The Green family goes to the mountains

DSCN1634“You’re just in time, Ah Guang Ge. Grandmother was asking after you.”

“Where is she? I must pay my respects,” said Guang.

Jiayi shook her head. “Don’t worry, she wasn’t angry. Anyway she’s distracted now. Your siblings are exchanging poems. Come and watch them.”

He shuffled off his shoes and followed her through the house. The smell of the cedar walls and floors, mingled now with the tart fragrance of oranges filling the house, brought back to him powerfully the Spring Festivals of his childhood. The tables were laden with golden fruit representing prosperity: besides the ubiquitous New Year’s oranges, there were fresh persimmons and the last of the winter’s dried apricots, a speciality of the City Between The Hills.

Though it was the start of spring it was still cold up here in the mountains, and as usual everyone was crammed into the large interconnected space of the dining room and kitchen. Guang stepped into the midst of warmth and laughter and the smells of good food. Shouts of welcome greeted his entrance, but these were immediately followed by hisses for silence: Zhenzhu and Bing were duelling.

The snow recedes from the mountaintops,” said Bing.

The apricot trees blossom, white-petalled
Winter bows out, allowing spring’s entrance
What joy to take wine with our family!

The apricot trees blossom, white-petalled,” replied Zhenzhu.

Like froth on the waves of the sea
What joy to take wine with our family
But remember our friends below!

This was a courtesy to Guang — and a challenge. He bowed, and replied:

Like froth on the waves of the sea
Is the morning’s first thin ray of sunlight.
Since your brother has travelled since dawn
Won’t you feed him instead of reproach him?

This was a breach of the rules, but it drew a burst of laughter.

“Have you forgotten your form, Fourth Brother?” said Zhen, shaking her head.

She was the youngest of their generation, the golden seventh child — sixteen years old and her grandmother’s special pet. The Lü departed from traditional Han culture in valuing their daughters the most, and allocating to them most of the power within the family, for though all the Lü children were magical the talent evinced itself most strongly in the female line.

Zhen was not only a daughter — and Guang’s family counted fewer girls among them than they would have liked, with five sons to balance out their two daughters — but the seventh child of a seventh child, born of the direct line that could trace itself back to the first Lü scholar-magician, Mistress Lü. With so many natural advantages she was outrageously gifted, spoilt, clever, charming when she wished to be, ruthlessly ambitious, and almost totally bereft of a sense of humour.

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