Shapeshifter III

The maidservant of the Li Household always begins work just as the sun rises. Mai put on her white coloured robes and shook Jun and Lan awake. If Ying had permitted her to use her various forms, she could have had all the day’s work completed before the eighth hour.

As Mai emerged from her room, she saw white robed servants milling around the house; the laundry was being scrubbed, water was carried into the kitchen and the smell of broth drifted through the air. Jun came out of the room rubbing his eyes and blinked in bewilderment at the sight of the servants in the courtyard, scrubbing sheets and pots.

“The master’s servants have returned,” said Jun.

“Which means,” Mai guessed, “the master will return today.”

A tall man wearing the jade green robes of a senior servant greeted Mai. She bowed to him. “My apologies for being unaware of your return.”

He gestured for her to lift her head. “A servant should be able to slip in and out of the house like a shadow. It is I who must thank you for keeping the house in such pristine order with only the cook’s apprentice and a laundry maid to assist you. I hear you hosted the five chiefs of the Horse Mountain tribes.”

Mai smiled briefly. “A servant should be able to keep the house in order no matter the circumstances.”

The head servant, whose name was Qing, chuckled. “Very good. Now carry on with your duties.”

The Li household had twelve servants in total. Modest for a feudal lord but with good reason. In the past, they had many but after that incident, the General moved his family to this, their summer home and they lived here with just eleven trusted servants.

Twelve, after Ying made a deal with her.

Mai’s duty in the Li household was to tend solely to the needs of the next lady of the house, Ying. So her day began by brewing tea in the kitchen and serving it to the lady.

Today, she chose to make elderberry tea to calm her mood from the chaos of the previous day. As the tea brewed, she kneaded the dough and made the lady’s favourite jiaozi along with some rice porridge. As she was on the way to Ying’s bedroom, Lan handed her a tiny scroll. This was rolled up with a loose hemp string. It was tied to a pigeon’s leg, she noted.

“Lady Li,” she said, pulling the curtains open. “Time to wake up.”

Ying turned over and covered her head with her embroidered blanket. She sat up slowly as Mai poured the tea and served it. “This morning, General Li and Mistress Xin will return from the capital, as such you will not have lessons with Master Yu.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Ying. At Mai’s stare, she took another dignified sip of her tea.

“You will still have to read the books he asked you to read yesterday. There is no schedule for your afternoon but I am sure your mother will want to do embroidery with you and test your poetry.” Ying gave her a withering look. Mai handed over the small scrolled letter. “A pigeon sent this. It arrived just now.”

As Mai helped Ying put on her clothes, a pale pink robe with a light blue sash, the lady read the letter. “We have yet another rat to catch, Mai.”

Mai began to comb Ying’s hair. “Oh?”

“Mother’s embroidery will have to wait. I will make a trip into town to visit that person.” There was only one person whom Ying would visit at a time like this.

Mai slid the last pin into place on the lady’s head and stepped back. “Is it necessary to meet that person?”

Ying’s laughter was dry. “Yes, certainly. If not just to see the grimace on your face.”

“Your breakfast is ready, my lady,” Mai deferred and bowed. Ying straightened her back and left the room.

After breakfast, Ying retreated to the Swift Owl study to pout over the readings Master Yu gave her and Mai took the remains of the breakfast to the kitchen. The other servants had already begun to eat and they waved her over to join them.

She scooped her share of the rice porridge and sat between Lan and an older laundry maid. The servants were telling stories of the capital and Jun was listening to them with wide eyes.

“The buildings were like mountains and there were guards everywhere. You could barely walk without being asked to show your nameplate,” said Shuli, who tended the General’s gardens.

“People are more numerous than ants in the whole of the Southern Province. There are all sorts of people there. Even a few with Mai’s eye colour,” added his brother, Shuye, who cared for the horses in the stables.

“That is amazing!” exclaimed Jun, “Mai’s eye colour is really rare. Do those people come from where she comes from?”

There was a pause in the conversation. “Where would that be?” asked the chef, Ba.

Everyone turned to look at Mai who was still eating. “Come to think of it,” said Zhen, General Li’s messenger boy, who did not observe the sudden tension in the air, “those ladies did not have eyes as pale as Mai’s.”

Shuli grinned and prodded Zhen with his elbow, “How do you know such details about those ladies?”

Zhen stuck his tongue out at Shuli. Jun laughed. “He must have been enamoured.”

The messenger boy turned to the cook’s apprentice. “I was not!” he declared. Mai smiled, glad for the distraction. But she saw from the corner of her eye, the laundry servant sitting next to her, Tiya, casting a wary glance at her.

Why would someone like her come to the capital?

Later on, as she was cleaning the windows of Ying’s room, Tiya came in to store the lady’s cleaned bedsheets. She paused to stare at Mai, hesitating. Finally, she asked, “Mai, you’re not human, are you?”

The cloth dropped from her hand. She turned to smile at Tiya. “You startled me.” Mai picked up the cloth and rinsed it in a wooden basin of water. “Why wouldn’t I be human?”

Tiya’s eyes widened and she seemed to realise the ridiculous claim she was making. “It is because those ladies we saw in the capital who also had such unusual grey eyes… that is… one of them,” she held out her fist, “had the hand of a tiger.”

“Are you sure?” Mai asked, turning her back on Tiya and resuming her task.

“Well…” She heard Tiya shift behind her. “I’m not sure if I imagined it. Because when I looked again, her hand was perfectly normal.”

“There you go.” Mai put the cloth into the basin and straightened up with a smile. “You were probably seeing things.”

Tiya’s mouth formed an obstinate line. “I am certain of what I saw.”

“And so you think that all grey eyed females can turn their hands into tiger paws?”

Her face flushed at the chastisement. “That…”

Mai held her hands out for the bundle of sheets Tiya was holding. “Here, I’ll take that from you. I think you need to rest. You must be exhausted from your journey.”

Tiya placed a hand on her own forehead. “Perhaps I am. I don’t know what came over me. I’m truly sorry for suggesting something so ludicrous.”

“I am not bothered by it. Maybe it was something else you saw on that lady’s hand.”

Mai followed Tiya to the room she shared with the other laundry servant. “Maybe. But back then when the young lady was trapped in the burning of the original House, I remember I saw a bear charge into the house to save her but it was you who came out…”

Shapeshifter II

Chapter Two

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.

Shapeshifter I

Chapter One

“Lady Li.” The curtains were swept aside by a practiced hand and light filtered pink through her eyelids. Ying turned over in her silken sheets and buried her head with the edge of her embroidered blanket. “Time to wake up.”

She heard flowing water, the soft clink of porcelain and opened one eye. Beads of white light peeked through the embroidered swans. It was morning again. Ying sat up slowly, blinking at the maidservant who handed her a cup. The scent of chrysanthemums filled the air. She breathed into the cup and felt the steam press against her cheeks like two soft hands.

“Today you will have lessons in the morning with Master Yu, then in the afternoon you will meet with the village chiefs. Also there is a letter.”

She swallowed the warm tea which banished the rest of her drowsiness and sat in front of her dresser. “Ah, it is today then. Prepare the Dancing Lotus room for the gathering, Mai. And make sure to show our deepest hospitality.”

Mai smiled behind her and bowed. “Yes, my lady.” Her maidservant had a plain face as was typical of all servants the Li household employed. She was much taller than Ying and slouched to appear meeker. What as odd about her appearance was her eyes, a light soulless grey colour.

She combed Ying’s long black hair into an intricate coil of braids and secured the hair with deep sapphire pins. Ying broke the seal and opened the folded letter as Mai dressed Ying in a grey silk robe and tied her heeled slippers for her.

It read simply: It is ready. ~Zhang.

She folded it back up and slipped it into the hidden pocket in her robe sleeve. “Well?” demanded Ying. “Is breakfast prepared?”

Mai, who was staring at her, started and bowed again with a sinister smile. “My apologies, Lady Li. Yes, breakfast has been prepared.”

Ying clucked her tongue. “You still have much to learn before your maidservant act can be deemed flawless.”

Mai straightened up to her full height for a moment. “As expected of my difficult young mistress,” she replied sweetly.

The Moon Dragon Dining Hall was a large spacious room that overlooked both the inner and front courtyards. The teakwood table stretched across the length of the room and Ying sat alone on the ornate chair at the end of the table.

Mai stood a distance away by the hidden entryway into the kitchen, watching her young mistress eat. The meal was a bowl of warm broth accompanied by dishes of vegetables and hand-made jiaozi. It was Ying’s favourite food and she liked it best when Mai made it.

In the courtyard, two servants were hanging up the washing. One young boy, Jun, and an older girl who did not speak, Lan. There was normally a lot more activity in the House but with the Master and Mistress away at the capital, Ying was left alone with her three servants. The rooms lay quiet and only the birds chirped.

But she relished this sort of silence.

After breakfast, Ying inked a reply to Zhang on the letter he sent her and waited in the Swift Owl study for Master Yu. She gave her maidservant some instructions and with a bow, Mai left the room. She returned briefly with Master Yu before disappearing for the rest of the morning.

