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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

 

Chapter-1

Love comes In All sizes

Duke Wushamao’s plans thwarted.

Wang is attracted to Lin Lang. Lin Lang disappears leaving Wang distraught.

 

 

How dreary! So boring I could smash everything in sight!” Well, Duke Wushamao could well afford it. During the reign of Wan Li, the Ming emperor the duke was lording over every privilege he could lay hold of and it was becoming an addiction. On this side of Chechiang known as Three Pavilions he gorged on whatever he collected. He was becoming voracious and it made him a terrible foe if thwarted.

Since the emperor had ceased to interest himself in upholding the Will of Heaven the duke’s power grew: he could make entire towns disappear at least in terms of tax, these towns annually paid to the provincial governments. It went straight into his coffers. The eunuch Youtiao who attended to the revenue for the province of Chechiang on behalf of the emperor was his brother and he was ever behind him to pick up the pieces. Except some areas that not even Duchess Peony Su could have helped.

The duke loved to spend time away from her company. He came only to sleep or receive men of importance. Otherwise his palace was at his duchess’ hands to throw her fits anywhere or anytime. So often she had a permanent scowl settled on her ivory skin. Neither the duke nor the duchess was willing to palaver. When she fumed he cruised outside and took low life in his stride. It was thus he found himself in his ducal carriage that morning.

Lately his lackeys had hinted some suspicious things going on in one of the most backward spots in the province. “Who shall set up an inn in a swamp?” What made him all the more curious was the news of a girl whose bearing was more of nobility than of peasant stock. He ordered his coachman to drive in the direction of the village with a curious name Blown Away.

Sitting in that four horse carriage bobbing along the rutted roads of the village Blown Away the duke could only see houses and these were barred. With his bile rising he peered along the blurring landscape and not a soul was in sight.

Not for long.

A solitary dot was looming in sight growing ever larger. As he took it in, he smiled. A girl was coming carrying a bundle of firewood. He briskly asked his coachman to stop.

Duke Wushamao was dying for company.

Luckily there she was. She was simply dressed in working clothes but she pleased him. He snapped his fingers and two of his lackeys who rode behind the coach jumped off their perch and ran towards her. She was hauling the load on a pushcart with wooden wheels. The cart was more a toy than for load. One zeroed in on the hapless girl and wrenched her off the ground. The bundle of firewood tumbled down scattering pieces pell-mell. Before she could scream the two brutes reached out and held her by the hand. As if by reflex she bit one in desperation and broke loose. It was followed by a swing of her foot that connected the groin of the other. The wretch howled in pain and fell.

She bolted!

Duke Wushamao grimaced and barked his men to chase her. The girl ran through a narrow alleyway with three brutes in pursuit.

2.

There was a public house that was hidden from view. Inn of the Seventh Serenity was a question mark as was the inn keeper. Obviously he was holding it on to cover some one’s folly. No one could have for a moment thought the inn was meant to cater to the needs of travelers. No travelers would have thought of being bogged down in a swamp.

Yet the inn was full.

On that morning Ta Yi, the fox-spirit of the Tiger Caves was in residence. He served as a counselor for the Wushamao League. Hardly had he stepped out before there was commotion.

To his amazement one peasant was coming towards him all in a lather herding a girl of thirteen towards him and crying, “Save my child, sir!”

Ta Yi asked him to step inside and make himself no worry.

The peasant was blubbering, “The duke is out to do her harm!” He heard enough.Ta Yi firmly said, “ That’ll do.”

There were a few customers sitting around playing backgammon and they were engrossed in the game. At least they pretended that they had no time for anything other than their game. Their patois was that of Beijing than of Checkiang. What were they for? None knew. They looked askance at Ta Yi and they knew everything was in order. The electrifying aura of the fox spirit seemed to make them feel relieved.

They were indeed the spies sent from The Pavilion of Heavenly Bliss in Beijing. They sent as part of the weekly report: ‘the sky is still blue and not a cloud is in sight.’ Reading it the favorite concubine to the Emperor could relax.

The guests paid no heed to the threesome who cast shadow as they clicked their tiles and arranged the combination.

Ta Yi drew them into a hall where the peasant, teary eyed looked at Ta Yi and said, “Duke Wushamao has come for my child!” Ta Yi caught the eye of the innkeeper who had sized up the situation and said, “ Back room. They are there.” Ta Yi nodded and guided the peasant and his daughter across the central courtyard. The innkeeper signaled the waiters and they quickly fell to their tasks.

Ta Yi herded the peasant and the girl into the room where Chuan and Wang were whiling away their time. They put away their straws and looked up.

They had visitors.

Even as they rose to greet Ta Yi and his company, Zheng Dong their host silently drew the curtain behind. The innkeeper went to his writing desk. He wrote a few lines, ‘ The hat is still too narrow for the head. The fox will take the bait.’ It was addressed to the King of Canton.

Zheng Dong called one of his servants who left immediately.

Next morning the king called Duke Mulberry who was his intimate friend and said, “Our man has found the means to cut Duke Wushamao to size. ” They had a good laugh. One whom they only knew as the Fox would do the job for them.

While the innkeeper was busy the inner room was all set to receive the assailants of the girl. First Ta Yi asked the peasant to speak. He explained how he was reduced to straitened circumstances due to the new economic policies of the province and he owed arrears in tax like so many others in his position. “ So Duke Wushamao sends his men to round up all that he could gather. This village is ruined. You may ask the worthy Zheng Dong who had lost his daughter only eight months ago.” Ta Yi asked him to stick to his story. “My child went out to collect firewood this morning and came screaming as though her hair was afire. I didn’t know what to do. Till I saw you. Please protect us.”

Zheng Dong coughed and put head past the curtains to say there were duke’s men, charging in.

How many?”

Two, and one is guarding the entry.”

