“You should be honored,” said the Vice-Counselor. “The Emperor has bestowed a great favor on your younger brother.”

“Imprisonment is not a favor,” said Wei. “My brother should be among family.”

“Your filial piety is impressive, but do not think that absolved you of responsibility should you oppose the Son of Heaven,” the Vice-Counselor replied. “The Emperor’s word is final.”

Wei was led into a large room, richly decorated, where many writing surfaces and quills with inkstones were on display. “Your brother and the other divine poets will be housed here, given access to food, drink, concubines, and the Imperial Library. All the Emperor asks in return is that their maddened scribblings continue to flow.”

“And why is that, exactly?” said Wei.

“For amusement. Many of the writings can be surprisingly beautiful. For insight, as well, since the shen spirits speak to them in an altogether different way.”

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Sean Ross had been born in a missionary family that had fled China during the communist revolution when he was only six years old. Since then, though decades of life in the United Kingdom and the United States, through the rejection of his parents’ faith and his embrace of Marxism, China had exercised a strong and romantic hold on Sean’s mind.

When the mainland opened up to foreigners during the Deng Xiaoping era, it was natural that he’d seek to travel there. As a geologist, albeit one who had formulated some radical notions, the Chinese made eager use of his talents both in the field and training students. He spent part of nearly every year there, despite a disillusionment evident in his writings as China liberalized economically.

As Sean’s specialization was endorheic basins and desert topography, he often did work in and around the Lop Nur salt pans in Xinjiang–a marsh in the final stages of drying into a desert and fed by a dying river. The topography, alternately wet and dry with vast and mutable sand formations, fascinated him, and the distance from Shanghai and Beijing seemed to appeal to his Maoist sensibilities.

All in all, he was an undeniable asset to the Chinese, and a powerful advocate for them abroad. This made his sudden and inexplicable disappearance from a survey team campsite all the more troubling. It was something of a mark of respect, albeit one tinged with a propagandistic need to save face, that led to an entire battalion of troops and an air wing being lent to the search.

The Chinese even arranged, at great expense, to bring in Sean’s ex-wife and a group of former students to consult with the search parties.

“You can’t go back there!” the waiter cried. I brushed him off and swept into the kitchen. Hollister’s notepad said something about a short-order cook, after all.

I’d barely taken three steps in the kitchen when a green flash of something wrapped itself around my neck, just tight enough to be uncomfortable. “Didn’t you hear him? The kitchen’s employees only, hun.”

The short order cook, as it happened, was a Cantonese Wyrm–a younger one, probably less than two hundred years old, but still large enough for her front end to be working a wok while her back legs washed dishes in the kitchen sink ten feet away. She regarded me with intense yellow eyes, framed by the pink rollers that held her whiskers up and away from the food under a hair net.

“I need to speak with you,” I squeaked. “About Hollister.”

“Don’t know nobody by that name, sugar,” said the wyrm. Her rear claws emerged from the suds, each wearing a rubber glove. “But I bet wherever he is, it ain’t my kitchen.”

“He says otherwise.”

“And I say maybe I’ve got a new hunk o’ meat for the dinner rush.”

I had to think quickly. “I think you know that wyrms aren’t on the approved list of foodservice workers,” I said. “Health inspector’s coming on my tip in half an hour. What d’you think he’ll think of that? Let me go and I’ll cancel the call, then we can talk over tea.”

It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

“Yeah, I guess,” Mary said. She opened her own cookie and silently read the inscription.

“Well, what’s it say?”

“To doubt is human, but to believe is even more so.”

“See? See? What’d I tell you?” Emily said. “You doubted it, and the cookie knew it. Somehow, it knew it.”

Mary was quiet for a moment. “I’d like a second helping,” she said to Li, when he returned. “And bring us more cookies.

Li walked back into the kitchen and said a few words to the cook. Then he turned a corner and came upon his grandfather, seated on a small, low bed in front of a TV. The old man was looking through a peephole into the restaurant proper, and listening at a small speaker.

“The customers would like more cookies,” the younger Li said in Cantonese.

Grandfather Li dipped his hand into a bag of Wal-Mart brand fortune cookies—the treats were an American invention after all, not a Chinese one, something Li found endlessly amusing. He selected a cookie and deftly plucked the manufactured slogan out of it with a pair of steel tweezers.

Li wound a thin slice of rice paper into a typewriter that his grandson had modified. Delicately, he typed out a new message using only his pinkies: “One who expects miraculous things inevitably finds them.” He chuckled, remembering how his grandson would often add the phrase “in bed” to the end of cookie sayings when reading them aloud. The new message was tucked into the empty cookie, and added to the tray, which the younger Li took and served.