by Anya Ow
"Old Mother," said the teashop's owner, "Why do you still hunt? Your bank is bent under your blade, and you grow thinner by the season. Have you no children to ease your days, no grandchildren?"
The teashop owner was not a young man himself. Life on the edge of the Kunlun meant that his shop relied heavily on the kingsroad, the benches cramped close to the paved stone, the small thatched-roof shop forever heavy with the animal scent of tethered horses. Ryurin smiled broadly with her few remaining teeth, amused as the teashop owner averted his eyes when he sat beside her on the bench. Thirty years ago, Ryurin would have believed it to be flirting. Time had made her wiser to the growing indifference of the world. The shop was empty, and the teashop owner had little else to do but wait out the days till the warmth of summer.
"Young man," Ryurin began, amused, "Why do you labor at pouring tea on the edge of the Kunlun? Life is difficult with bandits abroad. Where is your wife, to brew the tea, your children, to brush down the horses?"
"A wife was not in my stars," said the owner ruefully, "And I brush the horses down myself just fine." By the water trough, Hare snorted and swished its silver tail, as though in disagreement. Hung from its black saddle with silver chain was the slow-rotting head of a qilin, its golden horns curling outwards towards the pommel, its scaly, horselike face gaping open in a deathless gasp of teeth and tusks. On the grass beneath it, its quicksilver blood shimmered and lay heavy.
"It is a good year for hunting," Ryurin took a sip of her tea. Two tiny leaves were enough to color her cup a rich sapphire blue, and it was sweet with the taste of winter. She wrapped her dusty wool cloak over her mail and greaves as a breeze picked at the thinning strands of her gray hair, and Sister pressed heavily in its scabbard against the small of her back as the baldric shifted.
"Is it difficult, hunting the qilin?"
"Hunting in Kunlun is always difficult. It is easy to get lost, the ground is mottled with ravines, and the qingshi are hungry after the winter."
"Life would be easier, Old Mother, in Nanchen. The river brings trade from the West, and they are rich with bottled dreams. It is said that you can breathe in their craftsmen's dreams and see the future."
"And what good would that do? Fate is fixed. But surely Nanchen needs teashops as much as Kunlun."
"Nanchen has too many tea shops," replied the owner, pouring her more tea, "While Kunlun has one. Where will you be selling the qilin's head?"
"I was contracted to bring a patron its horns. Near Nanchen."
"Ah," the owner nodded. "I heard that if you grind up the horns and drink them in a soup made of ginseng and arrowroot, you can heal from any illness."
"It's nonsense," Ryurin smiled, always amused by superstition. "Their horns are the same as a goat's, just golden. But the money is good and the patron is a regular. I may not have children to ease my days, but taels make fine substitutes."
The owner began to reply, but the saucer and the little teapot on the table began to rattle and jump. They looked to the west, down the uncurling coil of the kingsroad, where a faint puff of dust seemed to be toiling uphill. Closer and closer. Six horsemen on white horses, with rust-dark robes and silver armor, handsome in the sun. Ryurin tucked her feet under the bench and drained her cup as the owner retreated under the hut to put the kettle back on the iron stove, just in case, but the horsemen thundered past, their riders whooping as they kicked up dust and grit in their wake.
Ryurin set her teacup down, dusting down her knees. Further down the kingsroad, one of the riders was wheeling his horse about, gesturing, and the others also slowed and turned, trotting back to the tea shop, their horses barely winded, snorting and tossing their manes, shooting poor docile Hare disdainful glances. One of the riders dismounted, grinning broadly, his dark hair drawn up into a topknot over his skull, secured by a golden band, his robes embroidered at the seams with amber brocade.
"A qilin's head!" exclaimed the topknot rider. He swept the teashop with narrowed eyes, dismissing the owner instantly, studying Ryurin next, her worn mail, her tattered, stained cloak. "Old woman, were you the one who found it?"