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Red Hands, Black Hands

a short story
by Chris Roberson

Song Huagu stood beneath the hanging cages of jeweled scarabs and giant centipedes, her eyes on the mysterious newcomer at the far side of the atrium. Their hostess, Madam Jade, had a mania for inviting foreigners, wandering mendicants, touring entertainers and diplomats to her little gatherings, so it came as no surprise to Song that she'd not seen him before. Still and all, there was a certain intensity to the rugged man that set him apart from the usual gang of effetes and dilettantes that frequented Madam Jade's salon.

It was the first night of the Spring Lantern Festival, and the city of Fuchuan was festooned with chains of lights. From Madam Jade's high windows, Song could see the twinklings in the streets below, newfound constellations to mirror those in the night sky. But if the stars above held in their orbits the fates of men, the movements of the Weaving Woman, and the Purple Luminous, and the twin stars of the Southern Gate governing the destinies of mortals, then what might these new configurations of brief lights below portend? That cluster of yellow lantern lights near the Red Flower District, suggesting two circles and a line. Song named it the Velocipede, and gave to it providence over the fates of merchants who bilked their customers. That string of green flickerings near the Governor's Palace, it became the Ladder, and ruled over the dim futures of girls from humble beginnings who desired some better life than society had in store for them.

But supposing that these terrestrial constellations did have some influence over the lives of the city's inhabitants, Song mused, her fancy taken to extremes, then did not men have the power to change their own destinies, merely by rearranging configurations of lanterns?

There was a story in this somewhere, Song Huagu decided. She'd find a place for it. Perhaps in the little piece she was scripting for the Imperial Fuchuan Opera.

Song's gaze drifted back to the stranger at the far side of the room. The skin around his eyes and mouth was pale in comparison to his sun-darkened cheeks and forehead, suggestive of someone who had spent some considerable time outside the confines of the Tianfei Valley, out on the high plains of the red planet's surface, where the air was thin and unsatisfying, and where breather-masks and goggles were still a necessity. The Council of Deliberative Officials had released a report late the previous year, which stated that the planet Huo Hsing was within four generations of producing sufficient levels of oxygen and nitrogen that breathers would no longer be necessary even at the planet's highest peaks, but Song had heard such optimistic reports before, and gave them little credit.

The stranger could have been in military service, as there were permanent garrisons throughout the southern reaches and northern plains, but he hadn't the mien of an officer in the Army of the Green Standard, and Song could hardly imagine Madam Jade inviting a common foot-soldier to one of her parties. He could have been a farmer, too, tending the expansive fields of rice and grains that provided the three valley provinces with sustenance, but his eyes seemed a little quick to have spent a lifetime staring endlessly at unmoving seas of green shoots or chessboard squares of water and rice. With his thick arms and strong hands, he could just as well be a miner, bringing up from the planet's heart the rocks and stones from which the refineries squeezed their breathable air. But what business would a miner have in the capital city of Yingzhou Province, much less one of Madam Jade's celebrations?

Having played enough of her game of speculations, Song sought out their hostess for facts instead. She found Madam Jade deep in conversation in a far corner with Rahk-San, a woman of British extraction who spoke an antique form of Mandarin with stammering grace, but who could always be counted on for an amusing anecdote. Madam Jade was dressed in a high-necked dress of deeply embroidered silk, her hair lacquered back in a matronly bun. A conservative look, as would befit the honored wife of a high civil servant, but which hardly hinted at the heart that burned within.

Song Huagu herself affected male dress, even going so far as to shave her forehead in the traditional Manchurian fashion, but while this did little to deter her admirers among the men in her circle, to say nothing of a certain segment of the women, Song couldn't help but feel that she was the inverse of Madam Jade. While Song's own mode of dress was daring and iconoclastic, at heart she was still in many ways the girl she'd been raised, granddaughter of the military governor of the Fangzhang province, her instincts and leanings inescapably conservative and provincial.

