Monday, June 4, 2012

Lovers' Academy -- Uncut Version

Author's notes:
This one-shot was originally written for the Age of Edward 2012 contest, posted at; this uncut version exceeded the contest's word count limit. A shorter version rated T was submitted instead. PLEASE NOTE: THIS VERSION IS RATED M FOR ADULT THEMES, SEXUALITY.

The story is loosely based on a Chinese myth, The Butterfly Lovers, which has a much sadder supernatural ending. Setting is during Tang Dynasty in eastern China.

Cultural notes:
The Tang Dynasty era was fairly liberal; divorce was permitted, and women could initiate it. However women did not have equal rights per se. Feudal era morals remained; women were still treated as chattel belonging to the family and men were expected to guide them throughout their lives. Women could be educated, although again they were expected to be under male guidance. Unsurprisingly, attitudes towards women were more conservative in the country versus urban areas. The Tang Dynasty also saw strong females in roles of power, including Empress Wu and Empress Wei (in addition to Wu's remarkable rule, she kept a harem of men).

Characters' Chinese names:
In Chinese culture, family names come first, with given and generational names following. Edward Anthony Masen would be arranged as Masen Edward Anthony (roughly approximated in this story as Ming=family, EnDian=given/generational name). Women typically keep their family name even after marriage. Chinese astrological birth signs are given by year and noted below by character.

Edward Masen = Ming EnDian - born year of the snake
Jasper Whitlock = Wu ZhaoXuan - born year of the snake
Bella (Bill) Swan = Shi BiLang (male alter ego: Shi BinLi) - born year of the snake
Charlie Swan = Shi KangHan (father of Bella/BiLang-BinLi)
Renee Swan = Xue RongNing (mother of Bella/BiLang-BinLi - kept her family's name)
Alice (Alan) Cullen = Shen AiLiu (male alter ego: Shen AoLun) - born year of the snake
James d'Eville = Xie ZhaoMao - born year of the tiger
John d'Eville = Xie JingHao (father of James/ZhaoMao)
Mary d'Eville = Bai MaoRong (mother of James/ZhaoMao - kept her family's name)

[1] min jiao - litter or seated sedan conveyance, generally carried by two or more porters.
[2] xiao di-di (shah-ow dee dee) - little brother
[3] mei-mei (may may) - big sister
[4] fuqin (foo chun) - father, more formal use
[5] muqin (moo chun) - mother, more formal use
[6] bàba (ba ba) - papa or dad, used more commonly within the family
[7] māma (ma ma) - mama or mom, used more commonly within the family
[8] qin ai de (sheen eye duh) - dear or love, a term of affection; may denote friend or romantic interest (Ex. "Good morning, dear" = "Zaoshang hao, qin ai de" (Zow shang how, sheen eye duh)
[9] 'passion of the sleeve' (duan xiu zhi pi) - slang phrase referring to homosexual desires
[10] qi (chee) – term used in feng shui describing energy flow

~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~

Lovers' Academy

As she entered her chambers, a young man grabbed BiLang and put his small, soft hand over her mouth to stifle her scream. "'s me, AiLiu!" the youth whispered.

BiLang's surprise and flailing gestures made AiLiu laugh; she'd successfully fooled BiLang into believing her companion-maid was a youth.

AiLiu was as excited as BiLang about their impending journey, especially since she had a real problem in which to sink her teeth. As a maid she was exceptional at dressing ladies, but she was no longer challenged. Disguising BiLang and herself as young male students was a dare she tackled head on.

"AiLiu! You nearly scared me to death! Don't do that again until we are well-practiced at these disguises, or I'll end up in a coffin dead of shock and not in a min jiao [1] headed for school!"

"I'm so sorry, BiLang, I was just so excited about leaving that I completely forgot my disguise. I'm flattered you think it worked!"

BiLang continued to clutch her chest, feeling her heart rapid thuds slow to a more normal pace. "Ugh. If it worked any better, you'd be cleaning up a puddle of urine and laundering this gown. What else do we need to do before we get on the road?"

"I've gathered clothing and accessories for both of us which should last the duration of your studies. You need only try them on, and then ask your father to coach you a bit more on how to act like a youth. Your scrolls and supplies are packed, as are the goods for your quarters at the Academy. We're ready to leave tomorrow if you practice today."

AiLiu pushed and pulled BiLang out of her beautiful gown and into her new boy's wear, the looser fit, stiff fabric and wide sash hiding BiLang's slender figure. Taking a knife to BiLang's long silky hair, she shortened it to a length men commonly wore, pulling it back into a braided queue. BiLang's brows still looked too feminine, shaped into a soft, narrow arch; AiLiu messed them up, taking a small amount of softened bees' wax to press BiLang's brows into a more unruly, boyish shape.

They checked their appearance in a metal mirror; they looked more like teenage boys than the young women they really were. Giggling at first, they caught themselves then practiced laughing more deeply before seeking out Shi KangHan for further coaching on achieving the illusion of manhood.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

Although the social climate became more liberal during and after the reign of the Emperor Taizong and his Empress Zhangsun, women were not treated as men's equals. Their lives were guided first by fathers, then by husbands, and lastly by their sons should they become widows. But unlike previous dynasties, women and men alike could divorce, and women could remarry without repercussions like loss of face or open scorn.

This climate encouraged Shi KangHan to permit his beloved daughter BiLang to attend the Academy of Ten Thousand Pines. Shi KangHan knew that a woman needed more education to marry well and be a proper helpmate to her spouse, just as the Empress Zhangsun had been a strong aide to her husband, Emperor Taizong.

Shi KangHan also knew that in the event BiLang was widowed years into the future, she'd need adequate knowledge to fend for herself. Her much younger brother wouldn't be in a position to guide her for a very long time, and might even need BiLang's assistance should Shi KangHan not live to see his son well into adulthood.

But Shi KangHan also knew he couldn't be assured of BiLang's safety at the Academy-unless she attended in disguise as a man. Her virtue would remain intact while she was accorded the same respect any young male received during their studies. He'd send a trusted companion-maid, one who was a distant cousin and trained in martial arts, to accompany BiLang. This companion-maid, AiLiu, would be disguised as a young man, too.

"I'm still concerned, BiLang." Shi KangHan's forehead knotted with worry as he fretted with a small scroll he was preparing to send with her. "I've signed this document establishing your credentials as Shi BinLi, indicating your companion AoLun accompanies you to assist you while residing at the Academy. I hope it will be enough proof to allow you to study without harassment."

"Papa, don't worry. If I need help, I'll seek our cousins in Hángzhou. If the Academy proves too troublesome, I'll stay with the cousins and send word by express courier before coming home."

BiLang took the scroll from her father with a deep bow, and then hugged him tightly before running to finish her packing. She respected his fears for her, but she was eager to get on the road toward her long-awaited studies at the Academy.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

A day later BiLang and AiLiu left the Shi family compound; the household's members waved goodbye to the small entourage. Her weeping mother left wet marks on the silk brocade of her jacket; BiLang responded as any youth might, with huffy frustration at both the delay and her mother's teary stains. Her mother's clinginess annoyed her.

Like well-trained equestrian youths, BiLang and AiLiu rode comfortably astride their favorite steeds as they led their porters and a cart toward Hángzhou. They stayed at an inn instead of camping out as the weather turned rainy overnight. It was safer as bandits often troubled travelers to Hángzhou.

The next morning proved sunny and dry, but the roads were soupy-sloppy, slowing the cart. The horses, porters, and armed servants managed by staying off the road. The cart couldn't travel off the road, though, and often got stuck.

About a day's travel away from Hángzhou, the cart got well and truly stuck. The warm day partially dried the road's mud into a thick mess, trapping the wheels. BiLang and AiLiu tried to lighten the cart offloading bundles, while driver and porters urged the horses pulling the cart forward.

When the cart driver snapped his whip sharply, the cart lurched forward at the same time, badly spooking BiLang's horse which had been tethered to the side of the cart. The horse whinnied and danced side to side, knocking BiLang into the road's cloying ruts. AiLiu tried to pull her up, but she fell into a heap on top of BiLang. The horse continued its frantic shying, unmindful of the "youths" lying so close to its hooves. The porters and servants frightened the horse more while untethering it to lead it away from the students.

Just then two young men pulled up from behind. One leapt off his mount to help the two "youths" out of the mud while the other took BiLang's horse's reins, leading it safely away from the road. The men returned to the cart, pushing it out of the deep ruts, and then helped reload the cart once its wheels were on more solid surface.

"How can we ever thank you for the assistance!" BiLang suddenly lurched a bit as AiLiu shoved BiLang, trying to remind her that her voice was too high. BiLang bowed respectfully and faked the cracking voice of a teen before continuing. "We'd have lost another half day of travel on the way to the Academy if you kind 'brothers of the road' hadn't helped us."

"The Academy? You're on your way to Hángzhou and the Academy of Ten Thousand Pines, too?" The taller, ruddier colored man with the greenish hazel eyes asked BiLang, having assumed the smaller, slighter "boy" was a companion-servant. "I'm on my way there, too," he replied as BiLang nodded.

"Great! We can keep each other company on the way. It'd only be fair if our porters might help yours if your larger cart gets stuck like ours did. I'm Shi BinLi, of Yuhang. This is my companion, Shen AoLun."

"I'm Ming EnDian, and this is my companion, Wu ZhaoXuan. We'd be glad to travel with you. I've heard all of ZhaoXuan's jokes and songs. Any new ones would be a welcome change."

The two smaller "youths" laughed, although one of them sounded a bit more like a tinkling bell than a hefty gong. They scraped their boots; their muddy outerwear was spread over the cart to let the mud dry for brushing off late in the day.

BiLang mounted her horse, taking the lead along with AiLiu and the two new fellow travelers. Soon the four young men were laughing at ribald jokes, singing rowdily, calling each other "brother" and swearing to support each other eternally, through their studies and beyond.

Their lightheartedness was a good portent of their years ahead at the Academy.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

The next three years were both difficult and pleasurable-studies challenged both Ming EnDian and Shi BinLi, and their companionship was not only happy but steadfast. They made many friends among their fellow scholars and instructors alike. Their companions also mirrored their deep friendship in the same manner, often inseparable.

The only dark cloud during their years at the Academy was Xie ZhaoMao. He was the spoiled over-indulged first son of a high-ranking government official. He was rude and crass to other students and instructors, his nastiness magnified by the equally brutish company he kept. Xie ZhaoMao beat his servants for trifles and frequently fought with other students, making life hell for everyone around him.

The four "brothers" did everything possible to keep their distance from Xie ZhaoMao. Concentrating on their studies seemed to work best since Xie ZhaoMao had a bad habit of frequenting brothels and inns where beer and wine flowed too freely.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

BiLang worried as her studies began to draw to a close. During her time at the academy her affection for EnDian had changed. He was no longer merely a trustworthy comrade. Nor was he but a "sworn brother," the equivalent of an adopted sibling acquired by personal mutual oath.

But EnDian was far more than that. He was her lover in spirit, sharing everything from scrolls to food with BiLang, and more. He shared his innermost thoughts and secrets with her, and she reciprocated in kind-save for her biggest secret.

She'd never been in love before, but her literature studies convinced her of her love for EnDian. She wanted far more than his friendship based on the depth of her feelings.

She yearned deeply for unfamiliar, unnamed something only he could provide. She couldn't wait to share her day with him. He was her first and last; at any gathering he was the first one she'd share her wine or food with, the first person she'd offer a new scroll or parchment, and the last person she thought of before sleep took her each night. He made every lecture and lesson more interesting and fun because of his quick mind, his sense of humor, and his willingness to debate all sides of an issue.

He was a beautiful man, having features and clear light skin like the men of northwestern provinces; his hazel eyes, golden-brown one moment and greenish-gold the next, burned into her, setting her heart ablaze. His long fingers like that of an artist seemed to beckon her; she'd seize any opportunity to grab his hands, even if only to lose yet again at a pathetic match of arm wrestling just to make contact with them.

No other man smelled as good as EnDian, and she'd smelled a lot of them in the close confines of the Academy's classrooms and quarters. EnDian smelled like the pines of the deep woods, the mists over Hángzhou's West Lake, and the freshly turned fields near her home. He was her earth; she wished so much to be the warmth of the sun on his flesh.

EnDian was unaware of the emotional storm BiLang weathered every day. He was perfectly happy in his relationship with his "little brother"; he never noticed her lack of beard or her unchanging high voice, or her apparently stunted growth. He only noticed her constancy, appreciating deeply that his "brother" was always there to cheer or commiserate with him.

She wished she could reveal all and tell him the truth about her identity, to confess her love for him. As time passed, she felt compelled to disclose the truth-but she didn't know how to do so without offending or scaring him off. BiLang stewed upon this more and more, obsessing with the need to unveil her true self.

It's only a matter of time, she told herself.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

One evening after discussing lessons over food and wine, EnDian was maudlin. His emotions ran high after hours of alcohol-lubricated banter exchanged between friends. Only a slightly tipsy BiLang remained in his quarters at the end of the evening.

EnDian wrapped his arm around BiLang's shoulders as he hoisted a cup in the air, pulling her toward a cushioned divan. Wine sloshed onto the floor as he pulled his friend onto the divan to flop down, side-by-side.

"BinLi, you are my very best friend, my brother by another mother. I hope we'll always be the very best of friends, forever." EnDian's speech was slurred, sounding simultaneously happy and sad. "If there was something closer than friends, closer than brothers, I'd want to be that with you."

"You're so far into your cups this evening, EnDian, that you'll forget what you've said when your head begins to pound in the morning." BiLang was torn between staying on the divan under the shelter of EnDian's arm, and moving away. She'd been able to keep her physique a mystery these past few years, and her proximity to EnDian now jeopardized this secret. At the same time she wanted so badly to lean against his firm muscles and run her cheek along his jaw.

EnDian rolled toward her, dropping the cup onto the floor before pulling her closer. His lids heavy and his pupils large and dark, he looked into her eyes,. "No, I'll remember this in spite of the hangover to come. I'll remember because I think and feel this way every day, all the time. You are as close to me as my own skin."

BiLang was spellbound. Her hand swept up as if it had a life of its own, reaching for his cheek. She caressed it softly, feeling his sharp cheek bones, his scratchy whiskers, and his firm jaw. She leaned in toward him and brushed her lips on his cheek, shutting her eyes as she inhaled his scent.

"BinLi, you know I'm not given to the 'passion of the sleeve'.[9] I desire women, not men. But when I'm with you, only with you, I feel like giving and taking pleasure with you. We share everything else together. How is it we do not share this one thing? Right now I want you so very much."

The rush of desire and fear she felt made BiLang's heart pound hard, as if her chest would burst. She wanted him so badly, feeling heat quickening in her fought the urge to touch herself to relieve the pressure she felt between her legs.

And yet she was terrified. She dare not reveal the truth now while he was so vulnerable. She couldn't allow him to do anything to compromise her virtue, no matter how badly she wanted him.

She spoke softly, in as deep a voice as she could muster. "I have the same feelings for you, EnDian. I know we are not the kind of men who can be lovers, but I can provide you with some comfort, an assurance that I care for you. Let me make a vow to you, something more than friends and brothers, and something less than lovers."

His eyes didn't leave hers, although he blinked slowly. EnDian was still well under the influence of wine, but not so much that he couldn't refuse if he wanted to. He was curious and burning at the same time, wanting his friend-brother's promise.

