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At the Circus of Souls, Moichi, oath-brother to the Dai-San, discovers a prize more deadly than he can imagine and is pitched headlong into a mission of rescue and revenge with the lovely, enigmatic Bujun warrior Chiisai at his side. And in the farthest reaches of the world, they discover a mad sorceress--and the Firemask with the power to unlock the world's every nightmare!
City of Wonders
MOICHI ANNAI-NIN AWOKE to the sound of the sea.
For what seemed quite a long time he lay with his eyes open, listening with all his senses to the sluggish crash of the waves against the ancient wood. He heard the clear sharp cries of the hungry gulls and thought for an instant that he was aboard ship. Then he heard the hoarse shouts of the stevedores and the singsong litany of the kubaru and knew he was in the port of Sha'angh'sei. This both saddened and uplifted him. He loved this city, perhaps more than any other on earth, felt a peculiar and powerful affinity toward it though it was far from his home. Yet he longed most dearly for a ship under the soles of his boots.
In one fluid motion he was on his feet and, crossing the wooden floor of the large room, threw open the accordion jalousie window-doors which ranged along the wall opening out onto the sea. The sun, barely above the horizon, turned the water to chopped gold.
He lifted one huge hand, grasping the upper lintel of the doorway leading out to the expansive veranda which ran the entire length of the building. He breathed deeply of the damp salt air, his nostrils dilated with the fecund scents, while he rubbed distractedly at his heavily muscled chest. You eternal, he thought. The sea.
The morning light, spilling obliquely across the horizon, played over his enormous frame. His skin was the color of rich cinnamon and when his wide, thick-lipped mouth split in a grin, which was often, his white teeth flashed. His eyes, large and set far apart on his face, were the color of smoky topaz, though in certain low lights it was often said—quite naturally in hesitant whispers reserved for the darkest of secrets—that deep within them one could see an odd crimson spark as of a reflection from some flickering flame. His long hooked nose was further highlighted by a tiny perfect diamond set into the dusky flesh of his right nostril. His thick hair and full beard were glossily black and curling. Overall, it was a face filled with converging influences, an intriguing admixture formed from facing adversity, man-made and natural. It was a foreign face according to those in Sha'angh'sei who knew, because, above all else, it held a riveting power alien to the people of this region of the continent of man.
Moichi Annai-Nin stretched and his muscles rippled. He sighed deeply, feeling the inexorable pull of the sea just as if he were a compass drawn unerringly northward. He was the finest navigator in the known world; thus his present predicament was ironic indeed. Still, he did not find it in the least amusing.
He turned back into the room, moving in long lithe strides to a carved wooden table upon which sat a huge pitcher and a bowl of sea-green stone. It was the hour of the cormorant, the time had he been on a ship when he would return to the high poop deck to see all the sea before him, feeling the tides and currents and breezes, to take the first sighting of the day. He bent, pouring cold water over his head and into the bowl, scooping it up in double handfuls, splashing his face and shoulders.
He was drying himself with a thick brown towel when he heard the movement behind him and swung around. Llowan had come up the stairs from the harttin's huge working area on the ground floor. This tall, spare man with the mane of silver hair like a giant cat was bundsman of Sha'angh'sei's waterfront, in charge of all loading and unloading of cargo transported over the sea, overseer of the city's myriad harttin.
Llowan smiled. "Hola, Moichi," he said, deliberately using the traditional sailors' greeting. "Glad you are awake. A messenger awaits you downstairs. He comes from the Regent Aerent."
Moichi folded the towel and began to dress. "What news of a ship, Llowan?"
"Are you not even the least bit curious why your friend should send for you at this early hour?"
Moichi paused, said, "Look here, Llowan, I am a navigator and though I love your city dearly, I have had the solidity of land under my feet for too long. Even though this be Sha'angh'sei, still I long for a good ship's deck to stand upon." He drew on copper-colored leggings over which he strapped leather sheaths covering only the outside of his legs. He shrugged himself into a brilliant white silk shirt with wide sleeves and no collar. About his waist he wrapped a forest-green cotton sash into which he inserted the twin copper-handled dirks which were his trademark. Lastly, he fastened a thin leather thong about his waist from which a silver-handled sword hung in a worn tattooed leather scabbard. The diamond in his nostril flashed in the gathering light.
"Patience, my friend," Llowan said. "Since the defeat of the dark forces of The Dolman in the Kai-feng more than six seasons ago, the sea lanes to Sha'angh'sei have been clogged with merchant ships." He shrugged, running a hand through his long hair. "Unfortunately, one of the by-products of peace is a surfeit of people. All the navigators, called to the last battle, have returned home now. It is only just that they get first preference for the ships of native registry. You can understand that." He turned sideways, into the oblique light, and Moichi saw sharply delineated the cruel semicircular scar at the left corner of the bundsman's mouth, arcing up to the base of the nose, which had no nostril on that side. "Why not be satisfied by the work I give you here, my friend? What awaits you out there"—his long arm extended, sweeping outward toward the lapping yellow sea beyond the harttin's wide veranda—"that could be so compelling? Here you have all the silver, all the women, all the companionship you could ever wish for."
Moichi turned from the deep voice, stood in the doorway to the veranda, staring out at the thick forest of black masts, slashes of crosstrees, the intricate spiderweb of the rigging of the armada of ships temporarily at rest in the harbor or off-loading baled goods from far-off exotic shores. Too, soon they would be setting sail again, leaving Sha'angh'sei's clutter behind in their wakes. Only dimly he heard Llowan saying, "I will send up the tea. Come downstairs when you are ready; the messenger can wait, I daresay."
Alone again, Moichi's gaze raced outward, from the teeming foreshore, riding the white crests of the rolling sea like a storm-tossed gull, recalling those long days and nights aboard the Kioku, sailing south, ever south with his captain, Ronin, who had returned from Ama-no-mori transformed into the Sunset Warrior. Eyes clouded with memories of a lush jade isle, unnamed, gone now beneath the churning waves, and its lone sorcerous city of stone pyramids and gods with hearts as cold as ice; a dreamlike ride on an enormous feathered serpent high in the sky, through a land filled with sun, onto a ship sailing for Iskael, his homeland, where, with his people, he returned to the continent of man to join the Kai-feng; and the lightning of that last day of battle when he scrambled across a morass of seeping dead and dying warriors, mounds of the slain and wounded, friend and foe, his clothes so heavy with blood and gore that he could barely move, to greet the victorious Dai-San.
And what occupies his days and nights now? Moichi mused. My friend. We each owe the other a life. More than either of us can repay. And even now, though he resides in fabled Ama-no-mori among the Bujun, his kin, this world's greatest warriors, though we are far from each other, still do we remain closer than if we were brothers joined in blood at birth. For we have been forged upon the same anvil, tied by the terror of imminent death. And survived. And survived.
Moichi moved out into the sunlight.
Farther south still than far-off Ama-no-mori was Iskael. So long since he had walked its blazing deserts and its orchards, heavy with luscious fruit, the long lines of stately apple trees white-blossomed in spring, ethereal clouds come to earth and, in the blistering heat of the summer, with the incandescent sun a huge disc of beaten brass, to stand within their cool penumbra, to reach up and pluck the hanging fruit, ripe and golden. He could not count his hurried arrival and even more hasty departure during the Kai-feng. He had spent all of his time aboard ship, supervising the preparations for war, plotting their course northward to the continent of man. And all the while, beyond the foreshore, alive with frantic activity, bristling with bright shards of weaponry and men saying their farewells to their families, the dusky rolling hills of Iskael beckoned, forged by Moichi and his people over centuries of struggle from barren ground into a land of plenty. But that return, for him, did not count for the land was untouchable to him then.
He turned, watching the head of the stairwell as Yu's head appeared. She held a gray-green lacquered tray on which sat a squat ceramic pot and a matching handleless cup. She knelt before a low varnished table across from the massive wooden desk set against one corner of the room that Moichi regarded, despite his protestations, as strictly Llowan's. Its hugeness made him feel uncomfortable. Of course he was used to the much more compact and functional writing desks built into the bulkheads in ships' cabins. But beyond that it reminded him of his father's desk in the enormous bedroom in his family's house in Iskael.
He went into the room, observing Yu. She wore a cream-colored silk robe. She was tall and slim with a fine pale face dominated by dark expressive eyes. She had slid the tray soundlessly onto the tabletop and now sat with her hands in her lap and her head bowed, motionless. Waiting.
Moichi could scarcely tell if she were breathing as he knelt at the opposite side of the low table. Yu's hands unfolded like a flower reaching for the sun's warmth and slowly, precisely, she made the tea ceremony.
He settled himself. The quiet splash of the sea, the cormorants' and gulls' cries, a compradore's shouts, quite near, the scent of the warm sun heating the salted wood and the barnacled tar, the pale deft hands moving in their intricate orbits tying it all together, mystifyingly. Moichi felt a peacefulness wash over him.
Yu handed him the cup and he inhaled the spicy fragrance of the hot tea. He lifted it slowly to his lips, savoring the moment before he took the first sip. He felt the warmth sliding down his throat and into his broad chest. Energy tingled his flesh.
After a time, he finished his tea. He put down the cup and reached out his hand. Put two fingertips under the point of her chin, tilted Yu's head up. It was a face filled with broad planes, pale rolling meadows from which only the lowest of fleshy hillocks rose. What other skills lie within that body? he wondered idly. And can it matter at all? Wasn't the wondrous tea ceremony more than enough?
Yu smiled at him and her delicate hands moved to the fastening of her silk robe. Moichi stopped her, putting his calloused fingers over hers, holding them still.
He took his fingers away, kissed their tips, put them against her own. Then he stood up and bowed formally to her. She returned it. Stillness in the long room. He left her there, as quiet as sunlight.
Downstairs, it was a completely different world. Kubaru, bare-chested and sweat-soaked, trotted in and out of the wide wooden doors open onto the sprawling bund and, just beyond, the long wharves where the myriad ships waited impatiently. Wheat dust stained the air, hanging, silvered in thick bars of sunlight slanting in through the doorway and the many windows lining the harttin's seaward face.
Llowan was talking with several stevedores, perhaps discussing the disbursement of some newly off-loaded shipment. Piles of brown hempen sacks and wide wooden casks filled the harttin, separated by narrow mazelike corridors honeycombing the area.
Moichi saw the Regent's messenger at once, standing beside one of the narrow rear doorways leading out onto one of the streets of the city's port quarter. He was muscular but still with the thinness of youth. One side of his face was bruised a livid purple-blue fading to a yellow near the perimeter. The flesh was still puffy.
The messenger recognized the navigator as soon as he saw him emerge out of the bustle of activity within the harttin. He wasted no time with unnecessary formalities, merely handed Moichi a rice-paper envelope. Moichi broke the blue-green wax seal of the Regent, read the note. It said: "Moichi—Apologies for the early hour of this summons but your presence is urgently required at Seifu-ke soonest. Aerent." Typically, Moichi thought, he had left off his new title. Old habits die hard. Moichi smiled to himself. Aerent is a rikkagin, always will be, no matter what other job he takes on; the training is ineradicable. And that, I suppose, is as it should be. He is an excellent choice for Regent of Sha'angh'sei, whether he is aware of it himself or no.
"All right," Moichi said, looking up, "lead on."
He waved farewell to Llowan as he followed the messenger out.
Out along the Sha'angh'sei delta it was already sweltering even though it was yet early morning. The jumble of narrow twisting streets, which were among the city's oldest, ran with seawater and diluted fish blood. Flies buzzed blackly and the thin nervous dogs rooted in the refuse heaped against the buildings' walls hoping to find fresh fish entrails. Pairs of kubaru jogged by with loads hung between them on flexing bamboo poles bowed with the weight.
They were in a ricksha, a two-wheeled carriage powered by a kubaru runner. There were many halts as they bounced along but their kubaru was very good and he quickly got them away from the frustrating crowds, taking them down dark cramped alleys and bent lanes.
Moichi watched the panoply of Sha'angh'sei slide by him, thinking of the changes within the vast city and, because of those changes, how it all stayed essentially the same; its eternalness fascinated and awed him. Even though now there was no Empress to rule, just the rose-and-white-quartz monument to her memory at Jihi Square, where the city's delta met the region's major river, the Ki-iro; even though the Greens and the Reds, or the Ching Pang and the Hung Pang as they were also known, Sha'angh'sei's hereditary enemies, united by the now-dead Empress and their tai-pan for the Kai-feng, now held a balance of a truce between them; even though the war, which had gone on for more time than anyone living could remember and was, some said, the cause for Sha'angh'sei's creation, was at last finished forever; despite all these changes. Moichi thought, Sha'angh'sei abides, prospering, pushing ever outward, mysterious, deadly, an entity unto itself, alive and the giver of more pleasure and pain than any one man could conceive. Still, for him, it was not enough.
"How did you get that?" he said, indicating the messenger's large bruise.
The young man touched the tender spot unconsciously with the tips of his fingers. "Oh, combat practice with the Regent. You know, he never misses a day and he is an outstanding warrior even—even now." He looked away from Moichi, embarrassed by his blunder.
Just then Moichi felt a shift in the kubaru's gait and he leaned out of the ricksha. There was a disturbance in the street ahead and the runner was slowing. They were out of the port quarter now and into an area swarming with shops of a bewildering variety—a sort of permanent bazaar.
A cluster of people was blocking the street, Moichi saw, and their kubaru was turning his head, searching for an alternate route to the Seifu-ke. But before he could turn them around, three Greens separated themselves from the pack and swaggered up to the ricksha. They were all heavyset men with greasy black hair tied back in queues. They were dressed in black cotton tunics and wide pants. Short-hafted axes hung at their sides.
Moichi was on the point of asking them to help clear the way when he saw one of the Greens scowl and, grasping his ax, fling it, whirring, into the carriage. It crashed into the chest of the messenger with such force that, as his breastbone shattered, he was propelled partway through the ricksha's reed back. The young man had not even had enough time to realize that they were under attack.
Excerpted from Beneath an Opal Moon by Eric Van Lustbader. Copyright © 1980 Eric Van Lustbader. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 18, 2009
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Posted January 8, 2010
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