The World in Play: Keepsakes
I wish to apologize to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for certain liberties I have taken with their physical reality.
"Why aren't you coming to the ballet?" Pol asked.
"Bring it around the narrow end twice. Under again, then up in the center of the main loop, right under your chin," Taz said. "My grandmother sent me an edict, written on silk, complete with red bindings and the eight tassels: she says I'm to go to the Museum. And down through the other two loops so it's on top of the narrow end. Now, without disarranging the main knot, gently tighten it all by pulling on the narrow end." He finished putting in his pearl cufflinks, and donned his tailcoat. "So to the Museum I go."
As Pol finished tying his tie, Taz stepped up beside him and inspected the images in the mirror. "You're taller," Taz noted.
"An inch since I've been living here," Pol said. Pol eyed Taz's clothes.
"You can get by in just a suit, but I have to do the full rig," Taz said. "The invitation said white tie or national dress; although since the remodel isn't complete, I think overalls and hardhats would be more to the point. The Consuls General the two Chinas are going to be there, and I need a disguise. Tails seemed most appropriate."
"You're not going to take the cable car in that, are you?"
"I considered it, but I hired a limo," Taz answered, adjusting the handkerchief in his breast pocket.
"Too public to teleport?"
"Too public to teleport discreetly. Inside, the museum is going to be full of guests, docents and security agents of various nationalities; outside, it will be surrounded by mobs of protesters, also of various nationalities; banners, in various languages; and local police. Undoubtedly there will federal observers scattered through both groups. I am endeavoring to be part of the group that's let in. The limo will be only one of many. I probably won't even be noticed."
"I'll be a while," Taz told his driver. "Go on to the garage and wait. When it's over, I'll call and walk over. It's going to be a even worse mess here afterward." He got out. The limousine moved forward half a car length and stopped again. Taz walked between two double-parked cars, around another limousine sporting CD plates that was parked in the no parking zone, across the small patch of sidewalk being kept clear of protesters by police, and up the shallow steps between monumental incense burners tended by Museum docents and watched by SFFD members. A quick glance to either side of the doors revealed large fire extinguishers tucked into the shadows of the stone urns that had been part of the original Main Library decorations.
He was unprepared for the number and depth of the local spells. Demon excluders and protections from spiritual dangers were thick in the foyer, and grew thicker as he entered the lobby proper. Inside there were also blessings murmured in several languages by priests or shamans or visiting saints. Occasionally, a small bell was rung or a stone chime was struck. The holy activity was around the edges of the lobby. In the center was an array of greeters and inspectors.
He noticed there were three varieties of security agents: First there were the local staff in their dark red blazers. They were the regular Museum guards, although there seemed to be more of them than usual. The other two kinds were approximately evenly divided between muscle and savants. The savants all had glasses(probably with cameras in the frame), earbuds and wand barcode readers; the muscle all had a subtle stiffness about their torsos, as if their kevlar vests were sticking to their skins. Very briefly, Taz considered importing a string or two of lighted firecrackers. He decided that would be more trouble than it would be amusing.
He handed over his invitation. The Museum staffer scanned it, then handed it off to the visiting savant immediately to her right. The savant scanned it. He listened to his earbud while inspecting Taz, then said something to the muscle standing behind him, and passed the invitation to his right. Another earbud wearing, wand wielding, savant took it.
Taz relaxed. This would take a while.
Eventually, his invitation was returned. He was invited to take the escalator to the top floor, where wine was being served.
The room was nearly bare. When the Museum opened, there would probably be several displays or exhibits up here, but at the moment, there was one very long, narrow room, with a balcony on the north side running from east to west, allowing a view of the lobby four stories below.
There were six Consuls General, plus spouses and staff, in the receiving line. Emily Sano, the Museum director, in red, black and gold brocade, was a living buffer between the diplomats and the local donors, many of whom had relatives among the protesters outside.
