Four Paws To Light My Way (excerpt)
The curse lay heavy on the Shining City. Jian could smell it in the dust and the sourness of the leaves of the ginkgo trees that lined the approach to the royal palace. They fluttered unseasonably to the ground and crunched under her feet. Here and there, the paving stones, once so level and smoothly joined that she had felt as if she were walking on glass, had buckled. From time to time, Dog nudged her knee in one direction or tugged on the heavy leash in the other, guiding her along the crowded streets.
Dog didn’t like this place. Jian could tell from the stiffness in his muscles, the staccato tapping of his nails on the stones. He preferred bare earth or the windswept hillsides around their home, where wild cattle grazed. Jian did not allow herself the luxury of an opinion; she came when the Emperor commanded, and she would continue to so until he released her from her oath.
The quality of air and sound changed as they passed the outer gates. Here was naked wall, there the many-times-lacquered wood of the gate, here the density of living flesh. Guards would be posted, watchful and still.
Dog slowed, a slackening of the leash. Jian bowed. The guards did not ask her name. How could there be two of her — a blind woman dressed in patched and faded soldier’s garb, a sword in its battered sheath tucked into her sash, a scarf of imperial silk tied around her neck? At least, they were not so foolhardy as to suggest she leave Dog outside the palace.
“Forward,” she said, and Dog guided her inside.
Footsteps on the raked dirt of the courtyard came nearer, then stopped in front of her. She paused, nostrils flaring even though she lacked Dog’s keen sense of smell. There was something familiar about that stride…but she’d been sighted when she’d last heard it.
“Never thought to see you here.” The voice, husky and baritone, brimmed with humor.
“Masou!” He would be as gray now as she, for they’d fought side-by-side until the curse swept through the ranks. The curse took everyone differently; she wondered what it had taken from him. Not his laughter, that much was sure.
“That dog of yours looks better than you do,” he said by way of compliment.
“Hell,” she said, “he looks better than both of us combined.”
“Thought you couldn’t see.” There it was, the words spoken.
“You old goat, I meant how you used to look.”
His answering chuckle wasn’t audible, only a ripple on her skin. The tension in her shoulders eased. “Why am I here?”
“That a philosophical or a tactical question?”
“Where’d you learn philosophy?” Another shared silence. Of course, no answer. “You always knew more palace gossip than any ten courtiers put together. Why did he send for me?” What does the Emperor think a blind sword fighter can do that a sighted one cannot?
Warmth on her face, a whisper of breath: he’d moved closer. “Here’s the drill, Ji. You present yourself, courtiers go aooh-aaah, everyone sees you’re unfit for duty —”
Unfit. She restrained herself from snorting. Blindness had sharpened her other senses and not a day had gone by without hours of sword drill.
“— so no one takes notice when you see him private-like.”
Jian considered this. Masou was hardly a courtier, but he was exactly the right man when stealth — and dirty tactics — were required. “See you later? Buy you an ale?”
“See you later.” He hadn’t taken her up on the drink. That in itself made her take notice.
The massive, carved doors groaned open. Inside the great, towered complex, the air tasted even more lifeless than in the courtyard. It smelled of decay overlaid with the ashes of sandalwood. Dog brushed against Jian’s knee. His fur was thick, double-coated. She brushed it every evening to help her sleep. As for her own beauty, she had never claimed any, and Dog did not care. Her vanity lay in the precise dance of her sword, the strength and balance of her body. The curse had taken these from her, but only for a time. She knew herself to be living proof that the curse was not absolute.
Dog angled a shoulder in front of Jian’s knee, the barest movement but enough to signal Jian to halt. Jian halted. Dog sat. Murmurs rippled around the periphery of the chamber where the nobles sat, except for directly in front of Jian: the Emperor, silent as a toad on his gilded throne.
“Jian the Faithful,” the Emperor greeted her.
“I come as summoned, according to my oath,” she said. “How may I serve?”
“You were ever the most forthright of my warriors.”
Jian inclined her head. Her fingertips touched the top of Dog’s head.
“Then I will be blunt, as well. The curse tightens its grip on the Shining City. I require all able-bodied warriors to protect the city’s inhabitants as we relocate across the Greywater.”
