(Finalist for the 2015 Aurora Award, Best Short Fiction – English)
“Did you see the duel between Monkey King and the Dragon Prince, candyman?” the street-kitchen man asked. “Four nights ago, on this very street, fire magic versus flood! Nine of my customers did.”
I smiled. “How many of them were drunk?”
“All sober. Stranger things will visit Chengdu before the lantern fair ends, I’ve money on it. Care to wager?”
“Tempting, but not while I live from coin to coin.” I paid him for the warm rice ball and left him to hawk his fare. I ate as I strolled down Kitchen Lane. Ahead, a barefoot water-carrier greeted the dawn with song, the buckets on the ends of his bamboo yoke springing in time with his step. Behind him walked Nong the melon-seed seller, who saw me and hurried to join me. “Morning, Ao, been looking for you. A friend of ours wants a chat.”
“Oh? Who?” I had made the man’s acquaintance only a few days ago. I would cook molten sugar in my pot to draw a crowd from afar with its unmistakable syrup-sweet aroma and hold them rapt with my Tangren art, blowing candy zodiac animals from molten caramel, while Nong would tempt the same spectators with fragrant roasted melon-seeds. Together, we made more money than we would apart. Learning that I was new in Chengdu, Nong had kindly pointed out which were the filchers, toughs, and fierce beggars I’d be wise to avoid. In return, I had warned him of swindles I’d seen on my travels and taught him tunes from the east.
Nong opened his hand. In his palm lay a yellow jade, carved with the image of a dragon encircling a tortoise.
The medallion belonged to Magistrate Gongsun.
Truth was, it was I who had conjured the water dragon on the first night of the festival with my candy magic. I had also helped the judge capture the sorcerer who had called the fire monkey that had set the Deng teahouse ablaze. He was one of the few who knew of my secret talent. When I’ve an errand for you, someone will come to you with this jade, Gongsun had said. Trust him in all things.
It was an order I dared not refuse.
I sized up Nong anew. A melon-seed seller was a common sight at the teahouses. One with a sharp ear might overhear a secret or two. “Why didn’t you tell me you work for the magistrate?”
“You might’ve charmed him, Tangren Ao, but I had to test your worth myself.” Nong lowered his voice. “The judge has accepted an invitation to a riddle contest at the lantern fair tonight. We believe the Ten Crows Sect intends to kill him there. Will you help?”
“No question,” I blurted. The magistrate was a good and charitable man. “But if Gongsun knows of the plot, why go at all?”
“He hopes to turn the trap against them.” Nong cracked a roasted melon-seed with his teeth. “The judge will tell you more, by way of the candy snake in his keeping. Rest under that tree, my friend. I’ll watch over you.”
Gongsun wasn’t asking for a face-to-face audience, then. He wanted me to use the art of sweet possession on the serpent I’d made for him from molten sugar.
I set down my bundle of stove, pot, and cooling rack beneath the ginkgo tree, sat cross-legged and closed my eyes. A sugar-styler invests much of himself into his candy art: his breath; his flair; his heed; and his pride. Like a spider I crawled that web of invisible ties through the air, eastward towards the magistrate’s yamen. When I found the caramel in serpent shape, I slid my soul into it.
My snake figurine rested atop a long wooden box, overlooking a half-blank handscroll on the magistrate’s table. Gongsun, a stern giant to the snake’s eyes, was painting a layer of snow onto the image of a riddle lantern. Written on lantern-skin were the words ‘pouch of fireflies, shining snow’ in semi-cursive calligraphy.
I made to announce myself, but before I could move, an unseen force constricted around me and robbed me of my power to animate. Startled, I tried to pull my mind from the candy figurine, to no avail.
Nice of you to visit, Tangren Rat, said the spirit of Snake, calling me by my birth sign. Scales crept across my soul. The wheel of blessing and recompense turns, and I seek a service from you.
The zodiac spirit would not allow me to forget my debt.
To stop the fire sorcerer, I had petitioned Snake for power without weighing the cost of that. For days after the incident, the likenesses of serpents had plagued me wherever I went. A coil of rope; a sash in the wind; branches reflected in still water. Those illusions slithered, writhed, and tasted light with darting tongues of shadow.
Gongsun Mingzhong is one of mine, Snake continued, a man with glorious promise. See that he survives this inauspicious night, lest there be consequences.
That’s why I’ve come, O Snake of Ten-Thousand Years. I know all too well the cost of forfeiting a debt to a shengxiao spirit. Do you remember my father?
Ah, yes—Tangren Rabbit, whose style is as strong as poison in your art. He had executed some skilful serpent figures, though not of late.
Nor will he again, I said in sorrow. My father borrowed the Tiger’s might to save me. But when asked to kill a bandit pleading for his life, Father turned coward. Tiger cursed him. Days later, he lost half his fingers to a tiger-hook sword.
Savage is his way, that Tiger, said Snake. Spite must be served slyly to satisfy. But let me ask you this: if you must slay an assassin to save Gongsun’s life, would you?
I studied the judge as he dabbed yellow ochre to make glowworms fly within the painted lantern. What was the worth of this man’s life, compared to others?
Death was no stranger to us pao jianghu, river-lake vagrants on the fringe of society. Sometimes to survive we had to fight and cheat, and I supposed if I was forced to kill to defend myself, or my father, I would. But would I for any other?
Free me so that I might hear what Gongsun has to say. It is for him to sway me, I told Snake. If I am to weigh one death against another, I will not choose under threat from you.
Do so at your own risk. Snake loosened his squeeze on me but clung like skin that wouldn’t slough.
I softened my candy shell and reared up, catching Gongsun’s eye. My darting tongue tasted incense in the air.
The magistrate washed his ink brush. “Welcome, Ao. I’m glad you decided to stay in town. No misadventures since we last met, I trust? Bow for yes, turn aside for no.” He had remembered that my figurines couldn’t speak.
“The Ten Crows Sect has grown strong in recent years,” Gongsun said. “I had executed three of their lieutenants in as many months, and now they want me dead. One of my spies overheard them discuss when and where: tonight, at Madame Tan the matchmaker’s yearly showdown between the Riddle Hands of Chengdu. I intend to win.”
Riddle Hands were makers of the witty yet confounding riddles that dangled from hundreds of paper lanterns. Why did it not surprise me that the magistrate was one of them? He was a man of contradictions: righteous in the light, yet guileful in the night.
“They won’t risk an open assault while my men stand guard, but there remain a thousand dishonorable ways to kill. I need eyes and ears from quarters the Ten Crows won’t suspect. Work with Nong to scout the shadows and foil their plot.” Gongsun stroked his beard. “But no dragons. Last thing I need is another sighting to inspire a new cult. Be discreet.”
I gave a second bow.
The magistrate took up his brush again and said no more.
Will you help me save him, O Wondrous Snake? I asked.
Snake hissed. When a shengxiao spirit tasks a mortal to settle his debt, the onus lies with the mortal alone. ‘Tis forbidden for one to assist in one’s own schemes.
Forgive my ignorance. I will seek another way.
With Snake’s leave, I shed his companionship and fled back to my own body.
Nong sat beside me in the shade, flicking seed after seed at a small stone in the street. He didn’t miss once.
I flexed my arms, glad to have limbs again. “What else must I know about the Ten Crows Sect, Nong?”
“They worship the sun-crows of old,” he replied. “Legend tells of the day all ten crows took to the sky, scorching the earth with their heat, until a hero shot nine of them down with his bow. They are kings of burglaries, kidnappings, and hired killings. All we know of their leader is an alias: Red Saint.”
“I’m no warrior, Nong.”
Nong sprang up and offered me his hand. His fingertips were crimson with dye from the seeds. “Then play the hero with your own unique skills, as does every troublemaker in Gongsun’s crew.... Ready?”
I accepted his help and stood. “Show me where.”
Madame Tan’s contest would take place on a stage being built here where Market Street crossed Medicine Lane. Nong and I had spent the day watching the crowd, studying the surroundings and crafting a plan. By late afternoon, we had prepared and hidden six candy animals.
I toured my zodiac spies one by one.
First, I ensouled a surefooted caramel goat atop the Plum Season Tea-and-Wine Shop on the southwest corner. I climbed the sloped roof tiles, scale-like in their pattern. Below, laborers gossiped as they constructed the stage. Matchmaker Tan promenaded around them, a timeless beauty in a garment of yellow silk embroidered with black narcissus blooms. My father could tell someone’s age with startling skill, saying that a sugar-styler always sold more candy when he could name a customer’s birth-sign. Even he would have trouble guessing her age.
My soul sunk beneath the platform planks and into a sturdy ox figurine with wisps of cooled caramel for its horns. Light seeped between the wooden ribs overhead, passing through my translucent body to cast an amber shadow, but no strange things waited here.
As a candy dog I lazed between two street-kitchen buckets. Through the legs of passers-by I glimpsed my real self resting at my stall, where Nong was distracting the crowd with his seed-counting game. A customer would call out a number for Nong to grab from the mound of seeds on his tray in one pass. If Nong didn’t get the exact count, the patron would win the handful of seeds for free. But Nong told me he only ever lost on purpose.
Next, I animated the sugar-horse. Nong had convinced an herbalist to hang my horse figurine under his ‘running horse’ lamp. I had worried about the flame but needed this vantage point covered, and so dangled the horse a hopefully safe distance under the lantern’s base. As the lantern played its spinning shadow show, I swayed in the breeze and watched the revelers wind through the laneway.
Nong had lobbed my caramel rooster onto the roof of the Cloud Chariot Noodle Shop on the northeast corner. The aromas of the porkbone soups brewing below wafted up to tempt me. From this perch I watched the riddlemasters’ pupils tie fresh riddle scrips beneath the lanterns.
The sixth sugar sculpture, a hollow rat with a sinuous tail, stayed hidden in the folds of my clothes.
I willed myself back to my body. “All’s calm, unless you count Madame Tan,” I whispered to Nong. “Could she be in league with the Crows?”
He laughed. “They once sent a man to kidnap her, the fools. Madame Tan would have none of it: she dragged her assailant before the judge by his hair. All she’d have for the Ten Crows today is disdain. So, which animal are you making for me?”
“Monkey,” I replied. “It’s the Year of the Monkey, so carry it on your tray for luck.”
I rubbed and folded a gob of heated caramel between my hands, made a pouch of air within it, and stretched out a slender spout that would double as the creature’s tail. I began to blow through the candy tube, inflating a bubble that would become its body.
Snake’s words from before seemed to whisper in my ears: your father’s style is as strong as poison in your art. It wasn’t a compliment. I had always followed Father’s designs. Where was my own inspiration, my own artistry?
Our trade had a five-word formula: Hand, eye, heart, breath, fire. “Fire warms the sugar,” Father always said. “Constant breath gives it its girth. Patience is the same as a heart at peace, and your eyes will make details exact. But hands–your hands!–give the creation its soul.”
I always thought we ensouled a piece by making a perfect copy. I wondered if soul really meant being original?
My musings led me to fatten the monkey’s build beyond its usual size. My pinches pulled spindly limbs for it, but I did not curl them with Father’s method. Instead, I made one paw scratch its head and the other cup its chin. I then molded Nong’s cheeks and grin into the toothsome gold.
Not my best work, but my own style.
The last touch I did in secret: blood from a cut on my elbow to ink its eyes. “All yours, Nong.”
Nong put the monkey in the middle of his tray, then tossed me a pouch of coins. “Get pretend-drunk in the tea-and-wine shop. No one there will care if a drunk passes out at the table.”
“What, no melon-seeds for me to snack on?” I joked. “I’ll take thirty-two, please.”
Nong clawed a handful of red seeds from his supply. “I won’t even charge you.”
Not long after sundown, Gongsun arrived in the company of his guardsmen, pushing through the throng of gamblers, urchins, and riddle enthusiasts who had come to watch. Madame Tan welcomed him to the stage with much fanfare. The crowd cheered all four Riddle Hands of Chengdu, but their chatter told me they’d really come to see who’d win the painted riddle game: Fanmaker Bai or Magistrate Gongsun. Young Bai had bested the veteran judge last year. Would he triumph again?
I had unrivaled views of the upcoming match thanks to my rooster, horse, and goat. I flittered from one golden host to another, watching for unusual deeds and suspicious-looking men. On stage, under a net of white lanterns, each Riddle Hand sat at his own table neat with brushes and inkstone.
Madame Tan raised her voice so all could hear the rules of her painted riddle game. “What challenges the riddlemasters? Not mere words. Give them a verse like ‘horse hooves racing home, fragrant from the crush of petals,’ and bid them draw. Who captures the verse’s soul with greater wit: he who depicts the galloping horse? Or he who paints butterflies lured sweetly to a hoofprint?”
That was a famous tale she charmed them with, about an Emperor’s test to discover the best painters.
Seeing nothing odd from the goat’s eye view, I darted back into the rooster on the noodle house roof.
I froze. Kneeling on the same rooftop not far from me was a masked archer garbed in dirty green. Luckily, he paid no mind to my rooster figurine. The man had not as yet unslung his bow and was staring past the contest into the upper floor of the tea-and-wine shop. My real body was there, head down and cradling a pot of wine.
What was he staring at? An assassin would be watching Magistrate Gongsun.
There! A teahouse server paused at the railing and looked up in our direction. He then did a strange thing: he balanced a lidded teacup on the rail and hurried out of sight.
More than one assassin? And what did the cup mean?
I didn’t know if I should return to my own body to see where the server went, or stay with the archer. If they hoped to poison the judge, then the archer must have been waiting to strike should the poison plot fail. But what if the server was signaling something else to the archer?
Too many unknowns with the server, but I had a known threat in the archer. Perhaps if I alerted the magistrate’s men to the rooftop assassin, that would thwart both plots. But how?
Madame Tan’s voice announced this year’s verse for the painted riddle, taken from a famous poem: “From whose house flies the jade flute’s secret sound?”
Two servers, including the one I saw, exited the teahouse with cups, kettles, and snacks. They headed for the stage.
The archer unstoppered a vial and dipped the tip of an arrow into it.
Could I-as-rooster cut his bowstring? Unlikely. Shout out an alarm? A candy creature had no voice, but I happened to be in the shape of a loudmouth fowl. I could petition the spirit of Rooster for his crowing cry!
King Rooster, I beseech you, let this ragged one borrow your exalted voice to stop a killer!
Clucks and chuckles. By my comb and wattle, if it isn’t a candyman scratching for a favor. What payment will you lay before me?
Before I could think of the right compensation, an arrow jabbed through my candy shell. The unexpected pain sent me into shock. The archer raised me up, a quizzical look in his eyes. He sniffed, likely realizing I was a candy. With a dismissive huff, he pulled me off the arrow and mashed me flat.
The sudden destruction of my host figurine flung me back inside my true flesh. I startled awake, aching as though every bone in my body had snapped. Why did I stink of millet wine? I shook my head to clear my thoughts. Ah, I had only a sip of the wine, but had splashed my face and clothes to make my deception more convincing.
So much for my clever plan with the rooster.
I had to signal Nong; I couldn’t stop both poisoned tea and the archer. If Nong could deal with the tea, I’d find another way to stop the archer.
I shut my eyes and searched with my mind for the monkey figurine. Nong was walking the fringes of the crowd when I brought the sugar monkey to life. On stage, Madame Tan was playing a nomad song on a wooden flute to inspire the riddlemasters, while the tea servers were mounting the steps. I waved my monkey arms frantically to draw Nong’s attention.
“What did you find?” he asked under his breath.
I mimed the drinking of tea.
Nong looked to the stage. The server was now pouring a cup of tea at Gongsun’s table.
My friend plucked a melon-seed from his tray. “Leave it to me.”
I didn’t wait to see what Nong did; back to my body I flew. Once the archer realized that the tea ploy had failed, he would fire his poisoned arrows.
How could I stop him? The judge had forbade a flying dragon. A water-horse would need a running start to jump the gap over Market Street, and I couldn’t muster the speed, not off of these sloped roofs. The candy monkey could climb up to the archer, but it hadn’t the strength to hobble him or cut his bowstring.
Think! What could stop a killer?
I needed a tiger.
Though I loathed the thought of dealing with Tiger, I was running out of time. Only a tiger could leap the distance to the other side of the street. Only the tiger could strike fear into the assassin and strike him down. All I needed was a full vat of water, and the teahouse surely had one.
The sugar rat in my sleeve was the only candy in zodiac shape I had at hand. Could I make it into a tiger somehow? I’d need heat to make the caramel soft. A kettle of tea would do the trick.
