The Missing Worlds - Middle Earth I
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.
Although China is our name for the country, they have always identified themselves as 中國 which means "the country in the middle of the universe," The name comes first from the assumption that they were the center of the world, and second from the understanding that they were exactly in the middle between Heaven and Hell; and so it has been rendered in this chapter title as "middle-earth."
"O great and enlightened Master Li," I said, "pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!"
"Take a large bowl," he said. "Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow 'Kan Pei' - which means 'dry cup' - and drink to the dregs."
"And then will I be wise?" I asked.
"Better," he said, "You will be Chinese."
-Barry Hughart, "Bridge of Birds."
In the neutral ground of the shop, they were all able to rest and relax. Fai's wounds proved shallow and healed quickly; soon none of them showed any worse signs of their last battle than a lingering soreness and colorful bruises. Kurogane had managed to re-equip himself with a spare pair of pants from the shop, and although the Witch had smirked, she hadn't even demanded additional payment for him. Within a few days, they were all rested and ready to move on to the next world.
The bigger problem was Syaoran. If he had been anxious leaving Sakura behind at the shop, he was nearly hysterical at the prospect of sending her out into possible danger without him. His objections grew increasingly erratic until Kurogane put a large hand on his shoulder and pulled him aside.
"Look, kid, things will be fine," he said gruffly. "You can count on me to protect the princess from any threats. And the wizard will be there to guide her in other ways. You can leave her in our hands."
"But she - " Syaoran started.
He leaned down towards Syaoran, drawing him in, and spoke in a quieter voice; "We will watch over her. Don't insult us by implying that just because we love her differently, means we love her any less."
Syaoran flushed scarlet, and looked down at the floor ashamedly. "I - I know," he said miserably. "It's just that -"
"It's just that you've built your entire world around her," Kurogane said, and Syaoran nodded. "I get that. But that's not her problem. It's yours."
Syaoran looked back up, eyes widening.
Kurogane looked to the side, his eyes distant-gazing. "When I served her, Tomoyo was the center of my universe," he said quietly. "But I wasn't the center of hers. I know that while I'm gone, her life continues... she has her own duties, her own pastimes, and other guards to watch over her." He was silent for a moment, then flashed a sharp, dangerous smile. "Even if none of them are as good as me."
"So what should I do?" Syaoran said in a low voice. His brows were drawn, his face troubled. Kurogane felt some sympathy for the kid.
He clapped him on the shoulder. "Accept that she can go a few days without you around," he said. "And that's good. That's how it should be."
Syaoran nodded, his chin wobbling a bit, and then it firmed. "Right," he said.
As soon as the travelers landed, a roar of voices and noise assaulted them from every side. More than noise; Kurogane staggered among a whirling blur of colors, shapes in vigorous movements, a hot solid wall of bodies that pushed and shoved at them from every direction and bawled obscene curses in cheerful voices when they would not move out of the way. A clamor beset him from every side, a cacophony filled with the sounds of humans, horses, baying geese, clanging metal, banging stone, high-pitched flutes, deep-voiced drums, jinging bells, sizzling fat, roaring flames and falling water. All of it, human and animal and metal and stone, with its own distinctive aura pressing down on him.
Every warrior instinct Kurogane owned kicked into high gear, paranoia jangled by the press of unknown people - possible enemies! - from every side and complete inability to hear or make out what was happening. He reached out long arms and grabbed the two shoulders nearest to him - skinny, at about chest-height and waist-height respectively, must be the mage and the princess - and dragged them bodily through the crowd towards the nearest wall, where they could be at least slightly out of the way, and have enough space to take a breath and look around.
It was evening, but the rising moon and fading skylight seemed remote amongst the press of the city. Buildings reared up on every side of them, peaked like waves with sharp-angled crenellations and curved, sloping roofs. They were not the tallest buildings the travelers had ever seen, but they crowded so tightly together it seemed as though removing one would cause all the rest to come toppling over. The upper stories leaned towards each other, or perhaps that was just an illusion generated by the multitude of wooden bridges and rope lines stretching from one window to another, stories off the ground.
