From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Gold Silkworm

When I first became keeper of the Spirit of Grass, she and I made a pact to never turn away one in need, whether they be rich or poor. Madame Ke was one of the rich.

She had heard of my skills in medicine from her sister, and asked if I would come to the Garden of Timely Rains. I accepted the invitation and arrived in the early afternoon, when the high sun gave glow to the garden pond and terraces. A servant escorted me to the Pavilion for Tasting Autumn Pears where a woman in her thirties awaited me.

Madame Ke, radiant in a dress printed with gold hibiscuses, bade me to join her at the tea table. Though eager to consult a woman doctor, she asked first for proof that I wasn’t a wandering healer. “Are you from the famed medical families of Feng, Mao, or Wu? What training did you have? Can you recite classical poetry to prove your education?”

I understood her caution, but knew I couldn’t answer to her satisfaction if I kept to the truth. What healing skills I had came by way of Cao Shen, the Spirit of Grass. Madame Ke might think me a charlatan for that, but medicine was medicine: it should matter not that I consulted a spirit like the wu sorcerer-physicians of old.

Thus, in small things I lied. In matters of lore and etiquette, I repeated what Cao Shen said in my mind. We might have bent the truth, the spirit and I, but what harm was there if we meant only to help?

Our answers satisfied Madame Ke. She confided she had miscarried years ago, but by the grace of Guan Yin was again with child. Her voice rose an octave higher. “Have you any medicine to protect against another heartbreak, Doctor Yan?”

Do we, Cao Shen? I asked with my mind’s voice.

A medicinal tea might help, she replied. May I take hold, Yan Xue?

I allowed it.

As Cao possessed me, I became a seed of consciousness lodged behind my eyes, sensing but without control. Phantom vines burgeoned inside me, their tendrils curling along every bone and tickling my skin from within. Near and distant fragrances of flora in the garden grew distinct: bamboo, persimmon, water-lily, peony, and many others. Before I became Cao’s keeper, I could not name more than a few; now, I knew every plant by scent.

Cao ran our right hand over our left sleeve, smoothing the silk gauze above the tattooed words that bound us together. She always did when she took hold. “Be at ease, Madame Ke. I know the exact brew for it.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” Madame Ke’s voice returned to its normal pitch.

Cao smiled and raised a teacup with our left hand, whereas I would have favoured my right. She savoured it. “Dragonwell tea from Lin’an, picked from the first spring shoots?”

Madame Ke smiled. “You know your tea.”

“I know my leaves.”

“My husband’s a high-ranking scholar-official in the capital, and often brings back such delights from Lin’an.” She glanced out the pavilion window. “There’s my sweet fool now. What’s he doing?”

Upon a crooked bridge on the far side of the garden pond, a stout middle-aged man clutched at his belly and stumbled against a stone balustrade. He cried out in pain.

Madame Ke gasped and began to stand, but Cao touched her arm. “Rest, Madame, keep calm for the good of the child. I will go to him.”

Our hostess sank back down but kept watch with great concern. “Please help him, Doctor.”

The-spirit-and-I left the pavilion at a pace that vexed me and followed the path skirting the margin of the water. Had I been in control, we would have reached the ailing man by now.

Cao, let me take hold. Hurry, lest he fall into the water!

Patience, Yan Xue. Your haste nearly killed you once. Besides, you will only upset Madame Ke further if I let you flaunt your martial skills.

I hated when she was right. When I traveled the greenwood amongst the outlaws, they called me the Woman of Smoke and Snow; because of my fleetness and footwork, no man could lay a hand on me. I took smoke-snow as my Jianghu name and came to believe my own legend, until I rushed into a trap this winter past. If Cao hadn’t found me bleeding in the snow and kept me from death. . .

Master Ke had regained his composure by the time we reached him on the stone bridge. However, his abdomen appeared swollen, his breathing laboured.

“I’m Doctor Yan, your wife’s new physician,” Cao said in my voice. “Tell me what hurts, Master Ke.”

He managed a weak smile. “Feels like something I ate is still alive. But it always fades.”

