate? The omens were clear - she was destined to wield Golden Blossom, and defeat a demonic emissary with it. She was not destined to die in battle with this creature, no matter how powerful he might be. From within the darkness, for seven days and seven nights there there were shrieks of pain and bellows of groaning effort. The earth shook, the heavens clouded, and the moon turned red on the last night. Her father's soldiers surrounded the cave but dared not enter. Finally, bloodied, bruised, with bones broken and clothes shredded, the young princess emerged, Golden Blossom in her hand. Where she stepped, it is said, peonies bloomed."

The Prefect replied skeptically, "I have been to this cave. There is neither demon nor peony field there."

The prisoner shrugged as if this was no consequence. "I was born on the same evening as she - I learned much later in life - but I had no estate and my father was far from noble. I was born in a cave, a grotto near the sea, amongst crates of stolen silver and jewels. My father was a bandit and my mother was a girl he had kidnapped and raped often. I am sorry to say that he did not let her go when she gave him a son, nor did he value her more highly for having brought me into this world. Although it is true that he treated me quite well, in his way. He beat me only occasionally, and he allowed me to be very cruel to the other men in the bandit band, at first with the careless viciousness of a child and then with the calculated malice of a youth who had rarely known love. My mother caught an awful disease in one swamp or another and wasted away before I had seen five summers."

"My father had a price on his head, a bounty of some five hundred silver for offenses he had committed against the Emperor in more than one province. Bounty hunters constantly sought him, and his band of pirates and bandits. He survived through cowardice. Until one day he was caught by the bounty hunter Lei Gong, a name I see from your reaction that you know, perhaps personally, Prefect?"

The Prefect swallowed. "My personal affairs are none of your concern, prisoner. Continue your confession."

The prisoner seemed reluctant to leave the subject, but did so. "He was caught by Lei Gong, who was at that time a functionary of the Yellow Sash Gang. This organized crime family has existed for many hundreds of years, and was known as a rival of the Guild. Many wise and powerful Emperors have attempted to destroy the Yellow Sash, but all have failed, for the Yellow Sash Gang, an esteemed group of honorable..."

The Prefect was disgusted. "Pah! You attempt to justify the thuggery of your fellow serpents?"

The prisoner spread his hands, palms up. "Is it not written that to every thing heaven has assigned a place, and that it is sinful to upset the order of heaven? I was born a criminal child, as surely as if I had chains placed upon my wrists the moment I escaped from my mother's womb. I was born to a criminal, raised a criminal, is it not preferable that I should be a criminal honorably and well, among those men and women who approach their criminal trade with generosity and a full appreciation of civic duties? What other place has heaven assigned me?"

The Prefect snarled, "They corrupt officials and spread lies and deception wherever they go. You are a taint upon the heavenly order, not a part of it."

The prisoner folded his hands in his lap again. "You are so certain of heaven's will? You must be very wise indeed."

"Cease your sneering, dog!" snapped the interrogator. "Return to your story without this editorializing. Why was the Yellow Sash Gang seeking your father? For the bounty?"

The prisoner resumed: "Not entirely. My father had robbed and stolen from their operatives as casually and brutally as he stole from innocent merchants and helpless rustics, and they demanded payment for their loss. Payment with fair interest, of course. For payment my father offered me. So I came to live with the Yellow Sash Gang at the age of seven, and was apprenticed to Bargainer Cho, an upright gentleman well known for..."

"Burglary, assassination, and extortion." spat the Prefect.

"...I was going to say his wit and charm, delicate tastes in poetry and patronage of the theatrical arts, but I would not dare contradict you, honored inquisitor. I became known as Little Bargainer, and...no! Truly, you have heard this name? What a charming development! I thought that none could ever remember the tiny yellow-clad apprentice tagging at the great master Bargainer's heels! What a sight I must have been."

"You were an excellent pickpocket at a young age, a prodigy, I have learned." intoned the Prefect, relaxing on her stool. "I managed to speak with the magistrate of your province about you. He was very aged but remembered you clearly. He called you a blight."

"The magistrate. He was a great man." replied the prisoner, eyes moist with the reminiscing of it. "He once sentenced me to sweep the beach with a wooden broom for ten hours a day for seven days. But now I have inexcusably strayed again from my story. I beg your pardon and return."

"Bargainer Cho, who I never called 'father', taught me many arts, and schooled me in philosophy and in the Yellow Sash Method of fighting, which as you I am sure know involves the yellow sash all full members of the Gang wear. Some sew a heavy club in one end - others line the edge with razor wire - it is said the greatest masters of the Method can decapitate a man at fifteen feet with only the cloth itself, so quick and sure does the spinning, distracting cloth snap outwards from their hands and feet."

The prisoner let a pause fall into the afternoon air, before continuing. "You do not comment, honored Prefect? You do not think this is fanciful? I have never seen such a feat myself. ...I continue, then. I learned this Method, I learned to count silver from the sound it makes in a coin purse, I learned to tell an ounce of opium from two ounces at ten paces, and to read and write. He showed me love, Bargainer Cho, in his honorable and affectionate dealings with his wife. In some ways he was my true father - the father whose blood is in my veins gave me only flesh, but Master Cho gave me what it was to be a man. I have seen men who never recovered from damage done to them as children, but my adopted father healed me well. Whatever scars I have, whatever pain I still bear from my father, I have made my peace with."

"Besides, my father was given up to the authorities for the bounty despite selling me. and he was executed at the public square, by being pierced with spears."

The Prefect swallowed hard, and said nothing. The prisoner saw her discomfiture, and he paused long enough to let her know that he had seen it. But he made no comment, and continued. "I was fourteen when Bargainer Cho inducted me as a full member of the Yellow Sash Gang and for some time I had unpleasant work as a soldier in the ranks. But I always had an eye out for businesslike opportunities, for it was there that my true talents lay."

"I started, you see, with one woman, a cart, soft hay, and linen. I was sixteen. That was all I had. She and I had split the costs of purchasing the rights to an alleyway in the poor district. I stole many items in order to improve our lot. I often wonder what became of her. As I rose in prominence, I lost track of her. We parted ways in good faith. By the time I met Melodious Ivory, I had come a long way from stealing to buy fresh hay and linens to cover it, and washing the sheets every morning in the creek. And my good fortune was all due to opium."