From nowhere appeared dressed up girls. Each of them was holding a little golden bowl in her hand. Approaching ‘her’ guest each girl bowed to offer the bowl.
A great cheer went up from the guests.
“This is lotus fruit compote,” said the Hostess.
In the bottom of each bowl was a little oval seed, a bit bigger than a pea, but of irregular form.
“I bestow it upon you to show my appreciation. May the fine emanations from this treat instigate harmony and prosperity in each home.”
That was the concluding chord to the long day. The ladies proceeded to their rooms, and the gentlemen used that time to talk shop, to discuss military or political matters, which, however, was not essential for them.
It was announced that the astrologists’ calculations would be provided the next day, after the tea ceremony. And right after that the guests would have to leave for their homes.
Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem
Shi did not like the ceremony, but it was his duty to be present there, because that moment was to determine his fate. One of those guests was to become a relative of his children. The women were looking at him, and everyone was remembering her wedding ceremony, and it was evident that some women were even trying the role of his future bride themselves, which made their cheeks flush even through the thick layer of powder, betraying them. Their attire and hairdos were incredibly sophisticated constructions, and to describe even one of them you would need as much silk as it took to make their outfit. It was a fireworks of forms, colours, and filigree details. A multitude of embroidered flowers, birds, bamboo shoots, could fit onto a tiny piece of silk, the size of a child’s palm, without making it heavier.
A special pride of each woman was her fan. It served as the extension of her hand, and the extension of her sight, and a magic item of power for each of them. None of them would exchange her fan for a diamond necklace, although their costs were comparable, because the fans were unique pieces of the finest art. Every lady was a virtuoso in using her fan, so that if she were prohibited from talking, the fan would speak on her behalf.
Never in his life had Shi seen so many exquisite granddames. His heart was beating violently, although none of them had incited a desire in him. For him it was the first time that he was confronting the feminine element, something unknowable. It was a different world, infinite and scary. He had a feeling that he was sitting alone, absolutely naked and unprotected, and he felt their sight, and hands stretching out for him, touching him, teasing him. He was doing his best to control himself and look relaxed, but the jade baton did not want to obey him and was responding to their furtive, imaginary caresses.
The incenses were smoky, helping everybody to relax and indulge in pleasant conversation, but they could not suppress the notes of jasmine, cananga, geranium, patchouli, lavender, cinnamon, rosemary, neroli, rose, which made hearts now beat faster, now flutter. These fragrances were thronging the senses, sending the present moment from their minds. The women knew what they were doing. They had been preparing for this visit thoroughly, choosing the best perfumes to harmonise with their bodies. But there were too many of them. Overlaying each other, the scents of their bodies, which combined finest attars and feminine hormones, were awaking the deepest and the most ancient layers of the consciousness. They were causing bellicose excitement in men and making their bodies inject immense amounts of adrenaline into their blood.
Modern perfumes involve a great deal of chemically synthesized components to ensure steady quality; this is why their data cannot be read, not because there was no meaningful input, but as we do not attempt to read the meaning of a clearing in a forest. They either fail utterly to stimulate these primeval centres, or stimulate them in an uncontrollable way.
In those times, however, the language of fragrance was at the level of art, although just a few people had mastered it. Shi wished he could run away and hide himself, but his duty as a warrior and a sovereign demanded courage. He took it as a trial. At the moment of infirmity, when he felt a note of ylang-ylang in the cacophony of smells, he felt an instant wish to have Van next to him and feel her hands caressing him. His eye lids closed, and he gave a soft groan, but immediately came around and continued observing the situation.
When, finally, the guests proceeded to their rooms and his tortures were over, he went for a walk in the garden. He could hear sweet groans from the windows. It was a good sign: guests, who were making love in the house of the host, were contributing to the prosperity and the fertility of the household. Children who were conceived in the house of the lord brought good luck and prosperity. And since at that time of unrest visiting others was too risky and, for this reason, extremely rare, everyone decided to use that opportunity. Who could know, maybe the children who were conceived in that house would return to it?
