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Snakes and Sparrows

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Translator's Note: The following text is all that remains of a silk scroll reputed to be one of the lost Annals of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Insect and water damage destroyed all but the first few yards of silk in the scroll, which had, according to custom, been reverse-wound for storage. Although current scholarship indicates that this scroll must of necessity have been a forgery, the Flaming Pearl of the Tao mentioned in the story being merely a symbolic convention within Taoism, and not a physical object at all, it is nonetheless a fascinating reminder of just how popular the stories of the Annals must have been to the audiences of the late Tang and Second Zhou eras. That the subject matter is somewhat vulgar, alas, cannot be helped. -- Eds.


I clasp my hands together and bow to the four corners of the world.

My family name is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but pray do not confuse me with the author of The Classic of Tea, for I am a country bumpkin who can scarcely tell a Yunnan pu-erh from a Formosan baihao. Usually I am called Number Ten Ox. Indeed, today I count myself fortunate to be called anything at all. But I get ahead of myself, and if there is one thing the abbot of my village managed to pound into my head when I was a boy, it is that one must begin at the beginning and only finish at the end.

The beginning was the rap of a hardwood staff against a door.

Dawn had only just begun, and long thick purplish clouds lay against the horizon like folds of wet silk. On his pallet in the far corner Master Li lay fast asleep, so thickly wrapped in the heavy quilts the women of my village, Ku Fu, had gratefully made for him that he looked like a lo mai gai. Ever the farm boy, I had risen silently with the sun. But even I had only just pulled my tunic over my head when the knock startled me. I looked over my shoulder. Master Li did not so much as twitch. I went to the door.

You may think me foolish when I say it had not occurred to me to wonder who would be knocking at a door in the Street of Eyes at such an hour. But I did not. My time with Li Kao had enabled me to learn many things about the ways of the world beyond my village. Among those things was the fact that the only people to march into the Street of Eyes at an hour when its inhabitants could not reasonably have been expected to have yet sent the morning's jook to settle the bill the previous night's wine had left behind were high-ranking officials in the direct employ of the Emperor.

Waking people up, to such men, is just a way of making sure you are important. Bureaucrats whose every breath was dictated by the strict and obsessive rulebooks of the Imperial Household grow fat and powerful on the basis of their ability to appear more dutiful, diligent, and efficient than anybody else. There are of course no rules that dictate the precise sort of brisk and demanding air with which one of these men should approach a sleeping household at the very earliest moments of what could be construed as a new day, and no rules that cover precisely the disdainful sneer with which the yet-uncombed hair of the individuals so disturbed should be regarded. But it should not be imagined that these things are of no consequence. In the rule-girdled universe of the Palace official, such self-important cruelties are an art form, and one that makes careers.

All of this, I knew, was irrefutably true. And the instant I opened the door and the knob of a burnished wooden staff stopped mere inches from my chest, I knew equally irrefutably that I was in the presence of a master.

It was clear from the man's expression that my presence in Master Li's house surprised him. The visitor was short and fat and bald, his head so smooth and gleaming that it looked like a peeled egg atop a mound of gleaming blue and yellow silks. I had to suppress a laugh. It was well that I did. Flanking the man and just behind, were two long-legged brutes as big as I or bigger, each with a sword at his hip and a stout knobbled club in his hand.

"What on earth are you doing here? I demand to see Li Kao." The man's voice was a reedy, nasal whine that would have turned wine to vinegar. His manicured fingers tightened around the shaft of his walking-stick and he pursed his lips as if the mere sight of me made his gorge rise a little.

"My family name is Lu and my personal name is Yu," I replied calmly. "But to my village I am known as Number Ten Ox. I deeply regret that Master Li is not available at this time."

The short man's eyes narrowed, small and piglike in his overly-smooth face. "Yes, he is."

"No, Adoptive Uncle," I replied with a soft obsequious smile. "I fear that he is not." Master Li had had a late and tiring night and I had hoped not to have to wake him until the sun was high and the air was warm.

"You insolent rustic!" The bottom end of his wooden staff made a loud thunk as he pounded the doorsill. "Do not make me explain this to you twice. When a member of the Imperial Household demands someone's presence, that one is available. Fetch Li Kao at once!"

The clubs in the two thugs' hands twitched almost imperceptibly as they adjusted their grips. I know a peasant itching for a fight when I see one, and as I bowed and backed up into the house, I wondered what had them so twitchy. They reminded me of cattle who have caught the scent of wolves on the wind and are waiting, anxious, to find out what happens next.

