A Deadly Present for the Khan

Moshi Usuru was nervous.

He was nervous about a great many things, in fact. For one thing, he was nervous about where they were; he was accompanying Ambassador Sifang south from Yuguanji, the final fort in Qin Xi Wall, leaving the Empire of Quing Tzu entirely. He had travelled before, of course – it was mandatory for a Wizard to visit the far corners of the Empire to fully understand it – but he had never ventured beyond its vast borders. He glanced back wistfully across the empty panorama at the fort; impressive up close, it was now a speck in the distance, hardly more comforting than the presence of a gnat. The Wall, so vast and indomitable when he had been in its shadow, now could not even be seen.

He was nervous about entering the land known as Chimanchu; it was a barren, dusty, lawless land, where there was no ruler, no oligarchy, no democracy, no system of government whatsoever. There were only clans forever at war with one another, riding into battle again and again on their fearsome steeds, fighting just as fiercely over feuds long forgotten as fresh ones newly made. It was a land of barbarism, a land where the strong took from the weak, a land where surviving until sunset each day was a challenge.

In short, it was nothing like Moshi’s home. He still thought of Xi’Ping, the capital city of the province of Shaanchang, as his home. He had lived there for most of his thirty-two years, after all. That was where the Chi Academy could be found, where he had studied for more than a decade. The Viper Tower was there; that was where he had become a Wizard and received his staff.  It was lush and beautiful up there in the north of Quing Tzu, green and vibrant, warm and sunny – nothing like Chimanchu.

Moshi glanced up at the broad blue sky and thought it a paler, icier blue than he was used to. Where Xi’Ping was green and wet, Chimanchu was brown and dry. Where Xi’Ping was fit to burst with people, Chimanchu was empty, devoid of life. Where Xi’Ping was order, Chimanchu was chaos. Moshi’s horse lurched and almost threw him off and he let out a garbled cry, letting dust into his mouth, thinking all the while of how much he missed the quiet libraries of the Academy. He thought of the two books in his pack; they would have to suffice until he returned to civilisation.

He was also nervous about riding the horse. It was a huge, fractious, speckled grey gelding, bigger by far than anything he had ridden before. Somebody had given the monster the ironic name of Sweetpaw. It was supposed to make him look impressive, formidable, Moshi reckoned, but all it did in reality was churn his stomach. The ground looked very far away beneath him, and the cursed beast insisted on rearing every once in a while as though it didn’t want to be ridden. He had never quite perfected the rhythm of riding, either, so when when they started trotting, he bounced around in the saddle like a sack of potatoes loosely tied down. Even at a walk, his bottom and spine were soon railing against the ache. So he was nervous, because knew he had a long journey ahead of him.

He was nervous, too, about the company he was keeping. Ambassador Sifang was not known for his easy-going nature or merciful tendencies. He was strict, by the book, and unforgiving as winter. He was the epitome of the politician, Moshi supposed, glancing the man’s way anxiously. Lantang Sifang was riding beside him, pointedly ignoring him. Being far richer, more influential and generally higher up in the indecipherable echelons of Quing Tzu society, Sifang had every right to ignore those beneath his station – such as Moshi and everybody else on the mission.

Moshi was glad the ambassador was oblivious to him, in fact; it was better than speaking to the pompous buffoon. Every time the fool opened his mouth, it was to make a demand or sound an insult, or more likely both. Then, Moshi would have to grovel and nod and obsequiously get on with whatever infuriatingly nonsensical task he was assigned, like preparing the man’s tea in the evening. Moshi wanted to throw the steaming hot tea in the man’s face every night, but instead he kowtowed and gently poured it from the kettle into the little china cup the ambassador had brought along.

Being higher on the pecking list had its advantages, Moshi had to admit – like being able to make or break a simple Wizard in your employ. Moshi did not technically work for the ambassador, but when a first minister makes a request of the Chi Academy, the Academy endeavours to fulfil that request and impresses upon the Wizard it sends to do so that he will be excommunicated if he fails. So, for all intents and purposes, Moshi worked for Sifang.

If he failed here, his life as he knew it would be over. He would be cast out of the Academy, his staff would be taken from him, and he would be tossed into the gutters. With the shame that would come with such an expulsion, it would be unlikely his family would take him in. They would not want their reputations tarnished. He would be ruined. He had been unable to say no to the mission, of course. One does not say no to the Academy; that would have been social suicide just as surely as failing would. Moshi smiled to himself nervously; he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. The only way to continue living in comfort and retain his own and his family’s honour was to succeed in this mission, to venture out into the wilds of Chimanchu and return. So, that was what he would do.

Lantang Sifang was a flower in that wasteland, draped in his finest, most colourful silks, purple and pink and rose from head to toe. His gauzy hat covered a bald head that looked too large for his bony body; a beak for a nose only added to his comically birdlike appearance. His eyes were squinty from counting numbers and reading ledgers all his life. In contrast, Moshi looked like a duck beside a swan, garbed in the simplest, and itchiest, of woollen brown robes and leather sandals. The wool was thin, but it chafed like fire and felt as hot under the sun, too.

That was another thing he was nervous about; the weather. It was said that Chimanchu was cold, and Moshi hated the cold. So far, it had not yet seeped into his bones, but he thought he could feel the temperature dipping further every night the further south they travelled. He subtly used spells to warm himself and prayed the thirty soldiers with whom he and the ambassador travelled did not know he could do so, lest they ask him to do the same for them.

The main causes for his fraying nerves, however, were Pai and the man to whom they were delivering her. Moshi turned to regard the Pai Tse, whom he had taken to calling Pai. She was a wondrous creature, which most believed to be entirely mythical. Pai Tse were the stuff of legends, or at least had been thought extinct for many hundreds of years. Then, the minister had found rumour of one and sent Moshi to capture it.

Moshi remembered the days of searching for her amid the swamps in the east, the heat and the mosquitos. He remembered the battle with the beast, remembered her deadly way with water. She had lashed the ship with supernatural waves and flayed the crew with stinking waterspouts, drenching them and killing more than one brave man. He remembered using a ghostly hand of mist to hoist the creature up out of the white marshes, separating her from her beloved home and weakening her. He remembered how she had writhed in dismay and how she had almost capsized the ship in her fury, able to control the bog even while she was in the air. Such innate powers of mastery of the water had stunned Moshi; he had thought he was going to die that day.

Fortunately for him, he had been able to read the beast’s mind and understand her urges quickly. Moshi had always had a quick mind and found it easy to empathise with anyone and anything. He had sensed the creature’s thought patterns and had understood how she manipulated the pools. Then, feeling like a torturer, like a cruel and vindictive master of evil, he had forcibly dampened the Pai Tse’s mind, her energies, with his own, blanketing it with power and subduing it like holding a pillow over its face. He had not destroyed the mind, though; only dulled it to dim-wittedness, so that the legendary creature could no longer access her inherent powers. He had numbed her to the point that she could not think at all.

He hated himself for that. He felt like he had degraded and was constantly degrading this ancient, noble creature.  He had to focus his energies on dampening her spirit with every waking moment, only snatching quick naps when she herself fell asleep lest she regain her powers. The idea of that made him nervous, too; so nervous he could barely catch a wink even when the opportunity presented itself.

Pai looked almost peaceful in her huge water tank on the back of the special-made flat-back wagon. She looked like a salamander, only on a far greater scale. Her wedge-shaped head was facing him, her tiny black eyes judging him. Her mottled orange-and-blue skin, bumpy with nodes, shone healthily under the sun’s glow, but he knew she had no will to move, or to live. She lay still; her four stumpy legs did not so much as twitch. Her long tail, which could once have killed a man, now did not swish in the slightest. He shook his head sadly; a twenty-foot-long monster reduced to a prisoner, a plaything, a pawn in a game.

They had lashed the tank down with about a hundred straps, but it still jostled precariously as the wagon rumbled down the rutted dirt road. Gone were the paved roads of civilisation; they were entering the Badlands now. Moshi wondered if Pai could even survive out here; there was little water away from the river they were following.

Moshi thought anxiously of the man to whom they were delivering Pai: Nebaatar Khan, the most powerful clan chief in all of Chimanchu – or so he claimed. He claimed to have conquered and amalgamated half a dozen clans into his own; he claimed to rule more than a thousand men. Moshi doubted it; these chiefs were given to hyperbole, and he thought it unlikely from history’s evidence that a thousand of them could be in the same place without starting a war with one another. Still, he believed that the man was not to be crossed, especially out here in his own home.

The first minister, Hong Maoa, had apparently been in contact with this Khan and – upon hearing rumour of its existence – had agreed to send him the legendary Pai Tse as a gesture of friendship, so that Quing Tzu and Chimanchu could improve their centuries-long hostile relationship. It had seemed like a noble mission when Minister Haoa had explained it to him, but now Moshi had a sour taste on his tongue and he was beginning to feel like the epitome of the evil Wizard the common people so feared. He felt like he had been used for politics, and he felt soiled by the experience. He would finish this mission, he decided, and then go somewhere far away. He would become a hermit in the mountains, perhaps; he would not be used again. For the sake of his own sanity, he would not be used again.

He mouthed to Pai, “I’m sorry.”

Moshi, Pai, Ambassador Sifang and their entourage followed the Silver River south, tracking its meandering course through barren plains that gave way to scrubland. When the scrubland reluctantly abdicated the land in favour of grassland, Moshi was shocked. A single blade of grass was more than he had thought to find growing down here, however one day he could not see but for green fields. Chimanchu was more verdant than he had ever dreamed possible, it seemed. He wondered why he had not known; all the stories painted the infamous Badlands as a dusty waste, and yet now he saw the land was much the same as parts of Quing Tzu.

