Bian’s Tale – Revenge – fourth part
Here is the sixteenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the fourth part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.
Unpleasant dialogue. My apologies.
If you’re just arriving here, and haven’t read from the start of this serial, here’s a link to the beginning: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/bians-tale-innocence/ and each episode has a ‘next post’ at the bottom to take you to the next episode.
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Part 6 – Revenge
“Do you?” Bác Thảo said. “It looks as if Song does.”
And he laughed.
“A child in the bed warms your cold Athanate heart, does it?” he said to Master Song. “She bleeds one way or another.”
Zheng joined him in laughter, slapping his knee.
I could feel the shock and anger from the rest of my House and I finally understood what Qingzhao had been warning me about this meeting; that it was no more than a continuation of the attack last night. She’d warned me of so many things my head had started to spin, but importantly, as the newest member of House Song, I might be the weakness they sought to exploit.
They were, and it was a well chosen strategy.
Luckily, my own body betrayed me. If I could have risen, I would have, but I was too weak with anger. The effects of the changes in my Blood swamped me. I was so angry my muscles wouldn’t work.
I wanted to kill them both, even though I had no weapon and they were powerful men. They’d kill me easily, but it was worse than that. They were here under Song’s Blood oath that no harm would come to them here. Athanate did not break Blood oaths lightly. A Blood oath sunk itself into your very being.
And if you ever have the strength to break an oath in desperation, Qingzhao had said, be very sure you leave no witnesses. To break a Blood oath is to be declared rogue, with every Athanate obligated to kill you.
My Master’s Blood oath was my Blood oath.
Even with my chang gùn in my hands, I could not harm them. To do so would have been as much a betrayal as striking at my own Master. If I broke the oath he’d given, they would declare him a rogue. House Song would not survive.
Hidden from sight by Qingzhao kneeling in front of us, Li’s hand came across the space between us and squeezed mine briefly.
Be strong. I believe in you.
I took a raw, painful breath, desperately seeking calmness against the rising fury in my mind.
House Jian and House Thorn, I saw, sat in stony silence. As did the Diakons, even Zheng’s.
That helped a little, but Zheng himself wasn’t finished.
“Did Beauclerc and Riossi not satisfy you, whore?” he said to me. “Not skilled enough, were they? Or simply not big enough?”
“That’s the trouble, eh?” Bác Thảo said. “These whores get looser until only a horse will do.”
Zheng found that hilarious. He pounded his hand on his knee and gasped in amusement.
My vision grew dark. I closed my eyes. If I looked at them, I would be overwhelmed with the desire to kill them, and the thought would become the agent of the deed.
Even in the blood-red darkness behind the shutters of my eyelids, I could sense their shadowy forms and I could feel their cruel barbs.
And then, as real as if I could touch her, I felt Maman kneel beside me and the darkness dissolved into the sharp-edged memories of another time, long ago, in my bedroom at Boulevard Bonnard.
I am ten, or eleven. Still struggling to find my place in this different culture.
I remembered it so clearly, the soft rustle of her dress, that scent of fruits and flowers I found so comforting.
I am not crying. I do not allow myself tears, but she knows.
What’s happened? she asks.
They were rude again, I reply.
Sévigny? She doesn’t really need to ask that.
There will come a time, she says, and pauses for a moment, her voice catching. We shield our children, but there will come a time when we cannot. At that time, you will find you have become so very strong, my daughter. When Chantal Sévigny comes to her time of testing, and she will, do you think she will be as strong?
I opened my eyes again to reflected sunlight on the pavilion steps and the quiet ranks of House Song kneeling in the Bloodstone Pavilion.
These were crude insults from Zheng and Bác Thảo, cruder than I had ever heard aimed at me. I was vulnerable: weak from the poison; weak from the effects of the Athanate infusion in my Blood; weak from the emotional storms of crusis.
But I had been trained to endure insults by Chantal Sévigny, and these guffawing oafs with their blunt sexual slurs were nothing next to the stiletto of that viper’s tongue.
I forced myself look at them directly and stay still.
I will be the death of both of you, I promised myself silently. Some day, when I am not bound from harming you, I will kill you. With a shock I felt my silent words sinking into me, cooling the temper of my Blood. This is my Blood oath.
Seeing in my eyes that he’d failed at the first attempt, Zheng tried again with a different approach.
“Why is she here?” he asked my Master.
“All Athanate in my House are here,” Song responded. His voice was soft, without emotion, as if they were discussing the cost of rice.
“Athanate. Since when?” Zheng squinted at me. He’d met me on the docks, the day after the Harvest Ball, when he’d come looking for my tutor. He’d have known I wasn’t Athanate then.
