Rumors about the night's bookings were boiling over. Slug-ladies and frog-men whispered to one another at the staff meeting, swapping hearsay and idle bets.
"A garbage god, is what I heard."
"What? Ugh, not again."
"Not garbage, scraps. Some kind of scrap god?"
"What's the difference?"
A hush fell as Yubaba swept in, her dark gown self-importantly puffed. She rapped her bejeweled knuckles and glared.
"Our special guests tonight are a pair of foreign big shots," she announced. "I expect EVERYONE to toe the line." Her eyes narrowed. The frog foremen nearest to her quivered and shrank. "Expect to lose your toes if you don't!"
"Foreign big shots?" whispered Chihiro, leaning toward Lin.
"The 'Lord of Paradise Manor' and 'his esteemed heavenly consort, the Crown Prince,'" said Lin, "is what I heard. They booked the honeymoon suite."
"Crown Prince of where?"
Lin shrugged. "Somewhere in China?"
"Sen, get up here!"
Chihiro snapped to attention. "Yes, Ma'am!"
She hurried to present herself in front of Yubaba, who eyed her critically.
"Do you dance?"
Chihiro blinked. Some of the slug-ladies on staff were dancers, performing at customer request, but Yubaba had never proposed that Chihiro add dancing to her duties. She hedged.
"My class did a dance routine for Sports Day in ninth grade." Two years ago--she could barely remember the steps.
"Not like that," Yubaba huffed. "Like a shrine maiden. Don't you ever do a little shimmy for that moonstruck beast?"
The witch's hips twitched from side to side in an obscure suggestion of hula. Chihiro felt herself turn pink.
"Um, I've danced with Haku. One time he came over for a summer festival, and there was this band--"
Grimacing, Yubaba batted a claw-like hand. "Forget it. I heard one of our guests had dancing girls at his manor. Dead ones, obviously." She paused, as if considering whether being rendered less alive might improve Chihiro's aptitude. "The slugs won't cut it with someone like him. But we'll make do. I want you out front with the greeting committee when our guests arrive."
"Yes, you. Is there a problem?"
"No Ma'am! Happy to help."
"Go on, then." Yubaba brushed her away. "Shoo."
Chihiro was still blinking as she returned to Lin, who looked quizzical. "What was up with that?"
"I'm not really sure," Chihiro said.
The bathhouse's exterior was nearly as gaudy as Puqi Shrine after its restoration: brightly painted in red and green and gold leaf, with elaborate eaves. An arched bridge led to its entrance. On the far side of the bridge, flanking the entrance, a motley horde of frogs, slugs, mice, and other lowly creatures waved fans and lanterns, prostrating themselves in conniptions of welcome at the arrival of their guests.
None of this surprised Xie Lian; Hua Cheng had apprised him about the place before their trip. What startled him was the girl--to all appearances an ordinary human girl, still in her teens, with bright eyes and a roundish face--standing incongruously in the midst of the throng. She wore a suikan, like her fellows. Her ponytail swung gamely from side to side as her lantern waved. If she felt ill at ease amid the crowd of creatures, she showed no sign.
Xie Lian nudged Hua Cheng's arm--easily done when it was already looped through his. "Does that girl look like a ghost to you?"
Hua Cheng glanced, then lifted his eyebrows. "No."
Concern kindled in Xie Lian. "What could she be doing here?" It was one thing for a witch to enchant some invertebrates and put them to work; better than chucking them into a cauldron. But a human here seemed as misplaced as a heavenly official in Ghost City, and as likely to be out of her depth.
"Working, by the looks of it," said Hua Cheng.
"Do you think she's trapped?" To Xie Lian's knowledge, once mortals fell into the Ghost Realm, they rarely escaped. A skilled cultivator could manage it, but not an ordinary child.
"I think Gege won't be able to relax until he finds out."
Xie Lian pursed his lips. "If she's under a spell, she may not be able to say." But he stopped as they approached the girl, smiling gently, and bent. The waving of the girl's lantern faltered. She blinked at him and Hua Cheng, eyes gone wide.
