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|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
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Portal of a Thousand Worlds
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Dave Duncan
All rights reserved.
THE YEAR OF THE JACKDAW
At the side of a busy street, a small boy had taken shelter from the drizzle under a barrow whose owners were selling cuts of meat. The boy was almost naked, vermin-infested, and seriously undernourished, but he had tasted meat so rarely in his life that he found the stench more nauseous than tantalizing. Flies liked it and it kept them away from him. Carts, horses, people, and barrows jostling by in a clamor of wheels, hooves, and curses. Rich and important people were borne in rickshaws or palanquins, frequently escorted by armed guards.
Peering through all this bustle of legs and spokes, the boy was studying the great gateway at the other side of the road. The archway was a very imposing entrance to find in a district of vice, dirt, and slums. The courtyard beyond it was grand, spacious, and well tended. It was gloomy, though, being enclosed by large buildings and roofed by sepulchral evergreens.
The courtyard also bustled in a hushed, well-orchestrated way. A funeral procession was being organized by a group of monks and nuns in gray robes. The rest of the cortege wore white — white horses to pull the hearse, white rickshaws and palanquins to carry the family mourners, white-clad musicians and professional keeners. Dusk was falling, and soon it would be time to start.
When all was ready, the drums began to beat and the shengs to wail. The horses leaned into their collars and the whole procession unwound like a giant snail emerging from its shell, oozing out through the gateway. The crowds in the street fled from it, taking refuge in doorways or passages, hiding from ill-omen. Carts, rickshaws, and litters halted on one side and sped up on the other, clearing the street until the cortege had wailed and thumped and rattled out of sight and earshot. Then the crowd healed up behind it as if it had never been.
When the courtyard was empty and the crowd returned, the boy squirmed out from under the barrow, dodged across the muddy street, and walked boldly into the yard. The buildings' grandiose bronze doors were closed, the paved driveway that looped around the big clump of trees in the center was deserted. Two boys with shovels and a barrow were cleaning up after the horses, but he ignored them. The only other person in sight was a monk, sitting cross-legged on the steps outside the left-hand door. He wore a gray robe that covered one shoulder and left both arms bare. His feet were also bare, his eyes shut, his head shaved. He was too far from the great trees to be sheltered, but he seemed oblivious of the rain.
The boy said, "I'm hungry."
The monk opened his eyes and smiled. "Many people are hungry, little brother." He pointed to the gate. "Go back out and turn this way. Ask at the kitchen door around the corner."
"I'm not a beggar! Gray Helpers kill people, don't you? I'll kill someone for you if you promise to feed me. I can sneak up on anyone! No one will suspect me."
The monk did not scoff or rage, but gave the proposition solemn consideration. "An interesting offer. Good killers are always in demand. I need to be sure you're nimble enough, though. You go and catch a pigeon in the square and bring it back here — alive — and I promise you the biggest meal you ever ate in your life. Off you go."
The boy returned in a very brief time, with a pigeon clasped in the straw-thin fingers of both hands.
The monk said, "Now kill it."
The boy had obviously watched chickens' necks being rung. With one fast yank, he produced one dead pigeon.
The monk floated to his feet. "Nicely done. I am Brother Moon. From now on, your name is Tug. Come in."
He delivered Tug to two boys not much older, who deloused him by shaving his head, scrubbed him until he glowed, salved his scabs, wrapped him in the largest garment he had ever worn, a cloth that reached from his waist to his ankles, and delivered him to a very long hall, which they told him was called the refectory. Brother Moon was waiting there, all alone, sitting cross-legged in the center of the tiled floor. He greeted the boy with a smile and pointed at the floor in front of him to show where the boy should sit.
Another monk hurried in with a steaming bowl of rice and a beaker of water, which he laid in front of the boy. He smiled, also. The boy distrusted smiles because he had seen so few of them.
"Eat," Moon said.
The boy needed no second command. Ignoring the chopsticks provided, he used both hands to make the rice disappear. The monk watched in amused silence, asking no questions.
The bowl empty, the boy drank the water. "Wasn't the biggest meal I ever ate," he grumbled hopefully, but perhaps truthfully.
"There's lots more to come," Moon said. "If you are a good worker, you may stay here and never be hungry again, but if I let you stuff yourself too quickly, you will become very sick. I'll give you a job to do, and when you have finished that, you can have more food, lots of it."
He rose and led the boy to a place that smelled very bad, like a seriously neglected cesspit. It was long and narrow, with a row of stone tables along the middle between two gutters; naked bodies lay on about half the tables. The same two boys who had cleaned the newcomer were waiting for him, grinning, and as naked as the bodies.
"You must remove your wrap and hang it on the pegs over here," the monk said. "We do not allow our clothes to be defiled by touching the discards. And you will always bathe when you leave this place."
"What do I have to do?" the boy asked warily, wrinkling his nose against the stench.
