by Mickey Hunt
The slave Mao Ping picked himself up and brushed the dirt from his elegant embroidered robe. His cowardly porter peeked from behind a vendor stall, stumbled to him, and bent down to reclaim the russet cloth-wrapped package.
Happily, Mao Ping thought, the mysterious package didn’t appear damaged. Its contents might be the open umbrella of a princess, but was heavier, as he had noticed earlier at the wood carver’s shop.
Bellowing soldiers strutted up and down the stone-paved roadway and brandished their clubs.
Mao Ping took a last forlorn look at a squat, square building inside a bamboo barricade and pushed through the teeming, fearful crowds, his porter behind him lugging the precious parcel. Half an hour later, outside the gate to the garden courtyard of the Governor’s residence, Mao Ping bobbed a disrespectfully shallow bow.
“Why are you so late?” the corpulent Head Butler said and smacked Mao Ping across his shaved head. “How did your robe become so filthy? It’s torn. The Third Son will want an explanation.”
Mao Ping, however, did not owe his fellow servant an explanation, and the Head Butler stomped off muttering, “Late on Master’s birthday. You deserve your pigtail hacked off.”
This would be insignificant compared to being eunuched not many years ago when Mao Ping’s father, a farming peasant, received the honor of selling his son to the Governor’s house. Mao Ping’s thoughts flew to his little sister, nearly twelve years old and living at home. She wouldn’t be so lucky. He worried his parents might sell her to a brothel during another lean time. But Mao Ping had always dreamed that someday she might marry his master.
“There you are!” roared the young Third Son from the archway leading to his wing of the house. He handed a sword in its sheath to his combat trainer and ran to seize the package from the terrified porter. He suddenly turned sideways and looked Mao Ping up and down. “You’re late and you smell like a latrine,” but just as suddenly he forgot his ire and said, “Follow me. You won’t believe what you’ll see.”
Mao Ping trotted after the Third Son through the familiar maze of corridors and rooms, passing the observatory and climbing a zigzag stairway onto the tiles of the house’s highest roof. The Third Son had moved fast, though it was certain he couldn’t see his feet through the package. Here was a cobbled-together platform, and on it stood a machine of a complexity Mao Ping had never seen before, the size of a weaned pig, with tarnished silver and coal-black parts.
The Third Son untied the package, setting aside the inner paper wrapper of maroon and gilt. What emerged appeared to be two carved waterwheels with strangely twisted paddles. The Third Son set the larger wheel flat upon the machine, pushed the much smaller wheel into the machine’s side on one end, tinkered with connectors, and then stood back trembling.
“Watch this,” he said. “It’s a marvel.” He took up a pearl-trimmed, lacquered box and pushed one of its protruding levers. The wheels began to spin. The machine’s noise grew louder, swishing like swords slashing the air. Mao Ping gaped as the machine rose up and hovered for a minute, then settled back upon its launching place.
“It’s better than a kite,” the Third Son said. “My Demon Dragonfly. Last year my father gave me a chest full of gold for my birthday, and I had her built. What do you think, Ping?” He stared at the slave and waited for an answer. “Oh, I forgot. I permit you to speak. What do you think of her?”
Barely able to breathe, Mao Ping lowered his gaze. “Is it magic?”
“I hardly know. Nature holds many secrets. I’ll ask Brother Chen, the monk who drew the plans. He says it’s a prototype. Here, you take a turn.”
For an hour and more, slave and master, being the same age and not quite adults, forgot their differences of class and authority as they snacked on slices of melon and practiced maneuvering the Demon Dragonfly until the Head Butler heaved his frame up the stairway to announce, “Pardon me, but it’s time to dress for your banquet, my lord.”
“Next time we fly her,” the Third Son whispered when the
had left, “the Demon Dragonfly will drop melons on those compost mounds near
the river.” Butler
Late that evening, Mao Ping woke at a snort—his own snort. A ghostly face hovered outside his alcove within the Third Son’s inner chambers. Then the face, his master’s grinning countenance, floated forward into the alcove’s lamplight. Mao Ping jumped up from his mat and stared at the floor midway between himself and his master.
“Overcome, I see. Tut, tut,” the Third Son said. “Rising before sunrise, walking miles to the crafters, scuffling in the marketplace—no doubt, flying the Demon Dragonfly until you forgot about time, standing behind my chair during a seven-course feast, not eating and drinking until everything is cleared away…you have no excuse for napping, no excuse whatsoever! You should be beaten.”
Mao Ping appreciated his master’s harmless jokes.
