Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moon on the Water by Matthew Lee

Silvermoon, the Lord Regent's daughter, send the men of Kong Du on a dangerous quest in the hope that one will prove himself worthy to be her husband, in Matthew Lee's rich fantasy.

Silvermoon stood by her bedroom window, deep in thought, and contemplated the falling snow. The flakes gathered thickly on the pine trees that stood guard throughout the palace's inner ward, and while the branches turned to long, lumpen fingers like an arthritic old lady's bloodless hands, the young woman thought about the kind of man she wanted to marry. Clever, compassionate, wise and brave - was this too much to ask? Instead she got one foolish boy after another trying to seduce her, and none of them with a single thought in their heads for anyone besides themselves.

In the First Kingdom, when a daughter of one of the noble families came of age, tradition meant she was generally expected to pick out a promising candidate herself. Countless suitors had already flocked to Silvermoon's door. Some of these men were beautiful, some were skilled with a blade, some were well versed in courtly discourse and others titled. But she found them all insufferably self-centred.

She knew she wanted something more from her future husband than a masculine physique and a dependable sword arm, but she wasn't quite sure what. She knew she wanted to do more with her life than end up a trophy for some puffed-up young official desperate to advance his career, say, but again, she hadn't decided what she ought to be doing instead. Still, if there were just one prospective consort out there who had the answer, Silvermoon wanted to find him, even if she had to reject every other eligible young man in the province in the process. After all, tradition hadn't put anything in writing about how long she had to take.

Unfortunately, Silvermoon's father had very definite ideas about tradition, regardless of whether or not they were actually written down anywhere, and lately he'd finally lost his patience.

Silvermoon's father was Golden Hawk, Lord Regent of Kong Du province, in the regional capital of Mo Xan Dai. Golden Hawk was responsible for eight hundred thousand souls, and sat only two ranks below the Emperor of the First Kingdom himself. He wielded power over laws, taxes, the regulation of magic and countless other mechanisms of government within the region, and like many fathers he could not understand why this didn't impress upon his daughter that he knew best. So he told Silvermoon, in no uncertain terms, that one way or the other she had to choose a groom. And she had to do it within the month.

Silvermoon inwardly cursed her misfortune and wished a thousand agonisingly painful deaths upon the idiot males of Kong Du who had failed to come up with a single genuinely interesting potential husband between them, but she smiled and bowed her head and retired to her quarters to consider her options. Perhaps there was some favour she could request, or a quest she could ask to be completed? What treasures went unclaimed in the darkest corners of the kingdom, and might the search for them turn up a worthy mate? That sort of thing always worked in the old stories.

The following day Golden Hawk issued a proclamation. All the men of Kong Du, from the mightiest noble to the lowliest bravo, were invited to journey to the ancient mountain range of the Dragon's Nape. From there they would descend into the flooded city of Lao Feng, the long-abandoned ruin beneath the peaks, where the wind sang a formless lament up and down the chasms that riddled the Nape like sword wounds. There these intrepid hunters were to salvage what treasure they could. The Nape was treacherous, yet not impossibly so, and it was well-known the potential rewards were considerable.

Lao Feng had been laid to waste more than a century ago, when the Jade Ocean first broke into the tail end of the Dragon's Nape, at the coastline seventy leagues due east. The seawater rushed along the fissures beneath the mountains, gathering strength, and when it arrived beneath Lao Feng it breached the city's flood defences with little more effort than a seamstress pushing a needle through a piece of silk. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.

This was back when the Emperor's great-grandfather had reigned, and the barbarians from the northlands were still the power behind the throne. The Hong dynasty was long gone, and had been followed by an age of relative austerity. No-one built such magnificent follies any longer, and people spoke of Lao Feng with mingled awe and derision. The current regent in charge of the ruins would not authorise expeditions into the depths. But it was common knowledge people had been down there anyway, and discovered countless riches.

There were dangers down there besides the Jade Ocean. The first explorers brought back stories of sallow, inhuman wraiths haunting the depths, and by this point everyone knew the rumours that the rulers of Lao Feng had called upon forbidden magic to hold back the flood. But if these creatures really had existed, they'd been quiet ever since, and Golden Hawk agreed it was high time for further investigation. He applied to the neighbouring province for permission, and after brief negotiations, had it granted. When a messenger brought word conditions beneath the Nape were favourable and the initial descent was well under way, Silvermoon was captivated despite herself.

Every further missive over the subsequent weeks and months, no matter how scant, fired her imagination. She dreamt of dashing soldiers of fortune cutting down slavering monstrosities by the score in glittering, crystalline caverns hidden far beneath the mountains. And then one day the survivors finally returned, in a long, ragged caravan that drew near Mo Xan Dai as early morning mist lay heavy on the farmers' fields. Children ran ahead parroting garbled stories of wonders far beyond anyone's imagination, and Silvermoon dared to believe that perhaps her frustrated whim had been a wise choice after all.

