The sack of the capital

Submitted into Contest #114 in response to: Write a story that involves sabotage.... view prompt

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East Asian Fantasy Historical Fiction

It was just after daybreak, and the city administrators were beating the gongs to signal the opening of the markets. The large open square was already filling with throngs of people as they swarmed in from the alleys of the neighboring wards. Dust teemed in the sweltering air, kicked up from the crowds as they milled about, crushing the sunbaked turf beneath their feet.

Street-vendors, trading goods and trinkets of all kinds, were crying their wares from their booths. Retailers and customers hammered away at each other over prices and amounts. Copper and silver coins clanged as purchasers thumbed threaded strings of cash in the course of their accounts. Diners laughed and chatted with friends at the various food stalls while nibbling on sticks of meat, or munching on little rice cakes and buns stuffed in paper wrappers.

It was altogether a typical spring morning in the city of Chang’an. Everyone seemed perfectly happy in their dealings, and no one suspected anything of what was to come that day.

As the cymbals rang out for the three-hundredth time, through the gates entered a pair of peculiar travelers at the end of a long journey. Their coats were dull grey and black, and lacked the vibrant colors of the luxurious dyed robes and tunics that were fashionable among the city folk. They both wore round straw hats, painted black to protect from the scorching sun, with thin shoulder-length silk veils that ran all around their wide brims.

For a time, the two strangers’ presence seemed rather awkward, neither buying nor selling anything; merely standing together in the middle of the plaza and watching the hordes of people going back and forth. A merchant selling vegetables took notice and, thinking they might be up to no good, called out to them to ask if they had come to see the capital’s sights.

The men took off their coverings to reveal faces burnt brown from the sun. Going by the resemblance, the merchant thought they must have been brothers, separated by perhaps ten years. The younger one had his hair slicked over the top of his head into a low fringe, and tied into a knot at the back. A narrow line of auburn hair ran from his ears down the mandible and twisted into a thin braid under his chin. The elder wore a colorful knitted hat that hugged his scalp, stitched with curling representations of men, animals, and nature in celebration of tribal society. The front of his face was cleanly shaven, but sported a bushy set of chocolate brown whiskers that poured from his cheeks and jaw, then bound into three bundles like the stalks of a flower bouquet.

They approached to greet the merchant, and spoke well, but appeared foreign. They agreed the city was splendid and would love to be shown its pleasures. But they were not tourists, they said, and introduced themselves as traveling magicians. As proof, they pointed to a pack mule following behind them, which carried on its back several heavy trunks lined with blue velvet. Neither one had any money, but they came to entertain the people and hopefully earn a little while passing by.

Hearing this talk of magic and merrymaking, the people nearby turned their attention to them, curious about what they could do. Without knowing what was happening, more passersby noticed this and promptly moved closer to see. Soon, an audience of dozens had gathered and formed a circle around them. In the course of the next hour, they put on many amazing spectacles: balancing acts, juggling wands and knives, spinning plates on sticks, sword swallowing, fire breathing, and performing illusions with sleight of hand to the uproar of the delighted crowd who showered them with gifts and coin.

It wasn’t long before word spread that two miracle workers had come to the city. Some were even circulating rumors that they were actual sorcerers—sent from Heaven, no less—performing great deeds for the people. The local administrators at the time had been assembled in the yamen nearby, and when the events happening outside came to their attention, they grew concerned over the potential consequences of such hearsay.

Now the bureaucrats marched out of the town hall—all the mandarins and bonzes together in the chain of their rank—their tall swan’s neck hats flailing with every step. An attendant for the officials approached the men to greet them and asked to know who they were and why they came.

“We are no fairies or enchanters,” said the elder brother, chuckling when he heard of the rumors about them. “We are merely traveling illusionists, journeying through the great expanse to marvel at the wonders of the east.”

The servant did an about face and repeated what he said in bureaucratic language. The officials heard him, and leaned their heads inward, whispering together in hushed voices. He turned again and said, “The magistrate finds what you’ve done so far very amusing, and bids you tell him what else you can do.”

The elder thanked him and said, “We can do many feats and tricks of the mind and eye. And if he’d like to pay us,” he proposed, putting a hand forward toward the magistrate, “we could put on a great show for him as well.”

“That is good and all,” said the servant, speaking for his master, “but the honorable chief says he already knows all the simple gimmicks, and requests to see the most splendid trick you have. If it impresses him, he offers to invite you to his mansion for a private exhibit with the nobles of his district.”

“Inform your superior that we have much more in store than the usual antics,” said the younger one, who stepped forward. “We are unlike any other magicians you know, and can do things that none can comprehend.”

Some in the crowd broke out with chatter and snickers at the young lad. Their voices murmured about what he could mean.

“That’s right!” he declared. “We are capable of doing things that would confound the most powerful of kings, and stagger his most competent commanders. We can uplift the foundations of a city’s walls,” he continued, “and make them disappear in an instant. We can take the people of an entire town and transport them into the great far beyond. We can even turn the whole world over, and bring down the great fires of Heaven on Earth itself!”

The audience erupted with gasps and shouts of alarm. The officials turned their heads about, glancing at each other with edgy concern. Moving in front, the elder begged them to forgive his sibling’s immodesty. “But,” he said, “we can perform illusions beyond your imaginations. And,” he continued, “you would find our exploits so thrilling that the entire city will be in awe at what takes place.”

“Hah! Listen to their bragging words,” a person from the audience heckled. “More full of themselves than a pig at a pork trough.” The crowd all burst into laughter.

“They think they have the power of a god!” another said. “Let them make a show of it so we can laugh at their failure.” Again, the people erupted into giggles and jeers, pleased at the prospect of having a new laughingstock.

A third voice spoke up, calling them liars and troublemakers here to incite the public. “Let’s give them a tour of the wall’s foundations… six feet under! If that’s what they came for.” Many listeners hooted at this, spurning them with taunts and insults.

The elder denied these allegations without equivocation, saying they intended no deception, and wished only to request the magistrate’s permission to prove they were sincere. The officials brought their heads together and deliberated until the magistrate came forth and spoke to them directly. “I  will allow you one chance to prove yourselves,” he said. “But if you are lying, then I will put you both in a yoke and whip you in the square.”

The brothers’ low spirits became uplifted. The elder raised himself and said wholeheartedly, “If it would please your excellency, may we assemble a stage?”

“Very well,” said the magistrate, “Just hurry it up, and don’t keep us waiting. I want to see to it you get what’s coming to you.”

“Certainly, my lord!” he said with a smile. “I promise you will not be disappointed.”

The magicians signalled to each other and directed the crowd to follow them to the West Gate nearby, in front of which there was a raised platform and a large open space—the perfect setting for a theater. They then started pulling down the chests from their mule and rummaged through them, pulling out various articles.

As the younger one began scurrying about making preparations, the elder threw off his coat to reveal an eccentric purple robe with a flowing cape underneath. He strode forward and held up his arms in front of the crowd, stretching the cape out like a pair of thin, leathery wings. Presenting his hands to the audience, he pulled his sleeves down to show there was nothing hidden in his wrists. He turned to his side and held out his hands, gently cupping them together.

He blew a puff of air inside, wiggled his fingers, and opened his palms to reveal a peaceful dove sitting in his hands. He presented the soft white bird and waved it in front, showing it to the crowd. Then, in a violent movement, he clapped his hands together, as if crushing the poor thing, and hurled it into the air. In an instant, the animal disappeared, only to be replaced by a cloud of bats which rose flying into the sky.

The spectators all applauded. He bowed and flipped a cowl up over his head that concealed his face and eyes. He approached one chest on the ground, a knee height box about one and a half meters long and half a meter deep. The younger magician opened it and tilted it over, showing that it was empty. He then climbed inside as the elder closed the lid. He whirled his cape and skated behind it, sliding his hands across the top. With gyrating motions, he stirred his hands about in the air and slapped the cover with a hollow whack of his palm.

Moving to the side, he opened it to show that it was empty again, and his partner had disappeared. He then snapped around and pointed above and behind him. And wouldn’t you know it, but there above the gates was the little brother standing casually on the wall. All the viewers cheered and applauded as he bowed and waved. He then ducked out of sight behind the merlons, only to reappear again in his brother’s place when he threw back his cowl. The lid of the box flew open, and the elder stood up from inside as if he had been there the whole time. This display amazed the crowd, who cheered and clapped even more loudly than before.

The assembly became abuzz with chatter, ranting about how much that surprised them, and wondered aloud about what they would do next. Stepping aside, the siblings bowed to the audience, and then started stretching and loosening out their limbs, snapping their knuckles, and readying themselves for more. The elder undid the brooch on his coat to remove the cape and handed it to his brother. He held it out in front of himself to conceal his body below his head, but with his hands and feet still visible from the front.

The older brother then swiped a hand across the air as if chopping at the other’s neck. Moving behind him, he grabbed his brother’s head with both hands and started moving it from side to side as if it had detached from his body. To add to the illusion, he shifted the head around the corners of the cape, drawing it up and down the sides, and even along the bottom. The astonished crowd exploded with raving accolades. So shocked by the sight were they that some ladies among the watchers swooned and collapsed.

He yanked the head back to the center and twisted it back in place. The cape then dropped to reveal everything was back to normal. Again, they bowed to the crowd’s feverish applause and set up for their finishing act. They moved more boxes onto the stage, one in the center, and two at the side. They opened them again, one at a time, to reveal their hollow interiors. The younger brother stood to the side while the elder walked around, waving his hands over them as if imbuing them with magical enchantments.

He stopped before the one in the center and gesticulated with both hands, thrusting his fingers at it. The box became agitated, spontaneously tipped itself up on its end, and stood there for a moment as if at any second a risen skeleton would fling the lid open and walk out onto the stage. The magician gestured with his hands again, and it lowered itself back down. He moved to the side, commanded the second box to move, and in the same manner, it obeyed. Likewise, he motioned to the third box, and again it lifted itself up and down. The crowd applauded the man, whispering in secret voices about him. Some had been convinced he was possessed with the ability to call forth the spirits of the dead. Most said it was just a trick. But all were watching attentively, eager for more.

The younger one then moved back onto the stage, reached into his sleeve, and with the flick of his wrist, plucked out a pretty flower bouquet. He then pointed to a fair maiden standing at the front of the congregation and presented it to her. Taking her by the hand, he guided her onto the platform to join them in the show. He politely thanked the girl, whose face was glowing pink as a peach, and together they waved to the crowd. Slowly, the people in the back pushed themselves in, drawing nearer to the stage, trying to get closer to the beautiful young girl.

He moved her into position behind the center box and told her to wave again. He opened the lid, kissed her hand, and beckoned her to climb in. Like a good showgirl, she complied and calmly went inside. With a twirl of his hand, the box was closed, and he and his brother moved to the chests at the sides. They bowed together one last time, opened their respective lids, and lowered themselves in.

For a minute, the onlookers stood there in silent reverence, waiting with bated breath for something to happen next. Whispers and rising chatter echoed. Suddenly, the boxes shuddered and then stopped. Their walls shook and collapsed outward on hinges at the bottom, revealing a strange mound of black spheres inside each one. The crowd fell silent and stared curiously at the objects, not sure of what to make of them. The balls looked to be made of iron, solid and heavy, and heaped in a pyramid. Each of the balls also had strange tan colored ropes coming out of their tops, joined in a bundle that slithered out on the ground. Even stranger was the hissing sound emanating from them, like a batch of vicious snakes.

There then appeared three white sparkling illuminations spitting out noisy flames crawling up the jumbled ropes, creeping up toward the tops of the stacks. They seemed to eat away at the cords, leaving behind a line of burnt residue as they went. The spectators couldn’t help but gawk at this strange sight, frozen in stumped shock. They had never seen such a thing before, not even the mandarins. They completely dismissed the magicians and the girl who had vanished without a trace, and muttered noisily about what it could be.

Then the magistrate, the only one with the authority to possess such secrets, remembered word of an experimental weapon kept in high confidence by the emperor’s officers. With regard to the danger it posed, he perceived the gravity of what was about to happen. He swung round to his colleagues and uttered a word.

“Run!”

In an instant, all hell broke loose. The entire crowd panicked and burst into an uproar of screams and shouts. In vain, they tried to flee, not understanding what was taking place. Within seconds, the sparks reached the final lengths of cord, slithering through the insides of the black orbs. They flung out their metal shells with a thunderous flash and erupted into a massive orange fireball. A bulbous cloud of dark smoke sprouted and condensed, rising high into the air.

All around the stage, the blast carved a wide empty swath where the chests had formerly lain. A shallow smoking depression was all that remained. Mangled lumps of flesh and streaks of blood lay scattered across the ground in all directions, and all the cries and shouts were silenced, with only a few anguished groans peeping out among the bodies.

The few wooden buildings nearby were lit aflame, and the Western Gates, once a mighty monument of stone and timber, had been reduced to a pile of shattered splinters. What was left was a broad opening in the walls, wide enough for the two rows of soldiers waiting outside to march right through. 

October 05, 2021 14:12

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1 comment

Marina Savva
03:19 Oct 14, 2021

Was very descriptive and you captured the atmosphere well. It would have been nice to see some more variation in sentence structure and more usage of dialogue. But overall it was well written!

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