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The River Judge


The River Judge

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Original Fiction Epic Fantasy

The River Judge

In this prequel novelette to the critically acclaimed THE WATER OUTLAWS, nine-year-old Li Li is introduced to a web of community secrets and family intrigue when she helps her mother…

Illustrated by Dawn Yang

Edited by


Published on March 6, 2024

A young person drinks from a bowl of red liquid as around them, waves crash into ships, flames burn at the edge of a village, and ghostly figures rise from a river of blood.


The first time Li Li buried a corpse, she was nine years old.

Her father had been shut up inside one of the inn’s private dining rooms all day. At such times it was understood that he was never to be disturbed. The rule had been drilled deep in Li Li since she was a small child—whether she had fallen on the riverbank and matted her hair with blood, or a patron of the inn became belligerent with drink and flung wine in her mother’s face—knocking to interrupt her father was strictly forbidden.

Such times were for business, he always said. Meetings with business associates, planning for the inn’s future. How could Li Li’s mother expect the place to prosper if she did not respect the undisturbed peace needed for such work?

This time, only one other man had joined him. Li Li hadn’t seen the man arrive, but her mother had waited on them with the finest meals and wine, the door always shutting firmly again when she had barely crossed the threshold to leave. Li Li had been ordered to get on with her usual long list of daily chores, gathering the washing and scrubbing dishes and packing out the night soil from the latrine buckets. But some rebellious river current always seemed to draw her into baiting dragons, including tempting her father’s fury.

When she snuck close to listen through the wall this time, however, she couldn’t hear much of interest. Only her father’s voice rising and falling in conversation with the other man’s. Then the two of them laughing together, her father much louder and longer.

She was still listening when everything went silent.

Li Li scurried from the door in apprehension of being caught. Her father’s temper might be the chief concern, but both her parents disliked her tendency to lurk around corners and in shadows. They disliked a great many things about her—she had once eavesdropped on them telling people she was “strange and cold, like a stone” and “not a proper child at all.” After that, she’d sat up on a hill once for half a day, challenging herself to stay perfectly still. It took so much strength that she decided being a stone was a compliment, and had begun testing her muscles with stillness as often as she could. She had always been stocky but small, and the other children in the town tended to be surprised at her strength, when they deigned to notice her.

She had stayed motionless as granite by the door for a long time today, lest a sound give her away. When that sudden silence reverberated so deep and strange, she threw herself back into her chores with an overdone vigor, as if to prove she’d never left them. She had relocated to the kitchen to sweep out the hearth’s charcoal and ash when her father’s silence bloomed into several loud crashes and thumps audible through the entire inn—which after a short time evolved into shouting at her mother.

That, at least, was very normal.

Li Li’s mother kept her voice low, though the front room was empty of patrons this time of the afternoon, especially as travelers through the town had been dribbling off since the new magistrate had arrived. In contrast, Li Li’s father never seemed to worry about potential patrons at all, even when the inn wasn’t empty. None of the guests ever seemed bothered by his taking his house in hand, anyway.

His voice snapped off in furious declarations, vibrating through the walls about how “this isn’t your concern, the inn would have been ruined, it was the only way . . .”

Li Li did what she usually did when her parents argued: she made herself scarce and still. As unnoticed as a shadow on the wall. If this argument followed the customary routine, her father would shout at her mother and then her mother would storm through the inn to find Li Li, raining down cruel digs and extra chores as if passing on a bucket of vitriol that was too hot to hold on to for long.

Li Li knew how to navigate such attacks as little as she knew how to handle her mother’s interleaved spikes of affection or proclamations of her child’s preciousness. In a bid to stay out of sight, she slipped into the back storeroom of the inn, intending to hide out among the earthenware pickling jars and stacked dense heads of winter cabbage.

Until she saw the dead man.

He sat slumped against the great cisterns of wine in the back of the storeroom, his head fallen forward from its own weight. His clothes were finer than any Li Li had seen, his robes spreading in layers of wide, embroidered skirts, and fur-trimmed leather armoring his legs where they stuck out in a stiff sprawl. Crimson stained the luxurious clothes, a shining wetness slowly creeping wider from below the man’s collar and across his chest. More blood dripped from his manicured beard and mustache, leaving a spotted pattern upon his lap.

Li Li was so fascinated she momentarily forgot her parents’ fighting. She had seen a dead body before, of course, but not like this, in rich clothes dumped in the back of a storeroom. She stared for several long moments, watching for the tells she always tried to squash when staying motionless herself. The rise and fall of breath, the twitch of eyelids, the shift of a cramped muscle . . .

No breath moved the man’s lips or chest. His eyes were half-lidded and filmy, and one wrist had folded against the ground at an odd angle. His skin had gone white with a hint of purple, like the inside of a taro root, and the blood was beginning to dry into the color of rust.

Dead. Li Li felt very proud of herself for such a definitive conclusion.

Curious, she crouched down and scooted closer to the body, staying on her knees as if standing too tall might wake the man from wherever he dwelled on the other side. Then she reached out a daring finger and poked it against his cheek.

It was shockingly cold. And soft. And still felt like human skin.

Li Li jerked her hand back.

Only then did she notice something behind the dead man: a fine black hat with long, swooping wings that lay crushed against the floor. She was not old enough to recognize it as a mark of high office, but she would recall it later.

From the front room drifted in the bitter hiss of her mother. “. . . that kind of business here at the inn . . .”

Li Li’s father snorted back something much louder—a lot of words about “just think it through,” and was her head empty, and no good wife would peck at such trivial objections. Then a sudden series of bangs and slams, as if someone moving about in anger. Li Li froze, a nebulous idea cobwebbing through her that she must be violating some rule by finding the corpse, much less touching it, and would be shouted at until her ears rang, and then have mountains of extra chores piled atop her. Like scouring out all the latrine buckets on top of the usual collection of night soil to sell to farmers, until the smell got in her nails and hair and clung for days . . .

After a moment’s thought, she crept out of the storeroom as if she’d never been, and in a roundabout fashion snuck back into the front room. Her mother slumped at one of the empty tables, a cold cup of tea untouched before her. Li Li’s father was wrapping himself in heavy layers to go outside.

“I have to go downriver and speak to Elder Mu,” he said, without looking at his wife. “The investigators might arrive before I return. Make sure they have no cause for questions.”