The first story or two was built of rocks or bricks, close-fitted together and set with a sticky rice mortar, then sprouted smooth walls of wood and bamboo. All of it was painted over with a bright, cheerful orange-red, only the occasional doorway or lintel allowing the original dark color to show through. Countless lanterns hung from the eaves and balconies, crafted in a rainbow of colored papers in fanciful shapes; demons, dog heads, butterflies and dragons.
The streets were hard cobble, but they were hardly visible under the tramping feet of the crowd; indeed, hardly any of the street was left free between the rows of stalls and stages set up on either side. Food vendors wafted the smell of their produce hopefully into the crowd; other vendors whose wares were not so aromatic shouted at the top of their lungs for people to come, see, touch, buy; flowers and fans, cups and saucers, jewelry and bright-patterned silk clothing, charms and prayers, knives and scissors, brushes and combs, dogs and crickets and a thousand other sundries for sale.
Each of their brightly-patterned tents or sturdy wooden carts, however, had to battle for space with the platforms set up for a dozen varieties of entertainment. Dozens of watchers crowded around to cheer, jeer, and place bets on the games of dice, arm-wrestling, or some kind of card game played with tiles. Dancers and acrobats spun and leapt, lovely ladies with lutes or old men with pipes poured out competing melodies, while storytellers chanted on the corners. Kurogane was finally able to identify the noise that had called for his attention, three houses down, as a roped-off arena where a man and a woman armed with a pair of swords clashed furiously to the beat of a heart-tripping drum.
Beside him, Fai laughed. "Well, they certainly seem to be a lively sort of people, don't they?" he said in Kurogane's ear.
Kurogane would have smacked him if he could have gotten the elbow space free. Sakura reached out and tugged at the sleeve of a passing gentleman, with a long trailing mustache and a self-satisfied look about him. "Excuse me, Sir," she said, almost having to shout to make herself heard. "What is all this celebration about? Is there some kind of festival going on?"
"Eh? A festival? Of course not!" He stopped to look at her with an astonished expression. "Are you mad? What kind of a sad excuse for a festival would this be - no fireworks, no floats, no marching orchestras? No, this is just a normal market day."
"This is normal?" Kurogane said incredulously. He already had a splitting headache from the noise, and the press of bodies was making his muscles ache to draw Ginryuu and clear a path.
"Is this the first time you've been in Hangchow?" the man asked. His glance flickered to Fai's blond hair, and Sakura's cinnamon, and his face took on a condescending look. "From one of those far-off barbarian countries, eh?"
"You could say that," Fai said cheerily, gripping Kurogane's sleeve before he could punch the man.
"Well, you'll find things here are a bit more civilized than what you're used to. You're in the greatest city in the world now, after all." Giving them each a leisurely nod, he turned and began to walk off into the crowd. "Welcome to China," he called over his shoulder.
The little man sitting in front of them was unbelievably ancient. Kurogane could not help but stare at him in a sort of horrified fascination, wondering how anyone could possibly be so old and yet still live. The skin of his face was so creased by lines and wrinkles that it resembled a mud flat drying in the hot sun; it would be hard to make out the features of his face if not for the helpful delineation of several flying tufts of bone-white hair marking the location of his eyebrows, ears, mustache and beard.
His limbs were skinny and fragile-looking as a bird's, and when he moved they could practically hear the creaking and groaning of his joints. And yet the black eyes looked back at them out of the mass of wrinkles with a sharp glitter that warned of trouble, and his voice - though cracked and clouded with age - was firm and certain, betraying no hint of senility.
"Welcome to my office," he said in a brusque tone, waving around at the dimly-lit, incredibly cluttered study that surrounded them; all of the seats had been piled over with papers and knickknacks, including the one he was sitting on, quite heedless to the flattened and creased papers beneath him. "Pardon me that I don't get up - my knees don't bend quite the way they used to. My family name is Li and my personal name is Kao, and I have a slight flaw in my character."
