The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

To Rae

There was a brief lull in the general chatter when the bandit walked into the coffeehouse.

This was not because of the knife at his hip or his dusty attire, suggestive of a life spent in the jungle. It was not the first time Weng Wah Coffeehouse had seen a bandit and it would not be the last.

The coffeehouse was the kind of establishment common in any town with more than two Tang people. The floors were tiled and of dubious cleanliness. A painting of a herd of horses dominated the green walls. Below the horses were posters advertising beverages of various types. The tables were sticky, the waiters loud and the chairs rickety.

And as in any town on the peninsula with more than two Tang people, everyone there was used to bandits. It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

This bandit did not look like anyone’s brother. His chief characteristic, and what made everyone fall silent for an unintended moment, was his extreme beauty. His skin was as pure as jade; his eyes and eyebrows were like ink; his dark hair, bound in a queue, was like silk; and his face was like the full moon among clouds.

The waiter stood gaping at him. The bandit had to gesture pointedly at the table before Ah Kheng leapt into action with a grubby cloth.

“You have soya bean?” said the bandit. “I’ll have it hot and sweet.”

The chatter resumed, though there was a new frisson to it. It was mid-morning, so the worst of the breakfast rush had subsided, but there were still plenty of customers. Some departed discreetly, but others stayed, stealing glances at the bandit.

The bandit was used to surreptitious scrutiny and did not let it bother him. He smiled enchantingly at Ah Kheng when his drink arrived, but otherwise paid no attention to anyone else. He was busy reading the poster pinned above his table.

It was one of the few posters that did not extol the delights of beer or umbra juice. Instead, it depicted the morose faces of five men. Beneath these, a calligrapher had inscribed:

By the order of the Protector, guardian of all that lies between the Straits and the Southern Seas, any sighting of these bandits is to be reported to the Protectorate at once. Anyone found to have given these criminals succour will be punished.

The bandit was gazing so intently at the wanted men that he did not appear to notice the quarrel brewing between a waitress and the customer at the next table. He didn’t stir even when the customer shouted:

“Useless girl, did you think I wouldn’t notice your jampi?”

The observers could never agree on what happened next. Some vowed the cup of tea jumped into the air of its own accord. But of course this was not possible. The waitress must have thrown it at the shouting customer. In any case, the man smacked it away. It went flying, hurtling towards the back of the bandit’s head.

The bandit leaned out of the way and watched as tea drenched the poster. The cup clattered onto his table, rolling to a stop.

“What’s going on?” cried the owner of the coffeehouse, rushing out of the kitchen.

He took in the situation in one horrified glance. The waitress was looking defiant, the customer irate. The latter wore once-rich robes that had seen better days. There was a gap in his front teeth where, perhaps, a gold tooth had once been.

The coffeehouse owner snapped at the waitress, “What did you do?”

The customer was red-faced. “This girl tried to hex me! You don’t try to deny. I know what magic smells like!”

“I didn’t try to deny also,” said the waitress, with an injured air.

She was probably not much younger than the bandit, but her bald head gave her an innocent look. She was pretty enough that she did not suffer from adopting the grooming standards of the monastic orders. To look at her was to wonder why all women did not shave their heads.

She gave the coffeehouse owner a look of appeal, but he was unmoved.

“You hexed a customer?” he roared. He smacked her on the side of the head.

“I didn’t say that, Mr Aw,” protested the waitress, rubbing her head. “I just said I didn’t deny only.”

“What kind of establishment is this, hiring witches to serve people?” said the customer. “Normal people are too expensive, is it?”

Mr Aw looked anxious. “Sir, please…”

The bandit’s eyebrow twitched. He sighed and turned around.

“It’s not the girl’s fault,” he said. “Uncle started it.” He gestured at the angry customer.