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Another original short--also for a Gaia writing contest, but a good standalone, IMNSHO.

Been having more weird dreams lately.

China Dolls

The note had come written on the crisp periwinkle-blue paper her mother preferred. When she pressed it to her nose, Sung Li could still smell the faint scent of ambergris and sandalwood that clung to it. Exotic scents, scents of home, luxuries that a Peacekeeper's salary couldn't afford her. At least, she thought ruefully as she unfolded the note, not at her rank.

She thought of the lacquered nails that had put these creases into the fine blue paper even as she smoothed the page out on her desk. Her mother's hands had been her earliest memory--the hands of a lady of the Ts'ao Imperium, unworn by anything except the ladylike art of calligraphy, delicate nails unsuited to manual labor.

Li's own hands had been robbed of that peach-blossom softness and fine dexterity by years of weapons-work. She couldn't even dream of crafting the perfect ebony letters that spilled across the surface of the paper.

"The honored lady Sung Jia cordially requests the presence of her daughter Sung Li at a ball to honor the betrothal of her cousin, Ts'ao Yin...," Li read sotto voce, tracing the characters with her fingers. It went on in that vein for a while, but she saw little except her cousin's name.

Li and Yin had never been close. House Sung was a distaff line to the true royal blood of Ts'ao, but even the least cousins of the Shining Empress were expected to send their children to the Celestial Palace on Xiangtu for a month in the summer. Li remembered Yin as a distant porcelain-doll figure, doted on hand and foot by the older girls while Li herself hid in the corners and read.

Her fingers brushed the surface of the note again, as if looking for some indication of treachery. Despite the differences, it appeared that Yin had still remembered her, enough to offer an invitation through Li's mother to the event... An honor, Li knew, to be so invited.

She laid the note aside for a moment, rising from her cushion to seek the tiny personal dispensary in the corner of the room. It was more than an honor--it was an opportunity. The Ts'ao Imperium was known across the stars for its beauty and wisdom, from the furthest backwaters of the spiral arms to the Galactic capitol Hohenheim. An invitation to one of its rare public events--like the balls to celebrate the engagement of its heirs to heirs of other stellar nations--was a chance to see and be seen by a veritable who's who of galactic celebrities.

Old habit guided Li's fingers as she dialed in white tea. There were also ample opportunities at such an event to find a spouse of one's own and make a valuable alliance for one's house. Parading around in brocaded silks with her feet bound like an Asiatic Cinderella had never appealed to Li, but she had to admit--as she claimed her steaming mug of tea and breathed deeply of the fragrance--that a week at home, her mother and aunts fawning over her before putting her on display for all to see, would be a delight. She was a third daughter, had never been made much of as a child, but if Mother wanted her back to attend this, surely Li could expect to be pampered even for a little while.

Returning to the desk, she folded her legs beneath her and settled on the cushion, taking a shallow sip of her tea and savoring the acrid taste. It wouldn't be too bad, she reassured herself. She could leave this pretense of being a "civil officer", the endless charade of paperwork and ceremonial duty while the real crimes took place out of their reach. Find a husband from another House, marry decently and quietly as his first wife, and spend her time in passive observance of her Confucian duty to raise her children as obedient, orderly members of society.

It felt very hollow, but it's what she had been raised to aspire to. Li chided herself for vanity, setting the mug aside and picking the note up once more. Her fingernails had been chewed to rags, she noted with a wince; that was a habit she'd need to kick before returning home for the ball. Her mother would scold. She began to skim the note again, looking for a date and a time--and a location. The Summer Palace was Li's favorite by far, but it was hardly suitable for a young princess's debut, or engagement, as the case might be.

A line of text caught her attention above the scarlet of her mother's signature. You would do us all a great honor, it read, if you would come in your capacity as a Peacekeeper, to see that the event is a safe and pacific one.

Li's mouth went dry in a way the tea wouldn't help. She set the note down on the table as carefully as she could, rereading that one traitor line over as she did. A Peacekeeper, in the gray and blue uniform. Her own family wanted her to serve as a glorified bodyguard, not as a painted marriageable catch to secure House Sung's position.

She felt with numb fingers for the mug of tea, picking it up and taking a deep draught of the pale brew. It burned going down, and did nothing to ease the way her throat tightened. Nor the relief that knotted in the pit of her stomach, sick cowardly emotion that it was. No primping. No foot-binding. No...notice, of her aristocratic cheekbones and clear eyes and good breeding above the collar pips of a Peacekeeper lieutenant.

"Well," she murmured ruefully into her tea. "At least I won't have to stop chewing my nails."

She had the good sense to set the mug down and retire to her pillow before the tears came. Good calligraphy was a woman's art, after all. It would be a shame to ruin Mother's note with water stains.




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February 2012

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