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Read a sample from JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

Chapter One: Twice Lucky

The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant. The windows were open in the dining room, and the onset of evening brought a breeze off the waterfront to cool the diners, but in the kitchen, there were only the two ceiling fans that had been spinning all day to little effect. Summer had barely begun and already the city of Janloon was like a spent lover—sticky and fragrance.

Bero and Sampa were sixteen years old, and after three weeks of planning, they had decided that tonight would change their lives. Bero wore a waiter’s dark pants and a white shirt that clung uncomfortably to his back. His sallow face and chapped lips were stiff from holding in his thoughts. He carried a tray of dirty drink glasses over to the kitchen sink and set it down, then wiped his hands on a dish towel and leaned toward his coconspirator, who was rinsing dishes with the spray hose before stacking them in the drying racks.

“He’s alone now.” Bero kept his voice low.

Sampa glanced up. He was an Abukei teenager—copper-skinned with thick, wiry hair and slightly pudgy cheeks that gave him a faintly cherubic appearance. He blinked rapidly, then turned back to the sink. “I get off my shift in five minutes.”

“We gotta do it now, keke,” said Bero. “Hand it over.”

Sampa dried a hand on the front of his shirt and pulled a small paper envelope from his pocket. He slipped it quickly into Bero’s palm. Bero tucked his hand under his apron, picked up his empty tray, and walked out of the kitchen.

At the bar, he asked the bartender for rum with chili and lime on the rocks—Shon Judonrhu’s preferred drink. Bero carried the drink away, then put down his tray and bent over an empty table by the wall, his back to the dining room floor. As he pretended to wipe down the table with his towel, he emptied the contents of the paper packet into the glass. They fizzed quickly and dissolved in the amber liquid.

He straightened and made his way over to the bar table in the corner. Shon Ju was still sitting by himself, his bulk squeezed onto a small chair. Earlier in the evening, Maik Kehn had been at the table as well, but to Bero’s great relief, he’d left to rejoin his brother in a booth on the other side of the room. Bero set the glass down in front of Shon. “On the house, Shon-jen.”

Shon took the drink, nodding sleepily without looking up. He was a regular at the Twice Lucky and drank heavily. The bald spot in the center of his head was pink under the dining room lights. Bero’s eyes were drawn, irresistibly, farther down, to the three green studs in the man’s left ear.

He walked away before he could be caught staring. It was ridiculous that such a corpulent, aging drunk was a Green Bone. True, Shon had only a little jade on him, but unimpressive as he was, sooner or later someone would take it, along with his life perhaps. And why not me? Bero thought. Why not, indeed. He might only be a dockworker’s bastard who would never have a martial education at Wie Lon Temple School or Kaul Dushuron Academy, but at least he was Kekonese all the way through. He had guts and nerve; he had what it took to be somebody. Jade made you somebody.

He passed the Maik brothers sitting together in a booth with a third young man. Bero slowed a little, just to get a closer look at them. Maik Kehn and Maik Tar—now they were real Green Bones. Sinewy men, their fingers heavy with jade rings, fighting talon knives with jade-inlaid hilts strapped to their waists. They were dressed well: dark, collared shirts and tailored tan jackets, shiny black shoes, billed hats. The Maiks were well-known members of the No Peak clan, which controlled most of the neighborhoods on this side of the city. One of them glanced in Bero’s direction.

Bero turned away quickly, busying himself with clearing dishes. The last thing he wanted was for the Maik brothers to pay any attention to him tonight. He resisted the urge to reach down to check the small-caliber pistol tucked in the pocket of his pants and concealed by his apron. Patience. After tonight, he wouldn’t be in this waiter’s uniform anymore. He wouldn’t have to serve anyone anymore.

Back in the kitchen, Sampa had finished his shift for the evening and was signing out. He looked questioningly at Bero, who nodded that the deed was done. Sampa’s small, white upper teeth popped into view and crushed down on his lower lip. “You really think we can do this?” he whispered.

Bero brought his face near the other boy’s. “Stay cut, keke,” he hissed. “We’re already doing it. No turning back. You’ve got to do your part!”

“I know, keke, I know. I will.” Sampa gave him a hurt and sour look.

“Think of the money,” Bero suggested, and gave him a shove. “Now get going.”

Sampa cast a final nervous glance backward, then pushed out the kitchen door. Bero glared after him, wishing for the hundredth time that he didn’t need such a doughy and insipid partner. But there was no getting around it—only a full-blooded Abukei native, immune to jade, could palm a gem and walk out of a crowded restaurant without giving himself away.

It had taken some convincing to bring Sampa on board. Like many in his tribe, the boy gambled on the river, spending his weekends diving for jade runoff that escaped the mines far upstream. It was dangerous—when glutted with rainfall, the torrent carried away more than a few unfortunate divers, and even if you were lucky and found jade (Sampa had bragged that he’d once found a piece the size of a fist), you might get caught. Spend time in jail if you were lucky, time in the hospital if you weren’t.

It was a loser’s game, Bero had insisted to him. Why fish for raw jade just to sell it to the black market middlemen who carved it up and smuggled it off island, paying you only a fraction of what they sold it for later? A couple of clever, daring fellows like them—they could do better. If you were going to gamble for jade, Bero said, then gamble big. Aftermarket gems, cut and set—that was worth real money.

Bero returned to the dining room and busied himself clearing and setting tables, glancing at the clock every few minutes. He could ditch Sampa later, after he’d gotten what he needed.

“Shon Ju says there’s been trouble in the Armpit,” said Maik Kehn, leaning in to speak discreetly under the blanket of background noise. “A bunch of kids shaking down businesses.”

His younger brother, Maik Tar, reached across the table with his chopsticks to pluck at the plate of crispy squid balls. “What kind of kids are we talking about?”

“Low-level Fingers. Young toughs with no more than a piece or two of jade.”

The third man at the table wore an uncharacteristically pensive frown. “Even the littlest Fingers are clan soldiers. They take orders from their Fists, and Fists from their Horn.” The Armpit district had always been disputed territory, but directly threatening establishments affiliated with the No Peak clan was too bold to be the work of careless hoodlums. “It smells like someone’s pissing on us.”

The Maiks glanced at him, then at each other. “What’s going on, Hilo-jen?” asked Kehn. “You seem out of sorts tonight.”

“Do I?” Kaul Hiloshudon leaned against the wall in the booth and turned his glass of rapidly warming beer, idly wiping off the condensation. “Maybe it’s the heat.”

Kehn motioned to one of the waiters to refill their drinks. The pallid teenager kept his eyes down as he served them. He glanced up at Hilo for a second but didn’t seem to recognize him; few people who hadn’t met Kaul Hiloshudon in person expected him to look as young as he did. The Horn of the No Peak clan, second only in authority to his elder brother, often went initially unnoticed in public. Sometimes this galled Hilo; sometimes he found it useful.

“Another strange thing,” said Kehn when the waiter had left. “No one’s seen or heard from Three-Fingered Gee.”

“How’s it possible to lose track of Three-Fingered Gee?” Tar wondered. The black market jade carver was as recognizable for his girth as he was for his deformity.

“Maybe he got out of the business.”

Tar snickered. “Only one way anyone gets out of the jade business.” A voice spoke up near Hilo’s ear. “Kaul-jen, how are you this evening? Is everything to your satisfaction tonight?” Mr. Une had appeared beside their table and was smiling the anxious, solicitous smile he always reserved for them.

“It’s all excellent, as usual,” Hilo said, arranging his face into the relaxed, lopsided smile that was his more typical expression.

The owner of the Twice Lucky clasped his kitchen-scarred hands together, nodding and smiling his humble thanks. Mr. Une was a man in his sixties, bald and well-padded, and a third-generation restaurateur. His grandfather had founded the venerable old establishment, and his father had kept it running all through the wartime years, and afterward. Like his predecessors, Mr. Une was a loyal Lantern Man in the No Peak clan. Every time Hilo was in, he came around personally to pay his respects. “Please let me know if there is anything else I can have brought out to you,” he insisted.

