For the next three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!
Chapter 16- Meiyu
In a bridal caravan, there are few people more uncomfortable than the bride, especially when her father insists that she ride in a proper palanquin the whole way. While such a conveyance might offer luxurious comfort to some, to Mao Meiyu, the palanquin was a hot boring box that offered neither enough light to read by, nor enough comfort to sleep in. If there had been a method of torture more certain to drive one mad than this, she hadn’t heard of it.
As she gave up trying to read for the umpteenth time in a week, Meiyu cried out for her bearers to stop. The men carrying her did as she ordered, and she whipped back the green door curtain and hopped out as quickly as she could.
“My lady, what seems to be the problem?”
Meiyu turned as her “Uncle” Gan came riding back on his horse. The burly old swordsman was one of her father’s most trusted lieutenants, and had long cared for Meiyu much like a real uncle would, even following her to the imperial capital to take over operations there when she had been sent there to be educated by her father. He had claimed it was all a coincidence when he’d come to pay his respects shortly after she’d settled in, but she knew better- he was there to keep an eye on her.
“Uncle, please. Please. Please. Please! Let me ride a horse!”
The old man shook his head. “Tradition states…”
“You know damn well that this isn’t tradition! I’m not going to my husband’s home- I’m returning to my own!” She glared up at him, challenging him to tell her she was wrong.
“That may be,” Gan said, not backing down. “But a young lady, and especially a young bride to be, cannot risk the dangers of a horse when her wedding night is so close.”
He emphasized those last words to drive his point home. He had been perfectly fine with Meiyu riding a horse all these years, and in fact had overseen her being taught to do so when she’d been barely six. However, that had all ended when an old meddler of a nurse had taken him aside and whispered in his ear the potential riding a horse carried for a loss of maidenhood, and thus a ruined first night that might also be the quick end of a marriage.
Not being willing to risk being blamed for such an event, Meiyu’s riding days had come to an abrupt halt, and Gan clearly had no intention of changing that rule under any circumstances.
“If my lady is feeling cramped, she is most welcome to walk.” He told her, then wheeled around his horse and gestured for the caravan to begin moving. There were over fifty people in the wedding caravan, which brought not only Meiyu from the center of the empire, but also an abundance of gifts, foodstuffs and other items. Six carts and twenty pack horses worth of goods to be precise, in addition to what the servants carried on their backs.
Meiyu watched some of them pass her by, and then fell in step with the procession, her own personal maids appearing around her with an umbrella to shield her from the summer heat as the caravan threaded its way down south through the central plain towards Zhejiang and White Fox Town.
“Where are we now?” Meiyu asked one of her maids, Little Jing, who was also one of her closest friends.
“Near Xuzhou,” the small, sharp eyed woman answered. “We’ll be crossing the Feihuang River soon, and entering Tongshan.”
Meiyu nodded. “Over halfway then,” she said thoughtfully. “I wonder how he’ll look?”
“I am told the second son of the Yun family is not unattractive.”
Meiyu looked at her maid, and her eyes sparkled with laughter. “Oh yes. Him. I suppose he’ll be good looking enough, although his younger brother has the nose of a monkey, so it does make one wonder…”
The maids laughed at that, and Meiyu grinned.
With the coming of dusk, the caravan found and settled at a large country inn of the kind that specialized in trade caravans between north and south. While the carriers settled and unpacked, Meiyu took the time to ready herself to be presentable for dinner. However, when she went to leave her room, her uncle appeared and barred her way.
“You will be dining in your room tonight,” he informed her in a serious tone.
When she pressed for details, he finally relented and explained that several disreputable characters had been seen around the busy inn and he was concerned for her safety.
Of course, telling this to a young lady with Meiyu’s temperament just made her want to attend the communal dinner even more!
She waited until he’d left, then quickly switched to some boy’s clothes she’d brought for just such an occasion.
“How do I look?” She asked Little Jing as she struck a serious and thoughtful pose. She was now a handsome looking young man in blue pants, a grey longcoat with white sequins, and a black cap atop her head to hide her hair.
“Kind sir, will you marry me?” Asked the maid, looking at her with big, adoring eyes.
“Sorry, my dear.” Meiyu replied in the deepest voice she could manage. “The world is filled with too many beauties for a man such as myself to settle down.”
“Oh dear sir! You’re so cruel!” Cried the maid in mock despair, and then they both laughed.
“Wear my dress,” she told her friend. “If anyone comes to serve food, pretend to be me but don’t let them in. Have them leave it just inside the door.”
The maid agreed, and then after her maids distracted the guards her uncle left, Meiyu slipped out the door and down the hallway into the communal dining room.
The inn’s great hall was a large noisy affair, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of over a hundred travelers taking their evening rice. Dishes of all kinds flowed around the room on trays, while wine was toasted and men and women of all shapes and sizes laughed, yelled and chattered like birds. Trays of seasoned beef in soy sauce, barbecued pork and drunken chicken made Meiyu’s mouth water as their smells wafted up, and flowed in the smoky lantern light that kept the hall lit as summer evening descended.