Gently I shook Master Li's shoulder, or what I presumed must be the general area of one given the location of the old man's head. Like a chick moving within an eggshell, old bones stirred deep within the swaddling quilts, and a bloodshot eye opened just enough to squint out from the warm folds. It focused on me, and the wisp of eyebrow arched as if to say "this had better be good."

"There is," I said softly enough that only Master Li could hear, "a gentleman from the Palace to see you."

A grunt from the bedding indicated sincere absence of concern.

"He is rather splendidly attired in what I believe are the colors of Yang Guaifei's retinue," I continued. "And he's got two thugs to back him up."

"Madame Yang's? Huh. Is he short?" Master Li asked, his head poking out like a turtle's. "Fat? Bald? Officious?"

I nodded.

Chuckling to himself, Li Kao began to unwind himself from the blankets. "Three men on my doorstep and only balls enough for two," he said. "Ox, make yourself useful and get me some clean clothes."

With a twinkle in his eyes, Master Li sprang up from his nest of bedding. Spry as a sparrow, he strode to the door naked as the day he was born and twice as wrinkly as a shar-pei. I blinked once, then twice, then busied myself in the storeroom at the back of the shack, digging through chests and cabinets to come up with the customary large number of drab, inconspicuous layers in which the greatest mind in China preferred to dress.

By the time I had assembled Li Kao's full set of clothes-an errand which in the end had required me to sneak out the back door and nip down the lane to liberate a fresh dry under-tunic from the drying poles behind Old Lady Moustache's laundry-the venerable sage was pacing pleasantly to and fro before the stunned-looking court eunuch, who had somehow been convinced to take a seat on the floor before the brazier. His plump hands cradled a steaming cup of tea. The two bodyguards were nowhere to be seen.

"Ah, Ox!" cried Master Li. "Do come in. My old friend Cao Zhangwen has just been telling me of a most curious dilemma. Zhangwen was one of my most promising students years ago, before he handed over his balls for a sinecure-I beg your pardon, Zhang, I mean, of course, before you made the sacrifice of service to the Emperor's household."

I bowed in his direction as I laid Master Li's clothes out on a table. The eunuch's face was smooth and even, but the tea in the cup sloshed as his hands shook.

I watched Cao Zhangwen close his eyes and take a deep breath. "Very well, Li Kao, go ahead and mock me. Does that mean you'll do it?"

Master Li cackled as he pulled on trousers. "It's not even mockery, Zhang, and you know it! Ox, you wouldn't know it to look at him now, but once upon a time this man had a lot of promise. Got it from his father. He was a Hangchow legend, owned and ran the crookedest gambling den in a five hundred mile radius until the day he forgot to duck. And his son could've done even better. Yes, fifty years ago old Zhang here was a marvel. I took him as my protégé, my adoptive son, and had he only listened to me he could've been one of the greats."

Cao Zhangwen puffed slightly beneath his robes.

"But there was the matter of his mother, you see," Master Li went on. "She had paid me to tutor him for the examinations. This was how I met the boy. To be sure we did not spend much time on formal studies once I realized where Zhang's talents lay. But alas I am notoriously soft-hearted when it comes to pretty widows. So in addition to all the useful things I taught Zhang for free, I pounded several thousand worthless facts into his head. And then, would you believe the fool went and took the exams?"

"You yourself took those examinations," I pointed out.

Master Li rolled up the sleeves of his tunic. "Yes. But that was long ago and far away and I was raised by monks, so I didn't know any better. Anyhow, that's not the point. The point is that all it took was a silver seal diploma and that was it for Zhang. He could've had a life of rare achievement. He could have been someone to whom I could've taught all my secrets. And then he chose to serve the Emperor instead. I suppose I shouldn't complain, the Emperor could have my head."

The eunuch cleared his throat and spoke as if to no one in particular. "Some would say I had not done badly. My current position is not precisely that of seventh substitute shit-sorter, Li Kao."

"True enough, Zhang. The night-soil men can't use their scrotums for coin purses."

Master Li threw out his arms theatrically. "O Mighty Song Chiang, Patron of Pickpockets, however did I offend you that you caused this humble one to pick a protégé with a soul made for bureaucracy! All they had to do was show him the iron ricebowl and he was practically begging them to cut his balls off!"

The Chief Eunuch sputtered in protest. Master Li waved a disinterested hand.

