“Of course, it is very important to be sober when you take an exam.”
--Terry Pratchett


Chapter Fifteen - Sieving

The young men who entered the governor’s main hall immediately thought they were in the country’s civil examination when they saw the rows of tables. Their chatter died. Many of them had a romanticized idea of an outing in the governor’s enclosed gardens: being in the company of the beautiful Cao Tianyun, enjoying the landscape of blossoming flowers, drinking wine and making words flow like water.


Instead, what greeted them was a very proper, very solemn atmosphere devoid of any cheer. To Huang Ming, it was as dour as a funeral.


The noise level picked up again when an entourage of women walked in, bringing a burst of colour to the hall. The maids of the household were escorting the lady of the hour, Cao Tianyun. She had a pale complexion, cherry-coloured lips with full rosy cheeks, her eyes were bright and clear, her raven hair glossy and adorned with a jewelled hairpin. She wore a lightly coloured, flowing silk dress; making her look all the more ethereal.


Huang Ming had been sceptical about the phrase ‘jade-skinned beauty’ that so often appeared in oriental novels, but one look at the Clouded Moon made him realize that there was some basis for their exaggeration. Some of the men stared at her in a daze. He peeked at Huang Lang’s face and saw that he had a gentle look, it seemed that even the Celestial Qilin was not unaffected by her.


“Cao Tianyun greets the honoured gentlemen of Tianxin city,” she said and curtsied.


The men bowed in return.


Cao Tianyun gestured at the tables. “Honoured guests, please pick a table. But don’t be seated yet,” she said.


The young men were puzzled but each duly picked their table.


Cao Tianyun proclaimed, “I, Cao Tianyun, daughter of Governor Cao Yuan of Tianxin, had previously sought your indulgence in signing the pledge earlier. Now I wish to demonstrate my sincerity. Before each of you are the implements of the study. None are special in any way. You are free to inspect the items provided; they hide no secrets. Furthermore, you are free to change your seats. Once you are satisfied, please be seated.”


The suitors looked at her in admiration and praised her foresight. This way, there could be no accusations of favouritism or collusion. Without much ado the men sorted themselves, no arguments were raised as each was eager to make a good impression. Huang Ming found himself scattered apart from his brother as well as his friends, and soon his final seating was flanked by unfamiliar faces.


Huang Ming stared at the papers a little forlornly, smiling bitterly as he remembered the struggle he had with the sanitary options available in the lavatories of this current setting. He had been in primitive and fantasy settings before, but he still missed the luxury of toilet paper that he had taken for granted back on Earth. Here, paper was still not cheap enough to wipe your butt with.


“Honoured guests, originally I had planned for a simple poetry recital, but this event has grown far too large and it would take far too long. I hope the young gentlemen would not find me presumptuous, but some form of selection needs to be done to thin the numbers,” Cao Tianyun said contritely.


Cao Shuang who was standing beside her resisted the temptation to snort. He was still irritated at how a simple ambush to capture the Huang brothers had become such a big event. Worse still, his beloved sister became personally involved in the matter.


One of the suitors stood up, bowed and said, “I beg the lady to give her instruction.”


Cao Tianyun nodded. “Today, we are all friends. As proof of this day, Cao Tianyun begs the honoured sirs to submit a piece of their work to mark the occasion. It can be of any subject matter. Our family will pick the best compositions for the poetry recital proper.”


Huang Ming rolled his eyes. Some of the suitors turned pale, others like his friend He Ding smiled broadly as they prided on their calligraphy. Huang Ming himself was indifferent; the original did have some proficiency in writing as well as in art. He could rely on his inherited skills.


‘How clever. She would collect the works of these young heirs, and turn them into treasures for the Caos,’ he thought cynically.


Cao Tianyun did not wait to hear further opinions; she lit half a stick of incense and stuck it on a bronze container.


“Our House of Cao looks forward to see the works of the honoured guests. Please begin!”


There was burst of activity as the young men began the tedious task of grinding the provided inksticks. Huang Ming was familiar with the process; even on Earth he had some rudimentary calligraphy lessons. It involved taking the inkstick which was essentially a frozen piece of ink, dip it on some water and then grind the ink out on the inkstone. There was some skill involved to ensure the flowing consistency of the resulting ink liquid.


Some of the suitors were frantic, grinding their inksticks as if trying to start a fire. Huang Ming did it leisurely, one hand propping his chin as he took advantage of the preparation time to think about his subject matter. While he had spent some time reading the books of this world to fill in the gaps of knowledge in his acquired memories, it was still too short of a time for him to acclimatize completely. It was like buying a car, everything works the way you expect it to, but you still require time to get used to it.


He considered submitting a facetious phrase like “To my best fan!” or a sappy “Let’s be friends”. He quickly dismissed his frivolous thought; his mother commanded him to capture Cao Tianyun’s heart, and the Caos might end up displaying what he wrote as a joke for all to see.


