The Taoist priest circled the rosewood pedestal that had last held the Cloud Step, absently tapping his lower lip with the bamboo spine of his fan. Master Lee Engseng ran his fingertips over the pale blue silk cushion that had held the teapot, then went down on his haunches to inspect the base of the pedestal. Finally, he circled the inner chamber, studying the calligraphy scrolls hung on the wall, ignoring the two men standing awkwardly by the entrance. The cleaner, Cho Chay Yan, looked overawed to be in the company of the famous investigator. The museum curator, Khouw Beng Huat, shifted his weight restlessly on his feet.
“Master Lee. Do you have any idea who might have stolen the Cloud Step?” Beng Huat asked.
“Wang Qingzheng signed this scroll,” Engseng said, with a nod at the scroll. “The Qingzheng? The previous Emperor’s calligraphy master?”
“As you say. He wrote it in the last year of his life. It was given to my cousin by the current Emperor upon his appointment as General. Is that relevant?” Beng Huat asked, growing impatient.
“Your cousin Khouw Beng Chye?” Engseng asked.
“The Khouw Clan doesn’t have that many Generals.”
“Forgive me. I’m not up to date on Imperial politics or appointments.” Engseng turned around with a faint smile on his unsettlingly calm, ageless face. Having thought Engseng to be closer to his age, Beng Huat had mistaken Engseng for a theatrical troupe member shilling for Khouw Clan sponsorship when the priest had first turned up at the estate’s door in answer to their polite summons. It didn’t help that Engseng chose to wear a white and black hanfu, a style that had gone out of fashion decades ago. Beng Huat wore a lightweight jacket and pants himself, same as Chay Yan, albeit trimmed with brocade and beading as befit his status and birth.
Swallowing his irritation, Beng Huat shifted his weight on his feet. The Cloud Step chamber within the Clan Museum was small and stiflingly hot at the best of times. Today, the humid heat stuck Beng Huat’s jacket to his skin and plastered his fine hair to his skull. They’d been here an hour now, watching Engseng potter around. “Not to rush you, Master Lee, but we’d appreciate any observations you might have on the missing teapot. It’s already been five days since the theft.”
“What then is another hour or another day?” Engseng’s insouciance was unsettling—Huat City was the seat of the Khouw Clan’s power, and Beng Huat was used to people deferring to the brocade sigil of the tiger’s paw on his shoulder. “A Wang Qingzheng scroll is considered priceless, isn’t it? As is the Jade Cutter on display just outside this chamber, and any number of the antiques in your Museum. Yet the thief who managed to sneak past your guard roster, evade the nightingale floor, and outwit the weighted cage trap in this room took only the teapot.”
“How did you know about the cage?”
“By noticing the thickness of the wall as we walked into this chamber, and the faint groove around the base of the rosewood pedestal. I presume the weight of the teapot on the pedestal would set off the trap. Was it triggered when you found it?” Engseng asked, glancing at Chay Yan.
“Yes!” Chay Yan looked awed. “How did you…? Wah, Master Lee, the rumours of your powers are true.”
Engseng frowned slightly. “What happened after you found the trap triggered?”
“I looked inside and saw the teapot gone. Aiseh, Master Khouw, I nearly had a heart attack,” Chay Yan said with an anxious look at Beng Huat. “That’s when I started shouting to raise the alarm.”
“You didn’t run to get the guard?” Engseng asked.
“No, no. I thought the thief had to still be in the trap,” Chay Yan said.
“Even though there was no one to be seen?”
“Well,” Chay Yan said, scratching his temple, “my family has worked for the Khouw Clan since my great-great-grandfather. I’ve seen the Clan Masters do impossible things. I thought, maybe if I turned my back and ran, more than the teapot would disappear.”
“The guards arrived, trampling all over the wooden floor and scuffing out any possible clues, after which they raised the cage and presumably made an investigation of the interior, given there are so many footprint impressions in here.” Engseng gestured at the floor. “I presume you’ve searched the clan estate and the surrounds.”
“We’ve also been searching anyone leaving the city,” Beng Huat said. There had been many complaints from Huat City officials and the merchant guilds, but no one had dared complain too loudly.
Engseng glanced at the empty pedestal. “Forgive me, but I’m not sure why a single teapot would kick up so much fuss. Even if it was a purple sand antique.”
Beng Huat exhaled. “Does it matter?”
“It does. Knowing exactly why this teapot is so valuable would give me insight into the mind of the thief,” Engseng said, meeting Beng Huat’s annoyed stare with a graceful smile. “Begging your indulgence, of course.”
Beng Huat chose to ignore the ironic note to Engseng’s voice. “Do you still need to ask Chay Yan questions?”
“Not for now, no.”
At Beng Huat’s dismissive gesture, Chay Yan bowed deeply and left. After Beng Huat’s trained hearing could no longer pick up the cleaner’s footsteps, Beng Huat said, “Are you aware of the philosophy of tea?”
“It’s called Chadao on the mainland, isn’t it? Only vaguely.”
“Chadao, when practised in an appropriate tea ceremony with the correct tools and environment, leads to an improvement in self-cultivation. That is why the Cloud Step is the Khouw Clan’s most valuable treasure—not that we advertise this. It’s too difficult to explain, but Khouw Clan Masters have always believed that the Cloud Step is a key artefact in the attainment of self-enlightenment. The final step before spiritual ascension. That is why it is called the Cloud Step.”
“Does it work?’ Engseng asked, curious.
“Obviously. Why would we treasure it if it didn’t?”
“When was the last time it worked?”
“On my great-grandfather. You’d have seen a shrine to him in the main hall when you were introduced to me. We keep detailed records of the last tea ceremony he held before ascension.”
“It hasn’t worked since then?”
“No doubt you’re also aware that there are other factors to attaining self-enlightenment, of which self-cultivation is only a part.”
“Are you all so sure that it’s because of the teapot? All right, all right. Don’t get angry,” Engseng said, raising his palms placatingly as Beng Huat glared. “The thief might have shared your view of its value since they took nothing else. That’s a good sign.”
“It reduces the chance that the teapot might have been destroyed. Particularly once your thief realised they couldn’t leave the city.” As Beng Huat paled, Engseng said, “I need to interview every person who was on duty that day in the Museum, whether they were a guard or a clerk. I also need a loan of ten taels and a tour guide for the city.”
“That’s supposed to help us find the teapot?” Beng Huat asked, unable to hide his scorn.
Beng Huat ground his teeth. “What you’ve asked for shall be provided.”
“The tour guide first, I think. Could you call for assistance? It’s quiet in here, isn’t it?”
“The walls are thick. I’ll guide you myself—I was born and raised here. As to the money, I have it on me.” Beng Huat gestured at the door. “Shall we?”
Engseng visited a handful of apothecaries, each time overpaying with Beng Huat’s money for bags of dried herbs. Beng Huat tried to note down what Engseng bought at first, but couldn’t see any real pattern to the purchases of ginseng, astralagus, kudzu and more. Each time, Engseng would ask to look at the apothecary’s ledgers. The apothecaries would shoot the tiger on Beng Huat’s shoulder a nervy look before agreeing.
As the sun began to rise to its apex over the metropolis, scorching the meandering snakes of human and animal traffic, Engseng said, “Lunch?”
As Beng Huat hailed a rickshaw driver, Engseng said, “I can’t help but sense that you don’t like me very much, Master Khouw.”
“I have yet to see anything impressive,” Beng Huat said. A rickshaw driver slowed to a stop with a bright smile as he noticed the Khouw Clan insignia. Climbing into the wheeled rickshaw beside Engseng, Beng Huat said, “PeraMakan restaurant.”
“Ah, I’ve heard of that one.” Engseng perked up. “Didn’t the chef recently win the right to wield the Jade Knife?”
“You’re well-informed,” Beng Huat said. PeraMakan’s chef herself hadn’t been invested in spreading news of her eventual cooking victory over the Knife’s previous wielder for some reason. The Khouw Clan had only heard about it because of their continued friendship and investment with the restaurant.
Engseng smiled, turning his face away to look at the crowds they passed. This early into the afternoon, throngs of people clustered under trees or packed into shaded canteens bisected by rows of benches and tables, tucking into nasi lemak, mee goreng, fish head curry and more. “I’m lucky in many ways,” Engseng said.
“Is that how you’ve solved all your famous cases?”
Engseng looked at Beng Huat with amusement. “Some investigators would consider such hostility suspicious.”
“You should rightly suspect everyone in the Clan,” Beng Huat said, irritated by the oddly teasing note in Engseng’s tone. “I’ve already had everyone’s rooms searched, but we might have missed something.”
“You believe it’s an inside job?”
“How else? Only someone on the inside would’ve known to evade the cage. To take only that teapot, when the Cloud Step isn’t well-known outside the Clan.”
