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Dela had mysterious dreams the night before she bought the riddle box. A portent, maybe. She did not think much of it. She was used to strange dreams, only a few of which had ever come true.
Still, she was alert when she left the hotel the next morning, stepping into the dry furnace of a rare clear Beijing day. Winds had swept through the night, sloughing away the smog and scent of exhaust and decay. Blue sky, everywhere. Sun glinted off the glass of skyscrapers, cars, diamonds -- the aluminum spines of umbrellas shading dark-eyed women -- casting sparks in Dela's unprotected eyes. The world trickled light.
The city had changed. Ten years of capitalist influence, spinning a web of glass and advertisements; a modern infrastructure sweeping over the land as surely as the fine Gobi dust imported by the northern winds. A new cultural revolution, here in the city, across China. It mattered to Dela, the form and result. She could hear Beijing's growing song, the soul of the city -- the collective soul of its thirteen million inhabitants -- etched into the steel.
Dangerous, alluring -- she did not like to listen long. There was too much hunger in that voice, overwhelming promise and hope, twisted with despair. A double-edged blade, forged from the dreams of the people living their lives around her.
Just like any other big city, she reminded herself, pouring strength into her mental shields. Devils and angels, the lost and found.
Cabs swarmed the hotel drive -- like fire-ants, fast and red -- and Dela jumped into the first one that squealed to a stop. Directions, spoken in perfect Mandarin, slipped off her tongue. One week in China, and her old language lessons had returned with a fury. True, she sometimes practiced with her assistant, Adam -- a former resident of Nanjing -- but regular life had settled its wings on her shoulders, years without stretching herself, dredging up the studies that had once taken her around the world. Dela thought she might have forgotten all those parts that were not metal, of the forge, and was glad she had not.
The cab wrenched from one clogged lane to another -- a hair-raising mish-mash of roaring engines and squealing tires -- curving down a tree-lined street where colorful exercise bars lined a scrap of shaded park. Elderly men and women pushed and pulled their way through rotating stress exercises, children screaming on seesaws. Bicycles overburdened with cargo, both human and vegetable, trundled down the crowded street, cars swerving to avoid the monstrously wide loads, as well as the packs of ragged young men darting across the road.
Dela saw a familiar low wall, cracked with age, its carved flowers and barbed wire still unchanged. She tapped the plastic barrier and the driver let her out before the wide entrance, scratched blue doors flung open to admit both foreigners and locals, making their way through a treacherous maze of parked bicycles. Dela saw faces bright with curiosity and greed.
Entering Pan Jia-Yuan. The Dirt Market. Tourist trap, hive of antique rip-offs and bald-faced lies -- a treasure hunter's paradise. And Dela was in the mood to hunt.
Dust swirled around her feet as she slipped past crooked old men and women hawking nylon shopping bags to beleaguered early birds, hands already full of purchases. Stepping onto the concrete platform shaded by a voluminous tin roof, she listened to cheap jade jingle: bracelets, statues, necklaces. Pretty enough, and quite popular, if the gathered crowds were any indication. Nothing caught her eye. Potential gifts, perhaps, for acquaintances who would appreciate the gesture. Not good enough for actual friends, few and far between -- deserving of special care, something beyond trinkets.
But later. Dela had something else to find.
She combed the shadowed interiors of the open-air stalls, searching until she heard a familiar call inside her mind. Weapons. She followed the whispers to their source.
Scimitars and short swords; Tibetan daggers, hilts engraved with piled grinning skulls. Mongol bows, rough with use and age, quivers flimsy with faded embroidery, metal trimmings. Everywhere, dusty tinted steel -- but all of it disappointing. The metalwork was poor -- cheap imitations for not-so-cheap prices.
Dela stared at the eager merchants, who smiled at her blond hair, pale skin, and electric eyes. Easy mark. She could see it written on their faces, and their judgment made her feel lonely; a foreign emotion, and unpleasant.
Bad enough they probably think I'm dumb, she thought sourly. Solitude was a gift, but only when paired with anonymity -- the disinterested observer.
Dela frowned at herself. You shouldn't have returned to China if you didn't want to stand out. Buck up, girl.
She left the weapons stalls, ignoring protests -- some of which bordered on desperate -- with a polite shake of her head. Those weapons offered her nothing. She knew quality when she saw it, age and history when she felt it. A simple thing, when one worked with steel as much as she did. When it sang its secrets inside her head.
Still looking for treasures, Dela simply wandered for a time, soaking in the heat, the scents of incense and musty artifacts kept too long in shadow. She watched children sell boxed breakfasts of fried noodles and onion pancakes, crying out prices in high voices. She listened to an old man play a lilting melody on a stone flute, and bought one of his small instruments. He laughed when she tried stringing notes together, the hollow stone wheezing miserably. Dela grinned, shrugging.
