The Man Who Was Never Afraid
1. The Seventh Wager
Outside the walls, the wind sighed across the sand, weary of driving the desert eastwards, grain by tiny grain.
Yi Qin sipped her green tea and watched the Man Who Was Never Afraid.
She had seen his like before, elsewhere in Fei Chu. Of an evening, in a wineshop, a man would stand (slightly unsteady on his feet), and announce his prowess to anyone who might listen. He would proclaim his strength and boldness, and how he feared nothing; not man, nor demon, nor ghost.
She did not care for boastful men. But that did not mean she was prepared to let one be killed and eaten, if she might prevent it.
It had happened, in Dzangha, six times already; so she had been told. Six wagers had been made. Six boastful men had gone to the Old Willow Garden, on a moonless night. None of them had ever been seen again.
Dzangha was not a large town, but it could boast many wineshops. Yi Qin had chosen one near the western gate, where the caravans came after crossing the Takla Makan. She was quite pleased to see that she had chosen well. The Man Who Was Never Afraid was sharing his prowess and his boldness very loudly; there was no one in the tavern, surely, who could not hear him. They could probably hear him in the streets outside.
She shook her head at the folly of it. The Seven Ways promoted modesty and humility, and not without reason. Boastfulness invited challenges. To boast about one’s prowess with the sword invited some other swordsman, sensitive to his own reputation, to dispute the matter. Such disputes inevitably ended badly, for one or the other.
She stopped looking at the Man Who Was Never Afraid, and tried as best she could to stop listening, as well. Instead, she turned her attention to the other patrons. An old man; that was what she had been told. It was always an old man.
There were old men in the wineshop. Four of them sat around a table, their jong da tiles clicking furiously as they played. Another two were sharing reminiscences and cackling loudly. It was Yi Qin’s considered opinion that the hilarity of their recollections could be calculated in direct proportion to the level of rice wine in their jug.
And there was one more old man, sitting alone and quiet, listening to the hubbub.
She studied him carefully. There was nothing in his appearance that marked him out as being unusual. He had long silver hair, and a long silver moustache, and he wore simple, clean, nondescript clothes. He would have passed unnoticed in any crowd. He was the kind of man that a witness, questioned by a judge, would have been able to describe only as looking like an old man.
The Man Who Was Never Afraid had finished the latest story of his prowess, and his throat bobbed as he tipped back his bowl of rice wine. As he did so, the old man stood up, his movements fluid and easy. Yi Qin followed him with her eyes as he crossed the floor of the wineshop, and stopped, facing the Man Who Was Never Afraid.
“You are a very brave fellow,” she heard the old man say to the Man Who Was Never Afraid.
“I am,” came the answer. He was beaming with pride, at having been recognised as such; even though he had been proclaiming his boldness all evening.
“But I’ll wager you wouldn’t spend a whole moonless night in the Old Willow Garden,” the old man continued.
“And why wouldn’t I?” asked the Man Who Was Never Afraid.
“On moonless nights, a demon haunts the Old Willow Garden. A demon with a taste for human flesh,” the old man explained.
“I’m not afraid of any demon!”
“Then you are a rare man indeed.” Yi Qin could not see his face, but she suspected the old man was smiling. “But – you will forgive me – it is easy for a man to avow his bravery, as he sits in a wineshop. It is another to prove it.”
The Man Who Was Never Afraid surged to his feet, his chair crashing to the floor behind him. Every other voice in the wineshop was stilled; every pair of eyes focussed on the Man Who Was Never Afraid. Even the clicking of the jong da tiles ceased.
“Do you call me a coward?” the Man Who Was Never Afraid asked. His voice was the growl of a caged tiger.
“Please. I meant no insult. I am merely an old man, who forgets his manners.”
The Man Who Was Never Afraid did not look mollified.
“I have killed men,” he said, “for forgetting their manners.”
