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It was late September, which meant the hills surrounding the nameless Northern California town were the same color as the beaks of the two yellow-billed magpies cawing from the saloon’s roof. The magpies’ shadows stretched as tall as fully grown men, covering for where her own shadow would have been but where instead was only empty space, until the birds vanished into the deep blue sky like rising steam.

Poppy’s big brother Tie would have known what spotting two magpies meant. He had always cared about frivolous signs and sayings, like their mother, who had made Tie promise to take care of Poppy on her deathbed because the character for good, hou, was made up of the characters for son and daughter combined together. Little good that promise did—Poppy and Tie had parted ways not a day after the funeral.

Poppy pushed open the saloon door for her charge, a rich girl named Diana. Years of frequenting saloons with her master Leaping Crane had trained her not to choke on the air inside, thick as it was with smoke and sawdust and sweat, but Diana was not immune. She coughed and coughed.

“Excuse me,” Diana said. Her handkerchief appeared to be silk, finer than any Poppy had ever owned. “I need some air.”

So Poppy sat herself down at the bar and waited. At the closest table beside her were two men, faces angled away, playing cards. The last time she’d played poker was with her brother. Tie had always been good at cards. Too bad he hadn’t been good for anything else.

“Hurry up, Tie. I don’t have all day to wait,” said the man with straw-colored hair like Diana’s, seemingly impatient, though she could hear the smile in his voice.

Poppy wondered if she heard the man right. Last Poppy and her brother had seen each other had been in Carson City, Nevada, hundreds of miles away. The second man had dark hair hidden under a hat, which wasn’t a definitive sign of anything, as there were lots of dark-haired men around these parts.

Poppy craned her neck to peek at the dark-haired man’s hand when the man turned to pick up his glass of water. And Poppy saw—that familiar arch of his eyebrows, the same as their mother’s and her own. He was older now, but weren’t they all?

She caught his eye, and he winked.

“If it ain’t Tie Chan,” she spat. “Fuck you.”

 


 

Poppy had been asked by Leaping Crane to prove herself capable, to demonstrate that she was ready to strike out on her own after journeying together for six years. Leaping Crane had made her promise to guard a woman for a week and introduced her to Diana, no last name given. Diana greeted them in foggy San Francisco, curtsying as they dismounted from their horses.

Diana had straw-colored hair and dressed in the latest fashions from out East, her spotless new dress speaking of wealth. They could not have been more different: Poppy and her uneven hair, shorn short via rusting pocket knife, and her scarred knuckles from fights, versus Diana’s smooth, unmarked hands and glossy hair. Few white men or women trusted Chinese martial artists enough to hire one as a bodyguard, and Poppy did not understand why Diana had hired her for the task.

Diana was a bit of a flannelmouth, talking during the entirety of their first meeting. “I’m here to see my brother,” she said. “He ran away to join the circus several years ago. My father forbade me from seeing him, but seeing as he recently passed away, I decided it was time to pay him a visit to inform him and just spend some time together. He can be irritating, but it’s been too long. They say it’s dangerous out West for a lady to travel alone, so I thought it prudent to hire help. My father was very good at making enemies.”

“You don’t say,” Poppy said. She had never thought the West dangerous, as it was her home, bandits and sheriffs and hucksters included. Poppy was a part of the scenery, just another faceless Chinese, but who wouldn’t love to take advantage of a rich white girl who talked and dressed proper?

“Leaping Crane don’t want me to tell you this,” Poppy continued, “but I’m the most dangerous thing in the West. We’ll get you to your brother safe before you know it.”

 


 

“Poppy?” Tie took his cigarette out of his mouth, completely unsurprised at seeing her, despite the six years and hundreds of miles from Carson City. “Is that you?”

“Aye. Who else would it be?” she said, standing up from her seat and crossing her arms. “No thanks to you.”

“Must’ve been why there were two of them magpies earlier—one for sorrow, two for mirth. How’s that cowboy life been?”

Before she could form a response, the saloon doors burst open. Diana was back, clutching her handkerchief. She completely ignored Poppy and Tie in favor of Tie’s blonde companion, who Poppy had forgotten about, who had been observing Poppy and Tie with the disinterest of a cat watching its owners quarrel.

“Daedelus,” Diana said. “Father is dead. He died late last year, but I was too caught up in funeral arrangements to deliver the news. His friends paid off the newspapers to keep it quiet.”

Daedelus laid his cards facedown on the table. “Finally. Edward Chapman deserved what was coming to him.”

Edward Chapman, dead? Poppy kicked the leg of the shaky table, scattering the playing cards helter-skelter.

Your father murdered mine, Poppy wanted to tell Diana, but she bit her tongue until she tasted the metal tang of blood, as Diana was her sworn charge and Poppy was nothing if not honorable. When my father tried to organize a railroad worker strike, your father paid top dollar to have mine eliminated. Do you know how often I dream of killin’ Edward Chapman? I dream of tigers ripping him apart and me landing the finishing blow.

There was no way. He wasn’t supposed to die before she could get her hands on him. He wasn’t supposed to have died months ago with not a peep in the damn papers. Leaping Crane had tricked her into guarding Diana Chapman, of all people.

Diana tutted at Daedelus. “Don’t talk like that about Father.”

“He threatened to have me stoned if I couldn’t ‘become a real woman.’ He shipped you off to boarding school so my evil influence couldn’t touch you. I think I’m rather allowed to speak ill,” Daedelus said.

“You left me alone to handle all the arrangements after Father’s death,” Diana said, the same bitterness in her tone that Poppy felt about Tie. “I sent you a letter immediately. You were closer to San Francisco than I was.”

“I knew you could handle it, Diana.”

Poppy scoffed. No wonder Daedelus and Tie were friends. They were both selfish, worried only about their own survival instead of their families’.

“You won’t believe this, but the butler claims to have seen a horrible creature rip Father apart. A tiger, he said,” Diana continued. A tiger, Poppy thought, like the one starring in her dreams.

Daedelus laughed. “What a way to go. Diana, let’s not worry about him anymore. He deserved much worse. We should celebrate that he’s out of the way.”

“A tiger, huh?” Tie asked, too flippantly for the only son of a man Chapman had killed. “How would a tiger have gotten into the heavily guarded home of Edward Chapman?”

Honor could only go so far, and Poppy could restrain herself no longer.

“What the hell,” she said, before storming out of the saloon.

 


 

Three magpies were outside, laughing at her misery as the midday sun rose. The shadows, all except Poppy’s, shrunk as the sun passed by. She remembered now—three for a funeral, four for a birth was how the saying went. Tie hadn’t tried to follow her. The town was quiet enough that Poppy didn’t feel any guilt at leaving her charge inside.

When she was a kid, her mother made her go for a walk whenever she let her temper get the better of her. Child, her mother would say, don’t let your tiger get the better of you. Thinking about her mother made her want to kick something. What did she know? Poppy’s mother was weak, too weak to face the reality of being alone in a strange country with just herself and her two children.

Up to a year ago, Poppy still had a shadow. But then, starting last October, after her twentieth birthday, when the air in the pale California hills tasted like ash thanks to a recent brushfire, Poppy began having tiger dreams while her shadow grew smaller and smaller. Her shadow had shrunk until it was unrecognizable as a human shadow, then had flittered away in pieces until there was nothing left. She had asked Leaping Crane whether it was a bad sign. Magic was always a bad sign, or so she had been taught by her parents. They said that once upon a time, they had paid the price for messing with forces they didn’t understand.

“I want my shadow to go back to normal,” Poppy said, when the sun was rising but her shadow was entirely gone. “How can I get it back? I’m a fighter. Ain’t magic only for weak cowards?”

“From what I know, another master of shadows would be able to help you,” Leaping Crane said. “My mother told me that she would see masters of shadows working in pairs in the old country. If a shadow went berserk, only another shadow could get it under control. If a shadow began to fade from overexertion from a fight, the other could help heal it faster. I could help you find someone, if you’d like.”

Poppy thought Leaping Crane’s suggestion over, but then she remembered what her otherwise secretive parents had said, that magic was a trap and the less you knew, the better off you were. “No. If I find someone, I’ll deal with it then. If not, it’s no matter.”

“You have been given many gifts,” Leaping Crane said, handing Poppy a piece of candy. “Your strength, your shadow. How you use them is your choice. You can’t blindly follow what some dead man from centuries ago has deemed most honorable, Poppy. Sometimes what is honorable is not always right. The reverse is true as well. Remember, every choice, every strike you make, has consequences that you must take responsibility for.”

