M. Edward McNally
Yu Pao Long was not much of a horseman. He was a man of back alleys and twisting lanes, and so had never had much cause to climb up on an animal's back. It felt unnatural, but thankfully the spare horse brought by the village boy proved a docile beast. The boy led the way on a pony and the horse followed without Yu Pao having to convince it to do so.
They passed beneath the great Jade Gate of Tsheh and out of the port city to the desolate countryside stretching south. Polished brass cannons on the ramparts behind them pointed the way, but the guns were only ornamental. No invader would ever approach the city from the south, for the terrain there was unsuitable for an army. Centuries ago the lowlands had been drained, and a wide stone road on arches had been built by some Duke or Prefect who wished both a monument to his own practicality, and employment for the people of the city. In time the area around the sublime bridge had become a fashionable place for the wealthy of Tsheh to raise funerary monuments to both their ancestral and newly dead, and a vast network of graveyards and gardens came to fill the lowlands. It had been a beautiful place of tranquility and repose, as Yu Pao understood it, but such things never last.
A generation ago a typhoon off the bay had breached the coastal berms and dykes, inundating the lowlands and leaving the grand stone road as a muddy causeway that bisected what was now a shallow, dismal swamp. Twisting trees and stone memorials to the long-since dead stretched to the horizon. The taller monuments jutting above the brackish water were choked with vines and creepers that seemed to be trying to strangle the stone, with the patience of eons.
The place was not pleasant and it had an evil reputation, so while the causeway still rose above the morass few people cared to use it after dark. There was heavy traffic even in the late morning, and the two riders moved around groaning wagons bound for the great port that acted as a magnet for the produce of the whole province. The sun was bright but the autumn day cold, and while the brambly swamp to either side did not look quite so miserable by daylight, Yu Pao's mood as he rode in silence remained dark.
They were not going far. After only three miles the ground rose as the area of the flood was behind them. A cluster of inns and freight yards lined dry ground by the road, but the boy on the pony led Yu Pao around them and up a modest hill along a well-worn path. A small village was nestled just beyond the rise, facing out over the swamps and the obscured monuments. When the necropolis had enjoyed its time of fashion, this village and its people had enacted the funerary rites observed there. They were made to do so well outside of Tsheh's walls, for the mortuary profession was among the most Unclean of callings. Though that time was over and the village of today was little different than any other around the port, it still retained an old name in the rustic dialect of the peasants. They called it the Village of Those Who Touch the Dead.
The center of the village was made up of old stone buildings that had once been workshops—of a kind—or crematoriums. All were now homes. Around them in a circle stretched ruder hovels, and the boy on his pony led Yu Pao to one on the northern outskirts, with the swamps immediately below at the back end of the hill. Yu Pao had never seen the cottage, but he knew it from Jing-Sheng's fond description: Humble but scrupulously maintained with a swept walk and bright red shutters under the sweeping eaves of old, mismatched tiles. The village was largely empty with the peasants out in the fields, but a cluster of old men waited by the front walk, keeping their distance from the dark, open door.
The boy dismounted first and held the horse's bridle. Yu Pao swung out of the saddle, long hair in a top-knot swishing across the iron-shod tetsubo club strapped to his back. The weapon, along with his crisp civilian clothes, was enough to identify the man from Tsheh to the old villagers. They knew what he was, and they gave polite bows.
Yu Pao ignored them for now as he marched down the path to the front door, and inside. The place was small, having only two rooms, and the door allowed in just enough light to hint at a clean kitchen of modest furnishings, countertops and an old plank table. The second room was separated by a painted screen before the doorway, and the smell made Yu Pao jerk his head even as he entered.
The back shutters were open, allowing in light and more than a few fat, black flies from the swamp below. The room was a sleeping chamber with mats on the floor, and Jing-Sheng was sprawled across the larger of the two. Yu Pao knew him mostly by the intricate tattoos from his left wrist to elbow: Images of choppy waves, a sea dragon, square coins with hollow centers. Jing-Sheng's face was mauled, the blood already congealed in his long hair on the floor around his head like a dark corona. His abdomen was dug out like a half-made canoe, and the flies trundled busily about on exposed entrails.
