Bian’s Tale – Revenge – fifth part
Here is the seventeenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the fifth part of Section 6 – ‘Revenge’.
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
Wing and Li caught me and dragged me out of the pavilion before I could reach him. Zhengs’s and Bác Thảo’s laughter followed us.
My captors sat either side of me in the Autumn Courtyard in shocked silence. I did not struggle; the insanity of crusis rage had left me as quickly as it had come. But I had offered violence to a guest protected by my Master’s Blood oath. My life was forfeit; that was the least of it. At worst, I had endangered the whole House.
I felt numb; it was as if I’d been struck in the head again. Jade must have been right, I was bad joss; I brought chaos and disaster with me. What else could it be but joss when even House Thorn’s attempt to be kind to me was the very trigger than made Bác Thảo recognize me?
For myself, all that had happened was that I’d cheated death for a few weeks. My Master had saved my life in the house on Bonnard, and now he would take it back. The dark shore of the lake called me.
But Nhung would be left behind, helpless, and Bác Thảo would find her. She knew nothing except our parents had gone to Hué, but that wouldn’t save her. He’d think she was refusing to tell him where our parents were, and he’d torture her until she died. Then Bác Thảo’s spies would go to Hué. Maybe they’d find out more there. Maybe they’d follow the trail to the farm that Lunh said they now owned.
It was a bitter realization that there was nothing I could do for Nhung.
“Could I send a message?” I asked quietly, trying to keep my voice steady. “I would like a warning to go to Lunh, if he can be found. I beg him to protect our parents. Please.”
Wing hesitated, but Li spoke: “I swear, my sister, on my Blood, I will send that message. And I will beg the Master to attempt to rescue Nhung.”
My eyes stung and I bowed my head.
This was not their fault. I couldn’t burden them with my sorrow.
There were noises from the main courtyard, guests leaving, and I felt a coldness spreading from my chest to my limbs.
Not long now.
It will be over very quickly.
I made a knot of my hair. My hands were trembling and Li had to help me. We pinned it up out of the way, leaving my neck bare for the blade. She didn’t say anything. I whispered my thanks to her again.
“I’m sorry,” Wing said, suddenly. “It wasn’t your fault. No one would have been able to ignore that during crusis. I swear to help Li with your tasks.”
I nodded, unable to speak. I would be content with that. I had done as much as I could to ensure the rest of my family would be safe.
I prayed silently to Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, that I would take all my family’s bad joss and have it die with me.
Song entered the courtyard, alone.
I understood. No one else should have to witness this.
Slung over his shoulder was the travel bag he used to disguise his zhan ma dao—the long, double-handed sword that he favored.
Wing and Li moved away to let me stand.
I took a step, bowed deeply to my Master and then sank down on my knees. I slipped my hands into my sleeves and gripped my forearms to hide the trembling.
I must be strong. I mustn’t shame my family and my teachers. It will be over very quickly.
The ground beneath me had the first fallen blossoms from the Hoa Sua trees around the courtyard, like pale tears, caught in a dancing web of sunlight that shone through the leaves. The intense, sweet fragrance of the flowers filled the air. I could not have asked for a more beautiful, peaceful setting to die. Somewhere, Ophélie was weeping, but she had already died, really. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the faces of my families, and laughter, and happiness, in a sampan on the broad expanse of the Mother of Waters, and the joy with Maman and Papa in the house on Bonnard, but it was only Nhung I saw, and that curtain of hair fell across her face. All I was left with was that whisper: whatever happens.
It was enough. My mind grew still as the surface of the lake on which I would soon tread again. My body stopped shaking. It seemed I had one foot already poised above the clear waters, waiting only for the touch of the blade against my neck.
But the touch that came was to my arm.
“Up, Bian. Stand up.”
He’d had to say it more than once. I blinked my eyes open in confusion. The world had been wide and dark. Now I was back in the small courtyard with the dappled sun playing over the ground.
The pressure of his hand raised me unsteadily to my feet.
Was this a trick of some kind? To think I was reprieved at the moment I died? An Athanate ritual? An old Chinese superstition?
“Come, Bian. You will not end your life here.”
I was too dazed to understand what was happening. Wing and Li guided me through the house, which seemed in turmoil. My weapons, my sheathed kris knife and my chang gùn, were pressed into my hand. A straw hat placed on my head. Then we were outside, the four of us—Master Song, Li, Wing and me, walking down the high road to Saigon.
My chang gùn looked like an ordinary staff and members of House Song often went out in public with theirs. The knife could not be carried openly without attracting attention, but I’d designed a strap with the sheath to keep it hidden beneath my tunic, and that’s where it went. My hands moved of their own accord. My mind seemed to still linger by the silent lake.
