“Shadows Cast By Moonlight” by Nghi Vo
I regretted telling Fang about the cold shadow sorcerers almost immediately.
He sat captivated as I recited the tale I heard while scrubbing the tavern floor; of men and women who slipped underneath shadows, who could steal the breath of princes and who commanded the souls they stole like an army. They were thieves and spies, the best there had ever been, the best there ever would be, and they wore strings of polished finger bones polished jade around their necks.
We sat on the slate roof of the House of Jade Cicadas, sharing a cold bun that Fang had swiped from the restaurant where he worked. Below us, magistrates and priests paid long, long chains of cash to sleep with courtesans with names like Beautiful Lotus and Dreaming Cloud, and above us, the moon gleamed like a golden coin, just one edge lightly clipped by a precise celestial money-changer. We passed the bun back and forth, taking smaller and smaller bites until it was gone, and in the bright moonlight, Fang’s eyes shone.
“People who can steal anything and go anywhere,” he said, rubbing at the hollow of his stomach. “What a fine thing that would be.”
I frowned, licking the taste of burnished pork from my lips.
“Tell me another story instead,” I said, suddenly wanting to change the subject. My bravery in bringing up such a strange and occult story was gone, and I wanted nothing more than to take the words back into my mouth. The eyes of homeless brats should never glow like that, his or mine.
Fang shot me a look out of the corner of his eye, but he shrugged a narrow, scarred shoulder.
“I don’t have any stories tonight,” he said. “Nothing as good as the cold shadow sorcerers.”
The peaks of the roof were crowned with the heads of fierce dragons, and in the moonlight, they cast shadows like deepest ink on the slick tiles. I thought I saw one shadow shimmer like heat rising from the cobblestones, but when I looked closer, it was still.
Fang crossed the city seven or eight times to learn more about the cold shadow sorcerers. He learned that they had been taught their skills by the daughter of the moon, who hated the light of day, and that their only loyalty was to themselves. They were wealthy beyond the measure of any earthly person and that even the emperor, with his cadre of imperial wizards and wisemen, dreamed badly of the things that hid in the dark.
“They are like gods in the shadows,” he told me. “Like lords.”
We were curled under a pile of stiff, newly tanned hides, and the harsh fumes would have driven us into the night if the night didn’t want to kill us with ice driven into our lungs. I coughed low and readjusted the scarf I tied over my nose, growing more and more uneasy. I wish I had never told him the story.
“You should let it go,” I said, and he frowned at me the way he did when he thought I should just shush and agree with him. He had given me that look since we were five and realized that two children, however small and frightened, stood a better chance in the streets of Tsang than just one alone.
“I won’t,” he said finally, staring up at the rafters. “Not when Lu the Half-Blind told me that they take recruits from the first frost until the longest night of the year.”
I clung to his hand, suddenly afraid.
“Fang,” I said, low and urgent. “We should have nothing to do with these people.”
He glanced at me, quick and cutting as a butcher’s whetted knife, and blew his long forelock out of his eyes. For a moment, I thought he would sneer, but instead, he squeezed my hand.
“Don’t worry,” he said, but he gave no reason why I shouldn’t.
His first task was to steal the golden ball from the son of the Bai family, and he crowed like a rooster when he found out.
“The Bai family?” he exclaimed, gesturing with his cold rice ball. “Who do they think I am? I’ve been in and out of the Bai family’s house since I was small!”
“You’re thinking about asking Lin to get you in,” I said flatly, and he shrugged, his eyes bright and wild.
“Lin works in the kitchen,” he said, waving me off. “It’ll still take some wit to get from the kitchen to the child’s rooms.”
Fang needed me along for lookout, but he was the one who planned everything. Lin was willing to let us in the back, and she even told him that there would be a moon-viewing party that week, one where a pair of extra workers wouldn’t draw much attention.
“You’re sure it will be fine?” she asked, and I looked up, realizing that she was talking to me and not him.
Fang’s cousin Lin was small and shy, and she knew how lucky she was to have found a place in the Bai household. She loved her cousin, but she knew better than to trust him, so she looked to me.
“It’ll be fine,” I said finally. “We’ll get what we’re after and be gone in two heartbeats, I promise.”
She bit her lip, and I could see the question on her face. Will I get in trouble? She never asked, and I couldn’t offer reassurances one way or the other. Fang, for his part, was far too excited to notice our exchange.
