The Deer And The Cauldron 16


The Deer And The Cauldron 16
第十六回 粉麝余香衔语燕 珮环新鬼泣啼乌

Close Blade

Trinket dozed off as the cart rumbled along. Evening was drawing on, when he heard the sound of galloping hooves, and a horse pulled up alongside him. He heard a voice hailing the driver: ‘Hey, you there! Have you got a boy in your cart?’ Trinket recognized the voice as Liu Yizhou’s. He poked his head out of the cart. ‘Brother Liu!’ he cried amiably. ‘Are you looking for me?’

He could see that Liu’s face was streaked with sweat and dirt. ‘I’ve found you at last!’ cried Liu, and wheeled his horse round in front of the cart. ‘Get down here at once!’ he shouted, in a tone that was far from friendly. ‘Brother Liu,’ returned Trinket, greatly taken aback, ‘what have I done wrong? Why are you angry with me?’

Liu cracked his whip violently across the head of the mule pulling Trinket’s cart. The creature let out a cry of pain, and reared on its hind legs. The cart tipped backwards and the driver, who was almost thrown to the ground, cried irately: ‘What are you doing that for?’ ‘Because I want to!’ cried Liu hysterically. He cracked his whip again, and this time coiled it around the driver’s whip and hauled him onto the ground. ‘Because I feel like it!’ The driver scrambled to his feet, screaming and yelping. Liu’s whip had drawn blood.

Trinket reacted quickly to the danger presented by this maniac, who had no quarrel with the driver and would doubtless turn on him in a moment or two—even more viciously. He pulled his dagger from his boot and gave the mule a quick stab in the rump. The animal responded by bolting down the road, dragging the cart along with it. Liu abandoned the driver and galloped after the cart. ‘Stay and fight, you little brat—if you’ve got the guts!’ Trinket poked his head out of the cart: : ‘Stop chasing me, you little brat—if you’ve got the guts!’

Liu whipped his horse on, and was soon close behind the mule and cart. Trinket thought of hurling his dagger at Liu, but was afraid of missing and of losing his precious weapon. He urged the mule on for all he was worth. The next moment, he felt a sudden sting on his cheek. It was Liu’s whip. He ducked back inside the cart. From between the curtains he could see Liu’s horse pulling closer and closer. Another moment and Liu would be able to jump onto the cart. In the heat of the moment Trinket reached inside his gown and took out a lump of silver, which he hurled at Liu’s horse, catching it on the left eye.

The beast was blinded instantly, and went careering off down the slope at the side, blood pouring from its wounded eye. Liu pulled hard on the reins, but his horse responded by bucking savagely and throwing him to the ground. Liu scrambled to his feet. By the time he started whistling and calling, the horse had vanished into the trees. Trinket burst out laughing. ‘Brother Liu, not much of a rider, are you! Try riding a turtle instead!’ Liu ran huffing and puffing after the cart. Trinket urged his mule on. Looking back, he saw that although Liu was now on foot, he was still drawing closer. It would be hard to throw him off. He prodded the mule again with his dagger, but this time it failed to have the desired effect. Instead the beast stamped its hooves once or twice, turned about, and began heading straight for Liu.

‘No! No!’ yelled Trinket. ‘Wrong way!’ But the more he pulled on the reins, the more the mule hurtled towards Liu. Finally, in despair, Trinket bailed out, and ran for cover in the trees. In a matter of seconds Liu was after him, and had him pinned to the ground. Trinket had his dagger in his right hand, and Liu lost no time in seizing him by the wrist and twisting his arm round (Wandering Clouds and Flowing Water) so that the edge of Trinket’s dagger was pressed against his throat. Trinket knew how sharp the dagger was. It would slice through his neck as if it were the softest bean curd. ‘Dear friend,’ he pleaded, with his most fetching smile, ‘please tell me what all this is about! Surely there’s no need to be so rough! After all, we’re almost brothers!’

Liu spat in his face. ‘You, my brother? You . . . you sordid little brat! All that sweet-talking you did in the Palace, with my girl! And then you got into bed with her. . . I’ll kill you!’ His brow was working with rage, his eyes were blazing, his left fist was clenched and aimed at Trinket’s forehead. So he’d found out all about Fang Yi, Trinket thought to himself. But how? However it had happened, Liu was in an extremely dangerous mood, and he was holding that dagger far too close for comfort. The slightest pressure and there would be a nasty hole in Trinket’s throat.
‘Can’t you see that you’re the one Miss Fang loves,’ he said, trying to smile without moving his face any more than was absolutely necessary. ‘I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything like that to her. She wouldn’t stop talking about you day and night!’ At these words Liu’s rage visibly abated. ‘How do you know?’ Trinket felt the knife-edge move an inch or so away from his throat. ‘She begged me to rescue you, and when I managed to get you out, she was overjoyed. You should have seen her!’

Suddenly Liu flared up again. ‘I don’t owe you anything, you little runt! Why did you cheat my sister-in-arms into . . . agreeing to marry you?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about! Who told you that? A beautiful babe like her could only marry someone handsome and brave like you . . .’ Again Liu’s rage abated, again the blade moved an inch or two away. ‘But do you deny it? Did she agree to marry you or didn’t she?’ Trinket gave a little laugh.

‘What’s so funny?’ ‘Brother Liu,’ said Trinket, ‘just think for a moment: a eunuch, with a wife?’ Liu had come chasing after Trinket in a mad fit of rage. He had not even stopped to consider the matter calmly. Trinket’s logic seemed to brighten him up no end. He laughed, but still held tightly onto Trinket’s wrist. ‘So why did you make her agree to it then?’ he asked. ‘Who told you I did?’ ‘I heard them talking about it together, her and the Little Countess.’

Something Wrong with the Biscuits

It transpired that on their way south to Shijiazhuang, old Xu and the two girls had run into Shaker Wu, his disciple Ao Biao (the Blue Tiger), and (Pale-Face) Liu. The three men were planning to rest awhile and recover from the beatings and torture they had suffered during their detention in the Palace. They were delighted to see the Little Countess and Fang Yi. But Liu soon noticed a change in the way Fang behaved towards him. She hardly even looked at him, and seemed strangely cold. Whenever he tried to draw her aside, so that they could have a moment together, she seemed to cling to the Little Countess. Liu was greatly put out by this. He questioned her about it, and finally she said: ‘From this day forth, we are obliged to treat each other as brother- and sister-in-arms. It must go no further than that.’

Her words had a devastating effect on Liu. ‘What do you mean? Why?’ There isn’t a reason,’ she said coldly. Liu took hold of her hand and pleaded with her: ‘Sister-in-arms, you . . .’ She pushed him away and cried: ‘Show me a little respect, please!’

