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Chapter 1 - The Agents, Strategists & Allied Tradecraft Social Club by A.J. Hall

The second time Lin Shu died at Meiling was much better managed than the first. It helped that Da Yu’s forces had been utterly routed, so his dying could take place in the comfort of his own well-appointed campaign tent.

It also helped to have the Young Master of Langya Hall by his side. Even in ordinary circumstances Lin Chen could probably have predicted to within half a day how long any of his patients had left (not that this ever stopped him from stretching every last sinew to prove himself wrong.) Given the very particular circumstances of this case, Lin Chen probably had the estimated time of death accurate to within half an incense stick.

By the time the crisis came, Lin Shu had been bedridden for three days. (His camp bed was the undisputed jewel of his field kit and had been presented to him by his aunt the Empress. Since in her own right she was a physician only marginally less skilled than Lin Chen he rather thought she’d had this occasion in mind when giving it to him and was exceedingly grateful for her forethought.)

He beckoned Lin Chen. His voice was a hoarse whisper, but he tried to summon the ghost of a smile to his lips.

“You look like a vulture who’s missed breakfast. I know what that means. Better get it over with. Let them all in.”

Lin Shu had always had a soft spot for vultures who in his opinion were tidy, well-mannered birds who carried out a necessary task in an efficient and restrained manner. There were, as he knew from personal experience, far worse things one could be eaten by on a battlefield. He was, therefore, honestly surprised when the Young Master snapped his fan shut, turned on his heel and left the tent in a blur of draperies and simmering anger.

The farewells were even more draining than he had expected. In the end he sent them all away, except for Fei Liu. He had been dreading this moment for months. The boy had been working himself up ever since entering the tent and now possessed the energy of a caged eagle, his eyes shifting wildly around, his fists clenching and unclenching.

Lin Shu forced a coaxing note into his failing voice.

“Come here, Fei Liu. Kneel by my bed. Please.”

Fei Liu shuffled forward on his knees, and buried his face in Lin Shu’s shoulder, letting out a howl like a wounded dog. With enormous effort, Lin Shu brought his right hand up to stroke Fei Liu’s hair.

“Now, Fei Liu, listen. You mustn’t be sad. Your Su-dage is very, very tired. He’s been tired for longer than he can remember. What he needs is a very long rest. That’s what death is. Do you understand?”

“Rest now,” Fei Liu mumbled. “Need rest.”

“And,” Lin Shu thought, as his other hand spasmed and knocked to the ground a bowl of foul-smelling medicinal soup that even at this late stage his physician had insisted on preparing, “I also need a proper drink.”

That thought may have explained why, when he opened his eyes, he stood on the threshold of an inn. Over the door was the inscription Let those who lived in the shadows walk freely into the sunlight.

The sun was, indeed, shining on the inn courtyard when Lin Shu pushed open the door and entered. Warm sun. How long since the sun had felt warm on his skin? He blinked. Even under the influence of the Bingxu Pill, he’d never felt properly warm; just no longer debilitatingly cold.

Warmth, and not a single ache anywhere. No tightness in his chest. No weakness in his stride. Though — he glanced down at his hands, and checked his face against the nearest reflective surface, a black laquered cabinet — it remained Mei Changsu’s body.

He forced down his regret. He had died as General Mei and as such the army would mourn him. Of the handful of people in his tent at the last Gong Yu, Lin Chen and Fei Liu, dearest of all, had only ever known him as Mei Changsu. Furthermore, the inscription on the door of this inn had most surely not been addressed to Lin Shu, Young Marshal of the Chiyan Army, who had lived his life so much in the sun that his nickname had been “the little fireball.”

A servitor materialised at his elbow. “Please. Honoured sir. Your table is in the gallery. Up these stairs, sir.”

The gallery ran round three-quarters of the inn courtyard, offering an excellent vantage point from which one could observe the scene below. In a sun-soaked angle a couch had been placed, a side table next to it bearing a celadon jug and a matching cup. Couch, jug and cup were familiar from his earliest years; they had been his mother’s.

He poured wine from the jug into the cup and raised it to his lips. This, too, he remembered. Mother had ordered it served the night his great-grandmother had given her consent for his marriage to Mu Nihuang.

Nihuang. She also lived life in the sun. He doubted he would see her here. Nor his parents. Nor Prince Qi, who had been as open as daylight in all his doings, which had taken him to a dark death by poison in the Imperial Prison.

That was all right, though. He would, he trusted, meet his family eventually, but he had thought of and worked for nothing but justice for them for thirteen years. Surely, now he had an infinity of the stuff, it could not be considered unfilial for him to want a little time to himself?

From his secluded position on the gallery he looked down on the varied throng walking through the inn courtyard. So many people, yet never a sense the place was overcrowded or might run out of space. He recognised no-one, though sometime he thought he caught a glimpse of a half-remembered profile or expression.

As time went on he realised how mixed the throng was. He had been accustomed to think of himself as well-travelled, especially taking into account those two years wandering with Lin Chen after his treatment on Langya Mountain. Now he realised he had only encountered a fraction of the variety of peoples the world afforded. Those entering the inn had every variant of hair colour or skin tone one could imagine, and as for their clothes —

Lin Shu tried his best not to be judgemental about the clothes. But, especially with regard to the women, why did so many of those arriving wear clothes not merely startling in their immodesty, but in their sheer ugliness?

Take, for example, the old woman with grey hair short-cropped like a felon’s, who bore herself like a general, authority blazing from her cold, blue eyes. Impressive, yes, but in something like Nihuang’s silver and blue parade armour she would have been magnificent. Why cloak her authority in a nondescript dark plum over-robe, which ended at her knees and bore no ornamentation or insignia? Or the poised dark beauty whose sculpted, melancholy features the phoenix crown would have set off to perfection: why on earth should she insult her lovely head by placing that cloth object with the jutting peak on top of it?

Abruptly he noticed a straw-haired man with an odd crystal disc in one eye scrutinising him from the opposite side of the gallery. He almost laughed out loud. The man opposite had no doubt been having equally censorious thoughts about Lin Shu’s top-knot and multiple overlapping layers. He raised his wine cup in a toast and, a surprised second later, the straw-haired man returned it.

Lin Shu turned back to watching the new arrivals come in through the gate. They included children; he spotted a deeply tanned street-urchin of thirteen or so, who possessed a quicksilver agility that reminded him painfully of Fei Liu, and a round-faced Da Liang girl perhaps two years older than the boy. She had a halter made from a narrow strip of striped cloth tied, inexplicably, round her neck, and over a white undershirt wore a short, boxy garment of surpassing ugliness in some coarse blue-black fabric. She glanced up and made him a bow so profoundly respectful his own mother could not have faulted it. He returned it with equal formality; she made an apologetic gesture towards her outfit which he had no difficulty in decoding. Yes. I know. But what can one do? One must blend in.

The sun was, indeed hot. For the first time in thirteen years it felt too hot. He pushed his couch back under the shade of the gallery eaves and tucked his feet up under him on the couch.

He had not been saying empty words simply to comfort Fei Liu. He really was very tired.

Lin Shu’s eyes closed.

“Oh, that’s where you’ve got to. I thought you said you were going to have another try at teaching Frances to tango?”

The cheerful voice from above his head was not speaking his own language or even one he had ever heard before, but he understood it perfectly. Yet another advantage of being dead, presumably.

He opened his eyes. The man looking down at him, though as foreign as his language, was a type he recognised instantly from his days in the jianghu: lean, hardbitten and with the air of someone accustomed to staking everything on his wits. Not a sect leader and assuredly not anyone’s second-in-command, but a solitary, a smuggler and a fighter.

And, as Lin Shu sat up straight and leant into the sunlight, a very surprised specimen of all three.

“My apologies. I mistook you for someone else. Friend of mine. Met him here and we bonded like brothers over our shared opinion of the Japanese. Turns out I was fighting them at Guadalcanal about the same time as he was making their lives shorter and more miserable in Shanghai. We don’t mention the post-war. Better not to pry. We probably ended up honourable enemies, all things considered. Though I’d have liked to introduce him to Castro; they would have got on well, I think. And he and Che together would have been holy terrors. Sorry, I ought to introduce myself. John Sebastian Farrell.”

Lin Shu bowed. “My name is —” He paused. “It would be best to call me Mei Changsu.”

Farrell smiled. “You aren’t the first one I’ve met here who has to make an effort to remember which identity they’re using. Goes with the territory.”

Lin Shu raised his eyebrows. “May I ask, then, where here is?”

“Mm. Tricky that. May I sit down?”

He nodded, and Farrell dropped into a chair opposite him.

“Wine?” Lin Shu enquired, lifting the flask to pour. He was unsurprised to note that another cup from his mother’s set had materialised on the side table.

Farrell shook his head. “I’ll stick with my whisky, thanks.”

Indeed, he now had a glass in hand, a generous measure of tawny liquid in it.

“When I was running a charter boat out of Acapulco there was a bar we skippers used to hole up in during bad weather and swap yarns.”

Farrell swirled the whisky thoughtfully round his glass.

“One night one of the regulars got his boat into port a hair’s breadth ahead of the storm — hell of a bit of seamanship to find the entrance, let alone get through the cross-tide rip in those conditions — and staggered into the bar soaked to his skin. We stripped him, towelled him and bought him drinks. He downed them like they’d just told him Prohibition was coming back tomorrow.

“At about two in the morning, someone finally said what we’d all been thinking. ‘So, Joe, did you think you were going to die?’ And the skipper said, ‘Aye. But I figured it weren’t a great business if I did. I’ve sailed this coast forty years, and twenty-five of them as skipper, so if I’d gone down tonight, what would that have meant but just an express ride to the skippers’ bar, eh?’”

“The skippers’ bar?”

“We asked him. According to what he’d been told (and his family had salt water in their veins, sailors as far back as anyone could remember) when anyone dies who’s skippered a vessel, be it ever so grand or ever so lowly, they have the right to drink at the skippers’ bar, with all the other ships’ captains who ever sailed the oceans, from John Paul Jones to Ching Shih; Gráinne Ní Mháille to Francis Drake. Drink there, eat there, sleep there, and never pay their tab for as long as they stay. Because, as he said, ‘Skippers of boats belong together. For who else could understand us?’”

“But I have never sailed a boat bigger than a small punt in my entire life. And even then it was not for very long and the effect might have made an impact, but with the benefit of hindsight I think it took a ridiculous amount of effort for the pay-off.”

Farrell grinned. “I never claimed this was the skippers’ bar. I just wanted to explain the general concept. You saw the inscription at the door, I take it?”

“This is the inn for those who, in life, worked in the shadows?”

“Got it in one. Military intelligence, industrial intelligence, foreign intelligence. Double agents, treble agents, sleeper agents. Passport forgers, wiretappers, code-crackers. Kingmakers and kingslayers. All of us who changed the shape of the world and died without anyone knowing our names.”

That had not, in fact, ever been Lin Shu’s problem. Which name got the credit for his exploits, though —

He made no attempt to convey this. Farrell continued unabated.

“You know how it goes. Secrets. They weigh you down. You spend your entire life trying not to let anything slip. You lie to your family, you lie to your girl. You lie to yourself. For the whole of your life. And then you die.”

The hand not holding his drink swept sideways in a long gesture of negation.

“And then after death you walk into this inn and you realise secrets have no power any more. Because they can only affect the living and the living aren’t here.”

“Even the dead will bear grudges, if the secrets in question reveal their crimes.”

Whatever Lin Shu had expected from the afterlife, confronting a resentful Xia Jiang and a legion of Hua agents had not been part of it. He lacked both the energy and the inclination.

“Can’t happen,” Farrell said. “No reunions: neither friends, foes nor family. If those we knew in life come here, we cannot see or hear them. It’s a pity — I’d give a million bucks to see the Duchess again, and I hope I will some day, even if it isn’t here — but those are the rules of the inn and to be fair I see their point. After all, when have you ever been to a family wedding or funeral that didn’t end in a fight?”

“I missed our last family wedding.” Lin Shu did not have to feign resentment, though he hammed it up for dramatic effect, all the same. “My personal physician gave me a knock-out draught which left me unconscious for three days. I was, it is true, very ill at the time, and my physician is quite beyond the reach of bribery, but I still wonder if my aunt — the mother of the bridegroom — put pressure on him, all the same.”

Amusement crossed Farrell’s features like the summer breeze rippling through a barley field.

“So what did you do at the previous party?”

“That,” Lin Shu said primly, “I cannot possibly say.”

“You can, you know. And you will.” Farrell leant forward over the table. “My friend in Acapulco was almost there. But not quite. They do expect one to pay one’s tab here. But not in money. In yarns. And, as I said, secrets revealed here cannot hurt anyone. So. Tell me all.”