On the mountainous border of China and Tibet in 1708, a detective must learn what a killer already knows: that empires' rise and fall on the strength of the stories they tell.
Li Du was an imperial librarian. Now, he is an exile. Arriving in Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border, he is surprised to find it teeming with travelers, soldiers, and merchants. All have come for a spectacle unprecedented in this remote province: an eclipse of the sun commanded by the Emperor himself.
When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in the home of the local magistrate, blame is hastily placed on Tibetan bandits. But Li Du suspects this was no random killing. Everyone has secrets: the ambitious magistrate, the powerful consort, the bitter servant, the irreproachable secretary, the East India Company merchant, the nervous missionary, and the traveling storyteller who can't keep his own story straight.
Beyond the sloping roofs and festival banners, Li Du can see the mountain pass that will take him out of China forever. He must choose whether to leave and embrace his exile, or to stay and investigate a murder that the town of Dayan seems all too willing to forget.
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Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Elsa Hart
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It was a cold morning in early spring when Li Du came to the top of a small hill and saw below him the city of Dayan. The sun had not yet touched the valley, and the only perceptible movement was in the pale smoke that blurred the rigid curves of the tile and wood rooftops.
Beyond the city to the north, a mountain emerged slowly into the dawn. Its base was blue and featureless, a shape without dimension against the brightening sky. But on the distant summit, the snow and ice glowed golden pink in anticipation of sunrise.
Li Du could see the pass that would take him over the mountain and down to the river valley on the other side. But between him and that ridge lay Dayan, unavoidable. With a small sigh that puffed into the cold air, he rose, rinsed his bowl in a stream that ran by the hilltop temple where he had stopped to drink tea, put out the little fire he had made, and began the descent into the valley.
It took him a little over an hour to arrive at the houses on the edge of town. By that time the sun had risen and the road was crowded with travelers, farmers, and horse caravans. The farther into the city he went, the more packed the narrow streets became. Soon he was moving at a shuffle, surrounded by people and cows and horses, all bumping and jostling and making noise. The ground was littered with dung, peels, chewed and trampled sticks of sugarcane, gristly chicken bones, and discarded rice disintegrating in puddles of water. He tried at once not to step on porcelain cups, not to hit his head on copper kettles strung on ropes, and not to trip over the dogs that scampered or slept or wandered in search of bones.
Li Du was a man of middle age. He wore old clothes that were neatly patched, and a velvet hat that had lost its shape and faded from black to graying blue. A rough woven bag was slung across his back, and he carried a book, his pointer finger inserted between two pages to mark his place.
Vendors misread his small, polite smile, and called to him to look at what they were selling. He stopped each time he was addressed, and with raised eyebrows and creased brow, gave dutiful attention to the items for sale. But when the merchants saw that he did not intend to buy anything, they turned their attention to other customers, and Li Du continued on his way.
He did not hear any Chinese amid the clamor, only a confusion of different languages and dialects, most of them unfamiliar. An empire so large, he thought, that the people at its borders speak a different language from those in the capital is like a person who cannot feel his own fingers. Li Du took off his hat and scratched his head, wishing for a moment that he had remembered to neaten his hair. It was bristly as a brush on top where it should have been shaved, and he imagined that the soldiers in pale gray standing at a corner gave him reproving looks. Lose your forelock or lose your head, the saying went. He replaced his cap and decided to wait a little longer before asking for directions.
He came to the street of tea and regarded the dusty, humble leaves with some solidarity. A month earlier he had traveled through the hot jungles where they had been picked. He remembered, as perhaps they did, the lush mountains on which they had grown, where heavy flowers stirred like slow fish in the mist. These leaves had been dried, knotted in cloth, and enclosed in bamboo sheathes, ready to be strapped to saddles and taken north by trade caravans.
