Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story depicts threats of violence to a child, and attempts to coerce a child into unwanted contact.
The hand-lettered sign hanging in the Crooked Dragon’s front window proclaimed that it had the best wide egg noodles in the city of Tsang, which of course must be taken to mean that it had the best wide egg noodles in the world.
My ship had put in just a few hours previously and, following a few whispers and rumors that I had heard in Hong and a tale that I had from a dead man from Wan, I made my way to Goat and Compass Avenue and from there to the noodle shop under the neat blue awning.
“Ah, good evening, good evening, miss! Come in from the wet before you drown on dry land,” said the proprietor, popping out from behind the curtain. He was a round man with long whiskers that made him look like a canny old catfish, and there was a beaten metal ladle hanging from the rope that served as his belt.
“It’s terrible out there,” I agreed, shucking off my oiled cloak. He paused slightly when he saw the worn sword at my side, but he did not ask for it, and I would not have given it to him in any case.
“I was ready to find my bed for the night, but then, well, I saw your sign. Are they truly the best noodles in town?”
His grin came back in full force, and he nodded.
“They are, and once you try our spicy noodles, you’ll agree. I’ll warn you, they may be a little rough on a northern palate…”
“We’ll see about that. Bring out a bowl of the hottest you have.”
The proprietor shook his head with mock sadness for my foolishness, disappearing into the back with a tutting sound. Tsang is famous for its spicy food, and we northerners are equally famous for our delicate palates.
A skinny little boy with ears like a monkey’s came out in a flash with my steaming hot noodles in a cheap ceramic bowl. He set it in front of me, and I breathed the steam in deep, letting it warm all the parts of me that had been frozen during my long trip in the storms. It was a proper Tsang noodle soup, the oily broth as thin as water and turned dark with enough pepper to send a man blind. I took a cautious sip of the soup, startled all over again by the sheer complexity of the flavors used in southern cooking, before my tongue went up in flames. The monkey-eared boy had a plate of rice crackers waiting for me, and I ate two immediately. The burn went down enough that I could take my time with the third.
“Well?” the boy asked innocently. “Is it good?”
“You are a cheeky little brat,” I said, taking another cautious sip. The burn was fierce, but it held steady this time. I could feel my sinuses open up and a light sweat break out on my face.
“It’s good,” I told him. “Have you two been making noodles long?”
A cloud stole across his round face; whatever he told me next would be a lie.
“Yes. It is a recipe that my uncle learned from the monks who live at the top of Honghou Mountain. They received the recipe from the hands of Hou-wei, who was once an actor and who made the river run backwards. He came to the mountain desperate for the taste of something that would recall his days on the boards, and told them to make it just so. Now they eat nothing but these noodles, and when they can eat an entire bowl without flinching, that is when they know that they are truly immortal and that they are ready to take their place among the Perfected.”
I chuckled. That hadn’t been the lie that I was expecting, but it was a good one.
“Well, it looks like I’m a long way from sainthood. I don’t think I can finish this.”
“Should I run back and get you something milder?” he offered.
I shook my head.
“Doesn’t mean that I don’t want to try,” I said. “Go on back, and help your uncle. I’ll just sit and eat as much as I can.”
He was kind enough to leave the crackers, which I sorely needed. The noodles, pulled by hand and drowned in crab broth, were astonishingly good.
As good as the noodles were, the Crooked Dragon was having a slow night. The merchant and her husband, who had been eating when I came in, soon got up to leave, calling merry goodbyes back to the kitchen, and for a short time we were alone. I considered bringing up my business then, but the soup was quite good, and after we began, I thought that there would not be much time left for food.
I was wondering whether the straw mushrooms at the bottom of the broth would be more or less spicy than the rest when the door pushed open and another customer walked in.
It takes an experienced eye to spot the Sisterhood. They’re mostly nondescript women, fit as jaguars and with eyes that drink in every corner of the world. They recruit their members from brothels, from circuses, and from nunneries, among other places, whisking those girls away to a fate that is, at the very least, far stranger than what they might have expected otherwise. They’re the best hunters in the world, and it is said that if they cannot find it, it cannot or should not be found.
This one was short and nearly rectangular in shape. She had broad shoulders that seemed like boulders, and her wide mouth and slightly pop eyes reminded me of a bullfrog. For all that, she had a cheerful face, one that you smiled at without thinking of it. The only thing that made me look twice was her gait, the smooth glide of a trained fighter who walked on the balls of her feet. Once I saw that, I saw the rest. Her adorably out-of-date hair ornaments were cast steel and deadly sharp, and her hair was styled to hide a long scar that nearly split her skull and trailed down the nape of her neck. The Sisterhood live surprisingly long lives for what they do, and most of them are terribly scarred.