After nearly an hour of browsing, Dela found something perfect for her mother. Generous rectangles of linen, dyed a vibrant navy, embroidered with delicate stylized flowers -- a bouquet of colors, random and perfect. She bargained like a fiend, dredging up every scrap of charm and language she possessed, and by the end of the transaction, both she and the seller were grinning foolishly.
“Aiii yo," sighed the older woman, as she smoothed glossy silver hair away from an oval face that looked at least twenty years younger than her body. Gold-flecked eyes glittered, but not unkindly. “It has been a long time since I met a foreigner who made me work for a sale."
Dela laughed. “It's been a long time since I met anyone I enjoyed arguing with."
The woman quirked her lips, and for a moment, her gaze changed, becoming older, darker, wiser. “I have something else you might want."
“Ah, no. I think I have enough."
The old woman ignored her, already digging through the tapestries and knickknacks piled at her feet. Dela watched, helpless. She did not have the heart to simply walk away. A good haggle created a bond -- certain unspoken etiquette. The “last chance" possibility of a final transaction.
The late summer heat was growing oppressive; air moved sluggishly between the stalls, thick with wares and milling bodies. The scents of dust and grease tickled Dela's nose. Sweat ran down her back. Slightly bored and uncomfortable, she turned full circle, gazing at the throng of shoppers.
A man at the end of the aisle caught her eye. He was of an indeterminate race, darkly handsome, wearing sandals and loose black slacks, as well as a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Crisp, clean, and somehow out of place, although Dela could not determine exactly why.
At first she thought he was staring at her -- and perhaps he had been -- but now he studied the old woman digging through her wares, and Dela felt inexplicably uneasy for her. His eyes were cold, measuring, haunted by a simmering intensity that would have been overwhelming if not matched to such an attractive face and body.
When the old woman popped up with a triumphant sigh, Dela stepped close.
“Behind me," she whispered, not caring if the woman thought her strange, “there is a man watching you."
Her gold-flecked gaze flickered; something hard rippled through her face. “I am used to him. He seems to think I have something he wants."
“I don't like him," Dela said.
The old woman smiled. For a moment, her teeth looked sharp, predatory. “Which is why I am going to do you a favor. For one yuan, you may have this riddle box."
Dela stared. One yuan was an incredibly low price for the Dirt Market, where everything was inflated to exorbitant amounts, especially for foreigners. She gazed at the object in the old woman's hands. Loosely wrapped in linen, she saw soft lines, rounded edges. Wood, perhaps, although she imagined the hint of something harder beneath the cloth. No metal. Nothing called to her.
“What is the riddle?" Dela asked.
The old woman bared her teeth. “Choice."
Dela looked at her sharply and reached for the box. The woman pulled away, shaking her head.
“Bought and sold," she whispered, and Dela was struck by the intensity of her stare, more powerful than the gaze of the strange man still observing them. “It must be bought and sold. One yuan, please."
Dela could not bring herself to argue, to refuse. Despite the odd air surrounding the transaction, the vague uneasiness pricking her spine, she fished a bill from her purse and handed it to the old woman.
Another sigh, and the old woman looked deep into Dela's eyes. “A good choice," she said, and Dela sensed some deeper, inexplicable meaning. She carefully slid the wrapped box into Dela's purse -- a swift act, as though to conceal. Dela felt uneasy.
You know better, she chided herself. This ‘box' could be full of drugs, and you're the stupid American courier, traipsing around until you get pulled over by the cops, and thrown into a sweaty prison.
Or not, she thought, staring into the old woman's mysterious face. Dreams and portents, she reminded herself, fighting down a shudder. The stifling air was suddenly not warm enough. Her bones felt cold.
The old woman stepped back, smiling, and suddenly she was just like any other Dirt Market hawker. Eyes sharp, but somewhat glassy. Easy mark eyes.
“Bye-bye," she said, and turned her back on Dela.
The sudden reversal in attitude, from intimate to dismissive, took Dela off guard. She almost protested, but from the corner of her eye, felt the strange man's attention suddenly weigh upon her. An odd sensation; tangible, like sticky fingers on the back of her neck. Impossible to ignore.
Go, whispered her instincts.
Without another look at the old woman, Dela walked down the aisle, away from the strange man and his searching eyes. She did not look back; she moved gracefully through the thickening crowds, slipping between stalls and merchants, ragged men and women rising from their haunches to shove vases in front of her flushed face. Her chill vanished; the heat suddenly felt overwhelming, the press of bodies too much, the sensation of being hunted tightening her gut. Premonition haunted her.
When Dela finally broke free of her winding path, she found herself near the front gates. Heart pounding, she jogged to the street and hailed a cab. A breath of cool air brushed against her sweaty neck.
“My," drawled a smooth masculine voice. “You are in a hurry. What a shame."
Dela was used to unpleasant surprises, but it was still difficult not to flinch. The strange man stood beside her, intimately close. Perfectly coifed, breathtakingly handsome.
She disliked him immediately. He was too perfect, fake and unreal. Even his voice sounded over-cultured, as though he was trying to affect an unfamiliar accent. There was nothing kind about his smile, which skirted the edge of hunger, conceit. He made Dela's skin crawl, and she stepped out of his shadow, frowning.
A cab stopped in front of her; Dela opened the door to slide in. The stranger caught her hand. His touch burned, and she barely kept from gasping at the strange sensation. His skin felt thin as parchment, ancient, but with such heat -- actual fire, to her ice.
Shock turned to anger.
“Get your hand off me," she said, low and hard.
He smiled. “It has been a long time since I had a conversation with a beautiful woman. Perhaps I could share your cab? I know a lovely courtyard restaurant."
Conversation? Beautiful woman? Dela would have laughed, except he clearly expected her to say yes; he even nudged her toward the cab, maintaining his iron grip on her hand, his smile as white and plastic as a cheap doll.
“I don't think so," Dela snapped, surprised and pleased to see his dark eyes shutter, his smile falter. Did he really think she would be so easily cowed, so stupid and desperate? “And if you don't let go of me this instant, I am going to start screaming."
Perhaps it was the cold promise in Dela's voice; all charm fled the stranger's face. The transformation was stunning. He leaned close, his breath hot, smelling faintly of garlic, pepper. His gaze, dark and oppressive, lifted the hairs on the back of Dela's neck.
Something fluttered against her mind, then, bitter and sharp.
Dela clenched her jaw so tight her teeth ached, and the stranger smiled. A real smile, bright and blistering and sharp.
“How interesting," he said, squeezing her hand until her bones creaked. The pain sparked rage, striking Dela's fear to dust. No one hurt her. Ever. Not while there was still breath in her body.
Loosening her jaw, Dela smiled -- and screamed.
It was a marvelous scream, and Dela took an unholy amount of glee in the look of pain that crossed over the stranger's face. Bikes crashed into cars; passersby stopped dead in their tracks to stare. Dela pulled against his hand.
“Help me!" she screeched in both Chinese and English. “Please! This man is trying to rob me! He's going to rape me! Please, please…someone!"
Dela did not think she had ever sounded so frightened or pathetic in her entire life, but the horrible part was that while she had started out acting, the growing fury in the man's face suddenly did scare her. He looked like he wanted to kill her with his bare hands -- as though he would, right there with everyone watching. Her entire arm screamed with pain as his fingers crushed bone.
Soldiers, common enough on Beijing's streets, ran from the gathered crowd of onlookers. Strong young men, they latched onto Dela's assailant, wrenching him away from her. It was quite a struggle; he was very strong and refused to let go of her hand. When he did, a cry escaped his throat; a bark of frustration, anger.
Dela slipped backwards into the cab, fumbling for the door, eyes wide upon the hate distorting that handsome face. The urge to run overwhelmed and she rapped her knuckles on the plastic barrier. The startled cab driver did not wait for her destination. He swerved into traffic, car brakes squealing all around them, horns blaring. Within seconds, the Dirt Market -- and the ongoing struggle outside its gate -- was left behind.
Dela rubbed her arms, shuddering. Her face felt hot to the touch, but the rest of her burned cold. She bowed her head between her knees, taking deep measured breaths. The breathing helped her sudden nausea, but her heart continued to thud painfully against her ribs. She managed to tell the driver the name of the hotel, and then held her aching hand, trying to forget the feel of the man's fingers squeezing flesh and bone. The hot ash of his skin. The cool tremble against her mind.
A great stillness stole over Dela as she rode the memory of that sensation. She could count on one hand the number of times a stranger had purposely pressed his mind to her own, and while her shields were strong -- her brother had made sure of that -- Dela was in no mood to test herself against anyone who really wished her harm.
But he didn't know I was different until the end. Which meant the stranger had followed her out of the Dirt Market for another reason, one that had nothing to do with her psi-abilities. Dela remembered his cold dark eyes, how he had watched the old woman long before paying attention to her. What was his need, his purpose?
Through her purse, Dela felt a hard lump. The riddle box. Clarity spilled over her, and she almost examined her tiny purchase then and there. She caught the driver watching her through his rear view mirror, and hesitated. If she really had just purchased something awful like drugs or God-knows-what, she did not want any witnesses when she began poking her nose into Trouble. If that was what the riddle box represented.
He can't find me, Dela reminded herself. That creep has no idea who I am, and this is a big city. It was a small comfort.
When Dela arrived at the hotel, she stumbled up to her room, ignoring the strange looks people cast in her direction. She caught a glimpse of herself in the elevator's polished steel doors, and winced. Her blouse had popped open, her face was beet red, and her hair looked…well, just plain bad.
“Round one goes to the Evil Minion of Satan," she muttered, holding shut the front of her blouse. A nearby businessman gave her a strange look, and Dela laughed weakly -- which didn't seem to comfort him at all.
Once inside her room, Dela turned all the locks on the door, and threw her purse on the bed. The linen-wrapped box spilled out onto the burgundy covers, and she stared at it for one long minute. Stared, and then retreated into the bathroom for a shower. Dela couldn't take any more bad news -- not just then. She desperately wanted to scrub away the morning, the lingering miasma of the stranger's presence.
Dela remained under the hot water for an indecent amount of time, until at last she stopped shivering. Infinitely calmer, she wrapped thick towels around her body and hair, and returned to the main room. She flopped on the bed with a sigh and picked up the wrapped box. Such a small, innocuous object.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The box may have nothing to do with that guy crawling all over you. He could have just pegged you as a victim.
True, but what had the old woman said?
He seems to think I have something he wants.
Frowning, Dela carefully unwrapped the layers of fine linen -- surprising, to find such quality on an object from the Dirt Market -- and caught her breath as the riddle box was finally revealed.
It was exquisite, with the breathless quality of some exotic myth. Round, no larger than the palm of herhand. Rosewood, polished to a deep red that was almost black, inlaid with silver and gold, onyx and lapis. The lid was etched with some foreign, incomprehensible script that looked more like musical notations than words, and the curved sides displayed an elaborate series of images, a story: a magnificent tiger inside a thick forest; the beast suddenly a man, fighting, raging -- and then the tiger once again, prone, locked inside a cage.
The detail was incredible, impossibly precise and subtle. Dela had never seen such clarity of pinpoint and line -- not even in her own art, and her methods were unorthodox, to say the least. Dela ran her fingers over the carvings, the bright inlays. She felt the tiger's gold-lined fur beneath her fingers, sensing his capture. The sensation of imprisonment made Dela inexplicably unhappy.
She pressed the riddle box against her cheek and closed her eyes. She could finally taste the trace of metal inside her head, but it was faint, faint, an ancient whisper like the brush of a brittle leaf.
Its age startled her, sent a rush of pressure into her gut. Dela rolled the metal inside her mind, listening to its sleepy secrets. Millennia old. Two millennia, maybe more. She felt breathless with awe.
What was that old woman thinking when she sold this to me? It's priceless.
But Dela thought of the strange man, the old woman's cryptic remarks -- and his behavior suddenly made sense. She cradled the small treasure in her palms, turning it over in her fingers as surely as her thoughts were turning, twisting. Yes, someone might very well kill for this -- or kidnap, assault. But why had the man waited until he thought Dela possessed the box? Why not go after the old woman if he suspected she had it? Surely she would be an easier target.
Dela sighed. She could understand the old woman wanting to rid herself of the box if she thought it would cost her life, but the black market would have offered her more money than one yuan! It didn't make sense.
Dela tried opening the lid, but it was stuck fast. She studied the box, and smiled. A true riddle. It took her fifteen minutes of careful fiddling, using her instincts more than her eyes, but she finally found the two releases, set in an onyx claw and a silver leaf. Pressing them simultaneously with one hand, she unscrewed the box lid --
-- and the earth moved.
Violent vertigo sent Dela reeling into the pillows, clutching her head. Scents overwhelmed: rich loam, sap, wood smoke. Some essence of a verdant forest, come alive inside her room. Darkness, everywhere, but her eyes were clenched shut; Dela was afraid to open them, scared she would no longer be in the hotel. Dorothy, transported to Oz. Her displacement felt that complete.
Dela slowly became aware of the bedspread beneath her bare legs. The pillows, soft against her face. Silly imagination, she chided herself, and turned to look at the box.
It was no longer on the bed beside her.
Something in her stomach lurched, another premonition. She felt a ghost of movement, behind her, and she twisted --
-- only to watch, dumbfounded, as sheer golden light spiraled through her room, shimmering in steep waves, a sunset palette of colors stroking air.
The light slowly took form, a gathering pressure of intense pinpricks. Dela blinked, and in that moment, the light coalesced. She felt thunder without sound, an impact to the air that lifted everything in the room, including herself.
The light disappeared, and in its place:
Excerpted from Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu. Copyright © 2005 by Marjorie M. Liu. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.