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The Value of Shells

Chapter Text

The Canonisation of Deities was a signpost of history.

In this world where gods and demons existed and were told of amongst the humans, and the leader of the human world proclaimed himself the Son of Heaven, why would the Immortals not involve themselves? They might proclaim themselves above such things, but I have lived over a thousand years. The Immortals are a hypocritical bunch, but sensitive to violence; the Canonisation was a blood-letting of such epic proportions that rivers of blood still stained all of China.

Supernatural forces still intervened now and then. Demons and spirits had conscripted in the armies of the Han and the Western Chu. Diao Chan had seduced Lü Fengxian into murdering his foster father. Political power and the prosecution of demons had historical links; inside and outside of China are the same.

This humble servant had assisted Prime Minister Li Si and the King Zheng in the founding of the Qin dynasty.

Our great Tang dynasty was no exception, is no exception, and will not be an exception.

Every demon who had spent over a hundred years in the company of humans would understand not to attract the attentions of the Heavenly Army; that included acting only where the mountains are high and the emperor is far away1.

Come to think of it, Immortals of both mortal and demonic often stay amidst mountains for the same reason; where Earth is prominent, the Heavenly Generals do not notice, no matter how physically close to Heaven they might be.

I still remember that time, when all was said and done, and the three sisters were dragged in chains before Lady Nüwa.

The Jade Lute, having cultivated for 888 years.

The Nine-Headed Pheasant, having cultivated for 999 years.

The Thousand-Year Fox, having cultivated for 1,111 years – Daji.

She really loved that name, if her last words were anything to go by:

It is the fate of humans to die, so what is wrong with the bloodshed needed to topple the Shang! Ji Chang, Ji Fa, Jiang Ziya! You should thank us sisters! And you, Nüwa! Since you never intended on keeping your word, Daji will not keep hers! Daji curses the three spheres to forever be mixed up! The worlds will remember that Daji destroyed the Shang dynasty, on the orders of Nüwa! Let all the humans you created tremble in fear of the gods they worship, and the demons they fear! Nüwa, I curse your creations! Even if my soul scatters, nothing will ever grant them peace!

The worlds have been mixed ever since.


The strange things about mankind, I have realised, is their propensity to record. Since the dawn of their civilisation, writing was treasured by them. This attitude is not altogether shared in the immortal spheres, be they Heavenly or Hellish in nature. The Grand Duke of Qi made that comparison, when he left this humble servant clam to guard the tombs of King Wen of Zhou. I did not know this when I first realised it, but long years guarding the tombs at the behest of the Duke of Qi allowed one to practice reading and writing.

Official histories have been prevalent in every court; the Zhou courts formalised them, but some form of event notation did exist in the prior Shang court too. Diaries are kept by men, then and now: from carved bamboo sticks tied together, to strong brush-strokes on smooth mulberry paper, each gathered into sheaves and tied with ribbon and placed in a lacquered box.

It is said there are also noble ladies who keep diaries, in the capital or on their journeys in the provinces. These diaries (it is said) are often filled with grief, for a woman's life is filled with sadness and waiting.

Men and women write their various diaries: I shall see if a demon cannot also write one.

I say this, and this alone, without elegance; a clam was not born to speak to begin with. One like myself, a living library that hides books and secrets, finds it even more difficult to speak.2 I have no elegance of language. I need to start before that, I think.

It is now the greatest capital of the world – Chang’an, for a long peace. It is organised in grids, and my Green Chrysanthemum Court was in the Central Alley of the North Hamlet in Chang’an. Adjacent to the eastern market, across from the August Enceinte, and east of the national colleges, the highest and lowest of the city’s million people could mix here.

My name in this era is Beike.

I am a shèn, a clam of illusions born originally of the Clam Building3 on the Sea City close to the South Sea Dragon King’s palace. My first service was the tomb of King Wen of Zhou, Ji Chang, as part of his funeral hearse and his collection of the Classic of Mountains and Seas4.

It has been almost eight hundred years since the fall of the Zhou and my freedom. Time passes differently when there is no care or need to note the passing of seasons; such is the benefit of relative immortality. Yet, I remember, it was the first year of the Xianheng era,5 that I decided to start my story, per the advice of a sorcerer.

The Taoist priest Ming Chongyan, Ming Yí, has paid me a visit on that day. The plum blossoms were in bloom already, their fragrance drifting in from the small enclosed courtyard of our bordello. A more interesting question would be, why was a Taoist priest in a bordello, but nobody ever said that our Green Chrysanthemum Court was your regular flower-garden6.

Tea and dumplings were set out on the veranda, and I sat at the table across from the eminent priest. Flowers and shrubs grew in large pots and from the ground, contained within the walls that marked the backyard of Green Chrysanthemum Court.

“Priest Ming has paid a great honour to our Green Chrysanthemum Court,” I began. “The word on the street is that the Heavenly Empress pays much attention to you.”

The priest Ming, a human Taoist sorcerer of no little strength, shook his head. “Madame Beike said too much. This poor priest of the Way merely did a service to the Heavenly Empress, and thus the Empress has recommended this priest to the Imperial attention. However, there are some matters which are beyond this pitiful priest. Madame is the oldest spirit in the city of Chang’an, so this poor priest has come to beg some assistance from Madame Beike.”

I hummed over an excellent White-Hair Silver Needle concoction. Sometimes, I cannot get used to the fact that this medicine is now essential to daily life. “The Bureau of Strange Affairs deals with those things most of the time. Isn’t that the reason why that venture was set up? Why would the Emperor’s physician need to give his direct effort? Not to mention Beike’s identity as a madame.”

“Well, which of the six departments can dealing with demons truly fall into? No man can truly stop the demons and monsters that wish harm to humans7. This is a sensitive subject to the Two Holy Ones.”

“Master Xuanzang’s triumphant return from the Tianzhu Kingdom8 has allayed a lot of troubles,” I noted. “I fail to see how this matter has brought you into my garden, Priest Ming.”

“Ah, yes,” the priest demurred. “Straight to the heart of the matter. Where should I begin...”

I waited. I can wait.

“Madame Beike,” he started, “demons have been openly roaming the earth since the beginning of the Zhou. The erection of the Celestial Bureaucracy9 does not seem to have stemmed interactions between the human world, and the gods and demons. It has reached the Imperial attentions. The Empress has set Lord Di on the matter. I believe you know his reputation in the Justice Department.”

To answer him, I pointed to my garden. “Lord Di’s reputation precedes him, especially amongst his fellows. Yet... Lord Di is the Secretary-General of the Justice Department, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but... they are rather short on knowledge,” the priest confessed. “And Lord Di’s experience in this matter, while not minor, is... incomplete.”

“Which means that he is typical of his rank; learned, yet inexperienced in the matters of ghosts, demons and gods.” I nodded. “Granted, most of them stay by the borders. Why are you bringing this matter up, Priest Ming?”

“The Empress has ordered me to... advice His Lordship,” Chongyan hesitated. It just goes to show how working for the Palace is akin to being next to a tiger. “Well, not so much advice as... you know how some people like to use demons and magic10 as an excuse. Madame, you are currently the oldest spirit in Chang’an.”

“The Imperial Palace is not lacking in vengeful ghosts,” I acknowledged. “It is easy to fabricate a ghost. Where are you going with this?”

“His most recent case concerns the investigation of the Lady of Rong.”

“The Empress’ birth mother?”

“There are people who claim so, hence the investigation,” he told me. “Madame Beike, a demon or a human might be involved, but the situation would get much worse if we let the Secretary-General get injured, possessed, or worse... a Judge Cui might not save the Emperor from a vengeful ghost.”

I set the teacup down, my mood gone like so much time in my life. King Wen had pioneered the art of divination, and eight hundred years of practise in silence had allowed me to know the great omens. Yes, I know... the Zhou Dynasty will rise again.

“What will you do then?”

“I am bringing this up now to prepare for a recommendation,” Yí told me. “I am afraid, madame, that you will be serving another Chancellor.”


1 The original phrase is ‘山高皇帝远’. The most popular variation is ‘天高皇帝远’ (heaven is high and the emperor is far away), which appeared during the Yuan dynasty. Connections between the Chinese central government and the people has historically been weak, with much regional autonomy and little loyalty. The proverb has thus come to generally mean that central authorities have little influence over local affairs, and it is often used in reference to corruption.

2 This is a pun of 藏书阁 (library) and 藏书蛤 (clam that hides books).

3 The phrase is ‘海市蜃楼’ – an idiom referring to an illusion, but in this case is a literal name of a building: the Clam Building (蜃楼) in the Sea City (海市).

4 The Shanhaijing ‘山海经’ is the oldest known bestiary of Ancient China, dating back to the 4th century BCE.

5 The Chinese calendar is arranged by era names to describe years. The 1st year of the Xianheng era indicates, in Western dating nomenclature, AD 670.

6 A synonym for ‘brothel’, but also considered relatively high-class.

7 The original phrase I intended was: 魑魅魍魉,莫能逢之.

8 This is a reference to Journey to the West. She is talking about Tripitaka, or the monk Xuanzang who allegedly was the sworn brother of Emperor Taizong of Tang, and went with three disciples and a dragon-horse to India to collect Buddhist scriptures.

9 This is a reference to the events in Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods). The story is set in the era of the decline of the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) and the rise of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), means 11th century BCE. It intertwines numerous elements of Chinese mythology, including the rise of certain deities, immortals and spirits.

10 The phrase is ‘装神弄鬼’: an idiom that refers to dressing up as gods and demons to mystify.

Chapter Text

 

Once upon a time, I was talking to a scholar in Jiankang, now Shengzhou1. He wrote a character ‘deer’ into a tray of sand.

“The deer, although they are huge, their temper is extremely gentle, they only eat grass and leaves, they never harm other animals,” He started. “When the fierce animals want to harm them, eat them, they can only run. If they cannot run, then they will be eaten by others.”

And then he wrote a ‘chase’ before the ‘deer’. “The ancients often used the deer as a metaphor of the world for this reason. Common people on the earth are all docile, good and honest; their allotted share in life is only to be bullied and slaughtered. The ‘Records of the Grand Historian’ says, ‘The deer lost by Qin was hunted by all under Heaven’. What it means, is that the Qin Dynasty lost the world – everybody fought, and finally Emperor Gaozu of Han defeated the Overlord of Western Chu, and thus he obtained deer.”

“But at that stage, the deer is bound to die!” I replied.

“True, but the difference is who gets the deer and becomes Emperor,” the scholar shook his head. Guo Jingchun2 knew what I was; I was his assistant in his commentary on the Classic of Mountains and Seas. “Well, Ge’er, you’ve outlived emperors and dynasties, so it’s not interesting to you, great concubine of the First Emperor.”

“I’ve met a lot of interesting people since then!” I argued with him. “Cao Mengde was very suspicious. Lu Bu I met when I was trying to pull Diaochan away, and then she died.”

“Your perpetual youth hasn’t been lost anywhere!” Jingchun laughed. “I really envy you.”

He died.

It is the fate of humans to die; that is inevitable.


I was reminded of such an inevitability one morning in the second month. The maid brought up my breakfast with a name-card, along with a message, bearing the seal and sign of Lord Di.

The life of a courtesan was one of sleeping till the sun is high in the sky, washing, dressing and making up in the afternoon, and then entertaining at night on short notice. The tea-houses competed for the greatest courtesans to even grace them with a passing, or even to drop by. I was an oddity, for I awoke at daylight; such was my endurance.

“Good morning, Yànzi. Who is on afternoon duty today?” I asked my personal maid, Yànzi.

“Yànzi greets the First Madam! To reply First Madam: Second Madam watches over the girls in the afternoon, and then Third Madam naturally takes the evening shift. Your breakfast, First Madam.”

