Shatter the Suns
POWER GROWS FROM THE BARREL of a gun. I don’t care if it is in politics, if it’s between two people who think they are friends or two people who have been enemies since the day they were born. Guns hone who you are and what you believe to one black-and-white plane, one purpose. When it comes to power, guns are too dangerous. Not only because they kill, but because if you’re the one holding the weapon, you don’t have to listen.
That is why I prefer games to assert my dominance. No one is dead at the end of a good round of Find the Bean.
Unfortunately, I’m not doing so well at the moment.
June’s eyes meet mine from across the table, blank as the icy blue sky above us. Tai-ge raises an eyebrow as he looks over, sandwiched between two trading post roughers. His hands line up with the others, a long procession of palms on the table. I blink as another set creeps up onto the table next to mine, tiny fingers spread wide. Lihua smiles up at me, then turns to glare at Tai-ge as if he’s the only reason I haven’t won the game yet.
“You’ve got it.” I point to him. He can’t keep a straight face. Never could.
Tai-ge shows me both of his hands. Nothing but dirty calluses.
The wind blows through the pine needles, a frozen whistle that swirls around us up so high in the trees. An Outsider trading post, hidden from Reds and Menghu alike. Cai Ayi, the proprietor, laughs, the sound bubbling out and washing over all of us at the table. “Look at their eyes, Jiang Sev. You can see it in their eyes.” Her double chin jiggles as she piles odds and ends from an earlier trade into a wooden box, too interested in our game to really pay attention. “Look at Loss. He’s ready to explode.”
“You can’t help her, Cai Ayi!” Loss complains. One of the five roughers that work for Cai Ayi, he’s a craggy mountain towering over me from across the table. Lihua wrinkles her nose at him, and he gives her a slow wink.
“What do you think, Lihua?” I ask, bending to whisper in her ear. The little girl just smiles and looks at her hands palm down on the table, delighted to be playing a game with big kids. After everything she went through to get here, I’m proud of her smile, proud she doesn’t think all adults are waiting to stick her with needles like they did back in the Sanatorium. She nestles in close to me, the first prickles of hair growing on her head poking into my arm. She’s the only one of the kids down here with us. Peishan, my old friend who we managed to extract from the City along with the kids, keeps them away when we’re here if she can manage it.
Pulling at the fringe of hair that falls unevenly past my chin, I squint at Loss. He smiles.
I transfer my gaze to the other rougher at the table, Ze-ming. “It’s there,” I say, pointing to his right hand.
Ze-ming grins, flicking the white bean that was hidden under
his palm at me. “Got me. Good thing, too. You were running out of tries before it got embarrassing.”
I flip the bean into my palm and tilt my head toward him. “Does winning mean I get a discount?”
Ze-ming rolls his eyes and points to the bean. “For your superior powers of observation, that one is half off. Beyond that, you’d have to take it up with Cai Ayi.”
Cai Ayi laughs again, shaking her head as she carefully closes the crate. “This game isn’t smart enough for that, honey. You beat Loss at weiqi and we’ll talk.”
June sits a little straighter, though she doesn’t look up from the table. She probably could beat Loss and all his ancestors seven generations back, but she won’t speak up to challenge him. I grin at Loss, meaning to ask for her, but he’s too busy making faces at Lihua to pay attention.
Cai Ayi’s establishment is almost big enough to be a housing unit from the City, lights dancing so high in the leaves that it’s hard to believe they belong to people when you’re looking up from the ground. A single rope ladder is the only way to get up to the first platform, a patchwork of rough-hewn logs wedged between the large branches of the tree. Roughers stand watch over the ropes that fan out from there, a tightrope walk to the storehouse, or the canteen where Cai Ayi makes flower teas. Up a little higher, wooden plank bridges line the branches to form living quarters. A good step closer to civilization than I would have thought possible Outside a few months ago. Cai Ayi and her roughers are all well fed, easy to talk to, and ready to sell anything not nailed down. Quicklights. Food. The two canisters of inhibitor spray I have tucked snugly in my pocket. All honestly acquired, so they say, but I’ve seen the City seal stamped on more
than one item here, and I’m pretty sure Chairman Sun doesn’t come out this far to get his slippers.
I give Lihua an extra hug before I stand up. Cai Ayi may have agreed to board the children that June, Tai-ge, and I pulled out of the ashes of the Sanatorium, but I doubt the deal will hold if she finds out Lihua has a little help from a hidden Mantis bottle. The Sanatorium gave orphans a medicine that caused compulsions just like SS does in order to isolate them from the rest of the City and experiment on them. It wasn’t just fake cases of SS in the Sanatorium, though. Luckily, out of all the kids we stole away from the City, Lihua is the only one legitimately infected.
Cai Ayi made it quite clear that infected are not allowed at her establishment. It feels almost irresponsible keeping Lihua’s affliction to ourselves, but she can’t come with us where we’re going. And we can’t tell, because I’ve seen what happens when you disobey Post rules. Loss threw one Wood Rat right off a platform for noncompliance, and it wasn’t even a level close to the ground.
I can understand why infected aren’t allowed, since compulsing Post patrons could end with a decision between fighting a Seph who means to cut off your toes to the tune of a nursery song or falling from the topmost platform. I’m not sure what she’ll do if she finds out about Lihua. Interacting with Cai Ayi and the roughers is like eating a peach. Soft and sweet on the outside, but I’m afraid that if I take many more bites I’ll break my teeth on a hard, bitter core.
I follow June with my eyes as she hops down from her seat at the table and walks over to Cai Ayi. Bareheaded, as if her golden curls don’t matter. This far out, they don’t.
Cai Ayi smiles at her, pulling out the bag of items we asked for, but June shakes her head, stonily silent until Cai Ayi fizzes over with laughter, adding an extra packet of dried pears.
Tai-ge puts down the set of kitchen knives that is going to pay for our supplies this week: the pears and a backpack for each of us. I pick up the closest pack, fingers skimming the clean fabric, though it shows obvious signs of previous ownership. Red ownership. Unit numbers are stamped in sharp, blocky numbers on the underside of each pack.
“What’s that?” Tai-ge asks, peering over the edge of the box Cai Ayi has just pried open with a metal screech.
“Some minor growth regulators.” She looks up with a grin, dropping the hammer she used to prize the box open. “I have a buyer for this batch due here in a few minutes, but if you’re interested in starting a garden wherever it is June has you two stashed, I may be able to help.”
“Minor growth regulators?”
“Not the kind that’s going to put up a gas cloud. I don’t deal in weapons, whatever their primary purpose is supposed to be. Not good for business. All my customers would be picking one another off. Or attacking the Post.”
Tai-ge stares down at the growth regulators, the City seal stamped in red on the paper sacks. “What would you want for one of these?”
Cai Ayi harrumphs. “Leave your bargaining to June, boy, or you’ll end up walking home stark naked. I’ve taken a shine to your fancy boots.”
June steps forward to touch the bag of growth regulators and pulls something from her pocket. A book. She holds it up, sunlight catching gilt-edged pages.
“No! No, not that.” I intervene, holding my hand out for the book. It’s silly—a fairy tale that somehow followed me out of the Mountain—but I don’t want to give it up just yet. June shrugs
and hands it over. She pulls the knives back toward her, then unstraps a pair of binoculars from around her neck and points to the bag of pears, the packs, and the growth regulators.
Cai Ayi nods slowly. “You sure, June?” Binoculars are one of those things you can’t find out here easily, I’d guess. We took these from the Chairman’s house, but we found another pair that were in the supplies on board the heli we stole. Cai Ayi’s shrug is just a little too pleased. She’s getting a good trade here. “All right.”
She pulls out the top bag of growth regulator and hands it over to Tai-ge, then pushes the package of kitchen knives back to June, who shakes her head. She points to Lihua and then the binoculars.
The pleased look on Cai Ayi’s face falls a little slack. But she nods. “I suppose that’s a slightly fairer trade. I can board your friends for another month. For the binoculars and the knives.”
June shakes her head, handing the knives to me and holding out the binoculars.
Cai Ayi stares at her, but then the grin crinkles back up on her face. “Fine, fine, fine. I’ll keep your bald little rats for another three weeks, shall we say? Plus the bags, the pears . . .” She ticks them off on her fingers.
Taking the knives back from me, June looks top-heavy, as if she’s about to keel over under the weight of the binoculars and knives combined. She snakes one arm out and points to Lihua, then puts up two fingers.
Cai Ayi laughs. “Two months? All for some kitchen knives? You drive a hard bargain, my girl.” But she smiles and takes the binoculars and knives both, setting the latter down on the now-half-empty crate to eye the binocular’s glassy lenses. “Sky above knows what you want with growth regulators anyway. Aren’t you
folk just running through? If you were planning to stay, you’d have already set up a real camp instead of paying my exorbitant boarding fees.”
“Never know when you need to plant some tarot.” Tai-ge hefts the bag over his shoulder and we move to the ladder that leads to the ground.
I give Lihua one last hug and pull the straps of my pack over my shoulders, gritting my teeth at the prospect of climbing down the rope ladder. The City seal sitting between my shoulder blades feels odd, like if I don’t keep an eye on it, the falcon and beaker will burn through my coat and brand me between the shoulder blades.
“Sure you don’t want an escort back to your camp?” Ze-ming calls after us as we start down the ladder. Amusement curls in his voice.
They’ve offered every time we come. Ze-ming’s grin wards off June’s murderous glare in response to the question. Scavengers supposedly prey on Post customers, though we’ve yet to stumble into a nest of Wood Rats. I get the feeling that the roughers do a fair amount of scavenging themselves.
At least they’re like me, for the most part. Playing games and telling jokes, even if they do have a darker streak. Mother played games, and I’m now wondering if her last words were another one, a riddle only I could solve to confuse the people she worried might be listening.
Except I have no idea what the words “Port North” could mean.
What I do know, though, is she told me to find my family in Port North. My family. Could that mean that I am not as alone as I’d thought? I shoot Tai-ge a smile and am rewarded when his cheeks dimple and he grins back. June’s on my other side, her
hand companionably on my arm. The sky might be icy, the ground cracked with cold, but I feel the fire of hope inside my chest as we go down the ladder.
My mother hid the cure to SS with my family. June, Tai-ge, and I are going to find them.