Love comes In All sizes
Duke Wushamao’s plans thwarted.
Wang is attracted to Lin Lang. Lin Lang disappears leaving Wang distraught.
“How dreary! So boring I could smash everything in sight!” Well, Duke Wushamao could well afford it. During the reign of Wan Li, the Ming emperor the duke was lording over every privilege he could lay hold of and it was becoming an addiction. On this side of Chechiang known as Three Pavilions he gorged on whatever he collected. He was becoming voracious and it made him a terrible foe if thwarted.
Since the emperor had ceased to interest himself in upholding the Will of Heaven the duke’s power grew: he could make entire towns disappear at least in terms of tax, these towns annually paid to the provincial governments. It went straight into his coffers. The eunuch Youtiao who attended to the revenue for the province of Chechiang on behalf of the emperor was his brother and he was ever behind him to pick up the pieces. Except some areas that not even Duchess Peony Su could have helped.
The duke loved to spend time away from her company. He came only to sleep or receive men of importance. Otherwise his palace was at his duchess’ hands to throw her fits anywhere or anytime. So often she had a permanent scowl settled on her ivory skin. Neither the duke nor the duchess was willing to palaver. When she fumed he cruised outside and took low life in his stride. It was thus he found himself in his ducal carriage that morning.
Lately his lackeys had hinted some suspicious things going on in one of the most backward spots in the province. “Who shall set up an inn in a swamp?” What made him all the more curious was the news of a girl whose bearing was more of nobility than of peasant stock. He ordered his coachman to drive in the direction of the village with a curious name Blown Away.
Sitting in that four horse carriage bobbing along the rutted roads of the village Blown Away the duke could only see houses and these were barred. With his bile rising he peered along the blurring landscape and not a soul was in sight.
Not for long.
A solitary dot was looming in sight growing ever larger. As he took it in, he smiled. A girl was coming carrying a bundle of firewood. He briskly asked his coachman to stop.
Duke Wushamao was dying for company.
Luckily there she was. She was simply dressed in working clothes but she pleased him. He snapped his fingers and two of his lackeys who rode behind the coach jumped off their perch and ran towards her. She was hauling the load on a pushcart with wooden wheels. The cart was more a toy than for load. One zeroed in on the hapless girl and wrenched her off the ground. The bundle of firewood tumbled down scattering pieces pell-mell. Before she could scream the two brutes reached out and held her by the hand. As if by reflex she bit one in desperation and broke loose. It was followed by a swing of her foot that connected the groin of the other. The wretch howled in pain and fell.
Duke Wushamao grimaced and barked his men to chase her. The girl ran through a narrow alleyway with three brutes in pursuit.
There was a public house that was hidden from view. Inn of the Seventh Serenity was a question mark as was the inn keeper. Obviously he was holding it on to cover some one’s folly. No one could have for a moment thought the inn was meant to cater to the needs of travelers. No travelers would have thought of being bogged down in a swamp.
Yet the inn was full.
On that morning Ta Yi, the fox-spirit of the Tiger Caves was in residence. He served as a counselor for the Wushamao League. Hardly had he stepped out before there was commotion.
To his amazement one peasant was coming towards him all in a lather herding a girl of thirteen towards him and crying, “Save my child, sir!”
Ta Yi asked him to step inside and make himself no worry.
The peasant was blubbering, “The duke is out to do her harm!” He heard enough.Ta Yi firmly said, “ That’ll do.”
There were a few customers sitting around playing backgammon and they were engrossed in the game. At least they pretended that they had no time for anything other than their game. Their patois was that of Beijing than of Checkiang. What were they for? None knew. They looked askance at Ta Yi and they knew everything was in order. The electrifying aura of the fox spirit seemed to make them feel relieved.
They were indeed the spies sent from The Pavilion of Heavenly Bliss in Beijing. They sent as part of the weekly report: ‘the sky is still blue and not a cloud is in sight.’ Reading it the favorite concubine to the Emperor could relax.
The guests paid no heed to the threesome who cast shadow as they clicked their tiles and arranged the combination.
Ta Yi drew them into a hall where the peasant, teary eyed looked at Ta Yi and said, “Duke Wushamao has come for my child!” Ta Yi caught the eye of the innkeeper who had sized up the situation and said, “ Back room. They are there.” Ta Yi nodded and guided the peasant and his daughter across the central courtyard. The innkeeper signaled the waiters and they quickly fell to their tasks.
Ta Yi herded the peasant and the girl into the room where Chuan and Wang were whiling away their time. They put away their straws and looked up.
They had visitors.
Even as they rose to greet Ta Yi and his company, Zheng Dong their host silently drew the curtain behind. The innkeeper went to his writing desk. He wrote a few lines, ‘ The hat is still too narrow for the head. The fox will take the bait.’ It was addressed to the King of Canton.
Zheng Dong called one of his servants who left immediately.
Next morning the king called Duke Mulberry who was his intimate friend and said, “Our man has found the means to cut Duke Wushamao to size. ” They had a good laugh. One whom they only knew as the Fox would do the job for them.
