Read a sample from JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

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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 carpet-muffled 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 boys’ 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…”

Hilo considered the possibility that the boys were not the imbeciles they seemed, but spies or hired criminals working for the Mountain or perhaps one of the smaller clans. He decided the odds of it were low. He squatted down and pushed the hair off the Abukei boy’s wet brow, causing him to flinch back in terror. Hilo shook his head and sighed. “What were you thinking?”

“He promised me we could make a lot of money,” the teen wept, sounding more than a little wronged. “He said the old man was so drunk he wouldn’t even notice. He said he knew a buyer, a reliable one, someone who would pay the highest rates for cut jade without asking questions.”

“And you believed him? No one crazy enough to steal jade off a Green Bone means to sell it.” Hilo stood up. There was nothing to be done for the Kekonese boy. Angry young men were prone to jade fever; Hilo had seen it plenty of times. Poor and naive, full of feral energy and ambition, they were drawn to jade like ants to honey. They romanticized the legendary hero-bandit Green Bones that filled comic books and movies with their exploits. They noticed how people said jen with respect and a little fear, and they wanted that for themselves. Never mind that without the years of strict martial training, they weren’t capable of controlling the powers jade conferred. They flamed out, went mad, destroyed themselves and others.

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.”

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