Taz appeared in Jingwu's living room.
She was there, looking over her assignment board. She smiled when she saw him. "And what did you do on your vacation?"
"Surfing, girl, surfing. Girl, poker, girl. Sleep, girl, surfing, home. How are things here?"
Jingwu chuckled. "We went to the ballet."
"Again?" Taz said.
"The Hard Nut."
"How did the kids like that?"
"Julia liked the dancing, and Pol didn't understand the role of the pig."
"It's subtle," Taz agreed. "But why are you so pensive?"
"After the performance, we went up to Chez Panisse. A Berkeley magic type noticed the children and started to approach us."
"Children? Not just Julia? Pol, too?"
"Pol's growth spurts involve more than just his height. His talent is maturing, too."
"And this is a problem?"
"I don't know. The approach was probably innocent, possibly even well meant. Welcome to the Sorcerous Siblinghood, or whatever politically correct term they're calling it over there at the moment. But if strangers can notice him, it seems I need to make some changes."
"You never planned on keeping him curbed."
"No, of course not, but now may not be the best time to release him," she said. After a moment, she added: "It always comes down to timing, and, at that, too soon may be better than too late." She shook her head, rose, kissed Taz's cheek, and said, "I have litter patrol. Zomas put some dinner in stasis if you're hungry."
Taz regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then said: "Just bed, I think."
She smiled, and blinked out.
Taz chose to climb the stairs up to his bedroom, thinking with every step.
Timing isn't everything, Taz thought, and put down his coffee cup.
Since it wasn't raining, he had opted for breakfast outside. He was on the dining room deck, listening to the red-headed parakeets squabble over the last sunflower seeds. His thoughts continued: Or rather, timing isn't enough.
Yes, a simple adjustment of when he delivered the cup to his grandmother, which would automatically change who was present, would also change what happened. Giving the cup to his grandmother now, and privately, rather than later, and publicly, would avoid the set-up Feng Tailin was attempting to arrange.
I don't like being manipulated, he thought. Whatever that annoying girl is up to, getting the cup to Grandmother now will thwart... His thoughts abruptly filled in the appropriate cliché: thwart her nefarious scheme. He smiled. Which would be fine; but then what? She goes off and starts another plot, and maybe the next one is better? I could just kill her. Which will solve the problem for good...unless — she's only a yunü, after all — there are more plotters. How can I stop her plot, discover who's behind her, and not embarrass Grandmother?
He speared the last bit of blini with his fork, and gathered up the last trace of sour cream and caviar filling on his plate.
One thing is sure, he thought. I can't trust Tailin with the cup, even briefly. And that means I do need another copy. Complete with box. Boxes. Yes, that will help. And a fire cracker; or a muffled equivalent. I need to visit the Concierge, the warehouse, Dai, the warehouse again, the Inn again and finally, the warehouse a third time, before I visit Grandmother. And I have to go in that exact order.
"Another copy?" Dai asked. He watched as Taz unwrapped a dish of tiny quiches from another picnic hamper. "Ah. Why another copy?"
"I'll need another box, too. There's a tricky little bit of work in the substitution at the Museum," Taz explained.
Dai waved one hand in dismissal. The other was conveying a quiche to his mouth. "Your business," he said, and ate the quiche. He dusted crumbs off his hands, and left his workshop.
He returned with his original rosewood box. Opening it, he took out the cup. "One cup, one box?"
"Two boxes. One of these, too." Taz gestured at the storage box he had abstracted from the warehouse.
"Ugh. Humans do practical OK, but I could ..."
"Uh, Dai: I need it exactly like this."
"Ugh," Dai repeated. "Aluminum. What's this stuff?" He poked a finger into the padding in the lid.
"I see. Yes, ugly, but practical. No charge. I won't sign it, though."
"That's fine. Take your pick from these," Taz said, and put the sharkskin bag on Dai's workbench.
