July 21, 2013
Last Christmas I recorded a portion of a novel that I was writing. It's a fairy tale that sits inside a larger story, but it's a fun, light comedy in and of itself, up to a point. So I ended it at that point and put it out them as an audiobook Christmas present for friends and family.
Only one person I know listened to the whole thing (it takes six hours I think). The rest told me they'd rather read it. I'm doing a final rewrite of it and I'm going to post it by chapters here on this blog if you're interested. Maybe you'll buy my book once I self-publish it--I'll let you know when that happens.
I invite you to read this first installment and let me know what you think. If you want to hear me reading the earlier version of this, go to www.windycragtaverne.com.
Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China
(excerpted from the Annals of Dog Island)
Redacted by Her Royal Highness Wang Qin Qin,
Second Guardian Princess of the Fire Element and
Guardian Princess of History, Legend, and Lore
© 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.
The Princess Seven
Once upon a time, a beautiful baby girl was born in Imperial China to the favorite wife of the Emperor. She was his 12th (legal) child and his seventh daughter, and while she was given a proper name, she came to be known simply as “Seven” or “Qi.” As the beautiful and smart daughter of the favorite wife, it was only natural that Princess Seven became the Emperor’s favorite daughter, and as such she became willful, self-important, and shielded from how people really thought because she was so indulged by her father.
Shortly after Princess Seven’s birth, the Emperor’s mother heard of an astrologer of great renown who gave accurate readings (she was a great devotee of such things), and she had him summoned to the palace to do a reading. Like many great advisors before him with strong opinions who then find themselves in a public spotlight facing very public consequences, the wise astrologer decided to pull his punches.
He advised, “The princess was born in the Year of the Dog in the Hour of the Dog and as such she will be reliable, faithful, and loyal. She will exhibit qualities of playfulness and curiosity and will be capable of fierce protectiveness when necessary. She will be an obedient daughter and will be most eager to please her father and eventually, her future husband.” It was a most conventional and safe reading that any street vendor would have spouted.
The astrologer thought he had made it through the reading safely when the Queen Mother dismissed and told the guard, with some exasperation and much disappointment, “Give him a three copper coins (the price of a street reading) and remove him at once! Oh, and mop the floor after him.”
Now feeling freed from his obligation 100 percent accuracy, he made another offering in parting: “I thank you for granting me this audience Your Highness. I would like to add something in parting, a most interesting finding. In all of my 40 years of practice, I have never seen anyone else like her. The ‘Dog’ is what we assign to the 11th element in any time series—it’s a convenient poetic device. By my calculations, the princess was born in an 11th year, in the 11th month, on the 11th day, and in the 11th hour. If were to call such things ‘Dogs,’ she would be what I would call a ‘Four-Times Dog.’ And as such, she would be the most loyal of women, the most faithful of believers, and the most devoted to her chosen causes. And if she should ever find a mate with such a reading, the marriage of their souls would be one that would last the ages as an example to us all. And so Your Highness, I pray you and your family long life and bid you farewell.” And he started quickly for the door.
“Hold that man!” demanded the Queen Mother, and the guards restrained him. “THAT’S more like it, young man,”—she said this because she herself was quite elderly. “Give him 11 gold coins and my sash. Come and see us next year,” commanded the old dowager. He had managed to tickle her cynical old heart with some refreshing romanticism, so he took the cash, left town, changed his name, shaved his beard, and was never seen in that part of China ever again. He need not have bothered because the old woman died before Seven saw her first birthday.
Before she died, however, the Queen Mother had a special pendant made for the Princess Seven, a disk of gold decorated with four dogs at the four compass points, with a large ruby setting in the middle. When Seven grew old enough to wear such a thing in her adolescence, there never seemed to be a time or place appropriate for such a unique piece, but she loved to get it out and try it on and recall the grandmother that she did not know and the words of the astrologer that had been relayed to her by the guards who had been there. But imperial princesses amass many pieces of jewelry and it soon moved to the back of her storage cases, only seen and accounted for by the palace eunuch guards who care about such things.
The Princess Seven had two behaviors which set her apart from the other princesses. She did not like staying in the royal harem grounds, so she frequently devised escapes from the palace by means of subterfuge, evasion, and disguise. At first these antics were quite clever and cute and overlooked, but as time went by she became quite skilled at leaving the palace and returning without detection.
Seven was also a very finicky eater. She refused to eat anything that did not have the exact flavor, level of spiciness, or texture that she required—so much so that she nearly starved one year because the kitchen staff could not get her meals just right. It was at the age of 10 that she became so ill from lack of nourishment that she nearly died, but she asked if she could go to the kitchen herself. It was allowed whereupon she made her own food, ate it, and recovered. Thereafter she made her own meals that she prepared herself and was given her own station are in the palace kitchen, where she came to know well and love the cooks and assistants who shared their techniques and their own love of food with her.
Because she was the Emperor’s favorite daughter, her father delayed marrying her off just that he could keep her at the palace, which was fine with her because she enjoyed her pampered life. But even all good things must end, and even a spoiled, indulged princess must grow up and take her place in the world and in service to her country. An exemplary political match for a husband was found the Field General Zuo, third son of the Duke of the Northwestern Territories, a war hero whose strong hand held the invading Mongols at bay, and whose personal pride was that he had not lost a battle or a fight to any since he had come of age.
The wedding of the Emperor’s favorite was scheduled and the capital overflowed with goods, diplomats, caravans, visiting sovereigns, nobles, and gentry, as well as pirates whores, brigands, and thieves. Ships from around the world were towed up and docked in the Grand Canal. With so many dignitaries and personages to accommodate, a series of banquets prior to the public wedding were planned for each interest group to receive and grant honor. One of the banquets was called the “Princess Banquet” being the only one at which the bride would appear, and to which her country’s nobles and administrators and their families would come and attend.
All the other princesses would simply submit list of their favorite dishes and leave the preparations to others, and then they would sit and look pretty in their finery at the event, and perhaps they would taste their food, although some would not even do that. Princess Seven, on the other hand, took great relish and delight in planning every detail of each of the nine courses that would be served, a work of imagination restrained only by her budget, which was practically unlimited, and her mother’s clucking admonitions of spending too much time on common labor. But this was her element and she would not be denied, even as she imagined moving away to a cold climate where her choices would be limited to create pots of hearty stews of mutton and goats with tough greens and winter cabbages, tinted and enflamed with strong vinegars and pungent spices, accompanied by wheat breads and noodles on end. But she would get to ride the furry little horses of the north that were so cute. That prospect seemed to make it all worthwhile.
On the morning two days before the Princess Banquet, a burly man came in the kitchen delivery door and demanded to see the supervisor. He was broadly fat, bald, had a heavy beard and mustache, and smelled slightly salty and rank. Seven looked about and did not see Madame Cui anywhere about. In fact, the only ones about were the lower assistants, the cutters and the shellers, so she went over to greet him herself. She had never seen him before and neither he her, so he had no idea of the customs of the palace kitchen, or that he was about to address a royal.
“I am with the Mid-Provinces Shipping Line Ma’am. We have 10 crates of hams, 25 barrels of pickled pigs’ feet, and 25 barrels of pickled winter vegetables for you.”
“Oh excellent! Those are what I ordered for my banquet. Are they here?”
“No, but I have them unloaded at the canal dock for your inspection. I want you to approve them before I have the porters bring them all the way up the hill. Seems like the last set was rejected and we had to take them all the way back. I don’t want that to happen again. I said I’d give you a discount for your time and trouble of coming down to the dock. I will escort you personally for your safety. If you insist I will hire a litter. I’d be worth every copper to save us wasted porterage up and down the hill.”
“You were talking to Madame Cui in the past?”
“That sounds right. If you reject, I’ll just sell ’em to a broker what has an agent right there what is looking for bargains, and he’ll take whatever you don’t. Seems the palace folk are quite partic’lar. Nit-picky if you ask me. Should I wait for her?”
