The Box of Beautiful Things
by Brian Dolton
Yi Qin came to visit Weng Hao's Grand Carnival Of Curiosities on a spring day,
with the air sharp and clear. She was humbly dressed, not like an emissary of the
Emperor at all, and she took her place in the line, and she handed over her quarter-teng piece. She looked at the tigers, pacing back and forth in their cages. She
watched the acrobats perform, tumbling and swooping and spinning. She listened
to the story-teller, and laughed when he recounted the tale of the Little Fisherman
and the Seven Foolish Demons.
She had not come, however, to see these things. They were diversions; amusing
in their way, but no more than that. No; she had come, like everyone else, to see
the Box Of Beautiful Things.
But not for the same reason.
There was a long line. Even though the carnival was camped in the middle of a
dusty plain, people had come from a hundred li in every direction, spurred on by
rumor. Weng Hao himself was marshalling the customers. As Yi Qin waited for
her turn (for no more than ten people at a time were allowed into the tent where
the Box Of Beautiful Things was kept), she studied him. He was a big man;
bigger, almost, than his skin could withstand. His cheeks seemed distended, and
his eyes were thin black slits that he could barely open. He had a long black
moustache and wore gaudy silks.
His voice boomed out, from time to time. The wait is worth it, he would cry.
Why, a wait of a Great Year would be worth it, to see the Box Of Beautiful
Things. Such things as you have never before seen. Such things as you could not
even imagine! Gaze upon beauty, and let your heart lift, to know that there is still
such wonder in the world!
Yi Qin had seen many wonders, and by no means all of them were beautiful. She
shuffled forwards as the line moved, and folded her hands together under her
sleeves. Her thumb sought the point of one of the darts she kept hidden. Not yet,
she told herself. Not until you can see the Box Of Beautiful Things.
The sun was low in the west by the time she reached the head of the line. She
bowed politely to Weng Hao, who was still beaming, and whose eyes could still
not be seen. The Seven Ways taught that the eyes were mirrors of the soul. Yi
Qin wondered what she would have read, if she could have seen into his eyes.
She wondered, too, what he might be able to read in hers; and looked away.
Inside the tent, there were only two lanterns. Curtains hung, thick velvet, fringed
with tassels. The Box Of Beautiful Things was resting on some kind of platform.
It was black, smooth and shiny, lacquered and inset with mother of pearl. It stood
as tall as a man, as broad as a man's reach. Its doors were open wide. And inside
Yi Qin pricked her thumb with the dart, and withdrew her hand. She smeared the
blood onto her forehead, drawing the sign that was the Fourth Unspoken Word;
the Word That Allows The Truth To Be Discerned.
There was nothing beautiful in the box.
There was nothing inside it at all.
In front of her, nine other people were marvelling, and whispering to one another
as they pointed out one beautiful thing after another. Yi Qin stood slightly apart
from them, and looked into the empty box. When another woman asked her what
she thought of the red cheongsam, with the silver dragon picked out in meticulous
detail, she smiled politely and agreed that it was exquisite. When a man loudly
declared he had never seen such fine goldwork - and he was a goldsmith himself,
who could only dream of creating such beauty - she nodded with the others. And,
after the others were drunk on beauty, and could endure no more of it, she filed out
carefully behind them. She lifted a red cloth to her face, dabbing away the blood
from her brow, under the pretence of mopping up tears that had been brought forth
by unworldly beauty.
Then she sat down on a rock nearby, and waited for the fall of night.
A man came to her, as the sun was just dipping behind the western mountains.
"Your pardon, lady, but the carnival is closing. You must be away from here."
"I was hoping," she told him, "that I might speak with the estimable Weng Hao."
"Master Weng Hao is a busy man," he said. "I can bear him a message, perhaps.
But it is not possible to speak with him."
"I must insist," she said, rising to her feet. "Perhaps, if you tell him what I have
shown you, he will wish to talk?"
"You have not shown me anything, lady," the man said.