When the reassured Mr. Une had departed, Hilo grew serious again. “Ask around some more. Find out what happened to Gee.”

“Why do we care about Gee?” Kehn asked, not in an impertinent way, just curious. “Good riddance to him. One less carver sneaking our jade out to weaklings and foreigners.”

“It bothers me, is all.” Hilo sat forward, helping himself to the last crispy squid ball. “Nothing good’s coming, when the dogs start disappearing from the streets.”

Bero’s nerves were beginning to fray. Shon Ju had nearly drained his tainted drink. The drug was supposedly tasteless and odorless, but what if Shon, with the enhanced senses of a Green Bone, could detect it somehow? Or what if it didn’t work as it should, and the man walked out, taking his jade out of Bero’s grasp? What if Sampa lost his nerve after all? The spoon in Bero’s hands trembled as he set it down on the table. Stay cut, now. Be a man.

A phonograph in the corner wheezed out a slow, romantic opera tune, barely audible through the unceasing chatter of people. Cigarette smoke and spicy food aromas hung languid over red tablecloths.

Shon Ju swayed hastily to his feet. He staggered toward the back of the restaurant and pushed through the door to the men’s room.

Bero counted ten slow seconds in his head, then put the tray down and followed casually. As he slipped into the restroom, he slid his hand into his pocket and closed it around the grip of the tiny pistol. He shut and locked the door behind him and pressed against the far wall.

The sound of sustained retching issued from one of the stalls, and Bero nearly gagged on the nauseating odor of booze-soaked vomit. The toilet flushed, and the heaving noises ceased. There was a muffled thud, like the sound of something heavy hitting the tile floor, then a sickly silence. Bero took several steps forward. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. He raised the small gun to chest level.

The stall door was open. Shon Ju’s large bulk was slumped inside, limbs sprawled. His chest rose and fell in soft, snuffling snores. A thin line of drool ran from the corner of his mouth.

A pair of grimy canvas shoes moved in the far stall, and Sampa stuck his head around the corner where he’d been lying in wait. His eyes grew round at the sight of the pistol, but he sidled over next to Bero and the two of them stared down at the unconscious man.

Holy shit, it worked.

“What’re you waiting for?” Bero waved the small gun in Shon’s direction. “Go on! Get it!”

Sampa squeezed hesitantly through the half-open stall door. Shon Ju’s head was leaning to the left, his jade-studded ear trapped against the wall of the toilet cubicle. With the screwed-up face of someone about to touch a live power line, the boy placed his hands on either side of Shon’s head. He paused; the man didn’t stir. Sampa turned the slack-jowled face to the other side. With shaking fingers, he pinched the first jade earring and worked the backing free.

“Here, use this.” Bero handed him the empty paper packet. Sampa dropped the jade stud into it and got to work removing the second earring. Bero’s eyes danced between the jade, Shon Ju, the gun, Sampa, again the jade. He took a step forward and held the barrel of the pistol a few inches from the prone man’s temple. It looked distressingly compact and ineffective—a commoner’s weapon. No matter. Shon Ju wasn’t going to be able to Steel or Deflect anything in his state. Sampa would palm the jade and walk out the back door with no one the wiser. Bero would finish his shift and meet up with Sampa afterward. No one would disturb old Shon Ju for hours; it wasn’t the first time the man had passed out drunk in a restroom.

“Hurry it up,” Bero said.

Sampa had two of the jade stones off and was working on the third. His fingers dug around in the fold of the man’s fleshy ear. “I can’t get this one off.”

“Pull it off, just pull it off !”

Sampa gave the last stubborn earring a swift yank. It tore free from the flesh that had grown around it. Shon Ju jerked. His eyes flew open.

“Oh shit,” said Sampa.

With an almighty howl, Shon’s arms shot out, flailing around his head and knocking Bero’s arm upward just as Bero pulled the trigger of the gun. The shot deafened all of them but went wide, punching into the plaster ceiling.

Sampa scrambled to get away, nearly tripping over Shon as he lunged for the stall door. Shon flung his arms around one of the boy’s legs. His bloodshot eyes rolled in disorientation and rage. Sampa tumbled to the ground and put his hands out to break his fall; the paper packet jumped from his grasp and skittered across the tile floor between Bero’s legs.

“Thieves!” Shon Ju’s snarling mouth formed the word, but Bero did not hear it. His head was ringing from the gunshot, and everything was happening as if in a soundless chamber. He stared as the red-faced Green Bone dragged at the terrified Abukei boy like a grasping demon from a pit.

Bero bent, snatched the crumpled paper envelope, and ran for the door.

He forgot he’d locked it. For a second he pushed and pulled in stupid panic, before turning the bolt and pounding out of the room. The diners had heard the gunshot, and dozens of shocked faces were turned toward him. Bero had just enough presence of mind left to jam the gun into his pocket and point a finger back toward the restroom. “There’s a jade thief in there!” he shouted.

Then he ran across the dining room floor, weaving between tables, the two small stones digging through the paper and against the palm of his tightly fisted left hand. People leapt away from him. Faces blurred past. Bero knocked over a chair, fell, picked himself up again, and kept running.

His face was burning. A sudden surge of heat and energy unlike anything he had ever felt before ripped through him like an electric current. He reached the wide, curving staircase that led to the second floor, where diners were getting up and peering over the balcony railing to see what the commotion was. Bero rushed up the stairs, clearing the entire expanse in a few bounds, his feet barely touching the floor. A gasp ran through the crowd. Bero’s surprise burst into ecstasy. He threw his head back to laugh. This must be Lightness.

A film had been lifted from his eyes and ears. The scrape of chair legs, the crash of a plate, the taste of the air on his tongue— everything was razor sharp. Someone reached out to grab him, but he was so slow, and Bero was so fast. He swerved with ease and leapt off the surface of a table, scattering dishes and eliciting screams. There was a sliding screen door ahead of him that led out onto the patio overlooking the harbor. Without thinking, without pausing, he crashed through the barrier like a charging bull. The wooden latticework shattered, and Bero stumbled through the body-sized hole he had made with a mad shout of exultation. He felt no pain at all, only a wild, fierce invincibility.

This was the power of jade.

The night air blasted him, tingling against his skin. Below, the expanse of gleaming water beckoned irresistibly. Waves of delicious heat seemed to be coursing through Bero’s veins. The ocean looked so cool, so refreshing. It would feel so good. He flew toward the patio railing.

Hands clamped onto his shoulders and pulled him to a hard stop. Bero was yanked back as if he’d reached the end of a chain and spun around to face Maik Tar.

Chapter Two: The Horn of No Peak

The muffled gunshot went off on the other side of the dining room. A second or two later, Hilo felt it: the sudden shriek in his mind of an uncontrolled jade aura, as grating as a fork being dragged across glass. Kehn and Tar turned in their seats as the teenage waiter burst from the restroom and ran for the stairs.

“Tar,” said Hilo, but there was no need; both the Maiks were already moving. Kehn went into the restroom; Tar leapt to the top of the stairs, caught the thief on the patio, and threw him bodily back through the broken screen door. A collective gasp and a number of screams broke out from the diners as the boy came flying back inside, hit the ground, and skidded to the top of the staircase.

Tar stepped into the building after him, stooping to clear the wreckage of the entryway. Before the boy could scramble to his feet, Tar palmed his head and forced it to the floor. The thief reached for a weapon, a small gun, but Tar tore it from him and flung it through the broken patio door and into the harbor. The boy gave a carpetmuffled cry as the Green Bone’s knee ground down on his forearm and the paper packet was ripped from his white-knuckled grip. All this occurred so fast most of the onlookers did not see it.

