ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE CHINESE NEW YEAR, the Year of the Dragon, Lady Feng made a mistake.
A cool, sophisticated Hong Kong businesswoman, Lady Feng had just concluded her habitual retreat. As she emerged from hibernation she risked assuming her true form—the form of a Chrysanthemum Dragon. She took the chance. She needed to stretch her claws. The rush of air against her golden scales felt wonderful after those long weeks cooped up in her cave, weeks spent gestating and laying her eggs, watching over them as she checked and re-checked the treasures of her rich hoard to stave off the boredom that threatened to engulf her. Today, she was free.
Below her, the humans who lived in the remote village near her mountain lair were celebrating the turn of the year. Lady Feng dipped and soared, caught up in the moment, appearing, to the people in the procession below, as just one more pretty paper shape among the high-flying red and gold kites with their trailing streamers. She flew lower, and the people were overjoyed to see her: a real dragon had come to bless them. They drummed harder, danced faster.
Lady Feng flew even lower. In dragon form, she was thinking like a dragon. Just for an instant, her instincts took over: her control slipped. Intoxicated by the heady fog of incense, exhilarated by the drums and cymbals and firecrackers, the beautiful golden dragon permitted herself a small snack: a tender morsel, no more than a tiny mouthful. She knew she shouldn’t, but the snack was simply there to be had, resting in its wrappings like an offering on the steps before the Moon Gate, looking so silky soft, smelling so milky sweet. Before she knew it, she had dived: her jaws had snapped shut, and warm blood was filling her mouth. It felt good, so very good, as the juicy meat slipped down her cave dry throat.
But then the screaming started. Humans, she remembered too late, were unaccountably attached to their offspring. There were curses and shouts, and someone actually started shooting at her.
‘Avert!’ She raised her right claw, and hastily invoked a spell of warding.
The shot went wide, but it clipped a hind claw. Lady Feng barely escaped with her fine gossamer wings intact. She dropped from the sky to land behind the nearest building, where she changed back into her cramped human form to blend in with the frightened crowd. There was blood on her pale face and on her fine gold-patterned silk blouse, but she radiated calming thoughts, turning aside the minds of the people around her. A lot of villagers had been injured in their panic to escape the terrible dragon that had so suddenly, so inexplicably swooped upon them from the heavens, and with Lady Feng’s protective glamour fogging their minds, the tell-tale blood spatters passed unremarked.
Later she tried to make amends. Really she did. She limped back to her lair. At nightfall, when the sobbing young parents had subsided into sleep, she returned to the Moon Gate of the little temple with one of her own offspring, the smallest of her four precious eggs, its golden crackle-glazed shell glowing in the lantern light. The abandoned baby sling was still there. Lady Feng tucked her egg into it, swaddling it in the cotton padding to keep it warm.
A child for a child: it seemed only fair.