"Ox, do you recall our visit to Fragrant Plum Grove?"
Master Li and I were sitting in a teashop in Peking, drinking tea, eating sweet buns, and trying not to become too maudlin. To be honest I was the only one drinking tea and sinking into my own gloom. Master Li had a bowl of tea before him out of deference to the tea shop's trade, but was swigging at intervals from a flask of Kao-liang, which probably would have had sent me to the afterlife in my state, but only served to put the old man in a more and more cheerful mood. I never understood how he'd survived the stuff all these years.
"Yes, of course," I replied automatically.
Master Li looked at me and clucked his tongue. "Ox, don't be so glum," he said, reaching for another bun. "Dreams don't always portend something terrible. Unless the dreams detail your ancestors tearing out your eyes as they wail about your wanton lack of respect for their gravesites. Those usually aren't a good omen, I'll admit."
The dreams hadn't had anything to do with my ancestors at all, and I'd told Master Li so. There weren't even people in the dreams, only the images of a dragon and phoenix circling each other, round and round until my dream self got so dizzy I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. I'd had the dream every night for weeks now, and if my illustrious readers think that it's foolish to become miserable over something so minor as a poor night's sleep, I sincerely wish they never experience it. I was convinced the dream wouldn't leave me alone until I understood it, and there was so little to go on.
"Fortunately," continued Master Li, "I have a distraction for you. Shen Zhen has invited us for a visit."
Shen Zhen was of no higher birth than either Li Kao or I, but he and Master Li were cut from the same cloth, able to put on venerable dignity like a lady might put on a hairpin. Both of them knew how to dress, how to wield a veiled insult, and how to maintain enough of a cryptic air of mystery to make the nobility squeak with excitement. Shen Zhen enjoyed maintaining that sort of guise and cultivating long-term associates among various nobles more than Master Li did, which was why Master Li was able to enjoy his anonymity unless he chose otherwise. On the other hand, Shen Zhen got invited to a great many social events, and the food is better at those.
"I haven't seen Shen Zhen since we stole the magistrate's robe together," Master Li said. "I'm sure the town of Fragrant Plum Grove has forgotten all about that by now."
I wasn't so sure. The magistrate's howls of "Loaded dice! Loaded dice!" as we'd fled still echoed in my head. On the other hand, the threat of discovery and a lively chase from the town's gates might be just what I needed to distract myself from bad dreams. "By all means, Master Li. Let's go visit Shen Zhen."
"We'll have to dip into our cache of funds. A wedding present will be expected."
"Wedding present?" I echoed. "Shen Zhen is marrying?"
"Not him." Master Li winked at me. "But he's invited us to a wedding in Fragrant Plum Grove that would be a pity to miss. The food's sure to be marvelous."
A wedding. Master Li was grinning at me in a way that I didn't understand, but I thought I was meant to, for some reason. Suddenly the fog lifted. "Wedding...Dragon and phoenix, double happiness, an omen of luck for newlyweds? Master Li, are you--?"
Master Li shrugged. "Who am I to say what your dreams mean? All I can think is that it would be foolish to ignore that kind of coincidence. Come on, Ox."
The plum blossoms were indeed perfuming the outskirts of the town when we arrived. As we moved into the town's center the smell of them was obliterated by the odors of street vendors selling dumplings, fish, and anything else that could be fried in oil and sold to hungry folk. I should explain that the wedding in question was that of a well-to-do bureaucrat by the name of Ma Jian, with whom Shen Zhen had been companionable for several years, and a wedding of that importance meant a holiday in the town for a week. Thus the abundance of street vendors. I understood what an honor it had been for Shen Zhen to have secured invitations to the wedding banquet itself for Master Li and me.
Shen Zhen and Master Li pounded each other on the back like ruffians who had never held a fan. "Li Kao," cackled Shen Zhen. "Such fun we had last visit. I can still see that magistrate's purple face."
"I hope the dear man didn't hold a grudge," Master Li said. "He should never have made such an outrageous boast if he didn't want someone to prove him wrong."
