“This is mostly your fault,” Baozi said as he bandaged the still-bleeding forehead of the stranger propped against the tree. “You jumped out at me from the trees without so much as a word of warning. Nearly scared me to death. Instead of stabbing you, I only punched you lightly.”
“So I should be grateful?” the stranger rasped, wincing as he clutched his ribs. “You call that ‘lightly’? I might have fractured something! Are you really only a hunter?”
Baozi motioned between his homespun tunic and the brace of red junglefowl by his handmade bow and quiver. The stranger, bloodstained as he was, wore jet-black robes stitched at the hem with gold and silver thread. While Baozi’s hair was bound haphazardly in a knot, the stranger wore a white jade hair crown that had to be worth more than the entire village.
“No, I’m a tea shop owner … I’m obviously a hunter. What about you? With your fine clothes—are you a merchant? The young master of some rich family? What are you doing out on the mountains by yourself?”
The stranger’s face twisted in annoyance. “Do I look like one of those wealthy playboys?” The wound on his forehead was the least concerning of the set—deep gashes scoured his thigh and flank, now also awkwardly bandaged. But for the bottle of powdered hemostatic medicine that the stranger had reluctantly handed over when Baozi had offered to bind his wounds, the stranger could’ve bled out by now.
“Maybe,” Baozi said. He gave the stranger’s lean frame an appraising look—if the man had the energy to be sarcastic, perhaps he could make it down the mountain on his own. “Can you walk? There’s a creek in that direction, and you can follow that down the mountain. You’d reach the village before nightfall. Ask around for Doctor Wen, he’s the village doctor.”
“Where are you going?” the stranger asked.
“Further into the mountains. I’ve lost enough time as it is—uh, not that it was anyone’s fault? Young master.” Baozi tried a flattering smile that likely came out perfunctory. Pampered highborn young masters were trouble—let alone ones who had mysteriously ended up in such a state of embarrassment in the mountains.
“Further?” the stranger echoed. “We aren’t far from the boundary seal. Once you cross that, you’d be facing creatures more dangerous than ordinary boars and tigers.”
“I know that. I live at the foot of the mountains,” Baozi said. He tried not to roll his eyes. “Come on, the creek’s this way.”
“What are you looking for past the seal? Even if you were somehow able to defeat the monsters beyond, many of them are considered sacred.”
“None of your business,” Baozi began, only to relent under the stranger’s cold stare. He couldn’t risk the young master reporting him to the magistrate or worse, not when he was already so close. “Have you heard of the Eight Treasure Feast?”
“What about it?” The stranger frowned.
“I’m going to take part.”
“You?” The stranger looked Baozi up and down with open suspicion. “You’re a chef? Forget it. Even if you were, which I doubt, the master of PeraMakan is participating this year. You have no chance of beating her.”
“I’m not looking to win. The people ranked into the top twenty still get a reward—a thousand taels of silver.”
“You think it’s that easy to place in the top twenty? Chefs from all over the empire will participate in the Eight Treasure Feast.” The stranger scoffed.
“That’s why I’m going to hunt past the boundary,” Baozi said, as patiently as he could. “I’m a decent hand at a roast. My satay is the best in the village, and I have a peanut sauce recipe passed down from my grandmother. If I can combine that with a rare meat that the Empress has never eaten, maybe I’d have a chance.”
“There’s a reason why the boundary seal exists. You’d risk death for a mere thousand taels?”
“A thousand taels will transform my village. It could build a school, pave a road to the town, install kangs in every house so that nobody will freeze to death in the winter. I don’t expect someone born high to understand,” Baozi bit out as the stranger gave him a look of disdain.
“No one is so selfless.” The stranger got slowly to his feet, taking one slow step, then a steadier one. “Well, get a move on, then. Not that way,” he said with a touch of impatience as Baozi started toward the creek. “Aren’t you headed for the seal?”
“What about you?”
“I owe you a life-saving debt, and I hate owing debts. Once you get ripped apart by a monster, I’ll bring your remains back to your village.”
“You must be popular,” Baozi said with a snort. “Jiang Baozi.”
“What steamed buns?”
“My name.” Baozi pointed at himself. “What about you?”