Tar stood up, the teenager at his feet spasming and moaning as the jangling jade energy crashed out of his body, taking with it the angry buzz in Hilo’s skull. The younger Maik hauled the thief to his feet by the back of his waiter’s shirt and dragged him back down the staircase to the main floor. The excited diners who’d left their tables backed silently out of his way. Kehn came out of the restroom, hauling a quietly whimpering Abukei boy along by the arm. He pushed the boy to his knees, and Tar deposited the thief next to him.

Shon Judonrhu wobbled forward after Kehn, steadying himself on the backs of the chairs he passed. He didn’t look entirely sure of where he was or how he had gotten there, but he was lucid enough to be enraged. His unfocused eyes bugged out from his skull. One hand was clapped to his ear. “Thieves,” he slurred. Shon reached for the hilt of the talon knife sheathed in a shoulder holster under his jacket. “I’m going to gut them both!”

Mr. Une ran up, waving his arms in protest. “Shon-jen, I beg you, please, not in the dining room !” He held his shaking hands out in front of him, his jowly face white with disbelief. It was terrible enough that the Twice Lucky had been shamed, that the restaurant’s kitchen had harbored jade thieves, but for the two boys to be publicly slain right next to the buffet dessert table—no business could survive the stain of such bad luck. The restaurant owner cast a fearful glance at Shon Ju’s weapon, then at the Maik brothers and the surrounding stares of frozen customers. His mouth worked. “This is a terrible outrage, but, gentlemen, please—”

“Mr. Une!” Hilo got up from his table. “I didn’t realize you’d added live entertainment.” All eyes turned as Hilo crossed the room. He felt a stir of understanding go through the crowd. The nearest diners noticed what Bero, in his initial cursory glance, had not: Underneath Kaul Hilo’s smoke-colored sport jacket and the unfastened top two buttons of his baby-blue shirt, a long line of small jade stones was embedded in the skin of his collarbone like a necklace fused into his flesh.

Mr. Une rushed over and walked alongside Hilo, wringing his hands. “Kaul-jen, I couldn’t be more embarrassed that your evening was disturbed. I don’t know how these two worthless little thieving shits wormed their way into my kitchen. Is there anything I could do to make it up to you? Anything at all. As much food and drink as you could want, of course . . .”

“These things happen.” Hilo offered up a disarming smile, but the restaurateur did not relax. If anything, he looked even more nervous as he nodded and wiped at his damp brow.

Hilo said, “Put away your talon knife, Uncle Ju. Mr. Une has enough to clean up already without blood in the carpet. And I’m sure all these people who are paying for a nice dinner don’t want their appetites ruined.”

Shon Ju hesitated. Hilo had called him uncle, shown him respect despite his obvious public humiliation. That was not, apparently, enough to mollify him. He jabbed the blade in Bero and Sampa’s direction. “They’re jade thieves! I’m entitled to their lives, and no one can tell me otherwise!”

Hilo held his hand out to Tar, who passed him the paper packet. He shook the two stones out into his palm. Kehn held out the third earring. Hilo rolled the three green studs in his hand thoughtfully and looked at Shon with eyes narrowed in reproach.

The anger went out of Shon Ju’s face, replaced with trepidation. He stared at his jade, cupped in another man’s hand, its power now running through Kaul Hilo instead of him. Shon went still. No one else spoke; the silence was suddenly charged.

Shon cleared his throat roughly. “Kaul-jen, I didn’t mean my words to suggest any disrespect to your position as Horn.” This time, he spoke with the deference he would’ve shown to an older man. “Of course, I’m obedient to the clan’s judgment in all matters of justice.”

Smiling, Hilo took Shon’s hand and dropped the three gemstones into his palm. He closed the man’s fingers around them gently. “Then no serious harm’s been done. I like it when Kehn and Tar have a reason to stay on their toes.” He winked at the two brothers as if sharing a schoolyard joke, but when he turned back to Shon Ju, his face was devoid of humor. “Perhaps, Uncle,” he said, “it’s time to be drinking a little less and watching your jade a little more.”

Shon Ju clutched the returned gemstones, bringing his fist close to his chest in a spasm of relief. His thick neck flushed red with indignity, but he said nothing further. Even in his bleary, half-drugged state, the man wasn’t stupid; he understood he’d been given a warning, and after his pitiful lapse tonight, he remained a Green Bone only on account of Kaul Hilo’s say-so. He backed away in a cowed stoop.

Hilo turned and waved his arms to the transfixed crowd. “Show’s over, everyone. No charge for the entertainment tonight. Let’s order some more of Mr. Une’s delicious food, and another round of drinks!”

A nervous ripple of laughter traveled through the dining room as people obeyed, turning back to their meals and companions, though they kept stealing glances at Kaul Hilo, the Maiks, and the two sorry teens on the floor. It wasn’t especially often that ordinary, jadeless citizens were witness to such a dramatic display of Green Bone abilities. They would go home and tell their friends about what they’d seen: how the thief had moved faster than any normal human being and plowed through a wooden door, how much faster and stronger still the Maik brothers were in comparison, and how even they deferred to the young Horn.

Kehn and Tar lifted the thieves and carried them out of the building.

Hilo began to follow, Mr. Une still scurrying along beside him, stammering quietly, “Once again, I beg your forgiveness. I screen all my waitstaff carefully; I had no idea . . .”

Hilo put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault; you can’t always tell which ones will catch jade fever and go bad. We’ll take care of it outside.”

Mr. Une nodded in vigorous relief. He wore the expression of someone who’d nearly been hit by a bus only to have it swerve out of the way and drop a suitcase of money at his feet. If Hilo and the Maiks had not been present tonight, he would have had two dead boys and one very angry, drunken Green Bone on his hands. With the Horn’s public endorsement, however, the Twice Lucky had escaped being disastrously tainted and instead gained respect. Word of tonight’s events would spread, and the publicity would keep the restaurant busy for some time.

The thought made Hilo feel better. The Twice Lucky wasn’t the only No Peak business in the neighborhood, but it was one of the largest and most profitable; the clan needed its tribute money. Even more importantly, No Peak couldn’t afford the loss of face if the place failed or was taken over. If a loyal Lantern Man like Mr. Une lost his livelihood or his life, the responsibility would fall on Hilo.

He trusted Mr. Une, but people were people. They sided with the powerful. The Twice Lucky might be a No Peak establishment today, but if the worst came to pass and the owner was forced to switch allegiance in exchange for keeping his family business and his head on his shoulders, Hilo held little illusion as to what choice he would make. Lantern Men were jadeless civilians after all; they were part of the clan and crucial to its workings, but they would not die for it. They were not Green Bones.

Hilo paused and pointed up at the destroyed screen door. “Send me the bill for the damage. I’ll take care of it.”

Mr. Une blinked, then clasped his hands together and touched them to his forehead several times in respectful gratitude. “You are too generous, Kaul-jen. That’s not necessary . . .”

“Don’t be silly,” said Hilo. He faced the man. “Tell me, my friend. Have you had any other trouble around here lately?”

The restaurant owner’s eyes jumped around before landing nervously back on Hilo’s face. “What sort of trouble, Kaul-jen?”

“Green Bones from other clans,” Hilo said. “That sort of trouble.” Mr. Une hesitated, then drew Hilo aside and lowered his voice. “Not here in the Docks, not yet. But a friend of my nephew, he works as a bartender at the Dancing Girl, over in the Armpit district. He says he’s seen men from the Mountain clan coming in almost every night, sitting down where they please and expecting their drinks to be free. They’re saying it’s part of their tribute, and that the Armpit is Mountain territory.” Mr. Une took a sudden step back, unnerved by the expression on Hilo’s face. “It might be nothing more than talk, but since you asked . . .”

Hilo patted the man’s arm. “Talk is never just talk. Let us know if you hear anything else, won’t you? You call if you ever need to.”

“Of course. Of course I will, Kaul-jen,” said Mr. Une, touching his hands to his forehead once more.

Hilo gave the man a final, firm pat on the shoulder and left the restaurant.

Outside, Hilo paused to pull a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. They were expensive Espenian cigarettes; he had a weakness for them. He put one in his mouth and looked around. “How about over there,” he suggested.

The Maik brothers hauled the teenagers away from the Twice Lucky and pushed them down the gravel slope to the edge of the water, out of sight from the road. The pudgy Abukei boy cried and struggled the whole way; the other one was limp and silent. The Maiks threw the thieves to the ground and began to beat them. Heavy, rhythmic blows to the torso, pounding the ribs, stomach, and back. Smacks to the face until the each boy’s features were swollen almost beyond recognition. No strikes to the vital organs, the throat, or the back of the skull. Kehn and Tar were good Fists; they were not careless and would not be carried away by bloodlust.

Hilo smoked a cigarette and watched.

Night had fallen completely now, but it was not dark. Streetlights blazed all along the waterfront, and the headlights of cars driving by bathed the road in pulses of white. Far out on the water, the slowly traveling lights of shipping vessels were smeared into blotches by sea fog and the haze of pollution from the city. The air was warm and heavy with fumes, the sweetness of overripe fruit, and the stink of nine hundred thousand perspiring inhabitants.

Hilo was twenty-seven years old, but even he remembered a time when cars and televisions were a new thing in Janloon. Now they were everywhere, along with more people, new factories, foreign influenced street foods like tempura meatballs and spicy cheese curd. The metropolis strained at its seams and it felt as if all the people, Green Bones as well, strained with it. There was an undercurrent, Hilo thought, of everything running a bit too dangerously fast all the time, as if the city were an oily new machine cranked to its highest setting, teetering just on the edge of out of control, disrupting the natural order of things. What was the world coming to, that a couple of clumsy, untrained dock brats could figure on stealing jade off a Green Bone—and nearly succeed?

In truth, it would serve Shon Judonrhu right to lose his jade. Hilo could have claimed the three studs for himself as justifiable punishment for Shon’s ineptitude. He’d been tempted, certainly, by the energy that had radiated like liquid warmth through his veins when he’d rolled the stones in his hand.

But there was no respect in taking a few gems from a sorry old man. That was what these thieves didn’t understand—jade alone didn’t make you a Green Bone. Blood and training and clan made you a jade warrior; that’s how it had always been. Hilo had both personal and clan reputation to uphold at all times. Shon Judonrhu was a drunkard, an old fool, a comical has-been of a Green Bone, but he was still a Finger in the employ of No Peak, and that made an offense against him Hilo’s concern.

He dropped his cigarette and ground it out. “That’s good,” he said. Kehn stepped back at once. Tar, always the more industrious of the two, gave each boy a final kick before following suit. Hilo studied the teenagers more closely. The one in the waiter’s shirt had the classic Kekonese islander look—the leanness, the long arms, the dark hair and dark eyes. He lay half-dead, though it was hard to say if the jade fallout or the beating had done more to make him that way. The round-faced Abukei boy sobbed quietly through a constant stream of pleading: “It wasn’t my idea, it wasn’t, I didn’t want to, please let me

go, please, I promise I won’t, I won’t . . .”

No, that one was a hopeless case.

The Abukei boy, though, was merely stupid. Fatally so? You could forgive someone like him for playing the lottery by river diving; you couldn’t forgive a gross offense against the clan.

As if sensing Hilo’s thoughts, the teenager sped up his verbal torrent. “Please, Kaul-jen, it was stupid, I know it was stupid, I’ll never do it again, I swear. I’ve only ever taken jade from the river. If it wasn’t for the new carver taking out Gee, I wouldn’t have even thought about doing anything else. I’ve learned my lesson, I swear on my grandmother’s grave, I won’t touch jade again, I promise—”

“What did you just say?” Hilo crouched back down and leaned in, eyes squinted.

The teenager raised his eyes in fearful confusion. “I—What did I—”

“About a new carver,” Hilo said.

Under Hilo’s insistent gaze, the boy quailed. “I—I used to sell whatever I found in the river to Three-Fingered Gee. For raw jade, he paid on the spot in cash. Not a lot, but still pretty good. Gee was the carver on this side of town that most of us—”

“I know who he is,” said Hilo impatiently. “What happened to him?” Slow, shrewd hope crawled into the boy’s eyes with the realization that he had information the Horn of the No Peak clan did not. “Gee’s gone. The new carver showed up last month, said he would buy as much jade as we could bring him, raw or cut, no questions asked. He offered to join up with Three-Fingered Gee, but Gee didn’t see the point of splitting his business with a newcomer. So the new guy killed him.” The boy wiped snot and blood from his nose onto his sleeve. “They say he strangled Gee with a telephone cord, then cut off the rest of his fingers and sent them to the other carvers in the city as a warning. Now anything we find in the river goes to him, and he only pays half of what Gee used to pay. That’s why I tried to get out of diving—”

“Have you seen this man?” Hilo asked.

The teenager hesitated, trying to decide which answer would save him and which would get him killed. “Y-yes. Just once.”

Hilo exchanged a glance with his Fists. The Abukei boy had solved one vexing mystery for them but raised another. Three-Fingered Gee might be a black market jade carver, but he was a familiar one, a known entity, the stray dog in Hilo’s yard that stole from garbage cans but was not troublesome enough to be worth killing. So long as he confined himself to buying raw jade from the Abukei, the clans left his little smuggling business alone in exchange for occasional tip-offs on bigger fish. Who would flout No Peak authority by killing him?

He turned back to the boy. “Could you describe him—this new carver?”

Again the hesitation. “Yes. I . . . I think so.”

When the boy had stuttered through a description, Hilo stood up. “Bring the car around,” he said to Kehn. “We’re taking these boys to see the Pillar.”

Chapter Three: The Sleepless Pillar

Kaul Lanshinwan could not sleep. He had once been a reliable sleeper, but at least once a week for the past three months he’d found himself unable to drift off. His bedroom, which faced east from the upper floor of the main house on the Kaul property, felt obscenely large and empty, as did his bed. On some nights he stared out the windows until the glow of dawn crawled its tepid way across the view of the city’s skyline. He tried meditating to calm himself before bed. He drank herbal tea and soaked in a salt bath. He supposed he ought to consult a doctor. Perhaps a Green Bone physician could determine what energy imbalance he had, unclog whatever flow was blocked, prescribe the right foods to restore equilibrium.

He resisted. At the age of thirty-five he was supposed to be in the prime of his health and at the peak of his power. It was why his grandfather had finally consented to cede leadership to him, why the rest of No Peak accepted that the mantle had passed from the legendary

but old and ailing Kaul Seningtun to his grandson. If word got out that the Pillar of the clan was suffering health problems, it would not reflect well on him. Even something as mundane as insomnia might arouse speculation. Was he mentally unstable? Unable to carry his jade? Being perceived as weak could be fatal.

Lan got up, put on a shirt, and went downstairs. He slipped on his shoes and went into the garden. Being outside made him feel better at once. The family estate sat near the heart of Janloon—one could see the red roof of the Royal Council building and the tiered conical top of the Triumphal Palace from the upstairs windows of the house—but the buildings and landscaped grounds of the Kaul property sprawled across five acres and were enclosed by high brick walls that sheltered it from the surrounding urban bustle. To a Green Bone, it was not quiet—Lan could hear the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the whir of a small insect over the pond, the crunch of his own shoes along the smoothed pebble path—but the ever-present hum of the city was faint. The garden was an oasis of peace. Alone in this small patch of nature, away from the heady swirl of other jade auras, he could relax.

He sat down on a stone bench and closed his eyes. Settling into his own heartbeat and breath, into the steady churn of blood through his veins, he explored unhurriedly. He followed the wingbeats of a bat overhead as it darted this way, then that, snatching insects out of the air. From the breeze skimming across the small pond, he picked out the scent of blooms: orange, magnolia, honeysuckle. He searched along the ground for the mouse he’d sensed earlier and found it—a hot spot of thrumming life, stark and bright in the darkness of the lawn.

