Read Iron Jaw and Hummingbird Online

Authors: Chris Roberson

Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (9 page)

She had no desire to die, and she wasn't about to lie down and stop trying. She was going to survive. And more than that, she was willing to do whatever was necessary to make sure that she did.
She remembered all those who might have stood in her way, or not cared if she lived or died. She thought about her mistress, Madam Chauviteau-Zong, who had cast her aside like rotten fruit. Gamine wouldn't die. No. She would live. She would survive in the hopes that one day she might see her former mistress again. First, Gamine would ask why she had been taken off the street and educated only to be thrown back again. Then, her questions answered, Gamine would take her revenge.
Now, in the cold light of day, Gamine wondered whether she'd be able to go through with it. Would she be able to kill? If her life depended on it, even?
Perhaps. She wasn't sure. Perhaps not.
But one thing was certain. She had no intention of giving up. Would she con again, and cheat, and steal? Most definitely, if that was the only way. She would feel guilty about it, more than likely, and would try to make it right later on, but she would still do it, all the same.
Gamine put one foot in front of the other, trudging over the unforgiving landscape.
Survive. No matter what.
 
It was some weeks before they reached the first settlements of the north plains. Both had lost a considerable portion of their body weight, and as they walked down the hard-packed dirt road that was the main thoroughfare of the little farming community, their hollow cheeks, gaunt faces, and vacant eyes drew worried stares from the villagers as they approached.
Lips cracked, throats nearly too dry to swallow, Gamine and Temujin stumbled into the village, desperate for a drop of water and a crumb of bread.
“Please,” Gamine croaked, approaching a woman carrying a small child, her voice almost too faint to hear. “W-water.”
The woman drew her child tighter to her breast and hurried away without sparing Gamine a word.
“Noble . . . sir . . .” Temujin managed, painfully making his way toward a heavy man slopping pigs. The man dumped a bucket into the low, narrow trough—animal bones, old vegetables, dinner scraps, and trimmings all mixed in a murky, brackish water. “My . . . friend and I . . . have traveled . . . great distance, and if you could . . .” Temujin paused, wavering slightly. “Water . . . and food . . .” he finally finished simply.
The man shook out the rest of the bucket and tossed it to the corner of the pen.
“We don't take very kindly to beggars around here, stranger,” the man said, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “But I've had good fortune this season, and it'd be an ill deed not to pass on at least a little of it.” The man rubbed the whiskers on his chin. “Tell you what, if there's anything left once they're through”—he indicated the two pigs greedily eating at the trough—“you can have what's left. That's all I can do for you.”
Temujin scowled momentarily but forced a weak smile.
“Thank . . . you . . .” he said, his eyes on the pigs.
Gamine drew near.
“H-heart attack, pig,” she said, her eyes on the trough, wishing as hard as she could. The foul mess in the brackish water was, at that moment, more appetizing than the finest meal in Fuchuan.
 
In the end, they didn't wait for the pigs to finish. Squeezing through the bars of the pen, they waited until the man's back was turned and worked their way to the far end of the trough, as far from the two monstrous pigs as possible. Luckily for them, the animals were too busy eating to pay them any mind, and Gamine and Temujin were able to scoop out handful after handful of the stuff and cram it into their waiting mouths. It smelled foul, and tasted even worse, but it was edible and had water in it, both of which were all that mattered at the moment.
They ate as much of the stuff as their shrunken stomachs would allow, the first food they'd had in nearly three days, and if the pigs hadn't started toward them ominously, beady eyes regarding them almost as though they were dessert, Gamine and Temujin would have fallen asleep right in the muck. As it was, they scrambled back through the bars as quickly as their diminished strength would allow.
 
