From the author: Jin Fan, an aspiring courtier, travels to Yellow Mountain to bring back a sprig of emerald bamboo from a legendary labyrinth, to find spoiled childhood playmate/mistress Xiao Ling vying for the same. Now she has to traverse the labyrinth, without somehow throttling Xiao Ling, or getting killed by a mysterious brigand taking out the other hopefuls.
I have always hated Xiao Ling.
On the far side of the room, she throws her head back and laughs. The courtiers have gathered for an informal dinner. The atmosphere is relaxed and easygoing—at least, it was for me until she came in. And as usual, she has taken up the attention of half the room with her loud voice. She has taken away from the reason of celebration: our new Child of Heaven.
I say nothing.
Minister Huxian is surrounded by poets, and they are trying to woo her with praises of her beauty, her grace, her moon-like face. She and I exchange a knowing look, because she knows she is no beauty. My body warms, and I begin to smile at her, but am cut off when Xiao Ling suddenly materializes next to me. It is amazing how such a small woman can take up so much space.
“Saviour Jin Fan,” she says, bowing to me. I bow back to her. She knows I get annoyed when she calls me that. “I was just mentioning to Ju Zhou how you brought prosperity to the Empire. Do you know Ju Zhou? The Emperor has just appointed him.”
I nod at the young man in front of me. He is solidly-built, with nervous eyes and a generous mouth. By the way he looks at Xiao Ling, she has already worked her magic, and this drama will play out in the next three weeks. I wonder if I should warn him now.
“The Chief of Courtiers is always praising you, Minister Jin Fan,” he says.
“I was just telling him of our Great Adventure, Jin Fan,” she bursts in effusively. “Surely you remember the time when…”
I most certainly do remember. She launches off into a recital of her version of events, the official version that has been recorded into the books and scrolls of poets. It makes me wonder what she tells her closer friends.
The records start the story with the unification of the Empire, and our new Emperor wanted something to solidify his rule. One of the first things he did, after creating a new system of government and laws for people to obey, was put out an edict stating that anyone who wished to serve in his Palace was to bring him a shoot of Emerald Bamboo, found only on the peak of Yellow Mountain. To obtain it, travelers had to pass through a treacherous labyrinth.
Poets wax loquacious about our fast friendship and how we set off together, holding hands in the darkness all the way to King Bao’s secret garden. We overcame evil opponents such as the Shadow Sorcerer and the Jade Brigand and the Clubfoot Barbarian through our clever wit and tenacity. When we arrived, we built ourselves wings from the Emerald Bamboo and flew to the Palace. Together.
Sometimes I think Xiao Ling creates these embellishments for entertainment.
Our stories start much earlier, when we were both children in the Zhou Kingdom before the Empire came to be. The Zhou Kingdom wasn’t very large, but we were a very proud people, and our soldiers fought hard against the conqueror who would become our Emperor. The burnings and the diseases rendered our lands barren, and we soon surrendered.
Xiao Ling was the daughter of a rich merchant, and among the many things she had which I did not were the following: her own room, an education, and my mother. I remember knowing this very early, and resenting her for taking my mother away from me. My mother doted on her, calling her pretty and clever; she goaded me into creating a friendship with Xiao Ling, telling me that even though I could not be as pretty, I could be as clever, if I listened carefully to the various tutors who came to teach her.
Inevitably, Xiao Ling would do something to frustrate the tutor so much, he would leave. This in turn would raise my ire; learning was the best way out of poverty for me and my mother. I would take myself off beyond the city walls, to my relatives’ farms for a few days, losing myself in the hard labour of tilling the soil, preparing the plots, digging the irrigation ditches, plucking out weeds and dangerous insects, before hating it and going back to Xiao Ling’s pretty house and pretty rooms. She would always be sorry, and invite me to stay with her in her room.
Perhaps at these times, whispering secrets to each other in the darkness, we were friends, but I have forgotten, since her mother would discover my things and me, and have me unceremoniously thrown out. Xiao Ling hated her own mother and liked to see her angry; she would laugh at her mother’s rage as the latter screamed epithets at me and my own mother. I eventually learned to distrust her invitation to stay in her room, and she would wheedle me into doing so. In the small world we inhabited, the skill of ignoring her was a hard one to learn. I have yet to forgive her, even today.