“However, the fireworks are beginning. They’re your punishment. Let’s move to the balcony overlooking the city.”
The two of them stood side by side during the dazzling display. Flames and blooming flowers, bright hailstones, thunder, flashes of lighting, arching fire rockets, more booming thunder, geysers, and sparkling fountains of lava. The Third Son seemed immersed in thought, and after the final devastating cataclysm that might have split the Earth in half, he turned away and said quietly, “Lovely… noisy… but unimaginative. Bring me tea.”
When Mao Ping brought the pot and a fine porcelain bowl on a tray, the Third Son said, “Where’s yours?”
Mao Ping hurried to his alcove and brought a bowl, a twin to the Third Son’s.
“I’m waiting for my father’s birthday present to me, and when it arrives, I’ll dismiss you for the night. But, Father heard about your lateness today, and that I didn’t discipline you. He wants me strong. So, first tell me what happened?”
Mao Ping, like his master, was sitting cross-legged on a cushion with his tea bowl in his hand. He set the bowl on the floor and closed his eyes.
“You won’t answer? Then, I command you. Tell me now! I order you, or else welcome your instant beheading.”
Mao Ping rose to his knees and looked at his master’s foot. “Please forgive me, sir,” he murmured. “When I left the wood carver’s shop and passed by a squat building where physicians cut boys with a knife, the monks were praying and burning incense. I stopped to watch. Some men stood on a cart nearby and began yelling about taxation. They raised a painted banner on a pole…”
“Keep talking,” the Third Son said and sipped at his tea.
“A crowd gathered. Before long, soldiers arrived and ordered the people to leave, but the crowd threw stones at them. The soldiers then began beating everyone. I tried to run away, and someone pushed me to the ground. Forgive me, sir. That’s why I was late.”
“Yes,” the Third Son said, considering. “A tax riot. They’re all too common. Did you throw a stone? Did you?”
Mao Ping sighed.
“But not at the soldiers.”
Mao Ping shuddered.
“You threw one at the squat building! You’re pitiful… Praying monks must be peaceful, and we rulers? We should be effectual and pragmatic. Hmm… but you took advantage of the confusion for your private war—is this the place where they eunuched you?”
“Yes, sir. Or, a place like it. I can’t really remember.”
“Physicians don’t take away life, and many boys die from castration. These surgeons are butchers—so, you’re corrected. Don’t call them physicians. And don’t dare tell anyone what I said. I command you to be silent on this subject.
“Because I’m the Third Son and not the First, I’ll never be governor of our province. But my father grooms me to command his army, and you and I are to travel next year to the eastern capital where we’ll study under Emperor Zhao’s own high general. We have many enemies all around.” Here his nostrils flared. “No one except you knows how I hate our policy of slavery.”
The slave allowed his face to express wonder.
“And no one knows how I have studied the works of western philosophical men. Harmless fireworks, astral telescopes, and my quaint helio-copter, the Demon Dragonfly?”
Mao Ping nodded as if he comprehended, but he had never heard some of those words before, and even if he had—
“They aren’t toys at all,” the Third Son said.
Looking toward the Third Son’s torso, Mao Ping asked, “What are they?”
“Conceal your intentions or you’ll always be a slave.”
At that moment there was a soft knocking followed by a chorus of giggles from the hallway. The Third Son leaped to his feet and swept open his door to reveal a slender young woman wearing a veil; she was flanked by two elderly, nodding court beauticians. “My birthday present!” the Third Son proclaimed as he drew the girl in by a hand. “You all can leave. What? Stop giggling, ladies, and go away.”
A floral perfume was filling the air, and as Mao Ping passed the Third Son, the beaming young prince said, “The consummation of my marriage, a political affair, won’t be for some years. My betrothed lives in another city and is too tame for my purpose in life. So… Plum Blossom here is my first concubine. I picked her myself, a virgin.”
Mao Ping felt as if his life force had abruptly taken wing and flown away, leaving him a dry, shrunken husk. Then in instant, when Mao Ping turned and looked the Third Son straight in the eye, eyes to eyes, the master stepped backwards and slumped, his joy extinguished, his whole body now reflecting the despair of the slave.
Mao Ping’s feet rasped across the floor toward the exit.
“Oh…” the Third Son murmured, bowing to a slave for the first time ever. “I’m wrong for being insensitive to your loss of manhood. Please overlook my stupidity.”
