Chapter two: The laokaicho
Years of futile attempts pass by.
My siblings walk around in silken robes and wear delicate combs of carved bone inside their hair.
But I don’t want to be a part of that, mending the holes in my clothes and taking out seams every passing year.
The ‘allowance’ they give me is just a trick to wet my appetite for chui. Promising more if I do ‘simple tasks around the house’.
But I won’t be tricked and I won’t be in their debt either.
They won’t let me refuse the money so I save it up instead. Ready to give it back the moment they bring it up.
During the days I roam the streets, tasting the freedom I long for, but every night without fail Takeyo finds me and drags me back without fail.
He joined the Kashuya at fifteen.
I suspect his only task is shadowing me.
We’re in an arms race him and I.
A cat and mouse, hide and seek.
I resent him for joining the Kashuya early.
He just wants me to stop kicking and give in.
But despite the fact it feels impossible, I keep hiding, keep trying to evade his eagle eyes and silken tongue.
I will escape one day.
Just you watch.
I count the paper lanterns lining the streets as Takeyo is dragging me home once again.
“I gotta admit I didn’t expect the disguise. You should wear red more often, it brings out your eyes.” Takeyo’s laughter feels like knives in my back but I grit my teeth and keep on walking.
“Come on Hui, I’m only joking.” He punches my arm in a playful way but all I wanna do is kick him in the jaw.
I pick up my pace and stick my hands inside my pockets.
He sighs and follows me back to that hated place known as ‘home’.
Inside the mansion there’s an exited buzz floating in the air. The guest room is filled with people, all wearing the Kashuya crest upon their sleeves. The crest is supposed to symbolise a dragon but all I see is a pack of rats in varying states of drunkenness.
“So what were they thinking exactly?” Migako shrill laughter annoys my ears as I make the usual trip to my bedroom door.
“What can I say? The laokaicho are idiots.”
“There are laokaicho in Choumuri?” Takeyo asks with the enthusiasm of a puppy.
I don’t speak.
But I listen.
Laokaicho? Those are sky-pirates right? Grizzly men in steampowered airships raiding vessels and drinking sefai made from sugar cane.
Hashiro, sat on his big chair, takes the lead in telling the story “They were trying to sell stolen Jaobai artifacts back to us for a ludicrous sum. Needless the say we accepted their generous gift and in return let them leave with their heads still attached to their shoulders.”
A cheer ripples through the room as the jug of sefai is handed around.
Behind the din my mind is reeling.
Laokaicho in Choumuri!?
They travel all over the world!
They could take me with them!
But I doubt they’ll come back after a defeat like this.
I must be fast, before they leave!
As Takeyo heads for the sefai I rush back into my room.
Grab my bag.
And sneak out through the washing room.
There aren’t many places you can park a flying ship here. The Cygne bastards are tearing down neighbourhoods for parking space but they’re not even halfway done.
The docks are the only space big enough for now.
So if they’re still on Choumuri.
They’ll be there.
The docks are half an hour away by foot but I run my lungs raw and make it in half the time.
I’m panting as I rush past the boats, my eyes fixed in the other direction. Towards the ships made of painted cloth and helium.
None of them have skulls and crossbows on them. I wonder if that much is a myth.
And if so how should I find them?
But then I hear gibberish and find one of the ships is manned by foreigners speaking in an awkward tongue and laughing boisterously.
“Hello” I say and the men look at me inquisitively.
A man with long black hair and clear Jigani roots asks “What do you want?” Behind him, the ruckus dies down as the eyes train themselves on me.
I clear my throat “You’re pirates right?”
“You got a problem with pirates?” the man asks while puffing up his shoulders at me.
He shrugs “Then we’re pirates. Now what do you want?”
“I want to join rank.”
“You? Join rank?” He laughs and immediately the people surrounding him are asking questions using foreign words.
They talk back an forth, some laugh some shout but one guy in the back stays deadly silent. His skin is dark and his eyes are sharp as he observes the argument.
There seems to be a tie as one half keeps shouting at the other.
We’re getting nowhere this way.
Then the man who was silent opens his mouth and the other seize talking in an instant.
“Why you want to join pirates?” he asks in broken Jigani.
“I want to leave this place.”
Then a man with a beard and a round, light skinned face cuts in and speaks loud and clearly “The pirates are for the lost causes in society, the ones who have nowhere else to go. You’re what, ten?”
The man scoffs “You have a bright future ahead. Don’t go wasting it on old farts like us.”
I don’t know who this guy is, or why he knows my language this well while clearly not being from here. But I do know I don’t like him. “I have nothing but the Kashuya ahead of me. I’m a lost cause either way but I don’t wanna give them the satisfaction.”
The man cocks an eyebrows at me “You wanna trade one crime for the other?” He scoffs dismissively “Go get a real job kid.”
The black man exclaims something in a language I don’t understand. From the way the other treat him I can only assume he’s the boss over them.
