Kidnapping, Part 1
Chun Lun swung his axe again with a grunt, and a shower of splinters rained over him as the blade bit into the soft, light pulp buried beneath the bark of the eucalyptus tree. Chun was a woodcutter in the village of Podang, old enough for his hair and beard – once soot-black – to have become more of a salt-and-pepper colour. His once-taut golden skin now had a few sags and wrinkles and his back ached when he worked too long, but he could still be found day after day up in the forest, chopping wood that would one day be made into sheets of parchment.
The tree he had been chopping creaked loudly and toppled to Chun’s right, coming down amid its fellows with a swish and a crash. Chun stood still and watched it, leaning on his axe, then he took out a roll-up he had crafted earlier that day and struck a sulphur match. Soon, aromatic baui smoke glittered in the sunshine reflected off the snow. Chun was swaddled in stripy grey otter-fur to combat the cold, and the sweet smoke helped warm his insides. After smoking, Chun chopped up the eucalyptus into small logs for easier transport and then wheelbarrowed some back downhill to Podang. His back was starting to ache and he knew he was done for the day, even though it was yet early afternoon.
He was slogging through the snowy streets toward his home, looking forward to seeing his family, when he was amicably waylaid by a stranger in rich ermine fur bearing parchments. The man was unusually tall and skinny as a rake. He carried an ash staff and looked neater than anyone else in the village with oiled-back hair and a carefully trimmed moustache. Chun stroked his own dirty beard self-consciously.
“Excuse me,” said the stranger in a voice as smooth and polished as lacquered wood, “but I wonder if you could help me locate a man by the name of Chun Lun?”
Chun eyed him suspiciously for a moment, being naturally wary of outsiders, as is any villager’s prerogative. “And what if I could?” he replied at last. “What would you say to him?”
“I would tell Sheng Chun that he has been selected to represent Podang at the Shenzhan’s son’s wedding in Lamshambule in two weeks’ time. I have invites for him and his family here.”
Chun frowned. The use of the honorific Sheng suggested this man was from rather more civilised circles, unused to backwater villages like Podang where they rarely bothered with such niceties. The man and his message stuck out like a goose at a singing contest. Furthermore, the Shenzhan was the provincial governor; why would he want a woodcutter at his son’s wedding?
“And what if Sheng Chun doesn’t want to go?”
The oily stranger nodded, as if he had been expecting that very answer. “Then, I have his execution writ in my other hand and we will choose a new representative.”
Chun’s good mood had evaporated by the time he got home. He banged open the door and growled at his wife, “Hao, we’re going to Lamshambule for the Shenzhan’s son’s wedding.”
“Ooo,” cooed his wife, Hao Nin, excitedly. “Why us?”
“I have no idea. I’m just a simple woodcutter, after all.”
“The children, too?”
“Yes, I have their invites here,” said Chun, looking down at the slips of parchment and remembering what had been in the tall stranger’s other hand. “Even the newly born.”
The children’s screams of joy when they were told they were visiting the capital were ear-piercing. A week later, Chun and his family were packing their bags onto a horse-drawn sleigh in the snow and waving goodbye to their neighbours in Podang. They travelled along dirt tracks and then paved roads, skidded over frozen lakes and skirted gurgling rivers and rumbled up and down hills for days. A week after they left, they were in the capital of Foyan province, Lamshambule.
Chun, Hao and their three children were awed, slack-jawed, by the immensity of the city, the like of which they had never seen before. They were used to more space, so the rows of tall, terraced buildings and the packed streets and all the noise intimidated them. Hawkers were yelling, and people were shouting and arguing or singing and dancing in a riot of colour wherever they looked, caught up in the celebratory spirit that had possessed the city as the wedding loomed close. Chun’s two older children hid behind him, crouching low as if to hide, as they strolled toward the Shenzhan’s manor. His wife carried the youngest, a newly born babe less than a year old.
A palace in all but name, the manor house was an extravagance of architecture, a behemoth of a building crafted from timber, stone, gold, silver, marble, and jade. Its façade was decorated with stone gargoyles with vicious fangs and claws and eyes of ruby or emerald. A sprawling affair, its four central roofs could be seen rising high above the rest, great domes of jade topped with golden spires that glinted in the sunlight. Chun thought it looked like the highest of them was a golden wind vane. The amount of wealth contained within its walls was incalculable.
