Magnolia Flower peered between the silk curtains covering the window of the jolting tilt-cart, holding onto the frame to keep her balance. The long red rays of the sinking sun illuminated rough mountainsides crowding close to the narrow road.
"It's getting so late," Magnolia Flower's mother, Judge Dee's Second Lady said, peering out worriedly over her daughter's shoulder. "I do hope our husband will not insist on going through with the dinner and reception if we arrive after nightfall."
"So do I, dear. But I won't count on it!" First Lady answered dryly laying out bedrolls on the floor of the crowded cart. "Call in the boys, please, Youngest Sister."
Third Lady made her way to the door at the back of the cart, pushing aside the heavy tapestry curtain. "Boys, Boys, Time to come in now!"
"But Elder Sister -" First Brother began to protest,
"Obey your Mother, Guang-se!" Third Lady said sternly.
"Yes, ma'am," A moment later two dispirited boys of twelve and ten entered the cart. Looks of barely controlled mutiny wrinkled their faces at the sight of the quilts.
"If you expect to stay up late tonight you must sleep now," First Lady said in her no-nonsense voice. Resignedly the boys crept between the quilts.
"We should all get some rest," Second Lady suggested diplomatically.
First Lady nodded approval, "Very true, Sister." The two junior wives took this as a command and began undoing further bedrolls.
"I don't think there's going to be enough room," Willow murmured to Magnolia Flower. The travel cart was exceptionally large but it was also very crowded, not only with Judge Dee's three wives, three sons, his young daughter and her companion, but with all their maids and nurses, over a dozen persons in all. Willow was perfectly right there was only just space enough for First Lady and little Third Brother to lie down next to the older boys. Everybody else had to prop themselves against the high wooden sides, their bones rattled by every jolt.
"We shouldn't be here at all," Willow continued softly into her friend's ear, "Your Honorable Father the Judge had more than a year yet to go in Poo-Yang!"
"The three year term is but customary not a set regulation," Magnolia flower whispered back.
Willow ignored that as the irrelevancy it was. "And to be sent out to the edges of the Empire – It's the Buddhist clique's fault isn't it?"
"Maybe," Magnolia Flower sighed. "My father has made many enemies. Still, Lan-Fang should be an interesting place. Remember what the guide-book said."
"Mountain scenery, The Lotus Pagoda, Barbarian traders," Willow listed unenthusiastically.
"The plum orchards, the Silk Market, the Fur and Leather market, Uigur horses," Magnolia Flower added. "There will be a lot to see," she finished confidently. The cart lurched under them as it rolled down a hill into yet another valley.
"I'm beginning to wonder if we'll ever get there!" Willow answered. Before Magnolia Flower could answer the cart lurched to an abrupt halt sending them tumbling forward onto the boys who jerked awake. Maids cried out and Third Brother began to wail. Magnolia Flower scrambled to the nearest window and looked out cautiously. Two or three black clad men, the lower portions of their faces masked, ran by. Robbers!
"Daughter, Willow, come here!" First Lady ordered. She made the two teenaged girls lie down next to the boys and covered them all with quilts. There was a rustling of silk as the other women moved to hide under other quilts among the boxes at the back of the cart. "Keep those maids quiet!" First Lady said to Second and Third Ladies. A terrified hush fell over them all. The sound of running feet and the grunts and shouts of men fighting came from beyond the canvas hood of the cart, then no sounds at all.
Magnolia Flower held her breath. First Brother next to her wriggled wanting to uncover himself for a look, she held him still. Suddenly their father's deep, reassuring voice spoke: "It's all over."
She let Guang-se push back the quilts. First Lady was crouching by the window, a naked dagger in her hand, and Judge Dee was looking in.
Mother put away her dagger. "Anyone hurt?"
"Sergeant Hoong took a nasty blow to the head and Ma Joong has a dislocated shoulder but the robbers took the worst of it," the Judge answered. "Two are dead and the others much the worse for their attempted crime."
Guang-se tumbled out the back of the cart closely followed by Ah-Kuei. Magnolia Flower went after them. Father gave them all a half smile and a shake of his head then turned to head back to the lead cart. Magnolia Flower looked around. Servants were lighting torches with hands that still trembled with fright. The flickering light showed the old House Steward being helped to his feet by the boys, looking dazed but otherwise unhurt. Following her father she saw old Sergeant Hoong with a bandaged head and one of the Judge's two husky lieutenants, Chiao Tai, massaging the other, Ma Joong's, bruised and swollen left shoulder. Two of the carters were rolling the dead robbers in reed mats. Their living companions stood nearby, hands trussed behind their backs. And one of them was a girl little older than Magnolia Flower herself - if at all.
