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The Story of Kao Yu, Page 2

Peter S. Beagle

  Lanying sighed again, and smiled wryly at him. “No, my lord, these days I am Lanying the Seamstress. I am not very good at it, in truth, but I work cheaply. Sometimes I am Lanying the Cowherd—Lanying the Pig Girl—Lanying the Sweeper at the market.” She nibbled daintily at her dish, plainly trying to conceal her hunger. “But the pickpocket, no, nor the thief, nor…” and here she looked directly into Kao Yu’s eyes, and he noticed with something of a shock that her own were not brown, as he had remembered them, but closer to a kind of dark hazel, with flecks of green coming and going. “Nor have I yet been Lanying the Girl on the market, though it has been a close run once or twice. But I have kept the word I did not give you”—she lowered her eyes then—“perhaps out of pride, perhaps out of gratitude … perhaps…” She let the words trail away unfinished, and they dined without speaking for some while, until Lanying was able to regard Kao Yu again without blushing.

  Then it was Kao Yu’s turn to feel his cheeks grow hot, as he said, “Lanying, you must understand that I have not been much in the society of women. At home I dine alone in my rooms, always; when I am traveling I am more or less constantly in the company of my assistants Wang, Chou, and Hu, whom I have known for many years. But since we met, however unfortunately, I have not been able to stop thinking of you, and imagining such an evening as we are enjoying. I am certain that this is wrong, unquestionably wrong for a judge, but when I look at you I cannot breathe, and I cannot feel my heart beating at all. I am too old for you, and you are too beautiful for me, and I think you should probably leave after we finish our meal. I do.”

  Lanying began to speak, but Kao Yu took her wrists in his hands, and she—who had some experience in these matters—felt his grip like manacles. He said, “Because, if you never make away with another purse in your life, Lanying the Pickpocket is still there in the back of those lovely eyes. I see her there even now, because although I am surely a great fool, I am also a judge.”

  He released his hold on her then, and they sat staring at one another—for how long Kao Yu could never say or remember. Lanying finally whispered, “Your man Wang told me that a unicorn, a chi-lin, sometimes helps you to arrive at your decisions. What do you think it would advise you if it were here now?”

  Nor was Kao Yu ever sure how many minutes or hours went by before he was finally able to say, “The chi-lin is not here.” And outside the door, Chou Qingshan held out his open palm and Wang Da and Hu Longwei each grudgingly slapped a coin into it as the three of them tiptoed away.

  Lanying was gone when Kao Yu woke in the morning, which was, as it turned out, rather a fortunate thing. He was almost finished tidying up the remains of their meal—several items had been crushed and somewhat scattered, and one plate was actually broken—when Wang Da entered to tell him that his dinner guest had stopped long enough while departing the inn in the deep night to empty the landlord’s money box, leaving an impudent note of thanks before vanishing. And vanish she certainly had: the search that Kao Yu organized and led himself turned up no trace of her, neither in her usual haunts nor in areas where she claimed to have worked, or was known to have friends. Snow Ermine had disappeared as completely as though she had never been. Which, in a sense, she never had.

  Kao Yu, being who he was, compensated the landlord in full—over the advice of all three of his assistants—and they continued on the road home. No one spoke for the first three days.

  Finally, in a town in Hunan Province, where the four of them were having their evening meal together, Kao Yu broke his silence, saying, “Every one of you is at complete liberty to call me a stupid, ridiculous old fool. You will only be understating the case. I beg pardon of you all.” And he actually kowtowed—knocked head—in front of his own servants.

  Naturally, Chou, Wang, and Hu were properly horrified at this, and upset their own dishes rushing to raise Kao Yu to his feet. They assured him over and over that the robbery at the inn could not in any way be blamed on him, even though he had invited the thief to dinner there, and she had spent the night in his bed, taking fullest advantage of his favor … the more they attempted to excuse him of the responsibility, the more guilty he felt, and the angrier at himself for, even now, dreaming every night of the embraces of that same thief. He let his three true friends comfort him, but all he could think of was that he would never again be able to return the gaze of the unicorn in his courtroom with the same pride and honesty. The chi-lin would know the truth, even of his dreams. The chi-lin always knew.

  When they returned without further incident to the large southern city that was home to all four of them, Kao Yu allowed himself only two days to rest, and then flung himself back into his occupation with a savage vengeance aimed at himself and no one else. He remained as patient as ever with his assistants—and, for the most part, with the accused brought to him for judgment. Indeed, as culpable as his dreams kept telling him he was, he sympathized more with these petty, illiterate, drink-sodden, hopeless, useless offscourings of decent society than he ever had in his career—in his life. Whether the useless offscourings themselves ever recognized this is not known.

  Wang Da, Chou Qingshan, and Hu Longwei all hoped that time and work would gradually free his mind of Snow Ermine—which was the only way they spoke of her from then on—and at first, because they wanted it so much to be true, they believed that it must be. And while they were at home in the city, living the life of a busy city judge and his aides, dining with other officials, advising on various legal matters, speaking publicly to certain conferences, and generally filling their days with lawyers and the law, this did indeed seem to be so. Further, to their vast relief, Kao Yu’s unicorn paid him no visits during that time; in fact, it had not been seen for more than a year. In private, he himself regarded this as a judgment in its own right, but he said nothing about that, considering it his own harsh concern. So all appeared to be going along in a proper and tranquil manner, as had been the case before the mischance that called him to an all-but-nameless town to deal with the insignificant matter of that wretched—and nameless—pickpocket.

  Consequently, when it came the season for them to take to the long road once more, the judge’s assistants each had every reason to hope that he would show himself completely recovered from his entanglement with that same wretched pickpocket. Particularly since this time they would have no reason to pass anywhere near that town where she plied her trade, and where Kao Yu might just conceivably be called upon again to pass sentence upon her. It was noted as they set out, not only that the weather was superb, but that their master was singing to himself: very quietly, true—almost wordlessly, almost in a whisper—but even so. The three looked at each other and dared to smile; and if smiles made any sound, that one would have been a whisper too.

  At first the journey went well, barring the condition of the spring roads, which were muddy, as always, and sucked tiresomely at the feet of their horses. But there were fewer criminal cases than usual for Kao Yu to deal with, and most of those were run-of-the-mill affairs: a donkey or a few chickens stolen here, a dispute over fishing rights or a right of way there, a wife assaulting her husband—for excellent reasons—over there. Such dull daily issues might be uninteresting to any but the participants, but they had the distinct advantage of taking up comparatively little time; as a rule Kao Yu and his retinue never needed to spend more than a day and a night in any given town. On the rare occasions when they stayed longer, it was always to rest the horses, never themselves. But that suited all four of them, especially Wang Da, who, for all his familial responsibilities, remained as passionately devoted to his wife as any new bridegroom, and was beginning to allow himself sweet visions of returning home earlier than expected. The others teased him rudely that he might well surprise the greengrocer or the fishmonger in his bed, but Kao Yu reproved them sharply, saying, “True happiness is as delicate as a dragonfly’s wing, and it is not to be made sport of.” And he patted Wang Da’s shoulder, as he had never done before, and rode on, still sin
ging to himself, a very little.

  But once they reached the province where the girl called Snow Ermine lived—even though, as has been said, their route had been planned to take them as far as possible from her home—then the singing stopped, and Kao Yu grew day by day more silent and morose. He drew apart from his companions, both in traveling and in their various lodgings; and while he continued to take his cases, even the most trifling, as seriously as ever, his entire courtroom manner had become as dry and sour as that of a much older judge. This impressed very favorably most of the local officials he dealt with, but his assistants knew what unhappiness it covered, and pitied him greatly.

  Chou Qingshan predicted that he would return to his old self once they were clear of the province that had brought him to such shame and confusion; and to some degree that was true as they rode on from town to village, village to town. But the soft singing never did come again, which in time caused the cook, Hu Longwei, to say, “He is like a vase or a pot that has been shattered into small bits, and then restored, glued back together, fragment by fragment. It will look as good as new, if the work is done right, but you have to be careful with it. We will have to be careful.”

  Nevertheless, their progress was so remarkable that they were almost two weeks ahead of schedule when they reached YinChuan, where they were accustomed to rest and resupply themselves for a few days before starting home. But within a day of their arrival Kao Yu had been approached by both the mayor of the town and the provincial governor as well, both asking him if he would be kind enough to preside over a particular case for them tomorrow. A YinChuan judge had already been chosen, of course, and would doubtless do an excellent job; but like every judge available, he had no experience handling such a matter as murder, and it was well-known that Kao Yu—

  Kao Yu said, “Murder? This is truly a murder case you are asking me to deal with?”

  The mayor nodded miserably. “We know that you have come a long journey, and have a long journey yet before you … but the victim was an important man, a merchant all the way from Harbin, and his family is applying a great deal of pressure on the entire city administration, not me alone. A judge of your stature agreeing to take over … it might calm them somewhat, reassure them that something is being done…”

  “Tell me about the case,” Kao Yu interrupted brusquely. Hu Longwei groaned quietly, but Chou and Wang were immediately excited, though they properly made every effort not to seem so. An illegally-established tollgate, a neighbor poaching rabbits on a neighbor’s land, what was that compared to a real murder? With Kao Yu they learned that the merchant—young, handsome, vigorous, and with, as even his family admitted, far more money than sense—had wandered into the wrong part of town and struck up several unwise friendships, most particularly one with a young woman—

  “A pickpocket?” Kao Yu’s voice had suddenly grown tight and rasping.

  No, apparently not a pickpocket. Apparently her talents lay elsewhere—

  “Was she called … Snow Ermine?”

  “That name has not been mentioned. When she was taken into custody, she gave the name ‘Spring Lamb.’ Undoubtedly an alias, or a nickname—”

  “Undoubtedly. Describe her.” But then Kao Yu seemed to change his mind, saying, “No … no, do not describe her to me. Have all the evidence in the matter promptly delivered to our inn, and let me decide then whether or not I will agree to sit on the case. You will have my answer tonight, if the evidence reaches the inn before we do.”

  It did, as Kao Yu’s assistants knew it would; but all three of them agreed that they had never seen their master so reluctant even to handle the evidence pertaining to a legal matter. There was plenty of it, certainly, from the sworn statements of half a dozen citizens swearing to having seen the victim in the company of the accused; to the proprietor of a particularly disreputable wine shop, who had sold the pair enough liquor, jar on jar, to float a river barge; let alone the silent witness of the young merchant’s slit-open purse, and of the slim silver knife still buried to the hilt in his side when he was discovered in a trash-strewn alley with dogs sniffing at his body. There was even—when his rigor-stiffened left hand was pried open—a crushed rag of a white flower. Judge Kao Yu’s lamp burned all night in his room at the inn.

  But in the morning, when Wang Da came to fetch him, he was awake and clear-eyed, and had already breakfasted, though only on green tea and sweetened congee. He was silent as they walked to the building set aside for trials of all sorts, where Hu Longwei and Chou Qingshan awaited them; except to remark that they would be starting home on the day after tomorrow, distinctly earlier than their usual practice. He said nothing further until they reached the courtroom.

  There were two minor cases to be disposed of before the matter of the young merchant’s murder: one a suit over a breach of contract, the other having to do with a long-unpaid family debt. Kao Yu settled these swiftly, and then—a little pale, his words a bit slower, but his voice quiet and steady—signaled for the accused murderer to be brought into court.

  It was Lanying, as he had known in his heart that it would be, from the very first mention of the case. Alone in his room, he had not even bothered to hope that the evidence would prove her innocent, or, at very least, raise some small doubt as to her guilt. He had gone through it all quickly enough, and spent the rest of the night sitting very still, with his hands clasped in his lap, looking toward the door, as though expecting her to come to him then and there, of her own will, instead of waiting until morning for her trial. From time to time, in the silence of the room, he spoke her name.

  Now, as the two constables who had led her to his high bench stepped away, he looked into her calmly defiant eyes and said only, “We meet again.”

  “So we do,” Lanying replied equably. She was dressed rakishly, having been seized before she had time to change into garments suitable for a court appearance; but as ever she carried herself with the pride and poise of a great lady. She said to Kao Yu, “I hoped you might be the one.”

  “Why is that? Because I let you off lightly the first time? Because I … because it was so easy for you to make a fool of me the next time?” Kao Yu was almost whispering. “Do you imagine that I will be quite as much of a mark today?”

  “No. But I did wish to apologize.”

  “Apologize?” Kao Yu stared at her. “Apologize?”

  Lanying bowed her head, but she looked up at him from under her long dark eyelashes. “Lord, I am a thief. I have been a thief all my life. A thief steals. I knew the prestige of your invitation to dine would give me a chance at the inn’s money box, and I accepted it accordingly, because that is what a thief does. It had nothing to do with you, with my … liking for you. I am what I am.”

  Kao Yu’s voice was thick in his throat. “You are what you have become, which is something more than a mere thief and pickpocket. Now you are a murderer.”

  The word had not been at all hard to get out when he was discussing it with the mayor, and with his three assistants, but now it felt like a thornbush in his throat. Lanying’s eyes grew wide with fear and protest. “I? Never! I had nothing to do with that poor man’s death!”

  “The knife is yours,” Kao Yu said tonelessly. “It is the same one I noticed at your waist when you dined with me. Nor have I ever seen you without a white flower in your hair. Do not bother lying to me any further, Lanying.”

  “But I am not lying!” she cried out. “I took his money, yes—he was stupid with wine, and that is what I do, but killing is no part of it. The knife was stolen from me, I swear it! Think as little of me as you like—I have given you reason enough—but I am no killer, you must know that!” She lowered her voice, to keep the words that followed from the constables. “Our bodies tell the truth, if our mouths do not. My lord, my judge, you know as much truth of me as anyone does. Can you tell me again that I am a murderer?”

  Kao Yu did not answer her. They looked at each other for a long time, the judge and the lifelong thief, and it se
emed to Chou Qingshan that there had come a vast weariness on Kao Yu, and that he might never speak again to anyone. But then Kao Yu lifted his head in wonder and fear as the scent of a summer meadow drifted into the room, filling it with the warm, slow presence of wild ginger, hibiscus, lilacs, and lilies—and the chi-lin. The two constables fell to their knees and pressed their faces to the floor, as did his three assistants, none of them daring even to look up. The unicorn stood motionless at the back of the courtroom, and Kao Yu could no more read its eyes than he ever could. But in that moment he knew Lanying’s terrible danger for his own.

  Very quietly he said to her, “Snow Ermine, Spring Lamb, thief of my foolish, foolish old heart … nameless queen born a criminal … and, yes, murderer—I am begging you now for both our lives. Speak the truth, if you never do so again, because otherwise you die here, and so do I. Do you hear me, Lanying?”

  Just for an instant, looking into Lanying’s beautiful eyes, he knew that she understood exactly what he was telling her, and, further, that neither he nor the chi-lin was in any doubt that she had slain the merchant she robbed. But she was, as she had told him, what she was; and even with full knowledge of the justice waiting, she repeated, spacing the words carefully, and giving precise value to each, “Believe what you will. I am no killer.”

  Then the judge Kao Yu rose from his bench and placed himself between Lanying and the unicorn, and he said in a clear, strong voice, “You are not to harm her. Everything she says is a lie, and always will be, and still you are not to harm her.” In the silence that followed, his voice shook a little as he added, “Please.”

  The chi-lin took a step forward—then another—and Lanying closed her eyes. But it did not charge; rather, it paced across the courtroom to face Kao Yu, until they were standing closer than ever they had before, in all the years of their strange and wordless partnership. And what passed between them then will never be known, save to say that the chi-lin turned away and was swiftly gone—never having once glanced at Lanying—and that Kao Yu sat down again and began to weep, without ever making a sound.