第4章: A Night For Herself

“You should have tonight to yourself.” Her mother told her, with all intentions of following through with it as it had seemed right now. She was about to go up to get ready for dinner, but at that, she decided that it was better for her to do so.

She followed her instructions and went to pick out her best dress for the night there. Which was one in lilac, no embroidery for it was just too expensive to afford at this point? She added a ribbon to her hair, which was far from easy at least at any point. Tying it neatly together, to the right side of her own hair. Before deciding that it was best accompanied with a hairpin.

She bought herself a small collection, a couple where she could always reuse them. And preferred it in layers and separate colors to coordinate when necessary. The colors were often arranged in a specific way, although she never had any which were deep enough to be considered precious. Those were only reserved, for they were costly to dye.

She went down the steps, just before they were about to open. And chose to leave through the back door, one which they used solely for that at the very least. When she was now out, to the main streets. All sorts of novelties were there, as a festival was taking place. Right in front of their eyes, not any more than it was now.

Chaoyun certainly enjoyed the festival for what it had meant, slowly as she walked through it. With her purse full of cash, although hidden within the sleeves then and there. The money was still inside, allowing her to really enjoy this at her leisure. She usually came her during the standard days, except some nights she went during the festival.

Only her favorites, or ones she never had the chance to experience. Many of which she had, just that this was not her favorites. A positive move for her to enjoy what little left of her freedom or the town. Most towns had their own gods and goddesses, which were often prayed together even in by the Emperor. She knew that there were things which were left alone, and this was it.

A couple of other villages had kept similar traditions too, and thus some overlapped while others did not. At least from passing merchants, passing travelers or even otherwise. She heard a lot of them while she was keeping dishes and not able to leave. While staying near them to clear up any more tables when it was necessary.

She picked up a snack, which was a sweet and cold snack. As it was spring, this was only sold in the night. When it was more relaxed here, as it lay just below the river. One which separated the north of China from the south. And just a couple days of travel, they would find it. The river which gave them life. Even as she has only seen it once.

On a small trip out with her mother, the one and only time where they went. Since their shop was simply about to be renovated by someone else. And thus, she took the chance to show her somewhere where she did not go. Other than allowing her to talk to travelers and buy any books. Most of which were things that she tried to remember.

Never dirtying the pages in case, they needed to sell it. This was the reality at least while they were here. Requiring this caution because of how it was so. Not the same for this, she knew what it was. Tonight was the lantern festival, where most girls made their own lanterns and let it float on the water. And there were riddles, always riddles.

And of course, where she often showed her own understanding of this. And why she liked this. Taking place just after the new year, where they were never closed. There was too much money in it, although they had one late at night, where they all ate. And then slept over there. While taking a break for the next three days. The only truly allowed. And moving into the summer. She walked into it, looking at all of it around. Riddles of all sorts, although mostly on small slips of paper.

She guessed that it was so to save some cash and very much money since it was a lot cheaper to divide them up. And since most children took part in these games, thus it was often one where the players didn’t need a large font. Since her own mother was already needing it written in a larger font. And she wondered was it why that some scriptures did so.

Since the eyesight of the old was never as good, and for such a culture which venerated them. It would be terrific to do so. Although she now had the cash for this and no longer walked around. There were often people for it. Just as there were people, who could help her. Provided she had safeguards when it came to her fortunes.

She stopped by one, deciding to try and play one of them. It was often the most challenging and boasted the oldest of competitors. She had taken part and only won it slightly since she figured it out. There was a short time interval, although not counted. Until perhaps another person could answer.

And she wanted to try it again. Remembering that these were in a wide variety while looking at the front. Most of it was already solved and taken away. With a long line in front of them. Despite it all, they all indeed had the best goods in the town. Winning meant a prize, and a small fee was paid.

Although the man was very much hired by the Magistrate, perhaps to do this. And this year, it was a lot more things in it. As well as expanding what was offered. While she knew and remembered that her father had taken over that role. He was now the governor, and the person who seemed the smuggest was a man holding a significant but also huge fan.