"Don't go giving me that filial piety business either, Zhang, you know full well your father left your mother enough that she would've died rich if she had lived to nine hundred." There was a pointed pause, in which Li Kao stared at his former protégé in a way that made Cao Zhangwen try to back his head off his shoulders. "You didn't have to support her. Loyalty had nothing to do with it. You have none."

With that, Master Li walked over and opened up the door with a flourish, letting the thug on the other side, who had clearly had his ear pressed to the crack, stumble, half falling, across the threshold.

"Your eagerness will surely be rewarded," Master Li said drily as the bodyguard picked himself up. "Your master is ready to leave."

I took my cue. Cao Zhangwen did not struggle as I took him by the elbow, wrested him to his feet, and walked him to the door. He brushed off his bodyguard and straightened his robes, elaborately flicking imaginary dust from his sleeve.

"You will get it done." It was almost, but not quite, a question, in the officious bleating tone that had returned the instant the door opened.

Master Li looked thoughtful. His lips curved into a soft half-smile, wrinkles following suit. "On one condition."

The Chief Eunuch shook with anger. "What? Would you reduce me to rags and leave me nothing but bones to gnaw for my supper? I have already promised you five thousand gold cash and five suits of new clothes each for you and your ox over there, as much as clothing the likes of that agricultural giant will surely send me straight to the poorhouse. And yet you ask for more? What? What is it that you demand? My summer cottage with the moon-garden in Suzhou? My poor dead mother's jade bracelets? My father's ashes? You would throw a rock at a drowning man, Li Kao."

"A cup of tea," Master Li said simply. "With Madame Yang."

The color drained from Cao Zhangwen's face, beginning with the top of his smooth bald head. "That's impossible."

"Ah well, I am sure you can find someone else to solve your problem," Li Kao said, still wearing the same serene half-smile.

The Chief Eunuch gave Master Li a look that would've frozen the blood of the Stone Monkey. "Bring me what I seek and I will do what I can."

Li Kao leaned against the doorpost and watched him leave, shaking his head at the spectacle of a puffing, scuttling haystack of affronted silk with two agitated bodyguards trotting briskly behind it. Only after the Chief Eunuch and his men were well out of the Street of Eyes did Master Li finally look my way.

"How do you feel about breakfasting on walnut shrimp, Ox? With perhaps a second course of mussels with black beans and garlic? And maybe a little lobster with ginger and scallions to fill in the cracks?"

My mouth watered at the thought of it, and I said so. It was not until we were almost to Cook-and-Sell Alley that it dawned on me that Master Li's proposed menu had a rather interesting theme.

"Would I be entirely wrong if I had noticed a particular attention to kidney yang in the menu you have suggested for this morning, Master Li?"

Master Li smiled, but said nothing.

"I don't mean to be ungrateful," I blundered on, "but surely you do not think that I require quite so much help with my virility?"

Master Li patted me on the shoulder. "Ox, I have no doubts at all about your virility. I just think that there are times when a man needs all the help he can get."

I could feel my eyebrows attempting to knot themselves together. "What?"

"Ox, later today you and I are going to have an audience with the greatest whore in China," the old sage said, nimbly slipping through the doorway of the restaurant as I held the door. "Eat up!"

¤

The road to the house of Du Qiu was not particularly broad, but neither was it particularly slender. It rose up gently around the side of a hill that lay at a discreet distance to the north of the city, neither so far away that it seemed a hardship to reach it, nor so close that the din and smell of the city would disturb its quiet. The house itself lay at a small remove from the road, a drive of gray gravel leading up to a stables with a broad veranda before it, only a footpath of the same small even gray stones continuing on to the doors of the house proper. Over the drive leaned several plane trees, and the path to the door was flanked by two redbuds. One corner of the house was decorated with a heavy swath of wisteria that had clearly grown over the roof from inside and now cascaded down the outside wall. The house, low and long, had a sleepy, introverted air. It could have been the retreat of a great scholar, or perhaps a painter. There was nothing grand about it, nothing flashy or brightly colored or exorbitantly eye-catching. A traveler passing on the road would have no reason to suspect that inside the plain brown walls was the most legendary brothel in all China.

Walking beside me as we made our way up the path, Master Li gestured at the house and grounds. "This work of art, Ox, explains much about why Du Qiu is such a legend."

I gave him a confused look.

"Truly powerful and wealthy men get bored with opulence, Ox. They do not have to pay for immaculate beauties dripping with pearls and furs. They are probably married to them, and in any case such women are just part of the scenery at a certain level of things and a powerful man may have as many as he likes. It takes a powerful beauty to counterbalance the anti-aphrodisiac effects of so much gossip, greed, and hair lacquer. And even then what has our powerful gentleman got? Not much except something pretty to look at. Physical perfection is overrated, Ox. Young beauties are common as fish in the sea."

