Beginning in the eighth century, the Imperial court of Tang Dynasty China increasingly relied on military governors—the jiedushi—whose responsibilities began with border defense but gradually encompassed taxation, civil administration, and other aspects of political power. They were, in fact, independent feudal warlords whose accountability to Imperial authority was nominal.
Rivalry among the governors was often violent and bloody.
• • • •
On the morning after my tenth birthday, spring sunlight dapples the stone slabs of the road in front of our house through the blooming branches of the pagoda tree. I climb out onto the thick bough pointing west like an immortal’s arm and reach for a strand of yellow flowers, anticipating the sweet taste tinged with a touch of bitterness.
“Alms, young mistress?”
I look down and see a bhikkhuni. I can’t tell how old she is—her face is unlined but there is a fortitude in her dark eyes that reminds me of my grandmother. The light fuzz over her shaved head glows in the warm sun like a halo, and her gray kasaya is clean but tattered at the hem. She holds up a wooden bowl in her left hand, gazing up at me expectantly.
“Would you like some pagoda tree flowers?” I ask.
She smiles. “I haven’t had any since I was a young girl. It would be a delight.”
“If you stand below me, I’ll drop some into your bowl,” I say, reaching for the silk pouch on my back.
She shakes her head. “I can’t eat flowers that have been touched by another hand—too infected with the mundane concerns of this dusty world.”
“Then climb up yourself,” I say. Immediately I feel ashamed at my annoyance.
“If I get them myself, they wouldn’t be alms now would they?” There’s a hint of laughter in her voice.
“All right,” I say. Father has always taught me to be polite to the monks and nuns. We may not follow the Buddhist teachings, but it doesn’t make sense to antagonize the spirits, whether they are Daoist, Buddhist, or wild spirits who rely on no learned masters at all. “Tell me which flowers you want; I’ll try to get them for you without touching them.”
She points to some flowers at the end of a slim branch below my bough. They are paler in color than the flowers from the rest of the tree, which means they are sweeter. But the branch they dangle from is much too thin for me to climb.
I hook my knees around the thick bough I’m on and lean back until I’m dangling upside down like a bat. It’s fun to see the world this way, and I don’t care that the hem of my dress is flapping around my face. Father always yells at me when he sees me like this, but he never stays angry at me for too long, on account of my losing my mother when I was just a baby.
Wrapping my hands in the loose folds of my sleeves, I try to grab for the flowers. But I’m still too far from the branch she wants, those white flowers tantalizingly just out of reach.
“If it’s too much trouble,” the nun calls out, “don’t worry about it. I don’t want you to tear your dress.”
I bite my bottom lip, determined to ignore her. By tightening and flexing the muscles in my belly and thighs, I begin to swing back and forth. When I’ve reached the apex of an upswing I judge to be high enough, I let go with my knees.
As I plunge through the leafy canopy, the flowers she wants brush by my face and I snap my teeth around a strand. My fingers grab the lower branch, which sinks under my weight and slows my momentum as my body swings back upright. For a moment, it seems as if the branch would hold, but then I hear a crisp snap and feel suddenly weightless.
I tuck my knees under me and manage to land in the shade of the pagoda tree, unharmed. Immediately, I roll out of the way, and the flower-laden branch crashes to the spot on the ground I just vacated a moment later.
I walk nonchalantly up to the nun and open my jaw to drop the strand of flowers into her alms bowl. “No dust. And you only said no hands.”
• • • •
In the shade of the pagoda tree, we sit with our legs crossed in the lotus position like the buddhas in the temple. She picks the flowers off the stem: one for her, one for me. The sweetness is lighter and less cloying than the sugar dough figurines Father sometimes buys me.
“You have a talent,” she says. “You’d make a good thief.”
I look at her, indignant. “I’m a general’s daughter.”
“Are you?” she says. “Then you’re already a thief.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I have walked many miles,” she says. I look at her bare feet: The bottoms are callused and leathery. “I see peasants starving in fields while the great lords plot and scheme for bigger armies. I see ministers and generals drink wine from ivory cups and conduct calligraphy with their piss on silk scrolls while orphans and widows must make one cup of rice last five days.”
“Just because we are not poor doesn’t make us thieves. My father serves his lord, the Jiedushi of Weibo, with honor and carries out his duties faithfully.”
“We’re all thieves in this world of suffering,” the nun says. “Honor and faith are not virtues, only excuses for stealing more.”
“Then you’re a thief as well,” I say, anger making my face glow with heat. “You accept alms and do no work to earn it.”
She nods. “I am indeed. The Buddha teaches us that the world is an illusion, and suffering is inevitable as long as we do not see through it. If we’re all fated to be thieves, it’s better to be a thief who adheres to a code that transcends the mundane.”
“What is your code then?”
“To disdain the moral pronouncements of hypocrites; to be true to my word; to always do what I promise, no more and no less. To hone my talent and wield it like a beacon in a darkening world.”
I laugh. “What is your talent, Mistress Thief?”
“I steal lives.”
• • • •
The inside of the cabinet is dark and warm, the air redolent of camphor. By the faint light coming through the slit between the doors, I arrange the blankets around me to make a cozy nest.
The footsteps of patrolling soldiers echo through the hallway outside my bedroom. Each time one of them turns a corner, the clanging of armor and sword marks the passage of another fraction of an hour, bringing me closer to morning.
The conversation between the bhikkhuni and my father replays through my mind.
“Give her to me. I will have her as my student.”
“Much as I’m flattered by the Buddha’s kind attention, I must decline. My daughter’s place is at home, by my side.”
