I knew that Mei Li was still not entirely comfortable in her human body. She had worn it before, certainly. For a snake-devil such transformations were extremely useful for moving freely among humans and finding prey, but those were passing needs. Now that she was in my father’s service, her role as human-in-training required wearing her human form at all times.
“Daughter Jing,” my father, Pan Bao, said to me from the fallen log where he rested at the roadside, “by all the Courts of Heaven, what is she doing in there?”
‘There’ was a small copse of tallow trees we had passed on our trek to eastern Qin. After our success in the affair of the snake-devil Jianhong, His Exaltedness Governor Sun Fu had seen fit to offer our services to an associate in the east, and refusing would have been both impolite and dangerous. We had been on our way there when Mei Li had suddenly excused herself and hurried off the road and into the trees. I could tell by the way my father scratched his beard that his patience was beginning to wane.
“Perhaps she needed to relieve herself,” I said.
He scowled. “Has she forgotten how?”
“It’s possible she never knew, at least in the form she currently holds.”
Father considered. “Good point. Go see if she needs assistance.” I had almost opened my mouth to protest when he added, “That was not a suggestion.”
There was nothing for it but to follow after Mei Li into the woods. The trees were thicker than I had thought at first, but there was a path, of sorts, leading through to the other side. To my surprise, I found Mei Li standing just beyond the trees, looking out over what at first appeared to be no more than a rocky meadow, until I realized I was not looking at natural rocks but dressed stones, badly weathered and covered in lichen and weeds. Whatever structure they had originally formed was long gone, leaving nothing but these fallen stones.
“Pan Jing,” she said without turning around. “Don’t you hear it?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Just beyond the stone ruins there was a fast moving stream, and now I could hear the water tumbling over stones. Across the stream were more trees, from which came a chorus of birdsongs.
“It’s very close,” she said.
I had already drawn my bronze jian, blessed and imbued with multiple wards and charms against living monsters and things that death had claimed but not entirely bound. I had neither my father’s nor Mei Li’s skill in magic, but I could sense the presence of something unnatural.
“Why did you come here?” I asked.
“I heard it calling for help,” Mei Li said, “and came to discover the problem. It is our purpose to help people, is it not? The tenet of compassion?”
Again, not entirely true. I mean, yes, one of the Three Jewels of the Tao was compassion, as my father would expound at great depth—and length—to anyone foolish enough to sit still for it, but in practice we asked a price for such assistance. Nor did we usually offer such services to creatures both invisible and unnatural, and I said as much to Mei Li.
“Why not?” she asked. “Forgive me, but much of what is commonly accepted among humans is still strange to me. How does the nature of the distress and the identity of the supplicant change the tenet itself?”
“It doesn’t,” my father said. He stood at the edge of the trees, glaring at us. “Is that what’s taking you two so long?”
Neither Mei Li nor I had noticed his approach, so intent were we on what, though I could not see it, I knew was mere paces away and likely very dangerous.
Mei Li bowed. “So we are obligated to be of assistance?”
“Not at all,” Father said. “There is also the tenet of moderation, in my interpretation meaning the avoidance of extremes. Poverty is one such extreme.”
“I don’t understand,” Mei Li said.
I sighed. “He means, as I mentioned earlier, that we must view our ‘compassion’ in our role as devil-hunters as a service, not an obligation. We must make our living.”
“Not quite, Sarcastic Daughter, but in this case an accurate enough assessment. The Tao is balance, and balance requires compensation. Ghosts don’t have gold or silver or even bronze. And we have employment awaiting us at journey’s end.”
So that was what I was sensing. Ghosts were dangerous, certainly, but less so in open daylight. This one was likely hiding among the ruins of its crypt to avoid the sun’s touch. As long as we put some distance between ourselves and this place, there would be no problem.
Father had already started back along the path to the road. “We’re wasting light. I want to be in Chengdu Village before sunset.”
We didn’t make it, but not because of Mei Li’s delay. By evening it was clear to all of us that Father’s map was approximate at best. We appeared to be heading in the right direction, but otherwise there was no sign of Chengdu or any other village when we were finally forced to give up and stop for the night. We found shelter in a cave some distance from the road. There was a circular firepit inside to show that the cave had served the same purpose for other travelers, but it had clearly not been used in a long time. I gathered firewood while Mei Li searched the cave for any signs of danger. She had just returned when I came back with an armload of dead wood.