Li Li’s mother raised stricken eyes. “But what about—”

“Just take care of it! Must I do everything for this family?” Her father shut the door hard behind him. A gust of cold settled in his wake.

Li Li’s mother noticed her daughter then, and Li Li tensed. But to her surprise, her mother only reached out for her.

She came obediently.

Her mother crushed her in with both arms, face pressed against Li Li’s hair. As usual when this happened, Li Li stood very still until she was released.

“Go play,” her mother told her, sounding sad. “Outside, eh?”

Li Li went.

Outside was frigid. Li Li wrapped her arms tightly around herself and counted out the three thousand steps over to the shipping house on the river where her cousin Li Jun lived, stamping her boots every few paces to keep the numbness at bay. Her father and mother didn’t like her playing with Li Jun, but they couldn’t stop it on account of being family.

But Li Jun wasn’t at home. Only her mother, Auntie Ru, a large and muscular woman who was tearing the hide off a couple of boatmen so loud the paper vibrated in the windows.

“River licenses? Do you think I give three farts for the capital’s nonsense about river licenses? You’re paid what the ledgers say you’re paid!” Her gaze fell heavy on Li Li.

“My elder cousin . . . ?” Li Li asked.

“On the river, most like. Ai! How dare you turn your back on me!” Auntie Ru grabbed the case from her counting rods and began to beat the two boatmen around the head with it.

Li Li retreated. She’d heard her parents muttering about her cousin’s family—how Li Jun ran wild, and how Auntie Ru didn’t act proper in the least. As a widow with no sons Auntie Ru had been permitted to inherit her late husband’s shipping brokerage, and Li Li’s father made frequent bitter remarks toward the way she ran it. And toward his dead brother for marrying her in the first place. And toward Li Li whenever he paid enough attention to notice her associating with the family more than he liked.

He needn’t have worried so much. Li Li didn’t like her aunt much, either.

Now she walked back to her family’s inn and paced about the yard with gloved hands over her tingling ears. The chickens fluttered about and squawked at her, and she scattered their evening meal early, her fingers becoming stiff sausages. The temperature plummeted until it knifed into her bones and teeth, but she stayed outside until the gray sky became grayer and she stopped feeling the tips of every extremity.

When she went back in, two patrons sat at a table, their rumpled clothes those of merchants off the water, their faces red and bunched with impatience. “Girl! We’ve been waiting an age. Hot wine and rice, and kill a chicken for us if you have it.”

“Yes, Uncles.” Li Li went back outside through the kitchen, grabbing the sharpest butchering knife on the way. A single swipe to catch a chicken; she held its warmth tight against her body and sliced with one swift move. The blood drained fast and practiced and red upon the frozen ground.

She took the bird back into the kitchen to prepare and went into the storeroom to get the wine—where she found her mother heaving at the arm of the dead man, tears dribbling down her jaw.

The corpse had collapsed on its side now, but had shifted only a few paces closer to the back door.

Li Li looked at her mother, looked at the corpse, and then back at her mother, who was not scolding or sniping but instead giving the distinct impression that their roles had reversed, and her small daughter of less than ten years had become the authority who had walked in on her doing something untoward.

Li Li pointed at the front room. “Guests,” she said.

She walked past to ladle out bowls of cloudy yellow wine, then returned to the kitchen to prepare the food. The men ate and she sent them on their way, but by that time another patron had arrived demanding a meal and lodging. Li Li cooked and served, made up a room, and scrubbed out all the plates and bowls and pots once the man had retired.

By then it was full dark, an oppressive pitch aided by the overcast layer smothering any moon and stars. Li Li took a candle to the storeroom.

The room was empty, save for the dead man, who had now been wrapped—badly—in a length of rough cloth. Li Li moved past to where the back door was ajar.

Her mother stood in the patchy grasses behind the inn, shoving a spade against the ground, each motion barely chipping away another sliver of frozen dirt. Her breath huffed out in a gasping sob with every hit.

Li Li went back inside and brought the sole lodger a full hot pitcher of wine, no extra charge, and peeked out to make sure his room only saw the road. Then she listened until she heard his drunken snores and bundled back up in her warmest clothes.

She walked the three thousand steps to her cousin’s place. All was dark, the living quarters behind the shipping house shuttered up tight. Li Li carefully lifted the latch of the tool shed where her aunt kept supplies for the vegetable patch. She borrowed a pickaxe and a digging knife and hiked back, stopping every so often to heave the heavy pickaxe from one shoulder to the other.

When she returned, her mother’s body formed a curled crescent motionless around the haft of the spade.

Li Li thumped the pickaxe off her shoulder and sent the sharp end into the ground. Then again. And again.

Her mother roused at that. The two of them worked into the deep night, wood hafts blistering their hands. Then Li Li helped her mother drag the man out of the storeroom and into his shallow grave, where they packed the frozen clay tight atop him.

The next day, Li Li’s shoulders ached and her hands cracked and bled. She wrapped her fingers in cloth and went to return the pickaxe and knife.

“What did you take those for?” asked Li Jun.

“I had to bury the dead,” Li Li said.

Li Jun laughed. She was three years older than Li Li, tall and lithe like the eels that slithered down the river, and her hair stuck out as wild as if she’d not only been out on the frigid water but swimming its depths. Maybe she had. “Make sure you bury them deep,” she said. “Otherwise they’ll come back as ghosts.”

Li Li did not laugh back. She had seen ghosts before, but only of her ancestors, and only in dreams. The idea of the dead man haunting the inn did not scare her, but it did annoy her. He had no right to invade her home.

She resolved to keep a close watch for ghosts.

She was still watching when, two days later, the Empire’s investigators arrived.

They stayed at the inn.

They stayed at the inn, and demanded lodging and food without offering coin, and were rude to Li Li’s mother, complaining that the food was too dry and the wine too weak. Then they interviewed every man in town and many of the women.

Li Li’s father returned at midday but kept himself scarce, leaving his wife to wait on the interlopers. She stayed meek to them and then snapped at Li Li in the kitchen for peeling too much meat off the winter melon.

When the investigators went out to chase down anyone they decided to suspect, a handful of the townspeople congregated in the inn’s front room in their place, and Li Li’s father emerged to gather with them. Together they hunched over drinks, voices bouncing tense off the wooden walls.

“What will we do? How could they know so fast?”

“Some damned mouth must’ve talked.”