He traded a jade hairpin, his last gift from his mother, to get clean uniforms for us both, and Lin let us in the rear door when she went out to throw scraps to the dogs. Fang walked with confidence into the house, whistling a song about a hanged man talking with a ghost on the road. More nervous, I trailed behind him, watching the shadows cast from the fine paper lanterns carefully, certain I saw eyes opening and closing in their depths.
We crept on silent cat paws into the family quarters, and in a darkened room that smelled of incense and sage, we found the Bai family heir sleeping on the chest of his nurse. I stood by, glancing down the hall and at the sleeping woman and child, as Fang noiselessly rustled through the small trunk of toys. He pulled out a cunningly jointed ivory horse, a stuffed cat, and a little bone flute before coming up with the gold ball. In the untrustworthy light of the brazier, I could see how round it was and how it shone.
I expected Fang to stow it away safely in his jacket but he paused, glancing down at the woman and the boy.
“She’ll be beaten for this,” he said. He was soft on women, through and through, and for a long moment, I thought he would put it back.
“Very harshly, I should think,” I said coolly. I wanted to make sure he knew what he was doing and why, and after a moment he tucked the glowing, precious thing into his jacket with a sad nod.
“I’ll come back,” he muttered to me. “I’ll come back and I’ll make it up to her.”
“Bet you won’t,” I muttered back.
We walked past the garden paths, where a dozen men were bent low to gild the paving stones with real gold. We found the work crew we had been assigned to, and all in all, it was a good night for us. Fang walked free and clear with the toy he stole and we both received folded paper packets with our pay inside. There were enough coins to purchase a small room in one of the boarding houses on Speckled Dove Street, and a shared meal of hot fried chicken’s feet, nipping the crispy sweet skin off of the delicate bones and licking our fingers.
Fang took the ball out of his jacket and rolled it over the back of his hand, bringing it to rest delicately on his fingertips.
“What a strange thing for them to ask for,” he said thoughtfully.
“They want to see if you would do what they said,” I said scornfully. “They want to see if you would have your hands chopped off over a child’s toy.”
“You would have had yours chopped off too if they had caught you there,” he reminded me and I shrugged.
“We’re in this together,” I said unsteadily, and he wrapped me up in his arms, kissing the top of my head as if I were a floppy spaniel pup.
“You’re not some dozy maid,” he told me. “I would always come back to you.”
It was good to rest against his body in a place that was warm and smelled of sweet fried food, but I remembered the maid in the room, and I thought of how savagely she would be beaten in the morning. I thought of Lin, and whether it would be traced back to her, and then I wondered if this test was about risking your hands at all.
Fang’s next test was more difficult.
“A kiss,” he said. “From Vivid Crimson.”
He shook his head, kicking the broken guardian dog statue with his bare foot. We were in one of the city’s ghost quarters, abandoned for ill-luck many years ago. The ghosts never bothered us, but now, for the first time, I wondered if there was something watching us from the darkness.
“Why not the emperor’s daughter?” he said bitterly. “Why not a warrior nun?”
“They must know you,” I said, squatting by our tiny fire. “You could talk your way into the bed of any innocent woman.”
“So they send me to a courtesan. They send me to one of the most expensive courtesans in Tsang, who probably won’t get out of bed for less than eighty taels of gold.”
“I once heard that Vivid Crimson refused the Duke of Chin because he smelled like garlic, even after the Duke offered up a hundred taels for a single night.”
Fang’s expression told me that I wasn’t helping and I shrugged, offering him a skewer of dried squid. Heating it in the fire had at least made it softer and for a long moment, we chewed in silence.
“No one is untouchable,” he said finally. “There are paths that even we can take through the Perfumed Pavilion.”
“We?” I asked in amusement, and he grinned. It was such a familiar expression that for a moment, I wanted him to call all of this off, tell him that we could join a circus troupe, or stow away on a ship to the colonies, or simply continue as we were. Tsang is the richest city in the world, and it is rich in chances, as well. A girl can earn her fortune with her wits and three coins taken from a dead man. An old widow woman became the Queen of the North Sturgeon, and now all the fishermen must tithe her or pull in empty nets. No one needed to be a cold shadow sorcerer.
“We’ll find a way,” he said, squeezing my hand, and against my better judgment, I nodded.