A few days out from Yuguanji, however, the promised cold did indeed materialise. Moshi awoke one morning shivering in his blankets, and the climate had only worsened after that. Soon, spending a night out under the stars in Chimanchu seemed equivalent to spending a night in the Nether. Every night, Moshi went to sleep shaking with the chill, and every morning he awoke with it in his bones. Sleeping on the icy, rock-hard ground did not help; it was so hard-packed in fact that Moshi wondered that any grass could grow at all, forcing its way up through the unwelcoming clay. It was a symbol of the tenacity of life that the flora had found a way, marvelled Moshi.

After following the Silver River south for more than a week, deeper and deeper into Chimanchu, Moshi was slack-jawed one morning to see a little woodland rearing its hoary head in the distance. Nobody had told him forests grew down here!

As they neared it, all that day, Moshi kept thinking he must be seeing a mirage, hallucinating from sleep deprivation. When sunset came and they were standing in the shadows of birches and poplars, however, Moshi could not doubt his eyes any longer. He reached out to touch a tree in a daze, staring at it like a child at its first sight of snow. Chimanchu was not exactly how he had imagined.

“We’ll stop here for the night!” Ambassador Sifang drawled when they reached the woods. “Set up camp!”

The ambassador had a large and exquisitely made tent of animal hide in which to bed down, while Moshi – being a simple Wizard and therefore living a monastic life – had no tent to his name nor money to buy one. He had imagined the ambassador would provide him a tent when he had set out from Yuguanji, but he had quickly been proven wrong. So, he learned the love the hard ground – or he tried to at any rate.

Sifang waved Moshi over once the camp was established, and the Wizard grudgingly put down one of his two books and moseyed over to sit next to the ambassador by the fire.

“Wizard! How is the Pai Tse?” Lantang Sifang asked, seeming like he could not care less about the answer.

“She is … well,” answered Moshi. “As well as she can be in such circumstances.”

“Seems like you’re doing a fine job keeping her senseless, a fine job!”

Moshi bowed his head. “Thank you, Ambassador. I do my best to please.”

“Indeed you do, indeed you do.” Sifang seemed to forget Moshi was there then; he pulled out his pipe, stuffed some baui in the bowl, lit it and puffed until smoke swam around him like little white tadpoles.

“If I may, ambassador, how much longer will we be on the road before we reach our destination?”

“Damn you, man!” burst out Sifang, spouting billows of smoke. “You’re like a nagging old wife with your questions! Didn’t I tell you we’d be there in a few days? We follow the river south, and then – when it veers east sharply – we are to keep going south until we find some old ruins. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No, Ambassador, you declined to share that information. You only told me at Yuguanji that it would take ‘a few weeks.’”

Sifang narrowed his eyes at Moshi. “Watch your tongue, Wizard. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that was insouciance in your tone! You don’t want Minister Maoa to send anything less than a glowing report back to the Academy, do you?”

Moshi throttled the urge to throttle the man. “No, Ambassador.”

“No … I thought not!” he sneered derisively. “You Wizards think you’re so big and powerful, but when it comes down to it you’re just children compared to those of us with real power, aren’t you? Do you know what real power is, Wizard? Real power is the ability to kill a man with a word. Real power is the ability to take what you want with a coin. Real power is the ability to influence the lives of thousands of other men and women, to influence a whole nation! That is real power, Wizard, and it is something that I have and you do not!”

Moshi imagined setting the man on fire, or boiling him in acid. “As you say, Ambassador.”

“That’s why these savages down south will never have any real power,” Sifang continued, puffing on his pipe and staring into the flames. “Because they can never agree on anything, they can never accomplish anything. No one man among them is strong or clever enough to unite them.” He shook his head. “Idiots.”

Moshi frowned. “D’you know that if such a man existed – if one man ever did unite all the clans, all the thousands upon thousands – it is likely he could topple the Empire within a year? Those are the Academy’s best estimates. One year. That’s all it would take these savages to destroy Quing Tzu.”

Sifang waved a languid, uncaring hand. “Well, thank the Gods they can’t agree on anything then. Otherwise we’d really be in trouble, eh?” His tone was snide.

“You don’t believe me?” Moshi said. “There are hundreds of thousands of warriors down here, men and women both, warriors born. They can ride a horse from the age of five and shoot a bow from the age of seven and shoot a bow while riding a horse by the age of ten. They are some of the toughest people in the world, it is said. They have their own culture and their own language – did you know they don’t even call this land Chimanchu?”

“Who cares what they call it?” drawled Sifang. “They are savages. They can call it what they please. We know it is Chimanchu.”

“Devoid of life,” Moshi translated the name roughly into Oracle Bone Script, the language found preserved on ancient oracle bones.  

Just before dawn the next day, Chimanchu struck out at those infiltrating its borders. In the grey light of pre-dawn, horsemen burst, ululating, from the woodland, waving curved cavalry sabres. Moshi, who had been snoozing fitfully while he had the chance, woke to see fifty riders tearing toward the camp from the treeline.

 

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