Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honoor and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.
It was madness to rob the grave of a Green Bone. Only someone with little regard for his own life would consider it, but if one was that sort of person, then tonight was the moment of opportunity. The cool, dry days of late winter had not yet given way to the incessant rain of spring, and low clouds obscured the rising moon over the tops of the trees in Widow’s Park. The streets of Janloon were unusually quiet; out of respect, people were forgoing their usual activities and staying home, hanging ceremonial spirit guiding lamps in their windows to honor the passing of Kaul Seningtun—national war hero, patriarch of the No Peak clan, the Torch of Kekon. So even though Bero and Mudt had taken the precaution of carrying no light, there was no one to take notice of their arrival at the cemetery.
The groundskeeper, Nuno, met them at the gate five minutes before the official closing time. “Here.” He thrust a black garbage bag at Bero. “Be quick. Night security doesn’t arrive for another half hour.” The three of them were alone, but Nuno spoke in a hurried whisper. His eyes, in the sun-shriveled hollows of his face, darted fearfully about the shadows of the shrubbery and tombstones. Thieves were the lowest sort of scum on Kekon, and grave robbers were lower than that. A bullet to the back of the head, the bill for the expense sent to their relatives—that was the lawful punishment they could expect to receive by morning if they were caught.
Bero took the plastic bag from Nuno. Ducking next to the stone wall, he pulled out two blue shirts and caps embroidered with the logo of Heaven Awaiting Cemetery. Hastily, he and Mudt put on the shirts and set the caps on their heads. Nuno led them at a brisk walk up a switchbacked hillside path to one of the largest, most prominent memorials on the grounds. A new plot had been dug in front of the looming green marble monument. Tomorrow, Kaul Seningtun would be laid to rest next to his grandson, Kaul Lanshinwan, former Pillar of No Peak, murdered and buried sixteen months ago. Sixteen months! A frustrating eternity for Bero to scheme and wait for his jade.
Nuno had dug the new plot himself that afternoon; a tractor with a backhoe attachment still rested next to the grave. Bero stood at the lip of the neat rectangular hole in the ground. A breeze stirred the disturbed grass at his feet, raising the pungent smell of damp earth. A shiver of excitement traveled up Bero’s spine. This was what he’d needed all along: for someone else to do most of the work for him. The first time he and Mudt had snuck into the cemetery with shovels, they’d been interrupted by a group of other drunken teens stumbling around after dark and scaring each other; the second time, it began pouring rain and they barely made a dent in the soggy earth before nearly being caught by security. After that, Bero figured they had to be smarter; they had to come up with a better plan and wait for the right time to act.
To Bero’s surprise, Mudt crouched down and jumped into the empty grave first. The boy looked back up, wiping his hands, his ferrety eyes bright. Bero slung the duffel bag he carried off his shoulder and took out the tools he needed. He passed them down to Mudt, then followed, the soles of his shoes thudding on freshly exposed dirt. For a second, the two teens glanced at each other, awed at their own conspiratorial daring. Then together, they began to attack the wall of the pit with shovels, burrowing like moles toward the neighboring coffin.
Nuno stood watch near the tractor, chewing a quid of betel nut and pretending to be taking a casual break from the hard work of grave-digging. It was uncommon for him to need to bring out the backhoe; most Kekonese were cremated and entombed in columbaria or buried in small plots dug by hand. Due to space considerations, even wealthy families like the Kauls, who could afford full plots, were buried with only a foot of space between caskets, so it was not long before Bero’s shovel struck a hard surface in the wall of soil. Stifling a shout of triumph, he redoubled his efforts. Dirt flew; it streaked his sweaty hands, and when he paused to wipe his brow, it left muddy tracks across his face. Bero did not feel any fatigue at all, only exhilaration and nearly unbearable anticipation; surely it was because his rightful jade was so close now, calling to him from within the coffin of the man he had killed.
“Kaul Lan used to be the Pillar of the No Peak clan,” Mudt said in a hushed but eager voice, speaking for the first time since they’d arrived. Mudt was only fifteen, three years younger than Bero, and his arms were skinny; he labored at their task, and his narrow face was flushed in the near dark. “He would’ve had more jade than just about anyone, wouldn’t he? More than the Maik brothers, even.” A vengeful glint shone in Mudt’s eyes. He had his own reasons for wanting jade.
“You can bet on it, keke,” Bero answered, without shifting his attention.
An anxious edge came into Mudt’s whisper. “How can we be sure the jade’s even here?” Except when taken by an enemy in battle, a Green Bone’s jade passed to his family. Warriors were often buried with some ceremonial portion of their green, but Kaul’s casket might contain only a few gemstones, or nothing at all. Given the intense cultural and religious stigma against stealing from the deceased, and the death penalty it carried, the effort and risk of grave robbing was rarely worth it, even for the most jade-fevered criminals.
Bero did not reply to Mudt; he couldn’t offer any reassurance other than that when he got a certain feeling, he always listened to it. He had that feeling now, like fate was smiling at him. The capricious tides of fortune pulled people this way and that, but Bero thought they took special notice of him, that he rode higher on them than most. Ah, he’d had plenty of bad luck in his life from the minute he’d been yanked squalling from his short-lived mother’s womb, but then again, he was alive when many others he knew were not—and now he was close to jade.
