From a Tang Dynasty legend of a young girl trained as an assassin with the ability to skip between dimensions on a secluded mountain sanctuary to a space colony called Nova Pacifica that reflects on a post-apocalyptic world of the American Empire and ‘Moonwalker’ Neil Armstrong, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories is laced with depictions of silkpunk fantasy, Sci-Fi and old Chinese folklore, wrapped up in a mesmerising genre-bending collection of short stories.
Beginning in the eighth century, the Imperial court of Tang Dynasty China increasingly relied on military governors—the jiedushi—whose responsibilities began with border defense but gradually encompassed taxation, civil administration, and other aspects of political power. They were, in fact, independent feudal warlords whose accountability to Impe- rial authority was nominal.
Rivalry among the governors was often violent and bloody.
On the morning after my tenth birthday, spring sunlight dapples the stone slabs of the road in front of our house through the bloom- ing branches of the pagoda tree. I climb out onto the thick bough pointing west like an immortal’s arm and reach for a strand of yellow flowers, anticipating the sweet taste tinged with a touch of bitterness.
“Alms, young mistress?”
I look down and see a bhikkhuni. I can’t tell how old she is—her face is unlined but there is a fortitude in her dark eyes that reminds me of my grandmother. The light fuzz over her shaved head glows in the warm sun like a halo, and her grey kasaya is clean but tattered at the hem. She holds up a wooden bowl in her left hand, gazing up at me expectantly.
“Would you like some pagoda tree flowers?” I ask.
She smiles. “I haven’t had any since I was a young girl. It would be a delight.”
“If you stand below me, I’ll drop some into your bowl,” I say, reaching for the silk pouch on my back.
She shakes her head. “I can’t eat flowers that have been touched by another hand—too infected with the mundane concerns of this dusty world.”
“Then climb up yourself,” I say. Immediately I feel ashamed at my annoyance.
“If I get them myself, they wouldn’t be alms now would they?” There’s a hint of laughter in her voice.
“All right,” I say. Father has always taught me to be polite to the monks and nuns. We may not follow the Buddhist teachings, but it doesn’t make sense to antagonize the spirits, whether they are Dao- ist, Buddhist, or wild spirits who rely on no learned masters at all. “Tell me which flowers you want; I’ll try to get them for you without touching them.”
She points to some flowers at the end of a slim branch below my bough. They are paler in color than the flowers from the rest of the tree, which means they are sweeter. But the branch they dangle from is much too thin for me to climb.
I hook my knees around the thick bough I’m on and lean back until I’m dangling upside down like a bat. It’s fun to see the world this way, and I don’t care that the hem of my dress is flapping around my face. Father always yells at me when he sees me like this, but he never stays angry at me for too long, on account of my losing my mother when I was just a baby.
Wrapping my hands in the loose folds of my sleeves, I try to grab for the flowers. But I’m still too far from the branch she wants, those white flowers tantalizingly just out of reach.
“If it’s too much trouble,” the nun calls out, “don’t worry about it.
I don’t want you to tear your dress.”
I bite my bottom lip, determined to ignore her. By tightening and flexing the muscles in my belly and thighs, I begin to swing back and forth. When I’ve reached the apex of an upswing I judge to be high enough, I let go with my knees.
As I plunge through the leafy canopy, the flowers she wants brush by my face and I snap my teeth around a strand. My fingers grab the lower branch, which sinks under my weight and slows my momentum as my body swings back upright. For a moment, it seems as if the branch would hold, but then I hear a crisp snap and feel suddenly weightless.
I tuck my knees under me and manage to land in the shade of the pagoda tree, unharmed. Immediately, I roll out of the way, and the flower-laden branch crashes to the spot on the ground I just vacated a moment later.
I walk nonchalantly up to the nun and open my jaw to drop the strand of flowers into her alms bowl. “No dust. And you only said no hands.”
In the shade of the pagoda tree, we sit with our legs crossed in the lotus position like the buddhas in the temple. She picks the flowers off the stem: one for her, one for me. The sweetness is lighter and less cloying than the sugar dough figurines Father sometimes buys me.
“You have a talent,” she says. “You’d make a good thief.” I look at her, indignant. “I’m a general’s daughter.”
“Are you?” she says. “Then you’re already a thief.” “What are you talking about?”
“I have walked many miles,” she says. I look at her bare feet: the bottoms are callused and leathery. “I see peasants starving in fields while the great lords plot and scheme for bigger armies. I see minis- ters and generals drink wine from ivory cups and conduct calligraphy with their piss on silk scrolls while orphans and widows must make one cup of rice last five days.”
“Just because we are not poor doesn’t make us thieves. My father serves his lord, the Jiedushi of Weibo, with honor and carries out his duties faithfully.”
“We’re all thieves in this world of suffering,” the nun says. “Honor and faith are not virtues, only excuses for stealing more.”
“Then you’re a thief as well,” I say, anger making my face glow with heat. “You accept alms and do no work to earn it.”
She nods. “I am indeed. The Buddha teaches us that the world is an illusion, and suffering is inevitable as long as we do not see through it. If we’re all fated to be thieves, it’s better to be a thief who adheres to a code that transcends the mundane.”
“What is your code then?”
“To disdain the moral pronouncements of hypocrites; to be true to my word; to always do what I promise, no more and no less. To hone my talent and wield it like a beacon in a darkening world.”
I laugh. “What is your talent, Mistress Thief?”
“I steal lives.”
Ken Liu is an American author and the winner of the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, Sidewise, and Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards. He emigrated to the US from China at age of 11 and graduated from Harvard with a degree in English Literature and Computer Science. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Ken worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. His work includes the epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty and his debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. His short story Good Hunting was adapted for an episode for Netflix’s science fiction web series Love, Death and Robots.