Bill Meilen
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A change of clothing is as a change of face,
Removing the familiar thing
By which one is recognised.
It is an effective mask to the unwary.
Chang Suey-sun

THE tall, sturdy man in the grey uniform of a captain of Nationalist forces led the way up the meandering incline between resinous trees, body bent forward, hands on knees to aid in the ascent. His immaculately tailored grey uniform was stained with sweat across the back, and the once-white starched collar-liner was thick with grime.

The young soldier close behind him was almost as tall, with an odd similarity about him. Even a fool could tell they were father and son. He was a mere youth, not more than seventeen, with striking classic features and a crop of blueblack hair that drew a clean line across a broad strong brow. The sweat stood in globules on his face as he climbed, dripping from his chin to soak his coarse grey shirt. He gasped with relief when the older man stopped to point upward. He followed the line of his arm up through a gap in the trees. A fortress, ‘The Dragon’s Lair’ house lay along the top of the vertical fall, its ornate eaves and gables black against the tall brown cliff, growing like a living organ from the very rock, as a fungus will form in an old log. Beside the massive fortifications of the place, a long white feather of waterfall dropped hundreds of feet to vanish in a spreading mist from which grew flat-boughed evergreens. It was a vista seen only in dreams, a place of safety and security for many centuries.

“There it is! The First House of Chang. Your birthplace! The root of your family heritage.” The captain spoke in English, chuckling to himself, remembering something. “The last time you saw it, my boy, you could barely run a li! Now look at you. You’re in for a surprise! Now come along and don’t hang back so much. Shoulder your burden and make light of it! It’s not too far to climb. As a boy I would run up this gradient like a buck rabbit!” Without a backward glance he marched on up the path. The youth sighed, following at an easy trot, flicking sweat from his brow.

It was as they emerged into a patch of sunlight that a brief shirr of sound went by the leader’s face and something schwacked into the tree beside him. The two men stopped dead and looked at the bright object stuck quivering in the bark. It was a four-bladed knife in the shape of a cross, and two blades were halfway buried in the wood. The captain smiled and turned around, raising his arms above his head, laughing hugely.

“Very good, Chang Suey-sun!” he bellowed toward the cliff face. “You are improving.” To himself he said. “That’s an incredible shot!”