Excerpt: Chapter 2

Apsarases. That was the word for the women in the carvings, the monk had told him. They were rather like divine courtesans, whose beauty, desirability, and skill in the art of love were as far beyond earthly women's as a god's wisdom and span of life were beyond mortal men's. The apsarases, so it was said, dwelled in the after-world, fairly languishing with desire for the virtuous dead, wanting nothing else but to reward them for all eternity. And the rewards began on earth, it would seem; it behooved a man to be a master of the art of love while he was alive if he wanted to find himself in the arms of apsarases forever and ever.

Magistrate Dee knelt over a carving that still rested in a crate. An apsaras, full-bodied and voluptuous,  stood alone with one sensuously rounded hip thrust to the side, the shape of her impossibly uplifted breasts delineated by a necklace that traveled, clinging to every curve, down to her belly, where gentle horizontal lines suggested a luxu­riant distribution of fat emphasizing the deep triangle between her legs. She was nude but for her elegant jewelry, which decorated her arms, feet, ankles, and head; on her face she wore a small, cryptic smile. Her whole stance suggested that she was waiting . . . and ready. The heavenly courtesan, indeed. He blurred his eyes a bit, trying to see her not as old, carved, dry wood, but as living flesh. He endeavored to see her smooth brown skin, the gold of her jewelry flashing against it, her black hair and eyes. He smiled. In the soft lamplight, it was not a difficult feat of the imagination to achieve. For a moment, he really saw her. She had the same skin as the courtesan a young male relative of his had obtained for him on his fifteenth birthday, unbeknownst to the rest of the family. She had been an Indian, and her skin had smelled of smoke and patchouli. It had been a long, feverish night for the youth; he could still recall the minute details of those hours with perfect clarity.

He started to lift the piece, thinking that it deserved a special place of honor by itself, and several rolled-up pieces of paper dropped to the floor, as if they had been tucked into the back of the carving. He set the sculpture down on a stool and retrieved the papers. He smoothed one out on his desk near the lamp and read:

 . . . her thighs form a sacrificial altar; the hairs between them the sacrificial grass where a man kneels; her skin is the sacred liquor a man drinks to become intoxicated; the two lips be­tween her thighs the place where the rubbing stick makes holy fire. Truly, the world of the man who practices the art of love knowing this is as exalted as the world of him who performs the sacred strength-libation sacrifice. . . .

Dee raised his eyes as a rush of warm blood moved involuntarily through his body all the way up to his face. These were some sort of translated holy Indian writings, it would seem; obviously, the dead Transport Minister was interested in verbal pictures as well. Heav­ens, but these were even more powerful than the carvings. Those had done nothing like this to him. Here he stood, alone in his office, feeling very tangible pangs of physical arousal, his face hot and his pulse and breathing quickened, because of words on paper.

He thought of his wives. He would go to one of them tonight.

But which? His second wife held the prerogative at the moment. She had a right to receive his attentions next, and indeed, he was obli­gated to her. But his first wife, a more flexible, imaginative woman, would be more likely to go with him where he wanted to go. If he went to his first wife tonight, he would have to be sure to make it up to his second wife, and soon. He closed his eyes and allowed tantalizing pictures to flit through his mind. He felt strong. He sorely needed the relaxation and revitahzation. He could, perhaps, go to both of them tonight. Yes, of course. Why not? He lowered his eyes to the page again. ". . . the place where the rubbing stick makes holy fire."

If he had not heard the smallest creak of a floorboard behind him, the blow would have landed squarely on the back of his head. But his body reacted before his mind had time to comprehend. He twisted to one side and caught the full force on his right shoulder. His hand shot up at the same instant and caught hold of a piece of rough, splintery wood and held it. Flailing behind him with the other hand, he seized and held tight to a piece of his attacker's clothing. In this strange embrace, unable to see each other's faces, they whirled around, knocking over furniture and carvings, making a terrible din. Dee pulled as hard as he could at the club, the angle awkward and strengthless, splinters digging into his flesh, his assailant's breath hot on his neck. Then he backed up toward the wall and slammed the other's body against it hard—once, twice, a third time, until who­ever it was let go of the club. Dee flung it across the room, and still gripping the piece of clothing, turned to face his attacker, pinning him to the wall with an arm across the neck.

