The Sea Devils
by Richard Messer
The rain continued its steady fall, leaving the world outside of the hotel window tinted in gray. Wu Hsing Jade stood at the open window, clad in a hotel bath robe and drying her long dark hair with a towel, enjoying the smell of the rain as it pattered on the stone balcony. Behind her through the partially-open bathroom door Jade could hear Ming Xue going through her ablutions.
The ride up the river had been slow and uneventful. Ming Xue had finally gotten hold of her temper and tried to make small talk with Jade during the journey. The lepine doe went along in calming her companion’s fears after the incident at the customs office. When the barge docked at the private quay of the Oriental Hotel, the rabbit femme noted that the American canine had gotten off with them and a few others, before the barge continued up the flood-swollen waters to other hostels.
The Oriental was the largest and oldest of the foreign-owned hotels in the Siamese capital. Established by the British as a sign of their impirial might, it was used by Westerners and wealthy Asians as home during their visits to this part of Asia. Jade and Xue played their parts well as a well-to-do American and her Chinese servant and were well-received by the.concierge. They were shown to their room and left with extra bath towels and robes due to the rain. Jade did a quick appraisal of the suite. When Madame Xin Xue made the reservations she had insisted on the two of them sharing a room, with the cover story of Jade Bannon never staying anywhere without her maid-servant close at hand.
the gray curtain of rain, Jade could barely see the distant walled
compound of the Grand Palace and the golden stoupas,
or spires, of the temples that were the heart and soul of Siam. It
had been years since she had visited that place with her mother and
father. She was about twelve years old at the time, and it was one
of the happiest times for her and her family... until that incident,
days later, that changed her life forever.
A sharp pain flashed through her left eye at the memory. It left the lepine gasping as she stumbled to the vanity table by the bed. The pain dulled slightly to a throbbing ache that caused her to fumble at her eye and remove the glass cover. Jade sat panting, left hand covering her eye as she leaned on her elbow.
<Mistress? Is something wrong? > The rat femme stood in her robe at the doorway to the bath, frozen in place with towel wrapped around her head.
Laying the painted glass eye cover on a cloth kerchief, the rabbit femme sat up to face her companion. Slowly Jade took her hand down to expose the black pearl that filled the eye-socket.
Ming Xue gave a squeak and took a step back upon seeing that orb. Her hand came up to weave a sign before her. To her right eye Jade could see the fingers moving in an intricate pattern. But within the black orb were traces of blue-green fire that trailed from those fingertips.
“You have some magical skills,” Jade said quietly.
The rodent femme stood looking stunned – fear etched on her countenance, ears folded back, and tail wrapped around her legs.
The lepine said nothing more, only motioned for her companion to take a seat on the edge of the bed. With slow reluctance Ming Xue edged her way to the bed. She never took her attention from that black orb. Once the young rat sat down Wu Hsing Jade took a deep breath and began her tale.
“Thirteen years ago I was last here with my mother and father, visiting my grandmother and other members of mother’s family. It had been the most wonderful two weeks in my life at that time. We got to see much of the country and the sights; the palaces, temples, the vast rice fields and canals. With my father working for the American Navy in Hawaii, getting this time for the vacation must have involved a lot of string-pulling. What I did not know at the time. was that our being here was sanctioned by the Navy with the vacation being the cover story.”
Ming Xue frowned. “Cover story?”
Jade nodded, reaching for her cigarette case and holder. She offered a smoke to the rodent femme who shook her head. Waving out the match, the doe blew smoke before continuing.
“My father is – was – an American cottontail rabbit and had spent time at the American embassy here in Bangkok as one of the military attachés. That was after the war and he was part of a committee looking into the effects of the Spanish Influenza in this part of the world. He had met my mother during one of his slow walks around the city. He had been interested in the low death rate within the Chinese community here and had entered my grandmother’s shop to ask his set of questions of us. The way my parents tell of their meeting involved Father’s stumbling over the questions in very poor Cantonese.
The doe paused to use the ashtray. “After several minutes of embarrassing himself, Father threw up his hands and said, ‘Why am I bothering you good people over this nonsense?’ To which my mother replied in clear English, ‘Because you are trying too hard?’”
“After that they began seeing each other as often as Father’s work would allow. Grandmother saw right off that this match had been made, and quietly set into motion the upcoming wedding. They told him that Mother and her sister had been to school in America as well as on Spontoon Island, and was used to the Western ways. Afterwards, Aunt Yun stayed on the islands to run an apothecary while mother came home to Bangkok.”
