Pacific Odyssey

Book II: China

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen 

Life In the Palace of Qing Kang Zhu

 

 

The next morning when he awoke, Diego found the same two servants sitting quietly by the door.  The younger one immediately left the room, but the older one began filling a bowl with water and gathering shaving utensils.  The light pouring into the room told the Californiano that he had slept quite late.  “What time is it?” he asked the old man, Wang Cho.  

“It is several hours past the rising of the sun,” the man answered, approaching Diego with shaving utensils.  

“I am letting the beard grow,” Diego said. 

“Yes, it was so ordered, but even in that one must look neat, is that not so?” the old man asked. 

“Yes, that is true.” 

“And His Highness said I was to cut your hair as well,” Wang Cho said.

Diego had to agree with the wisdom of the prince in that.  His hair had grown long and sometimes unruly during the voyage, only having been periodically trimmed by the purser, who was not the most capable barber.  While he would have preferred shaving himself, the caballero was well aware of his current limitations and sat still, trusting the man.   He also had to admit that he was a bit pleased to be served after so much time being a servant, and somehow, even though Diego knew the servant could talk, the older man still reminded him of Bernardo. Wang Cho worked quickly, efficiently and silently.  But the closeness that he shared with Bernardo was missing and Diego felt a pang of melancholy wondering about his mozo and friend.  

After shaving him and cutting his hair, Wang Cho quickly put the bowl and razor away and beckoned to him.  “Come, please, for your bath,” he said, helping Diego on with a large silk robe.  

“A bath?” Diego stammered, then realized that he was in a palace, not on a British cargo ship.  His shock turned to delight, since he could count on one hand, no, two fingers, he thought, the number of times that he had been able to indulge in an honest to goodness bath since his kidnapping.  When they reached the designated room, he saw that it contained a tub the size of a small pool.  It was built like a pool as well, sunken into the ground.  A bamboo conduit at one end allowed a small stream of water to enter the pool, and Diego didn’t doubt that there was an outlet somewhere else that let the excess flow out.   The servant motioned for his robe and nightshirt, and after only a second’s hesitation, Diego acquiesced, sinking into water that was amazingly warm and delicately scented.  He had no idea what the aroma was from, but the caballero didn’t care, he only knew that it felt good.  Sinking down, he let the water cover his injured shoulder, bindings and all.  Wang Cho proceeded to wash his back and Diego allowed him to, relaxing to the point of becoming somnolent.  After the servant had washed all he could reach, Diego continued to luxuriate in the soothing warmth until a voice broke into his reverie. 

“Ah, so you are enjoying our warm spring?” Zhaou Haifang asked. 

Diego turned languidly and gazed at the physician.  “Yes, this is very soothing.  I was wondering at the warmth of the water and assumed that there must be a mineral spring supplying this pool.” 

“Yes, very good for the vital energies,” the doctor said.  “But I need to examine you and replace the bandage on your shoulder.  

Diego smiled.  The cloth binding his shoulder and arm had somehow become loose and freed itself.  He had not stopped the process, but had simply let his arm lie against his chest while the warmth penetrated down to his bones. 

As he stepped out, the servant dried him off and Zhaou Haifang examined him.  The shoulder was rebound, but more loosely, allowing for a clean, sky-blue shirt to be carefully pulled on.  The physician prepared another sling that immobilized his injured shoulder. 

“That is much better,” Diego said, as Zhaou Haifang finished.  Wang Cho finished helping him dress and slid a pair of slippers on his feet.    Diego stood up and rubbed his hand across the silken shirt and down the smooth pants, thinking about how quickly fate can change a life.  So much change, Diego thought.  He was almost afraid to look up, for fear that it would change again, that what had happened in the past twenty-four hours was only a dream.  Finally, though, he did look up and saw the physician gazing at him closely.  

“This is only as you deserve,” Zhaou Haifang said softly.  

“No, it is not that.  I was thinking how quickly things can change.” 

“Yes, that is true, but this time the changes are good ones.  You will soon be able to go home,” the doctor said.  “Nothing can stop that.”

“Not even the British?”

“There is always danger, but His Highness is already working on a way to get you back safely to Guangzhou.”

“I cannot help but wonder why the British would be so obsessively intent on finding and capturing me” Diego said.  “I realized that I caused great damage to one of their ships, but….” 