The side of the casket was visible now. What had once been a burnished cherry surface shone dull brown against black earth. The teenagers put down their shovels and tied kerchiefs tightly over their noses and mouths, then pulled on heavy work gloves. Bero picked up a cordless reciprocating saw. “Hold up the light,” he said, his voice muffled by the cloth. Mudt’s narrow penlight came on; he played it over the side of the coffin. When Bero started the saw, its shrill chatter nearly made him jump and drop the power tool on his feet. Mudt’s flashlight beam shook wildly before steadying again. Heart pounding against his ribs, Bero made a plunge cut into Kaul Lan’s casket and began to saw.
He cut out an area roughly the size of a television screen, then turned off the saw and set it down. With Mudt’s help, he hauled the piece of wood away. Dust and polyester batting came free and swirled in the air. An object dropped into the dirt at their feet. With a shout of elation, Bero dropped to his knees, barely restraining himself from seizing what he saw glinting like unearthed treasure under the flashlight beam: a string of jade beads, each stone flawless and brilliantly green, separated from its fellows with short black spacers on a silver chain. A powerful Green Bone leader’s ornament and weapon, a part of his very identity. A priceless object that could not be bought except with blood.
Mudt recovered his senses first; he grabbed Bero’s shoulder and said, “It was sewn into the lining. There might be more.” They dug around further in the damaged upholstery and almost at once found two leather forearm cuffs, studded with gems. Kaul had also worn a belt, heavy with jade; perhaps it was here as well, hidden elsewhere in the coffin.
Before they could search further, Nuno appeared at the edge of the grave, looking down from above them, his leathery face twitchy. “You have to get out. I sent the guards to check a broken lock on the back gate, but they’ll come back. We need to clean up this mess.”
“Throw down the duffel bag,” Bero called.
Nuno did so. Bero and Mudt pushed the cut piece of casket wood back into place and packed as much of the damp soil around it as they could. It pained Bero deeply to think of the other jade stones they might be leaving behind, but it was best to get away now, with what they had. He’d learned some painful lessons from being overambitious in the past. Careful not to touch the jade with his bare skin, he wrapped the precious finds in several layers of burlap and stowed it in the duffel bag along with their tools. Bero wiped his caked hands on his pants, slung the bag over his shoulder, and reached out a hand for Nuno to pull him out of the grave. The groundskeeper stepped back, his stained lips drawing away from his teeth in disgust. “I’m not getting near stolen jade.” It was only because Nuno had fallen into a considerable amount of debt that they’d been able to bribe him at all, with enough money that Bero had entertained long second thoughts over the amount of stashed shine he’d had to sell over the course of months to fund this venture.
Bero had Mudt lace his hands into a step and boost him out of the pit. When he’d scrambled safely back to his feet, Bero looked down at the younger teen, standing in the dirt with his arm outstretched, and for a moment he was tempted to leave Mudt behind. Now that he finally had his jade, why split it with this boy? But Mudt might give him away if he was cast aside. Besides, he had thick blood, and he had been useful so far—Bero had to admit that.
He crouched down and helped Mudt out. Nuno started up the backhoe and used it to pack the disturbed soil back into place. When he was done, the grave looked much as it had before. A keen eye inspecting the site would notice footprints in the dirt and an irregular, loose wall, but they weren’t counting on scrutiny. Bero and Mudt untied their kerchiefs and wiped the sweat and mud from their faces as Nuno led them briskly back down the hill. It was fully dark now, and no one was paying attention to them, but if someone had been, they would’ve seen what appeared to be a trio of cemetery maintenance workers finishing up for the day.
At the gate, Nuno said, “Give me back those shirts and hats, quick.” They tore off the soiled disguises, stuffing them back into the garbage bag. “You got what you came for, didn’t you? Damning your souls and all.” Nuno spat. “Now, about the other half of the money.”
Bero nodded and crouched down to unzip the side pocket of the duffel bag. From behind, Mudt swung with all his strength, hitting Nuno in the back of the head with the rock clutched in his fist, then shoved him to the ground. Bero stood up with a compact pistol in his hand and fired twice, putting the first bullet in Nuno’s forehead and the second in his cheek.
Both boys stared dumbstruck for three or four long seconds after the sharp report of gunfire faded. Rolled over, Nuno’s eyes were frozen open in alarm and surprise; the entry wounds were surprisingly small, and the blood was already being sucked up by the dry ground.
Bero’s first thought was that the plan had worked surprisingly well and he was right to have kept Mudt around after all. His second was that it was a good thing the groundskeeper wasn’t a large man or they would’ve had a real problem moving him. The two teenagers were panting and pouring sweat from exertion and fear by the time they dragged the body into a shallow hollow under the nearby shrubbery. Bero dug hastily through Nuno’s jacket for the man’s wallet. “Get his watch, too,” he hissed at Mudt. “Make it look like a robbery.” They snatched the key ring from the groundskeeper’s pocket, then kicked leaves and branches over the body and ran for the gate. As Bero cursed and struggled with the lock, Mudt bent over, gasping, hands on knees, the rolling whites of his eyes visible under the greasy mop of his hair. “Holy shit. Holy shit holy shit holy shit.”
The gate swung open at last. They pulled the heavy metal bars shut behind them and Bero clutched the duffel bag tight as they sprinted into the cover of Widow’s Park ahead of the guards’ sweeping flashlights, toward the lantern glow of the city below.