Tien Fing Fo could summon Demons. He could conjure lightning, scorch his enemies with fire, freeze them alive, or even smite them from existence altogether. He could not, however, convince his wife to love him again.
It had been two months since she had left him to live with her sister in Tengong. It had taken him a week just to travel to the city, and his bones ached from the journey. Riding a horse at almost forty years of age was naught but an ache in the balls, he thought. His home in Xi’Ping – their home – had felt empty without her. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to say, even though he had been thinking of nothing else for two months. He only knew he had to win her back.
So, on foot now, he moped through the city of Tengong in the rain, the black weather and the croaking of crows complementing his black mood. The problem was that he could not change. He could not promise her he would change, because he knew he could not. That was why she had left. So, how was he supposed to talk her around now? He could do nothing but ask her to overlook what she saw as his flaws and accept him as he was, and he prayed that would be enough, even while knowing deep down in his heart that it would not. If it had been enough, she would not have left.
“Mind yourself!” he snapped as a man bumped into him, subjecting the greasy drunkard to a towering glower.
The man looked up into his slitted grey eyes and cowered a little, much to Tien’s satisfaction, before bobbing his head apologetically and scurrying off to tell his friends that a Wizard had almost turned him into a toad.
“Would’ve turned him into a skunk,” Tien muttered. “That’d teach him.”
Tengong was a hive of activity, people jostling him on every side as they surged through the streets like a fleshy tide, babbling in their hundreds. The scents of wine and baui smoke wafted across the city. Tien’s plum-coloured silk robe was soon spattered with mead, the embroidered arcane symbols dripping. He sighed, clenched his jaw and shoved past the beefy man responsible, contemplating turning a Demon loose on him.
The beefy man did not take kindly to this, however, and shouted after Tien, “Oi, mind your manners, you graceless boob!”
Tien spun and held out a palm on which fire flickered like a living thing, lighting up the cruel expression on his angular face. “What was that?” he snarled.
The man backed away hurriedly, finally spotting the sigils on the robe that marked Tien as a Wizard. “Ancestors save me! Sorry, Sheng!”
The cauliflower-eared man hightailed it through the mob while Tien growled under his breath, “Craven …”
Tien glanced up at the night sky in an attempt to escape the crowd if for but a moment, feeling the rain caress his face and a gentle zephyr kiss his golden skin. Past the overhanging eaves that tunnelled his vision, the rain played a tattoo on hundreds of red paper lanterns drifting up into the dark sky, so that it sounded like a thousand celestial drums were beating to augment the sound of the actual drums beating somewhere in the distance. Tien caught snatches of zither music and song as he continued down the thronged avenue, slipping between revellers. The sight of so many lanterns was mesmerising, as though mankind had found a way to create a second series of stars that would eventually fall to earth. A fine metaphor for humanity itself, thought Tien – we rise so high only to fall back down to where we began.
It was a day of celebration in Quing Tzu, the day of the Lantern Festival, marking the end of the new year festivities. People traditionally inscribed their wishes for the year to come on the lanterns, lit the attached candles and then watched their wishes float up into the realm of the Gods. The origins of the day, however, were a little more complicated.
“-shot a crane out of the skies,” Tien overheard a street performer telling the story of how the festival came to be to a rapt audience as he slunk past. “The Emperor of the Clouds was enraged, furious! For the crane was his favourite beast in all of Chi and Maradoum. He summoned his legendary Raiju, the lightning wolves, and bade them burn the town to the ground! Fortunately, however, the Cloud Emperor was overheard by a wise old Wizard on a mountaintop. The Wizard disappeared from the mountaintop and reappeared in Tengong to warn the people. When they begged for his advice, he told them to swiftly hang red lanterns around every building, set bonfires throughout the city and throw firecrackers all day and night long. The Raiju descended like a pack of Demons on the town that night, but upon seeing all the lanterns, fires and firecrackers, they thought the town already aflame and so returned to their celestial master with the good news. Mollified, the Cloud Emperor permitted Tengong to live on. That is why to this day we still celebrate the Lantern Festival – in honour of the merciful Cloud Emperor!”
“Heresy!” boomed another voice, and Tien saw a squad of city guards in bronze lamellar armour shouldering through the throng to reach the storyteller. The lead guard pointed at the calico man, his golden-skinned face pinched in a scowl. “The Lantern Festival is forbidden! Sending up lanterns is forbidden! Worship of the Cloud Emperor is forbidden! Emperor Bujing is the one and only God, and he sits on the Jade Throne in Xi’Ping! Arrest this man and disperse the crowd!”
Some of the guards seized the hapless street performer, while others began laying about them left and right half-heartedly, bludgeoning the gathered citizens with wooden rods until they scattered like sheep whose pen was left open, bleating all the while. Tossed about in the storm of people, Tien shuffled along the side of the street as far away from the guards as possible, raising his cowl over his wet black topknot. His scraggly beard dripped with rain. He wondered what had happened to Emperor Bujing to tip him off the precipice of sanity and convince him that he was in fact a living God. It was never wise to anger the true deities, Tien ruminated. Besides, banning the festival was impractical. It was woven into the very fabric of people’s lives and had been for centuries; they were celebrating in their tens of thousands all across Quing Tzu, he was sure. No edict would stop them all.
Turning a corner, he was smitten by the sight of the palace of the governor of Xinghai, the Shenzhan, where his wife now resided. Her sister had acquired for her a job as a maid, since she already worked in the palace. His wife had told him so in a letter. The ending of the letter – ‘Do not write. Do not visit. Goodbye.’ – had broken his heart.
The Shenzhan’s palace was a sprawling testament to greed, gilded from the marble base mouldings to the tips of the highest spires, which congregated around a grand jade dome. Fenced off from the rest of the city by iron bars, the palace glittered even in the dark and rain, a constant reminder to those outside its walls of the extent of the Shenzhan’s power in his province. None had greater authority except Emperor Bujing himself. Tien approached the gate barring entrance to the gardens fronting the abomination of opulence and was halted by two armoured guards, who crossed their vicious-looking naginata to block his way, rendering the gate superfluous.
“Halt there, stranger!” one guard barked, his moustache quivering with the force of his voice. “What business do you have here?”
Tien waved a hand and said softly, “Sleep.”
The two guards collapsed with a clank of metal, and a few people in the street glanced the Wizard’s way as they started snoring. Ignoring them, Tien waved a hand again and the gate unlocked itself and swung open with a metallic creak. Entering the gardens, he strolled down a white pebble path lined on either side with blossoming cherry trees, their pink petals strewing the way as if for a guest of great importance. He reached a well, from which paths stretched off left and right to explore the sumptuous gardens, leading to crimson gazebos, finely trimmed topiary, stands of willow and cedar, koi pools and acers in every shade of orange that could be imagined, from peach to crimson. Circumventing the well coated pink by petals, Tien continued forward down the path until he reached the palace itself, swanning past the guards patrolling the garden as if invisible.
Two more guards were posted by the palace’s gilded and embossed double doors, and these Tien put to sleep with a wave of his hand. The doors unlatched themselves at his whim with a clunk and swung open noiselessly. Servants sweeping and dusting the lavish antechamber stared at him.
“Tell me,” he boomed, augmenting his voice with his eldritch energies so that it thundered through the room, leaving no doubt that the speaker was a Wizard – and a Wizard in a foul mood at that, “where can I find a woman by the name of Sying Fing Fo?”
The servants looked at one another.
“Do you mean Sying Leishu?” offered one stooped old woman wearing a shawl and a faded blue dress.
Tien cursed inwardly, realising his wife had reverted to using her maiden name. “Yes. Where is she?”
“Who is asking?”
“Tien Fing Fo, Wizard of Xi’Ping, her husband.”
The crone stared at him for a long moment and then beckoned with a liver-spotted hand. “I will take you to her, Sheng.”
He allowed his voice to fall back to its normal volume. “Thank you.”
The old woman escorted him through a carpeted corridor, past shoji screens and statues and indoor plants, to a wide, spiralling staircase with a marble banister.
As they ascended past whitewashed walls, Tien said, “I’d rather the Shenzhan didn’t know of my visit. This is between me and my wife, you understand?”
“Yes, Sheng. I understand marital problems, believe me. It speaks highly of you that you’re willing to come so far to see her, though.”
“You know how far I’ve come?”
“Oh yes, I’ve met your wife.”
“Does she speak of me then?”
“In a … positive sense?”
“She’s cleaning the study today. It’s just along here.”
The old woman led him down another corridor to a glossy wooden door, which stood ajar.
Poking her head into the room, she said, “Sying, dear, you’ve got a visitor.”
She swung open the door to reveal Tien, then bowed to them both and bustled off. Tien locked eyes with Sying. She was beautiful, even in a plain green dress with an apron slung over it, even while dusting a desk. Her tawny eyes narrowed at the sight of him, however, and she flicked her ponytail over her shoulder as if readying for a brawl. It was funny, he thought – he had faced vicious monsters, evil necromancers, murderous marauders, mad magicians and foreign armies, and he would rather face them all again than face his own wife.
“What are you doing here?” she snapped, her thin, golden-skinned face radiating waspishness.
“I came to see you,” he said, “to talk.” He swept his gaze around the study, encompassing the other servants, the desk, parchments, maps and bookshelves and the wall of paned windows offering a panoramic view of Tengong. “Alone.”
The other servants blinked guiltily, muttered something about getting a breath of fresh air or a drink and quickly evacuated the room, leaving the spouses alone. Tien could feel the tension in the room, taut as a bowstring. Sying crossed her arms and tapped her foot, regarding him as if he were dung she had stepped in.
“I miss you, Sying,” he said simply, spreading his arms, “and I want you back. Come home with me.”
“No,” she said, wielding the word as a warrior would a sword, disembowelling him with a practiced thrust. “I have a new life here, thank you, a wonderful life.”
Tien sighed. “But I’m your husband, Sying, and I love you with all my heart.”
“Tough.” The word was an arrow in his eye-socket. “I’ve moved on. So should you.”
Tien shook his head. “And yet I cannot. There is only one woman for me, Sying, and that is you.”
“Then, why did you not do as I asked?” she snapped. “Why were you never home with me?”
“You know why,” he said softly. “You knew it about me from the day we met. I was never visiting brothels or mistresses. I was investigating archaeological sites all across Quing Tzu, searching for an ancient vein of spells that I believe has been long misplaced.”
“Yes,” she sneered. “Your precious moon spells. So much more precious to you than me!”
“I admit to being ardent in my research,” he said diplomatically after a deep breath, though the urge to throttle her had risen up in the back of his throat like bile, “and while I cannot promise to give up my life’s ambition entirely, I can promise to try to stay home with you more often. I know you want a family one day, and … and I want to give you that.”
He almost smiled. “I will stay home more with you more often, I swear by my Ancestors. I want you to be the mother of my children, Sying, you know that.”
He thought she was going to succumb then. He thought she would smile and he would sweep her into his arms. So, the journey back downstairs after she said ‘No’ again was a desolate one, removed from reality, from hopes and dreams and fears. The world greyed over, and a meaningless existence yawned at Tien’s feet, a desert of quicksand sucking him in. He scarcely noticed when he was spotted by some guards. He allowed them to escort him out of the palace without a word.
He wandered the streets like a wraith among the realities of the revels, which were proceeding despite the city guard’s frantic attempts to implement a curfew. Unable to bring themselves to use their blades on such innocent folk, the city guard were more or less ignored by the populace at large. Every time they broke up one gathering with their wooden rods, the people simply gathered somewhere else and the process started over. Red paper lanterns were still floating up into the stormy night sky by the score throughout Tengong. The sound of singing and zither music still strummed across the streets, the uplifting melodies like fingernails on a chalkboard to Tien.
Nevertheless, he beelined for the noise, unwilling to be alone. He soon found a few families gathered on the bank of the river that wound through Tengong. He approached them and offered his blessings, which they graciously accepted. He explained that he was a Wizard and ensorcelled their lanterns so that the fire would flicker into the shape of Dragons and bear the lanterns much higher than any other. He watched the children’s delighted faces as they watched Dragons of flame propel their lanterns high into the night sky, pointing and laughing. He felt a flicker of humanity return then, and when one family offered to share their moon cakes with him, he almost broke down and wept. Keeping his composure, he ate with them. Then, having brought spares, they offered him a red paper lantern to send up to the Gods with his wishes for the year to come. He wrote his wife’s name in ink on the lantern and sent it shooting up into the sky on a tiny Dragon’s wings of flame.
As he watched it float away, he caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. Lightning, he thought, turning his head to better behold the phenomenon should it happen again. What he saw stilled his blood in his veins, his breath, his heart, stilled his very soul, if only for a moment.
By the split second flash of a thunderbolt arcing through the nighted clouds, he saw wolves in the sky – wolves of lightning, ethereal and ghostly, composed of transient strands of flickering light with nothing in between except the void and two bright shining yellow eyes on each. They looked like constellations come to life.
“Raiju!” Tien whispered, unable to believe his eyes. “I thought they were a myth!”
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