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An Inch of Ashes (Chung Kuo)

By:David Wingrove

An Inch of Ashes (Chung Kuo)
David Wingrove

       INTRODUCTION

Soren Berdich0" ev, Head of the Dispersionist faction, is dead, his spine snapped by Gregor Karr after a long pursuit that led finally to Mars. Meanwhile, back on Chung Kuo, DeVore has abandoned his old friends and forged a new alliance with the Ping Tiao, or ‘levellers', terrorists from the crowded lower levels, who wish to destroy the City and start again.

Within the Seven there is discord for the first time in their history, sown mainly by its latest and youngest member, the obese T'ang of Africa, Wang Sau-leyan. Seen as a selfish, dissolute young man by the older T'ang, he is, in fact, a highly intelligent and cleverly manipulative politician, and his presence among them makes them weaker than ever before.

Li Yuan, heir to City Europe, has married his beloved Fei Yen, his dead brother's wife, and, at his young age, has become his father's most trusted advisor.

Kao Chen, once a kwai, or hired ‘knife', is now a servant of the T'ang, a Security officer and a friend of Gregor Karr. Alongside the redeemed figure of Axel Haavikko, these three are chief among those fighting DeVore and his minions. One of those  –  an unexpected figure  –  is Hans Ebert. Major in Security, heir to the massive GenSyn Corporation and betrothed to General Tolonen's daughter, Jelka, he seems to have it all. Only he wants more. He wants to rule, and DeVore  –  like the devil he is  –  has decided to help him get what he wants, whatever the cost.

And then there are Ben and Kim, both still young men, who will become the premier artist and foremost scientist in Chung Kuo. Two young men who walk very different paths and represent in themselves very different things, like the two sides of the great Tao.

Historically, it is a moment of stillness, of quiet before the great storm. For the storm is sure to come now. Nothing the Seven can do will prevent it. Change is coming to Chung Kuo, like the darkest of clouds on the horizon. Who will survive the days to come? And who will go under, as the Great Wheel turns once more and the War of the Two Directions takes on a new, more violent aspect?

PART TWELVE

AN INCH OF ASHES

AUTUMN 2206

The East wind sighs, the fine rains come:

Beyond the pool of water-lilies, the noise of faint thunder.

A gold toad gnaws the lock. Open it, burn the incense.

A tiger of jade pulls the rope.

Draw from the well and escape.

Chia's daughter peeped through the screen when Han the clerk was young,

The goddess of the river left her pillow for the great Prince of Wei.

Never let your heart open with the spring flowers:

One inch of love is an inch of ashes.

-Li Shang-Yin, untitled poem, 9th century AD
                       
       
           



       
Chapter 49

THE POOL IN THE RUINS

Servants came running to take their horses, leading them back to the stables. Fei Yen seemed flushed, excited by the ride, her eyes wide with enjoyment. Li Yuan laughed, looking at her, and touched her arm.

‘It suits you, my love. You should ride more often.'

Tsu Ma came up and stood between them, an arm about each of their shoulders. ‘That was good, my friends. And this...' he gestured with his head, his strong neck turning to encompass the huge estate  –  the palace, the lake, the orchards, the view of the distant mountains, ‘... it's beautiful. Why, the ancient emperors would envy you.'

Tsu Ma's eyes sparkled and his pure white teeth  –  strong, square, well-formed teeth  –  flashed a smile.

‘You are welcome here any time, Tsu Ma,' Li Yuan answered him. ‘You must treat our stables as your own.'

‘Thank you, Li Yuan.' Tsu Ma gave a slight bow, then turned, looking down at Fei Yen. ‘You ride well, Lady Fei. Where did you learn?'

She looked away, a slight colour in her cheeks. ‘I've ridden since I was a child. My father had two horses.' She turned back, the way she held her head displaying an intense pride. In a world where animals were rare, to own two horses was a matter of some prestige. Only the Seven took such things for granted.

Tsu Ma studied her a moment, then nodded. ‘Good. But let us go in. Your father will be expecting us.'

Li Shai Tung was sitting in the Summer House, a small comset on his lap. Tiny three-dimensional holograms formed and faded in the air above the set, each figure giving its brief report before it vanished. Tsu Ma sat close by the old man, keeping silent, while Li Yuan went to get drinks. Fei Yen stood by the window, looking down the steep slope towards the terrace and the ornamental lake. From time to time she would glance back into the room, her eyes coming to rest on the casually seated figure of Tsu Ma.

