The word “demon” was not on anybody’s mind. It couldn’t have been. The moon shone bright. Gardenias poured out perfumes. String and bamboo music floated in the air, praising spring flowers and autumn harvest by turns. The balmy breeze felt nothing like a “demon wind,” the kind of chilly, damp and foul-smelling wind that demons were said to stir up everywhere they went.
King Aga sniffed the sweet air and closed his eyes in enjoyment as he bent over the gardenias. He was strolling on a windy path in the royal garden. Like a distractible dog on a walk, he stopped often to bury his nose in the bushes. Princess Aiwen and Queen Nina, trailing slightly behind, tried not to hurry him.
Their destination—and they did have one—was the pavilion near the biggest banyan tree in the garden. Princess Aiwen had had it set up for the Moon Festival celebration, a yearly festival to celebrate the harvest.
The buzz of talk and laughter rose and fell from the pavilion, mixed with the soft and cheery sound of music, a reminder that some of the guests had arrived and the food was ready and waiting.
The king smiled at the thought of the food. There were only small variations from year to year, but he never tired of the Moon Festival food: yellow Moon Cakes filled with nuts and sweetmeats, sticky rice balls saturated in liquid sugar, big fat crabs just coming into season, lychees and longans promising juicy white flesh inside their brown shells, soft and plump figs… After all, this was a festival to celebrate a good harvest, and a good harvest meant food.
“Father, congratulations!” Princess Aiwen’s silvery voice spoke beside him.
King Aga, a man with a slight build that some might consider ill-matched with his royal status, drew himself up and beamed at his equally petite daughter. She dazzled him no matter how many times he looked at her. Her black hair and olive skin glowed in the moonlight, the image of radiant youth and unbridled joy and confidence. As his doting gaze lingered on her, he was struck for the thousandth time by how much she looked like him—the oval face, the dimpled cheeks, and those dark irises that seemed lit up from within by something delightful.
And yet she is not like me at all, he marveled. In fact, what made her eyes sparkle with delight tended to make him shudder with revulsion. Strange, how different we are, in our likes and dislikes. As he reflected on some of her interests and pursuits, his nose wrinkled involuntarily with distaste.
“Congratulations on yet another good harvest,” the princess gave her daydreaming father an indulgent smile and clarified. “We’ve had great weather for the crops this year.”
“Yes, we’ve been lucky, haven’t we? Thank you,” the king concurred, nodding and grinning. He paused a second to savor his good luck, and added with self-congratulation, “In a small kingdom like ours, even the king can breathe more easily when the peasants had a good harvest.”
Princess Aiwen’s dark eyes twinkled as she smiled sweetly at her father and said, “Father, now we’ve had so many bumper harvests in a row, do you think we will buy some weapons for the army? I think we badly need some arrows.” By her dainty features and stylish dress, one could hardly guess that the princess was the dogged type. This wasn’t the first year she asked the question.
“Well, hmm, uh,” the king hemmed and hawed as he typically did when asked a question about his government. “I have other expenses to consider,” he mumbled. “There are tributes to pay to China… and tax cuts…” “China” was their name for the Tang Dynasty, a big empire to the northeast.
“But father, we can’t always count on China for protection…”
“Actually you needn’t ask me.” King Aga gave a casual wave of his right hand and grinned again. “You can do anything you want—in six months.”
He was referring to his decision to abdicate his crown and install Princess Aiwen as the Queen of Precious Elephant Kingdom within six months. The truth was that his primary goal in life was the pursuit of comfort and pleasurable things such as music and art. Politics and government bored him to death. He couldn’t understand the princess’ fervor for these abominable nuisances, but he was relieved to be able to hand over his throne at the first opportunity, as soon as she came of age. As to the princess’ youth and inexperience, he prayed that her diligence would make up for it. In any case, he knew she would rule the country with more energy and flair than he did.
