From THE COURT OF THE LION

Excerpt: Chapter 3, "Illusions"

Niu entered the office with an uneasy expression, as if expecting to be berated by his superior. Instead, Li Lin-fu asked, "Do you know about the Empress Wu, General? I am most grateful to the poet for reminding me of her."

"I know only that she was the wife of our Emperor's grandfather and that she killed many people," Niu answered.

"She was not an empress, General, in the sense that we know. She became a female emperor. She ruled for fifteen years just as if she were a man, renaming the dynasty, even, to Chou. One hundred and nine people went to their deaths as she accomplished her succession. The first, General, was her own three-day-old daughter, born when she was only a consort. She smothered the infant in order to incriminate the woman who was then empress; it was her first step. She went on to kill twenty-two others in her immediate household, including, later, two of her sons. As she gained power, she found it necessary to kill off fifty princes and, later, at least thirty-six ministers and generals. And when she was empress, she had her male harem. The 'Stork Institute' saw to it that other of her voracious appetites were also satisfied. Yes, it is true that she killed people as though she were swatting flies. I recall another incident when twenty-five scholars ended their illustrious careers with their heads on spikes at the palace gates. They had dared to question her authority to rule. But not everyone with whom she disagreed died immediately. You have heard, no doubt, of the 'Shore of Pearls'?"

"The island of Hainan," Niu answered, still uneasy.

"One thousand miles to the south," said Li Lin-fu, is the coast of Lingnan on the China Sea. It is very hot there, General. And there is abundant life such as is always found in the tropical climes; a fascinating variety of insects, serpents, and plants which inhabitants of temperate zones cannot even imagine. Think of the contrast, General, between such life-forms and those of the far north, where nature must practice economy. Plants and animals existing under rigid conditions have no time for any sort of experimental frivolity. Colors are subdued, practical. But in the tropics, it is different. There, with the excess of heat, light, and moisture, we find out what nature really yearns to do. We see her true mind. I've heard that the trees are laden with the most delectable-looking fruit. Some varieties are good and will nourish you, while others... one bite and you will die in agony. Poison, General. Nature dearly loves to put poison in things that jump, crawl, and grow. And she loves to decorate them in the most brilliant colors and let them multiply in feverish profusion. It is no wonder that the Empress Wu had an affinity for the tropics. I don't believe that she ever visited there herself, but I know that the island of Hai­nan received many 'guests,' courtesy of Her Highness. Those who were trou­blesome to her soon forgot any court business as they occupied themselves with their immediate surroundings. There are people there, too, if you can call them that: an indigenous race of savages scarcely distinguishable from the monkeys which scream and chatter in the treetops." Niu had listened to Li Lin-fu's description of Hainan with an ever more dubious expression.

"Chief Minister," he said, his voice shaking, "I am aware that I did not, perhaps, distinguish myself in the interrogation room just now, but it is my wish to remain in your service here — "

"No, General," Li Lin-fu interrupted. "Not you. Not as yet, anyway. No; I want you to make arrangements for Minister Chang Chiu-ling. Tell him that he is departing immediately for his new position as cultural emissary to the island of Hainan. Tell him that he is not to worry any more about an appointment to the Han Lin Academy of Letters. And tell him that soon he shall see flowers that will make him forget forever his white tiger lilies." Niu, relieved, made a slight bow and prepared to leave.

"General," said Li Lin-fu. Niu stopped and turned. "You put it well. You did not distinguish yourself in the interrogation room. But we were successful nonetheless. I have the information I need."

"Then I am very fortunate, Councillor," Niu answered.

"Very," Li Lin-fu concurred.

                                                             

                                                             --)/<0>\(--

Excerpt: Chapter 14, "Ice and Tears"

Sitting up now from his cruel dream, the poet-minister Chang Chiu-ling cradled his head and tried to recall winter days in Ch'angan. Snow. What did it feel like? It was as if he had never actually seen or touched it. With all his strength, he tried to imagine walking in the snow on a frozen winter night in a park in the city. He put a cold white moon in the sky to help his imagination, and concentrated mightily. He was able to recall perfectly the way snow creaked underfoot when the air was especially bitter. But when he reached his hand down to touch the snow, it was... warm. Disgusted, as if he had put his fingers on a piece of excrement, he gave it up,  fell back down on the mat and let his mind drift into the shifting chaos of images fed by the one thousand chattering, clicking, rustling, screeching noises of the tropical night. The fever was on him and had been for days. Until it passed, there would be little rest. He shivered, he sweated, his teeth rattled. Reaching out in the dark, he found the gourd, raised his head enough to take a long drink of the fiery, bitter liquor in it, and let his head fall again.

He made no effort to control the weird, obscene, ridiculous, frightening pictures that bloomed in his mind like diseased flowers. Do what you will, he challenged them. I don't care anymore. Come and get me. He let great, hairy insect legs caress his face, opened his mouth and let green, poisonous juice from their bodies pour in. Huge pink spotted frogs copulated in profusion, with smiling, smirking faces, singing in high girlish voices, while centipedes with wicked spiked legs walked delicately up his nose and into his ears. Eat my brain, he said to them, laughing. Eat my tongue. He stretched his jaws wide to receive them. Crawl up into my head and pick my skull clean. Eat. They were all eating now. The frogs, the centipedes, the hairy black insects with dry, rustling wings. That was the jungle. Everything eating everything else, all the time. It was all he could hear everywhere around him. The chewing and munching of mouths, teeth, mandibles, slippery wet lips. But his laughing stopped now. He was afraid, and the tears flowed from his burning eyes. No, please, he begged. No, no, no. But it was too late; he knew what was coming, and he knew he would be powerless to stop it.

The mantis turned her black, shiny head inquisitively from side to side. She saw him, as he knew she would, and her forelegs, gleaming and hairy, shot out and seized him, impaling him with their pointed tips, and raised him delicately to her churning mouthparts. He wept helplessly as she turned him this way and that in her horrible embrace and then began eating his head, which was no longer flesh and bone but chitinous material with a greenish jelly inside. The crunching of her mandibles drowned out everything but his pathetic moans as she ate, and ate, and ate.

And the poet slept again, sinking deeper, descending through delirium and back down into his dreams, where gradually it became quieter, colder, quieter. Soon, he was stretched out on the black, silent ice once more, the mantis and other creatures gone, the terrible noises gone, absorbed into the noiseless depths of the icy world. He looked down into the ice with longing, wishing he could descend into it, to join the beings that lived down there. He cried.

                                                       

                                                         --<((^00^))>--

Excerpt: Chapter 4, "Enter A Barbarian"

Ahead, a ghostly shimmer of orange reflected against the low, thick clouds: the lights of the camp. An Lu-shan raised his massive hand, signaling the children to stop. In the fading light of dusk he could see their pale, attentive faces. He spoke the last words he would utter to them before the attack.

"Remember. Be the garden snake that gently parts the grasses," he admonished in a soft voice. He looked around the half circle of twenty-six faces. He detected no uncertainty; he saw a trained unit, ready to respond to him. He turned in the direction of the lights and began moving toward the slight incline which led to the rim of the gorge. The children followed noise­lessly, their feet wrapped in soft leather.

Ahead of the children, An Lu-shan reached the rocky ledge and raised his hand again for them to stop. Flattening himself against the stones and dry grass, he moved to the edge and peered down. It was perfect, better than he could have wished.

The Khitan camp was spread out below in the shelter of a narrow canyon. Campfires scattered here and there lay between rows of tents and skin yurts. Judging by the size of the camp, An Lu-shan estimated that there were ap­proximately one hundred men and boys. Gruff voices and hoarse laughter rose from the canyon floor. A group of boys dared each other in games of strength. Some men looked on, teasing and admonishing. Others lay by the fires, eating, dozing, and talking quietly. An Lu-shan knew the sounds of a camp at rest, off its guard. The wind carried the odors of cooking smoke to his nostrils; there were other scents which spoke to him of a long day's travel, men fatigued.

But another odor, redolent and unmistakable, caused a keen surge of sensual anticipatory pleasure in An Lu-shan. His eyes traveled from the tents and campfires to the western area of the small canyon. There, a makeshift fence had been made of piled brush, forming a corral. Standing quietly, at ease and drowsy, were what An Lu-shan guessed to be as many as a hundred Ferghanian cavalry horses boxed at the end of the gorge. Horses of iron. The finest, strongest, and swiftest of war animals....

...An Lu-shan's ears tensed. The horses were shifting about. Something was making them restless; they grumbled and whinnied, pressing against one another in their close confines. The wind was simply pausing, gathering strength. An Lu-shan was exultant. A devil wind! Were the gods not with him now?

But he must hurry. The still air around him could change at any moment to howling fury. His timing must be perfect. Moving back from the rim of the canyon, he pulled the leather pouch from his back and untied the flap in one motion. He pulled out a heavy, warm bundle. With a soft whistle he summoned the eldest boy of the group, his son, An Ching-hsu, who was never more than a few feet from his side. They unwrapped the bundle. Off came a length of hide. A ceramic box the size of a man's head, perforated with little holes, lay on the ground. The boy took from his own pouch another bundle: scraps of dry tinder. Using a piece of leather to protect his hand, An Lu-shan opened the ceramic box. Embers from his campfire of that afternoon, packed in ashes, glowed in the darkness. The boy sprinkled the dry tinder onto the embers, carefully shielding it, ready for the wind which could start at any time. The boy blew gently. The embers glowed. A ribbon of flame rose in the tinder.

Feeling behind his back, An Lu-shan took three arrows from his quiver. They were long and sleek, with iron tips. On each one, just above the tip, was a tightly wrapped wad of cloth; An Lu-shan tested the wads in the dark for tightness. The children, he knew, would be in their positions, bows ready, their strange arrows, with bulbous iron devices fixed behind spiked metal wings, poised; their signal had been the small flame that the boy had cultivated.

An Lu-shan crept back to his position on the rim of the gorge. The camp was quiet. The fires cast enough light for him to see. He drew his Sogdian bow and fixed his eyes on his target. The boy held one of the wrapped arrows to the flame; the naphtha-soaked rags ignited instantly. Immediately the boy put the arrow in his father's hand. The time was now: An Lu-shan rose to his feet, eyes still trained below, and pulled the string of the heavy carved bow to its limit.

At the moment that he released the arrow, a powerful gust tore through the canyon. The arrow, blown off course, fell several yards to the side of the line of brush, hitting the earth in the corral. It missed the animals but lodged itself in the ground where it burned like a torch. A hissing curse escaped An Lu-shan's lips. The animals raised an alarm, scattering from the flame in their midst, whinnying in fright. An Lu-shan reached, grazing An Ching-hsu's shoulder roughly. Instantly, another flame arrow was in his hand. Still cursing, he drew his bow, beseeching the wind to allow him another shot. Then he saw in the dim light a man running from the nearest tent toward the horses and the mysterious flame. All right, my friend, muttered An Lu-shan; you shall help me now. He moved his aim from the pile of brush to the running man, who, miraculously, had not yet shouted. An Lu-shan waited until the man was at the brush pile and pulling it apart with his hands to get through. He released the arrow. This time his shot was true. The arrow pierced the man's neck; he faltered and toppled. The burning arrow in his neck crackled peacefully for a few seconds in the midst of the brush. An Lu-shan gave a sharp whistle then.

The children lined along the rim rose to a well-practiced archer's kneel. Instead of aiming downward, they raised their oddly shaped arrows upward in an angle above the horizon. The brush below caught fire and roared. At the same moment the first volley of arrows flew in staggered precision. They rose, and on their downward arc, piercing, undulating screams filled the night sky. Before the first volley was spent, the second volley flew from the children's bows. Screams combined with throaty howls. Men emerged from tents, torn from sleep, their terrified faces illuminated by the raging brush. Some covered their heads and zigzagged like rabbits as the terrible sounds flew over their heads. Not soldiers, An Lu-shan guessed, but mere outriders, herdsmen. The soldiers among them grabbed for weapons in the confusion — a spear, a long sword, a bow without arrows, arrows without bows, empty sword sheaths. 

Each child had thirty or more arrows; shooting in timed sequence, they could make the ceiling of dreadful, eerie sounds last for some time. The arrows fell to earth on the opposite rim of the canyon. Then the wind chose to come to life again, fanning the brush fire below fiercely, swirling and scattering burning debris in all directions. An Lu-shan could see some of the men running toward the panicked horses. The herd charged first this way and then the other. But the men were driven back by the heat and flames, unable to get to the horses. The animals had found the narrow exit to the rear of their corral. The herd was squeezing through, two and three abreast. Waiting for them were four older boys on herding ponies; the frightened horses would be rounded up and driven south until their fear had been run out of them.

Now the wind was buffeting the walls of the canyon around the camp. Tents wobbled and collapsed. The wind rattled the loose flaps of the yurts. The scattering brush started fires here and there which quickly blazed out of control. Overhead, the volleys still flew from the children's bows; the sound was as if a thousand hungry ghosts had fallen from above the earth to descend on the camp below.

"Yes!" An Lu-shan cried out in the Khitan tongue, knowing he could not be heard above the noise. "We are hungry ghosts! We are angry wind demons, we are ancestors of the dead!" He laughed exultantly. "I and these children!" He seized a flaming arrow and whirled it around his head. Then, in Chinese, he shouted, "I am Lo Hsuan, god of fire! Here is my beard!"

                                                       

                                                          0--(//><\\)--0

Excerpt: Chapter 17, "A Lucky Baby Is Born"

The music stopped, and the murmuring and laughter of the crowd swelled in his ears. He felt dizzy and closed his eyes for a moment. The orchestra began again, a slow, ponderous, ceremonial tune that quieted the talk and noise immediately. Lu Pei looked at the Emperor, who wore a satisfied smile on his face as he directed his attention to the wide doorway that led in from the bathing area. In the next moment, the crowd gasped and then applauded; Lu Pei thought that he could only be dreaming or suffering from some de­rangement of his senses.

The Precious Consort had entered the room, but she was so tall that she had to duck her head in order to avoid hitting it on the doorjamb, which was half again the height of a normal man. She wore a long, long robe that trailed along the floor as she walked, with a strange swaying gait, to the center of the room, where she stood, hands clasping her belly, which appeared to be swollen as if she were about to give birth to something very large. Her features, fixed in a faraway, bemused expression, were those of a woman who has just felt the first faint pangs of labor.

Lu Pei stared, not trusting his eyes, at the fantastic elongated figure of the Precious Consort in the lamplight. She began to move in a circle, swaying and dipping, as the tempo of the music increased; she clutched her belly harder, grimacing with pain, eyes still fixed straight ahead. Sympathetic cries and groans rose from the audience; the Emperor himself stood, clutching his own lean belly and moaning pathetically. Laughing, the sisters pulled him back down as the guests howled and screamed with amusement.

Now the consort was bending backward at an impossible angle, then forward again while slowly sinking to the ground. Lu Pei was not at all sure what he was seeing. He thought that he must be very, very drunk or was witnessing, perhaps, some sort of secret magic that the court aristocrats re­served for themselves. The music was whining and wailing now; the consort ground her teeth and writhed her shoulders, and her huge belly undulated beneath her robe. The room held its breath, waiting to see whatever it was that was about to be born.

Her hem was lifted, and a round pink face peeked out. The crowd broke into shouts and applause, daring and exhorting the "baby" to come out and show itself to the world. Lu Pei had to look twice before he recognized that face: it was An Lu-shan, with his beard and hair entirely shaved off, crawling out from under the Precious Consort's dress. In an instant Lu Pei understood what should have been obvious, but which had completely bewildered him: An Lu-shan had been carrying the consort on his shoulders underneath her voluminous, trailing skirt; the bulge of her "belly" had been his head. When she had sunk to the ground, he was merely lowering her to her own feet. And now he was being born.

The room was in pandemonium as the infant An Lu-shan came forth into the world. He was naked, as naked as the day his real mother had pushed him out of her body. Every bit of hair that had been on him was shaved off. Hugely fat and pink, his belly hanging down like a sack of rice, he perfectly resembled a grotesque giant baby. He sat on the floor and looked around perplexedly at the guests, then crumpled his face exactly as a baby would who is about to cry, and let out a wail that would pierce the heart of even the coldest, cruelest mother. The Precious Consort held out her arms to him, and he crawled over to her and cradled his head against her bosom. The crowd, it was plain, wanted more. They shouted encouragement. The huge "baby" looked up at his mother imploringly; she gazed into his eyes while opening the front of her robe and brought out one perfect, round white breast, the nipple painted bright red. She offered it to her newborn. He began to suckle, eyes closed in rapture, as the people in the room applauded and voiced their  approval so that Lu Pei thought the very roof of the building would rise. The Emperor smiled broadly, and the three sisters were exultant.

When the "baby" had sated himself at the breast, he rolled off the con­sort's lap and lay on the floor, arms and legs waving in the air. The consort raised her hand in a discreet signal, and a dozen women, beautiful harem ladies in loose robes, some with their hair streaming and still damp from the hot pool, descended on An Lu-shan, tickling, rubbing, and kissing him. He put himself completely at their mercy, a helpless baby suffering the ministrations of women. One of them produced a huge square of soft white cloth then, and she and another lady held the cloth up for the guests to inspect. They roared, whistled, and stamped their feet, giving Lu Pei the certain knowledge that something was about to happen, something so strange and memorable that he would be telling the story of it for the rest of his life.

The women laid the square of cloth onto the floor, and folded it in half diagonally so that it made a large triangle. Then, giggling, their hair falling over their faces and arms, their robes falling open here and there to reveal a breast or a glimpse of thigh or belly, they all got on one side of An Lu-shan and struggled to roll him over onto his stomach; Lu Pei could only think of ants striving with a great pale beetle grub. They moved the triangle of cloth so that it was alongside An Lu-shan on the floor, and then, faces red with effort and mirth, rolled him back to his original position so that the cloth was now under him.

The huge infant lay passive, legs bent at the knees and spread wide. Lu Pei stared in rapt fascination at the spectacle of the military governor of Fanyang and Hotung Provinces lying naked and hairless, big sagging belly and genitals exposed as unselfconsciously as a newborn baby's.

The women, with much laughter and merriment, began rubbing him between his legs with oil, giving him an erection; the "baby" tried to pull first one woman, and then another, onto him. They wrestled, struggled, teased, and shrieked while he pulled at their robes, exposing breasts, shoulders, buttocks, until they overpowered him and pinned his arms to the floor, four or five women on each side.

Around Lu Pei, the guests were doubled over with laughter. The or­chestra played, wine cups flew through the air and smashed to the floor, people shouted suggestions and obscenities. Several harem women, some completely naked now and others with their clothing hanging off them in disarray, weak and panting with the hilarity, held the huge baby down while two others pulled one corner of the cloth triangle up between his legs and pulled the other two corners across his mountainous stomach and tied the three together. They had diapered the newborn "son" of the Emperor and Precious Consort.

 

                                                        <((0)>><<(0))>

 

Excerpt: Chapter 15, "Festival Of Lanterns"

A million colored, flickering lights, framed in the tiled square of the Cinnabar Phoenix Gate, spread below the majestic palace heights of Dragon Head Hill like an explosion at the center of the universe. Great rivers of translucent colored lights five hundred feet wide converged in hazy, twinkling luminosity on the city's horizon eighteen li south of the palace. The northern extremes of the capital, the bureaucratic complexes, wealthy residential wards and the Hsing-ching Palaces between the eastern and western markets were ablaze with a solid rippling sheet of lantern-light, a clustered mass of three million individual flames, stars of the centrifugal arms of the endless rivers of the Milky Way. Throughout Ch'ang-an's entire length and breadth, and to the fields and suburbs beyond, these lines of sparkling fires reached without in­terruption. The roof lines of the great urban structures — mansions, monas­teries, nunneries, multitiered temples, bell towers, drum towers, pagodas, dagobas, watchtowers, observatories, gates, and walled ramparts were strung with lights, their ordered architectural outlines delineated by strings of glowing color.

Far away, close to the Big Wild Goose Temple, a volley of explosions shook the magical night air; torrents of light sprayed the sky, whirling, blasting and shuddering with the pyrotechnic beauty of "fire trees," "flame flowers," and "peach blossoms." For fractions of seconds, repetitious miles of urban squares, alleys, gates, and courtyard houses in the far suburbs were illuminated by the fireworks, flashing visible as tilelike grids. Volleys at the southern Gate of Luminous Virtue were answered by a brilliant retort that lit the treetops; reds, yellows, oranges, and blues were reflected in the glassy waters of the Indian Lotus Pond and Serpentine Lake.

Finally an angry explosion and ear-splitting reverberation came from the palatial heights of Dragon Head Hill. With a bursting of fireballs flashing above the gold-tiled roofs of the imperial and palace cities, the grand proces­sional began. The sound was deafening, the momentary paroxysms of light blinding. The enormous studded doors of the Cinnabar Phoenix Gate opened. The great displays of light announced the emergence of the Son of Heaven. Amidst thunder and light, Heaven's representative on earth would descend the heights of the palace hill. Four million faces turned upward.

A parade of imperial livery, a column of ornate floats, cavalry, lancers, drummers, and pipers emerged from the gates of the Forbidden City. The vast retinue descended the steep incline of the Dragon Head. A blue terrazzo road undulated downward like a serpent through a stone forest of obelisks. The final three hundred yards were guarded by the watchful stone eyes of the inhabitants of the Spirit Way. Potent marmoreal figures, in imitation of their ancient Han dynasty predecessors, lined the wondrous path: chimera, serpents, rhinoceroses, turtles, hippopotamuses, elephants, ostriches, and horses were staggered along the road's gracefully sweeping curves. Then came the bodhisattvas, somber court ministers, and fearsome warriors in armors of hide and chain mail. Demon slayers with fierce expressions and bannered tridents raged at the cultivated slopes beyond the city, their enigmatic countenances of stone reflecting the conundrum of the T'ang. The huge wheels of the imperial floats ran in deep stone grooves, their great greased axles straddling but never touching the taboo path carved with whiskered celestial dragons and flaming pearls. The walkway of the Son of Heaven was reserved for his feet alone.

The assemblage of wheeled architecture lumbered down like a city de­scending from the clouds. Straining teams of muscular attendants and stalwart oxen pulled back on taut ropes as the entourage was brought down the hill to the safety of the level plain. Atop the grandest float rode the Emperor T'ang Minghuang in perfect serenity beneath a canopy of carved lattice. The grand wagons rumbled out into the humanity-packed squares and entered the city through the Red Bird Gate. Troops cleared the main thoroughfare of Ch'ang-an, the Avenue of the Vermilion Sparrow, which bisected the city and was five hundred feet wide from shoulder to shoulder, stretching out into the distant suburbs. Tonight, aflame with lanterns, it was reserved for the Em­peror. The masses of Ch'ang-an, city of eternal peace and, equally, eternal commerce, had turned out to see him. But tonight, he did not ride alone...

 

                                                        //^((00))^\\

Excerpt: Chapter 20, "Father Springtime Returns"

An Lu-shan turned his attention to the girl in his lap. He smelled her sweet breath, made  pungent from the wine. Her cheeks were pink and damp; her head lolled on his shoulder. His eyes dropped to the soaked front of her robe. Slowly, fingers clumsy, fumbling, he opened the little silk ties that held the robe shut. He felt her child's-breath on his neck. She didn't resist. His own breathing grew harsh with anticipation. He had been saving it up all day, hadn't he? All winter! He pushed her robe open and stared, inhaling sharply.

Her little exposed breasts were the sweetest, tenderest sight he had ever seen. Round, with pink buds for nipples, they lacked even the slightest hint of pendulousness. Child's breasts. Little girl-woman's breasts. He tested the flesh with his hand, giving it a small squeeze- and rolling the tiny nipple around between his fingers the way he had seen the man on the couch do with the harem woman. His "old man" stiffened urgently and his ragged breath sounded through his open, salivating mouth. He had waited long enough. In a single motion, he pulled the girl's robe down from her shoulders and arms and off her body completely so that she sat naked upon his lap. He lowered his eyes and felt the blood rush to his head and groin: between her legs was no womanly thatch of thick black hair — just the lightest, downiest fuzz was visible in the lamplight. With one hand he pushed her thighs apart. Yes, he had certainly waited long enough.

                                                        ●●●

 This would be a good time to kill him. With his own sword. It would be easy. The weapon was lying across a chair not ten paces from where Li Chu-erh lay in his dark corner, hands pressed to his ears. How many times was he going to force himself into the child? Chu-erh could hardly stand the whimpering and moaning. It had been going on for hours now. When was the sun going to come up and put a stop to it? How long was this night going to last?

I could kill him, and run away. The girl wouldn't tell. She wants him dead, too, I know. Anything to get him off her. Though she had liked it at first, when he was still laughing and playing with her.

Chu-erh had watched with reluctant fascination by the light of the single lamp as the huge man had leaned back on the couch so that his pendulous belly was out of the way, and then, holding the girl under her armpits, brought her down slowly onto his organ. It doesn't hurt, he kept telling her. It feels good. It doesn't hurt at all. And she had laughed, and caught her breath, and let him move her up and down, up and down, while she uttered small sounds of pleasure and surprise.

And Chu-erh had listened to the general's breathing. It seemed to change. It didn't just get faster; it began to sound... not even human. Like the breathing of an animal. Rasping, unconscious. And when the girl's cries changed gradually but surely from pleasure to pain, the breathing got louder, harsher, more grating. And less and less conscious.

And so it had gone for hours now. The girl had become prey in the possession of a great, deliberate, slow-moving, brutish animal. Whenever she thought he was finally asleep and tried to move away, it would begin all over again. Ponderously, heavily, slowly, he would be on top of her, or holding her down, or pulling her down onto him, always pushing, thrusting, forcing himself into her while her cries grew weaker, more childlike, with exhaustion.

Lie still, Chu-erh thought desperately. Stop moving, don't cry out anymore. He will pass out, and then you can get away.

But she wouldn't stop making noise. And every noise she made only provoked the general's ardor further. That breathing. That horrible, slavering, slobbering breathing. Everything Chu-erh hated about his master was con­centrated in that sound. His eyes moved again toward where the sword lay across the chair. He raised himself up on an elbow, heart pounding in his throat.

Kill him.

He lay back down again, pressing his hands to his ears with all his strength. He was a coward. He couldn't do it. He didn't even have the courage to leave the room, let alone push a sword into the general's heaving back. He shut his eyes, willing the girl to stop her crying and struggling, willing the sun to rise, willing the night to be over. At that moment, he felt gratitude, for the only time in his life, for what he was. I am glad I am not a man. I am glad I can never inflict that kind of pain.

                                                            ●●●

 An Lu-shan rose almost to the surface. His swollen bladder had been chasing him through his deep, obscure dreams, demanding his attention. He would ignore it. If he stayed still, did not open his eyes, he could put it off a while longer. Something moved under him. He remembered the girl. Reflexively, he tightened his grip on her and thrust his groin against her two or three times until the tenderness in his lower belly made him stop. He sank back down into sleep, distantly aware of the faint movements of the girl's limbs beneath him, far, far away.

The overpowering need to urinate brought him completely awake in the first thin light of dawn. The room was still very dark; sometime during the night, the lamp had gone out. This is it, old fellow, he said to himself. You can't put it off any longer. He raised his heavy head, wincing at the pain, then heaved himself to the edge of the couch and into a sitting position. He sat for a moment with his eyes shut, gathering strength for the mighty effort of standing up.

Once on his feet in the unfamiliar room, he blundered into furniture and objects in the dim light, cursing with each throb in his head. Unable to recall exactly where the chamberpot might be, he made his way to the doors that led to the balcony, found his way out into the cool morning air, and relieved himself over the railing. He listened with satisfaction to the sound of urine spattering onto the stone- terrace a story below. The skin of his organ was chafed and slightly sticky; he smiled, recalling the girl's tight little body. He sucked the air sharply through his teeth, remembering how it felt to push himself into virgin flesh. He would have to arrange it with the Emperor, he thought, to have a virgin brought to him every night. One could develop a taste for it.

Carefully this time, without hitting anything, he found his way back to the couch. Already the faint morning light was growing stronger. His eyes took in the still form of the girl, her skin glowing white against the dark, indistinct background of couch, pillows, and discarded clothing. He swayed slightly, and steadied himself with a hand on a nearby table. Maybe it was time to wake her. He considered.

Yes. It was definitely time to wake her. He wanted one more taste before the sun was up and the spell broken.

                                                              ●●●

Li Chu-erh woke to the sound of An Lu-shan stumbling over something. The eunuch opened his eyes, but did not move. He listened with disgust to the sound of his master urinating off the balcony, and lay as he was, feigning sleep, when he heard him making his way back into the room. He prayed that the general's appetite was sated. He did not know if he could bear it if An Lu-shan started in again on the girl.

The shuffling footsteps stopped at the couch. The general was breathing in a labored way from the effort of moving; Li Chu-erh guessed that his head was hurting him. That meant hardship for himself later. He was always testier when his head hurt after one of his all-night drinking bouts, and the eunuch was the first one he took his foul temper out .on. But at least there was no odor of vomit in the room. By some miracle, Chu-erh had escaped having to tend to that loathsome task later in the morning. He shut his eyes.

The next few moments were quiet but for rustlings and creakings as the general lowered himself back onto the couch. Chu-erh waited. He willed his master to just go back to sleep.

Leave her alone.

More rustling, then silence.

"Bloody hell!" An Lu-shan's voice was softly incredulous.

Chu-erh's body tensed in involuntary response. He opened a surreptitious eye. He saw, in the gray dawn light, An Lu-shan standing over the couch staring down at the girl, holding her arm straight up from her shoulder. He let it go. It fell back down limply, heavily, like a thick rope that has been cut. He stooped and put an ear to her chest, then straightened up again slowly.

"Bloody hell," he repeated, his voice even softer this time, almost a whisper.

Chu-erh still did not move, though he understood.

Chu-erh watched his master stand stupidly for a few moments looking at the dead girl. Then An Lu-shan appeared to shake off his torpor. He began to move swiftly, purposefully. He pulled her up to a sitting position, the head hanging heavily to one side. Clumsily, cursing in a soft, steady stream, his breath whistling in his nose, he dressed the corpse in the robe he had flung aside the night before, pulling one arm into a sleeve, then the other, the head rolling about. It was not easy, tying the delicate little ribbons with his fat, agitated fingers. He tied two or three, enough to keep the robe closed, then picked her up and turned toward the balcony.

Astonished, Chu-erh raised himself up on one arm. What in the name of all the gods was he going to do? The light was still too dim for him to see clearly out onto the balcony where An Lu-shan had gone.

The sound of splintering wood made him spring, against his will, into a crouching position; the sound of something heavy hitting the ground below the balcony immediately followed. He was ready to run when An Lu-shan came back into the room.

The general stopped, looking straight at the boy as if just now remem­bering his existence. Chu-erh held perfectly still, hoping that in the poor light the general might mistake his crouching figure for a piece of furniture.

An Lu-shan's foot came out of the shadows with swift fury, catching Chu-erh under the chin and knocking him back against the wall.

"She fell off the balcony while she was dancing," An Lu-shan said in a flat, dangerous voice. "Do you understand?"

 

                                                       ..\\--<(00)>--//..

Excerpt: Chapter 21, "The Tortoise And The Snake"

"You are more assuming even than the ravens!" Ming Wu said, and clucked her tongue in mock rebuke. But she was settling herself into a com­fortable, listening attitude. She lit her pipe again, released a cloud of smoke, and stirred the fire in front of them. "But, please, tell your dreams to old Wu. You came here tonight for that purpose. Perhaps, if they are of any interest, she can add them to her collection."

"The first was not even three nights ago," the Emperor said eagerly, closing his eyes in concentration. "I would have sworn that I was awake, offering my daily respects to the shrine of the imperial house, burning incense at the Li family altar. Every detail of the hall — the smells, the sounds, the bells, the attendants, the rustle of the ritual silks, the inscriptions above the altar — was absolutely real. And then a cloud rose from the floor..."

"A cloud?" the Precious Consort asked. "You didn't tell me that part."

"Yes. I remember now that it was a cloud," he said. "It was not smoke or incense. It was a cloud!"

"And what did this cloud do?" Ming Wu asked, poking the fire with a stick so that orange sparks danced upward.

The consort moved closer. The warmth of the fire was most welcome.

"It was solid and insubstantial at the same time," Minghuang continued. "But I did not remember thinking it was at all strange the way it wafted me... carried, lifted me... toward Heaven, because a Taoist immortal can maintain the solidity of transient substances such as smoke and mist..."

"Because you were dead!" the witch said flatly. "Because you were dead, the cloud appeared to have weight and solidity. Because you had none. It is a simple dream of death, Imperial Father."

"It was the dream of a hsi'en — an immortal floating. A pure dream of Taoist transcendence, Witch," the Emperor insisted.

"You don't consider death to be transcendent?" 

                                                                  ●●●

"We are leaving, Old Woman," the Precious Consort said curtly. "This is nonsense. And he is listening to it. I am afraid I cannot permit it to go on." She felt very sure of herself all of a sudden. Guarding the Emperor, protecting him, was indeed her responsibility, and this had gone quite far enough. She stood, pulling on his arm. Obediently, he rose to his feet, and she pushed him toward the trapdoor.

"Must you leave?" the old woman said, as though she were genuinely disappointed.

"We must," the consort answered.

The Emperor started down the stairs. She let him go ahead a few steps, then started down after him. Before her head descended below the level of the platform, Ming Wu spoke again.

"Wait, Beautiful Queen."

The consort turned. She felt sure that Ming Wu was about to apologize. She would accept the apology and they would be on their way. She waited. The old woman leaned close.

"You know, my dear," she whispered, so that only the Precious Consort could hear her now. "The more you spread your legs for that old self-centered reprobate, the wider your hole becomes."

The consort drew back, shocked and speechless.

Ming Wu put her pipe back in her mouth. "And," she said, taking it out again, little puffs of smoke accompanying her words, "the wider the regal old cock reams your sweet cunt, the easier it is for your brains to fall through. Remember that, girl. You could end up as stupid as he is!"

 

                                                            ..<oo((00))oo>..

 

Excerpt: Chapter 24, "The Apostasy"

An Lu-shan, who had gone to bed after the Emperor's party very drunk and his mind seething, woke in the dark hours later, his head perfectly clear, with the certain knowledge that someone lay silent and unmoving next to him on the bed. In the next moment, he knew who it was. He would never, even if twenty years were to pass, forget that smell: damp earth, rotting wood. He wondered for a brief moment how she had found him, here, in the palace, in the middle of the city.

He had not thought of her for years; he had not even allowed himself to contemplate the memory of her nighttime visits. Just as he would have used his knife to sever a diseased limb from his own body, so he had brutally cut the disturbing experience from his life. But now, almost before he had time to comprehend, he found himself intensely, painfully aroused. It was as if no time at all had passed.

He rolled over quickly and pinned her with a heavy leg. She was not going to get away. If she had the effrontery to return to his life, then she was going to learn this time who was master. And this time he would make her speak. She was going to tell him who she was.

Her hand came up and caressed his face, slid around to the back of his neck, up to the top of his head, and back down to his neck. As her hand moved down toward his face, she allowed her fingernails to rake the skin of his cheek lightly, dangerously. The hand wandered to his neck again, onto his back and shoulder, and across his face, the nails leaving a little tingling trail that made his heart pound hard and sent a message directly to his groin.

He made a move to roll on top of her. He was going to have her, right now. He was not going to waste any time. He found her legs with his knee and pushed them apart; at the same moment, her caressing nails dug like claws into the flesh of his back. Shocked by the pain, he howled and pulled back. She raked him again, this time across the back of the neck; even more shocking than the sudden pain was the intensification of arousal: his "old man" rose like a warrior's sword, twice as long and twice as hard as it had ever been in his life.

She held on with one hand, nails still embedded in his skin, and pulled him toward her with unexpected strength. He found her knees again, pushed them apart, and heaved himself onto her so that she was pinned. He tried to catch her other hand, but she eluded him. Now both her hands were on him, pulling and clawing, while he drove himself into her with violent fury.

I will make you talk, he said, thrusting with each word. You will tell me your name. You will tell me everything about you. And you will speak my name. Say it, he ordered: An Lu-shan. Say it. She did not say it, but moaned and hissed like an animal, her nails buried in his skin. Say my name, he said, his teeth clenched. Say my name. Say it. Say it. Say it.

Her keening and growling was thinning, rising in pitch. He cursed. He knew what it meant. He had never been able to resist that sound. It would carry him up with it, make him helpless, finish him off before he was ready. He cursed in a loud, steady stream, trying to drown her out, trying to fight the compelling whine that was already vibrating in his ear.

She fought and struggled beneath him with wiry strength. Hot liquid ran down his neck onto his shoulders; he did not know if it was blood or sweat. He imagined that her nails were talons that pierced his body to the bone. He held out as long as he could, but when her voice reached a high, thin pitch of unbearable intensity he had to let go, squeezing his eyes shut as a thousand stars and comets exploded in the center of his brain and shot out across the black night sky of his mind.

It was like rising up out of a dream. He lay limp and spent on top of her, letting his heart slow down and his rasping breath grow quiet again. He wondered vaguely if he dared let her up. Would she try to knee him in the groin or scratch his eyes out? But she was quiet beneath him. Still holding her down, he lifted himself up slightly so that she would be able to breathe. Exhausted and empty, he buried his face in her neck and shut his eyes.

"An Lu-shan," came her low voice right next to his ear.

His head jerked up as if someone had grabbed him by the hair. She had spoken! She had said his name!

Still holding her down with one leg, he fumbled in the blackness for the lamp and the flint by the bed. He had to strike the cursed apparatus four or five times before he could get a spark and light the wick of the lamp. He adjusted the flame and turned toward the woman on his bed.

He reared back in shock, crashing against the table and upsetting the lamp, which fell and shattered, extinguishing the flame.

The few seconds of light had revealed an old, old woman, her face like the cracked bottom of a dry riverbed, her toothless mouth stretched in silent, convulsive mirth. Her breasts hung down, shriveled, empty pouches, and her bones protruded like a plucked bird's as she lay posing for him audaciously as if she were the ripest, most alluring young beauty in the world.

He was off the bed in the next moment, blundering against furniture, looking for another lamp. He found a vase, mistook it for a lamp, realized his mistake, and hurled it to the floor. He stepped on the broken pieces in the dark, cutting his foot. Cursing, he felt his way toward the door. His fingers closed around a wall lamp; he pulled it from its holder and groped on the floor near the bed for the flint. The first spark failed, but the second one took, and the lamp flared.

She was gone. He looked all around the room, but she had vanished — whether through the door, out the window, or over the balcony, he did not know.

A trace of musty dampness lingered in the air of the room. Trembling, he reached to the back of his neck, touched his flesh where it stung, and brought his hand forward.

She had been quite real. His fingers were dark with his own blood.

 

                                                        ..<{[[0]]}>..

 

Excerpt: Chapter 22, "The Inheritor"

Just as Li Lin-fu had withered and diminished since Yang Kuo-chung had seen him last, so An Lu-shan had expanded, taking up ever more room and life-force. Enormous, hairy, red-faced, black-bearded, he stepped into the room, his breath whistling and the pungent odor of his sweat perfuming the air. He did not notice Yang Kuo-chung sitting discreetly to the side near the scribes; his small, nervous eyes fixed immediately upon Li Lin-fu, arranged serenely on his couch with a silk coverlet over the lower half of his body, wearing the formal purple robes of his Ssu-k'ung office, his head and shoulders propped up on the pillows, looking as if he had risen from the grave to keep the appointment today. Which was not far from the truth, Yang Kuo-chung thought. And the chief minister had obviously chosen not to hide from An Lu-shan the fact that he was dying: he meant to use it to full effect.

 The power that Li Lin-fu wielded over the enormous creature before him was formidable. Until now, Yang Kuo-chung had only heard about it. Now he was seeing it; even once removed, it was frightening. He felt helpless, inadequate. How could he possibly take the chief minister's place as An Lu-shan's master? He did not have that power. He would never have that power. He looked at the dead man propped up on the couch, shrouded in his purple robes, and knew that there was no way out. The office would soon be his, whether he wanted it or not.

                                                           ●●●

 "Why did you come here?" he said, the anger rising in his voice. "Because you are a greater fool than anyone but myself could ever imagine. You came simply because a dying chief minister ordered you. And if you had not come, what could this dying chief minister have done? What could this chief minister, this moribund shell of a man sitting in judgment before you, have done? You are a fool, General. A great fat, stupid fool. Because I could have done nothing! Yet you came here simply because I asked it."

"Councillor... " An Lu-shan began.

"Shut up, An Lu-shan," Li Lin-fu hissed, leaning forward, all traces of his former gracious manner gone. "There is nothing that you can say that will please me. You are a murderer and a traitor."

"I am a soldier of the T'ang," An Lu-shan asserted valiantly. "I fight only for the T'ang, Chief Minister." An Lu-shan's face grew a furious shade of red as he spoke.

"General, if you speak again, I will have you cut down, on this spot, here and now. And not even you will battle your way out of this one, nor will you lie your way out of this one, nor will you entrap and burn your way out of this one. And I will do with you as I want, General. If you leave and return to the north after today, it will only be because I wish it. And if you lie in those woods beneath us today, writhing hacked and limbless, it will be because I wished that too. I have killed many men in my time. And I am not subject to fits of conscience, nor am I subject to even a moment of indecision. And I know what you are thinking," he said, holding up a warning finger. "Not even your Imperial Father can come to your aid. Because, in truth, General, Minghuang is merely the titulary. I am the ruler of China. I bought your skills because I thought they would be useful for the empire. In a bid for strength and stability in the north, I opted for your skills. But it appears that I have also bought your vainglory... your monstrous, swaggering, cock-headed, drunken-balled vainglory."

                                                             ●●●

 "You may leave now, An Lu-shan," Li Lin-fu said abruptly. "I am weary, and must rest. But you are not to go far. Before you return to your duties in the north, we must wait and see what develops militarily. Your responsibilities may soon be increasing. We have much, much work to do."

Still reluctant to speak, apparently believing that Li Lin-fu meant to make good his threat to cut him down if he did, An Lu-shan turned to leave. As he passed Yang Kuo-chung, he gave him an angry, insolent look that made Yang Kuo-chung doubt that he, Yang Kuo-chung, was any sort of equivalent to Li Lin-fu in the barbarian's eyes. The general left the room and clattered down the staircase.

Yang Kuo-chung turned to Li Lin-fu. He wanted more details of the defeat at the Talus River basin, and he wanted to discuss the amazing spectacle that had just transpired.

But he was shocked to find Li Lin-fu's face bright red with strain. His body quivered, and he gripped the arms of his couch. Eyes burning, he ges­ticulated fiercely to Yang Kuo-chung to leave the room immediately. Yang Kuo-chung hesitated, but Li Lin-fu's eyes sent a clear message: get out now, this instant.

Yang Kuo-chung was out the door and on his way down the staircase in the next moment. Behind and above him, he could hear Li Lin-fu's explosive, spasmodic coughing, a deep, rasping, despairing sound that caused pain in Yang Kuo-chung's own chest just to hear it. Now he understood the burning look and the fierce gestures: the chief minister had fought it off as long as he possibly could, but had, at that moment, reached the end of his reserves.

He moved down the stairs and across the reception hall. Over his head, he heard the chief minister giving in completely to the seizure. He could still hear it  when he was outside and well down the trail; it was not until he had entered the trees that he could no longer hear the sound over his own footsteps. He paused for a moment and listened: there it was. Faint, distant, a rhythmic, terrible hacking. The sound of a man's pain. The sound of his dying.

                                                          --<{[-0-]}>--

Excerpt: Chapter 23, "Slippers Of The Giantess"

Music from the festival drifted up through Li Lin-fu's open windows. It had gone on all night and continued into the morning. He was hearing things in it that he, a musician all of his life, had never heard before. The music, he understood, was life receding from him, as indifferent to his existence as if he were already dead. The message it carried was clear: in case you ever doubted it, know that the world will continue after you are gone. When your ears have turned to stone and dust, the music will still play, for other ears.

Li Lin-fu had thought that he understood death. He had seen it in every form and had pondered it as thoroughly as a man possibly could, or so he believed. And for the last several years he had accepted that he was going to die sooner than was convenient. But the distant music rising from the hot springs grounds, plaintive and festive, melancholy and rejoicing all at once, made him grasp the fact of his own imminent death with a new intimacy that forced his startled eyes open.

He had been drifting. Like a man asleep in a boat that approaches the rim of a waterfall, he had very nearly gone over. He kicked the sweat-soaked bedclothes from his body and tried to raise himself up on one arm. The attendants immediately rushed to his side. A damp cloth was pressed to his forehead; supporting hands helped prop him up, and the silk coverlet was quickly pulled back over him. Irritably, he fended off their ministrations and focused on the haggard face of the physician, who stood, clasping and un­clasping his fingers, looking down on the chief minister.

"This is wrong," Li Lin-fu said to the anxious little man. "I cannot die yet. There is too much work to do." He tried to rise, to climb out of the bed. To stay in the bed was to lie down in Death's arms. If he could just get away from the bed, he thought, he could get away from Death.

                                                        ●●●

"Tell me," she said, leaning forward, speaking in a low, confidential voice. "Who is looking for you?"

"No one is 'looking' for me, Old Woman," he protested, barely able to raise his head from the pillow. "Do you think I fear ghosts? I am not afraid to die. Death is like dreamless sleep, nothingness, oblivion. No one waits for me. The dead are dead. To believe anything else is superstitious nonsense. It is my work that I cannot leave. Forces are gathering against the empire. I am needed!"

"No one is looking for you? Superstitious nonsense?" she said. "Pardon me. I was under a mistaken impression." She drew back, then rose from the couch as if she were about to leave. "Obviously, you will not be needing me."

"Wait," he said weakly. "Do not be so hard on a dying man." She sat down again and looked at him. He found it very difficult to tell anything but the truth while her small black eyes were on him. He also had a strong feeling that the terrifying worlds he sank into now whenever he slept were familiar territory to her, that she could guide him through those places with the skill of a tracker in a remote mountain forest. She could protect him, he felt. She could, if she pleased, stand between him and the ghastly image of his father. "It is true I am experiencing... disturbing visions," he said. "But it is also true that I am needed. I cannot afford to leave this world. Not now. I am not asking for immortality, Old Woman. Just a few more years. A year! A few months!"

"And when those years or months have passed?" she asked, drawing fresh smoke from the apparatus in her hand. "Do you believe that you will go willingly then? Will the time ever come when you will gracefully relinquish your tenacious grip on this world and go to that other one that you are seeing in your dreams now? Will any time be the right time to die?" she asked pointedly, flat ribbons of smoke rising lazily around her head. "Chief Min­ister," she said then, "I am afraid that I can do nothing to postpone your death. You see, the thing that is devouring you, and which has been for many years now, is your own will. And you know how strong your will is." She shrugged. "Who am I to oppose such a powerful force?"

"But it is my will that I not die. Not yet," he argued.

"It is a bit late for that, Chief Minister." She sat in silence for a few moments. Then she rose and came close, so that he could smell her smoky, musty skin and clothing. "But I will tell you what I will do," she said, dropping her voice to a whisper. "I will accompany you part way."

                                                            ●●●

For the next several hours Li Lin-fu fought to stay awake. Once, when he had begun to drift and forced his eyes open again, he thought for a moment that the figure of Ming Wu on the day couch was not the old woman at all, but his father. He had sat up in the bed and was shouting something to the old man, telling him to stay out of this room, to at least have the decency to wait until he was well and truly dead, when the figure rose and came toward him. A hand touched his shoulder, and as it did, he saw that it was not his father after all, but Ming Wu.

So, she said, it is your father who is looking for you. Frankly, Chief Minister, I am surprised that there is but one angry ghost stalking you. I would have expected more.

                                                        ●●●

He started walking down one of the dream hallways. Where to begin? Any­where, really. There was no wrong or inappropriate 'place. He would move into the numbers, the formulae that were already shaping in his mind, each one a beautiful door swinging open, enticing him to enter and explore the mysteries beyond. He could walk through any one of them. The choice was his. And there was music, too. He tilted his head and listened: it came from far down the hallway ahead of him. He started walking again, his eyes closed pleasurably, letting the numbers in the music dance through his mind.

And where do you think you are going, his father's voice said from behind him. You and I have a bit of unfinished business, do we not? He whirled around, enraged at the intrusion on his solitude, but was unable to speak as his throat constricted.

A skeleton, standing in the full light of day that filled the hallway, with shreds of bloody meat hanging from the bones as if they had been gnawed by animals, spoke with his father's voice and pointed a finger at him. You are coming with me, boy, it said through his father's teeth. Music and numbers will have to wait.

He turned to run, but a bony hand caught him from behind by the top of the head, the fingers curving down over his forehead and catching the sockets of his eyes, pulling backward in a hideous grip, bending his neck until he was forced to look up from below at his father's skull-face. He could see the bloody, gristly vertebrae of the neck where they connected with the base of the cranium, and the lower mandible moving as his father spoke.

Running off to play before your responsibilities have been taken care of, eh?

                                                     ●●●

How much time had passed? It must have been two or three hundred years. He was waking, rising from the depths. Something was tickling him insistently on the soles of his feet. He was annoyed at first, wanting only to return to his dreamless sleep. Irritated, he kicked his foot. There are mice in my tomb, he thought. The tickling stopped for a moment; but just as he began to sink down, it started again. Leave me alone, he muttered; even a dead man can't get any peace or privacy.

You are not dead, came the message through the soles of his feet. His astonished eyes, heavy with sleep and death, opened minutely on the darkened room, the dim light of a lantern turned down low causing him to wince with pain. How had he understood the words? They had not been spoken, yet he had comprehended them with some other faculty.

Look at me, the words came. He forced his eyes open further and gazed down in the direction of his feet. Ming Wu, wrinkled and toothless once more, stood at the end of the bed. She gave him a conspiratorial grin as she tickled the soles of his feet again. Do you know my real name? Unable to hold his head up any longer, he sank back onto the pillows, the realization coming to him at last.

She was writing on the bottoms of his feet. And he, who had been shut out of the mysteries of the written word for his entire life, now comprehended perfectly everything she wrote.

"What is your real name?" he whispered, looking up at the soft shadows playing on the ceiling.

Li Shan Lao Ma.

"So you are the old woman of Li Shan. Am I to believe that you have walked these hills for two millennia?"

Two thousand, one hundred and sixty-three years.

"Not possible," he said weakly. "I don't believe in magic."

I said nothing about magic. You sought immortality yourself.

"Yes. Through science, through logic!"

You simply approached it incorrectly.

"Crazy nonsense," he muttered.

Yes. Crazy old woman.

"Yes," he whispered. "Crazy old woman."

But you are dying, and I am not.

He raised his head a little and looked down toward Ming Wu. She tilted her face so that it caught the soft light at a certain angle, and he saw that she was not old at all, but young and beautiful. Then she brought herself forward, and the smooth skin seemed to dissolve into wrinkles and collapse inward over toothless jaws; then she moved backward and was young again.

Crazy old woman, she wrote on his feet. And he drifted back toward sleep, thinking that it was a shame that this wondrous comprehension of written words, which had evaded him so infuriatingly during all the years he had lived so that he had had to endure such humiliation and frustration, came to him so late. It was indeed a perverse universe, he decided. Always playing nasty little tricks, always taunting one, always just slipping out of one's grasp.

For the rest of the night, Li Lin-fu rose and sank, always interested to see what appearance Ming Wu, sitting by the bed now, chose to present. Sometimes she was young, sometimes she was old. At one point, he opened his eyes and saw that she was not a woman at all, but a man with a square jaw and a fierce brow; and he was not even slightly surprised when, toward dawn, he looked over at the couch and saw an animal with sleek black fur curled up on the cushions, watching him.

An altogether perverse universe, he thought, and closed his eyes.

                                                            ●●●

 Ming Wu rose and stretched in the early morning light. She glanced briefly at the corpse in the bed, then went to the balcony to see what sort of day it was going to be. She sniffed the air. It would be hot, like the day before. Maybe even hotter.

In another part of the hot springs, Yang Kuo-chung awoke in his apart­ments with the Lady of Kuo's black hair lying across his face and pillow and a sense that his life was about to change forever. He disengaged himself without waking her and sat on the edge of the bed looking down at his bare feet. They looked particularly naked and vulnerable this morning.

Feet, he said, I am sorry for you. You have little choice but to go where I go.

                                                        --\\<>00<>//--

Excerpt: Chapter 25, "Emperor Minghuang's Journey Into Shu"

The cries and screams carrying to Kao Li-shih's ears from other parts of the hot springs grounds had the same distant quality as the music and the laughter of lovers had on the night of the Festival of Kao Mei. He heard with his ears, but not his mind. Pain and anguish, or joy and celebration — there was little difference for him at this moment. They were just sounds. This must be the way we protect ourselves, he thought, allowing us to do what must be done. Calmly, he confined his attention to the task before him: commanding the household servants who loaded the caravan of ox carts in preparation for the escape of the imperial family.

Kao Li-shih could only think of insects rushing about after the hive has been overturned by a careless foot. At least a hundred servants, it seemed, scurried this way and that, carrying chests, crates, and bundles tied with leather and twine and stacking them haphazardly on the summer lawns for hasty sorting. The recent rains had made the ground soggy, and as bundles were lifted, the grass peeled back like a pelt being skinned from a carcass.

He shouted at the running figures: directions; encouragement; exhorta­tions to hurry, to be careful. There could be no stopping, no time to allow them to think about what was happening —or to allow himself to think about it, either.

He knew that he had never really seen the hot springs until this moment. The intimacy and familiarity that had always cloaked it for him was stripped away; the curves of the rooftops against the sky, and the gardens, lawns, ornamental gates, pools, and bridges, all part of his own interior landscape for so many years, were now alien and transformed. The grounds had become, in a few short hours, ancient, distant, and remote. Yang Kuo-chung was right: it was as if the hot springs had preferred all along to be rid of people. It allowed itself to be possessed for a brief time, tolerating human presence and folly; then, the tenants' lease simply expired. The poets spoke of this: eventually, everything returns to its primal state, the way it was before we presumed ourselves upon it. And what time we waste, grieving over the loss of a place that was never ours. Those had been Yang Kuo-chung's own words. Now Kao Li-shih truly understood them.

                                                              ●●●

 Kao Li-shih closed the door of his apartments behind him after gathering up a hasty bundle of possessions. He was glad to be out of those rooms; they had begun to take on the same remote quality that the hot springs grounds had. His desk, the chair he had sat in, the bed, the pieces of clothing scattered about, already had a disused, decaying look, as though they were the belong­ings of a stranger who had been dead for a hundred years.

He went down the stairs two at a time and took the path through the garden. The caravan was loaded and ready to leave. The imperial guardsmen were holding off the anguished women and others who would be left to see to their own fates. The sisters, the Emperor, the selected children and nurse­maids, Lu Pei, and Yang Kuo-chung awaited him, ready to travel for the rest of the day and most of the night to put themselves well out of range of the advancing enemy.

Passing the Nine Dragon Lake, he was startled to see someone standing at the apex of the curved footbridge: an old woman, leaning on the railing, dropping bits of food down to the carp in the water. He stopped. She must be a peasant woman who had wandered onto the grounds from the country­side. Perhaps she thought that the place was already abandoned and had come to help herself to some imperial wealth. In any event, she was in clear danger.

"Grandmother!" Kao Li-shih shouted. She raised her head and looked at him. "You must leave at once! Soldiers are on their way here! They will kill you and anyone else they find!"

"Soldiers?" she called back, her elbows still resting comfortably on the railing.

"Yes! Rebels! Killers! You must leave immediately!"

"You are right!" she answered, and tossed another handful of scraps down to the fish. "I must leave!" Then she smiled at him. Even from where he stood, a good distance away, he could see that she had no teeth.

"Did you hear me?" he called. "There is terrible danger!"

"Terrible danger!" she said. "I know!" She stood where she was. Still leaning, she spat into the water, then looked back up at him with her broad empty grin.

Crazy old woman, Kao Li-shih thought, suddenly losing patience. Stay here and let An Lu-shan's soldiers feed you to the fish. It is not my concern. He turned away from her and walked quickly down the stone path and toward the waiting caravan.

