Crocodile Princess Excerpt 1/3- Meiyu

For the next three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!

Crocodile Princess  Front-med

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Chapter 16- Meiyu

In a bridal caravan, there are few people more uncomfortable than the bride, especially when her father insists that she ride in a proper palanquin the whole way. While such a conveyance might offer luxurious comfort to some, to Mao Meiyu, the palanquin was a hot boring box that offered neither enough light to read by, nor enough comfort to sleep in. If there had been a method of torture more certain to drive one mad than this, she hadn’t heard of it.

As she gave up trying to read for the umpteenth time in a week, Meiyu cried out for her bearers to stop. The men carrying her did as she ordered, and she whipped back the green door curtain and hopped out as quickly as she could.

“My lady, what seems to be the problem?”

Meiyu turned as her “Uncle” Gan came riding back on his horse. The burly old swordsman was one of her father’s most trusted lieutenants, and had long cared for Meiyu much like a real uncle would, even following her to the imperial capital to take over operations there when she had been sent there to be educated by her father. He had claimed it was all a coincidence when he’d come to pay his respects shortly after she’d settled in, but she knew better- he was there to keep an eye on her.

“Uncle, please. Please. Please. Please! Let me ride a horse!”

The old man shook his head. “Tradition states…”

“You know damn well that this isn’t tradition! I’m not going to my husband’s home- I’m returning to my own!” She glared up at him, challenging him to tell her she was wrong.

“That may be,” Gan said, not backing down. “But a young lady, and especially a young bride to be, cannot risk the dangers of a horse when her wedding night is so close.”

He emphasized those last words to drive his point home. He had been perfectly fine with Meiyu riding a horse all these years, and in fact had overseen her being taught to do so when she’d been barely six. However, that had all ended when an old meddler of a nurse had taken him aside and whispered in his ear the potential riding a horse carried for a loss of maidenhood, and thus a ruined first night that might also be the quick end of a marriage.

Not being willing to risk being blamed for such an event, Meiyu’s riding days had come to an abrupt halt, and Gan clearly had no intention of changing that rule under any circumstances.

“If my lady is feeling cramped, she is most welcome to walk.” He told her, then wheeled around his horse and gestured for the caravan to begin moving. There were over fifty people in the wedding caravan, which brought not only Meiyu from the center of the empire, but also an abundance of gifts, foodstuffs and other items. Six carts and twenty pack horses worth of goods to be precise, in addition to what the servants carried on their backs.

Meiyu watched some of them pass her by, and then fell in step with the procession, her own personal maids appearing around her with an umbrella to shield her from the summer heat as the caravan threaded its way down south through the central plain towards Zhejiang and White Fox Town.

“Where are we now?” Meiyu asked one of her maids, Little Jing, who was also one of her closest friends.

“Near Xuzhou,” the small, sharp eyed woman answered. “We’ll be crossing the Feihuang River soon, and entering Tongshan.”

Meiyu nodded. “Over halfway then,” she said thoughtfully. “I wonder how he’ll look?”

“I am told the second son of the Yun family is not unattractive.”

Meiyu looked at her maid, and her eyes sparkled with laughter. “Oh yes. Him. I suppose he’ll be good looking enough, although his younger brother has the nose of a monkey, so it does make one wonder…”

The maids laughed at that, and Meiyu grinned.

***

With the coming of dusk, the caravan found and settled at a large country inn of the kind that specialized in trade caravans between north and south. While the carriers settled and unpacked, Meiyu took the time to ready herself to be presentable for dinner. However, when she went to leave her room, her uncle appeared and barred her way.

“You will be dining in your room tonight,” he informed her in a serious tone.

When she pressed for details, he finally relented and explained that several disreputable characters had been seen around the busy inn and he was concerned for her safety.

Of course, telling this to a young lady with Meiyu’s temperament just made her want to attend the communal dinner even more!
She waited until he’d left, then quickly switched to some boy’s clothes she’d brought for just such an occasion.

