Sunday, September 29, 2013

Part 10B - Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China

Hi there, 

And welcome back to the further adventures of Seven and Three. It gets better and it gets worse. That pretty much sums our next installment--or the whole book really. Thanks for reading.


 The “Great” Battle of Shan Jing (Mountain View) Academy - continued
             Noon arrived at its usual time, although Three found himself wishing it would delay itself for once as he had not heard back from Qi on what to do. So, it appeared he had to fall back on the time-honored, but dangerous tactic of improvisation.
            The Mountain View Academy steward announced the arrival of eight guests for midday tea. Blessing escorted four military officers in dress uniforms and four Palace Eunuch Guards into the academy courtyard, which had been set up for an outdoor event. All eight men were armed. Assembled in the courtyard at various tables were the 24 students of the four cohorts, the full faculty, and, on the periphery, were the other academy employees and casual laborers. The eight men were seated at the primary tables on a platform with the Headmaster and his wife and daughter.
            “Students, esteemed faculty,” said the Headmaster, “today we have the privilege of being joined for lunch by our guests, Captain Red Beard of the Imperial Eunuch Guard and his associates . . .” and he proceeded to name each of his sizable companions. “And we are especially delighted to have among us the hero of the Northwestern Wars, and soon to be married at the state wedding, the illustrious Field General Zuo.” The gathered academy applauded and gave the school cheer, and burst into song in honor of the guests.
 “If you are not familiar with the mission of Mountain View Academy,” said the Headmaster addressing the newly arrived guests directly, “every two years I travel the country identifying young men of extraordinary talent and intellect, but who lack the means to attain a first-class education, and I bring them here under endowments and train them to pass the Civil Service Exams. All of our alumni have exceeded expectations and except for poor health or death, to a man, all serve our great country.”
            Red Beard and General Zuo politely listened but were each scanning about for a person who seemed to be missing from the assembly. Simultaneously their eyes locked on their shared target. Three was coming briskly down the garden path. He had torn his robe and excused himself for a quick change and took his place, completing a foursome table comprising him, the Headmaster, the general, and Red Beard. He recognized both from the previous day and gave them both polite and warm greetings. Thanks to his experience as a negotiator, Three was accustomed to dining with men with whom expected to have unpleasant conversation afterward, and so he never let that expectation spoil his appetite and the casual small talk that could be enjoyed beforehand. Business was business, but dining was always to be savored.
            “We have eight large men today Madame Cook,” said Professor Wu. “I’m eager to see if you can keep up with their appetites.”
            “You just watch us, sir,” said the cook, “we got the extra help you hired,” and the staff began moving out platter after heaping platter to all tables. One of the serving maids bumped Three, causing him to look up at her. She was twitching her nose, as if about to sneeze. She was wearing the type of white smock worn by the palace kitchen workers he had spoken to days ago. Her face was vaguely familiar, but he remembered Golden Talent’s words to him and dismissed her as just another “Capital Face Girl.” He was going to hand her his napkin, but he saw that she already carried several. He turned to the general.
            “Glint?” said Three, “You have quite the eye for women, what’s your opinion of the fabled Capital Face that so many women here adopt?” He nudged Glint entreating his attention to move onto the girl standing next to them.
            “Truthfully Three? I’m not really a face man. I don’t bother looking at them. I’m much more interested in parts lower down on the body . . .”
            Three was trying to be discreet, but Silver Bird was listening intently to everything word. She blew air out of mouth in disgust and kicked the leg of Three’s chair as she took away the empty plates back to the kitchen.
            “No luck?” asked Seven as she turned a draining basket and poured a fresh batch of fried dumplings onto an awaiting platter of flat-leaf herbs.
            “Such a dense, dense guy. All of his attention is on his food. And then talking about me as if were not even there. I AM . . .”
            “You’re a maid. Can’t you just whisper to him he’s needed in the kitchen for just a minute? That’s all I need.”
            “I know, I know. But he’s totally engrossed in being polite and chummy with his tablemates. Have you learned what’s going on here? They’re acting polite, but they’re sizing each other up. Bunch of wolves about to piss on each other. They’re so focused. Frankly, I’m shocked Red Beard hasn’t recognized me hasn’t called me out yet.”