Two lamellar-armoured guards and a servant awaited them under a great, arabesque stone arch at the grand, golden doors, which were embossed with scenes of old famous battles from the long history of Quing Tzu. The servant bowed stiffly to them with an expression of disdain barely veiled; he was dressed far more smartly than them, after all. He wore neat black-and-whites, while the family from Podang was clad in stinky old furs.
“Welcome,” he said nasally, as though he might be trying to hold his breath, “to the Shenzhan’s home. May I see your invitations?”
Chun brought them out from the folds of his clothes and handed them over. The servant took them with the very tips of his fingers and studied them a moment, squinting with his thin face close to the invites, his beak-nose practically touching them. Then, he regarded the villagers with a hard look, clearly surprised that they had invitations and that all appeared in order.
“Go on through,” he bit off the words at last with a false smile. “Give your coats to Harold over there. Enjoy the festivities.”
The family entered the manor and gawked at the antechamber, which was beset with all kinds of luxuries, from patterned metal wire chairs with plump cushions to large portrait paintings and friezes to the stone mosaic floor depicting mermaids to the crystal chandelier overhead. They gave their coats to another servant there, Harold, a chubby man who took their garments in much the same fashion as the doorman had taken their invites. Chun saw that he was trekking mud and snow all over the mosaic floor and brushed his simple woollen tunic self-consciously.
His wife, Hao Nin, spoke to their children in Tzunese, a more formal language that they used less often than Traveller’s. “Listen closely, you three. You must be on your best behaviour when we go in here, d’you understand? And you must only speak Tzunese from now on. Speaking Traveller’s in there will draw the wrong sort of attention. Eat cleanly, don’t wander off, speak only if you’re spoken to – and then speak politely. Understand?”
“Yes, ma,” they all said in Traveller’s Tongue.
“Tzunese!” she hissed in Tzunese.
“Yes, ma,” they all said again in Tzunese this time.
She looked their second-eldest, a girl with long, loose raven hair, in the eye and said, “Behave yourself, Fifi. There will be lots of handsome boys in here your age.”
Chun rolled his eyes; his daughter was only eleven years old and already his wife was thinking about suitors and marriage.
Then, Hao turned to their eldest, a boy of fifteen with his father’s dark hair and round face. “And you, Wulan, don’t be a grouch! Nobody likes a grouch.” Ironically, he scowled at her words.
She spoke finally to the babe in her arms in a high-pitched, singsong voice, “And you, Songba, don’t you be a little squealer now, you hear? D’you hear me, sweet cheeks?”
She cooed for a moment more, then Chun laid a hand on her shoulder. Others were passing them by and giving them strange looks.
“Come on,” he said and led them into the manor’s main hall.
Chun Lun had never felt so much like a country bumpkin in all his life as he did standing there in that room. There were as many people in the manor as in his entire village, it seemed, and they were all dressed far more smartly than he. The women all wore silk and satin ball-gowns and dresses, despite the season. Chun wondered if the creamy colours were supposed to blend with the snowy surroundings. The men wore silk robes or fashionable shirts or velvet doublets of darker, autumnal colours as was the current trend.
The chamber itself was magnificent, too; twin sets of curving marble stairs on either side of the room rose to a mezzanine, where bookshelves gave the area the feel of a grand library. Down on the ground level, there was space for a hundred people to move and mingle among couches and little pools and fountains and tables and chairs. The creamy, marble walls were lined with more portraits and tapestries, like the antechamber, and china ornaments marched along a mahogany mantle on either side of the room above twin lit, grand stone hearths. The carpet was thicker and creamier than any Chun had ever seen, and he felt guilty just stepping on it with his travel-stained boots.
“What are we doing here?” he asked Hao.
“We were invited,” she reminded him. “Forcefully invited.”
A woman up on the mezzanine spotted them, waved and began to hurry down the marble steps towards them, beaming sweetly. She was the very picture of beneficence, in fact; small and petite, she was ageing with dignity with pale golden skin, a kind demeanour and the most charming of smiles. Her onyx hair, tied up in complicated knots, bounced as she sprang down the stairs one by one, almost childlike in her innocence.
She stopped before them and kowtowed. “Gods watch,” she said in a high, warm voice; the fancy equivalent of saying hello or goodbye. “My name is Ada Yuongang. I am Shenzhan Tung’s wife. Welcome to our home. I am so pleased you could be here to celebrate our son’s nuptials!”
“You know us, my lady?” asked Hao, so taken aback she forgot to give the proper greeting, remembering late to bow in return.
“Of course!” Ada smiled. “You must be the Chun family from Podang. I am so glad you made it in time. I know it was a long journey. Come, come with me and I’ll show you to refreshments. You must be hungry and thirsty.”
They were, and they followed her happily to a nearby table laden with odd delicacies; little finger-snacks like clams and cold sausages that would do nothing in the fight against hunger one by one. Chun regarded them askew, and Ada laughed a tinkling laugh to see him so clearly ill at ease.
“Don’t worry, Sheng Chun,” she said, stroking his arm, “you can have as many as you please and there are roast ducks and pheasants scattered around on the other tables, too. Help yourself to as much as you please. You are our guests.”
Mollified, Chun said, “Thank you, my lady. We appreciate the hospitality, don’t we, children?”
“Thank you,” the two older children chorused obligingly.
“What wonderful little darlings,” Ada crooned, pinching Fifi’s cheek with long, colourful nails. Fifi clearly didn’t appreciate it and pulled away. “Just wait until they grow up and get married!” She sighed. “What a joyous day today is, for my son to wed his soulmate. I couldn’t be happier! Please, enjoy yourselves and I hope to see you again later. There are others I must greet. Farewell for now! Gods watch!”
“Well, she was a delight,” Hao observed.
Chun nodded. “You heard her. Help yourselves, Fifi, Wulan. Eat till you pop, that’s what I say!”
They sat down and dug in.
Against tradition, the wedding itself was to take place in the manor, since it was so much larger than any of the temples nearby and there were so many guests. Shenzhan Tung was not one for tradition. He had, however, imported holy men from the Temple of Harpin-Wa-ning, the Goddess of Love and Fertility, to officiate the ceremony.
While the Chun family were still filling their cheeks like hamsters expecting a famine, one of the holy men struck a gong and its ringing soon put an end to all other noise. All eyes turned toward the front of the hall, where the brown-robed holy men stood beside the bride and groom in all their finest regalia on a raised, rug-laden dais.
One of the holy men, the lead officiant leaning over a wooden pulpit, cleared his throat when the gong stopped ringing and then spoke in a dry, hoary voice, going through the blessings and benedictions for the bride and groom and their families and listing their duties as husband and wife. The ceremony proceeded without incident. The bride and groom kissed, the marriage was cemented, and the crowd’s cheers shook the crystal chandeliers overhead.
Then, the revelries commenced in earnest and the Chun family found themselves in the middle of a zoo at feeding time as people bumped them from all sides in their raucous rush to fill their bellies with food and wine. Chun and his two older children soon had food-stains on their tunics, while his wife somehow managed to abstain.
A little while later, when the ambience had calmed somewhat and everyone was good and sozzled, Ada Yuongang visited the Chun family again, dimpling her cheeks with her friendly smile.
“Hello again,” she said. “I hope you’re having a good time! I have a treat for you. The Shezhan and I are about to give our speech, and I’ve reserved seats for you up front! Come along, come along!”
Reluctant, but unwilling to offend, Chun and his family followed the sweet old lady to seats by the dais. There, she left them to join her husband.
Not long later, the Shenzhan, Tung Fuo, stood up on the dais with his wife to make a toast. Tung Fuo was a big man with a stern, shaven face and grey hair, who had once been strong before his dotage, and he still maintained a straight spine and a snappish military conduct most of the time. Now, though, he too was giggly and wobbly from an excess of wine, which – like Chun – he had spilled over himself, staining his crimson doublet and fawn trousers. He made a slurred speech that few could understand, but at which everybody laughed when he did. Then, he stumbled off to one side of the dais to let his wife speak over the central pulpit.