But he knew I was now. He knew I would still be in crusis. His insults had been intended to exploit that. This new attack was the same, but directly against Song himself.
Song had to realize it as well, but he answered: “Two months ago.”
“Times must be hard when all you can find to infuse is a faithless child whore.”
“She is none of the things you so ignorantly accuse her of,” Song said, still speaking mildly. “She’s not a child, she’s not a whore and she’s certainly not faithless.”
And finally one of the others interrupted.
“For all your spies, you seem to be very badly informed about Saigon and House Song,” Thorn said to Zheng. “Perhaps you’re making assumptions based on the way things happen in the domains of Basilikos?”
There was a hiss of amused breath from Jian’s Diakon, the big Mongolian, and a smile from the sinewy Siamese woman behind Thorn.
Nothing showed on the blank Khymer face of Zheng’s Diakon.
Zheng spared a glance full of hate for House Thorn, but he concentrated on Song. “You can’t deny she’s young,” he said. “The Agiagraphos is clear – to successfully become Athanate, the mind must be fully developed and settled in its nature.”
Zheng had tried to show I was not successfully Athanate by making me respond to his insults. Having failed at that, he was trying to achieve the same end using the Agiagraphos, the book of rules governing Athanate life. The Agiagraphos was part philosophy, part rulebook. It was the sacred book of the Athanate. If Zheng persuaded the others that Song was breaking some rules in it, then the course of action was clear: all neighboring Athanate House must put aside any differences in creed or disputes of domain; they must combine to eradicate the errant House in their midst.
This attack I couldn’t defend against. I could only watch.
“Strange days are upon us when Basilikos lecture others on the observance of Agiagraphos rules,” Song said.
Zheng face reddened.
House Jian waved a languid hand. “Strange days indeed. No matter. She is undeniably young, House Song. She is, or was, also a prominent and recognizable member of the Saigon community. Crude insults aside, I’m interested in your reasoning for choosing this young woman as a suitable candidate to enlarge your House, given the original plan of an association with her father failed.”
I could see Qingzhao’s back stiffen as Jian spoke. She hadn’t expected an attack from the Empire of Heaven. House Jian might not indulge in crude insults, but she was supporting the question of whether House Song had broken any of the Agiagraphos rules.
In my hurried talk with her earlier, Qingzhao had been clear who she thought the most potentially dangerous person at this meeting was: House Jian. The problem was, we couldn’t be sure which side she was on, ours or theirs. Or neither.
That uncertainty made her next words chilling.
“The Emperor understood the need to advance an association with Monsieur Beauclerc, even though there would be extreme risk for the Athanate at the point where you revealed your true nature to him. The Emperor also understood the ploy of becoming tutor to the man’s daughter, against the potential return when he became Governor Beauclerc,” she said. “Now, with all those returns apparently lost, you have still taken her into your House. This decision the Emperor does not understand. Does it mean you believe there is still hope for Beauclerc to become governor?”
She was offering a slim way out. Could my Master persuade her that my adoptive father had a chance to recover his position?
But Yi Song did not take the Empire’s offered approach.
“The Emperor has misunderstood what you have termed a ‘ploy’.” Songs words, delivered without expression, might as well have been a slap across House Jian’s face. Even her Diakon blinked. Zheng’s mouth fell open.
“Please enlighten me, that I can inform him.” Never had I heard such a politely worded request with such an undercurrent of threat.
“Gladly.” Song sipped his tea. “Monsieur Beauclerc and his adopted daughter were one stratagem which became two. I don’t need to explain again the advantage it would have been to have the governor of Saigon as an ally.” He looked at each of them for any disagreement. There was none. “Such an advantage deserved every effort, including tutoring his daughter. But it was quickly apparent to me that Ophélie was of great use by herself.”
Bác Thảo snorted and smirked.
Song ignored him.
“Look at this new Athanate before you.” He gestured to me. “You see an Annamese woman, dressed in the style of the Athanate of the Empire. One who speaks not only Mandarin and Annamese, but also French. She even speaks Trade and some Cantonese. In a matter of minutes she could change clothing and return here as a Frenchwoman, with all the knowledge of how that society works. She has lived, and can thrive, in every level of society here on the coast of Indochina, a talent that few of the rest of my House can boast. Few indeed, of any House.”
He was exaggerating my ability, especially to appear as a Frenchwoman, but I wasn’t going to argue.
House Jian paused thoughtfully before speaking.
“Admirable, and undoubtedly useful,” she said. “Certainly a good reasoning for her as a candidate. Nevertheless, the Emperor would not have approved of taking her into your House until she had faded from public view. Avoidance of the risk of the Athanate being discovered must remain the paramount concern of all of us.”
“Ah.” Song nodded, conceding the point with a slight downturn of his mouth. “The timing. Yes, that was most unfortunate. And quite unplanned. It was taken out of our hands.”
He made a gesture to Wing, who walked across to an enameled chest, opened it and took out a very large glass jar shrouded in a black silk cloth.
Wing placed it in front of Song and returned to his kneeling position behind him.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc was visiting Cholon when she was attacked by two Athanate intruders, intent on raping and kidnapping her. My Diakon believed, and I fully support her, that the kidnap attempt could only mean there was an intention to use her against me. She was therefore forced to intervene.”
“From which House?” Jian’s words were like ice.
“False allegations!” Zheng protested, almost coming to his feet. “No member of my house—”
Song removed the cloth covering the glass jar. Inside, floating in a murky liquid, were the heads of the two men who’d attacked me outside the brothel.
“I recognize that fellow. The bigger one.” House Thorn leaned forward to look closely. “He was a senior member of the Zheng delegation that came to talk to us about the Ko Kut situation three years ago.”
“I have no knowledge of what they were doing in Cholon,” Zheng said. “No orders of mine. I sent them up to Phnom Penh.”
Elder Athanate can taste the lies in words. I had no doubt that Jian could. Zheng must have planned for that possibility. Somehow, he must have given one order and arranged for someone else to override it.
House Jian stared at him for a full minute while the sweat stood out on his forehead, but she finally turned back to Song.
“You have not made your case, House Song. There is clearly a matter for further investigation and even reparations by House Zheng. And I understand why your Diakon needed to rescue Mam’selle Beauclerc, but not why that made it necessary to take the girl into your House. Her memories of the event could simply have been clouded.”
“Observance of the Agiagraphos made it necessary, House Jian. My Diakon didn’t kill both of these men. She killed the man that House Thorn recognises. The other died from a blow struck by Mam’selle Beauclerc. She used a kris knife. Cut the arteries in his groin so badly, he bled out before he could stop it.”
I tried to keep my face blank. I’d passed out after striking him. No one had mentioned what had actually happened that night at all. Perhaps they’d been worried that it might affect my crusis.
Across the room, House Thorn’s Diakon smiled brightly at me and bowed her sleek head in acknowledgment. Even the Diakon of House Jian looked at me with his far-away gaze and nodded a fraction.
Song’s voice continued dryly as if he were lecturing me on the trade of the Saigon docks. “Since it was Qingzhao’s duty, and Bian killed an Athanate in Qingzhao’s defense, House Song became obligated to Bian. I’m sure the Emperor would agree that in accordance with the Agiagraphos, we were duty bound to treat her as part of the House from that point.”
“You can’t believe this!” Zheng protested. “A human girl killing a mature Athanate?”
Song smiled. “I’ve been told the goddess has blessed you, House Jian. She Who Hears the Cries of the World has gifted you the skill to sift the truth from falsehood. Hear my Diakon speak and know the truth.”
“I am not Quan Yin—” Jian started to reply.
“Why am I here?” Bác Thảo interrupted suddenly. “What are we doing, talking about a child whore who’s now part of an Athanate House? What’s it to me? If you have Athanate problems, talk about them to each other.”
“You’re here because our meeting concerns all the paranormal community,” Jian replied. “If we could find the Adepts hiding in this area, they’d be here too.”
“A community?” he said insolently. “A happy village? Look at you, at each other’s throats.”
“Whereas the tiger shifters are at peace. At least since you killed every one that didn’t bow down to you.” House Thorn snorted. “The shapeshifters in Siam have talked of a war against you.”
Bác Thảo was sneering to reply when House Jian cut across them both.
“That’s the sort of stupidity which will get us all killed. This is not the sixteenth century. Human communities speak to each other. Their ships cross the oceans. Their telegraph wires connect continents and their telephone apparatus spreads through their cities. Humans are not isolated, fearful and ignorant. They control the cities with police. Their scientists study human blood to find tiny organisms that cause diseases. They count the numbers who die and try to discover the causes.
“What you might get away with in the upper reaches of the Mekong, House Zheng, or the Central Highlands, Bác Thảo, does not pass in Saigon.
“In this world, we cannot behave as we used to or even as we still do outside of populous areas. Saigon is full of armed troops. How quickly will they discover us if there was a war between shapeshifters? Or between Houses?”
“It’s not my fault Saigon has troops on the streets,” Bác Thảo snarled.
“But you’re trying to take advantage of the discontent, and you’re making it worse,” Song said to him. “As for complaining we’re talking about my newest Athanate, it was you and Zheng who started talking about her. Whatever your reason, House Zheng sees her as a point of weakness to attack me. Are you part of that attack? Have you made a deal with him against me? And against the Empire of Heaven?”