As they traveled, they would retain the taste of their home, of the flowers, of the smoke and metal heat of the fires that had shriveled them. But they would also absorb the scents of the caravan: horse sweat, the musk of meadow herbs, and the frosty loam of the northern forests. The great connoisseurs of tea could take a sip and follow in their mind the entire journey of the leaves, a mapped trajectory of taste and fragrance.
On another street, bridles with polished bells dangled from hooks, and smooth wooden saddles were stacked in rickety piles. Sandalwood, jasmine, and a drift of rose belied the frost that still chilled the ground and the air. The road became hazy with the smoke of lit incense. Beyond that, the decadent perfumes were overcome by a salty, metallic odor, and when he turned the corner, Li Du found himself among the fish sellers.
Here, everyone was stepping carefully to avoid the inflated guts that spilled like bubbles over the edges of buckets, surrounded by slippery puddles of water and blood. As he passed a shallow trough teeming with carp, one of the fish threw itself from the water and landed on the ground. It began to beat its body wildly in the dust. Li Du tucked his book securely under one arm, bent down, scooped up the fish, and dropped it back in the water.
"What are you, some kind of monk?" the seller asked. "Why did you do that?"
Facing the gruff merchant, Li Du's confidence in his private reasoning wavered. Before he could say anything, the man shrugged. "Well," he said, "at first I thought you were stealing my fish. That is all."
Never adjust your hat in a plum orchard, thought Li Du, and then said, "I was wondering, could you tell me where to find the magistrate's residence?"
"Just up that way." The man gestured. His hand was reddened and chapped with cold, and crusted with torn and gleaming fish scales. "Big place with a wall around it. Easy to find once you're out of the market."
"I had not expected such a crowd," said Li Du. "Is it market day?"
The merchant grunted. "Never crowds like this on a regular market day. Been this way for a week now, and thousands more on the way. Don't you know? It's the —"
The man's words were lost in the clamor of haggling voices around them, and Li Du shook his head, confused. The merchant opened his mouth to repeat what he had said, but at that moment he was distracted by a customer. He waved again vaguely in the direction he had indicated before, his attention now on making a sale. Li Du nodded his thanks and left.
Away from the market, the streets became quieter. He passed several teahouses, several brothels disguised as teahouses, and a wine shop crowded with large stoneware vessels. It occurred to him that a hot cup of wine would go some way toward making his errand worthwhile.
A colorful sign pasted to the wall of a house brought him to an abrupt stop. The words that had caught his attention were painted in blazing red: The Emperor to Arrive. After he was sure he had not misread, he looked at the top of the paper. It said: Spring Festival Events and Performances.
Li Du's eyes moved restlessly from one bright announcement to another: At noon on the field of the dragon, the great singer Madame Wu. Below that: Performances of the Popular Plays: The Departure of the Soul, A Visit to the Garden, and The Dream. And written in gold paint: The Emperor Commands an Eclipse of the Sun.
This explained the crowds, the chaos of the market, and the fishmonger's words. The Emperor of China was coming. Li Du again removed his hat, rubbed his head thoughtfully, and put his hat back on. It seemed that he had chosen an unlucky time to come to Dayan.CHAPTER 2
Outside the imposing gates of the magistrate's residence, a small commotion was taking place. A foreign merchant stood beside three carts stacked high with wooden crates packed in straw. Several of the crates had been taken down and were open on the ground. Five soldiers — Manchu bannermen in robes of blue satin embroidered with white dragons and yellow flames — were examining the contents of the boxes, while the foreigner berated a sixth.
The merchant, a bald man with a ruddy face and rich clothing, slapped a roll of documents against the soldier's chest and said in crisp, competent Chinese, "I am an ambassador. My cargo is not subject to inspection, and if you continue to open these crates I will hold you personally responsible for any damage to their contents. Order your men away, and take me to the magistrate at once."
The soldier avoided the man's gaze, but his posture did not change. "All merchant caravans are subject to inspection. There are no exceptions."
