Thu 1 Aug 2013
The fifteenth day of the first month in the seventh year of the Huayin Era:
The old man, Hae-wook Lee, had been bedridden for months. He lay on the sleeping mat, wrapped in a blanket. The drugs helped him sleep, and forget about the harsh words of his son.
It was an unseasonably warm winter day, here in this corner of Northeast Asia. Though the fire in the kitchen hearth next door had been extinguished, the gudeul smoke passages below the floor would continue to radiate residual heat for several hours. The room was so warm that the maid, Kyoon, had left the windows open to give the old man some fresh air, dry and invigorating after the new snow of the day before.
He dreamt that he was having a dinner of gogi gui. That pretty girl from years ago served him. He felt a pang of regret.
The marinated meats made his mouth water, and he felt the heat from the grill on his face. He reached out to pour some water on the grill to lower the heat a bit, but the grill only grew hotter.
The old man coughed and could not breathe. He opened his eyes. Smoke filled the room, and tongues of flame licked the ceiling and the walls. The straw mats, wooden furniture, and even the jangpan paper floor were all on fire. He cried out for help, but no one came.
“Mistress, a man is here to see the old Master.” Jiyin, thirteen, her face still showing baby fat, knelt by the door to the kitchen.
The woman she addressed was barely more than a girl herself, but she carried herself with an air far older than her nineteen years. Sui-Wei Far was dressed all in white, wore no makeup, and her dark tresses were pinned into a knot covered with a white kerchief. Grief had made her eyes red and tired.
She nodded and stood up.
“Jiyin, finish making the offering to the hearth spirits in here for me. Be sure to thank them for keeping the food from our kitchen healthy and safe these last few weeks, when we were all so distracted. And then bring out tea for the guest.”
Sui-Wei went to the front hall and knelt so that the silk screen in the middle of the room hid her from the view of the male guest, in accordance with the precepts of her Confucian teachers.
“Honored Guest, you wish to see my father?” She bowed.
Through the silk screen, the hazy outline of the man bowed back. “I am Yeon-joo Lee, son of the silk merchant Hae-wook Lee. I have urgent business to discuss with Litigator Far.”
The mention of her father’s name made the grief fresh again. She struggled to keep her voice as calm as the surface of a lotus pond. “My father passed away last week.”
The hazy shoulders slumped. “My condolences. I just lost my father as well.” His voice sounded young, uncertain. “Is there a young master who will carry on Master Far’s trade?”
“I am my father’s only child.”
“That is too bad. An innocent girl’s life is at stake.”
She thought about the times, when she was younger, when her father would take her on investigations, have her copy out petitions to the magistrates, explain to her the intricacies of the law, lay the evidence before her and ask her to explain how she thought the deed was done.
“If only you weren’t a girl,” her father would say. “You are brighter than any apprentice I’ve instructed, and you would make a fine litigator.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” her mother would say, back when she was still alive. “You need to think about finding her a husband. Men do not want their wives running about assisting criminals.”
Jiyin came in with a tray of tea and snacks, knelt, and poured two cups, placing one on each side of the screen.
What would her father have wanted?
She reached out and pushed the silk screen aside, ignoring Jiyin’s gasp of surprise. Yeon-joo, as she had suspected, was barely in his twenties, and his eye were kind, if sad.
“I am Litigatrix Sui-Wei Far. How can I be of assistance?”
“The ignorant think that litigators turn black into white, guilt into innocence. That is not so,” her father had said. “A litigator must always seek out the truth, and defend only the truly innocent.”
It was not always easy to find the truth in the chaos of Yiefeng, capital of Dawul.
The tiny kingdom, founded by a Chinese general who had escaped the turmoil of the civil wars in China at the end of the last dynasty, occupied a few hundred square li on the border between China and Korea. Its inhabitants were a mix of Chinese, Koreans, Mongols, and Jurchens. Beijing left Dawul alone because Dawul carefully acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, and Hanseong left Dawul alone because the Korean kings deemed it too much trouble to conquer such a small mountainous state.
So Dawul made itself into a trading hub, and Yiefeng was filled with adventurers of all stripes: Chinese merchants and Korean nobles, masterless ronins escaping the incessant wars between the daimyos in Japan, Christian and Buddhist missionaries, rogue Tibetan smugglers, and even voyagers from distant Europe with blond and red hair.
Crimes were bad for business, and worse for the collection of taxes. The kings of Dawul ran an efficient system of yamen courts. The magistrates investigated crimes and prosecuted criminals, determined guilt and meted out punishment.
“The magistrates mean well,” her father had said. “But they often make mistakes in their haste and zeal. Though they despise the litigators, our work is crucial. We cast doubt on their theories, force them to examine and consider all the evidence. And when a man is wrongly accused, litigators are the only ones who can save his life.”
Yeon-joo and Sui-Wei walked through the smoldering ruins of the Lee house. She spoke to him in Korean, and he to her in Chinese, each trying to make the other feel comfortable. Through the piles of rubble capped by broken ceramic shingles, the general layout could still be discerned.