"You have to wash a corpse," Moon said. "Happy and Tooth will show you how to do it."
Instructed by Happy and Tooth, Tug washed the corpse without losing his meal. He was bathed again, fed again, and then told to wash another discard, still without ill results. He was fed a third time and admitted to the order as a postulant.
Months later, when he confessed that he had stolen the pigeon from a dovecot in the next street, Brother Moon said, "Of course you did. That's why we keep the dovecot there."
This insignificant event occurred in the Year of the Jackdaw of the two hundred forty-seventh cycle, being the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Absolute Purity of the Eleventh Dynasty, in a city whose name was written as Felicitous Wedlock of Waters, but spoken as just Wedlock. The Gray Helpers maintained Houses of Joyful Departure in every town and city of the Good Land, earning their name by helping the immortal sparks of the recently dead to escape from the now-useless husks that bound them and thus to head onward to the blessed Fifth World. The house to which the boy had been admitted was a very large one, befitting a city of great wealth, for Wedlock stood at the junction of the Jade and Golden Rivers, in the province of Shashi, near the felicitous center of the Good Land. The training received by Postulant Tug — later Novice Tug — was, therefore, as fine as any that the order could offer.
Tug learned the rituals of the dead, from collecting the body and purifying the family home to preparing the corpse and taking it in procession to the burning ground. He learned how to build a proper balefire, whether a communal heap of green timber and trash for the poor or a magnificent geometric pyre of fragrant sandalwood for the rich. He learned the appropriate music and chanting of sorrow and later of jubilation as the sparks flew up to accompany the deceased's ascent to the Fifth World awaiting amid the stars. He learned how to oversee the triumphant return home and the banquet to celebrate the deceased's ascendancy. He participated in thousands of funerals, sang at them as treble and later baritone, wept at many more as a keener. He learned to wash cadavers, sew their mouths shut, plug their orifices. He helped make coffins, cook for banquets, care for horses. He chopped enough wood to build a village. He gathered bones and dug pits for them, the discarded reminders of the deceased's brief sojourn in this, the Fourth World.
He also received clandestine anatomy lessons, dissecting corpses unbeknownst to their former owners' sorrowing families, until he knew the location of every organ in the human body and the effects of all major diseases. He learned how the farewell gifts should be packed into the pyres so that a decent proportion of them remained with the living, meaning the Gray Helpers, and how to palm the jewels that were placed in the corpses' mouths for their use in the Fifth World. He was given a firm grounding in the pharmacology of potions and acquired many other curious skills, including playing the sheng, fighting with blade or firearm, and understanding numbers as well as any scribe. In the final year of his novitiate, he was taught two hundred fourteen different ways to kill people, thirty-seven of which would leave no trace.CHAPTER 2
THE YEAR OF THE VULTURE
Sunlight walked out on the rampart and looked down at the town and the crowd waiting there. Four Mountains was an ancient fortress, reputed to be the most impregnable stronghold in the Good Land, a bastion of granite blocks on a mountain spur, flanked on three sides by a raging mountain river. The crowd that gathered there every day was too far off for him to recognize faces, but it was certainly larger than it had been six moons ago, and probably larger than the entire population of the town, so people must be making pilgrimages in from half of Qiancheng, perhaps from farther away than that. Small wonder that the mandarins were worried.
He shivered, for the wind was cold and sharp as a knife.
The watchers had seen him. They were cheering, waving their arms from side to side in a motion that soon spread through the whole throng, as if they were grass. The wind prevented any sound reaching him, but he raised his hand to bless them. Now they were starting to kneel. Every day at noon, they came, in baking heat or pounding rain. They would probably still come when the winter blizzards blew, to kneel in the snow. He would still be here, unless the government changed its mind.
What had they come to see? An Emperor robed in glory? A mighty warrior? No, just a boy of fourteen, with only his head and bare shoulders visible over the wall, and too far off to distinguish his features. But they had been told who he was, and they wanted to believe, so they came in their thousands, assembling every morning to wait for his appearance at noon. Every day, he came out and raised his hand to give them his blessing, an empty gesture, which he knew to be worthless, but they treasured so that they could tell their grandchildren.
The town itself stood farther away, because, for centuries, the keepers of the fortress had kept that clifftop meadow clear of trees or buildings to give the castle's archers a clear view of any approaching hostiles. The first fort at Four Mountains had been begun by Half-Dead Tiger, back in the interregnum after the Fifth Dynasty, when the landscape was untamed forest. It had been completed by the second Emperor of the Sixth, a hundred years after Half-Dead Tiger's name had fallen short of reality. It had grown considerably since then and the town had grown up to supply it and purloin its name. The hills were treeless now and terraced to grow rice.
