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Authors: Tim Murgatroyd

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

Taming Poison Dragons (4 page)

BOOK: Taming Poison Dragons
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From my room I hear faint cries and wailing in the village below. Perhaps the villagers hate me for my failure.

Xia-Dong and Devout Lakshi made off as soon as General An-Shu’s horsemen fled. No one speaks to me or meets my eye. Oddly, only Thousand-
li
-drunk decides to stay, and goes so far as to beg an audience outside the gatehouse.

‘Lord Yun Cai should be happy!’ he cries, in his deranged way. ‘All the demons have left the valley. The ceremony was a complete success!’

I regard him angrily. Is he mocking me? He winks.

‘Thousand-
li
-drunk knows more than you!’ he cries.

‘Lord Yun Cai will be glad of saving a certain officer’s life.

All the demons are gone. Look around, can you see any?

Ha! That is why Thousand-
li
-drunk is so happy!’

‘What is your real name?’ I demand. ‘Stop your games!’

‘Ah, no more games.’

His glee hardens into a sly smile.

*

‘General An-Shu will never become the Son of Heaven,’ he says, suddenly sober. ‘The people have not turned against the Emperor. The Mandate of Heaven has not been withdrawn from His Imperial Majesty. Remember that, in your dealings with the cavalry who escaped.’

‘Who
are
you?’

Taking a grasshopper from his basket, he pops it into his mouth and slowly chews. Gathering his small bundle, he wanders off without another word.

The wine-coloured light of dawn seeps through the shutters and paper curtains. My head spins from all I have drunk. Over half the jar still undrained. Yesterday seems far away – the horsemen and their cries, hooves sparking on the flinty high road, Wudi’s middle son falling, a feathered shaft protruding from his throat.

I fumble into my outer garments and listen at the chamber door. No one hovering for a change, not even Daughter-in-law. I hide the wine jar behind a painted screen, in case someone punishes me by removing it.

The short corridor to the back entrance is deserted. I hear arguing and urgent voices elsewhere in the house, but these fade as I slip the latch and step outside, hurrying along a path bordered by stands of sprouting bamboo.

The path winds up towards our ancestral shrine, yet I will not go there. The dead stare as well as the living.

Instead I follow a trail leading further up the valley, resolutely keeping my back to Three-Step-House and the village below. If I do not look they may as well not exist, for a moment, for eternity, such distinctions a dream. The path climbs round huge, lolling boulders whiskered with lichen, then crosses a stream over mossy planks.

I pause, soothed by the trickling water as it runs over stones and trailing ferns. When I scoop a handful, it tastes cold, flavoured with peat.

Further down the hillside, the path meets the road.

Pines surround the highway, steep grassy banks. Here I sit to regain my breath, and fall into a pleasant doze, the wine swirling back to the top of my head. At once I enter a hazy dream and hear songs in the trees, the rustle of feet, whispered voices, distant and indistinct. To wake now is a great labour, yet I cannot help myself. My head jerks up.

I look around. The road is no longer deserted.

I am surrounded by half a dozen villagers, talking in low voices. For a moment I blink, taking in details – a wheelbarrow, bundles on backs, frightened eyes. Then my gaze settles on a familiar face, one I least want to see in my bedraggled, sottish state.

‘Ah, Wudi,’ I say, and can think of nothing more.

He looks a long, scornful glance. His weathered face is set in a scowl of grief. The people round him include his wife and two granddaughters.

‘I am sorry about your son, Wudi,’ I say, with an effort.

The slur in my voice shames me. ‘Very sorry!’

Yet he does not even acknowledge my words. Turning to his family, he orders them on. They toil up the road, burdened by baggage and belongings, until out of sight. A desire to chase after him, beg forgiveness for not averting his loss, almost propels me to my feet. But I am too tired.

And I do not blame him. He has every reason not to acknowledge me. Just as a bad emperor may lose the Mandate of Heaven through fecklessness, so may an inept lord lose the respect of those he has been set above.

A weary walk back to Three-Step-House. All the freshness and splendour of the morning has gone, trees and stones somehow lifeless.

At the gatehouse I find Eldest Son talking to men from the village. He frowns as I approach and I notice he does not bow. The villagers examine us both curiously.

