Part 1: https://westernkingdoms.gorestrepeat.com/pipa-of-time/
Part 3: https://westernkingdoms.gorestrepeat.com/pipa-of-time-3/
So Xi Jiang enrolled in Tianshang Yinfu. The first thing to do was get a bath.
“I won’t have my students smelling like the streets.”
The old man admonished him. His name was Jin Zhang Wei, and he was the headmaster of the whole school. After he was clean, Xi Jiang changed into the school uniform, a dark blue tunic, violet pants, and a violet shirt underneath the tunic with wide sleeves. Finally, he was given a new, much fancier Pipa, with ornate depictions of dragons and Xian (AKA Immortals).
“The one you used before is all wrong–it’s not tuned, the frame is tattered, and the wood produces the most dissonant sound I’ve ever seen. Here: all students use this one.”
Then it was the evening, and time for dinner.
“Follow the signs down to the cafeteria.”
And with that, Zhang Wei pushed him out of his office. With nothing else to do, Xi Jiang headed down the hallways. The school had many twisting, densely packed corridors, making Xi Jiang feel like he was wandering a dungeon. A few times, he bumped into other students, but they were few compared to the minutes on end with nothing in sight but the calligraphy and paintings adorning the walls. There must be a lot of empty space here. There probably aren’t that many geniuses, which is why the student body is so small. Maybe the building used to be for something bigger, like a palace or something, he thought. As he got closer to the cafeteria, he began to hear the sounds of talking and laughing. Finally, he brushed past the beaded curtain into the cafeteria. There were many students thronging about–students eating, students talking, students watching others’ musical performances. For a few minutes, he looked around, lost.
He turned to see a seated figure. He was wearing the uniform, but also wore a mask with a waning gibbous design. An erhu and a guzheng was strapped to his back.
“Come take a seat here!”
Xi Jiang made his way over cautiously. He thought to himself, Is this guy trying to scam me? He sat down and ladled some congee for himself.
“My name’s Xi Jiang. What’s yours?”
“Chuang Yi. I play mostly every instrument I can see.”
“Seriously? You can play anything?”
Chuang Yi shrugged. Xi Jiang was floored. He hadn’t thought of that–sure, he was a genius, but so was everyone else. His talents would change nothing. Compared to him, this guy was on another level. Xi Jiang was fairly sure now that Chuang Yi wasn’t trying to scam him. But maybe I could pull something off of this sucker. He decided to go with a classic.
“Why don’t we play a game?”
Then another kid came over to them.
“Can I play too?”
Xi Jiang rubbed his hands together. He thought, This is even better. Now, I can cheat two people at once. Xi Jiang drew out three shells. Then he placed a little jade figurine inside one.
“Okay. I’m gonna switch the placement of these shells around. If you get the one with the figurine, I’ll give you a prize of, say, 20 yen. If you get it wrong, you’ll give me 20 yen. Got it?”
Xi Jiang hid a snigger. They were both so stupid. He was gonna make a lot of dough today. Even if they chose the right one, he’d slip the figurine into a different one. Years of playing the pipa had trained his sleight of hand. It would be so fast. No one would see a thing. Or so he thought. He swapped the shells this way and that, this way and that.
“Okay. Finished. What’s your choice? Tell you what, I’ll let you both pick. If one of you gets it right, I’ll give you both 20 yen.”
Both boys stared the shells. Then they each pointed to different ones. Chuang Yi got it–the odds were that one of them would. But it made no difference. Xi Jiang lifted Chuang Yi’s shell, using his pinkie to slip the figurine under–Bam! Chuang Yi grabbed his wrist! XI Jiang gasped. The figurine slipped out of his hand and onto the table, in full view of everyone.
“No cheaters on my watch. Or rather, on my hearing. I didn’t see you hide the figurine, but I heard you slide it against the table. It makes a special kind of sound.”
He picked up the figurine and took 20 Yen from Xi Jiang.
How dare that kid catch me!
“Give that back right now!”
“I found the figurine. Don’t I get 20 Yen?”
He took the money and tossed the figurine back to Xi Jiang.
Not only had he been publicly embarrassed, but he’d lost a good 20 Yen in the process.
The other kid stared at Chuang Yi in wonder.
“My name is Jin Si Li. Oh wait–are you the–“
“Don’t say out loud.”
Chuang Y grew quieter.
“I learned it only right now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Shh, it’s a secret.”
Si Li glared at him.
Then, he suddenly began raving about Erhu brands and different kinds of wood.
“Tell me, Chuang Yi, what do you think of the Sun Jiao line of Erhu? Or how about when you use cherry blossom wood? Or how about–“
Xi Jiang sighed and turned away. He had no chance of making any money as long as that big-eared freak was around. All of a sudden, there was a great gong. Everyone looked up. Standing in the centre of the room was Headmaster Zhang Wei. Wait–
“Wasn’t your family name Jin?”
He asked Si Li.
“Yeah. The same as the headmaster, right? I’m actually his great-nephew. It’s common for the talent to run through bloodlines.”
He shrugged. So that’s why he’s so weird. He grew up with these crazies.
“Welcome all new and returning students. To those who don’t know, I am Jin Zhang Wei, headmaster of Tianshang Yinfu. I am–“
Just then, an unfamiliar girl burst into the room. Everyone gave a start. The headmaster spun around, glaring.
