“The Chopsticks Wizard” by Anya Ow
Meihua folded her hands over her belly and waited for the men to stop shouting. Beside her, the village’s constable, Hun, exhaled loudly and pulled at his thin beard, watching the retainers quarrel and spit with the weary look of a reluctant father. The small encampment newly burrowed into the Cloud-Tree forest was military-neat, with the latrines dug at a proper distance and a perimeter marked with freshly cut and sharpened bamboo spikes. Within her dove-gray robes, folded close to her heart, her chopsticks hummed and warmed, made sympathetic by proximity.
“Enough.” The noise subsided in hiccups. The tall, bearlike old man in black scale-mail had been the one who had raised his voice, his face round and hairless but for an impressive shrub of a moustache and eyebrows. “The Prince will speak.”
Meihua looked to the large red tent, curious, but blinked instead as a slim youth from the soldiers’ scrum awkwardly cleared his throat. His Royal Highness Prince Sheng-Yun, the Son of Heaven, scion of the Orchid Dynasty, was a skinny boy with a hairless chin barely older than Meihua herself. He had watery eyes, set too close to his narrow mouth, and a nervous smile, his unassuming face made even more unassuming by the nondescript gear that he wore: the same boiled leather and fur-lined long boots as the other hunters, the same plain longbow and quiver.
“Ah.” Sheng-Yun blushed a little and cleared his throat again. “Hongshe Meihua, did you say?”
Here it came. “Yes, your Highness.”
“Any…relation to Lady Hongshe Yinghua?”
“My mother, your Highness.”
The hunters stared at her in surprise, but before she could explain, Sheng-Yun said, “Uh, but, ‘of the bamboo’?”
“Yes. Your Highness.” Meihua smiled sweetly, one of several useful defenses that she had learned from her mother.
“I see. I wasn’t aware that Lady Hongshe, ah, I meant Lady Hongshe Yinghua, had a daughter.”
“Yes, your Highness.” Meihua continued to smile. She tightened her hands.
“Very well then,” Sheng-Yun said to her surprise, more bemused than disappointed. “Welcome. I’ve never heard of anyone with a bamboo affinity. How interesting.”
“Your Highness,” said a fox-helmed soldier, stiffly at attention, “may I speak?”
“Ren, you’re already speaking,” Sheng-Yun said, ignoring Meihua as she hastily stifled a bubble of nervous laughter. “Yes, yes, what is it?”
“I was also unaware that Lady Yinghua had a daughter,” Ren said. “But even were Lady Meihua here the daughter of the Lady of the Chrysanthemum Mirror, the fact remains is that hunting a qilin is no simple matter.”
“Of that I am aware,” Sheng-Yun said.
“We requested a practitioner of iron or stone at the very least. Jade, by preference. You are an Orchid Prince and—”
“And the second youngest of twenty-eight siblings,” Sheng-Yun cut in. “Jade practitioners have better things to do than hunt qilin, especially in the flood season, and all iron practitioners have been seconded to our borders because of the Hrunang incursions. And before you start counting down the other Affinities, I wasn’t expecting to receive any help from Chrysanthemum at all, so any help is welcome. Stand down, Ren,” he continued gently, when Ren opened his mouth. “Constable, thank you for showing Lady Meihua to the encampment. The rest of you—”
The Prince’s statement was cut off by a distant, coughing roar, carrying over the wind. The soldiers fell silent, even as Sheng-Yun’s hand fell to the hilt of his sword. “It appears that your arrival was timely, Lady Meihua,” he said. “Have you a horse?”
“I,” Meihua stammered, off-balance when put on the spot. “I don’t—”
Hun intervened. “Mei, we’ll swap. I’ll take your donkey back to the village, and you can bring Shu back after everything. He’s a little deaf, but he’ll do you fine.”
Someone laughed behind her, an unkind sound. Sheng-Yun didn’t even blink. “Mount up. We’re leaving.”
Shu was a placid gray gelding, cropping grass where he was tethered just within the encampment. He glanced up at Meihua with mild astonishment as she untied him, then snorted as someone tapped Meihua’s shoulder, making her spin sharply. It was the mouse-helmed soldier. “You didn’t bring supplies?” asked the soldier.
