Just before the Time of Troubles there lived in the Kingdom of Zhao a poor young scholar named Xu Jian. He owned nothing except the clothes on his back and a battered pen case, but he had done well in King Youmiu’s Royal Examinations and thus won a posting as Official Censor to a remote northern province. There were two drawbacks to this posting: The first was that he had no money for travel and would have to manage the journey unaided. The second was that he had to survive that journey in order to accept his post, and the northern road was infested with bandits, monsters, and dark spirits of all sorts.
“If I refuse the post and stay here, I will starve,” he said to no one in particular. “Whereas, If I am slain by bandits or devoured by some demon beast on the journey north, at least my problems will be at an end.”
Since he could see no obvious flaws in his argument, Xu Jian set out immediately on the northern road from the capital city Handan and made good progress for several days. Sometimes he was able to trade his tutoring skills for an occasional night’s lodging and a little money, but villages were few in that part of the country, and as often as not Xu Jian slept shivering in his robes under a sky full of cold stars.
On the morning of the seventh day, he turned off the main road and onto a smaller trail parallel to it because that trail led for a while along the banks of a swift-flowing stream, and Xu Jian found himself badly in need of both a drink and a bath. When he had drunk his fill of the cold, clear water and braved the chill long enough to cleanse himself, he continued on that trail, expecting it to rejoin the main road further along. By noon he realized that he had been mistaken. He considered retracing his steps but hated the idea of delay. Besides, this trail also led north, so he knew he was still going in the right direction.
“Bandits are more likely to haunt the main road,” he said to himself. “As this trail is obviously less traveled, it will be safer.”
By nightfall, however, Xu Jian was having serious doubts about his reasoning. It was now obvious that the trail was in fact an old military road, built for a purpose long since served and forgotten. While he hadn’t expected to find any villages in this part of the country, it was clear now that no one at all used this road. Worse, as evening approached, he had seen several columns of mist rising from stone cairns and the caves that sometimes appeared in the hillsides. These, he well knew, were the signs of ancient tombs and the spirits that dwelled in them. Xu Jian now walked unprotected through a land of ghosts.
He considered the matter, but he feared that the situation was hopeless. Xu Jian had eaten nothing at all that day and was too exhausted from the journey and the lack of nourishment to turn back. There was nothing for it but to find a place, preferably well-concealed, to spend the night.
He came to a thick tangle of flowering wisteria growing in the crevice between two large rocks. The path between them offered not only a fragrant shelter from the wind but also a place to hide himself. He had no sooner settled in to rest when a glowing lantern appeared floating along the path between the rocks.
“In my foolishness I have chosen to rest by an unquiet tomb,” Xu Jian said in despair, but he was too weak to even consider fleeing. His worst fears were confirmed when a terrible figure appeared in the cleft of the rock.
It was a huge, glowing apparition of a soldier in armor, with nothing but a black shadow where his face should have been. He carried a halberd of moldering bronze, the point of which was aimed directly at Xu Jian’s heart. The ghostly soldier advanced, and his intent was clear. Xu Jian closed his eyes.
“Please withdraw. We will deal with this matter.”
The voice was female and, he was fairly sure, did not belong to the ghostly soldier. Xu Jian opened his eyes and noted with some relief that the soldier had disappeared. The lantern he had seen earlier now reappeared, and he realized that the lantern was not floating in the air as he had believed but rather was being carried by a winsome girl of about sixteen, impeccably dressed as a lady’s maid.
She stopped a few paces away from him and bowed low. “I hope our faithful guardian did not frighten you. My mistress noticed you from her chamber window, and she cannot in good conscience allow a gentleman such as yourself to sleep on the cold ground. Please accept our hospitality for this evening.”
Xu Jian was not a complete fool. He knew that the idea of any real humans living near this isolated and ghost-ridden stretch of road with a spectral watchman on guard was nonsense, but he considered his options and decided that he didn’t have any. He offered a silent prayer to any kindly gods who might have been listening and then followed the girl, who conducted him through the fissure in the rock, which soon led them to a large and finely constructed walled mansion compound within a pleasant valley. Silks hung from the rafters, and the wood accents on the hallways and chambers were exquisitely carved.
“What is your name, girl?” Xu Jian asked, “And what is this wonderful place?”
“I am called Patience, may it please you,” the girl said. “And this is my mistress’s home, the Palace of the Jade Lion.”
“Patience, are you leading me to my doom?”
“I am obeying my mistress’s instructions,” Patience said, and she smiled.
That smile wasn’t exactly reassuring, but Xu Jian had already resolved to meet whatever outcome fate had arranged for him with as much courage and dignity as he could manage, though he was less certain about how well his courage would hold. He followed Patience through the main hall and out into an immaculate garden. In the center pavilion, a magnificent meal had been laid out for him.
“Our mistress sends her apologies for not greeting you in person,” Patience said. “but she bids you to please sit and refresh yourself.”
Xu Jian assumed that the food was either poison or simply an illusion, but the aroma rising from the table was heavenly. There were meat dishes of pork and fowl, along with vegetables and fruit, and sugared lotus root and other delicacies he had never seen before. In Xu Jian’s famished condition he lacked the strength to resist any of it. He ate and drank heartily, and to his surprise he began to feel a little better.
At this point a second maid appeared, a girl of about the same age and no less striking than the first, whose name, she said, was Wind Whisper. She brought fresh clothes, and together the maids led Xu Jian to a chamber where a large bronze cauldron filled with steaming hot water awaited him.
“Ah. I am to be boiled alive, then?” he asked.
“Honored Sir, you are to be bathed, and as you are alive now, we hope that is the condition you will maintain,” Patience said, and Xu Jian was certain that she was trying not to laugh.
After he—with all politeness—refused their offers of assistance, the two maids discreetly withdrew, and Xu Jian disrobed and cautiously lowered himself into the cauldron. The water was hot but not scalding and had been scented with jasmine and cloves. Xu Jian felt the aches and pains of the day falling away from him, and by the time he emerged, he felt quite a bit restored. He dried and then dressed himself in clean robes, and when he left the chamber, he found Patience and Wind Whisper waiting for him. They led him to a large chamber with a fire burning in a brazier, a well-made and equipped writing table, and a comfortable-looking bed.
“My mistress says that you are welcome to remain with us tonight and sends you her wishes for a pleasant journey tomorrow,” Patience said.
She seemed about to bid him good night, but by this time Xu Jian’s curiosity was catching up to his fear. “May I ask who I am indebted to for this hospitality?”
“The noble Lady Green Willow,” Patience said. “It is she who saw you in distress earlier this evening and bid us come to your assistance.”
