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Almanac

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I

Eleventh month, sixth day. An auspicious time for repairing walls. Avoid funerals and haircuts.

He came from the east at the hour of the Rabbit. The God of Evil walked with him, hiding in the dust clouds raised by his feet. Behind him rose the sun, gold on red, marking the direction of the day’s auspicious doorway.

Ouyang Feng stood at an empty window of his empty inn and watched the stranger’s progress. He sipped his second cup of bitter-fragrant Yunnan tea and considered the pages of the almanac. East was both lucky and unlucky today. The book spoke of meetings. The day would not be lonely, but it might be dangerous.

He set aside the cup and crossed the room. Beneath the empty bamboo cages and lanterns lay his sword. Ouyang Feng lifted it, curling his fingers around the hilt and feeling the muted power of the blade sing through him. Long ago, it had screamed for blood. Like a demanding mistress, it led him into more sin than he’d thought possible. He’d felt alive then; untouchable, inviolate.

Now the sword rested uneasy, half asleep in his hands. Now he brokered deals between men and mercenaries. Now the only killing he did was in the daily attempt to destroy his memories.

He glanced out of the window at the stranger. The rising sun cast enough light that he could pick out details: wide sleeves, pale blue silk, a cloak of unbleached linen, a straw hat with a coil of hair gathered through the top. Expensive clothes, not the outfit of a villager; yet the man had no horse.

Ouyang Feng smiled. Perhaps this man had been robbed of his horse and wanted the thief dead. In this desert, a good horse was worth more than a man’s life. More than the lives of three men, in Ouyang Feng’s opinion. He had sold his own horse for wine. Wine was worth more than anything.

The stranger walked steadily and with purpose, but the desert slowed him. Ouyang Feng judged he would not reach the inn until the end of the hour of the Dragon. That hour was neutral. Perhaps the desert would ensure his luck would be good after all.

The desert understood him, and in return he knew it better than he knew his own skin. Some days he would sit and drink from sunrise to sunset, waiting for the next cycle to begin. During those days he would move from the cool interior of the inn to the porch, then to the sand. Red like an old bloodstain washed many times, it was the texture of the desert that fascinated him. The coarse, scratch-sharp granules as big as husks of wheat; the softer, smoother fragments flayed from pebbles; the fine silken sand that caught in his hair and filmed the surface of his wine and, after a storm, would pour warm from the folds of his clothes onto the floor.

Ouyang Feng covered his sword with a dirtied length of cloth and went out to repair the tumbledown wall of the guest quarter. The wall was weak and collapsed every season. The stones fell towards the south. Occasionally he thought of them as entrails pointing his way home. Sometimes he wondered if that was the reason he never repaired the wall properly.

He tucked up his sleeves and began work. The wall was cracked, split by the winter frosts. He would need to plaster over the gap. The thought of mixing mud, lime and water did not appeal, despite the advice of the almanac. Instead, he fetched rocks of uneven size and piled them against the wall as a buttress.

As he carried one last stone over to the pile, his skin prickled with an awareness of being watched. Without dropping the rock, he turned to see the stranger behind him.

Ouyang Feng narrowed his eyes. His assessment was rapid, born of habit and necessity. No ordinary man could have crossed that patch of desert so quickly. He hefted the stone in his hands, feeling its solid form. All things have a unique energy at their core. The rock had its own song, lower in tone than his sword, but still audible if one knew how to listen. Ouyang Feng had studied the songs of the five elements for years and knew their combinations in everything living and created.

But no matter how hard he listened, he couldn’t hear the song of the stranger in his courtyard.

He didn’t know what manner of creature stood before him, but he knew he wasn’t going to allow the stranger entrance to his home without further consideration. Ouyang Feng balanced the heavy stone on one hand in order to brush back a strand of hair from his face. Keeping his expression blank, he said, “Wait on the porch.”

The stranger smiled. “I understand. I will wait until the hour of the Dragon.”

Ouyang Feng watched him leave the courtyard, straight-backed and graceful, before he returned his attention to the broken wall.