“You’re called Baozi?” The stranger laughed, incredulous. “You’re built like a bear.” Baozi towered a head over the stranger, his shoulders broader, muscular arms thicker. He stared down the stranger until the stranger coughed and averted his eyes with a faint flush. “My apologies, that was rude of me. Lee Siew Tshin.” He gestured at himself.
“Master Lee, you’re injured. Thank you for your concern, but head for the village—don’t worry about me.”
“Who said I’m concerned? Talk less and start walking,” Siew Tshin said with a glare.
Baozi swallowed a sigh and turned his back. Rich young masters. Perhaps by the evening, Siew Tshin would turn back.
Siew Tshin did not turn back, nor did he utter a word of complaint from the pain he had to be enduring. For someone dressed so finely, he wasn’t that soft—he’d kept up with Baozi’s pace as though used to climbing all over the mountains. Strange.
As they set up camp past the boundary seal for the night, Siew Tshin sniffed as Baozi arranged charcoal from his pack and a grille. As Baozi built a fire, Siew Tshin said, “Is this the sort of craft with which you expect to place in the top twenty at the Eight Treasure Feast? I’m telling you now, my—the Empress has a delicate palate, and she’s eaten delicacies from all over the empire and beyond.”
“Aren’t you tired?” Baozi asked, swallowing his retort as he plucked the junglefowl he’d previously caught.
“A little, why?”
“You could recover more quickly if you rest your mouth.”
Siew Tshin started to speak, then glowered at Baozi. “Did you just tell me to shut up?”
“Not at all, your Excellency, it was but a humble suggestion from this commoner.” Baozi cleaned and gutted the junglefowl as he spoke.
“You!” Siew Tshin bared his teeth. “Never has anyone spoken to me so disrespectfully.”
“Nor have I ever met anyone who, after having his life saved, hounded and pestered his saviour, was rude to him at every turn, and still wished to be respected,” Baozi said, lifting his chin and glaring at Siew Tshin in turn. He regretted it even as he did so—his mother had always warned him that his temper would get him into trouble someday. A young master of a powerful clan could make his life hellish. Life-saving grace or not.
Siew Tshin’s expression darkened. As Baozi considered putting forward an insincere apology, Siew Tshin shook his head and laughed. “I have been rude, and I won’t excuse myself for that. My apologies.”
Baozi nodded, busy skewering chunks of junglefowl onto bamboo sticks. As he began to baste them with a marinade from a clay jar in his pack, Siew Tshin said, “Aren’t you going to accept my apology?”
“Depends on whether you meant it,” Baozi said. He set the skewers of junglefowl to roast, washed his hands in the cold creek nearby, and returned to peel onions. Siew Tshin grunted but opted to shut up, settling against a tree and closing his eyes. Baozi chopped up onions and cucumbers, set them out with cubed rice cakes on a banana leaf, and fanned the roasting skewers. Fat hissed and spat as it dripped onto the coals, the aroma of spiced roasting meat thickening in the air. Once Baozi judged the skewers done, he nudged Siew Tshin with a foot.
“Hrm?” Siew Tshin woke with a start, his hand dropping to his hip, as though groping for a weapon.
“Eat.” Baozi motioned at the skewers. When Siew Tshin stared blankly at him, Baozi picked up one of the bamboo sticks and handed it over.
Siew Tshin eyed the skewer with suspicion. “It’s burnt.”
“No, it’s charred. There’s a difference. And only slightly—adds to the flavour. If you can handle your spice, dip it in some of the satay sauce.” Baozi liked to carry a jar of his family’s thick, spicy satay sauce whenever he went hunting, even if he was just making a simple roast.
Siew Tshin gingerly took a bite. His frown eased as he chewed and swallowed. “Odd, but not bad. A little chewy.”
“The giblets can be like that,” Baozi said, and waited for the spoiled young master to choke and sputter. Instead, Siew Tshin ate the whole skewer with relish, satay sauce and rice cakes and all.
“What?” he asked as Baozi stared.
“Nothing. You’re less picky than I thought.”
“I’ve eaten worse.” Siew Tshin reached for another skewer, only to glare as Baozi grabbed it first.
“Your Excellency need not force himself to eat such rough food,” Baozi said.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh, so you admit that it’s good?”
