I was on my way to Market Street to hawk my blown caramel creations when a messenger found me with an urgent summons from Doctor Yan. I wondered if it concerned me, the Pale Tigress, or both?
With pack and candy-cooling rack slung onto my back, I hurried alongside my dog Worry to the Plum Season Tea-And-Wine Shop, where I told him to wait in the street. Inside, I called greetings to Master Deng, who smiled and nodded as he attended to two rowdy tables. The Plum Season seemed to be winning back its old customers, finally breaking its curse of emptiness. I had helped in that, even though at the time I had still not regained my power to inhabit caramel figurines or to conjure animals from water.
Doctor Yan was counseling an old woman at a table in the corner. “And remember, Missus Ge, add lotus seeds to all your soups.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Ge said. “You’re a true blessing for the poor of Chengdu.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” I said, and handed Ge a golden caramel horse.
“You’re not helping, Tangren Ao.” Yan crossed her arms. “Missus Ge, you must avoid sweets.”
Ge laughed. “Then I’ll give it to my grandson. Thank you, young man.” She bade farewell to us, rose from her table, and shuffled out.
“Your breathing sounds much improved,” Yan observed.
“Thanks to a regimen of healing teas,” I said, eager to reveal the gift that the shengxiao spirits Monkey and Goat had left me as thanks for my help negotiating a peace between them, here in the Plum Season: a cache of blessed tea leaves.
But Yan whispered a warning. “Careful what you say out loud. We’re being watched.”
I kept from showing surprise and casually glanced at the crowd, as well as the encircling gallery above. A bald laborer was drinking alone by the north railing, and he seemed to be watching us. He looked familiar, though I couldn’t place where I’d seen him before.
I leaned my candy-cooling rack against Yan’s table. “You picked an oddly public place to meet patients, Doctor,” I said in a loud voice, but then, softly: “Who listens? The bald one up there?”
“I’m an itinerant doctor. Like you, I ply my trade wherever I wander,” she replied.
Doctor Yan Xue was a swordswoman who had traded in her blade for herbs. Two weeks ago, when the Ten Crows Sect had wounded the City God’s Tiger with a cursed arrow, I had needed Yan’s help to save the sacred beast. Unfortunately, I’d been struck by a black arrow as well, taking a like wound to my soul, which had left me unable to separate my mind from my body.
By whisper Yan added: “Him I can easily ditch, but crows have been shadowing me for days from the sky. There’s one perched in the rafters now.”
Crows? There were rumors that the Ten Crows Sect used them as spies. I feigned a crick in my neck, rolled my head in a circle, and caught sight of the crow squatting on a beam.
It would’ve been easier to speak in private, but Yan must have had her reasons for us to meet here. We needed to blather aloud but hide a secret conversation among the murmurs.
She put her fingers on my wrist, taking my pulse. She wore a floor-length ruqun with a chrysanthemum pattern, which might trick the eye into thinking her delicate, but her hardy hands told a history of swordplay and strength.
I showed Yan the two sugar sculptures on my cooling rack, a rooster and a snake coiled about a calabash gourd. “I don’t think you’ve seen me make these before! Shall I tell you my techniques?”
“Oh, these wondrous sweets! I’d love to hear all about them,” Yan said.
And so I began describing how I made the candy rooster, sparing little detail.
The heating of sugar in a pot.
Scooping a dollop of it to cool and shape by hand.
Blowing air into a pocket of the caramel to make the body.
Yan stopped me to ask questions, such as how I kept the caramel from burning or how I pulled limbs for the animals. That was the conversation we wanted others to hear.
In-between our questions and answers, however, we built a secret exchange in whispers.
“Why would they follow you?” I asked.
“Not just me,” Yan replied. “Every healer and herbalist in Chengdu.”
A cunning plan to find the Pale Tigress. She had been badly wounded that night, and the Ten Crows Sect was counting on her needing help to heal. If they shadowed every healer, perhaps one would lead them to the Tigress.
“How long can you delay seeing her?”
“Not past tonight. She needs the rarest of herbs, and I must see how her wound is healing to know the exact doses.”
“Then let me provide a distraction,” I suggested.
She frowned. “Do you feel well enough to conjure?”
“I think so. I’ve found a mystic tea that helps ease the effects of the wound to my soul,” I revealed. “I saved some to give to the Tigress.” I pulled a paper packet of the imperial tea leaves from my sleeve but kept it hidden under my cupped right hand.
Yan raised her voice. “You must have impressive calluses on your hands to stand the heat of the molten sugar. Let’s see them.” She took my wrist and turned my hand. Quicker than the eye could see, the packet vanished into her keeping. “Thank you. What’s your plan?”
“Burns strengthen a Tangren’s hands,” I said proudly, and began telling her about learning the trade under my father. “We’d also help Eighth Uncle in the kitchens make shaobing, dumplings, and more. That’s how I learned to handle heat.”