“You can give her to me willingly, or I can take her away without your blessing.”
“Are you threatening me with a kidnapping? Know that I’ve made my living on the tip of a sword, and my house is guarded by fifty armed men who will give their lives for their young mistress.”
“I never threaten; I simply inform. Even if you keep her in an iron chest ringed about with bronze chains at the bottom of the ocean, I will take her away as easily as I cut your beard with this dagger.”
There was a cold, bright, metallic flash. Father drew his sword, the grinding noise of blade against sheath wringing my heart so that it leaped wildly.
But the bhikkuni was already gone, leaving behind a few loose strands of gray hair floating gently to the floor in the slanted rays of the sunlight. My father, stunned, held his hand against the side of his face where the dagger had brushed against his skin.
The hairs landed; my father removed his hand. There was a patch of denuded skin on his cheek, as pale as the stones slabs of the road in the morning sun. No blood.
“Do not be afraid, Daughter. I will triple the guards tonight. The spirit of your dear departed mother will guard you.”
But I’m afraid. I am afraid. I think about the glow of sunlight around the nun’s head. I like my long, thick hair, which the maids tell me resemble my mother’s, and she had combed her hair a hundred times each night before she went to sleep. I don’t want to have my head shaved.
I think about the glint of metal in the nun’s hand, quicker than the eye can follow.
I think about the strands of hair from my father’s beard drifting to the floor.
The light from the oil lamp outside the closet door flickers. I scramble to the corner of the closet and squeeze my eyes tightly shut.
There is no noise. Just a draft that caresses my face. Softly, like the flapping wings of a moth.
I open my eyes. For a moment, I don’t understand what I’m seeing.
Suspended about three feet from my face is an oblong object, about the size of my forearm and shaped like the cocoon of a silkworm. Glowing like a sliver of the moon, it gives off a light that is without warmth, shadowless. Fascinated, I crawl closer.
No, an “object” isn’t quite right. The cold light spills out of it like melting ice, along with the draft that whips my hair about my face. It is more like the absence of substance, a rip in the murky interior of the cabinet, a negative object that consumes darkness and turns it into light.
My throat feels parched and I swallow, hard. Fingers trembling, I reach out to touch the glow. A half second of hesitation, then I make contact.
Or no contact. There is no skin-searing heat nor bone-freezing chill. My impression of the object as a negative is confirmed as my fingers touch nothing. And neither do they emerge from the other side—they’ve simply vanished into the glow, as though I’m plunging my hand into a hole in space.
I jerk my hand back out and examine my fingers, wiggling them. No damage as far as I can see.
A hand reaches out from the rip, grabs my arm, and pulls me toward the light. Before I can scream, blazing light blinds me, and I’m overwhelmed by the sensation of falling, falling from the tip of a heaven-reaching pagoda tree toward an earth that never comes.
• • • •
The mountain floats among the clouds like an island.
I’ve tried to find my way down, but always, I get lost among the foggy woods. Just go down, down, I tell myself. But the fog thickens until it takes on substance, and no matter how hard I push, the wall of clouds refuses to yield. Then I have no choice but to sit down, shivering, wringing the condensation out of my hair. Some of the wetness is from tears, but I won’t admit that.
She materializes out of the fog. Wordlessly, she beckons me to follow her back up the peak; I obey.
“You’re not very good at hiding,” she says.
There is no response to that. If she could steal me from a cabinet inside a general’s house guarded by walls and soldiers, I suppose there’s nowhere I can hide from her.
We emerge from the woods back onto the sun-drenched peak. A gust of wind brushes past us, whipping up the fallen leaves into a storm of gold and crimson.
“Are you hungry?” she asks, her voice not unkind.
I nod. Something about her tone catches me off guard. Father never asks me if I’m hungry, and I sometimes dream of my mother making me a breakfast of freshly baked bread and fermented beans. It’s been three days since the bhikkhuni had taken me here, and I’ve not eaten anything but some sour berries I found in the woods and a few bitter roots I dug from the ground.
“Come along,” she says.
She takes me up a zigzagging path carved into the face of a cliff. The path is so narrow that I dare not look down but shuffle along, my face and body pressed against the rock face and my outstretched hands clinging to dangling vines like a gecko. The bhikkhuni, on the other hand, strides along the path as though she’s walking in the middle of a wide avenue in Chang’an. She waits patiently at each turn for me to catch up.
I hear the faint sounds of clanking metal above me. Having dug my feet into depressions along the path and tested the vine in my hands to be sure it’s rooted securely to the mountain, I look up.
Two young women, about fourteen years of age, are fighting with swords in the air. No, fighting isn’t quite the right word. It’s more accurate to call their movements a dance.
One of the women, dressed in a white robe, pushes off the cliff with both feet while holding onto a vine with her left hand. She swings away from the cliff in a wide arc, her legs stretched out before her in a graceful pose that reminds me of the apsaras—flying nymphs who make their home in the clouds—painted on scrolls in the temples. The sword in her right hand glints in the sunlight like a shard of heaven.
As her sword tip approaches her opponent on the cliff, the other woman lets go of the vine she’s hanging on to and leaps straight up. The black robe billows around her like the wings of a giant moth, and as her ascent slows, she flips herself at the apex of her arc and tumbles toward the woman in white like a diving hawk, her sword arm leading as a beak.
The tips of their swords collide, and a spark lights up the air like an exploding firework. The sword in the hand of the woman in black bends into a crescent, slowing her descent until she is standing inverted in the air, supported only by the tip of her adversary’s blade.
