Crocodile Princess Excerpt 3/3- The Happy Ox Inn

For these 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!

Crocodile Princess  Front-med

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Chapter 18- The Happy Ox Inn

It was late afternoon when it happened.

Baking under the mid-day sun, most of the crew had retreated under the shade offered by the sail and superstructure as the ship cut through the green waters of the canal. Meiyu had let herself doze in the heat, but the Lin clan members were still up and awake around her, watching for trouble. They were an extremely careful lot. With only a few exceptions she had noticed that they ate only their own dried rations to make sure no-one could poison them, and there were always two of them awake at any given time.

At the moment, Madam Lin was the one sleeping, while Dancing Blade watched Meiyu and Dancing Cloud ate. The dried meat and pickled vegetables had a strong, pungent odor to them that made most of the people around her move far away.

Then, without warning, one of the four horses tied in the center suddenly let out a cry and started thrashing around. Everyone who had been asleep was instantly awake, and the crew erupted into worried shouts as the animal began to kick and try to pull itself free. This also upset the other horses, who began to react by pulling away and trying to escape from their panicked brother.

Four large, upset animals anywhere is a problem, but on a boat only five arm-spans wide it could be a disaster. So, the Lin clan members leapt into immediate action, with Dancing Blade rushing for the horse which had started the problem, while Dancing Cloud and Madam Lin rushed into try and separate the other three horses from their disturbed brother.

As this happened, Meiyu was watching in fascination, but then felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw one of the boatmen, who laid a finger in front of his lips.

“You have a beautiful voice songbird, but moreso, you have a clever way with verses. Child of the great Crocodile of White Fox Town, is it? We have great respect for him, and would do anything to help his child stuck in a time of need.” He produced a small knife that he used to cut her bonds. “Fly, little songbird. While you have the chance.”

In an instant, she was free, and she did the first thing that came to mind- she jumped up, ran to the edge of the boat and jumped off.

Hitting the cool water, she took a moment to kick off her shoes, and then swam up to the surface. The boat had already sailed past her, but there was no sign any of the Lins had noticed she was gone- yet. Seizing the moment, she began to swim as fast as she could for a clump of bushes near the shore. Once there, she used the plants as cover while she crept out of the murky canal and headed into the forest beyond.

Being Northerners from the dry plains, she considered it likely that her former captors couldn’t swim, which meant they would have to get the boat to shore to follow her. That would buy her time, but even more importantly, they wouldn’t know which side of the canal she was on. With just three of them, it would be hard for them to pursue her on both sides, and that gave her odds she could work with.

They would have horses, but they were also strangers to the central plains, which meant that the locals wouldn’t be as inclined to help them as they would her. If she could just find a large enough town, she could get help from some of her family’s allies.

For now, Meiyu just focused on running as fast as her bare feet could carry her.

***

Last Brother Shou had seen everything.

Sitting atop a horse on a nearby hilltop that looked down on the canal, he and his two companions had watched as the girl jumped from the boat and fled into the forest beyond.

They had tracked the Lin clan members to the place where they’d gotten passage on the riverboat, and spent most of the day following the boat’s slow passage along the canal. It wasn’t hard for their horses to overtake the boat, and they’d been content with pacing it and waiting for it to make landfall so they could make their move.

Now that was in the past, and their quarry was again escaping them on the other side of the canal.

Shou frowned. “Is there a crossing near here?”

He looked at Xiao, and Xiao looked at Mah.

Mah said nothing.

“Then we find one.” Shou said, bringing his horse around and gesturing ahead of them along the road. “She’ll head for the nearest town, we’ll catch her there.”

***

“This’ll do. Thank you.”

Meiyu hopped from the cart and bowed a more formal thank you to the old farmer who’d been kind enough to give her a ride into town. Then she turned and looked about. It wasn’t a large town, perhaps fifty or sixty families, but Willow Garden was on the caravan routes, so there was a chance she might find some of her family’s allies here.

The market square was mostly empty, with the majority of the businesses having closed for the day. All that remained open were a few lantern-lit outdoor wine gardens and a couple street food sellers. A scattering of people wandered about- people strolling to enjoy the cooling early evening breeze as the sun set in the west.

Picking an older couple, Meiyu approached them cautiously and politely, brushing her hair back and arranging herself to try to make up for her disheveled, barefoot appearance. While the husband recoiled at her approach, the wife seemed more sympathetic, and after a brief conversation Meiyu learned what she needed to know. There were three large inns in the town, each of them just off the market square a short distance. The roughest was a place called the Happy Ox Inn, and it was also the largest of the three, which made it her best choice.

Making her way down the side street, she located the Happy Ox fairly easily by following the sounds of laughter and singing. It had an extensive wine garden patio, and as Meiyu passed she could see it was filled with tough looking drunken travelers and overly painted women enjoying themselves under newly lit lanterns.

