Under the light fall of spring rain, three masked figures dashed through the crowded streets of Tsang. As they ran, they called to each other with a chorus of animal sounds: the chitter of rats, the coo of the black pigeons, and the mewing of the city’s dainty–footed cats. They were followed by a string of curses that grew fainter and then ceased entirely as they crossed one of the invisible boundaries that divided the city into innumerable provinces, petty kingdoms, and fiefs.
The masks, two of gods and one of the fox spirit Meri, were not remarkable in Tsang because it was the thirteenth month of the year. When the moon cloaked her face behind the rain clouds, people below hid their faces as well. Those who did not risked having their eyes, noses, and mouths stolen by the hungry ghosts who haunted crossroads, and even the foreigners went masked because the ghosts were so voracious.
The fox and the two gods ran beneath the wide gate of the Street of White Flowers, and after twisting through alleys that were as crooked as an old beggar’s spine, they came to a sheltered spot underneath a fallen statue.
“Well, well,” said the death god Yung–Mei with a breathless laugh. “That was fun. What did you get?”
Three grubby hands opened under the light of the lanterns hung from the tower above and opened. One revealed a cluster of pierced copper coins on a cut red string, and one held a fragile petalled form that lifted two spiked forelegs and revealed itself to be an orchid mantis. The third hand, the fox’s, opened more reluctantly and revealed two haw berries, perfectly crystallized in sugar.
“All of that on the table and you went after the candy?” Lai–ko, the god of storms laughed, but she shifted from foot to foot uneasily.
For her part, the fox was silent, closing her hand over the berries again.
“They were what I wanted,” she said sullenly.
“Candy today, fireworks yesterday, and purple glass stars the day before that.” Yung–Mei shook his head with displeasure, but there was something else on the tip of his tongue. Instead he shrugged.
“Something better tomorrow, okay? Something we can use to keep the Three Kings off our backs.”
Instead of responding, the fox dashed the berries onto the street and squatted down, her sharp red–painted nose barely a hand’s breadth away from the cobbles. Her narrow shoulders shook and perhaps behind the mask she was only a thin girl grieving for another girl, one who shared the same mother and who had once made their trio a quartet. Then she looked up at the storm god and the death god and she was a fox again, clever–eyed and carrying the stolen fire of the Queen Mother of the West in her heart.
“Fuck the Three Kings,” she said fiercely. “Fuck their demands and their sticks and their fathers in the brotherhood and fuck you too if you think they’ll keep you from the gallows.”
Yung–Mei stepped away from the other two, turning his black–and–green striped face up to the thundering clouds.
“The Three Kings allow us to live between the talons of the dragon,” he said casually, as if he was speaking to no one at all. “We swipe our food from three different wards, sleeping here, stealing there, and pissing somewhere else. They allow us this.”
“Oh yes,” the fox snarled. “They allow us to sleep and steal and piss so long as we pay them the head, haunch, and heartbeat of everything we steal. They allow us to live so long as the guardsmen don’t mark us.”
She remembered Shuna, the Flower Maiden, whose mask was painted with red–petalled kama flowers over her eyes and her mouth. The guardsmen in blue silk took Shuna away and there was one more little thief hung from the walls of the greatest city on the northern continent. Every time she looked in a mirror, she saw her sister’s face. During the day, she wore her mask, but she could not close her eyes in her dreams. In her dreams, her sister still laughed and sang, danced and fought.
“What would you have us do instead?” asked Lai–ko pleadingly. “The Three Kings won’t take us on as full members, not with our parents from the colonies, and there’s no trade for the likes of us in the wards that we’re allowed in to.”
“Might as well get a mat and lie down for sailors near the docks,” growled Yung–Mei. “Might as well blind yourself and go begging.”
“I’d go and ask the Lotus Face for a wish first,” retorted the fox, and Lai–ko gasped at the blasphemy, her hands flying to her lightning–painted lips.
“Quiet,” she said nervously. “We’re on the Street of White Flowers after all.”
“I would!” the fox insisted. “Before I lie down for foreign coins near the dock, before I go begging in the streets, before I steal one more string of cash for the Three Kings, I’ll go to Lotus Face and get myself a wish.”
The last she threw at Yung–Mei’s back, who spun to face her.
“Then do it!” he shouted. His shoulders shook and the fox was shocked to hear the thick threat of tears in his voice. She wanted to comfort him too, because he had loved Shuna as well. All four had grown up together, sleeping on piles of empty bags and in the doorways of Tseng’s lower wards. When one found food, they all were fed, and they were all hungry alike. Death was nearly the first thing they found that they could not share.
“Do it then, and find a quicker death than Niu’s on the wall.”
He said her name and the fox saw red. If she could have called the Hu River from its banks to drown the city, she would have done so, if she could have bit off his nose like a hungry ghost she would have, but instead, she only snarled at him like a beast and turned to run.