Madam Jade, by contrast, with her typically reserved demeanor and appearance, was a true libertine, and rumored tribadist. She had immigrated from Earth under something of a cloud, the rumors held, though she would never admit to the reasons. With her fascinations for odd instincts, her house was littered with hanging cages filled with all manner of chirping and clacking creatures. During her almost interminable gatherings, to which she invited musicians, philosopher, writers and artists from across the whole Tianfei Valley, chief among them the self-styles Deviates of which Song Huagu was one, Madam Jade would take a favorite pet from its cage and, keeping it on a leash of silver chain fine as a child's hair, parade around the party with the insect blissfully chattering and chirruping away on her shoulder.

Seeing Song's approach, Madam Jade skillfully extracted herself from the conversation with the British woman, and stroking the praying mantis perched on her forearm, drifted over.

"Song Huagu," Madam Jade lilted, inclining her head slightly and drawing up level with Song, "I had not noticed your arrival. I hope the Spring Lantern Festival finds you well?"

Song nodded slightly.

"I could not have missed one of your parties, O Celestial Hostess," she answered, "even if I have spent the better part of this evening in a dark corner. I'm afraid that the Spring Lantern Festival finds me wrestling with an enigma."

"A riddle?" Madam Jade answered, an arch smile on her painted lips. "To vex the great thinker and fabled novelist herself?"

Song forced a smile.

"Not so great, nor nearly so fabled, my dear Madam Jade, as you would have your foreign guests believe."

"Everyone likes the idea of touching greatness," Madam Jade said, "if only for a fleeting moment, and those who brave the long voyage across the dead sea plains, or encased in porcelain and steel across the cold interplanetary gulfs, come to the storied city of Fuchuan to touch greatness, in some form or fashion. It is merely my role, as unacknowledged ambassador to the greater world, to arrange matters so that they may do so." Madam Jade paused, whispering brief endearments to her mantis. "Speaking of which," she continued, "where is your paramour, Pan Xo? The Hegemon of the Southern Fastness was here earlier, anxious that I introduce him to the best respected zither virtuoso of our generation."

A shadow passed over Song's face, for the barest instant.

"He is at his rooms on the Avenue of Flowers," Song answered, her eyes flitting to the floor. "His health, never the best, has taken a turn these past weeks, and I'm afraid he is too ill to go abroad most days."

Madam Jade reached out a hand tipped in golden nails, and brushed Song's elbow with a brief touch.

"My sympathies, Song Huagu," Madam Jade said. "I know it must be difficult. I shall have to visit Pan Xo at his rooms, some day in the not too distant future." Brightening, she leaned in close, and whispered conspiratorially. "Now, what about this riddle you mention?"

Inclining her head slightly, Song indicated the stranger at the far side of the room, who was deep in conversation with a composer whose name Song could never recall.

"I have been attempting to divine the identity of one of your partygoers," Song answered, "but so far have been met with no success."

Madam Jade followed her gaze, and smiled.

"His name is Jiang Hu," Madam Jade answered, "a visitor from the Northern plains to our fair city, native to the mining regions. He spends more time, as I understand it, studying politics and economics than down digging with his brethren, though his hands still seem blackened by some amount of industry." Madam Jade raised her painted eyebrows in a meaningful look, and drifted off to see to her other guests.

Song Huagu looked at the stranger with renewed interest. The shaded meaning of Madam Jade's comment about "blackened" hands had not gone unnoticed.

In the days that followed, Song Huagu found herself again and again thinking of the stranger, Jiang Hu. She was now convinced he was an agitator with an insurrectionist movement, but propriety kept her from broaching the subject outright. She had to see him again, arrange an introduction, and draw him out by subtle means.

Meeting with her publisher in his offices in the Trade District, Song found herself almost completely unable to follow the thread of his conversation, concentrating instead on strategy relating to the enigmatic stranger.