The congee on my table was served plain with pickled plums left over from last year. I looked at the lumpy millet congealed within the bowl. “So good of them. My good sisters. I do the evil things, and they do the good things... So those two left the job of educating the young to their big sister...”3

I took a spoonful of the gruel. “None of them like me. And my sisters still want me to teach the girls? All the girls in this building, myself and my two sisters included, carry the Jiang name, don’t they?”

When the girls entered the bordellos there, they took the surnames of their foster mothers. After training, at the age of eleven or twelve they received splendid gowns – a graduation gift, used to show that they were fully fit to receive guests.

Madams were, for the most part, foster mothers of the girls and young women over whom they exercised control. That was because it was rare for a courtesan to see a pregnancy to full term – the girls were usually not their biological daughters. Some madams, like myself in a technical sense, were former courtesans; too old to pursue their profession, yet too skilled to fall into retirement so easily.

Our Green Chrysanthemum Court is no exception, especially with my second and third sisters Yúnquè and Lü Ju – the two girls that I had supported as a courtesan since the former Emperor’s reign. Now I co-owned Green Chrysanthemum Court with them, but they never quite forgot that I had been here since the reign of Emperor Gaozu. I still looked like a young lady; it earned their awe and envy, because no other brothel in the North Hamlet could offer something close to the mysterious perpetual youth of my human shell.

“S- Second and Third Madam said that First Madam doesn’t like to watch the floor!” Yànzi panicked, bowing her head. “If there is some problem with the shifts, perhaps Yànzi will wake Second and Third Madam-”

“I haven’t even given a reason to be called ‘exploding charcoal’4, have I?” I complained to the maid I had raised since she was a baby abandoned by another colleague. “Fine, I teach them the skills of their trade. I flog them when they slack off or neglect their studies. And then my younger sisters are there at graduation when they’re finally up to snuff to give them beautiful gowns!”

“Perhaps it’s for that reason?” Yànzi suggested. “First Madam determines who is ready to receive guests, and First Madam is also the matchmaker. No match is approved without First Madam’s intervention. It could be said that Madam is the only courtesan who could frighten Cui Xia.”

“Who is he?” My irritation forgotten, the thought of the name suddenly broke my rant.

“Ah, he is the scholar in Yangzhou.” Yànzi confessed. “The one who wrote that poem about Madam’s unfathomable lightness of step, during the Xianqing era.”

“Oh. I haven’t been to Yangzhou in a while. I should have tossed him into the Long River when I had the chance.” Mr Cui had probably seen my dance atop the Yangtze river’s waves, unknowing of my powers or my heritage.

Tossing aside the memory of the unknown man, I looked back to the tray, fingering the card printed on thick silk and a message. I read the neat calligraphy:

 
Washed ashore by the mighty tide,
they await another rising tide;
to sweep them back into their home,
Closed up and silent in the bubbly foam.
 

And beside that was a message and Lord Di’s seal.

 
It has been a month since Ming Chongyan’s recommendation to this Di Renjie, with the name of Huaiying. Our mutual friend’s hint of the assistance that First Madam Jiang Gé, courtesy name Beike, is much appreciated. Huaiying has heard that the Swallow’s Nest Inn in the East, is in the throes of a drought which only Madam’s music can soothe.
 

I calculated the next high tide. “Yànzi, get me a musical performance slot at the Swallow’s Nest Inn at the Hour of the Dog. I’ll be using the pipa.”5

“M- Madam is working today?!” Yànzi exclaimed in disbelief. “W- We already have a slot at that time, but Miss Lan’er is taking that slot... it’s not good for two courtesans of the same flower-house to be at Swallow’s Nest.”

“Can’t be helped.” I hold up the letter. “One does not refuse the Justice Department when they request wine, woman and song. Will Lan’er take it better if I explain it to her directly?”

Yànzi vibrated, like a rabbit being hunted by the Nine-tailed Fox. “ I- I think Second Madam will be able to arrange something else... she couldn’t be mad at Madam, not when Madam e saved her future!

“Just in case, send her in.” I turned back to my breakfast and neatly consumed the whole bowl before Yànzi returned.

Following her was a fairy. Of course, she was not one of the actual Celestial Maidens, but beauties are plentiful. All flowers have their charms at the height of their bloom. Lan’er had eyes shaped like lotus blossoms, pleasing to the eye without being too bewitchingly beautiful.

Then again, with a foster mother like me, I daresay that no girl needed to worry about their skin-deep beauty under my roof – their reputation as demon’s daughters were more worrying.

The fear was rank in the air as she made the proper salutations. “Lan’er pays her respects to First Mother. Good morning, First Mother.”

“My good girl. I’m sorry to wake you up right now, but I need to take over your appointment tonight at the Swallow’s Nest. Yànzi will arrange another place for you to entertain.”

The fear faded. “Lan’er obeys.”

“I’m so sorry,” I gave scant comfort, “I know how much we earn from feasts.”

The normal fee for a feast in-house was 1,600 coppers in the North Hamlet – double that for newcomers, and for a party that went on after the first candles sputtered out. The musicians charged 1,200 coppers for each round of drinks – double the amount if the revelry went on after the first candles died. I had stripped men and seized carriages to make up for the shortfall if the scholars that frequented our establishment dared to default on payment6.

Then again, I have had noble families offer fortunes to stay away from their households; owing the gods or demons never ended well. No sensible scholar had dared to default yet.

“Lan’er thanks First Mother for her kindness.” She touched her face. Since I had cured her leprosy, Lan’er was one of the more loyal girls of the house. “The winter has been mild, but dry. The north winds cut the skin. First Mother must remember to hydrate properly.”

“Ask your Second Mother for lip balm,” I ordered. “Dry lips are unbecoming.”

“Yes, First Mother.”

“You may retire.”

The girl left after performing the obeisances. We were courtesans; we lived by our arts, and thus lived our arts everyday. Music, chess, literature and art were obligatory; table manners and drinking games and intelligent speaking even more so. Living as a courtesan might relegate a woman to being for public consumption, but it also gave us the freedom to pursue learning that the noble families denied most of their daughters.

I adjourned after breaking fast to the Green Chrysanthemum Court’s main office, where the morning was used to settle accounts with terrified butchers, tailors and candle-makers, before the morning lessons began in the same room. Frankly, it resembled a scholar's office more than a part of the bordello. Small and solid low desks, shelves of books, ink slabs, abacuses, boxes of ink sticks and racks of drying brushes dominated the room instead. On the far end of the room next to the lacquered lattice windows, was a completely black wall bearing white markings.

The maids chivvied ten girls, the trainees from the last intake, into the room. Each of them were pointed to a low desk, where they waited as I took the largest desk at the head of the room, pointedly ignoring the whispers. I had named the four the four most promising girls in the room, for the Four Gentlemen: plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum.

Mèi’er was the first to gossip. “First Mother?”

“First Mother is teaching us?” Lan'er blinked; having just spoken to me, she hadn’t expected to see me again so soon.

“Does a flower-house require so many books...?” Zhú’er commented.

“Shh! First Mother isn’t someone to anger...” Jú’er, the most sensible and youngest of, intervened.

I started as a courtesan once Emperor Gaozu was on the throne. I opened Green Chrysanthemum Court during the Zhenguan era7. Now we were established, my two young protégées turned sisters were established madames, and I was training another generation of sisters to become entertainers and courtesans.

“Assemble.”

Everyone fell silent, all of them kneeling by their tables as they chorused in time. The lesson was on Zhuangzi this time; it was a hard topic, and one that would come up sometimes on the civil service examinations.


Two hours8 passed like that before I let the girls off for lunch. I led them over and under a few staircases, the open square of our Court covered with a canopy to hold the snow and rain. Our building had three floors; it courted a touch of envy amongst the madames of the North Hamlet.

Third Sister was waiting for me at the lunch table. In her youth, she had been as pretty and chubby as the barely ripened chrysanthemums of her name, and the namesake of our shared brothel. That barely shed baby fat had followed her into her second decade and her rise amongst the literati of Chang'an.

“Big Sister!”

“For Third Sister to get up before noon is rare!” I commented. “Why would my sister leave her beauty sleep aside to join in the midday meal?”

“It’s not just me, Big Sister. Second Sister is coming as well. I wonder where is she...?”

The door creaked open, and her question was forgotten as there came floating a goddess. The eyebrows curved like willow leaves, the misty black dots set within peach-blossom eyes, a tiny mouth of cherry-red, a robe of purple clouds embroidered with white silk threads surrounding her. She looked like she was floating, to swim nearer and nearer. Glorious, incredible, breathtaking!

She smiled. “Elder Sister. Younger Sister.”

The magic died completely.

A nice, healthy-looking, wealthy courtesan was there; the goddess was gone. Such is the will of heaven, that a girl could trouble your inmost soul so long as she kept her mouth shut, and that the moment she spoke, the glamour could vanish as though it had never been.

“Second Sister has enjoyed her sleep, it seems!”

“Lü Ju, don’t be rude. Yesterday was the end of New Year. Yúnquè must have drunk several measures of the strongest wine.”

“Yúnquè thanks Elder Sister for her defence. Being the elder, Yúnquè cannot quite keep up with Younger Sister’s drinking capacity.”

“But this younger sister still respects Big Sister and Second Sister.” Lüju spread her hands, causing the sleeves to flare. “This younger sister has prepared black chicken Eight Treasure soup for older Sisters to take with lunch.”

“Third Sister must also take care of herself. You drink it,” I told her.

“No, it should be done. Without Big Sister’s help and Second Sister’s pleading, Lüju will not have survived the smallpox.”

“Your survival was fated. The most I did was fix your face. Manipulating the flesh is an art practised in the Tianzhu Kingdom and the Western Heaven.”

The process was also recorded in the Green-Bag Book. The precious scroll which saves lives had been stolen by me, when Cao Mengde executed the great physician. Since I am a clam that hides books, it is only right that the tomes lost to history had found its way to my safekeeping.

“Lüju is always thankful to this second lease of life granted by Big Sister.” Lüju touched her face, still youthful despite the fact that she was in her thirties – old and unmarried. If normal people were seeing us three sisters at the table, they would have been wondering why was the old woman serving the younger-looking two, and why was she bowing to the youngest-looking woman of all. “Lüju will serve Big Sister for eternity if Sister wishes.”

Adopting this younger sister was not my idea. Yúnquè took pity on her and took her in, and then I fixed her face. Somehow, the girl now wanted more than her restored beauty; she wanted the secret to eternal youth. She wanted a fair face that would not lose to age, injury, disease and death.

Of course, at my stage spirits would be frantically cultivating towards the status of Immortals rather than perpetual life, but what did I know of normal spirits? Advertising certainly wasn’t normal or the done thing. I didn’t claim a mountain and demand tribute; I was not a demon warlord that ruled the land either with or against Tang auspices; I wasn’t frantically cultivating to ensure my apotheosis into the realm of Immortals. I had cultivated enough to ensure my own eternal life and youth; why was she asking me for something that I couldn’t give, even to my own husband?

Eight hundred years, and humans will still frantically seek to live.

I wordlessly accepted the soup under Yúnquè’s sudden bout of attention.

“Younger Sister really respects Elder Sister, but Younger Sister must not forget this Second Sister too,” Yúnquè cautiously said.

“Ah, Lüju doesn’t dare to neglect Second Sister! Please, have some nourishing soup.”

I gave Yúnquè a look over the three-colour pots9You adopted her.

Lunch came in then; brown rice, pork slices cooked with chestnuts in soya sauce, sliced salted turnips, crab-apples with honey. I used my chopsticks to pick up some pork to put in Yúnquè’s bowl. “Winter is ending, but Yúnquè must take care of her health, otherwise your elders will worry.”

“Not just the elders, but Lord Qiao as well,” Lüju remarked. “He came during the night, didn’t he?”

“Only for some company,” Yúnquè agreed, nodding her graceful head. “He offered me a position as a concubine, but I refused.”

“Lady Qiao and her type wouldn’t be nice to any girl from our Court anyway,” I dismissed.

“As for matches, the Duke of Zhou offered a sizeable price for Younger Sister,” Yúnquè praised over her subtle jab at Lüju. “Congratulations to Younger Sister for keeping her charms even to her third decade.”

Lüju flushed under her makeup. In this time, the seven steps of women’s maquillage was: white powder base, rouge, darkening the eyebrows, applying motifs to the forehead, painting the dimples, decorating the cheeks, and applying lip colour. To be able to see her blush even under an inch of makeup was remarkable; or it could just be my eyesight.

“Older women have charms that young men find irresistible,” I defended this time. “Isn’t the Heavenly Emperor three years the junior of his Heavenly Empress? It is all the more remarkable since ladies of the Imperial Court become almost worthless in their thirties. Yet, the reason for such an... eminent personage... to visit our house is... interesting.”

Cash was cash anywhere in the Tang Empire, and wherever the Inaugural Currency10 was accepted. However, I had serious doubts about the cash from this particular official.

Everyone – in Chang’an at least – knew that the Duke of Zhou, Helan Minzhi11, was the Empress’ nephew from her sister, the Lady of Han. The exile of his uncles had unwittingly handed a fortune to this boy – he had been given the surname of Wu, and allowed to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou. Having power thrust upon him so easily, he had become arrogant; instead of thinking of his career, he had concentrated on pursuing all manner of women. He had even gone so far as to seduce Lord Yang’s legitimate daughter, the Crown Prince’s fiancée, in a temple. Rumour also had it that he openly disrespected the Princess Taiping before their grandmother the Lady Rong, and allegedly raped the Princess’ maids. Such flagrant breaking of the laws had to be frequently covered up by the Heavenly Empress – the affections doted upon such a dissolute nephew were going to wear thin sooner or later.

“Perhaps he’s also after the secret of eternal youth,” Yúnquè suggested. “Younger Sister, I suggest you find a way to break off the engagement, before the Duke’s attentions turn to Elder Sister.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “Lüju, we should obviously make him pay a fortune.”

“Big Sister is right,” Lüju praised. “Anyway, his attentions were more amorous than calculating. He is probably the only man in Chang’an who doesn’t know our Big Sister Beike.”

We chatted some more, until it was time to prepare for the evening festivities. I applied my own makeup, chose a ruqún in black and blue muslin12, and sat before my dressing table and bronze mirror. I glared at the inferior bronze before I snapped my fingers; the surface rippled and smoothed over, flat as the West Lake and reflective enough to rival the still lakes of the royal parks, clear enough to see my human mask.

An oval face bore half-moon eyebrows. My eyes were long, and bore magnificent black pupils like the black pearls my sisters in the Eastern Sea traded to us sometimes. I had big lips, but the lip balm took care to give it the illusion of being smaller, and anyway this entire form was a mask.

With that in mind, it was a simple matter to make up my face and do my hair with magic after putting on the dress I had already picked out. Then I stepped out and summoned my maid with the instructions to summon a litter to set out for the Swallow’s Nest.


The two watchmen who guarded the Court’s front porch bowed as I stepped out to the waiting litter. Both florid of face, and stout like guardian trees. “Good day, First Madame.”

“A good day to the two of you as well, Wang and Ma. How is Old Mrs Wang, Wang?”

“Old Mrs Wang is very good, thanks to First Madame’s treatment.” Wang bowed to me.

“Then that is good. This winter has been quite mild, luckily. Ma, I haven’t seen your son around.”

“Ah, little Ma Chen is with his teacher. It’s a bit expensive, but it’s worth it after First Madame saved his life.”

“Very good. The two of you, watch the place closely. I’ll be back late.”

“Yes, First Madame!”

Yànzi walked next to the litter, which was more or less a rattan chair strung across two bamboo poles held by four strong porters. It took the time needed to cook rice before they stopped before the grand multi-storey Swallow’s Nest Inn.

“Oh, First Madame Jiang!” the proprietor was still Old Yàn. He was accompanied by a young man. “Your radiant looks eclipses the moon and shames flowers13. This is my dog son, Yàn Wulin, just call him Little Yàn.”

“Mr Yàn is simply too polite to this humble courtesan,” I warmly replied. “Your son takes after his father.”

Little Yàn bowed. “This junior greets the senior. This junior has long heard of Madame’s perpetual youth. The story is indeed not false, if Madame Beike is truly the Madame Beike who started during the Wude era14!”

Old Yàn struck his son across the back of the neck. “Don’t be rude! I offer my apologies on behalf of my son.”

I dismissed it, and soon I had gleaned from Old Yàn the room where Lord Di was. Having borrowed a pipa on the premises, I made my way to the room with Yànzi carrying the instrument behind me. Yànzi scratched the door for me; a cry of ‘enter’ was the signal to open the door and make my salutation.

“Beike from Green Chrysanthemum Court greets Minister Yuchi, Lord Di, and Priest Ming.” I bowed, and smiled.


 

1 Modern-day Nanjing.

2 Guo Pu (AD 276 – 324), courtesy name Jingchun (景純), was a Chinese writer and scholar of the Eastern Jin period. Guo was a Taoist mystic, geomancer, collector of strange tales, editor of old texts, and erudite commentator. He was the first commentator of the Shanhaijing, and so probably, with the noted Han bibliographer Liu Xin, was instrumental in preserving this valuable mythological and religious text.

3 The phrase is ‘做好做歹’– to play good and bad cop.

4 Madames were popularly called “exploding charcoal”, perhaps because they often lost their tempers at their foster daughters.

5 7 to 9 pm.

6 When a guest came up short on the required fee to a madame, she might seize his carriage and clothes in lieu of payment.

7 627-649 CE.

8 时辰 is a unit of time roughly equal to 2 hours in our timekeeping system.

9 Sancai (Chinese: 三彩; literally: "three colours") is a versatile type of decoration on Chinese pottery mainly using the three colours of brown, green, and a creamy off-white for decoration. It is particularly associated with the Tang Dynasty. Therefore, it is commonly referred to as Chinese: 唐三彩 Tang Sancai in Chinese.

10 Kaiyuan Tongbao (Chinese: 開元通寶; literally: "The Inaugural Currency") were the main coin issued by the Tang. It was first issued by the Emperor Gaozu in August of 621 CE. It was cast for most of the dynasty, a period of nearly 300 years, but used for nearly 1,300 years. Kaiyuan Tongbao was circulated in many countries that had close commercial ties with Tang China. The outflow of coins would later cause money shortage in China.

11 Family name before first name: Helan (賀蘭) Minzhi (敏之)

12 Ruqún (襦裙) is an item of historical Chinese clothing primarily for women but also for men. It consists of a blouse (, ru) and a wrap-around skirt (, qun; also called , chang).

13 闭花羞月: an idiom referring to a matchless beauty.

14 618-626 CE.

Chapter Text

Generously, I could be considered amongst the clan of dragons. To be specific, I was no demon, mainly a tomb-guarding clam-spirit; a hidden dragon with the potential to become a dragon.1

I do not quite recall the clan of dragons. The Dragon Kings are a given, of course; for every carp that jumps the Dragon Gate2, each has the chance to become a Dragon King and govern their own river. Other dragons occupy the Kingly Courts, serve gods and immortals alike, and so on.

I don’t think any of them expected one to become a courtesan.

“Greetings to Lord Di, Lord Yuchi, Priest Ming.” I saluted, and waited.

“Ah, let me introduce each other,” Yí was fast to intervene. “Lord Di, Lord Yuchi, this is First Madame Jiang, the first of the three madames of Green Chrysanthemum Court. She has been registered3 since the Wude era4.”

“The Wude era? Madame’s beauty has yet to wane.”

“Beike thanks Lord Yuchi for the compliment. Beike remembers, the old Duke Zhongwu of E paid a similar compliment to Beike many years ago.”

“An event such a long time ago, she can still remember! Not even my mother can recall already!” Lord Yuchi gave a cautious laugh, though the remark seemed to have shaken him.

“As for Lord Di, Beike has not been acquainted with any of the Di family since Secretary-General Di Xiaoxu moved to Taiyuan.” I recounted. “I did hear that his son had seven sons, all of them dragons within the populace. Lord Di must be the eldest, I believe?”

“Ah, I am.”

“And in your fourth decade. How young.”

Young?! I suppose, this is coming from someone born in the founding era,” Lord Yuchi started. Oh, yes, both mandarins were in their fourth decade.

“Ah, Lord Yuchi, that is a bit incorrect. Beike’s birth is necessarily far removed from the Wude era.”

“This...”

“Ah, Madame Beike’s reputation is first-class amongst others in my line of work,” Chongyan intervened at last as I started pouring out four cups of tea5. “All the hoi-polloi caution their young masters against taking concubines from Green Chrysanthemum Court. Why? This is because... because First Madame Jiang is capable of ensuring lasting youth for the rest of the girls’ lives. Legitimate wives have to deal with two fronts.”

“Flagitious!” Lord Yuchi nodded, but still looked intrigued. “So... may I enquire about Madame’s... age?”

“This... is not a topic Lord Yuchi should just ask. Women are protective of their age,” I cautioned in teasing. “How to explain... I was around when Xianyang was the capital city, and possibly more than that.”

Lord Di quickly calculated on his fingers.

They were shaking later when he took a cup of tea. He drank three cups before he spoke at last: “Madame must be compared to the incomparable Dragon Well tea, then.”

“Beike has not had the opportunity to visit the famous West Lake. Beike must indeed take the time to visit.”

“It’s not that easy to travel, Madame.”

I smiled. “Beike has the time.”

“So, the matter of the Lady of the Kingdom of Rong was solved with much thanks to First Madame Jiang,” Chongyan rubbed his hands together as I poured him a cup. “Chang’an is the city of a million people, but First Madame Jiang is the foremost authority in Chang’an, concerning matters of ghosts and demons.”

“Priest Ming has spoken incorrectly. It is the City God6 which reports to the Celestial Court.”

“Then, you must be the foremost authority which humans can access,” Priest Ming reworded himself. “Otherwise, are you asking Lord Di to pay a visit to the City God?”

“Is that even possible?” Lord Di seemed intrigued.

“There is an alleged story, where the Dragon King of the Jing River7 petitioned the former Emperor to pardon him via Duke Wenzhen of Zheng. The Dragon King was about to be executed for failing to conform to celestial decree,” I stated. “The Duke fell asleep before the Emperor, and the Emperor let him sleep with nary a problem. In the end, the Dragon King got executed, and lodged a complaint against the former Emperor through the King of Hell, causing a vengeful ghost to appear with legitimate grievance against the court. Luckily, Master Xuanzang intervened; otherwise the Great Tang would have foundered already. So, to answer Lord Di: it is possible, but the Celestial Bureaucracy has forever to get back to you. The same, cannot be said for us in the mortal world.”

“Yes, yes, even this poor Taoist cannot understand the workings of heaven,” Ming Chongyan added. “Immortality must have been a blessing throughout the ages, Madame Jiang.”

We chatted some more, and then a song was demanded. I thought for a bit, and then decided on singing in accordance with the arpeggio of a pipa.

 
Once I departed, carrying the woe of the willows.
Today I returned, in the midst of the rain and snow.
Those who know me, will say my heart is overflowing with sorrow.
Those who don't know me, may say what more do I want?
Those who know me, will say my heart is filled with sorrow.
Those who don't know me, may ask me for what I seek?

The sky and earth are everlasting, but my heart is full of sorrow.
The life has no end, but I have nothing to ask for.
What I seek is what I fail to get; what I abandon is what I would regret.
If there is a hereafter, if there is an afterlife,
it will be another endless fortune.