“Even the swiftest boat would take more than a day from Bianliang. I heard it was sorcery; an omen came of the magistrate’s death . . .”

“Why would the Imperial augurs be casting their eyes all the way down here?”

As Li Li retreated back to the kitchen, she heard her father grunt. “Same reason they pay just enough attention to send these grasping judges in the first place,” he said. “Mark me, our worth to the capital is merely what they can scrape out of our pockets and stomachs . . .”

A weight seemed to hang over the inn all day, a heavy darkness that made the candles gutter and the rafters creak. Until that evening, when the townsfolk returned to the front room but the investigators did not—and all with a sudden roar of good cheer as if an overstretched noodle had finally snapped. The men laughed and shouted and toasted each other in every variety of the inn’s wine, and the center of the party seemed to be Li Li’s father.

“To Brother Li!” they cried. “A true man of the Empire!”

Wine sloshed and another sloppy cheer went up—until they saw Li Li watching and quieted.

“Eh, it’s all right, Brother Li’s daughter knows not to yap, don’t you, girl?” said a younger one of the Tong brothers. Li Li knew him vaguely—the Tong family did a good deal of business with her aunt, and the eldest Tong brother had two daughters a bit older than her that Li Jun was fast friends with. Sometimes the three deigned to allow the littler cousin to join their group—which Li Li always did, even if they made her take enough bruises to prove her worth. They were bigger, and could always wrestle her down, but she never gave in.

Like a stone.

Elder Tong was staring at her, and Li Li realized he expected an answer. Her parents often scolded her for letting grown-ups’ questions linger in the air for a moment too long. “Yes, Uncle,” she said.

The men’s hands unclenched, their faces relaxing back into easy smiles.

“I’d best be off anyway,” Elder Tong said, rising and reaching for his fur-lined cap and outer wraps. “My elder brother thinks setting off for a delivery up in Ying Province might be in order, just in case anyone gets around to asking questions . . .”

“About today, or about your ‘deliveries’?” said another of the men, with a tone in his voice that Li Li had come to recognize as a joke. The others guffawed.

“You want to stop benefitting, that’s fine with us! Go on!” Elder Tong roared, laughing harder than any of them, while the joker raised his hands and hastily declared his lack of any desire for a change.

“To Brother Tong and Brother Li! Heroes of the Empire!” the men cried raucously. Elder Tong brushed them off and slapped Li Li’s father on the shoulder.

“After today, Brother Li’s talents far outstrip those of us lowly boatmen. Shall we do some cleanup for you on the river, Brother? We can take the boats, find a convenient swamp . . .”

“Oh, no, no, I couldn’t ask such a thing,” Li Li’s father said in his booming voice. “The cleaning part is easy, just a trifle. I wish you good hauls and a swift return.”

Once the men had all left, Li Li’s father staggered to bed sauced with his own drink and fell into a motionless slumber. He might have been mistaken for a dead man himself, but for the snuffling snores reminiscent of a rooting hog.

Li Li went to pick up the scattered wine bowls and to wipe up the drink that sopped tables and benches. She wrung out the wet rags and went into the storeroom for a bucket and mop.

Her mother sat on a stool in the back, staring at two more corpses. Li Li couldn’t see their faces, but the hems of their skirts had the silken trim of the two Imperial investigators.

Li Li’s mother raised her eyes with something like hopelessness, sweaty hair falling across her face. The spade leaned against her knee, her hands drooped across it like the branches of a shrub that had given up against too harsh a clime, with no willingness left to lift its leaves toward the sun.

Li Li curled her own hands. Her scabbing blisters crackled against themselves.

No men from the government came for some time after that. None of the people in the town had any sort of ear into the capital, or knew any reason the magistrate was not replaced or more investigators sent. Li Li continued working at the inn alongside her parents, although, slowly, her father disappeared more often and returned sodden with wine, and her mother snapped less and retreated into a hollow shell, her skin beginning to shrink tight against her bones.

Over the years, as if now by custom, here and there another body would appear in the storeroom for the women to tidy. A tax collector who had come to raid the residents’ pockets. A regular merchant from off the river who’d been suspected of slipping overweighted stones onto the payment scales. A boatman who became sloppy with drink every time he came through and made aggressive attentions on married women. Then another man from the capital who’d proclaimed officiously that he had come to enforce the river’s ferry licenses, as he’d had information that many in the area were in violation—and a few weeks later, his cousin from a nearby village whom the gossip reported as having leaked such business about his neighbors. Once, a poor but handsome local man who’d caused trouble for a friend of Li Li’s father by competing over a marriage contract.

Sometimes, after a disappearance rid the region of some acknowledged pestilence, Li Li’s father would get a few grins or nods from select guests, and he would always smile back and put on a genial act of ignorance. Occasionally more investigators arrived, but they either came and left again or ended up in the storeroom like so many others.

Traveling the river was dangerous, everyone knew. Storms and cutthroats and serpents of the river’s wide depths . . . The people of the villages in this bend of the river were well-used to donning a wide-eyed innocence. See nothing, hear nothing, speak nothing of their own, not to some uncaring government official from far away.

And every time, once night fell, Li Li and her mother would drag the bodies out into the dark, heaving a growing collection of digging tools along with their burden. They’d discovered, eventually, that a nearby bog provided the most forgiving ground for grave digging, soft muck that would suck down a buried corpse with no outward sign, and that only froze across the very top layer in winter. It still took half the night to drag a body such a distance, and then to excavate enough mud for even a shallow covering. In cold months it might take the whole night, as they broke through the ice to where the swampiness somehow still churned warm beneath.

The river itself might have provided a more secretive maw, but the inn had been built far back from potential spring floodwaters, and an easy walk for a sailor or merchant was not such for dragging a corpse.

Li Li imagined the men’s flesh decaying in the bog until their bones settled into the depths and crisscrossed atop each other. Like chopsticks thrown into the bottom of a basin to wash. Stacks of latticed chaos.

It was not until she was fifteen that the Empire sent another magistrate.

The position had remained vacant for so long that the local magisterial compound had become overgrown with knotweed, its ornate scrollwork broken in places and the tiles of its sweeping roof crumbling or chipped away. The retinue that preceded the new magistrate ordered the men of the town to scrape the weeds free and make every meticulous repair, with no mind paid to the labor that would ordinarily occupy their days—the fish that failed to come fat and fresh to market, the crops struggling untended, the dike walls and building stilts in need of this season’s maintenance.

