When the magistrate arrives in Immen, the first thing he does is summon Grandmother Seung, druidess of Yang Village Behind-the-Mountains, to ask for her magic potion. (This is, of course, after putting into order the work his predecessor left behind, after examining the roster of his new officers, after a good night’s rest. The magistrate understands the perfect order of things.)
He is not thrilled about being assigned to this northern district, snowed-in for half the year and too close to the tundra for his comfort. The land of Yaoha is known for its pristine snows, but there are reasons why the capital is not in the mountains. When he thinks about how the elder brother called the Adjudicator told him about his new assignment, he feels blood rising in his cheeks and he pictures the smug smile on the Adjudicator’s face at having disrupted a younger brother’s promising military career. The Adjudicator claimed that the northern district needed someone savvy enough to understand the delicate politics on the border, and a court-raised official would be perfect. The magistrate is a middling scion of the royal family, but he doesn’t think he deserves to be sent away like that. He has never hurt anyone, least of all any of his brothers.
At least he is far away from the scheming of the capital, the whispers in the echoing hallways, the watching dragons set into the columns of every corridor. He does miss his father’s concubines, who are chatty and amusing, and he has written to them and his mother every day. But the countryside is so green outside his window, with the smells of springtime flowers and the utter quiet of the wood, that he thinks perhaps this assignment will be fine; it is just a year. Hao-Er, his bodyguard and his most loyal and trustworthy friend for years, is with him, so he has good company.
And he has a good opinion of Immen district thus far: on his way to his posting, he saw a cart driver lift half a tree trunk off the road. The road, a fairly busy one between two towns, had been blocked by a hoary hardwood tree felled from its roadside sentrypoint in last night’s thunderstorm. Single travelers could move around it, but larger carts could not. Someone had been dispatched back to one of the towns to get axes, so the cart drivers could clear the road and get firewood out of the inconvenience. The magistrate had quietly stepped out of his carriage to stand at the edges of the crowd, just in time to watch the cart driver, at the cheering encouragement of the others, squat and lift the root base. The tree moved minutely, and inch by inch it began to pivot.
The other cart drivers, not wanting to be outdone, each began taking turns trying to move the tree; some acquitted themselves admirably by moving it an inch or two, but most could not even budge it on their own. Even Hao-Er took a go at it, and he came back to the magistrate’s side, huffing. “That tree is no joke, your honor. I wager it weighs as much as ten sledgehammers.”
So the one cart driver lifted it again while the others laid long planks under it so all could help move it out of the way. The axes arrived just as they had most of it off the road. Congratulating each other, some remained behind to chop the trunk down to size while most bid each other a good day and moved on.
The magistrate had asked his driver quietly what he thought, to which the driver replied, “Oh, that man is from Behind-the-Mountains.”
The magistrate discussed this with Hao-Er at length as they continued with their journey. There had been rumors for years about the villagers Behind-the-Mountains, in the pass leading to the tundra: they fly across snow effortlessly, as winter is their element; they can make birds give up their eggs in singing contests; they are such fierce fighters that even the neighboring kingdom of Idara would rather leave them be than force them to abide by Idaran laws, whenever their borders grow larger enough to include them. They do not even need oxen to plow their fields. The magistrate has always thought these to be fanciful tales. The cart driver might be a fluke... but he might not be. The magistrate is not a very powerful man, but he has made it this far by not dismissing small people’s talk.
“This could be what you need to rise up, Fanyu,” Hao-Er said in a low murmur that nonetheless trembled with excitement. “If you find out the secret behind the strength of the people Behind-the-Mountains, to bring to your own armies, imagine what you could get from the Khan. Or, if you saved it for your own use, wait for the perfect moment to strike down your rivals.”
They had shared a moment in the sunset of the day, brimming with possibility.
The magistrate had made further inquiries along the way and listened intently to what people had to say. (He did this chiefly to understand the people and their concerns better, he tells himself.) And one name peppered the conversations, over and over: Grandmother Seung, maker of the best magic potion in Yang Village Behind-the-Mountains. By the time he arrived in Immen, he made up his mind to summon her.
Grandmother Seung is not a very prepossessing woman. She ties her hair in a loose bun at the nape of her neck and wears thick clothes even with the approaching summer. Her skin is spotted, constellations across tanned skin. She hunches over, and she squints as she takes in her surroundings; from the snow and fading eyesight, the magistrate supposes.
