Near Kalgan, Chahar District
(Northwest of Peking, approaching Mongolian border)
Republic/Empire/Anarchy of China
April 20th, 1923 A.D. – 1923(b)
“Okubyōna chankoro inu!” the Japanese officer snarled at the luckless survivor of the Chinese squad who’d ridden the roof of the Americans’ train.
He drew his sword with a fluid hiss, raising it in both hands in a gesture that was graceful… and very threatening.
It was a katana, and the real article rather than the cheap mass-produced modern copy the Japanese army issued to its commissioned personnel these days along with the round bowl-shaped steel helmets and mustard-brown khaki uniforms; in that empire’s army officers still carried long blades in the field, something everyone else had given up in the Great War. Luz could see the wavy kamon-line marking the steel just in from the starkly beautiful curve of the cutting edge, where the master-smith had left a coating of clay on the back of the blade for the final tempering to make it supple and flexible while the outer surface turned glass-hard and could take an edge that would sever a floating silk thread dropped on it.
Not only a genuine katana, but probably very old—it had none of the fancy-work that had crept in to Nippon’s blade-craft during the Edo period, the long peace of the Tokugawa Shoguns that lasted from about the same time as the founding of Jamestown to the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854.
This had been made with superlative, patient, obsessive skill for one purpose and one only: to kill.
Ciara sighed and walked away to watch the repair-crew unpacking their tools and portable crane from the flatcars that had come out from Kalgan with the military detachment and the switching-engine that would tow the damaged locomotive into the repair yards. They were already hauling over heavy jacks and cutting-torches. Beyond the repair team was a second locomotive sitting ready and sending its own trickling puffs of black coal-smoke upward, a standard engine but with only two passenger carriages and the caboose behind the coal and water tenders. It would take the expedition to Kalgan where they could wait for the rest in comfort, and the Japanese had made unmistakably plain how fast they wanted the Americans and their followers to leave the scene of the crime.
Alas, I must engage with Choppā chūi here for a moment, though, Luz thought; that meant Lieutenant Chopper in Japanese.
The ancient, deadly blade meant the officer was probably from an old family, too, carrying an heirloom. Which didn’t matter to the wounded Chinese soldier who’d been dragged bleeding and blubbering back from the wheatfield when the Japanese reaction force arrived about an hour after the pirate airboat crashed and burned, and about forty minutes after a Japanese scout-aeroplane from their base at Kalgan swooped in to investigate the pillar of smoke.
From the look on the puppet-army soldier’s face he realized that nothing was going to matter to him in a few moments, and at the officer’s shout he’d even stopped his babbling explanations. That term the officer had used—chankoro—was officially discouraged by the Japanese authorities here, since it meant roughly pigtail slave. And was, and was meant to be, a gross insult; albeit it was also simply the standard Japanese term for ‘Chinese person’ in everyday speech.
The rest of the man’s barking curse added: “Cowardly, despicable dog of a” to the “pigtail slave”, filling out a whole sentence of doom.
One of the Japanese soldiers holding him stepped back and slammed the butt of his assault rifle into the small of the man’s back over the kidney. He shrieked and fell to his knees, quivering and rigid with the shock; the other trooper hastily retreated a couple of steps too.
The katana came down in a beautifully fluid arc, one that left the Japanese officer extended like a reverse image of a golfer in the follow-though. The victim’s head bounced free and away from the track, and his body knelt for an instant with the stump spouting and then slumped to the ground, leaving a few drops on his killer’s polished black boots.
Yo juzgaría the good Lieutenant is well and truly peeved, Luz thought.
“Sir?” a Japanese sergeant said, nodding to the half-dozen surviving pirates.
They knelt in a row, with their wrists and elbows bound behind their backs; they were all too wounded to climb and hence left on the ground during the attempted escape. Several had blackened burns from being on the fringes of the crash.
“Don’t waste ammunition,” the lieutenant growled as he wiped off the toe of his boot on the dead man’s uniform.
The soldiers used their bayonets; the screams were brief, lasting no longer than the officer took to run the sword through a cloth and re-sheath it with a click and turn to glare at the gaijin who’d caused him and his country inconvenience and a smarting dose of lost face. Which meant he had lost face with his superiors. The sky pirates were mostly beyond the reach of his ire, so…
Too many people back home in the US followed Roy Chapman Andrews’ adventures, so this would be an international incident. It would go well up the pole of rank, increasing unhappiness all the way, then bounce right back down to him with every recipient’s lack of joy amplifying the successive downward kicks. His only possible response would be to eat shame, then knock his own subordinates around. Quite literally, slapping and hitting, since they were merely enlisted men who would brace to attention and accept anything he dished out.
Luz was quite familiar with the way the Japanese army worked: one of the experts whose reports she’d read described it as a Great Chain of Beating.
Roy Andrews was there, showing signs of wanting to give the Japanese a piece of his mind, and a few of the others; the rest were sorting through their baggage and getting it ready for the porters, who started trotting in a stream to the new train and back as soon as they got the nod. Everyone had put away their weapons on her strong suggestion, not so much to hide them as to make sure the Japanese weren’t forced to notice the armament.
Nobody wanted to stay here any longer than they had to, although several of the scientists had paused to wrap up and lay out what was left of de Chardin’s body so that he could have his last rites from the Catholic mission in Kalgan. There was too much of the raw stink of death about to linger, just for starters, and the cloud from the burning airboat was blowing towards them, a harsh chemical taint that had more than one coughing.
Luz preempted Andrews with a fairly low Japanese-style bow from the waist to the lieutenant with the katana—a straight-held upper body inclined at about forty-five degrees with downcast eyes, arms down and left hand over right before her thighs, female-style. Hopefully that would also distract him from her blood-daubed state under the loose overcoat she’d donned. She held it for a few seconds, and carefully kept her eyes fixed on his lower throat rather than his face when she came erect again. Behind her Fumiko and Midori held identical bows a few seconds longer. The officer’s eyes widened a little as he recognized the three Americans’ command of the etiquette.
“Our most profound thanks, valiant soldier of the Empire of Great Japan,” Luz said in very good Japanese.
Which led to a flicker of astonishment; not many white Americans spoke Nihongo at all and he’d probably been going to try out some nearly incomprehensible book-learned English on them. The Japanese educational system had its share of remarkable successes, but foreign-language instruction was not one of them. They were almost as bad at that as the British were.
She left in a little of a Spanish-speaker’s hissing accent in her Japanese. She could have been native-fluent, having grown up speaking it with the Taguchis and having spent quite a bit of time over the past few years being tutored in a version less peasantlike and regional than the Hiroshima-prefecture village version her friends’ parents spoke.
Perfection would have been a bit suspicious.
“I express our most reverent gratitude that you arrived so promptly when we were threatened by the evil, brutal bandits. We shall give proper thanks to the authorities in Kalgan for the rescue you led, you may rest assured. And when we report to the American embassy in Peking and to the newspapers. We shall tell them of the swift, efficient and stern manner in which the Japanese Army maintains order here and suppresses murderous chankoro criminals.”
That would amount to fought them off until the Japanese arrived; a lie, but as so often happened actually more believable than the truth.
The lieutenant stopped with his mouth open, shut it, and seemed to relax fractionally. He was a slim young man four inches shorter than her five-six, which made him about average for a male Japanese raised in the Home Islands on rice, pickles, seaweed and fish, and exactly the same height as the American-born, meat-fed Taguchi sisters. There was a reason the common Chinese term for Japanese person translated as “eastern dwarf”, sometimes with devil tacked on.
The sisters were murmuring their own thanks in soft, slightly high-pitched tones…
That tone of voice and choice of words was a bit of Japanese etiquette they’d acquired from tutors of their own while they were attending Bryn Mawr on the Chamber’s nickel, and then passed on to Luz. Their parents spoke a blunt back-of-beyond rural dialect whose English equivalent would have been Mississippi Delta barnyard gumbo or a hillbilly fork-of-the-crick, hill-and-holler twanging rasp. Plus it would be thirty-five years out of date even in the elder Taguchis’ home village, which wouldn’t have stood still since they left.
Even with her eyes politely downcast, Luz could see the train of thought behind the expressionless mask of the officer’s face: she’d just offered to make Japan… and him personally… look very much better than the facts of the matter justified, which would put him in much better odor with his superiors, too. Instead of damage control, he’d probably be getting a commendation, the more so if he hinted at how he’d manipulated the hapless gaijin. Even better, he wouldn’t have to acknowledge that anything of the kind was happening… but it also meant he had to be pleasant to them now, lest he queer the deal, and that his superiors in Kalgan did everything they could to speed the Americans over the border.