BiLang rested her hands on his chest, slowly smoothing downward as she felt his body heat beneath his robes. She leaned in and pressed her cheek against his, nuzzling her nose under his earlobe. EnDian's breath fluttered along her hair; she could feel him hold then release his breath in a gasp as she ran her hands along his side and then his buttocks. She pushed his body until he rolled onto his back on the divan. He was tense under her hands.

"Relax, EnDian, try not to think except about our devotion to each other."

His body slackened slightly; she eased her way down the divan, her knees finding the edge of the chaise and then the floor.

"Shut your eyes, EnDian, relax. Your dearest friend will take care of you."

BiLang ran her hands from his hips down the length of his legs, stopping only to find the edge of his robes. Once under the edge she ran her hands upward along the inside of his calves, feeling the fabric of his stockings until she reached his bare skin just below his knees.

He shuddered as her fingertips met the warmth of his flesh, only the barest amount of coarse hair separating her skin from his. She continued to run her hands slowly along the insides of his warm, lean thighs, feeling his muscles tense.

"Relax, EnDian. Your legs are tight."

EnDian consciously released his thighs, just as BiLang felt the denser, curlier hair around his sac. He shuddered again, jumping slightly as she cupped his sac.

BiLang had been thinking about several texts she had read - texts that were both poetry and erotica at the same time. They were highly educational in their explicitness; they described what she could do next, as pleasurable for a man and stimulating for his female partner.

She gently caressed his sac with her left hand as she slowly ran her right hand along his erection. It was like nothing she'd ever felt before; it was hot and firm beneath her touch, and yet it was soft, the skin delicate. She wasn't surprised at finding it erect since she'd been taught the rudiments of sex at home and seen animals mating; she'd also felt his erection as EnDian had pulled her close to himself before pulling them both onto the divan.

His robes were slowly pushed back, freeing her hands to continue their gentle caress as she gazed upon his masculine beauty. BiLang took his length in her hand, gripping it lightly as she stroked it. She looked up at EnDian, worried he'd detect her unfamiliarity with the male physique, but his face showed only wonder and desire. He interpreted her pause as a request for permission. EnDian nodded, then grasped her hand to help set a rhythm, enveloping her much smaller hand in his large warm one.

Moved by the intimacy of their shared grasp, BiLang wanted to kiss EnDian. Unable to kiss his lips, she brushed her soft lips on the head of his cock, then licked the clear, salty fluid leaking out in time with their combined strokes. EnDian moaned, shutting his eyes and throwing his head back in pleasure. His hand grasped hers more strongly, looking back down at her.

"Please-" he asked her, unable to choke out what he wanted of her.

She kissed the head again, then licked it, swirling her tongue around as she tasted again his desire. Remembering the description of oral gratification in erotic poetry, she placed her mouth around the head of his erection, her tongue cupping the frenum as they continued to stroke.

"Unh, so good-" he moaned again, his hips heaving slightly from off the divan. BiLang closed her eyes, imagining what it'd be like to be his bride and mount him as he thrust into her. She could not help but moan at the image; the vibration of her moan affected him, causing him to lose the rhythm. The heat between her legs increased as did the dampness. She thought she might leak with her own desire.

"I'm, ah, undone-" he exclaimed, his body suddenly freezing, his back arched slightly as he released several times into BiLang's mouth. The unfamiliar taste was neither pleasant or unpleasant, merely shocking. She knew she should swallow as the erotica implied it brought pleasure to the male; EnDian shuddered as she did so. As his erection softened, she kissed him once more before relinquishing him.

He gazed at her, his lids still heavy, his eyes still dark. She could not name the emotion in possession of his face.

He released his grip on her hand, his body easing into the divan. His eyes closed, his face calm, his breathing slowed; it was the most relaxed he'd looked in days. BiLang gently pulled down his robe, covering his body, then took his hand in both of hers, squeezing gently.

"I swear my loyalty as your closest friend, your sibling-in-arms-" She couldn't bring herself to say brother, tripping on the word she used instead.

"I'd be there for you whenever you need me, whatever you need of me." Her voice trailed off to a whisper, her eyes filling with tears she dared not shed. She released his hand, jumped up and left his quarters without so much as a backward glance-afraid to stop for fear she'd burst into all-too-feminine tears and give away her secret.

"BinLi! BinLi!-" She could hear EnDian shouting as she sped away toward the sanctuary of her own rooms. His voice tore at her heart.

Once in her rooms she took to her bed and sobbed herself into anxious sleep.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

She stayed in her quarters the next day, avoiding EnDian. AiLiu denied him entry when he dropped by, explaining BinLi was too hung-over to attend lectures or see guests. BiLang explained to AiLiu as discreetly as possible that her emotions were too strong and had overcome her; she was afraid now that things would change between her and EnDian.

AiLiu understood all too well since she, too, had fallen in love-with EnDian's companion, ZhaoXuan.

BiLang had no choice but to return to her studies once all visual evidence of crying dissipated. She acted as normally as possible, joking and arguing in turn with her male counterparts over lecture materials.

Before dinner hour, EnDian cornered BiLang in a secluded courtyard garden located between their respective quarters. She fought for a calm and neutrally indifferent facade.

"I haven't seen you since the night before last. I wish you hadn't left in such a hurry." He stared at her intently, his eyes burning with unasked questions.

"I'm sorry, but I wasn't feeling well after all the wine. I'm afraid you've forgotten my boyish constitution cannot handle alcohol like yours can, brother." She used the label deliberately now, in an effort to deflect any possible guesses on his part that she was not as she appeared. Her voice, still raspy from her sobs the previous day, emphasized the illusion of youthful maleness.

"I, uh, I hope I didn't offend you, brother. I was rude, losing control of myself after so much to drink. I hope you'll forgive me." EnDian continued to stare deeply into her eyes, as if looking for some sign.

"Don't trouble yourself. I was just as rude, undisciplined, losing control of myself in drinking. No harm done. It's forgotten." BiLang stared back, hoping she appeared genuine; she wondered if he'd forgotten the intimacy of their evening.

He leaned in closer, blinking slowly as if gathering his next words. His voice was low as he spoke.

"No, not forgotten. I never want to forget your sworn vow to me. But I hope we can both forget our discomfort and remain as close as we have been to each other recently." He'd placed his left hand on her right shoulder, extending his right hand to take hers in his.

She took his hand, gripping it firmly. He was making his own form of oath, a declaration in words less clear than she had used the other evening, but a declaration nonetheless. She completed her acknowledgment of his oath by pressing her left hand to his shoulder, feeling his warmth under her palm beneath his robe.

They had no more words, looking mutely into each other's eyes. Voice in the distance broke their reverie, and EnDian released her hand, moving to pull him under his arm like a man might with a brother or son.

"Come, let's find some dinner. Apparently you don't eat enough because you've not grown in height or girth. Growing boys need to eat."

BiLang chuckled hesitantly. Was she really a stunted youth this might be funnier. Had EnDian begun to realize there was more going on than met the eye?

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

A courier arrived the next day with a missive for BiLang. AiLiu rushed the message to EnDian's quarters where he, BiLang, and other friends had been reviewing lecture material.

"BinLi, your family sent this urgent message to you by a courier. He waits for a reply."

BiLang broke the seal; in her father's careful hand the scroll explained she must come home. If her father and not her mother wrote this, was there more to this message these characters did not disclose?

After disclosing the message to EnDian and her friends, BiLang returned to her rooms. She inked a hasty reply, letting her father know she'd begin her journey home in two days' time, after taking leave from the Academy and packing up her quarters. She'd be home within the next week.

BiLang sealed the reply with wax and her signet, paid the courier and sent him on his way. AiLiu was already pulling their belongings together, although she did so with tears running down her face. BiLang's heart was rent at the thought of separating from EnDian.

And now her heart was broken a third time, knowing that her long-time companion suffered the same heartbreak over leaving ZhaoXuan.

She caved in to her femininity and pulled her beloved companion into a hug. The two young women sobbed for their shared loss, collecting themselves only after hours had passed to wipe each other's tears.