While the innkeeper was busy the inner room was all set to receive the assailants of the girl. First Ta Yi asked the peasant to speak. He explained how he was reduced to straitened circumstances due to the new economic policies of the province and he owed arrears in tax like so many others in his position. “ So Duke Wushamao sends his men to round up all that he could gather. This village is ruined. You may ask the worthy Zheng Dong who had lost his daughter only eight months ago.” Ta Yi asked him to stick to his story. “My child went out to collect firewood this morning and came screaming as though her hair was afire. I didn’t know what to do. Till I saw you. Please protect us.”
Zheng Dong coughed and put head past the curtains to say there were duke’s men, charging in.
“Two, and one is guarding the entry.”
“Well let them in.” Wang conversationally asked the girl who sat demurely opposite to him, “ Have you broken an egg? ”
She had somehow taken possession of herself. She smiled coyly. Wang made room for her to sit by him while she hesitated.
“You are sitting where Ta Yi is about to break some, ahem, heads.” There were footsteps outside and the girl quickly went over to the wall where Wang sat.
Ta Yi meanwhile got up and he had his staff in his hands. The two ruffians barged in and spotted the girl who had almost fallen into the lap of Wang in fright. Wang put his arm around her to steady her and the peasant moved aside to cover her.
One of the ruffians let out an oath and said, “ You! ”He was about to reach out but Ta Yi flicked his wrist to bring the tip of his staff on his knuckles. He let go her hand as though hit by an electric eel. The other assailant turned to him and barked, “Don’t you dare? This is Duke’s order. You interfere at your peril.”
“ We must show respect to the Duke. Mustn’t we?” Ta Yi laid aside his staff that Wang quickly got hold of. He showed his hand and told the fellow, “This is a working hand. Using this I show respect.” Calmly he folded his hand towards his chest and flicked his forearm straight to connect to his jaw and he fell backward. Wang had meanwhile blocked the other with the staff. The girl looked on as if transfixed by Wang who showed no fear.
As quickly as they came they disengaged. Both thugs were downcast and retreated. “I dread to think what shit you will be in after the duke gets hold of you all.”
Chuan was watching Wang and the girl who was in no hurry to disengage her from his company. He just smiled when Wang said, “There shall be no breaking of heads. Isn’t that a shame?” She smiled. “I thought we had an omelet here.” She shyly retorted, “ The Duke certainly knows how to pick out bad eggs.”
Before the peasant led the girl out Wang asked for her name, “Lin Lang.”
The innkeeper came in hurry to say, “The duke shall surely seek you out.” Ta Yi was unperturbed. “ Don’t worry. I shall pay him a visit instead. ”
Later in the evening Ta Yi asked about his missing daughter. Poor Zheng Dong quaked and he burst into tears. “ The duke thought she would go places if she were taken at hand and guided properly. He sent his wife to show he meant well. Two years ago it was. I thought his proposal was honorable.”
After a pause he sullenly mumbled. He offered me silver and to free me from tax burden. “
“So you agreed?”
“I asked for time.” He sniffled and added, “Soon after she was waylaid while she was visiting her maternal aunt.” He moped his forehead and said lugubriously, “From enquiries I come to understand her trail stopped at Fragrant Pavilion by the Pebble Lane.
That is where the Duke stays whenever he visits the Province. Is it not?”
The innkeeper nodded.
Zheng Dhong stood there as lost in thought. Ta Yi called out of his reverie. “Is any thing the matter?”
He hesitated and walked up to Ta Yi and whispered, “My daughter is almost identical. Lin Lang may have a smoother complexion and a more mysterious air.”
Ta Yi thought a while and said, “ I get the idea. But don’t worry over such matters.”
“Of course I ought not make comparisons,,” the innkeeper said without much conviction, “but,-oh, where my girl has gone to.” He left.
Ta Yi thought Zheng Dong wasn’t entirely level with him.
Lung barged in all excited. He was amazed to see Ta Yi, which was least expected. The fox-spirit knew that he had left on a hunch and hoped to see what he could do in life. Ta Yi asked, “ Did you meet your contact?” Lung said, “ Of course, he taught me to gamble. I got into a scrape because I won too easily for his liking.”
Lung took a week to be himself with his thoughts as he put it. Now he was back. ‘It was pretty risky.’ Wang felt he was irresponsible to not to protect him.
Lung was in a cheerful mood, “Here is what I won!” Instantly Wang cheered up. Lung knew how to protect himself, He had to agree.
Lung carefully took out a flask and held out. Ta Yi was an apothecary among other things. He took it examined it and carefully opened the stopper. Taking a whiff of it he closed his eyes as if in intense concentration. He said quietly, “ No mistake of it!” Wang and Lung who were watching this dumb show asked, “What is it?”
“Love potion!” was the reply.
Chuan sidled up to the twins and said, “ I guess you are ready for it.”
“I met a really a sweet girl, dear brother. You missed the fun”. Wang filled him with news. Lung looked at his brother quizzically and said,
“Care to try this?”
Wang firmly said, “No, Lin Lang is sweet but is she the girl? Only time will tell.”
Wang knew fate was in his favor and the love potion was merely skirting his tryst with destiny. Later in the night Lung poured love potion in a smaller flask and presented to his brother. “ One never knows how fate comes knocking. Be prepared, as our tutor would say.”
Wang put it away among his personal belongings. He was certain Lin Lang would not taste it for better or worse.”
(2 be cont’d)