Notes: After Wesley beat me to kickstarting his short story collection, I had to restore my honour. And after a week of straight-on writing, the first story in Within the Four Seas, a collection of short stories with an Asian theme, was released. As per Wesley's In Saltcross, I'll put up a few of the stories in the website, and then you can read the other ones by buying the full book once it's published through conventional means. And yes, I know the cover image is the furthest thing from a Pipa, it was the nicest-looking I could find ;)
This story mentions many Chinese instruments. To hear what they sound like, follow the links below.
Xi Jiang closed his eyes and began to strum. The audience was transfixed. The Pipa responded to his every touch, his every tap. Xi Jiang decided to start with a jaunty traveller’s tune. His fans grinned at the familiar melody and clapped along with the beat. Then Xi Jiang decided to give it a little twist. He slightly shifted his hand placement. Though no one noticed any difference, the song had changed, if only by a little. Mixing in a few glissandos to mask the melody’s change, he tweaked the song a little more, than a little more. The happy tune seamlessly shifted into a mournful, contemplative song. The audience gasped, then were silent, tears coming to their eyes as they remembered all the ones they’d loved and lost. Xi Jiang grinned. He had them exactly where he wanted them. Now for the finishing touch. He balanced the Pipa on his knee, then flipped it into the air. The audience oohed-and-ahhed, but he wasn't done yet. The strings flipped off the Pipa into his fingers. Waggling them around, he danced the strings on the airborne Pipa, transitioning back to the cheerful melody and bringing the song to a swift conclusion. Then, with a yo-yo-esque tug, the strings soared back into his hands, leaving the Pipa to spin once, twice, three times in the air, then land in front of the audience, its empty hole now functioning as a donation bag. The audience, ecstatic after the performance, poured in their Yen, making Xi Jiang ecstatic, too.
"Thank you, thank you!"
he called to them, as they headed back to their work in the fields, moods (and wallets) a little lighter. Xi Jiang scooped up the Pipa happily. He gleefully counted the coins.
"Ten, twenty, thirty–”
"I can see you're not half bad with that thing.”
Xi Jiang whirled around. The speaker was an older girl–almost a young woman–smiling sardonically at him. She was fairly skinny and decidedly nonmuscular. Xi Jiang was sure he could beat her in a fist-fight, but something felt off about her somehow. He hesitated, before deciding on a dispassionate reply.
"I'm glad you noticed. Want an encore?"
"Nah. You still have a long way to go before being even a little mediocre.”
Xi Jiang was no amateur in the fine art of trash-talking, but it was rare that someone used it on him. All the while, the girl's annoying grin just widened.
“M-maybe you didn't see my whole performance."
"On the contrary-I saw the whole thing. Your transition was barely adequate, and and your trick with the flying strings back there? That would be amazing–if you were blinded and had one hand tied behind your back. I’d expect a lot more from you.”
Now Xi Jiang could feel the heat rising to his cheeks.
“Well, why don’t you try it then?”
That was far from the best insult he had invented, but it’s hard to think when you’re mad. Taking the money out of the Pipa, he tossed the instrument to her. She caught it adeptly.
"Watch and learn."
Then she began to play. Xi Jiang almost laughed out loud. The tune was an easy lullaby; even the most tone-deaf mother could sing it adequately to her baby. But as the song developed, Xi Jiang found his eyelids drooping. He quickly blinked himself awake. What was happening? He hadn't fallen asleep to this tune since he began to walk! But his efforts fell in vain. His brain slipped away into unconsciousness. He fell over, asleep like a log.
Xi Jiang opened his eyes. He looked around frantically. He was lying on a simple mat in a traditional room. It was brightly lit with sunlight that shone through the windows. In a panic, he fumbled for his wallet. Had his kidnappers stolen it? Then he breathed a sigh of relief as his fingers closed around it. He was about to count the coins when he jumped in surprise. There were two other people in the room–the girl he had seen before and another, much older, man.
“W-who are you? What’s going on here? I have my rights! You–“
“Settle down and listen for once.” The girl was still smiling, but there was something much more serious in her eyes now. Xi Jiang quieted. Then the old man spoke up.
"tell me about yourself, young man.”
“Tell me about yourself. What’s happened in your life, what do you care about, so-and-so.”
“Uh………well, my name is Xi Jiang–“
“No family name?”
“R-right, I was left on the streets when I was a kid. And so…I survived?”
“How did you survive?”
“I ate. I drank. You can’t survive with food and wat–“
“That’s not what I mean.”
Xi Jiang could tell that man’s patience was wearing thin. To be a successful street musician, you needed to be able to read your audience. He backtracked a little.
“Well, I played the Pipa to get money.”
“Who taught you, and how much did they teach you?”
“Another urchin. He taught me the basics.”
"And you made the rest of it up.”
“Yeah, I just messed around with it until I got it.”
Xi Jiang shrugged.
“It’s not that hard.”
“Xi Jiang, the Pipa is one of the hardest Chinese instruments to learn. One most definitely cannot ‘mess around with it’ and become as good as you are. It would take decades of training for someone else to reach your level of skill. Do you know what that means?”
“Uh…it means that I’m really lucky? Because I can assure you, I’ve had my fair share of bad–“
“No. It means that you’re very talented.”
“Not just talented, but you’re a genius with the Pipa. You didn’t ‘mess around with it’, your hand knew instinctively knew where to go. Zhi Ruo–“
he gestured to the girl, who nodded acknowledgingly.
“–was just trying to get you angry with her insult. You are far, far better than mediocre. What takes even a talented musician weeks to learn, you master in hours.”
“Okay. Can I leave now? I have cash to make, and I’m not going to get it just sitting around here.”
“Perhaps it’s time I explained who we are. You are in Tianshang Yinfu, the premier music school in all of the four seas, and perhaps even beyond. But we are also secret. Virtually no one but the best musicians know of Tianshang Yinfu. That is because we like it that way. Remember when Zhi Ruo made you fall asleep with her lullaby? That was using only a fraction of her music’s power. You see, Music is a magical thing, able to bind and free, to destroy and create, to shape the elements and the mind, to reshape the world. Now you understand why our school is secret–because of the songs we teach. You may have heard of the Heiqi fiasco a few summers back. An Heiqi–that is, a cursed instrument that gives the bearer great talent at the cost of subsuming their will–was discovered to have possessed the head scholar. The Heiqi controlled the scholar to open the gates of Chang’an for its Mongol allies, and the country would have fallen if not for our talented battlesingers. But those problems are rare, because most run-of-the-mill musicians never come close to tapping into this power. That is because to use music like this, to unlock its full potential, one must combine prodigious talent–a talent which few, including you, have with equally prodigious training. The gods gave you this talent, Xi Jiang. With Tiangshang Yinfu’s help, you will combine that with hard training to truly become a virtuoso, able to wield music to its full poten–are you even listening to me?"
About 1/4 of the way during his exposition, Xi Jiang had lost interest and continued counting his coins. He looked up.
“Sorry, what did you say?” The man sighed.
“This is the problem with talent–it doesn’t care who possesses it, even if it’s someone like you. Not even the descendant of a musician with talent is guaranteed to have it, though it’s more likely. That’s why we have recruits like Zhi Ruo. They travel throughout the world, finding those with the gift and bringing them here to be trained, whether they want it or not. We just can’t let their gift go to waste–it’s rare enough already.”
“Okay, but where do I fit in all this?” The man closed his eyes, trying to muster any last shreds of patience, then spoke.
“You’re good with music, we here at Tianshang Yinfu will train you to do great things with it. There are no tuition fees, no buying separate textbooks. We will supply everything for you, and you won’t have to pay a cent.”
Zhi Ruo smirked.
“It's gonna be interesting teaching you.”
“You’re not making this any easier.”
The man glared at her. He was struggling to contain his emotions. Xi Jiang continued.
“No thanks. I don’t need to get all fancy, with diao and yinjie. I don’t need that to earn cash.”
“Does there have to be cash in everything?”
“...Fine. After the full 4 years of learning you receive here, you will be able to do this.”
He drew out a Guzheng and began to play a traditional love song. Xi Jiang watched, unimpressed. Then, all of a sudden, gold coins began to rain from the sky. Gaping, he stared as all the money he had made in his whole life poured down in front of the man, summoned by the music. Then the man stopped playing and pushed the huge pile aside. It was his turn to smirk at Xi Jiang’s openmouthed expression.
“Well, what do you think now?”
Xi Jiang had only one answer.
“W-where do I sign up?”