Him and the one with the round face squabble for a while, I just stand there, waiting for a verdict while watching the lackeys hoping for some clues as to what’s happening.
Finally the black captain looks at me and shrugs “Kid go away.”
“We no place for you.”
The man with the beard looks satisfied with himself, I point a livid finger at him “Eat shit you filthy pirate.” I tell him before turning round and striding away.
That guy just ruined my chance at a better life!
‘Get a real job’ yeah right, like anyone would hire me.
“I didn’t expect you to disappear twice in a night.”
“Sod off Takeyo.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He puts a hand on my shoulder and gently pushes me in the back.
We walk in silence for a while as he ‘escorts’ me home.
Then Takeyo speaks up “So what are they like?”
“They’re bastards, all of them.”
“Really? Well I wasn’t sure what else I was expecting. But what about-”
“Can you shut up now? I’m in a bad mood.” I pull myself away from grip and stuff my hands in my pocket.
He rolls his eyes “You’re always in a bad mood.”
“Fine, but know I went to look for you without telling the others. Hashiro would have had your hide otherwise.”
I keep walking.
The party is still in full swing when we head back.
Takeyo signals me to be silent, a useless gesture since I wasn’t talking anyway.
We sneak in with minimal effort. No one pays us any mind and we spent so much time blending into shadows not even our family should be able to pick us out of the darkness.
I take one final look at the crowd, Migako decided she can sing, I disagree and apparently so does Hashiro since his big chair is empty.
I sneak back into my room, ready to call it a night when I’m stood face to face with the missing brother, sitting in the middle of my room, waiting.
“Oh fuck-” I hear Takeyo gasp behind me as he jumps out of dodge.
“I’ll come talk to you next Takeyo.” Hashiro says calmly as he takes another drag from his pipe. He doesn’t need to shout, we both know Takeyo heard. He directs his attention back to me “But first I’d like a word with you Hui.”
I grunt, drop my bag on the floor and sit down across from him, arms crossed.
“Sit up straight and stop scowling.” He demands, I comply with little enthusiasm.
“Where did you go?”
“Answer me Hui and be truthful.”
I shrug again.
He douses his pipe and then smacks me on the head with it “My patience is thin tonight, I suggest you start talking.”
I hiss at the throbbing pain “Laokaicho” I whimper.
“What do you think?-Ow!”
“I’m sick of your rebellious phase Hui, it was cute when you were eight but you’re not eight anymore. You’re thirteen for crying out loud and it’s about time you start acting like it.”
I huff, Hashiro sighs impatiently. “I made a decision Hui.” He leaves a silence for me to fill but I have nothing to say to him. “Up until now you’ve been granted an allowance of 20 chui each month for things like clothes and entertainment. A pretty royal sum considering you don’t have to work for it.”
“I never asked for your money.”
“Good, because you’ll not receive any more of it. If you want money from now on you’ll have to earn it just like everybody else.”
“Great! I don’t want your shitty allowance anyway!” I jump up from the floor and stride to my clothes chest, pulling the bag of chui from it and flinging it at his head.
He catches the bag without flinching. “Your cockiness with be your death one day. You’re better off without it.” He says as he gets up, wipes the dust from his robes and steps towards me. He swings the bag around and with a sickening feeling I realize I’ve just handed him a weapon.
I want to run, but I know it’s over quicker if I stay put.
I grit my teeth and close my eyes.
The pain is temporary but the grudge will last forever.
One day he will pay.
After he’s done he drops the bag on my lap and walks out the door without a further word.
Disgusted I slap the bag away, silver sticks spilling onto the floor, and push myself into a half crouch. My knees are trembling, my head is pounding.
I drag myself towards my mat and crash upon it.
The air is sweet with opium smoke and Hashiro’s words mingle seamlessly with that of the stupid pirate bastard into a hazy mess that keeps me up at night.
‘Get a real job kid, or work for the Kashuya.’
Hashiro rules the family now.
My eldest brother, who was sixteen years old at the time, barely an adult.
He filled the hole my father left and learned the ropes at record speed.
Twice a week he comes home to rinse his blood-stained clothes and see if we are still in line.
Then leaves us to our own devices.
Whenever one of my siblings turns eighteen they get taken in by the Kashuya. Brothers or sisters they all fulfil a niche in the sprawling network of crime that riddles the Choumurian underground.
Our father promised our allegiance long before he died, before we were even born in fact.
But I, Hui Go, want exactly none of it.
You know how in fairy tales the youngest kid is somehow always the wise one in the bunch?
I won’t say I’m wise but apparently in this tale I’m the only one born with a moral compass.
And it points far away from the Kashuya.
I’m twelve years old and dumb as a clam.
The cave is damp and cold, I really should have worn a thicker coat.
But it’s too late for that now.
I just gotta stay until nightfall, after that I can use the dark to my advantage and make it to Xjawa. It’ll be a long walk, but once there, surely they won’t be able to find me then.
The cold is seeping into my bones, surrounded by cold dead rock and no heat source.
Maybe I can make a fire?
