The Xi Xuan people are a blunt lot. They have a graphic courtship song, which Miss Xu uses to showcase her vocals today. But not to Zhou Wen Wu of course – that man is still hoping that she will drop dead at the next full moon at this stage. I think there are 2 more lines that talk about ‘strong legs’ and ‘waves of pleasure’ but I guess we’ll hear the song again when she is ready to sing and mean it. In the meantime, I find it cute to see how she goes through life in her robotic way.
Yuan Bao Lou is located in the busiest part of the capital and with the recent coronation, the area is packed with people and festivities. So packed are the roads, that Xu Zhi’s entourage are stuck in the human traffic and Jiang Jiu has to dispatch someone to find and inform Scholar Yan about their delay.
When Xu Zhi hears that the jam is caused by an unexpected gathering of people who are professing to their love ones and singing traditional courtship songs, Xu Zhi edges closer to the singers so that she can listen to their songs.
Since it is dinnertime and the group is going nowhere, being sandwiched by the crowd, Jiang Jiu worms himself out to hunt for some food. Left with only Bai Hua at her side, Xu Zhi is jostled, pushed, elbowed until Zhou Wen Wu finally had enough and pulls her to stand in front of him. When Xu Zhi turns around to see who is blocking the crowd coming from behind her, she smiles. “Ah Wu, you are starting to learn to take care of people. That’s good.”
Zhou Wen Wu gives her a cold look and whispers into her ear. “Xu Zhi, why are you still not dead? That is what I pray for every time I see you.”
“You have to first make sure that the heavens have heard your wishes. Look at all the dancing around you and the people who are celebrating the coronation. How are you feeling now, Ah Wu?”
If looks can kill, she would be dead by the laser beam shooting from his eyes. Unaffected, she reaches out to finger his mask. “Do you remember the famous fortune teller of Xi Xuan, Master Yuan Tu, who has predicted that the second half of your life is a tragedy? You should have been mentally prepared when you heard of the prophesy. How come you are still dreaming of the high seat?”
Zhou Wen Wu narrows his eyes. “Just because you have a hand in realizing part of the prophesy does not mean that Yuan Tu is a real fortune teller! Half a life of glamour? Half a life of tragedy? Fine, great, so this part did come true. But you have given me your word that I will not be buried under some unknown hill outside of Xi Xuan when I die. Tell me, are you lying?”
“So long as you are part of my harem, I will honor my promise to bury you in Xi Xuan when you die.”
Xu Zhi never lies. If there is still someone in the world whom Zhou Wen Wu can trust to say the truth, Xu Zhi is probably one of them. Straightening, he looks blankly into the future and sees salvation only in his next life. Despite disbelief and anger, his life has still taken the predestined turn that Yuan Tu, the crook, has predicted.
Staring at a phoenix hairpin nestled on Xu Zhi’s head, he thinks of the true phoenix that is Xu Zhi although she has never been bathed in fire, much less rise from its ashes. There was a time in the past when he is of much more noble status than her, and yet, she has never paid him any notice at that time. In contrast, here he is fallen from grace, but standing close enough to smell her perfume. Perhaps this is the only way to get close to her? Swallowing a sigh at the twists of fate, he turns his attention back to the singers.
After a while, Jiang Jiu returns with some plain buns and everyone eats it as dinner, except for Zhou Wen Wu who gives up after 2 bites. Even when he has visited poor, rural areas in the past, he has never eaten such simple fare and he is amazed that Xu Zhi can actually eat the stuff without batting an eyelid.
Xu Zhi munches on the bun but her full attention is on the courtship songs. In the past, these songs are mostly sang by man to the woman that they desire, but in recent years, perhaps due to influence from Wei where Wei men are known to be more restraint, such love professions are now mostly sang by females instead.
Bemused, she starts singing along. “My shoulders are broad and sturdy, my dear man, are you willing to lean on me? My breasts are full and rounded, my dear man, are you willing to touch?” Pausing, she asks her resident musician Yun Qing, whom she has also brought along for this meeting. “If you have to guess, what is the nationality of the singer based on her accent?”
Choking back his embarrassment, Yun Qing replies as blandly as possible the singer sounds like a Xi Xuan person, while Zhou Wen Wu just tells her off. “Who are you singing to, Xu Zhi? Don’t you know that courtship songs cannot be sang to any Tom, Dick or Harry?”
Xu Zhi did not hear him; she is more interested in Yun Qing next words which make it apparent that he is able to discern the level of emotions in songs when she fails to hear any difference. Lost in thought on emotions and their correlation to music, she totally ignores his offer to sing her a emotion-packed courtship song if she wants to hear. After a while, the crowd disperses and she leads her group to Yuan Bao Lou which is just ahead.
The whole of Yuan Bao Lou is being reserved by a young nobleman called Zhao Zi Huan for the night, and the moment they are through the door, Jiang Jiu makes his way to him.. “Master Zhao, thank you for allowing us to join you tonight.”
“Wow, look who is here!. I nearly couldn’t recognize you. Where has the informal, gracious Master Jiang gone? Did he drop into a shit hole? You are so strict-laced nowadays and I think that really reflects the training that your Mistress put you through. And look who else is here? Yun Qing, are you now a musician in Xu Zhi’s household? I remembered your wonderful voice and I tried looking for you when your family is banished at the same time as the Jiang family. I would think that singing at my household is far better than being some woman’s plaything isn’t it. How is the feeling of 2 brothers serving the same woman…”
He stops in mid-speech when Yun Qing steps aside and he stares into the eye of Xu Zhi. He chokes on his spit and Xu Zhi has to wait for him to stop coughing before says somewhat impatiently. “I am here to watch, watch…. what is their name again?”