Well let them in.” Wang conversationally asked the girl who sat demurely opposite to him, “ Have you broken an egg? ”

She had somehow taken possession of herself. She smiled coyly. Wang made room for her to sit by him while she hesitated.

You are sitting where Ta Yi is about to break some, ahem, heads.” There were footsteps outside and the girl quickly went over to the wall where Wang sat.

Ta Yi meanwhile got up and he had his staff in his hands. The two ruffians barged in and spotted the girl who had almost fallen into the lap of Wang in fright. Wang put his arm around her to steady her and the peasant moved aside to cover her.

One of the ruffians let out an oath and said, “ You! ”He was about to reach out but Ta Yi flicked his wrist to bring the tip of his staff on his knuckles. He let go her hand as though hit by an electric eel. The other assailant turned to him and barked, “Don’t you dare? This is Duke’s order. You interfere at your peril.”

We must show respect to the Duke. Mustn’t we?” Ta Yi laid aside his staff that Wang quickly got hold of. He showed his hand and told the fellow, “This is a working hand. Using this I show respect.” Calmly he folded his hand towards his chest and flicked his forearm straight to connect to his jaw and he fell backward. Wang had meanwhile blocked the other with the staff. The girl looked on as if transfixed by Wang who showed no fear.

As quickly as they came they disengaged. Both thugs were downcast and retreated. “I dread to think what shit you will be in after the duke gets hold of you all.”

Chuan was watching Wang and the girl who was in no hurry to disengage her from his company. He just smiled when Wang said, “There shall be no breaking of heads. Isn’t that a shame?” She smiled. “I thought we had an omelet here.” She shyly retorted, “ The Duke certainly knows how to pick out bad eggs.”

Before the peasant led the girl out Wang asked for her name, “Lin Lang.”

The innkeeper came in hurry to say, “The duke shall surely seek you out.” Ta Yi was unperturbed. “ Don’t worry. I shall pay him a visit instead. ”

Later in the evening Ta Yi asked about his missing daughter. Poor Zheng Dong quaked and he burst into tears. “ The duke thought she would go places if she were taken at hand and guided properly. He sent his wife to show he meant well. Two years ago it was. I thought his proposal was honorable.”

After a pause he sullenly mumbled. He offered me silver and to free me from tax burden. “

So you agreed?”

I asked for time.” He sniffled and added, “Soon after she was waylaid while she was visiting her maternal aunt.” He moped his forehead and said lugubriously, “From enquiries I come to understand her trail stopped at Fragrant Pavilion by the Pebble Lane.

That is where the Duke stays whenever he visits the Province. Is it not?”

The innkeeper nodded.

Zheng Dhong stood there as lost in thought. Ta Yi called out of his reverie. “Is any thing the matter?”

He hesitated and walked up to Ta Yi and whispered, “My daughter is almost identical. Lin Lang may have a smoother complexion and a more mysterious air.”

Ta Yi thought a while and said, “ I get the idea. But don’t worry over such matters.”

Of course I ought not make comparisons,,” the innkeeper said without much conviction, “but,-oh, where my girl has gone to.” He left.

Ta Yi thought Zheng Dong wasn’t entirely level with him.

 

Lung barged in all excited. He was amazed to see Ta Yi, which was least expected. The fox-spirit knew that he had left on a hunch and hoped to see what he could do in life. Ta Yi asked, “ Did you meet your contact?” Lung said, “ Of course, he taught me to gamble. I got into a scrape because I won too easily for his liking.”

Lung took a week to be himself with his thoughts as he put it. Now he was back. ‘It was pretty risky.’ Wang felt he was irresponsible to not to protect him.

Lung was in a cheerful mood, “Here is what I won!” Instantly Wang cheered up. Lung knew how to protect himself, He had to agree.

Lung carefully took out a flask and held out. Ta Yi was an apothecary among other things. He took it examined it and carefully opened the stopper. Taking a whiff of it he closed his eyes as if in intense concentration. He said quietly, “ No mistake of it!” Wang and Lung who were watching this dumb show asked, “What is it?”

Love potion!” was the reply.

Chuan sidled up to the twins and said, “ I guess you are ready for it.”

I met a really a sweet girl, dear brother. You missed the fun”. Wang filled him with news. Lung looked at his brother quizzically and said,

Care to try this?”

Wang firmly said, “No, Lin Lang is sweet but is she the girl? Only time will tell.”

Wang knew fate was in his favor and the love potion was merely skirting his tryst with destiny. Later in the night Lung poured love potion in a smaller flask and presented to his brother. “ One never knows how fate comes knocking. Be prepared, as our tutor would say.”

Wang put it away among his personal belongings. He was certain Lin Lang would not taste it for better or worse.” 

  (2 be cont’d)

benny

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(The Tower of Mists is the sequel to The Fox Spirit of the Tiger Caves where Wang and Lung are the central characters. They are identical twins and each complementing the other like a pair of chopsticks. One sets up the pranks and the other sets every thing in order once the prank is pulled off. There is a pirate who also figures in the Sword of Osman Bey.b) 

 

Book -1

A Deadman’s Chest

 

Prologue-The dead man

Wang and Lung in the port town of Hungzhou. In the midst of intrigue between two dukes. An empty chest and the unclaimed body of a foreigner.

Prologue

 

The Dead man

 

 


Four weeks before the New Lunar year,one busy morning Wang and Lung arrived in the port city of Hangzhou. They had just come from Shibung and had said farewell to one who shared a part of their youth. They still had another minor detail to attend to. Their uncle ‘Curious’ Lee of the Fudan clan was convalescing in his crumbling family home. It was unhappy times and their respects to the worthy sea captain must be paid. But it cast a certain pall on their already strained cheerfulness.