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 They had traveled south of Ch'ang-an and then west, parallel to the course of the Wei River, leaving behind the familiar landscape of fertile plains, villages, and farms that made up the brocade and tapestry of Ch'ang-an's suburbs. Moving out beyond the habitations of men, they also left behind the haze and dust that hung permanently above the city and villages. The anxiety that had been upon them began to fall away as the summer air grew sweet, rare, and hot.

The smokeless sky richened to a deep cobalt blue, and the land began to draw up in great folds: wild, splendid, and indifferent waves of grass and conifer. Here, there was no cultivation, no distinct definitions of paths and irrigation ditches and roads and terraced fields of grains. The farther they traveled, the wilder the world became, the more removed from human con­cerns, expanding into the rise and fall of the blue-green sea of pointed pines, cresting steeper and steeper, until even the birds that sang in those trees had no knowledge at all of the affairs of men.

It was the second day out from the hot springs. They estimated that they would reach the postal station at Ma-wei sometime late that evening. The imperial cart carrying the silent Emperor and his Precious Consort, with Kao Li-shih on horseback alongside, rolled at the head of the lumbering ten-wagon convoy. Behind them, the imperial children, Lu Pei and the nursemaids, and the ladies of Chin and Han occupied the other carts, along with food and some possessions. Yang Kuo-chung and the Lady of Kuo were on horseback, riding in advance with the guides from time to time, scouting the land. The mounted palace guardsmen fanned out on either side of the entourage, carrying aloft brilliant blue phoenix standards, vestiges of state pomp and circumstance which looked, Kao Li-shih could not help thinking, lost and irrelevant against the primal landscape.

                                                        <<(^)/00\(^)>>

                                                       \\<I>-O-<l>//

Yang Kuo-chung was aware of the men stirring behind him, and knew that a ripple of unease was traveling down their ranks as if they shared his mind, as if his uncertainty passed like a contagion from one horseman to another. He sought to reassure himself: what they were witnessing was all part of a typical ritual of sacrifice — an offering to the spirits that would guide the soul. Foreign, strange, disturbing perhaps — but nothing more than a preliminary to the fu­nereal cremation of the body.

But the body was nowhere near the fire, and, though it did not appear that anyone was about to move it, the men in the corner of the field continued to stoke the burning pile of brush. Yang Kuo-chung's eyes followed the plume of rising smoke. Vultures circled in its midst, as if it were sweet incense to them, before beginning their downward spiral; while he watched, his suspicion grew: this was not a funeral pyre being prepared. The purpose of this fire, fed on bones, fat, and entrails, was to make thick, greasy smoke that would entice the scavengers down out of the sky to the mountainside. Once there, they were further tempted by the carcasses strewn about in the flowers: a doubly hospitable invitation.

No, Fox, he told himself; what you are thinking is simply not possible. It is your imagination — the strain and terror of the last two days.

But his earlier vague memory was taking more tangible shape now, and he could not banish it. He was remembering something he had been told once when he and a group of Tibetan traders had been drinking and exchanging tales in a remote way station in Szechuan. He had dismissed most of what they had told him as being simply their efforts to shock and impress a foreigner.

Laughing and pantomiming, they had told him stories of obscure rituals from the lofty Tangkula Mountains in their homeland. Rituals of a people dwelling so high up and close to heaven. Apocryphal stories, he had been sure. And with Tibetans, you simply never knew the extent or shape of a joke. A Tibetan might tell you the grimmest, most bizarre and shocking story of human aberrance and wear a merry grin of amusement on his face all  the while.

The warriors standing over the corpse raised their swords up toward the sky, and a memory picture leapt up in his mind: the Tibetans in the waystation acting something out for his benefit. One of them, laughing, urged on by his fellows, had raised a sword up over his head, and showed the Chinaman how it was done...

The flash of the warriors' swords against the blue sky burned away the last mists of forgetfulness in Yang Kuo-chung's mind. He remembered now the exact name of what those laughing Tibetans had been demonstrating for him — a name that, when he heard them pronounce it, had struck him as fiercely poetic and compelling:

Sky Burial.

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He watched.

One of the warriors came forward from behind the four who held their weapons aloft, and knelt at the bier alongside the head of the dead soldier. He pulled the shroud from the body, peeling it down slowly from head to toe.

The birds squabbled and fed on the carcasses, weighted the limbs of the trees bordering the meadow, and cast their gliding shadows on the grass and flowers. Some of those on the ground daringly hopped to within a few paces of the Tibetans and the body; others flapped patiently back into the trees to wait and survey the prospects.                                                    

The dead man was completely naked except for what appeared to be a narrow silver anklet on the right leg. They are certainly not Chinese, Yang Kuo-chung thought; to these people, death was absolute nakedness, surrender. And in that instant everything was confirmed in his mind. Death for the Tibetan was not earthly entombment, but the total liberation of body and soul... the attainment of selfless Buddha-hood. He fervently wished that the young guardsmen could understand that what was before them was not sav­agery, but the profoundest respect for the dead.

The one who was acting as the Lamaist priest stood then and stepped back behind the four warriors. He moved around them in a circle, then stopped and touched one of the men on the shoulder and spoke some words into his ear; that one remained motionless as the other three lowered their weapons and broke the circle to join the rest waiting behind. The warrior who had been selected now dropped to his knees near the corpse. He placed his lance carefully on the ground beside him and removed a war ax and a knife from his belt. The ax was not Chinese, either, Yang Kuo-chung noted, his appre­hension growing.

The priest spoke to the man once again, and the warrior bowed his head in a way that indicated that he understood. This time, the priest's voice was clear and carried plainly to Yang Kuo-chung's ears; though he could not understand the rest of what he said, one Tibetan word that he did know was plainly discernible, and it obliterated Yang Kuo-chung's last shreds of hope: dumden — the word for "butcher."

While the priest chanted and spun his prayer wheel, the warrior raised the ax...

Not a single piece of flesh must remain to hinder the soul's upward flight. The vultures, earthly carrion-eaters, become instruments of divine transformation, bearing away every last bit, facilitating the deceased's complete passage into Paradise. Only the bones remain, to be gathered, consigned to the fire, turned into smoke, and carried away by the wind. Thus body and soul disappear together into the vast sky.

The dumden brought the ax down with great force into the dead man's shoulder, causing an audible crunch of bone and gristle. Then he knelt, put his ax aside, grasped the loosened arm with one hand, and worked at the joint and tendons with a knife in his other hand. Pulling and twisting, he separated the arm from the body. He stood, raised his ax again, and brought it down on the joint at the elbow, separating the forearm with one clean stroke.

The dumden worked quickly and efficiently at the corpse's other limbs, making his way toward the torso and the vile task of funereal evisceration.

That too he did neatly and expertly, slitting the abdomen with his knife and removing the organs in handfuls.

Yang Kuo-chung, unable to take his eyes from the dream in front of him, wished fervently that he had come by himself. Behind him, the horses, disturbed by the odor of blood and death, snorted and shied; his own animal pranced nervously. He worked the reins, fighting to keep control. The young guardsmen were close to panic. He signaled them to be still, feeling their fear thick in the air. Fear, and a sense of betrayal. But they stayed where they were. Their eyes, he knew, were fastened to the scene just as his own were.

With solemn purpose, the other Tibetans gathered the pieces, walked into the crowd of vultures, and spread the offering before the birds as daintily as palace women feeding ducks on a pond. They watched carefully, making certain that nothing was left behind, bending down occasionally to pick up a stray morsel and toss it into the ravenous horde. The birds became very bold, practically seizing the bits right out of their hands; others left their perches in the surrounding trees and flapped in startlingly low over the heads of the Chinese, then soared gracefully, scouting the ground for an opening. Finding one, they dropped to the ground, and stretched their great black wings before folding them neatly and strutting into the jostling feast of human flesh.

Latest comments

27.01 | 21:01

Never too late to join this party!! DECEPTION is actually my fave. After you've read it, you'll be primed for SHORE OF PEARLS.

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27.01 | 20:51

Many thanks--had been searching for awhile, without success (obviously). A bit late to the party but greatly enjoyed Court of the Lion & just ordered Deception!

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27.01 | 15:19

Hi, Jeremy--So far, e-book only. There are old French and German translations in hard copy, but I wouldn't recommend them! Sorry!!

E.C.

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27.01 | 15:04

Was Shore of Pearls only released as an e-book? Looking for a hardcopy, but striking out.

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