She was staring in astonishment when Willow appeared at her side, a tea basket in her hands, followed by a maid with cups. Magnolia Flower took one and allowed Willow to fill it. "Welcome to the borderlands!" the companion said acidly.
"One can find highwaymen anywhere in the Empire," Magnolia Flower answered reasonably.
The Judge's third assistant Tao Gan a thin, middle aged scarecrow of a man, walked up to them. "That is very true, Miss Dee," he agreed and held out a hand to Willow; "If I may, Miss Fan?" She gave him the padded tea basket and he scooped a stack of cups off the maid's tray with his free hand. "His Honor says we'll have a short rest here before continuing on. Everybody's a bit shaken."
That was certainly true.
Several cups of tea and a handful of rice cakes apiece later the members of the cortege put themselves back in marching order. Judge Dee ordered the prisoners to be loaded atop one baggage cart and the dead bodies were put on the other. The girl, who was completely unhurt unlike her comrades, was to walk behind the women's cart. Watching from the doorway Magnolia Flower noted the concerned look one of the robbers shot in in the girl's direction as he was herded past and drew a conclusion. "That must be her father."
"Or a lover," Willow said cynically.
Magnolia Flower shook her head. "No, see the resemblance? They are family."
"Do highwaymen often rear their daughters to follow in their footsteps?"
"I don't think so," Magnolia Flower hopped down from the cart as it began moving and fell into step beside the girl. "My name is Dee, called Magnolia Flower," she began, indicated her friend watching them from the step of the cart. "And this is my companion Fan called Willow. What is your name?"
The robber girl did not answer. She glared defiantly her questioner but with more than a little fear beneath. Magnolia Flower took note of the flush of sunburn across the other girl's nose and cheeks and the pattern of callouses on her hands before continuing; "Why did your father abandon his livelihood in the city to bring you out here? An honest townsman doesn't turn to the greenwood without grave reason." The girl's eyes widened in shock but she still said nothing.
"Is she from Lan-fang?" Willow asked.
Magnolia Flower noted the girl's nervous start. "Yes."
"There is an inauspicious sign," Willow observed.
Magnolia Flower peeped through silken curtains as the cart bumped over the cobbled streets of Lan-fang. The city was dark, most of the shops already boarded up for the night, but here and there a lampion shone on a noodle seller's cart and his customers, the latter ostentatiously turning their backs on Judge Dee's cortege. Nowhere was there any sign of the usual welcome for the new magistrate.
"Something is very wrong here," Willow said in the tone of one whose worst fears have been confirmed, peering over her friend's shoulder.
Magnolia let the curtain fall, turning to contemplate the girl robber thoughtfully. When First Lady had called her daughter in before entering the city she had also insisted that the prisoner enter the cart, stating that no young girl should be exposed to the stares of a crowd.
The girl huddled in the corner next to the door watching Judge Dee's ladies and children with large, pitiful eyes her initial defiance giving way to despair at this forced return to her native city which confirmed Magnolia Flower's opinion that something terrible had happened to the girl's family here in Lan-fang.
The cart bumped over the threshold of the tribunal gate and Magnolia Flower peeped forth again. The reception hall and chancellery were as dark as the streets and seemed entirely unpeopled. Weeds were forcing their way between the paving stones and the paper backing the lattices was torn and discolored with age.
"What is going on here?" First Lady muttered looking out of the opposite window. The Second Lady bit her lip, holding Third Brother tightly in her arms, and even the older boys were subdued, huddling close to Third Lady for comfort.
"You know don't you?" Magnolia Flower said softly to the girl-robber who turned her head away pretending not to hear.
The door curtain opened and the Steward looked in, "We are to continue on to the residence, madam," he said to First Lady looking worried. "I certainly hope it is in better condition than the offices."
"Bring the matron of the prison here to take charge of this girl," First Lady ordered.
"There doesn't seem to be a matron, madam, or any other staff for that matter!"
"Then she must remain with us. She cannot be locked up with the men." First Lady decided.
The carts circled the dilapidated official buildings to the rear court. It was fronted by a freshly plastered wall which reflected the light of their torches and was topped by green copper tiles. The double doors to the compound were lacquered bright red and studded with polished brass nails. The women stepped down from their cart and passed through them into a spruce courtyard planted with shady trees and overlooked by the verandas of three large halls. They huddled together, now completely bewildered. First Lady pulled herself together and began to issue orders to the steward regarding the unloading. "Find the kitchen," she instructed, "light the fires and prepare a simple meal. Then see the servant's quarters are clean and get the people settled. Then return to me for further orders." The steward bowed and scuttled off. First Lady led the Judge's other ladies, his children, the maids, and the girl prisoner up the steps of the main hall and into a lavishly decorated reception room.
The ebony and rosewood furniture was richly carved and perfectly clean as was the green carpet on the floor and the plastered walls. The doors and windows were decorated with gilding and fine fretwork lattices lined with colored silk rather than paper.
"I do not understand this at all," First Lady muttered to herself.
The party passed through a small middle courtyard and an even grander reception hall to the third court which was surrounded by elegantly fitted pavilions intended for the accommodation of the magistrate's ladies. Magnolia Flower and Willow entered the side hall First Lady assigned them accompanied by their duenna, old Mother Lew.
The small sitting room was furnished with a lavishly carved blackwood wall table, square tea-table and two armchairs of rosewood. A lattice screen of black and gold lacquer separated it from a bedroom dominated by a huge ebony bedstead, elaborately inlaid with mother-of-pearl, its moon shaped opening curtained with strings of pearl beads. There was also a graceful blackwood washstand with a silver basin, a small round tea table and two stools all also in blackwood but inlaid with mother-of-pearl like the bed. The opposite side room held a large dressing table and a bench of intricately carved rosewood.
"Who do you suppose slept here?" Willow asked staring at the splendor with wide eyes.
"A favorite concubine by the looks of that bed!" the duenna snorted.
"I wonder where Mother put that girl," Magnolia Flower said meditatively.
They found the prisoner locked into a small room adjoining the large hall First Lady had taken for herself. Her maid, Faithful Duck, opened the door for them. The girl was sitting on a simple bamboo bed, her head in her hands. She jumped to her feet as they entered and stood watching them warily.
"Who killed your mother?" Magnolia Flower asked.
The girl stared at her incredulously then dropped back onto the couch and burst into tears. "How did you know? How did you know?"
"She knows everything," Willow sighed sitting down on the taboret in front of the small dressing table. "You get used to it."
Magnolia Flower gave her friend a chiding look before sitting on the couch next to the weeping girl. "It was reasoned guess. Now, who are you and what is your story?"
The girl dried her eyes. "I am called Dark Orchid. My father is Blacksmith Fang, a good and honest man. Our family has lived in Lan-fang for generations. We have never been rich but always respected – not that that counted for anything with Chien Mow!"
"Who is Chien Mow?"
"The evil man who rules Lan-fang," Dark Orchid cried. "He controls everybody here, even the magistrates appointed by the Capital, and nobody does anything about it! Nobody can do anything.
"He wanted coolies for his mansion and his men seized my only brother off the street. He saw and desired my elder sister, White Orchid, and when my father refused to sell her to him he had her kidnapped too. When Father went to his mansion and begged to see her they beat him within an inch of his life and threw him out on the street. My mother fell ill and no apothecary dared sell us medicine for her because we were under Chien Mow's displeasure. I nursed her as well as I could but she… she died." The girl began to cry again. "It was… it was horrible. Father went mad with grief. He took the sword from the shop and went to Chien Mow's mansion to kill him… I was so afraid. I thought he would be killed and I'd be left all alone! But they just beat him up again. Some of our friends found him in the street and brought him home. Then Chien Mow's men came - the fiends! – and set fire to roof over our heads. We fled. We had nowhere to go but the greenwood… and now look what's happened to us! Now Father's head will fall on the execution ground and I will be sold as a government prostitute and that will be the end of the Fangs of Lan-fang!"
Willow started to speak but Magnolia Flower shook her head and she kept silent. It would not do to raise possibly false hopes. But Judge Dee's daughter knew her father's sense of justice. The Fang family's fate might not be as dire as Dark Orchid feared.