Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 34
Stories
What the Sea Refuses
by Brian Dolton
Foundling
by Christian K. Martinez
Portraits from the Shadow
by D. Thomas Minton
Three Seconds
by Jonas David
Oyster Beach
by Sophie Wereley
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Blockbuster Viagra
by Chris Bellamy

What the Sea Refuses
    by Brian Dolton

What the Sea Refuses
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

1. A Conjuror Comes To Pangxiao

The bitter ocean wind rocked the fishing boats at their moorings, and blew salt spray across the network of wharves.

Yi Qin allowed herself a sigh of relief. The pier, while not quite dry land, was at least attached to it. The two days she had spent aboard the Sapphire Cormorant had been intensely unpleasant. She did not like the sea; she did not like ships; she did not care for sailors.

Which meant that she was almost looking forward to her appointed task: dispelling an entire ship's crew of ghosts. Then she could head back to the Imperial City. On foot.

She was alone in the gathering night. The crew had dispersed rapidly to dockside wineshops and eating houses, to be followed (she strongly suspected) by the pleasures of the Pillow World. The wharves were deserted. There was only the wind. There was always the wind.

She pulled her overdress around her and turned her back on the ocean.

Harbourmaster Guang Er had sauce on his plump chin and did not look pleased to have so late a visitor. Yi Qin bowed; he returned it as a perfunctory nod.

"And what is your business that cannot wait until morning?" he asked.

"My name is Yi Qin," she said, handing him the Emperor's Tablet from her traveling bag.

"You?" If he tried to mask his surprise, he did not succeed. She doubted he had tried. "You are . . ." He peered at the tablet in his hand, clearly eager to detect some hint of forgery. Apparently failing, he looked up, and she stood patiently as he inspected her just as closely.

"You are a conjuror?" he finished, at last. She held out her left palm, showing him the scars.

"I am a follower of the Seven Ways. I know five of the Twelve Unspoken Words. I patrol the hidden borders of the Empire. I am here to deal with your troublesome ghosts."

"Very well. I'll have you escorted to the police house. Ling Fan will have quarters you might use." He lifted a small bell from his desk and rang it vigorously. As much as being a summons to his servant, it was a clear sign that her audience was over. She bowed, as protocol and courtesy demanded.

He did not bow back.

Constable Ling Fan was as plump, or more, than Guang Er, but where the Harbourmaster wore only frowns, Ling Fan smiled. He had fat, stubby fingers and had difficulty folding in the middle.

Yi Qin warmed to him as he came up again from a third bow.

"It is an honour. An honour!" She did not doubt his sincerity.

"I am but a humble servant of the Emperor, as are we all," she demurred.

"But you bear the Emperor's Tablet," he said. "You are --"

"Weary," she interrupted, gently. "And hungry." She had eaten very little aboard the Sapphire Cormorant. "I would be grateful if --"

"I will fetch you soup," he said. "The widow Heng makes the best soup in Pangxiao. And rice. And prawn cakes. And --"

"As you see fit," she said. It was her stomach that wanted food, not her ears. He bustled out, leaving her alone in the simply-furnished room. There was a dressing table with a brass mirror and she sat down in front of it. Her reflection stared back in wide-eyed shock. She had not realised the damage two days at sea had done. Strands of hair twisted in disarray, and her salt-sprayed cheeks were a dirty brown. No wonder Guang Er had looked at her with such disapproval. She resembled a vagabond girl more than the Emperor's emissary.

She washed her face, scrubbing it thoroughly and leaving grimy smears on the towel. Then she unpacked her traveling case and set herself down once more in front of the mirror. By the time Ling Fan bustled into the room with a tray, she had regained something of her normal, composed, appearance. Her lips were vivid red. Her cheeks were powdered. Her long hair was brushed and coiled and pinned into place.

"You are very kind, Ling Fan," she said. The tray was furnished with three covered bowls and a small pot of tea.

"Not at all, not at all," he answered. "If there is anything else . . . there is a bell, lady. Just ring. I will be listening. That is, I mean . . ." He blushed.

"If I have need, I will ring. But my needs are simple: food, and rest. These you have met, and I am grateful."

He retreated, bowing three more times. Seated as she was, she could only incline her head in acknowledgment.

When she had eaten, and stacked the bowls back neatly on the tray, Yi Qin settled into the bed and looked, thoughtfully, up at the ceiling.

A ship of ghosts.

She could feel her own blood pulsing in its veins.

Tomorrow she would spill it, to protect the town.

2. The Returning Dead

"So, tell me about Captain Zheng Fei."

She was downstairs in the constabulary, sipping her morning bowl of tea.

