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Authors: Chris Roberson

Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (6 page)

BOOK: Iron Jaw and Hummingbird
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Gamine could only smile and think fondly about the possibility of sleeping under a roof once again, after so many long weeks on the Grand Trunk with only the dim stars and the twin moons above for a blanket.
 
Gamine and Temujin spent a few days and nights enjoying what the city had to offer, spending enough of their coin to purchase rooms in a decent inn and to eat in the finest restaurants.
But the vacation was short-lived. After only a few days of rest, Temujin was already hatching a new scheme.
“Do you play an instrument, little one?” Temujin asked, the question arriving unheralded, like an unexpected flash of light from a clear blue sky.
They were in a pawnshop, looking over the wares. There were cases of jewelry (most of the gems either cut glass or paste), rows of tools and gardening implements, and, hanging from hooks in the wall, all manner of musical instruments.
“Why do you ask, old man?” Gamine answered, lingering over a patently fake sapphire that sparkled in the harsh light.
“Never you mind the wherefore, just answer the question. Do you play an instrument?”
Gamine sighed.
“My tutors included musical theory and application in their instructions, and I was trained to play the
erhu
fiddle, the
dizi
flute, the
guqin
zither, and the
pipa
lute, though I find that my talents might leave me best suited to be a vocalist.”
“Fine, fine,” Temujin said, waving her quiet. He reached up and took an
erhu
fiddle and its bow down from the pegs overhead. He walked to where the pawnbroker sat on a stool, and paid the man a couple of copper coins.
“Here,” he said, handing Gamine the instrument as they stepped back out into the street. The sun overhead looked distant and dim through the habitual haze. “We have to eat our dinners separately for the next few days, I'm afraid.”
Gamine shrugged. “Fair enough, but what am I to do with this?” She held the fiddle out before her, the bow in the other hand, as though they were snakes that might bite her at any moment.
Temujin hurried up the street, and Gamine had to rush to keep up.
“While you slept late this morning, I went exploring this fair city, and I found a restaurant near the financial district that is a plum ripe for the picking. Though the place is fairly modest, they serve their humble fare with a certain workman-like charm, and their breakfast and lunch traffic is brisk. By the end of the day, no doubt, their cashbox is full to bursting. It falls to me to ingratiate myself to the owner and staff over the coming days, becoming a familiar face to them before we put our plan into motion.”

Our
plan? I don't even know what the plan
is
!”
“Never you mind, my little sprite. I know the whys and wherefores of it, and that's all that matters.”
“And where am I to be while you're busy making friends at this eatery?” Gamine stopped short, her expression set.
“Why, you'll be busy practicing your fiddle playing in our rooms at the inn, naturally,” Temujin said, not bothering to slow down. “Now, that's enough of your jaw. We've work to do.”
 
On the third day, Gamine went to the restaurant in the morning as planned, hours before Temujin typically arrived. She sat on the pavement across the street, arranged the fiddle in her lap, and played a mournful tune. She set a knotted kerchief on the ground in front of her, and as the day went on, passersby dropped a few small coins into it, to her muttered thanks. She watched the restaurant fill with patrons for lunch as the streets of the district swelled with bureaucrats, merchants, and couriers. As the day waned, and the workers returned to their homes, the district emptied out, and the streets were left almost empty.
When there were only a few people in the restaurant, and the skies overhead had turned a ruddy shade of gray, Gamine gathered up her day's earnings and her fiddle and walked across the street. She studied the menu tacked up outside and made a show of counting out the coins in her pocket. Then she sat down at a table just inside the door and ordered a simple bowl of stew and rice. Her fiddle she laid across the table, the bow at its side.
Gamine was already halfway through her meal when Temujin arrived, carrying under his arm a cloth-wrapped bundle. As they had planned, they pretended to take no notice of each other. Temujin was all smiles when he greeted the owner by name, and he took his accustomed seat at a back table. He was friendly and generous with the waitstaff, all of whom recognized him from the last few days.
The restaurant emptied as Gamine and Temujin ate their solitary meals. Aside from a large man with only one hand—his other arm ending at his stump of a wrist—who entered after Temujin, ordered a meal, and ate in silence at the rear of the restaurant, they were alone with the owner and the few members of his staff.
Gamine finished her meal and waited patiently while the owner tabulated her bill. When it arrived, she read over it carefully, made a show of counting her coins once again, and then called the owner back over, almost on the verge of tears.
“Oh, kind sir,” she said, her voice quavering, “it shames me to say, but I now realize I do not have enough coin to cover the cost of my meal. I had miscalculated the price, and find myself several coppers short.”
The owner's brow furrowed. His instinct clearly was to raise his voice in anger, but the expression of shame and sorrow on Gamine's face drew him up short.
“That's highly irregular, er, that is, custom demands . . .” His voice trailed off, and he rubbed at his wide forehead with a hand the size of a ham. “I suppose . . . We
could
take what you have and just call it even. . . .”
“Oh, no!” Gamine objected, shaking her head. “I absolutely will not take charity. I want to pay my way.” She wrung her hands, deep in thought. “There
is
one way I can raise the money quickly. A vendor not too many blocks from here owes me a day's wages, as I swept out his shop last night. I could run and collect from him what I'm owed, which would be more than enough to cover the difference.”
“Well, I suppose that—”
“But don't worry!” Gamine interrupted, grabbing her fiddle off the table and proffering it to the owner. “I leave with you my
erhu
fiddle as security. It is a fine instrument, well crafted.” She leaned closer, her voice lowered. “It cost me fifty copper pieces when I bought it used, and its value cannot have diminished by much.”
The owner took the fiddle, wearing a befuddled expression.
“If you insist . . .”
“Let me go and collect my debt,” Gamine said, hurrying to the door, “and I will be back in moments to pay what I owe.”
With that, she slipped out the door into the darkened streets and was out of sight.
The owner was left holding the fiddle, looking at it quizzically.
Temujin had just finished his meal and was himself walking out, his cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm. Passing by the owner and calling his good-byes, he caught sight of the fiddle.
“Oh, by the Eternal Blue Sky,” Temujin said, feigning awed surprise. He approached the owner cautiously, his eyes wide. “Where . . . where did you get
that
?” He pointed at the fiddle.
The owner shrugged and pointed with his chin toward the open door.
“Some girl, short on her tab, left it as security while she runs to get the rest.”
Temujin blinked slowly, and licked his lips. He reached out tentative hands but stopped just short of touching the fiddle with his fingertips. “M-may I?” he asked, his voice tremulous.
The owner nodded, somewhat bewildered, and handed the fiddle over.
“Oh my,” Temujin breathed, turning the fiddle over in his hands. “I cannot believe my old eyes. The fiddle is surely the work of the master craftsman Fong Li, who crafted the zither used by Pan Xo, and whose
erhu
fiddles were played in the court of the emperor himself.” He paused, and met the owner's eyes. “The fiddle is worth a
fortune
.”
The owner's eyes widened, and he looked down at the fiddle. Before he'd taken another breath, he reached out and snatched the fiddle from Temujin's hands. “On second thought, I better hold on to it,” the owner said, “seeing that it was left in my care, after all.”
Temujin was breathless. “You must introduce me to the owner. I am late for an appointment as it is, but I will happily wait for the opportunity, for the slim chance, to purchase such a fine instrument.”
The owner nodded dully, unable to take his eyes off the fiddle.
Long minutes passed, and Temujin paced the floor, acting more and more desperate by the second.
“I can delay my appointment no longer!” he finally said. “Please, dear friend,” he said, bowing slightly to the owner. He wrote out his name and address on a slip of paper with quick strokes, and pressed it into the owner's hand. “Swear to me on our friendship that you will pass this along to the owner. I am prepared to pay three hundred gold coins for this fiddle, on the spot.”
The owner's eyes would have opened even wider if such a thing had been possible.
“Oh, yes, erm, certainly,” he stammered, looking from the slip of paper to the fiddle and back again, doing sums in his head.
“You have my eternal thanks, my friend,” Temujin said, and rushed from the restaurant, out into the darkened streets, clutching his bundle to his chest.
As soon as Temujin was out of sight, the owner rushed to the cashbox and began to count out the day's receipts, working out how much he would be able to offer Gamine for the fiddle on her return. One hundred gold coins would no doubt dazzle the little street urchin but would mean a threefold profit for the owner when he resold the fiddle to Temujin himself.
Or so he thought.
 
Gamine and Temujin met in a back alley, a short walk from the restaurant.
“Hurry, my little sprite,” Temujin said, out of breath but smiling broadly. “There's the risk the owner might seek a second opinion, and then the game is ruined. When he makes his offer, though, play up the fiddle's sentimental value to you, worth so much more than gold, and then haggle him up to no less than two hundred coins before you agree to part with your ‘beloved treasure.'”
“I know my part,” Gamine said with a grin. She turned to hurry back to the restaurant, but a giant shape blocked her way.
“Um, excuse me?” Gamine said.
“No,” rumbled a deep voice. The giant shape resolved itself into a man, stepping out of the shadows, with one arm ending in a stump instead of a hand. “You two are going nowhere.”
Gamine dropped back into a ready stance, calling on years of martial training, but she had never faced so big an opponent, one handed or not.
“You,” the man said, pointing at Temujin with his stump. “Zhang, or Fu, or Temujin, or whatever your name is. We have an account to settle, by my reckoning.”
“Oh dear,” Temujin said as the enormous man drew nearer.
 
“Temujin?” Gamine asked, glancing over her shoulder at her companion, turning his name into a question. The one-handed man came ever closer, and Gamine was ready to attempt to repel him, fruitless as the attempt might be.
“Everyone remain calm,” Temujin pleaded, holding his hands in front of him, palms forward, forcing an uneasy smile. “I'm sure that we can work this out, whatever it is, Mr. . . . ?” He trailed off, raising an eyebrow.
“You don't remember me, do you, pig dung?” the one-handed man said. “Or perhaps you don't recognize me. I'm not surprised; the years have been long and hard, and when last we met, I had both hands.”
Temujin shook his head nervously.
“You have my most humble apologies, noble sir, but I'm afraid I don't recollect . . .”
“The Far Sight Outpost, Green Standard garrison, five summers past.”
Temujin's eyes widened, but to his credit his smile faltered only a moment.
“Oh, oh, oh,” he said, searching for the words. “Of
course
, I remember. Dear . . .”
“Xian,” the man said, looming over Temujin.
“Dear Xian, of course. I, um, I was forced to leave the area unexpectedly and wasn't able to find you before my departure, but I assure you . . .”
“You left as soon as you had bled me of my last coin. My life turned to manure after that day, and I have you to thank for it. I'd given up any hope of properly . . . repaying you, so imagine my surprise at seeing you yesterday at that inn. I've followed you since then, making sure you were the man I remembered, but now that I am, we can begin.”
“Um, Temujin?” Gamine said, still in her martial stance.
“Not now, little sprite.”
“Either you don't know your friend as well as you think, girl, or you're cut from the same cloth as he. Which is it? Would it surprise you to hear that your ‘Temujin' had conned an honest soldier out of his life's savings, over the span of weeks, and left him penniless?” Xian laughed, mirthlessly. “After your friend and I parted company, I had considerable gambling debts to cover and no access to ready coin. I ended up cashiered from the service after I was caught stealing from the company quartermaster, but not before my left hand was cut off as punishment, a reminder of my crime.” He held up the stump, his expression dark.
Gamine looked from one man to the other, unsure what to do. From the street beyond the mouth of the alley, she could hear raucous voices raised in laughter, coming closer.
“Look,” Temujin said, nervously, “I'm sure there's just been some misunderstanding. . . .”
BOOK: Iron Jaw and Hummingbird
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