“How do I look?” She asked Little Jing as she struck a serious and thoughtful pose. She was now a handsome looking young man in blue pants, a grey longcoat with white sequins, and a black cap atop her head to hide her hair.

“Kind sir, will you marry me?” Asked the maid, looking at her with big, adoring eyes.

“Sorry, my dear.” Meiyu replied in the deepest voice she could manage. “The world is filled with too many beauties for a man such as myself to settle down.”

“Oh dear sir! You’re so cruel!” Cried the maid in mock despair, and then they both laughed.

“Wear my dress,” she told her friend. “If anyone comes to serve food, pretend to be me but don’t let them in. Have them leave it just inside the door.”

The maid agreed, and then after her maids distracted the guards her uncle left, Meiyu slipped out the door and down the hallway into the communal dining room.

The inn’s great hall was a large noisy affair, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of over a hundred travelers taking their evening rice. Dishes of all kinds flowed around the room on trays, while wine was toasted and men and women of all shapes and sizes laughed, yelled and chattered like birds. Trays of seasoned beef in soy sauce, barbecued pork and drunken chicken made Meiyu’s mouth water as their smells wafted up, and flowed in the smoky lantern light that kept the hall lit as summer evening descended.

Unable to resist, Meiyu quickly found a spot near the railing where she could look down upon the diners, and ordered up several dishes. Then she sat back with her tea and began to observe the people below her, feeling a little thrill at the power anonymity afforded her. She could see without being seen, and observe freely in ways that her school’s headmistress would most definitely disapprove of.
It made her lips curl into a smile as she watched the bustle below.

Her uncle, and the rest of the guards and caravan leaders were gathered at a long table just underneath her, with the carriers and other staff consigned to eat in the servant’s quarters behind the inn. Her own maids would eat in their rooms, as had been decided by her overprotective uncle.

The other tables were mostly occupied by people she judged as merchants and their companions, as one would expect at a trade crossing like this. Among them she also spotted a few swordsmen, obvious bodyguards and escorts, although none were people she knew, or who looked especially interesting or famous. In fact, as she surveyed the room more closely, she became less and less impressed with its contents. Her uncle had promised danger, but she saw none here, just boringly normal people stained with mud and wine.

Still, the night was young and there was always hope. So she tucked into her dinner and enjoyed her meal, keeping an ear and eye open for whatever might pop up below.

It was as she was finishing the chicken she’d ordered that her eye caught motion on the other balcony across from where she sat. Glancing over, she saw three people standing solemnly at the rail, looking down at where her uncle and the others sat below.

There were two women- one prune faced, one around her own age- and a young man who had the build and bearing of a swordsman. All three were clad in black, with each also having an article of bright green to offset their plain attire. The ugly older woman had her black hair piled up into a topknot with a bright green ribbon, the slender and attractive young woman had a bright green sash around her waist, and the swordsman wore a bright green vest with a golden slash on the lapel. All three carried long, slender Jian swords in ornately gilded sheaths.

So distinctive were they that Meiyu was positive she knew these strangers, but couldn’t quite put her finger on their names. What was clear, however, was that these three were focused on her uncle, and from them she could feel a strong air of menace and malevolent intent. As she watched, the girl stepped back and left, while the older woman and the young man headed for the stairs.

Her pulse quickened as the old prune led the young man down the side staircase and through the assembled until she reached the table where the members of the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency sat enjoying their meal. She approached from behind Uncle Gan, and for a moment Meiyu wanted to yell out a warning before the old witch tried something, but just as the words started to form in her mouth the conversation at the table died and she saw hands lay on swords. Her uncle casually rose from his seat and turned to face the new arrivals while the men behind him stood up.

Meiyu now wished she’d thought to bring a sword. While she was no master of the blade, she knew how to use it better than many of her father’s men and could make herself useful in the right moments. This looked to be one of those moments, and she unconsciously leaned in, expecting to see metal flash like it often did when members of the Jianghu martial underworld met.

Instead, what she saw was her uncle clasp his hands together and bow deeply to the old woman, and many of the other men do the same!

