This one is short, but, the next one will be long. Thanks for reading.
Altercation and Abduction at the Red Lantern
It had gotten quite late into the evening, but Red Beard continued his watch. It was a quiet night and he would later apologize to the owner for dampening the inn’s trade—having a senior police officer sitting in the corner of a gambling den could not have been good for business. The general and his men were in a predictable action loop. They would gamble for a time, then they would break to eat and drink, and then a resting period, and then the next shift of bar maids would rouse them and solicit their stories, and then they would break off in pairs or fours to go play with the maids in private quarters, and then the cycle would repeat.
Eventually a young nobleman entered the inn accompanied by a large manservant. He was notable to Red Beard because he came dressed not to relax and carouse, but as if for a business transaction—this must be the man, he thought. The nobleman looked about, recognized his mark, and headed straight to the general’s party. There were no niceties. The man straightaway produced a purse and laid out coin to be counted. The general appeared to be satisfied, removed the pendant, and handed it to the noble who then put it on, concealing it under his robes against his body. The noble looked quite pleased to have gained the piece. He and his servant, a stout and broad fellow who had the decisive gait of an ex-soldier, apparently a bodyguard, turned to leave.
The general called to the nobleman and motioned to him to sit and join him for a time. The nobleman summoned a barmaid, who brought additional chairs and another round of drinks. A roving croupier came to them to entice the noble into a game of dice, but he waved him off. Red Beard thought to move to a closer table so that he could hear the conversation, but decided it unnecessary and placed himself on the porch such that he kept him in eyeshot and so that they would have to pass by him in order to exit. And so the wait continued, but eventually the noble and bodyguard made for the exit and out onto the porch. Red Beard rose and stood in their path.
“Pardon me sir,” said Three, “I would like to pass.”
“You gained that pendant at quite a bargain. What was that? 2 gold? 250 silver?” said Red Beard.
“I beg your pardon,” said Three, “is it your business to monitor private transactions in this house?”
“It is actually my business to monitor YOUR transaction, yes.”
Backie stepped alongside his boss, ready to put himself in-between as necessary. “Backie,” said Three, “as good as you are, there is nothing for you to do here. This fellow is as big as the Great Wall and he’s better armed than you.” Three confronted Red Beard directly, “You intend then, to acquire my pendant at an even greater bargain than I did, sir?”
“How dare you imply I am a thief.”
“It’s night. It’s the port area. I’ve just been told I’ve been closely watched.”
“I only asked a question.”
“How dare you insinuate yourself into my affairs. If you mean not to cause me harm or loss, then kindly step aside and let me and my man pass. It’s quite late.”
Red Beard stood still. “I will give you 10 times the value of what you just paid for that item. I believe that would be its fair resale value.”
“Not for sale.”
“Problem? Prince?” A voice came from behind the eunuch. It was Anto.
“Why do you call him ‘Prince?’” asked Red Beard. He adjusted his stance so that he could keep all of them in view and control.
“You are addressing the Great Prince of Southern China, that is why. But what is it to you that I call anybody anything.”
“Anto. This is neither the place or time for that nonsense,” said Three.
“Boss,” said Backie, “if it’s Anto and me, we can take this guy.”
“Backie, stand down. Anto, your advice. This guy just offered me 10 times what I paid for my pendant.”
“Take it,” said the pirate.
“Why do you want it?” asked Three.
“Why is it precious to you?” asked Red Beard in return. “I thought that man back there was the owner, but I see it was only a security.”
“Until you tell me who you are and why you care, I have nothing else to say to you sir. Step aside.”
“I will say this. Two offers. I will give you 10 times the value of what you just paid. Or, I will give you even twice again that amount, including your explanation of how you came by that piece, and that will be the end of it.”
The inn steward stepped up to the group, “Gentlemen, I couldn’t help but hear that there is some sort of disagreement here?” He talked directly to Three, “You need to know that this tall man, is the very honorable …” He was unable to finish the sentence as Red Beard put hand over the man’s mouth, practically covering his entire face with his massive palm, and pushed him to the ground.
“Silence!” said Red Beard. The steward cowered on the ground.
“Raja,” whispered Anto, “I would take the second offer if I were you. You are in a strange town and unaccustomed to its manners.”
“How do I even know this guy will do what he says? Why are you here anyway? Your part in this is done.”
“I am here to ensure that your agreement is carried out fairly and that you are not cheated on my account.”
“Sergeant Glint got paid. You’re done.”
“Who’s to say he’s not working for the ‘Sarge’?”
“Something else is at stake here and the ante is rising fast. I can’t tell what’s what.”
“It’s obvious. I’ve been in these situations before,” said Anto. “The woman, My Prince. Give her up. She’s nothing but trouble for you.”
“Shut up. Do NOT betray me here,” said Three. He turned to Red Beard, “Counteroffer. If you have nothing to say for yourself and you intend to raise your hand in force against me, I will not cooperate in your unjust aggression. If you want my jewelry so much, remove it from my person like the evil tyrant you are, but harm none of my party. But know this, when I have the power to address the injustice you perpetrate, I will deal equivalence without mercy to you at my earliest chance.”
“You accuse me of being an agent of injustice? What insolence! You throw equivalence at me like a threat?” The great man began to open his cloak to reveal himself and his uniform. “I … am …”
“Wha’s goin’ on here?” Like everybody in the Red Lantern main hall, Glint watched with curiosity and interest as this confrontation began to grow as Three had become detained.
“Glint, it’s not your business,” said Three.
Glint’s speech was starting to slur. Apparently his body got the signal to relax after their business was done. “We shar’d a drink and a deal. We … are not frien’s, but w’re gettin’ there. Is he pushing you aroun’? He’s three times bigger an’ you.”
“Thanks but I’m perfectly capable of handling my own affairs. Please return to your table.”
“Yer relievin’ me from duty? I’ll have you know I’m a damned hero.”
“You’ve had too much to drink,” said Three. “I’m fine. I appreciate it though.”
“Are you sayin’ I can’ hold my liquor? I propose we all go back and have a … contest …”
“I have,” Red Beard said slowly and with a building anger, “the full authority to confiscate any property that I deem to be the rightful belongings of …”
And then on cue, came the incongruous, comical sound of a series of loud farts, and a pale-skinned, naked teenage girl came running up screaming and wailing and threw herself around Three’s shins, throwing a tantrum, and then proceeded to make a puddle on the floor. Twelve young men dressed in white rushed in after her with cries of “Stop her! Get her! Don’t worry, we’ve got her!” They were the students of Cohorts 3 and 4. And then came the porters and then the casual laborers of the Academy. They swooped in, engulfed the scene with humanity, picked up Fart Toad and Three whisked them down the street before anyone could think to react.
Just as Red Beard snapped himself into chase mode, he was clapped on the back by the Headmaster. “Red Beard you old sot! Are you harassing my houseguests?” said the old professor as if he had casually run into an old friend on the street. “This boy missed his dinner appointment. The girl was absolutely inconsolable, demanded a search, and ran out of the house in her … peculiar way … you know. Boys!” he yelled down the street, “Get them all back to the manse else they’ll not have a good night’s sleep to enjoy the very fine breakfast we have planned come the morrow! Tea cakes. Dumplings. All shapes and sizes, but mostly small.”
Red Beard had been defused. All he could stammer out was “Those boys, it’s past curfew.”
“We’re heading right back. Don’t tell me you never broke the night watch as a lad? Ah youth. I’m always trying to restrain them. Should have opened up a school for young ladies. Please take up your business with my guest tomorrow? It can wait until noon can’t it? I take full responsibility for him. Have you forgotten we live in the most civilized nation on earth? No violence in front of the children. Ah, children. She’s become quite fond of this young man. We need to be off. Oh and please come for breakfast. Bring your friends. There will be plenty. Come Backie.” The Headmaster intentionally kept his mouth moving and did not wait for Red Beard’s reply. “By the way, Backie, is it? My men recovered your strong box. Seems I signed it in to my safe room and forgot all about it. Toad found it. And so that was the fabled ‘Red Lantern’ was it? I must say, it is not much…”
“What the hell was that?” Adrenaline had pushed a bit of Glint’s sobriety back to the forefront.
