Chapter One - The Langya Wine List by A.J. Hall
“Do you know what the worst part of being Langya Hall is?”
The Young Master of the institution in question may have intended the question in a rhetorical spirit. Given the man he was addressing, any such intention was doomed to frustration. Of all the lists Langya Hall compiled, the shortest and least widely circulated was that of the people both permitted and mentally equipped to take the piss (as the vulgar phrase has it) out of the Young Master. To his credit, the Young Master himself headed the said list, fractionally ahead of the man on the other side of the low table.
The man opposite poured tea with a precise, almost finicky movement and sat back on his heels.
“I imagine it’s the people coming to you with idiotic questions they think both profound and unanswerable. ‘How many hairs on the head of the Son of Heaven?’ and so forth.”
The Young Master waved an airy hand. “Nothing of the sort. Those ones are simple. We charge them an extortionate amount — just more than they can afford, to be precise — and send them away with something mystical and inconclusive, probably involving a metaphor about clouds. Or stars. Or, if they’re from Donghai, sand. Word soon gets round. No, if you really want to know, it’s when you get wind of an absolute peach of a question, some fascinating conundrum that you’ve never experienced before in all the time you’ve been doing this job and then someone else shows up and answers it before Langya Hall can get in edgeways. Not only is there the obvious financial loss—”
The extremely successful enterprise built up over the last decade by the man across the table would not have existed at all had it not been for an enormous interest-free loan advanced to him by Langya Hall at a time when he possessed nothing more than the (not precisely) clothes he stood up in: a loan advanced solely on the strength of the Young Master’s gambler’s instincts and the Old Master’s fondness for his late father. He had paid the principal back in less than three years and made up for the lack of interest by the supply of profitable information ever since. Accordingly, he thought both Langya Hall’s investment portfolio and cash-flow position could weather a little poaching in their preserves and said so.
The Young Master sniffed. “One does not either become or remain rich by wasting money. No, if people start to see answering their tricky questions for them — well, Langya’s star will start to decline. And what then will become of any of us?”
The man across the table did not change his tone, nor did his expression alter in the smallest particular. Nevertheless, the temperature in the room dropped, measurably.
“If that was aimed at this person, with respect to the question of which master had revived the Dark Fire of the Netherworld and was teaching it to a new set of disciples, the question of cutting across Langya Hall’s sphere of influence simply did not arise.
“The flour-mill proprietor was one of our people. Was the Jiangzuo Alliance supposed simply to accept as a coincidence that all his apprentices had chosen to learn that specific martial art at random? If — as it seems — this person has offended, accept my apology.”
The bow accompanying these words made up in profundity for what it might be thought to lack in sincerity.
The Young Master of Langya Hall extracted a fan from his sleeve and tapped the man opposite smartly on the nose with it.
“So self-centred! Not everything revolves around you. In fact, I am delighted to assure you the tale I am about to unfold features not a single one of your family, friends, acquaintances, sect brothers, henchpeople, foes, marks or targets.
“It happened like this…”
Peng Mingjun always looked forward to arriving at this particular upland town. After the sweats of the plains it was beautifully cool, the moist air laden with spicy, clean smells from the woods cloaking the lower slopes of the mountains above them. Also, this part of his round was tinged with romance and mystery, the two things which in all the world he most desired and least expected to obtain. Above the trees, at the end of a steep, winding path which Peng Mingjun had not the face to attempt, even had his duty to his employers permitted, lay fabled Langya Hall, where (it was said) all questions could be answered, for the price each answer merited.
The reflected glamour of Langya Hall cast an atmosphere over the entire district. Peng Mingjun fancied he breathed in a little of it every time he rode this part of his circuit. A profitable part of the circuit it was, too, since Langya Hall’s petitioners were, for the most part, rich and anxious and the Hall itself took its time about delivering answers. As a result, the town in the valley below the start of that steep, winding path up to Langya Hall boasted two leading inns, three good inns, four promising inns and an inn.
In all fairness, there was no particular reason the inn should not have rated an adjective of its own. Its beds were at least as clean and its sheets washed more frequently than those of at least three of the promising inns and two of the good inns. The bill of fare, while short, was cooked with love and attention to the provenance of ingredients.
On a previous tour of the district Peng Mingjun had noted that the inn’s landlord (whom he encountered in the market haggling expertly for blue river trout, the cream of the catch) dragged one leg a little behind him and started at sudden sounds and movements. In Peng Mingjun’s last pay negotiation he had succeeded in agreeing with his employer a per diem allowance for food and accommodation. Accordingly, he had not been averse to spending an economical night at the inn. He had always had a weakness for blue river trout and aiding a fellow veteran while consuming it seemed a good way to hit two birds with one stone.
Since then it had become his preferred hostelry, though he did not share that information. Some things were better cherished in privacy.
Today, however, as he rode in through the town gates, he was conscious of something wrong. The people on the streets were, at the same time, both too restless and too subdued. He made his way to the inn, saw his horse watered, fed and rubbed down and went to claim his room and bespeak hot water.
Refreshed and changed, he made his way down to the public room where, he hoped, he might find an answer to the mystery of the town’s disturbed atmosphere.
The public room contained no other guests except a man unseasonably hooded and cloaked, nursing a cup of wine in a corner. No doubt he had an errand to Langya Hall so discreet he needed to conceal even the fact that he had come here. In deference to that ambition, Peng Mingjun passed by without acknowledgement of his existence.
The serving-man showed him to his usual table and, without asking, served him a refreshing small plate of Loosened Cucumber with garlic dressing.
Peng Mingjun ordered a cup of Somnolent Turtle (an agreeable dry wine which in some lights held a greenish tinge.) When the serving-man brought it, he raised a delicate enquiry about the mood in the town. The answer, when it came, shocked him profoundly.
“Tian Xinyi? TheTian Xinyi? Found strangled? In the woods?”
With a doleful expression, the serving-man confirmed that this was indeed so. The third-ranked beauty of the Langya List, the first entertainer ever to be so honoured, had died a squalid death in the early hours of that very morning, not five li from the inn where Peng Mingjun was currently eating Loosened Cucumber and had been contemplating Straw-Chopped Pork Liver in Red Sauce.
“But what was she doing here?”
At that, the serving-man shrugged. “Perhaps, sir, she came with a patron?”
Peng Mingjun was a respectable young man of modest means, no frequenter of Luoshi Road, still less its high-end entertainment houses. Nevertheless, as the Admonitions stressed, no salesman worth his daily allocation of rice could avoid immersing himself in the preoccupations and amusements of his clientele. On more than one occasion he had listened with every appearance of interest to a besotted young lord rhapsodising over having achieved the distinction of being permitted to converse with Tian Xinyi or one of her sisters among the elite courtesans of Jinling through a swaying modesty screen, or tremulously anticipating his joy at being allowed to stroke such a one’s hand. On learning the prices charged for these chaste delights, Peng Mingjun permitted himself the private indulgence of noting that not all bandits inhabited the jianghu.