"It'll be alright, AiLiu. With all this education I'll think of something to fix our hearts." AiLiu could only sniff and hug BiLang before returning to packing up their belongings.

The next two days were a blur of activity-meeting the Academy's administrators to take an indefinite leave, and saying goodbye to her instructors and fellow students. She'd found porters whom other students had vouched for as trustworthy, and hired a cart.

All that was left was to take leave of EnDian and his companion, ZhaoXuan. She left that for last out of fear that she'd freeze, unable finish her tasks necessary for departure.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

That night a solution came to her in a dream. She dreamt of splitting in two, torn in half, beginning with her heart. But then the dream changed. The two halves of BiLang were of different genders-she saw herself as a youth and as a maid, yin and yang elements not broken but complementary parts of a whole.

She sat up, waking suddenly from the dream. They were twins, the two halves of BiLang. That was the answer; it might just work. She went back to sleep with a lighter heart, feeling hope for the first time in very long time.

The next morning, before the residents of the Academy roused and began their day, the porters and cart waited packed and ready outside the school's gate for BiLang. AiLiu remained with the cart, unable to say goodbye to ZhaoXuan without breaking down and revealing her feminine identity. BiLang assured her she had a plan that might solve their problems; she asked for AiLiu's patience.

BiLang went to EnDian's quarters, rousing ZhaoXuan and EnDian both to say goodbye. In her best male attitude, she wished them well with their studies, asking them to write. Both EnDian and ZhaoXuan looked miserable, not only from fatigue but the unexpressed loss of their long-time brothers-in-arms.

"EnDian, you know as the eldest child in my family I have certain obligations to help guide other family members. I'd like for you to accept my invitation to come and visit with my family two months from now, when I hope to introduce you to my twin sister, BiLang."

EnDian looked startled, and then puzzled. "What? In all our time together, you've never mentioned a sister!"

ZhaoXuan looked equally puzzled, having never heard about a sister from either BiLang or AiLiu.

"I'm sorry. You know how preoccupied and selfish we young men can be. I hadn't given her a second thought while I was here as she was under my father's guidance. But now that I'm nearly done with my studies I have to step up and take on some responsibility, including direction of my sister's future."

EnDian and ZhaoXuan looked at each other, puzzled and then relieved as it dawned on them they'd count on seeing their "sworn brothers" again soon.

"Oh, please also bring ZhaoXuan. He may surely find companionship in our household. Who knows, perhaps if my sister meets your expectations, we can become real brothers, and ZhaoXuan a part of our family by proxy."

The two men looked much happier than they had for days. The prospect of a vacation, meeting young women of marriageable age and reuniting with their "brothers" was incredibly appealing.

"Yes, yes, count on it. ZhaoXuan and I'll be there in two months' time to meet your family."

BiLang shook hands, clapped both men about the shoulders, bowed and took her leave.

"Two months, brothers, in Yuhang, at the Shi family compound. I so look forward to seeing you both again!"

She whistled a ribald tune like a young man relieved of worries. BiLang smiled at teary AiLiu, reaching over to pat her shoulder in assurance.

"I'll explain all as soon as we are clear of prying ears. Cheer up, for in two months our frustrations and our secrets may be at an end."

AiLiu tried hard to be patient as they rode their mounts away from the Academy's gates, leading the small entourage toward Yuhang.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

The return trip home seemed longer than the trip to the Academy, but it was only an illusion. The roads were dry, the weather good, and the inn comfortable for their overnight stay halfway home. Only their heavy, suffering hearts made the trip feel longer.

The courtyard exploded with activity as the entourage arrived at the Shi family compound. Dogs barked under foot, servants bustled about unloading the porters' bundles and the cart; stable boys helped BiLang and AiLiu dismount, taking their horses to the stables.

Shi KangHan emerged from the house, smiling as he greeted his daughter. He looked relieved, happy, confused all at the same time; she looked like a young man before she left, but now her mannerisms were even more masculine. He greeted her like a son at first, with a bow and a mutual handshake, but then sweeping her up into his arms, gave her a bear hug.

"We've missed you so much! Wait until you see your little brother. You won't even recognize him! Your mother will be beside herself!"

He led BiLang from the courtyard to the great room of the family compound. BiLang's mother swept into the room, weeping exclamations of joy.

"BiLang! BiLang! It's so good to see you home! It's been far too long! I never want to you go away so long and so far away ever again!-"

"Muqin,[5] please, go easy, you'll hurt yourself with all this excitement."

A young voice emerged from behind her mother's skirts, interrupting her train of thought. "Is this my sister or my brother?" a little one asked with a lisp.

"I'm your sister BiLang. I'm only dressed like a boy, Xiao di-di.[2] How are you?"

"I'm fine, Mei-mei.[3] Look, I've lost two of my front teeth!"

"I see that, Xiao di-di. You'll have to tell me all about them in a few moments. Right now I need a hug from you, and then I need to talk with Fuqin."[4]

She knelt and reached out to her brother. He looked so much like BiLang did when she was his age; she could now imagine him some day leaving to go to the Academy just as she did. She gave him a big sisterly hug, a kiss on his forehead and released him.

Standing and turning to face her father, she raised her brows and asked, "So, Fuqin, why've you called me home? Shall we talk in your study?"

And like a young man of educated social status, she turned heel and stalked off, leaving her father to follow.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

BiLang asked a passing servant to bring wine to her father's study. She paced restlessly, waiting for the wine to show while her father frittered with papers clearing a place for the wine to be served.

"Thank you. Leave us," BiLang said, dismissing the servant once the wine arrived. She took the jug and poured into the two cups on the tray, handing one to her father, then taking a large draft from her cup.

Her father marveled at her appearance. This person before him acted like young man about to receive bad news. Unfortunately he'd have to say goodbye to this illusion as BiLang needed restoration to her birth gender.

"So-?" BiLang waved, inviting her father to sit down, taking a seat on a cushion herself.

"Well, yes. You've figured out it wasn't your mother who asked for you to return home, but me-"

"Yes, Bàba,[6] I could tell by the penmanship and the terms used. Why did you ask me to leave my studies?"

"You're still as smart as ever. Attending the Academy has not dulled you, in spite of the copious amounts of wine you must have consumed with your fellow students."

"You're filibustering, Bàba. Spill it. What was so urgent?"

"You'll recall that the northwest point of our family property adjoined vacant land up for sale for a very long time, yes?"

BiLang nodded. Property wasn't an urgent matter, unless...

"Another landowner whose property lies yet further west purchased the parcel to extend their holdings. That family has expressed interest in linking our properties together to increase power, both economically and politically. Separately we are easily neutralized, but joined our families would be far more powerful."

She knew this could only mean one thing, since her little brother was far too young.

"BiLang, I've promised you as a bride for that family's first son. You're to wed Xie ZhaoMao, the heir of the Xie family. We'll need to set a date for the wedding after you've re-acclimated to your home and practiced being the maid that you are."

She'd simmered over the misleading manner in which she'd been summoned home, leaving her studies unfinished. Another handful of months would have allowed her to complete her final lectures, and now she'd never have a chance to finish them.

But now she was extremely angry. She struggled with the urge to respond like a young man rather than a young woman. She eked out a middling response instead.

"Bàba, I can't tell you how very disappointed and offended I'm that you couldn't find a way to discuss this with me before trading me off like chattel. I'm certain you know little of Xie ZhaoMao, because I can't believe you'd ever want to link our good name with like him."

Her father looked shocked and dismayed. "Now BiLang, I know you've been away, free to think like your male counterparts, but if the genders had been reversed I would've made the same agreement linking lands for the betterment of the Shi family name."

"No, Bàba, you wouldn't have. Because no young maid who conducted herself as Xie ZhaoMao has-drinking to excess, whoring in every brothel in Hángzhou, all while neglecting his studies so badly that he was ejected from the Academy-would ever have been considered as a worthy candidate for marriage. Nor would you've wanted that maid to reflect poorly on our name."

