Ignorance Of Perfect Reason
There are pursuits conducive of relaxation, Charlotte thought to herself, but principal among them is not making love with an overeager female werewolf, in the back seat of a stolen White Russian army staff car, while her five sisters prowl outside, slapping arms against sides in the steely cold of the high Mongolian plain.
'If you like,' Watcher said, earnestly, 'I could do that...And then that.'
'Honestly,' Charlotte said, kissing her on the lips and then caressing one of Watcher's moderately prominent canines with her tongue, 'honestly, you don't need to show off to me, and I can't see how, if you are going constantly to adjust your anatomy in ingenious ways, you can possibly concentrate on the matter in, as it were, hand.'
Watcher's bodily configurations ceased to flow under Charlotte's fingers, and she turned her attention to an intensification of her hitherto rather desultory nuzzling of Charlotte's left breast, and to the emission of a series of rather gratifying short gasps of pleasure.
'You know,' she eventually gasped, 'this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'
Then she started more delicious licking, all too soon interrupted by a loud cough from one of the sisters.
I know they disapprove, thought Charlotte, but one had hoped that the family into which I appear to have married could conduct its disapprobation with a tad more of style.
'What is it, Singer of Songs of Vengeance and Despair?' Watcher said.
'I am sorry to disturb your connubial couch,' Singer said with a toothy grin that seemed entirely to dilute the verbal apology. ' But Sojourner in the Wilderness of Truth and Starvation found something rather disturbing somewhat further along this miserable apology for a road. You and your human friend really ought to unrumple your clothing, and come and offer your views.'
It was not really a road, merely a flattish track on which it was, with care, possible to drive, but there was enough distinction between it and the scrubby grass of the plain it crossed that, as they drove the car along it, and shone its headlights, one could see clearly reasonably fresh marks where a lorry, or perhaps it was two lorries, had driven off the road. They were not, after all, it seemed, alone on the eastern road from Urga or the first to choose this approximate location to rest for a few hours.
The marks of tyres, the crushing of grass, and the spent ammunition were not the disturbing thing, nor the excrement half-buried under soil kicked loose. The disturbing thing was the torn corner of paper that Sojourner had spotted among the spoil.
A part of the paper was still legible, and Charlotte conquered her distaste to look at it more closely.
'Attention, even to small, and even unpleasant matters,' Sojourner said, ' has been a requirement of our lives these many years of hunting and of vengeance. And the writing is in English...'
'It is, indeed,' said Charlotte with a moue of fastidiousness,' and, as you presumably surmise, it is indeed the handwriting of my murdered brother. And what is a page of his journal doing out here on the plain, so many miles from where your enemies killed him? '
'Presumably,' Watcher said,' it is part of the contents of this lorry- or lorries.'
'It was premature to hope,' Singer said,' that we had managed to identify and kill each and every one of Darkcalling and Chaos that was in Urga.'
'The place was a rat-hole,' said Settler of Debts and Credits, ' with too much smoke in it to see clearly to kill.'
'I thought,' Charlotte said, 'that the whole point of killing my brother was to preserve the secret of your kind's existence.'
'It may have been,' said Mourner of Kindred and Hope. 'If he had been killed by Stasis, it would have been. We of Progress might have chosen to kill him for that reason, since premature disclosure might complicate our plans. But the reasoning of Chaos is inscrutable, and the Callers of the Dark have many plans, most of them sinister.'
Charlotte looked coldly at the six of them. She was not going to weaken her already low prestige by actually asking for a gloss.
Watcher looked entreatingly at her sisters - how charming her eyes are when she is abashed - and then took a deep breath.
'I suppose,' she said, 'that you have gathered that the pursuit of vengeance for the deaths of our parents is not merely a personal matter, but one of politics as well.'
'I gathered that in Urga, my love,' Charlotte said, 'but I will admit to a degree of real ignorance as to what the internal politics of werewolfdom might be. But I am all ears.'
'It is partly a matter of attitudes to humans,' Tracker of Scents and Spoor said, ' and partly a matter of the Dark.'
'Why,' Charlotte said,'do you have the tendency to give the mere absence of light the dignity of an initial capital?'
'There is this presence, somewhere in the void between suns,' Watcher said. 'And it comes when it is called, and it comes hungry.'
Charlotte looked even more coldly at her, and raised a sceptical eyebrow.
'I know,my love, ' Watcher said, sighing. 'I know what this sounds like - the very rankest of superstition, entirely inappropriate to the beginning of the third decade of your twentieth century.'
'That is my immediate reaction,' Charlotte said, ' more or less.'
' But when you come to know my kind better,' Watcher continued, 'you will see that we are not prone to superstition, or, alas, imagination. There had, after all, to be a key to all your human mythologies, and it is this. There is something out there. It is hungry. It came, once before, when it was called, in the falling of stars. It ate the minds of the First, the people we once served and still remember, and it let us be. We do not know why. And we fear, most of us, that it will come again.'
'For humanity,' Mourner said. ' And perhaps for us as well. It has been a long time. We may have changed, or its taste may have. But stars still fall.'
'But surely,' Charlotte said,' if there are a group of you inclined to summon this thing, allowing for a moment the hypothesis of its existence, logic dictates that over several million years they would have managed to kill the right virgin or virgins. Mere random gabbling should have evoked it by now, assuming it comes to a call, like a faithful dog, or pigs at feeding time.'
'It doesn't work like that,' Watcher said. 'The Callers of the Dark can't actually call it. No Weerde could, we hope; our minds smell wrong. Imagination may be part of it; and religion; and the powers of the mind.'
'They call themselves the Callers of the Dark,' Sojourner said. ' But that is a boast, merely. The First called it, and perhaps humans could. That is why most factions of the Kin agree on this - that we should do everything in our power to stifle religion in humans, and the powers of the mind.'
'Your brother's discoveries were a triumph of deductive reason,' Mourner said,' and admirable as such. But even he worried that they might be a breach through which despair and superstition might enter. Imagine the effect if a supposed Tom Matthews were to arrive, showing his discoveries with glee in the capitals of Europe, and preaching unreason.'
'In that case,' Charlotte said, 'why on earth did you sacrifice one of your siblings to an attempt to kill and impersonate me?'
'We needed a Charlotte Matthews to play against their fake Tom,' Mourner said.
'We had not realised,' Sojourner said,' even Watcher who had a chance to observe you, the extent to which you were a person of resource and sense.'
'It was a risk that Dancer of Shades and Half-seen Faces took,' Singer said, 'when we decided it expedient to kill an innocent. Innocence has teeth.'
Charlotte accepted that they were trying to put her at her ease.
Mourner had been facing away from Charlotte, into a wind that keened roughly as a file. Suddenly, she raised her nose into the wind and turned; she reached into her capacious great- coat's pocket and tossed Charlotte a revolver - Charlotte had, in the nature of things and a moment of amorous inattention, left hers in the car.
Like Watcher and her siblings, she turned outwards, raising her gun; there were shadows out there on the plain, flowing in towards the headlights like ink across a page.
The sisters looked around them with the embarrassed air of those who realise too late that they have been too busy explaining things to take normal precautions. Even at the cost of all our lives, Charlotte reflected, it is nice to see that air of effortless superior competence punctured just this once.
There came, from the darkness beyond the headlights, a series of snarls and barks that had the sententious sarcastic air of being language.
'Our lineage's distant cousins,' Watcher said,' the People of the Plains.'
Into the dazzle of the headlights, shielding their eyes a little, there strutted two figures of what were obviously yet another breed of Kin, but one which disdained the convenience of clothes in favour of a lot of hair and the odd useful strap.
'They say that they want blood for their blood,' Singer explained to Charlotte, before snarling back in the slightly diffident way that in other, human, languages attempts to give verisimilitude to alibis. Particularly to those unlikely to be listened to.
'He said,' Tracker explained to Charlotte,' that, to the People of the Plains, it does not matter that the killing here two days ago was carried out by our enemies. We are all as bad as each other. The factions and their quarrels are all disturbances of the calm of the landscape. It was strangers to the high plain that killed Grarrl, and strangers who will die for it.'
One of the two snarled; it was a snarl that had clearly been practised with the intention of producing instant terrified compliance and involved more facial muscles than Charlotte had guessed even the Kin's faces possessed. How interesting to have exhibited for one the useful arts of primitive peoples.
Singer and Mourner barked back, their faces becoming more toothy and feral. Charlotte reached across and took Watcher's hand for a moment, noticing as she did so that it was becoming harder and its fingers more claw-like.
'I take it,' Charlotte said, ' that your cousins of the plains can be killed.'
'We are a tougher breed than you apes,' Tracker said,' but a bullet through the eyes, or a knife through the heart, or poison in the drink or the blood will nonetheless usually serve.'
Suddenly there came a loud baying in the middle distance and the naked Weerde fell back, abashed.
'There is no need,' a massive and articulate voice, out in the darkness, remarked desultorily, ' for alarm. The People of the Plain know perfectly well that their companion's death was not at your hands and they are a people noted for a tediously punctilious sense of justice. They are merely hurling accusations to oblige you to do them a favour; officiously, since it is I who require the favour of you, and my place to ask it.'
Out of the darkness there loomed a face; it was inhuman in any case, and its inhumanity was all the more utter for seeming set in granite, but what took it away from humanity more than its look was its sheer size. Heads are not that large, or that far from the ground, Charlotte thought.
Yet it spoke English with an intonation more perfectly that of London than the all-purpose Continental Berlitz precision of Watcher and her sisters; the mere fact that it was bothering to speak English seemed to indicate a certain disingenuousness, or abnormally good hearing.
'What's that? You have a human with you, I see. Good Lord,' it continued. ' Hardly wise, some might say, but I suppose you know your own business. Quite like humans, myself, and the People are positively besotted with them. What I say is, fire was nice, but what have they done for us lately ?' The two hairy snarlers turned towards Charlotte, observing her properly for the first time as their eyes grew accustomed to the light and bowed their heads in what might be shame or worship. She for her part nodded graciously, and put the revolver she was holding in the pocket of her greatcoat.
'Two lorries encountered one lorry here', the titanic face continued- Charlotte knew that there was a body attached to it in the darkness, but did not care to consider its size or its configuration - 'and the driver of the one lorry was compelled to join with the two. They, as Mr. Belloc tells us, had the Maxim gun and he had not. Unfortunately, our late companion was seen, and they managed to wound him, mortally; he struggled back towards our encampment, where he might have been saved. Dis aliter visum.'
'The gods wished otherwise,' Charlotte explained, helpfully.
'Strange as it may seem,' Tracker said, 'in the course of our misspent youth, we too found time for a classical education.'
The face's naked companions howled into the night.
'Hang on,' Charlotte said,' I can just about swallow you six having found time amid your vendettas for a little light Latin. I am somewhat more amazed that the giant chieftain of primitive nomads should seem so well informed on recent light verse and the scraps of classicism.'
Watcher and the others looked at her with the nervous air of schoolgirls whose friend has whistled in church.
'He's an Ancient,' Mourner said.
'You don't cheek Ancients,' Singer said.
Ignoring them, Charlotte continued. 'Well, I don't think it disrespectful to remark that he seems rather pukka sahib for a mysterious giant werewolf encountered in the steppes of central Asia.'
'Good Lord,' the voice said, ' that's never Charlotte Matthews.'
'It is, actually,' Charlotte said.
'Dear me,' the voice said,' little Charlotte, well I never.'
Then it barked some orders and suddenly the area of the headlights was full of the naked hairy ones, all of whom insisted on shaking hands.
' I used to be your Uncle Wilfred's friend, Saunders,' the Ancient explained.
'Uncle Saunders,' Charlotte said. 'But they told me that you disappeared, oh years ago, climbing in the High Pamirs and I cried for two nights.'
'Requirements of Empire, originally,' Saunders said.' I was playing the Great Game, though Simla were not aware on whose behalf I was playing it.'
'What happened to you ?' Charlotte asked.
'Dashed inconvenient' said the former Saunders, 'chap usually gets some warning if this Ancient thing is going to happen, but there it is. Broke my leg in several places falling off some damned precipice, went into Change-sleep to get over it. When I woke up, there it was - I had started to grow. I had to limp my way practically across Central Asia looking for somewhere safe to hole up. I could hardly turn up at the mess - my regiment are not noted for brains, but they would have noticed something. The People of the Plains range widely, and had heard rumours; they haven't had an Ancient of their own for a century or two, and I agreed to travel with them, for a while. One avoids humans at such times, of course - nothing personal - but one is a little conspicuous.'
As he moved closer into the light, in what was something between a lope and a crouch, Charlotte had more sense of his actual size. Not as big as she at first thought, but massive nonetheless- squat, muscular, fat, jowled, reptilian and as animal as an Egyptian god, yet still the traveller whose tales had frightened her in the schoolroom.
