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Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Four)
Chapter 4 To the Temple
Sparrow quickly regained his cool, tightened his tie and straightened up in a vain attempt to act natural and cool.
"Well, if it isn't Professor Jane Mortimer, head of Mortimer Research Institute Enterprise," he said, leaning against his cane and raising the front brim of his hat.
The apprentices, Xiao Mei, and Seto all looked at him strangely, while Taught chuckled a little and Dr. Green was a bit preoccupied with the heat. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground now. The tiger man was waiting with his sign, asked politely by Jane to hold on for a moment.
The slender, green-eyed woman regarded him coolly before answering: "We came for a research expedition, the same as you."
"Not to the same destination, I hope," Sparrow said. And he really did hope so. But given his luck and how much he knew Jane, it would be too ridiculous to pray otherwise.
"If it's to the Temple of the Dragon, then I'm afraid so," Jane Mortimer said with a smirk. "But I'm sure with your brilliant mind, you must have discerned as much from that man's sign."
She waved to the tiger man who waved back with a smile showing his many fangs. After checking her wristwatch and glancing up to the sky for a moment, she snapped her fingers toward her two servants and nodded in the direction of the tiger man. The men accompanying her nodded back, took deep breaths, hoisted their cargo and limped away, guided by the tiger man who knew when it was time to go.
"Any chance that you made a mistake with that sign?" Sparrow asked the tiger man as they all went. He sounded a little too hopeful.
The guide shook his head. Mistakes definitely weren't made in the arrangement.
"Of course," Sparrow muttered, hanging his head and dragging his cane behind him.
"Hey, Sparrow," whispered Seto. "What's up with you and that girl?"
Sparrow gave his old friend a sideways glance and refrained from answering more than: "We're acquaintances."
"Uh-huh," Seto said, giving Sparrow a look that said that the Nihonese boy was convinced that their relationship was more than just "acquaintances". Sparrow paid him no mind and kept on walking, now and then dragging Dr. Green back into the group whenever she began to drift apart.
They arrived at the temple by a small bus of faded blue paint. It wasn't much to look at outside, and Jane was obviously feeling disdain, but she quietly put up with the lack of air conditioning, keeping herself occupied by staring out of the window. Sparrow did the same from his seat across Jane's.
Xiao Mei noticed from time to time, over the boisterous activity of the others, especially Dr. Green who was very interested in Xiao Mei's life for some reason, that Jane and Sparrow would glance to the other only to quickly turn away as soon as the other took notice.
Dr. Green asked a lot of questions about Xiao Mei, and Xiao Mei tried her best to answer them in the greatest of detail. She told the scholar her favorite color was blue, her favorite food was fried rice, and that she greatly enjoyed being her father's apprentice. Xiao Mei was really relieved that Dr. Green didn't ask about her relationship with her father which was a bit complicated, even for the girl.
Among the scholar apprentices, there was a competition of who could name the most plants scientifically or knew the most about what they saw. They joyfully argued and debated on the scientific name of some of the red-bark trees and a fire bird that was flying beside the bus.
Wait a minute. A fire bird?
Xiao Mei apologized to Dr. Green, and then shook the woman off as she made her way to a window. Sure enough, sticking her head out the window (not something I'd recommend), Xiao Mei saw Phoenix fighting hard to keep up with the bus. He squawked at the sight of Xiao Mei and pushed even harder until he managed to clamp his talons on the railing that lined the bus' top.
"Xiao Mei, what are you doing?" Sparrow shouted in flustered panic. "That's dangerous. You could get brained by a rogue branch like someone I know who was too stubborn to listen."
"Now, Mr. Hawkins," went Jane. "Surely you don't mean me. But I do recall a time when someone was too stubborn to listen to others and end up in the hospital because he involved himself dangerous, saying it's his civic duty as a gentleman, such is the idiotic man."
She took no notice of the two men behind her shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
"Well, rather ironic words given the mouth that spoke them," Sparrow replied with a wry smile. Jane twisted her mouth in a half snarl.
Xiao Mei muttered an "I'm sorry," and sank back into her seat, remaining slightly elated that she would not be separated from Phoenix (pets, unless service animals, were not allowed on airships), and a bit puzzled as to how the silly creature managed to catch up to a hulking metal, sky whale going several miles an hour. As she sat wondering, Jane and Sparrow were having another verbal joust. They traded hard-to-understand, extremely subtle, yet clear insults to one another throughout the ride. The apprentice trio took a slight interest in the battle, but quickly tired and went about doing their own thing.
The minutes to hours quickly passed, and except for Sparrow and Jane who were still crossing swords with words, everyone else was asleep. Even the driver who had the bus run on autopilot now. It was already on autopilot, but no need to tell the higher-ups he was slacking on the job. Occasionally, the driver would look up from his newspaper or really, really good book to see if everything was working A-okay. That same driver was now snoring with his face covered by a graphic novel opened at the middle.
They arrived close to nighttime. The lanterns were lit, and the insects were singing. Everything was peaceful save the grumbling engine of the bus. The bus came to a screeching halt, and then let the trumpets sound.
"Gah!" went the driver.
"Bloody Libricide!" shouted all the scholars.
"What the - !?" screamed the servant duo.
" . . . !" Jane exclaimed. In case you're wondering, that " . . . !" was censoring.
"Oh my!" said Xiao Mei.
"Seriously?" Seto grumbled, rubbing his temples.
"Caw!" squawked Phoenix. He unfolded his wings and took to the night sky.
Waiting at the base of the stone steps that led up to the monastery high at the top of the hill were two figures in robes. One was a shriveled old man with spots all over his hairless head. The other was a towering, huge gorilla who was three times the smaller man's height, standing straight with his arms crossed.
"Huge!" Duncan exclaimed. He earned a smack to the back of his head by Taught.
The corner of the gorilla's opened into a half-grimace. He muttered something in a dialect not even Xiao Mei could understand, and she was a local of Zhang whose father and mentor was prince of the entire nation and all its provinces and states. His murmuring sounded like the growling of a vicious dog.
"Uh, what did he say?" Seto asked.
"He's expressing his displeasure for the umpteenth time about letting outsiders into the temple," Sparrow and Dr. Green simultaneously translated. They glanced at each other and then poised as if about to start a contest.
"Big surprise there," muttered Taught, who was quite familiar with places shy of strangers.
The little old man spoke in a gentle, but firm voice in the same language before turning to the guests with a big, gummy smile.
"Welcome to our humble abode," he spoke laboriously, raising a hand in prayer. "I am the Grand Master. You may address me as such."
"It is an honor to meet you, Grand Master," Taught said, bowing in that formal bow of Zhangese custom.
"Hmph," went the ape. "At least these outsiders know respect."
His voice was deep and thunderous like a lion's. He was making Xiao Mei feeling less welcomed. Her timid nature was beginning to take over again when the voice in Xiao Mei's head made a rather rude remark about the ape man.
"Before we begin, when newcomers enter our hallowed grounds, it is customary for the greeting monks to shake hands with the honored guests," the Grand Master said, choosing to ignore the ape's snide remarks.
"I believe that it's to test the character of the guest?" Sparrow said, going into teacher mode. "The monks of this temple are known to be judgmental of a person's worth through their hands. They say hands tell as much words as pictures. Sad to say, I'm afraid I must admit my hands will disappoint you."
"Well, at least you're honest about what you really are," Jane said at the corner of her mouth. She ignored Sparrow's withering glare and was the first to approach the ape man. She extended her hand toward the towering figure who grasped it lightning quick. Jane's shoulders jolted up, her eyes bugging out. When the ape man let go, Jane dropped to her knees, grasping the wrist of her crushed hand. Her stooges rushed to her side and were there to help her to her feet.
The ape man sniffed, as if looking down at her. At least, that was how Jane took it. She glared upward, looking the hulking figure straight in the eye.
