This was going to be a short interlude chapter, but then bam! 7k words. What is this even.
…You know, there's an awful lot of wanton abductions in this story. Sometimes I feel like I should just change the title to "People Kidnapping People!" and be done with it.
Last time: China is a wanted fugitive who's skulking around the city of Lin'an with an unknown agenda that may or may not involve oysters, the new moon, and the White Lotus Society. Mr. Ren is a weirdo tavern owner who is weirdly tolerant of the improbable shenanigans inflicted upon his establishment, and is also weirdly good at throwing knives. Jurchen is an emotionless cudgel-wielding bounty hunter who decides to accomplish her goals via child abduction. The Polos are unfortunate bystanders. Veneziano is an even more unfortunate bystander, seeing as he's the one who gets accidentally kidnapped. And Oyster is—well, actually, nobody knows who the heck Oyster is. Not even Oyster.
And They All Searched for Oysters
Days left until the new moon: 20
Mr. Tavern Owner,
Please deliver this message to your associate. I believe you know of whom I speak.
My demands are simple. I would like your associate to deliver himself freely to the state, whereupon he shall finally answer for his innumerable crimes, as is the Emperor's prerogative. So long as he refuses to show himself, neither shall I release the child found in his dubious care. I understand that your associate is fond of the child, and can only assume that any harm upon the child's wellbeing would not be found desirable.
Understand that I merely ask for justice.
Days left until the new moon: 19
"So what are you going to do?" Ren asked for the ninth time. He was trying to keep up his smile, but it was difficult. His companion's silence was beginning to disturb him.
China was looking at the moon. Looking? Gauging. Gauging what? There was a tight-wound, nervous energy buzzing through Ren's bones, iron-set and marrow-deep, and it was making things difficult to see, think, see. Were those spots in his vision? Dancing lights? No, Ren was too young and beautiful to die and China was—
China was talking.
"I'm going to go out and—"
"You can't possibly be considering," Ren burst out, and, "you don't even know—she wouldn't dare—you can't!" He stumbled over his words in bare panic, his trademark grin fraying at the edges and barely functional. He wondered how he must look, for China to shrink back in alarm like that. Probably like some sort of rabid beast.
"Ren," China said slowly, "I'm not going to hand myself over like an idiot."
The buzzing energy abated.
"I'm going to go out and look for Oyster myself. It is imperative that I get him out by the new moon. All that planning—I can't let everything be for nothing."
Ren exhaled. His vision steadied. The dancing firefly lights stilled, pulling back into their lamp-bound cages. Orbs and squares of bright color, lining the teahouses and restaurants and shop displays. Even at night, Lin'an hummed with life.
"I'll help," he said.
China's cautious frown grew tight and stern, like a parent about to impose a curfew. Ren's heart may have fluttered a little at the nostalgic sight. He braced himself for disappointment.
"If you ever see Jurchen in any way, shape, or form," China said, "you'll need to drop what you're doing and get out of sight, do you understand?"
And Ren was nodding vigorously, smiling and smiling, beaming like a sky full of crow-feathered suns, because that was China's way of saying yes.
Days left until the new moon: 13
Veneziano, China thought, is very odd.
Very odd indeed.
The Italian child was, in appearance, a floppy sort of bag-child hybrid thing. Floppy hair, floppy clothes. And then there was that errant spring of hair, spiraling away from his face like a tiny vine. And then there was his expression, which belonged to someone eternally on the verge of sleep. It was as if some heavenly bureaucrat had decided Veneziano's existence was too adorable to justify, so they ramped up his weirdness in an attempt to maintain the cosmic balance—resulting in this…puddle of cute/bizarre that caused mass confusion in his wake.
So yes, Veneziano was a very odd creature. Truth to be told, China didn't quite know what to make of him, even though they'd basically been roommates for a week by now.
Not that China hadn't tried to get rid of the boy immediately. The goal had been to find Oyster, after all, and having to look after another child was simply slowing him down. But when China finally managed to track down the inn where the Polos were staying, only to find that they'd already left the city...well, how could he just leave a foreign kid there, all alone like that? Clearly, the most responsible thing to do would be to make sure Veneziano stayed kidnapped. Clearly.
(No, that was not sarcasm. Yes, China's life was pretty messed up at the moment. How could you tell?)
So Veneziano stayed. He was so docile it was actually kind of alarming. China, for the most part, had no problem with this—he had neither the time nor the patience to tolerate histrionics (Baekje), or passive aggressiveness (Koguryo), or constant declarations of independence (Vietnam), or silent sulking (Japan). Oyster held a special place in his heart because he was nice and calm and levelheaded in the face of stressful situations—but Italy Veneziano's ability to ignore danger verged on suicidal.
