“Mei!” Huang's father said in a harsh whisper. “Do not address our son by his milk name, as though he were a child!”
“But husband, remember the fluttering of his kicks in the womb? He is our baby, still.”
-ther,” Huang said, rolling his eyes.
“No.” Huang's father crossed his arms over his chest, glowering beneath his heavy brows. “Fei is a child no longer, and it is time to stop treating him like one.” He shook his head, glancing across the room where Governor Ouyang stood on a dais, meeting dignitaries in turn. Others like Huang and his family lined the roomâbureaucrats, wealthy merchants, and other district luminariesâwaiting for their brief audience. “I am thankful only that you did not insult our son in the earshot of his Excellency, the governor.”
Huang's father turned to him and placed a hand briefly on his shoulder.
“Do not dishonor our family, Fei. At least no more than you already may have done in your youth.”
Huang rolled his eyes again and tried to lose himself in the sound of the opera's overture.
Gamine lingered in the entrance to the hall, her eyes wide; she'd scarcely seen anything like the festivities before. Along the right side of the hall, the players were just beginning to perform the opera, the singers in their costumes and masks, the musicians seated in a crescent behind them. Low tables were spaced at intervals through the hall, piled high with food and beverages of all varieties, each adorned with decorative centerpieces of intricately wrought bronze and crystal, topped with what appeared to be real peacock feathers. In the rear of the room rose a low platform, a dais upon which Governor Ouyang stood, with a servant at his side. Men and women milled around the hall, resplendent in their finery, and went before the governor singly or in small groups, speaking in low tones.
As the lead vocalist began his theme, Gamine recognized the players as belonging to the Red Crawler Opera Company, which she'd seen perform several times in recent seasons. It was one of the finest touring companies on Fire Star, boasting incredible acrobatics and juggling along with its standard musical repertoire. Gamine felt it was criminal that she seemed to be the only one paying attention. Only one other, a young man in the uniform of an officer in the Army of the Green Standard, standing between a middle-aged man and woman at the far side of the room, seemed even to notice the presence of the players.
Gamine didn't get to listen to the opera for more than a moment, to her sorrow. Just as the players began the first movement of
The Miner's Journey
, Madam Chauviteau-Zong directed her to a large antechamber that opened off the southern wall of the main room. While the lights of the hall had been warm and inviting, comfortable shadows lingering in the corners, the illumination in the antechamber was cold and hard, so bright that it seemed to chase all the shadows from the room, as though seeking out any hidden flaw or imperfection.
“Stand there, child,” her mistress said, and motioned to the center of the antechamber, where gathered a half dozen boys and girls her age.
Gamine did as she was told. Her mistress went to stand beside a man in the dress of a wealthy merchant, with whom she exchanged a few quiet words. There were seven adults in the room, men and women, one or two of whom Gamine recognized as occasional visitors to the Chauviteau-Zong residence. All wore wealth and power in the same way that Gamine wore a red silk dress embroidered with golden dragons: as though they thought no more of their position than they would a bit of jewelry or an item of clothing.
Gamine wondered why she had been brought to this place, and what business she had with these other boys and girls, or with these adults who seemed to study them all so intently. She wondered but knew not to speak, as that would offend propriety. So she stood, as silent as the other six children, all of them waiting for instruction.
And then the questions began.
Huang Fei was so distracted by the performance of the players that his father had to nudge him twice, the second time with such force that he nearly lost his balance and fell to the floor.
“Now!” his father said, between clenched teeth, his face locked in an unconvincing smile. “It is your time.”
Huang's father motioned with his chin to the dais, and Huang turned to see the governor's personal secretary looking back at him impatiently.
“Go,” Huang's mother said, waving him forward. “Make us proud.”
Huang swallowed hard.
“I'll try. . . .” he said, and then walked on reluctant legs to the dais. He became overly conscious of his movements, of the beating of his heart, of the position of his tongue in his mouth. He was unaccountably terrified, and his hands shook like leaves at his sides.