“No! Your arguments with each other are nothing to me,” Bác Thảo said. “I don’t care which Athanate are in Saigon, only that I will remain where I am in Khánh Hôi, and I will continue to collect the tribute of the humans.”
“Without revealing your nature,” Jian said, and he grunted a grudging acceptance. He wasn’t stupid.
“The British Athanate have no interest in fighting for Saigon,” Thorn said easily. “We’ll accept the human borders. We’ll remain on the Siamese side, or as agreed with House Song.”
They all turned to House Zheng.
“Human borders mean nothing to us,” he said. “Saigon is huge, especially when you include Khánh Hôi and Cholon. Why should we not share? Song in Cholon. Bác Thảo in Khánh Hôi. House Zheng in Saigon itself.”
“I reside in Cholon,” Song said, “but all Saigon and the country surrounding it is my Athanate domain. I will defend it.”
“Saigon perhaps, but you’re not strong enough to claim all of Cochinchina,” Jian said. “It would seem you must reach a compromise. Perhaps your territory should reach as far as the Mekong. The remainder of Mỹ Tho province down to the Gulf of Siam might be shared between the British and Basilikos. The Empire of Heaven would agree a border to the north. We seek settled borders, and secrecy for all paranormals, not more territory.”
My Master was caught. Even I knew that House Song was not strong enough to hold all of Cochinchina. He would have to agree some partition.
On the basis of their actions here, I had to favor the British to the south, whatever Papa had said about them. I hardly trusted Jian, but we couldn’t dispute the Empire’s control of Annam.
Which left Bác Thảo as our close neighbors in the city and Basilikos not far enough away for me.
They argued it backwards and forwards.
“It seems we will not agree a deal in one meeting,” Jian said. “We should consider options and return to this discussion in a week.”
More tea arrived. Bác Thảo looked like he wanted to leave, but Zheng and Thorn began discussing the land to the south of Saigon. It was clear to me Zheng was interested only in Saigon and the Mekong itself. But if the British Athanate came close to Saigon, and they had alliances with the tiger demons of Siam, then Bác Thảo would be threatened.
Caught up in listening to that conversation, I only became aware of House Jian’s interest in me when she spoke.
“I am intrigued, House Song. I propose an exchange; a seal on our association if you like, a guarantee of our mutual interests. One of my House in Hanoi, a young man of that city. He’s not so accomplished in languages, but his achievements with several traditional weapons would make him an excellent addition to your House, and it might remove someone who seems a cause for concern.”
She was looking at me. My heart felt as if it was being squeezed. No!
Song shook his head. “I regret, although I’m happy that other Houses confirm their associations this way, it’s not something I would contemplate.” He looked thoughtful. “But perhaps you would be interested in the one surviving White Mountain monk instead. He knows nothing of the running of the monastery, but he’s skilled in weapons and might be a candidate for your House or one of your sub-Houses.”
I let out a quiet breath, and then Zheng’s voice interrupted Jian’s reply. “What’s so valuable about the whore?” He put his hand up before Song could speak. “I know, you say she’s not a whore, but she is the sister of a whore.”
In the sultry afternoon, a chill entered the pavilion. I fixed my eyes on the rising phoenix, even as I felt Bác Thảo’s yellow tiger eyes on me, slow and heavy with calculation.
“A whore of a sister she persuaded Riossi and the Opium Regie to try to find,” Zheng went on, and he laughed. “We know what Monsieur Riossi’s price was. So answer me this, when is a whore not a whore?”
I wasn’t concerned about Zheng’s insults any more. But every fragment of knowledge got Bác Thảo closer to the truth, and Nhung was still out there, somewhere, defenseless against him. My Master had promised that I would be strong enough to look for Nhung, but I wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t win a race against the gang lord of Khánh Hôi to find her.
“You should ask our friend here to look for your sister,” Zheng said, pointing at Bác Thảo. “I’m sure he’d agree to the same terms as Riossi. And after all, it’s almost certain she’s in some whorehouse in Khánh Hôi. Who better to find her?”
“Enough,” House Thorn said. “I’m tired of hearing your coarse abuse, Zheng. The young woman has suffered tragedies. I sense she was well born and can’t even guess what brought her family down so low that she and her sister ended up where they are. I find her efforts to save her sister at any expense noble.”
I concentrated on the phoenix. I will rise, I chanted to myself. I will rise.
“You said ‘every level of society in Indochina’, House Song,” Bác Thảo’s voice was deep and shrewd. “I wonder how low that lowest level was, and how high the highest.”
“Oh, a mandarin, certainly,” Zheng said. “No idea—”
“I know who you are now, Bian Hwa Trang,” the lord of the gangs in Khánh Hôi said.