Poor Liu retired to his room in the inn that night in a state of utter desolation. He tossed and turned, but he was much too distraught to sleep. Finally he got up and went outside. He happened to find himself outside the window of the room where Fang Yi and the Little Countess were staying. They were talking. This was what he heard: ‘Why are you doing this to your brother-in-arms? You’ll break his heart!’ The sooner it breaks, the sooner he’ll get over me and feel no pain.’

‘You’re not really thinking of marrying that. . . young Trinket, are you?’ ‘Why, do you fancy him for yourself?’ ‘Of course not!’ Fang Yi sighed. ‘I swore an oath, by Heaven and Earth, and you were my witness.’ ‘I know, but I never thought he was being serious!’ ‘Whether he was serious or not, when a girl promises herself to a man . . . And besides . . .’ ‘Besides what?’ ‘Well, both of us have slept with him in the same bed, under the same covers . . .’ The Little Countess stifled a laugh. ‘He certainly is a mischievous little imp, isn’t he! He put his arms round you, and even kissed you . . .’ Fang Yi said nothing, and only sighed.

Outside the window, Liu Yizhou was fit to burst. It was all he could do to remain standing upright. ‘He may be young,’ Fang Yi went on, ‘but he has such a funny way with him! And he was good to us!’ The Little Countess laughed. ‘Why, I do believe you miss him!’ ‘So, what if I do!’ At this point Liu keeled over and came crashing down on the window-frame. ‘What was that?’ cried the two girls.

Liu now had one thought only, to catch up with Trinket on his journey west and kill him! He found a horse outside the inn and galloped off, asking every cart-driver he passed if he had seen a boy on the road.






Trinket heard all this from Liu’s own lips. He succeeded, by dint of various references to how much Fang Yi adored Liu, and by fabricating an account of the untold dangers she had encountered to retrieve the hairpin given her by her beloved, in inducing the gullible Liu to loosen his grip; and what with one thing and another, a few minutes later the two of them were sitting down side by side beneath a large tree by the roadside, Trinket’s wrists very blue and swollen. ‘You Mu folk certainly know how to squeeze!’ commented Trinket wryly. That younger Bo brother, Maple, did exactly the same thing to me once. So, how come you were outside their window last night and heard what they were saying? What were you doing?’ ‘Actually, I just went outside to have a pee,’ confessed Liu. ‘That’s a bit low, isn’t it? Stinking out the fair maids’ dwelling like that, when you had the whole world to choose from!’ Tell me some more about Miss Fang,’ begged Liu.

‘I’m starving,’ protested Trinket. ‘Go and get me something to eat, something nice, then I might have the strength to tell you some more of Sister Fang’s soppy, sickening, sweet-nothings kind of talk . . .’ Trinket was, needless to say, plotting his getaway. ‘What do you mean, soppy and sickening? She never talks like that.’ ‘Oh really? What about stuff like this then: “My darling brother-in-arms Liu, my sweetest, dearest, most adorable, most handsome brother-in-arms . . .” Maybe you don’t find that kind of thing sickening, but it makes me want to puke! Tamardy! I’d be dead embarrassed if I ever caught myself talking like that!’ Liu was, of course, ecstatic. Trinket repeated his demands for food. ‘If you won’t go and get some, I will!’ he announced.

‘No,’ cried Liu, anxious to hear more recitals of Fang Yi’s adoration. ‘I’ve got some biscuits with me. Have some of these for now, and later when we get to town I’ll treat you to a proper meal.’ He handed Trinket a biscuit. Trinket complained that it tasted peculiar, and rummaged around in Liu’s bag for another one. He broke off a piece. Tamardy, I’m dying for a piss!’ Trinket went behind a tree, opened his trousers, and began peeing on the ground. When he came back, he rummaged around again among the biscuits. By now Liu was feeling hungry himself, and started munching biscuits too. ‘You know,’ Trinket said to Liu, ‘that Fang girl is a real good-looker. If I wasn’t a eunuch, I wouldn’t mind marrying her myself. Anyway, I’m afraid you never will.’ ‘What do you mean?’ cried Liu. ‘Calm down. Have another biscuit.’ ‘Tamardy! You’re…’ As he spoke, Liu suddenly began to feel faint.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Trinket. ‘Aren’t you feeling well? Something wrong with the biscuits?’ Liu rose to his feet, wobbled, and came crashing to the ground. Trinket burst out laughing, and gave him a good kick on the buttocks. ‘Seems your biscuits had a little something in them, my friend!’ Liu gasped, and then lost consciousness.

Trinket gave him a couple more l三百六十刀,方消我心头之恨!”提起他辫子,一刀割去。那匕首锋利无比,嗤的一声,便将辫子切断,再在他头顶来回推动,片刻之间,头发纷落,已剃成个秃头。韦小宝骂道:“死贼秃,老子一见和尚便生气,非杀不可!”
‘Not till I’ve had three hundred and sixty slices at your tamardy rat-face!’ He took hold of Liu’s pigtail and sliced it clean off. Then he used the blade as a razor, and shaved Liu’s scalp clean. ‘Filthy bald arse-hole of a monk! Just the sight of a monk like you makes me want to kill!’

Liu sniggered nervously. ‘But Lodge Master, I’m not a monk . . .’ Then why shave your tamardy head, arse-hole!’ Liu was in no position to argue. ‘I did wrong! Forgive me, Lodge Master, forgive me . . .’ ‘Then answer this question,’ said Trinket. ‘Whose wife is Miss Fang?’ ‘I… I…’

‘Speak up!’ shouted Trinket. He waved the dagger in front of Liu’s face. Liu decided that in the circumstances prudence was definitely the best course of action. This was not the moment for heroics. The boy was only a eunuch after all. He might as well give him the semblance of a victory. He wanted to come out of this with his ears and nose intact. ‘Of course she is your wife, Lodge Master Wei.’ Trinket laughed. ‘She? Come on, I want a name. I can’t hear your monkish mumblings.’ ‘Miss Fang Yi, Miss Fang, my sister-in-arms, is Lodge Master Wei’s Lady Wife…’ ‘Let’s get things straight,’ Trinket continued. ‘Are you my friend?’ Liu thought he saw light at the end of the tunnel. ‘Why, yes!’ he declared joyfully. ‘I mean, I would never have dared to suggest such a thing, but if you are willing to call me your friend, Lodge Master, I consider it a great honour!’

