Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Part 2: Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China

Greetings all,

Here is the second installment in which the Princess Seven travels incognito down to the docks to approve a food shipment. As you would expect, she will meet people who will only cause her difficulty later on.

At the Docks

            The walk down to the Grand Canal docks was fairly long and the shipping agent had offered to hire a palanquin, but Seven wanted to take in all the scenes on the way down and hold them in her memory—she realized she would not be seeing these street scenes ever again.
            The sights, sounds, and smells of the docks were even more varied and exciting than the agent had indicated. Yes, there were colors of every country flying on every mast. There were rich and poor, merchant and slave, noble and gentry, foreigners, soldiers, sailors, porters, all going about their business, some dressed in finery, some in heavy work clothes, some in beggars’ rags. Street vendors carried their wares up and down while others had their goods laid out for inspection.
            The shipper escorted Seven to the landing at which his ship was docked. All the casks were being set out. “Do you want to look at all of them, or will a sample do?”
            “I suppose I should look at all of them,” said Seven. She saw that he was restraining his comments and perhaps more than a little emotion, and then he spoke.
            “It will take TIME then to properly reseal then, since the men will have to roll them up your hill. Excuse me just a minute.” The shipper gave a shrill whistle and waved to someone nearby. A man on the ship docked in the adjacent berth waved back. “WANG! Get over here and meet this person!” he yelled and the man started to move down toward them.  The agent turned to Seven. “I just met this man today. Hails from the south. He has need of some direction from a person of your position. Not to worry. A very friendly fellow.”
            The man approached. He appeared to be some sort of labor supervisor dressed in the rough garments of the working class, but Seven noticed he was definitely in charge of the men on his ship. His manner and gait were a bit more polished than everyone around. He was not a tall or imposing man, making him seem approachable. He was slightly taller than she, and looked a bit dark for a Han—probably from being in the sun during his sea voyage. As he got close enough to see his face, she noticed is broad, genuine smile, as if her were greeting an old friend, and he appeared to be same age as she.
            “Wang,” said the agent, “this is the kitchen supervisor up at the palace. Got her down here to inspect my goods. She should be able to answer yer questions as to deliveries.”
            He gave a deep bow and then spoke in the Cantonese commercial dialect. “Why good morning there. So good to make the acquaintance of such a fine lady as yourself. We just arrived but a few hours ago, but I already made fast friends with Master Shum here. He’s a good man. I am Wang, and I am …” he thought a moment, “… here with the son of the Duke of the Jewel River Valley in the Eastern Expanse.
             “Pleased to make your acquaintance Mr. Wang. I am …” She had to think for a moment, “… uh, Qi. I, uh, … work in the palace kitchen. I am not the supervisor, but I am her … assistant.”
            Why yes, I can see her rank on your insignia. How very fortuitous. If I may say so myself, our gifts are the finest foodstuffs you can come by from the Great South! By the way, just call me ‘Three.’ I do have a formal name, but all my associates call me Three.
            No mystery there. I’m a third son. We have to unload and deliver our wedding gifts for the Princess. Can you give me advice on where we should take our freight?
            “Foodstuffs. From the Great South you say? Ordinarily I would have you take them to my area, but you will want to take them to the Phoenix Gate, that would be on the south, so that the Fourth Minister, his name is Zhu, he can tally them in and your Duke will get credit for his gifts.”
            Ah, my thought exactly.” He watched Seven bring her hand to her mouth and laugh. “Did I say something funny?
            “Oh no, not at all. I am just so very amused. You have such colorful speech. I have never heard someone speak in such a heavy southern dialect. I can barely understand you.”
            Three frowned, but then quickly shifted. “Really? So we have to use court language even HERE at the capital city docks? How is this?”
            “Very good! But you still have that exaggerated sound about it. But please don’t change your pronunciations for me. It’s quite charming. I never get to hear it. We had a maid who spoke your dialect. She was one of our favorites.”
            Was she pretty then?
            “Hard for me to say. She was as old as my grandmother. What an odd thing to ask.”
            Just wondering. I’ve heard it said quite often on this trip that the women of my region are noted for their beauty.”
            “All that I have seen are indeed petite and move very gracefully. I think many men here find the darker complexions … vexing.”
            Well, I’d say men just happen to be fascinated by anything that is NOT like the girls back at their own home.
            “Are you speaking from experience, Three?”
            Ask me in a couple of days and I will give you a detailed analysis, but let me say in the few hours I have been here, nothing has dissuaded me from my opinion.
            “Goodness, such a roundabout, non-committal answer! You are going to fit in with all the mealy-mouthed diplomats and ministers here. I think I lost something in the translation. Explain that a bit more …”
            “Excuse me just a minute.” Three called out an instruction in a dialect she had never heard before, and shortly a man of great size and heft came forward with a small keg under his massive arm.  “Thank you Backie. Hang around.” Three turned to Seven, “Do you have a porter here?”
            “Uh, … well …,”
            “I’ll be sending some men up,” said Shum the shipping agent, inserting himself back into their conversation.
            “At the palace kitchen you must be prepping one the banquets right now are you not?” asked Three.
            “The Princess Banquet actually.”
            “Ah! The gourmand feast.”
            “Excuse me?”
            “Word on the street is that’s the one for the most adventurous palates. It’s rumored that the Princess has highly refined and peculiar tastes.”
            “IS THAT SO?” said Seven. “Peculiar? Tell me what else you’ve heard about her.”
            “I take it you work with her?” said Three realizing he had blundered into a faux pas.
            “We’re … close. She advises me how to prepare her food.”
            “Well let me say this much. Her reputation is that she cares about food, a lot.”
            “I’m not satisfied with your reply. I like gentlemen who remember who has done them a favor. You’re acting like a palace man. Show me some of that southern candor,” said Seven opening her eyes very wide and batting them at him.
            “I’ve heard tell that all the other banquets will basically be boozefests. Which is fine in itself, but I’m not really a drinker, so I’m glad I’m not going … to any of those.”
            “Sigh. I suppose now I cannot get you to disclose any gossip you’ve heard about the Princess. What a shame. She’d be very interested.”
            “Aren’t we all curious about our reputations?”
            “I am the very paragon of discretion. What was your name again? I don’t believe I got it.”
            “I don’t believe I said it.”
            “But Master Wang,” interjected Shum, “both of you just a minute ago …” The two both turned to glare at the agent who promptly shut up.
            “Just between us lower-level managers,” said Three, “there is much speculation among the masses why she is marrying late.”
            “Do tell.”
            “All the usual sorts of things you might imagine. She’s a brat, an oddball, a lesbian. She doesn’t have periods and is therefore barren. She has a father complex, or a brother complex, or both. You name it. I’m sure none of it is true, but who knows the real reason? And that’s just from men. I have NO idea what the women think about her, but probably things even more vicious. Qi? You can close your mouth now.” Three reached over and pushed it shut for her.
            “I can’t believe what you’ve just said in polite company!”
            “Uh, we’re at the docks among sailors and longshoremen …”
            “That is nothing at all approaching the truth! LIES! ALL LIES!”
            “Calm down. I don’t believe any of it. You can’t control what people think. Especially when the palace keeps its affairs secret.”
            “They’re not secret. They’re private! It’s just not anybody’s business. Do you want to know why she has not married until now?”
            “Not really. Let’s just let the Princess remain a woman of mystery to me. It’s more romantic that way, eh?”
            “Oh Three. Thank you for that. Sigh.”
            “I’m sorry. I should have not said a thing.”
            “I forced it out of you. Are you a romantic then Three?”
            “Oh heavens no. I live in the practical world. I leave the romance to my brothers to take care of. It’s up to me to make sure they have all the cash they need to indulge their whimsical lives.”
            “So will the Duke be attending my … the Princess Banquet.”
            “Actually no. He is too infirm to make sea voyages or long trips. His son was sent in his place.”
            “That is a shame.”
            “The son will be there of course. Will you be serving soup?”
            “Of course. More than one actually.” Three took a tool and pried open the keg. It was filled with golden powder and an intense aroma hit all of their noses.  “OH!” cried Seven. “That is extraordinary! And the color.”
            “My present to you for your advice, and to the Princess, long may she live. Best turmeric in the south, the ‘peasant’s saffron.’ Put this in your seafood-based soup and it will liven it up. Run a test batch in a plain broth today and see if I’m not right. You’ll not get fresher nor more intense anywhere. The planter in my district who grows this has a technique of creating an artificial drought on his crop at just the right time to heighten the flavor. Take a pinch and taste it.” Seven did so and squeezed her eyes shut to heighten the sensation.
            “Exquisite pungency. Ooooo, ooooo. I’m thinking of many possibilities for this. You’re giving this to me just for giving you some directions? This is overdone!”
            “Not at all. You’ve saved me many hours of making inquiries.”
            “May I?” asked Shum who dipped his finger in and took a taste. “Damn strong. What’s the fuss?”
            “Lil Shummie, my dear man, this lady is a cooking connoisseur. Don’t compare yourself to a pro,” said Three. “She doesn’t tell you how to pack a ship. I got something else for you probably more to your liking—in bottles. Backie, take Master Shum into the hold and let him take any two bottles of spirits that he wants. He deserves something good for making this introduction.” As Wang resealed the keg she watched the two large men disappear into the adjacent boat. “Take that back with you directly to the kitchen.”
            “You are awfully liberal with your master’s goods,” said Seven.
            “Give a little, get a lot back later. Won’t YOU be interested in seeing me the next time I pull into port now that you know what kind of product I deal in?”
            “What ELSE have you got on that ship from the south? I want first refusal!”
            “This is a gift mission, not trade, at least not with the palace on this go round. Go see your Fourth Minister in a couple of days. You will be amazed at what we’ve brought Her Highness—guaranteed. There are some spices I did not want to let go myself. However, I will get you anything you want. Just remember my name, Wang Three.”
            “How can one forget? There are only probably about 2,000 of you in this city.”
            “Yes well,” his gaze moved back to Shum’s inventory. “Looks like you’ve got a lot of work there to do, so don’t let me keep you,” he said gazing at the casks set out for inspection. Seven walked over to one and had no idea what the next step was.”
            “Excuse me,” said Seven as Three was walking away, “may I ask your advice on something?”
            “Go ahead.”
            “Do you think I should have them ALL opened up for inspection?”
            “You’ve never done this before.”
            “Does it show that much? My senior was always the one.” She recapped the experience of the last inspection.
            “So she rejected the entire previous shipment and he’s trying again? I’d say Shum here really wants the regular account, so these were probably carefully inspected before they were packed. But YOU don’t want to make a mistake on your first inspection eh? And all of this inventory is going to be used for the Princess Banquet?”
            “Do you have a cold room to hold this stuff until it’s prepped?”
            “Open ’em all, but don’t require them to seal like for a sea voyage. Don’t look at everything; that would be an insult and a waste of time. But pull four samples from each cask from different levels. And do him the favor of dumping out nearly all of the brine and lower his cost on portage. That way you make a friend out of the guy and you cover all your asses. Pardon me, I should watch my language. That’s my advice. Good luck.”
            “That’s very helpful. You’re quite knowledgeable. And generous.”
            “Not really. I only act in self-interest.”
            “You do NOT. How does helping someone like me help you out?”
            “And how are you so na├»ve? Just how old are you anyway? You act like you’re 14. What year were you born?”
            “I’m 26. Born in  the Year of the Dog.”
            “Impossible. Nobody born the same year as me can be as un- … unsophisticated as you are.”
            “I am NOT unsophisticated. How DARE you say such a thing to my face.”
            “I mean, how do you get people to cooperate with you on anything? Do you bat those big eyes of yours and beg and get sympathy?”
            “It, it worked on you.”
            “Well … it’s not going to work again! You must have been born in the Hour of the Sheep, weren’t you?”
            “I was NOT. I was born in the Hour of the Dog.”
            “Fascinating. So was I. Oh well, so much for astrology. I never put too much stock in that crap anyway.”
            “That … what the stars say is very important. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not.”
            “You sound like my grandmother, may she rest in peace. OK so maybe you are a dog, a lap dog. Me? I’m a hunting dog.”
            “I … I never! NOBODY has ever talked to me like that before. You are making me SO angry!”
            “Qi, you’re interesting to look at when your face is flushed. Listen, you’re new to the manager’s game. Grow some … grow a tougher shell. We throw insults at each other all the time. Makes it fun. I keep waiting for you to throw me down. Not bad with the batting-eye remark there, but you just keep getting mad. Give me your best shot.”
            “I may not be intentionally rude, but you sir are a PIG’S SHIT-HOLE!” Three smiled and shrugged.
            “Needs work, but you’ll get it. You know, I’m doing you a great disservice by distracting you from your work. The morning’s getting away from us. Let’s not sour our relationship with such disagreements.”
            Seven looked down at the ground dejected. “I’m 26 years old. I don’t know anything about anything. Maybe I am just a lap dog.”
            “Qi, I apologize that I insulted your beliefs, and I only accord you my greatest respect, dear lady. I’m just a seafaring fool who brokers spices—a southern, backcountry rube come to the big city. What do I know?” he said taking a deep bow.
            “That’s more like it. Apology accepted. But degrading yourself doesn’t make me any smarter or wiser. I wish you well Three. It was good to meet you.” And on that note they parted, he to arrange delivery of the Duke’s wedding gifts, and she to approve her shipments.
            After Seven had finished her transactions she decided to wander down the frontage street a bit and review some of the other catches that the fishermen had brought in. She stopped at one seller who had many large lobsters laid out in a row. They were so uniformly even and perfectly formed, she decided she must have them for her banquet’s sixth course. She asked the fishwife about the price, but the amount quoted seemed quite dear to her. She wasn’t sure. She did not know how to respond.
            A fellow behind her came up, crouched down next to her and started complaining in a very coarse and profane southern accent. “How come you ask for such high price for shit like this! Look at these injuries from your shoddy and clumsy traps. Make for very bad taste and bruised texture. We have to throw away these claws! My lady needs only the best for her banquet! Only the best. Only worth 5 for each.” The fishwife began to lower her price. The man looked up at Seven and smiled. It was Three. He had put on a gaudy silk robe and hat to match. “What you think Mistress? Such poor quality, but maybe we can make it work if they discount for waste? How many we need?” He mouthed the words to her: “Try to look outraged.”
            She focused her mind on the awful rumors Three had shared with her earlier and so found her fierceness. “I’m only interested if they can supply 50. Undamaged.”
            What about the small spotted ones?” said Three. “We pay full price if you give us 300 of the small ones as well.”
            “Wang you foolish servant! What are you saying I don’t want the small ones.” Three got up and pulled her aside.
            “Trust me, you want the small ones. It’s too bad you don’t have someplace to keep them alive until you serve them. Day after tomorrow, right?”
            “I do. We have a saltwater pond at the palace for just that purpose.”
            “REALLY? Mercy. What you can’t do with an imperial budget.”
            “Those lobster are huge! They will make such an impression when they are brought out. I need 100!”
            Wang turned to the fishwife, “Hold the amount aside. 50 large, 300 small. My mistress is the palace procurement officer. We will be back to give delivery instructions,” said Three. “Come on.”
            “Where are we going?” asked Seven.
            “Two streets over taste-test this catch. I saw them when I was doing a walkabout earlier.” He dragged her to an outdoor food vendor and ordered the very same lobsters grilled and spiked on skewers. “Eat tail meat from the small one.” She did.
            “Very tasty,” she said.
            “And how the large one,” he said handing her another skewer.
            “Euhh,” she grunted, wrinkling her nose in disappointment. “Most bland by comparison,” she said after moving a chunk around in her mouth.
            “Save the big one for looks—for centerpieces. Pillow them on colorful radishes in the middle of the platters, but put the shelled meat of the little ones all about on the periphery. After those are gone, have the stewards crack and serve the mean of the larger ones, but present a choice of at least two tangy sauces for dipping. They sell the big ones for looks at premium, but the little ones are like trash to the lobstermen. They wander into the traps and basically get them as a bonus. They sell ’em dirt cheap to the masses. But they’re BETTER—it’s the best kept secret.”
            “Three! Just WHO are you?”
            “A guy who likes to eat. After all, we Dogs eat everything don’t we?”
            “I guess we do. I am going to go seal that deal,” said Seven. They returned to the lobster vendor and cut a competitive price and Seven drew up a letter to be presented to the kitchen staff when the product was to be delivered later that day.
            “You are just one adventure after another, sir. Now what?” said Seven.
            “Lunch!” said Three. “Do you have time? Or do you need to get back up to the palace?”
            “I … suppose I don’t have to get back just yet,” said Seven.
            “Excellent! My treat. You can take me up and down the market streets and tell me all about this produce. We’ll eat our way up and down. There must be 100 varieties of dumpling here. I’ve never seen half of these root crops. This is your turf right? And they all know you, I take it?”
            “Well, yes, but not in the way that you would think …”
            At that time the gossip was spreading through the food vendors that Madame Cui, the Palace Kitchen Supervisor, had sent her apprentice to secretly shop the palace accounts. The lobster merchant had sent word to his vegetable merchant cousins that he had made a major sale, so be on the lookout.
            “If we get the palace procurement charter, even as a secondary or tertiary provider,” the fishwife had yelled at her husband as soon as Seven and Three had walked out of earshot, “we can FINALLY buy wives for those two worthless sons our ours, and I can get some decent help from daughters-in-law THAT I CHOOSE!”
            Word was out to set out your absolutely best wares for the young woman wearing Madame Cui’s insignia accompanied by the purchasing officer masquerading as a southern dignitary in a bright red-and-white checkered robe. They were apparently doing the last-round shopping for the Princess Banquet, which would be a full-on audition and quality test for any supplier selected. After much walking and sampling, Three and Seven took seats in a teahouse. The attendant placed before each of them eight tiny cups and then poured a separate tea into each.
            “It’s amazing,” said Three,” each gets progressively complex as you work your way from right to left. Do you come here often?”
            “To tell you the truth, I’ve never been here,” said Seven. “But I am really enjoying the roughness of the bottom of the set. The tastes at the palace run to the subtle.” She turned to the attendant, “We’ll have a full put of Number Four please.”
            “How do you explain the level of service and attention you are getting? It’s almost like they’re treating you like a princess or something. I’m just comparing ourselves to the next two tables.”
            “Evidently Madame Cui has a lot of clout down here,” she said pointing to the embroidery on her robe.”
            “None of those vendors would let me pay for anything. I feel bad. I don’t want to take food out of their children’s bowls.”
            “We were just taking nibbles,” Seven reassured Three, “so I’m sure it is fine. You know, despite what you say about yourself and your selfishness, you are quite considerate of others. I have a lot to learn from you.”
            “Don’t sell yourself short. Your knowledge is pretty vast, especially on all these local greens, mushrooms, and herbs. There are so many. She we order some cakes?”
            “Not for me, thank you. I am quite satiated. AND I have found several things that I want—but I don’t know how I might use them. The banquet menu is already set. I will have to think about this. I thought I knew everything our markets offered, but I don’t really.”
            “There are nine wedding banquets are there not? Surely you have opportunities to work in your findings.”
            “Unfortunately, the Princess Banquet is the only one I have creative control over, but I am sure I’ll think of something.”
            When Three and Seven stepped out onto the street, Backie was waiting for him with a palanquin and two porters.
            “Backie. What’re you doing here?”
            “Master Shum sent me out looking for you. He said he’d agreed to have Mistress Supervisor taxied back to her workplace. His porters said they’re apparently looking for her up at the kitchen.” Just then the time crier ran by announcing the hour of the day.
            “Great Heaven! IT’S LATE!” said Seven. “Where did the time go? Father will kill me!”
            “Get in,” said Backie, “both of you.”
            “Two?” groaned the porters. “This is a single.”
            “Shaddup you northern weaklings and take the front poles. I’LL take the back and we are going to run up the hill. Hold on boss. We’ll get her there fast.” The servant lifted the rear of the litter with his tremendous arms and called out a brisk pace. “Yaht, yee, sahm, sei!
            “Hey Guang-dumb-ass!” yelled the left-front porter, “don’t you even know how to count to four?”
            “You wait ’til I catch up to you and I’ll give a second asshole to throw your shit outta.”
            “Speaking of shit, there’s a load of donkey poop on the road ahead. Don’t want to accidentally step on yer family Brownie.”
            “Yer gonna be sorry you said that Ghost Boy.”
            “Gotta catch me first Fatso.”
            “Yer sagging on the left sweetheart. Can’t keep it up big boy? Visualize my thighs.”
            “In yer dreams. Hey Bone, let’s double time and give Fat Boy a heart attack. Les’ show ’im what capital runners can do.”
            And so it went merrily between the front and rear drivers such that in seemingly no time, the palanquin arrived at the kitchen gate. The two managers exited the passenger space and Three sent the exhausted palanquin porters off with double pay.
            “MERCY!” said Seven. “I have never heard such … colorful banter.”
            “Men have creative ways of relieving stress when they are doing something hard,” said Three. “I suppose you have only hired first-class porters.”
            “You’re not going to ride back?” asked Seven.
            “Backie and I will walk. Gives me a sense of the place. But before we go, my dear apprentice manager,” said Three, “you have given the gift of a very delightful first passed in the capital city.”
            “It was a mutual pleasure, I assure you.”
            “Let me give you a Manager’s Gift.”
            “A Manager’s Gift?”
            “People of our station, who do business regularly, give each other token gifts back and forth. It’s our way of saying we wish the relationship to continue. One gives a gift and puts the other in a sort of ‘debt’ which can only be repaid with something of like or slightly greater value. It creates a necessity of another meeting and hence, another transaction.”
            Three reached into his shirt and took hold of a small medallion about his neck and removed it. He set it in her hands. She found it was quite warm from being against the skin of his chest. At first she thought it pulsed with the beating his heart until she realized it was hers she was feeling.
            “This is made of gold. I can’t accept this. It’s too much.”
            “Don’t worry. Not like I paid for it. Look at it closely. It’s odd isn’t it? I usually don’t wear this thing. Got it for New Year’s from a relative who had it made a couple of years after I was born.”
            “There are five tiny animals on it. They are?”
            “Dogs. One for each of the Dogs in the 60-year cycle, Water, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Wood. All gathered about a blue stone. See the word inscribed on each? You can trace them with a needle. Since you’re also a Dog I thought you might enjoy it.”
            “It was your birthday present. You’re a Two-Times Dog.”
            “Funny you should say that—there’s an interesting story. Seems when I was a baby, some astrologer told my parents I was what he coined a ‘Four-Times Dog.’ Not an official reading, mind you …”
            “WHAT?” cried Seven incredulously.
            “THERE you are!” A court lady in white-and-powder-blue robes had screamed and now came striding out toward them, angrily and impatiently.
            “That looks like a boss to me. I better get going.”
            “NO,” said Seven insistently. “Forget her. You need to tell me about that Four-Dog thing NOW.”
            “I’ll save for next time we meet. We have to have something to talk about eh? Take good care of it for me. Backie, let’s get down on our knees just in case she’s a royal. They’re dangerous when they’re angry.”
            “No,” said Seven. “You get right up. Don’t kowtow to HER. She’s no royal, she’s just …”
            “SEVEN! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? I’VE BEEN COVERING FOR YOU FOR AN HOUR! I refuse to take another beating for your sake. And just what are you DRESSED as?” The woman grabbed Seven by the wrist and pulled her along. “What an idiot! Afternoon fitting? Dressmaker and milliner are waiting.” She noticed Three on the ground. “Sir? That is not necessary. Please get up. Sorry to interrupt, but we have business. Nice robe by the way. LOVE the pattern.”
            “Silvie! Don’t! I HAVE to talk to him …”
            “Never, never, never, never, never. It’s time to go!”
            Three rose up and called out, “Don’t forget turmeric in the soup! Good luck!”
[in southern dialect]
            Boss,” Backie said as they made their way back down to the ship, “You gave her that family heirloom of yours. Why?
            I never liked the thing. It’ll look better on her than on me. And besides, if things go the way I want them to, I may see it more if it belongs to her than I ever saw it when I had it on myself. I think I may have finally found myself a woman who can keep up with my peculiarities.
            But the pendant? You always said it’s your good luck charm when traveling.
            She can have my good luck. I’ll make my own luck from here on out.
            You going to tell her you’re the son of the Duke?
            And make her shut up because of the difference in our social rank? Not a chance. Only when the right time presents itself.

© 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.

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