"Huagu," the publisher said, addressing her as a father would a child, "we simply must have your next manuscript by the end of the season, or the markets will be in an uproar. I can appreciate your desire to test your talents in more diverse arenas, but these articles and essays for the periodicals are diluting your energies. To say nothing of the fact that they are at best in questionable political taste, and at worst actionable offenses. If the governor or his ministers ever deigned to read one of your diatribes, or worse yet you came to the attention of the Emperor back on Earth, may-he-reign-10,000-years, your life wouldn't be worth the blank paper you write upon."

"I do not write what the people want to read, Chu," Song answered, "I tell them what they should read."

"Well, what I think the people should read is your next novel," the publisher said. "Politics are all well and good for civil servants and those who have passed their examinations, but for lowly merchants like myself, and the humble people whom we serve, they are nothing but a waste of air and ink. What the people want is wuxia, novels of the martial spirit, grand tales of men and women from ordinary circumstances rising to perform extraordinary feats. You should write more like your 'The Romance of the Princess and the Bandit.' That's what people want to read. Not calls for social reforms, and reviews of musical performances no right-thinking person can sit through without gouging out their own eardrums."

"I have in mind a story set in a world unlike our own, in some altered history," Song answered, her eyes drifting to the corners of the room, "where rather than China conquering the whole of the Earth, some other power beat us to it. The Mexica, perhaps. Or the Hindu."

"The Hindu?" the publisher repeated, flabbergasted. "You might just as easily imagine the Britons had conquered the Earth. May the gods and ancestors save me from more of your 'speculations.' The last batch sold hardly at all, barely covering the price of printing them. No more."

In a single movement, Song rose up from her seat, her manner distracted. She started towards the door.

"By the end of the season, Huagu!" the publisher repeated, rising up, his hands pressed down on the pitted wood of his wide desk. "I need your next manuscript by then, and no later."

Song nodded absently, but paused at the threshold to call back over her shoulder.

"Oh, I don't think I mentioned," she said. "I have been commissioned by the Imperial Fuchuan Opera to write the script of their next program, so I may be busy with that for some time to come. But I will get that novel to you soon, Chu. I promise. It will be the Mexica, I think."

Song turned and drifted out of the room, not noticing the red-faced state in which she'd left the publisher.

That night, at Pan Xo's rooms on the Avenue of Flowers, Song's thoughts were on the northern miner all through the evening meal.

Song Huagu and Pan Xo had been friends and lovers for years, but though they shared their lives, and their beds, they would share neither a house nor marital vows. Song had left her grandmother's home in Fangzhang province years before to escape an arranged marriage that threatened to ruin every dream she had in life. Despite the deep and long affection she held for the zither-player Pan, Song could never bring herself again to look favorably on the idea of matrimony. Her life was her own, to be shared with others when and where she saw fit.

Song knew that Pan would prefer a more traditional arrangement, with the two of them sharing a roof and living as husband and wife, but Song had grown too attached to her freedoms in her years in the city to ever concede. Pan accepted things as they were, reluctantly, for fear of the alternative.

Throughout the meal, Pan Xo kept up a lively string of anecdotes and amusements from his day, interrupted by persistent wet coughs. By the time the first course was done, and his servants were laying out the second, the little square of silk with which he covered his coughs was already stained an unpleasant brown with clotted blood.

Song felt as though she were betraying Pan just by thinking of another man in his presence, especially when Pan's health had deteriorated so fast, so far. She did her best to remain engaged in his conversation, and not to turn her head in disgust when he was racked by ever more violent coughs. Even so, her distraction had not escaped his notice.

"Huagu, my love," Pan Xo said, clearing his throat with a grimace and dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a fresh silk square. "You seem a thousand miles away. Where are you thoughts?"

Song's breath caught, and her faced flush involuntary red.

"I am thinking of the opera, dear heart," Song Huagu answered.

"Oh," Pan said, brightening. "What do you think you will write on?"

Song sighed, despite herself.

"I am thinking of writing something about the miners in the northern plains," she answered.

The following week brought warm breezes from the north, carrying with them dark acrid smoke that yellowed the sky by day and obscured the stars by night. The lanterns, left hanging after the festival the week before, were the only constellations visible by which men's fate could be steered.

