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An Inch of Ashes (Chung Kuo Series #6)
     

An Inch of Ashes (Chung Kuo Series #6)

by David Wingrove
 

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A Restless Peace

It is 2206. As Chung Kuo's population continues to swell, the Seven - the ruling T'angs - are forced make further concessions; laws must be relaxed and the House at Weinmar reopened. Change is coming, whether the Seven like it or not.

A Secret War

The tides of unrest unleashed by earlier wars grow faster even than

Overview

A Restless Peace

It is 2206. As Chung Kuo's population continues to swell, the Seven - the ruling T'angs - are forced make further concessions; laws must be relaxed and the House at Weinmar reopened. Change is coming, whether the Seven like it or not.

A Secret War

The tides of unrest unleashed by earlier wars grow faster even than the population. DeVore secretly allies with newly appointed general, Hans Ebert. It seems that DeVore's plans are coming to fruition. But Ebert has his own schemes and plots - he intends to depose the Seven and control the whole of Chung Kuo.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/07/2013
Picking up where The Art of War left off, the lugubrious sixth installment of Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series—rewritten and recast from its original eight-book run to an ambitious 20—further explores the political intrigue, soap-opera romance, and cultural shifts of a Chinese-controlled future in which continent-spanning cities are the order of the day. This volume focuses on the drama surrounding Li Yuan, heir to City Europe, and his new wife, Fei Yen, whose beauty hides a manipulative nature. The other major arc follows artist and scientist Ben Shepherd as he works to develop a new mode of virtual reality. There’s a decidedly serial feel to this epic, slow-moving tale, with most narrative payoffs deferred for later episodes. Wingrove’s knack for worldbuilding and description contrasts with an overall shallowness of storytelling and a questionable attitude toward female characters. Agent: Diana Tyler, MBA Literary Agents. (Dec.)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780857898197
Publisher:
Atlantic Books
Publication date:
12/01/2013
Series:
Chung Kuo Series , #6
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
326
Sales rank:
703,814
File size:
776 KB

Read an Excerpt

An Inch of Ashes

Chung Kuo Book 6


By David Wingrove

Atlantic Books Ltd

Copyright © 2013 David Wingrove
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85789-819-7



CHAPTER 1

THE POOL IN THE RUINS


Servants came running to take their horses, leading them back to the stables. Fei Yen seemed flushed, excited by the ride, her eyes wide with enjoyment. Li Yuan laughed, looking at her, and touched her arm.

'It suits you, my love. You should ride more often.'

Tsu Ma came up and stood between them, an arm about each of their shoulders. 'That was good, my friends. And this ...' he gestured with his head, his strong neck turning to encompass the huge estate – the palace, the lake, the orchards, the view of the distant mountains, '... it's beautiful. Why, the ancient emperors would envy you.'

Tsu Ma's eyes sparkled and his pure white teeth – strong, square, well-formed teeth – flashed a smile.

'You are welcome here any time, Tsu Ma,' Li Yuan answered him. 'You must treat our stables as your own.'

'Thank you, Li Yuan.' Tsu Ma gave a slight bow, then turned, looking down at Fei Yen. 'You ride well, Lady Fei. Where did you learn?'

She looked away, a slight colour in her cheeks. 'I've ridden since I was a child. My father had two horses.' She turned back, the way she held her head displaying an intense pride. In a world where animals were rare, to own two horses was a matter of some prestige. Only the Seven took such things for granted.

Tsu Ma studied her a moment, then nodded. 'Good. But let us go in. Your father will be expecting us.'

Li Shai Tung was sitting in the Summer House, a small comset on his lap. Tiny three-dimensional holograms formed and faded in the air above the set, each figure giving its brief report before it vanished. Tsu Ma sat close by the old man, keeping silent, while Li Yuan went to get drinks. Fei Yen stood by the window, looking down the steep slope towards the terrace and the ornamental lake. From time to time she would glance back into the room, her eyes coming to rest on the casually seated figure of Tsu Ma.

He was a broad-shouldered, handsome man. Riding, she had noticed how straight he held himself in the saddle, how unruffled he had been when leading his horse across a fast-flowing stream, how easily he brought his mount to jump a wall; as though he were part of the animal he rode. And yet he was immaculate, his hair groomed and beaded with rubies; his tunic an achingly sweet shade of pink that was almost white, edged with black; his trousers of a blue that reminded her of the summer skies of her youth. She had seen how tightly his thighs had gripped the flanks of the roan horse; how commanding he had seemed.

Li Shai Tung finished his business and set the comset down, smiling at Tsu Ma, then at his daughter-in-law, greeting them wordlessly. Li Yuan turned from the cabinet, carrying a tray of drinks. He was host here in this room.

Fei Yen took her drink and seated herself beside her husband, facing the other men. She was conscious of how Tsu Ma looked at her. So open. And yet not impolitely.

'You're looking well,' Li Shai Tung said, looking across at Fei Yen. 'You should ride more often.'

Li Yuan leaned forward. 'She was magnificent, Father. A born horsewoman! You should have seen how she leaped the meadow gate!' His eyes flashed wide as he said it, and when he looked at his wife it was with unfeigned admiration. Tsu Ma saw this and pushed his head back slightly, as if his collar were too tight. He reached into the inner pocket of his tunic and took out a slender silver case.

'May I smoke?' He held out the case and Li Yuan nodded, looking to his father for approval. The old man said nothing, merely smiled.

Tsu Ma removed one of the pencil-thin cheroots and lit it, then inhaled slowly, seeming to relax in his chair as he did so. The silver case lay on the arm of the chair.

He watched the smoke curl up; a thin, fragile thread of heated ash. 'I must thank you, Li Yuan. Today has been perfect.' His eyes settled on the young man's face, finding nothing but open friendship there; perhaps even a degree of admiration. He was used to it; accepted it as his due. But the look on Fei Yen's face, that was different. That, too, he recognized, but kept the knowledge to himself. He raised his glass, toasting his host and hostess silently, his smile serene, sincere.

Li Shai Tung watched all, nodding to himself. He seemed well pleased with things. For the first time in months he was smiling. Tsu Ma saw this and asked him why.

'I'll tell you. When we are alone.'

The T'ang had not looked at Fei Yen, and his comment seemed quite innocuous, but she knew how traditional her father-in-law was. He was not like her own father; he would not discuss business in front of women. She set her drink down untouched and stood up, patting Li Yuan's hand, then turned to bow low to the two T'ang.

'Excuse me, Chieh Hsia, but I must go and change. The ride has made me tired.'

It was untrue. She had never felt more alive. Her eyes shone with a barely contained excitement. But she lowered her eyes and went quietly from the room, turning only at the door to look back, finding, as she'd hoped, that Tsu Ma's eyes were on her.

'Well?' said Tsu Ma when she had gone. His manner seemed no different, and yet the word seemed somehow colder, more masculine than before.

'Good news. Both Wu Shih and Wei Feng have agreed to our little scheme.'

Tsu Ma looked down. The development was unexpected. 'Is that wise?'

'I thought so,' Li Shai Tung continued, noting his hesitation. 'In the present circumstances I felt it ... safer ... to have the balance of the Council know of my plans. It would not do to alienate my oldest friends.'

Tsu Ma drew on the cheroot again, then looked up, meeting his eyes. 'That's not exactly what I meant. This whole business of covert action. Surely it goes against the spirit of the Council? If we can't be open with each other ...'

'And can we?' Li Yuan's words were bitter, angry, but at a look from his father he lowered his head, holding his tongue.

'I understand your feelings, Li Yuan,' Tsu Ma answered him, smiling at the old T'ang to show he was not offended by his son's interruption. 'But Wang Sau-leyan must surely not be allowed to triumph. This way, it seems we play into his hands.'

Li Shai Tung was watching him closely. 'Then you will not give your consent?'

Tsu Ma's smile broadened. 'That is not what I said. I was merely pointing out the underlying logic of this course. Whatever you decide I will consent to, my father's oldest friend. And not only because of my respect for my father. I know you would not follow this course if there was any other way.'

Li Shai Tung smiled then looked down into his lap. 'If it helps reassure you, Tsu Ma, I will say to you what I have already said both to Wu Shih and Wei Feng. I do not wish to circumvent the Council in this matter. This is merely a question of research. A fact-finding exercise before I present my case to Council. The brief of the Project will be to study only the feasibility of wiring up Chung Kuo's population. It will fall far short of actual experimentation. After all, it would not do for me, a T'ang, to breach the Edict, would it?'

Tsu Ma laughed. 'Indeed. But tell me ... who did you have in mind to look after the Project? It's a sensitive scheme. The security on it must be watertight.'

'I agree. Which is why I'm placing Marshal Tolonen in charge.'

'Tolonen?' Tsu Ma considered it a moment, then smiled. 'Why, yes, I can see that that would work very well.'

He met the old T'ang's eyes, a look of understanding passing between them that escaped the young Prince's notice. For Tolonen would be opposed to the scheme. He, if anyone, would be guaranteed to keep it in check.

'But see, I've talked enough already, and you still know so little about the scheme itself. Let Li Yuan speak for me now. Let him be my voice.'