She does not look terribly impressed with the yamen he has been given for official and personal use, but the magistrate doesn’t blame her; he isn’t impressed with the yamen either. The bedrooms are cramped, the records room is neglected, and the office is sparse. His desk is barely large enough to hold the scrolls he needs to read through, his inkpot, brushes, and a tea tray. Behind him, a round window looks out into the garden, but the view is obscured by a bamboo grove. Thus, the collar of his inner robe that sits high on the back of his neck barely gets the sunlight needed for the faint illumination of the characters that signal his rank. But he is here to serve the town, not rule it with spectacle.
He pulls a chair out for her and serves her tea himself. She does not look impressed with the tea either, even though it is very fine tea. He knows it is not too hot; he can feel through the silk of his sleeve that it is the right temperature.
She frowns at the fall of his sleeves, and he finds her staring at the hems that touch the floor. Perhaps it’s given him away too much; only members of the royal family wear sleeves that allow them distance from the material world. But perhaps she does not know, since she is so far away from court. There is often a lot about the royal family that peasants do not know.
“Do you know why I’ve summoned you?” he asks, easing himself back into his seat.
Grandmother Seung cackles. “Clearly you want your fortune told.” Her accent is odd; it is hard to tell what she is saying by how she rolls her tongue.
He allows himself a small laugh. “Funny, but no. Grandmother Seung, I am told that you are a druidess of renown, that you hold the secret to giving men great strength.”
“Is it a secret?” She sounds skeptical, and one eyebrow, balding with age, raises. He decides she’s trying to discern his intentions.
“I do not know. If it isn’t, then would you share what it is that makes your village so strong?” Surely she could not fault curiosity.
“We work hard every day and eat the best food, of course,” she replies, so matter-of-factly that it makes the magistrate frown. Her answer, he thinks, comes too easily. He wonders if he is mis-hearing her, if she is saying something completely different and he just does not know it. But through the tongue-rolls and throaty swallowing of the words, the words are all there, all recognizable.
“Grandmother, I’ve seen the people of your village perform feats of strength that no military man can do unless they have trained to become champions.”
Her lips thin, and her brows furrow. “We have a special recipe from our mountain, if that is what you are referring to,” she replies.
He smiles. “Yes, that is what most people do talk about.”
She pauses, then says, “Yes, it’s just a magic potion.”
“Yes, that, exactly.”
She frowns again, then proceeds to squint at him again, as if trying to see through him. “Your honor, it’s just a way of cooking meat.”
“If the way you cook meat is so special, then I wish to know how you do it.” To show his goodwill and sincerity, he stands and walks around the table to serve her more tea.
She continues squinting at him in a way that makes her look more judgmental than he hopes she is. She does this for a long time, rubbing a bony finger on her sharp chin. He is starting to feel faint and realizes he has been holding his breath. Finally, she visibly relaxes, eyes crinkling. She sips the tea, and she says, “Fine. I will teach you how to make magic potion.”
He bows to her as low as he can, feeling a small thrill of triumph at being deemed worthy.
“But you must come to me in Yang Village.” Conditions to teaching him, of course. He had expected the conditions. He had not expected it to be effortless. But he is not expecting what she says next. “You must help me gather the herbs, with your own hands. You will learn how to cut the meat and wield the knife to slaughter the wild boars for it. The magic potion will not have its potency unless you understand with your own senses how to make it.”
He is slightly appalled. “You mean, with my hands?” Underneath his slightly-panicked question, he is saying, touch things, with my bare hands? Get them dirty? Off the battlefield? It would not matter so much for combat; the blood of an enemy is a purifier. But dirt...
She squints at him some more, in that terrible judgmental way.
“Of course, Grandmother,” he says. “I will send word ahead—”
She shakes her head, which stops him. “You must come every day. I begin work at dawn, and do not stop until the sun has reached its highest peak. If you cannot commit to it, then it is no point.”
The magistrate performs some quick mental calculations. If he leaves before dawn, he can be there to perform the work. Then at midday, he can return to the yamen and perform his duties. This won’t be a problem at all. No one wants to see the magistrate in the morning anyway; that is when everyone is working. And what is a little sleep lost if it means learning the secret to great strength?
“Yes. Yes, I will do this.”
He must sound like conviction, because she nods so satisfiedly that it feels gratifying. “Tomorrow.” She leaves the yamen, stooped and tottering.
Hao-Er enters the magistrate’s office to ask how the appointment went.
“Get me rags, Hao-Er,” the magistrate says, his consternation alleviated somewhat by the Hao-Er’s expression. “Apparently, I’m going to root around in the dirt.”
The spring days of the magistrate pass thus: he and Hao-Er travel to Grandmother Seung’s cottage in the middle of the Yang Village. The snows of the mountain pass have recently melted, and the streams are clean and clear. The village is not far from the town, just an hour’s hike away. The magistrate would like to have left Hao-Er back in the town, partly so he can handle any emergency that comes up, partly to avoid the embarrassment of having an audience to watch his inevitable mistakes. If Hao-Er had not been a friend, the magistrate would have ordered him to stay in town.
But Hao-Er keeps a discreet distance away as Grandmother Seung and the magistrate clamber all over the hills, she with a spade, he with a small knife. (Not even a dignified dagger; no, she insists on a puny kitchen knife.) The springtime rains softened the earth, preparing it for new seedlings, new life. The magistrate has been in the muds before but never quite so caked with it for such protracted periods of time.
She makes him remember the herbs and their uses. Danggui to strengthen the heart and liver. Yuzhu for the blood and bone. Gancao for good digestion, huangqi for the spleen. Dangshan, like danggui, for energy. Chuanxiong for the head. Guipi to keep away sadness, bajiao to keep warm in winter. She makes him remember their shapes, their smells, their leaves, their flowers and fruits.
“And don’t forget the guoji,” she calls to him as he picks at the berry bush on a ledge below her.
“What is it for?” he shouts his question.
“To make it delicious!” she shouts back, ripping another root out and sending pellets of dirt skittering down the hillside onto his head.
On some mornings Grandmother Seung sends the magistrate mushroom-hunting, to get him out of her hair. He is a bit annoyed when this happens, because he thinks of how much more sleep he could have had otherwise or how much more work he could have done. But the mushroom-hunting gives him time to explore the mountain pass area and meet the farmers that would otherwise have had no time to visit the yamen. Most of the time, they also know some of the best places to find mushrooms. (Ro-yin the childless widower has a mushroom crop at the back of his house. When the magistrate has no luck in the wild, Ro-yin will give him some in exchange for long chats.)
He finds himself occasionally with an entourage of children. They do not know what a school is, nor writing. When the magistrate explains reading, they exclaim, “oh, like when Grandmother Seung tells us to look at the sky so we can tell the weather!” Sometimes he exchanges long-suffering glances with Hao-Er; other times he agrees amenably and shows them his way of reading.
When he returns to the yamen, he rests before embarking on the paperwork. He follows up on the work of his predecessor. He meets with the farmers and the merchants. He adjudicates petty conflicts and the very few criminal cases. He investigates cases of theft and cheating; he arbitrates between bickering neighbors and couples.
The people Behind-the-Mountains, it turns out, do have their own form of oxen. The yaks lumber across the grassy plains of the mountains, placid amid the more energetic goats. Their feet are surer in this landscape and their hides hardier. The magistrate buys one out of curiosity, to learn how to ride it the way the villagers do. He only rides out when Grandmother Seung has set him on an errand or to herb-hunt out of her sight.
When he is with her, he gallantly invites her to ride. “Being Grandmother, you must have so many burdens. Let this grandson ease one such burden,” he says with a straight face while Hao-Er behind her covers his mouth to hide his mirth. He does not say it to mock her, but he wants to tease her, to remind her of his status, to remind her of hers.
“You are a good son and your mother must be proud,” she replies, climbing onto the yak’s back with more grace than he has yet to muster.
As the days pass, he finds himself more and more sincere in this sentiment. Sometimes he finds himself forgetting that it is the magic potion he wants from her.
The summer days of the magistrate pass thus: first, on more familiar ground, hunting for the wild boar across the bright green mountain paths, the towering forests. He and Hao-Er spend a lot of time reliving their younger days when they hunted with abandon across the forests by the Xingyang Basin. The young men their age join them, showing them the tricks of using boar piss to mask their presence or enrage the boars into attacking bushes and trees.
The grown men of the villages have their own hunts: for great game like deer and bears, for small game like rabbits and foxes. The children have their littler hunts for littler game like snails and frogs. Parents hunt for their straying children. Married couples hunt for gifts for each other; summer lovers hunt for each other. The magistrate wisely stays out of such hunts, but Grandmother Seung does not: she has firm ideas about matchmaking and appropriate gifts. Old-fashioned ones, the magistrate thinks, secretly agreeing with the lovers who argue their case. One young couple, Tamli and Kuo, is especially vociferous; they leave the village to prove their point.
On less familiar ground, the magistrate learns the art of slaughtering wild boar, skinning it, cutting its edible meats from its inedible parts. The people of the Yang Village, especially the women, have ways with the butcher’s knives. Some use the back end of the chopping knife to break the bone thunderously; others slice the meat off along the muscle lines as if they know the geography of the animal body like they know their mountain trails.
Grandmother Seung makes him learn it all. “To grow strength, you must understand where strength comes from. We eat the animal and take it into ourselves, building our bodies with its own.” She says all this while drawing the kitchen knife along the bone, separating the meat with practiced ease. The magistrate, beside her in her small kitchen, tries to mimic her moves. Hao-Er does not have much success either. The women watching through the cottage window grin and laugh at their urban incompetence. “The meat, the blood, the bones of the animal,” continues Grandmother Seung, “all serve a function within our bodies.”
This is where the magistrate finds himself frowning in confusion at her accent. When she says “blood,” it sounds like fortune. When she says “bones,” it sounds like foundation. Whenever he learns of such dissonances between highland and lowland words, he points it out to Hao-Er.
“Makes them sound rather superstitious, doesn’t it?” Hao-Er suggests.
“Makes me wonder what we are missing,” the magistrate replies, but he is too busy (and, honestly, too tired) to ponder this. The days are longer, with fewer hours at night to sleep in. The paperwork mounting in his office does not get any less complicated. The district is abuzz with activity of holy days, summer frolics, festivals. There are more parties here than he has ever heard of in any other district.
One day, when he returns to the yamen, he finds a letter from the court. An elder brother, chiding him on the reports of his work and his lackadaisical attitude towards his responsibilities. It is dismaying to hear that you spend your mornings roaming the countryside instead of tending to your duties. Although your work is satisfactory, consider how much more you could accomplish in your personal studies if you spent more time in proper actions, the letter says, in curt calligraphy. Remember that Immen is a precarious holding of ours, and the advisers of our father, the great Khan, smell in the wind the movements of Idara to re-take Immen for itself. Do not let yourself be distracted!
The magistrate refrains from explaining himself. Not because babbling about a magic potion could jeopardize in his future career at court. Yaohan gentry do not take well to talk of magic. That would be gauche. But the magistrate firmly believes that this pursuit will pay off. He will learn the secret magic potion, and he will be vindicated.
The autumnal days of the magistrate pass thus: finally, finally, learning how to brew the magic potion. In the mornings, Grandmother Seung presents to him an herb for him to smell and taste, by itself or in boiled water, so he can recognize its presence elsewhere. The magistrate’s tongue is fine-tuned from the rich dishes served at court, so he feels reasonably ready to deal with this aspect of the potion.
He is less so when it comes to the actual preparation of the magic potion. He has cooked before; he has been camp overseer in the military, which involved rudimentary cooking. It takes him a while to understand Grandmother Seung’s fussiness over his cooking; she makes him taste, over and over, the exact herbs and their presence in the pot, so that he understands the perfect balance he must create between their flavors in order to make the potion efficacious.
Because he is learning, he fails a lot of the time, and thus he calls to the villagers to partake in his mistakes. Grandmother Seung demands that he serve them himself. The laying-out of the bowls and the spoons is part of the ritual of the magic potion, she says. The magistrate supposes so, but this is the more grueling part of his education, because she is so particular. “You must twist your wrist just so. No, not like that,” Grandmother Seung scolds him. “Like this. This angle, and then sweep your arm this way. No, do it slower, or you will spill. No, faster, you must be able to feed many people at once!”
He thinks he will go mad. What does it matter what exact angle his wrist must be turned at? But she scowls at him; opens her mouth to start repeating herself about the need to be present, for the awareness of his intentions in the potion, and if he cannot be aware of his own body’s workings in this last crucial stage of the magic potion, then how will he rein and discipline his mind for the task?