The utter surprise at what he saw stopped him for perhaps three heartbeats. A boy—no more than twelve or thirteen, scrawny and wiry, with short, bristly hair—stared back at him with wild eyes, gasping for air, feet barely touching the floor. Dee relaxed his grip so the child could get his breath. Those few seconds' lowered vigilance were all the boy needed. He sank his teeth into Dee's arm, ducked under him as the magistrate howled with pain, and headed for the door to the balcony before Dee knew what had happened. He lunged, but something under his feet rolled, pulling the floor out from under him. Down he went, landing hard on his back. By the time he stumbled to his feet again and out to the balcony and looked over the rail, the boy was gone.

Trembling, his back throbbing, Dee went back into the office. The carving of the beautiful apsaras lay facedown on the carpet.

Lingams had been knocked to the floor and had rolled in all direc­tions. That was what he had slipped on, of course: a holy phallus had brought him to the ground. It was a miracle he hadn't cracked his skull. With shaking hands, he began to set things aright again, afraid that something might have been damaged. Nothing was broken, though, merely scattered, just as surely as his mood of a few mo­ments ago was scattered irretrievably. He picked up the apsaras and looked at her. Her little smile had not changed. No earthly scuffle, no mortal struggle, could ruffle her eternal, untouchable hunger.

In a far corner of the room, where he had hurled it, he found the club meant for the back of his head: a rough, heavy piece of wood, half as long as a man's arm and just as thick, perfectly suited for delivering a deathblow while he sat absorbed and oblivious—pre­cisely how the Transport Minister had died. He felt almost certain that he held in his hands the very weapon that had killed that un­fortunate man. And the little demon who had fled over the balcony? Without a doubt, Dee had also had his hands on the true murderer for a few brief moments.

He looked at his palms. There must have been one hundred splinters embedded in the one that had gripped the club. It was beginning to sting and throb. When he went to one of his wives tonight, it would be to ask her to search out with her infinite feminine patience each and every murderous sliver, pull it from his flesh, and rub soothing balm into the wounds with her own cool, soft hands.

Excerpt: Chapter 3

Lady Wu sat in the early-morning light of the nursery, her newborn daughter on her lap. She looked with wonder on the miniature perfection of the infant’s features: the tiny, delicately sculpted curved lips, the shiny eyelashes lying along the cheek, the translucent skin with blue veins running like tendrils beneath. She opened one of the diminutive fists and spread out the fingers, examining the whorls on the palm and fingertips, and turning the little hand over, inspected the impossibly small but perfectly complete pink fingernails, like chips of mother-of-pearl. The infant lay on her back in the strange state of torpor peculiar to newborns: not asleep, but not awake, either, arms and legs jerking like a dreamer’s and a troubled frown between the brows, as if concentrating on some inner discomfort. Wu put her forefinger between her daughter’s eyes and smoothed out the worried wrinkle there; the baby tightened her hands into fists and waved them about.

She opened the front of her robe, and sitting in the shaft of early sunlight, nursed the child for a while. She watched the small face, the opaque eyes that opened occasionally as the infant fed. When the baby had had her fill and began to doze, Wu rose, taking great care not to wake her, and laid her down on her bed.

Lady Wu listened. There were no voices nearby, no footsteps in the hallway. She was quite alone. She picked up a thick quilt and walked over to where the baby lay; she looked down on her daughter, memorizing the sleeping infant features. You are going to help to make your father great, she whispered, then put the quilt over the child’s face and pressed down with all her weight.