Tsu Ma looked across at the young man, interested. This was why he had come: to hear Li Yuan's proposal in detail. 'Speak,' he said, his left hand outstretched, palm open. A broad hand with long fingers clustered with heavy rings. Smoke curled up from beneath the hand.

Li Yuan hesitated, then, composing himself, began, itemizing the discoveries they had made at various SimFic establishments: discoveries that had broken the Edict. Things meant to harm the Seven, now harnessed for their use.

Tsu Ma listened, drawing on the cheroot from time to time, his smile growing broader by the moment. Until, finally, he laughed and clapped his hand against his thigh.

'Excellent! My word, it is excellent.' He rose and went to the window, looking down the slope. 'You have my agreement, Li Shai Tung. I like this plan. I like it very much.'

Tsu Ma turned, looking back at the young man. Li Yuan was smiling broadly, pleased with himself, proud of his scheme, and delighted that he had Tsu Ma's approval. Tsu Ma smiled back at him and nodded, then turned to the window again.

At the bottom of the slope, on the terrace above the ornamental lake, a woman was walking, looking back towards the house. She wore riding clothes and her long dark hair hung loose where she had just unfastened it. She was small, delicate, like a goddess made of the finest porcelain. Tsu Ma smiled and looked away; turned to face the two men in the room with him.

'Yes,' he said, the smile remaining on his lips. 'It's perfect, Yuan. Quite perfect.'


'Who is he?'

DeVore turned to Lehmann and smiled. 'His name is Hung Mien-lo and he was Chancellor to Wang Ta-hung before his recent death.'

Lehmann studied the screen a moment longer, then turned his back on it, staring at DeVore. 'So what is he doing there?'

The film had been shot secretly by DeVore's man amongst the Ping Tiao. It showed a meeting Jan Mach had had that morning. A meeting he had been very anxious to keep a secret from the other Ping Tiao leaders.

'I don't know. But I'm sure of one thing. He wouldn't be there unless Wang Sau-leyan wanted him there. So the real question is – what does Wang Sau-leyan want of thePing Tiao?'

'So Hung is the new T'ang's man now?'

'It seems so. My man in Alexandria, Fischer, thinks Sau-leyan wasn't responsible for his brother's death, but there's good reason to believe that Hung Mien-lo has been his man for some time now.'

'And Mach? Why didn't he consult the others?'

'That's Mach's way. He didn't like it when I went to Gesell direct. If he'd had his way he would have checked me out beforehand, but I circumvented him. He doesn't like that. It rankles with him. He likes to be in control of things.'

'But you think he'll deal with Hung Mien-lo?'

DeVore nodded. 'It makes sense. If I were him I'd do the same. He'll get what he can out of the T'ang. And he'll use that to keep us at a distance. To make the Ping Tiao less dependent on us. And, conversely, he'll use the alliance with us to keep the T'ang at a distance. It'll mean the Ping Tiao won't have to accept what either of us tell them to do. It'll give them the option to say no now and again. Mach will try to keep the deal with us secret from the T'ang, and vice versa. He'll try to make it seem as if the change – the strengthening of their position – comes from within the Ping Tiao.'

Lehmann was silent a while, thoughtful. 'Then why not kill Hung Mien-lo and prevent Mach from making this deal? There has to be a reason.'

DeVore smiled, pleased with his young lieutenant. He always enjoyed talking out his thoughts with him.

'There is. You see, Mach's scheme works only if we're unaware of the T'ang's role in things. If we're fooled by his tales of a great Ping Tiao renaissance. Oh, their fortunes will be on the up after Helmstadt, there's no doubt, but a deal with the T'ang could give them something they lack. Something they didn't get from Helmstadt. Funds.'

'And you want that? You want them to be independently funded?'

'No. Not if that was all there was to it. But I don't intend to let them bargain with me. At the first sign of it I'll threaten to pull out altogether. That would leave them in a worse position than they began, because all the T'ang can offer them is money. They'd lose our contacts, our specialist knowledge, our expertise in battle. And the rest of the Bremen map.'

'I see. And then there's the question of what Wang Sau-leyan wants from this.'

'Exactly. He wouldn't risk contacting the Ping Tiao unless he had some scheme in mind. T'ang or not, if the other members of the Council of Seven heard of his involvement he would be dead.'

Lehmann glanced at the screen. 'It's a thought ...'

'Yes. There's always that option. If things get really bad and we need something to divert the Seven.'

'Then what do you intend to do?'

DeVore leaned forward and cleared the screen. At once the lights came up again.

'At present nothing. Mach is meeting Hung Mien-Lo again. In Alexandria in two weeks' time. My man will be there to record it for me. It might be interesting, don't you think? And – who knows? – Mach might even give the T'ang his father's ear back.'


The night was clear and dark, the moon a sharp crescent to the north-east, high above the distant outline of the mountains. It was a warm night. Laughter drifted across the water as the long, high-sided boat made its way out across the lake, the lanterns swinging gently on either side.

Tsu Ma had insisted on taking the oars. He pulled the light craft through the water effortlessly, his handsome mouth formed into a smile, his back held straight, the muscles of his upper arms rippling beneath his silks like the flanks of a running horse. Li Yuan sat behind Tsu Ma in the stern, looking past him at Fei Yen and her cousin, Yin Wu Tsai.

The two girls had their heads together, giggling behind their fans. It had been Fei Yen's idea to have a midnight picnic and Tsu Ma had been delighted when the two girls had come to them with blankets and a basket, interrupting their talk. The two men had smiled and laughed and let themselves be led out on to the lake.

Li Yuan grinned broadly, enjoying himself. In the varicoloured light from the lanterns Fei Yen looked wonderful, like a fairy princess or some mythical creature conjured from the rich legends of his people's past. The flickering patterns of the light made her face seem insubstantial; like something you might glimpse in a dream but which, when you came closer or held a clear light up to see it better, would fade or change back to its true form. He smiled at the fancifulness of the thought, then caught his breath, seeing how her eyes flashed as she laughed at something her cousin had whispered in her ear. And then she looked across at him, her dark eyes smiling, and his blood seemed to catch fire in his veins.

He shuddered, filled by the sight of her. She was his. His.

Fei Yen turned, looking out behind her, then turned back, leaning towards Tsu Ma. 'To the island, Tsu Ma. To the island ...'

Tsu Ma bowed his head. 'Whatever you say, my lady.'

The boat began to turn. Beyond the temple on the small hill the lake curved like a swallow's wing. There, near the wing's tip, was a tiny island, reached by a wooden bridge of three spans. Servants had prepared it earlier. As they rounded the point, they could see it clearly, the bridge and the tiny, two-tiered pagoda lit by coloured lanterns.

Li Yuan stared across the water, delighted, then looked back at Fei Yen.

'It's beautiful, you clever thing. When did you plan all this?'

Fei Yen laughed and looked down, clearly pleased by his praise. 'This afternoon. After we'd been riding. I ... I did it for our guest, husband.'

Tsu Ma slowed his stroke momentarily and bowed his head to Fei Yen. 'I am touched, my lady. You do me great honour.'

Li Yuan watched the exchange, his breast filled with pride for his wife. She was so clever to have thought of it. It was just the right touch. The perfect end to a perfect day. The kind of thing a man would remember for the rest of his days. Yes, he could imagine it now, forty years from now, he and Tsu Ma, standing on the terrace by the lake, looking back ...

She had even been clever enough to provide an escort for the T'ang. A clever, pretty woman who was certain to delight Tsu Ma. Indeed, had Fei Yen not been in the boat, he would have allowed himself to concede that Wu Tsai was herself quite beautiful.

For a moment he studied the two women, comparing them. Wu Tsai was taller than Fei Yen, her face, like her body, longer and somehow grosser, her nose broader, her lips fuller, her cheekbones less refined, her neck stronger, her breasts more prominent beneath the silk of her jacket. Yet it was only by contrast with Fei Yen that these things were noticeable: as if in Fei Yen lay the very archetype of Han beauty, and all else, however fine in itself, was but a flawed copy of that perfection.

The island drew near. Li Yuan leaned forward, instructing Tsu Ma where to land. Then the boat was moored and Tsu Ma was handing the girls up on to the wooden jetty, the soft rustle of their silks as they disembarked seeming, for that brief moment, to merge with the silken darkness of the night and the sweetness of their perfume.

They settled on the terrace, Fei Yen busying herself laying out the table while Wu Tsai sat and made pleasant conversation with Tsu Ma. Li Yuan stood at the rail, looking out across the darkness of the lake, his sense of ease, of inner stillness, lulling him so that for a time he seemed aware only of the dull murmur of the voices behind him and the soft lapping of the water against the wooden posts of the jetty. Then there was the light touch of a hand on his shoulder and he turned to find Fei Yen there, smiling up at him.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from An Inch of Ashes by David Wingrove. Copyright © 2013 David Wingrove. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Wingrove is the Hugo Award-winning co-author (with Brian Aldiss) of The Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. He is also the co-author of the first three MYST books - novelizations of one of the world's bestselling computer games. He lives in north London with his wife and four daughters.
David Wingrove is the Hugo Award-winning co-author (with Brian Aldiss) of The Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. He is also the co-author of the first three MYST books - novelisations of one of the world's bestselling computer games. He lives in north London with his wife and four daughters.

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