At yet another party at Madam Jade's salon, Song Huagu had arranged an introduction to Jiang Hu, through the auspices of the hostess herself. Song had made guarded inquiries about Jiang during the week past, amongst those in her circle she knew had met with him, and learned that he had come to the city to raise funds from among those in the moneyed classes sympathetic to the miners' cause. Shorter hours, better conditions, and higher wages seemed the central pillars, though Song had heard whispers of more radical agendas among the miners and their supporters.

"Jiang Hu, honored guest," Madam Jade said, guiding the northern man gently by the elbow to Song's orbit, "allow me to present Fuchuan's favorite daughter, the great thinker and greater writer, Song Huagu."

Jiang Hu bowed, while Song bobbed her head in response.

Having made even the briefest of connections, Madam Jade glided off into the party, petting the enormous orange-and-black beetle clinging to her shoulder.

"I am honored to make your acquaintance, Song Huagu," Jiang Hu said. "I am, of course, familiar with your work, though I must admit that I have little time to read for pleasure myself. When I was at the Imperial Academy, though, many of my fellow examinees did little else but read your novels, which I am afraid to say was reflected in their poor examination scores."

"You took the examinations?" Song asked, more than a little surprised. "But, then why didn't you enter civil service yourself?"

Jiang Hu took a deep breath, and a faraway look crept into his dark eyes.

"Having learned enough philosophy, cosmology, theology and law to serve the Emperor," he answered, "I had also come to learn that I could better serve my fellow man. My father was a miner, and the son of miners, and though it was his fondest wish that I would leave that life behind, while I was still away at my studies, he was killed when an improperly reinforced chamber collapsed, crushing him beneath. If the mines and their wardens were held to the same high standards as those seeking civil service, my father would doubtless be alive today. So I returned to the Imperial Carbonate-Nitrate Mines, got a shift as an entry level miner, and set about learning for myself just what needed to be improved. Now that I know, I have returned to the city, to raise funds necessary to effect direct change."

Song eyed him, with increased respect but also the sure suspicion that he was not being entirely forthcoming.

"I wonder, given your background," she said, casually, "about your impression of my essay for this week's Fuchuan Ledger."

Jiang Hu shrugged, apologetically.

"I'm sorry," he answered, "but I've been so busy on coming to the city that I've had little time to keep up with the news of the day, and am afraid I've not had the chance to read that essay."

"Well," Song replied, "it's on the subject of insurrectionist movements, which seem to spring up like lichens in the outer districts, particularly the north. The White Lotus, the Red Turbans, the Orphan Band ... " She paused, significantly, and added, "The Black Hands."

She watched Jiang Hu's face closely for any sign, any reaction, but if she'd touched a nerve, his expression did not betray him, the only change a slight narrowing of the eyes.

"As I have said," he answered in measured tones, "I have not yet read it."

"You must allow me, then, to bring you a copy of the abstract to review," Song said, "as I'm sure you'd have a unique perspective on the topic." She paused, looking him in the eyes. "Since you come from a region known for insurrection, naturally."

With a wary nod, Jiang Hu agreed. While they arranged the details, Madam Jade reappeared, the orange-and-black beetle on her shoulder and Pan Xo at her side.

"Song Huagu," Madam Jade sang, "look who managed to rouse himself from bed to attend my little assembly."

"Well, Madam Jade," Pan Xo answered, "when I received her personal and heartfelt invitation, how could I possibly refuse?"

"Precisely put," Madam Jade said, taking Pan Xo's elbow. "Master Pan, allow me to introduce Song Huagu's newest friend and admirer, Jiang Hu."

Pan Xo, looking with some small confusion from Song to Jiang Hu and back, gave a small bow and then moved to stand next to Song.

"Your servant," Jiang Hu said, bowing in return.

"I apologize for my intrusion," Madam Jade said, turning away. "I will leave you to your dialogue, as I have other guests to attend to."

