I turned to Master Que and said, “I don’t think my father should ever hear about this.” The priest got an odd expression on his face and then I added, “And I rather wish I could forget that I had.”
“Oh?” That was from Master Que but I could tell that the priest was thinking it.
“Well, what am I going to do with it?” I looked at them both and went on, “Send a matchmaker round the Solar Court to find out who might be looking for a wife? That would be rather presumptuous, wouldn’t it? Besides putting offside the wives of those of them who are already married. Anyway, where does it say that this would be a first marriage for either of us? It could well be that this is talking about a very suitable second marriage for us both, after we’ve been widowed or something.”
“A very sensible point,” agreed the priest in what I thought was a slightly relieved tone of voice, and Master Que nodded in agreement, before the priest asked, “but why shouldn’t your father hear about this expanded prediction?”
“When I last saw my honoured father, just after I finished my final secondary exams,” I explained to the priest, “he was planning to combine today’s birthday celebrations with either my betrothal to the as-yet-unknown gentleman of my birth prediction or even my wedding to that worthy. He might actually send a matchmaker or a go-between to the members of the Solar Court if he’d heard what you said today. I know his paternal grandfather was a Reincarnated Scholar but I really don’t think that puts us naturally into those circles.”
“So what will you do?” That was Master Que.
“What I planned on doing before,” I said firmly. “See how far I can go in the national tournament this year. Pursue my education. Continue with professional gi next year, if I can. Do interesting things so that by the time I do come across this ‘middle-aged bureaucrat’ I might be someone he’d like to have a conversation with across the breakfast table most mornings.”
“Most mornings?” The priest was looking amused now.
“One thing I’ve learned growing up as one of thirteen children,” I told him tartly, “is that no-one wants to talk at breakfast every morning.”
Both men laughed. “Very true,” agreed the priest. “If more people went into marriage knowing that we might have fewer divorces.”
“If I’d known that at half the age I am now,” added Master Que, “I might actually have gotten married. Several times,” he added reflectively, “although not all at once…of course.”
“Also,” I added, something having just occurred to me, “having recently finished the secondary curriculum History II course, I note that the careers of members of the Solar Court have been tracked fairly consistently across the centuries – I mean there are lists of their names and lifespans, that sort of thing.”
“Yes,” said the priest, encouragingly.
“Well, I can think of three that haven’t been reported in the modern era,” I said slowly. “There might be more. I mean, the person my birth prediction is talking about could be living their present life quietly under the public nose, doing what they’ve always done but without the fuss. Stalking the Solar Court for a husband isn’t going to find someone like that. I think I’ve made the right decision,” I added firmly. “I’ll keep doing what I intended to do before I heard this reinterpretation and let events unfold as they will.”
“I must say, I think you’re being wise,” the priest told me. “The fulfilment of birth predictions is rarely as linear as even the best interpretation can make them seem.”
I smiled wryly at him. “As it happens, sir, someone has already mentioned General Wu to me this morning.”
“Most appropriate,” he beamed beneficently at me, “and might I add, Miss Sung, that no matter whom you marry, I would be delighted to interpret your children’s birth predictions for you.”
We parted company with the priest at that point and were ushered out of the private meeting areas and into the main public areas of the temple. We lit joss sticks at the altar to salute Heaven before we left and as we were retreating from the altar Master Que remarked, “I’m very proud of how you handled that, you know.”
“You are? How else should I have handled it?” I was still moving carefully backwards in my robes.
“Well, I’m sure that priest had a list of suitable matchmakers in his sleeve in case you decided to pursue the matter straight away.” Master Que still had his hands clasped together in obeisance to the altar.
“I’m just eighteen and I think I’m still too young to be rushed into marrying just for the sake of marrying.” I stepped back across the line that marked the point where you could turn away from the altar and straightened. “I’ve probably got years to worry about that yet.”
Master Que straightened too. “So what are you going to worry about today?”
“Getting my mail forwarded by the post office, updating my banking arrangements and gi practice,” I told him smartly, “followed by a birthday dinner and an adult outing.”
