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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 had 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 He’d handed clan leadership over to Lan with little ceremony and was now often pensive and withdrawn, or volatile and cruel.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.
“The Shotarians, they used to drop bombs on the mountains,” Kaul Sen said, his voice slow but still resonant, as if he were addressing a rapt assembly of people instead of the dark windowpane. “But they were afraid of creating too many landslides. They would advance through the jungle in a line, those Shottie soldiers. They all looked the same, like ants. Clumsy. We were like panthers. We’d pick them off, one at a time.” Kaul Sen jabbed the air with his finger as if marking invisible Shotarian soldiers around the room. “Their guns and grenades against our moon blades and talon knives. Ten of them to one of us, and still they couldn’t crush us, no matter how they tried. Ah, how they tried.”
This again. The same old war stories. Lan steeled himself to be patient.
“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 offhanded 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 spread-out 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 has 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 hardwood 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.