There were more Museum guards, a large group of waiting docents and more visiting security guards. There were also waiters surrounding the only furniture in the immediate area: a table with bottles on it, with bartenders behind it. Glasses were filled, trays were loaded, and burdened waiters began to circulate with their offerings.
Taz handed his invitation to a docent, who glanced at it, handed it back, then presented him to the first Consul General. She used English, but pronounced his current use name correctly. She probably spoke modern Beijing dialect as well as he did, but using one language and not all six meant five governments would take offense. English was a tactful compromise. Taz supposed the Nordic-American blonde, in her western black and white beaded evening dress, was a tactful choice too.
Taz did not linger in the receiving line and kept to standard banalities in English as he sped through. He took a glass of champagne, and relaxed a little. There was a docent-led tour starting, and he fell in line, ambling west with the others.
"The bare bones tour, we're calling it," the docent said. "You may never see the walls like this again."
Taz wasn't a fan of industrial style architecture: The earthquake retro-fit had no doubt brought the building up to code, but it left bare girders visible all along the walls. Centered between two upright steel I-beams was an elaborate Korean ox-horn inlay clothes chest on a display pedestal. Pictures of chests and other furniture for storage were on the walls.
"This floor will house changing exhibits of domestic artifacts. Practical, everyday items, with a practical, everyday use. Brooms, dishes, baskets, bedding, wooden gardening and cooking tools, even modern packaging. Just to give you a sense of the future, we brought out of storage one emblematic object, and images of others.
"The freight elevator will normally be screened from view with movable screens that can give full access. The ceiling lights raise and lower; also dim and brighten. Some of the baskets and mats are dyed with vegetative dyes — which give very fugitive colors, so the lighting for those exhibits will..." The docent, still talking, walked further into the long room.
The elevator silently opened. A young oriental woman, wearing a full length blue and black silk taffeta strapless dress, walked out. Taz recognized a yunü even before he saw the silver disk at the bottom of her neckline , and wondered what she was doing here. The yunü glanced around and caught her breath sharply. She seemed alarmed. She hurried directly to him and started to bow.
Taz caught her arm and kept her upright. "Stop that," he said in a sharp whisper. Still softly, he continued: "I am of the household of the Eldest Dragon, and named by my grandmother Dianchi."
"Yes, I know. Where is it?" the yunü said.
"Where is what?" Taz asked.
"You were supposed to take it. Don't you have it?"
"You came looking for me?"
"Yes. We thought it would be here. We thought it would be simple..."
"Stealing from humans," Taz said, "isn't as simple as it used to be."
"It's not stealing!" the yunü said.
"Quietly," Taz said. "Who's we?"
"The Eldest Dragon."
"My grandmother wants me to take something from here? She's a patron!"
"It's hers and she wants it back."
"Look around," Taz said. "There's nothing here."
"I see that," the yunü said. "It was difficult to get in. No one mentioned all the spells."
"I don't see why you're surprised," Taz said. "With these local populations? Nobody hangs on to antique ceremonies like exiles. Ritual blessings happen regularly here; sometimes they're real."
"It doesn't matter," the yunü said. "It's not here, we can leave."
"No," he said.
"Your grandmother orders you..."
"In her own hand, she ordered me to represent the family here," he said. "If you have an edict from her ordering me to leave at once, we will. Otherwise, following her orders, I came here calmly and deliberately and without fuss and I will leave the same way. If you want to leave, do it discreetly and without alarming any humans here. Meet me at Jingwu's house."
"We can't do that," the yunü said.
"Jingwu is not to know any of this."
"I'm living at her house," Taz said. Stranger and stranger; however, here and now was not the place or the time for more questions. "Meet me at the Inn, the roof garden. Oh, and who are you?"
Putting some distance between him and his over-eager accomplice, Taz returned to the reception area. Taking another glass of champagne, he considered his situation. His grandmother was having a whim. It happened. At least, according to legend, it had happened in the past, so it could be happening again, in the present. He couldn't return to Kunlun Mountain and ask for clarification; the next time the Eldest saw him, he had better have what she wanted. Asking another yunü or one of the jintong to come here might get her or him into trouble. His grandmother apparently wanted him to do this with Tailin and no one else. He didn't know why that should be so or why he couldn't go to his foster mother for advice; he did know that the Eldest had a whim of iron and that he owed her obedience.