            “Apparently there was some altercation after curfew last night and they were all involved. That’s all the staff can tell me. The military man across from Three. He looks familiar. Who is he?”
            “He will be familiar enough. You’ll be sharing his bed in a few days.”
            “THAT’S MY FIANCE?”
            “Yep. I forgot you haven’t seen him close up without a hat. Gorgeous isn’t he? Kinda helps you decide when you have them sitting there right next to each other, doesn’t it? He really makes Three look small … and fat. For that matter, Red Beard makes him look absolutely puny.”
            “AI YAH! What is the general doing here?”
            “I can’t even guess. Sort of makes revealing yourself problematic no?”
            “I’m going out there and I’ll give him my message.”
            “Good luck on getting his attention.”
            The kitchen helper-delivery boy made his way to Three’s table with a special one-serving teapot. The boy announced to Three, “A special tea offering from the kitchen,” and then poured. Three stopped his conversation with Red Beard for a moment, tapped the table with his hand in thanks, and picked up the teacup and took a swig. His face screwed up, he turned his head, and spewed a jet of the yellow liquid on the ground with great force. All nearby tables turned to him. “BOY! THAT IS NO TEA! THAT IS SOMETHING LIKE AN 75 PERCENT INFUSION OF TURMER … ick …?”
            The boy put his head down to this knees and then came back up swiftly. “I am so sorry. I must have pulled the seasoning pot instead of the teapot! A napkin?”
            Three’s eyes met Seven’s, visually probing her face as if to say “WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?”
            She dangled the napkin which he grabbed. He held it so that no one saw the message that had been written in sauce on it, “Confess me. All will go well.”
            He dabbed his mouth, nodded to her, and handed it back. “Well, accidents happen. At least it wasn’t the pepper oil,” he said with a smile. Three really needed a follow-up question or two, but he thought he knew what to do well enough, and the fruit had just come out to wrap up the meal.
            “Headmaster Wu,” said General Zuo, “I thank you for your kind hospitality and sumptuous meal, and for holding Mr. Wang here for us, but Captain Red Beard and I have some unfinished business to attend to with him. Do you have a room where the three of us can speak privately?”
            “Certainly gentlemen, but I wonder if I might make a scholarly request of the two of you? I know that you are here on state business, and as it is my mission to train these young men on the proper conduct of such doings as they prepare to take their places in the Service, I humbly ask that you conduct your business, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in their sight, so that they may draw an example of your processes and fine leadership? They are tomorrow’s magistrates, after all.”
            “That is a most irregular request . . .” Red Beard started in protest, but was interrupted.
            “Oh, I don’t know why not,” said the general. “Relax Captain. I think these youths deserve to see the workings of government at its finest.”
            “Excellent,” said the Headmaster who immediately stood and spoke. “Boys, please keep your seats. In lieu of your early afternoon session, we will observe a live legal proceeding that will unfold before us. I anticipate there will be a formal accusation and arrest for a crime committed along with a field interrogation and a weighing of evidence. Pull up your chairs and pay close attention as we will discuss and analyze what happens afterward. Yes, that hand there.”
            “Headmaster,” asked a boy from Cohort 3, “is Mr. Wang the accused?”
            “We will find out. Gentlemen?” he signaled by his question for Zuo and Red Beard to proceed. “Please conduct yourselves as if we were not even here.”
            “I will begin,” said the general. “Three, I demand that you surrender the gold pendant that you redeemed from me yesterday, immediately.”
            “Initial demand,” announced the Headmaster.
            “Why? I paid you the agreed-upon redemption price,” said Three.
            “Rejection of claim,” announced the Headmaster.
            “Professor of Wu, is that REALLY necessary?” demanded Three. “It’s extremely distracting.”
            “Very well,” relented the Headmaster, “ but we reserve the right to pose follow-up questions at crucial points.” Three rolled his eyes. He was so glad he was done with school and exams.
            “That piece was not yours to offer as security in the first place,” said Zuo.