Ying listened patiently to the classics Master Yu read, though her mind was elsewhere. Though her eyes scanned the room for something interesting to see, her father had designed the Swift Owl study to contain little else save tall shelves of books and scrolls as well as one other tall study desk. Ying was certain she read the poem pinned to the wall a hundred times before Master Yu’s droning voice halted.

At last, Mai returned, her robes ruffled, the sleeves rolled and the string that held it together at the waist undone, to escort Master Yu out. The young mistress leaned her head on her elbows and sighed. “What a bore!”

Mai came back to the room with a tray of tea, her robes tidied once more. “Do not speak badly of your elders. It is not his fault that you have no interest in the classics.”

Ying sipped the elderberry tea and eyed Mai from the corner of her eye. “And? Did you do as I asked? You were in a mess when you returned.”

Mai bowed. “Zhang was watched so there was a bit of a delay.” She smiled and tilted her head mockingly. “It was swiftly dealt with.” From her sleeve she handed over a small glass phial filled with a dark purple liquid.

Ying held it up to the light and shook the phial languidly. She murmured with satisfaction, “Poison always has such beautiful colours.”

Undertaker

Where there is once beauty, now there is grief.

If you’re not going to practice,

Then buy a coffin from me.

I’ll make one for you, I have time in this world.

But the price to pay is high,

More than the gold of your dreams.

Tell me, my darling, why are you crying?

It’s okay if you can’t breathe,

That’s the beauty of grief.

Aggie Netherbury II

As she wandered along the steel grey corridor of the Cadet’s Wing, a sergeant approached her with a letter. She saluted him. “Best to be quick. He’s waiting.”

It was a simple note from Sergeant Major Osmod himself:

Meet in my office. You are being deployed.

“Finally something to do!” She ran. The shoddy metalwork of the Cadet’s Wing gave way to arching roofs and open corridors, lined at intervals with ornate white columns and marble floors. The white stone that made up the rest of the Cathedral Fortress was originally a walled city for the lords of the Northern lands two hundred years ago.

Now the fortress housed all of the Cathedral Troops like a little armed city. The old architecture was preserved simply because they were impregnable and there was no real need to destroy the meticulously planned defences that have stood the test of time.

Aggie ran past the weaponry buildings and the soldiers’ dormitories, heading towards the main castle at the centre of the city. The guard at the tall metal gate saluted her and did not bother to check her identity. All of Cathedral Fortress knew her.

The Castle, as it is colloquially known, was built into the ground unlike a normal castle. The rooftops were reinforced with metal when the fort was converted but the insides were still full of sculptured balustrades and statues of old lords.

Aggie knocked on Major Osmod’s door, a large room that used to be some lord’s sleeping quarters. “Lieutenant Aggie. At your command.”

She heard a grunt of approval and entered. The room was covered in a lush red carpet, gossamer curtains fluttered in front of the opened windows. Aggie saluted the Major and tried not to laugh.

It was a queer sight to see a large severe man, who had a reputation of being as unmoving as a rock and a frown carved into the red hues of his face, sitting in a room that emitted an air of elegance. There was an ugly scar down the side of his forehead that cut into his hair which was mostly hidden by his military cap.

He had his gun leaning against the edge of the table which was a large light brown desk with sculptured sides featuring a scene of two elves roaming the woods. A bullet was lodged in one of the elves’ eye.

Aggie stood at attention a distance from the table as he picked up the piece of paper in front of him. “I’ve heard of your lack of progress as Lieutenant of the sixteenth platoon. What do you think of it?”

She should have guessed he would want to discuss this. An eighteen year old female failing to command respect from her own troops. Aggie stood even straighter. “I think I am doing a fine job for a Lieutenant my age,” she replied.

Major Osmod’s frown deepened. He stood up. “Indeed. For your age, yes. But this is unacceptable for a lieutenant of the Cathedral troops of Kith.”

“Yes, sir.”

He stood in front of Aggie and held the paper out for her to read. “I am dispatching you to be a guard. You will join the Pillier Contingent currently deployed at a top secret facility. It will be a better use of your physical abilities until you are of age.”

Something snapped inside Aggie. She snatched the paper from the Major and stalked out of the room, slamming the two hundred year old door behind her. The dispatch stung her pride. She was the youngest lieutenant in the Cathedral forces and someone others looked up to.

Even the sixteenth platoon admired her capability. It was simply because she was not smart enough in their recent simulation and the mission ended with casualties. Leadership abilities could be honed, couldn’t they? She crushed the papers and threw them across the hallway with a loud roar.

A passing soldier raised his eyebrow but did not say a word. Aggie wished he did, so that she could tackle someone to the ground.

