Shanghai, International Settlement Zone
Yangtze Delta, Republic/Empire/Anarchy of China
May 1st, 1923 A.D. – 1923(b)
“Tenderly Kala nursed her little waif, wondering silently why it did not gain strength and agility as did the little apes of other mothers. It was nearly a year from the time the little fellow came into her possession before he would walk alone, and as for climbing—my, but how stupid he was!
Kala sometimes talked with the older females about her young hopeful, but none of them could understand how a child could be so slow and backward in learning to care for itself. Why, it could not even find food alone, and more than twelve moons had passed since Kala had come upon it…”
Ciara’s voice dropped off to a murmur on the final lines as the childrens’ eyes drooped closed.
At the foot of the bed, Susan Zhou smiled and raised her brows. Her own Rebecca and Alice were curled up there, nodding themselves—they could follow English with a little trouble now. From their looks they were about a year older than the two sets of O’Malley-Whelan twins, or perhaps a little less given their original sparse peasant diet. Luz disentangled herself from Patricia and Colleen, and after closing the book—Tarzan of the Apes, currently at Chapter Five—and setting it aside Ciara did likewise with Mary and Luciana.
With Susan helping, carrying them to the children’s bedroom next door and tucking them in didn’t take long; only a few yawns and blinking and murmurs as they were kissed goodnight slowed the descent into limp, deep sleep. Luz smoothed back a lock of Luciana’s tow-colored hair and smiled to herself before she cat-footed back out the door.
They grow so fast! she thought. A solid weight in the arms now, and their faces are getting… more individual?
“I miss the bedtime snuggle when we’re away,” Ciara said, when they were back in their own room. “Morning snuggle can be a bit alarming when they dash in and jump on us.”
Ciara was emphatically not the sort of person who sprang out of bed fully alert in the morning, unlike Luz. Now she stretched comfortably before putting away the current storybook and turned off all but the beside lamp on Luz’ side, before climbing back into the bed that had been the site of the snuggle and story-reading.
Susan slept next door, and these days her two slept there as well. They had been casually inducted into their tribe by the O’Malley-Whelan offspring, where they gave as good as they got. They’d been behind the unanimous vote to switch to pajamas rather than nightgowns, for instance.
“ Yo tambien, cariña,” Luz said: I do too, sweetie. “It’s curiously… satisfying. As if it was filling a hole in my life… a need I didn’t know I had… until the children came.”
She stretched as well, and became conscious of a quite basic need.
“Even though Patricia seems to be unable to snuggle without putting pressure on my bladder. Back in a moment.”
When she returned Ciara was already asleep, her copper-gold hair spread out on the pillow and still slightly damp from the bath, snoring very slightly with her full lips parted. Luz drew the coverlet up over her shoulder and stood smiling for a long moment, her head tilted to one side: in the soft light, her partner looked as young as she had when they met, six years ago.
And there I thought I’d be a loner all my life, after Mima and Papá were killed, she thought. I may be an excellent spy, but I’m no more a prophet than anyone else.
“¡Por lo cual, gracias a Dios!” she murmured softly, her finger tracing through air over the other’s cheek.
If anything Ciara looked younger than she had been on that memorable day in Schloss Rauenstein. Perhaps because she’d been under life-or-death stress in Germany on that memorable day, when she’d saved Luz’ life by affirming her cover even though she knew it was false.
And she told me later that she hadn’t been sure what she’d do until she did it, Luz thought. That she didn’t think anyone could stop the Breath of Loki, and then she saw me and hesitated and then decided what she had to do. How much depends on moments like that! No wonder nobody can predict the future!
She climbed in on her side of the bed and turned out the lamp. The darkness wasn’t total, nor the silence; a little city-light leaked past the curtains, and there was a far-off soft murmur. It was very different from the utter quiet of Mongolia, where only the sounds of birds and sometimes the howl of a wolf broke the silence. Shanghai was a modern city of millions, with tens of thousands of autos and fully electrified for a generation now… or at least the old International Settlement was, the core along the Huangpo river. Since 1916 the Municipal Council ruled the suburbs and the old Chinese walled town and a surrounding area about the size of New Jersey, and was busy modernizing the rest of it.
She snuggled close and Ciara murmured and worked her way backward without really waking. They normally slept like this, spoon-fashion with Luz at the back, and the habit had become ingrained enough to be automatic.