“He hates being interrupted–my second older brother told me that.”
Si Li whispered.
"Sorry everyone. I forgot when was dinner time."
She joined their table. The headmaster was about to admonish her, but he saw that the students' attentions were drifting off. He continued with his speech, but Xi Jiang looked at the girl more closely. There was something strange about her. Was it her unnaturally narrow eyes? Or–
“My name’s Hu Lan!”
She grinned at both of them.
“Shh! I'm trying to hear what he's saying!” Si Li glared at her.
She looked so hurt that Xi Jiang felt sorry for her, and it was rare that he felt that emotion for others. Then the headmaster spoke up.
“And please welcome our Yaoshi Quan!”
All the students gasped.
Hu Lan asked Si Li.
“You don’t know? Once every thousand years, Han Xiangzi blesses one person to be a virtuoso without parallel, able to pick up anything and make beautiful music with it. That person is the Yaoshi Quan! And–“
Chuang Yi stood up. He looked down at all the students. Many of them were much older than him, yet they looked at him as if he was the emperor. Then he opened his mouth to speak.
He bowed to the headmaster and the teachers.
“Thank you for having me. I am happy to be here and cultivate my virtuosity, so I can further bless the world with my strings.”
Everyone clapped and cheered.
“I spoke with the Yaoshi Quan! I SPOKE WITH THE YAOSHI QUAN! I can’t wait to tell my older brothers and sisters about this!” Si Li was ecstatic.
“That was a great speech.”
Hu Lan smiled at Chuang Yi as he took his seat again.
“I don’t see what’s all the fuss with you.”
Xi Jiang was still smarting from that last insult with the shell game.
Was Chuang Yi's only response. Then he turned to talk with Hu Lan.
Right the next day, school began. There was no interlude. No “introduce yourself” or “placement test” of any kind. Immediately, Xi Jiang was thrown deep into academia, a world far from the streets and everything he had ever known. Teachers were discussing “jianpu” and “gongche notation” and “sonic anaphone”, things which he knew nothing of, but which everyone else seemed to understand like the palm of their hand. He sat at the dinner table feeling like he’d already flunked the whole course. Si Li and Chuang Yi animatedly discussing the musical styles of Guangzhou vs Fujian only made the feeling worse. Hu Lan joined them.
"Wow, our classes are so fun!"
“I feel the same way.”
Xi Jiang responded glumly.
“I know! This is so amazing!”
Don’t you know sarcasm when you hear it? Maybe he could make a few cents off this girl. But it would be like taking candy from a toddler, and his heart just wasn’t in it. Then Hu Lan picked up her chopsticks, and he saw it.
“W-why do you only have 8 fingers?”
Where her index and middle finger of her right hand should have been, there were only stubs.
“Oh, I lost them in an accident.”
She paid them litle heed.
“Well–still–how can you even play your Erhu?”
“The Erhu uses a bow; you don’t strum it like the Pipa. Besides, I’m used to it.”
Xi Jiang could only watch as she used a chopstick with 3 fingers. It’s official. Everyone here except for me is a superhero.
“Hey, why isn’t your Pipa coloured?”
Si Li asked Xi Jiang.
“Huh? What’s that?”
“You don’t know? You’re allowed to colour-code each chord pattern. They even give you a special ink, so it can stick to the strings.”
Wait. That would make everything so much easier.
“Are you sure you’re allowed?”
“Yeah, my first older sister told me. It’s basically a requirement for first-years, since the Pipa is so hard to master.”
Xi Jiang let his mouth hang open for ten full seconds. Then he grabbed his Pipa and rushed back to the classroom, leaving his beef noodles uneaten.
“Can I finish that for you?”
Hu Lan called after him.
“Wha–I’m still eating it! No!”
“How about just the meat?”
Xi Jiang turned down the halls and arrived at the classroom. Okay, I have to keep Si Li around. He may be pretty lame, but he at least knows his stuff. He walked into the dark room and found the special ink. He dipped a brush and painted his Pipa's strings quickly, in case Hu Lan got any ideas. Seriously, what kind of person is comfortable with finishing someone else’s meal? Maybe she's one of those mad geniuses. I've heard of those before. Before he brought it into the light to admire it, he noticed another Pipa on the desk. It had special Qilin designs and looked a lot more attractive than his original one. This one must be someone else’s. I’m sure that sucker won’t mind if I trade up. He placed his own in the spot where the other Pipa and painted the stranger’s one instead. It was extra work, sure, but Xi Jiang was more than willing to do that if the reward was worth it. It was much more beautiful. The new colours fit perfectly with the Qilin designs. Then he arrived back at the cafeteria.
Hu Lan grinned at him. “I didn’t eat any.”
“Guess what? You took mine!” Si Li interjected.
He pointed to the Pipa on the desk. Sure enough, “Xi Jiang” was emblazoned on it.
“In your rush, you grabbed mine, while leaving your own behind. Haste makes waste, that’s what my fifth older cousin always says.”
“Oh, come on.”
Xi Jiang begrudgingly gave the one he was holding to Si Li. That special one looks so nice…then again, if the person ever tries to get his Pipa back, Si Li will take the blame for it. Maybe it’s not so bad after all. He then brought the one that was actually his back to the room. He had to paint again.