In a quieter voice, I resumed our secret discussion. “I’ll make a decoy tiger and lead them away. They’ll need all their crows to track me.”
“Any decoy must be convincing.”
“Leave it to me. But I may need my friend Nong’s help.”
“Someone we can trust?”
“Yes. Nong’s a melon-seed seller by trade, but he also serves Magistrate Gongsun.”
The bald one was still watching us, scratching his scalp. He had a tan line, which meant he had shaved his head recently. I imagined him with hair, and I realized where I’d seen him before.
“That man tried to kill the magistrate at the Lantern Festival,” I told Yan. That had been a month ago, during the magistrate’s riddle contest, but I had foiled their plot, with the aid of a score of rats shaped from wine.
“Thank you, I’ll keep my distance. When shall we meet again?”
“The shadows at dusk will help our ploy. Give me the day to prepare. If I cannot come to you, I will send Nong in my stead.”
We continued our idle chatter until I excused myself to go walk my dog, all under the watchful eyes of the bald one and the crow.
With Worry trotting along, Nong and I followed Kang the horse veterinarian from a distance as he led a stallion down Jade Dragon Street. Ever since he had collected the horse at the East Gate, a crow had been shadowing him from the air.
“Confirmed,” Nong said. “Three healers so far, with a crow upon them each. Have you noticed their eyes?”
“What about them? You have sharper sight than me,” I said. Nong, like all of us troublemakers working for the magistrate, had his own unique talent. A spry man in his late thirties, he was blindingly fast with his hands and could flick melon-seeds and more with extraordinary aim and force.
“Crow-eyes should be as black as night, but theirs glow as bright as the sun. Watch for that when they pass through shadow.”
Sun-bright eyes. “The Ten Crows Sect named themselves after the Yangwu myth. Could they have made themselves sun crow servants?”
The Yangwu were ten divine crows who once each carried a sun in turn to light the world. But long ago, when they decided to fly together on the same day, they set the world on fire with the heat of ten suns. To save mankind, Yi the Archer shot down nine of the crows, leaving only one alive.
“Could be. That might also explain their obsession with arrows,” Nong said. He reached into his pack and handed me something long wrapped in rags. “I showed your black arrow to the magistrate, as you asked. As yet, he can’t unriddle the bird-and-worm characters etched into it, but he’s copied them down. There’s a gentleman-scholar he knows who might have a text on ancient seal scripts.”
Doctor Yan and I had recovered two black arrows that night. She had kept the one that had struck the tiger and I the one that wounded me.
“Thank you. It’s a spell, of that I’m sure,” I said. “Perhaps if we knew the words, we might understand what the Sect intends.”
“Magistrate Gongsun has a theory,” Nong said. “Since the night the Sect injured the Pale Tigress, strange happenings have become rife in Chengdu. Ghost sightings. Swarms of centipedes. And now crows with sunfire in their eyes.”
I relayed an eerie encounter of my own. “Last night, I startled a fox on Inkstone Road. Just then, a gust of wind blew it apart, scattering it like sand.”
“See? The Tigress had kept these creatures at bay before, but they now grow bold in her absence,” said Nong. “The magistrate suspects the Ten Crows have allied with a demon to seize power in Chengdu. If so, we’ll need the Tigress back.”
“Then we cannot let them find her,” I said. We stopped at a food peddler’s stall where I bought three pork buns. Better full than hungry, when I took the shape of a tiger. “What of the locations we need for our plan?”
“Well, I’m to let you leave your body at my place. As for where to lure them, there’s a small mansion that belonged to Huang the Miser. He was a brocade merchant who lived alone. His boat capsized on the Min River during the Lantern Festival and he drowned. The place has been empty since, but word of it only came to the magistrate two days ago.”
“Good. They have to believe the Tigress has been hiding there.” I offered a bun to Nong, ate the second, and tossed the last to Worry, who wolfed it down.
“Is there a building there with a quick escape?” I asked. “That they could believe the Tigress has been using to hide?”
“Try the West Residence off the inner courtyard, but get out as soon as they come,” Nong replied between mouthfuls. “You don’t want to be trapped.”
“No, I intend to lead them on a merry chase. I will need a large source of water—”
“What about a vat of collected rainwater? There’s one in the courtyard.”
“A full vat, I hope?” We needed so many things to go right, I worried that our plan might collapse for want of rain, or some other simple miscalculation.
“Seven-ninths full, by my eye.” Nong spat a fragment of bone into his palm, then flicked it with his fingers at a roving fly, killing it. “I live on Crabapple Alley. This way.”
Nong’s house was a proud shack in a laneway crammed with humble hovels. I told Worry to sit guard outside. It was single-room and tight, with the scents of soy and star anise from the melon-seeds Nong was soaking in jars.
