The Captain of Chi Lung - part two

Fiction By LoriAnn // 8/8/2009

 

Part II
 
The present Lei sat up wearily, rubbing at an itching cut on her forehead. She needed to move on, she knew. An injured, blinded woman would be easy prey to anyone who wished to harm her; and at the moment, she didn’t really feel like fighting back.
Slowly, ever so painfully, Lei got to her feet and began to stumble forward again. She had a staff, a long cane of light wood that she had picked up somewhere along the way – she couldn’t remember where, now. With it, she could feel most of the obstacles in her path, unless she wasn’t paying attention.
The pain in her face was constantly getting worse – it had been for days. The poison from the thorns caused her cheeks and lips to swell up, and made it painful to eat or drink – not that she had eaten or drunk anything but water in what seemed like weeks. Lei licked her parched and fever-hot lips, longing for a long, sweet draft of water from Hang Po’s fresh spring. At this point, she thought cynically, even a drink from a donkey’s trough would be welcome. She remembered the tart, ripe blueberries from the mountainside and sighed. What she wouldn’t give…
 
 
Her father had been distracted by a late customer, fortunately, when Lei arrived home from her astonishing trip in the woods. Before he had left his shop, she was clean and dressed in better clothes, and pouring the tea for their dinner, as though she had never been gone.
Fa Shau the shoemaker was a quiet, sturdy sort of man, as dry as the leathers he worked with, and as firm as his grip on the hammer when he was making a pair of shoes for an important client. But he loved his daughter, and had cared for her in every way since his wife had died of fever years ago, before they had moved to Hang Po. He worried about her too much, Lei privately thought, but it was well meant.
The villagers of Hang Po often told Fa Shau that his daughter looked very much like him, with her thick black hair and slender almond eyes. He laughed when they said it, but personally thought that Lei looked more like her mother. Fa Bet had been a great beauty – dark-golden eyes; smooth, bronzed skin; dainty features – but as the villagers had never known his wife, Fa Shau said nothing.
He now gave a contented little sigh and sank down on the thick cushions beside the table. Taking the tea that Lei offered him, he sniffed the fragrant steam appreciatively.
“Ah, my daughter,” he said, sipping the hot drink. “You are growing up so quickly into a lovely young maiden.” He lifted his eyebrows in mock-suggestion. “Are there any young men I should be keeping an eye on?”
Lei laughed. “No, Father. The only man I love is drinking tea with me now.” The strange prisoner in the woods was almost forgotten as she exchanged this nightly banter with her father. Hatuka Feng seemed like nothing more than an odd dream. Still, she ventured to ask Fa Shau;
“Father, have you ever heard of someone named Chu Min?”
Fa Shau looked up at her sharply. “Where did you hear that name? Has Heij been telling ghost stories down at the square again?”
“No,” Lei shook her head. “I just…heard it somewhere. The market, I think.” She felt guilty for lying to her father, but how could she explain Hatuka Feng? Besides, the strange young man had asked her not to tell anyone about him. “I had never heard the name before, and wondered who they were talking about.”
Fa Shau relaxed into his cushions and sipped the tea. “Well, now…” he said. “Chu Min is sort of an old fireside tale they used to tell when I was a child – I’ve tried not to let you hear them, because they were very bloodthirsty tales, and I had no wish to give you nightmares. You are old enough to not be frightened now, I supposed.”
Lei nodded and began to serve the thick stew she had prepared for dinner. Fa Shau nodded to himself and took another drink of tea.
“Chu Min was once a royal lady in the court of Chi Lung,” he said. “Or so the story goes. She was supposedly a great beauty. But she was vain and vicious and hated the other women who were more beautiful than she, and plotted ways to humiliate them and drive them back to their own estates.”
The stew was hot and spicy, and Fa Shau took a moment to wash it down with a bite of bread. “I can’t remember the exact story – it seems like there might have been several, you’d have to ask Heij for the details – but somehow, Chu Min got caught out in her schemes by none other than the emperor himself. Some say that a prophet of H’su told him about her malevolent ways.”
Lei chewed slowly, watching her father. He had a wonderful story-telling voice, and the shadows flickering on the wall from the fireplace almost seemed to take the forms of a beautiful, proud, cold woman; with the tall pillars and high walls of the Imperial Palace surrounding her.
“He exiled her, the emperor did – this was a long time ago, too, when the emperor had more power – and he decreed that if she ever wished to return to her life at court, she would change her ways and bring some sort of proof. And that’s where the story gets both strange and…unpleasant.” Fa Shau shook his head. “Some say that Chu Min simply vanished, and nothing that followed had anything to do with her. Some say that she was driven insane by her rage and jealousy. And some claim that she was really a witch, and laid an everlasting curse on the emperor and the city of Chi Lung. Either way, soon after she had left, there was a string of nasty murders among the courtiers.” He gave his daughter a sideways glance. “I’ll spare you the details. Though be sure that my older brother was not so kind when he told the tales to me.”
Lei grinned. She had only met Uncle Fa Shi once, but she remembered that he took special pleasure in tormenting his younger brother Shau.
“Anyway, the murders were blamed entirely on Chu Min, since it seemed that all of her worst enemies were the ones to be targeted. And after that, it got even worse. The emperor’s eldest son went missing, and never returned. Many thought that he had just run away, or had been kidnapped by one of the country’s many enemies. But when the second son vanished, and then one of the courtier’s sons, and after that a regular rash of missing young men – people began to fear that Chu Min was still working her revenge; and one worse than they could have dreamed.”
Fascinated, Lei forgot about the bite of stew that she had scooped up. “What happened?”
Fa Shau shrugged. “Nothing. The young men never returned, and Chu Min was never heard from again. Except, of course, in the ever-growing terror stories told about her. My brother loved to tell one about how she had made a pact with the wraith-world so that she could live for as long as it took to complete her revenge. Something about a mirror that held her soul.”
“A mirror?”
“Because she was so vain, I suppose. Symbolism and all that. My brother said that she fed her prisoners to the wraiths that kept her young.”
Shivering with a chill that wasn’t entirely from the mountain night-air, Lei changed the subject and finished her stew in thoughtful silence, while Fa Shau chatted animatedly.
 
