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!
Chapter 17- The Lin Family
“…His daughter’s life for the box.”
Meiyu stared at the scene in shock- her maid, her closest friend, Little Jing was only a thin silver blade away from death. She couldn’t believe that the Lin family could be so ruthless or underhanded as to do something like this. Didn’t they know what this would do their family reputation?
And what was this box she was talking about? What could be so important?
But Meiyu pushed aside such questions as she heard her uncle finally begin to speak below.
“Madam Lin!” Gan gasped. “This is outrageous!”
The prune faced old woman merely looked at him curiously. “Clearly you are unaware of the stakes involved. Nothing is too outrageous in times such as these.”
At this, the assembled Mao family escorts wanted to lunge forward and attack, but Gan held them back with a gesture.
“Madam Lin…” He said, his voice showing the great effort it was taking to remain calm. “Whatever grievances you have with our master, the girl is no part of this. Don’t sully the names of your family or shame your ancestors by engaging in such low acts as kidnapping.”
“She is a member of your clan, that is enough.” Said the elder. “Now, lay down your blades.”
Meiyu watched as her Uncle Gan gave a deep sigh and shrugged. “Fine, if you wish there to be blood, then that’s how it will be.” Then at a whistle from their leader, the nine warriors of the Mao Armed Escort Agency who stood with Gan moved in a flash to surround the old woman and her grandson with their blades.
“Even with your skill, madam.” Gan said in an intimidating voice that Meiyu had never heard before, “You and your grandson will not escape us alive.” Then he looked up menacingly at Dancing Cloud. “The girl will not escape us either, when we are done with you. So I offer you a trade, your lives for those of your hostage.”
It was a standoff. And, Meiyu watched in rapt fascination as each side faced down the other, neither saying a word as a war of wills took place. She knew her uncle was the veteran of over a hundred caravans, and had no doubts had been in this situation many times before. However, she also knew that Madam Lin was long experienced in these manoeuvers of deceit and treachery that often took place within the martial underworld.
Against another opponent, each would likely win, but against such fearsome opposition, who would be victorious was anyone’s guess. Either way, the outcome was likely to be short, fast and brutal if one did not back away from the challenge…
And then it happened.
One of her uncle’s fighters gave a loud groan, and doubled over.
Everyone looked at the man in shock, but then, another man did the same!
Gan gave Madam Lin a sharp look, “We checked the food for poison.”
The crone smiled. “Do you know why my grandchildren are called the Twin Dancers? Because two things which are good when apart can be most deadly when they are brought together.”
“No!” Gan shouted, and lunged at her with his sword, but the poison was already starting to affect him as well, and she easily avoided his clumsy attack. Then she counterattacked with her small hands in a burst of moves that left Gan, and the two nearest Mao men lying crumpled on the floor. Her grandson finished the others with equal speed, not leaving a single member of the Mao escorts standing.
Meiyu then watched as Madam Lin stood over the barely conscious Gan.
“I apologize for the methods, but we cannot have you following us. The poison is not lethal, and you will recover…in a few weeks.”
Then she turned and stabbed a finger at the innkeeper.
The short, chubby man bowed nervously. “Yes, my lady?”
“Their servants, fetch them.”
While the innkeeper sent a boy to do so, Meiyu considered her options. There wasn’t much she was going to be able to do against this old witch, and it sounded like if she kept still these devils would be gone soon. On the other hand, if they left they would take Little Jing, and when they learned she wasn’t Meiyu they would likely kill her.
There had to be a way out of this, and Meiyu struggled to think what it was as she watched Dancing Cloud escort Jing down the stairs to join the others below. What would Little Gou do in a situation like this, she found herself thinking. If only she’d paid more attention to those ridiculous stories he always told while trying to impress her. Perhaps there would have been something there she could use.
But no, she wasn’t Little Gou, she was Mao Meiyu, her father’s daughter.
And she knew what had to be done.
Meiyu waited until the lead servants appeared, and then made her move.
While Madam Lin instructed the servants to take the poisoned men to their master and pass along the message of her hostage, Meiyu got from her seat and walked down the stairs.
Dancing Blade saw her coming, and perhaps concerned she might be fighter or escort he let his hand fall on his sword hilt as he fixed her with his sharp gaze.
“Begone,” he said, watching her approach.
His need to speak caused the others to turn and look at her, and Meiyu saw the shock in Little Jing’s eyes as her friend saw her approach. She could see the pleading look in Jing’s expression, not for help, but for Meiyu to leave her be! But, this attempt at sacrifice only made Meiyu’s determination to carry through even stronger.
“You have the wrong girl,” Meiyu said, pulling off her black cap to let her long hair flow free. “I’m the one you want.”
For the first time in the evening, even Madam Lin looked confused.
“What is this?”
“I’m Mao Meiyu,” she said, standing before them. “That girl is my servant who was taking my place while I ate out here.”
The elder Lin looked her over with care, then had Dancing Cloud bring Jing closer so she could be examined. Finally, the old fighter looked at the servants from the caravan she had summoned.
