Henry Lion Oldie
Messiah Clears the Disc

Book One
Don't wake up the sleeping dragons

Part One
Branded hands

   A tiger does not think when to draw its claws
   But its victim cannot escape them;
   A dragon does not think how to apply its force
   But the mountain cannot but be broken
From the Homilies of wise men

Chapter 1

   There was not less than a hundred of palace guards in the procession, all of them wearing silk festive hats with wing-like flaps and purple robes and girdles with carven horn plates, all of them bearing gongs and drums. Isn't it true that one can see the real grandeur from afar? It is especially so this time: for the brilliant wang Zhou, brother of the ruling Emperor, Son of Heaven Yong Le, returns once more to the apanage granted to him!
   Nevertheless, the crowded gapers were murmuring between themselves that the prince is a bit light-fingered and had been discharged of this very apanage for three times already because he used to commit "abuses" and to break openly the canons established by the Department of Works although they were adopted specially for the usage of the wangs, i.e. the closest relatives of the Emperor: he neglected insolently the fixed height of walls in his palace, he made twice more gates there than prescribed, he tolerated his western chambers to be painted with indecent colors, an so on, and so on. But all this was nothing compared with the fact that the people of Ningo could celebrate his arrival and have a bit of entertainment; holidays were not so much abundant in their monotonous everyday life!
   The guards were followed by twenty courtiers transporting with utmost care a tortoise-shell casket adorned with jasper and emeralds. The casket contained precious relics of the Department of Rituals: a certificate confirming the title of wang, named "tzeh" and engraved on a finest sheet of pure gold as well as the personal stamp of prince Zhou (a square base and a figure of a jumping tiger at the top). There was also a scroll in the casket: a copy of nephrite tablets stored in the Temple of Emperor's Ancestors and bearing twenty hieroglyphs dedicated to become the first part of names of Zhou's progeny for the next twenty generations.
   The order of names was to be strictly observed; watchful clerks of the Emperor's Kin Department won't forgive any discrepancies.
   The next object of general interest in the procession was the carriage carrying the up-to-date favorite of prince Zhou, his beloved concubine, the pretty Xuan. It rolled slowly surrounded by eunuchs with small and large fans. Xuan (sometimes called jokingly, in her absence, of course, Xuannu the Faultless) [1] sat behind a window blind; as to Zhou-wang himself, he did not lead the procession as he should to but rode at the side of Xuannu's carriage, deliberately demonstrating not for the first time his disdain for the etiquette. Bent at the small window, he was whispering something in quite a musical manner; may be he was reciting poetry for his beloved girl, some verses of the Tang period, his favorite ones.
   So everything had been going on as it should go, to the minute details of the ritual, until an elderly corpulent woman jostled her way forward from the back rows of the crowd and waddled on towards prince Zhou and the carriage of the pretty Xuan.
   This woman was well known to everybody in the Pin-Erh quarter. Yes, there could be no mistake: she was Eighth Aunty, the wife of a feeble dyer Mao who had provided her dear husband with a full dozen of children, a quiet complacent simpleton with hands always wet and red because of ceaseless washing. She was the least expected person to shake the foundations of the Yellow Dust Worlds by going in such a way to meet the noble wang, the Emperor's kinsman…
   – Go away, you filthy villain! – shrieked a fatty eunuch in a shrill voice and lashed the disturber with his large fan.
   Eighth Aunty lifted her forearm to meet the stroke. The bamboo plates of the fan broke with a loud crack loosing the small glass beads attached to them.
   At the same moment the palms of the dyer Mao's wife, put together like "a monkey handful", slapped the protruding ears of the eunuch. The unhappy one fell to the pavement swallowing his cry and opening silently his mouth like a fish put out of water.
   Eighth Aunty continued her way towards the carriage.
   The first who came to his senses was a long-moustached courtier clad in a black robe embroidered with curving dragons; according to his girdle he was taiwey, the chief of the bodyguards.
   At his abrupt commands the riders broke the order of the procession in no time, passed by the courtiers carrying the relics and symbols of the wang's dignity and surrounded the Eighth Aunty; in the next moment the guards who occurred to be the closest to her fell down off their saddles as if casually and their steel blades shone in the sun.
   The festivity was swiftly turning to a senseless slaughter: the wife of the dyer Mao was wielding diligently a small two-sided axe drawn off somebody's hands and the skilled soldiers seemed to become pugnacious kids trying in vain to reach the crazy woman with their weapons: she was turning around like a whirlwind. The taiwey's head, hewn off in a swoop, rolled right under the hooves of the wang's stallion, the beast reared to flee away from the smiling dead and pranced until his rider's mighty hand managed to restrain him.
