Strength in Hot Water - Steamscapes: Asia Teaser #6

This week's teaser brings you a little of the fiction of Steamscapes: Asia. We have ended up with three short stories that show samples of life in China as the empire has accelerated its transformation into a modern world power. The first of these is "Tea Smoke," by Kevin Andrew Murphy. This story takes place in 1860, twelve years before the current time. In it, we see an unusual meeting of traditional science and modern thinking:

 

Qingwa had been in business longer than any of them, possibly even put together. And the trade of the apothecary was closely allied with the art of the alchemist which, unfortunately, was rife with charlatans and swindlers. She would need to hear any scheme in detail. “Could the esteemed merchant perhaps explain your use for my noble gasses? I am the soul of discretion.”

Tien began to gesture as prelude to a courtly soliloquy only to be cut short by Meifeng. “Well, isn’t it obvious?” she said, waving her nail frames to L’histoire des frères Montgolfier. “Hot air balloons require significant amounts of fuel plus are innavigable except by wind. Moreover the flame lights them up at night, which may be beautiful for festivals but is completely at odds with smuggling.”

Tien, Pengfai, and even some of the monkeys looked at her aghast, and Qingwa began to understand the swiftness with which Meifeng had lost the Imperial Favor. “Smuggling?” she inquired sweetly. “I said I traded in discretion, but I did not agree to take part in anything illegal.”

“Not technically illegal,” Pengfai explained quietly. “The trouble is that while Nanping produces the finest oolong in all China, and my plantation the finest in Nanping, by the time the tea gets to Beijing, the cost to transport it along the toll roads becomes exorbitant, to say nothing of the tax collectors, bandits, and tea merchants. And by the time the caravans take the tea along the Silk Route to Russia, the price is beyond dear, even though the tea is almost ruined. You know lapsang souchong? Well, the tea delivered to Russia is smoked beyond that by the peat fires used to warm the caravans.”

“Indeed,” Meifeng nodded in agreement, “but, if the tea were transported by air—say, in a dirigible, a navigable balloon borne aloft by noble gasses—well then, we could deliver tea in perfect condition to whomever we wished. Even Tsar Alexander.”

“And the monkeys?” Qingwa asked.

“They are our sailors,” Pengfai explained. “Humans are too heavy to climb the kite strings and would want a share of the proceeds, but my monkeys can climb better than any sailor to release the scale sails or turn the dragon’s tail rudder.”

“Our dirigible is the Oolong, the black dragon,” Tien declared with pride, “for who better to deliver black dragon tea than an actual black dragon?”

 

Come back soon for more teasers!

-Fairman Rogers