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Chapter One

        The radio is talking about red parrot fever, and the news is supposed to be reassuring. An official statement has been released telling us that this fatal respiratory disease has not yet reached the shores of Nizon. Fine, if you can trust the government to tell the truth. But I haven't trusted the government on much since I was ten years old.
        The motorbike courier pulls up as I'm sitting in the car with the radio going, listening to the news. I'm waiting for my wife. The courier gets off his machine and goes to the gate. He's wearing the wasp-orange livery of Prompt Com Nizon and there's a bright red "special urgent" package in his hand, a glimmer of rain on its waterproof cover.
        I power down the window.
        "Hey!" I say.
        He looks at me, not immediately figuring out how I'm connected to this situation. From his viewpoint, I'm not part of his context. I'm merely a stray stranger in a car parked up at the side of the road outside the house.
        As the Moss Mansion doesn't have its own garage, we keep the family car garaged in the grounds of the Older House. Usually, we walk to the car from the Moss Mansion, cutting through the grounds of Perturbations Lodge. However, because it's a wet day, I've gone to the trouble of driving the car round to uplift my wife. My uxorious gesture of the day. Her payoff (and I hope she doesn't guess this) for my adultery (of which, I truly hope, she has not the slightest inkling).
        "Ken Udamana?" asks the courier.
        Technically, it's a breach of etiquette for him to call me Ken. Given that we're strangers, he should be using my outer name, Visper. But he probably doesn't know what my outer name is. In any case, as my fourteen year old children keep telling me, outer names are finished. Part of the slower, more elaborately ceremonial culture of the past. I should (this is my kids speaking) speed up, sleek out, get energized. Streamline my manners to fit the pace of the modern age.
        "Yeah, me," I say.
        The courier passes a receipt in through the open window. I haul out my big black signature pen, sign the receipt, then uncap the seal which lives at the uphill end of the pen and impress the necessary red mark on the receipt. Now that the receipt has been duly signed and sealed, I get the package, which is the size and weight of a large bar of chocolate, and which is addressed to Ken Udamana, General Manager, Bamboo Horses, The Moss Mansion, Jalsinkoola Lane.
        The zip code is missing from the address and so is the ward. And so is the city, too. I suppose this doesn't matter. The package found me. But there's a pedantic, nitpicking streak in my nature which likes to have the details nailed down, so the minuscule slackness of the missing elements annoys me.
        Once upon a time, I would have immediately ripped open any package which demanded my attention with that "special urgent" red. But I've had so many of these things over the last year or so, mostly from credit controllers wanting payments now, please, that these days that bright red packaging makes no more impact on me than a piece of junk mail.
        The latest gimmick has been to add something heavy to the package, a bar of cheap health food, for example, to fool the recipient into treasure hunting his or her way into the delivery on a most urgent basis. But, like all gimmicks, this only works the first few times.
        Like everyone else, I have an overload of messages to deal with: e-mail, faxes, letters by snail mail, couriered dispatches and telephone answer phone messages. This morning, I'm in no mood to be harassed by someone dunning me for money or whatever this is. I want to keep my mind clear for the day's important business. So I shove the package into the glove compartment. I'll look at it later.
        The courier rides off, and Iola comes out of the gate, an umbrella in her hand, ready for the rain, which might start up again at any time.
        "Happy morning," says Iola, getting into the car. "Happy rain."
        Iola is not a relentlessly upbeat person, and for that I'm glad, because I find implacable cheerfulness to be wearing. But, in her own quiet way, Iola does try to accentuate the positive. This morning, however, she's being sardonic; over the last couple of weeks the spring weather has been very wet, and we've all had enough of the rain for the time being, thank you very much.
        In response to Iola's sally, I grunt, and get going. The rain resumes, and I take it slowly on the wet road. Ever since my car accident last year I've been more cautious than ever on the highway. And the thought of today's destination does not encourage speed. Or enthusiasm.
        We're on our way to an important family meeting, and I'm not looking forward to it. For a start, my family gives me claustrophobia. At least when a number of us are all bundled together into the same room, which is how it's going to be today. And, with big money at stake, today's meeting holds ample promise of the unpleasant.
        "You're very quiet," says Iola, as we drive along.
        "I'm still not properly awake," I say, steering wide to avoid a cyclist who is wobbling alarmingly in the rain.
