Book: Messiah Clears the Disc
Messiah Clears the Disc
Don't wake up the sleeping dragons
A tiger does not think when to draw its claws
But its victim cannot escape them;
A dragon does not think how to apply its force
But the mountain cannot but be broken
There was not less than a hundred of palace guards in the procession, all of them wearing silk festive hats with wing-like flaps and purple robes and girdles with carven horn plates, all of them bearing gongs and drums. Isn't it true that one can see the real grandeur from afar? It is especially so this time: for the brilliant wang Zhou, brother of the ruling Emperor, Son of Heaven Yong Le, returns once more to the apanage granted to him!
Nevertheless, the crowded gapers were murmuring between themselves that the prince is a bit light-fingered and had been discharged of this very apanage for three times already because he used to commit "abuses" and to break openly the canons established by the Department of Works although they were adopted specially for the usage of the wangs, i.e. the closest relatives of the Emperor: he neglected insolently the fixed height of walls in his palace, he made twice more gates there than prescribed, he tolerated his western chambers to be painted with indecent colors, an so on, and so on. But all this was nothing compared with the fact that the people of Ningo could celebrate his arrival and have a bit of entertainment; holidays were not so much abundant in their monotonous everyday life!
The guards were followed by twenty courtiers transporting with utmost care a tortoise-shell casket adorned with jasper and emeralds. The casket contained precious relics of the Department of Rituals: a certificate confirming the title of wang, named "tzeh" and engraved on a finest sheet of pure gold as well as the personal stamp of prince Zhou (a square base and a figure of a jumping tiger at the top). There was also a scroll in the casket: a copy of nephrite tablets stored in the Temple of Emperor's Ancestors and bearing twenty hieroglyphs dedicated to become the first part of names of Zhou's progeny for the next twenty generations.
The order of names was to be strictly observed; watchful clerks of the Emperor's Kin Department won't forgive any discrepancies.
The next object of general interest in the procession was the carriage carrying the up-to-date favorite of prince Zhou, his beloved concubine, the pretty Xuan. It rolled slowly surrounded by eunuchs with small and large fans. Xuan (sometimes called jokingly, in her absence, of course, Xuannu the Faultless)  sat behind a window blind; as to Zhou-wang himself, he did not lead the procession as he should to but rode at the side of Xuannu's carriage, deliberately demonstrating not for the first time his disdain for the etiquette. Bent at the small window, he was whispering something in quite a musical manner; may be he was reciting poetry for his beloved girl, some verses of the Tang period, his favorite ones.
So everything had been going on as it should go, to the minute details of the ritual, until an elderly corpulent woman jostled her way forward from the back rows of the crowd and waddled on towards prince Zhou and the carriage of the pretty Xuan.
This woman was well known to everybody in the Pin-Erh quarter. Yes, there could be no mistake: she was Eighth Aunty, the wife of a feeble dyer Mao who had provided her dear husband with a full dozen of children, a quiet complacent simpleton with hands always wet and red because of ceaseless washing. She was the least expected person to shake the foundations of the Yellow Dust Worlds by going in such a way to meet the noble wang, the Emperor's kinsman...
– Go away, you filthy villain! – shrieked a fatty eunuch in a shrill voice and lashed the disturber with his large fan.
Eighth Aunty lifted her forearm to meet the stroke. The bamboo plates of the fan broke with a loud crack loosing the small glass beads attached to them.
At the same moment the palms of the dyer Mao's wife, put together like "a monkey handful", slapped the protruding ears of the eunuch. The unhappy one fell to the pavement swallowing his cry and opening silently his mouth like a fish put out of water.
Eighth Aunty continued her way towards the carriage.
The first who came to his senses was a long-moustached courtier clad in a black robe embroidered with curving dragons; according to his girdle he was taiwey, the chief of the bodyguards.
At his abrupt commands the riders broke the order of the procession in no time, passed by the courtiers carrying the relics and symbols of the wang's dignity and surrounded the Eighth Aunty; in the next moment the guards who occurred to be the closest to her fell down off their saddles as if casually and their steel blades shone in the sun.
The festivity was swiftly turning to a senseless slaughter: the wife of the dyer Mao was wielding diligently a small two-sided axe drawn off somebody's hands and the skilled soldiers seemed to become pugnacious kids trying in vain to reach the crazy woman with their weapons: she was turning around like a whirlwind. The taiwey's head, hewn off in a swoop, rolled right under the hooves of the wang's stallion, the beast reared to flee away from the smiling dead and pranced until his rider's mighty hand managed to restrain him.
For isn't it indeed true to say:
Swords are flashing from both sides,
The blood of foes is mixed in flows,
When death is near, it's no time
For seeking honor and rewards!
The two bodyguards of the royal person had not yet fallen down to the pavement covered with blood (the first had his scull split, the other had hardly began to wield his big axe before the small one crushed his backbone) when Eighth Aunty stopped near the carriage and looked upwards at the prince Zhou.
Her glance did not promise anything good.
Even the deceased Hong Wu, father of the many-times disgraced wang, had never looked at him so; although in his youth he had been a great master of dadaoshu  and the leader of the "red kerchiefs”  before becoming the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty and driving the Mongolian invaders off to the northern steppes.
But as light-fingered as Zhou-wang was, he had never been weak-handed. The blade of his light jian sword whistled joyfully leaving the richly decorated scabbard. The silly eunuchs tired awkwardly to protect their lord hindering him in fact to wield skillfully his steel lightning; but just in the moment when the sword at last fell down cutting the air in a sophisticated curved line, Eighth Aunty sagged back and stroke the blade from both sides with her hands as swift as if she were a cat.
Clang, crash – the disarmed Zhou-wang makes his horse to rear, and the wife of the dyer Mao creeps just under its hooves and breaks with her fist the brittle lock of the carriage door that Xuannu the Faultless fastened but a minute earlier.
Many people have seen it: the woman kicked the door open, seized the concubine by her hair and pulled her out. Taking no heed of the piercing cries of the frightened girl and of somebody's battle ring aiming at her head the old woman snatches a tiny Hanchou dog, desperately barking, away from Xuannu's hands and kills it breaking its spine over her knee.
After that the woman threw the dead dog down on the body of the wang's concubine who lay in a swoon on the ground.
There was silence and confusion for a second. Everybody stood still: soldiers, eunuchs, gapers, prince Zhou demanding to give him any weapon... Only Eighth Aunty was shaking her head and looking at her hands as if she hadn't ever seen them before; and a shaven-headed monk clad in an orange cassock was sliding noiselessly towards the murderous woman. Keeping his place at the very end of the procession he he did not have an opportunity to take any part in the battle.
The wooden sandals of the monk touched the ground as lightly as leaves; the heaven-folk of the White Clouds may walk in such a way, for they are able to stand safely on a thin sheet of rice paper.
But even this monk didn't manage to come in time.
Eighth Aunty became suddenly as weighty and awkward as she had always been, but her hands stretched as if by themselves forward and down forcing her to sit down, and then the fingers of her right hand, like a spider hunting for the paralyzed prey seized the handle of the broken jian sword dropped by prince Zhou.
The orange cassock began to move two times faster like a cloud driven by a sunset wind; when the monk had to make but five steps to reach the wife of the dyer Mao she made a smooth, almost imperceptible movement and cut her throat with a fragment of the wang's sword just under her second flabby chin. The length of the broken sword was just sufficient to do this.
Thick blood gushed at the pretty Xuan who had hardly regained consciousness and fell aswoon again. Blood covered the face of the living wang's concubine and the corpse of her dead little dog.
It was to the Zhou-wang’s credit that he managed to collect himself the first. He dismounted, ran to the monk and grasped his bony shoulder.
– How can you explain this, venerable Banh?! – roared the prince and pressed the shoulder still stronger. – Is it not your duty to see to it that the plotters should be imprisoned and wait for the sentence in stocks, and not walk in the streets when the Emperor's brother is coming?! Or are you going to say once more that all things are vanity in this world and the Yellow Powder covers the eyes of the living?!
The monk didn't even wince, as if the wrathful Zhou were not clenching his shoulder like tongs or might have forgotten that this man spitting his saliva is a mighty ruler having enough power to decide whom to live and whom to die.
– All things are indeed vanity in this world, – answered the venerable Banh in an undertone, and doleful wrinkles deepened on his impassive, as if lacquered face. – I'm but an insignificant monk, how can I guess the will of the Nine Heavens, if the Lord of the Underworld, Prince Yanlo, would decide to prolong or to shorten one's existence? But I'll do all that is possible, all that a silly monk is able to do with his miserable force...
The grasp on his shoulder loosened. Zhou-wang knew perfectly well who stands behind the “insignificant” monk. Such gentle monks were supervising each of the Qin-wangs, or close relatives, and each of the Jun-wangs, or regional governors. And all these monks got a full-scale training in a famous monastery near the Songshan mountain. This was explained by some high policy requirements. But prince Zhou needed no explanations to understand who was dictating these requirements to the Emperor Yong Le: oh, anybody knows that the venerable Zhang Wo has other duties besides his formal ones, consisting in the relations with remote provinces and neighboring countries...
