A C Macklin
‘Close your eyes, Jia Ying.’
The little girl looked up at her father, clutching his hand tightly. ‘Why?’
‘Because the way out lies through the Temple of Crimson Winds and it is not permitted that you should gaze upon the faces of the gods.’ He smiled briefly and drew his sword. ‘Stay close to me and, no matter what you hear, do not look.’
She transferred her grasp to a fold of his tunic and closed her eyes. There was a grinding noise as he drew back the massive counter-weighted bar that held the doors closed, and then they swung inwards with a soft hush of perfectly oiled hinges. The floor changed from marble to mosaic under her feet. She wanted to see – the mosaics elsewhere in the Palace of Supreme Brightness were works of great beauty, mapping out elaborate scenes from history or poetry in fragments of semi-precious stone – but her father’s body was tense and she was obedient.
The air smelled of fresh jasmine, and thick incense, and polish. Silver bells chimed softly somewhere overhead. She could feel the weight of the gods’ stony gaze on her slight shoulders, judging her. Little slave, little runaway, who are you to come before us?
Suddenly her father stopped, and she could hear running footsteps coming near. So many feet, like falling rain but the smell was of fear, not freshness.
‘Stop, Ting Guang, in the name of the Emperor!’
The feet were very close now, stamping into some kind of order in front of them. Her father reached down and loosened her hold on his tunic.
‘You must be very brave,’ he whispered. ‘Do not move, and do not open your eyes.’
She nodded and he stroked her hair once before moving away.
‘You are under arrest! Put up your sword.’
‘I have permission to leave the palace.’ Her father sounded calm, in contrast to the high pitch of his challenger’s voice.
‘You are stealing an Imperial slave.’
‘She is my daughter.’
‘She is the Emperor’s possession.’
‘The Emperor has thousands of possessions, yet he would not consider my supplication to give him her price. That leaves me with one course.’ Her father paused, and when he spoke again there was amusement in his tone. ‘I have trained all those standing here. Are you so full of respect for my skills that you must face me together? Your lack of courage does you little honour.’
‘Be silent.’ A different voice, that made Jia Ying tremble. So full of disdain that it could only belong to a member of a Blood Family. A lowly member, to be acting as part of the Palace guard, but infinitely above a shifu and his slave-daughter. ‘You, who lies down with whores, who sneaks through the palace under cover of darkness, would speak of honour? He that bites his master’s hand has no right to the word.’
A rasping sound echoed around the stone walls of the temple, and Jia Ying flinched. The first yell of attack sounded to her like a demon howling, and was followed by a staccato clawing of metal on metal. She crouched down and clapped her hands over her ears, desperately trying not to hear the screams and gurgles and wet splatters. Her father fought an army of unknown size and every cry could be his.
‘Ting Guang is the finest swordsman in the Empire,’ her mother had said proudly, brushing her hair until it gleamed. ‘He could beat all the guards of the palace together. One day he will take us away and we can build a life as a family together.’ Then she turned her head and coughed into a handkerchief, quickly hiding the specks of red in its folds. ‘As soon as I am better.’
Blood on cloth and death follows behind. Jia Ying remembered her mother’s stiff white face, and heard her father fighting, and screwed her eyes tight shut as she prayed to the watching gods. Then she was grabbed roughly by the arm and dragged forwards. She screamed in terror as something was pressed uncomfortably against her throat. She could smell blood and sweat. The man that held her had shaking hands and a chest that laboured for breath. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
‘Stop or I will slit her throat!’
‘Jia Ying?’ That was her father’s voice, still steady and calm. It took the edge of hysteria from her fear and she gulped back her cries. She gave a nod, cut short by the metal at her neck. ‘Do not open your eyes.’
There was a swish of air and a moist thud. The man behind her took a sudden breath and then his chest stopped moving. The arm around her went rigid but the metal dropped away from her throat and clanged onto the mosaic tiles. Something sticky and wet began to dribble onto her shoulder. Then her father’s hands were strong at her waist and he picked her up. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he wiped her tears away with his fingers.
‘You are a good girl. Now, count my steps. On the eleventh, you may look again.’
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. A clicking sound, like a ratchet turning, and then the screech of wood on stone. Ten. The door slammed behind them. She could smell baking bread, and sewage, and cooking fires. There was a breeze on her bare arms. Carts rattled past, dogs yelped and people shouted. All of it alien to the reverent silence of the Palace of Supreme Brightness.
About the author
AC Macklin is a classicist who considers anything more recent than 600BC to be 'modern history', a dreamer with an irritatingly pragmatic brain, and a natural blonde fully prepared to use this as an excuse.
She also sings in the shower and isn't sorry.
Under the web name of everwalker, she writes a bi-weekly blog on the trials and tips of writing genre novels. You're very welcome to visit over at http://everwalker.wordpress.com/