Though a prosperous merchant, Hae-wook’s house was tiny and modest, combining both Korean and Chinese features. It followed a square plan around a central courtyard that provided light and ventilation. On the north and abutting the street was the front hall, where the old man received guests and conducted business. Other residents along the street, a little-trafficked thoroughfare connecting two much larger avenues, saw no strangers pass through on the day of the fire. They did report seeing the maid, Kyoon, leave the house during the first hour after noon, and Yeon-joo himself left about a quarter of an hour later.
Beyond the front hall, the central courtyard was filled with potted bonsai (all consumed by the fire) and several large scholars’ rocks. To the west of the courtyard were the kitchen and the maid’s room, and to the east, Yeon-joo’s room and the study, where the old man had kept his books and did his correspondence. It would have been impossible for intruders to enter the house from either direction due to the thick, windowless, brick firewalls that separated the house from the neighbors.
South of the courtyard was Hae-wook’s bedroom, where he had been confined due to his illness. The bedroom had outside windows facing south, and when healthy, the old man had enjoyed the view, where, beyond a grassy yard and a sharp bank, a small stream flowed past. A close examination revealed no sign of anyone having climbed up the bank recently.
By the time the fire brigade had been summoned, the entire house was already in flames. No one could say definitively where the fire had started.
Magistrate Wu and two of his inspectors were on site, along with a couple of other men, likely friends of the dead merchant. One of the men was a thin Portuguese with light brown curly hair. Another was older, bald, and dressed in the furs of a Jurchen merchant.
“Yeon-joo,” Magistrate Wu said, “I am now even more convinced that this was a case of arson, and that your maid Kyoon was the perpetrator. Except for you and Kyoon, no one else could have entered the house and then left without being seen by any witnesses. You, of course, are above suspicion.”
“Could it not have been an accident?” The Portuguese ventured. “The underfloor heating system must be prone to the risk of fire.” His Chinese was accented with both the flavor of his native tongue and the speech of the southern coast of China.
The Magistrate shook his head. “I’ve examined the masonry floor and the underfloor heating passages and found no cracks. The fire must have started in the kitchen. Although Yeon-joo said that he saw no flames in the hearth after lunch, it’s likely that the maid banked the fire so low as to escape his notice. The key is that the girl acted very suspiciously. Inspectors found her at her parents’ house, agitated and in distress. When they told her that her master’s house had burnt down, she fainted. A search of the premises revealed a small pouch of jewelry that the family claimed to be ‘gifts’ from her employer – likely story! It’s a pretty plain case of a greedy servant committing theft followed by murder to cover up her tracks.”
“Kyoon is not a murderer,” Yeon-joo said. “The jewels were gifts from my father to the family for her long service.”
“Yet the family could produce no letter indicating it was a gift. Surely they would have treasured such a letter from Master Lee.”
Yeon-joo had no answer for this. But he went on, stubbornly. “Kyoon was nervous because any sixteen-year old girl would by frightened by the sight of the police showing up at her house. You must catch the real killer. I’ve retained Miss Far to prove her innocence.”
Magistrate Wu eyed Sui-Wei, who shifted awkwardly under his intense gaze. “I did not know that you were taking up your father’s habit of arguing with the law. This is hardly a suitable pursuit for a lady of good breeding.”
Sui-Wei stiffened. “Is it not in accordance with the teachings of Confucius, Your Honor, for a child to aspire to be viewed with the same estimation as her father? Whence the dishonor?”
The Magistrate’s face grew red, and he coughed to cover his embarrassment.
“Based on what I’ve heard of Master Far, the young lady has apparently inherited her father’s quick wit,” the Portuguese said. He winked at Sui-Wei, who smiled back politely.
Still, it’s best to not make the Magistrate angry with her. “Your Honor, my father spoke often of your fairness and willingness to be persuaded. I would rather have your respect than the respect of the gossiping public.”
The judge softened his gaze. “Though he constantly vexed me with his questions and arguments, I appreciated the zeal your father brought to the pursuit of the truth. I’ll see you in court in two weeks, when I’ll try her.”
Sui-Wei bowed in farewell as Magistrate Wu departed.
Yeon-joo introduced her to the Portuguese, who had adopted the Chinese name Ben-Ni Lo and was in Dawul to purchase furs and silks for export to Europe, and the Jurchen merchant, whose name was Aguda, both a friend and competitor of the Lees. They offered Yeon-joo their condolences. Aguda and Ben-Ni did not know each other but bowed respectfully.
“I came as soon as I heard, as I was out of town on business until this morning,” Aguda said. “It will be hard to run the business on your own. Please do not hesitate to call on me for help. It has long been my dream to partner with the Lee name.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Old Master Lee one more time,” Ben-Ni said. “He had very strong ideas about how things ought to be done and I respected that. But perhaps you’ll consider some changes that can only be advantageous to his legacy.”
Keeping one ear on the conversation, Sui-Wei examined the scholars’ rocks. Carved from natural sedimentary formations at the bottoms of lakes, these rocks were as tall as a man and full of holes from eons of erosion. Contemplating their thin, wrinkled shapes and thousands of open perforations was said to cultivate the mind for more elegant thoughts. Although they were now covered in soot and water from the fire brigade, Sui-Wei, careless of her dress, knelt down to examine the lower holes. She saw bits of paper that had been trapped in them and thus saved from the fire. Reaching in with her hand, she retrieved what seemed to be fragments of accounting records and personal letters, as well as a decorative rooster cut from red paper.
“Might Miss Far permit me to call on her at some point in the near future?”
Sui-Wei straightened and saw that the speaker was Ben-Ni. She blushed at the rudeness of the bold request. The way he stared at her openly with his hazel eyes was unnerving – but she also felt flattered by his attention. “I shall be at your service.”
“And I shall repay you by showing you some of the wonders of Europe, unknown in Asia.”
Aguda gave Ben-Ni a surprised and calculating look. “You aren’t thinking of getting in trouble with the law, are you?”
“Not at all. But it’s always a good idea for a merchant from far away to know men – and women – who can defend him in local courts.”
“You might want to purchase some jade ornaments from me. They improve luck, especially the sort that keeps legal troubles away.”
Sui-Wei continued to the south side of the house, next to the bank. The fire had melted the snow and ice covering the yard, revealing the dead grass below. In several spots, the grass lay flat, as if something heavy had been placed there.
“The fire destroyed Old Master Lee’s collection of ice sculpture too,” Aguda said. “He, a far more poetic man than I, said that they reminded him of the transient nature of all life. I just like making them as a hobby. I had given him an ice statue of a dancing girl drummer for his birthday last month, but the statue is now gone, like the recipient, long before the natural course of life.”
Kyoon, the accused maid, huddled in terror in her holding cell, and it took many minutes before Sui-Wei was able to coax the young girl’s story out of her.
On the morning of the day of the fire, the girl had followed her routine. She gave the old master breakfast, cleaned the house, and then served an early lunch. Afterwards, while the old man took his afternoon nap, she left to run errands and to visit her parents. She had made sure that the fire in the hearth was put out.
Yeon-joo confirmed her account. He had studied in his room all morning, and saw Kyoon from time to time. He spoke to the old man briefly after lunch, and then left the house to check on the warehouse in another part of the city. Before he left, he checked to be sure that his father was safely asleep, and that nothing was out of place in the kitchen.
“What did you buy at the butcher’s?” Sui-Wei asked the maid.
“For the Chinese radish and pork soup?”
“Yes, the master likes it for the cold winter nights.”
Sui-Wei silently berated herself. It was just like a woman to be interested in such irrelevant trivia about groceries and cooking. Her father would never have asked such stupid questions.
But her father had also told her, “Don’t overlook details. You never know which thread will untangle the whole mess.”
She told the doubting voice in her head to be quiet.
“After the butcher shop, your last stop, you went to your parents?”
“Yes, straight away.”
“Which path did you take?”
“By the city gates. It’s longer, but I like to walk through the market there.”
“Oh, I like the hanfu dresses there too. The Su family’s styles are striking this year.”
“Yes, Miss Far. Though I couldn’t see their display that day. The hour was late, and they were deep in shade under the awning.”
And on and on it went. Sui-Wei found out nothing of any use.
The only point on which she did not feel entirely confident of Kyoon’s answers concerned the small pouch of jewels found in her house. She claimed that they were gifts from the old master, and Yeon-joo confirmed it.
“But it’s very unusual for employers to give a maid such generous gifts without a formal letter of explanation. Was there a special reason?”
Kyoon looked at Yeon-joo with terrified eyes and the young man took over. “My father had always been generous with servants. He felt a special bond with Kyoon and her family because her mother used to work for him before her marriage, and Kyoon herself has worked for us ever since she was a little girl.”
Sui-Wei remained unconvinced. Something about the way Kyoon looked at Yeon-joo troubled her.
Just because Magistrate Wu said there were no witnesses didn’t mean that it was true.
Sui-Wei and Jiyin arrived at the ruins of the Lee house just after dusk, the hour of dinner. Yeon-joo was staying temporarily as a guest with Aguda, so the place was deserted.
“Mistress, I don’t like ghosts,” Jiyin said, shivering in the darkness.
“Don’t worry. We’re just here to visit the household hearth spirits.”
Jiyin was relieved. Men did not pay much attention to the lowly hearth spirits. But Sui-Wei and Jiyin always took care to keep up the offerings to their own house hearth spirits for safety from fire and for the rice to not be burnt. From a basket, Jiyin took out dumplings and candied fruits and set them out on small plates in what remained of the hearth. Sui-Wei lit the candles beside them and began to pray.
“Honored Spirits of the Hearth of the Lee Family, it is time for dinner to be made. I have rekindled the flames in this cold hearth.”
