As she walked up the stairs to her room, Qing-jao could hear Wang-mu asking fearfully, "Have I
made my new mistress angry?" And Ju Kung-mei, the guardian of the house, answered, "The
godspoken answer to other voices than yours, little one." It was a kind answer. Qing-jao often
admired the gentleness and wisdom of those her father had hired into his house. She wondered if
she had chosen as wisely in her first hiring.
No sooner did she think of this worry than she knew she had been wicked to make such a decision
so quickly, and without consulting with her father beforehand. Wang-mu would be found to be
hopelessly unsuitable, and Father would rebuke her for having acted foolishly.
Imagining Father's rebuke was enough to bring the immediate reproof of the gods. Qing-jao felt
unclean. She rushed to her room and closed the door. It was bitterly ironic that she could think over
and over again how hateful it was to perform the rituals the gods demanded, how empty their
worship was-- but let her think a disloyal thought about Father or Starways Congress, and she had
to do penance at once.
Usually she would spend a half hour, an hour, perhaps longer, resisting the need for penance,
enduring her own filthiness. Today, though, she hungered for the ritual of purification. In its own
way, the ritual made sense, it had a structure, a beginning and end, rules to follow. Not at all like
the problem of the Lusitania Fleet.
On her knees, she deliberately chose the narrowest, faintest grain in the palest board she could see.
This would be a hard penance; perhaps then the gods would judge her clean enough that they could
show her the solution to the problem Father had set for her. It took her half an hour to make her
way across the room, for she kept losing the grain and had to start over each time.
At the end, exhausted from righteous labor and eyesore from line-tracing, she wanted desperately
to sleep; instead, she sat on the floor before her terminal and called up the summary of her work so
far. After examining and eliminating all the useless absurdities that had cropped up during the
investigation, Qing-jao had come up with three broad categories of possibility. First, that the
disappearance was caused by some natural event that, at lightspeed, had simply not become visible
yet to the watching astronomers. Second, that the loss of ansible communications was the result of
either sabotage or a command decision in the fleet. Third, that the loss of ansible communications
was caused by some planetside conspiracy. The first category was virtually eliminated by the way
the fleet was traveling. The starships were simply not close enough together for any known natural
phenomenon to destroy them all at once. The fleet had not rendezvoused before setting out-- the
ansible made such things a waste of time. Instead, all the ships were moving toward Lusitania from
wherever they happened to be when they were assigned to the fleet. Even now, with only a year or
so of travel left before all were in orbit around Lusitania's star, they were so far apart that no
conceivable natural event could possibly have affected them all at once.
The second category was made almost as unlikely by the fact that the entire fleet had disappeared,
without exception. Could any human plan possibly work with such perfect efficiency-- and without
leaving any evidence of advance planning in any of the databases or personality profiles or
communications logs that were maintained in planetside computers? Nor was there the slightest
evidence that anyone had altered or hidden any data, or masked any communications to avoid
leaving behind a trail of evidence. If it was a fleetside plan, there was neither evidence nor
concealment nor error.
The same lack of evidence made the idea of a planetside conspiracy even more unlikely. And
making all these possibilities still less possible was the sheer simultaneity of it. As near as anyone
could determine, every single ship had broken off ansible communications at almost exactly the
same time. There might have been a time lag of seconds, perhaps even minutes-- but never as long
as five minutes, never a gap long enough for someone on one ship to remark about the
disappearance of another.
The summary was elegant in its simplicity. There was nothing left. The evidence was as complete
as it would ever be, and it made every conceivable explanation inconceivable.
Why would Father do this to me? she wondered, not for the first time.
Immediately-- as usual-- she felt unclean even for asking such a question, for doubting her father's
perfect correctness in all his decisions. She needed to wash, just a little, to take away the impurity
of her doubt.
But she didn't wash. Instead she let the voice of the gods swell inside her, let their command grow
more urgent. This time she wasn't resisting out of a righteous desire to grow more disciplined. This
time she was deliberately trying to attract as much attention as possible from the gods. Only when
she was panting with the need to cleanse herself, only when she shuddered at the most casual touch
of her own flesh-- a hand brushing a knee-- only then did she voice her question.
"You did it, didn't you?" she said to the gods. "What no human being could have done, you must
have done. You reached out and cut off the Lusitania Fleet."