Ada Yuongang smiled sweetly out at all the happy, drunken faces beaming up at her. Her pink ball-gown was immaculate. “Thank you all for coming, thank you so much!” she began in her high lark-song. “What a day it’s been! I’m surprised my husband can still stand, given how much he has drunk!” There were titters all around the room, and the Shenzhan happily saluted the room with his sloshing glass. “Then again, I’m surprised his cock is still in his trousers, given his sexual appetites.”
The room went deadly silent, and someone dropped a glass, which smashed with a loud tinkle.
“What in the name of the –” Tung Fuo began, storming toward his wife.
She stepped to meet him and shoved him in the chest, sending him sprawling on the rugs. Old and drunk as he was, he wriggled there like an impotent upturned turtle, unable to right himself with ease.
“I bet he’s been walking all around the room tonight, grabbing every woman by the pussy,” Ada continued, looking around. “Sorry about that, girls, but at least you don’t have to live with him, eh? I have had to live with that lecherous git for years. Now, it is time for his comeuppance. Behold what I have brought here tonight! Behold Shenzhan Tung Fuo’s bastard son, Chun Lun!”
She pointed at Chun, who went still as a statue with his eyes bugging out of his head. He didn’t know what to do; suddenly he was the goose at the singing contest, and everyone was staring at him. A few armoured guards were helping Tung Fuo to his feet by this point, and Chun prayed the Shenzhan would do something to take the attention off him. He never imagined that what Ada was saying could be true.
“Tell them, Tung Fuo!” Ada Yuongang demanded, turning to her husband, who was standing once more. “Tell them about all the bastards you’ve sired over the years! This one was just the easiest to find!”
Tung Fuo looked around at the room with a stony face, smoothing his doublet and somehow managing to seem dignified despite having been writhing around on the floor. He stared daggers at his wife, and then darted a look towards Chun that the woodcutter thought looked almost apologetic.
“Nonsense!” Tung said coldly at last. “I am a man of nobility and honour. I gave my word that I would be faithful to you, and I have kept it. You have no proof to the contrary! You are only embarrassing yourself and your son with your wild paranoia, woman!”
He struck her with the back of his hand, and the chamber erupted into cacophonic chaos as people bellowed approval or disapproval and rushed the dais to help or hinder the Shenzhan.
Chun rose to his feet. “Time to go, children,” he shouted over the ruckus in Traveller’s. “We’ve been tricked into coming under false pretences. That sow just wanted to use me to make a point! Come on, let’s get out of here!”
Overhearing the woodcutter, Tung Fuo – protected by a ring of guards – rounded on him and shouted, “Yes, get out, you! Guards, throw this man out! He’s no son of mine!”
Despite the fact that they were already leaving, the lamellar-armoured guards came for the Chun family then. They grabbed hold of them with painfully tight grips of their gauntlets, dragged them back to the golden double-doors through which they had entered and tossed them out into the street. Chun and his older children were thrown out on their faces, while the guards were kind enough to let Hao leave carrying the baby. They weren’t complete monsters, Chun reflected, face-down in the muck of the street. Their coats were tossed out on top of them.
“Good riddance to the lot of you!” he cried, sitting up and waving an angry, but impotent, fist. “We never wanted to come to this bloody wedding anyway!”
The guards ignored him and went back inside, slamming the doors behind them.
“Well, that was … unexpected,” Hao observed dryly.
“Weddings, eh?” Chun joked weakly. “They’re always a hotbed for madness. And I don’t think being rich and powerful makes it any easier. They’re all nuts in there! I for one am glad I’m not the Shenzhan’s son. I’m much happier with you lot back in Podang.” He smiled and held out his arms, still sitting on the ground, and Fifi and Wulan hugged him tight. “Come on, it’s late so we’re not going to travel tonight. Let’s go find an inn and rest until morning, then we’ll go home.”
Unbeknownst to them, as they left, they were followed by a tall, slender figure cowled and hooded in the shadows.
Chun and his family found that the inns nearby were all full, so eventually they settled for paying an innkeeper for the privilege of sleeping on his common room floor.
Later that night, the door to the inn banged open and Chun and his family came awake with a start. Two figures entered through the doorway, silhouetted against silvery moonlight. As they came closer and pulled down their black facemasks, Chun realised with a lurch of the stomach that he knew both of them; it was the oily, moustached stranger who had given him the invites in Podang and Ada Yuongang. Both were dressed all in black and did not look polite or friendly anymore.
