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A Thousand Things

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Zhou Yu feels fortunate that his early education included many lessons in decorum. Not because the lessons had been about decorum, he’d much preferred the study of music and poetry, but they had been valuable because there had been so many of them, and because they had been so mind-numbing. And because they had been so mind-numbing. That particular combination had taught him how to maintain a politely interested expression through anything. Even when he knows that his day will be wasted in what is bound to be a pointless social visit. This isn’t the first time that Zhou Yu’s father has insisted that he meet a marriageable young lady, and Zhou Yu doesn’t expect this little trip to be any less a waste of time than all the others.

All the more so because the young lady in question is, everyone says, incomparably beautiful. Unless, most of them quickly amend, one considers her sister. But while young men may argue for hours over drinks about whether the younger is the most beautiful woman in the nation, or if it is the elder, no one submits another contestant for the title.

While Zhou Yu has never met either of the Qiao sisters, he has no reason to doubt the wisdom of drunk young men. At least not when it comes to the subject of beautiful women. But whether Xiao Qiao is the most beautiful woman in the world, or simply the second most beautiful woman in the world, Zhou Yu has met enough beautiful women to be even more convinced that the day will be a waste of his time.

Not because a marriage might not be arranged. His father is right that a man approaching his twenty-fifth year should have a wife, especially a man with his family and his accomplishments. His father is also right that the Qiao and Zhou families would be well matched. So Zhou Yu grudgingly allows that finding a wife is a task worth spending time and energy.

No, this particular trip will be a waste of time because Zhou Yu has learned the unfortunate lesson that beautiful women tend to be fully aware of their beauty. And that awareness leads to vanity and a sort of shallowness of soul, as if being beautiful is the highest calling a woman could aspire to, and to do anything interesting or to have any character would be a waste of time and a distraction from that beauty.

Of course, Zhou Yu has no objection to marrying such a woman. He’s always known that he’ll marry someone his father deems a suitable and advantageous match. Zhou Yu’s real frustration is that he doesn’t need to be here. He’s never been good at sitting still. Which is a trait that’s stood him in good stead in battle, but tends to make these sorts of polite visits all the more trying. While he understands the logic: he should meet any potential bride, and more importantly any potential bride’s father should meet him, Zhou Yu really wishes he could spend his day doing something productive and let his father handle all these formalities. Especially if the woman in question is beautiful.

Fortunately, Zhou Yu’s father knows his son quite well, and while he does insist that both of them attend these first meetings, he always tries to insure that Zhou Yu doesn’t end up spending all his time impatiently wishing the whole affair were done with. This time he’s managed it by arranging a visit to the Qiao stables, which are reputed to be some of the best in the region.

And they are. In fact, the stables are even more impressive than Zhou Yu had anticipated. They’re massive, of course, but what really impresses him is the variety of mounts it contains. Slim, sleek horses intended for elegant ladies; long-limbed sprinters built for speed on the hunt; even a few docile older mounts of various sizes clearly intended for riders without much experience or confidence. Looking over the animals serves to calm some of Zhou Yu’s nervous energy.

But inevitably his eyes are drawn to a stall about halfway down which contains a massive warhorse.

Staring at it, he feels a sort of kinship with the stallion. The stable almost seems cramped and tiny around the animal, and Zhou Yu imagines he can feel the same sense of impatience and restriction. His foot doesn’t tap in impatience, but that’s more because he’s well aware of the habit, and focuses on reigning it in, than because there is no compulsion to do so. That horse is meant to run, just as a young warrior is meant to fight, not spend time in trapped inside even as magnificent a stable as this. Zhou Yu can feel his own tension returning, the aggravation with a day wasted combining with an itch in his legs that would rather be riding, and he can see that same tension echoed in the stallion’s body. The need to be out in the open air, muscles straining, wind whipping past, accomplishing something. Anything. Just not trapped inside with endless hours of etiquette and protocol.

There is no conscious decision made. One moment Zhou Yu is standing near the entrance to the stables staring at the stallion, and the next he is stalking toward its stall. The stallion, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, looks up, his own eyes locking on the young man moving purposely toward him. Zhou Yu feels a sense of companionship, and he doesn’t think it’s his imagination that his own nervous energy feeds into the great animal, and that it is returned, building between the two of them until it seems inevitable that Zhou Yu will mount the animal and, protocol forgotten, the two of them will ride the winds.

Zhou Yu doesn’t know what he intends to do. Truthfully, his actions are driven more by instinct than by true intention. Maybe he will saddle the great beast and embarrass his father terribly by stealing off for an afternoon ride on another family’s horse. Maybe he just wants to reach out and touch that long, muscular neck, to share a moment or two with what he senses to be a kindred spirit.

He’s so focused on the stallion that Zhou Yu completely misses the approach of a young woman. In fact, he would have missed her entirely except that she slips gracefully by him and enters the stall with the stallion. Zhou Yu is about to call out to her, to warn her that it’s dangerous and that the horse needs to run, but before he can she lays a pale, slender-fingered hand against the great beast’s flank. Almost immediately some of the tension seems to disappear from the horse’s stance, and Zhou Yu finds himself blinking in surprise as the tension seems to flow out of the massive animal. The horse bows its head slightly and the young woman leans forward to whisper something into its ear. Her voice is low enough that Zhou Yu can barely even hear a murmur, but the horse relaxes completely at whatever it is she says.

As he stares at the way those slender fingers slide across the horse’s flank, Zhou Yu is surprised to find himself calming slightly as well. As if that loop of energy he had felt before has been reversed and both he and the horse slowly calm one another. While Zhou Yu has known many men, and a few other horses, with whom he gets caught up with in excitement, he’s never experienced this odd sense of calm.

His attention shifts from the horse to the woman. She is tall and slender, and simply dressed. It is hard to see more than that as her attention is focused on the horse: continuing to murmur softly. Her hair, Zhou Yu can’t help but notice, is thick and dark, but tied back and up simply, a style intended more for utility than beauty. Zhou Yu smiles slightly as he considers that utility has a beauty all its own, and then he starts as he realizes that all the tension that he’s been building up seems to have vanished.

Zhou Yu stands there, staring at the woman’s fingers since that’s all he can realy see of her. He’s trying to puzzle out what it is about the young woman who is responsible for the odd sense of relaxation he’s experiencing when hisfather comes to remind him of his responsibility. Now that Zhou Yu has had a chance to do something involving neither etiquette nor protocol, it is time for both etiquette and protocol.

Zhou Yu nods and turns to follow his father, firmly putting the woman and the horse from his mind. He begins to steel himself for the coming hours almost as he would steel himself for battle. He has a duty, after all, and however much he might resent it, it will be done.

As they walk from the stables toward the main house, Zhou Yu’s father gives his son a preview of the remainder of their day. Most of it is familiar to Zhou Yu. There are only so many ways you can negotiate a potential marriage, after all. Formal greetings, tea, compliments, and then the two fathers will speak while their children sit in silence.

Zhou Yu manages a slight smile for the enthusiasm his father has in discussing the schedule. Especially the tea: Lady Xiao Qiao is famous for her tea ceremony, even at such a young age, and Zhou Yu’s father has always been a man who appreciates excellence.

The formal greetings and introductions go as such things always do. Everyone is polite, and names and titles and accomplishments are shared in that careful tone that does not boast but that makes sure that you know you are dealing with people of import. Then it is time for tea. Zhou Yu glances up at his father, suppressing an amused smile. The old man had been quite enthusiastic any time the subject had come up during the journey to the Qiao estates.

Like any man of his station, Zhou Yu has seen countless performances of tea ceremony, and usually he pays little attention. Even with his father’s enthusiasm for today’s particular perfromance, Zhou Yu only watches with half his attention. Some objective part of him notes that Xiao Qiao is very, very good. Her movements are fluid, evoking a sense of calm even before the light scent of the steeping leaves fills the room, and her mastery of water and leaf are obvious as Zhou Yu inhales and finds himself calmed a bit further.

His father is served first, of course, and Zhou Yu can tell by the set of the older man’s shoulders as he sips that the flavor is as good as the aroma. Zhou Yu finds his attention drifting as his father slowly finishes his cup of tea. He’s thinking about the horse, and the woman with her oddly calming presence when a movement in front of him breaks Zhou Yu’s reverie, and he realizes that the cup is being presented to him. He manages not to blink, covering for his distraction with a polite smile as he turns to take the cup.

And then he does blink. The eyes of the young woman presenting the cup to him are not those of a beautiful woman. They are beautiful, of course, and Zhou Yu knows that anyone who spoke of the beauty of the Qiao sisters had clearly failed to communicate it fully, but her eyes contain none of the haughtiness that he is used to seeing in beautiful women who know their beauty. And she must know that she is beautiful. Even if no one ever told her so, it is obvious.

He blinks again, trying to process this, and at his hesitation the young lady’s eyes shift slightly. They smile. And not just politely: it is an amused smile. Somehow, however, Zhou Yu senses that the smile is not so much at his expense as a thing meant to be shared. A sort of amusement at how awkward all these formalities can be even when they are necessary.

Zhou Yu feels himself smiling back. Not much: this is still a formality, after all, and one mustn’t relax too much during such things, but he sees in those deep eyes that she sees that smile. He is suddenly grateful that his father forced him to come along today. For he suddenly feels sure that the remainder of the afternoon will have no trouble holding his interest and attention.

With a deep breath Zhou Yu recovers himself and reaches forward. The ceremony, after all, should be completed. His eyes reluctantly shift from hers so that he can take the cup properly, which is when he freezes again.

Her hair is pulled up and back, held in place by an elaborate array of combs. Her clothes are fine, but understated in style. She seems somehow familiar, but he can’t seem to place-- her hands are delicate and pale with long, slender fingers.