Months passed, and the Governor granted Mao Ping the annual fortnight to return to his home village for the slave’s own birthday celebration, coinciding with the New Year, the Year of the Dragon. A true celebration it was, because Mao Ping, as a resident of the Governor’s house, was a celebrity in this poor farming community. He brought presents for his relatives and their neighbors, who were shocked and amazed at the ingenious puzzles, puppets, strings of firecrackers, squibs, hoops, tops, and music boxes, as well as practical gifts like hoes for his father and older brother and cooking pots for his mother. All of it carried on a wagon pulled by a retired warhorse.
Mao Ping’s chief delight at home was his little sister—perky and precocious for a female. She was a pleasure not only because she was his one sister, but because girls were rare in his life. He gave her a rich silk robe of vermilion and gold, and a carved wooden sword. The next day, wearing her new robe and twirling her sword, she danced around their winter-bare cherry trees until her mother told her to stop.
One night of Mao Ping’s holiday, a storm ravaged the rural land, the kind of storm to uproot trees, scatter homes and hayricks, overrun stream-banks, and drown water buffalo. Mao Ping lay awake in his closet bedroom, listening to the roar, and watching the lightning’s brilliance through gaps in the exterior boards. He thought of what the Third Son had said about slavery and unimaginative explosions and noise. Despite the sure havoc that the storm was inflicting upon the neighborhood, Mao Ping’s parents’ house remained dry and snug, and in his heart, he thanked his ancestors for their protection.
By dim early morning, the last squalls of the storm were still blustering in the distance, and while he lounged half asleep on his old comfortable bed,
sister ran to him and whispered, “Come and see. In the barn. A secret.”
“Was it damaged from the storm?”
“The barn is fine. Your old warhorse is happy because I fed him. Papa says the winter wheat is ruined, and Mama says I’ll have to go away soon—to a marvelous house.” Her face was downcast.
Just what Mao Ping had always feared.
She led him by the hand, and inside the barn three shadowy packages seemed to vibrate of their own accord. Mao Ping recognized one of them; it was exactly like what he had brought to the Governor’s house on the Third Son’s birthday. The second looked familiar, too. He unwrapped their rain-beaded tarpaulins just enough to confirm his guesses. The third and largest package was like a bin of melons, and from it he detected a sulfurous odor.
His sister said, wonderingly, “What are these? Machines for the gardens, for irrigation?”
“They aren’t for farming,” Mao Ping said. “They’re surprise birthday presents for me.”
“Who brought them?”
“The wild storm.”
“No, that’s not true.” She smiled. “You’re telling me a story. An enormous dragon flew them here late last night. I heard his leathery wings beating the air.”
“You’re right,” he said, forcing a blank countenance.
“Wouldn’t it be exciting to ride a dragon someday? The big crate smells like a squib, a monster squib. Are these toys?”
“They’re not toys. We have to hide our intentions, understand? Will you travel to the northern capital with me and my master?”
“To manage armies and conduct battles.” Mao Ping stepped to the elderly warhorse, who was still munching his feed, and patted the beast’s muscular shoulder.
“To fight?” Her eyes glowed and she smiled again, her teeth white and perfect. “Now I know. The packages contain weapons.” She raised a finger to her lips with, “Shhh,” then said, “Will you also find me a decent husband someday?”
“Of course I will,” he said, thinking once again of the Third Son, who though engaged, might well be inspired to marry an adventuresome girl close at hand, a consort to be a partner in his crusade and who would give him courageous sons and daughters. “And let’s quietly leave for my city tonight with the horse and wagon and light some real fireworks. We must be effective and practical. I’ll certainly need a helper.”
His sister grunted as she tried to lift the crate.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, you do.”
Mao Ping turned away to hide his sudden tears.
After a few moments, he sniffed and wiped his eyes.
He hadn’t actually thrown a rock at the squat, square building on the day of his master’s birthday, but he had let the Third Son think so. And later that night, Mao Ping hadn’t been nearly as upset at a reminder of his castration as he was disappointed because a concubine could distract his master from his sister. But all along, he felt certain the Third Son would give him the model Demon Dragonfly in pity when the full-scale Demon Dragon’s stealthy construction was finally completed.
And now, with the smaller model, he could train his little sister to fly a formidable apparatus of warfare.
“Be sure to pack your wooden sword and new silk robe,” he said. “For fun, let’s find where the enormous dragon landed.”
“Okay,” she said eagerly. “We’ll follow these skid marks. Maybe he’s still here!”
Mao Ping allowed himself a smile. Tomorrow he would finally obliterate the hated building where they stole his manhood, but far more importantly, his elaborate, preposterous, and covert matchmaking scheme just might be beginning in earnest.
Concealing one’s intention to escape from slavery? Quite so. The Third Son had no idea that Mao Ping was an expert.