There was a trail to follow, if one could call a slight lessening of the undergrowth a trail.
“Honored Father Pan Bao,” I asked, “Please tell me again why we are on this freezing mountain? I haven’t seen the sun since we entered this forest.”
“Filial—Occasionally, When It Suits Her—Daughter Jing, as I did not tell you the first time, how by all the gods can I tell you again?”
I was perhaps too optimistic, but as my father was still feeling the effects of the previous evening’s carousing—mostly involving plum wine—I had hoped to catch him unaware. I should have known better. My father may have had a headache and a slight worsening of his normally dour disposition, but he had taken our client’s gold, and I knew from experience gold tended to focus his mind when little else save a new scroll on the Tao could.
“Then will you perhaps tell me for the first time?”
He seemed to consider, though he never broke stride. “Jing, as we are both likely to perish today, perhaps I should. We’re hunting a very powerful snake-devil.”
I sighed. “That is the sort of thing one should know beforehand. When were you going to tell me?”
He paused to scratch his beard. There was a hint of gray in it now, something I had barely noticed before. “In truth, I was debating whether I should tell you at all. At seventeen, you know little or nothing of the world. As your father, it is my duty to keep matters that way until the time you are married.”
Dying in ignorance is not a virtue, Honored Father. But then, marrying in ignorance probably wasn’t either.
I thought it, but I did not say it. There was no point. Father may have been a scholar of the Tao, but he was not above invoking the teachings of Kong Fuzi when it suited him, usually where I was concerned. It was my place to be the innocent, obedient daughter, except in our role of devil hunters when I had to use my martial training to kill something. I took a moment to loosen my jian in its scabbard across my back. This accomplished little except to make me feel a bit better. In addition to his wards and charms, Father had his own jian, except his was made of peachwood and was, in its way, far more powerful than my own sword of three-plate bronze. It depended on who—or more likely what—was to be killed.
As we ascended, the undergrowth thinned out until we emerged into a high meadow. The trail was still visible, if faint. The sun was visible again but weak and cold, and an icy wind struck us now without hindrance, making me wistful for the undergrowth. “Did you say ‘snake-devil,’ Honored Father?”
“A high mountain cave seems an odd abode for a snake-devil. Especially at this time of year.”
While winter was not yet fully upon us, here in the north of Qin late autumn was severe enough. I was dressed warmly, but even so I was chilled. I could only imagine it would be worse for the devil. If a snake-devil was not a true snake, it did share many of a snake’s characteristics, including an aversion to cold weather.
“While it is my obligation as a follower of the Tao to root out evil, the weather was, I admit, a consideration. I expect the creature to be somewhat sluggish now. We must use this to our advantage if we are to succeed.”
“You mean not die?”
My father sighed. “You’re starting to remind me of your blessed mother,” he said. “Please stop.”
I had barely known her before she died, but my mother’s face was burned into my memory. She was beautiful, as by my own reckoning I was not. The idea that I might still remind my father of her in some regard I found very cheerful, even if that regard might be my annoying habit of seeing through his nonsense. I had no way of knowing personally, but Father had made it clear enough over the years this had been one of her less endearing traits.
The path grew steeper once we’d crossed the meadow, and we soon came across a high mountain stream. Father paused to consult a small scroll. “This is what we were looking for. We follow the stream and it will lead us to the monster’s cave.”
“I gather this creature is causing mischief, else why pay us to remove it? Who is our client?”
“The Provincial Governor, Sun Fu. Apparently the beast descends from the mountain whenever it gets hungry, and so far under his administration it has devoured three soldiers and seven goats. Most of Qin’s fighting men are needed for the southern borders with Chu, Zhou, and Wei, and on the north side of this mountain are barbarians probing for weaknesses. He can’t afford to lose any more soldiers. Or goats, for that matter.”
I frowned. “Is Qin at war, Father?”
He paused a moment before answering. “Daughter, so far as I can tell everyone is at war now, or preparing for it. The political aspects of the situation do not concern you... or me, come to that. We have a mission to complete. That is all that matters to us.”
We followed the stream into a small defile cutting deep into the side of the mountain. Evening was falling, and the sides of the crevice cut off some of the remaining light. Ahead we could see a shadow that marked the cave entrance, though the stream emerged from a smaller crevice to the side rather than directly from the cave. I drew my jian as we approached the opening. “We’ll likely need torches.”
“Wait until we’re inside and our eyes adjust to the darkness. No point in revealing ourselves sooner than we must.”