A muttering resentment blackened the town. Li Li was old enough now to comprehend it. The people did not need or want a new magistrate—for any rulings, the military governor in the nearest prefectural city could be appealed to, and conveniently, he was so far away and his attention on so many more important matters that here in this bend of the river they could live their lives without interference. The governor’s lack of attention might mean he was also no reliable source of justice, but that was all right, too, because this tiny bustling town and its surrounding tiny sprawl of villages and farms could largely oversee itself. Small squabbles were solved by a clean verdict of fists, larger ones sometimes by a gang of one man’s friends banging on the other’s door in the dark with the silver flash of a knife, or sometimes more civilly by their neighbors dragging them before a wealthy estate like the Mus’ for a judgment. The Mu family were not true nobility of the type who had such heaven-granted judicial authority, and their eccentricities and occasional viciousness were well-known, but a decision with their teeth behind it was one all would respect. Most considered it a fair enough court for these parts, out here on the rural reaches of the Four Great River Deltas.

And sometimes, a person who upset the balance of this bend in the river would simply disappear.

Bones in a chopstick pile.

Li Li did not, at this point, remember the previous magistrate very clearly, although somehow the image of his noble hat smashed against the floor had stuck in her mind with the sharpness of recent detail. She could not recall whether they had buried it with him.

The new magistrate arrived off the river amid a great fanfare of silken banners and golden bells, far beyond anything Li Li remembered seeing in the town. But this part of the river had been burgeoning bit by bit, its vibrancy and traffic flourishing, and perhaps someone thought it merited notice. Certainly the sole local inn had lately been humming through every watch of every day.

Most of that work had been falling on Li Li. Her father had grown increasingly absent, more often than not returning only to raid fistfuls of silver from the inn and depart again . . . Even when home, he intruded so much, while completing so little, that it sometimes seemed questionable whether their workload truly lightened with his presence. Her mother still rose at the same time and moved among the same chores, but over the years had faded to a weary remoteness, and Li Li would frequently find her gripping a door frame or a table and staring at nothing.

The last few months the inn had gained the assistance of Li Li’s cousin as well—after Li Jun’s mother had succumbed to a hemorrhagic fever in late summer. The shipping business had gone to Li Li’s father, who promptly sold it to the Mus for a tidy sum. Li Jun had approached her uncle with a humble but passionate argument not to sell, promising she could do the work of the ledgers and even go out as a helmsman herself and report everything back to him. But Li Li’s father would not entertain the notion.

“I shall do my responsibility by my brother,” he said to her, “and find you a decent marriage contract. A difficult order, I dare to guess. Of course, you’re not to blame for how you were raised—if a plant is allowed to grow to weed it will naturally become hardened to proper pruning.”

Li Li, eavesdropping as usual, knew her cousin well enough to see Li Jun’s posture knot into the tightness of angry defiance, even if she was wise enough not to challenge the uncle who now held control of her life.

Instead, she unloaded in long monologues to Li Li later about how she was going to go off and join the Tongs on their boats for good, just as soon as they would have her. Li Li did not think it likely. Tong women might be just as brawny as the men, saying all hands were needed when scrubbing down a salt barge, but what was accepted on the river was not the same as the ways of the town, and the Tong elders wouldn’t pick a fight with Li Li’s father.

Practicality would win out. Li Jun might be older, but she had never been practical enough.

Today Li Li let her cousin’s usual complaints fade into the background, drowned behind the day’s never-ending duties. Her feet ached and her hands had split in stinging cracks from the washing. Her father had chosen to forego supervising the inn today, as he often did, leaving it to Li Li and her mother and cousin. When Li Li’s mother entreated him to please stay and help, this one time—he told her he trusted her, and wasn’t that flattering? That he could delegate the family income to her entirely, that it made him proud . . . and she wouldn’t prove him wrong, would she?

Li Li’s mother flinched and hunched, a hand going to the side of her abdomen. She’d been making that same motion commonly of late.

“Lie down, Auntie,” Li Jun said, her face crinkling in concern. “You don’t look well. We’ll take care of the guests and then bring you some tea and tonic broth.”

Li Li had the distinct feeling she ought to have said that first, but she hadn’t thought to. A dark scorn spiked as she watched her mother hobble to her room—one that had been biting at Li Li more and more often. Guilt lapped vaguely on its heels: children were to protect and provide service and support to their forebears; it was what children existed for.

But if her own father wouldn’t care for her mother’s weaknesses, why should she?

She followed Li Jun to fetch wine for the packed front room of guests. Too many guests. The new magistrate’s presence certainly hadn’t damped the number of travelers, at least not yet. Some of those travelers would have brought their own provisions for her to cook, but the inn wouldn’t have enough meat to feed the rest—not until the Tongs returned with more stores for the town.

Li Li was already bracing for the endless complaints sure to pelt down upon them. The inn had better have enough wine.

She didn’t want to know how the men might react, if the inn didn’t have enough wine.

At the entrance to the storeroom, however, Li Li almost ran into her cousin’s back, where Li Jun stopped stock-still in the doorway.

Piled behind the barrels were the familiar stacked limbs of ever more bodies. Rich clothes, limp hands, slack faces. And this time a very large lot of blood, seeping across the floor as if a barrel of dark fruit wine had spilled across it.

The dangling limbs were too many to easily count. More than her father had ever left them to take care of at once before . . . Li Li’s scorn at her mother’s weakness sharpened into a white-hot anger at her father. Does he not realize how long this chore takes?

And now her mother leaving her to it alone . . . !

“Aiya,” whispered Li Jun. “Look, it’s the new magistrate.”

The same swooping black headdress lay a bit apart from the corpse pile. The visceral stamp of the first man, six or seven years ago, had never left Li Li’s memory.

“What do we do?” Li Jun asked.

“We clean it up,” Li Li said. “That’s our job. Father does his business, and he says it’s his women’s job to clean up.”

“The other disappearances . . .” Li Jun was clever, which was good, because it saved Li Li time explaining. She had no concern that Li Jun would cause any trouble. Li Jun was of the local populace, and family besides, and everyone knew how the government officials stripped prosperity from the villages and played games with the residents’ livelihoods. How pretty women were advised to appear less so when near the eyes of government men, and how their husbands were advised never to step in, lest they lose more than a wife.

“We’ll have to deal with it after the guests go to bed,” Li Li said, assuming the authority of experience.

As if in response, rowdy shouts erupted from the front room, demanding what was taking so long with the meat and wine. Li Li’s eyes crawled over the corpses. A hopelessness wanted to throttle her. How many bodies to drag? How many trenches to dig?

Li Jun seemed to be thinking the same. “Could we get them to the river? I could swim, weight them down in one of the caves . . .”

Li Jun might be older, but she was ignorant of the way dead bodies sagged like sacks of rice in the shape of a man. “We’d need a mule and a cart for that,” Li Li said.

They’d need to rid the inn of the bodies the same way they always did. Li Li’s fury at her father welled up and up, flooding her. Drowning her.

“Where are those useless wenches?” came a yell from the front room. “Meat, girls, or I’ll butcher the lot of you instead!”

Li Li recklessly wondered what would happen if she walked out of the inn and left it all undone. Would her father have to bury his own corpses for a change?

But no, her cousin and her mother would do it, her mother falling and fainting, and though Li Li didn’t strictly love her mother, she did feel a familial duty, and the image reeked of an injustice so vast it made her teeth hurt. But the prospect of dragging so many out to bury—and with so many guests who would already keep them up late into the night with demands and complaints, that the wine was too thin or the beds too cold, or that the inn did not have enough meat—

Li Li’s eyes flashed wide.

“Cousin?” Li Jun said. “What is it?”

Li Li had begun moving, retrieving the cleavers. Knives in hand, she appraised the body on the top of the pile. It stood to reason a man would not taste different from a goat or a hog.

And she knew how to butcher those.

“You get the wine,” she said to Li Jun. “I’ll bring the meat.”

The guests went to bed full and happy, and the inn even had a surplus of shanks that Li Li placed on hooks as she had been taught. Only this time she took some care to disguise any humanlike foot or hand or expanse of bared and hairy skin.

Once the guests had been calmed and put up, and any repeated whines or calls for yet another cup had been dealt with, Li Jun helped Li Li mop up the blood from the butchering and burn the men’s clothes. Tomorrow the guests would not only tell tales of a well-stocked inn, but rhapsodize about how warm the place had been kept on a blustery night. What luxury!

“Your father is a hero,” Li Jun said in a hush, as they finished. “I never knew!”

Li Li snorted. “He’s not a hero. He only does the easy part.”

“Maybe he’d let me help,” Li Jun said. She spun the mop to crack it against one of the pillars of the back room. “I’ve done summers with the Tongs keeping ruffians off their boats, and I’m just as good with a knife as them. My mother said she’d marry me to the first boy who could swim longer than me or beat me in a fistfight, and I’m not married, am I? And the Weng boy drowned trying!”

Li Jun loved telling that story.

“You oughtn’t be so proud of not being married,” Li Li said. “Your parents are dead. Now you’re dependent on charity until you do find a husband.”

Li Jun’s eyes narrowed. “Why, though? The Tong sisters are going to take over the salt barges eventually, their father said so, and the Mus don’t have a son either and they taught their daughters to hunt tigers. We aren’t any weaker than them. Besides, you’re right, you and your mother run the whole inn, your father doesn’t do anything. I bet I could do his other ‘business’ just fine, too.” She made a stabbing gesture in the air. “I’ve heard of groups of female bandits in the hills. Maybe I’ll go join them.”

Li Li had heard such tales, too. She wasn’t sure she’d like that. Women annoyed her just as much as men, most days. She wasn’t even sure she was a real woman; she seemed to be cursed in some way—her women’s monthly water still had never come, at this point surely backing up its toxins into her blood. Meanwhile, the eyes of the boys in the town skimmed past and through her, which was just as well since she was repulsed by them in turn. She was old enough now that Li Jun and the Tongs bragged openly in front of her of their ever-escalating obscene exploits—Li Li was pretty sure they’d even “done things” with each other while out on the boats, which they said didn’t count. Li Li was unclear on whether this was because they were all girls, or if because they were all involved then none of them could score anything above the others, but all of it sounded so distinctly unenjoyable that she secretly dreamed of worming her way out of ever sharing a marriage bed.

Sometimes men didn’t get married. Rarely, but sometimes. Maybe she could become a man. Gossip said one of the Mu daughters had done that the other way around, but rules were different for rich eccentrics who taught their daughters to fight tigers.

“I could be a bandit,” Li Jun was saying. “A hero of the hills. Like your father, but not leaving all the work to the womenfolk. I bet I’d be great at it.”

She produced a knife and threw it in one move. The blade buried itself in a doorjamb across the room, the handle vibrating with the force of it.

Li Li walked over and wrenched it out. “You’d better not say such things when the Imperial investigators arrive.”

Her cousin’s expression went shocked and tense. Maybe from nervousness. Maybe eagerness.

Li Li sighed and handed the blade back. “Just don’t say anything, right? They’ll come eat all our food and go away again.”

Unless my father kills them first, she added silently.

Li Li had spent no serious worry over her cousin knowing the truth. But she ought to have remembered a far deeper concern than Li Jun telling tales about what she knew: her cousin was uncontrollable.

Without consulting Li Li at all, she conspired with the Tong sisters, who had just come back downriver with their family. The Tong girls spread wild rumors of a wakening water demon among the surrounding towns, and Li Jun plunged into the deep, gray fathoms of the river and swam below every one of the investigators’ boats during the last days of their approach, holding her breath so long they neither saw a ripple of her arrival nor when she surfaced afterward.

When the investigators disembarked at the inn they jumped at every small sound, dark moons pressed out beneath their eyes and their fine beards and caps awry.

“Something knocking at our boats—”

“A river demon, everyone is saying so!”

“It must have been that which devoured the magistrate and his men, we mustn’t stay long . . .”

“It’s this place, this place is surely cursed!”

Li Jun came back to the inn rather insufferable. “I fixed it all, didn’t I?” she bragged. “See, I told you I’d make a good hero.”

“It’s not done yet,” Li Li said. “And you should have asked first. This isn’t some game.”

“Stop being such a mud-stuck clam,” Li Jun said. “They swallowed it like fish bait. They’re going to leave and no one is ever going to come back to bother us, you watch!”

Such a plan might have worked. Even Li Li had to admit it, though she refused to say so aloud.

If only it hadn’t been for the ghost.