For isn't it indeed true to say:
Swords are flashing from both sides,
The blood of foes is mixed in flows,
When death is near, it's no time
For seeking honor and rewards!
   The two bodyguards of the royal person had not yet fallen down to the pavement covered with blood (the first had his scull split, the other had hardly began to wield his big axe before the small one crushed his backbone) when Eighth Aunty stopped near the carriage and looked upwards at the prince Zhou.
   Her glance did not promise anything good.
   Even the deceased Hong Wu, father of the many-times disgraced wang, had never looked at him so; although in his youth he had been a great master of dadaoshu [2] and the leader of the "red kerchiefs” [3] before becoming the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty and driving the Mongolian invaders off to the northern steppes.
   But as light-fingered as Zhou-wang was, he had never been weak-handed. The blade of his light jian sword whistled joyfully leaving the richly decorated scabbard. The silly eunuchs tired awkwardly to protect their lord hindering him in fact to wield skillfully his steel lightning; but just in the moment when the sword at last fell down cutting the air in a sophisticated curved line, Eighth Aunty sagged back and stroke the blade from both sides with her hands as swift as if she were a cat.
   Clang, crash – the disarmed Zhou-wang makes his horse to rear, and the wife of the dyer Mao creeps just under its hooves and breaks with her fist the brittle lock of the carriage door that Xuannu the Faultless fastened but a minute earlier.
   Many people have seen it: the woman kicked the door open, seized the concubine by her hair and pulled her out. Taking no heed of the piercing cries of the frightened girl and of somebody's battle ring aiming at her head the old woman snatches a tiny Hanchou dog, desperately barking, away from Xuannu's hands and kills it breaking its spine over her knee.
   After that the woman threw the dead dog down on the body of the wang's concubine who lay in a swoon on the ground.
   There was silence and confusion for a second. Everybody stood still: soldiers, eunuchs, gapers, prince Zhou demanding to give him any weapon… Only Eighth Aunty was shaking her head and looking at her hands as if she hadn't ever seen them before; and a shaven-headed monk clad in an orange cassock was sliding noiselessly towards the murderous woman. Keeping his place at the very end of the procession he he did not have an opportunity to take any part in the battle.
   The wooden sandals of the monk touched the ground as lightly as leaves; the heaven-folk of the White Clouds may walk in such a way, for they are able to stand safely on a thin sheet of rice paper.
   But even this monk didn't manage to come in time.
   Eighth Aunty became suddenly as weighty and awkward as she had always been, but her hands stretched as if by themselves forward and down forcing her to sit down, and then the fingers of her right hand, like a spider hunting for the paralyzed prey seized the handle of the broken jian sword dropped by prince Zhou.
   The orange cassock began to move two times faster like a cloud driven by a sunset wind; when the monk had to make but five steps to reach the wife of the dyer Mao she made a smooth, almost imperceptible movement and cut her throat with a fragment of the wang's sword just under her second flabby chin. The length of the broken sword was just sufficient to do this.
   Thick blood gushed at the pretty Xuan who had hardly regained consciousness and fell aswoon again. Blood covered the face of the living wang's concubine and the corpse of her dead little dog.
   It was to the Zhou-wang’s credit that he managed to collect himself the first. He dismounted, ran to the monk and grasped his bony shoulder.
   – How can you explain this, venerable Banh?! – roared the prince and pressed the shoulder still stronger. – Is it not your duty to see to it that the plotters should be imprisoned and wait for the sentence in stocks, and not walk in the streets when the Emperor's brother is coming?! Or are you going to say once more that all things are vanity in this world and the Yellow Powder covers the eyes of the living?!
   The monk didn't even wince, as if the wrathful Zhou were not clenching his shoulder like tongs or might have forgotten that this man spitting his saliva is a mighty ruler having enough power to decide whom to live and whom to die.
   – All things are indeed vanity in this world, – answered the venerable Banh in an undertone, and doleful wrinkles deepened on his impassive, as if lacquered face. – I'm but an insignificant monk, how can I guess the will of the Nine Heavens, if the Lord of the Underworld, Prince Yanlo, would decide to prolong or to shorten one's existence? But I'll do all that is possible, all that a silly monk is able to do with his miserable force…
   The grasp on his shoulder loosened. Zhou-wang knew perfectly well who stands behind the “insignificant” monk. Such gentle monks were supervising each of the Qin-wangs, or close relatives, and each of the Jun-wangs, or regional governors. And all these monks got a full-scale training in a famous monastery near the Songshan mountain. This was explained by some high policy requirements. But prince Zhou needed no explanations to understand who was dictating these requirements to the Emperor Yong Le: oh, anybody knows that the venerable Zhang Wo has other duties besides his formal ones, consisting in the relations with remote provinces and neighboring countries…
   The venerable Zhang was one of the supreme leaders of the Shaolin cloister and for many years already he has been standing like a grey shadow at the back of the Son of Heaven.