Shi approached the pond. The paper lanterns were gleaming on its still surface. The fish were already sleeping, and only one of them, by habit, approached Shi in a lazy, lethargic manner. Its gold side flashed in the light of a lantern, and the fish disappeared in the cool depth. Shi was sitting motionless, trying to keep his consciousness clear of any thought, but the bright images of the past day were tearing his mind.
All of a sudden he quite clearly smelled ylang-ylang. From instinct, he stretched out his hand and his fingers touched a piece of the lightest, softest silk. Now he was sure that it was the smell that had been accompanying him throughout the entire day. A faint smile touched his lips. Now his morning adventure seemed amusing to him. After so many self-confident women had been casting their eager glances at him, he found his morning hesitance and escape simply funny. Of course, if he could swap the events, he would not have missed his morning chance. The astrologists are going to identify the best match for him, but who knows if the chosen one is going to be to his liking? What if he cannot love her? Of course, he is allowed to have a number of wives and concubines. But the first one…
At the moment Shi heard his Tutor calling him to go to his room.
Shi was lying and gazing at the stars, holding the little warm piece of fine silk close to his cheek. All of sudden a misty golden spot emerged from the dark. It drew nearer, and Van emerged from it. She was wearing the same, still torn, pale pink dress made of the finest silk, a piece of which Shi was holding in his fingers. The girl was standing and watching Shi with a tender smile. Slowly, she undid her belt, which caused the embroidered cape to slip down, leaving her in her pink undergarment torn in such a way that Shi could see her breasts, and even her navel. Taking off her sandals and putting aside the black laces that fixed her pale-jade harem pants right above her ankles, she sat herself down right next to Shi, and started gently caressing his naked body.
Shi was lying motionless, in the same position as before. He saw it, but he was watching it as though he were an onlooker. He could see his room, its walls decorated with pieces of cloth embroidered with fancy birds and flying women with a lotus flower in their hands. He could see the silk cushions scattered about, and he could also observe himself, lying in his bed and holding the piece of silk close to his cheek. He did not move, and he did not wish to move.
The smell of ylang-ylang filled the air in the room. Van’s touches were delicate and cool, just like swallows of cool water in the middle of a hot day. His body was imbued with peace, trust and power. Van lowered her head onto his pillow and placed her hand on Shi’s stomach. But suddenly many women were coming from every corner; they were stretching their arms towards Shi, caressing him, hiding their faces behind their fans and laughing. Then Van rushed up to them, chasing them away, and covered Shi’s body with hers. Her body was weightless, as if it were only a breeze. An acute desire to proceed overwhelmed Shi. He tried to move and embrace Van, but his arms felt leaden, and when he made an effort, he saw nothing, but a tiny piece of silk and a fragile beam of the sun in his hand. He could sense, like the whispers of grass, the featherlike steps of the servants outside who were making preparations for the new day.
Having stretched his body, and tying his belt, Shi headed to the garden where he had a special place arranged for his practice. All of a sudden he saw his Tutor following him. Taken aback, Shi stopped.
“My Illustrious Lord, you are not allowed to see anyone, or to talk to anyone before your marriage. And no one can see you either. Your Father said I’m staking my life on this.”
“But why, Tutor, can’t I even see my parents?” asked Shi, trying to look naive.
“This is the moment when your destiny is being determined, and nothing should affect it. Any odd look can let an evil spirit harm your marriage. It may be envy or some other bad feelings. You have stepped onto the road of change, and this road will open the way for contacts between you and your deceased ancestors. Right now they have to decide among themselves who will come into this world with your first baby. You have to spend your time in meditation and peace to make sure that the best among the best will come to you. Your food should be restrained and your prayers prolonged.”
Bewildered, Shi went back to his rooms. As of that moment, no one would be allowed to even approach that part of the house. Only the Tutor could bring Shi food once a day, just because the Tutor was a monk.
In the remaining part of the mansion the servants were rushing about, the guests were waking up, the granddames were happily chatting, and the rarest, absolutely white peacocks were gracefully wandering in the garden. Maidens stood near small trees and using squirrel fur brushes to carefully apply the pollen to the pistils of the crimson flowers with a syrupy fragrance, then covered each pollinated flower with a tiny sack made of the finest white silk.