Most days, he came out to the little courtyard behind him and ran around it for an hour or so to work up a sweat. Two laps clockwise, then two counterclockwise so as not to get giddy. Repeat and repeat and repeat. He would do gymnastics, turn cartwheels, walk on his hands — anything rather than just sit in his cell all day. Other boys of his age were working in the paddy fields or poling boats or chopping wood, already being useful in the life of the Gentle People. Starting to drop hints to their parents about girls who would make suitable wives for them. Sunlight was in jail.
But two nights ago, he had seen Chrysanthemum Moon in the sunset, and the weather had taken notice already. Today was too chilly for exercise for a boy wearing only a loincloth. He was shivering like a bird with a broken wing. Besides, it looked as if the crowd had begun to sing a hymn to him, and he could not have that. He waved good-bye and went back inside, closing the door.
Come back tomorrow, friends! The nights were growing too long to sleep through and he was so terribly bored. The warden disapproved of his prisoner's daily audience. He had tried to put a stop to it once, back in Lotus Moon. There had been a riot in the town — boys throwing filth at the castle gates, shots fired. Fortunately, the imperial government in Sublime Mountain had either not heard of this disturbance, orwas not sufficiently bothered by a few dead rioters to order reprisals.
Sunlight's room was shabby but generously large, with a rack of books, comfortable furniture, and windows looking out toward the town. All in all, it was as good a jail as he had ever known. The guards were forbidden to speak to him and the lack of company was irksome, but he had endured as much before. He had known prisons much, much worse. Only the boredom truly bothered him. He had read all the books downward, upward, and sideways.
Every tenth day, his mother was allowed to visit and she was already overdue. She was a simple soul and believed every word he told her — not that he ever lied to anyone, but he tried not to worry her. The husband she believed to be held somewhere else in the castle was almost certainly dead.
The locks on the outer door began to clatter. Sunlight paused to inspect his hair in the mirror. It dangled to his shoulders now, uncut for three years, but it was changing as the straight black hairs of his childhood fell out and were replaced by the wavy brown locks he would have as an adult. The result was a mess, and would be for the next year or two. Quail fussed often that her son did not look tidy. His face was becoming bonier, less rounded, more familiar. He noticed — amused at his stereotype adolescent interest — the first hints of lip fuzz.
The door creaked open; he spun around to smile and hold out his arms to his mother. Quail had been name enough for a peasant, but the authorities decided that it lacked dignity for this prisoner's mother and some unknown official had added the name of their village, making her Quail Long River. The larger name had not made her any bigger — not enough of her to feed a half-grown tiger, her husband had joked. He had been a big man, a good man, not one who had deserved the bitter jest that Heaven had played on him.
"Mother?" The boy frowned at her red-rimmed eyes as she ran to him. Her cheeks were still shiny and she had not brought him anything. Usually, she came laden with books and flowers from well-wishers. He wrapped her in his ropy arms. "What's wrong, Mother?"
She gulped, sniffed. "They are telling lies about you! They say you are disobeying the Emperor, that the Emperor is angry at you."
That was true, but she would never believe that the Son of the Sun could be in the wrong. Disobedience was unthinkable for any of the Emperor's children.
"Are they threatening you?" Sunlight asked, evading the point.
He was taller than she was now. She sobbed against his bony chest.
"They are going to send me away if you do not do what the Emperor says!"
"Come and sit." He led her to the bench and sat her nearer the door, so she had her back to it and he could watch it. It had not been closed behind her, so there was more bad news to come.
She was still mumbling about the Emperor.
"Mother, do you know how old the Emperor is?"
She looked at him in bewilderment. She probably could not think of the Emperor as anything less than a godlike, all-wise grandfather.
"He's only eighteen, Mother! I very much doubt," Sunlight said, a little louder than necessary, "that His Imperial Majesty Absolute Purity knows anything at all about my being here. I doubt even more that he has managed to impose his will on the mandarinate yet. Or the eunuchs." There would be guards outside in the corridor, and it wouldn't hurt to sow a few doubts there, even if it wouldn't do any good, either. The last time Sunlight had visited Sublime Mountain, even Zealous Righteousness, probably the strongest Emperor in two centuries, had been as much in the power of the palace eunuchs as most of his predecessors.
"Eunuchs?" she repeated.
"Geldings, Mother. The palace is always riddled with eunuchs and they get into everything, like roaches." The problem wasn't that eunuchs were stupid or incompetent; it was that they were too smart, too competent, and too efficient at blocking anyone else from interfering with their private empire-within-an-empire.
She was looking at him blankly, and probably the eavesdroppers outside the door understood no better. Oh, poor Quail! She could not be much more than thirty, but wrinkled and bent by work and weather. Sunlight had not been her first child, and two after him had died in infancy. With her eroded skin, her hair already graying and crudely cut, her threadbare cotton dress, she was absolutely typical of the great underworld of the Good Land, the lowly peasant mass that supported all the glory in the palaces.
Excerpted from Portal of a Thousand Worlds by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 2017 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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