The Sweetest Skill

Issue #197

The roar of a tiger awakened me. Not nightmare, not misheard thunder, but a roar great and true, from the caramel tiger on my chest.

I held my breath. Before retiring to bed I had left the palm-sized candy on my cooling rack, one of a few sugar sculptures I’d failed to sell earlier that evening at the South City Gate. Somehow it had come alive while I slept, more feral than I had made it, more faithful to the shape of the regal beast than any mortal hand could achieve.  From that roar, I was sure it could rip out my throat with ease.

My friend and host—the wheelwright Lun—turned in his bed across the dim room, snoring on.

Had my magic, unknowingly in my sleep, stirred the candy to life?

A voice rumbled in my mind with the force of a rainstorm in surge. Two-legged Ao, master of the sweetest skill. I, Tiger, am eager for your help. Will you grant it?

“King Tiger, Most Formidable and Fair!” He was the only zodiac animal I feared. “Forgive this ragged one his ignorant question, but what can a lowly candyman even imagine he could do for the Immortal General—”

I’ve no time for honorifics, Ao, said Tiger, padding towards my face, prickling my skin with his caramel claws. One of mine is wounded and in grave danger, stalked by hunters from the Ten Crows Sect. You’ve risen in the estimation of we spirits, and so I’ve chosen you to save her.

The mention of injury reminded me of how Tiger had hurt my father. My mistrust welled. Sorcerers like Father and I traded favors for power from the animal spirits of the zodiac, the shengxiao. But a year ago, Tiger had asked as payment the life of a helpless man. Father chose to break his word rather than kill. Though I saw Father’s defiance as a noble act, Tiger saw only betrayal.  Knowing full well that we candymen relied on our breath to blow bubbles of caramel and fingers to pull them into art, he cursed Father to lose the digits on his right hand, robbing him of his livelihood.

And now he had the audacity to seek my aid?

“Is it truly my reputation as a Tangren sorcerer that brings you, or do you choose me because I’m conveniently close?”

A snarl. We’ve watched you craft your sugar animals with pomp and brilliance. Even when all is in uproar, you stay calm and clever, using the powers you borrow from us to put things right.

“So did my father, yet you crippled him.”

Tiger growled and rapped a sticky paw against my sweaty skin. You’re nothing like your sire. He broke his word to me, but you’ve bargained fairly and truthfully with the shengxiao... thus far. Take this task and I’ll grant you any boon of your choosing, should it be within my ambit. What do you chase: fortune, fame, or love?

I was taken aback. It was always us mortals who begged for the powers of Dragon, or Snake, or another shengxiao spirit to save our hide. To have Tiger in my debt, of all spirits....

Had I the gall, I would’ve asked for Tiger to restore my father’s lost hand. But it’d be trouble to ask the impossible.

“If I agree to this, Tiger, it’s to prove that we who bear the name Ao still have honor, though I’m no fool to turn down your reward. Tell me of this woman you wish me to save.”

She is the Pale Tigress: the City God’s Tiger and sacred guardian of Chengdu. Tonight, the Ten Crows shot her with a cursed arrow, which is slowly drinking away her strength. I can barely hear her heartbeat now. The Crows bar her way to the City God’s sanctuaries, forcing her to flee from them in the mist.

I gulped. Not a woman in peril, but a tigress? As a newcomer to Chengdu, I knew little of the local lore and had yet to hear tell of such a fantastic beast. I knew City Gods protected their jurisdictions in divine ways, but this was the first I’d heard of a tiger demon in service to one.

I will not lose her, Tiger continued. You must find her before they do, and take out the arrow.

There were three City God temples in Chengdu. I knew because all hawkers learned quick where best to sell their wares, and temples meant festivals. If the Crows’ men could keep her away from them, there must be many on the hunt.

“Where is she?”

She hides at Fledgling—

A long wooden handle struck the candy tiger off my chest. Before I could yell out, a second hit crushed the sculpture against the ground.

Lun dropped the wheelbarrow handle from his bandaged hands and helped me sit up. I could smell the stink from the healer’s salve under those dressings. “Are you all right, Ao? I thought your tiger candy was going to maul you!”

“I’m fine, and he wouldn’t have.”

Lun meant well. I couldn’t fault him for thinking he was saving me. The young wheelwright was one of the few in Chengdu who knew I was a sorcerer and how I had shaped a dragon from river water to battle an arson. Lun helped me put out the fire but burned his hands while heroically fighting the flames.

We had become fast friends thereafter. He insisted that I come stay with him here in the back of the shop where he worked, instead of crowding into a poor house with other wandering peddlers. I was grateful for it.

I grabbed my shirt. “Have you heard of the Pale Tigress?”

Lun’s voice fell to a whisper. “She’s the ghostly tiger that prowls the night, stalking criminals, demons, and children who misbehave.” The shadows couldn’t hide that blood was quickly draining from his face. “I thought it was only a tale my mother made up to scare us, till I saw the Tigress herself when I was twelve. We were beastly vandals then, my brothers and I, and had snuck out on the night of the Double Ninth Festival. It was on Jewelry Street she found us, ghastly white with eyes that burned blue in the gloom. She stared at me, through me, like she only saw the marrow in my bones. I wet myself, though I wasn’t the only one who did. We vowed that if she let us live, we’d walk a path of virtue for the rest of our lives. Only then did she slink away into the shadows. From that day forward, instead of smashing things under cover of night, we began fixing things by day, for those in need.”

So that was the Pale Tigress. She must’ve seen the good in Lun and set him right. What a noble act, to save a life from being lived wrong.

Standing between the Ten Crows and the Tigress would surely place me in danger, but we pao jianghu, vagrants who walk the margins of the world, knew peril as a way of life.

I knelt by the crushed sugar figurine. I hoped Tiger could still hear me through it. “I accept, Your Fierceness. I will save the City God’s Tiger.”

“Y-you’ll what?” Lun said.

I hadn’t the time to heat up caramel, which meant I had only two leftover candies, still on their drying-sticks, to conjure with: a dog and a pig. I grabbed a knife from my belongings and cut a thin bleed near my elbow, gritting my teeth against the pain. With drops of my blood I dotted eyes onto the two animal figurines. This small sacrifice was needed, should I want to craft an enchanted creature from water.

 “Tiger was telling me something when you, um, interrupted,” I said to Lun. “Does ‘Fledgling’ remind you of any place close by?”

He nodded. “Fledgling Bridge, over the Golden Water River. That’s where children and their parents go to feed geese and koi.”

I pulled the caramel dog and pig free of their bamboo sticks. “Take me there.”

I followed Lun off Wheelbarrow Lane and southward through the chill. The infamous Sichuan fog, especially with the light of the half moon seeping through, made for an eerie nightscape. Glows in the distance were likely patrolmen with lanterns, but it could well be Crows’ men on the hunt.

A month ago on the road to Chengdu, many travelers had cautioned me that the city wasn’t all hibiscus and brocade. Situated as it was at the western edge of the empire, strange dangers found their way to Chengdu, be they from the sky-raking mountains down the Tea-Horse Road or on the waters from the great ancient irrigation project. Those warnings had never prepared me for a tiger-demon and her rescue.

At least we knew where the Tigress was hiding. Lun navigated through the streets as only a native of Chengdu could, taking us swiftly and unseen towards the Golden Water River that flowed through Greater City.

I thought about appealing to Magistrate Gongsun for help. The Ten Crows Sect had failed to assassinate him only three nights ago. He would surely want to foil this ploy, even though I wasn’t sure why the Crows sought to slay the Pale Tigress. But it was too far to fetch the judge and the hour too late to rouse him.

The Fledgling Bridge, a covered span with a single stone arch and a peaked pavilion with flying eaves, was small compared to other bridges that straddle the burbling Golden Water. Shrouded as it was by mists and shadows, for Lun and I to learn if anything lay here, we’d have to cross the bridge. What would we find, I wondered: a tigress dead or dying, or killers in wait?

Nothing, it seemed, but a stray brown Chongqing dog curled in sleep.

Had the Pale Tigress fled to the estates on the southern shore, or was she skulking north towards the Prefecture City God Temple?

Or perhaps she was above.

With Lun’s help, I pulled myself up onto the roof of the covered bridge.

There she was, lying a-tremble by the pavilion cupola, a dire beast the hue of white peony blooms under the shade of a leafless branch.

A tiger. A ghost. Both.

An arrow was stuck deep in her left flank.

I treaded carefully towards her across the mist-kissed tiles. I’d never seen a tiger up close, much less a supernatural one such as she. Grand and beautiful the Tigress was, with coal stripes that seemed to sway and drift upon her snowy fur. She embodied danger and grace in an admirable balance.

But she was bleeding where the arrow had pierced her. I wanted to examine the wound but didn’t dare go nearer.

Her whiskers quaked as she scented me. She flinched and opened her jaw in a muted snarl.

In her present torment, she could well think me her foe and kill me. But if she had once looked into Lun’s heart and found good, perhaps she could peer into mine and find goodwill.

“Lady Tigress, I beg you not to eat me,” I said softly, drawing her piercing gaze. “King Tiger of the shengxiao sent me to help you. Please, hold still while I see to your wound.”

She lifted her head to better see me. Those bright eyes not only beheld me, they devoured me.

A shudder rattled my bones, but I managed another step closer, and was relieved that she allowed it.