‘I am calling you my friend,’ said Trinket. ‘Now: on River and Lake, friends are bound by honour—am I right?’ ‘Oh yes, absolutely,’ agreed Liu eagerly. ‘Why, friendship means honour!’ ‘And honour means a man never meddles with his friend’s wife, right? So in future, you’re to stop messing around with mine. There’s to be no more nonsense. I want you to swear it’ Liu had walked straight into it. He inwardly cursed himself for being such a fool. He hesitated a moment. But then he saw Trinket’s dagger glinting in front of his eyes. ‘I swear! I will never harbour intentions towards Lodge Master Wei’s wife!’ ‘If you should so much as look at her or speak to her in an improper way, what will become of you?’ ‘May Heaven and Earth punish me!’ ‘And turn you into a turtle!’ ‘Yes! Yes!’ ‘Yes what? Turn you into a what?’ ‘Into a turtle!’
Trinket gave a big laugh. That’s better. Maybe I’ll let you off. But I think I’d better piss on your head first …” He slipped the dagger back down the side of his boot, and undid his trousers. Suddenly a girl’s voice was heard crying from the nearby trees: ‘No! That’s going too far!’The Storm

To Trinket’s surprise and delight, it was Fang Yi. A moment later, she, the Little Countess, and Xu Tianchuan came out of the trees, followed by Shaker Wu and Ao Biao. The five of them had heard Liu Yizhou’s sudden departure during the night, and had followed him. They had been hiding in the trees nearby for quite some time and had heard the entire conversation. Trinket smiled. ‘Out of respect for Mr Wu, I will spare you the humiliation of being pissed on!’

Old Xu hurried over and excavated Liu from his hole. He hauled him out, and untied the belt which bound him. Liu was overcome with shame and remorse, and hung his head, unable to look any of them in the face.



Shaker Wu gave Liu an angry dressing-down, in the course of which he disclosed to all present Liu’s cowardly behaviour in the Palace, when he had been frightened by the threat of death into betraying his own name. Shaker declared that he was only refraining from punishing Liu out of respect for their mutual Shifu, Iron Dragon. This made Liu all the more ashamed and crestfallen, and he stood there ashen-faced and silent.

Trinket stepped in and pleaded with Shaker to let bygones be bygones. ‘You see!’ said Shaker Wu. ‘See what a magnanimous person Lodge Master Wei is!’

‘Come over here,’ said Fang Yi. It was Trinket she was speaking to. There’s something I want to say to you.’ Liu observed this public display of intimacy with uncontrollable jealousy. His hand went to his sword. The next thing he heard was a resounding slap. Trinket jumped back and held his hand to his face. What did you do that for?’ ‘I heard the things you said! How could you!’ Tears of anger and distress were rolling down her cheeks. Xu Tianchuan tried to steer them away from this personal tiff, his main concern being to preserve the harmony between the Triads and the Mu Family. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I think we can consider Lodge Master Wei and Brother Liu’s matter settled. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m hungry! Let’s find somewhere we can have a good meal.’

A wind had blown up from the north-east, and big drops of rain began falling from the sky. Xu looked up into the heavens. He could see great thunder clouds rolling in. ‘Looks like a storm brewing. Come, we’d better find shelter.’


The seven of them set off on foot down the highway, in a westerly direction. The two girls had still not fully recovered their strength, and made slow progress. The rain fell ever more heavily, and there was not a dwelling in sight — not a farm, nor even so much as a simple roadside shelter. They were soon soaked to the skin. Presently they heard the sound of rushing water, and came to a river. A few hundred yards upstream stood a small building. They hurried thankfully towards it. As they drew near, they saw that it was a small, and utterly dilapidated, temple. But it was better than nothing. At least it would afford them shelter from the rain. The door had long ago rotted away, and as they entered, a pervading smell of mould and decay assailed their nostrils.

The walk had exhausted Fang Yi, and she was gritting her teeth to endure the pain from her wound. Old Xu smashed up a few broken pieces of furniture and lit a fire, bidding them all to dry their clothes. It was growing darker and darker, and the rain was now a deluge. Xu produced some dry wheat-cakes from his bag and handed them round. Liu Yizhou stuffed the remains of his pigtail into his hat, and Trinket gave him a scornful look.


Night was falling. The seven of them sat on the ground around the fire. The roof of the ruined temple let in the rain and there were few patches of dry ground left. Trinket felt water dripping on him, and shifted to the left. It was just as wet there. Fang Yi told him to come over and sit next to her. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I won’t hit you!’ Trinket gave a little laugh, and sat down beside her.

Fang Yi leant and whispered something to the Little Countess, who gave a splutter of laughter, nodded, and in turn whispered to Trinket: ‘Sister Fang says that now she is yours, you mustn’t take it amiss if she hits you or tries to tell you what to do, like asking you to be nice to Brother Liu. Do you understand?’ ‘No!’ whispered Trinket back. ‘What does she mean by being “mine”, for a start?’ The Little Countess transmitted this to Fang Yi, who gave Trinket a supercilious look and whispered to the Little Countess: ‘I swore an oath. Nothing can change that. Tell him to set his mind at ease.’ Once again, the message was transmitted. ‘If she’s mine,’ whispered Trinket to the Little Countess, ‘what about you?’

She blushed, gave a disapproving little click of her tongue, and reached out to slap him. Trinket laughed and dodged the blow, all the while nodding meaningfully towards Fang Yi, who was looking at him with a mixture of laughter and anger, her eyes flashing. She looked quite bewitching, and absolutely adorable. Trinket caught a whiff of the two girls’ scent, and breathed it in with ecstasy. Liu Yizhou had been watching all this from a distance with mounting jealousy and rage. Unable to contain himself, he rose to his feet. He leant against one of the pillars of the temple, and there was a sudden series of crashes as several tiles fell from the roof. The rain and wind seemed to have dealt a final blow to the already precarious temple.

Old Xu cried out: The whole temple is going to collapse! We must get out of here!’ The seven of them hurried out. They had no sooner gained open ground than they heard a great rumbling, and the entire roof of the temple caved in, together with half of the main wall. A Haunted House

In the same instant, through the torrential rain, they heard the clattering of horses’ hooves. A dozen or so horses were galloping towards them from the south-east. It was too dark to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of them. ‘Aiyo!’ cried one of the riders, by the sound of it an elderly man. This temple could have given us shelter, if it were still standing!’ ‘Hey, Old Zhang,’ asked one of the other riders, addressing an old peasant who had accompanied them, ‘isn’t there anywhere else to shelter round these parts? A cave or something?’ Old Zhang replied: ‘Well, in a manner of speaking there is . . .’ ‘Cut the crap, will you!’ swore yet another of the company. ‘Is there or isn’t there?’ ‘A little way to the north-west,’ replied Old Zhang, ‘right on the col, there’s a house. It’s haunted though. No one dares go inside it . . .’

The men laughed. ‘We’re not afraid of ghosts! Let’s go!’ ‘I strongly advise you gentlemen not to,’ said Old Zhang. ‘If we continue another ten miles or so north, we’ll come to a small town.’ Ten more miles in this rain? You must be joking! Come on, there are plenty of us. We don’t have to be afraid of ghosts!’ ‘Very well. You must go on towards the north-west, then turn, and follow the road up to the col. You can’t miss it. . .’ They did not even wait for him to finish his sentence, but spurred their horses on. Old Zhang hesitated for a moment, then turned his own horse around and headed back towards the south-east.

