When the sea turned to silver and the cold chilled the light of the sun, Pinmei knew the Black Tortoise of Winter had arrived with his usual calmness. But when a shrieking wind pierced the sky, bursting it into darkness, she grew frightened. It was as if the Black Tortoise of Winter were being forced to the earth, screaming and struggling.
Even the snow, usually so gentle, flew at Pinmei’s mountain hut like sharp needles before falling onto the village below. The village was filled with houses crowded together, and when villagers climbed up the mountain, their hearty laughs and stomping boots shattered the quiet. At the sound of their footsteps, Pinmei would scurry away to be out of sight, her long braid trailing her like the tail of a disappearing mouse.
The villagers used to climb up to the mountain hut regularly, requesting that Amah embroider peonies or five-colored clouds onto silks for weddings and birthdays. Even in the winter, when the rough-stone hut was all but buried, the villagers still came. However, while they came for Amah’s embroidery skills, they stayed for the old woman’s stories. Even Pinmei, watching from behind a door, was unable to resist her grandmother’s words.
“… and when the immortal dragon picked up the beautiful white stone, it began to shine in his hands…” Amah would say, telling the Story of the Dragon’s Pearl, or, “… and because only a mountain can hold up the moon, no one could lift the ball…” when telling the Story of the Boy Who Rolled the Moon, and Pinmei would find herself standing among the villagers as if pulled by a thread.
But now few villagers came up the mountain, and it was not just the winter keeping them away. The ones who did come told stories of their own. “A new emperor wears the gold silk robe,” they whispered, as if afraid even up on the mountain they would be overheard. “All celebrated when the old emperor was overthrown, but now we tremble. For the new emperor is brutal and fierce. They call him the Tiger Emperor.”
“But a new emperor is supposed to pay tribute to the mountain!” Amah said. “He must get the blessing of the Mountain Spirit at the top! We have not seen anyone.”
“Do we ever see any rulers?” Yishan said in a scoffing tone only a young boy such as himself could have. Even though he had his own hut farther up the mountain, Yishan claimed the seat by the fireplace in Pinmei’s hut as his own. “They all say they go to the top, but do they?”
“He came,” one villager said, “and he started up the mountain. But the wind or the winter—or who knows, maybe even the Mountain Spirit—forced him down, to our great misfortune. He was humiliated, and now all the mountain villages are being punished.”
“But reaching the top of the mountain has nothing to do with the villages!” Amah said. “It is the Spirit of the Mountain who decides if the ruler is worthy!”
“That does not matter to the Tiger Emperor,” the villager said, the bitterness cracking the hushed tone of his voice. “His soldiers come to the villages late at night, taking away all the men. We do not know when they will come to ours, but we know they will.”
“All the men?” Amah gasped. “What for?”
“For the Vast Wall,” another villager said. “The men are being forced to build a wall that surrounds the entire kingdom.”
The entire kingdom was hundreds of cities and thousands of villages! Amah often told stories about a city with a wall around it, and Pinmei could scarcely imagine that.
“You can’t build a wall that long! It’s impossible!” Yishan said. The firelight made his hat glow as if he were aflame.
The villager shrugged. “This emperor has a habit of making the impossible happen.”
“But even if it could be finished, it would be poor protection,” Amah said. “How could a wall spanning the kingdom be defended? There would never be enough soldiers to guard something so vast! What does this Tiger Emperor want?”
“He wants a Luminous Stone,” said a third villager, speaking for the first time. “When anyone—a wife, a child, a mother—begs for a man’s freedom, the soldiers always say the same. ‘Bring the emperor a Luminous Stone That Lights the Night and you can have your wish.’ ”
“A Luminous Stone That Lights the Night,” Amah repeated slowly. She hesitated, and Pinmei thought she saw a flash over Amah’s face. But Amah shook her head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Disappointment flickered on the faces of the villagers. The first villager reached out his hand to Amah for his completed job, a cloth embroidered with the dark blue color of a burial robe.
“No one has,” the villager said. “But now we all wish for one.”
The villagers left in silence, but their words remained loud in Pinmei’s ears. Luminous Stone, Vast Wall, Tiger Emperor… Another gust of icy air burst through the open door. Shivering, Pinmei crept deeper into the shadows of the fire, hoping to hide.
Pinmei had not realized how long it had been winter until she was getting the rice for dinner. When she reached into the jar, her fingers touched the bottom of the container.
Pinmei drew back her hand as if stung. It was too soon! She was only supposed to feel that smooth base when the tree tips were green and the swallows were awake and singing. But the breath of the Black Tortoise of Winter was still shaking the bare tree branches, and the birds were still as asleep as mussels deep in the sea.
“Pinmei!” Amah called. “What are you doing? Where’s the rice?”
Pinmei grabbed a bowl and filled it. As she brought it to Amah, her grandmother shook her head.
“We shouldn’t be using that bowl, Pinmei,” Amah said, and Pinmei realized she was holding the blue rice bowl with the white rabbit painted on it.
“Sorry,” Pinmei said.
“You know that bowl is only for special occasions,” Amah said. “My grandfather—”
“Received it from the king of the City of Bright Moonlight,” Pinmei finished, an impish smile curving. “But he wasn’t the king yet when your grandfather got it, so I don’t think it counts as a royal gift.”
“You only tease your poor grandmother when we are alone.” Amah pretended to sigh. “When I tell people how you taunt an old woman, they don’t believe me. ‘Little Pinmei?’ they say. ‘She’s just a shy little mouse.’ ”