Prologue: the Wheel
In the Tenth Court of Hell stands the Wheel of Rebirth.
Its spokes are of red lacquered wood; it creaks as demons pull it, dragging its load of souls back into the world.
And before the Wheel stands the Lady.
Every soul who goes to the Wheel must endure her gaze. Every soul must stop by her, and take from her pale hands the celadon cup, and drink.
The drink is herbs gathered from the surfaces of ponds, tears taken from the eyes of children, scales shed from old, wise dragons. To drink is to forget, for no soul can come back into the world remembering past lives, or the punishments meted out to it within the other Courts of Hell.
1. Yaoxin (Wen-Min Empire), 316 years after the Founding
The old beggar was a sorry sight, squinting through rheumy eyes. One of his legs was missing, and he leant on his crutch to make his slow, unsteady way on the road.
Dai-Yu, in spite of herself, watched him. There was something about him that drew the eye; something that made her forget the tea leaves and spices her mother had asked her to get from the market in Yaoxin.
He seemed somehow more real, more sharply defined than the rest of the world. Dai-Yu couldn’t explain the feeling, not even to herself.
As he passed by her, she drew a string of copper coins from her sleeve, and held it out to him.
The beggar’s hand brushed hers, sending a tingle of heat up her arm. He stopped, then raised her palm to the light, staring at the darker patch on her skin.
“I’ve had it all my life,” Dai-Yu said, apologetically. “It’s just a birthmark.”
“I know that mark,” the beggar said. “So you’re the one, the child they were promised.”
“What are you talking about?”
His fingers almost distractedly traced the outline of her mark. “Choice-maker. That’s what the sign in your hand says.”
He was crazy. He had to be. “It’s just a birthmark,” Dai-Yu protested. “I’m nothing.”
He looked up at her, his face deadly serious. “You are the arbiter. You will have to choose between them.”
The worst thing about the beggar wasn’t his crazy talk; it was the single-mindedness, the way he kept tracing until Dai-Yu stared at the mark in her hand, trying to see the characters he’d spoken of. “Who—?”
“Tiger,” the beggar said. “Crane.”
The words he used weren’t the names of animals, but rather their archaic forms. Even to Dai-Yu, who at fourteen had received no education other than the arts of housekeeping, they could only mean one thing. “The Founders?” She laughed, then stopped when she saw his eyes. The rheuminess was peeling away, revealing a keen gaze trained on her.
“Yes,” the beggar said. “You will have to choose.”
“Choose between what? The Founders have been dead for centuries! Demons take you, you’ve told me nothing!”
“There is a . . . an argument,” the beggar said. “A question they could not solve.”
“What question?” Dai-Yu asked, but he shook his head, and began walking away.
“Wait!” she shouted, but he wasn’t shuffling any more—he was running towards the gates of Yaoxin as fast as one leg and his crutch could carry him.
Dai-Yu ran, too, steadily catching up to him—but then he passed through the gate, and she lost him in the marketplace. She stood shaking in the midst of the crowd, knowing she should have outrun him easily.
Later that night, she crept into the shrine of her ancestors, and stared at the very earliest tablet: the one that bore, entwined, the names of the warrior philosophers who had founded the Empire. Tiger. Crane.
The beggar’s words would not leave her.
Choice-maker. You are the arbiter.
2. Yaoxin (Wen-Min Empire), 321 years after the Founding
They came a few years later. By then, Dai-Yu had married, and moved into the house of the wealthy merchant He En-Lai as his second wife. She spent her days running the household and helping to raise the three children of the first wife.
One hot, stormy summer evening, Dai-Yu was sitting alone in the wives’ quarters, playing a mournful tune on the zither, when a gust of wind sent rain into her face. Startled, she got up to close the shutters.
And, slowly, became aware she was no longer alone.
She did not move. Guards, she knew, watched the house, and every door was barred.
“Dai-Yu,” a voice chanted, and it was the lament of the wind. Another voice took up the words of her name, and whispered, “Choice-maker.”
She moved, then, trembling, to face them.