The governor's personal secretary, his eyes appraising Huang uninterestedly, motioned him to stop just before the governor, whose attention was momentarily on the opera players.
Huang stopped in front of the governor, his eyes on the floor.
“And who,” Governor Ouyang boomed, turning his attention to Huang, “is this to approach with such solemn mien my own august personage?” He paused, smiled, and gave Huang a wink. “Or, put in the language of men, what troubles this boy?”
“Your Excellency,” the personal secretary said, “this is your distant relation, Huang Fei of Fanchuan, who has been invested as a Guardsman of the Second Rank in the Army of the Green Standard, with your permission.”
The governor folded his hands over his belly and nodded slowly, looking Huang up and down. He motioned for the secretary to step closer, and then whispered something that Huang could not make out.
The personal secretary's glance darted to Huang, his eyes narrowed, and it seemed to take a moment for the governor's words to make their way through his brain. But he regained his composure and, bowing slightly, hurried away from the dais.
“I am well pleased that a relation of mine would choose to serve the Dragon Throne with the strength of his arm and the mettle of his will, rather than hiding behind perfumed fans in the corridors of power, practicing calligraphy and the art of gossip.” The governor's voice was loud and low, and Huang could feel the words almost as physical blows. “Too many children of privilege follow the easy path, the comfortable path, and never learn the true meaning of sacrifice. It makes my tired old heart soar to find in you such devotion, such selflessness.”
The personal secretary returned, panting only slightly, holding in his hands a sheathed saber.
“Your Excellency.” The secretary held the saber out to the governor in both hands, bowing slightly from the waist.
Governor Ouyang drew the saber from the sheath. The blade, its metal having a faint red tint, was of the willow-leaf design, curving slightly to the point, with a phoenix motif picked out in ivory on the hilt and carried through in etchings along the blade length and on the fittings. He held the saber point up, admiring it for a moment.
“This is the blade I carried during my recent tour of the northern province, which spilled not a little bit of insurrectionist blood. There are many raiders who learned to fear its red gleam on the sands, and many more for whom the firebird of its blade was their last living sight.”
The governor slid the sword back into its sheath with a
and held it out to Huang.
“I am pleased to present you with my own saber, that it might serve you half as well. And if you should die for the Dragon Throne, remember that you die for a purpose greater than yourself, to preserve and protect the rule of the emperor.”
Huang took the saber from the governor's hands, feeling numb. He tried to stammer some response, but no words would come. Finally the personal secretary was forced to take Huang's elbow and steer him back toward his parents. Huang shuffled across the floor, the eager expressions on his parents' faces awaiting him, and felt the heavy weight of the sword in his hands.
Gamine answered every question correctly, danced the quadrille flawlessly, and devised correct solutions to any number of ethical and logical problems put to her. The seven adults asked questions or posed riddles or otherwise gave instructions, each in turn, addressing the children individually. It seemed that each adult could question any child, as often as he or she liked. If ever a child failed to answer a question or perform a task correctly, guards were summoned who escorted the child out of the antechamber, through a doorway, and out of sight.
As the evening wore on, one by one the other children faltered, taking a misstep in their dancing, or incorrectly parsing a grammatical fragment, or misremembering trivial bits of historical data, until only Gamine was left standing at the center of the room.
Then each of the adults questioned her once more, one examination from each, and again Gamine answered them all without error.
She beamed with pride, her chest thrust forward, eyes seeking her mistress's approval. Whatever Madam Chauviteau-Zong's purpose in bringing her to this gathering, Gamine had performed admirably. Her mistress's features were, as always, calm and unreadable, sapphire blue eyes in a face of flawless porcelain, but her posture and the slight movements of her hands suggested deep satisfaction.
A chime sounded somewhere in the hall, and the other six adults all turned their attention to Gamine's mistress.