…No. That wasn't quite right.
Veneziano's reaction to immediate danger was loud and hysterical and involved horrifying amounts of snot—in other words, completely normal. It was only when the immediate danger passed that Veneziano's brain seemed to completely forget that the danger had existed in the first place.
"I apologize for kidnapping you," China had said, bluntly, the day after the Jurchen Incident.
To which Veneziano had simply stared at him, looking puzzled and mildly alarmed, as if this event was somehow news to him.
Or at least, China assumed Veneziano had been staring. It was really hard to tell, because the boy had his eyes shut all the time. He had no idea how Veneziano wasn't constantly smashing into things, with his eyes closed like that. Perhaps he utilized echolocation, like some kind of sinfully adorable earthbound bat, though that didn't explain how Veneziano could maintain a running commentary on China's lack of fashion sense. China might have been offended if he wasn't already too busy being baffled.
Ren, of course, found it hilarious. The tavern owner had taken to randomly dropping in on their various hideaways, mooching off their food like a friendly leech, and then leaving before China's temper exploded. Attempts at keeping their supposedly secret locations secret failed miserably—by now China suspected that Ren had charmed his way through half of the Society's spy network, thus sealing China's fate and rendering all resistance futile.
Such as when he returned to his bolthole that evening, only to find that Ren had already hijacked the place.
"Good evening, brother," Ren announced from the makeshift dining table that possibly used to be a door. "Feel free to take a seat!"
China looked at him. "This is my place," he said.
"All the more reason to sit down!"
"I just arranged it this morning. It didn't even exist until this morning."
"I'm very fast," Ren said, and took a sip of his soup.
"How did you find me."
"I just followed my heart!"
"He followed his heart," Veneziano chirped, springing just barely into view from the other side of the table. China could see the top of what appeared to be a floppy brown mop, alongside a spiraling curl. But that was about it.
"I followed my heea—ri-aah…" And Ren began to sing.
(Why did China put up with him again?)
Feeling the beginnings of a headache, China simply gave up and sat down. He eyed the food there warily. Ren cooking food was preferable to Ren stealing food, but now and then he liked putting "surprises" in his dishes, allegedly because Veneziano's presence was "fresh and inspiring" and "put a fire in his heart." China was still trying to figure out how to interpret that in a non-creepy way.
"Oh!" Veneziano's hair bobbed up. "Did you find your Oyster?"
"No." Hence China's bad mood.
Veneziano's hair bobbed down. "Oh, I'm sorry. Maybe you'll have better luck next time?" His hair suddenly twitched up again, and vibrated a little before curling slightly. China stared, mesmerized. Veneziano had intensely expressive hair. "If I were you, Mr. Wang Yao, I'd go look in a restaurant, or somewhere with lots of water!"
…Ah. It suddenly occurred to China that, for all this time that he'd been obsessively searching for "Oyster," Veneziano still wasn't aware that Oyster was a person. From Veneziano's perspective, China probably came off as some sort of seafood fanatic.
Ren was grinning at the misunderstanding. "Oh, he's precious, he is! Can I keep him, brother? Can I? It's not like you won't immediately replace him anyway. Tianming always did say you attracted toddlers like rotten fruit attracts ants, minus the eating part—"
"Don't talk about rotten fruit at the dinner table!"
Ren gave a triumphant cry. "If that's the only problem, then that means I can keep him!" he said, delightedly twisting China's words to suit his own nefarious purposes. China's headache instantly came roaring back.
(Why did China put up with him again?)
"I didn't raise you to be a child-abducting hooligan," China said.
"No," Ren agreed, "that's you."
Slowly and deliberately, China brandished his chopsticks. "Eat your soup."
Ren ate his soup. Then he turned to ask the bouncing piece of hair: "Veneziano, who do you think would be nicer to live with, me or the King of Grumpy?"
Veneziano's answer was depressingly swift. Also depressing was his immediate attribution of 'King of Grumpy' to China. "Well, Mr. Ren smiles a lot more than Mr. Wang Yao, and is less scary, and more fashionable, even if Mr. Wang Yao is better at cooking. And Mr. Wang Yao is nice, but he's also a violent mass-murdering traitor criminal so I don't think Signor Maffeo would approve very much, and he'd start yelling and my ears would hurt."
At the 'violent mass-murdering traitor criminal' part, Ren completely cracked up. And then proceeded to leap up from the table to flee the wrath of China's chopsticks.
Strangely enough, there was something noticeably lighter in Ren's expression as China chased him around the battered room, pretending to hit him with his eating utensils, while in the background Veneziano blithely finished off everyone's soup. Almost like a shadow had been lifted—a sort of darkness China hadn't even fully noticed in the first place.
(Maybe that was why.)
