Tian Shih awakens

Tian Shih opened her eyes with difficulty for she found that she had been crying in her sleep. The room around her blurred, then sharpened as she blinked and she focused her gaze on the small figure looking down at her.

A tall woman, severely dressed in a black bombazine skirt to her ankles, respectable boots, a white blouse with unadorned cuffs and collar, and spectacles on her nose, requiring her to raise her head slightly to peer down at Tian Shih, giving her an even more severe cast, stood a few feet in front of the chair, hands on hips. Her hair was dark, pulled back carelessly in a knot at the nape of her neck. As Tian Shih oriented herself, she decided that this woman, whoever she was, cared little for her outward appearance. However, she had an unusual beauty, with high cheekbones, a wide mouth and tilted green eyes under dark brows.

Tian Shih straightened in the chair, and began an apology only to be cut off by the young woman. “You really must leave now. It is highly inappropriate that you be here at all.”

Tian Shih, stung at the criticism, replied, “I was brought here by a servant who indicated I should wait. By falling asleep I meant no harm or disrespect. I shall leave immediately,” and she pulled her long sleeves down noting that they had wrinkled slightly and smoothed her pants preparing to rise. But the young woman restrained her by putting a hand on hers. Tian Shih, surprised, pulled her hand away, stung by the human contact. In her life, the only people to touch her had been her servants, her husband (albeit infrequently) and her father. Generally those of other races and classes avoided her or were not allowed to come close enough to lay a finger on her.

“Excuse me,” the young woman said, now conciliatory, but holding her hand to her breast as if burned. “I had no idea, wait just one moment, please don’t move, please, I apologize,” and she whirled and took steps to one door, then the other, hesitating as if unsure where to go next, then darted out the door behind the desk.

Tian Shih sat as before. She was still feeling the after effects of the dream, which she had yet to truly comprehend and was not refreshed as she would be normally from a short nap, although she wondered now exactly how long she had been asleep. She slipped a slim hand in trouser pocket and withdrew a pocket watch, one that had belonged to her mother.

When she had reached the age of 16, her father had called her to his library, not an unusual occurrence (he rarely saw her outside her the library, he dining with colleagues and friends, or so she assumed, and she with Ting Ting and Pon in attendance). Her honored days were not celebrated; on the contrary, they passed unnoticed except for small gifts from Ting Ting and perhaps a special outing arranged by Pon. However, on this particular birthday, her father presented her with a petite package, carefully wrapped in white patterned silk. She did not open it.

Frustrated with her immobility, her father responded with impatience. “Open it, open it. I would like you to view the contents.”

“It is wrapped in white,” said Tian Shih.

Her father frowned, drawing his eyebrows together. Tian Shih shivered inside but showed only a calm exterior. “And your meaning?” he said slowly.

“Is it a funeral gift?” she asked, quaking a little at her impertinence.

Her father moved from the window where he had been standing to her side. She could feel his heat and smell the Dragon in him, the sulfur. It made her faint for lack of oxygen and dimly she wondered how her mother had been able to be near him for as many years as she had before her death. “It is, was, a favorite of your mother’s. I had it wrapped in white as a reminder of her. Now, open it!” His voice had risen in pitch and deepened in tone so that the last few words came as a loud growl.

Tian Shih immediately moved to a chair as an excuse to untie the intricate knot on the little package but it allowed her space from her father. He remained where he was but watched her intently. The cloth yielded suddenly, and in the center, with no additional ceremony, no special presentation box, lay the watch and chain of fine gold. Tian Shih caught her breath. She knew this watch. Ting Ting had told her stories of her mother, laughing, holding it up so that Tian could grab with tiny chubby hands, pulling the watch into her mouth.

Now she looked at it closely, marveling at the fine engraving and the Chinese numbers. Surely her father had had it made especially for her mother. Watches were not made with European numbers not Chinese characters. She noticed a small latch on the left side and pulled it carefully with her fingernail. The back popped open and she saw that the watch was more than it seemed. Two small pictures faced each other. On the right was a family portrait, her father, her mother and a tiny Tian Shih. However, the other was shocking. It was an old picture of an ordinary man in the uniform of a servant, not a Chinese man at all, no one that Tian Shih had ever seen. She was so absorbed that she did not notice that her father had moved much closer to her, close enough to whisper.
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“Yes, she had secrets.”

Tian Shih glanced up startled to see her father, close enough so that his reddened face, bloodshot eyes were clear to her as was his dragon sense. She stifled the need to step away and instead looked down at the pictures. “My mother had our family at her heart,” she said softly, and she touched the picture on the right lightly with a small finger.

“Yessss,” her father’s voice hissed snake-like. “But she had others at her heart also.”

Tian Shih longed, ached to say that her mother would never betray the family, her husband, her child in this way. But she kept her head bowed in order to keep her eyes from betraying her thoughts.

“I want you to have thisssss,” said her father, “in order to remember the importance of devotion and obedience.”

With that, Tian’s eyes flared green and she could no longer control her emotions. She stood and took steps backwards and raised her head. Her father’s look of satisfaction suddenly dropped as Tian swished her tail. His hand went to his belt where his sword would have normally been, but his eyes traveled to its location where he had left it across the room on a table. He froze as the fox trotted around him, sniffing his feet, the watch, now closed, hanging around its neck on its chain. The fox paused where the white silk wrapping lay, then picked it up and quickly shredded it. With a last look of vast hatred in its green eyes towards the man, it leaped out the window and disappeared.

Master Chen took a deep breath and then screamed for his servants. “Remove these clothes and this garbage,” indicating Tian Shih’s beautiful garments and the shredded silk, “ and have them burned!”

The next day he began the proceedings for her marriage to Master Ching.

——————————————————————-

Tian Shih cradled the watch in her palm and looked at the time. To her shock, she found that she had slept hours not minutes. She could not return to the ship within the daylight left. She slipped the watch back into her pocket and felt the walnut that she had carelessly added that morning, and relaxed. The walnut. A return to the ship was guaranteed if the walnut worked as promised, and thus far E’s promises were reliable, if not exactly as expected.

The door behind the desk opened and Tian Shih looked up expecting the excitable young woman, but instead, an old man entered, shutting the door behind him. “Sit,” he said waving a hand towards Tian Shih, “sit. We need to discuss some matters before you return to your journey.” Tian Shih moved to a chair opposite the desk, bowing respectfully, and sat on the edge of the seat, folding her hands in her lap and looking down.

“No, no, you must meet my eyes. None of this Oriental nonsense, excuse my rudeness but I never got used to it, I must have you meet my eyes, young lady, because I must see that you understand my words and my intent you know, mustn’t have misunderstandings, no, not now, not later,” and here he ran out of breath, which was fortuitous because Tian Shih was beginning to think that he wouldn’t end his speech. She had raised her eyes during the time he was talking from pure astonishment and was now studying his face. His was a pleasant face, one given to smiles and concern. It was a hopeful face in that it held expectation of things to come in the eyes and corners of the mouth. And it was an honest face, with no shadows lurking, no hollows in the cheeks, no tightness in the temples.

“There, I can see your eyes now, young lady, that’s the ticket, seeing your eyes, that and your mouth because then I can see what you’re thinking, well, not really, but I have an idea of what you’re thinking at least at the moment which is that you’ve decided I’m not such a bad sort after all,” and he stopped abruptly, expectantly.

Tian Shih had no idea of what she was to do. A slow blush crept over her cheeks, which frustrated her, and she said, more sharply than she’d intended, “Sir, I’ve no idea that of which you speak. I merely slept in this chair and now having slept & dreamt, feel I must depart…”

He interrupted her. “No, no, you started your dreaming but you haven’t completed that my dear oh no oh no oh no we mustn’t forget that, you’ll have to finish that but before returning to the business of dreaming we must discuss that which you are oh yes because everything hinges there, it is the crux, if you will, the beginning, the core, the essence of the matter at hand, the mystery that you must solve.” And again he stopped and gave her the look that said and now it’s your turn.

This time she was ready. “What I am? Sir, I am a widow to Master Ching, a traveler only, receiving solace from this journey.”

He looked at her quizzically. “Widow? Traveler? Solace? You don’t mention your father Master Chen.”

She felt dread seeping into every vein in her body. “No, dear sir, and I must be going…”

Again he interrupted her. “You cannot hide anything from the Dream Masters. Surely you knew that when you asked entrance. Does this give you pain? No, I am not sensing pain. I see fear. Why do you fear me? I am a Dream Master only. I store dreams, interpret some, watch for portents, etc. etc. I do not threaten young women.”

She tried to slow her fast beating heart, breathing deeply. “My father, if he knew…”

“Ah. If he knew where you are. In essence, you are a run-away. How quaint at your age. I would have thought a woman of your skills and abilities would have the world at her feet.” He looked at her with a half-smile on his face, but his eyes were sharp. “Or at least in her teeth,” and with this quip, he grinned, his face lighting up. “A thousand pardons, my goodness, my manners have gone bad here away from civilized society, especially in front of such a lovely young lady, fine family and all…” He trailed off, watching her keenly.

Tian Shih was struggling. Her fox nature was attempting to exert itself and yet something was holding it back. She felt as if a band was fastened around her soul and heart and both were unable to move. She lay back in the chair, gasping for breath and shut here eyes. She frantically tried to move into a meditative state, thinking of the morning, writing, writing, the movement of the brush, the ink, the sound of the brush strokes, her chimes in the background, and slowly, ever so slowly, her breathing evened, deepened and she was able to open her eyes.

He was still looking at her, but now a concerned look. “Were you able to handle it?” he asked, and she nodded, too exhausted now even to ask how he knew or what he knew. He clasped both hands and put his chin on them. “You can’t change here. No one can. It has something to do with the closeness of the dream state. If you changed, then the veil might break and dreams would enter the world unchecked and that would be a mess, wouldn’t it?” Abruptly he changed subjects. “Your mother came here, did you know?”

Tian Shih’s eyes widened. “No, I guess you didn’t.” He arose from his chair and turning to the shelf, he scanned the volumes. “Here, mmmm, yes, this one,” and he pulled out a large book and laid it on the desk. He blew off the dust, coughed a little and opened it to a handwritten index in the front. “Let’s see, Fragrant Orchid.”

Tian Shih started to protest at her mother’s name, its anglicized form, but the man cut her off with “Ah, here she is. And pregnant she was. Unusual for us to allow that, but then the baby she carried was special.” And he smiled a smile of such warmth than Tian Shih was then speechless.

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5 Responses to “Tian Shih awakens”

  1. rosylee Says:

    Wow, Sen. You’re really laying a fabulously detailed and rich foundation for Mistress Ching. Her mystery deepens with each instalment. I look forward to the next!

  2. pearlz Says:

    This is truly absorbing well done!!

  3. Anita Marie Says:

    It was funny Sen, when you described the tall woman…um…well, lets just say I wear glasses low on my nose and I wear boots.

    Mistress Ching is my sort of gal- she’s going to own her space and I admire that in a character….and people too.

    a.m.

  4. Lori Says:

    Tian Shih rocks.

  5. Heather Blakey Says:

    It was fortuitous that Mistress Ching came on this journey. She adds gravitas to the whole project.

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