“Please, let me examine you, or you’ll never hear the end of it from your wife,” Cao Shen said.

He sighed and consented.

Cao took his pulse. Quite weak, she mind-whispered.

I thought I heard a resounding chirping near the far end of the bridge, but could not turn our head against Cao’s will to see what it was.

Ke had a sudden coughing fit, covering his mouth with his sleeve.

I caught a trace of red on the brown fabric where he had wiped away his saliva.

Blood, I alerted Cao.

“Is this the first you’ve felt these pains?” she asked.

“No. I first felt similar symptoms after the Double Seven Festival, but they were slight,” he replied. “They always pass.”

As he spoke, I caught the glint of gold wiggling inside his mouth. What is it? I asked Cao.

She tensed. Catch it!

Cao suddenly relinquished control, drawing back the ghost-tendrils that played my body like a puppet. My head swam with nausea and my eyes watered, but my hand stayed quick. I darted my index and middle fingers into Ke’s agape mouth and plucked out the caterpillar-like creature.

A jincan! Cao said. Kill it!

Gold silkworm? It did resemble that. Judging by the horn on its back and its length—the width of my palm—it was in its third or fourth moult.

Startled, Ke backed away.

I tried to pinch the life out of the jincan as commanded, but it proved hardier than I had expected. It oozed slime that burnt my fingertips, turned invisible to the eye and squirmed out of my grasp. I guessed at how it fell and snatched for it, but missed.

“Where is it?” I cried.

Ke suddenly flinched and clawed at his left nostril. “It’s back! Help!”

“Stop, or you’ll make it worse.” I pulled his hand away, but saw only blood seeping from his nose. “Don’t move.”

He froze.

What unearthly thing is a gold silkworm, Cao?

You may know it as gu, she replied.

The legendary venom-magic? I had heard of it in the Jianghu, where outlaws spoke fearfully of gu-sorcerers from the south.

A poison spirit. A sorcerer creates the jincan by sealing a host of venomous creatures inside a jar, leaving it in darkness for a year. The deadliest among them will have consumed the others before dying itself. Its spirit then spreads sickness and death, stealing the wealth of the victims for its master.

“There must be a way to fight it,” I said with confidence, in part to assure Master Ke.

I have heard of a few remedies. The taking of centipedes. The flesh of a nine-tailed fox. Ranghe ginger. I can improvise the last, if I may take hold again.

“Can I move now?” Ke whispered.

From the pavilion across the pond came Madame Ke’s shrill voice. “Husband!”

“We should go to her,” I said. We walked to the foot of the bridge where I knelt to wash my fingertips in the pond. A small gourd fitted with a handcrafted lid lay on the path, the kind for keeping crickets in. I retrieved it and showed it to Master Ke. “Yours?”

Face reddening and fear forgotten, he took it from me and slipped the cricket gourd into his sleeve. “My champion. Thank you.”

I let Cao resume control, welcoming her soothing presence. We smoothed our sleeve and knelt to pluck a blade of grass. Holding it between our fingers, Cao invoked her magic. Though its appearance hadn’t changed, I could tell by its scent that it had acquired the properties of young ranghe ginger shoot. “Swallow this,” she instructed Ke.

He did as she asked, and walked with us back to the pavilion.

As Madame Ke fussed over her husband, I consulted with Cao. Did the ranghe kill the gold silkworm?

No, this particular gu is strong. All the herb did was give him more time. The spirit will gorge on Ke’s five viscera until he is dead, unless we destroy it.

More ranghe, perhaps?

I’ve already given him the maximum dose in that single blade of grass. He may take no more for three days, if he lives that long. Cao sighed. There are other medicines we can try.

I disagreed. Like the flesh of the nine-tailed fox? Good luck finding one. If I had been poisoned in the Jianghu, I wouldn’t wander in search of a phantom cure. I’d seek out the foe who poisoned me, for surely he’d carry his own antidote.

Seek out the sorcerer? How?

We follow the gold. If you say the jincan is meant to procure wealth, its sorcerer-master may not be far. I think I know where, but I must question Master Ke.