"Thank you for your hospitality," Fai said, in Syaoran's absence having been elected the unofficial spokesperson of the group. "My name is Fai Flowright, a Wizard of Ceres. This tall brute is Kurogane, a warrior of Nihon, and this lovely young lady is Princess Sakura of the country of Clow. And this," he pulled Mokona out of his cloak, holding her out carefully on both palms, "is Mokona, a magical construct who has agreed to transport us between worlds in search of our goal."
"Pleased ta meetcha!" Mokona chirped.
The old man stared for a moment. He drained his cup of tea, leaving faint dark stains around the edges of his beard, put his hands on bony, weathered knees, and leaned forward. "All right," he said. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on."
"Everything we've told you is quite true," Fai said with a smile, and Kurogane reflected on the immense irony of hearing that statement come from his mouth. "The Princess had a number of beautiful, magical feathers, which were scattered and lost during a tragic accident. We have reason to believe that one of the feathers made its way to your city, but we don't know exactly where. We're having some trouble locating it, and everyone seems to think that you are the man for the job."
That part was true, at least. In their journey across the crowded city streets they'd been mistaken for traveling scholars, traveling circus, traveling priests, madmen and criminals; in each case, the person they'd talked to had referred them here. "Go and see Master Li," they'd said. "He's the best when it comes to this kind of stuff." Which left Kurogane wondering exactly who the hell this guy was, to have collected so broad a resume.
But the old man just snorted and poured himself another drink, apparently unmoved by the flattery. "Aren't you three a little old to be peddling fairy tales?" he asked skeptically.
"Please, can you help us?" Sakura asked, turning her big green eyes and sweet face to best advantage (not that she had any idea that she was doing it, of course.) "We're new in town, and we don't really know where to start. It's very important that we find it."
"Frankly, my dear," the old man told her in a kind tone - marked with just a hint of condescension - "I don't really see how this is my problem. It's true that things have been a bit slow around here, but I haven't quite been reduced to the level of acting as a retrieval service for young ladies' fashion accessories."
"But it's not just a feather," Sakura said, wringing her hands anxiously. "It's very special, and very powerful - if the wrong person gets hold of it, they could do terribly unnatural things with it!"
For a moment the Li Kao sat up straight, interest sharpening, but then it visibly faded again. "That may be," he said. "But I'm quite certain I would have heard about any unusual phenomenon or a rash of out-of-season disasters, and so far nothing has come my way."
"Look, you want payment, right?" Kurogane broke into the negotiations with some impatience. The old man radiated an aura of intense indifference; he was just barely receiving them with the politeness due to guests. Neither appeals to vanity nor charity were making a dent in his apathy; it was time to try old-fashioned greed. For a moment he wished that the kid were there; Fai understood magic, and Kurogane understood fighting, but Syaoran understood people's motivations better than any of them, even the princess.
"We don't have any money with us but," he exchanged glances with the magician over Sakura's head, "We could get some. Just tell us what your price is, and we'll meet it."
"My price?" The bushy white eyebrows pulled down, and Kurogane found himself on the receiving end of a gimlet glare that almost made him want to sit quietly at his desk and copy lines of classic literature as a punishment. "You want to know what my price is?"
He gestured with one veined, wrinkled hand to the wall of his study. "On the wall over there, gentlemen," he said. "Do you recognize that scroll?"
Fai obligingly turned in to look. "I'm afraid I can't read it," he said with an apologetic smile, "but from the format, the amount of silver guild and wealth of elaborate seal-stamps, I'm guessing it's an award of some kind."
"Close," Li Kao said with a grunt, and those sharp eyes seemed to stare away into the middle distance. "It is the diploma awarded to those scholars who take first place in the chin-shih examination, granting the highest rank of mandarin and opening the way to a lifetime of lucrative and prestigious employment in the Forest of Culture Academy, should any fool so wish to spend the rest of his life rotting his brains away in perfect harmony."
"What do you mean?" Sakura asked in some confusion. "It sounds like it's a great honor, why wouldn't you want to?"