* * * *

Three-quarters of the way into the hour of the Dragon, Ouyang Feng went up onto his porch and found the stranger seated in his chair, staring at the desert. Though he knew there was nothing to see, he glanced out at the dunes anyway. The wind had erased any trace of the stranger’s footsteps, just as it erased everything else.

Ouyang Feng looked at the stranger. Not quite beautiful and not quite handsome, he seemed poised between the two extremes. His thoughts softened his features, but when he turned his head, the flex of the desert sun rendered his face all hard angles. His pale skin and expensive clothing suggested nobility, but never had Ouyang Feng met a noble who could sit so still for so long.

“What do you want?”

The stranger uncurled from the chair, flicking sand from the sleeves of his robe. “Lodging here for the night. Perhaps longer.”

His accent was difficult to place. The sharp glide of the capital overlaid something more exotic. Ouyang Feng studied the stranger’s single-lidded eyes and wondered if he was one of the Tujue. “No horse?”

A brief smile. “No horse.”

Ouyang Feng shrugged. “Come in.” He held open the ragged lengths of sackcloth that formed the door to the inn. The stranger followed him, coming close enough that Ouyang Feng should have been able to feel the overlap of their qi. He felt nothing. The stranger – now his guest – had somehow cancelled the effect of his life force. Such mastery of the self made Ouyang Feng curious. Very few practitioners of martial arts could achieve this state, yet his guest did not seem to be a warrior.

He seated himself at his table in the window and opened a record book. Inexpertly bound, it held letters crackled yellow from the arid heat. Only a few of the letters were addressed to him. He’d taken the rest from those he’d killed, or from abandoned houses. What was written there didn’t concern him. He wrote over them: observations based on the almanac, a list of wine-jars consumed and bricks of tea ordered. It was a rough diary of no consequence to anyone, including himself, but it soothed his mind to record the occasional minutiae of his life.

He poured the remainder of his tea, now cold, onto the dried splash of ink on the inkstone. Dipping the brush, he asked, “Name?”

The stranger hesitated. “Anbei Qing Ming.”

Ouyang Feng ignored the hesitation and looked up. “An as in darkness or...”

“As in peace.” Qing Ming kept his gaze fixed on the record book, seemingly fascinated by Ouyang Feng’s laborious calligraphy.

“Two coppers a night.” Ouyang Feng closed the book and got to his feet. “Three if you drink more than me. Come.”

He led the way into the guest quarter, along the smooth stone path cut into the arch of red rock. Later he would fill the niches in the corridor with the stub-ends of candles, but for now the sunlight was enough to chase off the shadows. He took Qing Ming to the furthest room, placed high in the hollowed outcrop. The narrow window gave a view of the sky and the desert broken by the shape of a pale, dead tree. The bed was carved from the rock and covered by a thin mattress stuffed with straw. A blanket woven in the simple, bright style of the nomads of the west lay over the top.

“Thank you.” Qing Ming glanced around. He looked out of place here, too clean and cautious. The desert didn’t suit him, but it had not yet decided what to do with him.

Ouyang Feng left him alone. He went out to his storeroom and selected a wine-jar, then glanced through his provisions to determine their meal. In the kitchen, he lit a fire beneath the stove before breaking the seal on the jar. He poured a generous measure of wine into his cup and drank it in long pulls.

As he watched the fire, he thought about his guest. Qing Ming looked like a fox. Ouyang Feng hadn’t seen a fox in years. Such elegant animals preferred an easy life, or so it seemed. They lived in cities and towns where they were alternately worshipped and vilified. This far west, the only wild animals he saw were raptors and snakes. Why would a fox travel out into the desert?

He grimaced. Why would a man? Perhaps their reasons were the same.

He remembered the words of the almanac and wondered if he’d done the right thing. Permitting a fox to enter his house meant he would never be rid of it. Foxes in the home could bring great good fortune if they were appeased and ill luck if they were shunned. Ouyang Feng considered whether he should reduce the cost of the night’s lodging to one copper, just in case.

Over the course of the day, he prepared the evening meal. Ouyang Feng was not a cook. Like everything else he did, he made food as a matter of survival. He chopped frost-bitten greens into a thin broth flavoured with the bones of an old sheep, adding garlic and dumplings to deepen the taste and bulk out the meal.

He didn’t need to call his guest to the table. Qing Ming appeared in the main room just as he ladled the soup into bowls.

“Here. Eat.” Ouyang Feng set one in front of him and watched as he ate. He fetched two more jars of wine from the storeroom and opened the newest vintage. Only then did he sit and begin his own meal.

Qing Ming finished his food and refused the offer of more. He took another cup of wine and drank slowly, as if waiting for something. When Ouyang Feng pushed his bowl aside, Qing Ming said, “In my experience, innkeepers are garrulous men.”

“The desert encourages silence.” Ouyang Feng ran his thumbnail across his teeth. Thinking his remark sounded rude, he added, “My thoughts are noisy enough without the need for speech.”

Qing Ming gazed into his wine. “I have been fifteen days without seeing a living creature. Forgive me if I wish to talk now.”

“Talk, then.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Amused, Ouyang Feng poured more wine, filling their cups to the brim. “Why did you come into the desert?”

A clouded look dulled Qing Ming’s expression. “To forget.”

Ouyang Feng lifted his cup without spilling a drop. “May you never recall the things that cause you pain.”

Qing Ming raised his own cup in response, but said nothing.

They sat in silence for the rest of the evening. When the sky turned red and darkness gathered in the hollows of the dunes, Qing Ming stood and left the room without a word.

Ouyang Feng lit a candle and drank the rest of the wine.

Later, when the candle had burned down to a misshapen lump, he peeled it from the table and used its uncertain light to find his way across the courtyard and into the guest quarters. He stood outside Qing Ming’s room and, shielding the faint glow of the candlelight, he peered around the dividing curtain.

His guest lay sleeping, hair unbound and spread across the mattress. He looked peaceful, his lips curved in a smile.

Ouyang Feng watched him until the candle sputtered and died in his hand.

* * * *

II

Eleventh month, seventh day. An auspicious time for burial ceremonies, trading and putting up roof beams. Avoid prayer and acquiring property.

The inn felt empty. Ouyang Feng was accustomed to its emptiness, but he’d never experienced that feeling when a guest was staying with him. It was as if Qing Ming drew silence and stillness to him. He moved without sound, appeared without warning, and wore a half-smile even when Ouyang Feng could see nothing that would amuse him.

This morning, Qing Ming was dressed in white. Ouyang Feng wondered where he’d managed to acquire the change of clothes, but decided not to ask. He thought again of foxes. If it hadn’t been for the almanac’s warning against prayer, he would have lit a stick of incense and asked if his guest’s presence was ill-fated or fortuitous.

Instead he broke a piece from the tea-brick and poured hot water over it. The leaves unfurled slowly in the cup, colour staining the water and the scent of it rising in the air.

Qing Ming stood on the porch, staring at the desert and the dead tree. Ouyang Feng took the tea out to him. Their fingers touched briefly as Qing Ming accepted the cup. Still nothing: no sense, no feeling, not even a flicker of animal awareness.

Ouyang Feng went back inside to drink his own tea. He watched his guest through the window. Qing Ming’s white robe was peculiar, with a long train at the back and open sleeves at the shoulder. It fastened around the neck with a collar of braided silk. Beneath it he wore three silken layers of dark blue, pale blue and white. The robes were pristine, dazzling in their brightness. Ouyang Feng revised his opinion of foxes and wondered if the Tujue had sorcerers.

At length Qing Ming came indoors. He sat at the table with his back to the window. The light shone on the perfect upsweep of his hair. Above him, a bamboo basket suspended from the roof-beam swung gently in the morning breeze. It cast striped shadows over Qing Ming’s brilliant white outer robe, as if attempting to trap him.

Ouyang Feng poured more tea.

“What do you do out here?” Qing Ming asked.

There was a stirring in his stillness, a ripple of motion beneath the surface. Ouyang Feng caught a sense of him at last. He took a sip of his tea. “I solve problems.”

“You kill people.”

Ouyang Feng smiled.

“Your sword.” Qing Ming gestured towards its hiding place beneath the cloth, but did not look in its direction. “It’s haunted.”

The smile slipped. “I am the haunted one.”

Qing Ming made a soft sound. Half-closing his eyes, he tilted his head. His lips moved, but no words emerged.

“Today is not good for prayer,” Ouyang Feng told him.

“It’s not a prayer.” Qing Ming opened his eyes. “Your sword is restless. It waits for you to waken. A glorious sword it is. It remembers the past as if it’s the present. You should take it up and use it.”

“Are you a sword-smith, to so talk to blades?”

“No. I dislike metal.”

Ouyang Feng raised his eyebrows. “Why?”

Qing Ming gazed at him for a moment before he looked away. “Because it hurts.”

“You are a fox.” Ouyang Feng was certain of it now.

“Half fox.”

Ouyang Feng saw it then, the humanity Qing Ming kept hidden inside him. It was only a glimpse, a flash of lowered defences, but it was enough for Ouyang Feng to feel the true power of his guest’s qi. He inclined his head in acknowledgement of it. “I have never met one of your kind before. The offspring of a human and a fox is a rarity in China.”

Qing Ming curved his hands around the plain earthenware cup. “It is more common in my country.”

“There are foxes amongst the Tujue, then.”

“I am from Nihon.” Qing Ming gazed into his tea, the steam smudging the air in front of him. “An island. Several islands. It’s to the east.”

Ouyang Feng had never heard of Nihon. The furthest east he’d been was Luoyang, a city overcast by the red dust of the desert. “And you left this island and came here to forget.”

“Yes.” Qing Ming lifted the cup but did not drink. “I committed a sin and came here so I would remember it, while those I left behind would forget me. But it was too easy to forget the reason for my exile, and so I built a future with no thought for my past. I was happy – until my future was taken away from me.”

“By the sword?”

“By swords and arrows.” Qing Ming shuddered, swift and violent. The tea slopped over the side of his cup and he set it down to lick at his fingers. He looked animal then, like the fox he so resembled.

Desire, unfamiliar and unwelcome after so long, woke and scratched at his senses. Ouyang Feng ignored it and returned to their conversation. “The sword is my survival. My future.”

Qing Ming gave him a sharp glance, as if aware of his denial. “And your past?”

Ouyang Feng shrugged. He pulled the almanac towards him and laid his hand on the day’s page. “The book-that-knows-all tells us not to worry about the future or regret the past. We should live each day perfectly. Then we shall be happy.”

“There is much wisdom in that.”

“Indeed – and this is the kind of talk that requires wine.” Ouyang Feng rose to his feet, glad of the excuse to go to the storeroom.

The air outside was so cold his breath cracked. He took his time choosing the wine, examining each jar with care. He examined his thoughts, too. Lust was a common need, a base urge that lapped at his consciousness whenever he allowed himself to feel anything. He still dreamed of his brother’s wife, but those dreams were never lustful. They were dreams of desire.

He wondered if he desired Qing Ming because of the fox or because of the man. The action that had roused his desire had been lustful. He wondered if Qing Ming had done it deliberately. Foxes were wanton animals.

Ouyang Feng didn’t want to despoil the memory of desire with a fox. He selected a wine-jar and cradled it against his chest as he locked the storeroom. He paused, leaning against the door as he slid the bolt home. Perhaps he should follow his desire and make a new memory, one that didn’t involve his brother’s wife. A memory he wouldn’t regret. A memory he would be pleased to recall.

He went back indoors and found Qing Ming watching the desert. Ouyang Feng emptied the tea leaves from their cups and poured the wine. The light lay between them across the table, the divide almost tangible. He wondered if this barrier was desire, or if it was something else. To distract himself, Ouyang Feng asked, “What did you do on your eastern island, fox-child?”

Qing Ming turned from the desert. “I am an onmyoji, a master of yin and yang.”

“A Taoist.”

“Something like that.”

Ouyang Feng frowned. “You can foretell the future?”

“It is one of my skills.” Qing Ming lowered his gaze.

“Could you...” Ouyang Feng stopped himself.

Qing Ming dipped his finger in the wine and began to draw a series of symbols upon the table. “I could divine your future, if that’s what you wish.”

Ouyang Feng had been about to ask if Qing Ming knew of a spell to forget the past. The sight of the arcane symbols drying on the table disturbed him. The future was like that, changeable in shape but not in essence. The wine would evaporate but the symbols would remain, invisible but not forgotten. He shivered. “No.”

Qing Ming seemed startled by his decision. “Most people want to know.”

“You might tell me something I don’t wish to hear.”

“That is a certainty.” Qing Ming’s eyebrows arched in almost-humour. “But by knowing it, you may be able to avoid it.”

Ouyang Feng drew his fingers through the fading symbols, cancelling them out. “Can a man escape his destiny?”

“Sometimes. If the gods permit it.” Intensity burned in Qing Ming’s eyes before it faded, the emotion veiled. “I cannot say for certain.”

While Ouyang Feng thought about the offer, Qing Ming smiled and added, “It will pass the time.”

Ouyang Feng snorted. He drank his wine and poured himself a second cup. “Read for yourself first.”

Qing Ming dipped his finger in the wine again and drew a pentacle within a circle, marking each point with the characters of the five elements. “I already know my future, and it cannot be avoided no matter how much I may wish it. You, however...”

The symbol of Metal glistened closest to him. Ouyang Feng stared at it then looked at the character closest to Qing Ming. He was unsurprised that it was Wood. He laughed. “If you read my fortune, you will probably tell me I’ll be happy.”

Qing Ming paused in his drawing. He tilted his head and gave him an enquiring look.

Ouyang Feng leaned forward, covering Qing Ming’s wine-cup with his hand. “I do not want to be happy.”

“Because if you’re happy, you may forget,” Qing Ming said softly. “And for all your desire to forget, you want to remember.”

For a moment, Ouyang Feng couldn’t speak. “Yes,” he said. The word sounded broken to his ears. He stood and leaned his hands on the table, looking down at the pentacle, and then walked out of the room and into the desert.

* * * *

He came back after the hour of the Dog.

Qing Ming had left candles burning in the main room. Though the wine-jar was empty, a bowl of rice and vegetables stood, still warm, on the table. Ouyang Feng had finished the last of his rice a week ago. When he looked in the kitchen, no fire had been built beneath the stove.

He sat at the window and turned the bowl, considering the offering for a long time. Fox magic, fox food. Eventually he ate it.

Later, he blew out the candles and sat for a while in the darkness. On his way to bed, he found himself in the guest quarters. This time he drew back the curtain and stood at the door. He watched Qing Ming sleeping peacefully until the cold of the night air forced him away.

* * * *

III

Eleventh month, eighth day. An auspicious time for new enterprises and long journeys. Avoid building wells and hunting.

Ouyang Feng rose with the sun and consulted the almanac. It was a good day to break the ground. He took up his sword and went outside, scuffing through the red dust to the dead tree. Scoured and bleached by the elements, its branches stunted and broken, it resembled the twisted spine of a dragon.

He stood and surveyed it for a moment. It was a useless thing, and spoiled the view from the porch. When he touched it, the bark crumbled and dropped to the ground in rough white pieces. He could feel nothing from it; whatever energy it once possessed had long since fled.

The light caught in a gleam along the length of his sword. Qing Ming had said he should use it. Perhaps this wasn’t what his guest had in mind, but it would have to suffice for now. Ouyang Feng swung the blade at the tree. A branch shattered, no longer wood but dust motes hanging in the air. He struck again, shearing its limbs, and then he wrapped both hands around the hilt of the sword and stabbed it deep into the dead heart of the tree.

With a shiver and a cracking groan, the tree split and fell. Its roots heaved up from the earth, breaking open the ground.

Ouyang Feng collected an armful of splintered wood. He picked up his sword and returned to the inn. Until the beginning of the hour of the Dragon, he gathered together the remnants of the tree and piled it in his storeroom. Afterwards, he lit a fire in the kitchen and boiled water for tea.

He watched the desert. Occasionally he glanced around the room, expecting to see Qing Ming regarding him in silence across the table, but time crept by without any sign of him.

Ouyang Feng told himself it was not his business what his guest did or did not do. There was no need for concern or agitation. Such feelings ran counter to his equanimity. He remembered the sight of Qing Ming’s tongue licking at his wet fingers. He remembered the whisper of desire. He crushed both memories.

When he got up to boil more water, Ouyang Feng allowed himself to walk past the kitchen and into the courtyard. The door to the guest quarters stood ajar, inviting his curiosity. He went inside, feeling the chill of the stone and the deadening quiet settle around him.

He climbed the shallow stairs, aware of his breathing and the thump of his heartbeat. At the top, he paused. A sharp tug on the curtain sent it rattling along its pole. Ouyang Feng slouched against the doorframe and looked in, blatant and unashamed.

Qing Ming sat upon the mattress, his knees drawn up and his feet covered with the brightly-coloured blanket. His hair hung over his shoulders, its length tangled and caught across his white silk under-robe. He looked pale and tired, his expression almost wounded as he stared out of the window at the now unbroken vista of blue sky and red desert.

The silence stretched, as endless as the heavens. Finally, Qing Ming said, “You’ve been watching me sleep.” He looked at him, his gaze dark and impenetrable. “Why?”

Ouyang Feng slid into the room, keeping his back to the wall. “I don’t know.”

Qing Ming gestured towards the window. “Why did you cut down the tree?”

“It was dead.”

“Are you dead, too – or do you still feel?” This time, his eyes held a challenge.

Ouyang Feng matched his gaze and did not reply.

Qing Ming tilted his head. His hair tumbled forwards, stroking his cheek, his lips. “You think you’ve mastered desire, but you haven’t.”

“I don’t desire you.”

“Not me. The idea of me. The idea of the fox in me.”

Ouyang Feng was silent.

“I know what you think,” Qing Ming continued. “You wonder, if you lie with me, will I become your future?”

“Foxes like sanctuary.”

Qing Ming smiled. “This is only temporary. My sanctuary is elsewhere.”

Ouyang Feng felt released, but he hesitated a moment longer before he said, “I would like to make a new memory with you.”

The blanket was kicked to the floor as Qing Ming stretched out on the mattress. He smiled. “Come. Give me your past, and I will share with you my future.”

Ouyang Feng moved to the bed and sank down upon it. He touched silk and bare skin, pale and cold, and wrapped a hand in the warm fall of Qing Ming’s hair. The scent of fox covered him. Desire sharpened and split. In Qing Ming’s eyes, he saw the horizons come.

* * * *

Later, he realised they’d coupled during the hour of the Horse. According to the day’s almanac, it was inauspicious.

* * * *

Ouyang Feng stood at an empty window of his empty inn and watched the wind cover the slow tracks in the desert. He washed away the taste of Qing Ming’s ecstasy with a cup of wine from Chang’an and considered again the pages of the almanac. The God of Evil stood in the west today. The God of Happiness resided in the south-east. Qing Ming had gone in that direction.

The book spoke of journeys, of marriages and new enterprises. Today was good for prayer. Ouyang Feng dipped his finger in the wine and drew shapes across the table, meaningless and random. He prayed Qing Ming would be fortunate in his future, then he wiped the table clean with his sleeve.

Today would be lonely. Ouyang Feng took his wine-cup and carried it out onto the porch. He sat there, watching the desert, until the sun set and the day was over.