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Authors: Tim Murgatroyd

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Sci Fi, #Steampunk

Breaking Bamboo

BOOK: Breaking Bamboo
5.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Tim Murgatroyd


Also by Tim Murgatroyd:

Taming Poison Dragons



Rotterdam House

116 Quayside

Newcastle upon Tyne


Published by Myrmidon 2010

Copyright © Tim Murgatroyd 2010

Tim Murgatroyd has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-1-905802-47-0 

Set in 11.5/14.25pt Sabon by

Falcon Oast Graphic Art Limited,

East Hoathly, East Sussex

Printed and bound in the UK by

CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publishers.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

First ebook edition 2010

For Richard and Philip Murgatroyd

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Epilogue: Treading the Green

‘Now I must tell you of a wonderful sight. North of Six-hundred-
Lake, on Han River, lie the Twin Cities of Nancheng and Fouzhou, staring at one another across wide waters. A hundred years ago Prefect Fu Mu-ei was granted a vision of joining these two cities in a dream, though three whole
of flowing river divided them. Many doughty posts were driven into the riverbed and boulders piled round them to form resolute islands. By this means a Floating Bridge was constructed, with a roadway of planks laid across a hundred flat-bottomed boats, chained one to another. So the name
Twin Cities
is as apt as

Dream Pool Essays
by Shen Kua 

Nancheng, Central China. Summer 1266.

Summer was seldom a pleasant time for Dr Shih. Monsoon and breathless heat encouraged all manner of disease, not least of the spirit. On humid nights the temporary oblivion of sleep often eluded him until dawn. So the persistent banging at his gate did not take him quite by surprise.

He lay awake beside his wife, Cao, who always slept well.

Tiny beads of sweat prickled his forehead and upper lip.

Thoughts far from the city, far from agreeable, made a midnight summons oddly welcome. Besides, he was used to night callers, generally fetching him to attend a difficult birth –or death.

He rose and hurried down a long, dark corridor to the medicine shop. From beneath a cheap woodcut print of the Yellow Emperor he took up a burning lamp and unbarred the door.

The man before him wore a high official’s vermilion silk robes and was accompanied by lantern-bearing servants, as well as several soldiers leaning on tasselled halberds. Such callers were unusual in any part of town, but especially here.

Dr Shih’s shop stood in Water Basin Ward, one of the city’s poorer districts. His wealthiest patients were artisans and their families. He bowed respectfully and waited for the official to speak.

‘Are you Yun Shih?’ demanded his visitor.

He sensed movement behind him and turned to see Cao entering the room, her long hair in disarray. Alarm crossed her soft, plump face as she recognised the man’s uniform. Shih motioned her out of sight.

‘I am Yun Shih, sir,’ he said, sounding confident for Cao’s sake. He could sense her apprehension and felt enough of his own.

Official eyes narrowed, looking him up and down.

‘You are a doctor?’

‘I believe so, sir.’

Still the official did not seem satisfied.

‘You are younger than I expected.’

Indeed Shih did appear younger than three decades deserved.

There was something restless and youthful in the frank gaze of his gentle brown eyes. Yet his dark, straight eyebrows suggested an unusually determined nature.

The official wiped his moist brow with a trailing silk sleeve.

‘May I assume I am not in trouble?’ asked Shih.

The official shook his head.

‘His Excellency Wang Ting-bo requires you. Be ready soon.’

Dr Shih flinched slightly, then turned to where his wife hovered behind the tall maple counter of their shop.

‘Go back to bed. I shall be home before dawn.’

He knew she would sit up all night sipping cup after cup of tea, waiting for him to return to Apricot Corner Court.

Once the apprentice, Chung, was roused and dressed, Dr Shih joined the official in the street. It was cooler out here than indoors.

‘Who is sick, sir?’ he asked.

Raucous singing and clapping drifted across the canal from Ping’s Floating Oriole House. A group of neighbours, fanning themselves at a stall selling cordials, called out a polite greeting. The official silenced them with a haughty stare.

‘Your patient is Wang Ting-bo’s son,’ he said, quietly. ‘They say he is unlikely to outlive the dawn.’

Dr Shih was glad Cao had not heard that. It hardly boded well to be summoned to a sick dragon’s bedside. Or even the only son of a dragon.

Nancheng city stewed in its own amusements. Dense crowds slowed the small party hurrying through the night. On Vermilion Bird Way a night market was reaching its climax before the City Watchmen ordered all sober citizens to bed by beating the drum eight hundred times.

Many had no intention of heeding the command. They passed stalls where the scents of fish fried with Sichuan spices pricked one’s nostrils; tea stalls surrounded by chess players; taverns raucous with fragile fellowship. Beggars and quick-handed urchins melted into the crowd at the sight of the stern official and his armed escort. Chung, Dr Shih’s portly apprentice, puffed along behind.