The venerable Zhang was one of the supreme leaders of the Shaolin cloister and for many years already he has been standing like a grey shadow at the back of the Son of Heaven.
The circle of the trusted persons of this humblest servant of Buddha was so wide that its outlines were fuzzy as if covered with a veil of mist; it was also so secret that the same veil hid it securely from all curious eyes. Only one thing was certain: the warrior monks, obedient to the orders of the head of the secret service were present throughout the country, from Henan to Fuzhou, and even from the Land of Morning Freshness to the Viet territories and the most distant Ruku Island. For it was just following the advice of the venerable Zhang Wo that the Emperor carried out an unprecedented purge of bureaucrats, signed the decree "On the Great Sea Travels" and granted the Shaolin monastery vast arable lands. Be you even thrice a wang, you should think thrice before grasping the shoulders of one of these damned spying monks! And the more so because each of the shaven-headed members of the monastery at Songshan mountain is worth a detachment of bodyguards. Or a detachment of assassins.
...Prince Zhou spat and went away. He knew for sure that he wouldn't entrust the investigation of this strange attempt to the venerable Banh even if the monk would insist on it. Let him do it, if such is his wish, secretly, without official orders. But it is necessary to decide who of the Ningo judges is worthy enough to solve this problem... oh, no, not today.
This day is already spoiled completely.
And the concubine Xuannu is to be sent away to her parents this week.
After seeing Xuannu the Faultless in a swoon, covered with blood, the dead dog lying on her bosom the prince could not feel anything but aversion to his ex-beloved girl.
And the body of Eighth Aunty was already being brought to the yard of the local guard office...
...The functionary was making a polite speech, long and flowery. He did his best to praise the honesty and incorruptibility of the highly respected xiangyigong  , remembered all his numerous merits one after another but still did not come to the point: why did he, the court official of the illustrious Zhou-wang, came so early in the morning to visit Bao the judge?
However, the judge Bao guessed the reason of this strange visit without explanation; more than that: he knew it for sure. Of course, the master of ceremonies was inclined to pretentious, highflown discourse and accustomed to flattery, but this time he did not overstate the merits of the highly respected xiangyigong in the field of solving many complicated cases. So it was not difficult at all for the visiting examiner  Bao to correlate the quite strange happening at the central street of Ningo the day before with the visit of the prince's Zhou court master of ceremonies.
As to honesty, the worthy master of ceremonies hasn't sinned against the truth too. For the Ningo people have long ago given to the worthy judge Bao the name of Bao the Dragons' Seal, hinting at his legendary predecessor and namesake who had become famous for his incorruptibility about three hundred years ago. All was true and clear from the very beginning and therefore unbearably boring. The judge was nodding his head politely listening to the courtier who had evidently read too much Kongzi, and rather not the books by Kongzi himself but his modern interpreters; but the thoughts of the judge Bao were turned to quite other subjects.
A new disease has appeared some time ago in the lands of the Heavenly Empire, Tianxia, and the common people soon began to call it "Buddha's Madness" because it distorted human conscience by an unexpected and inevitable feeling of an endless chain of reincarnations. The disease was constantly expanding and turning to real epidemic. Bao the judge has already heard about it many times and seen with his own eyes people who would go out of their mind as if thunder-striken: they forgot their PRESENT personality and were torn and tormented by conflicting memories of many previous lives. These awakened memories allowed them to tell in details the story of An Lushan  uprising or to remind the battles and marches of Zhuge Lian  or Sun Wu  , to speak some incomprehensive languages and to predict future events, but they were unable to recall their present name, to recognize their native home and their relatives.
The shaven-headed clever-faced monks explained that such people aroused the wrath of Buddha by their importunate prayers, and he gave to them the insight they asked for, but the awakening of their true essence appeared to be beyond the strength of their weak untrained wits, not prepared by way of righteous life and meditation...
The judge Bao did not doubt a moment that the too eloquent monks were as far both from insight and from Buddha: for even the most importunate human beings are not able in any way to disturb Buddha in his Nirvana...
And the Dao magicians were unanimously asserting that all these events were the pranks of some assistant demons of Yanlo, the lord of the Underworld...
The assistant demons interested the judge Bao the least of all. He had enough things to care of besides the Underworld. ("Won't anybody give me a pair of demons as assistants?" – thought the judge with melancholy pouring himself a cup of red tea from a small teapot that has already became cool.)
Some time ago Buddha's Madness touched the family of Bao himself. His young nephew Zhong became mad literally in a week, now he could not recognize his closest kin and strove to leave his house and to go away to Luoyang saying that his family was waiting for him; sometimes he was reciting verses for hours, and very bad verses they were, while formerly Zhong would have never allowed himself such bad taste; and other strange things he did... Several reincarnations conflicted inside the soul of the unhappy young man, burying his present personality as if under an avalanche of snow.
Bao did not know how to save his beloved nephew. The efforts of the town physician seemed to be useless, but a wandering monk with his rattles and gong who chanced to visit the judge's house failed to help the diseased too.
Only the Dao wizard Lan Daoxing, called also "Iron Hat", a very gloomy and taciturn person, managed to return the boy to his senses for a time. But the next evening Buddha's Madness took possession of Zhong again. So, even the Dao wizard was not capable to resist to the awful disease.
The judge knew that people afflicted by Buddha's Madness die usually in a month or less, that's why he was gloomy and upset; for the cruel fate continued to persecute his family.
Just the day before yesterday the judge found his firstling and heir Wen talking pleasantly in the western outhouse with a girl completely unknown to the judge. The girl lowered her eyes modestly, bowed politely to the head of the family. There was nothing indecent in her manners, she didn't seem to be one of the streetwalker singers. His son has already grown up, it was high time to find a wife for him, and the judge Bao was not one of those old-fashioned stubborn fathers who marry their children without giving the future spouses the possibility to see one another in advance... The judge cast one more glance at the guest: her dress was not rich but neat and decent, her face rather pretty, her eye-brows darkened and rouge applied to her cheeks quite to measure and the only thing that the experienced Bao disliked a bit was the red kerchief tied around the girl's neck.
The judge was not superstitious. But he could not neglect the things that were going on in Tianxia: the epidemic of Buddha's Madness that has affected his family too, dead men coming out of their graves (he didn't believe at first, but happened to see one with his own eyes!), evil spirits roaming in broad daylight, animals acquiring intellect, and not the usual were-foxes but vulgar badgers... Even if two thirds of these cock-and-bull stories and gossip were fictitious the rest of the facts was quite enough to feel unquiet.
Thus the suspicion was to be verified immediately.
So Bao went at once to Lan Daoxing, an old acquaintance of his, who has helped the judge in many similar situations.
Fortunately, the Iron Hat has not yet left Ningo for the mountains where he used to prepare his pills of immortality.
The judge had hardly entered the wizard's temporary abode and opened his mouth in order to tell the reason of his coming when the old man said turning to him and nodding in affirmation:
– She's a demon. A spirit of some woman who had hanged herself. She's looking for a new body to enter into it and be born anew. Take this gourd and sprinkle the evil spirit with its contents; all spells would dissipate at once and you'll see her true image. Then take the broom made of peach twigs that stands in a corridor corner of your house and drive her away. The spirit won't ever try to come back.
With these words the magician handed the judge a small vessel. The judge swallowed some air, unable to find necessary words; it was difficult to get accustomed to the surprises of the wizard and to call him openly a friend.
– Thank you, saint Lan, – was all he dared to say. – If ever you'll need something...
– I know, – Lan Daoxing smiled a little, hiding his cunning small eyes under the shaggy brows. – And now don’t tarry. The demon has already almost charmed your son.
The reverend Bao hasn't ran so swiftly since his youth! But now he didn't care whether it was decent for his social position and post that did not imply such sports at all: his son was in danger, and he had to come in time!
And he did it.
The girl, smiling guiltily, was already fastening a fashionable girdle under the lintel, and his dear boy, his Wen stood on a stool trying unconsciously to reach the beams. Just at this moment Bao the Dragon's Seal, out of his breath, broke into the western outhouse uncorking in haste the gourd given to him. The girl recoiled, frightened.
And when the mixture of unparalleled stench (there were rancid oxen, swine and ram blood, human urine and various other components, unknown to the judge but none the less aromatic) sprinkled her, the veil of the devilish delusion fell off the eyes of all who were present.
The First Son Wen stood at the stool as an utter fool and was ready to put with his own hands a noose made of a tattered rope on his neck, and a half-rotten corpse with a deep mark of a rope on its neck was wriggling and coiling convulsively at Wen's side. The sharp-clawed fingers have already torn off the elegant red kerchief. It might have been quite a charming girl when alive, just such as the judge and his son have seen a few minutes earlier. But now, with her hair disheveled and her tongue hanging out of the mouth, about a foot long, she was horrid...
The moaning dead was expulsed out of the house with the help of the peach broom to seek a body for her next regeneration somewhere in other places. The judge had a talk with his son and explained him how the decent young men should behave. Everything was all right again, the demon didn't come any more, but the judge remained unquiet. Something went wrong in the Tianxia...
For, isn't it indeed true to say:
All decent men
remained in the past;
None in the future
would equal them;
I feel the boundless
Earth and heavens,
I mourn in solitude
And shed my tears.
– ...so the illustrious Zhou-wang expects you, the highly respected xiangyigong, to unravel this mysterious case. Let me humbly transfer to you the written order of the illustrious Zhou-wang giving you corresponding powers, – the official bowed and handed the judge a scroll written in formal kaishu letters with the seal of the prince stamped on red wax.
The judge was obliged to stand up, to bow and take the scroll expressing aloud the doubt that the contemptible Bao would be capable enough to cope with such an important mission and then for some long minutes to listen to all kinds of assertions and expectations of the noble wang expressed by his master of ceremonies until the latter went away at last.
Hardly had the door closed indeed after the worthy follower of Kongzi and his later commentators, the judge Bao sighed heavily and unrolled the scroll.
He was given more emergency powers than he expected. Significantly more. Plus several blank tallies for the judge to fill in as he would think best. Plus the permission inserted inside the scroll... The judge Bao hoped very much that he wouldn't be obliged to use THIS permission. Yes, he was now allowed to do many things, too many even for "the lord who maintains undauntedness". But in case he failed the punishment would be especially severe; the judge understood this perfectly well. Well, it was necessary to pay to this case foisted to him as much attention as possible although in real earnest Bao preferred (Heavens knew it!) to investigate a recent case of murder: some rich merchant who came to Ningo on business was found just yesterday with his belly cut open in one of the town pools.
But, as a poet said, "the dreams of the spring are far in the heavens".
Judge Bao sighed heavily once more and went to make the examination of the corpses.
Everything was clear as to the corpses of the soldiers, the dog, the bodyguards and taiwey: broken necks and backbones, crushed sculls and other mortal injuries were simply the result of the battle. And each of them had but one wound; this fact made the judge to conclude that the killer was an experienced warrior who wasn't used to strike twice one and the same adversary, for is it reasonable to strike somebody who's already dead?
The body of Eighth Aunty, the culprit of the carnage, initially did not present any difficulties too: the cut-off throat was quite clear an evidence. And all witnesses were almost unanimous in their testimonies; the perspicacious Bao took care in advance to cross-examine them and to collect material evidence. At the same time he didn't forget to send one of his detectives to interrogate the dyer Mao and his numerous relatives as well as those of Eighth Aunty if any such (relatives, and not Aunty!) did exist. Even before the coming of the master of ceremonies the judge had felt that this case would be his, and such premonitions have seldom deceived him; that's why he decided to begin the investigation immediately. For it is well known that the success of investigation depends on the time of its beginning: when you go hot on the heels of a criminal the pieces of evidence have not yet disappeared, the witnesses are still at hand, and their memory is quite fresh.
Of course, it will be necessary to order the physicians of the town office to make the autopsy and other analyses to determine whether the respected married woman was acting under the influence of some venomous substance. But it was rather improbable; the judge doubted it while looking long at the calm and peaceful face of the dead Eighth Aunty and shook his head: she seemed to have died as one who had honestly fulfilled his duty. It was hard to imagine such a potion that could convert the humblest wife of the dyer Mao to a master of fighting arts capable to knock down a half of the prince Zhou’s guards!
Moreover, it would be easy to understand if the killer dashed at Zhou himself, but she preferred to break the back of the favorite dog of the favorite concubine and, satisfied with this heroic deed, cut her own throat eagerly!
Could she have hated that tiny dog to such extent as to send so much people over to join it?
Well, if you dislike the animal, throw a stone to hit it from afar...
The judge Bao disliked such cases. He solved them as well as all other ones but didn't like them. With usual murders, mugging and forgery it was clear from the very beginning whom to search for and where, while the cases of this kind never allowed to know in advance what facts would be disclosed this time, whose pet corn you'd tread on and who would feel worse in the end: the criminal or the excessively diligent investigator?
Naturally, the investigators of the Eighth Aunty's corpse have found out and recorded the fact that the criminal had died because of the cutting of her throat committed by the aforesaid criminal herself; further, that the wife of the dyer Mao had never been trained in any special warrior exercises besides washing and other homestead activities. It was confirmed by the evidence given by her relatives; being very afraid of tortures and thus very talkative all of them were repeating unanimously that Eighth Aunty had just vague notions of fighting without taking into consideration periodical beating of her drunken husband. And once again: forty or even more years of calm, inconspicuous life, no secrets: husband, children, home work, chatting with neighbors...
No, such woman could not kill about two dozens of the best guards of Zhou-wang including his personal bodyguards and taiwey in few minutes even for the sake of the most loathsome little dog in the world!
Nevertheless, the fact was quite evident.
The judge Bao stood for some more time near the dead body and was already going to leave when his glance fell by chance at the stretched arm of the woman. Bluish putrefaction spots began to show through at her forearm, and it was quite natural, but the form of these spots was strange, it reminded the judge of something very familiar...
Judge Bao bent down, gazing attentively and all of a sudden seized the other cold arm of the deceased and turned its palm up.
There it was, without any doubts!
At the forearms of the humblest Eighth Aunty there were dimly visible, as if tattooed by the death, the figures of tiger and dragon: distinguishing signs of warrior monks who passed through the Labyrinth of mannequins impassable for others in the Shaolin monastery in the land of Henan!
Just such tattooed figures, but branded with fire, were at the arms of the venerable Zhan Wo, the head of the Emperor's secret office, and the venerable Banh supervising Zhou-wang.
Judge Bao had awful headache. The drug prescribed by his doctor, usually very helpful, did not give any relief this time. Dull, tiresome ache was pulsing in his temples, his thoughts were confused; the judge could do nothing besides looking automatically through the pile of applications and complaints and other papers on his table glancing distractedly at the accurate rows of hieroglyphs but not understanding the essence of the written texts.
Xiucai  Xingge the Third was droning on under his breath at another table in the far corner of the room. He was as dull and tiresome as the headache with his hair swarmed-down and all his efforts to look younger than his real age. He has been sitting at this place for about ten years being unable to pass the examinations necessary to obtain the grade of jüren  . The reason of this was the "narrow-mindedness irremediable by any diligence", according to the opinion of some of his examiners.
Xingge the Third reminded the judge a xiucai from an old story who had once stayed to rest in a local temple and lay there naked wanting to cool himself. But it was a bit too cool in the temple (dedicated to a deity of Soil) and the xiucai caught a cold. Having brought some sacrifices to the altar of this deity he recovered but considered the situation to be abusive. So the xiucai wrote a detailed report accusing the deity of Soil of having forced him to bring sacrifices by ruse; then he burned his report at the temple of the protecting spirit of that place. There was no answer. Xiucai waited for ten days and then wrote another report accusing the protecting spirit of neglecting his official duties and burned it at the temple of the Jade Lord. At night the xiucai had a dream: he saw a fiery inscription on the wall of his house made in ancient rounded letters. The inscription read:
"The deity of Soil who discredited his rank is to be dismissed from his post. The protecting spirit is to obtain a penalty written down in his dossier. Xiucai What's-his-Name will obtain thirty blows of canes in about a month for his disregard for the spirits and inclination to lawsuits."
And quite so the story ended very soon.
But now Judge Bao was not inclined to jokes: in his thoughts he was still looking at the two arms of the dead woman.
Of course, when alive, Eighth Aunty had not any dragons or tigers at her arms; this fact was confirmed both by her husband, the dyer Mao, and by the numerous relatives, as well as by the still more numerous neighbors. Any signs of some magic or medicinal potions were not found too. The judge had once more examined the corpse in the presence of the chief town physician, got sure that the strange putrefaction spots did not vanish, on the contrary, they became even more distinct, and ordered to write this fact down to the record of evidence. After that he went heavily to his office and was now sitting there in an awful mood and with his head unbearably sore.
– ...imagine, the highly respected xiangyigong, he didn't take anything in the house of jüren Tong but tore to pieces his favorite tiger-stripped orchid that the worthy jüren Tong had planted according the Bahua canon...
– Who was it? – asked the judge feeling no real interest, just for distraction. He has turned a deaf ear to all previous parts of the long and variegated story of the loquacious xiucai.
– Well, the burglar himself! – Xingge the Third exclaimed gladly, happy that his boss has at last heard his tale and even seemed to become interested in it. – He tore off the favorite tiger orchid of jüren Tong and then pierced his own breast with a gardener's knife, just into the heart! When jüren Tong had heard about all this, he almost got a stroke, – continued xiucai, very content, because he didn't like Tong who was luckier than he (and, to say sincerely, quite haughty). – He was so sorry because of the orchid... So now he won't go to the Capital; and your substitute, the worthy Fuh, ordered to cut off the arms of the crazy burglar who has committed suicide and to nail them to the pillory at the town square in order to teach the others not to do so again.
– Was the burglar identified? – asked the judge flaccidly; his headache became a bit lesser, may be due to the drug or just by itself.
– Yes, he was indeed! His name was Fang Yushi, a seller of sweets, everybody knows him, a most honest man, unlike other sellers! That's why I was saying: he must have gone crazy. I used to buy rice buns sprinkled with caraway seeds from him, and now I really don't know where to find them! You surely have already noticed, the highly respected xiangyigong, that things are going wrong in our vicinities, well, and people say that in the whole Tianxia...
The judge interrupted xiucai:
– Why didn't Fuh report all this to me?
– He didn't want to bother you, the highly respected xiangyigong! For the case is quite clear, the criminal is known and besides he's dead...
But Judge Bao has diverted again his attention from the chatter of Xingge the Third.
These two silly happenings had something in common, something that made them two adjoining links of a chain, and Judge Bao felt the familiar hunting fervor, the state of mind when you begin suddenly to discern some fragments of the puzzle in the senseless collection of facts, insignificant details, pieces of evidence and testimonies, matching with each other, coinciding at completely unexpected angles, and you understand the right thread is in your hand and now you need only to pull at it, to pull carefully lest you don't tear it...
The violent and seemingly senseless deed of Eighth Aunty crowned by her suicide; and the equally inadequate doings of the respectable merchant Fang Yushi resulted in his heart being pierced. That's the point: the both cases were seemingly senseless and ended with the initiator's suicide!
– I'd like to have a walk in the square, – the judge murmured rather to himself and went slowly out of his office.
– Are you the highly respected xiangyigong Bao?
The question was excessive: only a blind could take the judge Bao for somebody else in Ningo.
The judge turned around without haste. He recognized at once this elderly monk in an orange cassock too. Venerable Banh, a member of secret service, a bit of bodyguard and surely a spy watching the illustrious Zhou-wang. However, he didn't manage to do anything during the recent carnage.
– Yes, it's me, venerable father, – nodded the judge joining his palms respectfully under his breast. – It's just as the saying goes: you know all things, both explicit and secret ones! I just was going to meet you and talk a little. As far as I know, you had taken monastic vows and then were trained at the famous monastery under the Song mountain? Happy indeed is the cloister the patriarch of which was personally invited to the ceremony when our ruling Emperor Yong Le, the Son of Heavens, ascended his throne, be he alive forever! It seems to me that the Son of Heavens ordered to transfer the capital from Nangjing Beijing just following the advice of the Shaolin patriarch. Was it really so?
– The knowledge of "the lord who maintains undauntedness" is worth admiring, – the monk bowed his head modestly, but this modesty could not deceive the judge.
Venerable Banh couldn't have met him by chance!
– Then I'd like to ask you to show me, as unworthy as I am, the holy signs of tiger and dragon on your arms. I hope the monastery rules don't forbid this?
– Oh, no, the highly respected xiangyigong, just on the contrary! – the monk smiled, clearly flattered by this request of the judge Bao, for it was expressed in such a submissive tone. – Of course you can look at them! Here they are...
And he rolled his sleeves up to his elbows.
The highly respected xiangyigong examined for some time quite carefully the images shown to him (they were branded by fire on the forearms of the monk) and then asked innocently:
– Please tell me, the venerable Banh, can anybody have such signs besides the monks who had passed their tests in the Shaolin monastery?
– I haven't heard about anybody who'd dare to fake them, – the voice of the monk remained calm but his narrow eyes became still narrower.
– But can they be hidden in some way? – the judge went on. – If, for example, some warrior monk does not want to be recognized?
– It is possible, I think, – the monk shrugged his shoulders, – but what for? The scars would be left... Moreover, those who passed the Labyrinth of Mannequins are rather few and well known not only in the cloister. I suppose, you've heard that one who had become a Shaolin monk can get the right to leave the cloister freely only in three ways. The first is to pass the test; but it is not for everybody and requires at least fifteen years of daily exhaustive training; the second is to be sent to the external world on some errand but such occasions are rather rare...
– And what is the third?
The monk simply lifted his hands as if hinting that the third way out is opened for everybody and in any situation.
– I understand you, the highly respected xiangyigong, – continued the venerable Banh after a pause. – You were given a complicated and unpleasant case to investigate. Your duty is to solve this problem... but I think it would not be a great disaster if you'd soon give up your research. Naturally, it would be possible not before you'd have honestly found out all that is possible. And it somehow seems to me, as worthless as I am, that you've already done this. The disturber was acting alone, without any assistance, being surely mad. Besides, she's now dead, and who will be able to say in what state of mind the unlucky woman had been at that moment?
– Of course, you're right, the venerable father, – the judge bowed his head politely. – I've come to almost the same conclusions. I feel inexpressible joy in my soul hearing that my opinion, as ignorant as I am, coincides with the opinion of such a worthy servant of Buddha as you.
They talked a bit more about other things not concerning the case, although Judge Bao understood perfectly well: the monk has already said all he wanted to say allowing him to understand that the venerable Banh and those who stand behind him are not too interested in the detailed investigation of the case.
The judge guessed the reason.
The reason was that the judge has seen with his own eyes the signs of tiger and dragon branded at the arms of the monk. When the venerable Banh bowed and went away, he stood still for some time musing on the coincidence. The only difference was that the venerable Banh had them branded by fire and the other two had the form of the putrefaction spots. For just the same signs appeared after death at the forearms of Eighth Aunty, who had never entered the famous monastery under the Song mountain. And the same signs were now clearly visible at the two arms nailed to the pillory, the arms of a respectable merchant Fanh Yushi.
Who had also never been a monk.
Either at the Shaolin monastery or at any other.
So it was said by the wise men in old times:
Meeting a chan  master on your road
Don't you waste your words in vain,
Still don't give him pass you by:
Let your fist speak instead,
Strike his jaw well and good.
The clever will see,
And the fools? Let them be as they are.
– You, bastard! – roared Golden Eel trying frantically to whip stinking drops off his gown. – You, shaven-headed beast! Go down here, I'll tear your ugly head from your shoulders!
The monk standing at the wall top did not pay any attention to the shouting below. A minute earlier he had shamelessly pulled up his saffron cassock and pissed down aiming exactly at the Golden Eel's head who dared to come too near to the closed gates of the monastery at the Song mountain. Well informed people told that behind the gates there was a track piercing the rocks and leading from the foothills to the monastery situated much higher, almost at the top; but Golden Eel could not think now about any rocks or tracks. Not so long ago he was in quite another mood after having received an official note summoning him to arrive to the outer gates of Shaolin not later than the Cold Meal Holiday. Golden Eel had expected rather to get an invitation, but such formal note was also not so bad for him, a son of a village elder from Hebei province, a renowned master of quanfa  in his native country: he had made his best to obtain recommendations from three much esteemed local persons...
After all these efforts he came here obeying the orders.
And now he has spent almost a week sticking around in front of the locked gates in the company of seven other lads aspiring, like himself, to the right to enter the most famous monastery of the whole Empire and to become monks there. The ninth to sit at the gates was an aged heshan  from the mountain temple in Ande district, but he was allowed to enter almost at once. After having waited only about three hours he handed the guards a written permission of his patriarch; the gatekeepers examined the letter reading it several times, exchanged glances between themselves and then waved hands inviting the visitor to follow them.
– So it goes in the world! – a youngling who bore still his childish name Baby Snake Cai sighed enviously. – We, the laymen, must get heaps of recommendations, wait here gods know how long, and the reverend monks go to and fro, as they like: take a patriarch's permission and walk everywhere! It is just the same as in our governor's office: one must enter bowing humbly while the others march in on horse and with banners flying!
If it were earlier, Golden Eel would not have answered anything considering Baby Snake to be a greenhorn. But after the first day of waiting he began to lose his calm mood; after three days his self-possession has been almost ruined, and now his patience was coming to an end, as well as the week that seemed endless to him. Golden Eel was ready to tear to pieces anybody who'd have bad luck to approach him...
The monk who dared to piss at his head finally made him mad of rage.
– Well, where are you?! A bit afraid, eh?
The gates opened slowly, with a squeak. Two gatekeepers appeared in the clearance: two monks, alike as twins, both strapping, broad-shouldered, with their heads bluish because of daily shaving.
– Ha! – Golden Eel shouted with as much disdain as he could. – The sanctimonious swine is hiding behind the others' back! Oh indeed, these are the heroic monks! Well, come to me, I'll show you a pair of good tricks!
At that moment he has completely forgotten that he himself arrived here not at all for piety or for leaving the sorrowful world of vanity and mundane illusions; he was attracted merely by the glory of Shaolin as the birthplace of warrior arts, the pupils of which were famous throughout the world, from the Boshan peak in the East to the Western paradise of the lady Xiwangmu!
Cai the Baby Snake, evidently frightened, pulled at the Golden Eel's tunic sleeve for him to notice that the gatekeepers are approaching but the furious candidate was not scared by the fact at all.
As soon as the slow-walking guards went near to him Golden Eel took up demonstratively the position of "Little Black tiger", little known in the South provinces, and with an abrupt exhalation of air struck fiercely the nearest guard's belly.
