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30 January 2004 @ 08:13 pm
FIC: The Bridge of Birds, Orli/Viggo, PG 13, 3/3  
Title: "The Bridge of Birds"
Author: Osiris Brackhaus (OsirisBrackhaus@aol.com)
Website: Fafnir's Lair http://www.MorningChilde.com
Pairing: Viggo/Orli
Rating: PG 13
Part: 1/1
Feedback: Please!
Summary: Modeled after the classic Chinese Fairytale of the same name, this new OrliTale brings us into ancient China, where a god discovers that love and loss sometimes lie closer together than ever thought....
Warnings: sap, and lots of it.



The Bridge of Birds
another OrliTale by Beryll and Osiris Brackhaus

- Introduction -

The Celestial Bureaucracy of the Middle Realm, the land of Ch'in, prides itself on being a well-ordered and diligent body of many deities, five thousand and seven exactly at the last counting.
Ranging from its infallibly wise and stern ruler, The August Personae of Jade, down to the spirits of each and every little grain of sand, they work to order and preserve the ways of the world, ensuring the whole universe runs like the precise clockwork of many things and beings it is supposed to be.
Everyone takes honor in fulfilling his task with the utmost excellence, and all decrees of the August Personae of Jade, the Jade Emperor, are fixed in the Celestial Book of Protocol so that even he can't make them undone ever again.

Mistakes are not a thing that happens in the Celestial Bureaucracy of Ch'in.

This is the story of one of the most popular gods of the Middle Realm, the Starherd, for his gentle being and careful diligence could be witnessed every night when the stars drift orderly across the great heavenly river. Once, though, he failed in his duty, and this story is the tale of his greatest gain and greatest loss.

------

- Chapter one, the Starherd (Viggo) -

Every night, I guard the stars on their way through the heavens. Every night since the Jade Emperor decreed the world to be, I ensure they run along their proper paths, shoo them together when the try to wander out of their foreseen constellations.
If they spread too far, I herd them closer together, if they huddle too tight, I gently take them further apart, lest one of their fragile rays break off.

It is a calm and fulfilling duty the August Personae of Jade has decreed me to carry out, and I pride myself at not having lost a single star ever since I accepted my office.

But one night, a twinkle from down below caught my eye, and I never would have thought a thing so small and innocent could be the beginning of such disaster. At first, I thought it was just a reflection of my own stars up in the heavens, for it was close to a small river, in a region abundant with rice-fields whose dark waters reflected the light of my charges manifold.

But the irritating twinkle continued, not in match with any of my stars up above, and that thought made me nervous. Should one of my stars have fallen down?
Had I really failed to notice one of my own missing? Lying down below in a river now, desperately seeking his brothers and sisters and yet only finding their reflections in cold water?

Worried, I bent down to have a closer look, and to my great surprise, found no lost starling on the river-bank, but a young human farmer. Blinking in astonishment, I looked again, but there it was again.
Not a star, but a silver laughter ringing from a heart so pure it easily matched my stars' crystal, a smile so bright it even outshone some of my smaller charges.

What an exceedingly unusual human that must be, I thought in deep wonder. Looking back on my stars, I knew they could well do without me for a while, nice and well-trained as they were. And so, without giving a second thought, I took up my staff and my lantern and walked down from heaven, eager to meet the human farmer whose smile could outshine my stars.

The young man was walking home from an over-long day of work at the fields, and yet he still smiled at the play of the fireflies, waved back at the beaming face of the moon, even bowed politely at a school of toads that crossed his path back to his hut. What an amazing person. For the first time in the eons of my work, I felt my heart pound in excitement for something else but the birth of a new star.
So when my feet touched the soil of the path he was walking on, for the first time I visited the earth I did so with the clear intend to make friendship with one of the humans I had until then only watched in curious interest.

"My greetings, good farmer", I hailed him as he turned around the bend in the path where I was waiting for him. "Would you mind tell a weary wanderer where to find the next settlement, or a place where he can rest his tiring feet?"

His face lighting up at the sight of an unexpected stranger and blinking at the shine of my lantern, the young farmer bowed deep, not even once wavering although he carried a yoke with two heavily laden buckets at each end.

"Please forgive an humble peasant his ignorance, noble lord. But I know of no place that would offer befitting accommodation for a lord of your standing." His voice was as clear as his laughter had been, and I smiled at his polite yet very fearless answer, though I didn't really see why he took me for a noble lord. But maybe then, that's what he called anyone who owned more than a loincloth and a straw-hat.

"I do not seek any lofty place, only some rest and some company on my way", I replied, feeling my heart jump in glee as I saw his face light up.

"Company I can offer you plenty, my lord", he replied merrily. "And rest, if you wouldn't mind, I know I place some way up this path where the river runs shallow and I can wash your feet. If you allow a humble peasant to render that service."

How could a person be so humble and yet so welcoming at the same time, I asked myself in amazement as he took up his lithe steps again along the path and motioned me to follow him as he took my silence as agreement.

"I am sorry I have no food with me I could offer for your company, good farmer", I said, inwardly chiding myself for forgetting to do so. "Is there anything else I could offer you instead?"

My young companion laughed softly at my question, shaking his head. "As long as you can't bring down one of the stars for me to hug him, or tell me the first names of all the birds under the sky so I can thank them appropriately when they come visit me in the fields and sing for me, there is nothing I could wish for. I have all I need. And your light is more than enough recompense for what little I can offer."