“It’s a plan,” he agreed. “Let’s go.”
It seemed appropriate to continue on to both the post office and the bank in our formal robes, particularly as we had to pass them on our way back to the Inn to get changed anyway. Getting my mail redirected from my parents’ address was remarkably simple now that I was eighteen, as was setting up a forwarding arrangement with the post office. For a very small fee, equivalent to having a post office box, I could have my mail follow around the country side to a nominated post office which I could change every week. It was a service practically designed for professional gi fighters or travelling priests and salesmen. Our robes attracted a little attention at the post office, simply because it wasn’t a festival, but most people guessed that I was celebrating a significant birthday and I received a number of congratulations, as did Master Que whom a number of people assumed to be my father.
The bank seemed a little more used to people in formal robes arriving to do business. They were also quite used to people attaching their natural or professional names to their accounts, particularly in connection with a significant birthday. In fact, their systems let me update my tax records in the same transaction and the teller who assisted us wished me a happy birthday before I’d even explained my business with them that day. That, and being called ma’am by their doorman (I’m sure it was due to my formal robe), made my morning.
After which, of course, we went back to the Inn, changed and then worked hard at gi practice into the late afternoon. At that point I already felt like I’d had a pretty good day.
We were walking back to the Inn when a robe in a shop window caught my eye. The shop dealt in second hand clothes and they’d rearranged their window in the time since we’d passed in the opposite direction on our way to gi practice. In the morning the display had been of children’s festival robes surrounded by everyday blacks in the same sizes. Now it was a fashion retrospective with items going back five or six decades, but the centre piece was a casual robe that must have been an antique from its cut. Of course it could have been a replica, but from outside the store it looked like silk and its colour, the pale milky green of some jade, practically glowed against the darkened interior of the shop.
“Yes?” He’d stopped when I’d stopped and was waiting for me.
I indicated the robe in the window and asked, “If I can afford it, what about this robe for dinner? To wear,” I clarified, “instead of my black silk trousers and brocade jacket.”
He took a few moments to examine it and then nodded. “If it fits, it should look very well on you. We can go in and ask how much they want for it. If it’s a reasonable price and it fits, then I think you should get it. It would be very suitable for tonight.”
So we went into Madam Tschang’s Clothing Exchange and asked about the robe in the window. The manager’s face lit up when we did. “Ah,” she said happily, “it was part of a deceased estate the executors are disposing of and, frankly, it’s probably the best piece of the lot. It’s been cleaned since we acquired it, of course, but the late owner stored it properly so it was already in excellent condition. As best we can tell, because part of the lining’s been replaced, it’s in the style of Xi Cu Chin and not actually his work so it’s being offered here instead of going to auction at one of the big antiques firms.” She looked from me to Master Que and back again. “Would you like to try it on?”
“That depends on how much it costs,” I answered, “and, forgive my ignorance, but who is Xi Cu Chin?”
“These days we’d call him a designer, but he was a famous robe maker who had his own workshop from about a century ago until just after the invasion.” The manager smiled benevolently at me and added, “The asking price on the robe is two hundred standard taels.”
I thought for a moment. Two hundred standard taels definitely less than my formal robes had cost but more than either of my brocade jackets had cost individually. It was also within the reasonable price range for a casual robe in the department store where my mother preferred to shop for good clothes and this one appeared to be silk… I glanced at Master Que and he nodded slightly. I turned back to the manager and answered brightly, “I’d like to try it on, please. I’ve just come from gi practice, perhaps you have a cotton under robe I could wear to protect it?”
The manager smiled even more widely, “Of course we do. Please come this way!” She ushered me into a fitting room, provided me with the under robe and went to get the robe out of the window while I got ready for it.
The robe was beautiful on. It came with its original girdle that included what I’m sure are jade pieces in the fastener and it was made to adjust to the wearer’s size, that or I was supposed to be swathed in soft falls of silk that were not at all in the modern style. The slippers I wore with my formal and festival robes would be suitable to go with it, and the manager produced both a suitable fan and a hair clip that twisted my hair up to show my neck. We were satisfied and I walked out of the fitting room to get Master Que’s opinion.