"I did not know him well," Ling Fan answered. "He was . . . a very bold man. Willful, one might say." She guessed it meant constable and captain had not seen eye to eye. She wondered if he was a smuggler; a pirate, even. "But he was well liked. His crew always spoke highly of him."

"But his ship was lost?"

Ling Fan nodded. "A storm drove it on to the reefs. The ship broke apart. It was terrible. No man could have survived." He shuddered. "No man did."

"So since then, every eighth night, the ship has entered the harbour?"

"At sunset. The crew come ashore. People bar their doors and douse their lanterns, terrified. And Captain Zheng Fei stands on his ship, calling for his lost love."

Yi Qin leant forward.

"His lost love?"

"So he says. He calls for Kai Bing. But . . . there is no Kai Bing in Pangxiao. No one knows why he calls for her."

Yi Qin settled back again.

"According to the Seven Ways, sometimes the mystery of love is stronger than the mystery of death. This might explain why Zheng Fei returns. But it does not explain why his crew accompany him."

"They used to say that they would follow him anywhere."

"Such oaths are easily spoken. They are less easily held to."

"I wouldn't know. I know only the Emperor's laws, and they apply only to the living."

"For the most part," Yi Qin corrected him gently. "And where they do not? Well, that is why I am here. Disturbances such as this are . . . unwelcome."

"You have met ghosts before?"

"Met, and banished."

Ling Fan looked relieved.

"The ship will come tonight. Is there anything that you need to work your magic?"

"I have all I require," she assured him. "There is no more to do but wait for evening."

Yi Qin stood on the wharf, unconcerned by the winter wind. She had grown up in the mountains of Deng Wei province where the cold had teeth.

Ling Fan stood beside her. He winced when she took a knife from her belt and sliced it across her palm. She smeared the blood onto her fingertips and painted one of the wooden stanchions of the wharf with the appropriate sign.

"This is the Fifth Unspoken Word," she told him. "The Word That Binds And Releases Spirits."

"You can bind the Captain?"

"I could attempt it," she said. "But it is by no means certain I would succeed. No, I do not intend to bind his spirit. Quite the reverse."

"The reverse?"

"I intend to release his crew," she answered. She moved to another of the wharf posts and drew the sign again. "They are bound to him, but not willingly, I think, despite their bold promises. It is my belief that they are weary of death. I have met weary ghosts before. They long for release. To be lost on the borderlands is worse, in some ways, even than the northern slopes of the Silent Mountain. They are cursed to walk in shadowed places, part of no world."

"But what if the captain will not release his crew willingly?"

"You said they thought well of him. Perhaps he thinks well of them also, and can be persuaded. Perhaps he will listen to reason."

"And if he doesn't?"

Yi Qin gave him a thin smile.

"Then we will see if my will can prevail against his."

The wharves were deserted. The townspeople were at home behind barred doors, with protective scrolls and banners hanging from their eaves. Yi Qin was looking back at the darkened streets of the town when Ling Fan shouted beside her.

"Yi Qin! The ghost ship! It's coming!"

She turned to look upon her enemy.

It was there, on the darkness of the ocean, etched in a blue light so pale that it was almost white. Figures moved upon its deck, though she could not make them out clearly.

"Ling Fan," she said calmly. "Please return to your constabulary."

"If there is anything I can do . . ."

"There is not," she said. "Now go."

He backed away, bowing again before turning and scurrying off to some measure of safety. She smiled momentarily, then folded her arms and rested her thumb on the tip of one of the darts inside her sleeve.

As the ship approached, Yi Qin began to make out the toll the sea had taken. The broken masts were crooked, the sails ragged and torn. The timbers of the hull were twisted and broken, jammed back together as if by a careless child. It was mockery of a ship -- a paper sketch crumpled and then smoothed out again, but with the creases and tears still visible.

But it was not, in itself, something to strike terror into anyone's heart.

That was a matter for the crew.

The sea had been no kinder to them than to the ship. Weed hung wreathed around their shoulders. Tiny crabs picked tasty morsels from dripping beards. Immersion had leached all colour from the men; they were pastels, washed through with that pale, painful glow that surrounded the entire wreck. But death had not taken everything from them. They were still men, each one individual, identifiable. It occurred to Yi Qin that many of these men were from Pangxiao, that their friends and family were even now huddled behind their doors and shuttered windows, praying to Mi Liao Ma Sing to take their loved ones into her calm embrace.

Yi Qin was grateful that none of the dead faces meant anything to her.

