The sign that sits over the lintel of the Drunken Rooster reads “we have served tea to all the world,” and it is only a slight exaggeration. The inn sits just south of Tsang and just north of Wu. The Sai River, which starts in Pa’i and doesn’t end until it has reached the land of the Engs, flows right by the front door. It is a borderland, on the margin of every country’s map. It is a place where the dead get of hand if they aren’t placated, honored, and fed.
I own the Drunken Rooster now, but before me came Shang Hua, my aunt by marriage. My father owed her a debt for some very fast talking and two bottles of fermented millet, difficult to come by in that part of the world. When it came to pass that I could see over the edge of the table and somewhat handle a knife without hurting myself, I traveled a full month overland to live with my aunt.
She let me cry myself out that first night before lifting me up on a sturdy stool and showing me how to cut pork against the grain, with a cap of fat and skin left on top to caramelize in her enormous pot. She lined the pot with onions, letting them cook in a fragrant broth of sugar and fish sauce, and then she directed me to tip in the pork and to splash it over with water.
“Now what?” I asked, scrubbing at my eyes with the back of my hand. I was still heartbroken at being so far from home, but I was hungry, too.
She shrugged her round shoulders, the short embroidered cape she wore making them even rounder. She didn’t look like the women I had grown up with. Her face reddened fast in the steam, and the kitchen was always filled with steam. Her eyes were small and often narrowed with distrust. She hadn’t once told me to stand up straight or directed me to practice my handwriting, though, so I was cautiously hopeful that perhaps things would not be so bad.
“Now it’s just waiting, niece,” Hua said. “Then after we wait, there will be something good to eat.”
It was quiet at the Drunken Rooster that night, one of those evenings where the world seemed to pause for breath. I could hear the murmur of the Sai in its banks, and the wind whistled a little, coming down from the mountain to say hello.
In an hour, a little more, Hua whipped the lid off the pot, and the most delicious smell spilled out. Caramelized pork and onions, brown and salty, sweet and glistening with fat. Eaten hot over pure white rice, I thought it was food fit for a princess, but before I reached for the blue bowl that I had brought with me all the way from Chu-hsien, I hesitated.
“What about Uncle?” I asked timidly.
He was my father’s youngest brother. The only thing that I knew about him was that he had run off with a wild woman four years ago who had come through town carrying a pan big enough to fry a small child.
In response, my aunt scooped out a generous portion of rice, dressed it with some pork and onions, and stuck a pair of chopsticks straight up and down in the bowl.
“He died two days ago,” she said calmly, setting it on the table.
I didn’t know what to make of that, wondering if I should be sad for the death of a man who I had never met, but then there was a scraping at the rear of the inn, a noise that echoed through the darkness. I hunched my shoulders in fear, but my aunt only nodded.
“Ah,” she said, “that should be him now.”
When the dead come to the back door, their bellies empty and their eyes gazing jealously on the lives that used to be theirs, the food you give them must be the very best. In Tsang, especially in the capitol, they don’t consider it a meal unless it’s spicy enough to make your tongue go numb. In Wu, the food is plainer, and Hua said they made it into a virtue, relishing the purest white rice dusted over with a sprinkle of black salt. The people from Pa’i, seafarers, firebreathers, and storytellers come to rest on their shoal of small islands, like their food fatty and plentiful, sweet with plenty of rice wine.
We couldn’t serve all of them as well as they would have liked, but we did our best. After all, my aunt would say, most people won’t say no to something that starts with a chopped leek and a dead chicken. Living right on the Sai gave us an advantage, both in terms of the food that we could get from the traders and the custom that came in the door. A fair day might see a Pa’i mercenary in for a breakfast of rice porridge, a prosperous Tsang merchant and his family for a lunch of lacquered duck, and a pair of nuns in saffron for a large shared dinner of last winter’s salted pork cooked in apples.
“I didn’t think that nuns ate meat,” I said, fortunately not so loudly they could hear me. My aunt grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back to the kitchen where she glared at me, her eyes small with anger.
“Don’t ever let me hear you talking about what people order,” she said, so sternly that it made tears well up in my eyes. “If they ask, and we have it, all I ever want you to say is ‘please enjoy the food, understand?”
I nodded, and then she sighed at the tears that were running down my face. I was a sensitive child, and she had never had to deal with children at all before my father sent me west.
“Those ladies aren’t nuns,” she said gently, “but it’s not polite to point it out, right?”
I understood ‘not polite’ at least, and I learned to set down the platters of slivered duck and bowls of rice or millet with a cheerful ‘please enjoy the food!’, just as Hua directed. After a few months, I stopped batting an eye, taking after my aunt’s philosophy that everyone needed to eat, no matter how good, bad or strange.
Good, bad, or strange described our clientele at the Drunken Rooster very handily. The year I turned seventeen was especially busy because Tsang was warring again. There were plenty of people on all sides of the conflict who had no interest in being ground up, whether it was under the hand of the Boar Emperor or the various warlords who had decided they wanted their try at being the Great King Under Heaven.
We fed the people coming through, and we fed their dead as well. There was a small graveyard behind the inn that grew larger that year. The ferry workers brought accidental deaths to us, people who drowned in the river or fell from the barges to be dragged under the steep hulls. Once in a while, some old pilgrim would slip on their sandals and keep walking, leaving their barefoot body behind.
The locals paid my aunt a twice-yearly fee to make sure that she kept the dead fed and happy. The dead like to eat as they did in life, and so we were always very busy. Between the fee and the living customers that came through, we made a nice living.
My aunt handled the dead and the living alike with a shrug and the understanding that people should be fed what they liked, if we could do it. Early that summer, there was a slender little miss who had committed love suicide with her man. She refused to move on until we could find lotus nuts for her, and that took almost four weeks. It wasn’t so bad, even if she sat next to the stove and asked me what I was making every few minutes, and when she moved on, she gave me a cool little kiss on my cheek that made my aunt giggle for what I imagine must have been the first time in her life.
The evening that Lord Ning appeared, there was a storm waiting to fall on us from the north. The air prickled with uneasy heat, and the only guests were a group of monks who ate their rice and vinegar pickles in the courtyard, even though my aunt said they might as well come in since custom was so bad.
I was scrubbing out the giant pot with sand when there was a sound like a thunder clap, so close that my ears popped. I thought that lightning had finally hit the dead tree on the bank, and I rushed out to make sure that no one was hurt.
In life Lord Ning was a big man, and when he appeared at the inn’s wooden gates, mounted on an enormous chestnut mare, he looked even larger. He was dressed in a suit of armor made from linked and laminated leather plates, all painted a glittering green that must have cost a fortune. He had a sword with him that he named the Lightning of Wei Lu Xin, and he rode straight into the courtyard, scattering the monks like saffron rice.
“I was told I could get a meal here, woman,” he said, peering down at my aunt from behind his bristling mustache. She had a bag of greens in one hand and a chicken clucking madly in the other. Her face was stone, and she scowled.
“Of course you can, sir,” she began, but then he spurred his horse forward, its thick hooves lashing out dangerously, missing my aunt by a handspan. Hua fell back with a curse, glaring up at the warlord who was glaring down at her.
“It is lord when a Tsang woman speaks to me,” he said, his voice full of cannon fire and gravel. “You will lay out your best food at once for me, for I am Lord Ning of the Eight Valleys, martyr of the Battle of West Ridge, and favored son of the Great Emperor of the Heavens. I conquered the Red Court of Shao Fan, and I will have my due.”
“Of course, my lord. At once, my lord,” my aunt said, her voice flat.
Lord Ning peered after her as if he was uncertain about her tone, but he still dismounted, throwing the reins of his horse to one of the monks who were just beginning to recover from the start. It turned out to be a bad idea, as that teenage monk lit out for Wu that very night, riding Lord Ning’s mare. The old abbot said he had never had much of a head for the monkhood, but a life as a southern pirate, as I heard later, suited him quite well.
As for Lord Ning, he never noticed the loss of his horse because once he took his seat at the head of our largest table, he settled in and seemed to have no intention of leaving.
My aunt went about her business; just another day, after all. She roasted the chicken she had had tucked under her arm and dressed it with soy sauce and stuffed with ginger and bright red sausage. She prepared a thin water spinach broth and set out a small bowl of white rice next to it.
She brought it to the table and laid it out in front of Lord Ning. It was an excellent supper, and I had helped her with the roasting. I knew that it was good, and at first, from the way Lord Ning started to wolf it down, tearing the chicken with both hands, I thought we would soon be rid of him.
But when the dinner was nearly scraps, the broth drained, and the rice bowl empty except for a few stray grains at the bottom, he glared around and bellowed for my aunt again.
“This food is not fit for a man who has straddled the earth like a giant,” he thundered. Honestly, that lost its effect after the fourth or fifth time he did it. I covered my ears against it, but my aunt stalked into the dining room, glaring at him.
“I am sorry that the food is not to your taste,” my aunt said, her courtesy stiff and rusty. “But it is all we have tonight.”
And of course you can certainly try to do better elsewhere, was the unspoken ending.
“Fine, fine,” Lord Ning said, waving his broad hand “Tomorrow you will do better.”
The next day, we prepared braised fish drenched in wilted green onions and fresh red radish pickles, a particular favorite of mine. I cooked the whole thing while my stomach was growling, but all the dead are selfish, and I couldn’t take one bite before bringing it to the table.
The dead lord smacked his lips heartily at the sight of the meal, but again, he ate it down to the last bite, leaving that contemptuously on the plate.
“Country bumpkins, when will you serve me what is my due? I am Ning who killed Lord Hsieng at the fords of the Sai River!”
One armored fist sent the plate shattering to the floor, and I backed away, teeth gritted.
It went on like this with no sign of stopping, and this was no wispy girl sitting next to the stove. He hovered like a storm cloud in the dining room, and when the living saw him glowering in the corner, they backed out of the inn quickly. Some of them could be convinced to eat in the courtyard, but most hurried on.
“We’re running short on cooking oil,” I told my aunt, and she snorted.
“We’re running short on everything. It all goes into the belly of that cross-eyed frog-eater.”
We had actually tried frogs, delicately skinned and then fricasseed. He ate all but half of one, and it was the same story all over again.
“What are we going to do?” I asked, sitting on an overturned wooden bucket by the back door. “We’re going to go broke at this rate.”
“And be two women living in a ghost-haunted county, on top of it.”
The dead lord’s lowering presence put off the dead as well as the living, especially since our dead were most of the humble variety. Farmers, fishers, pilgrims, none of them wanted to eat next to Lord Ning, and they cleared out too. It might be as much as a year before an exorcist came around our way again, and a year of Lord Ning’s boasts was too terrible to consider.
My aunt cooked when she was frustrated or angry (when she was happy and content, as well, but that hadn’t happened since Lord Ning showed up). She bound up her hair with a black cloth and worked herself to exhaustion over ox shanks, duck livers, stuffed fish, and even vegetarian holy dishes. She boiled bones to extract the rich stock from the marrow, and she used it the next day to infuse the meat. She was a frenzy of activity until one night, I found her flat on her back in the courtyard, staring up at the starlit sky. In the inn, Lord Ning was bellowing to an empty house about his killing of the three sons of Minister Shen.
“I have been going about this all wrong,” my aunt said presently. “This whole time, I thought I could get rid of him by giving him what he wants.”
“That’s good advice for ghosts, you always said.”
“But not good advice for bad customers. That ass-faced whale-purge doesn’t want to move on. He wants to sit and talk about his conquests, while having us run to bring him plates of goat and duck.”
“It’s not like we can get the local magistrate after him, though,” I said. “The magistrate hasn’t been by once since Lord Ning took up residence.”
“No, I think I know what to do,” my aunt said, sitting up. “I need you to watch the inn for a little while.”
A little while turned out to be close to a month. She took up the walking stick by the door, put on her embroidered cape, and left me with dwindling supplies and an insatiable dead man to feed.
I was mostly equal to the challenge, what there was of it. At this point, it was achingly clear that my aunt was right. A monk might have said something about the man being a glutton for wealth, fame, and power in life, or perhaps that earthly desires held him to this world, but I’d been waiting tables since I was ten. He was a man who wanted everything he could get for the least amount he had to spend.
I kept the dishes simple, dodged the scraps he threw at me in retaliation, tried to entice real customers dead and living to come in, and gritted my teeth through his stories, which were by this point beginning to repeat themselves. I heard about the three sons of Minister Shen, Lord Hseing, Lady Autumn, and the rest so often that I thought I could imagine them, Lady Autumn’s whirling steel fans, Lord Hsieng’s stern face, the three identical boys who Lord Ning let slip had been no older than I was.
I slept with my pillow over my head, and by the end of the month, I thought that I might be living in my own personal hell.
My aunt was simply back in the kitchen early one morning, taking stock of the pantry as if she had never left.
“You’ve let things get a low,” she said, “but it could be worse.”
“Where have you been?” I demanded. “Did you find anything that will help with...”
She spared me a quick glance, but there was a sly glint in her smile.
“Come on, we have work to do,” she said. “Take some coins from the jar, and have Lu bring by a goat, a fat one, not one of those bags of bones. On your way back, pick up a big bundle of water spinach, and some sweet potato candy as well.”
She was never one for explaining things, so with a sigh, I fell in beside her. She pulled out cup after cup of rice, not the plain white that we mostly used, but her special store of gleaming black rice, brought from Pa’i. I held down the goat while she cut its throat, and then together we butchered it neatly, hanging the meat up to drain until we could get it into the cookpot. I walked out to the tall linden trees, and after some digging pulled up two full jars of preserved duck eggs. They were only six months old, not as good as they would be at a year or two, but when I cleared off the ash and the clay and peeled off the shells, the whites had turned to translucent black jelly and the yolk to a gray salty paste. My aunt nodded with approval.
“Good, they’ll do well enough. Now wash up the water spinach, and get out the good dishes.”
I wondered if my aunt planned to stuff Lord Ning so full of food that we could simply roll him out to the river and sink him. It was an idea I had entertained in the long month she was gone.
Lord Ning watched with hungry hollow eyes as we set the plates on the long wooden table. Our best china was still only glazed earthenware, but the food that I and my aunt had made gleamed like jewels in the lamplight. At the center of the table was the roast goat, of course, braised and sitting in a salty broth. Arrayed around it were dishes of fried vegetables, cold pickles, fried fish, and braised chicken resting on a bed of shredded orange carrots and white cabbage.
It was like the meals we would cook for the new year, and the table fairly groaned under the weight. My aunt fussed with the placement of the fish, and then as Lord Ning watched, she placed a bowl of the black rice] by every seat at the table.
“Stupid woman, what are you doing? I am Lord Ning, who—”
“I know who you are,” my aunt said briskly. She began to ladle delicate broth into each of the smaller bowls by each plate. “Our guests tonight know who you are as well.”
“Guests? What is the meaning of—”
Four knocks sounded at the door. It would have been tremendously unlucky for any living person to announce themselves in that fashion, but for the dead, it was just right.
“Come in and be welcome,” my aunt called, and the door swung open.
The three sons of Minister Han were tall and thin, but their bodies had swollen up from the lake where they had been thrown. They came in on a tide of boisterous shouting and laughter, carrying their leather helmets under their arms and handing me their swords with the usual jokes. They were identical in life, but death had marked them differently, one with a deep dry cut over his throat, one with a hole clean through his heart, and the third with a missing arm.
They came in and sat to the left of Lord Ning, praising my aunt’s cooking all the while, flirting with her and saying they hadn’t seen better since they left the capitol.
My aunt laughed at their outrageous compliments, mock-scolding them affectionately, but it looked like she was waiting for something. Lord Ning scowled at the three newcomers, one finger tapping hard on the table, but just when it looked as if he had summoned up the liver to say something, the door knocked again, four times.
At my aunt’s call, the door opened and Lord Hsieng, short and round as a cauldron, clad in his famous red lacquered armor, strode in. People always said that he was a big man, but that wasn’t quite right. He would have come up to my nose if we were standing face to face, but he entered the room like a boom of lighting, and no one would ever have found him small.
He greeted my aunt with a fond bow of his head, and he took his place at Lord Ning’s right, laughing with the sons of Minister Shen. They had known each other once upon a time, and of course he had embarrassing stories about all three.
By this point, Lord Ning looked downright green. He must have thought he was being discreet when he rose, but Lord Hsieng took him by the arm, keeping him where he was.
“There’s still more coming, warlord,” Lord Hsieng said with a deadly joviality. “This is your feast. This is your honor.”
If a corpse could pale, Lord Ning did. If he had been alive, sweat would have popped from his brow like drops of grease from the skin of a roasting pig. He sat still, however, and four knocks came again.
Lady Autumn was as tall as Lord Hsieng was short, and her face was as brown as cinnamon bark, death taking none of its color. She moved as if she had no feet at all, floating as smoothly over our floor as she had over the stage, and she declined to surrender her war fans. She gave me and my aunt a regal nod and seated herself at the other end of the table from Lord Ning. She did not joke or laugh.
The silence was thick enough to mire a water buffalo. Still we waited, and I knew that somehow, there were yet more coming. My aunt looked calm, but there was a rustling energy about her.
This time, there was no knock on the door, only a humble scrabbling, and when my aunt called for them to enter, they came in one at a time.
These dead were nameless. They had not always been, I knew that. Somewhere, there was a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend mourning the loss of someone who could never be replaced. However, the mass graves that littered the frontier afforded no fame or recognition, and there were far more of these soldiers than there were minister’s sons or courtesans turned general.
They filed in, their grave-muddied feet leaving no trace on the floor, and they were a tide of angry mutters, tired whispers and low growls. They filled the room until I hopped up on the tall barrel of spiced brine to get out of their way. There was no space left at the table, but the soldiers thronged close, close enough to make even a man as big as Lord Ning shrink into himself.
I had served the dead for almost ten years at that point. They didn’t frighten me anymore, but now, their anger did. The fact that it was not focused on me was the only thing that kept me breathing. There was death in the air, and it didn’t matter at all that some of those deaths were years old or had happened over the mountains or across the sea.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” my aunt said as if it were a normal night. “Eat, eat.”
Her words broke the storm, and there was a rush, towards the table I thought at first. The food we had spent all day preparing was torn apart and devoured greedily. It disappeared down to the bones, down to the broth. Then they started on Lord Ning.
They tore into him as if he were steamed dough, harsh fingers digging at the plates of his armor. The three brothers circled him while Lord Hsieng tore at his belly, the armor offering no more protection than the crust of good bread. Lady Autumn’s fan lashed out, sending a scatter of fingers to the waiting horde. I am sure he cried out, but it was lost under the sound of smacking lips and groans of satisfaction.
Somehow, he freed himself from the crowd, shoving his way across the inn. For one terrible crystal clear moment, I saw him, the fat and flesh and muscle ripped from his bulk, the armor hanging in tatters, and most of his mustache pulled off.
He bludgeoned and barreled his way to the door, opened it, and then he was gone, the hungry people he had slain in his life swarming after him.
The air in the inn lightened immensely. I felt as if I could truly take a breath for the first time in months. The dining room was empty, but soon it would be full again, with living and dead who only wanted a bit of something to eat before they passed through.
My aunt made a brief noise of satisfaction, a tick of her tongue behind her teeth, and started to gather up the dishes.
“Well, come on,” she said lightly. “There’s dishes to do.”