Soon he found his way blocked by a raging river. In previous years, the river was low enough to ride across on horseback, but that had been during summer. Now the river was swollen out of its banks, the current swift and powerful, churning and violent with foam, and there were great whirlpools in which dragons cavorted.
As he sat and looked at the raging river, the emperor noticed two men sitting in a ferry boat in a still pool at the water's edge. One was an old ferryman, the other a handsome young nobleman, and they were playing a game of Mah Jongg on the bare boards of the ferry's deck, there at the very edge of the flood.
The emperor rode down to them with his retinue behind him, many thousands strong. Seeing him, the nobleman sank to his knees and pounded his head upon the deck, but the old ferryman only stared at his tiles.
"Old man, take me across the river," the emperor commanded.
The old man looked at the emperor, then he looked at the river. "I will take you across when the flood has passed," he said, and he returned to his game.
"Guards!" the emperor shouted. "Kill this impertinent fool!"
His guards rushed down to the ferry and bending the old man over his knees, they lopped off his head with one stroke of a sword.
Now the emperor turned to the nobleman. He had never seen this man before, but there were many nobles in his empire and he could not be expected to know them all. "Young man," he said. "Do you have servants who can take me across the river?"
"Oh most excellent and wise emperor of heaven," the young man said, "I am forever your servant, for you have rescued me from the vile magician who held me captive. Now that I am free, I may reveal myself to you." And so saying, he became a dragon, huge and majestic. In fact, he was the king of the dragons of that river.
"If it pleases his sublime majesty, I shall take the emperor across the river upon my back," the dragon said as he bowed.
Now, the emperor knew better than to climb upon the back of a strange dragon, for he was familiar with the old stories, though he did not understand many of them. But he had once heard the story of the serpent and the donkey.
The serpent had promised the wary donkey that if he would carry him across the river, he would not bite him. So the donkey agreed, but as they reached the deepest and swiftest part of the river, the serpent bit the donkey on the neck. The donkey said, why did you bite me? I will die and you will drown. To which the serpent replied, I am a serpent. It is my nature.
So the emperor said, "It will be enough to ride the ferry, if you know a ferryman."
The dragon became the handsome young nobleman once more. "If it pleases his benevolent majesty, I shall serve as his ferryman." And he bowed.
So the emperor went on board in the company of his most trusted guards and ministers. The nobleman took up the pole and prepared to push off, but the remaining members of the emperor's retinue cried out in their dismay and terror, "Lord! Do not leave us here on the edge of the flood, for we are afraid!"
"If it pleases his circumspect majesty, I shall summon an army of 10,000 demons to carry his servants safely across the flood," the dragon noble said.
The emperor nodded his head, and the demons appeared, and were it not for their lord's tranquil demeanor, his servants would have cast themselves in the river in their fear. But the demons lifted the slaves and eunuchs, ministers and servants ,and flapping their wings they began to fly across the flood, so they could be there to greet the emperor when he arrived on the other side. Meanwhile, the dragon noble pushed off and soon the ferry was gliding across the raging river as though it were a still pond in the emperor's winter palace garden.
The emperor thought, perhaps it is not such a bad thing to have a dragon king as a servant. He said, "You have proved yourself trusty and true. Let it not be said that the emperor fails to reward those who serve him well. Whatever you ask of me, I shall give it."
The dragon nobleman thought for a moment, then said, "Three hundredth's part of the revenues of the empire."
The ministers gasped and the guards drew their swords, but the emperor stayed their hands. The dragon's impertinence amazed him, but he was curious to see how far down the path of destruction his draconic greed and his pride would tempt him. "For how many years would you demand this tribute?" the emperor asked.
"Only for as long as it takes to cross the river," the dragon king said with a bow. And the ministers smiled and the guards put away their swords, and the emperor laughed long and loud.
"You shall have it!" he commanded.
At these words, the ferry began to sink, and the waves of the river tossed it about so violently that all the guards and all the ministers were thrown into the water. The guards, in their armor, sank with a gurgle, and the ministers with their pockets full of gold and jewels sank with a gulp. High above, the demons released the emperor's slaves and eunuchs, lesser ministers and servants, and they fell screaming into the river, like a torrent of silken rain. The dragon lord leaped into the water, and he became a dragon and swam away, crying to his dragons to go and feast upon the dead. And the waves washed over the ferry and slowly it sank as it spun upon the flood.
The emperor looked up and behold! he saw the old ferryman walking toward him across the water. The old man was carrying his head in the crook of his arm. The emperor cried out, "Master! Save me!"
The old man set his head on his neck, then reclined upon the water next to the sinking ferry as though he were resting upon a couch after a day of weary labor. "Every spring during the floods, hundreds of your subjects drown trying to cross this river. Yet not far from here, there is a place where a man of skill and determination could build a bridge, and so spare them the terror of the spring floods."
"Master, save me and I will build the bridge!" the emperor cried as the ferry sank.
"Half your army and your engineers you sent to conquer the western desert. The other half you sent north to build a wall a hundred feet high and a thousand miles long to protect your summer palace from a few tribes of nomads. Who will build the bridge?"
"Master, save me and I will recall the army and the engineers!" the emperor cried as the ferry sank.
"You have squandered the empire's treasure on wine, concubines and palaces, and your ministers are corrupt. They take for themselves nine-tenths of what is collected to maintain the empire and live upon the fat of the land like gods, while the people starve or are murdered by highwaymen. Yet like a child to his father, they do as their lord teaches and allows, even to their own destruction and the destruction of the empire your fathers built."
"Master, you are wise. Save me and I will make you emperor of all China," the emperor cried. And he sank beneath the waves, dragged to his destruction by the rings on his fingers and the weight of his sodden robes.
Now alone upon the river, the old ferryman stood up, and at a wave of his hand the ferry rose beneath his feet. The emperor lay upon the deck, half-drowned and vomiting, with snakes in his sleeves and weeds in his beard. The old man poled the ferry back to the shore, and when he had moored his craft safely to a rock, he sat down and laid out his Mah Jongg tiles.
When the emperor had recovered, he sat up and looked at the ferryman with great wonder and awe. He bowed his head to the deck and said, "Master, you are now emperor. Command me."
The generals of the army were recalled from the western provinces and the northern wall to search for the emperor. Many months later, they found him sitting on the ferry playing Mah Jongg with the old ferryman. His fine robes hung in tatters from his shoulders and his hair clung to his face, but he smiled as he played, smiled as he had never smiled at his riches or his concubines. At the generals' command, both armies fell to their knees with a shout of joy so great it shook the hills. Slowly, the emperor looked up from his game.
"My lord, command me!" the western general cried.
The emperor said, "Not far from here, there is a place where a bridge may be built across the river. Please build it, so I may cross."