He was a broad-shouldered, handsome man. Riding, she had noticed how straight he held himself in the saddle, how unruffled he had been when leading his horse across a fast-flowing stream, how easily he brought his mount to jump a wall; as though he were part of the animal he rode. And yet he was immaculate, his hair groomed and beaded with rubies; his tunic an achingly sweet shade of pink that was almost white, edged with black; his trousers of a blue that reminded her of the summer skies of her youth. She had seen how tightly his thighs had gripped the flanks of the roan horse; how commanding he had seemed.

Li Shai Tung finished his business and set the comset down, smiling at Tsu Ma, then at his daughter-in-law, greeting them wordlessly. Li Yuan turned from the cabinet, carrying a tray of drinks. He was host here in this room.

Fei Yen took her drink and seated herself beside her husband, facing the other men. She was conscious of how Tsu Ma looked at her. So open. And yet not impolitely.

‘You're looking well,' Li Shai Tung said, looking across at Fei Yen. ‘You should ride more often.'

Li Yuan leaned forward. ‘She was magnificent, Father. A born horsewoman! You should have seen how she leaped the meadow gate!' His eyes flashed wide as he said it, and when he looked at his wife it was with unfeigned admiration. Tsu Ma saw this and pushed his head back slightly, as if his collar were too tight. He reached into the inner pocket of his tunic and took out a slender silver case.

‘May I smoke?'ay ed.

Tsu Ma removed one of the pencil-thin cheroots and lit it, then inhaled slowly, seeming to relax in his chair as he did so. The silver case lay on the arm of the chair.

He watched the smoke curl up; a thin, fragile thread of heated ash. ‘I must thank you, Li Yuan. Today has been perfect.' His eyes settled on the young man's face, finding nothing but open friendship there; perhaps even a degree of admiration. He was used to it; accepted it as his due. But the look on Fei Yen's face, that was different. That, too, he recognized, but kept the knowledge to himself. He raised his glass, toasting his host and hostess silently, his smile serene, sincere.

Li Shai Tung watched all, nodding to himself. He seemed well pleased with things. For the first time in months he was smiling. Tsu Ma saw this and asked him why.

‘I'll tell you. When we are alone.'

The T'ang had not looked at Fei Yen, and his comment seemed quite innocuous, but she knew how traditional her father-in-law was. He was not like her own father; he would not discuss business in front of women. She set her drink down untouched and stood up, patting Li Yuan's hand, then turned to bow low to the two T'ang.

‘Excuse me, Chieh Hsia, but I must go and change. The ride has made me tired.'

It was untrue. She had never felt more alive. Her eyes shone with a barely contained excitement. But she lowered her eyes and went quietly from the room, turning only at the door to look back, finding, as she'd hoped, that Tsu Ma's eyes were on her.

‘Well?' said Tsu Ma when she had gone. His manner seemed no different, and yet the word seemed somehow colder, more masculine than before.

‘Good news. Both Wu Shih and Wei Feng have agreed to our little scheme.'

Tsu Ma looked down. The development was unexpected. ‘Is that wise?'

‘I thought so,' Li Shai Tung continued, noting his hesitation. ‘In the present circumstances I felt it... safer... to have the balance of the Council know of my plans. It would not do to alienate my oldest friends.'

Tsu Ma drew on the cheroot again, then looked up, meeting his eyes. ‘That's not exactly what I meant. This whole business of covert action. Surely it goes against the spirit of the Council? If we can't be open with each other...'

‘And can we?' Li Yuan's words were bitter, angry, but at a look from his father he lowered his head, holding his tongue.

‘I understand your feelings, Li Yuan,' Tsu Ma answered him, smiling at the old T'ang to show he was not offended by his son's interruption. ‘But Wang Sau-leyan must surely not be allowed to triumph. This way, it seems we play into his hands.'

Li Shai Tung was watching him closely. ‘Then you will not give your consent?'

Tsu Ma's smile broadened. ‘That is not what I said. I was merely pointing out the underlying logic of this course. Whatever you decide I will consent to, my father's oldest friend. And not only because of my respect for my father. I know you would not follow this course if there was any other way.'

Li Shai Tung smiled then looked down into his lap. ‘If it helps reassure you, Tsu Ma, I will say to you what I have already said both to Wu Shih and Wei Feng. I do not wish to circumvent the Council in this matter. This is merely a question of research. A fact-finding exercise before I present my case to Council. The brief of the Project will be to study only the feasibility of wiring up Chung Kuo'stchwas 's population. It will fall far short of actual experimentation. After all, it would not do for me, a T'ang, to breach the Edict, would it?'

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