Even as they stepped out of the junk and walked down the pier they knew there was something wrong. The air they breathed crackled and the throng of peasants was as noisy so many pigs in a poke demanding a hearing. Oh their squeals went overdrive as two mandarins hovered in their line of vision. One cried, “We will rough them up!” and if they did breathe annoyance a little ago there was crackling of fire; Ducking a hail of brickbats about Wang whispered, “ Let us not get involved.” They quickly beat a retreat. They knew in the ensuing riot nothing they stood to gain.
Lung grimaced, “A regular war zone, it looks. Scoot!” They clambered across flailing hands and missiles in all shapes. The knots of men still holding merely swung them about. The sharper the cry went they pushed harder. Only at the point the road cut into the main thoroughfare they found an opening: They ran the gauntlet of flying projectiles and swinging poles to take it. On putting a safe distance they asked a coolie who had sat down to get his breath, “What was all that for?” “The people want their bird’s nest soup.”
Lung looked around and there were several eateries. Each displayed a board, ‘No bird’s nest soup’
The wizened coolie said as if to no one, “ No Emperor Soup ! No wonder it is topsy- turvy at all levels.”
Wang asked, “Emperor Soup? Is it for real?”
Wang didn’t think much of it anyway. The coolie looked at them as though they were some aliens and muttered, “ You don’t know what you have missed.”
Lung sighed and said, “I know what I miss.” “Our youth?” Wang asked as they walked farther. They still missed their past. It was then they realized there was a little matter about their uncle. He was suffering some sort of malady that incapacitated him. It sounded mighty curious. He was out of action and yet one imposter Captain Lee was happily sailing the seven seas and his ship Phoenix was in the news. It didn’t strike them then that he was by an imperial decree the real while their uncle, on whose bumbling ways their mischief always took a shine was languishing. He was indeed a large part of their youth.

Everyone in that section of the city knew Captain ‘Curious’ Lee. A few even escorted the youth to the crumbling mansion where the sea-captain was istalled to fend for himself from further insult to his dignity. The identical twins announced their names to the factotum who still put up a brave face and went in. Quickly he came back with a little more obsequious air to deliver the guests as though ‘on a silver platter ‘to his lord and master.
On a signal he disappeared from the hall.
‘Curious’ Lee brightened up and his wisps of scanty grey stubble of a beard fluttered. The sight of one whose jowls and belly still rippled in unison with the swell of the sea now made the twins look away. Yet he pressed manly his hospitality on the travel weary nephews. For a good measure he groaned even as he forced himself to play straight as before to the irrepressible youth of his nephews. It was dismal. As much as they tried to cheer up their uncle whose Panda-like size had stonewalled their snide remarks in the earlier times brought Wang to ask instead if he intended to write his memoirs. He shook his head and said, he was a man of action and not a scribbler.”
He moped and slowly opened his tale of woe. He began ‘In terms of career he had beached with a leak in the hull.’ From their reckoning the Admiral did not carry anymore weight with the emperor and it’s consequences had settled on his head. The admiral let him languish while one who was the favorite of Duke Wushamao was given his command. He even had his girth and took on his name and the unkindest cut of it all, the command of the Phoenix. It made the uncle tremble with rage and at his impotence.
To the twins his presence brought the image of his mother and his feeble attempts to cheer them was pathetic. It was no go. They raised as if to go. The sea captain stood up and led them to the hall. At the end their uncle said morosely, ‘If you ever board the Phoenix and sail think I am still in control.’ They nodded mechanically and exited.
‘We have a life ahead, for sweet Mercies of Buddha!’ they muttered as they reached the street level. Poor ‘Curious’ Lee was a shadow while the liquid sunshine that hit them stirred up the ever present.
The full weight of their sixteen years had hit them only when they came across the knot of rabble here and there and they could hear it had to do something with the bird’s nest soup. Lung muttered, “I never knew it was worth getting your skull broken up for?” “May be we are not really grown up?” They mentally brushed aside the incident.
‘What path should we take now?’ This was becoming a constant refrain.
Standing in middle of ebb and flow of life around them Wang said rather loud, ‘Carefree youth? Our life was one scrape after another.’ Gritting his teeth he pulled his brother aside and said, “We shall settle down just as Cowrie Shell.”
Lung shook his hold and hissed, “You are prying into my thoughts.”
Wang excused himself. “I didn’t mean getting married. We both shall get around to that when we are ready.”
They shook hands on it and they smiled at each other.
Wang and Lung were like two chopsticks, and inseparable. They looked alike and also thought the same thoughts, well most of the time. While they suffered the pangs of days that were, each was beginning to show a certain individual streak. Recalling the incident at the Two Gorges where they had broken journey to look at a temple perched on the top. Enveloped by mists and the quaintness of the panoramic view that lay at their feet, they had a tiff and it was over soon. Yet Wang knew they were growing apart in some of the things. It was marked when it came to the topic of love. Recalling the love struck bridal pair Wang was sure he was ready for love but Lung was all for waiting till the right one.
“How will you know it?”
“That is my secret.” Lung retorted as they descended. Recalling it Wang felt uneasy. And very ominous. After that occasion they traveled onwards as though nothing had happened. Yet there it was. But it wasn’t a comforting thought.
Sidestepping flocks of geese and pigs, which were being herded by peasants to the market the town breathed life. Lung mused, ‘Life could be so exciting.”
Wang suddenly said out of the blue. “We ought to be excited also, right?” Lung stared at him but said nothing. “Seventeen we shall be soon. What have we got to show for our pains?” he asked Silence . Wang insisted, “Pity we cannot show it when someone wants to know what we have done with our life.” Lung said testily. “ Why should we want to show?” Wang was practical, “May be when we think of finding a bride.” Wang was ready to impart his considered opinion. For didn’t he think it over for a month? A sharp jab at his ribs by the end of a stick sent him reeling. Lung saw the sedan chair and the outrider who had rudely shoved Wang aside. He wheeled around and shot his foot out. It connected the jaw of the fellow and sent him reeling to the ground. Wang saw from his head knot the man was the factotum of a duke. Instinctively his eyes darted to the chair. A duke was seated in his sedan chair glaring at him. Wang tugged at his brother and whispered,”Four to one. Beat it. ”
They quickly took to heels. They plunged into the crowd and sought the safety of an eating-house. They were in the Avenue of the Dancing spirits. While they sat down and ordered for some soup they collected their thoughts. Wang could recall the duke who had a good look of him. He said, “Duke Wushamao has found us. Or me in particular.” Before Lung could fully understand the seriousness of their fix he added, “But why he is here?” He recollected it was his favorite that had usurped the command of the flag ship. Weaving their path through knots of vendors and artisans their concerns were somewhat lessened by what they saw around them. Wang thought he was being watched. He held on to his purse that he carried in the inner tunic.
Suddenly Wang froze. He saw the silent warrior who had played a crucial part in their growing up, and it was an omen. He tugged at the sleeve of his brother and said, “I saw Chuan!”
Lung grimaced and said, “In your dreams!” Lung was sure that Chuan was an excuse for him to escape the future that lay before them. Wang said, “Didn’t we leave Chuan and Blia at the wedding feast as we left Shibung?” Wang asked breathlessly, “What did he tell you then?”
Lung agreed that Chuan was going directly to Hunan. ‘How come then you fancy he would be elsewhere?”
Wang thought Lung was testing his patience. “If he had to be here alone he has a crisis on hand!” As he said that Wang sought out the bobbing figure in his line of vision. The easy stride of Chuan was not to be missed, nor were some men who followed him discreetly at a distance.
He was distracted by Lung who said he had things to do. He said cryptically that he would wait for him at The Four Winds. Lung added,”You cannot miss it. It is where you can order for the Emperor soup.”
Wang didn’t want to miss Chuan so he ran into the throng as though his shirt- tail was on fire.
Lung wanted to taste the bird’s nest soup, the Emperor Soup in particular. He walked in that direction.
3.

Wang was rather morose when he joined Lung who said he was let down. Wang knew it already. He confided in Lung that Duke Wushamao had a bitter rival in Duke Mulberry. Lung said his visit o the Four Winds didn’t give him a taste of heaven but he felt in his bones there was something in their quarrel that made the ‘Emperor soup disappear from the menu?”

You mean he created the artificial scarcity?”

Lung wasn’t sure. Wang suspected the soup was very much part of their rivalry.

The quarrel between two dukes was indeed played for high stakes. The twins had no part in the quarrel between two. Nor did they want to take sides. Yet they had become drawn into it.

Pity that Destiny has other plans,” Lung observed. To this Wang added, “We need to fight as one.”

They agreed, ‘Yes if it came to that.’ Like chopsticks they needed one another.

As they sauntered they saw another eatingplace. Lung looked at his brother who turned to follow him. They went in.

Our life is exciting I ought to say,” Wang saw the waiter hovering about him. He asked for bird’s nest soup. Waiter asked with sarcasm if they were from the backyard of the empire. Wang asked what made him say that. He replied, “We haven’t had bird’s nest soup for almost a year.” He explained the foreign devils were out to give trouble. “They would put a knife in our throats.” In order to silence him they quickly ordered a bowl of lentil soup and some dumplings. As left Wang exclaimed, “ So we have arrived here in the middle of troubles!” The city is breaking apart because they have no bird’s nest soup! The idea seemed preposterous. But they had seen it spilling over onto the streets.

By the time they finished their hefty meal and tossed two copper coins to the bearer and Wang announced they would stay with Chuan.

We shall seek out Mandarin’s Cupcake.” As they proceeded along the dusty lane they sensed were followed. Lung hissed, ‘A spy for the duke, to be sure’

Wang and Luke had not quite lost the penchant for trouble. Trouble was ever at their heels whether they wanted it not.

The Mandarin’s Cupcake was a rundown eatery and anonymity that Chuan desperately required at that moment. It was an inn of lost and desperate souls. Soon they were knocking at the door. A stranger with a simple head knot appeared and waited. Wang held out half of a red lacquer disk to which he produced the other half. The disc had an ideogram that said: Hope.

Quickly a warrior came out from the inner hall where three others still sat on the mat. The twins brightened to see the man who sat facing the three. Chuan was in town and he received them and whispered, “ You haven’t seen those three and do not ask them any thing.” The twins understood. They quickly glanced at them and turned their eyes away.

One thing struck them as odd. All the three had a red sash around their waists and they sat before a wushamao that was torn. It was on a cushion as though a ceremonial object.

Who is dead?” the twins were still wondering as the warriors silently took leave of Chuan who seemed to be like a master of ceremonies. They waited till they were alone with Chuan who explained the situation in few words. They understood from the look in his eyes not to ask any further.

Later after the ceremony Chuan came to them. They were alone in a room.

Late in the night Chuan returned quietly and whispered to them, “ Are you game? We shall see a bit of action very soon.”

The twins quickly got up from their beds and dressed themselves to follow Chuan.

It was a desolate stretch at that time of the night. The twins could see they were climbing on the slope of a hillock that almost jutted into the highway. One end they could see the harbor dotted with lights and there were silhouetted of junks and tall masts. Their gaze was broken by rustle of the bushes and they quickly moved to the spot where Chuan crouched. He whispered, “Keep your eyes peeled to that point.” Wang was curious to know where had the three warriors had hid themselves. In the thick blanket of darkness nothing was visible.

To-who’, ‘to-who’ they heard the signal. Chuan drew his breath. Slowly they could hear tramping of hooves and a sudden movement of feet. Horses whinnied and they heard a pistol shot and suddenly there was a scuffle and a body falling with a thud breaking the silence. One moaned and two were cursing as they scuffled with their assailants. One warrior came up in a couple of bounds while Chuan went out to meet him. The warrior said, “ There is no duke.”

