Massively satisfying plot twists…he does a better job than most in his genre at creatively restructuring historical gender roles, and his bone dry wit is at the top of its class. Song of Ice and Fire fans should take note.
Each spotlighted element—the court, the assassins, the rebellion, and the Firstborn—is carefully described and given depth by specific language. Readers who enjoy alternate history, a touch of otherwordliness, and te Far East will be enthralled with this book. BOOKLIST
Sunlight walked out on the rampart and looked down at the town and the crowd waiting there. Four Mountains was an ancient fortress, reputed to be the most impregnable stronghold in the Good Land, a bastion of granite blocks on a mountain spur, flanked on three sides by a raging mountain river. The crowd that gathered there every day was too far off for him to recognize faces but it was certainly larger than it had been six moons ago, and probably larger than the entire population of the town, so people must be making pilgrimages in from half Qiancheng, perhaps from farther away than that. Small wonder that the mandarins were worried.
He shivered, for the wind was cold and sharp as a knife.
The watchers had seen him. They were cheering, waving their arms from side to side in a motion that soon spread through the whole throng, as if they were grass. The wind prevented any sound reaching him, but he raised his hand to bless them. Now they were starting to kneel. Every day at noon they came, in baking heat or pounding rain. Probably they would still come when the winter blizzards blew, to kneel in the snow. He would still be here, unless the government changed its mind.
What had they come to see? An emperor robed in glory? A mighty warrior? No, just a boy of fourteen, with only his head and bare shoulders visible over the wall, and too far off to distinguish his features. But they had been told who he was, and they wanted to believe, so they came in their thousands, assembling every morning to wait for his appearance at noon. Every day he came out and raised his hand to give them his blessing, an empty gesture, which he knew to be worthless and they treasured so that they could tell their grandchildren.
The town itself stood farther away, because for centuries the keepers of the fortress had kept that cliff top meadow clear of trees or buildings to give the castle’s archers a clear view of any approaching hostiles. The first fort at Four Mountains had been begun by Half-dead Tiger, back in the interregnum after the Fifth Dynasty, when the landscape was untamed forest. It had been completed by the second emperor of the Sixth, a hundred years after Half-dead’s name had fallen short of reality. It had grown considerably since then and the town had grown up to supply it and purloin its name. The hills were treeless now and terraced to grow rice.
Most days he came out to the little courtyard behind him and ran around it for an hour or so to work up a sweat. Two turns clockwise, then two counterclockwise so as not to get giddy. Repeat and repeat and repeat. He would do gymnastics, turn cartwheels, walk on his hands—anything rather than just sit in his cell all day. Other boys of his age were working in the paddy fields or poling boats or chopping wood, already being useful in the life of the Gentle People. Starting to drop hints to their parents about girls who would make suitable wives for them. Sunlight was in jail.
But two nights ago he had seen Chrysanthemum Moon in the sunset, and the weather had taken notice already. Today was too chilly for exercise for a boy wearing only a loincloth. He was shivering like a bird with a broken wing. Besides, it looked as if the crowd had begun to sing a hymn to him, and he could not have that. He waved goodbye and went back inside, closing the door.
Come back tomorrow, friends! The nights were growing too long to sleep through and he was so terribly bored. The Warden disapproved of his prisoner’s daily audience. He had tried to put a stop to it once, back in Lotus Moon. There had been a riot in the town—boys throwing filth at the castle gates, shots fired. Fortunately the imperial government in Sublime Mountain had either not heard of this disturbance, or was not sufficiently bothered by a few dead rioters to order reprisals.
Sunlight’s room was shabby but generously large, with a rack of books, comfortable furniture, and windows looking out towards the town. All in all, it was as good a jail as he had ever known. The guards were forbidden to speak to him and the lack of company was irksome, but he had endured as much before. He had known prisons much, much worse. Only the boredom truly bothered him. He had read all the books downwards, upwards, and sideways.
Every tenth day his mother was allowed to visit and she was already overdue. She was a simple soul and believed every word he told her—not that he ever lied to anyone, but he tried not to worry her. The husband she believed to be held somewhere else in the castle was almost certainly dead.
The locks on the outer door began to clatter. Sunlight paused to inspect his hair in the mirror. It dangled to his shoulders now, uncut for three years, but it was changing as the straight black hairs of his childhood fell out and were replaced by the wavy brown locks he would have as an adult. The result was a mess, and would be for the next year or two, and Quail fussed that her son did not look tidy. His face was becoming bonier, less rounded, more familiar. He noticed—amused at his stereotype adolescent interest—the first hints of lip fuzz.
The door creaked open; he spun around to smile and hold out his arms to his mother. Quail had been name enough for a peasant, but the authorities decided that it lacked dignity for this prisoner’s mother and some unknown official had added the name of their village, making her Quail Long River. The larger name had not made her any bigger—not enough of her to feed a half-grown tiger, his father had joked. He had been a big man, a good man, not one who had deserved the bitter jest that Heaven had played on him.
“Mother?” The boy frowned at her red-rimmed eyes as she ran to him. Her cheeks were still shiny and she had not brought him anything. Usually she came laden with books and flowers from well-wishers. He wrapped her in his ropy arms. “What’s wrong, Mother?”
She gulped, sniffed. “They are telling lies about you! They say you are disobeying the emperor, that the emperor is angry at you.”
That was true, but she would never believe that the Son of the Sun could be in the wrong. Disobedience was unthinkable for any of the emperor’s children.
“Are they threatening you?” Sunlight asked, evading the point.
He was taller than she was now. She sobbed against his bony chest.
“They are going to send me away if you do not do what the emperor says!”
“Come and sit.” He led her to the bench and sat her nearer the door, so she had her back to it and he could watch it. It had not been closed behind her, so there was more bad news to come.
She was still mumbling about the emperor.
“Mother, do you know how old the emperor is?”
She looked at him in bewilderment. She probably could not think of the emperor as anything less than a godlike, all-wise grandfather.
“He’s only eighteen, Mother! I very much doubt,” Sunlight said, a little louder than necessary, “that His Imperial Majesty Absolute Purity knows anything at all about my being here. I doubt even more that he has managed to impose his will on the mandarinate yet. Or the eunuchs.” There would be guards outside in the corridor, and it wouldn’t hurt to sow a few doubts there, even if it wouldn’t do any good either. The last time Sunlight had visited Sublime Mountain, even Zealous Righteousness, probably the strongest emperor in two centuries, had been as much in the power of the palace eunuchs as most of his predecessors.
“Eunuchs?” she repeated.
“Geldings, Mother. The palace is always riddled with eunuchs and they get into everything, like roaches.” The problem wasn’t that eunuchs were stupid or incompetent, it was that they were too smart, too competent, and too efficient at blocking anyone else from interfering with their private empire-within-an-empire.
She was looking at him blankly, and probably the eavesdroppers outside the door understood no better. Oh, poor Quail! She could not be much over thirty, but wrinkled and bent by work and weather. Sunlight had not been her first child, and two after him had died in infancy. With her eroded skin, her hair already graying and crudely cut, her threadbare cotton dress, she was absolutely typical of the great underworld of the Good Land, the lowly peasant mass that supported all the glory in the palaces.
A drum marked a slow beat out in the corridor. That was ominous.
Now boots thumped and guards marched in, followed by two men in elaborate silken robes and scarlet slippers, and finally an even greater glory, a mandarin of the third rank. That was a worrisome sign, for his predecessor had been a lowly mandarin of the first rank. Thirds were often governors of entire provinces, not insignificant forts like Four Mountains. Fat cushions were arranged appropriately on the floor, like chessmen, so the great one settled at the front, flanked by his aides, and the pawns stood at the back with their muskets. One of the lesser clerks consulted a scroll.
“Sunlight Long River!”
The prisoner gave his mother a squeeze and stood up to face the officials. He folded his arms. “I am the one you call by that name.”
The flunky read his warrant, inevitably beginning with the emperor’s seventeen major names and titles, ending with a terse statement that wardenship of Four Mountains Fortress was now entrusted to the blessed, honored, et cetera, Sedge Shallows, wise and trusted mandarin of the third rank.
Sunlight was still only a boy, so he knelt and tapped his forehead three times on the floor, then sat back on his heels to await the great man’s pleasure. When adult he sometimes chose to respect authority and other times chose not to.
The new warden was a man of around fifty, with silver in his dangling mustaches. He was a monument of multicolored embroidery, of perfectly arranged folds, cords, and pleats, but he had not been chosen for his affability. He must resent being posted to these barren hills, far from the intrigue and opportunities for graft and promotion in Heart of the World. He must also resent having to come to the prisoner, instead of having the prisoner dragged before him in chains, but the imperial authorities were being very careful with this captive and must have given very specific orders on how he was to be treated. Now the old warden had been withdrawn or demoted and this new one sent to apply more pressure. How much more? In many small bites or one great gulp? Sunlight had met his type oftentimes before, and memories brought dread.
He wondered if the Emperor Absolute Purity himself might be behind this new appointment. Had he actually started to assert himself and break free of the regency? A few others had managed it at about his age. Most emperors who succeeded as minors never succeeded in being more than puppets. Dynasties often died when the heir was a minor.
The floor was cold and hard under Sunlight’s knees, but he had met harder and colder.
The Warden spoke, using Palace Voice, which would not be understood by the guards or peasants like Quail. “Sunlight Long River, you have been commanded in the name of the blessed Son of the Sun to answer certain questions concerning the so-called Portal of Worlds.”
Sunlight replied in the same dialect. “I have explained many times, noble Scholar, that I will speak of such matters only to the Son of the Sun in person.”
“You expect me to summon the emperor for you?”
“Take me before the Golden Throne, where I have stood many times, Eminence. I shall not try to escape on the way, I promise.”