It took us several weeks, and as the nights grew colder, Fang grew more and more tense. We took odd jobs on Lotus Street, where the rich of Tsang come to find pleasure and oblivion. There was a man who came to eat the rhododendron honey, which invokes strange dreams and old gods, and in his stupor, he told Fang that Vivid Orchid was not a noble’s bastard, as the story went, but rather the eighth child of a southern lychee seller, beautiful, but one too many mouths for all that. There was a woman who washed dishes at the restaurant beneath the Eight Steps to Paradise, and in between loads of heavy plates, she told me about Vivid Orchid’s craving for sweet things, something that disguised a darker hunger.
“It’s the reishi sickness,” the woman confided in me. “Addiction so strong it could pull teeth.”
I whistled, impressed. Reishi was a drug that had been banned in Tsang for almost a hundred years. It provoked strange dreams and deep, queer cravings, and for some reason, going without made the addicts crave sugar like wasps and little children. There are new drugs and better, ones that Tsang hasn’t yet thought to ban; a reishi addiction was as much an antique as it was a crime.
“I know an apothecary who can make some reishi,” Fang said thoughtfully.
“And I think I know how we can get into the Perfumed Pavilion.” The plan had been in the back of my head for a while, but now we had something to do when we got there.
Fang grinned at me, and I could see that we were back in business.
Organizing the candy was the easiest part of the whole thing. We went down into the lower quarter, where there were plenty of war refugees from the south who envied even our rags, and we found people who were still scraping together a bit of flour here, a pot of sugar there, to make the treats that had comforted them at home. We had a single string of cash, and we spent it all, filling our covered basket with sticks of haw berries crystallized in sugar, with envelopes of the spun floss they called dragon’s beard, and with the packets of jelly candy that were sticky enough that they could pull a loose tooth from its socket.
Fang acquired the reishi, and from the sick and frightened look on his face after he did, I could only wonder what the apothecary had tested on him. Apothecaries in Tsang are always looking for that next formula and even beggars are unwilling to swallow their concoctions.
“It isn’t going to kill me,” was all he would say, and I had to be content with that.
We robbed a drunken peddler for his clothes and his framed rucksack, and so we presented ourselves at the kitchen doors of the Perfumed Pavilion. We maintained similar looks of foolish placidity when the kitchen called up our offers to the courtesans above, and then we were led through the back ways of the richest brothel in city, which of course meant it was the richest brothel in the world.
As we scurried along the spotless corridor, I could hear the murmurings through the thin walls all around us. One girl called for fresh sheets, and a boy sang that old rude song about crossing a stream and lifting his robe higher and higher as he went. I kept my smirk to myself. Here the roof might be celadon tile instead of straw, and the whores might play a dozen instruments, but it was still a brothel. It comforted me, or at least it did until the maid rapped on a door and I saw what made the Perfumed Pavilion so very different from the shacks on the crumbling river bank.
Vivid Crimson was as slender as a reed, and he wore his long black hair loose down to his knees. When he turned to greet us, there was a welcoming smile on his perfect oval face that made me warm right down to my toes, and it took me a long moment to realize that he likely met everyone that way.
Even Fang, who doesn’t care for boys, had to close his mouth and plaster on a silly smile. We bowed in unison like a pair of clockwork dolls, and in unison, we spread our wares on the ground.
“Someone has spilled my secret, I see,” he said wryly, stooping to pick up a packet of dragon floss candy.
We kept our gazes down, but I could feel Fang draw a silent, hard breath when those gold-tipped fingers ventured close to the lump of jelly candy. Vivid Crimson picked it up, as much out of curiosity as anything else. Jelly candy is sold in small discreet rolls, not in large lumps, and especially not in lumps that were packed around a finger-sized portion of reishi.
The shape of the thing surprised Vivid Crimson, and I knew that he could see the bluish-green corner of the block, glistening like the scale of a dragon and peeking from the jelly that I had so carefully pulled away.
Right on cue, Fang reached out to snag the piece of candy from Vivid Crimson’s hand, causing the famed courtesan to make a noise like a displeased barn owl.
“Oh not that one, great lord,” Fang babbled. “Not that one, why, I should be flogged for bringing such a misshapen thing before a great lord like yourself. I’m sure one of the street children swapped it for better and we never noticed, lord…”
I saw Vivid Crimson visibly compose himself, and I also saw that he would not take his eyes from the lump of candy in Fang’s hands. Then his face was perfectly calm again, and he offered Fang a smile that I was sure had charmed half the ministers at court.
“No harm done at all,” Vivid Crimson said. “It is only that I love those candies. A secret pleasure, I’m afraid.”
Fang shook his head even as he laughed.