‘Do not stand and stare,’ he barks at them. ‘Go and keep watch on the road. At the first sign of travellers, send a runner to me.’

They leave us alone by the gate gods, and Eldest Son’s face sags. I suspect he has had less sleep than me.

‘Father, where have you been?’ he scolds. ‘The valley is full of brigands. And what about the horsemen who rode through yesterday? It is not safe. Where would we be if you were captured?’

Better off, I think.

‘I met Wudi,’ I say, sadly.

‘Yes, he is taking his wife and granddaughters to a relative in Crow Hamlet. They will be safer there and he has promised to return by nightfall.’

‘Wudi would not speak to me. I have known Wudi all my life. Yet he would not speak to me.’

‘You must make allowances, Father. His son. . . I do not understand why our ceremony went so wrong! We have offended the Gods!’ he cries, bitterly. ‘They are ungrateful! We sacrifice to them with all propriety. What more do they want?’

‘Hush,’ I say. ‘Lest they hear.’

‘What are we to do, Father?’

There is something pitiful about his tone, as though he has never quite become a man. Am I to blame for that? I realise how hard he finds our present danger. He needs guidance, reassurance. I repress a desire to trail wearily back to my room.

‘Should we send the children to one of the monasteries?’

he asks. ‘And our valuable clothes, the little chest of
cash
?

They might be safe there.’

‘We may need the money and cloth for bribes,’ I say.

‘Should we all go to the monastery, Father?’

‘If the Lord flees, so will half the village,’ I say. ‘Your Grandfather would know exactly what to do. . . Perhaps if we made a sacrifice at the Ancestral Shrine.’

‘There is no time!’ cries Eldest Son. ‘The barbarian horsemen will be telling their tale in Chunming by now.

They will burn our house to the ground! How long will it take for them to send troops here?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Should we all go to the monastery?’ he demands again.

‘It might be safer. But the village needs us. If we fail in this duty, we will forfeit all respect. Send only your sons, only them. They are children, after all. Besides, the headman has done as much. The rest of us must stay.’

‘But my wife is with child!’ he says, desperately.

This surprises me. I’m told less than half of what happens in Three-Step-House. I should feel happy at her fecundity. Yet good fortune can be a curse in times like these. So I say: ‘That is good news. Yes, send her with the boys. We can pretend her pregnancy is more advanced than it is. . .’

I struggle to recollect something important. Thousand-
li
-drunk spoke of the Imperial cavalry who galloped through in their sky-blue cloaks, pursued by General An-Shu’s men.


‘What of the Emperor’s horsemen?’ I ask.

Eldest Son waves an impatient hand.

‘They have been seen loitering further up the valley. It is typical of our misfortune! For some reason they wish to plague us.’

Again I recall Thousand-
li
-drunk’s words. For all his air of mystery, he seemed certain the horsemen were to our benefit. Eldest Son interrupts my thought.

‘You must go to the monastery as well, Father,’ he says.

I peer at him. To go would be to resign the burden of my position as Family Head. I could drink wine and write poems all day with learned monks for company. A tempting prospect. But I have not sunk so far. Not quite.

‘Do as I have said,’ I mutter. ‘Now I must go to my room to think. Have some food brought.’

‘Father! Do you intend to get drunk?’

‘What if I do?’

For a moment he blocks my way, bristling, then subsides. He bows. I sense that, however much I annoy him, he is relieved I am not deserting him for the monastery.

‘Forgive me, Father.’

‘Do as I say. That is enough.’

I stumble up to the topmost house and my room. At least the wine jar is where I hid it, and apparently undiminished, though it looks as though someone has been poking around. I dip the ladle and pour myself a cup, then raise it to my lips with two shaking hands. It does not taste so sweet as it did last night. Proof, perhaps, I have not had enough.

Tentative taps on the door. I start up, peer round. The taps become firm knocks, at once revealing my visitor.

Everyone can be recognised by small signs, as one knows a friend in the distance by his walk.

‘Enter!’ I croak.

Daughter-in-law’s head appears round the lintel. She wears no make-up, surely a sign of something. I motion her in. She adjusts her silken dress and cape; then, to my surprise, gets on her knees before me, paying homage. I blink suspiciously.

‘Do I disturb Honoured Father’s rest?’ she says, for once not fixing me with her blackbird’s eye. She seems almost afraid. Evidently I am to be spared advice concerning my most intimate ailments.

‘Well, Daughter-in-law?’ I say.

Her eyes remain fixed on the ground.

‘I have come to say farewell, Honoured Father,’ she says, sniffily. ‘And to ask for your blessing.’

Then I remember. She and the grandchildren are to find refuge in the monastery near Whale Rocks. At such a time I should give appropriate advice.

‘You will be accompanied by some stout fellows,’ I say.

‘There is little danger. But you must leave as soon as possible. And obey the monks in everything. Remember you are their guest.’

It is the best I can manage.

‘Why can’t my husband guard me and the children on the road?’ she asks.

‘He is needed here,’ I say.

She does not move to go.

‘Are you displeased with me Honoured Father?’ she asks.

‘In what way?’

‘You are sending me away.’

Now I see her anxiety. One of the five grounds for divorce, and the most common, is offending one’s parents-in-law.

‘No, foolish girl, it is not that. These are dangerous times. You are aware of our situation. I want you and the grandchildren to be safe, that is all.’

Still she does obeisance. I grow uncomfortable.

‘Something else is troubling you?’

‘Yes, Honoured Father. It’s someone I’m forbidden to mention.’

I can guess who.

‘Yes?’

‘My husband’s brother. . .’ she says.

‘What of him?’ I snap.

Then the dam holding back her tongue gives way.

‘Old Mother Orchid in the village has heard through her niece that Youngest Son is a Captain serving General An-Shu. And
she
heard it through her second cousin who saw him parading in Chunming. They say he is a big man now and. . .’

‘What’s that to me?’ I interrupt.

‘He orders hundreds of soldiers about in Chunming and wears a fine uniform. And he has the General’s ear. I heard he has been granted a house larger than our own, with a garden and a staff of servants, as well as. . .’

‘Enough, woman! Again, I say, what is that to me? You know he is no longer my son. We have a document from the Prefect to prove it. Enough on this matter.’

Of course, she is right to worry. A roll of paper can be crumpled in a moment, an edict overturned by a whim.

Her fear is simple. At present Eldest Son will inherit my estate in full. A special dispensation granted by the Prefect of Chunming has set aside the law stating property must be divided equally among all male children. Yet the Prefect of Chunming is currently hanging by his heels from the city walls, his eyes food for crows. He was a good man, in his way, and of respectable family.

‘Honoured Father is always right,’ she says. ‘Still anyone can fret in times like these. I have to think of my sons, your grandchildren. What of them, heh?’

Her natural manner has returned. It comes as a kind of relief.

‘I am not an astrologer. Anything could happen.’

‘But we all remember Youngest Son from when he was a boy,’ she continues. ‘He has a temper like a bad dog.

What if he gets it in that stubborn head of his, that he has been wronged? It’s enough to make me tremble!’

She seems more outraged than terrified.

‘And no one in the village wants such a hot-headed man as Lord. No one likes a beating. And the maidservants are frightened. Who can blame them? It’s a disgrace!’

She is alluding to the reason I disinherited him. I might reply that people change. It is my dearest wish he has changed. Yet serving General An-Shu is unlikely to soften a man. I could tell her not a single day has passed without me missing him, that when I sent him away, half my heart departed.

‘You should leave for the monastery now,’ I say, wearily. ‘And have faith in me. Did not the Emperor Wang Meng order his own son to commit suicide for mistreating a servant?’

‘Eh?’ she cries. ‘Suicide? What’s that got to do with us?’

*

‘Concern yourself with women’s business,’ I chide. ‘Be at the gates in ten minutes.’

She shuffles to her feet reluctantly, but remembers to bow on her way out.

Half an hour later I stand by the gatehouse with Eldest Son. She is escorted by a dozen retainers, including her serving women. If the brigands meet her party, what will they do? Rob her, for sure, perhaps rape the women. It is a risk forced upon us. The children cry to leave their home. All in all, a pitiful scene. I pretend not to notice the tears in Eldest Son’s eyes.

‘We have done what we can,’ I say. ‘The monks will send word she has arrived safely.’

He is desolate. It is not good for the peasants to see him like this. There is danger in growing too reliant upon one’s wife.

‘Have the watchmen reported any sign of troops?’

BOOK: Taming Poison Dragons
6.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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