The Wall of Storms
CHAPTER ONE TRUANTS
PAN: THE SECOND MONTH IN THE SIXTH YEAR OF THE REIGN OF FOUR PLACID SEAS.
Masters and mistresses, lend me your ears.
Let my words sketch for you scenes of faith and courage.
Dukes, generals, ministers, and maids, everyone parades through this ethereal stage.
What is the love of a princess? What are a king’s fears?
If you loosen my tongue with drink and enliven my heart with coin, all will be revealed in due course of time. . . .
The sky was overcast, and the cold wind whipped a few scattered snowflakes through the air. Carriages and pedestrians in thick coats and fur-lined hats hurried through the wide avenues of Pan, the Harmonious City, seeking the warmth of home.
Or the comfort of a homely pub like the Three-Legged Jug.
“Kira, isn’t it your turn to buy the drinks this time? Everyone knows your husband turns every copper over to you.”
“Look who’s talking. Your husband doesn’t get to sneeze without your permission! But I think today should be Jizan’s turn, sister. I heard a wealthy merchant from Gan tipped her five silver pieces last night!”
“She guided the merchant to his favorite mistress’s house through a maze of back alleys and managed to elude the spies the merchant’s wife sicced on him!”
“Jizan! I had no idea you had such a lucrative skill—”
“Don’t listen to Kira’s lies! Do I look like I have five silver pieces?”
“You certainly came in here with a wide enough grin. I’d wager you had been handsomely paid for facilitating a one-night marriage—”
“Oh, shush! You make me sound like I’m the greeter at an indigo house—”
“Ha-ha! Why stop at being the greeter? I rather think you have the skills to manage an indigo house, or . . . a scarlet house! I’ve certainly drooled over some of those boys. How about a little help for a sister in need—”
“—or a big help—”
“Can’t the two of you get your minds out of the gutter for a minute? Wait . . . Phiphi, I think I heard the coins jangling in your purse when you came in—did you have good luck at sparrow tiles last night?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Aha, I knew it! Your face gives everything away; it’s a wonder you can bluff anyone at that game. Listen, if you want Jizan and me to keep our mouths shut in front of your foolish husband about your gaming habit—”
“You featherless pheasant! Don’t you dare tell him!”
“It’s hard for us to think about keeping secrets when we’re so thirsty. How about some of that ‘mind-moisturizer,’ as they say in the folk operas?”
“Oh, you rotten . . . Fine, the drinks are on me.”
“That’s a good sister.”
“It’s just a harmless hobby, but I can’t stand the way he mopes
around the house and nags when he thinks I’m going to gamble everything away.”
“You do seem to have Lord Tazu’s favor, I’ll grant you that. But good fortune is better when shared!”
“My parents must not have offered enough incense at the Temple of Tututika before I was born for me to end up with you two as my ‘friends.’ . . .”
Here, inside the Three-Legged Jug, tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of the city, warm rice wine, cold beer, and coconut arrack flowed as freely as the conversation. The fire in the wood-burning stove in the corner crackled and danced, keeping the pub toasty and bathing everything in a warm light. Condensation froze against the glass windows in refined, complex patterns that blurred the view of the outside. Guests sat by threes and fours around low tables in géüpa, relaxed and convivial, enjoying small plates of roasted peanuts dipped in taro sauce that sharpened the taste of alcohol.
Ordinarily, an entertainer in this venue could not expect a cessation in the constant murmur of conversation. But gradually, the buzzing of competing voices died out. For now, at least, there was no distinction between merchants’ stable boys from Wolf’s Paw, scholars’ servant girls from Haan, low-level government clerks sneaking away from the office for the afternoon, laborers resting after a morning’s honest work, shopkeepers taking a break while their spouses watched the store, maids and matrons out for errands and meeting friends—all were just members of an audience enthralled by the storyteller standing at the center of the tavern.
He took a sip of foamy beer, put the mug down, slapped his hands a few times against his long, draping sleeves, and continued:
. . . the Hegemon unsheathed Na-aroénna then, and King Mocri stepped back to admire the great sword: the soul-taker, the head-remover, the hope-dasher. Even the moon seemed to lose her luster next to the pure glow of this weapon.
“That is a beautiful blade,” said King Mocri, champion of Gan. “It surpasses other swords as Consort Mira excels all other women.”
The Hegemon looked at Mocri contemptuously, his double-pupils glinting. “Do you praise the weapon because you think I hold an unfair advantage? Come, let us switch swords, and I have no doubt I will still defeat you.”
“Not at all,” said Mocri. “I praise the weapon because I believe you know a warrior by his weapon of choice. What is better in life than to meet an opponent truly worthy of your skill?”
The Hegemon’s face softened. “I wish you had not rebelled, Mocri. . . .”
In a corner barely illuminated by the glow of the stove, two boys and a girl huddled around a table. Dressed in hempen robes and tunics that were plain but well-made, they appeared to be the children of farmers or perhaps the servants of a well-to-do merchant’s family. The older boy was about twelve, fair-skinned and well proportioned. His eyes were gentle and his dark hair, naturally curly, was tied into a single messy bun at the top of his head. Across the table from him was a girl about a year younger, also fair-skinned and curly-haired—though she wore her hair loose and let the strands cascade around her pretty, round face. The corners of her mouth were curled up in a slight smile as she scanned the room with lively eyes shaped like the body of the graceful dyran, taking in everything with avid interest. Next to her was a younger boy about nine, whose complexion was darker and whose hair was straight and black. The older children sat on either side of him, keeping him penned between the table and the wall. The mischievous glint in his roaming eyes and his constant fidgeting offered a hint as to why. The similarity in the shapes of their features suggested they were siblings.
“Isn’t this great?” whispered the younger boy. “I bet Master Ruthi still thinks we’re imprisoned in our rooms, enduring our punishment.”
“Phyro,” said the older boy, a slight frown on his face, “you know this is only a temporary reprieve. Tonight, we each still have to write three essays about how Kon Fiji’s Morality applies to our misbehavior, how youthful energy must be tempered by education, and how—”
“Shhhh—” the girl said. “I’m trying to hear the storyteller! Don’t lecture, Timu. You already agreed that there’s no difference between
playing first and then studying, on the one hand, and studying first and then playing, on the other. It’s called ‘time-shifting.’?”
“I’m beginning to think that this ‘time-shifting’ idea of yours would be better called ‘time-wasting,’?” said Timu, the older brother. “You and Phyro were wrong to make jokes about Master Kon Fiji—and I should have been more severe with you. You should accept your punishment gracefully.”
“Oh, wait until you find out what Théra and I—mmf—”
The girl had clamped a hand over the younger boy’s mouth. “Let’s not trouble Timu with too much knowledge, right?” Phyro nodded, and Théra let go.
The young boy wiped his mouth. “Your hand is salty! Ptui!” Then he turned back to Timu, his older brother. “Since you’re so eager to write the essays, Toto-tika, I’m happy to yield my share to you so that you can write six instead of three. Your essays are much more to Master Ruthi’s taste anyway.”
“That’s ridiculous! The only reason I agreed to sneak away with you and Théra is because as the eldest, it’s my responsibility to look after you, and you promised you would take your punishment later—”
“Elder Brother, I’m shocked!” Phyro put on a serious mien that looked like an exact copy of their strict tutor’s when he was about to launch into a scolding lecture. “Is it not written in Sage Kon Fiji’s Tales of Filial Devotion that the younger brother should offer the choicest specimens in a basket of plums to the elder brother as a token of his respect? Is it also not written that an elder brother should try to protect the younger brother from difficult tasks beyond his ability, since it is the duty of the stronger to defend the weaker? The essays are uncrackable nuts to me, but juicy plums to you. I am trying to live as a good Moralist with my offer. I thought you’d be pleased.”
“That is—you cannot—” Timu was not as practiced at this particular subspecies of the art of debate as his younger brother. His face grew red, and he glared at Phyro. “If only you would direct your cleverness to actual schoolwork.”
“You should be happy that Hudo-tika has done the assigned
reading for once,” said Théra, who had been trying to maintain a straight face as the brothers argued. “Now please be quiet, both of you; I want to hear this.”
. . . slammed Na-aroénna down, and Mocri met it with his ironwood shield, reinforced with cruben scales. It was as if Fithowéo had clashed his spear against Mount Kiji, or if Kana had slammed her fiery fist against the surface of the sea. Better yet, let me chant for you a portrait of that fight:
On this side, the champion of Gan, born and bred on Wolf’s Paw;
On that side, the Hegemon of Dara, last scion of Cocru’s marshals.
