Master! Master! I saw a girl today! Tsang Yao Qi called out enthusiastically as he came bounding up the crumbling stone stairway. Ancient stones, once sturdy but after centuries of overgrowth had become treacherous, as clinging vines bore into the stone. Yet, despite the danger the young boy of twelve took to the steps two or three at a time, as nimble as any mountain goat or monkey. In one hand he carried a slender bamboo rod from which a silken thread and hook dangled.
Master Hsieh leaned heavily on his staff and watched the boy leap up the way. A smile crinkled is worn and wrinkled face, his eyes alight under his bushy white eyebrows. Oh did you know Yao Qi? he chuckled. Is that why we have no fish for dinner tonight?
Yao Qi came to a stop before his venerable master and frowned. Im sorry Master, he said, head hanging down in shame.
I assume you did not even practice your forms today? Hsieh asked sternly with a hard tap of his staff on the stone.
The young apprentice jumped at the sharp crack the gnarled wooden staff made. Yao Qi flushed and shook his head. No master, I didnt. Im sorry.
Master Hsieh grumbled and stroked his long white beard with his free hand. Prayer beads made of polished wood clattered together around his wrist as he moved his hand. Well? his old voice rumbled over boy like a tigers growl.
Yao Qi gulped. His skin darkened deeper with the embarrassment of shame. M-master?
The venerable old man decided he had enough fun at his apprentices expense and put hand on boys shoulder. Well, he continued. Was she pretty?
Yao Qi shot his head up and saw his master smiling down at him. He sighed in relief and smiled brightly. Master, she was beautiful. The most beautiful girl Ive ever seen!
Master Hsieh chuckled and remembered back to his own youth on the northern steppes and the girl he gave his heart to. The only girl he ever loved who died one harsh winter. The very next spring he joined a monastery to become a monk seeking solace for his shattered heart. He guided his apprentice into the ancient ruins that were their home but his eyes and his heart were far away, racing back along his memory. Even after all these years, he could remember every detail about her.
Well, you tell me all about her boy while we make dinner. His smile felt false but Yao Qi was too excited to notice.
There were actually four girls but Cha Yi was the most beautiful one. Graceful like a willow, hair as black as a ravens wing, eyes like the water of a crystal blue pool.
And what were these four girls doing by the river, hmm? the venerable master asked while spooning some rice into an old and battered pot.
Their barge ran aground. They went for a walk while the crew set to free it. They were sitting in my favorite fishing spot, you know the boulder that sits on the rivers edge next to the big tree? Well, they were sitting there chatting away like a pack of monkeys! Yao Qi chuckled as he rooted under a shelf, looking for a the pot of hot, pickled cabbage.
Barge you say? Master Hsieh was intrigued. What kind of barge.
A Lotus Barge they said, Yao Qi frowned a moment. What is a Lotus Barge, master? When I asked, all they did was giggle and hide their faces behind their fans.
Master Hsieh set down the pot and rubbed the bridge of his nose. They are apprentices too Yao Qi, Hsieh sighed, his prominent eyebrows drooping. His mind was working hard trying to figure out how to explain Yao Qi.
Theyre monks too? the boy asked wide eyed.
No, Yao Qi, courtesans. If they were your age, they were most likely apprentices to the Lotus Barge. Best you forget about her boy and concentrate on your forms. You will most likely never see her again.
Go outside and practice since you neglected your forms today. I want you to go through all Eight Movements of the Phoenix!
The Phoenix, master? the boy wailed.
Yes the Phoenix. All eight movements!
Yao Qi sighed, his shoulders sagging. Yes master, he muttered and went back outside.
Master Hsieh sighed. It was better he concentrated on his forms that worry about some courtesan.
to be continued...