As a scholar and a well-read person, Xu Jian well knew the stories of the awful things that happened to people who slept near tombs. He also knew of all the variations on that tale where a handsome young man–surely not himself!—would be taken into a fine home and given all manner of good things but in the end would be visited in the night by the true mistress of the house, a malign ghost who would appear beautiful and seductive and come into his bed, only to drain away all the poor fool’s yang energy, leaving only his wretched husk of a body to be found lying on the cold hard ground the next morning. Everyone knew this was what ghosts did, and surely now he was among ghosts. Even so, he could not refrain from asking, “May I meet her? I wish to thank my benefactress in person.”
Patience and Wind Whisper both bowed low, and Patience said, “Our mistress knows that you must be weary and does not wish to impose upon you. She has so instructed us.”
Xu Jian considered this. “While it is true that I have traveled far today and remain very tired,” he said, “Lady Green Willow’s generosity has restored much of what my journey has taken from me. I would be shamed if I could not express my gratitude properly.”
The two maids looked at each other. Xu Jian studied them as they did so. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, perhaps a gleam of cruelty, or some sign of menace, but he did not find it. All he sensed in the two young women was a profound melancholy.
Wind Whisper finally spoke, though Patience tried and failed to shush her. “Our mistress spends a part of every evening on the northern veranda, for that is her favorite view. We cannot escort you there, for that would be disobedient. However, if in the night you should happen to wander....”
Patience glared at her and she said no more. They bowed then and took their leave. Xu Jian retired to the chamber prepared for him, but he did not remain there. He rested for a short time, and then he made his way through the empty palace to the north side of the building as Wind Whisper had instructed.
A tall and lithe young woman, elegantly dressed in red and yellow silk, stood on the veranda by a railing; her hair was long and unbound, flowing over her shoulders like dark waters. Her face was turned away from him. She stood looking toward the northern mountains.
“Young scholar,” she said without turning around, “it was foolish to seek me out. You know what we are.”
Xu Jian found her frankness something of a relief. He always felt better in any situation when he trusted his understanding of it. Now it seemed that he had understood his peril full well.
“I intend no offense, but only the dead dwell in this land,” Xu Jian said, “Yet such was my condition when your servants came to me that I was in your power regardless. I appreciate the kindness you have shown up until now, but if it is my time to die, then so be it.”
Now Lady Green Willow turned to face him, and he immediately noticed two things: the first was that she was, without question, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The second was that she was crying.
Xu Jian bowed, feeling his confusion return. “My Lady, what is the matter? Surely I cannot be the cause of your grief? As you do not know me, there is little reason for you to regret my passing.”
“‘Little reason’? Young Sir, there is all the reason in the world! You know how this must end, and yet you have no idea how I have dreaded this day.”
The scholar felt his confusion deepening. “But... why? The nature of a ghost is to be a creature of little substance save yin energy, incomplete, envious of the living. When you’ve drained my life away, you will be, at least in a small regard and for a short time, alive again.”
She shook her head. “No, Young Sir, if I warm my spirit for a little while with your living energy, I will simply be reminded of what I was, and what I have become, and how all of the hopes and dreams of the living woman I once was have come to nothing. What person, alive or dead, would want to experience such a painful thing? Please, Young Sir, if you leave now, I may yet find the strength to let you do so. Go as far away from this place as you can.”
Xu Jian sighed. “Again I must thank you for your generosity, but even as restored as I am, I could not get far enough tonight to escape this spirit-haunted land. If it is not to be you, Lady, then it will likely be another. I honestly do not wish to cause you more grief than you already bear, but if I must die tonight, I would rather spend that time with you.”
Lady Green Willow covered her tears with her sleeves. When she showed her face again, she was more composed. She smiled a sad smile. “In that case, Young Sir, I will be as gentle as my nature allows. Please return to your rooms and wait for me.”
Xu Jian bowed to the lovely ghost and slowly made his way back to his rooms through the empty and echoing Palace of the Jade Lion. Despite his great show of calm, he was in no particular hurry to die. In addition, the ghost’s plight had touched him deeply, and, try as he might, Xu Jian could not see how his death would serve either of them.
“There has to be another way.”
Xu Jian was a man of letters, not a man of action, and he did not have strength or skill at arms to serve him. All he had was his education and his love of learning and the untangling of mysteries, and he used them to consider the problem just as he had done to so many others in his life. He gathered all that he knew of ghosts, the overwhelming yin principle that characterized them—but no solution presented itself.
After a while he sighed and did little but contemplate Lady Green Willow’s coming visit. He found himself wondering in what aspect she would reveal herself, now that they had spoken their true minds to each other and all pretenses were laid aside. Would she come as a horrible specter with long gnashing teeth and huge yellow eyes? Or perhaps as a cruel seductress, perfect of form, with a demeanor as cold as ice? Xu Jian allowed his imagination free rein, but when Lady Green Willow finally glided into his rooms, Xu Jian was astonished despite himself.
The ghost appeared as a bride.
Lady Green Willow wore a robe of red silk embroidered with yellow bats and other symbols of luck and prosperity. Her headdress was of intricately carved green jade, and her lips were as red as the silk of her dress. So striking was her appearance that for a few moments all Xu Jian could do was stare, and finally Lady Green Willow blushed.
“I never had the chance to wear this, you know, before...,” she said almost shyly. “It was to be my wedding dress. I hope you don’t mind.”
Xu Jian quickly stood and bowed to her. “It is rather I who should ask for pardon,” he said. “It occurs to me that I never asked what tragedy left you here in this desolate place. I would like to know, if the memory is not too painful.”
She sighed. “My betrothed was the military governor of a border province. I was on my way north to be married when our party was stricken by a deadly fever. I was borne away by it, as were my two unfortunate servants, so our bones and ashes were buried here together.” Lady Green Willow looked away. “And so we remain, along with some other members of our military escort who suffered as well. I believe you met one of them.”
He bowed again. “Now I understand why you turn your eyes to the north. He must have been a fine man.”
She smiled then. “I was assured this was the case, but in truth, I never met him. It was all arranged by our families, as such things are, and it was ages ago. Whatever sort of man he was, he is dust and ashes now, so we at least share that much. No, I do not look toward him. I look toward what might have been, Young Sir, and pray for release. Now it seems I must add you to my list of regrets as well. I think you are more resigned to this than I am.”
He sighed. “Do not mistake me—I do not welcome death,” he said, “but I also know that few men could be privileged to have such a charming executioner....”
Xu Jian’s tongue stopped as his mind suddenly began to race. For all his pondering and puzzling, he had seen no alternative to either his or Lady Green Willow’s unfortunate situation, but now he wondered if, perhaps, in her choice of dress she had given him the solution to this puzzle-box herself. What began as a notion turned into a glimmer, then a revelation. He almost grinned.
“I should have thought of this before,” he said. “I really must be a fool; the solution seems so obvious now.”
She frowned. “‘Solution?’ What are you talking about?”
“Marry me,” he said.
Lady Green Willow looked as if she wanted to burst into tears again. “Even if I must be your death, it is cruel of you to mock me,” she said, but Xu Jian was quick to deny that notion.
“Sweet Lady, I assure you I am completely serious.”
“But... it is impossible!”
“Say rather that it has never been done. Are there obstacles, difficulties? As with any union, of course there are.”
“Not the least of which is that I am a ghost and you are a living man,” she said dryly. “Such a union is an affront to Heaven!”
He dismissed that. “Has death made you a demon, Lady? A monster? No! All who are mortal must die, but not all who die become ghosts. You did, and that is because your hopes and dreams as a living woman were so completely frustrated. Therefore, your defining characteristic is not death but rather an excess of the yin principle, which you would instinctively attempt to counter by taking my living energy. Thus you must realize that you are out of balance. Your present condition is not fate but rather a condition, an illness. An illness can be cured.”
At first while he spoke Lady Green Willow had the somewhat bemused expression of an adult listening to a child’s nonsense babbling, but as she did listen her expression slowly changed.
“That... that almost makes sense,” she said.
“Almost? It is my living energy that calls you, not your wish to harm me, and it is a characteristic of that energy that it renews itself, given a chance. So this is what I propose: if you could restrain yourself, sip rather than gorge, I would survive to replenish what you have taken and so give to you again and again. In time, if we are careful and I am strong enough, you would gain far more than you could take all at once from me or a dozen of my betters. We could do it, you and I. We could restore the balance.”
She frowned. “But... what would I be then?”
“I don’t know,” Xu Jian said, “since it has never been done. But I can assure you it would not be a ghost.”
There were tears in her dark eyes again. “You would attempt this for my sake?”
“I would have the advantage of not dying here and now,” he pointed out, “so I cannot call my plan completely unselfish. Plus I would be wedded to a woman of truly unearthly beauty and kindness. As you have something to gain, so do I, and as our parents are deceased we need no one’s permission to formalize this union, only our own agreement. What is your decision?”
Lady Green Willow’s robe fell from her shoulders and she stood before him wearing nothing but her jade bridal headdress. “Come to bed, Husband.”
Xu Jian did not need to be asked a second time. He quickly disrobed and joined Lady Green Willow in the covered bed, where he took her into his arms. He hadn’t been certain of what to expect there, either, but she was as warm as he was, and she smelled of jasmine and musk.
She kissed him then, and she said. “I do not know if I can restrain myself. It may yet all be for naught. If you do not survive this night, I ask that you forgive me. If you do live, you will be free to leave this place. I will not ask for your promise to return for me. I ask only that you do not forget me.”
“I do promise. And I will return.”
They spoke of a few more things that needed to be said, and then and for a long time they did not speak at all.
Somewhat to his own surprise, Xu Jian awoke the next morning on the hard ground—chilled, weak, but alive. The passing night was slightly foggy in his memory, but he did remember a joy greater than any he had ever known. He knew he had come very close to death and yet, left just this side of life, he had found Heaven.
Xu Jian recognized the crevice in the rocks that marked the entrance to the place where Lady Green Willow and her servants Patience and Wind Whisper had been entombed. If he had any notion of dismissing the previous night’s event as dream, that was immediately dispelled by the bundle of provisions he found on the ground beside him, as well as a string of bronze coins and two small ingots of gold.
“It seems my new bride has provided for my travel expenses.”
Xu Jian paused long enough to eat a couple of rice cakes and then, and a trifle unsteadily at first, resumed his journey. Late in the day the old military road—little more than an animal trail by this point—finally met the main road once more. With Lady Green Willow’s money, Xu Jian was able to secure lodging in the next village he passed and was able to start again the following morning greatly rested and refreshed. He completed his journey without further incident and claimed his assigned post, somewhat to the annoyance of the provincial officials already in place.
Those officials had considered themselves fortunate to be without an Official Censor for over a year, and as it was Xu Jian’s duty to keep watch over their activities and punish such misbehaviors as bribery and abuses of office, he was not completely welcome among their ranks. It didn’t take Xu Jian long to discover why. After studying the reports available to him and hearing a long list of citizens’ grievances, it was clear that many local officers had taken full advantage of the lack of oversight.
“Alas,” Xu Jian said, “the situation here is much worse than I expected.”
Indeed, such was the state of affairs of the government’s offices in that province that it took Xu Jian over a month of hard work to restore a semblance of proper order, and then only after he threatened to have the worst of the offenders, Tax Collector Lung Shen, beheaded as a lesson to the others. He relented only when the man begged for mercy and swore to mend his ways.
Despite this act of leniency, Xu Jian knew he was making enemies among the other officials of the province even as the merchants, farmers, and other common folk sang his praises. Yet what filled him with the greatest unease, as one day led to another, was the thought of his unfulfilled promise to Lady Green Willow. He found his thoughts filled with her, often when they should have been on other matters. Xu Jian was an honorable man and wanted to keep his word, but even more than that he wanted to see Lady Green Willow again.
When the situation was as stable as he could make it and his assistants properly trained, Xu Jian made his preparations. He left word with his staff that he had been called away on urgent family business and would return in a few days but otherwise gave no details. He bought what tools he thought he might need, plus a horse and an enclosed cart such as were often used for the private transportation of high-born women. He set out on the southern road, leading the horse by its reins.
Xu Jian thought he would feel better now that he was finally honoring his promise, but all along the journey back to the tomb he felt his apprehension growing. He thought perhaps this was due to his worries that Lady Green Willow would be angry at his tardiness but doubted this would be the case. Still, his apprehension did not diminish, even when, in the afternoon of the third day, he reached the familiar wisteria-marked crevice between the rocks along the old military road. He looked around but there was no sign of anyone. Even the buzzing of the insects was muted, as if nothing in that place wished to draw attention to itself. Xu Jian tethered the horse and fetched a hammer, a chisel, and a torch from the cart and prayed that he did not meet the ghostly guardian again.
Fortunately, there was no sign of that frightening spirit. The trail through the rocks was familiar, since he had followed it once before behind Patience as she’d led him to the Palace of the Jade Lion. There was no palace now. The trail led only to a widening of the defile large enough for grass and a few bushes to grow and ended at the door of a sealed tomb. If there had ever been an incense brazier or altar stone, both had long since vanished.
Xu Jian studied the sealed entrance. This was another part of the process that had left him feeling apprehensive, but the stonework proved to be no obstacle at all. It had obviously been done hastily, and the crush of centuries had not improved its condition. It took no more than half a dozen firm blows of his hammer to crack through the remaining mortar and send the stones tumbling. Xu Jian lit his torch, took a deep breath, and entered his bride’s tomb.
The lack of care in the sealing of the opening suggested that Lady Green Willow and her attendants had been buried in haste, possibly out of fear of the fever that killed them. Xu Jian’s suspicions were confirmed when he realized that he was traversing a natural cave, not a properly carved tomb. Still, he had to admit that the cave was suited to the purpose—it had a flat, sandy floor and there was no excess of water, suggesting that the natural forces that had carved it had moved on sometime in the past thousand years or so.
