“Does it still hurt?” asks Tony
“No.” It itches like crazy, but I can’t say that, so I scratch my leg to keep from scratching my chest.
Tony gives a single nod, barely moving his head. Anything more would be unmanly.
Old Fong leans over me, his face hovering just below my chin. Close enough to catch a whiff of stale cigarette breath mixed with dentures. Rank. I want to squirm back in the chair. The vinyl surface sticks to my sweaty skin. Old Fong is too old school to use AC.
He runs his calloused, nicotine-stained fingertips along the edges of the blue dragon tattooed over my heart. “Good. Completely healed. No scabs or scarring.”
“When can he begin training again?”
I roll my eyes. Not that I expect Tony to cut me an inch of slack.
“Today.” Old Fong bows. “You are the last Dragon Son I shall tattoo.”
“I’m not the Dragon Son yet,” I mutter.
He speaks over me. “The one who replaces me shall have the honor of tattooing your son.”
Son? I don’t even want to think about that. My skin peels off the chair as I slide forward. Neither Tony nor Nicotine Breath moves out of the way. Oh, yeah. I have to give face. I nod my head, just once. “I am honored by this distinction.”
Old Fong grunts.
Tony tosses my T-shirt into my lap. “Let’s go.”
“Where?” I ask before tugging the shirt over my head.
“Head Elder wants to see you.”
My shoulders tense up. “What for?”
My cousin frowns down on me. “Head Elder requires you go to him. You don’t question his commands.”
“Okay, okay.” I slide off the chair and follow him outside.
The tattoo studio is located on the second level of the front building in the Two Dragon Clan’s compound. There are five buildings altogether, each three-stories high and constructed almost 500 years ago with thick, mud colored brick walls and black, ceramic tiled roofs. A massive outer wall connects each structure, making the compound impenetrable for as long as it’s been in existence.
The only entrance into the compound is through a gate leading to the interior courtyard of the front building. Back in the day, archers on the second and third levels would’ve mowed down enemies who breached that gate. Nowadays, the courtyard is used as a parking lot.
I lean over the rail and spot my dad’s dark blue Mercedes in its usual spot. This morning, he got a phone call during breakfast and was out the door in half an hour. From what I overheard, he went to Kowloon. No explanation why and I know better than to ask. He might tell us what happened over dinner, but probably not.
“Hurry up,” Tony hollers from the stairwell.
I trot after him like a good boy. We go downstairs and across the courtyard. The mid-afternoon sun bakes this part of the compound and the humid air needles my skin, making the tattoo sting. I can’t wait to get back to cold, foggy San Francisco, except I’m going to have to find a way to explain why I’m returning from summer vacation a month late and with a dragon tattoo. Maybe I’ll say I ran away to Amsterdam and got inked during a rave while floating on a cloud of ecstasy. It’s less crazy than the actual reason:
When you live on the Crossroads and walk the Glory Road, tradition is the be-all and end-all of existence. I’m not supposed to question any of it, not even the wacky stuff. Like the tattoo? 500 years ago, my ancestor discovered he was a dragon when he turned fifteen.
Anyway, that’s why all the Two Dragon Clan men get tattooed, but not the women. At this point, I’m not entirely sure if that’s unfair or not. I poke at my itchy flesh. “When can I scratch my tattoo?”
“Never,” says Tony.
“You never scratch your tattoo?”
He shakes his head.
Ain’t he the shit? Always so damn perfect. Always the role model. As my paternal first cousin, he’s been the boss of me since I was born, my Big Brother. Hard to believe that will ever change, even after I become the Dragon Son.
Tony stares straight ahead like a guy who kicks ass and takes names. I’m still growing and seriously hope to gain a couple of inches on Big Brother, but I’ll never have that square chin or high forehead and deep-set eyes. Tony is the one who got the Lau family looks. I wound up with my mom’s wide-set eyes, high-cheekbones and round chin. It makes me look soft, which I hate, but at least Mom doesn’t look like her father, Head Elder.
My stomach twists. I whisper, “What do you think Head Elder wants?”