“Did you check whether any tea sets were missing from the kitchens?”
Beng Huat grimaced. “I should have thought of that. I’ll send a messenger from the restaurant.”
“What’s the rush? I doubt you’d find out who took the set from something like that. More, I’d be willing to wager that you won’t find any of your tea sets missing, or any of the tea you have in clan storage.”
“So whoever it was took the Cloud Step to sell?” Beng Huat’s heart sank.
“Won’t you learn of a sale like that sooner or later? Send your message. Don’t ask if any tea sets are missing. Ask which ones look recently used or washed. It’s been a humid series of days, and the tea trays may not have dried yet.” Engseng paused, leaning forward to tap the rickshaw driver on the shoulder. “Stop here for a moment.”
Beng Huat looked around. Was there another apothecary on the street? Before he could ask, shouts erupted from a teahouse at the street corner. Someone burst through the window shutters on the upper floor but rolled with their fall, ending up on a knee. With a roar, they charged back into the teahouse, blade drawn.
“You can predict the future?” Beng Huat asked, with grudging respect. He hadn’t heard a thing.
“Through observation and deduction. Nothing magical about that, sadly. Where are you going?”
Beng Huat didn’t pause in the middle of getting out of the rickshaw cart. “This city is under the protection of the Khouw Clan. If there’s a fight, we break it up.”
“You? Aren’t you just a museum curator?”
“None of us are ‘just’ anything. Stay in the cart,” Beng Huat said, as Engseng got off.
Engseng flicked his fan open, hiding his mouth, though the laughter was in his eyes. “And miss the opportunity to observe any signature moves from your Clan? After you.”
Engseng tapped his fingertips on the table in thanks as Beng Huat poured tea for them both. The silver needle tea, perfectly brewed, blushed a pale golden hue in each tall porcelain smelling cup. They breathed in the scent of the tea, then capped the bowl of the tasting cup over the cylindrical cup and inverted the set. Smelling cups set aside, they drank. Beng Huat did so with impatience, Engseng with what looked like genuine pleasure.
“You don’t like tea?” Engseng asked without looking up.
“I prefer wine.”
“Why isn’t a museum curator a connoisseur of ritual and circumstance?”
“I wasn’t put in charge of the Clan Museum to admire the antiques. My role is to protect and preserve our treasures. With my life, if need be.”
“You’d be held responsible for the theft of the Cloud Step?”
“I already have been.” Beng Huat had accepted that as his fate from the moment he’d been notified of the theft.
Engseng leant forward, concern creasing his brow. “I’ve heard stories about Clan Khouw’s punishments. How much time do you have before you’re flogged?”
“Until my services in locating the Cloud Step are no longer necessary. That way, my convalescence won’t impede the investigation.”
“Is that why you’ve been so… What if the Cloud Step was found?”
“That doesn’t erase the lapse in my vigilance,” Beng Huat said, finishing his tea. “I’m not concerned about my punishment. I’m concerned about the teapot.”
Engseng pursed his lips. “Should a clan that seeks self-enlightenment as its ultimate goal place material items over the well-being of another living soul?”
“Punishment is a cleansing of a wrong committed against the Clan.” Beng Huat poured tea again for them, ignoring Engseng’s attempt to pick up the pot first. “It is an act of reconciliation and forgiveness.”
“Others would call it barbaric,” Engseng said as he picked up his cup, swirling the pale liquid within it. “The theft wasn’t your fault.”
“The clan does not care what an outsider might think.”
“If you’re to be flogged over something like this, what about the thief?”
“It’d depend. At the very least, they’d be expelled from the clan and fined. Perhaps exiled from the city.”
“No cutting off hands? Imprisonment?”
“In Huat City’s gaol?” Beng Huat scoffed. “I’ve been to such places. They are purely punitive. Most people put behind bars and forced into hard labour die or emerge crippled.”
“But flagellation until you faint is somehow more acceptable?”
Beng Huat gave Engseng an appraising stare at his edged tone. “You know more about the clan than you should. Yes, because it’s never more than what the penitent can take.”
Engseng’s expression clouded further. “How much can you handle?”
“That’s none of your concern. Concentrate on finding the Cloud Step.” Beng Huat began to say more, but serving staff entered the private dining room with trays of freshly-grilled sticks of satay and plates of golden-fried lobak. “Eat,” Beng Huat prompted, when his guest didn’t even seem to notice, his eyes distant as he tapped his mouth with the flat of his fan. “Master Lee?”