I miss Santa Barbara and the Casa… but home is where she is, and our children.
“There,” Ciara said two weeks later, and pushed the swivel-chair she was in to one side. “Look there.”
The darkroom was next door; Ciara was developing all the film Yvette Andrews sent down with the airboats every three days and forwarding copies to their HQ in Peking and the relevant museums in America, to their mutual satisfaction. There was a faint chemical smell, overlaying the wax-polish-flowers scent of the house as a whole.
But this room was darkened as well, and had some rather recondite equipment provided by the Chamber, courtesy of Station Chief Henrietta Colmer. This photograph wasn’t a study of Mongol women’s hairstyles or ritual dances; it was a foot on a side, on some sort of translucent film, and underlit on the stand where it was clipped to a slab of carefully ground glass. Tommy Scelham leaned forward, his chiseled handsome face underlit as well, and as expressionless as it usually was when he was thinking hard. He brought the swivel-arm with the big magnifying lens around to the right angle and peered through it.
“What am I looking for?” he said.
Ciara took a mechanical pencil and traced a line in the air above the transparency’s surface from the top right to the bottom left. The photo was a slanted shot of a piece of nearly featureless Gobi desert, but with a very slight effect of wavy lines.
“You see this?” Ciara said. “The picture was taken with a wide-angle lens with high magnification, and it was taken near sunrise—as they were closing in on Roy’s new camp in the Gobi… golly, those wonderful dinosaur eggs they found! Anyway, what you’re seeing is shadows cast by very very teensy-tiny depressions in the surface of the desert. None of them are big enough to stand out by themselves but if you put dozens together you get this.”
“Bloody hell, Josephine,” he said. “You’re right. It’s a path!”
“Wheel ruts, mostly. Big dray-wagons, and a few motor-trucks.”
“Meaning lorries… I knew they could do big things with air photographs, the War and all showed that, but this… those must be really shallow ruts.”
“Ruts and patterns of hoofprints, and campfires. This—
She indicated a spot.
“—is a recently dug well, two or three years old. See how the vegetation is different? Water spilling from the well when it’s used. A borehole, really, and I think this is a sort of dug-in shed for a wind-pump that can be put up and taken down quickly.”
He shook his head. “I went up with that airboat and the ground there is all like a made road back in Blighty. Hard as if it were macadamized, or near enough. I could have stared for a week and I wouldn’t have suspected a buggering thing. Maybe if I crawled around on me hands and knees. And I was a poacher back in Blighty, for the pot since I was a kid… thought I could track a toad over rock.”
“Well, from an airboat you can use a really big camera,” Ciara said.
Most battlefield air reconnaissance was done from aeroplanes, since they’d be shot at, and from higher altitudes and higher speeds.
“From fairly low, too, less than a thousand feet. And the US Air Corps did a lot of pioneer work on reconnaissance in deserts—the war in Mexico, you remember.”
“The Intervention, you Yanks call it,” Tommy said in acknowledgment.
That had started in the spring of 1913; the fighting hit its peak in the next eighteen months, and sputtered out gradually into slowly subsiding quasi-banditry in the year or so after that. Ciara went on:
“Mrs. Colmer got us the best gear, and those three technicians she supplied as navigators know how to use it.”
“Bloody hell,” Tommy said, stepping back as Luz turned on the overhead lights. “And I thought I was traveling Port Out Starboard Home—”
Which was where the word posh came from.
“—when the Imperial Secret Squirrels got us those flame-throwers. Pays to have friends in high places!”
“That it does,” Luz said, and reflected:
And odd how often we spies end up working with… ummm… unofficial entrepreneurs like Tommy.
“And then the Department of the Interior went in on a joint project with the Corps of Engineers to use airboat photographs for the Continental Map Survey Project—for the entire area between the Panama Canal and the Arctic. So useful, for planning! So many things people hadn’t seen or didn’t know were there! Everything from ancient ruins for the scholars to deposits for the mining companies. And they found you could trace really teensy-weensy things if you analyzed the photographs just right. I read up on it and it’s not very difficult if you practice a bit.”
Not difficult for you, my darling one, Luz thought with amused affection and no little pride at the casual statement, as Ciara mastered another arcane skill with offhand speed. Technical stuff for you is like languages for me. Or cream to a cat.