“Then I shall be sure to bring them the next time I come, proper ones, ones that are perfect enough for you…”
“But that could be ages,” Vivid Crimson protested, and nervously, I noticed that he was inching closer. He was taller than Fang, and though Fang was strong, I was willing to bet Vivid Crimson knew tricks that could drop Fang to the floor in pain or dead.
Fang didn’t seem to notice, only shaking his head and holding the lump of jelly candy behind his back.
“I would be ashamed to sell you this,” he said, grinning like a fool and wagging his head from side to side. “Not fit for even a guttersnipe it is…”
I’m sure he meant to draw it out, to wait until Vivid Crimson was begging or crying, but that was before Vivid Crimson took two very quick steps across the room. One perfect hand came to cup Fang around the back of the neck, and the other, I realized after a few hard blinks, held a long, sharp hair skewer to his throat. It was as long as my hand, and I could tell from the way that Fang’s eyes went wide that it was sharp. As I watched, a thin trickle of blood ran down Fang’s neck, hitting his robe and soaking in immediately.
“How much do you want for it?” Vivid Crimson said, and to my surprise, his voice was still perfectly level, elegantly restrained. I truly believed he could have ripped Fang’s throat out with that deadly skewer using that same voice.
“A kiss!” Fang squeaked, as unnerved as I was. “I want a kiss!”
Vivid Crimson’s soft lips curled in a smile, and you could have pretended that it meant anything.
Fang nodded, or at least he tried to and stopped because of the skewer.
Vivid Crimson’s smile got just a touch wider, and then he took a firmer grip on Fang’s neck and pulled him in for a savage kiss. The skewer slid along Fang’s throat and the blood ran heavier for a moment, enough that I started forward to pull them apart.
Then Vivid Crimson stepped back, a bright smear of blood shocking red on his full lips and a smile that I could read all too clearly on his face. It was scorn, contempt, and even worse, there was pity. For a moment, the beautiful man’s eyes flickered to mine, and I wondered what he knew about me, about both of us, before turning to Fang again.
“There,” he said. “Now give it to me.”
Silently, covering the small puncture wound at his throat with his hand and licking the blood from his bitten lip, Fang handed over the candy, and we bowed our way out. Vivid Crimson watched us go, and behind him, I saw a flutter of shadow that made me blink. Then the door slammed, and I never found if there was someone besides the three of us in that room.
We walked silently from the Perfumed Pavilion, and though Fang kept his hand to his sore mouth, he looked up and around, as if he could see a time when he would be welcomed in such a place. For my own part, I only looked up at the rafters and wondered if I could see shapes moving in the dimness above us.
Fang received word of his third task just two weeks before the Festival of Ghosts’ Return, the longest night of the year. Then he disappeared.
I went looking for him at all our usual haunts, from the warm nook underneath the floor of the butcher’s to the attic above the funeral dresser’s shop. I even went to find his mother, who was a beggar in the twenty-ninth district, close to the bone temples. She stared at me for a long moment, trying to recognize me, and when she did, she drove me away with handfuls of dirt flung at my head.
Two days before the festival, I finally found him at an abandoned temple, resting between the paws of a statue of the fox Meri. Meri stole the fire of the Queen Mother of the West and carried it in her heart, and above Fang’s tousled head, the fox grinned at me as if she had found another trickster, another liar. I scowled at her before reaching out to touch Fang with the toe of my sandal.
“You don’t have to,” I said without preamble, crossing my arms over my chest. When he looked up at me, his eyes sat like fried eggs on his face, wobbling and sad.
“Really. You don’t have to do anything. You’re in this far, but you can still go back.”
“Oh?” His voice was a strange cross between scorn and hope. “Go back and do what? Net trash from the river and sell it?”
“Don’t be so proud,” I said, sitting on the ground next to him. “Remember, we found a dead guardsman that way?”
“Yeah, and we sold all of his armor and bought those fireworks.”
He stared up at the darkening sky, resting his head against Meri’s leg, and shook his head.
“I don’t want to do that.”
“Well, let’s do something else.” At his raised eyebrow, I stroked my chin like an old magistrate, considering.
“We could stow away on a foreigner’s ship and go catch parrots in the forests of Fu Lang. Then we’ll come back here, sell off a dozen, and be so rich we can live as we like.”
He didn’t smile at that, but he looked a little less tired.
“We could… steal a horse from the Imperial stables and ride it all the way to the border. The Nel tribes will make us royalty for one bright bay stud.”
I smiled at him, but he didn’t play along.