They reached the foot of Peacock Hill, an ancient palace complex long ago converted into a warren of government bureaux and mansions for high officials. As Dr Shih climbed the hill he surveyed the Han River below, a full three
wide. A sickle moon illuminated the water. On the far shore lay Fouzhou, sister city to Nancheng, the two cities joined by a huge pontoon bridge constructed upon boats. Shih could see the lanterns of river-craft moving on the dark water like floating stars.

Soldiers guarded the gatehouse of the Prefectural compound.

On seeing the official they saluted and stepped aside.

‘Sir, what is the nature of the boy’s malady?’ asked Shih, trotting after his guide up a steep flight of marble steps. The official shrugged.

‘That is for you to determine.’

Dr Shih wanted to ask why Wang Ting-bo had sent for him at all. He was a physician of low rank in the city, lacking even a degree from the Imperial Academy.

‘Are other doctors treating His Excellency’s son?’ he asked.

The official seemed not to hear. They hurried through another gatehouse and a series of small courtyards. Shih had no time to admire the splendid pillars and gilt carvings, marble fountains or miniature gardens. They entered a large courtyard guarded by more soldiers leaning on their halberds. Servants scurried past with buckets of water. Moths and night-flies fluttered round lanterns.

‘Quick!’ beckoned the official.

He opened a pair of bright red doors to reveal a well-lit chamber decorated with hunting scenes. A dozen men wearing fine silks muttered in small groups. Women could be heard weeping in a side chamber, their grief brittle and artificial. In his plain clothes, Dr Shih made an awkward addition to such company. Chung was visibly shaking.

‘Can these gentlemen really need your services, sir?’ he whispered, in wonder.

Then the youth flushed, aware of the question’s insolence. Dr Shih smiled and shook his head.

‘His Excellency has packed the room with doctors so that if the boy dies one may say everything was done,’ he murmured.

‘There is the great Dr Du Mau himself. And over there his shadow, Dr Fung. Let us make the best of it and consider ourselves honoured.’

Dr Du Mau, a small gentleman in violet silks, noticed the newcomers and frowned. He inclined his head stiffly. Shih bowed quite low but evidently not low enough for Dr Du Mau, who exclaimed irritably: ‘What? Is one of the servants sick as well?’

Several of his colleagues chuckled. It was well-known Dr Du Mau opposed allowing unqualified physicians into the guild as full members. Shih’s polite smile stiffened. An official clapped his hands and the room fell silent.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘You have all examined the patient, as well as the astrologer’s report. His Excellency wishes to confer with you. Please accompany me.’

‘Wait in the courtyard,’ Dr Shih instructed his apprentice.

He thought it prudent to take a place at the very rear of the solemn group. This was a moment of high significance for the guild. Wang Ting-bo was the Pacification Commissioner for hundreds of
around, appointed to his noble position by the Son of Heaven himself. Moreover, if his son and heir died early, many calculations and plans for the future would be affected.

So Dr Shih hardly blamed the good doctors for ignoring his existence – lowliness was infectious as foul air.

The Hall of Obedient Rectitude had once been a throne room for the Kings of Chu. Dozens of fat candles illuminated the audience chamber; shadows floated across painted ceilings and walls. The assembly of doctors fell to their knees before two elegant wooden chairs. One contained the Pacification Commissioner wearing his most auspicious uniform, as though death was an ambassador he must over-awe. In the other sat his wife, a plain woman past what little beauty she had once possessed.

The lady immediately gained Dr Shih’s sympathy, for her thick white make-up was stained with tears. She had a double reason for grief: if the boy died, her status as First Wife would perish with him. Any concubine who gave the Pacification Commissioner a male heir might supplant her – and Dr Shih had heard rumours he preferred one of his concubines to his official wife.

Wang Ting-bo inspected the physicians. He seemed unsure what to say and blinked foolishly. Then he cleared his throat.

‘Lift your heads. I do not care to talk to your hats.’

The doctors exchanged glances.

‘You have all seen the boy. What is to be done? And who among you is to do it? Dr Du Mau, you are the most senior man present. Explain yourself!’

Shih became uncomfortably aware that the Pacification Commissioner’s wife was staring at him. Certainly he was out of place, though he could hardly be censured for it. Then he wondered if she was behind his absurd summons.

‘Your Excellency,’ said Dr Du Mau. ‘We are of one mind on the matter.’

His colleagues nodded regretfully. There was great authority in Dr Du Mau’s tone.

‘Your heir is beyond the help of earthly medicine. His essential breaths are putrid.
fiercely oppose each other. His blood is a whirlpool of contagion. This is a sad report to make, Your Excellency, but only Heaven’s intervention may save him now. I have prepared a list of suitable magicians and holy men well-skilled in such cases.’

BOOK: Breaking Bamboo
5.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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