Ignoring the moral aspects and the complications, he had no idea what she wanted or how to get it. There were over 17,000 items in the Museum's permanent collection. Some were always there, some were rarely on display, some might not yet be catalogued.
He needed to talk more with the yunü Tailin, that was obvious. Until he did, there didn't seem to be anything constructive he could do. He put his glass down, and prepared to follow the current tour guide.
He noticed the reception line was breaking up.
"Madame Sano, would it be possible for my nephew to view the basement?" a member of the Japanese delegation asked. "He is going to CalTech, and would like to see the earthquake devices."
"The basements are not scheduled, and we may be short of time," Emily Sano said, "but let me see." She spoke quietly with an aide, who moved away and spoke into her collar. She nodded to Emily, who nodded to the Japanese delegate. "He will have time," she told him. Emily waved one hand toward one of the docents. "Miss Leigh knows all about the foundation retro-fit. Sharon, escort Mr. Hokasawa's nephew to the basement. You can use the freight elevator."
Sharon nodded with calm assurance. "This way. The excavations struck bedrock at a depth of 39 feet and continued another ..."
The elevator doors opened. "This is the second basement." The mixed group moved out of the elevator, Sharon leading.
"Moving exhibits in and out will be a little like one of those magic squares," she said. "A four by four grid with fifteen movable little squares that you can't lift up? You move them around until they're in numerical order; sort of a flat Rubik's cube? We put either what's coming in down here in the storage basement while we move the old exhibit out of the first basement and then into the trucks, or the other way around. As you can see, we use high damping elastomer rubber-steel plate sandwiches to isolate the whole new support structure."
At the back of the group, Taz looked at the nearest blue enameled metal cube. He looked down the wall at more metal cubes. He looked across the room at still more metal cubes. There were a lot of metal cubes along all four walls and down the long center of the sub-basement, dividing it into two. Taz couldn't see what was in the un-lit side of the basement, but in the huge room the tour group now occupied, he saw groups of wooden crates, aluminum trunks, and sturdy tables carrying flat fiberglass cases. There were also two fork lifts and a neat row of handcarts.
"Not a fluid damping system?" the nephew asked.
Taz sat on a wooden crate.
"We have space constraints," Sharon said. "In the entire process we did use we lost ten inches of floor dimensions on every interior bearing wall above the base isolating systems and a foot on every exterior wall above and below ground..."
Taz opened the nearest aluminum trunk. It was full of black high density foam, with a vase-shaped absence in the center. "And this is also where you leave the crates the exhibit items come in," he said. "So the upstairs isn't cluttered."
Sharon heard him: "Just for this first special exhibit. Normally, the crates would go back to the warehouse, but since the display was only for tonight, we kept them here. The curators like to keep a tidy staging area. This will be empty again tomorrow."
"An excellent habit," Taz murmured.
"There are nearly two hundred rubber-steel sandwiches in the foundations," Sharon continued. "Each one can support..."
Taz tuned her out, thinking fast. Since what his grandmother wanted wasn't here, if it was in San Francisco and currently in the keeping of the Asian Art Museum, it might be in the storage warehouse. The exact location of the warehouse was closely kept. It wasn't secret, exactly, but it was not announced. Certainly, he could get Emily or one of the curator staff to tell him, but then he would have to remove the memory of that interaction. If the crates were going back to the warehouse, and he could follow them, he and Feng Tailin could search for whatever his grandmother wanted at the warehouse.
What did he have that he could follow? Saliva, blood, yes, he could trace either of those, but his foster mother wouldn't like him using either fluid. Jingwu was against leaving anything so personal where humans might find it. In recent years, as human science encompassed more and more ways of identifying human, or in their case, human appearing, bodies, from smaller and smaller samples, she had become more and more tidy.