This went on until we were both sixteen. By this time, the wars were over, and the Emperor was safely instated and sending out his strange call for courtiers. I’d had no desire to get married, since the fortune-teller predicted a tempestuous affair for me in the future. Instead, I packed, spent what little money I had on supplies for a journey, and made my way to Yellow Mountain. My travels there were filled with serendipitous prosperity, and I put my learning to good use.
Huxian has advised me to relate this journey in an annal of my own, but perhaps I will save that for my final testament.
Yellow Mountain was not the abandoned, desolate place the stories made it out to be. Word of the Emerald Bamboo had spread, and the way to the entrance of King Bao’s labyrinth was crowded with stall-owners, carriages, palanquins, makeshift stables, and even the occasional lanternship, hulking overhead or tucked between tree groves. Cooks bent over their little charcoal fires, fruit sellers gossiping, bookies taking bets on who would never come out again… it was like a little festival, if a little subdued.
I bought some preserved fruit, restocked some supplies, and, upon making conversation with the sellers, was warned, repeatedly, that well-known criminals had also decided to try for the prize. People had already emerged wounded and dying, some carrying dead companions. If the labyrinth didn’t kill the competitors, the criminal elements would.
I thanked them for the information, and meandered in.
King Bao had never meant for the passageways to be impassable, and anyone who can read the writings on the wall can tell what turning goes where, provided they thought hard about what appeared to be riddles and proverbs. Fires fueled by natural gases lit the way from cubbies carved into the walls. However, disrepair meant that the traps—and there were most certainly traps, though none of the lethal kind—did not function as… non-lethally as they should have.
I passed many careless people on my way in: several were dead from not having read the instructions carefully. Some were traumatized enough that they ran back out of the labyrinth as soon as I helped them out of whatever pit trap or hanging cage they were in. And of course, I met the few who turned on me as soon as I assisted them. I had a knife and a dagger, and those I couldn’t hide from, I wounded enough to deter. Then I would politely wait for them to be out of earshot, and carry on.
This is how Xiao Ling came back into my story, almost four years after I had left my hometown behind.
I came to a chamber where the floor was not so much a floor as it was a set of moving blocks, each about a square foot wide. Through hydraulics beneath them, the blocks rumbled across flywheels on what looked like an aimless course, reconfiguring their arrangement every so often. A person could walk on the blocks, and some were close enough that one could jump.
Xiao Ling was perched on an isolated block, waiting patiently for it to connect to another. She had always been a small-sized girl, and she made the blocks seem large. She did not look happy, and when she saw me, she beamed.
“Jin Fan!” she called, waving excitedly.
I resisted the urge to scowl. What was she doing here? Shouldn’t she have been married off by now to some rich man who would buy her cosmetics and clothes for the rest of her life?
“Are you all right?” I inquired across the moving chasm.
She pouted. “My men left me!”
So the princess had been abandoned by the servants she trusted to see her through a dilapidated labyrinth.
“Did they run forward or run back?”
“What do you think?” She nearly slipped. “They went on without me, and after I got so far!”
“How long have you been here?” I wondered how she got so far ahead of me.
“Just a few hours,” she admitted. “The labyrinth is tricky! I got lost so many times, and lost three men before the last two left me here when they reached the other side.”
So the blocks did move fast. She wouldn’t have been stuck so long but for her bad luck. I looked for the plaque that would reveal the key to passing this challenge. They usually weren’t too far away, often at eye-level.
This one had fallen to the ground. I dusted it off and read it aloud: “Fate constantly shifts; always remember where you are going.”
Xiao Ling looked around, and, sighing, squatted to wait for another block to approach.
I peered over the edge of the floor, at the flywheels below. There were traces of bone and blood on the flywheels, but otherwise, the floor looked fairly stable. The blocks, then, weren’t the path across: they were the walls of the actual maze. I secured my supplies to my body and jumped down.
“Jin Fan!” Xiao Ling screamed. She actually sounded concerned.
I got up, brushing my sleeves. “What is it?”
“Are you all right?” she demanded. “Why did you do that?”
“Because this is what you’re supposed to do.” I made my way around the walls, following her voice. but as Xiao Ling continued to wail and wring her hands, I didn’t take more than a few minutes to reach her.
“So which way is the other side?”
She glared down at me, and pointed.
“Thanks,” I said, and continued on.
“Wait!” Xiao Ling yelled, letting herself down. “Wait for me!”
