ONE: 0 Shing, Ehelebe
The woman screamed with every contraction. The demon outside howled and clawed at the walls. It roared like a wounded elephant, smashed against the door. The timbers groaned.
The physician, soaked with perspiration, shook like a trapped rabbit. His skin was the hue of death.
"Get on with it!" snarled the baby's father.
"Do it!" Nu Li Hsi appeared undisturbed by the siege. He refused even to acknowledge the possibility of fear, in himself or those who served him. Would-be Lord of All Shinsan, he dared reveal nothing the Tervola could call weakness.
Still the physician delayed. He was hopelessly trapped. He couldn't win. A demon was trying to shatter the sorceries shielding his surgery. Inside, his master was in a rage because the mother couldn't deliver normally. The child was just too huge. The woman was a friend, and the surgeon doubted she could survive the operation. The only assistant permitted him was his daughter. No fourteen-year-old was ready to face this.
Worse, there were witnesses. Two Tervola leaned against one wall. These sorcerer-generals, who managed Shinsan's armies and made up her nobility, were waiting to see the product of the Dragon Prince's experiments.
The goal was a child who could develop into a super strong, super competent soldier, thinking, yet with little ability to become a personality in his own right, and immune to the magicks by which foes seized control of enemy soldiers.
"Start cutting," Nu Li Hsi said softly, with the "or else" transmitted by intonation, "before my brother's attacks become more imaginative."
For a millennium Nu Li Hsi and his twin, Yo Hsi, had battled
for mastery of Shinsan, virtually from the moment they had murdered Tuan Hoa, their father, who had been Shinsan's founder.
"Scalpel," said the surgeon. He could scarcely be heard. He glanced around the cramped surgery. The Tervola, with their masks and robes, could have been statues. Nu Li Hsi himself moved nothing but his eyes. His face, though, was naked. The Princes Thaumaturge felt no need to hide behind masks. The surgeon could read the continuing anger there.
The Dragon Prince, he realized, expected failure.
This was the Prince's eleventh try using his own seed. Ten failures had preceded it. They had become reflections on his virility....
The surgeon opened the woman's belly.
A half hour later he held up the child. This one, at least, was a son, and alive.
Nu Li Hsi stepped closer. "The arm. It didn't develop. And the foot...." A quieter, more dangerous anger possessed him now, an anger brought on by repeated failure. What use was a superhuman soldier with a clubfoot and no shield arm?
That wounded elephant roar sounded again. Masonry shifted. Dust fell. Torches and candles wavered. The walls threatened to burst inward. The door groaned again and again. Splinters flew.
Nu Li Hsi showed concern for the first time. "He is persistent, isn't he?" He asked the Tervola, "Feed it?"
The Tervola, second only to the Princes Thaumaturge themselves, seldom became involved in the skirmishes of Shinsan's co-rulers. If the thing broke the barriers contiguous with the room's boundaries, though, it would respect neither allegiances, nor their lack. Yo Hsi would make restitution to the surviving Tervola, expressing regrets that their fellows had been caught in the cross fire.
The Dragon Prince produced a golden dagger. Jet enamel characters ran its length. The Tervola seized the woman's hands and feet. Nu Li Hsi drove the blade into her breast, slashing, sawing, ripping. He plunged a hand into the wound, grabbed, pulled with the skill of long practice. In a moment he held up the still throbbing heart. Blood ran up his arm and spattered his clothing.
The screams of the doctor's daughter replaced those of the sacrifice.
From outside, suddenly, absolute silence. The thing, for the moment, was mollified.
No one who hadn't been in the room would know that it had been there. The spells shielding the walls weren't barriers against things of this world, but of worlds beyond, Outside.
Nu Li Hsi sighed resignedly. "So.... I have to try again. I know I can do it. It works on paper." He started to leave.
"Lord!" the surgeon cried.
The doctor indicated woman and child. "What should I do?" The child lived. It was the first of the experimental infants to survive birth.
"Dispose of them."
"He's your son...." His words tapered into inaudibility before his master's rage. Nu Li Hsi had serpent eyes. There was no mercy in them. "I'll take care of it, Lord."
"See that you do."
As soon as the Dragon Prince vanished, the surgeon's daughter whispered, "Father, you can't."
"I must. You heard him."
"You know the alternative."
She knew. She was a child of the Dread Empire.
But she was barely fourteen, with the folly of youth everywhere. In fact, she was doubly foolish.
She had already made the worst mistake girls her age could make. She had become pregnant.
That night she made a second mistake. It would be more dire. It would echo through generations.
She fled with the newborn infant.
One by one, over an hour, six men drifted into the room hidden beneath The Yellow-Eyed Dragon restaurant. No one upstairs knew who they were, for they had arrived in ordinary dress, faces bare, and had donned black robes and jeweled beast masks only after being out of sight in a room at the head of the basement stair.
Even Lin Feng, The Dragon's manager, didn't know who was meeting. He did know that he had been paid well. In response he
made sure each guest had his full ten minutes alone, to dress, before the next was admitted to the intervening room.
Feng supposed them conspirators of some sort.
Had he known they were Tervola he would have fainted. Barring the Princes Thaumaturge themselves, the Tervola were the most powerful, most cruel men in all Shinsan, with Hell's mightiest devils running at their heels....
Waking, following his faint, Feng probably would have taken his own life. These Tervola could be conspiring against no one but the Princes Thaumaturge themselves. Which made him a rat in the jaws of the cruelest fate of all.
But Feng suspected nothing. He performed his part without trepidation.
The first to arrive was a man who wore a golden mask resembling both cat and gargoyle, chased with fine black lines, with rubies for eyes and fangs. He went over the chamber carefully, making sure there would be no unauthorized witnesses. While the others arrived and waited in silence, he worked a thaumaturgy that would protect the meeting from the most skilled sorcerous eavesdroppers. When he finished, the room was invisible even to the all-seeing eyes of the Princes Thaumaturge themselves.
The sixth arrived. The man in the gargoyle mask said, "The others won't be with us tonight."
His fellows didn't respond. They simply waited to learn why they had been summoned.
The Nine seldom met. The eyes and spies of the Princes and uninitiated Tervola were everywhere.
"We have to make a decision." The speaker called himself Chin, though his listeners weren't sure he was the Chin they knew outside. Only he knew their identities. They overlooked no precaution in their efforts to protect themselves.
Again the five did not respond. If they didn't speak they couldn't recognize one another by voice.
It was a dangerous game they played, for imperial stakes.
"I have located the woman. The child's still with her. The question: Do we proceed as planned? I know the minds of those who can't be with us. Two were for, one was against. Show hands if you still agree."
Four hands rose.
"Seven for. We proceed, then." Behind ruby eyepieces Chin'seyes sparkled like ice under an angry sun. They fixed on the sole dissenter present.
A link in the circle was weakening. Chin had misjudged the man behind the boar mask. The absentee negative vote he understood, accepted, and dismissed. Fear hadn't motivated it. But the Boar....The man was terrified. He might break.
The stakes were too high to take unnecessary chances.
Chin made a tiny sign. It would be recognized by only one man.
He had convened the Nine not for the vote but to test the Boar. He had learned enough. His decision was made.
"Disperse. The usual rules."
They didn't question, though meeting for so little seemed tempting Fate too much. They departed one by one, reversing the process of entry, till only Chin and the man who had been signaled remained.
"Ko Feng, our friend the Boar grows dangerous," Chin said. "His nerve is failing. He'll run to one of the Princes soon."
Ko Feng, behind a bear mask, had presented the argument before. "The cure?" he asked.
"Go ahead. What must be, must be."
Behind the metal Bear, cruel lips stretched in a thin smile.
"He's Shan, of the Twelfth Legion. Go now. Do it quickly. He could spill his terror any time."
The Bear bowed slightly, almost mockingly, and departed.