Jade paused to take a deep drag, sucking the smoke in deep before blowing it towards the ceiling.
“When they arrived in Honolulu, Father was called to his superior’s office to explain this sudden change in his life and what compelled him to get married. Once he had finished his explanation, Father was reassigned to an investigative branch that dealt with the Far East.”
Ming Xue looked puzzled. “Why was that?”
“It seemed that the commanding officer had received an extensive letter from Madame Xin Xue. As Father later explained the letter pointed out that Lieutenant Bannon would be most helpful in investigating the illegal trafficking of stolen art and historical artifacts in Asia, as well the smuggling of arms and opium through Siam. When I was old enough to understand, I learned that this letter was just a cover story for the investigation of far more important items of value and great power.”
Stubbing out her cigarette Jade set aside the holder before touching the side of her face by the black orb. “You have heard of the tale of Huang Di’s Black Bead?”
Ming Xue slowly nodded. “Yes, every Chinese knows this tale of the Yellow Emperor. Why do you ask?”
Jade smiled. “Because what I’m about to tell you covers the true events of the Bead.”
The rat femme was puzzled. “In what way, mistress?”
“When Huang Di lost the bead from his rosary he had sent several minor deities to search for it. When Xiang Wang, the Formless, found it, he took it back to heaven.”
“And the emperor was so pleased that he gave it to Xiang Wang to keep for him,” finished Ming Xue.
The lepine nodded. “And that is the official version of that myth. But what truly happened is this: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, heard of this missing bead and set about trying to recover it for himself. Changing into a young goddess, Sun Wukong played a prank on poor Formless and stole the bead away. When the god discovered the theft he flew into a rage and sent several other gods after her. To escape pursuit Sun Wukong swallowed the bead and changed into a fish before jumping into a river.”
The young rodent sat silently for a moment. “And does this story have something to do with . . ." She paused before making a gesture towards Jade’s face.
Knowing she had her companion hooked, Jade leaned forward to continue. “The Monkey King now had an object of great importance but wasn’t sure what to do with it. He spent days in meditation trying to resolve this riddle. Soon it came to him that it could be made into a powerful talisman. So he set about investing some of his magical powers into it, allowing him instant access to spells and cantrips that could be called forth in a hurry.
“It was said that Sun Wukong spent a whole year in putting some of his energy into this bead. And the result was that the bead swelled in size from the investments, to what it is today.” Once again the lepine femme touched the side of her head where the black orb was nestled. “And now it is called Sun Wukong’s Tear.”
“Then why is it called that?”
Feeling better that her head was not aching now, Wu Hsing Jade arose from the vanity and began pacing in front of Ming Xue.
“After awhile the Monkey King became smitten with a lovely female monkey named Li Ling. Legend has it that her skin was a dark pink and not brown, and her fur was pale as well. Feeling love for the first time in his life, Sun Wukong began courting Li Ling, promising her a place beside him on the throne. She accepted and they soon were wed. The other monkeys who use to tease Li Ling for her appearance now found her to be as wise and caring as their king, and declared their devotion to her as well.
The Eurasian doe went back to the vanity for another smoke. With holder in hand she paused in front of the rodent femme.
“One day Sun Wukong had to leave on some urgent business in a neighboring province and left the bead with Li Ling for safe keeping. Before he left, the Monkey King gave her instructions on how to use the bead in case something should happen to her or their kingdom. Days after he left, some demons were found sneaking around the palace, having heard of the bead and wanting to steal it for its powers.
“Li Ling called forth the palace guards and a great fight ensued. The other monkeys fought bravely, but the demons soon had the upper hand. Fearing for her life and the lives of those within the palace, Li Ling went to get the bead from its hiding place. However, the demons bested the guards and soon caught the queen. They beat and tortured poor Li Ling to find out where the bead was kept. But she wouldn’t tell them. Then a shout from the courtyard told of Sun Wukong’s return. While the demons tried to decide what to do about this early return of the Monkey King, Li Ling broke free and hurtled herself out of a window. She fell to the paving before her startled husband. In terror the demons ran away.”
“How horrible,” cried Ming Xue. Jade nodded, letting smoke dribble out of her mouth.
“Before she died Li Ling told Sun Wukong about the demons trying to get her to tell where the bead was. She died smiling up at him, saying that the bead was safe. Those guards who had fought the demons gave descriptions of them, and told their king how the queen stood behind them, extolling them to keep a stout heart and brave front in the fight. For ten days the kingdom was in mourning for their beloved queen. And all that time Sun Wukong never left her side until she was entombed. Then began another ten days of preparations for war, as the Monkey King began to track down those demons that robbed him of his wife. When it was learned that they were hiding in some caves far to the North, Sun Wukong led the way.”
Taking another drag the rabbit doe let the smoke out with a deep sigh.
“The fighting was fierce, and many a brave monkey died while battling the demons that had joined the first bunch. But the Monkey prevailed, taking back the heads of those responsible for his queen’s death and posting them on stakes at the border crossings as a warning.
“Afterwards he sat in meditation before realizing that the bead was responsible for all this death. Taking it from its hiding place, Sun Wukong made his way into Li Ling’s tomb to bury it there lest others would try and steal it. Before placing the bead into the coffin, the Monkey King said a long prayer over his wife’s still form, his tears bathing the black bead. It was said afterwards that the bead had drawn every salty drop into its black surface before being sealed away forever.”
The rodent woman dabbed at her eyes with the towel. “Such a sad, sad tale. But how did you get it?
Wu Hsing Jade knocked ashes into the ashtray. “As I had said, I was only twelve when my parents and I came to visit my grandmother and other relations here in Bangkok. I had only heard the stories of this wonderful city from them and Aunt Yun. Then one day they left me with Grandmother, saying there was some business Father had to take care of up north. They said it was for three days."
Wrapping her arms around herself Jade gave a shudder before continuing in hushed tones, her one good eye taking on a far-away look.
“When they returned, both Mother and Father were unnerved by something that had happened while they were away. They kept saying that we needed to pack and leave because of trouble coming down this way. I hated to leave, as I was having so much fun this far from home, and didn’t want to leave Grandmother. That was when some natives from the mountainous North Country broke in and began firing guns at us.
“In our mad dash to get out the backdoor, a stray shot caught me across the left eye, taking most of it away.”
Ming Xue gave a squeak of fear and surprise, pressing the towel to her mouth, her brown eyes wide.
“I don’t remember much of what had happened after that. The side of my face was on fire from the pain. I vaguely recall my father carrying me, while Mother and some others were shooting back at those who followed. We somehow managed to ditch our pursuit and took refuge in someone else’s house, someone that had dealings with Grandmother. We couldn’t go to the police, as those who wanted us dead would be watching there. Then Father did something that was hard to explain afterwards. He said he didn’t know why, but was compelled to do it.”
“What was that?” was the soft question from the bed.
Staring off into the far corner, Jade brought her land hand up to touch the side of her eye that held the pearl. “It seemed that the reason they went north was to recover the Tear from some warlord that planned on using it to take control of Siam, and maybe Burma as well. They later told me that they managed to get out without trouble, once they had Sun Wukong's Tear in their possession. But it seemed that this warlord had found out about their being there and sent some of his furs after Mother and Father. Anyway, while I lay screaming in my father’s arms he took the Tear from his coat pocket and began placing it over my ruined eye.
are you doing?’ my mother had cried out to him, for his actions
made no sense to her.
“’What I must do!’ was his reply as he set the pearl on my face. By now the Bead had changed – as the tears Sun Wukong’s shed for his queen turned it into a black pearl.
“The moment the pearl touched my face the pain was gone and a numbness had settled over my body. My eyelids opened up wide and the pearl slid into the empty socket. It was later said in hushed tones that whatever remained of my eye oozed out until the Tear settled into its place.”
The rain on the balcony was the only sound in the room as the young rat woman regarded her employer with awe and fear. The lepine took one last pull on her smoke before pulling it from the holder.
“Then what happened?” the younger woman asked in soft words.
Stubbing the end out Jade set the holder aside again before regarding the other. “Father couldn’t truly explain why he did what he did, other than to say that he felt someone, or something, was making him put the Tear into my eye socket. As soon as that happened, they said I passed out. When I later awoke – it was about ten hours later – I learned that those who had been pursuing us had disappeared. The people of the house had gone out to check and came back saying that the neighborhood was quiet, that whoever had been following were nowhere to be seen. So we stayed with them for a day until Grandmother could send someone to fetch us back to her place.”
“How did you get out of the country, then?”
“Father sent word to the American consulate for help in leaving Siam. His story was about some problem with an important personage up north who thought Mother and Father had taken something of his. The military attaché knew my father and had some vague idea about stolen artifacts they were trying to recover. He managed to spirit us out to a waiting steamer bound for Hanoi.”
Ming Xue was now over her fright and had sat up with acute attention. “Then what happened?”
Wu Hsing Jade gave a throaty chuckle as she began taking off her bathrobe.
“Later, young lady, later! For now let’s get dressed and head down to get something to eat. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!”