Excerpt: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
A ROC BOOK
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,
Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Previously published in a Viking Canada edition.
First Roc printing, April 2013
Copyright © Guy Gavriel Kay, 2013
Late autumn, early morning. It is cold, mist rising from the forest floor, sheathing the green bamboo trees in the grove, muffling sounds, hiding the Twelve Peaks to the east. The maple leaves on the way here are red and yellow on the ground, and falling. The temple bells from the edge of town seem distant when they ring, as if from another world.
There are tigers in the forests here, but they hunt at night, will not be hungry now, and this is a small grove. The villagers of Shengdu, though they fear them and the older ones make offerings to a tiger god at altars, still go into the woods by day when they need to, for firewood or to hunt, unless a man-eater is known to be about. At such times a primitive terror claims them all, and fields will go untilled, tea plants unharvested, until the beast is killed, which can take a great effort, and sometimes there are deaths.
The boy was alone in the bamboo grove on a morning swaddled in fog, a wan, weak hint of sun pushing between leaves: light trying to declare itself, not quite there. He was swinging a bamboo sword he’d made, and he was angry.
He’d been unhappy and aggrieved for two weeks now, having reasons entirely sufficient in his own mind, such as his life lying in ruins like a city sacked by barbarians.
At the moment, however, because he was inclined towards thinking in certain ways, he was attempting to decide whether anger made him better or worse with the bamboo sword. And would it be different with his bow?
The exercise he pursued here, one he’d invented for himself, was a test, training, discipline, not a child’s diversion (he wasn’t a child any more). As best he could tell, no one knew he came to this grove. His brother certainly didn’t, or he’d have followed to mock—and probably break the bamboo swords.
The challenge he’d set himself involved spinning and wheeling at speed, swinging the too-long (and also too-light) bamboo weapon as hard as he could, downstrokes and thrusts—without touching any of the trees surrounding him in the mist.
He’d been doing this here for two years now, wearing out—or breaking—an uncountable number of wooden swords. They lay scattered around him. He left them on the uneven ground to increase the challenge. Terrain for any real combat would have such obstacles.
The boy was big for his age, possibly too confident, and grimly, unshakably determined to be one of the great men of his day, restoring glory with his virtue to a diminished world.
He was also the second son of a records clerk in the sub-prefecture town of Shengdu, at the western margin of the Kitan empire in its Twelfth Dynasty—which pretty much eliminated the possibility of such ambition coming to fulfillment in the world as they knew it.
To this truth was now added the blunt, significant fact that the only teacher in their sub-prefecture had closed his private school, the Yingtan Mountain Academy, and left two weeks ago. He had set off east (there was nowhere to go, west) to find what might be his fortune, or at least a way to feed himself.
He’d told a handful of his pupils that he might become a ritual master, using arcane rites of the Sacred Path to deal with ghosts and spirits. He’d said that there were doctrines for this, that it was even a suggested life for those who’d taken the examinations but not achieved jinshi status. Teacher Tuan had looked defensive, bitter, telling them this. He’d been drinking steadily those last weeks.
The boy hadn’t known what to make of any of that. He knew there were ghosts and spirits, of course, hadn’t realized his teacher knew anything about them. He wasn’t sure if Tuan Lung really did, if he’d been joking with them, or just angry.
What he did know was that there was no way to pursue his own education any more, and without lessons and a good teacher (and a great deal more) you could never qualify for the prefecture civil service tests, let alone pass them. And without passing those first tests the never-spoken ambition of going to the capital for the jinshi examinations wasn’t even worth a dreaming night.
As for these exercises in the wood, his fierce, bright dream of military prowess, of regaining honour and glory for Kitai . . . well, dreams were what happened when you slept. There was no path he could see that would now lead him to learning how to fight, lead men, live or even die for the glory of Kitai.
It was a bad time all around. There had been a tail-star in the spring sky and a summer drought had followed in the north. News came slowly to Szechen province, up the Great River or down through the mountains. A drought, added to war in the northwest, made for a hard year.