“But …” Princess Aiwen’s voice trailed as a booming voice interjected, “Why, my dear king and princess, look at the moon!” It was Queen Nina, whose sturdy figure still trailed slightly behind them.
They looked up. The moon was brilliant against the pristine deep-blue of the sky, making all the torches and lanterns dotting the garden seem superfluous. There was not a trace of cloud.
“It’s beautiful!” said the king dreamily. “They don’t call it the Moon Festival for nothing.”
“They call it the ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’ in Chinese,” the princess quipped. There was a lighthearted musical tone in her voice. The princess was proud of her mastery of seven foreign languages, Chinese being one of them. That was… seven, and counting.
“She’s learned all about our neighboring countries and prepared to take my place in six months. I bet she can’t wait.” The king pretended to be annoyed.
“I wish this weren’t happening so soon. I am not sure I am ready,” Princess Aiwen replied, her dark eyes now serious.
Presently they arrived at the pavilion, lit by numerous lanterns rimming the eaves. A number of guests had arrived, looking festive in their red, magenta and blue silk tunics and chiffon dresses and sashes. The entire council of ministers and their families were there, with a few other highborn guests.
“Your majesty!” “Your highness!” They stopped their chitchat and bowed to the royal family.
“Colonel Shakne!” a guard announced. At that the princess rolled her eyes but the king and queen both smiled broadly. It was an open secret that they regarded the young colonel as a prospect for Princess Aiwen. Much to their dismay, the princess steadfastly snubbed the colonel. She considered him a dandy. She called him a “long-legged wimp” among other names, mostly behind his back, in reference to his lanky stature and soft, easy-going manners. Unfortunately for the princess, the insult seemed lost on the colonel and his irrepressible spirit suffered no visible injury. The name-calling only cemented his conviction that the princess was devilishly witty.
Once she had asked her parents, “What do you see in him? He’s hardly known for either superior intellect or extraordinary valor.” “But he is so agreeable and good looking!” the king had answered. “Is that all?” she had demanded in amazement. “But he has a good heart,” the queen had then asserted without offering any evidence. “Yes, his heart is in the right place,” the king had said, trying to bolster her claim by simply restating it. “How do you know so much about his heart?” the princess had jested with a frown.
The colonel was smartly dressed tonight, as always. He walked briskly up to the pavilion, greeting the royal family first. The king noticed with satisfaction that the colonel’s eyes stayed on the princess a second longer than courtesy demanded and flickered with admiration before he turned away to greet the others.
Now the royal family had arrived, the party was underway. Most guests followed the king’s lead to the food table. Some chose to watch the moon instead. No one had any premonition of what was about to happen.
Suddenly everyone shivered and blinked. Skirts fluttered, lanterns swayed and leaves rustled. A thousand things seemed to move at once. A gust of odd wind had come out of the blue and blown out all torches and lanterns in the garden, leaving the moon alone to illuminate the dark. With the wind came a bone-deep chill and nauseating odor.
Within a second, dark clouds set in and completely covered the moon. Blackness swallowed the garden. Blackness and something that slashed people like thousands of whips. It was the wind. The wind had taken on a savage life, howling like a thousand wolves, accompanied by numerous cracks and booms, the sounds of branches breaking and tiles falling on the ground. The air became a battleground of noises, and things. Dishes, baskets, goblets, utensils, linens, branches, leaves, dirt, tiles, and bricks whirled around, slammed people and smashed each other, rolled, flapped, clanked and banged. The ground seemed to shake. People cried, gasped for air, flailed their arms against flying objects, and scrambled to grab onto something solid to keep from flying away.
“Demon wind!” someone cried in a half-strangled voice barely audible above the din.
Then they heard a loud scream. It was the princess!
“Aiwen! Are you alright?” the king and queen cried at the same time.
There was no answer.
It seemed like ages but the wind stopped only seconds later.
The moon was shining again, but the princess was nowhere to be found.
©Yu Chen 2011