“Welcome.” Nong moved aside a basket of raw melon-seeds to make room. “It’s not much, but—”
“I’m a wanderer, Nong. Every house is a mansion to me.” I unslung my pack and cooling rack, then handed the candy rooster-on-a-stick to him. “I haven’t sent my soul forth since I was hurt by that arrow. Although I’m healing with the help of the tea, for this plan to work, I need to know if it’s done more harm to my soul than we know.”
“Let’s find out. Take the straw mat,” Nong suggested.
He pulled the caramel rooster from its stick and motioned to me. I laid down on the mat and put my right hand on my chest, palm down. “I’ll try touch, first.” Nong set the candy on the back of my hand.
I took a deep breath and tried pouring my soul into the caramel through my skin. A gentle warmth greeted me, and my soul eased into the rooster’s candy shell.
Small items looked huge through the painted eyes of the rooster, such as the glazed ceramic pillow Nong had lovingly set aside. Normally the size of a melon, it now seemed as big as the magistrate’s chariot. With some effort I righted myself onto stubby sugar legs. I looked up and saw Nong’s great grin.
“So, skin-to-sugar works. What about candy-to-candy?” he asked. He took the snake-and-gourd candy and touched the snake’s tail to my rooster’s wattle.
I felt a path open between the two candies, and I entered the shell of the snake. The sugar rooster toppled behind me, but I slithered around the candy gourd once before settling into a comfortable serpentine coil.
“Good so far.” Nong gently lifted the snake-and-gourd and set it into my body’s hand.
Contact with my skin opened the way for my return to my body, which was a relief. I sat up. “Let’s see if I can send my soul out of my body into the candy.”
Nong held up the rooster as a test.
I stared at it and tried sending my mind into it. My soul seemed to slide as a sword might from its scabbard—but only halfway and no further, as if a strong cord tied the hilt to the sheath. Despite the tea, my soul hadn’t healed as much as I hoped. I clenched my fists in worry.
“Remember to breathe.” Nong came nearer with the rooster. “Does this help?”
I tried again, but the harder I pushed to escape my flesh, more pains like burns blossomed inside me. I cried out.
“Stop,” said Nong. “We know skin-to-candy works. Let’s go with that.”
“But if I won’t be able to abandon the decoy tiger body, our plan will fail,” I said.
“Plans always go wrong anyhow. Work with what works, that’s what I say. There’s another way to lose your pursuers.” Nong held up the two candies. “We scatter these in the city. Reach one, ditch the decoy, and hide in a candy until I can retrieve you.”
I wasn’t happy with that, but as he had said: work with what works.
“Next problem. Where can I heat up caramel without burning down your home?”
“I’ve a spot out back where I roast the seeds. We can light a fire there.”
Soon, with Nong’s help with the flames and plenty of stirring, I made a pot of warm caramel that I could sculpt with. After taking it back inside, I pulled a glob of the golden candy and rolled it back and forth between my palms.
“How are you going to make a life-sized Tiger?” Nong asked. “You don’t have that much caramel.”
“It’s the look of the candy tiger that’s important,” I explained. “Once I have that, I can immerse it in water and compel a sizable measure of the water to take the same shape.”
The real question was, how could I make a Pale Tiger decoy convincing enough to fool men and crows? My conjurations looked more like art than real.
But the spirit of Tiger still owed me for saving the Pale Tigress. That was how the spirits of the shengxiao worked: boons for tasks I did for them, and debts for powers I borrowed. Could I trade in that favor for Tiger’s help?
I carefully blew a caramel bubble and made sure that it was inflated enough to serve as the tiger’s body. All the while keeping the image of the Pale Tigress in mind, I pinched a wide mouth and two ears, then pulled four strong legs for it. With a quick bite, the thin sugar pipe that I blew through became its long tail.
Nong had seen me shape my candy animals many times before, but he still seemed rapt by it.
I stuck the candy on a stick and turned it this way and that. The shaping of a tiger was the easy part. The art of the candy tiger was in how the Tangren painted it.
With steady brushwork, I painted the Pale Tigress in red food dye, whiskers first. One strange thing I had noticed about her that night was that her stripes matched the layout of Chengdu’s streets. I painted her coat with that in mind, capturing a section of town I knew well: from Market Street and Medicine Lane, to White Crane Alley and Inkstone Road, bounded in the east by Fragrant Osmanthus Street and by Little Bowl Road in the west.
Finally, I painted the character for king on the tigress’s forehead, symbolizing her power and bravery. Its eyes I dotted with my blood, drawn from a small cut on the back of my hand.
I addressed the caramel tiger with reverence. “King Tiger, Fiercest Spirit of the Zodiac! I, plodding Ao, pray you forgive this intrusion. I have but a small request.”
The sculpture in my hand came to life, stretching as a true tiger would when waking from slumber. Nong hopped back a step, eyes widening.
Tiger’s voice roared in my mind. Sugar-shaper Ao! You’re owed a boon from me for saving the City God’s Tiger. Growl out what you crave.
“The Pale Tigress still needs Doctor Yan’s help, but the Ten Crows Sect are following her,” I said. “I plan to throw them off the scent with a conjuration, but I fear my decoy will not be convincing without your help.”
I agree. Your water-beasts show the marrow and vigor of what you craft, but they do not mirror true life.
“Pale imitations,” I said. “How do I deceive them, Grand General?”
First, ponder who hunts you. Do they know what the City God’s Tiger looks like? Track her by scent? Know how a tiger should prowl and pounce?
“‘Likely’ for the first; ‘uncertain’ for the second; ‘perhaps’ for the last,” I admitted. “But I’ll be facing demon crows with unknown strengths. Best I assume yes, yes, and yes.”
To fool their eyes, ears, and nostrils, add the Tigress’s blood to the water you wish to craft into her likeness, Tiger said. The blood will remember for you her shape, roar, and scent.
“Her blood? But we can’t get to her—”
Tiger ignored my question. As for the other, I will make you more tiger in instinct than man.
“What do you mean, more tiger than man?”
Nong raised an eyebrow. He was hearing only half the conversation, but I could imagine his unease at what he’d heard.
I cannot teach you how to act like a tiger in the time you have. Your only hope is to call upon the tiger’s instinct.
The character for king on the caramel tiger’s forehead began to glow golden.
“But how do I—”
Simply become the tiger! The caramel beast took a seated posture, then Tiger withdrew from the candy shell, leaving it truly tiger-looking.
“Incredible,” whispered Nong. “Was that really the zodiac Tiger?”
I nodded. “He says we need blood from the Tigress to make the decoy work.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“Not exactly.” I told him the rest. “We still follow our plan... mostly. Once I’m in the candy, you tell Yan where to go, hide the other candies I’ll escape in, and carry me to the Miser’s mansion. Be sure to get there before she lures the Crows there, so we have time to prepare.”
“What about the blood?”
I wasn’t sure. Since we couldn’t go to the Tigress, where could we get her blood? Perhaps the bridge where I’d found her bleeding might still bear a stain. Or—
“When you speak to Doctor Yan, ask her for the black arrow she kept,” I said. “It was stained with the Pale Tigress’s blood.”
“Will dried blood work?”
“I don’t know; Tiger didn’t say, and I dare not invoke him again. But it’s all we have.”
I laid down again, setting the caramel figurine against the back of my left hand. Tiger’s words still troubled me. He said I needed to call upon the tiger’s instinct, but what if that instinct made me hunt, kill, and feed? Would I be able to resist such feral urges and stay true to our plan?
With a sigh, I poured my being into the caramel tiger. As I took hold of it, the character of the king on the tiger’s forehead sparked heat throughout my soul. When I possessed a shell like the rooster or the snake, I always felt a hollowness within. But inside this candy touched by shengxiao power, its form felt supple yet solid.
I looked up and saw Nong reaching for me with his hand, and without thinking, my caramel body snarled and swiped at him with a paw. I was surprised at this tiger-ness, this beastly instinct in the vessel that was overwhelming me.
Nong pulled his hand away quickly. “Easy, Ao! I need to carry you.”
Despite myself, the tiger-me growled and wouldn’t let him near. I felt as powerless as a puppet dancing to another master’s whims. And in this shape, I could no longer speak to Nong to tell him I wasn’t fully in control.
“We won’t get anywhere like this,” Nong said. He lifted a small rattan basket and dumped out the melon-seeds. With basket in one hand and lid in the other, he sprang towards me.
The tiger-me leapt off my real body before he could trap me. Against my nature, I found myself running for the door. I could no more control this caramel beast than catch a leaf in a windstorm, and that terrified me.
“Stop him, Worry!” Nong shouted.
A giant beast blocked the doorway, towering over me, drooling ropes of spittle as big around as my paws. Tiger-me froze, sizing up the new threat, but in that hesitation I was caught off-guard as Nong’s rattan lid scooped me up and dumped me inside the basket. I rolled and righted myself, ready to escape, but Nong slammed the lid shut.
I was trapped in the dark with only threads of light through the rattan weave. In rage, I scratched at the wall and leapt for the lid. No avail. Tiger-me roared but made very little sound.
Nong’s voice came through the rattan. “We do this as planned. Get ahold of yourself fast, Tangren Ao. The Pale Tigress needs you.”
I knew my duty, and I tried for calm with memories of tranquil days on mountain slopes and pensive nights contemplating the stars. But that tiger’s instinct to escape remained king, making this vessel rage uncontrollably like a wild animal caged.
Trapped in the shaking basket-prison as Nong carried me on his crucial errands, the tiger-me kept pacing back and forth on the rattan floor in anger. I knew that we had to stay quiet and hidden so that Nong could set our plan in motion, but Tiger-me wanted out.
The reasoning part of me wanted to know where we were now and what those noises outside were, but if I wanted to regain control of the caramel tiger, I had to cut out all distractions and focus on the riddle of how to tame a savage instinct that overwhelmed all reason.
