Dragon Sword

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


12. dragon gate pass


She walks slowly swinging her red lacquered bamboo sword cane left right left tap tap tap pendulum-like past Beggars' Wall ignoring the moans and pleas, the gruesome reek of the bleeding open sores, for she has no coins to give out to the Clan of Beggars, she is as poor as a beggar herself right at this moment, though she is a known and much-feared killer.


Dragon Gate Pass marks the border between the Han regions of China and the vast Western deserts -- that brown-gold, dust-churning, rocky wasteland that even the Manchu generals have not conquered nor perhaps ever wished to conquer. Lawless but for the occasional edicts of the vile and grotesque Kut Habba, head of the Red Turban Clan, Dragon Gate is a launching point for countless camel caravans and a popular meeting place for rogues, mountebanks, bandits, criminals and assassins from the Han regions and beyond. The Clan of Beggars, the Clan of Tattooed Assassins, and the Clan of Thieves all do a brisk business at Dragon Gate. At the end of summer as days shorten and as the Autumn Festival looms cicadas whir and clack and heat wavers from the bare ridges and pine-strewn hills and only at the highest passes is there a breath of cool wind or sometimes a floating cloud to engulf you in icy vapor. It is through this torpid heat haze that Blind Swordswoman Zu walks in frayed straw sandals, crossing the high mountain passes from the Han regions. Tapping her red lacquered bamboo sword cane in the dust and pebbles of the road.



The great torrent that gives the dusty wretched little mud-colored town its name tumbles -- bouncing shining and spraying white tendrils -- down a sheer cliff on the mountain above. About midway to its end this silvery torrent seems to hang motionless charged with shifting rainbows before rushing straight down with a roar to strike the pool below and churn it into a green white froth. It is under this sacred waterfall that the buddhist mendicants and other religious pilgrims stand shivering in their soaked white robes to recite sutras and chant spells before climbing the steep path to the looming cloud-wreathed volcanic summit. The volcanic soil sprouts rich grasslands and thick stands of bamboo and higher up are the dense dark pine forests, and if you climb through those forests beyond the Dragon Gate waterfall you reach a rolling desolate rock-strewn expanse of black lava ash and fields of ice and snow and finally a rock-shrine to Kali the Devourer perched at the edge of the smoking crater in which red lava bubbles -- a place so infernally hot that few can spend more than an hour praying there. Once this was thought to be the entrance to the Underworld where demons steam and rage. Sometimes even now the mountain rumbles and spits fire but it has not exploded many hundreds of years. Once this shrine was a site of human sacrifice, slaves hurled bound and screeching into the crater.


The blind swordswoman taps her way into Dragon Gate smelling the reek of decayed flesh -- beggars seated against a wall, in the shadows, smoking kif. To dull the boundless pain. They call out to her, the children call out birdlike, the fathers cry out in gurgles, mothers call out in moans, but they do not crawl after Zu to pull on her black trousers demanding alms because -- because most of the beggars, having eyes, see that she is blind, and besides she herself is dressed much like a beggar, her clothing is dusty, and she carries all her possessions in a pouch of worn blue cloth worn under her left arm against the body. Not many possessions, just a scarf, some brass coins, a bamboo flute.


And the straw sandals on her sun browned feet are frayed and torn, and the wide brimmed straw hat on her head is shamefully ragged, poked with finger-sized holes.



She smells the reeking flesh, the open wounds -- the beggars re-open their wounds every morning before going to the marketplace to sit by Beggar's Wall moaning and shaking their wooden alms bowls.


She hears the bzz-bzz of multitudinous flies, flies darting and settling everywhere, in ragged clouds on the reeking cloth-wrapped heads in straight lines along the streams of piss, more flies than there are members of the Clan of Beggars in all of China.


She smells the dull reek of human excrement and the sharp acidic odor of urine soaked rags. Also garlic, betel nut. Kif smoke. Sweat. Nothing slows her -- she moves on steadily, calm, tap tap tap. Yes, this is Dragon Gate, she knows it, she has tasted and smelled and heard and touched it before, and somehow all the filth is comforting, it is safe, it is familiar. She is an assassin so she lives the life of the poor, she knows how the beggars feel, she is little more than a beggar herself and she has often gone hungry, maybe she will go hungry here. Maybe she will die here in Dragon Gate this time around and the beggars will strip off her clothes and roll her nude body into a pit and cover it with sand, and at night the dogs will come to dig it up and devour the intestines and chew off the feet and hands. This too she has not seen but she has often smelled and heard it, the braying whining scuffling racket of dogs devouring a corpse by night. You learn to listen to everything if you are blind and not stop up your ears. Even to this. Even to the rhythmic moans of beggars bleeding from rancid newly reopened wounds in the dust and sunlight and shaking coins in their alms bowls. Clack clack clack. Clack clack clack.



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