"Hmph," the ape man went, breaking eye contact. He waved her and the stooges in, the servants grateful that they didn't have to shake hands with the ape. Sparrow was next, squinting his eyes shut in preparation for the immense pain he was going to feel when the ape man took it. When it was over, Sparrow followed after Jane, stuffing his glove into his pocket, thinking that he could put it on later. His cane tapped on the stone steps as Jane's servants brushed pass him on their way down, only to come back up with their boss's excessive luggage.
The Grand Master took the children. His grasp was much gentler than his companion's, and he had a smile on his face every time, instead of a disapproving scowl. However, when it came to be Xiao Mei's turn, he frowned. It wasn't from disapproval or anything like that. No, far from it. He was astonished. Although Xiao Mei might not be the youngest of the group, she certainly had the roughest hands that the Grand Master had ever felt.
"You're different from the rest," the Grand Master said. "Are you a scholar-to-be too?"
Xiao Mei shook her head.
"My master sent me to learn the healing arts in this school," she explained. "I'm Fong's daughter and apprentice."
"Ah!" the Grand Master went with realization. "So you're this Xiao Mei I've heard so much about!"
The ape man turned to the Grand Master, his eyes locked on Xiao Mei. Dr. Green did the same.
"Fong was one of my most promising students," the Grand Master said. "A pity he only stayed for a year. He would have made a fine addition to the temple."
"Hmph," went the ape man. "I say good riddance. There is no place for someone like him who only took advantage of our hospitality in this monastery."
The scholars shifted uncomfortably, as did Jane. Well, they should since they were pretty much just taking advantage of the temple's hospitality.
"But he is a hard worker," the Grand Master argued. "You can't deny that. And it seems that he's passed that trait on to his daughter."
Xiao Mei blushed and hurried along with the rest of the group.
Taught was the last. He had a stare-down with the ape man. They kept their faces close to each other, glared wildly, and then gripped each other's hand with every strength they had. The girls rolled their eyes. Sparrow clicked his tongue. And the Grand Master shook his head.
"Um, excuse me," went Jane, glancing upward to the stairs' peak, then to the old monk. "Not to sound rude or lazy, but we're not climbing up all these stairs, are we?"
"Ah," went the Grand Master, looking honestly remorseful. "Unfortunately, the lift is out of commission, so yes, we're climbing up these stairs. If my predecessors thousands of years ago could do it, I'm sure we can."
Jane's face sank and the others were fighting to keep from groaning. Even Xiao Mei felt put-off about having to climb up a thousand steps of stairs to the top of a mountain.
"The lift broke?" said Harold, his face twisted in bafflement. "What happened?"
He took the words right out of Xiao Mei's mouth.
"Let's just say that something went wrong thirty-two minutes and twenty-seven seconds ago," the Grand Master answered, waywardly glancing toward the ape man. The men were done with their man-off and the ape man would not meet the Grand Master's gaze.
"Bah!" went Taught. "Kids these days! They're getting softer with each generation! Back when I was a lad, I was made to walk all the way to school from the outskirts of our village where I lived!"
"Is he really a scholar?" Seto whispered to Sparrow.
Sparrow shot a look to Seto that was all the answer the other boy needed. It was as good an answer as just saying straight: "I don't know."
After an eternity of walking with dozens of quick breaks in between, everyone piled atop one another, collapsing in exhaustion and drenched in sweat. They panted, paralyzed with sore legs and aching backs. Xiao Mei had never felt so tired in her entire life, and it has been a while since she ever really felt tired. Her face ended up on the cold stone floor when Phoenix finally decided to show up and land on her head.
"It must be so nice to have wings," she said dryly, rolling an eye up to the fiery bird.
Phoenix replied with a chirp before hopping off and setting on his master's back instead.
They laid before a vast double-door gate made of thick, impenetrable wood that have withstood invasion for thousands of years. Standing at either side of the doors, straight and fierce, were two stone lions. Above the doors was a gold plaque with lettering illuminated by the full moon whose light covered almost everything.
