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Sign of the Qin
by L.G. Bass
Hyperion, 2004

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Book One: Sign of the Qin

by L.G. Bass


Streaked with soot, the Tattooed Monk followed the wavering tracks of a lone fox into the woods. Herds of yak stood like black boulders on the windswept cliffs, their shadows sharp against the snow in the pale morning light. Burning prayer flags snapped thinly in the acrid wind, and the bell from the smoking ruins of the monastery below sounded eerily across vast spaces.

The single shrill call of a crane cut the air. Leaning heavily upon his staff, the monk limped along over splintered rockfalls, struggling to maintain his footing. At every step a hot jolt of pain shot through his leg. As he labored up the mountain, his breathing calmed.

In the turmoil of his grief, the monk's memories loomed like a storm about to break. With one fiery stroke, the Lord of the Dead had erased the sacred order of the Silver Lotus. Were the kung fu secrets of the Twelve Scrolls soon to be destroyed as well?

The monk's tattoos began to swirl, reflecting his thoughts. Perhaps he had lived too long. He remembered a time when Sleeping Giant Mountain rose up out of the boreal swamp. He remembered a time much like this one when ancient demons had been summoned from the Netherworld and a Starlord had opposed them, sacrificing his Imperial Throne to dragon fire in order to save the earth. It would take another Starlord to save the unsuspecting earth now.

The vibrating call of the red-crowned crane came again. Drawn by the sound, the monk lifted his face to the sky but saw no birds overhead. He neared a solid wall of locusts trapped in ice at the base of a frozen waterfall. Impulsively, he broke through the ice on the surface of the ghostly stream and plunged into the frigid waters, no longer feeling the agony of his wound. Leaping onto a boulder with the lightness of a bird, the Tattooed Monk knew that he must climb the waterfall.

Seizing hold of strong vines, he swung like a monkey, lifted by some inverted sense of gravity. He clung to the slippery precipice, advancing toward the peak. One false move and he would go careening down in an avalanche of stone. He groped for footholds, desperately clawing at the side of the gorge as the gusting wind threatened to throw him over the edge. The world lay beneath him -- the scorched forest, the flooding river, and even, at a great distance, the open sea.

At the summit a graceful flock of red-crowned cranes danced in a deep blue crater lake cradled in clouds. Bowing and leaping, preening and springing into the air, they lifted their long bills and unfurled their necks, trumpeting their mating call.

The monk's heart lifted, but still he held back. The White Crane was his fighting form, but he was not yet ready to fight. He was a shadow brooding over the fate of other shadows, striving to remember all that he had once possessed and lost. He was a yeti, a wraith of the marsh, a spirit of the sea, a ghost of the snow, marching aimlessly through time. He had been scoured by the meteoric heat of a dragon's breath and had known himself in that instant to be utterly mortal. By whose hand, while others more worthy foundered and died without mercy, had the tide turned once again and the Tattooed Monk been spared?

He lifted his face to the heavens and let out a clangorous, unearthly cry. Flaring his arms like wings and arching his back, he moved with the cranes, pumping his head up and down and leaping madly into the air. He had lived so long, he no longer remembered his childhood, but he remembered this dance. When it was finished, he stood motionless and one-legged in the shallow water, cranelike except for the absence of a mate. He stood there perfectly balanced for a long time, until the rainbow of shifting tattoos across his back ceased to change. The pictures took the repeating shape of overlapping V's -- cranes flying, their blazing red caps fanning out like spots of blood across a continent of snow.

Part One

   Our sleep is troubled by dreams
   we cannot forget we have forgotten.
   -- Emperor Hung Wu

Chapter One

Sign of the Qin

   A Starlord appears suddenly and moves from the forgotten
   to the unexpected. This is a miracle, but no more so
   than the birth of any other child. -- The Master Hand

Some said the newborn's first cry was so loud and lusty it summoned the Lord of the Dead and his demons from the Netherworld. Others said it called the ancient Starlord Hung Wu down from Heaven to help the deteriorating kingdom of Han in its hour of need. Perhaps both interpretations were true and perhaps not. But it could not be contested that from the hour Prince Zong first announced his arrival, the moon rocked in the sky like a cradle, and nothing was ever the same in the province of Shandong.

The Prince's earsplitting howl floated up from the Emperor's private chambers, echoing loudly through the palace halls until it reached the Tower of the Water Clock, setting off a blare of trumpets, a beating of valves, a shimmering of bells, and a precipitous spinning of gears. The clock's twelve animal automata began to move all at once, and the sapphire eyes in the head of the monkey rolled from left to right three times.

In his eagerness to view the baby boy, the Emperor signaled his circle of twelve worried counselors to clear the servants from the birthing room. The stubborn nurse, however, would not relinquish her charge for the traditional viewing. She glared daggers at the Emperor's guards, insisting that the infant's first meal was more important than his first meeting with his father. In the headlong rush of events, no one had time to reprimand her.

And so, the official meeting took place less formally than had been planned, and the Prince was a bit underdressed for the occasion. Clasped firmly in his nurse's arms, Emperor Han's firstborn, only minutes old, drank his fill before calmly studying his father for the first time, staring at him appraisingly with big bright eyes.

Han saw that the boy was handsome, with noble features and a thick thatch of black hair framing his well-shaped head. He breathed a sigh of relief and felt his fatigue creeping back, the long sleepless vigil taking its toll. Suddenly, his ceremonial robes weighed heavily upon his shoulders, and his tasseled cap pressed into his skull, giving him a headache. Signaling his desire to withdraw, he turned away, but something in the nurse's triumphantly protective stance as she cradled the infant set off a small alarm bell in his mind, and he turned back to take one last look.

