Once upon a stupid time, I liked fairy tales.
Ai-ya, what's not to like? The poor kid from nowhere wins the jackpot, while the tilt-nosed snobs get turned into gargoyles. Or worse. But you know what? All those stories stop right there. They never mention what comes later. How your gang changes. How your best friend doesn't end up as your one true love. And they never tell you how your heart's desire might be a dangerous thing.
Or, in my case, just so damn boring.
I scanned the front office of my mother's tutoring shop. The room was tiny and hot. Shelves climbed all over the walls, crammed with boxes, books, scrolls, and jars, and the scent of herbs and paper dust lingered in the air. On the top shelf, a dead, stuffed griffin (miniature) curled around a glass vial that glowed faintly silver in the afternoon sunlight.
Mā mī had left me with clear instructions—review all the homework from yesterday's beginner arithmetic class, mark any corrections, and leave the papers in her basket. I scowled at the stacks of scribbled sheets. The oldest shop cat had built her nest atop them. Hsin was ancient, her spine and haunches almost bald, and her teeth mere nubs, but she glared back at me with yellow eyes, as if daring me to disturb her.
Right. Like I want to.
With a sigh, I slapped the toggle switch on the wall. Magic flux buzzed uncertainly into life. The ceiling fan creaked into a slow circle, stirring the hot air like a spoon; our ancient radio sputtered in time with the magic flux. I fetched brushes and bottles of ink from a closet, then shooed away a grumbling Hsin and settled onto the stool behind the counter. From here I could watch for customers while I marked papers. Double duty, as Mā mī said.
I picked up the first sheet. It smelled strongly of cat piss.
This. I scowled at the papers. This is not what I wanted for my life.
Once upon a time, I'd been Kai, Prince of the Streets. I liked to brag about fancy dagger strikes, ghost dragons, and where to get the best meat pies in Lóng City. I'd had a gang of kids at my command. I'd had Yún as my best friend and second-in-command.
Then the king of Lóng City declared a contest for his daughter's hand. The winner had to fulfill three impossible wishes. If he did, he got fifty thousand yuan, plus the hand of Princess Lian. Not just any man, of course. You had to be a prince. Luckily, Yún figured out how to get past the prince part, and I convinced the princess I'd already done two impossible things, just by getting admitted into the palace. Just as luckily, Princess Lian didn't want a real suitor. Her heart's desire was a year or two at the famous university in the Phoenix Empire, where she could study government and politics and all those ruler-type things. That was the third and hardest wish of all. In the end, we—my gang and me—got our money and Lian got her heart's desire.
And she called us her truest friends.
All that seemed like a different story, with different people.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and squinted at the homework sheet. As bad as I thought—full of stupid mistakes, just like last week's batch and the week before. My mother ran a tutoring shop in conjuration and mathematics. Her best students got private sessions, but a couple dozen more attended classes where she drilled them in spells and numbers. Basic stuff. Now that I was her apprentice—another so-called reward from that quest—she gave me all the scut work. Thinking of all the other same-old same-old mistakes I would find, I spat on the floor, which crackled with a special cleaning spell.
If only I had stashed the king's reward in secret. But I hadn't. And I had believed Yún's wonderful description of our lives together as apprentices. We would learn magic. We would save our reward for later. And maybe, just maybe, we'd be more than friends. Okay, she didn't exactly say that, but I remembered the grin on her face as she dared me to follow her into this splendiferous new life. Except now Yún no longer had any time for anyone. And today I was stuck inside this shop.
I slid my talk-phone from my pocket. If I could buzz up Jing-mei or Gan, or even that toad Danzu, we could make a run through the Pots-and-Kettle Bazaar, stir up a little trouble. Same old, same old. After that, we could talk about the new, old days. There would be plenty of time later to grade these papers.
Before my fingers could tap out a single number a strong piggy odor floated past my nose.
You promised Mā mī to grade those worksheets before dinner, Chen grunted.
Of course Chen knew what I was thinking. He was my spirit companion. Chen had arrived when I was six years old—two years past the usual age—but that was the first and only time he was ever late. Back in those days, he'd helped me play pranks all over Lóng City. Lately, though, he acted more like a nanny than a friend.
I didn't promise, I said silently to him. She ordered me to.
Does that make any difference?
But I could almost hear Mā mī's soft voice saying, "Kai-my-son, if you wish to continue as my apprentice, you must show more responsibility. The shop cannot run itself, nor can you learn your lessons by sleeping through them."