They stood in darkness, both of them: vague silhouettes whose faces she could not see. They smelled of old, musty things, books left too long untended.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
One of them smiled. Teeth glittered in the shadows. “You are the child of the promise, Dai-Yu. You must choose.”
Choose choose choose, whispered the other voice, a raucous, rhythmical chant like the calls of birds.
“You’re dead,” Dai-Yu whispered. “The Annals say you died in the Imperial Palace.”
“We cannot die,” the first voice said. “We became something else.”
“It does not matter,” said the second voice. “She must choose.”
“You’re crazy,” Dai-Yu said, trying to deny the fear that clenched her chest. “Go away. I wasn’t born to choose anything.”
The first voice laughed. The sound echoed on and on under the lacquered ceiling, taking strength from the walls. “Do you truly think so?”
And Dai-Yu, shocked, saw that the birthmark in her hand glowed red, like maple leaves, like the lanterns of New Year’s Eve. “No,” she whispered.
“This is the choice laid before you.” The first voice was the drawl of a large feline, one that would toy with its prey until exhaustion brought death. Tiger. “When we founded the Empire three hundred years ago, we argued over what would keep it together.”
“Duty,” Crane said. “Homage to one’s ancestors, and respect of the law. Those are the things that will make us last.”
“Man knows no duty,” Tiger said, breathing into the room the humid smell of jungles. “Man knows no respect. Only fear will keep the Empire intact. Fear of our neighbours to unite us. Fear of death and chaos to keep us from crumbling.”
Dai-Yu, poised near the open window, said, “This is . . . “a philosophers’ argument,” she wanted to say. Children’s words, without meaning. It’s not ideas that will keep us together, that will keep the Hsiung Nu from our frontiers.
Crane whispered, “It is no game. The loser will renounce. No longer shall he guide the destiny of the Empire.”
“Because you decide anything? What about the Emperor? What about the Imperial Court?”
A dry bout of laughter, from Crane. “Everyone listens to their ancestors, child. We cannot die. We still rule. Now choose.”
Dai-Yu stared, trying to see their faces through the darkness. “I know nothing.” They were each as vast and terrible, both as unfathomable. “This is ridiculous. Just find someone else.”
“There is no-one else.” The shadows behind Crane drew the darker hint of wings the colour of obsidian. “Choose.”
“I can’t,” Dai-Yu whispered, the words forced out of her before she could think.
In the darkness, she could feel their combined gaze, assessing her, judging her. The hollow in her stomach would not go away.
“Very well,” Crane said. “You are not ready.”
“Think on it,” Tiger whispered. “We will come back.”
There was no noise when they left, but Dai-Yu could breathe more easily; she no longer had the sense that every word she said was being set apart and weighed.
The shadows returned to those of the wives’ quarters.
She could not stop shaking. What did they think she was, to be embroiled in their vast, unknowable games? She was human. She had a husband, and soon would have children of her own. She was no prophet, no wise woman.
All she wanted was to sleep, and to forget. To forget that they had ever been there, or that they would ever return.
In silence she moved through the house, her sandals making no noise on the slats of the floor. She was almost at the door of her own room when something stopped her.
She could not have told what. Like with the beggar, it was a sense that something was more real than it ought to have been.
The door to the nursery was ajar, as it had been earlier in the evening. And yet . . .
Gently, Dai-Yu slid the door open, then entered the room. Through the gaps in the shutters fell the white light of the moon, tracing the outlines of three beds.
Dai-Yu could feel nothing. Not even fear, nor anger. She moved towards the furthest bed, where Pao, the youngest son, was sleeping.
A ray of light lay across his face, throwing into relief what they had done to him. There were scars, like claw-marks: three swipes on each cheek, bleeding in the white light.
And it was a claw-swipe, too, that had opened his chest, laying the heart bare amidst its cage of ribs.
The wind whispered, in Tiger’s voice: A reminder, Dai-Yu. Until we return.
She screamed, then: a sound torn out of her lungs that echoed throughout the house, a scream of rage and grief and despair. It woke the other two boys, who huddled in their beds, their faces frozen in shock. It summoned the servants, and then her husband and his first wife.