“Nothing,” she said. “About a bowshot further in, the tunnel is blocked by a collapsed ceiling. Nothing larger than an insect could get through it. Pity. This place would have made a good lair.”
“A consideration that should no longer concern you,” Father said as I dropped the firewood by the pit. “Yet still, it is good. Now we only need ward the entrance and no one will know we’re here.”
Mei Li glanced out the entrance to the cave. “I think she will know.”
I stopped looking for my flint and striking stone and went to stand by Mei Li at the cave mouth. “Father, I think you should see this.”
He joined us there and saw what we saw—standing no more than thirty paces from the cave entrance was a little girl, perhaps nine years old, finely dressed in silk of an antique pattern. To any casual observer she would have passed for what she appeared to be—a pretty little girl with long hair and big, dark eyes. We, however, were not casual observers and understood immediately that we were looking at a ghost.
“She’s the one from earlier today,” Mei Li said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Unlikely,” my father said. “Unless she is a yuān guǐ.”
Mei Li frowned. “What is that?”
“A ghost who harbors some grievance,” I said. “Usually when ghosts arise, they don’t stray far from where they died or were buried. Yet this one followed us. Honestly, I would have expected a snake-devil to have more such knowledge.”
Perhaps that last sounded more harsh than I intended, but Mei Li simply shrugged. “I could tell you quite a bit about snake-devils and other sorts of creatures. I’ve had little experience with ghosts.”
“You heard this one calling out,” Father said.
She bowed then. “As did you, Honorable Pan Bao, unless I am sadly mistaken.”
Did Father actually look a bit guilty just then?
He grunted. “Fine. I chose to ignore it. You should have done the same, but now she’s attached herself to us. I suppose we’d best find out why.”
Father left the cave and headed toward the ghost, but in that instant, she disappeared. When he returned to the cave she was back, as if she’d never left. He rubbed his beard. “Daughter Jing, see if she will talk to you.”
I followed Father’s instructions but achieved the same result. The little girl phantom vanished as soon as I left the entrance to the cave. When I returned to Father and Mei Li, she was back in the same spot. Father nodded, looking thoughtful. “Mei Li, you try now. Daughter, please get the fire started.”
Again I looked for my flint and striking-rock, found them, and began shaving slivers of wood to act as kindling. Yet all the while I watched as Mei Li left the cave, greeted the ghost courteously, and was soon, as far as I could tell, in intense conversation with her. Father merely acted as if he had expected no less. I had a decent fire going in the pit before Mei Li returned. She appeared puzzled.
“Well?” Father asked.
“She is asking for our help, just as I said before.”
“Our answer must be the same. Or does she intend to follow us indefinitely?”
“I think she might.”
Father grunted. “Did you happen to learn her name? It would make an exorcism much simpler.”
“She merely referred to herself as ‘Lost Princess.’”
Father frowned. “Did you say ‘princess’?”
“I did. Or rather, she did. If her clothes and bearing are any indication, I would think she’s telling the truth,” Mei Li said.
Father was still stroking, rather than simply scratching, his beard. I knew him well enough to know the wheels in his mind were starting to turn. “What does she want?” he asked.
“To lie quietly in her tomb. She cannot do so without our help,” Mei Li said.
“There is obviously more to this. Perhaps you should tell us all she said.”
Mei Li nodded. “She said she was the sole princess of the Kingdom of Kai, and her father planned to marry her to the heir to another kingdom, thus uniting the two. Before that could happen, her father’s Chief Counsellor had her poisoned.”
I blinked. “Why?”
“Because he was having an affair with the queen, who was pregnant with what he believed to be his child. Removing Lost Princess would place his own heir on the throne if a boy, or queen of a combined kingdom if a girl. Or so he thought.”
Another reason any such close officials of the courts tended to be eunuchs these days, I thought.
“I have heard of Kai,” Father said. “I assumed it was merely a legend. Regardless, how could she know all this? She was just a child.”