The three, Song, Jiang and Pan, were left standing together, an odd and strangled silence hanging over them.

Two days later, Song Huagu and Jiang Hu met at a tea house at the southern edge of the city, with an expansive view of the Tianfei Valley's south cliff wall and, beyond, the towering majesty of the Heaven's Ladder, rising up from the docking pyramid to the geosynchronous orbital platform high overhead. Jiang read Song's handwritten manuscript pages for the article, the characters drawn in a swift and sure hand, while she looked on, serenely smoking from a long-handled engraved-silver pipe that had belonged to her father, and her grandfather before him.

When he had finished, Jiang set the pages down gently on the table between them, and regarded Song with a long look.

"You seem to have some high regard for many of the insurrectionists," he said evenly. "I would think that a dangerous opinion to hold for someone in a position such as yours."

"On the contrary, Jiang Hu," she replied, drawing deeply from the pipe before continuing and breathing out twin streams of blue smoke from her nostrils. "Someone in my position is duty bound to express their true feelings, and my true feelings and sympathies lie with those who seek to throw off the yoke of oppression."

"You sound like a revolutionary," Jiang said, guardedly.

"Do I?"

Jiang took a deep breath, and considered his next statement.

"The principle problem facing insurrectionists is not, as one might think, the threat of military force," he went on, finally. "The key concern is one of proper funding. To wage a war, even one of ideas such as that fought by, say, the Black Hands, is an expensive proposition, and yet ironically one of the main issues driving many to join such movements is the lack of proper financial compensation for their labors. So whence is the funding to come?"

Song tapped out the burnt ashes from the pipe's bowl into a tray before her.

"Unfortunate, then," she answered, "that a movement, the Black Hands for example, do not have a tireless champion such as yourself to travel to the centers of commerce to raise moneys for their purpose."

A slow smile played across Jiang's face.

"Yes," he said with some amusement, "it is unfortunate."

The pair of them dined that evening at Song's home, and Jiang stayed on long after the servants had been dismissed.

In the twilight hours, laying side by side on Song's wide couch, their naked flesh sweat-slicked and cooled by the slight breeze through the open shutters, Song told Jiang about her grandest ambitions, of what she hoped to accomplish through her art.

"I want to give people not just entertainment, but inspiration," she said in a low voice, her mouth brought near his cheek. "To communicate to the masses through populist novel or play what I try to communicate to the enlightened classes through my essays and articles."

"I know few miners who can read, whether article or novel," Jiang whispered, caressing Song's waist with the tips of his fingers.

"Through the plays, then," Song answered, passionately. "Through spoken word, and dance, and song, to communicate the fundamental rights I think that no society can survive without."

Jiang kissed her neck, and whispered, "And what are those?"

"Redistribution of property," Song said, tangling her fingers in Jiang's long hair. "Property ownership and inheritance for women," she added, brushing her lips against his forehead. "Repeal of laws preventing women from divorcing their husbands or remarrying after their husband's death," she said, shivering as Jiang's touch grazed across her belly. "Universal suffrage," she finished.

Jiang shifted, and took her in his arms.

"You sound like a revolutionary," he said.

"I am," she answered, breathless. "Oh, I am."

The next morning, while Jiang Hu dressed and Song Huagu wrote a few lines of her script for the opera in bed, a write tablet balanced on her knees, a servant entered, announcing visitors.

"Show them in," Song answered absently, intent on her work, pausing only to draw a blanket up over her naked shoulders. She could not abide interruptions when she worked, but it was usually quicker to dispense with visitors in person than deal with any formalities.

Song heard the sound of her chamber door sliding open, and then a quick intake of breath. Annoyed at the distraction, she looked up, and found Pan Xo and Madam Jade standing at the threshold.

Pan looked shocked, eyes wide, while Madam Jade hid a sly smile behind a fan.

Song was confused, unsure at the reasons for his reaction, until she followed his gaze to the far side of the room, where Jiang Hu stood, still half-dressed and hair tousled.

