Today's Reading

And while I'm at it, I'll try to paint the other lady back into existence too.

Whoever she is.

That's where the biggest mystery comes in. No matter how many times I've scoured the history books, I can't find any mention of a lady high enough in Empress Wu's favor to be included in her art collection. Except for Shangguan Wan'er, of course. But it's clear from my mother's description that the two portraits were done by the same artist with even the same backdrop, and it's hard to imagine anyone, even Wu's personal secretary, being important enough to merit the same treatment as the empress's royal daughter. Plus, Shangguan was supposed to be beautiful, and my mother has described the lady in red as slender, which doesn't fit the standards of Tang dynasty beauty.

'Who is she?' Second only to my desire to bring Taiping's image back into existence is my obsession to find out who the mystery lady is. 'Too bad no one wrote a poem about her.'

Reminded, I turn my attention to the third and last poem. It's the one that fascinates me the most because I believe that it was written by Princess Taiping. The whole poem is as inept in the lüshi form as the second one is, but Taiping's poem has a feeling of heavy sorrow and dark prophecy that the other poems lack. I can't figure out what this last poem has to do with the lady in the red dress, but I have an unshakable feeling that it's the key to that mystery.

Out loud, I read, "The sun has set below the border of mountains—"

"Lei." My twin sister is standing in the doorway to my bedroom and fidgeting. Jun never fidgets. She's never anything but calm and composed.

But now she's tapping her foot against the floor. "Can I talk to you?" Curious, I say, "Sure, what's up?"

"I need your help."

My ears perk up even more. Jun doesn't ask me for help often. To be fair, my brand of help usually gets one or both of us in trouble. Like the time I signed her up for the school singing competition and forgot to ask her first—which, in retrospect, was a 'big' mistake. It's a shame she froze up onstage, so no one got to hear what a beautiful voice she has. I scoot over on the love seat and pat the space beside me, trying not to look too eager. "Of course!"

Gingerly, she sits next to me. "You know how worried I am about the Gaokao?"

The National College Entrance Examination in two months is a big deal, and Jun's been hitting the books even harder than she usually does. After all, the best colleges in Beijing take only students with the highest test scores. And it doesn't help that colleges have unofficial quotas, so the number of women admitted is much lower than the number of men. In other words, women have to score higher on the Gaokao to get into college. Naturally, I don't say this out loud. "You'll do fine," I assure Jun.

"'You'll' do fine," she retorts. "You study half as hard and get grades as good as mine or better." Jun's right, although I'd never admit it aloud in a million years. She keeps talking. "I knew I needed help, so I hired a tutor. Yanlin is a college student, and he got high marks the year he took it."

I look at her sharply. Come to think of it, Jun 'has' been looking suspiciously dreamy-eyed lately. "Can I assume that this Yanlin is cute?"

"Cute?" she says faintly. Her red cheeks say it all.

I roll my eyes, because Jun can't keep a secret to save her life. At least not from me. My twin sister and I don't keep anything from each other. "So this is the reason you've been wandering around the house in a daze all week!"

"I don't even know how he feels about me!"

"Of course he's smitten with you," I say loyally. "He'd have to be crazy not to be!"

"He just thinks of me as the clueless girl he's tutoring."

"Then you get him to see you as more." A slow smile spreads over my face. "And I have the perfect idea for how to do that!"

Jumping up, I press the play button on my mint-green imported boom box. As the opening chords of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" float through the air, I seize Jun around the waist and start dancing her around my room filled with hand-carved rosewood and bright silk pillows as well as Western tech like my boom box. "You invite him to a historical event happening tomorrow night!"

"Lei!" Jun exclaims. "Ba forbid us to go!"

Ba is an old-school Communist Party official who thinks a Western- style nightclub is the beginning of the end (although he has no problem with foreign luxuries). If he'd had his way, the Communist Party would have never lifted the ban on commercial dancing spaces like it did just recently.


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