So far, following the lonely path of the wandering hero had served Poppy well. She would be the strong one in the family. She would make up for her family’s failures and kill Chapman and every other railroad magnate like him because her father couldn’t.

 


 

Poppy wandered over to the stables, where her horse Magnolia waited. She had never seen a magnolia flower in her life, but she had heard about them from Tie’s stories and decided that the name was fitting for her only friend on the road. Magnolia whinnied when Poppy fed her some oats from her pocket. Her chestnut coat was the prettiest thing west of the Mississippi.

“Leaping Crane tricked me,” Poppy said. “A warrior’s word binds them, and she made me promise to protect Diana Chapman. As in, Edward Chapman’s daughter.”

Magnolia snorted sympathetically.

“I have to prove to her that I’m ready to go out on my own. What do you think I should do? My useless brother’s here, too.” She sighed. Before Tie was the useless brother, he was the brother who would teach her the words for plants and weeds and scheme with her to prank their parents. But look at him now, too weak to avenge their father.

Poppy decided that once she completed her assignment, she would kill Diana and her brother. “I’m not a lick and a promise kind of girl, but the Chapmans have to pay,” she said.

Magnolia had gone silent. While Poppy had been talking, the temperature had dropped, and it felt like night in the deserts of Nevada.

Magnolia’s gaze was fixed on something behind Poppy. Poppy followed where she was looking. On the wall by a poorly lit corner, there was a shadow of a tail like a large cat’s. The tail slinked back into the shadows, and she strained her ears to hear a faint growl.

Poppy could best any human. But she had never fought an incorporeal monster before. She heard another faint growl, this time from outside, and then saw the shadow of a tiger, like the one from her dreams, plainly visible in the afternoon sun outside the window.

She knew at once. This must have been the shadow that killed Edward Chapman. This must be Poppy’s shadow. Ba used to say that you needed to stare down all monsters until they knew you were boss, and Poppy sure as hell could stare that tiger down. She was the tiger daughter with the bad temper, after all.

She turned to find Tie standing at the entrance, in the shadow of the stables. She had not heard his footsteps. The tiger was gone. Tie’s cowardice must have scared it away.

“You joined up with the enemy. Daedelus Chapman,” Poppy said. “You ran away from Nevada with Daedelus. You joined the circus and didn’t even try to fight him. You’re so weak.”

“You’re right that I’m weak,” Tie admitted, “but you don’t know anything else. You’re twenty now, aren’t you? Don’t be childish, Poppy.”

 


 

Before Poppy’s father was assassinated by a hitman who the railroad magnate Edward Chapman had paid an enormous sum, Poppy and Tie lived above their family’s Carson City kung fu school disguised as a laundromat. Poppy had always been better at kung fu, but Tie was the eldest son. Ba said his duty was to take over the school and stay in Nevada and that Poppy was to become the next Leaping Crane, the legendary warrior cowboy, the first Chinese woman in the West to be spoken of in tall tales around campfires. But Tie, weak-willed Tie, who could not kill even the spiders that congregated in dusty corners, said he couldn’t keep their father’s kung fu school open, not after both their parents were gone.

Tie and Poppy had fought for the first time the afternoon after their mother’s funeral, which was shameful. The fight had been in full view of Leaping Crane, which was doubly shameful. Leaping Crane had journeyed all the way from California to pay their mother a visit after she had heard about what happened to their father, only to arrive too late. She watched them fight without intervening.

“Don’t be childish,” Tie had told Poppy. “There’s no way I can keep this school open with both you and Ba gone. My kung fu was never that good. You’re the prodigy. You could figure out every form and stance after Ba demonstrated once.”

She had punched him in the nose. Her shadow mimicked her as Tie’s own shadow staggered backwards. “Do your fuckin’ duty, Tie Chan.”

He knelt in the sand, nursing his bloody nose. Tie was the only son. He was supposed to follow in the path of their parents. She was supposed to be the wayward one, the one her mother feared would never find a husband because of all the hours she spent training.

“If you aren’t strong enough to kill Edward Chapman and his family, I will,” she said. “You’ve always been too soft—all them books have gotten to your head. At least show the old man some respect and keep his school open.”

Poppy had then asked Leaping Crane to take her along. They had not spoken of Edward Chapman since, not even when Poppy paid an informant for the whereabouts of the hitman who had murdered her father and discovered he had taken a ship from San Francisco bound for Canton. When other cowboys in the field asked why she chose the lonesome path of the wandering warrior, she let the words family and father and brother die on her tongue. There were now only her and her tiger dreams.

 


 

Poppy smelled blood. She was certain it wasn’t hers—if this was the best the assassin in front of her could do, they were weak. Diana’s attacker lunged at Poppy. She deflected the man’s strength back at him, knocking him off balance.

There were no clouds in the sky, nothing to shield either of them from the sun. Poppy’s father’s favorite trick was to use the enemy’s momentary blindness to get them good. She spun him around, pinning him to the ground with Ba’s signature throw, the one none of his other students had mastered, as the magpies laughed.

He tried to get back up, tried to take her down with him. She kicked him for good measure. She wouldn’t even have to budge an inch to win. The assassin fell onto the ground again, dust and sand blending in with his beige uniform, which marked him as a member of a kung fu school that Poppy wasn’t familiar with. The magpies swarmed around him, and when the man tried to swat one away, his hand passed right through the bird.

The three magpies behind her cawed at him. One of them landed on her shoulder, with no fear of her. The man had the same expression all men had when she bested them in a fair fight, a mixture of scorn and terror.

“I have some honor, unlike you, so I’ll let you live,” Poppy said, as Diana uncovered her eyes. “Leave Diana alone, and go tell all your friends to stay away.”

The man looked up at them from the ground. His expression changed to one of fear, and Poppy realized he was looking behind her. A faint growl rode cold goosebumps up and down her back. Was it her tiger, here to kill the Chapmans? If it was, Poppy would either have to learn how to control the tiger or protect the Chapmans from herself until Saturday at high noon, when she would be free to let them die.

Behind her was nothing. Nothing except Tie on a smoke break, watching them fight from in front of a nearby tavern. It was midday, when the sun was strongest. But Tie had no shadow.

The assassin spat at Poppy’s feet. “Talking of honor but working with shadows and sorcery, buying up all of Fong’s ingredients in Sacramento. I see how you are, Poppy Chan.”

 


 

“What’s your problem?” Poppy asked Tie after the assassin left. She was confused by what the assassin had said about someone named Fong, but that had been meaningless raving. The glare was intense, and she had to shield her eyes to get a better look at Tie. “Were you watchin’ me the entire time?”

“You’re a proper grandmaster now, aren’t ya? You didn’t even have to break a sweat to beat him.” Tie played with the cigarette between his fingers, avoiding eye contact with Poppy. “You could take your own students, start a kung fu school.”

Poppy scoffed. Tie and his ideas—she had unfinished business before she could think about what the future held. After she was done, she could rest at last. But not yet.

“You know, I’m glad I got to see you grown up like this,” he said.

“The hell are you talkin’ like that for?” Poppy wouldn’t fall for Tie's tricks or yield to any of the probing questions he had asked over the last few days.

“It's nothin’,” Tie said. “I’ve done things I ain’t proud of. Didn’t know if I’d ever see you again, that’s all.”

“Stop talking in riddles, Tie,” Poppy snapped.

Diana stepped between them. Poppy hadn’t realized she had been listening. Diana fiddled with her hat, and she ignored Poppy’s glares. “I don’t understand what you’re fighting about, but you’re brother and sister.”

“Says the one pissed at her runaway brother,” Poppy said.

“Of course I’m upset Daedelus left me to handle the funeral, but at the end of the day, I can’t blame him. I came all the way here to see Daedelus since I don’t know when I’ll see him next, you know? It’s a shame that you two are fighting over some tiny thing when there’s a tiger ghost waiting to kill me,” Diana replied.

“You saw the tiger,” Poppy said. Diana didn’t strike her as particularly observant, not like a trained martial artist was required to be. White girls from Massachusetts weren’t supposed to believe that the old ways and old magic from the Middle Kingdom were real, not when their science could explain their entire world to them.

“I’ve heard it a few times since we came into town. I saw its tail yesterday. Please, don’t fight. Siblings shouldn’t fight over trifles.” She shook her head. “Where’s Daedelus?”

“He’ll be here in a second,” Tie said. “Don’t you worry yourself about the tiger, Miss Chapman. It was after your father, not you.”

Poppy hated it when Tie obviously knew more than he was letting on. It was as plain as her master’s black coffee was bitter that Poppy’s tiger was waiting to kill the Chapmans. Tie must have known the truth as well. The tiger was biding its time, circling the town, waiting to kill. Since she and the tiger had the same goal, she would let it roam free for now. Learning to control it could come later.

That Tie also lacked a shadow was of little consequence—his must have been the useless magpies. He surely had no idea the annoying birds were his on a conscious level, that they had been following Poppy during her years in the wilderness and keeping an eye on her. Sometimes the birds would fly away for days at a time, but they always returned to her, like a dog to its master’s grave. Tie had always been too sentimental.

 


 

The next few days passed without any sign of the tiger or assassins, and instead were filled with idle conversation that tested Poppy’s patience, like waiting for laundry to dry.

Tie and Daedelus were showing off a new trick that they had come up with for the circus, as it turned out that Tie was a stagehand and not a performer like Poppy had first assumed. Tie had set a piece of paper on fire but was still holding onto the sheet, even as it threatened to burn his hands. When the flame reached his fingers, it morphed into the shape of a butterfly before fluttering away. Daedelus clapped, and he said something Poppy couldn’t hear that was meant for Tie’s ears only.

“That fire wasn’t no illusion,” Poppy said. “Where’d you learn how to do that?”

“I learned from one of our old man’s books,” Tie said. “He was interested in sorcery and alchemy. Did you know that’s how our parents met? Ma was the daughter of an alchemist. They chose to stop going down that route after her father died when his house exploded in an accident. Don’t know if you remember, but they had that box full of books they made me promise never to open.”

Tie had always been closer to their parents, so Poppy hadn’t known any of this. Their parents had tried their best to bury their past, to start fresh in Carson City, to shield Poppy from their history. Tie knew how to read the old language, but Poppy could not. She crossed her arms, imagining that Tie was one of the silent cows she would stare down.

“You have until noon tomorrow until your mission is over,” Daedelus said, addressing Poppy for the first time. “Diana’s hired an armed stagecoach to get back to the city. Chan and I—”

“We’re staying for a show tomorrow night,” Tie said. “We haven’t performed all week in case more assassins showed up for Diana, but we need money.”

Tie and Daedelus were close, often finishing each other’s sentences and giving each other looks like they were in on an inside joke that Poppy and Diana weren’t, and she wondered how they became friends when they should have been enemies.

“I wish I could stay and watch.” Diana’s regret sounded exaggeratedly fake to Poppy, but she wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. Poppy had learned from talking to Diana that she had singlehandedly dealt with lawyers after her father’s death, playing the part of the helpless damsel to get them to listen to her demands. Poppy found her act distasteful, but Diana was doing what she needed to survive.

And Poppy, too, had nothing more to contribute. In less than twenty-four hours, her job would be done.

“Miss Chan,” Diana started. “After tomorrow, would you like to come with me to San Francisco? I would appreciate the company. I think we could be friends. Not in the way of your brother and Daedelus, but simply as friends. I didn’t have many friends back in finishing school.”

“Don’t make assumptions about what you don’t know.” Poppy drank a sip of her coffee before coughing from the bitterness. She preferred hers with some sugar when not in the field. It hit her then what Diana was implying about Daedelus and Tie’s relationship, and she swore under her breath for not noticing it earlier. The way they were always together, like the conjoined twins touring around the country she had heard about.

“My father always said Daedelus and I were both unnatural,” Diana said. “He once caught me kissing our neighbor’s daughter and had me whipped. If I’m unnatural, you’re something else.”

Poppy didn’t understand. Her shadow killed Diana’s father, and here she was voicing her respect. Did she not realize she would be dead soon? “What’s your point?”

Diana laced her fingers together. “I think we’re not too different when it comes down to it, Poppy.”

What if Diana was right, given that they both had no family left except useless brothers? What if Poppy had been wrong about the Chapman siblings the entire time, just like how she was wrong about what Tie and Daedelus were to each other?

“My ma said I was making life harder for myself,” Poppy admitted. “She said she had given up her own dreams to raise me and Tie, and that was an easier life. She was tired of fightin’.”

“Are you tired of fighting?” Diana asked.

Poppy shrugged. “I’ve got something I need to do before I can stop fightin’.”

“You can’t postpone your life forever, Miss Chan.” Diana sounded pensive and distant, not too different Leaping Crane when talking about her exploits.

 


 

Poppy had less than a day left before she would be free, and she left Diana with the circus troupe, as Tie was undoubtedly equipped to protect her with his magic. Poppy expected that after the assassin she had defeated, there would be no other serious threats to Diana’s life from rival titans of industry that her father pissed off. Poppy didn’t hate Diana, and it was a shame she and her brother would have to die. Six magpies perched on the buildings jeered at her, mocking her for being bound by the obligation to avenge her father.

When Poppy was with Magnolia, she felt more grounded. But Magnolia was looking at the corner of the stable, and the stables were colder than usual. Poppy shivered. She wasn’t no girl from the East—she couldn’t deal with real cold. Leaping Crane always made fun of how many blankets she needed in February.

“This is nothing compared to winters out East,” Leaping Crane had once said. “There’s frost in the mornings in the fall and winter. You wouldn’t imagine how cold it gets before it snows.”

Based on the frost gathering on the windows and Poppy’s teeth chattering, this must be what a winter out East felt like. She felt unexpectedly drowsy, like she could fall asleep and stay asleep forever. Forget about her goals, forget about killing. Just lie down and sleep, accompanied by Magnolia. Leaping Crane or Tie or somebody would find them like this, resting on a bale of hay.

Then Magnolia whinnied. Poppy jerked awake. Where her shadow should have been was the tiger, coalescing into a more solid form. The tail came off the wall, casting its own shadow on the ground.

She got into a stance. Kung fu might not be effective against shadows, but it was all she knew how to do. If her own shadow was trying to destroy her, it was worthless and deserved to be defeated. But before she could strike, the laughter of magpies startled her. Six magpies started pecking at the tiger, which roared so loudly Magnolia jumped.

Poppy leaped out of the way, just in time to avoid being crushed by her own horse. The magpies kept cawing and laughing, their horrible train-brake screeching drowning out the tiger’s roars and keeping the tiger from becoming fully corporeal.

With one final roar, the tiger dissolved back into shadow. The magpies landed on her shoulders and the hay bales, and she didn’t shake them off. They had saved her life, these weak-willed birds of Tie’s. Six for hell, she remembered, and they sure did give that tiger hell. She fell back against the bales of hay, the fear leaving her like dust blowing away in the wind.

 


 

Poppy heard footsteps and whirled around. Tie had his hands on his hips. She didn’t want to have to talk to him right now, not even when he had saved her life.

“Poppy,” Tie said. “I know what you’ve been rarin’ to do. I know you want to kill the Chapmans.” The morning sun cast shadows in the stables. Magnolia’s shadow, the magpies, and the buildings. What was missing was Poppy’s own—not just Poppy’s, but Tie’s was gone too, nowhere to be found.

“Your shadow’s gone,” Poppy said.

“My shadow ain’t gone. It’s here.” He gestured around them. “I know you’ve seen it, ‘cause I saw them birds through my shadow when I was dreaming. Poppy, I killed Edward Chapman.” His expression was neutral, no hint of a smile or any indication that he was joking.

Poppy was wrong. The magpies weren’t Tie’s shadow.

“The tiger’s yours,” she said.

The dreams had been of Tie’s shadow, not hers. None of it made sense. She was the one born in the tiger year. Tie was born in the rooster year. She was supposed to be the tiger, not him.

“There you go.” Tie grinned, the way he would when she answered right. “My shadow started shrinkin’ soon after you left, after my twentieth birthday. I learned how to control it from the books Ba locked up. I wasn’t plannin’ on reading them at first, but that hitman that got Ba took everything from me—Ba, Ma, and then you. It took me a couple years to learn how to make my shadow take any form and how to control it from miles and miles away.”

“I should’ve known as soon as I saw the tiger that it was yours,” Poppy said.

“Poppy, I’m warning you. Don’t try killing the Chapmans, unless you want to end up like me. I lost control of my shadow for good, the first time I killed a man. I killed one of Chapman’s deputies, the one that picked the hitman, ‘bout three years ago. Then that damned tiger turned on me and almost killed me. It’s been running free since, killin’ and doin’ who knows what.”

“The tiger tried to kill me.”

Tie closed his eyes, mouth pulled tight. “It don’t know right from wrong no more. Revenge has never cared about what stands in its way. Not family, not nothing.”

“You joined up with Daedelus Chapman’s circus. Did he know what you were planning?”

“We met when the circus first came to Carson City, a few months before the tiger turned on me. I got sloppy, and he saw the tiger when I tried to kill him. Daedelus knew who I was right away. He asked me to kill him right there.”

“So you couldn’t.” She knew how his mind worked. He had always liked puzzles and contradictions.

“Aye. He hired me as a stagehand on the spot and promised to help me get his father.” Tie nodded. “Then we tracked down Chapman’s deputy, and then things went to shit. One of these days, the tiger’s gonna get me good, since I’ve been trying to protect Daedelus from the damn thing. It’s my own shadow, so I can’t touch it in a fight. I’ve been paying a fortune to Uncle Fong in Sacramento for fancy powders and incense to use against it. But you’ve always been stronger than me.” He pointed at the magpies behind him, at the sun nearly at its peak outside. “When I heard Diana would be coming to visit, I told Daedelus to tell her to hire Leaping Crane—I wanted to see you before I go. You should forget about the Chapmans, Poppy. Go back to San Francisco with Diana. Let me suffer for what I’ve done.” He grinned. “I have the right ingredients from Uncle Fong to get rid of the tiger for good. But when it’s gone, that’s the end for me, too. Nobody can live without their shadow for long. I told Daedelus to bury me in Carson City once I’m gone.”

Seven magpies chattered outside, visible through the window. Tie watched them with amusement. He was supposed to be the weak one, but Poppy had no secret kung fu technique or anything she could say that could keep him from going down the path he had chosen to right his mistakes.

“There’s an old story about them magpies and two lovers Ma used to tell from the motherland, but don’t remember it anymore,” he continued. “I only know the children’s stories and nursery rhymes from this side of the world. You know, in the version of the nursery rhyme we learned, seven is seven for the Devil, his own self. There’s another version out there that says, seven is for a story not yet told, that one fits you better. I may have created that devil of a tiger and’ll pay for it, but you’ve got a chance of making your story a good one. You’ll be the hero you’ve always wanted to be. So don’t mess it up.”

 


 

Poppy’s magpies, for they were Poppy’s and not Tie’s, followed her closely as she sat in front of the tavern, waiting for Diana and their stagecoach back to San Francisco. She had never cared enough to learn how to use her shadow. She wasn’t no coward, but rather a warrior.

But she would respect Tie’s wishes for once in her life. Tie had done what Poppy had dreamed of, and look at where that got him. Sooner or later, the tiger would get him. It had gone berserk, and Poppy didn’t know enough about shadows to help. Tie would atone for murdering Edward Chapman. She had seen the look of inevitable acceptance of fate on the faces of warriors during her travels, people who had accepted they would lose but still bravely faced down the enemy. She hated how it looked on her brother, the last family she had, even though he was picking the honorable path.

 


 

Tie hugged Poppy goodbye as the buildings cast long shadows in the Saturday morning light.

“This is it,” he said, and she hated how final he sounded.

A clip-clop and the scent of horses told her to look up, and the stagecoach stopped before her. Diana opened the door.

“Miss Chan, would you like to travel to San Francisco with me?”

Diana extended a hand, and Poppy wanted to take it. But she suddenly shivered, because of the cold. Tie had turned away, looking at somewhere by the tavern. He walked away, and Poppy knew that the tiger was coming from how the magpies had begun to caw. The assassin had called her shadow dishonorable, but the birds had saved her life. And they were hers.

Masters of shadows worked in pairs in the old country, she remembered Leaping Crane saying. If Poppy’s master was right, the only way to defeat the tiger and restore Tie’s shadow to his own control would be with another shadow. She had the magpies. The rest, she could figure out.

“I’ll catch up,” she told Diana. “Wait for me in San Francisco.”

Diana could become a friend someday. Poppy would introduce her to Leaping Crane again, not as a charge but as Poppy’s acquaintance. She was sure they would get along.

“I’ll see you there.” Diana smiled and did her best to hug Poppy from the awkward angle.

When the stagecoach door closed and was out of sight, the magpies scattered, flying towards the saloon. Poppy followed, running to catch up with Tie as the temperature dropped. She would put her honor aside. Poppy Chan would win this fight.



Tina S. Zhu writes from her dining table in NYC. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Fireside, and Cossmass Infinities, among other places. She can be found on Twitter @tinaszhu and at tinaszhu.com.
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