NIGHT FALLS SOFTLY on the Theatre of Creatures. The silvered moon deflects a pale memory of light along the twisting, tree-lined pathways of the inner courtyard. Here, the many bamboo enclosures stir with the shadows of their occupants. Transparent fish glide through limpid pools, the salamander sleeps on the mirror's face. In the central pagoda, the old man is playing host to his special guest, and the clacking sounds of mah-jong tiles echo through the heavy, perfumed air. Otherwise, all is silent.

A small wire cage hangs suspended over the playing table. From its confines, a scorpion made from polished chrome watches the game. His mechanised pincers press against the bars, his tail drips with poison.

At the table, a voice is raised in protest. There is a sudden loud report, a burst of flame. The creatures howl and cry in response. The mah-jong characters fall to the floor. Petals drift down from an overhanging branch; a thin wisp of smoke rises from the barrel of a pistol.

And then, once again stillness envelopes this small, contained world.

The winner of the game walks now, along the pathways of the labyrinth. The loneliness in her eyes; she knows herself only by a code name, Aura. Grains of rice fall from her fingers, one by one, as she moves past the various exhibits. The Mobius snake, whose long tangled body has no beginning, and no end. The milk-coloured tiger, visible only for a few minutes every hour. The spiders who devour themselves, even as they give birth.

Aura's dress of green silk shimmers in the moonlight.

Eventually, and quite by chance, the agent finds the chosen cage. A gold medallion hangs down from one of the central struts, turning slowly in the warm night air. There is a dreadful smell of rotting food and excrement. Something stirs in the cage, with a soft breathing. The poor creature is slumped in the farthest corner, its body surrounded by a cloud of static. And then, like the crackle of a ghost, Aura catches a brief glimpse of another figure, superimposed. Another face. The few broken notes of a popular song.

Aura closes her eyes. It's not the one.

Disappointed now, the agent makes her way back to the bloodstained pagoda. The scorpion's tail uncurls at the silent approach.



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