Once again, he looked at me, smiling, and I felt like my heart had missed a beat. What was so amazing about this simple peasant that made my heart feel so full, my head so light and my steps as if I was walking on clouds?
He was pretty, yes, but that was not what made me feel so elated. I had seen ages of human lifes pass underneath my feet, had seen beauties of legend in many realms of man. But he outshone them all, in his mud-splattered tunic and short trousers, his tousled hair and slightly sunburned nose, reduced them all to artificiality with a smile born in the purest of hearts.

So in lack of any other subject I knew to talk of but stars, I told him the names of each of the big ones, their constellations and habits, and he in turn told me about his day in the fields. Never before had I thought there could be anything of interest or even beauty in ploughing and planting, but the way my companion told of his daily chores made it sound as if there was no other place desirable in the world.

By the time we reached that place at the river he had spoken of earlier on, I knew the names of the different creeks watering his family's fields, knew the names of his sisters and who they were married to, how many families of ducks lived hidden in the small bamboo forest close to his hut and a many million things more. He seemed to cherish each and every little thing in his life, and all of them seemed to grace him in return. From his talk, I learned that his field always gave enough rice for him and his folks even in hard years, that his traps were never completely empty and that the wood he collected was somehow never too wet to burn.

Smiling inwardly, I knew that by thanking and greeting each and everything, he appeased their spirits in a way many of the humans simply forgot. But even if it didn't make a big difference, many small blessings apparently could lead to a charmed existence as well.

The place he had been speaking of was a tight river-bend where the water had landed a small strip of round pebbles over the years. Gargling across the stones, sounding very much like the chuckling god of hidden delights, the stream was too big to be called a creek and yet not really big enough to make a decent river. It probably would have made a perfect piece to dispute between the gods that governed the different bodies of water.

Setting down his yoke for the first time since I met him, the young farmer stretched like a cat after a long nap in the sun. Walking down to the waterfront, I could almost hear him silently greet the river, thank him for the cool refreshment he offered to us before he stepped into the dark waters. In the shine of my lantern, he looked slender and precious, more like a deer than a peasant, and the huge orbs of his dark eyes only enhanced the image.

"Come here, my lord", he said with a gentle voice just loud enough to be heard above the chuckling stream. "There's a broad stone you can sit one while I clean your feet, and if you leave your light at the road, the fireflies will come back here to dance with the stars in the water."

Smiling at my young companions invitation, I did as he had suggested, eager to learn of the world as he saw it. And truly, when I sat down on the stone he had pointed out, I could see fireflies coming to play with the stars that reflected in the water. Never before had I seen such a dance, and I was so lost in the observation that I hardly noticed the young farmer wading into the water in front of me, carefully unlacing my sandals.

Only when his gentle fingers cupped the first gush of cold water over my feet, I looked up at him in astonishment. Hesitating, he looked at me as if he feared to have displeased me, but as he saw nothing more but benevolent fascination in my eyes, he continued.
It was a delight to watch him, even in such a menial task as this. Each of his motions was as if he had thought of it before, perfect in grace, meaning, execution. How could such a jewel among humans have gone unnoticed by the eyes of the gods for so long?
I caught myself staring at him completely enchanted, and he didn't seem to mind my look as he went on cleaning my feet with the gentle touches of his slender hands.

"Tell me, noble Lord, where is your realm?", the young farmer asked after a while, the sparkle in his eyes telling me he knew quite well that it was a question far beyond his place he was asking.

"I have never presumed to be more than a humble wanderer", I replied consequentially, only to see my companion smile the tiniest smile, look down at my foot he was still holding in his hands, then back at me through his lowered lashes.

"Of course you are", he stated with a shy grin, "but even then I have never before seen a wanderer without any calluses at his feet, clad in a silk so dark it could be the night sky, with a lantern so bright it could be a fallen star. Where ever it is that humble wanderers like you come from, it is a place where you live like the nobles I know."

Apparently, I really had a lot to improve on with my incognito appearances. "So tell me, young farmer, how many nobles do you know then?"

"None, noble lord, and I pray to the gods that I will never gain the notice of people in place above mine, for I am well contend with my life as it is."

There was a way in his words, in his almost hidden smile, in the openness of his slightly downcast eyes that made me feel as if all the grace of the world was with me just as long as he was by my side. What kind of spell was this, what kind of incredible sorcery? I was still convinced that he was a mere human, not one of the Ch'in-ta or the other beings of power in human guise.
And yet, my heart was pounding in my chest as it had never before, and the thought of parting ways with my mortal companion was so painful that it made my thoughts stop as they only touched the subject.

Could it be that I was in love? After mere moments of talk, me, one of the mighty gods of the Realm of Ch'in, loving a rice-farmer youth?

And yet, even as I asked myself, I knew the incredible to be true. Within mere minutes, this human had stolen what had lain untouched for eons, conquered a place no human even had seen before.

With a sigh, I smiled at him, and he blinked in gentle confusion.

"Are you well, my lord?", he asked, setting down my left foot and taking up the right one. "you look sad."

"I am thinking of my love", I replied, instantly chiding me inwards for the stupid answer. "which might never return my feelings."

"Love is a thing that is send by the gods", the young farmer answered without slowing in his task. "So if your heart is true, love will have been given to both of you at the same time."

So right his words, and yet I wondered if it was true still if one of those concerned was a god himself.

"But we are of different standing, and I would never be able to give the respects my love would deserve."

"Such a mighty lord, and yet not free to love who you want?" His voice was free of all bile normally to be expected from any one of his position, but instead brimmed with compassionate sadness.

"There is always a lord mightier than oneself."

The young farmer nodded. "Even the Jade Emperor has the Book of Protocols sitting on his lap like a nursemaid."

Bursting into laughter at this image, I called out: "All the fifteen benevolent winds, good farmer, where have you heard that saying?" The thought was just too hilarious in its audacious accuracy.