“Hello again, Chun family,” said Ada, her voice cold and hard now, all trace of her former sweetness scoured away. Her face was bruised where the Shenzhan had hit her. “I know I have put you through a lot already tonight, but I need one more thing from you before you leave, I’m afraid.”
“What do you want, you hag?” Chun hissed, getting slowly to his feet.
“My son, Tung Shaku, cannot bear children,” explained Ada, “but he needs an heir, or else the head of another family will be made Shenzhan. So, I am going to take your new-born son and give him to Tung Shaku to raise as his own. We’ll have to hide the baby for a while, of course, and the wife to give her time to pretend –”
“What?” interrupted Chun loudly, going red with anger. “No, you can’t have him, you –”
“Sow?” Ada offered just as loudly. “You called me that once already tonight. Don’t think I didn’t hear you. And I am taking that baby, Chun, so you can make it easy for yourself or you can make it difficult. Either way, the result will be the same.”
“I wasn’t going to say sow; I was going to say bitch!” Chun raged. “You can’t have him, I’ll fucking flay you, you –”
He stormed toward her, intent on pummelling her stupid face. The tall stranger moved like lightning; he pointed his staff and a small green globule of energy sizzled as it shot through the air and punched Chun to the ground before he could lay a finger on the Shenzhan’s wife. Then, the stranger crouched quickly over the woodcutter and delivered a few fast, hard punches to the face. Dazed, Chun rolled around on the floor groaning. Hao was up on her feet now, clutching little Songba and whimpering.
Fifi was cowering behind her mother, but Wulan charged at the man who had struck his father, screaming, “I’ll kill you!”
The man in black knocked him unconscious with one swift blow to the jaw.
“This is my associate,” said Ada, “Sheng Chongyo. He is a Wizard, and he will be the one breaking your legs if you resist. Sheng Chongyo, the baby, if you please.”
There was a puff of purple smoke, and a moment later Chongyo was across the room by Hao’s side, his naked dagger held to her neck, his staff across her body. Chun forced himself to his feet, his visage battered and bloodied, but it was too late. Chongyo watched him knowingly.
“Let us leave with the baby,” said Ada, “and the rest of you may live.”
Chongyo was already forcing Hao towards the door, and Chun dared not stop him. One slip of that blade and Hao’s lifeblood would be gushing all over the floor; the thought made him queasy.
“I just want to keep things in the family, really. It’s what any mother would do for her son,” Ada continued once Chongyo was by her side. She studied Chun for a moment. “You really are Tung’s bastard son, you know. You even look a little like him around the eyes. That’s why I expect your baby will be a perfect fit. And don’t worry, we won’t abuse the little darling. He’ll be given every comfort – far more than you could provide more him, in fact, I am sure. So, in a way, I am doing you all a favour.”
Chun wanted to rip her throat out with his teeth. He was shaking with rage, but he said nothing.
“Oh, and if you think of telling anyone about this,” Ada added, “Sheng Chongyo here will skin you alive and make you eat your own flesh. No one would believe you anyway; you have no proof. If you think of coming for the baby, Sheng Chongyo will boil you alive and feed you to your wife. We are the richest family in Foyan, and like I said, he is a Wizard. We can get to you wherever you are, whatever you do. Remember that, Chun.”
Chun wanted to bathe in her blood, but he did nothing.
“Come, Sheng Chongyo,” said Ada finally, seeing that Chun was not rising to her bait. She took the Wizard’s staff. “Grab the babe and let’s get out of here.”
Chongyo pressed the dagger deeper into Hao’s neck, snatched little baby Songba out of her arms and then pushed her to the ground before fleeing out the door after Ada Yuongang. Chun stood still while Hao rushed to the door with a howl and watched the two figures disappear into the night.
“Why didn’t you stop them?” Hao railed at Chun then, striking his chest while she sobbed. “Why didn’t you do something, damn you?”
Chun ground his teeth and shook his head. His wife thought he was going to pop with rage, but when he spoke his words came out quiet.
“It wasn’t the right time,” he said, his eyes gleaming with intent. “I couldn’t do anything without someone here dying. I didn’t want that. This way, everyone is alive. This way, we can get Songba back and kill the rich pricks who took him.”
To be continued …
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