Mei Li smiled. “She was a ghost for a lot longer, and ghosts are good at moving silently and listening. Especially when they are barred from their tombs. The Chief Counsellor placed a ward on her tomb after she was interred; it seems he was worried that she might return as a ghost and seek vengeance. As her burial was conducted properly, he had no reason to believe her spirit would not remain in her tomb at least for a time. The irony is her spirit was confused after her death and remained close to the court as the only home she knew. When her body was placed in the tomb, she did not follow it right away.”
“So instead of locking her in, the scheming Chief Counsellor accidentally locked her out,” I said. “But what happened then?”
Mei Li’s face was expressionless. “Once she knew the truth, she went a little mad, and in her fury she drained the life energy from the Chief Counsellor. She claimed it happened before she even realized she was doing it. As for the Counsellor’s child, a boy, it was stillborn. She also swears she had nothing to do with that. Regardless, the lack of an heir led to internal dissension and war. It was the end of Kai.”
“Unfortunate all around,” Father said. “Though if she’s telling the truth, the Chief Counsellor got what he deserved. But this doesn’t change anything. We’d lose two days by returning to her tomb to remove the ward, even if, as a compassionate act—”
“She said, as she was a princess, there would be gold in her tomb.”
Father blinked. “Gold?”
Mei Li nodded. “Gold, silver, jade and bronze vessels. That sort of thing.”
Father shook his head. “A stolen treasure is a cursed treasure.”
Mei Li demurred. “She said we were welcome to as much as we could carry. She’s tired. She wants peace and rest so she can finally pass from this world. How can the treasure be either cursed or stolen if the owner grants permission?”
“A good point,” Father said. “But the time lost...” He shook himself. “No, it’s impossible.”
“Actually, the place where we found her was the ruins of the royal palace of Kai, not her burial site. Her tomb is quite nearby.”
Father was silent for several long moments. “I suppose, then, I am out of objections. Tomorrow we will be glad to assist Her Highness. Please tell her so.”
“As you wish.”
Mei Li turned to go, but I stopped her. “Mei Li, I’m curious... did she say why she was only willing to talk to you?”
The snake-devil in training to be human actually looked a little embarrassed. “She said I had a kind face. I cannot tell. Do I have a kind face?”
I sighed, and though it annoyed me for reasons I could not express, I told her the truth. “You do, Mei Li. A very kind face.”
“I hope one day to deserve it,” she said and went to speak to the princess. Father looked thoughtful.
“Jing, did you notice anything strange about the appearance of the ghost?”
I frowned. “Other than being able to see through her? No.”
He nodded. “Exactly. All that remains of her now is a desire, even if that desire is to lie quietly in her grave. So why did she not turn into a hungry ghost?”
I understood my father’s point. Normally one who died with unfulfilled desires or was greedy in life became a hungry ghost, twisted and distorted by the thwarting of those desires. Lost Princess was an ancient ghost but still a little girl, neither more nor less. I answered my father with my best understanding.
“Because this was not a desire of her life and only arose much later. Still, if her situation continued... well, I would hate to think what might happen.”
Father scowled. “Understand that I must always consider what is best for us,” he said. “And yet... so would I. Becoming a Hungry Ghost is not a fate I would wish on anyone.”
The next morning Mei Li led us farther into the hills at the ghost’s direction, though naturally the ghost kept out of sight. We soon arrived at the entrance to a small valley, really little more than a canyon, marked by the remnants of a massive gate long since fallen into ruin.
Mei Li closed her eyes for a few moments, opened them again and said, “Her Highness says this is the entrance to the royal necropolis of the rulers of Kai.”
“Left completely unguarded once the kingdom collapsed. Likely the place was plundered centuries ago,” Father said. “I think this may be a waste of time.”
Mei Li shook her head. “Not completely unguarded, according to Her Highness.”
“We’ve come this far,” I said. “We may as well see what’s here.”
My first impression was that Father was right. As we passed old rock-cut tombs carved into the valley walls, every one we saw had its entrance smashed in and the contents emptied ages ago, their ornate carvings and stone decoration mostly gone as well, long weathered away, their stone guardian images shattered or missing. The valley walls blocked the direct rays of the late morning sun, and we could see a few ghosts lingering about, but they were weak, pallid things, even allowing for the daylight, and no danger to anyone. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of Lost Princess timidly following us.
“I doubt any of them remember who they were or why they remain,” Mei Li said. “I think this is... sad?”