I wanted to ignore her. I did my best to ignore her. Habits of old, however, came back, and I was nodding and making the appropriate noises as she talked. Her conversation was much better, though: she had hired a lanternship, and she told me of the technology that lifted it, asking me if I had seen it. The journey had been uneventful, except one or two others who were also seeking the Emerald Bamboo had attempted to shoot her down as soon as they discovered she was on the same quest.
“Can you believe that? Trying to kill me!” Xiao Ling laughed.
“Are you saying you wouldn’t do the same thing?” I asked, turning another corner.
“Of course I would. But I wouldn’t let someone do that to me.”
I rolled my eyes. She continued to prattle about the cost of repairing her lanternship, and I pondered what would happen if she were to turn on me as soon as we got to the end of this maze.
I was not surprised when she spent no fuss pulling herself out of the maze onto the ledge of the path. I was surprised when she turned around and offered me a hand. I took it without comment, and when I was up, she put her hands on her hips expectantly.
“Thank you.” I bowed to her.
“It is coming to lunchtime,” she announced. “I want egg soup.”
I stared at her. “What?”
She frowned, puzzled. I suppose she forgot that I was never her servant, and so had never really picked up the habit of simply obeying her. “It’s mealtime!”
“What makes you think I’m going to share my food with you?” I retorted.
“Because if you don’t, I’ll push you back down,” she replied calmly.
I stared at her again. My eyes were getting strained from widening. “Fine then.” I turned and jumped back down into the maze.
“Wait!” She leaned over the edge. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Me? What’s wrong with you? Who told you that you can order me around like a servant?”
“I helped you out!”
“I helped you first!”
“Why are you being so difficult?” came the expected question.
I simply glared up at her. “Go away.” Then I resolutely sat down, my back against the wall.
I heard her footsteps shuffle above my head. She paced back and forth, probably trying to figure out how she could wheedle me back up the way she used to. Finally, when her footsteps had receded into the distance, I threw my backpack up, and hoisted myself after.
It did not take me long to catch up with her. She wasn’t lost, and I ignored her as I walked past. She kept up with me, and we walked for several minutes, side by side, in stony silence. The walls began to stop echoing, and there were some corridors where the fires had gone out entirely.
“Someone’s trying to sabotage the labyrinth for everyone else,” Xiao Ling growled the obvious.
I nodded, taking out my sparkrocks. Not wanting to overuse them, I relit the alcoves sparingly.
When I finally stopped to eat, she sat down opposite, her gaze boring into me, but not hostile. I pulled out two strips of preserved mango and two strips of chicken jerky, and handed one of each to Xiao Ling. She took them without a word and ate hungrily. I nibbled, alternating between the food and leaning against the wall to rest.
“We should be more careful,” she said as she chewed. “There’s no telling who’s ahead of us that’ll sabotage the challenges for us.”
“What I don’t understand is why,” I complained. “These are tests to prove individual worth, a cheap and easy way of passing the examinations without the state having to go through the hassle of holding them.”
Xiao Ling shook her head, grinning. “So naïve, Jin Fan!”
I glared at her, but she only laughed.
“Everyone who brings the Emperor a shoot of the Emerald Bamboo is guaranteed a position, somewhere, anywhere, in court. Of course competitors will want to make sure as few people as possible succeed. That way, there’s more power to go around.”
She said it so calmly, I felt something in me seize up. “Oh.” Suddenly her flippant remark earlier about killing other rivals wasn’t so flippant anymore.
“You want that, too?” I asked as mildly as possible.
“I’m thinking about it.” She gave me a sly grin. “How about you?”
I took another nibble. “If the Zhou Kingdom must submit to the new Empire, I want to make sure the new Emperor rules us well.”
“Waahh!” Xiao Ling sounded impressed, and she smiled at me in a way that showed she didn’t think I was serious.
I refused to dignify that with a rejoinder. What I said was part of the truth. She didn’t need to know all my reasons.
As we packed up, I thought about my mother, having to work the whole day for the likes of spoiled Xiao Ling. I didn’t want to be like her, but I wanted to have that kind of wealth and security, knowledge that no one could ever throw me out of a house ever again. Perhaps marriage could have offered another way out, but my father had left, easily, without a word.
I ignored Xiao Ling as we continued on, even as she tried to strike up a conversation with reminiscences. I relit the corridors every so often, and we took turns deciphering the plaques on the wall.
She grabbed my sleeve suddenly. I don’t remember what she had been talking about earlier. We were at the door of a large room, and I was squinting to see whether there was another door beyond it. I was quite sure this was the right way.
