Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - The Poltergeist of Mu Manor by A.J. Hall

“What gets me is it’s all so petty. And pointless. It’s the silliness that’s the worst, so it is.”

Wu Chengfu poised the flask over their cups and raised his eyebrows interrogatively. Peng Mingjun nodded. The wine they were currently enjoying originated in the southern part of Da Chu, a land whose priests frequently pronounced formal curses against the Princess-Marshal of Yunnan in their temples. How it had arrived in the Princess-Marshal’s cellars was, accordingly, a matter to wonder about.

Wonder, perhaps, but the strictures contained within the Admonitions to those practising the higher mercantile arts against inquisitiveness when it came to one’s clients’ private affairs were uncompromising. In any event, curiosity about the wine must take second place to this chance to catch up on the best part of five years’ gossip with Peng Mingjun’s old friend and comrade-in-arms.

Those five years and the influence of his native climate had demonstrably been very good to Wu Chengfu. His complexion was much improved, his cough had eased and the lines of strain and worry about his eyes and mouth had smoothed. Even his current irritation with the outbreak of petty pranks and minor acts of vandalism which was currently afflicting Mu Manor could not detract from his present air of health and well-being.

Still, the problem was indeed a puzzling one, and the more so because, as Wu Chengfu observed, it all seemed so bewilderingly low-stakes: a potted plant overturned here, a meaningless character scratched on a beam there, one of the Princess-Marshal’s hair-ornaments going missing, her quarters turned upside down searching for it, only for it to turn up two days later in a just-opened sack of millet.

“That was the thing that gave us the most trouble, so it was.” Wu Chengfu pursed his lips. “It was the first waggonload of the new season’s millet, so the sack was opened in the presence of the head steward and the manciple to confirm it was up to sample. When the ornament fell out, half the outdoors staff were convinced that could only be a vengeful ghost’s doing, and considering who’d given Madam the ornament in the first place, there wasn’t any shortage of blabbermouths willing to put a name to the ghost in question, or would have been if Madam hadn’t passed word that anyone — ”

He hesitated and, visibly, rephrased. “That anyone mentioning that person or any member of that person’s clan would leave the manor that same day, and all their family with them.”

Peng Mingjun nodded. Given Wu Chengfu’s comment, he literally dare not say anything.

That Princess Mu Nihuang of Yunnan had been betrothed in her youth to Lin Shu, the Young Marshal of the Chiyan Army, was a fact known to all and spoken of by none. The Chiyan Army was no more: destroyed by the treason of the then Crown Prince and his mother’s Lin clan’s support for it. That unlucky betrothal had almost dragged Mu Manor down in the general wreckage. Only the sudden incursion of Da Chu into Yunnan, the old Prince-Marshal’s heroic death in Da Liang’s defence and his seventeen-year old daughter’s stepping up to command, sweeping back the invaders at the cost of the best part of an entire generation of the young men of Yunnan, had saved the House of Mu.

In the privacy of Peng Mingjun’s head a single thought burned and would not be extinguished. One who in life had reached out to topple the Son of Heaven himself would, if manifesting as an evil ghost, surely run to something more enterprising than knocking over flowerpots and purloining hairpins?

Wu Chengfu sighed. “Ah well. We’ve had nothing like that since. Just petty mischief. And whether it’s a ghost or one of the junior members of the household acting the inebriated goat, no doubt we’ll shake it off in the move to Jinling. So. Let’s leave it there. Tell me more about how the office’s been coping since I left. I can’t believe that arsehole Zhou Bo Jing is still assistant-deputy of sales. Can’t you and the lads have a whip round and spring for a jianghu assassin, eh? Heaven knows, he’s been asking for it long enough, so he has.”

The individual in question had indeed made himself startlingly difficult on hearing that Peng Mingjun had been selected for this desirable business trip to Yunnan. Furthermore, by the time Peng Mingjun returned to the office, Zhou Bo Jing would have had the best part of two months planning how to make his homecoming a wretched one. No-one could deny many people’s lives would be immeasurably improved were the influence of Zhou Bo Jing to be removed.

Fortunately for Peng Mingjun’s moral character, at this moment there came a succession of sharp raps on the outer door.

“Who’s there?”

“My pardon, but is Peng Mingjun of Jinling within? He has not retired already?” The voice from outside sounded nervous and very young.

“Yes to the one and no to the other. Who needs to know?” Wu Chengfu’s response was not calculated to settle anyone’s nerves. Nor, when it came, was the answer.

“Her Highness the Princess-Marshal. She bids Peng Mingjun to attend on her without delay.”

The Princess-Marshal herself? It was a warm night, but Peng Mingjun felt a sudden chill.

His first weeks in the Yunnan Army had been marked by bursts of frantic activity and long periods of boredom, suffused with the sense that everyone but him knew what was really going on, and shot through with flashes of suspicion that no-one (up to and including the General Staff) had any more idea than he, Peng Mingjun, as to where they were going, with what purpose, or what they would do once they got there. Only the awed looks and comments from those drafted in from other armies had managed to convince him that what he was experiencing might feel like chaos, but it was a triumph of order and discipline compared to what happened elsewhere.

From that point it had been a short step to becoming, like the vast majority of his fellow-soldiers, an initiate in the cult of the Princess-Marshal. In Da Chu it was whispered she was the living embodiment of the goddess of war; in the armies of Yunnan she was revered as the scourge of corrupt or inefficient quartermasters, protector of the supply chain: the one who bid the best field surgeons and sanitation engineers flock to her, making her camps the wonder of the civilised world.

To find himself unexpectedly ushered into that distinguished personage’s presence, especially after an evening sampling her cellars’ excellent wines, would have thrown braver men than Peng Mingjun into confusion.

As was the custom in Yunnan during the summer months, she received him in an open-sided pavilion, built on piles over an ornamental lake and connected to the lake bank by a wooden bridge. The warm moon of high summer, three-quarters full, swam high above, its brightness dimming the pavilion’s lanterns. Nothing disturbed the tranquility of the night save rustles from the lake’s edge as nocturnal creatures went about their business or the occasional splash of a fish jumping.

In the pitiless moonlight Princess Mu Nihuang was no longer the teenage goddess of twelve years ago, but even as a weary woman pushing thirty she was still Princess-Marshal of Yunnan, supreme commander of its armies; last bastion of Da Liang on the south-western borderline.

Peng Mingjun made a very low bow and meant every cun of it.

“Rise, sit,” she said, gesturing towards a cushion off to her left. He acquiesced with surprise, not having expected such a mark of honour. From the reaction from the two attendants in the pavilion, neither had they.

“I am sorry for calling you here so late. But I may not get another chance. I shall have to be away early tomorrow, again. Strange as it may sound, it takes time and effort to put an army of one hundred thousand men into a state where its marshal can turn her back and leave it to fend for itself along a contested border while she is required to remove herself to Jinling for who-knows-how long.”

Peng Mingjun trembled, stayed silent, and looked down at the pavilion’s polished wooden floor, very carefully not thinking about who, precisely, those edged words might really be intended for.

Unexpectedly, she barked a laugh. “But enough of my frustrations, which are none of your concern. What do you think of the wines of Southern Chu? I told Wu Chengfu to make sure you tasted a fair selection. I trust he took that in both the spirit and the letter?”

Under her clear, penetrating gaze his spine stiffened. Whatever the Admonitions recommended, in this case only absolute frankness would do.

“Your Highness, your kindness overwhelms this person and my knowledge of the wines of Southern Chu has been greatly enhanced. I hope you will not consider me disloyal to the land of my birth when I say that in many respects I felt that while the style of Yunnan wines and that of Southern Chu are similar, based on this evening I think the execution of the Southern Chu winemakers may be even more distinguished.”

He trembled a little as he finished. Praise, even at a direct invitation, of Da Chu might easily be taken amiss in this company. Indeed, the Princess-Marshal’s brows rose, but then she nodded, stilling his misgivings.

“When a correspondent whose judgment I have good reason to trust suggested it would be shrewd of me to pay attention to the smugglers who ply their trade through the mountain passes between here and Southern Chu, it was the flow of intelligence I had in mind. The wines themselves came as a happy bonus.”

Her brows drew down again. “It is not a preference to which one can admit in Jinling, alas. I shall have to stock Mu Manor’s cellars in the capital on more politic principles. I hope your more recent knowledge of Jinling will assist my manciple and his deputy in that respect.”

Peng Mingjun bowed his head and muttered something unintelligible, his mind racing. When Li Brothers of Jinling had sent him to advise on the restocking of the cellars of the long-deserted Jinling home of the Princes of Mu he had thought only of meeting the requirements of the customer, of the balance to be struck between everyday wines, wines to lay down for the future and wines for great occasions.

It had not occurred to him that, in the households of the great, politics extended even into the wine cellars. Still, even the mercantile classes could not be unaware of the struggle for the throne. Before his elevation to the Eastern Palace the Crown Prince had been styled Prince of Xian and Xian was a famous wine-producing region; much of the top end of Li Brothers’ catalogue originated there. One would have to ensure it was suitably balanced by — where did Prince Yu’s principal estates lie? Or no; the wines of Ning were almost as celebrated as the wines of Xian and no-one suspected the weakly third prince of cherishing imperial ambitions. That might prove a fruitful line of —

The Princess-Marshal made a sweeping gesture to her attendants.

“Bring us the Da Chu reserved stock. And then leave us.”

Peng Mingjun gulped, though neither of the attendants showed the least sign of discomposure, still less dissent. Once they were alone (at least, when the attendants had withdrawn to positions out of earshot on the lake bank, although their shadowy presence remained palpable) the Princess-Marshal looked straight at him, her chin on her hand.

“I must confess: I did not bring you here to talk about wine; I have an excellent manciple and deputy and I have learnt the folly of attempting to do my junior officers’ work for them.”

She filled two pure white jade cups and passed one across to him. She also indicated that he should help himself from the plate of small savoury pastries on the platter in front of him. Fearful of covering himself in crumbs, Peng Mingjun resisted the temptation. The Princess-Marshal did not press the matter.

“While you are in Yunnan, I could not but acknowledge in person the very great debt I owe you.”

That rocked Peng Mingjun back on his heels. “A debt, your Highness?”

“Indeed. Some years ago, I spent many hours training Yan Yujin and Xiao Jingrui in martial arts.” An impish grin lit her face, transforming it utterly. “As I recall, they complained bitterly that I was the most brutal of taskmasters and that I evidently did not care if they lived or died.”

She paused. “They were half right. But I care very much for both of them and I would have been devastated beyond measure to learn of their deaths. Thank you for saving my young friends.”

My young friends. Something about the phrase struck a note in Peng Mingjun’s mind, persistent as a buzzing insect and as hard to find in a dark night. He would recall the connection, doubtless at some inconvenient moment. The incident with the false innkeeper in the wilds of the country had been almost five years ago; the two wandering lords would now be the young masters of their respective manors, the object of concerted attention from the matchmakers, if they were not married already and the fathers of heirs to serve the family shrine. And yet to the Princess-Marshal they were still her young friends, the carefree boys Peng Mingjun had met.

She raised her cup to toast him. He raised his own in response. This wine must indeed be the Da Chu reserved stock; he had rarely tasted a finer example of the style and he yearned for the chance to make tasting notes. He set himself to memorise all he could.

The Princess-Marshal gestured with exquisite elegance.

“From Yan Yujin’s account I understand that it was your attention to detail, ability to draw conclusions and to act decisively once you had drawn them which saved all your lives.”

Overcome, Peng Mingjun muttered something self-deprecating. The Princess-Marshal leant forward.

“Please. Do not underestimate yourself. Modesty and humility are virtues, but, like all such, become the opposite when overdone. As a commander, I need to know the talent at my command, so I can plan my dispositions accordingly. You, I gather, have a clear insight and a cool head. Most importantly, you have only just arrived from Jinling. I trust Wu Chengfu has apprised you of our current difficulties?”

What Peng Mingjun might have said in answer to that was forever lost. At that very moment a duck, quacking its grievances at full pitch to the highest heavens, shot across the lake like an arrow, straight towards the Princess-Marshal.

Peng Mingjun grabbed a flaky pastry from the neglected snack plate and tossed it into the air. The duck contrived a makeshift landing, back-watering its wings and stretching out its beak. While it was gobbling the snack, Peng Mingjun lunged and grabbed it by the neck.

He struggled to his feet, holding the indignantly flailing bird at arm’s length. Close to, it presented an extraordinary sight. Evidently, it had begun as the ordinary white duck of the poultry yard, but someone had daubed it with those kitchen powders used to create brilliant feast day confections: gleaming gold and bronze, picked out with blue, black and red highlights, turning it into a grotesque parody of a mandarin, that bright symbol of hope and fidelity which featured in so many bride-bed hangings and embroidered screens.

I’ll take that,” said one of the attendants, striding across the bridge. “Ma’am, should I wring its neck here, or remove it from your presence and kill it elsewhere?”

“You can’t kill it!” Peng Mingjun swept the duck protectively to his chest. Ungratefully, it pecked him. Repeatedly. He pinned its wings against its body with one firm arm, clamped his other hand round the back of its neck to deter further pecks and held on like grim death.

“You’re protecting that — monstrosity?” the attendant demanded. “Why?”

“It’s — it’s an eye-witness,” Peng Mingjun asserted, sounding (even to himself) less than convincing.

The attendant’s lip curled. “Can one interrogate a duck?”

“Well, certainly not a dead one,” Peng Mingjun snapped.

“Interrogating a duck?” The Princess-Marshal’s amused tone did not obscure an underlying note of warning. “Doubtless the Xuanjing Bureau would know how, if anyone does. I might ask Xia Dong.”

She glanced at the gaudy powders which had been daubed on the duck, much of which had transferred themselves to Peng Mingjun in the struggle, and all traces of humour left her face and voice.

“Though not in this instance, I don’t think. Take the poor thing away. Have it washed.”

Given the state of his robes, Peng Mingjun could only hope that admonition referred to the duck; from the attendant’s sidelong glance, he wasn’t the only one wondering. He promptly surrendered the duck into the attendant’s custody with a brisk, “Thank you,” followed by a very low bow.

The Princess-Marshal gestured at the other attendant, who had now also joined them. “Have people with lanterns check the far side of the lake. There may be signs left by whoever released it. No. Better still, have the area roped off and set guards on it. We can search it better by daylight, with less risk of trampling on any evidence. But secure that side of the lake, and search the grounds for intruders.”

The attendant looked dubiously at the Princess-Marshal. “Are you sure it is safe for us to leave you, ma’am? The perpetrator may be —”

“Proposing to escalate to geese?” She snorted. “I have a little alarm rocket up my sleeve. Should the waterfowl co-ordinate their offensive to the extent that a veteran of the armies of Yunnan, who is accustomed to riding solo circuits through the jianghu, and your commanding officer, ranked tenth on the Langya List of fighters, feel that they may be in danger of being overwhelmed, be reassured we will signal for reinforcements.”

Thus rebuked, the two attendants scurried off on their respective duties. Then, the Princess-Marshal turned her full attention on Peng Mingjun. On balance, he might have preferred an aggrieved duck.

“I thought Yujin-di-di had over-praised your presence of mind — the man who owns only a buffalo is prone to mistake a mule for a battle-charger — but it appears I have done him an injustice.”

Recalling the young lord with the face like a cheerful owl, Peng Mingjun thought privately that he must be used to being underestimated and wondered how many (such as the eight bandits whom they had left dead on the floor of an up-country inn five years ago) had discovered they had done so a trifle too late.

“I only acted in accordance with my nature, your Highness,” he ventured. “Both then and now.”

“Quite.” She paced across the pavilion. Peng Mingjun sat back on his heels, and regretted that he could not now, without displaying an ill-bred nature, help himself to those pastries, his earlier meal now being a delightful yet long-past memory.

After the fourth or fifth turn, she burst out, “I dare not seem too angry; I must not seem insufficiently angry. But these intrusions into my manor are intolerable. They seem slight, but so do mosquito bites — at first. Until the burning overwhelms one. Tell me; can you see any way to make this stop?”

That thought had, indeed, been consuming him. Peng Mingjun dusted helplessly at the mess of coloured stains the duck had left on his robes and found inspiration there.

“Your Highness, may this one make a suggestion?”

“Provided you take my suggestion, and actually eat those snacks rather than keep glancing at them out of the corner of your eye as if you suspected them of being about to launch a sneak attack. It’s distracting.”

She stopped pacing and returned to the low table, sinking down to her own seat and refilling their cups.

Thus admonished, Peng Mingjun dutifully essayed one of the pastries, and, finding himself hungrier than he had expected, devoured two more.

From behind the cover of her cup she said, in a low voice which lacked the sibilance of a whisper, “Sound carries across water, especially on a night as still as this. Be quick and speak quietly.”

He bowed in acknowledgement. “Your Highness, we can see from this crude contrivance that this — infestation — has nothing of the supernatural about it. But whoever painted that duck knows how to handle poultry deftly and well. You saw how it reacted to this inexpert person.”

To her credit, the Princess-Marshal repressed any hint of a grin. “I see your point. And?”

“Would it be possible to find out if there is a servant in your poultry yard who might have some imagined grievance against Mu Manor?”

She did not slump — the supreme commander of the armies of Yunnan could never slump, not even in her own manor, late at night, not when a single pair of eyes might bear witness — but the sense of a too-heavy burden, borne too long without respite having at last been taken from her was obvious in every line of her slender frame.

Oh. Fan Tianjian,” she breathed. “Fan Tianjian. But how could she — ? Oh. Yes. Now I see.”

Which, to Peng Mingjun’s profound but (of necessity) unexpressed frustration, was a great deal more than he did.

“Your Highness?” he enquired

The Princess-Marshal’s smile was something for which poets would seek for weeks to find the appropriate metaphor, only to fall back frustrated on dawn over the East Sea or cherry blossoms, once again. (Peng Mingjun was not a poet, although some time later, when the senior taster at Li Brothers read his notes on the Da Chu reserved stock and demanded to know what he could possibly have been thinking, he recalled that moment and found his cheeks growing unaccountably hot.)

“I now perceive we have been seeing tigers in the shadows of mice and a ghost in the folds of a robe hung on a stand. Thank you for your insight. It has saved me a world of pain and puzzlement.”

She inclined her head. “Regrettably, it is late, and, as I said at the outset, I have early duties tomorrow and yet matters I must attend to before I retire. Please, may you leave first.”

Peng Mingjun bowed and made his departure.


His host allowed him to sleep in the next morning and when he rose, blinking, and went to greet Wu Chengfu, he found that individual beaming with sheer pleasure. From the sounds of cheerful whistling and occasional shouts of laughter as the manor servants went about their duties, the cheerful mood seemed general.

“I gather your poltergeist problem has been resolved?” Peng Mingjun enquired politely, once he had made his way through the three delicious dishes prepared for him by Wu Chengfu’s smiling, nodding wife.

“So it has, thank the heavens! Who would have thought little Fan Tianjian had it in her? Though when they said it was her, this morning, I thought, why didn’t we any of us think of her before?”

“But who is she?”

Wu Chengfu sat back and gestured expansively. “This is all old news, you know, from long before I entered Mu Manor. But trust madam to ferret the background all out, so she did.”

Madam Wu smiled, shyly, bobbed a brief acknowledgement, and vanished into the rear of their quarters, leaving the living space to the men.

“There were two of them, it seems,” Wu Chengfu averred, pouring tea. “Sisters. When, almost thirteen years ago, Madam was preparing to leave her maiden home and go to her betrothed’s, one of the aunts on her father’s side stepped up to help her prepare what was proper, Madam not having a mother living. Bride linens and household servants and so forth. Well. These two girls, their family were tenant farmers. Heavens knows how many of them there must have been depending on the same few mu of land. And then the locusts came.”

Peng Mingjun’s own father had been a grain merchant; locust swarms had more than once threatened to reduce the family to beggary. It had indeed been for that reason, on Peng Mingjun’s reaching his early teens, his father had apprenticed him into the wine trade, so that the Peng family’s interests might not depend on a single point of failure.

“Oh,” he said, inadequately. Wu Chengu nodded.

“Aye. The elder girl, Fan Qing Yue, she would have been about twelve or so, a likely sort of girl, well taught. Good cook, too — I’ve had her fish porridge myself, so I have. So her family reckons that the best way out of all their difficulties is to find her a place in a noble household, and being a filial child, Fan Qing Yue agrees.”

“But—?” Peng Mingjun enquired. Girls from poor families being sold into slavery when their families’ affairs became embrangled happened too frequently to be worth remarking, but it hurt his heart, nonetheless, and he preferred not to dwell on it.

“But the girl’s little sister hears about it, doesn’t she, and causes a big ruckus. She’d been a bit simple since birth and I suppose Fan Qing Yue was the only one to give her any kindness. So she starts wailing and threatening to dash her head against a pillar if her sister leaves her, and the long and the short of it was that Fan Qing Yue tells her family that it can’t be, she can’t leave her little sister, so her father first gets out the cane and then he shuts both the girls up in a dark hut, but even that isn’t enough to change the older girl’s mind.”

Peng Mingjun saw Wu Chengfu’s eye stray to the window, to his own three children playing out in the Yunnan sunshine, and knew he must also be thinking how, but for the chance that had brought him to Mu Manor, his wife and children might have been forced into a similar predicament.

“Madam’s aunt was all for leaving the trouble with the family, and looking elsewhere for a maid, but then Madam herself steps in and says it’s very right for Fan Qing Yue to be looking out for her little sister (Fan Tianjian is much of an age with the Young Master, so it would strike her that way) and surely the household can spare rice for an extra little one, until Fan Tianjian has grown old enough to make herself useful.

“And then, with the engagement off, both girls just stayed on in Mu Manor. Fan Qing Yue in Madam’s inner quarters — Madam has never wanted to be served by those smirking, supercilious palace-style maids, you know, and Fan Qing Yue suited her — and eventually Fan Tianjian found a place in the poultry-yard. Still, you know how it is? All the household knew her from a child, and with her being simple and there not being the sort of formality out in Yunnan as there is in the capital, no-one worried about where she went.”

Peng Mingjun nodded. Manors such as this had clear lines of demarcation between indoor and outdoor staff, and, within the former, between those who served the family’s private quarters and those who only attended to the public rooms. The thought that the perpetrator of these acts had been able to pass seamlessly across these lines had worried him profoundly, leading him to place suspicion in quarters he scarcely dared think about, still less utter aloud.

He now understood the Princess-Marshal’s air of a burden removed. As head of the household for so many years, the Princess-Marshal would have been even more aware than Peng Mingjun of how tiny was the number of people who might pass unnoticed between her inner apartments and her grain stores and poultry yard.

But what could have led a simple poultry-yard maid, indulged and supported by the household, to have turn on her mistress in such a way?

“So what happened?”

Wu Chengfu’s brows drew down in pain. “Ah. That was bad, that was. No-one’s fault at all, but bad, all the same. There’s a colony of half-wild cats who live in the barns and grain storerooms. They keep the vermin down, so we’re grateful, so we are. Only, you see, this time one of them had got its paws on one of the ducklings Fan Tianjian had hand-reared and she came running through the house screaming out for her sister. Well, Fan Qing Yue couldn’t do anything else, could she? Not the way the young one was carrying on. So she hurried back to help, and managed to rescue the duckling and gave it back to her sister, so it was all sunshine again.”

“Only?” Peng Mingjun asked. His old friend sighed.

“Only the cat scratched Fan Qing Yue’s wrists all to blazes when she was saving the bird, but she let down her sleeves to cover them so the sight didn’t upset her sister. And it took a good long time to get her sister settled and the duckling back in its pen and then I suppose she was in a hurry to get back to the duties she’d neglected during the excitement so didn’t clean them out as fully as she might —”

Peng Mingjun’s two years in the armies of Yunnan had introduced him to a wide variety of ways in which one might die unpleasantly. While sepsis from an infected wound was not at the very top of the list, that was only because he’d been part of that night-raiding party behind enemy lines when Da Chu had known in advance they were coming. Sometimes, at night, he still dreamt of the screams of men caught on fine-drawn strands of hidden wire, like rabbits in snares, while fire-arrows from the Da Chu side rained down.

He shuddered.

“How long?”

Wu Chengfu turned his head aside and spat. “Five days. Madam was away from home the first day and a half, but when she got back she sent her top field surgeon. I saw his face when he came out. I knew then it was only a matter of time. But the little one didn’t.”

“So she blamed Mu Manor for her sister’s death?”

“That, I can’t say. But she was muddled. Wandering through the place like a little ghost herself. Calling out for her sister to come home. Poor child. I suppose she got it into her head that we deserved to be haunted, so made sure that we were.”

Fragrant steam rose from the freshly-made tea. Peng Mingjun blew gently on it.

“What will happen to her now?”

“Madam had a nun come from the temple. She took Fan Tianjian with her when she went back. Heavens grant us, hopefully she’ll have some luck getting into her head there’s no coming back across that bridge. And after that, I think, she’ll be sent out to one of the farmsteads; an outdoor life, and nothing to remind her of her losses. Could be worse, so it could.”

It should have satisfied him. It certainly satisfied the rest of Mu Manor, who returned to the bustle of planning for the imminent departure to Jinling. Wu Chengfu even managed to persuade the head manciple to sit down with Peng Mingjun and wrestle with the question of how to restock long-neglected cellars in a manner which would suitably uphold the status of the House of Mu while being at the same time both politically correct and unostentatious.

It was a long meeting, especially since the head manciple was doddery and prone to sudden outbreaks of anxiety and self-doubt. However, they made sufficient progress for Wu Chengfu privately to assure Peng Mingjun that, given only the favour of two incense sticks of the Princess-Marshal’s time on the morrow, the order could be completed and Peng Mingjun on his way back to Jinling the day after that.

Thus assured, Peng Mingjun retired to bed. Not, as it turned out, to rest.

As has been mentioned before, a strongly romantic streak ran through the pragmatic wine salesman. For years he had ridden his circuit and listened entranced to every tale of ghosts and spirits which jianghu legend could produce. Part of him had thrilled at the sense of playing even a small part in one such supernatural drama.

And now to have all the trailing vestments and tattered shrouds which the matter had promised tucked tidily away behind this most prosaic of explanations was not just disappointing, but felt profoundly wrong. No. Not felt. Tasted.

Tasted, indeed, like those counterfeits one encountered from time to time in the trade: the more sophisticated type where the fraudster had laced some nondescript local liquor with enough of the true vintage that even a sophisticated nose might be deceived. At least when the flask was first unsealed.

At first sniff, this mystery had possessed heady excitement, the tang of intrigue, a whiff of scandal. All had faded into bland nothingness. Everyone seemed happy to write it off as a small summer dust-swirl, as soon risen as subsided.

So had he, Peng Mingjun, thought at first, if only because he had not applied the skilled professional part of his brain to the problem.

No-one could have hoped to bring counterfeit wine into the cellars of the Princess-Marshal of Yunnan and have it lie undetected for long. Hao Boya, the head manciple; Liu Guangzhu, the house steward; Wu Chengfu himself — all three of them had palates and training to detect any such attempt.

But would they have left matters at simply finding the false drink and pouring it down the drain? Surely not. The moment they suspected such a fraud, they would have been anxious to discover how such an abomination had entered Mu Manor in the first place. Letters would have been written to the shippers. Anyone who had had access to the cellar keys would have been questioned.

Peng Mingjun exhaled. There. He had it. It was not the explanation which tasted false; it was the lack of follow-up. In particular, it was the way everyone had taken at face value a supposedly simple poultry-maid playing not one but two tricks (for the decking of the duck in bridal colours could not be a coincidence) which drew direct attention not just to the Princess-Marshal’s currently unwed state but to the unhappy end of her betrothal.

“I need to do something,” he declared, sitting bolt upright in his bed (and, to say truth, very nearly concussing himself on a low ceiling beam in the process.) Then, because he was a healthy young man with an excellent digestion and an extremely well-ordered nervous system, he fell straight back to sleep and woke the next morning with a clear eye, an unfurred tongue and an unshakeable determination to put his midnight resolution into effect.

What he contemplated was, it was true, something which would shock Wu Chengfu to the very marrow of his bones. That being so, it was imperative that Wu Chengfu know nothing about it.

Over breakfast he announced his attention of visiting a certain shrine, burnt out in the wars with Da Chu, but now lavishly restored and decorated with a succession of murals depicting the gods bestowing the secrets of wine making upon mortals. Wu Chengfu, on whom the worries of the impending move to Jinling weighed more than he cared to admit, endorsed this suggestion enthusiastically and made a number of suggestions for other points of interest in the same vicinity. Peng Mingjun duly noted them and, to no more than token protests from his host, observed that they seemed to amount to a full day’s programme and that he would, if that were acceptable, return at dusk.

Peng Mingjun did indeed visit the shrine, where he burnt the best quality incense he could afford and spent some time in prayer, principally for guidance in picking out the true path. Since no contrary shaft of enlightenment on this point descended, he continued with the plan he had reached on the midnight.

First, he resorted to a tea-house, renowned in his days in Yunnan as the haunt of poets and scholars. In proud defence of tradition, it remained so. Given the late-rising habits of scholars, it was somewhat unpopulated at this early hour of the day, but equally it was a place where he could call for paper, paper-smoother, an ink-stone and a grinder and have his wants supplied without demur. After all, a tea-house of this type could not, for lack of the wherewithal, lose to posterity some perfect aphorism, insight into the classics or ode to a firefly from one of its customers.

Peng Mingjun had no such elevated literary intentions. Instead, he set out neatly on a sheet of paper each of the incidents in (so far as he had been able to ascertain) date order, the earliest first, culminating with the duck incident and the detection of the deluded maid.

The routine act of transcription, even more than the ritual of the temple, allowed his mind to detach itself from the surface noise and for connections to emerge.

Aside from the immediate excitements of the duck business, the Princess-Marshal had focussed on the theft of her hair-ornament and its singular return; in that, Peng Mingjun could not but agree. Compared to all the other incidents that stood out like a phoenix in a chicken coop. It was not the only incident of theft, but it was the only one where the item had possessed material value. Furthermore, the item’s connection with Young Marshal Lin gave its deployment an undeniable political edge, one which Fan Tianjian could not possibly have appreciated.

As a mere businessman, Peng Mingjun lacked the insights into Court circles which would allow him to assess how just how much fraught baggage such an ornament carried, so long after the Chiyan case, yet the Princess-Marshal’s tone as she hissed, frustrated beyond measure: I dare not seem too angry; I must not seem insufficiently angry told him a great deal.

Mu Manor was a model of discipline and restraint, as befitted such a great military house, especially given the work Wu Chengfu had put in over the last five years to support the aging and (though neither he nor Peng Mingjun had alluded to the fact in so many words) visibly failing manciple. But, like everything, the smallest speck of rust or rot could rapidly spread, if not found and eradicated at the earliest opportunity.

The poor, distracted maid had been banished from the Manor, but the rot, Peng Mingjun would swear before the tablets of his ancestors, had simply been buried, not removed. How and in what manner it might break out again, he dare not speculate.

Whatever the Admonitions thought about it, he needed to share his concerns with the only person who sprang to mind as being able both to understand the issues and, most importantly, be in a position to do something about them.

He cleared his throat and mind, smoothed a fresh sheet of paper, and began.

Most honoured sir, this one writes humbly to beg your counsel.

Sir Su, whom he had met twice in his travels around the wilder parts of Da Liang, had impressed Peng Mingjun with his knowledge of affairs and his sure instinct for getting to the meat of a matter. Furthermore, the fact that Peng Mingjun had been introduced to Sir Su by Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin provided the cloak of justification for his approach. It was not sharing the Princess-Marshal’s affairs with a complete outsider, but with someone who, at least, had friends in common with that great lady.

But there was another reason Peng Mingjun chose Sir Su as his confidante. On their last meeting, Sir Su had obliquely referred to some particulars of his early life. In and of themselves they would have conveyed little to an external listener, particularly one whose own early life had been spent far from Jinling and in such a very different rank of life. But, by chance, a few months later another piece of information had come to Peng Mingjun’s attention, which had brought into sharp relief the particulars which Sir Su had hoped to obscure.

Natural courtesy, not to mention the principles instilled in him by the Admonitions, prevented Peng Mingjun’s making the smallest allusion to the fact. Nevertheless, he now knew that Sir Su had been mentored in youth by General Meng, currently commander of the Emperor’s own Jin Guards. He also knew (in no small measure thanks to Peng Mingjun’s own ability to source the most obscure of wines) that Sir Su had reached out to the General some three years previously and the General had been overjoyed to renew their friendship.

Connections within the very heart of the Palace: if his suspicions of what had been going on in Mu Manor were correct, those were the very thing which he needed to access. And Sir Su, whether he chose to acknowledge it or not, possessed those very connections.

Succinctly, he summarised the history of the matter, referencing the chronology of events where needed. So far, so good.

However. For the next part he would have to draw upon his own experience and pray Sir Su would not resent his appearing to lesson him.

The curious detail that the purloined hair ornament had been returned in a millet sack brought in on the first waggon-load of the new season’s crop had given Peng Mingjun a queasy feeling from the outset.

The cover story, which the staff of Mu Manor had apparently accepted, assumed a neglectful young pantryman had allowed the deluded maid access to the sacks while they were awaiting inspection. She had then slit open a sack, slipped the hair ornament inside and stitched it back up, expecting the trinket to emerge at a much later date. Only unfortunate chance meant that particular sack had been selected for formal comparison with the sample, revealing the trick that much sooner.

To which, Peng Mingjun eloquently (if internally) said, “Poppycock!”

Though the family grain business had never aspired to supply Mu Manor, he had attended his father on numerous occasions when they presented samples of grain to the lesser manors of Yunnan.

This procedure was attended with considerable ceremony. In the memory of Peng Mingjun’s grandparents Yunnan had been afflicted with severe famine. In the aftermath of those years cartelisation, sabotage and gangsterism had run rampant. The House of Mu had been foremost among those lords who had devised the current system for equitable grain purchasing, which, while less than a century old in true years, now held the weight of immemorial tradition in the minds of the people.

The moment the crop was in, merchants such as Peng Shang would be on the road, bearing miniature sample sacks stitched shut with their own pattern of colours and devices, varied each season to show the precise year, month and week of harvesting. The initial presentation of the samples would be to the head steward or chief pantryman, but once they had narrowed down their choices to the final three, each sample sack would be carried in turn (with the ever-present threat of a beating for any incautious or unsteady boy who allowed even one grain to spill onto the customer’s hallowed floor) to the head of the household, who would choose the selected merchant and formally seal the deal.

Once thumb-printed by both parties, the sealed contracts would be taken directly to the main temple, there to be locked away until delivery had been completed. Then the rush was on to fulfil the order, each sack being stitched closed in the same pattern as the sample. On delivery, the public at large would then know what lucky merchant had had the honour to supply that particular household.

But no earlier than delivery. The entire system had been designed to prevent collusion (whether compelled or voluntary) and price-fixing.

In the time available, the maid simply could not have stitched the sack closed so as to defy detection by the manciple and head steward unless she’d seen the sample sack and learnt its pattern in advance. No matter how many liberties Fan Tianjian had been allowed in the manor, this would have been a step too far, both on legal and practical grounds.

Peng Mingjun set out a brief summary of the above, then gritted his teeth. Nothing in the previous lines could incriminate him, but if he had misjudged his recipient or the wrong person intercepted the letter, his life would be on the line for what he was about to say.

Whoever had the ornament placed in the millet sack knew which dealer had closed the final contract. That is a logical certainty. Only three people possessed that knowledge: the manciple, the chief steward — and the Princess-Marshal of Yunnan.

With a trembling hand he brought his brush once more to caress the page.

Both the choice of ornament and the place of its discovery are, in my humble opinion, intended ultimately to point suspicion towards the Princess-Marshal, albeit not at first. This one believes it is intended as a slow poison, intended to activate after the Princess-Marshal’s arrival in Jinling. By then, memories of the events at Yun Manor will have faded; few of the Yunnan household who witnessed them will be at her Highness’ side: all anyone will recall will be that an ornament given to the Princess-Marshal by her former betrothed disappeared and reappeared in mysterious circumstances. Should anything untoward then occur — especially anything of a sensitive or political nature (Peng Mingjun hoped Sir Su would forgive him the excitable emphasis on those characters) I suspect this incident — or some garbled version of it — may be used to cast doubts on the Princess-Marshal’s loyalty or even — perhaps — her sanity.

There had been an ugly case in the Yunnan of Peng Mingjun’s youth, where an ambitious son of a mercantile house had contrived a marriage much above his station. Subsequently he had contrived matters so not merely the lady’s attendants but even the lady herself had begun to believe her wits overthrown. Only the devotion and persistence of the lady’s old wet-nurse, in the face of considerable intimidation (including, it was whispered, outright torture) had prevented the lady’s enormous dowry falling entirely under her husband’s “stewardship” in consequence of her supposed mental frailty.

There being no point in speculating as to how an unknown person of unclear motivation might at some uncertain future date exploit an as yet unperformed act of sabotage against the Princess-Marshal of Yunnan, Peng Mingjun concluded his letter with the simple hope that if Sir Su had any insight into the matter, he might bring it to bear, but that any investigation needed to begin with checking the antecedents of Mu Manor’s two most senior and trusted officials and that all suggestions as to how that might be accomplished would be most humbly and respectfully received.

That incendiary matter committed to paper, he sealed the letter and, by dint of connections at the military camp, the pulling in of some twelve-year old favours and the strategic deployment of a flask of twenty-year old wine, saw it dispatched with the utmost celerity to a certain bookshop near the north gate of Jinling City.

After which, Peng Mingjun spent his post-noon hours carrying out the programme of sight-seeing Wu Chengfu had mapped out for him, and was able to render a most satisfactory account of his day over the evening meal. They toasted each other long into the night and Peng Mingjun set out back to Jinling the next day bearing an order of a size and value he sincerely hoped Zhou Bo Jing would gnash his teeth over for decades to come.


“Well, that was a journey and a half, so it was.” Wu Chengfu raised his cup and squinted at it.

“Ten thousand pardons,” Peng Mingjun said and refilled both cups. The flask was Fifteen Dragons and it was not the first, but given his desire (as well as obligation) to requite his friend’s generosity in Yunnan and the fact that he could purchase the wine at trade, he was more than happy to extend the hospitality of his home to its utmost.

“But,” he added after a short and appreciative pause, “why was it so difficult? Surely, with the Princess-Marshal’s own guards protecting you no bandits would have dreamt of threatening the baggage train?”

“Bandit trouble! Nothing of the sort — we brought our trouble with us, so it turned out and it was thanks to the jianghu sects we got out of it. I wrote to you about the battle of the bridge of boats, a few years ago, didn’t I?”

Peng Mingjun nodded. It had, by all accounts, been a narrow shave for Yunnan, until the Princess-Marshal had received help from an unexpected source, a naval tactician sent to her from out of the jianghu, who had turned near-certain defeat into decisive victory.

“Well then. We were skirting the edges of Yaowang Valley — as you know, that’s a nasty ague pit at the best of times, and from what they say it gets even worse as you get further in, great tiger-infested forests and toppling cliffs and all, not that you’d get further in without an invitation, no more you would, not if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders — and then along comes a troop of riders, all done out like for a feast day, and with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life at the head!”

Given that his friend saw the Princess-Marshal of Yunnan daily, save when she was on campaign, Peng Mingjun thought that comment managed infelicitously to combine both hyperbole and rashness, and said so.

Wu Chengfu laughed. “Madam would be the first to agree. In fact, she recognised the lady — whether from paintings or from life, I can’t say — and asked her to come and drink tea with her. And guess who she was?”

As plainly expected of him, Peng Mingjun disclaimed any knowledge of famous beauties (a poignant image from a mortuary two years ago intruded upon his thoughts; he suppressed it with the ease of long practice.)

“So. Tell me. Who was the lady?”

Wu Chengfu had the air of a man laying down a winning counter on a weiqi board.

“Yun Piaomiao. Ten years running on the Langya List of beauties, and never lower than fifth, so they say.”

Peng Mingjun gaped. Even he had heard that name. “The lovely doctor?”

His friend nodded. “Yes. Her. The one who married the adopted son of Su Tianshu, the Yaowang Valley sect leader, last year. Such a surprise, that match.”

Had this been Jinling rather than the jianghu, a marriage alliance between a noted clan of physicians and the richest purveyors of medicines in the whole of Da Liang would have been considered very good business indeed, and a matter evoking no surprise whatsoever. Peng Mingjun forebore to comment.

“And the purpose of her visit?”

“Only this: her husband, this Su Xuan, was none other than the man who devised the stratagem that broke Da Chu’s bridge of boats in the first place.”

“Bit out of the drug and medicines line, surely?”

Wu Chengfu tutted at this display of ignorance. Peng Mingjun, knowing his friend was delighting in anticipation of showing off his superior knowledge of the jianghu world, indulged him

“Su Xuan may be the adopted son of the Chief of Yaowang Valley but he didn’t come from that place. Not at all. There was some prior trouble Yaowang Valley couldn’t solve themselves and so his own Chief lent him out to help. That’s how I heard it, anyway.”

“His own Chief?”

“When you were covering my circuit, five years ago, did you never hear of the Jiangzuo Alliance? They pretty much control all the provinces around Langzhou, from all anyone says.”

Bowing his head, Peng Mingjun allowed he had heard a little. Though, regrettably, he had only limited experience of that region and the young man now covering the circuit, while an excellent salesman, was not given to anecdotage.

With a palpable air of “Ancestors, lend me strength”, Wu Chengfu undertook to amend his ignorance.

“At least you keep up with the Langya Lists, don’t you?”

With a groan, Peng Mingjun admitted that every salesman worth his rice must at least give the appearance of doing so, given the fervour with which so many customers and prospects followed Langya Hall’s annual rankings. He readily conceded, however, that save for the list of fighters, in which he took a mild proprietorial interest, his knowledge of the Langya rankings was of the sort which ekes out a spoonful of knowledge to season a cauldron of ignorance.

“Great you admit that at last, you slippery rascal. But now: respect your elder, listen and learn. No doubt you expected to find a great jianghu sect leader on the fighters’ list? No. That’s a mug’s game and a young mug at that, so it is. Leading with your chin and waiting until someone bigger and stronger muscles up and knocks you off your dung pile. What face could a sect leader retain that way? Better, if they attract a ranked fighter to their sect; better still, a hidden dragon not even Langya Hall knows about. But this Chief Mei of Jiangzuo, he goes one better even than that, doesn’t he? He’s not just not a fighter — he makes a virtue of it! Not many people see him, or if they do, they don’t talk of it afterwards, for one reason or the other, but all the jianghu world will tell you the same: he’s that frail and sickly he’d come off the worse in a fight with that duck you tangled with in Madam’s pavilion, so he would.”

Given that the deepest bruises from the duck’s pecking had barely faded, Peng Mingjun felt his friend was somewhat downplaying the perils of attack by beak, but decided not to rise to the bait.

“And the Langya List?”

“He heads the list of scholars. Has done for the last three years. Were he regular, not jianghu, he’d be a high minister in Jinling, so he would. Or maybe Grand Vizier of Northern Yan. Well. They say it was Chief Mei that sent Su Xuan to help out Yaowang Valley that time. And they also say it was on Chief Mei’s orders Su Xuan came to break Da Chu’s bridge of boats for Madam.”

A correspondent whose judgment I have good reason to trust. Peng Mingjun wondered what this Chief Mei might know about smuggling routes through the mountain ranges between Da Chu and Yunnan. He inclined his head with wholly unfeigned interest

“And Su Xuan’s wife came out in person to greet the Princess-Marshal?”

“Indeed she did. And then the feasting really started. What with Madam wanting to honour Su Xuan’s wife and Lady Yun wanting to pay her husband’s and father-in-law’s respects to the great Princess-Marshal, I thought we’d still be there come the Mid-Autumn Festival, so I did. Especially since Madam had told us to bring all the Da Chu reserved stock with us for hospitality along the way. But then—”

Wu Chengfu paused, then screwed his head sideways, glancing all around as if checking for eavesdroppers.

“I forget, this is the first time you’ve been to my new home.” Peng Mingjun gestured expansively. “Last year my green-grocer, of all people, tipped me off this place was coming vacant. I’d had my eye on it a long time, but never thought I could afford — Well. Turns out my landlady’s the superstitious sort and my horoscope’s auspicious, so I got it at a very good rent, especially since the district’s on the way up. Plus, any problems go through her steward and are fixed next day, or at worst the day after. And I’ve solved the problem with the nosy neighbours in the last place, that I wrote you about.”

“You must have amassed merits from a previous life, you lucky bastard. Nice place, so it is. Anyway, then, on the second night we were camped, a messenger comes in hotfoot from Yunnan. Little Fan Tianjian never got to the farmstead, after all. There’d been a landslip on the road, and she’d been crushed by a falling boulder. The messenger wanted to know what Madam wanted to do, if there were messages she wished to send to her parents and so forth.”

Peng Mingjun was hard pressed not to vomit. After all this — after all his efforts to solve this muddle —

Wu Chengfu made a decisive, chopping gesture. “And that was when things went all to Hell, didn’t they?”

The news of the maid’s death had thrown the Princess-Marshal into a fury, heavily laced with grief and guilt. Her foot went down. There must have been some gross mismanagement of the case; she had no intention of moving a step further on the road to Jinling until a full investigation had been carried out, any neglect punished and rites performed for the repose of the dead girl’s soul.

Her retinue, faced with the prospect of an indefinite time camping on the edge of an ague-ridden and reputedly tiger-haunted forest, did not take the news well.

An attempt to enlist the Prince of Mu to remonstrate with his sister foundered when he pointed out that, not merely was she his senior, so making it undutiful to correct her, she was also his martial arts teacher and had, accordingly, quite sufficient excuses to beat him black and blue without adding aditional provocation.

At length someone from Yaowang Valley suggested that a priest from the local Daoist temple, known to have special experience calming the grudges of unquiet ghosts, be summoned to rule on the matter and advise on rites. A further half-day and a night were wasted trying to track down the priest in question.

Once he arrived, his ruling pleased nobody (with the possible exception of the Princess-Marshal, who sat impassively throughout.)

Having examined all the particulars and questioned all available witnesses, he ruled that while the dead girl had, undoubtedly, carried out some pranks in Mu Manor, the other disturbances could only be due to the restless spirit of her older sister. The Manor accordingly ought to carry out rites to pacify both dead girls, to be performed at the rising of the next new moon, the two girls having been (in the absence of any evidence to the contrary emerging over the course of his lengthy and detailed enquiries) unsullied maidens at the time of their deaths.

Again despite remonstrances, the Princess-Marshal accepted the priest’s ruling and ordered her entourage to remain encamped for the next few days, until the favourable moon should rise. During the intervening period she employed her time becoming better acquainted with Lady Yun, riding out on hunting parties with her and her Yaowang Valley escort into the local countryside.

On the appointed day, dawn broke red and stormy and those setting up the altar and preparing the prescribed offerings muttered uneasily about adverse omens. Still, the skies cleared by nightfall. The Princess-Marshal had her chair set up on the edge of the glade and wore a heavy, bead-fringed cloak with a sable collar. All her attendant staff disposed themselves around her.

With heart-breaking slowness, a fragile sliver of moon rose above the trees. From somewhere within the wood came the strains of a guqin, played by an expert hand. The Princess-Marshal rose from her seat, walked to the altar, lit the candles and dropped to her knees.

The priest handed her a cup of wine and she poured it formally before the altar.

“Fan Qing Yue! Your parents entrusted you and your sister to our Mu Manor and we did not give you the care they deserved and expected us to give you Please, accept these offerings and let your grudges be eased.”

“Let your grudges be eased,” everyone present repeated, though Wu Chengfu detected a level of resentment, particularly among the senior servants of the Manor.

The Princess-Marshal raised the second cup the priest handed her to her lips in a toast, drained it, and repeated, “Let your grudges be eased.”

The priest handed her a third cup, which she again poured formally out before the altar.

“Fan Tianjian! Your parents —”

Before she could continue, someone screamed; a high, loud note that went on and on.

In one swirling movement she rose from her knees, turned and dropped into a fighting stance.