‘Brother Wu,’ said Old Xu, ‘Lodge Master, what should we do?’ ‘As I see it. . .’ began Shaker Wu, then paused. ‘I think Lodge Master Wei should be the one to decide.’ The trouble is,’ replied Trinket, ‘there are some ghosts you can’t see. And by the time you can, it’s too late!’ This was the nearest he could get to saying ‘I’m scared of ghosts!’. ‘Ghosts don’t frighten me!’ cried the valiant Liu Yizhou. ‘If we stay in this pouring rain much longer we’ll all catch our death of cold anyway!’ Trinket could see that the Little Countess was shivering, and he certainly didn’t want to be upstaged by Liu. ‘All right, let’s go then.’

So off they went in the direction indicated by Old Zhang, up towards the col. But soon they had lost the road, and all they could see was a great torrent of water pouring down the mountainside, through a rain-shrouded expanse of trees. That’s must be a ghost wall!’ said Trinket nervously. That,’ said Old Xu, ‘is simply the water rushing down the road.’ ‘Yes!’ cried Shaker Wu, and began clambering up the course of the torrent. The others followed him. They could hear horses neighing, and knew that the riders must be in the trees off to the side. ‘I wonder what those men are up to?’ brooded Xu silently to himself. But between them he thought he and Shaker Wu should be a match for any opposition, and put his best foot firmly forward, up the course of the stream and into the trees. Presently they heard the sound of a loud knocking on a door close by. That must be the haunted house ahead of them, in among the trees. Trinket was both relieved and frightened. Suddenly he felt a soft hand reach out and take hold of his. Then a gentle voice spoke in his ear. ‘Don’t be afraid!’ It was Fang Yi.

The knocking continued, but there seemed to be no answer. The seven of them moved forward, until finally the outline of a large mansion loomed out of the mist. They could hear the riders crying: ‘Open up! Open up! We’re in need of shelter!’ Their cries went unanswered. There’s no one here,’ said one of them. ‘Of course not! Old Zhang said it was haunted. No one would be foolish enough to come and live here. Let’s climb in!’ There was a flash as two of them drew their swords and leapt in through a hole in the outer wall. They opened up the mam door of the house from the inside, and the rest of their party surged in. These men look like common outlaws,’ thought Xu Tianchuan to himself. They certainly don’t give the impression of being very good fighters.’ The seven of them followed the others into the house.

Inside the main door lay a sizeable courtyard, and beyond that a large hall. One of the riders had kindled a flame, and seeing candles on a table, proceeded to light them. As the hall lit up, they could all see that it was furnished with quality rosewood furniture. It seemed to be the home of a family of some style. There’s not a speck of dust on the furniture,’ muttered old Xu quietly to himself. ‘And the floor has been swept. And yet there’s nobody here!’ One of the riders exclaimed: ‘This place is so neat and tidy. There must be someone living here.’ ‘Is there anyone there? Is there anyone at home?’ cried another. His voice echoed in the great hall. When the echo died away, there was no sound apart from that of the pelting rain. They all looked at one another apprehensively.

One of the riders, a white-haired old man, had noticed Xu Tianchuan: ‘Would you all be friends of River and Lake?’ ‘My name is Xu,’ he replied. These are relatives of mine. We were travelling to Shanxi to visit cousins of ours, when we ran into this storm. May I ask your name?’ The old man merely nodded. The party of seven seemed to match Xu’s description (old men and young men, women, a child). But he did not reply to Xu’s question and give his name. Instead he muttered: This place seems a bit weird. ‘Is there anyone there?’ called out another of the riders. ‘Is everyone dead?’ Still no sound. The old man sat down in one of the chairs and gestured to six of his men. ‘You lot go into the back and have a look around!’

The six drew their swords and went to do his bidding, making their way cautiously into the depths of the house, stooping and walking slowly. From the hall the rest of them could hear the sound of doors being kicked open, and questions being shouted out. Nothing untoward seemed to happen, and gradually the sounds became fainter as the men penetrated deeper and deeper into the mansion. The old man now gave orders to four others to find some wood, make torches, and follow the first six inside. They too obeyed his commands.

Trinket and his six companions sat down on the ledge of a long window, none of them daring to say a word. Altogether ten of the riding party had now departed into the inner recesses of the house, leaving eight in the hall. They wore plain cloth gowns, and to Old Xu’s experienced eyes seemed like members of some underground fraternity or other. They could have been members of a security escort, if it were not for the fact that they did not seem to have anything to escort. He could not quite make them out.

At that moment, the advance party of six riders returned, looking extremely spooked. There’s no one there. But the place is all neat and tidy. There’s bedding on the beds, and shoes on the floor—women’s shoes. And the wardrobes are full of women’s clothes. Not a single thing for men!’ ‘Female ghosts!’ cried Liu loudly. The house is haunted by the ghosts of dead women!’ They all turned simultaneously and looked at him. No one breathed a word. Suddenly they heard cries coming from the second search party. The old man leapt to his feet, and the four came running back into the hall. Their torches were all extinguished. ‘Spooks! Dead men everywhere!’ they cried. There was terror written on their faces.

The old man scowled. ‘Stop panicking! I thought for a moment you had run into a real enemy! There’s nothing to fear from a dead man!’ ‘But they’re . . . spooky!’ ‘What do you mean, spooky? ‘One of the rooms on the right is full of… hundreds of shrines to the dead!’ ‘Are there any bodies or coffins?’ asked the old man. Two of the men exchanged glances. ‘We couldn’t see too clearly,’ they both replied at the same time. ‘We don’t think so.’ ‘Light some more torches, and we will all go in together. It’s probably just something perfectly ordinary, like an ancestral shrine.’

The old man tried to sound casual, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice. His men set about breaking up chairs and tables, and soon they had all set off into the back of the house with blazing torches. Til go with them and have a look,’ said Xu Tianchuan. ‘You stay here and wait for me.’ He followed after the men.

Ao Biao turned to Shaker Wu. ‘Shifu, what kind of men do you think these riders are?’ Shaker Wu shook his head. ‘From their accents, I’d say they were from Shandong or from just north of the Pass. Probably smugglers, though I can’t see what they’re smuggling.’ ‘They’re nothing to be afraid of. It’s the women ghosts you should be worried about Liu Yizhou stuck his tongue out at Trinket as he said this. Trinket shuddered, and held Fang Yi’s hand tightly. His own palms were clammy with fear. ‘Brother Liu,’ said the Little Countess, in a shaky voice, ‘will you please stop trying to scare us!’

