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Authors: Tim Murgatroyd

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Sci Fi, #Steam Punk

Taming Poison Dragons (39 page)

BOOK: Taming Poison Dragons
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‘Someone will pay a price for this,’ mutters a man beside me.

From the look of insane fury on Lady Ta Chi’s face, I suspect it will be all of us.

seven

‘ . . . Otters cannot stop catching carp 
and so we pursued our pleasures.
Drum and flute set us dancing all night
to the tune
Telling of Innermost Feelings
.
When the gong’s echo faded
dawn revealed our delusion. . . .’

No news of home for weeks now. Sometimes I fret whether Three-Step-House is intact, whether Wudi protects my interests while I am away, whether the gallant Ensign Tzi Lu and his small band have a safe place to hide.

Often I wonder how Daughter-in-law and the grandchildren fare in Whale Rocks Monastery. Do they feel like prisoners, too? Daughter-in-law must be pleased to have Eldest Son beside her, unless the stupid boy has disobeyed my instructions and returned to Three-Step-House. Surely I worry needlessly. The war is being fought out far to the east. Yet to love is to worry: they are ladle and bowl.

Today our house of prisoners receives odd news. The Lady Ta Chi has been granted a new title: Empress-in-waiting. I am tempted to joke about Temporary Empresses in Temporary Capitals.

We also hear that she has introduced a new punishment for rebels and grumblers, known as ‘the heater’. The criminal must hold a red-hot bar of iron to the count of ten without dropping it. Should he let it fall, his sentence is doubled.

The long hours drag, and my mind dances with impossible schemes to save P’ei Ti.

I stand in the garden, observing a stem of grass, rooted high up in the brickwork walls of the ramparts. A single seed must have blown there and taken root. Now the stalk is heavy with a crown of new seeds. That humble plant might teach us much.

A guard summons me over.

‘You’ve got visitors,’ he says, unsmiling.

The men waiting in the vestibule do not smile either.

One is the Head Eunuch who announced General An-Shu’s proclamation outside the Prefect’s residence. The other two are soldiers from the Punishment Battalion.

The Head Eunuch examines me curiously.

‘You are required,’ he says, fanning himself with a turquoise and gold fan. His nails are exceptionally long and curved. It is strange to find a high-ranking eunuch in simple Chunming. They belong in the Imperial court, which is no doubt why General An Shu acquired him.

‘Don’t look so alarmed, old man,’ he says, raising an eyebrow.

I follow him down the street and across the square to the main entrance of the Prefect’s residence. Soldiers lounge by the steps. I take the opportunity to examine the prison block where P’ei Ti is held. Behind its blank walls, broken only by tiny, barred windows, my friend must crouch in shackles. I dare not ask my guide for news of him. There is an entrance at the side of the prison leading to a heavy, barred gate in the enclosure walls. No guard stands by the gate. If one could somehow leave by the side entrance and unlock the gate it would be possible to escape from the Prefect’s enclosure, unobserved by the soldiers in the main gatehouse.

I am led through the hallway to a door decked in yellow silks. Young men in tight-fitting robes whisper to each other. They pause to assess me as I pass. When I stand outside the yellow door they fall silent, every eye upon me. I gather the folds of my dignity.

‘Her Highness is expecting you,’ says the Head Eunuch, laconically. ‘Go on in!’

Still I wait. It would hardly do to march in unannounced.

‘Oh, very well,’ says the Head Eunuch.

He raps out a complicated pattern on the door. It opens to reveal three guards, all eunuchs, carrying long executioner’s swords. They abase themselves before my guide, who smiles thinly.

‘It is a good thing you have nice manners, old man,’ he says. ‘Ssu-Ba-Loh here – that’s all three of them, by the way, we find it easier to address them by one name – have strict orders to deal harshly with intruders. Isn’t that so, Ssu-Ba-Loh?’

They look at him, then each other, and bow again.

‘But I forget, you won’t get a sensible answer from Ssu-Ba-Loh. All three have had their tongues removed. Can you guess why?’

I blink at him, quite determined to act the old fool.

‘It is so they cannot prattle about what they witness,’ says the Head Eunuch. ‘A fact you would do well to remember.’

With a twitch of his silken gown, he floats down a long corridor and I am hard put to keep pace – or pretend I am.

