Read Hidden Cities Online

Authors: Daniel Fox

Tags: #Magic, #Fantasy fiction, #Dragons, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Epic

Hidden Cities (10 page)

BOOK: Hidden Cities
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“They have had typhoon in Santung, as well as war. She may not be there.”
She may not be living
.

A shrug; she would not be as easily found as the dragon, perhaps. Nevertheless, he meant to look.

“It is no good place for a boy to be wandering on his own.” She wasn’t actually sure that she wanted to keep him here, or why that would be, if it was so; she seemed to be arguing for it none the less.

“No one will trouble me,” he said. “The dragon would not allow it.”

“The dragon may not be near enough to prevent it.” A sudden blade in a back alley: what could the dragon do? If she were undersea, or soaring to the sun, or guarding her precious strait against another boat’s incursion?

She expected another shrug, and won another smile: an expression of confidence, rather than carelessness. He thought the dragon would dance at his tail to keep him safe. Strange, strange boy. Or a strange life, to teach him such lessons.

Her own life had been strange enough, this summer. Perhaps that was why she wanted to keep him. Perhaps it was only for herself, for the man he would grow into, for the sake of the man she had lost and the son she never had. She was surrounded by women here and all the men were soldiers, nothing that she wanted. She would have liked a boy.

It seemed that she could not have this one. She said, “Stay,” and he laughed aloud.

He said, “I must find Tien,” though it wasn’t clear to Ma Lin what he meant for her when he found her. She had done this, apparently, to him and to the dragon both: with whose consent and at whose command, there was no telling.

“Well,” she said, “I will give you food for the road, because you have to eat. And a shirt. The captain might want to send a man or two with you; that would make the way easier, and help your
search perhaps. He might think you need watching over.” He might think that he would lose his place, if he let the dragon’s boy wander unsupervised into Santung. He might think that he would lose his head.

He might be right.

two
 

his sudden hurry was apparently all Mei Feng’s fault.

She liked that, rather.

Left to himself—as if he ever was!—the emperor would surely have stayed in Santung for weeks, perhaps for months: rebuilding, raising fortifications, scattering Tunghai Wang’s defeated forces to the winds.

In his head, at least, that’s how it would have been. In fact, if Tunghai Wang had been quicker to organize after the typhoon, the emperor might have found himself leading another desperate defense of the indefensible city. More likely, he would have found himself once again on the first boat to Taishu, sent away to safety like a child while his generals tried to save something of his army and his empire.

But Mei Feng had come, had chased him across the strait and across the city with her pregnancy like a banner held aloft, and now everything was different. Now he was eager to take her home, to see her safe and show her off, bragging young father,
see what I did
.

It was a blessing, in almost every way.

For once this morning he had gotten up before her, even. She wasn’t sure that he had slept at all. He had kept her awake with talking, with touching, his long hand covering all the breadth of her belly, wondering how long he would be able to do that before she swelled. And how should he tell his mother, what would the
old woman say, how immeasurably much would she welcome this? And …

And Mei Feng had fallen asleep at last to the onrunning murmur of his voice; and had roused this morning to the clatter of his trying to find the way out of an unfamiliar room in unfamiliar darkness, he who never rose before the sun was high. His substitute in bed was much smaller, softer to the touch, not necessarily less demanding: the little cat, Jiao’s gift, who had been told to sleep in his basket but had manifested himself somehow beneath the covers, in a tight little curl against her flank.

Lacking the emperor—and not wishing to spoil the emperor’s fun, by waking before he was ready for her—she reached down to stroke the cat good-morning. Her fingers spread through warm fur and felt a gratifying vibration; this cat purred with his bones, seemingly, silent and contained.

Then he uncurled himself beside her, stretched luxuriously—like a puddle of molten steel stretching itself into a tao, she thought, all edge and purpose—and sank little needle-claws into the flesh of her armpit.

She hissed, and squirmed away. He emerged from beneath the quilt to make first vociferous inquiry about his breakfast.

Happily, by then the emperor had finally found the door and sidled out. So she could tuck her hands behind her head and discuss matters openly with the cat where he perched on her chest, agree that service was shoddy in these times of war, that armies might come and go and typhoons too but there was never any excuse for delay in bringing breakfast. A scratch behind the ears was a good thing, to be sure; a stroke beneath the chin might well be welcome; but still, these were not and must never be first order of the day …

The door banged open again, allowing the emperor to discover her legitimately and cheerfully awake. He fetched in lamps and servants; blessedly, they brought trays with them. The traitor cat abandoned her for their greater allure, while the emperor settled
himself on the bed and cupped her face with those fingers that could set all her skin atingle even before he kissed her.

Perhaps she could take lessons from the cat. Too much praise and wonder wasn’t good for a boy, but he did deserve his own reward. If he could only feel it in her body, the way she felt the living tingle of the jade in his, that would be perfect.

Slipping her hand inside his robe, she scratched experimentally at his skin with one fingernail, and watched him twitch. Saw him smile. When she had him home, she still meant to borrow a needle and prick him all over to see where it would penetrate, where it blunted, where it bent and broke. She couldn’t understand quite how his body worked anymore. He felt human enough, magnificently human. It was hard to imagine how a steel knife would snap sooner than penetrate imperial flesh, though she had the haft of it in her own keeping now, just as Ai Guo had the would-be assassin, the trusted eunuch in his.

She didn’t quite like to think about that.

Perhaps she should set the cat to scratch the emperor. That little demon could make even a jade man bleed.

B
REAKFAST
was eaten on the bed that morning, a treat for all three of them. The cat had the best of it, she thought, a whole array of leftovers: chicken in basil, pork in a hot pepper sauce that made him sneeze but not stop eating.