‘You’ve got nothing to be scared of, Countess,’ replied Liu. Those nasty ghosts wouldn’t come anywhere near a young lady of noble blood like yourself. No, the people they hate the most are the ones who are neither fish nor fowl, neither man nor woman— eunuchs, for instance . . .’ Fang Yi frowned angrily and wanted to say something, but restrained herself. After a while they heard footsteps again and the search party returned. Trinket breathed a sigh of relief. Xu reported back to his friends in hushed tones. There are seven or eight rooms, and each one is filled with shrines to the departed. Each shrine contains the spirit tablets of between five and eight people. They would seem to be family shrines.’ ‘Ha ha!’ chuckled Liu Yizhou. ‘So we’re talking about a couple of hundred nasty ghosts haunting the place!’

Xu shook his head gravely. ‘I don’t know. The strangest thing of all,’ he continued, ‘is that in front of each shrine there are candles burning.’ Trinket and the two girls simultaneously let out a cry of terror. ‘When we went in just now,’ put in one of the original advance party, ‘there weren’t any candles lit.’ ‘Are you sure you are remembering correctly?’ asked the old man. Four of the men exchanged doubtful glances, and shook their heads.

These aren’t ghosts,’ said the old man. This is some sort of wizard! To light more than thirty candles in a matter of seconds! What do you make of this, Mr Xu?’ Xu adopted an expression of utter bewilderment. ‘Perhaps we have disturbed the master of the house in some way . . . Maybe we should kowtow at the shrines!’ Just then, clearly audible above the driving rain, they heard a sound coming from the eastern wing of the house. It was the sound of women’s voices wailing. It was a desolate, piercing sound. Trinket stood there with his mouth gaping, his face paralysed with fear. They all looked at one another in terror. Seconds later another sound reached them, this time from the western wing. It was the sound of another group of women weeping and sobbing. Liu Yizhou, Ao Biao, and two of the riders cried with one voice: ‘Ghosts!’

The old man said something to try and calm them down. Then he turned to Xu Tianchuan. Tell me,’ he said, ‘if you are all from one family, how is it that some of you speak with a Peking accent, some with a Yunnan accent?’

Xu concocted a plausible enough story about the family’s origins and how they were on their way to Shanxi to seek out his younger sister-in-law’s family. Tell me,’ continued the old man, ‘on your way here, did you come across a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old eunuch?’

Xu’s face betrayed nothing. His companions, when they heard this, registered visible shock, but luckily no one was looking at them. There are so many eunuchs in Peking,’ replied Xu. We must have encountered quite a few of them on our way out of the city.’ ‘I said on your way here,’ insisted the old man, ‘not in Peking.’ ‘My dear sir,’ said Xu, ‘you must surely know that eunuchs are not allowed out of the Capital, on pain of death.’ ‘Perhaps this one was in disguise,’ said the old man, with a humph.

Xu shook his head. He was thinking to himself that these people were most probably after Lodge Master Wei, and that it was his duty to ferret out of them who exactly they were. There is one Palace Eunuch who has become very famous,’ he ventured. The one who succeeded in killing that monster Oboi.’ The old man stared at Xu wide-eyed. ‘You mean Laurel Goong-goong?’ ‘Of course!’ replied Xu. ‘What courage! What kungfu!’ ‘What does he look like? Have you ever seen him?’ ‘He’s always gadding about the Capital. Just about everyone in Peking has seen him. Fat, swarthy little fellow. Looks almost twenty. You’d never take him for a fifteen-year-old.’

Fang Yi gripped Trinket’s hand tightly. The Little Countess nudged him in the small of the back with her elbow. They were both silently chuckling to themselves. Trinket was so frightened to hear himself talked about like this, he had almost forgotten to be afraid of ghosts. ‘Really?’ returned the old man. ‘I’d heard quite differently. I’d heard he looked about thirteen or fourteen. A shifty little brat—a bit like this nephew of yours, in fact!’ He was alluding to (and looking at) Trinket. ‘I’ve heard that Laurel Goong-goong is a low-down little brat too,’ piped up Liu Yizhou, ‘forever putting drugs in people’s drinks. In fact, that’s how he managed to kill Oboi. He’d never have done it otherwise—he’s such a pathetic little coward!’ Liu turned to Trinket with a giggle. ‘Don’t you agree, cousin?’

Shaker Wu flew into a rage at Liu’s continued provocation of Trinket, and he lashed out at him, using a move known in the Mu Family as Emerald Cockerel Spreads Feathers. Liu darted out of the way, responding with another classic Mu Family move, Gold Horse Neighs in the Wind. Between them, the two men were blatantly betraying their Mu Family origins. The old man leapt to his feet. His followers followed his example. ‘Not a single one of them is to escape!’ cried the old man.

Shaker Wu drew a short-sword from inside his jacket, and with a shake of the head to the left, had soon hacked down one of the riders. Then as he shook to the right, another rider received Wu’s sword in the throat and crashed to the ground. The old man now produced a pair of fighting-clubs, and clanged them together menacingly. He swung them through the air, narrowly missing Shaker’s throat with the left, and grazing Xu Tianchuan’s chest with the right. Xu darted to one side, and as he did so poked at one of the men’s eyes with his left hand. The man ducked. Xu seized hold of the man’s short-sword and turned it back on him. The man lurched forwards with the blade in his belly. Ao Biao was also engaged in close combat, while Liu Yizhou was busy cracking his whip.


A moment later, the old man leapt back with a crash of his clubs, and all of his men instantly fell into formation behind him. The speed and discipline with which they did this showed it to be a well-drilled manoeuvre. Xu Tianchuan and Shaker Wu gave a start and withdrew a few paces, but Ao Biao rushed impetuously forward. Four blades protruded from the phalanx, while longer pikes protected their flanks. Ao Biao went down with wounds to both of his shoulders, shouting with pain. ‘Retreat!’ cried Shaker Wu, and Ao Biao scrambled out of danger.

Xu Tianchuan was standing protectively in front of Trinket and the girls, watching how the enemy formation would deploy itself next. Things seemed to be taking a nasty turn. At this point the old man brandished his clubs in the air and gave a mighty cry: ‘Long Life to Our Great Leader Hong! Blessings be on Him!’ ‘Long Life to Our Great Leader Hong! Blessings be on Him!’ came back the thundering chorus from his men. Xu stared at them aghast. But at the words ‘the Leader’, Trinket suddenly remembered his conversation with Auntie Tao, and her terror-stricken face. ‘They’re from the Sect of the Mystic Dragon!’ he cried. They’re Dragons!’

The old rider with the clubs paled. ‘How do you know that name?’ He raised his right hand and chanted: ‘All Hail to Our Supreme and Ail-Powerful Leader Hong! Victory is Ours!’ The chanting was succeeding in unnerving his opponents. That’s part of their technique!’ cried Trinket. That’s what they do! They chant spells! Don’t fall for it! Don’t give up! Fight back!’