Siew Tshin grit his teeth, then he exhaled instead of snapping back. “Fine, yes. The junglefowl is perfectly cooked, tender yet juicy. That marinade is excellent, the satay sauce is spicy without being overwhelming. It’s excellent. Happy now?”
“Eight-Treasure-Feast-good?” Baozi asked, and smirked as Siew Tshin stiffened.
“It’s good to be confident.” He did, however, reach for another skewer. “Where did you learn how to cook?” When Baozi didn’t immediately answer, Siew Tshin froze. “I’m sorry if … if your family’s—”
“No, no. I’ve been supporting my family by hunting since I was a child. Up in the mountains, I often have to make lunch for myself. Though it was my grandmother who taught me how to make satay. The secret’s in the marinade and the sauce. Oh, and don’t forget the rice cakes.”
“She must be a great cook.”
Siew Tshin was likely saying that just to be polite, but Baozi nodded. “She was. She says it’s how she managed to attract and keep my grandfather’s attention. He never took any concubines. Sadly, since I have no sisters, all her recipes passed down to me through my mother. My grandmother died disappointed that I hadn’t yet given her a great-granddaughter.”
“Perhaps someday when you have one, it won’t be too late.”
“I doubt so,” Baozi said.
“You’re still young—you don’t look all that older than me. Just the right age to get married.”
Baozi laughed. “I have no interest in women, so I don’t intend to delay any of them.”
Siew Tshin twitched, nearly dropping his skewer. “You … your parents don’t mind?”
“They did at first, but now they’ve turned all their attention to my brother.”
Siew Tshin’s gaze dropped to his skewer, and he took a slow bite. As he swallowed, he asked, “How did you manage something like that?”
“Look at me,” Baozi said, amused. “Can anyone make me do something that I don’t want?”
Siew Tshin’s gaze tracked down Baozi’s angular features to his broad chest and darted back to the coals with a cough. “I suppose not.”
As Baozi cleaned up after them, Siew Tshin asked, “Which of the beasts do you plan to catch?”
“Whatever I can find that’s edible.”
“How do you intend to preserve it until the day of the feast?”
Baozi tilted his head with a faint smile. “Didn’t you think I’d die a terrible death?”
“The kirin have stringy flesh, the zhuque taste like ash, and the fushi no longer live in these lands, but the meat of the luan birds is not only rich on the tongue but also an excellent health tonic.”
“The luan? It’s illegal to hunt one of the luan. They’re an Imperial symbol.” Baozi stared at Siew Tshin. “If you’ve eaten one, you and your family might be in big trouble. You shouldn’t have told me that.”
Siew Tshin let out a harsh laugh. “My family has always been trouble. It’s not illegal to hunt wild luan, only the tame ones in the palace.” Seeing Baozi hesitate, impatience fed into his tone. “If you’re worried you’d get into trouble, blame it on me if you get questioned.”
“I’m not in the habit of asking the noble-born to wipe my ass,” Baozi said. Somehow, watching Siew Tshin’s handsome face twist in disgust at his words improved his mood.
Despite misgivings, they set off for the luan after a cold breakfast of jerky and boiled eggs. Again, Siew Tshin made no complaint. It didn’t look like forbearance, either. At Baozi’s inquiring stare, Siew Tshin raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”
“Did you join the army?” That was Baozi’s best guess.
Siew Tshin tensed up, eyeing Baozi warily. “Why do you ask?”
“You’re quite different from the other noble-born people I’ve met.”
“I noticed that you don’t like the highborn.”
“There’s nothing to like or dislike,” Baozi said with a shrug. “Can you hate the locusts that strip a field? They are what they are.”
Siew Tshin’s fingers twitched briefly into fists. “That’s a strong sentiment.”
“A friend of mine started a successful tau hway shop,” Baozi said as he forged past gnarled undergrowth. “It became so successful that a nearby restaurant grew jealous. The shopkeeper arranged for my friend’s shop to be smashed, and my friend’s legs were broken. When he went to the yamen to cry grievance, the shopkeeper’s boss—the son of the prefect—put a word in. My friend was thrown into jail, and died a month later from a cold. Such is life.”