A sudden impulse of contempt seized his mind as he looked at the expressions of the young men as they tried to put their thoughts to paper. His mind drifted over his numerous lives...


...He had delved into the deepest of dungeons in a quest to destroy the heart of an evil dragon... She was a soldier of a space-faring empire, rising through the ranks with every battle... He had experienced an alternate Earth ravaged by the undead... It had taken control of a warband of monsters and led it on a bloody road of slaughter... She was an assassin, only to be forced to destroy the shadowy organization that had nurtured her... He had been a politician, rallying his countrymen to take a stand... It had travelled the stars as part of a force to bring order to the galaxy...


The soft sound of a falling writing brush hitting the floor shook him out of his reverie. Someone’s brush had rolled off the table. The man embarrassedly stooped to pick it up.


Huang Ming glanced around and saw others were finishing their work; some were already stamping their paper with their personal seal. He looked over at the incense stick; it was almost gone. He didn’t have much time left.


He remembered what his fellow Avatar had said at the Waiting Room just before he came to this world: "You Earthlings are all the same, always homesick."


It was true. He had seen many worlds and lived many lives, but he always felt that his native Earth was the most familiar source of references as it was his ‘normal’ life before being chosen as an Avatar.


He dipped his brush into the ink that he had made, and smirked as he wrote a short phrase on the paper.


‘One lifetime, one dream.’


He placed his brush down, satisfied with what he had wrote. He reached into his sleeves for his personal seal and stamped his mark on the paper.


At the front of the hall, Cao Shuang saw that the incense had finally burned out. He clapped his hands.


“Gentlemen, we will now collect your papers. Please take this time to rest while they are inspected by my sister,” he said loudly and motioned towards the servants. They came forward, some with wash basins and towels, others holding trays of finger food and cups of tea.


The servant girl who collected Huang Ming’s paper couldn’t help but frown when she saw the simple phrase. In her heart she was disdainful, nearly half an hour and all he came up with was something so simple?


Huang Ming ignored her and went to one of the servants with a wash basin. His brother and his friends came over as he cleansed his hands.


“I saw you finished just in time. How did you do?” Huang Lang asked.


Huang Ming shrugged. “I was actually daydreaming, so I wrote something short and simple.”


His friends stared at him.


His brother smiled. “No harm in that,” he commented.


“How so?” Zhang Ping asked. He had written a page full of his favourite classical phrases.


“There are so many of us; imagine reading page after page, each full of words,” Lei Yan said in realization.


Min Guang had a dismayed look.


On the other hand, He Ding smiled broadly. “That’s right. Presentation is important too,” he said as he held up his personal brush, still wet with ink.


Ma Jun looked at him sourly. Without warning, he pushed He Ding’s arm so that the brush drew a streak of ink across the owner’s face.


“Presentation is important too,” Ma Jun mocked.


Even as He Ding started to rage, the small group burst into laughter.


“Still, I doubt she’s going to read it all,” Huang Ming said.


***


Cao Tianyun was indeed reading them by herself, but not in a comprehensive manner. She only took a few seconds for each sheet of paper.


“Miss, can you really read that quickly?” her maid asked as sheets of paper were scanned and passed to her in rapid order. These were the rejects. Others, Cao Tianyun set aside; those were the ones that caught her eye.


“Nonsense, I’m no saint. I only need to read a few words for each paper,” Cao Tianyun said.


“A few words?” the maid was shocked.


“Those who rely on the classics are merely pedantic; those who resort to flattery are sycophants,” the Clouded Moon said cynically. She did not tell her maid that she had also glanced at the stamped seals that were the official signatures of each submission’s respective author. Some candidates she simply dismissed out of hand; people like Nangong Xie (‘too perverted’), Ma Jun (‘too fat’) or Min Guang (‘too young’).


“Then, what should I do with this pile?” the maid asked as the last sheets of paper were passed to her.


“Take care of them. Have them preserved in our strongroom,” Cao Tianyun replied.


“Miss? I don’t understand,” the maid said.


“Whether they are of quality or not is of no consequence. They are all written by the sons of famous families. This is a fruitful harvest for the future. If any of them rises to great importance in the future, their calligraphy will be worth something. This is called casting a bait to attract a big fish, to make something out of nothing,” Cao Tianyun explained with a smile.


“Miss is brilliant! I will have these stored at once!” the maid said in admiration and rushed out.


Once alone, Cao Tianyun’s smile disappeared.


“But in this instance, I’m the bait,” she said softly to herself. She shook her pretty head and looked at the remaining papers on her table. She took them and went to meet her mother and grandmother. They were part of her plan.

 

A sheaf of precious papers,
Within it lies her future.​