Poor spirits, she thought. The hearth spirits were having a hard time these days, with so many households converting to Christianity and driving them out. Homeless spirits could sometimes squeeze in at hearths in other houses. But no spirits would want to share the hearth with refugees from a burnt-down house because they were bad luck. In this cold winter, it would not be many days before they faded away with no sustaining fire.
Gradually, as the flames from the candles flickered in the wind, two translucent forms, an old man and an old woman, appeared in their faint glow.
Thank you. Thank you.
“Honored Spirits, can you tell me what you remember of the fire?”
Sui-Wei had to strain to hear their weak voices above the wind.
So hot. So bright.
“Did you see how the fire started?”
From the sky. From the floor. From the sky. From the floor.
Sui-Wei frowned. They were not making any sense.
“Did you see who started the fire?”
The couple began to dance. The old man jumped about, holding an imaginary buk barrel drum over his shoulder and hitting it with an imaginary stick.
Tum-tum, tum-tum. The old man and woman chanted as they danced.
“You are celebrating,” Sui-Wei whispered. An idea hit her. “A celebration involves fireworks. You’re saying that the fire began when someone launched lit fireworks into the house? That’s what you meant by ‘from the sky’?” But that couldn’t be. Somebody would have seen or heard the explosions.
The old couple ignored her and began to bicker.
She’s your flesh and blood!
I’ve done all I can for her.
Not nearly enough.
Sui-Wei shook her head. She had come too late. The spirits were old, and the destruction of the house must have shocked them and driven them mad.
Jiyin was flabbergasted. For a man to visit an unmarried woman at such a late hour was scandalous. But Sui-Wei told her that it would be even ruder to refuse him entry.
Jiyin made a show of banging the teakettle in the kitchen as loudly as possible.
Oblivious of the lack of welcome, Ben-Ni sat down. “Miss Far, I hope the investigation is going well.”
“Actually, I’ve made no progress at all.”
“You seem exhausted. Perhaps a conversation with a foreigner would help you think of a new perspective on familiar persons and things. Ah, perspective, that is what I have come to show you, a marvel of European ingenuity.”
Ben-Ni pulled out a metal tube from his traveling pouch and went into the courtyard. Sui-Wei was intrigued. Like her father, she enjoyed learning about all sorts of subjects.
He set up the instrument on a stand so that it pointed into the sky, peered through the lower end, made some adjustments, and gestured for Sui-Wei to take a look for herself.
It was a view of the Moon, but a Moon that was much closer and bigger. She gasped and pulled back.
Ben-Ni laughed. “This is a telescope. It employs the principles of optics to magnify distant objects.”
Sui-Wei bent down again. The Moon appeared as a piece of jade etched with dark shadows and patterns. She looked in vain for signs of the Rabbit and the Osmanthus Tree from the fairy tales of her childhood.
“Astounding,” she murmured.
“The mechanical inventions of Europe are as delightful as the fine water silk of Korea, and such marvels ought to be shared. But Korea forbids her merchants from selling to us because we sell weapons to Japan.”
“Is that why you wanted to trade with Master Hae-wook Lee here in Dawul, to get around the restrictions?”
Ben-Ni nodded. “I was willing to offer him higher prices and an exclusive on European goods, but Lee was suspicious and did not want to offend his buyers in China, and he saw no use in my mechanical clocks and other ‘toys.’ His son, however, is much like yourself, and intrigued by the possibilities of the new. I understand that father and son did not get along.”
Sui-Wei filed away this information in her head.
She asked Ben-Ni to explain the principles of optics, and pressed him to sketch out the means by which lenses focused and bent light. Ben-Ni then excitedly trained the telescope on another part of the sky. As Sui-Wei bent to look through the tube, Ben-Ni hovered behind her and put one hand on her shoulder.
Sui-Wei froze and looked back, but Ben-Ni’s guileless face, eagerly anticipating her reaction, showed that he had not meant to insult her. She tried to relax, and gazed at the rings of Saturn through the telescope. But her mind was not among the stars. She blushed at the heat of his body, transmitted through his hand and her thin dress.
Long after Ben-Ni left, she remembered the feel of his hand.
“Did your father have enemies?”
They were walking back from an interview with Kyoon’s parents, a simple couple. The mother had moved to Yiefeng from the countryside twenty years earlier and found work as a maid for Hae-wook Lee, and the father was a Jurchen laborer. They shed no light on the situation.
Yeon-joo chose his words carefully. “I don’t know my father very well. As a boy, I was sent away to study in China, and returned only last year. But I believe that he was a careful and fair man. While he made sure that he got his due, he did not exact unfair advantage from his trading partners. The only man who might dislike him is Aguda. My father and he were fierce competitors, but it was my father, not Aguda, who won the license to import Korean silk. They were civil to each other though, and Aguda visited my father during his illness.”
“But he was away on the day of the fire.”
“Right. And he’s been pleasant to me since then, offering to acquire my father’s – my – Korean silk license and our entire inventory on hand until I can get my affairs sorted out to buy the license back from him. Indeed, I’m staying with him now. His offer is low, but I might have to take it. The fire destroyed all our business records, and it will take a while to reconstruct accounts and customer lists.”