I shoved the phone back in my pocket and set about dividing the papers by name and grade. Stupid students. Stupid shop. Most days, I didn't mind the work. But most days, I wasn't stuck in the shop alone, sweating and cranky and bored. Today, Mā mī had dismissed her regular classes so she could shop for fresh magical supplies, while Yún was busy on some secret errand of her own. Again.
At the thought of Yún running around the sunny streets of Lóng City, my frustration bubbled over and I jammed my brush into the bottle. Ink squirted out, spattering the work-sheets. Damn. I fetched a rag to wipe up the mess. That's when I managed to knock the bottle over, sending a river of ink over the desk and stool and floor.
A still-invisible Chen made squealing laughing noises. Cursed pig-spirit. I flung my brush at the sound of his voice. Will you show yourself?
The brush clattered off the wall. (More ink, damn it.) With a sputter and a pop, Chen materialized at full-size in the middle of the room. He was a dark brown pig, huge with bright black eyes and a double row of spines that zigzagged down his back, like daggers held ready. Today, he wore a pair of rimless spectacles, and an elegant calligraphy brush rested in the crook of his left front hoof. With his tusks and bristles, he was one fierce pig, but right now he looked pretty silly.
What are you doing? I demanded.
Double-checking your homework, Chen said. Qi suggested it. Did you know you're failing advanced calculus?
I know that. But why did Qi— Oh, never mind.
Qi was Yún's crane-spirit. She and Chen had become close friends, while Yún and I…
I threw down the rag and stomped on the ink-stained floor. Thinking about Yún had that effect on me.
You're just jealous of Shou-xin, said Chen.
Stop reading my mind! I stomped again.
I don't blame her, Chen went on, with a wicked grin. Not after you flirted with that teahouse girl.
Chen shrugged his massive shoulders and went back to squinting at my homework. I quashed the temptation to fling my chair at him. Chen would just vanish into the spirit plane, leaving me with a broken chair to explain to Mā mī. This time, she might really feed me to the watch-demons, the way she always threatened.
Still muttering, I picked through the ink-soaked papers on my desk. Ruined, all of them. Which meant no money from the students. And another lecture about responsibility.
Do you want help?
I swept all the sheets into a pile and started mopping up the ink. Stupid papers. Stupid work. Stupid me for thinking I could make a good apprentice. Yún could fiddle formulae and spells better than I ever could, and that was even before she signed up as an apprentice to my mother. No wonder she was always running off to visit that stupid Shou-xin. He was Mā mī's best paying student—talented, rich, and charming. Even Mā mī said he would end up the king's chief wizard someday.
Twenty minutes later, I wiped the sweat from my eyes. All that scrubbing and I couldn't tell a difference in those blasted ink stains. If anything, they looked blacker than before. Suspicious now, I sniffed. A faint metallic smell in the air made me think of magic, not ink and paper.
I retrieved the bottle from the counter.
EXTRA-DARK RUB-RESISTANT BLACK INK. Then in smaller characters, ENHANCED WITH MAGIC.
Some of the students cheat, Chen grunted. The ink won't let them change their answers later and pretend they deserved a better grade.
So I figured. I must have grabbed the bottle without checking the label first. Bad move in a conjuring shop.
By the way, have you looked in the mirror?
Then I noticed my hands. Ink all over them, of course. Extra-dark ink all over my palms, my sleeves, and underneath my fingernails. I rubbed my cheek with a clean rag. It came away smudged with black. When I blinked, my eyelids felt sticky, and not just from sweat.
Crap, crap, crap.
I hauled the bucket outside and emptied its contents into the courtyard, where Old Man Kang's chickens scolded me. The rags went into the special laundry tub. By the time I came back to the front office, Chen had discarded the spectacles and my homework. He was reading a paperback with a lurid cover, making absent-minded snuffling noises to himself.
I surveyed the remaining mess. Maybe I could pull the rug over a few inches to hide the stains. No good. Mā mī noticed everything. I'd have to bribe one of her advanced students to help me clean up the mess before she came back from shopping. But not Shou-xin. Someone else. Anyone else.
Something poked my elbow. I glanced down.
A thin brown scroll floated in midair. It looked like one of Mā mī's older scrolls, its edges dark and crinkled. A velvety blue ribbon tied in a complicated knot kept it from unfurling.
I glared at my pig-companion. Chen feigned to be absorbed in reading, but I wasn't fooled. He had probably conjured the thing from my mother's archives. We'd both be in trouble if she found out.
The scroll darted in to give me a quick poke in the stomach. I made a grab for it, but the cursed thing soared out of reach.
How can I read the scroll if it won't let me touch it?
Chen grunted and flipped a page over with his tusk.
With a sigh, I held out my hand. The scroll settled delicately onto my palm. When I touched the ribbon, it unwound itself and curled around my wrist. The scroll unfurled, showing a single densely written paragraph in the center.
And if a man or woman should wish to break a spell for un-washing such as the old wizards might put upon an enemy and his entire wardrobe, here are the words you must use…
It was a laundry spell, of sorts. Reading the old-style calligraphy, I wondered if some old priest or scribe had brushed those characters, all crisp and dark, like tiny black birds hopping across the rice paper. After thirteen months studying under Mā mī, I could detect glimmerings of power in the spell's deceptively simple phrases. Whoever created this scroll must have infused the characters with more magic as they brushed them, and the sequence of syllables (long and short, to be spoken with special stresses) hid the mathematical properties required to summon the magical flux. Simple and complex. Yin and yang. Chen had chosen well—a person didn't need to understand the math or the magic behind the spell to use it.
But it still required concentration.
So. Time to make all those tedious lessons in meditation pay off. The key was to eliminate distractions. Visualize the barriers to failure, then imagine them dissolving into nothing. I closed my eyes and concentrated on calming, magic-like thoughts. It was hard, especially with Chen's audible breathing, and the slither, slap each time he turned a page, but eventually, I managed to empty my brain of any thoughts except the here and now.
I opened my eyes and scanned the spell a second time.
Slowly and carefully I began to recite.
"Thunder and water, fire and wind, from east to west and north to south, we the unworthy call upon the sunbird and dragon to bring purity to these quarters…"
The air around me shimmered as the magic flux thickened. My skin itched and a strange sharp scent filled my nose. Distracted, I stumbled over a couple syllables, but soon found my rhythm again. Was that something burning? I was galloping toward the last paragraph, when suddenly a cloud of smoke and fire exploded in front of me. I yelped and fell over backward. My head smacked against the wall, and my vision went dark. I couldn't see anything but white and red sparks jiggling in front of my eyes. There was a buzzing noise inside my skull that made me think of mosquitoes. Someone talking?
That someone seized my elbow and dragged me to my feet. "You mispronounced the third and thirty-second phrases."
I blinked. My vision cleared.
Mā mī. Oh, no.
My mother, tiny, whisper-thin Mā mī, who reminded me of a ghost dragon, the way she studied me so coolly. My mouth turned dry as she continued to gaze at me, her expression unreadable, while all around the magic flux sparkled and fizzed.
Right when I thought I might faint, Mā mī recited something in a peculiar language that sounded like a kettle hissing. The radio sputtered into silence, and a metallic smell permeated the room. I still didn't dare to move. My mother's gaze flicked over my ruined clothes, the mess of worksheets, the splotches of ink over walls and floor and bookshelves. Silently, she plucked the scroll from my hands. It obediently curled into a tight coil, and the ribbon slithered back into place, tying itself into a knot.
Mā mī uttered another incomprehensible phrase. Electric fire rippled through the air. With a loud pêng, all the ink disappeared. My mother held out her hand. The (dead, stuffed) griffin shook itself into life and skittered down the shelves to perch on her wrist. My mother scratched it behind its feathered ears, and its flat stone eyes narrowed to slits in contentment.
Only dead things felt safe around my mother, I thought.
She still hadn't said anything. I coughed to clear my throat. "I'm sorry for the mess, Mā mī. I'll finish the worksheets before dinner."
Mā mī nodded. She gave the griffin an absentminded kiss on its beak and set it upon the closest shelf. It shook out its feathers (plus a quantity of dust) and clambered back up to the top, where it curled once around and went still.
I expected my mother to shout. Or deliver one of those scary lectures about how her worthless street-rat son was bound to a misty hell. She did neither, and that made me nervous.
"Yún should come back soon," I said hesitantly. Mentioning Yún often made her smile.
Mā mī just nodded again and set her basket into its usual cubbyhole behind the counter. (Chen had wisely disappeared, leaving behind just a faint piggy odor.) Still not talking, she headed through the curtained doorway, into the shop's back rooms. A minute later, I heard the faint ting of metal from the kitchen, then water gurgling.
The curtains drifted slowly in the invisible breeze of her passage. I stared at them for a long moment, not really taking in what was going on. Deep inside my skull, an itch told me Chen had not completely left, but even he was too scared, or too surprised, to do more.
Not sure what to expect, I checked Mā mī's shopping basket. Except for a bottle of fish sauce and three packets of chewing tobacco, it was empty.
What do you think happened? I said.
You better ask her, Chen replied.
So much for my brave pig-companion.
I pushed the curtains aside. They swirled around me, ruffling against the back of my head, and enveloping me in soft shadows. I was in the main storeroom for our shop, where we kept all our supplies for classroom exercises, my mother's experiments, and the potions we sometimes brewed up for special customers. The air smelled strange and familiar, a mixture of strong herbs and black pepper, of soap from the morning mopping, of powdered metals and other rare ingredients. Hsin and several other cats napped here, keeping an erratic watch for mice. Ahead, another set of curtains marked the doorway into the kitchen, while a pair of winding stairs led to our upper floors.
I drew a deep, unsatisfying breath and headed into the kitchen.
Mā mī sat at the pockmarked old wooden table. She held a measuring spoon filled with tea leaves in one hand, in mid-movement from transferring the leaves from the canister into her favorite blue teapot. The kettle sat on its grating over the coal fire; puffs of steam added to the miserable heat, but Mā mī didn't seem to notice. She had a distracted expression on her face, as though she studied something very far away.
"Market closed?" I asked.
Mā mī nodded. "Everything closed early today."
I waited for my mother to explain, but she didn't.
"A holiday?" I said, helpfully. Royal visitors from kingdoms all throughout the mountains had crowded into Lóng City this past month—something about trade negotiations—and the king had scheduled numerous banquets and festivals to entertain them. The shops often closed early for the big celebrations.
But Mā mī was shaking her head. "The king…" She stopped and rubbed a hand over her eyes, a gesture I had not seen since my father died years ago.
I was a child, almost a baby. How could I remember?
You did, you do, Chen said softly, though no one could hear us. Children always remember.
Even so, it had been ten years…
My mother went on. "The king fell ill this morning. They believe he will not live beyond a week. They've sent for Princess Lian."
So many replies clattered through my brain. The king. Lian. My friend. She must be worried. Or scared. Those were not subjects I could discuss with my mother. Finally, I asked, "How?"
Mā mī set the spoon down on the table and frowned in its direction. I had the feeling she wasn't seeing the spoon or the table any more than she saw me right now. She said, "If you listen to the bazaar rumors, he fell by attack from angry spirits unleashed by this wretched heat. Most likely it was simply from age and overeating. He is an old man, you know. And he misses his daughter."
I knew that. I also knew it was my fault that Lian was far away in Phoenix City. And now her father is dying.
"I am thinking I should suspend classes," was my mother's next unsettling announcement.
"Close the shop?" My voice squeaked up.
She gave me a sharp look, almost like usual. "Not entirely. You and Yún shall have your lessons. But the tutoring can wait. A week or two, not more. Things should be decided by then."
Things? Like the king dying?
The teakettle rattled. Mā mī pushed herself to standing—stiffly—and fetched it from its hook. "You need not finish the worksheets," she said quietly, as she poured the boiling water over the leaves. "Go. Find your friends. Just come back by nightfall."
I stared at her, not believing what I heard or saw. Mā mī telling me to goof off? Mā mī acting quiet and bothered by what went on in that "golden egg crate they call a palace"? I waited another minute, but she never glanced in my direction. She rifled through the cabinet and extracted a honey pot, which she set beside her cup. My mother never took honey, not that I remembered. She liked her tea strong and bitter. Like her.
Unnerved by all the strangeness, I backed through the curtains into the dimly lit corridor, where Chen waited. He'd taken a smaller form, the size of a formidable cat. His bristles stood out in worry.
I'm going out, I whispered.
He tilted his head.
She told me to, I added.
Chen made a soft, pig-whistle noise. Do you want company?
I… I don't know yet.
He nodded. I will listen for you, then.
I turned the shop sign to closed and headed down to the Golden Market. It was the oddest walk I'd ever taken through Lóng City. Sure, there were festivals where the shops closed early, but that usually meant people thronged the streets, laughing and dancing and buying grilled kebabs or bowls of rice and curry from street vendors. And in the main squares, the public radio speakers always played loud old-time music, while jugglers tossed batons and acrobats flipped around in heart-stopping handsprings.
Today, the streets were quiet and empty. In the bazaar itself, the noodle shops had closed their shutters, and their brightly colored awnings were rolled away. One scrawny mutt lounged in the shade, panting. An old man swept the steps in front of his house. He stared at me as I passed by. Two or three kids wandered around, with confused expressions. Probably their parents had told them to go play, too.
I took a roundabout path to the nearest wind-and-magic lift. Iron shutters blocked the counter. Chains hung across the entryway, and a hand-brushed sign informed me the lifts weren't running. A big placard with an arrow pointed at the stone stairs nearby.
Seven hundred years ago, Lóng Wei, our first king, had ordered staircases built all over the city as part of its defense. He wanted to make sure his soldiers could always reach every corner and terrace of Lóng City, even if the wind-and-magic lifts stopped working. Whenever a king or queen expanded the city, they added another flight, or reinforced the existing ones. It was a fine accomplishment—one I could appreciate better when I wasn't trudging up those same stairs in the lingering heat of a late summer's day.
There were six flights between me and the top of the city. Guard posts marked every landing, and every intersection with a major boulevard. Some of those guards stared at me as I passed, their electronic eyes whirring as they recorded my image. I stared back, scowling.
I reached the topmost terrace, then bent over, wheezing. Behind me stood the city's outermost wall. More architecture. Above that the mountain shot up another li to a snowrimmed peak.
Once I regained my breath, I scrambled up the wall, using chinks and knobs as handholds, until I reached a narrow ledge. There, I settled onto my perch and braced my feet in two handy niches below. A nest of ants, disturbed by my arrival, swarmed away in all directions. The air smelled of dirt and pine and a rank scent that spoke of mice and beetles and magical creatures.
Lóng City spread over the mountainside in steps and tumbles and folds. From here I could see the Golden Market, the Pots-and-Kettles Bazaar, the warehouse district where my old gang liked to meet, and off to one side, its fat towers shining bright and yellow in the late afternoon sun, the king's palace.
I slid out my phone and stared at it unhappily. How many weeks had it been since I talked with my friends? More than I wanted to admit. Gan worked in his uncle's stables and attended a special academy for the king's guards. Jing-mei spent her days flirting or buying expensive clothes and trendy gadgets. Fun, but she and Gan argued all the time, him saying she wasted her money, her saying he'd turned into a big, ugly stick. And Danzu had started up his own gang, but there were strange rumors about what that gang was up to.
What about Lian?
My fingers hovered over the keys. The talk-phone was the princess's gift to me after our adventure, and she had coded it with her personal number. She didn't give that number to many. Me, Yún, a handful of others. Ordinary talk-phones needed a land connection, which you could find in any tea or noodle shop; mine was different. Special connectors drew the magic flux into a knot at the talk-phone's receptor port. More wires and resistors translated the flux into a braided current, strong enough to carry voices to the nearest transmitter tower.
But if Gan were busy, Lian would be ten times busier, arranging for her long journey home. In spite of the baking sun, I shivered. Autumn rains would make travel difficult through the mountains. An early snowstorm would make it dangerous, if not impossible. The Guild Council had to be nervous to send for Lian now.
As I tucked the talk-phone into its pouch, I noticed a dark smudge on my wrist. Ink. And just underneath my sleeve, where I might not notice it right away. A quick survey of my clothes showed presentable trousers above my knees, spatters of ink below. When I wiped at my forehead, my hand came away stained. No wonder those guards had stared.
I muttered some bad words. Can you help me? I asked Chen.
But either Chen couldn't, or he had stopped listening, because I heard no answer.
Or maybe he thinks he already has helped me.
Inside everyone, the scholars said, there existed a quiet place, where everything was possible. The old wizards, the magic workers who first climbed the mountains to commune with gods, must have known about it. They were able to work miracles. All I wanted was to clean my face and hands. With a whispered apology to those old and holy priests, I closed my eyes and recited the spell from Chen's scroll.
"…from east to west and north to south, we the unworthy call upon the sunbird and dragon to bring purity to these quarters…"
I recited the spell, taking care over the stresses and the pronunciation. As I spoke the last word, the air went taut for one long, silent moment. Then…
Magic snapped and crackled over my skin, which felt raw, as though a fire burned too close. The air rippled bright and tense, like the moment before lightning strikes. I drew a breath, tasted the strong scent of incense on the back of my tongue. Only when the smell faded away did I open my eyes.
With a leaping pulse, I saw the ink had vanished. My skin and my clothes were clean and soft, shining with a residual brightness, which even now was trickling away.
So. I have worked my first spell by myself.
I felt strange. Like something had dissected me, plucked my feelings outside the shell of my body. For a time, I could think of nothing except this peculiar sensation. Then my thoughts wandered back to Lian and her father the king, and from there to my own father, dead these past ten years. When my thoughts returned to the now and here, I noticed the sun was dipping toward the horizon. Soon it would be twilight, and the watch-demons would swarm from their lairs to patrol the streets.
I clambered down from my perch and loped homeward.
Mā mī had locked herself in her private workroom. In the kitchen, I found soup, rice, and tea warming over the grate.
Yún had left a note for Mā mī propped upon the counter. She had come and gone, apparently, while I was out.
Chen's gruff whisper sounded inside my skull.
Not now, I answered.
I dumped the soup and rice outside for Old Man Kang's chickens, then stacked the dishes in our sink and went to bed.