Chapter 1 (Zhang)

Dong Ying, Anhu County

“The river moon rises in the sky, casting its forlorn gaze on the shore. A lone figure sits there, watching the vast emptiness. His face– a mask of sorrow for the one he loves–“

A fan smacked the table causing the speaker to stop abruptly. A girl wearing pearl-colored silk shook her head disapprovingly, “Ai ya, Huang-mei! You sound like a pining, weeping lover. This subject has been written multiple times.”

Indignantly, the speaker in ocher silk retorted, “This piece is homage to Dong Chi’s works! Surely you knew that, Fang-jie!”

“You need to develop your own style to reach his level of fame!” Fang Lihua retorted, brushing her comment off. “At this rate, you are a naive duckling following its mother.”

I watched the girls’ bickering. Hiding an amused smile, I whispered to my older companion, Ren Wenling, who was seated beside me. “It is always like this between those two.”

“Well, that Huang Meilin is Huang-laoshi’s favorite after all, even though they are not related by blood!” Ren-jie whispered back.

Huang Zhiyuan-laoshi was the owner of Meihua Chaguan, a well-known gathering place for literati and small groups to discuss topics, recite poetry, or exchange information. The Chaguan welcomed men and women of reputable backgrounds. A person must show his or her jade pendant before being allowed to enter.

Historically, the Chaguan was the site for the signing of the peace treaty with the marauding pirates, the Sea Serpent gang. The former governor, Geng Hai, had artfully negotiated terms for fair trade and safety of the populace of Dong Ying. Both sides, as a result, enjoyed twenty long years of peace and mutual benefits, which brought Dong Ying to its current state of prosperity. With such a prominent historical legacy, Huang-laoshi hoped that the ideas and fresh personalities brewed within Meihua Chaguan would lead to further greatness.

Still, I sipped my tea. What could we women do to better society? Most avenues of political advancement were closed to us. The inner court with its rules bound us to a code of silence, but such boundaries can be nudged little by little, one written word or embroidery at a time. I set my cup on the table and gazed at my companions thoughtfully. Each girl came from a different background. Ren-jie, the eldest of us, came from a background of judicial officials; her father currently served as a supervisor of records in the local court office. Fang Lihua, who was my younger sister’s age, was the daughter of a local magistrate and granddaughter of Yu-xianzhang, the current governor of Dong Ying. Huang Meilin, the youngest, was a lover of poetry and literature and daughter of a lesser noble family in Dong Ying. Had any one of these girls been been given the chance, I felt her skill could be utilized to better society.

“Ladies, ladies!” called a booming voice. The two girls’ bickering broke off as Huang-laoshi’s presence filled the entrance of our private room. My companions and I stood up and greeted him. “A hearty discussion as always,” he commented as his sharp eyes perused the sheets that were strewn across the table. Huang-mei blushed and said quietly, “I was inspired by the story of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd.”

“Every work is based on a story, whether it is a story of your own or a story you have heard. Still, this particular imagery evokes such a strong sense of loss…” Again, they were lost in their own little world.

“Pardon me, Zhang-jie.” I turned to the entrance. My maidservant, Wei, bowed and said to me in a low voice, “The mistress is asking that you purchase some cakes for the celebration tonight.”

I had nearly forgotten. Politely, I excused myself.

“Not at all. We are sorry that we could not spend more time with you,” Ren-jie answered. The others nodded.

“You must tell your father congratulations on his promotion,” Huang-laoshi said amicably. “Jiang!”

A young man came bearing a box wrapped in purple silk decorated with cranes. “Please, Zhang-xiaojie, a gift for your father as our congratulations,” Huang-laoshi gestured to the box.

I politely refused saying that Huang-laoshi was too generous. Persistently, the man pressed the box into my hands. I could only accept.

Wei and I stepped out into the street. I drew my cloak around my shoulders a little tighter as I mused idly on where I should go to purchase the cakes. The Chaguan, a two-story structure that boasted a fine view of the ports, was located on the eastern outskirts of the affluent residential area in the city and within walking distance of the main commercial area. This particular neighborhood consisting of fairly new, stone buildings was quiet and devoid of the greasy smells from restaurants. A young couple dressed in fine silk greeted me as they came from the side street. I returned their greetings and congratulated the lady on the growing life within her belly before they stepped into the Chaguan behind me. I smiled wistfully, remembering how my mother had been elated by the news of her niece in the capital having a child. That was the beginning of her well-rehearsed discourse that she needed to marry off Huiliang and me before we were too old. I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. “Ready, Hui-jie?” Wei asked. I nodded and we set off.

By the time we turned onto Old Market Street, streams of people and hand-pulled carts saturated the road. The cacophony of a bustling marketplace was a sharp contrast to the peaceful residential districts that I was used too. Thankfully, Wei gestured for me to follow as she wove a path to Lao Tong’s Bakery tucked between an accessory shop and herbal product shop. As we pushed through the crowd, the shopkeepers’ voices rose like crashing waves. We bowed politely to a group of elderly women as we headed inside the bakery.

“Careful, please!” An assistant carrying a steaming tray of buns called out as he burst out of the kitchen. Everyone stepped aside as he carefully switched out the empty tray for the new tray. “Greetings, Zhang-xiaojie!” Tong-laoban called as he made his way towards us. “What brings you here today?”

I returned his courtesies. “I have been asked to purchase a selection of pastries for my father’s celebration. If you would please, show us what delectable pastries you have today.”

Tong-laoban laughed. “No need to be so courteous. Your esteemed father has helped us many times in the past and we are proud to share in his celebration. Now let’s see what we have.” He gestured to various pastries and cakes, giving suggestions. I scanned the various shelves and made my selections to fill four boxes. I spied some liu sha bao and reserved three of those. Smiling, I knew Huiliang would love them.

After I made my purchases, he arranged for one of his assistants to carry the boxes back to the house. Wei held onto Huang-laoshi’s gift and the smaller box of the liu sha bao. I thanked him.

“It is always a pleasure doing business with your esteemed family. Do let us know when your important celebration will be held. We will be sure to prepare the best pastries for you,” his eyes sparkled with amusement.

I felt my cheeks redden. I could see Wei stifling a giggle behind her sleeve from the corner of my eye. I answered him courteously, “Of course, Tong-laoban.”

***

My mother was embroidering a purple silk shawl when we arrived at the front gate of the house. She examined the pastries and nodded her approval at the selections. Mei came and led the assistant to the kitchen to drop off the boxes. My sister was nowhere in sight.

“Huizhong,” my mother turned to me, “there is something we must discuss privately.”

Before following, I asked in an undertone to one of the maids about the whereabouts of my sister. She answered that she was unwell and resting. Strange, I thought, she was well yesterday.

I quietly gestured to Wei to bring some tea for us as I headed down the hallway to my mother’s quarters in the back. Built in the days of my great-grandfather, our home was a modest structure of wood and stone; there was an antechamber in the front for greeting guests and the kitchen and quarters for our household staff bordered the sides. There was a second courtyard in the back that housed our garden and was bordered by three buildings that made up our private chambers. The house was well kept by our household staff as noted by the clean stone floors and the sheen of the dark mahogany wood, achievable only after many hours of polishing. My mother trained her staff well.

The head handmaid, Kang, opened the doors and bowed. Inside, my mother majestically seated herself at the round table in the center. I waited until she was seated before settling opposite her. Shortly, Wei knocked, bearing a tray of tea and cups. As Wei served us, my mother folded the embroidery and handed it to Kang. My mother dismissed the maids and they withdrew.

“Huizhong,” my mother spoke after the doors were closed. “As you know, tonight the five grand families will gather for your father’s debut. They will also watch for opportunities.” She paused, sipping her tea.

As my mother talked, I listened and nodded at the appropriate intervals, but secretly thought back to what my father’s promotion entailed for our family.

My father’s promotion was not insignificant, I knew. He had labored on the Baoxing case during the autumn and winter months of last year. A severe famine had plagued Baoxing village. Initially, it was thought that drought was the cause, but the real culprit was far worse. Infection had spread to the crops from the water in the canal that was used to irrigate the fields. Those who had consumed the infected plants had horrifying cases of swollen limbs and severe thirst. The villagers, eager to quench their thirsts, drank directly from the canal; thus it led to an increase in the number of cases.

My father and his group worked tirelessly to cleanse the village of the pestilence and to bring in fresh water supply. A troupe of monks, physicians, builders, and civil planners were brought in to relieve the situation. Grain and food from neighboring villages had to be shared. It was ultimately decided that the village had to be reconstructed. The crops and bodies of the sick were burned.

The funeral bells tolled ominously and the smoke from the pyres could be seen even from Dong Ying. I remembered the nights my mother stayed awake, fearful for my father’s safety. Huiliang and I kept her company in her quarters. When my father returned from those nights, his weariness was like a palpable cloak huddled around his shoulders. He would hide himself in his study, his hands rubbing his eyes as he sought for answers.

Gradually, Baoxing village recovered with a new canal. New farming measures were enforced. The village began resuming daily activities. My father, after reporting to the governor, had returned home early that day. He was relaxing in the courtyard when I found him. He turned to me, a small smile on his lips. “Another day has passed. I can enjoy this brief moment of solace under these plum blossoms.” I followed his gaze, watching the blossoms dance on the breeze.

Just before the first signs of autumn, the imperial proclamation arrived and solidified my father’s promotion to head official of the treasury and grain in Anhu county. This debut was a target for gossipers and opportunists, who sought to displace him by finding reasons for his incompetence, no doubt. My father had always been dutiful at his work, accepting the tasks given to him by the previous head official. At the same time, he kept out of the intrigues of the court.

My mother glanced at me after her long discourse. I knew what that glance meant even though the words were unspoken: a favorable alliance through marriage. I slowly let out a breath that I had not realized I was holding. “Yes, mother.”

***

After seeing off the last guests with my parents and Huiliang, my father’s shoulders relaxed in relief. Yu-xianzhang had grandly commented that he was pleased to have my father as his new department head. The other officials followed suit, offering several congratulatory toasts. Shen-daren, I noted, engaged my father in deep conversation unlike the other officials, who made their half-hearted compliments. My mother was pleased, holding my father’s arm.

Huiliang was uncharacteristically silent during dinner. She had absently picked at her food. I found myself having to answer for her during the incessant questions posed by the officials’ wives. I saw him, Shen Mingzhi, seated next to his father listening to the conversation at the men’s table. He was to take the civil examination next year. We had seen each other occasionally and made polite talk about our families. Today was more of the same. Pleasant enough, I suppose.

“Ah, Huizhong, Huiliang,” my father said, smiling. “The evening passed well. Yu-xianzhang said that I will be starting my new work in the next three days.”

“So soon, father?” Huiliang asked, the first words she had spoken today. Our poor father had barely recovered from his work on the Baoxing case.

“The governor spoke of some urgent matters that I need to start on-” his brow furrowed.

“My dear,” my mother interrupted, “Perhaps we should retire. It has been a long evening.” He relented. Huiliang and I bade our parents good night and retreated towards our wing of the house.

I was about to wish my sister good night when Huiliang gripped my sleeve. “Jiejie, there is something that I must speak with you urgently.” She looked worried unlike her usual self.

I nodded. “Wei?” My maid stepped forward and bowed. “Could you please bring some tea and the liu sha bao to my room?” She nodded and left immediately. I gently guided my sister towards my quarters.

One bao later, Huiliang’s worry was lifted temporarily. I smiled as I watched her licking the creamy custard off her fingertips as daintily as a cat. Wei sat with us, enjoying her share of bao. I waited.

Finally, after gathering her thoughts, my sister spoke, “I dreamt of something terrible a few weeks before. There was a man in a cave with drawings and scribbling on the walls. He was drawing a demonic diagram of what looked like an owl on the ground. Next to him was a captive bound and gagged.”

She trembled as she described the gruesome sacrifice the man performed. “The man set the bowl of sacrificial blood to an altar and began praying in a foreign language. Before him, a creature of the netherworld took shape. They were speaking in the same foreign language but suddenly the creature stopped and noticed me. I remember trying to run away, but my body was frozen and I crashed to the ground. Then I woke up.”

I reached out and grasped her cold, clammy hands. “Did you have any other dreams after that?”

Huiliang shook her head. “Not so much dreams. It’s just that an owl was hooting outside my window last night. It kept me awake all night.”

I hated to admit that my sister had such a lively imagination. I sighed and tried to reason with her. “Meimei, I think you have been over-imagining things. Are you unwell? Why would a demon be summoned after all these years of peace? The monasteries have their eyes on all the sacred places.”

Huiliang did not say anything. She pulled her hands out of my grasp and excused herself for bothering me. At the door, she turned around and said softly, “You do not believe me.” The door shut silently behind her.

I could not sleep. I replayed my conversation with Huiliang in my mind. My sister, occasionally, had these strange dreams but they had been harmless fantasies of a young girl wanting adventure. This particular dream was too realistic. Perhaps she had been stressed or heard some gruesome stories from the old matrons who sold their wares on the street. In any case, it was unlikely that the netherworld would come to haunt us again. I had barely closed my eyes, when I heard light footsteps on the roof.

Immediately, I pulled on a robe over my sleeping garments and tied on the sheaths of my twin blades. I slipped out of room, following the direction of the sound toward the west side.

Before I could advance, a small dagger hit the post near my head. I dove into a somersault and drew my blades in time to catch a blow. I pushed back and clashed against my assailant. The assailant was in black robes, masked, and armed with a saber. The guards were nowhere to be seen, probably cut down mercilessly. I gritted my teeth. I would have to protect my family.

I stepped into an attack stance, my right blade leading, and pounced. We clashed. I feigned and drew blood on his left leg. He staggered and fell down on one knee. I flicked one of my blades at his wrist, spilling blood. The saber fell to the ground. I kicked it aside.

“Who is your employer?” I demanded, holding my blade to his throat. The man chuckled unpleasantly but did not answer. I heard a scream from Huiliang’s room. Distracted, I turned and was knocked down from behind. I felt a blade pressed against my throat. How careless of me! Before the final blow came, he was knocked away from me by Wei’s flying kick, followed by several punches. Wei signaled for me to go to my sister’s aid. I ran.

I skidded to a halt just outside the doorway. I gazed in horror at the scene. The furniture was in disarray. My sister’s body was lying in the center of the room. Blood blossomed from a cut on her neck. Another man dressed in black crouched next to her, assessing her. Rage flooded through me. I threw my blade at his unprotected back.

A blur of black appeared in the path of the blade. The air was suddenly charged with energy. Then the blade cracked and shattered.

I dropped to a crouch and braced myself as shards flew by, a few of them piercing my flesh. The smell of burnt metal hung heavily in the air.

Ignoring the sting of pain, I slowly lowered my arms but my vision began to waver. The newcomer stood before me, expression unfathomable beneath his white owl mask. The other man rose to his feet, and as he turned, a cruel smile played on his lips under the sinister black owl mask.

Then I lost consciousness.

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