I stopped for a moment to prod an unglazed earthen pot with my toe. It was large and stout and filled with earth, and had a luxurious cascade of silvery-green leaves overflowing its rim and trailing down the side.

"Du Qiu is a bit like the plant in that pot, Ox," Master Li said. "She knows that truly powerful men will eventually have their fill of lapdogs, no matter how pretty and obsequious. And then they will go hunting for something different, something that makes them feel at ease, yet bright and alive. Rub some of those leaves between your fingers, Ox, and smell it."

Scarcely did I crush one of the unpretentious gray-green leaves against my thumb before the most extraordinary aroma, sharp and savory, rose to my nose. My mouth watered as I sniffed my fingertips. "What is it?"

"It's a barbarian plant, Procopius calls it salvia," Master Li said. "They put it in their food as a seasoning. Wonderful, isn't it?"

I pinched off a leaf and chewed it. It was surprisingly pungent, but delicious.

"That's Du Qiu's secret. And that of the young women she takes on as her protégées. They know that what truly powerful men want is to feel that they have earned the adoration of women who are strong and smart and genuine, yet as keen a delight as that leaf you're chewing. And they will pay dearly for the privilege."

Master Li tugged my sleeve, leading me away from the pot with its unassuming foreign treasure. "But doesn't that mean it's just another sort of artifice?"

"Later, Ox," Li Kao chided, and knocked on the door.

The broad tallow-wood planks of the door were unvarnished, but smooth, the fittings made not of bronze but painted iron. The maidservant who opened the door to our knock was a bright-eyed beauty, not in the careful, plucked-eyebrowed way of the city but in the pink-cheeked, robust mode of the country. The sight of her long thick hair held back by a leather thong, her pretty smooth feet in simple rope sandals, and her short-fingernailed, capable hands made me sigh a little on the inside, for although I am hardly powerful or wealthy I am often homesick for my village and the sorts of people who live in it. If this was the way Du Qiu went about winning the hearts of her patrons, I could certainly see the appeal.

We followed the young woman's shapely back through the foyer and around a screen into the courtyard, where we were left to ourselves in a comely corner where a few potted trees dappled a table and five porcelain stools with shade. Goldfish swam lazily in a large low bowl. On a platter on the table were a few early apricots, barely tipping over from creamy yellow to orange.

After a few moments, a call of greeting floated across the courtyard. I will not embarrass myself by attempting to describe Du Qiu's voice, for I am no poet. But I will say that it was a voice that made every fiber of my body pay attention. Not because it was golden in tone, or was at all sultry, for neither were true. The best I can do is to say that Du Qiu's voice was the voice of someone who knew exactly what she was, and what she was was unabashedly, wholeheartedly female and interested. I blushed to the tips of my toes.

The greatest whore in China greeted Master Li with a cry of delight and a kiss on the cheek that made even the venerable Li Kao grin like the Laughing Buddha. "Why, Kao, you rascal, why didn't you tell me you were coming? I would've sent a carriage!"

Then she caught sight of me, and her expression changed instantly to one of cool and bemused appraisal. I had hung back at first, between the fishbowl and a potted osmanthus, but having been noticed I stepped forward and bowed.

"Allow me to introduce my associate, Number Ten Ox," Master Li said, gesturing in my direction. "Ox, this is the inimitable and delightful Lady Du."

Du Qiu walked slowly up to me, her head panning gradually from my feet to my head so that by the time our eyes met, she stood directly before me. In her plain linen slippers, and with her luxuriant hair flowing in a quicksilver river down her back, she came up only to my breastbone, just a few inches taller than the diminutive Master Li. Crinkles at the corners of her mouth betrayed her amusement as she held my gaze for one second, then two. I could almost feel her peering into my brain, taking stock of my innermost secrets, and I had to concentrate not to blink or look away. Which is perhaps why I did not see what was coming until she hauled off and punched me just as hard as she could, smack in the solar plexus.

I blinked in surprise and coughed gently. "I beg your pardon?"

Lady Du's nostrils flared, and a slow feline smile bloomed on her lips. "Mmm. Solid as the Great Wall. You always did have a knack for finding the best presents, Li Kao."

Master Li chuckled as I turned red. "I'm afraid that's between the two of you, my Lady. He is, in fact, actually here as my associate."

