Bian’s Tale – Revenge – LAST part
Here is the eighteenth and LAST episode of Bian’s Tale. It’s long: 6,000 words. The first book in this series is done. This book has been the longest for me to write by far, although some of that was because I paused to write other books.
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.
The whole story’s 18 episodes will stay up for TWO WEEKS more, before being taken down. After that, the final version with edits and amendments will be released on Amazon.
Following an idea from writing friends, the book will go up as $0.99 FOR ONE DAY so that alert friends and readers of my blog and Facebook page can get in there for a discount. Next day it’ll go to $2.99.
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I will be starting a Group soon. <<<— I know I keep promising this, but it will come.
The other books planned in this series are:
The Words of the Dead
The Weight of Gold
The Sword of the Son
The Tears of the Leopard
The second and third follow immediately after The Harvest of Lies. The Sword of the Son is set in WWII. The Tears of the Leopard is based at the end of French rule, just as American influence starts to be felt in Vietnam, and yes, it moves the setting from Vietnam and ends in America.
Feedback always valued, folks. 🙂
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Part 6 – Revenge
Hamid was so out of breath that he could barely speak. The message he carried was from Li, and written in haste.
Bác Thảo has started a riot in Khánh Hôi.
Police and army are being called out onto the streets in Saigon.
He’s going to attack us in the confusion, with his tiger demons and his gangs.
House Zheng has begged sanctuary and been accepted.
The Agiagraphos was clear in its rules. Athanate would always help Athanate against other attacks. For House Song to refuse House Zheng sanctuary against the tiger demons would be as dangerous as I thought letting them in would be. The Empire of Heaven or the British Athanate could use it as an excuse to attack.
Every bad decision had a worse alternative. There was nothing we could do except to be there. We sprinted the rest of the way, and we were still late.
The noise of the crowd warned us at the outskirts of Cholon. Closer, we saw the glare of flames in the night. We burst into the square in front of Song’s house to be met with a scene straight from the Christian hell.
The gangs of Khánh Hôi were here. Dozens of tattooed men swarmed around the main gate to the house. They carried blazing torches made from river rushes soaked in animal fats. Smoke and stench filled the square. Every man carried some kind of a club or a makeshift sword. People had already died—there was blood smeared on weapons and faces. They shouted and surged like savages, trying to overwhelm the defenders at the gate with their numbers, and trampling on their own fallen as they did.
The house was surrounded by tall walls. While the main concentration of Bác Thảo’s gangs was at the gate, another was just setting a ladder in position on the wall. Whoever was defending the gate would be caught by an attack from two sides.
“The ladder,” Wing shouted. “Leave the gate for now.” He charged into the group of men with the blades of his chang gùn flashing.
I kept close, just out of the way of those blades and making sure no one got behind him. The gang with the ladder had expected everyone to be inside. They broke away in confusion. Wing killed four or five quickly while they were still getting in each other’s way. One tried to come around him, ignoring me. I slashed his arm and chest open. His blood sprayed over the others and I saw the frenzy in their eyes begin to flicker as the shock took effect.
They retreated a few paces to re-gather their courage.
Immediately, Wing took a grip on the ladder and hurled it over the wall, out of their reach. That triggered them to renew their attack. We turned together to face them.
I didn’t want to be pressed against the wall with Wing beside me and the swing of my staff restricted. I could use the kris knife in emergency, but it wouldn’t be effective against more than one person.
“Back to back,” I said to Wing. “We have to attack.”
He grunted and I could feel him ready himself. All House Song practiced fighting like this. Wing had done it for years. I had had eight weeks. I hoped the gang had none.
They were surprised when we refused to be trapped against the wall. That helped. They were too close to each other. That helped even more. One tripped and took another with him. I stabbed them both before they could regain their feet.
Short, sharp. Out and back. One and two. Qingzhao’s chant in my memory kept me moving. Don’t let your blade become caught in a body. Turn and turn and back. Stab and stab. Left and right. Keep stabbing.
It worked. Our chang gùn were longer than their clubs, more deadly than their swords. They couldn’t get behind us, they couldn’t get close. They retreated, stumbling over each other, getting in each other’s way.
Wing pressed the attack. He let out a blood-curdling scream and leaped forward. That gave him more room, and he whipped his chang gùn around in an arc, beheading the man in front of him.