A patron capable of enticing Tian Xinyi so far from the capital would not only have to be unimaginably rich and unspeakably well-connected. He could not, would not have let such a coup go unremarked by his peers. There would have been a near-Imperial procession into the little town, the town’s best hotel would have been block-booked, there would have been fireworks —
“This is shocking news, but life has to go on,” Peng Mingjun said, conscious he had been silent too long. “The pork liver, please, and is there any river trout to be had? No? Then the paddy eels in pepper and garlic, and the soused bok choi to accompany them. Thank you.”
His meal completed, he wandered out into the market-place. Dusk and the passage of time since the first shock of the discovery had brought a little more animation to the place. There were the usual street entertainers and people crying their wares from booths and stalls up and down the principal thoroughfares. Cressets flared; smoky, spicy and sweet smells filled the air.
He came across a storyteller who was just about to begin his recital. Peng Mingjun always liked listening to market storytellers — their skills were distinct from, though akin to those of salesmen, and it was eternally interesting to see their tricks and techniques. Also, business aside, he enjoyed the stories.
This tale was a particularly good one, about a scholar who had, in his lust for power beyond that which he might expect to obtain by the ordinary methods of mediation and cultivating his soul, entered into commerce with a demon. By dint of numerous unsanctified practices, the scholar captured the demon in a polished bronze mirror and, when he needed its counsel, he would stand in front of the mirror and summon it to speak with him. (The story-teller was artistically vague about the details of the rituals involved; doubtless he was anxious to deter attempts at imitation among his audience.)
At first this unsanctioned commerce with the powers of the Netherworld succeeded beyond the scholar’s wildest dreams. He placed third in the civil service examinations on his first attempt; obtained an excellent position in the Ministry of Rites; was besieged by matchmakers; entered into a betrothal with the beautiful, accomplished and well-dowered daughter of a senior official —
So vividly did the storyteller evoke the scholar’s triumphs, Peng Mingjun worried he might have gone too far; that impressing upon the audience that consorting with demons was not merely unfilial and unethical but a truly ill-advised business practice might be beyond the storyteller’s art.
On that score, he need not have worried.
The storyteller gradually turned the screw as the scholar drew more and more upon the demon’s power, standing before the bronze mirror deep into the night to acquire evil counsel. But the more he did so, the more of his own essence leached across that fragile barrier, and the less sensible he became of his peril. Gasps sounded across the market-place.
The storyteller dropped his voice.
“And then —”
He extended the moment for so long the tension became almost overwhelming. Peng Mingjun saw the little man with untidy hair standing next to him start, visibly, to shake.
“One night, as he stood before the mirror, the scholar saw — to his horror — the demon step forward, closer than he had ever been before. Before the scholar could retreat, the demon’s left claw reached out and caught his right wrist, and pulled him past him, into the mirror world. And as they passed each other — one coming, one going — the demon breathed in his ear, ‘My turn now.’
“And after that the scholar was at the demon’s mercy, because whenever the demon chose he would walk out of the mirror wearing the scholar’s likeness (albeit reversed, for he was the scholar’s mirror image) and go about the land committing crimes, while the scholar lay insensible in the mists of the mirror world and could remember nothing of the evils committed in his likeness while the demon stalked abroad.”
The crowd gave a collective gasp. The little man next to Peng Mingjun seemed only to be holding himself upright by a superhuman effort.
The storyteller smiled, confident he had his audience in the palm of his hand. That was when Peng Mingjun, sensing the oncoming catastrophe, wanted to cry out, ‘Stop now! Nothing in excess!’ but, like a man who watches a runaway wagon careering on towards a precipice, could do nothing to stop the disaster.
For the scholar’s wedding to the deputy-minister’s daughter pressed hard upon them. Despite the evil rumours which had started to hang about his future son-in-law, the deputy minister prepared for the feast, albeit with a heavy heart. The betrothal gifts had been presented, the betrothal geese cackled in their osier cages. The matter was set and could not be altered without unthinkable loss of face.
At the bridegroom’s house they prepared the wedding chamber. The scholar insisted that the great bronze mirror should be brought in and stood in the corner. It was taken as a charming gesture, to ensure that his new bride had the opportunity to tidy her dress and arrange her hair after the ceremony, before greeting her new lord.
The banquet was over; the toasts drunk. The bridegroom’s friends escorted him; laughing and calling out ribald blessings to the very threshold of the wedding chamber.
He entered alone. The bridegroom, dressed all in red and gold, sat on the bed opposite him, a red veil hanging before her lovely face. With all the confidence of a bridegroom he stepped forward and lifted her veil —
And the demon stepped out of the bronze mirror and, for the first and last time, passed into the body of the scholar and possessed him utterly. Helpless to resist, the scholar felt his own hands seize his bride by the neck and choke every last breath of life from her.
And with that, quicker than a cloud covers the sun, the storyteller lost his audience. Cries of “Too soon” and “For shame!” came from the remoter reaches of the crowd. A hunk of mooli came hurtling past Peng Mingjun’s left ear, missing him by a fraction, and exploded in rotten shards against the storyteller’s robes.
Several times Peng Mingjun had found himself in some place where an inflamed mob turned to rioting. Seconds from now outright violence would erupt and anyone hesitating would be trampled underfoot.
Oblivious, the little man still stood dazed beside him.
“Quick!” He caught the little man’s wrist. “With me!”
They barely made it to the inn in time. The inn-servants were already putting up the heavy shutters. Outside, the crowds sounded like waves pounding on the beaches of the Eastern Sea. Peng Mingjun pictured five, ten, a hundred incidents like that he had just witnessed; vortices of fear, anger and shame that a Langya-listed beauty should have had her life snuffed out here, under the shadow of Langya mountain itself. Unless the district magistrate did something emphatic and soon, Peng Mingjun thought savagely, those vortices would combine into a tornado with the power to flatten the district.
The inn servants dropped the great plank which sealed the inn doors against frontal assault down into its holders. Besides the servants, the only other denizen of the public room was the cloaked and hooded man who was still nursing a cup of wine in the darkest corner of the room. Peng Mingjun hoped the other guests were already upstairs and not adrift in the storm outside.
The little man looked up at him. “How did you know where I was staying?”
“I didn’t. I’m staying here too. And besides, it was nearest.”
Peng Mingjun was still out of breath; he hoped the little man would forgive his abruptness.
The little man still looked so dazed the only thing Peng Mingjun could do was signal the serving-man and order two cups of Harmonious Panda, a strong yet smooth wine which he had found more than justified its name when it came to restoring the nerves after a sudden shock. To his relief, before the wine reached them he heard from the street outside the sounds of jangling harness and crisp, confident orders. The district magistrate, it seemed, was indeed on top of the situation.
The little man’s colour improved as he drank his wine. Still, the bemused look in his eyes gave Peng Mingjun pause for thought.
“So,” the little man said at length, seemingly unaware of the noises from outside, “do you think there’s anything in it? Being a mirror image — that is, turning into the mirror image, I mean. Or something like that. Because it worries me. It worries me dreadfully. I’ve been fretting over it for years and yet, only just this evening, when I heard that story in the market place, I thought, perhaps someone knew something about it, something real, and it wasn’t just all my imagination.”
Peng Mingjun goggled. “Turning into a mirror image? You mean, like the demon in the story?”
The little man gulped, visibly. “I don’t mean demons — that is, I hope I don’t mean demons. But I hope I’m not imposing —”
“Not in the slightest,” Peng Mingjun assured him, with the utmost sincerity, signalling to the serving-man to bring the rest of the wine flask and a side dish of snow-lotus infused with hyssop. “Please, tell me everything. Why do you think you might have turned into a mirror image?”
Before beginning, the little man looked round the public room. The serving-staff had retired, at least for the time being, and the cloaked man had retreated behind a book, though given the dimness of the corner in which he was sitting Peng Mingjun had doubts as to how much of it he might be able to comprehend.
The little man said, “I beg you, don’t take it the wrong way. But would you mind placing your hand here?”
He indicated a spot on the left side of his chest.
“If you mean your pulse, wouldn’t the wrist be a better place? Not that it’s going to tell me much, I’m afraid. Apart from a few remedies for colds and sprains and such-like, I’ve nothing of the physician’s art.”
Still, he obediently placed his palm on the place indicated, with no discernible result.
“Just try the other side, now,” the little man said, grimly. Peng Mingjun obediently moved his hand to the right side of the little man’s chest.
“Oh!” That was definitely a heart-beat. “You’ve got your heart on the opposite side to everyone else.”
The little man nodded. “And my liver, they tell me. Everything is reversed. Just like the demon out of the mirror.”
Anxious to avoid his companion going off down that particular line of thinking, Peng Mingjun said hurriedly, “Have you always been like that?”
The little man shook his head. “No — well, I was left-handed as a child, but they beat it out of me when I started on calligraphy. But my insides got swapped round in an explosion.”
The little man nodded vigorously. “Do you remember that time a wagon-load of black fire on its way to the Government fireworks factory took a wrong turning and collided with the deep-fried wonton vendor?”
The incident had occurred twelve years earlier, when Peng Mingjun had still been in Yunnan. Nevertheless, he was aware of it. No-one who had spent any time in Jinling could fail to be. Not only did the citizens of Jinling date matters as being “before the wonton stall explosion” or “after the wonton stall explosion” but, as regular as the great water clock in front of the Jin Guards’ barracks, came the complaints and formal petitions prior to the New Year celebrations.
For the wonton stall explosion, as well as flattening several streets and killing eleven citizens, one visitor from Da Chu and a most beloved cat, had given rise to so many additional safety precautions when it came to the transport of black fire that the price of fire-crackers had been pushed up by at least a third, a point which every father of every family in Jinling never ceased to complain about when called upon to allocate a family budget for New Year’s celebrations.
“Were you caught up in that?” Peng Mingjun enquired. His assessment of the little man put them as much of an age. As a half-formed eighteen-year old, he had been bound for the Yunnan army, while this one had strolled out into the capital streets one late autumn morning, only to walk into a hellmouth of death and destruction.
The little man nodded, miserably. “I’d just got a job with Yu Boyan and Sons, in packing and despatch. I was on my way to work when it happened.”
“A sound firm.” Yu Boyan’s innovative promotional techniques had revolutionised commercial trade in Da Liang; even so traditional a sector as the wine trade had been forced to take note.
“They’ve been very good to me,” the little man acknowledged. “Because it was that explosion that started it all. I must have just been on the edge of it; it was like a great wind that knocked me off my feet, and when I came back to myself I was sitting on the grass near the river. I wasn’t feeling very good, but my first thought was that I needed to get to the office. I didn’t know how long I’d been there but the sun told me I must be hours late. Only, when I got to the office, it was as if they had seen a ghost. I’d lost a day and a half!”
“Shock,” Peng Mingjun observed.
“I’ll say it was. My office superior sent me straight away to see his own physician. He examined me thoroughly; that was when I discovered about my insides being swapped around. Then he asked me a lot of questions about my family. I told him my father was dead — he died when I was ten — and that I lived with my mother near the Northern gate, and eventually he said I was one for the medical record books, but that so far as the explosion was concerned I’d got off lightly with just bruises and amnesia and that if I took things quietly for a day or two I should be fine.”
The little man was sweating; he took out a cloth and mopped his brow.
“The trouble was, he was wrong. Oh, it started small; sleepless nights, and then nightmares. Always the same nightmare. You know, although I don’t remember it, I think I must have heard the tale of the scholar and the demon before today. That bit where the demon steps out of the mirror and pulls the scholar past him into the mist-world — that’s always the starting point of the nightmare. Sometimes I wake up when the demon steps out of the mirror, or sometimes I stumble on through the mirror world.”
“There are many variants on that tale of the ghostly double,” Peng Mingjun suggested. “No doubt you heard one of them as a small child, and the memory stuck.”
“Perhaps I’d have thought the same as you. But then — well, things started happening in broad daylight.”
Or rather, not particularly broad, given what Jinling weather could be like when the city put its mind to it. The little man recounted how he had been invited to farewell drinks for a colleague who had been appointed to set up a branch office in Xian. He had been reluctant to attend, since the weather was more than commonly damp and dismal, the colleague only a slight acquaintance and he suspected he was coming down with something like influenza. But office etiquette on such points was compelling, and so he determined that he would, at least, make an appearance once he had finished his current backlog of work.
The hostelry selected was an unfamiliar one, its courtyard opening halfway off a narrow alleyway between two main thoroughfares. Given the weather (a persistent drizzle which showed signs of turning into a thick, penetrating rain) he was wearing a hooded cloak. Just as he reached the entrance to the inn, which was spilling warm lamplight across rain-slicked paving stones, he noted another man, similarly attired, had just arrived at the entrance from the other end of the lane. He stood back, politely, to let the new arrival pass ahead of him into the courtyard. And as the new arrival pushed back his hood to enter, to his horror the little man saw his face.
“Not more than an arm’s length apart Like it was my own face as I saw it every day reflected in my washbasin. And — you may think I’m a coward. But I couldn’t stand it.” His voice was almost a sob. “I turned tail and bolted for home. And I did go down with influenza, so I didn’t get back to work for a few days, and it may have been my imagination, but I think the people at work looked at me different, somehow, after that night. And I never found out why.”
The all-but overwhelming temptation to suggest that perhaps the oncoming fever had accounted for the initial delusion of the ghostly double and the little man’s nervous manner might have turned his colleagues’ response to him into a self-fulfilling prophecy died on Peng Mingjun’s lips. It was clear from the little man’s face that he had chewed over those two propositions for years and every last sliver of nourishment they could afford had been sucked out long ago.
“Was there more?”
Miserably, the little man nodded. “I carried on and did my best and got a promotion, and eventually I started to think about getting married. My mother had died, by then, and I was living on my own in lodgings. And my landlord’s daughter and me, I thought we were getting an understanding. She agreed with me to go out to look at the display on the Lantern Festival. But then my chest let me down again, and I had to send her word I couldn’t do it, and then — two days after the end of the New Year’s Festival — her father came and told me I was no longer welcome to rent rooms from him, and that he would tell the matchmakers of Jinling how I had treated his daughter. And I had no idea what he was talking about!”
“And did you find out?”
“Unhappily, yes. She eventually agreed to my request to speak to her directly, provided it was in a public place, under her mother’s eye. And there she said she’d gone out to look at the lanterns and she’d seen me out parading down Luoshi Road with a — with a certain sort of young lady on my arm. Then —” His face crumpled. “Then I did something stupid. I asked her why she’d gone out to the Lantern Festival when I was lying sick at home in the first place. And demanded to know who she’d gone to view the sights with.”
“Oh, dear.” Peng Mingjun did not have to counterfeit sincerity.
“Quite so.” The little man essayed a weak grin. “Whatever else happened, that one I did to myself. But after that — well, it got worse and worse. The new rooms weren’t as good as the old. The building was crowded and noisy and something about it used to set the nightmares off worse than they had ever ben before. And not just nightmares. Sleepwalking. I used to find myself waking up in different rooms or even, once, by the main gate to the street. “
“That must have been very distressing.”
The little man screwed up his face. “It was. That was why I asked to change my role. I wanted to travel; I wanted to get out of Jinling. I wanted to get away.”
“It’s tough on the road,” Peng Mingjun observed, irrelevantly. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been riding the circuits for getting on for fifteen years, and I don’t know what I’d do if I had to stop. But that doesn’t stop it being a hard life. I don’t think I could do it if I thought of it as ‘If not this —’ rather than ‘Without this, what?’”
“You’re lucky. I thought that, when I first saw you standing in the market-place. I thought you looked like a lucky man. Not like me.”
“I think, in this world, you have to make your own luck. Try not to think of horrors. Here. Let me pour you another cup of wine. It may settle you. And, since you have travelled through the jianghu, perhaps you have views on the rankings on the latest Langya List?”
They finished the flask of Harmonious Panda while speaking lightly of inconsequential matters. And then, with deep misgivings about the little man’s state of mind, fending off his protests that it was all too much, he did not deserve such attention, Peng Mingjun saw him safely to the very threshold of his room (a mere kennel on the inn’s topmost storey, telling Peng Mingjun volumes about how parlous the little man’s clutch was on a decent living, even with so understanding any employer as Yu Boyan and Sons.)
“Good night,” he said firmly. “Pray to your ancestors for peace. And no dreams.”
Peng Mingjun was accustomed to settle his mind before bed by reading a few passages from the Admonitions to those practising the higher mercantile arts , a much-annotated copy of which he carried with him everywhere. On this particular evening he felt more in need of it than usual; the storyteller’s failure just at the moment when he should have pushed on to triumph begged to be noted in an aphorism or exercise in verse, as a salutary reminder that even at a moment when the sale was all but in the bag, overconfidence or misjudgement of the customer’s mood on the salesman’s part might still provoke disaster.
To his annoyance, he realised that while the book had been in his sleeve earlier (he had felt its familiar weight during that curious conversation with the little man) it was nowhere to be seen in his bedroom. It must have fallen out downstairs.
He passed the length of one incense stick lying, still fully dressed, on his bed, before concluding it was no good: he would have to descend to the public room to search for it.
The public room was quiet; the streets seemed to have settled, beneath the twin powers of the curfew and the steadfast, low-key involvement of the town guard. Even the hooded and cloaked man had left the public room and none of the serving-staff were present, though the low hum of conversation from behind the kitchen door suggested no-one had retired to rest.
He spotted the Admonitions lying on bench next to the table where he had been drinking, and snatched it up. He was in the process of retreating back towards the stairs when another square patch of white on the floor caught his eye. He made his way over there and picked it up.
Peng Mingjun had frequently had occasion to remark that the “Wanted” posters one saw plastered here and there about the jianghou were so blandly uninformative that anyone with the accustomed number of features could be mistaken for any given miscreant.
With this one, that was not the case. Whoever had depicted the person wanted for the murder of Tian Xinyi had more than uncommon skill as an artist. The bulge on the forehead of the man depicted and the lop-sided mouth were highly distinctive.
Peng Mingjun took one look at it and was up the inn stairs in moments, knocking on the door of the little man’s room. When he cracked it open, Peng Mingjun whispered, “Let me in. We need to talk.”
Startled, the little man backed away, until the bed caught the back of his knees and he sat down abruptly.
“Look at this,” Peng Mingjun said, holding out the ‘Wanted’ poster. “Do you know anything about it?”
The little man dropped his head into his hands and in a rough, agonised voice gasped, “Last night — last night I had the dream again. Worst I’d ever had it. Strangling my dream self, that devil. And when I woke up — I wasn’t in here, but outside somewhere, somewhere in the woods. I must have been sleepwalking again. I got myself back to bed somehow, and then didn’t have the strength to rouse myself until the evening. I must be the only person in the town who hadn’t heard the news — I had no idea what the riot was about — until you came here and showed me —that.”
He gestured, feebly, at the ‘Wanted’ poster.
“It’s the not knowing that’s the worst of it. It’s torture.”
“Given where we are —” ventured Peng Mingjun. The little man looked up, his eyes wild.
“Do you think I haven’t thought of that? I’d give everything I have to get the answer to how I’m like what I am. But it’s not enough. Langya Hall isn’t for the likes of you and me. But if I were a rich man, instead of what I am, I’d be up the mountain at first light, and tell them, ‘I’ll pay you whatever you ask, but I need an answer and I need it now. Did I kill Tian Xinyi?’”
“Did I kill Tian Xinyi? You mean this man didn’t even know whether he’d strangled the third-ranked beauty on the Langya List or not?”
The Young Master waved his fan in an airy gesture.
“You can imagine how disappointed I felt that such a fascinating question, rather than being submitted to Langya Hall as everyone present clearly agreed it should have been, was instead being confided to some random travelling salesman in a minuscule bedroom on the second floor of the cheapest inn in town. We really do need to do something to correct these persistent misconceptions about our charging practices.”
Ignoring the second point as unworthy of response, the man opposite cut to the chase. “So where were you while this interesting conversation was being carried on? Had you taken the form of a dust-bunny in the room’s corner? Truly, the esoteric arts of Langya Hall are boundless.”
“Idiot. I was eavesdropping. Quite literally, in fact. I was sitting on the roof. It was quite a thin roof and, anyway, the window was open.”
The man opposite rolled his eyes. “Of course you were. But why had you been skulking about a low dive —”
“— unpretending hostelry for several hours in disguise in the first place?”
The Young Master sighed. “Were you not listening to a single word, earlier? If other people answering our rightful questions is bad for business, what on earth would be the effect if people started being murdered before they could ask them?”
The man opposite raised one eyebrow. “You believe that was the motive for the murder of Tian Xinyi?”
A smug expression spread across the Young Master’s face with the air of finding itself in a safe and familiar habitat.
“Let us not anticipate the narrative. Suppose, instead, we place ourselves in the shoes of the district magistrate. Given where Tian Xinyi’s body was found, it seemed probable she had just begun the ascent of the mountain when her attacker struck. Given the time of death, which the district magistrate’s man estimated very competently, she would have planned to arrive at Langya Hall just as dawn broke. Dawn over Langya peak, as you know, is one of the jewels of the world.”
The man opposite had spent more nights than he cared to recall roasting on the alternate spits of insomnia and nightmare, praying for the first glimpse of that jewel to light the way out of hell.
“It is indeed,” he said, with a cool dispassion which would not have sat amiss on a sage on the point of ascension.
The Young Master eyed him, adjusted the set of his sleeves and continued with his story.
“Anyway, the district magistrate drew the obvious conclusion and sent someone up the mountain with the news and an enquiry as to whether we might have expected Tian Xinyi to approach us with a question. And, if so, whether we had any notion of what such question might be.”
The pause after that was just long enough for the man opposite to pour them both another cup of tea and, in the gentlest voice possible, enquire,
“And, by any chance, did you?”
The silence after that threatened to go on to infinity. The Young Master’s voice, when it came, was thick and muffled.
“Speaking strictly for me, I had rather hoped the question might have been along the lines of ‘Could you clear your diary for the next day or two and show this impertinent traveller those hot springs the Young Master extolled when he was last in Jinling?’ I did not, as you may imagine, share my speculation on this point with the district magistrate.”
“Ah.” The monosyllable conveyed a great deal. “So it was not for your professional expertise Tian Xinyi proposed to ascend the mountain?”
“Nor for hers neither.” The words came out low and ferocious, snarled in the back of the Young Master’s throat.
The man opposite was, for a moment, taken all aback, and then, with sudden fluidity, dropped into a full kowtow.
“Forgive me. I am the last person who should have assumed that someone might be acting only from one set of motives. And I sincerely grieve with you for the loss of a friend. But. What happened after you heard that?”
“There was, as it happened, one other curious thing. After some discussion, we decided to share this information with the district magistrate. You see, if one picks wood-ear mushrooms for food, one may pick them at any time of the day or night. But if for medicine — then there are only certain phases of the moon that will do. And there is only one part of the mountain slopes where they grow in quantities which suit our purposes.”
“You mean —”
The Young Master’s face looked more weary than the man opposite had ever seen it.
“Yes. We had an acolyte on the lower slopes that night. An acolyte, moreover, who is a more than competent artist. He did not know, of course, while he was hunting out wood-ear mushrooms how close he must have been to Tian Xinyi as she started up the mountain. He heard nothing of the attack or of her lonely death.”
He swept back his hair, looking into the far distance. “But he did — for his night vision was superb and his instincts for concealment better — note the features of a man who burst past him down the hill that night, not half a li from — as it turned out — the crime scene. And he consigned that impression to paper.”
He drew a deep breath.
“That wanted poster was Langya Hall’s doing. The acolyte was our witness. When I disguised myself and came down the mountain that day I was as sure as I have ever been in my life that if I could only lay hands on the man pictured I would have Tian Xinyi’s murderer within my grasp.”
Despite the poster in Peng Mingjun’s hand it seemed impossible to believe the little man could have committed a murder. That the little man seemed determined to convince himself that he had somehow managed to strangle a fully-awake and healthy young woman while in some sort of dream-state strengthened Peng Mingjun’s resolve to see justice done. If the man could not even fight for himself, then he, Peng Mingjun, would have to fight for him.
“Listen,” he said. “Tomorrow, at first light, I shall accompany you to the office of the district magistrate. We will bang the drum and ask for justice.”
The little man shrank back into the bedclothes.
“Justice? But I —”
He waved feebly at the poster.
“The district magistrate has to know the facts before he can start looking in the right place,” Peng Mingjun said firmly. “The facts are that you have no recollection of or motive for killing Tian Xinyi. Therefore, the magistrate needs to consider other suspects. And in any event, what choice do you have? Your face is on posters all over town, or will be by morning. You can’t possibly hide in here; the inn-keeper and the servants know what you look like. The moment you step outside someone will try to capture you in the hope of a reward.”
In truth, having witnessed the violence of the crowd’s response to the storyteller, Peng Mingjun thought the risk of capture was the least of the little man’s problems. If he surrendered voluntarily, the district magistrate could put the little man in prison for his own safety while the matter was properly investigated. There were towns on his circuit where he did not have such faith in the authorities, but (especially given the influence of Langya Hall over this district) this was not one of them.
Peng Mingjun briefly considered but heroically sacrificed thoughts of his own bed. His appointments tomorrow were not until the afternoon and he did not wish to leave the little man alone until first light, not least because Peng Mingjun would not have given odds against his succumbing to the pressure of absolute terror and either making an ill-advised bolt for it or — worse.
So, since he had to be here, he might as well try to talk to the little man, find out anything which might help in putting their arguments to the magistrate. There were, it had struck him earlier, a couple of obvious possibilities about the current mystery.
“Suppose you get back into bed. No point in catching cold, on top of your other troubles, is there?”
Obediently, the little man hopped back under the bedclothes.
“Good. Now, help me out a bit here. You mentioned your parents were dead, earlier. Do you have any other relatives, by any chance? I should let them know your situation. Perhaps they can help.”
The little man’s tongue flicked across dry lips. “I’ve an aunt. Back in Jinling. In—”
He named a district not very far from Li Brothers’ main warehouse, a poorish area of painfully upright, well-scrubbed respectability. Peng Mingjun sighed inwardly. It was not a district from which a nephew suspected of having murdered a flamboyant courtesan could expect to receive either sympathy or material assistance. The little man’s next words reinforced that impression.
“We didn’t see much of her when I was a little one. And she never liked me. After a visit from Aunt Duan Siyun, I usually ended up punished by my father, though he was an easy-going man as a rule. I think she used to rile him up somehow. I once overheard her telling him I had ‘bad blood’.”
Peng Mingjun nodded. “Seems like every family has to have one like that. My second uncle’s wife was just the same. Could start a blazing argument in a snowdrift with no flint, steel or tinder. But was this Duan Siyun your mother’s only family? Seems a pity if so, given how she seems to have been.”
The little man sounded doubtful. “She was the only one I ever met. But I think my mother may once have had another sister. Or maybe a cousin, on her father’s side. Some close woman relative with the same family name, anyway.”
His hands fretted at the bedclothes.
“Another sister?” Peng Mingjun enquired, encouragingly.
“When I was about 15 or so a white envelope came. My mother was very cut up about it, but she didn’t let my father know she’d had it. But a couple of days later, when my father had gone away on business for a week or so, she took me out of the city. We took the road towards Chixia Town.”
“Chixia Town?” Peng Mingjun was vaguely aware it was on the edge of the mountains, a couple of hours ride west of Jinling, but had never had occasion to visit it. Perhaps its residents did not appreciate fine wine. Or one of Li Brothers’ rivals had it done up tight as an iron barrel.
The little man nodded.
“From bits and pieces they’d dropped over the years, I’d some dim idea that was where my mother and father came from originally, though they’d moved to Jinling before I was born, or, at least, before I was old enough to remember anything different. But we turned off the road a little over three-quarters of the way there, and went up a woodland path to a temple. Not a big place, nothing fancy, bit ramshackle, to be honest. As if the rains had been soaking through the roof for years, and they’d never had quite enough money to stop it. But there were memorial halls and shrines and little niches with tablets and altars, here and there. And in one of those niches my mother dropped to her knees and made sure I did too. And the newest tablet in the niche bore the name ‘Duan Jingyu.’ That was the tablet we burned our offerings before. And we came back, too, three or four times before my mother died: on Tomb-sweeping day, and as close to Autumn Festival as we could manage, and at New Year. But we never told my father. It was always a secret between the two of us. And, though I asked, mother never told me who Duan Jingyu was, or how she was related.”
Something might, perhaps, be done with a temple. From what Peng Mingjun had always understood, temples were keen on records and, while no doubt also keen on privacy, might be moved to take an interest if a man’s life were at stake. There could not be many temples meeting that description between Jinling and Chixia Town.
The problem was, of course, that he was not a man of leisure. From tomorrow afternoon onwards his appointments were fixed for the next three months; he must ride out on his circuit for Li Brothers and, however much he felt for the little man, it was simply not possible for him to be on the spot to be the advocate the little man assuredly needed or return to Jinling where — he was sure — this tragedy must have its roots.
The best he could do would be to present the district magistrate with all the information he had, all the arrant impossibilities he’d detected in any case for the prosecution of the little man for the murder of Tian Xinyi, and hope and pray to heaven it would be enough.
The little man dropped into uneasy sleep an hour or so later. Waking to sticky eyes and a crick in his neck, Peng Mingjun assumed he must have followed suit at some point. The opalescent grey light drifting through the window and the silence of the streets outside reassured him, though, that he had not overslept.
He found his way to the basin and jug on the stand and revived himself with a thorough wash. Invigorated, he roused the little man.
“Wake up. We’ve an appointment with the district magistrate.”
All tales of adventure are bound by the shackles of narrative convention. The seasoned reader must be aware that no sooner has the protagonist resolved to lay all his problems before this or that high public official, trusting to his probity and unclouded judgement, such official will be shown to be deep in the schemes of the antagonist or to have his mind clouded by prejudice and muddled thinking. Either way, such an appeal to authority will, as the educated reader knows, inevitably end with both protagonist and companion in irons in adjacent cells, their last hope of rescue stripped from them and the prognosis hopeless.
As if to prove that Peng Mingjun was no protagonist of a thrilling yarn but a simple businessman trying to do his best in frustrating circumstances, the district magistrate listened with careful attention to the story he and the little man (whose name turned out to be Dai Ruofei) laid before him. He asked a number of very penetrating questions, requested to see both their appointment books and itineraries (which Peng Mingjun had prudently packed in his bag before leaving the inn) and had his clerk note down all salient names, dates, places and particulars. He even sounded mildly apologetic on making the suggestion that — given the mood in the town and the extraordinary measures he had been forced to put in place overnight to ensure public safety — it might be best to take Dai Ruofei into custody for his own protection while the investigation proceeded.
The angry looks, muttered threats and violent gestures experienced on the (mercifully short) walk through the town’s awakening streets had made Dai Ruofei more receptive to the suggestion than he might otherwise have been. Peng Mingjun reassured him he would make an arrangement with the inn to supplement the prison fare (it would make serious inroads into his per diem but he could hardly leave the little man without any comforts while he completed his rounds, and he might always find another gem like the inn here if he were forced to cast his net wider than his usual haunts.)
Those matters arranged, and Dai Ruofei led away (with one despairing glance over his shoulder, which cut to Peng Mingjun’s heart) he bowed and asked the district magistrate for a favour.
“Though I shouldn’t, and I daresay you’ll think it most impertinent of me, but I wonder if I might be permitted to — um — view the young lady’s body?”
“View the body?” The district magistrate looked aghast. “But — but strangling is a very ugly death. I have seen it several times, and one never becomes inured. For a civilian, such a sight would be unimaginably horrific.”
“Not quite a civilian,” Peng Mingjun corrected and then, horrified at his presumption, bowed several times. “That is, sir, if you’ll forgive me, I saw service for Yunnan in the wars against Southern Chu. I have seen my fair share of horrors. But I wouldn’t like you to think I had a prurient motive. I’d like to say a prayer, to make sure that the dead lady’s spirit understands that I am anxious to see justice done. I only wish I had some skills I could use to that end.”
“That sounds most honourable and disinterested.” The district magistrate chewed thoughtfully at his lower lip. “It so happens there is a doctor down at the mortuary at this moment, assisting this investigation. I shall send word to have him wait for you. It may be helpful for you to compare your impressions.”
The district magistrate had not lied about the ugliness. What proved worst of all was that, despite the blackened, swollen features, bulging eyes and protruding tongue, the remains of Tian Xinyi’s unparalleled beauty still shone through. After one horrified glance Peng Mingjun retreated to a corner of the room, looking anywhere but at the body under the white sheet, swallowing convulsively.
After an initial, interrogative glare (which Peng Mingjun interpreted as an assessment as to whether he were about to faint or otherwise desecrate the premises) the doctor ignored him. It was the best thing he could possibly have done. By degrees Peng Mingjun’s nausea retreated, under the influence of his fascination at watching a master at work.
In outward appearance the doctor differed little from the wandering physicians Peng Mingjun had encountered from time to time in his travels through the wilds. His hair was bound in the characteristic half-up, half-down style of the jianghu, rather than the sober top-knot of the professional men of Jinling or of a dozen lesser provincial centres. The leather ornament that held it in place had been finely crafted, but its red dye had faded under the sun’s rays, and its gilding worn. He wore unpolished boots of well-worn leather and blue and white robes decently cut but worn thin and shabby with travel in all weathers.
Nevertheless, despite the man’s unprepossessing appearance, Peng Mingjun found his stream of low-key clicks and exhalations, like a man soothing a nervous horse in its stable, profoundly reassuring. The gentle yet assured manner with which he shifted and replaced the sheet, moving systematically through his examination, never exposing more of the body than was necessary at any one time, bespoke a level of respect for the dead woman that pricked tears behind Peng Mingjun’s eyes.
When he finally finished, and drew up the sheet once more to cover, mercifully, the corpse’s face, Peng Mingjun felt he had lived a decade rather than half an hour.
“Your complexion’s better than it was, but it’s still got more than a hint of wild garlic about it,” the doctor observed dispassionately, as they left the mortuary. “I prescribe fresh air, and at least two cups of a good wine. Follow me.”
The doctor led him to the terrace of one of the leading inns in the town and, at Peng Mingjun’s (no doubt apprehensive) expression, laughed out loud.
“Don’t worry yourself. This is all on the account. This is outside my usual line of business, you understand, so surely you should expect me to charge it to the person who engaged me?”
Should expect and can in fact were, in Peng Mingjun’s experience, not necessarily equivalent. Still, these drinks were on the doctor’s tab. In business, Peng Mingjun had learned young, one worried about one’s own expenses and getting one’s employer to reimburse the same. Everyone else must fight their own corner, and good luck to them.
“Thank you,” he said, and bowed.
His relaxed attitude to drinking on someone else’s client’s account was tested to the utmost when, following a quiet word in the serving-man’s ear, a nondescript sage-green flask with a single character embossed on the upper left side of the pouring lip appeared before them.
“Pour out two cups, then leave the flask and we’ll shift for ourselves,” the doctor assured the serving-man, who duly poured a fine, straw-pale liquid into thimble-sized cups and withdrew with a quite unnecessary quantity of bowings and scrapings.
Peng Mingjun cautiously raised his own thimble to his lips.
“Good, isn’t it?” the doctor observed genially.
“Good?” Peng Mingjun gasped. “Sir, this wine is Contemplative Crane! Furthermore, it cannot be less than forty years old— more, perhaps?”
He could not recollect having tasted Contemplative Crane more than once or twice in his entire professional career. He had learned the shape of the wine, its aura, its nose mainly from books. None of them had prepared him for this experience.
“Try seventy,” the doctor suggested.
“Seventy-year old Contemplative Crane? Are you mad? Whatever your fee might be for today’s work, it could not possibly equal one hundredth part of the value of that flask.”
“Now you come to mention it, you could well be right.” The doctor looked surprisingly unworried. “But tell me, since you are so knowledgeable, what, say, compared to the satisfactory conclusion of the case of Tian Xinyi with no inconvenience to — certain interested parties — is a flask or, one might venture, even a case of seventy-year old Contemplative Crane worth?”
Ice struck along Peng Mingjun’s backbone. He should have realised. He should have known. The supposedly incorruptible official he had spoken to earlier had indeed been in it up to the neck, as the stories warned. So was the doctor. He was to be bribed or, he supposed, at the last resort threatened into handing over Dai Ruofei as a convenient scapegoat.
But he would not go gently, nor unheard.
“Even a case of seventy-year old Contemplative Crane,” he heard himself say, as if from very far away, “is not worth the life of the lowest beggar washed up in any Jinling gutter. It is most certainly not worth the life of a filial man like Dai Ruofei, however confused he may be. Contemplative Crane is a great wine, a work of great artistry. To be privileged to drink it is an experience of a lifetime. But it is a creation of man, not of heaven. Unlike Dai Ruofei. To wrongfully destroy the work of heaven is to court heaven’s anger. If you can convict him, fairly, based on the evidence, then do so. Until you do, I shall proclaim his innocence.”
He thought the sequel would be men at arms rushing out to bind him, or perhaps a covert stab wound from the doctor opposite, who assuredly knew where to aim for most effect.
Instead, the doctor smiled a slow, lazy smile and poured more of the precious wine into both cups.
“I believe — perhaps — we have been at cross-purposes. I thought you a partisan, not a champion of justice. So. To Tian Xinyi, and confusion to her killer. Whoever he may be.”
He raised his cup.
“The key to the whole business, of course, was Dai Ruofei’s wrong-sidedness. The travelling salesman was surprisingly good at reasoning from first principles, but he did not have the benefits of Langya Hall’s extensive medical references. I, of course, was aware from the outset that someone with their heart and all their other organs on the opposite side of the body and whose dominant hand was also the left — something I took care to check for myself when I visited Dai Ruofei in the prison, as I’d promised the salesman I would — had to have been born one of identical twins. I could not find a single contrary case in all the literature; the two doubtful ones may have been cases where the other twin did not survive.”
The man opposite nodded. “And given your inspection of the body showed she had been strangled by a right-handed man, that sent you looking for the twin Dao Ruofei did not know he possessed?”
“Quite so.” The Young Master paused and then added, in a lower tone, “To my considerable satisfaction, my inspection of Tian Xinyi’s body also allowed me to categorically rule out two alternative motives for her murder.”
His expression was as untroubled as ever but nevertheless the man opposite stretched out his hand and laid it on the Young Master’s arm, slightly above his wrist. The Young Master made no move to shake it off.
“So? What was the question the murderer believed Tian Xinyi needed to be prevented from asking Langya Hall?”
The Young Master seemed relieved at the chance to change the subject.
“As you may know, the top-flight courtesans of Jinling tend to be reticent about their origins; you are as likely to hear that this one is a nine-tailed fox and this other the illegitimate daughter of the king of Da Yu as anything truthful. But Tian Xinyi, whatever rumours she set running about Luoshi Road, once confided to me she was the younger daughter of an honourable and talented provincial bureaucrat who, after the death of her mother and the advantageous marriage of her older sister, kept her by his side, relying on her as if she had been his son.”
“Why is it, do you suppose,” the man opposite enquired, “that all these stories which begin, ‘Her father was an upright and conscientious public servant’ invariably end with the household broken up and the beautiful and virtuous daughter forced to earn her living in an entertainment house?”
The Young Master’s lip curled.
“If you brought that question to Langya Hall, the answer you would get would be that you should ask your uncle. It would not, you understand, be a deflection.”
“Should fortune ever permit me to be in a such a position, I do not propose to ask him.” His voice was low and dangerous.
The Young Master let his fan fall shut with a ‘snap’. “There. You are already in possession of the truth and so have no need of Langya’s services. As I said at the outset: what will become of us if this trampling over our prerogatives continues?”
Before the man opposite could respond (a response which might have taken the form of projectile weapons; he was eyeing the saucer of peanuts at his elbow with a speculative air) the Young Master continued,
“To descend to specifics, her father was a close and valued subordinate to the then Mayor of Yuezhou. They worked together on rooting out corruption in the local bureaucracy.”
The sound emitted by the man opposite might have been a snort. The Young Master ignored it.
“Unfortunately, that brought them into direct conflict with an ambitious young man in the Ministry of Works who was engaged in growing his support, both locally and in the capital. Like any other crop, covert support needs to be amply fertilised, in this case with silver taels. They believed they had traced the embezzlement to its source, they were closing in upon the man himself, it only awaited just one teaspoon more of evidence, when —”
“When, I take it, the then Mayor of Yuezhou was unexpectedly taken in for questioning by the military governor of the province on the grounds of illicit commerce with — what is it they have down there? Ah, yes. River bandits. Unsanctioned tolls levied by river bandits, shared with the Mayor and his closest supporter?”
“It’s as if you had been there.” The Young Master lost not one whit of his composure by reason of the interruption. “The Mayor and Tian Xinyi’s father were framed for corruption and suffered the extreme penalty of the law. Tian Xinyi’s elder sister — whether from shame at the association or because of her in-laws’ bullying — hanged herself. Tian Xinyi changed her name and left Yuezhou in disguise. I met her out in the jianghou (never say I can’t spot a talent in the making) made a few introductions and — the rest is history.”
“And the ambitious young man from the Ministry of Works?”
“Is, as I am sure you have already guessed, now the Mayor of Yuezhou.” He tossed back the tea in his cup with the air of one who wished it were something stronger.
The man opposite nodded. “Bribes sent to the capital, you said? You interest me. I shall arrange for a clerk or a junior bookkeeper to enter the employ of the Mayor of Yuezhou as soon as possible. People who cream off public revenues are often surprisingly careless about what they commit to their ledgers.”
The Young Master gave a tight-lipped, acknowledging nod.
“Thank you. Even I cannot bring Tian Xinyi back, but at least I can ensure she is fully revenged. Regrettably, while we caught her murderer, he remained silent to the last about the name of his paymaster.
“But I run ahead of myself. Now convinced of the existence of the twin, I had my acolyte copy the wanted poster a number of times onto the finest white silk, which could be folded into a tiny enough package to be sent by pigeon and re-copied onto paper at its destinations. Which were, respectively, Yuezhou and the Luoshi Road. And also one other location, which I am sure you will be able to guess for yourself.”
The man opposite paused. “I think — perhaps — you sent that to the chief priest of an out-of-the-way temple in the woods a little distance from Chixia Town, just off the road from Jinling.”
He refilled the kettle from the pitcher and set it again on the brazier. When it was almost at the point of boiling, the Young Master spoke again.
“The temple was the key to it. The niche with the memorial tablet to Duan Jingyu was a family shrine. There were three sisters originally, the daughters of a merchant in a modest way in Chixia Town. Perhaps he dealt in animal feed, or maybe it was ploughshares. Who knows? He saw his two eldest daughters married decently. Time passed. Neither presented him with grandchildren. Disappointed, he died, leaving his youngest, much indulged daughter still without a husband. The business was sold and the merchant’s house with it. The merchant’s unmarried daughter spent her youth being passed between the households of one or the other of her elder sisters. A boring sort of life for a lively young girl. Hardly surprising that —”
He broke off. The man opposite filled in the gap.
“That her late father’s desire for grandchildren ended up being fulfilled in the last way he would have wished?”
The Young Master swished his fan.
“Quite so. The eldest sister had — about a year before the incident in question —moved to Jinling and was, in any event, a woman of unbending morality with a mind so narrow I believe it would be invisible if turned edge-on.”
The man opposite raised his eyebrows. “You met her?”
“In the final stages of my investigation, I found it impossible to rely on agents. I had to meet those concerned personally. Duan Siyun reminded me strongly of a certain medicinal vegetable they send us from the western provinces. We use it as a diuretic. Improbably, it also turns out to be delicious when blanched, tossed in sesame oil and served with toasted garlic. They always send more than we need for medicinal purposes.”
“You’re babbling,” the man opposite observed, dispassionately.
“Am I? Perhaps. A little. But I dislike waste — wasted potential, most of all. Tian Xinyi had so much potential. Anyway. Duan Siyi, the wife of Dai Zhixin, was less rigid than her elder sister. Also, she was very fond of children and, after ten years of marriage, in despair at the thought she would never hold a baby of her own. She brought her husband round to her plan. Two women went up Mount Rui, the unmarried sister in the capacity as wife, the married as her doting support. But, when twins were born, that cut right through Dai Zhixin’s bottom line. He allowed his wife to take the sicklier of the two — our Dai Ruofei — into his family and laid out some money so Duan Jingyu and the other child could move to some remote part of Da Liang, where they could present themselves as a respectable widow and infant. As it turns out, mother and son eventually made their way to Yuezhou.”
“Little Duan Heng grew up fast and — not well. From acting as street-lookout for dog-fighting gangs to gathering and passing on to the water bandits tip offs about the departure times of valuable cargoes, from his earliest youth he showed an ingenious turn for disreputable money-making. Naturally, he swam into the orbit —”
“Can one swim into an orbit?”
“If it didn’t risk undoing several years of my best work, I’d drop you into the sea next to a very large jellyfish and ask you to contemplate my metaphor from that viewpoint. But let it pass. He came into the orbit of the ambitious young man from the Ministry of Works and, on various dubious errands on that one’s behalf, visited Jinling several times.”
The Young Master exhaled, thoughtfully.
“Unlike Dai Ruofei, he knew he had a twin brother. He probably thought it useful for a man in his line of work. One day he might need to slide away from some dirty business and leave Dai Ruofei to carry the can.”
“Or, if need be, fake his own death, in which case the body would come in handy,” observed the man opposite, whose cynicism with respect to human nature was, if anything, even more profound than that of the Young Master.
“As you say. But that explains the encounters with his apparent demonic double Dai Ruofei mentioned to the salesman. I don’t know if Duan Heng knew his brother was due to travel to this district on business when he was sent here to murder Tian Xinyi before she could ascend the mountain. It’s possible. Even so, it’s odd Dai Ruofei should have dreamt of strangling at the very moment — so near as I could judge — as Duan Heng was murdering Tian Xinyi.”
The man opposite looked thoughtful.
“We had a pair of identical twins in the Chiyu Battalion. We assigned them to different companies to avoid confusion. One day one of them was in a skirmish and took a spear thrust through his boot. His brother, far away at our frontier camp, had been assigned to a working party. They were driving sharpened stakes into a defence trench. It was hot; the work was tedious; the men were tired and bored. Someone slipped up — I never quite got to the bottom of how it happened. Anyway, just as the first twin took a spear through his foot, the other one received a stake in exactly the same place. Except 200 li away.”
The Young Master nodded. “There are numerous similar accounts in Langya’s records. Anyway. There you have it. The entire tale.”
“Not quite the entire tale. I have one last question.”
The Young Master tapped the table with his fan.
“So greedy! Your Jiangzuo Alliance would be bankrupt in a week if I ever charged you the market rate for your inquisitiveness.”
“Not with this question, I don’t think. You referred several times to the travelling salesman, whose pointed and direct questioning saved you so very many steps in your investigation of the murder of Tian Xinyi. Satisfy my curiosity. Which particular commodity can have attracted a salesman of such integrity and perspicacity?”
“Did I not say? Or did you not infer it, from the method I chose to test whether he was a disinterested party or not? He was a traveller in wine.”
“Ah.” The single syllable held a note of profound and ineffable satisfaction. “I would have been startled — and impressed beyond measure — had you said anything else. But now, may I congratulate you on having made the acquaintance of Peng Mingjun, representative of Li Brothers, of Jinling? By the way, his wines are almost as out-of-the-ordinary as his brains and, should you mention my name next time you encounter him, I am certain Langya Hall will be given the best possible discount. After all, you cannot remain rich by wasting money.”
The Young Master screwed up his features in an expression of acute pain.