            “Says who?” said Three. “Do you have proof of ownership?”
            “No. But I know it belongs to my fiancée.”
            “No it does not. It belongs to me. Someone gave it to me. A dear friend and business associate.”
            “And who would that be?”
            “None of your business.”
            “A business associate? Like that lowlife thief you were buddying up to yesterday?”
            “Now, now. Don’t you be jumping to conclusions. Who knows? Maybe your fiancée gave it to me. Because she likes ME better.”
            “I have killed men for making statements much less flip than that.”
            “We’re not here to discuss how you make executive decisions, but I’m not saying anything that could never be true.”
            “Do you have proof that you received that as a gift?”
            “Who the hell gets a receipt for receiving a gift?”
            “I believe our good Captain Red Beard has an answer for that one.”
            “Is it time for me to enter my demand?” asked Red Beard.
            “For the time being,” said Zuo. “Tell him why I venture a claim on it.”
            “That is the property of the Palace. It belongs a member of the Royal Family,” said Red Beard. “All gift transactions of property of that sort are to be recorded. There is no record of that being proffered to anyone as a gift or sale item. I remind Mr. Wang that he himself registered is father’s gifts to the Princess Seven with the Palace Ministry only a few days ago—so he is well aware of our protocols.”
            “OK,” said Three, “I’ll concede protocol, but perhaps your records are out of date or incomplete? Have you followed up with the previous owner?”
            “That, sir,” said Red Beard, “is none of your concern.”
            “So this is all at the same time everybody’s business and yet nobody’s business,” said Three. “I call it a draw and say we move on our way until somebody else adds something new. I have possession and neither of you have made a superior claim to my satisfaction such that I feel compelled to comply with your respective requests. Excuse me now. I’m done,” said Three as he rose from his chair.
            “How now!,” said Zuo as he snapped out of his chair to meet Three. “You are NOT done. Nobody talks to me like that.”
            “Perhaps they should,” said Three. Red Beard rose out of his chair. As he did so, Three remarked flippantly, “Ah! The towering ploy. When lack of presenting a superior argument fails, resort to physical intimidation. Really gentleman? Are we still in the Hsia? I’m not impressed. Nearly all men tower above me.”
            All work in the kitchen had stopped and everyone was gathered at the edge of the courtyard to hear the arguments. A certain cook’s boy and a maid were whispering wildly at each other in some court language that the staff did not know.
            “What is he doing?” said Seven. “He is supposed to be exposing me to deflect them from him.”
            “If you ask me,” said Silver Bird, “I’d say he’s decided he can win and is trying to not give up anything.”
             “He’s probably trying to impress you. That’s men for you.”
“He’s impressing me that he’s an idiot who doesn’t take direction.”
“I don’t think he will win though. It’s very exciting though.”
“Exciting? Red Beard’s hand is on his sword. Three is playing with his life.”
One of the boys in Cohort 2 raised his hand and asked a question, “Headmaster? May I?”
“Go ahead, boy,” said Wu.
“Is Master Wang some great fighter of renown?”
“You saw him wield the pole yourself yesterday.”
“Yes, and he tapped the Sifu. But I was wondering why the authorities would deploy eight such fighting men to subdue him? To do that is to accord him great honor and respect in that regard, no?”
“An astute observation and a fair question,” said the Headmaster. “So gentlemen? Is Wang such a force to be reckoned with that he merits such a display? Do you give him that much homage?”
“I do NOT!” said the general.
“He is an insignificance,” said Red Beard.
“Well, if we are agreed that I am utterly harmless, you will not object to this,” said Three. “Backie, Lucky, Sifu? This is neither he time nor place to bear arms. Please collect all weapons and entrust them to the Sifu for safekeeping. Even though we are all reasonable men having reasonable conversation here, they make me nervous. We don’t want any of the boys getting hit by accident do we?” And so all eight men were disarmed  of all weapons. Once that was done, Three resumed his talk with Glint. “Do you have anything else to say to me?”
“Hand over the pendant,” said the general.
“Same deal as the big guy, last night. You want it, you have to forcefully remove it from me. I’m not a thief, but you get to look like one in front of everybody here.”