“Madam Lin!” Exclaimed the old swordsman. “This is a most unexpected pleasure!”

Meiyu’s memory clicked the pieces into place. The old woman was Madam Lin, head of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency, a group that guarded caravans from the Mongol raiders up in the Northeast around Ningyuan. That meant her companions were her granddaughter, Wuyun (also known as Dancing Cloud) and her grandson Wudao (called the Dancing Blade) who had both made a name for themselves in the martial world for their refined paired style of swordsmanship. Their techniques were handed down from their grandparents, and with their parents lost to a fever they had taken a lead in the clan’s activities after the recent death of their grandfather.

Even without the grandfather, the elder madam of the Lin clan was still a force to be reckoned with, and there had long been rumors that when Mongol tribes bent on raiding saw the Nine Trees flag they quickly retreated rather than risk her wrath. She was the force that made her clan a power in the escort trade, and now she was facing Meiyu’s uncle with unknown intent.

“Master Gan,” the old woman said with only a slight nod of her head to return the bow. “It is fortunate that we might meet here. You know my grandson, I presume?”

“Dancing Blade?” Gan said cordially. “I should hope so. The name of the Twin Dancers has carried far and wide. It is a pleasure to meet you, lad!” He greeted the young warrior, who returned his courtesy, then looked at Madam Lin with some curiosity. “I am surprised to see you here. If I may be so presumptuous, is there a special reason for this honor?”

“There is,” agreed the Madam. “We are on our way to an event near Suzhou.”

“Ah,” Gan answered as if he understood. “Yes, you would be, wouldn’t you? When I think of it, this meeting was most expected after all! Excuse this old man and his ignorance.”

“Yes,” the old woman said simply. “In relation to that meeting, I wish you convey a message to your master.”

“Yes?” Old Gan said, surprised. “And what might that be?”

It was as she said this that Meiyu noticed something that made her look up and gasp! Standing at the balcony near the entrance to the rear rooms was Dancing Cloud, and with her was a young woman dressed in wedding finery with her hair over her face- Little Jing!

She heard gasps from below as well, and her uncle stammering in shock.

“I believe,” said Madam Lin. “The message is clear enough. Tell him we wish an exchange- his daughter’s life for the box.”

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Continued tomorrow!

Or, if you want to read the whole book you can find it for Kindle right now for 99 cents for this month only! A deal so good even a cheapskate like Gou wouldn’t pass it up!

Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at rob_paterson@hotmail.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.

Skritter

Hello, my name is Rob, and I’m an iPhone addict. No, I’m not addicted to Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or any of the other hyper-addictive Apps that have come out for the iPhone. I managed to avoid all of those handily because I had no interest in wasting my time or money on something so pointless as those tricky games. I admit, I even considered myself better for not falling into those time-sucking traps and laughed quietly to myself at the people who did. But then, I found the most diabolical iPhone App I’ve ever seen, one that is now the first thing I do in the morning, and the last thing I do at night. I have dreams about this App now, and find my fingers twitching in patterns from playing the App. When I’m cooking or doing housework, I think about the App. I even learned how to play one-handed so that I could play with my poor dogs while I play with the App. I am hopelessly and totally addicted. So, what did this App do that none of the others did? How did it burrow so deeply into my brain that I can no longer even keep track of time? Those bastards made it educational! They made it fun to LEARN! God help me, I’m actually learning useful real-world skills, and I’m loving it. So what is this sick App? It’s called Skritter, and it’s a program to help people learn to write Chinese and Japanese. Available originally as a website in 2009, and now for iPhone and iPad as well, Skritter is an extremely advanced piece of Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) similar to Memrise (which I blogged about last week). In fact, it was while I was talking online to other Chinese learners about Memrise that I learned about Skritter and decided to check it out. Like Memrise, Skritter is quizzing you on decks of what are essentially Flashcards in an extremely advanced way that maximizes your chances of remembering the information you learn based on new neural research developments. Unlike Memrise, however, Skritter also includes a physical element where you don’t just have to recognise the Japanese and Chinese words and characters, you have to actually write them out.This really maximizes your chances of learning these characters, and makes it a lot more practical (since you’re developing motor skills for writing) and just plain old fun. Skritter’s iPhone app is lively, with sound effects and other extras to make it more like a game, and instead of learning being boring, you always want to do just one more character or word to see how far you can go. The knowledge that you’re learning real skills while you’re playing what feels like a game really helps push you forward, and maybe that’s why my chart for my first week with Skritter looks like this…

