Jao and Oyang walked past the garden on their way home. The light of evening made it look like something from a dream, or a fantasy. The cherry blossoms were a light, creamy pink. Looking at them was not like looking at flowers, but more like looking at pillows and satin sheets. You didn't want to smell them or pluck them, but rather lie down and be enveloped in their welcoming softness. There were labrador violets just beginning to appear, and their whites and purples were striking but not garish, as if they were eager to fit in to the garden's calm mood. The snapdragons stood tall as if they were guarding and overseeing the rest of the flowers. But they were also swaying slowly in the breeze as if half asleep. They were lazy guards, as any guards would be on such a lazy, warm spring evening.
Oyang looked intensely into the garden, but he wasn't looking at the flowers. "Jao," he said thoughtfully. "Look at all those couples in the garden. The men say sweet words, and the women give them sweet looks in return. Softness and sweetness all around, but what do we have? Hard lives and bitter tastes. Porridge for breakfast and gruel for dinner. Where's our sweet dessert?"
Jao kept looking straight ahead. He didn't want to get distracted by beguiling passions. He was thinking more about whether the training they had done that day would make him sore tommorrow, and whether they would have to adjust their training schedule tomorrow. "Oyang," he replied with a smirk. "Since when do you speak so poetically? Go and try some lines about sweetness and softness on one of the girls on your farm. Maybe she'll give you some dessert."
"The farm girls," said Oyang thoughtfully. "Maybe. Do you think any of them like me? Maybe you can talk to them and see."
"I think," said Jao, finally taking a moment to look at the sparkling hues of the garden, "that women like men who have the courage to talk to them directly, instead of sending spies."
Oyang pretended that this didn't sting him. "Maybe," he said. He breathed deeply, taking in the intoxicating natural perfumes. "Hey, look at that couple on the bench there. He has a pear that he's slicing up. I guess they'll share it. More sweet tastes that we don't have. I wish I could do that. That's pretty romantic, right? Sharing a pear with a cute girl?"
Jao didn't reply. He knew that Oyang was mostly talking to himself anyway. Jao believed in thinking hard before saying anything. Sometimes he would think about something for days before saying it, making sure it seemed right, thinking about it from every angle. Oyang was more likely to just talk about whatever was in his immediate surroundings, and then forget about it a moment later.
Sure enough, after they had walked a little farther, Oyang saw something that grabbed his attention and moved talk of love and pears out of his mind. "Look at those big estates," he said, as Jao knew he would. They were almost past the garden now, and they would walk past a few estates of the local great families on the way home. "I wonder if I'll ever live in a big place like that. High walls, huge towers, servants everywhere, deference from the lower classes, fine food every day, luxury, rest..." He trailed off, lost for a moment in his imagination. Jao was still silent.
"That one there," Oyang said, pointing at one of the estates. "You know the stories about that one right?"
Jao shook his head. "I've never heard about it."
"Well," Oyang said, pleased to have a chance to share some gossip, "they're supposed to be one of the ancient families. Not just one of those families that says they're ancient. But their family is actually ancient."
"Every family is ancient," Jao pointed out.
"Hmm," Oyang grunted, disappointed. "I mean, some of these families are just pretending. They have a big old house and one or two servants and they show everyone some old parchment with their genealogy. But the house is decrepit and they don't have any real wealth, and they're just trying to keep up appearances so people will take them seriously. But not this family. People say that this family comes from the old Erdesant royalty. They say that their compound has 10 rooms full of gold, that they got as gifts from foreign rulers back when they were on top of the world." Oyang lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. "The walls are high but you can supposedly see the towers that have the gold if you look from the right place."
Jao never really believed these tall tales, but Oyang seemed so excited about it that he decided to draw him out more. "So," he said, "we can see a couple of the towers now. Which ones have the rooms with all the gold?"
Oyang smiled, pleased that his friend was interested in his secret knowledge. "You see those three towers inside, right? The small one on the left is for functions and entertaining. They host big dinners there, their servants live there, and I think they even have a little theater. The other small tower on the right is where they store some of their cultural treasures. I heard that they'll show you their collection of landscape paintings if you ask nicely. I think they also have some calligraphy and some ancient books."
