Dragon Sword

A blind swordswoman in China seeks revenge on the cunning and deadly Manchu general who killed her parents.

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47. the big banquet

 

 

Zu fell asleep. She woke to the sun. She sat up and rubbed her face. The boy was gone. The wolf girl was looking at her. She couldn't see the look -- but she felt it. The wolf girl's gaze was empty and bewildered. She seemed not to know where she was. Zu could smell the sores on her body. They weren't festering, just raw. Flies buzzed. She reached a few inches to the left and touched the bamboo casing of her sword. Then she felt for the bamboo flute in her blue cloth bag. Everything was there. She even still had some coins left, from Kut Habba. She parted her dry lips -- they were stuck together -- and said with some effort, in a rasping voice, Are you well? She listened. Nothing. The girl then turned away, facing the dingy wall, and Zu heard sniffles. The wolf girl was weeping in almost-silence. Zu's heart gave her a pang. She picked up her sword cane and tapped her way to the girl and sat down and stroked the dirty, matted hair, and after a while the wolf-girl put her head in Zu's lap. Zu stroked the girl's shoulder. It was covered with a fine down of soft hair. She laughed. The girl looked up, grinding her teeth. Zu spoke to her in Chinese, then in several Mongolian dialects. Nothing. Well, then, she was a mute just like the boy. Though obviously not deaf. Zu began to sing. She sang a simple melody. In her rough untaught voice. Then the melody drifted off. They sat in silence. Sunlight appeared on Zu's face -- a blazing mask. She sat still, breathing in through her nostrils, out through her mouth. She could hear drums. The wild festival was starting. She knew the martial arts fighters would parade through the streets today in their motley finery, carrying clubs and swords and bo staffs and what not. And this evening the banquet at Kut Habba's. General Khang and the Witch Warrior and the Samurai and the bowlegged, super-strong Mongolian. How could she accomplish her aim of killing Khang? She'd have to be quick, quicker than the Warrior Witch, who could fly short distances. Hopeless. Yet she'd never been closer to cutting down the man who raped her mother and cut her father to bits in the dust and left her, little Zu, blind in a stream of blood. No. It had to be done. It would be done. She'd do it. Even if it cost her life.

 

The boy was in the stable with his horses and mule. Brushing them. Murmuring to them in his tongueless wretched voice. His tongue was still swollen and he was in awful pain. I like the pain, he thought. It means I'm awake. His father was dead, buried under a cairn of stones in the blazing desert. But he was awake and could think even if he couldn't speak or sing. He went on brushing the horses calmly as they stamped and tried to turn in the narrow dark stalls stinking of manure and fresh straw. Without a tongue, could he still learn to play the bamboo flute? He'd mime the question later to the blind woman. At least he could learn martial arts. He'd learn the Dragon Sword techniques. He'd become a hard fighter. And he'd kill bandits all over the West.

 

 

It's night. Torches blaze.

Zu is wearing a red robe tied with a sash and red slippers.

For once, her dark hair isn't wild and dirty.

It's been combed out and hangs straight like silk.

She's carrying her bamboo flute in one hand, her sword cane in the other.

Tap tap tap through the rancid, dusty alley sized streets.

Through the smooth quick babble of the merchants, the squawks of caged fowl, the yowls and shrieks of amorous tomcats.

And behind her walks the Wolf Girl, her head bowed.

She's washed -- Zu pouring water on her to rinse off the dust and the blood.

But she's still sunbrowned, burnt almost black.

Zu's dressed her in a cheap embroidered muslin robe and wooden clogs. Clack clack clack.

With her hair combed, she looks almost human.

She has human ears, human eyes, a human nose.

When she bares her teeth in a smile, she looks wolfish, feral.

And you can see the dark fur growing on her legs where the hem swings up and down with her quick childlike steps.

