Read Iron Jaw and Hummingbird Online

Authors: Chris Roberson

Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (7 page)

“No,” Xian barked, and his right hand produced a wicked-looking knife. “I understand perfectly. And you will, too, once I've had time to properly . . . explain it to you.” Xian smiled and stepped closer. “I won't kill you right away, don't worry. But in the end, you'll beg for death.”
At that moment, Gamine caught sight of a group of young men, on wavering legs, their voices raised in drunken laughter as they staggered past the mouth of the alley.
“Help!” Gamine cried out, falling to the ground dramatically. “Rape! Help!”
“What?” Xian said, glancing down at Gamine cowering on the ground. “I've no interest in you, dung brain.”
From the mouth of the alley, came shouting voices.
“Look!” “It's just a young girl!” “That guy is a
monster
!”
The group of young men had stopped short, crowding into one another, and peered down the alleyway.
Xian half turned and waved his knife at the group of men. “Pass on by, sprouts, this has nothing to do with you.”
The men glanced at one another and smiled drunken smiles.
“Get him!” one shouted, and they rushed forward, screaming battle cries as best they could.
Xian took a step back, bewildered, and the first of the men in the charge had the unlikely good fortune to knock the knife from Xian's hand. The one-handed man didn't seem to mind, but readied himself for a brawl. The men tackled Xian's arms and legs, or let fly with punches and kicks in what they appeared to hope was an impressive display of martial prowess, but which really looked like nothing more than the stumbling antics of drunken boys.
Gamine grabbed Temujin's sleeve and dragged him farther down the alley.
“Come away!” she said in a harsh whisper, but she didn't have to tell him twice. While Xian was buried momentarily under a pile of drunken men, she and Temujin made their escape.
 
They couldn't return to their rooms. There wasn't time, not with Xian knowing where they were staying. They had no choice but to flee as quickly as possible. That meant leaving the city, taking with them only the clothes on their backs, their purses, and whatever they carried. Temujin still clutched his cloth-wrapped bundle tucked under his arm.
Exchanging as few words as possible, Gamine and Temujin made their way to the eastern extremity of the city—where the Grand Trunk continued to the southeast—and, under cover of darkness, left the city of Shachuan behind.
 
Later, as the lights of the city were far enough behind them that they twinkled only dimly on the horizon, they left the safety of the road and took shelter behind a cluster of rocks more than a mile from the Grand Trunk. Obscured from view, Gamine started a fire, glad that she always carried her fire kit tucked inside her robes as Temujin had taught her.
For a brief instant, it was almost like the many nights they had spent together after first leaving Fanchuan, when Gamine first learned the art of the trickster—the stars arching overhead, the twin moons in their stately course across the sky, the heat and crackle of the fire at their feet.
Then Temujin began to unwrap the cloth bundle he'd carried from the city, and out rolled a clay jar of wine, ideograms engraved on the side.
“Beyond compare,” he said, breaking off the wax seal. He raised the jar to his mouth and gave Gamine a weary look. “Bung your eye,” he said, and lifted the jar to his lips, wine pouring into his mouth and coursing down his cheeks and chin.
Gamine had tried wine only once and not liked it in the least, but she was thirsty and had no choice. She reached out for the jar, shrugging.
“No!” Temujin snapped, pulling the jar away from her reach. “This is mine.”
“But I am hungry and thirsty, and we don't have anything else.”
“At first light we'll make for the first caravanserai along the road. We should reach it by midday, or thereabouts, and will doubtless find there vendors selling comestibles. Now leave me be.”
Gamine thought to object, but Temujin raised the jar again to his lips and drank so greedily that she conceded that he needed it more than she.
 
The moons were higher in the sky, and the jar lay empty on the sands beside the fire, when Temujin spoke again. When he did, though his voice was thick with drink, his words were as clear and lucid as any Gamine had ever heard him say. It was almost as though her companion of these months past had been an act, a sham put on by the man now before her; or else the man she knew was a better actor than she'd supposed, and the man she saw now was the act. Either way, he spoke with a passion and intensity Gamine found surprising, with none of the habitual colloquialisms and crudities peppering his speech.
“My people are the Mongols,” he said. “And I, springing from the clan Borjigin, am a direct descendant of the great khan, Jenghiz. My people, if we revere anything, worship only the Eternal Blue Sky, which stretches above us and sees all that men do.
“Jenghiz Khan, genius warrior and king, rose from nothing and brought all the wandering tribes of the Mongols together under a single banner, creating a dynasty from nothing. He then conquered all the lands from the eastern ocean to the western sea and created a great empire. I myself was named after the great khan, whose natal name was also Temujin.
“The Han, the Hind, the Tatar, and Muscovite—all soon fell under the iron grip of the khanate. But the empire was divided as it passed from generation to generation, and later khans were not as apt as Jenghiz at maintaining their hold. So the empire shattered like glass, each nation to itself, and the Mongols were once more a nomadic people.
“Just like me. I am a nomad, and always have been, since I first got out from under my mother's skirts. I've had a chance or two to settle down, over the long, weary years of my life, but I've always chosen instead to continue moving, to continue forward. It is the warrior spirit in me, I suppose, that refuses to let me rest.”
He paused, staring into the firelight.
Gamine considered asking Temujin if his warrior spirit was also what drove him to bilk innocent people of their life's savings but, seeing the fire in his eyes, thought better of it.
“Warrior spirit,” he repeated, his voice low, and then fell silent.
Long moments passed, and soon Gamine could hear the rumbling of Temujin's drunken snores.
She sat looking at the dim light of the chemical fire, deep in thought, until morning came.
 
Weeks passed, then months, as Temujin and Gamine worked their way from the west, pulling their familiar cons at caravanserai, way stations, and villages along the way. Almost a year after leaving Fanchuan and first embarking on their journey, they neared the great city of Fuchuan, capital of Yingzhou Province and the eastern terminus of the Grand Trunk. There, they planned to rest awhile, divide their money between them, and enjoy the comforts of city life for a time. This time they would be careful, though. Temujin hadn't been back in Fuchuan in more than a decade, and he was not now the man he'd been then, but he would be particularly careful anyway. Neither of them had spoken about their narrow escape from one-handed Xian in Shachuan, or about the possibility that more former marks—Gamine thought of them as victims, though Temujin had forbidden her to use the word—might be waiting for them in the next town along the line.
Gamine and Temujin entered Fuchuan, leaving the Grand Trunk behind.
 
Temujin had explained that Fuchuan was one of the most progressive and welcoming cities on the planet—with temperate weather, cheap hotels, and fine restaurants—and that as a result it was a refuge for con artists and road tramps, who tended to find the liberal denizens of the city to be easy marks for the simplest of cons.
The memory of their last experience in a big city still fresh, Gamine and Temujin reached an unspoken accord. Neither suggested any new cons or angles, instead approaching the city as just what they appeared to be—two travelers weary from a long journey, ready to spend the coins in their full purses. In the months past, Gamine had come to think of games of confidence, the art of the trickster, as something best practiced out in the shadows of civilization, if at all—in dark places away from the bright lights of cities; amidst such a crush of people, it seemed out of place, even dangerous. Better to act the part of the tourist to the hilt and avoid any difficulty. Or better yet, perhaps give up the game of the trickster altogether, if some alternative could be found.
Their second day in the city, though, the temptation proved too great for Temujin.
 
They were in the restaurant of a resident inn situated in the shadow of the Lower Temple, opposite the square from the Imperial Fuchuan Opera House. Gamine and Temujin each sat before a steaming bowl of bird's nest soup in the late afternoon, alone in the dining room. The owner sat at a table on the far side of the room, going over the day's receipts.
“Where do you think you might like to visit today, little sprite?” Temujin asked. “We've taken in the opera house and the Lower Temple. Would you like to tour the provincial governor's palace, see how the nabobs live when they're at home?”
Gamine blew across the top of her soup and tried to suppress a shudder. “I'd prefer not to visit a governor's home, actually.”
Temujin arched an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Poor associations,” Gamine said simply, and sipped from her bowl.
A woman entered the room, dressed outlandishly in a strangely cut suit of gray wool, her blond hair cut short. She clutched a leather handbag in both hands, and angled toward the owner.
“I suppose we could go . . .” Gamine began, but Temujin cut her off with a slight wave of his hand. He leaned to one side, cocking his ear to hear.
Gamine listened closely, trying to see what had caught his attention.
The woman was talking to the owner, conversing in low tones. From her accent and pale skin and hair, she seemed to be of Briton extraction. And, to all appearances, she was in trouble. Gamine watched her reach into her handbag and bring out a long string of gold coins, and saw the owner's eyes widen at the sight of them. Once she had finished her story, though, of which Gamine caught only isolated words and phrases, the owner shook his head uninterestedly.
“No,” the owner said in a louder voice, gathering up his receipts and pushing away from the table. “I'm afraid I can't help you. Good day.”
The owner walked away, leaving the Briton woman sitting at the table alone.
Temujin dabbed at the corners of his mouth and pushed his bowl away from him.
“I believe that poor woman looks lonely over there, don't you?” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “And I'm a right hobberdehoy if I don't go over there and give her some company.”
“Oh no,” Gamine said, shaking her head. “Really? I thought we were just tourists in this city.”
“We are,” Temujin said, standing up. “But tourists can fit in a bit of business now and again, in amongst all their merry larking, can't they?”
Gamine crossed her arms over her chest, glowering.
She considered getting up and leaving. She had no desire to stay and watch Temujin try to con this poor woman. However, she had two courses of her meal still to come, and the bird's nest soup had hardly been filling, as tasty as it'd been.
“Damn,” Gamine said under her breath, and slumped back in her chair.
 
Gamine's noodle dish arrived by the time Temujin had insinuated himself into the woman's company. He'd introduced himself with some alias or other and struck up conversation. Small talk at first, no pressure at all, what Temujin had always called “baiting the hook.” One needed to first capture the marks' attention before beginning to reel them in.
Gamine decided, in that moment, that she'd had enough of the trickster art. That was it; no more. No grifts, no cons, no ruses. When she'd first set out on the Grand Trunk at Temujin's side, it had seemed fun, a kind of game, but now she couldn't help but be bored by it all. It was too easy in most instances but too dangerous in too many others. No, she'd have to find some other means of support, and if Temujin wanted to stick to the trickster trade, he'd be on his own.
While Gamine ate, the woman had warmed to Temujin by inches. Despite herself, Gamine couldn't help overhearing their conversation, taking careful note as Temujin had always taught her.
“My name,” the woman said, her speech laced with a slight Briton accent, “is Marlowe Constance. Mistress Marlowe Constance.” As she spoke, she wrung her handbag in her fingers nervously. “I am originally from Earth, and have journeyed to your world only to come to the aid of my countryman and kinsman the Duke of London, who is currently incarcerated in the prisons of the hegemon of the Southern Fastness.”
Gamine knew the Southern Fastness only from her studies and from the stories of travelers on the Grand Trunk. It was a sovereign state, a strange mélange of cultures that arose from those who came to Fire Star in the early centuries of colonization. The Southern Fastness was in effect a satellite of the Dragon Throne, though it did not have formal relations with any of the latter's vassals, among them the island of Britain.
“I am worried,” Mistress Marlowe went on, “that if the hegemon's men should learn who the duke truly is, they will not release him for the relatively paltry bond they have initially set; or worse yet, they will not release him at all.”
Temujin reached out and patted the woman's hand tenderly. The gesture was carefully calculated to increase feelings of trust between the two, diminishing the physical space separating them and subtly leading the woman to draw nearer to him emotionally. Gamine had seen the maneuver countless times and had performed it herself almost as often.

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