Where anything that happens to us will be our problem and possibly the Yekhe Khan’s, not theirs. Passing the buck… or the yen… is a universal constant.
“It is my honor to protect the Emperor’s peace,” he said gruffly, with a slight but definite inclination of the head to her.
Nobody here was pretending that Yuan Kèdìng’s soi-disant throne had any say in the matter. The shallow return bow asserted his superior status… more or less inevitable from a holder of the Emperor’s commission to a foreigner and a female at that… but it also said they were on the same side, also more or less. A few more pleasantries that Luz translated back and forth and he nodded to the Andrews with an expression that was almost friendly and strode off to oversee the pointless attempt to get useful clues out of the wreckage of the Heavenly King. She hadn’t supplied that name, or anything else to the purpose, and probably nobody else had seen that much.
Which means if that collection of demonic baboon-clowns was operating out of a Mongol base when they attacked Japanese turf, the Yekhe Khan’s government won’t be annoyed by having to admit it. Which will avoid focusing their attention on us, too.
Roy made a noise. Luz faced him, smiled and tapped a finger to the side of her nose.
“Remember what Mrs. Colmer said, Roy. There are… elements in the Japanese government who’d like nothing more that use this as an excuse to close the expedition down and throw us out for our own protection. If we come up with a story that makes t’e Lieutenant look good, he has an incentive to push it—and that makes it harder for hostile people to use this to close us down.”
Roy took a long breath and let it out through his nostrils.
“Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right.”
His eyes narrowed. “That was a… very impressive performance you put on fighting off the pirates, Luz. You and your… household. Very impressive indeed. You may very well have saved our lives.”
And that’s a little suspicious, considering that you’re supposed to be a gently-reared Mexican art enthusiast, he did not say but plainly thought.
So did Yvette, from the glance she was giving. Even in these Progressive times upper-class Mexican women were closer-kept than their Anglo equivalents, generally speaking.
Luz smiled. Roy blinked, because it was not a pleasant expression at all. He was probably reflecting that generally did not mean always.
“Roy,” she said softly. “When I was a girl of just eighteen years, before I married, I was staying as a guest at a hacienda that was attacked by revolucionario scum—Villistas.”
Her eyes stayed locked on his. She put the first knuckle of her right hand up and then pressed it under her chin.
“I hid in a great cupboard—
Mexican manor-houses, particularly the older variety, rarely had built-in closets; they used massive pieces of cabinetry instead.
“—with a gun pressed under my chin like this. You understand, si?”
They both did: to kill herself if the Villistas discovered her.
“I listened to them butcher my kin. Afterwards they burned the casa grande, and I crawled out on my belly, through the drying blood of my relatives and past their bodies hacked to pieces with machetes, with the smoke an inch over my head and a piece of my skirt tied over my mouth, moistened with the water of my body that I might not choke. Later that night I killed my first man, a Villista sentry. With this.”
Luz twitched her hand, and her Andalusian navaja dropped into it from the forearm-sheath beneath her jacket. A flex of the wrist, and it snapped open with the distinctive sound of locking ratchets that had given it one of its nicknames: carrraka. Six inches of clip-pointed, wasp-waisted layered Toledo steel glittered, out of the slot in the long curved handle of brass and mother-of-pearl.
She rolled it deftly across her knuckles, then closed it and slipped it back.
Another name for this type of blade was La Sevillana—the Girl from Seville. Whose kisses would leave you completely breathless…
Her voice stayed soft and low. “My mother’s bodyguard taught me how to use this and left it to me when he died, because he loved me like a daughter of his own blood and those were the greatest gifts he could give to me. And mi papá taught me to stalk and hunt, because he wished to share that with his child and had no son. So I stalked the Villista in the darkness, listening to the screams of others less fortunate than I, and I cut his throat and took his horse and rifle. And so I escaped. That was not the last time; but never again did I hide in an armario waiting to kill myself, and I never will again. You understand me?”
Every word of that was gospel true, apart from a little fudging on dates: all she had to do to show it was let the memories well up again, that night drawing its veil over the light of the present day. There was a long moment of silence and Roy nodded curtly.
“I understand,” Yvette said, her voice neutrally polite.
