By continues, I actually mean it’s near completion. With a bit of elbow grease, I should have my edit done this weekend, and then I package the novella, Tongs, Tartan, and Tin Pot Battleships off to my editor for thrashing. Most of my changes have been minor, and I’m rather pleased with the product. I’m hoping that second set of eyes will provide me the feedback to make this the best novella in the series so far. So, as promised, with each update comes a snippet to whet the appetite. This one comes from the short story, Tongs, Tartan, and Tin Pot Battleships.
“Gănkuài!” yelled our decuria second in command Jemadar Er-hong Kim when we entered the gate of the castrum; she was a Chinese honey badger with a tongue like a machete who had taken a particular dislike of me. As we kooshed our camels and dismounted before handing them over to the young camel-wallahs who would rub them down and feed them in the stables, she was on us in a heartbeat snapping out orders and abuse while focusing her particular brand of advanced leadership skills on me.
“Wángbādàn! You repo’t to subeda’, he have wo’k fo’ you!” She grabbed me by the ear, a most annoying and painful habit amongst the Legion leadership, and dragged me wincing and whining towards the Headquarters tent. “Bái chī, guĭlăo,” she muttered as I protested weakly and jogged beside her while trying to wrestle my ear from her iron grip. “Subeda’ fucking stupid to want fèi wù like you fo’ wo’k,” she added with a malicious pinch. As we made our way across the muddy maidan amongst the burly guffawing jawans who pointed at me and elbowed their chums in their mirth, I could not help but note through the waves of pain and humiliation the unusual amount of activity and purpose that had stung the normally sedate inhabitants into a new sense of action. Kim delivered me through the flap of the HQ tent, then stalked off shrieking into the wind as I rubbed my ear and stood in the gloom looking pathetic.
“Losh, ye’ve a face like a skittery hippin, Sikunder. Dinnae stand about lookin’ the glaiket dilly-daw, get cleaned up in yer best uniform. I hae a job just fer you.”
That was by way of greeting from our decuria commander, Subedar Angus Motshwega, known to all as MacShaka the Tartan Zulu, who stood four square, hands on hips and glowering like a Kansas hanging judge in scarlet shalwars and tight fitting blue sharwani coat. Behind him there was no end of activity as a clerk and the scenarius havildars chatted over compu-pads and maps; each a contemplative face filled with purpose and dare I even add, worry?
“In forty-five minutes,” MacShaka added as he stood before me and poked me in the chest – right where I’d been shot whilst with him two weeks before, damn him – “I want you and a half dozen o’ those horn-idle chai-wallahs tae hae the mess tent prepped fer a meeting. Tea, coffee, and a hookah; and make sure the damned place is swept out. Ye’ll be there during the meeting making sure the damned hither and yon limmers are on their best behaviour before the guests.”
“Who’s coming?” I asked as I rubbed the still livid bruise on my chest.
MacShaka poked my chest again and snapped as I winced, “Michty me, Sikunder, dae as yer fucking told and stop playin’ the damned gomeril already! I’m tae damned busy tae haver wi’ some peely wally wee bauchle. Sae shut the fuck up and gaet on wi’ it, ye damned yíwàng de bā!”
Well, my Chinese and Glaswegian were poor, but I figured from the tone that I’d crossed the line, and still massaging my chest, I grovelled satisfactorily, made my way out of the tent, and jogged to my scenarius tent to wash and change. Thirty minutes later I stood in the mess tent in fresh shalwar trousers, cotton kameez shirt, and tight fitting cobalt blue sharwani coat. I had even forsaken my trail worn pakol beret for a misshapen black turban over my freshly shaven head and with scarlet sash festooned with Khyber knife, 9mm pistol, and tomahawk and boots blackened, I looked very much the typical jawan save for scrubbed pink skin and pathetic wisp of beard. Six chai-wallahs were with me – children between the ages of ten and fifteen that carried out every menial task in creation as they waited for the chance to join the fighting ranks of the Legion at the age of sixteen. The eldest of the six was willowy gap toothed girl named Jindan Chandrakala who bullied the remainder with kicks and blows as they swept the tent, laid out a hookah, then ground up coffee beans, boiled water for tea, and laid out the decuria’s best tea and coffee service – a group of tiny porcelain cups on a well polished brass tray.
“Namastey, sahib, and don’t you worry,” she said as she guided the efforts of the normally unrepentant rogues that made up the dozen or so wallahs we kept with the decuria, “we will be ready. A chai-wallah behind every chair and not a hair out of place. Jaldi karo!” she added as she kicked one idle Chinese boy in the ass to motivate his sweeping efforts. As the children finished their work she lined them up to inspect them with all of the gravity of a rear admiral of the fleet. She straightened a turban here and adjusted a knee length sharwani coat there, she stepped back, allowed that gap toothed smile, and reported, “Accha. We are ready.”
I had stood for the ten or so minutes, idle and useless as the activity surged around me. Now I asked, “Do you know what is happening?”
“Mēhamānōm, sahib. Guests,” she added as I stood bewildered.
The tent flap opened and in strode MacShaka resplendent in is best uniform with Er-hong Kim in tow. He stood in the centre of the tent, looked upon it, the wallahs, and myself, then nodded. “No’ bad,” he growled. Kim said nothing, glared like a gorgon and left. “Now,” MacShaka barked as he turned on me. “In a few minutes or sae, our guests wi’ arrive. There’s a helicopter coming in from Conomarra with the colonial governor and Amir Shao Zhi Cheung of the Legion.”
“The Amir?” I asked in shock. I’d never seen the big man himself nor heard many talk of him.
“Aye. Dinnae gaet a’ moist eyed, Sikunder,” he snapped as he spared me a withering glance. “Play the puddock now and I’ll turn ye over tae Er-Hong Kim for a week.” Horrified at the thought of being set upon by that Han hyena, I bowed and toadied him for the next few minutes as the wallahs arranged chairs and set to making coffee, until he bade me, “Shut the fuck up, a’ready, ye hither and yon bampot!” then stormed out.
With MacShaka gone, I took the next few minutes to lecture my chattering wallahs with Chandrakala standing cross armed and stern and looking more like a Regimental Sergeant-Major every minute. I warned them what their normal shenanigans and skylarkings would bring if they dared to try them, saw them dissolve into a mass fit of giggles, and realized how ridiculous I must appear in my drooping turban and pink skin. Had my beard been a bit thicker, I might have made for a more imposing creature, but with wisps not much thicker than cat whiskers, my stature was thoroughly diminished in their eyes. So we puttered and waited and presently, the deep ‘whap, whap, whap’ of the contra-rotating blades of a helicopter emerged from the chatter and we all fell silent. In the minutes that followed, the sound grew in volume until the tent walls began to shimmer from the downdraft. Then, as the helicopter landed in the castrum’s inconsequential maidan and instantly powered down its ear-splitting whine, I had Chandrakala place the wallahs while I waited by the tent flap.
MacShaka threw the tent flap aside and I bowed with obsequious abandon as he strode in followed by a plumpish black woman in her fifties with the airs of a duchess, whom I assumed was the Governor of Samsāra. Following her came a stooped owl-eyed buffer in spectacles and a wispy white goatee and baggy Legion uniform whom I guessed must be the Amir of Ajax Legion. A fourth figure entered – a devilish looking character – a young and handsome Han Chinese in a black Tang jacket beautifully embroidered with silver dragons, and billowy black silk trousers. He was motioned to a chair by MacShaka who then spared me a curt nod. I gestured the wallahs to work and they moved quickly, pouring coffee and lighting the hookah, all in a conspicuous silence that unnerved me as the foursome looked at each other and said nothing. In an odd diversion, the Governor, named Mary Jefferson, stirring her tea languidly gave me an odd look and asked MacShaka, “A new recruit, subedar?”
“Aye, sahiba,” MacShaka growled as he lifted his demitasse in his massive paw. He looked like an unwilling gorilla playing tea. “A Canuck.”