It scared them, but it also distracted me. I thrust my blade too deeply into a man’s chest. He coughed blood and started to fall, but my blade was caught in his ribs. His death was going to take my weapon. In desperation I kicked at the man’s chest. I kicked harder than I knew I could. The dying man flew backwards into his companions, and suddenly they were all running.
Torches fell to the ground. Swords and clubs were abandoned.
Wing did not pause.
“The gate!” he said.
I picked up one of the burning torches and raced after him.
The gang at the gate didn’t expect anyone to attack them from behind. I thrust the torch like a sword at two of them who tried to turn around. The burning animal fat splattered over their faces. I stabbed and stabbed, but by this time some of the men were so blood-crazed they didn’t notice wounds in their backs. I slashed at the muscles of their thighs instead. I didn’t care how maddened they’d become, if they couldn’t walk, they couldn’t fight.
Those that turned to see the danger behind tried to warn the others, and instead fell victim to blows from the front. What had been dozens of the gang’s fighters at the gate quickly became a handful. Those that could, ran away. Others crawled, some limped.
Finally, all the attackers scattered and suddenly, I was next to Li and Shimin. They were splattered with blood and panting heavily.
“Shimin, stay here. Protect the gate. Get archers back on the roofs.” Li turned to us. “Inside,” she gasped. “The main courtyard. Quickly. The tiger demons leaped over the walls. Master Song is there with House Zheng.”
The courtyard surrounding the Bloodstone Pavilion had four entrances.
The tiger-demons had leaped over the walls and into the courtyard. The weakest human members of House Song had been barricaded into the Bloodstone Pavilion and it was this that the tiger attacked.
Groups of Athanate were forcing their way in at the gates. House Zheng himself attacked the west gate, Qingzhao was at the east, each with only a handful of Athanate.
With the addition of Li and Wing, we forced our way through the south gate and I saw that Master Song stood by the steps of the pavilion, a circle of death around him that measured the sweep of his great sword.
Athanate become stronger and quicker than humans. All Athanate must keep their bodies well exercised, otherwise something happens to the Blood; it turns on itself and kills its host. Athanate in House Song exercised by learning how to fight. Humans, even those trained like the Shadow Warriors of the White Mountain, were not our equals.
But the tiger demons were no longer human. They were as quick and strong as us.
In the flickering light of torches, they seemed like nightmares sprung to life. They ran and fought on two legs like humans, but their skin rippled between human flesh and rangy, striped muscles, and their heads were the snarling heads of tigers. For weapons, they favored huge curved sabers, like the talwar of Indian warriors, but their hands could also become tiger paws and I saw Athanate with ripped, parallel wounds from claws.
Qingzhao broke through the east gate, but was halted inside, as we were. The battle hung in the balance. Dead bodies, ours and theirs, lay strewn over the ground.
We pushed the tiger demons back until they collided with the ones attacking Master Song.
Wing and Li were in front of me. I couldn’t keep up with them. My grip was loosening on my staff and I had to keep wiping blood and sweat away from my eyes.
We redoubled our efforts. Li killed one more outright. Wing drove another backwards and Song’s blade decapitated him. The tiger demons paired up to fight back to back, but they were outnumbered. Another fell to Li, another to Wing.
There was a roar that seemed to shake the ground.
A shape leaped off the nearest roof. A huge shadow.
Too big, too big, I cried silently to myself, trying not to die as a tiger demon slashed at me with his curved saber.
Bác Thảo landed right in the circle of death around Song. He landed softly, flowing seamlessly into an attack, curved talwar like lightning against the long reach of Song’s zhan ma dao.
His entry into the fight heartened his tigers. I was driven back, unable to hold the line beside Li. She was forced to give a step, pulling the others back as well.
Song was not moved. However impressive Bác Thảo thought he was, however quick and agile, he could not advance. When he tried, he had to leap back with a screech of rage and blood flowing down his arm.
More screams came from the east gate. Qingzhao had broken through and she charged with the rest of her survivors, her chang gùn glittering wickedly. Three more tigers died in swift blows. I could see their eyes start to swivel, as if looking for a way out.
The tiger demons at the western gate suddenly pulled aside. House Zheng ran through. He had a pistol in his hand, and he fired it at Master Song.
