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Plum Blossom Song

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The Alliance nailed down universal dates for Christmas and New Year's and Unification Day on its official calendar. They approved another four fixed holidays for which workers expected to be paid, and then things got less and less official toward the rim. The dates for most holidays, old and new, were determined regionally and astronomically on the settled planets and moons, or arbitrarily by a ship's captain in the dark. Traders and travelers and marginal folks on the wing celebrated season festivals as they came across them. Summer, autumn, spring, lost their meaning in canned air and starlight, far between moons.

In a small scarlet book, in neatly inked numbers, Inara tracked her year according to Sihnon. Today in the city of her birth and training was the feast of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. In their celebrations and prayers, people looked to the waning of the Yin and the waxing power of the Yang. Sacrifices were offered to ancestors and red dumplings were eaten in broth. For Companions the day had another, bittersweet taste: it was a day to contemplate the turning of the wheel. It was the day novitiates were accepted to the Academy and girls who had passed the initial training received their first-level names. It was the day a deceased Companion's name was embroidered on her House's banner and retired.

Inara locked her shuttle door, more as a gesture than anything else. Midnight on Sihnon tonight was 0300 here, and no one was up and about. She knelt to draw a flat cypress chest from under her bed. She opened it, folding back layers of incense-scented tissue to reveal a brocade robe heavily embellished along its sleeves and hems. It was her presentation gown. It would be her burial gown, if she followed Guild tradition to the very end. She pulled it across her lap in a hiss of silk; she ran her palm along the edge of the right sleeve, to find two sets of characters embroidered in pale green. She rubbed them with her thumb, then reached up for the sewing casket she'd left on the bed. It fell, it fell open on the carpet next to her knee, spilling needles and a twisting tumble of colored thread.

Twelve years ago today, in Sihnon, sleet rattled the windows of her dorm and turned the light a dappled gray. The floor was chilly through the woven matting; the heat would be raised in an hour, when the girls who had the means to celebrate returned. Inara-to-be sat on her bed with her feet tucked under the blanket, untangling skeins of embroidery thread. Her bed, her clothing chest, her desk and chair -- she'd graduated this year to a dorm with fewer girls, better furniture, and a small folding screen for privacy. The screen was a little battered. It was green cotton cloth stretched across a frame, painted with a slightly cross-eyed deer. The Elder Sisters of her group today had given her the name Li Na, and as she worked, she turned it over in her mind. My name is Li Na; I am Beautiful Jade. She thought it sounded elegant, enduring, and cold.

The girl in the next bed was called Yun-Mei, Plum Blossom Song. Li Na was envious; the name was sensual and ephemeral and fit the smoke-eyed beauty like oil on her skin. The skein loosened, slowly, the threads separated. Green for me, Li Na sniffed. White for mourning. Pink for girlhood and spring. She hooked a loop of crimson thread with her little finger and pulled out the braided strands. Red for luck. Red for money. Red for the pleasures of the flesh. There was a little flourish, a trick she'd been practicing -- for women clients (an advanced skill) or to ready oneself, under a client's view. It was a display of dexterity and delicacy, of tradition and skill. One-handed, with an overcast flip and lacemaker's knots, you tied together the first and second fingers of your hand. Skill in making, to achieve it; skill in use, not to break the strands, not to numb the fingers, not to let the bound flesh appear unsightly between the coils; skill also in control, to dip the stiffened fingers into Moon Dew and stir the Lotus Heart without wetting the thread.

