March 11th, 2013


The Final Two Days Of The Fesitval

(2,966 words)

The next morning we visited three smaller temples out in the suburbs. They’d originally been village temples and the city had grown out to take them into its embrace. The first two were completely unexceptional, in fact we stood out because almost all of the people paying their respects were locals, but at the third temple Master Que was recognized. We were in the temple’s courtyard when we were approached by two ladies of my mother’s age, one in orange and yellow, the other in mauve and violet. They bowed to Master Que who looked puzzled, but bowed in return.

“We apologise for intruding,” the lady in orange and yellow said nervously, “but you are Shui Tzu Dan, aren’t you?”

“That is my professional name,” he agreed quietly.

The two ladies gave each other excited looks. “We thought so,” replied the lady in lavender and mauve. “We were great fans of yours when you were competing, but we never managed to meet you then.”

“It is most kind of you to remember me,” said Master Que in formal style. “May I present my student? This is her first year, so she is fighting under my auspices.” I bowed to them as if they were great patrons.

They politely acknowledged me, then the lady in orange and yellow said nervously, “We were hoping it would not be too great an imposition on your good nature to ask you to exchange cards with us?”

“Ladies,” replied Master Que, “it would be a great pleasure.” That said, he exchanged cards with them in the most formal style and the extravagance of the compliments he paid them had them both giggling and blushing at the same time. It was a very pleasant way to finish off our morning visits and we parted from the sisters Ling, for so their cards proclaimed them, with the four of us in good spirits.

“Do you miss that?” I asked the question as we left the temple precinct. “Having fans. Being sought after?”

“Most of the time, no.” Master Que was looking into the distance. “Most of my following was rather bolder than those two ladies were today. I’ve had expensive lingerie thrown at me on occasion – it was always a concern when the items were still at body temperature.”

“I can see that,” I agreed, but I admit I found it unsettling that women had been prepared to get semi-naked in public to attract Master Que’s attention. When I thought about it, the general idea was perfectly logical if rather tacky, but I realized that I regarded him in some ways as I regarded my parents, completely divorced from sex. Obviously my parents must have been doing something to have had all of us, but it was not a subject I went around thinking about. Similarly, it was not a subject I thought about in connection with Master Que. To be fair, it wasn’t something I thought about in connection with me.

After our daily practice session, Master Que and I spent the afternoon in the festival precinct set up in the Botanical Gardens. Well, in theory we did. We bought tickets to an outdoor performance of Ling Sai and the Moon Princess to be performed in the Gardens that evening before the fireworks and then I spent most of my afternoon wandering the pathways of the Garden as a pleasant change from my other festival activities. I lost Master Que early in the piece to a mah jong game against a venerable family patriarch who’d been comfortably established by his family in a shelter pavilion for the day.

I admired the botanical collections and I indulged my inner child by buying food to feed the ducks and fish with. I went back to the stalls for a midafternoon snack of my own and a drink, then headed off again to see more of the gardens. The rest of the afternoon was spent going through a section that had been done as themed ‘rooms.’ There was a formal rose garden, in the foreign manner, and a traditional moon garden. The latter was full of a ladies’ gardening society who were critiquing the design and the state of the plantings. After I had enjoyed the moon garden despite them, I moved on to a temple garden done in the Zhu style that been going out of fashion even before the invasion.

When I’d finished looking through that, it was time to meet up with Master Que and take our places for the performance. Master Que, for his part, was quite ready to join me as his opponent had been reclaimed into the bosom of his family and taken home. We had ‘dining tickets’ for the performance and the promise of a sumptuous picnic meal to be provided throughout it. As Master Que so rightly said, if the meal was not as good as we’d been promised then we could always have a good supper afterwards.

The first act of Ling Sai and the Moon Princess is set at the bamboo cutter’s hut, so we began the evening seated on cushions with a low set, portable table between us while we faced the façade of a hut standing among the Gardens’ bamboo groves. The table held a teapot, cups, plates of six different dim sum and three types of dipping sauce. The waiter who served us before the performance started assured us that what was on our table was, indeed, just for the two of us before he withdrew. I had thought there was probably too much food on the table for two people but, with the length of the first Act of the play, I had to admit that the caterer had worked out the portions very nicely indeed.

The second Act takes place inside the Prince’s Palace, so we moved to a new viewing area facing the portico of the Administration Building. While Ling Sai was trying to get the Moon Princess to speak before she was summarily married to the Prince, we ate soya chicken, barbecued pork, roast duck, steamed greens, and rice with three more sauces. I rather thought that this Moon Princess wanted to marry the Prince, which is not the usual interpretation of the story at all. Master Que wasn’t impressed with the Chief Minister, but he did like Lady Chu, and by the end of the Act I was feeling rather sorry for the Prince.

