Chapter 1 - Forever Young by A.J. Hall
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young.
Bob Dylan - Forever Young
“The bird-boy was here again today.”
She raises her arms a fraction to make disrobing easier, grimacing as the simple movement sends wrenching fire down her shoulder. Fleetingly, she notes her body is almost worn out. Had it been a slipper, it would have been consigned to the Palace furnace long ago.
The principal lady of the bedchamber makes no reply, save to nod rapidly, in that overstrung manner so many of the Palace staff affect these days. Irritating. Disrespectful. Bad management of the Inner Palace. Still, what else could one expect from that silly young hen? In the days whenshe ruled there —
“Tell my people the bird-boy may come and go as he pleases. He amuses me. Moreover, he comes from my great-grandson. Poor Lin Shu; his father puts too much upon him. Between the Marshal and the Emperor, they will crush my brave boy, and how will I comfort Nihuang then?”
Once she learnt the trick of enticing them with treats, the Palace birds came easy to her hand. They still do. This massive, intricate, ancient structure houses more species than one might imagine. In summer, the eaves are alive with martins; there are grebes and egrets on the water-courses, and finches flock to the inner court, her beloved garden, where she can be alone.
The Palace, she reflects, is full of treasures but in this one thing she is richer even than the Emperor. She has outlived the protocols that dictate she must have eunuchs and waiting women in sight at all times. She needs no guards. In all the history of Da Liang no-one has even attempted the assassination of a Grand Empress Dowager. She may sit in her garden alone, and let finches and sparrows take berries and seeds from between her pursed lips.
The bird-boy lands light as any sparrow on the tiled path before her. He holds a spray of blossom out to her. With those deep purple veins, it can only have come from Mu Manor’s gardens. There, they graft a supple strain from Yunnan onto the hardy winter stock of Jingling. The resulting flowers may look fragile, but they open earlier than most, and their blooms withstand all but the most violent gusts of spring.
The bird-boy is restive, impatient for her to take his gift. He could fly away at any moment, or beat his wings in fury, and peck out her eyes.
“Su ge-ge. Grandmother. For you.”
She holds all her descendants in her heart. The bird-boy is not one of them. And yet —
Recognition comes in a moment; she catches it by the forearm lest it slip away once more. An audience chamber: the hen and the snake staring futile daggers at each other, and the bird-boy standing beside her darling, starveling Lin Shu, who started as she called his name, as if he thought her speaking at random, like some marketplace mad-woman.
So. One of Lin Shu’s waifs and strays. She recalls the puppy with the foot crushed under a wagon (how deft Concubine Jing’s hands had been, tending that poor whimpering scrap!) She recalls the bird whose broken leg Lin Shu had tried to splint in this very garden, and the tears when its heart had finally ceased its panicked fluttering. She recalls the red, raised welt across his cheek, that time he flung himself between a slave-child and a eunuch’s whip.
She smiles, and lifts the lid of the lacquered box beside her.
“A gift for a gift, child. Here. This one is stuffed with sweet almonds. And this with red bean paste. Tell me which you prefer, so my maids can fill the box with your favourites, for when you visit me here again.”
He has been making paper cranes for longer than there has even been time.
Some of them have been bad — crumpled, or torn or simply wrong, like imprecise forms (and why has no-one even practised for days, let alone sparred with him?)
But some of them have been murderously perfect: crisp, and symmetrical, and exactly how they should have been. And wasted.
Su ge-ge has noticed none of them; good, bad or indifferent.
The cranes are his own offering for the Grand Grandmother’s funeral rites, but he does not know where the altar is on which he should burn them, and no-one in the household seems even to notice an offering is what he’s making.
He snorts, stands, scoops up his current best efforts, looks round to see if anyone has any interest at all in his absence or presence, and leaves the house by means of a succession of roof-tops and the backyard of a merchant who imports fine fruit from parts of the far south into Da Liang.
He can make his own rites.
“It’s back again. On her favourite seat, too.”
“The Empress will have us all flogged if anyone spots someone’s been in the Grand Empress Dowager’s garden during the mourning period. You have to get it out.”
“I’m not going. I’ve done it already. Three times. Next day, back again. Never a sign of anyone putting it there. It’s not natural.”
“You don’t suppose it could be — her— doing it, do you? Stands to reason she’d be jealous of the rites. She didn’t even get a memorial tablet.”
“It’s only a paper crane. Perhaps it just blew in accidentally.”
“You think so? Then suppose you go in accidentally and get it out. And make it stay out. Take it away and burn it with incense or something.”
From a nearby roof-top, Fei Liu looks down with deep satisfaction. With luck, this game might go on for weeks. Now he has the trick of it, each crane he folds is identical with the previous crane. And it’s not as if he were breaking any promises. The Grand Grandmother told him he might come and go in her gardens when he chose. He rather thinks the consternation of her attendants is an offering she will appreciate even more than the cranes.