Nothing from him, then. What else did he have? His hand came up to one of his pearl studs. Jingwu had given him the studs and cufflinks, back in the 1850s. She had gone to some trouble to get the natural, perfectly matched pearls, he knew.
Sighing, he grasped the pearl in his left cufflink, and pulled it away. Holding it in his right palm, he contemplated it. The calcium carbonate was just calcium carbonate. It was the nacre the individual oyster added that was unique. Each pearl echoed the ocean surrounding the oyster, as it changed with local seasons and tidal rhythms, great storms and even distant volcanoes. He savored the uniqueness of the pearl, then crushed it to dust. Now to touch as many of the crates, cases and trunks as he could.
"Here?" the driver asked. He eyed the street scene dubiously: Narrow, dark and dirty.
"Here," Taz said.
The driver pulled the limo over.
Taz exited the long car. He started walking back towards the alley that was one of this evening's pedestrian entrances to the Inn.
The limo accelerated smoothly away, back towards the lights.
Tonight the Inn had a stark stainless steel look. The registration desk was a curved metal mirror, steel tubing and black leather formed the seating and the lobby are was a metal mobile. The elevators had striped black enamel and stainless steel doors. Taz nodded to the clerk, and too an elevator up to the roof garden.
The yunü jumped up from a chair near the elevator as the door opened. "I thought you were never coming," she said.
"It's only 2219," Taz said. He shook his head at an approaching server. "Now," he told the yunü, sitting down, "tell me exactly what my grandmother wants."
"The Eldest wants you to fetch her wine cup," Feng Tailin said.
"Any wine cup? Or does she desire a specific style..."
"She had it made, about three thousand years ago. She wants it back."
"So if she had it three thousand years ago, why doesn't she have it now?" Taz asked.
"It, ah, it was a token. She gave it to a human; or so I was told."
"A token of what?"
"An appreciation of service," Tailin said.
The yunü appeared embarrassed. Taz had no idea what she might be embarrassed about and continued: "What service did a human do the Eldest Dragon?"
"I have not been informed."
"And how did the museum get it?"
"He was buried with it. Recently, other humans dug it up and it's now here."
That, at least, made some sense. Recently, as far as the Eldest Dragon was concerned, could be anytime in the last century, which was when many archeological digs had occurred.
"Is my grandmother certain the cup is here?"
"Oh, yes," Tailin said. "And she will be angry if there is too much delay in returning it to her."
"I need to think about this."
"No," the yunü said. "You need to get it."
Annoyed, Taz frowned. Living in the human world was a skill that most of the yunü he met had mastered to some degree. The yunü who visited his foster mother had other skills, ranging from warfare to child care to tactics in various aspects of peacefully interacting with mortals while achieving immortal goals. He once had listened to two yunü plan a shopping trip with more forethought than Tailin demonstrated in what apparently was not a simple family errand.
"We'll get to that in due course," Taz said. "What does it look like?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, great. Is there a description, a picture? Who made it?"
"Dai. You call him Dai now."
"He made cups? I didn't know that."
"He made this one. We need to find it," the yunü insisted.
"Don't thrash around. I'll look for the warehouse tomorrow."
"We should go now..."
"No. Take a room here. I'll talk to you tomorrow, probably very late afternoon or evening."
"I await your celestial highness's plea..."
"And don't call me that." Feng Tailin didn't look happy, Taz thought. He didn't care. He wasn't happy, but he wasn't about to rush around in a hurried panic, attracting a lot of attention and accomplishing nothing.
He had to talk to Dai and he had to discover where the warehouse was; not necessarily in that order, but before he planned anything else. Apparently he needed to keep the yunü on a leash, or she might get him expelled, if not arrested by human police. Well, she couldn't get into trouble with humans at the Inn. "Stay here. Don't leave the Inn. Don't go around San Francisco. I don't want anyone's attention focused on you, or on me. Tomorrow," he repeated.