At that moment, the cooing of an amorous pair of turtledoves rose in the garden and the infant turned his head to listen. Emperor Han fell back, pale as a ghost. Emblazoned on the Prince's left cheek was a tiny ink-black birthmark, an exact replica of the sign of the Qin. It looked as if it had been burned into the baby's face like the brands on condemned criminals in Han's prisons below. The outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh, the gang most defiant of the Emperor's authority, identified themselves with this symbol. The Emperor's own flesh and blood had been born with the clear mark of the outlaw!

Beside himself with shame, the Emperor roared an order for Silver Lotus, the child's mother, to be brought before him. Torn from her bed, where she had been resting after the labor of childbirth, she was forced to kneel in the courtyard like a common thief, before he sentenced her to be stripped of all her worldly possessions and banished. By sunrise, she would be gone from his sight forever, or preparations for her execution would immediately commence.

The lady's attendants began to wail, tearing their hair and ripping their clothes, mourning the fate of their unfortunate mistress. Their cries incited the servants and workers who had spontaneously gathered. Many in the mob of cooks and kitchen helpers, sweepers and smiths, gardeners and artisans had withstood severe beatings and worse in this very courtyard. And the gentle Silver Lotus, the one they called Sacred Mother, had brought them all soothing comfort and charity when the Emperor punished them harshly.

The crowd began to push forward toward the guards, murmuring and invoking her name. "Sacred Mother," they intoned, and ironically, "Fortunate Mother," and some, already giving her the title that would now never be bestowed upon her: "Venerable Mother."

But Silver Lotus ignored the moaning and the lamentations. When she heard the Emperor's proclamation, she rose and with steady hands began to remove her outer robes, letting them drop to the cold flagstones.

A shocked hush fell over the spectators. The Emperor watched her, and for a moment time froze as their eyes locked. Her loyal maidservants rushed to her aid, but she waved them aside, asking in a clear voice for the simple clothes she had worn when she first came to the Forbidden City.

Still the Emperor watched as the First Consort, mother of his only child, deliberately removed the red-and-gold garments of rank layer by layer, and let them blow away in the icy winter wind like burnt paper cutouts at the Festival of the Dead.

Finally, Silver Lotus stood shivering in her yellow slip. Then she put on the dress she had brought from home four long years before, lovingly stitched by her own mother's hand, a poor farmer's attempt to simulate the splendor of the court. She stood there, erect and proud, refusing to bow her head or to lower her eyes. At last, it was Emperor Han who lowered his, disappearing into a circle of soldiers who ushered him rapidly out of sight.

The youngest of the palace maids stepped forward and silently offered Silver Lotus her arm. The new mother smiled gratefully and allowed herself to lean upon it for a moment. Then she called for her dulcimer. When it was brought to her she ran her fingers lightly over the strings, remembering how she had brought it with her when she first entered the court as a young girl, hoping that day, against all odds, to attract the Emperor's attention. With great care, she wrapped the instrument in its silken sack and slung it across her back.

Whereas once her happiness had hung upon each summons into her master's royal presence, in the last year she had grown to hate the Emperor with a passion as strong as the love she bore her new son. To be free of her nightly visits to his bed was a blessing she had long prayed to deserve, although the granting of her wish seemed now to carry with it a death sentence. Her own father had long ago abandoned her, and what remained of her family had been dispersed by flood and famine. Without a home to which she could return, she had no faith she would survive in the world outside the Forbidden City.

As the Emperor's eunuchs led her away, the Prince began to wail inconsolably in his nurse's arms. Pulling away from the guards, she ran to him and, leaning down, touched her lips lightly to his birthmark, covering with a kiss the mark of the Qin.

As Silver Lotus straightened, a young soldier, attempting to dispel the idle onlookers, lashed her with his whip. She cried out and, caught off balance, bent closer to the baby. As she steadied herself, her last piece of jewelry, a heavy locket stamped with the sign of the phoenix, dangled before his eyes. He reached up to play with it, attracted by the glimmer of tiny seed pearls depicting the constellations. Taking it from around her neck, his mother slipped it over his head, tenderly placing the sign of the imperial phoenix on his tiny chest, over his heart, where it shone like a golden shield.

"Whatever happens, little one," she whispered into his ear so that only the child could hear, "you are a prince. Never forget your heritage. Last night the Starlord Hung Wu spoke to me in a dream, claiming to be your father. May he watch over you, for I cannot. Always remember that I love you. One day, perhaps you will rule, and truth and justice will once again reign supreme. Good-bye, my little Starlord."

The baby fingered the phoenix as he held his mother's moon face in his steady gaze. He gave her a small nod, as if he understood. At that same moment, the sun rose, marking the end of her time in the Forbidden City. And two bright drops of blood from the gash the soldier had inflicted fell upon the golden phoenix, solidifying into a gleaming pair of ruby eyes. Silver Lotus bowed her head and submitted to being escorted toward the imposing marble gates.

Under the white arch of the Gate of First Snow, she stood a moment, looking back over her shoulder at the Garden of Pleasant Sounds. There she had spent many peaceful hours by the marble wishing well, anticipating this day of joy when her son would be born and she would be crowned Empress. One agonized, shuddering sob escaped her. Then, cradling her dulcimer, she stepped out into the road and headed toward the teeming streets of Bai Ping, where, if luck stayed with her, she might lose herself among the anonymous poor and live to sing for her supper in the town square.

Excerpted from Sign of the Qin by L.G. Bass . Copyright © 2004 by L.G. Bass. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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