The villagers don’t mind. They take turns sitting at the modest table the magistrate sets up in front of Grandmother Seung’s house. The magistrate asks them about their day and their harvests. Boh-ying’s grains are coming along well. The twins have orchards of peach trees bowed with fruit. Sulin pulls noodles in the compound outside her parents’ house, which the magistrate finds mesmerizing. He and Hao-Er are careful to spend a few minutes watching the noodle-stretching; any more, and their attention drifts to the pretty noodle-maker; any less, and she complains that they don’t truly appreciate her craft.
But the magic potion is not perfect. He knows this because he can taste the difference between Grandmother Seung’s and his, and his is always unbalanced, always overcompensating for one ingredient or another, always underwhelming. He must perfect it soon, sooner than later, because the missives he receives from the capital grow subtly dire: Idara is planning an incursion into Yaoha, looking to reclaim some of its tundra land. Which is ridiculous, of course—the tundra belongs to Yaoha by natural birthright. Theirs is the land of the snows, while Idara’s peoples barely build in the north. Nobody in Yaoha is quite sure why Idara wants the tundra, but then, Yaoha doesn’t want the tundra either yet holds onto it for the principle of the thing.
When the magistrate contacts the commander of the military post at the northern border of Idara and Yaoha, he learns where the conjectured first strike will take place: Yang Village Behind-the-Mountains. Why here? he wonders. Why in winter? Surely the Idarans have pursued due intelligence and know of the reputation of the Yang Village. But perhaps that is the point: if Idara can conquer this one village, they can re-take the tundra for themselves.
He writes missives to the capital: Please send reinforcements. Please consider the value of the mountain pass Behind-the-Mountains. Please remember our heritage of the snows.
Grandmother Seung is the first to notice his long face, but only because she is the first to see him every day. Everyone who comes to eat sees his worry etched across his brow even though he smiles in welcome, asks gently about their health, ladles soup into their bowls just so. Grandmother Seung is also the first to snap at him. “Ah Fanyu, what is your problem?” she demands. He lets her use of his given name pass. “This village has passed from Idara to Yaoha and back three times in my lifetime.”
He bows. “Yaoha is not passing Yang Village to Idara. Idara is planning to take it by force.”
“Hrmph!” Grandmother Seung stumps to the corner and pulls out a chain of garlic. “Well, I can’t say I like it much when Idara takes over. Their soldiers are rude. Go and get me some more chaihui.”
The winter days of the magistrate pass thus: he coordinates with the military commander the defenses of the tundra border. He trains in the barracks with the soldiers, reinforcing memory of movement into his muscles through the cold. He visits with all the villages Behind-the-Mountain; brings to them soldiers to guard them and buys dried herbs from them: danggui, yuzhu, gancao, dangshan, huangqi, chuanxiong, guipi, bajiao.
They are all very curious to know how well he cooks, because they have heard of his visits to Grandmother Seung of Yang Village. He is convinced there is some secret conspiracy between the grandmothers and grandfathers of the villages; one by one, they make him cook his version of the magic potion: Grandmother Wongyi from Zhen Village, Grandmother Yuneng of Twan Village, Grandfather Hurnen from Neem Village. They gather with all the elders in the village to sit in obvious judgment, making parties out of the occasions. He has given up on making the potion perfect and throws in mala. “Don’t rely on it to hide the real taste of the magic potion,” Grandmother Seung warns him. “You might as well make something else entirely.”
Hao-Er is even more alert than before, because the magistrate receives word that Idara knows a scion of the royal family is in Immen. The Khan is related to the Idaran Emperor in a family tree complicated by bloodlines and bad blood, so there is no telling what Idara will do. The magistrate supposes that it is just as well that he has stopped wearing his robes of rank. He may not be an important member of the family, but first blood spilled from a royal would well precipitate the war the Idarans want. He carries his sword regularly, which feels lighter in his hands than he remembers. He wears the boots that anonymously showed up at his yamen one day.
The days grow shorter. Too short, he thinks, working by candlelight until Hao-Er sleepily reminds him that candleclocks are meant to keep time, not to be constantly lit. He stops writing letters to the capital.