The Emperor’s words hung in the flat stillness of the throne room. The courtiers too had gone silent; she wasn’t sure they were even breathing. So Emperor intended to abandon the city? He must be desperate indeed. The territory south of the great river, although traditionally part of the Empire, had been independent in all but name since the curse struck. After that, the Emperor had needed all his resources to maintain his capital city.
“Any warrior who cannot perform to his utmost under these conditions will impose an additional burden, one I cannot afford,” the Emperor said. “You are hereby released from your oath, on condition you do not attempt to join the relocation and thereby divert resources that should go to the able-bodied.”
Thanks to Masou’s warning, Jian took no offense, but the court, with its intrigues and veiled insults, was no place for an honest swordswoman. Dog, get me out of here! And felt a tug on the leash like a lifeline.
She found Masou in the courtyard outside, or rather, Dog did. Dog liked Masou, which confirmed her trust in her old comrade. He’d found her a room in an inn where Dog was welcome and no questions asked. The old woman who ran the inn brought a trencher with chunks of bread, cheese, and apple, food easily eaten with the fingers, and a bowl of meat scraps for Dog. Not long after they’d finished, when the fall in temperature heralded the oncoming night, Masou came back for her.
This time they entered the palace through a garden, or what was left of it, then a narrow door. The air here was not so foul, but tinged with the smells of herbs and onions; it must be near the kitchen. They ascended a flight of stairs, Jian fumbling, Dog lunging on the unfamiliar surface, Masou taking one steady step after another.
Their journey ended in a chamber much smaller than the throne room, warmed by a small fire. The rustle of fabric told Jian where the Emperor stood, likely turning now to face her. This time he wore cotton, she judged, not silk.
Diagonally behind Jian, Masou lifted a chair and set it down with a thump so she’d know where it was. She sat. Dog sat. The Emperor pulled up a chair, scraping one leg across the floor, and sat. “Masou warned you about the court appearance? I would not have insulted you in such a public fashion had there not been need.”
“I wonder the courtiers did not question why you summoned me at all,” she said dryly.
“I very much doubt any of them is thinking of anything beyond how much of his treasure he will be permitted to take away. I certainly hope not. Oh, they’ll grumble and gossip, to be sure, but they’ll look to their own. And I want all their thoughts on how their own concerns during the relocation.”
Jian thought, Abandoning the city is a feint. Then: The warlock — whose name had been forgotten, if he’d ever had one — was not omnipotent.
“All attempts to put an end to the warlock have failed. He has the wiliness and power of a demon.” The Emperor sounded weary, on the edge of grief. Jian almost heard his thought, And my people cannot survive much longer, trying to hold on to their homeland. “I…” a minute pause, barely more than an indrawn breath, “…consulted an oracle…”
Although Jian stifled her surprised reaction, Dog caught it, sitting straighter and leaning into her knee.
“…and I have learned how to break the curse. It’s not an easy thing, as you would imagine. One of us must journey to Black Mountain and confront him there.”
Black Mountain, home of bandits and worse. Uncanny things. A fitting home for the warlock. Sane men did not venture there.
She wet her lips. “And you want me to do this?”
A pause, a breath like a sob. “My daughter must be the one. The oracle was adamant on this point. I cannot deny — you know the curse took many forms? The sickness in the land, your own deformity?”
Jian nodded. Dog leaned harder against her leg. She raked her fingers through the thick fur.
“My daughter, Amaya, who as a child was so beautiful, so full of grace and light, was rendered…I cannot in truth say hideous, for I have not seen her face since that day. But every person who looked upon her in those early hours was turned to stone.”
What talk Jian had heard about the princess suggested she was either painfully shy or sickly, or perhaps as ugly as a pig, and that accounted for her absence from court. Not this.
“I believe the oracle intends her to use the curse against the one who inflicted it on her. She is willing, she says. In fact, she is alarmingly eager to be of use after all these years shut away from everyone except a few exceptionally discreet servants. She can veil her face from the unwary, but she cannot venture alone into the wilderness surrounding Black Mountain. Will you help her?”
A blind woman leading one whose face is death to look upon? While Jian searched for an appropriately respectful way to point out the absurdity of the request — no, it was a command — Masou stirred.