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The Steward, the Kriegsherr, his Femme Fatale & her Brother

Astonishing Adventures Magazine Issue 2 Cover

I watch the limitless blue. I don’t see the sky enough; I’m tied down with the mundane; everyday stuff gets in the way; by the time I see the sky daylight has gone so today is a treat. For a while I can stare up at the blue and look beyond now to the future; a better future; a future where my enemies never see the sky again as they rot in the ground or my dungeon.

Mountains and a three-hundred-foot drop terminate the short strip. The only amenities a shack and a stack of fuel drums; this isn’t a cosmopolitan airport. I normally greet guests in my stateroom. It gives me control and tells them who I am. Two warlords’ and an assassin’s heads in jars help. They don’t impress her; but she did severed two of them. The DC-3’s metal body catches the sunlight. It banks into its final approach. The finality illustrated by the wrecked planes at the valley’s bottom.

It bounces heavily on the strip.

Six hundred yards.

She throws its engines into reverse.

She’s fighting momentum.

Four hundred.

Too fast.

There’s not enough runway to get back in the air.

Three hundred.

The brakes aren’t stopping it.

Two hundred.

The wheels lock.

It’s skidding along.

One hundred.

A tire shreds.

Fifty.

It slews sideways out of control.

Ten.

It stops one yard from the precipice.

She’s barely out of the plane, bag in hand, before it’s manhandled under the trees and unloading begins; crates of lightweight, expensive supplies. The bulky stuff comes over the passes. Everything a warlord’s expansion plan requires.

The flying gear doesn’t flatter her. I hate sending her to do these jobs. It burns me up inside to ask her to play simple-minded fools’ lust to get what we need.

“Did you miss me?”

“Did you get it?”

“Did you miss me?”

“Yes I missed you.”

“So why not say so?”

“Because we have business to discuss.”

“And you decided that by yourself?”

She takes off her flying helmet and shakes out her long, blond hair.

“Of course you get a say. And I’ve missed you. But have you got it?”

“Yes. Now be nice. I had to be nice to that small-time hood. Now I’ve got to live in this hellhole again.”

“It won’t be forever. You’ve brought our dream closer. Soon we’ll live by the beach; waited on constantly; and at night we’ll sleep in the worlds’ biggest bed.”

“You’re so romantic when you’re plotting world domination.”

“It would mean anything without you.”

“I’d kiss you right now but I’ve been on run since Washington. I need a bath. Wash my hair. Something to eat. A strong drink. Then I need to sacrifice a chicken. Then I may kiss you.”

“You know we don’t need a chicken?”

“Well yes.”

“You’d like one anyway?”

“Rituals never seem right without a sacrifice. It’d be wrong to use a bullock when it doesn’t really matter but a chicken doesn’t seem so wrong. If we don’t play with it too much someone can get three meals out of it.”

“Someone will fetch a chicken.”

“I was just being silly; silly; I’ll settle for the bath, the food and a bottle of scotch.”

I snapped my fingers and one of the help appeared.

“You heard what the lady wanted?”

He hesitates weighing his answer. Yes and he risks my wrath for eavesdropping; no and he risks it for not being prepared. I like my minions’ lives to be unpredictable. It gives them less time to plot.

“I did not my lord. I hope you will not mind, but I took the liberty of speaking to your former steward and enquiring of the arrangements for your lady’s last visit. A hot bath will be waiting in your quarters, delicacies have been prepared and a bottle of forty-year-old Laphroaig too. Is there anything else sir?”

I’ll have to watch this one. He’s either listened or visited the last steward. I locked him up for a reason. I can’t remember what although I’m sure it wasn’t trivial.

“Your name?”

“Wu Xiong, my lord.”

“Well Xiong, you are now my steward. Organise everything then shoot old steward.”

–**–

I don’t know if it was the bath, the food or the whiskey but she emerges from behind the screens: a woman transformed. Gone, the masculine gear; in its place a cheongsam, silk stockings and black heels. Her wet hair falls down her back, a bottle in one hand the other behind her back she stalks me like a hack writer describes a cat moving. Slinky. Feet crossing. Exaggerating the sway of her hips. Intentions clear. She’s close. I can smell the rose petals from her bath. Painted lips enticingly pout. Breath of peat and whiskey. I close my eyes. One hand to the nape of her neck, one to her waist. It has been too many months since I’ve held. All I find is empty air.

I open my eyes. She was standing back watching me with a serious look on her face.

“I thought there was something you wanted.”

“There is.”

“Not me. Something else. You weren’t interest in me at all.”

“Not true. I didn’t want the help getting ideas.”

“You didn’t even try to kiss me.”

“You wanted a bath.”

“I wanted you to prove you didn’t care I smelt like a yak.”

“Haven’t I treated you well? I brought you a bath, food and whiskey.”

“Wu did that.”

“I can’t win can I?”

“No. And it seems to be hard for you to accept that. Maybe this will make it a easier.”

A bag appears from behind her back and she sets it on my desk. I can feel her behind me, her breath beside my ear. I’m like a boy at Christmas with two presents he really wants struggling to decide which to open first. Carefully I release the straps. I want to rip off the wrapping. Inside is a functional wooden box. Protecting whatever’s inside. I don’t need to guess. My hands shaking I flip the catches open. Heather packing scatters on the floor. The statue gleams in the light of the lanterns hanging around the room. The light playing like phantasms beneath its surface dancing around picking out fine tracery engraved into it. Ancient symbols shine briefly then slip into obscurity. We don’t speak. I feel her closeness. She’s not moving. Not even a breath. It take me a moment to realise I’m holding mine too.

Slowly she breathes out. So slowly at first that all I know is the movement of the short hairs on my neck then a faint breeze on the lobe then into my ear. She’s pressing against my back. I feel her mouth near my ear. She’s spent three month away. She’s led that man into taking the fall. She’s hungry. The statue will wait till tomorrow. She won’t.

–**–

The great hall is a sight to behold. A giant cave that craftsmen carved centuries before till this great chamber was formed. Light streams in from the windows high above. Every dark recess glows with lanterns. The voices echo from the walls. It has taken a day to gather them all from the valley and from the mountain. Today I will assert my right to rule. Where they go, the word will spread. I will not be another upstart foreigner turned warlord, clothed in violence and bathed in Chinese blood.

I am chosen. I am destiny. I am their glory. They will adore me. They will love me. They will worship me. I will rise on the tide till I am emperor.

The statue will do that. A likeness crafted as a gift for Qin Shi Haung. Lost since the Jin dynasty. A mystical symbol. A shortcut to power. With this we will unite our people, the warlords and then all of China. No one will stand against us.

Xiong signalled. Playing the loyal, attentive steward. He knows his place but I know the place he wants. He won’t move today. No he will wait as I had. He has to hope he’ll stay in my favour long enough to seize his chance. Will he try poison, a bullet or a knife? My money is on a bullet. Poison is too chancy – he might have to taste the food; a knife too personal. Such speculation though must wait. The chamber is full. The doors are sealed. Every entrance guarded.

She carries the box guarded by my best men. Not that she needs them. She could best all of them in a fight. Really they protect the throng from her and her sudden passion. Her unexpected violence. Her mercurial moods. That hunger I so crave.

The plinth has been brought from deep in the mountain and set on the dais at the heart of the chamber. Her escorts fan out in a circle facing the crowd. They will not witness the miracle itself. There is no need. There are none more loyal than that dozen. She places the box as though it held a child and not a lump of old rock. A quiet expectation spreads like a drop on a still pond’s surface. A tinge of fear. That will pass soon. Soon the world will fear my people and my people will fear nothing.

My own addition to the chamber, hidden ducts, release dry ice into the room, spreading from the dais, falling down the walls. Four spotlights burn carbon rods as electricity arcs to create light. Four spotlights focusing on me. A little theatricality has its place even when you have real magic on your side. I lift the lid. I feel a rush of air as every breath is drawn. Now they know why they were brought here. Now they know who I am. Now they know their destiny.

The incantations I have practiced for so many months spring from my lips as though I am not saying them. Rehearsed. Checked. Examined. Three separate experts kidnapped to assure me of their validity. If anything goes wrong all three will be dead tonight.

Light dances across the jade. The air is sharp with ozone and sweat. The glow builds within. I can feel it drawing something from deep inside me. My chi flowing to it. Symbols dance in the air around it. Light shoots up. I step back uttering the final phrases. Now I will be revealed.

And nothing happens.

No cloaking light of truth falls upon me. No celestial messenger descends with my appointment scroll. The sun is not eclipsed. No storm rents the heavens to announce my majesty.

A minor set back. One I’ve prepared for. I signal with my fingers. A tiny sign to those in the know. Concealed lights bathe me. Wind machines stir the air. I will give them a show. Later, though, I shall return in private to know the truth.

–**–

A week has passed and I’m no closer to an answer. I throw it hard against the wall. It doesn’t break. It hasn’t broken the first hundred times, so I don’t know why I’d think it might this time.

“Worthless piece of junk.”

“There’s no doubt it’s a fake?”

“None at all.”

“He tricked us into wasting time.”

“But why?”

“A trap?”

“You escaped.”

“The others didn’t.”

“And would you have allowed them to live if they had?”

“Well no.”

“Did he think my people would rebel and overthrow me when the ritual failed?”

“It’s always me, me, me isn’t it. My people rebel up and overthrow me. I spent months getting it and risked death. All you’re worried about is a rebellion.”

“Whatever its purpose, Mot went to a lot of trouble. It’s an almost perfect fake. They must have the original to create such a copy. Then they created a flaw in it so subtle it only became apparent during the ritual. He exposed his connection to Énigme who we now know to be his agent or unwitting accomplice.”

“We should pound it to dust and then scatter it on the ocean. It’s dangerous.”

“We will my love. Tomorrow.”

–**–

“The patrols captured prisoners Wu?”

“The usual lower-rung types. No one really useful.”

“And the shipments coming on?”

“We’re ahead of schedule on small arms and machine guns, but there’s a shortage of mortars and ten thousand bullets were lost to the damp sir.”

“That will be all Wu.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He’d spent the entire meeting trying not to look like he was looking at the statue. She was laid out, barely covered by a sheet and bathed in the morning sun; and he only had eyes for a lump of rock.

–**–

“It’s been a month my love.”

“Yes and we’re still in charge. There’s been no rebellion. We can relax.”

“You can’t be thinking of trying to use it?”

“What? To continue our plans? No, too risky.”

“So why have you still got it?”

“We’ll need it if we can’t get the real thing. Sooner or later one of the peasants will talk. If someone asks…”

“You’re hoping someone will ask. You’ve a plan forming. I know that look.”

“My back’s to you.”

“You think I don’t know the look just because I can’t see your face?”

“Maybe it can bring down one of our stupid neighbours.”

“What, sell it to them?”

“No. Let Xiong steal it which will get rid of him without us having to bury the body.”

“Cunning.”

“I’ve already had him reduce the patrols to the North to encourage him to run that way.”

–**–

“Come back to bed.”

“I thought you were asleep.”

“I was. Now I’m awake.”

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

“You’re staring at it again.”

“It may be a fake but you’ve got to see its beautiful workmanship.”

“Come back to bed.”

–**–

“What should we do with the ones we caught stealing food sir?”

“Send their families three times what they were stealing Wu. Then put the thieves to work in the mines for six months. They can work for me to pay for it. Anything else?”

“No sir.”

“Xiong.”

“Yes sir?”

“Send word to the doctor we’re coming.”

“Is everything alright?”

“I’ve a temperature. Nothing serious.”

“I can have him fetched.”

“A day away will make a change. She’s feeling cooped up. Anyway fetching him could upset her.”

“Should I have anything packed?”

“No. We’ll only be away for the day.”

“I’ll make the arrangements, unless you want anything else?”

“On second thoughts, arrange for us to stay overnight. A little drinking and gambling may ease her mood.”

–**–

The village straddles the river: little more than an inn that serves travellers on the road through the mountains, a bridge and some huts. The only special thing about the village is the doctor, the only western doctor for hundreds of miles.

“So, Doctor what’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing physical. I’d lay off the coffee, booze and your cigars too.”

“It’s in my head then?”

“Will I end up in a cell if I say yes?”

“You know you’re the one person that won’t happen to. She likes me but she loves her little brother.”

“That’s why she hits me when she sees me.”

“So it’s in my head?”

“Probably. Too much stress. Too much work. Try deputising more. Promote someone to do some work.”

“The last one tried to have me assassinated.”

“Promote two who don’t trust each other and have them fighting each other.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Let your hair down tonight and play some cards at least.”

“No one tries to beat me anymore.”

“Me and my sis won’t let you off easy.”

“Is there nothing you can give me?”

“I can give you some pills to make you sleep, but you can’t drink if you take them.”

–**–

“It’s still there?”

“Yes.”

“Xiong knew we’d be away?”

“He made all the arrangements.”

“So he’s either more loyal or paranoid than you thought.”

–**–

The pills and whiskey put me out cold. I was dreaming about the sky, an osprey flying near Lübeck. Something woke me. The statue is still there. If I can’t sleep I might as well have some fun, but she’s not there. Something’s wrong. The sound of distant gunfire confirms that. I reach for clothes; something moves beyond the screens; I grab the bedside Thompson instead.

A noise to the left. A figure shrouded in darkness.

“You’re a hard man to get an appointment with.”

“It doesn’t seem that way to me. My day is all appointments.”

“I tried to bribe your steward to get me in but he wouldn’t do it.”

“That’s nice to know. You don’t have an appointment now, so I’m going to ask you to die.”

Six rounds from the Tommy gun and he folded. I put it down and reached for my pants.

“You thought I’d die that easily?”

Now he’s over to the right.

“I had hoped.”

“You stole something from me.”

“A piece of worthless fake.”

“An expensive reproduction.”

“You have the original.”

“Yes.”

“Give it to me.”

“Why would I do that?”

“So I won’t kill you.”

“You just tried that. How’d it work out?”

A quick spray of lead and I reach for my pants again.

“So when did you find out it was a fake? Was it sometime important? ”

I might as well finish getting dressed and find out what he wants.

“Has it eaten at you since then?”

“I thought I’d keep it around till I got the real thing.”

“You did? You didn’t want to get rid of it. Strange you couldn’t ask anyone to just take it away. That much your steward told me. You tried to have him steal it for one of your neighbours. They offered him a lot of fǎbì.”

“Yet it’s still here.”

“He couldn’t. He tried but couldn’t. Something about it spooked him. It spooked everyone.”

“It didn’t spook me.”

“Or your girlfriend, and I bet that doctor couldn’t tell you.”

“We’re not superstitions.”

“Good job. If you’d gone to a local doctor they’d have noticed the imbalance in your chi.”

“And that would have been bad for you?”

“I was following your chi to your love nest.”

“And now you’ve found me?”

“I’ll show you the error of your ways.”

“That simple?”

“I think so. You’ve not shot me again so it’s starting to work.”

I shot the smug bastard again. Now I have my clothes I’ll see who he is. I move to where he fell. No body. Footfalls in the tunnel. I follow them to the great hall. Someone’s had the dry ice machine on. I rigged all the tricks of this place, but in the moonlight it’s a little scary. The plinth stands on the platform and on it a figure.

“It’s the real one.”

“Show yourself.”

“And have you shoot at me?”

“I’ll hunt you down dog.”

“How’s that coming on so far?”

“So you tricked me into stealing a fake that led you here.”

“It made anyone who saw it more pliable to my suggestion. Thanks for the big production number by the way. Made life a lot easier. Just a few of your guards and your girlfriend who it didn’t work on. They’re fighting their way to protect her brother. She did try to wake you but those pills did their job. Now you know who she loves most.”

“Since you’ve got this all planned out, what’s your next move? What stops me killing you, taking the statue and once this has blown over in a few weeks carrying on in my old, evil ways? I’ll have to send all the villagers to the mines, but I can get more help.”

“I don’t think so. I think you’re going to hand this little kingdom over to Xiong to look after and then turn yourself in to the embassy in Shanghai.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because this place is haunted with failure for you. Anyone you bring here will turn. It’s in the air, the water and the bedrock. I’m going to come out now and you’re not going to shoot me.”

He emerged from the shadows. He’s got a pistol. I empty my gun into him.

“That was Xiong. I wondered where he was lurking. I’m over here.”

So I was right. He’d picked the gun. I raise mine again.

“Why bother? You’re out of bullets. Now I’m going to count backwards from three. You’re going to think of the little emperor. When I reach one, you’re going to fall asleep.

“Three.”

So this is how it ends?

“Two.”

Not in a hail of bullets, poisoned food or a knife’s point.

“One.”

But a real sleep.

A distant voice speaks to me.

I dream a limitless blue.

impworks © Copyright Mark Caldwell 1996 - 2018