"But this is unacceptable. I am not to be treated this way. The magistrate will hear of it. The Emperor himself will hear of it. Yes, I have an audience with the Emperor. Do you understand your error? Do you know how much trouble you could bring upon yourself if you continue to treat me like some common trader?"
The soldier stood, baffled and uncomfortable, and the atmosphere was suffused with painful embarrassment. The foreigner's undignified behavior was humiliating to everyone there, but until he said or did something to give the guards a script that they could recognize, they were at a loss for what to do. No one had noticed Li Du, who stood some distance from the gate, and he waited to see what would happen.
The situation was saved by the arrival of a young man with an official bearing, who took the papers from the red-faced foreigner's hand, unrolled them, and scanned their contents. "Sir Nicholas Gray," he said, pronouncing the name carefully. He switched to Chinese. "The magistrate is expecting you, and will be delighted that you have arrived. You will, of course, stay in the guest quarters here at the mansion, and we have arranged for your cargo to be kept in the magistrate's own personal treasure room. Please accept my apologies — the city has never before hosted so many important dignitaries, and we are unused to foreign visitors. The soldiers should have known who you were. Please come with me."
"I must insist that this cargo does not leave my sight until I am assured of its security."
"Of course. We will have the boxes carried in with us now."
The young official gave instructions to one of the soldiers, who hurried through the gate and returned with a group of servants. They mingled awkwardly until the official told them to take the boxes from the carts and carry them inside.
The foreigner helped lift each box, which made the servants nervous. When one of them fumbled and almost dropped a crate, the merchant turned on him. "The contents are fragile," he said. He addressed the young official. "Instruct them not to set anything down too roughly. I cannot do it all myself."
"But you have traveled over very rough roads to get to Dayan. Surely the crates are packed securely?"
The man nodded grimly. "And I would not like to see the finest crystal in all of Europe shattered now by a clumsy servant."
Li Du watched the group pass through the massive doors, painted bright red, into the mansion. Once they were gone, he hesitated a moment before he approached the guards. They were armed with polished bows and quivers of matching green silk embroidered with golden vines, and muttering among themselves.
"Excuse me. I am here to beg audience with Magistrate Tulishen," said Li Du to their leader, who had recovered his poise now that the irate foreigner was gone.
"Do you have letters of introduction?"
Li Du presented his documents from where they were tucked in the book he carried. The paper was old, crumpled, and thin from being rained on and dried out many times over the years. The soldier took the papers, went into the mansion, and returned some minutes later with a servant, who escorted Li Du inside.
As he passed into the cold shade of the entrance, Li Du could sense the weight of the wall above and around him. The curved ceiling was painted with clouds outlined in bright blue and green, in imitation of the sky. The intended effect was one of grandness and space, but Li Du was only aware of the bulk of plaster and stone. The painted clouds were still and flat, and he was relieved to step out from under them.
The mansion was not a single house, but a complex enclosed by the thick stone wall. The grandest pavilions were set one behind the other along the central axis, while the smaller buildings, gardens, and courtyards were arranged along the edges, separated by paths and covered walkways. The far end of the mansion was set against a wooded hill dotted with picturesque pagodas and crowned with a grove of cypress trees.
In a quiet reception hall not far from the main gate, Li Du drank tea and waited for a summons. By the time a servant came for him, he had replenished his cup seven times, until the exhausted leaves barely tinted the water. He rose, feeling the stiffness in his back and knees from the long wait in the cold stone room, and followed the servant to a scented chamber decorated with large paintings and bookshelves crowded with jade sculptures and antique porcelain.
Magistrate Tulishen was seated in a carved mahogany chair behind an ornate desk. He wore a silk robe, brightly embroidered and trimmed at collar, shoulders, cuffs, and hem with squirrel fur. Above and below his eyes were the swollen crescents of fatigue, and Li Du saw written on his face the stratagems and schemes of a successful bureaucratic career. He acknowledged Li Du's kowtow with a short nod, and for one hopeful moment Li Du thought that perhaps the magistrate would not mention their connection, would simply put a seal on the letters of permission and send him on his way.