While I agreed with Master Li, I was still looking over my shoulder for the man. Even disguised as we were, I could imagine him keeping an eye open for miscreants prepared to fleece an influx of visitors to Fragrant Plum Grove, and he still might recognize us.
But nothing happened that day. Thanks to Shen Zhen, Master Li and I were welcomed at the house of a minor official for lodging, and that night I slept without dreams for the first time in weeks.
On the day of the wedding I was positively chipper. Master Li and Shen Zhen's moods couldn't have been more giddy, and was feeling so much better for the lack of dreams all week that if I'd seen the magistrate I might have winked at him and offered him a swig from Master Li's flask. Shen Zhen had also arranged for us to meet the groom, and I thought Ma Jian was an endearing fellow for a bureaucrat. His laugh was hearty, and he had a way of snapping his fan when he'd thought you'd made a particularly funny joke. Had he known our titles were as borrowed as our hats, he would have been less amused, though likely Master Li's first-place chin-shih diploma would still have impressed him.
We did not meet the bride, of course. Ma Jian had, though, which I must explain is not always the case. In an arranged marriage often the bride and groom do not meet until the wedding day. But this was not a strictly arranged marriage in the traditional sense; Ma Jian had seen the lovely girl at her father's house and had "fallen instantly in love with the beauty of her eyes," which sounds a common compliment but Ma Jian seemed to mean it. He had been fortunate enough to have fallen for a girl of good family, with moderate wealth to their name.
My illustrious readers are no doubt familiar with the usual details of a wedding procession, so I will not linger on them much except that though the bride's face was covered with the traditional red silk veil, I could see how elegantly she carried herself. The firecrackers which were meant to ward away evil spirits as her sedan chair was carried to her new husband's home never made her flinch once.
"Ma Jian is very lucky," said Master Li as he observed the procession, "to be marrying a lady of his choosing, with the approval of both families. Many a man has lifted that veil at the family altar and been met by a face ravaged by pits or by simple inbreeding."
"You're right about that," said Shen Zhen. "Perhaps I'd clean up going into the cosmetics business. Just so that first glimpse doesn't shrivel a new husband's virility for the entire marriage." The two of them sniggered, and I rolled my eyes, glad no one was paying attention to us. (Most of them had comments even lewder.)
I didn't see the bride's face until the wedding feast. Xia Ming-hua was as lovely as Ma Jian had professed, but I didn't have a clear look at her eyes until the couple shared the goblets of honey and wine, linked by red threads, and she lifted her modest eyes to his. It was then that I saw the amber color of her eyes. I'd never seen anything like them.
I heard Shen Zhen say, next to me, "Li Kao, I think Number Ten Ox is smitten with a certain lady."
"He does that often, poor boy," Master Li answered him. "It never ends happily, and yet, only those of such pure character as he can suffer so blissfully. Ah, to be ninety again."
Already I could feel it in my heart; I'd gone from infatuation to misery in the space of a moment. This was a married lady, newly wedded to a man of title, and it was just as well she did not have to suffer the moonings of Number Ten Ox, a foolish peasant. I drank my own wine sadly.
I had thought I would not see Xia Ming-hua again. I was quite wrong.
The following morning we were met by Shen Zhen, who looked less than his usual cheerful self. "What is it?" Master Li said right away.
"I've brought this to you, because I know can count on your discretion. And I know about it because Ma Jian depends on mine." Shen Zhen opened his hand to show some reddish fibers lying on his palm. "Ma Jian gave me these. He found them upon his bride's pillow when she left their marriage bed this morning."
Master Li couldn't have been more excited if you'd told him there was a Neo-Confucian dead in the courtyard. He leapt upon the fibers, smelled them, touched them to his tongue. I was already looking for the Fire Pearl somewhere in our belongings, knowing he'd want it.
With narrowed eyes, Master Li at last pronounced, "Fox hairs."
I felt my heart stop. All of us were exchanging looks, and I'm sure mine was the most surprised look of all. "No--that can't be," I stammered.
Shen Zhen looked at me. "Are you doubting Master Li's conclusion?"
"I know to trust Master Li," I said. "But I don't believe what either of you are thinking."