        It's Monday, May 1st, a cold wet day in a cold wet spring, and we're driving to Mitodarni's office, where we are going to have a family meeting which may decide, perhaps, whether or not I end up going to jail. I haven't told Iola about the jail part. Yet. I suppose I'll have to, eventually. Maybe on the day I'm arrested.
        "Is there something you haven't told me?" asks Iola.
        The timing suggests she has read my thoughts. Question: has she? Like me, she is someone who has grown up in Yendo's perturbed zone. Since she has spent pretty much her entire life living in country -- that is, living in the area where human abilities have a tendency to be supplemented by what are sometimes referred to as "involuntarily grafted competencies" -- it is not beyond the realms of possibility that she has one or more powers which do not feature on the average resume. Living in country will do that for you.
        "Well?" says Iola. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
        "There's no need for you to be troubled with all the niggling little details," I say.
        "I'm your wife," says Iola.
        "That's true," I say, "but there's no need for you to come today. It could be ugly."
        "That's a non-sequitur," says Iola, "and it doesn't answer my question. Ken, what is there that you're not telling me?"
        I wouldn't call Iola forceful, but she does know exactly what she wants, and she works away at it persistently. She doesn't give up.
        "It could be very ugly today," I say, "because we are going to argue over money."
        "Yes," says Iola. "But however it works out we'll end up with enough money. Right? I mean, there's shares for everyone. We're not going to end up as paupers."
        "One would hope not," I say.
        But the truth, the plain truth which I can't bring myself to confess, is that we -- Iola and me -- may end up as paupers, more or less. No house, no assets. Stripped down to zero. Raw zeroes helpless in the world, kicked out of the nest in middle age with (be honest) really not much in the way of marketable skills between us.
        (Well, I guess I could scrape up some kind of accountancy work somewhere, maybe, though my lack of formal qualifications would be a problem ...)
        "What is the worst case outcome?" says Iola. "I mean, if we sell this land it will bring in -- how much money?"
        "Five hundred million is the valuation I've been given," I say. "That's my target."
        Five hundred million zen. A lot of cash, if you were to be paid it as cash. As best I can figure it, that much cash, paid out in the largest available bills, ten thousand zen for one piece of paper, would weigh in at about as much as my daughter. Helena's weight in money.
        But, even so, it's not much money for so much land. The value of the real estate is limited because the land is part of the perturbed zone, and the zone is part of the Central Yendo Historical Preserve, the area governed by the Nine Heavens Treasuries Preservations Act. There are severe constraints on development, so a buyer wouldn't have the automatic right to bulldoze everything and put in a bunch of shopping malls.
        "Five hundred million," says Iola, "and we split it five or six ways."
        "True," I say.
        Six ways if we do it soon. Five ways if we delay, since any substantial delay would mean that Aunt Chariot would die before getting her (unfairly supersized) share.
        "So what's the problem?" says Iola.
        "It may not be enough," I say, at last confessing.
        I had not expected to break open my unhatched secret like this, but suddenly I have.
        "What do you mean?" says Iola.
        In response, I pull over and park up in front of the Badgerpaw Signet, the eatery run by Mitodarni's family. Mitodarni's law office, Ajima Law, is upstairs over the restaurant. It would have been more convenient for us all to have met in one of the Big Houses, but Aunt Chariot refuses to come anywhere near them since she has been "exiled", as she puts it, to her retirement quarters.
        I kill the windshield wipers and switch off the engine.
        There's a car with a trailer parked on the other side of the road, a tarpaulin covering the lumpiness of the cargo. The car is an Iyako Major and it's painted an astonishingly bright pink, so it is, unmistakably, Molo's vehicle. Under the tarpaulin are two bamboo horses.
        After the family meeting, I have a couple of media interviews lined up. I'm planning to talk with a couple of journalists about our projected land sale, and, all going well, there will be some nice photo opportunities. For the photos, I want two of the bamboo horses which we at Udamana Holdings make and animate, primarily for the festival trade, to be in the foreground. And, in the background, visible across the waters of Saga Irado, the Sacred Turtle Pond, the sweeping golden roofs of Ginsasebo Utokawa, otherwise known as the Golden Dream Phoenix River Temple.
        I drum my hands against the steering wheel a couple of times.
        "Spill," says Iola, ordering me to confess.
        "Okay," I say. "It's like this. I've been managing the family's money. All the Udamana Holdings money, I mean. So if there's a shortfall then, legally, it's my responsibility."
        It's my responsibility under the Financial Controllers Responsibility Act, and I can quote chapter and verse on this if anyone asks. But Iola doesn't ask. She waits for me to go on.
        "And business has been bad," I say. "We have a shortfall. It's been accumulating for the last five, six years. I thought things would get better, but they haven't. The festival trade has been worse and worse every year. There simply isn't the same money that there used to be in bamboo horses. We've been going broke."
        "And you're in the hole for ...?"
        "A hundred million zen," I say.
        I don't spell it out, but I don't have to. Iola does the budgeting for our own household and has the kind of focused, disciplined mind which easily gets a lockgrip on figures. A hundred million? We're talking big money.
        Our maximum cut from the land sale, assuming Aunt Chariot were to conveniently die, would be exactly that: a hundred million. My liability is the same amount: a hundred million. Assuming that the land sale goes ahead, the assets of our family trust, the Udamana Zekotalora Trust, will be put on the market. And that includes the house we live in, the Moss Mansion, one of the six Big Houses. My liabilities will eat my payout. And, in the aftermath of this transformation, we will have no house, no money, no income.
        I'm assuming, because logic guides me in this direction, that our bamboo horses business will come to a halt as soon as we sell the land. As it must, surely. Winding up the business is looking like a forced move: if we continue trading, our debts are only going to increase. Udamana Holdings is a bucket with a hole in it. The more water you pour inside the wetter your feet get.
        "So we're broke," says Iola, summing it up.
        She's remarkably calm. Catastrophe has been announced and yet she's showing no signs of stress. Mind you, over the last year or so we've had a lot of experience at dealing with crisis, thanks to the very difficult phase which the twins have been going through, a phase of irresponsible rebellion which at times runs close to uncontrollable delinquency.
        "Bankrupt," I say. "And, if I can't balance the books, maybe I end up in jail."
        "Why? What have you done wrong?"
        "I've failed to acknowledge reality. Trading yourself into a deeper hole when you're plainly going broke, it's a criminal offence."
        And it is, too. Going bankrupt is no crime in itself but knowingly continuing to trade when a company is "in a state of manifest insolvency", to quote from the text of the legislation, is very definitely a crime.
        We sit there in silence listening to the rain spattering on the roof of the car as a squall moves through. Financially, the bottom line is clear. The best I can hope for is that Aunt Chariot dies so we can split her share. That's our break even point. That leaves us broke. But if Aunt Chariot doesn't die, the split won't be so lucrative. I'm sure Iola can do the arithmetic as easily as I can.
        If Aunt Chariot doesn't die then I'm going to be in a hole for fifty million zen, with no way to beg, borrow or steal that money.
        At last, Iola asks a question.
        "Does Zudadera know about this?" she asks.
        "No," I say, simply.
        Zudadera Finance, our main bank, has not the slightest suspicion of the parlous nature of our financial position.
        After asking that critically important question, Iola says nothing, leaving my mind free to wander, which it does.
        Monday, May 1st. The anniversary of Fizonella's death. She was out cycling on a day that, like this one, was treacherous with rain. And she met a bus. A Yendo Yellow tourist bus that was taking a party of school kids to Ginsasebo Utokawa. The bus skittled Fizonella. She died within earshot of where I'm sitting now.
        We are none of us ever more than one bus away from absolute disaster. We all know that, don't we? And yet, when disaster strikes, it's a shock. Fizonella's death was a huge shock, even though we'd been divorced for five years by the time she died. I mourned for her, even though she had left scars on my life. (The divorce, though amicable, had not been painless.)
        Even now, the knowledge that Fizonella is dead is associated with a degree of residual grief. Even though, now, I can't remember why it was that I married her. Because I liked taking off her underwear? Was it that simple? Well, maybe. I was a lot younger than I am now. Young and callow.
        The squall passes, and, in its wake, the rain eases to a drizzle. I look at Iola. Does she have any questions? She gives me a nod, which I take to mean, no, no more questions, not at the moment. She will process what she's been told (she's one of life's quiet processors) and will come back to me with a fresh conversational initiative at a later stage. I open the door and lead the way inside.
        I'm not looking forward to what's ahead, a family meeting which has the potential to turn into a major family confrontation. I only hope that everyone turns up sober (if Atakana were to lapse then this might be the day) and that nobody ends up punching anyone else.

The text on this page is part of the fantasy novel Bamboo Horses by Hugh Cook. The first 30 chapters of this book are on this website and can be read for free online. However, the text is copyright - all rights reserved. For permission to use this text or any portion of it contact Hugh Cook.

Bamboo Horses Copyright © 2005 Hugh Cook.