River of Stars

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay Read Free Book Online

Book: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay Read Free Book Online
Authors: Guy Gavriel Kay
failed, but they’d been clever with it, and there was an interval when his friends had feared for him. This had been in the years when the faction ugliness at court had begun to claim lives.
    His accusers had presented a song at the trial, purporting to be something he’d written to her. It was even a good song. You needed to respect your foes at this court. But the real cleverness had been that they’d chosen to attack him this way, given his well-known love of women.
    All his life. His too-long life.
    That sweet, shy cousin had died years ago, a wife and mother. His own wives had died, both of them. He’d liked the second one better. Two concubines were gone, and mourned. He hadn’t taken another. Two sons were dead. Three emperors he’d known. Too many friends (too many enemies) to name or number.
    And still the girl approaching beside the long, eager figure of Lin Kuo caused him to set down his green cup and rise (despite his knees) to greet the two of them on his feet. It was a
good
thing, he told himself. You could be dead while alive, lose all taste for life, and he didn’t want to do that.
    He had strong opinions on where Hang Dejin and his followers were leading the emperor with their New Policies, and he was vain enough to believe his views might matter, even now. He loathed the long, foolish war against the Kislik, for one thing.
    Lin Kuo bowed three times, stopping and advancing, which was flattering but excessive from another
jinshi
scholar and an invited guest. His daughter stayed a proper two steps behind and performed a proper two bows. Then, after hesitating, she offered a third.
    Xi Wengao stroked his narrow beard and kept a smile from his face: she was matching her father’s manners, out of respect, to be in step with him, but clearly she had been inclined to stop after the proper level of salutation.
    Not a word spoken, already an interesting girl. Not formally beautiful, he noted, but an alert, curious face. He saw her glance at his celadon teacup and the lacquered tray, take in details of the gazebo. He’d had the upper panels painted by San Tsai in the style of Chang Shao of the Seventh Dynasty.
    Tsai was also dead. Last year. Another friend gone.
    â€œCouncillor, it is a very great honour to see you again,” said Lin Kuo. He had a light, pleasant voice. Wengao wasn’t an imperial councillor any more, but he didn’t mind being called one.
    â€œThe honour is surely mine,” he said formally, “that you grace a sad exile’s home with your esteemed presence. And bringing …?”
    â€œMy daughter, councillor. Her name is Shan. I have long wished to show her the Peony Festival, and have presumed to bring her with me to meet your excellence.”
    â€œNo presumption at all. You are welcome, child.” He smiled this time.
    She didn’t smile back; a watchful face. “It is a privilege for me, sir, to be in the presence of the man instrumental in elevating the status of written songs in our time. I have read your essay on the
ci
form, with profit and illumination.”
    Xi Wengao blinked.
This is a good thing
, he told himself again. Something to be cherished. That life could still surprise you.
    Even from a man, the words would have been assured, a supremely confident thing to say as a first remark. This was, of course, a girl. A young woman, obviously unmarried, a peony in her hair, another in her hand, and she stood in his garden, specifying that among all he’d done …
    He sat down, motioned Lin Kuo to a chair. The tall man sat with another bow. The daughter remained standing, moving a little behind him. Wengao looked at her. “I will confess that essay is not what I normally expect to be saluted for.”
    Lin Kuo laughed, indulgently. “She writes
ci
herself, councillor. I suspect she has wanted to say this to you for some time.”
    The daughter flushed. Parents could create awkwardness for their

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