Baby, the tiger was the first to wake. She served better than a watchdog. Feyan woke next, and before Baby growled, Feyan let out a soft guttural sound like she and the tiger lived on the same wavelength. Feyan woke Wang by clamping a hand over his mouth. Baby stayed quiet, but her tail twitched. Suddenly, they heard a crash, clink, clunk in the small hut they built in the bow to house all their bronze and such.
“Quiet.” That word from overhead was not very quiet.
Bi got up, and Aunt Chen stirred, but Gongming snored. Feyan imagined Uncle Gongming could sleep through a thunderstorm, and flood, with the river water sloshing up and threatening to swamp the boat.
Feyan got her short sword and her bow and arrows. She slipped a couple of knives into her belt. She handed the boys their swords, and Baby finally had to let out a growl loud enough to make the shuffling feet above pause.
Feyan sent the brothers up the stern ladder to the steering oar area behind the main house up on deck. She and baby went up the front steps to the kitchen area behind the little hut, as far forward as they could get. The boys did not know what to do other than watch, but Feyan had ideas. There were five men on board, and no telling what they were looking for. She figured it had to be something important, or they had to be stupid to invade a ship with a live tiger aboard.
Feyan pulled her knives. She threw one so it stuck in the mast right in front of the face of the one she figured was the captain. She threw the other so it cut the arm of the soldier about to enter the house, and pinned his sleeve to the wall. She stood, one hand on Baby, who looked at her like a puppy, waiting permission to tear the intruders apart.
“Hold it right there, Captain,” she shouted. “What brings you to our little home?” She put one arrow on her string, but otherwise kept petting Baby to keep her quiet.
The Captain looked in her direction, though she remained hidden by the dark and mostly behind the little bronze hut. He grinned as he talked. “You have to be pretty stupid to disarm yourself.” He pointed at the knife in the mast.
Feyan shouted, “Boys.” Then she removed her hand from Baby long enough to fire her arrow. The shot whizzed past the captain’s eyes and also stuck in the mast, the fletching tickling his nose on the way. Baby could not hold back the roar of agitation that came out, but Feyan got her hand back to scratch behind Baby’s ears as quickly as she could.
“You were saying? I think you have to be the stupid one to invade a boat that has a live tiger on board.”
“I heard it was a puppet,” the Captain said. “I heard you have been up and down the river and have been paid in gold and jewels.”
“You heard wrong,” Feyan said. “Whoever told you that wants you dead.”
The captain paused, but Gongming came up the central stairs and out the main hatch through which they loaded rice and supplies. He probably imagined he would make a grand entrance and soon straighten out whatever the problem came aboard his boat. The captain had another idea.
The two soldiers on the deck did just that, and the one with the bleeding arm, that got himself free from the wall, grabbed Aunt Chen. Poor Aunt Chen looked like she knew going up amid ships was a bad idea.
That became too much for Baby. She roared, leapt right over the little bronze hut and raked her claws across the back of one of the men holding Gongming. All four of the men on deck leapt overboard, the captain to the port side and the other three to the deep, off the starboard side. They had anchored off the town, so they had water in both direction. Baby went to the starboard railing, certainly not against a good swim, but Bi and Chen both called to her. They knew better than to try and corral an angry tiger.
Gongming looked confused, but Feyan ran to the port side railing. She saw a sixth man, rowing to shore with all his might, some bronze in the small boat, and the captain swimming to catch up.
“Thieves. Thieves,” Feyan shouted to the people on horseback who rode up to the shore line. They had lanterns burning to light up the shore. Several dismounted, and made the man in the boat get down on his face. They got the captain, too, when he arrived. They found some rope in the small boat and tied up the two, but then they felt stymied. They had no idea what to do with them.
Feyan ran to the other side to look for the others. Even with the moon nearly full, it was too dark to see anything. The three disappeared in the water, or likely ended up being swept down river due to the current. Feyan figured at least one of them would not live long, and only one of the three escaped, unscathed.
Baby calmed down enough to nudge Feyan’s arm. Feyan paused to snuggle Baby’s face and head, and kiss her nose. She placed Baby in Bi’s hands with instructions to take her below and keep her there. Then she ran back to the port side and yelled. “Lockhart.” She opened her arms like she was giving a big hug. “Boston.”
Boston got down and ran across the top of the water. She barely got to the boat before she sank, but she managed to grab a piece of netting, the same the soldiers used to clamber aboard, and she hauled herself up. Baby looked as Boston come aboard, but Baby did nothing, like she did not see the elf at all, or like some instinct in animals prevented them from hostility toward benevolent spirits. Boston hugged Feyan with a comment.
“You are younger than I have ever seen you.”
“I’m ten. I get to be young once every life,” Feyan whispered. She saw Lockhart and Katie using the invader’s boat to row out to the ship.
Gongming came out of his stupor, and Aunt Chen and Wang walked up beside him. “And who are these people?” Gongming asked, with a long, hard stare at Boston.
“These are people from the far future who have fallen back into our time and are trying to get home. They are people of power, and friends of mine,” Feyan said, in her most humble and placating voice. “Boston is a benevolent spirit, most of the time. Lockhart is the leader of his group, and Katie is a captain of soldiers, and Lockhart’s wife.” She paused to see what Gongming heard.
“Don’t be foolish. Women cannot captain soldiers. The soldiers would not listen to a woman.”
Katie climbed up first, while Lockhart figured out how to tie the boat to the netting. “Shang Feyan?” She looked at Aunt Chen.
“Right here,” Feyan said, with a frown, and Katie shifted her eyes and smiled for how young Feyan was. “Robert Lockhart. Captain Katie Harper-Lockhart. Allow me to introduce Zhou Gongming, his wife, my Aunt Chen, Wang, their eldest son, and Bi, who is below deck, is their younger son. Also, so you know, we have a full-grown Siberian black tiger female as a pet, like another family member. Her name is Ziya, but her given name is Baby.” Feyan finished and struck a perfect pose of submission. Aunt Chen stepped forward before Gongming could pronounce something.
“This must be very important. You must be very special. Feyan never submits to anyone.”
“She is a good little actress,” Gongming said.
“Wonderful to meet you,” Katie responded, in particular, to Aunt Chen.
“Yes, but we have a problem.” Lockhart spoke to Feyan through Gongming. “We have night creatures on our tail. We have traveled three days and now in our third night, and have taken only twelve hours or so to sleep, but they have kept up the whole way. Our consensus is one of the old Shang gods is keeping them on our tail.”
“Oh dear,” Feyan said. “We can’t take you aboard ship. The boat is not big enough for all of you and your horses, and Baby would not like being confined. The horses would not be comfortable, and the smell of horses would drive Baby crazy. She would find a way to get out.”
“Maybe the water babies could help us cross the river,” Boston suggested.
Feyan shook her head as Katie spoke. “What is the point? If the god is helping the creatures, they would just catch up again.”
Gongming pulled on his beard and spoke to his son. “Wang. Climb down to the boat and retrieve our things. I must think what we can do.”
“It is good to help others when you can. Someday, you may need help,” Gongming said. Wang went, and Feyan explained.
“My uncle speaks fluent fortune cookie.”
Katie, Lockhart and Boston all nodded as someone shouted to them from the shore.
“Oh, also, what do you want me to do with the two men we have on shore?” Lockhart asked.
“Yes,” Gongming started to speak when they heard a crash in the bronze hut.
Katie and Lockhart carried their handguns and their Patton sabers. Katie pulled her saber. Lockhart pulled his police pistol. Boston pulled her wand. When Katie was ready, Lockhart opened the door quickly and spoke. “Come out of there with your hands up. Drop your weapons and reach for the sky.” It was a cliché, but effective.
A soldier came out and Feyan nodded. She thought there were five on the boat.
“Please,” the man begged. “Save me from the tiger. I was just following orders.”
“Whom do you serve?” Katie asked with a touch against the man’s chest with her evidently sharp sword.
“We serve the king, but Captain says there is nothing to be gained by service. The king only pleases himself, so why should we not please ourselves? I did not believe him. Oh, no. I am loyal. But he ordered me, and threatened me. He forced me to come. I don’t want your gold and jewels. Please, I am innocent.”
“A nickel for every time I heard that,” Lockhart, the former policeman said.
“Can you swim?” Katie asked the man. The man nodded slowly, not sure what she had in mind. Katie sheathed her saber before she grabbed the man by his pants and shirt, pulled him to the rail, and threw him into the water. He was not a big man, shorter than her, but she threw him impressively far to make sure he missed the boat tied to the side. “One more. Sit on them,” she shouted.
“Captain Harper,” Feyan whispered to Gongming, who simply stared, dumbfounded.