They had passed by the Lee warehouse earlier. Sui-Wei remembered glancing at the lifeless building, doors locked, the snow in front pristine, unsullied by the footprints of laborers and buyers, as though it were in mourning for its master.
Sui-Wei stopped at the market to purchase food for dinner. She had been running the household since her mother’s death, and she didn’t mind doing the errands herself.
“Could I have some rib tips?”
“I’ve none left,” the butcher said. “Everybody wants rib tips for soup in the winter. You have to come early if you want them.”
Disappointed, Sui-Wei settled for some inferior pigs’ feet.
“I’ll walk you back to Aguda’s,” she offered.
Aguda’s house was in the style of a Jurchen hunting lodge. There was no central courtyard, and all the rooms were in a row.
“Please excuse my appearance,” Aguda said, laughing as he wiped the sweat from his face and neck with a cloth. “I was not expecting visitors.”
“Master Aguda has been pursuing his hobby,” Yeon-joo said. “He’s the best ice sculptor in Yiefeng.”
“Young Master Lee is far too kind.”
“Why don’t you show Miss Far your workshop?” Yeon-joo asked.
“Oh, it’s dark and damp and cold, hardly a place for a lady.”
Sui-Wei’s face grew hot at this. “No, I do want to see it. I am not so delicate.”
Reluctantly, Aguda led them through a shed into an underground ice cellar. There was an empty workspace in the middle, lit by several large oil lamps backed with curved, silvered mirrors to focus the light. Sui-Wei appreciated the novel design of the lamps, now that she had learned something about optics from Ben-Ni. Aguda was clearly a clever man to have discovered such principles on his own.
“I keep this cellar insulated with straw and stock it with river ice all winter so I can work even in summer.”
The sculpture he was working on was a great ice dragon, half finished, so that it seemed as if the translucent creature was leaping out of a block of ice. Chisel and hammer lay on a bench nearby, testifying to Aguda’s exertions.
She looked around the cellar and saw ice wolves, soldiers, dancers lifting buk drums over their heads.
“Was this one of the sculptures you gave to Master Lee?”
Aguda nodded, his face clouding over with sorrow.
She walked closer to examine the sculpture. The ice dancer stood on her tiptoes, lifting the buk high over her head, one of the flat surfaces tilted slightly downwards. Sui-Wei imagined the statue outside the window of Hae-wook’s bedroom. Even lying down, the old man would have been able to see the girl’s head and arms, and of course the drum, glowing bright with the sun behind it.
“I stand in the presence of a great artist,” Sui-Wei said.
Aguda brushed away the compliment with a laugh that sounded forced.
The cold and stale air in the ice cellar made Sui-Wei uncomfortable, and the flickering shadows unsettled her. Aguda’s demeanor was not exactly warm. Everything made her want to leave.
She grew annoyed with herself. Her father had often gone into shadowy places and met with distrust. If she was going to carry on her father’s legacy, she had to be bolder. She decided to ask for something from this cellar to prove that she was not frightened.
“May I ask for a memento of my visit?” She asked. “I truly admire your art.” She pointed to a small, rough cylinder of ice on a workbench.
Shadows flickered across Aguda’s face, but he soon grinned. “That is nothing more than the core I drilled out of the model of a well.”
Sui-Wei forced herself to overcome her natural instinct to be diffident. She had to learn to push. “Nevertheless, I’d like to have it, if you would honor me so.”
Aguda handed it to her wordlessly. One end of the cylinder of ice had carved markings that imitated the rim of a well. He was telling the truth.
She thanked Aguda, and the three emerged from the cellar to take tea in the backyard. It was a bright day, but still not too warm.
Sui-Wei placed the ice core next to her on the swept earth. In natural sunlight, she noticed that the ice cylinder seemed to be grey. Looking closer, she saw that many fine particles were suspended in the translucent ice, giving it the dark coloration instead of the expected brilliant, cloudy white.
The warm teacup in her hands chased the memories of the chill and dank ice cellar away. They chatted of inconsequential things.
After tea, Sui-Wei stood up to say goodbye. But as she bent down to pick up her memento, she saw only a tiny frog carved from ice, but ice so clear that the frog almost disappeared against the ground.
She picked it up in her palm, amazed. “How was this done?”
Aguda scratched his head and mumbled, “I was trying to make a sculpture of the frog at the bottom of the well. I wasn’t sure it would work.”
Sui-Wei remembered the dirty appearance of the ice cylinder. “You carved the frog first, out of the clearest river ice, with no trapped air or imperfections. Then you immersed it in a solution of water and fine river silt, so that the frog was frozen inside a column of dark ice. Just like how we sprinkle coal dust to melt ice before doorways, the dark ice of the ‘well’ melts first to reveal the clear ice frog within.”
“Miss Far is indeed wise,” said Aguda. “I’m certain that the truth of Master Lee’s murder will soon be revealed to your gaze just as this frog has been revealed by the heat of the sun.”