“Diego, you underestimate their resolve and you underestimate what you did, either directly or indirectly.  You undermined the authority of a British sea captain, and you destroyed very costly cargo.  And that was just while at sea.”  Zhaou Haifang paused.  “And by making your presence known on the mainland you have more or less flouted the power of the British Empire, especially as you continued to destroy the opium on the caravans.” 

Diego looked a bit sheepish and rubbed behind his ear in his embarrassment.  “In other words, if they think I am alive then they must capture or kill me to save face with their ruler.” 

“Exactly, my friend.”

“But they will think I am dead, will they not?” Diego asked.  

“We hope so, Diego, but we must not simply assume that the British will believe His Highness.  Europeans seem to be very suspicious people,” Zhaou Haifang replied. 

Diego frowned.  “I just do not want anyone else to come to harm because of me,” he said.  “Men died on the China Star, men were hurt during my flight from Guangzhou.” 

“Ai!  The sun has set many times since you were on that ship and those in the opium caravans made their own choices to defy the Emperor.   Prince Qing Kang Zhu is determined that you will return home safely.” 

Xiexie,” Diego said, bowing slightly. 

“Let us have a little breakfast, then I imagine that you want to visit with the captain of the guard again,” Zhaou Haifang said with a slight frown that was cancelled out by the twinkle in the his eyes.  

“I promise, I will be careful,” Diego replied with a chuckle.   

Several hours later, the Captain set about showing Diego what he could in the short time the European would be at the palace. 

“Diego, the first position is the horse position,” the captain told him, showing him the bent kneed stance that allowed for defensive and offensive maneuvers.

“Horse position?” 

“Yes, many positions are named after the animals they most resemble.” 

“Oh,” Diego said, getting into the position.  His only difficulty at first was his injured shoulder, but he easily adjusted and was soon practicing the various stances.  “This one is much like the stance taken for fencing,” he told the captain when he had been taught the forward stance.    

The captain showed Diego an offensive punch and several defensive, or blocking maneuvers and quickly came to the realization that the Californio was very fluid and agile in his movements. Even with one arm in a sling, Diego moved with the grace of an acrobat.  The captain sincerely wished he had more time to teach him, as he felt Diego could easily master this form of wushu.  By the time they had finished their session, Diego had mastered several defensive blocking maneuvers, as well as a few offensive-punching maneuvers and a kicking maneuver.  

“Diego, you have great balance,” the captain said after his pupil had practiced his kicking stance twenty-five times for each foot.  “To be able to do that during the first session and with the bound shoulder is extraordinary.” 

“Thank you, but I felt as though I was going to fall during the whole exercise,” Diego admitted, wiping the sweat from his face.  “That was every bit as hard a workout as I had in Spain with the fencing master.”  Then he smiled.  “Probably harder.” 

The captain returned the smile.  “It takes great discipline to master any form of wushu.   But it is evident that you have had other forms of training.  If the royal physician and His Highness do not mind, perhaps we can meet again tonight, and I can see how much you have remembered.” 

For his part, Diego never dreamed that there could be so many different ways to defend oneself.   Greatly excited at this almost magical style of fighting, he bowed low to the captain.  “Yes, I would like that very much.  Thank you.”  That night before retiring, Diego reviewed his lessons in the privacy of his room.  After going through the cooling down and breathing exercises he fell asleep quickly and deeply.  No nightmares bothered his slumber.   

For several days, Diego rested, studied patiently under the tutelage of the captain and visited with the prince, perfecting his knowledge of the Chinese language at the same time.   He was treated to more of the artistic cuisine of China, but the meals were private and less opulent than that first meal.  Usually he dined with just Qing Kang Zhu, the princess and the physician.  During the afternoons, the royal calligrapher taught Diego a few characters and helped him learn to write with a brush, the royal musicians showed him their instruments and taught him a few of their simpler songs.  Twice a day Diego met with the captain, learning at a pace that he later could only describe as desperate. 

One day, during a particularly intense training session, one where Zhaou Haifang was continually raising his hands in protest, His Highness entered the training room.  The men immediately ceased their exercises and turned to the royal nephew, who appeared extremely happy about something.

“Ah, Diego, finally news has reached me from the envoy at the Portuguese Trade Commission.  There is an outbound cargo ship leaving for Manila in four days.  You must leave tonight in order to catch it, but you will finally be able to go back home to your homeland.”

Joy lit his features as Diego thanked His Highness profusely.  Finally!  Finally….

Turning to the Captain, Kang Zhu ordered, “Send out a convoy.  Make it appear as though they are traveling to Guangzhou with a visitor.  In other words, make it a duplicate of the one that will set out tonight with Diego, only have more men in the caravan, as though what is traveling with it is of very great importance to me.”

“What route do you wish them to take, Your Highness, the overland route, like the one that Diego took when he left Guangzhou?”

“Yes, Captain.  You, and the physician, Diego and two trusted and capable soldiers will go on the route we previously decided on.  I do not doubt that the British Trade Envoy has his own spies and soldiers looking for our Opium Bandit.  For some reason, I do not think his representative totally believed me when I informed him the bandit had been executed.”  A mischievous smile played across the young man’s features.  Diego chuckled at the reference to the meeting earlier in the week.

“Yes, Your Highness,” the Captain said, bowing. 

The entire afternoon was spent preparing for the journey.  Kang Zhu insisted on giving Diego gifts to take home to his family.  He gave Diego several pieces of polished jade, some of which had been exquisitely carved.  A ring was given to him to present to his father, and three sets of intricately carved ivory chopsticks were packed away for each member of the family, including Bernardo.   There were carved musical instruments, an ivory handled calligraphy brush and fine paper to go with it, several paintings, along with boxes of the finest teas.  Several pairs of calzoneros were included, patterned on what the prince had been given while in California and made to fit Diego perfectly.  Along with those were matching chaquetas, shirts, vests and bandas.  There were also several robes of imperial design made of the finest silks and embroidered with dragons and tigers.

“You must go home properly attired, Diego, both for California and for China,” Kang Zhu explained when Diego expressed his surprise and delight.   

More gifts followed.  When a priceless vase was included, Diego began to feel embarrassed by all of the attention, and said as much to His Highness. 

“You sent me home with gifts, and besides, this is my pleasure,” Kang Zhu said in amusement.  “Now be gracious and accept my presents.”  Diego acquiesced to the prince’s whims.  

To the large stockpile of gifts, Zhaou Haifang added a smaller chest with various herbs and powders, explaining the use of each packet that was enclosed.  Diego listened carefully and wrote down the names and instructions for each.   Even if he didn’t know exactly how each of the medicines worked, he knew that they did and he would continue to use them.  

Later in the day, when the Captain of the Imperial Guard had seen the counterfeit caravan off, he was not surprised to see Diego, alone this time, in the exercise room waiting for more instruction.  “Diego, I wish we had more time.  You are already at a point beyond that of a novice, but time is what is needed to perfect the skills you have learned.”

“Yes, I know, and I, too, wish I could learn more.”  Diego paused and looked at a hanging on the wall, one that showed two warriors in lacquered armor grappling in hand-holds that he had become quite familiar with.   “But my home calls me.  I am ready to return home.”

“Yes, I know.  Just do not forget to practice… and to be careful.  This can be a powerful weapon, a deadly weapon, especially in the hands of the half-learned.” 

That night, just outside the palace, when the little party was ready to set out, Diego bowed low to Qing Kang Zhu.  “I am so grateful to you for saving my life, for allowing me to return home.”  He also bowed to Princess Mei Ling.  “I thank you for your hospitality and kindness.”

“I will miss you, Diego de la Vega,” the princess said.  “It is too bad all foreigners are not like you. 

“You flatter me, your Highness,” Diego answered. “But I, too, will miss you.”  He turned again to Kang Zhu.  “And I thank you for saving my life.”

“It is no less than you did for me, Diego.  May all of my ancestors and the deities protect you on your journey back home,” the prince said.           

“And may God and all the Saints preserve you and your family.”  Diego paused.  “I suppose we will not meet again, but I will always treasure the kindness you have shown me.”  

“But in our hearts and in our minds we will always be together.  We will be like brothers on the paths of our memories,” the prince said and then he, too, paused and smiled.   “If only all of my people and all of your people could feel this way toward each other, there would be no conflict.” 

“Yes, that would be very good.  Maybe someday it will be so, Your Highness.  Maybe someday there will be no need for Zorro.”  Diego bowed again and mounted the horse provided for the journey.   The little troupe set off, accompanied by the sound of chirping crickets and croaking frogs.  Above them a hawk soared, highlighted in the last rays of the sun.  It called out, almost as though, it too, was bidding farewell.   

Several scouts had been sent ahead before sunset to check the road ahead.  Another followed at a discreet distance, several miles behind their small troupe.  Diego felt a bit self-conscious about all the attention, but was, at the same time, pleased at all the safeguards to ensure his arrival at Canton. 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen
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