Days left until the new moon: 12
"Hey, stop! You don't work here! Get off that horse, it's—come back!"
But the man only shot the postal worker an apologetic smile as he galloped away from the örtege, wind pressing black hair against his funny little hat.
There simply wasn't any time for pleasantries when one wanted to outrun one of the fastest armies in the world.
Days left until the new moon: 10
Pinned to Mr. Ren's tavern door in empty, razor-sharp oyster shells:
Dear Mr. Tavern Owner,
I am still waiting.
Days left until the new moon: 9
Veneziano had a hypothesis. It went like this: Wang Yao, the rampaging mass-murdering traitor criminal, loved oysters. He loved them so much that he would push aside his busy schedule of murdering people, just to look for oysters.
Veneziano's hypothesis had a corollary. It went like this: So long as Wang Yao was looking for oysters, he wasn't murdering people.
A second corollary followed thus: If Veneziano could keep Wang Yao's attention on oysters, then he could potentially save hundreds of lives.
One day, he decided to test this hypothesis on Mr. Ren.
"A-Ah, excuse me," Veneziano said, tugging on Mr. Ren's sleeve, "but I keep hearing this and…why is it so important that Mr. Wang Yao gets his Oyster by the new moon?"
Mr. Ren rubbed his chin in thought. "That's a good question, actually. Well, I don't know the specifics, but I know it's really important. I think a lot of people are depending on this." His usually cheerful expression turned serious. "This might even save a lot of lives."
Veneziano was floored. Could it be? His hypothesis was completely accurate…!
Days left until the new moon: 8
Oyster didn't remember being born. He didn't remember much at all, actually. When he reached way, way, back—as back as he could go—why, all he remembered was darkness and an odd floating sensation. And then cold, stinging air, and icy little rivers upon his face and down his neck. He remembered looking up to see the sky crying all over his hair and skin, and China standing over him, eyes wide in concern, warm hands pulling him from the water.
He must have resembled some strange water creature then, dressed in rags and mud and oyster shells, yellow-bright eyes like goldfish scales gleaming behind algae-tangled hair. Then again, perhaps he was some sort of water creature. There was always that pull, that visceral magnetism, turning his eyes east and south. To the sea.
(Sometimes Oyster still fantasized about becoming the ocean, skin mingling with brine, feet taking him out to shore until the water washed over the top of his hair and into his lungs. Sometimes Oyster fantasized, and forgot that he couldn't actually breathe the sea, that he could drown.)
When Mr. China was in a thoughtful mood, he liked to talk about the others. "Your brothers and sisters," he'd say, with a faraway look. A lovely strong girl named Vietnam, a quiet boy named Japan who lived across the sea. The Three Kingdoms, a trio of unrepentant troublemakers—a sunny boy named Baekje and his sly brother, Koguryo. Oyster often wondered who the third Kingdom was, but China always stopped talking at that point, looking a little lost, so Oyster never pressed.
This was all that Oyster knew of his family. He wondered if they knew of him. Others might find it strange, but it never occurred to him not to consider them family. After all, they were China's family, and China to Oyster was warmth and feeling and home.
Because when it came down to it, Oyster didn't actually know much of anything about himself. For the longest time he didn't even have a name. It was China who finally gave him the affectionate moniker of "Oyster"; it was China who told him of the family he'd never seen; it was China who took him in—who pulled him back—who reminded him not to drown. And he latched onto Mr. China like a desperate limpet, taking in his lessons and mannerisms and stories, taking them for his and making him…there. Alive. Existent.
He wondered, in the quieter hours, about Ms. Jurchen.
Jurchen had been chasing Mr. China for a long time. In terms of fighting capabilities they were about even, but down here in the south, surrounded by defiant Southern Chinese, China was stronger. Jurchen's people were up in the north, far away and subdued. Even after years of hunting and fighting, she couldn't win. It must be so tiresome. Maybe that was why she took Oyster away. Maybe she was just tired.
It was funny—China liked to say that Jurchen was little more than a machine, a clay doll with a painted face and nothing but pulleys and strings on the inside. China liked to say that Jurchen's eyes were soulless. But Oyster wondered about those rare moments where Jurchen, while attempting to bash China over the head, would pause to give him this look. A hungry, searching sort of expression Oyster only ever saw in the mirror.
"Do you know," Oyster whispered to Akutta, Jurchen's dog—because never in a thousand years would he dare say this to Jurchen herself—"Do you know that we have the same eyes?"
Akutta made a whining noise and let Oyster pet his ears. Tentatively, Oyster smiled at him.
"Do you know, Akutta? I don't really like it here. I want to see my brothers and sisters someday. I want to ride out into the ocean and talk to the dolphins. I want to find my name. I…I want to be something."