Cao was reluctant. I can try other efficacious herbs.

You’re wiser in the healing ways, but I know men and their greed. I could not regain control unless Cao willed it. It was times like these that I felt less like a wu-shaman in control of the Spirit of Grass, and more like a jitong medium at the spirit’s mercy.

When Cao saved my life, her keeper then had been Old Mistress Qian, a spirit-medium nearing the end of her long life. “Few are the spirits under heaven, and rarer still a ghost who heals,” Qian had told me. “The people need her, but I no longer have the strength to serve as her vessel. She’ll help you save lives, but asks that you kill no more with your sword. Will you take on my burden?”

I turned her down but stayed with them for a month to watch them ply their art. Slowly, I came to trust them. When Qian asked me again, I agreed at last. I let her tattoo the magical words líng dān miào yào onto my left arm: “soul pill, mysterious medicine,” the same phrase she bore on her skin.

“The Spirit of Grass resides here.” Qian traced the strokes that symbolized “grass” in the final word. “Speak the phrase and become her keeper.” I did, and thus began our strange alliance: a swordswoman without a sword and a healer’s ghost.

Cao reluctantly withdrew her ghost-vines and let me take hold again. I shook my head clear and rejoined the married couple. “Master Ke, you’re a cricket-fighting enthusiast, are you not?”

“I-I s-suppose,” he stammered, an apologetic look clouding his face.

Madame Ke’s mien hardened. “Enthusiast?” She smacked the back of her husband’s head. He cringed. “Addict, more like. You promised me you’d give up gambling!”

“I tried, my little flower, but I found a champion cricket this year. A white, pearl-headed general who’s hardly ever lost!”

“Master Ke, the gold silkworm that plagues you is the work of a sorcerer after your wealth.”

“Sorcerer!” He paled and pulled his wife close.

“Your symptoms began after the Double Seven Festival, when cricket-fighting started? It may be that the sorcerer found you through your love of that sport. Were you on your way to a match just now?”

“A high-stakes tournament,” he said, dodging his wife’s next blow with a timely cringe.

That meant much money changing hands. The sorcerer’s greed might draw him there. “Where?”

“Water Deer Garden, but it’s invitation only. They’ll never let you in.” His tone told me that it was also because I was a woman.

“Then come with me.”

Yan Xue, would it not be simpler to scale the walls and slip in? Cao Shen asked, letting me glimpse her anxiety. Ke should rest here. We cannot risk worsening his condition.

He knows the gamblers. We need that advantage. I showed her a gleam of confidence. You care deeply for your patients, and I respect that. But we are hunting a poisoner. Trust that I know how to fight such evils.

“Rely on me, Doctor Yan.” Master Ke struggled to his feet despite his wife’s protests. “‘When it’s time to sing, he’ll sing. That’s trustworthiness.’ They say that’s the first of Five Virtues of crickets and men.” He held Madame Ke’s hands and met her eyes. “I will return, my love.”

Madame Ke squeezed his fingers. “You better, you white-eyed fool.”

#

A city of canals and bridges amidst natural beauty, Pingjiang had almost been destroyed thirty years ago when the Jin armies invaded from the North. However, as the Emperor chose the nearby city of Lin’an to be the new capital, it did not take long for the rich to flock to the city with their money and rebuild.

It was the perfect place for a gu-sorcerer to seek riches.

“How did you come by your wealth, Master Ke?” I asked on our way to Water Deer Garden, north of the government enclosure.

“I hold a position of high-rank in the Ministry of Personnel, but mostly it’s inheritance from my father. The land where I built the Garden of Timely Rains had been his before the Jin armies came,” he explained. “How do I get you in?”

“Let them believe I’m your mistress, if it helps,” I replied. “It matters only that I am invited in.”

He blushed.

Cao Shen had been quiet in my mind ever since we left Timely Snows.

What’s the matter? I asked.

What will we do when we find the gu-sorcerer?

Tell him to lift the curse on Ke or pay with his life.