To most, that sight alone would have been enough to turn them around and send them in another direction, lest the revelers took notice of them. But Mao Meiyu was a resident of White Fox Town, and the daughter of an armed escort agency headman. To her, this wasn’t dangerous, it was a small touch of home.

Meiyu wandered into the inn’s central hall and looked around. It was a typically laid-out country Inn, with a two level central hall and little in the way of decoration. A bit stuffy from the lanterns and back ovens, it was not as full as outside, and the smells of food that filled the place pulled hard at her empty stomach.

As the Lins had taken her money purse, there was little she could do about that. So, she steeled herself and hoped for the best as she headed straight for the bar along the wall to her right.

A soot and cobweb encrusted placard reading “The Happy Ox” hung above the bar along with a small mounted box containing the customary shrine to the Seven Lucky Gods. She tossed a silent prayer to them herself as she eased up to the bar and caught the innkeeper’s attention.

He gave a yellow-toothed smile, looking her up and down, and letting his gaze linger on her chest for just a bit too long.

“Yes? Can I help you?”

“I’m trying to find someone from the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency, or someone who knows them. Is there anyone like that around here?”

The innkeeper’s smile faded to almost a frown, then he indicated the stairs at the back with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Go the second floor, blue trimmed door on your right.” He said, and then wandered off to tend to another customer.

Meiyu blinked. She hadn’t hoped, but now she was so close! Her heart leapt as she turned around to head for the stairs.

And, that’s when she saw Dancing Cloud.

The unhappy looking Lin clan fighter was coming around the tables to her right, between her and the stairs. And a quick look showed Dancing Blade was there as well, coming at her from the main entrance to her left.

She was surrounded!

What could she do? She was so close! She just had to find a way to get across the room to the staircase and up to her father’s people on the second floor. If she got there, they could help her fend off these her pursuers- but how?

Then it occurred to her- the people upstairs weren’t her only source of help.

Her eyes darted around the room, and she spotted the person she was looking for. Across the hall was the biggest, toughest looking man in the room- a hairy mountain of muscle clad in animal furs and surrounded by other rough looking fighters. They looked like a bunch of bandits in to spend their ill-gotten gains.

Perfect.

Snatching a half-empty wine flask from the top of the bar, Meiyu wound up and threw it with all her might at the lead bandit’s bald head.

Out of the corner of her eye, Meiyu caught a flash of panic on Dancing Cloud’s face, and the Lin girl started to move to intercept the bottle, but it was much too late. There was a resounding “crack!” as the bottle hit, and then the crash of ceramic shattering as it hit the floor.

In an instant, the whole inn was filled with the sound of chairs flying as a whole table of bandits leapt to their feet, weapons at the ready. They scanned the room, looking about for whoever had just signed their grave marker, and their eyes all fell on Mao Meiyu.

At first, they seemed a bit confused, but then at a barked order from their still cursing, wine-soaked leader they rapidly began to advance at her, throwing tables and people out of the way as they charged across the room like an advancing horde.

Meiyu looked at Dancing Cloud.

Dancing Cloud looked at Meiyu.

“I hate you.” Said the Lin girl’s eyes.

Then she and her brother both leapt to put themselves between Meiyu and the bandits, their jian swords drawn as both took up a side-by-side battle stance.

The appearance of the green and black clad Twin Dancers of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency may have caused a hesitation in the bandits, but it was nothing significant. No-one here knew who they were, and all they saw was a pair of finely dressed young adults with swords. Nothing to be concerned about.

As a result, the charge continued, and in seconds the first of the bandits reached the Lin fighters, axe held high and wailing from the top of his lungs. At least, until Dancing Blade’s swordtip carved out most of his throat. He hit the ground in a gurgling mess.

But, even though he was down, the rest of them already had momentum, and so where he fell, five more took his place to surround the pair.

Meiyu watched as the twin combatants, clearly experienced at dealing with situations such as these, fell into a series of practiced moves. At first, one would defend while the other attacked, and then at an unknown signal, they would switch positions without losing a beat. This created an almost unbreachable wall of death that the bandits threw themselves against, and as a result, the second wave went down mere moments after the first bandit had hit the floor.

Meiyu had known the pair were good, but she hadn’t realized how good, and she now knew that this distraction wasn’t going to last much longer. So, leaving them to fight off the remaining bandits, Meiyu dashed around the fight and made an arc right for the back stairs- almost reaching them when something in the back of her head told her to duck.

Instinctively, she dropped and rolled, hearing the whoosh of the hand axe pass over her head and the deep “thunk!” of it burying itself into the wooden pillar beside her.