Lady Green Willow had told Xu Jian what to look for, and now he found it—a large and exquisitely carved lion done all in jade, carefully placed on the flat top of a broken stalagmite. She had said it was actually a cleverly constructed box, meant as a wedding gift. Instead it had been pressed into service as an ossuary. Such was the artistry of it that for a few moments all Xu Jian could do was stare at the lion in admiration.
“The Palace of the Jade Lion. Of course—”
“Well, well. I knew our new Censor must have secrets, but I never suspected you for a tomb robber.”
Startled, Xu Jian whirled about to find his path out blocked by three men. The man in the center with the stocky build and the nasty grin he recognized as Lung Shen, the corrupt tax collector he had spared execution. From the family resemblance, he surmised that the other two hulking figures were Shen’s brothers. He had heard much of them, as well, and none of the stories had been to their credit. Lung Shen held a long knife, and his two brothers each carried stout cudgels.
“And after I spared your life? Is this how you repay me?” Xu Jian asked, but Lung Shen laughed.
“For humiliating me before the entire town? Fool, of course this is how I repay you! My brothers and I have followed you for some time. Discreetly, of course. We needed to make sure we weren’t seen in the vicinity where your remains will be discovered, so I was thanking the gods of luck when you turned off onto this abandoned trail. You made our mission so much easier, and I would have killed you then, but I admit my curiosity was piqued. I had to know what your business here was. Now I know.”
Xu Jian shook his head. “You don’t understand.”
“Oh, but I do,” Lung Shen said. “It would give me great pleasure to turn you over to the king’s justice, but why bother? Especially since you have so graciously added profit to my revenge. That trinket there,” he said, pointing to the jade lion, “must be worth a fortune!”
“It is beyond price to me,” Xu Jian said. “I won’t let you take it.”
He held his torch in front of him. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was all he had, having foolishly left his hammer at the entrance. Nevertheless, he saw no alternative other than to fight as best he could. He braced himself for what was to come, but then his scholar’s curiosity distracted him.
“This torch is the only source of light,” he said.
Lung Shen scowled and tested the edge of his knife. “What of it? Extinguish your torch and we will find you by feel if we must. You will not escape us!”
Xu Jian sighed. “I merely meant that the torch is the only source of light, and it is in front of me, and there are only three of you. So why are there six shadows behind you?”
Lung Shen practically growled out the words. “We won’t fall for your tricks.”
“You should believe my husband when he tells you something,” said a sweet, familiar voice. “I know him to be an honest man.”
The three extra shadows stepped closer, and the torchlight illuminated Patience, Wind Whisper, and Lady Green Willow. She smiled at Xu Jian through the torchlight.
“You came back for us,” she said. “I confess that I had my doubts.”
“Please forgive my tardiness,” Xu Jian said, “Though I will say in my defense that the delay owes in part to these gentlemen and others like them.”
Lung Shen’s scowl turned into a rather unpleasant smile when he realized who was behind him. “That you would have your wife meet you in a tomb is one more sign of your lack of character,” he said. “I think my brothers and I will seize this opportunity to teach you one final lesson before we cut your head off.” He turned and advanced on the women.
Now Lady Green Willow smiled again, but this time her smile was, by an order of magnitude, even less pleasant than Lung Shen’s.
“Husband, please close your eyes,” she said.
Xu Jian didn’t hesitate, which he later realized was fortunate for his peace of mind. The first screams started immediately, and neither Lady Green Willow, nor Patience, nor Wind Whisper were doing the screaming. When all was quiet, he opened his eyes again.
Lung Shen lay sprawled against the cave wall, and his two brothers lay in equally awkward positions not far away. Xu Jian didn’t need to examine them to know that they were completely and very emphatically dead. He was also rather certain that, unlike the means Lady Green Willow had used to extract his own life force upon their first meeting, this method had been much quicker and far less pleasant for Lung Shen and his brothers.
Xu Jian smiled a rueful smile. “It seems I owe you my life a second time, Lady Green Willow.”
“Forgive me,” she said. “Not for your life, but for what we had to do to preserve it. You must see us as monsters now, and perhaps we are. That is not what we... what I, wish to be to you.”
“We’ve already discussed this,” he said. “You are no longer human but you are not a monster. It is almost nightfall, and when the sun goes down I will move the jade lion to the cart I’ve prepared for you, and we will go to your new home.”
“Do not worry, Husband,” Lady Green Willow said. “The jade lion itself is proof against the sun. You can move our bones now and we will not be harmed.”
The three women turned into clouds of mist, then vanished. Xu Jian, not without effort, carried the large and heavy sculpture to his cart, where he packed it carefully with fabric and cushions for the journey. He led the horse back up the trail toward the main road, making good progress before night fell. When the sun finally disappeared behind the mountains, Xu Jian found Lady Green Willow walking beside him as if she had been there all along.
“Where are Patience and Wind Whisper?” he asked.
“Resting, the poor things,” she said. “I’m afraid I asked them to do most of what had to be done, back in the cave. It wasn’t fair of me, I know.”
“The matter of Patience and Wind Whisper is of concern to me,” he said. “I cannot abandon them, nor do I wish to do so, yet I’m not certain I will have enough living energy for all three of you.”
“If you are correct about the remedy to our unfortunate situation, this may delay the cure,” she admitted, “but I must share whatever I am given, from both my own will and of necessity—my bones are commingled with those of my two maids, and there’s no separating us now. At the moment, however, they’re like two happy little snakes digesting a large meal.”
Xu Jian sighed. “I rather fancy that those ruffians’ life energy will better suit the three of you than it did the Lung brothers themselves. Please do not consider this a complaint, Wife, but there are people who will miss those three and rightly suspect me.”
“I can see that your duties are proving difficult. Please, Husband, tell me your troubles. Perhaps I can help.”
Xu Jian was doubtful, but he told her all that had happened in the time since their last meeting. “My charge is to prevent corruption among the provincial officials,” he said finally, “and I’m afraid that I misjudged just how fond of corruption they would be. If I had executed Lung Shen, as I knew was just, this wouldn’t have happened. Yet as a poor man, I know only too well the plight of a citizen under the sway of brutal officials. The last thing I desired in this life was to become one myself! Yet how else can I fulfill my duties and keep order?”
“This is no great difficulty, Husband,” she said. “In fact, one problem solves the other.”
Xu Jian frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you. And how am I to explain what happened to the Lung brothers?”
She smiled then as she walked. “Why should you explain anything? Forgive my impertinence, but it is neither necessary nor desirable that all people fear you,” she said. “It is only necessary and desirable that the right people fear you. You say it will be known that the Lung brothers sought your end? It will also be known that they set out, three against one, and yet it is the Lung brothers who will be seen in their homes no more.”
Understanding dawned in Xu Jian. “Oh,” was all he said.
She nodded. “Your silence on the subject will speak in a voice like thunder, and word will spread. Soon I think you will find far fewer of those in your charge willing to make trouble.”
