The cottage was nestled within a stand of wild ginkgo trees. If not for the shiny SUV parked in a paved driveway, the house with its intricate timber and bamboo framework and overhanging tiled roof could have been part of a landscape watercolour from centuries past.
The earthen hues along with the fresh, cool smell of rain were quite the soothing contrast to the scorched air of sterile steel and concrete Midnight had just come from. Delicate wind chimes and the gentle patter of the raindrops upon the fronds and lotus blooms in a garden pool added to the calming atmosphere of the place.
How very much like the Fourth Hour.
She had always been the most serene of them all. A morning hour who welcomed the earliest rays of twilight, capturing the ethereal gleam that shone before a sunrise. An aesthetic of nature, she was.
Midnight slipped off the brown leather jacket and let it flump to the ground. He then shook out the hot dregs of coffee from the takeout cup he held over it –a double espresso he had brewed for himself at the Second Hour’s café.
“Roast this”, he muttered, eyeing the wisps of steam evaporating, much how Second’s form had.
Sitting outside Second’s Parisien coffee house at 2 AM earlier had not been the grand people watching experience Midnight had hoped for, unless nightclubbing passersby counted. A disappointed Midnight could only conclude it was a little too early –by either a few hours or a few decades– for him to have a chance to debate philosophy with any café-frequenting members of the intelligentsia, such as they were amongst humans. Although a passing drunkard had waxed philosophical. The happily swaying man had seemed to take pity on Midnight who sat there on the terrace alone in the dark with his espresso and Second’s mantel Clock on the table beside him.
“Do not despair, mon ami! There will always be a new day to come, non?”
“Non,” Midnight had replied, snapping his gloved fingers, the cafe going up in a fireball. The mantel clock went up next. Then Midnight himself, for dramatic effect.
Midnight drew in a long breath of air, continuing to admire the surroundings of Fourth’s cottage. Ahh, so sweet. A shame he couldn’t stay here longer than planned. It would surely remove the last of the clinging sterile smell of Third’s place .
The Third Hour’s Dubai highrise penthouse he’d arrived at after his pyrotechnic stint in Paris had commanded a panoramic view of the night skyline. And for the eternal life of him, Midnight couldn’t understand. The Circle afforded the best celestial views of the Earth of all. Why descend here to claim a lesser one?
“If you so badly wanted to abase yourself, then let me help you,” Midnight had said as he dragged the struggling Hour by the throat towards one of the window walls. In retrospect, perhaps the entire bottle of whiskey he’d allowed himself to indulge in at First’s place had gone a little to his head.
On the ledge framed by jagged edges of blown out glass, Midnight had sipped his coffee while he watched the Third Hour fall in twists and turns, buffeted by the high altitude winds until his form changed to silver mist which vanished before striking the neon lit ground so far, far, far below. The broken discs of Third’s brass astrolabe Clock followed quickly after. Flung like frisbees after him.
Enough dawdling. Busy day.
Midnight threw the empty coffee cup into the garden pool as he walked by. It spun and bobbed between the lotuses as koi converged in a frenzy of gaping mouths. Thrashing tailfins of red, orange, white, and gold agitated the waters for several moments before the creatures realized the now sunken cup was not food.
Pausing to adjust his cravat by his reflection in the water, Midnight swished the tip of his cane in the water to clear it of grime.
The fish never approached.
The incense and candle flames flickered as she slid the window closed. Not that she minded the night breeze but the gusts could interfere with the recording.
Chao Xing pushed aside the skirt of her silk robe and settled back down on her bench. Slender fingers poised over the strings of the zither, she frowned. Strange… She couldn’t remember at which string she’d left off when tuning. A few rapid plucks revealed it to be the yu. She quickly finished the rest.
The Fourth Hour tapped the mic with her finger to test it before sliding her fingers along the zither’s shang string in a firm upward glide. The glissando evoked a swan calling water.
Her next performance was in ten days. She’d been invited to play for the Shanghai Conservatory of Music’s annual arts festival. Her zither, her guqin, was an instrument she’d played for many a century now. So sublime and delicate were its sounds, evoking nature and time. Seeped in myth and legend in a sense, just as she was.
Xing glanced over at her Clock upon the rosewood table. Dripping water made its cogwheel turn. It was fifteen minutes before four, soon to be her watch.
The wind picked up outside. The chimes hanging by her front door tinkled louder. Maybe she should have stayed at the studio to record her pieces, soundproof as it was. But for some reason she headed straight home after teaching her late night music class. The text she’d gotten from a student confirming their session the following afternoon had strangely unsettled her. She’d forgotten she’d booked a private lesson with the student. Xing shook her head. She must be distracted by the upcoming ceremony. How else to explain it? She’d never forgotten an appointment before.
Fingers poised once again, Xing looked up. The chimes. She couldn’t hear them any longer, yet the soughing of the wind continued through the tree branches. Had the chimes come detached? She would have heard them strike the veranda, no? Clicking off the mic with a sigh, she rose, then stopped. A cold draft blew past her at the swish of the outside sliding door opening.
Someone had entered the house.
She clenched her fists at her sides. There’d been a rash of break-ins in the area. Hoodlums looking to score easy cash by stealing artworks.
Why don’t I make it easy for them and offer one?
Fourth reached for the antique jian sword mounted on the wall, one whose blade was as sharp as it had been the day she’d acquired it during the Song Dynasty. She didn’t need a weapon to defend herself against some mortal thief. But perhaps slicing through some layers of clothing and scoring some flesh would teach whoever it was a lesson and stop them from doing it again.
A silent Xing watched the tall figure silhouetted behind the rice paper screen approach her study’s doorway. Slowly she raised the sword close to her face, aiming the blade forward. Slowly, slowly…
“Midnight?!” It was so strange to see the Twenty-fourth Hour dressed in a stylish black suit and sunglasses with trim hair and beard.
“Hello, my dear. It has been a while, hasn’t it, Fourth? Oh, pardon me, Chao Xing.” Midnight read off the characters of her assumed name from a folder of sheet music she’d left in her car.
“Chao Xing. It means ‘morning star’, doesn’t it?” He tossed the folder onto the floor. “How quaint.” Midnight strolled further into the room, the cane he was using tapped gently on the woven mats. His shaded gaze travelled along the walls, admiring her collection of tapestries and ceramics.
“Is this an instrument you play?” Midnight approached the zither. A stronger draft from outside carried past him. Fourth grimaced at the pungent fumes filling her nose.
“Yes, sorry about that,” Midnight said without looking at her. “I indulged in a little spirit, shall we say, during First’s watch. Who knew hospital operating rooms could be so macabre? Lost track of time a little because of it. Had to hurry to take over Second’s watch. The coffee stench is from his place.” Midnight started to laugh. And it was a laughter that had Fourth slowly raising her sword again.
“I must say, I was a little disappointed in Second and Third. First was always the clever one, wasn’t he. At least he’d chosen an honoured profession to reflect his status. But Second? Tsk, a barista? And did you know Third was something called a cybersecurity developer? Who knew the humans would be so into these computers? I see you have one of the Apple here.” Midnight lowered his glasses to take in the Mac in the far corner. Fourth’s amber eyes picked up the glow of Midnight’s eye of sunlight.
With a sudden turn of heel, Midnight faced her, seemingly oblivious to the sword. He took a step forward, Fourth a step back.
“One of Third’s names was Tripp.”
Midnight started to laugh again. “Tripp indeed! He took a rather fateful one this morning.” The laughter cut off. Just like the chimes.
Midnight’s next step was a lurch.
He was toying with her. Fourth went to transport herself away, only to find she couldn’t. Midnight’s power was blocking her.
“Hmm, this Here and Now of yours is so calm and serene. Maybe a tad too serene? But I’m sure I’ll find something of interest to do while I’m here.”
He cocked his head. “Why my dear,” Midnight’s cane rose. “Is something wrong? What do you mean to do with that sword? You would think we’d both be happy to see each other after so very, very long. Is it because I’m calling too early?”
“Stay back! I don’t know what’s going on but–“
The cane became a blur as Midnight struck the sword from Fourth’s grasp in a powerful upswing. The force threw her to the floor and almost instantly Midnight was above her. The moment the tip of his cane touched between her eyes, everything went dark.
Midnight strode over to where he’d spotted Fourth’s Clock. He studied its delicate stream trickling down the wheel for several long minutes before tipping it on its side. The water spilled off the table to form a puddle on the floor. And as a silver mist rose from where Fourth had been, Midnight plucked the strings of the zither and scoffed –until he noted the mic, then he smiled.
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