(一鳴驚人/一鸣惊人: to surprise people with a single cry; to have a stunning success)
Every day, before the sun was even up, she would wake up to help prepare him for court – cleaning his silken headdress, the fine carved jade arch which would hang on his sash. Sometimes he would stalk off to do his work, but today he sat here himself, a scroll unopened in his lap, watching her wipe and rub.
‘You wipe that every day, dear wife. You’re going to wear it down. Those things are expensive, you know.’ These days the morning was one of the few times when he retained his humour.
‘You can’t grind jade down, dear. Besides it has to be clean.’
‘What’s the point? No one is looking at it anyway.’ But he gets to his feet, nonetheless, so she can stoop and tie the arch to his sash carefully. She smiled, getting to her feet.
‘You are the Commander of the Right, dear husband. It’s not about whether anyone’s looking. The King must be served, and you must do it properly. Isn’t it?’
It has been three years since the King was enthroned, and almost every day for the last three years her husband had gone to court sober and returned, slumped in his carriage, laughing loudly enough to be heard from the streets. She would have to go out to fetch him back, dragging his feet along the ground and over the threshold, before resting him on the long bench in their room where he would finally fall silent.
‘I’m home, dear,’ he said, today as for the last three years. She knelt and stroked his hair.
‘The same thing today?’
‘I almost got really drunk today,’ he sighed. ‘It’s only because the King thinks I can’t hold my drink, that he doesn’t force too much on me. Of course, that means I am taken for a weakling.’
‘You know you’re not.’
‘It can’t go on like this.’ He sat up and looked at her. ‘It can’t go on like this. The King has just decided he likes lanterns, so the whole court was lit with lanterns in broad daylight. We spent the whole of today trying to guess a riddle that his new favourite made up. Several people made guesses that the King thought were stupid, so he had them caned in front of the rest of us. That included the Commander of the Left – the Commander! Getting the staff like some misbehaving attendant!’
‘I wonder if that doesn’t say more about the commander than about the King, dear. Is he not… angry? I recall you saying he was a proud man.’
‘I know what you mean. Of course he was furious. But what was he supposed to do? You remember what happened to the chamberlain when he pleaded for the King to start reading petitions.’ She did, of course; it was only a few months ago, and she knew some of his relatives. They were probably still in prison, which was already a mercy considering the original judgement – eliminating the chamberlain’s entire house.
She considered that, slowly stroking her husband’s hand. It had become smooth to the touch, the calluses mere sesames at the roots of his fingers. In the past, when he was often out on drills and inspecting troops, they were hard and rough. She did not like them that way, to be honest – scratching against her arm, almost painful when gripping her shoulders. But he took them as a point of pride. I am not just an official, he would say, and show off where the skin had been rubbed raw – from reins, batons, chariot rails. I am a commander.
He was watching her again. Once that look was of unalloyed pride – I am a commander, and she is my wife – but these days there was frustration there instead. Something formed in her mind. ‘Did you say riddles? So the King enjoys riddles these days?’
‘Well, from yesterday onwards, since he got the new concubine.’ He sat back, played with her hands as well. ‘I expect it’ll last a month. Or until the next concubine comes along.’ She turned her caress into a sudden grip that lifted his eyebrows, and then she pulled him to his feet. ‘What? Are you thinking something up again, you?’
‘It’s going to work, dear. We’re going to need a new lantern. A proper one, for giving to the King!’
He got up to see her asleep and sitting on the floor, leaning against the bench with the newly made lantern, round and yellow, in her hands. He tried to ease it from her grip, but she woke up anyway. ‘I’m late, I’ve overslept!’
‘Don’t.’ He kept her seated, looked at the lantern. It was indeed beautifully made. ‘Don’t worry about the jade arch today. This thing is going to be more important.’
She muttered something incoherent, and then groaned as he lifted her and laid her on the bed. ’Be careful…’
A shaft of sunlight opened in the doorway, his shadow passed, and then it closed again.
‘We see the Commander of the Right’s finally bothered to bring us a lantern!’ The King laughed, squeezed his concubine’s shoulders. ‘Now, really, you shouldn’t have. It’s not like you drink so much of our liquor anyway, is it?’
The whole hall roared with laughter, and even he chuckled. ‘Your Majesty, I have brought the lantern here because I was considering a little riddle…’
‘Ooh, a riddle! Excellent! Ah, you love riddles too, don’t you?’ He squeezed the girl again, kissed her forehead. ‘Right then, out with it, we’ll solve it in a trice.’
‘Sire, do you remember that time when you went hunting in the vale, south of the city?’
‘Whichever time it was, commander, we remember it!’
‘That’s excellent, sire; you must know every animal in the vale, then. I had occasion to visit a friend living in the vale, and he told me about…’ his hands gripped his sleeves to stop trembling. ‘About a bird, sir.’
‘Oh, get on with it. So I’m guessing a bird.’
‘A strange bird, sire. My friend says it has been sitting on a tree for three straight years. He says its wings are wide, but it does not fly; its beak is strong, and its neck long, but it is absolutely mute.’ He had practiced this the previous night, over and over, but now it simply tumbled, half incoherent, out of his mouth. Looking up, he almost hoped the King might not have heard him clearly, only to see the man – bronze cup stopped halfway to his mouth – looking directly at him. He took a deep breath and finished. ‘Might Your Majesty know what sort of bird this is?’
Then the King nodded. ‘I do, commander.’
‘Pray… pray tell the court, sire?’
‘This bird has no name, commander!’ the cup landed on the royal table loudly enough to make his food trays clatter. ‘This bird has no name. But I know something about this bird, commander. It is merely biding its time atop that tree. Were your friend to wait a little longer, he would see it fly and hear its cry. And its flight will pierce the heavens; and its cry, commander, will quake the earth and shock its people.’
‘The Commander of the Right is here!’
She jumped from the loom and rushed out into the courtyard just as he stepped over the threshold.