Dragon Sword: Chapter 2
Something and nothing produce each other; the difficult and the easy compliment each other…
A new chapter is available every Wednesday at Noon, CST. Begin with Chapter 1
I stopped running when I was pretty sure I’d lost the spooky little girl.
I was orphaned and empty. Tears of self-pity stung my eyes but I pushed them away. Okay, so she’d taken the stuff from the museum. I could get more of that. And I would, too. Soon. But the loss of the sword was… no, I told myself firmly. Daiyu wouldn’t keep it permanently. That would be theft and she’s better than I am. Bitch.
I had been right about dawn being near. Shaolong was waking up. The open air shop keepers were setting out their wares, fish mongers, vegetable sellers. Spices, flour, candy, tourist trinkets. I usually loved the market. It was the kind of rich chaos in which I like to hide. This morning it was tinny and thin and empty noise.
I tucked the thought of the sword away. I comforted myself with the idea that Daiyu wouldn’t have taken it without a good reason and would give it back. She would. She had to.
And I was hungry, hungry, hungry, shaky and flat as an empty sock. I bought a skewer of chicken — the guy said it was chicken — which landed in the bottom of my stomach and rattled around. Then I picked up a packet of fried tofu chips. It seemed like I ate them in three bites. In any case they were gone when I got to Mrs. Chin’s tea shop.
The Happy Parrot smelled like beer, boiling noodles, beer, over-brewed tea and beer. I’m describing heaven here. I’m not much for beer but I felt like I could eat all the noodles in the Pacific Rim.
“Ah, Lollipop!” Mrs. Chin bellowed when she saw me. This nickname she’d given me was an unflattering reference to my hair. I’d never argued with it. Sticks and stones.
“Mrs. Chin! How goes your morning!” I called back. She was overweight and dressed in over sized cotton pajamas. Her clothing tended to be pretty flexible, since she often wasn’t entirely sure what time of day it was.
“Have a beer!” she responded. She looked like she was more than a couple of beers ahead on the day.
“No, thanks. I need some tea and your biggest bowl of noodles.”
She casually waved a plump hand in the direction of the stove where a skinny teenager was stirring a pot. “Lazy Boy! A big bowl of the best in the house!” That wouldn’t be difficult. There was ever only the one pot.
The teenager nodded with slow, bored disgust. Lazy Boy was new. I was pretty sure Lazy Girl had quit a couple of days ago. To Mrs. Chin all her employees were either Lazy Girl or Lazy Boy. They tended not to last long and it saved the trouble of learning their names.
I took my favorite table by the window. A tattered banner advertising some kind of soft drink the shop didn’t carry covered part of the window. It made it fairly easy to look out but not see in. For me it was ideal.
I had slurped down the noodles Lazy Boy set in front of me almost before he made it back behind the counter. I asked for another bowl. That one followed the first and I couldn’t believe I was still hungry. I had to think this over. How could I be hungry and stuffed to the gills at the same time? Was I sick?
I suddenly realized I still had the stolen book stuffed into the waistband of my pants and it would help matters if I took it out. I fingered it gently. It was all I had to show for my night’s adventures.
The blue silk wrapper glowed with the bright colors, thickly and stiffly embroidered onto it. The pages crackled a little as I opened it. I hadn’t had much time to figure it out while I was still in the museum but now I could tell it was a volume of Chinese fairy tales. The pictures were slightly ripply as if they had been watercolored directly on the page and all the calligraphy was elegant and also looked original, not printed.
Now, I can’t really read Chinese except for a few common words, so I couldn’t get any kind of narrative from the text, but the pictures were full of fabulous monsters, clouds, bats, rats, tigers and, of course, dragons. There were also fabulous monsters with big teeth and one especially beautiful series of paintings depicted an epic battle between a monster and a pale yellow dragon. The monster looked kind of like a red cloud with teeth. Big sharp teeth. The dragon wasn’t anybody I recognized.
I needed a way to show this to Daiyu without her taking the book away from me. She’d instantly know it was stolen and she wouldn’t believe a concocted story about buying it at an antique shop. Dragons can lie to each other but humans can’t lie to them. Well, you can try, but chances are vanishingly slim you will succeed.
Even considering the stuffed-hungry battle going on in my stomach, I was feeling less lost and empty so I thought about Poppy. Who was she? I simply didn’t believe in ghosts. A lot of people believe there are other worlds that occasionally leak into what I would call the “real” world, but I’m not one of them.
