Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty – The Kingfisher


In the Year of the Pig, first lunar year of the Guangxu era, twenty-eight-year-old Yeuen Liang stood at the foredeck of a two-masted zaw called the Kingfisher, while she threaded her way through the multitude of vessels on moorings out from the jetties and loading docks of the city of Xiangshan.

The Kingfisher was forty-eight bu in length, from stern to bowsprit – this feature carved into writhing snakes and gorgons. She flared from stern to waist as if from slender, youthful hips. Her mainmast was as thick as the body of a strong man, and her timbers of teak had been freshly caulked. Liang was already in love with the vessel, and tonight’s excursion would be the last before they sailed for the river mouth and open sea.

Beside Liang stood the bow lookout, who was calling directions and warnings back to the helmsman. The dark waters of the River Pearl reflected the lights of a thousand lanterns, and the night air resounded to the shouts and chatter of boatmen and merchants.

Now, as he did often, Liang lifted the bronze medal that hung from a leather thong around his neck, rubbing his thumb over the dragon in all its glory and cruelty. It was a symbol of his elevation to a new status, and an important new role. Tonight, he would earn something of the trust the Dragon Head had placed in him.

Ahead was a broad and busy public wharf, though even at night the traffic was thick. Liang could see the free space the helmsman was aiming for.  The sounds of musical performers and the smells of food cooking in the woks of street hawkers hit his senses.

Knowing that landing was imminent, Liang walked back to the main deck, where his ten warriors waited, all dressed in loose trousers of black silk, and dark shaolin robes of the same material. All were armed with short jian swords. Most carried hidden pistols. They were staunch and confident men, each with important skills. In just five days together, Liang had moulded them into a team, inspiring them by working twice as hard and sleeping half as long.

‘Tonight,’ Liang said, ‘we have an important task. The Dragon Head has ordered that we take his son, Haoyu, with us to Aodaliya. He will not come willingly. He has fallen under the spell of opium and lives in indolence and corruption. Like all fathers, the Dragon Head loves his son despite his faults. Haoyu cannot be harmed, but we will not leave this city without him.’

The ship’s master, a dour old Northerner called Qian Yao was barking instructions as the Kingfisher eased into the dock, and two of the crew held the hull off the timbers with boat poles.

Qian Yao locked eyes with Liang. ‘We’ll return one hour from now, Jingci, then every hour after that.’ Jingci was a term of respect in the master’s native Mandarin.

Liang acknowledged the statement with a nod, then climbed to the gunwale. From this height he leapt out onto the dock, landing on his feet and flexing his knees. The others came after in ones and twos. As they ascended the hawkers, dock-lurkers and walkers stepped back to make room for this impressive force of men.

It was a big moment for Liang, the first time he commanded men in the name of the Dragon Head. For the previous three nights he had come ashore alone, slipping into the narrow streets of this den of thieves; this densely populated, seething, crawling slum that turned his stomach. Over those three nights of searching, in this urban chaos that never rested, Liang had followed rumour and whisper until he learned the whereabouts of Haoyu, the Dragon Head’s son.

Xiangshan was, at that time, the most dangerous place in Southern China. It did not belong to the Sheathed Sword or their rivals the Rì Chū Guild, though both triads had a presence there, but to splinter groups and local heavies, with disputed ground changing constantly according to urban combat and deals made in opium-scented cafes.

Liang knew that eleven men was an unnecessary force for this task. He suspected that he might achieve his objective with two or three, and deal with any threats of robbery or violence along the way. Yet, Liang wanted to see how his men performed under pressure, and bringing the full team along was a show of force, a thumb in the nose of the Rì Chū heavies and Xiangshan cartels.

Liang led the way, as a leader should, and he threaded a path away from the water and into a docklands hell of hawkers, eateries, and market stalls offering everything from weapons, contraband European goods and traditional local foods such as monkey brains and skinned snakes in knotted ropes, glazed fowl and the offal of everything from antelope to tigers.

Liang had memorised the route. In this world with no street signs he checked off landmarks in his head – a barber’s shop on one corner – a gambling den with a painted butterfly on the next. His armed group drew attention, but their martial ability was obvious in the carriage of the men and the weapons at their hips. Few of even the most unsavoury characters did more than stare.

The distance was not great in a direct line, but Liang had calculated that the route through the city was around a mile, and at times they had to wait for mule carts, and once for a herdsman bringing through a brace of squealing pigs, tied by ropes from neck to neck, off to meet their deaths in some backyard slaughterhouse.

Then, after several blocks at a steady pace, on a street of foetid filth surrounded by ramshackle apartments, they were forced to wait while a litter, carried high on the shoulders of four big men, moved airily down the road. In the divan inside was a man dressed in gold thread and other finery. Passersby on the road and walkways were kowtowing as it approached, further delaying Liang and his men.