“We should be careful here.” There was an urgency in her voice that made me take notice.
The plaque hinted at a particularly nasty trap of spikes and arrows. I pulled out a lantern and a tiny candle from my pack. Xiao Ling unfolded the lantern while I lit the wick, and in the dim light, we could see that the room was quite, quite large. The holes on the ground were clearly openings for the spikes. The pattern looked quite straightforward: evenly spaced apart, two feet from each other.
I glanced at Xiao Ling. We nodded. We walked in slowly, our gaze on the floor and squinting in the dim light to make sure we weren’t close to any of the holes. I think we both held our breath. But no spikes speared us, and slowly, we began to relax.
Until one of us, I can never remember who, failed to see the tripwire on the ground, and there was a loud rumble. We both shrieked at the sight of the rising spikes, and made a dash for the other side.
The room, as I said, was very large, and it was suddenly getting smaller, unfortunately, from all directions. I glanced up, and wished I hadn’t, as even the ceiling had spikes
“Jin Fan!” Xiao Ling screamed, and pushed me to the floor as the ceiling came crashing down to a stop. The lantern rolled out of my hands as we fell to our sides.
In the sudden silence, I opened my eyes to find Xiao Ling’s hands gripping my shoulders and the lantern still flickering dimly just a foot away from our heads. A ground spike lay between our bellies, and a ceiling spike between our necks.
Her eyes were wide open, and she was whimpering with each deep breath.
“Xiao Ling?” I whispered.
“We’re alive?” she gasped.
“We’d better be, because this floor is uncomfortable.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but she looked so distraught, it probably sounded flippant. “Um. Thanks for saving me.”
She blinked, and her grip on my shoulders relaxed. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
I shrugged. But her gaze unnerved me, because it was so unlike her. I was used to the spoiled Xiao Ling, full of imperious chatter.
“You were always the clever one,” she said, smiling a little. “If I didn’t save you, how would I get through this place?” And the heavens seemed to right themselves, for the moment. Then she touched my cheek. “Doesn’t this remind you of the times we slept together?”
“We should look out for each other, then,” I said, reaching for the lantern. Without looking back, I began to crawl, hands and knees, along the floor. The ceiling was much lower, and the spikes were thankfully no longer moving, so navigating around them was fairly easy.
I said nothing more after we exited the chamber, and Xiao Ling resumed her chatter. For the rest of the day until we settled down to rest, I was discomfited.
I woke up in the middle of a good sleep to find Xiao Ling's hands on my face again. I blinked, and blearily looked up at her.
“What's wrong?” I sat up, not hearing anything in the corridors. “Why are you awake?”
She shrugged. “I couldn't sleep.”
“Do you want me to blow out the candle?” I had left it on in case we needed to be up and running quickly. But the alcoves were all lit.
“Already blown out. We won't need it.” She indicated the rest of the corridor. “I lit it all the way to the next challenge.”
“What is it?”
“But we’re already in a tunnel,” I said, still sleepy.
She giggled. “I mean, a much smaller one.”
I nodded. “Any sign of trouble?”
She made an affirmative sound, and bit her lip. “There are a few dead people ahead of us.” A hint of trepidation crept into her voice.
It had been a while since we came across bodies. ”All right, I'll get up, then.”
She pushed me back down. “No need. I was just watching you sleep.” She gave me a sly smile.
I almost scowled at her. “What?”
“It's been a long time, Jin Fan. I just wanted to look at you, see if you were just the same as before.”
“No one ever stays the same.” I gripped her wrist, ready to push her off me.
“I know," she sighed. "Do you still feel the same way about me?”
I didn't know how to answer that. The same way as when? When we were both children and I was pressed into loving her as my sister? When I was older and angry at how many times she had betrayed me? When I left home, not so long ago, determined to find a life beyond the Zhou capital?
“Do you?” I hedged.
She shook her head, smiling wistfully.
I didn’t know how to interpret that, either. “Well, then.” That seemed like a neutral answer. “So if we're not moving on, I’d like to sleep some more. You should, too.”
Xiao Ling nodded, and took her hand away. “Can I sleep closer to you?”
I shrugged. “Up to you.”
She curled up next to me, her head resting on my shoulder, an arm across my waist. I drifted off to sleep, not feeling entirely uncomfortable.
When I woke up, she was gone.
