Excerpt for To Journey in the Year of the Tiger by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



To Journey in the Year of the Tiger


(Book 1 from

The Rise of the Upper Kingdom)





H. Leighton Dickson

Copyright © 2012 H. Leighton Dickson

All rights reserved.

ISBN-13: 978-1478127093


OTHER BOOKS IN THE

RISE OF THE UPPER KINGDOM

SERIES

Book 2: To Walk in the Way of Lions

Book 3: Songs in the Year of the Cat

Book 4: Snow in the Year of the Dragon


Prequels:

Swallowtail & Sword: The Scholar’s Book of Story & Song



DEDICATION


To Brynn, Graeme and Megan

(my own little lion cubs)




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


I would like to thank my children, Brynn, Graeme and Megan, for taking this journey with me over the last few years. I would also like to thank my husband Alan for letting me stew over a hot computer evening after evening. I would most especially like to thank that gang at Fanfiction dot net for rewarding me with reviews and letting me know that I did, in fact, have it in me.







DharamShallah


It was hard to believe that a man could see twenty-three winters before he began to live. It is harder even to believe that his life began all at once, on one night, with the occurring of three obscure and apparently random things: the death of a bird, the flash of golden eyes and the first of One Hundred Steps. But for Kirin Wynegarde-Grey, it did happen, just this way. His life began, as all great and terrible things do, in the Year of the Tiger.


***


It was almost the close of the Second Watch and the falcon soared high above the Great Mountains. She was small and speckled with the familiar mask of peregrine grey and the wide fantail of the raptor. Bells streaked from the leathers that wrapped her thin legs, securing a tiny parchment in place. She scanned the land below, her wing dipping slightly as she spied the first of the torches lining the road into the city. She had flown all night, navigating the violent winds that blew through the mountains but now, with her destination in sight, she tucked in her wings and dove like an arrow.

Still the swiftest creature of earth or sky.

Suddenly, without chirrup or cry, the falcon died. Her head twisted back, her wings folded neatly over her spine. She never pulled out from her dive and plummeted to the ground within seconds. A snowdrift became her tomb, silent and unadorned, save for the single small, dark pit to mark the bird’s passing.

In a Hall far to the North somewhere, a priest died as well.

It was the close of the Second Watch.


***


He could see his breath when he paused at the top of the One Hundred Steps. The Imperial banner flapped above him in the darkness and lanterns burned all around, throwing golden light into the night sky. He was very high up and it was not quite dawn, so he turned back to look across the rooftops of the city at his feet.

It was the quiet hour before sunrise. A few windows already glowed from lamps within and smoke curled from every chimney. The winter had been cold and hearths were kept fed long into the night. But winter would not last forever and now, as he stood under the Imperial banner, he could see the first streaks of purple behind the mountains and he knew that they were greeting another morning in peace.

DharamShallah, the Jewel of the Upper Kingdom.

This was the Roof of the World.

Towering above it all, the palace of Pol’Lhasa slept like a baby, cradled in the arms of her Mother the Great Mountains. She needed no fortified walls, this Palace. The peaks themselves were her soldiers, spears of white against the morning sky. Kathandu herself was guardian, her snowy cliffs serving as battlements, her glaciers deadly moats. Bitter winds and treacherous paths were both nursemaid and sentry, allowing only the chosen to enter the courts that were the heart and soul and will of the Upper Kingdom.

He felt a rush of pride, which warmed him more than hearths or lanterns. He turned and made his way underneath the pillars of the Outer Court. Leopards watched him as he passed and large ebony doors swung open to allow him through. Of course they would let him through. He was a lion and he wore a sash of Imperial gold. He was Kirin Wynegarde-Grey, Captain of the Empress’s personal guard. Like his father had been before him, and his father’s father before that. His was a noble family, theirs a royal house.

In this early hour, the Palace was awake but quiet. Leopards lined the walls, eyes roving, swords and staffs ready. Servants moved along the corridors on slippered feet, carrying baskets of linens and food. Ministers moved to and from offices to the tune of a lone koto. It was bowed at night, not plucked, and sounded like the Palace breathing. At this hour, when most cats were sound asleep in their beds, a few worked to keep them safe and unknowing and fed. It was the way of things.

They were at the cusp of a New Year and the entire Kingdom would celebrate as the Year of the Ox withdrew into the waters and the Tiger prowled onto the Celestial stage. The Ox had been a good year, a productive one and stable. Policies had been made, alliances built, and the Wall had advanced into Shyria half a world away. But the Tiger meant other things for Tiger years were turbulent and full of social upheaval. Things would change during a Tiger year. Society would change and for a man charged with the security of such a Kingdom, ‘change’ was not a good thing.

And he was a very young man.

He strode past the Seven Candles, a prayer room for the ministers and chancellors of the Court, and he smiled. There were far more than seven candles in the vast scarlet room, with torches and incense pots and kettles. Already several ministers were engaged in early morning rituals of cleansing or forgiveness, of sanctification or supplication. Prayer wheels spun, holy beads counted, parchments written and burned with prayers rising up to the heavens on trails of smoke. It was a room filled with talismen and idols, purified water and sticks of incense. They were a religious people, a favored people, and they held fast to many holy things. Cats are, after all, a holy people.

The Minister of Fields spied him, bowed slightly. Kirin nodded but continued walking. He cut an imposing figure, twin swords at his hips, dark golden mane fanning down his back like a cloak. He was the ideal Captain for such an army, being tall, square-shouldered and regal like his father before him. The Bushido was strong in him too. He was Shah’tyriah, the warrior caste and the Way of the Warrior shaped his very being. In fact, he was in many ways like his father, possessing the same quiet authority, the same sober intelligence and the same deep, soft, rumbling voice accented in the tongue of the Old Court. Indeed, it was said that much of his authority came from his voice, for when he spoke he used few words and his men were forced to listen carefully for his orders. He had never been heard to raise his voice, never been seen to lash his tail, never been seen to unsheathe his claws. It was simply not his way.

He was a lion among lions, ideal to command such forces of men.

(And, according to the ladies of the Royal Court, he was also rather pleasing to look upon and he was often the subject of their fancies. Another thing that pleased the ladies of the Royal Court, was the fact that, like the Empress, he had not chosen a suitor, which was also and often the subject of their fancies, and his mother was constantly beset with offers. I know this for fact. His brother has told me many stories.)

His boots echoed as he trotted down a winding staircase made of polished teak and soon, he was in the Hall of Warriors.

Which was really a misnomer. It was more a hall of diplomats, of government officials overseeing the armies of the Kingdom, and it was located on one of the lower floors of the Palace. He loved this Hall though, loved the smell of the cedar and teak and the leather, loved the shine of the swords and the gleam of the armor lining the walls.

At the far end of the hallway, a panther stood outside his office, wearing the uniform of the elite and personal bodyguards of Her Excellency, the Empress. A messenger from her. Kirin’s heart thudded in his chest but was interrupted by a voice to his right.

“Kirin-san.”

He turned to see Master Yeo Tang St. John, Minister of Horses, in a doorway. St. John was also a lion, and he wore robes of Imperial gold. His mane was shot with silver and pulled back into an elaborate top-knot. Kirin rarely wore top-knots. He preferred a simpler style, his mane pulled off his neck in a simple queue. It fell down to his waist, straight as a razor.

St. John bowed slightly. Kirin did the same, out of respect.

“You have the drill plans?”

“Yes,” Kirin said. “In my office.”

“I will need them soon. I hear you have asked for twenty more horses.”

St. John spoke in the Accents of the Old Courts but his voice was reedy, not at all like a normal lion. In fact, a little more like a horse.

“No,” Kirin sighed. “I have not asked for more.”

“Chancellor Agarwal said that Master Turlington said that Major Laenskaya said—”

“I have spoken with neither Chancellor Agarwal nor Master Turlington since the Moon Festival, and Major Laenskaya…” He did not smile. “Major Laenskaya does not speak to anyone.”

St. John grunted, made a move to slip back into his office. “I will need those plans soon.”

“You will have them.”

The door clicked shut.

He shook his head.

Two more doors clicked open, Ministers of Fireworks and of the Armory, and he reigned in his impatience to speak with them. It was difficult when there was a panther waiting at his door.

It was the middle of the 3rd Dynasty, when the Sacred Empress was still young. In fact, she had not yet chosen a suitor and her people were growing anxious. They needed assurance, as much as they needed diversion. So, it was with all seriousness that he, the Captain of Her Guard, was occupied with the Drill Ceremony for the upcoming Festival. The Drill Ceremony required precision troupes to ride Imperial horses through a succession of patterns. There would be fireworks of course, and dancing dragons, and speeches - a spectacle designed to enthrall the entire city, held in two night’s time. All to impress a potential suitor arriving from Cal’Cathah.

He smiled as he thought of it. Had he been Sacred-born, he would have no need of such horses, nor fireworks, nor speeches. Or had she been lioness...

But that was blasphemy and Kirin Wynegarde-Grey was no blasphemer.

And truth be told, he did not mind making arrangements for ceremonies such as this, for it reminded him of the blessed price of peace, for the succession of the Monarchy, and the perpetuation of the Pure Races.

And so he spoke with the Minister of Fireworks and the Minister of the Armory, before finally setting off toward the panther at his door.

“Sir,” the man said and handed him a scroll. It was unopened, but it needn’t have been. None of the Queen’s Panther Guard could read. Kirn’s eyes flicked downward, to the Imperial seal of coloured beeswax. Red dragon entwined around a golden cat over a black lotus. Her seal.

Kirin steeled his heart, took the scroll and entered his office, closing the door softly on the Hall of Warriors.


***


The panther could hear the sounds of humming.

After searching for hours along dark, bleak corridors, he had finally found the door. Agara’tha was notorious for its caverns. It was a labyrinthine monastery carved into the deepest rock. Its floors and walls and ceilings were granite, veins of marble and amber occasionally breaking the blackness. Torches burnt from infrequent perches, anchored into the rock with heavy iron casings. And the incense was everywhere, heavy and heady, making him wonder if he hadn’t in fact been searching for days.

Yellow smoke seeped from beneath this peculiar threshold and with a deep breath, he knocked.

“Come.”

The panther pushed the door open, the ebony warm under his palm. As he expected, the chamber was thick with incense, clouds of orange and scarlet billowing from a central hearth. It was an unnatural flame. He shuddered. The Alchemists were just as unnatural. He hated coming here.

A figure sat, cross-legged, with her back to him, facing the hearth. Clothed in absolute black, she was almost a part of the shadows herself, silhouetted as she was by the hearth’s brilliant light. A burst of white erupted from somewhere and the incense folded dramatically around her like a shroud.

He cleared his throat.

“I am looking for Sherah al Shiva.”

“You have found her.”

Her voice was deep, throaty, and he imagined it was due in part to the large amounts of smoke she breathed daily. It only added to the mystique, however, and the Alchemists were fond of their mysteries.

“I have a summons, sidala. From the Palace.”

“Leave it by the door.”

“Hand to hand, sidala. It bears the Royal seal.”

There was only the briefest of pauses, while she turned her profile to him. It was long, elegant, proud - Aegypshan. Small dark spots ran the length of her hairline, framing her face, gracing her neck and disappearing beneath the wild crush of mane along her back. A black streak ran from the inside of her kohl-rimmed eye, down her nose to curl on her cheek like a serpent.

Cheetah.

“Hand to hand,” she repeated. “Very well. Choose.”

She raised her arms, palms upturned. Suddenly, she was Kahli, with many palms and many arms, moving, undulating like many serpents flowing from the shadows of her body. He watched for a moment, spellbound before shaking his head. Of course. The incense. Only two hands, naturally, both completely still, awaiting the scroll that would end her divinations and bring her up from Agara’tha into the light of morning.

He placed the parchment in one and backed away. The wax melted without a touch, the scroll unfurled on its own. Her black lashes flicked down for the briefest of seconds as she read, then she slid her eyes to look at him. He was a senior in the Empress’ Panther Guard, having faced dragons and dogs and the great leathery behemoths that roamed the foothills of the Lesser Kingdoms. But never had he seen such a look as the one sent him by Sherah al Shiva that night.

“You shall accompany me. How delightful.”

She rose to her feet and her legs went on, and on, and on. When she approached, he could make out her pelt, smooth, fine, the colour of churned cream. Her hair was as black as night, rising from a peak in the centre of her forehead. Her eyes, spaced wide apart, seemed both wicked and wise, the insides golden, the lids painted with colors found only in stone. The tip of her thick, spotted tail curled about her ankles, and she wore both choli and salwar of black silk. Her midriff was bare, and silver vestments hung from her hips like curtains to a shrine.

He swallowed. She smiled.

“Some say the caverns of Agara’tha are tombs, sidi, waiting to claim lost souls in sleep. A man may get turned around in such darkness, in such shadow. But do not be afraid...”

Long strong fingers brushed his chin as she passed and she paused to lean into him, fanning his neck with her breath.

“…I believe I know the way.”

He believed she did.


***


Emerald eyes gazed out the small open window, drinking in the breathtaking splendor that was the palace of the Empress. According to her studies, architecture was one of the truest tests of culture, and Pol’Lhasa was so very beautiful. With her steep stepped courts, blackened cedar beams and high, winged rooftops, she towered over the city like a monarch. In her many rooms, torches had begun flickering into life as the sun rose from behind Kathandu, the Fang of the Great Mountains. This was her view every morning. It sent her to sleep every night. She still marveled that she was here at all.

And so, with a dreamy sigh, Fallon Waterford dragged her eyes from the window and back to the cramped, cluttered room that had served as her home these past eight months. It was so very different from her real home in the foothills near Parnum’bah Falls. There she and her parents and sisters had had all the space they could ever need. Groves of banana, flocks of crested pheasant and glacier-fed rivers stocked with fish. Again, she smiled, for thoughts of home brought pleasant memories. A tiger’s paradise, her father had called it, and she heartily agreed. She would be enjoying it all still, if only she hadn’t been so cursedly, maddeningly, wonderfully clever.

She snatched the scroll from her workbench, the ink still dripping and fresh. She cleared her throat and began:


THE YEAR OF THE TIGER – A LAMENT

by Empress Faisala the Wise, Second Dynasty,

Year of the Tiger


The Year of the Tiger brings war.

The Year of the Tiger brings change.

Kingdoms rise, Kingdoms fall.

Nothing is the same.


The Year of the Tiger means joy.

The Year of the Tiger means strife.

Beginnings end, Endings begin,

The heartbeat of life.


The Year of the Tiger brings change.

Nothing is as it seems.

Big adventures, Grand schemes,

Nightmares and Dreams.


The Year of the Tiger brings war.

The Year of the Tiger brings change.

People rise, People fall.

Nothing is a water buffalo.”


“Water buffalo?? Water buffalo?!”

With a dramatic cry, she crumpled the scroll and tossed it to the floor. There were many scrolls discarded there.

A pheasant peeped at her from its bamboo cage and she rolled her eyes at it with shrug.

“But it’s so hard to write in MandaRhin! It’s so different from anything else. Bad enough to memorize it but to have to write it as well! Oh mother! Imperial is so much easier! I don’t know, Sica, sometimes I think I’ve bitten off far more than I can chew here, and believe me, I can chew a lot…”

The pheasant tucked its head under its wing, dismissing her.

“Yes, yes, I know. Mother would be proud, but father, father would be pulling out his fur. ‘You’re a girl!’ he would say.What girl needs to know how to write poetry in MandaRhin? Just find a fine young tiger and settle down like your sisters. Have kittens, be happy.’”

Her golden-orange face grew wistful, the exotic stripes of darker fur creating worry-lines along her brow. Truth be told, there may have been some ink.

“I wonder if he’ll ever understand. I am happy now, here, in the University. The things I am learning, Sica! The ideas! The books - Oh, the books! I have never dreamed there could be so many books, all in one place! Who needs men when you have such books?”

The pheasant rebuked her.

“Okay, men would be nice too.”

Grinning, she reached out to close the window, drawing the iron latch toward her with a click.

Naturally, her reflection came with it.

The face in the glass was that of a tigress, not having yet reached her 18th summer, with a slim, graceful build atypical of her Race. Her pelt was tawny-orange, her arms, legs, back and tail banded with black. Splashes of white accentuated her long throat, curved ears, and bright, wide eyes. Rings of kohl exaggerated her lashes and arched over her brows to create a perpetual expression of wonder. The stripes ran off her forehead like a river delta, her mane from her face like a waterfall. It cascaded to her shoulders only to curl upwards on itself once there, and each strand of hair was tipped in snowy white. Her mouth was small but generous, and frequently contorted into a variety of smirks and smiles, pouts and frowns, for she was both a creature of sunlight and a creature of stars.

She stared at that face in the window glass.

What had her mother always said?

“’But Fallon, dear, you have such nice markings...’” She yawned, stretched, blew a stray lock of hair from her face. “Right up there with Good Family and Plentiful Harvest.”

There was a knock at her door and she froze. No one knocked on her door. Not even Anoop, the studious leopard down the hall. She bolted to the door and flung it open to find a panther standing before her, a shoulder-to-hip standard identifying him as a messenger from the Palace.

In her surprise, she closed the door in his face.

“Oh dear, oh mother, oh dear… A messenger from the Palace. Oh dear…”

She opened the door again.

“Oh! Hi. Um, I was, um... just resting, here – there – for a moment...I thought you might be a man. I mean, well, you are, um, a man…but…um, oh never mind. So? Who are you?”

“Fallon Waterford?”

“No. I’m Fallon Waterford. We haven’t determined who you are yet.”

There was no reaction, none whatsoever. The guard handed her a scroll and stepped back into the University’s hall, hands folded stiffly behind his back.

She stared at the scroll.

“Is it written in Imperial?”

He nodded.

“Well then, it’s a good thing I can read Imperial, isn’t it? I mean, what if I didn’t read Imperial? What would you do then?”

He stared at her.

“Because I’m having a real problem with MandaRhin, let me tell you. Even writing Hanyin. Mother, that is tough. Imperial is so much easier. You can’t read, can you?”

He blinked slowly.

“Well then, never you mind. Thanks for this. Thanks a lot. Really sweet of you to deliver this in person. To me, Fallon Waterford. That’s me. Not you. Me.”

She closed the door and sagged against it.

“Oh, Mother. I really am hopeless, aren’t I?”

The scroll was sealed with the Empress’ personal seal and she swallowed back a rush of nerves. But her curiosity got the better of her and she peeled it open, her eyes growing larger by the moment.

“Oh no, oh dear, oh no. Oh, Fallon Waterford, what have you gotten yourself into this time? The Palace? Me?”

She glanced down at her garments, at the loose man’s tunic and leggings and kujuh coat of forest green, at the russet suede over-vest and bootlets and belt. Her father’s clothes.

“I can’t go to the Palace like this. I’ll have to change my clothing, brush my hair, to brush my face, my tail!”

She peered out the door. The guard was still waiting.

“I can’t go to the Palace like this! I’ll have to change my clothing, brush my hair, my face, my tail!”

“Now.”

“Okay.”

She stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind her.


***


A pair of ocelots were talking softly as they passed through the antechamber toward the prayer room called Green Tea. It was for Imperial guests, and some of the best gossip could be found just inside Green Tea’s rice paper doors.

“It is a dragon,” said one. “A fire dragon, lost in its search for the sun.”

“It is a dragon, to be sure,” said the other. “But Kaidan’s dragon. The one he rode to the moon. It has fallen in love with the moon and is going back.”

“With Kaidan?”

“Nonsence,” hushed the other. “Who would believe such a thing. Without Kaidan, of course. He has other things to do than visit any place twice. I hear he’s a-courting the virgin Shagarmathah.”

“No!”

“Indeed!”

Kirin rolled his eyes. ‘Kaidan’ and his adventures. Popular myths. Stories for kittens. People confounded him sometimes. But still, their curiosity was understandable. There was a new star in the heavens. It was brilliant and bright and had set everyone’s imaginations racing as it rose and fell with the moon. Diviners and worshippers alike were set on discovering its meaning. He paid it no mind. Stars had little to do with panthers or armies or negotiations. Although they could help with New Year’s spectacles, if only he had the skill to move them.

The woman at his side growled and the ocelots hurried to leave the antechamber. With a snort, she resumed her pacing and the chamber filled with the sounds of sharp, angry clacking. Kirin gritted his teeth and tried instead to focus his gaze on the great red and gold door at the far end of the hall. It was impossible because of the clacking of the heels. In fact, he’d often wondered if she indulged those heels in order to compensate for her size, as she was a rather small woman. The heels, along with her long, marbled tail lashing from side to side and her long, marbled hair swinging in straight, coarse lines across her back, it almost worked. Add to that the facts that she wore a uniform of white doeskin, bore both long and short swords and sported blades strapped all over her thin, muscular body, she was rather imposing. A snow leopard among snow leopards. Swift. Fierce. Lethal. She was his right hand.

And right now, she was giving him a headache.

“Patience, Ursa,” he sighed. “They are on their way.”

Her ice-blue eyes flashed at him.

“The summons went out over an hour ago, before the sunrise. This is insubordination and it is completely unacceptable.”

“Can civilians be insubordinate, Major?”

“Obviously. Can they even speak Imperial?”

“We shall see.”

“Pah. I have no with to be discussing Imperial matters in Hanyin.”

He grinned and turned his back but from the corner of his eye, he watched her. She was perhaps the most striking woman he had ever known. A study in the colors of ice and snow and cold winter skies, her pelt as silver as a full moon and just as untouchable. Beautiful, remote, and confrontational, she had clawed her way through the ranks at breakneck speed, literally carving herself a path through those who stood in her way. It was only when he had realized that she was closing in on his job that he had found it necessary to remind her of one of the First Laws of Nature.

Lions are bigger.

Good thing too, for she had almost killed him.

Unconsciously, he raised a hand to rub the old wound and was distracted by the feel of braided leather. He had not had the time to inspect his uniform, the laces, straps and buckles that outfitted him and he hoped he looked honourable. His hands searched for creases – found none. He adjusted the brigandine across his chest and shoulders, straightened the epaulets and tightened the golden sash that had loosened at his waist. Like the Major, he wore both long and short swords and his hands fell to the scabbards of their own accord. Katanah and Kodai’chi, a warrior’s blood brothers. He sighed, not for the first time wishing he’d had a mirror in his office. Only perfection was acceptable when the Captain of the Guard was summoned into the presence of his Empress.

He felt Ursa’s eyes upon him and he straightened, focusing back on the door at the end of the hall.

Finally, a muffled clang echoed through the antechamber. A quartet of panthers accompanied a pair of civilians and Kirin could immediately tell them apart. Their very strides gave them away, as different were they as day from night. He noticed the one, eyes wide and overwhelmed by the splendor of the Palace. The other however, seemed unmindful of the gold and ivory and kept her painted eyes fixed on him. Finally, the guards peeled away, breaking formation with precision, and he was faced with the two women known to him as the Scholar and the Alchemist. Complete strangers whose very lives now rested squarely on his shoulders.

He gave a very small bow, cupping his fist in his palm. A mere courtesy, for he needed bow to no one save the Chancellor and the Empress. Perhaps not even the Chancellor.

“Fallon Waterford. Sherah al Shiva. Thank you for coming.”

The Alchemist did not return the bow, merely lowered her heavy painted lids. The Scholar, on the other hand, bowed quite formally though not quite perfectly. At his side, Ursa was scowling.

He straightened to his full height.

“I am Kirin Wynegarde-Grey, Captain of the Imperial Guard. This is my adjutant, Major Ursa Laenskaya—”

“Wow,” the Scholar interrupted. “You have a great voice.”

He frowned at her, the tigress, the Scholar. Fallon Waterford.

Sidala?”

“I mean, not just that you speak Imperial so well – I’m still learning myself but your accent. It’s very old, Old Courts. But you’re a lion so that’s natural I guess. I’ve just never actually heard a lion before or met one, now that I think about it. There aren’t that many in the University but I’m sure they’re smart, even if they are so very pretty…”

She snorted with laughter.

“And your name, Kirin Wynegarde-Grey? Means ‘unicorn.’ At least, the Kirin part does. It’s really old, isn’t it? And your sire name, wow. So, do you have any?”

“Any?” He blinked, confounded.

“Yes. Greys?” She was chewing her bottom lip, appearing deep in thought. “The suffix ‘Grey’ is significant, perhaps indicating a predilection for grey pelts in your line. Pretty rare among lions, really. So I was just curious... to see, um, if there were any... um, greys...”

She seemed to catch herself, for her eyes grew very round.

“...in in in your line, I mean...”

He released a deep breath.

“There are.”

“Wow,” she said again and she smiled.

The one called Sherah was eying him the way a hungry kitten might eye a marzipan.

Ursa was growling.

And for the first time in his life, the Captain of the Guard felt out of his depth.

Sidali,” he began, clasping his hands firmly behind his back. “The Empress has summoned you here, along with the Major and myself, on a matter of great importance. Therefore, I should not have to remind you that, as in all things pertaining to the security of the Upper Kingdom, we demand your absolute discretion. Nothing less than complete and utter dedication to the work will be accepted. Failure is not an option.

“So first I must ask you if you are willing to accept this standard, even before the task is made known to you. As the Captain of Her Excellency’s Guard, I order you all to search your hearts and your souls and your wills before you answer. If you say no, then go in peace. No shame shall come to you, no dishonor on your houses. But if you say yes...”

He studied the three faces spread before him.

“If you say yes, then nothing less than your hearts and souls and wills will be demanded of you. Your lives will be hers and thus, as her Captain, mine. Your deaths, if it come to it, will also be hers and therefore, mine.”

His blue eyes tried them like fire.

“So, this is the charge. Ursa Laenskaya, how do you speak?”

“Yes.” Without hesitation.

“Fallon Waterford?”

“Oh yes.” The tigress swallowed, nodded earnestly. “Yes sir.”

“Sherah al Shiva?”

There was a languid pause. She arched a black brow.

“Of course.”

Not quite an answer, he thought, but it would have to do.

“Very well. On your oaths, I now amend your birthrights, granting you status in the Court of Thothloryn Parillaud Markova Wu, Twelfth Empress of the Fangxieng Dynasty, Matriarch of Pol’Lhasa, and Most Blessed Ruler of the Upper Kingdom.”

Because of her name, he bowed to them, fist to cupped palm.

As one and likewise, they bowed back.

And with that, the great red and gold door at the end of the corridor swung open, summoning them all into the Court of the Empress.


***


The Throne Room of the Empress Thothloryn Parillaud Markova Wu was breathtaking, the most splendid, most regal, most tranquil court in all of Pol’Lhasa. Its walls were scarlet-stained cedar, with beams of ebony and columns of ivory to support its high winged roof. Timbers ran the length of the ceiling, depicting legendary scenes with behemoths and dragons, cranes and monkeys carved into the wood. Temple chimes sounded in the breeze, brightly colored peacocks strutted freely within the walls, and banners of blue and gold hung from the very tall windows. Stained glass painted light from the early morning sky.

Torches burned in many lampstands, filling the Throne Room with incense and with a serenity that defied the rushing of feet. Stepping inside, one breathed peace.

A nod as they passed from Chancellor Angelino Devino d’Fusillia Ho. Quiet, authoritative and brilliant, he was of Sacred blood and the Right Arm of the Empire. He was also of Pershan descent and his lush white pelt was barely contained within his orange and blue robes. It was accepted amongst the Courts that he knew Everything. His flat-faced expression was somber as they walked past him toward their matriarch and they dropped to their knees at her feet.

Like a carving herself, she sat perfectly still, perfectly straight, upon the ages-old seat, the symbol of Dynastic power for 12 generations. She had not yet her 22nd summer, but her golden eyes glowed with wisdom beyond summers. Her lips were painted red as cherries, high cheekbones dotted with white. With the carriage of a swan, she was the spirit of the Mountains incarnate, as beautiful as she was iron, as fragile as she was stone.

And like the Chancellor, she was Sacred with a pelt as black as night. The Sacred Ones were a small race, a people thin of bone and delicate of feature, and the many layers of red and gold that draped her body did nothing to hide the slightness of her frame.

She was glorious.

She regarded them now from that ages-old seat - the four bowed figures in gold and green, black and white. Behind and before them, the Leopard Guard waited in absolute stillness and for several long minutes, not a word was dared spoken until she herself gave leave.

“Rise.”

As one, they obeyed and she surveyed them all the more closely, weighing their very souls in the depths of her eyes. Perhaps, she allowed her gaze to linger a moment longer on the face of her Captain…

Yes, it did indeed linger much longer on her Captain. It was rumored amongst the Court that he held her heart in the palm of his hand and that her spirit leapt like a lamb whenever she looked upon him, like a lamb newborn playing on steep, wonderful, dangerous slopes.

“Captain.”

“Excellency.”

“And your brother? The summons was for him, as well.”

The Captain lowered his eyes. “Kerris... is traveling, Excellency. I do not know when to expect him home.”

“He is home.”

“Excellency?”

She smiled with her eyes. “Your brother is charmed in more than coat, Captain. His party has returned to DharamShallah this very night. I believe he is presently deep in his bed, dreaming of sea shells and monkeys.”

“I was unaware, Excellency,” he replied, gritting his teeth. “I shall send for him at once.”

“No. As I have said, he is charmed. Let him sleep. But make certain he knows of my good will.”

“He will know, Excellency.”

She offered him her hand. It was as slim and delicate and completely covered as she. He took it as if to kiss her many rings, but the rustle of silk told him to wait. She rose from her throne and began to step down the three steps to the mosaic floor.

“Walk with me.”

She did not withdraw her hand.

Cupping it as one might hold a baby bird or an eggshell, he fell in at her side, breathing deeply to control the lightheadedness that suddenly threatened to overcome him. This was an honor for none were allowed to touch the Imperial person. He did not need to see the look from Chancellor Ho. He could imagine it well enough. The Green Tea would be buzzing by noon.

They walked in quiet of the throne room toward a far curtained corner, glowing in tones of scarlet and jade. The three women fell in behind, none daring break the spell of the moment. For his part, the Captain could have held that hand for a lifetime.

“What do you know of the Council of Seven, Captain?”

“Your Seers, Excellency. Seven men of learning and wisdom, blessed with the Gifts of Farsight and Vision.”

“It’s a community of 500 or thereabouts, if I’m not mistaken…” added Fallon Waterford.

She was strolling behind them, speaking very casually and not seeming to realize her breach of etiquette. She had not been given leave to speak.

“Mostly acolytes and students, I think. Some scholars. All who devote themselves to the search for Truth, the pursuit of the Gifts, and other such monastic endeavors. Simplicity, honesty, humility, that kind of stuff. Ultimately, only seven are chosen, seven in whom the Gifts are pure and strong. They advise the Courts on their Visions, and interpretations of Visions, and so on, from the cliffs of, um...” Her mouth twisted upside-down as she thought. “From the cliffs of Sha’Hadin.”

Ursa was growling once again.

“Indeed, child,” purred the Empress, “They advise me.”

“Oh.” Fallon’s face fell. “Oh mother...”

The silence was unbearable.

“I see Guru Navheen has trained you well. He was always insolent with my mother.”

“Forgive me, Excellency! I - I just—”

“Enough, child. You are, of course, quite correct. The Seers are learned men, gifted and wiser than most. The Seven are my most trusted advisors and, with present company excepted, the truest protectors of the Upper Kingdom. These are their familiars.”

She swept a scarlet-clad arm in the direction of two falcons, hooded and perched on a simple, wrought iron pedestal, hearing all but seeing nothing.

Immediately, Kirin’s head snapped up. Ursa had caught it as well, for her eyes were sharp and shining.

“Two?” he asked, for Ursa would not. “Only two?”

“The Council of Seven is dying.”

Again, that unbearable silence.

“How, Excellency?”

“That remains a mystery, Captain. Each of the past four nights has seen the death of a Council Member, always near the Close of the Second Watch.

“And the manner of death?”

“Also a mystery. The first man, Agis Marelius died in his bed. He had eighty-three summers to his credit, and the physician declared his death as natural for one so old. But when the second died, and then the third, all with similar contorted expressions and violent cries, it became clear that only ‘unnatural’ causes were at work. The falcons have been relaying messages to and from Sha’Hadin as swiftly as they fly. We expect - no, we pray, for the arrival of another at any time. Perhaps, this curse has not yet claimed a fifth, this very night.”

Thothloryn Parillaud Markova Wu extended her hand to remove the first hood. Small, black eyes blinked several times before the falcon unfolded its speckled wings and lifted into the air, exchanging black iron for red silk.

“This is Na’rang, companion of Petrus Ishak Raphael Mercouri, the Ancient of Sha’Hadin, eldest of the Council and a dear, dear friend. As of last evening, he yet lives. And this,’ She reached for the second hood. “This is Path.”

The second falcon chirruped loudly as her shiny eyes met sunlight. She too, spread wide her wings, talon bells jingling, and rose from her perch. She did not follow Na’rang however but streaked past the Imperial forearm, landing instead on the arm of Ursa Laenskaya.

All eyes turned to the Major who stared at the bird in horror. She shook her arm, pushed at its small body, attempting to dislodge the creature but resulting in a series of angry protests from the sharp, hooked beak.

Ursa turned to gape at the Empress.

“Why?! Why did it do that?! Why?!”

“I do not know, Major,” murmured the Empress. “It is most interesting. Perhaps it is because her Seer is new to the Council. Sireth benAramis is the youngest ever to sit on the Council of Seven, not having yet reached the Age of Perfection. Indeed, it is said that his visions are never wrong.”

Kirin nodded slowly. Most Seers did not attain Council status until well past sixty summers. But to have accomplished such before the age of forty-nine was unimaginable. And therefore, suspect.

“You have not met him, Captain?”

“No, Excellency. I was delivering your last terms to the Chi’Chen ambassador during the time of his confirmation.”

“You have heard of him, though.” It wasn’t a question.

“Such a man on the Council, Excellency? Who hasn’t heard of it?”

“And what are your thoughts on the matter?”

She was watching him carefully, weighing the meaning behind his words. He would choose them well.

“You have allowed it, Excellency. That is Enough.”

That seemed to be Enough, then, for her.

The Empress reached out a gold-clad hand. The falcon sprang from its unwilling host to its Imperial one, bleating its displeasure. She smoothed the ruffled feathers before transferring both falcons back to the pedestal and replacing the hoods.

“There is a new star in the heavens—”

“Yes!” exclaimed Fallon, clapping her hands together. The leopards flinched but still did not move. “We’ve all seen it! Everyone in the University is so curious as to what it means!”

Kirin sighed yet again. This child had no training. Indeed, he wondered if she possessed any sense at all.

“Our Alchemists are working on divining the answer to that, child,” said the Empress. “And my dear Petrus believes that this youngest council member has seen something of it, but refuses to speak of it.”

“Refuses, Excellency?” growled the Captain. “This cannot be allowed.”

“Sometimes oil is more effective than a stick for opening a lock, Captain. That is why I sent for you.”

He lowered his gaze, shamed by his temper. She touched his arm and he was instantly restored.

“You four, with the addition of Kerris Wynegarde-Grey, will journey to Sha’Hadin, to discover who or what is killing my Seers. You will use any and all means at your disposal, all of your venerable skills to see that it is stopped and stopped soon. Without the Gifts of Farsight and Vision, Pol’Lhasa, DharamShallah, and all of the Upper Kingdom will be vulnerable and once vulnerable shall surely fall.”

Her deep, soul-searching eyes burned into them like the sun. All four – Ursa Laenskaya, Fallon Waterford, Sherah al Shiva and finally, Kirin Wynegarde-Grey, Captain of the Guard. Yes, most especially, her Captain.

“To you I bind our lives, our civilization, our future. Do not fail me.”

And she added one final word, which when spoken from those lips, could break bone.

“Please.”


***


“He is dead,” said the physician.

There was a long silence in the Hall of the Seers. Of course, they had known he was dead. They had felt him pass violently at the End of the Second Watch. There seemed no stopping it. Physicians, acolytes and attendants could offer little more for sympathy than silence.

The physician nodded and left the two men to grieve alone. The central hearth was smoldering now, its embers dying as a cool wind reached its fingers inward towards their kneeling forms. Surrounding the hearth, three tiny flames flickered from three earthen bowls, the last of seven oil lamps still burning in the Hall of the Seers. Small grey fingers reached to snuff one out and darkness advanced into the room.

“Did you see it this time?” came a rich, quiet voice. The voice of a lion, accented in the tongue of the Old Courts. “Please, Petrus, tell me you saw it.”

“No, Sireth,” said the elder as he struggled to his feet. “Again, I did not.”

“It must be wrong. Perhaps this time... perhaps I...”

He did not finish, but let the words hang with a sigh. He did not move to get up.

The old man regarded him gently. “Sireth benAramis is never wrong.

“I would give anything to be wrong. Just this once.”

Tattered brown robes swept the floor as Petrus laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

“Your vision is the only key, Sireth. Do not disparage it. It may be the only thing we have.”

The one called Sireth pulled at his hood, hiding his angular face further in shadows and bent lower, as if calling the warmth from the hearth.

“What now, Petrus? What if we can’t stop this?”

“Then we can’t.”

“I don’t understand. This makes no sense.”

“You should sleep.”

“I can’t sleep anymore. There is no peace in sleeping.”

Petrus Ishak Raphael Mercouri, the Ancient of Sha’Hadin, smiled and slipped his frail hands into his sleeves. He turned to stare out the black window.

“There never is.”


***


Kirin watched her for several long moments as she sat by the great charcoal brazier in the kitchen. Ever since he could remember, she would be up with the servants, tending them as a shepherdess tends her sheep. She would not cook nor would she clean, for she was too well bred – a lioness of the Imperial Courts. But she would be there at first light of dawn, working on some tapestry or piece of porcelain that required a lady’s touch. This morning, with her tea at her side, she embroidered a slip of purple silk with beads so tiny that she held them on the tips of her claws.

“Mother.”

She looked up at him, eyes small and dewy and brilliantly blue, before bending back to her work.

“Sit with me.”

“I haven’t much time.”

“I know, my son. But sit.”

He could do nothing but obey, so he pulled up a magnificently embroidered stool in front of the brazier. Silently, a servant placed a cup of hot, sweet tea at his side. Her attendants sat on similar stools behind her, passing her beads and refreshing her tea as required. It had always been this way, and its familiarity warmed him more than the coals.

“He is home,” she said.

“I was informed.”

“He has something for you.”

Kirin smiled. “I am not surprised.”

“How is Lyn-ling??

Now he felt the warmth in his cheeks. Lyn-ling. The pet name for the Empress since a kitten in the Imperial Nursery. Only a handful of people could get away with calling her that, only nursemaids and nannies and Mother. She knew the secret places in his heart.

“She is well.”

“Good.”

She nodded quietly, pursing her paper-thin lips, her small, bird-like fingers weaving intricate patterns into the silk. She did not look at him, would not, and he knew she had something on her mind. While part of him cried to get moving, the other ordered him to sit. It would be dishonorable to do otherwise. Her long golden hair was streaked with silver and pulled up into a knot of many braids. She wore a kimonoh of Imperial gold, the mark of their noble heritage. Patiently, like the maid-servants, he waited on her.

“I have spoken with Tamre d’Elsbeth-Ford,” she said.

His heart sank.

“Her daughter has made inquiries.”

“Yes.”

“Dellanana is a lovely young woman. A lioness of fine features, grace and intelligence. You would be well matched.” Still, she would not look at him. “I would like you to consider her.”

He said nothing.

“I am growing old, my son. I do not wish to face our Ancestors with nothing to show for my life but crafts and dreams and no heirs to your father’s legacy.”

She held up the slip of silk. It was a kitten’s presentation gown. She smiled now, few of her teeth remaining. It puckered her face like a withered apple.

“But more than these, I wish you to be happy.”

“I am happy, Mother.”

“You will be more happy with a wife.”

“I will consider her.”

“Your brother will be happy to see you.”

She bent back to her work. It was a dismissal. Quietly, he rose to his feet and bowed his most formal bow. She deserved it.

“I will bring him home safely, if not soon.”

She nodded again and he left the warmth of the kitchen, feeling a familiar weight fall heavy on his shoulders.


***


Kirin padded up the winding stone staircase in utter darkness. There was no danger for each step was as familiar as a finger or a toe. Indeed, he often felt as if this place were a part of him. It had been their ancestral home for at least ten generations, longer if the city’s record-keeper was to be believed. And he treasured every step, every stone, every hearth in its ancient halls, every measure of what it was and what it had always been.

The House Wynegarde-Grey.

He stopped at the uppermost door. The outside wood was surprisingly clean, not at all what he knew the other side to be. On the other side, there would be etchings and carvings and paintings, and every gap in the wooden surface stuffed with paper or fabric or twigs, transforming ordinary cedar into something extraordinary. Something other-worldly. Something that reflected the uniqueness of the individual living behind it.

With a subtle shake of his tawny head, Kirin pushed it open.

What had the Empress said? Deep in his bed. Of course, she had been right.

He stepped over the woven mats tossed carelessly across the floor and threw open the shutters, then the windows themselves, allowing great gusts of cold air and sunrise to tumble down to the blanket-covered mound in the centre of the room. The room smelled of leather, pine and old ale, and he noticed the bottles also tossed carelessly across the floor. If Kerris was drunk, this would be a problem.

The blankets began to stir. Kirin nudged them with his boot.

“Wake up, dung beetle.”

“Mm. Go away.”

“The dawn sends you her greetings. As does your Empress.”

“Kindly give the dawn and Lyn-ling my regards,” mumbled the blankets and a grey tufted tail whacked the floor. “But tell them I shall chat them both up later. I’m far too drunk for sunny conversations, thank you. Now go away.”

“I’m serious, Kerris. You were summoned to the Palace last night. Your ‘services’ are needed, drunken or otherwise.”

A groan escaped the blankets and a grey head appeared, propped up on grey elbows.

“Kirin, are you serious?”

“I just said I was.”

“Why?”

“I shall tell you that when you’re standing.”

Blankets and animal skins were tossed aside as Kerris Wynegarde-Grey climbed out from his makeshift bed.

“Welcome home, Kerris,” Kerris grumbled. “How was your trip, Kerris? Where were you off to this time, Kerris?”

“Later.”

“Later, Kerris. You’re needed, Kerris. Nothing quite like 4 hours of sleep, is there, Kerris? So very good for the bones...”

He stepped into a pair of doeskin trousers, slipped a loose linen tunic over the tangle of pendants around his neck and pulled on his yak-hide boots, ones with brightly-colored laces. He ran his hands through his mane of ashen grey, which fell just below the chin - far too short for a Race that prided itself on its crowning glory. It gave him the perpetual, tousled-headed look of one just rolling out of bed.

