General Li was the governor of the Southern Province, the lord over the tribes deep in the Horse Mountains all the way east to the city by the Great Silver Lake. It was no easy feat to keep the citizens loyal to him without brute force but he tried to do so with a kind heart and an open hand. Most respected him for his fair rule of the land but others took advantage of his kindness and so Ying took it upon herself to still their itching fingers.
This very afternoon, the tribal chiefs from the Horse Mountains came to pay their respects and deliver the General’s share of their animals. There were five of them and they sat in a sprawling manner on plump embroidered cushions around the low wooden table, downing rice wine and laughing in a boisterous manner. Ying sat in her room across the courtyard, listening to the raucous laughter as Mai helped her put on her formal red outer robe and silver hairpin.
“She ran away, you said, Fang,” Mun guffawed. “I hope she finds her way into my home.” Another burst of laughter. Ying’s hand reached for the small phial inside her sleeve. Mai smiled.
“The farmers that work the sloping fields should have their houses burnt!” shouted Tailung. “Their carcasses should be fed to the pigs!”
A sound of shattering glass. Ying glared at Mai. “You removed all of Father’s valuable vases from that room?”
Mai dipped her head, unable to bow while tying the knot of Ying’s red robe. “Yes, my lady. It was done as you instructed.”
Ying grunted. “I am not enjoying this as much as I should be.”
As she entered the Dancing Lotus room by sliding the door open and slamming it against its frame. Mai followed her into the room, smiling like a ghost. “Shape up, esteemed chiefs of the Horse Mountains. We will begin our discussion shortly.”
Like the sudden arrival of a storm, the men paused whatever they were doing and bowed to Ying. “You are as beautiful as the sunrise today, my lady,” greeted the oldest chief of the five, Han.
She waved for them to sit up. “Let’s dispense with the flattery,” she said sweetly. “What news do you bring from the Horse Mountains?”
The chiefs hastily tightened their belts and straightened their hats, sitting upright across from Ying. Only one, the most drunken one, Yuan, took a prolonged swig of the porcelain pitcher. Fang, a man with strangely cultured eyebrows for a man from the Horse Mountains, replied, “We bring the well wishes of our people to your parents who are visiting the capital.”
Ying took out her red patterned fan and began to fan away the fumes of alcohol. Well wishes? You chose to bring your greetings when my parents are not around. “You brought my father’s share of your produce as well, I hope.”
Han exchanged a stiff glance with Mun who looked chastened. “About that…” began Mun, “The caravans were crossing a river when a herd of bulls rammed straight into them and killed the animals that we brought.”
Ying slammed her fan down on the table abruptly. “A herd of bulls? The last time it was bandits and before that, an illness. Bulls?”
Fang came forward and bowed beside Ying. “Forgive us, Lady Li! We saved as many as we could. The few that survived are now resting in ChangEr city. We will bring them as soon as they have recovered from their injuries.”
She reached one hand into her sleeve and opened the phial, tipping it onto the handkerchief kept in the same sleeve. Ying brought it out and wiped the sweat on Fang’s face and neck. “Rise, esteemed Chief Fang. Do not grovel like that before me.”
Fang kept his eyes on hers. She retracted her hand and smiled.
“It can’t be helped then.”
Han nodded and stroked his white beard as he dipped his head in a quick bow. “You are a noble and benevolent Lady.”
Ying made sure to smile at Fang as she answered, “You are too kind. Now let us forget this unpleasantness. Mai, bring us dinner!”
That evening, Fang mounted his horse, his head as light as a feather. He did not have as much to drink as the rest of the other men yet he felt as if he had swallowed an entire barrel of wine. Maybe it was the way General Li cultured his wine that made it especially potent.
For all the ingenuity of the General to keep peace within his lands, he left his household in the hands of an incompetent daughter. Fang parted from the other chiefs at ChangEr and rode back along the river to the bridge where the bulls had attacked the caravan. There, he slid off his horse and stumbled over to the nearby farm.
His face felt hot and flushed against the cool night breeze and his vision kept slipping from him. Did he drink too much after all? He squinted into the darkness, looking for the door to the house. He staggered on, unsure if he was walking in a straight line. The burning sensation intensified and his breathing became laboured.
Maybe he should not have let himself drink at all. It would be bad if he let slip something with his wine-loosened tongue. What did General Li put in his wine? His foot slipped and water pooled into his shoe. The river. He was heading in the wrong direction. He turned around but he could not tell which way to go. Everything looked white dotted with purple stars.
He was looking for the man who lent him a herd of bulls. He needed to silence the man. If he could just sober up…
He blinked. Someone was standing in front of him. A plain-faced young lady with a single black plait. She was smiling. Despite her nondescript face, Chief Fang felt like there was something alluring about her. He squinted even though it hurt his head. Ah, it was her eyes. They were a light grey. A very light grey.
He lurched forward, stepping towards her but he found himself deeper into the river. The lady merely watched. What was she doing, standing in the river?
A hot burning pain jolted through his throat and he began to cough, vomiting liquid. The lady continued to watch. He began to taste blood. His heart burned. He clutched at it with one hand, using the other to reach out to the lady. Get out of the water, you will catch a cold, he wanted to say.
But the lady was gone. In her place was a beautiful woman with loose long hair and wings, black as a raven against the white shapes of his vision. She reached out to him with an arm, only what touched him was not a hand but hard claws like that of a tiger.
Before his throat was crushed by the inhuman tiger hand, it occurred to him that this beautiful face also had light grey eyes.
Ying slapped Mai across the face. The maidservant dropped to the ground and bowed low. “I’m so sorry, my lady!” she gushed. “He was taking too long.”
“It took me so long to acquire a poison that mimicked the symptoms of alcohol poisoning!” Ying pulled the covers of the blanket over her head. “Go away. I do not want to see you anymore tonight.”
She heard Mai get up, close the room’s curtains and quietly leave the room. She pushed the covers of the blanket away from her head and sighed.
“To kill with such a painless method as poison is so dull,” she muttered and turned over on her silken sheets.
Outside the room, Mai who was blowing out the candle heard and smiled, lifting her slender right arm. It morphed into a tiger’s arm and back to a human’s.