When I finished tugging the tunic back into place, Song gave me a handful of longan fruits. I peeled them and savored the sweet flesh. I had never tasted any as good.
“What has happened, Master Song?” Wing asked eventually.
“Bian’s sister, Nhung, is part of House Song,” he replied.
I stopped and tried to speak. “But…”
“We must keep moving,” Song said.
I caught up, wishing to myself that everything would slow down for a while.
“Since your sister is part of House Song,” he said to me, “then the threat against her, as implied by Bác Thảo, was a breaking of the truce under which his safety was assured.”
“But…” I repeated.
“Surely you recall requesting I accept her into the House. Of this, there must be no doubt. Nor that I granted it, despite her location not being known at present.”
His hand rested on my shoulder. I felt the touch of his mind.
Had I asked? What had I said when we’d danced on the surface of the silent lake?
I remembered it was my oath to Nhung that had he had used to bring me back. Of course I would have requested that Nhung be part of House Song… wouldn’t I? How could it be otherwise?
No. I had not asked.
But I realized he’d told the other Athanate Houses that I had. He had to have used it to argue that I hadn’t broken his oath, because the fault was on Bác Thảo’s side. That was the only reason he could have for sparing me.
So was I even allowed to doubt his statement?
We walked in silence for some time.
My mind, so calm and clear awaiting my death, was now full of uncomfortable, jostling thoughts.
“You said House Jian can tell truth from falsehood,” I said.
“I did,” he replied. “As you saw, House Zheng certainly believes she can.”
That was not the same as Song believing she could.
“Could you…” I cleared my throat and tried again. “Would it be possible for you to tell House Jian a lie?”
“Not all claims for the powers of elder Athanate are reliable,” he said, with a small smile. “But she did not say I was lying today.”
So Song might be able to trick House Jian. A valuable skill.
“Do we still have the protection of an arrangement with the Empire?”
“Straight to the core of the problem; we’ve trained you well.” He walked in silence for a while. “I cannot say. As I may deceive her, I would not underestimate her ability to deceive me. She might believe I was lying, but not want to alert me to that. She might fear for her own safety in calling me an oath-breaker in my own house.”
Yes. As Qingzhao had said about breaking an oath—leave no witnesses.
“Then what of House Zheng and House Thorn? What do they believe?”
“Again, a good question. Should House Zheng think that Jian believes I lied, and therefore my oath was broken, he may well attack, trusting that Jian would not honor an oath with an oath breaker. He might even persuade House Thorn to attack with him, arguing he has to because of the Agiagraphos rules. That’s why we are preparing for it. Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow.”
I understood that the activity back at the house was a preparation for war, and that all of us were carrying weapons, but not what we were doing walking away from the house.
But it was all of one thing, larger than my understanding, as it happened.
My thoughts spun in circles. Did House Jian believe my tutor had lied to save my life? If she did, would she allow Zheng to attack, or would she attack herself? The Empire had tolerated an independent House here in Saigon, but surely they would not tolerate Basilikos cutting off their progress down the coast of the South China Sea?
Or would we be attacked from two sides? Zheng and Jian?
“Yesterday morning, we spoke of the Fontaudins,” Song said, interrupting my thoughts.
It had felt like another test when we did. Master Song had told me that the Fontaudins still maintained that I had stolen from them and run away. They’d rented out the house on Bonnard and lived on the Rue de Tombeaux without servants. As yet, no legal proceedings against them had started.
I didn’t welcome this change of subject.
In truth, I would have preferred to remain in the Autumn courtyard at the house and let my mind return at its own pace from the peace I had found while waiting to die. Instead, I was now churning through the possibilities of an Athanate war, only to have the Fontaudins added to the mix.
My anger at them was like a smoldering bonfire; there were no flames visible, but I could not put out that glowing core. Perhaps I should have been angry at more people from my old life. Governor Hubert. Police Chief Meulnes. The manager at the Bank of Indochina. Riossi. Alain and Chantal Sévigny. ‘Aunty’ Kim.
Somehow all the anger channeled through the Fontaudins. If they’d been decent and honest I would still be living in the house on Bonnard, expecting Maman and Papa back in the next month. Bác Thảo would be sitting in Khánh Hôi with no idea of what had happened to my family.
There were other things that might be happening to me now, of course, but I couldn’t think clearly about them. Every time I heard the name Fontaudin I felt his sweaty, pudgy hands on me, the stink of absinthe on his breath. The shock when his wife took his side and blamed me that he was trying to rape me. The shock of the cane striking me on the head, and the strength fading from my limbs, the feeling of powerlessness.
I was not powerless now.
Song had encouraged me to imagine a revenge suitable for them, and when he’d asked me, yesterday, I’d been happy to be endlessly inventive—to demonstrate I could contemplate immense cruelty but not lose my Athanate control over it.
Now, I didn’t want to think about it. What I’d said made me uncomfortable.
Why are we walking down the road that will take us past the house on Rue de Tombeaux?
“There is a drawback to the argument I made about you being part of my House since the night you were attacked outside the brothel.”
This was more than uncomfortable, but I made myself respond: “What is that, Lǎoshi?”
“The Fontaudin’s attack on you becomes, by Athanate law, an attack on the House. By that same law, it must be avenged. Since it was you they attacked, it should be you who takes that revenge. With my assistance.”
I felt sick.
That got far worse when Shimin caught up with us, just as we started to pass under the gaze of the frowning arches of the old Khymer tombs. He was pushing a covered cart and I knew immediately what was beneath that covering. He must have been sent down to Cholon to buy them after the meeting had finished. I’d never visited those shops, but I’d heard about them.
I shuddered and my mind started running in frantic circles.
Why was I being so squeamish now?
It wasn’t that the Fontaudins didn’t deserve it. And I was being honored. Even Master Song was accompanying me, though of course the twisted revenge I’d described required him there.
But we were on the brink of war with at least one Athanate House. He shouldn’t be here.
We came in sight of my parent’s old house, and I was afraid I was going to vomit.
I should refuse. Could I refuse? Wasn’t that an insult to the effort Master Song had put in?
How has this gone so wrong?
This wasn’t what I’d envisaged yesterday.
My palms were sweating and my heart racing.
It wasn’t fear. The Fontaudins could no longer do anything to make me afraid. It was them who should be afraid of the monster at the door.
The door wasn’t locked. Not that locking it could have stopped us.
Song and I went in.
The Fontaudins were sitting in the salon. He’d stood up to find out who had come in. There was a drink beside his chair. Absinthe. She was also on her feet, gripping her cane.
Both of them gasped to see me enter.
Monsieur Fontaudin swore and made as if to strike my tutor, but Song simply grabbed his wrist and bit his arm. Fontaudin staggered back and fell onto the couch.
Madame Fontaudin swung the cane at me. After sparring with Qingzhao, it looked as slow as a leaf falling from a tree. I plucked the cane out of the air easily and broke it across my knee in one movement.
She froze, too shocked and terrified to resist when I offered her unresisting arm to Master Song.
He bit her and she collapsed.
Master of poisons, Qingzhao had called him.
With the Athanate Blood comes many potential skills. Any Athanate, even a new one such as me, has some ability to heal and harm with their bite. These skills needed to be studied and refined, and over time could become much more powerful and complex. Yi Song had studied for centuries and it was during a conversation with him about some of his capabilities that I had first begun to think of a use of one of his skills for the Fontaudins.
Master Song could paralyze people, so that they remained completely aware of what was around them. The Fontaudins’ bodies would keep them alive, they could see and hear me, they could feel what was happening to them, but they couldn’t move. They couldn’t even speak.
It’d seemed appropriate when I dreamed up my revenge—that they should suffer and that I should not have to listen to their lies. Or their pleas.
Song had performed his role. He gave me a nod and left without speaking.
Did he disapprove of what I was doing?
Why then allow it?
Fontaudin had stolen my family’s money and tried to rape me. His wife would have succeeded in killing me if Master Song had not pulled me back from the brink.
They deserved this.
For a while, I was too distracted to think about anything other than preparing what I’d envisaged. I brought in the cages that Shimin had bought in Cholon and placed them in the center of the room. I dragged the Fontaudins to lie next to the cages.
Even with the covers still on, the cages rocked. A nerve-scraping chittering came from them.
I closed all the windows and doors to the room.
I could sense the fear coming off the Fontaudins in waves. Unable to move their heads, their eyes were wide and darting as they tried to see.
Athanate feed on emotions, just as they feed on Blood. Their fear was feeding me and it was so very sweet. And forbidden.
Basilikos fed on the fear of the humans who they forced to provide Blood. House Song did not feed on fear. We did everything to avoid it.
It’s like acid, Yi Song had said to me. It will eat you away from the inside. There will remain only the hunger for more.
Yet it was so easy. So satisfying.
Shimin’s fear that I would lose control hadn’t been sweet like this. I didn’t want to hurt Shimin. But I did want to hurt the Fontaudins.
I’d said I wanted to torture them.
What does that make me?
Like House Zheng.
My stomach twisted and churned.
Yesterday, I had a speech prepared for an imaginary event, where I took my revenge. Today, it was real, and as they lay helpless before me, the words sounded as sick as I felt.
I took the covers off the cages.
“These are starving rats,” I said. My voice sounded far away to my own ears. “It’s very difficult to keep them, because when they’re hungry, they’ll eat anything, including each other. Each rat must be kept in its own cell and fed just enough to live. They’re sold to people who make them fight each other for bets.”
With the covers off, the rats were hurling themselves against the cages and squealing like demons. Shimin had bought a dozen.
The Fontaudins couldn’t speak, but they were making noises like distressed animals.
“The rats are clever,” I said. “They won’t fight each other if they see there’s enough food for all.”
I lifted the wire grids at the front of the cages.
“Now I’ve taken the wire gates away, the rats are kept in the cages only by a mesh of grass cords. They will eat through those and come out looking for food.”
I swallowed, trying not vomit.
“You have about two minutes.”
I ran from the room, slamming the door behind me, and out into the evening air.
It was no good.
“I’m sorry, Lǎoshi,” I gasped after a second bout of vomiting into the bushes outside the house. The others waited on the road, out of sight. Only Song patiently witnessed my humiliation.
“Is this not what you wanted?” he said.
I must have disappointed him. All his effort, but in the end, perhaps I lacked something—the confidence in my decisions, the strength to see them through. I knew my revenge was not what he would have wanted for the Fontaudins, but he’d said it was my choice. He’d helped and made it possible.
But I could hardly lie now.
“No.” I pulled some clean leaves off the bushes and wiped my mouth. “I thought I did. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“Why?” he asked, and stopped me as I started to explain how I felt I’d let him down and distracted him at exactly the wrong time. “No, Bian. Why is this revenge wrong?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They’re awful people. Evil. Maybe they deserve to die. If I’d killed them when they attacked me, I wouldn’t care, like I don’t care that I killed two of the White Mountain monks. But not this.”
“Do you want to go back and kill them?” he asked.
I shook my head. I’d had enough of revenge. “I want to stop it,” I said.
“Good. Then Wing will stay and help you.” He held out my chang gùn. “Go in, quickly. Chase the rats away.”
I burst into the house, threw open windows and doors, tried not to look at the horrific mess.
The rats were clever. I only had to kill two of them before the rest scuttled out and away.
The Fontaudins did not understand what was happening. They were still making noises, grunting with terror. They probably expected they would be the next victims of my staff’s blade.
Their faces were streaming blood and tears. The rats had bitten cheeks and fingers and hands and legs. I made myself look. The flesh was torn, but the bleeding was slow. No arteries had been cut. They both still had their eyes and they would live.
I felt I was going to be ill again, but Wing came in at that point.
We dragged them onto the sofa. Screwing his face in distaste, Wing bit them on their arms, and made them unconscious.
“I sent a messenger to fetch a doctor from town,” he said. “We have enough time for me to blur their memories. Take the cages and hide them away from the house.”
I did that, and he was finished by the time I returned.
He had sprinkled absinthe on both of them. There were empty bottles lying on the floor and a pungent opium pipe on the table.
“They’ll sleep now for hours,” he said. “When they wake, they will remember the rats, like a horrendous dream. They may remember people being here, but it will all be confused.”
“Won’t it be suspicious? Both passed out at the same time, for instance. And someone might ask who sent the messenger.”
Wing shrugged. “They’ll blame it on the drink and the opium. They’ll say a passer-by must have heard something and sent the messenger. It’s not perfect, but the police don’t have time and these aren’t the kind of people to gain much sympathy.”
Looking back from the first bend in the road, I could see the doctor’s carriage already turning up the Rue de Tombeaux.
“We have to hurry,” Wing said, urging me to a trot. “Master Song was worried.”
“Why did he spend the time to bring me here then?” I asked.
Wing took a long time to answer.
“There are decisions he must make. There are ways to avoid a war. But he would rather a war than yield the principles of the House.”
“So what happened with the Fontaudins was part of his decisions? My squeamishness is important?”
Another minute passed before Wing spoke again.
“It wasn’t squeamish. Anyone might dream a horrible revenge. The Fontaudins might deserve it. To enjoy it would be too much like Basilikos.”
This had been another test. Wing didn’t need to explain any more.
Like the night falling swiftly around us, understanding fell into place in my mind.
If I’d enjoyed torturing the Fontaudins, I would not have returned alive to the house at Cholon. Song would have decided I’d failed the crusis and he would have executed me. Then he’d have used that action to repair any weakness in his association with House Jian.
But I’d passed the test.
Now, because of the principles he’d insisted House Song must live by, we prepared for a war against Basilikos, which we might survive, and perhaps against the Empire, which we wouldn’t.
I swallowed painfully. It was a tremendous burden to be the cause of this.
Wing sensed my distress. “You mustn’t think of it as your fault,” he said. “You’re just what triggered it at this time. It’s a problem that was always coming.”
I had to be content with that.
We were half way back when we heard light, rapid footfalls in the darkness ahead. A child was running toward us from Cholon, as fast as his legs could carry him.
Seconds later, we saw Hamid, a note clutched in his hand, and I knew this wasn’t good news.