Thursday, August 29, 2013

Part 9: Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China

This one is short, but, the next one will be long. Thanks for reading.

Altercation and Abduction at the Red Lantern

            It had gotten quite late into the evening, but Red Beard continued his watch. It was a quiet night and he would later apologize to the owner for dampening the inn’s trade—having a senior police officer sitting in the corner of a gambling den could not have been good for business. The general and his men were in a predictable action loop. They would gamble for a time, then they would break to eat and drink, and then a resting period, and then the next shift of bar maids would rouse them and solicit their stories, and then they would break off in pairs or fours to go play with the maids in private quarters, and then the cycle would repeat.
            Eventually a young nobleman entered the inn accompanied by a large manservant. He was notable to Red Beard because he came dressed not to relax and carouse, but as if for a business transaction—this must be the man, he thought. The nobleman looked about, recognized his mark, and headed straight to the general’s party. There were no niceties. The man straightaway produced a purse and laid out coin to be counted. The general appeared to be satisfied, removed the pendant, and handed it to the noble who then put it on, concealing it under his robes against his body. The noble looked quite pleased to have gained the piece. He and his servant, a stout and broad fellow who had the decisive gait of an ex-soldier, apparently a bodyguard, turned to leave.
            The general called to the nobleman and motioned to him to sit and join him for a time. The nobleman summoned a barmaid, who brought additional chairs and another round of drinks. A roving croupier came to them to entice the noble into a game of dice, but he waved him off. Red Beard thought to move to a closer table so that he could hear the conversation, but decided it unnecessary and placed himself on the porch such that he kept him in eyeshot and so that they would have to pass by him in order to exit. And so the wait continued, but eventually the noble and bodyguard made for the exit and out onto the porch. Red Beard rose and stood in their path.
            “Pardon me sir,” said Three, “I would like to pass.”
            “You gained that pendant at quite a bargain. What was that? 2 gold? 250 silver?” said Red Beard.
            “I beg your pardon,” said Three, “is it your business to monitor private transactions in this house?”
            “It is actually my business to monitor YOUR transaction, yes.”
            Backie stepped alongside his boss, ready to put himself in-between as necessary. “Backie,” said Three, “as good as you are, there is nothing for you to do here. This fellow is as big as the Great Wall and he’s better armed than you.” Three confronted Red Beard directly, “You intend then, to acquire my pendant at an even greater bargain than I did, sir?”
            “How dare you imply I am a thief.”
            “It’s night. It’s the port area. I’ve just been told I’ve been closely watched.”
            “I only asked a question.”
            “How dare you insinuate yourself into my affairs. If you mean not to cause me harm or loss, then kindly step aside and let me and my man pass. It’s quite late.”
            Red Beard stood still. “I will give you 10 times the value of what you just paid for that item. I believe that would be its fair resale value.”
            “Not for sale.”
            “Problem? Prince?” A voice came from behind the eunuch. It was Anto.
            “Why do you call him ‘Prince?’” asked Red Beard. He adjusted his stance so that he could keep all of them in view and control.
            “You are addressing the Great Prince of Southern China, that is why. But what is it to you that I call anybody anything.”
            “Anto. This is neither the place or time for that nonsense,” said Three.
            “Boss,” said Backie, “if it’s Anto and me, we can take this guy.”
            “Backie, stand down. Anto, your advice. This guy just offered me 10 times what I paid for my pendant.”
            “Take it,” said the pirate.
            “Why do you want it?” asked Three.
            “Why is it precious to you?” asked Red Beard in return. “I thought that man back there was the owner, but I see it was only a security.”
            “Until you tell me who you are and why you care, I have nothing else to say to you sir. Step aside.”
            “I will say this. Two offers. I will give you 10 times the value of what you just paid. Or, I will give you even twice again that amount, including your explanation of how you came by that piece, and that will be the end of it.”