Just before Aggie turned one of the two hundred year old statues to rubble, a voice boomed through the horn-pipe that was the army’s method of communication within the fortress.

The voice boomed, “Netherbury Command report to Thoren’s Way. Netherbury Command report to Thoren’s Way. This is Jay Carter. We have a date and you are late.”

She could not help the smile that grew over her frown. Aggie picked up her dispatch paper and stuffed it into her pocket. “It’s not a date, duff,” she muttered to herself.

Aggie Netherbury I

Aggie picked a tin cup from the tray and filled it with iced tea. The lady behind the steel canteen counter gave her a curt nod. “Lieutenant,” she greeted. Aggie raised her cup in response. At this moment, a shout echoed through the room. She followed a group of lounging soldiers to the landing.

A scrawny cadet was surrounded by his batch-mates. Aggie leaned on the railing and watched the commotion in the cadet’s locker room below. “The good ol’ days, hm?” she commented to the man next to her. When he did not respond, she peered at the rank on his epaulets. “Private?”

He stared at her in surprise. She was used to that look of surprise. After all she was so much younger than most soldiers. He saluted her. “Lieutenant. Aye, the good ol’ days.”

A snarl came from the commotion below. A large burly cadet stalked into the middle of the circle to face the scrawny one. “You think you know how best to lead us, do you, Tory?” he spat, grabbing him by the collar.

“I-I-I didn’t mean any harm, Winfred, it was j-just a suggestion!” Tory protested. From where she stood, she could see the young man shaking in his boots. Winfred was a large man. The torn shoulder of his uniform only helped to emphasise the bulging muscles beneath the dark blue attire. He lifted Tory up like a sack of apples.

“A suggestion, huh?” He raised a fist. “I’ll give you a suggestion.” The young man flinched and struggled from his grip. He kicked his attacker in the groin. Winfred yelped and dropped him.

“I’m sorry!” Tory said. The cadets closed in on him. The murmuring grew loud and angry. “He attacked Winfred.” “Does he think he’s our leader now?” “Sure has guts for such a loser.”

Someone kicked him. Winfred lunged at him and punched him in the jaw. Aggie took another sip of her tea. The private next to her shifted nervously. “Should we do something about it?”

She turned to him and asked, “Why?”

The private shrugged. “I don’t know. What would Sergeant Major Osmod think of this racket?”

Aggie glanced down as two cadets held up the bleeding Tory. Winfred wiped the blood from his mouth. It looked like the scrawny cadet managed a punch after all. The burly man curled a fist and began to step towards his target. “He would lockdown the place and I’ll miss my night off.”

She handed her cup to the private and jumped over the railing in one smooth motion, landing in front of Winfred in time to intercept his punch. The locker room descended into a hushed silence as her hand curled around his large fist and with a sweep turned his arm behind his back so that his blood-curling scream was the last sound of the commotion.

The cadets stared at her. Some blinked in bewilderment. The two men holding up Tory dropped him. “Disperse,” she commanded and released the burly man from her grip.

With some mutters and a groan from Winfred, they began to turn back to their lockers. One cadet had the misfortune of whispering too loudly, “Tory had to be saved by a little girl.”

Aggie kicked up a nearby broom and swept that cadet’s feet out from under him. He landed with a yelp. “The name is Agatha Netherbury.” She jabbed the end of the broom at the throat of the man that he was speaking too. “Lieutenant.”

Tory opened one bruised eye. “You’re the famous Lieutenant Aggie!” He pointed a shaky finger at her. “The daughter of Commander Augustus Netherbury.”

She threw the broom at him. He caught it with a hand. “Clean up the locker room.” She crouched low and jumped, grabbing the ceiling edge and swinging herself back on top of the railing.

“But, ma’am Lieutenant, I’m the victim here,” Tory muttered.

She took her cup back from the surprised private and chugged down the remains of her tea. “Yeah. You wouldn’t be if you listen more than you talk.” She threw her cup down at him. “Please clean that up too.” He stumbled to catch the cup.

“Salute.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prophecy

The sea is rising…

The ocean will add salt to the wounds,

The rain will add flames to the fire

And the water will rekindle passion once lost.

Beware your heart

And the many faces of the moon.

What is lost will not return,

What is remembered will not be forgotten.

The one who cuts down will be broken.

The angel will rise from the ashes

And bring with her a light.

From the darkness she will awake chaos

But the ones who follow her will be safe.

The enemy will ride on scarlet horses

And make a deal with chaos.

They will steal the light

And the ones who follow her will perish.

Only the sea will avenge the blood that is spilt.