One is the pride of an island’s spear-wielding multitudes;
The other is Fithowéo, the God of War, incarnate.
Will the Doubt-Ender end all doubt as to who is master of Dara?
Or will Goremaw finally meet a blood-meal he cannot swallow?
Sword is met with sword, cudgel with shield.
The ground quakes as dual titans leap, smash, clash, and thump.
For nine days and nine nights they fought on that desolate hill,
And the gods of Dara gathered over the whale’s way to judge the strength of their will. . . .
As he chanted, the storyteller banged a coconut husk against a large kitchen spoon to simulate the sounds of sword clanging against shield; he leapt about, whipping his long sleeves this way and that to conjure the martial dance of legendary heroes in the flickering firelight of the pub. As his voice rose and fell, urgent one moment, languorous the next, the audience was transported to another time and place.
. . . After nine days, both the Hegemon and King Mocri were exhausted. After parrying another strike from the Doubt-Ender, Mocri took a step back and stumbled over a rock. He fell, his shield and sword splayed out to the sides. With one more step, the Hegemon would be able to bash in his skull or lop off his head.
“No!” Phyro couldn’t help himself. Timu and Théra, equally absorbed by the tale, didn’t shush him.
The storyteller nodded appreciatively at the children, and went on.
But the Hegemon stayed where he was and waited until Mocri climbed back up, sword and shield at the ready.
“Why did you not end it just now?” asked Mocri, his breathing labored.
“Because a great man deserves to not have his life end by chance,” said the Hegemon, whose breathing was equally labored. “The world may not be fair, but we must strive to make it so.”
“Hegemon,” said Mocri, “I am both glad and sorry to have met you.”
And they rushed at each other again, with lumbering steps and proud hearts. . . .
“Now that is the manner of a real hero,” whispered Phyro, his tone full of admiration and longing. “Hey, Timu and Théra, you’ve actually met the Hegemon, haven’t you?”
“Yes . . . but that was a long time ago,” Timu whispered back. “I don’t really remember much except that he was really tall, and those strange eyes of his looked terribly fierce. I remember wondering how strong he must have been to be able to wield that huge sword on his back.”
“He sounds like a great man,” said Phyro. “Such honor in every action; such grace to his foes. Too bad he and Da could not—”
“Shhhh!” Théra interrupted. “Hudo-tika, not so loud! Do you want everyone here to know who we are?”
Phyro might be a rascal to his older brother, but he respected the authority of his older sister. He lowered his voice. “Sorry. He just seems such a brave man. And Mocri, too. I’ll have to tell Ada-tika all about this hero from her home island. How come Master Ruthi never taught us anything about Mocri?”
“This is just a story,” Théra said. “Fighting nonstop for nine days and nine nights—how can you believe that really happened? Think: The storyteller wasn’t there, how would he know what the Hegemon and Mocri said?” But seeing the disappointment on her little brother’s face, she softened her tone. “If you want to hear real stories about
heroes, I’ll tell you later about the time Auntie Soto stopped the Hegemon from hurting Mother and us. I was only three then, but I remember it as though it happened yesterday.”
Phyro’s eyes brightened and he was about to ask for more, but a rough voice broke in.
“I’ve had just about enough of this ridiculous tale, you insolent fraud!”
The storyteller stopped in midsentence, shocked at this intrusion into his performance. The tavern patrons turned to look at the speaker. Standing next to the stove, the man was tall, barrel-chested, and as muscular as a stevedore. He was easily the largest person in the pub. A jagged scar that started at his left brow and ended at his right cheek gave his face a fearsome aspect, which was only enhanced by the wolf’s-teeth necklace that dangled in front of the thick chest hair that peeked out of the loose lapels of his short robe like a patch of fur. Indeed, the yellow teeth that showed between his sneering lips reminded one of a hungry wolf on the prowl.
“How dare you fabricate such stories about that crook Mata Zyndu? He tried to thwart Emperor Ragin’s righteous march to the throne and caused much needless suffering and desolation. By praising the despicable tyrant Zyndu, you’re denigrating the victory of our wise emperor and casting aspersions upon the character of the Dandelion Throne. These are words of treason.”