He gave us a short burst of applause. “Most excellent,” he told me. “You’ve developed a good eye. I would never have picked that colour but it works very well on you. Ideally, you’d wear a string of pearls or jade beads with that,” he added critically.
“I know,” I told him, “but I don’t have them and I can’t afford them today, so not this time. I think the bracelet you gave me and, perhaps, a charm bracelet for the good luck charms I got for my birthday this morning would go very well with it.”
“That would be quite suitable,” Master Que agreed, “particularly as you’d be wearing it at dinner with some of the people who gave you the charms.” He pulled out the wallet he kept my money for expenses in and asked the manager, “How much for everything?”
“Two hundred and fifty standard taels for everything she’s wearing, except the under robe,” said the manager with a funny look on her face, “and I can let you have an empty silver charm bracelet for another twenty silver taels.”
“We’ll take it along with everything else," I told her. "Perhaps you and Master Que can settle up while I change back into what I was wearing? He looks after my money while I’m getting used to having it,” I explained to her. A thought occurred to me and I turned to him and asked, “Does that make you my manager as well as my teacher?”
The odd look on the store manager’s face cleared away as he answered, “Possibly, in the future, but at the moment I’m still merely your teacher.”
Once my purchases were packed up and in our possession, we returned to the Inn of the Tenth Reflection to get ready for the evening ahead of us. I hung up my new robe and then used the bath house, before returning to my room to get dressed and attach the good luck charms I’d been given for my birthday onto the charm bracelet. I thought that the two bracelets together made a very satisfactory jangle on my wrist below the sleeve of my new robe. Master Que got an unfamiliar look on his face when we met in our dining room parlor, bowed formally, which I returned in a slightly puzzled fashion, and he said, “I didn’t expect the lack of under robe to make such a difference to the set of that robe and I find myself unexpectedly in the presence of a great lady.”
I was startled. “I beg your pardon?”
“You look particularly grown up and greatly out of my league.” Then he stopped being solemn and grinned at me, “Oh, tonight’s going to be fun!”
We joined the other guests from the Inn who were coming to my birthday dinner in the foyer and I received several compliments on my appearance. Tzu Gian Fu grinned and said, “You must wear that outfit if someone wants to negotiate being your patron with you. Make them see that they’re lucky to be able to associate with you, not the other way around.”
“Unless it makes them think that she could be their patron instead,” suggested Father Go Tse with a smile. “It may be a good thing that she still has Master Que to provide her with guidance.”
“Oh yes,” I agreed fervently. “Even I know that there’s patronage and ‘patronage.’ I know that I’m still not ready to sort the wolves from the guard dogs entirely on my own.”
“No-one ever really is,” said Madam Yuen from behind me, “not all the time.” I turned to her and bowed. “But I hope that you mostly have guard dogs.” She was wearing another attractive casual robe in the modern style, this one covered in drifts of wisteria blossom. “I do like that robe on you; I’d look like nothing in that colour, but you pull it off to perfection.” I bowed again in thanks. “I’m glad you don’t sing, otherwise we’d be in competition. I hope you enjoy your dinner, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off to my own meeting.” She returned my bow and swept out of the Inn to hail a taxi.
I looked after her and said the first thing that popped into my head, “I hope she’s alright.”
“Indeed, yes,” agreed Hong Sué thoughtfully.
“Perhaps I should talk with her in the morning,” added Father Go Tse.
