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Eight-year-old Seh slid his lanky body along the enormous rafter high above the Cangzhen banquet table, doing his best to disturb as little dust as possible. Even in a room as dark as this, Grandmaster would notice a single particle drifting toward the floor. Grandmaster was that good.
But Seh was better. As long as he didn’t lose focus.
Once in position, Seh stretched to his full length and flattened himself against the top of the wooden beam. He began to slow his breathing. His heart rate slowed to that of a hibernating reptile beneath a sheet of ice. She began to wait.
An hour later, Grandmaster entered the room. Although Grandmaster didn’t say a word, Seh knew exactly who it was.He sensed powerful chi–life energy– radiating from Grandmaster’s body like heat from the sun.
Seh slowed his breathing further. He needed to keep his heart rate as slow as possible so that the chi coursing through his own nervous system would not alert Grandmaster to his presence. As long as he remained calm, Grandmaster would not detect him. Dragon-style kung fu masters like Grandmaster and Seh’s brother Long possessed tremendous amounts of chi, but they weren’t particularly good at detecting it in others. Snake stylists like Seh, however, were masters at detecting the most minute amounts in any living creature.
As Grandmaster stepped farther into the hall, She heard a second man stop in the doorway. Seh took a long, slow breath.
Seh focused on the visitor and noticed something strange. The man seemed to possess no chi at all, which was impossible. All living things possessed chi. This could mean only one thing–Grandmaster’s visitor was masking his, something only snake-style kung fu masters knew how to do. And the only snake-style master to ever visit Grandmaster in the middle of the night was–One corner of Seh’s mouth slid down his long face in a lopsided frown. He peeked over the rafter toward the moonlit doorway and his eyes confirmed what the pit of his stomach already knew. Grandmaster’s visitor was a man named Mong, a local bandit leader. Mong meant “python” in Cantonese. Seh had had more than one humiliating encounter with the gigantic snake-style kung fu master over the years, and he had no interest in seeing the man again.
Grandmaster turned to Mong and whispered, “Do you sense that we are alone?”
Seh remained perfectly still and watched Mong scan the room. Seh was enshrouded in darkness and positioned at a severe angle from the doorway. He was certain he was invisible. Yet when Mong’s eyes hesitated as they passed over the rafter, Seh knew he had been discovered. Mong had sensed his chi. Seh was about to begin his retreat when Mong turned toward Grandmaster.
“Yes, we are alone,” Mong said. “Nothing here but the occasional small pest.” Mong entered the hall and closed the doors behind him.
Seh clenched his teeth. Pest? he thought. Seh wondered whether Mong was trying to make him angry so that his heart rate would rise and he’d reveal himself. There was nothing Seh hated more than getting caught when he was sneaking around.
Seh did his best to stay calm. He needed to stay focused.He suspected that Grandmaster and Mong were both dealers of secrets. They would trade them like other people traded gold for silk or silver for swords. She wanted those secrets. Especially if they involved him and his brothers–and Seh had a hunch they would.
“What news do you bring?” Grandmaster asked Mong. “And what might you require in return for sharing it?”
“I have no new information,” Mong replied. “This visit is purely personal.”
Grandmaster nodded. “The boys are progressing well,” he said. “I suspect they’ll all be masters in record time. Though I worry about the maturity level of some of them. Fu and Malao in particular come to mind.”
Mong chuckled. “I imagine Fu and Malao could be a handful, especially if they’re together. How is Long doing?”
“Very well,” Grandmaster replied. “He is wise beyond his years.”
“That’s good,” Mong said. “And what about the girl?”
“Hok is progressing well, too.”
Seh nearly tumbled off the rafter. Hok? A girl? He took a long, slow breath. Mong was trying to break his concentration, and that last bit of information had nearly done it. But Seh was certain he could remain calm, no matter what Mong said next.
He was wrong.
“And what about my son?” Mong asked.
No . . . , Seh thought. It can’t be. . . . He swallowed hard as his heart began to beat in his throat. He couldn’t control it. He glared down at Mong, wondering if it was a trick.
Grandmaster glanced up at the beam. “Seh is also progressing well. Perhaps too well. I worry about him most of all.”
From the Hardcover edition.