The Princess Banquet
Silver Bird, Princess Seven’s personal assistant and confidante, knocked on her mistress’ chamber door before entering. It was late morning and Seven, at her mother’s insistence, forced her to sit down with the assistant and review her banquet’s details not pertaining to food or cooking. In fact, her mother had given orders that she was not allowed to be anywhere other than her chambers all day, and then to the Great Hall where she would host her guests that evening. Seven sat alone in her quarters.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Seven. “This is SUCH a bore. Having to study everyone’s title and names of their wives and their children. I mean, I know all of them already, but these prescribed statements I have to make to each one! It’s unending and tedious!”
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking,” said Silver Bird tartly and sarcastically. “Other than whining, how are you doing?”
“Other than being under house arrest?”
“Yes, I saw. TWO eunuch guards. It’s your own fault for being so naughty the day before last. Blame yourself.”
“I don’t regret leaving the premises. It’s the last time I’ll ever see any of those things.”
“Where did you go?”
“It’s better if I don’t tell you. But if you have been asked to get something out of me, just tell them that I HAD to go sit in the neighboring temple’s famously beautiful bamboo garden to contemplate the maidenly virtues one last time.”
“That will work. Madame Cui gave something to me that I assume is for you.”
“If it’s my slippers, she can keep them for all the trouble I caused her. She got her boots right?”
“It’s nothing like that. Some man showed up at the kitchen gate with some papers and a letter addressed to the Kitchen Supervisor Qi. She thought that might be you.”
“A man? Do you have a description?”
“There were two visits. The first shortly after dawn by a man in his 50s who was sent away. During the next shift he returned with a second man, a well-dressed young man in his mid-20s, his employer apparently. It’s a collection of recipes and instructions on how to use the various condiments and food items of the southern provinces. What an odd thing to bring to you.”
“Isn’t it though?”
“What are you hiding?”
“There was also a sealed letter. Stamped with a Duke’s mark.”
“I’ll take it now please. I mean all of it.”
“You know that I am empowered by your father to open your sealed correspondence and vet it for threats before you see it.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Threats to you, and threats to the empire, and its proper processes.”
“Such as political alliances by way of royal marriages?”
“Just making sure you remember our places in this world.”
“But you didn’t read it.”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”
“Give it to me.”
“In time.” Silver Bird went over to Seven’s bed and picked up her pillow. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to see the dreams that were had on this pillow these last two nights. This even feels a little damp to me. Wonder if the bedding is also?”
“You are awful. Give me MY letter.”
“I can’t believe this. YOU, the oddball, late-bloomer, cooking princess. FINALLY having a court intrigue, with a man, AND in the days leading up to your wedding. For Four and Nine it was inevitable, but for Seven? I FINALLY get to have something to gossip about with my peers? This is wonderful!”
“You will do nothing of the kind!” shouted Seven. Now give it to me.”
“Here are the recipes …” Silver Bird said playfully swinging them then flinging them to her.
“To Hell with the recipes. I want my letter.” Silver Bird dangled it out and Seven jumped at her, but the attendant avoided her grasp and led the princess on a chase about the room, rolling over the bed, and around the furniture. In the end, Seven was faster and stronger by far and eventually caught Silver Bird and held her down on the bed.
“I’ll give it to you, but we will read it together.”
“What if it’s private?”
“Consider it my duty as a security officer of the court. Do that and my job is done.”
“I have nothing to worry about. I’m sure it is just business correspondence. A thank-you letter for hiring his services well rendered.”
“Here it is,” said Silver Bird holding it out. Seven opened it and read it. She read it again. “Nothing special. It’s just an invitation to late-morning tea. That’s all.”
“Give it to me,” said Silver Bird. She gave a gasp of indignation.
“You may as well live in a nunnery. You have absolutely no subtlety. Just listen to this. How can you miss it?”
Dear Miss Qi,
I hope your preparations for the banquet this evening are all going as planned. I wish you the greatest success for your efforts and that all details go exactly right. Perhaps after your labor is done I could interest you in bit of refreshment. I hope you will join me for tea tomorrow in the late morning to celebrate and you can tell me all about the banquet, that is, if you can spare the time.
I am sure the Junior Palace Kitchen Supervisor is particular about what she eats and where she is seen, but I have been recommended to the Evergreen Inn for early lunch and I am told it is of the highest quality. I told my employer, the son of the Duke of the Jewel River Valley, about our acquaintance and he will be joining us. I would be also honored to host your parents, or their designees as well. I do hope you will make it.
My best to your family,
Silver Bird looked over at Seven who still looked puzzled. “You still don’t get it. I suppose a princess would not. He is going to ask your parents for you in marriage.”
“He is NOT! This an invitation to an early lunch. Nothing more.”
“If you were a regular working girl, like Madame Cui, but much younger, requesting an audience with your parents in the presence of his employer and the local noble to whom he owes his fealty is what you do an offer or marriage to the parents of your intended. If he were at home, his parents would send a go-between. There are many intermediate steps that would be taken, but he is away from home, and his Duke, who is also his employer, is his superior stand-in and he’s going for aa proper short-cut. If your parents consent and his Duke consents, they will set up terms of the marriage right then and there. If you were to actually go to this meeting, you would confirm his intention by assessing the purse he carried on his belt which would hopefully be sagging with the weight of heavy gold coins to pay your bride price.”
“I … see,” said Seven. Her response was thoughtfully deadpan. “And this is how the lower classes get married? It seems unnecessarily complicated.”
“This is the young man in the lovely red-and-white robe I pulled you away from the other day?”
“The very same.”
“And he thinks …” Silver Bird started to smile, “you work …” smile becomes even broader “… in the kitchen?” The attendant tickled herself as she drew out her questions. “That you’re part of Madame Cui’s staff?” Silver Bird had to bring both hands up to hide her teeth.
“I’ll have you know,” said Seven matter-of-factly, “that he has the highest respect for my knowledge of the culinary arts.”
“OH MY HEAVEN!” yelled Silver Bird as she fell back in uncontrollable laughter. “Can … you .. imagine?” That was really too much for her. She rolled about holding herself at the ludicrousness of it all. “The Manchurian Emperor of China and his favorite wife, going to the Evergreen Inn to meet a young southern Han merchant to negotiate for the Princess Seven!”
“Is the Evergreen Inn a nice place? We never go out you know.” Seven had adopted a dreamy look as she thought about the letter and what it meant.
“It’s fabulous! I mean the royal dining halls are beautiful and all, but they are restrained by official taste. The Evergreen is simply over the top! You know the plum wine that is so loved about here?”
“That’s the establishment that produces it. You have enjoyed their product quite a bit. I’m sure you’ve met the owners when they’ve come to meet with Madame Cui. The royal patronage has made them quite wealthy and they therefore maintain the finest dining house in the capital to showcase their wines and liquors. Mr. Wang was well advised.”
“I know EXACTLY who you mean. They’re a very dear family. They’re the best because they love the taste of wine in all of its forms.” Silver Bird had just about finished laughing herself out.
“Save the lecture. Contemplating the maidenly virtues in a temple bamboo grove,” said Silver Bird dismissively quoting Seven, “… my pretty pink ass. I think you were contemplating the reconciliation of Yin and Yang in its most physical form. You need to tell me what you did with this fellow now to put him in such a state. As I recall now they brought the two of you up in a single cab. Were you sitting on his lap?”
“Face to face? Or rather, crotch to crotch?”
“THAT is none of your affair.”
“Interesting choice of words.”
“Tell you what, I will tell you everything if you promise to assist me in drafting and then delivering my response.”
“Agreed! This is going to be good,” Silver Bird cackled. “I just know it.”
The Princess Seven was quite proud of herself as she delivered her proper court greetings to each banquet guest as they passed before her. She was flanked by her mother on the right and by Silver Bird on her left. Unfortunately her memory faltered when a particular guest was presented whom she had forgotten about.
“The Third Son of the Duke of the Jewel River Valley, Wang Three,” announced the retainer. The princess was jolted into the moment at that name. It was him. Tonight he had on an even more eccentric robe than his red-and-white garment. This was of turquoise and emerald green, not silk, but some elaborately dyed rough cloth. He made his three deep bows. He made eye contact but he did not recognize Seven for all of her makeup, headdress, and finery.
Three made the customary ceremonial well wishes on behalf of his father. His eyes locked onto Silver Bird’s for a moment. He was about to say something to her, but moved on. Silver Bird reflexively gripped Seven’s hand tightly, but the attendant was pleased that she had kept her face absolutely serene.
“Halt the line for a moment,” said the Princess. “I need to rest just a bit.” She and Silver Bird moved to an area curtained off. “I’m confused,” said Seven. “Why would the Duke’s son send his retainer Three here passing him off as himself? Do you think he’s at the gambling houses instead? We need to find out if anyone can identify. The neighboring province, the Western Expanse—the governor is here tonight. Perhaps he can send a man …”
“Seven you idiot! You’re overanalyzing from the wrong direction. Three IS the Duke’s third son.”
“Impossible. Three would not deceive me.”
“He didn’t lie about a thing. He didn’t even obscure his name. His name is “Three” by God. What more proof do you want?”
“But he kept talking about the Duke as if he were a stranger, not his father. And his clothes were common.”
“You call your father ‘the Emperor.’ As for clothes? That red-and-white robe I saw him in? Not common. Reminds me of something I saw the Malaccan royal ambassador wearing. AND, I might add, you have quite the collection of common clothes yourself as I recall.”
“Yes, but that’s different. I only have those so I can talk to people who would not ordinarly speak to … hmmmm.”
“The most clever Princess Seven has evidently met her match.”
Seven quickly shifted her mood. “We’re changing plans for tomorrow. I have to think about this. I will excuse myself from the fourth course and we will strategize—oh! But that’s the duck and goose course! The sauces from the rendered fat! And the aspic! I’m going to miss them—sigh, it can’t be helped. I need a scribe who can be trusted to stay quiet and you need to put our nosiest maid, two if possible, at his station and tell her we need to know everything he says and does. Tell her we think he’s a spy. Oh, Three! I just want to go over and sit next to him and ask what he’s up to. Do you think he’s a cad? Or a gigolo? We need to find out everything about him.”
“As you wish, Your Highness,” said Silver Bird. “You surprise me.”
“You are finally acting like a princess.”
Later that evening, the attendant Mama Horse, a matronly servant in her 40s of lifelong palace service was brought to Silver Bird to make her report. She brought along the maid that served alongside her that evening.
“Mr. Wang was seated with deaf old Lady Tang on his right and the 14-year-old mental defective girl Fart Toad on his left. How he managed to carry on ‘conversations,’ if you can call them that, is something of a miracle. I would call them more like detached responses. Or that he drew pictures for the little dummy girl. He has the patience of a temple priest, I’ll give him that. Whom did he insult to get that seating?”
“It’s his first capital visit,” said Silver Bird. “He’s working his way up. Did you have to leave at any time?”
“I was there mostly the entire time. Fart Toad slobbers and spills on herself constantly, so I got her father and mother, the professor and his wife, to let me sit behind her and attend to her clean, for which they were grateful. I got another girl to take my wait position, so I heard everything, not that it was helpful to you.”
“Please continue your report,” said Silver Bird.
“Mr. Wang tried asking her, Fart Toad, about her studies, but the poor thing just blushed and hunched herself over whenever he would say anything to her. She wet herself a couple of times and I took her out to clean her up. That was the only time I left the hall. Her family brings her changes of clothes whenever they go out. And these absolutely smelly and horrible cushions that … well I need not go on. She was given a big platter on which she arranged her food into the shape of a large labyrinth through which she would work her peas.
“Mr. Wang then requested a napkin and some ink and a pen, and he drew a maze supposedly found in an ancient Greek palace that a foreign sailor had drawn for him. He told her a story about a Greek maze and something about a tribute of young people paid by a vassal state to some conquering state and all that. He thought that the Chinese and the Greeks may be related since we both seem to love meandering designs on our plates. That seemed to endear him to her and after that she just held onto his arm and put her head on his shoulder the rest of the night.
“His explanation of the maze caught the attention of Fart Toad’s father who then started to talk to him in some foreign gibberish for the rest of the evening. I have no idea what they said, though they seemed to be having a nice time. The poor professor and his wife had to pry their daughter off of Mr. Wang at the end of the night, and that pitiful teenager went into a tantrum,” Mama Horse finished up.
“I see,” said Silver Bird. “How about on the other side? Lady Tang?”
“They were an interestin’ pair those two sittin’ next to each other. Them in their foreign dresses.”
“Lady Tang wears kimonos. She is from Japan. His garment, at least the material, I would identify as probably Siamese. Maybe from a trading partner?”
“I don’t know about that, but initially Lady Tang only nodded at him and his attempts to speak to her in OUR language. The professor pointed at her a couple of times, at which point Mr. Wang asked for something to write on and was brought a stack of old napkins. He scribbled some things that I have no idea what they were, but they made her smile. I hardly never seen that. She evidently wrote in response. She even said something. I’d never heard her voice before. I’d always assumed she was mute.
“This caught the attention of her husband retired Ambassador Tang and then THEY started up in some different foreign gibberish. That’s about all I can tell you,” said Mama Horse.
“Did you keep the napkins?” asked Silver Bird.
“I have them here. Fart Toad took her napkin with the maze on it.”
“Japanese cursive,” said Silver Bird. “I don’t know this language well, but I think he was asking after her family and hometown. Small talk as I would expect. And you Maid Li? Do you have anything to add?”
“I know a little of the southern dialect, My Lady. The professor and Mr. Wang were speaking in it the entire evening. The professor said he had so little opportunity to use it. Likewise I know a little Japanese. He and Ambassador and Mrs. Tang were conversing in Japanese.”
“Maid Li has been assigned to the professor and the ambassador in the past,” said Mama Horse, “which is why I pulled her to work with me.”
“Excellent choice Mama. Anything unusual other than small talk about family, work, weather, that sort of thing?”
“Mr. Wang corrected each of the older men about southern geography and receive events, but he made them feel like they had corrected him.”
“He corrected them in areas of their own expertise?”
“He did. It was very interesting.”
“How did he do it? They’re quite prideful old men those two.”
“He played the fool is the best way I can say it. When each older man made a statement that I could see Mr. Wang need to challenge, he made an outrageous or foolish assertion to feint ignorance, but then slipped his correct observation as an aside, nearly throwing it away, which the older men would grab and apparently teach him with. It was quite transparent to me. I would say it’s almost a wifely approach, but then I am a wife. I realized I do that myself, but not with quite so much … style shall I say?”
“Li?” said Mama Horse, “you caught all of that in those foreign tongues? Maybe you’re the international spy?”
“I’ll say that I have relatives who have taught me. One other thing, the minister of finance made a point to come over and see him after dinner.”
“Minister Long,” said Silver Bird. “Really? Did you hear anything?”
“He said he had tried to get Wang seated next to him talk about some matters but the protocol officer would not allow it. Wang was evidently too junior a personage. He wanted to meet Mr. Wang personally and requested that he set up a meeting before he returned to the south. He said he wanted to remind him that it is against our country’s law to collaborate with pirates in any way. He was concerned about the staggering amount of tax remittances that the small backwater port of the Jewel River Valley kept sending to the capital every few months, which started coincidentally since Wang took over the treasury in his father’s domain a couple years ago.”
“And since when does a tax collector complain about too much tax coming in? The world is going upside down,” said Mama Horse. “Did you know he keeps a miniature pig in his office as a pet? He has us prep its meals.”
“Ahem, anyway, he said he was suspicious that such a region could be prospering by any means other than piracy, smuggling, or sales of contraband.”
“Wang’s response?” ask Silver Bird.
“He invited a delegation to come in and audit his records and contracts at any time. He would set up interviews with all of his business partners as well if desired. Minister Long asked if the Duke would be asking to install a military garrison in the near future. Wang answered that it would be up to his father, but he thought that the presence of a garrison would deter business and trade rather than protect it. Minister Long said it was exactly that kind of stance that is drawing his attention. Wang said he would be happy to discuss his theories on economic growth when they met.”
“He said he would be damned before he let any dark-skinned, backwoods, Han whippersnapper lecture him on international commerce or maritime trading.”
“My! Defensive wasn’t he?”
“Wang apologized if had given the impression that he knew more than the Imperial Finance Minister. He said all he knew is what worked in his father’s valley domain. But he invited him to check his references with the Civil Service Test Examiners and that he was quite aware of current scholarship on economics. And you know what?”
“He quoted Long’s own Treatise on Fiscal Governance back at him. Something like ‘The optimal practice to ensure a fully functioning state would be best achieved not by annual remittance on the antiquated harvest schedule, but upon quarterly earnings. And blessed and pious is the superior man who does so by duty and not by threat of force or promise of corrupt gain.’ Wang said that while his neighbors did not so practice, it was a principle by which he chose to organize the Jewel River Valley finances. He then got down on his knees and kowtowed, placing his forehead on the floor before the minister.”
“My Heaven! Where did all this happen? This was quite the political dustup! I didn’t see it,” asked Silver Bird.
“Out in the courtyard, where the litters were being organized for pickups. It was dark. Torchlit. Only a few saw it. Many heard it though.”
“What else happened? Did you stay nearby?”
“Oh after that I HAD to linger. I wasn’t going to miss a thing. Minister Long ordered Wang to his feet and told him to contact his secretary for an appointment as soon as possible. An then he walked away briskly. Several of the Han literati started to gather about Wang and introduce themselves, but he thought it best not to be potentially associated with the more subservice elements in the capital and he excused himself. Mr. Wang is young, but he seems wise beyond his years. I mean, none of the men I consider his peers are about. They all tend to spend their nights getting drunk at the gambling houses.”
“Is there anything else? Anybody else come up to him? I almost hate to ask.”
“No. He met his retainers, a large porter who looks like a wrestler, and an older gentleman, and they walked off into the night.”
“Do you know where they are staying?”
“I think they are staying on his ship. There are no lodgings to be found in the capital.”
“Excellent work ladies. You are dismissed,” and Mama Horse and Maid Li left. Silver Bird pulled aside a curtain. “Interesting fellow you have there Seven. I don’t think he’s going to forget your party ever. Do you think Long counts him as an ally or an enemy?”
“I’ve never met a scholar who wasn’t a sucker for a disciple who prostrates himself,” said Seven blandly. “Scholars are SO arrogant.”
“Too bad you’re already betrothed. Someone who attracts trouble like Wang would be perfect for you.”
“Oh shut it,” said Seven. “Did you get the letter deployed to the Evergreen Inn?”
“The runner said he put it in the owner’s hands himself. I want you to know I’m even more opposed to this scheme of yours now. You’re simply toying with him.”
“Don’t start. Do you think we can find a family that will lodge him?”
“I’ll ask my father. We have space.”
“You will NOT,” snapped Seven. “He is not going to spend any night under the same roof as you or your sisters. You are ALL too pretty! Find someplace else!” Her tone was harsh and fierce.
“There are still many families socializing here yet. I’ll find someone. Seven? Your Highness? I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so tired Silvie. It’s been a beastly long day. I’m ready to cry.” Her mood quickly shifted to tired and wistful. “Tell me, is it so wrong for a girl to want to know what it’s like to have an admirer? Just once, before she has to get married? It’s never happened before. Don’t you have admirers?”
“I refuse to give answers that only serve to embarrass me.” She pulled Seven over onto her breast and cuddled her. “Oh my dear one, if only it were any of the noble men our age in this town, I’d say they deserve it. But Three seems like a good person.”
“Well of course he’s good. He’s in love with ME isn’t he? Yawn. I’m going to bed. Please wake me up in time for us to get to the Evergreen. Don’t worry. I’ll work out all the details in my dreams. It’ll be a lark.”
© 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.