“Ah, yes. Please, you first.”
Two tea sets were found recently used, their trays still faintly scented under the lattice. One antique set, used by the current Clan Master while entertaining the Chief Magistrate of Huat City two days ago. The other was an old set, tucked away in the depths of the storage cabinet, disused because one of the tasting cups was chipped. When Beng Huat presented the old set to Engseng, the Taoist priest smiled and examined the chipped cup, following the hairline fracture with his dark brown eyes.
“Who is the thief?” Beng Huat asked. They sat together in one of the inner gardens, walled away from Huat City by stone and slate. The bustle of the thoroughfare a block beyond filtered through the sweeping boughs of a tembusu tree, its great boughs shading the stone table and seats, dotted with white, fragrant flowers.
“Patience,” Engseng said. They drank rice wine by the light of a lantern hung on a lower bough. Moths fluttered helplessly against the ribs of the lantern, desperate to burn. “Curious, isn’t it?” Engseng gestured at the moths. “To be so entranced by the light that death is an acceptable price.”
“It is a bug. The light confuses it—its death is unintentional.”
“How different is that from human experience? Sometimes we strive recklessly for a particular end, only for it to burn us to ash as a consequence. Yet some of us may consent to be so consumed. Perhaps the moths are the same.”
Beng Huat stared at Engseng until the priest took a sip of his cup. “Are you making small talk or trying to tell me something in an annoyingly obtuse fashion?”
“Are you this rude to all your guests?” Engseng asked, amused.
“You are not a guest. You are a hired contractor, one whose time we will compensate regardless of whether you are wasting ours.”
Engseng laughed. “I have a feeling that you weren’t the one who pushed to invite me.”
“You impressed General Khouw Beng Chye over your handling of a case in Khatib Province. You solved a case involving forged taels within two hours.”
“It was a trifle.”
“My cousin didn’t think so. Is drinking with me and talking about moths relevant?”
“You’re very single minded. I like that in a man,” Engseng said teasingly, and laughed as Beng Huat sputtered and reddened. “All right, all right. No need to get upset. I’m waiting for a key development in the case.”
“What kind of development?”
“Someone is going to die,” Engseng said, and turned back to watch the moths.
Five days passed without a death. Even the Clan Masters began to grow impatient with their strange guest, their daily requests for updates growing ever more pointed. Beng Huat noted this in unsubtle terms as he joined his guest for a breakfast of pillowy congee and fried youtiao in the gardens by the guest chambers.
“Will that increase your allotted punishment?” Engseng asked as he swirled a porcelain spoon through the congee, tipping up the occasional dark chunk of century egg.
“No,” Beng Huat said, then wished he’d lied as Engseng looked relieved. “This death you spoke of, whose will it be? Is the thief going to kill someone next?”
“No, no. Or I’d have said as much.”
“The Clan Masters suspect that you’re stalling for time.”
“What purpose would that serve? Do you think I am?”
“If your reputation is well-deserved, then yes, what purpose would it serve? If you’re a charlatan, however, it’d benefit you to prevail as long as you can on our hospitality.”
“On the hospitality of a martial clan reputed to retaliate against slights with excessive force?”
“None of what we do is excessive. Justice is a balance. The retaliation must always be proportional to the wrongdoing.” Beng Huat tried to maintain his forbidding glare as Engseng laughed.
There was something preternaturally personable about Engseng, a palpable charisma that he married to the elegant poise that he exuded. A graceful wrist stretched past the hem of Engseng’s hanfu as he reached for a piece of chopped youtiao, inviting Beng Huat’s eyes to drift over the delicate tracery of veins on the pale underside. Beng Huat caught himself, but not before Engseng noticed. The priest began to smile, then reddened a little as he looked to the shaded garden and its koi pond.
“I’ll catch your thief for you within the hour if Clan Khouw will bestow upon me two boons,” Engseng said softly. “I’ll forgo my usual payment.”
“What sort of boons? Master Lee, the clan is prepared to be generous—”
“Firstly, that anyone responsible for the missing Cloud Step teapot will face no consequences—that their debt to the Clan will be considered to have never existed. Secondly, that you will also not be punished in any way for the supposed breach of your duties in this matter.”
Beng Huat frowned. “I’ve told you, I’ve accepted my punishment as my due.”
“Those are my terms.” Engseng ate a spoonful of congee, then looked at Beng Huat as though surprised that he was still present. “Shouldn’t you confer with the Clan Masters?”
