Mei Li, the former snake-devil my father and I were training to be human, had agreed to teach me her trick of transforming a simple flute into various weapons, but so far the lessons were not going well. I didn’t want to risk my own precious bawu on such a tricky undertaking, as the instrument had been a gift from my late mother. We were making do with a wooden dowel of similar size, and the latest result sat on a small cushion between us.
“What is that?” I asked.
Mei Li studied the object. “Mistress Jing, it appears to be a small bronze spike of the sort used to post official notices.”
I sighed. “Yes, I thought so. What am I doing wrong?”
“Wrong? You’ve managed to turn a piece of wood into a metal spike. As they are differing elements, that is no small accomplishment, especially for a human. Besides, it’s not far from a sword. At least the metal is right.”
Mei Li had a point. It wasn’t nothing, yet I still felt a twinge of jealousy at the ease with which Mei Li, a snake-devil currently in human form, used magic. To her, such things were as natural as breathing, whereas I could barely manage the occasional equivalent of a gasp.
“It’s a start, I suppose,” I finally said, though as I watched, the spike lengthened and changed color, reverting to its original form.
“To be expected,” Mei Li said. “When my flute transforms to a sword or a bow, it’s still really just a flute. Left to itself, it will eventually turn back to its true form with no encouragement from me.”
The implications of what Mei Li said slowly dawned on me. “Not to be indelicate, but doesn’t that apply to you as well? I mean, I know you’re trying to learn to be human, but...well, the change cannot be very far along. It’s only been a few weeks.”
“It’s true I am bound by the same laws,” Mei Li said wistfully. “The first several days were probably the hardest. Now it still requires some concentration on my part, mostly before bedtime, to keep this form, but not so much. I want to take that as a good sign, but I cannot be sure.”
“Perhaps, in time, you won’t have to think about it—” I never got to finish, since we were interrupted by a door slamming shut.
Mei Li and I hurried downstairs in the village’s guest house to find my father, Pan Bao, standing just inside the doorway and scowling, so far as I could tell, at nothing. He had been drinking, but that wasn’t unusual. The surprise was he wasn’t stumbling drunk.
“The magistrate,” he said, “is insane.”
I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to us, because after a moment he blinked and then looked at Mei Li and me as if he had just noticed that anyone was there.
I bowed. “I take it your consultation with the magistrate was not completely satisfactory?”
“If by ‘not completely satisfactory’ you mean ‘the magistrate is insane,’ then yes, Daughter, you may take it that way.”
This was not a hopeful sign. We had been sent to Chengdhu village by the governor of the northernmost province in the state of Qin, a very important personage. If the magistrate’s dilemma was of a sort that we could not relieve, our failure might mean we could forget seeking further assignments in the north, or perhaps all of Qin. Considering the current tensions between Qin and the southern states of Zhou, Wei and Chu, seeking employment beyond Qin’s southern border was problematic as well.
“Pardon my asking,” Mei Li said, “but is the magistrate’s mental state the crux of the problem, or is it more in the way of a complication?”
Father sighed, and his scowl softened a bit. “Honestly? I wish I knew. I find the situation very vexing. So much so that I forbore most of my customary evening pursuits to ponder the matter.”
Which explained his current lack of intoxication. Since my mother’s passing, Father had considered too long a stretch of sobriety an insult to her memory. For his carousing, on the other hand, Father had yet to offer any explanation at all.
“As I understand it, you were told that the Magistrate himself would make his dilemma clear,” I said. “Was there no explanation?”
Father sank into his chair as if he didn’t remember how to stand. “Not directly. He seems a perfectly healthy young man and insists that he is perfectly fine and doesn’t understand what the Governor was talking about. Then he poured a glass of wine over his head and ordered his Chief Eunuch to perform and characterize the Eight Tenets of Kong Fuzi as a peasant work song. The man failed, probably because he didn’t know any peasant work songs.”
“What happened then?” Mei Li asked.
Father sighed. “The magistrate ordered the eunuch to think about what he had done and then sent him to his room. For the eunuch’s sake I hope the Magistrate doesn’t expect a report on his conclusions in the morning.”
Mei Li and I exchanged glances. “If this is normal behavior for the man, I expect his counsellors are in a state of confusion,” I said.