But now it was the entire phalanx chanting with one voice in one great crescendo, louder and louder, faster and faster. ‘Our Great Leader Hong will protect us! Our Courage will Multiply! We know no fear! One of us will defeat a hundred of the enemy, a hundred of us will defeat ten thousand! Our Leader Hong’s eyes are as the Lightning in the Heavens! They shine upon the Four Corners of the Earth! Willingly we die for Our Leader! He will take us all to Heaven!’ And then in one climactic burst of sound they surged forward.

Shaker Wu, Xu Tianchuan, and the others stood their ground courageously. But the chanting had given the Dragons an added ferocity and power. In a matter of minutes Ao Biao and Liu Yizhou had been hacked down, and Trinket and the two girls were also knocked to the ground. Fang Yi received a wound in the leg, the Little Countess in the arm, and Trinket a pike in the back. The blow was strong enough to send him toppling, though he was protected from serious injury by his trusty magic waistcoat. Next Xu and Shaker were wounded, and the old man leading the Mystic Dragons closed their points and immobilized them.

‘Our Great Leader Hong is All-Powerful! Long Life to Our Great Leader Hong!’ The chant rang out once more. Then, in another perfectly coordinated movement, the men all sat down. Sweat was pouring from their brows, and they were panting fiercely. They had obviously drained themselves in the intensity of the onslaught. The whole battle had been decided in no more than the length of time it would take a man to drink a cup of tea. But they looked like warriors who had been fighting for several hours. ‘No wonder Auntie Tao was so scared of them!’ thought Trinket to himself. They’re using black magic! They really are All-Powerful!’

The old man sat down on a chair and composed himself. After a while he stood up again, wiped the sweat from his brow, and began pacing up and down the hall. Gradually his men also rose to their feet. The old man addressed Xu Tianchuan: ‘Repeat after me: Our Great Leader Hong is All-Powerful! Long Life to our Leader!’ ‘Me, chant that mumbo-jumbo of yours!’ cried Xu. ‘You must be dreaming!’ The old man swung one of his clubs and struck Xu full on the forehead. Blood gushed down his face. ‘Bastard!’ yelled Xu. ‘Sorcerer!’

The old man turned next to Shaker Wu. ‘Repeat after me . . .’ Shaker was already wagging his head in defiance. The old man swung his club again, and left Shaker’s forehead a bloody mess. He turned next to Ao Biao. ‘<****> your mother!’ cried the ever impetuous Ao Biao. ‘And a dog’s life to your prick of a leader!’ This sent the old man into a rage. He brought his club down with a mighty crash, and Ao Biao fell unconscious to the ground. ‘Bravely done, Biao!’ yelled Shaker. ‘As for you, you pack of arse-lickers, if you’ve any real courage, why not kill the lot of us!’

The old man raised his club again and turned to Liu Yizhou. ‘Repeat after me: Long Life to Our Leader Hong!’ ‘Long . . . Long . . .’ The old man brought his club up to Liu’s forehead and gave him a little thump. ‘Come on!’ he yelled. ‘I am! Long . . . Long Life to Our Leader Hong!’

The old man laughed. ‘I’m glad to see that at least one of you has some sense! No need to brain this one!’ He advanced on Trinket. ‘Say after me . . .’ There’s no need for you to say it,’ replied Trinket. ‘Heh? Being cheeky?’ The old man raised his club.

‘Long Life to Our Great Leader Wei!’ Trinket shouted, and promptly rattled off a whole lot more. ‘Our Great Leader will protect us! Our Leader Wei’s eyes are as the Lightning in the Heavens! They shine upon the Four Corners of the Earth! Willingly we die for Our Leader! He will take us all to Heaven!’ Each time he somehow managed to mumble the ‘Wei’ part so that it came out as a sort of nasal grunt that was indistinguishable from ‘Hong’. The old man looked pleased. ‘Good boy!’ He walked up to Fang Yi and put his hand to her chin. ‘Not a bad looker! Say it for us, there’s a good girl!’ She twisted her face away and cried: ‘I won’t!’ ‘Let me do it for her!’ cried Trinket.

‘Who asked you to say anything?’ The old man threatened to smash Fang Yi in the face, but in the end contented himself with hitting her on the shoulder. She gave a cry of pain. One of the men called out: ‘If she won’t say it, let’s strip her clothes off!’ ‘Yes!’ bawled the others. ‘Strip her!’ ‘Leave the girl alone!’ cried Liu. ‘It’s the eunuch you really want. I’ll tell you where he is!’ ‘So you know, do you?’ snapped the old man. ‘Hurry up then, tell us!’ ‘Only if you promise to leave the girl alone,’ said Liu. ‘Brother Liu,’ said Fang Yi sharply, ‘I don’t need your help!’

The old man laughed. ‘Very well then, I give you my word. We won’t touch the girl.’ ‘Can I trust you?’ asked Liu. ‘Can you trust me!’ growled the old man. ‘Come on now. We’re after the eunuch who killed Oboi. The Emperor’s favourite. His name is Laurel Goong-goong. Where is he?’ ‘He’s here …” said Liu, ‘and then again he’s not
The old man jumped up. He pointed at Trinket. ‘It’s him, isn’t it!’ He was beginning to be quite overwrought. ‘How could someone like him have killed Oboi?’ said Fang Yi. ‘Don’t take any notice of that man—he’s just talking nonsense!’ ‘You’re right,’ said Liu. ‘I am. He could never have done it— without using drugs!’ ‘Did you kill Oboi?’ the old man asked Trinket, torn between doubt and belief. ‘So what if I did?’ replied Trinket. ‘And so what if I didn’t?’ ‘Damn you!’ cried the old man. ‘I thought from the start there was something queer about you. Search him!’

Two of his men came up and untied Trinket’s bag, spreading the contents out on the table. The bag disgorged a quantity of precious stones and other valuable items, and then bundles of notes, big denominations, hundreds of thousands of taels’ worth. The old man stared at them in amazement. ‘Just the sort of thing I’d expect to find on a Palace Eunuch! So you’re young Laurel Goong-goong men! Take him next door for questioning!’ ‘Don’t…’ It was Fang Yi who spoke. ‘Don’t be hard on him!’ The Little Countess also let out a pained cry, and started sobbing.