Much later, she felt as if she were waking from a dream. She opened her eyes, saw that the baby had stopped moving, and lifted her weight off the quilt. She turned the baby over onto her belly, arranged the limbs in a natural sleeping position, and pulled the coverlet up.



She rang the little bell that called the handmaiden, and dispatched the girl to the nursery to fetch the baby.

“Make sure she is clean and sweet,” she called after the servant. Looking at Kaotsung, she smiled. “Tell her her father wishes to see her.”

The sun slanted across the bed. Kaotsung, still on his knees, sprawled his top half across Wu while she caressed his neck and shoulders. He pulled himself up a little farther so that more of his weight rested on her, and ran his lips over the skin on her neck.

“How much longer … ?” he whispered.

“Oh, at least a fortnight,” she answered. “Perhaps longer.” He moaned with frustration.

“But it has been ten days already since the child was born,” he protested weakly, breathing onto her collarbone and pressing his pelvis against her ever so slightly.

“If my lord wishes it, then it will be sooner,” she said in a humble tone. “I will risk injury if his need for me is so great that he cannot wait.”

“No, no, no!” he protested. “No. I can wait. If I must. But …”

She pulled his head up by the ears and gave him a conspiratorial smile.

“But don’t worry,” she said slyly. “You will be taken care of. I am nothing if not a very... resourceful woman,” she finished, and put her tongue onto one of his eyelids. “There are many other tortures that I can inflict on you, are there not?” she whispered then. “Why, I can think of all sorts of things.” She moved her hands down and gave him a dig in the flesh alongside his rib cage, causing him to writhe and laugh, his face buried in the sweet-smelling quilts.

“Madame?” A tremulous female voice from the direction of the doorway caused Wu to abruptly cease her tickling and Kaotsung’s laughter to die on his lips. They both looked up to see the handmaiden standing on the threshold, a bundle in her arms, her face white with fear.


The servants tiptoed about, in awe of Lady Wu’s terrible grief. She had wailed and cried without stopping for a day and a night now. Long, piercing screams of agony were followed by low, gravelly moans of mortal anguish. The voice would rise again, keening and sharp, before disintegrating into sobs. Then the screams would start again, hoarse and powerful.
Where did she get her strength? they asked one another. For she was also tossing furniture about, breaking things, kicking the walls. She sounded like an elephant on a rampage.
She had called for her mother the day before, and Madame Yang had been fetched from her home in the city. Immaculately dressed and made up as if for a grand occasion, rustling with self-importance, she had arrived at the palace yesterday afternoon and gone into her daughter’s chambers. Now it was morning, and Madame Yang was still in there with her. Some of the servants whispered to one another that they believed they could distinguish two different voices screaming and wailing in turn. Some of the other servants rejected the idea as ridiculous; what mother would actually encourage her daughter to grieve so intemperately, so exhaustingly and agonizingly?

When Madame Yang had swept into the palace the day before, they had all been startled at the resemblance between mother and daughter. And not just that—the two women also looked as if they were the same age. Lady Wu, as everyone knew, was twenty-seven years old; her mother did not look any older. She is forty-one, Lady Wu’s handmaiden had whispered; she was only fourteen years old when Lady Wu was born. They are practically the same person.

And where was the Emperor? Pacing the halls, helpless, shattered, dazed. He appeared from time to time, his face white, and knocked and pleaded, but the two women behind the closed doors ignored him, and the wailing continued. The sounds were pure torture to him, that was obvious. He covered his ears and groaned, his face a mask of impotent misery. He would leave, only to return and try again later.

A terrible, terrible thing, the servants told each other, to shut him out like that. He would do anything for her. Did the women think that he did not grieve, too? some of them asked. Yes, but a mother’s grief, others said … it is always worse. No one can know a mother’s grief.

Toward early afternoon, the crying stopped abruptly. The door to Lady Wu’s chambers opened a short time later, and Madame Yang emerged, looking as immaculate as she had the day before when she arrived. Without a word to anyone, she swept out of the palace, silks rustling and jewelry tinkling.