   The circle of the trusted persons of this humblest servant of Buddha was so wide that its outlines were fuzzy as if covered with a veil of mist; it was also so secret that the same veil hid it securely from all curious eyes. Only one thing was certain: the warrior monks, obedient to the orders of the head of the secret service were present throughout the country, from Henan to Fuzhou, and even from the Land of Morning Freshness to the Viet territories and the most distant Ruku Island. For it was just following the advice of the venerable Zhang Wo that the Emperor carried out an unprecedented purge of bureaucrats, signed the decree "On the Great Sea Travels" and granted the Shaolin monastery vast arable lands. Be you even thrice a wang, you should think thrice before grasping the shoulders of one of these damned spying monks! And the more so because each of the shaven-headed members of the monastery at Songshan mountain is worth a detachment of bodyguards. Or a detachment of assassins.
   …Prince Zhou spat and went away. He knew for sure that he wouldn't entrust the investigation of this strange attempt to the venerable Banh even if the monk would insist on it. Let him do it, if such is his wish, secretly, without official orders. But it is necessary to decide who of the Ningo judges is worthy enough to solve this problem… oh, no, not today.
   This day is already spoiled completely.
   And the concubine Xuannu is to be sent away to her parents this week.
   After seeing Xuannu the Faultless in a swoon, covered with blood, the dead dog lying on her bosom the prince could not feel anything but aversion to his ex-beloved girl.
   And the body of Eighth Aunty was already being brought to the yard of the local guard office…
   …The functionary was making a polite speech, long and flowery. He did his best to praise the honesty and incorruptibility of the highly respected xiangyigong [4], remembered all his numerous merits one after another but still did not come to the point: why did he, the court official of the illustrious Zhou-wang, came so early in the morning to visit Bao the judge?
   However, the judge Bao guessed the reason of this strange visit without explanation; more than that: he knew it for sure. Of course, the master of ceremonies was inclined to pretentious, highflown discourse and accustomed to flattery, but this time he did not overstate the merits of the highly respected xiangyigong in the field of solving many complicated cases. So it was not difficult at all for the visiting examiner [5] Bao to correlate the quite strange happening at the central street of Ningo the day before with the visit of the prince's Zhou court master of ceremonies.
   As to honesty, the worthy master of ceremonies hasn't sinned against the truth too. For the Ningo people have long ago given to the worthy judge Bao the name of Bao the Dragons' Seal, hinting at his legendary predecessor and namesake who had become famous for his incorruptibility about three hundred years ago. All was true and clear from the very beginning and therefore unbearably boring. The judge was nodding his head politely listening to the courtier who had evidently read too much Kongzi, and rather not the books by Kongzi himself but his modern interpreters; but the thoughts of the judge Bao were turned to quite other subjects.
   A new disease has appeared some time ago in the lands of the Heavenly Empire, Tianxia, and the common people soon began to call it "Buddha's Madness" because it distorted human conscience by an unexpected and inevitable feeling of an endless chain of reincarnations. The disease was constantly expanding and turning to real epidemic. Bao the judge has already heard about it many times and seen with his own eyes people who would go out of their mind as if thunder-striken: they forgot their PRESENT personality and were torn and tormented by conflicting memories of many previous lives. These awakened memories allowed them to tell in details the story of An Lushan [6] uprising or to remind the battles and marches of Zhuge Lian [7] or Sun Wu [8], to speak some incomprehensive languages and to predict future events, but they were unable to recall their present name, to recognize their native home and their relatives.
   The shaven-headed clever-faced monks explained that such people aroused the wrath of Buddha by their importunate prayers, and he gave to them the insight they asked for, but the awakening of their true essence appeared to be beyond the strength of their weak untrained wits, not prepared by way of righteous life and meditation…
   The judge Bao did not doubt a moment that the too eloquent monks were as far both from insight and from Buddha: for even the most importunate human beings are not able in any way to disturb Buddha in his Nirvana…
   And the Dao magicians were unanimously asserting that all these events were the pranks of some assistant demons of Yanlo, the lord of the Underworld…
   The assistant demons interested the judge Bao the least of all. He had enough things to care of besides the Underworld. ("Won't anybody give me a pair of demons as assistants?" – thought the judge with melancholy pouring himself a cup of red tea from a small teapot that has already became cool.)