“Dai-Yu?” En-Lai, her husband, said. He was shaking her, but she could not answer him; she could not banish the image of the dead boy in his bed. The more he insisted, the more she withdrew within herself, until she hovered at the edge of a chasm in her mind, knowing that if she fell into it there would be no return.
“Lin Dai-Yu,” another voice said.
She looked up. This was the district magistrate, with his jade robes of office and his velvet cap. Three militiamen had taken position at the entrance of the room, their staffs at the ready.
“What happened here?” The magistrate’s face was stern.
“That slut killed my boy,” the first wife said, quivering with anger.
Dai-Yu, still struggling to remain focused, could only shake her head. No no no. Not I. He did that.
The magistrate looked at her, his grey gaze expressionless. She looked back.
The magistrate’s gaze moved to the bed, then back to Dai-Yu. “No. It could not have been her. What weapon would she have used?” He raised Dai-Yu’s hands, displayed their shorn nails. “See,” he said. “These are not claws.”
“Then who did this?” En-Lai demanded in anger, and grief.
The magistrate’s gaze rested on the servants for a moment. “Who indeed.” And now his look was trained on the first wife, and on the long, lacquered fingernails that were her pride. Each of them was protected by an elegant bronze sheath—a sheath that tapered to a sharp, clawlike point.
The first wife was still standing near Dai-Yu, ready to accuse her again. Her gaze met the magistrate’s, and her face pinched in anger. “You accuse me?” she said, drawing herself to her full height. “Of killing my own son?”
The magistrate smiled without joy. “I have seen mothers do worse than that.”
“No,” Dai-Yu whispered, understanding that the nightmare was not over. But no-one was listening to her.
“You’re making a mistake,” En-Lai said, as the militiamen came into the room, and bound the first wife’s wrists. “That accusation is ludicrous.”
Dai-Yu found her voice from some remote place. “This wasn’t done by human hands.”
The magistrate turned to her. The light falling on his robes bleached them white for a moment, like a coat of feathers; a moment only, but in that moment Dai-Yu looked into his eyes, and saw the ageless, malicious gaze of Crane.
“The law must be honoured,” the magistrate said, with a tight smile, and they were not his words, but something far older, far more vicious. “A crime cannot go unpunished. We will find out the truth.”
Tiger’s voice in her mind, endlessly whispering its promise: A reminder, Dai-Yu. Until we return.
Crane’s voice: A crime cannot go unpunished.
A dead boy in his bed, his face slashed, his chest yawning with the heart inside.
The first wife, struggling as they dragged her out of the room, screaming, calling them names. In vain.
The chasm in Dai-Yu’s mind opened wider, and she tumbled into the darkness, screaming all the while.
Her husband En-Lai, seeing her face go slack, shook her again, but she no longer had speech.
The doctor, summoned to the scene, found the body of the boy, the husband protesting his wife’s innocence, and Dai-Yu standing tall and straight, yet silent.
He listened to the voice of her heart, but could find nothing wrong. In the end, he prescribed a calming brew to En-Lai, whose sickness he could understand, then left the house, glad to be away from Dai-Yu’s stare.
The first wife admitted to the murder of her son under torture, and was executed.
En-Lai had Dai-Yu moved to a dark room at the back of the house, where two very old servants tended her. For seven years she spoke little, only dwindled away, the skin over her bones as translucent as rice paper, the gestures she made more and more sluggish.
In the end, she caught the lung sickness, and died.
Thus ended her first life.
Interlude: Tenth Court of Hell
The soul comes before the Wheel for its first rebirth. But the Lady does not move. Her hands are empty.
“Why?” the soul asks, and its voice is a mere whisper.
“You cannot drink. You must remember,” the Lady says. Her face is emotionless. “You must answer them.”
The soul’s face is indistinct; if it had any expression, it would be anger. “Never,” it says.
“You have no choice.” The Lady’s yellow sleeves billow in the wind, beckoning the soul onwards. “Come, child. There is another life awaiting you.”
3. Wen-Min Empire, 343-631 years after the Founding
Thus, in every life, Dai-Yu was born knowing everything, from her first birth to her last. No more childhoods of innocence, no more days free from fear. In every life, she dreaded that Tiger and Crane would come back and ask the question.
They did not always come, but, when they did, they destroyed everything. Tiger killed her family. Crane had them arrested, or aroused in them the desire to fight on the border: they took up the swords of soldiers, and came back wounded and silent, or not at all.
A reminder, Tiger said.
Think of the Empire, Crane whispered. Can you leave it to crumble because of a caprice?
And they had been right—they were everywhere: in the eyes of merchants in the marketplace; in the faces of priests as they said their devotions; in the judges and clerks at the tribunal, passing through all of them like dark, beating shadows.
She could not escape.
But she would not yield.
4. Shunliu (Wen-Min Empire), 650 years after the Founding
When she was fourteen, Yi-Sen, who had once been Dai-Yu, was given in marriage to Zheng Lei, first clerk of the tribunal in Shunliu.
She had two sons, and obsessively watched each of them in his cradle. And when the hot storms of summer came, she moved to the nursery and spent the nights watching over her children.
Her husband Lei had his own quarters, but servants’ gossip did reach him, in the end.
He asked her into his study one night. Yi-Sen came hesitantly, tiptoeing past the shelves crammed with books—her husband’s study was his preserve, a scholar’s haven in which women had no place.
Lei was sitting at his reading table, which was bare save for a writing brush and a lantern. He raised his gaze to her. “You must be wondering why I’ve asked you here.”
“Yes,” Yi-Sen said. Bluntness, her parents had told her more than once, was no quality for a woman. But even an army of tutors had not been able to take it out of her.
“Sit down,” Lei said.
She pulled over a chair, and sat before him, waiting for him to speak. At last he said, “Yi-Sen. I’m no fool. What do you fear?”
Her heart missed a beat. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t toy with me. I’ve seen the way you watch shadows. Men guilty of some unpunished offence look the same when the militia passes their way.”
“I—” Yi-Sen hesitated. She had kept the secret of her past lives, of the mark in her hand, like a miser hoards his gold and jade.
In Lei’s eyes was nothing but a mild curiosity.
“You won’t believe me,” she said.
“I’m a scholar. Let me be the judge of what to believe.”
“My name is Dai-Yu,” she said. “I was born in the year three hundred and one. I am the child of the promise.”
It all came spilling out of her, then, the stories of Tiger and Crane, of the boy dead in his bed, the gaping wound in his chest, of the other dead in her past.
Lei’s grey eyes watched her, judged her, just as Tiger’s and Crane’s eyes had. He said, finally, “I would like to believe you’ve invented all of this.”
“But you don’t?” Yi-Sen asked. She had expected many things, but not that.
Lei said, slowly, “You can’t read. You’re no scholar. And yet . . . yet you’ve told me things from the past. Details that are true. I’ve read them in books.”
“I didn’t learn them,” Yi-Sen said. “I remember. Always.”
His gaze was on her, and did not waver. “I believe you do.”
“It’s not an easy fate. Nor an easy choice.”
“You don’t understand,” Yi-Sen said. “Why should I choose? Why should I grant anything to them?” Her voice was rising, spinning out of control: She heard herself say the words from a faraway place. “They bring nothing but pain and sorrow.”
“The Founders lived in a harsh time. I’m not excusing them,” Lei added, raising a hand to check her. “I’m just giving you information to understand them.”
“I don’t. They’re not human.”
“Not any more,” Lei said. “There are tales about the things that do not die, that keep ageing, that never descend into Hell. They’re not pleasant stories.” He rose, came behind her. His arm settled around her shoulders. She rose in turn, faced him in silence.
“Yi-Sen . . . This is where I’ll fail you. I’m a minor scholar, not a warrior or a conjuror. I can’t help you.”
“It doesn’t matter. No-one can stand against them, can they?”
“It would take an equal to resist them. But there is no-one in Wen-Min who has their power. Yet I would stand by your side, if need be.”
“Why?” she asked. “Why would you go to such trouble?”
He spun her round to face him. “Haven’t you guessed?” His voice was mild, seemingly emotionless, but a bare quiver betrayed him.
“No,” Yi-Sen said. “No. Please don’t. They—they take everything I love. They use it against me.”
“You said it yourself. No-one can stand against them. If that’s the case, then nothing truly matters.”
She raised her hand, traced the outline of his face, both familiar yet utterly alien to her. “I won’t lie to you,” she said, softly. “It matters to me. To know I’m not alone.”
“You’ll never be alone again. I promise.”
She stared away from him, knowing this was a promise he could not keep. “Tell me. What would you choose, if you had to?”
“Neither,” Lei said. “And yet how we need them, to keep us together. Duty. Fear. But what they have become . . . Can you choose between the storms and the flood?”
She had no answer.
After a while, he moved away to extinguish the lantern. “I’ll look in my books. I may find some things in the old Annals, something you can use against them.”
Although she did not believe he would find anything, Yi-Sen nodded. “You’re a good man.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “No. I know all my flaws. Do not flatter me.”
“I don’t flatter,” she protested, but he was already leading her away from the reading table.
“Come,” he said. “For this night at least, let us forget them.”
5. Shunliu (Wen-Min Empire), 657 years after the Founding
Yi-Sen stood on the highest floor of the house, watching the streets go up in flames. Peach blossoms fell everywhere like rain, and she wondered whether she saw truly, or only mistook embers for flowers.
A shadow fell across the doorway. “Dai-Yu,” a deep voice said.
Crane. She did not turn around. She knew what he had come for. “That’s not my name.”
“It was your first name. It is your true one.” Crane came closer to her. He smelled old, like dead books, the same smell the magistrate had had, all those years ago. “Your husband is dead, Dai-Yu.”
She had known it as soon as she heard his voice. But still, cold flared in her chest, then spread to every part of her until she felt nothing any more. “And his blood is on your hands. You sent him to defend the tribunal, knowing the mob would kill him.”
“He only did his duty,” Crane said, his voice heavy with malice. “He was first clerk of the tribunal. He had to bar the mob’s entry, to stop the riots.”
“He chose nothing,” she said. “He was your toy.”
“Had you chosen, he would still be alive.”
Rage filled her. “If I had chosen? Did you think to force my hand? Did you think I would tell you that you were in the right, and Tiger wrong?”
Beady eyes shone in the shadows: amused, perhaps. “It is time to choose. Your husband is dead. Will you leave your children to inherit this world, this mad world where rioters can take everything away from you?”
“Do you think I care?” she asked, softly.
Softer footsteps echoed under the ceiling of the room. She heard Tiger’s voice behind her. “Your husband is dead, Dai-Yu. Do you wish to meet the same fate?”
She said nothing. There was no longer room in her for fear. Below her, the city glowed red with fire, resounded with the cries of the mob as they lynched every clerk they could find.
“Choose,” Tiger said.
Crane’s hand on her shoulder tightened its grip. “Choose.”
Storms and floods, Lei had said. How can you choose between them?
Lei was dead, trampled by the mob, all because he had fallen in love with her. She could have wept, but it was not what she needed. She needed to fuel her rage. She needed to gather her courage.
“I told you,” she said. “I won’t choose. I won’t let you force me.”
“You have nowhere to go,” Crane said.
“Give us our answer,” Tiger added.
No escape. There was no escape from them, not ever.
But there was a place where neither of them could go.
“Find someone else,” Yi-Sen said. And, before she could lose her courage, she leapt in one fluid gesture from the open window.
It was only three floors, but her fall seemed to have no end. When she did land, splayed like a puppeteer’s broken doll, pain spread everywhere, in her arms, in her chest, through her heart. Her face was turned towards the sky, and the peach blossoms fell over her like rain.
She could not see Tiger or Crane.
When the darkness came for her, she was smiling.
Interlude: Tenth Court of Hell
The Lady watches the soul come, and stop before her.
“Another life,” she says.
The soul does not move. This time it says nothing, which, of course, does not mean it feels nothing.
“You should know you cannot stay forever in Hell,” the Lady says. “You committed no sin. You did not cheat, or lie, or abuse your power. You earned nothing but a brief respite.”
“Even a few years is enough.”
“You cannot escape forever,” the Lady says.
“No,” the soul says. “It doesn’t matter. Just don’t send me where Lei went.”
“Child, he is not here. He was a virtuous man, and he has earned a stay in the Southern Paradise before his next life.”
The soul remains silent for a while. The Wheel turns.
“I am glad. Our paths won’t cross again. Things are as they should be.”
For the first time, there is pity in the Lady’s voice, barely audible. “Dai-Yu. Give them what they want. You are nothing.”
“I’m the child of the promise,” the soul says. “My power is in making a choice. Or in failing to make it. I won’t relent. Life after life, they destroy me. They kill those I love, as they killed Lei. I owe them nothing.”
“They are fighting,” the Lady says. “In Laijing, the policies from the Imperial Palace are growing more incoherent.”
“There are those,” the Lady says, “who will know how to take advantage of strife. Those who have waited long enough to topple Wen-Min.”
“Yes. But I don’t care.”
“You should,” the Lady says. A wind blows, carrying her words away. “It is time, child. Come.”
And then it starts again, all of it.
6. Wen-Min Empire, 701-987 years after the Founding
She ran. She did not allow herself to love, or even care for anyone. There had been enough deaths.
She became a hermit, endlessly travelling the roads of the Empire. On her travels, she made acquaintances, never keeping them for more than a few moons: merchants on their way to make a fortune; soldiers going to the boundaries to defend against the Hsiung Nu; families made homeless by famines, floods. As the outer edges of the Empire became lost to the Hsiung Nu hordes, she met refugees flung on the roads with nothing but their clothes, people with haunted faces who would not speak about their past.
Even if she made the choice between Tiger and Crane, it would not help them. That would merely replace the Emperor with a tyrant, a power unchecked by any other. She had seen what Tiger and Crane could do. She had learnt to fear them. She hardened her heart, and moved on.
But, no matter how far she went, Tiger and Crane always found her, always pressed her for an answer. And always she took her own life rather than choose.
A brief respite, the Lady had said. But even that was better than nothing.
Interlude: Tenth Court of Hell
The souls meet before the Wheel.
They do not come from the same place. One, the elder, has come through the Nine Courts of Hell. The other has had fewer lives, for, in a former incarnation, it was found so virtuous it earned a stay in the Southern Paradise. And now the stay has ended, and it must be reborn. It has asked for only one thing, and this request was granted.
The Lady knows this should not be happening. But where there are rules, there are exceptions. Not many things can sway the Judges of Hell, but devotion and virtue always find their reward.
“Dai-Yu,” the younger soul says.
The elder of the souls does not move. It looks at the other soul, trying to make out its features. Finally it says, its voice shaking, “Lei? You shouldn’t be here. You should have forgotten.”
“I am where I need to be,” the younger soul says. “Listen, Dai-Yu.”
“No—stay away from me. Crane killed you the last time, just for being my husband. How can you even think of coming here?”
“Dai-Yu,” Lei’s soul says. It reaches out with a translucent finger, tenderly. “I made a promise. I am here.”
“You can do nothing. Stay away. Please. Be reborn in some place where I won’t have to meet you.”
“I did something for you,” Lei’s soul says. “In the Southern Paradise is a library that holds every book ever printed in Wen-Min. I went there, and searched. You are the child of the promise. But did you ever ask yourself who promised you to the Founders?”
The silence, this time, has an almost palpable quality.
“We have forgotten,” Lei’s soul says. “Tiger and Crane rewrote the histories to make us forget.” Its voice takes on a singsong quality. “‘Three philosophers founded the Empire, in a time so far removed that all that remains are myths written on crumbling bamboo strips. And, as philosophers are wont to do, they fell out.’”
“Three . . . “Her soul’s voice is a mere whisper.
“Crane, Tiger,” Lei’s soul says. “And Tortoise. He wouldn’t choose, Dai-Yu. He wouldn’t be the arbiter between Tiger and Crane. So he withdrew to the highest mountain in Wen-Min, but not before promising them there would be a child.”
“I,” Dai-Yu says.
