A girl by the name of Fei Lien Hua lives a life of privledge in a world where magic rules. She is about to be sent off to school where she is expected to graduate, marry a well-to-do Elite boy, and have babies. Fei Lien sees a chance to escape to the place where those with no magic are sent. Life there should be simple right? Little does this girl know the region is ruled by pirates and her life there cannot be easy.
“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
This is a tale. Quite obviously so, else it might be a monologue or perhaps an essay. But aren’t those two things also stories or commentary on them? Either way this is a story of a legend, a hero. It is her story that the mothers all over the land of Zongxiàn whisper to their daughters. They might crawl into their beds and whisper in a low tone with the lights turned down and the door closed firmly a story of a woman known as Huànyĭng or Phantom. Mothers spoke of this woman made heroin in the dark of night, shrouded in secret and with pretense that the child may never speak of it. The mothers would not want for fear to come to the men and yet this story could not be so easily forgotten to fear.
I suppose I shall start at the beginning, for the beginning is a good place to start. But what is a beginning? Who determines when a story should start and when it truly ends? Alas, such is the trial of a bard. Does the story begin with her birth? No, no there is far more before this. Her parentage, the society in which she lived! Alas, even that is argued. Curse the ones that would not put history to paper leaving it to be contorted by imagination and mouth. Much is disputed over as to the existence of Huànyĭng, where and when it was she lived. Was it the second dynasty? The fifth? Does it even truly matter? For what is the date of any importance? Are the events not as important? Aye, but we get caught up in such details. Forgive me for I drift away from the topic at hand. Where was I?
Ah yes, the beginning. This should begin as all good stories should. But I suppose before I truly begin I should adequately introduce you, the audience, to this phantom of sorts. I have given hints of hints and have given boasts of her greatness with no foundation or even her name! Forgive me, reader; forgive me and my wandering thoughts… The girl was named Hua Fei Lien. Surname Hua, given name Fei Lien. And for the sake of setting she lived during the reign of Emperor Qing in a time when the land of Zongxiàn was divided into accentually two parts and within that a sort of class system. Not to say this is not how it is now, but how it is now has no relevance to the story of Fei Lien. At any rate, how it was then in that everyone in all the land had a talent, as do all people in this world. The talents were divided into three basic categories: Warrior, Healer, and Sage. A warrior, of course, involves a talent or power, for lack of a better word; that involves combat of some sort. A healer can heal the injured or sick in physical ways or perhaps spiritually or mentally. Sages are those blessed with more scholarly magic, like perhaps the magic to speak in many languages, or to make things move with the mind. Then there is a kind of people set all on their own a kind that was said to be the seed of all the people of Zongxiàn and are the purist strains of magic of all. They have the ability to control all three and far more. Without a second thought they are the most powerful beings, and wisely the Emperor Qing made all Elite families noblemen. As it would be Fei Lien was part of the prestigious Elite family Hua.
The Hua family was like any other Elite family. The mother, Hanaye Hua, was blessed to have two children. Atsushi Hua was the first born and only son the family ever had. And a second time three years after his birth she brought Fei Lien into the world. Fei Lien’s brother was an ideal son. He was gifted in the ways of war and strategy. He was amazingly handsome and was respectful and confident. All the children with the talents are sent to the Royal Academy in the capital. Upon graduating the Emperor looks at their marks and the file of the student in question and places them into an assigned job that is needed. What a blessing it is to be given a job that will never are taken from you. However, if one is not happy with his or her job then there is no escape. But many have learned to live with this. For Atsushi this would never be a problem. He was at the top of his class, the top of his Elite society, and most importantly born to a man who had once been a great General.
However, as it often goes, the younger of the children are not quite like their elder siblings and in this way Fei Lien was no different. She and her brother had been spared the restraints of public primary school, instead taking up tutors and self study. This was to change when she turned sixteen, the age that she would have to go to the Royal Academy and after which she would have to be kept to a certain station, a certain job until she married another eligible and no doubt wealthy young Elite boy at which time she gave up her job to be a good wife and mother more Elite children. This idea did not suit her, did not please her, and it grew ever closer to the time that she would have to go to the academy with her brother whom was on his final year. As is common with many young people Fei Lien longed for something, what that something might have been eluded her. It is easier for the youth to know what they do not want rather than what it might be that they do want and it was as such with Fei Lien Hua.
I suppose this is the beginning that so eluded me before. I shall begin now. How is it that the bards in Alterah begin a story? Ah yes, now I remember. Once upon a time there lived a girl who would spend her days wondering what it was she wanted in her life…
Life was like a cycle, never ending and always repeating. The skies would fill with water then empty them on the land. The sun would warm the earth and the moon would cool it. This is what it was, wasn’t it, everlasting? Nothing ever seemed to change and to Fei Lien it felt as though everything stayed the same except for her. To this young woman she felt as if she were growing out of her skin. Restlessly she rolled on her side, for too long she had been staring at the sky and its numerous clouds. Lying beside her was a toad.