Shi KangHan leaned forward, putting his head in his hands. How had he not heard this about Xie ZhaoMao? What had he done to his beloved daughter? What had he done to his family's reputation? He moaned, feeling betrayed and disappointed in himself.

"You should've asked me, Bàba. The least you could've done was let me use my smarts to evaluate opportunity for me and for our family before committing me." BiLang shuddered with cold anger, her voice breaking.

"I won't add to the insult I expect to befall our family. I'll plan to marry Xie ZhaoMao. But if some other option arises that spares our name, I'll look into it. And I'll need your support."

Her father looked up at her, seeing her as both an angry and beautiful grown woman, and as an intelligent, educated youth who was his equal. She was no longer a child, and she was right.

"Yes, BiLang. I'll do what I can to support you. I'm sorry I didn't consider your opinion on this matter. I'd forgotten that you're not helpless like your mother, but a person of action like me."

BiLang sighed deeply, feeling her father's disappointment as well as the weight of his epiphany. She poured them both another cup of wine with which to wash away their pain.

This person, blessed with his probing brown eyes, and his wife's pink and pouty mouth, was now fully grown up, thought Shi KangHan.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

The Xie family wanted to publish the engagement to encourage friends, family and guests to begin sending their presents to the happy couple. Accepting the gifts would tantamount to acknowledging a state of marriage before the wedding even took place. Knowing this, BiLang had to come up with a stall tactic quickly.

Shi KangHan had to explain to his wife Xue RongNing the matter of Xie ZhaoMao's reputation and unsuitability. She had a meltdown at first, disappointed by the loss of a celebratory event that was sure to be the biggest and most memorable in the district for many years to come.

But the more she thought about it, Xue RongNing grew angry. The Xie family had been under her roof, courting approval for the match between their son and BiLang. They'd lied to the Shi family, misrepresenting their son as a good student with strong morals who'd make a great husband and father. The truth was that Xie ZhaoMao had completed less of his studies than BiLang with much lower marks, and his morals were clearly misplaced. Xue RongNing agreed to cooperate with whatever her husband and daughter cooked up in order to defer the wedding and eventual marriage, buying time to break the agreement without the Shi family losing face, or exposing the Xie family to even greater shame.

"Bàba, Māma,[7] you know that I'd drop everything including studies if Māma was ill. Why couldn't we tell the Xie family she was ill? We could establish that Māma has a contagious and possibly disfiguring illness. Do you not have a cousin who is a physician? Can he be persuaded to attest to this illness?"

Both Shi KangHan and Xue RongNing thought this was a fine idea; it'd buy at least a couple months' time. Shi KangHan was sure he could persuade his cousin-who also shared the same Shi name-to visit regularly and attest to Xue RongNing's purported illness. Of course the cousin thought that once Xue RongNing emerged from her quarantine appearing healthy that it might do well for his reputation; as long as the servants were cooperative and didn't gossip, it might work out well for him personally as well as the Shi family.

BiLang privately briefed AiLiu on this tactic. AiLiu offered her skills as a ladies' maid and companion to help make up Xue RongNing so that her illness was believable to servants and any visitors. She was up for a new challenge anyhow, after mastering the illusion of creating young men out of young women. It would also help take her mind off missing ZhaoXuan.

With everything in place for this delaying charade, the Shi family sent their regrets to the Xie family, explaining that a date for the wedding couldn't be set as long as Xue RongNing was so very ill.

Thanking the gods, BiLang was relieved to have more time to break the news to her parents about EnDian and his impending visit.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

After a week of this playacting and the delivery of the message to the Xie family, BiLang took her father aside for a private chat in his study. Once again she asked for wine to be served; she poured out a cup and waited until her father had finished his first cup before she took up her cause.

"Bàba, I know that you tried to do the right thing by the family with the engagement. Your heart was in the right place. The Xie family simply took advantage of you in order to improve their position."

Shi KangHan nodded as he began to sip at his second cup. "Yes, a matchmaker your mother consulted also agreed the match was good. It's not impossible that the matchmaker was bribed by the Xie family since it's obvious she knew nothing about Xie ZhaoMao's many failings."

"Traditionally a matchmaker would have more say about my wedding, but frankly, none of the traditional matchmaking has worked. The families involved deceived or were deceived, the matchmaker either blind or a fraud. I propose a different approach if we are able to break the engagement with the Xie family."

"Go on. It cannot hurt to listen at this point. The gods know I should've listened more when it came to the Xies."

"Father, I've formed a strong attachment to a fellow student. He is everything I'd want of a friend, a brother, and of a man who'd be your son. He worked diligently at his studies, comes from a good family, and cares for me as a friend as well."

"Hmm. It's almost too convenient-Xie ZhaoMao's unsuitability and this friend's potential as a marriage partner. Need I confirm with other sources that Xie ZhaoMao is truly as bad as you say?"

"I have never lied to you, Bàba. I'm dutifully and respectfully yours, if too smart and headstrong. If you need to validate my claims, do so, but you'll find I was correct about Xie ZhaoMao. And you'll find I'm correct about Ming EnDian as well. I invited him to visit two months out after my departure from the academy."

"But won't this young man expect to find his male friend here?"

"I didn't have the time to let EnDian in on my secret. I was worried that disclosing the truth too soon might prove disruptive to studies. Disclosure might also have frightened off someone who was a good friend, someone I could trust and work with closely as a fellow student.

"When I left in haste, I asked EnDian to come and meet my twin sister, in the hopes that he might someday think about joining my family as my brother. I hoped to reveal the truth and encourage him to see me as more than a friend. Of course I had no idea at the time I was coming home to an unwanted engagement."

Her second cup of wine was empty, as was her father's. She poured another, hoping to ease any trepidation her father felt.

Shi KangHan's forehead knit in thought as he sipped from his third cup. "You were willful as a child, but very smart. You took your lessons eagerly and applied your knowledge. You've acquired deeper skills and knowledge at the Academy. I cannot doubt this investment of resources on my part and effort on your part. I'll trust after all this time you know very well both your mind and the object of your affections."

BiLang smiled and bowed with thanks, before leaving to tell AiLiu about her discussion with her father. Once again she felt hopeful that all would turn out for the best.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

Servants' yells broke the still of the afternoon. A lone horseman had entered the courtyard of the family's compound, shouting for Shi KangHan.

BiLang followed Shi KangHan, keeping to the shade of a covered walkway well out of sight, mimicking a lady's maid as she watched and listened to her father greet the horseman.

"It's me, Xie ZhaoMao. I'm here to discuss the delays obstructing my marriage to your daughter."

"I'm honored to have you call on us, Xie ZhaoMao. I'd welcome you inside, but as we indicated to your family in a missive sent by a courier that my wife is very ill with a contagion. We are worried that others in the household may come down with the illness and do not want to expose you or your family."

"You've had a doctor treating your wife and not some quack?" Xie ZhaoMao was direct to the point of rudeness; it'd be easy to take this as an insult calling Shi KangHan's integrity into question.

"Yes, we've had a trusted physician, one who has seen our entire family for years."

"What if your wife lingers with this illness? I do not want my fiancée to come down with this sickness due to lengthy exposure to her mother. Wouldn't it be better if she was married off quickly?"

Shi KangHan had everything he could to do remain calm. Doubts about BiLang's claims in regard to Xie ZhaoMao's behavior were vaporizing. Clearly this young man was determined to achieve a specific goal, with no feeling for the Shi family or the safety of the Xie family and friends.

"Let us revisit this again in a few more weeks. Perhaps by then the illness will have done its worst or have been cured. Surely your family will want the prestige which comes from having a wedding the district will remember for years to come. A healthy bride and healthy families will also encourage more and better gifts from friends and associates if they believe they are not throwing their resources at a fatally-cursed marriage."

Xie ZhaoMao appeared mollified by Shi KangHan's logic. "Okay, I concur. We'll revisit the status of your wife's health and that of your family in six to eight weeks time. By then harvest will be in and the cooler night air may help reduce the chance of spreading illness."

Shi KangHan bowed and thanked Xie ZhaoMao, who spun his horse around and left the courtyard at a brisk trot.

He waited until he could no longer see nor hear Xie ZhaoMao and his horse, moving toward his study.

"BiLang!" Shi KangHan bellowed, before snapping at the nearest servant to bring wine.

With a controlled smirk on her face, BiLang entered her father's study, gliding in as a young woman of her status should. "Yes, Fuqin?"

"I hate it when you're right. I could be more gracious about if you'd only been my know-it-all first born son and not my beautiful, smart daughter. That man will never marry you. Now pour the wine so we can figure out how to keep that wretched beast out of our lives."

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

On a warm and sunny late summer day, two months after BiLang had returned home from the Academy, the courtyard once again exploded with activity. Two horsemen and a few porters had arrived, looking for the masters of the house.

The servants' bustling chatter put both BiLang and AiLiu on notice. They knew what this meant; the truth would be revealed, whether they were ready or not.

"Father, it's Ming EnDian and his companion, Wu ZhaoXuan. You must handle the greeting. Unfortunately you must be prepared for anything as we cannot know how the revelation of gender will go over."

"Yes, yes, I'm going. I wish I knew what your heart told you as you've been right about that grasping Xie ZhaoMao."

"There's no time, Father. They'll leave if they do not think any of the family is here. Go, please!"

Two tall and lean young men, dismounted from their horses, paced as they waited in the courtyard. The taller of the two walked forward to meet Shi KangHan, bowing in greeting.

Shi KangHan returned the bow. "I'm Shi KangHan. Am I right in thinking you are Ming EnDian?"

"Yes, Master Shi. I'm Ming EnDian. This is my companion, Wu ZhaoXuan. We've both arrived from the Academy of Ten Thousand Pines where we studied with your son, Shi BinLi. We're here at his invitation to visit for a while."

"Yes, come in and make yourselves comfortable, refresh yourselves after your journey, have some tea or a cup of wine or two. We've much to discuss. Please come this way."

Shi KangHan led the young men into the family compound, pointing to rooms made available for their visit. He asked them to find him in his study once they had shaken off the road dust; he'd join them in a cup of wine at that time.

The two young men took scant time to unpack and straighten themselves out before arriving in Shi KangHan's study. Shi KangHan gestured for them to take a seat, and then rang a bell for service. The men made small talk about the journey while they waited; both EnDian and ZhaoXuan looked a bit puzzled as their fellow students Shi BinLi and Shen AoLun had not been mentioned once since they entered the compound.

Two women swept into the room, bearing trays with tea and wine. They placed the tray on a nearby table and began serving the wine. To the surprise of the young men, each woman took a cup of wine for themselves and then sat down next to Shi KangHan.

EnDian looked intently at the beautiful woman before him. She was so familiar, yet not. She possessed a face shaped like BinLi's, but her eyebrows were smooth and arched in a shapely fashion. Her familiar lips were stained a deep pink, her small, pale hands cupping her wine were tidily groomed and without a student's ink stains. Her soft, smooth cheeks bore a light blush like that on a peach. Revealed by the cut of her feminine gown, her neck was graceful and swan-like, rising above a small but defined bosom.

It was her eyes, though, that gripped him. He couldn't look away from those probing familiar brown eyes seeking a response from him.

With the suddenness of a clap of lightning, he realized there was no BinLi.

There was only BiLang, this so-called twin. He knew her before she even opened her mouth to speak.


"Yes, EnDian?"

"I, uh-"

EnDian couldn't utter a sound; he froze, staring at BiLang. This was not merely his best friend before him. It was no wonder she'd used the word sibling in her vow to him. She was no brother.

This was his beloved, whom he'd long cared for and missed deeply this last two months. How had he never noticed? How had he been so blind?

"EnDian, I'm sorry to break this to you. I didn't want to lie to you, but we felt it was best given my desire to study at the Academy that I didn't do so as a woman. My name is BiLang. I hope you'll forgive the charade. I wouldn't have been able to study without concealing my true identity."

His heart hammered away in his chest, as if it wanted to leap across the room into her small hands. Tongue-tied, he could only bring the wine cup to his lips, hoping that the alcohol might lubricate his speech facilities.

ZhaoXuan was no less shocked, but took the situation in stride, laughing at how easily they had been duped and for so long. He chuckled at EnDian's inability to speak, in turn causing Shi KangHan to chuckle as well.

"Sir, perhaps EnDian needs a bit of fresh air after suffering this shock. Perhaps BiLang could show him to the gardens of the courtyard? AoLun-uh, could help me chaperone them since we are quite used to doing so."

"My name is AiLiu. I'll answer to AoLun, but I'd rather you called me AiLiu." The smile on AiLiu's face shone like the sun; she was giddy with happiness at being able to see ZhaoXuan and be her true self with him.

The four young people stood and left the study, AiLiu leading the way to the garden, with a speechless EnDian at the rear.

The shock had nearly worn off when EnDian found himself in a sheltered corner of the courtyard, in much the same position he'd been in a courtyard at the Academy when he'd made a declaration of his feelings toward his closest friend. BiLang stood in front of him, a look of supplication on her face as she waited for him to say something, anything.

"BiLang. I'm so sorry, I owe you an apology-" he stuttered.

Her countenance fell; she couldn't look at him any longer, afraid she'd begin to cry in the face of his rejection.

"I don't know how I missed the obvious for so very long. I should've been far more aware. I can only say that you were right on the day you left the Academy when you said young men could be so preoccupied and selfish. You fulfilled my needs for companionship so well that I selfishly paid no deeper attention to you, preoccupied only with my own desires rather than seeing your true nature."

Hope rose in BiLang's chest as he continued. She risked a peek at his face, seeing his burning gaze once again focused upon her.

"I meant what I said, BiLang. I may have been drunk, but the truth both preceded and survived that night. I told you if there was something closer than friends, closer than brothers, I'd want to be that to you. I still do, because in reality, I'm in love with you. Somewhere deep inside of me the truth made itself known long ago, that I was meant to be yours and I hope you are meant to be mine."

Tears welled in BiLang's eyes. This was far more than she could've hoped for, that her very best friend and her emotional lover would confess his own love and want her for herself. She smiled, unable to say anything.

"If you'd have me, I'd be happy to be your husband. Say yes, BiLang, and I'll ask your father's permission."

At this BiLang shook, then collapsed, beginning to heave with wracking sobs. EnDian could not calm her, nor could AiLiu; EnDian picked her up and carried her into the family's compound, following AiLiu toward BiLang's private rooms.

He laid her on her bed, still trying to console and calm her.

"EnDian, perhaps you should talk with Shi KangHan while I see if I can get BiLang calmed down? This has been building for a long while. It may be a bit before she has gathered herself enough to talk." AiLiu gently shooed EnDian out of the room before returning to BiLang's side.

EnDian found Shi KangHan in his study, right where the young people had left him before heading into the courtyard's gardens.

"EnDian, is everything okay? You look distraught."

"Yes, I'm afraid I may have handled my shock badly, and my proposal worse. I asked her to forgive my blindness for not seeing her for what she is, and then asked her to marry me. Unfortunately she collapsed and is now crying her eyes out in her room."

"Damn. This isn't about you, EnDian, or at least it's not about you alone. BiLang came home at my request because I'd agreed to an engagement to a neighboring property owner's son, Xie ZhaoMao."

"What? Pardon me, sir, but that's dreadful news. I'm going to be candid with you, although you may think I'm biased in this situation. Xie ZhaoMao is a piece of work, an absolute monster of a drunk who likely has diseases from all his whoring. He was expelled from the Academy over a year ago because of his inattention to studies and his lack of propriety. I realize I have a vested interest in this situation, but I can't recommend you allow this engagement to continue as it puts your family's name and honor at risk.

"Ask ZhaoXuan if you like more confirmation about Xie ZhaoMao's habits. We both stayed well clear of him, as did both BiLang and AiLiu."

The tiny doubts Shi KangHan had about Xie were now completely gone. Here was all the validation he needed that Xie was the last person to whom BiLang should be betrothed. It only remained for the Shi family to execute their plan for breaking the engagement.

"Thank you for your feedback. I take it you intended to ask me something, EnDian, under different circumstances. What was it you were going to ask?"

"If BiLang were not engaged, I'd ask for your permission to marry her. We have been great friends these three years now, and I can only believe our marriage would be a strong and lasting one given our deep respect and friendship. I can offer a respectable family name with a good estate in the next district." Reaching into a pocket, EnDian pulled out a scroll with details about EnDian's family and their assets and offered it to Shi KangHan.

Shi KangHan scanned the scroll, then rolled it and returned it to EnDian, then offered his hand.

"I grant my permission for BiLang to marry you, EnDian, if and when she is not encumbered by another engagement."

Shi KangHan smirked at the young man's reaction; while shaking his hand and thanking him, EnDian appeared both elated and terrified at the same time. Shi KangHan could only hope that everything worked out in the end for BiLang and EnDian.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

Shi KangHan summoned BiLang to his study, once she had recovered herself. AiLiu had done her best to ease the tell-tale puffiness around her eyes; all the while BiLang berated herself for withering like a flower in the heat.

AiLiu smiled at BiLang's self-deprecation. "You've been yourself together for years now, bearing up under the pressure of discovery and the need to produce good scores at the Academy. You've found yourself engaged to a monster. And out of the blue your beloved declares his love and asks for your hand. Surely you are entitled to a few tears and strong emotion after all that."

Finishing the last touches to BiLang's hair, AiLiu nudged her toward her father's study.

BiLang found her father alone, reading in his study. "You called for me, Bàba?"

"I want you to know that I've granted EnDian permission to marry you, if you are amenable to his proposal if you are unencumbered by an engagement. Have faith in the powers that be, BiLang, and in your own abilities. This will all work out in the end."

"I hope so, Father. I'd accept EnDian were it not for this noose of an engagement."

Yet again BiLang felt hope; the men she loved most were united in opinion on marriage. She took her leave and went to find her beau.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

Weeks passed, with EnDian and ZhaoXuan staying on with the Shi family, paying court to their respective beloveds. ZhaoXuan had asked for AiLiu's hand, braving Shi KangHan's study to ask him for permission as her closest male relative. They agreed to wait until the engagement between BiLang and Xie ZhaoMao had been fully resolved.

The household continued the charade of Xue RongNing's health as well, Shi KangHan's cousin-physician coming and going each week from the compound.

A courier arrived one day, delivering a Xie family missive for Shi KangHan. Not only was Xie ZhaoMao planning to visit and renew his demand for a wedding date, but his parents were coming as well to make their own demands.

The Shi family and their guests prepared for the impending visit with as much grace as they could muster, and a few sly winks for good measure.

At midday of the visit, Shi KangHan met the Xie family in the courtyard, greeting them as customary. Before Shi KangHan could even finish his welcome, Xie ZhaoMao interrupted.

"Where's your wife, Shi KangHan? And where's my bride? We have business to attend to immediately if I'm to escort my parents back to their property yet tonight."

"I'm right here, Xie ZhaoMao. We welcome you and your parents." Xue RongNing smiled smugly, her hands clasped tightly inside the sleeves of robe to keep their nervous energy under control. "We have much to discuss. Please come in."

Shi KangHan led the way into the great room after the Xie family dismounted and disembarked their min jiao. In the great room, BiLang, AiLiu, EnDian, ZhaoXuan and several other guests awaited the visitors. Servants first brought in bowls of water and warm towels for washing, then trays of tea and wine along with sweet meats.

Once everyone had been refreshed and sated, Xie ZhaoMao couldn't contain himself.

"Let's get down to business. We've had enough delays with Xue RongNing's illness, from which she now appears conveniently to be recovered. How soon and on what date can we conduct the wedding?"

Shi KangHan fought back a grin. "I'm sure your family would agree that the purpose of this marriage is to build positive credentials for the Xie family. It is with this in mind that I'd like to interview the matchmaker about their recommendation."

A nervous older woman came forward, bowing to the Shi and Xie families, a look of recognition passing between Xie ZhaoMao' mother Bai MaoRong and the woman.

"This is the matchmaker who called on us and recommended the match between Xie ZhaoMao and BiLang,yes?" Shi KangHan looked at Bai MaoRong, who nodded nervously.

"Matchmaker, did the Xie family pay you to approach us with this suggestion?"

"Yes, Master Shi, Bai MaoRong wanted to ensure her son would tie up the neighboring property through marriage."

"There were no other evaluations made about the suitability of these two candidates?"

"No, I was told to assure the intended bride's mother that these two would fit perfectly."

"Ah. Well, perhaps it'd be of benefit to the two families to assure success of the marriage by asking for additional opinions. Ladies?"

At this point, two unnamed older women who'd waited in the periphery of the room came forward. Shi KangHan waved them into the center, between the families.

"We have two additional matchmakers here, recommended to us by other neighboring families. Ladies, please provide your analysis of the two candidates.

The older of the two laid out two scrolls, one for each of the intended marriage candidates. "The information you see here represents the horoscope for each candidate. Based on the information we have gathered, from a former nurse and physician who attended to Xie ZhaoMao, and a nurse and physician who attended to BiLang, these two candidates are poorly suited for each other. Most notably, Xie ZhaoMao was born in the year of the tiger preceding BiLang's birth year. BiLang was born in the year of the snake. These two signs alone, not including the poor star alignments and the bad flying number charts, would prevent me from ever recommending marriage for these two candidates." The other matchmaker nodded her wizened head in agreement.

"There is also the matter of the adjoining properties owned by the two families. The position of the two properties is quite bad, even if they share a boundary. The Xie property is leaking bad energy into the Shi property even now, suggesting a loss of political and financial assets for both houses if these two families are united. Measures should be taken to ensure the leakage is halted, to the benefit of both families-up to and including the termination of the engagement."

"Were you paid by anyone for this consultation?" Xie ZhaoMao' father spoke up finally, having been mute from the moment he entered the courtyard.

"No. I only take a fee when the marriage has been finalized and a child conceived. My results are very good. I have not lost a fee yet due to a bad recommendation. I'm afraid in this case that I'd risk collecting a fee." The other matchmaker nodded again, a few white hairs bobbing happily as she did so.

"Thank you, esteemed ladies. Please help yourselves to some refreshments." Servants escorted the elderly women out of the great room into a nearby sitting room where fresh hot tea and buns awaited.

Once the women were out of earshot, Xie ZhaoMao burst out again, unable to contain himself. "Look, this is superstitious nonsense. It may be tradition to rely on matchmakers, and they may all have different opinions. What about the simple fact that both your daughter and I are of marriageable age, and our families' adjoining properties once merged will result in greater recognition and political power?" His mother looked on eagerly with apparent validation.

"Yes, let's put aside the matchmakers' perspectives. What of the marriage and properties on face value?" Xie ZhaoMao' father looked a bit skeptical at this point; it wasn't clear whether he was put out by Xie ZhaoMao's pressure or by the opinion of the matchmakers.

"We have one more consult on this matter. Sir, would you come forward and offer your report?" Shi KangHan gestured to an older gentleman waiting at the edge of the room. "Please do me the honor of introducing yourself to our guests."

"I'm Master Li, head instructor and administrator at the Academy of Ten Thousand Pines." He bowed first to the Shi family and then to the Xie family.

Xie ZhaoMao blanched, his eyes bugged as he recognized the gentleman; he turned his back rudely on the gentleman.

"I have been asked to give my opinion of the marriage candidates as they have both been students at the Academy-"

"No! How is this relevant to our suitability as partners?" Xie ZhaoMao burst out again. "This is just another stalling tactic!"

"Hear him out, Xie ZhaoMao. I'd like to hear the honorable master's opinion as an Academy student," said a youth seated on the Shi side of the great room. Shi KangHan couldn't help but curl his lip in a smirk before waving to Master Li to continue.

"During his tenure at the Academy, young Master Shi demonstrated a high level of proficiency and dedication to his studies-"

"Master Shi? What does that have to do with anything?" Xie ZhaoMao snapped, glaring at the youth who'd piped up.

"Let me clarify that Master Shi is also known as the maiden Shi. Shi BiLang attended the Academy for nearly three years, returning home only weeks ago at my request. Unbeknownst to BiLang, I had enrolled her at the Academy under the guise of a male student-with Master Li's consent. It was understood by me and Master Li that if BiLang believed no one knew she was female, she'd try harder to maintain the appearance of her male alter ego. No other instructor knew of the disguise she wore so no one could claim favoritism or treat her differently." Shi KangHan broke into a broad, smug grin.

"As I was saying, Master Shi, as Shi BiLang was known by instructors, achieved admirably. Student Shi received high marks in all their classes and was generally well-respected by instructors, administrators, staff and students alike. Student Shi's behavior reflected well on the Academy and on their family-no matter the student's gender." The youth smiled as broadly as Shi KangHan, who smiled back with pride.

"Wait, this is the bride? Dressed like a boy?" Bai MaoRong gasped, clutching her hand over her mouth as if she'd be sick. A look of disgust passed over her face.

"No! This can't be! I never saw this person at the Academy! This is a sham!" bellowed Xie ZhaoMao.

His father remained mute again, this time casting puzzled looks from Master Li to BiLang and to Xie ZhaoMao. He arched an eyebrow at Xie ZhaoMao.

"Sit down and be silent, Xie ZhaoMao. I'd like to hear more from Master Li. Please continue, sir." Xie JingHao nodded to the master.

"Yes. With regard to Xie ZhaoMao, I can't make the same statements about performance. His attendance was irregular, and according to a number of instructors he often arrived still suffering from the effects of too much wine and often disrupted lectures. Local inn keepers filed complaints with the school on several occasions about Xie ZhaoMao, saying that he had been thrown out of their facilities for drunkenness, obnoxious behavior with prostitutes, fighting over betting and prostitutes, and failure to pay his bar tab. What marks he earned were mediocre at best, incomplete at worst. After nearly two years of this behavior, Xie ZhaoMao was asked to exit the Academy, with his studies incomplete."

As Master Li spoke, the energy on the Xie side of the room changed. Xie JingHao's face grew redder, as Xie ZhaoMao's face grew pale again.

Shi KangHan spoke up before Master Li could add anything further. "I think we've heard enough, Master Li. We are grateful you came and spoke with our families. I would like it understood that no one, whether family, resident guest, or staff, will repeat what they have heard here today. Not one word will leave this room. Is that understood?" Shi KangHan looked around at the persons on his family's side. Each nodded in assent.

"Look," Xie ZhaoMao choked out, continuing in a raspy voice." I don't think it was as bad as all that. I was not a favorite student. I didn't ingratiate myself to instructors-"

"Xie ZhaoMao, I was a student at the Academy as well. I should look familiar to you as I was in some of the same lectures with you. But you don't appear to remember me. I'm Ming EnDian, a friend of the Shi family. Master Li can confirm my standing as a student." Master Li nodded at EnDian.

Xie ZhaoMao blanched again. He was backed into a corner now that there was a student besides BiLang who could attest to his behavior.

Xie ZhaoMao' father spoke up, loudly and firmly. "I've heard quite enough. I'm sure Master Ming could tell us more about your brief tenure at the Academy, but I already know what I need to know. You did not represent your departure from the Academy as a forced expulsion, Xie ZhaoMao. You indicated you left of your own choice. We'll talk further of this at home."

Xie JingHao stood at this point, ready to take his leave. He bowed toward Shi KangHan. "Neighbor, I understand that there are complications with these candidates that make them unsuitable. A girl dressed as a boy, a boy whose behavior is questionable...well, we do not want to speak of these things outside of this room. The lack of a beneficial horoscope is enough to give pause."

Shi KangHan bowed in return. "Yes, the horoscope is not at all conducive to an engagement. Let us agree to say that the promise to evaluate an engagement was conducted today, and that no valid engagement has been established. We've made no formal announcements, so no engagement exists and neither family has lost face over this situation."

The two fathers bowed toward each other, then shook hands. Xie JingHao waved his son and wife toward the courtyard, where stablehands were preparing the mounts and min jiao for departure.

"I thank you for your patience and understanding, Shi KangHan," Xie JingHao extended his hand to Shi KangHan one more time before mounting his horse.

"I thank you as well, Xie. Perhaps you can come and visit when you have more time and we can discuss methods to improve the qi energy [10] between properties over some wine." Shi KangHan bowed and then waved as the Xie entourage departed.

Once the visitors were out of sight and over the horizon, Shi KangHan turned and smiled, then clapped his hands loudly. "Bring wine! We have two engagements to celebrate!"

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

The matchmakers laughed into their cups over the horoscope scrolls they rolled out over the table before them. It was ridiculously plain that these two Snake people, whose stars aligned so neatly, should be married. Shi KangHan laughed as he doled out coins to the first matchmaker for her trouble in coming to explain her recommendation for the Xie family. Shi KangHan was ready to dole out the customary fee to the other two matchmakers, but they wouldn't hear of it.

"Oh no, you'll pay me when your daughter has conceived and the child quickens. But I should explain that I get a bonus commission if she gives birth to twins!" The old ladies cackled gleefully.

Shi KangHan laughed dismissively, but they cackled even louder, pointing to points on the horoscope charts before them.

BiLang and her beau left her parents with the matchmakers and Master Li, who'd matched Shi KangHan cup for cup while celebrating the union of two of his best students. They walked out to the courtyard gardens, hand in hand until they reached the darkest, most secluded part of the garden.

"I'm so glad you and your father were able to work this out with the matchmakers. I feared I'd found you, only to lose you, qin ai de."

"And I'm so glad that you thought to send for Master Li. If only we'd known that he was related to your mother, we Shi might have thought of this sooner. It was the perfect leverage to keep the Xie family quiet. Thank you, qin ai de."[8]

EnDian leaned in toward his beloved, wrapping an arm about her waist, pulling her closer. "Let me seal our engagement with a kiss, qin ai de. I've been waiting for this for far too long."

BiLang placed her arms about his neck, plaiting her fingers in his hair to pull him closer to her. Their lips met, brushing softly at first. They pulled each other even more closely as their kiss deepened.

EnDian pulled away for a second, taking a breath while BiLang sighed.

"I'm looking forward to our wedding day, when you make another vow to me, BiLang." He smiled, his eyes burning into hers.

"I can't wait to pledge our marriage vows, too."

"More than words, qin ai de. I can't wait until you can repeat your oath of loyalty as my closest friend, just as you did before."

BiLang held her breath, her heart stuttering as she gazed intently at her beloved.

"But this time, qin ai de, I'll swear the same oath to you and give you both pleasure and ease, swearing to be your most loyal friend and husband, to be there for you whenever you need me, whatever you need of me. Forever."

They pulled at each other, falling into a deep kiss, so deep they did not hear their companions, wrapped in an embrace of their own, chuckling at them from the other side of the courtyard.

~ o ~ o ~ o ~

Shi KangHan had to pay out the matchmakers' fee in a year's time, and a bonus nine months later. He thought it was another educated investment.

The matchmakers giggled into their wine cups as they celebrated an unbeaten record and a bonus predicted by the stars.

~ o ~ The End ~ o ~

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