Table of Contents
BOOKS BY CHRIS ROBERSON
Set the Seas on Fire
Here, There & Everywhere
Paragaea: A Planetary Romance
The Voyage of Night Shining White
X-Men: The Return
The Dragon's Nine Sons
End of the Century
Iron Jaw and Hummingbird
Published by Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008
Copyright Â© MonkeyBrain Inc., 2008
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to Sharyn November, who asked for it
ABOUT THE CELESTIAL EMPIRE
HISTORY TEACHES THAT CHINA'S REACH ONCE SPANNED the globe, and the Dragon Throne came near to ruling the world.
In the fifteenth century ADâduring the reign of Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperorâthe Treasure Fleet of China was commanded by the Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He. It traveled as far as India and the east coast of Africa, possibly even reaching the west coast of South America. Had the Chinese continued to extend their reach, they might have eclipsed the great powers of Europe and given rise to a world dominated by the Dragon Throne. In 1424, though, the Yongle Emperor died and was succeeded by Zhu Gaozhi. Also known as the Hongxi Emperor, the man who now sat upon the Dragon Throne ordered the Treasure Fleet destroyed and all seagoing vessels outlawed, under the advice of Confucian officials who felt that the previous emperor's expansionist policies had robbed them of influence and power. From that point onward, China turned inward and lost contact with its newfound trading partners across the seas.
That is what history teaches, but ours is not the
In the alternate history of the Celestial Empire, the Yongle Emperor was instead succeeded by Zhu Zhanji, the Xuande Emperor, who not only continued to employ the Treasure Fleet but expanded its scope and mission. Before Christopher Columbus set out to discover a new route to the east, dragon boats of the Treasure Fleet rounded the tip of Africa and arrived in Europe. In the centuries that followed, China grew to become the dominant cultural and political force on the planet, rivaled only by the Mexic Dominion, known in our history as the Aztecs. In time the Dragon Throne extended its reach into the heavens, sending manned missions into space, building bases on the moon, even sending missions to the red planet fourth from the sun.
It has been nearly five centuries since man first came to the red planet, which the Chinese call Fire Star. In those long centuries, the once-dead world has been gradually changed, slowly becoming another abode for life. But while the atmosphere is now breathable, and temperatures have risen to comfortable levels, there are still hardships on Fire Star. Life is possible on the red planet, but it is far from perfect.
PRELUDEWOOD HARE YEAR, FIFTY-SECOND YEAR OF THE TIANBIAN EMPEROR
GAMINE LOOKED OUT THE COACH WINDOW AT THE streets rushing by. She arranged herself on the cushion, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. This early in the season the air was chilly, and her new
banner dress left her arms bare and cold. She was thankful that the current style called for ankle-length hems and a high collar, at least; she'd have frozen near solid otherwise. Her reflection could be seen dimly in the windowpane, ghostly, as in a half-silvered mirror, her faint likeness drifting past the shops and houses and temples of the darkened streets of Fanchuan. She almost couldn't recognize herself, so complete was the transformation from her typical appearance. Her hair was arranged in tight coils on the top of her head and lacquered in place, her face powdered, and her eyebrows painted high on her broad forehead. Gamine felt that this new appearance made her look so much older than thirteen; she could almost believe that one day she might be a grand lady like her mistress.
Gamine was alone in the coach with Madam Chauviteau-Zongâa rare occasion. Rare that Gamine would travel with the mistress at all, rarer still that they should do so alone. On those few occasions Gamine had gone about with the mistress before, it had been in the train of the household servants and advisors, with Gamine's tutors and instructors on hand to keep watch over her. This evening, however, the party consisted only of the coachmanâa red-faced man of few words who operated the vehicle from his perch on the roofâand the two passengers, who sat side by side on the cushions in total silence.
Gamine had no notion where they were going, and burned to discover, but was well trained enough to know it would be importunate to ask so direct a question of her mistress. Besides, Madam Chauviteau-Zong would do nothing that wasn't in Gamine's best interest, so what had she to worry about?
It was sometime past sunset, the two moons racing toward one another across the sky, when they reached the Hall of Rare Treasures, the residence of the governor-general of Fangzhang province, Governor Ouyang. Gamine recognized it from lithographs she had studied of the city's notable architecture, as well as from the many tours of the city she had taken with her tutors. The hall rose several levels above the street, crowned by a multitiered roof of yellow tiles, corners curved up toward the heavens. The gold-embossed ideograms spelled out on the red walls shone in the light of the paper lanterns strung from poles in the forecourt. Lights glowed warmly from within, and through the high door came spilling the sound of music, zithers and lutes and drums. Gamine recognized the music as the overture to an opera she'd seen performed the season before, Song Huagu's
The Miner's Journey
Gamine waited as her mistress climbed from the coach, and then gracefully stepped down onto the cobblestones. Madam Chauviteau-Zong swept up the steps to the entrance, and Gamine followed along behind, entranced.
Huang Fei stood between his mother and father, at the side of the grand room of the Hall of Rare Treasures. Across the way, Huang could see the players of the Red Crawler Opera Company beginning their performance, but he didn't recognize the music. Hardly surprising, as he had never been one with much time for such pursuits, and music and the other arts left him cold. He preferred the more engaging distractions of fencing, or games of chance with his friends, or betting on pit fights between dogs, or whiling away the long hours of the night with a hot cup of wine in hand and the hotter-still body of a young lady at his side.
Tragic, then, that in less than a day's time, Huang would have to say good-bye to all such pleasant pastimes. His future promised only dust and sweat and impossible boredom. Already his uniform, which he wore tonight for the first time, felt heavy and clinging on his shoulders. He'd hoped that the clothing of an officer in the Army of the Green Standard might at least allow him to present a dashing profile, but the cut of the garments was lumpen and unflattering, and he'd not have worn them at all had his parents not strenuously insisted. The only faint light of hope glimmering on Huang's horizon was that his posting would put considerable distance between himself and the ministrations of his parents. Cold comfort, since some superior officer or other would be taking their place, regimenting his every waking hour, but Huang took his solace where he could find it.
Huang had just turned eighteen, the oldest of three sons. Having taken and failed the imperial examinations for the fourth time, he clearly would find no place in the imperial bureaucracy. His parents weren't overly worried about the family name, since their second son was a prodigy; he had passed his
-level examinations by the age of sixteen and was well on his way to completing the
examinations and becoming a “presented scholar,” already guaranteed a place in the emperor's service. Huang's youngest brother, for his part, was of a somewhat spiritual bent, destined for one of the lamaseries in the Southern Fastness. For Huang, only one path remained. Calling in family connections, his father had arranged for Huang to be commissioned as an officer in the Army of the Green Standard and posted to a military fort in the western desert, in the shadow of Bao Shan, the tallest volcanic mountain in the solar system.
Huang's parents had insisted that he thank Governor Ouyang personally for approving the posting, and had dragged him to the reception for the governor-general's return from the outer provinces to Fanchuan, capital city of Fangzhang province. Huang's father was a younger son of a distant cousin of the governor's uncle by marriage, and had the governor not intervened, Huang would likely have been forced to stay at home, wasting his days in idle pursuits, living off his parents' savings. Yes, Huang had
much for which to thank the governor.
“Hummingbird,” Huang's mother said, tugging at his sleeve. “Stand up straighter, and hold your chin high. Slouched like you are, you look more like a monkey we've dressed in the clothes of a man than a proud officer of the Green Standard.”
Huang wanted to object that monkeys, whether in human clothing or in their natural state, had more control over their destinies than he felt at this moment, but his father interrupted before he could speak.