The Fate of Master Wenang
by James Lecky
Master Wenang, District Magistrate of Sen Chan, had the habit of commuting sentences and penalties in return for a certain amount of butterflies.
For the theft of a bag of rice, for instance, he demanded thirty. Fifty for a public brawl. One hundred for adultery and so forth.
Once, in a fit of benevolence, he had offered to spare Han the Merchant from the headsman's block in return for a million of the creatures.
Unfortunately for the Merchant, he was unable to reach the quota in the ten days allotted and had no choice but to keep his appointment in Executioner's Square. Of course, he had murdered his wife in a fit of jealousy and deserved no better.
Still, there were other crimes, other criminals. And other butterflies.
Upon delivery, and the commuting of the appropriate sentence, Master Wenang would take the butterflies and release them into his domed garden. Then, he would stroll along the lawn just for the sheer joy of being surrounded by so much colour; and if the grass was littered with the bodies of hundreds of the poor, trapped creatures, it did not diminish his joy by one iota.
It was said of Sen Chan that it was a city of few butterflies but many thieves – although in winter the prisoners were fuller and Master Wenang's garden less colourful.
* * *
One day, in the summer of the Year of the Fuxi – the fearsome snakefox – a young woman was brought before him.
Her name – or so she whispered, eyes cast to the floor as Penal etiquette required – was Mistress Penyen. She was small, no more than five dainty feet from toe to crown. Her robes, though stained and dirty, were of exquisite red and green silk and her eyes, so large in that doll-like face, were dark as black jade.
“We found her on the Shanann Road,” the arresting officer explained. “Wandering alone. No identification or coin upon her.”
“A vagrant?” Master Wenang said. He looked again at her robes, a vagrant but perhaps of wealthy stock. No coin upon her, but a rich father or brother somewhere with enough to pay a hefty fine. Hefty enough for Master Wenang to keep a little for himself and out of his August Majesty's coffers.
“There are too many wanderers and vagabonds in this city,” Master Wenang said. “An example must be set.” He paused and ran his little pink tongue over his full, dark lips, “The penalty is set at one hundred pieces of silver or one hundred lashes and one hundred days in the Civic Jail or one hundred butterflies.”
Mistress Penyen looked up.
“I have no money,” she said. “Nor do I have any memory of who I am beyond my name. There is no one I know who will ransom me from the Civic Jail.” There were the first glimmer of tears in her black eyes and it made them shine delightfully.
“Then I give you two days to bring one hundred butterflies.”
“I cannot,” she said. She opened her arms in a plea for clemency and, to the surprise of all, out from the sleeves of her robe flew one hundred butterflies - the most exquisite butterflies that Master Wenang had ever seen. Vivid crimson, imperial purple, verdant green, yellows brighter than gold, blues to rival the summer sky.
Master Wenang cried out with the joy of it.
“Mistress,” he said. “How did you accomplish this miracle?”
“I do not know,” she said. “Nor did I know, until this moment, that I could do such a thing.”
“And you truly have no memory of yourself?”
“None,” she said and her tears spilled out.
Although – in keeping with the customs and practices of his time – Master Wenang was a corrupt, greedy, amoral individual, he was not an overtly cruel one, and the sight of this young woman weeping moved even him.
“This poor child is obviously an orphan,” he told his clerk. “What is more, I believe that she may be harmful to herself and others. Therefore I have no choice but to make her a ward of the court. Is this agreed, Master Feng?” These last words were directed to his First Scribe and there was a warning in them that disagreement would not be tolerated.
The clerk sighed. It was not the first time that such a decree had been laid down – nor, Master Feng thought, would it be the last.
“Agreed, Master Wenang.”
“She will be taken to my home that I may ensure her safety,” Master Wenang said. “Have my maids bathe and attend to her.”
“As you wish, District Magistrate.”
He finished the business of the day as quickly as he dared, laying down harsh sentences for even the most petty of crimes – for harsh sentences are easier to dispense than lenient ones.
“This man stole a chicken.”
“Ten lashes and ten days in the Civic Jail.”
“This woman abandoned her baby.”
“Two years in the Civil Jail.”
“This man indulged in idle gossip.”
“Four days in the Civic Jail and five lashes for every day.”
“This man is a notorious bandit.”
“Then take him to Executioner’s Square in the morning.”
Even so, it was near dusk by the time he clambered into his palanquin and ordered the bearers to take him home.
Years of bribery and extortion had made Master Wenang a wealthy – and corpulent – man. The bearers groaned under the strain of carrying him, sweating and toiling too much to enjoy the beauty of the streets around them.
Sen Chan, whatever else it was, boasted rightly that it was the most magnificent city in the Empire. Each of its buildings could rival the palace of his August Majesty, the temples and pagodas boasted jade and lapis on their façades, gilt glittered from rooftops, reflected in the bared swords of the soldiers employed to keep thieves from stripping the city into poverty and unsightliness.
Elegant ladies and their maids – maids who carried concealed blades and were skilled in their use – strolled through perfumed gardens and cool groves. Imperial officials, resplendent in their formal uniforms, sipped tchai or flasks of wine, while stony-faced swordsmen hovered nearby to protect their possessions and their lives. Musicians played, dancers danced, poets spouted wisdom or doggerel according to their talents.
And if the crowds were sometimes disturbed by the sight of a ragged thief, cut to ribbons by a licensed household guard, they gave no outward indication.
Soon, although not soon enough for him, Master Wenang reached his home.
Outwardly, it was a modest enough dwelling and only the dome over his garden indicated that a man of good taste and breeding lived here. By methods that were both sorcerous and expensive – for the Sorcerers of the Unnamed Mountains never sell their services cheaply – this dome was opaque when viewed from without, but allowed both light and heat within. More than this, only Master Wenang himself could enter it – a refinement that had cost extra but been well worth every penny.
Usually, it was his habit to stroll in the garden before entering his home, but this evening he had other things on his mind. Specifically the young woman who called herself Mistress Penyen.
A hundred butterflies. A hundred butterflies, just like that.
Ah, the gods must love you to send you such a gift, Master Wenang, he thought.
A ward of the court today, Mistress Wenang within the month.
He had already resolved that he would marry the girl – either with or without her consent – and bind her close to him. As her husband she could not refuse any of his commands.
“A hundred butterflies,” he would say. And she would obey.
“A hundred more!”
What did it matter how many died in his garden if their replacements were inexhaustible?
The colour. The beauty. The fragility of their bodies, the delicacy of their wings.
He entered the house and found his maids waiting for him, their faces pale with fear. Rightly so, for Master Wenang kept a strict house and beatings were regular for those who displeased him.
“She has gone,” Mistress Osen, head of his household, said.
“Who has gone?”
“The girl. Mistress Penyen.”
“What! You insufferable fool! Could you not stop her? Ten maids and you could not stop her! Summon Master Ban and his troops, have them comb the city until they find her.”
“There is no need, Master,” Mistress Osen said. “We know where she is.”
“Then bring her to me.”
“She is in the garden.”
“Yet it is so.”
He hurried outside again and stood for a moment looking at the dome. Smooth as ice, dark as night, neither seam nor crack in its surface. Yet the girl had entered, if the maids were to be believed, and against all the rules of sorcery Mistress Penyen was in his garden.
He did not know whether to be angry or excited and in the end chose anger since that was already his mood. Then he stepped through the dome into the garden.
And, yes, she was there.
Mistress Osen and the maids had done their work well. No longer a mud-stained traveller, Mistress Penyen had been transformed into a vision of grace. Her hair had been washed, then combed with a thousand strokes until it gleamed. Her robes cleaned and smoothed, the colours even more vivid now.
And her face. Powder and paint had been applied to emphasise the sweep of her cheekbones, the rosebud perfection of her lips, the lustre of those wonderful dark eyes.
She sat cross-legged in a broad beam of silver moonlight, regal as the Dowager Empress Herself, so motionless that she could have been a statue. Butterflies perched on her shoulders, her knees, crawled through her hair and across her face.
“Mistress Penyen,” Master Wenang said, “How did you get in here?”
She looked up at him. “They called to me. In their pain and despair they called. How could I refuse them?”
“Called? Who called?”
“My children.” She raised one hand and a flurry of butterflies took to the air around her.
“I do not understand.”
“Of course you do not,” she rose and the butterflies rose with her. “So many little lives lost, so much freedom curtailed for your amusement.”
A subtle shift in her features, like a candle beginning to melt.
“Who are you?” he said, afraid, for he knew he was in the presence of dark and malevolent magic.
“I did not know my own nature when I came before you,” she said. “And that is the truth. The journey from the Otherworld robbed me of that.” She smiled and her smile was terrible. “But my children have taught me much already.” Around her, the butterflies frolicked and gambolled, the beating of their wings growing louder with each passing moment.
“Who are you?” he said again. He wanted to run, but the sight of the butterflies – and the young woman they surrounded with such loving intensity – held him in its thrall.
“I am Penyen,” she said, “surely you of all people should know me.”
And he did. In a moment of white-hot revelation he knew her, heard her name echoed in the rustling of ten thousand little wings.
“Mistress Penyen,” he whispered. “The Butterfly Goddess.”
“Even so.” And as she spoke, she changed. Her hair twisted itself into feelers, her eyes grew larger in her face, her smiling mouth became a set of sharp mandibles, her tongue a curled proboscis. Her outstretched arms opened out, bright and thin and delicate.
He screamed once. He had no time for another.
* * *
Master Wenang never emerged from his garden, and since no one – not even the sorcerers who had created it – could enter, he was never again seen in Sen Chan.
But sometimes, on still nights when the moon is at its zenith, long after the last temple bells have been rung and even the most persistent and foolhardy of thieves has retired to his bed, a strange keening can be heard coming from within the dome. A figure, darker even that the surface of the dome itself, might be glimpsed – or imagined – battering against the sides in a desperate attempt to escape.
Some say that the Butterfly Goddess visited the most terrible punishment on Master Wenang, doomed him to spend eternity with the creatures he tormented as they sip away at his blood drop by tiny drop, score his flesh with their legs, batter at him with their wings and that he shall never know the sweet release of death. Others say that she transformed him into a thing that was neither insect or man, but a hideous hybrid of the two, a creature who's very existence is an affront to the gods and who is daily driven mad by the knowledge of what it is.
Others still say nothing of the sort, for idle gossip is a crime – one of oh-so many – in the city of Sen Chan.
* * *
James Lecky is a writer, actor and occasional stand-up comedian. His previous fiction has appeared in various publications both online and in print including Mirror Dance, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives in Derry, N. Ireland with his wife and cat.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
It's an old but true piece of wisdom, espoused by greater writers than me, but I reckon 'read a lot, write a lot' is still one of the cornerstones. Don't just read in your chosen field (although that's important) but as widely as you can, and go out of your comfort zone every once in a while, great surprises and delights lurk there.