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Jan 2013
Thus reconfigured the party covered the first two days of the journey with speed and ease. As evening approached on the second day it was clear that a village resthouse was to be favoured as its owner had ridden out to greet his illustrious guests. He assured the party of complete secrecy, their valuable horses to be his special concern.
​   Away from the palace Zuo Fen set herself to enjoy the rural pleasures of an autumn evening. This time of freedom from the palace duties, from her Lord’s often-indiscriminate attention, she valued as a most generous gift. She composed swiftly a fu poem in gratitude to her Lord’s trust and favour.
How fortunate to dip this hand
In a flowing stream whose water
Is already touched by the first snows
Know that I shall bring its caress
to the mouthpiece of my Lord’s  jade flute
holding its body with spread fingers
to press to open to close to open

The stream bisected the village, a village of stone and wattle buildings, though the rest house was stone through and through. She had ventured on her arrival up onto its flat roof covered as it was with harvest produce laid out in abundance. The colours and textures of peppers, yams, marrows, eggplant, and such curious mushrooms as she had never before seen, all this she gathered with joy into her imagination’s memory.
​      With Mei Ling’s help she then transformed herself back into a woman, though with the simplest of robes over the Mongolian garments of wool she favoured to fend off the cold. Then, after alarming the resthouse keeper’s wife and servants by entering the kitchen, she planned a meal to her liking, sought the herb garden and enquired about the storing of vegetables for the long winter ahead.
      ​As the evening progressed she was surprised to discover Meng Ning had gone on ahead to Eryi-lou. It was a capricious decision born of his wariness of Zuo Fen. He felt intimidated by the persona she had assumed. Here was a woman of infinite grace yet simple charm who in the time it took to travel 6 li had become unrecognizable. Even her voice she dropped into a lower register and gained louder amplitude. When they reached the village he had moved purposefully to provide assistance as she prepared to dismount, only to see her grip the high pommel and swing her leg confidently across her pony and her body slide down the pony’s flanks to a standing position. So as the late afternoon light failed he had driven his horse up and up the mountain path, forcing himself to think only of the route and task ahead. He had acquired the company of a local guide who, on foot, out-paced his horse, but would see him safe down the path in the coming darkness. There would be a moon, but it had yet to rise.
        ​To his surprise the caretaker of Eryi-lou was a young woman, a daughter perhaps of its official guardian Gao Cheng, a daughter Meng Ning considered banished to this remote spot: she carried a small child on her back. He would enquire later. For now, he sought in her company to reconnoiter the decaying web of wooden pavilions, some already invaded by nature. It was then he realized his mistake. He thought himself into Zuo Fen’s mind. Surely she would wish to come upon this place untouched and unprepared by his offices. He motioned to the young woman to come outside, and standing on one of the many terraces explained his error, asked her not to speak of his inappropriate visit, but made to suggest that there was a room ‘always kept for an official’s visit’, that it be swept and suitably provisioned. Her voice responded in a dialect he could hardly decipher. It had the edge of a lone bird’s roosting call. He knew she was trying to explain something of importance to him, but he quickly lost the thread. He could see the faint gleam of the lake reflected in her eyes, hear the snuffle of her baby carried against on her back, and in the near distance he was aware of the village guide admonishing his horse. He bowed and left.
‘You are a most considerate companion, Meng Ning,’ Zou Fen said, as summoned to her presence, the chamberlain prostrated himself before the woman he was charged to serve and protect.
‘My lady, you already know I am a fool.’
‘Yes, but an honest fool with a kind heart. You sought my well-being at Eryi-lou, but I think you rightly imagined I might wish to experience this dream habitation in an inviolate state. Let us say you made a dream journey there. No harm done.’
     ​He explained about the caretaker and that a suite of rooms was always kept ready for an official. That was all he would say. He was about to retreat from the guest room now vivid with firelight and rich with the scent of cinnamon, when she lifted her hand to stay his going.
‘You are a brave young man to accept charge of my company. I am sure you know how my Lord is likely to remove you from his circle on our return. I feel unworthy of such sacrifice. I did not expect my Lord’s favour in this enterprise, but my words, my application, were clearly persuasive. I feel we are bound together you and I, and we must see our enterprise be the making of a fine poetic rhapsody for the autumn season – something you might share one day with your children and their children. You must understand that I am already moving towards a meeting of reality and the world of dreams and visions. Do not be afraid should I seek your intimate council. I know already you dream a little of my person. You may even imagine our conjunction as lovers. Women know these things, and, as you may have heard, I have tutored your Emperor in the ways of the Pale Girl.’
‘My lady . . .
Zou Fen reaches out for paper and brush Mei Lim had placed to her right hand. Kneeling on the roughly swept floor, her long limbs hidden under her cloak, she deftly paints seven lines of characters:
The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright.
Fallen leaves gather and scatter,
The jackdaw perches and starts anew.
We think of each other- when will we meet?
This hour, this night, my feelings are . . .

‘I wonder how we are to cast the final character?’
‘Not yet, and not here my Lady’. And with that Meng Ning takes his leave.
(to be continued)
Nigel Morgan
Written by
Nigel Morgan  Wakefield, UK
(Wakefield, UK)   
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