Father grunted. “More like panic. The magistrate, Shi Gan, is a minor son but from a very ancient and well-connected family, as could be deduced from the Governor’s interest in sending us here. But what he expects us to do about this? I am at a loss, as are, I suspect, the bureaucracy. Any attempts to remove the magistrate, however justified, would likely bring consequences.”
“While failing to remove him also has consequences, clearly,” Mei Li said.
“I don’t want to talk about this more tonight,” Father said. “I need to think.”
We left him there in his chair, pondering. When I came down to check a little later I noted the slow rise and fall of his chest. As I expected, he was fast asleep.
“Come,” I said to Mei Li. “We need to prepare.”
She frowned. “Prepare for what?”
“To do what Father cannot.”
I had reservations about taking Mei Li on this excursion, but since this was part of our duties, it was past time she made a start. As I expected, Mei Li was not quite as stealthy in human form as I was, but fortunately she was a quick learner.
After a change to more night-friendly attire, we slipped out of our quarters, and in almost no time we were perched on the peak of the magistrate’s mansion like two roof-tile dragons, and hardly more noticeable. I paused to loosen my jian in its scabbard across my back, even as I envied Mei Li her bawu. At need, her flute could transform into a sword instantly and was much easier to manage in the interim. I made a mental note to try even harder in my next lesson. Meanwhile Mei Li had noted my attention to my weapon.
“Are we come to assassinate the magistrate and thus solve the issue that way?” she asked in a whisper.
“I wish things were so simple. Now that we’re here, if he is killed, we’d likely be blamed for not protecting him.” That was only a bit of a lie. The fact was that I didn’t really wish matters were so straightforward they could be solved with a sword in the dark. I had killed before out of necessity but prayed I never came to prefer it, given any other option. “We need to observe the magistrate when he thinks no one is looking.”
“What will that tell us?”
“Perhaps nothing, but until we try, we will not know. Do you have a better idea?”
Mei Li admitted she did not. We crept forward along the roof line toward what I believed to be the magistrate’s private quarters. As a village magistrate, Shi Gan employed only a few guards, but they were not to be taken lightly, and a careless step could be disastrous. Scaling the compound wall and reaching the roof had been mostly a matter of timing, but there was always the chance of a loose tile or bad step to make the guards look up.
Fortunately, we approached the end of the building without being spotted. To our left was a balcony hung with gauze curtains, and there sat the magistrate, illuminated by lamplight, being served tea by a concubine. I signaled Mei Li to hold her place as I did the same, and we watched. I wasn’t sure what I expected to happen, but after a few moments he sent the young woman away, put his hands over his face, and began to weep.
“Is this a sign of madness?” Mei Li asked after several moments.
I glanced in Mei Li’s direction, though I could barely see her in the darkness beyond the balcony. “I rather think it is a sign of great pain, though caused by madness or something else, I do not know,” I said. “Clearly, there is much here we do not yet understand.”
Nor were we going to be enlightened further that evening. The magistrate soon rose, extinguished the lanterns, and disappeared into his mansion. I moved closer to my companion.
“We’ve done all we can tonight. I want to be back before Father awakens.”
Mei Li hesitated. “There is something wrong with the magistrate,” she said.
“We know that. Which is why we are here, remember?”
I could barely see the shake of her head in the darkness. “That’s not what I meant, Mistress Jing. I meant there is something not right about his person itself, not his mental state.”
“You sense something?”
While Mei Li’s human senses and understandings needed a great deal of work, her intuition as a snake-devil, I believed, was more to be trusted than most statements of fact, especially in the circles we moved in. “Yes, but it is unclear to me what I am sensing. I am sorry I cannot be more specific.”
I did not claim to be as sensitive as either my father or Mei Li, yet I had sensed something as well. A spirit? I wasn’t sure. “Perhaps if we were closer? Something to consider later. For now, it is best we were gone from here.”
We got back to the village’s guest house without being seen, and I was already congratulating myself for managing to return before Father awoke from his nap. However, we had no sooner crept to the stairs to go and change when Father opened one eye.
“What have you learned, then?” he asked.
I sighed and told him everything Mei Li and I had seen, including the weeping and Mei Li’s and my own suspicions. Father stroked his wispy beard in that way he had when he was deep in thought.
“You’re certain he was unaware of you?”
“Yes, and as he was alone, I am equally certain that his tears were not for our benefit or anyone else’s. He is truly in distress, but whether this is an effect of his mental state or something else entirely, I do not know.”
Father asked the same question of Mei Li, and received essentially the same answer. It was only when he asked her about her suspicions that she appeared hesitant. “I can only be certain that I was made aware of something about the magistrate, but what? I am at a loss.”
Father seemed to consider. “I have to admit, in my dealings with the magistrate, I have felt something as well, but to me it seemed more about his vicinity than the man personally. I dismissed it as an effect of his derangement. Perhaps I was hasty in that regard.”
“If I could get closer to him without arousing suspicion, perhaps I could refine my impression,” Mei Li said.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Father said. “And I believe I have a solution.”
I glared at him. “Father, surely you’re not suggesting....”
“Suggesting what?” Mei Li asked, but all I could do was blush.
Father looked puzzled for just a moment before his expression changed to pure amusement. “Oh, I see. No, Daughter. I have a better idea, but I don’t think you’re going to like this one, either.”
I could never truly hate my father. Yet there were times when I did not like him very much. One of those times was the following evening, when Father, Mei Li, and I presented ourselves at Magistrate Shi Gan’s official residence, though at the front gate and openly this time.
“Remember to smile,” he said as a servant left to announce us, and dislike inched just a little too close to hatred for filial comfort. I took a deep breath and made myself remember the reason we were here, though the pretext was the part I was most uncomfortable with—we were there to give a private concert to the magistrate.
While the bawu was a well-known instrument in the southwest, here in the northern state of Qin it was relatively unknown and thus a novelty, so the magistrate eagerly agreed when Father made the offer. Yet even though Mei Li was a master of the instrument, I was on a much less sturdy foundation. Still, she had been teaching me, and I had practiced faithfully, so I hoped for the best even as I feared the worst.
“You’re better than you fear,” Mei Li had said. “Just remember to breathe as I taught you and follow the flow of the music. If you do, even the occasional wrong note will sound as if it belongs.”
Since I knew more than the occasional wrong note was in our future, I couldn’t take as much comfort from her words as she intended. A servant led us into the magistrate’s audience chamber where we were to perform. Fortunately for my peace of mind it was not a large assembly, merely the magistrate and his immediate household and a few court officials.
He looks so young.
This was my first close look at the magistrate, without the previous night’s darkness and the gauze curtains partially blocking my view. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or so, handsome enough I supposed, though he had a bored, or rather a distracted air about him, as if he could not concentrate on any one thing for long. In a way he looked child-like, as if he did not fully understand what was going on around him. I wondered briefly if he was feeble-minded, but I dismissed the notion. No one, including the son of a noble family, could achieve an official position—even one as relatively minor as magistrate—without scoring at least decently well on the royal examinations, which were notoriously difficult.
I glanced at Mei Li and my father, but if either perceived more in the man than they had already said, their expressions did not reveal it. For my part I felt what I had felt before, but stronger.
Is there a spirit in this mansion?
At the magistrate’s invitation, Mei Li and I bowed and began to play. Normally a bawu is a solitary instrument, but Mei Li had identified an implied call and response pattern in an old herding song, “Spring Grass on the Mountain,” which allowed us to easily alternate verses. Fortunately for me, it was not a terribly complicated tune, and I held up my end well enough. I could hear my few mistakes, but the audience either didn’t or did not care; mostly they kept their eyes on the magistrate, who was waving two fingers in the air in time to the music and seemed to be enjoying himself.
We were barely through the second verse when Mei Li, instead of going to the third verse, blew a quick sequence of high-pitched notes that were not in the song; then she lowered the tone to match the third verse and signed for me to take over, a sign which I almost missed because of the reaction of the magistrate.
I swear, if the man had the ears of a dog or cat, they would have been perked up, listening for something we could not hear, but then the moment passed and he went back to keeping time as I assumed the third verse. I managed to get through the rest of the performance without many more mistakes, nor did Mei Li vary from what we had practiced for the rest of the session.
When we were done, the magistrate called us forward and praised us politely if a bit absently, as if his mind was elsewhere. Then he summoned Father for a private word. We didn’t hear what the magistrate said, but Father was clearly surprised, though he concealed it from most of those present, if not from me—I knew him well enough to tell. Whatever the magistrate had said to him, it was nothing Father expected. Which in turn surprised me, since nothing the magistrate said should normally be perceived as surprising, given his mental state.
Father said nothing about the matter as long as we were at the magistrate’s house, but when we were on our way to our quarters, I noticed him pulling his beard again.
“What did His Excellency say to you?”
“Only that he would like all three of us to attend a private audience tomorrow afternoon. We must expect treachery.”
“We must? Why?” I asked.
“Because I think the magistrate is possessed by a fox spirit, and I think he knows of my suspicion. I sensed a strong spirit energy around him.”
“So did I, though I was uncertain as to what it meant,” I said.
“Forgive me,” Mei Li said, “but I believe the situation may even be worse than that.”
Father frowned. “Oh? How so?”
“While the spirit aura is strong, I don’t think Shi Gan is possessed by a fox. I believe he is a fox.”
Father paused for a moment. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said. “Because, if you are right, we will have to kill him.”
“It was those odd notes you played, wasn’t it?” I said when we were back in the room the two of us shared at the Chengdhu guest house. Mei Li had kept silent for the rest of the walk back, but I had a hunch that her certainty had something to do with the music.
“I had already sensed the presence of a fox once I was close enough to him,” Mei Li said. “Those notes were for confirmation—it was the call of a fox vixen, or rather as close as a bawu can mimic. His reaction told me the rest.”
“I don’t understand. Wouldn’t someone possessed by a fox spirit react as well?”
“Yes, but not like that. A possessed person still hears with human ears, speaks with a mouth used to forming human words, and reacts mostly as a human would. A fox transformed into a human is different. At its core, it is still a fox. Whatever is human about him is just pretense, a façade. When I made that vixen call, he answered. His true nature would not allow otherwise.”
Now I understood my impression of the magistrate’s reaction, noted even when I had not understood what Mei Li had done. More, I did not miss Mei Li’s implication—it applied to herself as much as the magistrate.
“Young Mistress, if you please I think we should get some sleep. Tomorrow promises to be difficult.”
More than difficult, I thought, though I wondered if perhaps the magistrate would be one of our lesser worries.
The day dawned sunny and insufferably cheerful. Sparrows called outside our window, and the breeze through the open window was gentle. Whatever dark thoughts Mei Li had harbored the day before did not appear in evidence.
I hoped this was more than pretense, since our survival might soon depend on her. Father could conceal his peachwood sword easily enough, but there was no way I’d be allowed to bring my jian into the magistrate’s presence, on any pretext. I took my own precious bawu for no good reason that I could think of. I knew only Mei Li could reliably conjure a weapon out of hers at need; so far all my attempts at this transformation had come up short, often comically so. The bronze spike incident was the closest I had ever come to success.
Still, I thought, a bronze spike would be better than nothing.
Father was waiting when we descended the stairs. “Let’s go,” was all he said.
We were well on our way to the audience before anyone spoke, and I was the one who broke the silence. “You think the magistrate suspects us?”
“I am certain he does,” Father said.
“Then we must assume we are walking into a trap.”
“A reasonable assumption,” Father said affably. “But what sort?”
“He could have his guards arrest us on one pretense or another, and what could we do without proof?”
“Assuming he is present during the audience, I could reveal his true form in an instant,” Father said. “Which, I have no doubt, he knows I can do. So if his guards are present when we arrive at the designated place but the magistrate himself is not, we can safely assume that your scenario is the correct one.”
“You seem rather calm about that possibility,” I said.
“What are our options, Daughter? We could flee this kingdom, but under the current tensions, that is risky in itself. Assuming we are able to pass to Chu or Jin safely, what then? We might re-establish ourselves, if we didn’t starve first or turn to banditry, which would not suit any of us. No, Daughter. Our fate lies here. Today we must face it, whatever it may be.”
I had no answer, but Mei Li had grown more and more thoughtful as we walked.
“Honorable Pan Bao, you mentioned a ‘designated place’ we are to meet. Is that not the magistrate’s home?” she asked.
“No. I was told we are to meet at the magistrate’s lakeside pavilion. It is just outside of town on the north road.”
“If it is typical of such places,” I said, “it will have been built out on the lake itself, reached by either a bridge or causeway long enough to allow for privacy. It’s the perfect place for dalliances, poetry readings and the like but also for ambushes, for one who controls access.”
“Yes,” Father said. “The thought did occur to me. If his mental state is not a sham, our only real hope is that he will be foolish enough to be present, as I mentioned.”
“That is the one thing which gives me pause,” Mei Li said. “The possibility that his condition is a sham makes no sense to me. Why would he deliberately draw attention to himself? For a fox pretending to be human, that’s the last thing he would want.”
Now my father was stroking his wispy beard again as we walked. “Mei Li, you make an excellent point. And since our survival may depend on the magistrate’s faculties or lack of same, it is perhaps a crucial one.”
“Only one way to find out,” I said grimly.
We left Chengdhu village by the northern gate. I looked for signs of any large groups of soldiers previously on the road, but as a prosperous and well-positioned village, Chengdhu had a great deal of traffic on both northern and southern routes through the village and beyond, and it was impossible to make any distinctions among the chaos of footprints and wheel ruts. Still, I kept a close watch on the trees flanking the road for any signs of a lurking force. We walked for a while behind a caravan headed north, but they soon outdistanced us, and before long we were alone.
“Now would be a good time for an ambush,” I said. “No witnesses.”
Nothing happened. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I was surprised.
Father shaded his eyes. “I can see the pavilion ahead.”
So could I, now that I bothered to look. In fact, the pavilion was in view for almost a bowshot before I saw the lake beneath it. The pavilion had been built to resemble a temple, and was taller than it needed to be, with white arches and a golden spire crowning it. While the structure was open, there were curtains hung along its entire perimeter that could be lowered in the case of inclement weather or just for privacy, but they were fully raised at the moment. The term ‘lakeside pavilion’ was a bit of a misnomer; the entire structure was built well out over the water, and the bridge to reach it looked to be a good hundred paces long.
As was to be expected, there were guards. What was not to be expected—at least by me—was that there were only two of them, standing sentinel at the approach to the bridge.
That can’t be all. Where is he hiding the rest?
Look though I might, I could see no others, not near the road, nor on the shore of the lake. Except for one or two fishermen further out on small boats, there was no one save the one small figure seated in the center of the pavilion. Of course I could not see his face, but there was little doubt in my mind that there sat the Magistrate Shi Gan, waiting for us. Alone.
“Mei Li, do you sense anything?” Father asked.
“Other than the presence of the magistrate? I feel something, but I am not sure what. A threat, perhaps, but I cannot tell where it is directed.”
I frowned. “Not at us?”
Mei Li sighed. “I would assume so, and yet...I cannot say. It is possible there are other forces at work.”
“We knew we must be on our guard, but there is no sense delaying the inevitable,” Father said. “We have a summons to obey.”
We approached the guards at the bridge head, but they were clearly expecting us and silently moved aside upon our approach. We walked out upon the bridge and started toward the pavilion where the magistrate was waiting. I halfway expected archers to appear on the opposite shore from the tree line and begin firing at us, but I quickly dismissed the notion. It was simply too far, even for a proper marksman, and the closer we got to the pavilion, the less likely such an attack would even be attempted, since the magistrate himself would be in harm’s way. The shore remained empty, the fishing boats intent on their own business. There was simply too much about the situation we did not understand, and that alone was a very dangerous thing.
Perhaps that was the threat Mei Li discerned—our own ignorance.
Regardless, I knew that ignorance was soon to be remedied, one way or another. I put my hand on the bawu in my sash, but it was just a wooden flute and offered no comfort. We entered the pavilion, and as we had seen from the shore, there was no one there except for the magistrate seated in state upon an oversized chair.
“Greetings, Honorable Pan Bao .”
We all bowed, and Father spoke. “We are answering your summons.”
He inclined his head toward us. “We have matters to discuss, but first I think a bit of privacy is in order, don’t you?”
He raised his hand, and all the curtains gently lowered themselves as if pulled by invisible servants. I looked around, half expecting soldiers to materialize out of thin air, but nothing of the sort occurred. Only now every lantern within the pavilion suddenly lit itself to compensate for the lack of sunlight.
Father looked around, an almost-smile on his face. “Impressive, Your Excellency.”
The magistrate sighed. “I note that you may be impressed, but what you are not is surprised, yes? You know what I am.”
“I had thought you were possessed by a fox, but that was clearly in error. You are either a shape-shifting fox or a fox-devil,” Father confirmed. “Considering your skill at magic, we must assume the latter. I gather you invited us here to settle the matter?”
“Precisely,” said the magistrate. “And I’m afraid there is only one way open to me.”
Father had already produced his magical peachwood sword, and Mei Li held her own sword, transformed from the bawu she carried. I had reached for my own without thinking, but instead of a flute I now held a bronze jian, the twin of Mei Li’s sword.
I was so startled at my success that I almost missed what happened next. The magistrate clapped his hands, and there was an expression of delight on his face; it was only this which pulled my attention away from the sword.
“Excellent!” he said. “You do not disappoint.”
Father had his peachwood sword at the ready, but he used his free hand to stroke his beard.
“Our failure to disappoint implies expectations on your part, Your Excellency. How can that be, when you barely know us and claim to have no real idea why we are here?”
The magistrate, to my astonishment, actually looked a bit sheepish. “Well... Honorable Pan Bao, I must confess that this was a lie of sorts.”
Father smiled, and I looked from one to other, trying to ascertain what, exactly, was going on. Father continued, “I had assumed it was a member of your staff who had written to Governor Sun Fu in your regard, but it wasn’t, was it? It was you.”
The magistrate sighed. “That is true. My reasons need not concern you, but yes, and now that you know that I am an imposter, it is your duty to kill me, a course which I see your two charming ladies are more than prepared to follow.”
Mei Li glanced at me, but I didn’t need her warning. This was Father’s game now, and it was his turn to throw the dice.
“I am afraid that your reasons must concern me,” Father said. “You call attention to yourself, your pretense at madness—”
“—is barely pretense, I assure you. I am going mad. I feel myself slipping away, bit by bit. If my behavior seems strange for a human, imagine how it would look to one of my own kind. Keeping my thoughts and words coherent? That takes the sort of focus that I am rapidly losing. It is only a matter of time until either my true nature is revealed or my loss of wits forces those around me to act, regardless.”
“So you brought us here—”
“To kill me, yes.”
This again? I glanced at Mei Li, but her expression would have done a stone god proud.
The magistrate frowned. “Why hesitate? Your course is clear.”
“I trust you will not die quietly?” Father asked.
Magistrate Shi Gan just shrugged. “Oh, I think it appropriate to struggle. I cannot say that I am anxious to die, even though in truth I arranged it. So I will fight. I could even win, as I am not without resources. But it will surely be over one way or another before my guards can reach us. If you are dead, I will simply claim that you tried to assassinate me. If I am dead, the sight of my true form will be more than enough justification for your actions.”
Now Mei Li and I exchanged glances, because now I know we sensed the same thing. And it wasn’t simply the promise of a life or death struggle with a fox-devil.
“Father—” I began, but Father raised a hand for silence.
“None of this,” he said, “explains why, if you were weary of the charade, losing your way in this human form which is not your own, you did not simply leave.”
The magistrate frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Simply what I said. If you are a fox-devil impersonating the, I presume late, Shi Gan, you could simply stop doing it, if the game had become tiresome to you. Slip away, in either human or fox form and be rid of the burden. Why didn’t you do that?”
“You don’t understand,” he said.
“Clearly. Enlighten us,” Father said.
The magistrate sighed. “I’m going to call my guard. I advise you to kill me before they arrive—“
He didn’t get the chance. Father, moving faster than I had seen him move in quite a while, darted forward before the magistrate could react. When he withdrew, there was a paper ward stuck to the magistrate’s forehead.
“How dare you...,” the magistrate began but somehow forgot to finish.