Carved upon the blackened shaft of the arrow were strange symbols that resembled birds and worms. Half of the arrow was buried in the Tigress’s flesh.

I didn’t know the anatomy beneath a tiger’s hide. I feared that if I tried to pull the arrow free, I’d do more harm than good.

But perhaps a healer, like the itinerant doctor who had seen to Lun’s burns, could extract the arrow safely.

I peered over the side. “Lun. Is your doctor still in town?”

“Doctor Yan? Yes, she is. She’s staying with the moxibustionist on Pepper Street.”

“Fetch her quick, or we might lose the Tigress.”

“But what do I tell her?”

“Whatever you need to. She’s from the Jianghu like me, isn’t she? That means she’s met far stranger things in outlaw country.” I produced the caramel dog figure, poured a sip of my soul into it, and tossed it gently down to Lun. “You won’t be alone.”

He nodded and hurried back north.

I returned to the Tigress. Her breathing had become more labored, her exhalations tainted by the tang of blood. How strange, to kneel so close to a man-eating beast and live! But she was a servant to the City God, and I meant to comfort her.

“My name’s Ao Tienwei,” I whispered to the Tigress. It hurt me to see her in such pain. “I’m a candyman from the east. You know, the kind that blows up globs of molten sugar and moulds animal figurines from them? I know a little magic too, so don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”

The stripes on her pallid fur seemed spectral, hypnotic. But before I was able to examine her closer, I heard the sound of flapping wings. I stiffened. Didn’t the rumormongers claim that the Ten Crows employed three-legged crows for spies? I couldn’t see any birds through the mist, and hoped it worked the same the other way around.

Lun should’ve reached Pepper Street by now. I closed my eyes and sent my consciousness out in seek of the candy dog in his care. By bonds of blood, soul, and the signature of my style I found it and stirred it into motion.

I, Dog-I, squirmed free of a fold in Lun’s shirt so I could use my eyes of dotted blood.

An old man stood in the doorway of the moxibustion clinic, rubbing his eyes. “What’s your business with her at this godless hour?”

“There’s been a terrible injury,” Lun said. “It’s not far. I beg you, please wake Doctor Yan.”

“Lun, is that you?” called a woman’s voice.  “It’s all right, Master Xiong. I wasn’t asleep.” A striking woman, garbed in a ruqun embroidered with subtle floral patterns, stepped past her host. “What’s happened? Tell the truth and I will help. ”

“It’s, it’s complicated. My friend Ao, who got visited by the shengxiao Tiger, who wants him to save the Pale Tigress, who got shot by the Crows, who—”

“Oh? Not a human patient?” She seemed intrigued.

I needed to help out poor ineloquent Lun. With sticky paws the-dog-I-was clambered onto Lun’s shoulder and sat. This show of magic ought to convince her.

Doctor Yan tapped my candy-shell with a calloused finger. “I see. This will be an unusual case. Wait here, I’ll need my herbs.”

Confident she’d soon be on her way, I returned to my body, just in time to hear voices below, the yelp of a dog, and the sound of scampering off the bridge. The Tigress must have heard them too, and she tensed. I started breathing as shallowly as I could. There were many footfalls, then the voices of several men.

A commanding voice quieted the rest. “She couldn’t have gone far, not with that arrow in her. You and you, stay on the north shore and head east. You two, go back to the men she slew and ensure the bodies disappear. You four, follow me. We’ll scour the south.”

“And me, uncle?” asked a taut voice.

“Wait here, Wuda. If you hear reports of a sighting, relay the message to those on the wrong shore. Got it?”

A round of ‘ayes’. They raced away.

How long before the man they left here realized he ought to check up top? Or what if the Crows’ men happened across Lun and Doctor Yan?

The man paced below. Odds were, we’d be discovered soon. I was no match physically for a hunter, so I’d have to rely on wits and magic to protect the Pale Tigress.

Luckily, I still had one candy left.

I took the pig-shaped caramel in my right hand. The simplest of the zodiac animals to make, it only needed a steady stream of breath to inflate the body round and pinches to shape flat ears and a snout. Once it grew fat, add stubby feet and finish the tail with the vital curl. I seeped another measure of my soul into it.

Pig, O Mother Sow, I cried with my mind’s voice, this shaper of sweets asks your help with a trifling matter. Will you hear me?

The shengxiao spirit grunted in greeting. Oy, yes, oy, maker of treats. Just the sound of your voice makes me crave a snack. But hweh, what doesn’t?

The man below will kill us if he finds us, Mother Sow, I explained. But what aspect of Pig’s power could I call upon? Hunger? Fat? No, I needed strength. Your aspect as boar. I need the strength of your tusks, the brute in your rage.

The man below inhaled deeply, then sniffed twice. Not long after, a scrape sounded on the other side of the pavilion cupola. The Ten Crows man was climbing onto the roof. Had he caught a whiff of blood, fur, or caramel in the air? It mattered not; I couldn’t mask our scents.

I lay down beside the Tigress. The cupola would shield us from view until he came around it, and then we were dead.

Savor the scraps of my magic as you will, but feed my appetites in return, said Pig. What manner of coin do you hoard; with what delights do you barter?

I could hear the man Wuda’s steps circling the cupola. Pig’s power would save us, but what to offer her as payment? Once before, I had accepted a spirit’s aid without knowing what he would demand in return, and suffered for it. Would I risk falling into the same trap?

I do this in protection of the City God’s Tiger, I said. For the sake of all Chengdu, lend me what I ask now, but save the haggling for when I survive.

Pig snorted. You’re with the City God’s grunt? Auspicious night! The fur of the Pale Tigress hides the key to a Chengdu treasure. Promise now that you’ll learn and tell me that secret, and the power of the boar is yours.

Her fur hid a treasure? I questioned the wisdom of stealing the City God’s secret. Men had been cursed for less. But if I said no to Pig and we died because of it, I feared the treasure would fall into the wrong hands.

Wuda of the Ten Crows was in mid-leap over the cupola, sword in hand.

Done! I cried.

I felt the pig candy in my hand fatten with the wild boar’s furious might. As the man landed I charged him, and with the force of a monstrous swine I struck him full in the jaw.

The impact crushed my caramel pig but knocked my foe out. He dropped his sword and fell. I realized too late that I’d hit him too hard, and that he would tumble off the sloped roof and noisily into the water. I grabbed his sleeve with my free hand, but he was heavy, too heavy.

Wuda slipped from my grasp and crashed into the water with a resounding splash.

I teetered on the edge, and would have fallen in after him had someone not yanked me back onto the tiles by my shirt.

Tangren Ao, I presume,” whispered Doctor Yan.

How had she climbed up here without a sound?

“That man will drown—”

“Lun’s gone in to save him,” she said. Indeed, I heard wading noises. “I didn’t think you could take him.”

“Surprised me too.” I set the squished pig sculpture down. “Thank you for coming.”

“I count myself friend to all kindly spirits,” Yan said, her voice taking on a more soothing tone. “The hunters will have heard that, so let’s not tarry.” She knelt by the tiger. “May I examine you, Lady Tigress?”

The Pale Tigress studied Yan intensely before she gave a slow, upward nod.

As Yan attended to her patient, I studied the tiger’s odd but fascinating pattern of stripes. The moonlight through the mist was wan, but if examined carefully, what seemed at first to be stripes of her dark fur deepened as if by magic to become shadowed streets with stalls, trees, and even swaying shop signs in ghostly miniature.

The Pale Tigress was a living map of Chengdu.

Yan produced a small sachet and took a blend of herbs from it. “This arrow was enchanted to stop its victim from drawing divine strength. The extraction must be delicate and slow, lest the arrowhead break off inside her.” She sprinkled a pinch onto the wound. “And who might you be, Tangren Ao, to be tasked to save the City God’s Tiger?”

“I’m merely a candy peddler who sometimes meddles when there’s need for meddling,” I said. “What of you, Doctor Yan? So light of foot, so quick of hand, and of no small strength. I’ve not seen a swordsman in the Jianghu as capable as you.”

“I’m a simple physician,” Yan said, though she was surely much more. “Lun says you saved the city from burning by conjuring a dragon made of water.”

“Ah, such tales he tells,” I said, while trying to figure out more streets among the Pale Tigress’s stripes. There was Barrel Street, which crossed Fragrant Osmanthus Street; Golden Alley, and Little Bowl Road where they sold my favorite spicy tofu. If I concentrated, I could even follow the mirage roads as though I were hurtling along the rooftops and leaping across alleyways. But where was the treasure supposedly hidden in her fur? And would I know it when I saw it?

Yan smiled a bewitching smile. “We both have secrets, it seems.”

They said that doctors in the Jianghu could read a woman’s pulse by merely touching a string tied to her wrist. I saw an echo of that as Yan gently took hold of the arrow with her left hand. The Tigress flinched, and that was when I saw it: hidden in the stripes of her fur, always floating at the juncture of the same mirage streets, was the image of a bronze pearl.

Was the pearl the treasure that so intrigued Pig?

Yan flicked her right hand, and a small knife appeared in her grasp. “Lady Tigress, the first cut will be the worst, but for all our sakes, hold your roar. Ao, I need your help holding the Tigress down.”

The Tigress gave another upward nod.

I whispered an apology to her as I put my hands where the doctor indicated, on either side of the wound. I thought her flesh would be warm, but it was supernaturally cold.