Taz took the elevator down to the lobby.
How to find Dai the Tinker was a problem. Jingwu would know, but he couldn't ask her. Ah. The Concierge might help. Instead of immediately teleporting home, he sought out the Concierge's office. Tonight, the office was staffed by an Interlux.
"Where can I visit Gypsy Dai? Tonight, if that's possible?"
The Interlux glanced down at her desk, and typed quickly. "Dai is in his workshop. The portal is open, and is located over in Richmond, across the Bay." She recited the address.
Taz nodded. "And can you get me a picnic basket? Lots of finger food, a little good wine, desserts, fruit."
"For Dai? We know what he likes."
"Yes. Uh, when?"
"Now," the Interlux said. "We keep a couple in stasis. One is bigger than the other."
"I'll take the bigger one."
A glass-blower, working late, put the new hollow pumpkin in the tempering oven. A rattle of the gate caused him to look up. A tall Chinese man, in white tie and tails, carrying a large hamper, walked across the parking lot and into the other studio. The glass-blower shrugged. Stranger visitors had called over there.
"I was hoping you remembered a wine cup you made for my grandmother."
"Who's your grandmother again?"
"The Eldest Dragon."
"Oh, I remember her. Pretty little thing. Nice form. She wanted something simple."
Taz didn't try to assign subjects to Dai's sentence fragments. He himself would never describe his grandmother as a 'pretty little thing', but he was intellectually aware both his grandmother and Dai had already experienced long, complex, lives before he himself was even hatched. How complex, how intertwined, those lives might have been, he found he wasn't ready or willing to explore. "The cup has been taken," he said. "Can you tell me what it looks like? She wants me to find it."
"Just a moment." Dai went out, and returned carrying a wooden box. The box, about 15 centimeters square and 10 centimeters high, was made of three different kinds of rosewood, with an inlaid design in a pale fruit wood in the top panel. The sides had phoenixes and dragons carved in bas-relief. He slid the lid out of the grooved sides, and took out a small footed bowl. It was ceramic, with a variable glaze showing an overall fine crackle finish. The main color was a pale ivory, but there were areas that had flecks of purple, red, blue and black embedded in the glace.
"I made her two of them. I think she gave one to a mortal lover, and hers was broken in the most recent demon attack."
The most recent demon attack was before Taz had been hatched, at least a couple of thousand years ago. That was consistent with the other cup being found in a tomb. "I thought your stuff didn't break?" Taz asked. He put the cup back on the work bench.
"The singletons, the uniques, don't; this one won't. I put a lot of work in them. Your grandmother's cups were only a 'limited edition'. This is my file copy." He picked up the cup.
"It's beautiful," Taz said.
"That was a lucky day," the Tinker said. "The wheel was in tune, the clay was ripe, the kiln was friendly. Not the style any more, but still, this has nice form." He put the cup down on his work bench and smiled at it.
"Can you make another?"
"I could, sure, but why?"
"The mortal died and his cup was buried with him. It ended up in the Museum here. Grandmother wants it back."
"She won't be fooled by a new one. They'll look alike, but their auras will be different. Time on Earth changes everything." As he spoke, he was shaping the air in front of him. Swiftly, a replica cup appeared next to the original. He handed the new cup to Taz.
Dai was right: the auras of the two cups were easily distinguishable. There was a freshness to the new cup that even Dai's file copy, which had never been on Earth, lacked. "No, she won't be fooled, but the humans will? Right?" Taz said. "Assuming it's at the Museum and I can find it and I can make the switch," he added in a mutter.
"Your problem," Dai said. His hands shaped the air again. A rosewood box appeared next to the first.
"What would you like?" Taz asked.
"Pearls," Dai said. "Ocean pearls. Baroque, saturated hues of all colors; not dyed and not cultured. Jewelry is getting interesting again."
"Thumbnail or bigger. Fifteen."
"I'll bring them to you," Taz said, sealing the bargain.