Jiang Jiu rejoins. “Tu Yue Troup.”
Zhao Zi Huan has originally planned to make fun of Jiang Jiu tonight, but with Xu Zhi around, he knows he has to keep his barbs for another day. “Da Gu Niang, are you interested in tonight’s performance?” Muttering an acknowledgement, she starts to walk closer to the stage and alarmed, he blocks her way which earns him a chilly stare from Xu Zhi. “Is anything the matter?”
“Not at all, Da Gu Niang!” As she starts to walk away, he interjects again. “No, wait Xu Zhi, I mean Da Gu Niang, I am trying to say that some of the performers here are really good. Are you here to pick a musician for yourself? If so, can you give Yun Qing to me in exchange?”
Yun Qing can feel the blood draining from his face while Xu Zhi gets more impatient by the minute. “Who is Yun Qing?” she wants to catch Jiang Jiu’s eye to give him her ‘see as you deem fit’ look, but for some reason, his eyes seems to be rooted to the floor.
Zhao Zi Huan is surprised at the question. The circle of nobles in Xi Xuan is only so big, is she pretending to be dense? “Da Gu Niang, him, the guy besides you.”
Following his finger, Xu Zhi sees the musician who can differentiate if there are emotions in a song. “Oh, him. I am afraid not as I still have plans for him. Jiang Jiu, please see if we have someone else suitable and settle this.”
As she starts to walk again, she recalls something and stops. When she was younger, people have an annoying tendency to push men her way. As the years goes by, even women get pushed her way. Look, there are only twenty-odd hours in a day and she really has no time for all this. Although such human presents have been declining in recent years, it may be good to nip any ideas that this…. whoever that is standing in front of her, at the bud.
Walking over to Zhou Wen Wu, she holds up his hand warmly. “This is my newest affection, Ah Wu. I have yet to tire of him so you can imagine how much I am willing to dote on him. The only thing you need know about Ah Wu, is that he is a very jealous sort and I doubt that my taste in men is going to change in the next few years….. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
Zhao Zi Huan looks at the hunky, foreign-looking guy-in-mask who is radiating menacing vibes and figures that Xu Zhi likes this sort. “Ah… I get it now.”
Whether he truly gets it or not, it no longer matters to Xu Zhi as she switches focus to the dancers on stage. Their costumes, she happily notes, contain the embroidery pattern that she is looking for. As she strides towards them, she hears someone saying something behind her, which sounds as the words are being squeezed out from clenched teeth. “A few years? Newest affection?”
Focusing on the dancers, Xu Zhi barely finds the energy to reply Zhou Wen Wu. “In a few more years, I doubt he will have any one left to give away even if he wants to. Besides, once I am over forty, where do you think I am going to find the energy to waste on such matters?” Seeing Bai Hua waving at her from a table with Scholar Yan, she happily marches over.
Huh? No one left to give away?
Leaving a confused Zhou Wen Wu behind, Xu Zhi quickly settles into her seat so that she can observe the dancers more closely and discusses them with Scholar Yan. While they are talking, several scholars came by to say ‘hi’ to her but she ignores them completely. Xu Zhi has always been like this and her assistants are well-used to exchanging pleasantries on her behalf to compensate for her rudeness. Having known her for some time, the scholars also took no offence and leave her alone to talk to Scholar Yan.
After a while, Scholar Yan gets a strange feeling that someone is trying to stare a hole through his back. Looking around, he sees a hunky man wearing a mask which he recognizes as the same mask that he found in an ancient tomb some time ago. Curious over its origins and the apparent evidence of a giant bird, he has travelled all the way to Xi Xuan to seek Xu Zhi opinion on the mask. He is surprised that she has brought the mask home to study it without fearing that it could bring bad luck, and he is even more surprised that a man can wear the mask with such ease.
Umm… the mask was actually buried with a dead man for years; does it really not matter to the guy?
“Xu Zhi, I think your man loves you all the way to his bones.”
“Has it occurred to you before that the bones of Xi Xuan people must be very busy? First, some believe that their destiny is curved on their bones, and now even love is part of the bone make-up. If we use such bones to make into a mask, what do you think is the maker’s intention?”
“,,,,” He does not mean it literally! Deciding to change the topic, Scholar Yan tells Xu Zhi about the recent passing away of the Second Prince. Despite the fact that he is not good Emperor-material, Scholar Yan has found the Second Prince to be a very supportive patron for the scholars and laments about his passing.
Xu Zhi gives some non-committal answer and brings the conversation back to the mask. Some time back, Scholar Yan has stumbled on a tomb that must be at least a hundred years old, based on the fade drawings on the walls. The tomb was found somewhere around the Yao border and that the nearest settlement around the tomb consist mostly of Yao slaves. However, the man that was buried in the tomb is a big-size man, who are quite unlike the locals who. which makes them suspect that the man buried in the tomb may not have been a Yao man.
“So here we have, a burial mask from Yao, which suits the facial frame of a Xi Xuan man. From some clothing which you took from the tomb, they contain some motif, which we have traced to these costumes, worn by Nan Ling dancers. What a tangled web!” Ignoring the headache pounding on her head, Xu Zhi tries to think deeper and did not notice that the dancers have signalled to each other on stage.
Upon the cue of music, they turn to face the audience with murderous intent in their eyes… and a dagger in their hand.
Just a Straight Road –Part 3 (web chapters 11-15)
Just a Straight Road –Part 2 (web chapters 5-10)
Just a Straight Road – Part 1 (web chapters 1-4)