We soon reach another door, for the Prefect’s residence in Chunming is no palace, whatever they call it. He knocks cautiously. The supercilious smile has left his face, replaced by a mask of servility. Ssu, or perhaps it is Ba or Loh, stands so close behind me I can smell onions on his breath. No chances are being taken against assassins. A wise precaution given the Lady Ta Chi’s popularity in Chunming.

I follow him into a long chamber smothered with turquoise and pink floor coverings. Silks waft inwards through the open window, softening the light. It is a room to lull the mind. A small jade fountain tinkles in the courtyard outside. The perfume in the air is subtle, yet pleasing, like a spring morning. A young lady is giggling as she plays with a cat, tempting it to leap after small cubes of meat. I look again and realise the creature is a tiger cub.

The lady is Ta Chi herself. She perches delicately on a mound of golden cushions. So close, her beauty makes me stare. Her features, smooth and balanced, seem scarcely human, almost divine. She has meteor eyes and shining cloud-hair. Her cherry mouth reveals wide, even teeth, fertile as pomegranate seeds. My own mouth opens. I cannot help it.

Astonishment makes me slower in getting to my knees than is prudent. Yet I detect, from an upward glitter of her eyes, that she understands the reason for my delay and is not displeased. She must be accustomed to such reactions.

‘Oh, Little Goldhair is getting naughty!’ she says, addressing the Head Eunuch. ‘What am I to do with him?’

He lifts his head from the floor.

‘Perhaps if Your Highness fed him a little less heart and spleen,’ he suggests. ‘Goldhair might be more obedient.’

‘But he’s so sweet and little! How can I refuse him anything? Oh, I suppose you are right.’

She turns with a gentle smile to me. I struggle with a desire to gaze brazenly at her.

‘This cub,’ she says. ‘Is a present for His Majesty when he summons me to join him in the capital. I do so want the little chap to make a good impression. Perhaps you can advise me what to do?’

The Head Eunuch doesn’t welcome my inclusion in the conversation and the Lady Ta Chi senses it. She looks innocently between us both.

‘Your Highness,’ I say. ‘If His Majesty does not understand the nature of a tiger, I would be very surprised. May I venture to suggest that he will not condemn Goldhair for wanting as much meat as possible.’

She claps her hands with delight.

‘A fine reply! You are more than you look, Lord Yun Cai! Did you hear that, Head Eunuch? Now, I’m sure you couldn’t have said that.’

Actually, I’m surprised he didn’t. He simpers regretfully, glaring at me from the corner of his bloodshot eyes.

‘You may go now,’ she says, sweetly. ‘I wish to speak to my guest alone. Leave Ssu-Ba-Loh to guard me, there’s a good fellow. And if you are worried about the propriety of the matter, look at his grey hair.’

The Head Eunuch hovers, evidently in some distress.

‘I should tell you, Lord Yun Cai, that the Head Eunuch does not approve of your presence in my chambers. After all, you are still a man. He seems to think he understands His Highness’s wishes better than myself.’

He is about to demur, then thinks better of it and leaves crawling backwards. I take note of the correct procedure for a dutiful exit. Assuming I’m not dragged out feet first by the redoubtable Ssu-Ba-Loh.

‘The Head Eunuch is such an amusing fellow,’ she says, still vexed. ‘You wouldn’t believe where we found him. . .

Lord Yun Cai, I really do not mind if you look at me.

Indeed, it is rather important that you do.’

I grovel at such condescension, but obey. The lady sits back on the cushions and takes a sip from a delicate cup on a lacquer table beside her. A maid rushes forward to refill it, and Lady Ta Chi waves her away.

‘You’re wondering why I summoned you here, aren’t you?’

The spell of her beauty is fading. But only a little. It is the kind of enchantment liable to renew itself each time one glances at her. I cannot match the lady before me with the one rumoured to enjoy ‘the heater’. All rulers are plagued by slander. Perhaps, as is often the way, people blame the gentle concubine for her cruel master’s faults.

‘I shall explain,’ she says. ‘My mother had a scroll of your poems when I was a little girl, and used to read or sing them to me at night. The scroll had been given to her by her first husband, my father, who died when I was very young. She always loved old-fashioned things. Her life was very sad and I shared her sadness. But your poems always lightened her mood, and sometimes made her weep. Does that not make you feel flattered?’

‘Deeply, Your Highness,’ I say.

Indeed I do succumb to the old vanity for a moment.

But I am no youth of twenty to be captivated by unat-tainable beauty. I must beware.

