The Secrets of Jin Shei
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was closer to three weeks, rather than the more
traditional single week of retreat as practiced by all her
ancestors, that Liudan decreed a return to Linh-an. None of
companions were any the wiser as to what her decision was in
terms of choosing her Emperor, which was ostensibly the
for the whole journey up to the mountains.
was perfectly happy to
discuss any subject under the heavens with her three jin-shei
sisters. Her mood was even downright playful at times. She
of herself as much as she was capable of sharing –
discussed statecraft and the intricacies of the Way with
and with Yuet, the oldest and most sophisticated of them all,
fascinating topics of people and the way they functioned. She
long, serious discussions on art and poetry with Tai; her
about the potential of Tai’s poetry had been no
whim, lightly said and quickly forgotten. But what was to
been the purpose of her withdrawal into the mountains
choosing of the next Emperor of Syai – seemed to have been
conveniently buried out of sight, and Liudan showed no sign of wanting
to resurrect it.
There had also been no
discussion of the Traveler girl who had haunted Tai’s dream.
"Say nothing, yet", Yuet had
told Tai. "There
is something here that I think I ought to have known about, but right
now all I have is an inkling. I know nothing for sure, and I will not
until I get back to the city and to my records, to Szewan’s
records. Until then, say nothing to anyone. Leave her the life that she
has – don’t draw attention to her at all. I will
it, and let you know if I find anything."
But Tai had been frustrated and curious, and the
before they left the village to return to Linh-an, she had gone back to
the Summer Palace – again by herself, this time closer to her
favorite time of the day, when the sun was hanging low and golden above
She did not know what she had
find, but it was not what met her when she climbed up the still
snow-covered slopes and through the hushed, empty gardens. In a sunlit
corner of a ruined courtyard, like a scrap of tapestry come to life,
she saw the girl of her dream dancing, alone. Her eyes were closed and
her arms, bare despite the still-wintry nip in the air, were raised
above her head, her wrists
bent in graceful arcs, like the wings of a white bird. Her bright hair
loose and streamed in riotous curls, catching the late afternoon sun
and glinting red and gold as she whirled to music she alone heard
echoing in her mind. She was very fair, her skin like fine porcelain,
veins showing blue at her wrists, and her mouth was full and parted as
she danced. It was hard to guess at her age because her movements were
a woman’s movements, her body a woman’s body with curves at
breast and hip, but her face, and the shape of her mouth, and the
curious abandon to her pleasure, were all a child’s.
The awareness of not being alone any longer,
something that caught her in mid-movement and shivered the shape of her
into fragments like a falling mirror, was that of a wild thing
– neither woman nor child but an unwary mountain beast trapped against
cliff by a hunter. Her eyes flew open and she grabbed at her shawl,
draped untidily over a bare tree branch, wrapping herself back into
anonymity and turning to flee into the lengthening shadows at her back.
"Wait!" Tai called out, flinging out an arm to
"I mean you no harm! Don’t run! What’s your name?"
"I do not talk to the Court people", came the
reply, in a soft, oddly accented voice – it was dark and low,
and older that Tai expected. "Go home! Leave us alone!"
And then she was gone again.
Tai did not tell Yuet of this encounter,
wait until Yuet came up with some answers of her own. But the strange
mountain child was much on her mind as the Linh-an women, the "Court
people", made their way back to the city after Liudan’s three
weeks of grace.
The Council demanded the
results of her meditations on the day after her return to the Palace.
"I will make an announcement,"
Liudan said, "on my birthday. Not before."
She would still be only
fifteen years old on
her next birthday, in the summer. Still young enough – in
– to be reined in, bound by tradition, controlled. The
advised by the Sages, allowed her the further grace. But speculation
did not stop running riot, and the city’s betting shops did a
brisk trade on which of the suitors Liudan would take as her Emperor at
the end of that summer. This Autumn Court would be very different from
that of the previous year.
Tai came home determined not
to allow Yuet to
let the matter of the identity of the Traveler girl slip from her
consciousness, but she was soon sidetracked by other events.
The first was the arrival of a
milestone. Her cycles began two days before the turned twelve, and her
Xat-Wau ceremony was scheduled for the fourth day of the third week of
Taian, the day that had been the Little Empress’s birthday.
was no Empress, and her ceremony was far simpler than
had been – in fact, there was no Temple priest present at
and it was Nhia, her friend and jin-shei sister, who spoke the words of
the coming-of-age blessing over her. The only other people present had
been Yuet, a smiling brace of neighbors who had been invited in for the
celebration, and Rimshi, now seriously ailing and seated throughout the
ceremony in a deep cushioned chair and a rug, despite the summer
temperatures outside, laid over her knees. Her hands trembled these
days, and the Xat-Wau ceremony seemed also to seal the inescapable fact
that it was Tai and not her mother who did more and more of the fine
embroidery work for the Imperial Court these days.
Nhia had wanted to invite
Kito, but Tai, at
the last minute, had balked. This occasion would be recorded at the
Records Office, right there beside the Temple, and there would be the
offerings to be made to the proper spirits, and it had been Nhia who
had purchased Tai’s special Xat-Wau bead for her yearwood at
So-Xan’s stall so that it might have been Kito himself who
carved it – but she had suddenly been furiously shy
being present at the rites which promoted her from child into adult
woman. She had been practically in tears over it before Nhia realized
that it was not just a reaction to teasing but something far deeper
than that, and had wisely abandoned the issue.
Frail and delicate as she was,
insisted on being part of the ceremony. It was she who placed
Tai’s Xat-Wau red pin through the upswept crown of her hair.
it seemed that waiting for her daughter to reach this stepping-stone to
adulthood was the only thing that was keeping Rimshi alive. Shortly
after the ceremony, at which she had still been able to move around the
house and had been bright-eyed and proud and happily accepting the
congratulations of her guests and the messages of those who did not
come – even Liudan had sent a special gift for the occasion,
which impressed the neighbors immensely – Rimshi took
to her bed, and, despite all Yuet’s ministrations, did not
likely to leave it again. It was this looming problem and not the
mysterious Traveler girl they had left behind in the mountain village
that occupied Yuet’s