She could hear the ship now, the lap of waves around the hull, the slap of sodden rope against sodden wood, the snapping of the sails where a ghost wind ruffled them. The helmsman's dead hand guided the junk to the wharf. The crew lined up along the rail, ready to swarm ashore.

They did not look weary of death.

High on the stern stood a tall, bearded man with a large hat and blue fire in his eyes.

"Bring me Kai Bing!" he roared, his voice carrying above the wind, above the sound of rope and wood and canvas. "Find her and bring her to me!"

The gangplank of the ghost ship thumped down, and dead men washed ashore in an instant. They jostled and clamoured. Like an unremitting tide, they flowed down to the wharf.

They paid no heed whatsoever to the posts Yi Qin had marked with the Fifth Unspoken Word, the spell that should have allowed them welcome respite. They hurried past, a wave of dead men flooding towards Pangxiao.

Flooding towards Yi Qin.

She stood her ground, small and pale and obdurate. As the first ghost reached her, her right hand flicked out, mechanical and precise. Carmine fingertips smeared a trail across dead flesh.

The crewman should have vanished, dissipating like wind-blown spray. He did not. He simply brushed past her -- almost through her. Shock froze her where she stood; shock, and the chill, dank sensation of the ghosts. They swirled about her like water, buffeted her like a storm. Every touch was cold and hungry, drawing the life out of her, a fragment here, a piece there. This, Yi Qin knew, was why the townsfolk huddled in fear, their doors barred, their lanterns dark. This was why Harbourmaster Guang Er -- clearly no lover of conjurors -- had begged the Emperor for help. Ghosts, lost on the borderland, were always hungry for the life they had lost, and would seek to draw it from the living. Bad enough if you were a conjuror. Worse, if you were inexperienced in such matters. It could hollow out a man, turning him into a soulless shell.

Then, as suddenly as the crew had surged forward, they were all past her and gone, into the town.

All save the captain. He stood at the rail, sword in hand.

"Conjuror," he hissed, through dead teeth.

"Captain," Yi Qin answered. She lifted her hand, showing the blood on her fingertips. "You do not come ashore?"

"A captain's place is aboard his ship," he said. "My crew do my bidding. Do not seek to stop them."

"I have sought to do just that. Clearly I have failed."

"My crew are bound by oaths that you cannot break, conjuror."

"I have my own oaths," Yi Qin answered, her voice hollow and small. "I must oppose you, Captain. It is commanded to me by the Emperor himself."

Zheng Fei chuckled.

"So my deeds have reached the noblest ears of all? Truly, I am a great man! And yet . . ." His eyes narrowed, and scorn poured out of them at Yi Qin. "He has sent a little conjuror, all alone. It seems he underestimates me!"

"Perhaps," Yi Qin said.

"Enough! Go back to the Emperor and tell him that if he would be rid of me, let him send me Kai Bing. Do not come to me again, conjuror, unless you bring me my love; else my men will drag you aboard, and you will join my crew, forever."

Yi Qin bowed.

"You will return, eight nights hence," she said as she rose. "I will be waiting, Captain. With Kai Bing or without, I will be waiting."

She turned and walked away from the wharf, staying upright through sheer effort of will.

Back in the constabulary, behind barred doors, Yi Qin looked at her hollow-eyed reflection. Her magic should have been more than adequate to banish the sailor's ghosts. Clearly there was more to this matter than restless spirits or a love strong enough to break the chains of death.

She had expected this to be simple.

It was not going to be simple. It was not going to be simple at all.

3. The Emissary From The Sea

Yi Qin had been born five thousand li from the ocean. She was used to unforgiving mountains and wind-blown plains. The ocean -- its moods, its movement -- unsettled her.

So did its unfamiliar gods.

She knelt in front of the shrine on the headland.

She knew little of Mi Liao Ma Sing, Watcher Over Those Who Do Not Return From The Sea. In Deng Wei Province there had been no shrines to her, there had been no need. In Deng Wei Province the dead journeyed to the Silent Mountain and the care of Wu Feng Kai Fan. But here, at the edge of the great ocean, matters were different.

The carved figure, nestled into its arch of stone, was beautifully executed. Swirls of seaweed twisted in lithe ribbons around the goddess' plump form, accentuating her curves, mirroring the liquid rise and fall of the ocean.

"Goddess, I seek a boon. There is a ship of dead men that rises from your realm every eighth night. I humbly petition you to take them into your care. It may be that these men have offended you. If there is an atonement that can be made, I would know of it. Be aware that this is what I seek; not to offend you, but to free Pangxiao from the ghosts of the sea."

