Saturday, 16 November 2013

Short Story: Quick

Here's a short story I wrote a while ago:

By Mark Lawrence

"I said pick it up!"

"Your pardon, sir!" Hiro set the tray of sake cups on the counter and bent to collect the fallen bowl.

"All of it!" The soldier barked the words at him, like a sergeant on the parade round.

Customers moved past Hiro as he scrambled after individual noodles, picking them from the gaps between the floorboards, rescuing them from beneath wooden soles. He knelt at the table, scooping the noodles into the bowl.

"Faster!" A hand gripped his shoulder. The soldier squeezed, and Hiro yelped in pain.

Hiro gathered all he could see, even the mashed ones.

I'd like to make you eat it now, you pig. He said nothing though and kept his eyes lowered.

"I should make you eat this," the soldier said, as if reading Hiro's thoughts. The other soldiers at the table laughed. The man set his foot to Hiro's hip and pushed him away. "Get me another bowl, and be quick about it. I shan't expect to pay."

Hiro hurried into the kitchen. He slipped through the crowd of table-boys waiting for orders, and snatched up a bowl from the wash pile. He peered into the black lacquered dish, shiny enough to show his own distorted reflection. His face looked thin, even stretched like this, as though by a trick mirror.

"Hiro, wire-shrimp for table seven." Olmato waved an order slip at him from across the room.

He remembered how Olmato had arrived as a snot-nosed apprentice. And now he gave him orders.

"In a moment." Hiro shook his head. How did Olmato come to give him orders? Might as well ask how the Owner came to own the restaurant, how the emperor took the throne against so many odds, swords, and hatreds.

For a moment he considered spitting into the bowl before ladling noodles from the pot. His mouth went dry at the thought the soldier might know or guess. He heaped the noodles in and left the kitchen's heat for the crush of the main room.

"Your food, Honored Sir."

The solider took the bowl without looking at him and continued the story he was telling.

"And I told him if any Watto clan dogs came to the gate again I would not be so lenient!" The soldiers laughed and banged the table with their fists.

Hiro walked away. I wish I had spat in it.

"Hiro!" Mamoso from the drinks bar.

Hiro pretended not to hear. Mamoso always had an errand for him.


Oh what is it you great mound of whale blubber? Hiro just wanted to slip into the stock room and collapse onto the flour sacks. To lie there and think of Kenmia and her dark hair.

"Yes master Mamoso?" He turned and bobbed his head.

"I need more quails' eggs, the ones with the blue-dyed shells."

Then ask the store-master to order them, your immensity!

"Shall I go to the store for them?" Hiro knew Mamoso would not have remembered to order them.

"No, no. Go to Madam Jimla's, on the Street of Sevens. Tell them it is for the Golden Temple restaurant. They will put it on our account."

"Yes master." Hiro bobbed again and started to make his way toward the street door.

"Hiro!" Mamoso again.

Hiro turned back. "Yes master?"

"Be careful this time." Mamoso shook his head and his jowls wobbled. "I saw you out there. Must you live your life one accident at a time?"

"Sorry master." Hiro bowed. "I will be careful."

He made for the street.

"Your pardon. Excuse me, Sir. A thousand apologies." He inched toward the door, past fat senchals from the Spice Streets, edging between soldiers and tea-girls, ducking through conversations and beneath high held trays laden with steaming noodles, duck wings, and orange rinds in sweet-rock.

Tonight he would dream of Kenmia. He would take ink and parchment and set down a poem in dark calligraphy, he would find the words to win her and-

"Watch it you little squirt!" A mercenary, or bodyguard, a fierce man from across the Red Sea, and huge like all his race.

"A thousand pardons!" And with a twist Hiro was out through the door, into the street and a cold rain so fine he could breathe it in.

The route to Madam Jimla's led Hiro higher through the Old City, along narrow streets where the rain drifted in faint sheets, as if hung on invisible lines. Buildings loomed to either side, their crowding stories shutting away the evening sky. He shivered as he ran.

He turned along Magisters Street where judgements were bought and sold. He ran faster now, his feet blurring over cobbles. He skirted the outermost wall of the Holy City. Hiro imagined the emperor deep in the heart of his palace. Emperor Sutsiro would be warm and full. Emperor Sutsiro would not even know the rain fell on his golden roofs.

The cold could no longer touch Hiro. He sprinted past the Imperial Gate. The guards tensed as he shot by. Three drunken cloth-men staggered along Wen Street. Hiro wove through them as though they were statues. The other table-boys teased him about his clumsy ways, always in too much of a hurry they said, but on the rare occasions when he found his focus, they were in awe.

Hiro reached the Street of Sevens. Madam Jimla's shop huddled between the last two of the seven ancient towers. Each story stood wider than the one below, looking as though it were about to spill into the street at any moment. Hiro wondered if he would get past the entrance hall this time.

As he approached the front door a whiff of spiced oranges reached him, undercut with cloves. Small lanterns twinkled under the eaves, red, gold, and a blue so deep it seemed almost not to shine. He knocked, taking care not to graze his knuckles on the iron studs set across the wood.

"Yes?" A hatch pulled open at face-level, so quick that the woman behind must have been standing there waiting for him.

"I . . ." Hiro couldn't think of anything to say. The blue of the lanterns filled his head.

"What do you want?" An old woman, fifty maybe, iron gray hair scraped back.

"I've come from the Golden Temple," he said.

"A monk?" She frowned, and leaned in closer to peer down at his sandals.

"The restaurant. Mamoso sent me."

The hatch slammed shut and the door opened just wide enough to admit him.

Hiro slid through into the warmth of the entrance hall. Shelves lined every foot of wall-space, laden with glazed jars, the labels in pictographs Hiro couldn't read.

"What do you want?" the woman asked. She moved closer, seeming to glide within her kimono silks. She came too close, her beak of a nose just a hand-span from Hiro's face.

"I . . ." He couldn't remember. Mamoso had wanted something. Rice flowers? Birds' nests for soup? Hiro's mouth wanted to say blue, and he knew that couldn't be right.

A door opened on the left. A woman stepped through, very short, almost lost in a confusion of embroidered silks. And so old. Only Madam Jimla was that old.

"Elama?" Madam Jimla's voice creaked with age.

"The boy doesn't know why he is here, Madam."

Hiro stared. He didn't know anyone who had actually seen Madam Jimla. Maybe the Owner had. Maybe not even him.

"Now Elama, who really knows the answer to that question? Perhaps we should praise young Hiro for his honesty."

Madam Jimla's face creased with laughter, though she made no sound. Hiro had not imagined it could crease any further.

She knows my name!

Madam Jimla came to the door, walking with effort, her hand moving as though she thought she held a cane. She looked up at him, her eyes dark and huge.

"Can't remember your errand, young Hiro?" she asked.

Hiro couldn't even remember how to speak. When she looked at him it felt as if the rain outside were falling through his skull, filling his mind with cold and drifting sheets.

"Blue?" Madam Jimla asked. "I think there's more to it than that."

She touched his arm with a hand like a claw. "And yes, the emperor is warm in his palace. He knows nothing of the rain."
Madam Jimla watched his face. "And you wonder how he got there in his golden chair whilst you run errands in the streets. You know he wasn't born to it. He took it. Or rather he was given it as we are all given our lives. One thing leads to another. One accident at a time."

The claw turned, gripping Hiro above the elbow, pinching. He remembered a hard hand on his shoulder.

"Ah. A soldier. Noodles. You should forgive him, Hiro. His wife has a sharp tongue and he has no answers for her."

Hiro tried to speak. He remembered what his errand was.

"Quail eggs. Blue. One basket," Madam Jimla said and released him.

Elama glided away to get the eggs.

Hiro patted his arm where Madam Jimla had held him. "Quails' eggs. Yes, that was it." He frowned. "I thought there was something more . . ."

"Everyone wants something more, boy." Madam Jimla favored him with another dark look. "The question is are you quick enough to take it?"

Elama returned with a small wicker basket covered by a square of cloth.

"Thank you Grand-Daughter." Madam Jimla took the basket and gave the handle to Hiro. "Be careful out there, Hiro. Many troubles walk the streets tonight, and not just the Watto clan."

"A thousand thanks, Madam Jimla!" Hiro bowed and backed toward the door.

"He knows my name!" A smile cracked her face, yellow teeth spaced like the seven towers.

Hiro backed into the door. The egg basket left his grip. He caught it an inch from the floor tiles.

"Focus!" Madam Jimla said.

Elama opened the door for him and Hiro fled into the street.

Hiro ran back along the route he had taken before.

The evening played through his head, the bowl of noodles spilling from his hands, the mercenary at the door, forgetting his mission, nearly dropping the eggs. Kenmia said that if you piled enough accidents on top of each other sometimes it ended up looking like success. Hiro guessed he was still building his pile.

Hiro watched the shadows as he ran. Watto clansmen were said to move in bands, baiting the royal guard. Other dissenters lurked behind shuttered windows. Men still loyal to the memory of Emperor Horo, sons of the old princes from the northern territories that were once a kingdom, even lumber-men agitating for protections against imports from down-river.

Focus? The new emperor would need focus if he were to rule this nest of snakes. Madam Jimla should-"

Hiro smashed into a man as he turned the corner. They both went flying. The man clattered across the wet cobbles, Hiro fetched up against a stone wall and all breath left him in a single ooooffff.

The man picked himself up. He took his helmet and set it on his head again, straightening the plume. Other soldiers stood behind him, almost lost in the rain and the gloom.

"This apology had better be the best I have ever heard," the guard captain said, his words clipped, spoken through white teeth. "If it is, I will let you choose a hand to keep."

Hiro tried to speak. His lips moved, but no sounds came. He got to his knees, air leaking into his lungs, black spots before his eyes.

"I am not impressed." The captain drew his sword, a sharp glimmer in the night.

The captain swung and Hiro heard the air hiss. He stepped to the left, a quick step, and the blade passed him by an inch. Sparks flew where the sword hit cobbles. The captain almost lost his grip.

"Die!" A shriek of outrage, and the captain slashed, up and across, a disemboweling blow.

Hiro jumped back, and the sword cut air again.

"No!" The captain advanced, swinging left, right, rising and falling blows, as if he were hewing a path through bamboo.
Hiro ducked and jumped and ducked again. He kept his eyes on the sword. The terror left him. He had no time for fear. The blade slashed past his head, close enough to cut the trailing ends of his hair. Each cut seemed slower though. Even the rain seemed to fall in its own time, like syrup dripping.

Hiro backed from the attack, but he could not retreat forever. The wall waited for Hiro. He could feel it behind him. Dark stone, the anvil to the captain's hammer.

He will kill me. He wants to slice me open. He wanted to cut my hands off. My hands.

Anger bubbled into the void left by Hiro's fear.

He wants to kill me, to cut my flesh, and for what? I knocked him over!

Hiro jumped over the low swing and watched the captain's plume bob. It felt like a dream now. Like the dream where the witch gives chase and you run but you make no progress, mud wraps you, you run with agonizing slowness, and the witch gets closer, then closer still. Only now Hiro was the witch.

The captain swung again, slower, like the drawing of a deep breath. Hiro leaned inside the blow. On the captain's belt a white handle gleamed, a carved ivory handle. Hiro pulled the hilt and he held a shoto, twelve inches of razored steel.

He wants to kill you!

Hiro lifted the blade to the captain's neck. He saw the slow pulse building in the big vein alongside the bulge of the captain's throat. He thought of the blood that would come.

He wants to kill you.

Hiro had seen pigs slaughtered. He had seen the blood spurt when old Gajo sliced with his thin knife. A lot of blood. And the broken squealing as the sows went down on buckled legs.

He wants . . .

His mouth went dry.

. . . to kill you.

Hiro hammered the shoto's hilt into the captain's temple, just where the helm cut away from his face.

The captain started to fall. Hiro ran the length of the street and turned the corner before the captain hit the ground.
In the broad and empty streets leading down from the Holy City into Old City, Hiro came to a halt. His fear caught up with him before he could catch his breath.

I hit a captain of the guard!

Hiro looked at his hands and realized that he still held the shoto. He started to secure the blade at his belt. An image came to him, a vision of chopped hands, sliced away like fish heads beneath Mamoso's cleaver. With a convulsion he threw the sword away, clattering into a shadowed alley. A shaking took him, the cold and fear combined.

She put a spell on me?

Hiro thought of Madam Jimla's dark looks and blue lanterns. The captain hadn't been able to touch him. The seconds had crawled by. He shook his head. He had always been quick, too quick for his own good most times. But not like that . . .

Almost like that. The fear just sharpened me. I found my focus.

Hiro looked at his hands again. They trembled now. The shaking had left him. He stared at them. Harder. Trying to see what secret they held.

Empty . . .

The eggs! Oh gods, the eggs!

He slapped his forehead. Somewhere back there half a dozen imperial soldiers had trampled their way over a scattered basket of blue-dyed quails eggs.

Returning to the Golden Temple empty handed would raise too many questions. If soldiers came searching they would be interested in the boy who came back empty handed.

Hiro huddled in the cold. He wanted nothing but to lie in the dry warmth of the stock room and to dream of Kenmia. The rain fell harder. It ran down his neck. He had to go.

Hiro hunched into his tunic and turned back. He took the side streets, taking the longer route through the cloth mills. He went slowly, jogging, watching the road ahead.

"You there!"

The men came from both sides of the street. A score of them, warriors all, in the yellows and reds of the Watto clan.

"You, boy!" The man who called him wore a silver mask sculpted to the bones of his face. A champion's mask.

"Honored Sir?" Hiro made a bow. He backed away from the men, glancing behind him to see others emerging from a house on the left.

"Is this the one?" the champion asked.

Several of the warriors raised their lanterns.

A small man in black answered from behind him. "Hard to tell. He looks similar, but I had a poor view from a high window."

"Let us find out," the champion said.

Two clansmen stepped forward, their black hair scraped back into tight ponytails and secured with bone combs. Each held a long hornwood bow. The arrows they strung to them were striped with red and yellow so all would know who made the kill.

The bows creaked as they were drawn. Both pointed at Hiro.

Oh hells!

They let fly together.

Hiro saw the shafts leave the bows. He saw them buck like plucked strings, and then start to turn as the flights caught the air. He watched them converge on his chest. And he took them from the air, one in each hand.

"Incredible!" The champion clashed his sword across the lacquered leather of his breastplate.

The other clansmen stamped their appreciation, and Hiro stood amazed, with the arrows pointed at his heart and the blood from torn skin leaking between his fingers.

"This is the boy who put Ghozo down. No doubt about that." The champion pushed his mask up. He looked younger than Hiro had expected, a lean expectant face.

"Ghozo?" Hiro asked. "It was a guard captain . . ." He bit his lip to shut himself up.

The clansmen laughed around him. Ice ran down Hiro's spine. The searing pain from his hands grew faint. Ghozo wasn't a guard captain, he was the guard captain. The captain of the emperor's guard, the emperor's personal champion.

"He found Ghozo at the head of a column two hundred strong, and knocked him down. Twice." The man in black shook his head. "And he looks like a kitchen boy!"

The Watto champion advanced on Hiro. His face hadn't been made for fear, but his mouth made a hard line as he came close, and his eyes kept returning to the arrows.

"You have shamed the emperor's champion. What is your name, warrior?"

"Hiro." He managed not to stutter his own name, and let the arrows fall, wincing at the fresh agony.

"Hiro, I have five hundred men of the Watto clan in these streets. A thousand more beyond the city walls. The old princes have a small army of samurai close by, ronin, paid by the Axa merchants, roam in the Kenio forest. The people are ready for change. Give the right call and they will rise in a heartbeat."

"Why do you tell me this, Sir?" Hiro could feel the ground shift beneath his feet, as if he balanced on a pinnacle of chance and improbable accident, stacked to perilous heights beyond all expectation.

The champion returned his sword to its scabbard. The sudden click as it slid home made Hiro flinch.

"The people of the Old City have no love for the Watto clan. My fellow clansmen do not trust the ambitions of the northern princes, and the wood-merchants of Axa hold neither the clan or the princes any higher than they hold this new emperor."

"Even so . . ." Hiro could see the pieces the champion laid out before him. The separate elements, each lacking in some regard, but ready to be brought together, like ingredients for soup, ready for the pot, ready to be more than the sum of their parts.

"What clan are you, Hiro?"

"Sanso," Hiro said.

"See! A city clan. A man of the people. The people's champion, who felled Ghozo before a legion of imperial troops."

"I couldn't see them all," Hiro said. "It was dark and raining . . ."

The champion's laughter rolled over him.


And so it was that Hiro came to walk at the head of a column hundreds strong, thousands maybe, samurai and ronin, clansman and citizen, torch-lit, a serpent of discontent winding up towards the Imperial Gate. The rain fell and the wind blew, and Hiro walked, his soaked tunic flapping around thin legs, and the Watto champion at his shoulder behind a silver mask.

Hiro walked and the night parted before him. He thought of the fallen noodles, of the dropped eggs, of Madam Jimla and the hundred years upon her face.

Blood would be spilled. Men would scream. Hands would be sliced from wrists.

"Everyone wants something more, boy," Madam Jimla had said.

He thought of Kenmia and her dark hair, of the emperor beneath his golden roof, and the pile of accidents he must have climbed to get there.

Something at the corner of vision caught Hiro's eye. There in the gutter, the handle of a wicker basket, and in the torchlight the gleam of something blue.

"Everyone wants something more, boy. The question is are you quick enough to take it?"

Hiro snatched the basket of eggs from the gutter, the basket he had dropped when he first met Ghozo. And he ran. He ran faster than an arrow flies.


"Noodles for table seven."

Hiro took the bowl from Olmato. He wove a path to table seven, quick and sure. Mamoso watched him, nodding his approval.

Hiro set the noodles before the Owner. "Your food, Honoured Sir."

He bowed, and then again to Kenmia, seated beside her father.

He turned to go, but the Owner spoke.

"How long have you been with us, . . ."

"Hiro, Sir," Hiro said. "Two years."

"We should have some opportunity for a lad like you," the Owner said. "You look like you know what you're doing, and Mamoso speaks well of you."

"Thank you, Sir," Hiro bowed again. At the Owner's side Kenmia smiled.

"Keep your wits about you, lad," the Owner said. "And a position will come your way soon. Be sure you're quick enough to take it."

Hiro bowed.

He went to the stock room and he lay on the flour sacks and he thought of Kenmia and her dark hair, and all was well with him.


Previous short stories:


  1. Nicely unexpected and perfectly balanced, from one Mark to another