It was a signal. All the Zheng Athanate and the tiger demons from the western gate attacked us in the center. Even ones that had ‘died’ jumped up and rushed forward.
I couldn’t see much after that. Tiger demons surrounded us. Zheng’s Athanate joined them. I was fighting back to back with Wing again, my failing arms strengthened for one last despairing defense.
Zheng fired his pistol again.
I heard Bác Thảo’s roar again. In rage or triumph, I couldn’t tell.
My chang gùn was beaten down by the combined blows of three opponents and one of Zheng’s House raised his sword to kill me.
Li jumped forward and sliced all the way through the man’s arm.
And at that moment she died, right in front of me, as another sword cut upwards and pierced her heart.
“Li!” I cried, and held her to me as if I could pull her back from death. She saved my life again, as blows meant for me struck her, and chakrams, sharp disks just like the monk assassins had used, came spinning out of the night and sliced into her skin.
One handed, I tried to raise my chang gùn.
Must defend. Keep the staff up.
A heavy blow from a talwar cut the staff in two.
Li’s body was torn from my grasp and throw aside.
Wing tried to turn to help, but he was overwhelmed.
Zheng! Standing there. Kill him. Kill him. I swore an oath.
Hate boiled through me. I swung wildly at him with my broken staff. He ignored it and hit me, the back of his hand hard as a wooden board, snapping my head around. I fell.
The whole sky was wheeling above me and the battle was collapsing into a fierce maul. I could see Song’s feet. He was moving slower. Chakrams littered the ground around him. I looked up. There was blood on his clothes. His Blood. He’d been shot by Zheng.
I coughed. It was wet with my own Blood. I tried to get up but my arms and legs were too weak.
Zheng picked my limp body up casually in one hand and bellowed “I have the whore.”
Bác Thảo’s eyes flickered across to me.
My hands fumbled, tried to grip. My Blood all over. Everything’s slippery. Concentrate. Pull.
Bác Thảo’s moment of inattention was almost fatal. Song’s zhan ma dao flashed down and it would have split his head open had he not jerked back. As it is, it opened his flesh from collar bone to navel.
The kris knife finally came clear of the sheath hidden behind my back.
“On my Blood,” I said to Zheng, and spat in his face. Then I buried the kris knife to the hilt in his chest.
He screamed and dropped me, clutching at the knife.
The South gate burst open.
Shimin! No! Too dangerous. Get back. Run.
He wasn’t alone. The House Song humans who’d been fighting the gangs followed behind, all carrying swords and torches. All of them were terrified. Every single one of them attacked the monstrous tiger demons.
From behind Song, those humans who’d been put in the pavilion to stay safe boiled out. They were no match for Athanate or tiger, and they died, but still they came.
By some superhuman effort, Zheng managed to pull the knife from his chest. His heart’s blood sprayed out. He tottered in a weak spiral and collapsed in front of his House.
Qingzhao moved like a true demon from hell and killed three more of House Zheng in the time it took them to realize their betrayal had sealed their fate.
Bác Thảo’s talwar had fallen from his hand. He clutched the gaping wound in his chest to hold it closed. With three strides and an enormous leap, he was on the roof. An arrow fired from the main gate struck his arm. He pulled it out, even as he leaped again and vanished into the night.
Four tiger demons escaped Qingzhao and were able to leap to the roofs. They followed Bác Thảo. The rest, along with all of House Zheng, died in a matter of seconds, on the steps of the entrance to the Bloodstone Pavilion, half of them clubbed to death by humans.
I got to my knees with enormous effort and crawled toward Master Song.
To my eyes it seemed whole world was swaying, but it was my tutor who was moving.
Qingzhao caught him as he fell.
He’d been hit by many of the poisoned chakrams, but the worst wound seemed to have come from Zheng’s pistol, right in the middle of his chest. Qingzhao’s hand pressed down, but the Blood continued to pulse out through her fingers.
Athanate, by nature, are masters of the art of healing wounds, otherwise our human donors would quickly die. Unless the bullet had destroyed a whole section of arteries or parts of his heart, Master Song should have been able to stop the bleeding. Yet he did not.
Qingzhao laid him down, frowning in confusion. “Master?”
He shook his head; a small, sorrowful movement.
“No!” She shouted out to others. “Xiu! Jie! Wing! Li! Help me.”
Of all those she called, only Wing remained. He stumbled forward and knelt by Song.
If Master Song could not heal himself, others could do it for him, but he raised one hand, moving in obvious pain.
“No,” he said hoarsely. “Stop. A trap. The poison…”
But he was the Master of Poisons. He’d bitten me and defeated the poison in the White Mountain’s chakrams easily. I could not believe what I was hearing. Had his bullet wound weakened him? What trap?
“This is not a poison I have tasted,” he gasped, his face contorting. “Fire in the veins. It attacks the Blood, the muscles, the organs. But it multiplies. My own Blood betrays me; it has become poison now. You must not…”
His whole body tensed and shuddered.
We held him. Wing tried to give him water. Most of it was spilled.
The remains of the House gathered around us. They saw. Their faces made a wall of fear and grief.
“Dark,” Song muttered, and a lantern was placed by his head.
His body gave one final shake and relaxed. I felt a ray of hope, instantly dashed.
“It won’t be long now,” he whispered. “The pain is gone.”
He coughed weakly. He was bleeding from his nose, his mouth, even his eyes. Wing washed them, but he could not see.
She was kneeling right beside him, bent over his face.
“Good. Lead them well, Mistress of the House.”
Her tears fell on his face.
His voice weakened more. “Bian? Is that you? I saw… Zheng. I sense you now, so close, but the veil of worlds is thin.”
His hand was fumbling, searching. I took it, squeezed it between mine.
“Here, Lǎoshi. I’m alive. I’m right here.”
“I’m so sorry, my daughter. I… Such plans. Greatness. So much to do… so little time. So little time.”
He sighed and I felt the whole world shift, and drift away, like a dream in the morning, like a silk banner freed on the rising winds, like the rich, dark soil that bleeds into the unresting body of the Mother of Waters.
Torches were held aloft, their flames crackled and danced. People were crying. Night breezes made sibilant laments in the leaves of the trees.
Then there was a movement, and it became a ripple spreading through the House.
Wing started it. He stepped back from Master Song, knelt and bowed to Qingzhao, his head to the ground.
“Mistress,” he said.
I joined him in bowing, but could not speak.
My Master was gone. My Lǎoshi. The rock on which my Athanate being was founded. My third father, all of them gone from me, but the first to be taken beyond any mortal reach.
I could not speak.
All Athanate feel a need, like the compass needle seeks the northern star. Yi Song tutored me, he saved my life, he infused me and brought me into the Athanate world. I hadn’t even exchanged Blood with the others yet.
The whole House now looked to Qingzhao.
She’d been in House Song for hundreds of years, many of those as Diakon. In the books that I’d been given to learn about the Athanate, it was explained that sometimes, a good Diakon cannot raise themselves to lead.
The survivors of House Song waited. In our grief, our Athanate senses reached out. I felt Wing’s heartbeat as if it were my own, and Shimin’s and all those around us. We were bound together as a House, as singular in our being as if we were one person.
I could sense only grief from her.
It seemed an age, but then she stood and gathered her powers like a cloak before her voice rang out, carrying to the shadowed corners of the courtyard.
“Our Master is dead and I am now Mistress of House Song,” she said.
She had accepted the duty and the burden. We were still a House.
But there was a stir, a feeling of sudden panic, as if part of the building had caught fire. People turned to look to the unguarded southern gate.
“Do I welcome you as friends, or does death return to this house?” Qingzhao’s said, her head high.
I looked up.
Athanate. The British Athanate, with House Thorn’s Diakon at the front.
She carried twin dao swords that gleamed evilly in the torchlight. Behind her were a dozen Athanate holding the long curved nagi, the Siamese pike-sword with the wide, black blade. Only a dozen, but more than we could possibly hope to defend against after our battle with Zheng and Bác Thảo.
Never trust the British, Papa had said.
But the Diakon knelt, and all behind her copied her actions.
“Friends,” she said, placing her dao on the ground. “We came as soon as we heard, to fight alongside you. I am sorry we’re late. With your permission, House Song, we’ll stay and help. And grieve.”
“To some here, perhaps he was simply your Master, but to those I say, know this: that Yi Song was honored through the peninsula of Indochina, peerless among Athanate, all the way up to the courts of the Empire of Heaven. We are all diminished by his loss.”
“Words. Not so honored by the Empire that they stood by us in our need.” Qingzhao voiced the bitterness we all felt.
The Siamese Diakon bowed her sleek head again. “Forgive me, but you’re wrong.”
“House Jian made an error of judgment only about the speed with which House Zheng would try an attack you.” The Diakon’s eyes looked across at where Zheng’s body lay.
“She did not believe that the Basilikos Athanate would make common cause with the were-tigers. Nor that Zheng would apparently expect that Bác Thảo would honor it for longer than it took to kill Yi Song.” She sighed. “House Jian’s true goals were to bring House Song into the Empire, and to eliminate Basilikos from the Indochina peninsula. The Emperor himself approved her strategy and provided her the means. As we speak, House Jian and many hundreds of Athanate warriors are marching to attack every major Basilikos House in Laos and Cambodia. The Emperor himself has struck westwards into Yunnan. In a matter of weeks, there will be no surviving Basilikos House south or east of the Taklamakan Desert. Many new Houses will be founded, and all will be part of the Empire.”
“You know this because House Jian told you?”
The Diakon nodded. “She does not want a war against the British Athanate, so she warned us. It also forced us to help them. My Master has called on every House in Siam to be at the frontiers to kill the fleeing Basilikos so they cannot turn into an invasion.”
“Many will escape,” Qingzhao said.
There simply weren’t enough Athanate for the huge area she described. A million more would not have been enough.
“In ones and twos, or small groups,” the Diakon conceded. “But we will find them all, eventually, if they try and stay.”
Qingzhao bowed to the Diakon. A short bow; a House in her own domain to a visiting Diakon.
“We accept your offer of help, Diakon Thorn, with thanks. A new day is coming, and with it will come human eyes and ears and questions. The evidence of this battle must be erased or repaired. Before the dawn, the bodies of Basilikos and tiger demons must be taken far into the jungle and burned. For our own dead, we will have one day of mourning and one ceremony. We can afford no more.”
It took two days. There was no time to sleep, let alone grieve, but the blood was washed away. Walls were re-painted. Gates rebuilt.
After two days we slept; exhausted and dreamless. The following morning, all our dead were burned at dawn in the Athanate custom.
House Thorn’s Diakon took her leave. Qingzhao gave her a gold statue and Yi Song’s zhan ma dao for her Master in thanks for their unexpected help.
In return, the Diakon presented her a parting gift: an offer from the British Athanate of sanctuary for all of House Song within the domains of their empire.
After they had gone, we gathered in the Bloodstone Pavilion, sitting on the wooden floor.
Qingzhao looked at us, and I could imagine her thoughts—that House Song could now be seated easily in this one pavilion. On her right hand sat Wing. I was sure she would make him her Diakon. He was as old as she had been when Song had made her Diakon.
But there was no announcement yet, no speech. It was supposed to be a moment for meditation. However, my thoughts would take no calm or constant course.
Would House Song stay here, in Cholon? Could we?
What did Nhung see when her eyes opened this morning?
When would the French naval boat that carried Papa and Maman arrive?
Outside the pavilion, trees stirred in the hot breeze. A leaf fell toward the pond, on which a lotus blossom floated, and beneath which a carp drifted with a twitch of its tail. All one thing, as Yi Song had said to me; above, on, below. Only in our perception of maya, the illusion of being, were there levels.
Life went on outside this House, as remorseless as the Mother of Waters.
Qingzhao spoke finally, her voice solemn.
“I was born in Haiyang,” she said. “The fabled City of the Phoenix, in a house where the sweep of the roof was like a bird’s wings in flight, and from where my mother and I watched the sun rise in the mornings, over the blue coils of the mighty Han River. We spoke Teochew there, older and finer than the Mandarin I now use, and our city was the cradle of the Chinese sea trade, which stretched across the known world. Such a place attracts envy from human and Athanate, and Yi Song warned me, when he took me into his House, that to keep peace, we would always be prepared for war.”
I could sense the Athanate and humans of House Song around me settling back into that singularity of being. But I felt apart from it today. The Yi Song she spoke of was a great man in a position of power, and as Papa had said, owned a little by everyone. Of course I acknowledged that. I had also known him as my Athanate House; he had bound me to him with ties that even death seemed reluctant to release. But he was my tutor as well, who shared so many little moments of learning and humor with me. This was the Yi Song I missed most, my private loss, the one whose loss most tore my heart.
“We were not prepared enough,” Qingzhao continued. “When the Manchu emperors moved, millions died and Haiyang was swallowed into their empire. Hidden in the turmoil, the Athanate Empire of Heaven also moved, and Yi Song chose to leave rather than die or acknowledge the rule of the Athanate Emperor.”
“House Thorn tells us that this same Emperor judged Yi Song so highly that he was willing to let him claim the domain of Saigon for our House and remain independent.”
She bowed her head and the House shared her sorrow for a minute before she looked up again.
“But Yi Song is dead, and Basilikos will be gone from the Indochina peninsula. Now we will be the single independent domain between two Athanate empires – the British and the Chinese. Will we be allowed to remain independent? No. Not here in Saigon, on the border between them. Thanks to Bác Thảo’s attack and Zheng’s treachery, we are too weak now to hold this domain.”
“Given all their praise of Yi Song, what would happen? I know the way of these matters. A small dispute, possibly even not about us, maybe a complaint about the behavior of Bác Thảo. There would be an offer of assistance. Some Athanate to help us would come, who would then stay to advise, and never leave.”
“No. House Song has always been independent. While I am House Song, it will remain independent. I will not bow to the Emperor.”
“We must move, and to move is to change. Sanctuary within the British Athanate territories will mean we are diazoun.”
She was speaking Mandarin, but she used the Athanate word. Diazoun had the meaning of ‘apart’ in the Athanate language. An independent House within the territories of the British Athanate would be diazoun. So long as they didn’t interfere with other Houses, they would be tolerated. But I knew that there were no diazoun in the Empire of Heaven.
“We will acknowledge the British Athanate around us, but inside our domain we will remain exactly as we always have been.”
There was acceptance from the rest of the House. Even in my despair at hearing we would be leaving, I knew my Mistress could command me. To be Athanate, to have a House, it would override all other desires and duties and obligations.
Now we got the announcement: “Wing has accepted the role of Diakon, and there will be many tasks to be accomplished in little time. Take this morning to prepare yourselves. Gather your belongings and your thoughts. Be ready by this afternoon. The sale of this building has already been agreed and an offer made on a ship to carry us. We will be gone very soon.”
Others might have needed all morning to pack their belongings. I had almost nothing. Some changes of clothing. A few pieces of jewelry. Shoes. A brush. A peasant’s straw hat. My kris knife and sheath. I made a small bundle of my possessions and sat looking at it in bleak despair.
Leaving Saigon would take away the temptation of seeing Papa and Maman, or the agony of knowing they were there and not being able to see them.
But Nhung would remain and Bác Thảo would find her.
Would Wing allow me to send a message to Lanh, to at least protect our parents?
He’d made an oath to help Li, not to send my message. Now that Li was dead, was Wing relieved of his oath?
Oaths were powerful.
I’d made a Blood oath to kill Bác Thảo as well as Zheng, but moving away, as my House commanded, relieved me of that oath unless I returned.
Or did it?
My stomach did not agree. The need to kill the tiger demon smoldered even more strongly than my hate of the Fontaudins had.
So strongly I might disobey Qingzhao?
Shimin’s voice interrupted my thoughts, and I stood up guiltily, as if he could tell what I’d been thinking.
“House Song wants to see you,” he said. “She’s in the Bloodstone Pavilion.”
There was a sinking feeling in my stomach.
What had given me away?
Nothing showed in her face when I entered the pavilion.
She was arranging Master Song’s pun-tsai trees. The scent of larch and cypress was heavy and sweet in the heat of the day.
“We will be able to take none of these,” she sighed. “And the new owners will not make the effort to keep them. Yi would be upset about that. More than the mosaics.” She waved a hand indicating the priceless matching pair of dragon and phoenix and then pinched a wayward leaf off one cypress. She crushed it between her fingers and inhaled the aroma.
“Come.” She indicated the cushions in front of the dragon mosaic.
We sat, side by side, but she tapped my shoulder and turned me around.
I thought I understood. Only Yi Song had ever bitten me. He’d bound me to House Song but now she was Mistress of House Song. I owed her my Blood as I owed her my loyalty. Every other Athanate in the House would have been exchanged Blood with her many times. Of course she’d want to do this now.
I laid my head in her lap, and stretched, offering my neck.
It was a relief of sorts, to have things taken out of my hands. She’d bind me and my doubts would vanish. A few minutes of pleasure and I would be bound only to her. Not to oaths and tasks I couldn’t complete anyway.
But she didn’t bite. “You don’t want to leave Saigon,” she said.
My mouth went dry. “I’m a loyal member of the House, Mistress.”
Mistress. She was House Song now, and just as my kind and gentle tutor had been prepared to kill me if I’d turned rogue or betrayed the House, so would she.
“I know.” She sighed. “In another year, you would be a different person. We could have a different conversation. And you should know this: you will always be welcome in my House, Bian.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You won’t. Not for many years, I think. I’m not sure I fully understand, but this comes from what Yi Song said to me about you.”
She stroked my hair.
“You are still in crusis. As an Athanate, you’re all fresh growth. Like a young pun-tsai tree. Little pressures now will have effects that will not be seen for many years. The worst thing that can happen to you now is to be under a conflict between oaths you made to rescue your sister and loyalty to a new Mistress. Especially one who will be distracted with the delicate politics of making a new home for her House, and not concentrating on her new Athanate.”
“I wasn’t Athanate when I made that oath to rescue my sister,” I said. I shivered as I remembered the feel of the kris knife against my skin, the welling of the Blood in the night.
“I know. And yet Yi Song told me it counts the same.”
Her eyes misted.
“I am not saying this well, and there are so many ways things may go wrong for you.” She took a breath. “You will stay in Saigon, alone. The Emperor will send a House to claim the domain, and you must hide from them. Bác Thảo will heal and rebuilt his pack of were-tigers, and you must hide from them. Your French father and mother will return, and you must hide from them. Saigon is full of people who might recognize Ophélie Beauclerc, and you must hide from them, too. You must obey the laws of the Athanate, and learn to hunt and feed without alerting humans. And while you are doing all that, it just may be that you can find and save your sister.”
Part of me wanted to beg her to change her mind, but something deep and dark, something in my Blood, whispered yes.
Think of the practical aspects, Papa had said when I told him I was overwhelmed with something.
“All the Athanate laws?” I said. “Who will teach me the laws? Who will teach me to be Athanate?”
I knew that even the Agiagraphos did not contain all the rules. And much of what it took to be Athanate required another Athanate to explain. Healing for instance. Blurring minds.
“You’ll have to find your own way,” she replied. “I cannot leave another with you. But I’ll leave you a small library in the Yên Lặng Chùa.”
The Pagoda of Silence; the smallest and strangest of Buddhist temples on the waterfront of Cholon.
She went on: “You can’t stay there, but the monks will know who you are when you visit, and guide you to a room where you can study the books and keep things safely,” she said.
I had the feeling there was much more to the Pagoda of Silence that she was telling me. I suspected an old obligation due to Yi Song had been paid.
“Don’t ask me about them,” she said. “You’ll learn what you learn, but I cannot answer your questions truthfully. I’ve no wish to add to the harvest of lies that has brought you to this point.”
A tear fell from her eye and she kissed where it landed on my forehead.
“This is even harder than I thought it would be,” she said and hugged me. “I want to hold you to me. My heart tells me you belong to my House, that you are mine, and yet my head tells me Yi Song was wiser in these things than anyone else I ever met.”
She took a breath.
“So go. Go now with your possessions and disappear into Saigon. An envoy from House Jian has announced he will visit me and he will be here soon. He must not see you and I must not know where you go to hide. And remember, whenever it is you feel you have done all you can, find us and I will welcome you.”
We got to our feet and I stepped back. I bowed deeply. Cast off or not, temporarily or not, she was my Mistress.
She walked me to the main gate. Wing brought my bundle of possessions and bowed, more deeply than I deserved.
He also brought a chang gùn, which he handed to Qingzhao.
“This chang gùn,” she said, holding it out to me. “It was mine, many years ago. When I became Diakon, Yi Song gave me the one I have now, and I gave this one to Li. Now it’s yours, my daughter. A gift from Li, and from House Song. May it find the hearts of your enemies and bring you the victory you deserve in the secret paths of Saigon.”