"I think I heard the priest at the shrine say such a thing once." He actually managed a weird thing like a humble grin. " After the feast of the Ox, last spring, when he was very drunk." Setting down my right foot on the riverbank again, he added: "This is all of refreshment I can offer, noble lord. I hope I could lift your weariness a little."

"You have done wonders, good farmer, and I feel like I have been given wings." Indeed I did, but I was afraid I might get myself burned if my flight would go on unpaired too long. Then, in sudden inspiration, I suggested: "Come on, let me return your favor in like, good man." Rising, I rose and pointed at the stone I had just been sitting on.

The young man blinked in me in surprise, then decided against rejecting the offer of a noble, inappropriate as it might be, and sat down in my place. I unbuttoned the long, silken tunic I was wearing, laying it onto the dry pebbles. Now wearing only a sleeveless, simple shirt of black silk, I rolled up my trousers and waded into the river where my young companion had knelt before me just moments ago.

Gently taking his left foot in my hands, I untied his sturdy wooden sandals, noticing with a soft alarm how much touching him made my chest feel like I had nothing but caged butterflies inside of it.

When I looked up to see how he took this unusual turn of events, I found my human companion smile at me with marvel in his lovely eyes.

"Why do you smile at me like this, young farmer?", I asked, smiling in return as the beauty of his heart made my own sing in return.

"Whatever this realm is, noble lord, where you are naught but a simple wanderer, it is very far from the lands of mere humans as my humble self." Again, his smile widened, and like a child, he saw the truth in my eyes. "No human noble would have lowered himself to offer refreshment to a simple rice-farmer, and yet you touch my feet so soft, so caring as if they were ducklings fresh from the egg. You wear silk so dark it must never have seen the sunlight before, so fine it looks like having been woven on a loom of moonbeams. And yet, as precious as your clothes are, you do not seem to care." With his head he pointed at my almost forgotten robe on the stony beach, and continued: "And even though you wore no sandals, your feet were clean as if they had never touched the ground. Tell me, noble lord, which realm of spirits it is that you come from?"

Laughing softly, I set down his first foot, taking up his other one as gently as if it was a new-born star.

"So I guess my disguise is found lacking in your eyes, isn't it?"

"Your disguise is all that you desired, noble Lord, and I would never presume to judge on this."

How did he manage to say even things like this without guile? Laughing again, I began to wash his foot, deeply enjoying the feel of his skin under my fingers, the way his toes wriggled when I came close to tickling him. I was in love, there was no doubt about that.

"You do not look like one of the spirits of evil, the tempters in the dark", the young farmer thought aloud, adding with another smile: "And besides, you would be far too shy for one of them, I presume. But you're no spirit of the Ancestors, either, for none of the honorable elders would have acted as you do. So what are you? No spirit of nature, for they do not come in human guises, neither a sorcerer, for even if you were powerful like this at your age, you could hardly be as humble as you are about it. So tell me, noble lord, who are you?"

Chuckling again, I decided that his foot still needed another turn of washing, for I did not want to let go of him right now. He knew a lot more of spirits and their habits than I would have thought, and the way he still sat in front of me without fear though his accurate deductions left only very few conclusions hinted at the fact that he was well aware that spirits were not an invention of old grannies to frighten their children.
But he must also have know that his line of thought left me to be either a god or a dragon, and usually, that left mortals either cringing in fear or running. Or trying to do both of it at the same time. I just wondered why he was still sitting in front of me with a gentle smile instead.

And also, how to tell a mortal that you were the Starherd without sounding too whacky?

"Let me give you a hint", I said then, feeling stupid at my sudden lack of words at the simple attempt of telling my name. I set down his foot with regret and walked over to the path where my lantern was still standing.
The young farmer had been far closer with his guess than he thought. Opening the lantern's glassen cage a friend of mine had made for me, I took out the little star that illuminated my paths whenever I was wandering abroad, gently setting him into my palm. With the sparkling light in my hand, I walked over to the young man still sitting on his stone and knelt down to him holding the star like a present.

I could see his eyes widen at the marvel I held in my open palm, and without hesitation, he gently touched the star. Bright, unblinding starlight painting lines of light on his face and the surrounding nature, and as if taking up a young bird from his nest, he took the star into his hand as securely as if he had never done anything else in his life.
The star's childlike spirit giggled in glee, and the young farmer chuckled in response as he held the spiky globe of light to his cheek, cuddling the tiny star in a gesture so affectionate I had to reign myself in not to hug him as well. Then as if actually speaking to the star, he looked at it, then held up his palms and hurled the star back into heaven where I had taken it from, the tiny spirit hooting in joy until he was so far away even I couldn't hear him any more.

Slowly, darkness descended at our place by the chuckling river, and in what little moonlight was left, I could see tears of joy brimming in my human companion's eyes.

"You're the Starherd", he whispered, more statement than question, and I nodded in reply. "That was a gift beyond worth to me, noble Lord."

Chucking softly, I replied: "And what do you think will guide our way now that we have no light anymore?"

The young farmer merely laughed, saying mirthfully: "We don't need any light down here." For a moment, he seemed as if he wanted to add something, his huge eyes looking at me. But then he decided against it, instead took my head in his hands, puled me close to him and kissed me.

Gentle and yet insistently longing his lips touched mine, his sweet breath on my skin, his touch on my face. All this filled me with confusion and completeness, bliss and fear, fulfilling and longing and hundreds of more feelings at the same time, so many I could not even put a name to them.
And suddenly, a mere heartbeat, maybe two, maybe an age later, our lips separated again. With a soft sigh, I tried to gather my thoughts which were running through my head like ants about their hive after a horse had stepped on it. He was still sitting on his stone, his hands folded in his lap, looking at me a bit insecure as if he didn't know if I would now smite him or kiss him back.
But I did neither of those things.

"Well, young farmer, I'd say that one was a gift beyond worth as well", I said, feeling as if my heart was pounding in my throat all of a sudden.

"It was easy for me to give", my companion said with his shy smile, "And I daresay I was on the gaining side this time as well."

"It was pretty bold of you to kiss a god..."

"They say that the gods plant love always in two hearts at the same time, and how could I be afraid to kiss you if I was sure you would love me as well?"

It took me a moment to believe what me ears had just heard. "How can you tell that you love me after such a short time?" His silvery laughter told me that I was making a kind of a fool of myself as well. I didn't doubt my feelings either, did I?

"Either you wonder about being in love, then you aren't, or you know. And I know that if I were to choose only one single thing to love for the rest of my life, I would be well advised to pick you, for you will cherish and honor my love as no one else. So how can I doubt your love if mine is so strong?"

Again, he kissed me, softer this time, closer, as if asking for a caress, and almost unconsciously, I felt my arms wrap around him as if it were the place they were meant to be. Holding him like this, I felt completeness as I had never felt before, happiness that my existence was graced by a love as his, tremendous fear at the fact that he was a human and thus mortal, never allowed to set food into heaven. But I didn't want to think of this, not now, not tonight.

"Starherd, I have to thank you", my lover said softly as our kiss separated again. "Thank you for taking care of all the lovely stars, thank you for allowing me to meet one. And most of all, thanks of noticing me and deeming we worthy of your love."

Instead of an answer, I hugged him close. Never before had I cared so much for anything, and I swore to myself that I would spend as much of what little time remained for us in his company as possible. He was my grace, lighting up my soul in a way I had never before thought possible, and I would nothing come between us.

"Ai, my love, my little starling", I said softly after a while, my fingers raking softly through his hair. "I will always notice you, and if anyone, I am the one who has to thank for being deemed worthy of your love."

So we sat at the banks of the chuckling river, holding each other in the moonlit night, and it was only the first of many, many nights to come we would share.


------


- Chapter two, The August Personae of Jade (Sean) -

I am the Jade Emperor.

I am the August Personae of Jade, the one deity running this whole bloody universe.

And if there's one thing that really, really makes me lose my temper, it is one of my bloody employees not doing their goddamn job.

Not that I had a temper, that is, of course.

Running the celestial bureaucracy and governing each thing in the world is a bit too much even for my admittedly immense abilities. So I am in the painful position of needing staff. And good staff, nowadays, - oh well, you get my point.
Over the ages, I have learned that though trust is a nice thing, control is better, and have taken the habit of going here and there, checking on things in one of my many disguises. From minor gods to the pebbles of a river bank, I see if all is as I decreed it to be, though I have to admit that especially river pebbles do need very little attention.
They're very decent, benignly happy spirits and, to be honest, some of my better subjects.

Gods, on the other hand, are a different matter all together.

Worst of all when they suddenly change their behavior without any discernible cause, creating havoc in the minutely planned clockwork I have set this universe to be.
So when one night I wandered along the shores of the yellow sea and a tiny, completely confused starling crashed into the sands, I was in the mood to strangle a certain god. Looking up into the sky, I could hardly believe what I saw.
Not a single star was at its place, not one of them. The big celestial river was flowing in all directions at once, like a muddy flood ankle-deep above a field. This wasn't the sky as it should be, this was a mess. Like leaves in autumn, stars were falling from the sky, most of them shocked and confused as they had just collided with another of their kind.
I felt bile rise in my throat, for there could only one be responsible for this disaster. And this one person I had trusted since many ages, for he had been the kindest and most diligent of all my aides.

But this was irremediable. An utterly dishonorable failure of the worst kind.
I felt like he had betrayed me personally, with the dagger still in his hand.
If I hadn't trusted him so much before, maybe I would have been less strict.

So I picked up the little wailing starling and went up to my celestial palace, skipping the Thousand Halls of Grace and entering directly in my throne room.

The small star was still whimpering pathetically, and I set it down on a table left to my throne, hoping if I just let it alone for some time it would stop crying. On my right, on a similar table, the Celestial Book of Protocol was lying, its jade covers as coolly detached as its iron pages within.

We had a funny kind of relationship, that book and I.
As the August Personae of Jade, my decrees were law to the universe itself, becoming real and binding as I spoke them. But like a nursemaid, this heartless book noted each and everything I said, fixing it onto its pages for all eternity. And not even I, the August Personae of Jade, was able to violate any of my laws once they had been written down. Nor could I ever undo them, negate them or get rid of them in any other way.

They say that there is always a greater Lord to obey, yet for someone in my exclusive position, this is a thought very hard to get accustomed to.

Right then, I was furious, my heart beating with all the thunder of the Hell of Docility's myriad anvils, where the souls of the haughty are forged into different shapes every day I make happen. The starherd had betrayed me, had failed his duty, and of all my gods, I had never expected him to shame me so. Still, the little lost starling on my side was wailing like a lost kitten, and slowly, the sound was getting on my nerves.

"Starherd!", I called out, ignoring all proper forms of summons and invitations. "Your Emperor calls you! Appear now, before I have to come and get you!"

There was only enough time for the God of Proper Greetings to draw a shocked breath, then in a flash of light as searing as my wrath, the starherd appeared in the middle of the hall, pulled by my call from whatever misbegotten place he had been dawdling at.

Before I had a chance to hurl something dramatic at his stunned face, that blasted starling switched from wailing to hooting, and dashed off to his master across the room, snuggling against his chest like a little child.

"Now look who's coming home for a change," I said with a questioning look at the details of my aide's outfit. He truly looked as if I had pulled him out of some mortal's bed. "In mortal guise, half-clad, tousled, unshaved. Would you mind telling your Emperor where you have been these days? Obviously not in the heavens, for your stars are running every direction at once. And this little fellow you are hugging in such dramatic display of bad conscience I personally have plucked out of the sands of the Yellow Sea's shore down below."

Finally, the starherd seemed to realize what was happening and fell to his knees, bowing down to touch the ground with his forehead, never even once letting go of his little star.

"I am sorry, my Emperor, I am sorry."

His lame attempt at groveling didn't do anything to soften my mood.

"I was down on earth, sharing some time with my beloved."

Of course. The ever-favorite excuse. A good one, actually, and in my eyes the only one I might have been willing to accept. But no-one failed me in such flamboyant way and got to live without scars.

"Do you have any idea how long you have been down there?", I bellowed, "Or how much time has passed since you last were in heaven, doing what I had decreed your duty to be?"

The starherd looked up at me from the ground, his dark eyes filled with unusual insecurity.

"A week?", he asked, and the fact that he actually ASKED me made me want to smash him like a gnat. But I thought better and merely stared at him instead, with apparently pretty much the same effect. The starherd was growing flatter and flatter on the cold floor in front of my throne, asking in a hushed voice: "Two weeks? A month, maybe?"

Instead of answering himself, I gave a hardly discernible nod at the Speaker of the Celestial Archive, who in turn nodded at one of his aides, who handed him a large scriptroll.

"Since the last visit of the starherd to heavens," the Speaker intoned in a slightly nasal voice, "a time has passed counting three month, four days, sixteen hours and thirty-two minutes."

Both me and the starherd gasped at this frighteningly large figure. How could I have become so lax one of my minions could steal off for more than a quarter of a year without me noticing? This whole affair was outrageous!

"How could you fail me so, starherd", I asked, the whole place reverberating with the pain I felt. I didn't want to punish him, not for loving some sweet little girl so much he lost track of time, which to us admittedly meant very little. But he HAD failed me, and there was no denying in that.

"I just wanted to be with my love", the starherd on the ground explained softly, and I could feel the anguish in his heart almost as if it had been my own. "There are so precious few days in a mortal's life, and I just couldn't bring myself to miss even one."

"I know enough of love to understand why you did what you have done. I am not made of stone." Throwing a sidelong glance at the book to my left, I went on: "But your duty, the very reason I have called you into existence for, is to guard the order of the stars in heaven, to ensure they run their path as I have decreed."

Silence spread in the large hall, and only the slight rushing sound of silk told of the many deities gathering in court for this extraordinary and unpleasant event. Softly, the little starling in the starherd's arms started crying, and even in his position, the starherd found a hard to gently shoo at him.

It was really hard to be angry with him, I said to myself. Still he had failed me, but maybe we could see that this little mortal had some more days than usual to life after the Starherd had finished his sentence.

"You will stay in heaven until you have rearranged all the stars, and repaired them to their proper state. And once you are finished - "

"My exalted Majesty, I beg your pardon."

The whole court drew in a sharp breath of shock and exasperation. I was about to sentence him for his failure and he DARED to talk back at me?

"My Emperor, I will gladly serve any sentence you will decree, and none will ever be able to wash off the shame I have laden on me by failing you. But one thing I have to beg from you despite anything." The whole court, and this time including my usually quite jaded self could hardly believe what we heard. "I beg you, my Emperor, allow me to return to earth if even only for the time it takes a leaf to fall from its branch to the ground. But my lover's humble heart has not deserved me leaving without a word, and my heart would break if I were unable -"

"YOUR bloody heart WILL break if you speak a single word more!", it burst out of me in an outbreak of pure anger. "How can you DARE?! Never has been such disrespect shown in this hall, never has any of my minions acted so out of place right in front of my throne!"

The whole place shook with my wrath, and I could hardly think of any instance I had been that angry ever before.

"Never again will you leave the heavens, will it be for farewell or any other reason", I bellowed, glaring at the starherd on the ground. "Never EVER again will you go anywhere else, and if ever you dare to act like this once again, I will personally chain you to the Pit of Salt an Iron in the deepest of the Thousand Hells! Have I made that point clear?"

With cold tears of dread brimming in his eyes, the starherd looked up at me, whispering: "Yes, my Emperor."

And as I heard the soft crackling sound of the Celestial Book of Protocol taking up my latest decree among it jade covers, I wondered with a very bad feeling in my stomach if I hadn't just made the worst mistake in a very, very long time.

------


- Chapter three, the rice farmer youth (Orli) -


Sitting in the mud, my face splattered with dirt, I laughed like I hadn't done since my lover so unceremoniously had left me.

In front of me, sitting on a small patch of moss among reeds and ginger shoots, the largest and by all means grumpiest toad I had ever seen in my whole life stared at me so incredibly reproachful that I couldn't help but laugh.

"Oh Master Toad", I said only partially in mocking, "please excuse me disturbing your home, trespassing your grounds."

Still, the ugly animal stared at me most disdainfully, but I hadn't seriously expected to see it change its attitude.

"Please Master, I have been sent by the honorable Old Ping, who used to come here to collect her ginger before she got too old for the walk. Allow me to gather just as much as the old woman needs, and my humble gratitude will add to hers."

The toad blinked, lazy, with one eye first, then with the other. Suddenly, it hopped away, leaving me alone among the reeds.
Apparently, I had been given permission to continue my task.

And Old Ping had been right, up here, where ancient fields had been overgrown over the decades, the water was still so clear that the ginger growing here was fine and crisp, smelling more of fresh flowers or vegetables than of lemons than the one growing in the valley.
Carefully, I dug the bulbous roots out of the mud, ensuring I didn't break their thin barks so they would keep fresh for many days.

Once more I had to snicker about the incredible, furious noise the toad had made as I started to wade through the reeds. Then suddenly, it had leaped up right in front of me, startling me so much I lost footing in the slippery mud and fell over almost headfirst. But it had been right, of course. One can't just walk into somebody else's home, intend on stealing some furniture, and expect to be welcome.

But I chose the ginger roots I dug for with care, so there wouldn't be gaping holes in Master Toad's living room, nor did I take more than I needed. Also, I left a portion of the root with the stem, setting it back into the mud so there would be a chance it could grow back to a healthy plant again. I was quite sure he wouldn't be too upset.

Still grinning, I took the small reed basket I had taken with me, silently thanking the plants for generously adding to our daily food. Of course I knew it was a bit odd, but still, it felt right.
Plants eventually had to be gathered, stock had to be slaughtered, wars had to be waged. Thus was the way of the world, but that didn't relief any one of us from observing the proper forms of conduct.

And that toad truly had been most furious.

I took the gathered ginger from the overgrown field to a small creek nearby, where I could wash it clean from the mud and myself as well. The water was coming down right from the mountain, so cold it pricked my bare feet.
And while in my hands, the muddy roots one by one lost their dirty shell and revealed their shining bark the color of honey, the way the water chuckled across the pebbles made me think of a night long past yet never forgotten.

Just like this, the stream where I had met the starherd had chuckled, just as joyful and lively as the water the following weeks had been. And just as cold my heart had felt the moment he was torn right out of my arms by his master's thunderous voice.

It hadn't come as a surprise, not really. At least, not to me. There was a place and reason to everything and everyone, and the starherd's place surely wasn't in my tiny hut at the river. Each night, a single glance at heaven told me so, but my sweet lover wouldn't listen.

"Just one night, my little starling, just one more night...", he had whispered each time, and each time, I had been most eager to give in to his pleas.

The days we had spent had been full of laughter, the nights had been filled with tenderness and love. I knew I would never see him again, not in the days of my mortal life, and the knowledge that I had lost him weighed down my heart. My sadness, though, couldn't overrule the joy I felt at the wonderful time we had been able to spend together; each time I felt alone, I remembered his gentle smile at my side, and I could laugh again.

I knew that I had been graced with love far beyond any mortals share, and still, there were nights I wept in silent grief.
I knew I was acting ungrateful, for I had gotten already so much more than I deserved. Yet this was one case my heart just wouldn't listen.
I knew he loved me, and that he would never hurt me of his own free will. Yet there were nights when I just stared up at the stars, wishing for nothing else than a last embrace and a final kiss.

With a sad smile, I took up the basket filled with now gleaming ginger roots, shivering slightly as I was wet from head to toe and just as cold as the little mountain creek by now. Descending down the narrow path that led towards the village I lived in, I wondered what it would feel like to know the names of each stone on the way, and I made a game out of greeting each one of them, thanking them for their support and guidance.

One day, I decided, when I would come home from the fields and crossed the place where I had met my lover, I would build a small shrine of river pebbles. Just for the spirits of the place to remember my gratitude.

"My greetings, good farmer", a voice got me out of my musings.

Looking up, I found a man sitting on a stone next to the road, his traveler's robe splattered with mud, leaning on a plain carved staff.

"My greetings, traveler", I replied, wondering why this man seemed so familiar to me. "This path leads up to nowhere but the old fields on the mountain, have you lost you way?"

"Seems so", he replied, his eyes sparkling with mirth and wisdom. He wasn't old, even too young as he could have been my father, and yet there was something in his eyes that made him look as if he had seen eons pass by. He wasn't a mortal, I was instantly sure of that.

"Was it you I heard laughing up in the fields some moments ago?", he asked, a friendly, benevolent smile in his face.

"Yes, good traveler, I think it was me." Somehow, there seemed to have been quite an increase of immortals in my life of late, I wondered. "Would you like to follow me to the next village? I am sure you can find your way from there on."

"Yes, I would be very pleased."

It was his voice. I was sure I knew his voice, and yet I couldn't say where I knew it from.

For a while, the stranger and I walked down the path in silence, then he asked:

"Tell me about the village you are living in, young farmer. Have you been living there for long?"

"All my life. It's nothing more than a plain village, some farmers, some fishermen and a priest. Nothing a traveler like you hasn't seen a hundred times already."

"You'd be surprised", he replied with a mirthful chuckle, "even after all my travels I find that there are miracles hidden in the most unlikely of places."

Once more, silence wrapped around our little company, and all there was to be heard was the singing of the birds and the distant murmur of the river.

"Is it a happy life you lead there in you village, farmer?", the stranger asked all of a sudden, and for a change, my heart was reluctant to answer.

"Yes, dear traveler. We have all we need and no one ever has to hunger or freeze. We are happy."

"It wasn't your village I asked about, but you own life. And somehow, it sounds as if there's some grief hidden in your heart."

I stopped and turned around to look at my mysterious companion. What kind of malicious spirit had come to see me suffer?
But there was no guile in the traveler's eyes, in contrary, only genuine concern.

"There is grief in my heart, but it is not hidden", I replied hesitantly. "I just think I shouldn't grief for having lost something that never should have been mine in the very first place."

"Now that's very proper thinking, boy." The traveler seemed lost in thought for a moment, then he added: "Yet how do you know that whatever you have lost wasn't meant for you?"

I smiled fondly, trying hard to keep my eyes from getting moist. "There are things so far above my place it's obvious they can't be mine."

"Yes, that's often the case", the traveler behind me said, sounding intrigued. "Tell me anyway. What's it that a farmer as contend with his simple life as you can long for that is so obviously beyond his place."

Softly, I tried to swallow the answer, but it was hard to ignore the stranger's guileless question.

"I fell in love with a noble man...", I whispered, my voice choking on tears despite myself.

"Oh I see..." The man's voice was filled with concern and sympathy, and he asked: "But the fool didn't love you back, did he?"

"No, he did...", I replied, now finally feeling the first tears running down my cheeks. "That's the whole problem."

"Oh, shh," the stranger said, and as I slowed down my steps not to stumble under tears on the stony path, he gently put down his large hand onto my shoulder. "Shh, little one, please don't cry. Here, come on, let's sit down and rest for a moment."

Carefully, he led me off the path to a place where a creek gathered to a small pond, and taking the ginger basket out of my hands, he sat me down on a flat stone, kneeling before me. With a piece of cloth he had taken out of his robe, he dried my face, gentle as the touch of a bird.

"What a fool that man must be", he said, his voice still full of concern but also ringing with distant anger. Where did I know him from? "Now tell me, little one, did he drop you?"

I shook my head, fighting tears that were welling up again despite my firm resolve not to cry again.

"Not?" The stranger seemed confused. "Is he dead?"

"No." Still fighting tears, I decided I could just as well tell him my story, a harmless version at least, for I felt I had humbly born my fate long enough. And a little sympathy felt just like something I really needed. So wiping away the moisture from my eyes, I said: "He loved me dearly, and I loved him back. But even though he was a mighty noble, there is always a mightier lord to obey."

"Tell me about it," the stranger grumbled softly, as if only to himself. "But no Lord, however mighty, should make you cry, little one. And seeing your humble heart so sad is a crime in itself. Tell me what has happened."

There definitely was anger ringing in his voice, and it struck me tremendously odd that it felt so familiar though I was sure I never before had seen this man.

"His lord called him home, called him to fulfil his duty. And so he left."

"All the thousand hells!", the stranger called out, fury now burning in his voice. "And he didn't take you with him?"

"I am not allowed to go where he is...", I whispered, afraid and confused by the traveler's wrath.

"Who is he?", he all but bellowed. "Who is that heartless fool that places the duty to a liege above the duty to a lover?"

And suddenly, like a strike of lightening, I knew where I had heard the voice before. Filled with anger so scalding even the birds and the river seemed to hold their breaths, thunderous and all-encompassing.
It sounded different now, but it still was the same voice. The very voice that had called my gentle starherd away from my side.
The voice of the Jade Emperor.

Stunned beyond thoughts, I heard myself stutter: "It - it was You, my Emperor."

"Huh?!" Suddenly, the traveler's animated features lost all expression, and he stared at me with pretty much the same slack-jawed expression I must have been presenting him with right then.

"Now damn my bloody self...", he muttered, still staring at me. Gently, he took my chin, examining my face as if he was looking for some proof of my story. "So it's been you all the time..."

Slowly, he let go of my chin, and softly at first, then lively, began to chuckle. His chuckle burst into a laughter so wild and roaring birds in nearby thickets fled confused. And still, he was laughing on, tears of amusement running down his cheeks.

"Oh my", he said breathless as his laughter finally calmed down. "Truly I have made a fine fool of myself. A man of my age should have learned to think before acting, shouldn't he?"

Insecure, I glanced at the stones at his feet. It surely wouldn't be proper to tell the August Personae of Jade that he hadn't acted too gracefully, even if only in agreement.

"Of course you don't answer, little one. If only all of my subjects would act that properly..." He stood up and sat down on the stone right next to me. Despite knowing who he was, the instinctual reflex to flee or throw myself at his feet was surprisingly easy to keep in check.
It was so exceedingly odd to think of the Jade Emperor as a nice guy sitting next to you.

"Now, what are we gonna do with that pretty mess I've created here?", he mumbled, once more mostly to himself.

"Can't - can't you just let him come back? Even if only for a few days at a time?" Did I really just say that? Who was I that I dared to suggest to the mightiest Lord of all what he was to do?

"No, little one, I can't." Gently, he stroked my hair, a sad tone to his voice. "I've condemned him to stay in the heavens forever, and even I can't undo what I once decreed."

I only nodded. So there was no way for me to see him again.

"Now don't give me tears again, little one." A bit uncomfortable, he handed me his cloth again. "Listen, I've made a mistake, and I am truly sorry."

I just stared at him in unveiled disbelief. Did he really just excuse with me?

"Don't look at me like that, if you'll tell anybody, I'll say I never said so." Grinning companionably, he nudged my shoulder. "I can't get the starherd back to earth just as I will never get a mortal into the heavens. But that doesn't mean I haven't got a plan."

"But...", I whispered confused, still my voice throaty with tears. "Why do you help me?"

For a moment, the Jade Emperor looked at me startled, then laughed out loud. "Oh, you're just too sweet. You've got a laughter so delightful I have to come see myself who you are, you've got a heart so pure you can steal my most loyal servant out of the heavens and despite what I have done to you, you bear no grudge against me. Dear, all things have a place, and I have placed sorrow where there should have been nothing but joy. I am only redeeming my errors."

I looked at him, trying to see past his mortal guise, and all I could see was a caring, if somewhat rough man.

"Here, have a peach on me." Reaching into the apparently bottomless pockets of his robe, the Jade Emperor got out a peach, ripe and smelling most delicious, pressing it gently into my slightly trembling hands. "And now watch."