When he’d been a student at Kaul Dushuron Academy, he’d spent a night locked in a cavernous, pitch-black underground chamber with three rats. It was one of the tests of Perception administered to initiates at the age of twelve. He’d groped blindly along the cold stone walls, listening for the inaudible scritch of tiny claws, questing for blood heat like a snake, keenly aware that the exam ended if—and only if—he caught and killed all three of the sharp-toothed rats with his bare hands. Lan’s back tensed at the memory.

A sharp nudge in the periphery of his awareness: Doru was approaching, crossing the garden, the invisible but distinctive jade aura that surrounded him parting the night like thin red light cutting through smoke.

Lan let out his breath and opened his eyes, a grimace of a smile tilting his mouth. If Doru found him catching mice in the garden at night, it would be a far greater symptom of instability than mere insomnia. He was irritated, though, at having his solitude interrupted and did not get up to greet the man.

Yun Dorupon’s voice was soft and raspy. It smelled medicinal and sounded like gravel being sloshed in a pan. “Sitting out here alone? Something the matter, Lan-se?”

Lan frowned at the man’s use of the familial endearment; it was a suffix to be used with children and the elderly, not one’s superior. For a Weather Man to use the term with his Pillar suggested a subtle insubordination. Lan knew that Doru meant no disrespect; old hab- its were simply hard to break. Doru had known him since he was a boy, had been a fixture in the clan and in the Kaul household for as long as Lan could remember. Now, however, the man was supposed to be his strategist and trusted advisor, not his minder and uncle figure.

“Nothing,” Lan said, finally standing up and turning to face the man. “I like it out here in the garden at night. It’s important to be alone with your thoughts sometimes.” A mild rebuke for the intrusion.

Doru did not seem to notice. “I’m sure you have a lot on your mind.” The Weather Man was a rail-thin figure with an egg-shaped head and tapered chin, who wore wool sweaters and dark blazers that padded him up even in the oppressive heat of summer. His stiff manner gave him the air of an academic, but that was grossly misleading. Decades ago, Doru had been a Mountain Man—one of the indomitable rebels led by Kaul Seningtun and Ayt Yugontin, who resistedand ultimately ended foreign occupation of the island of Kekon. Doru had spent the final year of the Many Nations War in a Shotarian prison, and rumor had it that underneath his dowdy clothes he was missing plugs of flesh from his legs and arms, along with both his testicles.

Doru said, “The KJA is due to decide on the latest round of proposed exports by the end of the month. Have you considered whether you’ll be lending your approval in the final vote?” The debate within the Kekon Jade Alliance over whether to increase the national sale of jade to foreign powers—namely Espenia and her allies—had been going on all spring.

“You know what I think,” Lan said.

“Have you spoken about it to Kaul-jen?” Doru meant Kaul Sen- ingtun of course. No matter the three younger Green Bones in the family—for Doru there was only one Kaul-jen.

Lan hid his annoyance. “There’s no need to bother him when it’s not necessary.” Perhaps Doru wasn’t the only member of No Peak who expected Lan to consult his grandfather on all major decisions, but that could not go on. It was past time to start sending the message that he was the one who held sole responsibility as Pillar. “The Espenians ask too much. If we bow down to them every time they want something of us, it won’t be long before every last pebble of jade on the island finds itself into an Espenian military vault.”

The Weather Man was silent for a moment, then inclined his head. “As you say.”

The thought came to Lan unbidden: Doru’s getting old, too old to change. He was grandfather’s Weather Man and will always think of himself that way. I’ ll need to replace him soon. He cut off his unkind train of thought. A good sense of Perception didn’t enable a Green Bone to read minds, but those with a honed ability could pick up on the subtle physical changes that laid bare emotion and intent. The only visible green on Doru were the understated rings on his thumbs, but Lan knew the man wore most of his jade out of sight and was more skilled than he appeared; he might Perceive the sudden turn in Lan’s mind even if there was no sign of it on his face.

He masked any possible slip as impatience. “You didn’t come out here just to badger me about KJA business. What else is it?”

The floodlights at the gate switched on, bathing the front of the house and the long driveway with yellow light. Doru said, “Hilo just arrived. He’s asking to see you right away.”

Lan crossed the garden and walked quickly toward the shape of Hilo’s unmistakable, oversized white sedan. One of his brother’s lieutenants, Maik Kehn, was leaning against the driver side door of the Duchesse Priza, checking his watch. Maik Tar stood off to the side with Hilo. At their feet were two lumps. As Lan drew near, he saw the lumps were a pair of teenage boys, slumped forward over their knees, foreheads to the asphalt.

“Glad I caught you before you went to sleep,” Hilo teased. The younger Kaul often prowled the streets until dawn; he claimed it was all part of being a good Horn, the threat of his nocturnal presence tempering the agents of vice that plied their trade in clan territory when darkness fell. No one could say Kaul Hilo was not dedicated to his job, particularly when it involved food and drink, pretty girls and loud music, bars and gambling dens, the occasional incident of explosive violence.

Lan ignored the jibe. He looked down at the two boys. They had been badly beaten before being driven here in the car and deposited on the pavement. “What is this about?”

“That old boozehound Shon Ju nearly lost his measly bit of jade to these clowns,” Hilo said. “But it turns out this one”—he nudged the heavier-set boy with his foot—“has some interesting news I thought you ought to hear in person. Go on, kid, tell the Pillar what you know.” The teenager lifted his face. Both of his eyes were black, and his lip was split. His blood-plugged nose made his voice nasal as he told Lan about the sudden takeover of Three-Fingered Gee’s raw jade business.

“I don’t know the new guy’s name. We just call him the Carver.” “He’s Abukei?” Lan asked.

“No,” slurred the boy through puffy lips. “A foreign stone-eye. He wears an Ygutan-style coat and one of those square hats.” He glanced over nervously as his companion stirred and moaned.

“Tell him what the Carver looks like,” Hilo demanded.

“I only saw him for a few minutes this one time,” the boy hedged, frightened anew by Hilo’s sharp tone. “He’s short, a little heavy. He has a mustache, and spots on his face. He dresses like an Ygutanian and carries a gun, but he speaks Kekonese with no accent.”

“What territory does he work?”

The Abukei teen was sweating under the interrogation. He lifted his bruised eyes to Lan, begging. “I—I’m not sure. Most of the Forge. Parts of Paw-Paw and the Docks. Maybe up into Coinwash and Fishtown.” He dropped his forehead to the ground and his voice became muffled. “Kaul-jen. Pillar. I’m nothing to you, nothing at all, just a stupid kid who made a stupid mistake. I’ve told you everything I know.”

The other boy was conscious now, though he remained silent except for his labored breathing. Lan said, “Look at me.” The teenager raised his head. The whites of his eyes were red from burst capillaries. His expression was sunken and haunted—not the face of a boy at all, not anymore, but the face of someone who’d tasted jade the wrong way and was ruined because of it. He must be in terrible pain, but he still radiated an inner rage that burned like a gaslight.

Lan felt a small knot of pity for him. The boy was a victim of con-fusing times. The laws of nature used to be clear. The Abukei were immune to jade. Most foreigners were too sensitive to it; even if a Shotarian or an Espenian learned to control the physical and mental powers, he would almost certainly fall victim to the Itches. Only the Kekonese, an isolated race descended over centuries from the hybridized bloodline of the Abukei and the ancient Tuni settlers to the island, possessed a natural ability to harness jade, and even then, only after years of extensive preparation.

Unfortunately, these days, exaggerated stories of supposedly selftaught foreigners wearing jade gave impoverished Kekonese kids the wrong idea. It made them think that all they needed were some streetfighting lessons and maybe the right chemical aids. Lan said, “Jade is death for people like you. You steal it, you smuggle it, you wear it—it all ends the same way: with you feeding the worms.” He fixed the boy with a deadly stern gaze. “Get off my property, both of you, and don’t let my brother see you again.”

The Abukei boy clambered to his feet; even the other one got up faster than Lan would have thought him capable of. Together they limped hurriedly toward escape without looking back.

Lan said to Maik Kehn, “Tell the guard to open the gate.” Kehn glanced at Hilo for his approval before doing as Lan ordered. The tiny gesture annoyed Lan. The two Maiks were slavishly loyal to Hilo. They eyed the two fleeing boys carefully, remembering their faces.

Hilo’s smile was gone. Without it, he looked his real age, instead of barely older than the teenagers he’d brutalized. “I would have let the Abukei boy live,” he said, “but the other one—you made the wrong call. He’ll be back; he has that look. I’ll only have to kill him later.”

Hilo might be right. There were two types of jade thieves. Most wanted what they believed jade could give them—status, profit, power over others—but for some, the desire for jade itself was a rot in the brain, an obsession that would only grow. Hilo might be comfortable judging and executing for a first offense, but Lan was not ready to say there was no hope for the boy to find some other outlet for his ill-conceived ambition. “You taught them their lesson,” he said. “You have to give people a chance to learn. They’re just kids after all—stupid kids.”

“I don’t remember stupidity being an excuse around here when I was a kid.”

Lan regarded his brother. Hilo’s hands were stuffed into his pockets, his elbows jutted out and his shoulders curled slightly forward with casual insolence. You’re still a kid, Lan thought ungenerously. The Horn was second in the clan and of equal rank to the Weather Man; he was supposed to be a seasoned warrior. Hilo was the youngest Horn anyone could remember, but despite this, no one seemed to question his position. Either because he was a Kaul and carried his jade well, or perhaps because, when the old Horn had retired a year and a half ago, grandfather had approved Hilo’s appointment with no more than a shrug. “What else would he be any good for?” Kaul Sen had said.

Lan changed the subject. “You think the new carver is Tem Ben.” A statement, not a question.

“Who else could it be?” said Hilo.

The Tems were part of the powerful and sprawling Mountain clan. They were a proud family of Green Bones, but Tem Ben was a stone-eye. It happened sometimes—recessive genetics combined to produce a Kekonese child as unresponsive to jade as any Abukei native. Being an embarrassment to the bloodline as well as a brutal lout, Tem Ben had been shipped off by the family years ago to study and work in desolate northern Ygutan. His sudden return to Kekon and his savage entry into the unpolished jade-dealing business made a certain degree of sense. Only a jade-immune stone-eye could buy, hoard, cut, and sell street jade. As for what his activities implied— that was more disturbing.

“He wouldn’t be back here without family say-so,” Hilo concluded. “And the Tems wouldn’t do anything without approval from Ayt.” Hilo made a noise in his throat, then spat into the bushes. Clearly, he referred to Ayt Mada, adopted daughter of the great Ayt Yugontin, and now the Pillar of the Mountain clan. “I’ll wager my jade that grasping bitch not only knows about this but had a hand in arranging it.”

Doru had been hovering in the background the entire time and now glided forward like a wraith to join the conversation. “The Pillar of the Mountain clan concerning herself with carvers of black market jade scrap?” He did not hide his skepticism. “That’s quite a leap to make based on the word of a frightened Abukei boy.”

Hilo turned a thinly veiled look of disdain on the older man. “He might be a drunken fool, but Shon Ju keeps his ear to the ground. He says our Lantern Men in the Armpit are getting their businesses squeezed. The owner of the Twice Lucky told me the same story and said it’s Mountain Fingers doing the squeezing. If the Mountain’s trying to muscle us out of the Armpit, is it so hard to believe they’d want someone they control working inside our districts, feeding them information? They’re gambling we’ll leave the new carver alone and not risk antagonizing the Tems over a little smuggling.”

“You’re jumping to a number of conclusions, Hilo-se.” Doru’s voice was a calm counterpoint to Hilo’s. “The names Ayt and Kaul go back a long way together. The Mountain would not move against your grandfather while he still lives.”

“I’m telling you what I know.” Hilo paced in front of the two older men. Lan could sense the agitation running off him freely. Hilo’s jade aura was like bright liquid next to Doru’s thick smoke. “Grandda and Ayt Yugontin respected each other even when they were rivals, but that’s all in the past. Old Yu is dead now, and Ayt Mada is making her own moves.”

Lan looked up at the grand, sprawling Kaul house as he considered his brother’s words. “No Peak has been growing faster than the Mountain for years,” he conceded. “They know we’re the only clan that’s a threat to them.”

Hilo stopped his pacing and took his brother by the arm. “Let me take five of my Fists into the Armpit. Ayt is testing us, sending her littlest Fingers to cause trouble and see what we’ll do. So we cut a few of them off and return them to her in body bags. Send the signal that we won’t be messed with.”

Doru’s thin lips pulled back as if he’d bitten into a lime. His wedged head swung around to pin the younger Kaul with disbelieving scorn. “Have they killed any of ours, either Green Bones or Lantern Men? Are you saying we should be the first ones to spill blood? To break the peace? A certain amount of savagery is to be expected in a Horn, but such childish overreaction is a disservice to your Pillar.”

Hilo’s aura flared like a wind-licked flame. Lan felt it buffet him like heat a second before Hilo said, in an incongruously chilled voice, “The Pillar can decide for himself when he’s being badly served.”

“That’s enough,” Lan growled at both of them. “We’re here to make decisions together, not get into cock-waving contests.”

Doru said, “Lan-se, this sounds like a case of a few overeager and quarrelsome youths in the Armpit, which has always been a troublesome part of town.” The Weather Man’s jade aura glowed evenly like smoldering old coals, the slow-burning residual energy of a man who’d survived many fires and was not eager to start them. “Surely a peaceful solution can be found, one that preserves the old respect between our clans.”

Lan looked between his Horn and his Weather Man. The two roles existed to be the right and left hand of the Pillar, responsible for the military and business arms of the clan, respectively. The Horn was visible, tactical, the clan’s most formidable warrior, leader of the Fists and the Fingers who patrolled and defended clan territory and the residents within from rivals and street criminals. The Weather Man was strategic, operational, the brain working behind the scenes through an office full of capable Luckbringers, managing the clan’s substantial flow of tribute money, patronage, and investments. A certain amount of conflict between these two critical roles was hardly surprising—expected, even. But Hilo and Doru were starkly opposed in nature as well as position. Looking at the two men, Lan questioned what to rely on: Hilo’s strength and street instincts, or Doru’s experience and caution.

“See if you can find out whether the Ayts are backing Tem Ben,” Lan said to Hilo. “In the meantime, send some of your Fists into the Armpit, but only”—he shook his head at his brother’s expectant look—“to reassure our Lantern Men and protect their businesses. No attacks, no retaliations, no whispering of names. No one sheds blood without family approval, not even if they’re offered a clean blade.”

“A prudent decision,” Doru said, nodding.

Hilo grimaced but seemed partially appeased. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m telling you, this will only get worse, not better. We won’t be able to ride on grandfather’s reputation much longer.” He tugged his right earlobe in the customary gesture to ward off bad luck. “May he live three hundred years,” he grumbled dutifully but without feeling. “The fact is, Ayt is making a point of parading her power as Pillar, and if No Peak is going to hold our own, you’re going to have to do the same.”

Sharply, Lan said, “I don’t need my little brother to lecture me like an old man.”

Hilo tilted his head at the reprimand. Then he smiled broadly, his face transforming, regaining its open boyishness. “True; you have enough of that around here already, don’t you?” He turned away with an affable shrug and strolled back to the monstrous white Duchesse, where Maik Kehn and Maik Tar stood sharing a smoke and waiting patiently for their captain to return. His warm jade aura receded with the smoothness of a summer river; Hilo was not one to stew in a grudge after a confrontation. Lan marveled that a childhood of ruthless training at Kaul Dushuron Academy had not dented the younger Kaul grandson’s relentlessly cheerful ego, the way he sauntered through the world as if it were a set piece built around him.

Doru said quietly, “You must excuse my rudeness to him tonight, Lan-se. Hilo is a fearsome Horn—he just needs to be kept on a short leash.” His pinched mouth curled up, as if he knew Lan had been thinking the same thing. “Do you need me for anything else tonight?”

“No. Good night, Doru.”

The old advisor inclined his head and retreated silently down the side path that led to the Weather Man’s residence.

Lan watched Doru’s figure recede, then walked up the driveway to the Kaul house. It was the largest structure on the estate and the most impressive—clean, modern symmetry, classic Kekonese wood paneling and green tile roof, concrete pavers glinting with crushed seashells. The white columns were a bit of an ostentatious foreign accent that lent grandeur but that Lan would probably not have included if the decision had been up to him, which it had not. Grandfather had spent a good part of his fortune designing and building the family home. He was vain about its symbolism too, saying it was a sign of how far Green Bones had come that they now lived in open wealth when only a generation ago they had been hunted fugitives hiding in secret jungle camps in the mountains, surviving only on their wits and stealth and the help of civilian Lantern Men.

Lan raised his eyes to the upper, leftmost window of the house. It was lit behind the silhouette of a man sitting in a chair. Grandfather was still awake, even at this time of night.

Lan let himself into the house and hesitated in the foyer. As much as he disliked to admit it, Hilo was right—he needed to more firmly wield his power as Pillar. It was his responsibility to make the hard decisions, and seeing as he wasn’t able to sleep tonight, he might as well handle one of them now. With more than a little misgiving, he climbed the stairs.

Chapter Four: The Torch of Kekon

Lan walked into his grandfather’s room, which was furnished with beautiful furniture and art: rosewood tables from Stepenland, hanging silks from the Five Monarchs period of the Tun Empire, glass lamps from southern Ygutan. Most of the available wall space was covered with photographs and mementos. Kaul Seningtun was a national hero, one of the leaders of the fierce Green Bone–led uprising that had, more than a quarter of a century ago, finally ended the Empire of Shotar’s control over the island of Kekon. After the war, humbly expressing that he had no appetite for politics nor desire to rule, Kaul Sen become a prosperous businessman and towering civic figure; photos of him shaking hands and posing at various official state functions and charitable events vied with certificates of honor on the wall.

The old man who had once been called the Torch of Kekon did not appear to dwell on the evidence of his accomplishments or the luxurious things he had acquired. Instead he spent most of his time gazing out past the city skyline to the distant green mountains covered in jungle and shrouded by clouds of mist. Lan wondered if, in the twilight of his life, that was where his grandfather’s heart lay: not in the city he had helped to build up from the ashes of war to the swarming metropolis it was now, but deep in the interior of the island, a place the ancient Kekonese had considered sacred and foreigners had believed to be cursed, where young Kaul Sen had spent his glory days with comrades as a rebel and a warrior.

Lan stopped warily a short distance from his grandfather’s chair. It was hard to predict the old man’s moods these days. Kaul Sen had always been an unrelentingly energetic and formidable man—quick to praise, equally quick to criticize, effusive with both. He never minced words, never settled for the small gain when more could be risked for outright victory. Now, even at the age of eighty-one, he still radiated a dense and powerful jade aura.

He was not as he had been, though. His wife—let the gods recognize her—had passed away three years ago, and four months later Ayt Yugontin had died from a sudden stroke at the age of sixty-five. Some vital aspect of the Torch’s indomitable will had slowly drained away since then. He’d handed clan leadership over to Lan with little ceremony and was now often pensive and withdrawn, or volatile and cruel. He sat without moving; a blanket was draped over his thin shoulders despite the summer heat.

“Grandda,” Lan said, though he knew announcing his presence was unnecessary. Age had not dulled the patriarch’s senses; he could still Perceive another Green Bone from across a city block.

Kaul Sen’s gaze was fixed on some middle distance; it was difficult to tell whether he was paying any attention to the program playing on the color television that had recently been installed in the corner of his room. The volume was turned down on the set, but at a glance, Lan saw that it was a documentary on the Many Nations War, in which Kekon’s fight for independence had been but an ancillary part. A burst of light from an on-screen explosion flickered off the many squares of framed glass around the walls.

“So they went after the Lantern Men, the ordinary people who hung green lanterns in their windows for us night after night. Man, woman, old, young, rich, poor—it didn’t matter. If the Shotties suspected you of being in the One Mountain Society, there wouldn’t be any warning. You would just disappear.” Kaul Sen shifted back in his chair. His voice took on a grave, musing quality. “There was a family that hid me and Yu in their shed for three nights. A man, his wife, and their daughter. Because of them, we made it back to camp alive. A few weeks later, I returned to check on them, but they were gone. All the dishes and furniture still in place, the pot still on the stove, but they were gone.”

Lan cleared his throat. “That was a long time ago.”

“That was when I showed you what to do if you needed to—how to cut into your neck with your talon knife. Quick, like—” Kaul Sen mimed a vicious motion against his own jugular. “You were maybe twelve years old at the time, but you understood perfectly. Do you remember, Du?”

“Grandda.” Lan winced. “I’m not Du. It’s me—your grandson Lan.” Kaul Sen turned to look over his shoulder. He seemed confused for a moment; it was not the first time Lan had caught him speaking aloud to the son he’d lost twenty-six years ago. Then his eyes cleared of their fog. His mouth flattened in disappointment, and he sighed.

“Even your aura feels like his,” he grumbled. He turned back to the window. “Only his was stronger.”

Lan closed his hands behind his back and looked away to hide his irritation. It rankled enough to come in here and see the photographs of his father rivaling the number of honors on the wall, without also having to endure his grandfather’s increasingly frequent and off handed insults.

As a child, Lan had treasured the photographs of his father. He’d spent hours looking at them. In the largest of the black-and-white images, Kaul Du was standing between Kaul Sen and Ayt Yugontin inside a military tent. The three of them were examining a spreadout map. They had talon knives at their waists and moon blades slung over their shoulders. Dressed in the loose green tunic of a One Mountain Society general, and looking straight into the camera, Kaul Du radiated revolutionary zeal and confidence.

Now, though, Lan saw the mounted photos as frustrating relics. Looking at them was like looking at an impossible photograph of himself trapped in a bygone time and place. He was the spitting image of his father—the same jawline and nose, even the same expression of concentration, left eye narrowed. Comments on their likeness had filled him with pride as a boy. “He looks just like his father! He’s destined be a great Green Bone warrior,” people would exclaim. “The gods are returning the hero to us through his son.”

Now, both the photographs and the comparisons were merely galling. He turned back to his grandfather, determined to steer both of them back to the present. “Shae’s coming home this week. She’s arriving on Fourthday evening to pay her respects.”

Kaul Sen swiveled around in his chair fast. “Respect?” He drew himself up in fierce indignation. “Where was her respect two years ago? Where was her respect when she turned her back on her clan and country and sold herself to the Espenians like a whore? Is she still with that man, that Shotarian man?”

“Shotarian-Espenian,” Lan corrected. “Whatever,” said his grandfather.

“She and Jerald aren’t together anymore.”

Kaul Sen settled back into his chair a little. “Good news, at least,” he grumbled. “It would never have worked. Too much bad blood between our peoples. And her children would’ve been weak.”

Lan bit back a reply in Shae’s defense; it was better to let the old man voice his grievances and be done with them. He wouldn’t be so angry if Shae had not always been his favorite as a child. “She’s coming back to stay, at least for a while,” Lan said. “Be kind to her, Grandda. She wrote to me, sending you her love, and prayers for your long life and health.”

“Huh,” grunted the elder Kaul, but he seemed somewhat placated. “My long life and health, she says. My son is dead. My wife is dead. Ayt Yu is dead too. They were all younger than me.” On the television screen, lines of running soldiers were falling under silent gunfire. “How am I still alive when they’re all dead?”

Lan smiled thinly. “The gods love you, Grandda.”