                                                            * * * 

Kaotsung held both of Lady Wu’s hands tightly and gazed at her ruined, swollen face. Her hair hung down, tangled into clumps, and there were long self-inflicted scratches on her arms and chest. Her face was vacant, her eyes dry and exhausted. The room was a shambles. The curtains had been torn down, vases smashed, tapestries and quilts ripped into shreds, furniture splintered and overturned, and food thrown against the wall. Lady Wu’s robes hung in tatters from her body. She sat, saying nothing, eyes half closed.

“Please,” Kaotsung whispered. “Tell me what I can do to make you happy again. I am begging you.” She raised her eyes and looked hard at him.

“Bring my firstborn back to me. Restore her to life and put her in my arms.”

“I would if I could,” he cried. “I would do it a thousand times!” He put his head down and began to sob.

“Or …” Lady Wu began in a small voice. He raised his head eagerly.

“What? What? Anything. I will do it.”

She looked at him.

“Make me your Empress,” she said.

Kaotsung sat back, mouth open, unable to reply.

“But …” he faltered.

“Make me your Empress, and you will give me joy. Nothing will ever take away this pain. It will live, coiled like a snake inside me for the rest of my life. But that is one joy you could give me.”

“But I already have an Empress,” Kaotsung protested weakly. “You know that. Chosen for me by my father. I cannot—”

“You disgust me,” she said then. “You say you will do anything for me. Here is a simple thing, and you say you cannot do it.”

“But it is like asking me to bring the infant back from the dead,” he protested. “It is impossible. It cannot be done. I … I would have to depose the Empress, overturn every precedent, cause terrible grief, go against the will of the Council of Six and my own dead father! And the family of the Empress would turn against me and all my descendants. Probably for generations! What you are asking would tear me in two!”

She said nothing, but lowered her eyelids, let her shoulders sag, and looked down at the floor.

“Very well,” she said softly. “Very well.” Kaotsung was on his feet, walking back and forth helplessly, desperately.

“Please,” he begged, arms spread supplicatingly. She said nothing. Kaotsung stopped pacing and looked at her. Then he found the only object in the room that had not been destroyed, an empty chamber pot peeking out from under the bed. He picked it up and hurled it against the wall.




Excerpt: Chapter 8

One winter morning before dawn, a man woke from obscure, uneasy dreams unable to recall who or where he was. He lay in the chill darkness, his open eyes looking up into what seemed to be the infinite night sky, and listened to the sound of his heart thumping and his blood hissing in his head. His body was inert and so distant from him that his consciousness seemed to be suspended in a great void; he was afraid, and wanted to call for someone, but he could not remember any names, or any words at all, and so lay mute for a long time before slipping back down into his dreams. He dreamed of fire, red and searing hot, his heartbeat huge and thundering, filling the universe like a great drum.

When he woke, a woman’s face looked down on him, her expression one of fear, solicitude, and impatience all at the same time. She was shaking his shoulders and telling him to speak to her immediately. He knew this woman, he was sure of that. Her face was familiarity itself, but strangely disconnected from any memory of who she was exactly. He tried to smile, and felt warm drool run out of the corner of his mouth, down his cheek and jaw, and onto his neck. This seemed to make the woman even more annoyed. She accused him of playing disgusting games and shook him again. But she must have seen something more in his face, because anger vanished from her features as swiftly as it had come and was replaced by alarm. She said that she was going to fetch the Imperial physician immediately, and ran from the room. He tried to tell her that it was not necessary, but found no words to express the thought. Soon the drool on his cheek and neck chilled. He wanted to wipe it away, and tried to raise his right hand, but found that it no longer belonged to him. He tried his left hand; shakily, it obeyed his command. He wiped his cheek, shivered, and with his good hand pulled the coverlet up over himself and lay in the soothing darkness under the bedclothes.


By afternoon, Emperor Kaotsung had regained the use of his right hand, though it was feeble as a baby’s. The physician regarded him with worried eyes, and implored the Emperor to allow him to administer a needle treatment, but Kaotsung refused, communicating his feelings with gestures, because words were still evading him. By now, he knew who he was and that the woman who had hovered over him that morning and who conferred now with the physician in low, worried tones was his wife, the Empress. He knew her name, too, but found that he was unable to move it from his brain onto his tongue. Words and sentences piled up inside his head, but met the same barrier. He had no confidence at all that if he spoke, anything but gibberish would issue from his mouth, so he refrained. It was strange, and quite interesting, and he settled back into himself to explore the phenomenon.

After the physician had left, the Empress came and sat on the bed, took both his hands in hers, and looked at him.

“Speak to me,” she implored. He opened his mouth to answer her, but only an inarticulate rush of air, like wind in the treetops, issued from between his lips. It took him by surprise, and he shut his mouth quickly. The Empress started in alarm at the sound. “What is the matter with you?” she said sharply, her voice edged with fear and vexation, dropping his hands as if he had suddenly become odious. He shook his head and looked at her helplessly, embarrassed at the strangeness of it, unwilling to try again. Her eyes grew hard. “You are doing this to humiliate me,” she said. He shook his head again.

Then her face softened and she began to cry. She picked his hands up again and stroked them while tears ran down her cheeks. “My poor love,” she said then. “My poor, poor love. Don’t worry, I will take care of you until we drive out whatever this horrible thing is that has possessed you. I will care for you as if you were one of my own little babies.” With that, she pressed her sweet-smelling breast against him and laid her head on his shoulder so that her perfumed hair was directly under his nose. She lay and sobbed softly while he closed his eyes in resignation.

                                                          * * *

Kaotsung recognized Wu’s approaching footsteps. They were particularly eloquent today; he could read them as clearly as words shouted in his ear: brisk, tapping, full of self-important exuberance, with an underlayer of unswerving, uncompromising, single-minded intent. He also detected a note of incongruous cheer. Was it her intent that created her impatience, or did her impatience give rise to her intent? It was a riddle he had pondered often. The answer was no clearer to him now than it had ever been, but he could hear them both now, seeking him out as unerringly as an arrow shot from the bow of the surest hunter.

He rolled to the side of the massive bed and let himself drop down to the floor in the narrow space next to the wall. He lay with his shoulder tightly and comfortably wedged, smelling the dust in the carpet and enjoying the odd perspective of the bed and the carved ceiling as seen from this unusual vantage point, and thought that this would be a good place to lie forever.

He held himself very still as he heard the door open. Her presence immediately filled the room. It was not that she was making a lot of obvious noise, or that her perfume was strong, or that she was breathing hard; it was nothing so obvious as that. It was her intent, tangible and palpable as something alive, that actually displaced the air so that he could feel it pressing against him. At that moment, he decided that it was her intent that came first, then her impatience. He closed his eyes and waited.

He heard the bed creak and the quilts rustle. He sensed the moment when he was no longer alone, when he could feel himself being looked at. He opened his eyes; her face was directly above him, looking over the side of the bed, her dark eyes steady and calm and fathomless.

They regarded each other for a long time. Presently, she moved back out of sight; the next thing he knew, she was pulling the bed farther away from the wall, making more space. Then she came across the bed again and lowered herself down into his hiding place with him. He did not move. She nestled against him wordlessly, her face in his neck so that he could feel her breath.

“You know, of course, that it was I that they meant to kill,” she said finally, her mouth right next to his ear. “My poor sister is a heroine. She stood in their way, and took the blow for me. I am devastated. Who would want to kill me? Who? I am so afraid!” She tightened her arms around him. “Let us stay right here together forever. We will hide, and no one will ever find us.” She put a leg over him as she spoke, drawing it up slowly so that it moved along his thighs toward his midsection. She let it rest there for a moment, then began to move it gently back and forth.

He was aware of her concentrating, her attention focused on his groin, feeling for his response. When she found nothing, no answering movement of his flesh, she deftly pulled up his robe and opened his silk trousers so that her bare leg, the silky inner surface of her thigh, moved against him now.

She did this for several minutes, varying the pressure, her tongue in his ear or on his neck. He held himself perfectly still. I am a dead king, he thought to himself. I have been lying in my tomb for three thousand years. It has been so long since I have seen the sun or heard another voice or sniffed the air on a summer morning that I cannot remember any of it at all. All I know is darkness, vague memories of faces, and the dank walls of my tomb.

He felt her hands on him, squeezing and kneading his limp flesh. Then her mouth and tongue, resolutely demanding that he rise. A dead king in his tomb, with no memory, no desires, he thought.

She was working with fierce determination now. She had pulled up her gown and was astride him, then moving down to use her mouth again, caressing him with her tongue, raking him ever so gently with her teeth, then her tongue again. She rubbed, squeezed, licked, tickled, and caressed, even tried to press him into her body by force. But there was nothing. He opened his eyes and looked down, and saw her holding what looked like a drowned snake, flaccid and useless as his dead arm had been on the morning of the seizure. The look on her face was one of pure revulsion as she gazed down on the ugly thing in her hand.

Excerpt: Chapter 25

Ch’ang-an, the western capital, was the greatest city on earth. With its teeming millions and thriving commerce, the city was the point of confluence for highways, canals, and rivers that went for two thousand li in every direction. It was an enormous vortex of peoples, native and foreign, a city where the cosmopolitan and urbane existed alongside customs and superstitions as exotic as anything found in the deep jungles or high mountains of other lands. Ch’ang-an was a many-faceted jewel fragmenting the infinite light of human inventiveness and imagination into a palette of colors that was its strength and magnificence.

Human fear, too, came in many colors and textures. Unchecked fear was a ripe breeding ground for the misunderstandings that arose wherever diverse nationalities coexisted. Now, fanned by rumors concerning the nature of the bizarre and brutal murder of one of the wealthiest households in Ch’ang-an, innuendo and xenophobia raged through the city like a poor man’s fire.

Each tribal nationality, each group of immigrants, feared and suspected the other. The northern Turkish Mongolian nationalities—Sogdian, Khitan, Juchen, Uighar, Hsi—hated the southern Hua, Man, and Miao peoples of Lingnam and the uplands of Nam-Viet. Among the southerners, the Miao were distrustful of the Hua peoples, but even more distrustful of the diverse “barbarians” from the jungle gorges of Lingnam. And to each, the other’s magic was black and evil. Added to this great churning broth of humanity were the recently arrived Sassanid immigrants from the faraway Persian Empire, with their strange Zoroastrian dualities of good and evil.

The imagination of the city had been stimulated. Details from the murder scene had leaked out, and were exaggerated and distorted even beyond their true gruesome proportions. Tales of unclean magic proliferated and flew about; no one was exempt, and everyone was suspect.

In one retelling of the event, it was not the mouths that were slashed wide but the bellies that were opened, and the intestines wound around the bodies like a grisly ropes, or draped like garlands of flowers, or stretched and curled along the floors in the forms of recondite Dark Taoist scripts, their glistening curves spelling out secret words. In another story, the heads were missing, separated so neatly from the necks as to suggest that they had not been severed but had simply taken leave of the bodies on their own. And the word was out that the bloody tracks of animals had been found on the walls and ceilings.

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08.03 | 09:51

Checking whether the domment replies have been fixed

12.02 | 19:49

I've always held a special pace in my heart for your the "Court of the Li...

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Thank you for the kind words, Mr. Byrnes. It was indeed a shock, ...

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Terrible shocking news. R I P, Mr. Altieri. Condolences to Mrs. Altieri , yo...