“Sad isn’t something you think,” I said. “It is what you feel. But yes, many would consider this sad. I do.”
“It is what it is,” Father said. “Yet Daughter Jing is right in this respect, Mei-Li—sadness is a natural human reaction to a sad situation. If you ever begin to feel this emotion the way you might feel hunger or anger, you have taken a great step toward becoming human.”
“What does sadness feel like?” Mei Li asked.
“There are different types of sadness,” I said. “Grief, for example, can feel like being angry at everyone and hungry for something you can never have again, mixed with pain and regret and unfocused sorrow. It’s complicated.”
Father grunted. “Daughter Jing lost her mother. It’s why she is angry all the time.”
“Well...,” I said, sparing a glare in his direction, “it’s one reason.”
“Do you still grieve for your mother?” Mei Li asked.
“Always. Like a wound that closes but leaves a scar. It doesn’t really end.”
“Being a snake-devil was much simpler,” Mei Li said. “No matter. I never thought this would be easy... ah. Lost Princess says to be on your guard; we’re getting close.”
I frowned. “It’s a spirit-warded tomb. What is there for the living to guard against?”
“I do not know, but she is rather insistent.”
When we came into sight of an unplundered tomb, I still had no answer, but I understood the warning.
“I count five skulls,” Father said.
“Six, Honored Father... plus pieces of two more. Their appearance suggests they came to be here at different times.”
“Apparently the later ones failed to heed the example of those who came before them,” Mei Li said. “That was greed. Something even a snake-devil understands.”
The bones were scattered in front of a sealed tomb entrance. While the carving on the rock surrounding the opening had weathered no less than the other tombs in the fissure, the tomb itself appeared to be untouched.
Father stroked his beard. “It seems we are not dealing with a conventional ward. Please stay back for the moment, all of you. Jing, Mei Li, be on your guards.”
I drew my jian, and Mei Li took the bawu, the bamboo transverse flute she always carried, murmured something inaudible, and transformed it into a magnificent double-edged sword. I resolved to have her teach me that trick at our first opportunity, assuming we survived.
Father drew his peachwood sword and held it out before him as he slowly approached the tomb. He muttered something under his breath, which was really more of a chant than a mumble, and then addressed the empty air before the entrance.
The ward was no simple barrier; it was a giant with a massive club of spiked bronze. Its appearance echoed paintings of a guardian of the underworld which I had seen once in a temple—the same bulging eyes, the same armor of overlapping bronze plates, the same gnashing teeth. There was a shimmer to it in outline which suggested that the behemoth wasn’t entirely real. The bones scattered at its feet suggested otherwise.
“Whoever conjured this one had great skill,” Father said. “Everyone stay where they are.”
He studied the figure for several long moments, then let out a long, slow breath and took a step back.
“This isn’t a creation of magic,” he said. “This creature was summoned from the underworld and bound here.”
“So how do we get rid of it?” I asked. “Since defeating and destroying it physically seems unlikely.”
“More than unlikely—impossible,” Father said. “But notice the shimmer? It doesn’t belong here. The binding ritual will have attached it as if with a chain to a physical object of our world, and that prevents it from leaving. We destroy that, and the creature will immediately return whence it came. We don’t, and it destroys us.”
Father did have a way of boiling a situation down to its essence. Mei Li and I glanced at each other, and she asked the obvious question.
“Honorable Pan Bao, what are we looking for?”
Father started to stroke his beard, but after a moment he lowered his hand, looking a little defeated. “I have no idea. It could be anything, but it has to be nearby.”
All the while we were discussing the guardian, I kept a careful watch on it, but it merely stood blocking the entrance to Lost Princess’ tomb, glaring at us but not attacking. If, as Father had said, the object anchoring it to the living world was nearby, it stood to reason that there was a proximity limit to the creature’s scope of action. I took three careful steps toward the guardian.
Fortunately I didn’t need Father’s warning. As soon as the creature moved, so did I. Even so, the club missed crushing me into the earth by only one step.
“That was foolish, Daughter,” Father said gruffly, which is about as close to ‘I’m glad you’re not dead’ as he’d ever spoken. I suppressed a smile.
“Perhaps, but useful. Whatever we’re looking for,” I said, “has to be within about twenty paces of the creature itself. That is its boundary.”
