A Laughing Matter

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~SHAN JIANG~

The inhabitants of the Isles of the Laughing Men took the name at least half-seriously. Shan Jiang the Storyteller was greeted by roaring laughter. As far as the other half of the islands' name went, the jury was still out.

"I am pleased to amuse m'lady!" he put in between the two mighty bursts.

Is m'lady enough? Jung Hwa's only polite honorific was The Salt Bitch. Jiang had done his best to forget all the impolite ones before he set out on his journey.

She waved away his attempt to ingratiate himself and went on laughing. Jiang stood there, head down, hands folded in supplication but his mind worked as hard as ever. Everyone was vain. The trick was to find the lure as fast as possible, set the trap, and... that's where the similarities between the poet and the hunter ended.

From that point on, the poet became more of a farmer, cultivating the benefactor's vanity to feed himself year after year. With most women, the lure was their looks, but he was not sure about Jung Hwa.

Unlike her late husband, the Admiral Thirty Claws, the Chieftain wore nothing ornamental. In fact, she barely wore anything at all. Her vest barely covered her breasts such as they were, and she had breechcloth secured at the waist with a wide belt. Jiang suspected that the leather-like material of her garments was cured demonskin.

With a woman that size laughing that hard, he'd expected a fair bit of jiggling bits, but Jung Hwa's body had no give at all. She seemed to be made entirely of boulders packed tight under her leathery skin.

Finally, she settled down and wiped her eyes.

The captain who brought him to the Isles had pushed him forward. Maybe it was the customary invitation to approach the Chieftain, but Jiang had not expected the shove, so he'd skidded on the sand and dropped on all fours. He'd landed inside the structure he'd immediately christened 'The Pavilion of Ocean Spray' because it provided Jung Hwa and her retinue with both shelter from the sun and space to hold court.

It was too grand a name for the simple colonnade of the palm trunks, covered with palm-leaves and furnished with the large chunks of axe-carved driftwood, but Jiang figured that the 'Gruesome Gazebo' would not do.

But it sure was gruesome, with all the dried body parts, both human and beast nailed to the wood in a haphazard fashion.

Hmm, I don't know about the flower-and-feather garlands. On one hand, they add a note of femininity to the decor, on the other, it distracts the eye from the 'bloodthirsty chic'.

Then again, he could not take his eyes away from the grisly display. He spotted wicked claws, and entire jaws, the horns, and skulls. The skulls, in particular, set the mood, staring down at him from far too many eye-sockets. The fresher bones came in the range of colours from beige to black, but all of them would eventually end up weathered by the spray and the sun to the sterile white, the colour of mourning.

Despite his aversion to the decor, Jiang crawled to the edge of the shade. He stripped much of his clothing during the last days of sailing when the heat became oppressive, but it was not enough. He thought wistfully of Sutao where the fourth season was about to give way to the fifth, the winter. In Sutao he would have been longing for a break in clouds, and the timid warmth of the late fall's sun. Here, he could hear blisters grow on his exposed neck.

"Leave kowtowing to the Weeping Men," Jung Hwa ordered. "You begged Captain So to bring you to us. What for?"

Aha, my moment to shine! He scrambled back to his feet, a surprisingly hard task after more than a week at the mercy of the Jade Sea.

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