Dressed in blue, but it was fine silk. A clear sign to show that he was born to a wealthy scholar or merchant family. “The next question, “What belongs, but you would rarely use it?”

“Your name.” Not him, but of his little sister. Just as she noticed equally infuriated looks among them. Suggesting that they were dominating this entire game.

“What has been here since the dawn of time, but yet is never a month old?”

He looked up, pointing to the sky. With a sheepish smile, and knowing that it will be handed over at the very least. Much more than before here. And suggesting that he was sweeping.

“There is a pair of brothers, they are identical. They go only near food and nowhere near solid food, what are they?”

She knew it, having worked in a restaurant all her life. “Those are chopsticks.” Which was something that she could answer? And seemingly breaking this. This sort of riddles was only paid once, and she only passed it in, and a lantern was given to her. She rarely made her own, spending more time learning to make cakes over say lanterns. Since under challenging situations, she was the who would be in the kitchen, making all of the desserts. As the cook needed help.

Or refining a recipe when necessary, or teaching it to some of them to take her place when needed. She spent quite a bit of her time in the kitchen, and thus she often bought lanterns instead. And letting herself make a wish for today. Even as it was clear that she had all but one intention on her mind.

To hope that she could live her life as she wished. Not out of familial obligation, not when they have done so little to her, and her mother saw that she wanted her to lead the life that she wanted it to be. Although she did not light it up yet, needing matchsticks. And it was often a collective effort, not really for themselves.

And she knew that she should win another. Best for her to look elsewhere. Or perhaps buy one. A much better one that could be seen. Stopping at a shop where she could pick it, at last, one of the better finer ones. So that she could join them. One of the few things that they did do, often once it was time. Since most of their customers were also keen.

Although for many years, it had never been any more than saying buying it from the nearby inn to join them in it hastily. And she did the same for all her workers, as a gift and hopes for them to achieve their wishes. Regardless of what many others would have said or even talked about while they were right here and now.

And then kept her own purse. Before seeing him again, holding his fan. While she held the largest lantern, and all of them nearby was carrying one. “It’s too bad that you already won one.”

“How about giving it to someone else?” She asked. She didn’t need it since she already did cover her family in many, many regards.

“Well, I have to find it. By the way, I’m Wu Yuntong.”

“Bai Chaoyun.” Even as deep down, she had the feeling that it was too much. Remembering just how her father took over this work, and now organizing this. And of course, it seemed that he also had an excellent knowledge of it.

And he fanned himself. “Well, I just came into this town recently. To well, meet with a prospective bride.” And they knew that this was by far the strangest thing. “And I didn’t know that I will meet you here, this is just something that I do because it’s fun and interesting to guess riddles. They all have certain reasoning behind them that we can’t escape.”

“I have the feeling why, I mean to meet him here in what usually will be a gift from the Magistrate. This was something that was started a few decades ago and has been carried out. Since it is easy to please the children and helped to make, he seems generous. Even as it didn’t seem to be able to later on, other than placating them.

“I didn’t know that.”

“And shows that you really don’t belong here. The furthest I have left from the town is to the river two days across.”

“Well, I mostly come from a city just slightly further south. Jiankang, one of the many ancient cities which has also served as a capital for some of the cities.”

“I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”

“Did you study section Confucious and Ban Zhao.”

“I can only read numbers and legal documents, a little poetry, and analogs. That sort of stuff isn’t something that I do. I have been working at a restaurant when I was old enough to walk.” She stated at the truth. “It’s called the Bai Yi house, with my mother’s name on it.”

“Isn’t he married to another woman?” He asked.

“Well, I was adopted by her since my mother died in childbirth, and my mother isn’t even married.”

“That makes sense, just as my father would now have a lot of questions for them personally.”

“Isn’t that the restaurant we ate at earlier, just before setting out?” The girl asked. “You may call me Zhao’en.”

“The food there was fantastic, the dishes were delectable. Pity they didn’t offer any desserts.”

“It’s the lantern festival, I would only consider making desserts when it isn’t. Such as when we close down for the new year, or when things are slow with no major festivals. The time before them is often the worst of the worst.” While also realizing that she was talking about what she usually did.

