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Syrenen was not a particularly superstitious man, but he reckoned that anyone in his line of work needed all the help he could get.
Ever since he’d begun his ascent into the mountains, his backpack had started to weigh heavily upon him. He muttered a curse at it and shook the bamboo frame to settle it more easily on his back. The action was accompanied by the delicate tinkling sound of a dozen polished copper mirrors that hung suspended from the backpack: amulets against the demons and ghosts said to haunt these mountains.
It was said that, if a demon approached a lone traveller and caught sight of its true reflection in a mirror, it would flee and bother the traveller no more.
Syrenen wasn’t sure he believed such nonsense, but to disregard it might prove fatal – especially as he was venturing into the Qaxtin Mountains, a place that stirred rumours even as far away as the barren steppes of his northern homeland.
Back then he’d dismissed the talk as exaggeration. After all, according to the same rumours, the north-men all rode horses that were so fleet, they could fly. He’d never seen a flying horse and he’d never been able to sit on a saddle without falling off, and so, for all that he listened to it as avidly as the next man, Syrenen had a healthy disrespect for rumour.
Now, as he neared the end of the gentle foothills to begin the climb up the rugged slopes of the mountains, he wondered why he’d allowed himself even a flicker of anxiety about this journey.
Yesterday morning, the people of the last village he’d passed through had urged him not to go into the mountains. Their expressions had registered fear, and they could scarce bring themselves even to look in the direction of the Qaxtin. From the plain below, the range seemed vast and awe-inspiring, and none more so than the lofty peak of Changbei Shan, the tallest and most deadly of the mountains. So tall its summit was wreathed in clouds, its upper slopes dressed in the purest white of frozen snow even during the spring thaw, Changbei Shan brooded over the Qaxtin Mountains like a lord overseeing his armies.
“A god dwells on the mountain,” the village headman had said, low-voiced. “If the criminal you pursue has gone into his domain, you will never see him again.”
Syrenen had nodded. “Perhaps, but Lei Ku is dangerous, and it is my duty as a thief-catcher to take him back to the provincial capital, dead or alive. And he has committed more crimes since he went on the run – the theft of a mule that died a day later on the road, numerous other thefts of food, clothing and money, and here, in your own village, he battered a man half to death to steal more food and a warm winter cloak! I must catch him so he may stand trial for his crimes.”
“You will not catch him in the mountains,” the headman said. “If he has set foot on Changbei Shan, he will have signed his own death-warrant.”
Syrenen had smiled at that. Perhaps the headman spoke truly. Townsfolk, unprepared for the rigours of the mountains, often came to grief on desolate slopes – especially when the weather was so changeable. Although spring had arrived, dark clouds still roiled around the peaks and the mountains looked bleak and unwelcoming.
“I will find him,” Syrenen had said, more a promise to himself than to the headman, “and I will bring him out of the Qaxtin, god or no god.”
It was the villagers who’d tied the mirrors onto his backpack. Heedless of his protests that he’d travelled through more difficult terrain, they came with him to the village boundary, heaping blessings upon him. Then, by the graves of their ancestors, they’d halted and waved farewell in a strange, sympathetic silence. When he’d glanced back, he’d seen them still standing there, as if watching his spirit depart.
He looked at the mountainside around him. A stream bubbled past, its way carved through huge boulders sprigged with jewel-bright moss. Caught in a cleft in a rock high above him, a plum tree flowered. Grass grew, flowers opened to the sun, and a blue bird with a curled black tail sat on top of a pine tree and trilled at him.
Far from being a place of desolation, Changbei Shan seemed a slice of paradise. Syrenen felt his spirits lift. He took a deep breath of the fresh spring air and strode forward, the mirrors tinkling and crashing like tiny cymbals in his wake.
Before long, the path became more difficult. The rush of the stream faded, replaced by the hiss of the wind and his own laboured breathing as he climbed. After another hour’s ascent, the grass grew only in short, tufted clumps from rock-fissures, and there were no more flowers, no more trees.
A little further, and Syrenen forgot how pretty the lower slopes had looked. The mountain that met him now was all dark granite riven into tortuous shapes, blasted by the elements. The path wended its way up and around sheer cliffs, tiptoed along blade-sharp ridges, and crept around black ravines.
It was a mountain that demanded respect. Syrenen quickly came to appreciate that fact, abandoning the idea of tracking the criminal in favour of staying alive as he negotiated his way higher towards the summit. He comforted himself with the thought that, if Lei Ku had come this way, he’d not be much further ahead – for if Syrenen, with all his outdoor skills, found the going difficult, surely it must be impossible for an inexperienced townsman.
Another hour passed. Syrenen pushed back his hat of woven bamboo and ran a hand across his forehead. Wisps of hair escaped his scruffy topknot and clung wetly to his face. He scraped them back, feeling the heat of sweat at his nape as he lifted the long twist of his hair free of his collar. The breeze chilled his neck, a delicious sensation that made him shiver.
He fumbled in the backpack for a flask of water and took a swig. The first gulp was cold, the second, refreshing. Syrenen capped the flask and stowed it away safely. Only then did he realise how silent the world was around him.
A mist had gathered without him noticing it. Thick, white clouds rolled down, obscuring the distant summit with its snowfields, and then veiling the path little by little until soft, silent cold blanketed him.
Syrenen felt behind him for the rock-face. The stone was wet and chilled, and his fingers slipped. He lurched sideways, dislodging a pebble. It skittered across the path and disappeared without a sound. He knew there was a sheer drop on that side of the path, but he listened in vain for the noise of the pebble falling into oblivion. The mist swallowed everything – sound, colour, light, warmth.
Pressing back against the cold mountain, Syrenen considered his next move. He could see only a few feet in front of him. Further ascent would be foolhardy, but he could not easily go back, either. One false move in this treacherous mist and he would die. He considered staying put, but this exposed cliff-edge was not ideal for setting up camp for the rest of the day. Besides, he had no way of knowing when the mist would clear. He could be here a matter of hours… or perhaps it would be days.
It would be better to continue onwards. Moving carefully away from the rock-face, Syrenen concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as the path revealed itself. His focus narrowed and he looked inward, continually aware of his balance, his breathing, and the beat of his heart. He kept his footsteps small and light, feeling the path beneath his boots, trying to attune himself to the mountain. Sweat broke out at his hairline, turning cold almost immediately. The mist seemed to caress his face and limbs. His face burned with effort, his head pounding as his field of vision slowly shrank yet further.
He knew he had to stop. It was madness to continue, and yet Syrenen knew if he stopped, he would die. For the first time in his life, he felt terror snap at him. With a groan of defeat, he sank to his knees on the wet, slippery path and hung his head, breathing deeply to control his fear.
The backpack seemed heavier than ever. Perhaps he should abandon it. He rejected the idea before it took root. The pack contained food, clothing, blankets and basic medical supplies as well as official documents. He needed it to survive.
Syrenen shrugged the pack into a more comfortable position. As he did so, one of the mirrors came loose and fell onto the path in front of him. He crawled forward to retrieve it, curling his hand around it and looking at his own reflection.
Through the eerie mist, he almost didn’t recognise himself. With his hair half-down and tangled around his face, he looked like a wild thing and not the charming, urbane thief-catcher who’d worked so hard to appear at home amongst a nation that was not his own. His dark slanted brows were drawn together in a frown of concentration, and his mouth worked around a curse at his weakness.
Then he saw something else in the mirror: a gleam, a suggestion of something taking shape through the mist – a figure… a man.
Syrenen clasped the mirror tight as he rose to his feet. His pulse quickened as he remembered the stories of demons showing their true faces in mirrors, but his reason argued that it was just another human being who stood before him. Tucking the mirror into his waist-sash, he dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword.
“Lei Ku,” he said loudly at the man still swathed in mist, “I have come to arrest you on charges of murder, battery and theft. Do not attempt to run. You cannot escape me.”
He took a step forward, hand still on his sword, pretending more confidence than he felt. As he moved, the mist swirled away, showing him the path ahead and revealing the man who stood waiting for him.
Syrenen stared. It was not Lei Ku’s ugly dark visage that loomed out of the mist but one altogether more refined. In fact, he realised, as he looked his fill, the man on the path was beautiful. Tall and slender, dressed in white silk with black edgings and a dark grey sash, half of his hair was caught up in a topknot dressed with an elaborate silver hairpin, while the rest hung down his back. Apart from a wide, white stripe that began above the left temple, the stranger’s hair was as black as midnight.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” Syrenen asked. He edged closer, still wary, flexing his fingers over his sword-hilt. “Are you lost on this benighted mountain, too? This is foul weather in which to be taking a walk.”
The stranger looked at him in silence. He seemed coated in mist, sparkles of dew caught in his clothes and on his hair, giving him a look of liveliness even though he remained as still as a statue. But his eyes gleamed with interest as he gazed at him, and Syrenen fancied he caught the barest hint of a smile on those perfect, sculpted lips before the stranger turned away.
The stranger paused, looking back over one shoulder. His eyebrows arched in question and, perhaps, in challenge.
Syrenen took another step closer. If he reached out, he’d be able to touch the stranger’s hair. He imagined the feel of it, warm over his skin despite those glittering dewdrops. He wanted to get close enough to catch the scent of it. Lured on by the elegant drape of black hair with its single white stripe, he stretched out a hand and moved forward.
The path disappeared beneath his feet, and Syrenen dropped like a stone.