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Dark of the Sun
A Novel Of Saint-Germain
By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2004 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
All rights reserved.
Rising out of the East China Sea beyond the mouth of the Yang-Tse River, the sun was brass over a world of bronze. Though it was midwinter, the port of Yang-Chau was bristling with all manner of ships, and the cold wind off the distant mountains served to drive the larger craft into groups, as if they were seeking warmth. Clustered around them were masses of small boats offering every conceivable service to the crews of the seagoing vessels; the noise of shouts, calls, and the groaning of battened sails shuddered on the air. Along the wharves men scurried and struggled, some off- loading cargo, others preparing to take to sea, and all with the underlying urgency that came with the shortened days, as if everyone was determined to make the most of the sunlight.
"How soon until rain comes?" Ro-shei asked his master in the language of Imperial Rome.
"Another day or so," said Zangi-Ragozh, the broad sleeve of his thick black-silk sen-hsien almost touching his sheet of paper on which he had just entered a column of figures drawn in Arabic numerals. "The Black Pheasant and the Morning Star are due back in port shortly. I hope the weather holds long enough for them to return." He sounded doubtful as he spoke, but not worried, either.
"The Morning Star hasn't been away very long," said Ro-shei as he removed the paper from danger, taking care to move it very gently until the ink was dry.
"You weren't here when she left, were you? Her task is a specific one. She has gone over to the northernmost port on the east coast of Korea to pick up furs from the peoples of the forests."
"But the Koreans charge high tariffs for their export," said Ro-shei.
"And they charge the men from the forests who bring the furs to store and market them," said Zangi-Ragozh. "All in all, a fine business for Korea." He smoothed the next sheet of paper and sketched his eclipse sigil on the upper right-hand corner with his brush, indicating this was a personal document, not an official record.
"So furs will be here in good time, and eventually dyes and spices. How many other ships are still unaccounted for?" Ro-shei inspected the pigeonholes over Zangi-Ragozh's writing table. "I make it seven."
"Yes." Zangi-Ragozh tapped the paper in front of him.
"I thought you had determined to purchase a tenth."
"That was before you left on the voyage to Saylan. I had hopes that there could be an arrangement made that would —" He stopped.
"And doubtless worth the two years I had to be away," said Ro-shei. "Still, it is good to be back in Yang-Chau."
"Yes; and I am relieved that you have returned. I thank you, old friend, for all you accomplished," said Zangi-Ragozh with quiet conviction.
"It was prudent to make such arrangements, and it was more sensible for me to do it than for you," said Ro-shei, dismissing the praise. "I hadn't realized you had decided against adding a tenth ship to your fleet."
"Hu — my clerk; you know him — warned me that my taxes would have doubled on all the rest if I purchased a tenth; you know that foreigners in Yang-Chau aren't encouraged to have large merchant fleets," said Zangi-Ragozh. "Hu was right: doubling taxes would delay actual profits for decades." He pressed his lips together a moment, then added, "I doubt we will be here a decade from now."
Ro-shei did not question this decision, but wanted to know, "Have you decided where we will go next? Saylan may be a good choice now you have a business established there."
This time Zangi-Ragozh hesitated a bit longer before he spoke. "No, I do not know, not yet. I will make up my mind shortly."
"So you still think we should leave," said Ro-shei.
"I think it would be wise. I've been here almost eight years, and I've been trading in the region for nearly thirty years. It's time to depart, or I may overstay my welcome." He began to make more notes to himself, summing up his plans for the year to come, as he had done every year since his arrival in Yang-Chau. "The Golden Moon should be back in port here by April — the Fortnight of the Flower Rains, perhaps — and the Bounteous Fortune has only been gone six months. According to the reports, the Bird of the Waves and the Dragon's Breath are only halfway through their voyages, so we will not see them for another ten months at least, and the Black Pheasant is laid up for repairs in the Indian islands; they are almost finished, according to the message brought to me last week, and the ship will come directly here. The Phoenix is somewhere in the Bay of Bengal, the Joyous Winds should be in the Southern Islands by now, and the Shining Pearl is on her way to Vijaya. The Dragon's Breath is due for a refitting when she returns. And every ship will need a full inspection."
"Small wonder, when you consider all they go through," said Ro-shei. "Besides, it doesn't pay to skimp on maintenance."
Zangi-Ragozh frowned as he stared at his schedule. "Do you know if Chiu Tso-Feng will be available to repair sails for us? If the storms have been as bad as we've heard, there will be much to mend and replace."
"I'll send word around to his warehouse, to find out," Ro-shei offered. "And I'll put a deposit on his labor for this company. He will have a great deal of work to do."
"And I would prefer not to be at the end of his list. I'll give you money for the deposit — it may need to be substantial." He looked down at his notes to himself; he had written them in Chinese characters so that no official suspicions would be raised about him. "I'll prepare a work order for him, as well, so that we needn't spend days squabbling."
"A good notion," said Ro-shei. "I'd prefer to spend my time at the house rather than this office."
"Yes. This place is too exposed," said Zangi-Ragozh. He shook his head. "Here, at least, the clerks know they can order every aspect of the business dealings. At the house, the servants fear there may be something too foreign about me, and that frightens them." He chose another sheet of paper and began to write out his instructions to the sailmaker, pausing thoughtfully over the amount of money he was prepared to advance to Chiu.
"But you've entertained almost all the important officials here in Yang-Chau. You have guests coming tonight, and they must not fear you if they accept your invitation, no matter how much trepidation they may harbor toward other foreigners."
"Personally of me, perhaps," Zangi-Ragozh allowed, "but the policy toward foreigners remains the same, and a pleasant social association will not change it. As much as Councillor Ko and Professor Tsa may like my company, it is not the kind of contact that will stand much testing, particularly with the current dynastic conflicts, for knowing strangers can appear sinister to those whose hold on the throne is shaky. As far as is prudent, the local officials have come to like me as well as tolerate me, but the liking is superficial: no friendship will supersede patriotic duty, not when the friendship is with a foreigner with whom there is no larger obligation than good manners." His face took on an ancient exhaustion that vanished almost as quickly as it appeared.
"I've spoken to Meng about dinner," Ro-shei said, aware that it would be unwise to pursue their discussion. "He assures me the kitchen will have everything ready on time. Nine courses, and rice wine throughout. By anyone's measure, a handsome offering."
"Thanks to Meng." Zangi-Ragozh smiled, and the reserve that had claimed him eased a little. "Splendid. That man is a treasure — a prince among cooks. I wish I still ate when I smell the dishes he has concocted."
"Even his treatment of raw meat is wonderful. On my return, he prepared a marinated loin of beef that was astonishing," said Ro-shei.
"So you said at the time." Zangi-Ragozh finished making notes to himself and remarked as he held up the paper to help the ink dry, "You know, I like this better than parchment and vellum. Or papyrus."
"It doesn't endure as well," Ro-shei said, reaching up to pinch out the oil-lamps that hung over the writing table. Now that the sun was a bit higher in the sky, the office had sufficient illumination to make the oil lamps unnecessary.
"No, perhaps not. But with reasonable care, it could hold up for some years, I would think." He laughed. "A few centuries, at least, provided it is kept dry. The surface does not crack. And the ink stays with it, soaked in."
"It does the same on silk and cotton," said Ro-shei, not to argue, but to point out the comparisons.
"Yes. I still prefer this," said Zangi-Ragozh. He reached out for the red inkpad and his chop to fix it on the sheets of paper he had used. "This will keep Magistrate Lin satisfied when he makes his semiannual review of my businesses."
"Do you think he will be inclined to adjust your taxes yet? You met the residency requirements three years ago. He has the option of adjusting the percentages you pay, doesn't he?" Ro-shei glanced at the stack of receipts that lay under a paperweight in the figure of a naked dancing dwarf. The little statue was Roman, and Zangi-Ragozh had had it for almost five hundred years, a gift from Titus Petronius Niger after he had fallen from Imperial favor.
"Ah, but since that would mean lowering what I pay, I doubt he will exercise that alternative scale of taxation." He printed his chop on the three sheets of paper that would be part of his official record of transactions, then added a dollop of sealing wax and stamped his sigil into it as well. "There." Zangi-Ragozh handed a small string of cash to Ro-shei; the coins clinked softly as Ro-shei slipped the string onto his wrist. "For Sailmaker Chiu. And here is my work order."
"Very good. I take it you're going back to the house now?" Ro-shei was already busy tidying the office, imposing a strict order on the room.
"Yes. With guests coming at midafternoon there are a few preparations I still need to attend to." Zangi-Ragozh started toward the door. "You'll make sure the dancing girls and musicians are prompt."
"Of course. I've arranged for Yei-Lan to remain for the night; with Dei-Na leaving, you need not deny yourself," Ro-shei said. "You'll like her. She's a very capable young woman — not jealous or too greedy." He rolled the work order and secured it with a narrow silk ribbon, then tucked it into his capacious sleeve. "Will you change clothes for the dinner?"
"I may," said Zangi-Ragozh. "It depends on how much I have yet to do."
"Are you still planning to present your guests with gems?" Ro-shei asked.
"I know you do not approve. Can you tell me why?"
"Well, such generosity can create more envy than you think it will," Ro-shei said cautiously. "You know how venal some of your guests are."
"This isn't Rome, and these men aren't Senators, and the Emperor is not a young, capricious degenerate, as was the case when we were last there. The Wen Emperor in the west may be new to the throne, and as much Turkish as Chinese, as are many men of rank in the north, but he has capable men around him, which counts for something," said Zangi-Ragozh with a touch of impatience. "In the two years you were gone, I have done much to improve my dealings with my fellow-merchants and the authorities, and I hope that will hold me in good stead now." He smiled briefly. "I will not rely on them, but I will not despair, either."
Ro-shei did not quite smile. "You said yourself that they are not staunch in their support."