Tulishen said, with an effort at warmth, "Cousin, how long it has been since we saw each other. One day, one thousand autumns. I do not know if I would have recognized you. Have you been unwell?"
"No — but I have been traveling, and am perhaps a little tired."
Tulishen waved his hand slightly, as if to accept an apology that Li Du had not actually made. "Since your departure from the capital," he said, "my mother has joined the ancestors. She is with your mother now, sisters together in the afterlife. You may pay your respects in the temple here, if you wish."
"I thank you, and offer my deepest condolences."
Tulishen made another small, dismissive gesture. "The mourning period is over," he said. "The old generations give way to the new. My son scored in the top rank on the provincial examinations."
"That is a great achievement."
"He is in Beijing now preparing for the national tests. If circumstances had been different, perhaps you would have been one of his tutors. Instead, you and I find ourselves in the borderlands, far from home. Though we have come here by very different paths."
One by advancement, the other by exile, thought Li Du. But he said nothing. Tulishen made a show of unfolding Li Du's worn and wrinkled travel documents, and scanned them while Li Du waited in silence.
Tulishen's name, Li Du remembered, was Li Erfeng when he had received his first assignment to a small eastern city of little significance. Li Du had been just a boy then. He had listened to the stories of his elder cousin's success, and shared his family's pride in the news of Li Erfeng's promotions. Li Du had imagined a handsome, talkative adventurer, like the heroes in the novels. He had been disappointed when the man who returned from the east had proved to be cold, uninteresting, and knowledgeable only on the subject of the wealthy nobles with whom he had dined and drunk wine.
Li Erfeng had continued to rise through the ranks, in connection with the implementation of certain tribute collection strategies. He was praised for his sound and effective legal mind, and eventually he received honorary Manchu status. This reward was given only to the most trusted Chinese nobles. Li Erfeng had chosen for himself the Manchu name Tulishen as proof of his commitment. Though it was difficult to see amid the jewels that crowded his hand, he wore the simple archer's ring in deference to the Manchu past as archers of the steppe.
Li Du wondered how his cousin felt about his current position: magistrate in the farthest corner of the empire. To the south of Dayan were the tea jungles, feared because of the fever their insects carried, and to the north was the Tibetan plateau, feared because of the bandits who roamed it. The magistrate of a town like Dayan had an opportunity to demonstrate his skills and to rise in the bureaucracy, but also ran the risk of ending his career in obscurity deep in the mountains, surrounded by peasants barely aware of Qing rule.
He waited for Tulishen to address him again, conscious of the ritual that had brought him to Dayan. He understood the humiliation of his position, the required deference, and, above all, the imperative that he not cause trouble, scandal, or any embarrassment whatsoever to the local officials. He had only to act out his role, and he could be on his way.
Tulishen kept his eyes on the papers in front of him as he spoke. "You were a librarian of the Forbidden City. Almost five years ago you were sentenced to exile from the capital for your friendship with traitors. Had it been determined that you knew of their treachery, you would have joined them in the lingering death." Tulishen waited for a response. When none came, he looked up at Li Du. "Our family was spared that, at least," he said.
There was mutual understanding in the short silence that followed. Li Du was well aware that his family's concern from the moment he was arrested had been for their reputation, not for his life. This had not surprised him. He had never been ignorant of his family's priorities, and, in the end, the knowledge had eased his departure.
"I have come," said Li Du quietly, "to fulfill the condition of my sentence, to register my presence upon arrival in a new prefecture."
Excerpted from Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. Copyright © 2015 Elsa Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The imagry is specatcular and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I look forward to the next one in the series!
I loved this book. For anyone who has an interest in ancient China, this book (and White Mirror) bring China in all its richness to life with a wonderful lead character in Li Du that you come to deeply admire and care about. A taut, well-paced story and a milieu in ancient China that beckons us from our own harsh, vulgar age.