Screams woke Xiao Xiao up from an odd dream where she swam with the silver carp in the pond in dragon form. The pond was huge, like the sea. The carp flanked her, in flashes of silver scale and bright bubbles. As she sat up, rubbing her eyes, the screams grew larger and this time, she heard the foot soldiers, the banner men, stomping into the courtyard.
She staggered out of her bed, muttering when her feet touched the ice-cold floor. Her maids were rushing out, their faces frightened.
What greeted her was...
In full dragon form, heedless of the sleet, Ming Zhu had a figure dangling frantically in her jaw. Xiao Xiao's knees grew weak. Ming Zhu. In person.
A silver dragon, straight from the sea. A dragon king's daughter. The sleet only made her scales brighter, her eyes like suns and her claws like crescent moons. The air surrounding her shimmered as if she was giving off a sun's heat. Snow melted. Xiao Xiao felt the fire.
The figure, wailing now, was... the Empress of the East, Mother's best friend. In her panic, her boots had fallen off. She looked frail, pathetic.
"She's the culprit," Ming Zhu's voice was clear as cold spring water and as bracing. "She poisoned the wang fei and the Lady Xiao Xiao."
Without ceremony, brusquely, she dropped the Empress of the East and shot straight up into the sky, with the roar of thunder and the clap of lightning in her wake. The brightness forced everyone to shield their eyes. When they finally opened them, the dragon was gone. Only the melted snow reminded them that a dragon stood in the courtyard.
Mother, clad in a simple pale green ermine-lined house gown, only stood still, her lips thin, her face ghost-white. She simply stared at her friend crumbled on the snow-covered pavement. The Empress of the East lifted up her head, tears turned into crystals on her beautiful face, pleading, begging. Mother turned away.
The banner men wavered, their long spears pointed at the Empress.
"Take her away," Mother's voice froze water. "I do not want to see her again."
Die die roared. There was a lot of shouting. Xiao Xiao, insignificant and only a child in the eyes of the court, hid and listened to her father pacing up and down furiously.
The Empress of the East confessed. She had been jealous of Mother's fame and beauty for a long time. The Empress of the West was the one more explicit in her jealousy. In sobbing words, the Empress of the East drew a picture of silent jealousy that festered and turned into hatred.
"You are supposed to be friends," her father shouted.
Mother shrugged. "Not anymore."
"Forgive me," the Empress's voice was weak.
Xiao Xiao backed away, clutching the green pearl in her hand.
The next day, the Empress of the East was stripped of her title and sent to the forbidden part of the palace, where forgotten courtesans were housed. There, without the opulence and privilege of the court, she would live out the rest of her life. Her son, the little prince, still remained in the court, to be fostered by the women.
I did what I could, Ming Zhu told Xiao Xiao in a dream. I saw what happened to my mother at court too. I hated it.
Xiao Xiao reached out and embraced the dragon princess gently. In the dream, she too was dragon.
I wanted to forgive her, but I couldn't. Perhaps I didn't have the heart of Buddha. Am I a cruel dragon? Am I a cruel princess?
Xiao Xiao held her tightly, not knowing what to say, except that her presence was a kindness to Ming Zhu.