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Conversations Over Tea

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It was an overcast morning, but Jingfei was practically jumping with excitement.  Nai Nai had managed to convince Jingfei’s mother that it would be perfectly fine for Jingfei to go to the market with her.

“She can carry my shopping for me, and keep me out of trouble,” Nai Nai had said, ruffling Jingfei’s hair to show that she was mostly teasing.

Jingfei crossed her arms. She was getting strong! She knew she was. She did her training every morning with Nai Nai and her littler cousins, and now she could lift a whole bag of rice by herself! (She couldn’t carry it very far yet, but she was determined to get stronger- Auntie Min had promised her archery lessons next time she visited if Jingfei was good and worked hard at her training.) She could absolutely help Nai Nai carry her shopping!

“Are you sure?” Mama asked, pouring her mother-in-law tea. “I know your joints have been aching quite a bit lately. Ying is supposed to come home today, he could always go?”

Nai Nai shook an oddly bent finger (“this is why you should never punch an attacker in the face, Jingfei child, go for the throat or just below where they wear their belt, it’s easier on the hand and easier to reach!”) at her daughter-in-law. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you running out of ginger. You need to be able to stomach more than rice if that baby is going to grow up strong, and I remember from last time that ginger was the only thing helping real food go down.” She picked up her tea one-handed and took a quick swig of it, nodding approvingly at the taste.

Mama made a face. “I can’t get anything past you, can I?” she complained, but she was smiling, so Jingfei knew she wasn’t really upset. “I waiting to tell everyone after Ying got home.”

Nai Nai scoffed. “It’ll teach that son of mine to plan his business dealings a little better so he won’t miss out on important things happening at home. If Shang were…” Nai Nai paused suddenly taking a breath. Jingfei reached for her Nai Nai’s hand, and got a distracted smile in return that didn’t hide the pain in her grandmother’s eyes. Nai Nai got sad when she talked about Ye Ye, who had been sick for a long time and then died last winter. Jingfei missed Ye Ye too. He’d told the best stories.

Mama sighed. “I think that’s most of the problem. You know he misses him too.” Absently, she brushed her hand over her stomach. “Hopefully a son will convince him to spend more time at home.”

Nai Nai growled, slamming down her teacup with a harsh clack. “Regardless of whether that’s a son or daughter you’re growing, he’s got an elder child and a wife, and that should be more than enough.” She shook her head. “I don’t care what poison that old bat you call an aunt has been dripping into your ear, you’re an excellent wife for my son, who has already borne an excellent child. I would say the same if you gave him a daughter for every year of the zodiac and not a single son.”

Jingfei giggled at the description of Great Aunt Ting, and Nai Nai grinned crookedly. “Yes, I’m talking about you, you little terror. Come on now, let’s get out from under your mother’s feet so she can relax a little.”

Mama sighed. “If you want me to be able to relax, please don’t fill her full of sweet bean cakes again.”

Nai Nai snickered. “Never you mind, I’ll do that later in the week then make Ying watch her. Maybe it’ll give him a bit more perspective about what he’s been leaving you to cope with.”

Mama rolled her eyes. “As if you haven’t been doing most of the work watching her. And teaching Min’s twins. And writing all those letters to the aspiring officers that your nephews are training. Speaking of, I’ve never asked, do you sign them Ping or Mulan?”

Nai Nai snorted. “Depends how Kun or Kong address me in the introduction letters. I’m more interested in making sure those boys don’t go out and get their squads killed than rehashing old arguments with boys struggling to grow facial hair about whether filial piety or being good wife material is more important.” She took a final sip of her tea, then placed the cup back on the table. “We should be back before sundown. Should give you plenty of time to warn my son that I’m going to bend his ear back when I next see him,” she said knowingly.

Mama flapped her hands at them in a shooing motion, and so Jingfei took her Nai Nai’s hand and started to pull her towards the door.

“Yes, yes, we’re going and it’s very exciting just let me grab my cane!” Nai Nai scolded half-heartedly as she snatched the worn bag Mama had packed for them full of things to trade. Jingfei put her shoes on, and bounced impatiently in one spot as Nai Nai pulled her walking cane from behind the door, and soon followed.

“Travel safe!” Mama called from behind them.

Nai Nai raised one hand in farewell, and then the two of them were off.

Hours later, and Jingfei was starting to feel pretty tired, but was determined to keep carrying the apricots they had traded a ceramic jar for. She had said she was sure she could carry it, and Nai Nai had let her. The market had been everything her elder cousin Wen had said, and more!

“Did you see the pet monkey Nai Nai? Did you?” she asked for admittedly the fourth or fifth time.

Nai Nai though was always patient. “Yes, you know I saw it. Saw it steal fruit from one of the vendors, too. Cheeky thing.”

“Do you think I could have one? If I asked Baba, maybe he could bring me back one from the Capital next time he goes,” Jingfei said.

Nai Nai laughed. “I think your mother would actually kill him. Maybe try for a dog instead. It’s been a while since there was a dog around the house. I could show you how to train one, if you’re willing to take responsibility.”

Jingfei nearly dropped the apricots in excitement.

She opened her mouth to ask her grandmother what she thought a good name for a dog might be, when suddenly, Nai Nai went still.

Jingfei looked up the road to the bridge, and saw that it was being blocked by a pair of men who were openly carrying rusted swords. She looked back at Nai Nai and followed her abrupt gesture to stand behind her.

