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The Water Weapon

Brenda W. Clough

The arching glass roof of the Crystal Palace was wonderfully high. But it was not high enough for the Chinese dragon, which had to be housed outside the Great Exposition of 1851. Throngs of English and foreign visitors crowded close to gape, even daring to extend a hand to feel the steam-hot wood. Its sinuous neck, cunningly jointed and riveted, flexed with a creak of bamboo against bamboo. When steam shot from the red-painted nostrils the populace groaned with amazement.

"Oh, my stars!" Mrs. Grace Stulting held her bonnet onto her head and leaned back to look as the carven head swayed above.

"Purely mechanical." Mr. Bucket wagged his head tolerantly. "You can see the metal gears moving the neck. And the stokers for the steam."

"Still, itís a marvel," Grace sighed.

Mr. Bucket drew her gloved hand through his arm. His tweed coat was too warm for the London summer and shiny at the elbows. He looked like nothing more than an elderly uncle taking a country cousin to seePrince Albertís Great Exposition of 1851.

"Letís pay attention to the job here," he said quietly. "That monsterís just a show -- a fancy steam engine. Scotland Yardís got a tip about some bigger magic here. So now weíre going to edge in closer, Mrs. S., and you keep your ears sharp. Those Chinese, they wonít be expecting a young white lady to understand their lingo. They might let fall something we need to hear."

In her happy excitement, Grace hardly heard him. She had been recruited into this jaunt merely because the preferred candidate, her husband, was busy addressing the Anglo-American Mission to the Orient Society. But Hermanus would have dismissed the Great Exposition as frivolous time-wasting, unlikely to further the spread of the Gospel. Now, on a legitimate patriotic mission with no less than the famous Inspector Bucket paying the late-season one-shilling entrance fee, Grace intended to enjoy herself.

"Oh, look! Souvenirs!" Exotically dressed Chinese attendants were coming forward with wide baskets. Eager hands reached for the gifts.

"For free? Huh." Bucket snagged one for his companion. "A paper toy. Whatís that in aid of, I wonder Ė- they could easily charge halfpence."

"Itís cute! Look, the little stick makes it stand up!" A bamboo skewer served as a handle, to support a red and black paper copy of the steam-powered giant dragon.

"Come along then, letís get closer." They edged forward through the crowd. Bucket had brought a pair of gilt opera glasses, with which he pretended to examine the gears and wooden joints of the construction towering above him. "Now, Mrs. S., ears sharp. Whatís that johnny saying? Heís no coolie. From his robe, heís a magician, right?"

"Yes, thatís what the tassels on his cap mean. Three gold ones mean heís a wizard at the Imperial Court." Grace gazed at the Chinese stokers shoveling coal into the furnace that heated the boiler. "He says English people are very quiet. So true! In Nanjing the cacophony would be immense."

"Donít waste energy on commentary, Mrs. S.," Bucket reproved her. "Quick -- whatís his pal saying?"

Ruffled, Grace said, "Heís agreeing, thatís all. Says Englishmen are like zombies."

The glasses slipped from Bucketís upraised hand, rescued from disaster only by their silk cord around his wrist. "Youíre sure of that?"

"My Mandarin is excellent, Inspector."

"Now, donít take my manner wrong, Mrs. S.," Bucket said. "Youíre doing the British Empire a vital service here. Is that the Princess?"

"Lady Mei," Grace corrected him. "Sheís not really a princess. Sheís the grand-daughter of the last Emperor and a concubine."

Along with everyone else, they both gaped at the splendid silk-clad figure in the golden sedan chair. Carried in full panoply through the Exposition, the exotic lady drew even more crowds to view the dragon. Half the rag-tag and bobtail of London seemed to be following her. The servants filtered through the press, distributing paper dragons hand over fist.

The foreman in charge of the stokers shouted in Chinese, "Back, all of you! Heís going to go!"

Suddenly the Chinese retreated, scurrying past them. Grace grabbed Inspector Bucketís tweed arm. "Inspector, let us step back. I think there are problems with the boiler."

"The way they were stoking it, the pressure must be terrible. Look nonchalant now. Talk to me about your husbandís mission work."

"Our plan is to start a school in Nanjing -- "

Grace felt the tug on her skirt instantly. A lady always has to be aware of her surroundings. In addition to pickpockets and purse-snatchers there were always unsavory men who tried to get too close to women in public. And then even a street-length skirt was always getting caught in things or picking up dirt.

Pulling surreptitiously with one hand had no effect.

She shot a quick glance back. "Oh, sweet Jesus!"

An enormous brass-tipped claw had speared down, pinning the flounce of her skirt to the earth. Hot humid steam puffed around her, and a huge hissing voice huffed in Chinese, "Little foreign-devil lady. You understand me, do you not?"

Grace gaped up at the tremendous bamboo head, big as her own body, swaying above her. The red eyes, which she had taken for panes of tinted mica, were lit not with flame but with life. White steam shot from the carven nostrils.

"Youíre alive!" she blurted in Mandarin.

"Behold me, the new Prometheus," the dragon hissed, very low. "Itís a poor magic that can only reanimate dead flesh, eh?"

©2009 Brenda Clough