“Who dares—-?”

The maniciple, his extended hand trembling, gestured towards the far side of the glade. “Madam! Look!”

In the faint moonlight, a white-robed, barefoot figure was carefully negotiating her way across the uneven ground towards the group around the altar. There was a great red stain across the front of her garment: not the rust of dried blood but the bright vermilion of a still-open wound.

Everyone except the Princess-Marshal froze in their places. She walked forward to meet the approaching figure, holding out her arms.

“What do you want from us?” she asked. Without acknowledging her in any way, the apparition walked past her, over towards the group of the senior Manor servants, who backed in terror as she advanced.

The apparition came to a halt before them and said, in a voice more puzzled than accusing, but almost more heartbreaking for that, “Uncle Liu. I did everything you asked me. When is jie-jie coming back?”

Peng Mingjun, who had sat through the this narrative in an agony of tension, finally allowed himself to exhale.

“‘Uncle Liu’? Liu Guangzhu, the chief steward of Mu Manor?”

Wu Chengfu nooded. “Him, himself. He tried to put up a defence, so he did, but seeing Fan Tianjian come back to life and accuse him, well, it’d taken the stomach right out of him, so it had. And then, what happens next but Su Xuan himself steps out of the woods, dragging a couple of prisoners behind him, and yelling at him not even to think he could lie his way out of it.”

Peng Mingjun’s gasp was all his friend could have desired.

“But where did Su Xuan come into it?”

“Madam might know the details. All the likes of us could find out was that Yaowang Valley got a messenger pigeon. That must have been —” Wu Chengfu did a rapid calculation on his fingers. “About two days before our party left Yunnan. We finally managed to get away on the twelfth day after you’d left us, that being a good week later than Madam wanted, and didn’t she let us know it? Not that it was our fault, it was army matters, so it was.”

Peng Mingjun had no attention to spare for his friend’s grievance. “But what did the pigeon’s message say?”

Notwithstanding the earlier assurance, Wu Chengfu cast another quick glance around and dropped his voice impressively.

“Only that there was a traitor embedded deep in Mu Manor and Fan Tianjian could most likely identify him. So Su Xuan went hotfoot to Yunnan, leaving his wife with instructions to intercept Madam’s party and keep them from moving off to Jinling until he got back with the girl. And the heavens must have blessed him, because he got there just as the bastards Liu Guangzhu had primed to clear up his mess were putting their plan into action; caught them red-handed, so he did, and beat the story out of them, so much as they knew of it, anyway.”

Peng Mingjun gaped. “But who sent the pigeon?”

Wu Chengfu favoured him with a pitying look. “Given how fast Su Xuan and Yaowang Valley jumped when they got it, could it be anyone other than this Chief Mei?”

Hearing his friend utter the suggestion with such confidence took Peng Mingjun’s mind towards paths he was — at least for the moment — too terrified to tread. He opted, instead, to refill their cups (Wu Chengfu accepted his with a palpable air of ‘Not before time”.)

“But what motive can he have had? Hadn’t Liu Guangzhu been in Mu Manor for decades?”

“Since he was a boy,” Wu Chengfu agreed. “Came there with his mother over thirty-five years ago. From what I heard, they’d lost their home and family in some war or another. His mother started in the pantries and ended up right-hand woman to the old Madam. I daresay the mother pulled her son up by her tail-feathers. She saw him in post as the assistant-deputy steward by the time she died, and he only went on up from there. And never a word said against either of them, not until this business.”

“So — someone put him up to it?” Peng Mingjun suggested, hesistantly. “Any idea who?”

Wu Chengfu shook his head. “Not that I heard, at any rate. Not Da Chu, anyway; Madam seemed certain of that. But Yaowang Valley took charge of him. They have their own ways of ferretting things out in the jianghu and it’s best for Madam not to bring scandal with her into Jinling. Oh, and on that, there’s one other thing —”

His tone sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. Peng Mingjun looked up.

“What?”

“All of us were shocked, of course, but Hao Boya had it the worst, so he did. Next day, he couldn’t get out of bed; he was shaking and shivering and complaining of pains in his hands and feet, like little insects biting him all over. So Madam asks Lady Yun if she would come and examine him, and maybe she mentioned about his having got muddled and forgetful recently. And Lady Yun takes his pulse, and comes out and speaks to Madam and next thing Madam’s ordered his tent searched and samples of everthing he’s eaten or used as tonics or on his skin to be handed over to Yaowang Valley for testing. And the silver needle goes black on some cream he’d been using for rheumatic pain, and doesn’t it turn out to have been laced with cinnabar? Heavens knows how long that’s been going on!”

Peng Mingjun went cold all over.

“But you —”

Wu Chengfu nodded, gravely. “I’d been in and out of Hao Boya’s office every day since I arrived in Mu Manor, so I had, and the same on the journey, too. But if we hadn’t been delayed on the road, he would have only become incapable once we got to Jinling. And then — well, who’d have sitting there with the biggest motive and the shortest time in post, eh? Liu Guangzhu would have had me tied up with bamboo-leaf strips all ready for the hot-pot, so he would.”

“What will happen to him now?”

“Lady Yun’s family are keeping him with them for treatment, and he’s to retire back to Yunnan as soon as he’s well enough.”

It seemed rather indelicate to broach the matter, but with the two senior officials of Mu Manor removed at a stroke, there seemed only one logical conclusion.

“So, where does all this leave you?”

Wu Chengfu tried, unsuccessfully, to look modest. “I’m not sure what kind of a fist I’ll make of it, but for my sins I’m now head manciple of Mu Manor. Su Xuan offered to lend me a couple of good lads to help me find and root out any of Liu Guangzhou’s creatures who might still be in post and with their help I’ll soon have the place bound up tighter than an iron barrel.”

That was all very satisfactory. However there was one other loose end Peng Mingjun was anxious to tie off. He poked Wu Chengfu, who seemed to have sunk into contemplation of how he would carry out his investigation for subversive elements and saboteurs within the household of the Princess-Marshal of Yunnan.

“And the little poultry maid?”

His friend’s expression brightened immeasurably. “Madam and Lady Yun thought it was best that she didn’t linger around Mu Manor, where there might be so many unhappy memories.”

Or swhere he might blab too much in the hearing of the wrong people hung, unspoken, in the air between them.

“And it turns out Su Xuan knows of a widow in Langzou whose daughter went missing a few years ago — old, old story, elopes with a man to Jinling and then nothing heard of her or the man again — and whose son went up to the capital in the hopes of finding what became of his sister, leaving his mother on her own. She owns a market garden, so it’s the kind of work Fan Tianjian knows, and she’ll be company for the widow. So she’s on her way there now — or, no, I daresay she’ll have arrived.”

All things considered, it seemed worth unsealing a another flask of Fifteen Dragons. And if, amid the flurry of toasts given and received, Peng Mingjun raised a private cup in honour of one final, unacknowleged ghost, the one who had stretched invisible hands across a thousand li of wilderness to snatch Fan Tianjian from death in the very nick of time — well, a man’s thoughts are his own, are they not?