Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In which a predicted journey upriver ends in an unpleasant surprise

Steelhead Adventures: Silver Poison/Return to Fusang

(No entry point) | Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

After the affair with the carpenter's nail lockpick (I should have spotted this-- a carpenter's nail in a metal cell? Really?), I continue to regain strength and test the boundaries of the predicament I find myself. The ship is approaching land, this much I know. Lien Bao has visited several times and even enticed me into a game of Go twice (he trounced me). Bao is more of an enigma then his master. He's old-- far older than Lieng, and clearly seems to desire a civilized exchange. He even laughed when I joked that if he'd just provide some darts, I could show him a contest where I might provide a challenge. Bao seems quite talkative, almost edgy, for someone 200 years old. I suspect he might be nervous.

I have kept a calendar, of sorts.. from the first wakeful meal I received, I make a scratch in the wall for every evening meal provided. So far, 15 scratches. That does not account for time unconscious or drugged with the poppy. Fifteen days, plus a little extra, in a fast steam powered ship-- we should make landfall soon. I can even sense it.. nothing set in stone yet, just a different smell in the air, and dust on the porthole in the gangway. How well I recall that yellow dust from 20 years ago! The Ever-Victorious Army had marched through it, dust getting into everything from our eyes to our teacups. That fine, gritty dust that blew off of the Gobi, far to the North. The North. The implication is clear enough, if my memory serves. They are circumventing Kowloon City entirely, heading North along the coast, and possibly up the Pei-Yang River, which feeds into the Yalu about 100 kilometers southeast of Fusang. The Pei-Yang can't handle even a moderately deep draft vessel, such as this, beyond a certain point. Maybe.. Hangxian? Nothing but a glorified fishing village, but it has a dock on the river. If they have a good pilot, they could manage it. Why would they make the switch? It seems like a lot of bother and far less direct. Perhaps...Were they afraid of an altercation? Had the Duchess arranged to activate some of our
contacts at Kowloon? That seemed unlikely-- our contacts there were of the commercial sort, in the main. Surely I'd been missed by this stage. Hell, the Constant should still be tied up at Steelhead Harbor, probably rusting by now-- someone must have noticed. She knows of the Dark Ocean Society, and my involuntary connection to it these many years. But MI-5 can only reach so far-- she would not risk a breach between Caledon and the Celestial Kingdom, not openly, anyway. Governor Shang is a bit shy about extraterritorial issues, a point he drove home to me on a regular basis during my time in the Middlesea Fleet. There would be no overt threat of a Caledonian nature at Kowloon. Besides, I had not been scried-- not by the Baroness at least, who has gone into seclusion after the last incident, when Lin Bao had almost come through the connection in Astral form to do battle with her. Does MI-5 have any other far-seekers on the payroll? The Duchess doesn't tell me everything. I know Doc Mason could have scried in the old demon infestation days, I have no doubt. Not any more.

I knew when the Duchess recruited me, a day might come when I would become expendable. One has to make ones own luck at times like this.

Hangxian to Fusang: about 175 kilometers as the crow flies. About 230 overland by the easiest route. Hmmmm.. a thought strikes me. "The Dragon who Waits" was often contending with another warlord to his southeast, just across the Yalu a ways, by name of Feng Yü-hsiang. Feng was one of those pro-Western warlords that Lieng would despise as being running dog lackies, but he had profited greatly from his connection with foreign trade with Caledon, America, France, Babbage, Hibernia and England. Reports were muddled, but last time I read up on this neck of the woods, he had possessed a rather modern force-- steam tanks, at least one aeroplane, some dirigibles. Could Lieng be cut off from Kowloon, then, by Feng's army? Why had they ignored the straight and easy way up the Yalu, which placed them within easy march to Fusang, then? It was all so frustrating, having to guess. The last time I was here, I was far too concerned with keeping a low profile to adequately get a bead on how things stood around here between the warlords.

A plan begins to formulate-- I get excited as I realize the possibilities. Recent experience indicates I will not be breaking out of this iron cage until we hit land, in any event. Bao knows this, which accounts for his good mood these days. Once we are on land, however, if I can escape from my captors on the march overland from Hangxian, maybe get a horse under me, I could ride for three or four days to make it to Feng Yü-hsiang's lines. Perhaps I could be repatriated from there, or, who knows, maybe help will have arrived from another quarter.

Preparation. This I know how to do... I am no wizard, never have been. Oh, I know a few tricks that people far more clever than I have taught me over the years-- how to clear my mind and become a receiver for a scrying agent, like the Baroness. A charm here, a cantrip there. But I never had the talent, not like the Duchess has, or the Doc has, or Ward had, in spades. I can't turn myself into a were-beast like the Sherrif can. But I have one thing they don't-- and it was time to practice.. feel the fury come upon me... the Macha.. possession in battle. What the Vikings called the berserkergegang.. battle fury. My face turns red.. my eyes goggle.. have to try this without conscious thought.. without noise.. feel it hit me as in days of old... KILL! No, ride heard on it.. too soon, too SOON, dammit! My wrists chafe, my arms... PULL .. and slowly.. slowly.. I feel one link on the chain start to pull apart. This feels GOOD. I hear startled movement in the gangway outside.. I have alerted them after all.. slowly, slowly I call it back. The door is opening.. I collapse, hiding my red face. The guard calls out something in Cantonese. I reply, badly, that I had felt ill. They rush to get me a bucket and a dipper. I grin to myself. Progress. I shook off the fury.. I'm GOING TO KILL ALL OF YOU BASTARDS!.. no, no, musn't show my hand quite yet. They wouldn't know about me.. Lieng might. He saw it on the dock, briefly, all those years ago. But he wouldn't have told, and lose face by doing so.

The next morning, I hear tell tale signs of river traffic, and smell that odd mixture of spice, humanity, animals, fish, and "otherness" that is the Celestial Kingdom. For the third time, I was in China again.. this time entering the country chained to the wall in the cargo hold of a freighter. I inquire as to our whereabouts to one of the guards, a quite decent chap, really.

I get an angry cuff to the head. What made him so short tempered? The trip upriver takes another two days (me working on the chain links whenever I am ignored).. I hear other boats alongside from time to time, and at one point, our boat is stopped by what HAD to be a patrol boat of some sort. What the devil was that? Which great power had boats on this river?

Could one of the Warlords be handling customs duty on the Pei-Yang? I note there is no inspection of the hold.. just high pitched discussion (Bao's voice could be heard above it all), then laughter. Ah, bribes all around. Some things never change. The freighter continues up river, but seems to be going slower. The Pei-Yang silts up alarmingly in the highlands, and I suspect the channel is narrow. They had better have a decent pilot. I remember how hard the Yalu was to navigate for a flat bottomed steamer back in the day, and the Yalu is a much broader river than the Pei-Yang.

Suddenly, loud shouting, whistles and running about up top. Landfall. We offload.. there really IS freight in this freighter, then. My guards keep me in chains, but unshackle me from the wall. I keep the split links hidden from them as best I can. They seem far too nervous to be thorough. I am hauled out of the room, out into the passageway and up the ladder to the deck. I blink in the daylight, unaccustomed to the brightness. Below me lay Hangxian, exactly as predicted. Only Hangxian was now a burnt and blasted rubble, almost to the ground. And above a small cluster of intact buildings near the dock, flew the banner of the Warlord of Fusang.

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