Both women punch out with their free hands, palms open.
A crisp blow reverberates in the air. The woman in black lands against the mountain face, where she attaches herself by deftly wrapping a vine around her ankle. The woman in white completes her arced swing back to the rock, and, like a dragonfly dipping its tail into the still pond, pushes off again for another assault.
I watch, mesmerized, as the two swordswomen pursue, dodge, strike, feint, punch, kick, slash, glide, tumble, and stab across the webbing of vines over the face of the sheer cliff, thousands of feet above the roiling clouds below, defying both gravity and mortality. They are graceful as birds flitting across a swaying bamboo forest, quick as mantises leaping across a dew-dappled web, impossible as the immortals of legends whispered by hoarse-voiced bards in teahouses.
Also, I notice with relief that they both have thick, flowing, beautiful hair. Perhaps shaving is not required to be the bhikkhuni’s student.
“Come,” the bhikkhuni beckons, and I obediently make my way over to the small stone platform jutting into the air from the bend in the path. “I guess you really are hungry,” she observes, a hint of laughter in her voice. Embarrassed, I close my jaw, still hanging open from shock at seeing the sparring girls.
With the clouds far below our feet and the wind whipping around us, it feels like the world I’ve known all my life has fallen away.
“Here.” She points to a pile of bright pink peaches at the end of the platform, each about the size of my fist. “The hundred-year-old monkeys who live in the mountains gather these from deep in the clouds, where the peach trees absorb the essence of the heavens. After eating one of these, you won’t be hungry for a full ten days. If you become thirsty, you can drink the dew from the vines and the spring water in the cave that is our dormitory.”
The two sparring girls have climbed down from the cliff onto the platform behind us. They each take a peach.
“I will show you where you’ll sleep, Little Sister,” says the girl in white. “I’m Jinger. If you get scared from the howling wolves at night, you can crawl into my bed.”
“I’m sure you’ve never had anything as sweet as this peach,” says the girl in black. “I’m Konger. I’ve studied with Teacher the longest and know all the fruits of this mountain.”
“Have you had pagoda tree flowers?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “Maybe someday you can show me.”
I bite into the peach. It is indescribably sweet and melts against my tongue as though it’s made of pure snow. Yet, as soon as I’ve swallowed a mouthful, my belly warms with the heat of its sustenance. I believe that the peach really will last me ten days. I’ll believe anything my teacher tells me.
“Why have you taken me?” I ask.
“Because you have a talent, Yinniang,” she says.
I suppose that is my name now. The Hidden Girl.
“But talents must be cultivated,” she continues. “Will you be a pearl buried in the mud of the endless East Sea, or will you shine so brightly as to awaken those who only doze through life and light up a mundane world?”
“Teach me to fly and fight like them,” I say, licking the sweet peach juice from my hands. I will become a great thief, I tell myself. I will steal my life back from you.
She nods thoughtfully and looks into the distance, where the setting sun has turned the clouds into a sea of golden splendor and crimson gore.
• • • •
Six years later:
The wheels of the donkey cart grind to a stop.
Without warning, Teacher rips the blindfold away from my eyes and digs out the silk plugs in my ears. I struggle against the sudden bright sun and the sea of noise—the braying of donkeys; the whinnying of horses; the clanging of cymbals and the wailing of erhus from some folk opera troupe; the thumping and thudding of goods being loaded and unloaded; the singing, shouting, haggling, laughing, arguing, pontificating that make up the symphony of a metropolis.
While I’m still recovering from my journey in the swaying darkness, Teacher has jumped down to the ground to leash the donkey to a roadside post. We’re in some provincial capital, that much I know—indeed, the smell of a hundred different varieties of fried dough and candied apples and horse manure and exotic perfume already told me as much even before the blindfold was off—but I can’t tell exactly where. I strain to catch snippets of conversation from the bustling city around me, but the topolect is unfamiliar.
The pedestrians passing by our cart bow to Teacher. “Amitabha,” they say.
Teacher holds up a hand in front of her chest and bows back. “Amitabha,” she says back.
I may be anywhere in the empire.
“We’ll have lunch, then you can rest up at the inn over there,” says Teacher.
“What about my task?” I ask. I’m nervous. This is the first time I’ve been away from the mountain since she’s taken me.
She looks at me with a complicated expression, halfway between pity and amusement. “So eager?”
I bite my bottom lip, not answering.
“You will choose your own method and time,” she says, her tone as placid as the cloudless sky. “I’ll be back on the third night. Good hunting.”
• • • •
“Keep your eyes open and your limbs loose,” she said. “Remember everything I’ve taught you.”
Teacher had summoned two mist hawks from nearby peaks, each the size of a full-grown man. Iron blades extended from their talons, and steel glinted from their vicious curved beaks. They circled above me, alternately emerging from and disappearing into the cloud-mist, their screeches mournful and proud.
Jinger handed me a small dagger about five inches in length. It seemed utterly inadequate for the task. My hand shook as I wrapped my fingers around the handle.
“What can be seen is not all,” she said.
“Be aware of what is hidden,” Konger added.
“You will be fine,” Jinger said, squeezing my shoulder.
“The world is full of illusions cast by the unseen Truth,” Konger said. Then she leaned in to whisper in my ear, her breath warm against my cheek, “I still have a scar on the back of my neck from my time with the hawks.”
They backed off and faded into the mist, leaving me alone with the raptors and Teacher’s voice coming from the vines above me.
“Why do we kill?” I asked.
The hawks took turns to swoop down, feinting and testing my defenses. I leapt out of the way reflexively, brandishing my dagger to ward them off.
“This is a time of chaos,” Teacher said. “The great lords of the land are filled with ambition. They take everything they can from the people they’re sworn to protect, shepherds who have turned into wolves preying on their flocks. They increase the taxes until all the walls in their palaces are gleaming with gold and silver; they take sons away from mothers until their armies swell like the current of the Yellow River; they plot and scheme and redraw lines on maps as though the country is nothing but a platter of sand, upon which the peasants creep and crawl like terrified ants.”
One of the hawks turned to dive at me. A real attack, not a test. I crouched into a defensive stance, the dagger in my right hand held up to guard my face, my left hand on the ground for stability. I kept my eyes on the hawk, letting everything fade into the background except the bright reflections from the sharp beak and talons, like a constellation in the night sky.
The hawk loomed in my vision. A light breeze brushed the back of my neck. The raptor extended its talons and flapped its wings, trying to slow its dive at the last minute.
“Who is to say that one governor is right? Or that another general is wrong?” she asked. “The man who seduces his lord’s wife may be doing so to get close to a tyrant and exact vengeance. The woman who demands rice for the peasantry from her patron may be doing so to further her own ambition. We live in a time of chaos, and the only moral choice is to be amoral. The great lords hire us to strike at their enemies. And we carry out our missions with dedication and loyalty, true and deadly as a crossbow bolt.”
I got ready to spring out of my crouch to slash at the hawk, and then I remembered the words of my sisters.
“. . . What can be seen is not all . . . I still have a scar on the back of my neck.”
I dropped to the ground and rolled to the left, the talons of the hawk who had been trying to sneak up behind me missing only by inches. It collided with its companion in the spot where my head had been but a moment ago like a diver meeting her reflection at the surface of the pool. There was a tangle of beating wings and angry screeching.
I lunged at the storm of feathers. One, two, three slashes, quicker than lightning. The hawks tumbled down, their wings crumpling as they struck the ground. Blood from the clean cuts in their throats pooled on the stone platform.
There was also blood seeping from my shoulder where the rough rocks had scraped the skin during my roll. But I had survived, and my foes had not.
“Why do we kill?” I asked again, still panting from the exertion. I had killed wild apes before, and forest panthers and bamboo grove tigers. But a pair of mist hawks were the hardest kill yet, the height of the assassin’s art. “Why do we serve as the talons of the powerful?”
“We are the winter snowstorm descending upon a house rotten with termites,” she said. “Only by hurrying the decay of the old can we bring about the rebirth of the new. We are the vengeance of a weary world.”
Jinger and Konger emerged from the mist to sprinkle corpse-dissolving powder on the hawks and to bandage my wound.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“You need to practice more,” said Jinger, but her tone was kind.
“I have to keep you alive.” Konger’s eyes flashed mischievously. “You promised to get me some pagoda tree flowers, remember?”
• • • •
The thin crescent of the moon hangs from the tip of a branch of the ancient pagoda tree outside the governor’s mansion as the night watchman rings the midnight hour. The shadows in the streets are thick as ink, the same color as my silk leggings, tight tunic, and the cloth mask over my nose and mouth.
I’m upside down, my feet hooked to the top of the wall and my body pressed against the flat surface like a clinging vine. Two soldiers pass below me on their patrol route. If they looked up, they’d think I was just a part of the shadows or a sleeping bat.
As soon as they’re gone, I arch my back and flip onto the wall. I scramble along the top, quieter than a cat, until I’m opposite the roof of the central hall of the compound. Snapping my coiled legs, I sail across the gap in a single leap and melt into the shingles on the gentle curve of the roof.
There are, of course, far stealthier ways to break into a well-protected compound, but I like to stay in this world, to remain surrounded by the night breeze and the distant hoots of the owl.
Carefully, I pry off a glazed roofing tile and peek into the gap. Through the latticed under-roof I see a brightly lit hall paved with stones. A middle-aged man sits on a dais at the eastern end, his eyes intent upon a bundle of papers, flipping through the pages slowly. I see a birthmark the shape of a butterfly on his left cheek and a jade collar around his neck.
He is the jiedushi I’m supposed to kill.
“Steal his life, and your apprenticeship will be completed,” Teacher said. “This is your last test.”
“What has he done that he deserves to die?” I asked.
“Does it matter? It is enough that a man who once saved my life wants this man to die, and that he has paid handsomely for it. We amplify the forces of ambition and strife; we hold on to only our code.”
I crawl over the roof, my palms and feet gliding over the tiles smoothly, making no sound—Teacher trained us by having us glide across the valley lake in March, when the ice is so thin that even squirrels sometimes fall through and drown. I feel one with the night, my senses sharpened like the tip of my dagger. Excitement is tinged with a hint of sorrow, like the first stroke of the paintbrush on a fresh sheet of paper.
Now that I’m directly above where the governor is sitting, once again I pry off one tile, then another. I make a hole big enough for me to slink through. Then I take out the grappling hook from my pouch—painted black to prevent reflections—and toss it to the apex ridge so that the claws dig in securely. Then I tie the silk cord around my waist.
I look down through the hole in the roof. The jiedushi is still where he was, oblivious to the mortal danger over his head.
For a moment I suffer the illusion that I’m back in the great pagoda tree in front of my house, looking through a hole in the swaying leaves at my father.