He was sufficiently dominant in his hirsute hairy near nakedness that she found herself bristling into opposition at a purely glandular level; much the same level as that at which the sisters, even, she feared, Watcher, were responding with a rather contemptible fawning and respect.
'People of the plain,' he went on. 'Now, they're fine fellows of course, salt of the earth, noble savage sort of thing; low on amenities though. Anything more than fire or a handaxe they regard as dangerously close to Dark-calling. Bit boring too - their version of the Fifty Lives is mostly a record of cattle trails and useful oases.'
Watcher got her nerve back. 'Charlotte,' she said, ' are you telling me that the shaman Ancient of the People of the Plains is some sort of old family friend of yours.'
The former Saunders looked at her witheringly. 'I know,' he said, ' that Progress tends to appeal to the more counter-jumping tendency among lineages. But as humans go, the Matthews are a family of real distinction.'
'Besides,' he continued, after a pause in which he tried to make his glare at once more withering and more benevolent, in a doing this for your own good sort of way,' as it happens, I was also a friend of your family, years ago, before the unpleasantness in Siberia.'
'You knew our parents,' said Mourner anxiously.
'I corresponded with them, occasionally,' he said. 'I was less convinced than they were that radical parties were the best vehicle for progress, and they argued that colonial empires were doomed, in the long run. And of course, on the latter question, they were probably right. I can't see the British keeping India for more than another century or so; no time at all to do anything useful.'
'Look,' Charlotte said, ' this is all very pleasant, Uncle Saunders, but we have a little problem on our hands. The sisters and I formed an alliance, and settled the Darkcallers' hash in Urga, but a few survivors seem to be driving East with the fossil evidence my late brother, whom they killed, was indiscreet enough to dig up, and with God knows what else besides'-
'-Young Tom eh,' Saunders said, 'so the Darkcalling rabble have killed Wilfred's godson as well as my good friend Grarrl. The vermin really are getting out of hand.'
He barked some more orders and the People of the Plain melted into the darkness, all save two who stood there silently, with concentrated expressions on their faces. They shivered as their faces and bodies altered towards the human and clumps of their body hair drifted to the ground.
'Still,' he said,'it is an ill wind and so on. The lorries are not going East - the People's scouts saw them turn South on a goat track some miles from here. Probably striking down to the railway - the late war tore up the track south of Urga, but some of it is operational, particularly once you get past the Chinese lines. We'd better head off in that direction. And the People will accept a modest vengeance as my fee for residing among them, just as you will pay me for my help by driving me to a more civilised location.'
'But there isn't room for you in our car,' Charlotte said.
'There is a lorry, parked some five miles away,' Saunders said. 'I had the People of the Plains steal it for me some months ago, in the middle of the war when things were not likely to be missed. The People may not use artefacts, but they are perfectly prepared to steal them, you know. They have this prejudice about mechanical objects, and I am myself these days indisposed for driving. I have just been waiting for someone who can drive, and now I have six of you.'
'Seven,' Charlotte said.
'Wilfred always said you were a bit of a tomboy,' Saunders said. 'Grew up to be some sort of New Woman, did you? I blame the war, myself. But we can't have you as a driver - never get past the border guards. I don't think you appreciate, with all the war lords competing for control, just how many borders we may have to cross. You, my dear, are going to have to be loot. Plenty of people driving South with the odd ci-devant White Russian gentlewoman slung across their backseats.'
Charlotte was getting progressively unhappy with the way that this oversized bully was taking over the whole enterprise and even more unhappy with the shamefaced way that Watcher and her sisters were letting him. They were standing there, looking up at him with great fawn-like eyes; any minute now the ones that were quick to grow hair would grow forelocks so that they could touch them.
Watcher already knew her well enough to look at her in apologetic appeal.
'He's an Ancient,' Watcher said.
'What is that?' Charlotte said, ' apart from some sort of glandular malfunction overcoming werewolves in middle-age?'
'They live a long time,' Watcher said,' and they know a lot. Besides, he knew our parents. He's on our side, so we're supposed to do what he says. It's how things are. You'll understand, my darling, when you get to know a little better how things work among us.'
'Watcher, my sweet,' Charlotte said patiently. 'Herr Doctor Freud explained this sort of thing to me in Vienna last year. You personally lost your parents at an early age, so you need a father figure, to salve obscure guilt; your people lost the First, in the dawn of time, and so they need father figures of one sort or another. But wouldn't it be more mature?-'
Saunders limped over to her and fixed her with a glare. 'One of the reasons for not telling humans too much is that they will insist on arguing. You must be very tired after all your exertions, Charlotte.'
'How considerate,' Charlotte said, forced to look up as he loomed over her, his breath steaming rhythmically like ox in a byre,'but I am not tired at all.'
His breathing grew ever louder, pounding in her ears like her own heart beats.
'But you are tired, Charlotte Matthews,' Saunders said. 'You are very tired indeed.'
Charlotte noticed of a sudden that she had extremely painful cramp in her fingers and calves. As she waved her hands in front of her face, and kicked nervously against the seat in front, she noticed that it was daylight, that the road they were travelling on was considerably smoother, and that they were no longer surrounded by scrubby plain but jolting slowly across a metal bridge, behind a ramshackle lorry and an unusually slow ox cart.
Visible in the distance ahead of them, out near the horizon, were some really quite respectably sized mountains. The vast shallow river beneath them was succulent and stinking with mud and silt.
She was very hungry and very thirsty, and there was a pronounced feeling of bruising around her left side and buttock, but she could tell from the feel of her underclothing that at least someone had kept her clean. One of the sisters handed her a water bottle; Charlotte rinsed her mouth out, and then gargled a little of the water in her throat, both times spitting none too elegantly from the side of the car. Then she allowed herself to swallow, just a little.
'I see we got across the border all right,' she remarked in the most congenial voice she could manage, a little husky and cracked around the edges.
Watcher, she noticed, had reverted to the features she had known as Schmidt's, while the others were all busily looking male and Chinese. A little more practice, she reflected, and I might be able to tell my sisters-in-law apart, but as things are...They looked at her stony-faced - one of them she realised was not one of the sisters at all, but one of the People. Something about his eyebrows...The other sister must be in the lorry, which, presumably, contained Saunders and the other nomad.
They rattled off the bridge and onto the road, and joined a ragged line of vehicles that were being inspected, with the usual gross casual brutality of the officious, by a group of Chinese soldiers in scruffy khaki and an unlikely mixture of headgear. Their officer, a dapper young brute, whose hair was smoothed down with an overly sweet pomade that Charlotte swore she could smell several yards downwind, inspected papers that were brought to him with a disdainful cursoriness.
One of the soldiers poked his head through the lorry's window and then proceeded to peer through the slats of the side of the lorry, and to poke at whatever he saw there. A loud and convincing bellow followed.
'Surely not,' Charlotte said. 'I know his Grace the Ancient is large enough, but I refuse to believe you people can grow horns to order.'
'Misdirection,' Watcher said. 'It's the whole trick of it. People see what they expect to see; you just have to fade reality a little round the edges.'
'I see,' Charlotte said, trying very hard to convey her entire moral disapproval of such a procedure.
'In the old days,' Mourner said, 'Ancients just used to say that they were Beneficent Dragons of the Sixth Button and in charge of the Rains of the South Wind. And people used to swallow it. Progress means they have to pass as domestic animals.'
There was a sardonic edge to this, Charlotte noticed, but it was a little bit too like the blasphemy of the true believer.
Evidently it had been successful, because the officer waved the lorry on; the soldiers moved down the line to the car. Charlotte had already closed her eyes and slumped over to one side, as if still asleep, with her hair straggling over her face; one may disapprove of deceit without rushing into having to answer awkward questions.
Watcher heaved a sigh of relief as they drew away.
'I didn't like the smell of that officer one little bit,' she remarked.
'His hair oil was rather oppressive, wasn't it,' Charlotte said.
'That is not what I meant at all,' Watcher said. 'Look, Charlotte, I really must apologise for what happened.'
'I don't think apologies are really in order,' Charlotte said. ' I cannot conceive of an apology that would be adequate.'
' There is little I can do,' Watcher said,' save kiss my beloved's hands in humility and hope in desperation for her forgiveness.'
'Why, Watcher,' Charlotte said,' You say the sweetest things and, if I was not so furious, you might even succeed in turning my head. '
'I was hoping,' Watcher said,' that I had achieved the soft answer that turns away wrath, but I would settle for turning your head...'
As they jolted along the rutted highway, a figure suddenly dashed from the scrubby bushes at its side and leaped onto the running board of the car, ducking into a kneeling position and gripping the door with both hands. Instantly, there were shouts behind them and the biting sound of rifle shots.
Whichever of the sisters was driving accelerated wildly, overtaking the lorry, whose driver instantly followed suit, after a while taking the lead again.. The nomad, who was sitting closest to the fugitive, who was hanging on as tenaciously as was possible with his head bent over, moved to hammer at the young Chinese man's hands with his fists; Watcher took his arm and made him desist.
'We are already in trouble,' she said. 'And we may as well, before disposing of this inconvenient young man, find out precisely what sort of trouble we are in.'
'Can we not simply throw him to his enemies?' Mourner said from next to the driving seat. 'It might at least buy us time while they do the unpleasant things they do to fugitives in these parts.'
'I would have thought,' Charlotte said,' that they would only be too keen to postpone disposal of a fugitive they have already identified as such pending discovery of precisely who his unsuspected allies are. That presumably would involve not merely questions, but questions of an unpleasantly physical kind.'
Several of the sisters nodded, and Watcher reached over and helped the young man climb over the side of the car and into the well between the seats, where he lay, among the boots of his unwelcoming hostesses, for their inspection.
He was a good-looking enough young chap, Charlotte reflected, though his face had a couple too many moles for her taste and his hair tended to the long and the lank. The abolition of the pigtail had clearly not been followed by any tonsorial renaissance in these parts.
They continued to drive recklessly fast; what traffic there had been ahead of them had pulled to the side at the first rifle shots or was driving equally speedily. As Charlotte watched, a lorry some yards ahead of them clipped the side of an oxcart that had tried to pull out of the way and spun out of control into the ditch, fetching up against a telegraph pole.
A lorry full of soldiers, whose firing either lacked precision or was intended to frighten rather than maim, probably the former, followed in the middle distance. It seemed gradually to be gaining, and Charlotte gained a distinct impression that the sister who was driving was, if anything, assisting this process by slowing down. As she watched, the nails of Watcher's hand grew longer, harder and more pointed.
Charlotte realised suddenly that the pain in her side was in fact her revolver, and so she reached into the pocket and removed it. She turned, sighted over the back of the car and fired. To her disappointment, it took two shots before she hit a tyre and another before she managed to place a bullet neatly into the lorry's radiator.
As she turned back, Watcher and her sisters were looking at her with amused indulgence.
'That was very impressive, Charlotte dear,' Tracker said, ' and I am sure that none of us could have managed it. But you really must try and conquer the urge to protect us from our enemies. It is redundant, and likely to lead to your getting in the way.'
'I was not trying to protect you from them, ' Charlotte said. 'I was under the impression, knowing you as I do, that I was protecting them from you.'
The plain was interrupted by a small rise, on which the lorry with Saunders in it started to labour somewhat; on the downside, there became visible a barrier and several more soldiers, several of them already levelling their rifles.
Perhaps, Charlotte reflected, there is something to all this healthy living, because, when she had seen the sisters dispose of their opposition in Mongolia, it was like watching a performance of some slightly recherché art, whereas when the two nomads, without even bothering significantly to change their human forms, flowed out of the moving vehicles, up to the sides of the road, and down again into and through the line of soldiers, it was like watching a high wind level corn.
The young Chinese man started to raise himself up to see, perhaps to enjoy, the slaughter - Charlotte looked at him severely and shook her head.
'What,' she enquired of Watcher,' is the Chinese for "there are some things that humanity is not meant to know".'
'I don't know,' Watcher said. 'I don't speak Chinese. Dancer was the only one of us that ever bothered to learn it. We were too busy in Siberia and the Ukraine ever to need it.'
The nomad swung himself back into the car. It and the lorry passed through the barrier, which creaked gently on its hinges. The road block seemed deserted now; the sudden flow of violence had even put the bodies somewhere out of sight.
The road ahead was more or less deserted, and there was no sign of the lorry full of soldiers. Charlotte doubted that she had successfully disabled it for more than a few minutes, but presumably she had discouraged them enough that they had dropped behind in expectation that the soldiers at the road block, presumably warned, would do their work for them.
'I hesitate,' Charlotte said, her voice loud enough to carry to the other vehicle,' to advocate delaying further. But the miracle of wireless telegraphy seems to be working to our disadvantage. If we do not do something about it, we are going to have to stop every few miles and kill people. This seems wasteful to me.'
