Min-Li was an eleven-year-old slave girl taken from her family so long ago that she barely even knew who she was. Her owner, Master Chu, never considered telling her anyway. He never really treated Min-Li properly, and he was a terrible master. Master Chu never even used Min-Li's real name; he called her "wretch" and "lazy one" instead. Min-Li's only friend was a river rat that she had named Huang He, after the Yellow River. After all, he was a river rat.
"Wretch! Where are you hiding this time?" barked Master Chu. Min-Li appeared around the corner of the run-down barn.
"I wasn't hiding, Master, I was just..."
The man silenced her with a furious look. "Where is my morning tea? Go make it!"
Min-Li ran to the well to fetch water for the tea. On her way, she saw the mouse, Huang He. "Huang! Come, we'll get water together," she said.
That same day, Min-Li went behind the barn to spend some time with Huang. But Min-Li heard a voice she had never heard before. "Min-Li," it said. She shook the voice out of her mind. But she heard it again. "Min-Li," it said again. Min-Li peered into darkness, but saw nothing.
Just as the sun was about to set, the voice came again. Min-Li spun around. There behind her was a majestic bird-like creature with feathers as bright and colorful as the rays of the rising sun. "Min-Li, bring me to your home. I will return your hospitality. I am one of the legendary phoenixes." Min-Li stopped, bewildered, but motioned for the regal creature to follow her into the drab barn.
"I'm sorry, but this is the only place I have for you to stay." Min-Li walked to the cottage, drowning in questions. Where was this bizarre creature from? Was it friendly, or was it the devil's trickery? Min-Li couldn't sleep that night.
Suddenly, during the middle of the night, there was a loud screech. MIN-LI! COME TO THE BARN QUICKLY! Min- Li slipped out of her cot quietly and leapt out the window. But she was stunned to discover a very strange occurrence. All the birds, rats, and insects had come out from their nests and were all over the ground. I wonder if this is a bad sign, she thought. The phoenix was waiting for Min-Li in the barn.
"What about Huang?"
"Take the mouse."
"How will we leave?" she whispered.
"We will fly," the phoenix answered swiftly. Min-Li hesitated, and then mounted the phoenix, quick as a flash. The phoenix spread its powerful wings and took off gracefully. They slipped through the air and into the dark night.
"Who are you?" Min-Li asked once they were gliding with the wind.
"I am Sakai, messenger of the phoenixes," the phoenix replied. Her voice was sweet and musical, like many crickets singing on a warm summer's night.
"Where are we headed?" Min-Li asked. The phoenix was silent.
They swooped through the air like wind and landed on a riverbank many miles away.
"This is Xining."
Min-Li's dark eyes widened in amazement. The scenery was unbelievably beautiful and calming. "Why did you take me here?" Min-Li asked.
"You were in great danger at the time."
"Is there a village near here?"
Sakai nodded toward the east. "Small village that way"
"May we stay there tonight?" Min-Li asked. Huang He slipped out of Min-Li's hands and darted eastwards. "Wait! Huang! Come back!" Min-Li dashed after the mouse. Huang ran until a river came into view. Sakai flew behind Min-Li to where Huang was sitting. Then she scooped up Huang and Min-Li and flew over the river.
They reached the village quickly, and Sakai disappeared behind a wall as Min-Li asked the villagers if they could stay for the night. A deadly sickness was going through the village at the time. Sakai, Min-Li and Huang stayed at a villager's barn for a night before leaving in the early morning. All the sick people of the village had unexpectedly gotten well on the morning Min-Li had left.
As the three soared through the air, Min-Li asked the phoenix if it knew about her past. Sakai started to tell a story of where Min-Li was born and what had happened to her parents.
"You were born in the city of Shanghai. Your parents were of a race we now know as the Guardians of the Phoenix. The people of that race were the only humans who could understand the tongue of the phoenix. All Guardians had magical healing powers. Your mother and father were both from a wealthy family from the far west. Both were falling on very hard times and had to sell you as a slave. They passed away soon afterward."
Min-Li listened intently, absorbed in the story, and her eyes gleaming and fixed on the bird.
"You, Min-Li, are a Guardian. When you retreat to the heavens after you have completed your task of curing ill villages, you may join your parents in the paradise of Shangri-La."
Min-Li agreed to go with a dazzling smile on her face. Sakai smiled back at her meaningfully. Sakai's enormous wings lifted them higher yet into the air and they soared to start Min-Li's long journey. And that was only the beginning.