“Good. Let us get to Kalgan, then. ¿Nosotras no?”
One of the few ways she and Ciara didn’t really synchronize well, and usually had to work at things, was the night after a fight or close escape.
Ciara wants to be held and cuddled then; and unless I’m wounded I mostly feel like a mad steaming Sapphic mink in heat. Right now, this time, cuddling is what I want, too. Maybe it’s maturity setting in.
“You saved our lives when you told me to aim low,” she said; which was true. “I was aiming for the middle—usually a good idea, not that time.”
They held each other for a moment. Then:
“That attack was an accident,” Ciara murmured in the darkness.
What they were in wasn’t strictly a caravanserai, and it called itself a hotel. The expedition had taken over the whole of it, centered around two compounds, and their friends, surrogates and supporters here in the border town had been getting it ready, mostly by cleaning, de-flea-ing, and clearing out things like old camel dung. Many of the party were doubling-up… which helped keeping things respectable with Caeytana and Josephine… and the bare room they were in was clean and smelled faintly of disinfectant and below that of—
Ancientness, Luz thought.
It was much quieter than, say, San Francisco or Shanghai at midnight, less of a continuous background murmur of machinery, which made the occasional buzz of an engine or the hoot of a locomotive more conspicuous in its solitude.
“Probably an accident, si,” she murmured. “It would be very convenient for the Yekhe Khan… assuming he knew what we were really looking for… if we were all killed by sky pirates. And he could arrange an attack. But he wouldn’t send just one airboat. He’s not the sort of man to try to use minimum force when he’s got plenty. Why take chances? If it had been two or three airboats, we’d all be dead.”
They were on a kang bed—an adobe platform with a complex of flues inside it, pleasantly warm with heat soaked into the mass during the day from cookfires. On top of that was a Japanese-style futon and duvet, which was portable and practical, and the combination was extremely comfortable as well in this chilly climate.
She could feel Ciara shiver anyway. It wasn’t fear in the usual sense.
“I miss our girls,” she said. “And… I don’t want to leave them alone.”
“Neither do I,” Luz said.
That remark meant any more than we have to on one level, and for the rest of their lives if we’re dead, on the other. They’d made careful arrangements; custody would go to Ciara’s aunt Colleen and her honorary auntie Trienel, who adored the girls and considered them their grandchildren, and money would be no problem. If death took the pair first, the children would go to live with Luz’ old friend and fellow Bryn Mawr alumnus Julie Durán in Zacatecas.
But being orphaned was just bad in a whole swath of ways, no two ways about it.
“I don’t want them to have to live with the Yekhe Khan having V-gas, either,” Ciara said.
“He’s… insane enough to use it, even if it was used back on him.”
Ciara shook her head, the bright hair glittering a little in a stray spark of light from the lantern of a watchman pacing his rounds, reflected off the whitewashed ceiling through a narrow window-slit.
“It’s not just that, my darling. He’s clever with the madness. How many cities does Mongolia have?”
“One, fairly small… oh, you mean he’s immune to retaliation?”
She shook her head again. “No. Less vulnerable, but… any of the Great Powers could destroy him if they set themselves to it. So I’ve been trying to think like him.”
Ciara snuggled closer, warmth and comfort in a flannel nightgown under the cover.
“It helps to be Irish,” she added, and Luz chuckled.
“No!” Ciara said. “Seriously! Who’s done him injury, in his own mind? Who does he hate?”
“Germany first,” Luz said. “Probably. For all that a lot of his ancestors were Germans. They destroyed Russia and dethroned the Romanovs, and that was his first allegiance. Then the Japanese—they stole the eastern half of the country. Then us; we didn’t get into the war until Russia collapsed and didn’t help his country or his Emperor much, if at all. I don’t think he likes the Chinese any more than the Mongol half of his subjects do, either… Effectively, he hates everybody. Probably the British and French too, on general principles.”
Ciara’s head nodded against her shoulder. “So if the three great blocs go after each other, the world would be devastated, half the human race would die, our whole civilization would be gone… and who’d be left standing? Or at least kneeling, or crawling. Who’d be best placed to ride out the storm?”
There was a long silence.
“And with V-gas, he’d have a chance to set us all at each other—people believe what they’re primed to believe.”
“So,” Luz said lightly. “We’re fighting for the girls, too.”
Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling