III. The Stretched White Linen Cloth
"She vaulted over the top of the cliff and crouched in the bushes, like, she thought, a common bandit laying in wait. Then moved low to the ground like an animal."
The Prefect was looking at the prisoner curiously. He interrupted his story to explain: "You must understand that I was not present for this part of her journey. I only know what she reported to me. There were some details I was later able to confirm by the statement of reliable witnesses, but I am not trained in the arts of investigation, so if I were only to tell you what I was able to confirm, and not what I surmise or what she said, the story..."
"Confession." interrupted the Prefect.
"...call it what you like." the prisoner said as if the distinction was of no consequence, "It would be utterly incomprehensible, full of jumps and false starts, empty unknowns and bizarre motivations. Thus I tell you that she ran like a loping, low animal, through the bushes, soundless, hidden, although none can confirm that this was true. She hid in a barn until the sun was setting, when she decided she would steal into town for food. She had some silver with her, and had heard of the Little Star, intending to find shelter there, away from the eyes of the law. But Lieutenant Ha was a crafty foe, who was far more experienced at catching fugitives than Melodious Ivory was at being one. For all her training, for all her indomitable will, for all her unmatchable beauty, she still thought like a princess, not like a criminal. Ha had anticipated she might attempt to enter the town and had set archers on the walls and torches on spikes far out into the darkness, where they burned like sinister guttering candles in the dim night, swirling with insects. Melodious Ivory was quick and silent but just as she reached the eastern gate, her shadow crossed the road ahead of her, and the archers saw her. It only took one to bang the alarm gong and as she rushed onto the bricks of the village street, they raised their bows."
"The arrows were as thick as raindrops in a storm, arching down towards her, splintering at her feet, thudding into trees like fists. She tumbled left, drew Golden Blossom and in a wide one-handed whirl she knocked a half-dozen arrows from the air, another dozen falling short, or going over her ducked-down head. She skidded along the ground on her back, swinging her sword over her, knocking the arrows left, then right, then leapt backwards in a wide tumble to her feet, rushing for the gate. She heard booted footsteps echo in the streets, the shouts of guards telling the inhabitants to clear the way. She turned, and indecision cut into her suddenly, which way to go, which way would bring freedom and which would bring capture and disgrace? But that indecision almost proved her undoing - a young archer hauled the string back and fired an arrow that pierced clean through her robe and her shoulder and even straight through the skin of her back. She screamed, her voice so musical, so wild, one archer later told me, that he thought he had shot a bird in human form."
"Her wound stung. The arrows were covered with a resin of some kind. She did not know what it was."
"A knockout drug." the Prefect opined. "Clever indeed."
"You are familiar with the practice?" the prisoner said. "I was not at the time. Again, you see how formidable an opponent Lieutenant Ha was to her." The Prefect raised her eyebrows slightly. The prisoner continued. "She swayed on her feet. Her chi was unfocused, her mind clouded by the drug. She ran down a darkened alleyway, the lights of the village swaying, sputtering, then they seemed to darken as well, as the stars above her head extinguished themselves one by one, the full autumn moon waning and waning, with the rest of the world, to blackness."
"Purely by chance, at that very moment, my bodyguard Fa Cho Bu was passing along the Street of the Ninth Emperor and he saw her stagger from the alleyway and fall..."
"'Punch Dagger' Fa?" said the Prefect. "The butcher of Shenhua Province?"
"The stories of his exploits there are highly exaggerated, I assure you." said the prisoner defensively. "He didn't even carry a punch dagger."
"And he was there 'Purely by chance'?" said the Prefect, sneering slightly. "Do not patronize me."
The prisoner blushed as if caught. "...a clumsy phrase, and perhaps...inaccurate. Please permit my miserable self to correct the tale. Fa Cho Bu had asked for the evening off, and I had granted it to him, on the condition that he spend some of it outside, searching for information on the beautiful fugitive. You see, I felt it might be advantageous for me to have information to trade with Lieutenant Ha. Or, if Ha would not bargain with me, I could then sell it to an inferior officer with superior ambitions. After all, if I assisted a junior guardsman in catching a highly prized fugitive that had slipped through Lieutenant Ha's fingers, the guardsman would justly be rewarded for his diligence, Ha would be reprimanded, and I would obtain the gratitude and perhaps forbearance of the authorities. It was indeed a selfish errand upon which I had dispatched Fa Cho Bu."
"A selfish errand for a selfish master. Continue." said the Prefect with an expression of satisfied triumph.
