From Chapter Eight of River of Stars
Early morning they crossed the Great River in a fine rain, listening to geese overhead, though they couldn’t see them. A calm hour, the river so wide the northern bank appeared only when they were past halfway, as if out of another world or a dream.
One large town not far from the north bank, Chunyu, was a place where outlaws could come for food and tidings. It had a small barracks on its western edge, but despite the soldiers (badly trained, usually frightened), Chunyu was an uncomfortable place for government officials.
Taxes had been raised to pay for the Kislik war, and Flowers and Rocks people had simultaneously begun asserting themselves up and down the river, demanding unpaid labour. The hostility along this stretch of the river towards those reporting to the court was extreme.
It couldn’t be called a lawless town, Chunyu. There were the usual appointed elders, and a militia of farmers tasked with aiding the garrison. Taxes were, in fact, collected, spring and fall. If not, the elders would be beaten, or worse. But there was no yamen, and the various magistrates at the sub-prefecture town to the north, formally tasked with criminal inquiries in this area, tended to let Chunyu handle its own justice.
It was far enough from the marsh, and men from their band came here rarely enough, that Daiyan wasn’t worried about being recognized. There were rewards for turning in outlaws, and it was hard to blame someone whose children were starving. It was your own task, Daiyan believed, not to put yourself, or them, in a position where trouble could arise.
Which is why he later blamed himself, mostly.
Approaching the town late in the day as the skies cleared, Daiyan didn’t wear his hood, it made him too distinctive. He put on a straw hat like any labourer or farmer. His bow and quiver, and both their swords, had been hidden in a wood. They’d had weapons stolen once, when hidden this way. They’d tracked the thieves and killed them.
They carried only knives. They waited until darkfall, then entered town with men coming home under stars from spring fields. They went to an inn they knew near the market square in the centre.
The proprietor had been a man of the woods himself when young. Chunyu was where he’d retired from that life. It could happen. Men did change their lives. He would know them, could be trusted.
The inn’s front room was crowded. Two fires burning, lamps lit, smell of cooking and of hard-working men. End-of-day talk and laughter. A sense of life, warmth, far removed from the marsh. There were women here, serving them.
The proprietor let one of the girls take their order and bring it. Later, he walked casually past where they sat. He dropped a letter on their table. It was stained and crumpled. It was addressed to Daiyan.
He stared at it a long time, Ziji watching him.
He drained his cup and refilled it and drank again. He knew the brush strokes. Of course he did.
I send this with a father’s blessing in the hope that it will find you. Honourable Wang Fuyin, formerly our sub-prefect, is now chief magistrate at Jingxian. He has kindly written me that he believes you are alive and that it is possible you might at times be found at a certain town named Chunyu. I send this there, to the inn he suggests. He writes that he remains grateful to you for his life, which brings honour to our family.
Your mother continues in good health and your brother is now with me at the yamen, promoted to a guard. This is due to the kind intervention of Sub-prefect Wang before he left us. I am, by the grace of the gods and our ancestors, also in health as I take up my brush.
I write only to tell you these things, not to offer judgment on the choices you have made. It seems to me that fate intervened with you and took a strong hand in your life. This can happen.
I hope this letter reaches you, son. It would please me if you were to send word of yourself, and I know it would ease your mother’s heart. I remain confident that your upbringing and education and respect for your family’s honour will help you make proper decisions in life.
I wish you well, son, and will think of you during the New Year’s Festival here at home.
He hadn’t really thought about it over the years, had avoided doing so, but he supposed his hope had been that his father-the most honourable man he knew-had simply assumed his younger son had died, perhaps in the woods the day he saved the sub-prefect’s party.
That would have been easier in many ways.
This letter was hard.
Not to offer judgment. His father was not a man who judged, but declining to do so carried so much courtesy and restraint. Daiyan was sitting in an inn near the river on a spring night and he was seeing his father in his mind. He tried not to do that, most of the time.
A decent, virtuous man, dutiful to ancestors, family, gods, the empire-and his son was one of the outlaws of the marsh. Which meant robbing people, perhaps killing them. It did mean killing them.
I wish you well, son, and will think of you.
He drank a great deal that night in Chunyu as a bright moon rose. You made mistakes when you drank too much, let yourself become melancholy, wander in memories.
Ziji said it was a bad idea, but he’d insisted on leaving the inn, disdaining the girls there and going to the singing girl house. Those could be dangerous: merchants might be there, guarded, officers from the barracks, officials en route to somewhere or other across Kitai.
Daiyan had taken one of the prettiest girls to a room and had been cursory with her, an unhappy lovemaking. She had not complained: the girls were trained not to complain. And he was young, a well-made man. What felt harsh and angry to him was probably an ordinary encounter for her. He was even a somewhat important man, in his way.
Because it turned out she knew who he was.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m a fool.”
“Tonight you are,” Ziji said, quietly. He was undisturbed, almost amused. It was a strength of the man, given where they were just then. “What was in that letter?”
He wasn’t ready to answer, but he wasn’t drunk any more, at least. Fleeing for your life in a strange town could sober a man. It was cold, middle of the night, that too-bright moon shining. They were crouched in a laneway against a stone wall, out of the moonlight. He’d left his cloak behind in the bedroom. There’d been no time to do more than throw on tunic and trousers, thrust bare feet into boots. His hair was unpinned, he had no hat.
“We need to kill that girl,” he said.
“It’ll be done. A word to our friend at the inn. But not yet.”
It did need to be done, to send a necessary message about informing on bandits, but tonight that would mean finding her, and she was not going to be easily found right now. Not after alerting the barracks that one of the leaders of the outlaws of the marsh was in Chunyu.
The more pressing issue was not being found themselves.
He wondered what would have happened had he paid her generously in advance, been amusing and considerate. Asked her to play the flute for him, praised her music, said she was lovely enough to be in Jingxian, Shantong, Hanjin itself.
Would she still have turned him in for a reward?
There were consequences, almost always, for what you did or failed to do in life. He believed that. Fate could play a role, and chance, but your choices and decisions mattered.
Mattered to someone else, too. He might get Ziji killed tonight, not just himself. A meaningless death in a meaningless town. Before anything at all was achieved.
That angered him. Fro
m childhood, when he was still Little Dai, anger had been useful for him. He thought of his father’s letter, folded in his trousers.
“How many soldiers?” he asked quietly.
They had gone out the window of the room where the girl had left him sleeping. A jump down into an alley, something done so often. You could spend time thinking about a life where this was a common activity.
Ziji had been awake earlier, still downstairs, listening to the music, drinking cautiously. He had seen the girl Daiyan had gone up with walk down the stairs and out. A little quickly, he’d thought.
He’d strolled out the door a short time later. Had been in the street beyond the lamplight when he heard the murmur and march of approaching soldiers.
“About twenty, at a guess,” he said.
Daiyan swore under his breath. They weren’t mystical bandits of legend, the two of them, and they had only knives. Their weapons were in a wood east of town. With his bow he could have …
“They think it is just me,” he said.
“We walked in there together. I’m not leaving, don’t waste the words.”
Another thing about Ziji … he knew what Daiyan was thinking, sometimes too quickly.
“There are more than twenty,” someone else said.
Both men stood up quickly, ready to run, or attack. But they’d also heard the timbre of the voice.
A child, a boy of about nine or ten, stepped into moonlight from beside a gate in the wall across the lane. He’d been in shadow, too, and surprisingly silent. These two men were extremely good at detecting people. They hadn’t seen or heard him.
Daiyan stared. Small child, torn tunic, bare feet. They had killed children this young once or twice, not intentionally.
He cleared his throat. “How many more?” he asked, his voice low. Ziji checked up and down the street. The moon was much too bright, close to full. The clouds and rain of before were gone.
“Maybe two hundred,” the boy said. He, too, spoke quietly.
“There are soldiers in town tonight, my sister says. They are marching west. Stopped here on the way. I heard someone sent back to get them.”
“What were you doing listening?”
The boy shrugged.
“They’ll block the ways out of town,” Ziji muttered.
“I think so,” the boy agreed. “Will they kill you?”
A brief silence. They listened. There was a shout from somewhere to the north, then it was cut off, as if on orders.
“Yes,” said Daiyan. “They will.”
“Are you outlaws?”
A hesitation. “Yes,” he said.
“Are you heroes?”
That he hadn’t expected. Another pause.
“Not yet,” he said.
Ziji made a sound. Then added, “You had best go home. They may use arrows, and arrows can miss.”
“I can help you,” said the boy.
The two men looked at each other.
“You can’t,” said Daiyan.
“You’re wrong,” said the boy.
Even in the circumstances, Daiyan found he had to suppress a grin. “No, I mean, we mustn’t let you. It will be bad for your family if you are seen with us.”
“My mother is dead and my father’s at the mine and hates soldiers. He wouldn’t mind my doing this. My sister might.”
“Your father is at the mine now?”
“Night watchman. He’s there every night.”
“Where’s your sister?” said Ziji, more practically.
Daiyan was fighting a sudden hilarity. They could easily be killed in this town, and a nine-year-old was offering to save them.
“Inside.” The boy gestured over his shoulder.
“Why would she mind?” Ziji asked carefully.
The child made a face. “She’s evil. Orders me around. Never lets me do anything.”
It became a little clearer. Daiyan said, “Your father’s away at night. He places her in charge?”
The boy shrugged again.
“She beats you if you go out?”
“Hah! Has to catch me first. And I know places she goes, and could tell Father, too.”
Daiyan looked up at the moon. The world put you in strange places sometimes, he was thinking.
“You know you are supposed to be afraid of us,” he said.
“Not afraid of anything,” the boy said.
It was all so strange. “Ghosts?” he asked.
“Maybe ghosts,” the boy admitted, after a moment.
Daiyan gazed at him. “You have a brother,” he said suddenly.
The boy stared, wide-eyed. Said nothing.
“He went into the woods?”
A long pause, then a curt nod.
There was a silence.
“How do you propose to help us?” Ziji rasped.
Sounds again, nearer, front of the house behind them, beyond the wall at their back. Running footsteps. Jingle of metal. A dog barked.
“We need to get out of the lane,” Daiyan said.
“Yes,” agreed the boy. “Come on.”
He opened the gate behind him. Neither man moved.
“Fuck,” said Zhao Ziji.
“You swore!” said the boy.
Daiyan laughed silently. Couldn’t help it. His mood tonight.
“Our best choice now,” he said.
Ziji nodded unhappily. They crossed the lane and went through the wooden gate. A small, moonlit yard.
Unfortunately, a young woman was standing there, a slender birch rod in her hand.
“Fuck,” said the boy.
Both men moved very fast.
Daiyan had the stick from her and her mouth covered hard with a hand before she could exclaim or react. He gripped her close from behind. Ziji swung the gate shut, bolted it, spun around, knife at the ready.
The woman twisted in Daiyan’s grasp. Anger, not fear. He could feel her trying to free herself, struggling to bite.
“Stop it!” he said, mouth to her ear. “Listen to me. Soldiers are looking to kill us. If you want to help them, I can’t release you. If you dislike the army, I can let you go.”
“No!” snapped Ziji. “We need to bind her.”
“Yes!” said her brother. “Tie her up! You see what she’s like?” He was looking at the birch rod.
Daiyan shook his head. Later he would decide it was partly because of her hair. She had red hair. You could see that even by moonlight.
You didn’t always make your decisions in life properly. You might try, but it didn’t always happen.
He let her go. He said, “I doubt we know your other brother, though we might, but imagine him being the one hunted tonight.”
“I’d happily see him killed,” she said.
Daiyan winced. But he registered that she didn’t run, or raise her voice.
“You see!” said her brother again.
“Pan, stop or I will beat you.”
“They won’t let you!”
“We will,” said Daiyan. “Especially if you don’t keep quiet.”
He was listening for sounds beyond the wall.
“Inside,” said the woman with red hair crisply. “We’ll still have to be quiet, they can hear us out front if they are there.”
She led the way into the house, which was dark except for the embers of a fire. One room, a raised platform to one side, with a curtain. Her space, most likely, with a brother and a father in here. Sometimes when a mother died life became difficult for a daughter, in many different ways.
She sat on the edge of this platform. There was one stool near the fire. She gestured. Neither man sat. Ziji went to the front of the room, towards the street. He looked out cautiously through the one window beside the door. Made a flat-hand gesture: no one there just now.
“The neighbour has a son works at the barracks. Can’t let her hear us,” said the girl.
“She’s a sneak and a spy,” agreed Pan.
“And what are you?” his sister snapped.
“He’s just a boy,” said Ziji, unexpectedly. “Doing what boys do.”
“As if you know anything about what he does,” she said.
“We are grateful,” said Daiyan, “to both of you.”
“And what’ll that mean, exactly?” she said coldly.
“Bian!” her brother exclaimed softly, shocked.
“No, it is a proper question,” Daiyan said. They were all whispering. Ziji stayed by th
e window, checking the street at intervals. “If we get away from here, you will not have cause to regret helping us.”
“That’s precise,” the girl said, and laughed.
Two interesting children, Daiyan thought. Well, one was a child. The other was of an age to be married, or nearly so.
“Your hair?” Ziji asked. An inconsequential question, but her appearance was hard to ignore.
She shrugged. She looked like her brother, doing that. “My mother’s ancestors came from the west. Sardia, we think. They had this hair, I’m told.”
“Sardia’s where the best horses used to come from,” Daiyan said.
“Is that so?” she said, no interest at all. “I heard singing girls. Red hair earns a price. That’s what he wanted me to be.”
“Who? Your brother?” Daiyan asked. Another picture coming clearer. He was entirely sober.
She stared at him in the near-dark, surprised. Then nodded.
“Not your father?”
She shook her head.
“This is a most enjoyable conversation, but we’ll all be killed if they start entering houses,” Ziji said. “We need a way out.”
“They’ll be circling the whole town,” Pan said, confidently. “I heard them say.”
“Two hundred aren’t enough to ring Chunyu,” Daiyan said. “Not with some of them also searching houses.” He thought for a moment, then explained what he wanted done …
They opened the door a crack and Pan was out. Even knowing he was there, the boy was barely visible, a shadow in the yard, then vaulting the wooden fence (not opening the gate) and gone in the night.
“He’s quick,” said Ziji.
“He’s impossible,” said his sister.
The two men looked at each other.
“I have no wine,” she said brusquely. Her posture had changed, she sat straighter, hands clasped in front of her.
Daiyan said softly, “We don’t need wine. If soldiers come, we’ll be out the back. You will not be linked to us. You need not fear … in any way.”
“What do you know of what I need to fear?”
No good answer to that.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
A belated realization coming home to him. These two-both of them-were sharp, clever, not the children of a watchman. “What did … has your father always been at the mine?”
She seemed to struggle with herself. Ziji was at the window, watching the street beyond the small front garden.
“He was a teacher,” she said. “They dismissed him and branded him when my brother went to the forest.”
She nodded, a barely visible movement.
“Why did your brother go?”
“He was recruited for the Flowers and Rocks. He fought the men who came to get him, broke the arm of one, and fled.”
“And they punished his father?” Ziji asked, from the window.
“Of course they did,” she said. “Branded his forehead in the town square. Father of a criminal.”
Daiyan said, “Your … your little brother said you like the soldiers.”
She sighed. Her name was Bian, he remembered.
“He doesn’t have to feed us,” she said. “He’s a child. I talk to some of them at the market. Sometimes we get tea or rice from one or another.” She looked at Daiyan, added, “I don’t do anything else for it.”
He cleared his throat. He was wishing for wine now, actually. He sat down on the stool.
“I only asked because you, both of you are very … are …”
“We are not terrified peasants? Thank you so much,” she said. He heard Ziji laugh softly.
He cleared his throat again. The silence grew uncomfortable. He said, “I’ve heard the horses from Sardia were the best in the world in the old days.”
“So you said. How interesting. I shall make certain to tell my father when he comes home after walking twenty li, before he falls asleep.”
“Soldiers!” said Ziji.
Daiyan stood quickly. “All right. We go out the back. Bian, you’ll have to bolt the gate behind us. Thank you for trying.”
“Stay where you are,” she said. “They won’t be searching houses in the middle of the night. Keep quiet,” she added.
Then she went to the door, opened it, and stepped outside.
“What’s all this?” she called out. “What’s happening?”
“Shao Bian? Is that you?”
“Who else would it be, Dou Yan? What is happening?”
Daiyan and Ziji could see nothing, out of sight towards the back of the room.
“Two outlaws of the marsh!” the soldier shouted. “We’re hunting them down!”
“An adventure,” Bian said dryly.
“Miss Bian,” another voice called, “shall we come visit with you instead?” Daiyan heard laughter.
“Of course!” she called back. “All of you, bring friends. Bring the outlaws, too!”
More laughter, a different tone.
“She can handle them,” Ziji murmured.
“Dou Yan, listen,” they heard her saying. “My brother is out there somewhere, chasing excitement. If you find him, beat him and send him back to me.”
“Find that one? Better chase a cat in a tree,” a different soldier called. Laughter again, perhaps four or five of them, then a snapped order from a distance. They heard the soldiers swear and begin moving on.
Bian stayed outside the open door. A moment later both men startled as a shadow slipped past her like a ghost.
“See?” said Pan. “She told them to beat me!”
His sister followed him in and closed the door.
“I think she gave them a reason why you might be out there,” Ziji said prosaically.
“You don’t understand a thing about her!” Pan sniffed.
“Talk,” said Daiyan. “What did you see?”
The one-time teacher who now guarded a mine at night had raised remarkable children, he was thinking. It wasn’t their concern, however. He and Ziji needed to get out of Chunyu, and then they needed to …
And it was in that instant that he realized what else he needed to do. It was, in the strangest way, as clear and compelled as the moment he’d left a path in the far west, near home, and walked into the forest.
He would be able to name this moment, later, with precision: a night-dark springtime house in a north-of-the-river town, standing beside a clever, red-headed young woman and a quick, wild child, and Ziji.
© Guy Gavriel Kay