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Yen Lo Wang's Wife

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She was sold to Yen Lo Wang, the King of Hell, match-made by an important Taoist priest who selected her urn of ashes out of many other urns. Her ceremony above ground was simple, a pairing of a female paper figurine with a male counterpart symbolizing the august lord of death, many bowings to heaven and earth; and libations of wine.

Below ground, in the realm of Yen Lo Wang, the ceremony was extravagant and ostentatious, with dignitaries from all the hell realms invited together, retinues and entourages in toll, and an elaborate dinner banquet that lasted a week. The arrival of the new wang fei galvanized everybody, from the lowest of hell slaves to the highest-ranking gate officials. They wanted to be at their best. Would she make the august lord happy? Would she please him? Would she make him smile? The lords of the eighteen levels strove to be the best, so that she could take notice and grace them with her attention.

She arrived in an ornate palanquin carried by a hundred strong warriors, preceded by fifty dancing maidens carrying the fairest of death lilies and reddest of lanterns. The suo-na and cymbals trumpeted and clanged, echoing in the huge caverns of the underworld realm. She is here! She is here! The dancers declared triumphantly. The lady is here!

Behind the red veil, she bit her lower lip, her fists clenching her wedding finery of crimson beads and embroidery.

Above ground swallows spun in circles, crying of loss.

~*~

Yen Lo Wang's face was dark, as it always was. Obsidian as midnight, lips curved downwards in a perpetual scowl. He was built large, imposing. In his austere robes as King of Hell, he presided over the courtiers, magistrates and minor officials, meting out sentences, punishments and executions.

When the wang fei glided in, something stirred, as if air was inhaled collectively. Yen Lo Wang was impassive on his throne of yellow bones. Stone-hearted. Cold.

When she unveiled herself, a gentle ripple of red cloth, revealing her face, the beads of Yen Lo Wang's headdress rattled slightly as he looked at his new concubine. There she was, a slender figure, like a pussy willow tree, her face pale in profile, lips the red of peonies. Then she smiled slightly, glancing out from behind her veil, and she was suddenly, heartbreakingly, beautiful.

"My Lord," she bowed automatically, a slight lowering of the hip and legs, and nothing more. She straightened and the court remarked at her grace, her shapely form. Her words were formal, said to a husband on the first day of marriage. She had not seen him prior this and vice versa. The man before her was a total stranger.

"My concubine," Yen Lo Wang, King of Hell, replied back. "Welcome." His hands gripped the arm rests in the barest of movement.

At the royal banquet held in celebration of their matrimony, he later tried to entice her to eat. She only sat, ram-rod straight, her back against the black jade chair. He paraded plates of tiny pink peach buns, crystalline chestnut cakes and delicate spring rolls before her. She held her chopsticks, the best of bone filigree, and ate nothing. Not even the vinegary-sweet pickled radish and cucumber slices to whet her appetite.

"Take one longevity bun," Yen Lo Wang whispered, placing the pink peach-shaped pastry on her plate.

She looked at him then, a flash of those dark eyes and lashes. "I am already dead," she said.

~*~

"Look at me," Yen Lo Wang said. "Look at me, wang fei."

She stared at him, at his dark face and perpetual scowl. He was not an ugly man, but he was the powerful King of Hell, and that made him frightening.

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