Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.
We hope you enjoy editor and host Marguerite Kenner’s favorite story from 2015, The Tale of the White Tiger by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt and narrated by Tracey Yuen. The story originally aired July 5, 2015 as Cast of Wonders 168.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Tale of the White Tiger
by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Blind Li Xiao surveyed the marketplace. The sensor net embedded in his storyteller’s robes fed signals directly to his brain. The citizenship transponders exactly matched the number of heat signatures. A world firmly loyal to the Empire, then. Or one too afraid to act otherwise.
A passive scan showed at least two peacekeepers in the market. Probably more secret police. He would have to be careful in his story selection. Something from one of the official chronicles. Something he could use for his own purposes.
He beat his staff on the ground three times. The bells at the head chimed out their message. Be still and hearken. Blind Li Xiao is about to begin his tale. He chanted the introductory poem in his clear, high voice:
“When wicked ministers subvert the good,
“The Systems lose the beautiful and true.
“On Heaven’s River vast, White Tiger sails,
“Her course set by the pirate Madam Hu.”
An audience gathered in front of Blind Li Xiao. Children pressed close, their grandparents behind them. The young women and men stood at the edge, feigning disinterest or fearing entrapment. Blind Li Xiao swept the head of his staff in a broad arc as he spoke.
“The stars are vast and Heaven is wide. Yet the Mandate of Heaven is clear. It is the will of Heaven to unite the Eight-Thousand Systems under the rule of the Son of Heaven. Those who support this rule prosper; those who oppose this rule do so in vain.”
One of the peacekeepers pinged Blind Li Xiao’s citizenship transponder. He would have smiled if he were not already into his story. The peacekeeper would find everything in order. Blind Li Xiao was a storyteller licensed for all of the Eight-Thousand Systems. What more he was would not be revealed by a simple ping.
“No one knows which of the Eight-Thousand Systems gave birth to the girl-child who became Madam Hu. She was not NeoHan. She was not one of those blessed by the Dragon Star nor one of their seed. That much is certain.
“At a young age this girl was sold as a pleasure slave to Captain Hu of the Imperial Navy. In spite of his questionable morals, Captain Hu extended Imperial justice throughout the Eight-Thousand Systems and brought low the foes of the Empire. Three times he led fleets into the wild Jianghu region, three times he fought the bandits there, and three times he returned victorious, bringing many captives and exotic goods back to civilized systems.”
A young girl caught Blind Li Xiao’s attention. She sat straight, her gaze fixed on the storyteller. Her transponder gave her age as twelve years, though she seemed younger on other scans. Malnutrition, perhaps. Blind Li Xiao turned his sightless eyes toward the girl as if he was speaking only to her.
“During these twelve years of campaigns the young girl learned how to fight. At first she only watched Captain Hu and his men. But twice the bandits of Jianghu boarded Captain Hu’s own ship, and twice the girl saved the man’s life: once with a kitchen knife, and once with a jeweled dagger he had given her. The night she saved his life a second time, Captain Hu took the young woman to be his wife.
“Thus the pleasure slave became Madam Hu. And no one might remember her name if Captain Hu had not entered the Jianghu region a fourth time. If he had never set eyes on the planet Binan Suo, poets to this day might be singing the praises of Admiral Hu, his wife mentioned in passing, if at all. But after Binan Suo, everything changed.”
Madam Hu could not believe what her husband had done. She knew Captain Hu better than anyone, knew that the only thing separating a pirate from a Navy captain was an Imperial commission. She had lived life with him. And then she saw what her husband had done on Binan Suo. She heard the stories the survivors in the ship’s cargo hold told.
“To Admiral Hu!”
Madam Hu ducked into an alcove to let the two drunken officers pass. The ship was en route to the Imperial Planet, where her husband would receive a hero’s welcome and the long-coveted rank of admiral. What better reward for a butcher and rapist and enslaver of women. She would not let him do to any others what he had done to her.
