This fragment, recovered from the archives at Tian Jing, is the only surviving account of the deeds of Captain Liao Jun and the Celestial Ascension during their exile in barbarian lands. As such, and in light of the circumstances attending the Celestial Ascension's return, the Office of the Grand Historian is pleased to present readers with the surviving text of the renowned—and hotly contested—Yan Ming Manuscript.
. . . the Souk of the High Plateau was a maze of stalls, tents, and boardwalks that sprawled off the mountaintop into open air. Zoroastrian blimps were joined to flying dhows by a web of planks and cables, and not a few vessels built in the Middle Kingdom bobbed amidst the tangle of airships, their qi engines inexpertly maintained by barbarian adepts.
"You're certain this is what we need to slay the dragon?" Liao Jun bellowed over the ceaseless din as he followed Yan Ming through the crowd.
"Of course it is," Yan Ming replied, the tassel of his shock sword flaring scarlet as he spun to face his friend. "When have I ever led you astray?"
Liao Jun gaped at Yan Ming for several seconds before he found his voice. "Who egged me on until I stole peaches from the Mechanical Monks' garden? Who took me drinking the night before the Imperial Magistrate's Examination and landed me an officer's berth in the Navy? Oh, and who told me I should cultivate Prince Zhen?"
"I did, obviously," Yan Ming replied, unperturbed. "And I was always right. Those peaches were delicious, remember?"
Liao Jun stared at his friend—resplendent in the cap and robe of a Taoist sorcerer-savant—and marveled, not for the first time, at how someone so learned could be so damned feckless. "It may have escaped your attention," he said, "but due to my friendship with Prince Zhen, my crew and I are exiled, and not to return to Tian Jing or the Middle Kingdom until we've slain the dragon that killed him."
"Oh, buck up," Yan Ming said. "I'm in exile until Emperor Xian Long (may he writhe in fire) has to be put down like a rabid dog because he's finally eaten too much cinnabar."
Liao Jun shot Yan Ming a helpless smile, amused in spite of himself. "In Yama's name, what did I ever do to deserve you as a friend?"
"It's true," Yan Ming agreed with mock solemnity, turning to slide through the crowd once more. "I'm better than you deserve. Especially since I'm helping you hunt down this rogue dragon of yours."
Liao Jun heaved a sigh as he plodded behind Yan Ming, shouldering aside Indic Vaishyas, skull-toting Lamas, and even a ghost-pale Frank. The hell of it was, Yan Ming was right. He'd already done Liao Jun a great favor by guiding the Celestial Ascension to Gao Shan Monastery, where the nuns had identified the dragon they were hunting as Fu Zhi, seventh child of the Censor of the Northern Winds. Moreover, when Liao Jun had paled at the revelation that Fu Zhi was nearly twice the length of the battleship he commanded, Yan Ming had immediately devised a plan to overcome that liability.
As plans went, it was brash to the point of madness. But that was Yan Ming all over, and it wasn't like Liao Jun had any better ideas.
"Here!" Yan Ming called over his shoulder, ducking under the harpoons that crowned the entrance to an armorer's pavilion. Out of habit, Liao Jun checked their caliber and manufactory markings, and blinked as he realized that, though barbarian-made, they were perfectly tooled for the arbalests of Imperial Ornithopters.
Inside the tent, Yan Ming and the turbaned proprietor were busy exchanging greetings and slapping each other on the back, giving Liao Jun a chance to look around. More harpoons were bundled in racks against the tent walls, and while some were the hull-crackers and cloth-renders Liao Jun knew from his years as a Flight Commander, dozens more were barbed steel needles wrought in a style he didn't recognize.
"Master Kandros," Yan Ming said, bowing to the proprietor and indicating Liao Jun with both hands. "May I introduce Captain Liao Jun, lately of the Imperial Navy, and master of the Celestial Ascension?"
"You honor my roof, Captain," Kandros declared. He clasped his palms together and ducked his head. "I gather you find yourself in need of my merchandise?"
"Indeed," Liao Jun replied, glancing at Yan Ming for a cue.
"We will be taking the full order," Yan Ming said, picking up where Liao Jun had left off. "As well as any other harpoons you and your sons can refit to match the needles' flight properties. As you can imagine, accuracy is vital to our endeavor."
As Yan Ming's words registered, Liao Jun was struck by a vivid recollection of the vast scroll detailing draconic anatomy, pressure points, and flows of qi that Yan Ming had spread across the Celestial Ascension's flight deck. And as that image alloyed itself with Yan Ming's description of Kandros's harpoons as needles, the true nature of his friend's plan became clear to him.
"We're not just going to restrain Fu Zhi with harpoons and cables, are we?" he blurted, feeling blood rushing to his cheeks even as the words escaped his lips. "We're going to perform involuntary acupuncture on him."
"My dear lummox," Yan Ming said as he reached up to pat Liao Jun on the shoulder. "That much was apparent some time ago."
The main difficulty with having a friend far cleverer than oneself, Liao Jun decided as he oversaw the unloading of the Celestial Ascension's cargo ornithopter, was the difference in attention spans. While he was still busy mulling over the logistics attendant on Yan Ming's plan, and ensuring that all the harpoons they'd ordered were present and accounted for, Yan Ming had already turned in for the evening.
"How do the needles look, Chief?" he asked Lu Ping, his unshaven Chief of Engineers.
Lu Ping let out a sour grunt. "They'll do," he said, and turned away to shout abuse at a junior crewman.
For Lu Ping, that was high praise, and as the unloading proceeded, Liao Jun observed the smooth efficiency of his crew with detachment, his attention wandering. In his mind, the battered timbers of the flight deck, his sweating, shirtless crewmen, and the polished pinions of the ornithopter were replaced by stippled clouds and floating islands: the scene of the disaster that had set him dragon-hunting.
They'd departed before dawn, the hunting party's ornithopters rising from the Palace stables in a flurry of steel and lacquered ceramic. The eastern sky was a lurid smear of orange and purple, and as he followed Prince Zhen skyward, Liao Jun wondered, not for the first time, how the smoke rising from prayer mills and manufactories could make the sky so beautiful.
"What's our quarry today, Highness?" he shouted as he brought his ornithopter alongside Prince Zhen's.
Zhen shot Liao a grin and pointed past the helix of garden islands that were being tugged into place for the Emperor's new concubine. "Sky Mantas!" he shouted back, and Liao strained his eyes to make out the distant beasts as they circled beneath the feathered clouds that marked the outer edge of Heaven.
With a powerful stroke of its wings, the Prince's ornithopter leapt into the lead, and Liao followed, reflexively checking his supply of harpoons. A dozen hunting shafts sat in his arbalest's loading tray. Liao secured a cable to the topmost before falling in behind Prince Zhen, scanning the sky for threats or a more impressive quarry.
No phoenix or simurgh showed itself, however, and after an hour the Prince and his retinue had speared three mantas, bringing the last of them to bay beneath a free-floating island. The Prince brought it down himself, harpooning it through the eye as Liao's tether broke, and he was still chortling with pleasure as they left the island's shadow.
"That was a masterful shot, Highness," Liao told him.
"You know what I like best about you, Liao?" Prince Zhen said as the hunting party began a slow descent towards the immense isle of Tian Jing. "When you say that sort of thing to me, I can believe it."
Liao was in the middle of formulating a response when he caught sight of the dragon. The maned serpent was moving at a terrifying speed, leaving a trail of feathery vapor in its wake. As it undulated into view from behind the helix of garden islands, its limbs held close to its body, Liao thought he saw a flash of metal between its branching horns. But that thought was driven from his mind a second later, when he realized the creature was charging straight towards them.
"Highness, beware!" Liao cried, and an instant later, Prince Zhen and the other members of the hunting party scattered like plum blossoms in the wind. But while Marquis Yao, Viscount Jiang, and their hangers-on had ornithopters unburdened by manta carcasses, Prince Zhen was still towing the beast he'd slain. Liao gaped in horror as the dragon arrowed towards the Prince, its vast golden eyes blazing with rage and madness. He moved to intercept it, firing the four harpoons that remained to him, but two flew wide, while the other two bounced ineffectually off the dragon's verdigrised scales.
And then the dragon was upon them.
The wind of the beast's passage struck Liao Jun like the hand of a deity, swatting his ornithopter aside as if it was an insect. Over the rush of wind, Liao Jun heard the sickening sound of impact, of torn metal and ceramic shattering. Desperate, he threw his ornithopter into a dive, searching for some sign of the Prince, and with his heartbeat thundering in his ears, he found what he sought: a limp, brightly clad form, descending toward the distant earth, surrounded by spars of tortured metal, deadly spears of lacquer, and the carcass of the manta they'd brought down.
Liao Jun could see that Zhen's neck was broken, rendering the cloud-treading boots he wore superfluous. But he braved the debris anyway, snaring the Prince's ankle with a cable so he could be buried as befit his station. And when the First Minister denounced him as a bungler before the entire court and exiled him and his crew until they slew the beast that killed Prince Zhen, Liao Jun had seethed in silence. Slaying a dragon was a task for an armada, not a single battleship.
It was only as the Celestial Ascension left port that he thought of Yan Ming, already in exile for writing a lampoon about the First Minister and the Princess Xian Yi.
Liao Jun collected himself as the last of the needles were unloaded and the cargo ornithopter's hatch swung closed. "Well done," he told Lu Ping as his crew wrestled the bundles of harpoons into place, and received another grunt in answer. Taking a lift platform to the bridge, Liao Jun nodded to the helmsman before settling into the captain's chair.
"Ahead full," he said. As the helmsman tugged the levers that would reveal those ideograms in the engine room, the Celestial Ascension slid into motion, picking up speed without a single tremor or jerk. Say what you would about the Emperor and his ministers, the Middle Kingdom's sorcerer-savants and their works—the ornithopters, the floating isles of Tian Jing, and the qi engines—had no equal under Heaven.
And soon, he and Yan Ming would prove that yet again . . . by slaying Fu Zhi.
The Celestial Ascension traveled through the night, flying higher than any mountain or barbarian craft could reach, and in the morning, Liao Jun ordered a descent for gunnery practice.
"Good morning, leadbones!" he said as a bleary-eyed Yan Ming dragged himself onto the observation deck. "You're just in time to see the show!"
"You," Yan Ming said, opening one eye to squint at Liao Jun, "look unwholesomely pleased with yourself. What villainy are you plotting? Aside from driving your ship towards the earth like a meteor, I mean."
"High-speed descents are good for the circulation," Liao Jun said. "But never mind that. Do you see the herd of airborne yaks down there, stripping the cliff face of lichen?"
"I do," Yan Ming said, prying his other eye open and shading his face with a hand. "I also see several scorch-marks on the mountainside that look suspiciously like what a maddened dragon might leave in its wake if it flew by, forcing the yaks out of their usual pastures."
Liao Jun coughed into his fist. "Well, yes. You're not surprised, are you? You said that Fu Zhi would be headed this way."
"He hasn't changed the direction of his flight," Yan Ming agreed, blinking as he lowered his hand. "I see he spared the Lamaist monastery and prayer mill on the opposite slope."
"Oh? Oh, yes," Liao Jun agreed. He stole a quick glance at the monastery, where hundreds of prayer wheels clattered in synchrony as they were driven by a smoke-spewing engine. "Possibly the noise and the stink drove him off. Or the prayers. Though if industrialized prayer worked . . ."
". . . why aren't the Lamaists masters of the world?" Yan Ming finished for him. "They're probably praying for the wrong things. Peace and quiet. Yak butter that isn't rancid. Chickens that don't taste of lichen and ashes."
"Faster prayer wheels," Liao Jun suggested.
"A definite possibility," Yan Ming murmured, eyeing the prayer mill. "What was so important about those yaks, again?"
Liao Jun shrugged. "My boys are going to use them for target practice."
On cue, half a dozen combat ornithopters banked into view from behind a peak and swept toward the herd of floating yaks. As the ornithopter pilots stooped upon their prey, the yaks lowed in alarm and scattered, diving for shelter against the cliff face or lunging for the bottom of the valley.
The ornithopters split into twin wedges as they closed on their targets, and their first volley sent harpoons lancing into a pair of yaks, one per wedge.
"Your Flight Commanders are good," Yan Ming murmured as the lead ornithopters dragged the dying yaks back to the Celestial Ascension, to be deposited on the flight deck. "But their juniors' aim leaves something to be desired."
"I'm sure they were aiming for that yak's hindquarters."
Yan Ming snorted. "Too bad they hit it in the hocks instead."
Liao Jun spread his hands. "All right, they need practice. That's what the spare harpoons we got are for, right?" He paused, then gave Yan Ming a speculative look. "I meant to ask. How did you pay Kandros for those?"
Yan Ming reached into his sleeve and withdrew a carved jade placard, which he handed to Liao Jun for his inspection. Liao Jun gaped at the dragon and phoenix seal that crowned the placard—the mark of the Wardens of the Five Directions—then forced himself to meet his friend's gaze.
"Is this real?" he demanded.
"Oh, it's real enough," Yan Ming said, smiling faintly. "I stole it off a drunkard in Hu Er while he was passed out in an alley. It's remarkable how many people will sell to you on credit if they think you're one of Heaven's chosen agents."
Liao Jun swallowed and glanced down at the placard again. "You're not afraid the Wardens will catch up to you?"
"Don't borrow trouble," Yan Ming said, still smiling, as he plucked the placard from Liao Jun's fingers. "If your junior pilots don't improve their aim before we catch up to Fu Zhi, none of us are going to live long enough for that to be a concern."
"They're getting better."
"Right. Banking that shot off the cliff face was deliberate, then?"
After another hour of target practice (and an unfortunate incident involving a dead yak, a harpoon cable, and a mechanically driven prayer wheel), the Celestial Ascension left the prayer mill behind. As they headed southeast, the traces of Fu Zhi's passage grew fresher, and some days later, Liao Jun found himself looking over a blackened swath of highland jungle. Here and there, fires still smoldered amidst banyan trees and stands of bamboo, sending threads of smoke dancing skyward.
"We're close, now," Yan Ming said, entering the observation deck on silent feet. "Less than a day behind him, if that."
Liao Jun nodded once; the immensity of the scar Fu Zhi had carved across the mountainside forbade levity. "You're sure this will work?" he asked.
"Nothing in this world is certain," Yan Ming replied. "Empires wax and wane, and all that seems solid turns to vapor. My plan seems sound, and Lu Ping has drilled your pilots until they could recite their duties in their sleep. But I am sure? No. Certainty is for gods and immortals."
Liao Jun shot his friend a worried glance. It wasn't like Yan Ming to doubt himself. But then, he reminded himself, they were hunting a dragon. He shuddered as he recalled Fu Zhi's eyes and the mad loathing that had blazed in them.
"There," Yan Ming said, pointing at a speck on the horizon that Liao Zhen recognized as an ornithopter. "Have we found our quarry, or has that scout's mainspring run down?"
Liao Jun squinted to make out the flashes of the pilot's heliograph mirror: Enemy in sight. "It's Fu Zhi," he said, drawing a deep breath. "Heaven have mercy on us all."
"Mmm," Yan Ming said as Liao Jun led him back to the lift, making the noise sound like a demurral.
As ever, the bustle of the bridge soothed Liao's nerves, letting him focus on the task at hand. "Report," he barked at his signals officer, who was scribbling down the last of the heliograph message.
"The target is stationary, sir," the ensign replied, clutching his papers as he bowed. "Two dozen miles from here, on the bank of a river."
"Recall the other scouts," Liao Jun ordered, and the signals officer dashed for the lift to the upper deck. A minute later, the roar of gunpowder and a flash of crimson light marked the detonation of the first of three signal rockets.
"Just like New Year's," Yan Ming murmured.
"That's right," Liao Jun said, laughing to cover his nerves. "Except we get to dance with a real dragon."
"Lucky us," Yan Ming said, giving Liao a crooked smile.
Once the last of the scouts was aboard, the Celestial Ascension got underway, and Liao Jun watched highland jungle give way to terraced hillsides and empty villages. Once, he glimpsed the pale circle of a child's face peering up at him before its owner was pulled into the shadow of a banyan tree.
Then the last shreds of that morning's fog cleared away, and he had eyes for nothing but Fu Zhi.
The dragon lay coiled on the riverbank, amidst the scorched and shattered ruins of a watermill. Its scales seemed duller than when Liao Jun had seen them last, but even lying on the earth with its flanks heaving, the dragon made his senses rebel. There was no way that the waterwheel lying beside the beast could be full-sized, Liao's mind told him. It was a toy; a miniature. No mortal creature could be so huge.
"Your orders, sir?" the signals officer asked, and Liao Jun raised an eyebrow at Yan Ming.
"He's over-exerted his yang qi," Yan Ming said, gesturing at Fu Zhi. "He will be sluggish, in this state. Less buoyant, and unable to breathe flame."
"In short," Liao Jun said decisively, "vulnerable." He nodded to the Signals Officer, and declared, "Launch all combat craft, and engage the target." Even as he finished, gongs rang throughout the ship, calling the crew to arms.
The Celestial Ascension's ornithopters spilled from their hangar like a cloud of bees, and in a matter of moments, they formed up and swept towards Fu Zhi. For an instant, as they closed, Liao Jun wished he was among them, feeling the rhythm of his ornithopter's wings and the wind in his hair. Ready to take his place in history.
That wish died as Fu Zhi opened his eyes and leapt from the earth with a deafening roar.
"Full ascent!" Liao Jun ordered, and was pressed into his chair as the Celestial Ascension lurched skyward, fleeing the dragon's reach.
"That's high enough!" Yan Ming shouted after several punishing seconds. Liao Jun nodded to the signals officer, and a moment later, the Ascension steadied, holding position far above the deadly dance of dragon and ornithopter, harpoon and cable.
From his chair, Liao Jun could see the whole river valley laid out below him, like a campaign map spread over an admiral's table. His ornithopters were specks of cream and silver, flitting out of the path of Fu Zhi, who wheeled and lunged at them like a cat chasing rodents. As he watched, a gleaming strand of cable leapt to take Fu Zhi in the side, just in time for the dragon to reverse course, pulling the cable taut and flinging the ornithopter through the air. An instant later, the cable snapped, and Liao Jun breathed a sigh of relief as the ornithopter pilot regained control of his craft.
"I see why you weren't in favor of tying him up," he told Yan Ming, who was watching the battle with a deepening frown.
"It's still too early for that," Yan Ming said, grimacing. "Oh, by the Eighteen Hells! Fu Zhi isn't as drained as I thought; his yang qi must be incredibly overstimulated. We'll have to intervene directly."
A thrill of dread ran through Liao Jun at Yan Ming's words. "What do you mean?" he asked as a pair of ornithopters dodged out of Fu Zhi's path, loosing needles that clattered uselessly off his hide.
"Who's the best pilot left on board?" Yan Ming asked, loosening his shock sword in its sheath.
"I am, of course," Liao Jun replied, looking askance at his friend.
"Like I said, then. We have to intervene." Yan Ming gestured at the conflict below them, which was growing ever more confused. "Your pilots are panicked; they'll never be able to hit the right spots until Fu Zhi is immobilized or stunned. I need you to get me as close to Fu Zhi as you can without dropping me in his mouth."
"You've gone mad," Liao Jun said. "Stark, raving mad."
Yan Ming shook his head. "I have a shock sword and cloud-treading boots. I'll be fine."
"Mad," Liao Jun repeated as they entered the lift to the Flight Deck. "Crazed. Insane. Positively frothing."
"I know what I'm doing," Yan Ming said, thumbing the activation switch on his sword. Blue arcs of electricity danced down its length before he thumbed it off again.
"You're planning to cloud-walk onto a thrice-damned dragon so you can poke him with a sword!" Liao Jun shouted as they walked onto the flight deck. "And Heaven be merciful, I'm about to help you do it." He paused to smile at the assembled flight crew—who didn't look particularly reassured—and shook his head. "I must be mad too. There's no other explanation."
"Mad or not, I need you to focus," Yan Ming said as he adjusted his cloud-treading boots, making puffs of vapor emerge from his heels. "We only have one chance at this."
"This is the rashest thing we've ever done, you know," Liao Jun said as he climbed into the scout ornithopter he'd had readied.
"We commandeered that Persian blimp in Kathmandu," Yan Ming noted as he settled in behind him.
"Fah, Persians," Liao Jun said, kicking a pedal to set the ornithopter's wings in motion. "That was nothing. What about the time you challenged that Shao Lin master?"
"I cheated," Yan Ming reminded him. "Reflected the sun into his eyes. I'll tell you what was worse than this, though: writing that poem about Xian Yi and the First Minister."
Liao Jun groaned as he guided the scout craft into open air. "You're right," he said as he started his descent. "That was worse. I should never have suggested it." He paused, then added, "Good poem, though."
Yan Ming snorted as they descended on Fu Zhi and the rest of the Celestial Ascension's ornithopters. "Famous last words," he shouted, before the howl of the wind drowned him out.
In spite of himself, Liao Jun felt a grin spreading across his face as he and Yan Ming swept toward Fu Zhi. Now he was the one speeding toward his prey, who seemed to be wallowing through a sea of muck. Fu Zhi expanded to blot out the earth below, and Liao Jun felt the ornithopter shudder as Yan Ming leapt free of the craft. He banked to one side, threading his way through the dragon's coils, and for a heart-stopping instant, Yan Ming was surrounded on all sides by scales the size of his head. Then he was through, his pulse drumming in his ears as he arrested his descent.
As he began to climb again, Liao Jun caught sight of Yan Ming and felt his heart leap into his throat. His friend was dashing along Fu Zhi's spine, his sword alive with arcs of lightning, leaping over snapped harpoon tethers as Fu Zhi jinked and sent them cutting through the air. The dragon seemed to sense Yan Ming's presence on its back and thrashed wildly, trying to buck him loose.
Liao Jun sucked air through his teeth as Yan Ming arced through the air, then laughed when he saw that his friend had used the dragon's motion to catapult himself closer to Fu Zhi's head. "You wily devil," he murmured. "You almost make me believe we can do this."
Yan Ming's trajectory carried him into the arc of the dragon's vision, prompting a thunderous roar. A haze of vapor congealed beneath Yan Ming's boots, arresting his descent, and as the savant reached equilibrium, balancing the qi in his body to resist the gravitic pull of earth, Fu Zhi lunged for him, his jaws gaping wider than a palace gate.
Taking a half-step forward on the cloud he'd made, Yan Ming leapt straight up, missing Fu Zhi's nose by a hand's-breadth. An instant later, he descended again, landing in the crease between the dragon's horns—and for the second time, as Yan Ming's sword descended, Liao Jun saw the glint of metal imbedded in the dragon's brow.
There was a blast of light, followed an instant later by the rending sound of thunder. For an instant, Fu Zhi seemed to freeze in place, like one of the Emperor's garden islands. Then the dragon fell like a stone, leaving Yan Ming alone in the sky, with his heels clothed in vapor and half a dozen ornithopters orbiting him.
"No, you idiots!" Liao Jun shouted as some of the junior pilots started cheering. Fighting to keep his ornithopter aloft, he signaled frantically with its heliograph mirror: Pursue. Pursue. Engage the Enemy More Closely. One by one, the pilots remembered their orders, and stooped on the insensate Fu Zhi, flying circles around his floating form and firing needles into the pressure points Yan Ming had designated.
"That was brilliant," Liao Jun said as he brought his ornithopter to a halt beneath Yan Ming, who descended a stair made of mist to take his arm. As Liao Jun pulled his friend aboard the scout craft, he realized Yan Ming was trembling.
"It was idiotic," Yan Ming replied. "But it worked. Heaven still smiles on fools and charlatans."
"You can tell that to the men if you like," Liao Jun said quietly, holding the ornithopter steady. "But don't lie to me, old friend. You didn't steal that placard. You're one of Heaven's chosen."
Yan Ming grimaced. "What tipped you off?" he asked.
"Other than the fact that you should be dead?" Liao Jun asked. "I've seen men use cloud-treading boots before. More to the point, I've seen shock swords used before. What you did to stun Fu Zhi was the stuff of legends."
"Suppose you're right," Yan Ming said, peering down at Fu Zhi, who was bristling with needles and being wrapped in harpoon cables. "What are you going to do about it?"
Liao Jun shrugged. "Me? Nothing. I'm going to chop off Fu Zhi's head and haul it home."
"Actually," Yan Ming said, laying an unsteady hand on Liao Jun's shoulder. "I meant to speak to you about that. . ."
"You're sure this is a good idea?" Liao Jun asked as he steadied his ornithopter mere yards from Fu Zhi's muzzle.
Yan Ming heaved a deep sigh. "Yes, yes, for the thousandth time, yes. The needles should have rebalanced Fu Zhi's qi, which should restore his sanity." He grabbed at his hat as the dragon let out a booming snort, then hammered on the side of the scout's passenger compartment with the hilt of his sword, making it ring like a gong. "Oi! Lumphead! Wake up!"
Liao Jun groaned as Fu Zhi opened its blazing golden eyes. "Did you really have to taunt the dragon?"
"YES," Fu Zhi thundered in perfect court Mandarin. "WAS THAT TRULY NECESSARY, YOUNG SIR?"
"Forgive my indelicacy, great Fu Zhi," Yan Ming said, bowing in apology. "Your humble servant only wished to ascertain that you'd regained your faculties."
"THAT IS MOST KIND OF YOU," Fu Zhi replied in a tone that Liao Jun feared was more ironic than sincere. "MAY I INQUIRE WHY I'VE BEEN TRUSSED LIKE A BIRD, AND RATHER COMPREHENSIVELY PIERCED?"
"What is the last thing you recall, noble Fu Zhi?"
Fu Zhi's whiskers twitched, but it seemed to take the question seriously. "I WAS INVESTIGATING A CURIOUS ARRANGEMENT OF ISLANDS IN THE UPPER REACHES OF THE FIRMAMENT WHEN I HAPPENED ACROSS ONE OF YOUR MORTAL SHIPS. I FOUND MYSELF RATHER PECKISH, AND WAS APPROACHING TO INQUIRE IF SOME CHOICE OXEN MIGHT BE PROVIDED AS A SNACK, WHEN A SHADOW COVERED THE SUN AND I FELT SOMETHING STRIKE ME BETWEEN MY HORNS. AFTER THAT. . ." Fu Zhi's eyes narrowed. "NOTHING, UNTIL JUST NOW."
"I fear you have been ill-used, sagacious Fu Zhi," Yan Ming said. "I will explain how in just a moment. But first, could you describe the ship you saw?"
"IT WAS MUCH LIKE YONDER WARSHIP," Fu Zhi said, nodding at the Celestial Ascension, "SAVE THAT ITS TRIM WAS PAINTED RED AND YELLOW, WITH PORTRAITS OF SOME OF MY YOUNGER COUSINS ON ITS SIDES." The dragon blinked as Liao Jun paled. "I TAKE IT YOU RECOGNIZE THE SHIP IN QUESTION."
"Yes, great Fu Zhi," Liao Jun said, bowing deep. "It could only be the Celestial Throne. His Imperial Majesty's flagship and pleasure barge."
"THIS EMPEROR OF YOURS," Fu Zhi rumbled, his voice building to a roar. "YOU SAY HE USED ME, SCHOLAR?"
"He is no Emperor of ours, illustrious Fu Zhi," Yan Ming replied, bowing again. "All of us here are exiles. But yes, he has done you a great wrong. For after his agents thrust an iron needle in your skull, disturbing your humors, he loosed you to assassinate his son, Prince Zhen, then allowed you to rampage across the earth, leaving devastation in your wake."
"IMPUDENCE!" Fu Zhi bellowed. "SUCH EFFRONTERY SHALL NOT BE TOLERATED. WHO DOES THIS MAGGOT IMAGINE HE IS?"
"He imagines he is Emperor Xian Long, noble Fu Zhi," Liao Jun quavered. "Holder of the Mandate of Heaven."
"MANDATES," Fu Zhi growled, his eyes glittering with dire promise, "CAN BE REVOKED."
The manuscript ends here, but subsequent events can be inferred. When the Celestial Ascension returned to Tian Jing in the 26th year of Xian Long's reign, it did so amidst an armada of dragons. Those forces that tried to impede the armada's progress, such as the Keepers of the Northern Pass, were smashed within minutes, and in the face of Heaven's evident anger, the Guardians of the Imperial Person mutinied. When they brought a battered Xian Long to the Gate of Righteous Wrath, Fu Zhi reduced him to ashes with a single blazing breath.
These facts—as well as Liao Jun's subsequent ascension to the Imperial Throne—are not disputed. In fact, the imperishable documents bestowing the Mandate of Heaven on Liao Jun (the only time the Celestial Bureaucracy has explicitly ended one dynasty and endorsed a new one) are still a source of awe and wonder to scholars and monarchs alike. No, those who contend that the Yan Ming Manuscript must be a forgery do so on the grounds that the technique popularly known as "Dracopuncture" could not possibly have been practiced by Yan Ming at the end of the Jing Dynasty, due to its being pioneered by the ill-fated Guan Zheng Tao some three centuries later.
While the sniveling of such pedants is unworthy of notice, the Office of the Grand Historian would remind readers that Fu Zhi is now the Censor of Western Waters, while Yan Ming attained immortality in the 34th year of the reign of Emperor Liao Jun. It is trivial to contact them via Prayer Engine, and when the preceding document was presented to them, they endorsed it in all particulars.*
-Sima Jun, Grand Historian.
*Translator's Note: This is not strictly true. Yan Ming objected to the document's assertion that he cheated to win a duel, and Fu Zhi complained about the choice of adjectives used to describe him during his rampage. However, given the irrelevance of these objections to the controversy at hand, the Grand Historian elected to privilege an authoritative finish over perfect accuracy.