Madam Chauviteau-Zong swept forward, stopping just short of where Gamine stood, and regarded her, blue sapphires briefly meeting Gamine's own jade green eyes. Gamine stiffened. Might the mistress be preparing to embrace her? Had Gamine performed well enough to be so regarded? Gamine had never come into physical contact with Madam Chauviteau-Zong, and she readied herself for the jolt and the joy. But the embrace never came.
The guards who had escorted the other children away returned, as though awaiting instruction.
Madam Chauviteau-Zong regarded Gamine for a long moment, and then turned aside momentarily, directing her attention to the merchant with whom she'd spoken on their arrival.
“I told you, Fong, that mine was the likely contender.”
“Yes, Cerise, and you'll have your winnings in the morning,” the merchant said. He paused, and said with a smirk, “But don't expect to be so lucky next time.”
Madam Chauviteau-Zong nodded regally and then turned and glided toward the door.
Gamine's throat constricted, and she found it difficult to breathe.
“Mistress?” Gamine said, in a tentative voice, the first time in living memory that she'd addressed her mistress without being spoken to first.
Gamine's mistress, not pausing, glanced back at her, and then motioned to the two guards with a languid movement of her hand.
“Do see to the child,” Gamine's mistress said distractedly, and then left the antechamber behind.
Gamine did not understand what was happening. Her mind raced. The two guards stepped to her side, and each took an arm.
“What do we do with this one?” one asked the other in a loud whisper.
“The same thing we've done with the rest,” the other answered. “Remove any articles of value she might have squirreled away, and toss her out the nearest door.”
The men searched her quickly, with rough hands, and came away with a tortoiseshell comb her tutor had put in her hair and a jade pendant at her throat.
“Wh-what have I done wrong?” Gamine managed to say as the guards pocketed her valuables and dragged her from the room. “What is happening?”
The guards refused to make eye contact, their expressions hard.
“Pl-please! What have I done?”
The guards took her through servants' corridors, far away from the light and warmth of the main hall, coming at last to a back entrance. The night air outside was cold, and the streets were empty and dark.
“Sorry, kid,” one of the guards said, picking Gamine up off her feet. “Tough break.”
The guards threw her bodily out of the doorway like a sack of rice, then closed the door behind her, shutting off the last faint light from inside. Gamine was left in the dirt, cold and alone.
Huang's parents had scarcely had time to question him about his audience with the governor, and about the sword in his hands, when they spied a merchant across the room with whom his father had recently opened negotiations.
“You'll excuse us, Fei,” his father said distractedly, already hurrying to the other side of the room. “We have business to conclude.”
“Yes,” his mother said, following along, “we'll see you before you leave in the morning, to speed you on your way.” Her eyes flicked to the saber in his hands, seeming not to notice the confused, horrified expression on his face. “We're so very proud of you, Hummingbird.”
Huang did not pause, but tucked the saber into his belt, grabbed a jar of wine off a nearby table, and slipped out the hall's back entrance.
The night air was cold, but Huang had gotten half the jar in him before he even felt the chill. If he hurried, he could meet his friends at a nearby tavern for one last night of leisure before leaving for the ends of the world. And for the end of Huang, for all he knew.
Somewhere in the darkness he could hear the sound of a girl crying softly, but he paid it no mind.
WOOD HARE YEAR, FIFTY-SECOND YEAR OF THE TIANBIAN EMPEROR
GAMINE OPENED HER STINGING EYES, GRIT GATHERED IN their corners, as the city began to wake up around her, fish-mongers making their morning deliveries, shopkeepers rolling up their shutters to begin a day of trade, the priests in the temple ringing the morning bells. She was in the Sun-Facing District, not far from the Hall of Rare Treasures, and wasn't sure whether she had slept at all, feeling more tired now than she'd been when she'd stretched out on the cold cobblestones in the lees of a temple, its high walls serving to block most of the wind but doing nothing to keep her warm. Gamine's clothes were damp from the light dew that clung to the ground, and she shivered in the chill.