I took the sugar rat out and inspected it. Stalwart legs, noble ears, blooded eyes: expertly executed in Father’s style. I would have to unmake it to shape a tiger.
But that felt wrong.
I was born a Water Rat. How could I sacrifice this, my zodiac animal?
No. I must stay true to Rat.
We Rats were supposedly born clever; that was my strength. I thought about all things that embodied rodents. Rats couldn’t fly or leap, but rows of lanterns crisscrossed the streets tonight, and rats could crawl across the lines.
I had never shaped wine before, but how different could it be from water?
I dunked the caramel figure into the pot of wine, infusing the brew with sugar and my own blood. I placed the jar under the table, laid down my head, and re-entered a possession trance. As the candy rat, I opened myself to the sensation of drowning, so that I might steep the drink with my senses.
Grandfather Rat! I called. This small grandson begs you grant his strange request. I need a horde of rats to stop a killer.
A voice whispered on the edge of my hearing. I know you, ratling Ao. You’ve never called on my aid before, so I will tell you this: born of my sign as you are, I am forbidden to ask in return your help in advancing my own ploys. But another’s schemes....
I understood. Rat would trade favors with another zodiac spirit. Whose debt would I be in?
Rest easy, candymouse. Monkey’s a kinder taskmaster than Snake or Tiger, though mischievous. What say you?
Monkey? Given my recent battle where I had destroyed a monkey made from fire, I wondered if he might hold a grudge. However, I had to trust Rat’s judgment.
I’d be honored to help Monkey on your behalf, Grandfather, I answered. Thank you.
Rat’s magic imbued the wine, and with it I conjured a rice wine rat: clawed, tailed, and whiskered.
I-the-rat climbed out of the pot.
Astonishingly, I found I could shape a second copy and call it forth as well, then a third and a fourth before the jar was empty. My mind seemed to occupy them all at once, like the yoke of a strange drunken stupor.
Four wouldn’t be enough.
My creations scurried through the Plum Season, leaving wet pawprints on the floorboards. A drinker spewed wine from his lips when he saw my rat climb onto his tabletop. I plunged into his companion’s cup and scampered out as two wine-made rodents.
At other tables, I slid into teacups and doubled my liquid selves. A bold customer stabbed a chopstick through a wine-and-tea rodent, but I simply flowed around it and lashed his wrist with a wet tail.
Eight, sixteen, thirty-two: my plague of wine-pure and tea-bronze rats now raced across the shop, slipping through the railings on the upper floor to scale the outside walls. I had to cross the lantern strings to the archer.
Anxious, I looked down at Tan’s contest with a hundred eyes. Thrice, Gongsun seemed on the verge of drinking from his teacup, but then he paused to touch more ink to paper.
The judge was toying with his would-be poisoner.
Nong had reached the stage. He must have warned the judge.
Gongsun shouldn’t be so smug! If he didn’t drink his poisoned tea soon, the archer would strike.
The high lanterns became tightrope roads. I sent half my rats to clamber north over Medicine Lane, and the rest eastward across Market Street. In my haste, two lost their footing and fell. The first splashed against the cobblestones; the second soaked a fortuneteller who glanced up. Each hit sent waves of hurt rippling through all my copies, and I lost five more.
Half my rats were halfway across the final chasms to reach the archer, but he had already nocked an arrow to his bowstring. I wouldn’t reach him in time. If only someone would look up!
I allowed nine tea-and-wine rats nearest the archer to fall into bright lanterns, dousing them. The sudden shadows and the stink of snuffed flames drew many people’s eyes to dart in the right direction.
Even the archer’s. The moment of distraction threw off his aim. His poisoned arrow sailed through the air and struck Fanmaker Bai’s painting dead center. Surprised, the riddlemaster fell backwards in his chair.
The magistrate’s men shouted the alarm.
The archer reached for another arrow as the first of my rats succeeded in crossing the lantern-lines. I ignored the commotion brewing in the street and swarmed him with my pack.
Startled, the archer tried to shake off my rodents even as we climbed his body. Though he smashed and stomped away some of my creations, I made for his head with the rest. He drew back the bowstring, but I-the-rat scratched his eyes with rice-wine claws. He cried out in pain and loosed his arrow, blind. I prayed it didn’t hit anyone.
