Authors: Jeff Stone
Tags: #General, #Speculative Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Sports & Recreation, #Asia, #Historical, #Martial Arts
alt!” a voice commanded as soon as LoBak stepped through HaiZhe's back door. “Who goes there?”
ShaoShu thought from the bottom of the basket.
Have we been found out already?
“It is the apothecary,” LoBak replied. “I am here to administer Warlord HaiZhe's treatment.”
“You're late,” the guard said. “I'd advise you to watch your step next time. You know how he is about keeping schedules.”
“Yes, sir,” LoBak replied.
ShaoShu felt LoBak begin to walk again, and he shifted his contorted body until he could peer out of a tiny gap in the basket's tightly woven sides. He
saw that they were in a wide corridor lit with small oil lanterns similar to the lanterns outside. LoBak weaved through numerous hallways, and they passed two more guard stations before stopping in front of a gigantic mural that stretched as far down the corridor as ShaoShu could see. Thousands of meticulously painted jellyfish swarmed the walls, their swaying limbs stinging everything in their path with emotionless ferocity. His nose twitched. This was a very bad place.
LoBak pressed his hand against a particularly large jellyfish, and a section of the wall swung open. There was no way ShaoShu would have found that alone. He thanked the heavens for LoBak.
“Do you know what time it is?” asked a gruff voice from within the next room.
“Sorry I'm late, sir,” LoBak replied, walking through the opening and closing the secret door behind him. “I sent word, and I hoped that you would be notified. I had to make your preparation twice. Also, I've learned of a new treatment you might want to consider. It took me a while to find just the right elements.”
“I am content with my current treatment,” HaiZhe grumbled.
“I will administer that as well, sir,” LoBak said, knocking against the canteen strung around his neck. “I'll bring it over to you.”
ShaoShu felt LoBak shrug the basket off his back and place it on the floor. From this new angle,
ShaoShu had a clear view of HaiZhe sitting behind a large desk. He didn't look like he had any sort of disability, appearing as healthy as any man could. He was perhaps fifty-five years old and had a head full of thick white hair, wide powerful shoulders, and rather large arms. Strapped to each of his upper arms was a holster, and in each holster was a pistol. By ShaoShu's account, none of this added up to the nickname “Jellyfish.”
LoBak placed the canteen on HaiZhe's desk and opened it. HaiZhe took several long drinks of the steaming liquid, then looked over at the basket.
“What's in there?”
“Cypress boughs,” LoBak replied. “That is the new treatment. I've just spoken with a colleague who swears that sleeping on them improves circulation.”
“Let me take a look.”
“No, no,” LoBak replied, hurrying back to the basket. “I'll get them for you. They are rather large and awkward, and—”
“I will do it myself!” HaiZhe snapped. “Do you think me incapable?”
HaiZhe pushed his chair away from the desk and leaned sideways, disappearing from view. A moment later, he reappeared on the floor, on his stomach. He crawled toward the basket using only his hands and upper body, his withered legs dragging behind him like wet noodles.
ShaoShu shuddered. He felt bad for HaiZhe.
As HaiZhe neared, ShaoShu turned his eyes away
from the gap in the basket and held his breath. He heard HaiZhe grunt, and the lid flew off the basket. ShaoShu felt the branches being lifted off of him, followed by the saw.
“What is this?” HaiZhe asked, shaking the saw so hard its metal blade sang out. “You know better than to bring a weapon into my inner sanctum.”
“Sorry, sir,” LoBak replied. “I suppose I didn't consider it a threat against anything except trees. I won't let it happen again.”
“Don't get smart with me,” HaiZhe warned. He threw the saw back into the basket, and the impact caught ShaoShu by surprise. He managed to remain silent, but his mouse let out a tiny squeak.
ShaoShu held his breath.
Nothing happened. HaiZhe coughed with an authoritative dismissal and dragged himself away with the cypress boughs in tow.
ShaoShu breathed easy again.
“I should like to set those up for you,” LoBak called after HaiZhe.
“I will do it myself.”
“With all due respect, sir,” LoBak said, “I have knowledge concerning the correct placement. At least let me check to make sure they're arranged properly.”
“You certainly are a pest,” HaiZhe replied. “But your judgment is usually sound. I will summon you once I am finished. Wait here until you are called. Be prepared to spend the night, too. If this new
treatment interferes with my sleep, I plan to beat you with the main ingredients.”
ShaoShu heard a door open and then close. The next instant, the blanket was lifted and LoBak was standing over him with a worried look on his face. ShaoShu suddenly didn't feel bad for HaiZhe anymore.
“I'm really sorry,” ShaoShu whispered as he stood and stretched. “I hope HaiZhe doesn't beat you.”
“He won't,” LoBak replied. “The cypress bough treatment is authentic. I've been meaning to have him try it for some time.”
ShaoShu glanced about HaiZhe's private office. He expected to see opulent surroundings, but the only furnishings were the large desk and chair and several oil lanterns along the walls to provide light in the windowless room. The only decoration was another jellyfish mural that marked the secret door. There were also two regular doors, one of average size across the room to ShaoShu's right and a larger one to his left, in a corner.
“I have to be honest with you,” LoBak whispered. “I don't like the way things are shaping up. I am not sure I can get you back out of here in that basket.”
“That's okay,” ShaoShu said. “I didn't want to have to squeeze in there again, anyway. I can find my own way out.”
“That is easier said than done. The hidden door we used to get in here is the only way in or out.” LoBak pointed to the small door. “That one leads to
HaiZhe's private living quarters, while the larger one leads to the warehouse's weapons wing. Neither space has any windows or additional doors. I should never have brought you here.”
“I'll be fine,” ShaoShu said. “I'll just hide with the weapons and climb into something that is being loaded out. Are you sure everything passes through that one door?”
“Positive. HaiZhe believes it is more secure that way. Only his most trusted men are allowed to load and unload the stock, and the door is rigged with a trap that only he knows how to disarm.”
“I heard about the trap. I think—”
“LoBak!” HaiZhe called out from behind the small door. “Get in here and perform your inspection! I have work to do yet tonight.”
LoBak's expression changed to one of genuine concern, and ShaoShu whispered, “I'll be okay. Tell Hok and Ying I'll see them soon.”
LoBak mouthed, “Good luck,” and he headed for HaiZhe's private quarters. Once LoBak entered and closed the door behind him, ShaoShu carefully approached the larger door in the opposite corner.
The large door was hung so that it swung away from HaiZhe's office, into the weapons wing. It had been left slightly ajar, as if tempting a passerby to peek through it. ShaoShu looked high and low but saw no sign of trip wires. He reached up and took a small lantern from the wall, playing the flickering flame across the corner while watching from one side. In the
sidelight, the silk threads showed themselves. They were woven together about two paces in front of the door, with only a small narrow space left open along the floor that no normal person could possibly pass through.
ShaoShu, however, was far from normal. He memorized the layout of the trip wires nearest the floor, then hung the lantern back on the wall. He dropped to the ground in front of the web and lay down on his back, taking several deep breaths before exhaling forcefully to deflate his chest. He turned his head to one side and slid headfirst beneath the web, pushing with his feet.
His upper body made it through. Once his waist cleared, ShaoShu sat up and wiggled backward on his butt until his legs were through, too. Sitting up, he carefully peeked through the open door and saw that the cavernous space beyond was dimly lit with lanterns on the walls. He scanned the weapons wing as best he could and didn't see anyone.
ShaoShu took a deep breath and stood, keeping well clear of the trip wires. He gave the large door a gentle push, and it swung open easily and silently on well-oiled hinges. He slipped inside, nudging the door back toward its original position. Unfortunately, the door moved far too easily. Before ShaoShu could react, it closed completely with a barely audible
He grabbed the handle and tried to open it, but it was locked.
There was no turning back now. Hopefully, no one would notice that the door had closed.
It took a few moments for his eyes to fully adjust to the dim light, but when they did, ShaoShu's mouth dropped open in awe.
Along one entire side of the wing, barrels of gunpowder and crates of shot were stacked in organized piles, many reaching the ceiling. Mounds of wadding and stacks of ramrods formed a neat barrier between the gunpowder and the weapons themselves, aligned along the opposing wall. The armaments were sectioned off into distinct groups that made sense even to ShaoShu. The huge room was filled to capacity with every type of musket, cannon, and pistol he had ever seen. There were many devices he didn't recognize, though their numerous powder burns and thick metal sides made it clear they were weapons of war. ShaoShu tried his best to make a mental image of everything he saw.
Like LoBak had said, this room had no windows and only one door. Beside the door stood a desk, upon which rested four scrolls. ShaoShu walked over and opened one. He guessed it was some sort of inventory list. Rows of writing corresponded with columns of numbers, filling the entire page. As he turned it over in his hands, he smiled. This was exactly what he was looking for.
His happiness was short-lived, however. On the far side of the door, ShaoShu heard voices. He leaned his ear to it and listened as two guards debated whether they should interrupt HaiZhe about some tiny footprints
they had found beneath a small evergreen behind the warehouse. One of them noticed that the weapons wing door was closed, and as they discussed whether this was noteworthy, ShaoShu decided he needed to find a way out of there immediately. He shoved the inventory scrolls into his sash and raced away from the door, keeping to the wall nearest the armaments.
More than halfway down the length of the wall, ShaoShu nearly stumbled over a small barrel of gunpowder that someone must have misplaced. It should have been on the opposite side of the room, but it gave him an idea. Lei had once shown him and the soldiers how to make a bomb with nothing more than a barrel of gunpowder and a fuse. It was easy. What's more, he realized that with a little bit of effort, he might be able to blast a hole in the wall and make it look like an accident.
ShaoShu nudged the small barrel against the wall below one of the lanterns and reached up, lifting the lantern's protective glass. He blew out the flame, took the lantern off the wall, and laid it on top of the barrel. He wanted to make it look as if the lantern had fallen and ignited the misplaced barrel of powder. He had no idea what would remain of the lantern or the barrel, but he hoped there would be enough clues left for HaiZhe to believe what he wanted him to believe.
ShaoShu found two short sections of slow match nearby, and he uncorked the barrel. He carefully set
one piece of slow match into the gunpowder keg, then walked over to a different lantern and set the second section of slow match alight. His hands shaking, ShaoShu headed back to the barrel. He lit the first piece of slow match, dropped the second one, and ran.
The barrel exploded with unbelievable force a few moments after ShaoShu took cover behind a massive cannon. Even with the big gun protecting him, he was rocked back on his heels. Thick smoke filled his lungs, and he waved it frantically away, trying not to cough. He gazed over at the wall and saw a small hole and several deep cracks in the brickwork at floor level. An adult could never fit through that opening, but he could.
ShaoShu headed for the hole, wriggling through it as HaiZhe began to shout orders from the opposite side of the large door. ShaoShu hit the ground running outside and checked his sash. The scrolls were still there, as was his mouse's pouch. He glanced around and saw that he'd exited on the front side of the building. He expected to encounter guards, but they'd all left their posts. They were flooding into the main entrance, shouting to one another about the explosion. They had no idea he was there.
ShaoShu considered trying to find LoBak's apothecary shop to see Hok and Ying, but through the ringing in his ears, he heard Tonglong's men shouting to
him from the riverfront. He looked over and saw them gesturing excitedly. They wanted to leave.
One of Tonglong's soldiers raised a musket in his direction. It was a threat. Hok and Ying would have to wait. He hurried into the boat and nestled himself beneath an old tarpaulin, and the men shoved off.