Week One

Week One

Yes, you’re reading that right, as of this screen capture I’d learned 406 characters, in a week, in a little less than 2 hours a day with a retention rate of 88.9%. However, before I toot my own horn too much, I should note that this isn’t my first time studying Chinese, and when you see that big jump between the 9th and the 12th, what you’re seeing is mostly Skritter refreshing me on characters I already knew to some degree. You could say that my real learning started on the 12th at around 370 and continued to the 16th at 406, so I only learned and mastered 36 new Chinese characters in 4 days. Still, not too bad, though. And that’s just characters, it doesn’t include actual words using combinations of those characters. (I learned 160 of those.) I love checking my stats each day to see how far I’ve progressed and testing myself to see what new words have managed to stick into my head. Getting back on the Chinese studying bandwagon was one of my projects for the Summer, and thanks to Skritter it’s now taken a huge leap forward. Now, if you choose to check Skritter out, I have a few recommendations.

  • When you sign up use a Referral Code (here’s mine), it gets you two extra weeks free. For better or worse, Skritter isn’t free, after the first trial week it costs US$8-$15 a month depending on how long you sign up for. That said, the program doesn’t stop working if you stop paying, it only stops adding new characters, so you can keep practising your current lineup for the rest of your life for free if you want, or pay for another month from time to time to add more content and then stop again.
  • My advice is to just do the free one-week trial, then if you like it do a month, and finally if it’s really something you want to invest in then get a longer subscription. View it as a language class you’re signing up for, not like a normal App. This is a life-long investment of time and knowledge. Viewed this way, the price of a single meal at McDonalds isn’t that much.
  • It’s best used on a Tablet Computer, Writing Tablet or Phone, since you want the real hand motion involved and not a mouse so you’re really learning to write the characters. I also recommend getting a Stylus of some kind so that it’s like you’re practising with an actual pen or brush. (You can also make your own stylus, and there are plenty of YouTube videos which will show you how.)
  • Don’t freak out or get intimidated when you see a large backlog of characters waiting to be reviewed. I’ve cleared away as many as 500 items in less than an hour, and if you feel overwhelmed it has various options to slow down the flow so you don’t get swamped.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the App guide you when you meet a new character. (Just tap the middle of the screen for the next stroke.) Yes, it means you don’t know it (duh! it’s new!) but it’s not about scoring points (since there are none), it’s about having the App repeat it often until you do know it, and if it doesn’t know you don’t know it, it can’t give you the right amount of repetition for your memory.
  • You’ll hate tones, we all do, just do your best.
  • You can’t share a Skritter account with another person. It’s customizing itself to your own personal learning patterns and what you know and don’t know. If you try to share it with someone else for any length of time it will mess up your own learning.
  • If you’re going to Taiwan or Hong Kong, then study Traditional Chinese characters, if you’re going to the Mainland, study Simplified. Skritter defaults to Simplified because China itself is the more likely place learners will go. You can also go back and learn Traditional or Simplified later once you’ve mastered one set. (Roughly 20% of the characters are different between the two writing systems.)
  • Skritter is a writing and vocabulary learning system, but they don’t teach grammar or  give you speaking practice (beyond repeating what you hear), you can’t really learn Chinese (or Japanese) just from Skritter, you’ll need other resources like a textbook or classes. However, it does make it easier to focus on grammar when you’re learning if you already know all the vocabulary in your textbook!
  • You can try the iPhone App free for a week through the iTunes App Store without creating an account or using any kind of credit card. (Be warned, any coupons or referrals can only be used when you first create your account!) I’ve heard the Android App is still under development, but you can use the mobile website on Android devices if you have an account.