Unable to resist, Meiyu quickly found a spot near the railing where she could look down upon the diners, and ordered up several dishes. Then she sat back with her tea and began to observe the people below her, feeling a little thrill at the power anonymity afforded her. She could see without being seen, and observe freely in ways that her school’s headmistress would most definitely disapprove of.
It made her lips curl into a smile as she watched the bustle below.
Her uncle, and the rest of the guards and caravan leaders were gathered at a long table just underneath her, with the carriers and other staff consigned to eat in the servant’s quarters behind the inn. Her own maids would eat in their rooms, as had been decided by her overprotective uncle.
The other tables were mostly occupied by people she judged as merchants and their companions, as one would expect at a trade crossing like this. Among them she also spotted a few swordsmen, obvious bodyguards and escorts, although none were people she knew, or who looked especially interesting or famous. In fact, as she surveyed the room more closely, she became less and less impressed with its contents. Her uncle had promised danger, but she saw none here, just boringly normal people stained with mud and wine.
Still, the night was young and there was always hope. So she tucked into her dinner and enjoyed her meal, keeping an ear and eye open for whatever might pop up below.
It was as she was finishing the chicken she’d ordered that her eye caught motion on the other balcony across from where she sat. Glancing over, she saw three people standing solemnly at the rail, looking down at where her uncle and the others sat below.
There were two women- one prune faced, one around her own age- and a young man who had the build and bearing of a swordsman. All three were clad in black, with each also having an article of bright green to offset their plain attire. The ugly older woman had her black hair piled up into a topknot with a bright green ribbon, the slender and attractive young woman had a bright green sash around her waist, and the swordsman wore a bright green vest with a golden slash on the lapel. All three carried long, slender Jian swords in ornately gilded sheaths.
So distinctive were they that Meiyu was positive she knew these strangers, but couldn’t quite put her finger on their names. What was clear, however, was that these three were focused on her uncle, and from them she could feel a strong air of menace and malevolent intent. As she watched, the girl stepped back and left, while the older woman and the young man headed for the stairs.
Her pulse quickened as the old prune led the young man down the side staircase and through the assembled until she reached the table where the members of the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency sat enjoying their meal. She approached from behind Uncle Gan, and for a moment Meiyu wanted to yell out a warning before the old witch tried something, but just as the words started to form in her mouth the conversation at the table died and she saw hands lay on swords. Her uncle casually rose from his seat and turned to face the new arrivals while the men behind him stood up.
Meiyu now wished she’d thought to bring a sword. While she was no master of the blade, she knew how to use it better than many of her father’s men and could make herself useful in the right moments. This looked to be one of those moments, and she unconsciously leaned in, expecting to see metal flash like it often did when members of the Jianghu martial underworld met.
Instead, what she saw was her uncle clasp his hands together and bow deeply to the old woman, and many of the other men do the same!
“Madam Lin!” Exclaimed the old swordsman. “This is a most unexpected pleasure!”
Meiyu’s memory clicked the pieces into place. The old woman was Madam Lin, head of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency, a group that guarded caravans from the Mongol raiders up in the Northeast around Ningyuan. That meant her companions were her granddaughter, Wuyun (also known as Dancing Cloud) and her grandson Wudao (called the Dancing Blade) who had both made a name for themselves in the martial world for their refined paired style of swordsmanship. Their techniques were handed down from their grandparents, and with their parents lost to a fever they had taken a lead in the clan’s activities after the recent death of their grandfather.
Even without the grandfather, the elder madam of the Lin clan was still a force to be reckoned with, and there had long been rumors that when Mongol tribes bent on raiding saw the Nine Trees flag they quickly retreated rather than risk her wrath. She was the force that made her clan a power in the escort trade, and now she was facing Meiyu’s uncle with unknown intent.
“Master Gan,” the old woman said with only a slight nod of her head to return the bow. “It is fortunate that we might meet here. You know my grandson, I presume?”
“Dancing Blade?” Gan said cordially. “I should hope so. The name of the Twin Dancers has carried far and wide. It is a pleasure to meet you, lad!” He greeted the young warrior, who returned his courtesy, then looked at Madam Lin with some curiosity. “I am surprised to see you here. If I may be so presumptuous, is there a special reason for this honor?”
“There is,” agreed the Madam. “We are on our way to an event near Suzhou.”
“Ah,” Gan answered as if he understood. “Yes, you would be, wouldn’t you? When I think of it, this meeting was most expected after all! Excuse this old man and his ignorance.”
“Yes,” the old woman said simply. “In relation to that meeting, I wish you convey a message to your master.”
“Yes?” Old Gan said, surprised. “And what might that be?”
It was as she said this that Meiyu noticed something that made her look up and gasp! Standing at the balcony near the entrance to the rear rooms was Dancing Cloud, and with her was a young woman dressed in wedding finery with her hair over her face- Little Jing!
She heard gasps from below as well, and her uncle stammering in shock.
“I believe,” said Madam Lin. “The message is clear enough. Tell him we wish an exchange- his daughter’s life for the box.”
Or, if you want to read the whole book you can find it for Kindle right now for 99 cents for this month only! A deal so good even a cheapskate like Gou wouldn’t pass it up!
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