“He probably wants to see your tattoo. See that it was done properly.”
See that it was done properly? Kidding? Sometimes, Tony talks like he’s ninety instead of nineteen.
“No way. Head Elder knows Old Fong doesn’t make mistakes.” We reach the archway at the end of the courtyard. Above us loom the rusting spikes of the old Iron Gate, which was meant to drop down and trap the intruders. “Something’s going on… maybe something to do with my dad going to Kowloon this morning.”
Tony stops and turns to face me. His chest rises and falls before he whispers, “My father.”
I suck in air so I don’t speak, since talking about his father, my Uncle George, is forbidden.
Something brushes my mind, another consciousness. It feels like a push, not physical, but mental, sort of like the beginning of a headache. I drop my guard, allowing Tony to communicate with me using the Silent Speech.
My father has asked to be reinstated in the clan.
My eyes widen. No way. That won’t happen.
He’s spoken to Head Elder and he might be allowed into the compound for the Summoning Ceremony.
I hesitate. Do you want to see him?
No. Pain glints off the steel in his eyes as he looks away. Uncle George is Tony’s weak spot. You punch it and he flinches. Something I’ll never do, though I can’t show sympathy, either. That would hurt even more.
If Head Elder says something, I’ll let you know.
Emotion drains from Tony’s face as he gives that single nod.
We start walking again, heading across the main courtyard. Where had Tony heard that rumor? Does it matter? I don’t believe it. Uncle George has zero chance of rejoining the clan. Head Elder doesn’t forgive anybody for anything.
We stop in front of the round moon gate built into the stone wall surrounding the Ancestral Courtyard. Two sentries, one male and one female stand on either side of the gate. Both, like Tony and me, wear the loose black pants and white T-shirts that are standard issue around the compound. I spread my arms and legs wide so the male sentry can pat me down. This time last year, there weren’t any guards. Now, everyone gets searched before entering, from the cleaning crew to the Dragon Son, all because of Uncle George. I glance back at my cousin.
Tony’s face is a wall of stone. “When Head Elder is done with you, come find me in the west exercise yard.”
I stifle a groan. I hate sparring with the sun in my eyes, though I’d rather spend two hours doing that than two minutes with Head Elder. “Change places with me?”
The stone doesn’t crack.
“I know what to get you for your next birthday.”
An eyebrow lifts. “What?”
“A sense of humor.”
Tony’s lips twitch before pressing into a line. Sometimes, I can get him to grin, but not today. He juts his chin toward the moon gate.
On the other side, I stop in front of the spirit wall and tuck my shirt into my pants. Head Elder won’t notice if I look neat, but he’ll sure as shit notice if I look like a slob. The giant dragon carved into the greenish-gray stone surface glowers down at me. When I was a kid, it sort of spooked me. Spirit walls are meant to block the evil dead, who for some reason can’t figure out how to move around corners. The kids who lived in the compound had told me this particular wall stays frozen cold, even on the hottest days and touching it means four years’ bad luck. Kids tell each other crap like that all the time. I don’t believe it anymore, but I still walk a wide path around it. Just in case.
I head across the courtyard toward the first clan compound, carved into the caverns of Chisel Knife Mountain. Vegetation creeps down the side of the mountain and hangs in tendrils over archways carved into the rock. Colorful, ceramic tile dragons coil up the pillars on either side of the main entrance, symbolically guarding the Ancestral Hall of the Two Dragon Clan. Another, smaller entryway leads to clan headquarters and the offices of the Elders.
There’s no place on Earth like this. At least, no place I know of. My fingers practically itch to draw it, but if I do, I’ll be toast. Clan rules forbid anyone, even the Dragon Son, from documenting its existence. As our clan grew, the compound spread out into the walled fortress it became. Bribes to government officials have kept our compound off paper and out of the Hong Kong tour books. The remote location in the northwest border of the New Territories also helps.
If outsiders find out about the caverns, it will ruin everything. We’ll get tourists and archaeologists clamoring at our gate. That can’t be allowed. The secrets of the Two Dragon Clan must never be compromised. Uncle George learned that the hard way.
Inside clan headquarters, I stop and let the cold air chill my damp skin. The caverns maintain a year-round temperature of about 60 degrees. The overhead lights flicker off the whitewashed walls as the corridor darkens before brightening again. Electricity and plumbing were installed years ago in this cavern, but has been difficult to maintain. The Elders could have moved their offices into the main compound, but tradition keeps them in place.
As I head down the corridor, I start sweating again. What the hell does Head Elder want with me now? I stop in front of the Dragon Son’s office. Maybe I should see Dad first.
“You will obey me.”
That sounds like Dad. His loud, muffled voice comes from the office across the hall. Head Elder’s office.
Another angry voice speaks. It sounds like Head Elder, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. Are he and Dad arguing about Uncle George? I lean closer to the door, but their words remain muffled. I step back. Snooping on clan elders is not the action of a Xia, a righteous warrior.
“I am the Dragon Son.” Dad’s shout penetrates the thick wood. “I lead this clan, not you.”
I can be righteous some other time. I breathe deep, channeling my internal energy. Chi spreads like warm fire through my body. I focus on the voices, listening as they become clearer despite the barrier.
“I will not allow your sin, your dishonor to ruin us,” says Head Elder. “I don’t care what arrangements you have made with your brother. You will stay silent. Starting tomorrow, you will train Wai Kit to produce the Dragon Shout.”
My mouth drops open. What the hell? The Dragon Shout? No way. That training isn’t supposed to start until next year.
“No.” Dad states. “He’s too young.”
“He is not too young and you will train him. He must be capable of producing the Dragon Shout by the time of the Summoning Ceremony.”
“That’s not enough time.”
“A week is plenty of time. More than enough.”
“Wai Kit is still recovering from his tattoo. The Dragon Shout requires absolute control over one’s chi. He won’t have that by tomorrow.”
“No more excuses.” There’s a pounding sound, like a fist on a table. “You will train Wai Kit to be the next Dragon Son.”
“My brother–” Dad starts.
“Your brother will keep silent or pay the price.” Head Elder’s voice lowers. “I want my grandson fully capable of taking over as Dragon Son by the time of the Summoning Ceremony. During the ceremony, you will present Wai Kit to Jade Dragon as his heir. After that, you can say whatever you want, but I warn you, your sin will condemn the innocent and the guilty. You will be ousted as Dragon Son and replaced by Wai Kit.”
My mouth goes bone dry. Replace Dad as the Dragon Son? What is going on? What sin could he have committed? It must be Uncle George. He’s done something, committed some new crime, and once again, Dad is trying to save him.
The doorknob twists. Shit! I scurry back as far as I can before the door swings open.
Dad strides into the hall. His face is red and his eyes dark with rage.
I freeze. Do I look as guilty as I feel?
He stares at me for a moment. “Son, what are you doing here?”
I blink a few times before finding my voice. “Um, Head Elder wants to see me.”
The anger drains from his face, though his expression remains grim. “Old Fong is finished with you?”
“Let’s show Head Elder.”
I follow Dad into the office. Our feet make no noise on the plush, dark carpet. Head Elder sits behind a large wood desk. There’s no clutter on the surface or anything personal, like a framed family photo. No computer, either. I don’t think he knows how to use one. He’s wearing a suit and tie, like always, even on the hottest days.
My face goes blank. All personality drains out of me so I look like the obedient sprout he expects. Back home in San Francisco, my friends had talked about their grandfathers being great guys or old grumps. I never say anything about Head Elder. “Great guy” didn’t work and “old grump” doesn’t begin to cover it. It must have been rough on Mom, growing up with a father like him.
Head Elder stands. Behind his thick-lens glasses, his eyes narrow in on me like a specimen under a microscope. “Grandson, you are 15-years-old, a man now. Show me the proof.”
As I raise my shirt, a chill prickles my skin. Head Elder’s lair is probably the coldest room in the whole of the caverns.
He walks around the desk and leans over so I can see the age spots dotting his scalp through his sparse gray hair. I know he’s examining the pearl. One of the fringe benefits of being the Dragon Son and his heir is having a different tattoo than the rest of the clan. Our dragon has a pearl inked at its throat. All dragons have pearls containing the essence of their power, which grows in size and strength according to their wisdom and experience. Since Dad and I are Jade Dragon’s direct descendants through his first born son, we have access to that pearl. Or so I’m told.
A dry smile cracks Head Elder’s lips. “You lack one skill before you can become Jade Dragon’s heir.”
Jade Dragon. Not my father’s heir. Does he think I don’t notice? Since I’m that stupid, I’m not going to say shit.
His eyes narrow with annoyance. “The Dragon Shout. You will begin training tomorrow.”
I turn to Dad, my mouth gaping open like, what? Personally, I think I’m a terrible actor, but they’re too busy being pissed off at each other to notice.
Dad’s hand moves to my shoulder. “Let’s go, son.”
Head Elder frowns, but doesn’t try stopping us as we ditch his office. I breathe a little easier once we’re outside. I chew my lip to keep from blurting out everything I’d heard.
Dad is silent until we’re crossing the courtyard toward the spirit wall. “Tomorrow is a big day. You need to rest.”
“I can’t. Tony’s waiting for me in the west exercise yard.”
Dad’s face seems to freeze for a moment. “The west?” He gives a strained chuckle. “Your Big Brother isn’t easy on you.”
I shrug. “No one’s easy on me.”
“A Xia’s life is never easy. And the Glory Road is a difficult path to follow. I wish I could spare you.”
“Spare me from what?”
Dad glances back at the entrance to the Ancestral Hall and whispers what sound like, “Everything.”
He shakes his head. “No exercise for you today. You’ll need all your energy for tomorrow.”
“Um, okay. I’ll go tell Tony.”
“I’ll come with you.” His shoulder brushes the spirit wall.
My stomach lurches. Dad continues on through the moon gate as if nothing has happened. Doesn’t he realize? Four years bad luck. But you only believe that if you’re a boy, not a man. After all, how can you get bad luck from touching something? Sucking in my breath, I walk past the wall, brushing my hand against the rough surface. Rather than icy, the stone is on the cool side of warm. I exhale. If there’s any bad luck, I’ll share it with Dad. Then maybe it won’t be so bad.
As we stroll across main courtyard, everyone we pass, men, women and even little kids, bow their heads in respect. They look at Dad with veiled curiosity, probably because he’s in a business suit instead of the standard issue workout pants and T-shirt he wears around the compound. He nods back, a lot like Tony’s single, manly nod, though not as stiff. His gaze seems calm, but I can tell he’s tense by the pinch between his eyes. Maybe I should say something. What? If I admit to snooping, will he tell me what’s going on? Hell no. My back will have a date with a bamboo cane. I need to find another way to bring things up.
“How come I have to learn the Dragon Shout now instead of next year?”
“Head Elder and I decided to complete your training early.”
The pinch between Dad’s eyes deepens. “You don’t question our decisions. You obey.”
“Yes, sir.” I take a hesitant breath. “Can I ask you one more question?”
“So, Jade Dragon and the first Head Elder, they were cousins, just like me and Tony. Um, so does that mean Head Elder has authority over the Dragon Son, the same way Tony gets to tell me what to do?”
The pinch becomes a ravine. His voice rises. “No. Absolutely not.” He takes a breath and speaks in a quieter tone. “Jade Dragon founded the Two Dragon Clan and devised our martial skills. He honored his older cousin by making him Head Elder and allowing the position to be hereditary, but Head Elder does not rule over the Dragon Son.”
We continue on in silence, my unspoken question like a wedge between us: why does Head Elder tell you what to do?
Sunlight fills the west exercise yard, reflecting off the brick surface, making me squint. Tony stands in the center. He shifts into a cat stance, bending his knees, sliding his right foot in front of him and lifting the heel. Raising his broadsword above his head, he twists his wrist. A beam of light sparks off the blade. He runs to the east wall, slicing his sword through the air in rapid succession.
Using the Climbing Skill, he bounds up the wall until he reaches the top. He spins around and, sword thrust before him, launches off the edge and flies across the courtyard to the west wall. He lands, balancing on the thick, uneven ledge and jabs his sword at potential enemies on either side of him. Then he leaps off the ledge and spins midair, landing in the center of the courtyard in a drop stance, his left knee bent and his right leg slid to the side, the sword held above his head.
Damn. I’ve been practicing the Flying Dragon form for months, but I don’t have Tony’s finesse. No one expects me to, not yet. Not until today. Why does Head Elder want me to be fully trained? Maybe it would be worth being punished to ask. I turn my head.
The tension in Dad’s face has disappeared. Pride fills his eyes. He whispers, “Perfect.”
I swallow hard. Whenever Dad looks at me, there’s always this hint of worry in his eyes, like he’s not sure I’ll make the grade. Will he ever look at me like he does at Tony, like I’m the pride of clan instead of a potential loser?
With a big smile, Dad walks across the courtyard. “Well done, son.”
Tony stands and swipes a forearm across his sweaty brow. “Thank you, Uncle.”
Gratitude shines in Tony’s eyes as Dad pats his shoulder. I dig my toe into a crevice between the stones. If I was nineteen, I’d be that good. Maybe even better.
Standing side-by-side, Dad and Tony look almost identical, like twins born 20 years apart. Which is funny because Dad and Uncle George actually are twins, but fraternal, so they don’t look a whole lot alike.
Is that Uncle George’s problem? Being the younger brother by two years would be one thing, but by two minutes? Do those two minutes torment him, keep him awake at night, thinking about how close he came to being the Dragon Son? I barely know my uncle. The Two Dragon Clan is divided between warriors and scholars, and Uncle George went the scholar route. As such, he traveled a lot, gathering information, sort of like a noncombatant spy. Whenever he and Dad were together, they’d act all friendly and back-pounding, as if they were best buds. Then Dad would turn away and Uncle George’s face would lock into this narrow, hateful glare. Only for a moment. Not long enough for me to say anything about, but enough to send a chill through me, even now.
Dad turns to me. I run to join them. His other hand settles on my shoulder. “I couldn’t be prouder of the two of you. I know there have been difficulties.” His voice trails off for a moment. I hold my breath. Will he say something about Uncle George? “But we have remained a family, united together. I need the two of you to be loyal to each other, always.”
Tony replies immediately, using my Chinese name. “Yes, Uncle. I’ll always be loyal to Wai Kit.”
“I’ll always be loyal to Wai Yi,” I reply.
Dad’s eyes remain troubled. His hands drop from our shoulders. “Let’s go home.”
Home, at least for the summer, is the large building on the east side of the compound. Like the west and central buildings, it has an interior courtyard. The ground floor had once been used for storage and livestock. It’s been renovated so it’s now sort of like a hostel, reserved for visiting clan members. Only families have private rooms and everyone has to share the bathrooms and kitchens. With the Summoning Ceremony only a week away, space is filling up fast. Several families are having their evening meal in the courtyard instead of the gloomy interior. I feel their eyes on us as we head upstairs.
It seems unfair that the entire third level is the living quarters of the Dragon Son and his family, but that’s how it’s always been. Of course, back in the day, the Dragon Son could have more than one wife. I smirk. Then I think about Dad having another wife and another family. That would suck.
Inside, I slip off my sneakers and head down the hall toward the frantic sound of trolls being massacred in the living room. My cousin, Aaron, sits cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, his thumbs jabbing at the controller buttons as he slaughters his way through a dungeon. Little Brother – that’s what I call him. I don’t want that to change; don’t want him and Tony to get in trouble because their father is causing trouble again. They would have shared in Uncle George’s disgrace if Dad hadn’t intervened.
Mom sits on the couch with a magazine on her lap. It’s kind of funny. She always dresses casual and almost never wears make-up, but she loves reading fashion magazines. I guess they’re her guilty pleasure. Maybe she learns stuff from them because on the rare occasions she does dress up, she looks amazing. Better than all the models in those magazines combined.
Her name is Michelle and Dad’s name is Michael. I think it’s kinda cute. Everyone close to them calls them Chelle and Mike. Well, everyone in San Francisco. They have Chinese names, like we all do, but here in the compound, they’re mainly referred to as Dragon Son and Dragon Son’s Wife. And, yeah, I’m called Dragon Son’s Son. It sounds better in Cantonese.
Mom’s wearing workout clothes, so she must have just come from teaching a class on the Swift Step. I frown. She’s one of the masters of the art and because of her I’m pretty good at it, too. Thing is, she looks too pale and has got those dark circles under her eyes. She’s turning the pages of the magazine too quickly, like she’s not really seeing what’s on the page.
She nearly died when I was born. Later, she was diagnosed with some kind of heart disease that kept her from having any more kids. She isn’t supposed to exert herself too much, but she hates sitting around and loves teaching. Stress is what can really make her ill. I’m sure she knows what’s going on between Dad and Head Elder. Is it making her sick? If it is, why don’t the two of them cut their shit out?
Aaron glances up at me. He looks like a middle school version of Tony, right down to the critical frown. “Why are you standing there like that?”
Mom jumps up, the magazine falling to floor. “Have you seen your father?”
I nod toward the hall. “Yeah, he’s right behind me.”
Dad walks in. “We met in Head Elder’s office.”
Tony picks up the remote and turns off the TV.
“Hey!” Aaron cries out. Tony’s frown silences him.
Mom wipes her hands down her pants. “You saw your grandfather?”
“Yeah. He wanted to see my tattoo.” The patch of skin over my heart tingles. I scratch my leg. “He wants Dad to teach me the Dragon Shout, starting tomorrow.”
“What?” She turns to Dad, stuttering out her words. “But, but, I thought…”
Dad shakes his head.
Mom gives a short gasp. “No. There’s not enough time. He’s already missed too much school. I’ll tell my father.” She brushes past Dad, but before she reaches the doorway, she stops and turns.
My parents stare at each other without talking, not out loud, anyway. In Silent Speech, they’re probably shouting.
Tony herds Aaron and me out. We give each other wary glances before heading to our rooms. After closing the door, I flop on my bed and stare at the ceiling. A gecko stares back. It blinks once and goes back to searching for mosquitoes.
I wish I could confide in one of my cousins, but Aaron’s only twelve-years-old, and Tony… I heave a long sigh. If I admit to snooping, Big Brother will see it as his duty to report my misconduct. It’s weird how Tony, who’s such a cop, wound up with a father like Uncle George.
I reach under my pillow and slide out my drawing pad. Uncle George isn’t the only one with guilty secrets. This summer, I reread my favorite novel, “Return of the Condor Heroes.” At night, with the door closed, I’ve been drawing the characters.
I flip through the pages, quickly passing the bad starts and crappy stuff, and lingering on the decent drawings like the one of the giant eagle. I did okay with the feathers, but his beak and claws turned out pretty good. I keep flipping until I get to the hero of the novel, Yang Guo. I drew him with long, scraggly hair, dressed in patches and rags because he’s an outcast. He had it rough. Always misunderstood. Never good enough. Never what his elders want him to be. I know how that feels.
I turn the page. A girl dressed in a flowing white robe flies across the paper, a sword in her hand. Little Dragon Girl. Pretty, smart and brave. Just the kind of girl I’d like to date. I snort. Date. Yeah, right. I can only hope my parents keep their word and don’t arrange a marriage for me. Though their marriage had been arranged and they turned out okay. They seem to love each other.
Someone knocks. I slam the pad shut and shove it under the pillow. “Yeah?”
Mom leans in. “Your grandfather was pleased with your tattoo?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I pause. “Are you okay, Mom?
“Of course.” Her brow furrows. “Why?”
I shrug. “Just making sure. You take your medicine every day?”
Her strained smile softens. “Dinner will be ready soon.” She closes the door.
I reopen the pad to Little Dragon Girl. If only I can meet someone like her, someone who understands, someone whose family is as messed up and full of secrets as mine. Then I won’t feel so alone.
Copyright © 2015 by Lori Saltis. All rights reserved.