So had my pack, actually. I growled a curse beneath my breath and stretched, and proceeded to find my way to the next challenge, to the tunnel she had indicated. With each step, I fumed even more. I should have known, should have felt her awaken. I was, admittedly, a deep sleeper.
It was a bit more awkward that I had expected. The tunnel funneled into a passage that wasn’t much more than three feet in diameter. I glared at it for a while even as I bent down, down, until it was so narrow, I was crawling on my hands and knees. Phosphorescent moss illuminated the way. I heard scraping up ahead, and the soft grunts of someone having a hard time pulling something that sounded like a heavy, and stuck, pack.
It was mine, and Xiao Ling was having trouble dragging it along behind her. I crawled faster and grabbed her ankle. “How dare you!”
“Jin Fan?!” she shrieked.
“If you had just left, that would be fine, but stealing my things? Like you haven’t taken enough from me?”
I pulled the pack away from her. She let it go, and I lay on my side to check its contents. If the day before was any indication, she was no good at rationing, and may have eaten more than necessary by now.
Everything was there. I sighed in relief, and then glared at Xiao Ling.
“Why?” I demanded.
“You didn’t wake up when I did,” she replied, impressing me with her calmness.
“And so that made stealing from me all right?” I could feel my left eyebrow straining from how high it was.
She lifted her head. “Would you have done any differently?”
“I wouldn’t have stolen from you,” I bit out, gripping my pack harder. Why had I assumed Xiao Ling wouldn’t do that? Perhaps I had always assumed I had nothing worth stealing.
We sat in the dimness for a while, until the silence was suffocating. Incidentally, so was the tunnel. I began to crawl around Xiao Ling, to get a move on.
“I’m sorry for making you angry,” Xiao Ling said as she crawled behind me.
“Do you think whoever’s ahead would have done something to the tunnel?”
Someone had: A thick, gummy spider web made of rope and held firmly in place by hooks and knots. I might have considered it part of the many obstacles, except the holes in the walls were too fresh. I cut through the thick strands with a knife from my backpack, and scampered out of the tunnel to get as far away from Xiao Ling as soon as possible.
Irritatingly, she kept up. This time, however, she was blessedly quiet, and even wordlessly helped me when we came up against a puzzle that required hauling large marble rocks, each an armful, into specific slots along the wall. Once in the right order, the rocks settled in to activate the hydraulics that would open the stone doors into the next section of the labyrinth. The doors groaned unnervingly, but I couldn’t see how they worked, to my disappointment. As we entered, Xiao Ling pushed the doors close behind us, to prevent competitors from catching up too easily. I could hear the stones falling out of the slots and booming to the ground on the other side.
When I finally slowed to rest, she sat several feet away, but I could feel her eyes on me, watching my every move. I threw an annoyed glance her way, but tossed her a piece of dried fruit, anyway. As I settled down to sleep—this time careful to lay my head on my backpack in case she decided to steal from me again—I heard her shuffling towards me.
“I’m very sorry,” she said quietly.
I was still annoyed at her, but I was also angry at myself. Trusting her, thinking she had left behind all her willfulness and picked up some modicum of concern for people other than herself… why had I deluded myself into doing that?
I was startled out of these thoughts, though, when I felt her hands on my face.
“I was afraid that if I didn’t leave you first, you would leave me alone, with nothing,” she whispered. “I meant it when I said I wouldn’t get through this place without you.”
“And you left me anyway,” I mumbled, still unsure what to do about her caressing fingers.
“You caught up.” I could feel her shrug.
I opened my eyes and stared into her face for a little while. There was a certain hardness in her eyes that I had always known, which had never gone away despite whatever indulgences she had been afforded. I knew how heartless she could be, and I knew what violence she was capable of. The more I kept her at a distance, the more she would work to get closer, the angrier I would get, and the harder it would be to concentrate on my mission.
So I drew her close to me, wrapping my arms around her body, and realized she was, really, much smaller than me. When she kissed me, I kissed her back, and the sounds of our lips echoed down the corridors until, making a happy noise, she settled her face on my shoulder, her breath tickling my neck.
I still hated Xiao Ling, despite her easy chatter that meant she thought I felt otherwise. I prayed she wouldn’t get attached to me even as we walked arm-in-arm, much more closely than we'd ever before. But I didn’t have much time to think about this. We were both very close to our goal, and when we came across even more variously scattered dead bodies on our path, I was convinced.
Someone was definitely out to deter the other seekers.
The only good thing about it was, the traps seemed to have been completely disabled, possibly so the killer would have an easier time getting back out.
“I didn’t realize there were so many people ahead of us,” Xiao Ling murmured as we passed by another dead man.
I couldn’t answer. Seeing my dead competition upset me, even if some of them had been criminals in life. Whoever was ahead, we would encounter him, and I had a feeling he would not be pleasant. And this would probably be the competitor who would succeed in getting to the new Emperor, and with that kind of ruthlessness, what kind of havoc would he wreak? I accidentally squeezed Xiao Ling’s arm so tightly in my grim mood that she squealed.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“We need to stop him!”
“We need to take care of ourselves first,” she said archly. “Do you have any weapons?”
“A few different knives.”
She nodded. “I have a few flares. I was going to signal my lanternship once I got out of the cave, but maybe we can use them for something else.”
I thought about this a moment. “Wait, then why didn’t you just fly to the top of the mountain?”
“I tried. I was shot down, remember? It should be fixed by now. Would have been so much simpler to fly up, but I kept running into other lanternships doing the same thing.”
We kept on walking. When we stopped to rest, Xiao Ling clung to me as if I were a shield. I lay on top of her often, my cheek resting against her neck, but our sleep became more and more restless. Xiao Ling’s chatter disappeared altogether when, I guessed, we passed the men who had abandoned her earlier. I idly wondered how long it would take for them to rot and stink, and how hard it would be to wash away the smell of death.
The breeze was the first thing to elicit a shout from Xiao Ling. I thought it an illusion, but when I lowered the lantern, I saw that there was a light at the end of the labyrinth.
“Is that it?” she asked excitedly.
“If it is, we should be careful,” I reminded her.
I could feel her shaking with excitement as we approached the cave mouth, but beyond it didn’t look like a garden. It was a bridge across a chasm, made of worn wood and rope. When Xiao Ling saw it, she groaned. “I thought this would be the end!”
I patted her arm. “Not yet.”
We emerged into the sunshine and I breathed in the mountain air. We were definitely close to the garden, because I could smell the bamboo leaves. It was very much like the scent of bamboo groves back home, but stronger, fresher, sharper.
“Let’s rest,” I suggested, “and try to come up with a way to avoid whoever’s ahead of us.”
She nodded, and as I set up camp, she pulled out a flare from her own bag and set it off.
“What’re you doing?”
“Signaling my ship,” she replied calmly. “We’re almost out of food, if you haven’t noticed. If we’re going to rest and have to face a killer in there, we should be ready.”
“Wasn’t your ship shot down once already?”
She smiled. “I left orders for them to shoot down everybody else and meet me on this side of the mountain.”
I didn’t argue. “We should go back inside when it gets dark, though.” It was almost sunset, and the air was already feeling chilly.
The lanternship, surprisingly, did not take very long to arrive, and by sunrise, we were having breakfast on its deck, under the cowhide heat-bag that kept it aloft. After we had finished, Xiao Ling stretched.
“That was nice. I feel ready to finish the task now.”
“And the killer?” I asked, setting down my teacup.
She gestured to four of her deckhands, tall men with burly arms and several kinds of weapons on their belts.
I felt both my eyebrows raising. “I guess that should do.”
“It will.” She gestured again, and I felt a blow to the back of my head. I jumped up, dizzy. “But to be safe, you’ll stay here.”
“Why?” I managed to demand.
“You’ll get in the way, Jin Fan. I don’t want you hurt.”
I was going to point out the throbbing pain in my head to contradicted that statement, was going to yell at her for not talking about this with me first, was going to scream at her for betraying me, again. But I said nothing and fell to the floor instead.
Xiao Ling had underestimated the amount of pain I could take, though. I was still conscious as her lackeys dragged me down below deck, tossed me into a room, and locked the door. I opened my eyes to find myself in a small supply room, the window facing east and the sun streaming in to illuminate it.
I pushed myself up from the floor and sat up, rubbing the back of my head and making grouchy noises. As the pain receded, I catalogued the contents of the room, and what I felt I could use. Still grumpy, I threw a rope over my shoulder, slung on a backpack which I ascertained contained a slowfall silk, and secured a small crossbow on my belt. I tucked several arrows into my boots, as well as a shiny new knife I put next to my own.
Satisfied with my haul, I opened the window and stuck my head out. It would be easy to climb out of the room, I figured, and onto the main deck. Pleased with this plan, I pushed myself out and quickly analyzed the ship’s build. This was a new lanternship, judging by the sleekness of the hull and the ropes that wrapped around its sides to enable in-flight repair. I began climbing up, my fingers finding ledges easily.
Except, the ship was going down. I cursed and began scrambling up. So much for sneaking onto the main deck. I grabbed the ropes that held the main boat to the heat bag and kept on climbing, and when I got to the top of the heat bag, I kept running, towards the dilapidated bridge that was still within reach, but rising, rising. The cowhide was soft under my feet, almost slowing me down. In a panic, I leapt, desperately clawing the air, and as if spirits lifted me up, I grabbed a piece of rope on the bridge.
I dangled for several moments, not quite believing my luck. I would dedicate a full altar to the spirits of this mountain, I promised, and carefully hauled myself up onto the rickety bridge. It wobbled as I walked, forcing me to stop several times, and I wondered, mostly to keep my mind off the deep emptiness beyond the wood under my feet, whether King Bao had meant for it to be like this, if it was a test of balance.
When I got to the ledge on the other side, I prostrated myself for a long time, profusely thanking the local spirits. When I felt ready, I slowly rose to my feet to take in the opening of the cave. A large wooden frame around the entrance still showed the forms of dragons undulating in the clouds, despite being worn by rain and wind.
I thought hard about whether I really wanted to go in, knowing I would face either Xiao Ling or the mystery killer-rival. Unable to decide who was worse, I settled down next to the cave mouth to take in the view.
The face of Yellow Mountain was riddled with the cracks and crannies that served as beds for all sorts of trees and nests. The morning was waking up the birds, who filled the air with chirrups and tweets. I rubbed my shoulders, feeling a cool breeze even through my thick sleeves. From where I sat, I could see the chasm that had felt so empty beneath me was actually filled with green. Even the ledge where I sat was flanked by tall trees with roots that bulged out from the earth beneath me.
I took in a deep breath, and I could smell more than just the bamboo I had detected when first coming out into the open. This mountainside was a fulsome, fecund land; I wondered why King Bao hadn't just built his palace right into the mountain.
Echoing footsteps disturbed my reverie, and Xiao Ling burst out of the cave, breathing deep and irregular, her eyes wide with panic.
“Jin Fan?” she shrieked when she saw me, and before I could say anything, she pulled a whistle from her shirt and blew it. The shrill sound seemed to fall into the chasm; as we leaned over, we saw her lanternship rising from its hiding place.
“You found the killer? Where are your guards?”
“He’s not human! My guards are holding him back.”
“You left them behind?” I demanded.
“What else would I do?” She tossed her head, her eyes daring me to judge her.
Before I could reply, I heard heavy boots crunching something wet underfoot, and striding closer. I grabbed Xiao Ling’s wrist and dragged her to the trees at the edge of the ledge. We clambered up the dense branches and clung to them, being as quiet as we could. A gust of wind blew, shaking the bridge, just as a tall man emerged from the cave.
His face was bloodied, and his left hand pressed a bandage to his bleeding right upper arm. His high forehead and large phoenix eyes were familiar, but it was the hilt of his sword peeking out from behind his head that gave him away.
“The Jade Brigand of the Wu-san Pass,” I breathed.
It was terrifying to see a well-known criminal in the flesh. The poets almost never mention this.
He looked around, and finally glared at the swaying bridge. Then he began crossing it himself, presumably still after Xiao Ling. I waited until he had reached the other side and climbed down slowly, in time to see him cutting the ropes of the bridge with his sword.
My patience snapped. He had sabotaged almost everything else in the labyrinth, and now the bridge, which had to be one of the trickiest things to build in a place like this. I drew out the crossbow from my belt and loaded it. “Hoy!” I shouted across the chasm. When he looked up, I fired.
I hit the shoulder of his already wounded arm, and he gave me such a look of hatred, I stepped back. He didn’t stop cutting, though—in fact, he sped up. I fired another bolt at him, and this time he did stop, and rose to his feet. My third arrow went for his throat.
He stumbled for several seconds, then fell face down on the bridge he had weakened. His weight made the ropes snap, and the sharp sounds echoed like firecrackers. His body fell off the ledge with the grace of a thousand careless leaves in autumn, and the bridge swung to slam against the side of the mountain, a ladder leading to nowhere.
“So much for saving the bridge,” I muttered.
I turned and found Xiao Ling running towards me. I dropped the crossbow and drew my knife, not knowing what she was up to. She stopped, stared at the weapon, and laughed.