 

Kut Habba's compound. The guards hold cruel looking spears. The points glitter in torchlight. Drums resound inside. Zu speaks to the big wrestler. He leers at Zu, also at the Wolf Girl. He makes a crude gesture with his hands, to roars of laughter from his fellow guards. Zu ignores him. The Wolf Girl appears not to be listening, to be abstracted into some universe of her own. They go through the big wooden gate into the dusty yard. They cross it by glaring torchlight and enter the mansion, swamped by noise -- drums, voices, shouts, laughter, music.

 

Meat is roasting, studded with garlic bulbs, the grease flaring on open fires. The Wolf Girl's nostrils widen.

 

She's left the Mute Boy behind, in the room. Told him to stay there, Zu did. He lowered his head, biting his parched bottom lip. Zu said she was taking the Wolf Girl. Didn't explain why. Said she'd be back sometime after midnight. Of this she isn't sure but she says it anyway.

 

Then she took the tattered Dragon Sword manual out of her bag. She pressed it into his dirty hands. He bowed his head. He sniffled. She's tired of people weeping. She hits him on the head -- it's a pat, but not a soft one -- and goes, the Wolf Girl following her down the reeking stairs.

 

Into the Dragon Gate darkness laced with shouts and chants and entreaties, the screaming laughter of whores and the degrading howls of monkeys and the soft impenetrable babble of merchants. It's a filthy town of slaves and bandits and despairing drunks and accursed fighters. Torches blaze, women dance, acrobats toss each other into the thick and shadowy air -- beggars covered with flies crawl in streams of excrement. Dogs feast on the corpse of a baby they've dragged out of a trash heap. Rats scuttle in piles of straw and rattle broken dishes under the floorboards of decrepit wine shops.

 

The boy contemplates the book. He turns the pages softly with his fingertips. He looks at the diagrams. The wick of the oil lamp is sputtering and gives off a thread of smoke. He gets the oil jar and carefully pours more oil into the earthenware dish. He settles his shoulders back against the wall. He shuts his eyes. He sees China. The Gobi. Blinding sunlight. Screaming women in black. Caravans. The blue eyed devil. Wrestlers. Crowded opium dens. Whores rattling the cheap blinds of a two mat roomwith their gasping bed-shuddering movements. Bandits cut into spurting pieces. This is his world.

 

A eunuch in a white robe and conical black cap -- his eyebrows are painted on, his mouth is a void of blackened teeth -- lisps a welcome to Zu, spreading his arms. He tells her that Habba is waiting in the banquet room, all the guests are waiting, she's going to play that bamboo flute, is she not? What a delicious aural treat. On his shoulder, a white parrot. The parrot turns his head. Its eyes follow Zu and the Wolf Girl up the big torch-blazing staircase.

 

 

Zu is beautiful, ravishing in her crimson robe with her black hair loose and the dirt of Western China washed from her face.

She shines like the northern star as she enters the banquet room.

Kut Habba waves at her to sit down. He's in a green robe with a gold-embroidered hem and slippers. His chins bounce.

Near Kut Habba in the usual place of honor sits General Khang, resplendent in a gold brocade jacket and red silk trousers, his black beard oiled, his eyes piercingly intense under the glowering brows. He's holding an iron war fan on his knee.

The Witch Warrior is sitting rigidly erect on her cushion. Thin and deadly. She's wearing that bone necklace, as always.

The Samurai is in a gray kimono, simple linen yet somehow elegant on him. His hair is tied back in the usual style and he appears relaxed. He is drinking a small cup of rice wine.

The Mongolian sits cross legged, staring into the smoke-filled air. Flies land on his forehead yet he doesn't twitch nor wave them off.

They all look at Zu, with varying types of interest. General Khang's gaze is the most intense, sordid even. The Samurai's expression doesn't change. The Witch Warrior narrows her eyes. The Mongolian sticks out his tongue and leers.

 

Zu sits down. The Wolf Girl sits behind her. Zu places her flute on a low table that has been provided. She sits back on her heels. Kut Habba raises his hand and the drums -- stop. In the sudden quiet one can hear torches sputtering, and a human voice wailing from somewhere in the city.

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