There was a layer of bitterness in his voice that hadn't been there before, and the old man helped himself to another drink. "The problem with the Neo-Confucianism which has overtaken our country in the last century or so," he continued, "is that they fear nothing except for a new idea. Everything has to be done exactly according to forms, and no idea can be even considered unless it has a precedent in the annals of our revered ancestors. Oh, don't get me wrong -" he waved a hand expressively, still holding his wine jar. "Everything they taught us works perfectly well, but it does lead to the question: What's the point of devoting a lifetime to learning if everything that's permissible to learn can be memorized in five or ten years in the archives?
"After a childhood spent preparing myself for a lifetime of study," he went on, "I despaired to find that a lifetime only lasted a few years. I sought appointments in the government, and soon found myself running out of battles to direct as a general, civil projects to oversee as a governor, and offices to bribe my way into as a politician. I turned to drink. When my money ran out, I turned to gambling, which very quickly turned me to confidence scams, embezzlement, and the occasional straight-up burglary. That soon became unfulfilling as well, as it became shockingly easy to appropriate myself as much money as I pleased. Bored with making crime, I turned instead to solving it; solving mysteries lasted to entertain me for a good forty years before I realized that criminals tend to be human, and as such, extremely boringly predictable."
"So what you're saying is, you're bored," Kurogane translated. The old man's eyes glinted appreciatively in his direction.
"When you live to be as old as I have, you realize that the Neo-Confucians were right about one thing after all: there's nothing new under the sun," he said. "Unfortunately, the country has broken out in a suffocating bout of peace due to Emperor Tan's foresighted imperial policy; corruption is, if not down, certainly as petty and minor as it always has been; and not a single interesting crime has come to my door in almost ten years. That's my price, young crickets, if you think you can match it. Surprise me."
During the old man's monologue Fai had been wandering the room, apparently inspecting the decorations. He stopped before one of the shelves, studying a box of dark lacquered wood which was propped open to reveal a gleam within.
"Tell me, Master Li," Fai said, apparently casually. "Are you a great player of games?"
"Do you mean mah-jongg?" Li Kao asked. "Why, I wouldn't call myself an expert. Mah-jongg is mostly a matter of keeping track of the different suits of tiles and calculating the probabilities of which ones will next appear, but I never had the interest in dedicating the thirty-nine years necessary to play my way to the top of the league, so I'm afraid I'm little more than an amateur. Still, it's an enjoyable way to pass the time."
Fai turned to face the old man, and he was wearing a bright, disarming smile. "Well, then, I have a proposition for you," he said. "Let's play a game of Mah-jongg, and wager on the outcome. Should you win, we will quietly depart your household and look elsewhere. Should you lose, you will help us with our case free of charge."
"You are challenging me to a game of Mah-Jongg, then?" the old man demanded, his bushy eyebrows lifting.
"Oh no, not me," Fai said, still smiling. He stepped to the side, taking Sakura's slim shoulders and drawing the girl in front of him. "You will play my lovely companion, Sakura."
"Her?" the old man exclaimed.
"Me?" Sakura said, startled.
Fai smiled at her. "Well, it is your feather we're looking for," he told her. "It wouldn't be fair not to give you a chance to assist in the investigation!"
"But she's merely a child!" Li Kao exclaimed. "Fourteen, fifteen years at most, I would guess. That's the minimum years of apprenticed study to even be admitted to the lowest rank of the Mah-Jongg academy! And you seriously think to play against an expert?"
"Well, let's just give it a try, why don't we?" Fai said, still smiling. "Sakura-chan has a certain affinity for games."
The old man scrutinized Fai's smiling face with a hard eye, but failed to discover the joke. "Well, it's no great sacrifice on my part," he agreed begrudgingly, and there was a spark of intrigued interest on his face as he wondered what the smiling mask was hiding.
Li Kao brought down the box of tiles from its resting place, blowing off a thick cover of dust and shoving remains of paper and old dishes away from a corner of his desk. Sakura sat on a stool opposite him as he began counting out tiles, each one striking the polished surface with a loudclick.
"The full game of Mah-Jongg has four players, three hundred and thirty-two rules, twenty-eight variations, and can take up to fifty hours to play without breaks," Li Kao recited as he laid out the tiles. "So instead, we shall play a simpler version of the game known as the Dragon's Heart. It's a popular game among children and peasants, owing to its simplicity, and a greater reliance on the luck of the draw rather than on numerical calculation."
Kurogane began to see where this was going.
"There are four different suits of tiles, making up a total of one hundred and eight," he lectured, laying a row of tiles face-up in front of her and pushing each one forward as an example. "Bamboo tiles, flower tiles, wind tiles, and dragon tiles. Each suit has twenty-four tiles, with four wild or unmarked tiles which can be seen as any suit. If you match numbers from different suits together, they can be removed from the game. "
Sakura nodded, biting her lip adorably as she concentrated on the beautifully-decorated game pieces. "Uhm, I can't read any of them," she confessed in a small voice.
"That's quite all right Sakura-chan," Fai assured her. "Just look for tiles that have matching pictures to each other."
Li Kao quickly set up the playing board, with a small number of tiles piled neatly face-up on the center of the board. "This represents the heart of the dragon," he explained. "In the game of Dragon's Heart, one player is the Dragon Master, whose aim is to build the dragon's body out of tiles and bring it to life. The other is the Dragon Slayer, whose goal is to slay the dragon by piercing its heart and clear the board of tiles. Since this is the first chance you have had to play, you will take the role of Dragon Slayer."
"So, I'm trying to clear away all the tiles?" Sakura asked. "By matching them together?"
"That is correct," Li Kao said. His gnarled, blue-veined hands quickly shuffled the remaining tiles around, pulling three of them to himself. "And as the Dragon Master, my aim is to stop you. Each turn I will put down one tile," he said, placing a tile in demonstration. "If I can complete the body of the dragon, I win; if you can clear the board, you win.
"You draw seven tiles, and I will draw three," he said, shuffling the appropriate number of tiles into his hand. "You can only remove tiles that match the ones in your own hand, and you can only remove tiles on the outside edge that are not blocked by any others. You may continue to draw new tiles up to seven, but when you run out of moves, your turn is over. Do you understand the rules?"
"I think I understand," Sakura said after a moment. She reached out to the pile, and hesitantly drew seven of the smooth, shining tiles towards her.
Li Kao smiled and made his first move; he placed one tile on the board, neatly blocking off one of the limbs of the dragon. "Your turn," he said.
Sakura took a long moment to study the tiles in her hand, eyes moving over the unfamiliar patterns and decorations. She looked up at Fai. "I just match the ones that have the same symbols on them, right?" she said.
Fai smiled encouragingly but said nothing, crossing his arms and stepped back.
Sakura's eyes dropped to the board, studying the tiles making up the limbs and the eyes of the dragon. Hesitantly, she selected one tile from her hand and placed it on the table next to its counterpart that matched it. "And then this one goes away, right?" she said.
"Yes, precisely," Master Li said with a condescending chuckle. Sakura nodded and cleared the matching pair away. Then she placed down another matching tile from her hand and cleared the pair from the board.
Li Kao's patronizing smirk quickly disappeared into a scowl as the tiles rapidly disappeared from the playing board. When Sakura ran out of her original hand of seven, she drew seven more from the stack, and continued decimating the board. Within a single turn, all of the tiles had been cleared from the table.
She stopped and looked at the old man expectantly. "Like that, right?" she said.
The old man's jaw dropped, and he hastily attempted to regain his computer. "Well, that was, that was quite an extraordinary stroke of luck," he hedged, shooting her a piercing glance before scowling angrily at Fai, standing behind Sakura and trying to stifle his laughter. "Now then - any complete game of Dragon's Heart involves two rounds; one as the Slayer and one as the Master. Shall we, ahem, continue to the second round?"
Sakura nodded obligingly, and Li Kao gathered all the tiles together and shuffled them. He took considerably longer at it this time, his dexterous fingers moving carefully over the polished edges of the tiles, before quickly resetting the board. "Now then," he said, pushing three tiles over to her. "As the Master, you place one tile each turn. Your aim is to stop me from doing what you just did, by blocking off the tiles so that they cannot be removed. Do you understand?"
"Uhm," Sakura said, picking up the tiles. She looked up at Fai.
"Just place them however you feel best, Sakura-chan," Fai said encouragingly.
"Okay," Sakura said. She picked one of her tiles from her hand and placed it on the board.
This round of the game at least lasted longer than the last one, if only because Sakura was limited to one tile per turn and there were quite a few open spaces to be filled on the board. Still, Kurogane watched as the old man's face grew from perplexed, to irritated, to thunderous, and finally to a kind of bemused respect as Sakura's seemingly haphazard placement of tiles built up into unbreakable strongholds of double- and triple-reinforced castles. Despite the limited size of her hand, somehow every tile she drew was the perfect one for the situation, and every empty space she chose was precisely the one that Li Kao had been aiming for. The board filled quickly, until finally Li Kao was left with just one empty space.
At last Li Kao sat back on his cushion, chuckling slightly as he rubbed one of the small, polished squares between his fingers. "You play very well, my dear," he said admiringly. "I admit you gave me quite a scare at first. But your strategy has a weakness; once I start unraveling it from this one point, the entire structure will come apart. I believe now it's time to finish things." He placed the tile down on the table with a triumphant click, and reached to clear it from the board.
"Excuse me," Fai interrupted, leaning over him, "but you appear to have put down a seven of winds, and you are attempting to use it to clear a four of coins."
"What?" Li Kao snapped, glaring at the intruder. "Impossible! This is a wild -" He stopped, staring at the face of the tile sitting on the table; it was innocently, unquestionably a seven.
"Were you looking for this?" Kurogane moved forward, having spotted the tiny ceramic square when it tumbled to the floor. He stooped to pick it up, then held it out. "Looks like it fell out of your sleeve when you reached into it for your next tile."
"I never -" Li Kao sputtered; then he stopped, and after a moment he began to laugh.
Fai smiled innocently; Sakura looked worried. "Are you all right, Master Li?" she asked anxiously.
"I never in my life," Li Kao gasped between howls of laughter, "not since I started conning gullible merchants outside the Bower of Brilliant Companions at the tender age of seven, fumbled a card from my sleeve! There is something special about you indeed, my girl. Indeed, if I were sixty years younger, I might consider giving your young man a run for the money. Just think of the racket we could make together!"
"Oh, I do," Fai said sweetly. "So what do you say, Master Li? Will you fulfill your end of the wager?"
"Oh, yes, no doubt about it," Li Kao said, using the edge of his sleeve to mop the tears streaming from his face. "I haven't seen anything to match you three in twenty years. Pull up a seat, have a jar of wine. I've got some research to do."
They took him up on his offer of wine; and, when brought by a servant, plates of dried fruit and roast goose as well. At least, Kurogane and Fai drank wine - Sakura was curious, but Fai insisted that she make do with tea.
After a gulp of the local wine, Kurogane didn't question him; this was no local weak brew to serve in place of potentially unsafe drinking water. This wine was so thick it was almost a gel, pouring down his throat like honey, and it burned so sweetly he could almost feel the topmost layer of his throat peeling off. All in all, he approved, and he and Fai split several more jars of wine between them, generously (as far as Kurogane was concerned) sharing out small dishes for Mokona too.
Li Kao seemed oblivious to his guests, burying himself in the books and scrolls of his library with a determined fury. Occasionally he would go to the door and shout something incomprehensible, and the servant would hurry up with a new armful of crackling tomes. Li Kao would take a swig of his own wine, the dark liquor trickling unheeded from the side of his mouth to stain his white beard, and bury himself in the papers again.
It looked like they might be a while. Kurogane and Fai settled themselves in an out-of-the-way nook in the library, while Sakura wandered around studying the decorations in the ancient study. She was particularly entranced by a tiny, stylized set of acrobats wrought of silver, each one delicately balanced on a fine point on polished glass. At a nudge of the finger the tiny trapeze artist would swing back and forth, the strong man would lift weights and push them back and forth, and the acrobat would spin in endless circles around his bar.
Now that they had a moment of peace and quiet, Kurogane found himself studying his companion, and reflecting on the adventures of the past few days. It occurred to him that he'd left an important piece of business unaddressed. "Hey," he said abruptly, and Fai looked up in surprise, eyebrows raising over the rim of his cup. "I meant to say it before, but - thanks."
"Whatever for, Kuro-pon?" Fai asked lightly.
"For back on that water world," Kurogane elaborated, embarrassed at having to explain himself. Now that they were out of danger (and, in fact, had never really been in danger - but they hadn't known that then,) he recognized the effort Fai had spent trying to keep him afloat, and that his exhortations to drop his armor and swords had only been meant to help. "You know - when you were helping me swim."
"Oh, it was nothing!" Fai said, with a wide, vacant grin. "I could hardly let my Kuro-puppy get soggy and drown, now could I? No, no, the best he could manage on his own would be a doggie paddle -"
Kurogane growled, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Could you be serious for the fifteen seconds it would take to accept my thanks?" he snapped in irritation.
He'd meant it as a rhetorical question, so he was surprised when the vacant grin slipped; in its place was a much smaller, gentler smile. "You haven't forgotten already, have you?" Fai asked him.
"Forgotten what?" Kurogane said, mystified by the abrupt change in tone.
Instead of answering, Fai's hand ran lightly over his own side, under his ribs, then traced a path across his bicep. Momentarily distracted by the path of those fingers, it took Kurogane a moment to realize what he meant - the injuries he'd sustained during the fight against the serpents, which Kurogane had helped him to treat.
"We all look out for each other," Fai explained, dropping his hand back to the bottle. "So no thanks are necessary. More?"
Kurogane looked at him for a moment, then held out his saucer for more wine.
"Got it!" Li Kao said triumphantly, striking his wooden desk with a thump that raised dust. All three of the travelers looked up, their attention immediately riveted.
As they crowded around the table, Li Kao spread out several different papers in an arc around him. "The earliest mention of this feather of yours," he began, tapping his finger on the oldest, crustiest-looking scroll. "Is in the records of a small Buddhist monastery outside Loyang. Actually, the feather appears in the very first volume of their records; the spot was little more than a well at a crossroads until about three hundred years ago. A shepherd was minding his own business there one day when the heavens opened up with a crack of thunder, brilliant light streamed down on an otherwise cloudy day, and a white feather with delicate black markings floated down to him from the sky."
"That sounds like Sakura-chan's feather!" Mokona piped up. Li Kao nodded.
"By itself, the appearance of the feather was miraculous enough," he explained. But when the local Buddhist monk from the nearby village tested it, he found that it had amazing properties - when the right sutras were chanted it would glow softly, and heal minor wounds or even cure the sick. They decided it must be one of the lost feathers of Karyoubinga, a human-headed bird deity who specializes in mercy and healing, and erected a shrine on the spot of the feather's appearance."
"Where is this shrine?" Kurogane began to ask, but Li Kao shook his liver-spotted head and moved on to the next paper, a large tome bound with beautiful black leather.
"Like all good things, it couldn't remain unmolested forever," he explained. "About twenty years ago the last emperor, Emperor Wen, was afflicted with a particularly painful and unpleasant round of gout. Casting about for some chance of curing his affliction, he soon heard of the miraculous feather, and commanded his soldiers to bring it to him. Which they did, in a parade with much fanfare, involving a cavalcade of priests, a small army of porters, and enough pomp to float a coronation.
"Once they had the feather in the palace," Li Kao continued, "the palace physician attempted to prepare it in the approved manner of all sovereign specifics - that is to say, grind it to a powder, infuse it in lotus oil, boil it dry and mix the residue into a salve of hippopotamus fat."
Sakura turned slightly pale at that, and Kurogane was suddenly thankful that Syaoran wasn't here; if he'd heard their plans to destroy the feather in a selfish-short-sighted attempt for a cure, he'd have thrown an apoplectic fit.
"Fortunately," Li Kao continued dryly, "they soon found that the feather, miraculously enough, resisted all attempts to grind it. When further attempts to boil it, pulp it, tear it and, I can only assume that by this time they were motivated out of sheer frustration or sheer curiosity, burn it to a crisp failed, the physician declared the feather a useless fraud and had it thrown out with the household garbage."
Kurogane put his hand over his face. "But that's not the end of the tale," Li Kao went on, moving to the third and final set of papers. "Although of course it is a death sentence to steal from the Imperial Grounds, even from the trash, there is a thriving black-market trade that exists in stealing up to the palace moat in the dead of night and combing through the royal trash. The most amazing things can turn up there. It's not so clearly described as in the first two texts, but the sales records clearly show that something of incredible value was recovered from the midden heap that night. It passed through half a dozen owners in as many years, and finally came into possession of the richest, most miserly merchant in Hangchow: Pawnbroker Feng, who owns a complex in Assessor's Square not five miles down the road from here."
"So it's here in this city?" Mokona cried out, clapping her hands joyfully. "Mokona knew it!"
"Where is this Pawnbroker Feng?" Sakura asked.
"Time to pay him a little visit," Kurogane growled, one hand stealing to the hilt of his sword.
"Now, now, Kuro-chi," Fai chided him. "He is a merchant after all. We could just ask to buy it from him. And," he said, and his smile became chilling, "if he doesn't wish to part with it, we can always… persuade him."
"Don't get too ahead of yourselves, gentlemen and lady," Li Kao said brusquely. He sat back in his chair, tapping his finger against his jaw as he eyed them narrowly. "Pawnbroker Feng is no pushover. He's one of the richest merchants in Hangchow, and you can bet he didn't get that way without stabbing a few business rivals in the back. By now he's so paranoid that everyone calls him by another name: Fearful Feng, because he jumps at every shadow and he spends almost all his profits on security. And that's a lot of profits - apart from the Imperial Garrison, Feng commands the largest private army in Hangchow. And he's no fool, either. If he's held on to the feather this long, he must have some idea of his value; and frankly, my friends, you don't have a prayer of getting your hands on enough money to buy it from him."
"But what can we do?" Sakura whispered in dismay. "We can't just give up!"
"Clearly, a more subtle approach is needed," Li Kao replied. "If I were sixty years younger, I would go with you myself to make sure the job got done right. Unfortunately, I'm not as spry as I once was; so instead, I'll offer you the next best thing."
Li Kao turned from his desk and made his hobbling way across the room to the wall, where he slid open a paneled window that overlooked the inner court of the house. "Little Wolf!" he shouted down into the courtyard. "Little Wolf, come here!"
The words seem to blur and ring uncertainly in their ears, and Kurogane shook his head in an attempt to clear it. A pounding sounded from the hallways further down in the house, that came closer every minute. A moment later the door burst open, and a flurry of dark hair and robes stumbled across the lintel. "Honored grandfather!" the newcomer said, clearly flustered and out of breath. "What is the matter? Are these barbarian guests giving you trouble?"
The travelers stared.
The boy was a little taller than the Syaoran they knew; his hair and eyes darker, so deep a brown as to be almost black. But aside from that this boy could have been his double, and in his face they could clearly see echoes of the old sage's features.
"This is my great-grandson, Li Xiao Lang," Li Kao introduced proudly. This time, the words sounded clearly in their ears, not translated for their meaning. "He is without question the scurviest, canniest, most unscrupulous street rat in Hangchow."
Sakura gasped, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. "Master Li!" she said in a shocked voice. "How can you say such things about your own great-grandson?"
"She is right, Honored Grandfather," a flustered Xiao Lang said. "It's discourteous to boast so openly about one's family in front of strangers."
"He can charm the wings off a crow and then steal their tail feathers when they turn to fly off," Li Kao said, ignoring the interruption. "If anyone can help you steal your missing treasure from Fearful Feng, this little thief will be the one to do it."
~to be continued...
More Author's Notes:
The second world they visit is China - or more specifically, "Ancient China as it Never Was," based on the series of books by author Barry Hughart starting with Bridge of Birds.
The colorful character of Li Kao as well as the setting of China and much of the style of storytelling is borrowed from Hughart's books. If you liked Li Kao and would like to read more about him, be sure to check out his and Number Ten Ox's adventures in Bridge of Birds. If you didn't like him… well, read them anyway, because they're much better than my poor attempts at imitation!