The moon rose like an enormous white pearl. There was a hint of coming rain and Xiao Xiao hoped the rain clouds stayed away. They did, and she was relieved.
Lanterns hung the courtyard. Laughter rippled across the viewing sites as ladies and their children watched the moon while they feasted on delicious mooncakes filled with lotus paste and sipped delicate jasmine tea.
I like the ones filled with nuts and citrus peel, Ming Zhu whispered in Xiao Xiao's ears. They crunch in my mouth and I love the taste of the sweet orange skin.
Really? Xiao Xiao whispered back.
Ming Zhu giggled. We do not eat seafood all the time, you know.
Xiao Xiao liked this time. She heard Mother play the guzheng. Even Xiao Xin had her first lantern, one shaped like a peach. Of course, at the main palace, the empresses had grander viewing parties.
Even the kitchen servants' children had lanterns too. They made them out from the pomelo husks, deftly removed by their mothers. Inside the springy center of the pomelo-lantern was a candle and they somehow managed to tie a string so that the pomelo-lantern hung on a stick. It was a very clever use of the pomelo skin.
Tonight I will guard your sister, Ming Zhu's voice was a sleepy sigh in Xiao Xiao.
Xiao Xiao's heart clenched painfully. Why?
Ming Zhu's voice receded as if she had dived back into the deep sea. Only a glimpse of silver scale and then nothing.
That night, while the moon shone in the sky, Xiao Xiao lay awake, like a fierce guardian lion-dog. She thought she saw a shadow slip across the window or heard the soft snik of metal.
Somewhere close to the dawn, she slipped into a slight doze. And when she awoke, disappointed at her lack of vigilance, she heard the news that a man was caught in the night, trying to enter the window of one chamber very close to Mother. It was said that he was found later, hung from the ceiling, screaming for his life. Servants described his bulging eyes and his garbled words: dragon, dragon, dragon.
Anger burned like fire in Xiao Xiao.
She wanted to grow claws and fangs, scales and muscular tail.
She would protect Mother and Xiao Xin.