Akutta made a growling noise and stopped letting Oyster pet his ears.
"I can't stay here forever, you know," Oyster protested, eyes darting and voice feather-soft. If Jurchen were to come back and hear… "Because, because Ms. Jurchen and I need the same thing, I think, and we can't find it here. Not like this. If you ask me, Akutta, I think Ms. Jurchen is going about this all the wrong way, she's not going to ever get what she wants if—"
There was a click as the door unlocked and Ms. Juchen herself stepped inside. Oyster lowered his head and went deathly still, doing his level best to imitate a dead fish. Jurchen hadn't hurt him so far, or even made any threats, but there was still something about her general atmosphere that made one want to run away screaming and never come back. Mr. China called it the Jurchen Effect and cited it as the only reason she won herself the Jin Dynasty.
The door creaked shut and locked again. Then, absolute silence.
"I have food," Jurchen said blandly.
Oyster the Dead Fish instantly and miraculously revived, and scurried over to help her carry everything inside. He ended up not helping all that much, but it was the principle of the thing. Also, Oyster suspected that Jurchen had the latent ability to terminate people with a glance, and he didn't particularly want to become a puddle on the floor on account of impolite behavior.
"She's so scary," Oyster moaned later, once Jurchen was out of hearing range.
Akutta yipped and let him pet his ears again.
Days left until the new moon: 6
"For you," Veneziano said, presenting China with a sheet of paper.
Curious, China accepted it. It appeared to be a masterful and excruciatingly detailed painting of a reddish-brown oyster. Oh, right. Veneziano still believed China to be a seafood fanatic.
"Ah," China said, pleased and mildly bewildered. "It's…it's good. It's very good." Weirdly good. Confusingly good. Wasn't Veneziano blind? Or something?
At the praise, Veneziano smiled at him in delight. Or at least, China assumed Veneziano was smiling at him. For all he knew, the child might be smiling at the pile of dirty laundry in the corner. Sometimes, he wondered if Veneziano was physically capable of opening his eyes.
"You haven't found your Oyster yet," Veneziano said, "so I made one for you to look at in the meantime. I hope it makes you feel better!"
"Ah. I see. Um, thank you." China searched for something meaningful to say. "Why is it red?"
"Well, I didn't have paint, so I was trying to reach the cabinet with the old inksticks. But it was too tall! I tripped and hit my head and started bleeding." Veneziano nodded wisely. "So I just used my blood."
China dropped the painting.
Days left until the new moon: 5
There was a vague, blurry blob in the distance.
Slowly, the blob sharpened into the outline of an approaching courier. Hearing the telltale jangle of bells, and recognizing the tasseled emblem that the courier's horse wore, a young messenger boy ran out just in time to see the courier fall off his horse.
The messenger boy gaped. "Sir! A-Are you alright, sir?"
Picking himself up, the man simply adjusted his funny-looking hat and then smiled pleasantly at him. "Of course." There was blood all over his face. "Why would you feel the need to ask?"
"I just, th-there's a bit of—" The boy paused, confused. "What are you wearing? Where is your paizi?"
The man blinked. "Ah. That."
"You…you're not a sanctioned messenger! Who are you? I'm going to—oof."
It appeared that the man was as clumsy on land as he was on a horse. Somehow, he'd tripped over his own boots and went sprawling into the poor messenger boy.
"Sorry about that," the man said after a moment of confused struggling. He offered a hand and helped the boy to his feet. "And no need to worry, I am sanctioned. My paizi is right here."
The boy blinked. So it was. There it sat, a circular metal plaque, gleaming at his belt. Why hadn't he noticed it before?
"O-Oh. Okay. Sorry, sir."
"That's quite alright. Now, would you happen to know the shortest route to Lin'an?"
Flustered, he rattled off directions. As the man thanked him and headed out, the boy was left with the oddest sensation that he'd missed something.
In a completely unrelated event, he noticed later in the day that his own paizi was nowhere to be found. Strange—he was usually very meticulous about these things. When had he lost it?
Days left until the new moon: 4
Sometimes it was difficult to breathe here, in Kinsay. The rows of wooden buildings stood cramped and close in multicolored clusters; their roots cobbled the roads in uneven heaves; their beams scraped together like gangly elbows; their porches bled into a single unending line. It was less of a city than dense forest of buildings. A forest of wood and water, crowded in chaotic coexistence.
Of course, with its closely-linked network of buildings cut from wood and bamboo, many districts in Kinsay faced the constant danger of fire. Perhaps that was the reason for the enormous storage facilities, located near the gate on the north-east ramparts. The Polos had been directed to the warehouses to store their goods. Supposedly it was the closest thing one could get to completely fireproof. Surrounded on all sides by water, walls lined with watchmen—almost overkill, really. Also, extraordinarily expensive.