Who shot?”

The warrior looked over the shoulder and motioned Chuan to follow. Chuan could see the carriage and two men who were trussed up. One held the lantern to show the captives and one gave silently the pistol to him. He passed to one of the warriors.

Chuan exclaimed, “ Where is Duke Wushmao?” The prisoner sniggered, “ How do we know?” One of the warriors held up a pistol and said, “ This belongs to a foreign devil. I might as well try on him”. He held it against the temple of the man while the other shuddered, “ The thing will go off.”

That is the idea.” The other warrior said with a short laugh. The first prisoner said with a hiss, “ We are Duke Mulberry’s men.” He warned Chuan of dire consequences since the duke’s men were crawling all over the city. Yes indeed Hangzou belonged to Duke Mulberry.

Chuan meanwhile took a peak at the inside of the carriage and let out a squeal. Standing guard over the prisoners Chuan asked the warriors to comb through the carriage and bring whatever was found there.

Wang and Lung could see from their hiding place the outline of a chest. By the light of the lantern they broke the locks and opened.

Nothing of value except a book and a sheaf of papers.”

Chuan ordered the warrior to take the chest while the other motioned after completing his search of the carriage that there was nothing else.

Chuan collected the pistol and a canister containing shots. We will meet at our place, fellows. The prisoners will find help.” Hardly looking at the captives he ordered, “Now every man to his safety.” The warriors quickly disappeared and Chuan beckoned the twins to follow at a safe distance.

By early morning Chuan woke up the twins to show the contents of the chest. There was a diary that bore the superscription of a name. Pedro Cavallo. Rifling through the book Chuan muttered an oath to say,” The chest should have carried silver worth 3 million. But where has it gone?”

Wang and Lung thought ‘Who got the loot?” Three millions was an astronomical sum and it impressed them. They discussed between themselves possibilities. In the end they picked one as the winner. “So one point for Duke Wushamao. Whose turn next?” Wang asked.

But what interested Lung was, “ How did the chest land here in the first place? Or who brought it here?”

Chuan asked, “ What makes you think it was brought here?”

Look at the design? ” Chuan was impressed to look at the embossings on the chest. The cross was unmistakable.

Chuan had to agree Lung was right. “ Wang asked, “But what brought the foreign devil bring here?”

Chuan nipped their curiosity in the bud. “ This isn’t any game, kids.” He explained that they were dealing with treason. “And it will save you much bother, and even your necks, if you just keep out of this.”

Before Chuan took leave he left a piece of paper in which was written, ‘Inn of the Seventh Serenity.’ Without saying farewell he just disappeared among the crowd of people. Wang scanned the name and tore the paper into bits. Caution was becoming second nature to Wang.

Lung observed, “If we had some three millions in silver we have something to show. ‘They are only seventeen and they are rich, so they will say.”

Wang merely replied, “If.”

Chuan having checked the chest inside out beckoned Zheng Dong the innkeeper and told him to keep it. On second thoughts he added, ‘Leave it in your office and it is a piece of evidence. The League may need to produce it if things go right.’

But there is nothing of value here?’The innkeeper was puzzled. Chuan said ‘I also wonder. But if an empty chest takes a ride from one end of the realm to another we need to ask why.’ It was pure Tao and the box had acquired become a person represented, an evidence! It only remained to find if it spelled evil, or anything else.

4.

Wang and Lung asked the innkeeper where Duke Wushamao was in residence whenever he was in town. The innkeeper scratched his head and said the name was unfamiliar. He suddenly brightened up and asked one who was quietly drinking his tea in corner.

He beckoned the twins to come closer and introduced them to the old fellow. With a smile he said, “ My son works in the palace kitchen of the King Foo Yong. He is a busboy. He is right outside waiting for me to finish my breakfast.”

In a trice he brought his son who bowed to the twins and waited. They repeated the question. “ The duke stays at the palace, naturally”.

When did he come here last?”

Three days ago.”

He had brought a foreign devil from far off lands. He presented him before his majesty the king. It seems there was a letter from the Queen of that land. I know nothing beyond that.” That made sense to the twins. The envoy must have wanted to present the King with the chest full of silver, which was to be the gift from the Queen. But Duke Mulberry must have waylaid the chest and relieved the silver in order to discredit the duke from the realm of Three Pavilions. Or other way round. The matter was getting murkier.

 

Lung had enough. He got up early at dawn. He told his brother that he was ready to seek his chances.

What sort of?” Wang asked incredulously.

Anything that would fit my mood of the moment.” Lung seemed to be his own man. Wang hugged him and they parted. Wang went back to catch up with his broken sleep.

Meanwhile Duke Wushamao got up from his sleep in high spirits. He had played a trick on the duke as well as on the King of Canton. The foreign devil indeed passed for an envoy from the Queen of England.

He called two of his bodyguards and gave the order.

That night a body was thrown into the river Fuchun, which was fished out next morning by some boat people who plied along the river selling their wares.

Li Zhi was the Prefect of Hangzhou. He checked the body and rifled through his pockets and wrote his verdict: death by violence. Probably a Folangji (Spanish or Frank?) Name: unknown.

Of course the Prefect consulted with the Magistrate and they agreed that it was one of those cases that had all the hallmark of being relegated to the list of unsolved crimes.

Still they were puzzled: What was the dead man doing in the Middle Kingdom? Who was behind his death?

Chun Yen who looked after the Secret Service later reported before the Prefect. He bowed and placed papers that described the presence of an envoy from England who had an audience with the Royal Highness King Foo Yong at the Jade pavilion.”

After quickly going over the minutes Li Zhi trembled.

An alliance proposed by the Queen of England.”

What has this got to do with the case?” The Prefect looked uncomfortable.

Chun Yun bowed deeply knowing the gravity of the situation. “ May it please the Reflected Glory of the Emperor.”

Speak up, man!”

Chun Yun said, “ But there was no one from England allowed into our province according to the Foreigner’s registration Act.”

Who was the last foreign devil let into this kingdom then?”

One Pedro Cavallo.” Li Zhi wiped the sweat from his face and waited,

He was in the Fort, a prisoner.”

On whose order?”

Duke Wushamao.” Chun also added, “Under Undesirable Aliens Act article 3.clause 14.”

The Prefect said, “ The case is closed.” And he hastily dismissed the mandarin who ran the Secret Service too diligently for his liking.

After his subordinate was gone he sent his attendant for the sub-prefect who came in a hurry. The Prefect said, “ This is regarding the unclaimed body. Here are the papers.” Handing them over he ordered, “Put the lid on this case. Fix the seal ‘Not to be reopened’. Understand?”

The sub-prefect kowtowed and said, “understood, master.”

He understood to the extent the Prefecture functioned but not to the why a dead man made his superior all in a fluster. Following that time honored tradition of concluding work at the end of a day he said, ‘Banzai,’ and left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Ecco homo!” Rabbi Weiss one morning exclaimed laying aside his papers. I waited for him to explain which, as I had anticipated, he did. He patted his luxuriant white beard and said, “ Mattan this Armenian Jew! He is now become the Mayor. I had long ago warned him of coming to a bad end. Now he has gone and proved me wrong!”
That name seemed to ring a bell. “ Wasn’t his grand father who ended up in a gulag?” The rabbi nodded.
I added, “And a terrible poet to boot. He wrote, ‘Lament from the Lost Ark.’ Remember?”
“ Who doesn’t know the lines, Lark, lark is it you? / It is me again; / I’m set down as Cain/
My love for Mark it’s true. And so on.” I quoted from memory.
“Please refrain from quoting his lines while we call on Mattan this afternoon,” Benn Weiss cautioned me. I replied, “ Mum is the word.”
“Once his father was so worried about him.” Rabbi Weiss ruminated, “ that he would do such a thing as serve the public.” “Isn’t serving the public a good thing?”
“Yes, Jake,” my friend continued,” Not in case of Mattan. He will beggar the public funds as he did with his father’s life savings.”
“So we are going to meet a crook?” Rabbi Weiss was deep in thought. “I shall not quote poetry.” I assured my friend, ”Perhaps a joke or two when the time calls for it?”
The rabbi nodded his head.
Later in the evening while the mayor and the rabbi had exhausted the topics I asked,” Have you heard about a fellow who stole the white elephant of the King of Siam for a lark? When the law caught up with him he could only say, ‘It was all a mistake, fellows!’
“He is now in Sing- Sing on account of a lark.”
benny

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All My Sons©

When my sons came of age I gave the eldest a stamp I had but no envelope to stick it on; nor had a friend to send. I had one blind count in Florence who couldn’t read a thing any way so he didn’t count. Just the same he left his villa to me and I gave it to the second oldest. My third son got a painting that I had picked from one of the flea markets on the left bank of Seine, Paris. To my fourth I entrusted a paperweight. Of course to my last I gave a denture with initials GW.
Before I could leave this world my eldest son came smug and self assured and said, “You gave me a Penny Black,1840.”
“You have made a fortune?”
“Oh no, my dog just chewed to pulp.” said he.
The second son managed to arrive at my deathbed and we hugged and he said he had converted his villa into an orphanage for stray dogs. With beating heart I asked,” what of that western wall on the piano nobile ?”
“Oh the figure of Christ was nude; so were apostles. So I painted over the whole thing.”
“Son, it was by Michelangelo.”
“Never heard of him. I had to protect the feelings of the house keeper”.
The next one said the painting was so unlike a face he could live with.
“Matt, it was by Picasso. One from his cubism period”. My son Matthew said, “Picasso or Pickaxe, what do I care? Either you get the face right or use a digital,- Canon is my choice, for gods sake.’
‘My fourth son George, only cared for his own feelings, but still made my day. I asked what he did with the paperweight.
“How long do I think I can go on feeling a piece of glass in my pocket?”
“So what did you do?’
“I threw it into the garbage of course.”
I murmured, “Hope Diamond, my paperweight and my nest egg.” What George did not know didn’t hurt him. I greeted my last son and he said, ‘Pop the denture you gave belonged to some fellow called George Washington. You think I’ll keep some one’s dentures, the one that didn’t fit him, will sit well with me?’ So my son had smashed it and thrown it away. A man’s whole life in the face of such calamity is likely to speed up and mine was in a flash.
It anyway cured me.
“Well, well,” I got up from my bed and said,” A bunch of hopeless idiots I raised up. I must get down to business.”
All my sons were aghast and tried to restrain me. “No you are in your deathbed. Stay.”
“Oh no,” I was sure. “I cannot afford to die. I must at least make some money for myself.The Undertaker does not do his job for free. It is a fact of life.”

benny

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An earthworm was run over by a passing cart and its mate was heartbroken. “No more I shall turn up the earth; let the earth go to hell for all I care.” Zeus descended at that moment to ask the earthworm to take back his curse. He refused and said,” I can’t. I’m too heartbroken!”
Zeus repented to watch the worm suffer and planted a Laurel sapling to mark the spot.
Eons later a pilgrim was passing at the foot of Mt.Olympus saw a laurel tree and he bowed and said,” Oh Zeus what brings you here?”
” Oh I came to check out the tree favored of gods. Looks still impressive. Isn’t it?”
Zeus then asked what took him on pilgrimage. He replied,
” Misery of my existence. I live among the dead and near unto dead. Loving means Mourning. Why love someone to see her dead one day?”
Zeus tried to tell him to take life by the horns. “Like this tree hug the earth, good and bad, sorrow and gladness alike.” The pilgrim received a laurel branch from him and took it to his people. He said,” Here is a branch! With these laurel leaves we shall make a wreath for the victor!”
It was how the tradition of crowning the victor with laurel began.
benny

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Four Musicians of Bremen©

Shmuck always thought he was the most likely to succeed in his class. When he graduated with distinction he went to work for a gnome in Zurich. He slaved like a donkey to make the House of Black Friars the biggest bank. But one day he was shown the door. When he went out the portier feeling sad asked if he had thought of singing for his supper. Shmuck was an expert at it he said.’Show me the color of money I will make my guitar weep.’ he added with a laugh. Finally he said,’I shall go to Bremen that lies at the end of the rainbow.’