Herself, she was happy enough to share eggs and rice with the emperor. If he dropped occasional jewels into her bowl—a shred of ham, a water-chestnut, a prawn filched from under the nose of the cat—that was undoubtedly his privilege. When he tried for a second prawn and found the cat alert this time, snatching it back with ferocious accuracy, then of course it must become a game, clacking chopsticks against batting paws. She watched and smiled and felt unbearably grown-up until someone else—not her!—coughed and murmured something about the sun and the
tide, inexorable things somehow not quite subject to imperial whimsy.

So then he must hustle into his clothes and chase the day, leaving her simply to sit on the bed and carry on eating, as placid as an old goat. The cat might have the tidbits; bulk was enough. And she knew about time and tide, better than anyone in the palace here …

B
Y THE
time they paraded down to the wharf—the cat complaining in his closed basket, which she wasn’t allowed to carry herself—half the fleet was ready to sail, fit escort for an emperor in his pomp. Bright banners flapped at mastheads. Even Old Yen’s bashful boat had been brought in to the wharf and vividly decked out in yellow.

If Old Yen had been offered any decoration himself, he had refused it. The mute temple child, though, was there in yellow bands. He would have been fetched down early, no doubt, to be certain sure the dragon didn’t attack the fleet in harbor. Grandfather would be certain sure that she could not, because the goddess had a temple right there on the front and would protect it. Mei Feng thought that perhaps the dragon would not because the strait was hers but the river not, and this harbor was uncertain ground. Uncertain waters.

Someone would have weighed doubts and certainties and questions, and sent the child ahead anyway.

A woman had him today: a temple-woman, shaven-headed and drably dressed. No yellow. The child might belong to the emperor, but she did not. She belonged to the goddess.

Even the child’s status was debatable. He was a eunuch, and so the emperor’s own, by all law and custom—but he had been claimed and possessed by the goddess. He had spoken in her voice. How to choose, between rival divinities? Mei Feng was only glad she didn’t have to. She knew where she belonged; that was enough.

He held his hand out, to help her up the gangplank. Which was … just delightful, when she had been running up and down this same gangplank all her life. One of her earliest memories was of running and falling, shrieking as she plunged, gurgling far down into the water and rising irresistibly to the surface again like a bubble, like the bubble of baby-fat she was. And then shrieking again, shrieking entirely with laughter when she saw a long array of faces peering anxiously down.

He was all caution and awkwardness, making it actually quite difficult for both of them on the narrow bouncing plank. Still, they reached the deck without mishap. Old Yen was there at the rail to bow them aboard, for all the world as though he had not sat up late with them last night, plotting the downfall of dragons.

The emperor must stand with the master of the boat, to welcome his other passengers aboard. Mei Feng had no such obligation. She could skip forward to the bows, greet the silent staring child with more solemnity than she quite liked, the nun perhaps with less than was proper. She eyed the masthead with a transitory yearning: it would offer the best view of crowded docks and empty sea, the sky as it waited for the dragon. And she would of course take no harm, no harm at all from a scramble up the mast and a squat on the crosstrees, she had lived half her life up there. But some people would worry about her now, and other people would just be outraged. Word would get back to the dowager empress, how she had been cavorting, how the emperor had allowed her to risk his unborn child. None of that would go well, for her or for the emperor.

So no, she would keep both feet firmly on the deck. She would settle here on the peak, as decorous as she could manage, and watch who else came aboard; and nobody could conceivably complain. It wasn’t even raining anymore.

O
F COURSE
they could complain, of course they did. The boy Pao had swabbed the deck, and it was still wet beneath her; and the
emperor’s pregnant consort should certainly not be sitting on a rough deck anyway, out here in the open under the common gaze; and there was really nowhere suitable aboard, but they had done the best they could in the cabin there, for her and for the emperor too, if she would only come now and approve it …

She made a rude noise, and offered to sit on a fish-basket if they really thought that would be an improvement over the deck.

She could feel the magisterial weight of the emperor’s frown all the length of the boat. She knew that he wanted to come and scold, come and fuss at her until she moved. Of course he would believe a damp deck to be a threat, if they told him so. He’d never seen the women of her childhood, working in the boats and the fields, gutting fish on the beach until the very day they birthed. He’d probably never seen a birth. Never even seen a cat give birth …

She scratched at the basket where it sat on the deck beside her, provoking a discontented yowl in response.

“Pity you’re not a girl-cat, you. Find yourself a girl, when we get to Taishu. Bring home some dainty beauty, then we can show him how it works …”

Meantime, here came people to distract him: generals in plenty, hurrying, ashamed to lag behind the emperor. Soldiers caught sleeping, they would hate that. And would pack out the cabin, and so gift her the perfect excuse not to be chased in there even by the emperor. He wouldn’t try now, he’d come and join her on the peak instead. She could teach him about ropes and knots, first lessons in how to sail, he’d like that. She could tell him how they’d bring up their children on the water, in and out of boats, in and out of the sea as she had been herself, salt-blooded and fishtailed and—

Oh. The dragon, she supposed, would be a difficulty there. She’d forgotten about the dragon.

The emperor hadn’t forgotten about the dragon. He was plotting with her grandfather to find some way of plotting with the
goddess. Perhaps they really could see the dragon chained again, and then the children could tumble in the surf without a care, little princes and princesses sailing little boats in line behind their father’s …

Here came the medical girl, Tien. It was hard to see her as a proper doctor, but she was sovereign against Mei Feng’s uncertainty; Tien had no doubts, and so was to be treasured. It was her voice that pinned hope down and made it real.

BOOK: Hidden Cities
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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