The prisoner continued, head bowed low. "At the moment the arrow pierced her flesh, I was at the head of my low table, lifting a bowl of wine to the good health of the Emperor, the Governor, their ministers, and their honored families. With me were the esteemed visitors I have mentioned before, and several courtesans. I can remember the beauty of the scene. I felt almost as if I were the master of a great family. The lamps were yellow, trimmed neatly, characters inscribed on the paper meaning 'prosperity' and 'happiness'. The food was spread before us on plates inscribed with blue ink."
"After dinner we began the entertainment. First, dancing, then a brief play, and finally poetry. It was when Yu Yang was presenting her poetry to us, that I was interrupted. She stood above us with her hands hands clasped in her wide, draping sleeves, eyes high above us, reciting in her cool clear voice, 'When I am happy I walk alone in the hills.' That is all of her poem I remember. It was good. The Zu Mir brothers believed it needed work. They instructed her, and she accepted it in good spirits."
"To my guests, an interruption for me was not unusual. These interruptions had come throughout dinner – after all, the Little Star had other guests who required my attention. My guests were too kind to expect special treatment. My other guests had their own dinners, and their own wine, and opium, and women that had to be arranged, and as a gracious host I would have been remiss if I had not attended to them as well as to my own pleasurable company. But this time it was not another guest's arrival, or payment, or departure. This time it was Fa, who I was surprised to see, as you'll recall, it was his night off. I did not know my lackadaisically and – as you say – selfishly cast net had gathered a very desirable fish."
"Fa led me through the stone-floored hallways and past the paper screens and heavy curtains to the alleyway at the rear of the Little Star, where a cart filled with straw was covered with a tarp. He threw back the tarp and I saw Melodious Ivory for the first time. I must admit I was not impressed with her reputed beauty, although I did try to take into account her condition. The arrow was still in her, although Fa had sacrificed his own sash to bind up the wound to stop her bleeding. She was haggard, dirty, malnourished, her expensive clothes torn by thorns and her feet caked with mud. I could tell by her feet that she was a noble woman..."
"Her feet?" the Prefect said, but her tone was not disbelieving – this was the tone of a test, something she knew but wished to see if the prisoner knew.
"Yes, her feet. You see, someone who must labor for a living travels on foot, and develops callouses and scars from walking many miles either barefoot or with their feet wrapped only in cloth. But hers were, although dirty and scraped, smooth-skinned and well-formed." the prisoner said. "She had worn shoes that elevated her soles and shaped her feet all her life."
"A cogent observation," said the Prefect. "I can tell much from your feet as well."
The prisoner unconsciously pulled his feet back under his stool, then laughed at his own embarassment. "How coy I am, like a young girl being ogled by an admirer. I have nothing to hide. These callouses show my hard-working youth – although not work you approve of. You see these scars? The stones of alleyways where I was first offering courtesans were rough and sometimes sharp with broken, discarded ceramics."
The Prefect did not confirm or deny that this was what she had learned. Instead she said, "Continue your story."
"Confession." corrected the prisoner, with a smirk. The Prefect frowned deeply at the quip.
The prisoner continued, inclining his head slightly back, his dark eyes closing, as if memory transported him back to that moment. "Yet as I observed her, helpless in the back of the cart, with her limbs wrapped around a golden sword with an intricate hilt, I felt a stirring within me that I had not felt for many years, the combination of pitiable, possessive and protective feelings of affection that we sometimes feel for wounded animals. Empathy, you might call it, or compassion, though naturally my poor self felt these exalted virtues in an indistinct, unfamiliar, shadowy form, like persons whose reputations are known without ever being met." He opened his eyes, and said, "I insist, I still insist today, that whatever feelings I might have had for Melodious Ivory, they grew from a very small seed. This was no dramatic meeting of soul mates, the heavens did not shake and no bolt of lightning struck my heart. But as the proverb states, what you plant in the springtime, you shall harvest in the summer. Soon that seed would grow in my heart."
The Prefect said drily. "I do not doubt it. Rotten ground is very fertile."
The prisoner looked stung, truly wounded for the first time by the Prefect's occasional insults. "It is a tender wound, her departure," he said to the Prefect. "Self-inflicted or not, the wound is still tender. I beg your indulgence to let it close in its own time. Do not flay it open further."
The Prefect seemed surprised by this response, and intrigued. "...self-inflicted? Do you mean to say that she is gone because of something you did? I thought you said earlier that you left her. Do you now tell me you regret your decision?"
"Please." said the prisoner beseechingly. "In my own time."
The Prefect leaned back, silent and motionless. Finally she nodded.