While the others were lying on the floor, the Grand Master, the ape man, and Elizabeth walked pass them, careful not to step on anyone. The Grand Master wiped sweat off his brow. The ape man took some deep breaths, standing still and fanning himself. Elizabeth did nothing, with not a bead of sweat, and her breathing as level as if she had simply had a pleasurable stroll.
Sparrow managed to get up only to stumble forward again. He managed to catch himself, wrapping his arms around one of the guardian lions. That was when he noticed something odd.
"I say," he said. "These stone Foo Dogs are surprisingly warm for a cold night like this. And they're a lot softer than you'd think, considering they're made of stone."
"That's because they aren't made of stone," the ape man said, scowling. "Get your arms off of him."
The lion Sparrow had embraced opened a single eyelid. It's silver eye looked down at Sparrow and it let out a low, menacing growl. Sparrow could feel the creature's abdomen rumbling.
"Wha-?" went the young man. He fell back in shock and landed on his bottom. All he could say was "Wha-?"
The ape man sneered down at the scholar's shock face. He mistook the shock as fear. The lion was a mighty and impressive creature, after all. and they were ferocious when the situation called for it.
"MY WORD, THIS IS INCREDIBLE!"
Sparrow jumped to his feet. His eyes were as wide as any madman's would be.
"These lions are one of the most rarest species still in existence today," he said excitedly while getting a closer look at the magnificent, proud creature that edged away uncomfortably a little when Sparrow got nearer. "In fact, the only living pack known to exist, live at the Imperial Palace at the Forbidden City. Legend had it that one of the early emperors from thousands of years ago happened upon one, injured. The emperor took pity of the lion and personally nursed it back to health. After releasing it back to the wild, the creature came back. And it had company. Wanting to repay the emperor, the lion and its companion stood guard outside of the emperor's quarters, diligent like statues. It's actually where the Zhangese got the idea to have statues of lions placed outside of their doors.
"Lions here are very elusive and shy creatures. And they're very good at staying hidden. It's for those reasons that lions are such a rare sight. Lions like the ones at the Capital are quite unusual when compared to the behavior of the rest of the species. To think that I'd actually get to touch one, let alone see it."
The lion jumped off from its stone stand. It circled around the new arrivals, staring at them rather hungrily. With a soft roar, the other lion did the same. The two circled around opposite ways. Xiao Mei could not share Sparrow's excitement and wished that they would not get so close.
"Really, just seeing such creatures is said to bring good luck," Sparrow said with a giddy grin on his face.
"Well, I don't feel very lucky," Jane muttered, feeling one of the creature's hot breath blowing against her cheek. It was standing on its hind legs and its forelegs were at it's sides like arms.
When a lion came a bit too close for Xiao Mei's comfort, Phoenix let out a loud, startling shriek. He unfurled his wings and spat fire. The lion shrank back at once. It snarled at the bird who responded with a loud and fierce hiss with smoke trailing out of his throat.
"My, my," went Dr. Green. "We haven't even gone in yet and Sparrow's already as giddy as a school girl who's just fallen in love."
"Not the simile I would use," Taught grunted. "But I do see your point. I've never met a scholar more into scholar things than Hawkins."
"Silver! Gold!" went the Grand Master.
The lions perked up. The Grand Master waved them away and they leaped back to their stone stands. The diligent-looking creatures closed their eyes and stiffened until they looked no different than statues.
"Now then," said the Grand Master, clapping his hands together. He walked toward the doors and pressed his left palm at the center. After a moment, there was a loud thud, and the doors opened with an echoing creek. "Allow me to welcome you all to the Dragon's Temple."
- Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Three)
What's to become of Xiao Mei now?
- Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Five)
They have arrived at last to the Temple of the Dragon.
Follow along Xiao Mei's previous adventures in:
- Country Of Dragons by Victor Kwok
Follow a young girl on a journey to save her family, meet new friends, and learn incredible truths about herself.