Then we went out to my dinner. Master Que had booked us into the Golden Pheasant on the nearer end of Lantern Street and Master Po joined us there. It was a very pleasant four course meal in a large semi-private booth. Master Que had been right when he said that Master Po was good company and she bounced off Hong Sué as much as Tzu Gian Fu did, a circumstance that made Hong Sué’s friend, Tseng Mao, looked bemused until he started to smile and grin at their banter too. I know we all laughed at Tzu Gian Fu’s recounting of being banned from Madam Tu’s House of Respite several year’s earlier that began with, “Well, it was a little complicated but involved a chamber maid and Madam Tu’s third son and it was all a great deal of fun until…”
I was persuaded to explain why I wanted to attend a seqing gushi performance. “We studied some in Literature last year,” I began. “It might have been because our teacher liked hearing teenage girls reading erotica but it was a major portion of the Night Court choice module for fifteenth century period and the alternative module to the Night Court was the Piety School, with an emphasis on Tschu Fan Ming.” Over half our table made disapproving sounds, “Yes, apparently Mr Hong felt that wasn’t a good choice for a class that was mainly girls and not of noble descent either. After one lesson reviewing Tschu Fan Ming we were so glad to hear that we would actually be studying the Night Court that we almost cheered. Anyway, the Night Court poetry included seqing gushi, that introduced us to An Wat Tsing and he led us into just about everything else that was going on in literature in his lifetime.” I added reflectively, “That module gave me two major planks of my argument in one of the three essays in my Literature final exam and I did rather better in that than I expected, which I put down to An Way Tsing and his highly varied career. Anyway, I came out of that liking seqing gushi and I thought it might be a better choice than a gaming club, an adult cabaret or a gi cage fight.”
The rest of the table agreed far too solemnly that might indeed be the case and they all came with us when Master Que and I moved on to the Blazing Chrysanthemum. There were still tickets available and the staff were quite happy to move tables together to accommodate us. I ordered tea and sweet cakes while others in our party, Master Que included, ordered alcoholic beverages – possibly because they doubted the quality of the entertainment to come. Overall, the poetry wasn’t bad, even if some of it, in my opinion, ventured into pornography rather than erotica. I had opinions on that because we’d covered it in class. Some of the poets, I noticed, were a little reticent about reading their poetry aloud and when I glanced around the room I realized that our group contained the only women present. Some of the other patrons also seemed uncomfortable, but I decided that, as long as we were merely present and listening, that wasn’t my problem. I decided that it was my problem when we got to the end of the evening and the very last poet, a young man of my own age with bad acne, just stood there looking at our table, then at his page, and back again turning redder and redder as he did so.
Finally I stood up as the master of ceremonies was moving towards him and said, “If I’m part of the problem, would you like me to read it for you?” I started walking towards him and he turned an even brighter red before nodding dumbly. The room went quiet enough to hear a pin drop. He handed me his poem, I glanced over it and said, “Thank you. These look like excellent reading notes,” and started reading. A year in Mr Hong’s literature class and a full month of An Wat Tsing had prepared me well for this and his poem was very good and completely within genre, involving tentacles in the manner it did. I finished and everyone applauded, probably more than would be necessary to be polite. I turned back to the poet, returned his poem, bowed and then said, “Thank you for the opportunity to appreciate your work.”
He blushed again and said, “You made it sound much better.”
“It was all in your reading notes,” I assured him, then returned to my seat. As I did so, Master Que gave me a small smile of approval, while Master Po and Father Go Tse gave me nods which I took to mean the same thing. As the poetry was over and all that followed was some announcements about who would be performing next week, the evening broke up shortly after that and we left after we settled our tab. We could have gone on to any number of establishments but I declined, pointing out that I had practice in the morning and we separated somewhere in the middle of Lantern Street with Master Que, Tze Gian Fu and I returning to the Inn, while Father Go Tse escorted Master Po home, and Tseng Mao and Hong Sué went off together for supper.
I slept like a log that night and spent the next day in practice for the tournament the following day. I had looked forward to meeting Tze Gian Fu again, but it was not to be as that worthy was eliminated in the penultimate round by my final opponent, Che Sung Gao. He was a Laosung and his speed was impressive but in retrospect, the writing was on the wall when I dodged his first attack and got my shields in place. He admitted as much when he congratulated me on my win and asked which provincial tournament of the three I’d qualified for I would be participating in.
I smiled and replied that it had not yet been decided.
This is followed by A Conversation By Moonlight.