“We hide the pretty girls in our village in case the young masters in town see them and decide to take them as concubines or playthings. Our smartest, who manage to qualify into schools in town, often face bullying or worse from their more powerful peers. Bandits regularly raid villages, which the magistrate ignores because of regular bribes, leaving us to defend ourselves. Three years ago drought ravaged our fields, yet the tax remained the same, forcing family after family to sell their children to feed themselves—”
“I remember that,” Siew Tshin cut in. “The Imperial court allocated relief funds.”
“That’s what you say.”
“You accuse me of lying?”
“I’m saying that whether they did or did not, there was no difference. Makes you wonder what happened to the funds. Doesn’t matter. Some died, some lived—such is life.”
Siew Tshin fell silent. As the sun climbed higher in the sky and they took a break by another creek, he asked, “What do you think of the imperial family?”
“Isn’t it a crime to speak poorly of the imperial family?”
“It’s a crime to slander the imperial family,” Siew Tshin corrected. “A personal opinion isn’t the same.”
“You’re trying to get me into trouble,” Baozi teased. As Siew Tshin flushed and began to object, he raised a palm. “I think they’re like the luan.”
“Powerful and unfathomable. They live on the high peaks and survive by absorbing moonlight. They’re so far removed from the rest of the world that they have the luxury of not having to give much of a damn about it. Nor does the world need to care overmuch about which luan lives on which peak. Up until some hunter named after his mother’s favourite food needs one of them for a cooking competition,” Baozi said with a grin. His smile faded at the ugly look on Siew Tshin’s face. “You asked.”
“So I did.” Siew Tshin glanced up at the thickening clouds, his jaw tight. When he spoke again, it was with indifference. “Smells like rain. We should speed up.”
Protective of their territories, the wild luan lived on the great pine trees skirting sheer cliffs. The stifling heat and humidity of the forest eased abruptly once Baozi took a step into luan territory—the birds made their own weather. He tensed and stopped under a pine tree as he saw one take off from the top of the cliff, a great red and white crane-like bird with a shimmering crimson crest and a sweeping tail. Images flickered over the tailfeathers, though Baozi was too far away to make them out even as he squinted.
“You’ve seen the luan before,” Siew Tshin said.
“Obviously. I got us up here, didn’t I?”
“You’ve eaten them before?”
Baozi snorted. “No. I picked up some shed feathers, hoping to sell them in town. They don’t retain the images longer than a day, though, and the furrier didn’t believe that they were luan feathers.”
“He couldn’t have sold them even if they did—only the Imperial family can wear luan feathers.”
“I was desperate at the time. Ignorant, too. That’s what you tend to be when you’re twelve.”
“Twelve!” Siew Tshin blinked. “You climbed all the way here at that age?”
“It wasn’t my first time—my grandfather often showed me the way. He’d always liked the luan. I thought if their feathers could buy him the medicine he needed, it’d be a fair exchange.”
“How is your grandfather now?”
“Like I said, I was ignorant. Such is life.”
A column of orange light burst past the canopy before Siew Tshin could speak. Baozi forged through the undergrowth, aiming for the cliff. As he climbed toward a high ledge, startled screams began to punctuate each burst of light, cries that ebbed as Baozi reached his perch.
Within a clearing in the trees, people in grey and black clustered together, apparently having stumbled unexpectedly into a pair of luan. Getting over their surprise, the men grew efficient. One luan wailed as an arrow from a wrist crossbow punctured its wing, its crest flaring brightly. Men threw themselves out of the way as another spear of light struck the ground where they had stood.
“Friends of yours?” Baozi asked as he pulled Siew Tshin up to the ledge.
“Funny,” Siew Tshin said. He touched the wound on his flank.
“They were chasing you, and ran into the luan.”
“Clearly.” Siew Tshin watched the fight dispassionately. “They’ll kill that pair, but the birds have already called others. Eventually, they’ll drive the assassins to death with sheer numbers. After they’re gone, you should be able to sneak over and retrieve one of the luan carcasses.”
Baozi’s lip curled. “You were hoping they would follow us, that the luan would then take care of your problems.”
“We didn’t come to any harm, and everyone gets what they want.”
“You’re from the Imperial family,” Baozi guessed. When Siew Tshin didn’t answer, he said, “Who else would have known what a luan would taste like?”
“Perhaps a child who would dare come this far at the age of twelve for a feather,” Siew Tshin said.
