Her feet were bare and soiled from walking, but the prideful aloofness in her posture projected the self-possessed demeanor of an empress. Oblivious to decorum and wearing a scowl of utter distaste: on a face that might be otherwise pretty if not so openly distraught Rowan thought, a girl of extraordinary appearance strode boldly past the protesting Wan Lo. Continuing past the visibly irritated monk, she did not so much as acknowledge him.
In Rowan’s experience the situation was absolutely unique. Lo’s imperturbable aplomb was nothing short of legendary, but inexplicably he followed along behind this baffling woman, mimicking her petulant stride. It was a sight so utterly bazaar that it compelled the outlander to clamp a hand over his mouth to arrest an outburst of laughter.
Whatever the reason for the intrusion, clearly the woman’s act was calculated to incite, but that didn’t alter the fact that Rowan found it impossible to turn away. Whoever she was, she seemed determined to flaunt not just her contempt, but her sexuality as well, wielding them both as weapons to be brandished before battle. The scene resembled the challenge of the mongoose, just before engaging the cobra. Then, as if suddenly sighting a target against which she might direct her scorn, with a sudden swish and swirl, Rowan watched bewildered as she turned in his direction.
“Thinking herself above such things, she would mock us for our ways.”
Though the words were unspoken, Rowan heard them as clearly as if uttered in his ear. Having acquired the habit of heeding Tam’s advice, even without the master being present, the caution was something he considered with earnest deliberation. The girl was obviously going to be trouble, but from the look of her, handling that trouble might well amount to something pleasurable.
With a sudden and audible sigh, the leaves circling Rowan’s head continued their journey, sailing onward to the ground. Mystified as to what craft it was by which they behaved this way, he focused his attention on the impending confrontation. With a scowl practiced to perfection distorting her face, there was also something unusual regarding her approach as she made her way through the garden. Her physical progress appeared incongruent to the effort made. Each step that she took covered yards of distance, almost as if she were collapsing the space between.
Even Wan Lo, the most accomplished of their gardeners, was forced to slip through, sidestep, or dip a shoulder to avoid stripping the late blooming flowers of their petals, but not her. Advancing directly through hedges she disturbed nothing in her path, presenting the illusion of passing through the bushes like an insubstantial ghost. As the air around him began to hum with excitement, it occurred to Rowan who this strange woman might be.
To reprieve Rake from tedium, at regular intervals Rowan would walk down the hill. Arriving at the farm of Wei Po, the farmer who tended to the stallion while its master was away, he would outfit his companion so that they might ride out together through the open fields. Not one to miss an opportunity to gossip, several times the farmer had mentioned a mysterious woman who frequented the surrounding mountains; a woman he called the witch of the grove.
According to Wei Po, the art of this supposed sorceress was covertly benign. By his accounting, she was responsible for healing his cousin Mie Li of a persistent and virulent rash. Although he couldn’t give an exact location of the bamboo hut in which she was rumored to dwell, nor say with any certainty how long she’d lived in the valley, he did claim that she’d been among them performing similar services since he was a child.
It was an intriguing account, but even a witch must age and the vision approaching him was no hag. If anything, she was the epitome of youthfulness. This was the first time he’d actually seen her and her exotic appearance was certainly deserving of more than a cursory inspection. A simple glance was sufficient to decide that the rumors of her beauty were not so greatly exaggerated.
Soldiers love to tell stories and always they embellish. While serving in the infantry of the North District, Wu Yang told Rowan a provocative tale of the women native to a group of mystical islands to the east. According to Yang, they were a sect of finely featured and slender bodied women who dove naked into the sea. Leaping fearlessly from small skiffs, woven nets filled with rocks carried them into the depths. Combing the ocean floor, they sought to retrieve pearl-bearing clams and other shelled ambrosia.
Such fanciful tales were common among soldiers in the field, but perhaps this once it’d been something more than a fantasy. For in his imagination, Rowan could see the girl standing before him in just such a place, diving from a bamboo raft into aquatic blue waters in just such a way.
Pushing the daydream aside for the moment, obviously she was not from the village. But neither did her apparel resemble that of the courtesans he recalled from the cities. The women of his home in the Indus Valley were likewise flamboyant in adorning themselves, but their strong, dark structures were but shadowy reflections of the witch-girl’s delicately featured face.
Although girlishly slender, her body was none the less eminently feminine. Contrary to convention, her breasts were not bound and trembled freely against the flowing fabric of her lilac flowered blouse. Hung in loose pleats, the fine spun silk of her skirt moved whimsically about and between her athletic legs, ruffling under the caress of the morning breeze.