We all looked from where we stood, but in that area all we could see were a few stones scattered about. Some appeared to be no more than natural shards of stone shed from the canyon walls. However, there were a few which seemed to be the result of weathering of the tomb itself, including one showing decorative carving.
“Father,” I said, “does it not stand to reason that someone wishing to bind this guardian to the tomb would literally bind it to the tomb itself?”
“It would have to be a specific part, rather than the entire tomb,” Father said thoughtfully.
I pointed to the carved stone, which I now could see was a discrete block rather than a broken stone. I could even see where it had fallen from. “Like that piece of the lintel?”
Father smiled. “Exactly like that. Well done.”
“Can we be sure?” Mei Li asked. “It is unlikely we’ll have another chance.”
I had an idea. “Father, what will you need to do to break the binding?”
“Unless it is stronger than I think, touching it with the proper ward should suffice,” Father said. “The problem is we have to reach the stone without being smashed to bits.”
I turned to Mei Li. “I’ve seen you transform your bawu into a sword. Is that all it can do?”
Mei Li looked puzzled for a moment, but then her eyes widened and she smiled. “There is this.” Again she mumbled something inaudible and the sword transformed into a powerful-looking recurved bow of horn with ivory tips. She took the silk bag she carried her flute in and spoke again, and there was a quiver full of arrows with barbed bronze points.
“Surely you’re not suggesting we stand at a distance and fire arrows?” Father asked. “Even if they had any effect—which I doubt—the guardian would simply cease to manifest and thus avoid them.”
“I suggest no such thing, as he is not the target. The ward has to simply contact the stone, yes? It doesn’t have to attach to it.”
I saw the understanding dawning on my father’s face. “Clever girl. You do take after your mother. Mei Li, I need you to remove the point of one of those arrows.”
While Mei Li complied, Father got busy with ink and pen to create the appropriate ward. When he was finished he took the arrow from Mei Li and wrapped the paper ward around the arrow with the paper just protruding from the end. He then tied it firmly in place with a bit of silken thread.
“I do not claim to be an expert archer,” Mei Li said, and it sounded like an apology. “My eyesight is not first rate. Yet the bow will only work for me.”
“So I suspected,” Father said. “Can you see the stone?”
“Yes, though the guardian is obscuring part of it. I will do my best.”
“We need a clear shot, so we’ll have to make the guardian move to one side or the other. Jing, take the right side. I will take the left. Wait for my signal. Mei Li? As soon as it goes after either of us, aim for the stone.”
“Understood,” she said.
I didn’t say “try not to miss.” I think that was understood, too.
When Father was in position, he probed for the exact limit of the boundary with this peachwood sword. I knew he had found it when the creature’s eyes suddenly swung in his direction. Clearly Father saw it too.
Father darted in, moving with great alacrity for a man of middle years. Mei Li drew her bow, but the creature leaned forward to strike at my father, who withdrew with equal alacrity. At Father’s signal, I also darted forward, and no sooner had my father cleared the boundary, the guardian turned toward me, but now changing direction required him to shift his balance to the right. No sooner had he lifted his foot when I heard the twang of Mei Li’s bow.
She hit it...?
Apparently not, for the creature did not even blink. In an instant it was after me. Its first swing missed me but struck the ground with such force that I was jarred into a stumble. It was only my frantic roll to the left that put me just beyond the creature’s club rather than beneath it, but I was still within the boundary, and I did not think I could avoid the third strike.
I had almost closed my eyes when I noticed something odd—the shimmer around the creature’s outline was moving inward, and as it moved, the guardian started to shrink in on itself. It struck again from where it stood, only this time its club was too short to reach me. In another moment both the guardian and its club were gone, and Mei Li was at my side, helping me to my feet.
“You are unhurt, Young Mistress?” she asked.
My pride had taken a blow, but fortunately the rest of me had not. “I’m fine. Thanks to you. You’re a better archer than you’d have us believe.”
“Fortune smiled on all of us,” she said.
Father spared a hard glance in my direction—either to make sure I was all right or to scold me for my clumsiness, I didn’t care to guess which—and was now examining the entrance to Lost Princess’ tomb. “Look at this, you two,” was all he said.
We approached the tomb under the shadow of the high valley walls. I noticed the ghost of Lost Princess loitering behind us, but she came no closer. Father was standing by the tomb’s bronze door.