Oyang's voice got low again, as if he were starting a conspiracy or sharing an occult secret instead of just gossiping. "It's the middle tower, the tallest one," he said. "That's where the family lives. The patriarch and his wife are on the ground floor. Above him, his sons and daughters have their rooms. In between their rooms, there are 10 other rooms full of gold. I guess they must also have some dining rooms and parlors too, that's why the tower is so big. But the 10 rooms are full of gold. The treasure is supposed to include diamonds too, and precious gems. Jewelry and ornaments and decorations from every exotic corner of the world, both ancient and modern. I wonder if they just go in and look around sometimes and bask in its glory. I wonder if they have to keep it dark in those rooms, because otherwise you'd get blinded by all the sparkling reflections."
Jao could see that Oyang had distracted himself again with his speculations. In the time it had taken to talk about the gold, they had walked past the estate and they were close to their families' neighboring farms. Jao should have changed the subject but he couldn't resist asking another question. "Where did you hear about all this?"
"Oh," said Oyang. "From my father, of course. He's lived here all his life. He knows about all of these families and all the secrets of the city." Jao felt love for his simple friend Oyang, so sincerely proud of his father, so trusting of what people told him. "My father told me a few months ago on the day their family visited our farm," Oyang continued. "Wait a minute, you were there right? I remember you were working with me that day, and you were there when they arrived to look around."
Jao thought back. "Oh I remember. That was the family from that estate? I remember their silk clothes didn't look like they fit in around the farmhouse." He paused, trying to remember that day. "Why were they visiting your farm?"
"They order chicken and beef from us when they host their best parties," Oyang explained, clearly full of pride again. "They were visiting to see our animals and to negotiate the prices. I don't know why they all came. You remember, the old man of the family brought his sons and daughters, too. Maybe he wants to train them to be able to do business, so he brought them to give them some hands-on experience."
"That's right," Jao remembered. "What were his sons named? Gelau and Lang right? And his daughters were Kumang and Sulah."
"Maybe," Oyang said noncommitally. "He has a lot of children though. I think that's not all of them. You talked to Sulah right?"
Jao remembered Sulah. He remembered her slender figure and her shy demeanor, and her soft, high voice. He remembered the light blue silk she wore, and he remembered seeing the outline of her collarbones through the thin silk. "She asked me about the land. She wanted to know why some of the fields were fallow. I told her that a warrior needs to rest to gather his strength. A scholar needs to close the book and ponder before he finds his best thoughts."
Oyang laughed loudly. "Who's the poetic one now? Ha."
They had arrived at Oyang's farm. Oyang said goodbye for the night as he walked into his family's farmhouse. Jao would have to walk only a little farther to get to his own family's land. The sun had set and scarcely anything could be seen on the moonless night. When Jao arrived at his small bedroom, he pulled his blankets over him and closed his eyes. Though it was dark, he saw bright colors in his imagination. He thought of the flowers he had seen in the garden, and imagined how they would look in the bright noon sun or the creamy light of the full moon. He thought of the couples sitting together, sharing sweet words, sweet looks, and sweet pears. He thought of the great estate and its rooms full of gold. He imagined what he might look like wearing an ornamented crown or an embroidered silk robe made for foreign royalty. As he drifted into sleep, the colors of the garden and the flowers and the silk and the gold flowed together in a blissful dream.
Jao woke up early, before the sun had even begun to peek over the horizon. He couldn't remember any dreams, but he must have dreamed something, because he felt consumed with a desperate desire. His mind was filled with a desire to do one specific thing only that day before the sun went down.
He sent a message to Oyang to tell him that he wouldn't make it to their training that day. He put on his work clothes and drank a lot of water, mixed with honey and salt. Without a word to his family, he walked out the front gate and started walking towards the city.
The chill of the early morning didn't bother him. The thought of reaching his goal kept him warm. As soon as he could see the public garden in the distance, he knew he was close. He didn't take time to enjoy the colors of the garden because he had more pressing matters to attend to. He had walked quickly and could already see the three towers of the great estate, the one Oyang had told him had 10 rooms full of gold. He quickened his pace, excited, as he got closer.
He stopped as soon as he reached the outer walls. They looked taller up close than they had from far away. Probably the walls were at least 100 feet tall. No matter, he thought. A warrior is not discouraged by the thickest walls or the tallest mountains. A scholar is not perturbed by the most difficult puzzle. The difficulty of the challenge would only increase the sweetness of his victory.