Reflexively, I started eating, and watched as the August Personae of Jade stood up, gathering some soft, slender branches from the low willows at the pond. Then he sat down again, most craftily weaving the branches to a circle without breaking off a single of the slender leaves. Finally he plucked three Jade pearls and three white feathers from out of his pockets, fixing them onto the woven twigs that it looked just like a little crown.

"Wouldn't be right at all if I'd ever ran out of ideas, would it?", he asked as he checked his work. "Can't make you a god, but a patron saint's not that far off, is it?"

"But- ", I asked around the remnants of the almost eaten peach. "Wouldn't I have to be immortal for that as well?"

But the Jade Emperor just laughed, pointing at the peach-kernel in my hand. "Think again", he said, grinning as if he just had concluded a practical joke.

For a second, I had no idea what he was talking of, then the only possible solution dropped into my mind with the impact of a falling mountain. "Oh my god..."

"I see, you have already heard of the tree of immortality, growing in the Jade Emperor's personal garden. The peaches on it's branches are said to be most delicious..."

He still grinned widely, then placed his makeshift crown on my head and took the kernel out of my hand. Throwing it away somewhere into the thickets, he whistled, softly, almost like the call of a bird, and to my greatest wonder, a tiny sparrow came and sat down in his open palm.

"Now, little rice farmer, wasn't it you who wanted to know the first names of all the birds? To thank them properly for their songs?"

I just nodded, feeling completely overrun by the current events.

"Well, why don't you just ask them?"

Holding his hand with the sparrow sitting there towards me, he seriously expected me to talk to the bird. Well, things were weird enough already, so why not.

"Tell me little sparrow," I asked, "what is your name?"

And although I almost had feared so already, when the bird chirped in reply, I could understand what he was saying.

"My family calls me fly-eater Wang," the sparrow said, "and I am most humbled to make your acquaintance."

"See?", the Jade Emperor said, chuckling at my bewildered face. "It's not difficult after all."

Then he turned to the bird, saying softly:

"Now, little Wang, all the birds from sparrow to eagle have long time complained that of all animals, they still were among the few I had never named a patron saint for. But I think we both agree that this humble man before us is a perfect choice, don't you think?"

"Oh, perfectly," the bird chirped excited. "Thank you, my Emperor!"

"Go now, little fly-eater Wang, and tell your brethren that there is a saint for them now, and that he awaits their greetings. And I think a present would be most appropriate, don't you agree?"

"Of course, my Emperor, I will fly!" The tiny sparrow took off from the god's hand, "And I already know the perfect gift!" And off he was, chirping loudly, creating a true outburst of birds' voices from everywhere in the valley.

"Sure you do", the Jade Emperor said softly, "that's the whole point..."

Like wind rustling in the top of a tree, a great sound swelled all around us, the flapping of wings too many to count, too many to even see at the same moment. Suddenly, there were birds everywhere, singing and croaking, of all colors and shapes and sizes.

Among the deafening noise, I could still catch a single name every now and then, and generally make out that the birds were overjoyed to finally have a patron saint. And such a nice one on top.

It made me blush.

Laughing loudly, the Jade Emperor took my hand and led me to a small clearing nearby. Still birds were flapping all around us, so many they darkened the sky, but suddenly, they grew less noisy.

"A patron saint is allowed access to heavens," the Jade Emperor told me, "If he has the means to get there." Smiling at me fondly, he continued: "Not many of them do, but I think your new subjects are most gladly willing to help you there."

Right in front of us, a huge eagle landed, dropping a heavy branch he had carried between his claws. With a gracious bow, he acknowledged our presence, then lifted off again. One by one, other bird came, each one adding a twig or a branch, even if it wasn't more than a blade of grass. But with countless birds swarming all around, it took only moments for the branches to have grown to a veritable heap, to a pile, to a towering ramp reaching far above the trees and still growing.

"See?", the Jade Emperor asked, cordially putting his arm around my shoulder. "Each year, the birds will come to you, each bringing a little gift. And they will build a bridge for you, so long and high it'll reach from the earth right to the -"

"Heavens", I completed his sentence in utter awe, tears in my eyes from overflowing emotions.

"Right there. You can't stay forever, as you are not a god, but for quite some time. And eventually, in the year to come, your birds will build you another bridge."

"Oh my Emperor," I exclaimed, completely inappropriately jumping at the August Personae of Jade, hugging him fiercely. "Thank you, thank you so much."

"Err, yes", he mumbled, gently prying my hands of his neck. "Now go, rush, I don't want your lover to get envious. And I bet he's already waiting for you."

Probing, as if not really believing that it would hold my weight, I stepped onto the bridge, watching it go on almost endlessly.

"But - ", I suddenly remembered, "I can't go!"

"And why shouldn't you be able to?" There was a distinct warning in the Emperor's voice, but with my heart almost bursting of excitement, I couldn't have cared less.

"I still have to bring the ginger to Old Ping."

For a heartbeat, the Jade Emperor stared at me, completely at a loss. Then he shook his head, laughing so hard that tears were running down his face.

"Oh good heavens, don't worry about the ginger. I'll deliver it personally, I promise!" Waving me off, he took the basket, grinning. "Now hurry, or do you want to torture my starherd any longer?"

"No, I won't", I replied, and without even once looking back, I hurried up the wooden bridge, accompanied by the joyful voices of countless birds in the air around me.

Soon, I could see the gates of heaven looming ahead of me, and the bridge coming to an end. And right at the end of the bridge, I could make out a slender figure clad in a robe of silk as dark as midnight, with a star at his side shining like a lantern. His noble face was gleaming wet with tears, but even at the distance, I could see him smiling.

"I am coming to you, starherd", I whispered, changing from a brisk walk to an utterly undignified run. "I am coming to you, my love!"

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The end.