Yu Pao looked down at his old friend and Clan brother only briefly before spreading a blanket over the remains. Flies trapped under it buzzed angrily. He turned away and marched back outside.
The boy with the horses and the village elders had found somewhere else to be. One man waited in the packed-dirt street, leaning on a staff. His face was so wizened it seemed to be shriveling into itself beneath a sparse beard of long gray and black hairs intermixed. The shapeless old robes draping him may have started as white long ago, but they were now a grimy yellow. One eye was milky and sightless, the other was sharp and steel gray. It was that one he focused on Yu Pao before bowing.
"Gentleman of the city," the old man said.
Yu Pao had no interest in pleasantries. "What happened here?" he demanded, hands in fists at his sides. Besides his tetsubo, Yu Pao wore a long tantu dagger in a sheath on his hip. The shorter blade of a throwing uchni-ne rode within his right sleeve.
The old man straightened as much as he was able and got quickly to the point.
"None know for certain. The woman Baojia awoke and found your friend as you see him now. She has no memory of anything that happened in the night."
"That seems unlikely," Yu Pao said, voice as ever polite, but unmistakably hard. "It would not have been quiet."
"No," the old man agreed. He had plainly seen Jing-Sheng's body, the lower ribs snapped and wrenched open. "Yet what happened in that room may have occurred without the woman knowing, for she may not have been there. Not as herself."
Yu Pao looked more carefully at the old man's robes: Voluminous and of a cut that had once been in style, long ago. The feet poking from beneath the hem were in worn cloth shoes with pointed toes.
"You are no sort of mayor of this village," Yu Pao said, and the old fellow shook his head once.
"I am not. My name is Da-An, and for a time I was court wujen in the Emperor's service."
"A wizard," Yu Pao said, though without much enthusiasm. As a native of the cosmopolitan city of Tsheh he was not burdened by any superstitions regarding the practitioners of magic. He did, however, know that their craft was often about as reliable as a wet matchlock pistol. Yu Pao was a man who appreciated the sureness of a tempered steel blade.
"So I was," Da-An said. "And though it has been many years now since I walked that path, I still know the shadow left behind by the visit of a dark spirit." The man's single eye focused on Yu Pao's. "It is something that is easier to show, than it is to tell."
The woman awaited them at a neighboring house some distance from her own. The mistress of that place was in her yard with a pack of small children running around her, one of whom stopped playing and met Yu Pao's eyes. He was a small boy whose face was familiar enough that he must have been Baojia's young brother.
Baojia herself sat inside at a kitchen table, though she stood as Yu Pao entered. Her eyes were red from weeping and they widened as she saw him, for they had met several times when she had visited Jing-Sheng in the city.
"Mr. Yu Pao Long." she said formally and began to bow, but Yu Pao stopped her with a gesture.
"Do not concern yourself with that, Jia," he said familiarly. "This is a time for condolence, not manners."
The woman met his eyes. She was indeed very pretty, for Jing-Sheng had loved pretty things. Peasant or not, the young woman had the look of health and cleanliness, accentuated now as she had plainly just bathed. Whatever had or had not happened in her sleeping chamber over the night, it was likely she had awakened soiled by her lover's disembowelment.
"I am so sorry, Yu Pao," she said. "I have no idea, cannot imagine…this thing is unspeakable."
"For us both, I am sure," Yu Pao agreed.
Da-An had entered behind him and moved quietly to one side, across the table from Baojia. The woman gave the shriveled old man an uneasy look. He held a small, flat object wrapped in cloth before him, little bigger than a deck of painted cards.
"You understand what Da-An believes has happened?" Yu Pao asked, and Baojia nodded, glancing from him to whatever it was the wujen held, and back.
"Yes, but I do not believe I could…"
"Jia," Yu Pao said, catching and holding her dark eyes with his. "Two weeks ago, after we all attended the spectacle at the Imperial Theatre, you chose to return here alone, after dark."
"My brother was sick," Baojia said. "And you and Jing-Sheng had to…work."
Yu Pao nodded. "Da-An says you returned to the village only at daylight, and in a disheveled condition. With no memory of the journey home."
