Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Natasha Anguelouch! Natasha finished 7th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Yen and the Kite.” Mia Rodriguez illustrated the cover. Enjoy!
One breezy morning, before the roosters began to crow, Yen clambered onto the roof of her family’s brush hut and appreciated anew the beauty of the Chinese landscape. Even with the ever-present threat of barbarian Genghis Khan’s conquest, the autumn of 1209 was a beautiful one. She gazed at the expansive rice paddies that stretched for miles around and dominated the lives of so many humble farmers, and the Huang He River that wound through them like a snake.
The rugged mountains in the distance seemed to beckon to her, telling her, Come journey through us! There is so much to explore!
Yen wanted to yell back to the mountains, I would love to join you, but Mother would sooner have her right hand removed than let me step foot outside of the village!
She shivered in the morning air, then sighed wistfully. Would she ever be allowed to leave her sheltered life? It was no matter; her mother would be irritated to wake up and find her daughter’s sleeping mat empty, so it would be wise to slip back into the hut as quickly as possible. Standing up and gripping the edge of the roof for support, she tried to find a foothold in the wall.
“YEN! WHERE ARE YOU?” This cry startled Yen, and her hand slipped from the roof, depositing her with an “Oof!” in a heap before her mother’s disapproving glare. Her mother hauled her up off the ground, roughly brushing the dust off her back.
“Yen, I have told you time and time again, no climbing! And look!” She angrily lifted the edge of Yen’s tunic, displaying a long and dirty tear in the fabric.
“This will be the third time in two days that I’ve had to mend this– oh, Yen, why can’t you behave!” Exasperated, her mother dropped the cloth and stalked back into the hut, muttering about unruly children. Yen smiled to herself, knowing that her mother would be over her angry mood in a few minutes. She remembered her father telling her stories of how, as a youth, her mother had been the most beautiful girl in all of China. But the stresses of being a rice farmer, wondering if there would be enough food to last through the winter, and having a disobedient daughter had all placed creases and worry lines on her mother’s features and caused her once-thick black hair to thin and turn gray.
“Yen!” her mother’s exasperated call shook Yen out of her reverie, and she went inside to have breakfast.
Yen had straight dark hair, pink cheeks, and smooth, pale skin. She was often told that she looked “very becoming,” and that she had inherited her mother’s looks. But despite any physical advantages she might have been given, she simply couldn’t master the techniques required to grow green, lush crops.
Her father would say, “Ah, Yen, when will you ever learn?” as he pulled up yet another limp, failed plant. The other villagers had the same opinion as her parents; the women clucked their tongues in disapproval when her mother complained about Yen’s roof-antics, and older girls often warned her that if she didn’t “stop her nonsense” no one would want to marry her. No one bothered to look past Yen’s mischievous grin and twinkling eyes, for if they had, they would have found the sort of intelligence and creativity that was revered in other parts of the country. She longed for adventure, and for a change from the monotonous days. She soon found her wishes answered.
On a bright, sunny morning, Yen and the rest of the villagers were tending to the rice crops. She heard an odd sound above her as if something was slicing the air. She looked up and screamed– it was a dragon! She ran inside her hut, where her mother was preparing the midday meal, her hair tied back with a piece of string.
“Ma!” she gasped, “a dragon is outside!”
Her mother looked undisturbed. “Oh, Yen, you worry too much. If there really is a dragon, then why is everyone else still outside?”
She realized her mother was right. Slowly creeping back out, she noticed the other villagers doubled over with laughter.
“Yen!” they cackled, slapping their knees. “Foolish, silly, Yen! That was no dragon!”
Yen could feel her face beginning to turn red, when out of the crowd of laughing villagers stepped a man– it was her cousin, Cheng! He was holding the so-called dragon.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “As I was already explaining to the other villagers before you… arrived… This object is called a kite, and it is made of paper and silk. There is no possibility of a dragon.” He smiled. Yen’s curiosity was piqued; she wanted to know more about this strange invention.
“Do you want to come inside?” she asked Cheng, gesturing to her hut. “Mother can serve you lunch, and you can tell me more about your kite.”
“Of course!” he replied.
Comfortably seated in her kitchen with a bowl of rice, Cheng began speaking. He leaned forward, brushed back his wavy ebony locks, and laced his fingers together.
“I am a trusted messenger of the emperor, and that is how I came to be in a dangerous position. One morning, I overheard some Mongol soldiers discussing plans to overthrow the empire, which I reported immediately. Hearing this, the emperor handed me the kite I showed you recently and commanded me to travel all across China introducing it to every person. He told me to find the right individual to carry out a mission: that person would have to sneak past an enemy trading post and, with a message already disguised in the kite, send it along to the next trading post.”
Without knowing what she was doing, Yen leaped forward and shouted, “I’ll send it!”
Cheng blinked at her.
“What? No! You’re a girl, and you’re only– how old are you?”
“You’re only thirteen!”
“Exactly! No one would suspect me!”
“But– but– but what…” Cheng stammered. “What of your mother? Will she approve?”
“Of course not! But she doesn’t need to know,” said Yen with a devilish smile.
Cheng sighed, “Okay, I suppose you are fit for the job, and I don’t have another choice. Meet me at the village burial site in four hours– that should be enough time to come up with a convincing lie for one of your parents. Pack a small bag of provisions in case you are gone for more than one day.” Cheng finished his meal and strode out the door, the tails of the kite streaming out from under his arm like flames. After Cheng left, Yen sat bewildered at what had just happened until her mother scolded her for having not cleared the table. Yen did her job and went outside to finish rice picking for the day. She found her father bent over, hard at work.
“So…” Yen began casually, pulling at a weed. Her father looked up.
“Yes, Yen? Do you want something?”
“I… um…” A convincing story came to mind. “I wish to honor Grandfather’s spirit at the burial site!”
Her father looked mildly surprised.
“Of course Yen, you may pay your respects.”
Yen mentally prepared herself for the most difficult part of her lie.
“The whole process may take a full day…or two…” To refrain from looking suspicious, Yen pretended to be inspecting the rice plants. She could feel her father’s gaze on her.
“Well, Yen, if honoring your grandfather’s spirit means so much to you, I’m sure your mother would not mind.” He smiled.
Oh, she would, Yen wanted to say, if she knew what I was really doing. She couldn’t ignore the threads of guilt that tugged at her conscience. Her father was proud of her because he thought she was visiting his father’s grave, when in truth, Yen was doing something so scandalous her mother would faint if she knew. Before she could give her father time to think about his statement, she leaped away, throwing a “Thanks!” over her shoulder. Once in her house, Yen hastily scraped together enough supplies to last her a few days. She then raced out the door to the village burial site, where an impatient Cheng was waiting. He got down to business immediately, not even bothering to greet her.
“Here.” He handed her the reins of an old chestnut mare, along with the kite. “Take my trusty steed Rin and be on your way.”
Yen stroked Rin’s velvety nose, then hesitantly slipped into the saddle. She had never ridden a horse before, and seeing the ground so far away was dizzying. Cheng answered her unspoken question.
“Don’t worry, Yen. Rin knows exactly where to go and the only thing you need to do is not fall off. I don’t have a plan for you to carry out, I am sorry, but I can tell you that you must find a man by the name of Wong Zhu. He is the only person you can pass the kite on to. When you reach the post it will be night, so I have prepared a code that only Wong Zhu will answer to. If a man claims he is Wong Zhu, you ask him, ‘What is a messenger’s purpose?’ to which he should answer, ‘I am that messenger and I will take the kite.’ Is that clear?”
Yen nodded, repeating the code over and over in her head. She hoped desperately that she wouldn’t forget it.
“Good luck! If you mess this up, it will mean death for certain!” Cheng said cheerfully. Yen suddenly felt the urge to vomit. He slapped Rin’s rump, sending her galloping away into the sunset with Yen clinging on for dear life.
“Goodbye!” Cheng called. Right before she was out of hearing range, he said, “I really hope you come back!”
Rin sprinted so quickly that Yen’s hair was yanked forcefully from her scalp and the Chinese countryside was a blur. She hoped it wouldn’t take too long to get to the trading post, and she dreaded that she had made a mistake. But every time she felt like turning back, she reminded herself that she would be a hero if she succeeded and that China was relying on her. The horse slowed to a steady trot, and the rhythm of her hooves was very lulling. Before long, Yen felt her eyes droop.
It’s night time, she thought. Surely it won’t matter if I take a little nap. She couldn’t resist; soon she was fast asleep.
“Ouch!” Yen opened her eyes, wondering what had made her cry out. She looked up and saw Rin standing over her, giving her a reprimanding look that said, When a horse stops, you’re supposed to hold on. Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s dangerous to fall asleep while riding?
“At least I landed in a patch of grass. It could have been worse. But I really do need to rid myself of this bad habit of falling off things,” Yen muttered. She looked up, surprised to see that they were at a respectable-looking house, illuminated by lanterns.
“Is this the trading post?” she wondered aloud. She stood up, feeling around in her satchel for the kite. Once she found it, she quickly hid it under her shirt that was stuffed with cotton wool (A sort of jacket). The cotton wool padding made the kite inconspicuous, except for a string sticking out here or there, which she shoved in her pockets. Yen tied Rin’s reins to a post, and after taking a deep breath for courage, marched up to the steps. The first part of her plan was to act like a timid little girl looking for her mother. She rapped at the door as passively as she could manage, and when a big, burly man opened it, she lowered her head and gazed up at him with a frightened expression.
“Sir,” she whispered, “my mommy said I could go out and play, but I got lost in the woods. I found my way out but have no idea where I am. Can you help me?”
The man grunted.
“Girl, I don’t give a donkey’s butt whether you get back home or not. But since I’m a good person, I guess I’d better let you in and have the other traders decide what to do with you.”
“Traders?” Yen asked.
“Ah, yes, I forgot. You’re probably wondering exactly where you are. Well, you’re in luck, because you just so happened to come to a Mongol trading post.”
Yen looked appropriately surprised and scared at the same time, although her fear was definitely not made up.
“A Mongol trading post? But Ma– er, Mommy– says the Mongols are barbarians that are planning to corrupt our empire.”
The Mongol rolled his eyes and snorted.
“Does it matter?” He shrugged, then gestured inside, “come in.”
Yen cautiously stepped inside. The trading post was a cramped one-room cabin, overflowing with furs and other merchandise. A small fire flickering dimly in the corner gave the room a cozy feel.
“I don’t have time to keep helping you,” the man said. “Just wait here until the boss comes.” He walked out the door and didn’t come back.
Yen waited for a few minutes, then quickly started scavenging around the cabin for any information she could find. Out of the mess, she was able to salvage only a few papers, among them a letter from Genghis Khan to his soldiers, praising them for their help ‘establishing the soon-to-be Yuan dynasty in which us Mongols will prevail!’ She stuffed the letter in her bag, ignoring the chills its words gave her. A gleam caught her eye.
“What is this?” Yen gasped. “Gold?! The Mongols are so rich, I’m sure they won’t mind if I take just one piece…” But before she could reach it, she was rudely interrupted.
“Hey!” a gruff voice barked. Panicked, Yen spun around to find a Mongol soldier carrying a flask of liquor in one hand and a war helmet in the other. The soldier stumbled and spotted Yen.
“What are you doing here…” he slurred. Yen took a step back, not even bothering to hide or explain herself, knowing that he wouldn’t remember anything when he sobered. Sure enough, he tripped over a chair and fell flat on his face, moaning and groaning. Yen heard heavy footsteps approaching; she sat down on a cushion and waited, primly and properly. A young man with wavy black hair came in, smiling widely when he saw her. He had the rugged appearance of an experienced warrior.
“Hello,” he greeted her. “You must be the spy Cheng sent. I saw Rin in the front.”
On cue, Yen asked him, “What is a messenger’s purpose?” The man’s smile stretched even more widely across his face.
“I am that messenger and I will take the kite,” he replied, extending his hand. Yen plopped the kite into it and stood up to leave.
“Here’s your payment!” Wong Zhu handed her a small drawstring bag. Yen opened it and gasped at the generous amount of gold and copper coins inside.
“Thank you,” she said and walked outside to where Rin was waiting for her.
As she rode home, Yen felt a growing pride. She had saved her country and collected information that would be useful to Cheng. Maybe someday she would tell her parents what she had done, but—she smiled to herself—it wasn’t likely.
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