A rogue wind delayed the landing for a little over an hour. When the trio finally left the airship and picked up their luggage, Cheung led them through the sprawling, sparkling new aerodrome. A hired porter handled the trade goods, ten heavy chests, on a pushcart. At the exit, a short, dark man with bulging arms and a sagging gut met them.
“This is Ayan, our local guide,” Cheung said.
The indigenous Manche people didn’t have surnames, just given names and clan names. After a quick exchange of greetings, Ayan walked them to the parking lot outside the aerodrome, to a steam wagon, a deep blue Zephyr from Anglia.
The wagon was a licensed-produced copy of an Anglian design. It was an undertype, the engine and exhaust pipe placed under the chassis, so the driver and passenger didn’t have to lean out the window to look what was in front of them—and didn’t need a scarf and goggles for long-term travel. Best of all, the rear actually had a thin metal roof to keep out the sun and rain. Cheung climbed in and fed the boiler while the other three assisted the porter to load up the cargo. When that was done, Ayan paid off the local porter and whispered in his ear. The boy disappeared like the wind.
“Are you ready?” Cheung asked.
“Not yet,” Lee said. “Need to get dressed for the occasion.”
By way of answer, Lee popped his trunk open. Inside were the tools of the trade. His trade.
“You don’t need all that in the city,” Cheung said.
“Does the city ban the open carry of firearms and ammo?”
“Then we need it. Who knows who the porter is friends with.”
Reaching into the trunk, Lee strapped on his war belt. A lifetime ago, it was simply a broad leather belt. He had a tailor sew on suspenders and cartridge pouches. A sheathed knife swung on his left hip. On his right hip was a holster, and in it his Webster Mk IV revolver.
Tung grinned. “That’s a huge gun.”
“Utterly reliable too.”
He broke it open. He always transported his guns unloaded; there was no telling how roughly his weapons would be handled. He grabbed a box of bullets from the trunk and filled the cylinder with six .455 hollowpoints. Manstoppers, they were called. He closed the gun and put it away and glanced at Tung. There was an odd-looking box in her hands.
“Is that a hetzup’ao?” He asked.
“Yes.” She flipped the box around, revealing the pistol nestled in its internal holster. The Sachsen Empire called it the Roster C86. Here, it was called a box cannon, because the pistol’s stock doubled as a holster.
“That must be the Linghsi variant.”
She raised a delicate eyebrow. “You do know your weapons, Mr Lee.”
The warlord of Linghsi had ordered his arsenal to produce custom C86s, with an expanded magazine as long as the grip, to supplement a lack of rifles and for use in urban combat.
It hadn’t done the warlord any good.
Lee’s long gun was a weathered Volition Arms 1876 lever-action rifle. The rifle that won the Columbian West, and was now conquering the continent’s northern frontiers. He fed in seven .30-30 Browen softpoint rounds, cranked the lever to chamber a bullet, and topped off the magazine.
“You ready?” Tung asked.
She was cradling a gun from another time and place. A side-by-side double-barrelled shotgun, what the Columbians called a coach gun. Lee approved. There were few anti-bandit measures as effective as a cloud of buckshot travelling at high velocity.
Before leaving the city, Cheung stopped in at the telegraph office to contact his customers. Tung and Lee took the time to discuss security arrangements. At any one time, one of them would ride shotgun while the other waited in the back. They discussed signals, communications, the little details that would make or break an expedition.
Lee took the first shift, riding next to Cheung. The wagon ambled along at fifteen miles per hour, quickly overtaking the other merchants and their bullock carts on the road out of the city. Cheung tried making small talk. Lee indulged him with short, noncommittal answers, his attention solely on the road and the environs.
They ate lunch on the road. It was a long way to the first stop and Cheung didn’t want to stop for anything if he could. Bandits preferred the dark, and it would take a while to safely halt a steam wagon—and even longer to start it up again. Lee grazed from the contents of his haversack, a piece of oatcake softened in water with a mix of nuts and oats and dried fruit. It’d been a while since he’d lived rough, and his stomach complained. He felt for the unwanted chi accumulating in his gut, and dispersed it through his feet as a cold, grey cloud. His belly settled contentedly soon after.
They entered the next town shortly after sunset, checking into a traveller’s inn. Tung guarded the wagon until the boiler ran out of steam, while Lee helped the merchant and the guide carry their goods to their rooms. They had dinner together and dispersed to their rooms. Lee helped himself to a bath before lying down to bed with his revolver under his pillow. It would become their routine.
In the morning, Ayan went to the market to purchase supplies. Lee, leaving his rifle behind, volunteered to escort him—and the trader’s money with him. Most of the people in the market—merchants and customers—were men. The few women shopkeepers Lee saw sold baskets, clothes, or simple staples. The female customers were dressed in rich robes and platform shoes imperiously inspecting the wares, or wrapped in rags and begging for alms.
The men, every single one of them, wore queues. That hairstyle had gone the way of the Ch’in Dynasty. The first edict of the new Hsia Dynasty overturned the Queue Order that forced the Manche hairstyle on the nation. Lee had cut his own hair short in the Western fashion. But that couldn’t be the only reason every single person shot him hostile looks.
“They don’t seem to like me,” Lee said.
Ayan chuckled sadly. “You are an armed barbarian in their land.”
Lee shrugged. “I didn’t choose my parents. Somehow that makes me a barbarian wherever I go.”
Ayan’s eyes twinkled. “Of course. Half your blood is from the West, the other half from the south. Your hair is not from the Northeast and neither are your clothes. Therefore, you are a full-blooded barbarian.”
“Excuse me? The south? You mean the rest of the country?”
“Yes. They see you as a foreigner.”
“After the Long Hair Rebellion, you regained your country, but we lost an empire.”
“I don’t understand how that makes me a barbarian.”
“Southerners generally don’t.”
Ayan stopped at a produce store, where he haggled with the merchant over a catty of dried foodstuffs. Lee didn’t understand the local dialect, but he gathered the main point of contention had something to do with the measures the merchant was using.
Lee waited until they reached a mutual agreement. Ayan carried the paper-wrapped package himself, leaving Lee’s hands free.
Lee asked, “Why does being a southerner make me a barbarian?”
“Because you are civilised.”
Ayan chuckled. “Inside joke. The current dynasty uses the ideogram for ‘civilised’.” He shook his head. “We weren’t always the Northeast Province. We were called Manchetai. Land of the Manche people. We were a nation before you were a people. You southerners? You name yourself after the dynasty of the times. You have no people, only masters.”
Lee raised an eyebrow and smiled gently. “I understand what you mean.”
“I’m from Sum Kong.”
“Ah, yes, the first of the Treaty Ports. Exactly my point. We’ve never had foreigners conquer and hold any part of Manchetai.”
“The foreigners never bothered us until the final decades of the Ch’in Dynasty.”
“Yes, I recall that was why the Long Hair Rebels got their act together. Before they came, we united the land and gave you a country. When you overthrew the Empress, the name ‘Manchetai’ was struck from the records and replaced with ‘Northeast Province’. We were the heart of the Empire, once. Now, we’re just a backwater, useful only as a strategic buffer against Chüsenkuo and their Yemai masters.”
“Old grudges must run deep.”
“Yes. This is why the bandits are attacking southern traders, you know. They see it as attacking the Hsia Dynasty by denying the Emperor tax monies. The Yemai understand that, and use it in their propaganda.”
“Will my presence be a problem?”
“Well, the merchants might try to overcharge. But don’t worry. I know their ways.”
“Should I have asked Ms Tung to accompany you instead?”
Ayan shook his head vigorously. “No. We northeasterners are very traditional. She might attract the wrong kind of attention.”
The party settled into a kind of routine. They would leave a town shortly after dawn and drive on to the next. Cheung aimed to travel only in the day and reach the next town by sunset. Every six hours, they switched drivers and guards. They stopped only to relieve themselves, to refuel the wagon, and for simple meals if time allowed. But they always made time for tea. It was safer to consume than local water, and more palatable.
When they arrived in the next stop, they would check into an inn, maybe have a decent meal. Ayan, accompanied by either Lee or Tung, would go to the market to top up their supplies. Cheung, against the guards’ advice, always met his contacts alone to trade his goods. They tolerated it only because Ayan had assured them the towns and cities were free of robbers. Mostly.
So of course the wagon had to break down halfway to their fourth stop.
Lee was riding shotgun, bouncing along with the potholes and scanning out the window when he heard a loud BANG. He ducked, and it seemed like the wagon ducked with him. He rose his head, searching for damage. No blood, no shattered glass, no bullet holes.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Sounds like a tyre burst,” Cheung said, stomping the brake.
The wagon rolled to a stop. Jumping out, he looked around. The road behind him was pitted and the road ahead no better. The road bordered a floodplain. In the distance, farmers laboured in their millet fields in the sweltering heat. He scanned the tall stalks warily. There was little to no cover available, but plenty of concealment for ambushers. He’d launched many an ambush from similar terrain. Countered more than a few, too. The latter was…significantly harder than the former.
It used to be a common tactic in the agricultural regions during the Uprising. Effective, too. Then the Western firemen learned how to set fire to the fields with their science and sorceries without burning themselves. When they were ambushed, the Westerners simply induced the fields to burn and shot down the retreating fighters. Waiwuchi, the brand of wuchi that focused on manipulating the external environment, had no defence as elegant as the Westerners’ counter. Only the students of neiwuchi, the branch of wuchi that strengthened the body, could survive being set alight. But never unscathed. There were too many nights when his ears remembered the wet snaps of impossible flames and his nose the greasy smell of burning flesh.
He shook his head. That was a long time ago, in another life.
The party gathered around the errant wheel. It had deflated, causing the vehicle to list a few degrees.
“There’s no damage to the chassis,” Ayan pronounced. “We’ve got a spare wheel and a jack in the back, but I’m not sure the jack will support a fully-laden wagon.”
“Why?” Lee asked.
“It was made in a local factory.”
Someday, someone would invent a tyre that could be easily replaced in the field, without needing a full wheel replacement. Until then…
“Time to get our hands dirty,” Lee said.
They waited until the boiler went completely silent. No sense risking things. Then they formed a human chain. Tung stationed herself in the back of the wagon, passing the cargo to Lee, who in turn gave them to Cheung and Ayan to position by the side of the road. First out was everybody’s luggage, and food and water. Then the steam wagon’s supplies, the heavy containers of coke and water needed to power the engine. After that came the trade goods in their heavy trunks. Last up was the money, in locked strongboxes of varying designs.
As Lee worked, he planted his feet deep into the ground, drawing chi from the air and the earth into his tant’ien. The chi sustained his muscles, keeping them going and going and going. He broke into streams of sweat, but his arms and legs and hips went well past what Cheung’s and Ayan’s could stand. Twice the civilians had to rest, but they were of advanced age, and Lee took over from them.
Tung was hunched over in a compact space. The chi gathering around her told him she was doing a similar trick. Squatted as she was though, she couldn’t be utilising as much chi as he did. But like him, she worked without stopping. With the last of the cargo unloaded, she jumped out and stretched, then wandered out to the roadside to replenish her chi. And, he noticed, she was watching the road too.
“Off the road!” Tung shouted.
Lee stepped back. Tung stepped forward. A horse-drawn wagon sped past. The rider didn’t pause to glance at the stopped vehicle. He just urged his horses on, slowing only when he was well ahead of them.
“That was rude,” Tung said.
“He’s a Manche,” Ayan replied. “People mind their own business here.”
Tung muttered something under her breath.
As Cheung and Ayan changed the wheel, Lee and Tung stood guard. There was no better target than a stationary one. When they were done, Ayan tossed the old wheel by the side of the road. Then they topped off the boiler and loaded up all their cargo in reverse order. Cheung fired up the wagon’s boiler and prepared tea. As they waited for steam pressure to build, the four gathered outside the wagon, stretching and drinking tea and munching on trail food.
“This is not good,” Cheung said.
“What’s wrong?” Lee asked.
“Past the floodplain, there’s some forested hills. Bandits like setting up ambushes there. I was hoping to cross the forest before nightfall, but we’ve lost almost two hours.”
A mankiller’s grin streaked across Tung’s face. “Good thing you hired us.”
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