As Sui-Wei handed Jiyin the basket of groceries, she paused and considered the pigs’ feet, a poor substitute for rib tips.
You have to come early if you want them.
“You lied,” Sui-Wei said.
Kyoon began to cry. She put her arms around her knees and rocked herself.
“You bought rib tips on the day of the fire. Many favor the cut for its richness in these cold winter days, and the butcher generally sells out by early afternoon. The distance between the butcher’s and your family’s house is only a quarter of an hour’s walk. Yet you told me that you could not see the Su family’s dress display in the shadow of late afternoon. There’s a missing hour or more in your account of the day.”
Mixed in with Sui-Wei’s disappointment was also some pride. This was a detail that even her father might have missed. A woman’s detail.
“Tell me how you really spent the hours between the butcher shop and your family.” Is the girl guilty after all?
“I can’t. I just can’t.” The girl wiped the tears with her sleeves. “I didn’t start the fire. I would never do anything to harm the old master.”
Instinctively, Sui-Wei believed the girl. But, she is hiding some other secret.
The maid’s face was porcelain white from the lack of sunlight and nourishing food, pale like the pristine snow before the Lee warehouse.
No one had been there since the last snow, which was on the day before the fire.
Sui-Wei shuddered. Yeon-joo did not go to the warehouse on the day of the fire. He had lied too.
In her mind, she saw again how the frightened girl had looked to Yeon-joo for direction the last time she was here.
She took a gamble.
“You met Yeon-joo.”
The girl stopped crying and stared at her, her mouth open in shock.
Sui-Wei’s heart pounded in her chest.
“He gave you those jewels, didn’t he? You were in love and he wanted to give your parents your bride price.”
But the girl emphatically shook her head. “No, no. The young master … it’s ridiculous, what you suggest.”
Again, Sui-Wei believed the girl. If Yeon-joo was not in love with her, then what was he doing meeting the maid in secret?
She made a show of nodding in approval. “Good. That shows the proper mindset of a servant. Young Master Lee already told me everything. He could not allow you to speak freely last time because prison guards were around. Just now, I was testing you, to make sure you weren’t getting any wrong ideas after all he’s done for you.”
Kyoon sighed in relief. “Thank you, Miss Far. But you’re like the young master, kind, yet unpredictable.”
“He really shocked you that day, didn’t he?”
“Oh yes. That morning, when he and the old master shouted and argued, I was so scared that I ran into the kitchen and hid behind the woodpile. But he caught me later on my way to my parents’ and insisted on giving me the bag of jewels. I was so confused.”
Sui-Wei tried to keep her voice level. “He told me you had a nice long chat.”
Kyoon nodded. “He asked me so many questions. What it was like when I was little, what foods did I enjoy, what did I think of the old master. And then he asked me whether I heard what he and the old master were arguing about. I said no because I was so scared that I stuffed my fingers in my ears. He said that was fine. Just don’t ever talk about the argument, or our chat. And he said that the jewels were from the old master. ‘It’s what you deserve.’”
Sui-Wei’s mind was a chaotic mess. She paced around her room and waved Jiyin away in irritation when she came to inquire about dinner.
Kyoon and Yeon-joo were the only two who had access to the Lee house on the day of the fire. They were the only plausible suspects.
The good news is that her client was innocent. The bad news is that her employer was probably the murderer.
Yeon-joo had admitted that he was not close to his father. And Ben-Ni had indicated that there was tension between the father and the son over the direction of their business. Impatient with the old man’s conservative approach, was Yeon-joo tempted by the idea of getting his father out of the way?
The argument that morning was probably the last straw. Once Kyoon was out of the house, Yeon-joo had ample opportunity to start the fire and leave, or even kill Hae-wook in sleep and use the fire to destroy the evidence. The chase after Kyoon, the jewels, the extracted promise of secrecy—these were the actions of a man intent on silencing a witness with bribes to cover his tracks. His insistence that the jewels were a gift from his father was a lie to get Kyoon to accept the jewels. The questions he asked the girl were probably intended to test whether she lacked sophistication and could be easily dominated and manipulated.
Or, even more deviously, were the jewels an attempt to make the authorities suspect Kyoon? In that case, hiring Sui-Wei Far to defend Kyoon just added another layer of deception. After all, who would suspect the person paying to defend the accused of intending to frame her for murder?
Sui-Wei gritted her teeth. Yeon-joo probably picked Sui-Wei Far as the litigator specifically because of her lack of experience. He thought she could be easily fooled.
“Which would you obey,” she asked, “your employer or your conscience?”
Sui-Wei had agreed to help Ben-Ni select a suitable jade ornament from Aguda’s eclectic collection of curios and antiques. Aguda was away for the moment to take care of some business while he left his guests to browse in his shop on their own.
She could not decide on the right course. To save Kyoon she had to find out the truth, but if the murderer really was Yeon-joo, then her investigation also seemed a kind of betrayal. Ben-Ni was the only one she felt she could talk to.
Ben-Ni stopped his examination of a small jade horse and turned around. “I’m not sure. Life is often about compromises. But there’s a satisfaction in giving the truth its due that is sweeter than anything else.”
Sui-Wei nodded and mulled over Ben-Ni’s words as she continued to look around the cluttered storeroom. Scholars’ rocks and corals were in one corner, and bronze weapons and ritual vessels in another. Shelves along one wall held clocks, jade figurines, intricate jiguan models and Tang porcelain. Aguda had acquired his collection with little organization or taste.
She picked up a metallic tube from one of the shelves. It was a telescope, smaller than the one that Ben-Ni had shown her.
“Where did you get that?” She heard Ben-Ni’s shout and saw that his face was drained of color. Startled, she dropped the telescope, and it cracked against the ground, scattering rolling glass lenses around the floor.
As they both knelt to collect the pieces, Ben-Ni lowered his voice and apologized. “I’m sorry to have startled you. I was surprised that Aguda had such a thing in his possession.”
“He must have gotten it from another European.”
Ben-Ni nodded. “I beg you not to mention this mishap to him. He will gouge me on the price for the jade if he is in a bad mood. Please hand me the pieces.” He hid them away in his pouch. “After the purchase, I will show him these and explain that it was my fault.”
Aguda came back, and they haggled over the price for the jade horse a bit before concluding the deal.
“Miss Far, would you mind departing on your own? I have some additional matters I’d like to discuss with Master Aguda.”
Sui-Wei happily made her escape. But as she was about to leave the house, she realized with dismay that one of the lenses of the telescope had been caught in the folds of her voluminous sleeve. She picked up the smooth, curved glass, and hesitated. She did not want to go back, but it would be wrong to deprive Aguda of a chance to fix his instrument because of a missing piece. Reluctantly, she turned around and walked back to the storeroom.
As she prepared to knock on the door, she heard shouting voices from within.
“How could you have been so careless as to leave it out in the open? We aren’t even supposed to have met till the old man died. She’s very clever.”
“You were the one who insisted on sniffing after her like an eager puppy. What game do you think you’re playing?”
For a moment, the noise of blood rushing into her ears drowned out all other sounds. Sui-Wei forced herself to calm down. She carefully backed herself down the hall into the room next door, a pantry for sacks of grains and potatoes, and put her ear to the thin wall.
“… tabs on what she knows.”
“You should have stayed away. Let the stupid magistrate hang the maid.”
“She’s beginning to suspect Yeon-joo, and I nudged her a bit. If he hangs, even better.”
The pantry was stuffy and dark. But there was a small window high up, and a slanted shaft of light, through which a million dust motes floated, cut through the darkness.
She had no coherent thoughts. Idly, she held up the lens into the light. It cast a fuzzy image of the scene outside the window onto the opposite wall. She stared at the image but could not make any sense of it. She remembered that Ben-Ni had explained that this was because the light was not in focus.
“Buy Yeon-joo’s license as soon as possible, as we planned. If she accuses him and he is convicted, it will escheat to the state.”
Sui-Wei moved the lens so that the image fell on her opened palm. She moved the lens up and down, trying to make the image clearer. As the rays of light were focused into a single bright point, she almost cried out. The point of light was so hot that it burned.
But the pain also cleared her mind, brought it into sharp focus. An image of the hearth spirits miming a drum dance, lifting an imaginary buk drum high overhead, came unbidden into her head.
“Are you confident that you can save Kyoon?”
Yeon-joo shuffled awkwardly for a bit. “I can’t actually pay your fee right away, as I have very little cash and you insisted that I not sell my inventory and license to Aguda. I’m grateful for your hospitality. It just seems unfair when I am supposed to be paying you.”
Sui-Wei had insisted that Yeon-joo move into her house from Aguda’s before the trial, despite the gossip such a move created. She had explained that she needed to consult him often to prepare for the trial. She was much relieved when he complied.
Magistrate Wu emerged from the door at the front of the yamen courtroom in his formal robes and hat. The bailiffs, standing in two lines along the front of the courtroom, pounded their staffs against the flagstone floor rhythmically as he ascended the dais to take his seat behind the bench. The murmuring among the audience quieted down. Sui-Wei looked around and saw that both Aguda and Ben-Ni were in the crowd.
The Magistrate slapped his hardwood ruler, the symbol of justice and his authority, against the surface of the bench in a loud snap that rang around the room. The court was in session.
“Now we hear the case of the murder of Hae-wook Lee. My staff and I have diligently investigated the matter and concluded that the cause of death is arson, committed by one Kyoon, maid of the Lee household.”
The Magistrate surveyed the audience with cold eyes as two of the bailiffs brought Kyoon in shackles. She was made to kneel before the bench.
“On the day of the fire, you stole valuable jewels from Hae-wook Lee and did mischief in the kitchen to start a slow fire that would grow out of control after you left the house. You had the motive, the means, and the opportunity. How do you plead?”
Sui-Wei stepped out of the audience and stood beside Kyoon. She bowed deeply. “Your Honor, I am Litigatrix Sui-Wei Far, here to speak for the accused. We plead innocence.”
