Authors: Liz Williams
Tags: #Science Fiction
Other books by Liz Williams include:
© 2006 by Liz Williams
This edition of Precious Dragon © 2008 by Night Shade Books
Cover art by Jon Foster
Cover design by Michael Fusco
Interior layout and design by Jeremy Lassen
All rights reserved
Night Shade Books
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Detective Inspector Chen:
The Demon and the City
The Shadow Pavilion (Forthcoming)
Banner of Souls
Empire of Bones
The Ghost Sister
Nine Layers of Sky
The Poison Master
The Banquet of the Lords of Night and Other Stories
The spirit was singing her heart out, her ethereal voice soaring up into the air. Uneasily, the demon peered sideways, trying to see, but his view was impeded by a crimson edge of rock. He stamped from one foot to another, trying to concentrate, but the spirit's voice seemed to drown out the whole world. Beside him, his demonic kin swayed in a ferocious display of hatred, surging forward to follow the dragon as it charged toward the singing spirit. Soon, it would be upon her . . .
The demon, hopeful, looked up and to his intense relief saw that the hero's feet were now visible, descending rather jerkily from a cloud. With a sweep of his wand, the hero (mighty Xu Xiao, whose eyes flash pinwheel lightning and whose voice makes a whisper of storms) summoned the Storm Lord King onto the stage. The demons danced back as the Storm Lord advanced. The great creature, twisting and turning to conceal the sweating stagehands beneath its many-legged sides, batted at the dragon, causing the latter to dance with anger and return the compliment with a wave of its clawed foot.
The two beasts circled one another warily for a moment, then as the orchestra soared to a crescendo they leaped, screaming, to collide in the middle of the stage. Storm Lord King and Celestial Dragon tore at each other's throats, the centipedal king at last gaining an advantage. It seized the dragon's head between its jaws and pulled. The head came off, like someone decapitating a large shrimp. The Storm Lord rolled acrobatically backward and tossed the head into the air. Snapping in outrage, the dragon's head trailed sparks into the upper reaches of the dome, narrowly avoiding the chandeliers. There was a thunderous firecracker bang, which made the audience squeal, and all the lights went out.
The audience rose in applause as the opera thundered to a close and the curtain fell; not a moment too soon, the demon thought. He frowned behind his heavy mask, longing to take it off and transform himself back into fifteen-year-old Pin, the chorus boy. His face felt as though it had melted. What were the stagehands thinking, to leave the hero's descent so late? Pin peered into the shadows at the back of the stage, but the curtain was already rising. His hands were seized by demons on either side as the cast rushed forward to take the first bow. A moment later, the lights came back on to reveal the whole cast, manifested in the aftermath of the divine battle and singing their hearts out.
The lights had gone up now, revealing the auditorium in all its vulgar glory. Pin blinked up at the audience, automatically noting who was there and who was absent. The box belonging to Paugeng Pharmaceuticals was not empty. The demon—the real one—was there again.
Along with a bunch of elderly Malay executives, the dark, golden-eyed figure was standing next to Paugeng's heiress, and the opera's sponsor, Jhai Bhatya Tserai herself. Rumors traveled fast in Singapore Three and Pin had heard a lot about Jhai's demon. It was said that she had traveled to Hell, fallen in love with him, and brought him home as her consort. Hell had half-destroyed the city as a consequence: it had only recently been restored after all the earthquake damage. Other rumors contested that Jhai had summoned the demon herself, down in the rebuilt labs of Paugeng, where no one who was not indentured to the company was ever allowed to go. And there was another, even weirder, rumor that said that the demon had something to do with the police department, and had met Jhai in the course of his enquiries. Pin did not know the truth of the matter, but as he was still something of a romantic at heart despite everything, he preferred the first theory.
He was so busy gazing at the demon that he almost failed to notice the snapping string of firecrackers as they detonated above his head. The cast bowed once more, then retreated backstage to enjoy their success.
As they began changing out of their costumes, the choreographer, Miss Jhin, came into the dressing room and clapped her hands for attention. There was to be a party at Paugeng, to honor the visiting Malay dignitaries, and certain cast members had been invited. They were waiting for the invitations now. Miss Jhin was excited by this brush with the cream of society, and fluttered about adjusting people's costumes.
"So pretty, and they noticed you especially!" she gasped. This last was directed at Maiden Ming, the sweet-voiced, sweet-faced, and evil-tempered singer who led Second Chorus. Delicate in her gauzy costume, Ming smiled daintily and bowed her head.
"Old perverts," she muttered when Miss Jhin's back was turned. Her face was flushed beneath the layer of powder. "I'll bet they noticed me. And I suppose the flute player intends to live up to his name?" She gave Pin a nasty look. He mumbled something, and turned to the mirror to adjust his make-up, seeing a young man with a soft mouth and almond eyes underneath a sideways fall of hair. He practiced a soulful expression, wondering doubtfully whether it would convince anyone that he was really a thoughtful, intelligent person and not merely some frivolous actor. Those looks won't last much longer, he thought gloomily, seized by a familiar sense of anxious desperation. He must find a patron soon, before his face failed him.
Pin dreamed of finding a patron, just as a wealthier young man might have yearned to find a lover, and the two were not exactly unrelated, as Pin's embarrassing nickname suggested. He could cheerfully have murdered Maiden Ming for bestowing it upon him. Until that throwaway and unnecessary remark, tossed over one exquisite shoulder and accompanied by Maiden Ming's ethereal laugh, his name had been Ryu Tang. It might have been a rather prosaic name, perhaps, but at least it was his own. Pin had, however, been searching for a stage name, something alluring and mysterious, and he had been unwise enough to mention this in company. It had sparked off Maiden Ming's famous comment, which had contained sufficient truth to stick.
"How about 'Pin H'siao'?" Ming had asked. "A charming name, 'The Flute Player.' " The name did have that literal meaning in Cantonese, but it also meant something rather more lewd, and since Pin's youth and good looks had made him popular at some of the city's more decadent parties, not entirely inappropriate. Miss Jhin, being a woman of almost supernatural refinement, had overheard Ming, however, and had taken the new nickname at face value.
"Why, how charming and cultured! I had no idea you were a flautist."
Fourth Chorus, to a person, had fallen about in laughter.
"He keeps his talent well-zipped up, Miss Jhin," someone said.
"Yes, he's supposed to be really accomplished at blowing," added someone else, to the accompaniment of hysterical mirth. Pin H'siao, formerly known as Ryu Tang, had listened sourly to all this, but dared not protest. He knew what would happen if he did: they'd flog the joke to death; but if he kept quiet, maybe it would wear thin. Unfortunately, it had been too good a joke, surviving no less than two cast changes, and Pin doubted now whether he'd ever shake it off. He tried to be graceful about it, with minimal success. At least he'd managed to abbreviate it to "Pin." The humiliation, however, added to his most cherished desire: find a patron and escape from these vulgar surroundings.
Pin had nursed a hidden hope that Paugeng's Jhai Tserai might be that patron, an expectation that he now realized to be completely unrealistic. Halfway through the first aria he had glanced up and seen that Jhai's face was as closed as if a shutter had fallen in front of it. In fact, sitting in tedious splendor as the complicated plot of the opera unfolded around her, she had looked downright bored. So, no chance of patronage there, Pin admitted to himself, but there never had been, really. It was all in his dreaming, hoping mind. In his saner moments, indeed, the thought seized him with a frisson of horror. And Jhai already had a consort, if the rumors about the demon were true. With a sudden terrified bound of his heart, Pin realized that the demon might very well be at the party. Miss Jhin was coming down the stairs with a handful of invitations; Pin went to see if his name was on the list, and found that it was.
Half an hour later, waiting on the curb outside the Opera House, Pin was joined by a smaller, cloaked figure. Resentful eyes glared from beneath a brocaded hood. Pin crowed.
"You got an invitation, too!"
"I don't think it's funny," Maiden Ming said. "At least you deserve your nickname."
"Well, Maiden, you certainly don't," Pin countered, delighted to have scored a point.
A car stopped, and the back door opened.
"Ladies first," he said, with a flourish. Maiden Ming climbed stiffly inside without a backward glance.
It was a long drive to Paugeng. When they reached the complex, all the lights were blazing, but not a sound could be heard above the heavy thud of construction work, somewhere toward the back of the building. The complex was being rebuilt, the work almost complete. The driver led Pin and Ming across the forecourt to the atrium, and sent them up in the elevator. The party was being held on the fiftieth floor, in Tserai's own ballroom, and appeared to be in full swing. As the door of the elevator opened, a man in his forties, with a wide, glazed smile, approached and then kissed Maiden Ming on the cheek. She gave a small trill of laughter and threw off her cloak, holding her arms wide. Pin had to admit that she was an excellent actress, particularly once she was off the stage. Her new friend drew her into the crowd. She did not look back. Pin sighed and stepped through the door.
To Pin's relief, the demon was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the huge room was filled with Singapore Three's elite: executives from the corporations that ran the city, stars from screen and opera, visiting dignitaries from other nations. Servants moved among them with engineered grace, exciting little flurries of interest as they passed; they were joined by the human whores, who had their own admirers. Pin realized without enthusiasm that there were many people whom he knew, but it was unlikely that anyone would remember him. No one would recall a mere rent-boy. As unobtrusively as possible, he collected a drink from a nearby servant and walked across to the window, where he stood looking out across the immense span of the city.
Immediately below, lay the dark pool of the harbor and the curving emptiness of the ocean beyond. From this height, the harbor looked no bigger than a puddle. Pin traced the streets that ran in all directions in a series of diagonals. He could see the main artery of Shaopeng, which, so the Feng Shui dowsers said, mirrored the line of energy called the Great Meridian. Pin was never quite sure whether he believed in feng shui, but the corporations took it very seriously and the temple of the dowsers, the Senditreya Endo, had wielded a great deal of power in the city until its recent disgrace. Sometimes, too, it seemed to Pin that he could feel something when he walked in certain places, like a current of electricity stirring under the earth. There were places that caused a curious sense of comfort and security, but others where he did not like to go, because they made him uneasy. Pin shivered, thinking of a little square at the back of Ghenret, which he was afraid to walk through because it produced such a feeling of chilly horror. The dowsers said that such places were closer to Hell than the rest of the world, but Pin put this thought swiftly aside. It did not do to think too much about such things; it was unlucky.