"Hello, Miss. Would you be able to show us to our room?"
The bathhouse's interior was no less gaudy than the front. Here and there trails of steam wafted, while bespelled creatures scuttled about their business, carrying trays of delicacies and rice wine. The girl escorted Xie Lian and Hua Cheng through the hallways, stepping along with every evidence of familiar ease.
"We're so glad you've chosen to stay at Aburaya. Please call me Sen. If there's anything I can do to make your visit more comfortable, please don't hesitate to let me know."
Xie Lian knew a rote speech when he heard one, but thanked her kindly. They stepped into an elevator, where Sen pressed the button for an upper floor. The door closed.
"Excuse me for saying so, Miss, but--" Xie Lian paused. "You're very human to be working here."
Her nose crinkled ruefully. "I know, right? I'm only part time, though."
"I see," said Xie Lian, still baffled. Part-time human? Or part-time indentured servant to a witch?
Hua Cheng had said little since they entered the bathhouse, but now he turned a charming smile on Sen, alluding with one finger to the necklace at her throat.
"Pretty," he said.
Sen flushed. She touched the pendant's shimmering edge. When Xie Lian peered more closely, he saw that what he’d taken at first for a bit of seashell was in fact a single scale, big as a clam, pearlescent white. Its luster exuded a faint but discernible numen.
"Thanks!" Her glance darted daringly to the necklace at Hua Cheng's chest. "I like your butterfly."
"Me, too. Are those scales for sale somewhere in town?"
"Um, I don't think so. It was a gift."
The proprietress awaited them outside their suite, hands clasped and face pinched into an obsequious smile. “My lord and Your Highness, please be welcome. I wanted to extend my thanks and greetings personally. You must be tired after such a long journey. How can my staff and I assist?"
Hua Cheng turned jauntily to Xie Lian, "What'll it be first, Gege? Dinner, a bath, or--"
One eyebrow, dark and fine, canted above his eye patch. That was all; he didn't say anything else. He didn't have to. But right in front of the proprietress! Xie Lian suppressed his fluster with effort, and thanked her for her kind words.
"We didn't see much of the town on our way in. Maybe we should stretch our legs?"
Hua Cheng shrugged, as if to say it's no Ghost City--even though the town was, as far as Xie Lian could tell, a ghost city--but didn't object. "Why not?"
Xie Lian turned to the witch, gesturing to Sen. "This young lady has been so helpful. Perhaps she could show us around?"
The witch looked perplexed, but her expression smoothed. "Unfortunately, Sen isn't a local, and beyond our premises her safety is something of a concern. If Your Highness would prefer a more expert guide, one of my concierge would be happy to--"
"She's safe with us," said Hua Cheng. Mildly.
The witch's mouth clapped shut.
Xie Lian beamed at Sen. "Miss, if you would?"
She glanced from the two of them to Yubaba, who nodded tightly. Then she bobbed a hasty bow.
"I'll do my best!"
The night market was like the one in Ghost City, if on a smaller scale, with variation for regional cuisine. Skewered eyeballs, it seemed, were a local favorite. Hua Cheng concealed his aura so as not to terrify the townsfolk, whose masked, shadowy, and otherwise lurid figures beckoned from the shops.
When the three of them were well away from the bridge, strolling under the glow of hanging lanterns, Xie Lian turned to Sen.
"Forgive me for prying, Miss, but are you in some sort of difficulty? Is your safety a concern?"
Sen shook her head with the cheerful disregard of youth for mortal danger. "Granny--I mean, Madam Yubaba just worries that sometimes there are strange characters around. I did almost get eaten when I was ten."
Xie Lian halted in dismay. "You've been trapped here since you were ten?"
"Oh, no! Not trapped." Seeing Xie Lian's expression, she flapped her hands. "Really! No one's trapped at Granny's, not since they renegotiated contracts. I work some hours because it's fun, but mostly I come over to see friends. I'm still in school, so."
Xie Lian could sense no dissemblance from her. A brave and admirable young person, then, he thought. If she was in no distress, and not being held against her will, it would be intrusive to press further, even if his curiosity failed to ebb. Still, he couldn't help asking.
