When she breathed, she fogged the mirror of the world.
It would come with the sunset, those evenings when the sea was kind and quiet, brassy in the late low sun, mirror-still; those nights when there was least breeze, and the men were most eager to fish. Eager till she breathed. Her breath would fill the strait: salt air suddenly as wet as the sea, beading like pearls on old men's eyebrows, dripping like rain from the sails, filling throats and lungs, drowning voices. Cloudy as rice-water, chill as spring-water, it would lie like a dense white quilt between dark and dark, the sea and the sky, her native elements. They said it was all she could do now, exhale one deep terrible nightlong breath to remind her people where she lay, under what burdens and how cruelly bound.
The fog was heavy but fickle, thinning here and parting there, roiling unpredictably on no wind that any sail could find. It was dangerous past measure, concealing rocks and shoals and whirlpools, stealing all those signs - the stars, the lie of land in moonlight, the cries of birds on the wing, the swirls of muddy current - that men could steer by. It drew boats into uncertain waters, men into uncertain futures. It lapped at the solidity of land, changeable and deadly. How could her people help but be reminded of herself?
In the fog, even the bright red eye of the Forge was a sleepy smear. Even the hard hammer of the monksmith's work, that normally Old Yen felt like a bell in his bones: even that sound was flat and dull and not to be trusted, echoing off walls of white, walls of wet.
The Forge was a beacon, the hammer was a guarantee: the dragon was still chained. The monksmith worked night and day at his fires to keep that promise burning. Night and day, Old Yen was grateful; he had taught his children and now his grandchild to deliver what was proper to the island in return, thanks with fish.
Only, not in the fog. Nights like this, let the monks pray hungry till tomorrow. Ships had grounded in the risky channels around the Forge; smaller boats had broken apart and been lost entirely. People, of course, had died.
Nights like this, as often as not he would let tide and current carry him all across the strait. He could sell his catch at Santung-quay as readily as he did at home; he could garner news to carry back with him. He could buy meat and cloth and incense. He could pray and make offerings to mainland gods, whom he would not ordinarily trouble.
Nights like this - as every night - his own Li-goddess would see him safe. Sometimes, he knew, shipmasters forgot to be devout. He never did. He took food to her temples; he paid cash to her monks; he scattered rice and wine from his prow whenever he left safe harbor, and she always brought him safe home again. It wasn't only the tugs of current against his oar, the smells on the breeze that told him where in the strait he was. He felt her cool strong hand govern his as he steered, he heard her voice - liquid, lyrical - singing him a pathway through the fog. Where it cleared long enough to show him stars, he felt her breath in his face, to countermand the dragon's.
A man needed such a trust, such a goddess, when he took a great boat out into deep waters with only his eldest grandchild for crew. A great boat, and a fleet besides. If Old Yen glanced over his shoulder now, he would see the lights of half the village boats, pale blurs in his wake. He burned a brighter lantern from his stern, for anyone to follow who dared risk fog and sea together. For some, the chance of a good haul was always worth the toss; they would fill their nets and let him do the worrying. As though he hadn't enough to worry about already, sailing this clumsy lee-tending hog of a hybrid with a crew of one. A willing crew, to be sure, but never enough; and young, so young...
A squint forward on the windward side showed him two buttocks and a breech-clout, where Mei Feng bent hazardously over the rail to haul a net aboard.
"Mei Feng! Take care...!"
Mei Feng lost overboard in this fallen cloud, this weight of fog would be Mei Feng lost to the mortal world, a ghost fit to wander a world of water. Looking over the side, Old Yen couldn't even see the water.
Mei Feng waved and hauled, and the net came up: a shadow against the bow light, fat and heavy and ready to spill, like a drop of water held pendulous on a hair. He turned to call across the sternboards, a low hooting wordless cry, fog-talk: little to it, because there was little enough to say. Take in your sails; we will work these waters. Tide would drift them slowly to the coast, wind and the river's push would hold them off, ubtil first light.
He heard his call picked up and passed along, a fading series of echoes. And then the silence after, fog-silence, with only the far faint pounding of the monksmith's terrible hammer to puncture it; and then not even that, true silence, the white wet weight of it, as though the dragon's breath could smother any sound in time, any sound at all...
And then another sound, a new sound: a rolling, grunting chant. It took Old Yen a moment to understand it as voices, working to a rhythm, somewhere in that fog-choked moonlight.
For a moment, he thought they must be far closer landward than he'd reckoned, maybe in the rivermouth already, and these were prayers from the temple on the headland. But his Li-goddess would have warned him, if he'd led the fleet into danger. Unless her voice was drowned out by the dragon's laughter, and even then he would have known by the feel of the water against his oar, river silt fighting tidal salt.
So no, not that. Nor could this be the monks from the Forge. Close enough to hear their prayers, the fire's eye would be directly above him, searing...