“Is that one,” she said, pointing at Meiyu. “Your master’s daughter?”
No, the three servants assured her, Jing was in fact their master’s daughter, not this stranger.
Satisfied, the old woman made her decision, and at a nod from her, Jing was released and Dancing Sword grabbed Meiyu’s arm.
“You resemble your mother,” Madam Lin commented. “But, I needed their lies to be sure.”
When Last Brother Shou raised his hand, his two companions brought their horses to a stop. It had been almost a full day and a half since they had stolen these mounts after setting the barge on fire and fleeing from Green Rapids Town. Now, they were searching from inn to inn, looking for any sign or trace of the Mao bridal caravan.
Having stopped for dinner, their questions had borne fruit- some merchants had seen the very caravan they were looking for to the west earlier in the day. They didn’t even stay to finish their meals before they were on their hard-worn mounts again and riding, following directions to the most likely place where such a caravan would spend the night.
Now, just before midnight, they had found the Inn in question.
The three dismounted, and Shou sent Xiao to look in the stable yard.
He came back a few minutes later to indicate that there was indeed a large caravan here, including a bridal palanquin.
They had found the right place, at last.
Forming up with Shou at the lead, the three headed straight for the front gate of the Inn. It was quiet inside, but that wasn’t unusual for this hour. Only a few lanterns were lit, which meant most of the people would probably be asleep.
All the better for them. [Author’s Note: Shou, Xiao and Mah are not the good guys. ]
Pushing open the gate, they walked inside. The main hall of the inn was quiet, as expected, and the only occupants of the many tables were a chubby, balding man and what looked to be two servants sitting and talking over wine. The chubby man, who Shou took to be the innkeeper, jumped up and scurried to greet them.
“Gracious guests,” he said, bowing slightly, “Welcome. Welcome. Do you need a room for the night?”
Shou kept his voice low, glancing about.
“I’m looking for a bridal caravan owned by the Mao family. Are they staying here?”
The innkeeper froze, his smile fading.
“Ahh…Yes…” He finally said, and something about his tone and odd expression made Shou pause.
“Have they not all come?”
The Innkeeper hesitated, and then explained…
The sun had just crested the horizon to the east and the air was still filled with the light mists of morning when the horse Meiyu was riding came to an abrupt stop and jolted her out of the half-sleep fatigue had pushed her into.
Looking up, she saw they were now on the bank of what looked to be a long but extremely straight river. Dancing Cloud was beside her, looking as tired as Meiyu felt, and the elder Lin had gone forward with the girl’s brother to a very small port along the waterway. There, she could see them bargaining with some dark-skinned merchant from the South who was using his hands a lot.
“Where are we?” Meiyu asked, hoping the sister was feeling talkative.
The girl gave her a sharp look for talking, but then her face softened. She was too tired to play the captor. “It’s a canal,” she said in her thick Northern accent. “We’re going to travel by boat to prevent them from finding us.”
Meiyu nodded, but didn’t say anything. Weary as she was, even she knew that wasn’t correct. Maybe to Northerners, who lived in a dryer climate, water and river travel represented a way to lose their pursuers, but here in central China travel on the canals was anything but private. Not only would everyone in this village know the way they had gone, but everyone along the canal who they passed (and there would be many) would also take note of them.
Her father, Crocodile Mao, had earned his nickname because of his fondness for escorting people and goods on the rivers and canals of the central plains. The Empire was built on its ancient canals, and there was always trade passing along these busy networks of waterways. While it was not the majority of his business anymore, many of the tales Meiyu had grown up on were of jobs done on the water.
She knew the tricks of the trade here, but wondered if the Lin family did.
After a time, Madam Lin returned to the horses and ordered the girls to dismount. They untied Meiyu’s hands from the saddle horn, but kept her hands tied together and Dancing Cloud led her along like a horse. The whole group and their horses were escorted to the dock, which at the moment was empty of boats, barges, or anything else resembling transportation.
Dancing Cloud put her on a stone bench and told her to sit quietly, trying the end of the rope to nearby post, and then left Meiyu alone while she walked a short distance away to see to the horses. Not that this gave Meiyu a chance to escape, for Dancing Sword was still near her, seeing to his grandmother’s needs.
It seemed they were going to have to wait for the next barge. This suited Meiyu fine, as it meant she wouldn’t be on a moving animal. After the night before, even the bruises on her backside had bruises, and she enjoyed sitting on something flat and stable. She leaned back against the wall behind her and closed her eyes to enjoy the moment.
She must have dozed, because the next thing she was aware of was Dancing Cloud talking to her and shoving a steamed bun into her hands. As she accepted it, the other girl sat down beside her and began to eat. Meiyu watched as the desperately hungry girl, who wasn’t much older than herself, tried to find a way to eat the still too hot bun by blowing on it and taking small bites. It was all very childlike, and she began to feel that Dancing Cloud was actually a bit immature for her age, despite her stern manner.
Maybe, she thought, under other circumstances she and this girl might have been friends. They really weren’t so different, not at all. Well, except for this girl having the manners of a wolf cub.