The future of learning is all about Gamification (making learning into games), and if Skritter is any example, it’s going to be a great time to learn new skills! Now, if you’ll excuse me, my fingers are getting twitchy and I’ve got some Chinese characters calling to me! Rob

Wengu- Chinese Classics and Translations

Today, while searching for a collection of the poems of the Chinese master poet Li Bai (aka Li Po) I stumbled across a marvelous website called Wengu Zhixin, which is a site collecting translations of Chinese classic philosophy and thought into English and French. They have the usual documents like The Analects of Confucius, The Yi Ching, and Lao Tzu’s The Way and Its Power (the core book of Daoism), but they also have a great collection of Tang Dynasty Poems (with actual good quality translations), the Art of War, and the (largely unknown in the West) Thirty-Six Strategies. All of these have the original Chinese provided as well, with clickable Hanzi characters that show translations of their individual meanings.

However, for me, the gem of it is the Thirty-Six Strategies (of war and conflict) each have a story to go along with them to illustrate their point, pulled from Chinese and Japanese history. I have another book with the Strategies that has stories as well, but these are actually different stories from the ones in the book translation I have, since whoever translates these tends to pull their own favourite examples from history and fiction. For example, here is the entry for Strategy One:

Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea

Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard you must act in the open hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.

Japanese Folk Tale

There once lived a Samurai who was plagued by a large and clever rat who had the run of the house. This annoyed the Samurai to no end so he went to the village to buy a cat. A street vendor sold him a cat that he said would catch the rat and indeed the cat looked trim and fit. But the rat was even quicker than the cat and after a week with no success the Samurai returned the cat. This time the vendor pulled out a large and grizzled cat and guaranteed that no rat could escape this master mouser. The rat knew enough to stay clear of this tough alley cat, but when the cat slept, the rat ran about. Half the day the rat would hide, but the other half he again had the run of the place. The Samurai brought the cat back to the vendor who shook his head in despair saying he had given the Samurai his best cat and there was nothing more he could do. Returning home with his money, the Samurai happened upon a monk and sought his advice. After hearing the Samurai’s story the monk offered him the services of the cat that lived in the temple. The cat was old and fat and he scarcely seemed to notice when he was carried away by the doubtful Samurai. For two weeks the cat did little more than sleep all day and night. The Samurai wanted to give the cat back to the temple but the monk insisted he keep him a while longer assuring him the rat’s days were close to an end. The rat became accustomed to the presence of the lazy old cat and was soon up to his old tricks even, on occasion, brazenly dancing around the old cat as he slept. Then one day, as the rat went about his business without any concern, he passed close by the cat – who swiftly struck out his paw and pinned the rat to the floor. The rat died instantly.

And the amusing entry for Strategy Six::

Clamor in the East, Attack in the West

In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint.

Song Dynasty China

Once there was an official who was transferred to the capital. The front part of the inn where he stayed was a teahouse, and across the street was a shop that sold expensive dyed silks. Whenever he had nothing to do, he would sit at a table watching the people and activity on the street. One day he noticed with surprise that several suspicious looking characters were walking back and forth observing the silk shop with great interest. One of them came up to his table and whispered: “We’re in the robbery business and we’re here to steal those fine silks. Since you noticed us I came to ask you not to mention it.”

“That has nothing to do with me,” the official replied. “Why should I say anything about it?”

The fellow thanked him and left him. The official thought to himself: ‘the silk shop has its wares openly displayed on a busy street. In broad daylight, with a thousand eyes watching, if they have the skill to steal those silks, then they must be smart thieves indeed.’ So he watched carefully to see how they would manage it. But what he saw was only the same people walking back and forth in front of the silk shop. Sometimes they gathered on the left, sometimes on the right. The official sat watching until after sunset when everyone had gone and the shop had closed. “Those fools.” said the official to himself. “They were putting one over on me.” When he returned to his room to order some food, he discovered that all his belongings were gone.