She takes up an old, worn scroll lying on the lacquer table. With my poor eyesight, I cannot read the characters, but guess they are my own.

‘Lovely poems in praise of a lovely woman,’ she sighs.

‘Who was the lady?’

I shrug helplessly.

‘I fear she was no lady at all, Your Highness, but I was inordinately fond of her. She was a common singing girl.’

The Empress-in-waiting seems surprised.

‘Really? Well, why not. It doesn’t matter, I suppose.

Now, I must tell you that I wish to give His Majesty more than a tiger cub when I join him in the capital. It is important that I have other gifts. How difficult it is to find something the Son of Heaven does not already possess!

I’m sure you see my problem. I must give him something unique, a reminder of me, so precious he will treasure it always. Do you understand?’

‘Forgive my stupidity, Your Highness, but I do not.’

‘Then I’ll explain. I want to give him a wonderful volume of poems all about me. Each poem is to be accompanied by a picture – I’ve got an artist in mind, so you needn’t worry about that – poems which will summon me to his mind when we are apart.’

She clearly expects some reply. I become aware of a troubling fragrance. It hints at improbable possibilities. If I were younger, I might smell it in my dreams.

‘Mere words could hardly be expected to do justice to Your Highness,’ I say.

She wags a reproachful finger.

‘I suspect you were a rogue in your youth, Lord Yun Cai.’

I dare to bow self-effacingly. What madness is this? I’m as giddy as a fattened puppy at her slightest smile.

‘So, I take it you can provide a volume, as good as this?’

Her tone is cold now. She taps the wooden end of the scroll against the table. It rattles her wine cup.

‘Your Highness, if you had asked me an hour ago, I would have said no. But having met Your Highness, I believe that given time and solitude. . . Yes, I believe so.’

‘Excellent, then the matter is closed. Of course, you must come to live here in the palace. I shall instruct the Head Eunuch.’

Now I grow afraid. I lack the necessary fangs to writhe with the other flatterers. I cannot imagine the Head Eunuch would tolerate me for long. And how many days would it take to displease her? A wrong word, and I might be clutching ‘the heater’. Nevertheless, I would gain the freedom to observe the prison block at close quarters.

This gives me an idea.

‘Your Highness,’ I say. ‘I fear the distractions of your court would delay my compositions. With His Majesty’s victory so imminent, I must work quickly. May I beg that I remain in my current lodgings, but with the sole use of my bedchamber? Also, that I receive a passport of free travel, so I may visit such sites in the city as will aid my inspiration?’

I wait with no little trepidation. Yet I underestimate her desire for these poems. A cunning look crosses her face.

‘If I agree, you must deliver fifty, no, a hundred poems in a month’s time.’

Three or more a day! A ridiculous demand.

‘As Your Highness wishes,’ I say.

She claps her hands together with pleasure.

‘Then I shall issue the necessary instructions. But first I have a little test for you. After all, old men may easily live on their past glories. Improvise a poem in praise of me right now.’

She settles back on her cushions, and takes up her wine cup from the lacquer table.

‘Well,’ she says, sharply. ‘I await.’

My mind goes back to the day Lord Xiao asked me to improvise a verse as a test. Despite the extremity of my position, I cannot help sadness, and this usually grants me eloquence.

‘Travellers are beauty’s best judge,’ I begin.

‘Carry on,’ she says, doubtfully.

I sigh. But did not the Immortal Li Po write extravagant poems for an Emperor’s concubine? Although he had the advantage of drunkenness at the time. So I close my eyes:
Travellers are beauty’s best judge.

Moon Goddess’s fragrant light

Fills roads between heaven and earth.

The Lady Ta Chi’s fragrance

Scents the Son of Heaven’s palace.

He pauses before his next victory,
And sadly thinks of home.

*

She watches me through narrowed eyes. Is she displeased? My life depends on it. And perhaps that of my family. For all its formal correctness it is an empty verse.

General An Shu is not the Son of Heaven. Neither does he possess a palace, or victory for that matter. The Empress-in-waiting frowns. She is no Moon Goddess either.

‘I like it, but it is not as passionate as these,’ she says, waving the scroll. ‘That is what delighted me about your poems when I was a girl. My mother called them
sincere
.’

Oh, the powerful! Perhaps beauty is the ultimate delusion. Does she imagine her sight and smell alone will inspire genuine love?

BOOK: Taming Poison Dragons
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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