Based on their recent agreement and subsequent events, the Emperor proposed that Beatriss might like to build her fortress closer to Khanbaliq. She agreed. A scouting party comprising Imperial architects and Beatriss’s friends and associates, including Tetsukichi, Al-Fitar, Mustapha, and Bayan traveled together to the Happy Valley, about a day’s ride west of Khanbaliq. They settled in the environs of the small village there and began to survey likely building sites.
One day, an alarming roar broke the sleepy silence of the Happy Valley afternoon. The sound, loud as the cry of an attacking army—was coming from the sky. A dragon, gleaming black, and larger than the similar dragon Tetsukichi had encountered in Sakatha's Palace, was swooping down toward the village, and screaming. The roar echoing throughout the valley came from another, much larger dragon, red in color, and soaring over the black. As the black neared the earth, it raised its head and flapped its wings, returning to the sky. The red adjusted its own course and caught the black, slashing it with its claws. The black heaved a stream of noxious fluid from its mouth into the red’s face, using this opportunity to slither out of the red’s grasp and continue its desperate flight. The red soon recovered. The people below watched the red pursue the black over the forest south of the village. Gaining on the black, it exhumed a torrent of fire and black plummeted to the earth. The red circled the place where its enemy had fallen and then flew away towards the marshes to the southwest.
Bayan and Tesukichi agreed that they should seek out the place where the dragon fell. Together with Al-Fitar, Mustopha, and H., a novice priestess from Khanbaliq, they set off into the forest, marking the place where they’d seen smoke rising over the treetops. The thick undergrowth made their passage through the forest slow. When they came to a stream that seemed to flow generally in the direction they wished to go, they followed its course.
After an hour or so, they came to a small clearing and the ruins of a mill. A young man was there, standing in the mill pond, washing his blood-stained clothing. Bayan questioned the young man. His name was Deng-Sheng, he had seen the black dragon fall and had been showered with its blood. He pointed toward where the party could find the dragon, but did not want to go with them.
While suspicious of Deng-Sheng, the party did not press him further. They followed his directions and soon found the smoldering corpse of the black dragon. They walked around it, and found coins and even a gem strewn on the ground. Getting closer to the dragon, they examined its body and found a pouch in its gullet with more treasure. As it was close to dark, the party decided they would camp overnight in the forest. They found an area of soft grown some distance away from the dragon. They watched as a flock of small winged creatures with leathery wings landed on the body of the dragon, stabbing it with their long beaks.
There was some noise in the forest—loud noises of men shouting, hacking through the bushes, and half-dragging, half-driving a horse and cart. The party hid from the men. The noise also attracted the attention of the creatures feeding on the dragon. About a half dozen of them swarmed and attacked the men. The adventurers rushed to their rescue, and soon managed to kill or chase away all of the flying vermin, including those still scavenging the dead dragon.
The men with the cart were led by Han—well-known in Happy Valley as the one resident merchant. He thanked the adventurers for their protection, and explained that he had come to butcher the dragon and prepare its parts for sale to scholars, shamans, and magicians—“But only, of course, after my lords have first taken the choicest parts for themselves and for his Imperial Majesty, the Great Khan.”
Thursday, June 4, 2015
That next night, as usual, the Emperor entertained a party of concubines. Considering the agreement she had made with the Emperor, Beatriss watched the Emperor closely, and her attention was not that of a bashful coquette, but of a tactician. More notable than the Emperor’s sexual interests, however, was one concubine’s uncanny skill at anticipating them. She directed the others in when they should sing and when they should dance, when they should undress—when one should allow herself to be taken while the others withdrew. This concubine’s name was Biyu. Biyu seemed to know Beatriss, and when she invited her, half-mocking, to share the feast, she addressed Beatriss by name, mispronouncing it in the same way that Jiaohu had done.
After the Emperor was exhausted, one woman remained to sleep in his bed, while the others piled cushions on the floor. Beatriss remained awake. After an hour or so, she saw Biyu rise from her sleeping place and slip out of the room. Less than a minute, Bayan—Beatriss’s protégé—entered the room, wearing her armor, but moving almost silently. She moved toward Beatriss while raising a knife. Beatriss screamed for help—Bayan charged at Beatriss, but seemed to fumble in panic as she delivered what could have been a killing blow—the blade made a long, but shallow gash over Beatriss’s temple. As guards charged into the room, Bayan dropped the knife and sprang for the window. The guards surrounded the Emperor as the conqueror, quickly roused himself from slumber, reaching for a weapon. Other guards shouted orders to secure the palace, search the grounds, and arrest Bayan. Eventually someone tended to Beatriss’s nerves. The panicked concubines were held for questioning. Biyu was nowhere to be found.
Soon the guards tracked down Bayan. They’d found her fast asleep in her bed. The Emperor’s advisors saw no reason to take chances, but the Emperor relented, agreeing that Bayan should be given some chance to find the real assassin—especially since if it was Biyu, she might be taking refuge in the Women’s Palace, a place where the Emperor would not in most circumstances allow his guards to enter.
Guards escorted Bayan to the Women’s Palace, and through a series of gates, and then passed her off to one of the elderly ladies-in-waiting who watched over the sleeping harem at night. The old woman said she knew who Biyu was and led Bayan through halls and gardens and bathing rooms, to a small chamber. Bayan dismissed the old woman and opened the door, and entered, lingering for several minutes. There was a figure in the bed—a young woman—but she was dead, strangled.
Bayan found a place to hide in the room and waited. After some time, another person entered the room—Bayan’s doppleganger, holding a knife. Bayan said nothing, but attacked the strange being with a kick in the back and a series of punches. The faux-Bayan screamed and ran, transforming herself into the form of a young woman. Her screams were answered my more screams, but Bayan warned that residents that anyone venturing into the corridor would be putting her life in danger. Locks clicked and lights were extinguished. When Bayan caught the shape-changer, it tried to strangle, her, the slender hands turning into barbed claws. Bayan drew her dagger and drove it deep into the fiend’s body. It bled and screamed. Bayan overpowered it and it surrendered, promising to go with Bayan to speak to the Emperor. Bayan agreed, but the promise soon proved to be duplicitous. In the ensuing struggle, Bayan at last killed the evil thing. She dragged the strange gray featureless body out of the Woman’s Palace. The guards helped her carry it back to the Imperial Palace and it was shown to the Emperor.
For what remained of the night, the Emperor requested to sleep alone.