“Jin Fan, you’re so suspicious!”
“You had me knocked out,” I pointed out angrily, convinced by now that she lived in some other world where being an unpredictable firecracker made her in any way trustworthy.
“I know, but that was for your own good. You saw how dangerous he was." She threw her arms around my neck.
I accepted the embrace grudgingly, and wondered what she had in her backpack.
When she was done squeezing me, she placed her hands on my shoulders lightly, her smile wistful as she drew back to look full into my face. “Jin Fan…”
But there was something about her eyes, the way they turned shrewd and the sudden hardness in them. It was a quick moment, so out of place in her benign expression, and I felt her muscles tense.
So I shoved her away from me—from fear, from panic, from suspicion, I don’t remember now.
I must have shoved a bit too hard, because she stumbled, and, arms flailing, fell off the ledge. Dumbfounded, I looked at my hand, which still clutched the knife I had used to cut into her backpack. But my hand was also now wrapped in the slowfall silk I had inadvertently stolen from her. I heard her scream.
Suddenly, though, her screams turned into laughter, and the lanternship rose past the ledge where I still stood, wondering what I had done. Xiao Ling was clinging to the ropes around the heat-bag. She waved at me merrily. “Thanks, Jin Fan, for saving my life! I knew I could count on you to help me finish the task!” She reached into her shirt and drew out a bright green bamboo shoot. The sunlight intensified its colour, and I could not help but stare at it. No wonder it was called "emerald."
The lanternship roared past me and was away, Xiao Ling’s laughter still piercing the air.
I had underestimated just how fertile King Bao’s garden was. Not only was it home to the legendary Emerald Bamboo, it was host to a variety of plants and creatures. Within three days, using the sturdy vines and longer bamboo trunks, I had built a workable bridge that I dragged out to the chasm. It was much more rickety than the original bridge had been, but it would do for any more travelers.
I stayed longer, however, to explore this place and find out more about it. Even the soil was fragrant there. I unpacked the slowfall silk from my bag so I could fill its pockets with seeds and dirt. Without a place to store the silk, I slept on it for two nights before I realized what else I could do with it.
My first glider worked well enough that I managed to not die on my first crash landing. With several tweaks over the course of two weeks, in between running into a lanternship skirmish, a few bandits and restocking supplies, I was flying around the compound of the new Emperor’s summer palace. Unwashed, unkempt, and unapologetic, I followed the directions of the guard captain frantically waving his arms at me to land in an out of the way courtyard.
I was refused audience with the Emperor on account of the state I was in, so I asked for ink and paper, on which I recounted my travels, catalogued the damage done to the labyrinth, listed the flora and fauna in King Bao’s garden, and made recommendations for further action. I enclosed a shoot of Emerald Bamboo and requested that my writings be taken to the Emperor, and then found a nearby inn to wash up and sleep in.
Within two days, I was summoned before the Emperor and appointed Minister of Agriculture. I immediately began work restoring King Bao’s labyrinth and set young bright minds studying the soil of the garden, in order to spread the fertility of the soil to more barren precincts of the new Empire.
Our poets call this age the Emerald Dynasty, because the Emerald Bamboo has spread across the kingdoms, and every morning, the sun sets the stalks aglow. Where there is a successful grove of this bamboo, the fallen leaves are mixed with the earth for a fruitful harvest, and the stems used to build houses and fires. The Emperor is a good man, who does honour to his ancestors and living family.
And now, we celebrate his heir, born not two days ago. I heard that the child is a daughter, which will be scandalous to our elders, but the Son of Heaven is a very unconventional man in many senses of the word.
For example, he allowed Huxian and me to marry two years into his service. I fear for the time when he will move on to his next life.
Huxian now comes to my rescue, gently taking my arm and saying softly to Xiao Ling, “Chief Courtier, I would like to borrow her Honour for a moment,” and draws me away from where Xiao Ling is still telling her story. Her embellishments involve a daring swordfight between us and the Jade Brigand.
“It is her nature,” Huxian whispers to me softly as we withdraw to a quiet corner. “You know she means you no harm, and she does well in keeping the junior eunuchs in control.”
I nod. I still hate Xiao Ling, but the hatred recedes into the back of my mind. I have more important duties to tend to, and a wife I love more. Huxian draws me close, and amid the scents of the moonlit spring, we kiss.
This story originally appeared in Steampunk-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories.