Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: “Lord Bai and the Magic Pirate”

Animate paper centipedes and shape-changing foxes aren’t standard fare at a government conference. But then, neither is Lord Bai.

The fox woman Kuzunoha and her fox-shaped shadow, from the print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

“What do spells, copying, and writing have to do with pirates?” Lord Bai, White Dragon of the West, whined—no, repined in a light baritone befitting his human form.

It was a reasonable question for a gathering that billed itself as Nanjing’s First Imperial Conference on Magic Piracy. But he could have misunderstood the keynote speaker’s remarks. Professor Yeoh was orating at the front of the large, red-pillared banquet hall, while Bai was hiding among the sorcery students seated at the back.

“Not ‘copying and writing’—copy rights,” whispered the student next to him. “Like Professor Yeoh said: All magicians are endowed as creators with certain unalienable rights, among them the right to profit from all copies of their spells, amulets, and charms.”

“Even if somebody else does the copying?”

“Exactly.”

But didn’t writers and artists pay printers to publish their work? Or was it the other way around? Who knew with humans? The longer Bai spent at the conference, the more at sea he felt.

Based on the invitation sent to Master Lao, Bai’s self-appointed human teacher, Bai had assumed the conference concerned pirates and magic treasure—something guaranteed to pique a dragon’s interest. When Master Lao had forbidden him to attend under threat of several exceptionally creative dooms, Bai had grown even more excited, certain it was one of those government conferences—a four-day, Mandarins-only orgy of dim sum and dancing girls. But Bai had searched the restaurant hosting the event from foundation to rafters, and there were no pretty women, no pirates, no magic.

No food.

At least not for the students. The attending scholars and professionals lounged on cushioned stools around generously proportioned tables, dining at the Emperor’s expense on a feast of shrimp buns, grilled eel, duck breast with sprouts, spiced broad beans, and sesame cakes. But between the scholars’ Celestial Kingdom and the students’ hellishly hard benches lay a strip of bare floor patrolled by waiters more vigilant than the soldiers on the Great Wall. Bai couldn’t even savor the aromas thanks to the mages’ fondness for patchouli. To make the reek worse, the sliding doors to the loggia had been shut for “security reasons.” In the middle of a heatwave!

Concealed beneath the perspiring skin of his human form, the spirit of Bai’s dragon tail thrashed irritably. He itched to leave, but he couldn’t afford to draw attention to himself by decamping in the middle of Professor Yeoh’s speech. Lao didn’t look like much, but his sorcery could boil a dragon’s eyeballs in their sockets.

The silver gilt designs on Professor Yeoh’s capacious sleeves flashed as he jabbed another point into the air—and immediately obscured it with a series of contradictory citations from the Ten Thousand Classics. Bai tried to calculate how many the purple-gowned alchemist had quoted so far.

“Courage,” he muttered. “There can’t be that many philosophers left.”

A barrage of outraged hisses and angry glares informed him he’d neglected to keep this observation to himself. He grinned contritely and tried to appear inoffensive.
That’s when he saw it: the answer to a prayer he hadn’t known he’d made. A fat red centipede—his favorite treat from the time he was a little wyrm—wriggled into the aisle.

Bai’s breath caught. Another waiter, his vision blocked by a stack of steam baskets, barreled toward the door. Abandoning all caution, Bai lunged off the bench, snatching his prize from under the very shoe of doom. The waiter lurched and recovered without a missed step or dropped basket. A rattle of applause muffled his harried curse.

Bai popped the centipede into his mouth. The trick was to immediately crush the poison claws between your teeth. The venom added an energizing zing to the crunchy shell and faintly woody tang of the flesh.

Damn, the centipede tasted funny. More than woody, it was like chewing paper. Bai spat the bug into his hand. The centipede was paper—cheap red paper printed with smeared black characters. What was a paper magic centipede doing crawling around a conference on magical piracy? Was it somebody’s idea of a joke?

Bai’s first thought was one of the students, but none of them were watching the floor. As far as he could tell, they were all rapt in Yeoh.

Maybe it was a message from one of the masters to a pupil? Bai scanned the tables for a likely sender. Officials of the Department of Rites, their blue-violet robes emblazoned with embroidered insignia, flapped silk fans in a futile attempt to raise a breeze. Shaven-headed Buddhist monks draped in orange robes traded superior looks with Daoist priests in splendid crimson coats. Women physicians from the Imperial Palace held court behind latticework screens. At the foreigners’ table, Arabian scholars, refugee Delhi astrologers, and bushy-bearded Kabbalists scribbled notes with reed pens instead of brushes. But no one was looking at the back of the room, not even the one person Bai expected to be on high alert.

Master Lao rested his cheek on his upraised hand. Barely audible snores ruffled his wispy moustache. From the platters, baskets, and wine pots massed around him, the scrawny old reprobate had, as usual, consumed enough for three.

“And that’s the least of what we can expect if this deplorable state of affairs is allowed to continue,” Yeoh warned. “The criminals engaged in the unlicensed reproduction, distribution, and sale of our spells, philters, talismans, and invocations are pirates as surely as the Wokou marauders of the Eastern Sea. Magic piracy is not a victimless crime. These spells represent our livelihood, the fruits of years of study and diligent labor. Every unauthorized copy is theft, pure and simple, and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. By stealing our intellectual property, they’re stealing the rice from our mouths, stripping the altars of our ancestors, and beggaring our children. They must be stopped!”

Applause thundered in the closed room. Conferees jumped to their feet, including several at Lao’s table. Lao jerked awake. Bai hunched into his shoulders and clapped furiously.

Another red centipede launched itself into the aisle.

“Thank you, Professor Yeoh, for your brilliant summation,” the master of ceremonies boomed as the centipede inched across the floor in Bai’s direction. “Friends and colleagues, the issues are clear. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Now, let’s hear some solutions!”

A wizened jujube of a scholar jumped from his seat. He jerked a brass wand out of his sash and sliced the air in a wobbly arc. “There can be only one!”

Everybody ducked, including the students. Bai used the opportunity to cut the centipede in half with a discreetly extended claw. The halves reverted to paper and dropped to the floor. The centipede was crude compared to Lao’s paper servants. Instead of a perfectly scissored, freehand silhouette, the outline had been stamped on cheap red paper and cut along the lines. Bai squinted at the smudged characters printed on the body.

“Close the printing presses!” the scholar bawled.

The crowd shifted again. The papers skidded away on the draft.

That couldn’t be good.

“Professor Deng,” the master of ceremonies soothed, “we want to protect legitimate printers, not close them down. We need printers to publish our books. More importantly, we need them to print the money for our salaries.”

“Paper money! Bah!” Deng shook his wand at the master of ceremonies. “Silver was good enough for my daddy, and it’s good enough for me. We don’t need more books. There are too many around as it is. It’s getting to the point where anybody can learn to read. Who’ll respect a scholar’s cap if that happens?”

“The same people who respect it now,” Lao drawled. “Printing’s been around since the Han Dynasty. It’s not going away anytime soon.”

Maybe it was a coincidence. The centipedes could’ve escaped from a mage’s pocket. Bai didn’t know why anyone would deliberately bring paper magic centipedes to a conference on magic piracy. Then again, there didn’t need to be a reason. Human mages lost their tiny primate minds all the time. Witness Professor Deng.

Unfortunately, that explanation failed to satisfy Bai’s lizard brain. Phantom spines rippled uneasily under the back of his human neck. What were the odds of two magic paper centipedes accidentally getting loose and targeting the only dragon in the room? Dragons didn’t hold any special attraction for paper magic or centipedes of any origin. On the other hand, many magicians coveted a dragon’s abilities—to fly, to call storms and disperse them, their language skills—and the medicinal value of their individual parts.

Maybe Bai owed his tutor an apology. Maybe Lao’s threats were nothing more than a misguided attempt to protect him.

Not that Lao needed to. Other than a slight smoky tang to his perspiration, indiscernible amid the odors of grilled eel and patchouli, there was nothing to distinguish Bai’s current guise from that of a young human male. Dragons transformed completely, with none of the dragging tails, distorted shadows, or dripping footprints of lesser species. A powerful mage could detect the subtle difference in his aura—if he concentrated and knew where to look. But Bai had been attending the conference since it started that morning, and the mages he’d encountered so far seemed relatively weak.

“The problem isn’t printing,” a blue-gowned Mandarin opined. “It’s the lack of proper oversight. What we need is an Imperial decree banning all unlicensed copies of charms and magical texts—and a zero-tolerance enforcement policy.”

The senior Buddhist monk raised his hand. “With all due respect to the learned gentleman of the Department of Rites, universal licensing is the last thing we need. It would place an unfair burden on the creators of magic and hinder publication of vital information. You worry about beggaring your children. Would you rather they starve? That’s exactly what will happen if you delay publication of the almanacs farmers use on planting. Or would you prefer they die of fever, because no one had the recipe for their medicine?”

“Excellent points, Master Hu,” a Palace physician chimed in from behind her screen. “The real issue here isn’t piracy or oversight. It’s greed, pure and simple. Piracy’s just another excuse for the Department of Rites to line its collective purse. You want to stop magical piracy? Price the texts so people can afford them.”

“Nonsense. My astrology manual sells for a fair price,” the Mandarin protested.

“Fair to whom?” the doctor fired back. “A duke?”

“Gentlemen…and ladies,” the master of ceremonies began, his smile thinning as he spoke.

Were the centipedes a coincidence or an attack? Everyone on both sides of the aisle acted absorbed in the argument. Then again, anyone using something as inconspicuous as a paper centipede was trying hard not to be noticed. If Bai wanted a potential culprit to reveal himself—or herself—he needed to stop staring and pretend to be oblivious.

He made a show of stifling a yawn. He slumped forward, elbows to knees. He let his eyelids drift, as if he was having a hard time staying awake. If it weren’t for the centipedes, it would’ve been true.

A few overlong moments later, a russet-robed wizard with a topknot of remarkably thick white hair eased a narrow bamboo tube from his sleeve. The other people at his table didn’t appear to notice, but the wizard wasn’t taking any chances. Shielding his face with one hand, he angled the tube under his mustache and inflated his cheeks. A red pellet dropped to the floor, unfurled into a centipede, and crawled toward the aisle.

The dragon maintained his pretense until the centipede was a finger’s breadth from his shoe before “accidentally” grinding it into the floor. The wizard’s shoulders fell. Color drained from his face. One of his companions leaned closer, probably to ask if he felt unwell. Bai retrieved the damaged centipede and snuck across the aisle.

He hadn’t realized the aisle acted as a metaphysical barrier as well as a physical one. Once he crossed it, a dozen powerful magical auras sparkled in his dragon sight like flashes of New Year fireworks—too many, too fast to identify their origins. Crap. That changed everything. If the owners of those auras trained their magical senses on him, magic paper centipedes and Master Lao would be the least of his problems.

He was considering a strategic retreat all the way to the street when Deng hoisted his wand again. Suddenly everyone was too busy dodging the professor’s swings to notice the dragon in the middle of the room. Bai grabbed his chance.

He hurried to the wizard’s table. There was something odd about the group’s magical auras—not strong, not bad, just…different…musky.

Bai could handle musky. He bowed.

“Did you lose something?” he asked, and tipped the centipede onto the table.

The wizard squealed and sprang from his seat. As the people around them called for order, Bai stared at the wizard’s incongruously delicate hands. He didn’t smell like an old man, either. Bai seized the wizard’s whiskers. Beard and mustache came away in his hand, revealing a smooth, sweetly rounded face with lips too pink and ripe for any man. The wizard was a woman. A very pretty woman.

All thoughts of centipedes and danger flew right out of Bai’s head. If he’d been in dragon form, his ears would’ve waggled.

“Hel-lo,” he purred.

The young woman screamed. Her voice struck the walls, the people, even Bai, like a hammer to a bell. It rang through muscle, bone, and brain, blurring Bai’s vision and rocking the humans in their seats. The smell of human piss bloomed from somewhere to his right.

The bottom edge of the robes hoisted over her shapely legs, the woman darted between the tables, heading toward the paper-screened doors to the loggia. Bai charged after her, muscling aside any furniture or dazed scholars in his path. She burst through the latticed panels and leapt onto the railing overlooking the street.

“Don’t!” he shouted.

He lunged. She jumped. The brush of silk teased the tips of his fingers as she plunged out of reach.

*

Read the rest in Ares Magazine #7, coming in 2018.