Red Beard removed his cloak and revealed his uniform. “I am trying to retrieve that pendant that you gave to that man.”
“And why would the Eunuch Guard be interested?”
“It may be stolen palace property. I am conducting an investigation.”
“So it WAS a royal treasury item. I thought maybe it was. The Emperor’s?”
“It belongs to your fiancée, General Zuo.”
* * *
The sedan for four was a large vehicle and it took eight porters to move it uphill to the Academy, but it gave the Headmaster and Three some time to chat alone. Toad sat hunched at Three’s side of course.
“My daughter is not known for having good intuition, but I am glad I heeded her wishes in bringing the boys and the men out with us. However, Red Beard is NOT a good man to have as an enemy,” the Headmaster said. “What is your business with him?”
Three opened his mouth but then stopped himself. “It’s better I don’t tell you. I’m terribly sorry for bringing this trouble to your house.”
“What kind of a host would I be if I did not render any assistance as I can?” said the Headmaster.
“Who is Red Beard?”
“He is one of the higher ranking officers of the palace eunuchs. If he is dealing with you directly, you must have done something extremely … noteworthy.”
“He redeemed some jewelry from a military officer,” whispered Toad.
“Really?” said the Headmaster. “May I see?” Three took it off.
“Are you sure?” Three asked. “With knowledge comes complicity.”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s much too dark to see anything anyway.”
Toad took it into her hands and turned it over and over in the light of the waxing moon that came in the window. “It has a tiny inscription on the ‘wrong’ or obverse side. I think it may have come the trousseau of the Princess Seven.”
“How can you even see that?” asked Three.
“It’s those damned purple eyes of hers. She sees in the dark,” muttered her father. Three thought of how her face was always pinched in the full sun. The night was her time. She looked perfectly poised sitting in the dark. The moonlight made her white skin look blue.
“Her Highness Seven is the only court person who is not a worm. I like her. Everyone says she is odd, like me. She is kind to me. Why do you have this?” asked Toad.
“That is an excellent question. Why indeed?” asked Three.
The answer to Three was quite obvious, and it made him feel guilty. He had given Qi, the daughter of carpenter and a seamstress, something whose value he thought was only sentimental, but was in fact a very expensive piece of gold with a precious gem. It was obviously something an apprentice kitchen worker could never reciprocate—unless she had access to a princess’ personal effects. She said she was in the Princess Seven’s service and obviously had access, stole this similar pendant, and gave it to me, he thought. By initiating that cycle with my pendant, I pushed her into a death sentence. The eunuch has not traced it to her yet, but is investigating me, who has possession. Which is likely why he offered to pay me for my testimony. Double the value of the piece. This is all conjecture, he thought. I must contact her before noon so she can advise me how to proceed.
“Three is sad again,” said Toad. “I thought after we got the pendant back, you would smile.”
“You’re right. I attract the misfortune gods. And it appears I spread it too. You should probably ask me to leave your house. Bad things are going to happen at noon.”
Toad started to cry. “I’m sorry Three. I broke all the rules you gave me to be your friend!” She was ashamed.
[Russian] “Speak Russian?”
“A Russian sailor told me there is a story in his land about the bird after which you are named, the phoenix—except they call it the Firebird. It has golden feathers that glow in the night and can illuminate a room. It has a 500-year lifespan, and at the end, she builds nest and burns up in a glorious blaze, but from the ashes she is born again in a new self.
“And so that,” said Three, “is what I will call you from this night on—Firebird. Because tonight you blazed and lit the night for me.”
Toad looked at the pendant and smiled to herself, for it occurred to her that whenever Three wore this, not only would he think of Necklace Girl, he would have to think of Firebird too.
© 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.