Scelham had some idea of what that non-boast involved, and blinked thoughtfully. So did his aunt Holly. His elder brother Arthur didn’t; he was in his late thirties and looked the way Tommy would if you added three inches, subtly distorted everything into ugliness, threw in a big beaky nose and a bushy mustache and a mad glint in his pale eyes. His face had a bit of a battered look; boxing was his favorite sport, and according to rumor the Scelhams had had to hush up bad injuries to his sparring partners occasionally, with a mixture of bribes and threats.
Luz took pity on him and stepped over to a big ordnance-style map of the Gobi Desert on one wall, turning on a spot-lamp that illuminated it brightly. Tommy and Holly both lit up—he a cigarette with Turkish tobacco, a little less fiendishly expensive here in Shanghai than in most of the Oceanian countries, she a thin brown rum-scented cheroot in an ivory holder. Arthur looked as if he’d been sampling something a lot more stimulating, even though it was only mid-afternoon. A stiff drink, or possibly cocaine.
Luz tapped a point. “This is the current base-camp of the expedition.”
Then she traced a line. “These are the established caravan routes… one not far east from the camp. T’ose stand out on the reconnaissance photos like highways.”
She traced another route, marked by a dotted line. “This, this is the pathway we’ve discovered, si? It does run from Aldart Baatryn, the Mongol capital, southwest… but it carefully avoids the caravan tracks from just south of the city. ¿Verás? From the capital to somewhere in the southwestern Gobi, the most desolate part of it, and someone in Aldart Baatryn, they want very much that nobody notices the coming and going.”
“Spot on,” Holly said, sipping at her tea. “And if someone else doesn’t want you to notice, there’s usually a good reason t’ find out what’s going on if you can, on general principles. It opens… possibilities, like.”
The servants had brought in a creditable imitation of a British afternoon tea, complete with pastries and small sandwiches and the like on a stand shaped like a series of circular trays on a common stem, from large plate size at the bottom to saucer-sized at the top. Luz took a scone studded with hazelnuts and bits of dried fig, and added Devonshire-style clotted cream.
“Bugger this for a game of soldiers!” Arthur burst out, his mouth still half-full; he’d been steadily cramming. “We just have to follow this track—send an airboat along it! Then we land, lift everything, and—”
He stopped, obviously suddenly remembering that three of the five people in the room were not likely to find something along the lines of: then we drink expensive booze and fuck pricy whores ’till our cocks drop off a good metaphor for sudden riches.
“—and then Mrs. Smith fences it all for us!”
“I prefer to think of it as placing the art treasures safely with worthy recipients who will love and honor t’em. ¿Nooooo?”
She drew that out with a thin smile and the hint of a wink, and joined in the chorus of wicked laughter that followed.
Ciara looked slightly pained. Even after years in the Chamber, some of the people you associated with as a secret agent still activated the careful respectability of the lower-middle-class South Side world she’d been reared in.
Her family had been the object of a lot of police interest in Dublin before her father relocated to Boston in the 1880’s, but that had been for their political radicalism. The fact that the Scelhams were Romany—Gypsies—didn’t help. It wasn’t that she disliked ‘tinkers’ as such, but she’d been raised to suspect them.
“Also the… how do you English put it… the charge of the bull at the gate, perhaps that is not the best way to approach this,” Luz said.
“No, it isn’t,” Tommy said, giving his brother a quelling glance. “The Bloody Baron has a bloody army, and we don’t.”
“He steals whole countries; that’s gummint work for you,” Holly said. “We’re not so grand.”
Tommy nodded. “Only reason this is mebbe possible is that he’s doing it all on the sly. Not going to park a battalion around wherever it is—troops draw the eye.”
“Wait a bit, wait a bit,” Holly said thoughtfully. “Hold on, now.”
She was around forty, and her still-handsome face had plenty of what was generally called character. In particular, the sort of glance that made you conscious of things moving behind the eyes. She affected a businesswoman’s suit, skirt combined with man-style shirt, tie, jacket and waistcoat complete with golden watch in one of its pockets on a gold chain laden with fobs.
She took a draw on her cheroot and then stabbed the glowing point in the direction of the map.
“We’re talking tomb-robbing here, right? He’s robbing the tomb and we want to rob it out from under him.”
“Si,” Luz said; Mrs. Smith was the expert on Oriental art. “A very big tomb. From the scale, and from the contents, one of the Great Khans—Genghis, his grandson Kubilai, that era.”