Tiger meant for me to use this instinct to trick the Ten Crows. It was a tool; I had to remember that. A reasoning man should be able to out-think an animal.
I’d been calling myself tiger-me since I entered the caramel. Perhaps that single sense of self was at fault. I could try separating myself from the Tiger’s gift.
Eighth Uncle, who once worked in the imperial kitchens, had told me years ago a story about sculpted tokens that emperors in the past had used to dispatch their distant armies. These two-piece wood, bronze, or jade figurines, in the shape of a tiger, were called the hu-fu or tiger tallies. The government would keep the right piece of the tiger tally, while the left piece stayed with the local commander. If the bearer of the right piece wanted to order troops to march, he must show that his piece matched the left piece exactly.
With the tiger tallies in my mind’s eye, I imagined the caramel creature split down the middle, as though I had scored it with a fingernail. I laid claim to the right side and tried to force the tiger’s instinct into the left half. But it fought me tooth and claw, to rend all that made me human.
I couldn’t let it. I conjured up memories that reminded me of who I was. I am Ao Tienwei, son of Ao Yusheng, I told the tiger’s instinct. I am a Tangren master like my father, and his father before him. Obey me!
The tiger’s instinct had no words but roared its answer with hunger, anger, and fear. It needed freedom and would kill for it.
I shielded myself against its outburst with a memory of the night I defended the Pale Tigress. I showed it that while Doctor Yan was working to save the Tigress, I had enchanted river-water into the shape of a dog and attacked her hunters.
My impulse was to flee, I told the instinct, but reason told me I couldn’t abandon the City God’s Tiger to die. That’s not who I am. I bore the pain, though it led to their leader stabbing me in the flank with a cursed arrow, and bought time for the Tigress. I will not yield to you.
It heard me but still clawed at me with wild need.
The lid to the basket lifted a thumb’s width, and Nong’s eyes looked in. “It’s time, Ao.”
We-the-tiger crouched, but the instinct and I clashed over whether we would spring to escape or wait and listen. Its primal urge was still lacing my measured reason like sugar dissolved in water. Nonetheless, I must somehow separate my identity from the tiger’s instinct.
Nong continued to speak, his salt-tinged breath passing through the weave. “Things are moving faster than I hoped, so listen well—I got dried blood off that arrow of Yan’s, and mixed it in the rainwater as you wanted. She’ll be here soon.”
I couldn’t even nod. I had to tame the tiger’s instinct.
What if I gave it a name? Names had power. Eighth Uncle had taught me that too. For one, in all the time he traveled alongside Father and me, he had never revealed his true name. For another, he was fond of reminding us of the taboo on the emperor’s name, which couldn’t be spoken or written with the story about carp. Centuries ago, because the word for carp sounded like the family name of the emperors, it was forbidden to eat carp. To even speak of the fish back then, one had to call it ‘Duke Red Sturgeon’.
I call you Hungerer and give you the shape of the left tiger tally, I cried. To the left with you, Hungerer!
My naming of Hungerer startled it enough to let me rip its essence away from mine. I willed Hungerer into the left half of the split candy tiger.
By the authority of the tiger-tallies, I-of-the-right demand you-of-the-left to do as I bid. But I cannot do this without you, Hungerer. Will you help me, as equals?
Hungerer growled but grudgingly settled.
Nong noted the change in us-the-tiger. “Calmer now? Good. When you lure them away, make your way to the dye house on Jasper Street. That’s where I hid the rooster. If you can’t reach it, get to the Flower-Strewing Tower. I hid the snake-and-gourd in the grass by the steps of the pagoda. I’ll follow as closely as I dare without letting them see me. Got it?”
We-the-tiger gave an upnod. I knew both places.
“Good.” Nong tossed aside the lid and dumped us-the-tiger into the vat of collected rainwater in the courtyard of the mansion of Huang the Miser. We bobbed and swam on the surface, naturally buoyed by the air inside the tiger candy. Hungerer seemed unfrightened, but I needed us to immerse fully in the water.
Open our mouth, I instructed, fighting Hungerer’s natural instinct.
It relented, and together we allowed the rainwater to seep inside us and tasted the tang of blood on our caramel tongue. Clotted blood oughtn’t to dissolve so well and quick, but there was magic in the blood and I trusted Tiger’s instructions.
I spoke to the blooded rainwater. Gift of rain and Tigress blood! Apart, you are each worthy of our thanks, but together you become the blessing we need. Grant us the power to mimic the Pale Tigress so that we may trick her foes.
In answer, the vat of blooded water pulled us-the-tiger into its depths and dissolved us with uncanny haste, but it remembered the tiger form and bettered it with a memory of the Pale Tigress. It then gave us sway over all the water’s measure.
Hungerer-and-I put liquid claws against the vat and tried to pull ourselves out, but our force toppled the vat. It didn’t break but rolled twice. Dizzy, we-the-Tigress staggered out of the vessel as massive as a true tiger, finding ourselves in Huang the Miser’s front courtyard.
Nong took a few steps back. “So that’s what the Pale Tigress looks like. Incredible! I trust you’re still in control, Ao?”
Hungerer’s feral impulses still welled inside us, but I felt I could stay them. We nodded. What I couldn’t tell him was that we also felt a stabbing pain in our left flank, matching where the black arrow had struck the Tigress.
“Then may the City God protect you.” With that, Nong hurried out of sight beyond the flower-hung gate, followed by the sounds of doors opening and closing.
Hungerer made us growl, a strange happening for me because my conjurations had always been silent. Being on the left side, it felt the phantom pain there sharper than I did. The blood we had conjured with must have remembered the arrow wound as well.
Endure it, I told Hungerer, but I could sense that the injury had inflamed its need to react by animal instinct.
Nonetheless, the planning of this ruse fell to me. I laid out our gambit to Hungerer. Doctor Yan will lure the Ten Crows here to make them believe we’re the Pale Tigress. When they come to kill us, we run. In the chaos that follows, Yan will slip away to help the true Tigress.
Hungerer snarled in impatience.
Pay attention! You may think we’re unstoppable, but their black arrows can kill us. We must seek either the rooster candy on Jasper Street or the snake at the Flower-Strewing Tower. Either will let our souls move into their candy shell and out of this body, which will collapse into water as if we simply vanished. Then Nong will collect us once the Crows leave.
The sun was setting on the horizon and daubing all in rose or shadow. Eyeing the buildings around us, I tried to figure out if the best routes to escape the courtyard. However, Hungerer knew with each glance which walls and roofs we could jump with certainty.
Even with the wound? I asked.
Hungerer sent a wave of scorn in answer.
I realized that I had to trust Hungerer with tasks it excelled at, if I wanted it to trust me the same way.
Following the plan, we-the-Tigress sought the West Residence. We had to make our charade look convincing, that we were indeed the wounded Pale Tigress hiding out of sight. Nong had left the doors wide open. We entered and lay on our side, waiting for the doctor.
It didn’t take long for Yan to arrive, but I had to quell Hungerer’s mistrust of her so that she could approach.
Yan passed over the threshold of the West Residence, knelt, and plucked a paper packet from her sleeve. “Very convincing, down to the wound,” she whispered. She touched our fur near the injury then drew away her hand, wet. “But despite the illusion, you are still water. The Crows’ men will know if they touch you.”
Looking past her at the far building, we saw a crow with sunlight in its eyes.
“I can’t linger and risk being caught here,” Yan continued. “Their men are following closer than I hoped. I counted four, but once they see you, more will come. Two have swords and the other two carry bows. They’re skilled, by the way they’ve been stalking me on the ground and on rooftops. However, I don’t think they know I’m wise to them.”
Bows meant more cursed arrows, and I intended to avoid being struck by one again.
Yan’s voice softened. “This packet is merely ground grass, but we must make them think it’s more.” She studied our wound, then sprinkled the contents of the packet over it.
Her former life as a wandering swordswoman seemed so at odds with her current calling as a doctor, I wondered if she might be warring with herself as I was with Hungerer now.
Yan stood. “I’ll head west along Rice-Pot Lane while you lure them east. If I make it to the Tigress, I may need to stay hidden with her until she’s fully healed. I’ll send word about her condition when it’s safe to do so. Trust the one who brings you a golden winter jasmine flower with a single petal of white. Farewell and good luck, my friend.”
I wished I had the voice to say the same.
She dashed out of the residence.
The crow stopped watching her and turned its attention on me.
Restless, we-the-Tigress growled and got to our feet.
The archers are a greater threat, I told Hungerer. But we mustn’t go for the kill—”
A slight creak upon the roof made us swivel our ears.
Before I could put a thought together, Hungerer forced us-the-Tigress to spring forward-right, out the threshold and into the courtyard.
A black arrow struck the floor where we’d been moments ago.
The bald one from the teahouse, crouched in the courtyard, unsheathed his sword, and charged us.
Only one of many threats, Hungerer guessed.
Our Tigress eyes and ears sought other foes. Archer, east rooftop, the setting sun making him squint.
Another, west. Man stench beyond the south wall.
Two crows circling above.
Before the bald one could reach us, we leapt for the east roof, but the pain in our flank flared with the effort. Only our front claws hooking into the lowest row of tiles kept us from falling.
Surprised, the east archer trembled as he tried to nock his next arrow.
Hungerer pulled us up with brute strength, and I felt his bloodthirst.
Choose flight! I commanded with the force of my will.
Hungerer lunged at the archer’s face, but it was a feint. We-the-Tigress leaned into the strike instead so that we’d take a new angle, a new path over the roof and down into the alley.
We almost landed on a sauntering scholar, who hollered and fell backward at the near miss.
East is that way, I urged Hungerer.
As soon as I thought it, Hungerer took us out of the alley and zigzagged down Rice-Pot Lane. People screamed when they saw us, but it couldn’t be helped.
Overhead, three crows.
Behind, footfalls of four, at a run.
At the crossroads I directed us north to the Golden Water River and jumped across it. But as we headed deeper into Greater City, two new archers blocked the road leading to Jasper Street.
We leapt and chose a rooftop road northeast, Hungerer fighting the pain when we jumped. Did our pursuers dare to climb and leap the gap between buildings?
No time to turn and look.
Four of their crows now flew apace with us to alert them where we were. There was no losing them.
Hungerer tore my fear asunder. A true tiger cared nothing for birds or men, except to eat them!
Two figures leapt onto a roof between the dye house on Jasper Street and us. Archers!
With a roar, Hungerer turned us sharply east, avoiding the arrows loosed at us. Its instincts had saved us many times, and I hoped it sensed my thanks.
Head for that pagoda in the distance, I told Hungerer.
Five crows now. More of their men.
Panicked people reeking of sweat. No sign of Nong.
I hoped we had drawn their men and crows away from Doctor Yan.
Ran out of roofs. Back down to the road. Ahead, the Flower-Strewing Tower!
In our path, three guardsmen ran towards us with halberds level to the ground. I cursed. The ruckus had finally brought them, but were those weapons meant for us or the Crows?
I urged Hungerer forward. Trust that the magistrate’s men know to protect the City God’s Tiger.
But Hungerer must have sensed my doubt. It faltered in its run towards them.
I raised a mental cry. Those blades can’t really hurt us, but those black arrows will. Keep going!
The leftmost guardsman suddenly let go of his left-hand grip on the halberd, drawing back his hand as if stung. Without both hands, his weapon drooped.
I caught sight of Nong in a darkened alley mouth, flicking another melon-seed off his palm with thumb and forefinger.
The seed hit the flesh below the middle guardsman’s left eye. He winced and faltered, creating an opening.
Hungerer saw it and sprang between the two guards. A few more bounds and we entered the fragrant garden of the Flower-Strewing Tower.
The thin octagonal pagoda overlooked the city, a silhouette against a ruddy sky. It seemed five levels tall but was nine inside, from what I recalled. I could see the grass where Nong said he had hidden my snake-and-gourd candy. It was before the stone platform at the base of the wooden tower but not far from its open doors.
I prayed that those guards, just by being there, had slowed any archers pursuing us. But six crows watched us from the sky. If I slipped out of this conjured Tigress and into the candy in their view, they might figure out how they were tricked.
We needed to get out from under the crows’ eyes, but that meant carrying out a strategy instead of relying on instinct.
I must take over now, Hungerer, I said.
Hungerer resisted. The chase was still on.
Then we work together, reason and instinct. Go to that grass, swallow the caramel figurine there, then into the pagoda.
Within moments, we-the-Tigress gulped down the snake-and-gourd from its hiding place. Bubbles of air burst through the top of our back as that hollow candy filled with water.
Crows in the sky now numbered seven.
We leapt the distance to the open doors and scrambled up the tower steps. Flowers were carved everywhere into the wood of the pagoda. Legends told that the tower was dear to spirits and immortals and good fortune came to those who scattered petals from its highest tier. We’d welcome such a blessing now.
Each of the upper levels visible from the outside had four windows, and as we clambered onto the third level, a sun-eyed crow flew through the south window and out the north.
Ignore it. Up further, I instructed.
Fourth level, windowless.
Onto the windowed fifth, where two crows crisscrossed the level through different windows.
We could hear footfalls upon the stairs below.
On the windowless sixth level, I asked Hungerer to stop. We’re hidden from the crows’ eyes here. Now we vanish into the snake.
I willed my soul to leave the water tiger and enter the caramel snake. But while I began to fill the snake-shaped candy, a force kept Hungerer out.
I cursed myself for not realizing this before, but the shengxiao spirits protected their domains fiercely. Of course the spirit of Snake would never allow the power of Tiger inside something that bore its shape!
With my leaving, Hungerer claimed control of the water tiger, which kept its shape. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to let the conjuration splash away into harmless water. Now Hungerer became the decoy Tigress, ruling it with pure animal instinct. When the archers caught up to it—
A wild idea came to me. The snake wasn’t the only candy here.
Hungerer, you’ve one chance, I cried. Enter the gourd and we can dispel the water Tigress!
But the footfalls below were growing louder, and without me in the same body to hold it back, Hungerer followed its own impulses. With a roar, it turned back down the stairs to maul its attackers.
I knew Hungerer was putting itself in mortal risk, but as much as I wanted to save it, I had to save myself. The snake-me, still coiled around the candy gourd, whipped my tail to break free of the water tiger’s bulk and onto the steps. We started to roll down the stairs, still full of water. However, with what strength I could muster in the snake body, I halted our downward tumble on a broad step and hauled the gourd to the side.