The only way over the walls would be to climb up the old ivy that covered them from top to bottom. This would not be so hard if he could trust every vine. But old ivy vines die and dry up and disintegrate there on the wall, next to their healthy brothers. If he hung on a vine that wasn't strong enough for him, it could snap and break and drop him straight to the ground.
There wasn't time to dwell on this thought, or to imagine what a fall would feel like or how many of his bones would crack. A warrior cannot be distracted by useless, thoughts, he reminded himself. A warrior thinks only of victory.
He found two vines near each other that looked strong, big, and young. Near the bottom of the wall, they were easy to pull away and test for strength and reliability. He wrapped the very lowest parts of the vines around his legs so they could catch him in case his hands lost their grip. He looked upwards, grabbed the vines tight, and pulled with all his strength.
This is easy! Jao thought as he pulled himself up one hoist at a time. He even got into a little rhythm as he got used to the motions required for climbing. Arm, arm, leg, leg, he thought, then arm, arm, leg, leg, and repeat. With his arms, he pulled his body up, then he re-wrapped his legs in the next higher parts of the vines. As he got higher, he found that the ivy and leaves and branches and vines grew thicker. The ivy was so thick that it felt like he could support his weight on his feet just by digging them in above the huge knots of ivy. He found two particularly strong knots, rested his feet and his weight on them, and paused for a moment to catch his breath.
For a moment he wondered whether he should have done more preparation before starting this ambitious task. He could feel his arms getting a little weak from fatigue. He could feel some soreness in his shoulders and calves from his training yesterday. He wondered if he would fail to climb the wall, and even whether the wall would lead to his death. He thought about things he had failed at before. His idea to try the new type of wheat crop on the family farm - it had succumbed to disease before even one planting season had ended. His attempt to get accepted to the best schools in the city - they had laughed at his provincial accent and his bad calligraphy. If he could fail at those things, why wouldn't he now fail at this too?
Enough, he thought. He had to remind himself again of a warrior's thoughts. Only victory, he told himself. A warrior only thinks of victory. Resting was doing him no good. He found some new vines that looked sufficiently strong, and pulled with all his strength. His shoulders ached with soreness and new fatigue. He felt a strain in his back as he pulled higher and higher. The sun had shown its face, and it didn't feel like a calm greeting from the new day as the early dawn usually feels, but rather a cruel furnace trying to burn him alive. With each dagger of pain in his muscles, he felt a new dagger of pain in his mind. What if I never get beyond this, he thought. What if I'm always a poor farm boy, a bumpkin, a failure. Arm, arm, leg, leg, repeat. What if all my efforts are for nothing, and what if life is really nothing more than a cruel trick the gods play on us?
Just as he thought this, the knot he was resting his right foot on broke from the pressure of his weight. He slipped downward, crying out in alarm, scrabbling against the wall to get a vine. They were all too small - he could feel himself falling - he could hear what his bones were going to sound like when they broke against the stones on the ground - but he got it! His left arm, almost without his mind's permission, had grabbed three small vines that were growing together. They were strong enough to hold him - for now. Both feet were dangling, and his right arm hung limp by his side, as his left hand, knuckles white, held tight to the three little vines.
Was it even worth it to hang on? Jao wondered. My life of failure can end with this failure, and I would no longer burden anyone here on earth. Maybe it would be nice to go live with the gods or the ghosts or wherever I'll go live after I shed my body. A failed life can be tied off with a failed climb. But -
This could be the success that would start him on the path to greater success. It could be the beginning of a new day of honor and glory and triumph, of gold and light and sweetness. Jao gritted his teeth, swung his right arm upward, reached for the sky, and grabbed the highest vine he could reach, pulling again with all his strength, pushing the thoughts of failure from his mind, and starting on the painful, necessary, difficult, uphill climb towards victory. Jao decided to be a warrior on that day.
After deciding that he had to triumph, the rest of the climb almost seemed easy. The pain was nothing because he knew he had to triumph. The bad thoughts were nothing because he knew he had to triumph. Arm, arm, leg, leg, repeat. This was all he thought of, and all he needed to think. Some of the vines disappeared into the brush, or even broke off. This was nothing to him because he knew he had to triumph. His muscles ached and felt as weak as jelly. He paid them no attention because he knew he had to triumph.
