– CHAPTER 18 –
Po Kong's Return
Although Po Kong was still upset about having to return from Japan earlier than she had planned, it was good to be back to China. Of course, it could never be compared to Japan, but, somehow, it didn't seem as bad as before. Not when she had such a fun companion. The trip back had been quite pleasant with Yamaoh by her side, and at least she would soon have the chance to announce their engagement to the rest of her family.
Yamaoh watched his surroundings with great interest. Po Kong could not fathom why, for there was nothing special about this region in particular – just a few trees, a stream, some mountains far away, and a village.
Though, if she weren't in such a hurry, she wouldn't have minded letting him admire the scenery.
"I am starving," she remarked. "Couldn't we hurry up a little? Come on, I'll show you around later."
Yamaoh gave her a smile. "Yes, I am hungry, as well. Oh, I know! How about we race to your palace?"
"But if you get ahead of me, how will you know where to go?"
He shrugged. "You said we just had to go straight ahead."
She sighed, knowing it was true.
"Besides," he continued, now with a sly smirk, "do you really have such a low self-confidence that you believe you are going to lose?"
"No way," she snorted.
"Want to bet?"
Before she could reply, he broke into a run towards where she had indicated the palace was located. She shouted out a protest and ran after him. Both were aware that this was ridiculously childish, but they were too hungry to care about such minor details.
"Ahh, life is good," purred Khed, leaning back on a heap of soft cushions and closing her eyes in contentment. She was having a wonderful and relaxing day.
The other four occupants of the room, however, did not share her joy, precisely because they were reluctant parts of it. Hsi Wu was crouching before her feet, filing her thick, black claws, with an expression of deep contempt and disgust on his face. Next to them, Bai Tsa's expression mirrored that of her youngest brother while she painted the claws on the sand demon's right hand in blood-red. Xiao Fung was behind Khed, massaging her shoulders and looking extremely bored. Tso Lan stood just a little away from the group, fanning the sand demon (in reality, it wasn't that warm there, but Khed hadn't been able to think of anything else for Tso Lan to do), and although he appeared to be indifferent as usual, his furrowed brow, glowing eyes, and tense posture betrayed his aggravation.
The door burst open and Khed opened her eyes to see her new fiancé, Dai Gui, come in bearing a bowl full of grapes. He stood before her and offered her the bowl, growling, "Here it is."
"Here it is, what?" she said.
Dai Gui grunted and amended, "Here it is, Mistress."
She accepted the bowl graciously and gave her fiancé a sweet smile. "Purrrfect. Now, bring me some dates."
Dai Gui began to growl again and his eyes glowed. Khed's smile turned into a malicious smirk and she waved her finger in the earth demon's face. "Ah-ah-ah! You do not want your father to know you tried to assassinate an Egyptian princess, do you?"
Bai Tsa rolled her eyes in exasperation. What she wouldn't do to leave this room, even if only for a couple of minutes... And here was her brother, wasting his precious chance.
"Just go already, Dai Gui," she hissed.
Dai Gui sighed and did as he was told. Pleased, Khed gestured at Tso Lan. "Enough with that fanning; I'm even beginning to feel cold. Come feed me the grapes."
The moon demon arched an eyebrow. "Would it not be more appropriate if you had your fiancé do that instead?"
"Hmm, I suppose," she said, running a finger over her chin as if contemplating the idea. "But you know what?" She turned to look at him and leered. "You are much cuter than him."
Neither Bai Tsa nor Hsi Wu could hold back a smirk, amused by Tso Lan's obvious dismay at being called "cute". Xiao Fung's shoulders shook as he struggled to hold back his laughter.
"How flattering," murmured Tso Lan in a deadpan voice.
"Stop complaining, Brother. It could be worse," said Hsi Wu. "I mean, look at me! How come I've got the worst task, anyway?"
At that moment, the door opened again to admit not Dai Gui, to everyone's mild surprise, but Tchang Zu. The thunder demon stopped for a moment upon taking notice of his siblings' activities and watched them for a while, until finally exploding: "What on Earth do you think you are doing? Is this some kind of joke?"
