EMPEROR AND COURT MAGICIAN
In the year 601, just after daybreak, the Seer Chen bundled in a quilted robe set out from her cottage. Winding her way through sleepy streets and alleys in the eastern capital of Luoyang, she squeezed an object under her arm. It was small enough to remain inconspicuous inside her robe.
The walled city with a grid of four large streets, eight small ones and 72 alleys was just rousing. A rooster crowed in the distance as the occasional call of warblers invaded the stillness. Seer Chen gripped the object as she rushed past cherry orchards and pear gardens along streams that brought water to various parts of the city. As she turned a corner, she collided with a courtesan who yelped, then blushed, covering her mouth blurting something polite. Her robe was disheveled with its collar pulled unevenly on one side, and the white powder on her face had been rubbed in certain places revealing blotches of sallow cheeks and nose. Her hair which had been smoothed back in a high bun the night before was in disarray. The courtesan bowed and shuffled in the direction of the city where she lived to an estate for entertaining the elite of society. Her smudged face and dark red-black lips that bled onto the corners of the mouth suggested that she had fallen asleep somewhere outside her usual residence.
The collision which amounted to fumbling by both parties would not slow Seer Chen who instantly restored her balance and resumed her stride. She pressed on, shortcutting her route on the edge of a graveyard scooting past the apricot grove and medicinal garden. She lifted her free arm to wave at a farmer she recognized who was on his haunches clipping herbs into a bamboo basket to sell in the Eastern Market. “I hear there are new leather goods and precious stones in the Western Market that came in on the camels yesterday!” he shouted as she flew past him.
“I’ll be sure to browse tomorrow,” she fired back without slowing down. She picked up her pace when the first droplet hit her cheek. She should have brought along her umbrella, she scolded herself, recalling that the skies had darkened when she darted from her home. She scurried past two-story restaurants and wine shops of wood and brick. The light rain grew steadily into a staccato on the tile roofs.
She had suffered a restless night with pangs of imminent danger interrupting her sleep. She must find another hiding place for the object she carried. Yet for the last two days and nights a foreboding began to grow inside her. Since moving to the capital almost thirty years ago, there was a relative sense of safety. She had seen only one suspicious person outside the northern edge of the palace where she lived in all that time, but it turned out to be nothing. She was less concerned for her own life than protecting the object which she carried.
Yet for the last two days and nights a foreboding began to grow inside her. She was less concerned for her own life than protecting the object which she had kept hidden in her home.
How close could the Dark Sorceress be?