He got to the top. Maybe his strength was about to give out, and maybe he would have fallen if the wall had been a foot higher. It didn't matter, because he knew he had to triumph, and he had triumphed - over the wall, at least. He pulled his body onto the top of the wall, wheezing and seeing spots. He realized that he had blood on a few places on his clothes - he must have cut himself on thorns or the rough plaster of the walls. He closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath. Even in his pain he couldn't resist smiling about his triumph.
But he couldn't rest there forever. His triumph was only partial for now. He was at the top of the wall, which meant that he was inside the estate. But his goal wasn't just to enter the estate. Jao reminded himself to get serious again and keep moving. He looked around. The day was bright and clear, and from the top of the wall he could see the whole inside of the estate clearly. There was a garden at the center - smaller than the public garden outside, but with colors more brilliant and concentrated. He didn't know the names of the flowers - maybe they had been imported from pleaces more beautiful than he had ever seen. Deep dark purples were interspersed with warm pinks and royal golds. The gold reminded him of the tower he was looking for. There, next to the inner garden, he saw it. The great tower that had been visible from the outside. It was supposed to contain the family's living quarters and the rooms full of gold. It was on the opposite side of the compound, and he would have to be quick and careful if he wanted to get there in one piece.
It was still early morning, and these great families are always late risers - or at least that's what Jao had heard. He didn't see much activity around the courtyard or any of the towers. He could see one maid laboriously carrying a water pot across the courtyard the living quarters. He supposed she would heat it up and it would be used for morning bathing. Besides the maid, the only sound was a few birds who seemed to enjoy the great family's garden as much as Jao did.
Jao wondered if it would be easy to sneak in - if he was lucky and everyone was still asleep except a couple of maids. This was one of the rare moments when he felt lucky to have the farmhand's healthy habit of arising early and beginning strenuous work before sunrise. But he didn't have time to sit idly and think about his luck. Even the rich don't sleep forever, and he would have to hurry if he wanted to get in and accomplish his goal without getting caught.
He rushed, as quietly as he could, down the stairs leading from the top of the wall to the courtyard beneath. He paused a few times to look around and make sure there was no one watching him. When he got to the bottom and felt the soil of the courtyard beneath his feet, he thought again about what it would be like to live here. This is rich soil, he thought. Farming with this would be a breeze. Even walking on the rich soil feels luxurious, he thought. The breeze is the same here as it is outside the walls, but somehow it feels softer and more pleasant here. Maybe the wind itself has learned to show deference to the rich and powerful.
Before he had a chance to get carried away in these fantasies about living under a permanent gentle, deferent breeze, he was startled to see a laborer by one of the garden sheds. Jao had almost walked into him, but he seemed to be distracted by his work, which seemed to have something to do with repairing some rotting wooden panels on the shed's outer wall.
Jao wondered how he should get past the distracted laborer without getting noticed. He decided that the simplest plan was the best. He saw beautiful lilac bushes next to the rotting shed. The young pink leaves looked fresh and pure in the early morning light, as if God himself had finished painting them with his own finger just a minute before Jao had climbed the wall. Jao crouched down and crawled and shimmied along beside the lilacs, hoping that their fresh pinkness would block the laborer's view enough for him to slip by unnoticed. As he passed by the bushes, he smelled their fresh fragrance and wished that he could have stayed there forever.
There were enough bushes to hide Jao during his crouching until he had made it well past the laborer's shed. He stood up straight again and considered his appearance. A few drops of blood on his shirt, and now a lot of rich mud and dust on his shins and knees. He wasn't a pretty sight. But he knew that he had to keep going.
He could see the entrance to the large tower - the one with the family quarters and the gold. The laborer was on the other side of the shed and wouldn't be able to see him now. Jao thought that he could just walk a few more steps and -
Crash! Just a few feet away from him, on his right, Jao saw another maid, looking at him with her mouth wide open in shock. The crash was a tray of food that she had just dropped on the cobblestones - someone's breakfast that would now have to be remade because this fragile girl couldn't deal with surprises.