I shifted in my seat and stuffed another cracker in my mouth. When I saw her eyes flicker towards me, I fanned my face with a grimace. That wasn’t really acting. I was never going to make it through this bowl, but I wanted to try. The Sisterhood believe that no one is harmless, but someone who can’t handle their spicy noodles is not usually considered a worthy opponent.
She found her seat at the table close to the kitchen, and the old man popped out again.
“Good of you to come out on such a terrible night,” he said with a smile. “What can I get for you?”
She glanced at the menu carved into the wooden plaque on the wall.
“Oh, well, just the sweet potato noodles for me tonight. And please, make it mild if you can. The last time I ate Tsang food, my tongue took a month to grow back.”
The old man chuckled but, to my relief, he didn’t point out the fact that there was a fellow northerner seated to one side. The Sisterhood likes noodles just as well as anyone else does. Her presence could easily be a coincidence, but believing in coincidences is a good way to become very, very dead.
The little boy popped out again, setting the plate of noodles in front of her. He would have scampered back behind the curtain again if she hadn’t called him back.
“Hmm, this could definitely use some fried scallions. I don’t suppose that you have anything like that, do you?”
The boy nodded, and now I could see that his shoulders were up around his ears. For some reason, he didn’t like this woman, cheerful face aside, but he went back for the small wooden bowl full of fragrant reddish-brown scallions.
He shook some into her steaming bowl but, before he could withdraw, she wrapped her hand around his wrist.
“Thank you very much,” she said sweetly. “You should let me read your fortune to say thank you. I learned my skills in Hong, where the finest fortune tellers come from. When I was just a young girl, a blind woman who had lived all her life with the temple stopped me in the street and told me that I would be most blessed. As long as I went to sleep every night facing east, and as long as I offered one golden rooster to Ping, the goddess of shallow water, every year, I would touch the lives of many people and leave them changed forever. Isn’t that a fine thing?” The boy squirmed, but I could have told him that it wasn’t going to do any good.
“I don’t know,” he muttered, but she was already dragging him up on the bench with her.
“This is a once in a lifetime chance,” she said cheerfully. “All I need to do is to count the bumps on your spine, and I can tell whether you are going to grow up to be a scholar, or a fisherman, or a monk — maybe even a king. Wouldn’t that be grand?”
The little boy’s eyes widened, and I had heard just about enough. At the very least, it was enough to remind me of the dead man from Wan, who had spoken of a little boy with a royal lion tattooed on his shoulder.
I started to rise to my feet, my hand on my sword, but then the old man came back out, shaking his head.
“I’m afraid that Jun is too fat from eating my noodles, you won’t be able to make out his spine at all, miss.”
The woman looked up, and for a moment, I could see her consider the odds.
“It’s just for fun,” she said at last.
The old man chuckled, the very picture of quiet amusement.
“Then miss, I am barely less fat than my bad little nephew here, but perhaps you will read mine instead.”
I could see the mayhem flash through her eyes. The more interruptions she had, the more likely it was that she would simply decide that her sham was no longer worth it. After that, I couldn’t tell who would be left standing.
“Of course,” she said, and only someone who was looking for it would have seen the slight tightness to that smile.
She released the boy, who skittered back to stand in the doorway of the kitchen. Still, he did not run far and, the moment his uncle was between himself and the woman, he relaxed. His ease was unwarranted, or at least that’s what I thought until the old man shrugged off his jacket.
Underneath, stretching from shoulder to shoulder across his back, was the tattoo of a coiling black snake. The tip of the tail touched the base of his neck, and the narrow head with its red eyes was set perfectly between his shoulder blades. The detailed scales made the entire snake ripple with the illusion of movement.
Half the continent knew that tattoo, or at least knew stories about it. Even now, twenty years after the destruction of Hapkei Fortress, few men would dare try to wear such a thing, and there were no artists who could match the work of the great Wong Hulan.
Still she hesitated, and the old man spoke.
“You must be looking at my old friend,” he said conversationally. “When I was a young man, I had a dream that the river by my house turned into a black snake and spoke to me. It told me that if I ever wandered from its length, I would die, but if I stayed close, I would earn a great name for myself.