“…Fine,” Beng Huat said, rising to his feet. A more cutting jibe sat on the tip of his tongue, swallowed unsaid. As he walked away from the guest chamber, a sense of unease sat heavily on Beng Huat’s shoulders. He paused mid-step outside the chamber, closing his eyes. No. There was no sense in concentrating on anything beyond recovering the Cloud Step. Gratifying as it was that Engseng had somehow come to care about Beng Huat’s well-being on such a brief acquaintance.
“Don’t scowl,” Engseng said as he waved Beng Huat to a seat by the koi pool in the guest garden.
Beng Huat obeyed, frowning. “What is the meaning of this? Yi Poh can’t be the thief. She’s very ill, and can barely leave her bed without assistance.” Seated beside Beng Huat, the elderly woman’s smile creased deep-set wrinkles over her round face. Faint wisps of silvery hair crossed a scalp mottled with dark spots, the main outward sign of a wasting disease that would soon take Yi Poh’s life.
“Tell me, who is Yi Poh?” Engseng asked.
“She is one of Clan Khouw’s oldest living retainers. She was Head of the Household while I was still a boy and retired only recently due to her ill health. Yi Poh should be resting instead of being pulled into your schemes.”
“A beloved servant,” Engseng said, glancing at Yi Poh.
“I’ve done my best for the clan,” Yi Poh said, forever modest.
“This illness that you have, there is no cure?” Engseng asked.
Yi Poh laughed, revealing a toothless mouth. “The clan doctors tried, other doctors tried. People buy me this, ask me to drink that. Nothing. All things must end, and I’ve had a long and happy life.”
“That’s a commendable attitude,” Engseng said. He opened an unassuming wooden box by his side, lifting out the old tea set with the chipped tasting cup, along with a paper-wrapped tea cake. “Yi Poh, do you recognise this?”
Yi Poh peered closely at the old tea set through milky eyes. “It is one of the Clan’s tea sets. No one in the clan uses it anymore since one of the cups is broken, but the old Clan Master said we could use it if we wanted, along with any of the tea for general use in the clan’s stores.” Yi Poh turned to Beng Huat. “Your father. Ai, he was a kind man.”
“Surely that’s not relevant,” Beng Huat muttered.
“Yi Poh, when was the last time you saw this tea set?” Engseng prompted.
“Two days ago.” Yi Poh’s lips pressed into a faint line.
“In the company of this, I presume.” Engseng bent, lifting something else out of the box, carefully wrapped in thick grey cloth. Pulling the leaves of fabric aside, a shiny black teapot the size of a small fist bloomed out of its depths, its flank inscribed with familiar lines of calligraphy.
Beng Huat gasped, reaching out involuntarily for the Cloud Step, then looked sharply at Yi Poh. “You?”
“Calm down.” Engseng set the Cloud Step on the lattice of the tray and brought out a clay jar of water. “We’ll have tea while I make a series of humble guesses.”
“I’ll get A-Ying to heat some coals,” Yi Poh said.
“No need.” Engseng drew a paper charm from within his sleeve and murmured a few words.
Pressed to the flank of the jar, the charm began to glow, red-hot. As the water shivered, then began to boil, Engseng unwrapped the teacake and inserted the tea knife into its flank, levering out a small portion of dried leaves from the compressed cake. He tapped it into the Cloud Step and rewrapped the cake, setting it aside. As he made the first infusion, he said, “The Cloud Step was brought to Yi Poh on the morning after its disappearance. A brew was made, which you drank. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to replace the Cloud Step on its pedestal due to the uproar.”
Yi Poh inclined her head. “I did tell them to put it back immediately, but they decided to keep trying a few more times. With music, without music, with company, with snacks… they read the Clan notes carefully.”
“You were taken by surprise by the theft—the borrowing—as much as anyone else, but given the Clan’s attitude toward punishment, chose to stay silent despite your misgivings,” Engseng said. At Yi Poh’s nod, Engseng poured the first hot infusion of tea over the cups, washing them out. “You knew, however, that you were beloved enough in the Clan that your eventual passing would’ve triggered several days of mourning. The teapot could be safely replaced, with no one the wiser.”
“It will be soon, I think.” Yi Poh nodded.
“What even was the point?” Beng Huat demanded.
“Desperate people do desperate things. The Cloud Step is famed within the Clan as a mythical artefact, one that helped a Clan ancestor attain enlightenment. When medicine failed to help Yi Poh, presumably someone thought they might as well try something else, even if it were a long shot.” Engseng filled the teapot again with hot water, capped it, and poured more water over the black pot.