Yi Qin scraped her chair back, that she might move more easily, if there was need. But his hand did not move to the hilt of his sword.
“Please, allow me to make amends,” the old man said.
“What do you propose?”
“A wager. I am not a very rich man, but I have a bar of silver. If you spend the night in the Old Willow Garden, then I shall give it to you.”
“I will take that bet, old man,” said the Man Who Was Never Afraid. “You hear that, all of you? I shall spend this night in the Old Willow Garden! I am not afraid of any demon!”
The Man Who Was Never Afraid tossed down the last of his bowl of rice wine. Then he pushed himself to his feet, picked up the jug from the table, and swaggered out of the tavern.
The moment the door swung to behind the Man Who Was Never Afraid, there was a loud, collective, sigh, and the clicking of the jong da tiles resumed. Yi Qin paid these things little heed. She jabbed her thumb onto the point of one of the darts inside her sleeve.
The old man bowed, in the direction of no one in particular, and opened the door, and went outside. Yi Qin rose and followed, as far as the outside terrace. There, she removed her hands from her sleeves, and daubed the fresh blood onto her forehead. The Fourth Unspoken Word; The Word That Allows The Truth To Be Discerned. She looked at the old man, walking away along the dusty street.
The old man was, as she had suspected, not an old man at all. His true form, revealed to her by the spell, was enormous; more than seven feet in height, and with huge shoulders, and green scales instead of skin.
A Yap Na demon.
Yi Qin smiled, happy that her suspicions had been proved correct.
2. The Moonless Night
Moonless nights were not common in Fei Chu. First and Second Moons only ever showed themselves at dusk and dawn, but that still left four, in the eccentric orbits that kept astrologers busy with their calculations. Some Small Years had as many as a dozen moonless nights; some had none whatsoever.
Dzangha lay quiet and uncomfortable under the vault of the heavens. The lamps, on street corners and verandas, seemed nervous and reluctant to disturb the blackness. There were thin skeins of high cloud, and a host of stars could be seen, pinned to the sky in their unchanging wheel; but they offered no light worth the name.
Yi Qin, carrying a small lantern, made her way through the deserted streets to the Old Willow Garden. It lay near the western wall of Dzangha, and offered welcome respite from the dry severity of the plains. By day, it was a popular place; and more than one tryst took place in its pavilions, on a moonlit night. But everyone knew that, when no moon shone, demons could walk abroad; and so everyone stayed behind their shutters, with the Second Sign marked upon their doors.
Everyone, except for Men Who Were Never Afraid.
He was seated with his back to a tree. His eyes were closed; there was a jug near his right hand. His sword was stuck through his belt.
She coughed. He started, his limbs jerking in all directions; then he got himself under control, and scrambled to his feet, and peered at her.
He gave every appearance of being very drunk.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is of no importance,” she told him. “I come to offer you advice.”
He frowned. She wondered if he was trying to focus on her. It was her understanding that men who had drunk an excess of rice wine had some difficulty with their vision, as well as their balance, and their manners.
“What advice?” he said, eventually.
“That you leave this place.” He opened his mouth, as if to speak; she lifted a hand, to forestall him. “It is well -meant advice. You have, I think, taken a certain wager, at the urging of an old man. Something about this garden being the haunt of a demon?”
“I am not afraid of demons. I am not afraid of anything.” He seemed almost to inflate with pride.
“Entirely possible,” Yi Qin allowed. “But if so, then you are a fool. Fear is wisdom; the ability to overcome it is strength.”
“That’s what I meant,” he said, puffing his chest out. “I mean, that is…”
“If you stay here, you are going to die,” Yi Qin interrupted his bluster, calmly.
He frowned, and peered at her.
“What? What do you mean?”
“You are going to die. At dawn, or just before. The old man will come, and he will kill you. He is a Yap Na demon. They are very like Kap Na demons; but where Kap Na demons love the taste of fear, Yap Na demons feast on Men Who Are Never Afraid.”
“If a demon comes, I’ll chop off its head!” He made to draw his sword. It took him two attempts. He waved it in Yi Qin’s direction; it gleamed in the starlight. It was clear that he took great care of his sword, if not of his wits. She took a deep breath.
“You are very drunk. It is likely you will fall over as you attempt to lay your first blow. And if you should be fortunate enough to strike your foe, your sword will shatter on the demon’s hide, for he is protected by charms. Then he will pluck your head off your shoulders and swallow it, and then sit down to devour the rest of you at leisure.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Because I am a conjuror. And because you are the seventh man this Small Year to have taken this wager. The other six are all dead.”
“You’re lying.” His face broke into a bleary grin. “I know what it is. You’re the old man’s daughter or something. You come and tell me this story, to try and frighten me off, and then I lose the wager.”
“There is no wager. Do you really think that an old man would wager a bar of silver with a complete stranger? It is a lure; bait, that a fisherman ties to his pole. Few are the men whose eyes do not light up with greed at the thought of a bar of silver, and all the rice wine that it might purchase.”
“You could buy a lot of rice wine with a bar of silver,” the man agreed. “Hmm. I did drink a lot of rice wine. Perhaps you will be so good as to excuse me? I must attend to…a certain necessity.”
“By all means. We will continue this conversation, when you return?”
His answer was a belch. He lurched away from her, unsteadily, in the direction of the koi pond.
Yi Qin waited, standing quiet and still, her hands together in front of her.
She did not have to wait for long. There was a noise, from behind her. She turned; and found herself facing the old man. He was not carrying a lantern, or a bar of silver.
“Well. Not who I was expecting,” he said, stroking his long grey moustache. “Where is the Man Who Is Never Afraid?”
“I believe he is across by the koi pond. It would be…indelicate to explain why.”
The old man smiled, without showing his teeth.
“It is very nearly dawn. And he did drink a great deal of rice wine. I do not think our wager is invalidated by a call of nature. But tell me; why are you here, young lady?”
“I could not sleep, and thought that the cool air of the night, here in the Old Willow Garden, might soothe me,” she said. It was not terribly plausible, but she was not terribly concerned.
“You are a bold young woman,” the man commented. “It is said, you know, that demons walk on moonless nights.”
“Many things are said which are not true; just as there are many true things, which are not spoken. And, clearly, you also have no fear of demons.”
“Indeed not,” he said. His smile widened. She caught a glimpse of his teeth, which were long, and sharp, and pointed. “So there are three of us, in Dzangha, who seem to be without fear.”
“Three of us here in the Old Willow Garden,” Yi Qin said. “Who knows how many more there are, safe in their beds? Perhaps there are many Men Who Are Never Afraid in this place.”
“There are not,” the old man said, shaking his head, as if he were sad about something.
“And how do you know this?”
“Because,” he said, “I know much about the subject of fear.”
There was a puff of smoke, which Yi Qin knew was utterly unnecessary; perhaps the old man had been watching too many dramas, where such devices were always used for the arrival of demons. When the puff of smoke drifted away on the soft, relentless wind, the old man was gone. In his place stood a great, green, broad -shouldered demon, with a wide smile, and many, many teeth.
“Ah,” Yi Qin said. “It would appear that some things which are said are true.” She did not move.
“Are you afraid of me?” The demon’s voice had changed; it was deep, and bubbled with confident hunger.
“You raise an interesting philosophical conundrum,” Yi Qin said. “You see, I am a cautious woman, and by instinct, I would be afraid of you. But I am also an educated one, and I know that you are a Yap Na demon, and cannot abide the taste of fear. Therefore, knowing that I am afraid, I deduce that I am safe. My fear thus leaves me. But, paradoxically, this means I make myself palatable; and the realisation of this, in turn, raises my fear once more. So long as I am afraid of you, I am safe; so long as I am safe from you, I feel no fear. How, do you think, such a paradox might be resolved?”
“There is a way, I think,” the Yap Na demon said. “For although I abhor the taste of fear…”
“…to me,” another, very similar, voice said, “it is sweeter than honey.”
Yi Qin threw a glance over her shoulder. She had expected the Man Who Was Never Afraid to return. But he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, behind her was an enormous demon, more than seven feet in height, and with huge shoulders, green scales instead of skin, and a lot of very sharp teeth.
A Kap Na demon.
“Here is a pretty pass,” the Yap Na demon said. “If you are afraid, then my cousin here will find you delicious beyond measure. But if you master your terrors, then you are the tastiest of morsels to my palate. So I ask you again, little conjuror; are you afraid?”
3. A Paradox Resolved
Yi Qin folded her hands back into the sleeves of her overdress, and stood so that the Yap Na demon was to her right, and the Kap Na demon to her left. Even so, she could only see both by flicking her eyes from one side to the other. She addressed the Yap Na demon.
“So, this is the scheme. The true wager is between the two of you. If the Man Who Is Never Afraid truly proves fearless, then he is your prey. But if it proves that he runs in terror, your cousin here benefits. Thus one of you is always satisfied, whether the man is full of bluster or whether he is truly as fearless as he claims.”
“Just so,” the Yap Na demon said, with a nod. “I see you are not fleeing. Do I take it that you are fearless, then, and will be my food this night?” He smiled, and his teeth showed, very long, and very numerous.
“I am not fleeing,” Yi Qin agreed. “But perhaps it is terror that roots me to this spot. In which case, it is your cousin who will feast before dawn.”
To her left, she heard the Kap Na demon slavering eagerly.
“Hold, cousin!” the Yap Na demon said. “She tries to trick us. Would a terrified woman prattle on so, about matters of philosophy?”
“Fear can loosen the tongue. And she is shaking,” the Kap Na demon said. “The frightened ones always shake.”
“It is cold,” the Yap Na demon pointed out. “Perhaps she is shivering for that reason.”
“She is afraid,” the Kap Na demon maintained. “Think of it. She is doomed to be eaten by one of us. There is no way in which she could master her fear, when it will not save her. The girl is my food.”
“And yet she stands. She has not screamed. Your food always screams, and runs. She is clearly brave, if foolish, and so she is mine to feast upon.”
“Leave her be, demons!”
The roar came from the Man Who Was Never Afraid, who had returned from the koi pond. He had his sword out, and brandished it unsteadily. He belched.
The demons laughed. Yi Qin felt for the point of a dart, under her sleeve. She could employ the Tenth Unspoken Word, to ward herself from harm; but she could not protect the swordsman. Not unless she could reach him, and mark him with the appropriate sign, before one of the demons did.
“I have a suggestion, cousin,” the Kap Na demon said. “I will accept that you have won our wager; this man, clearly, is fearless, even if that may be ascribed to the rice wine. It is therefore my proposal that you should eat him. The sight of this, surely, will be more than this girl can stand; and therefore, as she screams, or flees, I will eat her. Thus we will both feast.”
“A very satisfactory resolution, cousin,” the Yap Na demon said. “Truly, you are wise.”
“You are too kind.”
“Shall I begin?”
“Please do, with my blessing.”
The Yap Na demon sprang towards the Man Who Was Never Afraid. Powerful green legs propelled its bulk high into the air; the lipless mouth pulled back, to display that great array of very long, very sharp teeth; the hands were spread wide, the talons so sharp that they seemed to slice through the pre -dawn mist. Yi Qin jabbed her thumb against the dart, knowing as she did so that it was futile; that the Man Who Was Never Afraid had doomed himself by his stubbornness, by his refusal to heed her well -meant advice.
She was wrong.
The Man Who Was Never Afraid shifted his balance and, with a clean economy of movement, slid his blade through the air. The body of the Yap Na demon hit the ground with a very loud thud, and twitched a little. The head of the Yap Na demon rolled under a bush.
Yi Qin stared at the Man Who Was Never Afraid. He was utterly still, one leg extended, the other bent, his sword a perfect extension of his arm, the gleaming blade stained with green ichor.
He was smiling, and he did not look remotely drunk.
“What trickery is this?” the Kap Na demon roared.
“You speak of trickery, after the game you have played?” the swordsman said. “It is wisely said, that if you are willing to give a thing, then you have no cause for complaint when it is given unto you in turn.” He straightened, and took a step towards the Kap Na demon. It was a very steady, purposeful step.
“You will pay for what you have done to my cousin!”
“And for what you have done? Men have died here, by your tricks. It is you who has a price that remains unpaid.” He lifted the sword. Where the ichor did not cover it, it gleamed. “I would see that price exacted.”
The Kap Na demon took a step back. The Man Who Was Never Afraid matched it, his sword out in front of him.
“Tell me, demon,” Yi Qin said, unable to stop herself from smiling, “are you afraid?”
The Man Who Was Never Afraid sat in one of the pavilions of the Old Willow Garden, cleaning his sword with a handful of leaves. Yi Qin sat a respectable distance away from him. Outside, the eastern sky was beginning to lighten; Second Moon was gleaming, heralding the approaching dawn.
“That was well done,” Yi Qin said. “But why did you not reveal the truth to me, when I was attempting to get you to leave?”
The Man Who Was Never Afraid looked up.
“I thought perhaps you were the demon in a different guise. I am no conjuror; I do not know any of the Twelve Unspoken Words. I rely on my sword.” He went back to cleaning it.
“With which you are, certainty, uncommonly competent,” Yi Qin acknowledged. “And you are more cunning than I had given you credit for. I must offer my sincere apologies, that I took you so readily for a fool.”
“You are kind,” he said, smiling. “But your apologies are not needed. It is helpful to play the fool. Demons are easily gulled, and grow overconfident, if they see a boastful man in his cups.”
“You have played this game before, then.”
“From time to time. It is a good way for a man to make a reputation. A demon -slayer can command a good price, as a bodyguard, or overseeing a caravan.”
“It is a dangerous way to make a reputation.”
“I am a swordsman. Danger will always be my companion. Of course, I am a Man Who Is Never Afraid, so I laugh in the face of danger.”
Yi Qin tried not to smile at his manner, and failed.
“And the jug of rice wine?”
“The first bowl I drank was rice wine. But the jug was only water.”
“Clearly, you have a talent for drama, as well as for swordplay. So; you have defeated not one demon, but two. What now, for the Man Who Is Never Afraid?”
“Back across the Takla Makan, I think. There is a caravan of silk and jade, gathering here. A man who spent a moonless night in the Old Willow Garden should be welcome, riding at its head. And you? Where are you bound, conjuror?”
“Where I am required,” she answered him, quietly.
“Then our paths lie apart. Well.” He got to his feet. “It has been an honour, noble lady, to have had your company.” He bowed. She stood, and did the same.
“I wish you good fortune on your travels, swordsman.”
“And to you, conjuror.” He said the word with respect; not, with the scorn, or fear, or suspicion that she heard so often. “But before we part, there is one thing I must ask. Tell me; when you stood between the two demons, were you truly fearless, or were you afraid?”
Yi Qin smiled.
“That,” she said, “would be telling.”
Outside the walls, the wind sighed across the sand, weary of driving the desert eastwards, grain by tiny grain.
Brian Dolton has spent the last twenty years trying to amass enough interesting life experiences so that his writer’s bio will make him appear far more interesting than he actually is. He has ridden a camel in the Sahara, stayed in a Zen monastery on a holy mountain in Japan, and played volleyball on a sandbar in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Now these distractions are out of the way he can finally concentrate on sitting at a computer and writing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish