The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, a standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune—available now from Tordotcom Publishing.
The tavern was little more than a waxed canvas tent, tilted towards the south by the wind that rushed headlong down the mountain. The woman who tended the makeshift bar had a thin wispy mustache styled into pointed wings over her lip, and Chih took down her family history while the mammoth scouts argued outside.
“By any chance are you related to the Dong family in Baolin?” asked Chih. “They sent some children west during the famine years, and they have the same story about Lord Kang’s chase that you told me.”
The woman, Dong Trinh, frowned, shook her head, and then shrugged.
“Maybe,” she said. “That’d be my dad’s side of the family, though, and they were mostly eaten up by a walking dog curse.”
“Wait, what’s a—”
Before Chih could ask or Trinh could answer, the tent flap flicked open and the two scouts came back in. The elder, Ha-jun, was tall and lean for a northerner, with permanent scowl lines chiseled into his face. The younger, Si-yu, was shorter, nearly rectangular in build. Her face was as smooth as a beach pebble and her small black eyes were as bright as polished brass mirrors. They both wore the long sheepskin coats, fur boots, and baggy silk-lined leather trousers that were practically a uniform in this part of the world, and the only thing that set them apart from the locals were the coils of braided russet hair sewn to the shoulders of their coats.
“All right,” said the elder scout. “Against my better judgment, and because unlike most southerners you have the wit to be properly dressed, I have decided to allow my niece to take you up the pass.”
“The offer of datura seeds didn’t hurt at all,” said Si-yu cheerfully, and Chih diplomatically handed over the paper packet stuffed with small black seeds. They were as common as hashish in the south, but much rarer above the snowline.
Ha-jun took the seeds from them, sliding them into his coat before nodding to Si-yu.
“All right. There and back by tomorrow, and no messing around at the way station, either, understand? We need to be back on the circuit sooner rather than later, especially if there’s a real storm on the way.”
Si-yu made a face at her uncle’s retreating back before picking up her lance and turning to Chih.
“Well, cleric, are you ready to go?”
At the moment, Chih didn’t look much like a cleric. Their indigo robes were rolled up tightly at the bottom of their single bag. Under their fleece-lined hood, their usually shaved scalp was covered with a bristly inch of dark hair. Singing Hills was far less strict about robes and deprivations than other orders, but Chih would need a barber before they made it home.
“All set. Are we leaving soon?”
“Right now, if you’re ready. We can make the way station by dark with just a little bit of luck.”
Chih followed Si-yu into the dry and scouring cold, shuddering a little in spite of themself. The wind bit into their bones and left them oddly sore and sleepy, and they shrugged a little deeper into their coat.
“Aren’t you meant to have a little recorder bird with you?” asked Si-yu, leading them down the single street of the rickety little town. There were similar towns scattered all along the border, hard-scrabble little places that mushroomed when gold was discovered five years ago. The gold vein had played itself out in three years, and now there was something haunted about the whole region.
“Yes, my neixin, Almost Brilliant,” Chih said with a sigh. “She’s sitting a clutch of eggs right now, and this cold would be too much for her anyway.”
Silently, they offered a quick prayer up to Thousand Hands for Almost Brilliant’s comfort and safety. They had sorely missed the neixin’s supernaturally good memory on their current trip, but it was more than that. It felt downright unnatural to be out in the world without Almost Brilliant’s sharp words and good advice.
“Hopefully, when her children are grown, she’ll want to come out with me again. We’ve been together since I first got my marching orders.”
“May the Master of the Sky will it so,” said Si-yu. “I’ve always wanted to meet a neixin.”
They came to a fenced paddock, a rudimentary wood structure that looked as if it did not have the strength to hold back much more than a small flock of disinterested rocks. Beyond narrow rails were—
Chih had seen them from a distance before, and given the northern countries’ long and storied history, there was not much need to document them for Singing Hills, though of course Chih would do so anyway.
The mammoths in the frozen paddock were the lesser breed, smaller, slender-legged and with shorter trunks than their royal cousins. This lot mostly belonged to a breeder who was bringing them east to one of the outposts there, and they were largely russet-hued, some with a white foot or a splash of white on the topknot of fur sitting over their brow.
It seemed to Chih that they regarded the fence with a friendly condescension. If she wished to do so, the smallest among them could knock the rails aside. Instead, they chose to display their good manners by refraining and dozing on their feet, occasionally sweeping fodder into their mouths from the sheltered troughs.
It was the royal mammoths, almost half again as big and colored a deep and rusty red, that had beaten back the soldiers of the Anh empire more than fifty years ago, but the lesser mammoths had done the rest, charging through the snowy battlefields with their small ears standing straight out from their heads and bugling furiously.
“Don’t be impressed with those,” Si-yu said scornfully. “Save it for Piluk.”
She whistled twice and a mammoth a touch smaller than the rest officiously pushed her way through the small herd and walked over to where Si-yu waited with open arms. Piluk, Chih saw, was darker than the others, no spot of white on her, and her long fur shaded towards black at the tips.
“This is my baby. She’s from a sister line of the great Ho-shuh,” Si-yu said, and Piluk’s mobile trunk came down heavy and companionable around her shoulders as if in agreement.
“You can tell me exactly what that means on the road,” Chih said with a grin. “She’s a beauty.”
“Tsk, don’t compliment her in front of the others. They’ll get jealous, and then they’ll refuse to do anything until you praise them as well. You can only praise a mammoth when you are alone with her and no one else can hear.”
“I am going to put that into my record, and when I get home, it will be copied twice over into the volumes kept at Singing Hills. You must be very careful about what you say to me, or you may go down in history as a liar,” said Chih in amusement.
“Who’s lying? Come on. I’ll show you how to mount a mammoth, and then you’ll have to paint me in a better light.”
Si-yu scaled Piluk’s side so fast that Chih thought at first she must have simply grabbed great handfuls of Piluk’s long fur to help herself up. When they looked more closely, however, they could see that there were loops of leather hanging down from the saddle close behind Piluk’s neck, one longer and one shorter.
“Hand in the shorter, foot in the longer, that’s right, just like that, and then wait for the push.”
“Wait, the push… ?”
Piluk’s foot kicked back, gentle for such a large animal, and Chih yelped as they were suddenly pushed up bodily. They would have planted face-first in Piluk’s dense fur, but Si-yu reached over to grab Chih’s shoulders and to drag them the rest of the way up.
“How strong are you?” asked Chih in surprise, and Si-yu laughed.
“Strong! I’d flex but it’s not like you could see through my coat, anyway. Here, sit like I am…”
There was a horn carved from bone sticking up out of the head of the saddle around which Si-yu had curled her knee, the other leg hanging down opposite. There was a second shorter horn behind her, and clumsily Chih copied Si-yu’s pose.
“Other way, we don’t want to make her list.”
The broad saddle straddled Piluk’s shoulders, set back from her surprisingly narrow neck. There was no way to sit astride, so the northern cavalry all rode side-saddle. Chih adjusted their seat, and Si-yu used her long steel-tipped lance to urge Piluk towards the edge of town.
As they moved among the shacks, Chih was startled by how very far they were above them. They weren’t as high up as they would have been on a royal mammoth, but the tops of the sheds barely came up to their knees, and Chih felt a giddy sense of vertigo at the base of their belly.
“If you’re going to be sick, do it over the side,” Si-yu said without looking back. “Otherwise you’re brushing Piluk down tonight.”
“I’m not going to be sick, and show me how to brush her anyway,” Chih retorted. “I’ll be fine.”
As they left the town and started climbing the road towards the pass, Chih could already feel the burn in their thighs and their lower back. Si-yu sat as easily as if she were on a cushion at home, but Chih’s muscles were better used to long walks, and, if they were entirely honest with themselves, hitching rides in the back of ox-carts.
Well, at least Almost Brilliant isn’t here to make fun of me.
The road through Kihir Pass was steep and wide, bordered on both sides by thick boreal forests. It was home to ghosts, which bothered Chih very little, and bandits, which were more of an issue. Chih had interviewed plenty of bandits over the course of their career, but times had been a little lean lately, and they hadn’t felt like taking the risk. Neither ghosts nor bandits would bother two people on a mammoth, however, and anyway, Chih had never been on a mammoth before. What was the point of being a Singing Hills cleric if they didn’t get to ride a mammoth when the opportunity arose?
The novelty wore off, but the wonder didn’t, and Chih ignored the growing aches in their knee and lower back as they looked down on the world around them, listened to the jangling of Piluk’s iron bells, and hunched behind Si-yu as they pressed into the wind.
Around noon, or what Chih guessed to be noon given the thin gray light, Si-yu brought Piluk to a halt in the shelter of a dense copse of trash pine. Chih was relieved to be returning to level ground, but then they watched in dismay as Si-yu seemed to simply slide straight down the mammoth’s side, landing with a little pah of exertion.
“Do I have to do that?” Chih called, and Si-yu grinned.
“You do if you want to eat and piss.”
Chih did, and taking a deep breath, they threw their legs over and pushed themself off the side, sliding down Piluk’s shoulder. They hit the ground with their knees bent, but still pitched forward right into Si-yu’s waiting arms.
“There you go, well done!” said Si-yu brightly, and Chih groaned.
“You can speak to me as if I were a child all you like, just don’t let go.”
Obediently, Si-yu wrestled Chih over to a sheltered spot behind the trees. Fortunately, Chih’s legs steadied enough so they could handle their ablutions themselves, and then they returned to where Si-yu stretched out on a waxed tarp, legs spread in a nearly perfect split.
“Should I be doing that too?”
Chih managed to get onto the ground without dropping, stings of pain going through the knee that had been bent around the saddle horn and lancing through their core. They weren’t as limber as Si-yu, but they thought they were doing well until the scout turned almost all the way behind her and pulled her bag forward. Chih sighed, sprawling limply on the tarp, and took the small parchment packet that Si-yu handed to them.
“How long did it take to get that flexible?” they asked, nibbling at the dried slivers of pounded reindeer meat inside.
“I just stayed good from when I was a kid. My family’s been in the corps since Mei-an’s day.”
“That was back during the Xun Dynasty, wasn’t it?”
“We don’t really count back from the Anh kings,” she said loftily. “That’s some two hundred years ago.”
They of course had counted by the Anh system until just sixty years ago, when the southern defenses failed and the northern mammoths stormed the mountain passes. Anh had forced the north into their reckoning, and just a short while later, the north had forgotten every bit of it.
Chih did not say anything about that. Instead, they tilted their head curiously.
“That’s a long time to be in the corps, isn’t it?”
“Very,” Si-yu said with pleasure.
“And no interest in being… I don’t know, palace officials or judges or scholars?”
“What are you, a spy from Ingrusk? No. Why would I when I’ve got Piluk and the first daughter she calves?”
The mammoth corps was famous, and for that, among other reasons, they were forbidden from taking state examinations of any sort or holding any position beyond that of a district official until there had been no member of the extended family in the corps for three generations. Assassination by mammoth had a rather storied history in the northern countries, but it wasn’t the kind of history that anyone thought bore repeating.
Finally, Si-yu stood up with distressing ease, giving Chih a hand up as well. As they walked back to Piluk’s side, Si-yu turned to Chih for a moment.
“Wait, aren’t you meant to be a vegetarian? All the southern clerics…”
“Oh, Singing Hills isn’t very strict on that,” Chih said vaguely. “And we’re meant to take the charity of others where we find it. It’s significantly worse to turn down genuine charity than to momentarily put aside the strictures of your order, or so I was taught.”
“Well, I do have some salted dried lichen for—”
“I like meat, and I am far away from anyone who might stop me,” Chih said bluntly, and Si-yu grinned.
“I will keep that in mind.”
Chih groaned when they reached for the saddle loop, but they managed to get back into the saddle with only a single snicker from Si-yu, so they decided to call it a victory.
The wind bit into the bare skin around Chih’s face over the tall collar of their sheepskin coat. It was a tiring kind of cold, and by the time the sun sank beneath the tips of the pines, they were wavering in the saddle. Si-yu had suggested strapping them in, but Chih shook their head. They didn’t like the idea of being strapped in, and the ground was not so far to fall if Si-yu allowed them to do so.
The wind picked up strength and malice as the sky went dark, and now it felt as if it were rushing through the very seams of their clothes. They thought briefly of the delirium produced by the cold on the steppe, the type that might drive someone to start stripping to relieve themselves of phantom burns. Out of the corners of their eyes, they started to see brief streamers of light, gleaming like sparks from a fire before they disappeared.
“Do you have fireflies up here?”
“Little insects. They flash light as they fly about.”
“No. You might have seen a babyghost, though. They glow like little fires in the trees before they float up and are eaten by the stars.”
“There! Up ahead.”
The snow had mostly stopped, but for a moment, Chih had no idea what Si-yu was speaking about. Then they saw the tilted roof of the way station as well as the faint gleam of a lantern glowing in the single oil-paper window.
As if picking up on her rider’s excitement, Piluk snorted, hurrying up the road.
“Usually this is Bao-so’s watch,” Si-yu explained. “He’s a friend of my mother’s, used to ride with the corps until his knees gave out. You’ll like him.”
Chih was about to say that they were sure they would, but a low and thunderous growl started up on their left, and then on their right. A deep and jagged snarl erupted from behind them, like something tearing through the stretched and scraped skin between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. Piluk bugled with alarm as Si-yu swore.
It was as if the mammoth they rode were the world, and the world had gone stock still with fright beneath them.
Then Si-yu’s lance flew down to smack solidly along Piluk’s side and the mammoth lurched forward.
“Hang on, because I am not coming back for you!” Si-yu roared, and Chih hunched down behind her, wrapping their arms desperately around Si-yu’s waist. Their legs cramped from clinging as hard as they could to the saddle. They suddenly regretted turning down the straps.
Whatever that is out there—
“Tiger,” Si-yu chanted. “Tiger, tiger, tiger…”
More than one, Chih realized, seeing the streak of dull orange on one side and then the other.
They’re not pack animals, they don’t hunt together, they had time to think, and then Piluk crested the final rise to the way station.
“There’s a barn, we can get ourselves in and Bao-so…”
Chih could see the slope of the barn’s roof beyond the way station itself, but between them was a figure—no, two figures—on the ground, they realized after a moment.
On his back, face obscured by the hood of his sheepskin coat and arms thrown out as if he had hoped to catch himself, was Bao-so. A stocky naked woman bent over him, and she draped her arm over his belly with a casual ownership, immune to the blistering cold. Bao-so’s hand twitched and the woman reached down, looking for all the world as if she wanted to hold it.
Chih froze in horror, but Si-yu only gave Piluk another hard whack, sending her lunging forward with a squeal. The mammoth’s speed was ponderous, but it was like a mountain had started to move. If it was coming for you, you didn’t care how fast it was coming, and that was apparently what the naked woman thought as well because in two bounds she was away and lost to the shadows.
Chih cried out when Si-yu vaulted off the side of the mammoth, throwing herself down to dash her brains out on the road, but then they realized that they were looking at the sole of Si-yu’s boot, the rest of her dangling down over the side of the saddle. Si-yu’s foot was caught in one of the leather loops hanging from the saddle, flexed to hook her into place.
The moment stretched out, and Chih’s training forced them to notice that the soles of Si-yu’s boots were stitched with faded sinew that had once been dyed green. Then they leaned over to see that Si-yu had grabbed up the man on the ground, hanging on as best she could while shouting a command to Piluk. The mammoth’s head spun around, her trunk came lashing back, and Chih flinched as the muscular trunk connected with Si-yu. For a moment, it looked as if the blow had sent Si-yu and her burden flying, but then Chih saw that it had helped Si-yu regain her seat and drag the terribly still man with her.
“Grab him!” Si-yu yelped. “Cleric, help me!”
That broke Chih out of their daze. They helped drag the man, surprising light, more like a bundle of twigs in a sheepskin coat than a man, up across the mammoth’s back. Somehow, he ended up face down over Chih’s lap. The saddle horn would have dug terribly into his belly if he had been conscious, but he wasn’t, and then Si-yu was sending Piluk racing for the barn, the mammoth bellowing the whole time she went.
Piluk shivered and shook underneath them, and Chih winced when she tossed her head from side to side, trying to face the growls that filled the twilight. Their fingers ached from hanging on to the man Si-yu had rescued, but Chih clung as best they could. They could not fall.
The barn was a hefty thing, built of notched logs and open on one side. It was big enough that Piluk could fit into it with room to spare, and tall enough that they and Si-yu could fit under the roof with only a slight duck. By the time they reached it, Piluk was moving at a dead run, ears flared out to either side and squalling furiously.
For just a moment, Chih caught a glimpse of gleaming round eyes in the dark, and then they saw the tiger dash out of the barn, as low to the ground as a python, neatly avoiding Piluk’s broad feet.
“They won’t rush Piluk or any mammoth head-on,” said Si-yu. “They wouldn’t dare. We’d be as safe as keppi eggs if we had another two scouts with us. Even Uncle and his Nayhi, that’d be enough, they would never.”
A quick command got Piluk turned around with remarkable speed and dexterity, whirling about so quickly that her iron bells jingled and her long fur swung. Chih, a little taller than Si-yu, didn’t duck a rafter fast enough. There was a sickening rash of pain at their temple, and then it was only cold and wetness and a light-headed determination to hang on as tight as they could.
A moment later, everything was still, and the world in front of the barn was empty, silent. A nuthatch’s soft whooping call gave the twilight a strangely normal feeling, and Chih swallowed back their panic with a gulp.
Of course it’s normal. Tigers have dinner every night they can, don’t they?
Si-yu waited for a moment, and when no tigers appeared to menace them, she nodded. She leaned forward, far enough that Chih thought she might fall despite everything, and she grasped Piluk’s ear, whispering something into it.
Chih’s fingers tightened reflexively into Bao-so’s coat as the world seemed to rock underneath her, but it was only Piluk settling down, first on her hindquarters and then with her forelegs stretched in front of her, knees bent so that her round feet were flat on the ground.
Si-yu slid down to the ground, and Chih, as carefully as they could, lowered the unconscious man across their lap after her. Chih was shaking so much that it took them several deep breaths to finally unwind their leg from the saddle horn and to make their way to the ground. They let out a sigh of relief when they were free of the saddle, but then there was a flash of orange out of the corner of their eye, there and gone again in the foliage beyond the barn. In another half hour, probably far less, it would be full dark, and they wouldn’t even see that.
“They’re still there,” Chih hissed, shrinking back against Piluk’s hairy side even as Piluk shifted restlessly.
“It’s fine for now. Well, not fine, but they won’t rush us while Piluk is facing the entrance.”
Si-yu was calm enough that Chih decided to be calm as well, and they came to kneel opposite Si-yu on the other side of the older man’s body.
Even by the fading light, his skin was parchment-pale and the corners of his mouth were drawn painfully tight. For a moment, they were certain that Si-yu had done that daring bit of riding for a corpse, but then they saw the slight rise and fall of his chest. It was ragged, and there was a stutter to it that made Chih nervous, but it was still there.
“Thank the Sky, oh thank the Sky,” Si-yu murmured, clasping her hands in front of her mouth. Her hood fell back, and she looked young then, too young by far.
“What’s wrong with him?” Chih asked, their voice hushed.
“More like what’s not wrong with him,” Si-yu said. “His skull isn’t cracked. His stomach hasn’t been chewed open.”
Si-yu took a long wavering breath and sat up straight, pulling Bao-so’s hood more securely around his head.
“He’s breathing. As long as he is breathing, we can say that he will be fine.”
Chih smiled a little.
“That was some riding you did.”
“If only riding were enough.”
“What do you—”
Si-yu nodded towards the open front of the barn, and when Chih turned their head to look, their breath snagged hard in their throat, threatening to choke them.
Three tigers waited beyond the shelter of the barn, and as the last of the light faded from the sky, the largest one started to laugh.
Excerpted from When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, copyright © 2020 by Nghi Vo.