“I could have sworn that this portal was not there a moment ago,” Mei Li said.
“Apparently it was part of the warding in place,” Father said. “Concealed to appear as solid stone.”
“The tombs we passed earlier were sealed with stone blocks, originally. Why is this one different?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Father said, “but I can tell you that this tomb was originally sealed the same way. This door was added later. Why? I have no idea.”
Mei Li frowned. “Lost Princess still advises caution. She says there is something else.”
Even as she was speaking, Father hesitated. “I sense it too.” He turned to Mei Li and myself. “Jing, Mei Li, I want to know what you can detect.”
I never claimed to be as attuned as my father to these currents in the ebb and flow of energy, the balance of yin and yang, but I understood the necessity. I placed my hand on the bronze door and immediately snatched it away.
“Evil,” I said.
“Power,” Mei Li said.
“Yes,” Father said. “To both. Did Lost Princess know about this?”
Mei Li went to speak to her again and soon returned. “No, she sensed it just as you did. She only knew about the first ward.”
“So we have a Chief Counsellor so afraid of a little child ghost that he conjured and bound a demon of the underworld, but that wasn’t enough?”
I spoke up. “Honored Father, when I said ‘evil’ before, I meant it. Malice, hatred... The guardian wasn’t evil, it was merely doing what it was bound to do. Whatever is waiting for us within? That is something different.”
Father sighed. “Daughter, I believe you are right. No matter—we’ve come this far. Everyone, be ready.”
Mei Li had already transformed her bow back into a sword. I drew my own. Father threw the bolt on the bronze door and pulled it open. Even after so many years, it balanced perfectly on its hinges and moved, as I could see, with very little effort.
“A fine door,” Mei Li said. “But on a tomb? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It does if someone wanted to access it more easily later,” I said. “It would be ideal for a grave robber.”
Father glared. “A grave robber? How could a grave robber have a door installed?”
“One who had the authority to do so and the means to make the guards look the other way,” Lost Princess said.
We had not noticed her approach. Not surprising, as ghosts moved about as silently as it was possible to move. She bowed. “Forgive me for taking so long to speak directly to you. My experiences when alive made me wary of those I had every reason to trust.”
“Whereas you had no reason at all to trust us,” Father said. “Though surely you must understand by now that our intentions are as much mercenary as compassionate, Highness?”
There was a smile on the little ghost’s face which I found more than a bit unsettling. “Which is a motivation I understand, Good Sir. At court, it was one of the first made clear to me. Unlike those of Counsellor Wei, which I only understood when it was too late. It was he who ordered the door. I didn’t understand why. Then I learned it was he who killed me. That’s when I...”
“—did the same to him, Highness, if what Mei Li told us is accurate,” I said.
She bowed. “It is. Even if I didn’t intend to do so or understand how I did it. All I knew was the living energy I took from him made me feel alive, at least for a while. I knew, if I remained among the living, I would hurt others to feel that way again. I did not wish that. So I fled to my tomb and found it sealed against me. Since then I have hidden in the forgotten places until all of Kai became a forgotten place. Then gentle Mei Li heard my cries.”
“You do me too much honor, Highness,” Mei Li said. “This form may be human, but I am a snake-devil and far from gentle.”
The ghost regarded Mei Li with her large, dark eyes. “You are not human, true, but neither are you what you were, or at least not completely so.”
For a moment I held my breath as it appeared Mei Li was about to burst into tears, but then Father broke the mood.
“Highness, what awaits us in your tomb?” he asked.
“I do not know,” she said, “unless it is some further insult by Counsellor Wei.”
He frowned. “I suppose we have to go find out.”
“Please be careful... and whatever happens, you have my gratitude,” Lost Princess said again. Then, as if the effort of speaking to us had somehow drained her, she shuddered and slowly vanished.
“If we live, we can discover what that gratitude is worth,” Father said. “Still... quite well-spoken for a child.”
“Who happens to be a hundreds-of-years-old princess,” I pointed out.
“A child is a child,” Father said, then spared a pointed glance in my direction. “Even at seventeen. Let’s go.”
I lit a torch first and took the lead as we filed in. I’m not sure what I expected, but this was no mere stifling crypt chiseled into the rock. The entrance opened into a large chamber, perhaps forty paces square and at least twice as high as I was tall.