Go and read them. Whenever I need to get a character out of a tricky situation, the 36 Strategies is my go-to book for answers!

Rob

P.S. I’ve had it pointed out that this translation and examples are excerpts from a published text about the 36 Strategies, which you can find here. The full text uses 118 stories to illustrate the points, and has other material, so if you enjoy these you might consider picking it up!

Romancing the Three Kingdoms II

For most of my life, I’d heard the name “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” tossed around, and back in 2006 I decided to finally bite the bullet and give it a read. I sought out Moss Robert’s translation Three Kingdoms (he skipped the “Romance” part, which no longer works in modern English) and after acquiring the two hefty volumes I sat down to give it a read. (For those who lack cash, a free older translation is available online here.)

Well, to say I was hooked and enthralled would be an understatement. Suddenly “epic” fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings seems so…small. Events like the story of LoTR happen in single chapters of Three Kingdoms, and then the next chapter will prove to be even more epic! People often focus on the “human” side of Three Kingdoms, giving focus to Liu Bei and his trusty band of heros, but the truth is the work is a historical chronicle more than it is about any single person within it. Many people (I should call them people, since most of them were real people) come and go within the story, but the epic tale and it’s focus is so much farther reaching than a single person.

When I discussed this work of literature with my friends, I quickly discovered that most of them were already very familiar with Three Kingdoms- in a fashion. Not being a major video-game player, I hadn’t paid much attention of Koei’s line of Three Kingdoms video games– but my friends sure had! They knew most of the major characters by heart, but ironically enough, they didn’t actually know the stories that were connected with them.

That was something I set out to rectify, but getting people to read a 3000+ page book is hard at the best of times, and in the end I think I only managed to get 2 or 3 of them to read it. So, I’ve always been looking for different ways to get others hooked on Three Kingdoms, and luckily time has made this progressively easier.

Last year the amazing movie Red Cliff was released, which is over 4 hours long (in uncut form, and I wish it was longer!) and is still only a tiny piece of the book! Sorry I could only find the crappy English version of the trailer, which tries to make it look like a typical period action film (“a small band of heroes fights against an evil warlord” is like trying to describe D-Day as a “a plucky band of Americans faces down against an evil Nazi war machine” :-P) but it will give you at least some idea of the visuals involved. I was lucky enough to see Part 1 of this in the theatre (it was released as two, 2-hour+ movies in Asia) and wish I’d been able to see Part 2 this way as well!

So, if you want to learn about Three Kingdoms in a “quick” way, I highly recommend the film (uncut, subtitled) as a way to do it. However, that is still only a piece of the story, so what about if you want more, but aren’t into reading long books?

Well, I’ve got you covered, after a fashion, although be aware none of these covers the complete story….

There was an animated Three Kingdoms series released in Japan a few years ago. I’ve only watched a bit of it, but it seems okay. It’s pretty much tightly focused on Liu Bei and his comrades without the broader scope, and most of the violence is censored, but if you like anime this might be your thing.

Then there’s the manga versions for people who want something quick to read over the lunch breaks in small parts. Both of which diverge quite a bit from the original text in different ways, and have radically different styles, but are quite well done and will still give you the main ideas of the story.

The (much) older manga, SanGoKuShi (the Japanese name for Three Kingdoms) is done in a very Tezuka-like style, and changes the opening somewhat, but is very readable and actually gives background material not found in the original text! It’s been fan-translated by HOX, and you can find it here.

The other manga version is much more recent (it’s still running, and unfinished) and is done in a much more modern storytelling style. It diverges wildly in it’s interpretation, being more focussed on the side characters of the original epic and adding a bunch of new ones, but the story is compelling, and the art style is gorgeous.

I highly recommend anyone interested in history or just plain action storytelling to give it a read! I pray weekly for a proper English release of this one in book stores, but until then I thank profusely the amazing fan-translators who work to let us read it!