Mao Qiao flinched when Shi Xiu opened up the small leather pouch she wore around her neck and delicately placed the finger bone on top of the mahjong table. Mao Cong stopped shuffling his tiles; his gaze fixed on the tiny object. There was a flash of anger behind his eyes and his hands trembled. Both of them knew who the finger bone belonged to.
“You dare challenge me?” Cong asked, his eyes sliding sideways to stare at the girl, then across from him at the empty seat.
Xiu perched on her tip-toes and still barely managed to look across the table. She nodded.
Qiao jumped up, knocking over his chair, and scooped the bone into his hand. He tried in vain to return it to the leather pouch around the girl’s neck, but Xiu held her hand firmly over it. Qiao was surprised by her determination. He turned to Cong. “She’s just a child,” he said, “she doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Cong slammed his fist down and tiles scattered everywhere. “She is the sister of a traitor and the last in a long line of fools.” He smiled evilly, but there was fear in his eyes. “She knows what she’s doing or she wouldn’t be here. Isn’t that right, princess?”
“You killed my sister,” Xiu responded. She took the bone from Qiao and slid it back across the table.
Cong picked it up and inspected it. “Yes, I suppose I did.”
“Don’t do this,” Qiao pleaded. “Let her be.”
“Let her be?” Cong said. He angrily stacked tiles into a mini fortress. They clacked together as he shoved them in place. “It’s not me coming into her home with a challenge. She can easily walk back the way she came. You asked her to!”
Qiao’s breathing quickened. “It’s not right.”
“Shut up,” Cong said. He pointed at the empty chair across from him. “Go ahead, princess. Have a seat.”
Xiu pulled the chair away from the table and scooted into it. She was regal in her tinyness. Her legs swung back and forth as she reached across the table and grabbed a handful of tiles. She stacked them in a simple barrier formation, a child’s strategy when faced with the tricks Cong knew, and glanced across the table at Cong. Qiao could imagine her growing into a beautiful young woman, if she would end this challenge.
Cong removed the bone bag secured around his neck and dumped it on the table. Twenty-five finger bones rattled against the wood like dice. He looked up at Xiu, saw her simple formation with one single bone behind it, and grinned. Greedily he pushed his bones in place around his fortress. Xiu waited patiently for him, her head nestled on top of clenched fists, her tiny legs swinging back and forth.
“Shi,” Cong said. “A stupid and ignoble clan that shall cease to exist today.”
Xiu said nothing. She watched Cong with a child’s eyes but there was something deeper, more serious behind them.
Cong drew a tile from the center of the table. He flipped it over. White Dragon.
Xiu craned her neck to see which tile Cong had selected. Cong showed it to her. Xiu nodded and bit her lower lip.
Cong smiled. “Burn in hell,” he said. His body glowed with dragon fire and a loud hissing sound, as of a breath being drawn in, filled the room. The air crackled with energy. White fire burst from Cong’s eyes. As the inferno left his body, his skin ceased to glow. Xiu sat up, her fists clenched tight. The fire slammed into the barrier, crackled and burst around the tiny wall. Xiu sat behind the barrier unmoving.
Qiao stared in amazement. By all rights Xiu should be dead.
“What the hell?” Cong said. He slammed his fist down onto the table.
Tears slid down Xiu ’s face. She clutched her hand tighter. “You killed Na!”
Her tiles began to glow. A loud hissing sound filled the room. The air crackled with energy. White fire burst from the tiles and Cong’s fortress melted beneath the heat.
All that remained of Cong was one bright white finger bone. Holy fire had consumed his body. Smoke rose from the bone and the sound of muscle and skin sizzled as it cooked. The flesh smelled like roasted duck.
The bones that Cong had collected were now Xiu’s to keep. She pilfered through them, selected three and placed them in her bone pouch. Qiao knew that she had chosen only bones that belonged to her family, even though she had the right to all of them. It was a statement of peace and non-aggression, maybe even of respect. As was custom, Xiu pushed Cong’s finger bone over to Qiao in case he ever wanted to challenge her in the name of their family’s honor. She looked at him with quiet, dark eyes and waited.
Qiao collected Cong’s finger bone with the rest and placed all of them in the bone bag. Xiu stared tentatively at him for a moment, a frown on her face and her feelings hidden behind her dark eyes. Qiao bowed low before her, shoved the bone bag into his pocket. “I have no ill will against you. You do not need to fear me ever seeking revenge.”
Her eyes brightened, a smile touched her face. Xiu opened her clenched fist for him to see a bone that was yellow and brittle with age. A bone of an ancient. With the power of such an artifact, Cong had lost before the battle had even begun. The little girl slid down from the chair and walked slowly to the door. When she opened it, she turned back and waved good-bye. Qiao smiled at her.
“May you live a long and happy life, princess,” he whispered at her back.
The door closed quietly as she exited.
At a very young age, A.R. Williams had a love for the written word. He now puts pen to page and crafts tales of his own. His stories have appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Three Crow Press, and Every Day Fiction. A.R. has e-Books available at many online retailers and you can find his website at: a-r-williams.com.