Authors: Daniel Fox
Tags: #Magic, #Fantasy fiction, #Dragons, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Epic
Ai Guo only shrugged.
“Wait, then.” She didn’t know this palace, but palaces, yes, those she knew; and the minds of the men who built them. Somewhere here, behind one of these concealing doors—this one, yes—would be a robing-room. No lord of men would willingly wear his public robes longer than need dictated. Here they were, the governor’s magnificent silks …
She whistled shrilly down the hall, beckoned hugely.
Waited by the door there, watching the men’s slow progress. Growing angry.
It wasn’t either of the men she watched that she was angry with. Not Li Ton the traitor, nor Ai Guo his torturer. It might have been Tunghai Wang, for employing anyone so broken, so cruel, so calm; it might have been the emperor, for being so easy to betray. She didn’t understand it, quite, though it was a cold clear thing, a rushing mountain stream risen up from deep.
She herded them all into the robing-room, and had them strip:
“Come on, quick, before wet and hurt marry into something worse, lung-fever or joint-fever, both. You too, idiot, Gieh. You may be young, but you’re not immune to anything except good sense …”
When she had them naked she rubbed them dry herself, with half a closetful of silky shifts. She felt all their individual shivers and worse, she learned the first and most obvious truths about their bodies: that Gieh had been starved and beaten but no more than was common for boys and easy to mend; that Li Ton had been cut and tattooed, tortured then and tortured now again, fresh scabs too prominent even to be hidden by the crude black characters that covered half his skin; that Ai Guo his torturer had been tortured himself but less well and long ago, so that his bones were twisted and his legs were bent, he had no way to stand unaided and every hop-step, every touch must hurt him savagely.
And by the time she was done with that intimate exploration, by the time she had left all three of her charges to dress one another in whatever they could find of comfort while she stalked through the corridors in search of somewhere fit to house them—by then she was angry in a way she could not measure. Angry like an arrow, seeking a target. Anger with clarity, that helped her focus: anger that helped her think that she had found something right to do, to be. Which was not, or not only, angry.
ain in her hair, rain in her eyes.
It had almost stopped now, the rain. There were still teeth in the wind, though, blowing against wet skin, wet hair, sodden clothing. The wind was warm, like a dog’s breath; it still had teeth, like a dog’s mouth biting.
Jiao didn’t care.
The wind was warm, but Jiao not. Inside she was cold the way a blade is cold, the chill of a steel edge waiting to bite.
She had done … what she always did, what lay in her nature to do.
After a hard day’s fighting, through victory and defeat and recovery, she had brought the desperate Mei Feng across the swelling river in the tail-end of the typhoon. Which was a victory in itself, and deserved more acknowledgment than it had received so far.
Jiao had seen the girl safely to the emperor—which had brought Jiao necessarily face to face with her own great loss, something worse than defeat. She had found Siew Ren her rival gravely burned, and Yu Shan palely with her. Utterly with her, seeing only her ruined face and the pain behind it, thinking only of his bare intent to take her back to the mountains that they came from.
Jiao did what she could, all that she could. After a battle, won or lost—or abandoned, as this one had been—the wounded are the first priority. She wouldn’t offer false comfort to anyone, friend or foe, rival or lover or herself; she would offer her time, her help,
her company wherever it was welcome. Here, not. Not to Siew Ren, and Yu Shan didn’t know how to look at her. She said what little she had to, and came away.
Talked to the other wounded, up and down the line. Let them tell her everything they’d done, everything they’d seen, how it had been for them. She gave them what little she had: a drink, a chew, a word of praise, a hand to hold. Her attention, her time. Not enough.
After a battle, the soldiers are their own priority. Crude comforts: heat in their bellies, dry clothes, somewhere to sit or sprawl, somewhere to talk until they were ready to sleep. She did what she could. Tea, food, what plunder they could scavenge from the docks. That kept her busy for a while.
Not enough. Everyone had closer friends, every duty someone else to cover it.
The emperor and Mei Feng were absorbed entirely in each other, no time even to look about them to see what they might have missed.
Eventually, Jiao simply couldn’t be in there any longer.
She came out into the rain and the wind, ready to lie if anyone should ask her why. She might plausibly be going to check that men were keeping proper watch at the city’s edge. A fire isn’t out until the last cinder loses its glow; if she had been Tunghai Wang she would have brought her army back into the city on the very heels of the typhoon, if she still had an army she could bring.
No one did ask, but she made a point of checking anyway. Where she found troops, she talked to them; when she knew where to look, on rooftops and under sheltering archways, she sought them out. It was all hollowness, all show. She didn’t care.
Doubt was bad, self-doubt was worse. Worst was what underlay it all, her folly, her absurd attachment to Yu Shan.
She was too old to be besotted. He was too young to be of any abiding interest. She believed both those things profoundly.
In practice—well. If there were one thing almost as foolish as doting on a mountain boy, it would be denying the clear fact of it. Jiao had always dealt with the world as it was. As it came to her. Which might well be at swordspoint, but might just as well be in the tumbled covers of a bed. Either way, she reckoned her successes and her failures and moved on with whatever she’d achieved, coins or scars, experience either way. Tales to tell.
She didn’t dwell on faces left behind, she didn’t moon over lost beauties. Jealousy had no grip on her; she walked away. It was easy. She expected to keep nothing, except what she could carry or wear.
Physically, of course, he was delightful. His body was more than commonly lovely, more than commonly strong. Couple that with the charm of innocence, and she had treasured his presence in her bed, for so long as she could keep him there.
He was not so innocent now. She couldn’t lament that, when she’d been mostly the cause of it. She had loved, indeed, having him to train, to educate, to corrupt: to take the boy and make a worthwhile man of him.