Lei says nothing.
“I need to find him.”
“You won’t. Because he would not take part in the future of the Empire, he was thrown out of it. He became a hermit, wandering on the roads of Wen-Min: a monk answering to no-one—”
“A beggar,” Dai-Yu’s soul whispers.
“It’s nothing. Thank you, Lei.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” Lei’s soul says. “Dai-Yu—”
Their souls brush, part. Something has been exchanged: a kiss, if souls could kiss. A promise, perhaps.
Lei’s soul takes the celadon cup from the Lady’s hands, and drinks. Its light is fading away now, its memories scattering. Dai-Yu’s soul stands by the side, quivering. It does not drink from the cup. It never drinks. For the first time, it occurs to Dai-Yu that it is a blessing, this remembrance.
The Wheel turns, taking its load of souls back into the world of flesh.
7. Mount Xu (Wen-Min Empire), 1021 years after the Founding
There was a temple on Mount Xu. It was not one of the Five Great Temples, not a place where pilgrims would endlessly flock, seeking salvation amidst clouds of incense.
The temple at Mount Xu was a mere pagoda of three storeys. Its slanted roof was made of lacquered wood, ungilded.
It was to this temple that Dai-Yu came, after years of searching; years spent on the roads, from her native city of Yaoxin to fertile Shandong in the south, from windy, arid Menzhou in the east to Laijing, the capital at the centre of the Empire.
The air was warm, promising the sweetness of summer, and pink cherry blossoms littered the path. Dai-Yu, pausing on the last rise, inhaled, and felt the serenity of the place fill her bones, as if all her life had been leading her here.
There was no-one within the pagoda. The path went on, into the gardens, and then deeper into the mountains.
The beggar was waiting for her at the end, sitting in meditation before a waterfall in the shadow of pine trees. It was the same man Dai-Yu had met so many years ago: the same man, with the missing leg and iron crutch, with the rheumy eyes that pierced her soul.
“Dai-Yu,” he said, when she came closer. “Child of the promise.”
“You knew I would come,” Dai-Yu said, angrily. Had she been led here, manipulated since the beginning like a puppet on its strings?
“There are not many mountains in Wen-Min,” the beggar said. “And I have not moved for many years.” He rose. “Come, child. Let us walk.”
“How could you?” Dai-Yu said. “How could you promise me to them, to make the choice you didn’t have the courage to make yourself?”
“They were children. Grasping for what they couldn’t have.” Tortoise’s eyes turned to the waterfall endlessly pouring its water into the misty pool. “There is no choice.”
“Not choosing is a choice.”
“So is running away,” Tortoise said. “So is suicide.”
These references angered her. “You accuse me?”
Tortoise shrugged. “I don’t know, child. I can’t tell you what to do, for I never could find out. There isn’t much time left.”
The sun had sunk below the cover of the trees; already the forest was darkening. Cold spread within Dai-Yu’s bones. “They are coming,” she said.
“Yes,” Tortoise said.
“They knew you would come to me, eventually. They knew the moment you entered this temple, the moment we finally met. For you are the child of the promise,” Tortoise said. “My child.”
It rang true. And yet it was impossible. “No—I have . . . I have parents. I have a human soul. I remember well enough.”
Tortoise reached out, traced the mark on her hand. It sent a tingle of heat up her arm, as it had done, an eternity ago, on the road to Yaoxin. “I made you,” he said. “Who else could have chosen in my stead? Who else would not have to drink the Brew of Oblivion in the Courts of Hell?”
“You are the breath from my breath, the flesh from my flesh, the seed from my seed. Dai-Yu—”
The darkness was almost complete. A cold wind rose, scattering the pine needles on the ground, whispering words of mourning. And Dai-Yu, staring at her maker in the dim light, saw fear in his eyes, and the sallow cast of his skin, and understood that he would not help her, that he had long since forgotten his power. That he, too, was nothing compared to Tiger and Crane.
“No,” she whispered, but the wind carried the word away.
Two shadows coalesced at the heart of the darkness. Dai-Yu watched them take on substance, transfixed.
