Avalon 5.11 The River Circus, part 4 of 6

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.

“Grab him.”

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.”

“Father?”

“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.

Avalon 5.11 The River Circus, part 2 of 6

Zhou Gongming stood on the deck and looked out over the town.  His sons, Bi and Wang made the boat fast against the dock.  His wife, Chen, cooked the fish and rice, while her niece, Feyan, who was also Gongming’s ten-year-old good luck charm, slept lazily under the shade of the boat house.  She had one arm draped over the tiger who napped with her.  The tiger, like a nanny, had the sleeping girl trapped between her front paws.  They were a team.

He found the black tiger cub and saved it when it was a newborn, barely able to suck milk from a cloth.  To this day, he had no idea what madness possessed him to do that.  But when Feyan showed up, a runny nosed four-year-old, and Feyan’s mother begged her sister to take the girl, they did.  Another act of madness.  Now, the tiger adopted the orphan girl, or the girl adopted the tiger, and they were making him a fortune.

The boat bumped the dock.  Gongming had to shift his weight to keep from falling over.  The tiger let out a small sound of protest.  Feyan shouted.  “Wang,” like everything was Wang’s fault.  Well, he was the eldest, but she never shouted at Bi.  A different Bi, that is, Bi Gan, had been Feyan’s father, presumably murdered by the Great King of the Shang, Di Xin.

They gave the girl the stage name of Shang Feyan.  Gongming thought it was a great rub in the nose of the Shang king.  No one would ever know her father had been brother to the former king, Di Yi, the present king’s father.  Feyan was the current king’s first cousin, but only Gongming and Chen knew that, and Chen’s sister, if she was still alive somewhere out there, in hiding.  The woman had been pregnant when she begged Chen to take the girl.  Gongming often wondered if the woman had that baby, and if Feyan had a baby brother or sister.

The tiger they named Ziya, a reminder that there were great rulers before the Shang took over.  Of course, Feyan just called the tiger Baby.

“Come along, Baby,” Feyan said.  “Let us see what Aunt Chen is cooking.  Maybe we can help.”

Baby let out something between a purr and a yawn, but got up and lumbered beside the girl.  The big tiger’s head was as tall as the girl’s head, and Feyan was not so short for a ten-year-old.  In fact, the tiger grew into a monster size, big enough and strong enough for Gongming to ride upon, and Gongming was not so slim for… his age.

“The boat is fast,” Bi reported.  “Wang is hungry.  Feyan is not helping, and Baby is following her like a puppy.  All is right with the world.”

Gongming raised one eyebrow.  The name Baby had pretty much infected the family.  “Son,” he said.  “Always do your job as well as you can.  Work hard and save, and fortune will smile on you.  And always take care of the things you have or you will soon lose them and have nothing at all.  Like, try not to damage the boat against the dock.”

“That is too much to fit in a fortune cookie,” Feyan protested.  She sat scratching the shoulder of the cat who sat beside her. The shoulder was as high as she could reach.

“Very wise,” Chen said.  She said that every time Feyan said something that no one knew what she was talking about.

“But father,” Wang spoke up.  “What is our job right now?”

“Lunch,” Gongming said, and Chen gave him his big bowl full of rice and fish.  Wang, the eldest got his bowl.  Bi said, “Thank you.”  Feyan got her little bowl.  She never ate much.  Then Chen set aside her own bowl before she scooped most of the rest into Baby’s big bowl.  Baby loved her rice and fish.  Feyan sometimes turned her nose up at the same thing, day after day.

###

The sun got ready to set.  It turned pink and extra bright against the river water.  Feyan knew from long experience that it would give her a headache if she stared at it for too long.  But the colors were especially beautiful that evening as the sky turned from golden to crimson, to maroon, and finally to a deep purple.  “Ultraviolet,” Feyan called it.  “Probably storm clouds gathering in the west, or too much dust from the Taklimakan Desert blowing up into the sky.”

“Very wise,” Aunt Chen said, and hugged Feyan and gave her a motherly kiss.  “Time to get ready.  Feyan had her pants on, and only needed to tie back her long, straight hair and make sure Baby had on her brass collar.

Many people came to the dock at sundown, because they had been told, they had heard about the show, or just because any sort of entertainment to break the monotony of their lives was welcomed.  Most of the rest came when they heard the fighting.

Wang and Bi set up a square on the place between the dock and the market.  They put up a bamboo curtain with great, wide openings for the people to see through, and admonished the people at every opportunity to stay behind the curtain.  Many people got up on the roofs of the houses around so they could look down into the square.  The boys brought out the stand with a great circle on top, and Bi made sure the wooden circle got soaked with plenty of oil that would burn without turning the circle to ash.  Wang set the two buckets of water aside, and then the brothers set up the wall on the fourth side of the square.  The wall had rope attached, though it was not evident what the rope might be used for.  Only one opening next to the wall let people in and out of the square.

As the sun set, Bi and Wang began to light the torches.  Wang tossed them to Bi, who pretended to not catch very well.  The torches went up in the air, and as soon as they were all lit, he tossed some back to Wang.  In this way, the brothers juggled the torches for a bit before they set them in place.

Shang Feyan came out doing a series of back hand springs.  She entertained the crowd with her acrobatics before she ended in a handstand, and walked on her hands until she stood between the brothers.  She curled to her feet and walked around the boys in a figure eight.  When she stood between them again, she tapped Wang on the chest and said, “No.”  She tapped Bi on the chest and said, “No.”  Then she threw her nose straight up in a haughty look, and stomped off through the opening by the solid wall.

“I will have that girl to wife,” Wang said his line.

“You will not,” Bi responded.  “She will be my wife.”

The boys growled at each other and retrieved their swords.  Wang and Bi fought a very well-choreographed duel.  The fists and kicks flew around the swords, but it all ended when Feyan leapt into the ring with a short sword of her own.

“Who is it that disturbs my beauty sleep?”

“It is I, Shang Wang, your one true love.”

“It is I, Shang Bi, the one who loves you most of all.”

Feyan practiced a little acting and marched around the two boys, examining them again, this time like one might examine livestock, going for more than a couple of laughs, including looking at their teeth.  She ended with, “But I do not love either one of you.”

“Give us a chance,” both boys objected.

“I tell you what.  I will marry the one who can best me with a sword.”

Suddenly, the sword fight became three ways, and Feyan got good licks on the boys, but they never touched her, until, at last, she disarmed them.  She picked up their swords and began to juggle them.  The boys stared, amazed, and came close until she jumped, did the splits in mid-air, and supposedly kicked both boys in the face.  They fell and pretended to be unconscious, and she caught her own sword, but let the other two hit the dirt, to prove they were real.  One or both usually stuck into the ground and stood straight up, but even if they clanked on the dirt, that proved the point.

Feyan went to the water bucket and took a swig of the river water.  Then she took the boys to the solid wall.  She used the rope loops, where she supposedly tied the boys so they could not escape.  She backed up and threw water into Wang’s face to wake him up.  She threw two knives, one to each side of his head.  He shrieked, which he was supposed to do, but he always shrieked.  She threw a third knife between his legs.  The entire audience winced before she spoke.

“No, I will not hurt my one true love.”

Then she splashed water in Bi’s face and picked up her bow and a handful of arrows.  She put an apple on Bi’s head and split it with an arrow.  Then she shot arrows all around him, without hitting him.  People applauded, until they heard a roar.

Feyan let the boys loose with a word.  “My Father!”

Zhou Gongming came into the square, riding on the back of the tiger.  He had Baby on a leash, but it was not necessary.  Baby knew her part.  Wang and Bi brought out the ring and the see-saw while father paraded along the edge of the bamboo curtain where the people could see the tiger up close.  He had a stick in the hand that was not holding the leash, and he was quick to slap any hand, young or old, that was foolish enough to try to reach through the bamboo to touch the tiger.

When they stopped, Bi and Wang pretended to be petrified, unwilling to move.  Feyan kissed baby’s nose and Baby licked her, and Gongming got down.  He asked what was going on, and Feyan said, I will show you.  She made Wang stand in a certain spot and put Bi on the see-saw.  She backed up about as far as she could and did back handsprings before a final back flip where she landed on the other end of the see-saw.  Bi went up, and landed, standing on Wang’s shoulders.  Feyan grinned and stood on the down end of the see-saw, presumably to laugh at the boys.

“Jump Ziya.  Jump,” Gongming said, and the tiger jumped on the up end ot the see-saw with enough weight to send Feyan to the top, where she landed on Bi’s shoulders, so they were standing three people high.  People applauded as Baby roared.  After Wang turned a bit, about as far as he could move, Feyan jumped down into Wang’s arms while Bi jumped back off Wang’s shoulders.  Then Wang shouted.

“But the tiger.”

Bi jumped through the ring and echoed, “Tiger.”

Wang jumped through, and rolled on the other side while Bi got a torch.  Feyan jumped through, and Gongming did something that made everyone gasp.  He took off Baby’s leash, and Baby did not have to be coaxed to jump through.

Bi brought up the torch and lit the ring.  “This will stop the tiger,” he declared, as Wang jumped through again, in the other direction, followed by Bi.

“You won’t escape us,” Feyan yelled and leapt through.  She turned and called.  Baby paced until she called a second time.  The tiger leapt through the burning ring, and Gongming immediately put the leash back on Baby while Wang and Bi put out the ring.  It burned mostly the oil, and they got quite a few shows out of one ring, but eventually, they did have to build a new ring, so they tried to preserve it.

All that remained was the bows, and Gongming quickly brought Baby back to the boat for treats.  After Chen got Baby, he returned to see what he could get for such a show, having already worked some things out with the village elders.  He got rice and fish.  That was expected.  He also got some pork and fowl, and a few copper, bronze, and brass trinkets that he knew where to trade for more rice and fish, or if need be, to keep the boat in top order, or even to buy a new ring.  He was a happy fellow.  As word of their little show went ahead of them, the price went up.  He thought it remarkable what people would pay for a little entertainment.

“Chen, my wife, we have so much bronze, I fear some nights that we may sink the boat,” he said, as he put the new things away.

“So you say,” Aunt Chen said.  “I never expected to have things when I married a fisherman.”

“Do what is right, and the gods will smile upon you,” he said.

“Now, I can put that in a fortune cookie,” Feyan said, as she slipped into the water and threw her soaking wet pants up to the deck to be hung to dry.

“Very wise,” Aunt Chen said.