Apparently she had been working for Siew Ren’s benefit and not her own, but she ought not to care so much about that. She ought not to care at all.
It was the jade, of course, in his blood and bone that made him such a pleasure, that gave him a literal charm. She did understand that. There was magic about a man of jade, that drew the eye and the heart together. How else could one man command an empire—and why else would he want to keep the stone to himself? Yu Shan should have died and died again, for his abuse of jade. More than once, it had been Jiao who saved him.
That didn’t matter. It wasn’t the kind of debt a boy had to repay. No.
She walked in the rain, and everything that did matter was a
weight on her back and an ache in her breast. She had been angry for a long time now. Tonight she was mourning, but that anger was only banked up, not extinguished. No fire is out till the last cinder has ceased to glow.
Still, it was a relief to be so full of sorrow that her temper had no room to rise. It seemed more proper, somehow. Anger was a cloak she wrapped around her, but sadness welled up from within.
Sad, then—and wet, very wet—she walked the empty streets of a city fallen twice. And here was a well-wall, and no, she had no thought of jumping in; but still she could get no wetter, in the well or out of it, so there was no reason not to sit on the wall and dwell on all the losses of her day, the losses of her heart. The loss of herself, that could bring her here and to this, glooming in the rain in the hours after battle when she ought to be exultant, a survivor, drunk and gleeful with her men …
She tipped her head back: rain in her face, warm rain, it was almost like taking a bath with her clothes on. Her fighting-clothes, but the fighting was over now, for a while at least. If she went back to Taishu with the emperor, it might be over forever. Unless she fought Yu Shan. Or she could fight Siew Ren, of course, but that was the same thing now, Yu Shan would come between them and she’d have to fight him instead. Fight and lose. She wasn’t used to losing fights, but she thought this one was lost already.
There was a noise, a yowling protest that sounded even above the constant fall of rain. Jiao was already smiling before she saw the cat.
Young cat, almost still a kitten, walking out of an alley. Soaked through and through, fur spiked with water, so wet there was no reason not to walk in the rain. Though he was certainly going to complain about it.
Jiao chirruped at him. “Hullo, little cat.”
It was always a surprise when cats came to her, she was an unlikely friend. Twice a surprise today, in this city, in the rain.
“Lucky little cat,” she murmured, stroking his head with a finger, watching water squeeze out ahead of it. “Nobody’s eaten you yet. Perhaps they were waiting for you to grow?”
The cat spoke again, brief and assertive; and leaped from her lap to her shoulder, stretched himself across her neck, spoke directly into her ear.
“Oh, you think so, do you? Well, your choice. I may eat you yet. If you stay, if I get hungry. You might do better jumping down the well. Maybe you live down the well anyway, you’re that wet. Maybe you think it’s safer, smart little cat, and you’ve come to grumble at me for sitting on your doorstep. Are you chasing me off, or inviting me in? I wonder how deep it is, your home …”
There was a loose stone in the capping of the wall. She had been rocking it back and forth, picking away flakes of mortar, wanting vaguely to pick it up and drop it childishly down the well just to hear the splash.
Now she had an excuse. It was almost a reason.
It was a big stone, but if the well was deep she’d need a big splash just to hear it. The rain had filled her ears and soaked into her head.
Loose it might be, but she still needed both hands to wrench the stone out of its bed, where it had tried to wedge itself between its fellows.
Hoisted it high, held it poised for a moment above the mouth of the well—like a priestess at an altar, before a congregation of a cat—and let it fall.
Listened for the splash, and heard a drier, duller impact first. And then, together, a wetly disappointing sound as of water swallowing a stone that hasn’t fallen very far at all, has had its true fall broken by something else just above the waterline; and a grunt, almost a cry, however hastily it was swallowed down.
And the world was different, the rain was just a factor, the cat was a fool if he stayed where he was on her shoulder. She was on
her feet already, her tao was in her hand and she was calling down into the dark. “Come out. I know you’re there and you’ll have to climb up sooner or later, so it might as well be now. I expect it’s getting rather full down there, isn’t it? And there’s sure to be more water on its way. You really might as well climb up …”
was, he heard her; more to the point, he listened. She could hear him splashing and scrabbling, muttering to himself, his voice echoing oddly in the rocky round of the well.
She heard the scrape of steel over stone, and stood ready. He’d be a rebel, sure. Caught out by the emperor’s sudden arrival, cut off from his friends, hiding up and hoping to sneak out of the city after dark. He wouldn’t be the only one: just an unlucky one, caught by a random stone dropped by a foolish woman feeling sorry for herself.
Now she was all fighter, poised and eager. Here came his head, ducking up: a broad weathered face, a veteran soldier, running with blood where his scalp had been torn open by her stone. He was lucky perhaps not to have been knocked unconscious, not to have slipped down into the rising well and drowned.
It was an odd kind of luck, that would save his life one minute and snatch it back the next. She should take it right now, hew his head from his shoulders while she had the chance, while he clung precariously to the well-wall. Why not? She meant to kill him anyway.
But then his body would fall back into the well and rot there, tainting the water for weeks. Months.
She waited, then, while he heaved himself mutely over the wall. A lash of rain across her eyes; she cleared them impatiently, and now he had his own tao drawn.
Well. Here was a fight, what she most wanted: something she could do, to remind herself of who she was. Pirate, lethal, merciless …
“So,” she said, because Yu Shan was right, perhaps, she would still be talking when they buried her, “you follow Tunghai Wang, I suppose?”
“All the way,” the man said. “From the Hidden City, and before.”