“They’re coming! The soldiers are here,” the child yelled, banging a stick against the doors as he passed. “Gather your payments.”
Lin leaned out the window of his little workshop. “Don’t play tricks, boy. Serious people have no time for your foolishness.”
“No trick, Old Uncle. The watchman at the gate said so. The Emperor’s men came early.”
A kernel of fear bloomed in Lin’s chest. The soldiers are early! He stared as the child galloped away, bellowing his warning and whacking shutters with his ratty stick. Other craftsmen peered out their windows, grousing at the boy, or, more likely, cursing the approaching soldiers. A harsh clang from a neighbor’s dropped pan snapped Lin out of his stupor. He ducked back into the shop.
His teenage son sat at the work table, sanding a small piece of bamboo. Of course, the boy seemed to be lost, daydreaming, as usual. Lin sighed. He cherished his little tiger, his Xiao Hu, but sometimes he despaired for the boy’s future.
“Xiao Hu, did you not hear? The tax collectors are coming. Go, tell your mother, take the children to the cellar. Hurry!”
Eyes wide, Hu dropped his work. “Yes, Baba,” he said as he bolted toward the back door. “But why are they early?”
Lin shrugged. Perhaps the whispers of rebellion had grown louder. Emperor Qin demanded many arrows as his tax payment. Hard as it was to meet the demand, it still was better than seeing his children conscripted to the army, or forced to toil at the Emperor’s new wall. It didn’t matter why they were early; Lin would pay, regardless.
He scurried to the storeroom to count his stock. As expected, most of the month’s payment was bundled and ready to go. Lin nodded. His status as a favored craftsman carried weight with the tax collectors. They probably would be reasonable about the small shortfall.
Still, the anxiety gripping his heart did not ease until he heard the hushed commotion of his wife and younger children bustling into the hidden cellar. Safe.
Back in the main room, he surveyed the supplies heaped around the table. Several of the prepared feathers were too large, so Lin slid into his son’s abandoned seat, sweeping the defective feathers away. He frowned at the boy’s impatience. Just last night, Lin had explained yet again the importance of precision in their work.
“This is how we maintain our rank, our family position,” he’d intoned, “with arrows that fly true.”
Lin had demonstrated, placing a freshly-cut goose feather on the scale, and nodded as it balanced. The next feather was too heavy, so Lin carved away a bit of the mottled quill and weighed it again. Perfect. “This is my legacy to you.”
Hu had rolled his eyes. “No one else bothers to weigh everything.”
Lin grimaced at the memory. There was no hope for the boy.
A cacophony of clattering hooves and squeaking cart wheels signaled the soldiers’ arrival. Lin lurched to his feet, made clumsy by a fresh burst of adrenaline.Little Tiger
“Your tax ready?” the soldier demanded as he shoved the door open. He was not a large man, but he was intimidating nonetheless, with his padded shirt and stiff leather shoes. He smelled of sweat.
“Yes, yes. The arrows are bundled, as required.”
“All of them?”
“Almost all. Forgive me, but, I thought they were not due for another week.”
The tax collector grunted. He scowled, scrutinizing the workroom, just as Hu burst back in. The boy froze at the sight of the soldier.
“Not now,” Lin hissed, silently cursing his son’s rash behavior. “Go!”
“Wait,” the soldier interrupted. “Today we collect workers for the wall, as well as taxes. This young man would make up for your incomplete payment.”
“No.” Lin stepped in front of his son. Voice quivering, he continued, “This boy can serve the Emperor better here, making the finest arrows for his army.”
“I thought you were the arrow maker, old man.”
“My son also knows the way of the arrow. He will benefit the empire well, long after I have passed.”
The soldier studied Hu. “Prove it, boy.”
Lin’s breath caught, but his little tiger nodded and stepped up to the work table. Hu’s hands trembled only slightly as he chose a feather from the pile and placed it on the scale. He explained how the weight of the feather had to interact precisely with the heft of the arrowhead. He reached for the piece of wood he’d been toying with earlier, showing the soldier how the bamboo shaft must be dried and sanded, just so, to provide strength, yet retain flexibility. Finally, he demonstrated the placement of the feathers, to minimize drag while promoting spin.
“This is why our arrows fly faster and bite more deeply into our enemies,” Hu said as he notched the final quill into the shaft.
Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.
The soldier inspected the completed arrow, and then grunted, apparently satisfied. He took the remaining bundles from the storeroom, nodding toward Hu as he left the shop.
Lin stared after the departing tax collector for a heartbeat and then collapsed onto his bench. He released a tremulous breath, contemplating his son, who now was twirling a feather between his fingers and grinning. Lin could only shake his head.
Myna Chang writes flash and short stories in a variety of genres. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Dead Housekeeping, and Akashic Books’ short fiction series. Read more at mynachang.com.