That was how Mr.Shmuck hit the road. With a song in his heart and without a care except his severance pay and it weighed heavily in his pocket. Before long he met a fellow who sang only one tune and his imitation of Elvis Presley was fantastic. When he sang the number ‘Hound Dog’ even late king turned in his grave to say in sepulchral tone,’I am stoned,man!’.

Mr. Shmuck heard Mr.’bulldog’ Drummond and said, ‘We shall conquer Bremen!” Mr. Drummond didn’t know what was special about Bremen but the way Shmuck, the donkey described it,’ It was Graceland prim and proper’.

A little further the two came across a drag queen. ‘I am Meeow,’ and asked them to follow the rules if they expected to conquer Bremen.’I am It to you but Alley Cat to others.’

The two were surprised that there were such rules for one who played coy and played like a jerk in next. ‘Meeow likes to purr!’ said It cheerily.

‘Can you sing?’

‘O I sing flat like no other!’ replied It coyly.

Any instrument?’

‘Just me and my Jewish harp!’

‘You will do’ said the other two.

In the town they came next was a popinjay and he strutted while they were supping in a motel. They saw his outlandish dress and exaggerated manners and asked him to join them.’ I came to this town hoping to buy a suit most sober for an undertaker.’ He said and his sad story continued, ‘I wanted this gray suit that I saw hanging in a shop window. Since buying it I got a funeral parlor as if I had pressed some magic button.’  He added how it got into his head to strut about like a rooster since every wish began coming true.He ended ssaying,’ I lost it all since townsfolk thought a high kicking undertaker who had a joke for every wake was giving death a bad name.’

‘Call Me Dude, the rooster.’ Dude wasn’t in the least bothered by his losses. As he said he intended to make his loss add to his personality. ‘But can you sing? they anxiously asked him.

‘Some times I am adenoidal, but mostly I prefer off-key’ replied he. He said he took to rap music and as if to prove he gave an impromptu song and dance,’Adenoidal, it’ s me/All I need is a nod/I can make paranoia/ seem elemental.’

The three immediately took him. They didn’t know what he meant but it sounded very musical to them.

Thus the four went to a town and they said they should sleep early since they would be wowing the folks of Bremen next morning.

All the more reason we should paint the town red.’ insisted Dude the rooster.

So they let Dude to arrange a card party. Ten thalers a point they played for high stakes. The four musicians were losing like a roller coaster that had missed rail some hours earlier. The donkey whispered in between to ask Meeow if It knew what was going on. The drag queen threw Its hand and said,’ Even the folks from Bremen have come pouring to take us on.’ It was true. The news went around about Four musicians who were hell bent to lose. ‘Ah this is is the lowest form of self-advertisement,’ worthy wight observed,’ they are bent on making the city of Bremen to sit and take note.’

The game was in full swing. He directly put a duffel bag full of money to play against the four.

The fellows of Bremen took turns to play against these four and in the end the four owed the city of Bremen 6 million thalers not counting the sundry losses the four had incurred in playing against the other guests in the hotel.

The Mayor at one point stood up and demanded the four musicians to make good of their losses.’We won good and proper.’

Mr. Dude the rooster let out a cry ‘cock a doodle doo.’

When asked what he meant he said, ‘Nothing‘ that will stand up in a court of law.’

The other three pointed to each other and said, ‘We shall sing for your suppers,considering you shall be kicked out of the City Hall for gambling away the reputation and assets’.

The folks of Bremen looked at each other and they knew they gambled for nothing. They were disappointed and angry.’ They surrounded the Mayor and their councillors saying,’You all are a bunch of crooks!’

In the end the four musicians of Bremen began singing for suppers of those who were thrown out of their office.

They survived in spite of this. Many thought it was very decent for them to care for the unfortunates. Centuries later they have become the stuff legends are made of, but somewhat altered in the real facts. There is a famous statue commemorating the four in the city of Bremen.

benny

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How Knight Gareth made a detour

Berthold the Court Jester had been in King’s service from the time he discovered he had a gift of the gab. His loquaciousness however hit a hiatus whenever the talk got personal. His jabs were not as bad as his jokes. He had his license to poke fun at anything and spare nobody. He became more circumspect with such power that made the king think he was only playing the fool and his heart was not in his job.

The king was right as usual. Only that king being busy marauding neighboring kingdoms let him dither. Much less he thought of his fool when he had to provide his knight at arms with a squire to hold his shield.

The king agreed to let Bertie, as he was known in the intimate circle, to find the right candidate. There were three peasants who had thrown their caps into the ring.

By sundown they came.

The king and the nobles were at supper. The king motioned the fool to start.

The jester roughly caught the nearest by his collar,” Hey Willie, please keep your finger from your nose at least when you are spoken to.’

But nobody spoke to me” mumbled Wilfred wiping his offending finger on his trouser.

Bertie the fool grimaced and said, “oh heavens, and deaf too.” He gave a kick on his shins and told the king,’ He will not do master.” Bertie didn’t mind the merriment he caused and he stood a little far from the second.

“ Fall out!” he barked.