Smelling now worse than the pigs—slop dripping down their chins and fronts, and muck and manure all over their clothes and hair—Gamine and Temujin nevertheless breathed contented sighs of relief. Having crossed the unpeopled stretches of the plains, they had reached civilization again at last, though the journey had proved much longer and more difficult than Temujin had originally suggested, as Gamine was always quick to remind him.
“‘Just a couple of days,'” Gamine said, trying ineffectually to wipe some of the muck from her clothing. “‘We'll reach the farms of the northern plains in no time.' Isn't that what you said?”
“Well . . .” Temujin replied, dabbing daintily at the corners of his mouth with his sleeve, as though he'd just dined at a grand restaurant and not stolen scraps from a couple of pigs. “We're here now, aren't we, my little sprite?” He laughed slightly and glanced down at his ragged, soiled robes. “Perhaps a little more worse for wear, but still here, nevertheless.”
“For all the good it does us,” Gamine said, looking around. “Our first real meal since leaving the city is at a pig's trough, and it doesn't look as though our welcome is going to get much warmer.”
Men, women, and children walked past, carrying bundles and farm implements down the dirt road, all of them giving Gamine and Temujin a wide berth.
“We'll work something out, I feel certain.” Temujin pointed at the road, which wound deeper into the little village. “Perhaps it's just the folks on the outskirts here with such a dim view of tourists? Mayhap if we moved a bit inward . . .”
Gamine shrugged and followed Temujin. Their feet had become little more than one large blister days before, and Gamine had surrendered the notion of ever getting to sit down for more than a few moments; it seemed an impossible dream, like bathing or hot food.
In the middle of the village, in a wide square, they found a little market where the farmers sold one another their wares, and other goods and services were bartered and sold. This seemed as close to mercantile as this little community came. Gamine wondered whether she and Temujin might have skills that they could call upon, perhaps to get themselves hired on by a local. She wasn't sure what they had to offer a farming community, but at this point she was willing to work for nothing but room and board, and she wasn't particular about what kind of work it was.
Gamine thought about the promise she had made to herself on her way north: that she would survive, no matter what it took. What kind of work wouldn't she be willing to do, if the alternative was death?
“Look over there.” Temujin pointed across the square, where a man with the shaved head, robe, and begging bowl of a mendicant preacher addressed a small collection of villagers. Temujin started across the square to listen more closely, and Gamine followed.
It was appropriate after-dinner entertainment, considering the meal they'd just had. Gamine and Temujin listened to the mendicant's unfocused ranting for several long minutes. Rambling and disjointed as it was, it had still captured the attention of at least a few of the villagers, who listened on with rapt expressions. The mendicant, who seemed not to be entirely sane, drew his religious lessons as much from works of popular entertainment as he did from the holy words of any established religion, mixing fictional characters, historical figures, and religious icons indiscriminately. He called them all “powers.” Someone who was pure of heart could invite these powers to possess their form, leaving their bodies impervious to damage while their soul lifted temporarily to a higher plane.
“This cove is barmy,” Temujin whispered behind his hand. “But look how these dirt lovers are just eating it up.”
After a moment, Gamine nodded. “I think I have an idea. Watch for my cue.”
“What?” Temujin looked over at her, a quizzical look on his face, but Gamine didn't pause to explain.
“O holy master,” she said, stepping forward through the crowd, folding her hands in an attitude of prayer and bowing deeply from the waist. “Your words touch some spirit which resides within me. May I approach?”
The mendicant, his eyes wild and hair flying, looked down the length of his nose at Gamine, appraising her.
“Approach, daughter,” he said dramatically.
“Thank you, master,” Gamine said. She took to the impromptu stage, a little circle of dirt ringed by seated and standing villagers, all watching her intently. “I was passing by,” Gamine declaimed, “and your words about the powers caught my ear. I could not help but feel that you were speaking directly to me. It was like something within me was eager to respond to your words, but—”
Gamine stopped short and bulged her eyes. She stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth, and shook slightly, as though an electrical charge had just run through her body.
“My child?” the mendicant said, uneasily.
Gamine's mouth snapped open and a loud howl issued forth, for a brief instant. In the audience, the villagers drew back, startled.
 
In the days of my father, this land was all ours,
Before the coming of the worshippers of another sun,
With their sacrifices of blood, and pyramids to the stars,
Now we toil deep within the red soil for their pleasure,
And our children weep with their hunger in the night.
 
Gamine kept on, reciting lines of dialogue from
The Miner's Journey
, written two centuries before by the playwright Song Huagu; Gamine had seen it performed several times and she memorized it completely. The play was popular in the northern plains and would likely be one her audience would recognize. From the surprised glances that rippled through the gathered villagers, and the susurration of whispers that followed, Gamine was sure that they had.
Once she was sure she had the audience's full attention, Gamine stopped for a moment, closed her eyes, and rocked her head back and forth.
“But now,” she went on, eyes still closed, voice raised, “another darkness covers our fair land. Strangers walk, their bellies full of nothing but hunger, their souls of nothing but fear. Who will take these poor children of man into their homes, and feed and clothe them? Who will extend to their fellow man the courtesy that villains never do?” She opened her eyes and pointed out to the audience. “Whoever does will find themselves rewarded tenfold by the powers, for they will truly be worthy.”
Gamine stopped and scanned the crowd.
“The powers wish to provide a concrete demonstration for those who might still doubt. One of you now listening, come forward and be tested.”
The villagers all looked at one another uneasily. In the brief silence that followed, Temujin took the cue.
“I am a stranger here,” Temujin said, stepping to Gamine's side, “but I am eager to see what the powers can do.”
The villagers, all relieved that they wouldn't be put to the powers' test, leaned forward in eager anticipation.
“You!” Gamine said in the voice of the powers. “Draw near this vessel and strike her across the face, as hard as you can.” She pointed at her chin. “She will feel no pain, nor suffer any injury.”
Temujin stepped back. He held up his hands, taking on a fearful expression.
“No, no!” he said, shaking his head. “I couldn't. She is but a child!”
Gamine shook her head. “Strike now, and strike true!”
Temujin took a tentative step forward. “Must I?”
“Yes!” Gamine answered in the booming voice of the powers. “Strike her!”
Temujin swung his fist toward Gamine's face. They had practiced falls and false punches many times on the Grand Trunk, in the event a con ever called for physical action, but this was the first time they'd put the routine into play.
With everyone's attention on Temujin's fist and her face, Gamine smacked the side of her leg; at the same instant Temujin pulled his punch, so that his fist stopped only a hairs-breadth from Gamine's cheek.
The villagers gasped as Temujin drew back his hand, his face contorted and his hand twisted, as though he had struck a solid wall.
“You see?” Gamine said, raising her arms. “The powers, invested in this frail frame, have given a mere slip of a girl a jaw of iron. She can withstand any blow, suffer any torment without complaint. What more could they do for you, if you prove your worth?”
Gamine paused a moment, reveling in the dropped jaws and wide eyes of the audience, to say nothing of the amused look on Temujin's face and the suspicious expression the mendicant wore. Then she closed her eyes again, opened her mouth wide, and let out another short yell.
Then, without warning, she collapsed to the ground like a marionette whose strings have been cut.
“Help her!” a woman in the crowd cried, and several men rushed forward to Gamine's aid.
“Ohhh,” Gamine moaned, as though she were coming out of a deep sleep. “What . . . what happened?” She opened her eyes, a confused look on her face.
“Don't you remember?” one of the villagers said, helping her to her feet.
“R-remember?” Gamine said. “N-no. I don't remember anything, just walking up here to talk to the holy master. I . . . I must have fainted.” She paused dramatically. “I'm just so hungry.”
The villagers erupted in excited whispers, and Gamine had to work hard to suppress a smile.
 
Gamine and Temujin sat on either side of the mendicant, a sumptuous feast spread on the table before them. All three had been washed and clothed, and were already on their third course.

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