The heavy door at the back of the lorry flung open, and with a thump Saunders heaved himself into the daylight. From somewhere he had acquired a large horse blanket which he was using as some sort of improvised loin cloth. He waddled over to the side of the road.
Charlotte noticed that his right leg was still lame.
He seized the telegraph pole by its base and proceeded to haul it from the ground. It came out with the slow gulping of the thick, rich clay which underlay the mild slope of the gravel embankment.
Suddenly, from the brow of the hill, there came a sinister swishing sound, the shouting of men and the firing of pistols. Charlotte threw herself down on top of the young Chinese man, who was mercifully somewhat on the plump side, followed expeditiously by Watcher, who was fumbling in her clothes for a revolver.
Down from the brow of the hill there swept some twenty gleaming bicycles, each of them ridden by a soldiers, some of whom were trying to sight pistols over the handlebars, or steering with one hand while the other brandished a sabre.
Some of them braked rapidly at the sight of the half-naked giant at the sight of the road, but none fast enough to avoid the almighty effort with which he wrenched the pole finally loose from the soil and swung it, with a power that tore it loose from the wires that lay, sparking, at the side of the road, in a low sweeping curve that sent half of the bicycles crashing to the floor in an instant, to be followed in a pile by the ones immediately behind them. Even those that had braked could not help smashing into the pile of crumpled machines and men.
One at least of them had got off a shot that had hit home, because Saunders was bleeding from his left shoulder and his right calf; this latter wound seemed to send him into a frenzy of temper, and he brought the pole down time and time again on the writhing mass of flesh, metal and rubber, pounding them to shreds like spices in a mortar. Then, suddenly, he turned away, and let the great pole fall.
There was blood and worse in pools in the dust of the road; Charlotte had seen the injuries of shells and machine-guns in Italy and had thought that she could not be shocked or disgusted ever again. Yet somewhere in that mass of offal there were still men with enough breath to be screaming. Watcher climbed from the car, as did her sisters, and walked determinedly across to the butchery.
Watcher fired three times and Mourner twice, and the screaming stopped.
Charlotte picked up a discarded rifle, opened the door of the shed and went inside.
There was a stove there, and some bedrolls, and a cold stove with a pan of some millet broth on it. There was also a small table on which rested headphones and the rest of the telegraph equipment; she brought down the rifle butt on it until it was a heap of metal and glass fragments - it did not relieve her feelings in the slightest.
There were also several jerry cans of petrol, which she carried out into the sunlight, one after another. Watcher saw what she was doing, and helped her distribute them between the car and the lorry. Waste not, want not, her governess had always said, and Charlotte imagined that petrol was not easiest come by, in China.
Then Watcher turned slowly and decisively and looked at Saunders. The expression that her Schmidt face wore was unreadable save for its narrowed eyes.
'You are an Ancient, and the friend of our parents,' she said. 'But we only kill when it is necessary. And we kill clean.'
'My old wound pains me,' Saunders said. 'And there is nothing so unimportant as the precise way in which one kills those one has decided to kill. I share your interest in killing the Darkcallers, and these soldiers stood in our way. This is a serious venture we are engaged upon. And vengeance is not a tea party.'
He waddled across to the car.
' This youth,' he said, 'has incommoded us far too much already, and seen appreciably too much for his own good.'
Charlotte closed the boot of the car, and turned.
'Watcher,' she said. 'I think I have had enough of all this. Saunders, for what little it is worth in your eyes, this young man is under my protection.'
Saunders continued to move forward, a look of cruel regret in his eyes.
'And Charlotte,' Watcher said, levelling her revolver between Saunders's eyes, ' is under mine.'
The two nomads started to move forward, only to stop when the sisters all raised their guns as well.
'This is all quite unnecessary,' said the young Chinese man.
'You did not say that you spoke English,' Charlotte said.
'No-one bothered to ask the ignorant coolly,' the young man said. 'You took for granted that I was the object of conversation, not a participant in it. And I am accustomed to such, and find it useful not to speak the language of imperial oppression in front of the oppressors.'
'Who are you ?' Charlotte asked.
'Personal names are irrelevant,' the young man said. 'I am the delegate from Hunan, merely. And we are wasting time. You have just destroyed a cadre of the bicycle cavalry of the Nationalist warlord Feng Yuxiang; and that makes you even more of a fugitive from his justice than am I, whose death is merely a favour owed by him to the Comintern. He has ordered my capture, and I can expect little mercy if caught, but for one warrior, even an oversized crippled freak, to smash his best soldiers like an idle child's toys, that is to earn considerably worse than death. Forget all these quarrels, and drive as if death were behind you. Because it is.'
Saunders stared hard at Charlotte, who refused to meet his eyes.
'That,' she said, 'is a trick I only propose to let you work twice, Mr. Saunders.'
Saunders looked around him and the faces of the sisters were all stony. He sighed, and turned away; he limped back to the lorry, reached inside and produced a flask of spirits, taking a sip from it, and pouring more of it onto his two wounds. He put his mouth to one of his great hands and sucked out a splinter, then bathed the hand in the spirit as well. He drained the last drops, and then tossed the flask behind him into the lorry.
He sighed again.
'What's an old man to do?' he said, 'confronted by all you decisive young people ? I had hoped for a little consideration and respect...Enough of that: very well: let us be off. And place this-ah-Delegate's fate under consideration until we know more of him.'
'Of course,' Watcher said, as the cars drove onwards across the plain, speedily but without any obvious pursuers,'of course, Charlotte, there is a very good case for what Saunders proposes.'
'I refuse,' Charlotte said,' to have a private conversation about killing someone in front of them.'
'If I had not spoken English,' the Delegate said,' you would have done so.'
'But you do,' Charlotte said. 'And if you hadn't, we would have had no option.'
'You could have bothered,' the Delegate said,' to learn the language of a country before crossing its borders. China deserves more respect than to be invaded perpetually by the ignorant.'
'We did not choose,' Charlotte said,' to come here for personal pleasure or out of idle curiosity. We pursued our enemies from Mongolia and will continue to pursue them until we come up with them or lose their trail altogether.'
'Your enemies?' the Delegate said. 'Would these be two lorries similar to the one containing your large friend?'
'Three lorries,' Watcher said.
'I saw two, only,' the Delegate said.
'But surely there were three,' Mourner said.
'There is much mere literary matter, and much advocacy of the brutal suppression of the people, in the works of the master strategist Sun Tzu,' the Delegate said. 'His emphasis on the importance of accurate observation as a prerequisite of leadership is a lesson to all of us.'
A silence fell, which seemed to last several hours. They stared at each other, and periodically the car would stop and a different sister would take over the driving or pour petrol into the tank from the dwindling supply.
Charlotte loathed inquisitiveness and small talk, but eventually she felt obliged to ask.
'What are you a delegate to?,' she asked, ' and what is your problem with the Bolsheviks? Are you an opponent of theirs?'
'Hardly an opponent,' the Delegate said. 'I regard them as my comrades. But there is a strategic disagreement of some importance.'
'So you are a Communist,' Watcher said with interest. 'I did not know there was a Communist party in China.'
'We started a year ago,' the Delegate said,' and I have personally already recruited sixteen members. I understand that there will be at least ten other delegates at the plenary conference in Shanghai.'
'I tried to read Marx, once,' Charlotte said, 'but I got bogged down in the Labour Theory of Value.'
'I haven't read Marx, yet,' the Delegate said. 'I know that the Russian Communists think he is very important, but none of us have had a chance to read him yet. We stand for a programme of the abolition of unequal treaties, and modest amounts of land reform. But the Comintern have promised to provide us with some pamphlets.'
'Don't listen to Charlotte,' Watcher said. 'She is, bless her, an unreconstructed bourgeois. You really would find it very helpful to read Marx.'
'You are going to Shanghai,' Charlotte said. ' We seem to be headed in that general direction.'
Watcher looked suspicious.
'If you are going to Shanghai,' she said, 'and have come from Hunan, you have taken an awfully round about route.'
'I was warned,' the Delegate said,' that there might be an attempt to stop me turning up in Shanghai. Sometimes it is useful to take the long route round to get somewhere. It will have been useful to travel among the people.'
There was a certainty in his tone at once admirable and repulsive.
'Besides,' he said, 'there is so much of China it will be useful to have seen. A gazetteer will tell one how much soil is washed away by the Huang-Ho river, but it is necessary to see it to determine that one day systems of dams and catchments will change it from a menace to a benefit.'
Charlotte reflected how difficult it is to take a pompous young man seriously when you have recently used him as a safety cushion.
'You have travelled widely ?' he asked.
'Reasonably so,' Charlotte said. ' In Europe and Siberia and Mongolia. But I have never been to China before.'
'Mongolia is China,' the Delegate snapped, his eyes wide in anger.
Then, in a more conciliatory tone, he added, 'Eight years ago, when I was nineteen, I saw a map of the whole world. Even allowing for the lies of imperialism, I was truly impressed by how much there is outside China, even allowing for what would be rightfully ours, were it not for unequal treaties.'
'Aside from Mongolia, then,' Charlotte said, feeling an obligation to the social graces,' I have never been to China. Is there much to see? Apart from potential irrigation projects ?'
Watcher gave her an amused, but warning, look.
'There are many sights of historical interest,' the Delegate said. 'Most of them have to do with feudal tyranny, but even those are often most important to the understanding of what it is to be a nation. Take the mountains to our right, for example.'
Because of the less than entire health of the suspension on the lorry, they had taken the road across the narrowing plane rather than the more frequented road into the foothills.
'I was most impressed,' the Delegate continued,' by the inscriptions on Mount Taishan. Most go there on the pilgrimages of superstition or on some mission to do with the arts, but I went there because the inscriptions, even as they glorify feudal rulers, tell us of power, and of responsibility.'
He struck an attitude, and intoned.
'"I am troubled by my lack of virtue. I am ignorant of perfect reason. I know not whether I have committed any offence against the gods or the people, and my heart is tossed on the floods as though I were crossing a great river. I deployed the power of my five imperial armies, I made the nine regions tremble with fear; the colours and standards were raised up; horses and soldiers silenced and what majesty, what spectacle, what pomp! In this way did I arrive at Taishan and all was as it should be."'
He paused, then continued, in a more normal voice.
'That is how it should be, you see; the ruler aware of responsibility, ignoring superstition, responsibility to the people. And nonetheless doing what is necessary, not in the name of personal glory, but in the name of the people. If there were a man in China capable of doing what needs to be done, he could build a new nation, like George Washington did, in the face of imperialism - but none of the warlords is that man. Dr. Sun is was briefly, but is now personally exhausted and politically spent.'
An awkward silence fell again.
'If it is possible to say so without seeming patronising,' Charlotte said, 'you speak English awfully well.'
'Thank you,'the Delegate said. 'It is not often that I get the chance to practise it at such length.'
For some time, the road had been running alongside a railway, and, quite suddenly, they caught up with a train, that was chugging gently South. Some of the carriages had roofs that were full of people, some of them asleep, and some of them sitting with their feet dangling off the edge; some of the passengers were travelling in mere cattle trucks. The road was so close to the line that the passengers started pointing at Watcher and Charlotte with a mixture of ridicule, hostility and incredulity.
The Delegate stood up.
'You were discussing killing me,' he said, 'to preserve some secret or other. I have no idea what your secret is, and I care even less. There is nothing that human beings ought not to know, save what is unnecessary to their work. But try and kill me now, and these people will tear you limb from limb, even your giant. There are simply too many of them, and they do not like foreigners.'
He clambered over the side of the car onto the running board and held out his hand; ten hands reached out to him to pull him on board the train. He looked down into the car from the roof of a carriage.
'It is often useful to have moved among the people,' he said, and leaped down into one of the cattle trucks, disappearing like a fish into the ocean.
'Saunders won't be pleased,' Watcher said.
'But it is by far the best solution,' Charlotte said. 'You didn't really want to kill that silly little man with his silly schemes - he was much too busy making speeches to even notice anything out of the ordinary about the rest of you, and he thought Saunders was just a gland case. And now we simply don't have to bother with him at all, ever again.'
After a while, the railway swung away from them. The road proceeded ever on through a plain of remorseless agricultural monotony, and Charlotte decided that after all, hypnotic trances are an overrated way of resting and it had already been a long and stressful day. She snuggled her head into the crease between Watcher's left breast and Watcher's armpit, and fell gently asleep.
It was night when she awoke, and the car and the lorry were jolting through the streets of a small settlement at the edge of which the road they were on crossed another, rather more evenly laid-out one; in the far corner of the cross roads, slightly back from the road, there was a larger building than those they had passed in the town. It had shutters on the windows, in something that had once approximated the European style, though the paint had flaked and many of the slats were missing. From it, there came the unmistakable smell of ginger, hot vinegar and the sweet charring of pork.