Which presumes the devil doesn’t know we’re coming.
We paused just inside the cave’s mouth. I wasn’t too worried, as the entrance was narrow enough that any attack would of necessity be from the front, and there was still enough light to see anything coming. In fact, there was more light than I expected as we moved farther in, so much so that I abandoned the idea of torches.
Father looked about. “Very curious,” he said.
“The fact that we can still see our hands before our faces, Honored Father?”
“That and it’s much too warm in here, or had you noticed?”
I was not especially fond of caves. They tended to be damp and cramped and chilly. Granted, in extreme winter weather they were much warmer than being outside, exposed to the elements. Yet this particular cave was even warmer than that. It was almost... pleasant.
“Wait a moment, Daughter.”
We paused then. In my estimation we were now about half a bowshot into the cave. It had not widened appreciably nor had the light dimmed, so I was still reasonably confident that we could not be taken by surprise, but that still left the mystery of the light and warmth. I could see a source for neither.
“This isn’t right,” he said.
“For a cave? No. For the abode of a snake-devil? Ideal,” I said.
Father grunted. “Exactly. This is spirit magic at work, which means this creature may be even more powerful than I suspected.”
“You flatter me, Sir.”
The icy wind we had walked through on our way to the cave settled into my stomach when I realized the voice had come from behind us. Father and I whirled about to find what appeared to be a finely dressed young woman only a few years older than myself, standing less than twenty paces away.
I dismissed the thought. Its resolution was not nearly so pressing as surviving the next few moments. I held my blade straight toward the figure and adopted a defensive stance. Father fumbled for his peach sword, but all the while the woman merely looked at us. For a few moments we returned the favor.
“It’s an illusion,” Father said.
The woman frowned. “I assure you I am quite real.”
“I meant your appearance, devil. Reveal yourself!”
She smiled. “It’s more transformation than illusion. As for revealing myself, there is no need. You know what I am, nor am I trying to deceive you, but as of yet I am not certain what you are. This requires some thought, so pardon me.”
The image of the woman swirled as if it had turned to mist, and in an instant she was gone. Father and I stared at the empty space where she had been, then turned to each other at almost the same moment, but I asked the obvious question first.
“Father, why aren’t we dead?”
He scratched his beard with the tip of his wooden sword. “Curious.”
I frowned. “That’s all you have to say? We were caught unawares by what is clearly a very powerful devil who doubtless knows our intent, and all you can say is ‘Curious’”?
“But, Daughter Jing, isn’t it? Consider your own question: why are we still alive? In the devil’s place I would have slain the both of us without a second thought, and so would you. Yet the creature seemed, well, curious about us. Why do you think that is?”
“It’s plain that it knows what a human is, as it assumes the form of one and has eaten more than a few. How are we special? I do not know.”
“Neither do I. Our mission—not to mention our lives—may depend on answering that question.”
I had another question of my own in mind. I took flint and striking stone and after a few moments managed to get a torch lit.
“Daughter, why are you doing that? We have more than enough light to see.”
“To see? Certainly. To examine? On that small issue I would disagree.”
I crept back to where the creature had made its appearance, first examining the ground, then raising the torch to get a closer look at the wall and ceiling.
“There it is,” I said.
Father joined me there and looked up where I pointed. “Ah. Very clever, Daughter.”
There was a circular tunnel connecting to the main tunnel, at about the height of a tall man and about as wide, leading away into the darkness. It had blended into the shadows of the rock in that dim light so well that neither of us had spotted it.
“It stood to reason that, as the devil is a physical creature, it hadn’t simply manifested behind us. I’ll wager there are more of these,” I said.
“Well done... and another reason to be vigilant.”
Neither of us spoke of simply turning back, though I must admit the thought did occur to me. My father had been a devil hunter before I was born, and as he had no son, he had trained me to follow his example until the day, as he sometimes threatened, to marry me off to the first brute foolish enough to meet his conditions. Said conditions always seemed to change from one day to the next, or at any time when my frustration with his drinking and carousing goaded me into asking about them.
I knew the thought was pointless—we knew nothing else, we had taken the provincial governor’s gold, and so we had no choice but to either fulfill our mission or die in the attempt, though now dying seemed likely. Honor was at stake, certainly, but if word spread that we had failed to deliver, our livelihood was also ruined, and Father’s vices were expensive.
It occurred to me, considering those vices, that we were in more difficulty than whatever the devil had planned for us. On that matter, Father seemed to be mulling the possibilities.
“We are not dead. Therefore, it seems likely that the devil wants something from us first.”
“You mean such as taking pleasure in tormenting us before our inevitable destruction?”
He smiled. “You’re thinking of a cat-devil. That is not the habit of snakes.”
“I have no idea. I admit I am curious to find out.”
We pushed on, though more slowly, and now I kept the torch lit, examining every inch of the cave wall as we proceeded, but we traveled at least a hundred paces further without finding any more side tunnels. Then the woman appeared again, this time in front of us, no more than fifteen paces away. The mist swirled once more and there she was.
“I understand how you might consider your business here pressing,” she said, “but I wonder if I might have a moment of your time.”
Father held his peachwood sword in front of him but had not begun any of the incantations appropriate for a confrontation with a snake-devil or any other kind. “While it seems foolish to me, in a sense we owe our lives to your forbearance, so it would be ungrateful to refuse you. However, I must warn you that any trickery will be met forcefully.”
She bowed slightly. “That is fair, as you have no reason to trust me. Yet I will further state that I know your intentions toward me just as you know my true nature. As I hinted before, this form I wear is for your convenience, not as a deception. If we must be in opposition, at least in these regards we can both be in accord.”
“Freely conceded,” my father said. “Other than our deaths, what do you wish of us?”
“Information. Or a possibility. I admit I am not yet sure which.”
Either the devil was sincere in her confusion or she was an even better deceiver than I expected. Considering my father’s proclivities, it should also have been easy enough for the creature to assume a form even more enticing—and distracting—to his lecherous eye. The creature’s appearance, while that of a winsome young woman, was not obviously designed for that purpose, aside from the fact that we all knew it was not her true form.
“We’re listening,” Father said.
“I have worn this form before,” she said, “while I... well, I’m sure you’ve heard of my transgressions, or you would not be here. I will not bother to defend them, other than to say I was hungry. But at one of those times I moved among the villagers as one of them, I heard an interesting story about a snake-devil long, long ago who lived as a human woman and eventually became one. I’m wondering if it is true.”
I frowned. “Are you referring to the legend of Madame White Snake?”
She brightened. “Yes! That’s it exactly. Is it true?”
“I used the word ‘legend’ deliberately,” I said. “It’s an old tale and as such has many versions. They cannot all be true.”
“Meaning it’s possible that one of them is true,” she said, and I had never seen a devil looking wistful. This one did.
“Most legends have at least a seed of truth,” Father said. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ll tell you, but first I need to think some more. Please excuse me.”
In an instant, she was gone—again—before we could even react.
“Father, do you have any idea whatsoever what that was about?”
He looked thoughtful. “Perhaps. The Three Jewels of the Way are Compassion, Moderation—what was that noise out of you, Daughter?”
“Forgive me, Father,” I managed to say. “I was just clearing my throat.” In reality I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, as that would have been most un-filial. After a pause and a glare, Father continued.
“As I was saying: Compassion, Moderation, and Humility. Of the Three Jewels, compassion is the first. It’s possible the creature is attempting to throw us off our guard by a false appeal to our empathy. Or....”
“She really does want to know the answer to her question. Frankly, I am undecided as to which is true.”
“Throwing us off guard seems rather pointless if she could have killed us already,” I pointed out.
Father didn’t even blink. “Devils are perverse creatures, and their motivations do not always make sense. Humans are the same. Never forget this, Daughter.”
I had no argument to make in that regard. “I think our next meeting will tell the tale, for good or ill. Shall we move on?”
Not that I was in a particular hurry to confront the creature. While my sword was imbued with as many devil-quelling charms and wards as my Father was capable of creating, I was nowhere near certain this would be enough. The creature was both smart and fast, and had demonstrated both traits to my complete satisfaction. Whatever advantage we had hoped to achieve from the cold had long since evaporated in the warmth of the creature’s cave. Plus, we would be fighting the devil in her lair. She knew its nooks and fissures as we did not. She had every advantage, and yet we still lived. More, we had not even been attacked.
As if sensing my thought, Father said, “I do not claim to understand what the creature wants from us, but I don’t think we should assume too much from the snake-devil’s reasonable demeanor. We know what she is and what she has done. If she has not acted as we feel she should, that is our limited perception. She has her own reasons.”
No doubt. I simply hoped that we might understand those reasons before she either killed us or we did the same to her, for I could not see any outcome to this matter save one or the other. I did not wish to either fail or succeed in ignorance.
My father frowned. “Jing, did you hear that?”
I did, just as he spoke. The faint notes of a flute coming from somewhere further up the tunnel. The sound became clearer the more we walked. “Is that a bawu?”
“I believe so,” he said.
There was no need to ask again, since by the time we had progressed a little farther I could even identify the song—“Spring Flowers on the Mountain.” I often played that one myself in whatever free time I had left after training, slaying devils, or looking after my father. I had my own bawu that I usually carried in a silk bag on my back along with my sword. I had to admit, however, that whoever was playing now put my poor skills to shame.
“Father, I see light ahead.”
While the tunnel we had been walking in for what seemed like hours carried its own dim illumination, what I saw now was much brighter, and the lovely soft notes from the flute sounded much clearer. I paused to extinguish the torch.
“She’s waiting for us, I think. Be on your guard, Daughter.”
We emerged into a cavern, or rather what could more precisely described as a lair, because it was unlike any natural cave I had ever known. It was at least two bowshots across in either direction, with mostly smooth walls and floor, save for a deep circular depression high on the far wall and what appeared to be an old stalagmite in the center of the floor, carefully carved and hollowed to accommodate a spring coming up from beneath it. The water gently poured over its sides and down into a circular moat that fed into a stone trough carrying it away to a fissure on the right hand side of the chamber, likely the source of the mountain stream. At equal distances from the fountain but nearer to the walls there were six bronze braziers holding glowing embers, which together made the light we had seen and the warmth we felt. I still heard the flute, but there was no sign of the devil.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Oh, here, I think,” Father said. “My peachwood sword will reveal her if she comes near, but at the moment she clearly chooses to be invisible.”
The echoes in the chamber made it difficult to determine her location from the direction of the sound. “I don’t like this.”
Father scratched his beard. “Neither do I. Yet this is the situation we are in. Even so....” He scratched his beard again. “I sense something.”
“No. Something older, fainter... something I can only describe as an echo of a shout, only the shout is long gone. Let’s have a look around.”
“Fine, but we stay together.”
We passed by the stalagmite fountain, and as it had been a long walk, I could not resist dipping a handful of water. I sniffed it carefully for any taint, found nothing, and drank it down. It was of the purest, sweetest water I had ever tasted. I would have encouraged Father to try it, but he was already a few paces ahead, and I hurried to catch up.
“Daughter, look at this.”
Father stood by a low stone slab, perfectly square and at least twenty paces across. Taking up the entire slab was the skeleton of a gigantic serpent, perfectly coiled. As we looked at it, amazed, the song on the flute changed from “Spring Flowers on the Mountain” to “Snow Falls on the Heart,” a song of longing and loss.
She appeared then, standing in the round depression high on the wall, the bawu across her lips. I had thought the circle might be another of her access tunnels, but closer now I could clearly see the solid stone behind her. The last note hung for a moment in the air and she lowered the flute.
“Mistress Devil,” Father said very formally. “I think it is time we spoke with one another again. Or have we been chasing a ghost all this time?”
“Shall we test that supposition?” she asked.
In an instant the bamboo flute in her hand transformed into a sword, the six braziers’ embers flared into flames so bright I was nearly blinded. The devil descended from the circle like a hawk stooping on its prey. Father was mumbling a charm of some sort, but I was mostly concerned with blocking the devil’s sword, which I never seemed to touch yet still, time and again, somehow kept from touching me. A wind swirled around us, and the devil’s long hair flew around her face like a nest of snakes. I saw a chance and lunged, but in that moment she simply was not there. Another moment and the fire from the braziers had died down and the snake-devil was again back high on the stone wall, flute in hand, as if nothing at all had happened.
I turned to my father. “An illusion?”
“Young Mistress, check your right sleeve,” the devil said.
I did. There was a very clean cut a finger’s length from the end that ran from the bottom of my sleeve until just below my arm. A little more and I might have lost the arm.
“I am no ghost,” she said.
Father’s only reaction to the cut on my sleeve was to nod and grunt. “I concede your reality and your skills, and admit it was wrong of me to goad you, as I knew a ghost was not possible. However, I would ask you to do us the courtesy of not underestimating us.”
“I do. As for that one,” she said, pointing her flute at the skeleton, “That was Jianhong. He was the original owner of this place. He was a very powerful snake-devil. As I was—relatively—young and foolish, I challenged him, as is our custom.”
“Then you must be even stronger, as this was the result,” Father said, indicating the skeleton.
She smiled. “On the contrary—he could have swatted me like a fly, if he had so chosen. Yet he not only let me live, he allowed me to share his home. It took me some time to understand why.”
I scowled at my ruined sleeve. “You mean he was not overwhelmed by your charm?”
Her smile didn’t flicker. “Nothing of the sort. Powerful as he was, he was also very old, and he was dying.”
Father nodded. “Ah, I think I’m beginning to understand.”
I looked from one to the other. “I admit that I do not understand. What has this to do with our current situation?”
“Daughter, it is a devil’s greatest ambition to become immortal, and despite his presumed power, Jianhong had failed to achieve this. So when he died... well, that was the end of him.”
“He wanted to be remembered,” the snake-devil said. “This I promised to do and have done. It was not immortality, but it was something. I realize to ones such as yourselves it is a small thing, but if I am dead at the end of today’s... business, shall we say, you might do him the courtesy of remembering his name.”
Father, looking more solemn than was usually his wont, agreed. “Done. Yet that is not all, is it? And before we go any farther, I am Pan Bao and this is my somewhat-filial daughter, Jing. May we know your name?”
The snake-devil descended from her perch high on the cave wall, moving in a rather winding pattern like a snake swimming through water. I held my sword at the ready, but Father had not moved. He was clearly waiting for an answer.
“I am called Mei Li,” she said as she gracefully touched down, “and I have a proposal. You have seen a bit of my skill, and I have seen a bit of yours. Your own power, Sir, you kept in check as I believe you realized my intent. As for your esteemed daughter, she came very close to wounding me. Frankly, I am no more certain of the outcome of a true contest than you are.”
I had to interrupt. “Father, is what she said true?!”
“Not entirely, Jing. I did put up a barrier. It would have been difficult for her to seriously harm you. And yes, I could have mistaken her intent, but then I have lived as long as I have by being right more often than not. Now please pay attention—the adults are speaking.”
Please clarify what would strike you as serious, Father? A lost limb? An eye, perhaps?
I slipped into sullen silence as I waited for the urge to throttle him to pass, which it always did. Eventually. I did love and respect my father, but I couldn’t resist wishing that he did not make it so hard to remember this sometimes. If that was an un-filial thought, so be it.
My father spoke first. “What is your proposal, Mei Li?”
“I merely wish to ask a small favor of you. If you will agree to it, I will submit myself to your will. Slay me if you wish; I will not resist.”
“And what is this favor?”
Mei Li looked uncomfortable. “That is the one part of my proposal that may cause some difficulty—until you agree, I cannot tell you.”
That was the end of my silence. “You mean we must agree to your terms and not know what they are? That’s absurd!”
“Not completely,” Mei Li said, calm as a statue. “You know my terms. What you do not know is the condition. I can only tell you that what I mean to ask will not cause harm to you or any other person.”
Father glared at me then replied to Mei Li. “Absurd or not, your proposal is interesting. Tell me—what if I agree to your terms but I am unable to fulfill them?”
“You are a scholar, Sir, I know this. As with any contract—it is simply an understanding between us, and I will agree to let it remain in force until the terms are fulfilled. But it is not any legal interpretation I will rely upon—only your word that you will fulfill my request if and when it is in your power.”
“And the alternative?”
Mei Li looked solemn. “Then I’m afraid we must fight to the death here and now,” she said. “I await your answer.”
Father was silent for several moments, and when he spoke again I could not believe what I was hearing. “I agree to your terms, Mei Li, provided you are willing to swear by the Ten Kings of Hell to fulfill your end and that your request will not cause harm to ourselves or any other person. In essence I, too, am asking for your word.”
She didn’t even hesitate. “By the Ten Kings of Hell, I swear that all I have said is true.”
“Then I agree and swear by the Tao to honor our bargain. Is this sufficient?”
“It is,” Mei Li said.
“And this ‘favor’ you wish of us?”
“I want you to send me to Hell,” she said.
I took my sword. “Easily done—”
I had taken no more than a step when Father grabbed my wrist. “Stop, Jing, and put your sword away. It’s over.”
I pulled away. “Honored Father, what do you mean ‘over’?” I asked through gritted teeth. “She just said she wants to die!”
He sighed. “No, she said she wants us to send her to Hell. Well, we can’t, or weren’t you listening?”
“She also said that her request would not bring harm to any other person,” I pointed out.
“Nor does it,” Mei Ling said. “I am not a person. I am a snake-devil... which is rather the point.”
I stopped then but only to stare at the both of them. “Would either of you care to enlighten me?”
Mei Li frowned. “Is she always this angry?”