Dai was shaping a copy of the cup as Taz spoke. The copy of the rosewood box followed quickly. He took up the new cup, examined it closely — apparently just for the pleasure of looking at it — nodded, and put it in the new box. The aluminum box, complete with padding, was created with a casual toss of one hand.
As Taz put the new rosewood box in the new aluminum cube, where it fit perfectly, Dai was reaching for another quiche.
After a quick stop at the warehouse, Taz went, empty handed, to the Inn. It had shifted location and configuration while he was away, and now resembled a Nineteenth Century American summer resort. At the desk, he asked where he could find the yunü Feng Tailin.
"Yes, she's back," the clerk said, after a glance at the pigeon holes behind him. "I believe she is in her room. She's now on the fourth floor, room 439."
Back? Taz thought. Back from where? I told her to stay in the hotel. Never mind. He rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and found 439.
Inn rooms haven't changed much, Taz thought. A bed, a table, something to sit on and space for packs. Just like what Jingwu had back when I was a kid. Oh, now there're closets and hangers and upholstery and innersprings and drapes, but it's still a room at the Inn.
He sat at the table.
The yunü joined him, and waited.
"We'll do it tonight," Taz said. "Wear soft dark clothes, soft dark shoes, and no jewelry. I don't want you to clank, thud, or rustle. The first noise you make, I'll send you straight back to Kunlun Mountain. Be ready by 2030, about two hours from now. I'll bring the replacements we need. We'll watch the shift start to change at 2100, then we'll switch the new cup for the other cup."
"Oh, yes. I'll be ready, your celestial highness," the yunü said. "I'm so relieved. I mean, your grandmother will be pleased."
"I certainly hope so," Taz said. Celestial highness, he thought. I should have known from the first time she called me that she wasn't from Grandmother. He nodded to Feng Tailin, and took the elevator up to the roof to teleport home.
Taz lifted down the aluminum cube and handed it to the yunü. From near the door came a muffled thud.
"Go," Taz said, very softly.
The yunü's eyes went wide. She didn't move.
"Go!" he snapped, still softly.
The yunü vanished, clutching the metal storage container.
Taz put the aluminum crate he had brought back into the proper place in the shelves. He made a quick grab of the remnants of the firecracker, then ported silently out of the warehouse.
The door to 439 was ajar.
Taz pushed it completely open. Feng Tailin was not here, but the aluminum cube was. Inside was the wooden box and inside the wooden box was the cup.
Or rather a cup. What was in the box was not a copy of Dai's cup made by Dai. That was obvious at first glance: not only was the aura different, the cracks were too large and in the wrong pattern. Still, he picked it up.
It feels funny, Taz thought.
He put it on the table. It wobbled.
That changes things, Taz thought. Apparently Feng Tailin and her gang, if she in fact has a gang and isn't just a lone thief bent on stealing one of Dai's cups, are moving now. Well, Nancy said I should be ready to fulfill the letter of the message the yunü gave me. I can't see waiting will improve matters. Too soon is better than too late. He nodded to himself. Putting the strange cup back in the real box, and both into the cube, he put everything in a private spatial pocket, an undetectable fold in the local space-time fabric, and went down to the lobby. From there, he went directly to his grandmother's home on Kunlun Mountain.
The jintong doorwards were surprised.
"Your celestial highness," one of them got out. "We were not informed of your arrival."
"No, this is an unannounced visit," Taz said. "I realized I need to see my grandmother."
"Uh." Neither doorward moved aside. They weren't exactly blocking the gate — they were in human form and the gate was designed for longs — but they made no move to open it.
The doorward who wasn't speaking had been busy: Behind the silent jintong, two yunü Taz knew personally appeared. They wore simple, daily garb, showing they were off-duty: Jiding had on boots, long trousers and a knee-length over-tunic. She wore her mirror as a necklace: a small silver disk on a silver chain. Lijin wore her mirror as a pin fastening her plain loose robe.
He nodded to them, and repeated: "I need to see my grandmother."
"Taz," Lijin said. "You may want to rethink that."