It was here that the Polos were currently headed, intent on retrieving their merchandise. They would have stayed longer if they could, but all efforts at locating Veneziano themselves had proved fruitless, and they really needed to be on their way. Thanks to Niccolo's efforts, in a few days it was entirely possible that an army would arrive on Kinsay's doorstep, and the Polos didn't particularly want to be there when it happened.
Niccolo, who had taken a rather vicious disliking to their infamous Wang Yao, didn't really think too much about the consequences of this. Marco didn't give it much thought either, too busy moping about in depression as he was—after that highly dubious victory in the örtege, Marco had sunk back into guilty listlessness. Maffeo, however, had been obsessively studying the criminal records in his spare time, and he was beginning to have some doubts.
"Don't you think it's at least a little strange?"
Niccolo shrugged. "It's strange that we're still talking about this. Seems pretty straightforward to me." He turned to wave a badge at one of the security guards.
"The dates, Niccolo," Maffeo insisted, frowning. "I've been translating and comparing the dates, and it's odd. One month he's being a rebel in Koryo, in the same month he's suddenly being a rebel in Hubei—and then the next month he's vandalizing a monastery in Tibet? Can anyone travel that fast?"
"Mongolia's horses are fast," Marco suddenly said, sounding somewhat dazed and not all there. "Fastest in the world. Kublai Khan said so."
Maffeo huffed impatiently. "Even if he somehow had miracle horses, the location must have changed at least twenty times!"
Niccolo didn't seem to find anything odd about that. "So he likes traveling? Really, Maffeo, I'm not sure why you'd expect me to understand the psychology of criminals. Oh, pardon, can we have our—" The guard gave Niccolo the key to their storage room. "Ah, thank you."
"And," Maffeo grumbled, "I'm still trying to figure out how someone can sabotage the conquest of a nation across the ocean, while running around with rebels somewhere far inland. How exactly is he accomplishing all of this? Unless Wang Yao is so evil he warps the fabric of space and time?"
"Maybe he had accomplices? Maybe the records mixed up some of the dates? Or maybe the dates on each entry isn't the time that the crime was committed, but the time it was recorded? I can only begin to guess, but Maffeo, it's hardly something to throw a fuss about." Niccolo paused to lift a heavy-looking knapsack. "We only know one thing for certain, and it's that Wang Yao kidnapped our Venice. Our nation. I think that is more than enough reason to go after him." Niccolo peered at his brother over the top of a heavy knapsack. "It's very weird, you know, being the voice of reason. Are you sick?"
"I am not sick. I just…I've got a bad feeling."
"Me too," Marco said, looking miserable. "I feel horrible. It's all my fault. Everything is my fault."
"…Not that kind of bad feeling." Although, to be brutally honest, there was some of that kind, too.
"It's probably because we had our own country violently torn from our hands," Niccolo said, patting Marco's shoulder in comfort. "In a very literal way, no less. The sooner we get Venice back, the sooner we can put all the nastiness and bad feelings behind us."
Maffeo wasn't sure it was that, either. But what could he do? They were just merchants. They bought things, and sold things, and carried things from point A to point B. That was about the extent of their capabilities.
They loaded their donkeys in silence, and left the warehouse with the sun at their backs.
Days left until the new moon: 3
It was so frustrating.
For all his promises of help, Ren couldn't manage to locate Oyster, either. He'd scoured the districts, kept his ears open and nose to the ground, contacted his scattered informants—but to no avail. It was as if the boy had vanished off the face of the earth, and even ghosts wouldn't know of where to find him.
Ren returned to his tavern that evening, limp as a spring onion. Part of him wanted to go bother China and Veneziano again—it never failed to raise his spirits—but he didn't quite have the heart to face them at the moment.
There was a man in a funny-looking hat sitting cross-legged at the entrance of his tavern. At Ren's approach, the man looked up and smiled faintly. His face, horrifyingly enough, was streaked in red.
"The Southern Courage," he observed. "Not very subtle, are you?"
Ren felt like someone had smashed his heart out of his chest and then thrown it in a sewer.
"You," Ren said, stumbling backward and reaching for the nearest item in a wild attempt at self-defense. He wasn't sure what he planned to do with a discarded yo-yo, but he was certain he'd figure out something suitably impressive. "What are you doing here, Koryo? I ought to get China and, and, and do something!"
Mr. Ren, undisputed master of threatening threats.
"No need for that," Koryo said, rising to his feet. There was, of all things, a paizi pendant tied to his belt. Since when was this scumbag an imperial courier of the Mongols? "You should probably calm down; you're starting to attract attention."
