Galen walks with a quiet assurance beyond her years. Her stature and quiet grace often cause her to be overlooked by the hasty, but once men notice her, they find it hard to tear their eyes away from the exotic beauty. Her firm, but quiet voice flows in a lilting rhythm that has entranced many a rough heart.
She is obviously from the Orient, a strong epicanthic fold setting off her delicate oval features. Thick black hair cropped at the collar frames her subtle, mobile, and hauntingly lovely features, and severe bangs hang over her arched brows. Only the undertone of silver gray to her pale skin, the reddish highlights in her ebony locks, and her startling eyes spoil the image of a perfect china doll.
Her eyes, in fact, are strange. Most often they are a shade of gray or steel or silver, but can change as often as the wind and can be blue, green, black, brown, even yellow or practically any color. Not infrequently, her eyes are of different color. The shifts appear random, and have little to do with her moods.
She wears the peasant clothes of her distant village, baggy gray cotton pants tied at the ankles and tight at the waist by a bright scarlet sash in a complicated knot. An unbleached linen shirt snuggly hugs her torso, laced to the chin. Over this simple blouse she wears a loose gray leather vest. Most often she goes barefoot, but in severe cold or rocky terrain, she dons peasant sandals of wood, wool, and leather.
She carries a staff of ancient gray cedar, sturdy, gnarled, and topping her petite frame by a foot. Slung over her shoulder is her pipa, the lute-like instrument of her people, in a weathered black case. Her fine black cloak is most often rolled and slung crossing the pipa case. A wide belt supporting a few small pouches completes her meager equipment.
Fang Xi Leng was born to peasants on the estate of Warlord Tsai Howl. She was a normal little girl in a poor rice-farming village. She loved her father, and hung on her mother's skirts when strangers were near. There was a drought the year she turned three. Of course, the Warlord cared nothing of this, and collected his full measure of taxes. That year Xi Leng would have been collected for taxes, but a wind rose from the East. The unnatural wind blew the dust of dead rice over the war band, and when it dust cleared, they were gone.
While amazing, starving peasants have better things to do than gossip about disappearing soldiers. When the East wind blew grains of rice to Xi Leng, she gave them to her mother. Each day they had just enough to eat, but no more. The village withered under the drought. When the warlord sent more men, only a few families remained. The soldiers began a search, but high winds from the East caused them to leave before they entered the house of Fang Kuang Han. After that her father called her his little angel, and the name fit so well that she became Angel.
Always had there been a story of the visit of the Count of the East Wind, Fei Lien, to the poor village at the foot of the mountains. Every few generations, the stories would surface when some child was born with Celestial traits. But never had the traits been strong, or were the stories really believed, even by the tellers. Mostly, these children were born into the family Fang.
The day after the soldiers left, Kuang Han talked with his wife Mei Lui. They had eaten rice that day. Rice when sere winds blew across the caked mud of the fields. Little Angel slept on her mothers lap, still cubby and healthy, with pink in her cheeks. The next morning the family left the village. Only bones and the dead were left behind. The walk into the mountains was long, but always there was food, not a feast, but enough. A hollow where seeds collected in an eddy of the wind, or a rabbit trapped under a broken branch.
Finally the little family came to the Palace of the Moth, high in a mountain valley where the winds always blew. Home to monks in service to Fei Lien and his brother Feng Po, the Palace was small, and Spartan, for the monks were few, and of an ascetic order dedicated to purity of mind and body.
Kuang Han and Mei Lui assumed the role of servants, tilling fields, gardening, and weaving cloth over the long cold winters. Mei Lui died when Angel was eight, in the year of the Dragon, when a terrible flu killed many servants and a few monks. Kuang Han never recovered from his loss and died that winter.
Angel was regarded with solemn piety, and was worked harder than any three servants or any two monks. She accepted her tasks, worked diligently, excelled in her lessons, talked to the wind, and grew into a great beauty. If her skin was tinted gray rather than the usual pale yellow, and her black hair highlighted red in the sun, none commented on it.
Always the wind blew around her, and often it carried a melody. She learned all her lessons, and practiced with the same grim determination of her peers, three boys and a girl as pale as Angel was dark. But her lessons did not bring her peace; she could not find the harmony that the masters taught was the true goal of discipline. Except fleetingly in the music.
When she was sixteen, a visitor came to the small outpost in the windy valley. He was a graceful, laughing man of many skills, and his music thrilled her soul. Never, not even in her times with the wind, had she heard such music. He was old, mush older than her father would have been if he were still alive; but he thrilled her with his presence, with his music, and with his stories of adventure and romance.
That year she passed the initiation of the order, with a style and ease that caused whispers through the small community. No one had ever achieved the perfection of form she displayed in her mantra of testing. Weeks later, more whispers echoed in the halls when the swelling of her belly became obvious. The mysterious singer was long gone, but he had left a legacy behind.
She gave birth on a cold windy night, and the child never breathed. His small blue body was buried beside his grandparents, and Angel wept bitter tears for all she had lost: family, innocence, and future. The monks were of a very stern order, and a breach such as hers, to break a vow so obviously, would never be forgotten. Ability and dedication would never overcome the stigma. Even being chosen of the wind was as nothing to such disgrace.
Besides, since that spring, the monastery was too dull, too small, and too quiet. There was no music, and now music filled her soul where the East wind had once blown. The pain was real, she would always mourn her unnamed child, but in the spring, she would leave the only life she knew, and discover whatever the world would reveal.
The warmer winds of spring had finally melted the snow from the lower pass. Galen had waited long, with excitement and dread, for this day. She rolled a packet of cheese and dried fruit, saved over many meals, into her cloak and headed out the gate of the only home she had ever known.
Working in the gravel garden near the gate was Xhi Sha, most venerated of the masters. Surprising to see the stern, quick, and respected Monk working at this task at so early an hour. He should be supervising the dojo for morning exercise. As she passed, he stood and bowed. Not the common bow of greeting, but the deep formal bow of a student to a master. It shocked her. Stopping, she returned the bow in kind.
'Ah, Angel', he breathed in the wispy voice she remembered from many long classes 'you leave us before your Ki is firm'.
'Master' she replied, 'my soul cries in this place and my destiny calls me to-' She hesitated, her mobile features twisting in a rueful grin. 'To I know not where, but the call is strong'.
'It is how it must be'. His flat black eyes danced under his stern expression. Master Xhi had always been most demanding, and many thought him stern, even harsh, but Angel had always seen the subtitle humor his every lesson held. 'Youth makes mistakes, and mistakes breed wisdom'. No smile flashed over his face, but humor pervaded his being as he added, 'You are wise beyond your years'.
'I know you must go, and I insist you take this'. His hands held a thick cloak of the finest black wool, embroidered with blowing clouds and trees bent under the wind. She recognized it instantly. Her own hands had toiled to make it over the long winter, one of her many tasks. It was an item to trade to the caravans that pass far below the lonely pass. The silver it would bring, along with other items crafted by the monks, paid for the few small things like paper and metal that the monks had to buy.
'I can't take this Xhi', She was an initiate, and theoretically his equal now, but the familiar address came hard to her. 'It is worth many silver coins, a whole sheaf of fine paper'.
His smile was nearly visible as he replied, 'lack of one stack of paper will not harm us, and the world outside these gates is cold and vast'. He handed the heavy cloth to her and continued, 'the cloak you have is fine for one night watching the flock, but a traveler has need of better'. His calloused hands felt strong and reassuring as they pressed the gift into her numb grip.
Sudden emotion flooded her as she took the cloak, she wanted to cry, she wanted to hug the old monk, she wanted to run, and she wanted to laugh. Instead, she bowed and intoned 'I accept this gracious gift, and each use will tie me to this place and my roots'. She bowed gravely and walked through the gates.
It was a long walk to the cliff hiding the lower valley. She walked it sedately and gravely, and never looked back. But still, she knew that Master Xhi Sha watched her until the looming chalk wall cut her from view.
An Mo Le was a tiny village at the edge of a vast swamp. The swamp was the life of the village. Rice grew best under water, and the waters nearly surrounding the village were criss-crossed with neat dikes sectioning off each closely held paddy. Galen walked into the village quietly, her dress not attracting any attention from the busy population. Only when she passed the central square and nearly left town, and had to turn back or leave town, did anyone notice she didn't belong.
'You, girl, are you lost'? The harsh voice of an old granny weaving cotton on a primitive loom startled Galen. She walked to the woman, and smoothly sat in indifferent lotus, bowing with palms pressed under her chin.
'Excuse my ignorance venerable one', she respectfully intoned, 'but I wish to eat, and find warm lodging from the impending storm'. The old woman looked up into the perfect blue dome of the sky, where only a few bright puffs of cotton-ball clouds drifted.
'Storm? A more perfect day I don't remember'. The old woman said as the steady thump of the loom continued, 'Still, food is scare, with taxes so high, a roof is easier, any young man would be glad to share with you'. The smile on her face was broken, more gap than tooth. 'Can you work for a meal'?
Such teasing was not new to Galen, since leaving the monastery and traveling the lowland of the Empire, she knew what men wanted. Only rarely had she been forced to provide it. 'I am skilled at song, and at embroidery, gardening, weaving, sewing, and all domestic tasks mother'. The title was one of respect to any older woman. 'I see your garden has been many days without weeding. To share your pot tonight, I can do this thing.'
The old woman cawed, something between a chuckle and contempt. 'My worthless daughters don't bother to send their squalling children to help me', her tone was not bitter, just factual 'instead they teach them worthless skills like writing and even swordplay' her snort as she said this left no doubt of her opinion of such pretensions. 'They married above themselves and now want to move even higher'.
She suddenly stopped her weaving and held out her hands, 'give me your hands child'. Galen dutifully put her hands in the old woman's grip. The old woman turned them, and her thumbs rasped over calluses and worn ridges on hands that knew the work of a peasant. 'Good hands, you earned these hands with honest work'. She seemed surprised that a young stranger of such haunting beauty would have those hands.
'Weed the garden and you may eat with me, and share my roof'. The steady thump of the loom resumed, a steady pulse in the life of the poor community.
The storm broke just as Galen tossed the last handful of weeds into the compost. She helped the old woman move her gear inside, saving the yarn and cloth from an unexpected drenching. Mother hobbled to make a thin stew of vegetables, throwing in a bone that was seeing at least its fourth boiling. Galen reached into her pouch, and dropped a thin slice of dried meat into the pot. 'The wind will be strong tonight mother, best we build strength'.
The old woman didn't comment. She stirred the pot a few more turns, then sat painfully near the tiny fire. 'I heard your song as you worked, and even the rascals of the neighbor children sat and listened', the ancient woman rasped in her tired old voice. 'Such beauty isn't often heard here, so far from the halls of the great nobility'. Shifting her fragile bones under a thin wrap, she stared at Galen with intent black eyes. Go to the corner, and bring me what lies under that pile of cotton.
Galen dug through the cotton gingerly. There was more raw fiber here than a peasant should have, the old woman must be very good on the loom to acquire so much. Finally, on the floor she found a square leather case, worn, with a strap attached. She pulled this out and brought it to the old woman. Two simple bowls of vegetables and rice were laid out on the low table before her.
'Good, child, set it here and let us eat'. She nodded to her side and waited for Galen to sit. The old woman's prayers were simple, asking the Celestial Bureaucracy to overlook her on the next census, and to help her grandchildren remember that peasant or noble, the gods watched all. They ate in silence.
As she finished the simple meal, Galen took the cups and bowls and scoured them in sand, then set them out to rinse in the rain. As she walked back, she saw the old woman had removed a fine pipa from the mysterious case. Noting Galen's bright interest, the old crone chuckled. 'This belonged to my Hi Paon', she explained, 'He never played it after I made clear I would never leave this village. He missed the wandering life, but he loved me'.
No hint of the emotion she must have felt made it into the woman's voice. 'His children all inherited his drive and his talent to charm', she smiled, 'I saw them all married to soldiers and even a tax collector'. Her tone grew more direct. 'But, none of them had music like you. I won't live through this winter, and I think this instrument belongs with someone that can use it'.
Galen opened her mouth to object, but the old woman continued, 'Shussssssh, you knew it would storm, I know I will pass soon'. She handed the pipa to Galen. 'Play me the Song of Quiet Swans', her eyes were more clear and bright than Galen remembered, 'do you know it'?
Tuning the dry old strings took long, but the instrument was finely made and sound, and Galen played the old love ballad slowly, with feeling. She wasn't surprised that Mother fell asleep during the third performance.
She left the village with the case strapped over her back. The wind was blowing from the East, pushing her west. West, away from the Imperial City and everything she knew. Shrugging, she stepped off into the unknown.