So Poppy was a real little girl who just happened to glow in the dark. Yeah, right. That had to be it.
A TV hung up by the ceiling behind the counter. It was tuned to the local news and a plump, smiling young man informed us that it was going to be hot and muggy today. No shit Sherlock, this was a tropical island. It was hot and muggy every day except when it was raining and then it was cool and muggy.
When the weather man was finished with his report a perfectly beautiful woman and a perfectly beautiful man began discussing next week’s elections. After The Troubles a while back, people started calling for new parliament. The Troubles are a long story. The short version is that there were fires and riots all caused by an unhappy dragon. The fires and riots made it onto the news but the dragon part had gone down the memory hole.
Curious that. People chattered a lot about The Troubles, but dragons never came up. As an experiment I brought it up once in a conversation with a bodega counter boy and he looked at me with the distaste you usually reserve for someone who farts in public. I tried the same experiment with a waiter and the guy at my favorite noodle stand. Same results. Dragons were off the table as a discussion topic. The riots and fires signified a breakdown of society — yeah, that’s it — and we needed new government leaders — yeah, that would fix the problem. No dragons need be discussed here.
Derkein’s face flashed on the tube. He’s the chief of police and, incidentally, a dragon. There are nine of them, did I mention that? He’s also running for parliament. I heard someone was pressuring him to do it.
He was being interviewed about the recent burglary of the museum. Inquiries were ongoing. No, it wasn’t related to the recent Troubles, but it was clearly a part of the general increase in crime and disrespect for the law we’d been experiencing lately.
Derkein is very polished and smooth. He’s handsome in a distinguished statesman kind of way. I had a feeling these general law-and-order topics were going to show up in a campaign speech sometime in the near future.
Then the subject changed and a fat guy a couple of donuts shy of Jabba the Hutt flashed on the screen and I lost interest.
I smiled to myself. You don’t want to be famous in my line of work, but it’s always nice to make a difference. I knew Daiyu would arrange for the cops to “find” the stolen goods, and I’d have to arrange to steal them all over again. She and I had played this little game a few times before. I had no idea why she didn’t turn me in or why Derkein never showed up to ask me pointy questions but she didn’t and he didn’t.
I should have known there would be a piper to pay eventually. I just never expected she’d take my grandfather’s sword — maybe she’d have me tossed in jail, but not that. Never that. She knew what it meant to me.
I thought again about ordering the third bowl of noodles but changed my mind when I saw a dragon walk by on the sidewalk. Obviously, it was time to go home. I tossed a couple of dollars on the table and tucked the book under my arm.
Mrs. Chin was singing softly to her beer bottle. I think it was a lullaby. “See you later, Mrs. Chin,” I called. “Have a good day!”
She paused in her singing and gave me a raking once-over. “Wash the dishes Lazy Girl,” she said. “Or I will beat you.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said and glanced back at the front window. No dragons in sight. Probably just a fluke, but best to take the better part of valor. I took my exit through the kitchen.
The dragon on the sidewalk didn’t look like a dragon, of course. He looked like a bald monk with a round face and brown robes. There are a lot of monks in Shaolong, refugee Buddhists from the mainland mostly. This wasn’t one of them.
I paused to hide the book in a little closet under the back stairs and ran down to the basement. The book would be safe enough there. From the looks of the dust, nobody had opened that closet since World War II. Through the basement and past the rats was the alley door. Nothing was out there except for the usual trash cans and debris. Good.
I would go find some other place to be for a while and then retreat to my little hole-in-the-wall room and do some power napping. I’d had a busy night and the no-sleep thing was making me feel a little worn around the edges.
It was not to be.
The dragon was waiting for me at the mouth of the alley, looking like a little brown-robed monk just keeping an appointment.
“Monk Tien! How good to see you,” I lied.
“Good morning, Angela!” he said with genuine cheer. Nobody is allowed to call me Angela and I can’t make him stop.
“Daiyu asked me to fetch you. She has granted your wish to leave the island. She has arranged for your passage to Taipei.”
“She took my sword last night. Is she going to give it back?”
His cheery smile froze. “No,” he said.
“Tell her I’ll never leave without the sword.”
His smile was gone now. It was like the sun went behind a cloud. “This is for your own protection,” he said.
“And if I don’t agree to go she’ll tie me up and send me anyway,” I said bitterly.
“You are not safe here. She’s sending you out of danger,” he said gently.
“That’s bullshit,” I said. It had to be bullshit, but dragons don’t bullshit as a rule. In fact, never.
“No, I’m very sorry. The recent troubles have attracted the notice of the mainland and they are sending an ambassador to open talks. They want to send peace keepers.”
“Holy crap,” I said. “For peace keepers” read “invading troops.” The Chinese don’t give a shit about peace.
“I agree with the sentiment if not the expression of it.” Monk Tien didn’t like my potty mouth. Daiyu worked on my stealing, Monk Tien worked on my language. You haven’t lived until a dragon has made a project out of you. And if you think that sounds sarcastic, you would be right.
“So there’s going to be an invasion and she wants me out of the way. I appreciate it, but I won’t leave the sword.”
“Please come with me,” he said. “We will speak to her together.”
I didn’t believe he’d really take my side in this argument, but I went.
I drove to Black Jade Mountain on my motorbike with Monk Tien clinging on behind me. Daiyu’s house is almost at the top. Technically black jade is an extremely dark green, but Daiyu’s mountain looks like it’s made out of onyx. It’s probably really lava. There were beds of the shiny black glass all over the island. Like all dragon homes it had huge rooms and wide archways open to the sky. There were human-sized rooms too, elegant and beautiful. One of them was supposedly where I lived. I actually did live there sometimes.
There were human servants, though now there weren’t any in sight. That was odd. Even if nobody else was around, the butler Sher-jan seemed to always be lurking near the front door when I arrived.
I’ve never known what to call the biggest room in Daiyu’s house. It often ended up being the dining room, but it wasn’t that right now for sure. That’s where Monk Tien led me.
When a group, or confab or herd or flock of dragons get together it looks like a moving mountain of jewelry. Five of the nine dragons were clustered in the enormous room, almost filling it. Gold, rubies, sapphires, amethyst. Daiyu was shining black onyx — black jade. Monk Tien began to expand into dark golden mist. His humanity disappeared and when the broad cloud reconsolidated a topaz dragon stood there. I’d seen dragons change back and forth a lot of times, but for some reason it always made my belly drop. The mind simply rejects such impossibilities utterly, but the eyes see it and you can’t unsee it.
There seemed to be an argument going on. I stood in the gigantic shadow of the topaz dragon that was sometimes Monk Tien and listened kinda-sorta. Dragon Chinese is a dialect unto itself.
The drift of the conversation was what to do about the Chinese ambassador. I’m sorry, but it was totally freekin’ boring. I couldn’t catch more than one word in five, I’d been up all night breaking into a museum and my morning tea had worn off. I faded against the wall and then faded out the nearest door as soon as I was pretty sure nobody was looking in my direction.
I headed for my room. At least, that was the original plan. The same set of wide stone steps that led down to my room also led down to the meditation hall on the ground floor. I knew if the sword was anywhere in this house it would be in there. And I was right.
The blade was buried in the altar in front of the big gold Buddha. I looked around and peered out into the hallway. There were usually servants around, but today there was nobody in sight.
I knew if she knew what I was about to do, she’d probably burn me to the ground. I was going to do it anyway. I climbed up on the altar, grabbed the hilt of the sword with my feet on either side of the blade and pulled. I couldn’t so much as make it wiggle. I wanted it. I wanted badly. I pulled on it until my arms were shaking and sweat rolled down my face. I stopped after a while with the longing still rolling in my stomach.
The Buddha’s nose was about eye level. “Could you give me a hand here?” I said to him. I didn’t expect an answer, but I got one.
“You shouldn’t be up here.” The little high voice sent prickles down my spine.
Poppy stood on the altar with me, her little face turned up at me. She wasn’t glowing. That was something. In fact, she looked ordinary. She was still wearing the red silk pajamas and tiny black slippers. Too tiny. Surely she didn’t have bound feet? In this day and age? No, that was impossible.
“How did you get in here?” I asked. I really didn’t care how she got in. I just wanted her to go away.
I wasn’t going to get my wish.
“Do you want that thing?” She asked point at the hilt of Grandfather’s sword.
“Yes,” I said. “So what?”
