An excerpt from “The Character of the Hound”, in The Dragon and the Stars
copyright © 2010 by Tony Pi
Unlike the other wheel-ships in the fleet, which had been rigged with trebuchets, this squat vessel held on deck only a windowless cabin with a door slightly ajar. I gathered my courage and entered.
Two men stood in heated argument in the lantern-lit chamber. I recognized the wispy-bearded man in his early fifties as Admiral Zhang, bedecked in his imposing lamellar armor. A veteran of the war against the Jin, Zhang had been given the command of our river fleet by the Spirit General himself.
The other, a balding man in his thirties, bore a deep diagonal scar crossing both lips. His uniform marked him as a Yongdui, a platoon commander.
“Our ships and weapons are superior. Even without its magic, we can win tomorrow!” Admiral Zhang insisted. “I, who am beneath your flag, beg you to reconsider.”
Beneath your flag? The Admiral’s use of the honorific for the Yongdui ill-fit the proper chain of command.
The scar-lipped man shook his head and answered Zhang in a calm and sonorous voice. “No. It remains the key to holding the Yellow River and must not fall into Jin hands at any cost.”
I knelt in obeisance. “I, your servant Wu Fan, am at your disposal.” This posture brought my eyes to fixate on a pool of drying blood before a closed interior door. A sudden chill overtook me.
“How will this man help?” Admiral Zhang asked.
Scar-Lips drew his sword from its leather scabbard and stepped so close that his trouser leg brushed against my tied hair. “He has a mind for riddles, it seems.” He touched the flat of his sword on the nape of my neck and slid its entire length down my back, between cotton and skin. I dared not move, and held myself as still as I could against the gentle rocking of the boat. A sudden breeze tickled my back, and my cotton tunic fell in two parts, sliding down my arms. “And he has the hound upon his back.”
Admiral Zhang snarled. “But is he loyal?”
“I, your servant, have known scoundrels who rip their shirts to show honor written down their backs, even as they lie and steal,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. “My tattoo may not shout the same allegiance, but I take my chengyu’s moral to heart. I am true to the Emperor and would never turn traitor. Let my deeds prove it.”
“Would you lay down your life here and now to save the kingdom?” Scar-Lips asked.
“I give it without hesitation,” I blurted.
“Then it seems you have the heart as well.” Scar-Lips sheathed his sword. “Wu Fan, you will hear many strange and secret things tonight, not to be repeated upon pain of death. If you understand, rise.”
I let my arms slip from the sundered tunic as I stood. “I do.”
“Call me Kou Shen.” Kou shen meant mouth god or mouth spirit, leaving me to wonder about the nature of this man. “There is an urgent matter of the state, the theft of a relic from this ship. Do you know the legend of the Hetu?”
“Yes, the sacred River Chart,” I answered. “In ancient times, as a gift to the king, the Yellow River sent a dragon-horse from its depths with a magical map of the river’s secrets upon its back.”
Kou Shen nodded. “The Hetu is real, and in the hands of a sorcerer, the hide can raise floods or calm waters on the Yellow River. The currents flow in our favor, and enemies who slip underwater never surface alive. Thanks to the Hetu’s magic, the Jin armies have feared the river. But that advantage may be lost.” He pushed the door to the adjacent room open. Two robed men and a guardsman lay dead at the foot of a silk-draped table, their throats cleanly cut.
I turned away. I had seen more gruesome deaths in my three years of military service, but the cold precision of these murders disgusted me. “Who did this?”
“A traitor among us, one of high rank who knows about the Hetu,” Kou Shen said.
Admiral Zhang’s face twisted with anguish when Kou Shen said traitor. “The sorcerers may be dead, but our fleet will rise to the challenge.”
“I do not doubt it, Admiral,” Kou Shen said. “But while there remains a chance to recover the Hetu, we must seek it.”
“I am honored that you have chosen me for this task, but I am a mere engineer,” I said. “I can fix trebuchets and paddle wheels or calculate the trajectory of a bomb, but catching a murderer . . .”
“I see in you a clever man, Wu Fan,” Kou Shen said. “You will—you must—use those wits for the sake of the country.”