Du Qiu cocked her head and signaled for the maid. "Really? You show up unannounced and on foot, you bring a beautiful slab of meat but he's not for me, and I haven't heard a scrap of gossip to hint that you might be here to ask if I might put you up for a few days until someone's dogs lose your scent. How unprecedented. Why don't we sit down and share some tea, Kao, and you can explain what you're doing here?"

The next twenty minutes passed in a flurry of discussion that held little meaning for me. Somewhere in the back of my brain I could vaguely place a few of the names that flew back and forth-Chen Xilie was some sort of advisor to the Emperor, I was pretty sure, although in what capacity I could not have said-but I kept my mouth shut. The tea was delicious, with a scent of peaches, and the maid who kept the teacups full smiled at me now and then, and even rolled her eyes and winked at a point when her mistress and Master Li had descended into a particularly impenetrable verbal shorthand.

Not wanting to be rude, I winked back. The maid giggled silently and mimicked Lady Du's abrupt head-cocking. I stifled a laugh and noiselessly imitated Master Li's openmouthed "oh!" of comprehension, absentmindedly running my middle finger around the rim of my teacup just as Master Li was wont to do. Shaking with soundless mirth, the maid shook her finger at me, chiding me for my naughtiness. Our eyes flirted and darted, and the young maid's tongue had just flickered out to caress the very center of the petal of her upper lip when Lady Du turned and fixed me once more with her gaze.

"I'm not at all surprised that Cao Zhangwen gambled Madame Yang's flaming pearl and lost it, Kao. It'd be just like him. He's a fool, bloated with rank. Doubtless he thought he could just command it back."

Being looked at by Du Qiu was quite an experience. Her brain was clearly clicking through the variables like an abacus, clear and clean and precise, and she spoke with great authority. Simultaneously her eyes dilated, then narrowed, as she took in the curve of my chest muscle, the heft of my shoulder, the line of my jaw. I felt like a racehorse on the auction block. Or perhaps, I realized with a strange jolt, I felt like a pretty young prostitute being sized up by a potential patron much older, wealthier, and worldlier. The sensation was profoundly unsettling.

Master Li drained his cup and held it out for a refill. "Yes, I daresay he was at least as furious with Lord Li Linfu as he was humiliated to be crawling back to me for help."

"I fail to comprehend, however, why it is that you labor under the misapprehension that Li Linfu would have given such a thing to me." Lady Du, having by no means failed to notice the fluttering eyes and flirtatious smiles that had passed between her maidservant and me, dispatched the maid from the courtyard.

"What else could he do with it? Qiu, most fragrant and voluptuous of blossoms, you yourself said that Lord Li would be as unable to keep such a thing in his own quarters, or even his villa, as Eunuch Cao would be to admit he had stolen it from the Concubines' Treasury and gambled it away. Madame Yang's Flaming Pearl of the Tao, given to her by none other than Chen Xielie himself? For anyone else to even presume to handle it would be treason!"

"No less for me than for him. You assume that it would be a risk I'd be willing to take." Lady Du rose and walked halfway across the courtyard, pausing to look at some finches that chirped softly in a wicker cage.

"It would be a calculated risk, to be sure," Master Li replied, nibbling on an apricot. "But doing such a favor for Lord Li might pay off. When the Summer Court convenes he will be named Lord Chancellor Li for his successful defense against the Nanzhao, after all. Or so I hear."

For an instant, or so I thought, Lady Du's eyes flashed with fury. If they did, it was so fleeting that anyone not observing her closely would have missed it altogether, and even I, who was watching her carefully, am not entirely sure of what I saw.

"Assuming for the sake of argument that I might have accepted Madame Yang's... bauble," Lady Du said calmly as she returned to the tableside, "that perhaps I would agree to keep it safe, as a favor to a much-esteemed patron, why in the name of the August Personage of Jade would I admit it to the likes of you, Li Kao? As much as I adore you, Kao, and make no mistake that I do, I trust you about as far as I could throw the Celestial Pig! The number of schemes and shenanigans you've been involved with is so huge that the Yama Kings are afraid to let you die, lest they perish of old age during the reading of the list."

Once Master Li had finished laughing, he reached into his sleeve and withdrew a throwing-knife, its blade faintly stained. He lay it on the tabletop, and I could see that a piece of heavy paper had been wrapped around the handle, and tied in place with a deep plum ribbon. "You trusted me then, Qiu. And you gave me a promise."