“Dai-Yu,” Tiger said, in a feline growl. “It is time.”
“Choose,” Crane said.
Wind whipped at Dai-Yu’s sleeves.
Tortoise still stood frozen beside her. “Leave her.”
Tiger laughed. “Too late, brother. You relinquished your mantle to her. Now she must do what you could not.”
“Tiger—” Tortoise said, moving to stand in front of Dai-Yu.
A hand flashed, shining like metal in the darkness. Tortoise fell back, one hand going to his chest, then rising to his face. Blood dripped from it onto the ground, one drop at a time, a soft patter, like rain.
Dai-Yu felt the cut as if it were in her own chest; she stumbled, gasping, then tried to stand.
“My child,” Tortoise whispered. Time slowed, stopped; in that single moment when Tortoise reeled back, she heard the words he was not saying.
Not choosing is a choice.
So is running away.
Fear is a choice.
Dai-Yu, staring at Tortoise’s shocked face, felt a cold certainty rise within her. She moved until she stood before him, seeing the gaping hole in his chest, the same hole Tiger had once opened in Pao’s chest.
She remembered Lei’s words: It would take an equal to resist them. There is no-one in Wen-Min who has their power.
Yet Tortoise had been their equal, once. The power was still within him, but fear prevented him using it.
“Breath from my breath,” she whispered. “Flesh from my flesh.” And, more slowly, “You have relinquished your mantle.”
She laid a hand on Tortoise’s chest, plunged it deep into the wound until she felt the heart beating under her fingers, the sticky heat of it on her skin. Warmth spread up her arm, into her chest, through her whole body, until she shivered with the same rhythm.
Flesh from my flesh.
The warmth rose within her, stronger and hotter. Under her spread fingers, Tortoise was fading, crumbling away to nothing, to dust carried by the wind.
Breath from my breath.
There was nothing where he had been: only dust; only a memory, already fading.
Seed from my seed.
Every part of her tingled now. She turned, slowly, and made her way to Tiger and Crane, facing them for the first time in centuries.
“Tiger,” she said. “Crane.”
All her lives she had run away from the darkness, never once thinking that shadows, undispelled, only grow. She stared at both of them now, shivering, but not with fear. She was their equal.
She raised her hand.
Light sprang up, throwing into sharp relief their faces: the lined, wizened masks of old men; the pale skins of things forever living in shadows.
There was a smell, a musty smell like books left too long untended.
“You are children,” she said.
“No,” Tiger growled, but in the light he was no longer as frightening as he had been.
“Think of the Empire,” Crane sighed.
They were smaller, now, as if the light had robbed them of their majesty; smaller, and ever dwindling.
What would you choose? she had once asked Lei.
She could still remember his answer. Neither. And yet how we need them, to keep us together.
He had been wrong.
Old, dead things. Things that do not die, that keep ageing. Things no longer needed.
“I choose,” Dai-Yu said. And, bending, caught both of them in her hands. “None of you. Let the Empire rise or fall on its own terms.”
They weighed nothing: a leaf; a breath; a length of silk. They shrank under her touch, shrieking their rage in tinny voices, dwindling ever more until they finally fell silent.
In Dai-Yu’s hand was nothing but coldness, and then even that was gone.
She stared at her trembling palm, then at the darkness all around her that distorted the pine trees into demon shadows.
“It is ended,” she whispered, and did not know whether to smile or laugh. Tortoise’s power coursed within her, begging to be used, to shape things as they should be. But she, who had seen what power could do, quelled it.
She saw, for the first time, the life that would be hers: free from the shadow of fear; free to make her own choices, to love and be loved in return; to raise her children in peace. Free at last, she thought, with a smile.
She walked away from the pool, her hands as empty as when she came, seeing the paths of her future before her, like so many flowers she could pick.
Epilogue: the Wheel
In the Tenth Court of Hell, the Lady waits before the Wheel. To every soul that passes she hands the celadon cup, and watches them drink until every memory has scattered away.
There is no exception.
Not any more.
© 2010 by Aliette De Bodard.
Originally published in Greatest Uncommon Denominator.
Reprinted by permission of the author.