From this vantage I could see the pearl clearly. It floated above the crossing of the same phantom roads. If I had identified the landmarks right, that intersection must be Pawnshop Road and Birdcage Alley. Could this mean that one of the shops there might hide a treasure of Chengdu? Did this charm hint that the prize was also a pearl, or did it merely signify a hiding place?

The doctor made her incision. The Pale Tigress writhed, despite my best attempt to keep her still.

But what willpower she must have, to not roar in pain!

A moment after Yan took the blade to the Tigress again, she hesitated. “Voices approaching, and many,” she whispered. “But I can’t stop the procedure now.”

I heard them too. “I’ll lure them away.”

Lun should still have the dog figurine. I closed my eyes and sent my soul forth once more.

The first sensations that hit me when I inhabited my caramel dog were wetness and cold. I was bobbing in the stream next to Lun, who was holding that man Wuda’s head above water while grabbing onto the lower edge of the bridge. The structure shielded them from sight, but how much longer could they bear the cold waters?

Honored Gallant Dog! I called. This loyal servant begs your aid to save his friends.

Let’s play, Pup-Brother Aoooooo! barked the shengxiao spirit, harkening to the dog shape of my caramel body. Wag your tail if you’re happy to see me, just like that.

To my surprise, my candy tail was indeed wagging. My Genial Friend, I said, I intend to shape a hound from the water.

Ah, your growing water-shaping skills, said Dog. You’ve already set Chengdu a-stir with that magic, Ao. A water dragon against the fire. Rats of wine and tea against assassins. Now a river dog against tiger-slayers?

That alone won’t be enough to distract the Crows’ men, I replied. But if I could borrow a bite’s worth of your authority over the dogs of the city....

You wish to lead a pack? Let me gnaw on that. What meat will you bring me for that right?

The voices were getting closer, and I couldn’t risk not reaching a deal. But what would Dog find pleasing?

I thought back to a scruffy Shar-pei that had tagged along with us when I was small. My best friend for few happy years, I named him Rumor because he was vicious when it suited him and he always ran wild. But when Father and I needed to escape Fujian by junk, we had been forced to leave old Rumor behind.

What if I promise to take in a dog as a companion? I asked.

Dog howled with glee. One of my choosing? Oh, what opportunities that opens! Lead on, Aoooooo. Shape your water-hound. I give you leave to call all the dogs you can convince to follow you.

I sensed the blessing of Dog rise within me, boundless in vigor like a pup chasing her own tail. My conjurations had no voice, so I couldn’t howl to the dogs for aid. I am in your debt, Friend, but how do I...?

Use what you already know, said Dog, and his presence receded.

What did he mean? I thought back to the bridgetop confrontation. Scent, not sight or sound, had given us away. Dogs had an incredible sense of smell; Rumor had always known in which hand I hid a treat. Could I use scent to my advantage? I had, after all, spent the day at the South City Gate selling blown caramel animals made from my family’s secret blend of sugars. Some of my creations had likely been eaten since then, but some might’ve been kept to admire while others thrown away. My Tangren magic connected me to all those candies scattered across the city.

What if I worked Dog’s blessing into that power and called to the dogs of the city through the fragrance of my sugar-blend?

Men with bows and belt-quivers were nearing the bridge, shouting for their man Wuda.

I opened pathways to all traces of my sugar-blend in the city and let Dog’s blessing sprint through them all to mark their aromas with a plea: “Dogs of Chengdu, by the power of the shengxiao I call you to my side. Wherever you lie, awaken.”

Distant barks broke the silence. Some dogs must have smelled my summons, but would they come in force and in time?

I needed to stall the Crows’ men. I asked the Golden Water River for leave to shape my water-hound from its substance, and in return I’d offer my candy dog as tribute. It was pleased, and it pulled the caramel into deeper currents while granting me dominion over a vat’s worth of sugar-tinged riverwater.

My soul animated the river’s gift. I sculpted my liquid body as I would a glob of hot caramel, paying homage to my old beloved dog. I shaped and smoothed a flat and broad head with a full and wide muzzle, and pinched surface folds to look wrinkly all over. Lastly, to imitate the short ‘sand-skin’ fur that gave the Shar-pei its name, I imagined a dusting of sugar crystals to render the right texture. Once I felt the shape was right I clambered onto the riverbank.

Like a wet dog I felt a compulsion to shake myself dry, but if I did my water-body might fall apart. With my new canine nose I could scent my fragrant call, drifting down from the crushed pig candy atop Fledgling Bridge. But my airborne message was not pure sweet: the hint of dank was my doubt and the sour my fear. Would enough answer my call?

I had no time to court those that questioned my call.  I called to the others: “Helpers south of the Golden Water, bark at the shadows or yelp in fear. Make noise, make men come and see. Scrappers north, come to me in silence and under cover. I may need you all.”