The knots and binding she could manage. For the rest... she looked at the cross-eyed deer. Her screen now, her right to privacy in unscheduled hours. Her Solstice celebration. She kicked off the covers and bounced up. She adjusted the screen tightly around the bed, and opened her chest. She took out a small mirror, then wrinkled her nose. Moon Dew. Good oils were expensive and hard to come by for novices. For general use, the teachers issued a low-grade cooking oil; after some sessions, the dorm reeked of it. There was still a bit left in a clay jar. She finished rummaging in the chest, and closed it up. She pushed back the covers, spread a small towel over the sheet, and pulled off her drawstring pants. She hesitated. Her socks were fuzzy and a childish pink, but warm. Focus, she told herself, sternly. The socks could stay. She sat on the towel, wiggled to settle herself, and drew up her feet, heel to heel. She braced the mirror between them, cleared her throat, picked up the scarlet thread, and began the performance. She watched the graceful twist of her hand between her thighs in the mirror. Flip, bind, tie... it looked quite nice, the red against her golden fingers, the black curling nest behind them, with dark rose folds peeping through. She touched herself, delicately, admiring the sight. The picture she'd seen had shown white fingers, red thread, and a dot of glistening green on the fingertips. Damn. Where was the oil pot supposed to be? She crossed her own eyes at the deer, exasperated. Held by the client? On her knee? Certainly, not on the chest, where it sat now. If she just leaned forward, far enough -- she reached, overbalanced, and her left knee screamed. Her leg popped out of position, the mirror flew off the bed, and her foot caught the edge of the screen, knocking it flat. Knocking it against the legs of her neighbor, standing at the foot of her bed.

 

***Inara smiled, threading a needle. The first thing she had noticed about Yun-Mei was her smell. If she concentrated, she could still recall the dusky blend of earth and flowers. She could, still. The smile became something else.***

 

"Having fun?" Yun-Mei asked.

Li Na pulled the covers over her lap, in what she hoped was a dignified sweep. Yun-Mei was taller, older, and more beautiful than Li Na feared she would ever be. Her skin was like cream, her hair was red as autumn leaves, and her eyes...she smelled good, too, even on cooking-oil days. Heat rose to Li Na's face. "I'm sorry; I thought no one was here." Yun-Mei stepped closer, staring at Li Na's fingers. She stepped on the discarded pants beside the chest, and Li Na cringed inside. Yun-Mei took her hand. "You did this yourself?" At Li Na's nod, she smiled, and turned the hand over between hers. "That's very good." She smiled, and Li Na swore her scent grew stronger. Yun-Mei dropped her hand. "Do me. Do my hand, and I'll help."

"Help?" quavered Li Na, but Yun-Mei was righting the screen and pulling it close. She turned back, and from her sleeve, produced a wax-sealed bottle of greenish oil, spice smelling, warming, and slick. It was a Solstice gift, she said. It cost more than the bed, Li Na knew.

"I wanted to try this on something new; it's more fun when you can share." She climbed over the end of the bed, and dropped her slippers on the floor. Settling back against the footboard, she flipped up her skirt and spread her knees. Li Na blushed. Yun-Mei laughed. "Tools of the trade, mei-mei. No shame. Now tie my hand."

She did. She was in this place to learn. She learned that afternoon, among other things, that she could look into the lotus of her neighbor and please herself. She pleased herself, she pleased Yun-Mei, they pleased each other. They made a scented mess of the towel, then the sheets. They warmed enough for Li Na's socks to come off (Yun-Mei thought them charming), for her feet to be scented, too, when her wrists finally cramped. The threads got disgracefully soiled, their fingers were wet to the second knuckle, the bound ones and several others, and the mirror handle and cheeks and lips as well. They were silly. They were loud. They would be put to work in the laundry the next day by their grinning Elder Sisters, who had a few rules about disrupting the peace of the dorm. They were assigned essays on decorum and thrift and respect for Guild holy days, but they took honors in certain advanced skills later that year.

 

Inara stitched and recalled. They were friends through the Academy, through House Medrassa, through multiple names, across space, through time. The first decorations they added to their formal robes were their apprentice names, entwined.

Companions remember, they do not mourn. Inara kept winter in her heart and on the hem of her dress, the edges of her sleeves. Next to a name, among silver snow drifts and a Solstice sun, she added a white plum blossom with a golden heart.