I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving and are not too weary from your Black Friday adventures. This post brings to a conclusion the story of Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China in this form. I am confident this wrap-up will satisfy my most romantic readers, so proceed in all earnestness to the happy ending.
This section, Part 16, like all of them, speaks for itself, so I'll not say much more than to enjoy it. Next week I'll post my comments on this story as a whole if you're interested in what the author thinks about it. I invite you to make your own comments.
This story will nest inside of a larger novel. In two weeks I will begin posting the rewrite of that work as I go back and work on that from the beginning. I hope you will continue on with me as I finalize that story.
Love to you all,
All Endings Are Beginnings
Seven was surprised when Captain Red Beard appeared as the leader of the security detachment she had requested for the Eleventh Princess’s Moon-Watching Banquet. He had volunteered to take the job and brought his core group with him. She expected this development to be troublesome, as she rightly determined her activities had attracted too much of his attention. But her fears were unfounded. Judge Kuang’s neighbors had all been sufficiently cowed by his guards’ preemptive visits that afternoon requesting forbearance and cooperation, traffic moved in smoothly, and the small army of porters stayed quiet during the entire affair. After he saw the last sleeping guests laid comfortably in the palanquin to be returned to their home and put to bed, he reported to the Princess Seven.
“Eleven and I will be staying here at the judge’s estate tonight,” said Seven.
“You will have full complement of guards then. Tomorrow will be a full day for you.”
“Indeed,” said Seven. “I have to say, I did not expect to have such a high-ranking officer for this little staff-appreciation party of mine. I’m flattered you brought the best the guard has to offer.”
“Permission to speak freely, Your Highness?”
“Goodness. When have I ever required such deference? Go ahead.”
“This is probably the last time I shall be in your particular service. I wish you the best in your marriage and long life to you both and may you have many sons. And if I may say so now, you have been a worthy adversary during our shared time here. I have not discovered all of your escape methods, but that was never my specific assignment. You will not be missed in that sense.”
“Why Captain! That’s quite the compliment.”
“I would like to offer you my own wedding present, if you can call it that.”
“A present?” She was taken by surprise and became very curious. The towering man brought forth a gold pendant. On it were four golden dogs placed at the points of the compass around a central red gem. Her eyes grew wide. “Is this …?”
“It is quite common,” said Red Beard, “for fine and noble ladies to have decoy copies of their jewelry made to wear in public, so that if they are ever stolen when they are worn, the real one remains safe.”
“Mister Wang disclaimed the judgment that the anonymous Princess Judge properly awarded him at his trial. He designated the fund to charity, but in my discretion, I decided to augment it with funds of my own and had a decoy made. But it’s not a true decoy of inferior materials. It’s actually a true copy.”
“And why would you present this to me?”
“I don’t have direct evidence. But I’m pretty sure you were the one who gave it to Wang.”
“It’s amazing,” said Seven denying or admitting nothing. “It looks just like it.”
“Actually, it’s the original, with a couple of modifications. I had the Treasury marking obscured on the back and an additional figure was added onto one of the dogs.”
“A figure? I see it, but it’s too dark to make out. What is it?”
“As it turned out, the goldsmith I took it to was the very same one who made it. He was quite unhappy with it. He said it had four figures on it, a highly unlucky number to goldsmiths I suppose. ‘It’s nothing but an amulet of death and misfortune to the poor soul who wears it,’ he said. Considering Wang’s experiences, I could not deny that. But he said your grandmother had been adamant about the number four, raving about some legend of a four-times dog, and so he made it against his ethics. Since the old queen mother was now deceased, he said he would make the decoy only if he could modify the original, and so he added a fifth figure. It is small, but present, and sits on the back of the Dog of the Hours in the compass position of the South.”
“I see it. What is it?”
“It’s hardly noticeable. It’s a toad.”
“WHAT? A TOAD? ON MY PENDANT? OF ALL ANIMALS?”
“Is there something wrong with a toad?”
“Oh Captain, you have no idea. And it had to be on the Dog of the South too. Well, my sister tells me too much happiness is a bad thing. So where is the decoy then?”
“The decoy is in the harem treasury collection. It looks like the unaltered original with no toad, but the smith changed the loop so that is annoyingly painful for anyone to wear and therefore prevents activating its curse. So, you are free to dispense that as you wish, Your Highness.”
“That all must have cost considerably more than 50 gold Captain. I hope you have not impoverished yourself.”
“Eunuch guards have very few living expenses, so we stockpile our earnings and amass quite a bit. That is why men choose to become Eunuchs. But to tell you a bit more, I hardly had to come out of pocket for this trinket.”
“I hope you didn’t threaten the goldsmith with violence.”
“Not necessary. He was so pleased I had brought it to him that he did the work complimentarily because he felt had to correct what he thought was professional malpractice. Like fulfilling a warranty. The additional gold stock and gem for the decoy were paid by a wager I made.”