Xu Jian was a gentle man at heart, but he was also a realist, and he knew that Lady Green Willow’s counsel was nothing but sense. When he returned to his home and resumed his duties in the provincial city, he carried on as if nothing at all had happened. When he was eventually asked, as he knew he would be, about the Lung brothers by a close cousin of the missing men, he had simply smiled and said, “What of them?” The man asking the question went more than a little pale, and the subject was never broached again.
As Lady Green Willow had predicted, from that day forward Xu Jian found the exercise of his duties far less onerous, and he was able to devote more time to his new household. Which was a good thing, since his living arrangements were unusual, to state the obvious. Xu Jian had been living in the villa that had been owned by the previous Censor, and he was frankly embarrassed to bring Lady Green Willow and her servants there because it was somewhat cramped and in disrepair. Within days of her arrival, however, strange workmen began to appear towards evening several days in succession and the sounds of construction could be heard far into the night. At dawn they were never in evidence. At nightfall they would return.
“How did you arrange these workmen so quickly?” Xu Jian asked. “Skilled craftsmen are in short supply here.”
She looked uncomfortable. “As I said before, my servants and I were not the only ones inhabiting the place where you found us, Husband, and many soldiers are craftsmen of necessity. They still serve me, in their fashion.”
Xu Jian already regretted asking the question, and he asked no more. It was enough that, in almost no time, the buildings were all refurbished, some expanded, the roofs and the villa wall retiled, and the formal garden put in order.
When all was done, the villa was quite appropriate to a man of provincial Censor rank, neither so humble as to reflect badly on the master of the house nor so grand as to call unwanted attention to itself. It was, as Xu Jian readily acknowledged, perfect.
It was clear enough to him by this time that his wife had a greater grasp of the niceties of rank and the proper application of power than he did, and he was more than willing to seek her advice and follow it. Their living arrangements, on the other hand, were unexplored territory for them both, and this took some effort and risk to sort out. The first time Lady Green Willow came into Xu Jian’s bed after settling into their new home, she nearly killed him.
“This condition I have seen in newlyweds before,” the hastily summoned physician said after examining Xu Jian, “but never this severe.”
Nevertheless, he prepared medicines, gave instructions for their proper use, and advised the obvious—rest. “You must be mindful of your husband’s strength,” he said to Lady Green Willow.
“I could never forgive myself if he came to harm,” she replied. The old doctor stroked his beard and looked thoughtful but said nothing else.
“Do you think he suspected?” Xu Jian said after the man was gone.
“Ghosts are not the only creatures with an excess of yin, it seems.” Lady Green Willow said. “He is puzzled, but I think he has enough doubts to avoid coming to the obvious conclusion.”
“Then all is well,” Xu Jian said, and managed to pat her hand, though it took all his strength to raise his. “I will be fine.”
There were tears in her eyes. “And what about next time? We have already seen that my control is far from perfect.”
“And who held you tight when you were ready to let go? No, Wife, there’s blame enough for two. After I am recovered, we will try again, and this time we will both be more careful.”
It was three weeks before they dared to share a bed again, and this time the effects were nowhere near lethal. Nor were the results anywhere near satisfying for anyone involved.
“One who hesitates is sometimes saved,” said Lady Green Willow philosophically.
“One who hesitates will always miss the ferry,” said Xu Jian. “In this one regard, must I be fearless for us both?”
On the third attempt they were closer to the balance Xu Jian had once spoken of. Further experimentation was of course required, and in the next few months they finally settled on something like a schedule. They found that Xu Jian could share his bed with Lady Green Willow in relative safety about once every seven days. A two-week separation was better for Xu Jian’s strength but not especially preferred, since a longer absence tended to make both of them less mindful of potential consequences.
“The more often we can be safely joined, the sooner your excess of yin may be compensated for,” Xu Jian.
“Yes, Husband,” Lady Green Willow said, and she blushed, which pleased Xu Jian a great deal. She had only done that once before, at their first meeting, and he took it as a good sign.
Meanwhile the business of life continued despite the odd but hidden nature of Xu Jian’s household. The jade lion was given a place of honor in their home and was much admired by all who saw it. As ghosts, Lady Green Willow and her two attendants still could not venture out into sunlight, but a second tier of servants were engaged to handle needed excursions outside the home, and it was not considered unusual for an official’s wife and her closest attendants to remain relatively secluded.
Yet complete seclusion simply was not possible. There were social duties required of the household of someone in Xu Jian’s position that could not be avoided, but to Xu Jian’s surprise, even this proved no difficulty. Lady Green Willow showed herself to be an excellent hostess, with a knack for inviting both well-connected and entertaining guests, and Patience and Wind Whisper showed themselves to be fine dancers and musicians, playing flute, pipa, and guquin alike with consummate skill. Soon Xu Jian was known for the quality of the wine-tasting, moon-viewing, and poetry-composition parties held at his residence that, while modest, he still referred to as the Palace of the Jade Lion.
Gradually, Xu Jian noticed changes in Lady Green Willow and her two winsome servants. For one thing, when they walked through the house now, he could usually hear their footsteps, soft though they were. For another, they spent less and less time resting as spirits do among their bones within the jade lion and more and more time reading, sewing, playing music, writing poetry, gossiping, or simply, for want of a more accurate term, living. Lady Green Willow now had her own apartments within the villa for those times when she was not sharing Xu Jian’s bed, where she and Patience and Wind Whisper often slept as human women do. All these signs told Xu Jian that his original theory, born of desperate hope, was proving correct, and that the excess yin energy that bound the three women to their ghostly state was slowly losing its dominion.
He also knew that matters were at a delicate pass in Lady Green Willow’s recovery and all their hopes could yet be easily undone.
It was the jade lion itself that proved to be their greatest danger. By the material of its construction alone it was obviously of great value, but more to the point, it was also an exquisite work of art; even the most refined and well-traveled guests often remarked that they had never seen its equal. The second time thieves invaded his home attempting to steal the treasure, Xu Jian began to understand his dilemma.
“I know Patience and Wind Whisper don’t mind,” he said, after the last two unfortunate thieves’ bodies had been discreetly removed, “and that such... incidents, may actually speed our future happiness. Yet these deaths grieve me. I had assumed, as in the case of the Lung brothers that, after the first thieves’ example, further warnings would not have been necessary.”
“In the average official and bureaucrat, fear will always trump greed,” Lady Green Willow said. “Unfortunately, not all men are officials or bureaucrats. I am sorry, Husband, I should have foreseen this and advised you to keep the jade lion hidden.”
Xu Jian sighed. “And in my foolishness it never occurred to me that there are men in this country who would covet anything I possessed... other than yourself. I’ve noticed the way Governor Zheng looks at you. And he does write a good deal of poetry these days.”
Lady Green Willow blushed again. Was this only the third time? Xu Jian thought so.
”Husband, Governor Zheng is a dear old man and an incorrigible flirt, but that is all. I think greed is our greatest concern. Perhaps one day matters may be different, but right now whoever possesses the jade lion possesses our three spirits. You, my husband, see that as a virtue. One who lusted for the jade lion itself would call for an exorcist.”
“That had occurred to me. Also, King Youmiu is noted for acquiring whatever he desires, art or women, and there’s a good chance that word of the jade lion has reached him by now. It’s not the thieves who come in the night that worry me the most, Wife. Would it be possible,” he hesitated, then went on, as delicately as he could, “to remove, perhaps, your mortal remains from the jade lion?”
She sighed. “After so many years our essence is as bound to the jade lion as it is to our ashes and bones. We will not be free from the one until we are free from both.”
Xu Jian considered. “There has to be something we can do.”
Lady Green Willow’s countenance brightened. “Ah! The problem is that you are known to possess a treasure. What if it was known that you did not?”
He frowned. “You mean we hide it?”
“In a manner of speaking. At our next gathering you let it be known, as an act of piety, that you’re donating the jade lion to a temple in the far south. A large armed caravan will be sent from your villa toward Handan in due course. Everyone will see it leave.”
“Which everyone will also assume bears the jade lion,” Xu Jian said, stroking his small beard. “While we keep the lion itself hidden, as it should have been from the beginning. But what if the caravan is attacked by bandits and they discover the truth? There are those who would risk it, whatever their chances.”
Lady Green Willow smiled. “I said the caravan would be seen to leave. I did not say it would be seen anywhere else, by anyone. Ever.”
Xu Jian well remembered the manner in which their home had been refurbished, and understood what Lady Green Willow was proposing now. He knew it was a good plan. It might even have worked, if there had been time to put it into action. That was not to be.
The very next morning as he tried to assume his duties, Xu Jian found the two gates to his villa manned by armed guards, who refused to let him leave the compound.
“What is the meaning of this?!”
“Censor Xu, you are to remain in your home until His Majesty’s Counsellor, Master Huang Ti, arrives tomorrow to question you. Those are my orders,” said the guard captain.
The guard feigned ignorance, but after a while Xu Jian got the man to admit that Master Huang’s visit had something to do with an object in Xu Jian’s possession. Xu Jian didn’t need much imagination to guess which one was meant.
“It is as I feared,” he said to Lady Green Willow. “Doubtless the counselor’s mission is to seize the jade lion for the king on some pretext or other.”
“Do you think they will harm you?” she asked.
He frowned. “Harm? Oh, I suppose they might. Even the king sees the need for a cloak of legality and will need to justify the theft if I do not give up the jade lion freely. I’m certain there’s something I can be accused of, and someone willing to swear to whatever it is, if I do not give in.”
She bowed. “If you have the chance, you must make of us a gift to the king, if that will save you.”
“And what will happen to you and Patience and Wind Whisper if I do that?”
“Likely we will be exorcized, but that would happen whether you surrender our ossuary freely or no. I have heard of this Master Huang. He is a Daoist of some skill. He will recognize us for what we are.”
Xu Jian hesitated. “Wife, I must beg your forgiveness.”
She frowned. “Why, Husband?”
“I know you were not happy where I found you, but at least you were not suffering from a false hope. Yes, I wanted to save my own life, but I sincerely thought there was a chance for both of us. I offered you the life you never had, and now it will be taken away. I never meant to be so cruel—”
She stopped him. “Whatever happens next, I have no regrets. Patience, Wind Whisper, and I have been happy these past months, and for the first time in centuries. That alone is more than any of us dared to hope.”
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. They spent that day together, Xu Jian trying to read a scroll on exorcism in the vain hope of learning how to prevent one, and Lady Green Willow doing calligraphy and sewing. As evening approached, she summoned Patience and gave her one of the scrolls she had made.
“What was that?” he asked.
“If all goes as we fear tomorrow, it’s a last gift to a friend. He always admired my calligraphy, as well as my person. I’ve asked Patience to pass it on to a servant to deliver.”
She smiled then. “Don’t be jealous, Husband. I’ve also asked for a small favor from him. Perhaps he can help us.”
Xu Jian sighed. “I know the governor is a good man at heart, and I suppose it can’t hurt to ask, but even he won’t dare stand between us and the King’s Counsel.”
“I didn’t ask him to. Pardon me for a bit, Husband. I feel a need to visit our altar.”
She took the other scroll she had prepared and left his studio. For a while Xu Jian toyed with the wild hope that his ghostly wife was up to something, but he knew that was only his desperation, grasping at nothing. They were trapped, all of them, and he could see no way out of it. If Lady Green Willow could find some solace in prayer, then so much the better.
After a while, and for want of a better plan, he decided to follow her example. When he came to the altar, however, Lady Green Willow was no longer there. The warm ashes in the brazier and a hint of jasmine scent mixed into the smoke told him that she had been, but she herself was nowhere to be seen.
He searched through the house but couldn’t find either his wife or her two maids, until he approached Lady Green Willow’s apartments and found Wind Whisper laying out her mistress’s silk robes.
“Where is my wife?” he asked.
“Bathing, Master,” she said, “and if you’ll forgive an observation, you could do the same.”
Xu Jian started to rebuke her, but then he remembered what he had forgotten, under the weight of his worry. “Oh. It’s tonight, isn’t it?”
“Master is distracted,” Wind Whisper said, smiling impishly. “So I won’t let my mistress know that you forgot.”
She then led him off and prepared a bath for him. After a time he had to admit that the warm water felt good and that, once he emerged, he felt quite a bit better. He put on the clean clothes Wind Whisper had brought out for him. He considered going to his bedroom to wait, but then he changed his mind.
He found Lady Green Willow in her bedchamber, almost as if she were expecting him. She was dressed in a new robe, and Patience was combing out her mistress’s long black hair. Xu Jian was certain that she had never looked more beautiful. Lady Green Willow smiled at him and then at Patience, who discreetly withdrew.
“This might be our last night together,” he said, “and I must confess now to a very selfish thought. Tonight I do not want to worry or think about holding back, or holding you back, or anything that by necessity has always been a barrier between us. I might die, I know that, but believe me when I say that I do not seek the coward’s way out of our dilemma. I simply want you.”
Lady Green Willow took a long, slow breath, and her eyes were shining. “It will be as you wish. I only ask for one favor in return.”
“What is it?”
“If you die,” she said. “Take us with you.”
Xu Jian came back to consciousness in a shimmering pool of light. For a moment he thought it might have something to do with heaven, but after a bit he realized it was only the sunlight filtering in through an upper window. After a moment or two he sat up, somewhat amazed that he could, indeed, sit up. In fact, he felt only a pleasant and, in his opinion, well-earned weariness.
“Good morning, Husband.”
Lady Green Willow lay beside him, propped up on one elbow. Apparently she had been watching him sleep.
“I’m alive,” he said, and he knew he sounded a little surprised. So surprised, in fact, that it took him a moment or two to realize that Lady Green Willow was sharing the pool of sunlight with him. “Doesn’t the sunlight bother you?”
“A little,” she said solemnly. “There was a time when anything more than a mere touch of it would have turned me to vapor and ash, but I have developed a tolerance for it lately.”
Xu Jian sighed. “That makes me both happy and sad. If only there was a little more time. We were so close....”
“It can’t be helped. But since we are both still here, in our fashion, then I suppose we will be facing Master Huang together,” she said. “Are you worried?”
She nodded. “Me, too. Though perhaps matters are not as bad as we feared. We had a message this morning from Governor Zheng. It seems Master Huang was delayed on some business with the governor and will not call here until this evening. Perhaps there will be a way to use that to all our advantage.”
He sighed. “I wish I knew what that way might be. I would ask Patience and Wind Whisper to treat Master Huang as they did all the other thieves, except—”
“Except that we are very close to being human again. The unfortunate part of that is it’s now impossible for us to deal with Master Huang as we dealt with the Lung Brothers. We could have done so, once, but now this matter is beyond them,” Lady Green Willow said. “And me as well. Especially since....” She stopped.
Xu Jian frowned. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“I think so,” she said very seriously, “but I am not really sure.”
Lady Green Willow was reluctant to say any more on the matter, and Xu Jian was too concerned about the coming evening to press her. He finally withdrew to his own rooms and armed himself, concealing a short but very serviceable dagger in the sash of his robe. He had no idea what, if anything, he could do with it, but he felt a little better knowing it was there. Otherwise, there was little else to do but await Master Huang.
The priest arrived shortly after sunset, accompanied by the captain of the guards Xu Jian had spoken to the previous morning. Master Huang was a tall man, perhaps fifty, with long gray hair and beard. He wore the robes of a Daoist priest in rich fabrics. Xu Jian greeted him alone, having thought it best to send Lady Green Willow and her maids to their apartments. He could not imagine any competent priest not recognizing a ghost when he saw one, and there was no point risking more troubles than they had already.
“Censor Xu Jian, you have been accused of corruption,” Master Huang said.
“That is a very serious charge, which I know to be untrue. Who has sworn against me?”
Perhaps it was his imagination, but Xu Jian thought that the priest looked a little uncomfortable. “It is not a formal charge yet. It may not yet come to that. This, you understand, depends somewhat on you.”
Xu Jian did understand. Master Huang’s words only confirmed what he already suspected: that this wasn’t about anything he’d done or even anyone he had harmed or offended. It was about one thing only.
“You’ve come about the jade lion,” Xu Jian said. “The king has sent you to take it from me.”
Master Huang’s face reddened, though whether with embarrassment or anger, Xu Jian was not sure, even after the priest answered harshly.
“It is not the custom of His Majesty to seize property without cause,” he said.
“Then I take it your office is to find that cause?”
Xu Jian had trouble believing his own words echoing in his own ears. He had never spoken so freely, and certainly not to a king’s counselor. As much as he was worried about his own and his wife’s future, he was also deeply offended by the complete injustice of it all. As he spoke, he found himself wondering if Huang Ti was aware of that injustice, despite the fact that he obviously did not wish to be.
“You presume too much, Xu Jian,” Huang said, “and this does not help your case. I wish to examine the jade lion now.”
Since there was no help for it, Xu Jian bowed. “This way,” he said.
He led the two men to his studio, where the jade lion was prominently displayed on a table of ebonized wood. At his first sight of it, the priest couldn’t suppress a gasp. “I see that its quality was not exaggerated. This confirms the king’s suspicions.”
“There is simply no possible way that a provincial censor could afford a work of art such as this by honest means. You must be taking bribes!” the counselor said as he continued to study the lion.
Now Xu Jian was a little puzzled. Master Huang had been examining the piece closely for some time now, and yet, except to admire its artistry, he had not reacted to its presumed ghostly aura at all.
“And you notice nothing... unusual, about the jade lion? Nothing at all?”
“Unusual? Only its quality.”
Xu Jian thought it very strange that a priest of Huang Ti’s reputation would not recognize the vessel for what it was, yet he clearly did not.
He finally sighed. “Master Huang, you and I both know that wealth is not at issue here. The king himself could not buy a work of art such as this, because no others exist. It is very old.”
“Then how did you acquire it?”
“It belonged to my wife’s family, and it came to my household with her. It was sort of a dowry.”
“And who is her family? What is their name?”
Xu Jian thought about the question for a moment, but was finally forced to shrug. “Master Huang, I do not know. It never seemed important.”
“Censor Xu, do you take me for a fool?”
“I am an honest man, Master Huang, and so I will answer you honestly—I take you for an honorable man as well, doing your best to serve a king who is neither honest nor honorable.”
“Now you speak ill of His Majesty? How dare you!”
“I speak the truth,” Xu Jian said. “And I believe you still recognize the truth when you hear it. The king wants the jade lion, and one way or another I suppose he will have it. There is no reason to insult either me or yourself by pretending there is anything else to the matter.”
“I have heard enough!” Master Huang turned to the guard. “Captain Fei, summon your men. Search the house and bring everyone you find here.”
Xu Jian would have cursed himself for making matters worse, only he knew they were already about as bad they were going to get. If he could have neither happiness nor Lady Green Willow, at least he could speak the plain truth again. It wasn’t a trait that was especially valued in the normal functioning of his office.
Captain Fei reappeared, accompanied by the three other soldiers, escorting Lady Green Willow and her two maids. Xu Jian knew they would find no one else, as all the other servants had been sent away that morning for their own protection. Patience and Wind Whisper appeared apprehensive, but Lady Green Willow held her head high, though she did bow when brought into Master Huang’s presence.
“Is this everyone?” Master Huang asked.
“Yes, sir,” Captain Fei said. His voice sounded a little odd to Xu Jian, though perhaps it was because he had hurried so. Master Huang turned to Lady Green Willow.
“Your husband says that the jade lion belongs to you.”
“He speaks the truth, though I share all that I have with my husband, so it is his as well.”
“Was it a wedding gift?”
“It was meant to be. Instead it was a funeral gift,” Lady Green Willow said frankly. “I was buried in it.”
For a moment Master Huang just stared at her. Then he turned to Xu Jian. “Has your wife gone mad?”
“My wife is also an honest person. She’s telling you the truth,” Xu Jian said. It was clear that his wife also saw no point in deception now. He then told Master Huang the story of how he had met Lady Green Willow and her maids, but he couldn’t fail to notice how Master Huang’s countenance was turning darker by the moment. When his story was done, he hesitated, then stated the obvious. “You don’t believe us, do you?”
“Of course I don’t believe you!” Master Huang said. “I am a priest of the highest rank! Do you think I could be in the presence of spirits and not know this?”
Xu Jian nodded. “I wondered about that. It was the main reason I tried to keep my family away from you. But you didn’t even recognize the jade lion for what it truly is—an ossuary.”
“You’re all insane,” Master Huang said.
“I assure you we are not,” Xu Jian said.
“Feh.” Master Huang reached into a pouch on his belt, held up a small slip of paper covered in fine calligraphy. “Xu Jian, do you recognize this? As a scholar, surely you have studied the form?”
Now Lady Green Willow did look apprehensive as Xu Jian answered him. “It is a ward against spirits.”
“If you doubt my competence, please examine it closely.”
Huang Ti handed the slip of paper to Xu Jian, who did as he asked. “It is very well done,” Xu Jian said. “I can see no errors in it.”
“If you recognize that, then you should also know that it requires no great spiritual power on the part of anyone who wields it. I created it, but it would work even if someone such as you were to apply it. Is that not so?”
Xu Jian, suspecting the priest’s intent, felt his knees tremble. Nevertheless, he spoke clearly. “I believe so,” he said.
“I want you to place the spirit ward on your wife’s forehead.”
“You can’t ask me to do that,” Xu Jian said, nearly shaking with fear and rage. “It would destroy her!”
“I am not asking. I am ordering. Do as I say or I’ll have you and your entire household executed here and now. If she really is a ghost, then you’ll be the only one to die. Shall we test this?”
Xu Jian’s fear diminished as his rage grew at Hunag Ti’s cruelty. His hand inched toward the dagger in his belt. In his desperation he thought that, if he moved quickly enough, he could take the priest hostage and use him to make their escape. If that failed, Xu Jian was determined to kill the man if it was the last thing he did on earth. He took one step, but he made the mistake of glancing at Lady Green Willow first, and she met his gaze and quickly shook her head.
“Husband, do as Master Huang commands.”
Xu Jian stopped where he was. Master Huang, perhaps suspecting trouble, had already taken a half-step behind Captain Fei, and the moment was lost. Xu Jian knew he could not possibly reach the priest before the soldiers struck him down. He turned to his wife.
She smiled at him. “It may be the last thing I ask of you, Husband, but I do ask. Please trust me.”
The guards, at Master Huang’s prodding, had already drawn their swords. Tears formed at the corners of Xu Jian’s eyes, but he took one step and, as gently as he knew how, touched the paper to Lady Green Willow’s forehead.
After a moment or two the paper fell off and fluttered to the floor like a dead leaf in winter.
“I have reason enough to relieve you of your duties,” Master Huang said. “To tell a king’s counselor such an obvious lie.”
“But as a follower of the Way,” said Xu Jian, “you understand the nature of balance and imbalance. I have tried to correct that imbalance in Lady Green Willow, and this just proves that our treatment is working!”
“It proves nothing, because there is nothing to prove. Lady Green Willow is a woman, like any other.”
“Hardly like any other, but I can see that you’ve found your excuse. Declare me corrupt or unfit if you want. I can offer no defense save to repeat that we have told you the truth. You can seize us and the jade lion with perfect justification. Or....”
“You can let us go. The jade lion belongs to us, and we have done nothing wrong. You know this to be true.”
Master Huang did not speak for several long moments. He finally shook his head. A bit reluctantly, perhaps, but firmly. “Captain Fei, you are to place Censor Xu in custody. All his property and chattels are forfeit to the king. See to it.”
Captain Fei didn’t move.
Master Huang scowled. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
“Orders, Sir,” Captain Fei said.
“I just gave you my orders!”
“Not your orders, Sir,” Captain Fei said. He looked at Lady Green Willow, and his eyes were glowing red. “Lady Green Willow’s orders.”
“Seize Master Huang,” she said.
Before the priest could react, Captain Fei pinned his arms, and the other guards held their bronze swords against his neck. Lady Green Willow plucked the pouch containing other spirit wards from Master Huang’s belt and tossed it aside. “Now I understand why you did not recognize my nature, Master Huang,” she said. “But you must not be the priest you once were, or you’d have certainly recognized my friends for what they are. Has serving your king served you as well? I would consider this, if I were you.”
For a moment Xu Jian was too surprised to speak. “I think your prayers yesterday must have been answered!”
She smiled at him. “I wasn’t praying, Husband. I was sending for help. As you may recall from the repairs to our home, Patience and Wind Whisper are not the only ones who still serve me. But the delay was necessary, since my soldiers could not come to us before sundown.”
“My Lady, what shall we do with Master Huang?” asked Captain Fei, or at least the spirit who bore Captain Fei’s appearance.
“I will spare his life, but we need time,” replied Lady Green Willow. “Husband, with your permission?” Xu Jian nodded, and his wife turned back to the ghostly soldier. “Escort Master Huang to the cave where I used to reside, but otherwise do not harm him. Once that is done, you will all please consider your obligations to me and my family faithfully discharged. You are free, as I hope to be.”
“Thank you, Lady Green Willow,” said the ghostly soldiers in unison, and they bowed to her.
After the spirits had departed taking Master Huang with them, Xu Jian embraced his wife in happiness and relief. “You’ve saved us! I thought to kill Master Huang myself, but I am glad you didn’t. Perhaps he deserved it, but I believe he was a good man once.”
“I am sorry that we must leave this place. Especially now,” Lady Green Willow said. She looked down at the spirit ward lying on the floor. She stepped on it, then ground it under her dainty heel. “As for Master Huang, he owes his life more to my gratitude than to my mercy.”
“Gratitude? Why? He would have had me destroy you!”
She smiled then. “But I wasn’t destroyed. I already knew that we... that I, was less and less connected to the spirit realm with each passing day, but I wasn’t able to convince myself that my progress had gone so far. Now I see that it has done so, and if I am simply a mortal woman now as Master Huang’s spirit ward proved, then I must be something else as well, something I hardly dared to believe, or to tell you for risk of false hope. That is why I am grateful to him.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Husband, I am pregnant.”
The accounts of Master Huang Ti’s mission to interrogate Censor Xu were a little unusual, to say the least, and were thus recorded years later along with many other strange happenings in a book called “Official Accounts of the Mysterious” compiled by the scholar Sung Man Hei. In that version, Master Huang’s guards were found unconscious by the remains of a villa called the Palace of the Jade Lion. The censor’s residence itself was no more than an old ruin, full of cobwebs and rats; it was obvious that no one had lived there in some time.
As for Master Huang Ti himself, he reappeared several days later, dirty, disheveled, and muttering some nonsense about being trapped in an abandoned tomb. In deference to his delicate health, Master Huang was allowed to retire to a monastery in the south.
The Provincial Censor and his household could not be located, though there were reports that a wealthy branch of the Xu family later established itself in the city of Xianyang in the state of Qin, whose ruler was far more intent on annexing his neighbors than in collecting art. Descendents of the Xu family, it is said, live in that area to the present day.
As for the jade lion, it was never seen again.
Return to Issue #100