The second promptly did as he was told. The Court jester looked at him and winced. “I said fall out. Not your dingle!” he turned to his master to say, “Any fellow who forgets to fix his codpiece is not fit for the job.”

The third peasant stood ramrod and said ‘At your service, master’ Berthold the Jester farted and barked, ”Catch it!”

What?”

The Fool threw up his hands in despair and asked the tittering court, “I fart and he can only say ‘what?’. What kind of service can you expect from him?”

With a straight face he said,These three will not do.”

The king said, “Now you tell us who can do the job.”

Approaching the kings table he said,” Put your cup down. I don’t want you to spill your wine.” The king seriously obeyed. The courtiers who were chomping their viands swallowed hard to hear the fool.

I Berthold of Pipsquak Corner will be the squire.” The king paused seriously and said it was impossible since he didn’t want a fool to distract the serious business of bloodletting. The fool stood on his hands and walked to wards the king. Knight Gareth said “Please sire, I will vouch for him. Let him be my squire.” The king thought over and asked the fool,’Do you have a horse?’

The jester said, ‘ I will show it to you.” He quickly ran inside and brought a wooden rocking horse. “Whatever was good for the king is good for me.”

By the time the army set out Squire Berthold was on a nag that kept her pace with his knight.

Berthold knew he was on the right side and the knight knew he found a friend for life.

ii


The King’s army camped for the night on the plains. There were three more days journey beyond which was fraught with danger. King Eric had kept the army march in secrecy. Every village and town were hotspots where the spies could have known and slipped into cover and warn the Palatinates. Knights were put in ranks each one supervising mobs who carried pitchforks, lances, bows and arrows. Some had shields made from most bizarre utensils patched up to do the job. Knight Gareth kept pace with the mules that had drovers bearing scythes and flails tipped with iron balls. In between they spoke of their farm life and hopes, and Knight Gareth had difficulty in holding back his home-sickness. The party crossed the postern gate that barred fields that led them to the town of Fidelis. By late in the evening they broke up their ranks and made their beds under a clear cloudless summer sky. Tomorrow they were to strike towards east along the grove of cypresses to the hills that girt around Palatine. The Prince-Elector of Ghoulish Palatine lorded over his kingdom lulled into a belief that the hills of Malvern was beyond the pale of mortals. Knight Gareth heard the name Malvern witch a couple of times and he asked his squire for news.

A sorceress who cannot be approached,” Bertie the fool explained,’for praise or for money.”

‘No it is a wizard’, the miller was certain.

The knight mulled over it. The witch’s lair was close to the Palatinate. He could understand why Queen Mother sent her agent to Fidelis than to Malvern. The sorceress or wizard, what matter is it of gender, the one who lorded over Malvern didn’t bend house rules even a trifle to accommodate a queen.

The knight went over to the king to report this piece of news. The king flatly refused to take his army through the domain of a sorceress. ‘I have sent my spies already to find a weak spot from which we may attack the Palatinate from the rear’.

The kingdom of Prince-Elector of Ghoulish Palatine was situated around the bend of the river Ghoul with Malvern Spits on the rear. Knight Gareth said he was not afraid of witches, man or woman. He offered his services to reconnaitre. King Eric smiled at his loyalty and slapping on his back he asked the knight to get a good night’s rest.

On his return he found the squire had already seen to his comfort. Eating his meal he confided in Berthold of his plans.

He also said he missed his wife and his baby terribly. The squire assured him he was ready for an escapade and would help in whatever way he could.

By the time they reached the door of his cottage the entire town was asleep. No soul was in sight. Only a stream that didn’t distinguish between day or night. It went on gurgling and wheezing around the pebbles on shallow bed. Leaving his squire to care for the horses he quietly slipped in. Greta was fast asleep and the baby lay in his cot blissfully unaware of his father. He could not help trembling. He felt strange as though he were intruding on Greta’s dreams. Her gentle breathing went on its steady pace. He lit a candle that stood on a table by her head.

He quietly sat on the side and leaned across, enfolding her in his arms. She stirred and slowly adjusted her eyes. She gasped. Edgar was back! She sat up and they hugged each other. They spoke no words but laughed and looked at each other in wonder. She touseled his hair and took out a straw. Casting it silently away she caressed his face and kissed. They made love silently all their senses engaged into it as though it made the months of absence go away. Only after they satiated themselves in each others warmth she followed him as he scooped Rudy in his hands. “Now he can turn himself over and is busy trying to sit up.” She pointed to the bump on his forehead that was nothing serious. He kissed him and also kissed her with feeling. She stared at him for a trifle long sensing that he was not going to stay. She looked into his eyes searching while he said,’I am the king’s knight at arms.’

She didn’t understand what he meant. She reached out and took his finger and drew him closer, “Edgar, I could want you more but.” She smiled at her silliness to say,’I wait for the day you are free.’ She would have thrown herself into her arms but for hurried steps. Their neighbor Agathe huffed and puffed into the parlor. Seeing the man she quickly caught the shoulder of Greta and blubbered,’I see spirits blue and white hairs like tendrils. The ghostdreamer is here!”

Hold it woman,” Edgar said with authority while pouring a generous shot of barley wine. He explained that he had just dropped in to visit his wife. He didn’t explain further. Greta knew he wanted his new position to be kept a secret.

As he stepped into the darkness he heard Agathe anxiously asking, “I hope you came alone?” He chose not to answer.

He walked a little further and he saw his squire stepping out from the shadow of an old yew tree. He still held on to horse. Knight Gareth knew the squire didn’t want to be seen by Agathe.

He said casually,’Fine time to leave me in the lurch.’ he also added that he would appreciate it greatly if he were open about it. ‘I wont hold your secret against you.’ Court jester Berthold said, “ I just met my mother. She is a witch.”

Knight Gareth thought he would fall off from his horse. So it was she who helped the Queen Mother. He was in a fix.

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