"Were you marked?" Da-An asked, and Yu Pao saw that Baojia would not be a good bluffer at a game of dice or cards, for she was all tells. Her head snapped toward the old man and she blinked rapidly, one hand rising toward her own breast before she lowered it back to her side and gripped the material of her coarse robe.
"Bitten," Da-An said, and the woman gave a nod that was almost a spasm.
Yu Pao met the wujen's eyes and nodded. He looked around, picked up a dry cloth from a counter, and swiftly twirled it into a band. Baojia blinked at him with her slashing eyebrows high.
"Da-An believes, if things are as he thinks, that there will be a shadow upon you," Yu Pao said gently. "Something that can be seen, but only by others. It is necessary that you are blindfolded, though only for a moment."
Da-An set his object on the table and carefully unwrapped the cloth. There was a woman's hand mirror within: An expensive thing of clear, unblemished glass, wrought around in silver scrollwork. Baojia looked from it to the blindfold in Yu Pao's hands and seemed as alarmed by the one as the other. He mouth moved without speaking, and Yu Pao said her name again.
"Baojia. I am the friend and Clan brother of Jing-Sheng, who cared for you greatly. I vow that you need not fear me. I am here to help, as my brother would want."
Baojia stared at Yu Pao, blinking more and more as it seemed her eyes might fill with tears. Da-An had begun to mutter, moving one hand with crooked fingers above the mirror on the table. Yu Pao held up the blindfold, and after a moment Baojia took it in trembling hands. She tied it across her own eyes while her hands continued to shake.
Da-An fell silent and held up the mirror with only his fingertips on the silver edges, as far as possible from the glass. Yu Pao took Baojia gently by the shoulders, and turned her to face across the table. He looked at her reflection in the mirror.
It was still her. Though instead of the blush of health and youth, her face was gray and waxy, cheeks hollow and her fine nose now wide, with flaring nostrils. But the main difference was her mouth. It stretched twice its real length in the glass, almost reaching her jaw bone. It was a line of sharp, snaggled shark teeth: So many that it seemed they must be locked together to hold her mouth closed. But they moved, rasping together like steel as she spoke.
"Can you see anything?" Baojia asked. Yu Pao focused all his will to not dig his fingers into her narrow shoulders.
"A shadow," he said, and nodded for Da-An to lower the mirror before he removed the blindfold.
The rest of the afternoon was busy. Yu Pao spoke at length with Da-An, saw to it with the village elders that Jing-Sheng's remains would be handled, then returned on the borrowed horse to Tsheh. He spoke to the chief councilor of the Clan, a man he called "Uncle," and obtained certain permissions. Then he went to the Concordant Market by the south docks, and there found Qiao Lan—working. She was tasked this day to oversee the merchants, ensuring that those who were paying protection to the Clan were not robbed, while others were. Yu Pao bought her dinner from a cart with a great steaming vat of noodles on top, and they ate from wooden bowls while standing in the busy market square, adroitly handling chopsticks and slurping loudly as was the custom. Both stopped eating for a time, Yu Pao explaining the plan while Qiao Lan stared at him, aghast.
"With the eye of the buso that infected her," Yu Pao concluded, using the common name for a dark spirit, "the wizard says he can fashion a cure for the disease. An untreated person will become buso themselves in a matter of weeks."
"So what?" Qiao asked. "That is beyond your duty here, Yu Pao. Our Clan brother is dead, the debt we owe is upon the one who killed him. All obligations will be paid. There are no exceptions."
"There are not," Yu Pao agreed. "But the woman was only a weapon cast by the buso. I have spoken to Uncle, and it has been agreed. The thing we do will be to the honor of the Clan."
Qiao rolled her eyes. Her face was rather plain apart from a full mouth that was distractingly expressive.
"Why is it that 'honor' only gets involved when I am to be used as bait?" she asked, frowning sharply. She eyed Yu Pao and paused to inhale one more noodle. "And why come to me? Surely any of our brothers and sisters would be willing to do this thing, since it is so very honorable."
"Because I am, as ever, confident in your abilities, Skillful Orchid," Yu Pao said, and she smirked at him. "Also, you owe me."
Qiao blinked and pursed her lips. "How do you figure?"
Yu Pao looked to either side. Evening was drawing near, but some mothers with children were still buying dinner at the food carts on their way home. They gave Yu Pao and Qiao Lan a wide berth, for the club across the man's back and the pistols at the woman's hips left little doubt what the pair of them were, and no one wanted to jostle a yakuza. Still, Yu Pao leaned in closer to Qiao and spoke quietly.
"I 'figure,' because while I performed certain services for you, of a sexual nature, they were not reciprocated before you had moved on."
Qiao blinked again, though her mouth flickered in a smile.
"Oh. Right. I had plain forgotten that."
"Thanks a lot."
Qiao snorted and chuckled. She had a throaty laugh that was not very ladylike, but could also be quite distracting.
"Fine then, for honor and obligation. When do you mean to do this?"
Qiao tilted her head. "What, like now?"
"I'm sure you had other plans when your shift ends," Yu Pao said, "but bring him along. We'll need a third. Who would it be these days, anyway?"
Yu Pao raised his own eyebrows. "The dumb bumpkin from the north?"
Qiao pursed her lips again, apparently considering the defense of her present beau, but finally gave a shrug.
"That's the one."
Hao Gao's name meant Good and Handsome, and it was annoying to Yu Pao as it suited the young man. He was tall and well-assembled in face and form; his silhouette in the moonlight looming above Yu Pao's as the two men walked slowly down the causeway road. The northerner's straight back was unbowed by the heavy musket on a sling. Far ahead of them, a single spot of light shone where Qiao Lan was walking alone.
Hao said nothing for a long time, until the trio separated by distance had walked perhaps half the length of the causeway connecting the city to the village. To either side, the aspect of the swampy graveyard was entirely different under the night sky. The clouds above were patchy, and as they moved across the landscape of black trees and silvery stone, the shafts seemed to flicker and beckon like signals. Or warnings.
"Mr. Long," Hao Gao said, formally as Yu Pao ranked him within the Clan. The boy would have only a single band of tattoos on his wrist at this point. Yu Pao made no answer as he watched the bobbing lantern light out ahead of them intently. It was swaying quite a bit, which would mean Qiao was walking with a pronounced and fetching roll to her hips. Probably not necessary in these circumstances, but surely habit whenever she operated as bait.
"I feel as though I should say something," Hao Gao said. "I am not ignorant of your previous relationship with Qiao Lan, and feel it should be…in some way acknowledged."
"Nothing to acknowledge," Yu Pao said. "The Orchid found my love-making too…piercing and world-shaking. It is a burden I bear."
Hao Gao stopped walking for a stride; Yu Pao knew because they were carrying a limp fishing net between them and he felt the tug. He sighed and looked back at the tall fellow's shape in the dark.
"You have the woman, Hao Gao. Why not leave me with that?"
Hao paused another moment before saying, "Fair enough." He resumed walking, and Yu Pao thought the young man from the north country was perhaps not as dense as he often seemed.
They were well beyond the halfway point when the light ahead stopped, as did the men. Yu Pao gave Hao a push on the shoulder and the two moved apart, raising and stretching the net between them. Yu Pao narrowed his eyes though he could see nothing but the unmoving light in the distance, for a larger mass of drifting clouds had blotted out the moon and stars. Hao started to speak but Yu Pao hissed for silence.
The light ahead dropped to the ground, the wick within the lantern sputtering, and Hao gave a cry.
"It is fine," Yu Pao whispered. "She dropped it to run. Lower the net."
Hao did so along with Yu Pao, lowering the weighted casting lines to the stone surface of the road so that Qiao could run across it as she fled toward the men, and they could stand to snare what chased her. It was a simple plan, which Hao threatened to unravel immediately.
"She'll never make it back this far."
"Shut up. Yes she will."
"You…you can't know that for sure…"
"Trust her. She's not shy, she would be screaming by now were there trouble."
The net was pulling in Yu Pao's hands as Hao inched forward. Yu Pao hissed and gave it a sharp tug, then fell over on his back as Hao released his end. The young man shouted Qiao's name, and raced toward her in the dark.
"Terrible taste in men," Yu Pao muttered, scrambling to his own feet and leaving the now useless net lying in the road as he ran after the tall dullard, whipping his tetsubo from his back.
What happened in the dark was totally predictable. Qiao and Hao Gao collided at a sprint with a grunt and an irate profanity. Yu Pao could only dimly make out the thrashing tangle of them as he stepped around it, holding his club out in front and snarling "Light something!" The blackness ahead of him was profound, though he thought he could hear nails rasping across stone.
"Give me a flint!" Qiao's voice demanded.
"I, I don't have one…" Hao Gao mumbled thickly, sounding half-stunned. Qiao swore again.
"It is a good thing you are pretty," she snarled, then rose behind Yu Pao and fired a pistol in the air.
She was holding the oil-soaked head of a torch to the breech of the wheel-lock. In the flash of the spark, Yu Pao saw something gray and humanoid scrambling toward him on all fours, and he lunged to meet it, swinging his club. The torch bloomed into life and he saw more detail. The buso was a naked thing of gray flesh pulled tight around sharp bones, with a now-familiar gaping mouth of shark teeth in rows, set beneath a single, red eye in the center of its horned skull. Yu Pao swung low for its knee, thinking to cripple it, but as the creature was loping on all fours the iron-shod tetsubo crashed into its left elbow.
Bone snapped and the buso emitted a hissing roar but it pressed on, shoulder driving into Yu Pao's side and spinning him to the ground as though he had been clipped by a passing wagon. The thing sprang at Qiao Lan, holding her torch aloft, and she whipped the creature across the face with her spent pistol even as it plowed into her. It tried to seize her but the arm Yu Pao had hit flopped useless and only one clawed hand of filth-encrusted nails snagged her tunic. Qiao shook loose of the garment and it tore the rest of the way off of her, revealing a thick vest of heavy leather from which three charged pistols still hung. Her arms were bare and the left was tattooed from wrist to shoulder, and as Yu Pao knew from fond experience, more than halfway across her back.
The buso rolled across paving stones, scrambling up to face the trio of yakuza again. Yu Pao got to his feet and dropped his club in preference of his uchi-ne, sliding the blade into his right hand from the sleeve of his coat. Qiao dropped the spent gun and drew another, but before he could throw or she could shoot, Hao Gao stood up in front of both of them.
"Get down!" Yu Pao and Qiao shouted together, but before either could have added "Jinx!" the buso sprang on its sinewy legs and crashed into Hao Gao as he struggled to shake his musket free from the shoulder sling. The big man reeled back, jerking his head away as the toothy maw snapped in front of his face and the red eye gleamed. Filthy nails tore bloody gouges down his thighs through heavy trousers as Hao Gao screamed and flailed, musket swinging loose from one arm. The stock of the long gun whipped through the air, and hit Qiao in the ear.
Her eyes fluttered and she sat down hard in the road, torch falling to the pavement. Yu Pao let the mass that was the creature raking and snapping at Hao Gao stagger past him, then stepped behind it and drove his uchi-ne hard into the buso's armpit.
The thing made its hissing roar and sprang away, scampering across the road even as Hao Gao finally fell to the ground. It took Yu Pao's blade with it and the cord connecting the hilt to a loop around his wrist played out, for an uchi-ne was meant to be drawn back in, if a throw missed. Thinking the blade would pull free Yu Pao dove for Hao Gao's musket, but as the buso reached the edge of the circle of torchlight, just at the edge of the causeway itself, the creature grabbed the cord with its good hand even as it dove off the side.
Yu Pao widened his eyes and was yanked forward off his feet, knees and elbows bashing stone and his right arm shooting forward as all the creature's plummeting weight pulled at the cord. He slid roughly after it, drawing his tantu dagger to slash the cord, but did not have time before his chin banged the curb. The world behind Yu Pao's eyes went white and star-filled, and he seemed to be falling through space. He heard but did not really feel the splash.
The water of the swamp was awful, slicked-over with algae and tasting of corruption. It was however enough to shock Yu Pao back into the world and he jerked and spat as he sat and then stood in it, the cord to his wrist now slack. The water was only to his knees but the night was again wholly black down below the causeway bridge. There was tall stone beside him and Yu Pao put his back to it, though he did not know if it was a stanchion or a grave.
"Yu Pao?" Qiao's voice called above him, and when he answered, "Alive," the guttural hissing came from only a few feet in front of him.