 
She kept her promise to Hatuka Feng, and managed to leave the house the next morning with little difficulty. It was summer, and Fa Shau was used to his daughter going out to pick berries and savory herbs to add to their table or transplant to her own garden.
“Feng?” Lei called as she hurried into the mossy clearing with the rock. “Are you there?”
There was no answer, and for a moment, Lei wondered if she had only imagined meeting the young captain. But then his voice came from under the rock.
“Yes! Is that you, Fa Lei?”
She knelt down beside the rock and laughed a little at the oddness of this conversation. “Do you realize how strange this seems?” she asked. “Anyone who walked up would think that I was talking to a rock – and that the rock was talking back!”
Hatuka Feng chuckled, a low, warm chuckle that sounded like sunshine and golden fields on an autumn day. “It’s even stranger for me – all I can see of you is your knees. Lovely skirt, by the way.”
Lei stroked the blue fabric. “Thank you, it was my mother’s.” she was silent for a moment. “Hatuka Feng,” she said, hesitating slightly.
“Please, call me Feng.”
She smiled. “Then you must call me Lei.”
“Very well. Now, did you have a question?”
“Yes.” She thought a second, of how to phrase it. “Can you…can you tell me your story now?”
Feng hummed, just as Fa Shau did before answering a question of price from a client. “If you have the time today, I can.”
Lei settled comfortably onto the ground. “I have time. And I’m curious – it’s not every day you meet a man imprisoned under a rock. Not outside of fireside tales, anyway.”
“Very well.” Feng paused, as if to gather his thoughts. “I asked you yesterday if you knew anyone who called herself Chu Min. Now I ask you; have you ever heard the story of Chu Min?”
“Yes,” Lei answered. “My uncle used to tell it to my father when they were boys.” She refrained from adding that she had only heard the tale herself the night before.
“I doubt if they knew the whole tale. See, the fact is, it was a true story. Chu Min really was exiled by the emperor, and she really did murder a few of the court women before hitting on the idea of kidnapping some of the highborn boys. Worse yet – do you know the part about Chu Min striking a bargain with the underworld?”
Lei didn’t like where this was going. “Yes…”
Feng laughed a grim, mirthless laugh. “Chilling, isn’t it? But that part is true too. Trust me on this – I know.”
“How?”
“The kidnappings still happen,” he said simply.
Lei sucked in a sharp breath of air. “But it’s been hundreds of years - and we never hear anything about it!”
“No one talks about it. They hush it up, and make excuses for why this or that prince or duke or lordling is never seen again. He became a hermit – that’s a favorite, or My sister’s family on the other side of the mountain took him in, or He’s off to see the world – though if that one were true, everyone would know, because there would be a big sending-off party and speeches and…” Feng sounded disgusted. “It’s like an open secret. Everyone in Chi Lung’s court knows what really happened to them, but no one talks about it. And they all know what has happened, as soon as anyone makes up such pathetic excuses, but they just shake their heads and go on with their lives.”
“How can they keep something this important from us?” Lei wondered, half-unbelieving of Feng’s fantastic claims.
He gave a snort. “There are many things that the court keeps from the people it rules over, Fa Lei. This is just one of the larger secrets.”
“But how do you know that it’s all true?” Lei asked, still dubious.
“Let’s just say that it’s hard to see the world from under a rock, when your only company is the woman who appears once a month to gloat over you,” Feng said bitterly.
“You mean – this Chu Min put you here?” Lei knew she sounded disbelieving – but really! On the other hand, why else would there be a young man under a rock in the middle of the forest?
“Yes. She snatched me from by own bed, I think; the last thing I remember is going to bed in my own home. Then I was here, and this horrible vulture of a woman was standing over me and cackling like a hen.”
Lei shuddered. “I should go,” she said, standing up. “She might come back.”
“No!” Feng sounded helpless again. “She only comes once a month, on the night of the new moon. That’s weeks off yet – please stay.”
“But if I go now, I can bring back my father, and some other men, and they can dig you out of there.” Lei made up this plan then and there – but it seemed smart enough.
“We would all die, I’m almost certain,” Feng said in a low voice. “Once before, we found one of the boys Chu Min had taken. She was keeping him inside an enchanted tree that was like a small hovel inside. When the men who found him tried to chop the tree down, terrible pains seized them, and several perished on the spot.”
“How powerful is this Chu Min, then?” Lei asked, trying to keep the tremors out of her voice.
“She has lived a thousand years and stolen away more than three hundred young men and boys. She has never been caught, found, or defeated, and no amount of guarding has kept anyone safe. She can do whatever she pleases – this is how powerful she is.” He sounded bleak. “The court wise men say there’s a way to defeat her and her wraiths, someone who will “be willing to go” – that’s the phrase they always use. But no one I’ve ever heard of has any idea what it means.”
Lei sank back down to her knees, and peered under the rock, meeting Feng’s bright gaze. “Don’t despair, Feng,” she said.
He turned his eyes away, and refused to look at her.
“I’ll come back,” Lei said firmly, standing and brushing pine needles and dust off her skirt.
“You’re leaving?”
“Yes, for today.” She didn’t give him a chance to protest. “I promise, Feng. I’ll come back as often as I can – maybe not every day, but often enough. And we’ll get you out of there somehow. Maybe I’ll even be able to find out about this someone who is “willing to go”, or however you said it.”
He didn’t answer, and Lei suddenly wished that she could see his face. Was he angry? Disappointed in her? Afraid? Or perhaps worse – hopeful?
“Alright,” he said at length. “I’ll see you soon, Lei. Just remember,” he added, as she turned to go. “Don’t tell anyone about me, and don’t come during the new moon. Even if you somehow figure out what that old saying means – I don’t want you in jeopardy.”
Lei nodded, before remembering that he couldn’t see her. “I’ll remember. And I promise that I’ll find out about all this. Goodbye for now, Feng.”
He didn’t say anymore, and Lei left the clearing with the stone quickly, anxious to get home and find out more; but looking over her shoulder with every other nervous step.

 

Comments

Finally, chapter two is up! I

Finally, chapter two is up! I love it, and the whole story so far. Though I must confess that I don't quite see the connection to Rapunzel...

Annabel | Thu, 09/10/2009

How is this different than

How is this different than the original I got to see?

Julie | Thu, 09/10/2009

Formerly Kestrel

Seems like you switched the

Seems like you switched the positions of the guy and gal from Rapunzel, that's what I'm getting out of it anyway. It does seem very dark and creepy. *shiver* Like Ted Dekker writing fairy tales. But your writing has this natural hook on it, grabbing hold of readers and not letting them go.

Heather | Fri, 09/11/2009

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*
And now our hearts will beat in time/You say I am yours and you are mine...
Michelle Tumes, "There Goes My Love"

Woah...

I'm not sure why this got posted - maybe Mr. Ben just decided to go with it? I really have edited it, and plan to change it soon...but I haven't been online and haven't had the chance.

It ends happy, though.

LoriAnn | Fri, 09/11/2009