He was right, as reluctant as Ren was to admit it. Passersby were starting to stare at the weirdo who seemed to be threatening yo-yo violence on another weirdo in a hat. Great. Excellent. Marvelous.
Ren scowled, marched forward, and tugged Koryo inside. In a stroke of vicious genius, he allowed his yo-yo to collide against Koryo's leg as he whirled around to shut the door. Ha. That'd show him. Mr. Ren, undisputed master of violent cruelty.
"You are not supposed to be here," Ren began, jabbing a finger toward Koryo's shoulder. Or, more accurately, in Koryo's shoulder. Very in. Ren withdrew his hand and started massaging it. What the heck was Koryo made out of? Ancient petrified tree?
Unconcerned, Koryo inspected his bleeding face in the reflection of a dinner plate. "Of course Koryo isn't allowed to be here. That's why he's still in Shangdu."
"I hate it when you speak in third person. And lie. You horrible lying liar. Who am I'm talking to, then, a figment of my imagination?"
Koryo looked up and quirked a blood-streaked brow. "Koryo is in Shangdu," he said slowly, as if repeating it often enough would make it somehow true. "Which means Koryo is not here, which means you aren't talking to him today. You're talking to an interested customer who would really like some rice wine, but unfortunately they have such terrible customer service here. Dear me, do you interrogate all your patrons like this?"
Ren wondered if it was possible to murder someone with a yo-yo. With stiff, angry movements, he opened the cabinet, reached inside for one of the surviving wine jars, grabbed a cup from the counter, and then dumped the entire jar over the cup. The cup shattered.
"Your wine, dearest customer," Ren said sweetly through clenched teeth, gesturing at the sopping countertop. A passive-aggressive masterpiece. Truly, this was art. Art. Koryo himself was the king of passive-aggressive scumbag behavior; he ought to at least respect Ren's valiant efforts. Right? Right.
But, as usual, Koryo was being an unappreciative ass. He wasn't looking at the counter, Ren noted with indignation, but was instead still staring at the open cabinet. Seriously, would it kill him to look a little more pissed off?
"You, ah…" Koryo paused, blinking. There was a very odd expression on his face. "You still have those, huh."
What was he talking about? Curiosity briefly overtaking his anger, Ren looked over to see what was so interesting.
He couldn't tell what Koryo was talking about, at first. But then he saw it: at the very back of the shelf, shuffled behind a scant array of wine jars, was a series of little celadon pots. They sat modestly in a row, round bodies glazed kingfisher green, a faint sheen of light rolling down their necks. Peeking out from behind the other earthenware, just barely visible, was the white and red inlay of cranes in flight.
Warm yellow light, a spinning pottery wheel, and six little hands kneading the clay into shape. Childish laughter and arguments—you're pressing too hard, you're in my way, your hands are too fat, and oh dear, can we even all fit here? Let's make cranes. Three cranes, flying through the forever-sky and convinced they'd live together, into eternity.
Ren slammed the cabinet door shut.
Koryo was quiet.
"I was—going to throw them out anyway," Ren said, after a period of silence. "I just forgot. I'll get rid of them tomorrow."
They lapsed into silence again.
Then Koryo looked away, fingers tapping against the wine-slick countertop. "The Mongol örtege system is a revolutionary information network of vast proportions," he said.
Ren stared at him. "…Okay."
With a sigh, Koryo pushed himself away from the counter and began wandering around the still-recovering tavern. Throughout it all, he continued to talk in a mild, lecturing tone, like a super annoying version of one of China's scholars.
"Ever since its conception, the various Khans have invested enormous amounts of time and effort to ensure that the örtege is always running at maximum efficiency." He peered curiously at the remains of a tattered black opera mask, and then moved on to explore the newly-installed shelves. "As such, it enjoys special privileges, and surrounding villages are required to provide resources and lend support whenever necessary. It's a highly sophisticated system that encourages discipline, facilitates communication, and even bolsters trade."
Koryo was now examining a wine gourd he'd picked from the shelf. "The Khan also uses the örtege for military purposes, you know. For a messenger system to be effective, it must be faster than the army it supports, wouldn't you agree? It's a particularly impressive feat when one considers how swift the Mongol army already moves." He placed the gourd back on its shelf and began eyeing the other vessels. "Just imagine. A messenger from Shangdu to Lin'an could take…perhaps seven and a half days. Whereas a military force would take several days longer, perhaps four or five. It's rather amazing, don't you think?"
Ren fake-grinned at him. "Yes, this is very interesting propaganda. Do you have a point?"
"My point is that it took me about two days to properly find you," Koryo said. He dipped his head, tapped his hat, and smiled faintly. "That is all. Good night, brother."
He was already sauntering out the door by the time Ren recovered from his sputtering enough to yell after him, "Don't call me that!"