This, Liang decided, was some local Dai-lo, a crime boss with aspirations. He seemed to be addressing the paupers surrounding his litter, and hinting that he might soon distribute alms to those most in need. Behind the litter walked two men, musclebound and looking in all directions with eyes of steel, aware and ready. Liang summed them up as bodyguards, probably good at beating in heads, but there was a smugness in their manner that made him doubt their ability to excel in single combat.

Both the Dai-lo and his men stared long and hard at Liang and his ten warriors as they filed past, but made no effort to delay or disrupt them. The men of the Sheathed Sword Society were an impressive force.

Just a short distance from this spectacle, Liang spotted the wooden door that he sought. This one, painted green and endorsed with a single written character, was the entrance to the apartments they were seeking. A guard at the door watched Liang and his men come with a wary look in his eye.

‘Halt there, sir,’ said the guard.

Liang paused. ‘Stand aside, and you will not be harmed.’

The guard looked at Liang, whose hand had now fallen to the hilt of his sword. After a few seconds the guard nodded once and moved to one side. Liang flung the door open and was first inside, entering a room in which the opulence contrasted sharply with the street. Where a brace of women sprawled, sat and lay, with varying amounts of flesh on display, on expensive divans and chairs.

Another, well-dressed and carefully made-up woman approached from a desk in one corner.  She radiated confidence, wealth and capability. ‘Excuse me, sir. You cannot come in here with weapons …’

‘Silence,’ snapped Liang, never ceasing to move. ‘Keep out of our way.’

On the other side of the room was a staircase made of inlaid woods, spiralling upwards to a second floor. Liang reached the first step and began to climb. The others followed. They came to a door, and Liang pushed it open. The smell of stale opium and liquor filled the air.

The Dragon Head’s son was named Haoyu, and the meaning of the name was ‘vast universe.’ This was indeed an apt name. He was a huge man, with a cannonball head and a body grossly inflated.

He lazed naked on a huge bed, only partially covered by silk sheets, with two females in attendance. The large head rose from the pillow, and two dark eyes regarded the intruders.

Liang moved to the end of the bed, flanked by his men. ‘Your name is Haoyu and you are the son of the Dragon Head. I come here with your father’s authority. You are to get dressed immediately and come with me.’

‘Am I indeed?’  The young man sat up, drew a sheet over the middle of his large body, then giggled. ‘Do you think that you are the first bully boy my father has sent? It’s boring, and insulting. Now leave here and don’t come back.’

‘I warn you again,’ said Liang, his voice as hard as steel. ‘Get dressed immediately and gather your things.’

The big man made no effort to move. ‘Or what? My father does love me, despite his disapproval, and if you harm one hair on my head he will, no doubt, have you flayed alive.’ The pink mouth in that flabby face moved, and the black eyes shone with pure intelligence. ‘That means that your only option is to try to take me with you by using your wits, and that is unlikely. You seem like an uncouth village boy – hardly a match for myself, who was educated by the most famous teachers in the land.’

‘You must come with me,’ said Liang, feeling, unfathomably, at a disadvantage. ‘Your father commands it.’

Haoyu nodded sagely, then reached out to a bedside table. He lit a pipe with shaking hands. ‘Oh yes, my father commands, and men obey. I mean to say, that men like you obey. I am family and I have somewhat more leeway when it comes to commands.’ Haoyu took a long draw on the pipe, and when he spoke again his words were accompanied by tendrils of smoke that curled around his moustaches. ‘Why don’t you take your men and get out of here.’

For a long time Liang did not speak. He could feel the heat in his cheeks, and it was the heat of humiliation. The eyes of his men were on him, looking to him to establish authority. If he left here now, he would have failed in the very first task he had been given by the Dragon Head. His journey to Aodaliya would go ahead, but his ability would be under question.

Finally, snapping out of the torpor, he turned and barked an instruction to the men around him. Then, moving forwards in a group, they appeared on both sides of the bed and the women ran shrieking, tumbling half naked onto the floor and away.

Now at last the face of Haoyu showed fear, and opium ash scattered from his pipe.  Liang grasped a corner of the lower silk sheet. Two of his men, catching on fast, followed suit, and together they folded it over, capturing the massive naked man within. The Dragon Head’s son bellowed like a bull to the lance and began to thrash wildly.

By now, however, even the slowest witted of the ten had realised the method, helping to restrain the thrashing man, who seemed more like a buffalo than a man at that time.

In turn the others gripped sections of the sheet and twisted, winding the ends around the struggling body like a mother swaddling a baby, cocooning him in silk, tighter and tighter.  It was not accomplished smoothly, for this was an unrehearsed and volatile act.

Standing back now and barking instructions, Liang watched five of his men hoist the still-struggling, still-bellowing captive onto their shoulders. He was not worried that Haoyu would be unable to breathe, for silk was a breathable fabric – even these glossy fine-woven sheets, far richer stuff than the raw and coarse silk of the robes they wore.

‘Go,’ shouted Liang, throwing open the door. Down the stairs they went, like hapless pallbearers with a corpse that had come to life, into a room accompanied by shouts of ‘kidnap’ and the cries of the women.

Out the door and into the street, past a gathering crowd, the five men holding Haoyu struggling with the load, the effort showing in their taut muscles, the veins in their neck standing proud. Progress was slow, and this was impeded by passersby stopping to stare and gawk.

Liang seethed with impatience. The sheets were a temporary measure only, not up to a long journey. The great weight of the captive was already testing the strength of his men. They could take turns at the task, but the big man had already freed an arm and they had to stop and force it back in.

Now they reached the crowd surrounding the local Dai-lo. He had left his litter and was standing in his fine robes on a wooden cask, distributing alms and hearing grievances from people on the street.

The sight of this man, and the way his activities blocked the traffic, inflamed Liang’s temper. He had known such men before – using pitiful amounts of money to buy loyalty and adulation. It made them feel big to gather crowds and show off their wealth. Most of the donations would be returned through opium sales later in the evening.

Liang’s first instinct was to barge through as fast as possible, but then his eyes fell on the litter, which the bearers had lowered to the ground while their lord carried out his business. The four men were obviously enjoying the break, lounging against a wall and talking.

Liang barked an order and his men responded smoothly. Then, in a stentorian voice he shouted, ‘I am requisitioning this litter in the name of the Dragon Head of the Sheathed Sword,’ he said, and the bound body of Haoyu was dumped unceremoniously onto the apparatus. Ropes were taken from the awning of an adjacent store to tie down the supine man.

While this was going on, the Dai-lo, looking up from his ministrations to the crowd, saw what was happening and let out a howl of protest. He turned to his bodyguards, who had noticed the arrival of Liang and his men, and their intentions, but were reluctant to intervene.

‘Stop them, you fools,’ shouted the Dai-lo.

The bravest of the pair drew his blade and rushed at Liang, who moved aside at the last moment and chopped with a hand like a cleaver into the side of the man’s neck. The second held back, no matter how the Dai-lo harangued him. The leader moved his focus to the pall bearers, ordering them to protect the vehicle that gave them employment.

By then, however, the litter was being lifted by the strong arms and shoulders of Liang’s men, and they raced down the dark street, pursued by the half-hearted bodyguards and a few hotheads in the crowd, who now doubt hoped to find favour with the Dai-lo by contesting the litter.

With just four men carrying the litter at a time, however, that left Liang leading the way with a man on each side, to clear the way down the street at a run, and four others to form a rearguard and fend off any attempt at interference from behind.

Their progress was rapid, headlong now, and as the crowds increased near the waterfront, Liang drew his sword to demonstrate that he and his men meant business, shouting as he went, ‘Clear the way, in the name of the Dragon Head of the Sheathed Sword.’

Down the last few blocks, a fight was developing in the rear in earnest. Liang’s men were facing several attackers, all at a run. There were shouts and shrieks as the would-be fighters borrowed courage from each other. The occasional clash of steel rang out.

Finally, onto the docks themselves, but they had missed the hour by a matter of minutes, and the Kingfisher had pulled away, sailing out into the river. Liang opened his mouth and shouted so loudly that it felt like his lungs would burst. He saw the master, Qian Yao, appear on the sterncastle and begin issuing orders. They were coming back, but turning the vessel would take time.

With the litter at the extremity of the dock, however, the eleven men formed up in a semicircle around it, swords drawn. Skirmishers came probing to the edge of the protective line, breathing hard from their run, but drawing weapons and waiting in an uneasy stand off.  Several had rifles, one at least was a Mauser carbine that must have been stolen or bought from a European. Liang drew a pistol from his belt and pointed out at the nearest of the hostile locals.

No one fired. Not yet. The business of killing an emissary of the Dragon Head of the Sheathed Sword was not an act taken lightly.

‘Go back,’ Liang said sternly. ‘This is not a concern of yours. Tell your Dai-lo that his litter will remain here once our burden has been removed from it.’

By then the Kingfisher had fully turned, and was bearing down on the dock.

‘Now,’ cried Liang. ‘Carry him.’

The beautiful zaw came alongside and the still-wrapped form of the Dragon Head’s son was rolled over the gunwales and onto the deck of the boat. The men followed, with Liang last of all, all taking up defensive positions until crewmen with boat poles had pushed the hull away from the dock.

Haoyu began a terrible howl, but Liang ignored him, instead turning to the master. ‘Make way downriver with all speed,’ he commanded, ‘we must clear the river mouth by dawn and be on our way to Aodilya.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Catch up with older chapters here.

Continued next Saturday.

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