I thought you wanted to leave violence behind.

No child should grow up without a father as I did. Sometimes, only the sword may answer evil. Not that I carried one now; its absence still felt odd. Cao Shen disapproved of my past as a swordswoman, the way I would force confrontations and rush headlong into danger. But that was how I survived the Jianghu. I found her wise in the art of healing but naïve in the ways of the world. In life she’d been the sole heir to medical techniques learned from her grandmother, but that had been a sheltered life.

You yearn for the sword because you still dream of revenge against the brother archers, Cao said. But you must let that hatred go.

She could say those words and I could try, but she dreamt the nightmares same as I and knew I could not yet forgive.

I sighed. Let us first unmask the sorcerer before we speak further of what must be done.

Agreed.

“Is this your first year among the cricket-fighters of Pingjiang?” I asked Master Ke.

“It is. We moved here two years ago from Lin’an. I stopped gambling for some time, but during the Double Seven Festival, I found my pearl-headed general in the cricket market. I knew he’d win me a great many matches.” He sighed and looked at the gourd in his hand. “My will is weak.”

“The sorcerer likely gave you the gold silkworm at the Double Seven Festival,” I reasoned. “Who did you meet at that time?”

“More than I can count.”

We had to narrow down the suspects. How does a gu-sorcerer gain his wealth through the gold silkworm? I asked Cao Shen.

Marry Ke’s widow? she suggested.

Poison’s no way to win a woman’s heart, I argued.

I wonder. Some stories say witches of the south use gu to make a love potion, and that it only transmutes into poison after the philtre sours.

Even so, it didn’t feel right to me. What if it came down to this tournament? “Master Ke, how confident are you that you will win today?”

“Very.”

We crossed a canal by way of a bridge of stone. “How much would you bet?”

“More than I should.” He fell into a fit of coughs.

And in the grip of illness, perhaps more than he may realize, Cao Shen said.

My thoughts exactly. “What would happen if you didn’t show up?” I asked Ke.

“A few will gain from my forfeiture. I am the favourite to win.”

“Narrow the list down to the rivals you might bet heavily against.”

Master Ke stroked his greying beard. “Purple-Wing and Red-Chest.”

“Strange names.”

“We’re often named after our prize crickets. They call me White-Head. Purple-Wing’s a mountain craftsman, building mock landscapes for the gardens. Red-Chest is an aloof bastard but an expert in calling the winner in a match. He’s a silk merchant from Dali.”

Dali’s in the south, I said to Cao Shen. Red-Chest might be our man.

When we arrived at Water Deer Garden, Master Ke wiped his brow dry and spoke to the gatekeeper. The man gave me a lewd look but stepped aside and let us pass.

Though smaller than Timely Rains, the design of Water Deer Garden gave the illusion of depth. We followed a twisting passage behind a piled mountain to the Hall Shaded by Honey Locusts. Before we entered the timber building, Master Ke paused at a grassy patch and pulled up a long stalk of grass.

Gamblers, perhaps thirty in total, gathered in groups of six and huddled around wooden tables, hollering over small oval rings where crickets battled. The duelists prodded their cricket warriors into fighting with yardgrass stalks, oblivious to all else. A chorus of cries, both triumphant and frustrated, went up farther inside the hall. Someone had won. Paper money and strings of coins passed from hand to hand, the casual trade of such wealth astounding me.

“There’s Red-Chest,” Ke whispered.

He meant the winner of the match, a broke-nosed man in a light, wide-sleeved beizi. Red-Chest caught his champion and placed him back in its gourd.

My jaw tightened. It can’t be.

You know him? Cao Shen asked.

I should. I gave him that broken nose when we first met, I said. His name is Liang, and we’d been erstwhile allies in the Jianghu. But he’s a harmless outlaw from the North. I can’t see how he could be the gu-sorcerer.

One of the gamblers noticed us. “A woman! That can’t be your wife, White-Head. She doesn’t have your balls in her hand!”

The crowd roared with laughter.

Liang was staring right at me, yet his face betrayed no signs of recognizing me. Granted, I wore fineries now instead of mud-soiled clothes, but how could he forget? We’d been friends for years before we went our separate ways.

Could I take his life, if it came to that?

“Entertain them, Master Ke, while I speak with Red-Chest Liang alone,” I whispered.

Ke understood. He held up his cricket gourd. “She’s here to see me win. How about you?” He called for wagers.

I headed for a moon door to the east side of the hall, beckoning Red-Chest to approach. “Remember me, Liang?”

At first he seemed confused, but cocked his head as though listening to an ear-whisper. A smile curled his lips. “Smoke-Snow, is it? If I kiss you, which will I taste?”

He speaks as though it’s the first time he’s meeting you, Cao Shen observed.

Everything was at odds with what I knew of Liang. It’s his voice, but hear how heavy his Dali accent is? He should have a Northern inflection. He’s even lost his slouch

I had to confirm my suspicions. I grabbed Liang’s left wrist before he could object and pulled up his sleeve.

Four blue-green words were tattooed on his inner forearm: fó kǒu shé xīn.

Buddha’s mouth, snake’s heart! Cao Shen said, startled.

“If Liang had been in control, spirit, he would have blocked that,” I said to Red-Chest. “But you don’t have his reflexes.”

Red-Chest’s eyes narrowed. “You surprise me at every turn. How do you know what I am?” He tried to pull his arm away, but I held on tight.

“Simple strength won’t break this grip,” I said. “Liang will tell you that. Let him speak with me.”

“Say what you wish. He hears you.”

Liang’s a spirit-vessel too? Cao Shen said, coming to the same conclusion I did. She was as surprised as I was to encounter another tattoo-bound spirit. The gu-sorcerer must be Hui Shen, the Spirit of the Worm. The character for worm appears in both the words for venom-magic and for snake!

Indeed, the character hui occurred thrice in the word for gu. Yes. Somehow Liang’s greed has led him to the ghost of a gu-sorcerer.

“I’ve come to free Master Ke from your gold silkworm, Hui Shen,” I declared.

Red-Chest laughed softly. “You’re good, woman, but how will you fight my magic?”

He raised his little finger. In the hall, Master Ke cried out and doubled over, to the concern of the people around him.

I dug my fingers into his wrist. “Stop, or I’ll break your arm.”

His shoulders slumped. With a twist of his hand, he broke free of my grasp. “Would you really, Yan Xue?” It was Liang’s true voice.

With effort, Master Ke straightened and muttered that the pain had passed.

“Liang. There’s no honour in poison.”

“It’s the path to fortune.”

I trembled in anger. “You’ll let Hui Shen murder a man, then, to sate your greed? Tell me those are the spirit’s words.”

“Mine too, Yan Xue. The spirit has shown me true power.”

We stared silently at one another.

He’s chosen the black way, Cao Shen said.

I cannot believe that. Hui Shen may have poisoned his heart, but Liang’s a good man.

Then we must drive out the worm and save the host. Make Hui Shen abandon Liang. Bodiless, he cannot possess Liang until summoned back.

How do I stop Liang from calling Hui again?

You’re his friend. You’ll find a way, Cao Shen assured me.

“Why prey on an innocent like Ke?” I asked Liang.

“Hui Shen says there are no innocents. We’re all venomous creatures trapped in the prison of the world; only the strong survive to take what they desire.”

“You don’t need the spirit to be strong, Liang.”

“It helps.”

Honour had not moved him. How would a threat fare? If I crippled him, would Hui Shen leave for another vessel?

No, the key was Liang’s greed and Hui Shen’s pride.

I tilted my head towards the games. “If power and wealth are your only cares, then let you, me, and Hui Shen make a wager.”

Liang raised an eyebrow. “He’s curious. Go on.”

“If you win a cricket-fight against me, I’ll interfere no more and leave Pingjiang. If I win, Hui Shen must free Master Ke from the gold silkworm and leave your body.”

Liang stroked his chin.

Yan Xue, we have no chance against Hui Shen in a cricket match, Cao Shen said. He’s the spirit of insects and worms. If he can control the jincan at a distance, he can control a cricket.