"Oh, Xo," Song breathed, throwing off the writing tablet and rising up. As she did, the blanket slid from her shoulders, so that when she reached her feet, she stood naked and unadorned.

Pan's face cracked, and his shoulders began to quiver.

"Xo," Song said, scrambling to snatch up the blanket and reach out to him at the same time. "Please, don't react like this. I can make things right ... "

Pan wailed, an inhuman sound, and turned and stormed from the room.

Madam Jade turned, and watched him race out through the hallway and into the street beyond.

"Mmmm," Madam Jade said, still hiding a smile behind the lacquered fan, "if I'd known that we'd prove this much an inconvenience, I wouldn't have suggested this early morning trip at all."

"Is everything all right?" Jiang Hu said, tightening his belt and striding to Song's side.

"Yes," Song said, then with a shake of her head, added, "No. I don't know."

"Is he ... your husband?" Jiang asked, tremulous.

"No," Song answered with a shake of her head. "Of that much I'm sure."

Jiang breathed a sigh of relief, which Song could not share. Her life was more complicated than the present vocabulary could accommodate.

"I will take my leave of you," Madam Jade said, rustling her fan. "I do have a single question, though, which I hate to leave without asking."

"Yes," Song said, her tone annoyed. "What is it?"

"Well, I was simply wondering if any of you had seem my missing pet. My bombardier beetle, bred for size, went missing after my party of a few nights back. The same night I introduced you two, I believe, so you should remember. About this big?" She held her index finger and thumb out, stretched as far apart as they could go.

Jiang shook his head, and Song added, "No, I haven't seen it."

"Oh, well," Madam Jade answered, turning to the door. "It went missing right after I spoke with Pan Xo the last time, and I've asked simply everyone if they've seen it, but no one has. I was hoping perhaps it was here, as one of the partygoers thought they might have seen it clinging to Master Pan's sleeve when he left, and it wasn't to be found at his home this morning. Terribly dangerous creature, though, I'll warn you, so if you should see it, keep your distance. That's what I've been telling everyone."

Madam Jade drifted out, leaving Jiang Hu and Song Huagu standing together in the bedroom.

After Jiang had gone, Song hurried to the Avenue of Flowers and Pan Xo's rooms, but his servants insisted he'd not been home since he'd left early that morning in the company of Madam Jade. Inconsolable, Song returned to her house in the Arts District, and spent the day out in the garden, furiously at work on the script for the opera. She composed lyrics for a half-dozen songs especially for the story, and late into the night improved on the theme and the characters.

Long after the sun had set, and the twin moons rose high overhead, Jiang Hu appeared at her balcony, a bottle of rice wine in hand and an apology writ large in his expression. Wordlessly, Song opened the window, and allowed him into her bed.

The next morning, Song delivered the completed script and lyrics to the Master of Events at the Imperial Fuchuan Opera. When he went to count out her payment, she waved him off with a quick motion of her ink-stained hand.

"Please, honored sir," she said, "I ask no fee for my work, only that you agree to include this production in your summer touring program, once the run in the city is complete."

The Master of Events, quickly calculating the coins saved not only by getting this script for free, but by not having to commission another script for the touring production, assented without hesitation.

"But why, I hazard to ask," the Master of Events said, reluctantly, "do you forgo your payment in this manner?"

"I want only that this story be heard," Song answered, "by those who would not otherwise hear it."

Leaving the opera house, crossing the wide square before the Lower Temple, down the boulevard to the Avenue of Flowers, Song again found Pan Xo not at home. She then made for the trade district, and the boarding house where Jiang Hu had hired a room, but found him out as well.

Not eager to return to the solitude of her home, but with nowhere else to go, Song wandered through the city streets, watching as municipal workers took down the last of the lanterns hung for the festival weeks before. She tried to remember the names she had given to the different configurations, to remember which constellation she stood beneath when in the shadow of the Governor's Palace, which when standing in the Red Flower District.