Mei Li was the first to express the obvious. “There’s nothing here.”
The stone walls had been painted with colorful murals of life in the Kai royal palace: courtiers in antique clothing and hairstyles, servants, musicians, everything a princess might need to remind her of the palace she had grown up in, but there was nothing else. No furnishings, no guardian statues, no grave goods of any kind. Also no coffin or other obvious resting place.
Father pointed at a dark square on the wall across the room. “This is just an antechamber. It goes on.”
The doorway lead into another chamber, if anything more richly painted than the first, but also empty. Or rather, almost. Near the far wall there was a raised stone bier on which rested an intricately carved casket. Beside that was a throne of granite, also intricately carved. On the throne there sat a dark, skeletal figure, its once fine robes in tatters.
“That’s not the princess,” Mei Li said. “That is a jiangshi.”
I felt it too. This was the source of the evil, the malice I sensed. A creature neither alive nor dead. It would feed on the living if given a chance, but what was it doing in Lost Princess’s tomb?
Father already had his peachwood sword at the ready, and Mei Li and I quickly followed his example with our own blades.
“Be prepared to fight,” he said, and then he spoke directly to the corpse. “Counsellor Wei, I presume?”
There was a creaking, crackling sound like dry wood on cloth or bone on bone, and the thing spoke.
“You have the advantage on me, Sir,” It said. “Who are you?” Its voice was like an echo of the tomb itself.
“A humble scholar of no great importance,” Father replied.
“Hardly,” the jiangshi said. “You banished my guardian or you wouldn’t be here. I suppose then I must deal with you myself.”
No less impossibly than it speaking, the creature rose from the stone chair. No mere ghost, it carried its boney, tattered frame with the dignity of a king.
Father smiled. “Before we begin the inevitable, may I be impertinent enough to ask a few questions? Surely as a change from your lonely vigil, it would not inconvenience you greatly?”
The horror seemed to consider. “Ask,” it finally said.
“Whose tomb are we in?”
“Why would you assume it was not mine?” he asked, turning the question back.
“It is a royal tomb. You, of high status though you may be, are not in that category.”
“This is the tomb of the Princess Chunhua of Kai,” it said. “While it is true what you say, nevertheless I would have been the father of a king, except for her. She killed my son. She killed me. I have taken her tomb as my own.”
“She did not kill your son,” Mei Li said.
The lich turned to look at her with its sunken eyes. “Sweet flower, I knew you had been speaking to that little insect. I smelled my own life force lingering about you from the moment you entered. She took that from me. I will take it back from you!”
“The way you stole her tomb offerings?” Father said. “You had planned that, even before you poisoned her.”
The lich shrugged. Its bones made a grinding noise as they rubbed together. “Why shouldn’t I? There were those who would know the truth of the queen’s son. There were bribes to make, assassins to hire. Becoming royal is all very expensive. Regardless, when I realized what had happened to me, I left my own tomb and came here to find revenge, only to discover that I already had it, having barred Chunhua from her resting place. That was too wonderful. Once you three are dead, your shades will serve me, and I will bind another demon, a stronger one this time, to guard the entrance. That little brat can howl in the dark forever!”
“I think I’m beginning to understand ‘evil’ now,” Mei Li said. “Thank you for the lesson. Now please be so good as to die again—”
Mei Li froze in place, her sword extended toward the lich. I tried to reach her side only to discover that I could not move. A sideways glance showed that Father was in the same condition.
“What have you done?” I said, or thought I did, except the sound was only in my head. It never reached my lips. The thing that had once been Counsellor Wei approached Mei Li, its footsteps sounding like bare wood on the stone floor.
“You first, my lovely.”
What flesh remained around his mouth pulled back and cracked into a horrid parody of a smile as he stopped just inches from the tip of her sword. “Frustrating, is it not? So close, and yet you cannot strike me. Honestly, how did you fools live this long?”
“With the help of friends, perhaps, Counsellor Wei?”
Mei Lei’s blade plunged into Counsellor Wei’s chest, through the breast bone and into the shriveled lump that had been his heart. It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t responsible. Princess Chunhua, the lost princess, had appeared at her side, grasped Mei Li’s elbow, and shoved the sword forward. I don’t know what charms and spells the blade must have carried, but the effect was immediate—the lich screamed.
She smiled at him. If I never see such a smile again in my time on earth, that will be fine with me.
“I did not kill your son, Counsellor Wei, traitor and murderer though you are. That was the Judgement of Heaven. Wait for me in Hell, for I will surely find you... in my own sweet time.”
She gave the blade one final twist, and Counsellor Wei collapsed into a pile of moldering bones. In that instant we could all move again.
“I wondered,” Father said. “When he said he smelled his old life energy on us, I rather thought perhaps he was sensing you instead.”
The princess bowed again. “Once I had somewhat recovered, I followed you in. If Counsellor Wei hadn’t been so intent on gloating, he might have taken a moment or two to realize this,” the princess said. “I placed you in greater danger than I knew, and for that I must apologize. I did not expect him to be here, and the tomb offerings I did expect are not evident.”
“You saved our lives,” I said. “That is payment of a sort.”
She looked unhappy. “But not what I promised.”
“I will not lie—that fact is disappointing, Highness,” Father said grudgingly, “but hardly your fault.”
The princess yawned, covering her mouth with her sleeve. “Forgive me, but I am weary. I want to rest now.”
“Of course,” Father said. “With your permission, we will remove what is left of Counsellor Wei from your tomb. He can lie with the bones outside.”
“Thank you... oh! I have an idea. The seal on my coffin is unbroken. Please look inside.”
“It isn’t necessary,” Father said.
“To me it is,” she said. “If there is anything at all of value there, please take it. With the guardian gone, robbers will follow. If there is anything there, I would prefer it leave here with you. Despite what I said to Counsellor Wei, I do not plan to linger for very long.”
“As you wish,” Father said.
Mei Li and I helped him lift the coffin lid and break the seal. Inside, covered in discolored silk wrappings, lay the mortal remains of Princess Chunhua of Kai, the lost princess of a lost kingdom. On top of the wrappings there was a single small pendant of jade.
“Please take it,” she said. “It was a gift from my father when I was four years old. A small thing, but I cherished it. Even so, it is a connection to this world I no longer require.”
Father took the pendant and presented it to Mei Li. “A token. For recognizing evil.”
Mei Li accepted the trinket as if it were the most precious gift on earth. We then carefully replaced the coffin lid as the princess delicately yawned once more.
“Goodbye,” she said, and she was gone.
We gathered up the dry bones of Counsellor Wei in silence and tossed them outside to mingle with the rest of the thieves.
“Princess Chunhua will not become a hungry ghost,” Father said, “but I think it is safe to presume that Counsellor Wei is now on the road to that particular hell. So I do not think they will meet after all.”
I remembered the look on the princess’s face when she twisted the sword. “Fortunately for Counsellor Wei,” I said.
By then the sun was dropping in the western sky, and there was no point in attempting to get back on the road that day. We returned to our previous campsite and settled in for the evening.
Later I awoke to find Mei Li sitting by the dying embers of our campfire, holding Princess Chunhua’s jade pendant, turning it this way and that. She looked puzzled.
“Is something troubling you?”
“I don’t think I do recognize evil,” she said. “There are many who would have called me evil, when I was just another snake-devil. Perhaps they were right.”
“You saw evil in Counsellor Wei,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but you felt it,” she said. “Before we entered the tomb. I felt only power, remember?”
“You weren’t wrong about that, but what I sensed was maliciousness and anger. I called it evil, but anger isn’t evil. Everyone gets angry and sometimes for good reason. Even maliciousness can be justified, at times. The truth is that we all have to decide for ourselves what evil is. You knew what he had done and what he would do, solely for his own benefit, and with no thought for anyone he harmed or the lives he ruined. You called it evil. I think you have at least as good an understanding of the subject as I do.”
“Now I think you’re being kind,” she said.
I shrugged. “Perhaps. That’s also part of being human.”
“Just as is getting some sleep,” Father growled from his blankets.
“You might be,” he said. “Because, with or without sleep, you both will be joining me on the road to Chengdu Village by dawn. We have paying customers waiting!”
So we did. Yet before I returned to my blankets I wasted just a little more time and said a silent prayer, no charge, for the Lost Princess of Kai.