Those who know me, say my heart is overflowing with sorrow.
Those who don't know me say, what more do you want?
Those who know me say, my heart is filled with sorrow.
Those who don't know me ask me, for what do I seek?

Those who know me say my heart is overflowing with sorrow.
Those who don't know me say, what more do you want?
Those who know me say, my heart is sad and bleak.
Those who don't know me ask me, for what do I seek?
 

“Good song!” exclaimed Lord Yuchi. “The Book of Odes has taken life in Madame’s voice! I pay my respects with this cup of tea!”

“Beike thanks Lord Yuchi for the compliment. Beike feels, though, that a good song should be matched with good drink. Wine is a good option, but using tea as a replacement seems more refined.”

“Tea is a refined taste,” Lord Di finally deigned to answer. “Madame Jiang must have explored the wonders of all under heaven. It is hard to believe that Madame has yet to taste the Dragon’s Well.”

“It is hard to believe, but it is the truth,” I demurred. “The truth is far more strange than fiction and fairy tales sometimes. Even I have a hard time believing some of the tales the storytellers speak of.”

“Oh? Then, perhaps Madame Beike could tell which story is true, and which isn’t?”

“I wasn’t always on the scene,” I recalled. “I hope Lord Di can overlook this fault. Let this old head recall... there are so many. Priest Ming must be familiar with a few of them.”

“Ah, yes. This poor Taoist has some acquaintance with the other world. Why, talking about life in Luoyang...”

The life of a courtesan was one of entertaining men and supervising festivities. As a Madame, I could technically retire, but eight hundred years guarding a tomb and books wearies the soul. Deflecting inquiries into my life, however, was something I had accomplished even with eight hundred years of active practise, and these investigators may as well be ham-handed monkeys in my presence. Ah, wait, no, that would insult the Great Sage Equal to Heaven. They were equal to blockheads, if they would pardon the expression. The first candles were burning down, low discs of tallow that indicated a change in the pricing of my time once the candle-boys started to make their rounds.

“Beike has had a charming time, my lords, but the night has fallen and your distinguished selves must be yearning for your beds,” I began to say. “Even the Lady of Rong must have already fallen asleep.”

“No, not yet,” Lord Di spoke up. “Priest Ming managed to uncover the origin of the curse in time. The Lady of Rong is awake, but old ladies . At least he’s more effective than Guo Xingzhen last time.”

“Ah, Priest Guo. Poor boy,” I added.

He was very good as defence, but his skill in curses left a lot to be desired. The poor boy just didn’t have a malicious bone in his body, but to the Son of Heaven all magic must seem equally wicked. Priest Guo was decapitated in the West Marketplace.

“The most suspicious fact is that Kong Zhiyuan from the Jianci Temple was spotted leaving those quarters with the Duke of Zhou.”

“The Duke of Zhou is everywhere these days,” I added. “He even paid a visit to Beike’s younger sister.”

“He went to Green Chrysanthemum Court?” Ming Yí exclaimed. “He went to see you?”

“No. Why else would a man visit a bordello?”

“Is that so?” Lord Di commented. “That is interesting news, First Madame Jiang. This official notes, though, that Green Chrysanthemum Court’s main draw is the ageless courtesan. I have heard that the Two Saints are particularly drawn to such personages as yourself.”

“Ah, I recall He Qiong8. Southerners have some friendly feelings between each other.”

“Madame Jiang’s hometown is in the south?”

“There are blue seas where there were once mulberry fields9. My home is no longer in the human world.”

To be exact, it should be somewhere underneath the South Sea, but it was true that the tomb that had been my home for the first eight hundred years of my life and cultivation was now lost. I went back there once every hundred years to clean it up, but the humans didn’t know it.

We talked some more, and the private party wound down before the lords were escorted out. Then I left the Swallow’s Nest, already yawning lightly in the face of the early spring night when a peach-wood sword stabbed in my direction.


“Madame!”

I dodged to one side. A clunk resounded.

“First Madame, a young Taoist tried to attack you.” Yànzi held up the borrowed pipa that she had been in the process of returning, which had now served as a makeshift weapon to brain the Taoist charging at me in a misguided attempt at exorcism. “What should we do?”

“You should be lucky that the pipa didn’t break, or I would have deducted its cost from your salary,” I told her as I approached the man. “Looks like he’s from out of town. Usually most of the temples would send word if they were declaring war on the local demon population.”

And then I turned around. “Beike offers her deepest apologies for the trouble at your doorstep. Could I trouble Old Master Yàn to call someone to take this... away? Beike is worried for the inn’s reputation. Beike will indeed compensate Old Master Yàn when Beike gets the funds.”

If it were the frontiers where the birds don’t defecate and the hens don’t lay eggs10, then Taoists were free to hunt demons up and down the rivers and mountains. In Chang’an, though, the possibility of prosecution and innocents getting caught in the crossfire meant that randomly ambushing relatively innocent demons plying their livelihoods needed some regulation. Both demons, and the hunters who chased them, therefore had a tacit agreement in this land so close to the imperial powers; in the case of a clash of powers, both sides would arrange for a desolate location well clear of the city limits to fight, if negotiations actually failed.

In the Zhenguan era, I remember when a late colleague of mine turned hungry ghost started hopping after the official who killed her before the coffin left Chang’an. It took my direct intervention, and plenty of persuasion, for her to stop haunting the August Enceinte and other innocent officials in the way. I gained plenty of customers after I managed to commute the would-be victim’s sentence from illegal murder by a ghost to having his own murder victim in testimony against him. The official was decapitated, and the Ox-head and Horse-faced Guards dragged his soul down for another round of sentencing.

“Oh, no, Madame Jiang. It was clearly his fault, not yours. No need for the compensation! The instrument isn’t even broken, what good make. We must patronise this instrument-maker more often.”

“Then many thanks to Old Master Yàn’s witness.” I knelt down to check the man’s pulse. He was breathing. He had a pulse. No wounds. My good deed as another demon done, I kicked him in the ribs and left to mount the palanquin.

“Madame Jiang, we’ll take care of this lout!” Old Yàn called as my cortège left. “Son, go call the yámén officers!”

I rubbed my brow, and if one of the porters holding my sedan was shaking, I duly ignored him, too occupied with my own problems on the way home.

I was a tax-paying citizen. I plied my trade, and I didn’t intervene in the weathers. I duly offered libations and sacrifices to the relevant divinities, kept clear of the more extreme ones, and simply lived my life of earthly pleasures. Normal demons could not live like me; mammals like foxes were so driven by their impulses and emotions, that they had to greed and destroy and wreck havoc and stir up trouble. I was content to leave things be, as long as nobody crossed me.

The Han dynasty had been one of the most terrible times; executions, witch-hunts, and plenty of fighting and unrest. Its subsequent shattering and fall, however well-deserved, had at least forced the warlords to employ demon mercenaries, a pattern that lasted until the Tang. The greatness of this Tang dynasty was its infantile cosmopolitanism; that which bade me to give some small assistance to a general, Li Yuan, so many years ago. He went on to found the Tang dynasty.

The local exorcist sects knew my reputation and face, well enough to steer clear of my territory, and keep me abreast of threats that needed more than human intervention to subdue. They were urbane enough to tolerate my presence, two paradoxical forces in the same city. The same... could not be said for outsiders.

That was the most polite thing I can mention, because I could not bear to render this erudite recounting of my life with vulgarities.

“Yànzi.”

The curtain lifted. “Madame?”

“Tomorrow find me a messenger. We must at least send Old Yàn an apology present.”

“Yes, Madame.”

“I’ll take out the lingzhi from the store. Tomorrow we’ll send it over.”

Lingzhi?” Yànzi frowned at the mention of the medicinal fungus. “Madame, please pardon my speaking out of turn, but the lingzhi is very expensive-”

“The lingzhi is expensive, but Old Yàn’s favour is even more expensive, and after the man called the yámén officers to his doorstep, is it not good to offer compensation?” I reasoned. “Furthermore, he is an old friend. Call it an impulse to keep an old friend around longer.”

“Y- Yes, this servant receives her orders.”

We finally returned, and I handed Yànzi back the earrings she kept as insurance against her escape before I returned to my quarters. It was a chore to call the maids, so a magic to remove my makeup and loosen my hair was cast, before I changed my clothes and fell asleep, alone in this chilly spring night in the city of eternal peace.


1 In the prologue, Beike self-identifies as a shèn (蜃); a clam that specialises in illusions. The character itself is composed of the ‘chen’ (辰)segment, referring to the dragon, on top of the insect (虫) radical. The word used to mean a shellfish, or mollusc, identified as an oyster, mussel, or giant clam. Chinese classics variously record that shèn was salted as a food, named a "lacquered wine barrel" used in sacrifices to earth spirits, and its shells were used to make hoes and receptacles. They also record two compounds related with funerals: shènchē (蜃車, with cart or carriage) "hearse" and shèntàn (蜃炭) "oyster-lime; white clay", which was especially used as mortar for mausoleum walls. This is the reason why she refers to herself as ‘tomb-guarding’, and why she’s considered a type of dragon.

 

2 According to Chinese mythology, the Dragon’s Gate is located at the top of a waterfall cascading from a legendary mountain. Many carp swim upstream against the river’s strong current, but few are capable or brave enough for the final leap over the waterfall. If a carp successfully makes the jump, it is transformed into a powerful dragon, hence the saying ‘鲤鱼跳龙门’-- carp jumping over the Dragon Gate; success against adversity.

3 Courtesans were official entertainers who had to register with the government, and over whom the mayor exercised control. He regulated their sedan chairs, and could stop them from leaving their quarters.

4 CE 618-626. to put things into perspective, she’s been serving for at least 54 years as a courtesan; really an old veteran in human terms.

5 The Tang people had mostly different methods in preparing tea. One of them was to boil tea leaves in a pot, together with ginger, leek, mint, date, dogwood, and orange peel, just as what people did in the Han dynasty.

6 The Chenghuangshen (城隍神), literally ‘god of the moat and the walls’ or ‘god of the boundary’, is a tutelary deity or deities in Chinese folk religion who is believed to protect the people and the affairs of the particular village, town or city of great dimension, and the corresponding afterlife location.

7 泾河龙王 –this is the guy’s literal title.

8 He Xian Gu, birth name He Qiong, is a Chinese mythological figure and one of the Eight Immortals in the Taoist pantheon. Note that a few members of the Eight Immortals appear only in later dynasties, so the full Eight haven’t assembled yet in 7th century China.

9 “Blue seas where once was mulberry fields” (渤澥桑田). The idiom can be interpreted as "the time will bring great changing" or "the wheel of fate is spinning".

10 The original idiom is: 鸟不拉屎鸡不生蛋. It’s another idiom for ‘desolate’, used to describe a place.

The song is from:

 

Chapter Text

 

I have not met my other half in a while.

In the eastern seas, they say that clams are symbols of a perfect match. We clams are born with perfect halves; two of us were born, and two of us would serve the same lord. The lord we served at the start was Jiang Shang; everyone calls him Jiang Ziya now, but we knew him as the Duke of Qi who set us to guard his master’s tomb. Accordingly, we derived our names either from the Jiang or the Ji clans.

As the older, I took on the Jiang surname and the name of Gé, courtesy name Beike. My younger sister took the Ji surname, and the name of Lí. Put them together, and we were still a pair of clams1. We made our separate ways eight hundred years ago during the fall of the Zhou dynasty, and we only met every century of so.

I could therefore hardly be blamed for, when in the midst of daily meditation, a scratch sounded at my bedroom door. “Madame, it is so early and I am sorry,” Yànzi reported, “but there is someone frantic to meet you.”

Snapped out of my restful trance, I ruefully glared around and pushed at the drapes of my bed. “Who is it?”

“She says... she says that she is your younger sister.”

“If Lüju or Yúnquè wants to meet me, they know what to do. Leave me be.”

“She also said... to tell you... ‘a snipe and a clam fought each other, but the fisherman benefited’2.”

Dear heaven. So this is the reason why you should talk, neither about other people in the day, nor about ghosts at night.3 “Is she still here? Go and ask her, is she the snipe or the clam here?”

“A- Ah?”

“You wake me up in the middle of the night, and you’re still asking questions?!”

“Yes! Yànzi will go immediately!”

I rubbed my brow, willing myself to calm down as her footsteps echoed away. It was a while, but soon the patter of running footsteps returned. “She answered: ‘a clam has two halves that, when joined together, has a chance to fight the snipe; otherwise, one unjoined half can only serve as prey’.”

“Put her in the study and serve tea. I’ll join you once I’m done dressing.” I snapped my fingers, causing a green ramie ruqún to fly off its hanging-hook on the wall of my bedroom and drape itself across my body. I pulled on a half-arm coat4 over the set, concealing the daring neckline, and checked the colour. Green matched against ochre; good combination, if a bit staid. The sumptuary laws, however, forbade me from wearing brocade.

Another snap of my fingers laid my hair down my back, and then I was walking out of my room, and down the steps after closing the doors behind me. The door would spell itself shut; I was not too worried. I passed by lanterns and creaking latticed doors opening and closing. As I turned a corner towards the parlour, the door next to me opened and a florid, drunken-looking face poked out. The man leered at me until he took a good look at my face and sobered.

I touched my face; my mask had dropped, no wonder. Sliding back the veneer of humanity, I gave a smile to Master Wei.

“Master Wei is not drunk after such long revels, what good drinking capacity.”

“Yes... First Madame Jiang... it’s such a cold night.”

“Looks like such a young master need to drink some more good wine, or else Zhou Gong5 wouldn’t be able to find you. Tell my girls to warm you up.”

“Yes... I’ll go drink some more. Thank you, First Madame Jiang.”

I walked onwards to the parlour, closing the door behind me as the girl seated on the main couch rose. A low table stood to clearly divide the couch into two, with a Go board and two different wooden covered bowls prominently placed on the table. A higher table stood next to that cup, complete with tea tray and tea set. A screen stood by the side, ready to be moved so as to give people privacy.

“This younger sister Lí has come to see Elder Sister Gé. How are you, Elder Sister?”

Though it had been nearly a hundred years, she was still the sister I spent eight hundred years winning against in Go before we mutually agreed to go our separate ways during the Spring and Autumn Period. Her large eyes might be plucked and her eyebrows redrawn with thinness, her face unpainted save for some red lip balm and her features vaguely pretty, but she was like me. What was more important to me, though, were her clothes; a basic ruqún in pastel yellow, matched with a green ruqún and a silver hairpin that piled her hair up in a topknot above her head.

“Lí is resourceful, to be able to track her elder sister, though I gave no indication of my passage.”

“I heard from some ghosts in Youdu a few years back that Elder Sister was in Chang’an. However, Lí had not had an opportunity to see Elder Sister until now due to her duties to the Lady of Rong.”

“The Lady of Rong?”

“Indeed. I am her handmaiden.”

A chill crept down my spine. “How did you get into the Imperial Palace? Demons cannot enter the palace unless-”

“We are clam spirits, not demons. To answer Elder Sister, I had long stayed with the staff of the Lady of Rong, and followed her with the Heavenly Empress’ entourage into the Palace.”

Hence having an open invitation in, I acknowledged, settling myself on the couch after pouring a cup of tea. I poured a second cup as an afterthought, setting both before Lí. “You’re a demon and your mistress got cursed. My good younger sister, what have you been doing with your cultivation?!”

Lí took one cup, and I took the other, sipping the cold drink for fortification. “It’s hard to work magic in the Palace without being noticed, so I didn’t use it. Everyone was also being watched, so the most I could do was rearrange the furniture to change the fengshui.”

I lifted the lid of one bowl and checked; white stones, carved of clam-shell in the style of the eastern seas, curved on both sides. Taking my wordless offer, Lí sat cross-legged opposite me as she took her own bowl.

“Begin.”

I waited until she placed the first stone, before I decided my move. “I salute you, being able to do that in the middle of the Imperial Palace. But why serve the Lady of Rong?”

“Elder Sister follows the Jiang clan’s descendants. The younger thus does the same with the Ji clan’s descendants. This is usually not difficult, because the Jiang and Ji clans intermarried, so more often than not we serve the same master.”

“That would be difficult for my younger sister. King Wen of Zhou had a hundred sons. As your sister, I only watch the descendants of Jiang Yi. Anyway, the Grand Duke Jiang omitted himself from the Investiture of the Gods, so there’s nobody watching me.”

“Elder Sister has thus slacked in her supplementary duties, though never in the primary duties of finding and hiding lost tomes of knowledge,” Lí nodded as she started to . “Today, your younger sister has come to see Elder Sister for this reason. The Lady of Rong is worried for her grandson by the Lady of Han. The Duke of Zhou is still young and immature, so he does not heed the wisdom of his elders, and does not know the costs of being involved in the other world.”

I made my response to Lí spreading her influence across the board, sealing off her liberties. “So you heard that the Supreme Court’s foremost justice is visiting the capital’s most unclean brothel, and you deduced the exact situation. As soon as that Taoist is found, your Duke of Zhou is not going to escape.”

“The Duke of Zhou is still the product of the Ji and Jiang families,” she continued. “Everything from here, will probably go as my intelligent elder sister predicts. So everything from here will depend on her choice.”

“Oh? That’s great!” I falsely added cheer to my voice as I continued to build my defences. “I don’t need to do anything then.”

Lí was obviously not expecting that response; her reply was weak. “As your younger sister, Lí would like to listen to Elder Sister Gé’s reasoning.”

“If you are working in the Palace, you cannot have missed out on rumours of Lord Di’s temperament,” I lectured back. “Anyway, Priest Kong was already sighted – the Supreme Court’s staff will find him soon, and they will extract a confession from him. At that stage, the Duke of Zhou will be lucky to become Helan Minzhi again and still keep his head. There is no need to chase the fire.”

“Elder Sister’s influence in the otherworldly affairs of Chang’an is peerless,” Lí stated. “What can one Taoist do to you? Not to mention a curse-casting Taoist like him... he might have cast a curse on the wrong people, isn’t that so?”

“Yes, he has cursed the wrong people,” I agreed, slamming the keystone of my strategy with cracking finality against the Go board. “The Duke of Zhou even came to our doorstep to see my adopted sister, Lüju. Your household’s flowery-hearted young master really has good taste, to come straight to my front step!”

“W- What?” Lí’s ageless features turned a shade paler in the face of my irritation.

Demons hooking royalty was one thing; everyone knew the story of how Da Ji roasted Mei Bo, dug out Bi Gan’s heart and caused the downfall of the Shang. Royalty deliberately visiting the known haunts of demons, though, was cause for another witch hunt of an unprecedented scale since Chu Fu’s employment under Empress Jiao6. What turns an ordinary investigation into a witch hunt was always politics.

Demons and monsters understood this logic. We faced enough prosecution, often without the pressure of the human empire’s politics adding fuel to the fire. Thus, only the lowest of them would ever work with the literati, for any reason, and those reasons would usually be subversive. Higher demons became warlords, died, or actually managed to enter the Heavenly or Hellish ranks.

My sister and I were exceptions in this respect, though technically we had a directive entrusted to us by a man of great power. Even so, human hearts change with time, and fifteen hundred years was a very long time.

I placed the last stone, dooming the black clusters into a white net. “Sister, this descendant is a dead corpse walking. Find another one.”

“This younger sister has acknowledged your words, Elder Sister. I still believe, however, that the corpse can be resurrected.”

I looked at the board, and placed one more stone to secure the stranglehold of white I had constructed. Meanwhile, the situation assembled itself in my mind.

Now the Empress’ nephew tried to kill his maternal grandmother, said mother of the Empress, for an unknown reason, disregarding the ties of kinship and gratitude. Killing for himself via a curse? Only the intervention of his grandmother saves him from deposal and disgrace from the Heavenly Empress who had banished her own relatives.

Furthermore, humans have myriad ways to cause harm to other people. Those in the Palace likely have a lot more, from what I had gleaned from colleagues who had been summoned to teach the members of the Inner Palace the arts of pleasure. A man choosing a curse-

I tutted. We are spirits that have taken human form. One of us is a courtesan. The other is a hand-maid of the Empress’ mother. How is it the former had long divined what was going on, and the latter remained ignorant of the situation? Unless...

“He’s passing the buck to the Empress via Kong Zhiyuan, so the Empress told you to stop it. You’ve never been working for the Lady of Rong, you’ve been working for her.”

Lí nodded her head, placing a stone, and the whole board shifted towards black. The tables had turned. Even her submissive posture had turned domineering. “Elder Sister is indeed intelligent, to have discerned Lí’s mistress so quickly.”

“...Either way, Kong Zhiyuan is a dead man, isn’t he?” I started to make my move on the board. “Say if I fell for your words and killed Kong Zhiyuan. I can get away with it, but what would that achieve? My following your words, and tying myself to another mistress. Right now, your visit means I cannot absolve myself easily. My good sister, you’ve dragged your elder sister down with you.”

“This is for the clan.” She protested. “Elder Sister, you know her destiny, right?”

“I wash my hands of this matter.” I set my piece decisively, gaining sure footing and claiming more territory on the board. “One of us has to stay out of the politics of the era. Call this payback for the Qin dynasty.”

Lí looked sour, but nodded. “I have lost. This younger sister will fall back before the elder. Be well, sister.”

I made no move to stop her from leaving, still looking at the board. I had won, but it felt like I had lost a lot more.


The morning did not seem to go well, either. None of the girls knew a single dance, and all of them needed to build up the grace and strength to perform in at least a grand procession – because small mistakes could be hidden within a grand procession of dancers, so long as they were far from the imperial eyes. Therefore the morning was spent doing drills for the Green Skirt dance before Yànzi pulled me out of classes.

Aiyah, First Madame Jiang, I’m so glad you’re here!” The old procuress Qing Chūn gave a delighted smile. Beside her was a girl of perhaps seven, whose eyes were huge. The scar across the bridge of the girl’s nose was made even more prominent. “I really need your help this time!”

“Mrs Qing,” I greeted. “How have you been?”

“Very good, very good, your salve really worked wonders against the wounds,” Qing Chūn nodded with a big smile. “Anyway, you look at this girl, she scarred herself! Now I can’t sell her to anyone, no one would accept her! Madame Jiang, you know this old bag of bones needs money, could you please help me?!”

I examined the girl before me. The Book of Life and Death might already be written, but people often forget that what was written could always be crossed out. In this case, I could say no, and thus leave the girl to her ‘written’ fate where she proves to be a virtuous commoner wife. Or I could say yes, and then she would become-

This was the thing about being a library clam; even the Books of Life and Death were not exclusive. So absorbed I was that, once I awoke from my reverie, I stared at the child once more.

Then my head turned towards Qing Chūn. “I get the child.”

“Ah?” She looked doubtful, but nodded nevertheless. “First Madame, this child... that’s exactly what I wanted to show you.”

“What?”

Qing Chūn motioned to the child, and took off the coarse pants, exposing its lower half. I immediately perceived her dilemma; how to address a child that was both male and female?

“What’s your name?” I asked the child formally.

“I- my family is Lan, and my name is Caihe.”

“Such a good name,” I murmured, writing out a receipt for Qing Chūn. “Caihe, who told you to scar your face?”

“My mother told me to do it. B- Because... she said... she said that Caihe is neither a boy nor a girl,” Caihe ducked her head down. “So I’m a freak.”

“No, you’re not,” I assured, pulling out my stamp and vermilion ink to stamp and hand to Qing Chūn. “You are Lan Caihe, and from now on, you are a trainee performer of Green Chrysanthemum Court. Qing Chūn, collect the cash from Yúnquè. I have a face to fix.”

“Ah, thanks, First Madame Jiang,” Qing Chūn hung around a bit in doubt, before she finally left the study.

“Madame Jiang?” Caihe blinked at me. “How many Madames Jiang are there?”

I knelt down, the better to face at eye-level with the child as I blew across his face. The breath of qi traced fine cheekbones, the skin knitting together. Caihe’s eyes widened as s/he touched the cheek, and traced the former scar.

“I am the oldest of the three Madames of Green Chrysanthemum Court, Jiang Beike.” I sternly told Caihe. “You think you’re a freak? I am a true demon.”

Caihe’s eyes bulged, almost like a hapless goldfish trapped between the two halves of my shell. “Demon? M- Madame is a d- demon?”

“Well... close enough.” I had eaten my share of people during times of government-enforced cannibalism7 during famines. When in China, do as the Chinese humans do, and all. It was a bone, and it was not good.

“A- Are you going to e- eat me?” Caihe sounded curious, more than scared.

“You’re too stringy. And I can eat better if you earn your keep. So this had better be profitable.”

I straightened my back, smoothing out my skirt. “Since I have taken you in, by all rights you should also change your surname to Jiang, but I have decided to take you in only as a performer. You will keep your surname. You will always be ranked lower than if you were a girl I took in to raise as a courtesan. But this way, you will not be registered with the Royal Academy, and once I deem you old enough, I will turn you out. If you anger me, or any of the Madames here, I will reconsider eating you. Do you understand?”

Caihe nodded frantically, probably more fixated on the not eating him portion of my words.

“Very well.”

I summoned Yànzi, explained the situation, and then sent her scurrying along to explain to my sworn sisters my sudden decision to take in a young – and male, if only partly so – performer. Then I went to the instrument corner of the large study room, and pulled my own pipa and plectrum.

“This is a test. Watch.” I played a motif of fourteen notes in a slow beat, over and over for right times. “Do you understand it?”

Dumde- ah, yes, Caihe understands.” Caihe nodded frantically, his eyes fixated on the pipa. This was a soul who hungered for the harmony and peace of music; indeed, those dead eyes were at least interested in watching my movements, understanding at least that I was handing to this child, the keys to another life far removed from anything Lan Caihe would ever know.

If anything else, no matter the fate of this human marked for Immortality, I will at least make him into a peerless performer.

“You play now. Be careful with the instrument.”

I handed the pipa and plectrum over, closely watching Caihe position it horizontally to his cross-legged position and awkwardly managed the large plectrum. I tapped in time as he played the motif over and over, noting the regularity of tone and pitch. Lan Caihe obediently repeated it over and over again, instructed by my tapping.

My mood lightened, I sang:

 
A rare beauty in the North;
She's the finest lady in the world.
A glance from her, the city falls.
A second glance leaves the empire in ruins.
There is no city or empire that has been
More cherished than a beauty like this.
 


1 In this case, she’s talking about how her name () plus her sister’s name () still translates to ‘clam’ (蛤蜊).

2 鹬蚌相争,渔翁得利. The proverb tells us that all parties in a dispute may end up being losers to the benefit of others.

3 日頭唔好講人,夜晚唔好講鬼. In this case, she is using a saying from southern China, which fits more with her origin. There’s also another Chinese analogue to speak of the devil; the more popular ‘speak of Cao Cao, and Cao Cao appears’.

4 Bànbì (半臂, lit. "half arm") also known as Bànxiù (半袖) is a form of waistcoat or outerwear that was worn over ruqún, and had half-length sleeves. The style of its collar varies, but it can be secured at the front either with ties or a metal button.

5 The Duke of Zhou (周公) was part of the Zhou Dynasty, who played a major role in consolidating the kingdom established by his elder brother King Wu. The Duke of Zhou is also known as the "God of Dreams” – In Chinese legend, if an important thing is going to happen to someone, the Duke of Zhou will let the person know through dreams: hence the Chinese expression “dreaming of Zhou Gong”. This is different from the title of Duke of Zhou mentioned in earlier chapters.

6 Empress Chen Jiao was one example of an empress being deposed for practising witchcraft. Wife of Emperor Wu of Han, Empress Chen was approached by a witch named Chu Fu (楚服), who claimed she had magical tricks that could help to restore Emperor's love, as well as curse any concubines that Empress Chen disliked. Completely convinced by the witch, Empress Chen conducted rituals with Chu Fu days and nights, drank potions, created nailed voodoo dolls, and slept together "like husband and wife" with Chu Fu dressed in men's garments. This resulted in a massive crackdown where Chu Fu was arrested and executed by decapitation, along with more than 300 other accused.

7 Cannibalism was another last resort for surviving famines in ancient China. Sometimes, though, cannibalism was not an act of survival but a form of punishment, or a form of vengeance. Which is why people in Wuxia fiction usually rant about peeling skin and drinking blood during revenge rants...

The song:

 

Chapter Text

 

There is a saying that one mountain cannot hold two tigers.

The truth might not be the same in the courtesan scene; everyone had their infightings, but in times of crisis our industry would suffer. So each building had their madam, and their madam held supreme – for however long they lasted. Yet somehow, when they were on their deathbeds, they invited me over for tea and begged me to guide their successors.

I held one such invitation before me the day after I accepted Caihe, written on – I sniffed it – plum-scented cream paper. This madam is really pulling out all the stops, I thought as I laid the paper aside breakfast. My appetite had fled with the arrival of this letter. It was that terrifying.

“Yànzi.”

“Here, madame.”

“This Madame Fěicuì... isn’t she the Madame of Thousand Fragrances Pavilion? Even this name is... why not call it ‘Ten Thousand Fragrance Pavilion’?” I complained.

“They don’t have enough people to be called that, Madame.” Yànzi reported back after thinking it over. “I heard that her Lü Jiao is a very accomplished poet, though.”

“I can’t tell.” The paper was first-class. The poem on it... was slightly less than first-class. “Madame Fěicuì couldn’t be thinking of retiring, right?”

“She’s around that age, but she’s still healthy as a horse.” Yànzi scratched her head in puzzlement.

I read out the poem. “ ‘In the Shang Dynasty, the cowrie was used as money. How sad it is, that this day a single shell cannot pay for my daughter’s health’. Was there an outbreak?”

“From the rumour on the street, Lü Jiao and the Duke of Zhou is-”

“No need to say any more,” I instantly ordered. “That Duke again... I have classes today, I’ll call on her in the afternoon. Help me bring a message over to Thousand Fragrances Pavilion. If it’s syphilis, then a concoction of sarsaparilla tubers, forsythia and dandelion flowers would help. For sores, pound the intoxicating yam to apply or decoct for washing, cannot be drunk.”

“This... Yànzi must trouble Madame to write down the instructions...”

Abandoning my breakfast, I took the cream paper and wrote on the back:

Retainer of 1,000 coppers. If syphilis, pound intoxicating yam and decoct for washing only. Boil sarsaparilla tubers, forsythia and dandelion flowers to drink. If pregnancy, you know what to do. If surgery is needed , I will come later in the afternoon to open negotiations.

My bet was on surgery. I sent Yànzi along with that gloomy thought.


“Madame Jiang! You came at a good time!”

After the typical pleasantries, I had to ask Yúnquè and Lüju until they finally caved and told me the exact circumstances of our sudden welcoming of august personages into the walls of Green Chrysanthemum Court. Lüju didn’t even dare to approach the Duke of Zhou’s bed.

Looking at the pockmarked face of Lü Jiao, I understood why.

Madame Fěicuì leant towards my direction over the table. “Well?” She anxiously fluttered around her top showgirl’s pale features. “Can she be saved?”

“...two months, 2,000 coppers in addition.” I calculated. Demons had been persecuted in the past because they gave treatment for free. Humans are weird, sometimes. Refusing free medical treatment was an act only humans would ever think of.

“Oh my mother,” Madame Fěicuì gave a soft curse, since we were out of earshot to the public. “3,000 coppers? First Madame Jiang, you overestimate the money that our Pavilion owns. We have neither the long-standing endurance of your Courtyard, nor do we have the fame of Carefree Spring Courtyard. My Jiao is the only big earner of our whole Pavilion. Please, give us a smaller price, and in the future... in the future I’ll recommend old customers to your place.”

“Madame Fěicuì, you and I share the same custom,” I explained. “Beike cannot measure up to your Jiao. Beike is already old, and the Courtyard needs a facelift in time for the Lantern Festival. This really cannot be helped. You look at your own girl! You’re asking me to return her physical beauty to her. This is already an impossible operation for human doctors, that is why you found me, an old retired madam old enough to be your granny. Forgive Beike’s directness, but 3,000 coppers on top of additional costs is already cheap.”

Although we were considered almost like the rogues and hoodlums of the marketplace, who stole, robbed, swindled, and did all kinds of shameless deeds, some leeway was needed in our lines of work. North and south, everywhere was the same. For example, a patron of my former brothel in Yangzhou was once infatuated with a girl, and splurged tens of thousands of copper strings on her. The old Madame Yü would return several strings of coins as travel expenses, so that he would not wander destitute in a foreign land, or perhaps in desperation hang himself or jump into the Long River. It was to avoid the matter being escalated and bring future trouble. It was the same how demons should pay taxes; to gain government protection and recognition.

“I’m not going to lie to you. If yours was a rich house, I would’ve charged the full 12,000 coppers.” I added.

“T- Twelve thousand coppers?” Madame Fěicuì looked like she was ready to faint. “How many feasts do we have to hold to pay it all back, Madame Jiang?” But she made no further comment.

I borrowed paper, ink and brush, and made out two copies of the receipt. “Pay 1,000 coppers first, and stamp both of them. Beike will keep one copy, and Madame will keep the other.”

“...Two thousand coppers.” Madame Fěicuì looked ungracious.

Lüju was going to give me the hungover eyes again, for forgetting to haggle. I changed the ‘three’ character. “Four thousand.”

“First Madame Jiang, what kind of haggling method is this?!”

“Three thousand for the treatment.” I counted off my fingers. “One thousand coppers for wasting my time. Treatment needs to be rushed, so if we talk some more, it’s 5,000 coppers.”

“This is unreasonable!” She paid the retainer anyway, and I wrote the prescription for the pre-operation care. We fixed an appointment, and I collected the retainer fee and the receipt before I left with Yànzi walking next to my palanquin.

The Thousand Fragrances Pavilion was a relatively large place, but not suited for something like the operation suggested in Hua Yuanhua’s Green-bag Book, so another place would have to be arranged; a place that was sterile, easily drained, easily hidden. Of course, the fact that I was the only entity who could restore Jiao to her former beauty could not be underestimated.

Coins jangled as I hid them in my clothes. A young thief across the bridge of the Northern Alley looked up hungrily from his roadside haunt. I gave him a look. Recognition crossed his face, and he quickly ran away.

“Madame, tomorrow is the eighth day of the month. Since the operation is so important, Yànzi believes that Madame is free during that time.”

Normal courtesans could not leave their bordellos at will. The madames would usually let them out around on the eighth day of each weeki, to hear lectures on scriptures at a nearby Buddhist monastery, and then only after their foster-daughter paid 1,000 coppers. A Madame, however, was not subject to such restrictions, being the owner of the house.

“No. I’m going to the temple as well.”

You?!” Yànzi looked taken aback, her black eyes wide with shock. “Erm... can Madame get in? With Madame’s... unique constitution...”

“There are people that require being scared into submission. If gods and demons can do nothing to me, then aren’t they more likely to capitulate?” I drawled. “I do not like killing. It would set back demon-kind by hundreds of years.”

Yànzi still looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know anything, but not killing people must be the best way to avoid the Heavenly troops.”

“That too.”

“But, the temple is filled with spiritual power,” Yànzi spoke with the knowledge and familiarity to be wary. “Will Madame be alright?”

“Yànzi, if you have time to worry about me, then worry about yourself more,” I clarified. “How long more will you stay as a maid? We can’t even ride the same palanquin.”

“Yànzi is grateful for Madame’s consideration. But, Yànzi is a swallow who has only cultivated for a hundred years, and only just barely achieved one transformation under my own power. If not for Madame’s help, Yànzi would have been eaten long ago. So, even if Madame was to ride a palanquin, and Yànzi is forever on the outside walking on her feet, Yànzi is grateful even for these legs.”

“I don’t understand it,” I muttered, more to myself than to the lady’s maid on the other side of the palanquin’s curtain. “What’s so good about being human?”


Even if it was to listen to esoteric lecture on scriptures, the girls quietly made the trip to the temple, and obediently sat to listen. The lecturing monk did not count them, nor did he pay attention to their dressing or makeup. He was more occupied with the fact that currently, the oldest demon in Chang’an was listening to him within the confines of his own temple.

“The monk is terrified of First Mother...”

“Of course he is. First Mother is in his temple, and she’s a human-eating demon. Looks like his Buddha won’t protect him that much.”

“First Mother is awesome.”

I felt disturbed. Who knew that Mei’er actually held such opinions?

“All Dharmas are empty: they are neither created nor destroyed, neither defiled nor pure, and they neither increase nor diminish. This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, conception, synthesis, or discrimination. There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts. There are no forms, sounds, scents, tastes, sensations, or Dharmas. There is no field of vision and there is no realm of thoughts...no ignorance nor elimination of ignorance, even up to and including no old age and death... nor elimination of old age and death. There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, or a path... no understanding and no attaining...”

Handsome Monkey King of the Water Curtain Cave of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits in the Kingdom of Aolai of the Fairyland of Dongshen, Great Sage Equal to Heaven, Victorious Fighting Buddha, this is the monk of your Fire Gold Temple. The topics discussed is really suitable; they’re all about emptinessii.

The end of the service came, and the usual rituals of purification were conducted before the girls filtered out of the temple. Some to stretch their legs, some to simply take in the air. None of them would ever think much about worldly salvation, not when there was a living to be eked out and men to charm.

Well, maybe some masochistic ones. They enjoyed pain. Humans are very strange like that. I knew ladies in the Han dynasty who shed tears at the slightest hint of sadness, yet continued to watch tragic operas.

An old monk leaning on his khakkhara approached me. “This patroness must be the notorious First Madame Jiang. This old cassockiii is Xuanbin, abbot of this Fire Gold Temple. May this old cassock enquire as to Madame’s purposes?”

“Listening to scriptures.”

Xuanbin hesitated at my reply. “...then, Madame Jiang is interested in pursuing enlightenment?”

“Beike appreciates knowledge in all forms, including philosophy.” I replied. “Furthermore, am I not correct in stating that this temple is dedicated to the Victorious Fighting Buddha, Great Sage Equal to Heaven?”

“Ah, that is... you are referring to Master Xuanzang’s first disciple,” The old monk sighed. “After all of Master’s work, everyone only remembers Elder Sun. This old cassock understands. Elder Sun and this patroness are two of a kind, both demons accomplished in magical arts.”

“Abbot has spoken too highly of Beike. Elder Sun truly has the ability to throw the Heavenly Palaces into chaos, endure forty-nine days of Samadhi fire, and wreck the armies of Heaven. Even if he did not become a Buddha, his title as Great Sage Equal to Heaven has been earned by his power.” I giggled at the man’s dumbfounded expression. “Fire Gold Temple... that name comes from his Fiery-Gaze Gold Eyes. There are few demons under heaven who would not know this Great Sage. You must face a lot of demonic threats. Beike is not your enemy... other demons, though, Beike cannot comment.”

Now I remembered the reason for my approach, I reflected as the monk quickly made excuses to leave. It was so fun to mess with them just by hinting.

Having scared the young monk away, I immediately lit an incense stick. “Victorious Fighting Buddha, Great Sage of Heaven. Today, this spirit Jiang Gé, courtesy name Beike, pays her respects to you. Beike offers prayers for the sake of Beike’s younger sister, Ji Lí, courtesy name Haili, who is the handmaiden of the Great Tang’s current Lady of Rong. She faces numerous dangers in the heart of human power. Please offer her some measure of safety, if not a method of escape.”

No matter what had happened, this Tang Dynasty still bore the hallmarks of the late Emperor’s patronage with Master Xuanzang. With this move, Lí would be exposed, forced out of the Palace.

She would be free.

That was my belief, as I turned away and left to return a young woman’s beauty to her.


i In ancient China, the days were grouped into 10-day weeks with the stems, 12-day weeks with the branches, or 9/10-day weeks with the date in the month. Months were almost three weeks long (alternating 29 and 30 days to keep in line with the lunation). As a practice, the months are divided into 3 xún. The first 10 days is the early xún (Chinese: 上旬), the middle 10 days is the mid xún (Chinese: 中旬), and the last 9 or 10 days is the late xún (Chinese: 下旬).

ii The Wukong (悟空) of Sun Wukong means ‘he who understands emptiness’.

iii This is an illeism for monks (老纳).

Chapter Text

Operating on a human was so tiring. There was the issue of which knives to use – I preferred obsidian, because cutting with bronze and iron was a pain. Then there was the anaesthetic to prepare, the linens and high-proof alcohol and candles to light the room, and other assorted pre-operation procedures. And the flesh had to be shaped and sewn and edited before the patient awoke in the empty wayside house that I had cleared for use.

Needless to say, such an operation left me tired and asleep once I returned back to Green Chrysanthemum Court. Since I was my own mistress, I had mandated to Yànzi not to open my doors to anyone as I recuperated in bed.

The day after the operation, though, the message seemed to have been forgotten as pounding ensued on the door.

“Madam!” Yànzi spoke. “The Lord Mayor requests for Madame to take a job outside the city walls.”

“Didn’t I say, I’m not working today?”

“But... there’s a great mist south of the city, and it hasn’t dissipated. The Lord Mayor is frantic, he’s offering ten thousand coppers just for Madame to go!”

“Is he sick, or did he offend some demon outside the city?”

“I don’t know, Madame. But he sent a letter!”

I opened the door and took the paper. Basically, there was a mysterious mist indicative of gods and spirits gathering in the human world in the south, and he wanted someone to look into it and survive reporting back.

“He wants me to act as a spy,” I concluded. 10,000 coppers... “Yànzi, help me take a message to Lord Chen.”

There is no guarantee of deriving useful information, I wrote to the Lord Mayor, but Beike will do her best.

~❖~


Chang’an was surrounded by mountainous country and the Wei River basin; while this was a practical defence against human armies, demons with magic to call the weathers would indeed thrash the city, were it not already under the auspices of the Mandate of Heaven, which made demonic magics much harder to exercise. It was also the centre of the Tang road system; that probably explained why so many demons and ghosts were congregating here, for whatever reason there was.

Lord Chen had offered the use of his horse-drawn carriage, thus Yànzi and I entered the mist with it, carrying with us a pipa and obligatory luggage. Yànzi driving in male clothings – she could change shape, but her male disguise still needed a lot of work to even be called human. We arrived at the camp gates soon enough.

A wooden lattice fence had been set up all around. I peered out from behind the gauzy curtain; no, the fence had been grown into shape from the ground up. Perhaps, once this parade of a hundred demons had disappeared, the army would take this plot of land and build a barracks on top of it? Would the army of the Great Tang even consent to build on haunted land?

On this mountainous country that no human would ever dream of camping out on, what could be called a remarkable facsimile of the travellers come from the West to ply their wares and buy silk and tea for the transport out had been set up across the rocky terrain. A few were woollen tents in the fashion of Qara-hoja had been assembled on flatter ground. They were mixed with other shelters: trees bent into position up on small hillocks to make a temporary shelter, houses perched on the foot of the great mountains that were definitely not included within the city census – or, even humanly possible to build at the present.

Was this being hosted by tree demons? How rare; trees normally could not cultivate long enough before they fell to rot, fungi and human woodcutters. Even then, they did not usually leave the sacred groves from where they spawned from, like how most clams did not leave the bed of their eventual nesting.

“Who is it?” One of the two sentries called as our carriage stopped.

“The Lord Mayor of Chang’an, Lord Chen, sends the courtesan Jiang Gé of Green Chrysanthemum Court to give this night’s service to the great lords outside of the Imperial capital, at his expense.” Yànzi replied in my stead. “May we enquire about the attendees of this summit?”

“A human?” The guard chuckled. “Looks like this Lord Mayor is really dumb, sending a human woman to perform for demons. Is she bored of life already? Or is she also like that human lord inside, overestimating his own strength?”

I lifted the curtain and got down with Yànzi’s support. “Life is always sweet. Although it seems like the two of you don’t agree.”

The speaker’s expression turned slack-jawed.

His companion slapped him over the helmet, and when no response was derived, dragged him aside. “Ah, sorry, M- Miss Jiangi. Little minions like us have never seen a thousand-year-old spirit.”

“You should address me as Madam Jiang,ii” I corrected.

“Y- Yes, Madam.” They were definitely scared, if their master had yet to reach his millennial. A thousand-year-old demon would probably eat them without even leaving bones.

I studied the flags. My assessment had already changed; these flags were not the battle standards of demons, but rather the personal standards of Dragon Kings. Lord Chen had really made a mistake this time. Luckily, the difference between demons and spirits were one of semantics; one was used to describe those that harmed people, and the other term used to describe people like us. There were also a lot of plant spirits, attracted to the place by the accumulation of the Water element.

There was something wrong.

I calculated in my head; winter was transitioning into spring. By common sense, the Water element should be weakening, conceding its reign to the Wood element in spring to enrich and invigorate the land. The Water element was extremely strong here, though; almost equal to the seas and comparable to the great rivers. Interesting events were going to happen.

Still, I busied myself with the lot of all courtesans; socialisation. I chatted with a few erudite scholars who obviously couldn’t hide the wood-knob calluses on their hands, deftly introduced them to a man who kept blowing smoke rings out through his hairy nostrils, and further directed the army runners around getting drinks – I was still Madame of my own establishment, after all. It was easy enough, after enough socialising, to compile a decent list of the summit’s attendees – plenty of Dragon Kings from the hundred rivers and lakes and seas. Even the four Dragon Kings of the Seas had deigned to send their royal relatives in their stead; if one of the four had actually attended, this matter must be extremely urgent.

“How can such a rude fellow assemble here?!” an arrogant man in golden battle-armour bellowed, his head wobbling about his shoulders. “Guards, throw him out and execute him!”

“What has happened?” I asked a nearby cup-bearer. Her fairy-like beauty was somewhat twisted by her default expression of extreme arrogance – definitely from the East Sea Crystal Palace.

“This human,” she snorted, “dared to barge into the gathering of the Dragon Kings.”

“Really?” I commented, accepting a refill of my wine cup from her. “How daring. Thank you.”

Then I stepped in. “Ah, why is the harmony in discord? Beike must salute the Jing River Dragon King’s astute judgement, to recognise this human’s foibles, yet Beike must persuade Your Highness to consider mercy.”

The Dragon King of the Jing River had yet to grow hair on his human face – he still looked like a child. This was understandable, since his predecessor had unwittingly been executed during the Zhenguan era. “Who are you, to stop this king?”

“This courtesan’s name is Jiang Gé, styled Jiang Beike. Beike comes from the Green Chrysanthemum Court in the city of Chang’an.” I was going to have to talk fast to save his life.

He could not die. It would set demons in the human world back by decades.

“Indeed? Then do you recognise this rude fellow?” the child King used a folding fan to point at the other man – whom, I observed, was richly dressed in the purple robes of a mandarin of the third grade and above.

“I- I am Helan Minzhi, styled Chángzhù,” the other stuttered. “The Heavenly Emperor of the Great Tang has granted me the title of Duke of Zhou, proving my relation to the Imperial house. As I was watching from the city walls, I sighted a divine presence and harried to this mountainous plain, in which I found admittance into the presence of the Dragon Kings!”

“Replying to Your Highness, this man is indeed who he claims to be,” I began. This was my job as the oldest courtesan present; the others looked like dancing girls from the troupes of the Dragon Kings, not Madames hardened in the pleasure districts of human civilisation’s ups and downs. They probably didn’t have any filling in their melon heads. “Please forgive the Empress’ nephew for his ignorance of the other world’s affairs, he has been invested in the temporal struggles of the Court for a long time.”

“Preposterous!” the Dragon King of the Jing River harrumphed, but became more wary. Handling royal blood tended to have a backlash against us; such was the symbolic power entrenched in some families. “Jiang Gé... this king wishes to know, how does a thousand-year-old demon become a courtesan?”

“Replying to Your Highness, Beike submitted an application to the jiaofang in the Wude era, and was accepted for training.”

A laugh rose around; at my brazen reply or at the child King’s reddening face, I did not know. I could salvage this. It was my job. A good Madame could defuse any variation of a drunken argument before it began. I admit, the presence of a human blindsided me, but the affairs of demons and gods were, frankly, slow when placed in comparison to the mortal world.

“Then a lowly songstress like you, are not afraid of risking your head?” the Jing River King sounded amused.

Little boy, you may be a king, but the old ginger is still spicieriii. “Should Beike be Your Highness’ subject, Beike would still speak out for Your Highness’ safety without regard of her own. The will of Heaven is hard to determine; how does Your Highness know if Lord Helan will become the next Yuan Shoucheng to your honourable self?”

The previous Dragon King of the Jing River had, after all, been sentenced to death because he tried to win a bet against the uncle of the late Imperial Astrologer, and in the process flouted the Jade Emperor’s decree. By mentioning this incident, the Dragon King’s face turned pale and considering.

“The humans say that saving a life is more meritorious than building a seven-storey pagoda,iv” I lowered my head in submissive beauty – thank Mama Tong for teaching me so strictly – and peered through my eyelashes. “Lord Helan has yet to reach his thirtieth year, it would be a pity for him to die.”

“‘When the white ants’ line of battle collapses, all is illusion; ‘repent, repent,’ is the cuckoo’s urgent call’v,” a wise-looking scholar in strangely crimson robes commented. “Spoken well!”

The young Dragon King glared daggers at the red scholar, but swallowed his tongue.

“Beike is willing to send Lord Helan along on his road to temporal amendment, with Your Highness’ permission.”

“...you raise a good point,” the young king seemed uncertain if he was going to be executed like his predecessor. The young king had immortality; Lord Helan would still be fated to die, being someone who was not Guan Yunchang or the type of martyr that the Heavenly Courts were always looking to promote. “This king has better things to do this night than to kill him.”

“Many thanks to Your Highness for mercy!” the lord and I echoed.

I helped Lord Helan along his way. Once I had dragged him through the gates, I found my carriage and Yànzi still with it. I took out my pipa and shoved Lord Helan inside the carriage.

“Your Grace, you are far from human civilisation,” I warned the ashen-faced mandarin. “You are fortunate this night that Beike recognised you, for if the Jing River’s Dragon King had not been held back, your body would be floating into Chang’an by the Serpentine River. Why would your august self be here, Beike cannot speculate, but it would be best for humans to remain in the human world.”

“B- But, the elixir of youth-”

I blew into his young face; his eyelids fluttered, and he fell into a dead sleep. I closed the curtains, ordered Yànzi away, and watched as my lifeline and escape from the gathering of the Dragon Kings trundled away to save a worthless lord’s life.

The merit of being unremarkable unless I made an effort in presence allowed me to slip back into the gathering. A Go match had nearly turned violent, causing two burly men also in battle-armour to begin a shouting match. I moved to intervene, though a silk shoe stopped to block my way.

“Leave the boys. The East Sea’s princes will do as they wish.” It was the scholar in red, with a coronet composed of red coral in his topknot and minimal other indicators of status.

A prince, I concluded, but of the South Sea Dragon King’s Palace – very important. The Jing River Dragon King, in comparison, was four times removed from the East Sea Dragon King’s Palace. He could be considered minor. The actual princes and the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas were the royalty of dragons.

“Your subject Jiang Gé pays her respects to Your Highness.”

“Ah? Songstress Jiang is a native of my- the South Sea Palace?”vi

“To answer Your Highness, Beike’s hometown is the Clam Building of the Sea City in the South Sea.vii” I felt unreasonably nervous; for reasons unknown, since this man was another audience to perform to. I sold my skills; the only time I would ever consent to sell my body would be to sneak into Xianyang Palace for the books. “However, your subject has not returned home for 1,600 years, when the Grand Duke of Qi constructed the mausoleum of King Wen of Zhou, and used Beike and Beike’s sister as the funeral hearse to protect the knowledge of the dynasties.”

“No wonder this lonely king has not beheld such a precious jewel.”

What a strange choice of self-reference, I thought, but it was his choice. The princes of the great four houses were technically Dragon Kings with their own tributaries as well; it was just that they ultimately reported to their fathers, the great kings. After all, I was still using the pronoun of ‘this sad house’, nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Qin. “Beike thanks Your Highness for the compliment.”

The fight had wound down; apparently, the princes of the East Sea were moving out. “The princes... they don’t resemble what I heard about Crown Princes Jia and Yi.”

“That’s because they’re not,” replied the man in red. “My- The East Sea Dragon King sent the Eighth and Ninth Crown Princes Xin and Rén to this gathering.”

“I’m surprised that the Tenth Crown Prince wasn’t sent.”

“He would have been, if he was actually born on time,” he replied. “His name is Ao Guĭ. The Dragon King of the Four Seas are all not very good at naming children.”

I could not giggle, though I dearly wished to. “Beike cannot judge, since Beike does not know the names of the esteemed Dragon Kings. Beike must rely on your learned self to enlighten her.”

“Ah, this lonely king is... styled Zhao Ming, the Second Crown Prince,” he greeted me with cupped hands, smiling like it was a joke. “This lonely king is the only representative of the South Sea Dragon King’s Palace here. The princes of the East Sea, Madam must already know. From the West Sea, there is the Crown Prince Mo Ang, and from the North Sea we have the First and Second Crown Princes Ao Qián and Ao Kūn.”

I understood. “Beike believes that the Dragon Kings have chosen the princes’ names well.” All were good names... if not exactly imaginative.

“Very good choices, if you don’t think about them,” the scholar in red spoke in high spirits. “The East uses the Heavenly Stems, the South uses the Earthly Branches, the West broke the pattern, and then it comes back to the Eight Trigrams in the North!” He gave a hearty laugh that was hastily stifled.

“Your Highness’ name is an exception to the South Sea Dragon King’s choice of theme; Your Highness must have been born in exceptional circumstances,” I hummed. The Jing River Dragon King was a tributary of the Wei River, which tributed to the Yellow River, which was controlled by Ao Yi, Second Crown Prince of the East Sea. If such a personage actually gave this scholar in red such face, this Dragon Prince must be a very high official, perhaps even one of the Long River’s controllers. He was surprisingly candid – only a slippery tongue or a very high rank could get past the great pride of the dragons.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Zhao Ming continued, his eyes glittering under the red felt cap. “The four virtues of women might include not talking too much, but this king feels that listening to women talk, is much more attractive a prospect than the pretentious Dragon royals.”

“Your Highness’ words are hard for Beike to respond to,” I replied as I deftly intercepted a vessel of wine and two cups from a passing cupbearer. “Beike must think over her words if Your Highness wishes for more than echoes. Come, Your Highness must wet your throat.”

No matter how we look at the matter at hand, I am not a parrot or any variation thereof. Even the Rites of Zhou claim that a shèn transforms mainly into a sparrow, a pheasant or a bat.

“You speak more sense than any of these young ones so far.” I hid my wince as he tossed back two cups, discreetly filling both cups just in case. “Why did Eldest send me here to babysit?!”

“Crown Prince Mo Ang is handling the situation appropriately as well,” I said in passing.

“Ha! Mo Ang is young compared to this lonely king!”

At this, I had no idea how to respond. Was he picking a fight?! “Beike must confess at being unenlightened to the situation at hand, and would like to beg for Your Highness’ instruction. Should Your Highness feels needed elsewhere, then Beike will follow Your Highness, and offer a song to all the kings present in consolation for our departure so soon after our meeting.”

“Ah, it’s just Nüba’s regular trip down to the mortal world,” the scholar dismissed the goddess of drought’s arrival into the human world.

As daughter of the Yellow Emperor, Lady Nüba fought the Earl of the Winds and the Master of Rain during the Battle of Zhuolu against Chiyou; instead of being respected, though, she was feared, for drought would tear apart the land where she appeared.

“There would be a drought this year.” I frowned lightly, hoping that Green Chrysanthemum Court had enough savings to fall back upon when our supplies started to run low and food prices started to rise across the country. The livelihoods of millions rested upon the harvest, and if the spring melts and summer monsoons failed, people would starve, officials would begin to cut back and start thriftiness in public, attendance to Green Chrysanthemum Court would begin to fall, and in the end everyone suffers.

“Yes,” he acknowledged unhappily as he drank some more, clearly wishing to be elsewhere.

“Your Highness has excellent taste in colours.” I spoke. “Such a red like the flames of fire suits Your Highness.”

He turned his brilliant gaze at me. “There’s something you’re not saying, my lady.”

“Beike would not presume!” I affected shock. “It is a very bold colour and cut.”

“Isn’t it so? This lonely king prefers the armour of the South Sea, but official meetings require official attires in the vermilion of the South.” He leant closer to me, whispering, “After the Great Sage wrecked the Heavenly Palace five hundred years ago, the South Sea Palace’s armour has become famous under Heaven. But don’t tell anyone I said that.”

“Every disaster has an unexpected revelation.” It was nothing useful, but it did improve my impression of the Dragon Prince.

He nodded, but continued to frown. “Let us not speak anymore of unhappy events, alas. Songstress Jiang must have a few good songs to offer. The beauty has even brought her own instrument. The music of the human world, however imperfect, has much more variation than the Heavens.”

That sounded... hard to imagine. At his continued urging, I sat down and started to use the plectrum with my pipa to perform the ‘Song of the Yùe Boatman’:

 
Oh! What night is tonight,
we are rowing on the river.
Oh! What day is today,
I get to share a boat with a prince.
The prince's kindness makes me shy,
I take no notice of the people's mocking cries.
Ignorant, but not uncared for,
I make acquaintance with a prince.
There are trees in the mountains,
and there are branches on the trees,
I adore you, oh!
You do not know...
 

His eyes are bright, I thought, like the coal burnt to embers, still sparkling in the night spent alone and surrounded in a sea of spirits and dragons; for it seemed, like time itself had wrapped two people from different worlds to overlap just once.

~❖~


Song:

i He used Miss/小姐 here.

ii He was corrected to use Madam/夫人. Though this is technically inappropriate given that Beike is still unmarried in this century and her occupation as a courtesan, it is still the most respectable social title given.

iii 姜还是老的辣;used to describe how veterans are more able than newbies.

iv 救人一命,胜造七级浮屠

v This poem is from Chapter 10 or 11 of Journey to the West as an opening remark. This is the full poem:

百歲光陰似水流,一生事業等浮漚。

昨朝面上桃花色,今日頭邊雪片浮。

白蟻陣殘方是幻,子規聲切早回頭。

古來陰騭能延壽,善不求憐天自周。

vi As a performer, Beike’s style would be Songstress Jiang (姜歌姬).

vii 南洋海市蜃楼; this is a literal descriptor.