“Well, you weren’t what I expected, but I certainly would want to look into how a business is run. That certainly would be a lot more interesting than talking about classics. Since they are written by dead men, who said them a thousand years ago. There can be practical applications for the advice, just as much as you’ll be discarding a lot of what they say. Or you can’t understand them.”

“That is true.” She snickered at this comment. It was honest about how things exactly were for scholars. Even as there were updates to it.

“Well, or about men trying to interpret what they are saying. And making further inquiries and building upon what they have. That is slightly more interesting, especially if you look at some of the more radical people. And how they can take it either too literally, or interpret it in a way that you wonder how their minds actually took the concept in.”

“But I guess that there is still the right way to go around it.”

He nodded. “There is, or at least many which do not totally detract the meaning of their words. Those are accepted. And we are excepted to read them. Since there are a thousand years, and time for many men to decide and write their own thoughts. Going back to the time even before paper. And I seriously wondered how they thought and wrote it down. And then there was bamboo which was all tied up. Most of which have been transferred to paper. Simply because it is a lot easier for them to do this right now.”

“That is distinctly worse since I could write on wood and it wasn’t exactly fun. For our board.” Even as this was mostly a necessity because the paper just didn’t make enough sense. While aboard did, because of how expensive it had been and was.

“So, do you have a good memory?”

“I served the customers from hell a few days back. Furthest from the nicest thing, mostly because they brought their kids and they were really really demanding. That was one of the few times when I wondered was it possible to hate kids.”

“Terrible. Anything interesting about it?”

“You’ll be surprised to see what gets dropped while you are inside. Since they treat you as invisible, you get all sorts of interesting stuff. And they wonder why people are so willing to betray them.” Especially when things like that were dropped right in front of them at this point.”

“That is interesting and something that I would learn from now on.” Making it rather easy for them to try it at this point. “What else?”

“My mother gives away all here leftovers to destitute children and their families. That is something she does, and the Magistrate often opts to cut her taxes for what she does. And also allow her to really win the reputation here.”

“That’s interesting, so looking like a generous person helped.”

“To an extent, yes, and she was rather firm. I mean, I grew up working there, and she paid me a fair rate. And allowed me to go whenever I wanted, and to be let go when I was sick. The same for all of them as well.” It was true that she was fair, incredibly so when it was all but necessary for them to be it.

And how her mother made a good profit and saved it up while adding it to her legacy. And she was always going to split it with all the workers and many of the workers who came before but left. As well as her, she gained a good share of it. While still keeping that in mind. The restaurant was very much her family, and she had bought it as it was. With quite a bit still left over.

“Honestly, I feel as though not being a scholar has so many benefits now. Provided there are those who are as reasonable as her.”

“She is one of the few. The rest could not be said to be as principled. She knew of many, which abused them and at the same time turned them over, preventing them from trying. They’re seething at my mother’s success.” An actual fact right now, much more than before. When they needed to do it as it seemed.

“Interesting, yet it is this caring for them, which keeps them loyal to her. Caring for them makes them feel belonging.”

“It’s not perfect, our cook isn’t easy to work with. And the only assistant could tolerate her because she was already fairly desperate and could do it. As well as the possibility of hiring another cook as this year has been a lot busier. Much busier than any other. This is the first time I had the chance to sit down.”

“Well, but it’s still a lot better. Even as they often don’t suggest that it better not be regulated, since it is often difficult.”

“It is difficult since it was created by two people who barely paid off their debts just before they could. Before they were married and were able to work from day to night, and the best time to accumulate enough for their freedom. As well as sewing whenever they could.”

Just as she realized that it was time. And she needed to go back. She knew that she would see him again, although it was unsure. Just as he came out, before passing her a small token. “Show this to me if we are actually going to be betrothed to each other.”

Before he turned and she left. Giving her mother her gift, and she opened the match. Where she also took it to light up her lantern as well. Before bringing it up and letting it go. She closed her eyes to make her wish, to be free unless she wills it so. Even then she wanted to be able to do as she wholeheartedly wished and as she had wished to even then.

She opened her eyes to see it floating into the sky.