She clasped her hands together. “I want it too.”
“That’s nice,” I said. I almost added “so come get it,” but this girl was pretty spooky. She might just do it.
I climbed down from the altar and then pulled her down after me. She weighed almost nothing. “Doesn’t look like either one of us is going to get it,” I said setting her down on the floor. “So why don’t you run home?”
She bowed “I am hungry, kind lady. Can you give me something to eat?”
I gaped at her. Shaolong did have beggars but they didn’t generally dress their children in silk.
“Okay,” I said. “But then we’re going to call the Domestic Bureau and have them come get you.”
She got a tiny crease between her eyebrows. “Will they take me home?”
The DB runs the local health clinics, homeless shelters and food banks. They’d take her somewhere. I doubted she would think of it as home.
“Yes, they will find your parents. Come on.”
I’d find her something to eat, make the phone call and hand over the spooky little pest. I think the only phone in Daiyu’s house was in the kitchen. It was an ancient black plastic thing tethered to the wall.
I led Poppy out and down to the kitchen. It was empty. The kitchen was never empty. Even when nobody was cooking, the servants hung out there. Poppy watched me with big eyes while I opened cabinets and drawers. I finally found a box of rice crackers which I handed to her. She held the box in her tiny hands and looked up at me expectantly.
I took the box back, tore it open and fished out a few crackers which I held out to her. She didn’t touch them with her hands, just devoured them, nearly taking my fingers in the bargain.
“There you are!”
I jumped. Sher-jan, the butler, stood in the doorway. “We are all supposed to be in the garden,” he said. “The helicopter will be here any moment.”
“What are you talking about?”
Poppy snatched the box out of my hands and started stuffing crackers in her mouth.
“Daiyu has ordered all of us airlifted to Taipei. I was sent to hunt for you. Come on. We must get out of here.”
Poppy looked up, cracker crumbs on her face. “A storm is coming,” she said.
I ignored the weather report. “I’m not coming,” I said. “She’s your boss, not mine. If you want to go, go.”
Sher-jan shrugged and muttered something unflattering about my parentage. Then he turned and disappeared.
“Now — ” I’d been about to say “Now we need to do something about you” to Poppy. Except there was no Poppy. The box of crackers was in shreds on the floor and the place was empty.
Okay, whatever. To hell with motherhood. I ran up the stairs not quite feeling like a class A rat. I wasn’t leaving the child alone in the dark. That was something.
When I got back up to the meeting hall, the gemstone mountains were gone. The dragon discussion must be over.
Most of it anyway. Derkein — the ruby dragon — and Daiyu faced each other and Derkein looked like he’d rather be breathing fire. Neither of them seemed to notice I’d arrived.
“You must go to Turtle Island with the rest,” said Daiyu to Derkein. “I will deal with Xiou. When he is gone, you can return. That is when the people of Shaolong will need you desperately.”
“I must stay for that very reason. The Prime Minister will be a trembling reed before him. Chen-li will sign over the entire island to China before the first cup of tea is drunk.”
Daiyu shook her head. The dragon tattoo that covered half her face seemed to writhe. “Xiou will be here any moment!” Daiyu would have shouted if she’d been anybody else. “You must go with the others — what in forty-thee hells are you doing here?”
Ah. She’d noticed me.
“No sword, no go.” I said. “Forget it.”
Her face suddenly seemed chipped from arctic wasteland but I could have sworn the dragon tattoo glared at me. In fact I think there were little red sparks in its eyes.
“There’s no time for this!” Derkein growled. He was a handsome man. Imposing. Presidential. He was a shade taller than Daiyu.
“No, there is not,” said Daiyu icily. “Angie, run down to the helicopter now,” she turned to Derkein. “You will go to Turtle Island with the Kindred.” I’d heard of Turtle Island before. I have no idea what’s so special about it. It’s a little blip in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles due east. Apparently the dragons weren’t going to Taipei with the humans and I wondered about that for about two seconds.
Derkein didn’t budge. Neither did I.
“Show of hands,” I said. “Who is the least stubborn person in the room?” Nobody raised their hand.
Then two things happened. A helicopter flew by the wide archway. Oh, darn. I’d missed my ride.
And then the other thing happened. Derkein and Daiyu both went rigid. Their eyes rolled back in their heads and they fell to the ground like dead meat.
— — — — — — -
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