Read Iron Jaw and Hummingbird Online

Authors: Chris Roberson

Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (10 page)

“Um, daughter,” the mendicant said uneasily. “Have you ever found yourself touched by the powers before?” The poor priest had barely touched any of his food and had fixed all his attention on Gamine.
“What?” Gamine said, swallowing a dumpling whole.
“He means your holy possession,” Temujin said from the mendicant's other side. “Isn't that right, Master . . . ?” He trailed off, framing a question.
“Wei,” the mendicant said, bowing from the waist. “This humble servant of the powers is known as Wei.”
“Master Wei.” Gamine took a sip of green tea and regarded him thoughtfully. “I suppose you travel from town to town delivering your sermons, correct?”
The mendicant nodded.
“And does your sermon draw so many listeners in every village you visit?”
“Oh, no!” the mendicant said, shaking his head fiercely. Gamine's shoulders slumped visibly. “In most hamlets, my parishioners number
many
more than here.”
Gamine looked past Master Wei at Temujin, who met her eyes and smiled.
“Master Wei,” Temujin said. “My companion and I would very much like to accompany you on your travels.”
The mendicant's eyes were wide.“You would?”
“Oh, yes,” Gamine said, taking a bite of chicken, not minding that she spoke with her mouth full. “And perhaps we can help you with your sermons in other villages, as well.”
Master Wei nodded, unsure. “I suppose . . .”
“Good!” Temujin said, slapping him on the back. “Then it's settled. Once we've gotten all we can out of the locals—”
“Once we've brought the word to all who will hear,” Gamine interrupted.
“Yes, of course,” Temujin demurred. “Once we've done that, then we'll move on to the next town.”
“To bring them the good news about the powers!” Master Wei clapped his hands with delight. “Oh, this is splendid, to have fellow travelers and coreligionists join me in my mission.”
“Oh, yes.” Gamine smiled. “Splendid.”
Master Wei wished them a good night and left to begin his evening prayers.
When he had gone, Temujin said in an undertone, “I thought you wanted to quit the trickster game, my little sprite.”
“Well,” Gamine said with a smile, “that was before I was hungry for a few weeks straight. Besides, I'm just using the power of my own voice. Could there be a nobler pursuit?”
“And only offering the mark what he most wants? In this life or the next?”
Gamine grinned. “Something like that.”
ACT II
HUANG'S THEME
WOOD HARE YEAR, FIFTY-SECOND YEAR OF THE TIANBIAN EMPEROR
THE BODY OF THE CRAWLER WAS PAINTED A SICKLY yellowish green, standard military coloration, so that it stood out like an aging bruise against the red sands that lined both sides of the Grand Trunk and blew in gritty flurries across the roadway. Red dust clung to the knobby tires of the crawler and gritted the edges of the already grimy glass of the windscreen. Segmented like a centipede so that it could accommodate almost any terrain, the crawler still seemed to jostle and vibrate with every tiny bump and rut in the road, the sections of metal squealing against one another as they rode up and down and up again.
Huang Fei struggled in vain to find a comfortable position on the hard, warm metal of the bench, his uniform jacket wadded up and pillowed under his head. He lay in red-lidded darkness, eyes squeezed shut tightly but unable to block out the harsh light of day, and tried to sleep. It had been more than a day since he'd stumbled, bleary eyed and fuzzy headed, to the transport depot, clutching an empty jar in one hand and the governor-general's red saber in the other. He'd not slept all through the night, carousing until the rising sun turned the eastern sky a lighter shade of violet, and gone off in his newly purchased uniform to meet his fate. He thought he might sleep on the crawler during the long journey to the west; he was wrong.
Now, long hours later, he'd still not slept, kept awake through day and night by the constant movement of the creaky, rusting crawler, and by the unforgiving metal benches. The three drivers, who took their turns in the cab by shifts, seemed not to share this difficulty, nor did the pair of infantrymen who served as guards for the shipment in the crawler's hold. Their snores sometimes threatened to drown out the grinding howl of the crawler's engines. Huang wondered if there wasn't some trick to it, some secret approach that allowed them to snuggle down on the hard benches and drop off into restful slumber. He'd have asked, but the others seemed to have taken Huang's measure when first meeting him in the depot. Drivers and guards alike were of the common classes, and it wasn't hard to see what they made of Huang's aristocratic accent and bearing. They regarded him, when they deigned to notice him at all, with naked sneers and undisguised contempt. He was effete, he was a snob, and, even worse, he was an
officer
.
Huang suffered in silence on the hard bench and cursed the fate that had brought him to this pass. What could possibly be worse than this?
 
The crawler was one of a half dozen vehicles in the supply convoy, heading west along the Grand Trunk. Their journey had begun in the transport depot of Fanchuan and carried them through the western extremity of Tianfei Valley, where the Grand Trunk ended at the labyrinthine complex of valleys and canyons called the Forking Paths. They would follow the maps with care through the twisting corridors of the maze until they trundled out the other side. Once on the highlands, they would continue on to the northwest through Fuxi and Nuwa, which along with Mount Shennong made up the Three Sovereigns range, bound ultimately for Far Sight Outpost, garrison of the Green Standard Army, in the shadow of Bao Shan, tallest mountain in the solar system.
 
They had climbed out of the Forking Paths, and were just passing the equator, but Bao Shan was still days away, or more. Ever since leaving the well-paved Grand Trunk, they had been traveling on increasingly rough roads, and once they were out on the highlands, the roadway was scarcely deserving of the name. More a rough track through the red sands, pitted and pocked, punctuated here and there by massive rocks. The convoy, able to travel only as fast as the slowest vehicle, made only a fraction of the speeds it had reached on the Grand Trunk, its progress slowed to a literal crawl.
They stopped for a few hours each night to let the crawlers' engines cool while mechanics scurried like ticks on a dog, tightening lug nuts and checking gaskets and oiling junctions and performing all manner of frenetic activity, none of which made any sense to Huang. The drivers and guards, thankful for the chance to stretch their legs on solid ground, huddled around chemical fires, passing flasks from hand to hand, laughing at well-worn anecdotes and filthy jokes. There were one or two women in the company, but they seemed as rough-hewn and ill-mannered as their masculine counterparts, as likely to tell a bawdy joke or recite an obscene limerick themselves as they were to join in the laughter when one of the men did the same.
Huang kept to himself in these evening stopovers, though it wasn't as if he had much choice in the matter. The closest he came to any interaction with others, beyond perfunctory brief exchanges that couldn't be avoided on either side, was sidelong glances thrown Huang's way, or the raucous laughter in response to whispered witticisms, doubtless at his expense.
“Dinner, sir?”
Huang started, surprised at the sound. He turned to see one of the guards from the crawler standing a few feet off. Dressed in the uniform of an infantryman in the Army of the Green Standard, the embroidery at his breast indicated the guard was not far at all advanced in rank, despite his obvious age. Though the guard was old enough to be Huang's father, protocol and custom still demanded he address the younger man as
sir.
Huang was an officer, after all, a Guardsman of the Second Rank, and however little the others might respect him, they were each of them soldier enough to observe the proper rituals.
“Hmm?” Huang hummed, eyebrow raised, not having comprehended the question.
“I said, dinner, sir?” The guard, with a weary sigh, pointed toward the nearest chemical fire. Men and women sat on their haunches around the greenish flames, their skin cast in sickly hues by the weak light, scooping rice and fish heads from bowls into their waiting mouths with chopsticks. The guard held a bowl in either hand and raised one to Huang, unceremoniously.
Huang was ravenous, but the smell of the meager dinner made him curl his lip in disgust, nostrils quivering. His first instinct was to refuse, reasoning that as bad as the stuff smelled, it doubtless tasted even worse. But he'd not eaten more than a mouthful since they left the transport depot in Fanchuan, and his hunger was getting the better of his tastes.
“Oh, all right,” Huang said with a labored sigh, snatching the bowl from the guard's hand. He raised the bowl to his nose, sniffed experimentally, and then reared back, throwing his head to one side. “Aargh.” He shook his head, as though to knock loose the scent from his nostrils. “And you're
quite
sure there's nothing else on hand? Nothing
edible
?”
The guard's sneer slid into a smile, and he shook his head. “No, sir,” he said, chuckling. “And that's the best of it, too. Real delicacy, that is.” He glanced to the chemical fire, where the audience had lapsed into silence, listening to the exchange intently. “And you'll excuse my saying it's only downhill from here, sir.”
Huang looked at the noxious stuff in the bowl in mounting disgust. “It gets
worse
than this?”
The guard stifled a laugh and nodded. “Oh, yes, sir. We won't get nothing as nice as this once we reach Far Sight Outpost, sir, mark my words.”
Huang shuddered at the thought of any list of comestibles with undercooked rice and rancid fish heads ranked at the top. The guard gave an abbreviated bow and went to join the others. There were indistinct whispers as the guard related the full exchange to the others, who had caught only snippets at the distance, followed by loud peals of laughter.
Far from the green light and thin warmth of the chemical fires, Huang crouched down on the red sands and dispiritedly shoveled bits of rice and fish head into his mouth. It was better than starvation, but not by much.
 
Huang had never been much of a reader. He had always left that to his younger brothers. Now, one of them had already passed his
juren-
level examinations and secured a livelihood in the imperial bureaucracy, and the other was bound for a monastic life in one of the lamaseries of the Southern Fastness, while Huang was cramped in a sickly yellow-green crawler and sent off to the western wilderness, to the edge of civilization, to spend the next decades of his life at a military garrison to which, to all appearances, only the dregs of the Green Standard Army were sent. He had begun to suspect that those family connections of his father's that had resulted in his officer's commission might have borne some grudge against the elder Huang. Governor Ouyang had not seemed to consider the posting any form of punishment, but then the governor-general had thought Huang a worthy recipient of his own prized saber, so clearly the old man's judgment could be called into question. In approving the posting, for all Huang knew, Ouyang might have thought he was doing Huang a
favor
.
Huang wished that he'd picked up the habit of reading. Or at least had picked up a few books before boarding the crawler. Then he'd have something to
do
to pass the time. He'd even take his younger brother's popular novels, each of them the stirring tale of a man or woman who overcomes adversity through dogged adherence to the teachings of Master Kong, exhibiting proper ritual, filial piety, and loyalty to the Dragon Throne, to rise in the bureaucracy and attain some exalted position in the emperor's service; some of the novels even went further and detailed the sorts of positions these noble workers achieved in the afterlife, serving the celestial government in the afterworld as they had served the Celestial Emperor in life. For that matter, he'd even take his youngest brother's spiritual tracts, endless meditations on virtues and the nature of truth. Anything would be better that this endless
nothing
.
But no, Huang had never read a book for pleasure—and seldom ever for his studies, either—and so now paid the price. In his younger days, he'd amused himself with sport, when he wasn't indulging his appetites for spirits and women. He tried horseback riding a time or two, in the course in Fanchuan's Green Stone District, having seen images of the sport sent from Earth, reportedly the emperor's favorite pastime; but even 250 years after man first came to Fire Star it was not yet a fully terrestrial world. Like most animals horses were still ill adapted to the thin air and low gravity. In another few hundred years, the atmosphere mines in the north might produce enough oxygen and nitrogen to blanket Fire Star in a breathable atmosphere like Earth's, and the last of the red dust would at last be carpeted in green grasses and forests. The world that Huang knew was habitable but, it often seemed to him, not much more than that.
Denied the pleasures of the horse track, and lacking the stomach for flying above the city in kites or balloons as so many young men and women of his class did, Huang was forced to find distraction nearer the ground.
His parents, of course, hoped that he would lose himself to his studies, as his brothers had lost themselves to theirs. But the only subject that interested him in the slightest was military strategy, and only because it seemed more a game than an intellectual pursuit. More often than not Huang would beg and plead with his tutor to devote an entire session to a round of elephant chess instead of the dry texts on the subject, moving the pieces marked as officers and scholars, elephants and ministers, horses, chariots, and cannons back and forth across the board, to see whether general or marshal would prevail. After a few years Huang bested his tutor more often than not, but even his parents were quick to admit that being adept at games of strategy scarcely made him a scholar.

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