"Of course you don't," said Master Li. "I'm not thinking it either, Ox. The fable of the huli jing is foolish superstition." He put the fox hairs back into Shen Zhen's hand. "Most likely someone is playing a joke on the new couple."
When Shen Zhen had gone, I said, "Is that all you think it is, Master Li? A joke?"
"If it is, it's in poor taste." Master Li looked displeased. "A new bride's reputation is as precarious as a bridge of twigs. I don't envy the lady, amber eyes and all. To imply she's a fox spirit in disguise is malicious." He rubbed his chin. "Ox, perhaps we should stay a bit longer to keep our ears to the ground."
It turned out we didn't need to keep our ears to the ground. Shen Zhen came the next morning with another hushed piece of information. "Ma Jian came to me again this morning. He found more of these upon his wife's pillow--" he had another palmful of the reddish hairs-- "and, what's more, he said he awoke in the night and found his bride was not there. She didn't return all the while he lay awake, but when he fell back into a fitful sleep, she was there at his side when he woke."
Master Li shook his head. "Shen Zhen, my friend, I never pegged you to be so superstitious. I've observed that most new brides tend to be quite shy when it comes to the call of nature. Undoubtedly the lady was simply retiring with the chamber pot where her new husband would not have to witness."
"More's the pity. Some men," said Shen Zhen, and the lasciviousness was back on his face, "like to watch that sort of thing."
Master Li snorted. "Tell Ma Jian to get more sleep. And not to be so troubled by ridiculous fears." This time Master Li kept the hairs Shen Zhen had brought.
The next day we were out and about before Shen Zhen could bring us more news. "I'm tired of being spoon-fed rumors, Ox. Let's see what we can learn for ourselves."
We learned rather more than we pleased. In just two days, the talk had spread through Fragrant Plum Grove. In the wineshop the proprietor asked us if we'd noticed whether the bride had worn the traditional protective mirror on her robes to ward away spirits. No one in the town could remember seeing it. At a sweetstall, two ladies were commenting on the poise I'd noticed in Xia Ming-hua, wondering aloud if it had been a sign that no spirits would dare to bother her, recognizing their kindred. And a group of children could be heard in the street, playing a clapping game that included a verse I hadn't heard before:
"Bride comes to her husband's house,
Wears her hair in nine braids!
Nine braids, nine braids,
What will happen to her groom
In nine days, nine days?"
I felt my face growing hot, and wanted to scatter the children like Mushe pins. The huli jing is said to be a fox with nine tails, and the fate of her husband is to be drained of his vitality with each new day of lovemaking.
"Ox, we have to stop this now," said Master Li.
"Stop spreading these rumors at once," Master Li said to Ma Jian. We were standing in Ma Jian's private quarters; Shen Zhen had brought us at Master Li's request, and looked unhappy.
"But how can I ignore what I see with my own eyes?" said Ma Jian. His fan did not snap. He was worrying it with nervous fingers. "I thought I had chosen the perfect wife. But now I see she must have planned everything! The hairs--"
"What hairs, these hairs?" said Master Li, producing the pinch of them that he'd kept.
"Fox hairs," said Ma Jian. "My good friend tells me you pronounced them so yourself."
Shen Zhen said nothing.
"Fox hairs indeed," said Master Li, his face like thunder, "but from no living fox."
"A spirit fox!" wailed Ma Jian. "August Personage of Jade protect me! Do not let me be drained by a seductress!"
"Not a spirit fox, you charlatan. A dead one," pronounced Master Li. "A dead, skinned, cured one. I tasted the brain paste on the hairs right away. Ox, search the room. I'm guessing you'll find what we seek within the wardrobe, in plain sight."
Ma Jian tried to stop me, but I gave him one look that told him I'd pound him into glue before he'd lay one hand on me, and he gulped like a carp and backed away.
My old sage had been right. Pressed between two cloaks, where fur trim might have gone unremarked by anyone, I found the pelt of a red fox, soft and well-tanned and with tiny bare patches where someone had pulled out hairs.