“Very well. What do you have to say?”
“You think she kept a low fire going in the kitchen, but I can prove that the fire did not start there.” She reached into the folds of her sleeve and retrieved bits of crumpled paper, and handed them to one of the bailiffs to bring up to the bench.
“These were found lodged in the holes in the lower sections of the scholars’ rocks in the Lee courtyard. A burning fire pushes hot air away from itself on top, and replenishes itself by drawing in cold air below. So these bits of paper were blown into their refuge by the cold air currents fueling the fire before it had spread to all the rooms. The accounting records and letters clearly came from the study, on the east side. And the red paper rooster was the kind of charm commonly hung on the wall of the kitchen for New Year’s. Together, they show that air was drawn out of both the east and west sides of the courtyard at the beginning of the fire. The murderer started the fire not in the kitchen, but in Hae-wook’s bedroom.”
The Magistrate stared at Sui-Wei. “But how could that be? Yeon-joo saw his father’s bedroom after Kyoon already left, and there were no signs of any fire. No one could have entered the house during the relevant hours.”
“I will show you.”
Sui-Wei placed a piece of paper on the floor of the courtroom.
“This is called a lens,” she said, and took out the glass lens that she had kept from Aguda’s telescope. “It has the ability to bend light rays and focus them.”
She held the lens over the paper, adjusting the distance until sunlight from the windows along the southern wall was focused into a single bright point on the paper. Soon, the paper began to smoke, and a tongue of fire began to dance on its surface. The crowd gasped.
“On the day of the fire, there was already a lens at the Lee house, ready to do mischief as the sun reached the proper alignment.”
From the sky. From the floor.
Sui-Wei raised her voice to be heard above the excited crowd. “Your Honor, I will prove my claims. But first, you must immediately detain the merchants Aguda and Ben-Ni for conspiracy to commit murder.”
As Magistrate Wu watched, Sui-Wei directed the bailiffs to carry out the ice sculptures of the drum dancers from the cellar.
“Since Hae-wook refused to sell Korean silk to Ben-Ni, both Aguda and Ben-Ni desired to get the old man out of the way and force his son to sell the silk license cheaply to Aguda. Combining their knowledge of optics and ice, they planned murder for profit.
“The greatest advantage of using an ice lens to start a fire is that the instrument would be destroyed by the heat, leaving no evidence. And the murderers would not need to be nearby, giving them good alibis. But the disadvantage of such a method is that it is unreliable, and success depends on the right weather and more than a bit of luck. That is why they made multiple statues, so that if one should melt and fail to ignite, others could be gifted to Hae-wook to try again.”
The Magistrate walked gingerly around the ice drum dancers, as if they could burst into flames at any moment. “But where is the lens?”
Sui-Wei pointed to the buk drums over the dancers’ heads.
“Aguda has discovered the art of creating ice sculptures in layers that would reveal themselves as darker ice melted before light ice. He hid a clear lens inside a drum made of dark ice.”
Carefully, Sui-Wei melted the layer of dark ice with her hands dipped in warm water until the clear ice lens emerged.
“The murders knew that Hae-wook would be left alone at home most afternoons. They calculated the angle and focal length of the lens to bring the heat of the sun to a single burning point on the paper floor of the bedroom when the sun was high in the west. Then, Aguda installed a statue outside Hae-wook’s window as a gift. They only needed to wait for a warm day to bring forth fire from ice.”
“Litigatrix Far,” Magistrate Wu said, his voice gruff, “ignore the gossips. Your father would be proud to see you today, and I shall always be honored to have your assistance in my court.”
Sui-Wei bowed deeply and hid her surprised tears of gratitude with her sleeves.
As Magistrate Wu read out the formal charges against Aguda and Ben-Ni and placed them in shackles, he seemed to have forgotten about the bag of jewels that made him suspect Kyoon in the first place. And that was just fine. Not all truths needed to be broadcast. A good litigator knew when to be discreet.
Yeon-joo stood protectively next to the freed Kyoon. Now that Sui-Wei knew the truth, she could easily see the family resemblance.
“She’s your flesh and blood!”
“I’ve done all I can for her.”
“Not nearly enough.”
The hearth spirits had been repeating a fragment of the argument between Yeon-joo and Hae-wook. Yeon-joo was endeavoring to pay for his father’s sins in secret, to recompense the girl ignorant of her own paternity without bringing shame to the family.
Both of them, she realized, were working to preserve the legacy of their fathers, one by uncovering the truth, the other by hiding it. Some day, she hoped, Yeon-joo would find the courage to tell his sister who she really was.
Kyoon stepped away for a moment to be embraced by her parents.
“Litigatrix,” Yeon-joo said, bowing to her. “The Lee family is in your debt.”
“There’s a satisfaction in giving the truth its due that is sweeter than anything else,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Now, would you come with me to welcome your hearth spirits into my house, until you can rebuild a house of your own?”
Copyright 2013 Ken Liu