Not an entirely inappropriate image.

In other than pelt, he could have passed for his brother for in fact they were twins, identical in form and feature. The same eyes of deepest blue, the same rich, rumbling voice in the oldest of accents, the same height, the same build, the same regal blood coursing through their veins. One silver, one gold.

As different as the stars from the sand, or waves from the shore.

“Alrighty then…Pahguah...wind stones...very special sticks...”

He looked around the room, grabbing articles of dubious importance, stuffing them in his trouser pockets.

“Right.” He slapped his thighs. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

“Inspiring,” said his brother. “A vision of readiness. Are you really drunk?”

“Absolutely,” Kerris grinned. “Not really. Maybe. I just liked the bottles. Perhaps I shall make something of them someday. I brought you something.”

His hand dug into one pocket, then another. He dumped the pouch. He scratched his head.

“Uhm, hang on... Now where did I put that thing? Where’s my cloak?”

“In the hearth.”

Kerris spun around, frowning.

“Hmm. Not a good place for it. It’s new, you know. I lost my old one. Can’t seem to remember where...”

He pounced on the smoldering fire pit, snatching the cloak and shaking it out like a flag. Ashes and bits of charred wood rained to the floor as he rummaged in a deep pocket to produce a pendant, which he proudly dangled from long grey fingers. Swinging at the end of the leather was something flat, triangular and white. Kirin eyed it with suspicion.

“Is that a tooth?”

“A shark’s tooth, actually. The bugger tried to have me for breakfast. Instead,” he patted his stomach. “We had him. He was quite surprised.”

“The ocean! You went to the ocean?! Kerris, you idiot!”

“You’re welcome.”

“Why would you go to the ocean, Kerris? The Empress has no agenda there.”

“Agenda? Who needs an agenda to go to the ocean, Kirin? Winter in Hindaya is decidedly more pleasant than winter here.” His eyes gleamed with the memory. “More tigers too.”

Kirin shook his head.

“And am I to assume that you went to the edge of the world - in the company of tigers?”

“A whole pride of them, actually. They paid me too. It was great fun. I love tigers. I should have been born a tiger.”

“Yes, Kerris. You should have.”

Kirin took the pendant, still dangling from his brother’s fingers. He slipped it over his neck, tucking it under two layers of leather.

“There. Are you happy?”

“Never been happier. Well, maybe once.

“Good. Ursa is sharpening her blades as we speak.”

“Ah Ursa, my flower, my love. Has she killed anyone lately?”

Kirin grinned as they headed toward the door, his brother a welcome shadow.

“Say, have you heard the latest adventure of Kaidan? They say he’s conquered Shagar’mathah, you know. Deflowered the virgin peak as it were, left his cloak as a wedding gift...”

The cedar door creaked closed behind them.


***


“Ursa, my petal! Kirin says you missed me! That you’re practically on your death bed with love for me!”

Ursa Laenskaya glared down from the back of her horse, eyes narrowed in disdain.

“If it came between you and a death bed, I would not miss.”

“I love you too, dearest and gentlest. I just conceal it better. You know how people talk.”

“I suppose he is necessary, Captain,” she snorted. “We will need someone to clean up after the horses.”

“Witty and fatal, my love.”

Kerris bent to the ground, picked up a handful of earth, tossed it into the wind. Bits rained back down, while other bits rose and floated in several directions. Kerris studied it for several moments, before turning to his brother, rubbing his arms and breathing deeply the chilly morning air.

“So, where’s Quiz?”

“The stableboy is bringing him out now.”

“It’s really not fair, Kirin. Quiz only had four hours too, you know. Unlike snow leopards, horses aren’t made of stone.”

Kirin grinned and mounted up. His brother loved that horse of his. It was a mountain pony, as rugged and wild as the peaks it came from with a long, shaggy mane, an unwrapped tail and a nondescript coat of mottled brown. But the thing was quite the trail horse, as surefooted as a goat with a remarkable capacity for terrains and an uncanny sense for danger. He was certain Kerris owed the animal his very life many times over.

He knew the feeling and reached down to stroke the sleek neck beneath him, to rub the stiff roached mane. The horse nickered softly, enjoying the touch. alMassay, his own stallion, was Imperial bred, Imperial trained. Large, powerful, intelligent. More dependable than soldiers, more faithful than men.

And they would need all the help they could get.

Straightening up, he let his eyes scan the group assembled in the courtyard of the House Wynegarde-Grey. Eight leopards would accompany them, four ahead, four behind, carrying the Imperial Standard and riding stallions from the Imperial stables. Ursa naturally rode her own, a steel grey mare with teeth as sharp as hers. The Alchemist and the Scholar had been assigned quiet stock horses, for Imperial ones were at a premium in the Upper Kingdom and riding was not a skill known to all. Ox carts, goat traps and foot were still the common modes of travel in cities and villages and on the steep, winding roads that connected them.

They would take three geldings to carry supplies, books, weapons and Alchemy stores, while each rider would be responsible for his/her own blankets and cloak. There was no time for a change of clothing, for in theory, they would reach the monastery before one was needed. The trip should take ten hours at a steady trot, in time to make Sha’Hadin before the Second Watch. The third falcon had never arrived, signaling the loss of yet another Seer. Two left. Only two. Kirin ground his teeth, unable to shake the feeling that this trip would not end in ten hours, nor the answers found within the cliffs of Sha’Hadin. This was going to take much, much longer.

“Well well, I must have been very good in my last life. Good morning, sidalady tigress!”

Kirin glanced up. He shook his head. He should have known.

Kerris was leaning against the shoulder of Fallon Waterford’s sleepy mount, smiling the smile that had charmed the Royal Courts since his youth. Wide-eyed, the tigress looked all around her as if seeking its true target, which for some reason, could not be her.

“Me?”

“You are a tigress, are you not?”

“Well, yes, yes I am. And wow! I was right. A grey lion!”

“I am indeed. And you are a clever and spirited girl! I love tigers. They know how to have fun. Not like snow leopards. Or any leopards. Or even most lions for that matter.”

Beside him, Ursa’s long tail lashed like a whip. Kirin found his fingers curling themselves into fists, quite of their own accord.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-46 show above.)