Ma Jian was making gabbling protests as I handed the thing to Master Li. Master Li glared at both it and him, then said to me, "Ox, do you have any idea the level of dowry Xia Ming-hua's family paid to secure the marriage? I'm guessing Ma Jian was indeed interested in her for her amber eyes, but only because he saw an easy way to get a huge dowry, send away the bride in disgrace so deep he'd be sure to keep that dowry, and make the way ready for a second one. Did you already have the next candidate in mind, dog?"
Ma Jian didn't know where to look, between Master Li's fury and my curling fists. I dearly wanted to knock the bastard's lights out.
"Ox, this will do no good for Xia Ming-hua's reputation if the truth gets out," Master Li warned me, seeing how twitchy my fists were. "She'll be sent back to her family in disgrace that way as well. She may get to take her dowry back, but she'll always be beset by this shame. What do you think is a fitting punishment for this situation?"
I hated when Master Li made me make the hard decisions. But he knows my character even better than I.
"You will be a good and faithful husband to Xia Ming-hua," I said at last. "Tomorrow you will announce to the city how very happy you have been since the marriage, and how very hale and fit you continue to feel. You will praise your new bride to the stars, and you will treat her like an empress to the end of your days, is that clear?" Ma Jian was still stammering his fervent assent when I said, "If Master Li and I know that she is unhappy, or that you are an unfaithful husband, or that she becomes ill in any way..."
"No, no, dear boy! I promise you never, nothing like that!" He tried to smile, to snap his fan jauntily. I already knew he could put on a good act, so if I could believe his promise, Xia Ming-hua should at least not know of her husband's treachery. She might even be happy.
Happier than poor Number Ten Ox could make her. We turned to go.
Master Li did not speak to either Shen Zhen or me as we went. Shen Zhen at last broke the silence by saying, "It was silly of me to have doubted you, Li Kao."
Master Li said, "No, Shen Zhen. It was a clever act. I know Ma Jian doesn't make a friend of a man like you for your conversation alone. You gave him the fox pelt."
I looked at Shen Zhen in dismay.
Shen Zhen sighed. "The fool had a lovely wife-to-be, but was more interested in the dowry she could bring. He asked me to be sure I had a scholar at hand whose word would not be doubted, when he presented the evidence of his wife's aberrant nature."
"So that's why you invited Master Li to come to Fragrant Plum Grove," I said, feeling my hands form fists again.
"Well, of course." Shen Zhen grinned at me. "I had to choose someone clever enough to stop the fraud without exposing him. That's why I gave Ma Jian the fox pelt. Any fool would know to take the hairs from a live fox instead of a cured pelt, but he's worse than a fool. He is, however, a good name to keep in one's connections." He looked at Master Li. "Thank you for not exposing me in front of him, Li Kao."
Master Li smiled ruefully. "You play both sides like a zither player wanting accompaniment, Shen Zhen. It's going to get you into trouble one day."
"Oh, I don't doubt."
I was no one's venerable sir, but I turned as Master Li and Shen Zhen did. Xia Ming-hua had been waiting for us, standing in the hall's archway, poised and elegant as ever, eyes lowered. She said, "My maid was listening, at my request, and brought me word." She lifted those amber eyes, looking first at Master Li, then at Shen Zhen, then at me. "Thank you for what you have done." She took a step towards me. "Despite what he has done, I wish to be a good wife to my husband, and you have given me the chance to make that happen."
Her husband was a schemer who would have disgraced her and bankrupted her parents, but I saw in those amber eyes that she loved him. Master Li was right. Only those of pure character can suffer so blissfully for love.
I bowed to her; we all did. She did not try to offer us a reward, and I was grateful.
"I will see to it that he keeps his word," said Shen Zhen.
"Then we're no longer needed here. Come on, Ox."
Once again I was steeped in my own melancholy, and that's probably why, as we stepped outside, I wasn't watching where I was going, and bumped into a magistrate whose face was all too familiar. We locked eyes, and his face went purple. "Thieves! No-good cheats!" he howled.
Master Li was on my back and stuffing his feet into my robe's pockets before you could say "loaded dice," and I was off and running, leaving behind us the magistrate and Shen Zhen and Fragrant Plum Grove and a pair of unforgettable amber eyes.