Interwoven with bits of colored yarn, dyed bird feathers and the violet petals, braids of long dark hair trailed down her back. One intricately twisted braid rising from the center of her crown ran to the rear of her head. Wagging free of the others, it writhed independently of them, like a serpent on a quest to mesmerize a sparrow. In the bright light of morning, her eyes were not pure China, but rather an exotic shade of some far away land. Steeped in veiled emotions, they sparkled like green gemstones adrift in pools of cream.
Stopping directly in front of where Rowan stood watching, the strangely enchanting woman launched directly into the purpose of her visit. Her announcement, made in a swift string of sing-song syllables, was in a tone reminiscent of a nightingale, one being threatened by a snake.
“I am Mei-Yue.” She began, without waiting for Rowan to identify himself. “Wei Po of the village told me of a barbarian hiding among the monks. He said you were a solider once, a killer. I have gold and I will pay you to send Huang Kun to Kuie-men-kaun. You will do this for me?”
Upon revealing the purpose of her intrusion, Rowan realized she was not concerned with the gravity of her trespass. Looking finally to her eyes, he watched as she failed in suppressing a wry smirk of satisfaction when it flashed across her face. Followed by a mottling flush of color rushing to her cheeks, in that instant her features appeared to change, taking on a rather feline and predatory appearance.
“Why do you want Huang Kun sent through The Gate of Demons?” Rowan’s response to her question was an obvious attempt to stall, but he felt the measure more than justified by the circumstances. After all, it wasn’t every day that a sorceress with emerald green eyes came strolling unannounced through the gates of Xi Tian in search of an assassin.
Regardless, she was lovely and standing anywhere else in the world, he might have chosen to conduct himself differently. Before coming to the sanctuary, he would have found it utterly flattering for such an elusive and attractive creature to come seeking his aid. But having heard the tales of her exploits, for her charms and abilities were legend among the simple folk of Yamane, he struggled to maintain a reserve. As an alien in this enigmatic land, he’d learned some harsh lessons and thanks to his mentor, he now knew better than to accept what the mirror might reflect. So it was with a degree of circumspection that he attended to her words.
“Why do you want Huang Kun sent through the Gate of Demons?” The query was an obvious response, but feeling unbalanced by the extraordinary encounter, Rowan needed a moment to collect himself. Stepping closer, the scent of her body came to surrounded him like a promise of Elysium.
“He took something from me, something precious. I will pay you” she repeated “with gold and other favors.”
True as it might be that a pouch of coins would make his transition into the outer world easier, it wasn’t Rowan’s primary concern. One way or another he’d find his way. Mei-Yue’s innuendo however, he took as an invitation to seduction and certainly worthy of a tease. Openly appreciative of her physical attraction, in a voice rather huskier than intended he replied, “How much gold?”
Thinking her readily aware of the effect she would normally have on men, he would’ve preferred to appear neutral until knowing more. After all, Kuie-men-kaun, was a name he recognized. The Gate of Demons was part of eastern mythology and equivalent to crossing the River Styx. Being the fabled entrance to the underworld, this pretty witch was asking him to kill!
“Enough to fulfill your desires.” Pausing again, she smiled, allowing the allusion to secret pleasures to simmer in his thoughts. “It is the twenty second day of the ninth month. My hut lies beyond the second bamboo grove, in the meadow by the forest. Come to me by night-fall and I will serve you a meal befitting a warrior’s apatite.”
As she spoke, her eyes deepened in color and more than a hint of mystery wandered there. Raising her hand and pointing southeast, in the morning light multiple silver rings adorning her fingers sparkled with gemstones and the bracelets dangling from her wrist tinkled against one another like chimes.
As she turned to leave, Rowan began to fully appreciate the intensity of her presence. She possessed a compelling but subtle sensuality, much of which went unrealized until it was removed. What remained was a soft buzzing in his ears. Some of which he was partly able to clear by shaking his head.
The effect overall was not unlike that of a pleasant daydream and thinking it possible he’d just been hypnotized, Rowan watched the witch who called herself Mei-Yue depart. Swaying slightly as she walked, she appeared to exaggerate the movement of her hips as if tossing them in secret satisfaction.
Whatever her actual intent might be, like it or not, Rowan had the strongest premonition that the quiet life he’d become accustomed too was at an end. Resist as he might, already he knew that he would follow.