Clouds passed by the moon. The gray light shown down on an alleyway of monuments, the names on the graves long-since scoured away by the brackish water. Yu Pao had his back to one as did the buso facing him, shattered arm hanging limp and black blood staining its side. The red eye burned and row upon row of teeth were revealed as the thing's whole face seemed to split in a leer.
Club up on the road, two blades lost in the water somewhere. Yu Pao had nothing in his hands but his hands, and the soulless thing leapt at him.
Baojia underwent no change that night, but not surprisingly she could not sleep. She had been sealed inside her home by her friends and neighbors, shutters and doors all nailed shut, and the little house was hot and cloying. She sat in a chair in the dark kitchen, for though she had scrubbed the sleeping chamber all day after Jing-Sheng had been removed, with the windows shut the lingering smell was trapped inside with her.
Long after midnight there was a knock on the door that made Baojia jerk, then cringe away. The knocking was repeated, and her name was softly called. Baojia crept to the door and put a hand flat against the wood, answering in a whisper.
There was the whine of iron and wood as Yu Pao used a bar to pry the nails from the doorjamb. Baojia felt her way familiarly around her own kitchen and had the lamp lit on the table by the time the door opened, and Yu Pao limped in.
His face was scratched, clothes filthy, but he seemed otherwise well. He bowed to Baojia formally.
"It is done. The buso is slain. My friends have taken its remains to the wujen."
"Da-An, he can…he can make a cure?"
"He claims so, yes."
Baojia stared at the man, at Jing-Sheng's good friend, and felt the deep grief she had walked with all day erupt within her. She sobbed, hard, and threw her arms around the yakuza.
"I am so sorry, I am, I wish…I wish I had been killed by the monster, rather than this. It is not fair…"
"Very little ever is," Yu Pao said, wincing for his aching body. Baojia noticed and released him, drawing back.
"I am sorry, you are injured…"
"Trifles," he said. "I have had worse and surely shall again." He looked at her tear-tracked face in the lamplight. "You need rest, Jia. Have you slept at all?"
Baojia shook her head. "I cannot. I do not know where I go when I sleep."
"That will be remedied soon," Yu Pao promised. "At least sit down, and let me open your windows. The air in here is…unwell."
Baojia nodded, and allowed Yu Pao to settle her down on a chair. The man limped back to the open doorway, where he had left the heavy iron pry bar leaning.
"You are far too kind to me, Yu Pao Long," she said. He took up the bar.
"Nothing that has happened here is your fault, Baojia. You are a good woman and a good person. A good sister to your brother, and a friend to my friend. The obligation is on me."
Baojia did not fully understand that, but she nodded anyway as Yu Pao stepped behind her.
The tall yakuza with bloody bandages wrapped around his legs deposited the basket on Da-An's table, and lifted the lid. The old man stared down at the terrible visage of the buso: A nightmarish thing if ever he had seen one, no less fearsome in death than it had been in the quasi-life of the dark spirit world. A black bullet wound was blasted in its forehead, just above the intact red eye.
"Good shot," the wujen said.
"Yes it was," the woman with the brace of pistols strapped to her chest agreed. "You say your potion will keep?"
Da-An nodded, though a trifle sadly. He looked down at the eye and sighed. The woman spoke curtly.
"Then make it, and save it should something so terrible ever happen here again."
The yakuzas moved for the door, and Da-An looked after them.
"It is not too late," he said. "I can still cure the woman. Her role in this was none of her doing. The cause of your Clan brother's death is dead in this basket."
Hao Gao and Qiao Lan stopped, the tall fellow looking at the woman almost hopefully. Her gaze was steely in return. Hao Gao sighed, and spoke the mantra of the yakuza before the two of them returned to the darkness of the night.
"All obligations will be paid. There are no exceptions."
Thanks for reading. The preceding story is set within the world of the Norothian Cycle (by M. Edward McNally) a Musket & Magic fantasy series in which Yu Pao Long is a player.
The Sable City (Book I)
Death of a Kingdom (Book II)
The Wind from Miilark (Book III), Coming Soon
Ed McNally is unable to produce a brief bio at this time as he has been treed by a marauding pack of javelinas in the Sonoran Desert.