Zuo reached for Three’s neck but then restrained himself. Instead he took his gloves and threw them at Three’s feet. “Pick them up.”
Three bent down. Backie came alongside Three. “Boss? Are you sure? You missed the introductions. You need to hear something . . .”
Three was not listening to Backie. “I’ve heard enough out of this blowhard. A duel eh Glint?  Sure. Only if it’s a fair fight. Winner gets the pendant and all it represents.”
“Archery,” said Zuo.
“I’m weak in archery,” said Three. “How about rhetoric?”
“Weak,” said Zuo. “Horsemanship.”
“Weak,” said Three. “Military history.”
“Weak,” said Zuo.
“HEY! Wait a minute. You’re a military officer. This is something you’re supposed to be strong at.”
“I don’t bother with all that written claptrap. I fight and defeat Mongols because I think like them, not because I study some high-falutin’ professor of strategy who hasn’t picked up a sword in decades. Fencing.”
“Weak,” said Three.
“Let me suggest something,” said Red Beard. “Left hand and arm.”
“Weak,” said Three.
“Weak,” said Zuo.
“Gentlemen, we have identified your equality. A left-handed arm wrestle.” And with that Red Beard picked up a table and set it in the elevated are of the courtyard. The two men set selected chairs opposite one another and set the hands against one another while Red Beard held them both readying the start.
“You were born in the Year of the Dragon, weren’t you?” asked Three.
“Yes. You?”
“Dog. I wondered why we didn’t get along.”
“Enough. BEGIN!” yelled Red Beard, and the contest of weak hands and arms commenced. An evenly matched arm wrestle is one of the most boring of contests to spectate—even more uneventful than Chess or Go.  The opponents just sit there very still waiting until the other weakens, and this contest was no exception. The fight went on for the better part of an hour when Zuo felt Three starting to buckle under a few of his probing bursts.
Three expected Dragon Zuo to make a bold, surprise move, and sure enough he did. Three shut his eyes, let himself fall back a bit, just enough to pull Zuo off balance. Three twisted a bit to find a weak spot, and then shifted Zuo’s energy back against him. Three felt some give, but Zuo resisted and then came the sickening sound of the cracking of bones.
“I am broken!” went up a yell as the general’s hand fell back limp to the table. “You bastard! You broke me? You little worm! I lost. I LOST! My arm! We need to set it! Gods!” The general’s lieutenants gathered about to assess the severity of the break when the Sifu entreated them to his studio where he, an old war veteran himself, could set and splint the arm.
A cheer had gone up among the boys and the scholars. The teachers had never expected one of their own would find any success in besting the hero of Northwest Wars in any sort of physical contest. And yet, as incongruous as it was, it happened.
“Boss!” yell Backie, slapping his master on his back, “That was really something. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
Three straightened himself up and grabbed his arm. “Well, ol’ Sergeant Glint ain’t the only one who won’t be able to do anything with his left arm. Ohh, this hurts,” said Three.
“So how’s it feel to be the man to hand General Zuo his only career defeat?” asked the Headmaster.
“Right. Ha! ‘General’ Zuo. That’s good one. And we’re fighting over Her Highness, Favorite Scion of the Son of Heaven. Man, I don’t know how I did it, but I sure put that asshole lieutenant with the oversized ego in his place. Talk about luck. I’m sorry he got hurt, but he asked for it. Jerk.”
The Headmaster gave Three a puzzled look. “Do I have something wrong here?”
“He doesn’t know who the general is,” said Backie. “He missed your introduction. They only just met yesterday at the whorehouse.”
“Wang. That,” said the Headmaster, “IS Field General Zuo, the war hero, and the betrothed of the Princess Seven to be married in a few days.” The blood drained out of Three’s face as the realization sank in. “I thought you knew. You two seemed friendly enough this morning, and even last night. You were using his casual nickname.”
“No,” said Three. “The general? That can’t be. I can’t be the guy to break his arm right before his wedding. He’s going to look like a fuckin’ invalid on his fuckin’ wedding day because of ME. This is not good. He’s going to hunt me down to the ends of the earth and kill me slowly. Why didn’t someone tell me who he was?”