“With my fellow guards and General Zuo’s lieutenants. I bet that Wang would win the arm wrestle with the general. The odds were highly uneven so the payoff was substantial. Speaking of Wang, his sedan is already on route back to the Academy. Would you like me to have that pendant delivered to him?”
“No thank you, I will do it myself.”
“And just how will you accomplish that?”
“You … will never find out.”
* * *
For all the feasting and preparations surrounding them, royal weddings are but short affairs with brief ceremonies—it’s the parties that take time. Some noticed that General Zuo moved with some discomfort and stiffness on his wedding day, but for a military fighting man that was not unusual. Everyone thought that Zuo and the Princess Seven made the exceptionally handsome couple.
The general noticed something special about his bride himself when he took her arm and she glanced at him as his wife for the first time. There was something in her look that promised optimism and expectation that made him feel he was important, significant, and special.
Princesses are different, he thought—offering something much different than the casual fancies of the females with whom he passed time, and of whom he was starting to weary. So many, and yet so much the same. There was definitely more to this girl than a political pairing. Theirs was an ideal pairing—he was born in the Year of the Dragon, and she was born in the Year of the Rat after all.
For his part, Three attended only as many functions that day as protocol required him to and he prepared himself and his men to return home. He did not need to attend any more events. He had made several important political connections with whom he would now correspond. He had also cut several deals to make sure he was not taking an empty boat back home. And finally, he promised he would send the Jewel River Valley’s best prospects to Dr. Wu’s academy. Of course, parting was difficult for Toad, but she surprised herself most of all by exercising restraint and acting like the perfect court lady—she was allowed to keep the lavender robe that Three had so admired her in.
Three skipped the last wedding banquet. He could not stomach any more. He was content to live in the last words that the mysterious kitchen assistant Qi had shared:
“I cannot give you the Manager’s Gift that I want,” she said, “and I cannot give you the wedding you want, so you will have to be happy with just getting the wedding banquet as my Manager’s Gift back to you. It is now up to you to someday find me, and give something of even greater worth.”
“I’ll have to work on that,” he said to himself as he waited on the dock. The last, expected delivery from the Evergreen Inn had arrived on time. A man with a two-horse dray accompanied by a young porter set several crated and heavily padded jars of wine on the dock. They deftly assisted the ship’s crew in wheeling them aboard and securing it all in the cargo hold.
“All jars are accounted for. Thank you, sir,” said Three after he had performed an inspection and returned to the dock.
“Very good. I’ll be leavin’ then,” said the dray driver. The boy tightened the turban he had on his head and stayed on the dock as the driver threw a duffel bag out of the cart onto the deck.
“What’s this?” asked Three.
“Boy wants to join yer crew. Says he wants to see the Southern provinces.”
“Boy, travel on your silver. I’m not hiring.”
“Oh I think you’ll want him. ’sa pleasure.” And the man drove off.
Three turned to the boy. “He’s convinced. Convince me.”
“I cook,” said the boy.
“Already got a mess man. The best. I’m very particular about food.”
“I’M better. Plus I can climb the masts and perform lookout scans.”
“A climber eh? Prove it. The main connecting pulley line between the main mast and the foremast snapped and needs to be rehung. Hu! This kid’s going to rehang the forward mast line. Give it to him.”
The boy took the rope, secured it to his belt, removed his shoes and shinnied up the main mast as quickly as a squirrel climbs a tree. Securing the line, rather than coming back down and climbing the foremast, he carefully surveyed the distance and then launched himself into the air, flying determinedly between the two posts, and then caught the foremast between his legs, then pulling the rest of him along and clutching the mast. He completed hanging the line and hurried back down to Wang.
Three gave a whistle of admiration and all of the crew who saw the feat burst into applause. “Damn, kid. You move through the air with the confidence of a fuckin’ monkey! But unless we’re being boarded by pirates, I NEVER want to see you do that again on my boat.”
“So I get the job?”
“You’ve shown you can move and pack fragile freight if we need to rebalance. Yeah, you got the job. But there are no additional bunks. It’s a medium-size crew on a small ship. You have to find your own place to sleep.”
“I’m small. I’m sure I can find someplace to fit in. In fact, I know exactly where I’m going to sleep tonight.”
“Cheeky fellow. I like that. What’s your name?”
“Qi. It’s pronounced like the word for ‘seven.’”
“Qi?” said Three. The boy removed his turban and shook out his long hair. Three finally recognized her. “Qi! How?”
“In my experience, I find that people only see what they expect to see. And so what does that say about you, my dearest Hsia Dynasty husband? You were going to leave without me. You disappoint me. And here I thought you were the most faithful man in the world.”
Three sighed. “Tis a shame that the dray is gone. I wonder if it’s too late to book a room at the Evergreen.”
“I’m a step ahead of you. I told him to wait around the corner,” said Seven grabbing his arm and pulling him along.
The End (for now)
© 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.