Chapter 26 Wind Crane: A Private Performance
Feng Luodi took a deep breath, and exchanged a look with Scarlet. She was standing outside a stately mansion, Scarlet holding the gifts that she’d prepared for the visit. Mustering her courage, Feng Luodi walked up to the guard at the door, and curtsied.
“Please inform the Minister that Feng Luodi is here.”
“Yes, missus. Please wait here.”
Seeing the guard leave to send word to the Minister, Feng Luodi patted her chest lightly, and turned to Scarlet.
“Scarlet, I’m really nervous!”
“Young miss, I’m even more nervous than you!” Scarlet gripped Feng Luodi’s sleeve tightly, and looked almost on the verge of tears.
They were outside the Household of the Minister of the Right, because of an invitation by the Minister himself. One that, needless to say, she could not reject. To quote the Household Defender 1 who had delivered the letter, it was a “simple, homely dinner” for the Minister to “get to know” her better.
“Why do I feel like a man who’s about to meet his in-laws?” Feng Luodi was perplexed by her apprehension. Perhaps it’s because the Minister is the same age as Father, and I’d imagine him to be a serious and dignified man because of his high position.
“Young miss, I don’t think the Minister would make things difficult for you. After all, young missus Qi is your close friend, isn’t she?” Scarlet was nervous, but she could still think clearly.
Feng Luodi rechecked her dressing. “Am I dressed too casually today?”
Feng Luodi wore a red gown with golden embroidery running along her collar, with a matching golden waistcloth depicting clouds and beasts. A maroon belt studded with jade sat on her hips, while her elaborate hairstyle was pinned in place with an ornamental gold hairpin she rarely wore. It was the first time Scarlet saw Feng Luodi dressed in such formal clothes, and as objectively as she could be, felt that her young miss was lovely. The red contrasted well against her pale skin, and the gold hints lent her a princely aura. What a pity that the young missus always dresses up in shades of white and green; she looks refreshing and gentle when she dresses in white, but she looks dignified and graceful like this.
“You were always beautiful, young miss,” Scarlet straightened the sleeves for Feng Luodi, “more so today.” Her words calmed down Feng Luodi somewhat.
They didn’t have to wait long; a sombre middle-aged man dressed in fine clothes came walking out of the household, guards greeting him as he walked.
“Miss Feng, I am the Head Steward of the household. The Minister is currently in an important meeting in the antechamber. If you may, please wait with young miss Qi in her courtyard; she has been waiting for your arrival since early this morning.”
“Of course. Thank you, sir.” It was often exaggerated that a simple guard of a Minister’s household is as important as a 7th Rank Official. One could only see from that how influential this Head Steward might be, and Feng Luodi was as respectful as she could be. On the way to Qi Jianqiu’s courtyard, they were met by Qi Jianqiu who ran to meet them, her skirts lifted in her hands.
“Young missus, slow down! Be careful not to injure yourself! Your health is more important than your weight in gold!” The Head Steward quickly called out.
“It’s alright, Rui Bo. I’m already used to running in my gown; there’s no way I’ll fall. I’ll take over from here, and bring her to lunch with Father later!” Qi Jianqiu said excitedly.
“Alright then, whatever you say, young missus.” Rui Bo smiled adoringly at her, and turned to bow to Feng Luodi before taking his leave.
As soon as Rui Bo was out of sight, Qi Jianqiu grabbed Feng Luodi by her arm and started dragging her along. “I woke up so early in the morning, wishing for the moon and stars to bring you over quickly! And finally, you’re here!”
Feng Luodi merely smiled, but Scarlet chimed in. “Miss Qi, if you had really wished for the moon and the stars to bring young missus here, we wouldn’t have made it here till nightfall!”
Qi Jianqiu flicked Scarlet’s forehead lightly, and chided Feng Luodi, “Now even your handmaiden has inherited your quick wit; you have taught her well, Luodi!”
She had barely finished her sentence when Feng Luodi flicked her forehead in turn. “Stop making yourself sound like the victim here!”
Qi Jianqiu pouted, but then broke out in laughter. “Fine…why don’t we head to my courtyard for now? I’ll give you a tour around the household after we are done with lunch later on.”
“You’re the host; we’ll follow your lead.”
Qi Jianqiu led the way to her courtyard, bringing them into her room. Feng Luodi looked around, and to her surprise, found the place different from what she had expected. In contrast with Qi Jianqiu’s bubbly and playful personality, the furnishings and decorations in the room were clean-looking and simple, classy but not extravagant. It was a room befitting of her status. After a short walk about her courtyard, Qi Jianqiu sat Feng Luodi and Scarlet down to have a taste of her new culinary innovations.
“It must have been a while since you’d had breakfast, so I’d got the kitchen to bring up a few of my new desserts!” Qi Jianqiu began excitedly introducing her dishes. “This is Hasma Almond Strudel, made from almond bits and hasma 2. You have to try it! And this!” she gestured to a dish of pinkish cake. “This is some Rose Cake that I’d made using a new recipe, and this is Glutinous Paste with Red Beans. It’s a little on the sweeter side, and I’m not sure if you’ll like them. This is the traditional Double Stuffed Ball, but instead of using the usual red and green bean stuffing, I’ve replaced them with fresh peaches and pears, never thought of that before, have you? These are coconut rolls; these are wine pasties; these are….”