But the moment passes. I’m going to dive through like a cormorant, slit his throat, strip off his clothes, and sprinkle corpse-dissolving powder all over his skin. Then, as he lies there on the stone floor, still twitching, I will take flight back to the ceiling and make my escape. By the time servants discover the remains of his body, barely more than a skeleton, I will be long gone. Teacher will declare my apprenticeship to be at an end, myself an equal of my sisters.
I take a deep breath. My body is coiled. I’ve trained and practiced for this moment for six years. I’m ready.
I hold still.
The boy who emerges from behind the curtains is about six years old, his hair tied into a neat little braid that points straight up like the tail of a rooster.
“What are you doing still up?” the man asks. “Be a good boy and go back to sleep.”
“I can’t sleep,” the boy says. “I heard a noise, and I saw a shadow moving on the courtyard wall.”
“Just a cat,” the man says. The boy looks unconvinced. The man looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “All right, come over.”
He sets the papers aside on the low desk next to him. The boy scrambles into his lap.
“Shadows are nothing to be afraid of,” he says. Then he proceeds to make a series of shadow puppets with his hands held against the reading light. He teaches the boy how to make a butterfly, a puppy, a bat, a sinuous dragon. The boy laughs in delight. Then the boy makes a kitten to chase his father’s butterfly across the papered windows of the large hall.
“Shadows are given life by light, and they also die by light.” The man stops fluttering his fingers and lets his hands fall by his side. “Go to sleep, child. In the morning you can chase real butterflies in the garden.”
The boy, heavy-eyed, nods and leaves quietly.
On the roof, I hesitate. The boy’s laughter will not leave my mind. Can the girl stolen from her family steal family away from another child? Is this the moral pronouncement of a hypocrite?
“Thank you for waiting until my son has left,” the man says.
I freeze. There’s no one in the hall but him, and he’s too loud to be talking to himself.
“I prefer not to shout,” he says, his eyes still on the bundle of papers. “It would be easier if you came down.”
The pounding of my heart is a roar in my ears. I should flee immediately. This is probably a trap. If I went down, he might have soldiers in ambush or some mechanism under the floor of the hall to capture me. Yet, something in his voice compels me to obey.
I drop through the hole in the roof, the silk cord attached to the grappling hook looped about my waist a few times to slow my descent. I land gently before the dais, silent as a snowflake.
“How did you know?” I ask. The bricks at my feet have not flipped open to reveal a yawning pit and no soldiers have rushed from behind the screens. But my hands grip the cord tightly and my knees are ready to snap. I can still complete my mission if he truly is defenseless.
“Children have sharper ears than their parents,” he says. “And I have long made shadow puppets for my own amusement while reading late at night. I know how much the lights in this hall usually flicker without the draft from a new opening in the ceiling.”
I nod. It’s a good lesson for the next time. My right hand moves to grasp the handle of the dagger in the sheath at the small of my back.
“Jiedushi Lu of Chenxu is ambitious,” he says. “He has coveted my territory for a long time, thinking of pressing the young men in its rich fields into his army. If you strike me down, there will be no one to stand between him and the throne in Chang’an. Millions will die as his rebellion sweeps across the empire. Hundreds of thousands of children will become orphans. Ghostly multitudes will wander the land, their souls unable to rest as beasts pick through their corpses.”
The numbers he speaks of are vast, like the countless grains of sand suspended in the turbid waters of the Yellow River. I can’t make any sense of them. “He saved my teacher’s life once,” I say.
“And so you will do as she asks, blind to all other concerns?”
“The world is rotten through,” I say. “I have my duty.”
“I cannot say that my hands are free of blood. Perhaps this is what comes of making compromises.” He sighs. “Will you at least allow me two days to put my affairs in order? My wife departed this world when my son was born, and I have to arrange for his care.”
I stare at him. I can’t treat the boy’s laughter as an illusion.
I picture the governor surrounding his house with thousands of soldiers; I picture him hiding in the cellar, trembling like a leaf in autumn; I picture him on the road away from this city, whipping his horse again and again, grimacing like a desperate marionette.
As if reading my mind, he says, “I will be here, alone, in two nights. I give you my word.”
“What is the word of a man about to die worth?” I counter.
“As much as the word of an assassin,” he says.
I nod and leap up. Scrambling up the dangling rope as swiftly as I ascend one of the vines on the cliff at home, I disappear through the hole in the roof.
• • • •
I’m not worried about the jiedushi’s escaping. I’ve been trained well, and I will catch him no matter where he runs. I’d rather give him the chance to spend some time saying good-bye to his little boy; it seems right.
I wander the markets of the city, soaking up the smell of fried dough and caramelized sugar. My stomach growls at the memory of foods I have not had in six years. Eating peaches and drinking dew may have purified my spirit, but the flesh still yearns for earthly sweetness.
I speak to the vendors in the language of the court, and at least some of them have a passing mastery of it.
“That is very skillfully made,” I say, looking at a sugar dough general on a stick. The figurine is wearing a bright red war cape glazed with jujube juice. My mouth waters.
“Would you like to have it?” the vendor asks. “It’s very fresh, young mistress. I made it only this morning. The filling is lotus paste.”
“I don’t have any money,” I say regretfully. Teacher gave me only enough money for lodging, and a dried peach for food.
The vendor considers me and seems to make up his mind. “By your accent I take it you’re not a local?”
“Away from home to find a pool of tranquility in this chaotic world?”
“Something like that,” I say.
He nods, as if this explains everything. He hands the stick of the sugar general to me. “From one wanderer to another, then. This is a good place to settle.”
I accept the gift and thank him. “Where are you from?”