Holly nodded, Tommy was expressionless, and Arthur was utterly baffled.
“Seven to eight hundred years ago. King Richard the Lionheart’s time,” she expanded.
“Ar,” Arthur said, nodding wisely. “Robin Hood and them lot.”
“The Mongol Khans were the richest rulers in the world then, with the loot of China and everything west to Poland to furnish their afterlife.”
Tommy tapped a thumb on his cleft chin. “That old? Damn fine condition the goods were in! I can believe the richest in the world bit, though, from what we saw.”
He’d examined every piece in the score of wicker crates they’d lifted off the Bloody Baron’s men at the meeting with the Green Gang’s former and now thoroughly deceased leadership. Just the raw materials had represented quite a sum, and their worth as art, including legendary paintings and scrolls that would produce pearl-clutching palpitations in dozens of museums, had given the Scelhams a share equivalent to several years profit from all their burgeoning legal, quasi-legal and utterly illegal enterprises here in Shanghai.
“They’d been cleaned by experts, but yes, Tommy,” Luz said. “They were under the surface but not buried. Not in dirt, you understand, si? In caves, or stone-built underground chambers that haven’t collapsed. In the original boxes. Neatly packed and padded. The Gobi is ideal—always dry, thin air with the altitude, usually very cold. Always cold, if you go a few feet down, but not the cold of freezing in soil-water. And in complete darkness, untouched, all those centuries. Vulnerable things like wood and iron oiled first, too. Paper and cloth in bronze containers. Even with modern machines, you couldn’t design better storage.”
“Well, possibly if you used a nitrogen atmosphere,” Ciara said. “But that would need continuous maintenance.”
One of the few things Tommy had kept for himself was a Chinese dao-saber, a masterwork of the smith’s art but the blade engraved with calligraphy in hair-fine gold inlay, a line from a ci-form poem by the poet-emperor Li Yu. He’d decided to hang on to it when she translated for him:
When will spring flowers and autumn moon end?
“So it’s a big tomb,” Holly said; she’d picked out a couple of scroll-paintings. “Relatively speaking. But all that stuff you got at the Green Gang fight, we could have put it on the backs of two camels. Well, everything except the girls. Why all this traffic? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use only a few trusted bullyboys?”
She nodded to Luz with a crooked smile much like her nephew’s. “With an art expert along.”
¡Diablos! She’s too smart for comfort!
Arthur was still looking befuddled, but for Tommy it was a look that probably meant… why didn’t I think of that?
“De improviso… as you say, at first thought… my belief is that the Khan has more than one secret he wants to keep, and when he wants to keep a secret he puts it in the Gobi if he can. ¡Diablos! That’s why the tomb was put there, so long ago! Who goes there but a few shepherds with very hungry sheep? Well, caravans—but they’re not going to the Gobi, they go to cross it, cross it as fast as possible and sticking to the ancient routes for safety’s sake.”
“We know his men think the treasures are from the Gobi, from those prisoners we took, and we know that it’s southeast from, the capital,” Tommy said thoughtfully. “But I wouldn’t want to stumble into one of his other secrets while I was looking for ’em.”
Curse it, that’s precisely what we want to do!
“Not a risk we can entirely be avoided of,” Luz said.
“What do you think we should do?” Holly said.
“Wait another few weeks,” Luz said. “I hate to do so… every week, more of the treasures are stripped… but that is wise.”
“Ar. Remember the old tale about the dog and the bone it saw in the river,” Tommy said. “Got that look before you leap lesson driven home in France during the war.”
“We’ll get more of the air photographs,” Ciara put in.
She was watching Luz work their purported partners with the same sort of detached wonder that Luz felt when she used her technical wizardry.
“Si,” Luz said. “And we make preparations. Then we take Roy and Yvette up on their offer of some hunting—that gives us the perfect excuse to go to their camp.”
Holly nodded. “And swank it. We’re the donors. Like the Lady of the Manor visiting the village poor with baskets. Nobody will object if we leave them to the fossils and wander around a bit on our own after some shooting. Seeing the sights, like.”
“We bring the people and gear we need. And then we follow…”
Luz nodded at the map.
“The trail of breadcrumbs,” Holly said.
“Sod that,” Tommy said, biting into a shrimp sandwich with its crusts cut off. “Trail of gold nuggets, more like.”
Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling