Authors: Carole Wilkinson
Ping thinks she is safe hiding in the shadow of the Tai Shan mountains. Here she struggles to care for Kai, the baby dragon she is responsible for. But even in her remote mountain hideout, Ping’s enemies find her. It is Kai they want. Who can Ping trust? It is impossible to distinguish friend from foe. The easy road beckons. Will they find sanctuary in the Garden of the Purple Dragon? Has the time come for Ping to embrace her true destiny?
MPIRE IN THE
Ping preferred to look to the south
where the mountain peaks were smaller
and softer and didn’t bring back memories
she would rather forget
The chatter of cascading water was the only sound that could be heard. It tumbled down a cliff and collected in a wide, dark pool. Beneath the surface, darker shadows circled—the slender, darting bodies of fish and larger oval shapes. Clumps of reeds grew among black rocks in the shallows. Further along the bank, delicate ferns pushed through a scatter of smooth black pebbles. One of the dark oval shapes drifted slowly to the surface. It was a turtle. A swirling current caught it and tugged it towards the rim of the pool. The turtle paddled its
webbed feet to keep from being carried over the edge where water spilt out of the calm pool and hurried on its journey down the side of the mountain.
A dragonfly balanced on the surface of the pool. Its slender legs were blood-red. Its long thin body was a startling blue, like a splinter of sunlit sky that had fallen to earth. The insect had two pairs of delicate wings crisscrossed with black veins. Each wing was marked with an eyespot. It could have been a precious jewel dropped by a careless princess. The dragonfly’s wings whirred and it took off. It buzzed to a reed, and then from the reed to a rock.
A shadow fell on the dragonfly. A bundle of reeds swooped through the air and landed on it with a thwack, squashing it flat. Ping picked up the dead dragonfly and put it in the leather pouch that hung from her belt, adding it to her collection of crushed caterpillars and flattened moths.
A breeze disturbed the reeds. There was a sharp chill in the air that meant winter wasn’t far away. Ping gazed into the distance. She had been looking out at the same view for half a year, but she hadn’t tired of it yet. It was a clear day and mountain peaks stretched before her like a crowd of giants. Pine forests covered the lower, gentler slopes. On the higher, steeper slopes there were only a few twisted pines perched like vultures wherever their roots could get a hold.
Among the dull green of the pines were a few trees
tinted with the oranges and reds of autumn. Sunlight glinted off a distant lake. Ping sometimes felt like she was living in one of the paintings that hung in Huangling Palace. She had once believed that such landscapes only existed in the imagination of artists. Now she knew they were real.
Behind her the sheer cliffs of Tai Shan blotted out the sky. Ping preferred to look to the south where the mountain peaks were smaller and softer and didn’t bring back memories she would rather forget.
The peace of the afternoon was disturbed by a harsh squawk. Ping closed her eyes and sighed. The squawking grew louder, more persistent. It sounded like something was being strangled. She didn’t hurry. She walked over to a stand of pine trees. They were small trees, less than twice Ping’s height, gnarled and twisted. The squawking turned into a continuous screech.
She stood beneath a particular tree with her hands on her hips.
“Long Kai Duan,” she said crossly. “I told you not to climb trees.”
A small creature was clinging upside down to one of the highest branches. It was covered in purple scales, the colour of violets in sunshine. Down its back was a row of sharp spines. Its tail was wrapped around the branch. It had large paws that seemed much too big for its body. Each paw had four sharp black talons that were all digging into the tree bark. The little creature turned
its upside-down head towards Ping. Bright-green eyes blinked anxiously. The creature’s straight snout ended in a fat, pink nose with quivering nostrils. Its large mouth opened wide to let out another squawk, revealing sharp little teeth and a long, red tongue. It was a small dragon, not much bigger than a cat or a hare.
The bark under the creature’s front talons came away from the branch. The little dragon’s cry became more shrill. The talons on its back paws couldn’t support its full weight. The dragon let go of the branch and was left dangling by its tail. It whimpered. Ping climbed onto a rock and reached up to the dragon. It clung onto her outstretched arm, digging its talons into her flesh.
