Authors: Jeff Stone
Tags: #General, #Speculative Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Sports & Recreation, #Asia, #Historical, #Martial Arts
Tonglong froze, and ShaoShu saw a small boatload of Round Eyes approaching through the smoky darkness. With all of Tonglong's men aboard their ship, these sailors were attempting a sneak attack.
The small boat thumped against the warship's stern, and a Round Eye reached up, taking hold of the much higher stern rail. He began to climb up the side of the ship, and Tonglong ran toward him. With a flash of silver, Tonglong unsheathed his straight sword and lopped off both of the man's hands. The Round Eye screamed and splashed into the water.
ShaoShu watched with wide eyes as a second Round Eye stood in the small boat, pointing a musket at Tonglong.
“Hey!” someone shouted from the deck, and ShaoShu saw Lei appear behind Tonglong with a pistol in each hand. He fired one, striking the Round Eye, and the man toppled out of the boat.
A third Round Eye stood, raising a pistol.
Lei fired his second pistol, and this Round Eye fell backward into the small boat, his unfired pistol dropping into the water.
Oddly, Tonglong staggered wildly, and he, too, toppled over unconscious, onto the deck. Confused,
ShaoShu stared at him and saw that one of his cheeks and his ear on that side of his face were badly powder-burned. Also, the collar of his robe was on fire. Lei's second pistol had discharged right next to Tonglong's head, and the concussion had knocked him out while the blast had ignited his robe.
Lei dropped to his knees and patted Tonglong down, quickly extinguishing the flames. Then he did a curious thing. He looked around to make sure he was alone; then he snapped the cord Tonglong wore around his neck, slipping the special key into one of his holsters.
ShaoShu curled up as tightly as he could in the rigging, hoping Lei wouldn't see him, when he saw that there was one more Round Eye still in the small boat. The Round Eye pushed his fallen comrade off of himself, climbed over the rail, and leaped onto the deck, a long sword in one hand.
“Lei, look out!” ShaoShu cried.
Lei's expression changed to one of genuine surprise as he looked up to see the Round Eye charging toward him. Lei reached beneath his right pant leg, pulled out a small pistol, and fired.
The lead ball struck the Round Eye in the face, and he dropped to the deck.
Lei blew the smoke out of his pistol's short barrel and glared up at ShaoShu. He did not look happy. He pointed to the holster that held Tonglong's key, raised a finger to his lips as if to silence ShaoShu, then made a pretend pistol with his fingers, aiming it
at ShaoShu and dropping his thumb like a pistol's hammer.
ShaoShu got the message.
As he was trying to decide whether he should climb down, ShaoShu was nearly thrown from the rigging by a violent
A huge explosion tore through the side of the Round Eye's ship, and a fountain of water rose high into the air. The schooner began to sink instantly. Charles must have rigged an explosion inside the boat's hold, below the waterline. Soldiers began to jump into the water and swim back to Tonglong's man-o-war, and Round Eye sailors swam toward shore. The suction created by the sinking ship pulled many beneath the waves, and some, mostly soldiers, never resurfaced. Before ShaoShu could count to one hundred, the schooner had vanished.
The surviving soldiers flooded onto the warship's deck and began to cheer and sing. Their victory was complete, and they hadn't even had to call in the soldiers on the merchant vessels still waiting outside the cove.
Tonglong regained consciousness amid the festivities, with Lei at his side and a large group of men staring down at him. He did not look pleased. ShaoShu was still in the rigging, but he came down the moment Lei pointed up at him.
Tonglong ordered Lei and ShaoShu into his private cabin, and he took a seat behind his writing desk.
“Start talking, ShaoShu,” Tonglong said. “Last I
knew, Lei was questioning your loyalty and you were tied up in the hold. How did you escape?”
ShaoShu explained how his mouse had chewed through his ropes and how he untied LoBak when the battle began, because LoBak had said that they needed to go onto the deck in case the boat sank. ShaoShu then told how LoBak leaped overboard in the thick smoke of the warship's cannons to escape and how he chased after LoBak in order to report back to Lei what LoBak was up to. ShaoShu said that he saw LoBak climb onto the Round Eye's ship and begin talking with a girl and a teenager with a tattooed face when the three of them were killed by a wave of cannon blasts. ShaoShu finished the story by holding out the jade crane. “I climbed onto the Round Eye's boat to see if LoBak really was dead. I took this from the dead girl.”
Tonglong didn't look convinced. He took the crane and stared at it intently. “Why did you bring me this?”
“I actually took it for myself, sir. I like it. It's shiny. But you can have it, if you want.”
Tonglong's eyes narrowed. “Do you know the name Hok?”
“I know the word, sir. It's a bird. A crane, like the one in your hand.”
“What about Ying?”
“Eagle, sir? I don't believe I've ever seen an eagle.”
Tonglong shook his head. “What did the teenager's tattooed face look like?”
“Kind of like a dragon, sir. It was hard to see with all the smoke.”
“Hmm,” Tonglong said. “You didn't intentionally help LoBak escape, did you, ShaoShu?”
ShaoShu shook his head.
“With all due respect, sir,” Lei said, “I would like to say that I no longer question ShaoShu's intentions. I know I had my suspicions, but he has recently proven himself to me. He saved my life and quite possibly yours, too.”
“How so?” Tonglong asked.
“The Round Eyes who came over in the small boat—one of them nearly succeeded in taking my life with his sword, and being unconscious, you would surely have been next. ShaoShu warned me, giving me time to kill the foreigner.”
Tonglong gently touched the side of his powder-burned face and glared at ShaoShu. He sat back with the jade crane and reached for the cord that he'd been wearing around his own neck. When his fingers came up empty, he leaped to his feet, shouting, “My necklace! My key! It's gone!” He slammed his fist on the desk and scowled at ShaoShu and Lei.
Lei lowered his eyes. “With the utmost respect, sir, I do not know why you are glaring at me. I am not the thief in this room. I don't even know what key you're talking about.”
ShaoShu opened his mouth to object but quickly closed it again when he saw Lei discreetly form a pretend pistol behind his back and shoot him.
“Do you have something to say for yourself, Shao Shu?” Tonglong snapped.
“I was just going to ask if you wanted me to go look for it on the deck, sir,” ShaoShu said. “Maybe the flames that burned your collar also burned the cord that held the key.”
Tonglong paused, considering something. “That is a good idea, ShaoShu. Lei, spread the word among the men that I have lost a key. Offer a reward, then make preparations to set sail. The fight club championship is in two and a half days, and it will take us two full days to get there with the damage we have sustained. You don't want to miss your big chance to win it all, do you?”
“No, sir!” Lei said. “I'll get right to it.” He bowed and hurried out of the room.
Tonglong stared hard at ShaoShu, and ShaoShu did his best to hold Tonglong's gaze.
Never back down from a bully,
Tonglong pursed his lips. “I believe you, ShaoShu. If
ever question your loyalty, I will not tie you up in the hold. I will kill you. You know that, don't you?”
“Good.” Tonglong rubbed the side of his powder-burned face again and glanced at the spot where Lei had stood.
“When we arrive in Shanghai, I may have another job for you.”
wo days later, ShaoShu stepped onto the docks of Shanghai's wharf with mixed emotions. He was happy that he was in Tonglong's good graces and glad that he'd been able to steer clear of Lei since the attack, but he was sad that he had been separated from his friends once again. Perhaps he would make a new friend today in Golden Dragon. Tonglong wanted him to run an errand at the Shanghai Fight Club, and he hoped to be able to sneak away for a few moments and find Hok's older temple brother.
ShaoShu walked calmly away from the ship, and once he was out of sight of the deck, he raced through Shanghai's crowded streets at a dead run, following the directions Tonglong had given him. He arrived at
the fight club far sooner than anyone would have anticipated, and he planned to make the most of the extra time. His errand shouldn't take long at all—just to pick up some event posters—so every moment counted.
For years, ShaoShu had wanted to see inside a fight club, and after showing the guards at the front door a letter from Tonglong, he nearly squealed with delight when he stepped inside this one. It far exceeded his expectations.
The gigantic windowless space was perfectly round, with a floor that sloped steadily downward toward the circular pit arena at the room's very center. The fights wouldn't begin until that night, but already the club was alive with activity. Workers brushed final coats of fresh whitewash on the brilliant stone walls, and an army of carpenters swarmed the tiered seating levels, polishing the hundreds of tables and thousands of chairs until the shiny black lacquer was mirror smooth. Ornate tapestries hung from the ceiling rafters, and lanterns made of gold flickered from every direction on the walls. Of all the fight clubs in China, he had heard that Shanghai's was the most grand, and he believed it.
ShaoShu couldn't resist puffing out his chest and walking down one of the sloped aisles like an important person, traveling all the way to the edge of the pit arena. He leaned over the elaborate railing and peered down, and his already wide eyes nearly popped out of his head. It was far bigger and deeper than he'd imagined. The widest part of the circular pit was roughly
fifty paces across, and the brick walls lining it stood higher than four men standing atop each other. The floor was made of compacted dirt, and there was a single large wooden door that Tonglong had told him led to a series of tunnels beneath the fight club. That door was the only way into or out of the pit, and those tunnels were his current destination.
ShaoShu looked around, trying to figure out how to access the tunnels without jumping down into the pit, when the pit entry door swung open and someone entered the pit arena. It was Golden Dragon. ShaoShu recognized him from the posters plastered up and down Shanghai's streets. He had short black hair and a kind face, and he looked much younger in person than he did in the posters. His body, however, looked like it belonged on someone else entirely. He was shirtless, and taut muscles rippled across his shoulders and chest. He was wearing standard-issue silk army pants like Tonglong's soldiers, but his thick thighs and calves threatened to burst the seams with every step he took.
A second person entered the pit arena and closed the door behind him. This man was several years older than Golden Dragon, and larger. Where Golden Dragon was lean solid muscle, this man was burly. His forearms were larger than ShaoShu's thighs.
Both Golden Dragon and the big man began to stretch as though warming up for exercise. ShaoShu was more flexible than anybody he had ever met, but Golden Dragon impressed him. He stood on one leg
with his back straight and lifted his other leg high into the air with both knees locked. His legs were in a perfectly straight line, up and down, with one heel on the ground and the other heel pointed at the sky. That took not only flexibility, but also tremendous strength. ShaoShu couldn't even do it.
After some more impressive moves of flexibility and strength, Golden Dragon looked at the man and said, “Let's roll.”
“Remember to take it easy on me,” the big man replied. “We're just warming up for tonight.”
Golden Dragon nodded, then bowed. The man returned the bow, and they began to grapple.
ShaoShu took a seat next to the pit arena railing. Even though he was in a hurry, he wouldn't miss this for the world.
Within moments, it became clear that Golden Dragon, while smaller, was far superior. His fluid style and lightning-quick moves continuously left his opponent grasping at nothing but shadows. Golden Dragon soon seemed to grow bored, and in the blink of an eye, he slipped behind his opponent, jumped onto the man's back, and wrapped his legs around his midsection. Then he slid his right arm around in front of the man's neck, grasped his own right wrist with his left hand, and leaned backward.
The man choked loudly as Golden Dragon's elbow aligned with his Adam's apple, and then Golden Dragon bent his arm so that his elbow moved away from the big man's throat. The big man stopped choking, but
to ShaoShu's surprise, his face turned bright red and then purple, and an instant later, his eyes rolled back into his head and his body went limp.
Golden Dragon quickly dropped to his feet, supporting the much larger man and gently laying his opponent down on the pit arena floor. He checked the man's pulse.