With a huff, Ren hunched over the countertop and fumed at his yo-yo. It was so frustrating. Trust Koryo to stroll in like he owned the place, deliver a random speech about the glories of the Mongol Empire, and then waltz away like nothing had happened. Well, Ren's mood was officially ten times worse than it had been earlier.
Grumbling, he went to clean up the mess.
Two hours later, he slammed his fist on the counter and was struck with the sudden urge to destroy something with a yo-yo. That bastard had stolen all his best wines!
Seven hours later, the implications of Koryo's weirdo speech finally dawned on him. Oh, Ren was so stupid. That courier's paizi tied to his belt…the insistence that Koryo is still in Shangdu, Koryo isn't here…the oddly specific estimates for the time it took to travel from Shangdu to Lin'an…
Ren swore and bolted out of the tavern, clad in nothing but his nightwear.
Days left until the new moon: 2
"Brother brother brother let me in!"
China jolted awake. Ren? What on earth did he want at this hour? It was so late it was early. He half-stumbled his way to the door, intent on dragging the boy inside before he woke up the entire surrounding neighborhood. That last thing they needed at the moment was excess attention.
Ren practically plowed into him when he opened the door.
"Ouch. Ren, stop yelling, you're going to wake Veneziano. What do you want?"
"Mongolia's sending an army to attack Lin'an!"
It wasn't all bad news. In the morning, Ren learned that China had finally managed to secure a lead. Apparently, one of his scouts had sighted Jurchen leaving and entering the Imperial Palace. It would certainly explain their lack of success, since China had initially assumed Jurchen would be somewhere in one of the lower districts. The Imperial Palace was so high-profile, and so hostile to northerners like Jurchen, that China hadn't even considered it. Turned out she'd been there the entire time, hidden in plain sight.
"Wait," Ren said. "If Jurchen's somehow in the palace, can't you just go in and ask the emperor to arrest her or something? I mean, she did kidnap Oyster."
"Well, I'm a wanted criminal."
"Yeah, but, you know." Ren waved his arms vaguely. "You've got that thing with all your emperors, right? I mean, he should know you. He's your emperor. Not Jurchen's. Not Mongolia's."
China still looked uncertain. "Maybe. I suppose I was hesitant to go because, well, he's…" He closed his eyes, and something in his expression hardened. "But that doesn't matter. We're running out of time. There's only two days to the new moon, and if what you say is correct, the Mongol army could be arriving here any time now. We have to warn the Song court."
"Yes. Of course I'll get my brother out, too."
"Okay. What do you want me to do?"
"You stay here."
At that statement, Ren paused to blink at him. What? Stay here? Preposterous. Absolutely preposterous. Ren objected to this.
"I object to this," Ren said. "I really, really object to this. Brother, you said I could help!"
China opened his eyes and fixed him with a stern look. "I said you could help as long as Jurchen didn't see you."
"I'll be careful!"
"No means no."
Ren pouted. "That's…that's not fair. If you're my brother, and Oyster is your brother…don't you understand? Oyster is my brother, too! I want him safe as much as you do!"
Maybe something in his words got through to China's thick, stubborn head, because the stern lines around China's frown softened. "Oh, Ren."
And he reached out and enveloped Ren in a hug.
Not expecting this, Ren froze. For a long while he just stood there awkwardly, like some sort of super-repressed, touch-deprived teenager. It was…this was weird. He hugged China all the time, and yet—
Slowly, he closed his eyes. There was the soft press of fabric, of gentle hands on the back of his neck and across his shoulder-blades, and a slow steady heartbeat that blended into Ren's racing one, and the subtle scent of ginger and ginseng and tea. If Ren pretended hard enough, he could feel two more bodies pressed alongside him, two more heartbeats, and crap crap crap he didn't deal well with nostalgia, his stomach was doing these crazy flips and he didn't deal well with nostalgia.
"Yes, I want Oyster safe," China said into his hair, "but I want you safe, too."
This was not fair. This was emotional manipulation.
"So stay here and look after Veneziano, okay?"
Glumly, Ren nodded, and China withdrew with a slight smile, brushing a hand along the side of Ren's head to smooth out a curl of flyaway hair. Ren's vision blurred, and he suddenly felt like a child again.
"Thank you, Baekje."
And then he was gone.
Bamboo scraped against old wooden floorboards, and Veneziano poked his head out from behind the folding screen. He hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but he'd gotten a bit stuck while trying to leave, and then they started talking about how…
Ren propped his head up from where it'd been miserably ensconced in his arms. His hunched posture made him look like a hermit crab, and his eyelids were suspiciously puffy.
"I wasn't crying or anything," he mumbled.