   Some time ago Buddha's Madness touched the family of Bao himself. His young nephew Zhong became mad literally in a week, now he could not recognize his closest kin and strove to leave his house and to go away to Luoyang saying that his family was waiting for him; sometimes he was reciting verses for hours, and very bad verses they were, while formerly Zhong would have never allowed himself such bad taste; and other strange things he did… Several reincarnations conflicted inside the soul of the unhappy young man, burying his present personality as if under an avalanche of snow.
   Bao did not know how to save his beloved nephew. The efforts of the town physician seemed to be useless, but a wandering monk with his rattles and gong who chanced to visit the judge's house failed to help the diseased too.
   Only the Dao wizard Lan Daoxing, called also "Iron Hat", a very gloomy and taciturn person, managed to return the boy to his senses for a time. But the next evening Buddha's Madness took possession of Zhong again. So, even the Dao wizard was not capable to resist to the awful disease.
   The judge knew that people afflicted by Buddha's Madness die usually in a month or less, that's why he was gloomy and upset; for the cruel fate continued to persecute his family.
   Just the day before yesterday the judge found his firstling and heir Wen talking pleasantly in the western outhouse with a girl completely unknown to the judge. The girl lowered her eyes modestly, bowed politely to the head of the family. There was nothing indecent in her manners, she didn't seem to be one of the streetwalker singers. His son has already grown up, it was high time to find a wife for him, and the judge Bao was not one of those old-fashioned stubborn fathers who marry their children without giving the future spouses the possibility to see one another in advance… The judge cast one more glance at the guest: her dress was not rich but neat and decent, her face rather pretty, her eye-brows darkened and rouge applied to her cheeks quite to measure and the only thing that the experienced Bao disliked a bit was the red kerchief tied around the girl's neck.
   The judge was not superstitious. But he could not neglect the things that were going on in Tianxia: the epidemic of Buddha's Madness that has affected his family too, dead men coming out of their graves (he didn't believe at first, but happened to see one with his own eyes!), evil spirits roaming in broad daylight, animals acquiring intellect, and not the usual were-foxes but vulgar badgers… Even if two thirds of these cock-and-bull stories and gossip were fictitious the rest of the facts was quite enough to feel unquiet.
   Thus the suspicion was to be verified immediately.
   So Bao went at once to Lan Daoxing, an old acquaintance of his, who has helped the judge in many similar situations.
   Fortunately, the Iron Hat has not yet left Ningo for the mountains where he used to prepare his pills of immortality.
   The judge had hardly entered the wizard's temporary abode and opened his mouth in order to tell the reason of his coming when the old man said turning to him and nodding in affirmation:
   – She's a demon. A spirit of some woman who had hanged herself. She's looking for a new body to enter into it and be born anew. Take this gourd and sprinkle the evil spirit with its contents; all spells would dissipate at once and you'll see her true image. Then take the broom made of peach twigs that stands in a corridor corner of your house and drive her away. The spirit won't ever try to come back.
   With these words the magician handed the judge a small vessel. The judge swallowed some air, unable to find necessary words; it was difficult to get accustomed to the surprises of the wizard and to call him openly a friend.
   – Thank you, saint Lan, – was all he dared to say. – If ever you'll need something…
   – I know, – Lan Daoxing smiled a little, hiding his cunning small eyes under the shaggy brows. – And now don’t tarry. The demon has already almost charmed your son.
   The reverend Bao hasn't ran so swiftly since his youth! But now he didn't care whether it was decent for his social position and post that did not imply such sports at all: his son was in danger, and he had to come in time!
   And he did it.
   The girl, smiling guiltily, was already fastening a fashionable girdle under the lintel, and his dear boy, his Wen stood on a stool trying unconsciously to reach the beams. Just at this moment Bao the Dragon's Seal, out of his breath, broke into the western outhouse uncorking in haste the gourd given to him. The girl recoiled, frightened.
   And when the mixture of unparalleled stench (there were rancid oxen, swine and ram blood, human urine and various other components, unknown to the judge but none the less aromatic) sprinkled her, the veil of the devilish delusion fell off the eyes of all who were present.
   The First Son Wen stood at the stool as an utter fool and was ready to put with his own hands a noose made of a tattered rope on his neck, and a half-rotten corpse with a deep mark of a rope on its neck was wriggling and coiling convulsively at Wen's side. The sharp-clawed fingers have already torn off the elegant red kerchief. It might have been quite a charming girl when alive, just such as the judge and his son have seen a few minutes earlier. But now, with her hair disheveled and her tongue hanging out of the mouth, about a foot long, she was horrid…
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