“Treason? For telling a few stories?” The storyteller was so furious that he started to laugh. “Will you next claim that all folk opera troupes are rebels for enacting the rise and fall of old Tiro dynasties? Or that the wise Emperor Ragin is jealous of shadow puppet plays about Emperor Mapidéré? What a silly man you are!”
The owners of the Three-Legged Jug, a rotund man of short stature and his equally rotund wife, rushed up between the two to play peacemakers. “Masters! Remember this is a humble venue for entertainment and relaxation! No politics, please! We’re all here after a hard day’s work to share a few drinks and have some fun.”
The husband turned to the man with the scarred face and bowed
deeply. “Master, I can tell you are a man of hot passions and strong morals. And if the tale has offended, I apologize first. I know Tino here well. Let me assure you he had no intention of insulting the emperor. Why, before he became a storyteller, he fought for Emperor Ragin during the Chrysanthemum-Dandelion War in Haan, when the emperor was only the King of Dasu.”
The wife smiled ingratiatingly. “How about a flask of plum wine on the house? If you and Tino drink together, I’m sure you’ll forget about this little misunderstanding.”
“What makes you think I want to have a drink with him?” asked Tino the storyteller, whipping his sleeves contemptuously at Scarface.
The other patrons in the pub shouted in support of the storyteller.
“Sit down, you ignorant oaf!”
“Get out of here if you don’t like the story. No one is forcing you to sit and listen!”
“I’ll throw you out myself if you keep this up.”
Scarface smiled, stuck one of his hands into the lapel of his robe, under the dangling wolf’s-teeth necklace, and retrieved a small metal tablet. He waved it around at the patrons and then held it under the nose of the proprietress of the pub. “Do you recognize this?”
She squinted to get a good look. The tablet was about the size of two palms, and two large logograms were carved into it in relief: One was the logogram for sight—a stylized eye with a beam coming out of it—and the other was the logogram for faraway—composed of the number logogram for “a thousand” modified by a winding path around it. Shocked, the woman stuttered, “You—you’re with the—the, um, the—”
Scarface put the tablet away. The cold, mirthless grin on his face grew wider as he scanned the room, daring anyone to hold his gaze. “That’s right. I serve Duke Rin Coda, Imperial Farsight Secretary.”
The shouting among the patrons died down, and even Tino lost his confident look. Although Scarface looked more like a highwayman than a government official, Duke Coda, who was in charge of Emperor Ragin’s spies, was said to run his department in collaboration with
the seedier elements of Dara society. It wouldn’t be beyond him to rely on someone like Scarface. Even though no one in the pub had ever heard of a storyteller getting in trouble for an embellished tale about the Hegemon, Duke Coda’s duties did include ferreting out traitors and dissatisfied former nobles plotting against the emperor. No one wanted to risk challenging the emperor’s own trusted eyes.
“Wait—” Phyro was about to speak when Théra grabbed his hand and squeezed it under the table and shook her head at him slowly.
Seeing the timid reactions from everyone present, Scarface nodded with satisfaction. He pushed the owners of the pub aside and strolled up to Tino. “Crafty, disloyal entertainers like you are the worst. Just because you fought for the emperor doesn’t give you the right to say whatever you want. Now, normally, I would have to take you to the constables for further interrogation”—Tino shrank back in terror—“but I’m in a generous mood today. If you pay a fine of twenty-five pieces of silver and apologize for your errors, I might just let you off with a warning.”
Tino glanced at the few coins in the tip bowl on the table and turned back to Scarface. He bowed repeatedly like a chicken pecking at the ground. “Master Farseer, please! That amounts to two week’s earnings even when things are going well. I’ve got an aged mother at home who is ill—”
“Of course you do,” said Scarface. “She’ll miss you terribly if you are held at the constable station, won’t she? A proper interrogation might take days, weeks even; do you understand?”
Tino’s face shifted through rage, humiliation, and utter defeat as he reached into the lapel of his robe for his coin purse. The other patrons looked away carefully, not daring to make a sound.
“Don’t think the rest of you are getting off so easily, either,” said Scarface. “I heard how many of you cheered when he veiled his criticisms of the emperor with that story full of lies. Each of you will have to pay a fine of one silver as an accessory to the crime.”