Chin paused thoughtfully, staring after him. The Bear, too, was dangerous. He was another mistake. Ko Feng was too narrow, too hasty. He might need removing, too. He was the most ambitious, most deadly, most coldhearted and cruel, not just of the Nine, but of the Tervola. He was a long-run liability, though useful now.
Chin began to consider possible replacements for the Boar.
The Nine were old in their conspiracy. Long had they awaited their moment. For centuries each had been selecting eight subordinates carefully, choosing only men who could remain loyal to the ultimate extremity and who would, themselves, build their own Nines with equal care.
Chin's First Nine had existed for three hundred years. In all that time the organization had grown downward only to the fourth level.
Which was, in truth, a fifth level. There was a higher Ninethan Chin's, though only he knew. Similar ignorance persisted in each subsidiary Nine.
Soon after the Bear's departure Chin faced another door. It was so well concealed that it had evaded the notice of the others.
It opened. A man stepped through. He was small and old and bent, but his eyes were young, mischievous, and merry. He was in his element here, conspiring in the grand manner. "Perfect, my friend. Absolutely perfect. It proceeds. It won't be long now. A few decades. But be careful with Nu Li Hsi. He should be given information that will help us, yet not so much that he suspects he's being used. It's not yet time for the Nines to become visible."
Chin knew this man only as the master of his own Nine, the world-spanning Master Nine, the Pracchia. Chin, perhaps, should have paid more attention to the old man and less to his problems with his own Nine. Evidence of the man's true identity was available, had he but looked for it.
"And the child?" Chin asked.
"It's not yet his time. He'll be protected by The Hidden Kingdom."
That name was a mystery of the Circle of which Chin was junior member. Ehelebe. The Hidden Kingdom. The Power behind all Powers. Already the Pracchia secretly ruled a tenth of the world. Someday, once the might of Shinsan became its tool, Ehelebe would control the entire world.
"He'll be prepared for the day."
"It is well."
Chin kept his eyes downcast, though the ruby eyepieces of his mask concealed them. Like the Bear, he had his reservations and ambitions. He hoped he hid them better than did Ko Feng.
"Farewell, then." The bent old man returned to his hiding place wearing an amused smile.
Moments later a winged horse took flight from behind The Yellow-Eyed Dragon, coursed across the moon into the mysteries of the night.
"Lang! Tarn!" she called. "Come eat." The boys glanced from their clay marbles to the crude hut, crossed gazes. Lang bent to shoot again. "Lang! Tarn! You come here right now!" The boys sighed, shrugged, gathered their marbles. It was aconundrum. Mothers, from the dawn of time, never had understood the importance of finishing the game.
There in the Yan-lin Kuo Forest, astride Shinsan's nebulous eastern border, they called her The Hag of The Wood even though she hadn't yet reached her twentieth birthday. With woodcutters and charcoal-burners she plied the ancient trade, and for their wives and daughters she crafted petty charms and wove weak spells. She was sufficiently tainted by the Power to perform simple magicks. Those and her sex were all she had.
Her sons entered the hut, Tam limping on his club foot.
The meal wasn't much. Boiled cabbage. No meat. But it was as good as the best forest people had. In Yan-lin Kuo the well-to-do looked at poverty from the belly side.
"Tran!" Happiness illuminated the woman's face.
A youth of seventeen pushed inside, a rabbit dangling from his left hand. A tall man, he swept her into the bow of his right arm, planted a kiss on her cheek. "And how are you boys?"
Lang and Tam grinned.
Tran wasn't of the majority race of Shinsan. The forest people, who had been under Dread Empire suzerainty for a historically brief time, had a more mahogany cast of skin, yet racially were akin to the whites of the west. Culturally they were ages behind either, having entered the Iron Age solely by virtue of trade. In their crude way they were as cruel as their rulers.
Of his people Tran was the sole person for whom the woman felt anything. And her feelings were reciprocated. There was an unspoken understanding: they would eventually marry.
Tran was a woodsman and trapper. He always provided for the Hag, asking nothing in return. And consequently received more than any who paid.
The boys were young, but they knew about men and women. They gobbled cabbage, then abandoned the hut.
They resumed their game. Neither gained much advantage.
A shadow fell across the circle. Tam looked up.
A creature of nightmare loomed over Lang. It wore the shape of a man, and a man might have lurked within that chitinous black armor. Or a devil. There was no visible evidence either way.
He was huge, six inches taller than Tran, the tallest man Tam knew. He was heavier of build.
He stared at Tam for several seconds, then gestured.
"Lang," Tam said softly.
Four more giants entered the clearing, silently as death by night. Were they human? Even their faces were concealed behind masks showing crystal squares where eyeholes should be.
These four bore naked, long black swords with razor edges and tips that glowed red hot.
"Ma!" Lang shrieked, scampering toward the hut.
Tam shrieked, "Monsters!" and pursued Lang.
With club foot and half an arm he wasn't much of a runner. The first giant caught him easily.
The Hag and Tran burst from the hut. Lang scooted round and clung to Tran's leg, head leaning against his mother's thigh.
Tam squirmed and squealed. The giant restrained him, and otherwise ignored him.
"Oh, Gods," the woman moaned. "They've found me." Tran seemed to know what she meant.
He selected a heavy stick from her woodpile.
Tarn's captor passed him to one of his cohorts, drew his blade. Indigo-purple oil seemed to run its length. It swayed like a cobra about to strike.
"Tran, no. You can't stop them. Save yourself."
Tran moved toward the giant.
"Tran, please. Look at their badges. They're from the Imperial Standard. The Dragon sent them."
Sense gradually penetrated Tran's brain. He stood no chance against the least of Shinsan's soldiers. No one alive had much chance against men of the Imperial Standard Legion. That was no legion brag. These men had trained since their third birthdays. Fighting was their way of life, their religion. They had been chosen from Shinsan's healthiest, stoutest children. They were smart, and utterly without fear. Their confidence in their invincibility was absolute.
Tran could only get himself killed.
"Please, Tran. It's over. There's nothing you can do. I'm dead."
The hunter reflected. His thoughts were shaped by forest life. He decided.
Some might have called him coward. But Tran's people were realists. He would be useless to anyone hanging from a spike which had been driven into the base of his skull, while hisentrails hung out and his hands and feet lay on the ground before him.
He grabbed Lang and ran.
No one pursued him.
He stopped running once he reached cover.
The soldiers shed their armor.
They had to be following orders. They didn't rape and plunder like foreign barbarians. They did what they were told, and only what they were told, and their service was reward enough.
The woman's screams ripped the afternoon air.
They didn't kill Tam, just made him watch.
In all things there are imponderables, intangibles, and unpredicatables. The most careful plan cannot account for every minuscule factor. The greatest necromancer cannot divine precisely enough to define the future till it becomes predestined. In every human enterprise the planners and seers deal with and interpret only the things they know. Then they usually interpret incorrectly.
But, then, even the gods are fallible. For who created Man?
Some men call the finagle factor Fate.
The five who had gone to the Hag's hut became victims of the unpredictable.
Tam whimpered in their grasp, remembering the security of his mother's arms when wolf calls tormented the night and chill north winds whipped their little fire's flames. He remembered and wept. And he remembered the name Nu Li Hsi.
The forest straddled Shinsan's frontier with Han Chin, which was more a tribal territory than established state. The Han Chin generally tried not to attract attention, but sometimes lacked restraint.
There were a hundred raiders in the party which attacked the five. Forty-three didn't live to see home again. That was why the world so feared the soldiers of Shinsan.
The survivors took Tam with them believing anyone important to the legionnaires must be worth a ransom.
Nobody made an offer.
The Han Chin taught the boy fear. They made of him a slave and toy, and when it was their mood to amuse themselves with howls, they tortured him.
They didn't know who he was, but he was of Shinsan and helpless. That was enough.
There was a new man among those who met, though only he, Chin, and Ko Feng knew. It was ever thus with the Nines. Some came, some went. Few recognized the changes.
The conspiracy was immortal.
"There's a problem," Chin told his audience. "The Han Chin have captured our candidate. The western situation being tense, this places a question before the Nine."
Chin had had his instructions. "The Princes Thaumaturge have chivvied Varthlokkur till his only escape can be to set the west aflame. I suggest we suborn the scheme and assume it for our own, nudging at the right moment, till it can rid us of the Princes. Come. Gather round. I want to repeat a divination."
He worked with the deftness of centuries of experience, nursing clouds from a tiny brazier. They boiled up and turned in upon themselves, not a wisp escaping. Tiny lightning bolts ripped through....
"Trela stri! Sen me stri!" Chin commanded. "Azzari an walla in walli stri!"
The cloud whispered in the same tongue. Chin gave instructions in his own language. "The fate, again, of the boy...."
That which lived beyond the cloud muttered something impatient.
It flicked over the past, showing them the familiar tale of Varthlokkur, and showed them that wizard's future, and the future of the boy who dwelt with the Han Chin. Nebulously. The thing behind the cloud could not, or would not, define the parameters.
There were those imponderables, intangibles, and unpredicatables.
As one, Chin's associates sighed.
"The proposal before us is this: Do we concentrate on shaping these destinies to our advantage? For a time the west would demand our complete attention. The yield? Our goals achieved at a tenth the price anticipated."
The vote was unanimous.
Chin made a sign before the Nine departed.
The one who remained was different. Chin said, "Lord Wu,you're our brother in the east. The boy will be your concern. Prepare him to assume his father's throne."
Once Wu departed, that secret door opened. "Excellent," said the bent old man. "Everything is going perfectly. I congratulate you. You're invaluable to the Pracchia. We'll call you to meet the others soon."
Chin's hidden eyes narrowed. His Nine-mask, arrogantly, merely reversed his Tervola mask. The others wore masks meant to conceal identities. Chin was mocking everyone....
Again the old man departed wearing a small, secretive smile.
Tam was nine when Shinsan invaded Han Chin. It was a brief little war, though bloody. A handful of sorcerer's apprentices guided legionnaires to the hiding places of the natives, who quickly died.
The man in the woods didn't understand.
For four years Tran had watched and waited. Now he moved. He seized Tam and fled to the cave where he lived with Lang.
The soldiers came next morning.
Tran wept. "It isn't fair," he whispered. "It just isn't fair." He prepared to die fighting.
A thin man in black, wearing a golden locust mask, entered the circle of soldiers. "This one?" He indicated Tam.
"Yes, Lord Wu."
Wu faced Tam, knelt. "Greetings, Lord." He used words meaning Lord of Lords. O Shing. It would become a title. "My Prince."
Tran, Lang, Tam stared. What insanity was this?
"Who are the others?" Wu asked, rising.
"The child of the woman, Lord. They believe themselves brothers. The other calls himself Tran. One of the forest people. The woman's lover. He protected the boy the best he could the past four years. A good and faithful man."
"Do him honor, then. Place him at O Shing's side." Again that Lord of Lords, so sudden and confusing.
Tran didn't relax.
Wu asked him, "You know me?"
"I am Wu, of the Tervola. Lord of Liaontung and Yan-lin Kuo, and now of Han Chin. My legion is the Seventeenth. The
Council has directed me to recover the son of the Dragon Prince."
Tran remained silent. He didn't trust himself. Tarn looked from one man to the other.
"The boy with the handicaps. He's the child of Nu Li Hsi. The woman kidnapped him the day of his birth. Those who came before.... They were emissaries of his father."
Tran said nothing, though he knew the woman's tale.
Wu was impatient with resistance. "Disarm him," he ordered. "Bring him along."
The soldiers did it in an instant, then took the three to Wu's citadel at Liaontung.