The prisoner took a deep breath. "'Fa, fetch her in to the Green Room and summon Aki immediately.' I said. 'Do it discreetly and do not interrupt the recital.' I turned to the man whose cart it was. He looked rather frightened. There were times when I would be reassuring to those who feared the Yellow Sash, who believed the pernicious falsehoods spread by Lieutenant Ha. But this was not one of those times. I was ashamed to discover I required this man to be frightened of me."
"'Sir,' I said. 'Where are you going?'"
"'I was going home.' he said."
"'Have you any family?' I asked."
"'No,' he said."
"'Ideal.' I said. I took a purse of silver from my sleeve and handed it to him. 'I suggest a vacation. Far down the river. Take your cart with you. Speak to no one of this.'"
"'But I cannot repay...' he began, trying to ward off the money as if it were an evil spirit."
"'It is not a loan, it is a gift. In exchange for the use of your cart which my guard temporarily enjoyed.' I said. 'Unless, of course, I hear that you have not honored our arrangement. Then I may be forced to take steps to recover these moneys. But if you go far from this village, stay there for several months, and do not speak of this incident to anyone, this is a freely given gift and you shall have my blessing as an honored cousin.'"
"He gulped, grabbed the money, and ran off. He held to our agreement."
"As far as you know." said the Prefect.
"True." said the prisoner. "But it hardly matters now..." He trailed off suddenly, his stride thrown. They looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, the prisoner seeming slightly ashamed – or at least embarassed to have revealed his threats and bribery so nakedly, and the Prefect not wishing to explain her interruption further or draw any further attention to it.
Finally the Prefect spoke, prompting, cold-voiced. "She lay in the cart."
"Yes," the prisoner said. "I sent my man to find Aki, the local healer. Aki would assist me and keep matters quiet, as she had many times before. She believed her oath of healing required her to keep secrets of this kind quiet. A very ethical woman. I returned to my guests for a time, but my mind continued to stray to the young woman now under my roof. What would she tell me when she awoke? For what reason was she a fugitive? I resolved to ask Master Ko-Gun. I did not realize at the time what a dreadful mistake this was. As the evening drew to a close, I led Master Ko-Gun towards his room. I bade his consort to walk ten paces behind so that I might consult with him in private."
"'Master,' I stated. 'You were aware of this fugitive, this woman.'"
"'Melodious Ivory.' he said. Master Ko-Gun had drunk several bowls of wine, but the mention of that name made his voice cool and sober."
"'Why is she a fugitive? What is her crime?'"
"'She is from a noble family, but they disobeyed the order of the Emperor and High Magistrate Pak stripped them of their title. Rather than give up their power and wealth, she fought with the soldiers sent to arrest them. Fought and defeated them.' There was something in his tone that made me think there was more, so I stopped walking, and looked at him closely."
"'Although there were twenty soldiers, with orders to kill, she defeated them all without killing even one. They all lived.' Master Ko-Gun said in the tone of someone who knew it to be fact."
"'Astonishing.' I said. 'She would risk all to preserve her family?'"
"'She has disgraced her family.' Master Ko-Gun corrected, waggling a gnarled old finger at me. 'High Magistrate Pak is the right hand of the Emperor. His word is law.'"
"'Of course, of course, Master Ko-Gun, forgive my ignorance. I misspoke.' I said, bowing hurriedly."
"Early in his life he had his teeth filed to sharp points, better to bite his rivals with in street fights. As he had lost his teeth almost entirely by now, he had a false set made that was just as pointed. Only up close could you see it was ivory and not natural teeth, so artfully was it made. He leaned close then, and said, with a keen smile, 'If you find her, let me know. You and I could make a good deal of silver by selling her to the High Magistrate directly. It would save him a great deal of money in the long run, as well as prevent...political exposure.'"
"'A cunning proposition.' I said. I fear my nervousness showed through. 'If I hear anything, you will be the first to know.'"
"'No doubt. I have no question about your loyalty, Little Bargainer.' he replied, and it was impossible to tell whether he was telling me the truth or not. Thus, what began as a frivolous and pleasant evening ended on a note of uncertainty, fear planting another seed in my heart, later to bloom, and be harvested."
The prisoner paused, and leaned over to pick up his plain wooden bowl of water. A slow drink followed.
The Prefect said, "You never had any intention of telling Master Ko-Gun what you knew."
"I had not decided at the time." the prisoner said.
"You never told him anything." the Prefect stated flatly.
"No." the prisoner said.
"And now he's dead." the Prefect said.
"We all must die." the prisoner said philosophically. He turned away, the mist of an approaching tear visible in his eyes.
The Prefect stared at him, her eyes open, unflinching, searching his face for any sign of insincerity. If she found any, she made no remark about it.