Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: “A Favor for Lord Bai”

Lord Bai had the perfect plan for ending Old Lao’s sorcerous meddling in his life. Then he ran into a pastry cart and the three incarnations of chaos known as Cheng, Feng and Cheng.

Second Round: A Return to the Ur-Bar

The immortal Gilgamesh closed the folding doors of the Nanjing bar behind the last of the morning’s human patrons. He turned to his remaining customer, a dragon masquerading as a tall, well-dressed, Han Chinese youth. “There’s a fresh coffee in it, on the house, if you’ll move that barrel of black powder to the storeroom.”

The prospect of more coffee—the musky, mysterious, exhilarating elixir served in tiny porcelain cups usually reserved for hard liquor—propelled Lord Bai, White Dragon of the West, to his feet. Then his mind caught up with his taste buds. He frowned at the wooden barrel wedged between the front table and the wall.

“You keep gunpowder in the bar? Isn’t that …” Bai hesitated. “Dangerous,” “daft,” or the dozen other adjectives that sprang most readily to mind might offend his host. Bai was angling for a look at the glamoured artifacts concealed beneath the bar. The shelves above the bar displayed a number of rare curios, most notably a bronze, canister-shaped, Zhou Dynasty wine vessel. If Gilgamesh left such valuable items in plain view, it stood to reason any item he chose to hide must be precious indeed. Bai hoped the cache included something he could use to lift the restraining spell imposed by his tutor, the old sorcerer and new mandarin Li Lao—a remedy Bai was desperate to find. He settled on: “… illegal?”

“Not for fireworks. The head of the local gunpowder guild owes a favor to our neighborhood merchants association. He’s paying off the debt by creating a special fireworks display for the Harvest Moon Festival. I’m storing the powder until he gets around to it.” He grinned at Bai’s dismay. “It’s perfectly safe. I’m not using the kitchen for anything except boiling coffee.”

“What about your cook?”

“He left for Beijing this morning.”

“What!” Bai squawked. “Why?”

“His family needed him,” Gilgamesh said. “His father owns a restaurant not far from the Yongle Emperor’s new palace. Between the crowds who came for the palace consecration and the repair crews brought in after the fire, the business exploded. His oldest son and family couldn’t keep up. So he summoned his younger sons to help.”

Bai’s dismay morphed into horror. “But what will you do for lunch?”

The laugh lines fanning from Gilgamesh’s green eyes deepened. “There are enough restaurants in this neighborhood to feed an army of dragons—assuming those dragons have the cash and their flashy scales aren’t just for show.”

Bai reared. The spirit of his dragon tail flicked in indignation. He wasn’t like his tutor Lao. He always paid his tab!

Gilgamesh chuckled and ducked behind the bar. Hidden from his human customers and other potential troublemakers, he moved slowly, almost stiffly. The watery light streaming from the glass panels set above the front doors—a refinement as rare and outlandish as Arabian coffee, Frankish wine, or porridge-like Sumerian beer—emphasized the gauntness of his features. Exhaustion shadowed his eyes. Six months of single-handedly running the bar’s public room from dawn until the second hour after midnight taxed even a demigod’s vigor. But it appeared no restaurant worker in town wanted to work for a foreigner. Gilgamesh’s former cook was the only one willing to give him a chance, and now he was gone.

This troubled Bai. He wasn’t just the bar’s best customer. Led by his dragon nose for magic, he had been the first person to cross the threshold. In the beginning, he had taken pains to ingratiate himself solely in the hope of discovering something to break Lao’s spell. But over time, he had grown fond of the immortal himself. It was rare for the young dragon to meet anyone who viewed him as something more than a superfluous junior heir, a recalcitrant student or the sum of his saleable parts. Instead, Gilgamesh acted the part of an indulgent uncle—often amused, occasionally exasperated, but never denying his hospitality. As far as Bai knew, the immortal never denied anyone his hospitality. It was wrong for people to take advantage of his generosity, then declare him unworthy of service because he was born elsewhere.

“The bar—and you—can survive the loss of a cook,” Gilgamesh continued. He drew a sheet of yellow paper from under the counter and slid it across the age-darkened surface. “This, on the other hand…”

Bai approached the bar. The paper was crumpled and smudged by shoe prints. But it was unquestionably the same shade and weight as the paper used for official government documents. The precisely drawn script accused the proprietor(s) of the premises at the bar’s current address of failing to pay their taxes for six consecutive quarters. To retain the license, and forestall confiscation of the property and its contents, the proprietor(s) of said property was/were hereby ordered to personally deliver the full amount due to the Nanjing Directorate of Entertainment Licenses and Revenue no later than the last day of Seventh Month—tomorrow. Bai glanced at Gilgamesh.

Instead of reaching for the small spirit lamp used to prepare coffee, the demigod set a thin, kettle-shaped, porcelain wine pot and two matching cups on the counter. The glittering crystal liquid he poured from the pot’s narrow spout infused the closed air with the razor tang of lightning. It was baijiu—hard white liquor—and more potent than most.

Gilgamesh tossed back the contents of his cup. “I found the notice under the door when I opened this morning. I don’t understand. The bar always takes care of these things. The day after I arrived, the Director of Licenses showed up with his secretary. I paid a year’s taxes in advance, and thanked them for their trouble with a few jars of my best wine. I thought they were happy. The director and some of his friends even dropped by after work a few times. No one mentioned any problems, much less that I owed taxes for a year before the bar opened.”

“It’s probably an error,” Bai said. “The city revenue clerks are only human. They must make plenty of mistakes.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s an error or not. The problem is visiting the office to put things right. My curse won’t let me leave the bar.”

The ghost of Bai’s dragon ears perked like a cat’s at the squeak of a mouse. Only instead of a rodent, he heard an opportunity. Dragons were the best shapeshifters under heaven. “Maybe I can help.”

The demigod’s smile returned. “Thanks for the offer, but no one could mistake us for twins.”

“They might,” Bai purred silkily.

Bai’s long, straight hair liberated itself from its bun. It contracted and curled beneath his soft-sided black hat before pinning itself close to his scalp in accordance with the dictates of court protocol. His smooth, youthful features rearranged themselves into the weathered, olive-tinted crags of Gilgamesh’s face. Drawing on the spectral mass of his true form, Bai’s muscles thickened until they assumed the broad, hard contours of a veteran soldier. His fashionable silk and linen garments transformed themselves into the mirror of Gilgamesh’s baggy trousers and belted wool tunic, which proved surprisingly comfortable despite the warmth of the day. His beard, on the other hand, was a trial. Bai’s cheeks, neck, and the top of his chest felt like they were being smothered under a blanket of ants. But he could hardly impersonate Gilgamesh without it.

New respect gleamed in the demigod’s eyes. “I stand corrected—and in your debt.”

That was exactly what Bai had in mind. He offered a brief prayer to Caishen, the god of fortune, whom even dragons worshipped. If Caishen smiled upon him, Gilgamesh would grant him the favor of revealing his treasures. Then Bai would get to work on breaking Lao’s infernal spell…

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Read the complete story in Second Round: A Return to the Ur-Bar (Zombies Need Brains, 2018).