“Xinyan, may I demonstrate?”
“Oh, yes, please.” Dr. Cheng nodded, not hiding her relief, and pulled her chair a little closer to Shen Wei. “Wait, wait, let me get another comb.” She got up to search for her bag.
Shen Wei took advantage of the movement to admire her. He had been too preoccupied earlier to take in the full splendor of her long jade-green gown and golden slippers. Her hair, normally confined to a simple ponytail, flowed over her shoulders in gentle waves that he yearned to touch.
“You are a vision, my friend,” he said. “The loveliest creature in the city today.”
She straightened, blushed, and favored him with a smile wider than he had ever seen from her. “Thank you.” She pulled a small plastic comb triumphantly from the depths of her purse and sat down beside him again. “I think there will be a good deal of competition for that role today.”
“You will win.”
She chuckled. “Oh, I don’t think so, but you are kind to say so.” She looked up at him with a small secret smile, and Shen Wei found himself flustered and blushing.
She took pity on him. “What else do we need?”
Shen Wei had already placed a small bowl of water, a clean cloth, and a mirror on the dressing table beside them. “We have everything.”
He pulled a tiny flannel pouch from his pants pocket and emptied a dozen or so filigree gold beads onto the tabletop. They varied in shape and design, the custom work of a master craftsman. “I usually favor silver, but gold…”
“Is for weddings,” Xinyan said. “They’re gorgeous.”
Shen Wei took the comb she had provided and used it to draw out a long strand of hair from near her crown. “Normally, I’d start braiding from the top, of course, but it’s easier seen close up than in a mirror.” His nimble fingers separated the strand into three pieces and he braided the ends as she watched closely. When he had a few inches completed, he dipped his cloth into the water bowl and wet the braid before demonstrating how to affix a bead. “The trick is to thread the bead securely into one of the three strands and then braid tightly behind it.”
“You’re very skilled.”
“Long practice with braiding, though I had no beads myself.” While he appreciated the convenience of shorter hair, Shen Wei rather missed the grooming rituals that had once been part of his daily life. Few of his men had dared to converse with their enigmatic leader, but none declined to help with an errant braid. There had been months when that was the only nonviolent touch he enjoyed. And then of course Kunlun had smashed through all his barriers and made such mutual care an affectionate postlude to lovemaking.
“Why no beads for you?” the doctor asked.
“Ah. Not practical for everyday soldiers, and I had no payment for beads such as these.”
“But Zhao Yunlan did?”
He smiled. “Well, Fu You and Ma Gui did. I learned how to work beads on Kunlun’s hair. It is easier with two pairs of hands.”
Xinyan shook her head. “It amazes me still that you knew these founders. That you were one of them. And yet here you are sitting in a dressing room with me.”
“Ah. You would have liked them. Ma Gui was an amazing healer, even by today’s standards.” Shen Wei swallowed a lump in his throat. How he wished he had family members to bring to today’s ceremony. But there were none.
He paused and fingered the gold cufflinks Zhao Xinci had given him as a wedding gift. He reminded himself that he would soon have a father-in-law, and one who would undoubtedly prove challenging.
He undid Xinyan’s short braid and then reworked the strands from the top. “Here, hold this bit while I thread in the bead.” She obeyed, watching in the mirror as he deftly inserted a bead and pushed it upward. He leaned back to assess his work. “Yes, that’s the right place, I think. Would you honor me by wearing this?”
“Oh, no, Shen Wei, these are for you. The guest never competes with the bridegroom.”
“I would like. If you like?”
She smiled at herself in the mirror. “Shen Wei. I love it. But you shouldn’t--”
He resumed braiding and added another bead. “Two is luckier.”
“The guest must indulge the bridegroom, yes? Please. I will wear eight beads for the best luck of all, and that is ample.” He tied off the braid, ignoring her protests, and then picked up his own comb. Using the mirror, he carefully selected one of the longer strands of his own hair.
“Now you try.”
She soon got the hang of the small tight braid, and with Shen Wei’s help they threaded a beautiful selection of gold beads into three braids of varying length.
“Well done,” he said. “I knew you would be skilled.”
She took his hand, an intimacy she likely wouldn’t have risked a few months earlier. Shen Wei was warmer, happier, less skittish now than her old college classmate had been. “I know there will be time for toasts and congratulations later, but I don’t shine at speeches. I just want to say....I hope you know...we’ve all felt so much gratitude toward you and Zhao Yunlan. But not today. Today is pure joy, joy for both of you.”
“Ah.” Shen Wei’s eyes were blurry. “Xinyan. Don’t make me cry already.” He pulled her to a stand and folded her into a gentle hug; she was careful not to leave any makeup behind on his pristine white shirt.
“OK,” she said, sniffling a bit herself. “Now let me see the rest of you.”
He laughed. “You will be the first after my tailor.”
He unzipped the garment bag that hung on the clothes rack and pulled out a black vest made of some thick fabric with a muted sheen and a tracing of gold embroidery around the neck and down the edge to the waist. It wasn’t one of his professorial vests but a wrap that rose high to his neck, nearly hiding his white shirt. It closed in a tight V in the manner of a traditional robe. Over that he quickly fixed not a cummerbund but a black satin obi, knotting the fabric easily in front as if it were something he did every day.
“Oh!” Xinyan gasped. “I love it.”
Then Shen Wei shrugged on a black wool jacket, companion to his black wool trousers. The jacket wasn’t quite Western in style but looked modern and elegantly simple.
Xinyan sat down and examined him from his gold-flecked hair to his gleaming black shoes. She seemed stunned into silence.
Shen Wei bit his lip and touched a hand to the necklace hidden beneath his shirt. It was Zhao Yunlan’s wedding gift, a black leather cord--they had both developed an aversion to chains--that threaded through a large white jade stone from the Kunlun mountain range. The spherical bead had been carved to resemble a three-dimensional yin-yang symbol. The weight of it at Shen Wei’s throat was grounding, a comfort whenever they were parted.
Xinyan still hadn’t spoken. Shen Wei looked at her apprehensively. “It’s...it’s not….” He puffed out a breath. “I thought different would be.…”
“It is exactly right,” she said when she regained her voice. “Exactly. It is Shen Wei, the professor, the warrior, the Black Cloak. It couldn’t be more perfect.”
He smiled, embarrassed and pleased. He had been genuinely worried about the experiment he and his tailor had concocted. Not that it really mattered; it was, after all, Zhao Yunlan’s reaction that counted.
“Thank you. I was...nervous about it.”
“It’s spectacular. There’s no other wor--”
There was a soft knock at the door. The doctor went to answer it. “Shen Wei, Li Qian and Chu Shuzhi are here to walk you to the altar.” She waved them in.
The two friends stepped into the room and halted.
“Oh, my, Shen Jiaoshou!” Li Qian gasped. “You look incredible. Incredible!”
Chu Shuzhi just shook his head, grinned at him, and bowed slightly. Then he shocked Shen Wei into laughter with an enthusiastic “Wow!”
Xinyan Cheng patted Shen Wei’s arm. “I’ll go first,” she said. “I pity the people who will have to follow after you today.”
Shen Wei pressed her hand in his. “Today I don’t walk alone. Thank you for your help, Xinyan. I needed it.”
The doctor slipped away. The room was quiet. Li Qian still gaped at Shen Wei.
“Are you sure you want to be wedded to that jerk, Hei Pao Shi?” Chu Shuzhi asked. “You’re far too good for him.”
“Certain, Chu-ge. I know you will look out for me.” Shen Wei took Li Qian’s arm on one side and Chu Shuzhi’s on the other.
“We all will,” Li Qian said softly. “Your life is precious to us.”
The first tear of the day rolled down Shen Wei’s cheek. This was the family he was wedding, together with Zhao Yunlan. He should not forget that.
“The wheel is turning, my dear friends. Let’s step out into the light together.”
And they did.