The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea
Where our 'hero' is introduced, conversations are overheard, offers
made, declined, offered again, accepted and warnings are given.
The key thing about opium, in Lord Durnleigh's considered opinion, was that at times it was difficult to discern the difference between dream and reality.
However, being a gentleman of a certain upper class, and considering the rigorous upbringing such gentlemen invariably
had, his dreams generally had a certain tone to them.
Overly stern governesses meting out punishments to naughty boys were a staple, their hard faces only displaying a flicker of pleasure as their justice was delivered.
Of course, this stoicism in the face of wrongdoing only added
to the dual experience of shame and pleasure at such scenarios, something that Lord Durnleigh relished and savoured.
So when Lord Durnleigh heard a low hiss with the words 'map', 'treasure' and 'curse', it took him some moments to untangle himself from the smoke-induced dream and surface once again
Considering that many opium users used the drug to escape reality, some of them as often as their finances could allow, the real world was not a place Lord Durnleigh wished to be.
He peeled his eyes open and somewhat blurrily surveyed the room around him. Madam Wei's could be called many things - and often was (notably incorrectly on some counts yet surprisingly accurate on others) by the more excitable newspapers - but opulent was not one of them.
The dark room, lit by red paper lanterns was bare and utilitarian. Couches lined the walls, supporting reclining smokers. The walls were dark and sticky from smoke, the bare wooden floors littered with the detritus of opium smoking. A fantastic example of Far Eastern design and luxury it was not.
Despite sensationalist and salacious headlines in the more common newspapers, and the near-hysterical bemoaning of society mothers worried for the moral safety of their charges, there were not a plethora of opium dens in London. Lord Durnleigh knew this because he had looked for them most assiduously, and failed to find more than a handful.
Madam Wei's was the 'best' of that handful, if one judged 'best' on the criteria of reliability and security rather than quality.
Casting his gaze around the room, he quickly saw the source of
the intriguing whisper that had caught his attention in a way that few things could. Were Lord Durnleigh a more reflective man he might ponder on this and be curious why those three words drew him in so.
Neither of the gentlemen - and he used the term astonishingly loosely - engaged in the apparently heated conversation appeared to be aware that he had awoken and was eavesdropping.
The one doing the hissing, and who had woken Lord Durnleigh
most precipitously, seemed to be a fellow from South East Asia. Despite being a formally educated man, he couldn't be more specific than that, and precisely because he was an educated
man, British and a Lord, he only saw surface details and made assumptions from there. It was a technique that had served
The Empire well so far, and even Lord Durnleigh was not one
to argue with such a success rate.
He seemed to be having some difficulty in getting the other man
to follow his line of reasoning. This could be due to poor language skills (a problem which Lord Durnleigh automatically assumed was the root of the problem, despite that not actually being the case),
or, more likely, that the other man was still semi out of his mind
on opium. No amount of urgent whispering was going to change this fact.
“You must take it!” the South East Asian man hissed. There was urgency in his voice, and were Lord Durnleighy more awake and perceptive, no small amount of fear too. “Take it! Think of what it give you! Think of treasure! Think of fortune and glory!”
This last statement, more than any other, roused the other gentleman. With his eyes startlingly wide, he grabbed the map offerer by the shirt and himself whispered in a deep Scottish accent,
“Will it lead me to The Grail?!”
Even a man lacking in perception as Lord Durnleigh could hear the touch of madness and desperation in his voice. An intense longing which he only usually associated with his own cravings for opium and other illicit desires that he failed to control.
“Grail? What is grail?” asked the man trying to get rid of the map. “This not lead to grail,” he practically spat, as if he were annoyed
at being sidetracked by the nonsense that the Scot was spouting.
As if a cursed treasure map was the most normal and banal thing
in the world to be offering to a stranger in an opium den in the middle of London.
“This lead to the palace of the Monkey King!” he whispered, as if
that would explain everything. When it clearly didn’t, he appeared
to be exasperated at the stupidity of the man he was talking to.
“Gold! Jewels! Pearls! Wealth beyond dreams!” he whispered, but
as the room was not large and the only other thing to be heard
was the deep breathing of his fellow sleeping smokers, the words carried easily to the now suddenly interested ears of Lord Durnleigh.
It occurred to Lord Durnleigh that if he was listening in to this now-fascinating discourse, so could any of his other fellow smokers who appeared to be deeply embraced by the dreams that the smoke had brought them. It was presumptuous and foolish of the Asian man to be throwing such enticing words about in such a place as this. Lord Durnleigh might himself be eavesdropping, but at least he was a gentleman, something his fellow smokers most assuredly were not.
“Fortune! Glory!” he repeated, trying to entice the Scot to take this map off his hands. He seemed to be glossing over the cursed aspect of the bargain.
“Fortune and glory?” sneered the Scot. “Fortune and glory are for fools! Only The Grail is a worthy quest!” he proclaimed.
“You must take it!” he said, grabbing the Scot in turn. “They know I have it! if they find me with it, I’m dead!”
But even this did not move the Scot, who seemed to have lost interest as it didn’t concern his precious grail, and was slipping back into his slumber.
“Fortune. Glory.” he mumbled as he slumped back onto his couch. Whether he was dreaming about both or repeating his disdain for them wasn’t quite clear.
Before he had even thought about doing so, Lord Durnleigh stood, and in several strides was across the room and standing over both the sleeping Scot and the map-offering Asian.
“I’ll take the map.” he declared, in a confident tone that was not entirely mirrored by his own feelings on the matter. A cad and a rogue he may be, but not an incautious one. It was no coincidence that Lord Durnleigh’s activities had not become subject of the gossip columns of society.
Rather than look alarmed that he had obviously been overheard,
the Asian man only seemed to look relieved. Discretion was clearly not a vital part of his wanting to be rid of this mysterious map, despite the obvious clandestine nature of their opium-laced environment. Even a man such as Lord Durnleigh who was disinclined to search his thoughts and feelings beyond his most immediate desires could only wonder at the need to pass the map on to whoever would be willing to take it.
Yet in a moment of rash impulsiveness which he later could not explain, he added,
“I’ll give you a half-crown for it.” implying that he was being overly generous for such a transaction, and that as a gentleman, he should be above haggling for such things as treasure maps with strangers in an opium den.
“Yes! Take it, take it!!” said the Asian man, with extreme eagerness,
if not exactly happiness over such a profitable exchange. It only occurred to Lord Durnleigh much later that he had not heard of
any suggestion of money changing hands before in the exchanges between the Scot and the Asian, but it was inconceivable that a map offering wealth beyond dreams would be given away for nothing.
Rummaging in his pockets, Lord Durnleigh produced the requisite coin (thank goodness that Madam Wei insisted that all transactions be settled in full on each visit and before even a hint of smoke was seen), and he tossed it towards the Asian man with the disdain for physical money that only a peer of the realm could muster.
In return, the Asian man reached into his grubby tunic and extracted what could only be the map.
Lord Durnleigh had been expecting a piece of paper, or at the very least vellum, but what was presented to him on shaking hands with no small amount of reverence (or fear) was a wad of fabric. Being more inclined to gentlemanly pursuits such as drinking fine wines and brandies, the occasional hunt and allegedly the management
of certain aspects of the family’s estates, the identification of fabric was beyond him.
Taking possession of what was now in Lord Durnleigh’s over-inflated opinion the most overpriced handkerchief in London, the Asian
man scuttled out of the red-lit room. He paused at the doorway,
his features merging with the darkness of the hall outside and
his hunched body disguised by the bead curtain hanging from the frame. With more rapidity and assurance than his previous speech, he spat out a warning at Lord Durnleigh,
“Waspadalah Raja Monyet. Anda akan menemukan keberuntungan dan kematian! Kandacharia mematikan!”
He seemed to realise that this probably meant nothing to Lord Durnleigh, and added,
“Deadly island! Beware!” before darting into the darkness of the corridor, the bead curtain swinging and swaying back to stillness.