"Your sister is here," Jiding said.
"Oh, hell. How did they find out about the roller-coasters?"
There was a startled silence, then: "What roller-coasters?" Jiding asked.
Lijin said, "Nothing about roller-coasters that we know of. The Second Princess attends the Eldest Dragon today, so perhaps... "
The Second Princess was Liyan, Taz's youngest sister.
"Oh," Taz said. He was silent for a moment, then he said: "I will see my grandmother."
Liyan had firm and frequently voiced opinions regarding the folly of their grandmother employing yunü and jintong about the Palace. There was nothing, she claimed, that a human-form servant could do as well as a long. Taz had never agreed with that, finding his own human form capable of many activities that his long form made awkward.
The jintong were in a difficult position. Taz was family; the doorwards had no right to interfere with his lawful actions, seeing his grandmother was a lawful act. Lacking direct orders from the eldest, they could not impede him, even if his youngest sister was already with the Eldest Dragon. The guardian jintong were clearly unhappy and looked to the yunü. The two yunü looked at each other. Jiding shook her head and stepped back. The doorwards, still looking unhappy, stepped away from the gate.
Taz felt a certain sympathy for the jintong, but he was not about to stop now. He nodded to them, then pushed open the gate. Flanked by Jiding and Lijin, he walked the wide, winding path through the reception garden. After the last bridge, spanning the stream just before the beginning of the Great Pool, where the path divided, he stopped. "Where is the Eldest?"
"She and her guest are in the Hall of Pheasant and Quail," Lijin said. "You'll have to shift."
Taz nodded and took on his human form. He arranged his formal dress: the five layers of robes, each in a different brocade; the large and the narrow aprons, each heavy with gold and silk embroidery; and the three colored scarves, each of a different length and width. His now long black hair fell down his back. He summoned, and handed to Lijin, a delicate lotus crown, then rolled his hair into a bun on the top of his head. The yunü slipped the crown over his chignon.
"Taz, where is Anyuanjun Jingwu?" Jiding asked.
"Earth. Take this," Taz said, taking an aluminum cube out of his pocket universe.
"Does she know you're here?" Lijin said, as Jiding took the cube Taz handed her.
"Probably not. I don't know. Hold this," Taz told Lijin and handed her the rosewood box he had placed in his folded pocket universe before leaving Jingwu's house earlier that day. He opened the packing case, took out another rosewood box and put that one into his private universe. He took the rosewood box from Lijin and put it into the aluminum crate. He put the lid back and fastened all the clasps. He took the aluminum cube by its handle in the top.
The yunü watched the switch and looked at him, curiosity plain in their eyes.
"Taz?" Jiding asked. "What's all this about?"
"A surprise," he said. "Come along." He took the fork in the path that lead to the Hall of Pheasant and Quail. As they followed Taz, the two yunü looked almost as unhappy as the jintong at the gate.
The Hall of Pheasant and Quail was sized for humans, not longs. The eponymous motifs were displayed in frescos, carvings on the doors, ceiling and furniture, mosaics on the floor and textiles. Other motifs of peace and order were also employed as decoration. Jiding and Lijin opened the double doors and he walked in. The yunü remained outside, shutting the door behind him. Smart girls, Taz thought. He stopped between two pillars, each carved with nine dragonflies amid begonia blossoms, and bowed.
His grandmother was seated in a carved throne, on a shallow dais. A small offering table, holding the second copy he had bought from Dai — the bright new, unaged, copy of his grandmother's lover's cup — stood on another, slightly taller, table to her right.
In front of the dais, by the taller table, stood Liyan, unattended even by lesser longs, and looking awkward and bad tempered in her human guise.
And now I know who, Taz thought. And I know what: her target wasn't Grandmother or Jingwu, it was me all along. I'm supposed to look like a fool in front of Grandmother. As for why, I bet this is all about the Succession. She really wants it. Well, after all this, after having come this far, I can only go on.
