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TWENTY: The Dragon Emperor

Shinsan had no recognized capital. Hadn't had since the murder of Tuan Hoa.The Princes Thaumaturge had refused to rest their heads on the same pillows twice, Life itself had depended on baffling the brother's assassins and night-sendings.

The mind of Shinsan's empire rested wherever the imperial banner flew.

Venerable Huang Tain constituted its intellectual center. The primary temples and universities clustered there.

Chin favored Huang Tain. "There's plenty of space," he argued. "Half the temples are abandoned."

They had been in the city a month, recuperating from the flight homeward. "I'm not comfortable here," O Shing replied. "I grew up on the border." He couldn't define it precisely. Too refined and domesticated? Close. He was a barbarian prince amongst natty, slick priests and professors. And Huang Tain was much too far west....

Lang, Wu, Tran, Feng, and others shared his discomfort. These westerners weren't their kind of people.

While touring Tuan Hoa's palace and gardens-now a museum and park-O Shing paused near one of the numerous orators orbiting the goldfish ponds.

"Chin, I can't follow the dialect. Did he call the Tervola 'bastard offspring of a mating of the dark side of humanity and Truth pervertedI?"

"Yes, Lord."

"But...."

"He's harmless." Chin whispered to a city official accom-panying them. "Let him rave, Lord. We control the Power."

"They dare not challenge that," said Feng. A sardonic laugh haunted his mask momentarily.

"They call themselves slaves-and enjoy more freedom than scholars anywhere else," Chin observed. "Even in Hellin Daimiel thinkers are more restrained."

"Complete freedom," said Wu. "Except to change anything."

Both O Shing and Chin wondered at his tone.

The official whispered to Chin, who then announced, "This's Kin Kuo-Lin. A history teacher."

The historian raved on, opposing the wind, drawing on his expertise to abominate the Tervola and prove them fore-doomed. His mad eyes met O Shing's. He found sympathy there.

I'm incomplete, O Shing thought. As lame in soul as in body. And I'll never heal. Like my leg, it's immutable. But none of us are whole, nor ever will be. Chin. Wu. Feng. They've rejected their chance for wholeness to pursue obsessions. Tran, Lang, and I spent too much time staying alive. Our perspectives are inalterably narrowed to the survival-reactive. In this land, in these alum-flavored times, nobody will have the chance to grow, to find completeness.

Some lives have to be lived in small cages. Tam was sure the walls of his weren't all of others' making.

He chose to show the imperial banner at Liaontung. He was comfortable with that old sentinel of the east. And Liaontung was a long, long way from the focus of the Tervola's west-glaring obsession.

"I swear. Wu rubbed his hands in glee when Tran told him." Lang giggled. "Chin like to had a stroke. Feng sided with Wu. Watch Wu, Tam. I don't think he's your friend anymore."

"Never was," Tran growled. He still resented Tarn's having trusted Tervola expertise before his own.

"That's not fair, Tran. Wu is a paradox. Several men. One is my friend. But he isn't in control. Like me, Wu was cut from the wrong bolt. He's damned by his ancestry too. He has the Power. He yields to it. But he'd rather be Wu the Compassionate."

Tran eyed him uncertainly. The changed, more philosophi-cal, more empathetic Tam, tempered in the crucible of the flight from Baxendala, baffled him. Tran's image of himself as a man of action, immune to serious thought, became a separating gulf in these moments.

To defend his self-image Tran invariably introduced military business.

"The spring classes will graduate twenty thousand," he said, offering a thick report. He still hadn't learned to read well, but had recruited a trustworthy scribe. "Those are Feng's assign-ment recommendations. Weighted toward the eastern legions, but I can't find real fault. I'd say initial it."

No one could fault O Shing and his Tervola for reinforcing the most reliable legions first.

"Boring," Tam declared five pages in. "These reports can be handled at subordinate levels, Tran. Sometimes I think I'm being swamped just to distract me."

"You want to rule these wolves, you'd better know everything about them," Lang remarked.

"I know. Still, there's got to be a way to get time for things I want to do. Tran. Extract me a list of Tervola and Aspirants linked with legions being shorted. And one of Candidates I don't know personally. Lang, arrange for them to visit Liaontung. Maybe I can pick the men who get promoted."

"I like that," said Tran. "We can move the Chins out."

About Chin Tran had developed an obsession. He knew their former hunter remained a secret foe. He went to absurd lengths to make his case. Yet he could prove nothing.

O Shing already pursued a policy of favoritism in promotions. He was popular with the Aspirants. He became more so when he pushed the policy harder. The machinery of army and empire drifted to his control. His hidden enemies recognized the shift, could do little to halt it.

One thing Tam couldn't accomplish. He couldn't convince one Tervola to repudiate the need to avenge Baxendala.

It was a matter of the honor and reputation of an army unaccustomed to defeat.

Feng, in a rare, expansive mood, explained, "The legions had never been defeated. Invincibility was their most potent weapon. It won a hundred bloodless victories.

"They weren't defeated at Baxendala, either. We were. Their commanders. To our everlasting shame. Your Tran understood better than we did, not having had the shock of losing the Power to impair his reason. Our confusion, our panic, our irrational response-hell, our cowardice-killed thousands and stigma-tized the survivors."

A moment of raw emotion burned through when Feng declared, "We sacrificed the Imperial Standard, Lord!"

"While Baxendala remains unredeemed, while this Ragnar-son creature constitutes living proof that the tide of destiny can be stemmed, our enemies will resist when, otherwise, they'd yield. We're paying in blood.

"Lord, the legions are the bones of Shinsan. If we allow evenone to be broken, we subject the remainder, and the flesh itself, to a magnified hazard. In the long run, we risk less by pursuing revenge."

"I follow you," O Shing replied. Feng spoke for Feng, privately, but his was the opinion of his class. "In fact, I can't refute you."

Tran, who disagreed with the Tervola by reflex, supported them in this. Every Tervola who managed an audience had a scheme for requiting Baxendala. Stemming the tide devoured Tarn's time, making his days processions of boring sameness only infrequently relieved by change or intrigue.

Yet he built.

Five years and six days after the ignominy of Baxendala, Select Fu Piao-Chuong knelt and swore fealty to O Shing. Not to Shinsan, the Throne, or Council, but to an individual. His emperor assigned him an obscure post with a western legion. He bore, under seal, orders to other Aspirants in posts equally obscure.

The night-terrorist Hounds of Shadow struck within the week.

After a second week, Lord Wu, maskless, agitated, appealed, "Lord, what's happening?" He seemed baffled and hurt. "Great men are dying. Commanders of legions have been murdered. Manors and properties have been destroyed. Priests and civil servants have been beaten or killed. Our old followers from the days of hiding are inciting rebellion around the Mienming and Mahai. When we question a captured terrorist he invariably names an Aspirant as his commander. The Aspirant cites you as his authority."

"I'm not surprised."

"Lord! Why have you done this? It's suicide."

"I doubt it."

"Lord! You've truly attacked your Tervola?"

Lang and Tran were surprised too. They weren't privy to all of O Shing's secrets either. He was developing the byz.antine thought-set an emperor of Shinsan needed to survive.

"I deny attacking my Tervola, Lord Wu. You'll find no loyal names among those of the dead. The evidence against each was overwhelming. It's been accumulating for years. Years, Lord Wu. And I reserved judgment on a lot of names. I indicted no one because he had been an enemy in the past. Lord Chin lives. His sins are forgiven. The Hounds will pulldown only those who stand against me now."

"Yes, Lord." Wu had grown pale.

"It'll continue. Lord Wu. Until it's finished. Those who remain faithful have nothing to fear.

"My days of patience, of gentleness, of caution, have ended. I will be emperor. Unquestioned, unchallenged, unbeholden, the way my grandfather was. If the Council objects, let it prove one dead man wasn't my enemy. Till then the baying of the Hounds of Shadow will keep winding on the back trails of treachery. Let those with cause fear the sound of swift hooves."

Wu carefully bowed himself out.

"There goes a frightened man," Tran remarked. His smile was malicious.

"He has cause," Lang observed. "He's afraid his name will come up."

"It won't," said Tam. "If he's dirty, he's hidden it perfectly."

"Chin's your ringleader," Tran declared.

"Prove it."

"He's right," Lang agreed.

"Is he? Can I face the Council with that? Bring me evidence, Tran. Prove it's not just bitterness talking. Wait! Hear me out. I agree with you. I'm not asleep. But he looks as clean as Wu. He doesn't leave tracks. Intuition isn't proof."

Tran bowed slightly, angrily. "Then I'll get proof." He stalked out.

Tam did agree. Chin was a viper. But he was the second most powerful man in Shinsan. and logical successor to the empire. His purge would have to be sustained by iron-bound evidence presented at a perfectly timed moment.

Chin would resist. Potential allies had to be politically disarmed beforehand.

The Council, increasingly impatient with O Shing's delay in moving west, were growing cool. Some members would support any move to topple him.

It was a changed Shinsan. A polarized, politicized Shinsan. Even Wu admitted his suspicion that the empire had been better off under the Dual Principate. It had, at least, been stable, if static.

While Tran obsessively rooted for evidence damning Chin, Tam healed old wounds and opened new ones. He studied, and quietly aimed his Hounds at their midnight targets. And futilely persisted in trying to draw the venom of the Tervola's western obsession.

Then, without Tran there to advise them otherwise, he and

Lang began riding with the Hounds.

Select Hsien Luen-Chuoung was a Wu favorite, a Com-mander-of-a-Thousand in the Seventeenth. Such a post usually rated a full Tervola. The evidence was irrefutable. O Shing had, for the sake of peace with Wu, avoided acting earlier.

The unsigned, intercepted note sealed Chuoung's doom.

"Go ahead. Deliver it," Tarn told a post rider who was one of his agents. "We'll see who his accomplices are. Lang, start tracing it back." The note had come to his man from another post rider, who in turn had received it at a way station in the west.

The message? "Prepare Nine for Dragon Kill."

O Shing was The Dragon. It was his symbol, inherited from his father. The sign in the message was his, not the common glyph for dragon, nor even the thaumaturgic symbol.

So, Tarn thought. Tran was right, after all, in mistrusting learning. His advice about suborning the post riders had paid off.

"Lang, I want to go on this one myself. Let me know when the wolves are in the trap."

Chuoung, unsuspicious, gathered his co-conspirators imme-diately.

"It looks bad for Lord Wu," Lang averred as he helped Tarn with his armor. The conspirators were all officers of the Seventeenth or important civilians from Wu's staff.

"Maybe. But nobody contacted him. He hasn't shown a sign of moving. And the message came from the west. I think somebody subverted his legion."

"Chin somebody?"

"Maybe. Remembering their confrontations back when, he might want Wu more vulnerable if there were a next time. Come. They'll be waiting."

Twelve Hounds loafed in the forest near the postern. Tam examined them unhappily. These scruffy ruffians were the near-Tervola he had recruited? He had insisted on having the best for this mission. These looked like they were the bandits the Council accused them of being.

Chuoung occupied a manor house a few miles southwest of Liaontung. As Commander-of-a-Thousand he rated a body-guard of ten. And there would be sorcery. Most of Chuoung's traitor-coven were trained in the Power.

O Shing sent a black sleeping-fog to those guards in barracks.

Thus, six would never know what had happened. To distract the conspirators themselves he raised a foul-tempered arch-salamander....

They were guilty. He listened at a window long enough to be sure before he attacked.

Pure, raging hatred hit him then. Nine men squawked in surprise and fear when he lunged into the room, his bad foot nearly betraying him.

Their wardspells had been neutralized unnoticed by a greater Power.

The salamander blasted through the door.

They weren't prepared. The thing raged, fired the very stone in its fury. Screams ripped through melting Tervola-imitative masks. Scorched flesh odors conquered the night. O Shing retched.

Chuoung tried to strike back.

Lang, from over Tarn's shoulder, drove a javelin through a jeweled eye-slit.

"Keep some alive," O Shing gulped as the Hounds swept in.

Too late. The surprise had been too complete, the attack too efficient. In seconds all nine were beyond answering any questions ever. The salamander didn't even leave shades which could be recalled.

O Shing banished the monster before it could completely destroy the room, then searched Chuoung's effects.

He found nothing.

He interrupted his digging an hour later, suddenly realizing that the screaming hadn't stopped. Why not? The conspirators were dead.

He went looking for his Hounds.

They were behaving like western barbarians, murdering, raping, plundering. And Lang was in the thick of it.

Tam spat, disgusted, and limped back to Liaontung alone.

Lang became addicted. He was a born vandal. He began riding every raid, ranging ever farther from Liaontung, using his fraternal ties to acquire ever greater command of the Hounds.

O Shing didn't pay any heed. He was happy to have Lang out of his way.

Lang did love it, making the Hounds his career....

The men attacked didn't accept their fates passively. O Shing lost followers. Yet every raid encouraged recruiting.

A plague swept Shinsan. Rejection of the established orderbecame endemic. And O Shing didn't see the peril, that rebels are always against, never for, and rebellion becomes an end in itself, a serpent devouring its own tail.

It got out of hand. His tool, his weapon, began cutting at its own discretion.

Lords Chin and Wu came to O Shing. Backing them were Ko Feng, Teng, Ho Lin and several other high lords of the Council of Tervola. They were angry, and didn't bother hiding it.

Their appearance was message enough, though Wu insisted on articulating their grievance.

"Last night men wearing the Hound Badge invaded Lord Chin's domains. You challenged the Council to prove you in error. Today the Council insists that you produce proof of Lord Chin's perfidy."

O Shing didn't respond till he had obtained absolute control of his emotions. He had authorized no action against Chin.

He didn't dare be intimidated. "Those were no men of mine. Were they once, I repudiate them now. I said before, I bear Lord Chin no malice. Till he gives me cause otherwise, his enemies will be mine. I'll find these bandits and punish them." He doubted that that would mollify the Council, though.

"They have been punished. Lord," Chin replied. "They're dead. All but one." He gestured.

Soldiers dragged a chained Lang into the presence. The bravado of the night rider had fled him. He was scared sick, and more terrified of Tam than of his captors.

O Shing stared, tormented. "I'll issue orders. Henceforth any who raid, anywhere, any time, will be outlawed. They'll be my enemies as well as the enemies of my enemies." Tran misbehaving he would have believed more readily than Lang. "The Terror ends. Henceforth, the Hounds will course outlaws only. Lord Chin, restitution will be made."

"And this one?"

"His actions convict him. I gave my word. The Hounds would strike only where the proof was absolute." He didn't flinch from the Tervola's gaze. He wanted Chin to know he dared make no mistake.

Lang, Chin, and Wu all seemed astonished because he didn't ask for the gift of a life.

It hurt, but he meant it. To bend these people to his will he was going to have to stop being indecisive and vacillatory. The future demanded a demonstration. Lang had convicted himself.

Tam could ache with temptation, but O Shing dared reveal no weakness. The vulture wings of chaos shadowed his empire. He had to take control.

"Lang. Do you have something to say?"

His brother shook his head.

Tam was glad Tran was absent. The hunter's accusatory stare might have withered his resolve. He needed time to develop the habits of autocracy. "Your judgment, Lord Chin. You're the injured party."

Ruby eye-crystals tracked brother and brother. Then one gloved hand removed the cat-gargoyle mask. "It ends here, my Lord. I yield him to you. There's been enough unhappiness between us."

"A good thought, Lord Chin." You guileful snake. "Thank you. Is there anything else?"

"When do we avenge the Imperial Standard?" Feng snarled.

Wu took Feng's elbow. Chin said, "Nothing, Lord. Good day."

The door closed behind Chin. Lang whined, "Were you really going to...?"

"Yes." Tam limped to his communications devices. "I won't tolerate disobedience from anyone. Not even you. I didn't ask to be emperor. I didn't want to be. But here I am. And emperor I'll be. Despite all of you. Understand?"

The following week he ordered the deaths of seventy Hounds. His revolution had to end.

This was the inevitable blood purge of the professional rebels, men for whom the raiding, the fighting, was cause enough. Now the insurrectionists had to give way to the administrators. All Shinsan. he vowed, would become as steady and responsive as it had been during Tuan Hoa's reign. If he could just remain decisive....

Lang's indiscretion precipitated the Change, the Day, the Final, Absolute Decision.

Henceforth Tam would be O Shing. Completely, in the manner pioneered by Shinsan's founding tyrant. He would yield, minimally, only to absolute political necessity.

Shinsan's First Nine met in extraordinary session. Every member made sure he could attend. The Nines themselves were imperiled.

The last was still in the doorway when the cat-gargoyle said,

"O Shing suspects. His Hounds weren't indulging in random violence. There was a pattern. He was trying to get a fix on who we are and what we're doing. He's suddenly a liability instead of an asset. Tally against him, too, his unremitting resistance to western operations. And his popular support. Question: Has he outlived his usefulness?"

The man in a fanged turtle mask (Lord Wu's current Nine disguise) countered, "I disagree. He's young. Still malleable. He's been subjected to too much pressure in too little time. Remember, he's risen to emperor from slavery in a few short years, without benefit of Tervola time-perspective. We're being too hasty. Ease the pressure. He'll mellow. Don't discard this tool before it's finish-forged. We're close to him. Eliminate his companions so he becomes dependent on our guidance."

Wu argued from the heart, from the identical weak streak that had earned him the sobriquet "The Compassionate." He felt more for O Shing than the youth had ever suspected.

Wu had no sons of his own.

He also argued from ignorance. He didn't know that Lord Chin had to conform to the timetable of a higher Nine.

Chin knew Wu's blind spots.

"I shouldn't have to admonish our brother about security discipline. Yet what he says deserves consideration. I propose a week's recess for reflection before we redefine our policies and goals. Remain available. In the name of the Nine."

One by one they departed, till only Chin and a companion remained. "Do we need another promotion?" the companion asked.

"Not this time, Feng. He spoke from his heart, but he won't desert the Nine. I know him that well."

Chin couldn't say that Wu, probably, couldn't be killed anyway. Mist had failed. And Chin himself, fearing future confrontations, had made several more serious attempts, in Mist's behalf, than his Ehelebe role had demanded. Wu could be slippery, and a terrible, determined enemy.

"As you will."

The bent man appeared after Feng left. "Delay action," he ordered. "But lay the groundwork. O Shing will have to go sometime. He'll resist when the Pracchia's hour arises."

Chin nodded. He needed no orders to do what he planned anyway. Hadn't he sniffed the breeze with Select Chuoung already? The cretin had muffed everything.... "And hisreplacement? He has no heir, and the Pracchia dares not operate openly."

"Shall we say someone with direct responsibility to the Pracchia? Someone seated with the High Nine?"

Chin bowed. He hoped he put enough subservience into what, really, was a restrained gesture of victory. Soon, Shinsan. Later, perhaps, Ehelebe.

"Step up your western operations. The hour of Ehelebe approaches."

This time Chin bowed with more feeling. He enjoyed the intrigues he was running out there. They presented real challenges, and provided genuine results. "I'm handling it personally. It proceeds with absolute precision."

The bent man smiled thinly. "Take care. Lord Chin. You're the Pracchia's most valuable member."

The man in the cat-gargoyle didn't respond. But his mind darted, examining possibilities, rolling the old man's words around to see how much meaning dared be attached. They were playing a subtle, perilous game.

The armies had begun gathering. The storm was about to break upon an unsuspecting west. O Shing had exhausted the tactics of delay. His excuses had perished like roses in the implacable advance of a tornado. The legions had healed. Shinsan was at peace with itself. The Tervola were strong and numerous.

Liaontung bulged with Tervola and their staffs. O Shing had chosen Lord Wu to command the expedition. Wu was putting it together quickly and skillfully, abetted by hungry, eager, cooperative Tervola. Their obsession was about to be fulfilled.

O Shing could no longer back down.

Sometimes he wondered about the consequences of another Baxendala. More often, he worried about those of victory. Fora decade, anticipation of this war had colored the Tervolas' every action and thought. It had become part of them. After the west collapsed, what? Would Shinsan turn upon itself, east against west, in a grander, more terrible version of the drama briefly envisioned in the struggle with Mist?

And sometimes he wondered about that eldritch lady. She had given up too easily. For the well-being of Shinsan? Or because she wanted him to play out some brief, violent destiny of his own before renewing her claims?

Neither Tran nor Lang had unearthed any nostalgic sentiment surrounding Mist, but in this land, with its secrecies, sorceries, and conspiracies, anything was possible.

She would have to be eliminated. Merely by living she posed a threat.

Tran returned from the Roe basin, where he had been watching the progress of a curious war. He brought some unusual news.

"It's taken me years," he enthused, bursting into Tarn's apartment still filthy from the road. "But I've got Chin. Not enough to prove him your enemy, but enough to nail him for insubordination. Acting without orders. Making policy without consulting the Throne."

Lang arrived. "Calm down. Start from the top. I want to hear this." He gave Tam a wicked look.

O Shing nodded.

"The war in the Roe basin. Chin is orchestrating it. He's been busy the past couple years. Look. Here. He's been skipping all over the west. Chaos followed him like a loyal old hound dog." He offered several pages of hastily scribbled report.

"Lang? Read it. Tran, watch the door. Chin's out of town, but he and Wu are getting like that." He crossed his fingers.

Lang droned through Tran's outline of an odd itinerary. There were numerous gaps, when Chin's whereabouts simply hadn't been determinable, but, equally, enough non-gaps to damn the Tervola for violating his emperor's explicit orders.

They fell to arguing whether action should wait till after the western campaign. O Shing felt Chin would be valuable in that.

Tam dogged the relationship between Wu and Chin, wondering if, for so slight a cause, Lord Wu ought to be put to the question....

They forgot the door.

Lang's eyes suddenly bulged.

O Shing looked up. The moment at the Hag's hut flashed through his mind.

"Wu!" they gasped.


NINETEEN: Funerals and Assassins | All Darkness Met | TWENTY-ONE: The King Is Dead. Long Live the King



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