Using what? I haven’t brought anything beyond food and a coat that’s in hindsight way too thin.
I wonder what time it is but I have no way to tell.
Migako is the one with the golden watch. A gift from a suitor she strings along for fun.
Well, whatever the time, it’s gonna take a while until I can move so I might as well use the time to rest, make sure I’m ready for the trek up north.
I lie down, the rock is hard as…well a rock and it makes me even colder than before.
I sit up.
Blanket…I should have brought a blanket.
And stuff to make fire.
I sigh, wishing I had some tea right now.
But I will have tea in Xjawa, and a whole new life with it!
I’ll have my own home, my own job. An honest job, like a toymaker or calligraphist.
Mom used to tell me my writing was very neat.
And I’ll be far away from the Kashuya.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
Just wait, it’s gonna be okay.
Then my heart skips a beat as a light flashes red past my closed eyelids.
“Hui!? Are you in here little brother?”
I tear my eyes open and squeeze myself against the rock, cold sweat streaming down my back. My heart pounds in my throat as I recognize Migako’s voice.
How the hell did she find me here!?
“Hui? Look it’s not funny okay?”
My mind races with a single phrase.
Please don’t find me! PLEASE DON’T FIND ME!
But the light is blinding as the beam of the flash lamp points straight at me.
“There you are little brother, come on. It’s time to go home.” She stoops down to my level and grabs my arm. “You’re freezing, you should have brought a thicker coat.”
“I know!” The shout reverberates throughout the cave filling the space with sound as I pull away my arm.
Migako looks surprised at me, then her eyes eyebrows crumple in annoyance and she sighs. The watch glints in the light of the lantern as she flicks it open “Half-past ten, look, Hui, we’ve been trying to be mindful of your rebellious phase believing that locking you up in the house would only make things worse. But they’re running out of patience up top and Hashiro’s getting sick and tired of covering for you. You have to realize we all have a destiny and running away not only tires yourself out, but all of us as well.”
“Good!” My childish blood is boiling. How dare she call this a phase, how dare she take this lightly. “You can run yourselves to death for all I care I’ll never sto-” the sentence slams dead in my throat as her hand makes contact with my cheek. The shock comes first, then the stinging pain intensified on my freezing skin.
I squeeze my eyes to force away the tears that reflexively spring into my eyes.
“You little ingrate snake, why can’t you just be like the others?” She doesn’t even shout, she just looks disappointed. Then sighs upon my silence, grabs my arms again while I’m focused on my face, and twists them behind my back.
“Let go of-”
“Walk!” her voice demands, a chill runs down my spine.
I walk, pretending not to cry.
Back home I run into my room, slam the door and with tears still streaming down my face, start planning the next scheme.
Not much later there’s a knock at the door.
“Hui?” It’s Takeyo, fourteen years old and the only sibling I have left who hasn’t signed allegiance yet.
“Go away.” My voice is hoarse from the cold and the tears.
He opens the door and looks at me with pity.
I scowl.“I said go away!
He walks up to me and wraps his arms around me, squeezing tight “When they said you were spotted heading towards the mountains I was afraid you’d not come back again.”
I struggle at his grip, trying to push him off “This has nothing to do with you.”
He lets go of me, head cocked in confusion “Am I supposed to just not care then? You could have frozen to death inside that cave. The mountain lions could have torn you up to shreds.”
“How can I be afraid of mountain lions when my own family kills for cash.” I sneer, flopping back down onto my mat.
“You know that’s an exaggeration, they just do grunt work, smuggling drugs, keeping the gambling dens alive and well.”
I cross my arms “Hashiro killed.”
“Only in self-defence.”
“And I believe him on that.” He sighs and sits down next to me on the mat. “You act as if they’re the worst that could happen to you but they do good things as well! Remember when the Cygne bastards lowered funding of the day schools forcing some of them near closing? The Kashuya didn’t just meet the original funding standards, they gave even more money and now kids get better lessons than ever before.”
“While the teachers tell them to be grateful to the Kashuya.”
“Well, shouldn’t they? They’re not the bad guys Hui. The Cygne bastards are the bay guys. They’re the ones that took our country and called it their own, they’re oppressing us. How can you be so fixated on petty crime when we’re literally occupied by a foreign nation!?”
“Because they never killed my father and turned my mom into an alcoholic mess!”
There’s annoyance in his voice as he gets up again. “There’s just no reasoning with you.” He bites the words as they come out of his mouth. His eyes downcast and hurt.
“I know that’s what happened, I know you do too.”
He opens his mouth to retort, closes it, then shakes his head and walks to the door “You know you gotta stop running one day. If you give it up now it’s gonna save a lot of pain down the line.”
“I’ll never stop running. And neither should you.”
Takeyo huffs “I’ll be grateful to join the ranks. It’s a shame you can’t feel the same way.”
“I’d sooner die.”
“You probably will if you keep acting like a child.”
He sighs, pushes the door closed behind him as he leaves.
Leaving me to my plans of escape.