“A woman!” Meihua blurted out, startled. She blushed. “I, I’m sorry. That was rude.”
“Yes,” the mouse-helmed soldier said, with a quick smile, “a woman. No supplies? No tent?”
“No. I brought a sleeping roll,” Meihua said, and wished she didn’t feel so awkward. “I didn’t think I’d need a tent. It’s with Moss, uh, my donkey.”
“Don’t worry about your things,” Hun said, patting her hand. “I’ll leave them safely with the quartermaster.”
“I’m the quartermaster. Leave them in the tent with the orange flag. I’m riding out. Come. Name’s Liling,” said the mouse-helmed soldier.
“Lady Liling—” Meihua said.
“Ha! Not even close. Just Liling. Come.” Liling’s destrier was a big piebald that bared its teeth at her as she approached, though it allowed her to mount up with ill-grace, snorting loudly as Meihua angled a bewildered Shu up beside them. “Mind the teeth. Bastard has moods.”
“‘Bastard’ is actually his name.” A crane-helmed soldier reined his dapple destrier into step. Ahead, Sheng-Yun and the bearlike man were leading the posse, the Prince on a snow-white warhorse, the bearlike man on a black charger. “Don’t mind her. Sorry about Ren earlier too.”
“I wasn’t offended.” Surrounded by warhorses worth more in taels than the entirety of the village Meihua now lived in, it was hard not to feel misplaced. Her mother should have sent one of the iron. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re a practitioner too, aren’t you?” Liling sounded impatient. At Meihua’s cautious nod, she grunted. “Then why the hell are you apologizing? Saw one of the iron once Died. Didn’t last long.”
“Bowshot, border skirmish,” the crane-helmed soldier said, and bowed in a flourish from the saddle. “I’m Liyang. Liling’s brother.”
“Younger brother,” Liling said, and Liyang sighed, so theatrically that Meihua stifled a startled laugh. At the sound, Ren turned in his saddle, glancing at them for a moment before turning away with a curt shrug. Abashed again, Meihua covered her mouth and ducked her head.
“So how does yours work?” Liling asked, ignoring Ren. “Never heard of a bamboo practitioner before. The iron guy could turn blades. Didn’t work with flint arrows, so he died. So much for his airs. Funny story.”
“It’s an affinity, woman,” Liyang said, before Meihua could comment. “You affect things of your affinity type. Turning them, heating them up, shattering them—”
“I know what it means. I meant her. You. What can you do, bamboo wizard?” Liling asked.
The qilin roared again, further away this time, somewhere to the northeast. The sky rumbled in response, the clouds overhead starting to thicken and turn gray, sympathetic to the qilin’s mood. Someone up ahead swore quietly, nervous. Liyang narrowed his eyes. “We’ve got to find it soon. The rains are almost here. Once the thunder season comes, the qilin will be unbreakable.”
“She knows that.” Liling scowled. She was about to say more but paused when there was a whistle from the front of the pack. Sheng-Yun was beckoning at Meihua. Reluctantly, she kicked her heels into Shu’s flanks, threading forward past unsmiling helms. What could she do? Three decades into her Awakening, and she’d yet to answer that question to her satisfaction.
The Prince said little to Meihua until they had forded the brook that marked the edge of the sprawling bamboo forest, then, as she had been dreading, he glanced at her expectantly. With the bamboo so close around her, it was like pushing head-first into a pool, somehow breathing, somehow seeing. The bamboo trunks hummed impatiently with ever-growing life, restless for the sun. Meihua drew her case from her robes and took out her chopsticks, holding them in a tight fist. Behind her, someone—Ren—chuckled. Meihua’s ears felt hot with embarrassment. She had not chosen the nature of her focus.
Sheng-Yun was indifferent to the opinion of his men. Now that he was on the hunt, he was different. Quieter, focused. “Can you find it?” he asked.
“Bamboo have no eyes.” Meihua murmured. She had to repeat herself in a louder voice as the Prince cocked his head.
“What do you do in the village?” Sheng-Yun asked, with practiced politeness. They were still on a northeastern bearing, threading past segmented trunks. He was looking beyond her with narrowed eyes, determinedly threading sight through trees.