Du Qiu's expression did not change except for her eyes, which went cold and distant. Master Li untied the ribbon around the handle, letting the paper uncurl. He waited a moment, then returned the knife to the depths of his sleeve, the paper and ribbon lying still beside the plate of apricots. The three of us sat in a silence that could not be called companionable. I tried not to notice that Lady Du's lips had gone pale. For her part, Du Qiu tried to pretend that her hands were not shaking as she reached inside her robes.

"Very well, Li Kao. You win." A round metal box the size of a small clamshell lay in the palm of her hand, the golden chain to which it was attached still draped around her neck. With a deft twitch of fingers the hinged lid opened, and a brilliant light poured out.

I am always at a loss when forced to describe such things. Master Li is forever telling me to dispense with the purple prose and stick with the facts, but the facts are that the box held a pearl that was at once the most beautiful pearl I had ever beheld and a fearsome ball of white fire, and that I wanted nothing more than to stare at its glory at the same time as I winced in pain at the searing brightness of its light. When Lady Du snapped the lid closed again, I felt for an instant as if my heart might break, and simultaneously thanked the gods that somehow my watering eyes were still capable of sight.

"A bit garish," Master Li said, but his voice was low and reverent. "Very few men have ever seen one of the Flaming Pearls of the Tao, Ox, and you and I are perhaps among a handful outside the inner circles of the Taoist priesthood to do so. Quite the sight, isn't it?"

"Indeed," sighed Lady Du as she lifted the chain over her head and set the little box down on the table beside the piece of paper. "And the things it does for one's chi..."

"...would probably kill me outright," Master Li said with a wink as he picked it up and tucked it into one of the lead-lined compartments of his smuggler's belt. "Ah, Qiu, if only I were ninety again!"

"I think," Du Qiu said in a voice that would've made the Imperial Prick turn seven shades of scarlet, "it may be for the best, Elder Brother. Something tells me that in your prime you would have put even Du Qiu to the test."

"You flatter me," replied the sage, but I could tell he was pleased.

"Which reminds me," Lady Du said, clapping her hands to call the maid, who arrived almost immediately bearing a tray of sweets and another teapot, "it is past time that my current five protégées should have taken their final examination, to be sure that they have learned all that they need to know before I allow them to take patrons of their own. Is it true what I hear about your Great Wall over there?"

I choked on a sugared walnut. "What do you mean?"

Lady Du handed me a fresh cup of tea. "They say you were once the lover of a goddess. Is it true?"

Memories of Jade Pearl came back in a rush: the magical light in her eyes when I gave her presents of pearls and jade, the adoring grin on her broad peasant face when I took her in my arms, the delicious enthusiasm of her embraces. I hadn't known she was a goddess when I met her, or when she decided to call me "Boopsie." It wasn't until I watched her ascend on the wings of birds to meet her lover the Star Shepherd at the other side of the River of Stars that I finally understood who she really was.

"Yes, I suppose it is."

Du Qiu turned to Master Li. "He would be the ideal examiner then, wouldn't you think? Young and strong and ever so fit, and with precisely the right sort of experience to know whether my girls are good enough to make the grade."

I swallowed hard against rising panic. How could I, a peasant from Ku Fu, possibly be an adequate judge? I never knew what Jade Pearl was until it was too late! And anyway, I couldn't possibly bring myself to judge one woman as better or worse than the next, it would be a horrible insult to the lady. Besides, how was I supposed to know how to judge them anyhow? And five? There was only one of me! I looked desperately at Master Li, but for nothing. Master Li nodded to Lady Du, then winked at me.

Lady Du clapped her hands and called to her protégées. One by one the young ladies appeared: the comely peasant who had met us at the door, the maidservant with whom I'd flirted in silence, a willow-slender young woman in an apron who arrived with a tray of steaming bao, a short bosomy woman with startlingly green eyes, and last but definitely not least, a tall plain-faced girl whose unremarkable features reminded me of Jade Pearl and whose voluptuous figure reminded me of no one so much as Du Qiu herself.

"I have found the judge for your Ten Thousand Tendernesses Examination," Lady Du announced. "The Pavilion of Plangent Pleasures ought to do."

"But Master Li!" I pleaded.

"Don't worry, Ox," Li Kao said with the air of a doting father watching his son leave for his first day at school. "Lady Du and I will see you at dinner. And for heaven's sake don't look so worried. You'll be in excellent company."

"But... but what about you?" I asked stupidly as the girls began to lead me off to a sweaty and writhing unknown.

"As I said, Ox, you'll be in excellent company." Master Li paused long enough to raise his cup to Du Qiu, who nodded and beamed like a proud mother. "And so, I dare say, will I."