Shouts, roars, and the caw of crows rose from the level below.
I feared for Hungerer and cursed myself for not thinking through my plan more carefully. I wished I could’ve left the gourd to it for a last-minute escape, but I couldn’t risk them finding my candy inside the decoy. All I could do was lie here and pretend to be a child’s discarded treat.
No more roars, only caws and voices... and the sound of something shattering.
“Ice? The Pale Tigress was nothing but water and ice?” a man said.
“Another trick, likely from the same one who sent those tea-and-wine rats against us when we tried to kill Gongsun,” said another man.
“Perhaps the black arrow’s captured him,” said the first.
Captured? Did the enchantment somehow trap Hungerer inside that arrow?
“We can’t assume that,” said the second. “We’ll find and kill this water sorcerer.”
“I agree, but we must move. More of the magistrate’s men are coming.”
There was a clamor as they fled, but I stayed motionless, waiting for the noise to die down.
When silence finally came, Snake-me began to uncoil from the gourd—
—and stopped moving when I saw a crow watching me from two steps up, tiny suns dancing inside its eyes. I froze too late, however; the crow had already seen me move. It hopped down towards me.
I flung the gourd at it, then slithered down the stairs. Ahead, pieces of ice that were once the tiger decoy. Perhaps I could hide among—
The crow seized me in its claws before I could reach the shattered ice. It stretched its wings to fly.
I struggled and tried to constrict its torso, but my sticky snake body was simply caramel and no match for its beak and talons. If it decided to tear me apart, it could.
Dare I call out to the spirit of Snake and beg for its power? I’d once asked for venom from it, perhaps I could again. But what more would it ask of me in return?
The crow had taken me into the air and was swooping down the winding stairs.
Then I remembered that this candy-snake shell still held water, and that a snake could shed its skin.
I flowed my soul into the water, already formed in the shape of a snake, and right before I abandoned the caramel body for good, I forced open its mouth.
With the slickness of water, Snake-me sloughed the candy-skin and fell writhing onto the steps. I thought the impact might splatter me apart, and it did rattle my thoughts, but somehow I held onto my serpentine shape.
The crow ripped the candy snake, tossed the pieces aside, and winged its way back towards me. It landed and pecked at me as I tried to escape down the stairs. While its beak passed through my watery body harmlessly, each hit splashed water away from me. It took all my will to keep my shape, but how long until the crow destroyed me?
I couldn’t think of a way out. But if we saved the Pale Tigress, perhaps it was worth—
A black arrow flew through the air from an angle below and impaled the crow against the next step up.
As the crow died, one light in its eyes faded away, but the other fled its corpse, floating into the air.
It was a firefly but unlike any I’d ever seen. It flew up around the turn of the stairs. I couldn’t slither after it; the steps were too steep for my snake body.
Nong loomed over me. He dislodged the crow-on-an-arrow from the wooden step and tossed it inside his rattan basket, along with the caramel gourd. He extended a hand, palm up. “Let’s get you back.”
Nong returned me to my body in his home. I slithered onto my own forehead and sent my soul back into my flesh. The water-snake lost its form and became the wake-up splash on my brow.
With a yawn I sat up and wiped the water away from my eyes, but then Worry ran in and licked my face with a spit-laden tongue. I laughed and gave him a hug. I needed it.
I turned to Nong. “Thank you for coming when you did, Nong. I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”
“I aim to please,” he said. “I saw six crows fly away, but not the seventh, so I rushed there as soon as their last man left.”
I examined the crow-and-arrow in the basket by candlelight. “Is this the arrow that wounded the Tigress?”
“The hunters thought they might’ve caught me inside the arrow, which means the bird-and-worm script might be for a binding spell. Perhaps that’ll help the magistrate decipher the words,” I said. I wondered if these arrows still held some of my strength and the Tigress’s. If so, what did that mean? And if we could figure out their secret, could we then undo their enchantment and return to our full powers? Do you think Doctor Yan managed to slip away? They’ll be looking for her now.”
“You succeeded in luring away her crows, so I’d guess yes,” Nong said.
“Good. I suspect we’ll need the Pale Tigress at full strength soon.” I told him about the strange firefly that escaped.
Nong frowned. “Crows with firefly eyes?”
“I don’t know what they are, but the firefly eye that got away saw what I could do with water and caramel,” I said.
Nong put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll warn the magistrate.”
He and I left unsaid what we both feared.
That demon crow or firefly had seen my caramel animals, and I was the only candyman with those skills in Chengdu. Before, the Ten Crows didn’t know that I was the sorcerer who opposed them.
Now, I might well be their next target.
Worry, mouth tight and ears tilted forward, faced the door and raised his tail high. He meant to guard me, whatever threats might come. By this simple act of fellowship, Worry reminded me that even without my powers returned to full, I would never stand alone against the Ten Crows.