The smoke from the north, which Jiang had explained came from a still burning fire ignited when miners broke through into a pocket of inflammable natural gases, hung low over the city, giving the sky a sickly, grayish-yellow cast. None that she passed in the city streets, complaining of the smell, or coughing, or covering their noses and mouths with ineffectual cotton masks, stopped to wonder about the dozens of lives burned away in the first instant the gas pocket caught flame. The concerns of those who provided the valley provinces their air were far from the thoughts of those in the city, remembered only if they failed in their appointed tasks.

That evening, Song Huagu returned home late, after her servants had left for the night, to find her rooms dark and cold. Through the dim hallways, lit only through the weak moonslight eking through the thick cover of smoke, Song made her way to her bedchamber.

As she stepped through doorway, she knew that something wasn't right. Some subtle air in the room, some feeling that prickled at her shaven forehead, a premonition.

Song fumbled for the light, and as the lanterns warmed and began to glow, a strange scene resolved before her eyes.

Lying in the middle of the floor was Jiang Hu, face down on the tile. There was something amiss about the back of his neck, and as Song took tenuous steps closer she could see that there was a large, red hole at the base of his skull. It looked as though the skin and flesh below had been boiled away, a froth of blood and foam around the ragged mouth of the wound.

Song's breath caught in her throat, and she was unable to speak. Staggering forward, arms outstretched, she drew near the still, cold form of her lover.

Before she could allow herself to collapse, to surrender to her shock and grief, a stream of murky red caught her eye near the foot of her couch. There, lying stretched out lengthwise, as he had so many nights before, lay Pan Xo, eyes wide and sightless and his wrists both bloody ruin. On the cold floor, near his outstretched hand, lay a slender knife, stained red with blood.

Song's thoughts rebelled. The simple story that fit the scene she'd stumbled upon was too horrible to contemplate. The two men she loved, dead at her feet, one seemingly the architect of the other's demise. But why? Over her? Pan Xo was the gentlest creature she'd ever known. How could he bring himself to such a state?

There came a rustling from the dark corner, and Song wheeled to see a primly dressed woman with a lacquered matronly bun stride into view, an enormous orange-and-black beetle perched on her forearm.

"J-Jade," Song managed, and nothing else.

"I am sorry it came to this, Song Huagu," Madam Jade said, gently stroking the beetle on her outstretched arm. "I truly am. I'd thought I could engineer your deaths, Jiang Hu's and yours, at the hands of Pan Xo, so at the very least you'd be leaving this life with something of a personal touch. Unfortunately, Master Pan could not stir himself to action, and I was forced to orchestrate matters myself. The end result, so far as the public is concerned, will be indistinguishable, but I'm afraid you'll be left departing this life with more questions than you might otherwise have done."

"W-why," was all Song managed to say.

"I owe you at least a few answers, I should think," Madam Jade said, "having brought you to this sorry state. I'm not like the painted villains in your tawdry wuxia stories, I'm afraid, so I won't spell out chapter and verse of my plans and ambitions before sending you off to the netherworld, but I do think I owe you some little comfort. The Emperor finds him," she pointed a gold-nailed finger at the still form of Jiang Hu, "a threat to the stability of the planet, and the empire in general, and I couldn't help but agree, and so when I was ordered to eliminate him, I felt no hesitation. He, I'm afraid," she indicated the body of Pan Xo on the couch, "was merely a means to an end, and I confess that I regret his passing. While I don't think he's quite nearly the virtuoso at the zither that you provincials think he is, he nevertheless was a fine conversationalist, and a pleasant partygoer."

Song blinked back confused tears, trying to make sense of the rush of words.

"The Emperor?" she said simply.

"Yes, of course," Madam Jade said, stroking the giant beetle. "As a member of the Embroidered Guard, I take my direction directly from the Dragon Throne itself."

"Y-you're a spy?" Song asked, bewildered.

"Naturally," Madam Jade said. "Now, as to you. I could have easily arranged for Jiang Hu to be murdered in an alleyway for the coins in his purse, but my orders were to arrange for your elimination as well. Hence, the stagecraft."

"Me? But why?" Song's face tightened, her confusion aging into anger. "What have I done?"

"If you ask me, nothing," Madam Jade answered. "I think that you are merely the spinner of second-rate tales that amuse the millions, and little else. But my masters in the Eastern Depot think that ideas in themselves are dangerous, and that your ideas are among the most dangerous. Of all the so-named 'Deviates,' who flaunt their aberrant lifestyles and attitudes in the public view, your habit of expressing inflammatory ideas through your writing presents the danger that such aberration might spread." She paused, and smiled cruelly. "If you'd stuck to love stories and martial arts sagas, this might have been avoided."

Song looked from the horror of Jiang's neck, to the ruin of Pan's wrists, to Madam Jade.

"What have you done to them?" she asked, defiant.

"Well, as you can see, the story will be that Pan Xo, despondent over the loss of his illicit lover to the arms of another man, took his own life by slashing open his own veins, but not before dispatching his lover and her dallier in a more, shall we say, dramatic fashion." Madam Jade lifted her arm higher, to bring the enormous insect into closer view. "Enough people saw Pan Xo standing by my side at my last party, and saw his reaction to you and Jiang together that night, that they'll little wonder why he saw fit to take this lovely creature from my little zoo. Not that Master Pan ever came near my pet, of course, but the story has been spread far enough that the darling was missing, and Pan the last to see it, that the public will make the natural connection." She reached up a long-nailed finger to brush the black shell of the insect. "A bombardier beetle, as I said, bred for size, at least four times as large as nature intended him to grow. His natural talent, from which his name derives, grew in accordance." Madam Jade pointed to a small aperture at the rear of the creature's shell. "The beetle produces in separate compartments two chemicals which, when combined in air, react in a most spectacular way."

Madam Jade smiled, and gestured towards the still form of Jiang Hu and his wound with the tip of a finger.

"An acidic compound potent enough to burn through skin, muscle and bone in a matter of heartbeats," she went on. "So the story will be that Pan Xo came to your rooms, to find you and your new lover together, and with the aid of the deadly creature he stole from my salon, killed you both."

"No," Song Huagu said, shaking her head and looking at from Jiang Hu to Pan Xo and back again. "Not like this."

"I'm sorry, dear, but it must be done. We all serve the Emperor in our own way," Madam Jade said, drawing near and taking the beetle in both hands, it's head towards hers. "Don't worry, Song Huagu. This will only hurt for a moment, but it will hurt a great deal."

Song turned, and tried to run for the door, but in a blinding move Madam Jade swept her legs out from under her and sent Song falling hard on her back.

"Now, Pan Xo would have killed Jiang Hu from behind, but you," Madam Jade said, drawing closer, the beetle now a bare handbreadth away, "you he would have killed while looking you in the eye."

Steam rose from the beetle, and there followed blinding, searing pain.

As she lay dying, at the edge of hearing, Song heard Madam Jade speak one last time.

"You die, and your ideas die with you."

At that moment, across town, at the Imperial Fuchuan Opera House, the first performance of The Miner's Journey began, to thunderous applause. The story of an altered history, where blood-sacrificing Mexica Aztec warriors had conquered the world. The plot centered around a small group of humble miners who rose up against their oppressors to fight for a better life. In the city, it was fancy, pure fiction, an entertaining few hours to listen to the music, watch the drama unfold, and lose oneself in the energetic athletics of the martial artist portraying the miners' leader.

When it came time for the company to tour the countryside, with audiences made up of miners, and farmers, and poorly-paid soldiers, a different story might be heard.

© MonkeyBrain, Inc 2004, 2006.
This story first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form.

Chris Roberson's novels Here, There and Everywhere (April 2005) and Paragaea (May 2006) are published by Pyr; his anthology series Adventure (vol 1, November 2005) is published by Monkeybrain Books.
Here, There and Everywhere by Chris Roberson Adventure, vol 1, edited by Chris Roberson Paragaea by Chris Roberson

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