No, no. This was something on the water, where there could be nothing on the water that had not come from men; which meant -
Which meant this: a sudden looming shadow in the white wall ahead, where the fog flung back the lamplight in a dazzle. A shadow that broke through the wall and was a boat; of course it was a boat. A boat that Old Yen knew, of course, he knew every boat on this coast. But so too did young Mei Feng know this one, and knew it had no business here: "A dragon boat! Grandfather, a dragon boat out of Santung...!"
"I see it." It and more. This one had a light burning in the prow, and he could see others now, dim and diffuse but definitely lights. He could hear them too, those other boats, the paddlers chanting at their work. And to meet one dragon boat out in the strait in the deadest hour of a fog-bound night was clearly impossible, so why not two, why not half a dozen?
Long and lean, this one was pulling alongside already, low in the water so that he could look down into her belly and see how many men were crouching there. Four dozen with paddles, and as many more as could be crowded onto the thwarts between them. Dragon boats were playthings, raced at festival for the crowds' pleasure and the profit of the fortunate; it had never struck Old Yen before, how well they could be used to carry pirates.
But they would need to know these waters very well to find their way, to find their prey in fog. And the men standing at the back, beside the steersman: they looked stern, dressed in a frightening authority, but not lawless. The opposite, surely, in those caps and robes. And, also surely, not at all men of the sea.
There was another in the bows, calling up: "You, there! Throw me a rope!"
Not a man moved, but Old Yen was anxiously aware of how they were armed, swords and bows to hand. Pirates or otherwise, he was their capture of the night. Their first capture: fog-talk said the other dragon boats were corralling the fleet around him.
"A rope, lord? Yes, yes, of course..."
He had ladders, more suited to a lord in his robes; but a rope had been demanded and a rope he sent, letting it uncoil in a swift fall to the lord's waiting hand.
That man climbed swift and sure, walking his booted feet up the planking, pulling himself easily over the rail. He stood half a head taller than Old Yen and broader in the chest, stronger in the shoulders, better fed by far. His glossy hair, his rings, his heavy skirts - even his mustaches spoke of rank and wealth and power. Old Yen might have kowtowed sooner than meet such a man eye to eye. If this hadn't been his own boat they stood on, in his own waters, in a fog where he was master.
He was thoroughly fogged now, bewildered, fallen out of his proper story: as though the fog had misled him into some stranger tale, where to be a fisherman and a grandfather was not enough for one man's life.
The lord said, "You are not Santung men."
"No, lord. We are from Szechao."
"I am General Gao Ming; I serve the Son of Heaven. Where is Szechao?"
"A village, lord. General. On Taishu. That is an island -"
"I know what it is, fool," though there was no heat in the word, nor anywhere in him; more than the fog had chilled him, Old Yen thought. He seemed infinitely weary, beneath a superficial vigor. "Taishu is our purpose, if we can get there. Could you find it, in this fog?"
"Of course, lord." By the time they came there, the fog would have burned off long since; the dragon's breath never long outlasted dawn. He saw no point in saying so.
"Very well. Where is your crew?"
"Here." A single gesture to the single figure standing as mazed as himself, half-naked as Mei Feng always was to handle the net and the haul, untroubled by the fog's chill, and -
Very obviously a girl in breast-bands and breechclout, despite her hair cropped short and the lean muscles gleaming wet in lamplight.
"She is all I need, lord," though he might as well have said, She is all I have.
The general grunted. "She had better dress. My men will be aboard."
Old Yen nodded, and Mei Feng vanished into the cabin, where she kept shirts and trousers clean and dry until the fish were in their baskets and the boat had turned for home.
Then, "Your men, lord?"
"Those in the boat here, before it turns for more. The same for the rest of your fleet; you will take as many as you can convey on one trip."
The general smiled, and that was chilly too. "There will be many trips, man. Your boat will be more busy than you know, back and forth across the strait; you have an army to transport. An army, an empire. And its master."
When Mei Feng came up - barefoot as always but dressed otherwise, and a scarf bound about her head, and still she could be mistaken for nothing but the girl she was - he sent her for the ladders. This man might swarm comfortably up a rope, but not every man. He understood that; he thought he had understood everything, except why an army was coming to Taishu.
And then the first who came up the first ladder was barely a man at all, still a boy by Old Yen's biased reckoning; and his robes were yellow and his rings were jade, and so Old Yen found himself kowtowing on his own deck after all, because the general's hand cuffed him to it, as the general's voice hissingly explained that this, this was the Son of Heaven, the emperor himself, here, now, standing with wet feet among the spilled fish from the baskets.
Extract from Dragon in Chains, by Daniel Fox
Del Rey, January 2009
© Daniel Fox, 2009; reproduced with permission