“You people always think of the world as a chessboard. My grandfather used to say that it was an annoying habit.”
“Your grandfather …?” Siew Tshin straightened as Baozi set his hunting bow aside and unwrapped the long package on his back. “What are you doing?”
Oilskin peeled away from a longbow carved of black laminated wood, etched in silver and jade. Siew Tshin sucked in a thin breath as Baozi pulled a worn thumbring of pale bone from his pouch. “That bow and thumbring …” Siew Tshin trailed off.
“My grandfather respected the luan,” Baozi said as he strung the great bow with little effort. “Yet, in the end, he was feared by it, in part because he was from common birth; in part because he would not play any political games. He gave up his military power to save his family and retreated to his village, only to be ground slowly down into poverty by the very people he broke his body to protect. Finally, he died because we couldn’t scrape together enough taels for a decent healer when he took ill. Still, he went without bitterness or regrets, because he felt such sentiments irrelevant. I suppose he left such a thing to the people who survived him. Such is life.”
The first arrow took a grey-clothed man through the chest. As his companions faltered and looked around, the uninjured luan shrilled. Another beam of light stitched through the assassins’ ranks, scattering them. The bow sang in Baozi’s hands thrice more, then he set it down as the luan finished off the rest. The birds glanced in Baozi’s direction for a heartbeat, then took flight, injuries and all.
“Yet General Jiang’s grandson, named after a steamed bun, remains soft-hearted,” Siew Tshin said.
“That’s what you think.” Baozi unstrung the bow and began to wrap it back up. “Come on. Maybe we can make it back past the boundary before dark.”
“You’re giving up?” Siew Tshin asked, surprised. “The luan aside, there are other creatures that nest close by. The winged serpent’s flesh, for example, is also a tonic.”
“My interest in fighting off waves of assassins is low, and the probability of more of them is high while you’re still here.”
“This should be the last group for a while,” Siew Tshin said, though his smile was rueful. He saluted Baozi with his fists. “Thank you. For your help, unwilling as it was. You’re a fine archer—as great as your grandfather. Should you wish to join the military, I could put a word in for you.”
“Why repeat past mistakes? I’ll get you to the town, but I think I’ve had enough of the luan. Bird-shaped or otherwise.”
“Weren’t you looking to feed one of us for money?” Siew Tshin asked. He chuckled as Baozi let out a snort, and fished out a folded piece of paper from his sleeve, handing it over. “A thousand taels of silver. Draw it at any bank.”
Baozi nearly fumbled the paper in his surprise. “What?”
“Why, you don’t think the life of a prince is worth that much?”
“I don’t accept pity.” Baozi tried to hand the paper back. “Especially those that likely come with strings attached.”
“Take it.” Siew Tshin looked past the trees, toward the luan roosting grounds. “It isn’t pity. Think of it as money long owed—for your village, for your grandfather’s woes, whatever you like. Once you’re done, come to the capital for the Eight Treasure Festival.”
“I thought the Empress wouldn’t have any interest in rude craftsmanship,” Baozi said, though he put the bank note away.
“She might not, but I do.” Siew Tshin’s ears reddened as he spoke. “This time, I’ll be able to contribute. I have a few twenty-year-old jars of fine wine. Ask for me at Prince Xin’s mansion.” He passed Baozi a jade waist pendant, still faintly warm from the heat of his body. “Maybe I’ll even introduce you to the chef of PeraMakan. Then you can see what truly great food tastes like.”
“Don’t people usually trade jade pendants as lover’s tokens?” Baozi teased, and laughed as Siew Tshin turned red as a cooked shrimp. “Hah, I’m joking—hey!” Siew Tshin swiped his thumbring. “That’s my grandfather’s!”
“I’ll return it when I see you in the capital,” Siew Tshin said, shoving it into his sleeve. He drew back as Baozi made to grab his wrist, then smirked as Baozi shook his head and motioned for them to start the climb down. So much for having enough of the luan—such was life.
Born in Singapore, Anya Ow is an Aurealis-Award-nominated author whose short stories have appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, Uncanny, and Asimov’s. Anya’s most recent space opera novel, ION CURTAIN, came out on July 2022. She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, and can be found on Twitter @anyasy.
Previous stories set in this universe:
Seven Parts Full
The Case of the Teapot of Enlightenment