She placed her forehead to the ground for the requisite sixteen heartbeats as befitted a goddess of the fourth rank. Then she dropped a half-teng piece in the goddess' cup, stood, and turned to walk back to Pangxiao.

Harbourmaster Guang Er was waiting for her across from the docks, outside his office. The corners of his mouth were sour with disapproval.

"And what did Mi Liao Ma Sing tell you, then?" he asked.

"Nothing," she answered, her tone carefully neutral. "I have petitioned her. If she answers, it will be in her own time."

"I could place a coin in a shrine's bowl," he grumbled.

"You could," Yi Qin agreed. "And perhaps the goddess would answer you. But you could have done this before petitioning the Emperor for help." She realised she was being rude, and stopped.

"You'd best get an answer," he grumbled. "People are leaving town. Ships won't come." He gestured at the almost-empty wharves. "If Zheng Fei comes back, I shall make my report to Overseer Du Deng. It won't be to your liking, conjuror."

Yi Qin bowed, and did not answer.

Guang Er's report was the least of her worries.

She did not know whether Mi Liao Ma Sing would take any notice of a prayer from a landbound stranger, and waiting in idleness was not her nature. So she busied herself with the mystery of Kai Bing. She asked questions, but they were questions that had already been asked, and the answers were unchanged.

No one in Pangxiao knew the identity of the Captain's lover. There was a family Kai, but no daughter named Bing. Yi Qin called upon the Pillow World, in case one of the ji nu there might have passed, once, by that name. She had the gatemen and the Harbourmaster check their records, in case a traveler might have passed through. But there was nothing.

There was no such woman as Kai Bing.

Five days of fruitless inquiry left Yi Qin with an aching head. She was sitting in her room drinking tea when there was a diffident knock.

She had expected Ling Fan, but she was wrong. For a moment, she thought that there was nobody there; but then she looked down, and saw what had come to call.

It stood as tall as her hips and dripped with water. Its scales were green, and it had a shell like a turtle, and it had large, owlish eyes.

"Enter," she said, stepping back. It clumped awkwardly inside on round, short-clawed feet. She pushed the door gently closed.

"This one goes by the name of Pei Wo Po." The creature's voice was at odds with its appearance; light and musical. "This one has the honour to serve her Excellent Majesty of the Fourth Rank of Goddesses, Mi Liao Ma Sing."

Yi Qin bowed. It was not easy, to bow to a creature no more than half her height, with a strong resemblance to a turtle standing on its hind legs. She kept her face carefully blank.

"This one is Yi Qin," she answered, matching the emissary's deferent style. "This one has the honour to serve his Imperial Majesty the Emperor. This one is honoured that her petition has been heard, and answered. Is there something you need, with which this one might assist you?"

"This one needs nothing," the creature assured her. "This one's mistress wishes for you to receive a message. She cannot take Captain Zheng Fei into her care."

Yi Qin hoped that her face did not betray her disappointment.

"If that is the will of She Who Watches Over Those Who Do Not Return From The Sea, then this one must accept it."

"This one's mistress cannot take Captain Zheng Fei," the creature continued, "because his spirit is promised elsewhere."

"Kai Bing," Yi Qin said, repressing a sigh. "The Captain seeks a woman named Kai Bing. But there is no one by that name." She did not add that it seemed absurd for a man's promise to his lover to take precedence over the claim of a goddess of the fourth rank.

"Your pardon, lady, but Captain Zheng Fei is not promised to a woman."

Yi Qin frowned.

"He is not? Then might I -- might this one ask, honoured emissary, to whom Zheng Fei is promised?"

"Of course. His soul is promised to Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou."

The pattern of the name told Yi Qin what she needed to know, though it was not what she wanted to hear. For a moment, she did not speak; she merely looked into the large, liquid eyes of Pei Wo Po.

"Does this one understand that Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou is a fox-spirit?" She hoped she was wrong; she feared she was not.

The emissary's head inclined in affirmation.

"Just so," she said. "If you would release Captain Zheng Fei to the care of this one's esteemed mistress, then you must petition Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou. Should the promise be broken, then this one's mistress will take Captain Zheng Fei, and his crew, into her care."

Yi Qin said nothing.

A petition to a fox-spirit.

A plea to a creature of utter caprice, driven by whim, seeking only amusement.

As well plead to the tide not to rise and fall.

4. A Heart, Offered

She arose early next morning. To summon a fox-spirit was no simple undertaking; it took several hours to gather the necessary ingredients. When she had packed them all carefully together, she left Pangxiao by the northern road, up to a notch in the ridge. There, she struck off the road, scrambling over rocks, looking for a secluded hollow, where she might chant the words she needed to chant, burn the incense she needed to burn, and kill the bird she needed to kill.