“That’s right,” said Seven. She sensed some movement up above them. “Uh, would you make three quick bows, right now?”
“The eunuch is walking through his rounds on the gangway up top. To your right. See him? He’s watching. If you don’t bow, he’ll come down and question you. And he might hit you with his mace.”
“Eh? Oh all right. No matter to me.”
“Thank you, palace rule.”
“As you say,” he grumbled making three bows. “Thank you miss. I’ll just wait outside the door.” She heard him mutter, “Such odd palace customs …”
Before he moved she asked him, “What is it like down at the dock?”
“It’s crazy busy today Miss. So many languages to hear. So many types of foreign dress. And the ships’ colors! I’ve never seen so many flags. Just to stand there and see it is quite festive. The sun makes it so bright. You can buy just about anything from any country on the spot market for rejected goods. There are dried sea creatures to eat that I never seen in my life, and I been sailing since I was 12.”
“Oh, it sounds wondrous!” said Princess Seven.
“If you ain’t never been down to the docks Miss, and I wonder if you hain’t as you look rather fine now that I think about it, today would be the day. Don’t carry a full purse without a guard though, as the thieves and cutters will be about as well.” The man stepped outside and found an old crate to rest upon while he awaited Madame Cui.
Seven went back into the kitchen and looked about for the supervisor. There was a scullery girl cleaning up at Cui’s station. She walked over. “Girl? You’re new.” The girl looked up and saw the elegant smock with red embroidery that only Seven wore, and so she put her eyes down and tapped her breast three times with both hands. Having a royal in the kitchen much of the time caused problems initially for the staff because of all the motions of obeisance they were required to do slowed down their work considerably. The princess, the executive head chef, the captain of the eunuch guard, and Silver Bird, the princess’ first lady-in-waiting and confidante, worked out shorthand gestures for the kitchen that all the staff knew. The girl was the same height as Seven, who was petite, but she was significantly more round than Seven’s slim, flat-chested build.
“Do you know when Madame Cui will return?” asked Seven.
“Not until late this afternoon.” Seven remembered that “Slouchy” was the eunuch that had walked through and would likely not be back for another round until late afternoon. Seven was not allowed to leave the palace grounds, and certainly not to go down to the dangerous docks.
“What tasks did she give you?”
“Clean up the station and then to peel those two bushels of roots.”
“Pull them over to my station. I’ll help you move them.”
“No need Your Highness.”
“I’m doing it! Come.” The two dragged the large baskets of roots to Seven’s station. It would take her all day to peel those, Seven estimated. “Work here, but I want you to put on my smock and keep it on until I return. Can you do that?” The fancy smock was created by the palace couturier who felt that a princess, even in a kitchen, must have some garment that befitted her station over the others. The lazier eunuchs liked it because they could monitor her presence from a distance in their security rounds.
“If Cui or the executive chef comes back before I do, just tell them that I asked you to help me with that today. And I will be back before too long. I am going to inspect a delivery for my banquet.”
“Give me your smock for the time being. Don’t want to get mine soiled.” The scullery’s smock was plain linen, but tailored for close fit to avoid excess personal mass when moving about in the tight work quarters of the kitchen. Still, it was too big and looked awful.
“Highness? You should borrow Madame Cui’s smock. She is more your size. She will not be using it today anyway when she returns. In the cloaking room.”
“Thank you,” said Seven throwing off the girl’s garment. Sure enough Cui’s smock was a good fit and it bore the supervisor’s insignia as well. She looked down at the delicate slippers on her feet and imagined what they would look like after a walk to the docks and back, so she removed them and put on a pair of socks and boots that had been stored in the cloaking room. In half a moment she was clicking and tapping sprightly, almost dancing, on the paved floors and stood before the shipping manager. “Madame Cui will be indisposed for a few hours, but I am authorized to make the inspection and approval. So let us be off to the docks!”