Tien Lyn was still sitting and hating in the dark cargo hold, unsure of how many days had passed, when she had heard more than usual shouting and pounding of the bare feet overhead.
Jung Hwa came to her corner, and without saying a word, fastened a belt of metal links around her waist and hoisted her to her feet. She pulled Tien Lyn along by the leash attached to it to the ship's deck.
After the cargo hold, the humid perfumed air nearly suffocated Tien Lyn. It was dusk, and Jung Hwa's ship was docked by long wooden jetties crowded with a multitude of fishing junks and the bigger, fighting ships. Down the beach, the islanders lit up bonfires, and the sounds of feasting and singing assaulted Tien Lyn's ears. They had arrived at the Laughing Men's Islands. She hated it, and she hated them.
Jung Hwa went from fire to fire, showing her off like a prize horse. "Tien Lyn," she said, "Zha Yao's Gracious Lady." Then the pirate's chieftain would promise her to the one who killed Zha Yao to the cheers of the crowd. In the light of the fires, the pirates' eyes glinted hungrily taking her in. She stared back, hating.
Finally, Jung Hwa finished her touring by the biggest bonfire. The circle around it sang a sentimental lay tune with the wholehearted commitment of men deeply in their cups. They fought back their alcohol-laced tears and clinked their drinking bowls together, as they conveyed to the night skies that one Laughing Man went to raid a fishing village on the mainland.
Once the houses were lit on fire, they sang, he remembered it, remembered everything. No, not everything, but everythiiiiing. The chorus faithfully listed the items he remembered, ending on a bamboo mat with a white crane in the reeds.
The company parted their ranks so that Jung Hwa can sit by the fire, but that did not stop the song. Nothing could stop that song!
Tien Lyn learned that the wretched raider was abducted by the pirates as a child and too late he came to realize that he'd just slit the throat of his own mother.
The drunken chorus went back to the bamboo mat and the crane, most carrying their own tune, but failing to drown out the singer who already started the next verse from across the fire.
He sat cross-legged on the sand, keeping the rhythm on the small drum and his drinking bowl, just as immersed as the rest of them. His voice sounded more Imperial than the Celebrated Emperor's, and it was well-trained with an amazing range, from the raider's mother to the booming voices of the ancestors. He wrung out more feelings than Tien Lyn would have thought possible from the unsophisticated tune.
After three more verses, the luckless raider was finally killed by the demons. Good riddance, Tien Lyn thought, while the shaky voices went on for another round of the crane on the bamboo screen, but the singer across the fire proffered the bowl to his neighbours and watched the rice wine splash generously in it. His eyes glistened with unspilled tears, from overflowing emotions or from the smoke that blew his way.
The man next to him draped a tattooed arm around his shoulders, and roared: "Let's wet Jiang's throat, Laughing Men! Then we'll get a proper song outta him!" Cowed under the ruffian's massive biceps, the singer smiled happily and drained the bowl without spilling a single drop. It took some trying with all the friendly shoving, clapping and elbowing.
"Shan Jiang?" Tien Lyn guessed out loud. Her voice was soft, but cold and sober, so he heard his name, and gave her a wide, sheepish smile.
"Your song killed a good man," she said over the flames staring right at him.
"More than one," Shan Jiang admitted, his eyes welling up again. "More than one."
The bundle of blankets by the singers' feet stirred, revealing a tiny wrinkled woman. She pointed at Tien Lyn, and her mouth quivered: "Touched by a demon, touched by a demon, touched by a demon...."
"Shhh, Mother Xho, shhh..." Shan Jiang's hand patted that of the ancient woman comfortingly, and he leaned in to whisper into her ear. She cackled, then borrowed back into the blankets. Only her head was still visible over the shapeless mass, but the sunken eyes stayed on Tien Lyn. Jiang shrugged apologetically to the alarmed circle: "A nightmare."
"Mother Xho's nightmares are prophetic," one of the women around the fire said, twisting a knife in her hands. "What did you bring among us, Jung Hwa?"
"A prize," Jung Hwa replied. "Don't be daft. Where would a Kneeling Woman meet a demon?"
"True, true," Shan Jiang helped himself to more rice wine, and took a long sip, "we have not seen the foul kind in the heartlands for a century or more. The Emperor's army fought a tribe in Quantong, but they were few in number. They roll in from the Northern Steppes once or twice in a generation, but not on this one's life. She's a child still."
"She's old enough, just flimsy," the woman argued. Those next to Tien Lyn unceremoniously inspected her, including holding her arms out for a collective laugh. At least they did not poke her with knives while she stood like a porcelain doll.
I hate you all.
"Enough." Jung Hwa interrupted the mockery. "Put her to mending the fishing nets. I won't have her dead or worn out before Zha Yao's slayer claims her."
As drunk as the pirates and their women were, nobody dared to talk back to the Chieftain again. But they took to calling her Empress, and once Jung Hwa sailed two days hence, Tien Lyn found herself a subject to small cruelties and not-so-small rudeness, mostly from women. Fortunately, what men were left to guard the pirate's stronghold gave her a wide berth.
That's why she was surprised to hear a male voice call: "Good morning, Lady Tien Lyn!".
She was occupied with a fishing net, so she said: "Go away, Shan Jiang," without looking up from her huge needle.
"Mother Xho and I require your help!" Shan Jiang announced with a professional flare, for the benefit of the other women bent over the same work as her.
AN: Thank you so much for reading and commenting! On Friday, Part III starts with Yu's POV. It is fitting, because of how heavy it is on Yu's chapters. Hugs!
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