“You are lucky,” she told the toad. “You can leave.” The grass beneath her was itchy and uncomfortable to lay on but that didn’t much matter since ultimately her goal with laying on the wet, dirty grass was to annoy her mother whom had wanted her to be as she said, “beautified” for a day of visiting. By this she meant she would put her daughter in uncomfortable clothes, scrub her from head to toe, then parade her in front of her friend’s sons in hopes one of them might take the bait. If Fei Lien were lucky she might be able to avoid this. She might be able to be dressed up like a porcelain doll but many of the other Elite families knew better: for Fei Lien was a troublemaker. Here, in the grass the girl was at peace, things were as she liked it: feet exposed to the sun, ankles out, hair down everything fairly free.
“Fei Lien? Fie Lien?” it was her mother’s voice. She was trapped; it was too late to escape. Her face scrunched into a grimace and she could almost hear her mother’s words before she even uttered them. She could hear her mother gasp in horror at the lazed appearance of her daughter then would cry out her daughter’s name. The gasp came followed by the sound of her mother’s quick steps and finally her name.
“Fei Lien, what in the gods’ names are you doing here? You are acting like some barbarian. Get up, now we have to get you ready, now!” She turned around and waved over the two maids, Chou and Hanna. “Chou, escort my daughter to her room. Hanna, draw the bath and prepare the garments.” Hanna rushed off and Chou pulled Fei Lien to her feet. Chou was a small girl, but was strong from years of work for Lady Hua. Chou was only a year or two older than Fei Lien yet she looked as impatient with the girl as Lady Hua was. Fei Lien was lead from the garden in which she had been hiding and was taken to her room where the large porcelain bath that was being filled by Hanna.
This was Fei Lien’s room, but looking at it one might not know it belonged to the girl that would come to be known as the Phantom Elite. The walls were a pale dusty pink, a hue like the cherry blossoms in May; light filtered through them from the lamps of the home just outside. The floor was made of tatami mats and had on them a rug that was a wine color with cranes woven into the patterns of interlocking complicated knots that were symbols of good luck and prosperity. In the corner under a thin cloth draping from the ceiling was a bed roll held off the ground by a slab of dark wood on two long lifts that were no taller than one’s calf. In one corner was a wardrobe of the same dark wood as the bed that held all of Fei Lien’s clothing. Pressed up against a wall to the outside world was a potted plant of bamboo and a fake twisted tree. The room was boring and spoke nothing for the personality of the girl. Without any warning Chou began to undo Fei Lien’s belt and obi. Her waist skirt and robes opened up and the maid slipped them off. Not long after Fei Lien’s white cotton under robe was removed and she stood before Chou and Hanna as naked as a newborn.
“Get in now,” Chou prompted sounding irritated at having to tell her this. With deliberately slow steps she walked to the now steaming tub of water. She could almost feel the burning eyes of Chou’s gaze on her bare back, they were like red hot prods, and despite the heat a smirk touched her lips. Oh how enjoyable it was to torment the easily unsettled Chou. Fei Lien put in one foot then the other and sunk into the water that was hotter than her liking. Fei Lien stared down at her knees and wrinkled her nose in distaste, they were man knees. The water was tinted a green color and felt slimy from the various oils and scents that Hanna had out in the water to make her smell of apple blossoms. However, to Fei Lien, the single most unattractive thing about the other Elite girls besides their personality or lack thereof was their strong scent of flowers. When she was around the girls she felt as though her throat might close up and suffocate her.
She felt something abrasive rubbing on her back. Of course it was Chou, the poor servant girl was taking out her frustration on Fei Lien’s poor back. Unwilling to show Chou her discomfort she began to make small talk that would no doubt annoy her.
“What sort of atrocity will you force me to wear today?” Fei Lien asked staring straight ahead at the wall.
“Atrocity? These robes were handmade, they are exquisite and would get any other pleasant but ugly girl a husband in no time at all. It is your personality that drives them away,” Chou said. Fei Lien grimaced.
“Now is that anyway to speak to your lady? And you’ve not answered my question, Chou.” Chou did not answer just lifted Fei Lien’s arm and began to scrub her side and under arm. Why do I need someone to wash me? I am perfectly capable of washing myself. It was not Chou who answered Fei Lien, but Hanna.
“Your mother has picked out something nice,” she said quietly. “It will look nice on you, Miss. Fei Lien.” Fei Lien forced a smile at Hanna, at least she tried to be civil. From behind Fei Lien came the all too common sound of the sliding doors being thrown open by her mother, followed by this came the pattering of her small feet on the tatami mats and the slower steps of her personal servant behind her. The doors closed. Fei Lien half turned to see her mother circle the tub to face her daughter. Hanaye bent down and pinched her daughter’s cheeks.