She unrolled a small mat and arranged the incense pot, and the caged bird, and the scroll, and the knife; then she sat down, cross-legged, and began.

When she had chanted, and when the air was acrid with incense, and when the blood of the caged bird had quenched the fire under the incense pot, she waited for a gleam of utter whiteness, or a soulless laugh.

She did not wait long. Something moved at the corner of her vision -- something utterly without colour, something so brilliant that it was impossible to look at directly. Yi Qin closed her eyes, just for a moment. When she opened them again, she was not alone. A woman stood before her; tall and slender, with translucent skin, pure white hair, and cold blue eyes. Despite her paleness, she was very beautiful. Yi Qin could imagine a man falling in love with her, instantly and utterly. Or something a man would mistake for love, at least.

"I am Yi Qin, of Deng Wei Province," Yi Qin said. "I summon you, but I do not wish to bind you."

"The one makes you brave; the other makes you wise," the woman said. She did not make it sound like a compliment. "I am Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou. Ah, Yi Qin. You are spoken of, in certain places."

Yi Qin did not care to consider what might be said in such conversations.

"Forgive me, spirit, but I would rather we discuss the matter of Captain Zheng Fei."

"Ah! The bold sea captain."

"Just so. I do not presume to ask how he came to love you, in mortal guise." She did not want to know. "But it seems that Zheng Fei swore an oath. Now he returns to Pangxiao from the ocean floor, with all his crew."

The woman in white smiled. Her teeth were small and pointed. Her eyes were the pale blue of a frozen waterfall. The pale blue of a ghost ship.

"Such devotion, from one brief night. Like a faithful dog."

"Faithful dogs are rewarded for their loyalty."

"Sometimes," Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou said, laughing. "And sometimes they receive a kick instead. Yet they stay faithful. How amusing!"

Yi Qin did not think it was amusing. She tried not to let that -- or anything else -- show on her face.

"Is amusement so important, Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou?"

"I have lived for centuries," the fox-spirit answered. "Were you to live so long, little mortal, you would find that all else fades. In the end, there is only amusement, and nothing more."

"Were I to find myself so diminished," Yi Qin said, keeping her voice conversationally light, "I think I would seek my own death."

The fox-spirit laughed.

"You are bold. Remember: you do not always find what you seek, Yi Qin."

"Just so. Sometimes, that which we desire is denied us."

The blue eyes narrowed then, and Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou no longer looked beautiful, or human.

"Do you think to take my captain from me?"

"The Emperor, my master, commands me. I can only obey."

"I will not permit it."

Yi Qin bowed her head.

"You must do, Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou, what you think best. And I will do the same."

"And I will win," the fox-spirit said, smiling. "I always win."

There was a blur of painful whiteness, and Yi Qin was alone.

Yi Qin sat in the Harbourmaster's office, with Ling Fan standing to her side and Guang Er behind his desk, gruff and sour as always.

"I have made . . . certain progress," she announced.

"How much progress? Tomorrow is the eighth night. Will the ghost ship come?"

"It will come," she said, quietly.

"Then what is this progress you speak of?"

"I know why Captain Zheng Fei comes to Pangxiao. I know who he seeks."

"We all know that! But there is no such woman!"

"Just so," Yi Qin agreed. "Kai Bing is but the guise of another. Captain Zheng Fei lost his heart to her. And she will not come to him. She finds it . . . amusing."

"Amusing?" Guang Er repeated it with heavy emphasis. "Who is this woman? We must . . ."

"No woman," she interrupted. "She is a fox-spirit. Fox-spirits are . . . known for their inconstancy. A day will come when she will forget Zheng Fei and his vow. But that day may be a lifetime away."

"A fox-spirit?" Guang Er asked, his voice as distrustful as ever. "I have heard that they feast on the hearts of men."

"I do not doubt it. They can be cruel. And they acknowledge no master, no Emperor, no demon, no God. They are as capricious as the weather."

"Well then, conjuror. You must command this fox-spirit to release Zheng Fei from his vow."

"Command? I can not command a fox-spirit. She would laugh in my face, and I would be fortunate if that were all she did. No, there is no prospect of commanding Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou. Nor, I think, can we persuade or bargain with her. I have tried this, and have not succeeded. So there is one course of action left."

"And that is?"

"Zheng Fei calls for Kai Bing. He does not call for Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou. He does not know. When he made his vow, he thought she was a mortal woman. He did not know what it would mean to promise himself to such a creature."

"What does that matter? The vow is made, and we are the ones who suffer for it," Guang Er said.