As she introduced, Feng Luodi tried the dishes one by one, giving feedback about the desserts.
“Mmmmm! How did you make this paste? It’s sticky and sweet, but not so much that it gums up your teeth.”
“And these stuffed balls! I never thought that the replacement of fruits would fit so well! These would be enjoyed, seeing as how summer is approaching.”
“I love these wine pasties! It seems to be infused with the smell of wildflowers. How did you do that?”
Qi Jianqiu swatted away Feng Luodi’s hand that reached for more and laughed, satisfaction and pride apparent on her face. “Don’t eat so much. There’re many other delicious dishes served for lunch later on. We have a great cook, if I do say so myself.” Dragging Feng Luodi in one hand and holding the plate of wine pasties in the other, Qi Jianqiu headed out into the courtyard.
It was spring, and flowers bloomed in abundance. Camellias filled the courtyard with splashes of colour, dotting the greenery with occasional clusters of red, yellow, purple and white. The view was mesmerising, and the bunches of camellias matched the embroidery on Qi Jianqiu’s gown. A zither was already set up on the stone table in the courtyard, and the two of them set down beside the table.
“Seems like you like camellias a lot.”
“Mmhmm.” Qi Jianqiu nodded. “I love the white camellias the most. When I get married, I would want the floor to be carpeted in white camellias. If I can’t get that, I’m not getting married.”
“Nobody uses white camellias for weddings, Jianqiu. Red is the colour to use for such festive occasions!” Feng Luodi laughed. “But I didn’t know you were already considering your marriage so quickly. Who might have the honour of wedding the Beauty of Chang’an?”
Qi Jianqiu shook her head at Feng Luodi’s question. “I don’t suppose you can call it consideration. Fate works in funny ways; we can never be sure who is the one that we’re fated to wed.” Her face fell a little. “Then again, my birth has deemed that my marriage would be affected by Father’s decision and his political reasons.”
Seeing that Qi Jianqiu had started to feel upset, Feng Luodi quickly changed the topic. “Let’s not talk about it then! Why don’t I play you a song? I’m sure the wine pasties would taste better when listening to music.”
“Okay!” Qi Jianqiu’s face lit up immediately. “I want to hear you sing as well! Play for me that same song that you had the other time, in Moonglade! I loved it so much.”
Feng Luodi looked at her joyful expression, and asked cautiously. “Didn’t you feel that the song was very…different from all other songs? Nobody writes songs like that.”
“It is different, but why does that matter? The world is huge, and it’ll be silly to think that all songs sound similar.” Qi Jianqiu shrugged nonchalantly. “Quickly! Play it for me!”
“Alright alright, I shall.” Feng Luodi adjusted her position to be closer to the zither, and set her hands to the strings.
The sky was dark with mist and rain, and I waited for you
Smokes rise in the distance, through the dusty light
The moon was lifted from the well, and it smudged our fate
With the beauty of an unearthed blue-flower porcelain, your eyes smiled at me.
Rain falls on the Musa-bajoo rafters, and rust creeps upon the doorknobs
I passed through the sleepy town, where you sat in wait for me
In the ink painting of the rivers and mountains
I lose sight of your silhouette. 3
“I’m glad that you had remained in the capitol this spring, General Situ. Or else I wouldn’t have known who to discuss this matter with.” The Minister of the Right sat across the table from Situ Muye, the General of the North.
“It’s my honour to discuss this matter with you, Minister.” Situ Muye respected the man from the bottom of this heart. It was often said that the extended royal family, especially the families of the Emperor’s concubines, are irresponsible and incompetent. However, that was not the case with the Qi family. The Minister of the Right was dependable and just, never biased towards his clansman. Neither of his daughters was pompous: one was the knowledgeable and gentle Concubine Yao doted on by the Emperor, while the other was Qi Jianqiu, the famed but cultured “Beauty of Chang’an”.
“You’re too humble, General.” The Minister stroked his wispy beard. “I had several ideas that I’ll like to discuss regarding the deployment of the Imperial Army in the capital. If all goes according to plan, I hope to implement these methods across all armies in the kingdom.”
“Please speak your mind, Minister. Unfortunately, having only been spending my last two years in Chang’an, there are still many things that I am not familiar with.”
“That is no problem at all, General. Now…”
The meeting lasted till noon, and Situ Muye accepted the Minister’s invitation to stay for lunch. While waiting for lunch to be prepared, he decided to take a stroll around the household by himself, turning down Rui Bo’s offer to show him around. After all, he was more used to taking walks alone.
The Qi household was well decorated, with a rich history behind every tile and brick of the property. The gardens were well pruned, and though the furnishings were classy, they weren’t lavishly extravagant. As he ambled along the stone corridor that wound through the household, music and song reached his ears. The two melodies interwove and danced through the air, reminding him of a certain performance he had heard a while back. This time, the music was much more refreshing and free than before, but it was as moving as he remembered.
Is she here as well? Situ followed the music and found himself outside a courtyard. He stood for a moment, and a smile lifted the corners of his lips. It really is her.
This is going to be an interesting lunch.