In their human forms, dragons were not as formal as they were in their natural shape. The Eldest did not demand that her grandson approach her from the seven directions at once. Taz followed the simpler ritual, walking straight forward on only two feet. He dropped to his knees before the dais. "Primordial lord and revered Grandmother: I have completed the task you gave to me."
"Stand up and greet your sister."
Since his grandmother had called Liyan his sister, not using her name or any of her titles, emphasizing that this was a family occasion, Taz knew how to respond: "Yes, Grandmother." He rose and turned: "I see with awe and joy the face of my youngest sister."
"I see you," Liyan said.
"And which task did I set you, Grandson?"
"I was told, Grandmother, that you wished to have what was yours again."
"So I did. Do you have what was once mine?"
"So I do."
His grandmother smiled. "You may show me."
Liyan smiled, without looking any less annoyed.
Taz bowed, and dropped to his knees again. He took the aluminum cube, removed its lid, and banished the cube and lid into his personal pocket universe. He placed the rosewood box before him on the floor, slid the lid open, and took out the cup — the cup he had stolen from the Museum, the cup that was one of Dai's original copies, the cup that had been his grandmother's lover's — and, rising smoothly to his feet without removing his hands from the cup, bowed to his grandmother and set the cup beside the fresh new copy on the offering table. As he had once noted, the difference in their auras was readily apparent. He stepped back in front of his grandmother and again bowed. A quick glance sent the rosewood box and lid back into the temporal-spatial pocket, leaving the floor uncluttered. He waited.
As she looked at Dai's two cups on the offering table, Liyan's smile changed to a faint frown.
"Ah," the Eldest said. "This is indeed mine. And the Museum? Will they be content with what they have?"
"I believe so," Taz said. "I purchased two copies from Dai the Tinker, and to an untutored eye, they are the same as this one. I made some minor adjustments to the copy of the cup I left in the warehouse, and I do not believe the Museum will notice theirs is not what it was last week."
"Well done," his grandmother said. "And what do you ask as a reward?"
"Only that henceforth, your tasks for me come as edicts, on scrolls of silk and in your own hand, that I may treasure them forever." And, he thought grimly, that never again can I be misinformed or tricked. At least not this way.
His grandmother chuckled: "That is easily done. Anything else?"
"That you take into your household and under your protection a yunü currently calling herself Feng Tailin."
Liyan's face became a neutral mask.
"And what has this yunü done to deserve well of me?"
"She has lied to me and attempted to use and deceive me. She shows some promise as a courtier, although she is very young and lacks polish."
The Eldest nodded. "Where is she?"
"I believe she is in Liyan's household at the moment."
"Indeed? How unusual. Granddaughter?"
"I have no memory of such an attendant," Liyan said.
"Nonetheless, you will find her and bring her to me," the Eldest Dragon said. "You may go about this task at once."
1) The Chinese languages, in this case, the dialect known as Celestial Mandarin, have many homophones, which can easily lead to visual puns. For example, there are more than 27 characters pronounced 'shi'. The meanings of the characters include two family names, pig, ten, stone, lion, master(n), poetry, wet, bachelor, attend upon/serve, and assorted. This means you can say: Shi shi shi shi shi shi Shi and mean Ten assorted stone lions attended upon Master Shi. It also means you can indicate a lion by drawing a picture of a stone. In many examples of visual media there are unobtrusive puns, double meanings and examples of wishful or hopeful thinking.
In this chapter, Taz enters the Hall of Pheasant and Quail. The character for pheasant is transliterated as 'zhi', as is the separate character for 'order'. Quail is transliterated as 'anchun'. The transliteration for 'peace' also includes 'an'; therefore, the quail is used as a pictorial shorthand for 'peace'. The other name for the hall in which Taz meets his grandmother is 'The Hall of Peace and Order'.
2) I am still trying various presentations of the POV character's thoughts. Here, I do not use italics or quotation marks, just 'Taz thought' or 'thought Taz.' If the reader had noticed, is my current practice clear or confusing?