Kaul Sen snorted. “We didn’t end it right, me and Ayt Yu. We fought side by side in the war, but in peacetime we let business come between us. Business.” Kaul Sen spat the word. He waved one gnarled hand at the room, indicating all he had built with an air of scorn and resignation. “The Shotties couldn’t break the One Mountain Society, but we did. We split our clans. I didn’t even get a chance to speak to Yu before he died. We were both so stubborn. Curse him. There will never be anyone like him. He was a true Green Bone warrior.”

It had been a mistake to come up here. Lan glanced back at the door, debating how best to excuse himself. Grandfather was too caught up reminiscing about the days when Green Bones had been united in nationalistic purpose; he wasn’t going to want to hear about how, if Hilo was to be believed, his old comrade’s clan and successor were now the enemy. “It’s late, Grandda,” he said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

He started to go, but Kaul Sen raised his voice. “What did you come for at this hour, anyway? Spit it out.”

Lan paused with a hand on the door. “It can wait.”

“You came to talk, so talk,” his grandfather ordered. “You’re the Pillar! You don’t wait.”

Lan blew out sharply, then turned around. He strode to the television and shut it off, then faced his grandfather. “It’s about Doru.”

“What about him?”

“I think it’s time he retired. Time I appointed a new Weather Man.” Kaul Sen leaned forward, fully present now, his eyes tight. “Is he failing you somehow?”

“No, it’s not that. I want someone else in the role. Someone who could bring a fresh perspective.”

“Who would that be?” “Woon perhaps. Or Hami.”

The senior Kaul frowned, the map of wrinkles on his face shifting into a new constellation of displeasure. “You think either of them would be as capable and loyal a Weather Man as Yun Dorupon? Who has done as much for this clan as he has? He’s never led me astray, never failed me in war or business.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“Doru stuck with me. He could have gone over to the Mountain. Ayt would have welcomed him in a heartbeat. But he agreed with me that we needed to open ourselves up to the world. We fell to the Shotties in the first place because we’d been closed for too long. Doru stuck with me and he never wavered. Smart man. Smart and farsighted. Calculating.”

And still your man through and through. Lan said, “He served you well for more than twenty years. It’s time he retired. I’d like him to step down gracefully, with all respect. No hard feelings at all. I’m asking you as his friend to talk to him.”

His grandfather stabbed a finger in his direction. “You need Doru. You need his experience. Don’t push change just for the sake of change! Doru’s steady, reliable—not like that Hilo. You’ll have enough on your hands with that loose screw for a Horn. While Du was off fighting for his country, who knows what swamp demon snuck into your mother’s bedroom to spawn that boy.”

Lan knew his grandfather was being cruel to throw him off, distract him from his original purpose. Misdirecting opponents was something he’d always excelled at, on the battlefield and later in the boardroom. Still Lan was unable to help himself. “You’ve outdone yourself, managing to disparage half of your own family in one go,” he said harshly. “If you think so little of Hilo, why did you approve when I named him Horn?”

Kaul Sen sniffed loudly. “Because he has fire and thick blood. I’ll give him that. A Weather Man should be respected, but a Horn needs to be feared. That boy should have been born fifty years ago; he would have struck terror into Shotarian hearts. He would’ve been a fearsome warrior, just like Du.”

The patriarch’s eyes narrowed and his stare turned scrutinizing. “Du was thirty years old when he died. He was a battle-hardened leader of men. He had a wife and two sons and a third child cooking in the womb. Carried his jade light as a god. You might look like him, but you’ll never be half the man he was. That’s why the other clans think they can disrespect you. That’s why Eyni left you.”

Lan was speechless for a second. Then a dull rage broke and pounded behind his eyes. “Eyni,” he said, “is not part of this conversation.”

“You should have killed that man!” Kaul Sen threw his arms up into the air and shook them in disbelief of his grandson’s stupidity. “You let a jadeless foreigner walk off with your wife. You lost face with the clan!”

A fleeting and horrible desire to shove his grandfather out of the second-story window crossed Lan’s mind. That was what the old man wanted after all, wasn’t it? Flagrant egotistical violence. Yes, Lan thought, he could have challenged Eyni’s lover—fought and killed him in the way any self-respecting Kekonese man would feel entitled. Perhaps it would have been a more fitting way for a Pillar to act. But it would have been pointless. An empty gesture. He wouldn’t have kept Eyni; she was already determined to go. All he could have done was trample out her happiness and make her hate him. And if you loved someone, truly loved them, shouldn’t their happiness matter, even more than your honor?

“How does not killing a man in a romantic dispute make me an unworthy Pillar?” Lan demanded, his voice clipped. “You named me your successor, but you’ve yet to show me support or respect. I came only to ask for your help with Doru, and instead I get ramblings and insults.”

Kaul Sen stood up. The move was sudden and unexpectedly fluid. The blanket around his shoulders slid to the ground. “If you’re a worthy Pillar, then prove it.” The old man’s eyes were like obsidian, and his face was a dry, harsh desert. “Show me how green you are.”

Lan stared at his grandfather. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Kaul Sen crossed the short space between them in a heartbeat. His body rippled like a serpent’s spine as he slammed both hands into Lan’s chest. The whip-like blow sent Lan stumbling backward. He barely managed to Steel himself; the shock reverberated through his frame with concussive jade-fueled power. Lan dropped to one knee and gasped. “What was that for?”

His grandfather’s reply was to launch a bony fist at his face.

Lan rose and deflected the strike easily this time, as well as the three others that followed in quick succession. Lan felt the air hum with the clash of their jade energies.

“Grandda,” Lan snapped. “Stop it.” He backed away until he bumped into a table, still fending off a volley of blows. Lan grimaced at the old man’s nearly out-of-control speed. It’s really time he stopped wearing so much jade. Like automobiles and firearms, jade was not something that deteriorating elderly folks ought to possess. Not that Kaul Sen would ever willingly relinquish even the smallest pebble from the bracelets or heavy belt he wore at all times.

“You can’t even beat an old man.” The elder Kaul was like a badger, all sinew and bone and oversized bad temper. His lips were pulled back in a taunting leer as he jabbed and weaved. Lan moved to avoid him and knocked over an antique clay bowl; it landed on the hard- wood floor with a heavy thud and rolled. “Come on, boy,” his grandfather wheezed, “where’s your pride?” He slipped a strike under Lan’s arm and drove his middle knuckle between his grandson’s smallest ribs.

Lan grunted with surprise and pain. Reacting without thinking, he cuffed his grandfather across the head with a cupped hand.

Kaul Sen staggered. His eyes rolled; he folded to the ground with a look of childlike bewilderment.

Lan was mortified. He caught his grandfather around the shoulders. “Are you all right? Grandda, I’m sorry—”

His grandfather drove two extended fingers, stiff as nails, into a pressure point at the center of Lan’s chest. Lan collapsed, coughing violently as Kaul Sen rolled over, got to his feet, and stood over him. “To be Pillar, you have to act with full intention.” For a moment Kaul Sen’s age fell away and he was once again the towering Torch of Kekon. His back was straight, his face was hard. Every piece of jade on his body bespoke strength and demanded respect. Briefly, Lan saw through a haze of anger and humiliation the war hero his grandfather had once been.

“Only full intention!” Kaul Sen barked. “Jade amplifies what you have inside you. What you intend.” He tapped his own chest. It made a hollow sound, like a gourd. “Without intention, no amount of jade will make you powerful.” He walked back to his chair and sat down. “Doru stays.”

Lan got to his feet without a word. He picked up the fallen bowl and placed it back on the table, then leaned a hand heavily on the wall in a moment of epiphanic sorrow. Only in this, just now, had his grandfather truly made him Pillar—by proving to him beyond a doubt that he was alone.

Silently, Lan left the room and closed the door behind him.

About the Author

Fonda Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado. Born and raised in Calgary, Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Lee is the award-winning author of the YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer and ExoJade City is her adult debut.