Jao had to think fast, and prove that he could handle surprises better than the girl. Would he be a brute and physically subdue her before she could alert the family that there was a trespasser? Would he be a coward and run away from the whole situation? If he ducked back behind the lilac bushes, would she assume he was just a sprite of the forest and go on with her day as if he had never been there?
He decided on a bold course. He stood up straight, looked at her haughtily, and, using his best impression of a posh accent, harumphed. "Dropping the tray. Your master won't be too pleased about this - I know he loves the family's heirloom porcelain. If I had known the maids would be dropping food around everywhere I wouldn't have taken a morning walk. I just wanted to get some fresh air and see some flowers before I sign the latest contracts with your family. I always wanted to visit here to conduct my business with the family, but now I wonder if the staff are too jumpy to handle distinguished visitors."
The maid immediately shifted from shock to apologetic mortification. She bowed down, partially to pick up the broken porcelain, and partially to signal her submission to his evident authority. She apologized, with a provincial accent that Jao thought sounded like his mother's, and scurried away in a hurry.
He had avoided the laborer by crouching low, and he had dealt with the maid by rising high. Now that he was only feet away from the tower full of treasure, he could simply walk in, neither low nor high, being nothing more or less than himself.
And so Jao walked in the back door of the tall tower, early in the morning, with sore muscles and with blood and mud on his simple clothes. There was no one in the entry room that he could see or hear. Maybe this part would be easier than he thought. He saw a stairway leading up from the entry room. As he walked towards it, he couldn't help but admire the lavish furnishings around him. The wood used to make the beautiful chairs probably had a name he couldn't pronounce and was probably imported from a place that only important people are allowed to know about. Jao wondered if he would ever travel to such wondrous places. Then he thought, I'm in a wondrous place now.
He didn't see anyone at the top of the stairs either, but he thought he could hear some footsteps and movement inside some of the rooms. By now people should be starting to wake up, he thought. He remembered what Oyang had told him on the previous evening. Apparently the rooms with the gold and treasure were interspersed in among the bedrooms of the large family. They didn't seem to label the doors, so how was he to know which rooms had gold and which had people? He realized he hadn't planned what to do after getting so far in this lark.
He had a feeling that he should go up one more flight of stairs. Oyang had said that the patriarch lived on the ground floor. Probably his staff and offices were on the second floor where he could access them easily. The third floor or higher would be the most likely place to keep younger family members and piles of gold that don't need to be accessed all the time.
The third floor landing was beautiful. Jao tried to take it all in at once. The walls were papered with a rich red hue. There were long, thin ink paintings hanging up, of birds, branches, and clouds. A dining table stood in the middle of the open area, made of fine curved ironwork with a glass top. He could hear more noise on this floor, as family members and staff woke up and started to go about their business. Doors opened off of the landing, and off of the hallways extending from the landing in every direction. Some of the doors were ajar, and he saw the bright glimmer of gold in one of them, the ecstatic shine of this world's glory. His eyes took the whole scene in instantly.
But he had been caught, again. At the far end of the table, there was a young girl, sitting and holding a book of nature illustrations. She wore a light blue dress, and sat with the impeccable posture of beautiful girls everywhere, whose backs are not straight but curved in the feline fashion that could precede either a pounce or a purr. The earrings that hung from her little ears framed her prominent cheekbones and angular, but small and cute chin. Her eyebrows were raised in shock, and her mouth, with lips lightly painted red, was agape.
It was Sulah, who Jao had met on the farm months ago. They had shared a short conversation, and he had been impressed that was modest and clever in conversation. He noticed that even her slightest movements showed a rare combination of natural femininity and trained refinement. The way she reached to push her hair behind her ear was like a short ballet, and Jao had enjoyed having a front row ticket for a moment while he had explained the farm to her. He had wanted to impress her, and so he made it sound like he and Oyang were warriors in training, instead of farmhands dreaming of something better.
Their eyes locked, and she recognized him. "The warrior," she whispered. Jao smiled, glad to be recognized, glad to have earned a good name, and glad to be near Sulah again. He looked into the room with the gold, and saw great treasures, crowns, pots, coins, jewelry, precious gems, and untold wealth. Then he sat down next to Sulah, the real treasure, the reason he had scaled the walls and crawled through mud and risked it all. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fruit, greenish-brown and oblong and just ripe enough. He looked into her eyes and said "Do you want eat a pear with me?"
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