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The Puppet Master

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He wasn't used to being outside, and his eyes were hurting from the spring sun, from the hectic whirling of multi-colored flexible bodies. The fish scurried about in the sparkling water, snatching the last crumbs from each other.

For several days in a row, Fei Liu had been assuring that he would feed the fish himself, but today he had already given up, carried away by a new game.

“Your new garden is so big — one wrong step, and you’ll get lost, but it’s so green! There are still cakes, Chief…”

“I know, Aunt Ji.”

Did she still remember how ten years ago she had sobbed and cursed him when he had fallen on his knees in front of her in a beggar hut? Then, what had she cared about who had been in the right or in the wrong among the  commanders, when her husband  had died a traitor and wouldn’t find peace, and her son hadn’t survived the hungry winter.

“They are spring cakes, eat a little of them yourself,” she said affectionately. “You don’t have to give everything to Fei Liu — I’ll cook more for him.”

“It smells like ash, Aunt Ji,” Mei Changsu muttered, forgetting himself.

Aunt Ji, frowning in bewilderment, shrugged and turned to the house.

“Must be in the kitchen. Don't worry, I'll teach these negligent girls a lesson. Everything is falling out of their hands today, it’s only spring that is on their minds.”

“No, it’s not in the kitchen. I must have imagined it.”

He remembered all too well how burning human flesh smelled.

“Hasn’t Li Gang  come back?”

“He is still trying to find a place to settle that little boy, an orphan from the fireworks workshop. Maybe some of his kin can be found.”

Li Gang, too, was now haunted by the smell of ash and did not sleep at night. But Aunt Ji was also worried about something: the mother's care on her face was replaced by anxiety, almost fear.

"Aunt Ji," Mei Changsu asked quietly, "what happened?"

“Chief, they brought gifts from Prince Yu again, but Li Gang is not here, I don’t know what to do…”

“There is nothing to think about. Refuse.”

“I tried, but the messenger was so persistent, and for some reason I couldn’t. I thought I'd just tell them to send it back later, but then Fei Liu turned up and removed the lids from the caskets. He's still looking for toys, but I don’t know how to deal with him. After all, he won’t listen to anyone but you.”

“I'll talk to him,” Mei Chansu reassured her, standing up.

Fei Liu's pranks would hardly have worried Aunt Ji, she should have been delighted: she did not like it when the boy sat gloomy.

“What's inside,” Mei Changsu asked light-heartedly, “are there any decorations for the garden again?”

“Paintings. And a couple of painted fans.”

“Paintings? Zhang Sun's scroll?”

Prince Yu had recently boasted about his collection of paintings, had recalled in detail about Zhang Sun's landscape, not knowing that Lin Shu had already seen the painting in the past life. He promised to give it, and Mei Changsu was surprised: the landscape was not only too valuable in itself, but too dear to Prince Yu — the first item in the collection that he had bought succumbing to his own impulse, and not at the behest of his adoptive mother. Empress Yan encouraged his passion in every possible way, but only as long as the new acquisitions were consistent with her personal taste, classic and dry, and Zhang Sun's indomitable brush, of course, seemed to her a violation of all conceivable canons and almost barbaric.

“May Chief forgive my ignorance, I never…”

“What is painted there — flowers, mountains?”

“All sorts of vileness,” said Aunt Ji, bewildered. “Evil spirits, or something.”

 

***

Fei Liu, joyful, sat on the floor by the carved casket, fanning himself.

“Give it to me,” Mei Changsu said, holding out his hand, and the boy pouted resentfully, but obediently gave the fan away. “Didn't I tell you that we won't take gifts from the Snake?”

“Funny!” Fei Liu looked hopefully into his eyes.

The bustling city market flourished on expensive, shiny silk, and in the midst of the crowd sat a skeleton in a gray robe, a merchant's hat on a bare skull, with its sharp knees spread wide. Thin, almost invisible threads flowed from the bones of his fingers, which had lost their flesh, but did not lose flexibility, and at the ends of the threads, tiny puppets, people and skeletons together, danced, grimacing. A crowd of children and curious onlookers in bright festive outfits, surrounding the puppeteer, happily watched the dance. Some kid, barely able to walk, was trustingly reaching out towards the dolls.

"Send back," Mei Changsu said in a muffled voice.

He carefully laid the gift back on the bottom of the casket, next to the other fan on which the skeleton played the flute.

He did not look at the second painting — he knew both the musician and the melody too well. The wind playing on naked bones.

“Send it out now,” Mei Changsu repeated, and Aunt Ji hurriedly nodded.

He hoped he hadn't faltered as he returned to the garden.

 

***

Then he again sat by the pond, and Fei Liu, lying next to him on his stomach, fiddled with his fingers in the water: he hoped to lure the fish out, but they did not pay attention to him.

"I have long had a taste for the strange," Prince Yu had said during his last visit, "my Royal Mother got angry once..." Well, so he hadn't been talking about landscapes.

No, it was not a mockery, but rather a perverse manifestation of sincerity  — Prince Yu had sent as a gift the pieces of the collection that he truly appreciated.

“They don’t go!” Fei Liu slapped his open palm on the water in annoyance, raising a cloud of spray.

“You need a good bait.”

Fei Liu squinted at the dish with the remaining cakes, wondering if he was ready to give up his favorite delicacy for the sake of fish.

Mei Changsu looked at his hands, pale even in the blinding spring light. You can't shake the threads off your fingers — they've grown too deep. The puppeteer's talent is akin to the poison in the bones, only this poison is sweet. When the performance is successful, it is so easy to forget that you are just a dead man, awakening to life the other long-forgotten dead, pulling the strings of mindless puppets.

“Brother Su!” The boy grabbed his sleeve, afraid that he was upset, and Mei Changsu forced himself to smile.

“Don’t be sad, it’s not your fault.”

People who had their own mind and will moved blindly, obeying the sounds of a bone flute, ready to die for him at a snap of his fingers. Prince Yu, who had lived in a snakeskin for many years, trusted him over and over again. Jingyan had obeyed him among the ashes of the workshop, although he’d been angry just moments before, obeyed without asking a single question Jingyan, who was smart and never let others make decisions for him.

Mei Changsu had promised himself that he would not let Jingyan get his hands dirty in the mud of conspiracies, but sometimes he wanted to scream in despair at Jingyan to avoid him, to give up his alliance with the monster while he still had his will.

But now it was too late: the underground passage had been laid, the decisions made, the pieces placed on the board. The new garden was great there was enough  space  for new dead to bloom.

“We’ll have guests soon,” he said quietly, turning to Fei Liu. “Holidays are coming. It will be fun.”