(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)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.