“Chenxu. I abandoned my fields and ran away when the Jiedushi Lu’s men came to my village to draft boys and men for the army. I had already lost my father, and I wasn’t interested in dying to add color to his war cape. That figurine is modeled after Jiedushi Lu. It gives me pleasure to watch patrons bite his head off.”
I laugh and oblige him. The sugar dough melts on the tongue, and the succulent lotus paste that oozes out is delightful.
I walk about the alleyways and streets of the city, savoring every bite of the sugar dough figurine as I listen to snatches of conversation wafting from the doors of teahouses and passing carriages.
“. . . why should we send her across the city to learn dance? . . .”
“The magistrate isn’t going to look kindly on such deception . . .”
“. . . the best fish I’ve ever had! It was still flapping . . .”
“. . . how can you tell? What did he say? Tell me, sister, tell . . .”
The rhythm of life flows around me, buoying me up like the sea of clouds on the mountain when I swing from vine to vine. I think about the words of the man I’m supposed to kill:
Millions will die as his rebellion sweeps across the empire. Hundreds of thousands of children will become orphans. Ghostly multitudes will wander the land.
I think about his son, and the shadows flitting across the walls of the vast, empty hall. Something in my heart throbs to the music of this world, at once mundane and holy. The grains of sand swirling in the water resolve into individual faces, laughing, crying, yearning, dreaming.
• • • •
On the third night, the crescent moon is a bit wider, the wind a bit chillier, and the hooting of the owls in the distance a shade more ominous.
I scale the wall of the governor’s compound as before. The patrolling patterns of the soldiers have not changed. This time, I crouch even lower and move even more silently across the branch-thin top of the wall and the uneven surface of roofing tiles. I’m back at the familiar spot; I pry up a roof tile that I had put back two nights earlier and press my eye against the slit to block the draft, anticipating at any moment masked guards leaping out of the darkness, to spring their trap.
Not to worry—I’m ready.
But there are no shouts of alarm and no clanging of the gong. I gaze down into the well-lit hall. He is sitting in the same spot, a stack of papers on the desk by him.
I listen hard for the footsteps of a child. Nothing. The boy has been sent away.
I examine the floor of the hall beneath where the man sits. It’s strewn with straw. The sight confuses me for a moment before I realize that it’s an act of kindness. He wants to keep his blood from staining the bricks so that whoever has to clean up the mess will have an easier time.
The man sits in the lotus position, eyes closed, a beatific smile on his face like a statue of the Buddha.
Gently, I place the tile back in place and disappear into the night like a breeze.
• • • •
“Why have you not completed your task?” Teacher asks. My sisters stand behind her, two arhats guarding their mistress.
“He was playing with his child,” I say. I hold on to the explanation like a vine swaying over an abyss.
She sighs. “Next time this happens, you should kill the boy first, so that you’re no longer distracted.”
I shake my head.
“It is a trick. He is playing upon your sympathies. The powerful are all actors upon a stage, their hearts as unfathomable as shadows.”
“That may be,” I say. “Still, he kept his word and was willing to die at my hand. I believe other things he’s told me may be true as well.”
“How do you know he is not as ambitious as the man he maligns? How do you know he is not only being kind in service of a greater cruelty in the future?”
“No one knows the future,” I say. “The house may be rotten through, but I’m unwilling to be the hand that brings it tumbling down upon the ants seeking a pool of tranquility.”
She stares at me. “What of loyalty? What of obedience to your teacher? What of carrying out that which you promised to do?”
“I’m not meant to be a thief of lives,” I say.
“So much talent,” she says; then, after a pause, “Wasted.”
Something about her tone makes me shiver. Then I look behind her and see that Jinger and Konger are gone.
“If you leave,” she says, “you’re no longer my student.”
I look at her unlined face and not unkind eyes. I think about the times she bandaged my legs after I fell from the vines in the early days. I think about the time she fought off the bamboo grove bear when it proved too much for me. I think about the nights she held me and taught me to see through the world’s illusions to the truth beneath.
She had taken me away from my family, but she has also been the closest thing to a mother I know.
I crouch and leap like a bounding tiger, like a soaring wild ape, like a hawk taking flight. I smash through the window of the room in the inn and dive into the ocean that is night.
• • • •
“I’m not here to kill you,” I say.
The man nods, as if this is entirely expected.
“My sisters—Jinger, also known as the Heart of Lightning, and Konger, the Empty-Handed—have been dispatched to complete what I cannot.”
“I will summon my guards,” he says, standing up.
“That won’t do any good,” I tell him. “Jinger can steal your soul even if you were hiding inside a bell at the bottom of the ocean, and Konger is even more skillful.”
He smiled. “Then I will face them alone. Thank you for the warning so that my men do not die needlessly.”
A faint shrieking noise, like a distant troop of howling monkeys, can be heard in the night. “There’s no time to explain,” I tell him. “Give me your red scarf.”
He does, and I tie the scarf about my waist. “You will see things that seem beyond comprehension. Whatever happens, keep your eye on this scarf and stay away from it.”
The howling grows louder. It seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. Jinger is here.
Before he has time to question me further, I rip open a seam in space and crawl in to vanish from his sight, leaving only the tip of the bright red scarf dangling behind.
• • • •
“Imagine that space is a sheet of paper,” Teacher said. “An ant crawling on this sheet of paper is aware of breadth and depth, but has no awareness of height.”
I looked at the ant she had sketched on the paper, expectant.
“The ant is terrified of danger, and builds a wall around him, thinking that such an impregnable barrier will keep him safe.
Teacher sketches a ring around the ant.
“But unbeknownst to the ant, a knife is poised above him. It is not part of the ant’s world, invisible to him. The wall he has built will do nothing to protect him against a strike from a hidden direction—”
She throws her dagger at the paper, pinning the painted ant to the ground.
“You may think width, depth, and height are the only dimensions of the world, Hidden Girl, but you’d be wrong. You have lived your life as an ant on a sheet of paper, and the truth is far more wondrous.”
• • • •
I emerge into the space above space, the space within space, the hidden space.
Everything gains a new dimension—the walls, the floor tiles, the flickering torches, the astonished face of the governor. It is as if the governor’s skin has been pulled away to reveal everything underneath: I see his beating heart, his pulsating intestines, the blood streaming through his transparent vessels, his gleaming white bones as well as the velvety marrow stuffed inside like jujube-stained lotus paste. I see each grain of shiny mica inside each brick; I see ten thousand immortals dancing inside each flame.
No, that’s not quite accurate. I have not the words to describe what I see. I see a million billion layers to everything at once, like an ant who has always seen a line before him suddenly lifted off the page to realize the perfection of a circle. This is the perspective of the Buddha, who comprehends the incomprehensibility of Indra’s net, which connects the smallest mote at the tip of a flea’s foot to the grandest river of innumerable stars that spans the sky at night.
This was how, years ago, Teacher had penetrated the walls of my father’s compound, evaded my father’s soldiers, and seized me from within the tightly sealed cabinet.
I see the approaching white robe of Jinger, bobbing like a glowing jellyfish in the vast deep. She ululates as she approaches, a single voice making a cacophony of howling that sends terror into the hearts of her victims.
“Little Sister, what are you doing here?”
I lift my dagger. “Please, Jinger, go back.”
“You’ve always been a bit too stubborn,” she says.
“We have eaten from the same peach and bathed in the same cold mountain spring,” I say. “You taught me how to climb the vines and how to pick the ice lilies for my hair. I love you like a sister of the blood. Please, don’t do this.”
She looks sad. “I can’t. Teacher has promised.”
“There’s a greater promise we all must live by: to do what our heart tells us is right.”
She lifts her sword. “Because I love you like a sister, I will let you strike at me without hitting back. If you can hit me before I kill the governor, I will leave.”
I nod. “Thank you. And I’m sorry it’s come to this.”
The hidden space has its own structure, made from dangling thin strands that glow faintly with an inner light. To move in this space, Jinger and I leap from vine to vine and swing from filament to filament, climbing, tumbling, pivoting, lurching, dancing on a lattice woven from starlight and lambent ice.
I lunge after her; she easily dodges out of the way. She has always been the best at vine fighting and cloud dancing. She glides and swings as gracefully as an immortal of the heavenly court. Compared to her, my moves are lumbering, heavy, lacking all finesse.
As she dances away from my strikes, she counts them off: “One, two, three-four-five . . . very nice, Hidden Girl, you’ve been practicing. Six-seven-eight, nine, ten . . .” Once in a while, when I get too close, she parries my dagger with her sword as effortlessly as a dozing man swats away a fly.
Almost pityingly, she swivels out of my way and swings toward the governor. Like a knife poised above the page, she’s completely invisible to him, falling upon him from another dimension.
I lurch after her, hoping that I’m close enough to her for my plan to work.
The governor, seeing the red scarf I dangle into his world approach, drops to the ground and rolls out of the way. Jinger’s sword pierces through the veil between dimensions and, in that world, a sword emerges from the air and smashes the desk the governor was sitting behind into smithereens before disappearing.
“Eh? How can he see me coming?”
Without giving her a chance to figure out my trick, I launch a fusillade of dagger strikes. “Thirty-one, thirty-two-three-four-five-six . . . you’re really getting better at this . . .”
We dance around in the space “above” the hall—there’s no word for this direction—and each time, as Jinger goes after the governor, I try to stay right next to her to warn the governor of the hidden danger. Try as I might, I can’t touch her at all. I can feel myself getting tired, slowing down.
I flex my legs and swing after her again, but this time, I’m careless and come too close to the wall of the hall. My dangling scarf catches on the sconce for a torch and I fall to my feet.
Jinger looks at me and laughs. “So that’s how you’ve been doing it! Clever, Hidden Girl. But now the game is over, and I’m about to claim my prize.”
If she strikes at the governor now, he won’t have any warning at all. I’m stuck here.
The scarf catches fire, and the flame erupts into the hidden space. I scream with terror as the flame engulfs my robe.
With three quick leaps, Jinger is back on the same strand I’m on; she whips off her white robe and wraps it around me, helping me smother the flames.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
The fire has singed my hair and charred my skin in a few places, but I’ll be fine. “Thank you,” I say. Then before she can react, I whip my dagger across the hem of her robe and cut off a strip of cloth. The tip of my dagger continues to slice open the veil between dimensions, and the strip drifts into the ordinary world, like flotsam bobbing to the surface. We both see the governor’s shocked face as he scrambles away from the white silk patch on the floor.
“A hit,” I say.
“Ah,” she says. “That’s not really fair, is it?”
“Nonetheless, it’s a strike,” I say.
“So that fall . . . it was all planned?”
“This was the only way I could think of,” I admit. “You’re a far superior swordfighter.”
She shakes her head. “How can you care for a stranger more than your sister? But I gave you my word.”
She climbs up and glides away like a departing water spirit. Just before she fades into the night, she turns to look at me one last time. “Farewell, Little Sister. Our bond has been severed as surely as you’ve cut through my dress. May you find your purpose.”
She leaves, ululating all the while.
• • • •
I crawl back into ordinary space, and the governor rushes up to me. “I was so frightened! What kind of magic is this? I heard the clanging of swords but could see nothing. Your scarf danced in the air like a ghost, and then, finally, that white cloth materialized out of nowhere! Wait, are you hurt?”
I grimace and sit up. “It’s nothing. Jinger is gone. But the next assassin will be my other sister, Konger, who is far more deadly. I do not know if I can protect you.”
“I’m not afraid to die,” he says.
“If you die, the Jiedushi of Chenxu will slaughter many more,” I say. “You must listen to me.”
I open my pouch and take out my teacher’s gift to me on my fifteenth birthday. I hand it to him.
“This is a . . . paper donkey?” he looks at me, puzzled.
“This is the projection of a mechanical donkey into our world,” I say. “It’s like how a sphere passing through a plane would appear as a circle—never mind, there’s no time. Here, you must go!”
I rip open space and shove him through it. The donkey looms now before him as a giant mechanical beast. Despite his protests, I push him onto the donkey.
Tightly wound sinew would power the spinning gears inside and move the legs on cranks, and the donkey will gallop off in a wide circle in the hidden space for an hour, springing from glowing vine to vine like a wire-walker. Teacher had given it to me to help me escape if I’m hurt on a mission.
“How will you defend against her?” he asks.
I pull out the key and the donkey gallops away, leaving his query unanswered.
• • • •
There is no howling; no singing; no terrifying din. When Konger approaches she is completely silent. If you don’t know her, you will think she has no weapon. That is why she is nicknamed the Empty-Handed.
The robe is hot and the dough makeup on my face heavy. The hall is filled with smoke from the scattered straw on the floor I’ve set on fire. I crouch down on the floor where the air is clearer and cooler so I can breathe. I put on a beatific smile but keep my eyes slitted open.
The smoke swirls, a gentle disturbance that you’d miss if you weren’t paying attention.
I know how much the lights in this hall usually flicker without the draft from a new opening in the ceiling.
Moments earlier, I had carefully cut a few fissures in the veil between dimensions with my dagger and kept them open with strands of silk torn from Jinger’s robe. The openings were enough to let a draft through from the hidden space, enough to let me detect an approaching presence beyond.
I picture Konger with her implacable mien, gliding toward me in hidden space like a soul-taking demon. A needle glints in her right hand, the only weapon she needs.
She prefers to approach her victims in the unseen dimension, to prick the inside from the undefended direction. She likes to press the needle into the middle of their hearts, leaving the rib cage and the skin intact. She likes to probe the needle into their skulls and stir their brains into mush, driving them insane before their deaths but leaving no wound in the skull.
The smoke stirs some more, she’s close now.
I imagine the scene from her point of view: A man dressed in the robe of a jiedushi is sitting in the smoke-filled hall, a birthmark the shape of a butterfly on his cheek. He’s terrified into indecision, the rictus of a foolish smile frozen on his face even as his home burns around him. Somehow the air in the hidden space over him is murky, as though the smoke from the hall has transcended the veil between dimensions.
I shift to the right, moving by instinct rather than sense. I have sparred with her for years, and I hope she moves as she has always done.
She meant to press her needle into my skull, but since I’ve moved out of the way, her needle pierces into the world at the spot where my head was, and with a crisp clang, strikes against the jade collar I’m wearing around my neck.
I stagger up, coughing in the smoke. I wipe off the dough makeup from my face. Konger’s needle is so fragile that after one impact it is bent out of shape. She never attacks a second time if the first attempt fails.
A surprised giggle.
“A good trick, Hidden Girl. I should have gotten a better look through all that smoke. You’ve always been Teacher’s favorite student.”
The crevices I carved between the worlds were for more than just warning. By filling the hidden space with smoke, her view of the ordinary world had become indistinct. Ordinarily, from her vantage point, my mask would have been but a transparent shell, and the bulky robe would not have concealed the slender body underneath.
But maybe, just maybe, she chose to not see through my poor disguise, the same way she once chose to warn me of the hawk swooping down behind me.
I bow to the unseen speaker. “Tell Teacher I’m sorry, but I won’t be returning to the mountain.”
“Who knew you would turn out to be an anti-assassin? We will see each other again, I hope.”
“I will invite you to share some pagoda tree flowers then, Elder Sister. A tinge of bitterness at the heart of something sweet makes it less cloying.”
Peals of laughter fade, and I collapse to the ground, exhausted.
I think about heading home, about seeing my father again. What will I tell him about my time away? How can I explain to him that I’ve changed?
I will not be able to grow up the way he wants. There is too much wildness in me. I cannot put on a confining dress and glide through the rooms of the compound, blushing as the matchmaker explains which boy I will marry. I cannot pretend to be more interested in my sewing than I am in climbing the pagoda tree next to the gate.
I have a talent.
I want to scale walls like Jinger, Konger, and I used to swing from vine to vine over the cliff face; I want to cross swords against worthy opponents; I want to pick a boy to marry—I’m thinking someone who is kind and has soft hands, maybe someone who grinds mirrors for a living so that he will know that there is another dimension beyond the smooth surface.
I want to hone my talent so that it shines brightly, terrorizing the unjust and lighting the way for those who would make the world better. I will protect the innocent and guard the timid. I do not know if I will always do what is right, but I am the Hidden Girl, and my loyalty is to the tranquility yearned by all.
I am a thief after all. I’ve stolen my life for myself, and I will steal back the lives of others.
The sound of beating, mechanical hooves approaches.
Spread the word!