“Poultices and drinks. And. I cook. A medicinal store…I mean, I run a medicinal store.” Meihua wished that she didn’t sound so defensive. “There are no Imperial healers for leagues and bamboo has some medicinal benefits when prepared properly.”
“Commendable.” Sheng-Yun looked surprised that she had even tried to explain herself.
“Commendable, certainly, your Highness,” Ren said, with an unfriendly stare, “but it does not net us a qilin.”
Sheng-Yun sighed, and Ren fell silent. “In your own time, Lady Meihua,” Sheng-Yun said, as though addressing a Jade practitioner. Somehow, that was worse.
Thankfully, the bearlike man spoke up. “Prince.”
“This is Guan,” Sheng-Yun told Meihua.
“Guan? Admiral Guan-shi of the Eastern Sea?” Meihua studied Guan more closely, even as he sniffed loudly. He sat awkwardly on his destrier. This close, his armor smelled unpleasantly like greasy–lantern-fish grease, a veteran sailor’s bulwark against rust and sea salt. “Lady Yinghua has mentioned you before, sir.” Like her mother, Admiral Guan-shi had legends to his name, ones that her mother was fond of disparaging.
Guan grunted. “Fondly?” Meihua nibbled on her lower lip, unsure and unwilling to give offense. He laughed. “Ha! Not likely. Yes. Rains are here,” Guan told Sheng-Yun, dismissing Meihua from his attention. “The water buffalo are on the move. Herds following new grass downriver. Easy prey.”
Meihua would not have called water buffalo easy, but she held her tongue, grateful for the reprieve. The river wasn’t far. They followed its growing grumble until they reached its flanks, swelled with mud and grass and storm debris, a dirty ribbon that fed newly carved banks. The buffalo herds were littered over the enlarged delta downstream where the bamboo started to thin out into water reeds, great, sturdy creatures with black horns, stronger than horses.
They kept their distance. The great bulls feared nothing and no one, indifferent to Imperial finery. Snorting loudly, the bulls stared them down, ready to charge if their party got too close. Beside Meihua, Liling whistled softly. “When we were kids,” Liling murmured, “the herds ran so thick that you couldn’t see the grass for miles. Just their backs and their mud.”
“When we were young,” Liyang said, “the qilin didn’t attack people. Or animals.”
“They must have. They had to eat something,” Liling said
“They did,” Meihua said, shading her eyes against the fading afternoon sun. “They breathed in qi. It used to be thicker across the lands.” Before the dragons fell from the sky to lie broken and sleeping, blighting cataracts of land with their jagged dreams of pain.
“Is that why they were called qilin?” Liyang inquired cheerfully.
“No, idiot,” Ren growled. “Qì and the q í in qilin aren’t the same character. You should know that.”
“Can’t read,” Liyang admitted, unconcerned. “Never had to.” He was oblivious to Meihua’s astonishment. One of the Prince’s private guard, illiterate? Her mother would have been appalled. “Hey, Guan. I don’t see anything eating any buffalo.”
“Never had to think either?” Ren asked sourly. He pointed. Near a bend in the river, ravens were settled thickly over something on the riverbank.
“That too,” Liyang said. His sister glowered at Ren and rolled her eyes.
The floods were growing worse each year. The bamboo closest to the rivers sat drowning, their leaves already turning yellow. It felt like Meihua was wading underwater, breathing in nothing. She clenched her hand tightly over her chopsticks, concentrating on the warm animal stink of the old gelding. Thankfully, Shu didn’t need guiding. He happily followed the others as they scattered the ravens, their horses uncomfortable in the sucking mud. The buffalo had been killed recently, its neck and belly torn away. The ravens had been working on the rest.
“Look at the horns,” Liling said. “They’re wet. Old bull must’ve fought to the death.”
“The qilin’s injured. Good.” Ren stood briefly in his stirrups and looked over the wary buffalo herd, then further down at the flooded forest. “But they heal quickly. Especially around this much water. It’ll be worse when the heavy rains come.”
“Not here,” Meihua said. She stiffened when Ren glanced sharply at her. “The qi,” Meihua tried to explain. “It’s constantly dying here, swallowed by water. The bamboo is drowning. No natural jade or iron underground. No rock, only loam and earth. And clay. The qilin won’t heal as quickly as it should here.”
“I thought you said they used to breathe in qi,” Liyang said. “Means they don’t anymore, right? They eat buffalo. And people, and anything that bleeds.”
“Every living thing has qi,” Meihua explained. “As does the land, which stores what it doesn’t breathe in its bones. Jade, iron, rock.”
“What’s bamboo then?” Liyang asked, grinning. “The hair?”
“Quiet,” Guan rumbled. “The qilin, it will feel better in places with stronger qi?”
“It might. They used to live only in unbroken lands.” Meihua said.
“Unbroken?” Liling asked.
“Pristine lands,” Sheng-Yun said, turning his face away. “The untouched forests. The mountains that we did not mine and quarry. Lady Meihua, you are familiar with these lands.” It was not a question, but Meihua nodded anyway. “Where would the qi be strongest?”
“Here.” Meihua waved at the water buffalo herds. “In their blood and their breath. Which is why it must have come here to feed. But once wounded, it must have fled. Somewhere familiar. The older parts of the forest, closer to the mountains that were, I think. Before we dug away the stone for coal—”
“There!” Ren stood abruptly in his stirrups, pointing.
In a muddy patch of the river delta, river reeds were heaving themselves skyward. Mud slipped past arcing ivory horns, tangling in shaggy manes, and water blew clear of snorting nostrils over a yawning maw, thick with tusks. The qilin staggered to its feet, a dragon-headed beast with a body like a buffalo and twice as tall at the shoulder. Red and white scales gleamed in patches under mud and reeds, and it shook itself with a bellow that rattled Meihua’s teeth. The water buffalo before it scattered, snorting. Surprise rippled through the herd until even the old bulls began to turn, surging away through water and mud until the ground shook from the percussion of their weight and numbers, a tide that became a charge.
Her old gelding didn’t hesitate. Whinnying in fright, Shu wheeled around, bolting back towards the bamboo. Past the trained destriers that stayed nervous but still, obediently waiting for their frozen riders’ commands. Meihua ducked her head, clenching her fingers over the pommel. Guan was shouting something, then someone was shrieking, a horse or a man, shrill with anguish. The forest grew thicker around her. They were turning away from the river. The water buffalo herd rumbled in a continuous basso crescendo with no menace to it, only inevitability. Around her, the bamboo sang back to her in response in a pitch Meihua could not catch in her terror.
The old qilin had not only learned how to kill. It had learned cunning.
Someone grabbed the reins. Shu flinched but slowed down, snorting loudly and trembling as they drew level with the piebald warhorse beside them. It was Liling, pale in the dappled sunlight. Meihua opened her mouth to apologize as they came to a stop but could only gasp and wheeze.
“Easy,” Liling said, glancing behind them. The forest had swallowed the river, and the bamboo was quiet again. “All right there?”
Meihua nodded. “Everyone–where’s everyone?”
“Eh,” Liling scratched up under her helm. “Anyone with an inch of sense would’ve followed you into the forest. Can’t face a stampede with a warhorse.”
“It was a trap. The qilin wasn’t injured at all. Mud slowed down the warhorses closest to the dead buffalo. Shu was on a patch of grass, or we wouldn’t have made it so quickly to the bamboo when the water buffalo were driven towards us.”
“Yeah.” Liling nodded. “Bastard and I were on the grass next to you.” She frowned to herself, perhaps worried about her brother, then rolled her shoulders, armor clinking. “I’m going to double back.”
“I’ll come,” Meihua said, before she could talk herself out of courage. Thankfully, Liling made no comment, though she drew her bow as she turned Bastard around.
The water buffalo herd was further downstream by the time they made their way quietly back to the delta, and the qilin was nowhere to be seen. The river grass had been trampled into a wide, muddy swathe that merged into the sluggish river and was thick with buffalo dung. Liling wrinkled her nose as she stood on her stirrups, shading her eyes. Then she grunted and nudged Bastard into a brisk trot, angling away from the river.
They found Guan and his warhorse downstream, near-hidden in thick rushes. Guan was dead, his armor peppered with dents, but the horse was still dying. Meihua looked away as Liling put it out of its misery and pulled herself back into saddle, grim. “Any ideas?” Liling asked. Meihua shuddered. “Hey,” Liling said, concerned now. “Are you all right?”
“Fine. Just. Never seen a…Goddess, the blood.”
“Oh. Right. Don’t look closely? Deep breaths. Come on, then,” Liling said, clearly trying for kindness, though her impatience bled through as she grabbed at Shu’s reins. “We’ve got to find the Prince.”
“I didn’t think the Admiral would…” Meihua trailed off, gulping for air. It was either that or throw up over her knees. “I didn’t think he would die. Not like this.”
“Guan wasn’t great with horses. Must’ve lost control of that borrowed destrier. It broke a leg. Then they both got trampled.” Liling was scanning the waters, frowning. “You can talk to the bamboo, right?”
“Not exactly,” Meihua said. She turned her head. Somewhere to the west, the bamboo was singing in a distant echo.
“What?” Liling asked.
“Before the water buffalo charged, the qilin said something to them. To our horses too, I think. The bamboo felt it. They gave a response.” Meihua stumbled over her words, nervous. Her mother would have curled her lip in disdain. The Lady of the Chrysanthemum Mirror would never have stuttered.
“So the qilin’s over that way?” Liling guessed. She hefted her bow. “Right. Let’s go.”
“Without the hunting party?”
“If you’re right, and it set the buffalo on us, then it was clearly trying to catch us in a trap,” Liling said as she nudged Bastard forward through the mud. “Maybe it’s still hunting the others.”
“I’ve never heard of qilin actively hunting people,” Meihua said. Her conviction lasted all of ten minutes until they found the next body. Something with huge tusks had ripped the soldier off his horse, leaving fist-sized punctures in his armor before abandoning the body in the shallow water. The bloody cloud was attracting fish. Liling made no comment as Meihua somehow managed to dismount in time to throw up, and she stared at the clouds until Meihua got back on Shu.
“All right?” Liling asked.
“Don’t be.” They moved on, towards the fading song.
Where the delta grew shallower, then ankle-deep, they found Liyang sitting on a rock, industriously trying to splint his own leg to his scabbard. “Ho, sister,” he greeted them. “And the bamboo wizard.” Liyang smiled, though the grin was cracked with pain.
“Goddess,” Liling groaned, though she was grinning back with relief. “You’re the worst soldier our family’s ever produced. What happened?”
“Eh, after Lady Meihua’s horse bolted and you went after it, things got messy, we all tried to dodge buffalo, I tried to charge the qilin, it chased us around for a bit with its friends, got my horse in the ribs, I got thrown off, but the Prince drew it away before I got trampled.” Liyang nodded to the west.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” Meihua said. That great beast, charging down on the horses…the body they had seen…Goddess.
Liyang grinned. “I know. My sister tells me that every day.”
“We’ll be back. Stay here,” Liling said.
“Right,” Liyang said, to Meihua’s surprise, instead of insisting that one of them give up their horses. “Good hunting. Don’t die.”
“Speak for yourself, little brother,” Liling shot back, and they were on their way.
“Should we really leave him there?” Meihua asked, once they were out of earshot. She kept looking over her shoulder at the receding figure on a rock, expecting disaster.
“Why? I’m not giving him my horse.” They were edging out of the delta now, back into the edge of the drowning forest, Liling following Meihua’s lead.
Meihua started to laugh, then coughed to cover it. “It’s just that…well. He’s.”
“Male?” Liling snickered. “Oh yes. And before you ask, he’s also the only son. But our mother raised us alone, and she’s always thought the whole favoring-boys-over-girls tradition was bullshit.”
Meihua was silent for a moment, startled by Liling’s easy derision. “I see,” she said. She always defaulted to politeness when disoriented.
“You don’t believe so? But you’re the daughter of the most famous woman in the land.”
“She wanted a son. Or at least, someone with a better affinity.”
“Well. You’re here, and this imaginary son is not. Are we getting closer?”
‘Closer’ was another body that Liling recognized with a grimace, and a horse so spooked that it wouldn’t come even when she whistled. The song was getting stronger, the bamboo healthier. “We’re getting closer to dry land, I think,” Meihua said. “Where the bamboo isn’t drowning.”
Liling glanced at the grayish water they were still trudging through, that seemed to stretch endlessly around them, less of a forest here than a pool patterned with bamboo and fallen leaf shards. “Right.”
“Has to be,” Meihua said, even as a river carp’s flashing shadow startled Shu into a hasty trot that nearly unbalanced Meihua into the muck. Shu snortedunhappily as Meihua tried to calm it down. By the time Shu slowed back down to a walk, they were there. The bamboo was loud around her, growing louder. The water, though, was getting deeper. It grazed Shu’s belly now, the horse snorting anxiously, fighting the bit.
“Funny definition of dry land,” Liling said, though she smiled to take the bite out of her words. “Forward?”
The bamboo was dense, and often they had to circle around to find a gap large enough for their horses. And it was healthy. Meihua pressed her palm against one as they passed, frowning. “This makes no sense. The water’s so deep. They should be dying.”
“Don’t plants like water?”
“Not this much water.” Meihua closed her eyes, concentrating, picking apart the threads of song from the bamboo under her palm to the nuances beneath. She back with a gasp.
“It’s…it’s fresh-grown. Hours old.” The song was too sweet, sprout-young.
Liling glanced up, to the distant leafy peak. “Doubt that. Unless…the qilin? Magic?”
Not possible, Meihua nearly said. She bit the words down in time. Her mother would have laughed. Magic is not a matter of something being ‘possible’, child, Lady Yinghua had said. It is something that is instinctive. And so it is named. An ‘affinity’, not a ‘skill’. Yinghua had been merciless in her pity. You have a strong affinity, daughter-mine, but bamboo is nothing useful.
Meihua pressed her palm against another bamboo trunk. Even across the years, the words still hurt. “This way.”
They found the qilin in a clearing, eventually. The Prince had rallied his surviving hunters, and he nodded absently at them as they trudged closer. “Lady Meihua. I’m pleased to see that you’ve survived.”
“And I you, your Highness. I’m sorry about the others,” Meihua said.
“Their sacrifices will be remembered,” Sheng-Yun said, in the untroubled manner of someone born to a world where all other lives were cheap. “Talk to me about the qilin.”
The qilin was ignoring them. It was hunched over in a circular pool, its eyes closed, its great back arched and stiff. It snuffled and snorted, as though sleeping. Abruptly, it started to regurgitate, its throat and ribs working violently in great heaves until it spat something viscous into the water. It hummed loudly as it did so, a song that vibrated through the bamboo. Mud. It was vomiting mud. The water at its feet churned and bubbled, then after a heartbeat, the mud…pulsed, somehow, and—
“Did everything just grow a few inches?” Liling whispered, astonished. The bamboo shoots sticking out of the water on the outskirts of the pool, the reeds underfoot, even the few disc-like plants on the water’s surface had accelerated briefly against time.
Sheng-Yun nodded and looked at Meihua expectantly. She cleared her throat. “Ah. How long has this been happening?”
“Every few minutes. Sometimes longer in between.” Sheng-Yun said.
Nervously, Meihua pressed her palm against the bamboo next to her. Again, it sang her a sprout-song, and this time, that was less confusing. “It’s said that the qilin are kin to dragons. From a time when dragons themselves were more fluid,” Meihua said.
Sheng-Yun nodded again. “Their heads resemble dragon heads.”
“There’s a theory that the qi of the land is dragonbreath,” Meihua said. “That the dragons were more plentiful once, before they fought whatever Calamity was in the sky and fell. Qi was so thick across the land because it was being replenished all the time, breathed out as a process from whatever the dragons ate in return.”
“You’re saying that the qilin ate water buffalo and is now breathing out qi?” Liling asked doubtfully. “Looks like mud to me.”
“Magic mud,” Ren muttered from beside the Prince and pulled a face. “Whatever it is, we should lay traps for the beast.”
“No,” Meihua said sharply, even as Sheng-Yun blew out a sigh. “We have to send word to my mother What it’s doing now needs to be studied.”
“It’s a dangerous beast and needs to be cut down,” Ren snapped, his hand tightening on his bow.
“I said no,” Meihua said, annoyed. Beneath her palm, the bamboo grew warm. The sprout-song, echoed from the qilin’s creation-song, grew sharp, changing in tone and pitch until it made her ears pop. She must have yelped. Ren froze, his mouth opening and closing. He relaxed, easing his bow back over his shoulders.
“I will stand down,” Ren said, blinking slowly.
“What…?” Sheng-Yun murmured, even as beside her, Liling began to draw her blade from her scabbard. The Prince shook himself. “Stand down, Liling.”
“But your Highness—”
“Stand down.” Sheng-Yun said, his tone edged. He frowned at Meihua. “Is this what the bamboo affinity does, then? Small wonder your mother sent you, Lady Meihua.”
“I…” Meihua swallowed down her instinctive retort. “My apologies, your Highness,” she said instead, calm and inscrutable. It was the way her mother reacted whenever faced with confusion, always retreating to higher ground.
“The qilin may still attack villagers. People.” Sheng-Yun paused as the qilin began to vomit again and waited until the latest pulses were over. “Can you persuade it not to?”
“Its hunting grounds must be preserved. It must be left alone, at least until the Mirror can study it,” Meihua said.
“If it leaves people alone, it shall be left alone,” Sheng-Yun said.
Could she do this? Meihua clenched her fingers around the bamboo, still lightheaded, her other palm tight over her chopsticks. The bamboo warmed, the sprout-song growing sharp. Beyond, the qilin coughed as though startled and swung its great head around, staring at her. Meihua fought not to flinch, even as Liling hastily grabbed Shu’s reins as the gelding started to whinny in fright. She tried to ease a sense of calm through the bamboo, a resting-sense. The qilin bared its mud-soiled tusks, hissing like a great snake.
“Lady Meihua,” Sheng-Yun prompted, drawing his bow.
She shook her head at him, closing her eyes. Songs. The bamboo’s sprout-song was too sharp, but she knew others. Gentler songs. The rhythms skittered away from her memory as she felt for them until she forced herself to breathe out, to bait them closer. There were village songs from the street outside her healer’s shop: children and their skipping games, the teashop man and his morning humming, bawdry tavern antics, the noodle stall woman’s singsong selling pitch. The bamboo was growing hotter but the sprout-song was changing, woven with texture and time.
There was a wet snort as the qilin took a step, one, then another. It was moving away, shouldering bamboo aside as it went. Meihua opened her eyes.
“Good work?” Sheng-Yun said, uncertain, as the qilin turned from them.
She hoped so. “I’ll send word to my mother,” Meihua said. “You should leave with your wounded, your Highness. I’ll watch the qilin for a while longer.”
“Be careful. And thank you, I think.” Sheng-Yun wheeled his horse around, the hunters threading their way back towards the river.
Liling lingered, watching the qilin. “So that’s what the bamboo affinity does. The others–jade, stone, steel–all work with objects. Bamboo works with the living.”
“I’m not so sure,” Meihua said. Honesty was safe now that the Prince was out of hearing. “I’ve never done that before. I never even thought that it was possible.”
Liling laughed. “I thought so. Have you ever studied how to paint bamboo?”
“For the Examinations, yes. Why?” Not even people with the Jade affinities were exempt from taking the Imperial Examinations.
“Remember the theory of the leaves,” Liling told her, before turning her horse to follow her liege.
Bamboo leaves were painted in graceful strokes, in basic theory: a single leaf, or a pair, or a trio. “A pair, shaped like the word for Man, ‘rén’,” Meihua murmured, in the words of her mother. From a years-old memory of them bent together over paper, her mother’s hand ready to guide Meihua’s brush and ink. “A trio, akin to the word for the singular, ‘gè.'” A bamboo painting performed perfectly was but a graceful expression of humanity, inked on rice paper. Perhaps the qilin could show her more. Had it been made to repair what human hunger had made of the world? Or was this a patchwork job at best, a desperate attempt with ill-suited tools? Meihua would have to find out. She had to help.
Beneath Meihua’s palm, the bamboo was growing cool. With a nudge on the fading sprout-song, Shu stopped stamping and whinnying, twitching his ears. Meihua patted his neck apologetically and nudged him forward. The qilin was calling.
Born in Singapore, Anya Ow moved to Melbourne to practice law, and now works in advertising. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Daily SF. She can be found on twitter @anyasy.