The third Act takes place on the sea shore while the representatives of the three realms negotiate their way out of a war no-one wants, so we were moved to a slope overlooking a large water lily and carp pond. This course was sticky rice, bean paste cakes and mango pancakes washed down by tea. By the time the Emperor of the Sea had agreed to give one of the Pearls of Vitality to each of his counterparts, with the Moon Princess to be returned to the Lunar Court and the Terrestrial Emperor’s granddaughter promised in marriage to the Oceanic Crown Prince, we were happily almost full.

For the final Act we returned to the bamboo groves where we ate fried rice while the Prince farewelled the Moon Princess and then Ling Sai petitioned to be allowed to ascend to the Lunar Court with her as her servant. The attack by the demons was very well executed and it really did look as if the Moon Princess narrowly escaped capture; they’d put a lot of work into that sword fight. Of course, in the story she only escapes at the cost of Ling Sai’s life, so the whole thing ends in tears on stage. The Moon Princess ascended to the Lunar Court, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, and the Prince vowed to bury his rival with noble honours, weeping the whole while. I was happy that they left the comical loud nose blowing to the retainers.

The end of the performance left us a quarter of an hour before the beginning of the fireworks, so we used the time to find ourselves a good viewing spot. We had chrysanthemums in the air and a finale of silver rain for our second last night of the festival, then we were almost separated in the surge of people leaving the gardens before the gates were locked for the night. At one point I had a girl my own age clinging to my right arm, calling me “Cho” and trying to drag me off to a bar, “with everyone else.” It took me a few minutes to extract myself from her grasp and then to check that I still had my purse.

We walked back to the hotel without actually meaning to, it was just that when we got to a bus stop or a train station so many people were already there that there didn’t seem to be any point, so we kept walking. We didn’t walk without stopping, we took a break at an outdoor bar for chicken skewers and, in my case, tea. Master Que also drank something brown, but it wasn’t tea. It was after midnight when we strolled back into the hotel foyer and I felt like I’d had a very satisfactory evening.

The final morning of the festival continued the run of fine weather and Master Que announced that we were going to the temples with the oldest, newest and average-aged buildings for our final visits of the festival. So we went to the Shu Clan Temple, where we saw the fox carvings; a temple in an inner city residential tower that that was so new it didn’t have a proper name yet; and to a neighborhood temple of the Ko Period. The priests at the Shu Clan Temple were astounded that Master Que knew they had fox carvings, and even more surprised when he pointed out the rest of the carvings behind a rather bad tapestry that was a couple of centuries old – your husband being head of the Clan doesn’t mean your handiwork should be on display.

The residential tower temple was a spare plain space, whitewashed on the inside. The windows were tall and narrow, while the furniture was dark. Overall, it had a good atmosphere and I hoped the residents were happy with their little temple. We’d been the only ones making a temple visit while we were there but on our way out of the building, we met a young man whose body language I found familiar. It was not until he spoke to one of the two elderly women he was accompanying that I realized that he was Tang Ju Bai, one of my opponents from Changzhu. He was dressed in formal robes and he wasn’t wearing his Mask, and having only met him the once, I almost didn’t recognise him.

I pointed out who he was to Master Que, who raised an eyebrow at me but introduced himself to the small group with impeccable manners. Tang Ju Bai looked confused until Master Que mentioned that he and I had fought in the tournament in Changzhu, then his face unclouded and he introduced us to his grandmothers, then we all exchanged bows and Master Que traded cards with the three of them. Tang Ju Bai’s birth name was Chen Ming, which was nice to know. As we were leaving I heard the deafer of the old ladies saying, “Ming, you didn’t tell us that you were meeting nice girls like that while you were travelling around. Are there any we should know about?”

I was glad that the building foyer doors got us quickly out of earshot.

Our third temple of the day and the last of the festival was the House of the Jade Moon. The temple’s foundation date was far earlier than that of the Shu Clan Temple but the buildings were much newer, courtesy of three or four fires and an alleged encounter with a heavenly ox drawing a cart driven by a drunken moon maiden. I can only imagine that the heavenly ox sounded a better story than whatever really happened. We met no-one we knew there and so were not delayed in returning to our hotel, then going to the training room to get some more practice in.

We found another festival precinct and I spent the afternoon going around the stalls and the entertainments. I threw rings and balls at targets and didn’t, quite, win anything at all. I brought a few fripperies, like sachets of dried petals, and picked up a few useful things, like more handkerchiefs. One my way back to a tea stall I’d seen earlier, I was passing a section of fortune tellers’ and diviners’ stalls when I saw something different. The others were all traditional practitioners of some sort, but this one stall had a display of foreign picture cards out the front. I’d never seen divination cards like these before, there was no-one waiting to go in, so I walked up and handed my money to the attendant.

I was promptly ushered into the enclosed area at the back of the stand and found that the space was fitted out like a room, with carpet underfoot, a table with four chairs in the middle of the room and drapery fancying up the canvas walls. The other person in the room was a middle-aged woman dressed in a long heavy skirt and a white blouse. Not only were her clothes foreign but it seemed to me that her features probably were as well. There was no one particular thing that made me think so but the sum effect made me sure she wasn’t local.

“So,” she moved to the chair facing the door, “you wish to consult the cards. Please, sit.” She indicted the chair opposite her. I moved to it and sat when she did. In the middle of the table between us was an object the length of my hand, wrapped in a silk scarf. My hostess picked up the bundle and placed it in front of her. As I watched she undid the knots in the scarf and spread the fabric out flat in front of her. In the middle of the scarf was a stack of cards as long and broad as my hand and thick as my hands, one on top of the other. “Do you have a question you wish the cards to answer?”

“Er, no,” I admitted. “I saw the sign outside and I thought, “Why not?" Consulting a fortuneteller is the one thing I haven’t done this festival.”

“So we will see what the cards have to say.” The woman solemnly picked them up and went through them, looking for something. “Just keep in mind that, given free rein, the cards can be very blunt.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I was enjoying her stagecraft and presentation, and felt that alone was worth the entrance fee I’d paid.

She seemed to find what she was looking for because she pulled a card out of the deck and laid it on the shawl in front of her. “This card, a Page represents you. Now I shuffle the remaining cards.” She proceeded to do so with a skill and flair I envied, then began to lay cards out in a complicated pattern around the card she had said was me. The design apparently meant something to her but even with her polished patter, it meant nothing to me. When she set the remains of the deck down to one side, I assumed that she was about to start interpreting what was in front of her and so I wasn’t surprised when she sat looking at the cards in front of her for a while.

Finally she began to speak again. “The King of a suite of cards represents an older man, and you have three Kings showing. These two,” she indicated column of cards to her right of the Page card, “are already in your life. This man,” she indicated the column of cards to her left, “is in your future.” She lifted the masculine faced-card in that column and looked at the cards under it. “He is a man with a long history and some secrets. The other card trines in this column speak to happiness and good fortune, both from happenstance and hard work. The other two Kings,” she paused as she looked under the other two masculine faced cards and when she spoke again there was a little puzzlement and surprise in her voice, “have similarly long histories and secrets. This one,” she tapped the higher of the two cards, “seems to have secrets or to be a secret from himself.”

An older man in my future seemed very clear to me and I supposed that the two older men already in my life would be Master Que and my father, but I couldn’t see my father being a man of secrets or Master Que being a secret from himself – I would have said he had far too much self-knowledge for that. Of course, the thing with divinations, prophecies and the like is that they’re easier to interpret afterwards than beforehand. I expected that these foreign cards would be much the same.

“Never forget,” the fortuneteller’s voice snapped me out of my thoughts, “that you will be a much longed for bride. If your birth had been heralded by portents, he would be looking for you already.”

I left the fortune teller’s tent in a musing mood that lasted almost all the way through a pot of tea and a small plate of sweet cakes. It returned a few times before I met up with Master Que for dinner, but conversation over good food followed by the festival’s final and most spectacular fireworks drove it off completely.


Not All About The Electronics

I wrote this from Alder's Grove's 16-minute prompt for this week.

“It’s a concept,” said Meiken.

“A concept of what?” It was Trusdale who asked that.

“Of where we can put further higher functionality within the system,” replied Meiken.

“With cross saving via other herd members, yes?” Nkumbra looked from the screen to his colleagues and back again.

“Yes, but why do you ask?” Meiken looked confused. “You’re system security, not processing.”

“My security modules are going to need something to eat and predation on damaged, aged or excess processing units would solve several problems. Not least, Chekhova’s concern that the grazing units would multiply to sufficient levels that they could eradicate her diffuse power systems.” Nkumbra pressed a few places on his controller and the stats of the ‘moose’ on screen were displayed beside the images. “These would also be edible by the resident staff.”

“Is resident staff a good idea?” Trusdale voiced that old question.

“It’s a better idea than leaving a super computer sitting alone in a public place and expecting it not to be stolen.” Nkumbra paused for a moment then added, “Or taken apart for its component parts."