"The vow is made. Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou will not rescind it. But a vow can always be broken by the one who made it. I must persuade Captain Zheng Fei that he will never regain his love, because she is an immortal creature, incapable of love. I must break this ghost's heart."

"Does a ghost even have a heart?" Ling Fan asked.

"In the case of Captain Zheng Fei, I think it is all he has left," she answered.

"Then . . . isn't breaking it . . . hazardous?" His concern was palpable.

"More than you would care to know," Yi Qin said. Much more than you would ever care to know, she did not add aloud.

5. Brass And Blood

She had the mat, and the scroll, and the incense pot, and the caged bird. There was one more thing.

"Do you have," Yi Qin asked, "a brass bowl?"

"Um, I think so. How big?" Ling Fan asked.

"A handspan across, perhaps, and as deep."

"I shall see. Um, what is it for . . .?"

Yi Qin did not look at the constable.

"Blood," she said, quietly.

He hurried out.

Yi Qin slid off her overdress, revealing a sleeveless tunic. Deft and one-handed, she unfastened the sheath of darts from her left forearm and laid it on the table. She took a strip of leather and wrapped it just above her elbow, twisting it until her fingers throbbed. Then she took a small brass tube, like a short hollow reed with one end filed to a point, from its place in a lacquered box.

"This is all I could find," Ling Fan said, entering. He bore a brass bowl, not very much smaller than Yi Qin's head. She looked at it.

"It will serve," she told him. "Place it on the table, if you would."

He did as she asked. Then she took the brass tube and placed it carefully into the crook of her left elbow. With a sharp exhalation, she jabbed the tube through the skin and into the vein.

"Ancestors . . ." Ling Fan breathed, and made the Second Sign.

"Conjuring requires blood," Yi Qin said. "You have seen this already."

He was staring, watching the crimson liquid flow out from the brass tube, dripping steadily into the bowl.

"You just pricked your hand, before," he said.

"And that was not enough, so I must use more." She was flexing her fingers while keeping her arm still. The blood dripped into the bowl in time with her heartbeats.

"This will . . . this will allow you to banish the ghosts?"

"No . . . or at least, I very much doubt it. But for a time, it may hold them."

"And you will speak to the Captain, and tell him the truth?"

Yi Qin watched the blood, and did not look at Ling Fan.

"It is possible that I may persuade Zheng Fei. But it is not likely. I fear he will listen to only one voice -- that of Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou."

"Ah! You will summon her?"

"I have summoned her once, without binding her. I cannot compel her again; she may choose to come, or not. And fox-spirits are not easily fooled."

"Then how . . ." his voice trailed off as he stared at the bowl. "You don't mean for me to . . .?"

"No, Ling Fan. You will stay here, as before. This is my task, and mine alone."

"Then . . . I do not understand."

"Who better to summon Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou," she said, still not looking at the constable, "than the man who loves her?"

Leaden clouds hung low over the ocean. The water was a deep, foam-flecked grey. With Ling Fan at her side, carefully carrying the brass bowl, Yi Qin stepped out onto the wharf. She laid down her bundle: the mat, the scroll, the incense pot, the bird in its cage. Then she dipped her fingers in the bowl and drew the Fifth Unspoken Word on the first post; then moved in turn to each of the others, until all eight were marked with the same powerful glyph.

She felt numb, and cold. There was a neat bandage tied round her arm where she had pierced the vein; but no bandage could compensate for the blood she had lost.

"It is time for you to go, Ling Fan," she called out, gently. She held out her hand for the bowl.

"If there is anything else . . ."

"You have done all I could have asked. You may be sure that when I make my report to the Emperor, I will praise your diligence."

Ling Fan gave her the bowl. It felt very heavy; but she knew it was the brass, not the blood, that made it so. Much of the blood had already been daubed onto the posts. Only a sluggish pool remained.

The ghost junk approached the wharf, serene and untouched. Yi Qin could see Zheng Fei, standing on the afterdeck, with his broad hat upon his head. She waited, patient and weary, as the patchwork vessel slid alongside the wharf. The gangplank thudded down.

Yi Qin looked up at Zheng Fei. The dead captain looked back at her.

"Conjuror. I told you not to come to me again unless you brought me Kai Bing. I do not see her at your side."

"You do not," Yi Qin agreed.

"And I told you what I would do if you tried to stop me."

"You did," she said.

He bellowed an order. The crew answered his shout with one of their own. They surged down the gangplank . . .

. . . and drew up short, as if there were a wall between the posts of the wharf. They pressed against it, blue light pouring off of them. Red smoke roiled from the blood-stained wood. Yi Qin dipped her fingers into the brass bowl and lifted them, thick with clotted carmine, to show Zheng Fei.

"My spells are stronger this time," she told him. "Your men may not step ashore."

"You are but one woman. I have a score of men. I know something of magic, little conjuror. How much blood is in that bowl? How long can your wards hold?"

"Long enough," she said. "For we shall talk, Captain Zheng Fei. We shall not fight, like squabbling children. We shall talk."

"Talk? Of what? You know what I desire!"

"And I will help you find her," Yi Qin said.

There was silence.

"Why should I trust you?" The ghost growled out the words like a sullen bear disturbed from hibernation.

"Because I will put myself in your power. I will step off this wharf and onto your vessel."

She waited for his answer. It came in a barked command to the crew. They backed away from the posts.

"Board. If you betray me, know that you will never leave my ship again."

"I am not your betrayer," she answered, and picked up her bundle. She climbed aboard.

6. Aboard The Ship Of Ghosts

The ghost ship was cold, and there was a terrible emptiness, a hunger all around her that no blood could assuage, that no warmth could dispel. She climbed to the raised afterdeck. The Captain's dead face was not a pleasant thing to be so close to. Behind her the crew waited on the main deck.

"Your lover," she told the captain as she unrolled the mat, "is not human. She is a fox-spirit. She toyed with you. She finds your loyalty amusing." She placed the brass bowl carefully beside the mat, and the small incense burner, and the cage with its fluttering bird.

"I warned you. Do not lie to me!"

"I am not lying to you." Yi Qin lit the incense burner with a drop of blood -- a simple application of the First Unspoken Word. "Can you read, Zheng Fei?"

"I am not illiterate," he growled.

"Then read this scroll," she said, passing it to him. He took it. When his fingers brushed hers, a cold jolt ran up her arm, numbing it. "Read it, and then kill the bird. And your lover will come to you."

"This is some trick," he said.

"This is no trick."

"Then you do it."

"I am not the one who loves her." Her patience was being worn away by the cold -- a cold of the spirit, not of the body. She was almost across the borderland, more in the land of the dead than of the living.

The ghost captain looked at the scroll for a long time. Yi Qin breathed deep; the acrid, unpleasant incense at least reminded her she was not dead.

Yet.

"No," he said. "This is a trick. You want me to read something I don't understand? A magic spell? You take me for a fool!"

"You are a fool," Yi Qin said. "A fool for a woman who is not a woman, and who cares nothing for you. But you leave me no choice."

She dipped her right hand into the bowl, hoping there was still enough blood.

The captain bellowed a command, but there was only one ladder to the afterdeck. Yi Qin was there already, practised fingers deftly sketching the necessary sign. Power flared. A crimson mist seemed to hang in the air like a wall.

There was a terrible cold pain in her back. She stumbled, rolled over to look up at the captain. His sword was in his hand.

If it had been the sword of a living man, she would have been run through. But the sword of a ghost was no less deadly, in its own way.

"I told you! You'll sail with my crew, conjuror!"

He brought the blade down. She rolled aside, tugging free the knife from her belt as she did so. He laughed, which gave her time at least to get to her feet.

"You think to fight a dead man with that? You're the fool here! No blade can touch a ghost!"

"It isn't for you," she told him.

And ran the blade along her arm.

Normally, blood would have gushed forth from such a cut. But too much of her blood had already been spent. It barely oozed, slow and sullen, from her protesting veins.

She prayed it would be enough.

As the Captain swung his sword, she dropped the knife and stepped, not away from the blow, but into, it. The fingers of her right hand dragged through the blood and continued onward to touch Captain Zheng Fei's forehead.

He stood, transfixed, as Yi Qin clenched her jaw and set her will against his.

"You . . . cannot . . . banish . . . me . . ." he grated.

"No," she said. "But I can command you. Read the scroll, Captain. Kill the bird. Summon Kai Bing."

7. A Heart, Refused

She was so desperately cold.

The captain was strong-willed, as she had expected. The crew were still pressing against the protective sign at the top of the ladder. There was far too little blood left in her, far too little power.

She was so desperately tired.

It would have been easy to slump down on the deck, to let go of the wards and the bindings, to let herself slip into death. Yi Qin had never cared to do things which were easy.

The words forced themselves, one at a time, from Zheng Fei's dead mouth. When they were done, he bent, grimacing the whole time, struggling against the blood on his forehead, against the power that compelled him.

The bird chirped once as his hand closed tightly around it. Then its heart stilled.

Yi Qin closed her eyes.

She opened them again when a flash of pure and painful white forced itself through her eyelids. She let out a weary breath, and allowed her wards and bindings to fade.

"Kai Bing!" the Captain's voice was exultant. He had forgotten Yi Qin; his attention was only on the pale figure who stood on the wharf below.

"You dare?"

Her scorn was almost palpable.

"I would dare anything for your love! Just as I promised! And now we are reunited! We can sail the seas forever . . ."

"Do you really believe," Yi Qin said, her voice barely above a whisper, "that she wants you? Look at her, Zheng Fei. Look at her."

There was silence, then. The captain, broad-chested, standing on the deck; the fox-spirit, white and cold and imperious on the wharf.

Zheng Fei turned to his men.

"Bring her aboard," he said, quietly.

They moved as one, subject to his will, bursting towards the woman in white.

"You set your men on me like a pack of dogs?" she shrieked.

Light blazed, for a moment, pure and all-consuming. It stole Yi Qin's vision. When it returned, the crew had vanished. There were only the captain, the conjuror, and the fox-spirit.

"So. The conjuror was right. You never cared for me, Kai Bing."

The woman in white laughed, high and unkind.

"Cared for a filthy sea captain stinking of brine? What a fool! You were a plaything, Zheng Fei. An amusement, nothing more."

"I did not lie," Yi Qin said. The captain turned. "This is what fox-spirits do. They feast upon the hearts of men. And they laugh."

She could see it, on his face. They came, the emotions, one by one.

Understanding.

Sorrow.

Rage.

Zheng Fei turned back to the wharf.

"You did this to me!" he roared.

"You did it to yourself," Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou answered him. "You made the vow. And you must hold to it."

"She is wrong," Yi Qin said. "Any vow can be broken."

Zheng Fei's head bowed.

"I will rescind it," he said, his voice cracking.

"No!" Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou snarled. "I will not release you! You made a vow to me, and I hold you to it!"

"You were not the one who made the vow," Yi Qin said. "You cannot hold him here."

"Do not listen to her! Think of what we shared! Think of . . ."

"Be silent, spirit" Zheng Fei said.

"No! You cannot abandon me, Zeng Fei! You cannot . . ."

With a wordless, anguished cry, Zeng Fei took one great, nimble leap from the afterdeck, over the rail, down to the wharf. Had he been a man, his boots would have thudded onto the wood, the boards cracking under the impact. But he was only a ghost, substanceless.

But not impotent. The captain's spectral sword lashed out, impaling the fox-spirit where she stood. She wailed, falling back off the blade. There was no blood. Instead, light poured out of her. She clasped her pale hands over the tear in her existence.

"I commend my spirit," Zheng Fei said, quietly, "to the care of Mi Liao Ma Sing." He looked at Yi Qin. She held his gaze, just for a moment, then looked away, too weary to endure what his eyes showed.

Something rippled, and then there was a warm wind, for a moment, that came from the headland. Yi Qin thought she heard a voice that might have belonged to a goddess of the fourth rank. But it could have been her imagination.

And then: nothing. There was no ghost ship. Yi Qin found herself standing alone on the solid timbers of the wharf. The balance was restored. The borders were secure. She had succeeded.

"I do not care," a cold voice said, "for my amusements to be taken from me."

Yi Qin turned. She could feel her blood, sluggish and weak. She had lost so much that she wondered if she looked as pale as Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou. The fox-spirit stood there, her hands clasped over the wound in her midriff. Light still leaked from it.

"You are a child," Yi Qin said, trying to make her voice stern. "You see a thing you desire, and take it, heedless of all else. Children learn, in time, that this is not the way of the world."

"I am older than you can comprehend, little conjuror."

"Then it is time and past time you acquired some measure of wisdom. Do with me as you will, spirit. I am too weary to fight you, and even if I were not, I have no hope of defeating you. But no matter what you do to me, it will not bring back Zheng Fei. You will have to find other . . . amusements." She was too tired, even, to pour scorn into the word.

"I will not forget what you have done, conjuror. And I will not forgive it. There will be a price for this, one day. When it will amuse me most." There was a blur of whiteness, and then the fox-spirit was gone.

Yi Qin, weary to the core, leaned against one of the posts of the wharf. For a long time, she stared out at the sea, until the last light was gone, and there was no sea and no sky, just a vast, unified darkness at the edge of the world. Only then did she turn to face Pangxiao, with its wineshops and noodle houses, and all the promise of the world of the living. The world Zheng Fei had finally abandoned. The world Shou Kai Shou Bing Shou had never truly known, and never could.

Behind her, the bitter ocean wind rocked the fishing boats at their moorings, and blew salt spray across the network of wharves.


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