Year of the Money Lender
By Callum McSorley
Feng watched the rain from the window. It tinkled on the bells of the shrines and temples and ran off the eaves of curved rooftops in sheets like waterfalls. It danced on the Sumida which hurried by the palace, filling up the moat that surrounded the Imperial Garden. Feng detested the rain. It gave him a cold ache between the scales.
He stared out across Edo, the domain he’d protected all these years, with rheumy eyes. They were once blood red, now they were a muted maroon. Even so, they were still sharp enough to make out the seas of umbrellas in the cobbled streets and narrow alleys between the wooden houses that sprawled out from the edges of the garden. Nobody stayed home in the rain. In fact, they celebrated it: renewal, rebirth, hope. Someone must have been leaving gifts for Kuraokami again. But Feng didn’t dare burn the rain god’s shrines down. Just in case.
Feng heard Sato tramping about in the moya below, the clatter of geta on thin tatami mats and the scratch of the broom as he swept up.
“Do you have to make such a racket?” said Feng. He had the voice of a snake.
“Sorry, sir,” said Sato, “but I thought since business was quiet today I’d tidy up a little.”
Business was indeed quiet today. Normally, although it wasn’t long after sunrise, a queue would already be stretching from the low table in the centre of the room to the other side of the bridge. Some people paying rent, some paying protection, and, Feng’s personal favourite, some wanting to borrow. He cursed the rain again.
“Have one of the girls do it, you lead-footed old fool,” Feng hissed. “And speak to the Shogun. I want his men to hunt out every temple, shrine, rock and pebble dedicated to Kuraokami and move along anyone who lingers there.”
Feng glided back to his room in the upper level and rested on the piles of goat-skin rugs that covered the floor. He used to sleep in the treasury but in recent years he woke feeling stiff and the gold coins and hard diamond rocks chafed his unarmoured belly. The palace would have to do instead. More often though, in this house of men, he found himself napping.
Sato left the palace without an umbrella, letting the rain soak into his clothes and hair and drip down his forehead and onto the monstrous scars that lined his craggy face. They were a relic of the great fire, when Feng first came down from the mountains cloaked in flame and razed the slums. As in peace, the poor are the first to suffer in war. That was a long time ago, when Sato was just a boy. All he could remember of it now was the smell of charcoal and grilled meat, people screaming and thick, black smoke. Then he was alone.
He turned his face up to the clouds and drank in the rain, that the downpour might act as a salve and wash away his burns.
The Shogunate had been moved into the music hall to accommodate Feng. Though it was only a short walk within the gardens, by the time Sato reached it he was drenched. The guards gave a curt bow as they let him in. Their faces were hidden by helmets and masks but Sato knew full well the expression they bore. It was the same look the Shogun wore as he greeted him – a medley of shock, horror, disgust and pity that played through every time they met. He had witnessed this display on people’s faces for most of his life. As Feng’s foremost servant and stooge it wasn’t just his appearance they recoiled from.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Sato-san?” asked the Shogun with mock formality.
“A request from Lord Feng, sir.”
“A request or an order?”
“Take it as you want it, sir.”
“And, pray, what does Lord Feng want this time?”
“He’d like your men to keep an eye on any shrines dedicated to the god of rain and snow, Kuraokami, and move along anyone who attempts to make an offering.”
The Shogun smiled. “Bless him, he does get paranoid during the rainy seasons.”
“I’d remind you to watch your tone, sir, if I was a man of higher standing,” said Sato.
A flash of anger crossed the Shogun’s face but settled quickly into a look of mild distaste – a look reserved for beggars and termites. “But you are not, even in those shoes,” he said, pointing at Sato’s geta, which added an extra three inches to his small stature. The guards chuckled. “There could be hundreds of shrines across Edo dedicated to some rain god or the other. I haven’t men enough spare to have them stand idly on street corners.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“You insolent old wretch, if you think that hideous face of yours means you know about suffering, just wait till I have you in my dungeons –”
“That sounds tempting but if you’ll excuse me, sir, I have other business to attend to.” Sato turned his back to the Shogun and shouldered past the guards on the way out.
He headed into the city, bowing low at the samurai guarding the bridge. These fierce warriors were Feng’s personal guard. Many of them were wandering ronin drawn to him by power and wealth. And they were as loyal as these things allowed. The rest were former gokudo absorbed into Feng’s ranks after he muscled them out of business. They were just as loyal as the ronin.
Sato made his way through the winding streets, slipping sideways between shoulders, sheltered under a roof of shifting umbrellas. He headed to the Gai, where the market stalls and yakitori vendors were still open under their awnings with crowds of people lining up in the rain, shoulders hunched, waiting for skewers of grilled chicken gizzards and leeks. Sweet blue smoke drifted in the air smelling of blackened meat. Here and there a sad paper lantern lay trampled and torn on the ground.
The houses in this part of the city had been rebuilt cheaply after the great fire. Many were already buckled and dilapidated. The thatch-work was patchy and let in water. The contractors belonged to Feng.
Some of the older people in the street still bore the marks of the fire, as Sato did. Shiny, hairless scar tissue stretched tight over their faces and necks and arms. Some had missing limbs. Most were now shunned and homeless, the superstitious god-fearing people seeing them as bad luck, the rest simply wishing to avoid any ugly reminders of the past. It would have been better to have died, they thought. A great number had survived the original injury only to perish later on from some invisible, unquenchable magic fire that couldn’t be put out or treated with balm. It burned them from the inside out. Why others survived, nobody knew. They were the walking dead.
Sato squeezed through the alleyways, past run-down Kabuki theatres, Geisha houses, and public onsen, and entered a nameless izakaya through black noren curtains. All of the six stools in the narrow pub were taken, and the standing space too. Not seeing Akiyama among them, Sato headed back out and up the wooden stairs fixed to the exterior of the house.
A woman, obviously expecting him – the standard look of shock quickly tempered – led him into a private dining room and, after taking his order, closed the shoji door behind him.
Akiyama sat cross-legged at the low table on the tatami floor. He looked small without his armour on. However, his face retained every bit of the menace the samurai mask usually bestowed.
“Good morning, Sato-san,” said Akiyama. He poured a cup of green tea for Sato.
“Yes, yes it is, isn’t it,” said Sato, brushing back his sopping wet hair. Touching his face always gave him a curious sensation. The deadened nerves meant he only felt the touch through his fingertips, confusing his misfiring brain at some unconscious level, even after all this time. “I trust everything went well, Akiyama-san?”
“Straight to business?” asked Akiyama, who didn’t just view Sato with regular distaste but with unease also. His scarred face was an expressionless mask. His voice was a guttural whisper, every bit as snake-like as his boss’s, as though he too breathed fire.
“I’m afraid so. I hope you’re not offended but I didn’t take you for one to be bound up by social niceties.” Akiyama was a shadowy figure in the Shogunate, looking after foreign affairs. He was rumoured to have tattoos, needled by sharpened bamboo sticks, hidden below the neckline of his tunic.
“No, I guess not, Sato.” The tension was broken by the woman returning with a square sake cup for Sato and a bowl of steamed dumplings for Akiyama.
“So, how did it go with the Chinamen?”
“All set. We’ll have the shipment within the next ten days. I’ll have two of my men stationed at Tsukiji. Are you sure you can get the rest of the payment from the treasury? One of my men could easily sneak in –”
“You think too highly of your men. Besides, it’s already done.” Sato took a cloth pouch from under his damp robes and slid it across the table. Akiyama lay down his chopsticks to peer inside: diamonds, pure and glistening with white fire. “Take good care of it. These Chinamen are more dangerous than you give them credit for, it would be unwise to fool around with them.”
“And just what are you implying?”
“That the corrupting power of gold and diamonds and shiny coins has no bounds. Did you know that dragons are immortal?”
“What? But I thought the plan was to –”
“Feng has grown old. He has aged. He is every bit as stooped and grey as I am. I watched him all these years, changing as surely as my hair turned white in the mirror. And I have a good idea of what did it.” Sato nodded at the bag of jewels. “Greed and cunning and war are the provinces of mortal men. What do youngsters like you know of Feng?”
Akiyama scowled. He was only comparatively young. “He came from the north, nearly seventy years ago. He muscled in on the traders, the gangs and even the government. He’s a money lender. A shark. He owns all the property, protects all the businesses, gets kickbacks wherever coin changes hands in the city. He owns the pimps and the opium dealers. And he owns the Shogunate, as much as they pretend otherwise. And, although nobody speaks much about it, he caused the great fire.” Akiyama looked away from Sato’s face when he said this.
“Yes, all that is true enough, and mostly common knowledge.” The condescension was apparent even in Sato’s rasping monotone. “Feng is the bastard son of gods. He once roamed the mountains in the far north of Honshu. Locals in the small villages at the foot of the mountain range began to leave him gifts and prayers. Their worship drew him down from his high and barren domain where he became involved with traders and travellers. He offered them protection from bandits and storms, and in return they made him wealthy.
