“ As you know, honourable lords”, he said (and his voice was behaving now), “ I did not know which of the guards would tell the truth. The only question I could ask would have to involve both of them. So I asked: ‘ If you were the other guardian, which door would you show me to save me?’

As soon as I had the answer, I went through the other door”.

 

While the Dragon King nodded, satisfied, the hall buzzed like an angry beehive, then one of the guests asked:

“ Why through the other one, human?”

“ I asked one guardian” answered Ming Li, “what he would have done if he was the other, remember?

The one who tells the truth would answer like the liar, showing me the wrong door, the liar would lie anyway, and show me the wrong door as well, so I had to take the door that wasn’t shown to me”.

In a moment the young scholar went from lucky criminal to known genius. While he was trying to  politely disengage himself from all the guests wanting to congratulate him, the Dragon King of Dongting Lake drew him aside:

“ You want to go back to Meihuang’s court as soon as possible, I suppose” he said. “ Do not look so surprised, who else could have sent you? I do not spend my whole time changing people into something else! I shall come with you, my cousin is a bad loser, in a few days’ time he will be in a better temper”.

Ming Li just wished for a hot meal and some sleep, but he suspected that  contradicting the King of the Lake too much would not have been a wise move, so, he bowed to the guests and, with a drawn smile, followed the Dragon King out of the hall , wishing that it was really the last time he did.

Once in the outer court Ming Li turned towards the stables, but his guide stopped him.

“I was thinking of a faster way” he said, “ one of my grooms will follow us with the mare, she will be brought back, do not worry. Let us go out”.

As they crossed the gate Ming Li saw the palace wasn’t anymore in the meadows, as he remembered, but on a rock shelf facing a ravine, on three sides it was sourrounded by thick forest. While the young man looked around, the Dragon King of Dongting Lake  moved  away a bit, then stopped and closed his eyes, centering himself.

After a moment, in the stead of the imposing King was a colossal silver dragon, with an iridescent blue crest, like a peacock’s feathers in colour.

The huge reptile’s head turned towards the young man who was now staring at him agape, totally oblivious of the decorum suitable of a scholar.

“ Are you coming, then, or must I go alone?”

Following the king’s suggestions, Ming Li climbed on his back, settling himself between two of the crest’s scales, all the while praying earnestly to all the Gods and Bodhisattvas he knew, then he said he was ready.

“ It would be better” suggested the dragon with an amused note in his voice” if you tie yourself to me with your belt. I am fast, and do not feel your weight, I could lose you and arrive  before realising it; it would be a pity to miss a hero’s welcome, don’t you think?”.

With these words the Dragon King of Dongting Lake walked to the ravine’s rim… and jumped.

To be continued

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 1 

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 2

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 3

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 4

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 5

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 6

Ming Li and the Charmed Poenix part 7

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 8

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix part 9
The land was rising now and becoming hilly, one evening, at long last, they made camp at the mountains’ feet.

Ming Li was worried that evening. Up to now his main thought had been to get to the Yellow Mountains, he didn’t have the time to think in earnest about a way of dealing with the Dragon King of Dongting Lake and his cousin, the Dragon King of the Yellow Mountains .
After having imagined, and discarded, a score of fanciful plans he decided to introduce himself as a scholar seeking employment.

He knew that the kings of the dragons, old and wise as they were, did not content themselves competing in magnificence, but loved to gather the best talent they could find at their courts, dragons or humans:scholars, calligraphers, painters, even actors, dancers and acrobats. Once he had gained access to the court he could possibly find a way to steal the magic pollen and keep his promise to Meihuang.

Another thing all dragons had in common, though: they made implacable foes and their enmity withstood the passing of generations.

Stealing from the Dragon King of Dongting Lake at his cousin’s court (and while he himself was a guest there) meant not only that the two dragons would be his lifelong enemies, but their whole clan would help them.

He could never go back to his village, otherwise he would draw the revenge of the dragon kings on everyone in it.
Such a prospect would have been enough to daunt even the ancient hero Hou Yi, Ming Li could only hope that, since he meant good, sweet Guan Yin, goddess of mercy, would grant him her protection.

They struck camp before dawn. The young man had feared the road would be too steep for Mist, but the mare walked with a sure, effortless step and at mid-morning they were already half way up; great pine trees shadowed the path or clang to the steep slopes as if they were dragons themselves, low clouds looked caught in low branches and crannied boulders, and fingers of thick fog groped under the trees.

No one knew for sure where the palace of the Dragon King was,from the few existing accounts it sounded almost as if it moved about at its lord’s whim, but Mist and Friend looked sure of their course, and Ming Li let them lead.

They stopped near a stream to eat, while he was unloading Mist, so that she too could rest a while, the bag, strangely heavy, slipped from Ming Li’s grasp and fell, opening and revealing its contents: ceremonial clothes fit for a ranking scholar going to court...
“ We must be near”, thought the young man and, after eating, he took advantage of the stream to clean himself up before changing into the new clothes.

He felt very strange dressed in silks and brocades. He had long dreamed about clothes like these and the day he would wear them for an audience with the Son of Heaven, but now he felt like he was living someone else’s life,a bit like the travelling actors he had seen sometimes at his village, who, for a few hours, were powerful magistrates, great generals and princes, just to go back afterwards to being vagrants without even a real family name.
He just wanted to be home, ploughing the fields with the old donkey.

Friend roused him from his thoughts, the raven had flown on his shoulder and was rubbing his head against Ming Li’s cheek, almost as though he wanted to confort him; the young man sighed and mounted again.


To be continued

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

In case anyone wonders about Hou Yi

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March 2013

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