And you’re the mistress of grass and herb magic, I said. So long as he’s unaware of your presence, we have the advantage.

What would you know of cricket-fights?

I’ve seen bouts before. Outlaws gambled on everything in the Jianghu.

“We accept your challenge,” Liang said, smiling.

I nodded. “Allow me a few minutes to prepare.”

Even if we win, they’ll never honour the bet. Remember their words of power: Buddha’s mouth, snake’s heart, Cao Shen warned.

I’ve taken that into consideration, I said. The plan I have in mind is far more dangerous. Remember that case of monkshood poisoning in the mountain village?

Her displeasure shone through. You want to fight venom with poison?

Trust me.

I interrupted Ke’s bet-taking and pulled him aside. “I need your cricket.” I explained my wager against Liang.

He wiped sweat off his brow. “You don’t know how to handle him!”

“What matters to you more, Master Ke, your champion or living to see your child?” I said in my iciest voice.

Ke grumbled. “The Second Virtue: ‘On meeting an enemy, he won’t hesitate to fight. That’s courage.’ Take him, but I’m not letting him out of my sight.” He handed me the cricket gourd. I took as well the yardgrass he had plucked earlier.

You must take hold, Cao Shen.

But I know nothing of cricket-fighting!

I’ll advise you, but you need to transmute the grass. She could only work that magic while she possessed my body. Ever hear of a medicine-water bug?

You want me to drug Master Ke’s champion? That’s cheating!

Hui Shen won’t be playing by the rules either. We need every advantage.

You exasperate me, Yan Xue.

Yet she inhabited me without another word, rubbing our forearm with the back of our hand.

Master Ke all but held our hand as we walked to the table where Liang crouched over a fight-ring. Ke pushed aside curious spectators and claimed a ringside spot, declaring himself judge for the spur-of-the-moment match. Cao-and-I sat opposite Liang.

A flurry of wagers passed around us.

“Prepare your crickets,” Ke said, and placed his hand on the wooden gate dividing the oval ring.

I gave Cao detailed instructions. Cao opened the cricket gourd with care and coaxed Master Ke’s white-headed general into our half of the ring with the yardgrass.

Liang—or rather, Hui, as the slouch was gone—simply opened his gourd, and his cricket hopped out of its own accord.

We were so close that I could see our cricket’s heart beating. Cao sent her magic through the grass, giving it the potency of ginseng. We began stroking the fighter’s jaws and legs with the transmuted yardgrass. Stimulated, the cricket trembled in place.

Hui prepared his fighter with his yardgrass as well. He smiled in satisfaction and began to lift the stalk.

Now, Cao.

Cao reached forward with her yardgrass and intercepted Hui’s. “Before we begin, remember our wager.”

The brief contact between the two stalks was enough for Cao to work her transformation magic, this time on Hui’s yardgrass.

Hui twirled the grass stalk between his fingers. “I haven’t forgotten.”

“The gate opens!” Master Ke pulled away the divide between our white-headed cricket and its red-chested foe.

The spectators crowded closer.

The two crickets faced one another as their masters agitated their antennae with the grasses. Hui held his yardgrass betwixt thumb and forefinger, his little finger raised in the air. He urged his cricket towards ours with it, the insect obeying without question. Cao, on the other hand, couldn’t force ours forward.

We felt a sharp pain in our right nostril as something burrowed inside.

Cao! The gold silkworm!

Our free hand flew to our nose. The spirit-worm had started a nosebleed.

Hui’s cricket beat its wings and chirped. Our cricket inched back.

The gold silkworm crawled deeper inside us. Our belly cramped as though serpents roiled within, ripping at the walls of our stomach with their fangs. Cao cried out, and a drop of blood fell from our face onto the rim of the fight-ring.

“Doctor, are you all right?” Master Ke asked in panic.

Hui sneered. “Give up.”

Cao, let me deal with this.

Ke clasped our shoulder and whispered into our ear. “‘Even when seriously wounded, he won’t surrender. That’s loyalty.'”