She would have given her husband a final chance to explain, but what she saw in her husband’s bedchamber demanded action. Madam Hu slew her husband in his sleep with the jeweled dagger he had given her. When she was sure that he was dead, she hacked off his right hand. She pressed the severed hand against the control panel in the captain’s room. A few inputted commands and the ship was cut off from the rest of the fleet. She made her way from the captain’s bedchamber to the cargo hold.
She met no one on her errand. It was the middle of the ship’s night. The captain’s hand gave her access to the hold. Prisoners blinked in the light spilling from the open door.
“Quiet. All of you. We can take the ship. But only if we act quickly and quietly.”
Madam Hu explained her plan to the prisoners. They did not seem inclined to believe her until she began unlocking their serving collars with the captain’s hand. At that they fell quickly into line, some taking their places throughout the ship, some following Madam Hu to the bridge.
The captain’s hand gave Madam Hu access to the bridge. The lone lieutenant on watch duty turned around instantly. His face went white.
“Do exactly as I say and you will not get hurt.”
The lieutenant swallowed and nodded. At Madam Hu’s command, he opened the doors to the officers’ quarters. That was the prisoners’ cue to do what must be done. She had the enlisted gassed in their barracks. With in minutes it was all over. Madam Hu activated the communication system.
“This ship is now under the command of Madam Hu. If you surrender you will not be harmed.”
The whole ship seemed to pause, then came the response. A woman’s voice. “The ship is ours, Madam Captain. We had a brief problem in the officers’ mess, but that’s all cleaned up now.”
Only then did Madam Hu permit herself a smile. She turned to the lieutenant of the watch. “Set a course for the Jianghu region.”
“But the fleet will notice we’re breaking off.”
“By the time they realize what has actually happened, we will be long gone.”
The lieutenant made the course correction. Madam Hu looked over his shoulder and nodded when she was sure the course was true. She rested Captain Hu’s hand on the control panel of the ship.
“Transfer the command codes of the ship to me.”
The lieutenant blinked. Then he looked at the severed hand. He entered a few commands into his console.
“It’s ready for you.”
Madam Hu removed her husband’s hand and put her right hand in its place. She closed her eyes as her palm was scanned. The computer chirped merrily. The ship was now truly hers.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I’m sorry.”
A confused look crossed the lieutenant’s face. Quicker than a jungle cat, Madam Hu slit the man’s throat. The women with Madam Hu looked at her and at what she had done. Madam Hu nodded at the body.
“A man who has betrayed one master would have betrayed us too.” She cleaned her dagger on the control panel of the ship.
“And thus was Captain Hu’s ship rechristened the White Tiger with traitor’s blood. The ship slipped away from the rest of the fleet into the wilderness. When the gassed crew awoke, Madam Hu offered them a chance to join her rebellion. Those who refused, she locked in the cargo hold like common prisoners. The remainder she ordered to train her people in the running of a fighting ship. On a distant planet, she sold the crew loyal to the Empire into slavery. And so began Madam Hu’s career as a pirate.”
Blind Li Xiao had the audience now. He could feel their attention on him.
“Madam Hu started small: ferrying bandits from one of their bases to another, looting transports bound for distant colonies, capturing ships of prisoners heading from the Jianghu region into the Inner Systems. As the skill of her crew grew in piracy, the original sailors chaffed under Madam Hu’s rule. The woman caught wind of an impending mutiny. Knowing the risks of an open fight on a space vessel, she challenged the leader of the mutineers to a duel.”
The girl in the front row had inched closer to Blind Li Xiao, probably without realizing it. Blind Li Xiao had chosen his audience well.
“For some time Madam Hu had adopted the custom of wearing mannish clothes and bearing a sword. The Empire’s champion must have been astonished to see such an unwomanly woman wield her blade, for it is said that she killed her opponent in the first minute of the duel. Madam Hu then hunted out the leaders of the mutiny and had them exposed to the coldness of space. The remainder of the original crew she sold into slavery, joining their fellows. From that moment on, the only men to board the ship — with one exception — were either passengers or cargo. The White Tiger became crewed only by women.”
Interest radiated from the girl. Curiosity tinged with sadness and wonder. Here was a story. Stories intersecting stories. Blind Li Xiao hoped he would have the chance to discover how the girl’s story intersected with the story he now told.
“From that point on, the White Tiger entered into history. Madam Hu’s role in the Great Jianghu Rebellion is most difficult to ascertain. Of course there is her famous voyage with Lady Bao, but that is a story for another time.
“Such was the age in which Madam Hu lived that she came to be seen as a defender of the oppressed. Unlike our own blessed age, in those days the people’s tears and cries to the Son of Heaven for justice did not reach the Jade Throne. Wicked and unrighteous ministers and governors dared to usurp the will of Heaven. Madam Hu upheld justice and righteousness, but only as understood by her pirate’s code, and only so far as it pertained to women.
“And women flocked to her. Escaped slaves and failed courtesans, tradeswomen and colonists. No woman who found herself on the White Tiger was ever turned away. As the story of Lady Bao demonstrates, Madam Hu would even refuse profit on occasion if the voyage aided a woman’s vengeance.
“For many years the planetary ministers of the Outer Systems and the Governor of Jianghu tried to capture Madam Hu and bring her to trial. But being unjust themselves, they of course had no success in capturing her. Corrupt ministers of the court kept the reports on Madam Hu from reaching Imperial eyes. However, they could not keep Prince Shen from seeing the record of their incompetence.”
Prince Shen sighed. Reports, endless reports. When he had chosen bureaucratic service over the military life, Prince Shen had not imagined that the foundation of the Empire was a mountain of paperwork. The further he rose in the ranks, the more the paperwork seemed to multiply. The life of a bureaucrat was far different from life as the fifth son of the Emperor’s third wife. Yet everywhere he went he was constrained by duty. Prince Shen sighed and turned the page.
He frowned as he read the next report. He reread it. This could not be. He snatched up the report and hurried to the office of his superior, the Inspector for Outer System Affairs.
“Have you read this?”
He threw it onto the Inspector’s desk. The man glanced at the title of the report and grunted. “It’s old news.”
“Old news? This…this Madam Hu has broken countless laws and is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Imperial citizens.”
The Inspector gave a barking laugh. “Thousands? Don’t exaggerate, Deputy Inspector. Next you’ll be telling me you believe the rumors that she defeated a dozen imperial cruisers with her one little ship.”
“Of course not.” Prince Shen did not say that this was the first time he had heard of such rumors. How many reports had there been about Madam Hu? Why was this the first time he had heard of her? “I apologize for over-reacting.”
“Think nothing of it, Deputy Inspector. Though you may want to consider that holiday I’ve mentioned to you before. You’re working too hard.”
“Undoubtedly, Inspector. Thank you, Inspector.”
Prince Shen returned to his desk, but instead of finishing his work for the day, he ordered his subordinates to pull every report they had on Madam Hu. Some of them gave him odd looks that made him wonder how many reports on the piratess they had hidden from him in the past. But they brought the reports. Stacks of reports that covered half of Prince Shen’s desk.
Prince Shen read every word of the reports. As he read them, he realized that, reading what was unsaid in the reports, Madam Hu’s actions could be understood as responses to the unrighteous behavior of others. The thought came into Prince Shen’s head that he would very much like to meet this piratess. If greed only moved her, he would himself bring her to the tribunal for execution. But if a righteous heart motivated her crimes, he would use all of his influence to win an Imperial pardon for her.
The next morning he asked his superior for his holiday time. The inspector was surprised, but granted the request. Prince Shen dressed simply, in the unbleached silk of a journeyman merchant, and carried an unadorned sword. On a single-person craft, he set out for the Jianghu region. He was in the region only a few weeks when he came across a warship in an unexpected place. His ping received no electronic banner from the ship, but a scan revealed a white tiger painted boldly on its side.
Prince Shen had prepared for this moment. He signaled a distress code. He thought for a moment that the White Tiger would pass him by, but at last it turned and headed for his ship. Its cargo bay opened like a giant maw to swallow his small craft whole. Prince Shen shuddered. He was now truly in the tiger’s jaw.
Guards armed with pistols and swords met him at the door of his vessel. He should not have been surprised to see these guards were women, but he was. They stood nearly as tall as he was, in crisp black uniforms with no insignia. They bade him come with them. Though they did not make him give up his sword, it was clear what the result would be if he should draw it.
The bright colors and sounds evidenced in the corridors made it clear to Prince Shen that the White Tiger was more than a base of operations for its crew. It was a home. He even saw women playing with children, all of them girls. Their mothers snatched them back as Shen was marched past.
At last they reached a large chamber. There were many seated women in the room, but Prince Shen only had eyes for the woman on the raised chair in the center. She could only be Madam Hu. Prince Shen would have recognized her anywhere, in spite that she dressed no differently than the women who guarded him.
He had not expected her to be so beautiful. She seemed but a young woman, and when she rose, it was with a feline strength and beauty.
“State your name and your business here.”
Prince Shen smiled his most charming smile. “I am but a simple merchant, conducting an exploratory survey for my company. Thank Heaven that you found me. I was almost out of fuel.”
Madam Hu frowned but did not say anything. The woman on her left spoke. “You are far from the normal trade currents.”
“The greater the risks the greater the profits, milady.”
Madam Hu seemed to consider his words. The woman on her right spoke. “What sort of company do you work for?”
“We are interested in developing mining rights in the Jianghu region.”
Madam Hu’s frown deepened. “You will wait here while we consider your answers and examine your craft. Consider yourself fortunate. Not many men enjoy the hospitality of the White Tiger. Fewer men live to tell the tale.”
The two women on either side of Madam Hu smiled wicked smiles at her words, but Madam Hu herself simply studied Prince Shen. Were he less than a prince, he might have shrunk from such a stare. He still had the urge to fall to his knees and confess the truth. He wondered if the rumors of Madam Hu’s mystical powers were true. But still he was able to meet her gaze without flinching and say nothing.
The wait seemed an eternity. At last one of the pirates ran into the room and had a whispered conversation with Madam Hu. He thought he saw a hint of sadness in her eyes, but her face betrayed no other emotion. The pirate stepped back, and Madam Hu tossed something before Prince Shen.
It tumbled on the floor. When it came to rest, he knew all was lost. Such a small thing. A dragon carved from the finest jade, bearing his name in Imperial script. The seal that marked him as an Imperial prince had also sealed his fate.
Before any of the pirates could speak, Prince Shen stepped forward. “I demand trial by combat.”
This demand threw the pirates’ council into an uproar. A gesture from Madam Hu silenced all.
“I accept. If he wants a quick death, I shall give it to him.”
Before any of the other pirates could object, Madam Hu was out of her chair with her sword drawn. Prince Shen had hardly time to draw his own blade before she was upon him. Steel rang against steel. Prince Shen had no time to worry that his opponent was a woman. He was too busy fighting for his life.
Prince Shen had had the finest fencing instructors in the Eight-Thousand Systems. But as it is a capital crime to kill a prince of the Empire, he had never had to fight in such a fashion before. He acted without thinking, creating a flashing dance of thrust, feint and parry. His heart threatened to burst in his chest, sweat rained down from his body, and still he fought on.
What had begun as combat became a martial dance. There was no Madam Hu, there was no Prince Shen. In their battle, they became greater than just two souls. They had found an equal, each in the other.
“Prince Shen lowered his guard for an attack. Madam Hu pierced his heart through the ribs. She gasped out as she hit, for Prince Shen’s sword came up under her ribs, piercing her heart as well. The man and the woman fell inward, each impaled on the other’s sword. They died in each other’s embrace.
“The crew of the White Tiger tried to carry on Madam Hu’s legacy, but without her leadership and strength of will, they soon went their separate ways. Some found a home with others bands of the Jianghu bandits. Some returned to their old ways of life. Some simply faded from history entirely.
“So ended the career of Madam Hu, pirate captain of the White Tiger. May her death serve as a warning to all who would rebel against the will of Heaven.”
Applause. Blind Li Xiao bowed deeply. Already he could hear the clink of coins at his feet and feel the addition of part-credits to his Imperial account. People stood, preparing to leave.
“No. That can’t be how it ends.”
The girl. She stood with her hands on her hips, no doubt frowning and staring at Blind Li Xiao defiantly.
“Who is the storyteller here, young lady?” Laughter from the crowd. “And how would you have the story end?”
“But you are right. There is more to the story.” The crowd stopped, turning to Blind Li Xiao with interest. “There are those who believe that at the moment of Madam Hu’s death, the Immortal Zhongli Quan appeared to her. Zhongli Quan asked Madam Hu if she wished to be brought to Heaven. She answered that she would rather sail the River of Heaven forever, fighting against the unjust treatment of women. These people claim that when an innocent woman cries loudly enough to Heaven, the White Tiger may sail down to her. Madam Hu at the helm, Prince Shen at her side.”
The crowd was silent. Blind Li Xiao smiled. “But that is just a superstition of the uneducated.”
The crowd laughed. They continued their gifts of coins and part-credits, walking away one by one. At last Blind Li Xiao stood alone. Alone with the young girl.
“So, did the other ending satisfy you, young miss?”
The girl remained silent for a moment. “If I understand that part of your story, it means that the tale hasn’t ended.”
“I mean, the White Tiger is still sailing the River of Heaven. But you don’t believe that, do you?”
Blind Li Xiao smiled and patted the girl on her head. “Help me pick up the coins, child, and I will reward you.”
The girl hesitated for a moment, making Blind Li Xiao wonder what sort of life she led. But she bent down and gathered up the coins at the storyteller’s feet. Blind Li Xiao opened his pouch and the girl dumped them in. All of them, another mark in her favor. Blind Li Xiao cinched up his pouch and tucked it into his sash. He could feel the girl’s confusion and disappointment.
“Come. Walk with me.” Again the hesitation. “I promise that no harm of any sort will come to you while you are with me.”
Blind Li Xiao bit his tongue to keep from laughing. He cleared his throat and raised a hand to Heaven. “I swear by the River of Heaven that binds together all the Eight-Thousand Systems that no harm of any sort will come to you while you are in my company.”
The girl took Blind Li Xiao’s hand. Together they walked beyond the town limits. When Blind Li Xiao stopped and turned to the girl, he felt her tense. He made a soothing sound.
“My child, I do not know what life you have led, but I can guess. You have no father or mother. Or you have parents but they do not love you. They care only for the money your body brings them. You cry yourself to sleep at night. The only escape you find is looking up at the stars and dreaming.”
Large, hot tears fell from the girl’s eyes. She said nothing.
“You’re wondering how I know all this. How does an old blind man know my story? Sad to say, it is a story all too common. But take heart, dear child. We are made of stories — our own stories, and the stories that intersect with ours. Look up.”
On silent wings descended a shuttlecraft. At the helm stood a woman in mannish clothes, a sword on her hip and her consort at her side. The girl let go of Blind Li Xiao’s hand and ran toward the shuttle. Blind Li Xiao bowed to Madam Hu and then threw back his head and laughed. He took hold of his staff and headed toward his next story.
About the Author
Donald lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. His short fiction has appeared in numerous print and online venues, such as Necrotic Tissue and the Wily Writers podcast, as well as the anthology Techno-Goth Cthulhu. He regularly serves as a judge at the weekly one-on-one writing competition at The Writers Arena. He strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scale but big in impact. If you enjoy this story, you could let him know at his website or via Twitter.
About the Narrator
Tracey lives in Singapore, which he encourages you to realize is not a part of China but a separate country with a multi-ethnic society of which Chinese speaking people are one component.