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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 fourteen. 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 habits 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 resisted and 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 Seningtun 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 give in 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 have 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 confusing 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 self-taught foreigners wearing jade gave impoverished Kekonese kids the wrong idea. It made them think that all they needed were some street-fighting 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 Grandda’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.
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