“You are spending far too much time in the sun. Your face is turning red. June, do you think you can cover up the redness?” June stared at the girl in the tub for a moment but nodded. Fei Lien gave her mother a faked pouting look.
“Do you mean to tell me my quest to ruin my pasty complexion is ruined? Say it is not so, Mama!” Hanaye frowned.
“No not joke. Chou, are you nearly finished? We will be late.” Chou nodded and began to scrub at Fei Lien’s scalp with her hands that were lathered with various soaps and oil. Suddenly and without warning Chou shoved Fei Lien’s head into the water as though to drown her then pulled her up. The excess oil ran down her back and into her face.
“You can get out now, M’lady,” Chou said being sure to be less abusive in her language in front of Lady Hanaye. Fei Lien stood and stepped out of the tub and was swiftly caught in a towel and rubbed until her skin was dry but not free of the slimy feel from the oils. Fei Lien watched Hanna bring out the robes she would be wearing. The under robe was a shimmering golden colored silk. Overtop of this would be the green robe. Hanging over Hanna’s shoulder and dragging on the ground was the belt with which they’d hold in her gut to make her thinner than any person truly was. It seemed to her that doing this was false advertising. If she was to marry, and that was a big if, then surely at some point or another he would discover she was not as thin as a twig but rather quite average. The belt in question was the yellow to match some of the small intricate orchids that decorated the shoulders, sleeves, and bottom of the robe. Around the obi belt would be various braided ropes that were to symbolize her wealth or some such nonsense. Chou held Fei Lien’s hair up in a towel as Hanna pulled the robes around her and adjusted the fold so that the skirt of the robe would be at her ankles. Then came the fun part.
“Suck in and hold your breath,” Hanna told Fei Lien. They didn’t need to tell her anymore. She knew perfectly well that she was to suck her gut in as far as she could then they would tie the belt even tighter than that. Once in her life she had fought this, but it was nose use. At least now if she was to find herself in an unpleasant situation a fainting spell would not be unwarranted. As ordered she sucked in her breath as Hanna wrapped the belt around her a few times then tied it tightly. It might have been her imagination but Fei Lien could have sworn she felt her kidneys relocate to another place in her abdomen. All while she did this her mother and June were discussing what to do with her hair. Hanaye wanted to pull it back to show off her eyes while June insisted that letting her hair remain down was best to make Fei Lien’s short face seem elongated and more elegant.
“I trust you, June,” Hanaye said finally and folded her hands. “Do your best, I have a good feeling about this one.” She always said this. At every new introduction to a boy Lady Hanaye would go into the meeting with high spirits and optimism for her daughter’s future as a wife. Fei Lien, on the other had had little hope for such a thing. It may seem to an outsider that she was the sort to rebel against everything that her parents had planned for her since she was in the womb. However there was once a time that she too had dreamt of being a mother and being married. But as she grew older she realized that the fairy tales she was told about marrying a prince and being whisked away was nothing but a story. Marriages were an agreement, an agreement that both parties would pretend to like each other for the sake of populating the world. This idea of marriage was not one she liked. And even beyond that it seemed that no matter what happened she was never quite the type that any of the Elite families were looking for. She might have been from one of the most powerful Elite families but it didn’t matter. After years of rejection she had given up. Marriage, now, was just a joke.
She was led to a stool where Chou attacked her hair. The front parts were pulled back and tied with a braided rope of green and gold with a small pearl-like thing handing from either end. Her hair was shinny from the oils and made the fake tear shaped pearl appear fake. As not to waste time June began to dust onto Fei Lien’s face a powder the same color as her skin tone that was meant to hide her reddened cheeks and any other imperfections. On her eyelids was put a paint-like thing that was a brown to bring out her eyes, or that is what they told her. Everything else was left alone, to make her appear naturally beautiful. This also was false advertisement. If one was going to be fake why not go all out in doing so? It did not take the women long to finish their work on her.
“My daughter, stand so that I might look at you,” Hanaye said. Fei Lien stood and faced her mother straight on so that she could look at her face. Her mother studied her, looking her up and down then she shook her head. “You are not filling out these robes very well. Look at you, they’re making you look boxy!” She bit her lower lip, thinking hard on how to fix this. Without a word Hanaye rushed out of the room. This worried Fei Lien. What precisely did her mother have planned for her flat-chest daughter? It was not long before Hanaye returned with some scraps of fabric.
“Here,” She reached into her daughter’s robes and stuffed the place where the small amount of chest that Fei Lien had was and made a mound out of the cloth.
“Mother!” Fei Lien squealed. “Stop this, this is stupid!”
“Quiet, shoulders back, chest out and be proud of what you have! Now get your shoes on we are leaving now!”