The answer came, not in words, but in the ever-increasing need for purification.
"But Congress and the admiralty are not of the Way. They can't imagine the golden door into the
City of the Jade Mountain in the West. If Father says to them, 'The gods stole your fleet to punish
you for wickedness,' they'll only despise him. If they despise him, our greatest living statesman,
they'll despise us as well. And if Path is shamed because of Father, it will destroy him. Is that why
you did this thing?"
She began to weep. "I won't let you destroy my father. I'll find another way. I'll find an answer
that will satisfy them. I defy you!"
No sooner had she said the words than the gods sent her the most overpowering sense of her own
abominable filthiness she had ever felt. It was so strong it took her breath away, and she fell
forward, clutching at her terminal. She tried to speak, to plead for forgiveness, but she gagged
instead, swallowed hard to keep from retching. She felt as though her hands were spreading slime
on everything she touched; as she struggled to her feet, her gown clung across her flesh as if it were
covered with thick black grease.
But she did not wash. Nor did she fall to the ground and trace lines in the wood. Instead she
staggered to the door, meaning to go downstairs to her father's room.
The doorway caught her, though. Not physically-- the door swung open easily as ever-- but still
she could not pass. She had heard of such things, how the gods captured their disobedient servants
in doorways, but it had never happened to her before. She couldn't understand how she was being
held. Her body was free to move. There was no barrier. But she felt such a sickening dread at the
thought of walking through that she knew she couldn't do it, knew that the gods required some sort
of penance, some sort of purification or they'd never let her leave the room. Not woodgrain-tracing,
not handwashing. What did the gods require?
Then, all at once, she knew why the gods wouldn't let her pass through the door. It was the oath
that Father had required of her for her mother's sake. The oath that she would always serve the
gods, no matter what. And here she had been on the verge of defiance. Mother, forgive me! I will
not defy the gods. But still I must go to Father and explain to him the terrible predicament in which
the gods have placed us. Mother, help me pass through this door!
As if in answer to her plea, it came to her how she might pass through the door. All she needed to
do was fix her gaze on a point in the air just outside the upper-right corner of the door, and while
never letting her gaze move from that spot, step backward through the door with her right foot,
place her left hand through, then pivot leftward, bringing her left leg backward through the
doorway, then her right arm forward. It was complicated and difficult, like a dance, but by moving
very slowly and carefully, she did it.
The door released her. And though she still felt the pressure of her own filthiness, some of the
intensity had faded. It was bearable. She could breathe without gasping, speak without gagging.
She went downstairs and rang the little bell outside her father's door.
"Is it my daughter, my Gloriously Bright?" asked Father.
"Yes, noble one," said Qing-jao.
"I'm ready to receive you."
She opened Father's door and stepped through-- no ritual was needed this time. She strode at once
to where he sat on a chair before his terminal and knelt before him on the floor.
"I have examined your Si Wang-mu," said Father, "and I believe your first hiring has been a
It took a moment for Father's words to make sense. Si Wang-mu? Why did Father speak to her of
an ancient god? She looked up in surprise, then looked where Father was looking-- at a serving girl
in a clean gray gown, kneeling demurely, looking at the floor. It took a moment to remember the
girl from the rice paddy, to remeber that she was to be Qing-jao's secret maid. How could she have
forgotten? It was only a few hours ago that Qingjao left her. Yet in that time Qing-jao had battled
with the gods, and if she hadn't won, at least she had not yet lost. What was the hiring of a servant
compared to a struggle with the gods?
"Wang-mu is impertinent and ambitious," said Father, "but she is also honest and far more
intelligent than I would have expected. I assume from her bright mind and sharp ambition that you
both intend for her to be your student as well as your secret maid."
Wang-mu gasped, and when Qing-jao glanced over at her, she saw how horrified the girl looked.
Oh, yes-- she must think that I think that she told Father of our secret plan. "Don't worry, Wang-
mu," said Qing-jao. "Father almost always guesses secrets. I know you didn't tell."
"I wish more secrets were as easy as this one," said Father. "My daughter, I commend you for
your worthy generosity. The gods will honor you for it, as I do also."
The words of praise came like unguent to a stinging wound. Perhaps this was why her
rebelliousness had not destroyed her, why some god had taken mercy on her and shown her how to
get through the door of her room just now. Because she had judged Wang-mu with mercy and
wisdom, forgiving the girl's impertinence, Qing-jao herself was being forgiven, at least a little, for
her own outrageous daring.
Wang-mu does not repent of her ambition, thought Qing-jao. Neither will I repent of my decision.
I must not let Father be destroyed because I can't find-- or invent-- a non-divine explanation for the
disappearance of the Lusitania Fleet. And yet, how can I defy the purposes of the gods? They have
hidden or destroyed the fleet. And the works of the gods must be recognized by their obedient
servants, even if they must remain hidden from unbelievers on other worlds.
"Father," said Qing-jao, "I must speak to you about my task."
Father misunderstood her hesitation. "We can speak in front of Wang-mu. She's been hired now as
your secret maid. The hiring bonus has been sent to her father, the first barriers of secrecy have
been suggested to her mind. We can trust her to hear us and never tell."
"Yes, Father," said Qing-jao. In truth she had again forgotten that Wang-mu was even there.
"Father, I know who has hidden the Lusitania Fleet. But you must promise me that you will never
tell it to Starways Congress."
Father, who was usually placid, looked mildly distressed. "I can't promise such a thing," he said.
"It would be unworthy of me to be such a disloyal servant. "
What could she do, then? How could she speak? And yet how could she keep from speaking?
"Who is your master?" she cried. "Congress or the gods?"
"First the gods," said Father. "They are always first."
"Then I must tell you that I have discovered that the gods are the ones who have hidden the fleet
from us, Father. But if you tell this to the Congress, they'll mock you and you'll be ruined." Then
another thought occurred to her. "If it was the gods who stopped the fleet, Father, then the fleet
must have been against the will of the gods after all. And if Starways Congress sent the fleet
against the will of--"
Father held up his hand for her to be silent. She immediately stopped speaking and bowed her
head. She waited.
"Of course it's the gods," said Father.
His words came as both a relief and a humiliation. Of course, he had said. Had he known this all
"The gods do all things that are done in the universe. But don't assume that you know why. You
say they must have stopped the fleet because they oppose its mission. But I say that Congress
couldn't have sent the fleet in the first place if the gods hadn't willed it. So why couldn't it be that
the gods stopped the fleet because its mission was so great and noble that humanity was not worthy
of it? Or what if they hid the fleet because it would provide a difficult test for you? One thing is
certain: The gods have permitted Starways Congress to hold sway over most of humanity. As long
as they have the mandate of heaven, we of Path will follow their edicts without opposition."
"I didn't mean to oppose ..." She could not finish such an obvious falsehood.
Father understood perfectly, of course. "I hear how your voice fades and your words trail off into
nothing. This is because you know your words are not true. You meant to oppose Starways
Congress, in spite of all I have taught you." Then his voice grew gentler. "For my sake you meant
to do it."
"You're my ancestor. I owe you a higher duty than I owe them."
"I'm your father. I won't become your ancestor until I'm dead."
"For Mother's sake, then. If they ever lose the mandate of heaven, then I will be their most terrible
enemy, for I will serve the gods." Yet even as she said this, she knew her words were a dangerous
half-truth. Until only a few moments ago-- until she had been caught in the door-- hadn't she been
perfectly willing to defy even the gods for her father's sake? I am the most unworthy, terrible
daughter, she thought.
"I tell you now, my Gloriously Bright daughter, that opposing Congress will never be for my
good. Or yours either. But I forgive you for loving me to excess. It is the gentlest and kindest of
He smiled. It calmed her agitation, to see him smile, though she knew that she didn't deserve his
approbation. Qing-jao was able to think again, to return to the puzzle. "You knew that the gods did
this, and yet you made me search for the answer."
"But were you asking the right question?" said Father. "The question we need answered is: How
did the gods do it?"
"How can I know?" answered Qing-jao. "They might have destroyed e fleet or hidden it, or carried
it away to some secret place in the West--"
"Qing-jao! Look at me. Hear me well."
She looked. His stern command helped calm her, give her focus.
"This is something I have tried to teach you all your life, but now you must learn it, Qing-jao. The
gods are the cause of everything that happens, but they never act except in disguise. Do you hear
She nodded. She'd heard those words a hundred times.
"You hear and yet you don't understand me, even now," said Father. "The gods have chosen the
people of Path, Qing-jao. Only we are privileged to hear their voice. Only we are allowed to see
that they are the cause of all that is and was and will be. To all other people their works remain
hidden, a mystery. Your task is not to discover the true cause of the disappearance of the Lusitania
Fleet-- all of Path would know at once that the true cause is that the gods wished it to happen. Your
task is to discover the disguise that the gods have created for this event."
Qing-jao felt light-headed, dizzy. She had been so certain that she had the answer, that she had
fulfilled her task. Now it was slipping away. The answer was still true, but her task was different
"Right now, because we can't find a natural explanation, the gods stand exposed for all of
humanity to see, the unbelievers as well as the believers. The gods are naked, and we must clothe
them. We must find out the series of events the gods have created to explain the disappearance of
the fleet, to make it appear natural to the unbelievers. I thought you understood this. We serve
Starways Congress, but only because by serving Congress we also serve the gods. The gods wish us
to deceive Congress, and Congress wishes to be deceived."
Qing-jao nodded, numb with disappointment that her task was still not finished.
"Does this sound heartless of me?" asked Father. "Am I dishonest? Am I cruel to the unbeliever?"
"Does a daughter judge her father?" whispered Qing-jao.
"Of course she does," said Father. "Every day all people judge all other people. The question is
whether we judge wisely."
"Then I judge that it's no sin to speak to the unbelievers in the language of their unbelief," said
Was that a smile now at the corners of his mouth? "You do understand," said Father. "If ever
Congress comes to us, humbly seeking to know the truth, then we will teach the the Way and they'll
become part of Path. Until then, we serve the gods by helping the unbelievers deceive themselves
into thinking that all things happen because of natural explanations."
Qing-jao bowed until her head nearly touched the floor. "You have tried to teach me this many
times, but until now I never had a task that this principle applied to. Forgive the foolishness of your
"I have no unworthy daughter," said Father. "I have only my daughter who is Gloriously Bright.
The principle you've learned today is one that few on Path will ever really understand. That's why
only a few of us are able to deal directly with people from other worlds without baffling or
confusing them. You have surprised me today, Daughter, not because you hadn't yet understood it,
but because you have come to understand it so young. I was nearly ten years older than you before I
"How can I learn something before you did, Father?" The idea of surpassing one of his
achievements was almost unthinkable.
"Because you had me to teach you," said Father, "while I had to discover it for myself. But I see
that it frightened you to think that perhaps you learned something younger than I did. Do you think
it would dishonor me if my daughter surpassed me? On the contrary-- there can be no greater honor
to a parent than to have a child who is greater."
"I can never be greater than you, Father."
"In a sense that's true, Qing-jao. Because you are my child, all your works are included within
mine, as a subset of mine, just as all of us are a subset of our ancestors. But you have so much
potential for greatness inside you that I believe there'll come a time when I will be counted greater
because of your works than because of my own. If ever the people of Path judge me worthy of
some singular honor, it will be at least as much because of your achievements as my own."
With that Father bowed to her, not a courteous bow of dismissal, but a deep bow of respect, his
head almost touching the floor. Not quite, for that would be outrageous, almost a mockery, if he
actually touched his head to the floor in honor to his own daughter. But he came as close as dignity
It confused her for a moment, frightened her; then she understood. When he implied that his
chance of being chosen god of Path depended on her greatness, he wasn't speaking of some vague
future event. He was speaking of the here and now. He was speaking of her task. If she could find
the gods' disguise, the natural explanation for the disappearance of the Lusitania Fleet, then his
selection as god of Path would be assured. That was how much he trusted her. That was how
important this task was. What was her coming-of-age, compared to her father's godhood? She must
work harder, think better, and succeed where all the resources of the military and the Congress had
failed. Not for herself, but for Mother, for the gods, and for Father's chance to become one of them.
Qing-jao withdrew from Father's room. She paused in the doorway and glanced at Wang-mu. One
glance from the godspoken was enough to tell the girl to follow.
By the time Qing-jao got to her room she was shaking with the pent-up need for purification. All
that she had done wrong today-- her rebelliousness toward the gods, her refusal to accept
purification earlier, her stupidity at not understanding her true task-- it came together now. Not that
she felt dirty; it wasn't washing she wanted, or self-loathing that she felt. After all, her unworthiness
had been tempered by her father's praise, by the god who showed her how to pass through the door.
And Wang-mu's having proven to be a good choice-- that was a test that Qing-jao had passed, and
boldly, too. So it wasn't vileness that made her tremble. She was hungry for purification. She
longed for the gods to be with her as she served them. Yet no penance that she knew of would be
enough to quell her hunger.
Then she knew: She must trace a line on every board in the room.
At once she chose her starting point, the southeast corner; she would begin each tracing at the
eastern wall, so that her rituals would all move westward, toward the gods. Last of all would be the
shortest board in the room, less than a meter long, in the northwest corner. It would be her reward,
that her last tracing would be so brief and easy.
She could hear Wang-mu enter the room softly behind her, but Qing-jao had no time now for
mortals. The gods were waiting. She knelt in the corner, scanned the grains to find the one the gods
wanted her to follow. Usually she had to choose for herself, and then she always chose the most
difficult one, so the gods wouldn't despise her. But tonight she was filled with instant certainty that
the gods were choosing for her. The first line was a thick one, wavy but easy to see. Already they
were being merciful! Tonight's ritual would be almost a conversation between her and the gods.
She had broken through an invisible barrier today; she had come closer to her father's clear
understanding. Perhaps someday the gods would speak to her with the sort of clarity that the
common people believed all the godspoken heard.
"Holy one," said Wang-mu.
It was as though Qing-jao's joy were made of glass, and Wang-mu had deliberately shattered it.
Didn't she know that when a ritual was interrupted, it had to begin again? Qing-jao rose up on her
knees and turned to face the girl.
Wang-mu must have seen the fury on Qing-jao's face, but didn't understand it. "Oh, I'm sorry," she
said at once, falling to her knees and bowing her head to the floor. "I forgot that I'm not to call you
'holy one.' I only meant to ask you what you were looking for, so I could help you search."
It almost made Qing-jao laugh, that Wang-mu was so mistaken. Of course Wang-mu had no
notion that Qing-jao was being spoken to by the gods. And now, her anger interrupted, Qing-jao
was ashamed to see how Wang-mu feared her anger; it felt wrong for the girl to be touching her
head to the floor. Qing-jao didn't like seeing another person so humiliated.
How did I frighten her so much? I was filled with joy, because the gods were speaking so clearly
to me; but my joy was so selfish that when she innocently interrupted me, I turned a face of hate to
her. Is this how I answer the gods? They show me a face of love, and I translate it into hatred
toward the people, especially one who is in my power? Once again the gods have found a way to
show me my unworthiness.
"Wang-mu, you mustn't interrupt me when you find me bowed down on the floor like that." And
she explained to Wang-mu about the ritual of purification that the gods required of her.
"Must I do this also?" said Wang-mu.
"Not unless the gods tell you to."
"How will I know?"
"If it hasn't happened to you at your age, Wang-mu, it probably never will. But if it did happen,
you'd know, because you wouldn't have the power to resist the voice of the gods in your mind."
Wang-mu nodded gravely. "How can I help you, ... Qing-jao?" She tried out her mistress's name
carefully, reverently. For the first time Qing-jao realized that her name, which sounded sweetly
affectionate when her father said it, could sound exalted when it was spoken with such awe. To be
called Gloriously Bright at a moment when Qing-jao was keenly aware of her lack of luster was
almost painful. But she would not forbid Wang-mu to use her name-- the girl had to have
something to call her, and Wang-mu's reverent tone would serve Qing-jao as a constant ironic
reminder of how little she deserved it.
"You can help me by not interrupting," said Qing-jao.
"Should I leave, then?"
Qing-jao almost said yes, but then realized that for some reason the gods wanted Wang-mu to be
part of this penance. How did she know? Because the thought of Wang-mu leaving felt almost as
unbearable as the knowledge of her unfinished tracing. "Please stay," said Qing-jao. "Can you wait
in silence? Watching me?"
"Yes, ... Qing-jao."
"If it goes on so long that you can't bear it, you may leave," said Qingjao. "But only when you see
me moving from the west to the east. That means I'm between tracings, and it won't distract me for
you to leave, though you mustn't speak to me."
Wang-mu's eyes widened. "You're going to do this with every grain of wood in every board of the
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