A blustery morning. The magistrate and Hao-Er are play-fighting to serve Sulin soup when the guard dogs bark at too high a pitch. Everyone but Grandmother Seung jumps up and starts running for a weapon. Hao-Er tries to hold Sulin back, but she slips under his arm to race across the road to her house. She bursts out wielding a bamboo staff from her noodle-stretching array and a kitchen knife. Her parents are close behind her.
The magistrate runs to the ledge where the soldiers have begun to sortie. There are arrows flying up to them, lost in tree branches. There are jars of boiling pitch crashing on the trees, on flaming arrows, splashing and hissing across the snows as they light on fire. The magistrate runs to help Ro-yin fight off an armored warrior. Ro-yin is light on his feet and dances around the swinging mace, but he has no reach. The magistrate cuts down one man, then another.
Someone leads wild boars into the fray. The magistrate barely registers them screeching past him; he focuses on Idaran colors, purple and blazing red in the winter white. His feet find purchase in the ledges easily as he knocks soldiers off. In the distance, he sees Boh-ying pummel one fellow into the reddening snow and a young couple fighting back to back.
“Fanyu!” Hao-Er’s shout pierces through falling snow.
The magistrate flies up the ledges into a copse of trees where Hao-Er is backed up against a rockface facing off an enemy soldier. Hao-Er wins easily and when he sees the magistrate, he huffs, “there you are.”
“So you weren’t in trouble?” the magistrate yells.
“No, I thought you were dead!” Hao-Er’s sword clashes against a new opponent.
“What about secrets don’t you understand?” The magistrate ducks, and slices, still angry. He kicks up a long branch towards Hao-Er, who grabs the end.
“Excuse me for being worried!” They shove down the next battery of men with the branch together.
“There he is!” someone beyond the trees shouts. “Get him!”
Whether to kill or kidnap him, the magistrate doesn’t wait around to find out. He and Hao-Er run for higher ground, scrambling up a tree as a sounder of boars roar past them. A fresh wave of Idarans emerge just as they touch their feet to the ground again, prompting a new race for their lives. Towards them from the other direction, a fury of villagers charge with expertly wielded pitchforks, hoes, and machetes, so they stop short and turn to engage, no longer outnumbered.
Despite this, the magistrate finds himself cordoned off from the rest, up against a tall warrior whose colors are slightly different: the colors of a champion. He spares a moment to be smug about warranting a special elite fighter to get him, then strikes first. Blow-by-blow, they weave back and forth between the trees, bark and branches flying.
But a blow to his head and he slips and finds himself on his back, his enemy’s sword high above him descending. A flash from firelight in the snow: a puny kitchen knife. He flings it into that thin line between Armour plates, slowing the descent of the sword, giving him time to swing himself back up—and win.
Why did it feel easy? Was it the magic potion? He has no time to answer, running off to the next fray.
The magistrate wakes up to the now-familiar ceiling of the yamen and finds Grandmother Seung at his bedside. He almost leaps up in indignation, but his head is too sore. He didn’t have it looked at after the battle was over, too busy tending the wounded and taking an informal census. Boh-ying’s house was burned down in the attack, so the magistrate made arrangements to have it rebuilt while Boh-ying stays with relatives. Sulin had to bully the magistrate and Hao-Er off the mountain back to the yamen.
“Yuzhu. That’s the problem with your meat stew. Not enough yuzhu, and chuanxiong. That is why your skull is so soft, and why you are so stupid.”
Her accent is odd, but he is not that stupid to miss how she says ‘meat stew’ so slowly, so he is unable to miss her meaning, this time. Though her tongue still curls around the words, the emphasis on one syllable over another changes its meaning entirely. She has never said “magic potion.” No one in the whole region has ever said “magic potion.” Perhaps the only worse thing is the undertone of affection and amusement in her soft grumbling voice. He stares at her, feeling the low bile of horrified embarrassment rising in his craw.
“But you have learned enough of it that you are now as strong as us, hm? Sit up, sit up and eat.”
He doubts he has learned as much as he should have. If he had, he would have humbled himself long before to have this realization. He wants to make some excuse for his obliviousness, or some apology for his ambition. He stutters. He swallows. He racks his brain for something to say in the face of this congenial old woman, who balances rice, soup, and meat in a spoon. He wants to fold the down-stuffed blankets over his head and hide his face forever. But he bravely sits up to let her shove into his mouth.
“You young people, you think you know everything. I’m so ashamed to have such a student.” And she goes on for a while as she keeps feeding him.
He’s never heard so many words out of her before, and he indulges in the idea that she was actually worried about him. When she is done, she makes a big production of clearing the dishes, ignoring his reasonable suggestion to call in the servants, and leaves in a flurry of instructions.
Hao-Er comes in with an armful of letters. The magistrate is aghast. “How long was I asleep?”
“Two days. You haven’t been sleeping very much recently, remember, and your head wound was infected.”
The magistrate grunts in reply, then gestures to the scrolls. “Anything interesting?”
“Reports from Commander Wuozhi, merchant petitions, and oh, a letter from the Khan.”
The magistrate takes the letter first. His royal father is giving him permission to give up his post before the end of his term in the face of Idara pushing against the borders and re-claiming the Immen district. Let them have the tundra for now, the letter advises, until it reverts back to us. Return to your place at your father’s side.
Hao-Er brings him tea. The warmth of the teacup against the magistrate’s skin radiates across his hand. The noonday sun rises across the white, light snow. He stays in bed the rest of the day, thinking.
The next few attacks come in quick succession, and the magistrate keeps busy writing reports and addressing constituents anxious for reassurance that they will not be abandoned. Commander Wuozhi and Hao-Er pore over maps with him alongside representatives from the various villages Behind-the-Mountains, to determine the best strategies for dealing with the attacks.
Despite the danger, Immen is in high spirits. In the town, everyone cheerfully salutes the magistrate. Every so often he passes men loitering, as they are wont to do, regaling each other with extremely exaggerated anecdotes of the battle on Yang Village Behind-the-Mountains. Little children re-enact the fight, boys and girls yelling as they knock their sticks together or throw snowballs.
The attacks stop when deep winter arrives. Traveling through the mountain passes becomes difficult, and most villages are snowed in, some almost completely buried. Yaohans, as a general rule, like snow, and are not intimidated by it, but the magistrate panics the first time he rides his yak up to find the villages and doesn’t see the little sturdy huts he has come to expect. The chimneys smoking out of holes through the snowy ground allay his fears, so he turns back to wait out the deep winter.
On a rare visit to the town, Sulin admits to the magistrate that the villagers often build tunnels in the snows. It gives them something to do and a way to visit each other. She tells him and Hao-Er this with only the slightest bit of expectation in her voice.
So, one crisp day, with a small lantern, the magistrate finds the tunnel from the foothill into Yang Village Behind-the-Mountain. He traverses the veritable labyrinth, its walls packed tight and touched up with freezing water, chimney holes through the ceiling for fresh air and window holes through the walls for easy neighbor identification. At last, he knocks on Grandmother Seung’s door. He hears her stumping across the ground before she reaches the door to creak it open.
“Ah Fanyu, it’s so early,” she complains. “Winter is for old people to sleep in, you know.” She squints at him, as if judging him wanting for waking her up.
The magistrate smiles, because there’s no way to tell the time of day. “Being Grandmother, you have the right to such luxury. Young people are to serve the old.”
She hmphs at him but lets him in as she goes back to bed in the smallest corner of her house. The magistrate stokes the fire and hangs furs and cotton-stuffed blankets along the walls. He cuts the meat and puts the stew to boil. He sweeps the floor and tidies the tables. When her friends come over to visit, he sets up the chairs.
The meal is peaceful, the conversation good, and everyone goes home satisfied and full of winter cheer. They praise his meat stew and carefully do not mention magic potions, though it is now clear on their faces that everyone is in on the joke; has been all this while. The magistrate remains, drinking tea with Grandmother Seung.
“When do you plan to return to the capital?” she asks. “When does the Khan expect you home?”
He coughs. “I shall not leave, for at least another year.” As he serves Grandmother Seung a fresh cup, he says, a little jocularly, “I hope this grandson can wipe away his shame and earn your regard.”
And regard him she does, perhaps seeing his truth and the anxiety behind his words. He cannot remember the last time he has ever wanted someone’s approval this much. She sips the tea and smiles satisfiedly. “You are a good grandson, and this grandmother will be proud if you stay.”
Above, the pristine snows fall.