Father smiled a grim smile. “As I suspected. That ward would dissolve a normal transformation of your type, only it didn’t. And why is that? Could it be because your transformation was not of your own doing?”
The magistrate plucked the ward from his head and tossed it aside. “I swear I will call my guards—”
Father laughed. “Feel free, though we won’t make convincing assassins if we have no weapons. Jing, Mei Li—disarm.”
Without a word Mei Lei’s sword was a flute again. I struggled to remember the correct technique, then glanced at my sword and realized that it had already reverted to its true form without my help or intention. I was at once relieved and more than a little annoyed.
“If you are intent on this ‘assassination’ charade, go ahead. Just know that we were sent to help you,” Father said. “And that is our mission. But we cannot do so unless you help us first. Either call the guards or tell me how you came to be here.”
“It would have been simpler if you had just killed me,” the magistrate said, and he looked like someone who had lost the battle before it had even begun. “Very well, I will tell you, for all the good it will do. It’s true I had first assumed human form as a lark, but not as Shi Gan. I took the form of a humble scholar and joined Shi Gan’s household with the intention of making mischief. Turns out that he was as fond of pranks as I am. We became friends, despite....” The magistrate hesitated, but my father finished the thought for him.
“...despite the fact that he knew what you were?”
“It’s hard to believe, I know, but I have no reason to lie to you.” He paused, then added, “About that, anyway.”
I looked at Mei Li. Not that difficult, ‘magistrate.’
“Well, one thing led to another, and I remained a part of Shi Gan’s household longer than I intended. Before I knew it, two years had passed by. By then I realized he was not in the best of health. He concealed it well from the family, but I knew. When his magisterial appointment came, I strongly advised him to refuse, but he would not hear of it. So I accompanied him on the journey. Unfortunately the stress of travel worsened his condition. He died two days before our scheduled arrival.”
Father looked thoughtful. “And that’s when you took his place. But there is more to this than you’ve said so far, isn’t there?”
“I think you knew he was a minor son, perhaps fourth or fifth, I lost count. His older brothers were groomed for great things, but no one expected much of him and that irked him quite a bit. He was the one who pushed for an official appointment, not his family. He was determined to prove his worth. I had no doubt Shi Gan would have done well, but that was not his fate. I was with him at the end, and he made me promise to take his place so that at least he could accomplish this one thing, even if by proxy.”
“So you agreed,” Father said.
The magistrate sighed. “In truth I agreed merely to comfort him, but upon his death I found myself compelled to honor the promise in every regard! I assumed his appearance. I used my arts to disguise his body so that the rest of our entourage thought it was I who had passed away from an undisclosed illness. His body was buried along the route, and I became magistrate in his place to honor his commitment.”
Mei Li frowned. “Compelled? What do you mean?”
He smiled wistfully. “Lady, I mean exactly that. I’m a fox. Believe me when I tell you that I had no intention of honoring that promise, fond of the man though I was. And yet somehow I had no choice! I cannot change back—I’ve tried. I cannot kill myself because that would stain Shi Gan, whose promise I am compelled to honor. Half the time I cannot remember if I am a man pretending to be a fox or the reverse. It’s maddening!”
“It is also a complication,” Father said. “Your agreement, even if insincere, may have created a karmic debt. I’m afraid, even if we kill you, there’s a chance your body would remain as it is, and thus we would be outlawed as assassins, not devil hunters. Your Excellency, we both have a problem.”
The magistrate sat back in his chair wearily. “I am open to suggestions, but I frankly see no way out of my own dilemma short of death.”
“Because of your promise to a dead man.” Father stroked his beard. “Perhaps there is something we have both overlooked. What were the circumstances of your—meaning Shi Gan’s— burial?”
The magistrate blinked. “Why does that matter? I wasn’t actually dead.”
“No, but he was,” Father said.
“Well, I was told everything was done properly, or as best they could under the circumstances. I’m not familiar with the procedure, but Shi Gan’s own priest conducted the rites, so I know they were done competently.”
Father smiled. “Yes, I’m sure all was done with proper respect and correctly to the degree they were able, but in whose name?”
The magistrate simply stared at my father for a moment, but then his mouth formed a little ‘o’ of surprise. “Lin Bingwen. It was the name I was using as a human.”
Father nodded. “I thought I sensed something other than a fox. If you will indulge me for a moment....”
Father lit a stick of incense using one of the lantern flames. He muttered something I could not hear. Suddenly beside the magistrate another figure appeared, translucent but distinct enough—a mirror image of the magistrate. Father bowed and addressed the figure directly.
“Honorable Shi Gan,” Father said. “I think you’ve put your friend through quite enough on your behalf, don’t you?”
The spirit returned the bow. We could see its lips moving, but I could not hear the words. Even the fox-magistrate appeared confused, straining to hear. After a short while Father nodded, bowed again, and the magistrate’s spirit-double slowly vanished.
The magistrate appeared as surprised as I was. “That was—”
“The real Shi Gan, of course. When Shi Gan was buried as Ling Bingwen, the lack of funeral rites in his own name left his spirit free to accompany you. It seems Shi Gan himself compelled you to honor your promise, not the promise itself,” Father said.
The magistrate’s astonishment was evident. “You mean I am finally free?”
“Not quite, but your late friend has agreed to release you from your promise. Under one condition.”
The Magistrate sighed. “Anything.”
Father smiled wider. “I think another funeral—for the correct person—is long overdue.”
The one temple at Chengdhu village was lit up like a sun. As we watched from our balcony, even more lights blossomed through the windows.
“That will be the ‘Jade Reflection of the Numinous Treasure’ ceremony,” I said. “It shows the spirit of the dead the way out of darkness.”
“Why are we not in attendance?” Mei Li asked.
I looked at the light. “Since my mother’s death, I have not handled funerals very well, so Father thought it best. You’re here to keep me company.”
I could feel the intensity of her gaze even before I turned back to look at her.
“Why else am I here?” she asked.
Since I didn’t know what else to say, I took a breath and told her the truth. “Because there are parts of the ceremony where talismans are handed out and protections against spirits are created for those present. Father was still uncertain about what effect they might have on the magistrate, and, well....” I didn’t finish. I didn’t have to.
“On me,” Mei Li said simply.
I sighed. “Father didn’t want to take the risk. It was for your own protection.”
“Perhaps there is no point,” she said softly. “We both saw what prolonged time in a body not his own was doing to the magistrate.”
I had been both expecting and dreading this, but to my own surprise an answer came to me.
“He was fine for two years. Fine? Say rather he was enjoying himself immensely. Then the time came when he was human, not because he wished to be but because he was forced against his will. Are you where you are against your will, Mei Li?”
She considered the question, and for an answer she resumed her snake-devil form. One moment the Mei Li I knew was there, and the next she was gone, replaced by a coiled serpent no less than twenty paces long, with a brilliant green and yellow diamond pattern on her skin and a body as thick as my leg. I couldn’t suppress a gasp. Another moment and she was Mei Li again.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” she said. “But I wasn’t even sure myself. It seems I am not. I am exactly where and what I wish to be.”
“I am glad of that,” I said, and meant it, yet I thought it best to change the subject. “I wish I could have seen the look on his counsellors’ faces when the magistrate ordered them to arrange his own funeral.”
Mei Li shrugged. “Doubtless they saw it as another manifestation of his madness, but if your father is correct, the spirit of the real Shi Gan will finally be laid to rest, and his attachment to this world and Lin Bingwen’s promise to him will both end. Yet that still leaves an issue.”
I shook my head. “Father thought of that. The magistrate wrote two letters before the funeral began. One was to his family stating that he has decided to join a monastery in the mountains. The other was to Governor Sun Fu, thanking him for our assistance. Together they should ease the way for the magistrate’s eventual disappearance and our own safe return to the capital.”
“Then we had best prepare for our next journey,” Mei Li said. “I noticed your success with the bawu at the magistrate’s pavilion. While I was unable to address it at the time, I must say I was pleased, and would very much like to see that again.”
So would I.
I took my flute in hand, speaking with all the confidence I did not feel. “Certainly.”
Now, I thought, if I could just remember what I did right that time.... I tried, but the answer was—apparently not.
“Damn, another spike.”
Mei Li frowned. “Young Mistress, it seems we both still have work to do.”