“The Kitchen Car is Burning!”
As he flew, the train whistle blasted like a trumpet. The engine surged in fire and exploded.
He landed on the kitchen car, near the edge of the flames, dropped to one knee, drew back one arm. His pants leg caught fire. He slapped it out and once again drew his arm back. His other arm sleeve caught fire. His pants leg caught fire again. No time.
Jimmy thrust his fist through the wood of the kitchen car. The wood splintered, a hole about the size of a boot print. Not enough. He punched again, and again.
Then, he popped straight into the air like a startled cat, spinning and slapping out the flames on his clothes.
He landed at the rim of the hole he had made, squatted, reached in, felt another hand grasp his. In a single motion, he stood and pulled, tossing a girl clear of the car. She stumbled on the railroad ties, but kept her feet.
Jimmy knelt and reached in again. A boy came out squealing. And again: a woman, whose ass hit the desert with a soft thump. And again: a man Jimmy barely got over the edge of the car. He tripped on the rail and landed beside his wife.
And again, but no hand found his.
“Es todo!” the girl shouted to him. “You pulled us all from the grave!”
His clothes were on fire again, he noticed. He bounded into the desert over the cook’s family and rolled in the sand until his clothes were out.
He lay there on his back, breathing hard, staring up into the stars that hung like paper lanterns over the high desert of Chayan. As he looked at them, their colors came alive: greens, yellows, blues, reds. There was the Torch Star, the Flaming Branch of Huobu, the wandering bat. His order’s own star.
It seemed the passengers and the conductor were okay. He had lost two traveling companions, fellow monks crushed in the derailing, but this was fitting. The train was their sword, their life, their fate. And now that this train was broken, Jimmy Fu would have to find a new sword.
A train derailment was always a bad thing, but especially for the hobos.
It was said that, although the steel sword of Lu Long was not faster than a lead bullet, it was faster than the eye and the hand of any man aiming a gun. And that was all that mattered in the first battle he had to fight in defense of Princess Shou Yan.
As the Imperial flotilla set out from the red-stone port of Huandu, black-and-yellow sails stiff in the offshore breeze, they were immediately set upon by pirates from the southern seas. The pirates closed on the ships without firing their cannon, in hopes of cowing them into surrender and taking the ships whole.
Lu Long and his four lieutenants allowed the pirates to pull up alongside, then leaped across the brink to the marauders’ decks. In the midst of the foe, the sword of the Founder showed its strength. Lead shot was deflected, heads and arms were cut from their bodies, and sails cut from their masts.
After much struggle, the pirates were dispatched and the convoy of Shou Yan sailed north toward the Cape of Huan.
Having seen her champion in combat, the eyes of the Princess looked upon him differently. She lingered in his presence, spoke to him directly rather than through her attendants, although this was a against Imperial protocol.
As they rounded the Cape of Huan and turned westward, Shou Yan invited Lu Long to play Sparrow. In those days, every true gentleman in the Empire of the Banner carried a set of tiles, but it was not considered proper for ladies to gamble.
“This request I cannot fulfill,” Lu Long declined, bowing deeply. “It would be inappropriate for me to corrupt the Princess’s honor with a game of fortune.”
“Lu Long, do not think I would ask you to do anything improper. There is another form of Sparrow that does not involve gambling. You arrange the tiles atop a thin piece of paper stretched in an embroidering frame. Then you wet the paper, and the pattern of the first tiles that fall through the weakened sheet reveal your future.”
“A woman’s Sparrow,” he mused aloud. Lu Long conceded, to the great delight of the Princess, and fetched his tile case while she fetched an embroidering frame.
The fall of the tiles showed Lu Long plunging his sword into solid stone and starting a great family. The Princess told him this was a very auspicious reading.
Near the Isthmus, where the Empire of the Banner touches the dry lands of the Pennant League, the convoy made port in one of the free cities to take on provisions for the long, cold journey ahead. In those days the Great Canal was still being carved from the rock of the Isthmus. They could not continue due east, so the Imperial flotilla would turn bows north toward the stars of the Great Bear, to skirt around the earldoms of Vexillor on their way to Jackland.
The Great Bear was the constellation where lay the star of Lu Long’s family. It seemed a propitious moment. But, while in port awaiting the dawn to bring the light of Shou from the east, the Imperial company was set upon by assassins intent on kidnapping the Princess.
Despite the mystical trickery of the desert warriors, the Founder and his four lieutenants again kept the princess safe. They shredded the assassins’ robes and turbans, and Lu Long broke their crescent blades against his sword. When the assassins tripled their numbers through a wicked illusion, his swift eye separated the real from the false as easily as a winnow-fan separates rice from husk. The assassins were soon dispatched.
As the flotilla set out north, Shou Yan brought tea to Lu Long on the deck of her banner-ship, and sat with him as a promised woman sits with her fiancé.
“Your Majesty, is this proper?” he asked, looking directly upon the face of the Princess for the first time. And, for the first time since he began training as a warrior, the hands of Lu Long trembled.
“My father, the Emperor, has no sons. I have no brothers. Who will challenge your right to sit with me?”
“I do not ask from fear of challenge. I ask because it is proper to ask.”
“You are a fine man, Lu Long. My father has seen this. He has made you my brother on this journey, and as my brother you have challenged an unmarried man’s right to sit with the Princess for tea. This is the proper order of things. Now, let us sit.”
And so, Lu Long had tea with the Daughter of the Sun as the Imperial convoy left the temperate world to sail into the frigid wastes of the north.
In those icy waters along the far coast of Vexillor, the convoy of Princess Shou Yan was once again attacked, by wild vikings in their swift dragon ships. These were enormous warriors, wielding great hammers and axes as large as Lu Long himself. The dainty Princess could have hidden inside one of their woolly beards, so great were they in size. Even Lu Long’s four brave lieutenants shook at the sight of them.
But the sword of the Founder was like a hornet among giants, swift among them and stinging their hearts through tree-like ribs until the entire band of sea rovers lay dead and slumped on their shields.
That evening in the chill air of the north, the Princess again sat with Lu Long over tea. They spoke of her great grandfather, who had been a fine swordsman before becoming Emperor. They spoke of his great grandmother, who had been a Duchess of Shou.
Shou Yan said: “The brother of the Princess may, in the absence of the Emperor, choose a man for the Princess to marry.”
“A man from the Imperial bloodline,” Lu Long said.
“Yes,” the Princess said. “Within three generations of a Shou ancestor.”
Lu Long felt a great rush of feeling for the Princess, for her celestial beauty and grace, for the honor she was implying, the great responsibility it entailed, and the pride he felt in his swordsmanship. Shou Yan’s great grandfather had carried a sword to the Banner Throne. Perhaps so would he.
The families of Lu and Shou joined again as before.
“It would be proper,” said Lu Long, careful to maintain his poise, “for such a decision to be made when the tour is done and the ships have turned their bows again toward Shou.”
“I agree,” said the Princess, barely concealing a smile, “it would be proper for such a decision to be announced when the flotilla is on its return.”
Thus it came to pass that Lu Long, the Founder of the Huobu School, stepped onto the gas-lit streets of Lighchester in Jackland as the chief escort of Shou Yan, with eyes to the dangers all around, but heart turned toward his gentle bride to be, mind set on his grand future, and one hand ever on his proud sword, a sword with which he had triumphed over pirates and assassins and vikings. And the heart of a Princess.
Jimmy Fu felt the lingering heat of the night desert rising through his body, through his back and the backs of his legs and arms. He felt the lingering heat of the burns on his legs and arms. He felt the lingering heat of fear and despair in his mind. He willed himself to settle, absorbing the heat into his consciousness until the dust at his back was like the warmth of the noon sun.
Turning his head sideways, he looked up and down the tracks for the cause of the derailing. Despite the darkness, he could see no warped rails, nothing on the tracks. Maybe the train had knocked the blockage away when it hit. Did it matter? The sword was broken, the fire was burning out.
Three sets of boots surrounded him. The cook, the conductor, and the cowboy with the burnt longcoat. He looked up into their weary faces as they looked down into his. He wanted to apologize for not being more vigilant, but he knew that a true Huobu never spoke of his duty, even in atonement for its failures.
“Thank you, Señor,” the cook said, “for mi familia.”
The cowboy’s bowler hat was back on his head. He held out a hand. “Sorry ‘bout all that back there, hobos and such. I didn’t git yer plan right off.”
Jimmy took the man’s hand and pulled himself to standing. A monk was bound by oath to accept offers of repentance.
“Don’t worry about the company,” the conductor said. The gun was still in his hand. The conductor noticed it when Jimmy Fu did, and tucked it into his pants. “I won’t be reporting any stowaways. It was a brave thing you did, saving my kitchen staff.”
Jimmy Fu nodded. “Everyone is safe?”
The conductor looked over his shoulder at the people huddled in the darkness. “Yeah, everyone accounted for now. Thanks to you.”
The four of them stood under the stars: a monk, a train driver, a ranch hand, and a cook. The train crackled and popped in the night, flames sweeping over the passenger cars like a funeral shroud. The kitchen car was a growling inferno. Fire was eating the supplies. Jimmy Fu tried to remember where the nearest source of water was. He wondered if there was any water in the freight cars.
A shriek made the four men jump. The passengers had turned their backs to the fallen train and the flames. At the dim edge of the firelight, three horsemen sat atop their mounts as still and quiet as the saguaro.
Jimmy Fu realized, the derailment had not been an accident.
Were they gunfighters? Banditos? No, they wore loose robes, the cut of which Jimmy Fu knew only from travelers’ description. Their faces were veiled in blood-red linen. Robes like that were unknown in Chayan or the Flag Republic. They were native to the deserts of the east, the Pennant Cities. What were they doing here, in the deserts of Léxico?
Instead of pistols, they wore broad curving swords at their sides. Assassins.