“Good evening boys,” Nai Nai said, in a light voice. “Would you care to let me and my granddaughter through?” she asked politely. “My son is coming home tonight and I need to make his favourites.”

From behind her, Jingfei gave her Nai Nai an odd look. Nai Nai hardly ever cooked anything more complicated than rice porridge, and certainly nothing that she would think of as her Baba’s ‘favourites’. (Nai Nai liked to say that was what daughters-in-law were for, which always made Mama roll her eyes but smile. Mama liked cooking, and always said she had her kitchen just how she liked it.)

The two men snickered. The taller one hawked and spat to one side. The shorter one smiled. Jingfei felt shivers travel down her spine.

“Oh of course,” he said in an oily voice. “Just leave your bags and I’ll let you go. No one needs to get hurt.”

Nai Nai hefted her bag from her shoulder and put it on the ground.

“But Nai Nai!” Jingfei protested, tugging on Nai Nai’s sleeve. “Mama really needs the ginger root.”

Nai Nai nodded grimly. “We’ll just have to beg some from our neighbours. Your mother would be more worried about us getting home in one piece.”

The taller man was quick to rummage through the pack, and grumbled when the only things he could find in it were tea, silk for spinning, the ginger root, and the toys that Nai Nai had purchased for Jingfei and her cousins.

“There’s nothing of worth here, they’re not even carrying any silver,” he grumbled. He snatched the package of apricots that Jingfei had carefully placed on the ground and scowled when all he saw was the fruits, tossing them carelessly to one side.

“Of course not,” Nai Nai said calmly. “After all, I’m just an old woman taking her granddaughter to the market as a special treat. We’re hardly rich merchants. Now, since you boys have taken everything, would you be so kind as to let us on our way? My daughter-in-law will be getting worried, and she’ll no doubt send my son after us.” She gripped her walking cane loosely, and Jingfei stayed behind her.

“Hah! If your son was here we’d cut his belly open,” said the taller one, leering at Jingfei. “Though maybe I spoke too soon saying you’re not carrying anything of value… that granddaughter of yours is pretty enough to fetch a reasonable price. Come here little girl, and I promise I won’t leave your grandmother dying in the ditch.”

“Jingfei,” said Nai Nai in a voice that Jingfei normally only heard during training. “Run for help. Go.”

Jingfei’s feet were moving before her brain caught up with what she was doing. She heard the men yell vile curses, and heard her Nai Nai curse back, followed by a loud thwacking noise. She didn’t look back though. She knew better. Nai Nai said that if someone might be chasing you, you never looked back unless you had a plan for fighting back.

Three turns down the road, and Jingfei almost ran headlong into a group of men with an ox-cart.

“Jingfei?” Came an incredulous voice.

Jingfei skidded to a stop, and looked up at the stocky man with the straw hat driving the cart, realised he was familiar and nearly started crying with relief.

“Jingfei!” Her father jumped off the cart, and quickly scooped her up into his arms. “What happened? What are you doing out on the road alone?”

“Baba! Nai Nai is in trouble!” she managed to gasp out. “Bad men are at the bridge.” Her lip wobbled. “She said I had to go get help!”

“How many?” Baba asked her.

“Two,” Jingfei replied.

Baba nodded sharply. “Yan, Peizhi, with me. Niu, Ling, stay with the cart and keep my daughter safe.” He swung Jingfei into the cart, and kissed her head. “I’ll be back soon. Be good.”

Jingfei nodded miserably as Baba and two of his friends ran back up the road towards the bridge.

She watched after them, and startled when a cup of cold tea was pressed into her hands.

A teenaged boy smiled at her. “Here. You must be thirsty after that run.”

Jingfei nodded mutely, staring down the road where the dust from her father’s running was starting to settle.  She took an absent sip, and grimaced at the flavour. It tasted overbrewed.

“You’re very brave,” said the boy. “My little brothers would be crying by now.”

Jingfei bit her lip. “Nai Nai says it’s alright to cry, but it’s best to wait until after.” She clenched her free hand. “And it’s not after until everyone’s safe.”

The boy nodded, but winced a little. “I hope your father gets there in time then.”

Jingfei scowled and handed him back his cup. “Nai Nai is going to be fine. She just needed me to get out of the way so she could con-concentrate,” she said, stumbling on the difficult word.

“I’m sure you’re right,” the boy said, in that tone that older people sometimes used when they thought Jingfei was wrong because she was little.

Jingfei scowled harder, and would have retorted, but the other man, as old as Nai Nai, and thin as a dried up grass-stalk, started chuckling.

“Oh I’m sure old Mulan’s fine. No two-bit thugs are going to get by her,” he said in a raspy voice.

Jingfei nodded firmly.

The boy looked unconvinced, but it was only a few minutes later that one of the men who had run with Baba came running back. He was grinning.

“Old lady had them laid out on the ground before we even got there!” He shook his head admiringly. “Lost a sleeve to one of the swords, but otherwise not a scratch on her!”

Ling snorted. "Age must be catching up with her then. Time was she wouldn't have even got road dust on her from a couple of dungbeetles like that."

The other man laughed. "Last I saw she was ordering Ying to pick up all her scattered purchases, because her 'old knees' couldn't take all the bending." He snickered. "Hardly stopped her from knocking those thieves right out cold!"

Jingfei shot a triumphant look at the gaping boy.

“See?” she said. “Nai Nai is strong.”