It’s all right. I can block the pain, Cao replied.

I felt the pain diminish, though the gold silkworm continued to churn our stomach. She must have dulled the aches with her herbal magic.

The two crickets darted towards each other, their antennae fencing in a blur. Ours spread its mandibles, ready for battle.

Hui’s cricket suddenly scurried away from the fight, unwilling to engage.

“What?” Hui tried to prod his champion back into battle, but the yardgrass fell from his trembling hand.

Cao tapped Hui’s yardgrass with ours, nudging it out of the ring where it had fallen. As she did so, she transmuted both stalks back into simple grass.

Hui tried to raise his little finger, but struggled even with that simple extension.

“Red-Chest’s cricket has fled from the fight. Doctor Yan wins!” Master Ke declared. The gamblers chattered excitedly.

Hui spat on the floor. “You drugged your cricket, bitch! Mine sensed it and backed away.”

“To accuse Doctor Yan of cheating is to accuse me of the same. She used my cricket and the yardgrass I plucked out there,” Master Ke said. “You all know my reputation: I always fight fair.”

Murmurs of agreement arose among the gamblers.

“Accept the loss as your cricket does, Red-Chest. ‘When defeated he will not sing. He knows shame,'” Ke continued, scooping up his champion and putting him back inside the cricket-gourd. “So should you.”

Hui tried to stand, but clutched at his chest and stumbled instead. A gambler caught him and eased him to the square brick floor.

“Back away, everyone, he needs air,” Cao said. We wiped more blood from our nose and knelt, the simple act triggering a new pang in our stomach.

“My heart. . . what did you do?” Hui managed.

“I changed the yardgrass you held into a fatal dose of monkshood. The poison entered you through the skin on your fingertips and will slow your heart until it stops,” Cao whispered. “You’ll die with your vessel, sorcerer.”

Hui’s eyes widened. “You’re a spirit too.”

Cao nodded.

“Liang may have outlived his usefulness, but as long as men crave power, I will have new vessels to do my bidding,” Hui hissed. “And you, Yan Xue, lie to yourself if you think your spirit isn’t using you for her own ends. This isn’t over between us.”

With that, Liang’s eyelids fluttered and closed. The Spirit of the Worm had left Liang to die.

The roiling in my belly came to an abrupt end. The gold silkworm, is it dead? I asked Cao.

With Hui Shen gone, it must have succumbed to the ranghe cure at last, Cao surmised. Now let us save Liang. She broke the tip off our yardgrass, placed it on Liang’s tongue, and transmuted it into deadly nightshade. A plant poison that caused hearts to race, it would counter the effects of Liang’s monkshood poisoning.

May I take hold? He’s still my friend.

Cao Shen relinquished control.

Thank you, I said, coping with the nausea. I caressed Liang’s hair and called for Master Ke. “The gold silkworm’s dead. It’s over.”

Or, at least for now. The gu-sorcerer’s spirit had only fled to work evil elsewhere. His parting warning haunted me. Though Cao Shen walked the white way, was she using me as Hui Shen did with Liang? Had I become addicted to her power?

Time, I decided, would tell.

“Will he be all right?” Ke asked.

“After a while.” Liang would remain weak from both poisons, but we could now nurse him back to health, perhaps even turn him from the black way. “Master Ke, may I be bold and ask if we may tend to his recovery at your home?”

“Madame Ke would be livid if I refuse. I’ll ask for a civil litter to carry him.”

“Won’t you stay for your tournament?” I asked.

“I am tempted, but you’ve reminded me of the Fifth Virtue. ‘When he becomes cold, he’ll return to his home. He’s wise and recognizes the facts of the situation,'” Ke said, rubbing the back of his head. “So must I.”

Originally from Taiwan, Tony Pi is a Canadian writer with a Ph.D. in Linguistics. A finalist in the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in the 2008 Prix Aurora Award for Best Short-Form Work in English, his work has appeared in Writers of the Future, Clarkesworld Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and many anthologies, including The Dragon and the Stars and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.