"No, dear brother, this is some kind of blackmail," replied Bai Tsa dryly.
Tchang Zu was in silence for the briefest of moments while he recalled the exchange he had witnessed the previous day. Then, he was thundering again: "You're actually going to let her enslave you like that? You are a disgrace, a dishonour to our family, a shame to all demons! If there is anyone you should be serving, that would be me!"
"Why don't you get rid of her, then, so you can reclaim your rights as the tyrant of the family?" asked Hsi Wu. It wouldn't be so bad for the siblings if that actually happened, for they would get rid of Khed as well as Tchang Zu, who would certainly be punished for Khed's assassination.
Before Tchang Zu could say anything else, the entire palace shook. Having long since got accustomed to such occurrences, the siblings merely sighed in a long-suffering manner, whereas Khed looked mildly alarmed.
Tchang Zu shouted so loudly that he could probably be heard all over China, "Dai Gui! Stop that at once! You know you cannot dig tunnels near the palace!"
The door opened once again and Dai Gui came in with another bowl. "But Dai Gui is not doing anything!" he shouted back nearly as loudly, but just as annoyed.
"Then what –"
"Earthquake!" deduced Bai Tsa, covering her head when pieces of the ceiling began to fall.
Hsi Wu realised this earthquake was quite stronger than any other he had gone through and decided to fly outside, where it would be safer. However, as soon as he got to the window, he sighted something in the far horizon, grinned, and let out a chuckle.
"What is so funny, Hsi Wu?" Bai Tsa wanted to know.
The sky demon turned to her and announced, with an air of triumph, "The reinforcements are here."
A booming voice, almost as strong as the tremors, followed Hsi Wu's statement.
"I win! I win!" it shouted victoriously.
Yamaoh bent over and leant on his own knees as he tried to catch his breath. Then, he looked up and smiled sarcastically. "Do not be so juvenile," he said.
Po Kong chuckled. "Says the one who suggested this childish game in the first place. Do not be a sore loser, Yamaoh."
"Po Kong!" shouted a distant voice. They looked up to see a group of demons clustered together at one of the many windows of the palace. Three of them – namely Hsi Wu, Xiao Fung, and Bai Tsa – waved at the mountain demon. Po Kong smirked and gave them a small wave in return.
"Your brothers and sisters, I assume?" said Yamaoh.
Po Kong nodded and headed to the main entrance of the palace, gesturing at him to follow her. "Come on in. The sooner we get in there, the sooner we will get to eat something."
By the time they got in, her family was already there, waiting for the two demons. Yamaoh eyed every one of them curiously, but kept quiet and patiently watched as they greeted Po Kong first.
"You are back earlier," commented Tchang Zu, surprise evident in his voice. "We did not expect you to return this soon."
"You should have told us you were coming," said Tso Lan. "We would have prepared a proper welcome feast."
Po Kong stared at them in surprise before directing her gaze towards Hsi Wu and raising a questioning eyebrow. "You didn't tell them I was coming?"
"What, me?" he asked in puzzlement. "And how on Earth was I supposed to know you were coming?"
Po Kong opened her mouth to say, You're the one who told me to come, you dumb twit! However, she froze before the words could leave her mouth. Although Po Kong would never admit it out loud, Hsi Wu wasn't that stupid. Also, he was giving her what appeared to be a meaningful look. Po Kong thought fast.
Well, at least she tried to.
The other siblings were staring at her, perhaps a trifle warily.
"Yes?" prompted Tchang Zu.
"You see..." She hesitated a moment longer before finally explaining, "I sent a bird with a message saying I was coming back –"
"It must have got lost!" said Hsi Wu, pouncing on her words. "Or killed! Or intercepted! You know how it is," he told his siblings casually.
Only Xiao Fung and Dhai Jiang nodded, whereas the rest of the demons continued to grow suspicious.
"You sent your message to Hsi Wu?" asked Tchang Zu in disbelief. "Why him?"
"Err..." said Po Kong helplessly.
Fortunately, Hsi Wu came for the rescue once again. "Because I'm always flying around and bound to find the messages that are sent to the palace," he replied, flailing about in what, to everyone else, probably looked like exasperated, theatrical gestures, but, to Po Kong, looked like he was physically grasping at metaphorical straws in desperation. "And she knew I'd probably see it first, because I told her before she left that I'd be waiting for any messages from her." He turned to her, grinning. "Isn't that right, Sister Po?"
The mountain demon was silent for a couple of seconds before finally blurting out, "Right! Of course. Yes. What he said. That's what happened. Yes."
"All right..." murmured Tchang Zu, with just the barest hint of suspicion.
"Who's that, Sister Po?" asked Xiao Fung, pointing at Yamaoh, thankfully changing the subject.
"Oh! This is Okasaka Yamaoh, the hill demon. It was his family that hosted me in Japan," she said, gesturing at him to come closer.
Yamaoh stepped forwards and bowed. "It is an honour to meet you all."
"Yamaoh, this is Tchang Zu, the thunder demon and my eldest brother," began Po Kong, indicating Tchang Zu, who bowed back. She proceeded to introduce the rest of the family, and each of them bowed to the Japanese demon when she spoke their names. "Tso Lan, the moon demon and my second eldest brother, and his fiancée, Liu Yue. Bai Tsa, the water demon and my younger sister, and her, er, fiancé, Dhai Jiang. My three younger brothers, Xiao Fung, the wind demon, Dai Gui, the earth demon, and Hsi Wu, the sky demon." She paused when she found herself face-to-face with a feline demon. "And you must be Khed, Dai Gui's fiancée, am I right?"
The feline demon folded her arms huffily and stuck her nose in the air. "That's Khedebneithireretbeneret to you."
Po Kong blinked. "All that... is your name, is it?" You poor thing, she thought.
"Yes," said the feline demon proudly. "Khedebneithireretbeneret, the sand demon, princess of Egypt."
"Nice," said Po Kong, unimpressed, "Po Kong, the mountain demon, princess of China." She bowed mockingly, smirking. Khed narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her nose, but offered no further comment. Leaving her be for the moment, Po Kong took a quick glance around. "Our father, Shendu, Mei Liang, Mr. Wuong, and Shii Nah seem to be absent."
"Father is 'taking care of important matters', Shii Nah is taking a stroll in the town, and Wuong went to Nepal," said Tchang. "And I have no idea where the dragons are."
"No one knows," added Bai Tsa. "They have been doing this for a while now. They leave without warning and come back late in the night."
Po Kong gave her an odd look. "Are you sure they're not just... you know."
"Well, they are engaged, after all, and we all know how impatient those two are. They've probably got tired of waiting for the marriage."
"Hm. Yes, that must be it."
Despite her words, Bai Tsa looked doubtful. Po Kong was about to ask what she had in mind, but then suddenly found herself as the target of not only one, but three pairs of Meaningful Looks. Bai Tsa, Hsi Wu, and Tso Lan were as close to screaming, "Later, Po Kong! Later!" without actually making any sound or opening their mouths as it was possible. How odd.
Good grief, she was too hungry to deal with this.
"You know, I could really do with that welcome feast right about now."
"So, let me see if I understand," said Po Kong, her voice muffled as she munched some pastries. The feast had been over only half an hour ago, but it was Po Kong's belief that no time was the wrong time for a quick snack. "You tried to kill that Khed demon, and now she's blackmailing you?"
"That's the gist of it, yes," said Hsi Wu sullenly.
Po Kong sighed. "I'm so disappointed in all of you, especially you, Tso Lan. You are supposed to be the wisest in the family. You should have known better."
They all looked down gloomily. Po Kong watched them, disapproval clear in her glowing eyes.
"I mean," she continued, "you didn't even try to make it look like an accident. You just went and attacked heads on. No subtlety at all. And you still had the nerve to criticise me when I used to do that myself. Hypocrites."
"We were desperate to prevent her from getting to the palace," explained Dai Gui.
"And we were certain that no one would ever find out, because there would be no survivors or witnesses," added Bai Tsa.
"And all would have gone right, if only Khed didn't have regenerative powers," said Hsi Wu, spitting the sand demon's name.
"Well, I'm sorry, but you should have seen it coming. Going about murdering royalty is risky enough, but you didn't even know what you were dealing with. 'Know thy enemy,' rings any bells to you?"
"But aren't you going to help us, Sister Po?"
"You brought that on yourselves, so I don't see why I should get involved."
"But didn't you come all the way from Japan just to help us?"
"Would you really let her treat your own family as servants?" whined Xiao Fung.
"We can't rely on anyone else to help us," added Dai Gui.
Po Kong ignored them and stuffed her mouth with more pastries.
"Oh, come now, Sister," said Bai Tsa, slithering closer to the mountain demon. "We know you want to get rid of her as much as we do. She is really unpleasant, isn't she?"
"I do admit that she's not the most amicable demon in the world," conceded Po Kong. "But then again, amicability isn't exactly a demonic trait, and she could have been a lot nastier. All things considered, I think she was comparatively civil, even."
"Poor naïve Po Kong," sighed Bai Tsa. When her elder sister eyed her inquisitively, the water demon elaborated, "Of course she was comparatively civil to you. She's a sneaky backstabber. She saw how strong and dangerous you were and knew she should avoid being in your bad books. She's the kind of creature who would be civil to potentially dangerous enemies and then insult them behind their backs." She patted Po Kong's arm sympathetically. "I heard what she said about you, though."
"What? What did she say about me?" asked Po Kong, curious despite herself.
Bai Tsa shifted awkwardly and leant closer, her voice dropping to a whisper, "She called you fat."
Po Kong's eyebrows shot up. "She did not."
"She did, too," said Bai Tsa, nodding firmly, a grim expression on her face. "'A big, fat pig,' were her exact words."
"I heard it, too," said Hsi Wu softly, sounding almost apologetic.
Xiao Fung and Dai Gui frowned in puzzlement. The former looked at the latter, who shrugged and shook his head.
"How come we didn't hear that?" asked Xiao Fung. "We were sitting closer to her than Hsi Wu..."
"I've got a very good hearing, as you well know," snapped Hsi Wu. "She wasn't speaking loudly, either."
"She said the same thing about Yamaoh at end of the feast," murmured Tso Lan, almost to himself. "She probably thought no one was within earshot; she did not see me there."
Po Kong's eyes glowed as she fumed silently.
"I..." she said after a moment, hesitantly. She looked down at the now empty tray of pastries, looking very upset. She stood up suddenly and stomped towards the door.
Alarmed, the others straightened up.
"Wait! Don't go after her just yet!" shouted Bai Tsa. Po Kong looked over her shoulder, frowning in confusion.
"I'm not. I'm going to get more pastries."
After Po Kong's heavy steps had finally faded, Xiao Fung turned to Bai Tsa.
"Khed didn't really say that, did she?" he asked in suspicion.
Bai Tsa shrugged. "Not as such, no. But I'm sure she must have thought it at some point, and it's the thought that counts, right?"
After Bai Tsa and Hsi Wu successfully got Xiao Fung and Dai Gui to leave and Po Kong returned with another tray of snacks, they made sure the door was locked and that no one would be eavesdropping from the window. Po Kong seemed confused about such secrecy, but made no comment.
Lowering her voice again, Bai Tsa spoke. "There is one more thing that we are concerned about, Po Kong."
"It's about Shendu and Mei Liang," said Hsi Wu darkly. "They're up to something."
"You did mention that in your letter," said Po Kong. "It's the main reason why I decided to come back. You said someone was in danger?"
"We are not sure about that," said Tso Lan. "However, their behaviour is very suspicious."
"They're always together, away from the family," continued Bai Tsa. "We've seen them trying to catch a rabbit –"
"– an extraordinarily fast rabbit, mind –" supplied Hsi Wu.
"– and they may or may not have brought home a magical tiger that split me into two with opposing personalities –"
"– and Shendu has been reading books about the Chinese zodiac as if his life depended on it. He also had one about transfer spells."
"What's worse, they get along with She-Whose-Name-Is-Ridiculously-Long," muttered Bai Tsa. "I bet they're allies. And if they aren't, they will be. It would be so like them."
Po Kong shifted uneasily, her face unusually anxious. "You don't think they're planning to kill someone in the family... do you?"
"We don't know. But whatever it is they are planning, it can't be good," said Bai Tsa.
Hsi Wu, who was perched on the windowsill and had been glancing outside every so often, seemed to have seen something interesting. The others fell silent, lest it was a possible eavesdropper. However, the sky demon looked rather pleased.
"Father is back!"
As per the tradition, the family gathered in the dinner room, only this time it wasn't Yan Kwang who was introducing the newly-arrived to the family, but rather the other way round. Yamaoh was exceedingly polite and Yan Kwang almost immediately took a liking to him. The lord of the demons seemed to be in an excellent mood, and the atmosphere was light like it hadn't been in centuries, despite Khed's presence and Dhai Jiang's leering at Bai Tsa. Half of them thought it was due to the two dragons' absence, although that – as well as Shii Nah's absence – had been the only thing that upset Yan Kwang. All members of the family should be present in these meetings, he felt. When they returned, he would have a serious Word with them.
All of which made Bai Tsa so gleeful that she barely got annoyed with Dhai Jiang.
Eventually, Yamaoh and Po Kong exchanged slightly nervous smiles and rose from their seats.
"Lord Yan Kwang," began Yamaoh, "I would like to ask for your permission to have your daughter's hand in marriage."
Yan Kwang did not seem surprised at all by his request. Quite the contrary, in fact; he looked like he had been expecting this all along. His lips twitched upwards slightly in a quasi-smile.
"I see. And does my daughter wish to marry you?" he asked, a solemn expression on his face. It was clear that, although he had addressed Yamaoh, the question was directed at Po Kong. The mountain demon nodded and bowed her head, a small smile on her lips.
"Yes, I do, my father," she said.
"Then you have my wholehearted approval and my blessing," said Yan Kwang, now smiling openly.
"He had this all planned out," whispered Hsi Wu to Xiao Fung while the new couple thanked Yan Kwang. "That's why he let her go to Japan. He had arranged for Yamaoh's family to host her."
"She still got to make a choice, somewhat," replied the wind demon forlornly.
"Indeed," said Bai Tsa, having overheard their conversation. She was leaning over the table, shoulders sagging, looking even gloomier than Xiao Fung. "Father knew Po Kong would like this demon, so he arranged for them to meet and spend time together. And she could have refused him, if she wanted. She had a choice, and now she is going to marry someone she actually likes. I am so jealous."
Her good mood gone, she dropped her head onto her folded arms and flinched when a pair of scaly, green hands snaked around her shoulders.
"You are so tense, my siren in distress," said Dhai Jiang, beaming. "Would you like me to give you a massage?"
There let out a muffled noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob.
It was nearly midnight and the three missing demons still had not returned. No one was worried, for even such young demons could certainly take care of themselves. Yan Kwang figured they were out in the town amusing themselves. He, too, suspected the two dragons were doing things best left for after the marriage, which infuriated him. Such noble creatures should have been above that. He was also disappointed in Shii Nah. She might be a demon and a warrior, but he still thought it was improper of a female to be out at such late hours by herself.
For a while, they speculated on whether or not someone should go and look for them, but then decided that it was not worth the effort. They would be back, anyway, eventually.
Or so they thought.
The following morning, however, they were still missing. None of the servants had seen them since the previous day, and there was no sign that any of the three demons had even been around the palace recently. Some members of the family began to worry that something bad had happened to them, while others were convinced that they must have drunk themselves into a stupor, or something to that effect, and spent the night in the town.
Before they could reach a consensus, Shii Nah calmly walked in and stared at them.
They stopped arguing and stared back.
All was silent for a moment.
She looked normal and healthy, if a bit dazed. Not hungover, all her limbs were there, intact, as were her clothes. However, those who were closer to her and had a good sense of smell did notice she reeked of demon blood.
"Where have you been?" Yan Kwang demanded to know. "What did you do?"
She blinked and frowned slightly. "I'm... not entirely sure. I can't quite remember. But..."
The other demons waited, confused. Her gaze was vague, a little unfocused, and she seemed to be trying to remember something important.
"I think Shendu and Mei Liang may be in danger."
To be continued...