Not everything the caravan brought back was a wonder. Golden Hawk pressed more than two hundred courtiers into service to sort through the haul, and much of the day became a dreary parade of cracked and weathered tableware, rickety furniture, jewellery gone green with age and missing links or entire stones, and salt-stained paintings near faded altogether over time. The historians seized on much of this, the old men emitting shrill, piping cries like a flock of startled birds, but none of it really resembled any sort of badge of honour. But there were trophies to be had, and three men who had retrieved the finest of these.

Old Pig was a pit boss from Shuxing in the north, a great barrel of a man dressed in green silk, with a huge grey beard. He had found a mechanical eye resting on a ledge behind a tumbling waterfall, in a tranquil subterranean grotto beyond a flooded mine shaft. Deftly the big man twirled his fingers, caught the fading daylight with the eye, and visions swam along the walls of the regent's throne room. There were countless moving pictures of a vanished age, long before the Hong or even the Pao emperors ruled the First Kingdom, a house and a family clothed in garments centuries out of date and whose speech, the palace lip-readers confirmed, was almost comically archaic.

Saffron was a baker from Gu Dailian in the south. He was young and slender, almost feminine, in vibrant yellow robes and wearing scarlet feathers in his hair, and Silvermoon's heart beat faster when their eyes met. Saffron had found a pair of hands clutching a thorny creeper, he said, dotted with pale, almost translucent white blossom and twined through a phosphorescent rockface at the end of a vast, empty banqueting hall. When the hands were allowed to touch any musical instrument, from a peasant's fiddle to a rack of temple chimes, they sprang to life and played with dazzling virtuosity.

Three Strides was the son of a minor dignitary running the customs office in Lao Xe, in the west. He was a strapping figure of a man in silver thread, with a hawkish profile and dazzling green eyes. He had found a diadem, hanging from a mannequin half-eaten by mould, where it lay buried beneath a rock slide that blocked a towering staircase. The diadem was a lovely thing, a circlet of pale gold lined with rose quartz where a sheaf of crystal feathers sprouted from the peak. Three Strides placed it upon his brow, at which the feathers trailed a brilliant stream of light, and he began to float into the air. All those present gasped in amazement.

All eyes were on Silvermoon, waiting to see which she would judge the most wonderful of the three treasures.

"I don't know what to say," Silvermoon admitted. "I think -"

"I do!" called a voice from the back of the crowd.

All those present whispered in amazement at the idea someone would be so rude as to interrupt the lord regent's daughter, and then they began to cry out in alarm as the interloper pushed his way roughly through the crowd without a care for who he brushed aside. He was disturbingly pale, a slouched figure like a gnarled tree dressed in a deep black robe, with a shock of white-blonde hair and vivid red eyes. He leant on a tall grey staff, at the top of which sat a large blue frog, which blinked imperturbably at the crowd.

His face was oddly youthful, yet strangely ancient at the same time, as if he knew some terrible secret he didn't want anyone else finding out. He might have been no older than Silvermoon, or he might have been the oldest one in the throne room.

"I know what I'd like to hear you say," the stranger continued, in a dry, whispering voice that sounded as if it got very little use. "Something about how you cannot in good conscience pick any one of those gifts, since none of them were yours to give in the first place."

"Then whose were they?" asked Golden Hawk.

"Mine, obviously," said the stranger.

"Yours," said Golden Hawk drily, and Silvermoon recognised it as much the same voice her father had used to point out when his aged father had soiled himself, in the last few years before the old man's death.

The stranger scowled.

"You come into Tsung Po's home," he said, "and steal some of his most precious possessions, and then you laugh at me when I request they be returned? Is this what passes for common decency these days? Would you leave poor Wu Bei here a cripple?"

At which a young girl crept out from beneath his robes. She was a ragged, feral thing, like the children one might see begging by the roadside at the gates to the city. She had the stranger's white hair, pale skin and vivid red eyes, only one of hers was nothing but an empty socket, and her wrists ended in bound stumps. Everyone watched as the child stalked down the centre of the throne room, towards the three adventurers where they stood waiting on Silvermoon's answer, and when the little girl saw their trophies she let out a howl of rage.

The eye leapt from Old Pig's grasp, and shot into the little girl's skull, and the hands jumped from Saffron's arms and went crawling towards the little girl's wrists, and the diadem span off Three Strides' head and settled on the little girl's crown. The girl looked at all those present and snarled, a dangerous, animal sound, and everyone saw immediately that her teeth were numerous and very sharp, and her tongue was dark and sinuous.

"Demon!" shouted Red Kite, the high chancellor, and the lord regent's guards closed ranks before Golden Hawk's throne. "Begone! The company of honest men is not for such as you."

"Honest," said the stranger incredulously. "Honest? I think I need to teach you gilded cockerels a lesson about honesty, and the obligations of a host towards an unexpected guest he has wronged so deeply. Come, Wu Bei."

And he and the little girl left the throne room unmolested.

"The Lord Regent in Lao Feng was known as Tsung Po," Red Kite whispered into the silence that followed. "Just before the flood. And he had a daughter."

"Who doesn't know that?" Golden Hawk said. "But those two didn't look to be a hundred years old."

The crowd began to mutter to each other about forbidden magic, how those rumours had been true all along and this uninvited guest had probably been a demon of some kind, one who'd made some kind of dreadful pact to achieve eternal youth. Next thing you knew he'd return under cover of nightfall, the better to devour honest citizens in their beds -

"Enough!" Golden Hawk roared, over the rising babble of conversation. "Return to your homes! I will consult with the chancellor and the seminary's pre-eminent paladins to discern our best course of action, if there is actually anything we need to take action against! You can expect an announcement tomorrow. Until then be vigilant, yes, but do not panic."

And though the crowd still whispered among themselves, they filed out of the throne room without further protest.

Yet nothing happened the next night, or the next. The city guard reported no unusual disturbances, and the lord regent's court began to mock Tsung Po and his impertinence. Making demands of a servant of the Emperor! Though this was a cautious sort of mockery, always with each man glancing over his shoulder every few minutes. Nonetheless, Silvermoon started to wonder again about choosing between one of the three adventurers. Perhaps Old Pig? He was easily as old as her father, but sturdy, and a good-looking man for all the grey in his beard. Saffron's quiet gaze bewitched her, and Three Strides could have stepped straight out of one of her romantic daydreams.

And yet she could not stop thinking about the Lord Regent from fallen Lao Feng, if that was who this Tsung Po really was. Ridiculous! But his dry, whispering voice echoed inside her head.

And then on the third night the palace was rent by horrible screams.

When the guards reached Old Pig's guest chambers they found the pit boss had crawled into a closet and was attempting to dash his brains out against the back wall. They subdued him, with difficulty, and the physicians administered calmatives and strong wine, but though Old Pig woke without trying to do himself further harm he would not speak, and only spouted childlike gibberish. When pressed as to what had happened Old Pig began to weep incoherently and thrash from side to side, and the verdict from the doctors was they feared the pit boss had forever lost his mind. Perhaps with due care and attention he might return to some semblance of his old self, but for now he was more of a shipwreck than a man.

On the fourth night Saffron came to Silvermoon's chambers. The young man eluded all her father's patrols, and at first Silvermoon feared he planned some impropriety, but then she saw he was deeply distressed.

"Is this Tsung Po's lesson?" Saffron asked. "Am I next? Will I go mad, too? And what of you, my lady? Are you to suffer for what I did?"

Silvermoon said nothing. She hadn't even considered Tsung Po might be angry with her, but it seemed horribly plausible. After all, she thought, this sort of thing always happens in the old stories, too.

"I meant no harm to anyone by delving into Lao Feng," Saffron said. "Or coming here. I almost left the hands back there, I swear. They played a melody on spines of crystal that jutted from the rock walls, and it was so sad I considered leaving them to their grief, but then I thought that taking those hands would let me recall the memory later, and I was sure I should die if I could not share it with - with -"

And Saffron scrambled hastily to his feet and rushed from Silvermoon's presence.

The fifth night was shattered by hideous sobs, a broken-hearted, racking wail that dragged on and on and then climbed into a shriek of horror that abruptly cut off into an eerie silence. This time when the guards gained entry to Saffron's guest rooms they found no trace of him, yet the furnishings had been overturned and cast about as if the young man had been caught up in a desperate struggle. When Silvermoon forced her way in through the throng she saw a table almost as thick as her arm that lay broken in two great pieces, and across it lay a long yellow scarf stained so heavily with blood it was almost black.

Silvermoon fled from the sight of it, hid under the covers over her bed and wept into the sheets. If Three Strides followed, what then? Was Saffron right to fear that Tsung Po was going to strike at her next? Was this to be her punishment for tempting people to dig below the Dragon's Nape?

Three Strides insisted he was not afraid. He joined Red Kite and the historians in leafing through crumbling old books kept in the furthest corners of the palace library. There they found reference to an ancient sword that had served Kong Du in ages past as proof against evil.

But the master-at-arms was still searching for this fabled brand as the sixth night fell. Golden Hawk ordered the guards around his last guest doubled, then doubled again, yet as the moon climbed high over Mo Xan Dai an awful, moaning chorus rose inside the room and a strange, foul-smelling wind held the doors fast. The whole palace could hear Three Strides screaming, and when the wind died away the room was found to be empty, with a yawning void in the middle of the floor as if someone - or something - had forced its way in from the depths, and dragged the poor man down with it when it left.

Her father assured Silvermoon no harm would come to her. Why, the paladins were weaving arcane wards of dizzying complexity around the palace even as they spoke. He had ordered half the garrison recalled, and planned to spend the night in her room, should the worst come to the worst. Silvermoon was touched. She was young, but not a fool. She knew her father was almost as frightened as she was and loved him all the more for daring to stand up to such an implacable enemy on her behalf. Yet she felt sure all this preparation would be for nothing, and resolved to sneak into the armoury before the seventh night fell.

The armoury was a dark and lonely place, silent as the grave. The labyrinthine corridors were lined with swords and spears hung in rigid formation along the walls. Exotic weaponry from far-away lands hung in display cases lined with velvet. Boiled leather mail stood draped around tailors' forms, and empty helmets watched impassively as Silvermoon crept past.

Suddenly, without warning, a hand reached out from the shadows and hauled her off her feet, with another muffling her screams.

"I must apologise again for presuming to lay hands on you like that," said the master-at-arms. "I thought I'd caught a thief, but - naturally you may report this to your father, and I shall accept any punishment he sees fit to -"

Bear Claw was a giant of a man, almost bald, with one eye obliterated by a terrible scar and a bristling black beard, but when he acted this contrite he looked eerily like a child caught doing something naughty.

"I'm really only interested in the sword," Silvermoon said patiently. "Did you find it?"

"Yes," said Bear Claw. "But I already told poor master Three Strides the sword would be no use. At least not here. Whatever forbidden magic Tsung Po is calling on to attack Mo Xan Dai, he is undoubtedly doing it from some safe remove. Probably crawled back into Lao Feng, I shouldn't wonder. Someone would have to strike him down in person for these visitations to stop."

"Then I shall go and do just that," Silvermoon said.

"My lady, no," Bear Claw protested. "You're barely trained in any kind of martial art, you've never fought a real battle, and that place is a death trap."

"Is the palace any better?" Silvermoon said bitterly. "Three dead already, and Tsung Po probably saved some especially terrible fate for me, if I stay. Torn apart in front of my own father, more than likely, or worse. I - I'm not a coward, but -"

Bear Claw was unmarried, had no descendants and had often wished in secret that Silvermoon were his own daughter, and seeing her weeping he patted her awkwardly on the head.

"The Dragon's Nape is almost two days' ride from here at full pelt," he said. "With no food bar emergency supplies. Can you hold out for that long? We would have to leave right now."

"It sounds preferable to the alternative," Silvermoon said, and she wiped her eyes.

"Then let me fetch the sword," said Bear Claw, "and we can be off."

A word from Bear Claw saw one of the guard patrols diverted. Seizing this opportunity, he led Silvermoon out of the palace through an ancient sally port only he and the historians knew about, then into the streets of Mo Xan Dai. There was no hue and cry as yet: not so surprising, given most of the guards were unwittingly standing watch over Silvermoon's empty chambers. From there the two of them rode out of the city's east gate, as the moon rose over the highway.

For hours they travelled, until at one point Silvermoon woke to find she'd fallen unconscious in the saddle, swaying like a doll in her seat while the master-at-arms held tight to her reins. They snatched brief swallows of warm water and chewed strips of dried meat as their horses clattered past farmers, pilgrims and wandering vagabonds who ambled along the highway. At last the stark black outline of the Dragon's Nape sprang up across the horizon, and as night fell once again Bear Claw turned off the main road and led Silvermoon through the foothills.

The expedition's shanty town still stood around the minehead, a haphazard line of empty shacks, lean-tos and tattered rawhide tents that sighed mournfully as the wind curled long fingers downwards from the peaks along the Nape. Bear Claw tied the horses to a hitching post and gave them the last of the water, while Silvermoon tried to nurse some life back into her aching legs. Is Tsung Po even here? she thought. Perhaps he was just some crazy old man with a little talent for forbidden magic, and even now the guards have caught him breaking into the palace, while my father already has the headsman sharpening his axe...

But when Silvermoon closed her eyes she could still see Tsung Po's child Wu Bei, with her teeth bared, very sharp and numerous.

"Oh, he's here," Bear Claw said, as though Silvermoon had spoken aloud. "This sword is very powerful. It acts like a lodestone, of sorts. If the bearer has something they're hunting, the magic in the blade can point out the way, wherever the quarry might have gone to ground. Lao Feng is a treacherous place, but not impossibly so. If you can keep up with me, my lady, I should be able to ensure your -"

"I need to go down there alone," Silvermoon said.

"Your father will have me disembowelled for this," Bear Claw said weakly.

"If I have to hide behind a rock while you confront Tsung Po for me I am going to hate you forever," Silvermoon said. "And if you think you can... knock me senseless and go down there yourself, or something, I shall tell my father to have you thrown out of the palace. If I'm not eaten by wild dogs while you're off fighting my battles for me, that is."

She hated to act like a petulant child, but Silvermoon felt convinced. She had to make the descent alone, no matter who or what it was waited for her in the flooded city. The journey was meant to teach her something, not stand back while someone else solved all her problems.

"It could work," Bear Claw said grudgingly. "The sword glows in the dark a little - can you see it, if I hold my hands like so? And the magic in the blade should ward off lesser creatures. Be sure to keep that coat buttoned, mind; it's probably bitterly cold down -"

"Are you my nursemaid now?" Silvermoon said.

"This is serious!" the master-at-arms said. "Look, my lady, remember this, if nothing else: that sword is a Brand, a relic from the age of the Hong. The Brands were a gift from the northern barbarians, forged with the help of their tribal sorcerors, and the Hong emperors handed them to the most fearsome of their fighting men as a guarantee of their absolute loyalty. If they stayed their hand for any reason against an enemy of the realm, the enchantments on each Brand would mete out a horrible punishment for that moment of weakness. The bearer would still be, well, useful. But crippled. No threat on the battlefield. You need to be ready to -"

"This is a man who used forbidden magic to kill three honoured guests who were under royal protection," said Silvermoon, and the words came out so savagely she felt a little scared of her own voice. "He threatened the Lord Regent's authority and more than that, he put my father in danger. If I stay my hand knowing that, I deserve whatever penalty this... Brand exacts."

Bear Claw bowed solemnly, and proffered the sword without another word. Silvermoon hung it around her waist, and walked towards the minehead.

There was a makeshift elevator atop the minehead, and Silvermoon walked inside the cage, latched the door behind her and threw the lever to descend. Counterweights creaked and groaned as the lift swung downwards into the darkness beneath the Dragon's Nape, and as the chain rattled through the flywheel overhead it sounded as if the machinery itself were laughing at her. Darkness settled all around Silvermoon as the light from the surface rose out of sight, and before she knew it she could no longer make out even the walls of the lift shaft.

For countless long moments she felt herself dropping slowly through the rock, and then the cage came to a halt so abruptly Silvermoon bit her tongue. The door swung open of its own accord, onto a stygian cleft, a natural fissure that slanted down into the depths. The only illumination came from dimly glowing emerald fungi clustered in cracks running through the mountain. Silvermoon closed one hand around the Brand's hilt, unsheathed the sword and stepped out into the passage.

After perhaps half a league of squeezing between increasingly narrow rock walls, the passage suddenly opened, and Silvermoon saw Lao Feng for the first time. The sheer size of this subterranean metropolis astounded her, not to mention the ridiculousness of it. Lao Feng was built on a gentle incline that ran downwards through the Nape and divided across steadily deeper tiers. Inside the very mountains! Silvermoon hardly dared look up, and when she did it was a struggle to accept that yes, that was the sky visible through those titanic sword wounds in the rock, hundreds of feet overhead. And yet this natural ceiling showed no signs of imminent collapse.

But the devastation the flooding had caused the city was painfully obvious. Lao Feng was very grand, all towering fluted columns, giant archways and guardian statues, but the thoroughfares were choked with lakes of dark, brackish water where the eerie light cast by the fungi everywhere glittered like jewels. The houses had been shaken to rubble, and great cracks split the ground. Oddly, there were no bodies, and few bones. Perhaps scavengers had long since carried them off? Silvermoon had wanted to fear Lao Feng, but she was forced to admit Tsung Po's home was more tragic than terrifying.

Downward and downward the sword guided Silvermoon, its power like an itch at the back of her mind. Here was safe footing, it told her, while over there the floor was ready to collapse. A left turn would take her further into the dead city while a right was blocked off. Though Lao Feng was not entirely lifeless. From time to time bats fluttered across Silvermoon's path. Blind white fish swam listlessly in some of the deeper pools of floodwater, and once a pale, hulking beast fell into step with her in the shadows down a long, ruined colonnade. Yet it shrank back and fled into the darkness, snarling furiously, when Silvermoon held up the Brand.

The princess passed by the great staircase, and through the waterfall and down the banqueting hall where the three adventurers had found Wu Bei's hands, the little girl's eye and her diadem. All the while Silvermoon heard not a single voice, human or otherwise, save the sighing of the wind through the gashes in the Nape as it wound through the deeper levels of the city. And then the sword led her up: at its prompting she climbed a high, drunken spire, a huge tower of slick white stone so soft it felt rotten. The stairs crumbled under every step the princess took but in the highest room, where a throne of oil-slick brass looked out across a vast subterranean lake, she felt the Brand pulse eagerly, as though it were a living thing.

"You," Tsung Po said, rising from the throne on his grey staff, and he whistled sharply. "You came all the way down here?"

"You insulted me," Silvermoon said, and tried to keep her voice from shaking. "You scorned my father's hospitality, you slew his honoured guests, and you cheapened the ceremonies for my betrothal. What else was I going to do?"

"And now what?" asked Tsung Po. "You think to discipline me, like an unrepentant child? Go home, foolish girl. You have no idea what you're doing."

The great blue frog perched on his staff stretched out its tongue to snatch a luckless insect in mid-flight, and then it gulped.

"I will not," said Silvermoon. "Submit to my father's authority, or I will strike you down, I swear."

"Submit," Tsung Po repeated. "Are you touched in the head? Would you drain the ocean from the city, too? Take back Lao Feng? Steal my home, as your over-eager suitors stole my daughter's only possessions? I punished some ill-mannered thugs, is all. You're lucky I didn't do the same to you."

"Punished?" Silvermoon retorted. "You called up nightmares, had them torn to pieces -"

"You are touched in the head," Tsung Po said. "I didn't kill anyone."

"Lies," Silvermoon whispered. "Lies!" And the Brand leapt forward, dragging her across the room, and she fought to keep her balance as the sword came down in a scything blow towards Tsung Po's head.

Tsung Po brought up the staff just in time to block the Brand, then flung the length of grey wood up again and again as the sword repeatedly lunged for him in the princess's grasp. The frog croaked in alarm and clung tighter to its perch.

"I'm guessing your father hasn't even bothered to investigate what happened," the white-haired regent panted. "There were no bodies, remember? Those idiots saw... nightmares, yes, but nothing worse than what haunted them every day. Honest? Would you like to know what secrets they were hiding?"

He ducked back as the Brand swung past, but slowly enough the point drew blood from his chin.

"Secrets worth driving a man mad?" Silvermoon gasped. She tightened her grip on the sword as it tugged her back across the floor.

"That fat ogre?" Tsung Po asked. "Old Pig, was it? There was some poor barbarian woman he'd bedded, the last time he travelled across the border into Hengist, and last year he discovered he'd got her with child. The boy was already grown, and Old Pig couldn't face the shame of being the father of a blue-eyed bastard, so he abandoned him in the forest. Left him to be eaten by wolves. To meet the son you murdered would drive most men insane -"

"Pitiful," Silvermoon panted, as the Brand hammered against the staff once more. "First forbidden magic, now you're slandering the dead?"

"Why would I bother making up a story like that?" Tsung Po demanded. "If I were in league with dark powers, surely I'd just ask them to stop you in your tracks? And that westerner, Three Strides, the one you were making eyes at. Oh, the liberties he takes with his position! Smuggling in refugees and selling them on to slavers to fight to the death in goblin market bear pits, or worse -"

"There was a wind," Silvermoon protested. "A smell. Stank to high heaven."

"Partly magic, yes, but the little worm broke into the old sewer system below the palace to escape," Tsung Po said, and parried another blow as he retreated, gathering his robes about him. "Did no-one think to go down into that hole?"

"And Saffron?" Silvermoon asked. Her hands were streaming with sweat, and she wiped them one by one on her skirts as the sword paused momentarily, bobbing in the air like a twig floating in a slow river current. "Poor Saffron? I saw the blood. Tell me, what did he do?"

"He," said Tsung Po. "He, you say?" And the white-haired regent laughed, and Silvermoon realised it was not mockery but genuine amusement, and she blushed hotly in the shadows without understanding why.

"You honestly never noticed?" Tsung Po asked.

I meant no harm by coming here, Saffron had said. And suddenly Silvermoon saw that midnight speech in an entirely different light, for strictly speaking there was no law that forbade one woman to have relations with another, but society wouldn't approve if she wanted to court the daughter of a regent.

Silvermoon squeezed her eyes tight shut, furious with and ashamed of everything and nothing all at once. What had Saffron seen in her own nightmare visitation, if Tsung Po was telling the truth? What was she guilty of? Was it really as bad as Old Pig or Three Strides' crimes had been? For some strange reason Saffron's plight upset Silvermoon the most. Murder and corruption were abstract concepts to her, almost unreal, while hopelessly unrequited love felt far more powerful.

"Explain the blood," Silvermoon whispered.

"If she had to change her clothes that hastily," Tsung Po said. "Well..." and here he sounded almost embarrassed. "Come on. You're a grown woman, yes? Or do your nursemaids take care of everything for you?"

"This is ridiculous," Silvermoon breathed. "You confuse me. Fill my head with nonsense, so you can work your magic on me. Well, even if you manage to cloud my mind, the Brand will stop you."

"You really are still a girl," Tsung Po said gently, and there was something in his voice that Silvermoon could not bear to hear, and the sword shot forward so violently it almost jumped out of her hands.

"Demon!" Silvermoon screamed. "Demon! You ruined everything! Ruiner!" And as she hacked remorselessly at the staff she realised with a thrill Tsung Po could not fend off the Brand; the power within the sword was too strong for him. With one more blow she cut straight through Tsung Po's staff. It split in half, and he stumbled backwards, tripped on the steps below the throne of brass and fell to the floor. Silvermoon yelled in triumph as the Brand swung up towards the ceiling, ready to bury itself in the white-haired regent's skull.

A dazzling, roseate light flared overhead and Wu Bei flew down towards the princess, teeth bared and her fingers stretched out into claws. Part of Silvermoon shrieked in terror and darted back ready to defend herself, yet part of her clamoured frantically; this is a child! Distracted by this hysterical argument she could only bring up the flat of the Brand, but the impact batted Wu Bei clean across the room even so. Silvermoon raised the sword again, ready to stab past those clutching, sorcerous hands.

Then she became aware Wu Bei had not moved to rejoin the fight, and lay crouched across the white-haired regent's body, weeping pitifully, nothing more than a little girl terrified for her father.

"What are you?" Silvermoon whispered. "A demon?"

"I don't know," Tsung Po said weakly.

"But everyone says the city used forbidden magic," Silvermoon insisted.

"Someone did," Tsung Po said. "But not me. People wanted to consult the Black Libraries to help hold back the tide, but I forbade it - I set men to tunnelling past the lowest tier, to work on flood defences. Only we never dreamt the sea would be so angry. The water rushed through the lowest tier in moments, and kept on rising. Too late I tried to order the populace to flee, and then over the screaming I heard the sound of bells."

"Sorcery?" Silvermoon said.

"Sorcery," Tsung Po agreed. "I saw the air grow dark, felt the ground tremble, and then everything went black. What am I? I woke up to this. A dead face, wandering a dead city, decades of solitude where I saw no living soul save Wu Bei... I don't know how I didn't drown. Many times since then I've wished I had. Ah, Lao Feng, my Lao Feng!"

"Is Wu Bei your daughter, then?" Silvermoon asked.

"She is," Tsung Po said. "I found her buried in the ruins of my home, beside my wife's body. My wife was dead, but Wu Bei? Grievously injured, but alive - I nursed her back to health, then built the eye, enchanted the diadem, and gave life to the hands. But I could do nothing about the havoc the magic had wreaked on her. The ruin it left of her mind."

He sighed.

"She carved her teeth herself," he said. "I almost went mad when I found her, crouched in some forgotten tunnel, feasting on bats and hissing when I drew near."

"Why not leave?" Silvermoon asked. "Seek help for her?"

"You saw how those idiots toadying up to your father reacted," Tsung Po said. "If I presented my daughter to some snot-nosed paladin fresh out of the grand seminary and still wet behind the ears, what do you think he'd do with her? I'd be lucky if they didn't throw me on the pyre too. No, I stick to walking the Nape with her, now and again. Down here she hardly even needs me around."

He stroked the little girl's matted hair and smiled sadly.

"But you were Lord Regent of Lao Feng," Silvermoon said. "You were nobility -"

"And I condemned more than two hundred thousand people to their deaths," Tsung Po said.

"Condemned?" Silvermoon said. "You didn't kill them."

"I could have let them go!" Tsung Po said. "Ordered them to flee, even! But oh, no, I thought the city could hold back the tide. I thought I could, and in my hubris we turned the lower levels of this place into a charnel-house, Lao Feng and I. Beneath that black lake through those windows lie enough bones the sight of them would make a brave man claw his own eyes out."

The white-haired regent sighed.

"Could you make it quick?" he asked. "I wouldn't want her to suffer."

Wu Bei whimpered.

"Why come all the way to Mo Xan Dai?" Silvermoon whispered. "You didn't leave your city when the first explorers broke in. Were your daughter's hands that precious? Her eye? Her diadem?"

"Yes," Tsung Po said. "But... the second wave, they spoke of you. The men and the women."

He smiled.

"Some of them were obviously infatuated with your rank more than anything else," he said, "but many were plainly enchanted with you. They sang songs, wrote poetry about you, to keep up a brave face against the darkness and the rising water, and that forbidden magic."

He looked at Silvermoon and his voice, already quiet, grew even softer.

"They were right," Tsung Po said. "You are very beautiful."

Then Silvermoon heard the Brand speak, and its voice was withered, dry and merciless.

Kill him, said the sword, in an arid whisper that resonated inside Silvermoon's head. Finish this. Kill them both.

Silvermoon shook her head furiously, and fought to keep the sword level. She thought of Tsung Po wandering the flooded city, decade after decade, and her eyes filled with tears. He talked of the lake being choked with the bones of the dead; had he carried the corpses there himself? And to have found his daughter, but crippled, half-mad, wearing a monster's face - yet to love her despite all that. Was this folly, the lunatic optimism of a desperate man who should have lain down and died a hundred years ago, or was it more like lighting a tiny, wavering candle flame in a vast and trackless cave?

It's folly, the sword insisted. You'd throw away your future, shame your father, for this monster? You think you can undo what he did to himself and his mewling demon-spawn? You'd be condemned, ostracised, ruined! Will you still go ahead with this idiot fantasy, even so?

"I will," Silvermoon whispered to herself, and with an oath she hurled the Brand across the tower, and at that moment the world went pitch-black.

Darkness, total darkness, and not merely the absence of light. Though the princess could no longer hear the sword's paper-thin voice she knew this was the Brand's punishment. Blind, Silvermoon thought, I'm blind, and for a long moment she knew the purest, most naked terror imaginable. Tsung Po had lied, she'd misinterpreted everything he'd said, and now Wu Bei would hunt her through the flooded city, snarling, and then the ghastly demon-child would feed on Silvermoon's living flesh and throw whatever was left to the ghostly white fish forever circling sightless through the cold black water, and Tsung Po would retrieve her bones and cast them into the lake beyond the tower to settle on the bottom with all the others and that would be the end of it -

There was a scuffling noise, and a scrambling. Silvermoon stood very still, and fought to control her hammering pulse.

And then a small hand stole into Silvermoon's grasp and she gasped aloud. Someone hugged her around the waist. She could hear Wu Bei's breathing, slow and ragged.

"You really are still a child," Tsung Po whispered softly, and Silvermoon felt his hand beneath her chin as he raised her head.

The white-haired regent put his lips to hers, and his breath was sweet in the darkness and his mouth warm. Not human, Silvermoon told herself, he's barely even human, and she thought again of fallen Lao Feng, of stagnant pools, of grinning skulls amidst the ruins, of monstrous snarls and leathery wings fluttering in the shadows. But then she remembered a father's tenderness towards his crippled child, his outrage at the thought his home had been invaded, and his agonised contrition at the depth of his terrible error of judgement.

More human, then, than any of her suitors. Silvermoon put her arms around Tsung Po, and slowly kissed him in return, and for a long moment she, the regent and his daughter all stood there in the throne room, saying nothing at all.

"I will come back," Silvermoon said. She reached out and felt for the walls of the fissure that led back to the lift shaft and the surface at the foot of the Dragon's Nape.

"I know you will," said Tsung Po. "I trust you. Wu Bei trusts you. It would be difficult not to."

Silvermoon knew she couldn't stay and simply vanish. Poor Bear Claw presumably still waited in the old shanty town overhead, and were he to return with the news the princess of Kong Du had perished in the depths of Lao Feng then the next thing the lord regent sent would be an army. It seemed this was to be what she learnt from her midnight ride from Mo Xan Dai to the eastern mountains: how to convince her father that yes, the regent of the fallen city still lived, a century later, that he wasn't the monster they'd assumed, and that Silvermoon wanted to help him.

How, exactly, she was less certain, but she couldn't face the thought of abandoning these two.

"You have the Brand?" Tsung Po asked.

"Right here," Silvermoon said, and placed one hand on the sword's pommel.

It was Wu Bei who had claimed the weapon from the floor of the tower, and returned it to the princess when Silvermoon realised that strange, itching tug the Brand exerted still remained.

The punishment the blade meted out left the bearer crippled, Bear Claw had said, but still useful. Was this what he'd meant? She could see nothing - Tsung Po had bound a strip of silk torn from his robe around her useless eyes - and yet with the Brand hanging from her waist Silvermoon had acquired some dim awareness of her surroundings. Over here was a wall, over there another wall; up ahead, the lift; and two days' journey west lay her father, along with a future the princess could scarcely begin to imagine. But what she saw terrified and yet thrilled her at the same time.

I don't think I've got that answer I wanted yet, Silvermoon thought. But blind or not, I feel as if I can see more clearly than I ever did before.

"If anything can be done for Lao Feng," she said, "we'll do it."

And she reached successfully for the white-haired regent, put her arms around his neck and drew him to her for one last embrace before they parted.

"Come back, then," said Tsung Po. "For my Lao Feng. For Wu Bei."

Silvermoon climbed awkwardly into the mouth of the fissure.

"And for me!" Tsung Po called out.

"For you!" the princess yelled. "For you!" And as she made her way along the stygian passage, past the glowing emerald lights she could no longer see, Silvermoon smiled.

3 comments:

  1. This magical tale captivated me and drew me along, even though I usually find this genre difficult to engage with. The well paced narrative and poetic imagery were resonant with traditional tales and yet the story also had a freshness that was entirely unto itself. An intriguing and satisfying read,
    many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Your characters were richly drawn in a detailed world of magic.

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  3. Your strong, detailed characters and exciting story drew me into the world and a story which you created and which wouldn't let me go until the end. You approach your characters with empathy and a imagination. Thank you for a great read,

    LS. Sharrow

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