One of the men now seized Trinket by the scruff of the neck, two others gathered up his belongings, and another carried a candle. They hauled him off through the back courtyard, and into a side-room. The old man followed them into the room, and then dismissed everyone except Trinket. The Inquisition

When they were alone, the old man began walking up and down the room, rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation. ‘So, we meet at last!’ ‘Yes, we do! At long, long last!’ returned Trinket. ‘Eh?’ The old man could not understand what was behind this puzzling retort of Trinket’s. Little did he know that Trinket was (as usual in such a crisis) doing no more than playing for time. Tell me,’ the old man continued, ‘would you happen to be on your way to the Wutai Mountains?’ ‘Damn it!’ thought Trinket. ‘He seems to know everything! This is going to be harder than I thought.’ ‘I was most impressed,’ said Trinket out loud, ‘by that display of Mystic Dragon chanting just now! Most impressed! I’d heard of it, of course, but this is the first time I’ve actually heard it with my own ears! Most impressive!’ ‘Where had you heard of the Mystic Dragon Sect, if I may ask?” countered the old man.

Trinket improvised without a moment’s hesitation: ‘It was the Satrap’s son, Wu Yingxiong, who told me about it. His father sent him to Peking with several top fighters trained in the Golden Gate School from Liaodong. Their mission was to exterminate the Mystic Dragons. I remember them talking about the Great Leader Hong, the Ail-Powerful, and all the Sect members under his command. One of the Sect worked for the Head of the Bordered Blue Banner, and managed to get hold of a copy of the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections. Excellent kungfu!’ Trinket was a veteran Grand Master of the Liars’ Lodge. In order to deceive effectively, he knew that it was necessary to season every spoonful of falsehood with the odd grain of carefully selected truth.

The old man was thinking to himself: ‘How can he know so much! Why, even I only got wind of the Bordered Blue Banner job a month ago. And that was by accident! It was supposed to be a top secret operation!’ ‘But the Satrap has no cause to exterminate the Mystic Dragons,’ he said to Trinket. ‘Why should he attempt anything so foolish?’ ‘Of course he has nothing against the Mystic Dragons themselves,’ Trinket hastened to explain. ‘In fact, Wu’s men said all sorts of very complimentary things about the Great Leader. No, it’s the Sutra they’re after. That’s the great prize. By the way, I also seem to remember you have a woman member working in the Palace? A fat woman by the name of Swallow Liu?’ The old man seemed genuinely taken aback by this. ‘How could you possibly know that?’

Trinket was merely snatching at even the smallest detail in order to construct some credentials, some sort of connection, however tenuous, between himself and the Sect. He swiftly pursued this promising tack. ‘Oh, Sister Swallow and I were especially close. Once, when she’d offended the Empress Dowager, I even saved her life. I hid her under a bed. The Empress Dowager searched everywhere but couldn’t find her. Sister Swallow was so grateful. In fact, she wanted me to join the Mystic Dragons myself. She said the Great Leader could do with a young person like me. He’d be sure to reward me.’ The old man humphed. He was almost beginning to find the boy plausible. ‘But why would Her Majesty want to kill Sister Swallow? Weren’t they . . . partners, in a sense?’

‘Why yes,’ said Trinket, ‘in a sense they were. At the beginning anyhow. So why did Her Majesty want to kill her? You may well ask. Trouble is, that’s absolutely top secret. She made me promise not to tell another living soul. So I really can’t tell you. I’m awfully sorry. Then there’s that other person who popped up in Maternal Tranquillity recently: a man dressed up as a woman, a bald man …”

‘Are you talking about Deng Bingchun?’ gasped the old man. ‘Do you mean to say you know about Comrade Deng’s secret mission too!’ Trinket had no idea what the cross-dressing maid’s name was, but nothing ruffled his all-knowing expression. He smiled. ‘Top secret! Not a word of it to anyone. Otherwise, you might be in grave trouble with the Great Leader yourself . . .’

Trinket had worked in the Forbidden City long enough to know that betraying a secret was a misdemeanour punishable at the worst with death, at the least with dishonour. That was why everyone carried on so sneakily in the Palace. No one wanted to run the risk of betraying anyone else. People acted as if they knew everything, while at the same time divulging nothing. This was the basic ploy he was now trying on the old man, and it seemed to be working a treat. When it came down to it, most of the same techniques worked in the Palace as on River and Lake. It was just that in the Palace people were a bit more refined about being underhand.

The old man had been quite thrown by Trinket’s display of inside Mystic Dragon knowledge. He was not sure how to proceed. He laughed nervously. ‘And what did you say to Comrade Deng?’

‘I’m not allowed to tell anyone,’ replied Trinket. ‘Of course, I’ll be making a full report of what I said to him, and of the message he gave me, when I see the Great Leader in person . . .’ ‘Of course!’ the old man hastily replied. He could not make out who on earth this boy really was. He tried a placatory smile, before venturing: ‘I suppose you’re on your way to the Wutai Mountains to see Colonel Rui. . .’ ‘Hm,’ thought Trinket. ‘So he knows about Wutai and Colonel Rui. The Old Whore must have told him. She and that bald-headed Deng character are obviously mixed up with the Mystic Dragons. Watch it, old Trink! Let that lot get their hands on you, and you’re history!’ He feigned surprise. ‘My goodness, you are well informed! You even know about Colonel Rui!’

The old man smiled. ‘And I know about someone else,’ he said. ‘Someone much, much more important than Colonel Rui. . .’ ‘Drat!’ Trinket cursed silently. The Old Whore has told him everything. He obviously means the Old Emperor!’ Tell me,’ said the old man, beginning to sound positively ingratiating, ‘were you ordered to go to Wutai, or are you going on your own accord?’ ‘What do you take me for?’ exclaimed Trinket. ‘Since when have Palace Eunuchs gone cruising off on out-of-town jaunts? Since when have they done anything but take orders?’ ‘So it was His Majesty who sent you?’ Trinket looked his most perplexed. ‘His Majesty? Ha ha! I’m afraid this time your information leaves a lot to be desired. How would he know about Wutai?’ Then who was it?’

‘Guess.’ ‘You don’t mean … It can’t be … Her Majesty?’ Trinket laughed. ‘You are a clever chap! Right first time! Only two living souls know about Wutai—and one ghost.’ ‘And who are they?’ ‘In the world of the living, Her Majesty and yours truly,’ replied Trinket. ‘In the world of the dead, a certain Hai Goong-goong. He’s the ghost. Her Majesty used Soft Crush karate to bump him off.’ The old man’s fleshy jowls twitched. ‘Soft Crush, Soft Crush,’ he murmured to himself, almost mesmerized by the words. ‘So it was Her Majesty that sent you. But why?’ Trinket gave a canny smile. ‘Seeing you and Her Majesty are so close, why not go and ask her yourself?’

If Trinket had said that to him when they had first entered the room, the old man would most probably have given him a good box on the ears. But by now he was too confused to know what to do or say. ‘Sent by Her Majesty …” he muttered to himself. ‘She told me that she’s already sent word to the Great Leader,’ Trinket went on, ‘and that he is extremely pleased with the way things are going. Once the mission is successfully accomplished, the Great Leader is sure to reward me highly!’ He could tell that the old man was absolutely petrified by the slightest mention of the Great Leader, and was exploiting this to its fullest. ‘And those six people outside are under your command?’ asked the old man.

‘They’re all from the Palace,’ replied Trinket. The two girls work for Her Majesty, the four men are all guards. Her Majesty sent them with me. But they don’t know anything about the Mystic Dragons. Her Majesty has never mentioned it to them . . .’ Trinket saw a sly smile creep across the old man’s face. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you believe me?’ He had clearly put his foot in it. The Mu Family fight for the Ming cause,’ sneered the old man. They would never work as guards for the Emperor! You’re lying!’

Trinket gave a loud laugh. ‘What’s so funny?’ The old man did not know that this was another of Trinket’s standard ploys. When caught out with a monster fib, he laughed, thereby buying precious time. He laughed again. ‘What you obviously don’t know is that the Mu Family’s real enemy, the person they really hate, is not the Empress Dowager at all—’ ‘Of course I know that!’ snapped the old man. The person they hate the most is Satrap Wu.’ ‘Well done!’ cried Trinket, feigning the utmost surprise. ‘I am impressed! You see, the Mu Family don’t mind working for Her Majesty if it means they can wipe out the Satrap and his entire camp, down to the last chicken and the last dog! Why, they even have their men planted in the Satrap’s headquarters! But you must promise me not to tell a soul!’

The old man nodded. But his confidence in Trinket’s story had been seriously dented. He decided to go out and cross-question the others. ‘Wait a minute!’ cried Trinket, as the old man turned to go. ‘Where are you off to? This house is haunted . . . You’re not going to leave me here all on my own, are you? I can’t even move,’ ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ The old man barred the door after him, and hurried to the front hall. Trinket’s hands were clammy with terror. The wavering light of the candles threw dancing shadows on the walls. Each shadow seemed to be a ghost. There was a deathly hush in the room. Then all of a sudden the silence was broken by a great cry from outside. ‘Where are you all?’ It was the old man’s voice. It was shaking with fear, and Trinket nearly fainted. ‘Have . . . have . . . they disappeared?’ he asked. ‘Where are you?’ the old man repeated. ‘Where have you gone?’

Silence. Followed by the sound of running, and door after door being kicked closed, then more running, a hurried fumbling with the door-bar, and someone burst into the room. Trinket let out a shriek. It was the old man, terrified out of his wits, his face drained of colour, his eyes bulging out of their sockets. They’ve . . . they’ve all vanished! Every one of them!’

‘Then they’ve been carried away by … ghosts!’ cried Trinket. ‘Quick, help me, let’s run for it!’ The old man slumped across the table, and the table started shaking. Then he rose and made for the doorway again, still crying: ‘Where arc you? Where have you gone!’ He stood still and listened. A faint sound of sobbing could be heard, carried on the night air. Women sobbing. The old man hesitated a moment, then retreated back into the room, barring the door again, from the inside. He looked at Trinket. The boy’s eyes were popping out of his head with sheer terror. Trinket stared back at the old man, who was grinding his teeth, his face whiter than ever.

The rain, which had let up for a while, now began falling heavily on the roof again. Suddenly, through the rain, they heard a woman’s voice from the outer hall—quiet, but distinct: ‘Come out here, old man!’ It was not the voice of an old crone; but it wasn’t a girlish voice either. It was definitely neither Fang Yi nor the Little Countess. There was something horribly chilling about the sound. ‘A woman ghost!’ whispered Trinket hoarsely. ‘Who is calling for me?’ stammered the old man. There was no reply. The only sound was the rain drumming on the roof. Trinket and the old man stared at one another, both shivering with terror. A few minutes passed. Then they heard the same voice again. ‘Come out here, old man!’ The old man finally plucked up his courage and kicked at the door. It was still held fast by the bar. He brought down his right palm with a chopping motion, and split the bar in two. Then he shot out through the doorway. ‘Don’t go!’ Trinket cried after him. But the old man was already running full pelt out towards the hall. A Ghost?

There was no sound of fighting. Trinket could hear no footsteps. A cold wind came curling in from the courtyard, blowing the rain in with it. Trinket shivered, and was about to cry out, but thought better of it. The wind blew the door shut, then blew it open again. So there he was, still incapable of movement, and all alone in a haunted room—alone, that is, apart from the multitude of horrors lurking outside, the horde of vicious ghosts waiting to burst in on him and take his life. But minutes went by, and still there was no onslaught. Trinket comforted himself with the thought that they probably only ate grown-ups, and must have eaten their fill already by now. If only the dawn would come! Suddenly a gust of wind blew out the last remaining candles and Trinket was plunged in total darkness. He let out a great cry. Now he could feel it, without any doubt. There was a ghost in the room. It was standing there right in front of him. He couldn’t actually see anything. But he was positive it was there.

‘Don’t hurt me!’ he babbled. ‘I’m a ghost too! We’re two of a kind! We’re all ghosts! Why would you want to harm me!’ The ghost spoke, calmly, with a woman’s voice. There’s no need to be afraid,’ it said. ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’

Her words put fresh spirit into Trinket. ‘Don’t worry,’ the voice went on. ‘I’m not a ghost. Tell me, are you truly the one who killed Oboi, the great Manchu minister?’ ‘Are you sure you’re not a ghost?’ stammered Trinket. ‘Are you Oboi’s friend, or his enemy?’

His question received no reply. Trinket could not make up his mind whether it would be safer to admit to killing Oboi, or to deny all responsibility for it. It depended. In the end, his gambler’s instinct took over. Tamardy!’ he cried. ‘Yes, ,’ did it! ,’ killed Oboi! I stuck my knife in his back! Well? What are you going to do to me now?’

‘Why did you do it?’ The same quiet woman’s voice. Once again, Trinket decided to venture all. If this was Oboi’s friend, even if Trinket laid the ultimate responsibility for Oboi’s death at the Emperor’s door (which was the truth), it would not save him. ‘Oboi did terrible things to the common people, he treated them cruelly, he took their lives. When he offended the Emperor, I saw my chance and killed him. I wanted to avenge all the innocent people he had wronged!’ He vaguely remembered what the Triads had said about Oboi. In actual fact, it had been entirely the Emperor’s idea to kill Oboi. But so what!

The woman before him stood there in silence. Trinket’s heart was thumping. He had no idea if his gamble was going to pay off. He felt a faint breeze, and the woman—or was she really a ghost after all?—flitted out of the room, leaving Trinket standing there, rooted to the spot, his clammy shirt sticking to his body. His points were still closed. He was incapable of movement. The door blew open and flapped noisily. Trinket shivered in the cold gusts of wind.

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