Mourn Their Courage

Excerpt Monday

Okay, for anyone who has seen my empty blog post for the last three hours, you may wonder where my mind was. I had to create the blog post on Friday so that I could send them my link. I put it on the “timed” feature and completely forgot how busy my weekends – especially Sundays – can be. Fast forward and we’re now two hours late putting our child to bed and I’ve got 150 emails waiting for me since Friday night. (Did I mention weekends are busy?) I just found the email link reminder and remembered that I decided to finally commit to an Excerpt Monday event on one of the busiest weekends of the year. Argh.

So what is Excerpt Monday? Once a month, a bunch of authors get together and post excerpts from published books, contracted work or works in progress, and link to each other. You don’t have to be published to participate–just an writer with an excerpt you’d like to share. For more info on how to participate, head over to Excerpt Monday.

Here’s my first chapter of my novel:

By Victoria Dixon

Chapter One

Weary of killing, Liu Jie picked at the blood under his fingernails as he swayed in the saddle.

He straightened and took a deep breath of peach-scented air as he noticed a nearby orchard. Amid the trees, an inn with a modest tamped-earth façade stood.

Reaching the Emporer was urgent, but he and his men had destroyed twenty bandits this afternoon. One of his men was injured and needed rest. Better a night or two behind a sturdy wooden gait, than a fatal mistake. He signaled to stop. “We’ll rest here for a few days.”

Jie dismounted outside the inn’s courtyard entrance and opened the gate. Guards carried his wife and son’s sedan chair into the courtyard and Mei raised her eyebrows when Jie helped her from the stuffy litter.

“We cannot reach the Emperor if the men are too tired to protect us,” he murmured.

Mei nodded, smoothed her hair and adjusted Shan’s belt before they entered the inn.
To Jie’s right, six farmers in worn hemp robes gathered around a silk scroll mounted on the wall. He read it in a glance.

“The Son of Heaven requires the aid of all men as sons might come to their father. Yellow Turban rebels assault the people and threaten the capital. All districts report.” A crimson Imperial Chop blazed in a corner.

“No,” Mei whispered.

He read it again, hands clenched. “You were right. War was inevitable. I must go.”

“I’d hoped-“

Jie took her hand to give mute comfort. They traveled to the capital in the hope of convincing the Emperor to pity the people and repeal his taxes. Rumor said, many of the Yellow Turbans were starving farmers seeking justice, not a coup. Killing them would promote unrest, placing more strain on Jie and the rest of the nobility.

“Send our meal upstairs?” Her voice wavered and Jie nodded. When servants brought in the family’s luggage, Mei followed them past faded red pillars and up the stairs. He knew she wanted to avoid the noise of the tearoom and the implications of the notice.

Shan ran outside to play in the last rays of sunlight. What would happen to Shan if Jie went to war? What would happen if he did not? The weight of past failures as a father bore down. He must protect his family, but there was the broader family at stake in this war as well.

Jie sat at an empty table. Servants lit paper lanterns and the tearoom filled with more men who crowded the notice.

A group of boisterous young farmers sat at a nearby table and a game of sixes commenced with a clatter of dice.

The voices and noise blended into a monotonous drone. When the innkeeper brought him warmed rice wine and a plate of dumplings, he barely tasted the food. Instead, he used his chopsticks and wrote plan after plan in the congealing sauce. He abandoned every scheme.

Each strategy required him to send spies out to learn about the Yellow Turbans. He wanted to know if they sought food and clothing from those they robbed, or did they raise an army to overthrow the throne?

This information seemed necessary to Jie, but gaining it did not respond to his Emperor’s summons. If only the Emperor had not issued this order. Jie might have saved countless people if he had reached his nephew a month ago. Now, the Son of Heaven demanded that Jie attack his countrymen. Acting counter to Imperial command was treason.

He must either go to the capital and enlist, or gather an army from the countryside and lead men into battle as ordered.

Since he did not have enough money to fund a campaign against the rebels, he must continue to the capital and report for duty. Jie longed to respond now.