"Isn't it difficult, though? Making the crossing?"
For a moment Sen seemed to deflate. "Getting here is kind of hard. Ha-- my friend says it'll be easier when...um, in the future."
"This friend," said Hua Cheng. "Is he scaly?"
"Um, yes. Haku used to have a river in my world--more of a creek, I guess, but still. It got built over, so nothing can really live there now. Him included." Sen glanced up at Xie Lian anxiously, as if trying to gauge whether it was polite to ask. "Does Your Highness know much about shrines?"
Xie Lian traded a wry look with Hua Cheng. "A little. Why?"
"Granny Zeniba said I could try making a shrine for Haku where his river used to be, to make it easier for him to visit. So I did, but it's really small--" she gestured, indicating size with both hands, "--and I don't think people notice it’s there. Nobody leaves offerings but me." She looked up to Xie Lian worriedly. "If he got more offerings, would that help? Like, would it give him more power?"
"It would," said Xie Lian. "Is there an image of him at the shrine? A picture or a statue?"
Sen drooped. "I'm really bad at art."
"Perhaps I might draw one. Or San Lang might. He's very artistic."
Her eyes lit. "Really?"
Would you? said Xie Lian to Hua Cheng, through their private spiritual array.
It won’t compare to my portraits of Gege, answered Hua Cheng, but Gege has only to ask.
Aloud he said, "What does your friend look like?"
Sen launched into eager description. A white dragon, long and lithe--like dragons in old woodblock prints--with smooth scales and a pinkish belly. His mane ran the length of his body, green like river grass, and his eyes were an even deeper green--a sort of ocean-y green, one that seemed to go on and on forever. His head was maybe a little like a wolf's, and his ears like a deer’s, but his nose was soft as a cat's. He had smooth, short horns and long, long whiskers--whiskers for days, she said.
Xie Lian glanced sideways at Hua Cheng, thinking he might be growing bored with all this, but Hua Cheng only looked amused.
"I get the general idea," he said. "It would help if we had a look at him, though."
"He's probably not far," said Sen. "Unless he's doing an errand for Granny Zeniba."
They came to a shop selling trinkets. Xie Lian paused outside the doorway, peering in.
"I thought I might bring back some souvenirs," he said. "For Feng Xin and Mu Qing--"
Now Hua Cheng did look bored. Not just bored, but disparaging.
"--and the Rain Master." Xie Lian was scanning through the window, looking for gifts that didn’t involve human or animal remains, when a dreadful shriek pierced the air.
They spun around. At the market stall behind them, a rooster spirit had begun to race in circles like...well, like a chicken with its head cut off. His wings beat frantically at the wooden beams of the stall. His eyes rolled in the general direction of Hua Cheng.
"HELP, HELP! IT’S C-CRIMSON RAWWWK."
The ghosts at the nearby stalls froze, or began to wobble. "Crimson who?!"
"Himself! Himself, the great Ghost King! Lord--Lord ChengzAHHHHCLUCKCLUCK! SAVE US!"
The rooster spirit burst from his confines, flapping upward--only to tangle in a line of lanterns and go belly-up. He continued to shriek, feathers flying like confetti. The nearby spirits stampeded in contagious panic, bellowing or howling as they tried to flee without knowing where.
Poor Sen was waving her arms, aghast. "Everyone, it’s all right! They’re bathhouse guests!"
"Do you know him?" Xie Lian asked below the din, while the upside-down rooster swung by its leg and screeched. Hua Cheng shook his head.
"How am I supposed to remember every little ghost I've scared the pants off in two thousand years? Maybe he knows me by reputation."
He glanced up with sudden interest, not at the rooster spirit, but at the night sky.
A rush of wind blew from above.
Lanterns billowed on their strings. The rooster’s shed feathers whirled like flurries, while the shutters of shop windows rattled like reeds in a gale. Xie Lian raised an arm to shield his face, even as his hair whipped around him. He saw Sen darting forward, into the wind, her face uplifted and alight.
A white dragon spiraled down to land at her side.
The spirits who hadn’t fled scattered anew or bowed hastily, yelping. "Master Haku! Out of the way, out of the way!"
Even the rooster fell silent. The dragon's tail and whiskers roiled the air. His head swiveled as he surveyed the scene. He wasn’t large, as dragons went, but to Xie Lian he looked surprisingly sleek and healthy for a genius loci who’d been forcibly displaced, and now had only a single devotee. Even in the strange, ruddy light of the market, he could see the dragon's gleaming eyes were green. When they fell on Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, they narrowed. The dragon's head and neck drew back, like a serpent's before the strike.
"Easy," said Hua Cheng, lifting a casual hand. "Your betrothed's fine."
Xie Lian blinked at him sideways. At the same time Sen flung herself against the dragon’s scaly breast.
"Haku, it's okay! They're guests!"
She patted his arched neck, reassuring. The dragon stilled, then pried his stare away from Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. His muzzle pressed Sen's hand. His whiskers hovered about her anxiously, wavering in midair.
Xie Lian felt a twitch of interest at his wrist. Unbidden, Ruoye unwound itself and rose rippling, mirroring the motion of the dragon's whiskers. Xie Lian shushed it and drew it back to his arm, like a narrow hawk to the glove.
The dragon turned to study them again. His shape shimmered and began to blur. In the next instant it coalesced again into the form of a boy--a young man Sen's age or a little older, with otherworldly handsome features, dressed all in white with a deep green sash.
"Excuse my haste." His voice was sonorous, muted and cool. "From above I saw only commotion."
"That was my bad," said Hua Cheng easily. "I should've put on a different face."
The dragon considered him for a long time, unblinking. At last he said, "There are tales from across the sea of a red-robed Ghost King, and an immortal prince revered at his side."
"Really?" Hua Cheng seemed to be enjoying himself. "Gege, we're famous in Japan."
"How nice," coughed Xie Lian. He reached out through their spiritual array. Betrothed?
Why else would a dragon give away his scale?
All at once Xie Lian became conscious of the necklace tucked against his own chest, the bright ring nestled in the folds of his robes. He resisted the urge to lift his hand and press it closer, flush against his skin, then thought himself foolish for resisting, and gave in. He let Hua Cheng see him do it. Hua Cheng returned his private smile.
As always, San Lang is well informed about all sorts of things, he said.
Sen was bobbing on her heels next to her friend. "Haku, our guests asked me to show them around, but you know this place so much better than I do. Come with?"
"Of course," the dragon said.
He led them to a shop selling safely palatable gifts: folding fans and bean paste sweets stamped with the bathhouse logo, or jars of tiny sugar candy shaped like colored stars. While Xie Lian browsed and the dragon stood watch, Sen peeked up--a long way up, given her height--at Hua Cheng.
"Sir, are you really a Ghost King?"
"Retired," said Hua Cheng. "For the moment."
"We're taking some time off to travel," added Xie Lian.
"It sounds like so much fun to go abroad. Haku, could you fly that far?"
"Not easily," said the dragon, looking displeased that he couldn’t simply say yes. "The sea is wide."
"Maybe by boat, then?"
When Xie Lian had bought his souvenirs, they made their way back toward the bathhouse. The dragon took his leave before they reached the bridge, shifting his shape to leave Sen with a whiskery caress.
"He doesn’t like to spend much time at Granny’s," Sen told them. Then, more courteously formal, "May I show you gentlemen back to your room?"
"Please," said Xie Lian. He gestured for her to precede them. "Can I ask how did you two meet?"
The suite and private bath overlooked the transient sea. A bright moon lit its waters, silvering, and made a thin silver ripple of the shape of the dragon sailing high above. The girl on the dragon's back was impossible to see, but Xie Lian didn't doubt she was there, clasping her body to his as they soared together. Xie Lian gazed up in bemusement--he hoped they weren't trying to fly to the Middle Kingdom unprepared--then sank back into the bathwater and Hua Cheng's arms.
"How many maidens become brides at that age, these days?" he mused. It was the worry of a fussy old man--a fussy old immortal--but one couldn't be sure the girl wasn't bewitched, after all. Not by the witch, but the dragon. "She fell into his river as a child, she said."
"Like falling off a wall," murmured Hua Cheng. "And he caught her?"
"I guess he did."
There were any number of ways of encountering love. For Xie Lian it had been different--not a sudden plunge, but a gradual unfurling. Still, the flower had opened swiftly, with little hesitation, once it began to bloom.
Hua Cheng's hand stroked down and up his shoulder, lazily, from clavicle to the crook of his arm. Droplets stirred on Xie Lian's skin with each caress.
"She's not too young to know. I knew." Hua Cheng's voice lowered, pouring like liquid heat against the curl of his ear. "That for me there was no other god. That I would have no other."
Xie Lian felt steam rise from his face. He made a helpless, wordless sound, not precisely in protest, and sank, doing his best to hide in the bathwater. He dipped until it splashed his burning cheeks. Then a surge of other feeling overtook him. He bobbed up again and turned in Hua Cheng's arms, far enough to loop his own arms around Hua Cheng's neck. His nose bumped Hua Cheng's nose.
"You don't have to woo me." His voice was husky, but he managed the words. "We're already in the honeymoon suite."
"I pray never to stop wooing Your Highness."
He barely had the breath to laugh. "Is that something you really need to pray for?"
It was nearly noon the next day when Yubaba summoned Chihiro to her office. Chihiro arrived to find her pawing a stack of what looked like solid gold pieces, crowing and cackling with glee.
"Sen, you've done it again! That Crown Prince has a soft spot for humans, and the Ghost King's loaded. They left tips like you wouldn't believe."
"That's wonderful," said Chihiro. "So there'll be a share for everybody, right? Like it says in the new contracts?"
Yubaba's expression soured. "Pah! You had to remind me. What do frogs and slugs need wages for, anyway? They wouldn't even know what money was if it weren't for me."
"Everyone has to get by," said Chihiro solemnly, and the witch scoffed. She swept the gold pieces into a bundle, eyeing Chihiro from across her desk.
"You're off again after tonight, aren't you?"
"All right." Yubaba's voice turned gruff. "Get home safe. And here--the Crown Prince left this for you."
She dangled a small box over the side of the desk.
Chihiro stepped forward to take it. Her eyes grew wide. On the top of the box her name was written in the prettiest calligraphy she'd ever seen.
Yubaba’s eyes glinted. "Remember, if it's a tip, you have to share."
"I will. Thank you, Granny."
"I told you not to call me that."
Tucking the box to her chest, Chihiro trotted from the office to the elevator at the far end of the hall. Once inside, she pressed no buttons. She took a deep breath and opened the box.
Inside lay a note--again in that same beautiful calligraphy--and a small figurine.
It was a dragon, no bigger than her hand, carved of pale stone. The dragon was unmistakably Haku.
Chihiro’s mouth fell open. She wedged the box under her arm and held the figure up, turning it every which way. It was exactly the right size to fit a small wooden shrine. The artistry was amazing--and when had the artist found time, let alone the tools and material? They'd only stayed one night. She wasn’t so naive as to think they didn’t have other things to do in the honeymoon suite.
But it seemed gods and Ghost Kings could manage little feats like this when it pleased them. Maybe it was disrespectful to think otherwise, or to be too surprised. Chihiro opened the note and read.
Wishing you and your dear one all the best. Remember: sometimes one person is enough.
Xie Lian & --
The second signature was unreadable. Chihiro tilted the paper sideways, squinting, and gave up. Maybe Ghost Kings didn't like to be too free with their real names, either.
She refolded the note. She returned the carved dragon to its box, handling with reverent care. She wouldn’t show it to Haku, not just yet, not until she’d placed it in the shrine. Going home, back to the mundane world, was always hard--it meant saying goodbye, often without knowing when they might meet again--but this time, for once, she’d have a mission.
Hugging the box to her chest, she pressed the down button and smiled.