“He heard tales of the vast, and rich, city of Edo in the south. He was also visited by rogue samurai and gokudo. He saw how they worked: intimidation, blackmail, violence. He knew he could do it better. So he headed south and staked his claim. The great fire was a show of force, and it worked. Soon he was the only racket in town. The year of the dragon.”
“But all this was a long time ago. Why has the Shogun decided to act now?”
“You were right, nobody speaks about the fire anymore. When my generation dies it will be forgotten. You can’t imagine the heat, or the horror. Death pouring down from the sky. The Shogun, like everyone else, was afraid. So he cut a deal. And like every deal one cuts with Feng, whether you’re a powerful politician or a peasant needing a loan to buy food, the balance is heavily in Feng’s favour. But now… now we have an opportunity: Feng is no longer immortal.”
“You know this for sure?”
“He has lived too long like a man, concerned only with himself and his own selfish needs. He has grown old and short-sighted and spends more and more time with is memories, living in the past as old men do.”
“And what do you get from all this? You’ve served Feng loyally for most of your life.”
“After the fire my family was gone. For months I couldn’t speak because of the pain in my chest and throat. My face was a blister. I was one of the cursed, the marked. I grew up a thief. I quickly learned cunning and guile on these very streets. And I too went to Lord Feng and made a deal.”
“So, what… you want revenge?”
A rattling sound came from Sato’s chest and bubbled up into his throat, making his shoulders shake. His thin lips twisted into a tortured smile. He laughed until it turned into a choking, wheezing cough that squeezed the air out of his lungs and gripped his throat with burning fingers. When he caught his breath he dabbed away his tears and wiped his mouth with a silk cloth. Akiyama noticed the drops of blood blotted into it.
“Traitors want nothing as simple as revenge,” said Sato. He stood without finishing his tea. “Send word to your master when the shipment arrives.” He saw Akiyama’s face rankle at the word ‘master’.
“Then pray for plenty of rain this growing season.” Sato slid the shoji behind him and headed back out into the deluge.
He walked back down the market thoroughfare and slipped into an alley barely wider than his shoulders. Halfway down the street there was an alcove. In it stood a smooth rectangular headstone, less than knee-high, with no writing on it. Sato plucked a shining white rock from his sleeve like a magician. He sat the diamond on top of the shrine. “For you, Kuraokami,” he said. “Keep up the good work.” At the other end of the alley a soldier in full samurai regalia stood on the corner of the street as if directing traffic. Sato bowed and shot him an ugly grin.
Feng stumbled in the dark, bumping against a shelf and knocking sake barrels to the floor. They made a hollow thump. “Damn it!” He knocked his head against a hanging candelabra suspended from the low ceiling. He lit it with a snort, momentarily filling the basement with fierce purple light which cooled to a flickering orange glow. How he hated coming down here himself, with the damp creeping in through the walls and seeping up from the ground. For two weeks now it had poured relentlessly. The moat overflowed and lapped at the foundations of the palace. Surrounded by filthy water!
He searched among the painted barrels, throwing one after another over his shoulder. “Empty! Empty! All empty!” With a roar he brought down an entire shelf, barrels falling on top of him and bouncing off the slimy stone floor. Magma bubbled up in his chest. It glowed red through his iron-hard scales and bathed the walls in throbbing crimson light. He felt the fire push up from his gut into his throat and choked, his throat tickling, and spluttered out a feeble spark. The draught it caused extinguished the candles.
“Sato!” he called. “Sato!” Where is that lame old louse? Always creeping around but never there when he was needed. Yes, Feng remembered the first time they met well. He had been dozing in the treasury, or on it, really, and he had felt a shift. He felt it the way a spider, sitting at the centre of its web, feels a vibration tremble along a strand of silk when a hapless bug stumbles across it. And there was Sato, helping himself to handfuls of golden ingots. He was just a boy then but his face was ageless. He spoke like a man and was clever, for a human. For more than half a century Sato had sat by him, talking money and counting money.
Thinking about that first meeting it seemed like a long time ago, yet the lives of men were very short, weren’t they? Yes, in the mountains Feng had watched men sprout, age, and decay to be replaced by new ones in what seemed like mere seasons. He saw the cycle hundreds of times over. He watched huts turn to houses, stone turn to iron, and woven rafts turn to gleaming ships. But the memory of Sato seemed distant indeed. And where was he now?
Boom! The explosion rattled the very bedrock of the palace. Feng was showered in dust. Boom! It was like the footsteps of giants above his head. Another shelf of sake barrels toppled to the cellar floor.
As Feng climbed the long, spiral staircase he heard a whistling shriek then another bang. The terrible high-pitched squeals tore through the air followed by ground-shaking concussions. They were coming from every direction. He could smell smoke and burning wood. It reminded him of old times.
When he reached the moya he saw the palace was on fire. Shimmering embers floated on a cushion of thick black smoke. He heard the banshee’s shriek again and a shining flare of light, with a glittering comet tail behind it, came whizzing through a high window and exploded in a burst of fire and green sparks. A ceiling beam came crashing down on top of Feng, pinning his long, serpentine body to the floor.
The crackling fire sounded far away, somewhere under an ocean of whining tinnitus, and his vision popped with stars, dazzled by the colourful blast. Thoughts spun in his dizzy head: under attack, we’re under attack, where are the guards? Cowards, no time for napping, old fool, the Chinamen! Those are Chinese rockets, you’ve seen them before, show them what real fire is!
Feng heaved himself onto his feet, the thick wooden beam sliding off his back as if it were made of origami paper. He stretched his wings out as far as they would go. The joints were stiff, the muscles atrophied. He flapped experimentally, fanning the flames around him, the heat of the fire comforting on his skin. How long had it been? He threw his head back and let out a tremendous roar, the magma once again bubbling up from his belly. This time it erupted from his mouth in a blue jet of deadly flame that turned the floors and ceilings to ash. He flapped his wings hard and leaped, punching out through the roof and into the sky in a fountain of fire.
The whizz-bang of fireworks filled the sky. Explosions of green and red sparks glanced off his hide, bouncing him around as he tried to orientate himself. The dreaded rain battered down on him. He dived low, spewing out a river of devouring flames that swept away tiny men and their puny rockets.
He climbed straight up again into the clouds which were black with rain and smog. It reeked of sulphur and burnt hair. His belly was bleeding. He took another dive-bomb, belching out fire from his unhinged jaw as he went, the soldiers’ screams audible over the boom and bang and screech of rockets. The soldiers weren’t dressed like Chinamen though, they looked like… samurai? The Shogun!
In the second it took Feng to process the betrayal a rocket collided with his snout. He’d flown straight into it. His vision doubled, sky became earth, became sky, became earth again. He hit the dirt. He felt rain on his belly. He looked straight up into the sky and saw pretty rockets arc overhead. The only stars twinkling in the night were made of gunpowder.
Had he not been benevolent? Had he not brought them peace? Hadn’t he broken up the gangs and built houses? It had been a long time since war visited Edo. He had personally seen to that. Now battle raged again. Ungrateful swine!
Blinded, Feng spat fire in all directions. He flapped his exhausted wings and lunged upwards. He climbed in long, loping spirals, a pinwheel in a light summer breeze. Then a rocket stamped a hole through his left wing and he came spinning down like a broken kite. He landed hard on the battlement wall, sending chunks of rock tumbling into the moat.
Feng felt cold and sleepy. He shivered. He closed his eyes and everything became quiet, the last of the rockets echoing somewhere in the distance, leaving only the pitter-patter of the rain… and something else too… the clip-clop of geta on stone.
“Sato? Sato, is that you?” Feng lifted his head with great effort and squinted at the figure in front of him. “The Shogun… the Shogun has attacked us… you should flee… while you have the chance…” Then, as his vision cleared a little, Feng saw the Chinese rocket under his servant’s arm. “You!? You did this!”
“Yes, old friend, I did,” said Sato. His rasping voice gave away no emotion.
“After all this time, all I taught you, you’re still no more than a sneak theif, breaking into my vaults.”
“This isn’t about money. Well, not all about money. Though I assure you the Shogun will take all of it.”
“A power grab?” Feng laughed. It hurt his belly. “You think you can get rid of me and take over in my place? You think the Shogun will just deal with you like he did me? YOU-ARE-A-SLAVE! I marked you like cattle, Sato-kun.”
Now Sato laughed. “No, no, no. Once this is done I expect Akiyama, or maybe even the Shogun himself, will put a dagger through my heart, though there’s no need.” Sato coughed into his hand. He hawked up a lungful of blackened snot and blood and spat it at his feet. “There comes a time for old men to die, right, my friend? A time for change. The age of dragons and gods is over and it’s time for a new year to start. Ake ome.”
Sato struck the flint against the rocket’s fuse and it leapt forward, catching Feng in the throat. He tumbled off the battlement and into the moat. Water caught his wings like the sails of a capsized boat and dragged him down into the icy pool. He screamed and thrashed and the water boiled around him. He gagged as it washed down into his belly, chilling him from inside. It filled his nostrils. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see the surface. Everything was black.
Sato gently sat his aching old body down on the hard stone battlement, crossing his legs, and watched serenely as the moat settled until even the rain came to a stop and everything was still.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Callum McSorley 2016