The inn door slammed open and Shan rushed inside.

Jie smiled as his son looked around the room as if all the demons of hell chased him. After all, he is eight.

Then Shan found him, and white-eyed horror filled his son’s face.

“Papa, come outside. There’s a body!” Shan said. “A dead boy is in the garden.”

Breath left Jie as if his son had struck him, but he jumped to his feet. “Show me.” They ran out the door. His eyes adjusted to the dark as he rushed beyond the golden light spilling from the inn’s latticed windows.

A body. There’s a dead boy. Jie’s chest tightened, but he kept running through the courtyard’s gate.

Within the orchard, autumn leaves chattered like the river that brings the dead to hell. Did his ghosts crowd him now?

“Over here, Papa!” Shan gestured ahead.

Jie’s robes slapped against his legs. He slipped on fallen peaches and the smell of sour wine enveloped him. Each cold breath was visible as he left the orchard and reached the garden. At last, he slid to his knees beside the body of an emaciated teenage boy. Jie put his ear to the boy’s chest. It rose. Air squeaked from blue lips.

“He’s alive. Beg the innkeeper for hot water, Shan. Run!

Shan sprinted away.

Twelve years ago, Liu Jie had heard the river of the dead. Now, he looked at the boy in his arms, but did not see him.

He saw his sons. Their eyes were open and clear in the moonlight.

Jie clenched his jaw, but that did not stop the tears welling in his eyes.

He wished saving this boy would alter his memories, but Jie’s life was a ladder of wishes. Twelve years ago, he had failed, so now he bore a stranger’s child in his arms and ran.

Outside the inn, a ghost of cold, rank air made the boy moan. The door burst open as if a typhoon wind struck it and Jie ran through.

“Shut the door!” A guest shouted. Jie ignored the demand and followed Shan upstairs.

The innkeeper waited for them at the top of the landing. “I arranged for a separate room.”

“Thank you,” Jie said.

“Perhaps he would fare better at the holy shrine?” The innkeeper wrung his hands.

“No,” Jie said. “He’s not ill. I can feel his ribs. He needs good food, not incense.” The innkeeper bowed out of the room as Jie knelt, laid the boy down and removed his damp clothes.

Shan returned with his mother. Her hands flew to her lips at the sight of the boy.

“He is alive,” Jie said. “We need to warm and feed him and let him sleep.” He thought of the innkeeper’s concerns. “I can pay for the local priests to care for him.”

“Nonsense.” She told him in one word that she was fine, but they suffered the same demons of memory and sorrow. Jie said nothing. Instead, he prayed for the boy to gain strength as Mei fed him beef broth.

At first, the Orchard Boy shuddered and groaned. Jie ordered warm water and heated blankets by the fire. Mei swaddled her patient in steaming cloth. Together, they laid him on the room’s kang bed; a hollowed space underneath held flickering, live coals.

During their silent, unquestioning care, Shan quietly ate a bowl of rice and vegetables, offered a quick prayer for the Orchard Boy, then returned to their bedroom. When Jie checked on his son later, Shan’s arm and leg already lay uncovered. Jie tucked his child under the mound of warm cloth and returned to his wife.

She didn’t look up when he entered, but clutched the hand he placed on her shoulder. He knew the helplessness in his heart was in hers. She would not give up. Mei was stronger than he, and he had always loved her for that.

They cared for a nameless child, and neither commented on the other’s tears.

“Links to other Excerpt Monday writers”

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be aware that the links may contain material that is not typical of my site.
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The Tomb of a Megalomaniac or Great Leader

The tomb of Cao Cao was unearthed recently. Those of you who know I’ve written a novel of magical realism based on the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” might be interested to know Cao Cao is the equivalent to Hu Xiongli, my villain.

If one examines the historical facts, Cao Cao was “often praised as a brilliant ruler and military genius who treated his subordinates like his family. He was also skilled in poetry and martial arts and authored many war journals.” – Wikipedia entry.

If one looks at the literary history of China, Cao Cao appears as “a cruel and merciless tyrant.” – Wikipedia

The literary history I speak of is, of course, the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the folklore it is based on. It was written by a confucian scholar and since Cao Cao’s actions were based on anything but Confucian thought, he is villified in the Ming Dynasty novel. Since literature tends to carry more weight than straightforward history, Cao Cao is not well thought of. For instance, the Chinese way of saying “speak of the devil” is: “Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives.” The food dish typically referred to as “General Tsao’s Chicken” is in deference to him, as it is both hot and spicy. There are so many ways this man has touched and twisted the history and culture of his people, it’s fascinating to study him.

One of the quotes attributed to him is: “Better for me to wrong the world than for the world to wrong me.” That says something about his character.

In my research, I discovered a tale where he was invited to the household of a loyal retainer for dinner. Cao Cao got drunk and became paranoid as to his host’s intentions. Seeing assassins everywhere, he jumped up and killed his host and the man’s two sons, then killed the wife at the dinner table. He regretted his actions almost immediately, and gave them posthumous titles, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the face of his actions.

Nonetheless, his tomb is said to be of a modest, unadorned nature in comparison to other such burial grounds.

Read more:

Part Three: Beheading, Necksnapping

And now, the conclusion because I know you’re all wanting to know how I could redeem this situation. 🙂

To recap, Aiyu is one of my secondary characters. He’s a thirteen-year-old orphan who serves in a battle for his kingdom. He started this novel as an innocent. Lets see how far he’s come by the end of this scene, which is 3/4 of the way through the book.

Outside the tunnel’s claustrophobic embrace, the smell of blood filled Aiyu’s nostrils. Haga’s life pooled and Aiyu blindly slipped in it. He clutched the bloody, damp earth at his feet.
The stench of blood hung on him. His vision adjusted to see Haga’s sightless eyes staring into his. Aiyu recoiled. Haga’s expression was too empty to bear.
Aiyu turned and threw up in a bush. He trembled, shaking his head at the thought that he had killed with his bare hands.
His mind whirled, confused. The traitor was dead and that was good. But what had happened to Hong Aiyu? Was he a murderer now? He gagged once more and crawled to his friend’s corpse.
He arranged poor Haga’s body in an appropriate posture for the funeral pyre of Xien Ye.
“I’m sorry,” Aiyu whispered. He dug in his girdle until he found what he wanted. Six wooden dice with red and black painted dots. He placed them on Haga’s chest.
I’m not a murderer. Not a mourner. I’m another victim.
He ran to escape the memory of Haga’s simple grin and trusting expression, his empty eyes and cooling fingers.
Aiyu would play sixes no more.

End of Chapter

Yes, it’s horrific, (war is like that) but I didn’t end the chapter with the butcher’s death. That would have left the reader with a flat, unfinished taste in his mouth. Aiyu has gone from an innocent who refused to kill the enemy in battle, to killing in his master’s defense (an earlier scene) to a vengeance murder, although he also defends an entire city in killing the butcher here. I use these situations to show:
1. The horror of battle, thereby grounding the reader in my book’s reality
2. What battle/killing does to a soul – the emotional growth quotient, which further grounds the reader. (If your character doesn’t grow and change with AT LEAST every major event in your book, you’ve missed a great opportunity and your reader will cease to believe in your characters.)
3. The advancing plot

Now you can rail on me for my sense of violence and inpropriety in having a thirteen-year-old boy in such situations. LOL Seriously, if there’s anything you feel would improve this scene, please let me know.

How to Behead Etc. Your Characters Cont’d

So, you’ve found who you want to kill. Whether your character beheads them, snaps their neck or wooses out and only maims, please be sure to inform the reader what’s happened. Leave no room for doubt. Is there blood, tissue, etc? What does your character see, smell, taste and touch during this scene? They must be hypersensitive to their surroundings in order for your reader to feel anything at all.

“Open!” The door rattled. “Damn door.”
Aiyu risked another step. The traitor kicked the locked door. Aiyu edged closer. He couldn’t believe one of Xien Ye’s citizens would do this. The familiar odor of pig wafted toward him.
Voice and smell locked into place and Aiyu knew this man. This was a butcher from Xien Ye’s marketplace. When Aiyu and Zhang picked up their supplies, this man had sneered at and then insulted Zhang.
Zhang had hoisted up the little man by his lapels and shook him like a captured rodent until Aiyu had thought the man’s neck might break. The butcher had stammered an apology and Zhang released him.
The traitor was part of Zhang’s guild.
“Why won’t you open?” The merchant rattled the door. “Six strings of cash-“
In Aiyu’s mind, Liu Yoh’s white face, and Haga’s lifeless eyes flashed. Those men died for the people of Xien Ye – for this traitor.
“Grrraa!” Aiyu launched. He wished he hadn’t shouted. Too late.
The enemy whirled and blew tallow in Aiyu’s face. The flash of light let Aiyu glimpse the butcher’s thin, corded arms. One of them flailed and Aiyu’s knife clattered to the floor.
The boy ducked as the candle guttered out. Aiyu crouched on the floor until he found the traitor’s feet. Aiyu kicked up and smashed his foot into the man’s crotch.
The butcher collapsed with a grunt.
In a fury of searching fingers, Aiyu grasped the traitor’s head. He twisted hard. The neck cracked, and Aiyu leg go of the wobbly, detached head in his hands. The butcher slumped.
Aiyu struck the tunnel wall. Again. Again. He’d split his knuckles. His sobs of pain sounded distant — disconnected from himself. Rage surged again and he screamed. He took aim where he thought his victim lay and spat.
Aiyu thought he heard the spittle smack the butcher’s flesh. He stumbled the way he had come in.

Beheading, Neck Snapping and Mayhem: 101

Do you have what it takes? Learn the art of beheading, neck snapping, etc. in three quick courses:

Class One:

Don’t kill the wrong person. The following is an example of waiting until you know you’ve found a suitable person to murder.

Not that I actually practice these things. Not in real life. You got that, right?

Seriously, this is a brief scene I’ll post over the next few days. Hopefully it’s a nice, violent Christmas offering. Hmm. Maybe I should have done this for Halloween?

“The plan’s working, Haga,” Aiyu called, slowing. Haga was speechless as Aiyu passed. Then the boy smelled blood. He stopped and looked at his friend. They had played sixes on their journey west, but Haga was a huge, childlike man, near-sighted and a poor lookout, so he always drew guard duty. Since Aiyu’s age made him everyone’s messenger boy, he had developed sympathy for the simple-minded giant.
“Haga, do you want a rematch when we get to the caves?”
Haga stared at the ground. Aiyu knelt and touched Haga’s chest.
Haga slumped to the ground, dead. Why would anyone in Xien Ye kill Haga? It couldn’t be an enemy from outside the city or Xien Ye would already be overrun.
Behind Haga’s body the thick board used to bar the door fell, too. Aiyu glanced at the shut, but unbarred postern door. His answer exploded like a firecracker in his mind. A traitor from within the city was inside the passageway, breaching Xien Ye’s defense to allow the enemy inside.
“Alarm!” Aiyu clapped his hand over his mouth. Had Haga’s murderer heard him shout?
Aiyu rushed into the tunnel’s darkness, then stopped. His gasps filled the air around him like the rush of wings. The enemy would hear him. He slowed his breath and let his vision adjust to the light provided by the open door behind him. In tiny, silent rat steps, he ran.
Aiyu’s fingers twitched for a weapon. His dagger was a short eating utensil and his sword was no friend in this confined space. He pulled the knife. His arms brushed the cold walls on either side. Here at the base, the city’s wall was as wide as four oxen carts laid side-by-side. The light dimmed until his hand before him was only visible if he moved it. He slowed to a walk, then stopped.
A dim light glowed ahead, flickered and all but disappeared. He strained to hear if he had been discovered. No. The candlelight returned. He saw the partially hidden silhouette of a man and heard him struggling with rusted locks.
At last, Aiyu had found his quarry.