Men were picking up the flowers from the trees along the alleys that had fallen at night. The flowers looked like rhododendrons, but were much bigger, and their colours and smells were reminiscent of lilies. Each of the flowers had the shape, the hue and the note of fragrance that made a perfect harmony, and was a model of how to learn good taste, which is why it was especially valued by the Head of the Nan Song family. The fallen flowers were picked up and used to prepare the most valuable incenses with the finest fragrances, while the opening flowers were harvested to make a special honey potion, served only on special occasions, as it was believed to be able to open the way to the fine worlds.
The Tea Ceremony Hall was filled with great agitation. The room was being prepared for the announcement of the astrologists’ conclusion.
Women were not allowed to take part in the Tea Ceremony, as during one of the rituals, called ‘Introduction to Tea’, tea was to rest on the palm of the hand for some time. Woman, who possessed the Yin nature and were closer to earth, might have lowered the energy and the status of the ceremony. This is why, following the advice of the Tutor, the Head of the Nan Song house, allowing his first wife and his favourite daughter to attend the ceremony, decided not to allow other women into the sacrament of the Tea Ceremony. Having a Tea Ceremony was risky as it was: the presence of heads of other influential clans at the Tea Ceremony could be charged with problems.
It was decided that the women would be offered a healing drink ‘for all seasons’, which would be served in another ‘small’ hall, and from there, later, they would leave for home. The tea was, actually, not just tea. It was a blend of fine components, each of them symbolizing one of the five elements – earth, water, wood, fire, metal – or, correspondingly, the organs of the body – the spleen, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs – or, in another projection, the seasons —Indian summer, winter, spring, summer, autumn. The drink was made from a cherry-like fruit, a flower resembling an aster, a nut, the skin of which when soaked in hot water would produce a most refined flavour, from a little crystal, which in the boiling water would turn into a stinging jelly-fish, and from the tea leaves themselves. The drink was intended to give the guests strength to restore the energy they had spent at night and to endure the long way back home.
The men were offered a three-hour tea ceremony as a shortened morning variant. It was decided to serve only two kinds of tea – the Yunnan peach tea, a blend of fresh moist tender spring leaves, and tea harvested a bit later in the highlands by maiden beauties, who used their delicate thin fingers to roll up the leaves and their saliva to glue them into rolls. The Yunnan peach tea did not have peach leaves at all, but the peach trees that enclosed the secret tea plantation shared with the cultivated tea their special peach flavour, which would bloom only after the second brewing.
The bamboo flutes started, followed by ‘shen’, the wind instruments, the divine harps, the citharas and little ceremonial drums. To soften the atmosphere of the men’s gathering, the female Yu mode had been chosen. The most refined, tender plays of the tunes were suggestive of the coolness of a mountain stream, or of a tranquil movement of water in a valley river. In the context of female absence, it was a hymn to that water, which was delivered from a special spring up in the mountains in the vicinity of the Celestial Masters’ Small Temple.
The Tea Ceremony was a covert event; even the musicians sat behind a special partition made of ebony encrusted with mother-of-pearl. The most refined tea emanations were transforming each other. The tea did not hurry to give up its secrets, and the guests had time to enjoy every nuance of the procedure. And only the special status of warriors did not allow the men to express their exhilaration.
Well, the Tea Ceremony merits hours and hours of descriptions and scientific Taoism treatises and poems, and still its heavenly nature will remain untold, because there are no words that could describe your feelings at those moments, and the revelations you receive under the impact of the finest fields that emerge in the process of communication with a Kun-Fu-Chia Master. The fields are so fine, that they transfer over long distances and you would be able to influence events that are taking place a long way from you, if they are important to you at the moment.
This is why, in order to improve the interaction and the mutual understanding among the heads of the clans, who had armies of their own and were influential enough to unite people in a joint effort to repel the Jurchens, the Tea Ceremony was held. Besides, it was intended to reduce the possible disappointment of those whose daughters would not be chosen at all, or would be selected as second or third wives.
The music stopped. The tea-ware was taken away. The astrologists entered the hall. They were seven. Six of them seated themselves on silk cushions in pairs facing one another. The Elder remained standing and addressed the Lord and the guests.