“I woke up, and I thought I was being quite a smart fellow by putting my little friend on my shoulders.”
“Did it work?” I asked.
The sister didn’t jump, but her jaw tightened. I had moved from my place with the silent cloud step, and now I stood behind her, looking at the proceedings with interest.
“Ah, well, I am not dead yet, am I?” the old man chuckled. “And look at me now, fat and happy with my own noodle shop and my dear nephew to help me run it. Life is good.”
The sister was looking less sure of it by the moment. In a fair fight, we would have been an even match, but I strongly doubted that the old man standing there so peacefully would fight fair. He had been known for winning his battles, after all.
Still I could see her hesitating. The boy, the prize goose, was still in the doorway. She was part of the Sisterhood, and they are taught pride just as they are taught tracking, swordplay, and espionage.
“My friends will be joining us very soon,” I said softly. “They are just behind me. We wanted to try speaking first, but in a moment they will become impatient. A moment after that, they will come in those doors, and a moment after that, sister, you will be dead.”
It was enough. For all that she was a squat woman, she was graceful. A bound took her to the window, another saw her through it and into the trackless monsoon night.
I turned to see the old man already shrugging back into his jacket. He was that genial noodle-maker again; or perhaps, this cheerful man was the one who had put 9,000 soldiers to death on the shores of Lake Sparrow.
“Well, Jun, that was a little unpleasant, wasn’t it?”
The little boy was used to his uncle’s gift for understatement. He hung back in the doorway, unsmiling. His uncle nodded.
“I’m very much afraid that we are going to need to move again. Don’t worry though, I am certain that our next accommodations will be just as nice as these. Go on, go pack. You know how to.”
The boy nodded, already so used to fleeing in his short life that it was just one more unpleasant thing. Strangers came out of the night, his uncle was reasonable in his old-man way, and they moved again. He turned to me and, try as I might, I couldn’t sort warlord from noodle-maker, uncle from grand prince. At some point, his ladle had been replaced with a cleaver that I knew would be wickedly sharp. After all, you need as sharp a cleaver to cut noodles as you do to split heads.
“And whose side are you and your friends on, Northern miss?” he asked. I sighed, feeling strangely ashamed.
“I’m on yours,” I offered. “I don’t have any friends, that was just a story, and I’m sorry.”
He nodded, tapping his lower lip with his finger.
“I see. Then I would like to know who you are, beyond being a swordswoman and a member of the Sisterhood.”
“Past member,” I said shortly and, when he showed with a look on his face that that would not be enough, I sighed.
“Everyone knows that the king of Wan is dead,” I said carefully. “He died when the Kang clan usurped his throne. They cut off his head, and they threw it into the sea.”
“Indeed, everyone knows that,” said the noodle-maker calmly.
“It’s pure foolishness to think that a lover might have taken his place, dying for him so that he could flee further west. It’s simply preposterous to think that he could find refuge in the Winter Straits.”
“The Winter Straits are a haunted place, but yes, that does sound quite unlikely.”
“So the king of Wan died five years ago, and his son, the crown prince, died with him. No matter who might be out looking, whether it is the Kang clan who needs to see all of the lion’s cubs killed or a new faction who would rally revolt around him, they can’t find a dead boy with a royal tattoo on his shoulder, can they?”
“I would think not.”
“But just a few years ago, I was in the Winter Straits, and a man did me a good turn. He’s a hard man to find, and he needed me to find someone who was even better-hidden. His son had gone with his brother to learn a trade, and the elder brother liked his secrecy so well that they had quite disappeared.”
“And he sent you looking for his son.”
“Yes. He misses him a great deal.”
The old man smiled, his face creasing with pleasure.
“Well, what a fine thing, then. I have never been to the Winter Straits, and I am sure that it will be a treat for the boy.”
The Winter Straits were at the far end of the world, and it would take a year of traveling to get back there. Dead men walked at night, and the living men lived in gravehouses under the eternal frost to keep warm. I wasn’t sure if it was a treat, but I didn’t say anything.
I helped them ready their bundles, and I waited as the old man left a note for the girl who came in during the day. She would be astonished to see herself in possession of such a fine noodle shop.
As we slipped into the darkness, the old man glanced at me.
“So what good turn did the dead man from Wan do for a past member of the Sisterhood?” he asked curiously.
“I wasn’t a past member at the time,” I admitted, “but perhaps that story is one for a ship that is far out at sea.”
He chuckled and we walked into the night, the heavy rains shielding us from all eyes, the water washing away our steps.