Lai–ko started to sprint after her, but Yung–Mei grabbed her by the elbow, stopping her before she had even gotten her head wet in the rain.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Lai–ko said angrily, but Yung–Mei shrugged.
“If she’s going to die, she should die without us,” he said emptily, and then he started to cry.
Lotus Face lived in the jade tower at the foot of the Street of White Flowers, and on a street of magicians, alchemists, and miracle workers, her pleasures were the most terrible. They called her the last daughter of the Phoenix, and some said she was a banished Celestial who walked down from heaven on bloody feet. Others claimed she was one of the asura, the eastern demons who gathered souls up in her hand and delivered them to her lords in hell.
Lotus Face was beautiful. Lotus Face was older than the city around her. Lotus Face granted wishes. That was all anyone knew for sure.
Two enormous men, one wearing a horse mask and the other an ox mask, guarded the wide iron door, but they ignored the rest, as though certain that no lesser person would put their dirty hands on the glowing green carved surface of Lotus Face’s tower.
The fox circled around the tower, finding trash at its base like any other building, and she came to a small cluster of cypress trees at its back. Tentatively, she laid her hand on the tower, half–expecting it to blast her to oblivion or to heat like a brand under her touch. Instead, it was only cool and slippery, every inch carved with designs too twisted to make out, or letters too strange to read. The rain had stopped entirely and though it would be a treacherous climb, it would not be impossible.
She faltered because it was not such a bad life that she wanted to leave it early. They could live for a little while longer at the very least, and there were pleasures as well as pain. There were stolen skewers of burnished duck, the fireworks above the Palace of Flawless Light, and the unguarded orchards all over the western side of the city.
Then she thought of a sad little body hung upon the city wall. Gritting her teeth, the fox dug her strong fingers into the crevices of the jade tower and began to climb. At first, she was guarded by the cypress tree’s fragrant leaves, but then the cold wind from the docks struck her back and she shivered.
The fox risked a glance over her shoulder at the people on the street below and then at the broad expanse of the ocean beyond that before turning her nose back to the tower and climbing. It was easy at first. The slick crevices seemed made for her fingers and when she needed to rest, she found small ledges that fit her bare toes. A larger person could not have clung so easily to the wall, a smaller person might have been swept away by the wind.
There was one bad moment where her gaze focused on a monster’s face directly in front of her own. There, the white stone was streaked with green veins and some artist had given the tower an ugly little face with a crooked grinning mouth and bulging frog eyes. The fox hissed in dismay and nearly lost her grip on the tower, but when the face neither spoke nor bit, she stuck her tongue out at it and kept climbing.
It occurred to her that Lotus Face’s tower must be very dark, because the windows were only narrow slits shuttered with green glass. When she peered into one, she could see movement, but nothing else. It reminded her of a time when seamen had brought a mermaid to shore in an enormous murky glass bottle. Something swam in that water, but whether it was a mermaid or some more monstrous thing, she could not say.
The fox climbed and her limbs started to shake. She had scaled buildings before, but nothing so tall, and her fingers began to cramp. For a long moment, her calf seized up and she held her breath, working her knee grimly back and forth until the sharp ache abated and she could move it again, if not with ease then without lethal pain.
Her nails tore as she grew more careless and more desperate, and the green surface of the tower seemed to grow harder and less forgiving. She could climb, but she could do nothing else. Her whole world was focused on the cracks and hollows that her hands and feet found. Somewhere below was the city, somewhere above was Lotus Face.
The fox’s bleeding fingers dug into the cracks of the wall and she felt every pound of her meager frame on her fingertips and in the small bones of her ankles. She wasn’t made to do this, but she forced herself, fighting for every inch and gaining bit by bit.
She climbed, and when she thought that she was done and that there could be nothing else, there was only more stone waiting for her hand. She could have cried and she could have simply let go, but instead she fought for another handhold and sought another hollow in the wall where she could place her bruised and bleeding foot.
Finally, when her mind had been wiped clean and empty by exhaustion, her hand found no more crevices. She heaved herself over the low balcony and for a long moment, she lay on her side on the mosaic floor, letting the sharp needles of pain spear her cramping hands and feet. She breathed and breathed because she could, becoming aware by moments of the soreness of her entire body, of a dozen tiny sores and a deep ache that started in her core and radiated outwards.
The fox started to look around and then she saw Lotus Face.
Lotus Face stood under the eaves, a figure all in mourning white. Her bare feet were bony, with toes that curled down like delicate claws, and on her face was a blank oval mask with only two slits for eyes.
“Foxes are not known for their climbing ability,” Lotus Face said mildly. “Count me impressed.”
The fox wanted to say something bold and boasting or else sly and cunning, but she only lay on the floor and quivered. It was more than just exhaustion and fear holding her down, and she realized that if Lotus Face did not wish her to rise, she would not.
Lotus Face broke her gaze with practiced ease and the fox could move again. She scrambled to her feet and limped after Lotus Face, passing between the curtains into the tower.
Lotus Face’s bedroom was disappointingly plain. The floor was tiled with sunny gold mosaic glass, but there was only a plain curtained bed along one wall and a small box upon which was mounted a mirror. A worn green cushion rested in front of the box, and an old white cat rested on top of the cushion.
Lotus Face bent down to pet the cat briefly before shooing it away. She knelt on the cushion and close behind, the fox could see her masked face in the mirror.
“Ask me why I’m here,” the fox exclaimed at last, unable to bear the silence any longer.
“You are here because you have heard stories,” Lotus Face said calmly. “You are here because you want something.”
“My sister is dead and she should not be. I want her back,” the fox demanded.
“Impossible,” Lotus Face responded flatly. “There is no magic under heaven that brings back the dead.”
The fox sank to her knees, bruising them on the floor. She had known it, of course she had known it, but to hear it said so boldly took the iron out of her. She knelt there, her body curling like a cooked shrimp, and she realized that she was keening, a high, horrible sound that seemed pitifully small in the large and empty room.
“I thought you could— I thought there was—”
“No, you didn’t,” Lotus Face said, not without compassion. To the fox’s dull surprise, she felt a cool, elegant hand on her shoulder. “You only hoped.”
The fox cried for a long time and when she was done, she felt as hollow as a dried gourd, as light as a feather. The tears underneath the mask were itchy, and she took it off to wipe them. She was no fox after all, just a girl with a foolish hope in the place where a sister should have been.
She caught a sight of her face in the mirror, long as a grain of rice with cheekbones as high and sharp as flint. Even with her eyes swollen nearly shut, the resemblance was unmistakable, and she smiled bitterly.
“This is her face,” she said bitterly, pointing at it. “I’ll never think of it as mine again.”
“It is yours,” Lotus Face corrected, “but it need not be.”
The girl looked up, more confused than curious, and Lotus Face reached out to touch her hot cheek with a bony hand.
“It’s a good face,” she mused. “Clever, cunning…”
“Fated to die on the city wall?” the girl snapped.
“Perhaps,” Lotus Face agreed easily. “I see some good luck, some bad.”
“More bad than good,” the girl growled. “More pain than not.”
Lotus Face touched her own cheek—her mask’s—thoughtfully.
“Would you be rid of it?”
The girl stared and then glanced swiftly back at the mirror. The face in the mirror was hers, she couldn’t deny it, but it still sent a pang of grief through her so sharp she thought she would die. She knew it would fade, but at the moment, she didn’t believe it. She found herself nodding slowly.
“In exchange for what?” she asked, so cautiously that Lotus Face laughed.
“I don’t bite off faces like a ghoul,” Lotus Face said. “It would be an equal exchange, yours for mine.”
“The face of a homeless street thief for that of the alchemist queen?” exclaimed the girl.
“As I said, an equal trade,” Lotus Face responded sternly. “This is no light thing.”
“Why would you do it?” the girl whispered. “Why would you ever do such a thing?”
“Because perhaps we can bear each other’s faces more easily,” the other responded. “Because it has been better than eighty years since I walked the streets of Tsang.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she thought she saw then. (She wouldn’t. Not for years).
She might have said no, but then her eyes were drawn to the mirror, to her face, one more time. She studied it, from the thick brows to the plump mouth to the round stub of a chin.
Good–bye, Niu, she thought, and she turned to Lotus Face.
“How do we do it?”
Lotus Face stood behind her and the girl heard a rustle of cord, a whisper of leather against hair. Then something white dropped over the girl’s face and she looked at the world through two leather slits as the cords were retied neatly behind her head.
She didn’t feel different, she thought, but then she turned around and found Niu’s face staring at her from a woman who was not Niu, who was not her. She reached for the mask, but a lean and brown hand shot out to stop her.
“Not yet,” the other cautioned. “Later, if you must.”
She nodded slowly. Now she could speak the language of the rain and now she could sing the death song of stone. Far beneath her feet, in caverns that dripped with the blood of the earth, she could hear the dreams of the dragons. She did not feel wiser, and she turned to the girl who was inspecting her fingers closely, running curious hands along a body that seemed far too skinny, far too young.
“There’s a boy who wears a death god mask, and a girl who wears that of the storm god, Lai–ko,” Lotus Face started, the words coming out in a rush. “Their names are…”
“It’s all right,” the girl said confidently. “I know their names.”
“I still remember Niu,” Lotus Face said. “I still know her face, it… it still hurts.”
“It won’t always,” said the girl, putting the fox mask on. “Take heart, even this will end.”
Lotus Face didn’t know whether the fox meant her heartache, her time behind the mask, or something else, but the girl walked through the door and was gone.
Lotus Face walked out on the balcony, feeling the mosaic tiles whisper to each other under her bare feet. The air was cool and crisp after the rain, and she looked up, waiting for the stars to begin their song.
(Editors’ Note: “Lotus Face and the Fox” is read by Erika Ensign and Nghi Vo is interviewed by Deborah Stanish on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 8A.)
© 2016 by Nghi Vo