“What would I do with enlightenment?” Yi Poh said, chuckling. “Rising into Heaven as an immortal? I don’t want anything like that. I’m ready to rest. It’s everyone else who has to learn how to let go.”
“So who was the thief?” Beng Huat asked.
Engseng gestured vaguely in the direction of the main Clan housing. “There were several borrowers. Just about all of the serving staff, I presume. Several guards, given that Cho Chay Yan was somehow able to ‘call’ for help from just beyond the Cloud Step’s chamber and still be heard by your guard roster. That was a failsafe. If all went well, they would’ve preferred to have made tea with the pot, served it, and returned the pot with no one the wiser.”
“It took too long to heat the coals. At that point, Master Khouw here began his nightly rounds, and they had to avoid suspicion by pretending to panic. They hid the teapot, hoping that the fuss would die down,” Yi Poh said.
“There, you see,” Engseng told Beng Huat with a grin. “If you’d been a little less punctual, perhaps all this fuss could’ve been avoided.”
Beng Huat glowered. “I had the Clan estate searched.”
“That in itself should tell you how many people were involved in this matter. Many likely didn’t search all that hard.”
“How was the teapot removed from the chamber?”
“While investigating the apothecaries in the city, I found that an order was placed for a small, hollow block of ice by one of your Clan servants. Just heavy enough to be substituted for a teapot. It was placed on the pedestal while the pot was spirited away. When the alarm had to be raised, I presume Chay Yan knocked the block off the pedestal, levered it through the bars with their broom, stamped it to pieces, then fetched the guards, who promptly trod the rest of the evidence into the ground,” Engseng said. Yi Poh chuckled.
“Clever,” Beng Huat said, unsure whether to be impressed or seethe.
“Be calm,” Engseng said as he began to pour tea. “That’s how tea is meant to be enjoyed, isn’t it? It’d have been better with some music, but we’d have to make do. This Tie Guanyin is from my collection, a gift from an old friend.”
Beng Huat dutifully sniffed the tea, taking in its layered scent. It did little for his poor mood, but watching Yi Poh smile with unabashed pleasure leavened some of his bitterness. Engseng changed the subject, asking after Yi Poh’s daughters, a topic that segued into Engseng’s last visit to the capital.
Yi Poh tired quickly. As other retainers gently helped her away to rest, Engseng poured again. They left Yi Poh’s cup to sit as they sipped. Only then did Beng Huat speak. “You are not known for sentiment.”
“A priest who lacks compassion would be a poor one,” Engseng said. He watched the red and white koi sketch lazy arcs in the pool, drifting beneath the lotus. “Are you satisfied?”
“You’ve met your side of the agreement, and we will fulfil ours in turn.”
“That didn’t answer my question.”
Beng Huat laughed. He drank from his cup and set it down, leaning in until his breath grazed Engseng’s ear. The shell began to redden, though Engseng didn’t otherwise react. “Satisfied? No.”
Engseng pretended to misunderstand, though a small smile indented his mouth. “Because none of us gained enlightenment despite drinking from the Cloud Step? The reason is simple enough, isn’t it?” He touched his fingertips to Beng Huat’s wrist. “Yi Poh has no interest in enlightenment. As to us—” Engseng trailed his fingertips up until they met a brocade hem, “—neither of us appear to be sufficiently free from worldly desires.”
“What kind of priest are you?” Beng Huat pulled away. As Engseng straightened, his expression growing reserved, Beng Huat nodded at the Cloud Step. “I’m going to wash that and present it to the Clan Masters with an explanation, then I’d have to see it safely back where it belongs. The Clan Masters will convey their thanks for your work.”
“Tell them not to bother. It was a trifle.”
“After that, would you like to have lunch? Just the two of us.” Beng Huat tried not to flush as Engseng smiled warmly, the priest’s assumed reserve melting into pleasure.
“I’ll pay this time,” Engseng said.
“Hah. We’ll see.”
(For Anya’s previous story set in this same universe, check out Seven Parts Full from issue 3.)
Anya Ow’s short stories have appeared in publications such as Asimov’s, Uncanny, Fantasy Magazine, and more. Born in Singapore, Anya lives in Melbourne with her two cats, working as a graphic designer, illustrator, and chief studio dog briber for a creative agency. She can be found at www.anyasy.com.