Veneziano clumsily untied his bonnet and then plodded over, holding the piece of fabric in offering. Ren took it, turned away to hide his face, and mopped his eyes.
"Mr. Ren," Veneziano said again. "Is it true, what you and Mr. Wang Yao were saying?" He wrung his hands, anxious. "The Oyster that everyone's been looking for…is actually Mr. Wang Yao's brother? Your brother?"
"A-Ah. So you heard that." Ren peered up from Veneziano's soggy bonnet and gave him a smile. It was a lot more wobbly than his usual smiles. "Yes, Oyster is our little brother. He's really small, and nice, and cute. I think you'd like him. Just—he talks really really quiet so it's hard to hear him sometimes, but he's very nice, and he likes eating oysters, and he doesn't deserve to be kidnapped at all, he's a good kid and dammit I should be doing something, I should be doing something!"
He had uncurled from his hermit hunch and was ranting a bit at the end, but somehow Veneziano didn't find this frightening at all, even though he didn't usually like loud, angry noises. If anything, Veneziano stood up a little straighter.
Truth to be told, this entire business sounded rather dangerous to get involved in, especially with the army they had mentioned. Veneziano had a particular aversion to warfare, and wasn't much good at fighting anyway—so he really didn't know why he said it, in the end.
Perhaps it was because he'd grown attached to these two strange people over the past weeks. Wang Yao the murderer, who didn't actually seem to murder people, who was bossy and easily embarrassed, who was good at cooking, who was looking for his little brother. Ren the quirky tavern owner, who didn't actually seem to work at his tavern very much, who had warm sunshine smiles and plentiful hugs, who was so fun to play with, who tried to hide it when he cried.
Or perhaps it was because, deep down inside, Veneziano didn't like the idea of two brothers separated from one another.
"Mr. Ren," Veneziano said, "I want to help you."
1] Timeline: Still 1270s AD. Mid-seventies, to be precise. Hangzhou/Lin'an/Kinsay's time is ticking.
2] Crow-feathered suns: In many Asian cultures, the sun can be represented as a bird. One of the more common forms is a three-legged crow, called sanzuwu (三足乌) in Chinese Mandarin, and samjok-o (삼족오) in Korean Hangul. In Koguryo, the samjok-o was a highly revered symbol of power, considered more awesome than even the dragon and the phoenix. This translates to a whole lot of awesome.
3] Akutta: Other possible spellings include Aguda and Akuta. Akutta's name is a reference to Emperor Taizu of Jin, a.k.a Wanyan Aguda, a.k.a. the Jurchen chieftain who founded the Jin Dynasty.
4] Inksticks: Solid sticks of ink which are ground against an ink stone and mixed with water to produce liquid ink. Considered one of the "Four Treasures of the Study," alongside the ink stone, the brush, and the paper.
5] Paizi: Engraved metal plaques. In the örtege, each rider wore a paizi to symbolize that they were messengers of the Khan.
6] Paranoid warehouses and fires: Lin'an was very densely populated, and its buildings were largely made of wood and bamboo, so fire was a very real problem. Small fires occurred almost every year, while the bigger ones could destroy as many as 30,000 houses in one go. The safety warehouses I mentioned were largely funded by filthy rich people (upper-class families, empresses, etc.) who rented out the storage space to shopkeepers and merchants.
7] Yo-yo: Refers to the Chinese yo-yo, not the western one. (The Chinese yo-yo is shaped like an hourglass, whereas the western one is shaped like an English muffin.) I believe the earliest known record was somewhere around the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), although some historians think the yo-yo originated as far back as 1000 BC.
8] Celadon pottery: Celadon refers to that pretty greenish hue, which appears after firing the clay in the kiln. First developed in China, but eventually spread to other regions like Korea, Japan, and Thailand. The Koreans, in particular, took the celadon methodology and owned it. During the Koryo dynasty, they developed a special technique called sanggam, which involves taking advantage of different colored clays to create intricate inlaid designs, like flowers and birds. Basically you use a stylus to carve out the design you want, and then you fill in the indentations with colorful clays. And now I've talked more about ceramics than you ever wanted to hear, so let's move on.
9] Koryo: An alternate spelling is Goryeo. Koryo is the Korean kingdom who united the Later Three Kingdoms, and considered itself the successor of Koguryo (alternate spelling Goguryeo). At this point in time, Koryo was under the control of the Mongols. This is why Koryo was so insistent on plausible deniability when he visited Ren/Baekje; he couldn't go against Mongolia and he didn't want to get himself in trouble.
10] Baekje: One of the Three Kingdoms (the other two being Koguryo and Silla). Later revived as Hubaekje ("Later Baekje") during the Later Three Kingdoms. Hubaekje surrendered to Koryo in 926.