“We could beg and beg and beg along the Street of the White Lotus,” I said, a little desperately. “Perhaps we could sell our memories or our teeth and get apprenticeships with one of the faceless men. Maybe we could learn to make skin lanterns, or go down to the docks and learn to paint boat eyes.”
Fang surged to his feet, nearly pushing me back when he did so, and for a moment, he towered over me. He had always been taller than me, but the last few weeks, I finally noticed, had made him gaunt.
“Tomorrow night,” he said finally. “I need your help.”
My mouth quirked a little at that.
“You seem awfully sure that I’m going to give it.”
“I know you will,” he said, and there was a hollowness to his voice that had never been there before.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said, hating myself for the note of pleading in my voice, but I could tell he wasn’t listening. “You can still stop all of this right now.”
He shook his head. Can’t was as good as won’t, and finally, I nodded.
Fang led me through the streets and away from the city walls, and after a while, I gave up trying to talk to him. The forest outside the city was haunted. Everyone knew that, and as we walked through the shadows, I could feel bright and glittering eyes upon us.
The temple was like one of the hundreds that littered the countryside, dedicated to some small god or goddess of raindrops or drought, forgotten and inconsequential. There was a small man in monk’s robes who knelt by the door, and he fastidiously helped us out of our shoes as if they were silk slippers and not hemp sandals.
We made our bows to the temple goddess, whose wooden statue was covered in peeling pink and green paint, and we knelt to wait.
By the light of the brazier, I could see Fang’s narrow handsome face. I knew it better than I knew my own, and now, he couldn’t look me in the eye.
“I want to get out of here,” I said quietly, and his gaze flickered towards me but cut away before I could read anything there. I could feel the silence between us, though, and I knew what was going to happen. I had always known.
He didn’t make an answer, and we waited as the night wind picked up outside. This close to the solstice, the ghosts would be especially hungry, and I shivered when I thought of their skinless faces and those terrible teeth, naked without lips. The Cold Shadow Sorcerers controlled them, or so the story went, and I imagined, almost delirious, a human hand stroking that flayed face, loving something so terrible.
The Cold Shadow Sorcerer who came to meet us did not materialize out the shadows or descend from the rafters above. Instead, she greeted the man who was not a monk at the door with a cheerful call and stumped into the room shaking raindrops from her hair.
“Bastard of a night,” she said pleasantly, bowing to the goddess. She was shorter than I was, with laugh lines at her eyes, and on her clothes, I could smell roast duck.
“You’re the dishwasher,” I said almost accusingly. “You were the one who told us about Vivid Crimson’s reishi sickness.”
“Well, some of us do like to play favorites,” she said guilelessly. She came to kneel across from us, and now that I knew what to look for, I could see that she had none of the stiffness or pain of a life-long laborer. She moved like a shadow across the moon, and her smile was like a sliver of ice.
“Shall we see what we have here?” she said, clapping her hands to her thighs. “What have we found, hmm?”
Both Fang and I were silent, and next to me, I could feel Fang tense.
“Don’t…” he started to say, and she tilted her head at him.
“Don’t what? Don’t keep going?”
“Don’t tell her,” he said miserably. I refused to look at him, because I knew he was shaking like a leaf.
“Why not?” The woman sounded amused, as if her small kitten had become tangled in a bit of string.
Fang made a small sound, almost a groan, and I sprang to my feet.
“This is needless,” I said harshly, and her eyes flickered to mine instead.
“Someday, daughter,” she said coldly, “you will know that it is no such thing.”
Fang started to speak, and instead of listening, instead of comforting him or even saying goodbye, I turned on my heel and walked out the door.
The man in monk’s robes offered me my shoes again, and when I slipped them on, I walked out into the courtyard. The grass was long and already lightly drenched with dew. I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself, and stared hard at the moon.
Eventually, the screams stopped.
“He would have done the same to you, daughter.”
The woman had appeared by my side, though my mind was so blank she might as easily have skipped up to me as come out of a shadow.
“But he didn’t,” I said dully. “Instead, it was just me. It was always just me.”
“It will always be just you,” she said approvingly. “You learn quickly.”
She pressed a polished finger bone into my clammy hands, and together, we walked back to the city.
About the Author
Nghi Vo currently lives on the shores of Lake Michigan, and her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons, Alyson Books, and Alien Skin. Her current interests include Vietnamese ghosts, Turkish food, unwise decisions, and medieval medicine. She can be contacted at email@example.com.