"No, but they are not malicious, either. That would take too much time, and they have better uses of it." Zangi-Ragozh opened the door and stepped into his outer office where two junior clerks were busy calculating on abacuses. "What news?" he asked the nearest clerk.
"Four bales of rough silk arrived in the warehouse," came the answer. "Hu is there now, inventorying them."
"Has it been paid for yet?" Zangi-Ragozh took a step toward the long writing table.
"Yes; three months ago. Shipment was delayed because of hard rains," said the clerk. "It is scheduled to be shipped out for the Southern Islands."
"That won't be for several months," said Zangi-Ragozh.
"No, it won't," said the clerk as if expecting a rebuke.
"Then make sure it is properly stored in the warehouse. I would rather not lose the cloth to rats or rot or moths." He nodded toward the little oil-powered stove. "Have you enough tea?"
"Yes, thank you," said both clerks almost in unison.
"Very good." Zangi-Ragozh made a sign of approval as he crossed the rest of the outer office to the door that led down a flight of stairs to the street. He squinted at the sun's glare as he stepped into the light and was glad once again of his native earth lining the soles of his leather boots. Still, he kept to the shadows as much as possible as he made his way to where he could hire a sedan-chair to carry him to his house.
The bearers accepted the coins he offered and went off at a jog as soon as he had climbed into the covered chair. They made their way through the traffic of the waterfront and the markets to the broad roads that led to the city gates, over the great bridge spanning the river, turning along the north bank of the Yang-Tse toward the part of the city where prosperous merchants had their extensive homes.
Zangi-Ragozh's house was in an extensive park, set back from the road and surrounded by a high wall. At the gate he got out and tipped the bearers before entering the grounds of his compound, then paused to ask the gatekeeper if anyone had called.
"Yes. The foreign merchant Lampong-Chelai is waiting for you. He arrived a short while ago."
"Thank you, Sung," said Zangi-Ragozh. "I'll just go talk to him now."
"Do you expect anyone else?" Sung called after him.
"I had not expected Lampong-Chelai," said Zangi-Ragozh. "But no, I expect no one else until my guests arrive for dinner. Oh, Ro-shei will be back shortly, with musicians and dancers."
"I will see they are admitted," said Sung.
Zangi-Ragozh nodded and walked up the long, curving path that led to his house; around him, the gardens were murmuring in the cold wind, many of the trees with bare branches, and only a few, hardy shrubs showing much color. As he reached the front of his house, Zangi-Ragozh paused to survey the building, then trod up the broad, shallow steps to the door, where his steward, Jho Chieh-Jen, admitted him promptly.
"You have a visitor," he announced.
"So Sung informed me," said Zangi-Ragozh. "I suppose you have seen to his comfort?"
"He is in the main salon; I have sent in oil cakes and bitter mountain tea." Jho ducked his head respectfully. "If you would care to see him now?"
"I'll go," said Zangi-Ragozh, waving away Jho's offer of escort. He noticed that the Roman painted-plaster panel was askew on the wall again and reminded himself to reweight the frame so it would hang evenly. As he opened the door to his salon, he straightened the red-edged cuffs of his black-silk sen-hsien. "Good day to you, Foreigner Lampong-Chelai. I trust fortune smiles upon you."
"Good day to you, Foreigner Zangi-Ragozh," said his guest, rising from a rosewood chair near the window. He was a middle-aged man, round-faced and plump, also in a sen-hsien, as law required, but one of persimmon-colored silk decorated with embroidery in the style of Vijaya, his home: Lampong-Chelai was the Chinese version of his name, just as Zangi-Ragozh was of his.
"I am delighted to see you," Zangi-Ragozh went on, following the dictates of good manners, "and I wonder what I am to have the honor of doing for you?"
"I was hoping I might ask a favor of you," Lampong-Chelai admitted, getting down to business without the usual social persiflage expected of morning visitors. "As you must know, there have been reports of rough seas and other dangers in the vicinity of Krakatau, the large volcano in the middle of the Sunda Passage."
"I know the mountain you mean, and I have been one who has had reports concerning the troubles there," said Zangi-Ragozh, aware that his visitor was truly worried.
"Ah. That makes my visit a little easier." He sighed. "It seems that some traders are avoiding ports in the region, and that is causing many problems for the merchants in the area."
"I can well imagine," said Zangi-Ragozh.
Lampong-Chelai paced the length of the salon, then came back toward Zangi-Ragozh. "And no doubt you have seen how it can damage trade far beyond fears justified."
"I have; but I have also seen situations when the dangers exceeded fears, as well." He kept his tone completely neutral, not wanting to offend this fellow-foreigner.
"I believe this may be one such instance where the postulation of danger is far beyond any actual risk," said Lampong-Chelai. "You know how the stories of such things are exaggerated. You must have seen volcanoes from time to time and know what one can expect from them — not like the merchants who have only traveled the rivers and never venture more than two days upstream. Volcanoes can be unpleasant; mostly they smoke and bellow, but nothing much happens."
"True enough," said Zangi-Ragozh. "But occasionally, they do erupt."
Excerpted from Dark of the Sun by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Copyright © 2004 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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