After so many years of corpses, Li Li had ceased to worry about ghosts. She knew ghosts could enter the world at times, everyone knew such a thing, but they were so rare, and so often mysterious in their methods of manifestation, and as likely to bestow beneficence as to make trouble. More importantly, Li Li’s father had been killing people for enough years that Li Li had become jaded to the possibility that one might return.

Until this magistrate did.

He didn’t visit in dreams, the way Li Li’s ancestors had on brief flickering occasions. He didn’t make his presence known through strange events, either cursed or blessed, nor did he return as animal or insect, nor through cold or wind.

He came as a shadow.

The inn was abuzz with it the next day, the day the investigators had been hastening to depart, with their report of the magistrate’s demise via river demon. But four of the six investigators had seen the magistrate in the night, along with another three guests.

They talked in hushed voices of his shadow sliding silently out from cracks in the darkness.

Reluctantly, the delegation’s leader determined that they must remain longer and seek communication with the apparition. He assigned himself and one of his men to depart to a neighboring town to find a spirit medium, giving his other four unhappy subordinates strict instructions to keep watch for the ghost.

Traveling for a medium would take at least a full day and night. The four remaining investigators lurked sour and white-faced around the inn, and Li Li tried to go about her duties as if she did not feel the weight of a dozen panthers scrambling up her back. Her cousin was even jumpier.

“What if he tells them somehow?” Li Jun whispered while they cleaned out the lodging rooms, no matter how Li Li tried to shush her. “What if he can tell them who killed him?”

“My father’s gone again anyway,” Li Li said. As had become his habit, he had disappeared up or downriver before any investigation descended.

But the thought snuck up from her heart, in the greatest of familial betrayals: No great loss, if they do come for him. After all, hadn’t Li Jun said herself how Li Li and her mother were the ones who truly ran the inn?

If the investigators took her father away . . .

No more long absences while only returning to yell at Li Li and her mother or plunder the inn’s savings. No more finding fault with their work while barely moving to help with the inn’s chores, only drinking and heckling and reminding them that it all came from him.

No more bodies left in the storeroom for them to clean up at the most inconvenient times, while he alone raked in the whispered adulation of any in the town who knew.

Her prior disrespectful words had been nothing but truth: her father only did the easy part. Any of them could kill a man just as well, couldn’t they? It didn’t take some great skill to stab into rich soft skin that was sopped with beef and potent rice wine, did it?

She made a retreat into the kitchen and ground tea and cardamom and pepper, too much and too fast until she struck too hard and the pestle cracked.

She stopped. Forced herself to stillness. The spices had scattered across the counter.

Maybe, with her father gone, her mother might cease being so sick and weak all the time. At least her mother worked hard. At least she did what needed doing. A small, fleeting part of Li Li wondered if, with her father gone, her mother might become a figure she would gladly pay daughterly duties toward.

Besides, Li Li was discovering that she despised injustice even more than weakness. Not because of any souls-deep sympathy for her family and neighbors, but because of the way it added up so wrong and out of joint, like a ledger that wouldn’t match itself. The world ought to balance.

It ought to, and it never did. The rich government officials took whatever they wanted, and Li Li’s father killed whomever he wanted, with Li Li and her mother crunched in the fissures of it all and working their hands to bleeding.

She returned to her chores and allowed herself to imagine a future where her father met some timely end. With his nuisance removed, her mother could gain widow’s rights to the inn, the same as Li Jun’s mother had. They’d finally be able to run it in peace, doing a hard day’s work and then retiring to bed without worry . . .

Thus it was that when Li Li came into the back storeroom to lock everything up for the night, and she saw the great swooping headdress shadowed on the wall by a light that came from nowhere, she stopped cold and still as a rock but did not turn away.

Li Li stared at the shadow. She did not feel afraid.

The inn was quiet. The remaining guests would be in bed, trying to sleep—or failing to sleep, what with word of a ghost about. Most had fled with nervousness at such an interaction, leaving the rooms near-empty for once.

The shadow elongated slightly, the body growing taller and thinner. Somehow, the magisterial headdress simultaneously stretched wider, until its authority yawned to near comical levels.

“Do you speak?” Li Li inquired finally.

The shadow was silent.

“Are you here for vengeance against my father?”

Again, no reply. No movement.

Li Li wondered if the magistrate even knew her father had been the one to assassinate him. When she’d chopped through the gristle of the body, she’d noted the knife wound that gaped between the back ribs.

If the ghost didn’t know who had been responsible for such an end, she supposed she had now told. But the shadow had not extinguished itself.

What else might it be seeking?

With a start, she wondered if her own actions had caused this manifestation. Cooking human flesh . . . could such a thing release a restless ghost? After all, even among the ardent admirers of her father’s activities, most would frown on what she had done.

The thought made her angry. Those men had not been working their hands raw to help ill mothers defray exhaustion when dumped with such inconvenient corpses, and she was sure how they would judge her nonetheless. But her solution wasn’t of some inferior moral character. It was clever.

“They won’t find your remains,” she declared to the ghost. “If it’s my father you want to point at, though—is that it? Is that what you’re looking for? Well, if he didn’t want anything found, he should have done it himself. The old magistrate, the one before you—he’s buried in the yard out by the larch tree, and anyone who—”

The shadow winked out.

Li Li stood in the empty night, stood long enough for her feet to grow stiff against the unmoving ground, stood stiller than any rock face on a carven mountain. The strange righteousness that had filled her had burst as suddenly as it appeared, leaving a vague void behind.

She’d told on her father. Her family, her elder. Her father. An act against Benevolence, against nature, even more than eating human flesh.

She should be flooded with guilt and shame.

Instead, something had begun to sizzle and bubble within the emptiness like when the river churned with typhoon-fed floods.

Something very like excitement. Or power.

The inn was awoken by screams.

Li Li struggled out of sleep in disorientation, deep dreams still snatching at her. The light had begun to turn, almost at dawn—almost when she would have been rising anyway—

Someone screamed again. Li Li was struck by the sudden instant certainty that the scream belonged to her mother.

She was on her feet without being fully awake, racing outside without proper outerwear or boots, her breath fogging with the late-autumn cold and her ears ringing with the aftermath of those screams. The first edges of dawn cracked weak and watery over the yard.

Others from the inn were stumbling out into these last dregs of night. The few guests who had remained—and Li Jun, too, wrapped hastily in a blanket, the Tong sisters with her, strapping young women who stood with the confidence that they were no longer children. Li Li hadn’t known they’d stayed over with Li Jun; they usually lived out of their boats.

Li Li’s eyes raked across the yard—and found her mother.

Her mother, who knelt a few paces before the larch tree, her worn thinness suddenly in such sharp relief that her fragility seemed shocking. Someone had chipped up the clay beside her.

The four remaining Imperial investigators surrounded the shallow grave beneath. One leaned a pickaxe haft against his hip, another had discarded a spade upon the ground. In the pitted earth, a half-unburied human skull stared from naked and collapsed sockets. His fine clothes had turned to dust, roots twining through where his flesh had been. But somehow the swooping magistrate’s hat was still as broad and black and fine as the day his corpse had appeared in their storeroom.

Within Li Li, the surprise of it warred with smug satisfaction. She’d told the ghost, and the ghost had communicated to them, even with no spirit medium to interpret.

Now the scales will balance. Everyone will get what they deserve.

“Explain this, innkeeper,” said one of the investigators to Li Li’s mother. He bit the words so sharply that spit flew forth with them.

Li Li’s mother hunched over against the ground, shaking her head over and over, not in defiance but desperation. Her breath keened high and hard, so fast she couldn’t seem to speak.

Li Li did not feel sympathy. Her mother had always reacted with overly high humors. Once the investigators had taken Li Li’s father away, and the inn slipped back to normal, all this frenzy would recede and everything would turn calm.

One of the other men turned to his partners. “The snake cannot move without the head—the husband must also be involved. Bind her and take her to the magistrate’s compound. The chief will decide if they face justice here or if it’s to be prisoner transport to Bianliang.”

The words took many heartbeats to coalesce into meaning, so contrary were they to Li Li’s expectations. Why would they—but her mother hadn’t—

They assumed

Li Li began to call out—what, she hadn’t determined; she only knew that this was not the way she had meant anything to go. Before she could, her mother launched herself at the feet of one of the investigators.

The motion was one of supplication. As if to clutch at their hems and press her face upon their boots in weeping entreaty.

The man’s lip lifted in a sneer. In that moment, with a movement that was almost casually slow, he moved the pickaxe from against the side of his leg.

The head of the tool thumped against the ground in front of him. Directly in the path of Li Li’s mother as she fell at his feet.

The dirt-clodded spike of the pickaxe plunged through the soft skin just below her jaw.

Her cries cut off with a wet crunch. Her limbs flopped boneless against the ground in the sudden silence.

“Stupid woman,” said the investigator. “At least now we won’t have to—”

A choked gurgle cut him off as the edge of the spade thunked straight into his throat.

The investigator struggled against suddenly folding limbs, his eyes casting about in confusion. He hadn’t seen Li Li grab the spade off the ground. Hadn’t seen her heave it upward with all her strength.

People always underestimated her strength.

She yanked the spade back from his neck, and blood fountained forth, more than she’d ever seen when butchering animal or human. The other three investigators had begun to move by then, hands fumbling for the blades at their sides. Li Jun’s knife took one of them in the chest. The Tongs tackled another with a shout, pounding him into the earth. The last man stumbled in his shock, and Li Li heaved the spade again.

Its dull metal rang hard against his skull.

He clattered onto the ground. Li Jun dove in to grab the man’s own short sword, and she plunged it through his body as if driving a fence post.

The Tongs stood up. The elder of them pressed a nonchalant hand against a bloody slash that gaped her forearm open. The younger gripped a jagged rock in one hand. Bits of white bone shone through the face of the man unmoving below them.

The elder Tong sister jerked a chin at the inn’s few patrons who had braved the haunted night. Three of them, all men, watching with slack jaws and wide eyes—two merchants from off the river and one man from a neighboring village who’d stayed to sleep off his drink.

“We’ll have to kill them, too,” the elder Tong said. “They saw.”

“No—please, we won’t—” started one of the merchants, at the same time the other began to shout. “How dare—!”

Li Jun’s newly retrieved knife found the shouting man in the liver.

The man who had begged broke into a panicked run, but the younger Tong dropped her rock to grab one of the short swords and caught up with him easily. She loped back over to join her sister and Li Jun in surrounding the final man.

“Wait,” Li Li said.

The others stopped, their expressions aggressive questions. The only sound came from the still-dying merchant whose gut Li Jun had buried her knife in; he curled on the ground with moans ever more thready and pitiful. One of the cocks crowed suddenly, calling out the start of the day in an unsettling contrast.

Li Li approached the local man. “You’re not from off the river,” she said. “Do you know what my father did here?”

His chin trembled in a nod, his ragged mustache shaking. “I heard—rumors, miss. Only rumor.”

“Would you ever have told men like these?” She pointed back at the dead investigators.

Shock suffused his face. “Of course not! Never.”

“Good. Speak nothing of this, either. Remember what protection this place has given you.”

“Yes, miss. Of course, miss. We are all loyal to your father, miss.”

Li Li tasted bitterness at that, and her hand twitched to complete the violence here, but she held the judgment at bay. Instead, she said, “Go home to your family.”

He wasted no time in scrambling away, backing up with jerky bows. By that time the man on the ground had stopped moving.

Everything had stopped moving.

Li Li let the edge of the spade fall to the dirt, let her hand grip tightly against its haft. She didn’t want to turn around. Didn’t want to look at her mother’s body.

She didn’t want to look at the rest of the bodies, either. So much to clean up . . .

She hadn’t meant for anything to go this way.

But she hadn’t started any of it, either. That had been the investigator, and the vile officials before him, and most of all—

Li Jun stepped over and rested a hand against her shoulder. “You did right. None of this was your fault.”

“I know,” Li Li said. “It’s my father’s.”

Rumor said that when the investigators’ leader learned his four subordinates had been devoured by the river demon, he and his right-hand man scurried straight back to the capital, convinced they had enough for their report after all.

Rumor said the capital seemed prone to forget the magisterial post existed, after that. Or perhaps they tried to assign men to it and failed, until a harried minister looked at the judiciary lists and decided leaving one remote bend of the river to the military governor was good enough.

Rumor also, however, now knew the name of Li Li’s father, and knew embroidered stories of a skeleton found beneath his inn, stories whispered as often in admiration as in judgment. They were carefully never whispered where they might reach the ears of Bianliang—not that they likely would have been deemed important, by those far away whose wish was to ignore such a troublesome rural town. Even so, Li Li sometimes wondered if she’d been wise in sparing the local villager’s life. Her generosity was returned to her, however, when still other rumors reported how her father heard the tales being told of his name and how he shook with fear as he ran. He fled toward the western mountains with no glance back at the inn or the living daughter he left behind.

The daughter was just fine with that.

Li Li and Li Jun smartened up the inn with some help from the Tongs, and Li Li made certain to declare to the right ears that her father’s other “business” was finished and had disappeared along with him. Most took this to mean that no more skeletons would be buried in the inn’s yard, and indeed, none ever were again.

The law technically provided no way for Li Li to come into ownership of the inn, as her father was still alive, and even if he had not been, as an unmarried daughter she would not inherit. In this bend of the river that lacked a magistrate, however, no one was too fussed about each and every stroke of law. Li Li declared that of course she must keep up the inn for her father in his absence, and that was enough for most people not to question.

If any questions did arise, they were not heard for long before mysteriously going silent.

Thus, for the next four years the inn at the bend in the river gradually became even busier and more prosperous, growing into a well-known stop for hungry traders. And if gossip whispered anything else about the inn and its young proprietor, it was wise enough not to whisper too loud.

Four years was how long it took for Li Li’s father to decide the law would no longer remember his name, and then to return to claim his wealth.

Li Li was wiping down tables when his shadow loomed up in the door. He stepped inside with his chest puffed out in assumed ownership, then stood in the center of the clean and polished front room, fists on his hips. His eyes crawled over the walls and tables, the customers comfortably tucking in food and wine, the expanded wings that had been added on with their newly carved wooden screens and the delicate brushwork scrolls Li Li had hung upon the walls for both aesthetics and luck.

His shape sucked away the smooth balance of the space more than any shadow from beyond the grave. Cold gripped Li Li’s heart, as if another ghost had entered her home.

That’s all this man was. A ghost.

She straightened her clothes and approached him. From the way his eyes slid uncertainly she could tell he did not recognize her until she said, “Hello, Father.”

His smile slipped, just a touch, before it shuddered back into place. “I see my inn is not as well-kept as it could be, but not ruined. Good girl. I knew you’d handle things until I returned.”

Li Li had come to consider her natural lack of expression to be an asset for just such moments as these. No stirrings showed on her face.

“You must be so tired,” she said to her father. “Come into a private room. I’ll bring you a meal.”

He grunted and took what he considered his due. Li Li served him stew and steamed buns and noodles simmered in sauce, along with the inn’s most fragrant wine. He rambled on about how he’d returned to sell the property, as innkeeping life no longer fit him.

When did it fit you? thought Li Li. When have you ever kept the inn?

“I have a few buyers nibbling about. And I don’t want you to worry; I’m only considering the ones who are also willing to bring a bride price. We’ll get this business done.”

Li Li barely blinked at the casual assumption she would be sold off as a rich man’s concubine. This must be what it felt like, to have power.

“I’ve been doing your business,” she said instead.

Her father’s wine-glazed eyes wobbled over to her, uncomprehending.

Both your businesses,” Li Li added silkily.

She pulled up a chair and sat beside him, leaning in against the table as if they shared secrets in a conspiracy. “Let’s be truthful, Father. You never did those businesses yourself anyway. I’ve been doing both since the beginning. For ten years now.”

Her father licked his lips, a quicksilver nervousness darting through his eyes for the first time.

“You’re feeling heavy,” Li Li said. “That’s a mineral sleeping powder in the wine. It’s very potent.”

And made everything much more tidy and convenient, she’d come to find.

It took a moment for her father’s eyes to grow wet and wide, and then he jerked as if to lurch up or swipe at her before falling heavily back in the chair. “Can’t. You . . .”

His lips flapped against the words until they were unintelligible.

“None of this was ever yours.” Li Li’s voice became a slither. “I saw so clearly, by the end. You claimed ownership but left every meaningful task to us. Because this bit now, it’s no work at all, is it? To kill a man who’s soft with meat and wine, and only full of air and words.”

Her father tried to answer. Fear suffused every line of his face.

Li Li’s knife moved with the whispering speed borne of four years of practice.

That night, Li Li straightened her inn with great care. She had plenty of meat stored up for the inn’s travelers—the ones who would leave to travel onward, rather than those who would best serve by staying on her hooks to fill the bellies of the next . . . those she judged to be too much like magistrates or fathers, or the rude oglers or complainers who demeaned and demanded.

The inn never wanted for traffic, here on this busy bend of the river. If not everyone made it up- or downstream, well, everyone knew the river was dangerous. Full of cutthroats and smugglers and undertows and ghosts and demons.

And Li Li. Who met and judged, just like a magistrate.

Tonight, however, she made a very special soup only for herself.

She waited for Li Jun to come back from the river—to come back from making the river more dangerous, as one of those smugglers and cutthroats who caused so many to hoard their silver in fear. Today she came from accompanying the Tongs upriver, returning with hulls that bulged with silver and salt and spices, dried fish and pickled vegetables . . . all “donations” from choice estates, as Li Jun laughingly liked to say. She and Li Li added her share of the silver to a lockbox below the inn floor, alongside the establishment’s own quickly expanding riches.

The inn was becoming impressively flush. Nobody had ever asked how the two cousins had come to run it, or how they had achieved such success. At least, nobody had asked for long.

Li Jun had spoken with great prescience, those years ago: they did a very good job without any husbands at all. Or fathers.

Tonight, Li Li left her cousin in charge, and she carried her freshly made soup up to her mother’s grave on a hilltop overlooking the town. The streets and buildings spread out below, multiplying outward in a slow creep every season as the town expanded. Beyond them the river stretched wide and fathomless, a muddy gray-gold snake draped across the landscape, the farms on the other side tiny at this distance.

Li Li sat with her mother, and she leaned against an ash tree and drank her special soup while she watched the sun set.

Her home had never felt so peaceful.

Buy the Book

The River Judge
The River Judge

The River Judge

S.L. Huang

About the Author

S.L. Huang


S.L. Huang is a Hugo-winning and Amazon-bestselling author who justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. The author of the Cas Russell novels from Tor Books as well as the new fantasies Burning Roses and The Water Outlaws, Huang is also a short fiction writer, with stories in Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Nature, and numerous best-of anthologies. When not writing, Huang is a Hollywood stunt performer and firearms expert. Follow S.L. Huang online at   Photo by Chris Massa.
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