The Poet and the Pauper

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~SHAN JIANG~

Shan Jiang's room was dark, but he could see the ceiling swinging around because it was so low above his head. Jiang sighed and closed his eyes, but the dizzying motion did not stop. His grass-mat acted like a cradle, rocking him side to side, making him wish he'd throw up already, but he never did. In the thirty-four years of his life, many were spent trying to be drunk as often as possible, and hangover - as rarely as possible, but his stomach always triumphed.

Jiang whimpered and groped for a dish with a slice of ginger that he left near his pillow. Once he stuffed the burning remedy into his mouth, he tried to think of things less miserable than his aching head and inflamed tongue.

His midnight visitor wore white, and that was stupid. White had to be the worst possible color for a noble outlaw's garb. It made the wearer an easy target for oppressors' minions in the moonlight. The deeds of valor would quickly spoil the look.

Jiang groaned. The man must have been something to stick in his poor head like that. Something, but... what? Big? Important? Interesting? Nope, he could not remember, and he did not care that much. He was a drunken delusion, that's all. Normally, Jiang saw veiled maidens or demons, often together. But last night it was this outlaw in his impractical attire, he must just be getting old.

Wincing, Jiang rolled over to his belly and crawled on all fours around the darkened room in search of the water jug. Luckily, he did not have far to go, a few steps this way and that, the moderately important people had bigger tombs than his room. Ouch! The writing desk, thank you so much, the bump on the head was really just what he needed right now....

Something rolled off the top of the writing desk. Jiang lifted his head. It could not be... Silver coins... Honorarium?! There is good left in the world after all! He was not growing senile and he did not dream up the noble outlaw in white. The midnight visitor was real, and he paid Shan Jiang the Storyteller for a song. A prayer of thanks is in order! Ring the gongs!

Ouch! Excited by his discovery, Jiang finally, finally took a bite on the blessed slice of ginger he rolled around his mouth. And it burned for all it was worth, the blessed thing. All this suffering, and it would come nowhere near curing his monster of a hangover. It would take the entire Temple of the Serene Joy to handle---

Oh, how Jiang wished he did not think of the faery chorus singing the life-asserting healing hymns! He'd take an ax to the forehead first. Or this flavorful bastard, the ginger root. Sure, it fell short of curing Jiang, but the burning taste did revive him enough.

Or just enough to unroll the scroll weighed down by those welcome silver coins. Ancestors, he did pen down a song last night! Ouch again. He should have known better. Oh, no, no, no! He couldn't face it just now. Jiang massaged his temples. Maybe fresh air would help with his headache.

Jiang picked the least stained of his two tunics and brushed off its front. The left shoe gave him more troubles by going into hiding. He'd finally spotted its toe gamely poking from behind his desk. Tsk, tsk...

He put on the shoe and was ready to face the world. Except someone pounded urgently on his doors. Always the distractions. The world conspired against his genius.

The loud visitors were his landlords, of course. Their timing was uncanny enough to make Jiang suspect that his comings and goings provided the old couple with more entertainment than his art. He tried not to take it as a verdict on his poetry and counted out silver in the oldman's calloused hand with no regrets. If Celestials had wanted him to be greedy, they would have made him a landlord.

Once Jiang squeezed himself from his alleyway onto the busy street, he had to close his eyes for a bit again.

His room was cavernous and he liked it that way. Who needs to be woken up by bright light? It was past midday, but still too early to make a round of his favorite patrons in search of work. He still had a few coins left. A barber, perhaps? He started walking down the street, knocking pebbles out of the way with the toe of his mischievous shoe.

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