“I tried to boss,” said Backie.
“You didn’t try hard enough. You’re FIRED! Oh man, oh man, I am in such a pot of stew!”
“Don’t worry,” said Backie. “His pride is damaged, but he’s fighting man. He understands these things. You won a fair fight. You should have no regrets.”
“No regrets? The guy does NOT understand the situation. He NEVER loses. Not only did he lose to a twerp like me, he lost in front of some what, 50 people. I gotta lie down. No, I gotta run.”
“Problem easily solved,” came a voice from behind him who put his hand on Three’s shoulder. It was Anto. “Just kill him.  I believe you have it in you now.”
“Why are you here?” asked Three.
“Me and the crew see all this metal and muscle show up here, so we were standing by, just in case we needed to get you out of here fast. I owe you still. The 24 boys of the academy had now gathered about Three as well.
“Boys,” said the Headmaster, “even the mighty Field General Zuo can learn a lesson at Mountain View Academy. Humility. If there is a subject in which we specialize, it is that.”
The boy who stood first in his class of the eldest Fourth Cohort spoke up. “Master Wang? Following up your earlier lecture to us, would you tell us the length of time you you deemed reasonable to hold your defense and likewise defend your honor?”
“Fair enough. I resolved that I should survive to a count of 1,000 and then relent. And so I imagined myself walking up a stairway to a mountain temple, counting each step as I ascended.”
“But you did not relent. Why did you continue?”
“I didn’t want to give up the pendant without a real fight. Plus the longer you hold the position, the easier it seems. But you tell me, lad, what standard of honor did you have for me?”
“I expected nothing less than total victory from you sir,” said the boy, “as did we all. We were not disappointed.”
“And why would you hold me to such a high standard?” asked Three.
“If you’re chosen field of combat were truly equal, the arms were of no consequence then. It was a contest of the minds behind the hands. And how could the finest prevailing great mind of Southern China not win?”
“You boys flatter me. I still commend you to your physical studies so as to put the full strength of your bodies into the service of your minds. On that note. Anto, I have decided how you will repay the gold I lost to you.”
“For the rest of the time you are in this city, you and Ska, and your crew are going to teach these boys your version of the martial arts, with knives. If that’s all right with you Headmaster? A temporary change of teacher will be good for them.”
“I don’t see why not,” said Wu. “Do you have any references sir?”
“Mostly they’re dead,” said Anto. “But ask any Dutch or Portuguese sea captain about me. Come boys. We have our first lesson. Everybody pick up a rock …”
Three set his head on the table trying to make sense of the situation in which he now found himself. Perhaps feeling sorry for him, a maid came out carrying a fresh pot of tea.
“Refreshment after your victorious exertions, sir?” It was Capital Face Girl again he thought.
“It’s tea this time? I was hoping for alcohol. Miss? Have you ever been an actress?”
“Is that really the best line you can come up with?”
He shrugged good naturedly. “Sorry. I just had to ask that. I feel like I know you.”
“Let me congratulate you anyway on being the only person in town who has made the general whose manhood is legendary, go limp,” she replied.
“Well aren’t you the saucy one,” he said sitting up.
“So what’s you’re preference? Velvety sweet and savory? Spicy mustard? Or maybe pungent fishy?”
Three chuckled and licked his lips. “Sharp words cut best when they’re from a pretty mouth. And they say you can’t get good help. Professor? Double her salary. You gotta find something better for her to do.”
The Headmaster took a closer look at Silver Bird. “Girl? Have I ever hired such a wit? You work for me? What’s your name?”
“Oh Master,” she said coyly,”you’ll only forget again.”
“Ah, you’re right,” the Headmaster agreed.
“I’ll just stand by, unless any of you men need something?” And with that she went into invisible servant mode and listened.
“There remains,” said Three to the Headmaster, “the problem of how I deal with that huge wall of a eunuch whom I’ve made into an enemy. Where did he get to?” A shadow fell on Three. It was Red Beard.
“I am not your enemy,” said the eunuch. “Those who are on the side of justice and fairness need not fear me. I looked in on the general—he will not look like an invalid on his wedding day. He will hurt, but he knows how to mask that.” The eunuch sat down.
“That’s a relief,” said Three.
“Good thing you didn’t break his leg,” said Red Beard. “That would have been problematic. He will have to limit his movements, but I’m sure they will modify the ceremony to his best advantage. But the story will get out.”
“He doesn’t know who I am right? I never told him,” said Three.
“He knows now,” said Red Beard.”
“Damn,” said Three.
“If we were to find the field of our equality, Master Wang,” said Red Beard, “It is not a certainty that I would win against you. I want you to know that no man has ever disarmed me while I was on duty, except you. And you did it only by turning my hubris against me and with shame. But that said, I still have duty to fulfill and we have unfinished business. As I said, I am not your enemy. My job is to protect the inventory of the Palace. There is a missing piece which I have now located. I either return the piece or a reasonable testimony for its proper transmittal from owner to either a buyer or a gift recipient. Which will you give me?”
“How old are you?” asked Three.
“We’re persistent, aren’t we?”
“To my nonscholarly mind,” said Red Beard, “this pendant has picked up an undesirable ‘coating’ while it has been out, which I am unable to remove without doing unnecessary harm.”
“You’re talking about me? Like a corrosive slime?” said Three.
“Maybe you ARE the smartest man in Southern China.”
“Backie, is it just me? Or does it seem that everybody feels free to be a sarcastic clown when they start talking to me?”
“Two words Boss, sword practice,” said Backie.
“You too. You’re fired again.”
“You are too clever for your own good Wang,” said Red Beard “Perhaps that cleverness can tell me what I can do to help both of us.”
“A couple of questions.”
“What is the penalty for theft of such an item?”
“Is it a crime to shield such a thief?”
“The penalty?”
“The same.”
“Any leniency given for first-time offenders? Or say, if the defendant is the son of a Duke?”
“You mean like only take off half his head?” quipped the eunuch.
“Just a little off the top, but leave the queue, thanks. I got a job interview coming up … HERE WE GO AGAIN.”
“My apologies. Your nature invites lightness. The final sentence would be up to the magistrate.”
“Naturally. I suppose if a man must live a life looking over his shoulder, as I will be, it’s certainly easier if his head is not attached,” said Three. “Captain, I don’t have a ready solution yet, but I’m going to continue to work on this problem. For right now, let’s make it easy for you. Lucky? From my quarters bring me all of my crested handkerchiefs, the robe I am to wear to the wedding—the boring dark blue one with the mandarin square—some leather thongs, my father’s seals, and the key to the strongbox.
Lucky fetched all these items. Three removed the pendant and wrapped it in one of the handkerchiefs. Onto that he tied his father’s seals and the key and wrapped that all with another handkerchief. He set that into the scholar’s hat he removed from his head, and then wrapped all of that into a neat bundle using his formal robe, folding it so that the embroidered mandarin square was displayed on top. He took some of the leather thongs and secured it tightly with the ducal ring tied with a bow on top.
Three held the bundle in his arms and turned to the eunuch. “Pry it away from me and it’s yours. You will retrieve the pendant, but you will never get the identity of the person who gave it to me. I don’t know the full chain of ownership, how it got from you to me, but it’s safe to assume secret paths are always twisted. I did get permission to confess that that person is my lover. Satisfied? It’s that kind of relationship you’re dealing with. A bad romance. I sincerely hope that one life is enough for you to achieve the equivalence you seek.”
“Out of respect, I will not remove the bundle from you, Master Wang,” said Red Beard, “but I am then required to put you under arrest and take you into Palace custody. Dr. Wu, I must remove your houseguest at this time. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused your household.”
The brief mood of celebration among the academy personnel became one of somber quietness as it became clear what fate awaited Three as the four eunuchs escorted him out.
Cook looked about for the two additional helpers that had been brought to her by Lucky. They were needed for the cleanup, but probably had to report back to their respective masters. Cook thought the girl was pretty, but worthless as a worker—however the wine seller’s delivery boy was an absolute demon of production at the second wok station. She would take him back any time.

                                  © 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.