Charlotte thought with enthusiasm of the possibility of dinner - she was not starving and so had presumably been fed something during her trance, but she did not care to wonder what it had been, and whether it had been cooked first. Saunder's lorry turned into the large courtyard and Mourner, who was now driving, followed suit.
Charlotte realised with mild disappointment that it was not the smell of roasting pork that had made them stop, but rather the presence in the courtyard, next to the roasting pit, of an almost identical lorry, which stood, its back doors gaping open, clearly entirely abandoned.
The two nomads, who clearly had no trouble at all speaking Chinese, climbed from the vehicles and interrogated the plump, smiling Chinese man, who came out to greet them. After a while, they came to the car and reported back in the high barking Weerde language they had used on the plains. Presumably Saunders had good enough hearing to make out what they were saying, and the innkeeper, prepared to believe any strange noise to be the language of foreigners, would have been disconcerted had they chosen to explain themselves to some large domestic animal.
'He says,' Watcher said,' that the other lorry left at daybreak - clearly the Dark-calling scum have dawdled, delayed by acts of random wickedness, and we, almost uninterrupted, have made up a part of their lead.'
'But why have they left their lorry?' Charlotte said.
'We have experience, my love,' Watcher said,'of the Dark-callers and their Chaos co- conspirators. Rational behaviour, or anything we would recognise as such, is not to be expected from the Darkcallers. And the followers of Chaos, even if on the basis of rational premises, explicitly disavow rationality as a procedure.'
After a rapid conclave, held at a volume sufficient that Saunders could find a way of objecting, if he did, it was agreed that they pause and refresh themselves for a few hours. Charlotte was glad of the chance to wash herself, and rinse out her clothes. After she made signs to this effect, the sour-faced wife of the tavern-keeper hobbled off on her deformed tiny feet and procured from some press or cupboard a none-too clean robe of reasonably good silk. Charlotte took it and nodded her thanks; when the woman had left the room, Charlotte took a deep breath to rid her lungs of the sickly smell of the woman's feet, fungus-ridden inside their constraining bandages.
She slung her belt by its buckle from nails at the side of the window, and hung her blouse and her riding breeches to dry from it. There was a knock at the door and Watcher came in, with the apologetic expression that Charlotte was growing to know and despise.
'You do realise,' she said,' that I am going to have to bring your food to you here.'
Charlotte looked at her coldly.
'This is not,' Watcher said,' a very respectable tavern, and a European woman, whether dressed in a robe, or wearing what the Chinese are likely to see as rather masculine attire, is liable to cause comment.'
Charlotte did not say anything, and turned to adjust her clothes on their improvised line.
'Wouldn't you do better,' Watcher said,'to dry them an item at a time? Or spread them out more. I don't mean to be bossy, but I am only thinking about your best interests.'
Charlotte pecked her on the cheek and then looked at her in a way that had little loving about it.
'I'm sure you mean well,' she said. 'But it is clear to me that whatever is between us is less important to you than the desires of that overgrown oaf with whom you and your sisters seem so entirely infatuated.'
Watcher looked at her helplessly.
'You don't understand,' she said.
'I think,' Charlotte said, 'that I understand only too well. I have worked in hospitals, and I have seen the giggling nervousness of young nurses when the Chief Surgeon does his rounds. I found it distinctly unattractive in them, and in you it seems uncommonly like a betrayal.'
She put her hand to Watcher's shoulder, then let it drop, and went across to the bedding where she sat with her head in her hands, next to the small pile of her possessions she had taken from her pockets.
'It is not like that,' Watcher said, ' and there is nothing in my relationship to Saunders that you need feel anything resembling jealousy about.'
'Jealousy of a sexual kind would be preferable,' Charlotte said. ' Either you would have tired of me, or I could compete. But I cannot and will not compete for your attention, when there seems to be something entirely pathological going on.'
'He is an Ancient,' Watcher said. ' He is old and knows a lot, and I respect him.'
'I will not compete for your respect,' Charlotte said. 'I offered my throat to your teeth in love and attraction. I will not compete with anyone for you.'
'I love you, Charlotte,' Watcher said, 'enough not to mind if you want to think badly of me.'
'I don't want to blame you, Watcher,' Charlotte said. ' I want you to blame yourself.'
'You are impossible, Charlotte Matthews,' Watcher said, and left the room, slamming the door.
After a while, she returned with a tray and some food, and had the sense to leave it and not say anything. Charlotte reflected that she was, after all, rather hungry, and ate her way through the roast pork and the rice and a few greens - the latter were unpleasantly fibrous but would doubtless help her digestion.
Her clothes were not entirely dry, but not so damp as to risk her getting a chill, and so she dressed again, taking care to collect her possessions. She pushed the shutters aside, climbed up onto the window sill and let herself gently down, hanging onto the sill with both hands, and dropping the remaining seven feet or so.
It was dark in the courtyard, save for light from one window, from which there also came the noise of people eating and drinking. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a movement in the field beyond the courtyard - a large dog, or something.
She was somewhat surprised to see the back door of their lorry open, and the bonnet up; wherever Saunders had gone, he was clearly not there. Seizing a hoped-for opportunity, she clambered into the lorry, which stank of his sweat and worse, hoping to find what she was looking for. Her hand fell upon it almost instantly, where Saunders had tossed it into the lorry.
There was little light in the courtyard, but she hardly needed it. All she needed to do was remove the cap from the flask, and run her finger across the letters that she knew were embossed on its interior. TM.
It was, as she had feared, her brother's flask.
She reached into the pile of straw at the back of the lorry, and removed the two petrol cans she had placed there earlier, putting them in a dark corner of the courtyard, in the shadow of a bench. She walked across the courtyard to the window that was showing light.
The innkeeper and his wife, several other Chinese men who were presumably travellers or local merchants from the moderate affluence of their clothing and a young woman exiguously clothed sat stupefied in a corner, their eyes vacant and their heads nodding from side to side. Saunders was crouched in the middle of the room, tearing at a whole roast pig, and feeding scraps of it to the nomads who sat cross-legged beside him. The six sisters sat opposite, deferentially listening to him, their eyes glazed in a way not entirely distinguishable from the vacancy of the humans.
'Fast,' he said,' you must travel fast and on foot if we are to come up with the Darkcallers in time. We must overtake them before we reach Shanghai, or have to chase them through a warren where they have more lairs than I do. We are at Hicheng already, in Shatung province; we have not come up with them yet and we have not a moment to lose. The day after tomorrow, the road that we travel will be too near the city, too busy for quiet killing - you must travel the rest of this night and take to the hills by day. You must be my hounds, and I will set you on. Sleep now, sisters, and rise changed to take final vengeance on the slayers of your kin.'
She realised that the heads of Watcher and her sisters were nodding to the same rhythm as the innkeeper's, and as she watched, Mourner, Singer, Sojourner and Settler slumped to the floor, gradually losing their specifically human features.
Watcher stood, shaking her head to keep her concentration.
'This is not right,' she said. 'We cannot abandon Charlotte and your plan lacks logic. And - and I cannot abandon Charlotte.'
She was staggering on her feet, and Saunders put down the pig, licked an excess of grease from his left hand with an excessively long tongue, made a fist and clubbed her to the ground.
'Four volunteers are worth one pressed man is what I always say. And do come in, young Charlotte, no point hanging around out there in the cold night air.'
Charlotte pushed a shutter aside and clambered over the sill. Saunders reached over and took the flask from her hand.
'I see,' he said. 'You recognise it. Careless of me.'
He looked at her ruefully.
'It's not what you think,' he said. 'I had nothing to do with Tom's death. But a fellow can have his own interests, and his own plans, and the least you girls can do is be a little helpful, instead of selfishly pursuing your own pleasure all the time.'
Charlotte looked down at Watcher, who lay very still with a thin trail of blood from her right nostril and from the side of her mouth. She dropped to her knees, and kissed the quiet white forehead, just next to the depressed area where Saunders had struck.
'Murderer,' she said.
'Not in the least,' Saunders said. 'Her sisters went into the Change-sleep when I told them to, their natural deference to an Ancient's suggestions somewhat enhanced by the last of my opium in their rice wine. Your partner in viciousness - it is clear to me what is going on, Charlotte Matthews, and as a friend of your late uncle's, I feel some obligation to be shocked - needed rather more physical measures. But she will live - I know my own strength very precisely and precisely how much damage to do so that she will sleep until Shanghai.'
The two nomads started to drag the sisters out, but to the truck the Darkcallers had abandoned. Saunders saw Charlotte's inquisitive stare.
'Odd,' he said. ' But when we checked that one, it wouldn't go. Singer says that someone had taken out some of its parts; still, the other one was awfully bouncy for an old chap to ride in, and this one will be altogether smoother, now we've swapped the parts over. And we shall of course be taking the car as well. When I say we, I do not, of course, Charlotte, mean you.'
'Of course not,' Charlotte agreed.
'You really are the most vexing and irritating child,' Saunders said. ' Unnatural vice, questioning of authority, altogether too much curiosity. I really ought to dispose of you for good, but I think that leaving you here will serve perfectly adequately.'
Charlotte looked across the room at the fat snoring innkeeper.
'He is not even as nice as he looks,' Saunders said. ' Last week, he sold his concubine and her child to the whoremongers, because the child disturbed his rest. When he wakes up, I think the innkeeper will be entirely distressed, and you will be here to take the brunt of his displeasure. If you survive it, it should be character-forming and may teach you some overdue lessons in manners.'
One of the nomads seized her by the arm and the chin, forcing her to meet Saunder's gaze.
'Goodbye, Charlotte,' Saunders said.
She awoke on her back, with someone trying to force a bottle between her lips and someone else pawing at the fastening of her riding breeches, looking for her money belt, she assumed. She took a hefty swig of the fiery violet-scented liquor into her mouth, and then, as the landlord took the bottle from her lips, spat the spirit into his eyes; his companions laughed as he tottered around the room, unable to see.
She reached up and shoved at the shoulder of the one of his boon companions who was fumbling at her clothes, sending him spinning to the ground; sitting, she looked around. Several more of the landlord's friends or customers were lounging against the far wall of what proved to be her room; all of them had identical obnoxious male smirks on their faces.
The landlord had collapsed to the floor, frantically wiping at his eyes with an unclean sleeve. His expression as he looked at Charlotte was murderous.
Her revolver was gone from her belt, but they had not yet removed, or gone through, her jacket pockets. Unhurriedly, she produced her two-shot derringer, which she proceeded to point at the innkeeper's low forehead. They might not appreciate, after all, that it had only two chambers. His friends laughed, and he got up. All five men left the room, locking it behind them.
She had left some of her food earlier, and she wolfed it, guessing that they would soon have the idea of trying to starve her into submission. The stench of the liquor that had spattered her clothes almost, but not quite, managed to diminish her appetite.
She went to the window. The car and the Dark-caller's truck had gone, and the truck Saunders had ridden was still there.
Two of the innkeeper's friends were there, watching her window, and one of them tossed a handful of mud to discourage her. She dodged it easily, and continued to watch the darkness at the entrance to the courtyard, where she could, peering, still see a shape dithering in the darkness, a shape that inched nervously in a half-crouch into the courtyard and behind a bench in the far corner.
After all, she reflected, when one bothers to think through the meaning of one's observations, the Chinese are not noted for the keeping of large dogs.
The shape half-stumbled; there was the clink of one petrol can against another and a muffled noise of cursing.
She whistled, loudly, and the two men turned to look at her.
'I met a traveller from an antique land,' she said, at a venture. The two men looked up at her, as if she were mad.
She continued, ' Who said,"two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert.'
They continued to stare at her, oblivious of the shape which crept up behind them, picked up a broom that someone had left against the bench, and clouted them across the head with it. Charlotte clambered through the window again, and dropped to the ground, her fall this time somewhat softened by the two men who lay groaning on the ground, to find herself confronting a somewhat undersized and seedy looking Weerde, who was shaking himself with a certain determination into a more human form.
He was entirely naked, save for a twist of cloth with something in it hanging from his neck. Charlotte reached down, tugged the jacket off one of the two semiconscious men and handed it to him.
He got the idea and helped her remove the man's shoes and trousers; the other man tried to get to his feet, and Charlotte kicked him smartly in the jaw without more than half-turning. On an afterthought, she bent down, and retrieved her revolvers from his belt, put one of them in her own, and stood, watching the Weerde, who, as a human, was a small man with a weak chin and large sensitive untrustworthy eyes.
He barked at her. She recalled the conversations that the sisters had irritatingly continued to have around her and tried to follow suit, breaking out after a few moments into a paroxysm of coughing.
'We had better stick to English,' he said in a rather unappealing Hun whine. 'What with your accent and that nasty sore throat I can't understand a word you are saying.'
'I am Charlotte Matthews,' she said. 'And I believe that you have something that belongs to me.'
She did not point the revolvers at him, but held them ready, as an implicit threat.
'It was not I,' he said. 'I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even know what was in the crates.'
'Fine,' she said, ' you don't seem to have enough character to be a demon-worshipper. So you can take the distributor cap and the rotor arm from that piece of cloth around your neck, and you can fit them into this truck. Right this minute.'
'But the truck will not go,' he said. 'I saw them siphon the last of the petrol from it earlier.'
'You should have been paying attention, when you were loitering earlier,' Charlotte said. 'Or at least when you fell over the two petrol cans that I had the forethought to put behind the bench.'
The innkeeper and several of his friends came out of the door at the end of the court- yard, waving cleavers and an old pike. Charlotte fired into the dirt at the innkeeper's feet, and he retreated.
She climbed into the front of the truck, and continued to keep a weather eye open while the seedy young Weerde carried out her orders. In a few minutes, they were ready and started to back out of the courtyard; as they did so, they noticed a crowd of people running from the settlement, led by the innkeeper with his cleaver.
'I think,' Charlotte said, 'that we have outstayed our welcome in Hicheng.'
They accelerated, leaving the mob to eat their dust. Suddenly, he looked at her.
'Scheiss,' he said. 'You are a human, is that not so? All I could smell before was the liquor, and I did not stop to think.'
'Yes,' she said. 'But I don't think either of us can afford to examine each other's pedigrees too closely.'
'You don't understand,' he said, 'they'll kill me.'
'Who will?' she asked.
'Everyone,' he said. 'I don't belong to a very exalted lineage or anything, but at least none of my Line has ever been dishonoured, and no-one is actually wanting to kill me, Fritzi, specifically. Except perhaps a croupier still, in Odessa, but that wasn't anything to do with being Kin. But if they thought I was a Revealer...'
'I won't tell anyone, if you don't,' Charlotte said. 'And you may have gathered that I know a fair amount already.'
Fritzi started to gather the muscles at the base of his jaw and lengthen his features. Charlotte glared at him, and placed her hand on her revolver.
'Sorry,' he said,'just a nervous twitch.'
She smiled at him reassuringly.
'You were going,' she said, 'to explain what you were doing with my fossils.'
'I have not the slightest interest in fossils,' Fritzi said.' There is no obvious profit to be made from fossils. I was only in Urga to get away from Irkutsk - I had to leave Irkutsk because of a little misunderstanding over baccarat.'
'So you're a card sharp,' Charlotte said.
'Not at all,' Fritzi said, ' but I have a weakness for the tables, and have, on balance, been fortunate there.'
She looked at him sceptically.
'No, honestly,' he said. 'If only I had ever had a proper stake...I have a real gift, when I am in a proper casino. I only ended up in Irkutsk because I was tired of marching across Asia with the Czechs. Anyway, Urga was full of Darkcallers and Chaoticists; not a healthy place at all, but no obvious way of leaving. Then I saw that they were loading a crate into a truck, with obvious care, and the truck was clearly worth stealing and the crate might have been.'
'And then they caught up with you?' Charlotte prompted.
'They caught up with me,' he went on in the tones of a man with a grievance, ' and they held their guns on me, and they tied me hand and foot and slung me in the back of their truck. The Darkcallers wanted to kill me, but the couple of Chaos said that it was random chance that had brought me there, and when the time came for sacrifice what better victim than a chance one? And what better chance one than a gambler?'
'What sacrifice?' Charlotte said.
'I don't know,' Fritzi said. ' A sacrifice to the Dark, or to Chaos, I suppose; you have to understand that not all of us are interested in all this theology. When they get to Shanghai, presumably. They are taking something there, apart from the fossils. It was important enough that, when the People of the Plain attacked them, they left one lorry and its contents to safeguard it.'
'This lorry,' Charlotte said.
'I guess,' he said,' and then nothing happened until we got here and stayed overnight. They were busy carousing, and so I untied myself, and disabled one of the lorries, and buried the bits, wrapped in some cloth, out in a field. I thought I might get a better chance to escape, so I tied myself back up, sort of. They just assumed the lorry had stopped working - I've noticed that Darkcallers tend not to be terribly mechanical. They think it's beneath them.'
'So you escaped,' Charlotte said. 'That was resourceful of you.'
'Not really,' he said. ' A few miles on from Hicheng, we met some travelling procurers, and they had a child with them - Shumeng, the daughter of the innkeeper back there - and her mother. And they bought the pair of them, saying that they would do better; a woman dog and her child dog, the procurers said. They would have killed me, but the two from Chaos had taken my dice as a trophy, and they threw them, and said not to, and threw me naked beside the road, with my dice in my mouth, to die or be saved as chance decreed. And so I came back to Hicheng.'
'As chance decreed,' said Charlotte, and handed him her last two squares of Swiss chocolate.
There was an old man with a bicycle standing in the rain on the less fashionable side of Nanking Road, opposite the Young Women's Christian Association Shanghai hostel and the offices of Flossing, Reeves and Matthews. The pouring rain had largely emptied the streets, and laid the dust, and reduced the scent of incense, spices, sweat and dung to a mere water-shadow of itself. Native police were moving other street vendors along, but they left the old man to stand there, turning a grindstone that was mounted on the front wheel, with unpleasant looking little sachets of herbs in a basket at the back.
Charlotte dismounted from the lorry, and turned to say goodbye to the essentially harmless Fritzi, but the moment her feet had touched the ground, he slammed the door behind her, and drove off as if the Dark were after him.
Charlotte looked at the old man with the grindstone and he looked back at her with interested if filmy eyes.
'Potions, missy,' he said. ' Love potions.'
'Heavens no,' she said. ' When I am unlucky in love, I handle the matter for myself.'
She turned to cross the road, then turned back to him, reached into her jacket pocket and handed him the straight-edged razor she found it useful to carry there.
'Now that I have returned to civilisation,' she said, 'you had better put an edge on that for me.'
'Has Missy the money to pay for it ?' he asked.
'Oh, I think so,' Charlotte said, passing him the very last of the cosmopolitan small change and notes that she found on a diligent search of the rest of her pockets.
He grumbled slightly, but proceeded to work on the razor slowly and steadily with the grindstone and some sort of jeweller's rouge that he produced from a small pouch. It glimmered dully when he had finished, but he pulled a hair from his head, split it, and then split the section he was still holding, before folding it, and passing it back to her. She pocketed the razor, and then worked her way through the traffic to the other side of the road and entered the bank. A young Chinese clerk looked askance at her clothing and stepped decisively into her way.
'I would like to see the managing director,' she said.
'Do you have an appointment to see him? Miss- ah.'
'Matthews,' she said. 'Your name, please?'
'I am Sammy White,' he said. ' I wish to cause no offence.'
'Good,' she said. 'I am glad about that, Mr White. And now, the managing director. If you please.'
'If there is a problem with your account -' White said.
'I do not have an account,' Charlotte said.
' I am sorry. The managing director is in a meeting just now, with a very important client.'
'White,' Charlotte said. 'My name is Charlotte Matthews and I own a sixteenth of the shares in this bank. No, of course, stupid of me, an eighth. And I wish to see my uncle Gerard.'
White bowed alarmedly, and offered Charlotte his hand to shake. She shook it vigorously, if uninvolvedly, and then followed him through the bank to the back office. Uncle Gerard was making his farewells to a short Chinese man with an unusually bushy beard, who was wearing rather shabby trousers, boots so well polished that someone else had clearly done it for him, and a black jacket with improbably large gold epaulettes.
'Good Lord,' Gerard said, 'Charlotte! Whatever are you doing here.'
He turned to the skinny pockmarked man who was serving as interpreter.
'Tell the General,' he said,' that this is my niece, an important shareholder. Charlotte, have you met General Feng Yuxiang ?'
'No,' Charlotte said. 'But I have heard excellent things about his enlightened and modern rule of the areas he controls.'
The interpreter conveyed this, and the General smiled, and replied.
'The General wishes,' the interpreter said, 'that you bring your niece to dinner this evening. Even though she is too old to be marriageable, she shows a becoming sense of the proprieties.'
Then, with the usual bowing, the General and his interpreter left. White clapped his hands, and servants appeared with a pot of tea and some English biscuits. Charlotte slumped gratefully into one of her uncle's armchairs.
'Don't mind Wu Fang,' her uncle said, noticing the way she had narrowed her eyes as the clerk bustled around before leaving. 'Good lad, keen as mustard.'
'I thought he was called Sammy White,' Charlotte said.
'Goes by it,' Gerard said. 'Spirit of deference, he seems to think. Lot of nonsense if you ask me when a chap's got a perfectly good name and nation of his own.'
'Indeed he has,' Charlotte said.
'How on earth,' Uncle Gerard asked,' do you come to be here? The last I heard, you were pursuing your researches in the Bibliotheque Nationale.'
'I had news,' Charlotte said, ' bad news, about Tom.'
'Tom? ' her uncle said.
'He is dead, uncle Gerard, killed by wild beasts in Western Mongolia, and so is his friend Grobel, at the hands of the strangler in chief of the White Russian commander.'
'Are you sure?'
'Grobel told me that Tom was dead, a few minutes before he was killed himself. I tried to prevent Grobel's death, and was sentenced to death myself.'
'I gather things are a bit sticky,' Gerard said, 'up in Mongolia. This Von Sternberg chappie who runs things at present seems to be an excitable sort of fella, even for a Russian. You seem to have come through quite remarkably well, for a woman, travelling by herself.'
'I had companions,' Charlotte said,'part of the way.'
'Ah, well,' her uncle said. 'That explains it.'
She sat, systematically and mechanically devouring the biscuits, and charmed by the way he refrained from mentioning her travel-stained state. He went over to his desk, and worked on some correspondence while she slipped into a near-drowse.
After a while, he said, 'It will be a while before we can have Tom declared dead, you know.'
'The war will be over in a few months,' she said, ' and we will be able to check his grave.'
'Funny thing,' Gerard said. 'Coincidence, sort of, though I suppose it happens in troubled times. There were several cousins, but they never applied for him to be declared dead, and now he's turned up again, or so this letter says.'
'Who's turned up?' Charlotte said.
'Wilfred's friend,' said her uncle. 'That loudmouthed bore Saunders. He always kept an account here, and now he wants to clear it out. Not sure I can let him, just on a signature, but the poor old chap says he has some terrible disfiguring disease, and doesn't want to be seen. All most irregular.'
'Is he in Shanghai, then ?' Charlotte said.
'Seems to be,' Gerard said. 'He always came here a lot, in the old days. Had some sort of interests here. Even when he was supposed to be dead, people kept on paying money into the account. Fairly disreputable bunch of people, come to that.'
'And he's here now,' Charlotte said.
'If it really is him. Says he's staying down the road, on Bubbling Well Street. In some clinic. Probably a glorified Chinese pox doctor, if my memory of Saunders serves me well.'
Charlotte wandered over to his desk with a satisfied smile, and memorised the address. Stupid male arrogance never ceased to amaze her.
She had been wearing her riding breeches for so many days, that it was almost a shock to wear a skirt again; she refuses her uncle's offer of having a dressmaker produce some piece of froufrou, and insisted on a sensible outfit. As a compromise to fashion, she put her hair up.
'General Feng does not want to look at my legs,' she said, ' but he may take a full view of my face for all the good it will do him.'
Her uncle's carriage took them to a large restaurant, full of gourmandizers and d drunkards on each of several floors. They were shown to a large European style table, where Feng sat with a variety of business backers and local politicians. This was a male gathering, except for Charlotte, and Feng had already see her uncle, so that they were, for the most part, ignored. This suited Charlotte, because it meant that she could concentrate on the first hearty meal she had had in she did not know how long; it did not really matter that it was the usual Chinese messes of rice and noodles and unidentifiable fragments of meat covered in thick goo - it tasted pleasant enough, and it was filling.
Her uncle of course insisted on showing off by using chopsticks. He tried to show Charlotte how, but she refused even to acknowledge the attempt. There was something she was trying to remember, and acquiring new dexterities would only confuse her.
After a while, the young officer who was sitting beside Feng came down and summoned her uncle to the far end of the table, to exchange a toast with Feng, who seemed to be ignoring most of the delicacies on offer in favour of a large dish of American ice cream streaked with nuts and pastel-coloured and unhealthy looking syrups. He was shovelling this into his mouth mechanically, save when he paused to speak, or drink from a copious jug of lemonade.
Gerard came back and sat back beside Charlotte.
'The General is not a happy man,' he said,' and he wants to borrow even more money.'
'Why?' Charlotte said.
' He had bad news after visiting us,' Gerard said. ' Bandits massacred a crack platoon of his bicycle cavalry. There are plenty more soldiers where they came from. But he needs to buy new bicycles.'
Charlotte realised that the vague unease she had felt when her uncle was summoned away had been prompted by the smell of hair-oil. The General and the young officer were talking to two Europeans who had just arrived and to whom Gerard had been momentarily introduced.
'Who are the two Europeans ?' Charlotte said.
'A Russian and a Dutchman,' her uncle said. 'Voinstky, I think it was, and Hareng. Don't know who they are. Bolsheviks, probably, though we are not supposed to know Feng keeps that company. Best be off, then; Feng wants to take everyone off to the New World for gambling and dancing, and I am sure you wouldn't find that amusing.'
'Not tonight,' Charlotte said.
'The New World is a comprehensive den of the world's most depraved vices,' her uncle said. 'It has gambling on five floors, and what is alleged to be music on most of them. There is only one place in the city that is worse.'
'Surprise me,' Charlotte said,' What could be worse than gambling and loud music.'
'Its rival, the Great World, just around the corner from it,' her uncle said. 'Which is exactly the same except that it has opium and jugglers on the second floor, public suicide on the roof and unspeakable atrocities in the cellarage.'
'I would have thought atrocities in the cellarage more or less standard.'
'No,' her uncle said, ' the cellars of the New World contain nothing more worrying than good French wines, though they tell me they are building an extension for the new vintages from California. Doubtless they will find room for unspeakable atrocities while they are at it.'
'What sort of atrocities are they?' Charlotte said.
'I am sure I don't know,' her uncle said. 'I have never considered a detailed acquaintance with such matters an essential part of good banking practice. Small boys, dead bodies, human sacrifice sort of thing, I would assume.'
'I would find,' Charlotte said, 'night life a little strenuous after a long journey.'
'There is a spare bedroom in my rooms at the bank,' her uncle said.
'I prefer a hotel,' Charlotte said. 'Less of an imposition, and it preserves the proprieties.'
'You ought to be under my roof,' her uncle said. 'Really you ought. Shanghai is a dangerous city, particularly for a scholarly spinster who spends her life in libraries, and doesn't know the world.' As they left, Charlotte caught the young officer watching her in a considering sort of way.
Bubbling Well Road is merely a portion of Nanking Road devoted less to banks and offices than to shops and fripperies. There was a herbalist clinic at the return address on Saunders' letter, and it did indeed appear to be what her uncle had called a poxdoctor's, but it also, as she had feared, operated a profitable sideline as a poste restante.
She thought a while, and then wrote a short note on the back of one of the posters for the New World that were all the herbalist could offer her by way of stationery.
'Dear Saunders, (it said)
You will be glad to know that I have arrived in Shanghai without too much difficulty.
I am sure that release of your funds can be expedited by the bank, in which, you may be unaware, I own a significant interest, if satisfactory proofs can be offered of your identity, and your good faith.
You have something of mine that I wish returned.'
This was not perhaps wise, but it was the best she could manage. If Saunders had killed her brother, he had presumably already killed Watcher and her sisters as well, and had lied to her; but the fact that she was still alive was a not wholly comfortable reminder of the possibility that he was telling the truth.
She handed the note to the herbalist, who allowed that it might, in due course, be collected, and tried to sell her leopard hairs, the gizzards of hunting birds and the stone teeth of dragons. None of these seemed to meet her current needs.
She was only notionally closer to finding Saunders, and even less so to finding the Darkcallers, assuming them to be distinct entities. She would, on balance, prefer to find them other than by their finding her first.
Thinking hard, and trying to avoid an impotent distress over Watcher that might cloud her mind, she paid little attention to where she was going. She paced the street, pausing occasionally to finger a roll of cloth, or buy small items from the exigent stall-holders. The most amazing collection of the rubble of six continents seemed to have ended up on these stalls; on one stall, she even found a London bobbie's whistle, which made her feel a momentary nostalgia for Home, to the extent that she weakened and bought it.
Out of the corner of her eye, as she was haggling with the stallholder, she saw the two Europeans from the restaurant marching down the street with fixed glares and determination. They turned off to the right, pushing their way through the crowds, off toward the French Quarter. She paid sufficient attention to them, that she was taken by surprise when someone took her by the arm, and placed what felt like a revolver in the small of her back.
She could not see who it was, but there was a smell of hair-oil that she knew well.
'Miss Matthews,' the young officer said in a quiet voice,' how convenient to find you here. It would not incommode me at all to shoot you here and now, but I would prefer you to accompany me to a place where your death will serve a greater purpose. Killing two birds with one stone, as you English put it, is a project of real elegance, I always find.'
There seemed little she could do, for the moment, save comply and so Charlotte allowed herself to be walked through the streets of the Quarter, which combined, unappetisingly, the stinks of a Chinese city with the unpleasant municipal architecture of a French provincial town. She noticed, ahead of them, Vointsky and Hareng turn into what appeared to be a girl's school, a vaguely ecclesiastical building in red brick, into which, she was unsurprised to notice, her companion pulled her in their turn.
The school was empty, presumably for the summer holidays, and their feet echoed on the polished wood floors of the empty corridors. Vointsky and Hareng did not look round, and turned into a class room from which Charlotte could hear the voices of a number of Chinese men, arguing fiercely. Charlotte's captor pulled her into an adjacent room. He pushed her to the floor, and put his hand over her mouth.
'The story of politically motivated gang rape and murder of a leading financial interest,' he said, putting his revolver to one side while he tore at her buttons, ' followed by a fatal quarrel between the deranged criminals, will be most convincing if there are some signs of an attempt to violate you.'
She bit down on his fingers, hard.
The noise he made did not sound like even the Chinese version of profanity.
His grip was still firm, though, and it was without any real suprise that Charlotte felt the blood that briefly flowed from his fingers dry up, and the fingers constantly shift and mend between her worrying teeth.
She kicked out wildly, and made a sudden connection with something solid. With a terrible clatter, the slate of the blackboard toppled from the easel she had kicked and landed on top of them. It was a heavy piece of furniture, and the young officer was lying on top of her. With a major effort, Charlotte wriggled out from under.
The door opened, and eleven Chinese men rushed in, among them the Delegate from Hunan. Vointsky and Hareng followed them. There followed a loud argument in Chinese, in the course of which Charlotte picked herself up, brushed herself off and sat down on one of the desks in the front row.
The Delegate from Hunan looked at Charlotte with mild amusement.
'You have interrupted a most interesting debate,' he said. 'The fraternal delegates'- he nodded at Vointsky and Hareng - 'were proposing the dissolution of the party, and I was opposing them.'
'Fraternal delegates, are they?' Charlotte said. 'Last night I met them at dinner with General Feng Yuxiang and his messenger-boy here.'
The Delegate smiled, turned and spoke volubly to his colleagues, who looked at the two European men suspiciously. Charlotte noticed that the unconscious young officer's face was drifting a little, but no-one else in the room was paying him any attention whatever.
'I have told them,' the Delegate said, apologetically,' that you are reasonably trustworthy, for an imperialist, but they are not especially convinced. I think they are likely to return to the last motion that was put before the disturbance. As amended, of course. To take note of changed circumstances.'
'What motion?' Charlotte said. 'What amendments?'
'To ignore the majority given me by my block vote of sixteen members,' the Delegate said. 'And kill me, as a left deviationist, whatever that is. And of course to kill you and this running dog of warlordism.'
'I see,' Charlotte said.
She reached into her pocket, pulled out the police whistle and blew a healthy blast. Then she sat back and smiled.
'Gendarmes,' she said, ' are always, I have found, prone to prompt arrival and a fair degree of hostility towards covert political activity. Suggest to your colleagues that they had better leave.'
The other delegates, and Vointsky and Hareng, looked at each other, and then ran quickly from the room. The Delegate from Hunan looked at her with respect, as Charlotte picked up the young officer's revolver, and pointed it at the man on the floor.
'The police will be here, in a moment,' she said. ' I trust it will be agreeable for me to explain to them that you are my hired interpreter, and nothing to do with any illegal meeting that may have been going on here. You indeed merely followed, when I was abducted by a drunken officer with rapine on his mind. Oh, by the way, my name is Charlotte Matthews - I think they will expect us to know each other's names.'
'My name is Mao,' the delegate said, brushing a curlicue of long dark hair from his forehead, 'Mao Tse-Tung.'
'Fine,' Charlotte said.
'Our friend on the floor appears to be coming back to consciousness,' Mao said. 'Another interesting glandular case, I see. I took him for Chinese at first, but this appears not to be the case.'
The young officer sat up, and looked around him with some confusion.
'Very quickly,' Charlotte said. 'Who are you working for ? Feng ? The Comintern ? Or someone else.'
'You have no idea,' the young man said, 'of the power of the organisation I represent, Miss Matthews, and of the folly of trying to oppose us. And you' - he glared at Mao -' you are an insect on whom we shall tread.'
'I rather thought something of the kind,' Charlotte said, and shot him between the eyes at point-blank range.
'After all,' she explained to the somewhat startled young man, 'the French police are men of the world. And I shot an attempted rapist with his own revolver.'
The French police were easier to appease than her uncle, though he was somewhat mollified when General Feng sent round a large basket of flowers to Charlotte with a note offering his profoundest apologies that an officer of his army should have behaved so badly. Indeed, he further insisted that they should be his guests that night, at the New World.
Charlotte summoned a tailor to her hotel suite.
'But I don't want to wear a dinner jacket,' said Mao Tse-Tung.
'Come come,' Charlotte said. 'I saved your life this morning; the least you can do is help guard my back for an evening.'
'But I don't know anything about the decadent pursuits of such places,' he said.
'I should think not, indeed,' she said, ' and that will make you all the more useful, because you will be attentive and not take anything for granted.'
'But I still don't want to wear a dinner jacket?' he said.
'What is good enough for me,' Charlotte said, 'ought to be good enough for you. We are going to see General Feng, and one thing he will not be expecting is a Communist in a dinner jacket. It was after all you who taught me valuable lessons about hiding in plain sight. Another thing he will not be expecting, of course, is a woman wearing one, but I shall tell him, not inaccurately, that it is all the rage in Paris. I detest skirts, and I need pockets.'
Mao had a surly expression on his face, that seemed to betoken a lack of interest in such matters.
'In the meantime,' Charlotte said, 'I have a small job for you. You are, are you not, a professional agitator.'
'So go down to the New World in your present attire, and wander around to the service entrance, and strike up a conversation with the waiters, or the cooks, or the croupiers.'
'What would I want to do that for?'
' So that you can agitate them,' she said. 'Exploit a legitimate grievance; incite class hatred; do whatever it is that you people do.'
He departed, less than wholly convinced.
She telephoned the gendarmerie, and discovered, to her less than entire surprise, that the body of the young officer had been handed over by the morgue to one of his brothers, also a captain in the forces of General Feng. At her request, Sammy White went to the poxdoctor's clinic and checked that, indeed, the letter had been collected, by, the herbalist said, an uncouth Northerner with bad manners and protuberant eyebrows. The herbalist had offered a potion that would remove this blemish, and received a dusty answer; later, White returned with a letter which had been handed to him at the bank.
'My dear Charlotte,
Imagine my surprise at learning you had made such good time on your journey to Shanghai. Our own journey passed without incident, you will be glad to hear, though sadly we failed to cross the paths of our errant cousins. Doubtless we will come across them soon. Like all great or wicked cities, Shanghai is a very small place.
It would be convenient were you to encourage the release of my funds without unnecessary officiousness; I have some information that may be essential to your survival.
As you say, I have something of yours, but it is not yet in working order and I am loth to let something of such sentimental value pass out of my hands without a consideration.
My congratulations on your recent intrepid adventure; you are indeed a formidable young woman. But you are still not immortal, and you have some very powerful enemies, among the least of whom, I number myself,
Uncle Gerard made a terrible fuss when he discovered that Charlotte was going to the New World in men's clothing.
'Anyone would think,' he said, 'that you revelled in decadence, or that your head had been turned by your experiences.'
'Nonsense, Gerard,' she said. 'I am an independent woman, in command of my own fortune. And in a society like this one, to wear anything other than the clothing of privilege is to advertise yourself as a dependent. General Feng will just have to swallow any principles he may have in the matter, because there is no reason for me to kow-tow to him.'
'I suppose not,' Gerard said resignedly. 'Can we rely on this Mao chap you have hired. Do we know anything about his people?'
'They are perfectly respectable farmers in Hunan,' Charlotte said. 'And he is himself a respectable married man.'
'Sturdy yeoman stock, eh?' Gerard said. 'Offer him a job with the bank if you like. Ambitious young chap like that; should go far.'
'I don't think so,' Charlotte said. 'That is, I don't think he wants a job in the bank. I think he regards his people as having a prior claim on his time. And, speaking of command of my own fortune, you will recall that Tom signed a power of attorney, when he went off in '14. I may need to make some investments.'
You could hear the New World a block and a half away; Charlotte reflected that it was bad enough going into what she assumed to be the lion's den, without being deafened at the same time. From the third floor came the discordant strains of a German band, a Chinese orchestra and a piano player, imported at considerable expense from New Orleans, who was playing some sort of ragtime. You could hardly see the full moon overhead for the blaze of lights from its windows, and the blazing gas torches around its door.
Also, from a block or so away, the streets were crowded with rickshaws, carriages and parking cars. Charlotte and Mao had reluctantly allowed Gerard's chauffeur to drive them the few hundred yards to the entrance; Gerard had had a sticking point and it turned out to be the prospect of the fearful shame of allowing Charlotte to arrive at the New World on foot.
'Good evening, Sir,' said the young man at the door, who wore an elaborate green brocade robe over black trousers,' and good evening to you,-ah- Miss.'
'We are part of General Feng's party,' Charlotte said. 'I am Miss Charlotte Matthews, of the bank, and Mao here is my interpreter.'
'You have come at a convenient time,' the young man said. 'The General has just finished his prayer meeting and is about to proceed to the roulette wheel.'
As Charlotte walked past him, she noticed that there was mud on the heels of his European shoes. Beyond the pink marble staircase that curved up to the principal gambling halls, there was an entrance covered in a brown velvet curtain.
She walked towards it.
'I will just avail myself of the cloakroom facilities,' she said.
'Ah, no,' said the commissionaire, catching up with her. ' They are upstairs. We will show you.'
'I don't understand you,' she said, ' speak more clearly.'
He started to pull at her arm, and she yielded to his entreaties. She had had time to see that behind the velvet curtain was a stair case leading down, and that the bottom of the curtain was stained with the same thick mud as his shoes.
The General was wearing a rather better pair of trousers, a resplendent purple cummerbund, a jacket whose epaulettes and orders dripped as bright as the chandeliers overhead, and a benign and fatherly expression. He looked askance at Charlotte's clothing and then pulled his face into its normal smile.
'He says,' Mao translated, 'that he is glad to see that you have chosen to dress in a manner that could provoke no further attempts on your virtue.'
'May he live a thousand years,' said Charlotte, reasoning that politeness costs nothing.
'He wishes to present,' Mao continued, ' the brother of the man you killed, who wishes to proffer his apologies.'
An officer almost identical to his brother, wearing a different but equally repellent hair- oil, drew them aside.
'The old man claims to speak no English,' he said, ' but there is no reason to trust his veracity.'
'Indeed,' Mao said, 'foreign languages are an accomplishment which I myself consider better exercised than acknowledged.'
'You do not,' the officer said,'appreciate the seriousness of your situation. You are, both of you, doomed as soon as we can make the appropriate arrangements.'
'Revolutionaries,' Mao said, 'are dead men on leave.'
'Appositely quoted,' Charlotte said.
'I had thought it original,' Mao said.
'Besetting problem of the aphoristic,' she said. 'Anyway,'- she turned back to the officer- 'what about this doom then?'
'You do not understand,' he said. 'It is our intention to dispose of all of these Bolsheviks. They are unlikely to disturb the endless peace of China, but it is as well to be sure. You, Miss Matthews, you seem to be altogether too inquisitive for your own good, or even too well- informed.'
'Just so,' she said.
The officer narrowed his lips, rather more perhaps than was normal in a human being expressing wrath.
' Avoid dark corners,' he said.
Charlotte and Mao bowed to him politely and walked back to the General and his party, who were about to leave the roulette table for a room on the next floor. Charlotte stopped to place a small bet, for luck, and found difficulty in getting the croupier to meet her eye; she was unsurprised to notice that he had bushy eyebrows.
'Tell your master,' she said, 'that we need to talk.'
'No speakee English,' the croupier said.
'I think you do,' Charlotte said.
She noticed with satisfaction that the young officer was still watching her; she stuck out her tongue at him, and then, with Mao dogging her footsteps, she sauntered up the stairs.
Halfway up the stairs, she paused.
'Mao,' she said. 'I know you are not enjoying all this very much, so go and talk to all the friends you have made here. Persuade them that they need an evening off; national holiday, or mass protest, or something.'
The very first person she noticed in the room upstairs, where a game of baccarat was in progress, was young Fritzi, whom she seized by the arm the moment she spotted him.
'Fritzi, darling,' she said, 'how nice to see you. Was it in Menton? Or was it in Venezia? I thought I might find you here, and I brought this for you.'
She drew him aside and thrust an envelope into his hand.
'You need a stake, don't you?' she said.
'I can manage,' he said.
'You would like a proper stake,' she said.
'Yes,' he said.
'And I need a bargaining counter,' she said. 'We are surrounded by our enemies. I hope you are as good as you say you are.'
He tore open the envelope and looked inside. He gave a long slow whistle.
'Just be as good as you say you are,' she said, 'and we might all live out the night.'
Then she went over to the bar, and sat for an hour sipping fresh orange juice mixed with Vichy water. She had learned in Italy during the war that it was often possible, without the use of spirits, to abstract one's attention for a while until it was needed. The alternative to abstraction would have been to catalogue the lapses of taste in the room's decor, a long list, in which gilt dragons and red lacquer trimmings would have competed for priority.
After an hour, Fritzi took a break from the table, and tried to explain in tedious technical terms what he had done. Charlotte patted him on the arm, and sent him back to the tables.
When after a while, he went down to the roulette tables, she followed him at a distance, just to be on the safe side. He seemed to be doing rather well, and she noticed after a while that General Feng, and various of the casino staff, were sweating.
The tension had been increased by the gathering silence - the bands had stopped playing, and the chanteuse in a cheongsam who had been singing 'Tea for two' and other risqué modern ditties packed up her music and went and sat at the bar. After a while, it became impossible to get a drink - the bar staff appeared to have gone off somewhere, and a press developed at the bar of men unable to cope without alcohol. Charlotte finished her orange juice and wandered over to the table.
'I will see your boss, now,' she said to the croupier.
'Fritzi,' she added,'you can take a break now.'
He bustled up, full of himself.
'I really would like to go on,' he said. 'I've never broken the bank before.'
'If you must,' she said indulgently.
'You can have your money back,' he said.
'That will be acceptable,' she said.
'And I thought I would make you a present of what I won from General Feng,'
Charlotte had a sudden feeling that things had got out of control, as the entire group of officers from Feng's entourage, including the one who had threatened her, walked up to her and Fritzi in a body.
'I may have need of you later,' she said. ' But you may reassure General Feng that it is in any case a loan, and you had better hang on to them, to protect yourself and the General. You, on the other hand,'- and she pointed to the officer who had threatened her-' may come with me right away. I have a proposition to put to you.'
'I have nothing further to say to you,' he said.
'And I will say one thing to you,' she said. 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend, except when he is the enemy of all.'
The officer narrowed his eyes.
'I think you take my meaning,' she said. 'Sometimes, there is a need for truce. It is a full moon, for those who take account of those things, and a party of Darkcallers came here from Urga bringing something precious, and they brought a virgin child as well.'
'We have underestimated you, Miss Matthews,' he said. ' I had thought you knew too much, but this is intolerable.'
'In life,' she said,' there are priorities. I have priorities, and you have priorities. And the keeping of secrets may be a high one with you, but there are higher ones yet, are there not ?'
He followed her up the staircase, then seized her by the arm.
'But how do you know that I am not one of them? ' he said.
'You have the stink of hidebound, privileged, brutal reaction on you,' she said, 'of a pathetic desire to keep things always the same. But in Urga I smelled the stink of madness. They are surprisingly different.'
'And at the top of these stairs,' he said,' what do you smell at the top of these stairs?'
'I smell,' she said, ' the tired corrupt stink of business as usual.'
They were on the top floor now, and the stair case led to a penthouse on the roof. In a sudden flurry of footsteps, Mao joined them.
'I have done as you asked,' he said.
'Good,' Charlotte said, and knocked loudly on the door that led into the penthouse. It was opened by another of the People of the Plain; they really did all have those eyebrows in common, it must be inbreeding or something. Inside, there was the noise of someone shouting very loudly and in some distress into a speaking-tube.
'Tell Mr. Saunders that we are here to see him,' she said.
Against a far wall, shouting into the speaking trumpet, the vast bulk of Saunders lolled on cushions; the air was thick with scent and incense, but it could not entirely hide the animal stink of him. In such surroundings, he looked less human than ever, the green silk robe he had thrown over his bulk glimmering in the dim light like a serpent's scales.
Two more of the People of the Plains stood beside the cushions; one of them had a large and exotic curved sword, a yataghan, Charlotte supposed, or something of the heathenish sort, and the other a tommy gun. Against the wall to her right, in what looked like extreme discomfort, the six sisters lay groaning, in what would have been human shape, save that individual limbs were clenched and paw-like. A closer examination revealed that each of them had, around those limbs, a tight manacle too narrow for human shape. Watcher was nearest to Saunders, and her eyes were focussed enough to signal extreme distress to Charlotte.
'I have come for what is mine,' Charlotte said.
'You have found me with your usual despatch,' Saunders said.
'A person as large as you leaves large footprints,'Charlotte said.' In the present case, large, ill-printed handbills at the herbalists where you have your mail sent. I know that it pays to advertise, but there are exceptions to every rule.'
'You have brought my money, from the bank,' Saunders said.
'No,' Charlotte said, 'on the contrary, from him that hath not, I have taken away even that which he had.'
More voices gabbled at Saunders through the speaking tube.
'My agent has broken your bank,' Charlotte said. 'And my colleague here,'- Mao bowed- ' has spread social unrest among your domestic staff. I hold you, Saunders, in the palm of my hand. My uncle will never allow you access to my funds without seeing you, unless I assure him that I have seen you and you are not an impostor. I do not know what egotistical game has led you to reduce my lover and her sister to their present unfortunate state, but...'
'I needed them,' Saunders said, 'and I could not be sure of their compliance. You have no idea of how important...'
'I think I do,' Charlotte said. 'Otherwise I would not have involved the captain here.'
'Stasis,' Saunders hissed.
'Just so,' the captain said.
'I think,' Charlotte said, 'that, if we are to go through your little tunnel, we had better make a start now.'
'How do you know about the tunnel,' Saunders said.
'It is merely basic prudence,' Charlotte said, ' to know about a tunnel for which I appear to have paid.'
'The best of luck,' Saunders said.
'You will be coming too,' Charlotte said. 'This is too important for the most effective fighting machine we will have to think of himself as on the staff.'
'But he must not be seen,' the captain said.
Outside and below, the noise of discontent had started to become almost a riot. Charlotte stepped to the door of the penthouse, drew her whistle from her pocket and blew three stentorian blasts.
She turned to Mao.
'Would you do the honours?' she said.
'It's a raid,' shouted Mao Tse-Tung, in several languages.
'Thank you,' she said.
Outside, the tumult grew, and then, gradually dwindled into the street.
'We have a few minutes,' she said. 'Your keys, Saunders, and be quick about it.'
'There is still a Tommy gun pointed at you,' Saunders said. 'Don't be childish,' Charlotte said. 'Your interests dictate that you transcend murderous spite, and that we all settle our grievances afterwards. Your keys.'
The guards handed their weapons to Mao, who retained the Tommy gun, and then they took the keys and released the prisoners; the sisters stretched and yawned, lolling their tongues and teeth, and easing the cramped bestial limbs into a more human shape. Watcher tore the gag from her mouth.
'Charlotte,' she said.
'I said,' Charlotte said,' that we will settle our grievances later.' Then she softened, walked over to Watcher, smiled and embraced her for a moment, moving her hands delicately over the much loved body and the suit that travel and chains had worn almost to rags.
Below, the rooms had cleared, leaving merely a few overturned chairs, a bottle of champagne that dripped onto the floor and a cigar burning in an ash tray to indicate even a passing human presence. Halfway down the stairs, the party was joined by the group of officers, Fritzi and General Feng.
Charlotte loathed speeches.
'More is at stake than I can discreetly speak about,' she said. 'One thing you need to know. There is a child in danger; that should be enough.'
General Feng looked at the vast monstrous bulk of Saunders, tottered to the table where the champagne bottle was dripping and proceeded to gulp from its neck. This was no time for a breach of lifelong teetotalism, Charlotte thought, but refrained from commenting beyond a sour look. The old man was a valued client of the bank after all, and probably best left behind.
The young man with the muddy trousers had dispensed with his robe, and locked the doors of the New World; he stood at the curtain passing out extra firearms.
'You seem well prepared,' Charlotte said with surprise.
'We have an extensive Lost Property department in the New World,' said Saunders.
'Some people seem obsessed with collecting lost property,' Watcher said, almost sourly.
'And some of us,' Charlotte said, softening her words somewhat with a smile, ' do not relish being treated as luggage.'
Watcher smiled back, and laid her hand on Charlotte's wrist.
'I had some leisure to think,' she said, 'through the ache of my healing head, and you were right. I have cause to think ill of myself.'
'It does not matter,' Charlotte said. 'I am sure that, over the years, I will do things that you have to forgive, and it is best to establish a precedent of reasonableness.'
At the bottom of the stairs there was a wine cellar, which stretched under vaulting for some yards. At the end of the stone vaulting there were pit props holding up a tunnel that continued in the same direction for twenty claustrophobic yards, took a short turn for six and then ended in clay.
'There is not far to go,' Saunders said. 'It was important that they not hear us coming until as late as possible.'
He took the lead and charged at the clay face, tearing at it with his vast shovel like hands. He began to sweat, and Charlotte noticed how patches of his back had acquired a surface as much like scales as skin, though only moderately like either. With a cry of triumph, he pushed aside hunks of masonry, which fell away from him with a splash. He dived forwards, wading up to his waist in the channel that lay immediately before the tunnel's mouth. Opposite, rather than the blank wall of the storm sewer, was a raised embankment with a high water mark near its brim, and beyond that a vast chamber that smelled of mortar gone to flakes and stone worn to round evenness by the sheer weight of duration. The young man from the door had brought two large planks with him from further back in the cellar and these he proceeded to lay across the sewer. The party clattered across them with the best speed they could manage.
At the far end of the chamber, there was a chanting; if it resembled the howling of wolves, they were wolves that had not only eaten carrion but smeared it on their muzzles, wolves whose eyes would have the yellow sheen of rancid butter. The figures stood around a great altar, a vast shape of stone, whose seeming shapelessness had implications that chittered nervously at the borders of the unconscious mind. At its head stood a smaller stone that glimmered in the torch light, and on the great stone lay a naked, but as yet seemingly whole, girl child. As the interlopers rushed at them, they shrieked and turned; to her surprise, Charlotte recognised among them, their faces shifting into beasthood, both the herbalist and the knife-grinder.
What ensued was a whirlwind of teeth and knives and bullets and sudden rushes. Charlotte saw Mao firing his tommygun into the coming wall of constantly mutating flesh, but was whirled away by a clawed hand that seized her throat until discouraged with a bullet. She found herself briefly in the eye of the storm, and dived out of it on the other side, managing a reasonably accomplished rugby tackle - how fortunate at such times to have had an aggressively athletic brother - on the Darkcaller with a large and unpleasant looking knife who seemed to be about to kill the child. In a wild scrabble for position on the stone-flagged floor where they had both fallen, he grabbed the knife he had momentarily dropped and turned to stab Charlotte, but she seized his arm, and was surprised to find it frail and all too human seeming.
Someone reached past her, and stove in his head with the smaller stone that had been the idol by the altar's head; when she looked at him to give him thanks, he nodded, his face resuming a human aspect, and she realised that it was the herbalist.
She seized the child, who had begun to raise the most frightful caterwauling, and took it out of harms way to the lee of the alter. She tried ineffectually to soothe it, and stroke its hair into some semblance of order; a somewhat battered Mao joined her on the floor.
'I have more experience with children,' he said. 'And I think you have other concerns. I am somewhat surprised at the extent to which I find myself taking your orders, let alone the extent to which everyone else seems to be.'
'When I first met Mr. Saunders,' Charlotte said, 'I cited the works of Herr Doctor Freud, but, after thinking a good deal about the giving and taking of orders, I have since decided that the works of Mr. Jack London have greater relevance. There is always a struggle as to which wolf leads the pack.'
'Ah yes,' Mao said. 'I understand that London is a great favourite of Lenin's.'
Charlotte looked across the room at the battle, which was the usual confusing melee; she paused to look at the idol, a black stone of possibly meteoric origin, which someone had carved rather badly into what might have been a walking lizard, or might have been a bird.
Saunders, in the middle of the melee, threw away from him two Darkcallers who had been hewing at the back of his neck with entirely ineffectual hatchets, and they landed against a far wall with a fatal-sounding crunch.
'Get away from the altar,' he shouted.
Charlotte turned. With a slow, massive and decisive effort, the nearer end of the altar raised itself from the ground, and looked at her with blank hideous great eyes. Mao raised his Tommy gun to shoot, and a huge paw batted it away and clubbed him to the ground; the eye turned from Charlotte to the child.
What had seemed shapelessness was merely a failure to think through logically how Saunders had been in her childhood, what he was now, and how, perhaps over centuries, he might continue to change. She remembered the destruction of Feng's militia, and reached into her pocket, producing the razor and flicking it open. If, she thought, one is to die messily, one may as well inflict some little pain in the process.
There was an echoing incoherence to the voice that then spoke, like sunken temples of ill reputation, or the bottom of poisoned wells.
'Ceremonies can be overrated,' it croaked. 'The Dark may yet come, if I take the child.'
Its open mouth stank and steamed in the cold of the cellar; vermin crawled among its scythe-like teeth.
It reached for the girl Shumeng, but she darted beetle-quick away from its clutch, forcing herself into a crevice in the stonework
'Leave her alone, you overgrown pondspawn,' said Charlotte.
'Ay, yes,' it said, ' the redoubtable Miss Matthews. Doubtless, one virgin is as good as another.'
It reached for her with a slow lazy paw, drawing back in sudden sharp reflex as Charlotte slashed the web between its finger and its titanic thumb with her razor.
'I am not precisely a virgin,' said Charlotte.
It reached for her again, and she slashed it across its horny palm, drawing a thin line of blood.
'I am starting to find this annoying,' it said. 'You mindless little ape !'
Then, very suddenly, a look of entire amazement came over its features. The vast maw that slashed across its moonlike features fixed in a rictus that showed its teeth, darkened by the years as by smoke. It raised itself up on its hindquarters, and collapsed onto its side with a resounding crash. Charlotte walked across and listened to the pounding of its mighty heart shudder and cease; she wiped the blood off her razor onto one of the few patches of fur remaining on its scaly flank and looked at the blade. It had returned to its usual bright sheen.
'Curare,' Saunders said. 'It gets them every time.'
Beyond him, the battle had ended. There were a large number of corpses, few of them identifiable by affiliation or species. Watcher limped across, with a vast bruise building across her shoulders, and a claw half-torn from her hand; the sisters followed her, Singer half-conscious and supported by Mourner and Sojourner with her arms across their shoulders. The knife-grinder was there, the filminess of his eyes now less like cataracts than some quick smear of membrane.
Most of Feng's officers were somewhere in the pile of the slain, but the pompous little martinet who had threatened her earlier had come through with hardly a scratch.
'These cattle have seen too much,' he said. 'I invoke the Truce of the Lines. I really must insist...'
'Must, is it, little creature,' Saunders said. 'I think you will find that matters will arrange themselves without further bloodshed, but, if you insist, I can arrange for that bloodshed.'
'I really must insist,' the Stasis captain said.
'He means,' Charlotte said, 'that he can arrange for your blood to be shed. And Mr. Saunders is so efficient in such matters that I would take him at his word.'
'Just so,' Saunders said.
'But the cattle...' the officer objected.
'The child will not remember more than a fever dream,' said Mao Tse-Tung. 'And I have other fish to fry.'
'And I,' Charlotte said, throwing her arm around Watcher with an abandon that forgot until too late the bruised state of her lover's shoulders, 'have my own reasons for discretion.'
'Go away, little creature,' Saunders said. 'Run back to Peking, and tell them that Shanghai is mine, mine utterly.'
Mao seemed about to say something demagogic and tactless, and Charlotte kicked him gently in the shin. The captain and his few surviving cohorts slunk away.
Charlotte nodded to Settler, who raised her revolver so that it pointed at Saunders. One of the People of the Plain had survived the battle, and raised a revolver, pointing it at Charlotte.
'As a representative of your banker,' Charlotte said, ignoring this 'I think it is time that you settled your accounts.'
'My dear little Charlotte,' Saunders said, 'I must congratulate you on your skill. You are indeed a worthy huntress, a fine player of the Great Game. But it will presumably have occurred to you by now that every step you have taken, give or take the odd Chinese Bolshevik, was allowed for in my plans. The razor alone should tell you that.'
'The facts could indicate that we have all been walking around your web,' Charlotte said. 'Or they could indicate that you are an arrogant braggart with a certain gift for improvisation.'
'We have not forgiven him our confinement,' Watcher said, 'and there is a more sinister explanation for his actions. What group has been active in this affair that places everything in the hands of chance?'
'There is a lot of loose talk,' Saunders said, 'about Chaos. It does not, as such, exist; there are merely a group of like-minded chaps who have taken notice of the extent to which chance rules in human affairs, and whose plans take account of it.'
'That is not good enough,' Settler said, maintaining her grip on the revolver.
'But it is,' Saunders said. 'What can you accuse me of, Charlotte, save the same ruthless preparedness to use that your lover and her sisters possess? And that you have so thoroughly shown? And both your sense of justice and your sense of self-preservation should tell you that it is best to assume I am telling the truth. And leave me alone. And let well alone.'
Charlotte nodded to Settler, who shrugged and lowered her revolver.
'Everyone wins,' Saunders said. 'The Darkcallers and their Ancient are gone from Shanghai, and the last of those who killed your brother and Watcher's parents are dead; you have proved again to your lover and her sisters that you are a worthy leader of the hunt.'
'So this is all supposed to have been some sort of colossal favour to me.'
'Of course, Charlotte,' he said. ' I have broken them to your leash. Hunt well.'
'But I love Watcher,' Charlotte said. 'I don't want her will in my keeping.'
'Of course,' Saunders said.' As you wish.'
A pause followed, in which Charlotte looked lovingly at Watcher, who looked at her with a combination of devotion and suspicion.
'As for myself,' Saunders continued,' I have added the Great World to the New as a possession - you realised, I take it, whose cellars these are. I have even, I suspect, acquired a useful manager in young Fritzi here; I have always regarded merit as more important than blood.'
'So we chased all the way here,' Charlotte said, 'to procure for you the command of a bordello?'
'The fossils,' Saunders said,' will be broken up and sold as medicine by my herbalist here. Except for a few that will find their way into the possession of a Jesuit of my acquaintance; when I met him in Southern England, he showed a rare gift for confusing things. The idol is interesting; it is one of the larger fragments of the Siberian meteor, sculpted into its present form by, I hope, pious fraud. I shall wrap it in old newspapers and ship it off to California, where, I trust, it will cause no further problems. I myself will vegetate here, devoting myself to pleasure and hallucination..'
Charlotte and Watcher looked at each other, shrugged and joined hands.
'This simply is not good enough,' said Mao Tse-Tung.
'I seem to have everything I want,' Charlotte said. 'And no-one has died who was not trying to kill someone else. Usually you.'
'You,' Mao turned to Saunders, speaking in high rage and taking gulps of breath. 'I do not care who or what you are. These games of conspiracy and transformation are a luxury that one who aspires to serve the people cannot afford to reckon with. But it is intolerable. That you should have such power and use it all for selfish ends. To loll, smoking opium, and playing chess with human lives. Where is the responsibility in that? What of the people?'
'Those who rule men,' Saunders said, 'have no power, and do not rule. Chance rules.'
'I will not believe that,' Mao said.
'Find me in fifty years,' Saunders said, 'and tell me so still.'
The child Shumeng had crawled from her hiding place and now stood with them by the great corpse, into whose dead open eye she now spat.
Mao turned to the child, and spoke to her in Chinese. She listened, clearly struggling to understand his dialect.
'I have told Shumeng,' he said, 'that I rely on her to keep me honest. She may come to me at any time, and I will listen to her advice. She is of the people, and who better to advise me.'
'You overestimate your capacity to combat destiny,' Saunders said. 'You had best ask her what name she will choose to bear as an adult. Shumeng is a child's name, and you would not wish to miss her advice. By chance.'
Mao turned to the child, and asked her.
'Jiang Quing,' she said.
'Now off with you,' Saunders said. 'Your comrades are reconvening at North Lake; you will lose the vote, but they will not press for your blood. I will arrange for the child and her mother to return home. They will be safe.'
Mao limped away, back to the bridge across the sewer. He turned then, his eyes filled with anger.
'I have remembered,' he said,' a line of the immortal Shakespeare which sums up my feelings.'
'I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you,' he said.
Charlotte embraced Watcher ever more tightly and the sisters huddled in around them. On the bridge, Mao passed the servant from the New World, who brought Saunders a pipe, lit it and handed it to him.
'Power, money, responsibility, honour, love and revenge,' Saunders said.
He drew deeply on the opium pipe.
And then he said, 'The stuff that dreams are made of.'