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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn




The Pang Nyu was a Chinese junk out of Kiungchow. Her crew lovingly called her the Fat Lady, for her bottom was broad and her construction sturdy. In the lean years of the second opium war she'd been a steadfast pirate of British and Dutch vessels. Her voyages now were mostly mercantile, making the slow trade route south east of China to the rich ports of Bangkok, Singapore and Rangoon and even distant Calcutta when the money was good.

In her seventy years of service, she'd weathered war and storms and political upheaval. She'd had four captains all of the same family linage, and a crew of sons and grandsons, brothers, cousins and uncles. Experienced sailors all, and still the storm that had ripped across the Bay of Bengal had cracked the mainmast and flooded the hold and likened to sink the old lady, crew and all. It was only by the grace and the good will of accumulated ancestors that she weathered it and limped into port at Calcutta.

Two days to repair the mast and it took the funds that otherwise would have finished filling her hold with trade goods. It was a disgruntled crew that headed home with a half empty hold. A disgruntled crew that four days later came upon a tiny boat, adrift and for all appearances abandoned, caught in southbound currents. There was still enough of the pirate in the old captain that he swept down upon it with salvage in mind. At the very least it was a dingy of European design that could bring a few yuan.

At first, when they closed in they thought they heard the squall of some gull, swept far, far from land, but as they pulled in beside the little boat and threw out lines to capture it, they saw instead the face of a child, sun reddened and twisted in the midst of a tantrum as it sat in the bottom of the boat, clutching the robes of a woman who lay very still next to it. There was a man as well, who sprawled equally as silent, dressed in the garb of a well to do Westerner.

As men of the Pang Nyu scrambled down lines to the tiny boat, they called up to the faces looking down from above that the two adults had every appearance of severe dehydration. The single flask on its leather strap that hung around the child's neck, long empty of water. There were no other rations on the boat. Only a tarp that had been constructed at the prow, that the woman lay half under, shielding her from the unyielding sun.

A woman, if her garb were any indication, of Japanese origin. The man was clearly European, though there was just the slightest hint of Asian tilt to his closed eyes. There was gold in a purse in his pocket though, and a fine pocket watch, which the crew tossed up to the captain, who took an experimental bite of a foreign coin. Gold was gold, though, no matter the origin and could be melted into whatever form a man wanted. And a man that carried a purse of gold on his person was no doubt a man of means and men of means might be worth more gold if handled properly.

The captain signaled and his crew went to work transferring the occupants of the small boat up to the Pang Nyu. The man roused first, as water was forced down his throat, blinking and sputtering weakly, croaking in his indecipherable English, desperate in his flailing until he saw the woman and the child also under the care of the crew on deck.

She came around more slowly, pale skin sun reddened and blistered in places, but still an attractive enough young woman, who clutched the child to her and cried, when she was sensible enough to realize he was there at her side.

"Japanese?" The captain asked, standing over her, casting her and the boy in his shade. She looked up at him dazedly and nodded.

"English?" The captain cast a dark look at the man, with his rumpled western suit and his mustache above a stubbled chin.

"Yes, I am English. We're indebted to you for our rescue," the man answered for himself in Japanese better than the captain's own.

"Rich?" the captain asked.

The man hesitated, glancing at the woman and child, uncertainly, wise enough not to blurt out such things in the company of strangers. But the gold in his pockets told the tale well enough.

"There might be a reward," the man said slowly. "For your kindness."

The captain glanced at the girl, who had her arms around the child. "And her? Is she your woman?"

"No!" the man seemed offended. An honorable man. "She is under my protection, though and by God, I'll see her and her son safely home. I promise a reward to you, if you drop us at the nearest port. Where are we?"

"West of Rangoon. But we'll make no port until home. We can talk of our reward there."

"Where is home?" the man asked warily.


"China?" The man looked to the girl and the child she clutched in her lap. She looked back with wide, reddened eyes. Finally he nodded, accepting the inevitable, pushing himself painful to his feet. A tall man, though young, despite the years the sunburn and the mustache tried to add to his age.

"Good enough. Better than dying in a life raft with none the wiser."

"Yes," she said softly, bowing her head respectfully at the captain.

"I am Ian Fletcher," the Englishman said extending a hand that the captain only stared at curiously, until the man withdrew it uncertainly. "The lady is Kaoru and was taken by force from her home in Japan, along with her son. It is my duty, as it is the duty of any man of honor, to see her safely back to it."




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