The abbess lifted her horn-rimmed glasses and gazed thoughtfully at the young woman standing before her simple desk. She glanced at the letter in her hand, read it carefully and looked at the slim figure standing uncomfortably in front of her. With a sigh, she spoke:
"So, your mother, Her Imperial Majesty, has sent you here to control your nei huo."
"Yes, madam," the young woman replied politely, watching the old woman clad in a simple white pao. The abbess's sanctum was a sparsely furnished room with a desk, two shelves of books and a basin of water for hand washing. Beyond the large window, the young woman could see lush greenery and the occasional sparkle of water - a waterfall cascaded down a steep cliff, pooling noisily into a clear lake. She had taken note of it as she was heading up the mountain.
"In the letter, your mother has instructed me to either curb or reduce your nei huo, your phoenix flame. Because it has apparently caused problems." The abbess continued. Her white hair glittered in the late-morning light. Her voice was parchment-paper dry.
The young woman winced and nodded assent. She had caused problems. Her temper was out of control, scaring her sisters. Her youngest brother bore the brunt of her fire and the poor boy had run crying to their mother, the Empress, who was then busy holding court and had to deal with a wailing little prince-ling of the Phoenix Court.
Her phoenix flame was roaring loudly, probably made worse by the onset of puberty. She cringed and felt terrible inside. The phoenix flame, the ability to turn woman to phoenix, jumped generations. She experienced a rush of annoyance: Why me? The rest of her sisters carried the recessive gene.
The abbess chuckled suddenly. "I trained your mother personally, Your Highness. She was sent by her mother, your grandmother the Dowager. For similar reasons." She got up gracefully from her chair, a smallish woman but her aura spoke of subtle power. "Enough of idle chit-chat. You will be sent to your room. Training begins at dawn."
"Look at me," the young girl laughed gleefully and let the phoenix flame out, filling her entire being with an actinic fire. Her arms turned into wings of white-hot light and the entire courtyard flared up with the sudden illumination. The immaculately trimmed flowering shrubs flickered as if they caught fire.
"Your Highness," her nanny shielded her eyes and spoke soothingly. "You might end up hurting someone."
At those solemn words, the young girl pulled back the flame and the light went out, as if extinguished. She was only seven then, having newly discovered her ability. Phoenix flame. It was glorious. It was like soaring up into the sky and dancing on the clouds.
Training indeed began at dawn. The young woman was woken up by a resonant bell-tone and she sat up, startled, on her stiff rattan bed. It was still cold and dark. Around her, she could hear the entire nunnery stirring. There were footsteps hurrying down outside her room and female voices raised in genteel chatter. It was a strange environment, so different from the opulence of the Phoenix Court, that she was hit by a sudden burst of homesickness. As she placed her bare feet on the floor, she shuddered involuntarily, because it felt like a winter's day.
Reluctantly, she joined the other acolytes in their morning ablutions, bathing in the ice-cold water and wearing the plain white shift that chafed her skin to no end. Breakfast was hot mountain rice and plain bean curd cubes. Hardly filling, she thought irritated but pretended to eat with gusto when the abbess walked past her.
The acolytes were put through a series of calisthenics, complex moves which made the young woman perspire and wobble in her steps. The worst came when they were instructed to stand in a particular stance: hands steepled as if in prayer and standing on one foot. The other women made it look so easy.