The silk-lined entrance to Zhī’ Zhū’s lair began as wide as the gate to Lord Liu’s palace and funneled quickly down the jagged passage into her cave. Ju-lun touched the fine lacey silk. It glistened purest white, like frost in the moonlight, and stuck to his hand, strong and taut as a bowstring. A night breeze rustled the Ginko and Katsura leaves and shifted the soft gray and blue moon shadows in the forest.
Ju-lun pulled the Lord’s straight sword from his shoulder harness and cut away the silk. The sword felt unfamiliar in his purple- and saffron-stained hand.
Ten paces in, the tunnel sloped down and narrowed. The hot, charnel stench from below swept away sweet memories of magnolia blossoms in Liu Bai’s beautiful hair. Ju-lun hesitated. He knew he had nowhere else to go.
High Counselor Yi Kuo had found him sitting alone in the garden with Princess Liu Bai. Ju-lun was an unworthy commoner, a silk-dyer’s son marked by his trade. The Lord’s swift justice demanded a walk to the public square to kneel before the axman. But instead Yi Kuo had smiled and led Ju-lun before Lord Liu.
The High Lord too was pleasant. “Ju-lun,” he said, “I see you are a warrior come to claim my daughter Liu Bai for wife. Very well, you shall have your chance.” Ju-lun felt naked before the great lord and feared he would soil his homespun trousers.
Beside her father, Bai looked small and innocent, her face streaked with tears. When Ju-lun glanced at her, she lowered her head.
Counselor Yi Kuo grinned broadly and led Ju-lun from the room. He bade servants to bathe the commoner then gave him the red embroidered tunic and finely crafted sword of a great warrior.
“But I am unworthy, Master Yi,” Ju-lun said. The High Counselor bowed low, his hands clasped at his waist. The gold tassel on his conical cap swung off his shoulder to dangle over his chest. Yi Kuo brushed it back when he stood.
“No, Ju-lun.” Yi Kuo said. “You are most worthy. Your visitation with the Princess means you have accepted Lord Liu’s offer.” When Ju-lun looked confused, Yi Kuo continued. “It is posted at the palace gate and in the marketplace.”
“I do not read,” Ju-lun confessed. “Like my father and his father, I am a humble dye maker and painter of silks, most poor-quality. Our trade takes us to the silk houses, not to the marketplace.”
Yi Kuo nodded. “Lord Liu offers his daughter to anyone who engages Zhī’ Zhū and removes our problem. Of course, if that was not your intent, we can keep your appointment with the axman in the public square.”
Ju-lun shuddered. He knew of Zhī’ Zhū from his mother’s bedtime stories. She would be hungry after her long slumber. “Am I the first to make this journey, Master Yi?”
“Impetuous youth seeking wisdom very late,” Yi Kuo said. “Six have gone before you. All were brave, trained in the art of combat, and all were from great houses. By joining them in eternity, you honor your family. Your name will be remembered in the village, and Zhī’ Zhū will spare us until another full moon. So your death will be a most honorable sacrifice.”
As Ju-lun’s eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cave, he detected the blue glow of tiny luminous spiders crawling in the cave’s silk-lined walls. Ju-lun swallowed and continued downward. He tapped his sword high and low ahead of him like a blind man with a cane. Roots and stones met his short steps. He stumbled and touched the wall. A dozen sharp punctures stung his hand. Jerking it back, he peeled away the silk and spiders.
“You are early, young warrior,” a feminine voice beckoned. He felt the hair on his body stand through the sweat that poured down his back and neck. “Lord Liu must be eager to fill our contract.”
Rows of candles flared to reveal a high-vaulted cavern. Silk hangings draped the room like waterfalls of white. A tall, slender woman with long raven hair and great beauty reclined languorously across a contoured bed of stones. Her wide shining eyes and full red lips invited his approach. Ju-lun shook off the attraction and raised his sword.
“I would make your torment short,” the lilting voice said, “but as you can see, I’ve just eaten.” Zhī’ Zhū curled back her lips to reveal rows of triangular white teeth laced with ribbons of torn red flesh. Her mouth sprouted scythe-like fangs at the corners and grew wider. Her eyes expanded beyond their lids and migrated onto her forehead, which sprouted blisters of smaller black eyes. Her powdered white face melted to polished black. Slender legs split to pointed black spindles and split again angling out from her body.
Ju-lun lurched and staggered. The candles hissed and extinguished, plunging the room in darkness. He heard scraping and the rapid taps of needle-sharp feet on stone. Desperately, he swept the dark with his sword. — To be continued next week.