In the morning, he waited until Jingwu had dragged Pol out of the house and down to the Tai Chi session in Russian Hill Park before he teleported to the lobby of the Inn. He called Tailin, telling her to join him for breakfast on the roof.
As they ate, he told her about his visit to Dai.
"He wants what?" Tailin asked.
"Pearls," Taz said. "Don't yell."
"Stop that. He did me a favor just talking about the cup. I took his time: it's a fair trade. The Eldest wouldn't want me not to pay all my debts."
"You don't need a fake cup!"
"I do need a replacement cup," Taz said. "Eat your grapes."
"I don't see why."
"I'm not going to explain again. Don't worry about it. We're doing this my way. Now, strive for a little patience. I have to visit my nephews."
"Wait! Your what?" Tailin demanded.
"Renyi, Fangxian, Ruiman, Guangjing and Junxin: my nephews. The sons of Liaosong, Jinsi, Kechan, Zhengsui and their six husbands."
"Oh," the yunü said. She seemed relieved. "Them."
"Who else?" Taz said. "They're the only nephews I have."
"I just never remember that their mothers were also granddaughters of the Eldest."
"They still are: I have eight sisters," Taz pointed out. "The boys' mothers and Liyan, Xunke, Jiaoya and Lanzi. We're all grandchildren of the Eldest."
"Yes, but the Queens of the Sea aren't included in the Succession."
"No one is, until Grandmother gets around to formalizing it," Taz said. "Which she shows no sign of doing any time soon."
Taz shifted to his dragon form and teleported to the arrival area of the palace of the Sea Kings. He was the visiting list; after all, he was their brother by marriage. Still, he followed the most formal protocol: arriving in the correct form, at the correct place, then inquiring after everyone's health in a strict order of precedence before he asked to see the boys.
"The young princes are in the study hall, your celestial highness," the Orca doorward said. "They are doing their homework."
"I won't disturb them long."
"I'm trading with Tinker Dai, and I need some pearls. So where can I go oystering?"
"Well," Renyi said, "we know a couple of good places." He glanced at his brothers.
"But," Ruiman said, "we were just there."
"And it's going to be a while before it's worth checking on them," Guangjing said.
"We made necklaces for our mothers," Fangxian said.
"But we do happen to have a few pearls left over," Junxin said.
Ruiman said, "If you'd like to see them."
"Sure," Taz said. "I need an idea of what's available."
"We're willing to help," Renyi said.
"And it's not as if we need these," Fangxian said.
"So we might be able to give you what you need," Guangjing said.
Guangjing went over to one of the cabinets that lined an interior wall. From a lower shelf, he produced a sharkskin pouch.
The pouch looked as if it could hold two liters of wine, Taz thought.
Renyi brought out a tray from another shelf, and put in on the writing table. Guangjing opened the pouch and spilled the left over pearls onto the tray in a heap.
"Good," Taz said. "Nice colors and some black ones. I can pay off Dai and replace the one Jingwu gave me."
His nephews exchanged glances. Ruiman, who, as he often reminded his brothers, was the first hatched, gathered up all the pearls and put them back in the sharkskin bag.
"I don't need all of them," Taz said.
"Package deal," Fangxian said.
"We're willing to be generous, Uncle Taz," Guangjing said.
Ruiman said, "And we're glad to help."
"We like Jingwu," Junxin said. "But this is a trade."
"Right?" Renyi asked.
"It'll be easy," Fangxian said.
"And you'll like it," Guangjing said.
"Why do I get the idea your mothers won't like this at all?" Taz said. He had an uneasy sensation of being outnumbered.
"They don't mind us going among humans," Fangxian said.
"They just don't want us going alone," Junxin said.
"We were going to ask Jingwu if she would take us," said Ruiman.
"But we already owe her because she helped the orca we sent to her," Fangxian said.
"And we haven't figured out a way to pay her back for that yet," Renyi said.
The boys spread out, moving around him in what could have been an affectionate closeness, but which made Taz feel not only outnumbered, but also surrounded.
"So it's you," Guangjing said.
"What's me?" Taz asked.
"We want to ride the roller coasters."
"Starting with the one on the coast."
"Then going over the hill to the next two."
"And then north of the Bay, where there are five of them."
"You've looked into this, haven't you?" Taz said.
The five boys nodded.
"We used Great-grandmother's net access," said Junxin.
"We made a list," Fangxian said.
"We're not asking to go all the way to Florida," Renyi reassured him.
"Or to any of the ones way inland."
"Just the ones around where you live."
"We think we'll be less noticeable there."
Taz frowned. "How long did you have in mind for this to take?"
"A week," Guangjing said.
"Each," Ruiman added hurriedly.
"One day at each park," Taz said.
The boys consulted by eye again, then looked up at their uncle. Guangjing shook his head: "One day for each roller coaster."
Damn, Taz thought. If he couldn't handle them here, what was going to happen when they were loose among the humans? "All right," he said, "but one of your tutors or nurses must come with us. We're going to pass as humans, which means you kids do what we grown-ups tell you. If I have to send one or all of you home, I want another adult to make sure you get back here."
The boys were thoughtful for several moments; then, Ruiman said, "Chengxian."
"No," said Renyi. "He'll want us to sit quietly and watch the humans."
"No he doesn't; and we never listen to him anyway," Ruiman said.
"Here, yes, he doesn't make a point of our paying attention," said Renyi. "But we'll be out in front of strangers, and worse, out in front of humans, and he will insist we act befitting our station."
"He does," Guangjing agreed. "He tried to, at Great-grandmother's."
"Who then?" Ruiman asked.
"Binheng," Renyi said. "We'll tell him it's a gravity experiment. He can watch and take notes or he can ride with us and take notes. Either way, we get to ride."
"OK," said Fangxian.
"Good idea," Junxin said.
"OK," Ruiman said.
Taz sighed. He thought he might have made a better bargain, but it probably would have taken too much time. He didn't trust the yunü not to get into trouble left to herself. "I've got some errands to run, so we'll do this in about three weeks."
"That's a long time to wait," Junxin said.
"The moon's full then and the parks will be open later," Taz said.
"OK," Ruiman said again, and handed Taz the bag of pearls.
"So when were you with the Eldest?" Taz asked.
"We were there for the Peach Harvest, and for about two months after that," Renyi said.
"How was she?" Taz said.
"She was Great-grandmother," Junxin said.
"Same as always," Ruiman said.
"And the staff? The rest of the Household? Were they happy? Busy?" Taz asked.
"Great-grandmother's place always runs smoothly," Renyi said. "Why do you ask?"
"Weird rumors," Taz said.
"Nothing weird there," Guangjing said. "New cook, but he's really good."
"Honeyed pecans and alligator pears," Renyi said.
"Oh," Fangxian said. "When we ride the roller coasters, we get some of the pink fluffy stuff."
On the way back to San Francisco, Taz detoured to a desert island. It was small, sunny and empty. There were no humans around; in fact, there were no people, human or otherwise, around. It even lacked the clichéd palm tree. He relaxed in the absence of Jingwu and of Feng Tailin. He didn't want to lie again to the first or re-argue the same grounds with the second. Still in his dragon form, he set a ward around the island, then stretched out on the hot sand, and rolled over onto his back, exposing his underbelly to the sun.
The problem was, Taz thought, he had no male role model. His current teachers didn't know what he really was; neither did any of his fellow students. He was reluctant to go to Martin, the other male he had been in contact with recently, for counsel. He didn't know the vampire that well. He was Jingwu's lover certainly, but Taz was unsure what she might have told Martin. Since most of his own former teachers and Jingwu's lovers and students in the past had been mortals, and were now either dead or otherwise out of touch, the most capable males he still knew, other than Martin, were the Sea Kings, the Innkeeper and Dai. These were even more peripheral to his current life than Martin was. Moreover, the Sea Kings were roughly his own age, and although absolute in their own realm, here they were just as much in awe of their grandmother-in-law as everyone else in the family.
Which meant taking advice from someone he trusted, even if she was a woman.
Which meant accruing another debt. Although in this case, he might be able to do a direct trade. He took the sharkskin pouch from its private universe and sorted through the pearls. He owed Dai fifteen colored pearls, but there were many times that number of pearls, in various sizes, shapes, and colors. Ah, that one was nice: baroque, yes; large, also yes; but of a cool gleaming white. Since he had already bought the bag of pearls with the promise of roller coaster rides, he could spend this pearl where it would do him the most good.
"I'd like to see Ms Polias."
"My name is Long Dianchi. I want to consult Ms Polias."
The receptionist assumed her professional face. "One moment," she said, and rose and departed the lobby. Shortly, she returned: "Please wait."
"You may want to smile at the staff when you leave," Nancy said.
"Is that appropriate even if I'm a client?"
"Possibly not." Nancy turned away from the small table overlooking the city and sat at her desk.
Taz took the client's chair. He took out the baroque white pearl. "I need a consultation," he told Nancy, placing the pearl before her.
Nancy eyed the pretty thing on her desk. "It's not that simple," she said. "As long as you are a minor, and here, Anna says what happens to you. If you are in difficulty, she is the one you should go to. If your problem is with her, the Eldest, as the senior of your nearest in blood, should be the one to hear your complaint."
"I'm not sure how hypothetical I can keep this, but let's assume for the moment I can't take either of those actions," Taz started.
"So, since, for a time in the last century, in Paris and at Bletchley Park, you were my day-to-day guardian, an arrangement apparently acceptable to both Jingwu and Grandmother, I came to you. That seems logical to me," Taz ended.
"I am one of your accepted advisers. Yes, that will work, but in that case, take back the pearl," Nancy said.
"OK." Taz slipped it back into the pouch, and waited.
"If this is a conversation between two members of an extended family, pearls are not exchanged for counsel. Do you have your grandmother's edict with you?"
"These orders were spoken."
"By the yunü," Nancy said.
"Was she chosen carefully for this task? Is she known to reliably relay messages?"
"Not to me. I haven't met her before. She," Taz hesitated. "She does not know what the yunü who visit Jingwu know, or act the way they do. Jingwu likes..."
"Competent people," Nancy said.
"I don't think Tailin is as competent as Jiding or Xiulin, but she just may be nervous around humans."
"Which makes her a strange choice for this task." Nancy shook her head. "I dislike depending on positive vetting, but I think that is a way to proceed now. We will inquire about the yunü's reliability as a messenger, which a careful grandson may legitimately do, and I hope to garner some of her history in the process. "
"No, not you yourself. That's what we say if we are questioned. I will ask one of the associates to talk to a friend of hers, as she often does. Have you met Cheng Shenwei?"
"No, I haven't."
"I may introduce you after this is over. How soon do you need some reassurance about the yunü?"
"I'd like it soon," Taz said. "I'd like it tonight, in fact, but I can stall awhile longer. Nancy," he continued. "Anna..."
"Is out of this loop. Yes, I know. Young dragon, I may not know your grandmother as well as your Jingwu does, but I do know her well enough to think what has been set before you may very well be of her sending; not necessarily everything, but certainly parts of your problem remind me strongly of her. However, I cannot tell what is definitely hers and what we may term a mistake in translations."
"So what do you advise?"
"Find out what you can and be ready to fulfill the letter of what you have been told to do."
"Theoretically that means waiting until the cup shows up in an exhibit at the Museum," Taz said.
"Possibility not that literally," Nancy said. "Since we are already worried that the yunü may not be a reliable conveyer of messages."
"She keeps worrying about delays."
"There is no point in hurrying into a scandal," Nancy said. "Your grandmother's position as a patron involves some personal investment in the well-being of the Museum. That well-being will be compromised if the Museum is seen as a careless guardian, and that might be considered to reflect badly on your grandmother."
Taz nodded. That was a good point. He could use that.