The Art Of Giving

Cassia stepped through the stone archway and the clamour of the city faded; the fluttering in her stomach did not.

Like all the royal parks that were dotted around the city of Ebok, a team of volunteers ensured it was always immaculate. Each oasis had its own theme, here it was ginger. The smell was sweet and spicy, and lingered in the warm spring air. On days when the wind ambled down from the hills it would carry the fragrance through the surrounding streets until it mingled with odours from the orange grove to the west or mixed with the vanilla of the south.

In front of Cassia the path parted. Two routes, left and right, followed the curve of the stone wall, twisting away from the boundary to skirt plants that trailed across the ground or swung down from the overhanging trees. The central path was wider and headed directly towards the middle of the park. Along it other routes branched off, leading to grassed glades or paved crescents. Fountains were dotted all about adding the quiet whisper of water to the rustling song of the trees.

In the middle of the park was the largest of all the squares, the bowl of a shallow theatre cutting into the centre. Cassia knew that Ojzi would be waiting for her there.

A more private location could have been chosen. With all of her previous lovers she had been more discreet, but Ojzi was different. This would be their first meeting without maids or guards to act as escorts. It would be a chance for them to hold each other for as long as they desired. The beat of her heart increased at the thought. She inhaled again and gave her head a shake to clear it, then she set off along the gravel path.

When the opening to the theatre bowl appeared in front of her, Cassia paused. She checked her clothes and hair as best she could without a mirror, smoothing out the creases that had appeared in the silk. Her pace had been sedate, for she had no wish to appear flustered or excited when she made her appearance; that would not be proper for a member of the royal family.

Certain there was nothing amiss, Cassia stepped into the open. Ojzi was not the only person enjoying the day.

On the opposite side of the bowl two women and a man sat in the bright sunshine, an array of food spread out before them. The stage below was filled by a band of players practicing scenes. Their voices rose high into the air filling the place with life. Cassia did not mind any of them. Her blossoming relationship with the son of a foreign diplomat was never going to be kept a secret for long, even if they had tried.

Ojzi was sat on the highest tier of seats, close to where Cassia had entered. As she drew close he stood, the long white braid of hair on the left side of his head swung down to his shoulder. The princess gave him a wide smile. It took all her concentration to make sure she did not run those remaining steps.

“I hope you haven’t waited long.” Cassia was captivated by his large brown eyes and forgot what else she had planned to say.

“No. I am fine.” His reply was faltering and disjointed. He had not known the language before he came to Ebok and even though each week that passed saw him grow in confidence, he often struggled when the conversation moved too fast.

“Good. Sit, please.” She took his hand and pulled him back onto the steps. “I have a gift for you.”

His eyes widened either from her words or her touch, she did not know which.

“You have a thing for me?”

“Yes,” she paused in an attempt to make her speech simpler. “It is traditional … when people meet on their own, with no guards, one of them makes a gift for the other.”

She wanted to explain that they should exchange presents, but he would not have known. Instead she held up the small box she had been carrying.

Ojzi let go of her hand and took the intricately folded paper cube. “Thank you,” his eyes lingering on her face before they returned to the gift.

He studied it and Cassia became unsure if he knew what to do.

“You open it.” Her hands indicated pulling apart the folds. “Look inside.”

“Oh.”

With the box resting on the ground Ojzi peeled it open. From inside he lifted the delicate sculpture.

“A bird.”

She was not sure if it was a statement or a question. If he did not recognise it then her money had been wasted.

“I didn’t make it.” It seemed best to get the explanation out of the way. “I should have, but I’m not very good.” She offered him another smile.

He nodded, then lifted the carving closer to his face. “It is made of wasrji?”

The word meant nothing to her, but she agreed. “Fresh as well.” She leaned closer to him and smelled the sculpture. “Um.” It was all she could managed as his flower tinged perfume flooded her senses. She pulled away again to avoid doing anything inappropriate.

“You are very kind. Thank you.”

He took a smell of it, mimicking what she had done, then he bit into one wing.

“Very nice.” He swallowed then took another bite.

Cassia tried to say something but the shock had caused her mouth to dry.

After a moment she recovered. “You’re meant to keep …” She stopped as Ojzi paused in the middle of chewing.

“Oh. Sorry. I did not know.” He held out what was left of the gift, offering it to her.

The additional misunderstanding compounded the mistake. Cassia felt embarrassment turn to laughter. It finally erupted, causing her to double over. After a moment the young man joined in.

—————

17 September 2010
The death of a fourteen year old panda at a zoo in Kobe, Japan, has sparked a diplomatic incident in China, the country who had lent out the animal.

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