In response, Yi Qin reached inside the bag she carried, and withdrew a tablet. The
last rays of the setting sun caught the embossed symbols carved on it. The man
bowed, very low.
"Your pardon, noble lady. Please, forgive me. I did not know you were an
emissary of the Emperor."
"There is nothing to forgive," she told him, tucking the tablet back into her bag.
"But you will tell Weng Hao that I wish to speak with him, concerning the Box Of
"I will tell him, noble lady" the man said, and bowed again.
Yi Qin sat down again on her rock, and waited. The sun slid below the horizon;
First Moon followed it down, while Third Moon shone big and pale in the eastern
"I am honoured," a voice said from nearby. "An emissary of the Emperor himself,
come to my humble carnival! Truly, this is a blessing. How may I be of service,
Yi Qin rose, and bowed towards Weng Hao, who was approaching, bearing a
"I would talk, Weng Hao,"
"By all means! I love to talk!" He laughed, expansively. "But this is no place
for it. Come to my pavilion! I will offer you food, and rice wine, and listen
eagerly to what you have to say."
"I would prefer, Weng Hao, to talk here, under the eye of Third Moon."
He bowed. "If that is what the Emperor's Emissary wishes, then that is what shall
be! As a loyal subject..."
"Are you a loyal subject of the Emperor?" Yi Qin asked, mildly.
Insofar as it was possible to tell, behind the smooth face and inflated cheeks,
Weng Hao looked surprised.
"Do you doubt it?"
"If I may speak frankly, Weng Hao; then yes, I doubt it. I have seen certain things,
today, which give me cause to doubt that you are a loyal subject of the Emperor.
Which make me doubt, even, whether your name is truly Weng Hao."
"And why do you doubt these things, lady?"
"Because you are a charlatan, Weng Hao."
"A charlatan? If so noble a person as the Emperor's Emissary tells me, then it
must be so; and yet, I do not understand. I would be grateful beyond measure if
you could explain this to me."
"A thousand people come to your carnival every day, Weng Hao. They come,
because you have a tent, in which there is a Box Of Beautiful Things. But the box
is empty, Weng Hao. There is nothing beautiful in illusion; in conjuring."
"In conjuring? And how, pray enlighten me, did you discern that the Box Of
Beautiful Things was empty?"
"By revealing the truth."
"And this truth was revealed by what means? By conjuring, perhaps?"
"Just so," she said, with a small tilt of the head. "But it is truth, nonetheless."
"If only the truth were so simple. A thousand people came to my carnival today.
All but one have left with gladness in their hearts. They will remember for many
years all the beautiful and wonderful things that they have seen at my carnival."
"That they believe they have seen."
"And what is stronger than belief? Go to them, Emissary. Ask them what they
saw. Tell them, if you wish, that it was but conjuring; a trick. They will not
believe you. They believe what they have seen."
"They believe a lie."
"And the truth is so valuable? What is the virtue of truth, Emissary? Can you
say that you have never told a lie, in all your life?"
"I have told many lies," she admitted. "Where it has been necessary. You lie, sir,
purely for your own convenience. You lie, to draw people to your Carnival. You
have fine tigers, and nimble acrobats, and talented storytellers; but there are a
dozen carnivals which can boast such things. It is trickery and illusion that draws
people to come here, and to place a quarter-teng piece into a bowl. You are a
wealthy man, Weng Hao, but your wealth has come from lies."
"I am accounted a wealthy man by some," he admitted. "But wealth is a relative
thing. I force no-one to come to my carnival. It is the word that brings people
here; the word of mouth. People speak of the beauty they have seen. 'You must
go to Weng Hao's Grand Carnival Of Curiosities,' they say. 'You must see the
Box Of Beautiful Things. Such beauty, such wonderful things, as you can not
imagine!' This is why they come, Emissary. They pay but a quarter teng, to see
things that they will remember for years to come; things they will tell even to their
grandchildren. They buy beauty, and the memory of beauty."
"They buy lies," Yi Qin maintained.
Weng Hao shrugged. "If you say so. But I wonder, perhaps, if they see a truth
that you can not. You did not wish to see beauty, when you came here, did you?
You wished only to uncover your truth; but your truth is a sad, mean-spirited
thing. You would deprive the world of beauty, Emissary. You would steal its
Yi Qin said nothing. The night folded itself around the carnival tents. Geckos
barked to one another in the dusty plain.
"Show me the Box Of Beautiful Things," she said, eventually. Weng Hao smiled.
"But of course! Come, let me enumerate its wondrous contents." He rose, and
carried on speaking as they walked to the tent where the Box Of Beautiful Things
was kept. "There is the most magnificent gold filigree, jewelry that surpasses the
work of even Grand Master Lin Fu! There is porcelain, so fine that it is
translucent, so delicate that even the Emperor has none to equal it. And the silks...
colors, my lady, that you have never seen; colors that only your dreams have ever
"Please," she said. "Do not recount these things. Let me see for myself."
He ushered her through the opening of the tent, and followed her inside. The
lamps had been extinguished; but he lifted the lantern he held, and its orange light
spilled into the open box.
Yi Qin, her arms folded together under her sleeves, looked into the Box Of
A necklace of gold filigree, delicate as a spiderweb, bright as the morning sun on
Mount Yang. A jade dragon, smooth as water, cool as a blessing. Silks, as vivid
as dreams. Porcelain, pale as milk. Pearls and rubies and feathers. Shapes and
colors and textures that made her heart ache.
She knew none of it was real. Her thumb pressed, lightly, against the dart under
her sleeve; but so lightly that it did not pierce the skin, and draw forth blood.
She looked into the Box Of Beautiful Things for a long time.
Then she sighed, and pressed her thumb hard onto the point of the dart. With
swift, precise movements, she withdrew her bloody hand, and reached forwards,
and inscribed the First Unspoken Word onto the beautiful black, lacquered wood.
The First Unspoken Word; The Word That Releases Hungry Flames.
Weng Hao shrieked, and flapped his sleeves in alarm, but there was nothing he
could do. In a moment, the lacquered box was ablaze; spitting and crackling and
consuming itself. Flames leapt to the heavy drapery, and in a moment the whole
tent was alive with fire. Yi Qin walked, very calmly, out into the night air, and
stood aside, watching the tent burn, watching Weng Hao's men bustle uselessly
around it, for there was not enough water, here in this dry place, to have the
slightest hope of quenching the fire.
Weng Hao stood in front of Yi Qin and cried.
"Why have you done this? You have destroyed it! You have destroyed the box!
You have destroyed my livelihood!".
"You have a carnival, Weng Hao," she answered him, quiet and adamant against
the torrent of his emotions. "You have a carnival like any other, with tigers, and
acrobats, and storytellers. Settle for that, and make your living without the Box Of
She was sure that, if she had not been an Emissary of the Emperor, he would have
killed her where she stood; or would, rather, have attempted it. Instead, he merely
dropped to his knees. Tears spilled out onto his enormous cheeks.
"You have destroyed beauty," he wailed. "You are wicked, Emissary. Wicked
beyond measure! These are not just my tears! These are the tears of thousands,
who will come to my carnival, because they have heard tales of the Box Of
Beautiful Things, and wish only to see it for themselves; and I must tell them that
it is no more. That it was burnt. That the beauty is gone, forever."
"Until you find another conjuror," Yi Qin said, quietly, calmly, "who can work
such magic for you. It is not, I think, as if you lack the money to pay for such a
thing? But next time, Weng Hao; next time, I advise you this. Create a little less
beauty. Create colors that are wondrous, but which people have seen before.
Create jewelry that is no more than the equal of the work of Master Lin Fu. You
have reached too high, Weng Hao. The Emperor does not care to think that, in all
his realm, there is such beauty owned by another."
Weng Hao stared at her.
"The Emperor is jealous? You have burnt my Box Of Beautiful Things because
the Emperor is jealous?"
Yi Qin said nothing. There was nothing she could say. She simply turned, and
walked away into the night, and remembered beauty.