The men and women in the pub looked unhappy, but a few sighed and began reaching for their purses as well.
Scarface looked around for the source of the voice, which was crisp, sharp, and uninflected by fear. A figure stood up from the shadowy corner of the pub and walked into the firelight of the stove, a slight limp in the gait punctuated by the staccato falls of a walking stick.
Though dressed in a scholar’s long flowing robes edged in blue silk, the speaker was a woman. About eighteen years of age, she had fair skin and gray eyes that glinted with a steadfastness that belied her youth. The radiating lines of a faint pink scar, like a sketch of a blooming flower, covered her left cheek, and the stem of this flower continued down her neck like the lateral line of a fish, curiously adding a sense of liveliness to her otherwise wan visage. Her hair, a light brown, was tied atop her head in a tight triple scroll-bun. Tassels and knotted strings dangled from her blue sash—a custom of distant northwestern islands in old Xana. Leaning against a wooden walking stick that came up to her eyebrows, she put her right hand on the sword she wore at her waist, the scabbard and hilt looking worn and shabby.
“What do you want?” asked Scarface. But his tone was no longer as arrogant as before. The woman’s scroll-bun and her boldness in openly wearing a sword in Pan indicated that she was a scholar who had achieved the rank of cashima, a Classical Ano word meaning “practitioner”: She had passed the second level of the Imperial examinations.
Emperor Ragin had restored and expanded the civil service examination system long practiced by the Tiro kings and the Xana Empire, turning it into the sole mode of advancement for those with political ambition while eliminating other time-honored paths to obtain valuable administrative posts, such as patronage, purchase, inheritance, or recommendation by trusted nobles. Competition in the examinations was fierce, and the emperor, who had risen to power with the aid of women in powerful posts, had opened the exams to women as well as men. Though women toko dawiji—the rank given to those who had passed the Town Examinations, the first level in the exams—were
still rare, and women cashima even rarer, they were entitled to all the privileges of the status given to their male counterparts. For instance, all toko dawiji were exempt from corvée, and the cashima had the additional right to be brought before an Imperial magistrate right away when accused of a crime instead of being interrogated by the constables.
“Stop bothering these people,” she said calmly. “And you certainly won’t be getting a single copper out of me.”
Scarface had not expected to find a person of her rank in a dive like the Three-Legged Jug. “Mistress, you don’t have to pay the fine, of course. I’m sure you’re not a disloyal scoundrel like the rest of these lowlifes.”
She shook her head. “I don’t believe you work for Duke Coda at all.”
Scarface narrowed his eyes. “You doubt the sign of the farseers?”
The woman smiled. “You put it away so quickly that I didn’t get a good look. Why don’t you let me examine it?”
Scarface chuckled awkwardly. “A scholar of your erudition surely recognized the logograms in a single glance.”
“It’s easy enough to forge something like that out of a block of wax and a coat of silver paint, but much harder to forge a believable order from Farsight Secretary Coda.”
“What—what are you talking about? This is the time of the Grand Examination, when the cream of Dara’s scholars are gathered in the capital. Those who like to stir up trouble would seize the opportunity to harm the talented men, er, and women, here to serve the emperor. It’s natural that the emperor would order Duke Coda to increase security.”
The woman shook her head and continued in a placid tone, “Emperor Ragin prides himself on being a tolerant lord open to honest counsel. He even honored Zato Ruthi, who once fought against him, with the position of Imperial Tutor out of respect for his scholarship. Charging a storyteller with treason for taking some literary license would chill the hearts of the men and women he is trying to recruit. Duke Coda, who knows the emperor as well as anyone, would never give an order to authorize what you’re attempting.”
Scarface flushed with anger, and the thick scar twitched like a snake crawling over his face. But he stood rooted to his spot and made no move toward her.
The woman laughed. “In fact, I think I’ll send for the constables myself. Impersonating an Imperial officer is a crime.”
“Oh no,” whispered Théra in the corner.
“What?” asked Timu and Phyro together in a low voice.
“You should never corner a rabid dog,” moaned Théra.
Scarface’s eyes narrowed as fear of the cashima turned to desperate resolve. He roared and rushed at the cashima. The surprised woman managed to scramble awkwardly out of the way at the last minute, dragging her weak left leg. The lumbering assailant crashed into a table, causing the patrons sitting at it to jump back, cursing and screaming. Soon, he climbed back up, looking even more enraged, swore loudly, and came at her again.
“I hope she fights as well as she talks,” said Phyro. He clapped his hands and laughed. “This is the most fun we’ve ever had sneaking out!”
“Stay behind me!” said Timu, stretching out his arms and moving to shield his brother and sister from the commotion in the center of the pub.
The woman unsheathed the sword with her right hand. Bracing herself against the walking stick, she held the sword in an uncertain manner and pointed its wavering tip at the man. But Scarface seemed to have gone berserk. He continued to rush at her without slowing down and reached out to grab the blade of her sword with his bare hands.
The patrons in the pub either looked away or flinched, waiting for blood to spurt as his fingers closed around the sword.
Crack. The sword snapped in half crisply, and the woman was on the ground, stunned by the impact of the burly man against her body. She was still holding on to half of a sword, and not a drop of blood could be seen.
Scarface laughed and tossed the other half of the sword into the
open stove, where the wooden blade, painted to look like the real thing, instantly burst into flames.
“Who’s the real swindler here?” Scarface sneered. “It takes one to know one, doesn’t it? And now you’re going to pay.” He strode up to the still stunned woman like a wolf closing in for the kill. Now that the hem of the woman’s robe had ridden up, he saw that her left leg was enclosed in a kind of harness, similar to the sort worn by many veterans who had lost limbs during the wars. “So you’re a useless cripple, too.” He spat at her and lifted his right foot, clad in a massive leather boot, aiming for her head.
“Don’t you dare touch her!” shouted Phyro. “I’ll make you regret it!”
Scarface stopped and turned to regard the three children in the corner.
Timu and Théra stared at Phyro.
“Master Ruthi always said that a Moralist gentleman must stand up for those in need,” Phyro said defensively.
“So you’ve decided that this is the moment you should start listening to Master Ruthi?” groaned Théra. “Do you think we’re in the palace, surrounded by guards who can stop him?”
“Sorry, but she was defending Da’s honor!” Phyro whispered fiercely, not backing down.
“Run, both of you!” shouted Timu. “I’ll hold him back.” He waved his gangly arms about, uncertain how he was going to carry out this plan.
Now that he had gotten a clear look at the three “heroes,” Scarface laughed. “I’ll take care of you brats after I’m done with her.” He turned back and leaned down for the traveling purse attached to the cashima’s sash.
Théra’s eyes darted around the pub: Some of the patrons were huddled near the walls, trying to stay as far away from the fight as possible; others were slowly inching their way to the door, seeking an escape. Nobody wanted to do anything to stop the robbery—and perhaps worse—in progress. She grabbed Phyro by the ears before he could get away, turned him to face her, and touched her forehead to his.
“Ouch!” Phyro hissed. “Do you have to do that?”
“Timu is brave but he’s no good in a fight,” she said.
Phyro nodded. “Unless we’re talking about a competition on who can write the most obscure logograms.”
“Right. So it’s up to you and me.” And she quickly whispered her plan to him.
Phyro grinned. “You’re the best big sister.”
Timu, still dancing about uncertainly, pushed at them both ineffectually. “Go, go!”
Over by the stove, Scarface was examining the contents of the purse he had ripped from the woman, who lay at his feet, unmoving. Maybe she was still recovering from the body blow.
Phyro dashed away and disappeared into the crowd of patrons.
Instead of running, Théra jumped onto the table.
“Hey, Auntie Phiphi, Auntie Kira, Auntie Jizan!” she shouted, and pointed at three of the women among those inching toward the door. They stopped to look at her, startled at having their names called by this strange girl.
“Do you know her?” whispered Phiphi.
Jizan and Kira shook their heads. “She was sitting at the table next to ours,” Kira whispered back. “I thought she might have been listening in on our talk.”
“Haven’t you always said that I can’t let men push me around if I want a harmonious household after I get married?” Théra continued. “Since the menfolk are all running away with their tails between their legs, aren’t you going to help me teach this oaf a lesson?”
Scarface looked from Théra to the three women, uncertain what was going on. But Théra wasn’t going to give him time to figure things out. “Oh, Cousin Ro! Practically our whole clan is here. Why are we so afraid of this dolt?”
“I’m certainly not,” a voice answered from the crowd. It sounded youthful, almost girlish. Then a bowl flew out of the shadows near the door and smashed into Scarface, drenching him in fragrant, hot tea. “Heck, all of us spitting on him would be enough to drown
him! Auntie Phiphi, Auntie Kira, Auntie Jizan, come on!”
The crowd that had been trying to escape the pub stopped moving. The three women whose names had been called gaped at Scarface, who now looked like a chicken caught in a thunderstorm. They looked at each other and grinned.
A moment later, three mugs of beer flew through the air and smashed against Scarface. He roared in rage.
“And here’s one from me!” Théra grabbed the flask of rice wine from their table and tossed it at Scarface’s head. It just missed and broke against the stove, and the spilled wine hissed in the fire.
Crowds were delicate things. Sometimes all it took was a single example for a loose flock of sheep to turn into a wolfish mob.
Since the women had such success with their first strikes, the men looked at each other and suddenly discovered their courage. Even the storyteller Tino, so obsequious a moment earlier, threw his half-drunk mug of beer at the robber. Bowls, cups, flasks, mugs flew from every direction at Scarface, who wrapped his arms about his head and stumbled about to survive the onslaught, howling in pain. The couple running the pub jumped up and down, begging people not to destroy their property, but it was too late.
“We’ll pay you back,” shouted Timu over the din, but it was unclear if the pub-keeping couple heard him.
More than a few of the missiles had struck Scarface, and he was bruised all over. Blood flowed from cuts on his face, and he was soaked in tea, wine, and beer. Realizing that he could no longer intimidate the incensed crowd, Scarface spat hatefully at Théra. But he had to get away before the crowd got even bolder and tried to tackle him.
He tossed the purse into the burning stove as a final gesture of pique, and then pushed and shoved his way through the crowd. People, still individually awed by his size and strength, leapt out of his way. He slammed through the pub’s front door like a wolf chased away from the flock by a pack of baying hounds, leaving in his wake only a few snowflakes swirling in the eddies near the
entrance. Soon, the snowflakes also disappeared, as though he had never been there at all.
Men and women milled about the pub, slapping one another on the back and congratulating all on their bravery while the proprietor and proprietress rushed around with dustpan and broom and bucket and rag to sweep up the broken pottery and china. Phyro pushed through the crowd until he was standing next to Théra.
“Smacked him right in the neck with that first bowl,” boasted Phyro.
“Well done, ‘Cousin Ro,’?” Théra said, smiling.
Tino the storyteller and the proprietors of the pub came up to thank the three children for their heroic intervention—and in the case of the tavern owners, also to make sure they really would pay for the damage. Leaving Timu to handle the flowery language of mutual appreciation and proper humility and promissory notes, Théra and Phyro went to see if the young cashima was all right.
She had been stunned by the burly man’s blow but wasn’t seriously injured. They helped her sit up and fed her sips of warm rice wine.
“What’s your name?”
“Zomi Kidosu,” she said in a faint, embarrassed voice. “Of Dasu.”
“Are you a real cashima?” asked Phyro, pointing at the broken wooden sword lying next to her.
“Hudo-tika!” Théra was mortified by the rude question from her little brother.
“What? If the sword isn’t real, maybe her rank isn’t real either.”
But the young woman didn’t answer. She was staring at the fire in the stove, where the other half of her sword had turned to ashes. “My pass . . . my pass . . .”
“What pass?” asked Phyro.
Zomi continued to mutter as though she couldn’t hear Phyro.
Théra surveyed the young woman’s worn shoes and patched robe; her gaze lingered for a moment on the intricate harness around her left leg, whose design she had never seen, even from the Imperial doctors who worked with injuries suffered by her father’s most
trusted guards; she noted the calluses on the pads of her right thumb, index and middle fingers, as well as on the back of her ring finger; she observed the bits of wax and ink stains under her fingernails.
She’s a long way from home, and she’s been practicing writing, a lot of writing.
“Of course she’s a real cashima,” Théra said. “She’s here for the Grand Examination. That fool burned her pass for the Examination Hall!”