Liangyu Hui’s tearoom on a warm, late summer evening: there is no better place to sit and dream up ways to gain wealth, women and fame. Something in the backdrop – the mountains glowing orange-pink in the sunset, the scattering of snow in the valleys – inspires the mind to thoughts of transcendent grandness. And the whores inspire a man with thoughts of glories more prosaic. It is the perfect confluence of circumstances for the nurturing of ambition.
Three men we find on the veranda at Liangyu Hui’s tearoom on this particular late summer evening on which our story begins. One is a youngster, perhaps of fourteen winters, with the somewhat malnourished, poorly dressed air of the lowest castes. Probably, he is the son of a whore. His name is Dev. Another is Paras, an older man with a face dented by many breakages – clearly, he was once a club fighter, and perhaps not a very good one judging by the amount of blows he took to the face. The third is Po Le. Po Le is a slug-man, rare in these parts though not in the South, dressed with the flamboyance and speaking with the phlegmatism common to that race. His eyes, on the top of their stalks, seem somewhat disdainful.
“Our prospects of success in such a venture are slim to say the least,” he is saying. “Is this really all you have managed to discover in the last two weeks?” He speaks the Yellow City Trade Tongue, that soft, vaguely hooting language which, lacking palatals and affricatives, is one of the few human languages a slug-man can speak without discomfort. It gives him an especially reedy, disgruntled air.
“It’s gold, Po Le,” says Dev. “Gold. And just one old man.”
“It is that which frightens me,” says Po Le. “People do not give gold in exchange for an old man unless the old man has something different about him to other old men.”
“That is quite true.” Dev says. “But who is to say that ‘something’ is dangerous?” He looks at Paras with sly eyes. “And even if it is, Paras can handle an old man. He is an old man himself, so it should be a fair fight.”
Paras raises his hand as if to slap him. Dev winks at him and sips his tea.
The three of them are the points of a triangle, and Dev is at the apex. He is the one who knows people, the one who hears things, sees things, the one whose cousin’s best friend’s sister knows a man who can get you one of those, the one who thinks, the one who is never flustered. But he is also the one with the energy, the cajoler, the one who carries the others along by his will. Yesterday he met with Gulgutta the Red, a sage at the Archive, and Gulgutta the Red told him of the mad old man of Jomosom, and the gold that he would give if only that mad old man could be brought to him alive. And Dev means to get that gold. He may be the apex of the triangle but triangles need bases, and for him that is Paras and Po Le.
“Nevertheless.” Po Le is always the voice of suspicious, slightly condescending prudence. “Simple economics would tell us that there is more to this than meets the eye.” His own eyestalks seem to grow inwards, folding in on themselves in an expression Paras and Dev have learned to recognise as nervous. “If the task were simple, there would be an abundance of greedy men searching for this old man, and the price would be low.”
Dev rolls his eyes.
“Yet the price is high,” Po Le continues, his rubbery mouth hooting in satisfied dubiousness, “Therefore we can conclude the task is not simple.”
Dev purses his feminine lips. For a moment, he looks like an old washerwoman taking a dim view of the behaviour of an errant child. But only for a moment. Then his smile flashes. “By the same economic calculation, the price is high, therefore the task is not simple, therefore we have no competition from other greedy men.”
Po Le’s eye stalks re-emerge to their full length and stretch apart in an unconvinced fashion. If Dev is the apex, the cajoler, the one who knows, Po Le is power; Dev knows that the slug man is arrogant, mean-spirited, rude, deceitful, slimy, cowardly, and pseudointellectual, but he also knows that he has magic, and that is what Dev needs. Because if Gulgutta the Red wants this mad old man of Jomosom brought to him, it may only mean that he thinks of it as a curio, but what Gulgutta thinks of as a curio is never something that can be easily obtained.
Dev also knows that despite his many flaws, Po Le is lonely above all else. If Dev insists on doing something, going somewhere, and if he can convince Paras to come along, then Po Le will follow rather than face the prospect of days or weeks alone and friendless.
“Don’t you agree, Paras?” says Dev.
Dev is the apex, and Po Le is power; this makes Paras the brute strength. His mind moves slowly, at first, the same way a rock needs to be pushed from a cliff with great force before it has the momentum to move. Dev thinks that if he can give it a good shove he Paras will come tumbling down the mountain on his side.
“Gold is gold,” he adds.
Paras looks at him with wide, pale blue eyes. “Gold is gold,” he agrees.
The next morning they strike South through a mixture of bamboo groves, pine forest, and flooded rice fields which shine in the bright clear sunlight. If you can imagine being a farmer who has never gone five miles from his birthplace, and who thinks of the city as a distant legend that he sometimes sees on clear mornings from a hilltop while watching over his yaks, perhaps you have an inkling of the unfamiliar sight of the teenage son of a whore leading a slug-man and a retired club fighter along a path through a bamboo grove towards you on a late summer morning.
This farmer is waiting by the trailside as they approach. He is old, wrinkled, and toothless.
“I’ll handle this,” says Dev.
And on that cliff-hanger, it ends.