“Illustrious Lord, the Book of Destinies reads that the deeds of your son will be sacred and multiyear, and his son, likewise, will be a happy and remarkable ruler, and he will be borne by the first wife. Her name is Bao and she is from the Li Hong family.”
Hearing this, Chen Li Hong, Bao’s father, turned pale.
The astrologist went on, “The second wife will be Chou from the Hi Lin family, and the third wife will be Ho from the Shao-Zun. The wedding ceremony for Shi and Bao will be held under the Chen (Chen, the Cart, is the last of the 28 Chinese Zodiac constellations, the last of the seven constellations of the Red Bird of the southern celestial sector), that is, in fifteen days.”
The astrologist bowed and retreated, followed by the other astrologists. Men started rising one after another; in silence they gave their ceremonial farewell honours to their Illustrious Lord, and left the hall. Thus the destiny was calculated. But they were astrologists, neither future-tellers nor Taoists. And that rescued Chen Li Hong. Still pale, he was the last to rise from his seat.
“Why? Aren’t you happy? Is my son not a worthy mate for your daughter?” asked the Illustrious Lord with a smile.
“My Lord, it’s the greatest honour for me. But she is my favourite daughter, and she is still so attached to her mother.”
“So, what? Daughters are nothing but flowers in the garden: the flowers are doomed to wither – what can you do about it? Go, hurry to inform her of the great honour and her upcoming happiness.”
Chen Li Hong stood up, offered the due ceremonial honours and left the hall in silence. While walking in the shade towards the stables, he did not utter a word, neglecting the anxious attempts of his beautiful wife to look into his eyes and read the reason for the unusual behaviour of her husband.
Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang
Still silent, Chen Li Hong took his place in the procession, made sure that everybody was in, and signalled to move. It was a long journey to make, but fifteen days later he would have to come back to this place with his daughter. Two white stone Tigers with strange muzzles, which resembled monkeys more than tigers, were dispassionately watching the procession go. The green and grey roofs of the stone building of the country-side mansion of His Illustrious Lord were slowly disappearing behind the tops of pine trees. One farewell glance towards the mansion – and after the bend in the road all that one could see was the impenetrable forest.
It was then that Chen started realizing the desolate implications of the situation. He had a number of wives, and many daughters and sons. But his favourite wife had only one daughter. All the other children by her died in their infancy; after that she appealed to the nuns in the cloister, who gave her a herbal drink which made her unable to get pregnant.
The astrologists, who were invited upon the arrival of the daughter, were merciless. They refused the bounties offered to them in order to reserve the right to tell the truth. The estimations made on the basis of the date of conception and the date of birth undoubtedly showed that the only daughter by his beloved wife Fan had to die at the age of fifteen. But Fan was happy to hear even that, as all of her other children had not been able to live even a single full day. Bao was a reward to Fan, she was literally the greatest treasure Fan had in her life.
Fan was exceptionally beautiful, but rather simple-minded. She talked the astrologists into changing the date of her daughter’s birth so that the predictions could be favourable.
“What if the Gods see that date and give my daughter a chance?” thought Fan.
The astrologists, charmed by the beauty and guilelessness of the hostess, did what she was begging for. They wanted to soothe her pain. Chen, also, did not want to contradict his wife and allowed to be entered the re-calculated date of birth instead of the real one. One could not change destiny, but if one could give Fan some relief and soothe her pain caused by numerous losses, why not do that? The baby had fifteen years ahead of her, maybe something would happen that would help the little one survive.
The baby was growing feeble and was prone to illness, but she was dazzlingly beautiful, just like her mother. The sisters from the cloister visited Bao and helped her mother to cope with the problems. Bao loved the nuns, and they loved her dearly. They would bring her books, they taught her calligraphy and how to play the harp, and also the special exercises she could do to support life and energy in her feeble body.
Bao spent a lot of time reading books. She did not join the games of her sisters borne by the other wives. They were younger and spent whole days playing happily and carefree in the garden. However, she liked to watch how they would dress up in various clothes, wear masks and make up their faces with fancy designs, and perform funny skits. Later, when the servants came to wash them, they would scream, and laugh, and splash water at one another, and they also tried to reach for the tap and close it with their tiny fingers, so that the spurts of water reached everyone within three zhangs .
Their favourite pastime was to play a game called ‘Bride’. Some girls would climb into red sedan chairs, designed like little rooms with windows, decorate them with their dolls, toy birds, images of saints, multicoloured flags and ribbons with pompoms, and cover them with embroidered table cloths with colourful tassels on the sides. Then, having applied make-up and put on dresses of vibrant colours, they asked their servants to carry them in the sedan chairs along the alleys of the garden, while other sisters and servants were expected to play various musical instruments or pretend to be the bride-groom and his family.
That day they found somewhere a huge dusty cloth dragon, and climbed on it in order to scare the servants. The servants prostrated themselves; they were doing their best to demonstrate their sacred awe. It was not clear who enjoyed the game more.
At that very moment the main gate of the estate opened and a procession entered the courtyard. The stablemen rushed to the horses, the servants hurried to bring the sedan chair to take Missus Fan to her room. Mister Chen, darker than the night, went to his library, silent. He stopped, though, when he saw the little ones playing with the dragon, and gave a faint smile, but soon it gave way to a frown, and a tear slowly went down his dusty cheek. He bit his lip and hastened to the library.
“Once Missus Fan is ready, let her join me here.”
The servants hurriedly took the travel ‘armour’ off their master. He proceeded into his bathroom, where there was a cool rosemary bath waiting for him. It looked like a little swimming pool at the level of the floor, and the man slowly sank into it. The comforting, warm bitter smell of the ‘heart herb’ took away the weariness of the journey and set his heart at ease. The feelings of illness and uncertainty went away, but the anxiety remained.
Now Fan entered the bathroom. Chen signalled her to join him. The servants helped her to undress and descend into the bath by the slippery golden steps. From above, through the blue-and-purple-and-pink stained glass of the skylight which featured a lotus flower on still water, light filtered into the bathroom. A candle in a flat candlestick, was positioned in a little polygonal mirror niche, was filling the room with a special, joyful lighting enhanced in the reflection of several mirrors positioned at certain angles to each other.
The lengthy travel and their nervous tension whetted their feelings. Chen slowly raised his eyes and looked at Fan. His eyes were caught by Fan’s breezing. Her fluttering eyelashes were gently repeating the ups and downs of her chest. Rosemary helped increase blood circulation in her heart.
Soon their breaths merged into soft waves. Fan’s lips parted and her eyes dropped. Then Chen inhaled her breath and gently touched her hand. A slight blush suffused the pale cheeks of his wife. Her eyelids started trembling, but Chen was not hurrying to grant her his satisfying touch. Watching the tender waves of passion going over her delicate body made him smile with delight.
Suddenly Fan gripped her husband’s hand, digging with her sharp nails into it, and went still. Some moments later her lips parted again and a gentle smile shone on her face. Her body became soft and yielding. Chen drew her near and she embraced him with her legs, slightly slanting back and holding onto the gilded bars with her hands. Slowly and tenderly the jade baton touched upon its flower. The entry gate trembled, as if under an electric current, and welcomingly parted. The labia, like the palms of two hands, enfolded the gentle soft jade baton, pulling it deeper and deeper inside. Having swallowed the whole of it, they firmly enveloped it at its root, sending soft waves from the base to the top of the heavenly palace. The jade baton started growing bigger and stronger, tenderly screwing deeper and visiting every corner of his home. “Hello, my dear little hollow, how nice to see you, my lovely little hill. I am back home at last, my precious lips. I am back today, won’t you let me in? Ah, you are not willing today. That’s not nice, I am leaving…”
“No, now you have to wait. A little bit. However, yes, you softened my heart, I forgive you. I am coming back in …”
Incense and candles were noiselessly replaced by the servants. The water was as warm as new milk, but the time of Yin was coming, and the water was acquiring its dark force. Still embracing, they slowly moved to the cushions. The bath was emptied, capped with mosaic tiles and covered with a carpet. Servants, like bodiless ghosts, anointed the bodies of their master and mistress with rose oil and disappeared into the shadows. It was the beginning of a night of love…
The morning broke with loud warbling of birds. That morning’s cacophony could not be called bird singing – so many different birds were trying to outsing the other. Chen lay on the pillows and watched Fan smiling in her sleep. He signalled for tea to be brought. The nuns always recommended a small cup of tea at dawn. Fan opened her eyes.
In a little while they were sitting on cushions in their soft silk dressing gowns, a tiny tea table with two little cups made of paper-thin porcelain between them.
“In fifteen days Bao and Shi will have to unite in matrimony,” said Chen.
Fan turned pale, and her weakened body began to sink onto the pillows. The servants knew what to do, as faints were not unusual with their mistress. However, this time it was much worse. It was decided to send for the sisters from the cloister, urgently.
“According to the astrologists’ forecast, their marriage will be long and happy. She is to bear a son, who will be conceived during their first matrimonial night. If this does not happen, you know what will be done to Bao and all the rest of us.”
“But she hasn’t turned fifteen yet, and the red dragon hasn’t visited her. She is not able to conceive.”
The cloister was located high up in the mountains, which, however, were not far away from Chen Li Hong’s home.
Having left Shi under the solicitous care of his Monk Tutor, I did not worry for him. At that moment I was much more concerned about his future bride, whom I was eager to meet. Having assessed the situation, I realized that it was most favourable. Entering the cloister I introduced myself as a ‘nun, who knows all herbs’, and willingly volunteered to leave for the first ‘call’, which, I was sure, would allow me to enter the home of Li Hong without arousing anybody’s suspicion.
Sister Fu (Talisman) was Master of the Art of the Emptiness of Love, Master of Internal Alchemy, of Herbal Healing and Surgery. She was the private counsellor of Missus Fan and taught the elder girls ‘The Art of Delights’. She was happy to have a new counterpart. She had a warm smile. Sisters from the cloister treated her with reverent awe. There were rumours that she could take away youth and energy from young lads and lasses through casting a glance at them. She welcomed me and treated me well, happy to have a travelling companion and an aide, which meant she could take more books, herbs and other things she needed for that visit.
The news that beautiful Bao, the favourite daughter of Missus Fan, had been chosen to become the wife of the son of the Illustrious Lord, instantly spread over the cloister, as many sisters had been involved in her life. The number of items and messages was gathering like a snowball, but we had to hurry, and sister Fu and I left the cloister.
The cobblestone road that we were following was, in fact, a giant, gently sloping staircase rounded at the top with mossy curbs, built in the dense forest that was covering the slope of the mountain.
Oaks, planes, acacias, larches and pine-trees with long silky needles lined this road. Around a bend we suddenly saw a little waterfall with crystal-clear water, the beginning of a little stream, where the willows were bathing their slender twigs.
Suddenly a little rock fell right in front of me. I raised my head and saw white goats walking in the water upstream. The one closest to me turned its head and stared at me in curiosity. When approaching Chen Li Hong’s mansion, we made a stop near a partially destroyed octagonal swimming pool. In the centre was a statue of a dragon carved from stone, which had kind eyes and an open mouth.
Sister Fu took out a little pebble from her basket and gracefully threw it into the mouth of the dragon.
“He accepted the gift. Everything will be fine,” said she smiling, addressing either me, or someone far away.
At the entrance there were people waiting for us. Servants rushed towards us to offer us sedan chairs. I had not been used to such kind of travel, but I had no choice. It was pleasant to observe the two strong handsome men running along the cobblestone path carrying the chair so skilfully that I didn’t feel any lurches at all! The sedan chair which sister Fu was riding in was decorated with a little gold bell, giving out melodic chimes and glittering in the rays of the midday sun.
The servants brought us straight into the library of the Master, where Missus Fan was still lying. Sister Fu introduced me, “This is the One Who Knows All Herbs.”
Then she took out of her basket everything she needed and started examining Missus Fan. Having taken Fan by her frail wrist, she sank deep in thought, and was looking at me without seeing me, which made me feel quite ill at ease.