– What's up with you? – asked the monk, quite surprised, looking at Golden Eel who was now jumping around, wailing and nursing his wrist, badly hurt. – Are you out of your wits?
– Oh, I know! – the second guard slapped himself on his shaven crown. – He's just showing you, reverend Jiao, the northern skills! Well, but I do remember... Yes, it is the "Lean, mangy tiger"... no, not "lean", simply "little"! Little and black! Exactly so! Little black tiger!
– Tiger? – the first monk was surprised beyond measure. – Little and black?! But I haven't heard about such creatures!
– They have everything there in the North. They call it ferret. It is little, black and very fierce, no tiger would equal it!
The first monk shook his head doubtfully, grabbed Golden Eel's by the collar and dragged him to the stairs in about ten feet from the gate.
They were not too high, these stairs, not more than fifty steps.
Golden Eel knew their number for sure.
When you strike your head at each of the steps it's hard to be mistaken in counting them.
Other candidates watched the process in perfect silence, not considering the rumbling of seven stomachs: nobody has supplied the unhappy lads with food during the week of waiting, so they had to be content with what they had brought with them, and those who hadn't cared for provisions in advance could only sustain their existence by collecting berries and edible roots in the vicinities.
A whole week of half-starving is not an easy thing indeed...
Having fulfilled their task the monk guards disappeared behind the wall leaving the gate opened.
– What if I try to have a look? – said Baby Snake to himself but changed his mind at once: you peep in and those guards would throw you down the stairs topsy-turvy!
It was about noon when the glossy face of a guard appeared again in the clearance between the gate shutters.
– Hi, you, down there! Want to eat?
The seven nodded their assent eagerly, forgetting even to remind the guard that he should speak in a much more polite tone, being a monk, for Buddha did not recommend them to feel any confusion of senses, to say nothing about rage.
– Well and good then, come in all of you! – the guard invited them with a wave of his hand.
"Here we are at last," – thought Cai entering the gate and looking around.
In general, there was nothing to look at besides a track leading up to the hill crest through a bamboo grove and vanishing among the rocks.
But here, at hand...
The hot broth in the copper cauldron could have a better smell but it sufficed for the hungry candidates to feel the rumbling in their stomachs to grow like the rumble of a volcano ready to erupt.
The seven crowded immediately around an old bronze tripod with red-hot coals sparkling at its bottom and gazed as if charmed at the cauldron fastened at its top. Baby Snake was the only one not to hurry. May be he was less hungry than the others (his mother having provided him with rather a bulky bag full of tasty things for his travel) and besides he knew how to hunt for snakes and lizards from his childhood, or maybe, being too young, he felt too shy to reveal his hunger like a silly barbarian in the presence of the gatekeepers.
But those ones seemed really to be in a friendly mood. One of them brought a pile of chipped earthenware bowls from their lodge, the other rummaged in his bag and extracted a good dozen of barley flat cakes. Each candidate – Baby Snake Cai included – got a bowl and a cake; then the guard who had taught Golden Eel to count the steps took an enormous scoop in his hands and approached the cauldron.
– Well, my dear friends, who of you is the most hungry?! – laughed the monk drawing up his scoop full of broth.
"Bean soup, – Baby Snake determined judging from the smell and swallowing his saliva. – With meat. And plenty of meat, as it is..."
His belly being too talkative at the moment, his wits refused to work: he even did not remember that the Buddhist monks are not allowed to eat the flesh of any killed animals and consequently there should not be any meat in the soup.
Two of the most hungry – or the most impatient – put their bowls under the scoop in a jiffy, trying at the same time (in vain) to bite a bit of the incredibly stale cakes. The monk poured the broth to the dishes, and at once two howling voices roused the birds sitting at nearby trees: the bottom of the bowls was made of thin paper dyed with some dirty-brown paint in such a way that it was like the rugged clay surface even to the touch. This faked bottom broke and let the delicious and very hot bean soup with meat pour onto the bellies and knees of the too-hasty lads.
The louder they cried the more fun the gatekeepers were getting. They snorted and yelped, wiping tears with their sleeves, they fell exhausted and knocked a staccato at the ground with their heels. Their laughter literally "shook Heaven and Earth". The gate still stood open and Baby Snake Cai was already preparing to turn off and go away. At least, such was the expression written on his face with high cheek-bones for anybody who'd wish to read it. At last he bit his lower lip, tore off the false paper, put the flat cake under his bowl for a bottom and resolutely directed his steps towards the cauldron. Just to find that he was not the only clever man in the company: for he had to take the fifth place in the line, that is the last one.
While they were eating hastily, smacking their lips and scalding their fingers, and then chewing thoroughly the flat cakes that became soft, soaked with hot broth, the two victims of the paper bottoms sat not far from them whimpering under their breath.
At last one of them stood up and went stumbling to the gate.
– It is not just, – the other too-hasty candidate began whispering but gradually his voice grew louder, – it is unjust... unjust!..
He seemed to become obsessed by the idea of justice, repeating the words more and more times, unable to stop and go away.
One of the monks lifted him by his collar like a mischievous kitten and dragged him towards exit. After expelling the unhappy soup eater he shouted:
– Hi, you! Yes, I mean exactly you! Come back, my precious!
The first swift soup eater who decided to leave without calling for justice, stopped and turned round; then he hesitated a little, shrugged his shoulders and went back. He passed by the gatekeeper cautiously (still fearing some practical jokes of his), came to the cauldron and taking a half of a softened cake proposed to him by Cai the Baby Snake began to chew it automatically.
– It is not just! – cried the expelled candidate from behind the gate, doubling his vocal efforts. – It is unjust!
– It is, of course! – the guard agreed and closed the gate.
And the other guard began to bawl for everybody to hear that all these idlers and loafers who gathered here may go now wherever they like, but if even the entrance to the monastery is somewhere in one of these directions he doesn't know anything about it, but if indeed he knows something he wouldn't say anything, and if by chance he'll say something it would be better for those sons of wood-louse and grass-snake not to hear his words!
– They say that Buddha was very kind, – Baby Snake Cai sighed and started his way to the rocks towering above the gate. Behind his back he heard the answer:
– Buddha's not like others...
No one of the six competitors saw how the monk guards looked significantly at one another; then one of them ran in an unhurried trot along the wall and to the left, where water was rumbling softly falling on the stones.
It took Cai the Baby Snake more than twenty four hours to overcome those damned rocks. He even had to spend the night on a narrow ledge with nothing for supper besides eggs stolen from a wild dove nest, and his sleep was every now and then interrupted by a splash of instinctive dread: any unconscious movement could send him headlong to the abyss not less than twenty zhang  deep!
The candidates have parted with each other at the first gate because each was convinced: it's he who knows the way to the monastery entrance absolutely exactly, and all others are but a mob of dolts and ignoramuses. This opinion was probably not so far from truth, for Baby Snake twice heard desperate cries and the rumble of landslides rolling down.
He was lucky enough: only once he took a wrong direction and had to return almost to the gate. However, the return was much more difficult because it is always a more dangerous and tiresome task to descend than to ascend. Especially when you try at each step to drive off the evident thought that the following track you'd chose can lead you to an impasse as well as the previous one!
Nevertheless, the wise men have some reason saying that the efforts of the valiant are to be crowned by success, sooner or later. ("Oh, the sooner the better ", – Cai the Baby Snake was thinking wiping his brow wet with sweat.)
Next day, about noon, he discerned the white monastery wall through a tangle of stems of another bamboo grove in front of him. From his place he could already see old willows and thick-set ash-trees surrounding it, and even the pointed blue tops of the monastery conical roofs, and a tower adorned with golden hieroglyphs reflecting sunshine. It marked most probably the main gate.
With a sigh of relief Baby Snake continued his way straight through the thicket; but hardly had he made fifty steps when his attention was drawn by distant moaning.
The young man stopped and listened.
No, it was not a delusion – somebody moaned again although the sound was weak resembling rather the murmuring of a streamlet erring among the stones.
The young candidate turned to the east, dodged a bit between knotty stems and soon noticed a bright spot of a saffron cassock clearly contrasting with the surrounding green.
It appeared to be the same heshan who had been admitted the first to enter the gate showing to the guards the permission of his patriarch. Now he lay hunched on the ground, as a baby in his mother's womb, his left foot bandaged hastily with a bit of a blood-stained rag.
– Be careful! – croaked the wounded monk when Baby Snake rushed directly towards him. – Look where you go!
Fortunately, Baby Snake had enough common sense to follow his advice in time, otherwise he too would have stepped over a bamboo stump cut close to the ground and purposedly sharpened. As a result his foot would have been surely pierced like the unlucky heshan's one and there would be two men lying helplessly in the thicket and unable to reach the monastery entrance.
Still, in such a case they would have had the possibility to console themselves talking on such an actual topic as the true essence of the human soul enlightening.
Only now the dumbfounded Baby Snake felt that his own arms and legs are cut in many places by the sharp edges of bamboo leaves and bleeding, as if spears and knives were planted in this malicious thicket instead of usual peaceful trees!
– How can I help, reverend father? – murmured Baby Snake coming at last to the monk (it took him much more time than he had thought at first).
– Go up to the monastery, – heshan smiled with his parched lips. – And send some servants to me. Don't ask the monks – they won't do it. But walk carefully, my boy, for there are several pitfalls with pickets at the bottom around here. I have managed not to fall to one by mere chance, but then I stepped over that bamboo...
Cai the Baby Snake hesitated, not wishing to leave the wounded alone; then he glanced through the foliage to the gate tower of the most famous monastery of the Empire.
A motley hawk was hovering over his head hunting for prey.
– It is... it is mean, – the words rang almost inaudible in the bamboo thicket.
The monk smiled again, and this tormented smile showed how hard it was for him to pronounce any word:
– No... You simply don't understand, boy... If you want the patriarch of Shaolin to admit you as a novice, forget these words.
– Which ones?
– Justice and meanness. Human moral is not valid at the feet of Buddha, and don't try to decide whether it is good or bad. It's simply quite a different thing. Altogether different.
Cai the Baby Snake didn't answer. He was looking at the hieroglyphs adorning the tower, his face hardened, cheekbone line became distinct, thin wrinkles appeared in the corners of his eyes, and now he looked much older. So much older that the wounded heshan doubted whether he was right calling this man a boy.
And whether this man really needed any teaching?
A tiny snake, very like a grass-snake but for the small yellow spots on its neck, its scales glistening, crawled on its business near the bandaged heshan's foot and vanished in the grass.
It was very small; just a baby.
Heshan was fully aware what a bite of such baby snake would lead to.
The wounded heshan said the truth: calling the monks wouldn't do any good. For, on leaving the intricate grove, Cai the Baby Snake saw almost at once the three candidates who managed to survive running out of breath to the main entrance of Shaolin. (Baby Snake recognized even from afar the hasty lad whom the gatekeeper ordered to return and whom he had given a half of his flat cake).
This lad was the first to reach the entrance. He announced his achievement by pummeling with his fists on the gate.
– I've come! – he was crying in a shrill voice choking with joy. – I've come! Open me the gate!
The other candidates, Baby Snake included, got tired of his cries very soon and sat down to wait nearby. In about three hours a man dressed as a servant, a yoke on his shoulders, approached to the too-hasty lad. He put his burden to the earth and explained to the insistent competitor who had already become hoarse that the main entrance is usually being opened only for the highly important persons, while he, the noisy hurrying cub, is not important to the least measure; the said doors are also opened for the reverend fathers to come to and fro – namely, for those of them who had succeeded to pass final tests and the Labyrinth of Mannequins; so, if the loud-crying youth pretends to belong to the same rank then he, the servant, would immediately report this to someone of the reverend fathers for them in turn to report to the patriarch himself for him in his turn to...
Hearing about the patriarch and the Labyrinth the unhappy competitor shut up at last and waved his hands begging the servant to stop.
After that he dragged together with the other candidates along the monastery walls to look for some door more suitable for their circumstances.
Baby Snake lingered a little to explain to the servant (who forgot at once all his jokes) where to find the wounded heshan in the grove. He also wanted to ask why there are servants at all in the monastery: wasn’t it said by Baizhang the patriarch in ancient times: "A day without working should be a day without eating"? Some people were sure that the saying ran "Those who don't work shouldn't eat!" but this was less probable for Baizhang meant not the mankind in general but himself only; the old teacher of the Law could not allow himself not to work more than one day... Or hasn't he said anything indeed?
Baby Snake wanted to ask about all this, but he didn't. During the last few days he has learned to hold his tongue; at least this was what he said to his companions after catching them up: it would be wiser not to be curious.
Still Baby Snake managed to get some brief pieces of information from the servant: the latter lived with his family and other hired villagers in a settlement at the lower part of the monastery territory just behind the outer walls surrounding it. There he should come in order to visit the wounded monk.
Then the servant took up his yoke and ran to the grove swinging so deftly that no water was spilled from the two small tubs; and Cai the Baby Snake shuffled after his companions.
By that time those ones have realized to their general disappointment that they could not enter even through the side door they had found: it was intended for those monks who had not yet passed the tests but had to leave the cloister for some time on some mundane business according to the decision of the community and the permission of the patriarch.
Somebody from behind the door asked the candidates in a sarcastic tone whether they had left the monastery in their former lives fulfilling some tasks of the community. If such is the reason of their trying to enter where they were not asked then they are really foolish. So they had to continue their rueful travel around the longed-for monastery.
At last they found the back gate, but nobody paid any attention to them there too. The door did not open (the candidates have already accustomed to the rite). So they had to sit down again and wait till the night came. Nothing happened not counting a pot full of slops splashed out over the wall. This action could not be considered a sign of hospitality, of course. Fortunately, it missed the goal.
When the night came accompanied by a chill wind and all other candidates lay down wrapped in their cloaks and began to snore unanimously, Cai the Baby Snake sat for a while alone near the dying camp fire he had made; then he stood up and trudged down the path shown to him by the yoke-servant. It seemed the lad better to spend the night in the settlement: if even nobody would let him into some house, there certainly were cosy places like barns or haylofts just fit for a lad who hadn't got a cloak to wrap in...
Everybody were sleeping in the settlement: servants and their families. Only a few dogs barked lazily at Baby Snake from behind low fence – there could be no thieves here, consequently, no need in high fences and furious hounds. Although the Shaolin monks treated the hired workers with contempt and forced the servants to demonstrate their deepest respect to the venerable shaven-headed fathers, still the service was too profitable and nobody wanted to loose it because of such silly things as pride. An extra bow wouldn't break your spinal column, would it? On the other hand, the position of a man working for the famous monks promised much benefits: the population of the province eagerly supplied the inhabitants of the settlement with food, fabrics and bundles of copper coins in exchange for the promise to put in a word for them in front of the merciful Buddha, that is in front of the reverend monks clad in yellow cassocks.
Moreover, servants and members of their families were given full right to leave the monastery according their own wish or need and to return, unlike those monks who had not passed their final tests or had not obtained a special permission of the patriarch.
Baby Snake Cai crossed the quiet settlement from one end to another but didn't risk to knock at any of the doors and was already thinking to go away, but at this moment he noticed a candle-lit window in a low lopsided house at the southern end of the settlement. Looking around him and seeing nobody Baby Snake flung himself over the fence and in no time reached the interesting window. Leaning at the wall still warm from the day sun he peeped into the half-opened shutters: he heard long drawn-out moans inside as if a diseased or wounded person was trying in vain to get asleep. But it sufficed the curious Cai to cast a single glance at the scene to understand everything. He hemmed noiselessly, his lips curved into a wide smile. An extraneous spectator could have thought that such a sly and meaningful smile was more becoming for a grown-up man than for an inexperienced youth; but there were no other spectators nearby besides the Baby Snake himself.
So the first glance was immediately followed by the second one.
Inside the room a naked woman sat on a carpeted stove-bench to the left of the window; Cai the Baby Snake, being invisible, could see her half-turned. She was in her thirties, plump and heavy-breasted, broad-thighed – in other words, just a person to make love with and to give birth to many children. But it seemed to Baby Snake at first that the woman was going to break all natural laws being in the process of laying an egg which would be quite normal for a duck or a hen but not for a human female. The egg was visible between the woman's hips, smooth, bluish and glossy; it was moving a little up and down, and each movement caused the tormented fatty to groan again and to stroke convulsively the shining surface of the egg. In some minutes the egg produced a long smacking sound and rose above her haunch stretched apart, making the woman to bend like a lashed cat. And it appeared that the egg had a face.
Just a usual face, nose, mouth, eyes... it was simply a face, may be somewhat excessively wet with perspiration, belonging to quite a usual monk whom Baby Snake could not have seen before because the woman's thighs and the stove-bench edge hid him.
The man rose to his feet and went wearily to a small table in the far corner of the room. There he took a towel, wiped himself dry and threw the crumpled towel through the window, barely missing Baby Snake who managed to jump aside. Then the reverend libertine touched with his finger a small kettle standing on a portable brazier, found it warm enough and began to pour wine or tea (depending on what the kettle had been initially filled with) to a pair of earthenware cups. The monk was evidently not young but sinewy and skinny; at each movement muscles were finely playing in his lean but not at all emaciated body. The fatty stretched her arms and legs on the stove-bench, completely exhausted. The monk looked at her askance and seemed not to enjoy the view. Chewing his thin lips he took a canvas bag from under the table, put his hand in it and soon took out a small paper packet. Aromatic vapour rose over the cups (so it was exactly tea in them); the monk dropped a small pill out of the packet to his palm, thought a little and dropped another one. A cup in one hand and pills in the other the monk approached his partner.
– Drink it, darling, – sang the monk in a sweet voice giving the pills to the woman. – Do drink it and let us play "cloud and rain" once more! Why are you in so dark a mood?!
– Give me peace, you indefatigable! – the woman tried to wave her hand negatively at the pestering lover but failed. – I'm almost spent!
– Don't you worry my sweet bun! – Baby Snake heard. – You should know better than anybody: we the golden-headed arkhats  are resourceful! Swallow but two grains of the Spring pills and you'll become able for the delights of love till sunrise!
The woman answered something but Cai the Baby Snake didn't hear her words: they were drowned in a sudden sound of many feet tramping behind the fence.
In a moment the latch locking the gate was torn off by a strong blow from the other side and the gate itself flung wide open; a dozen of guards rushed into the yard. They were as shaven-headed as the owner of the very efficient "spring pills" but much larger in size – real giants arousing esteem and awe, able to cut a horse into halves with a single thrust of halberds they were armed with. It was the patriarch himself who choose them and whom they obeyed.
In the past the patriarch Meng Zhang, formerly a brigand, replaced with such "iron men" the Emperors' garrison in Shaolin; during the years of his power he succeeded to raise both the glory and the wealth of the cloister significantly. In general, the main task of the heroic guards was to ensure that nobody could leave Shaolin boundaries without permission, but the "iron men" were also used to make round-up in the servants' settlement where some beauties were always ready to open their doors for the reverend fathers.
The monk courting the plump woman seemed to understand perfectly well what did the sudden noise in the yard mean. Being an experienced man indeed, the golden-headed arkhat did not lose any time in vain: naked as he was he jumped out of the window and ran headlong around the house striving to reach the back door. But the guards appeared to be defter, they all stood in his way and one of the moral guardians struck the fornicator across his back with the halberd shaft. But this blow of justice missed its goal for the saint father ducked hastily and when he rose again he had a big basket in his hands – a good basket made of willow twigs, very convenient for carrying fish from the market or linen for washing. However, the basket could be also applied for other, less peaceful, tasks: its bottom hit rather sensitively the face of the nearest guard and in a moment its hard edge struck another "iron man"'s stomach. The latter uttered a guttural sound and stooped demonstrating thus the sheer relativity of his nickname; the monk abandoned him trying to apply his awful basket to all remaining guards in order to reach the salutary back door by any means.
The plump beauty was watching the scene from the window; she almost choked with a pill and a frightened cry when a large blade had nearly cut away some part of her unlucky lover's body – she could not discern in the melee whether it was his hand very important for fighting or some other body member resembling a clenched fist and much more important for the favorite entertainment of the holy father. But the monk strained his body better than his lady had done when playing "cloud and rain", and the halberd fell down missing him. Moreover, two other halberds crisscrossed with a clang just over the shaven monk's head, the basket hit successfully someone's feet, and the guard fell down with a squeak at the same time knocking down one of his companions.
Both of them jumped up immediately pouring forth a flow of curses and were ready to resume fighting; but at that moment some rhythmical tapping at the gate made all combatants stand still better than the thunder and lightnings of the Jasper Lord should do it were it his will to come to the place in his heavenly bronze chariot.
A small demon was standing near the opened gate.
At least, one could think that only a demon should have such a face. His mouth was like a narrow black slot twisted in the most incredible way, his right cheek was composed of interlaced seams and scars, his nose was mutilated by a double fracture and eyes were hardly visible between the heavy eyelids and wide oedemata below. He had a large wooden disk pressed under his elbow.
The small demon went slowly to the guards and the guilty monk who leant at the fence, put his disk down at the latter's feet and stretched his hand commandingly.
The monk gave him his basket without saying a word. The monster rotated it in his fingers, threw it into the air several times and deftly caught it again by the handle, then made some steps along the waiting men, as if deep in thought.
– Old Ghao is looking at the see, – the muffled words went out of the awful mouth.
The basket made an intricate loop over the demon's head.
– Old Ghao wants to catch a wily fish, – the basket rushed up but stopped halfway, flew off the monster's hand, turned upside down, then it was grasped by his foot and finally seized.
The guards picked up their halberds and watched this performance shaking their heads in sheer astonishment.
– Old Ghao plays with the wind, – the demon began to jump adroitly on one foot, from time to time sitting down for a moment and turning the basket around him.
All of a sudden, as unexpectedly as he has begun his play, he stopped, threw the basket to the naked monk and went away to the gate, not forgetting to take up his disk.
– Reverend Feng! – shouted the lascivious monk. – Please, wait a little! I beg you, show me the trick once more! Reverend Feng!..
He ran to the gate after the demon.
The guards didn't even move to stop him.
...When the invaders have finally left the yard, the plump woman shut the window; but in a minute she opened it again and looked out: it seemed to her that some shadow passed by her house. But there was nobody there.
For safety's sake the woman looked up. There was of course some place above the window just up to the eaves but it was not enough for any creature larger than a swallow, and the worthy woman was not afraid of swallows.
If she were told that this swallow was Cai the Baby Snake, she would be very surprised indeed.
The great teacher Sunzi was the author of many wise sayings which should be constantly quoted by anybody who wants to deserve the name of a strategist, and one of his sayings was such:
– Subtlety! Subtlety is the thing you need! There are no such affairs in which you would not use scouts.
The honest family that has given birth to our friend Cai the Baby Snake agreed completely with this piece of wisdom quite proved during the long centuries. For the professional scouts of the Cai family participated in almost all famous events giving food for long chatter in marketplaces and taverns. Baby Snake’s great-grandfather had contributed much to the success of Zhu Yunzhang, leader of the rebelled "red kerchiefs", who managed to take Beijing in incredibly short time, – afterwards it was explained by the activity of spirits wishing to help the future monarch and founder of the new dynasty; old Cai used to giggle for all remaining years of his inconspicuous life remembering how he had once spent three days hiding in a cesspool at the outskirts of the future Northern Capital  .
Baby Snake's grandmother was so diligently asking for alms in the northern provinces that two of the local governors died suddenly of volvulus and thus had no possibility to discuss in details the plan of their conspiracy. Cai the Baby Snake did not know his father; there were hardly more than three persons in the whole Empire who'd seen the face of Cai the Big Ears, for he covered it with a hood even visiting his wife; Baby Snake himself also happened to do some things of the kind not meant for telling in taverns.
They were not meant to be told anywhere at all.
Judge Bao, thanks to his post, was one of the few who were let into the mystery of the Cai family; he liked to repeat from time to time the words of an ancient treatise:
– There are five ways to use scouts: most common are the local scouts, sometimes you find inner scouts as well as reverse scouts, there exist also scouts of death and scouts of life. The latter are appreciated above all.
Then he always used to add:
– The scouts of life are those who return with reports.
Cai the Baby Snake was a scout of life.
When he came to this world gliding out of his mother's womb his granny who was believed to be (and really was) an experienced midwife took the crying baby in her hands, slapped his little bottom as red as a monkey's, looked at him and announced, touching the "dengchu" point with her fat finger:
– He's Baby Snake!
– Are you sure, mother-in-law? – asked the woman weary of childbirth.
The granny simply laughed and lighting up her pipe went to rinse the linen. Everything had been quiet in the northern provinces for about eight years, so there was no necessity for the old woman to go there asking alms.
They washed the baby with cold infusions of Hangzhou chrysantemum, unripe ounaby fruits, lizard cheeks and many other components the complete list of which would have surprised very much even a highly experienced physician if by chance the latter could have seen it. Cai’s mother ceased to feed him with her milk when he was still very small; after that the child was fed twice in twenty four hours, at dawn and after sunset. They massaged his tiny body many times and covered it with thin needles like a hedgehog: the granny Cai was skilful in the art of wielding the needles giving life or death on her choice; the baby was always tightly swaddled and his cradle rocked in such a way that it would often hit the walls of the room: the baby, frightened and shaking, had to roll himself into a ball to endure the shock. Later on still more powerful methods and measures were introduced. Being one year old Baby Snake looked like a five-month baby, in his sixth year he seemed younger by half, in the eleventh year people thought he was seven, and the family had to leave their house in order to avoid gossip and to move to Ningo where they settled in a uninhabited place out of town...
Now Baby Snake Cai, the scout of life, the one who must return, was forty-two years old.
His biography included about two dozens of tasks successfully fulfilled and about fifteen persons who had been a bit too zealous during their last existence and died because they had underestimated the naive young boy.
Cai the Baby Snake hoped sincerely that their next reincarnation would be more lucky.
But last winter the scout of life had suffered from a hard fit threatening with paralysis; he understood that it was time to "put off old skin".
You can cheat the Time for some period but not for ever. He knew it perfectly well. He also knew that one must pay for everything. If you should not take measures in time, if you'd not come to your senses and look around you and feel the acute necessity to return to the natural way of life then your skin would loose the youthful elasticity and in a year become aged and flabby, the stiffened muscles would not obey your will, your teeth, healthy and white, would be spoiled and fall out, the joints would grow stiff and the former boy would swiftly become and old man today.
And tomorrow he would die.
The Time can not be cheated but you can pay your debts with percent. His suffering body was once more pierced with steel and bone needles arousing inner currents and clearing the clogged ways; once more Baby Snake had to go in for exhaustive training, to endure severe pains in his changing flesh crying at nights and trying in vain to sleep a little; once more the secret ointments covered his face and hands; he was subject to alternating massages and herbal embrocations... The baby snake was gradually becoming a grown-up snake.
But all of a sudden he had to put on his old skin again.
Because the great teacher Sunzi whose sayings should be constantly quoted by anybody who wants to deserve the name of a strategist, had also said the following:
– All five kinds of scouts must be active but we are not allowed to know their ways. This is a mystery not to be revealed.
But there's also another saying of his:
– You can get knowledge about your enemy only by inquiring other people.
Judge Bao the Dragon Seal repeated these wise words to Baby Snake Cai before sending him to Shaolin monastery, supplied with three genuine recommendations given by three highly esteemed persons.
Judge Bao was seeing the arms marked with the signs of tiger and dragon in his night dreams.
It seemed to judge Bao that these horrible dead images were able to creep away like beasts of prey and invade all Empire; may be they have already done it.
And Cai worked a miracle: in less than two months he has put on the skin he had almost cast away and went to Henan, to the famous monastery at the Song mountain.
The only person to know the real price of his deed was his mother who had already become so old that the strangers believed her to be the grandmother or even the great-grandmother of the rosy-cheeked youth still bearing his childish name.
But she provided her son with the most necessary things; small bottles and flasks of ointments containing gelatin made of donkey skin, a leather case with a set of needles, three small bags of yanchundan, "pills prolonging youth", and wormwood tubes for cauterization lay hidden in Baby Snake's sack. Without using all this the seemingly young man would live about a week – in fact, four days would be enough if such were the will of the Prince Yanlo – and then he wouldn't simply become old.
He'd die wishing he were a real baby snake falling down to a cauldron full of boiling water.
But the scouts of life are obliged to go and return.
Even if there is no way back he is to go and return.
And it is just the same even though the great teacher Sunzi whose sayings should be constantly quoted by anybody who wants to deserve the name of a strategist had not uttered any sayings on this subject.
It was about noon on the next day when the back door of the monastery opened to let the candidates in, and Cai the Baby Snake entered the inner yard...
I don't know why the moment of my own death remained the most distinct piece of my memory. All my previous life seems to had been but a prelude to this event, as senseless and unjust as many other events in Russia in the last years.
I had my breakfast, piled up the plates in the wash-basin, decided not to shave myself (I felt it like a challenge to somebody, although didn't know to whom) and putting on my jacket went out of the flat.
The staircase stank, as always, with the odors of cat urine and stale cigarette smoke. Down at the door I met our dvornik  whom everybody called Aunt Nastia. Her duty was to maintain the staircase in order and she was working hard to fulfill the task but some bad guys preferred to satisfy their needs of nature just at the stairs. Aunt Nastia, in her turn, used to tell these stories to any of the inhabitants of our house and curse the bastards. I agreed with her opinion as to the low moral level of those bad guys and, leaving her content with my sympathy and support, hurried out to the street.
The Volvo of my boss was already waiting for me near the house. This was his habitual trick every time when he was going to charge me with a new problem, one of those problems defined by the whole throng of his prominent computer experts with all their diplomas and certificates qualified with short and distinct term: "Deadlock!"
As a rule, on hearing such a diagnosis the boss would call me up personally, pouring sweet balms of praises and promises through the telephone and the next morning would arrive to bring me to his office in the car of his own.
At first I had felt flattered by all this.
The driver (and body-guard), known under the nickname Big Paratrooper, or simply Paratroop, waved his hand more resembling a bear's paw and smiled to greet me. All his forty-eight and a half golden teeth sparkled in the sun. Once I had managed to conquer him quite convincingly while playing cards but did not boast about this victory to anybody. Since then Paratroop got to like me; I was the second man in the whole world whom Paratroop liked, the first one being himself. He seemed to pity me and used to ask bringing me my morning cup of coffee:
– Well, Genius, tell me honestly: cannot you really discern the colors?
I soon got tired to explain him that color-blind persons are able to see the colors, it is only some hues that we loose, and the world does not look for us as an old black-and-white film. But Paratroop could not believe me.
– Tell me what's the color of that car there? – he would ask me from time to time.
– It's red, – I would answer and go away.
– You failed, Genius, you failed! – he shouted triumphantly.– It's orange indeed! You're wrong, Genius!
After such entertainment he remained good-humored for a whole day.
I am color-blind. Or now it is better to say that I had been color-blind. Besides, I had no musical pitch. To the least degree. The midwife helping my mother to deliver me to this world was a bit too awkward and a bit too strong. Accordingly, she applied pincers awkwardly and pulled strongly, while my mother was too busy with crying and groaning to notice what's going on. As a result, the head of the innocent baby appeared to be a bit too flat from the left side. This defect is now hardly visible; I've successfully grown up, moreover, Vera called the Miracle, my personal hair-dresser, invented a way to hide this asymmetry so skillfully that sometimes I even attract the attention of girls. But our acquaintance does not last long. Sooner or later all of them call me a "callous monster" unable to percieve genuine beauty.
The girls had some reason for saying it.
I was indeed a callous monster.
But I was also a computer genius.
– Good morning! The best of mornings! – the boss exclaimed coming out of his car in a hale and hearty tone.
His round face with fat cheeks stretched in a most good-hearted grimace. I have already almost come to him. But at that moment the Volvo exploded.
A sphere of bluish fire annihilated the car, only Paratroop's head remained visible for a moment in a most silly way, the fire crumpled my boss as if he were a paper doll. As to me, I felt strong heat and saw one's hand and arm amidst the hell of flames.
The hand was waving as if inviting me to come in.
It was very strange: skinny and sinewy, hairless and covered with peculiar tattoo... I tried to approach it and saw it in details – the forearm of this friendly body member was decorated with an image of a dragon showing all his fangs and claws.
Then I looked back and saw my own body.
It lay face downwards near the fuming car, almost touching the Paratroop's head torn off by the explosion, golden teeth shining in the sun; a jagged splinter stuck under my right ear. Aunt Nastia the dvornik was toddling towards me crying desperately.
I saw all that and remembered forever because I don't forget anything at all. This is my doom and my job.
Once I have read in a small but very clever book that "the hemispheres of human brain provide contacts with various fields of external excitations in quite different ways". Namely, the left hemisphere is dedicated to logical and analytical operations, it sorts and classifies notions and concepts giving each a corresponding label; while the right one perceives the reality as a whole, it controls intuition, space coordination and musical capabilities, i.e. all non-logical and unconscious things.
It was also written there that the left (logical) hemisphere of the babies practically does not function; it develops in the course of socialization of the future member of society. The awkward midwife had evidently damaged the right side of the globe hidden in my poor little head: that is why the left one began to develop too swiftly in order to compensate for the defect. Colour hues and musical overtones were left incomprehensible for me; but school teachers and university professors were shocked to see a student able to quote the textbooks word by word beginning from any page and any line chosen randomly. They did not understand that it was as easy for me as it was for them to see the difference between scarlet and red colors or not to mix up two sounds in different octaves.
After I had graduated from the university my boss invited me to work for him.
...the dragon tattooed on the skinny arm winced joyfully at me, its sharp teeth shining and making him thus quite like the innocently slaughtered Paratroop; this was an impression too strong for both of my brain's hemispheres, and darkness fell over me.
And when I came to my senses I found myself making low bows in front of some very important person whom I looked at from below seeing only his mouth twisted in scorn for all other features were hidden in the shadow of a wide and bulky four-angled hat; there was a strangely shaped musical instrument with many strings in my hands.
They called this phenomenon "Buddha's Madness" in this country; but I did not know it yet and so decided that it was simply madness as such.
Because the world around me was multi-colored and bright.
Xuannu or the Maiden of Nine Heavens, a Dao deity.
Dadaoshu is the art of fencing with "big swords", something like a curved heavy sword combined with a halberd.
"Red kerchiefs” was the nickname of insurgents who put an end to the power of a pro-Mongolian Yuan dynasty and laid the foundations of the new Ming dynasty (they wore red kerchiefs on their heads).
Xiangyigong is a honorable title of most eminent judges; it can be translated literally as "the lord who maintains undauntedness".
“Visiting examiner” is another definition of a judge.
An Lushan stirred up rebellion against the Emperor in 755; in 757 he was slain.
Zhuge Lian (220 – 280 A.D.) was a famous military leader and a popular hero.
Sun Wu or Sunzi, VI – V cent. B.C.) was known as a warlord and strategist.
Xiucai is the first (lowest) degree for scholars.
Jüren is the second (intermediate) degree for scholars.
“Chan master” is a follower of the Chan school (Dzen in Japan), one of the trends of Buddhism.
Quan-fa means literally "fist fighting".
Heshan is a name for a Buddhist monk.
Zhang is a measure of length about 3,2 meters.
Arkhat means "a saint".
Beijing means "Northern Capital".
Dvornik is a Russian word derived from “dvor”, i.e. “yard” meaning a man or a woman who keeps clean the staircases, takes care of the territory surrounding dwelling houses, waters the trees and flower beds etc.