Then the Lin girl, perhaps realizing that she was being watched, looked at her crossly and gestured toward Meiyu’s own bun.
Meiyu nodded and began to nibble, then she said. “Can I ask you something?”
The Lin girl looked at her suspiciously, but didn’t say no, so Meiyu continued. “Your grandmother said she wanted to trade me to my father for a box. What kind of box?”
“It is important, that is all I know.” The girl said. “Grandmother says we need it to get justice for my grandfather.”
Meiyu leaned in. “Master Lin was murdered?”
Dancing Cloud gave a sad nod of her head.
“Who did it?”
“We do not know. We sent letters to the council, but they refused to help us. If we have the box, grandmother says they will listen.”
“Wuyun,” Meiyu pleased. “This is wrong. Kidnapping me isn’t going to help bring justice for your grandfather.”
“You are the one who is wrong, child.” Came a voice, and Meiyu turned to look up into the angry eyes of Madam Lin. “The only thing those ***** sons of the council care about is power, so we will take their precious box from them and use it to make them help us. My late husband’s spirit will not rest until the blood of his enemy is poured on his grave.”
A fire burned brightly in the old woman’s eyes, one that Meiyu had seen many times in her short life as a member of the Jianghu martial arts underworld. It was the flame of vengeance, and it made a person sacrifice anyone and anything in order to achieve their bloody dreams. Seeing it in Madam Lin, Meiyu realized at that moment that there would be no reasoning with this woman or her grandchildren.
Talking her way out of this situation would be useless.
She was going to have to find another way.
It was well into the morning when the boat they were waiting for finally came. Manned by thin, bronze skinned men wearing broad-rimmed straw hats, the flat bottomed riverboat coasted up to the dock. Almost as soon as it was tied up, the men were scampering to take down the single white sail and transfer the wide boat’s cargo to the merchant’s men. Busy as ants, the bags of grain and boxes of vegetables they carried were unloaded onto carts that were driven up, and then left once they were full.
Once that was done, the dark-skinned merchant she had seen Madam Lin talk to earlier motioned for them to approach, and Meiyu saw him take Madam Lin’s money. The horses were taken aboard first, carefully tied in the middle of the boat, and then Meiyu and the family boarded and were given seats near the front.
The boatmen eyed Meiyu curiously as she was led aboard, but were smart enough to keep their questions to themselves in light of her armed escorts. She was again placed on a bench with Dancing Cloud as her guard, and after the boatmen loaded some other smaller cargo the ship cast off, heading south along the busy canal.
Meiyu drifted back to sleep for a time, the rocking of the boat soothing her, and was only awakened when she became conscious of the singing. Craning her neck around, she saw it was the boatman at the rudder. He had a strong, hearty voice for so thin a man, and the song was a familiar tune in one of the Southern dialects that Meiyu had heard many times. It wasn’t long before the other boatmen joined in as well, and soon the whole ship was filled with harmony.
Dancing Cloud looked around at them in wonder.
“Do you want to know what they’re singing?” Meiyu asked.
The Northern girl nodded.
“It’s a homecoming song,” Meiyu said, and then began to translate. “A husband has traveled far to make money for his family and braved many storms and bandits. Now he’s coming home, and they’re listing off the things he’s bringing for his wife and children. The chorus is the list of things he’s bringing back for them. ‘A jade for my wife, pure as the sky. A dress for my daughter, to bring a tear to her eye. A peach for my mother, as round as can be. A pole for my son, to be strong like me.'”
Dancing Cloud listened for a time, then said. “The caravan men of the North sing something like that when we travel with them. But, the lyrics are different.”
“There are many different versions of this song too, it changes depending on the singer and what they can come up with. Each singer will take his turn singing the chorus and add his own words to suit his song.”
As they listened, one of the men at the prow sang his version of the chorus, changing it to say what he’d be bringing back for each of his three sons while the others listened and laughed at his bawdy humor.
The verse done, the rest of the crew joined in the Chorus again, and this time Meiyu joined them. Her high soprano rose up to counterpoint their baritones in a way that made everyone sit up and listen.
When it came around to her turn for a verse, her voice raised into a beautiful tremolo, the words woven with imagery steeped in an archaic dialect from her ancestors.
The boatmen hummed quietly to her melody, smiling languidly as if this were a daily occurrence, and carried on with poling the barge. They were happy to have new voice in their old song, and listened with great intent. Despite themselves, the Lin family had to admire this beautiful melody echoing like a flock of songbirds hidden the surrounding trees.
Finally, her verse done, her voice drifted off and the crew once again picked up the rhythmic bass tones of the chorus.
“You sing very well.” Said an appreciative Dancing Cloud and Meiyu nodded her thanks. The Mao girl felt more relaxed now, much of her stress having been drained away by the effort of singing. She couldn’t help but smile that she’d finally put her hated singing coach’s long efforts to use.
The cicadas ringing in the distance, the afternoon wore on.
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!
Alternatively, if you’re interested in a free Review Copy, then email me at [email protected] and I’d be happy to give you one in the format of your choice in trade for a review if you like it.