He turned and ran north along the sloped roof, but I clung to him with what was left of my pack. Wine still stung his eyes red. That, along with the tiles made wet from wine from my rats, made the archer slip and lose his footing.
He tumbled off the edge of the roof.
One of my wine rats rolled off his ankle just in time, but all the others splattered apart when we crashed into a dumpling stand in the street below. Each undoing landed a dizzying blow to my mind.
I fought to gather my wits.
The patrons at the dumpling stand screamed and fled. The archer would never do either again, not with his head bent at that angle.
I turned away, shaken. I hadn’t meant for him to die. He shouldn’t have run, half-blinded.
But what of the poisoner? If Gongsun was still in danger, I-the-rat couldn’t help him from here. Time for another host, but which?
Only the ox and the monkey were close enough to Gongsun to help, but ox was stuck under the stage. It had to be monkey. My awareness searched the vicinity for its shape, found it still on Nong’s tray, and flew inside its body.
The stage was in chaos. All the spectators had fled, save Madame Tan, who tended to a fallen guardsman, and Fanmaker Bai, who cowered under his table. The two tea servers, wielding their kettles like dragonhead hammers, were battling Gongsun and his sole remaining bodyguard.
Nong flung three seeds fast at the second server, and one of the missiles found the man’s eye. The accomplice cried out and clamped a hand to his face, but that opening proved a costly mistake. Gongsun’s bodyguard fed him a sword through the gut.
When he saw his partner die, the poisoner threw down a packet that filled the air with choking smoke. The fumes spread fast and stung living eyes, but not my blood-dotted sight. No one but monkey-me saw in which direction he fled: down Medicine Lane towards the city wall.
I leapt off the tray onto Nong’s shirt and had started the climb down when a voice chattered in my mind. Sneaky, cheeky, Ao! Rat says you’ve agreed to owe me, in exchange for his favor.
Monkey, Equal of Heaven! I felt his presence coat me like fur. Why now? I leapt to the ground, finding an acrobatic finesse I hadn’t before. It’s true what Grandfather Rat says. I am here to serve.
Then choose to let that man go. He’s born of my sign.
I stared at the fleeing figure, aching to chase him down so that he would plague the judge no more. Should I follow, or fulfill my obligation to Monkey? He tried to kill a good man!
It is not for spirits to deem men good or evil, Ao, said Monkey. What gifts we give are yours to wield. We may scheme to keep our wards among the living, but your choices are yours alone.
I had saved Gongsun’s life and discharged my debt to Snake. If I did as Monkey wished, I’d be free of obligations, yet I’d be letting a dangerous man roam free.
But then, many would consider me dangerous. All twenty years of my life, I’d been on the run with my father, because of the magic he and I could do. The rich considered us pao jianghu scum and those who practice sorcery only worthy of death. Some men would have me killed without question and without mercy.
I would not be one of those who judged another man without heart.
Mercy tonight, I offered Monkey, for a man cannot seek redemption if he draws no more breath. But never again.
Monkey bristled, but agreed. This once.
I allowed the poisoner to vanish from view but noted his unique features should I see him again: drooping earlobes; left eye wider than the right.
Your will is done, I told Monkey. But should this man stay with the Ten Crows Sect, the judge may well end him.
Such is his choice to make. Until next time, Ao.
Monkey faded from my mind.
I returned to my body. The upper floor of the tea-and-wine shop was deserted. A rat infestation must have seemed bad for business, even on the busiest night of the fair. Though I no longer felt drunk, my head ached as though I’d actually downed the whole pot of wine. Nonetheless, coils of worry fell away and I breathed easier, for I was no longer beholden to Snake. On the other hand, Rat had sold my debt to Monkey, who had used me to help his man escape. Coincidence, or a conspiracy of spirits? Nong would find me here soon. I’d tell him my side of the tale, but not the full story. No one needed to know I’d granted the poisoner his freedom. That was my own decision to make and my own wrong to right.
I spied a rat lurking between the bamboo chairs. I glowered but tossed him the rest of my fried melon-seeds. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?” I asked him.
The rat devoured the morsels greedily. Silently.