            The inn steward stepped up to the group, “Gentlemen, I couldn’t help but hear that there is some sort of disagreement here?” He talked directly to Three, “You need to know that this tall man, is the very honorable …” He was unable to finish the sentence as Red Beard put hand over the man’s mouth, practically covering his entire face with his massive palm, and pushed him to the ground.
            “Silence!” said Red Beard. The steward cowered on the ground.
            “Raja,” whispered Anto, “I would take the second offer if I were you. You are in a strange town and unaccustomed to its manners.”
            “How do I even know this guy will do what he says? Why are you here anyway? Your part in this is done.”
            “I am here to ensure that your agreement is carried out fairly and that you are not cheated on my account.”
            “Sergeant Glint got paid. You’re done.”
            “Who’s to say he’s not working for the ‘Sarge’?”
            “Something else is at stake here and the ante is rising fast. I can’t tell what’s what.”
            “It’s obvious. I’ve been in these situations before,” said Anto. “The woman, My Prince. Give her up. She’s nothing but trouble for you.”
            “Shut up. Do NOT betray me here,” said Three. He turned to Red Beard, “Counteroffer. If you have nothing to say for yourself and you intend to raise your hand in force against me, I will not cooperate in your unjust aggression. If you want my jewelry so much, remove it from my person like the evil tyrant you are, but harm none of my party. But know this, when I have the power to address the injustice you perpetrate, I will deal equivalence without mercy to you at my earliest chance.”
            “You accuse me of being an agent of injustice? What insolence! You throw equivalence at me like a threat?” The great man began to open his cloak to reveal himself and his uniform. “I … am …”
            “Wha’s goin’ on here?” Like everybody in the Red Lantern main hall, Glint watched with curiosity and interest as this confrontation began to grow as Three had become detained.
            “Glint, it’s not your business,” said Three.
            Glint’s speech was starting to slur. Apparently his body got the signal to relax after their business was done. “We shar’d a drink and a deal. We … are not frien’s, but w’re gettin’ there. Is he pushing you aroun’? He’s three times bigger an’ you.”
            “Thanks but I’m perfectly capable of handling my own affairs. Please return to your table.”
            “Yer relievin’ me from duty? I’ll have you know I’m a damned hero.”
            “You’ve had too much to drink,” said Three. “I’m fine. I appreciate it though.”
            “Are you sayin’ I can’ hold my liquor? I propose we all go back and have a … contest …”
            “I have,” Red Beard said slowly and with a building anger, “the full authority to confiscate any property that I deem to be the rightful belongings of …”
            And then on cue, came the incongruous, comical sound of a series of loud farts, and a pale-skinned, naked teenage girl came running up screaming and wailing and threw herself around Three’s shins, throwing a tantrum, and then proceeded to make a puddle on the floor. Twelve young men dressed in white rushed in after her with cries of “Stop her! Get her! Don’t worry, we’ve got her!” They were the students of Cohorts 3 and 4.  And then came the porters and then the casual laborers of the Academy. They swooped in, engulfed the scene with humanity, picked up Fart Toad and Three whisked them down the street before anyone could think to react.
            Just as Red Beard snapped himself into chase mode, he was clapped on the back by the Headmaster. “Red Beard you old sot! Are you harassing my houseguests?” said the old professor as if he had casually run into an old friend on the street. “This boy missed his dinner appointment. The girl was absolutely inconsolable, demanded a search, and ran out of the house in her … peculiar way … you know. Boys!” he yelled down the street, “Get them all back to the manse else they’ll not have a good night’s sleep to enjoy the very fine breakfast we have planned come the morrow! Tea cakes. Dumplings. All shapes and sizes, but mostly small.”
            Red Beard had been defused. All he could stammer out was “Those boys, it’s past curfew.”
            “We’re heading right back. Don’t tell me you never broke the night watch as a lad? Ah youth. I’m always trying to restrain them. Should have opened up a school for young ladies. Please take up your business with my guest tomorrow? It can wait until noon can’t it? I take full responsibility for him. Have you forgotten we live in the most civilized nation on earth? No violence in front of the children. Ah, children. She’s become quite fond of this young man. We need to be off. Oh and please come for breakfast. Bring your friends. There will be plenty. Come Backie.” The Headmaster intentionally kept his mouth moving  and did not wait for Red Beard’s reply. “By the way, Backie, is it? My men recovered your strong box. Seems I signed it in to my safe room and forgot all about it. Toad found it. And so that was the fabled ‘Red Lantern’ was it? I must say, it is not much…”
            “What the hell was that?” Adrenaline had pushed a bit of Glint’s sobriety back to the forefront.
            Red Beard removed his cloak and revealed his uniform. “I am trying to retrieve that pendant that you gave to that man.”
            “And why would the Eunuch Guard be interested?”
            “It may be stolen palace property. I am conducting an investigation.”
            “So it WAS a royal treasury item. I thought maybe it was. The Emperor’s?”
            “It belongs to your fiancĂ©e, General Zuo.”

* * *

            The sedan for four was a large vehicle and it took eight porters to move it uphill to the Academy, but it gave the Headmaster and Three some time to chat alone. Toad sat hunched at Three’s side of course.
            “My daughter is not known for having good intuition, but I am glad I heeded her wishes in bringing the boys and the men out with us. However, Red Beard is NOT a good man to have as an enemy,” the Headmaster said. “What is your business with him?”
            Three opened his mouth but then stopped himself. “It’s better I don’t tell you. I’m terribly sorry for bringing this trouble to your house.”
            “What kind of a host would I be if I did not render any assistance as I can?” said the Headmaster.
            “Who is Red Beard?”
            “He is one of the higher ranking officers of the palace eunuchs. If he is dealing with you directly, you must have done something extremely … noteworthy.”
            “He redeemed some jewelry from a military officer,” whispered Toad.
            “Really?” said the Headmaster. “May I see?” Three took it off.
            “Are you sure?” Three asked. “With knowledge comes complicity.”
            “I suppose you’re right. It’s much too dark to see anything anyway.”
            Toad took it into her hands and turned it over and over in the light of the waxing moon that came in the window. “It has a tiny inscription on the ‘wrong’ or obverse side. I think it may have come the trousseau of the Princess Seven.”
            “How can you even see that?” asked Three.
            “It’s those damned purple eyes of hers. She sees in the dark,” muttered her father. Three thought of how her face was always pinched in the full sun. The night was her time. She looked perfectly poised sitting in the dark. The moonlight made her white skin look blue.
            “Her Highness Seven is the only court person who is not a worm. I like her. Everyone says she is odd, like me. She is kind to me. Why do you have this?” asked Toad.
            “That is an excellent question. Why indeed?” asked Three.
            The answer to Three was quite obvious, and it made him feel guilty. He had given Qi, the daughter of carpenter and a seamstress, something whose value he thought was only sentimental, but was in fact a very expensive piece of gold with a precious gem. It was obviously something an apprentice kitchen worker could never reciprocate—unless she had access to a princess’ personal effects. She said she was in the Princess Seven’s service and obviously had access, stole this similar pendant, and gave it to me, he thought. By initiating that cycle with my pendant, I pushed her into a death sentence. The eunuch has not traced it to her yet, but is investigating me, who has possession. Which is likely why he offered to pay me for my testimony. Double the value of the piece. This is all conjecture, he thought. I must contact her before noon so she can advise me how to proceed.
            “Three is sad again,” said Toad. “I thought after we got the pendant back, you would smile.”
            “You’re right. I attract the misfortune gods. And it appears I spread it too. You should probably ask me to leave your house. Bad things are going to happen at noon.”
            Toad started to cry. “I’m sorry Three. I broke all the rules you gave me to be your friend!” She was ashamed.
            [Russian] “Speak Russian?”
            “Of course.”
            “A Russian sailor told me there is a story in his land about the bird after which you are named, the phoenix—except they call it the Firebird. It has golden feathers that glow in the night and can illuminate a room. It has a 500-year lifespan, and at the end, she builds nest and burns up in a glorious blaze, but from the ashes she is born again in a new self.
            “And so that,” said Three, “is what I will call you from this night on—Firebird. Because tonight you blazed and lit the night for me.”
            Toad looked at the pendant and smiled to herself, for it occurred to her that whenever Three wore this, not only would he think of Necklace Girl, he would have to think of Firebird too.

                                  © 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Part 8: Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China

If you like old guys who deep are into baths, fine clothes, and aesthetics, you'll like this. If not, pay attention anyway.

A Visit to Whispering Pine Estate

            “Yes? What is it?” the old gentleman Whispering Pine replied to his manservant.
            “The Professor’s daughter, Miss Phoenix and her ‘friend’ are here to see you. She sent a message and a garment earlier?”
            “Ehhh,” the impeccably dressed Whispering Pine sighed heavily. “I detest unexpected, last-minute visits. Especially manipulating me with these one-time offers. This had better be good. She’s a brilliant one, that sprout, but can you imagine what her eye for the fashionable would target?”
            “I can’t begin to wonder sir.”
            “Still, that robe she sent. Lovely, lovely, lovely. What a red. I’ve never seen such a thing. How could such an ugly lump of a girl … but I must bite my tongue. Did you make up that infusion for her as I requested?”
            “It’s being served to her now.”
            “Thank Heaven. It’s still light out. Seat them outside, but put out some lanterns. The azure I think. And light a couple of censers. Seat them at the table where the blooms are the heaviest. This ‘friend’ Wang is male isn’t he?”
            “Yes sir.”
            “Rather like Little Panda but smaller, about your height.”
            “Average. Dark.”
            “IN-teresting. Set up for a wet meeting.”
            “How many do you think?”
            “We’ll play that as it goes. I’ll move them indoors as soon as she has … uh … cleared her system.”
            He finished up his correspondence and then sat for time. I’ll keep them just a bit longer, he said to himself. He got up and paced. His eye caught the cut flowers in large vase in the hallway. That flower arrangement is not right, he thought. You train and you train the help, but they just don’t have the eye. Short, medium, tall, balance gaps with clutter. Set the primary focal point, then secondary, then tertiary.  Ah! That’s more like it, he muttered to himself stepping back to admire his work. That should be enough time.
            He proceeded to the sitting room. His arms flew up in a gesture of pleasant surprise and he adopted a broad smile on his face. “Darling! My little Birdie! It’s been too long and we’re only a street apart. So good to see you,” he gushed as he leaned down to give her a big kiss. “Mmmmwha. Oh, exquisite my dear,” he said admiring her outfit. “Very nice. Suits you well.” Nurse had put a formal robe on her for making a social call. “And who dressed you today?”
            “Nursie Zhang.”
            “Did she? Remember this ensemble. Can you do that for me dear? Come here dressed like that anytime.”
            “Why should I bother knowing how to dress when Nanny will do it for me?”
            “With that attitude, young lady, you will look only as well dressed as your father, and we know what at travesty he is. Is that what you want?”
            “Frankly I couldn’t care less.”
            Three was amazed at the level of rudeness and familiarity that passed between these two. He shot her a glance of caution, but she just brushed it off.
            “Your associate,” said Whispering Pine, “is waiting for you to exercise some common etiquette.”
            “Oh. This is Three, who I wrote you about. He’s from one of the southern provinces, the Eastern Expanse.”
            “I’m honored to be in your house. I am from the Jewel River Valley. I am the third son of Duke Wang.”
            “Really? Do you know Lady Qian? Fortune Daughter?”
            “Indeed I do. That reminds me. Lucky? You may stand by until you’re needed. Thank you.” The manservant took a bundle from Lucky and led Three’s servant into the house.
            “I know she moved to south for her health. She simply could not abide the frigid capital winters anymore.”
            “I would say she is not well, but she is stable.”
            “Well, that’s something. Give her my well wishes. Remind me to give you something to take to her before you leave. I understand you are a man of great learning. Come into my study. I make all of my scholarly guests inscribe their favorite couplets on a hanging scroll.”
            “Looking at some of the specimens you have on the wall, I would say that my pen is not worthy, but I would be most happy …”
            “I’m sorry,” said Toad butting in, “but Master Wang is in a hurry …”
            “Phoenix!” Three surprised himself at the intensity and bluntness that came out of mouth. He restated her name gently, “Phoenix, I think we are doing just fine with the time.” He grasped her hand and gave it a squeeze along with a nod of reassurance. He turned back to the host. “Since we are meeting on the occasion of a royal wedding, I think I have just the right poem.”
            The three of them entered a well-appointed studio. Toad shifted about nervously for Three as the two men talked endlessly about the forms of classical poetry, and then the quality of pig’s hair brushes, and then the absorbency of paper versus silk in taking ink. The household seemed to her a flurry of constant motion with slender young men taking turns bringing in various pens, ink, blotters, and other utensils that Whispering Pine called for. Finally, they adjourned for tea in the parlor where the men debated over the varieties of domestic teas that could be bought in the capital.
            Toad was quite acquainted with all the facts that made man a scholar as she had absorbed every book in her father’s library, but she could absolutely not understand the propensity of men to go on and on about the fine points of technique, craftsmanship, and prowess. It was such an absolute bore to her that she started to dress Three’s nails as he talked to Whispering Pine. She felt relief when Three changed the subject.
            “I will write out my favorite couplet as you requested earlier, but I feel inspired to compose something just for this meeting, if I may?” suggested Three. “Perhaps four sheets of paper?”
            “Quite ambitious. Most guests only fill two. And that’s after a good measure of wine has passed between us.”
            “Let’s start with the first page and see how it goes, shall we?” Words flowed effortlessly out of Three’s arm, and then he stalled on the last word. “That’s always the hardest one, isn’t it? I’m going to set this down and think about it bit.”
            “Indeed. In fact, let us go where I do my best thinking—in the bath.”
            “The day has been quite sultry. An excellent idea. Toad if you are too embarrassed, then ...”
            “I am coming with you. I am the ONLY ONE who will wash Master Wang,” she announced. She expected this was coming.
            “My, my. The little bird has turned into a tiger, ordering me about in my own house,” said Whispering Pine. “And aren’t you the protective one? What is this? A crush? Is it even possible for my little Toadie? You want to keep this one for yourself, eh? Well I never thought I’d see the day.” The usually oblivious Toad found herself blushing, but she set her stance between them, stayed silent, and denied nothing that was said.
            “Before I forget,” said Three, breaking the awkward silence. He reached into the pouch of his sleeve. “A small gift for your house,” he said as he brought out two trimly wrapped packets. “This is part of the cargo I brought up from the south. It’s best that it’s kept in a jar in a dry, dark, cool place. Please give it smell.”
            “That’s what I’ve smelling all this time. Why this is a full measure of cinnamon. And it’s so pungent. I’m overwhelmed. And these? Vanilla beans?”
            “Yes, it was fortuitous that a trader brought a shipment into my port before I set sail for the north.” The host clapped and handed off the gifts to be stored. They went to the bath and the manservant returned to undress his master. Toad, having made such a fuss, now had to undress Three. She had never done such a thing and copied the servant’s every move. The men stepped into the large tiled pool filled with heated water. Toad assisted the servant in applying scented bath salts.
            “Phoenix tells me,” said Three, “that you, the Headmaster, and the Emperor were all school chums as young bucks. Is that right?”
            “That was a long time ago, but yes.”
            “I understand that you served as the Minister of Ceremonies. Are you involved in any of the wedding event preparations?”
            “I have long since retired from those duties. They’re really a young man’s job, but so exciting! These days I draft imperial letters of introduction and reference. That’s where this young chip comes in. She is my international correspondence secretary. No one has the facility to write in as many languages as she—not even her father, the celebrated master of foreign tongues in the capital. She is invaluable, despite her extreme youth and inexperience in social graces.”
            “I’m getting in!” announced Toad, tearing off her clothes and hopping in. Before she did, Three got a good close look at Toad’s backside. On the left buttock he had previously seen a red birthmark that looked like a fresh burn, which had made him politely turn away focus, but here upon close inspection he saw that the mark was in the form of a feng huang bird, the phoenix—this was probably the source of her name.
            “Good heavens dear! Don’t splash!” admonished Whispering Pine to no avail. “She comes by her nickname in more ways than one,” he said to Three. The girl placed herself between them, wrapping her arms about Three’s torso to protect him from … something.
            “Uhm, Phoenix has become quite … fond of me which I appreciate greatly,” said Three. “We only just met at the Princess Banquet.”
            “I must say, you two have progressed quite quickly. I’m jealous and am calling for my own clinging vine then.” He called out and then a beautiful young man quickly appeared, stripped down, and entered the bath beside the older man, setting immediately to massaging his shoulders. “Thank you Clever. Your hands are ever the best.” The pretty young man whispered into his patron’s ear and the snuggled up on his shoulder.
            “Why Three, you devil. Clever tells me you and he have met before.”
            “Have we?”
            “He said you shared past lives in the ancient Xia Kingdom.”
            “Oh my heaven yes! The Evergreen Inn this morning. Clever, you’re Qi’s brother … or something …”
            “The Evergreen? Three, you are the man about town,” said Whispering Pine slyly. “Since you know Clever, I know which door you go in.”
            “I want you to know, sweet Baba,” said Clever, “that I held him in my arms. He’s quite strong. I did not have to let him win. You’d like him.”
            “With a recommendation like that,” said the older man, “how could this not be the start of something good?”
            “Clever,” said Three, “you’re not really Qi’s brother, are you?”
            “Just an actor trying to make a living,” said Clever.
            “Hush up you two,” said Whispering Pine, “you’ll wrong the magic of that enchanted castle. Three, your turquoise and emerald robe is exquisite, by the way. That dye work … simply amazing.”
            “The material is from one of the southern peninsular kingdoms. They have this stencil technique which is quite intricate. It’s my finest garment, except for the ceremonial robe that I will wear to the wedding, of course. We are about the same size. It would please me if you would take it. It was made for this trip and today is the only time I’ve used it.”
            “Oh I couldn’t possibly, that’s too extravagant of you,” said the host.
Three struck his chest four times. “My father the Duke would be most upset if it were learned that I displeased you. However, I should let you know, I’ve been informed that it is the color of the cuckold.”
“Pish if any of my favorites were not cheating on me, they would not be worth my time. Goodness knows I’ve given out more than I’ve gotten.”
“Yes, I see.” Three tried to politely laugh, though he was thoroughly appalled. Living a promiscuous lifestyle was something Three would never understand, whether it was his brothers’ or his host’s. He hoped his prudish sentiment didn’t show on his face.
The older gent nodded his approval and clapped three times. “Tea. And bring the sand table please.” Tea was poured and a tray layered with fine sand was brought to the bathers. In the tray was a pen-sized stylus.
            “We need to finish up that poem of yours Wang. Has inspiration come upon you yet?”
            “Here is my first thought,” said Three as he drew an elaborate character in the sand.
            “A fine word,” said the host, “but not very many people know it. So the meaning would be obscured. And so many strokes.”
            “I see what you mean,” said Three. “What would you suggest?” Whispering Pine shook the sand flat and wrote a different character, one simpler and much easier to read.
            Clarity and economy, virtues of the writer,” the older man posited.