Spinning around, she saw the bandit leader coming at her, a second larger axe in his grip. Screaming obscenities, he brought the axe down at her head, forcing her to roll out of the way and dive beneath a nearby table in an effort to stay away from him.

On and on he came, flipping the tables as she scrambled this way and that, trying to avoid the axe that just kept coming. In the back of her head, it occurred to her that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, and she cursed herself for underestimating the potential downside of her strategy.

Spotting a saber lying on the floor nearby, she seriously considered fighting back, but that idea died a quick death when she realized that it wouldn’t be much use against the power of the axe that she was facing. She was out-classed, out-powered, and- as she dove to avoid another attack- quickly running out of places to hide.

Then she saw her opening.

The axe had become stuck in the floor after that last strike, and the bandit leader was having trouble freeing it. In that fraction of a second, she dove past the bandit in a roll and came up on the other side running. With all her effort, she bolted to the stairs and bounded up them three steps at a time.

Behind her, Meiyu could hear the thunderous steps as the bandit leader followed, and as she hit the corner on the stairs she saw him charging up the steps right after her. There was blood on his face and murder in his eyes.

But she was faster, and she continued up the stairs and out into the hall balcony. It was filled with inn girls and their clients leaning over the railing to watch the fight. Seeing the bandit come up behind her, they began to scream and scatter, which suited her fine since she needed the way clear.

Sprinting forward, she searched frantically for the blue trimmed door- finally seeing it just ahead at the end of the corridor. With her chest heaving, she prayed that there would be some of her father’s fighters inside, or at least someone who could help her escape from the giant looming up at her rear.

However, just as she was about to reach the door there was a whistling sound and pain screamed from her back as something hard and heavy struck her. She was thrown forward, slamming into the floor and everything went black for a brief moment as the world became a spinning mess.

As soon as she could even try to think, she was moving again, forcing herself to try and get up. Twisting around, she saw the bandit leader’s oversized hand lift up the heavy axe from where it had struck her and stride forward. He had thrown the blunt end to bring her down, but now the gleaming blade was hanging above her as she scrambled backwards as fast as she could- her body screaming when she slammed against the door.

“You little witch.” He growled. “I’m going to skin you alive.”

“W-wait,” she said, raising hand in feeble defense and yelling as loudly as she could. “If you harm me, you’ll regret it, my father is Crocodile Mao!”

But the giant shook his bloody head, “Don’t know him, but if he wants your skin he can pay me for it.”

The axe went up, preparing for a killing blow.

But, just as it did, Meiyu felt the door behind her open, and she fell onto her back, looking up at the ceiling.

From the room with the blue trimmed door, a man Meiyu had never seen before ducked and stepped into the corridor. A handsome face with sad eyes looked down at her, framed by a flowing mass of long black hair that ran down over the shoulders of red armor. Almost as big as the bandit leader, he was clad in the dress of a military man and carried a halberd.

“Crocodile Mao’s daughter?” He said, looking down at her.

“Y-yes!” She gasped. “Help me!”

He nodded once, and shifted his gaze to the bandit leader. The barbarian had been so shocked by this soldier’s appearance that he’d not only stopped his attack, but stared at the new arrival in wonder.

“Leave her,” said the armored man.

Not quite willing to give up, the bandit leader brought his axe to the ready. “This one owes me. Are you going to pay her debt?”

But, just as he finished those words, his eyes went wide with shock, and he looked down to see the blade of the soldier’s halberd embedded deep in his chest. It had happened so fast he hadn’t even seen the man move, it was like it had just appeared there on its own.

Just as quickly, the halberd was gone, and the bandit leader collapsed to the floor- his huge body a twitching lifeless mass.

Meiyu stared at the dead bandit, shocked by the sudden violence. Even she, who had been right there, hadn’t seen the attack until it was finished.

Who was this soldier?

She had never seen anyone like him before, and certainly would have known if her father employed such an incredibly skilled fighter.

The soldier leaned down, offering his hand to help her up.

“Come.”

Hesitating, Meiyu began to reach out to take it, but then another voice called out.

“Stop!”

Both Meiyu and the soldier turned to see the battered pair of Dancing Blade and Dancing Cloud rushing along the corridor at them. It was Dancing Blade who had shouted, and both had their bloodied weapons at the ready.

“She’s ours!” The Lin brother called out as the pair drew close. “Leave her be if you value your life!”

———————

What to know what happens next? Check out Amazon, Smashwords, or your favorite eBook seller. (Printed copies coming soon!)

Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at rob_paterson@hotmail.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.

Crocodile Princess Excerpt 1/3- Meiyu

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!

Crocodile Princess  Front-med

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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.”

—————————————

Continued tomorrow!

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Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at rob_paterson@hotmail.com and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.