Quite likely Sedge Shallows had never set eyes on the Golden Throne, despite his exalted rank. Possibly he never would. He scowled. “You will force me to apply sterner measures.”
The boy shrugged. “I force nothing.”
“Have you forgotten that the Courtly Teacher said, Refusal to act is to act?”
“He also said, Every man desires rank and wealth, but if they can be retained only by evil means then they must be abandoned.”
Parroting old texts was the mandarins’ own game and the Warden sneered. “He also said, Ministers in serving their ruler must serve his cause above all.”
“But the Humble Teacher said, When the ruler does not direct his ministers according to laws of goodness, he must answer for their sins.”
“The Warden hesitated. “You dare call the Son of the Sun a sinner?”
“Not I, Eminence, but the Courtly Teacher also said, The gentleman who ever parts company with good conduct is not worthy of the name.”
“Enough!” The mandarin nodded to his flunkies. “Proceed.”
One had produced a brush and ink block to write.
The other unrolled another scroll and read out, still in Palace Voice, “The First Question: Who made the Portal of Worlds?”
Sunlight sighed. “I will tell the emperor, not you.”
The Warden said, “Bid farewell to your mother, boy.”
Sunlight stood up and reverted to the common tongue. “Am I to fall on my face and beg for mercy? For me or for her? Where is she going?”
“She is not your concern.”
Another guard entered, ushering a workman with a bag of tools. The room was becoming crowded.
“Goodbye, Mother.” The boy she had named Sunlight went to her. He bent and kissed her. “Go with my blessing always.”
“No, no!” She clung to him fiercely. “You must answer their questions! They will let you go free if you will answer the emperor’s questions.”
No they wouldn’t. He wondered what they had in store for her. She was of no importance, but all the fires of history illuminated no limit to human cruelty.
“Go, Mother, please. You have been a good mother to me, one of the best I have ever had. But you have done your duty and must go. I release you. No doubt you will be blessed for your service. Go.”
She crept away, so bowed by sorrow that she hardly seemed taller standing than sitting, a tiny monument to human suffering.
The workman had pulled back the rug in the center of the room to uncover a metal ring set in the stonework. He began hammering, closing the first link of a chain around it. The chain was rusty but looked strong enough to hang a horse. It was barely as long as Sunlight’s forearm.
He looked around in dismay and caught the Warden gloating. This was becoming serious. An adolescent body was much more vulnerable to maltreatment than an adult’s.
“I am fourteen years old, Scholar. I need exercise to grow properly.”
“Let us move to the second question, then. Secretary?”
The flunky read out, “When will the Portal next open?”
“The people look for me at noon every day,” Sunlight said.
But of course the new Warden had foreseen that difficulty. “And they will see you at noon every day, except it will not be you. The eagles in Heaven may notice the difference, but they won’t be able to tell. Will you submit or be forced?”
The workman had stopped banging. Now he knelt beside his chain, staring up at the prisoner with an expression of horror, or terror, or both. He was young and repellently thin. He was of an age to have many tiny mouths to feed. Sunlight walked over to him and offered an ankle for the manacle.
The Warden said, “Your wrist.”
Sunlight would not be able to stand upright, perhaps not even kneel properly. Remembering the last time this had been done to him, he sat down, crossed his skinny legs, and held out his left hand.
“The other one.”
For a moment the boy considered refusing. No, it was too soon, his time was not yet. He must be patient. He smiled and used his right hand to give the workman his blessing. “You are not to blame.”
The man gasped in relief, blinking away tears. “Oh, thank you, First—”
“No!” Sunlight laid fingers across his mouth. “Do not call me that! They will punish you. Now do what they want.” He offered his right wrist.
The Warden rose from his cushion and moved closer to watch the hammering. When he was satisfied that both ends of the chain were secure, he sneered. “Third question: Who will pass through the Portal when it opens?”
Sunlight was neither doctor nor magician, but his experience was beyond comprehension. At close range, he could recognize the shadow of death on the new Warden.
“Either hand works,” he said, and used his left to bless the man.
“If you ever do that again, I will have your wrists clamped behind your back and you will have to eat like a dog. Who made the Portal?”
Sadly the prisoner said, “You will not know in this life, Honorable Scholar. You have very little time left.”
The Warden pointed at the rug. “Remove that,” he told a guard. “Move that forward, and that. The prisoner will be fed every two days. Every ten days you will put the emperor’s questions to him again.”
“Bring the emperor and I will answer them.”
At the door the mandarin fired a parting shot. “Meditate on the wisdom of the Humble Teacher, who said, The Good Land is a dragon and the emperor is its head; he will lead, but we are the limbs that must obey and support him.”
“No, he didn’t! That nonsense was inserted into his teachings about a hundred years after he ascended. He would never have said that.”
The Warden left; guards followed; door slammed. Locks and chains and bolts clattered. The Firstborn was left sitting on bare flagstones. He still had the books, the comfortable bed, the view, and all the rest of his comforts, only he could reach none of them. He had a water jug and a bucket. He had a loincloth but no blanket. And winter was coming.