My dogs began their commotion just as the Crows’ men were about to set foot on the bridge. As I hoped, the frenetic barking on the south shore drew the hunters’ attention. With luck they might believe that the dogs were spooked by a wounded tiger and race to find her before the night watchmen took interest in all the noise.

My gambit played out half-right. Their ringleader sent all but one of his men dashing south. He, a tall malodorous man with a bow in his left hand and a sword in his right, bade an underling to stay and search the bridge while he himself took the riverbank, heading towards the water’s edge.

I couldn’t let them find Lun with Wuda.

Water-paws on grass, I charged the ringleader. He must have seen me out of the corner of his eye and tumbled aside. He cut me with his sword, but it passed through without harm.

He sneered. “Another damnable servant of the City God?”

His underling heard and turned. I barreled onto the bridge and slammed my watery body against the underling’s legs with the force of a waterfall. He fell, and I continued on. I needed to startle and anger them so that they’d ignore the waterline and the roof of the Fledgling Bridge and chase after me.

“Leave him,” said the ringleader. “The cur took pains to remove Wuda, and now he’s desperate to lead us away, which means the tiger demon must be here. I’ll skin her yet. Check above.”

With that, my ploy fell to pieces. I frothed at the mouth to see the underling grab the handrail and struggle to his feet.

The ringleader looked under the bridge. “You, in the water. My nephew had better be alive.”

Deception wouldn’t work any longer. I charged the ringleader.

The dogs that had answered my summons scrambled from the mists of the northern shore, barking wildly. Mangy strays, white field dogs, Tibetan mastiffs, and even a pampered lion dog darted into the fray. Two growling mastiffs leapt upon the underling and pulled him down, while others chomped at his limbs. He cried out and struggled but to no avail against the massive weights of the pair of Tibetans.

I continued towards the ringleader on the south riverbank, with a press of Chongqing and Xiasi dogs behind me.

With much calm the man flung his bow at my head. I knew the weapon would pass through me so I didn’t dodge.  The hit disrupted my eyes, blinding me for a moment.

He was counting on that. Drawing a black arrow from his belt-quiver, he drove it deep into my side.

The arrow stuck in me like I was truly a creature of flesh and blood, and a chilling pain surged in my right lung. The ringleader let go of the arrow and swung his sword.

This time, I was afraid.

I bore the arrow’s pain and scurried a tail’s length away from the blade, which struck the muddy riverbank where I had stood but a moment before.

My pack of attack dogs became confused, unsure, and retreated from the man.

I put more distance between me and him. Where the arrow had hit me, the water was turning into ice, and the ice was spreading.

A new fear consumed me. What would happen to me if my water-body froze solid? Could my foe then smash the ice and shatter my soul?

My instinct was to remove myself from the water-hound manifestation, but the cursed arrow had lodged in my soul. I was stuck. And just as the one in the Tigress had cut her off from divine help, this arrow was undoing the shengxiao magic gifted me by Dog. The chorus of barks south of us dwindled, and the fight fled my pack of scrappy defenders.

The ringleader kicked a field dog aside and advanced upon me.  He could smash the part of me that had turned to ice.

I didn’t want to die here, but what could I do? Jump into the river to save myself, letting the current carry me downstream?

But if I ran and somehow survived, the twelve spirits of the shengxiao would all know me as a coward. If they thought me unworthy, would they ever deign to help me again?

No, I couldn’t be craven. Tonight, I had begged Dog to let me lead his kin, so I must behave like a true leader, one who’d never tuck tail and run. If I died here, I’d die with honor to my family name.

I stood my ground and bared my teeth, though the arrow’s curse was creeping up my neck, threatening to freeze my snarl in place.

Three dogs who hadn’t yet fled in the chaos followed my lead, growling at the ringleader, readying an attack.

It gave the man pause. Our gazes locked as he considered his next move.

In the mist behind my foe, Lun heaved the unconscious Wuda onto shore and clambered out of the water, shivering.

The ringleader spotted him. “Another come to die?”

I cursed. Knowing Lun, he’d do something stupid like tackle the man and end up dead on the point of the sword.

Get away, I shouted to Lun with my mind-voice, but he couldn’t hear me.

But my dogs seemed to. They yelped and turned to run.

The ringleader stepped towards Lun. “Will your eyes sate the carrion crows, I wonder?”

Pouncing from the mists above Lun, the Pale Tigress fell upon the ringleader and forced him to the muddy ground. With a matter-of-course bite to the back of his neck, she snapped it.

The arrow in her side was gone. She was still weak, I could see, but somehow she had mustered enough strength to save me.

Her eyes burned blue as she stared through me.

I thanked her with my heart.

The Tigress gave an upnod, then dragged the dead man into the shadows.

I felt more of my water-hound body turning to ice, and all I wanted was to close my eyes and sleep away the pain. But I also knew if I did I’d die.

Doctor Yan called to Lun from the roof of the bridge. “Help me move Tangren Ao closer to his conjured self, please.”

Lun nodded. He retrieved my slumbering body and brought it to my side.

Doctor Yan appeared from behind him, clutching the cursed arrow she had removed from the Tigress.  “She saved you,” she said to my dog form, “at much risk of aggravating her wound, but likely wanted to thank you for buying us time, Tangren Ao. As do I.”

No time or way to blush. I lifted my paw, the only part of the water-hound that hadn’t frozen yet, and touched the lips of my sleeping body. Would the trace of sweet water in this conjured form return me to my flesh?

A part of my soul was still pinned to the water-and-ice by the cursed arrow. I had no choice but to will my soul to tear free from the arrow, feeling the agony as though I had ripped it from my own chest.

Only then did I fully reclaim my body.

Without my animating force, the ice-and-water hound fell and smashed apart against the riverbank dirt.

I sat up with a start, and couldn’t stop wheezing.

“What’s wrong?” asked Yan.

“I still feel the pain from the arrow strike,” I said in short breaths.

Lantern lights signaled the approach of the night watchmen. “Get him home safely, Lun, and don’t be seen,” she whispered.

“Shouldn’t we all help the Tigress find sanctuary?” I asked.

Yan shook her head. “Now that the arrow’s out of her, even as wounded as she is she remains faster and stealthier than any of us. But here, one man nearly drowned and the other’s newly mauled. I can’t leave them untended in good conscience, even if they are criminals. I’ll meet you at the wheelwright’s when I can.”

Lun hefted me onto his wet back and headed away from Fledgling Bridge.

“Thank you for your help, Lun,” I said.

“No thanks needed,” Lun said. “The troublemaker I was misses these midnight adventures.”

Twenty, thirty paces later, I lost consciousness.

I was awakened by a warm, wet tongue licking my face. Groggy and short of breath, I fended off the dog and sat up to get my bearings.

I was in my bed in the back of the wheelwright’s shop. By the light, it must have been well past midday.

Doctor Yan sat bedside, studying my face. “How do you feel, Ao?”

“Still hard to breathe,” I admitted. The dog with the slobbering tongue was a Xiasi Quan, lean and powerful with a white, wiry pelt. I rubbed her head and noted a deep notch in her left ear. “Your pet, Doctor?”

“Ours,” corrected Lun, entering the room with a bowl of medicinal stew on a tray held in freshly-bandaged hands. “She followed us home and wouldn’t leave you.”

I recognized the dog now: one of the last three who had fought at my side against the malodorous ringleader. I rubbed her head in thanks, and remembered my promise to the spirit of Dog. Was this the companion he chose for me?

“Drink,” Doctor Yan bade.

I gagged from the bitterness of the goldthread herb but downed the awful soup in the end.

Yan told me to breathe deep, and listened to my respiration.  “There’s nothing wrong with you physically, Ao. I fear your lack of breath comes from a deeper cause.” She showed me the two black arrows from the night before. “Your soul remembers the wound where the water-hound was struck: in the right lung. You’re fortunate that it did not pierce the heart.”

My chest tightened. It dawned on me what this meant for my livelihood and my magic. While my soul stayed wounded, I’d continue to have difficulties breathing. I wouldn’t be able to inflate a bubble of hot caramel to shape my figurines, no matter how skilled I still was with my hands.

I could work no more as a sugar-styler.

Or Tangren sorcerer.

“Will it heal?” I asked, softly.

Sadness clouded her eyes. “It might heal on its own, or it might not. I don’t know...yet. But we have these arrows. I’ll learn all I can. Until then, you are my patient. I’ll visit again in a few days.”

“Thank you, Doctor. May I keep one of them? I’ll inquire discreetly with my sources.” The magistrate would surely want to see one.

Yan allowed it. “Some air will do you good. Lun, make sure he rests and drinks that soup twice a day.”

I winced at that.

Lun held out his bandaged hands. “Aren’t we a pair? My hands, your breath. We can’t but wait for them to heal, but at least we can wait together.”

I smiled. “Thank you, I needed to hear that.” All this hadn’t been for a boon from Tiger, I reminded myself. All this had been to repay the Pale Tigress who had made Lun the good man he was today.

After Doctor Yan departed, Lun, the dog, and I went outside to sit in front of the shop. Despite the fresh air, I still couldn’t stop huffing and wheezing. Children were playing kick-ball in the lane while old women gossiped in the doorways. A six year-old boy came by to ask Lun about the dog.

There came a roar once more, this time from the God of Wealth altar just inside the wheel-shop doorway. The image of the god was riding a painted black tiger, and it was the beast who spoke: Your mission was a roaring success, Tangren master. I commend you.

Great and Illustrious Tiger, I did only as a humble man should, I said.

Yet he wasn’t the only shengxiao spirit who found me. The boy who was petting the dog was wearing pig-head shoes, a folk charm that was said to fool evil spirits into leaving the child alone.

No welcome for me, candyman? asked Pig in doubled voices through the boy’s shoes.

Merciful Mother Sow, forgive my blindness. I was startled that two shengxiao spirits would appear to me at the same—

And me, Aoooooo, said Dog through the Xiasi’s shadow. Greetings, Brother Tiger, Sister Sow.

O Noblest Dog, I am blessed by your presence. Three of them at once. An omen for sure, but for good or for ill? I felt I should throw myself prostrate on the ground before them.

Pig snorted. Ao has rooted out the secret I asked, I know it. But he will tell it only to me.

I have something of it, Mother Sow. I still wondered what treasure it was.

Do not speak it here before them, she warned. Have you two come to hinder us?

Tiger roared with laughter. It was I who helped hide the treasure of Chengdu so long ago, and I who bound the City God’s Tiger to its guardianship. I know how dangerous it is in the wrong paws.

But I must tell her what I discovered, King Tiger, I said.

And so you shall, said he. You gave your word to Pig and you will honor it. I’m here only to help you heal.

I sighed, guessing what he meant. You want me to use the boon I won for saving the Pale Tigress.

You presume wrong, Ao. The boon remains yours, said Tiger. It is the Pale Tigress who asked this of me and paid the price I required, so I will chase the cure your way. Watch for your chance in the coming days, and let it not dart past.

I choked back a cry of astonishment. So there was hope that I could ply my craft again? But what had she promised Tiger? Such generosity from the Tigress touches me, but I cannot allow her—

You matter not. She has already given her word.

With that, Tiger withdrew.

I looked down at the pig-shoes. Mother Sow, here’s what I know of the treasure.

Wait, she said. Kindly leave us, Lord Dog. The secret is mine by right, not yours.

How true, Sister Sow, said Dog. And yet if the treasure of Chengdu is truly a peril, it hurts no one if it stays buried like a bone. Brother Aoooooo honors our deal by taking a canine companion, and so I will stay at his heel.

I understood his gambit. I would not be breaking my word to Pig because it was she who had forbidden me from telling the secret while within Dog’s hearing.

Well played, said Pig. But there will come a time when Ao will be with me alone, and I will hear what’s due.

The boy with the shoes ran off, and Pig with him.

That was unexpected, Worthy One, I said. Might I ask why you interceded on my behalf?

When Tiger warns, you best listen, replied Dog. Sister Sow’s right: I cannot shield you forever from revealing the dangerous secret you now carry, but it may stave off disaster for a time. Schemes multiply like fleas in Chengdu. Have your wits about you, and keep your loyal friends close.

The spirit’s aspect receded from my dog’s shadow, but I knew he was keeping watch.

“The boy asked what her name is,” Lun explained. “What do you think?”

The Xiasi gave a small whine and nudged me with her nose.

I sighed. “Worry, my friend. Worry.”


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Originally from Taiwan, Dr. Tony Pi earned his Ph.D. in Linguistics at McGill University and now lives in Toronto, Canada. His story “No Sweeter Art”, from BCS #155, was a finalist for the 2015 Aurora Awards and its BCS podcast a finalist for the 2015 Parsec Awards, and the BCS podcast of its sequel, “The Sweetest Skill” in BCS #197, was a finalist for the 2016 Parsec Awards. Visit www.tonypi.com for a list of his other works.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“No Sweeter Art” by Tony Pi
“In the Palace of the Jade Lion” by Richard Parks

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3 Comments on “The Sweetest Skill”

3 Responses to “The Sweetest Skill”

  1. […] “The Sweetest Skill” by Tony Pi I needed to stall the Ten Crows Sect’s men. I asked the Golden Water River for leave to shape a water-hound from its substance, and in return I’d offer my candy dog figurine as tribute. It was pleased, and it pulled the caramel into deeper currents while granting me dominion over a vat’s worth of sugar-tinged riverwater. […]

  2. Ika Koeck says:

    Like Tony Pi’s previous story, No Sweeter Art, this story left me wanting more! Ao Tangren’s candy-crafting skill is a refreshing take at magic and the use of spirit animals and elements. Each animal zodiac was also very well represented, and their behaviours, thought-processes, suited each creature perfectly. I enjoyed watching Ao’s relationships and camaraderie with his friends develop throughout the story. Looking forward to more of Tony Pi’s stories.

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