“Quite often. When her mother named her Jing—‘gentle’—she was perhaps being optimistic,” Father said. “Daughter, when a person dies—a human person—no matter their merit, they go first to Hell to atone for their life’s sins before being reincarnated, correct?”
“So I have been told.”
“It does not work that way for devils,” Mei Li said. “Either we achieve immortality and eventual deification, or we die and go to nothing. A person goes to Hell and then on to a new life. A devil does not.”
“But... Hell is full of devils!”
“The ones who live there or have duties under the command of one of the kings. Not one such as I. But then I heard the story of Madame White Snake, a snake-devil who lives as a human for many years until she becomes one.”
I shook my head. “Or dies or is sealed away for eternity or... well, there are many other versions. Besides, it’s just a story!”
Mei Li just looked at me. “Young Mistress, empires have risen and fallen on the backs of stories. Lives changed, ruined, exalted! The course of human history turns on the stories people tell themselves about what they are or want to be. If all this is true, why do you suppose that a story does not have the power to change what I am? When I saw Jianhong die and vanish from all that is, I saw my future! Then the two of you appeared and I thought, perhaps, there was an alternative.”
“Change is a basic tenet of the Way,” Father acknowledged. “But there is more to this—I did and do agree to your request, though I cannot as yet fulfill it. Even so, you must hold up your end of the bargain until I do.”
“True,” Mei Li said. “I am at your command.”
“First, a new diet—no people. You will eat what we eat. Second and most obvious, you will need to maintain the appearance of the human you wish to become and live as one while you travel with us—”
“She’s coming with us?” I asked.
“Can you think of another way to fulfill our bargain?” Father asked. “Honestly, Daughter, you are not stupid, though sometimes your anger makes you appear so. It is now our responsibility to teach Mei Li how to be a human. No matter how long it takes.”
“Perhaps your Honored Father will grant you the privilege of killing me when the time comes,” Mei Li said. “Until then I will try not to be a burden.”
I sighed. “With all due respect, Honored Father, I think you’re forgetting something—we took the provincial governor’s gold on the promise that we would slay the snake-dev—I mean Mei Li.”
My father scratched his beard. “I will keep my agreement with the governor, eventually, though I do see your point. He will not take kindly to our returning without immediate proof.”
Mei Li smiled again. “Honored Sir and Young Mistress, if I may—I think I have an answer to our dilemma.”
In the end, Father took the skull of a snake-devil rather than an intact head to present to the provincial governor, explaining that he had stripped and bleached it so as to avoid offending the governor’s delicate sensibilities. He was even able to give the devil’s name. Later I was told that the skull was mounted as a trophy in the governor’s council chambers, identified with a plaque that read so:
“The Great Snake-Devil Jianhong, slain by order of Governor Sun Fu.”
That part was Mei Li’s idea, as suggested to the governor by way of my father. When he left to carry the skull to the governor’s mansion, he told Mei Li to “please instruct my sullen daughter on the proper way to play a bawu.”
That part didn’t sting quite as much as perhaps he intended. I had recognized Mei Li’s superior skill with the instrument from the start and was quite willing to learn all she could teach me. When the lessons paused, she looked thoughtful.
“You do have a natural talent; the problem is mostly that you do not get enough practice. Alone in my lair, I had plenty of time. You have overcome much to become as good as you are.”
“That is kind of you to say,” I said, because it was.
Mei Li brightened. “Is it? Lovely. I was worried about kindness, as I’m not sure I understand the concept. Devils have little use for it.”
I almost smiled then. “Nor do all humans. No matter. At some point this evening we will need to prepare for Father’s return.”
“Prepare? What do you mean? Forgive me, but there is much I do not yet understand.”
I considered. “Well, first we’ll need to heat some water for a bath so we can get him cleaned up and in bed. We’ll also feed him if he’s able to eat, but at the very least we must make him drink some clear water or else he’ll be worse in the morning.”
She frowned. “Worse from what?”
“Plum wine and the effects of over-indulging. It will be late and he will be drunk when he returns, or I do not know my father.”
“Humans are strange creatures,” Mei Li said. “Such behavior cannot be good for him, plus what of our bargain if he kills himself this way before I learn to be human?”
“As his daughter it is my job... well, now our job, I suppose, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“I will gladly help, but if we are both subject to his will, how do we dissuade him?”
I smiled then, and for the first time in a while, I was not angry at all.
“Mei Li, I thank you for the lessons. Now, however, it is my turn, and I think there is yet a thing or two you can learn from me.”