Thank you, AmonKorra and Loopy for your comments! Your thoughts and encouragement helped me get this next chapter out
IN YOUR FACE, DEPRESSION! SUCK IT, I GOT THIS CHAPTER FINISHED! YEAH!
I am ridiculously happy, in case you can't tell
Just...blood, sweat and tears, I tell you. Thank you thank you thank you for being patient with me, for your encouragement, and for telling me that I could do this.
Dammit, I'm crying again. Just enjoy!3.
“And that’s how I made a winged boar,” Sun concluded rather smugly.
Park carefully side-eyed her. It was difficult to gauge when Sun was telling the truth or simply pulling his leg for a laugh. Firstly, nothing could be put past her and, secondly, Park doubted whether she actually had
a sense of humour. That kind of thing was reserved for humans. “I’m sure Lord Bei Fong was overjoyed.”
“He was,” Sun confirmed, “until I showed him the bill. The fool refused to pay me.”
Park winced sympathetically. Sun was going to cost him a fortune also. “I bet that went down well.”
“Not for him,” and she gave a predatory smile. “Though he should consider himself lucky I left him the other one.”
Park started. “The ‘other one’?”
“Yes,” Sun said matter-of-factly. “I mean, men come with two but you hardly need both
Park blanched. “You mean you cut off one of his-“
“Ah!” Sun piped happily. “There it is.”
They had arrived at the doors leading to the Grand Secretariat’s offices. Park plunged into a cold sweat at the sight of those imposing double doors.
“On second thought, maybe you should just speak to him, Sun,” he suggested. “I mean, this was your idea.”
“Oh, do man up, Park,” Sun sighed, exasperated. “I honestly have no idea why you are so frightened of the Grand Secretariat. After all, he’s only a man.”
Sun pushed through the doors and Park reluctantly followed. Just a man? Ha!
If the Grand Secretariat was just a man then the Avatar was a just a 12-year-old boy that had been stuck in an iceberg all these years. HA!
The anteroom was grandly furnished, as opulent as any for the King, if a trifle smaller. There was another door directly ahead, flanked by two Dai Li agents. That was an extravagance not even afforded to the King. Park gulped unsteadily.
Almost immediately someone was at their side.
“Hello!” the bubbly woman greeted. “I am Judi. It is a pleasure to meet you both!”
Park frowned. There was something wrong with her face. Like a wineskin stretched to bursting. The mouth was cranked too wide, the eyes were shiny and moist, the nose flared a little with excitement. It took Park a moment but he finally pinned down what was wrong.
Judi was far too happy.
“We…” Park turned to Sun and his voice trailed off. Sun was…terrified
. There couldn’t be any other word for it. He knew that look having worn it himself countless times during the past four weeks. But for Sun to be scared…
He spun, scanning the roo, trying to follow Sun’s line of sight. He expected to see an army of flesh-eating spirits, a host of undead animals – Sun’s past victims – or, worst of all, her mother.
But there was no one in the room, nobody but himself, the Dai Li agents and-
“Excuse me? Sir?”
He turned slowly back to the attaché. Her face was simple, wide-eyed earnestness. He looked back at Sun who, if it could be believed, actually sank from the sight of her.
He looked back at Judi. Then Sun. Then Judi.
“Sir?” Judi asked through a smile. “Your appointment?”
At least one thing was clear from this situation: That none of it made any sense. But Sun was not going to be any help at the moment. Park would have to do most of the talking. Fortunately performance was something he thrived on. He was a showman and unashamedly so. It was time to step up.
Park inhaled deeply, puffing out his chest. “No appointment, my dear.” He gave the attaché a knowing smile. “But the Grand Minister of Sciences hardly needs one.”
The embellishment of title and the inclusive smile were small tricks on both aweing and drawing the audience in.
Judi was unperturbed. “All visits to the Grand Secretariat are by appointment only.” The smile flashed at him. “No exceptions.”
Park tut-tutted a finger at her. “Now now, my dear, don’t say that. Our time is both precious and short. Plus,” and here he sidled up and put his arm around Judi and smiled at her slyly, “we’re on urgent business for the King. Wouldn’t want to get in his way, wouldn’t we?”
Judi turned her head to his, that smile still plastered on her face. “No exceptions.”
Park’s eye twitched.
Well, charm was getting nowhere; the woman was like a stone. Perhaps he needed a little force. “Madam, we are going to the Grand Minister, and there will be no exceptions
Judi was still for a moment, apparently processing.
“Very well,” she said finally and moved behind her desk.
Park dropped his head to hide his smile. Gusto, that was all he needed. Gusto and a bit of bluster.
“I shall fill out an appointment for you,” she continued.
He started. “What?”
“Our next available time is…” she scanned down the pages of a book, flipping them over and over. Finally she raised her head to him, that insipid smile never leaving. “6 months from now.”
“Would you prefer a morning or afternoon meeting?”
Park gaped at her. Judi smiled back.
“I’d like to talk a moment with my assistant,” Park said finally.
He didn’t wait for the nod from Judi. He turned, grabbed Sun by the arm and practically dragged her along. He stopped them a few steps closer to the exit.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” Park asked.
Sun’s eyes were fixed on Judi. Park sighed and gave her a nudge.
“What?” Sun blinked, coming to.
“Do you need to tell me something, Sun?” Park asked again. “What’s with you and the attaché?”
Sun’s face contorted into violent, angry horror. “She is an abomination.”
“A carcass that walks, Park. Her mind is as decomposed as a week-dead wolfbat. Can you not smell the stench of death rising from her?”
“Look at those spiritless eyes, that vacant smile.” Sun’s honeyed-tongue dripped with venom. “She is evil.
Park looked at Sun. Then at Judi. Then back at Sun.
Mad. That was it. They were both mad. Park eyed the stone-faced Dai Li. Were they snickering
at him? Well he, Park, Ministerial Advisor of the Sciences and Magician Extraordinaire would not
be made a laughing stock. What had Sun said?
“Time to man up.”
Park grabbed Sun’s hand and dragged her to the inner door. Judi exclaimed.
“Ah!” Park stabbed a finger at her.
She shut up.
The Dai Li guards stiffened.
“Move!” Park swung his hand.
Like some kind of strange people-bending magic, they shifted.
Park put his hand against the door and shoved. They slammed open.
“I require the use of all
your Skunkbears and require them now
The Grand Secretariat and Minister of Cultural Preservation, Long Feng, coolly raised his eyes from his papers.
Park swallowed. Perhaps…perhaps this hadn’t been such-
Park blinked. “Really?”
Long Feng cocked his head. “Now get out.”
No man had left that chamber faster than Park had.
The eyes were black and soulless. To stare into them was to fall into an endless void, a hole in the fabric of the cosmos. And yet, it seemed that if one reached further, beyond the void, one could find the first stones lying on the path of eternity. There was truth at the end of that road. Truth and enlightenment and-
The koalasheep blinked.
Kim emerged from his trance-like state. He pulled his head up and it took him a moment to reorientate. Yes, that was right. He was in Vui’s Stock and Trade; a smelly, dry and dimly lit place. He frowned at the penned koalasheep. It bleated at him.
“Filthy animal,” Kim tisked.
He turned back to the office. Vui had been gone for a while, apparently counting the stock in her, ahem, private
wares. She had offered for Kim to join her but he had quickly declined. The longer he was in the company of Vui the more of a pain it was. Quite literally. The developing bruises on his shoulders were testimony to that. He stepped closer to the office. “Vui? What is taking so long? I don’t have-”
The warehouse doors slid open, letting in a stream of sunlight. Kim squinted, trying to make out the new arrivals. Their features were shadowed; Kim could only make out that they were two men of enormous girth. Something about the two made Kim prickle with anxiety. They hadn’t seen him and Kim closed his mouth and ducked beside the animal stalls to keep it that way.
“Vui?” one of the rasped.“You there?”
Kim frowned; did he know that voice? They entered the warehouse and made their way to the office. As they passed the stalls the koalasheep began to bleat loudly, their noses rose to the air. What? What could be causing…?
Wafting ahead of the two newcomers was a smell.
Awareness dawned on him. Kim dove in to a stall, heedless of the muck, and pushed three koalasheep out the way to make space for himself.
“Vui?” the newcomers called again. “Come on, woman; where are you?”
Kim peeked his nose over the stall rail. Here, closer to the warehouse’s windows, he could make out the features of the two men. And, despite the fact he was squatting in koalasheep pat, their hideous odour as well. Faces like pulverised meat and a smell that reeked of food slop and garbage.
The Scullery Twins.
Kim shuddered uncontrollably. Before there was Sun and her chickenpigs there were these two; Luong and Truong. They were vicious, nasty guttersnipes who delighted in nothing more than tormenting those smaller and smarter than them. That included practically everyone but they had a certain something for Kim. He tried to lower himself quietly down again. The animals were agitated, though, and he unfortunately sat on one of them. There was an outraged bleat and Kim got a hard shove in his backside. He crashed loudly against the wooden rails.
Kim curled himself up into a ball and begged the universe that the Scullery Twins thought it was just the animals.
He had no such luck.
“Well, well, well,” one of them said.
“Well, well,” the other finished.
They grabbed him and hoisted Kim to his feet.
“If it isn’t the Professor,” the one of the right side; Kim called him Luong.
“Sifu Smartypants,” the other, Truong, continued.
“Out of the book…”
“…and in the big, wide world.”
Their grins made Kim shrink in on himself. They made him feel so small in so many ways.
“Professor Kim, did you like that red bean cake you ate the other day?” Truong asked.
“The one we made for you?” Luong continued.
“With extra special love…”
“…and attention to detail?
Kim whimpered. The koalasheep around him bleated madly.
“Did you, Sifu?”
Kim remembered the cake. And the squirrelrat head that had been inside it. The Twins grinned viciously and one of them pulled something from his pocket.
“Oh look at that, Luong. I’ve got another red bean cake on me.”
“How fortuitous, Truong.”
Luong turned his grin on Kim. “’Course I’m willing to share. What do you say, Sifu? Care for a bite?”
Kim desperately tried to pull away but they held him at bay. With high-pitched laughter they pushed the cake at Kim’s face.
“Help!” Kim yelled. “Help!
Like some spirit emerging from the other world Vui put her thick hands around the necks of the Scullery Twins. Their laughter cut off with a strangled squawk.
“Boys, boys, boys,” she said cheerfully. “What’s all the ruckus?”
Both of the Twins opened their mouths. Vui’s hands tightened and they gurgled. “Ah, ah, ah, one at a time.”
She eased her hand slightly on one of their necks. The twin swallowed roughly. “N-nothing, Vui. Just talk- er, talking.”
“Chatting, eh?” Vui eyed them both with a smile. “How absolutely amiable of you both. True. And in the pens, no less.”
Her eyes turned to Kim. “Better hop along, Little Man. And tell your Mistress that I’ve got that order settled for her. It’ll be delivered by tomorrow night.”
Kim nodded jerkily and awkwardly squirmed his way between the Twins to get out of the pen. He ran for the shed doors, before stopping to look back. The sun, however, did not reach far enough into the interior to make out Vui and the Twins. Kim still raised a hand in thanks and ran for the trains.
Park practically bounced off the walls.
“Did you see me, Sun?” He beamed. “I seeped
authority in that room. I commanded it! The Grand Secretariat fell
before my orders.”
Sun was withdrawn and silent.
“Oh, please.” He smiled mockingly at her. “Don’t tell me you’re still sulking. About that girl, um, J-”
“Don’t say that name, Park!” she snapped.
He grinned. “You mean, Juu-”
He gasped as Sun grabbed him by the collar and shoved him against the wall. “NOT THE FACE!”
“Listen to me, you scat smear,” Sun hissed. “I haven’t seen horrors; I make them. But that
She dropped him like a sack of potatoes and shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. “That was a nightmare.”
“Huh.” Park straightened his collar. “Didn’t think anything could spook you.”
Sun raised her eyebrows. “I am
Sun frowned. “I seem to recall only a few minutes ago someone squealing in panic as they ran from the Grand Secretariat’s office.”
Park straightened. “I didn’t squeal
Sun shrugged impassively. “Could have fooled me. I’ll have to think of different punishment if you don’t pay me at the end of this. Doing the same to you as I did to Lord Bei Fong seems out of the question now.”
Park’s faced darkened several shades of red. “How dare
And then Park swallowed his anger and his colour dropped to white.
“How dare I what?” Sun asked. “Park?”
But Park’s gaze stared beyond Sun. A man, unhealthily thin, approached. He was dressed in white robes smeared with dark stains. His eyes latched on to Sun’s and a smile slid across his face like oil.
“Hello, Nguyen,” Park muttered out of a clenched jaw.
Nguyen’s smile took on a greasy edge. “Hello, Park.”
“Don’t you have something to deep-fry?”
Nguyen oily smile slipped only a little. “Who’s your lovely companion?”
“Out of your City Ring.”
His smiled widen and he held out a hand to Sun. “I’m Nguyen, Culinary Head of the Palace.”
“Responsible for your cold breakfast this morning, Sun,” Park huffed.
“Sun?” Nguyen asked as he took her hand. “That’s a lovely name. I promise you, Sun, that from now on I’ll personally make sure your meals are not only delivered on time but with my personal touch also.”
“Eww,” Park shuddered.
Nguyen turned to him with a flat expression. “Are you quite done with your childish banter?”
Park opened his mouth and then shut it with an angry click; Nguyen had already forgotten him.
“If you don’t find it too presumptuous of me, I’d love to invite you to dinner tonight, Sun.”
Park butted into his view. “We’re busy. Working.”
“Actually,” Sun said. “I’d love dinner.”
Nguyen’s greasy smile widened. “Excellent! If work is on your mind you can tell me all about it. But I think your thoughts shall be occupied with the delicate wonders I can show you through food. Your taste buds will scream and melt and then gasp for more.”
Park felt his cheeks grow hot. “Sun!
Sun smiled. “A date.”
Nguyen bent and kissed Sun’s hand before slipping away.
Park eyed Sun disbelievingly. She smiled to herself happily and began to walk away. It took her a moment to realise he wasn’t following. She turned back to him. “Coming?”
“What was that all about?” Park demanded.
“A date?” Park sputtered. “With Nguyen
“Yes,” Sun said. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes!” Park said. “Very much so! That man is my arch nemesis!”
Sun burst into peals of laughter.
“I’m not joking, Sun,” Park said.
“I know,” Sun said through giggles. “That’s what makes it so funny.”
Park snorted. “That man has caused me more trouble than you can imagine. He’s evil incarnate.”
“No,” Sun said with a smile. “Truly?”
Park clenched his jaw. “You don’t know him like I do, Sun. Poisoned meals, sabotaged experiments, getting his bully boys to tear apart our laboratory and offices.”
“Sounds fascinating,” Sun replied. “I’m looking more and more forward to dinner.”
“Yes, and so is he,” Park huffed. “Did you hear him? He wants to know what we’re working on, Sun. So he can ruin it
“Paranoia doesn’t suit you as well as it does Kim, Park,” Sun stated.
“I’m serious! Sun, he’s ruined countless experiments of mine all in the name of getting points with the King.”
“And you can honestly say you haven’t done the same, Park?” Sun asked.
Park’s temper burst. “Are you comparing me with him
? That grease pit
“That’s getting rather personal now,” Sun remarked. “Where’s your authoritarian nature, Park? Your command.
Something popped like a fizzing firecracker in Park’s head.
“Fine!” He threw up his hands. “Fine! Go to dinner with him. See if I care! Mark my words, though, Sun. He’s not after you because he’s interested in you.”
Sun raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“No!” Park yelled. “No sane man could bear to keep company with cold-blooded mad scientist who butchers animals for fun! I think I’m
losing my sanity the longer I work on this project. Before you know it, by the end of this I’ll be threatening to eat people’s hearts and drape myself in gizzards! Ha! Hahaha!”
A tremendous rush of adrenalin flooded Park. He had wanted to tell her that for so long. He felt absolutely invincible.
But the look Sun gave him made the adrenalin wash away as quickly as it had come. Was that hurt
in her eyes?
Her honeyed voice, though, was frigid cold. “That’ll be a sight. But I’m afraid I won’t see it. Enjoy your last few months of life Park. It gives me pleasure to think that in a short while you’ll have your head crushed slowly by a boulder.”
She turned and walked away.
Park felt his temperature drop. “What? Where are you going?”
“After dinner?” Sun answered without turning or breaking stride. “Home. Good bye, Park.”
“Home?” Park repeated. By all the Spirits, what had he done? “Wait, Sun? Sun!”
He found himself rooted to the spot, though. What had he been thinking
? The stress and anxiety of the past few weeks had just burst out of him like a broken dam. Great Spirits, what had he done
Killed himself, that’s what.
“Park! Park, there you are!”
That was Kim, heaving for breath as if he’d run the whole way here from the Outer Ring.
“Park, I got the order through to Sun’s supplier – she’s amazing; you need to meet her – and the Outer Ring was as horrible as I imagined, and I think I almost discovered the secrets of the universe in the eyes of a koalasheep and then the Twins showed up and they were asking questions and there was a red bean bun and, Park? I think we’re in trouble.”
Park watched as Sun turned corner, disappearing from view. “I know.”