“That hurts!” Ping said, but if the dragon understood, it took no notice.
Ping slipped on the rock’s smooth surface and skidded down on her bottom, landing with a thud on the hard earth. The dragon let go of her arm, gave her a sharp nip on the nose and scuttled off.
Ping rubbed her nose. “If that’s your way of saying thank you, I’d rather you didn’t bother.”
She examined the scratches on her arm. Both arms were covered with claw marks—some fresh, some healed to scars. She heard a splash. Kai had decided that tree climbing was too dangerous and had gone to swim in the pool. It was his favourite pastime, one that kept him happy for hours. He was a strong swimmer and as comfortable in the water as he was out of it, but Ping
still watched him anxiously. She couldn’t swim. And the times when she’d found herself in deep water she’d been terrified.
Ping had needed a place to bring up a small, purple dragon—a secluded place where no one would disturb them, where Kai could run around without being seen. She didn’t have a lot of experience of the Empire. She knew of only one place where no one ever went—Tai Shan, the sacred mountain that she had climbed with the young Emperor when he had sought the blessing of Heaven at the beginning of his reign. Only the Emperor and his shamans were allowed to climb past a certain point known as the Halfway to Heaven Gate. To do so without imperial permission was punishable by death.
The flight from Tai Shan to Ocean on the back of Long Danzi, Kai’s father, had taken less than a day. It had taken her a week to walk back to Tai Shan. Carrying newly hatched Kai, she had climbed up the imperial path, passed beneath the Halfway to Heaven Gate and into the forbidden area. Then she left the path, cutting across the steep slopes. Liu Che, the young Emperor, had mentioned a pool to the west—Black Dragon Pool. It sounded grim, but with a dragon name it would be an auspicious place to raise Kai.
Black Dragon Pool wasn’t as forbidding as it sounded. The cascade collected in a rocky depression where the steep slopes of Tai Shan levelled out briefly to form a
small plateau. The water wasn’t black; it was the rocks that gave the pool its colour. There was a grove of pine trees around one side of the pool and a narrow meadow on the other. The plateau was sunlit for most of the day. Ping had found roots, mushrooms and berries to add to the simple meals she made with grain and lentils. There were also fish in the stream.
By the time Kai had tired of the pool, the sun was an orange ball on the jagged horizon. The lake in the distance reflected the same colour, as if molten liquid from inside the sun had leaked onto the earth. Ping shaded her eyes to enjoy the spectacle while it lasted. Then she went back to stirring the pot of fish soup that she had prepared over a small fire. She felt guilty for catching the fish which swam up to her so innocently when she bathed in the shallows, but she needed more than roots and berries to eat. She had to conserve her small store of grain and lentils for winter. The turtles would have made a welcome change from fish, but Ping couldn’t bring herself to kill them. Apart from the baby dragon, the turtles were her only companions.
A bleating sound reminded her that this wasn’t quite true.
“Yes, you’re a companion too,” she said to a she-goat tethered to a nearby tree. “In fact, I get more sense out of you than Kai.”
Ping sat by the goat and milked her. She didn’t have
to call the dragon. He was there before she set the bowl of warm milk on the ground, slurping it up with his long tongue, his front paws in the bowl, milk splashed on his nose.
The goat bleated again.
“You also have better manners than he does,” Ping said.
She sat next to the fire, warming her hands. The baby dragon had grown. He was now ten times the size of the tiny creature that had hatched from the dragon stone into her lap. And he needed ten times as much food. When Kai had finished licking the bowl dry, he squawked plaintively.
“I’ve got something else for you,” Ping said.
She pulled the dragonfly from the pouch around her waist. Kai snatched it from her. Ping let go before he bit her fingers. His long snout snuffled around her pouch looking for more.
“I wish you’d start catching your own meals,” Ping grumbled, giving him a caterpillar.