            Toad despaired that Three would ever get around to making his sale offer as she watched the men endlessly debate the advantages and shades of meaning of one word over another to end this silly poem that Three had just made up. She thought, It really isn’t very good anyway—sounds like an insipid child’s rhyme. At least I am sitting here, with my arms around him, both pressed together, almost like lovers. I should just enjoy it. Father would be outraged, but what of it? He’s just a silly worm.
            The bath eventually ended, fresh linen tunic and robe was brought out and put on Three, and the two bid their farewells to Whispering Pine. The host said he would be sending over an urn to be given to his friend Lady Qian when Three returned home.
            Toad apologized as they made their way down the hill on which Whispering Pine Estate was located. “I’m so sorry. I thought he would be interested in buying your clothes. I don’t know anything about clothes, but he always likes bright colors and patterns. He’s a very weird man, if you can call him a man.”
            “Of course he’s a man. You saw all of his working manly parts didn’t you? And thankfully, we did not have to see his parts actually ‘working’ in their manly way,” he laughed and Toad averted her eyes. “You did fine, Little Lady,” said Three as he grasped her hand and pressed it to his belt.
            She gasped at first thinking that he might be making an advance on her, but she realized he was inviting her to assess the full purse that was on his belt inside the robe he had traded with her old neighbor.  She hadn’t even noticed he was not returning in the clothes he had gone in.
            “Ah! I get the rare opportunity to teach the little genius something. Gentlemen like him do not like to conduct commerce openly, even in their own house. They find it quite distasteful. His butler, however was actively talking with my Lucky in the next room, examining the merchandise. Whenever a youth came in to serve us, he was modeling something that the butler was unsure to be according to his master’s taste. We were signaling to our seconds with our claps and gestures. Do you recall the last word of my poem we were discussing?”
            “What of it? It was so boring listening to so much talk about a terrible poem.”
            “How many strokes are in that word?”
            She drew the character in the air with her finger. “Fifteen.”
            “How many pieces of cash do you feel in this purse?” She rolled her lips into a fish-mouth pucker as she realized it was the same number. “He liked and bought all four of my robes and paid a price dearer than I was expecting. I know he appreciated my discretion. He is not the first ‘eccentric’ that I have come to know. They are quite facile in the language of language, working in symbols and double meanings. Never let it be said that the study of poetics is not useful in the business world.”
            “But it’s only 15 coins,” said Toad.
            “It’s equivalent to about 350 silver, so we’re fine.”
            “Three? How do you know so much? You’re hardly that much older than the seniors at my father’s academy. And they’re all know-nothing worms.”
            “I don’t know that much really. You’re being kind. I just pay attention to what people say and more importantly, what they do. How did you know Whispering Pine would be interested in my clothes?”
            “Promise not to get mad if I tell you?”
            “Mad? Why would I get mad?”
            “It is because you dress like a woman.”
            “I do NOT dress like a woman. My robes are all masculine!”
            “But the materials … the colors, the patterns, they are not what men in the capital wear.” Three thought about all the bolts of cloth he got from his trading partners that he took to his tailor—fabrics ranging from Africa and India to the Southern Islands and beyond, fabrics he liked because they were different. She had a point—he did notice he got a lot of stares on the street.
            “So are we going to the Red Lantern now?” she asked with anticipation.
            “No. I am taking you home to your dinner and your bed. The Red Lantern is no place for a girl like you after dark. There’s a curfew too.”
            “Oh please? I want to see how it turns out.”
            “Thanks to you, young lady, it will be very boring. I will lay down coins and good ol’ Sergeant Do-Good will hand me a piece of jewelry and that will be the end of it.”
            “I doubt it,” said Toad warily. “You seem to attract the gods of misfortune.”
            “Your confidence in me is overwhelming. You asked how I know so much. Let me tell you, Misfortune is the greatest teacher a man can have. Trust the Power of Three. He is wise, as he is Misfortune’s best pupil,” Three laughed at himself. There it was thought Toad—she had made him smile. She could not help but keep smiling herself because he had not let go of her hand since taking it and he held it until he returned her home.

                                  © 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.