Chapter Three

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Chapter Three – The Secret

 Xiao Xiao carried the little baby girl in her arms, feeling the warmth on her sleeves and against her body. At this stage, Xiao Xin was drooling and waving her arms around. While her mother continued talking to the Empress of the East Palace, enjoying their little snacks and giggling at jokes, Xiao Xiao walked around with Xiao Xin. The breeze was delightfully cool now; autumn had turned the cherry trees in the courtyard red-yellow. At nights, there was a whisper of frost on the stones.

 Xiao Xin was holding onto the green pearl. Where did she get it from? Who gave it to her? Why only did she see it today?

 Servants ran up and down the corridor, passing fresh plates of food and pots of hot jasmine tea. Already the palace had lanterns hung at the various intersections and stone archways. Mother loved Mid-Autumn. The moon was always exceptionally bright… like a pearl.

 Xiao Xiao studied the green pearl resting on Xiao Xin who cooed at her trustingly. The pearl glowed with an inner green light, like the flash of sun on the carp pond water. She cupped it in her hand and pocketed it. Xiao Xin didn’t seem to mind. Instead, the baby gummed her right fist.

 “You are getting messy, aren’t you?” Xiao Xiao said, wiping the saliva off. She felt a rush of warm affection. Perhaps she was starting to love the little foundling.

 ~*~

 That night, Xiao Xiao dreamed.

 She saw a dragon, long and graceful, with silver scales like carp, but brighter and more vivid like stars come alive. The dragon had clear blue eyes, blue as a spring sky. Its silver beard trailed in an invisible wind.

 The dragon danced in the night sky, leaving light trails behind. Beneath it was Xiao Xin, laughing and clapping. In the dream, the baby was sitting up and clad in red baby clothes. Her tiny feet wore red embroidered boots.

 With a sigh that sent a shiver up Xiao Xiao’s back, the dragon came to a rest and curled up around Xiao Xin like a protective Fu-dog.

 You will keep this a secret, the dragon said.

 Meanwhile the stars filled the sky like Mother’s fine embroidery.

 The beauty of the dream stayed with Xiao Xiao until the dawn when she heard the palace stirring with the man-servants carrying water for the kitchen and the bathing chambers. When she opened her eyes, she thought she saw the Empress of the West Palace peering in from the window. She blinked, and the woman was gone.

 ~*~

 She picked through her breakfast of hot white rice porridge and a choice selection of side dishes. Not that the breakfast wasn’t delicious. It was, the cook being a talented man when it came to dishes. The dream filled her mind, distracted her. She chewed the pickled lotus roots slowly, listening to Xiao Xin’s playful gurgling while one of the maids changed her soiled cloth diaper.

 Then Mother came out, wiping her brows and carrying her sword. She exercised with taiji-jian. She smiled at Xiao Xiao before ducking into the shared chamber to change. When she came out, she was clad in a simple pao, pale peach in color.

 “Mama,” Xiao Xiao began and shut her mouth. Her mind was swirling.

 “Speak up,” Mother said, stirring her rice porridge with her chopsticks. “I cannot hear you.”

 “I think, I think I saw the Empress of the West Palace this morning. Dawn.” Xiao Xiao said and mentally scolded herself. It wasn’t what she meant to say. She wanted to say that she saw a dragon in her dream.

 Mother placed her chopsticks down with an audible click. “That woman! I will place more guards in the courtyard. The audacity!”

 Xiao Xiao shook her head, feeling more and more tongue-tied. Dragon, you fool. You saw a dragon dancing and protecting Xiao Xin!

 Before she wanted to continue, Spring came running, her face flushed, her hands flapping excitedly. “My lady, the Empress of the East Palace requests your presence. It is time.”

 Mother stood up, her face brightening. “Stay, Xiao Xiao, and look after your sister.”

 “Yes, Mama,” Xiao Xiao balled her hands into fists beneath the table.

 “And complete your calligraphy,” Mother said before she walked out.

 Xiao Xiao sat in the silence of the dining chamber. It would be a long day.

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