It had remained dry down here all winter. Usually Szechen was notorious for rain. In summertime the land steamed in the humidity, the leaves dripped rainwater endlessly, clothing and bedding never dried. The rain would ease in autumn and winter, but didn't ever cease—in a normal year.
This hadn’t been such a year. The spring tea harvest had been dismal, desperate, and the fields for rice and vegetables were far too dry. This autumn’s crops had been frighteningly sparse. There hadn’t been any tax relief, either. The emperor needed money, there was a war. Teacher Tuan had had things to say about that, too, sometimes reckless things.
Teacher Tuan had always urged them to learn the record of history, but not be enslaved by it. He said that histories were written by those with motives for offering their account of events.
He’d told them that Xinan, the capital of glorious dynasties, had held two million people once, and that only a hundred thousand or so lived there now, scattered among rubble. He’d said that Tagur, to the west of them here, across the passes, had been a rival empire long ago, fierce and dangerous, with magnificent horses, and that it was now only a cluster of scrabbling provinces and fortified religious retreats.
After school was done some days, sitting with his older students, he’d drink wine they poured respectfully for him and sing. He’d sing, “Kingdoms have come, kingdoms have gone / Kitai endures forever . . .”
The boy had asked his father about these matters once or twice, but his father was a cautious, thoughtful man and kept his counsel.
People were going to starve this coming winter, with nothing from the tea harvest to trade at the government offices for salt, rice, or grain from downriver. The state was supposed to keep granaries full, dole out measures in times of hardship, sometimes forgive taxes owed, but it was never enough, or done soon enough—not when the crops failed.
So this autumn there were no strings of cash, or illicit tea leaves kept back from the government monopoly to sell in the mountain passes to pay for a son's education, however clever and quick he was, however his father valued learning.
Reading skills and the brush strokes of calligraphy, poetry, memorizing the classics of the Cho Master and his disciples . . . however virtuous such things were, they did tend to be abandoned when starvation became a concern.
And this, in turn, meant no chance of a life for the scholar-teacher who had actually qualified for the examinations in the capital. Tuan Lung had taken the jinshi examinations twice in Hanjin, before giving up and coming home to the west (two or three months’ journey, however you travelled) to found his own academy for boys looking to become clerks, with perhaps a legitimate jinshi candidate among the really exceptional.
With an academy here it was at least possible that someone might try the provincial test and perhaps, if he passed, the same imperial examination Lung had taken—perhaps even to succeed there and “enter the current,” joining the great world of court and office—which he hadn’t done, since he was back here in Szechen, wasn’t he?
Or had been, until two weeks ago.
That abrupt departure was the source of the boy’s anger and despair, from the day he bade his teacher farewell, watching him ride away from Shengdu on a black donkey with white feet, taking the dusty road towards the world.
The boy’s name was Ren Daiyan. He’d been called Little Dai most of his life, was trying to make people stop using that name. His brother refused, laughing. Older brothers were like that, such was Daiyan’s understanding of things. It had begun raining this week, much too late, though if it continued there might be some faint promise for spring, for those who survived the winter that was coming.
Girl-children were being drowned at birth in the countryside, they’d learned in whispers. It was called bathing the infant. It was illegal (hadn’t always been, Teacher Tuan had told them), but it happened, was one of the surest signs of what was in store.
Daiyan’s father had told him that you knew it was truly bad when boys were also put into the river at birth. And at the very worst, he’d said, in times when there was no other food at all . . . he’d gestured with his hands, not finishing the thought.
Daiyan believed he knew what his father meant, but didn’t ask. He didn’t like thinking about it.
In fog and ground-mist, the early-morning air cool and damp, the breeze from the east, the boy slashed, spun, thrust in a bamboo wood. He imagined his brother receiving his blows, then barbarian Kislik with their shaved scalps and long, unbound fringe hair, in the war to the north.
His judgment as to the matter of what anger did to his blade skills, made before, confirmed this morning, was that it made him faster but less precise.
There were gains and losses in most things. Speed against control represented a difference to be adjusted for. It would be different with his bow, he decided. Precision was imperative there, though speed would also matter for an archer facing many foes. He was exceptionally good with a bow, though the sword had been by far the more honoured weapon in Kitai in the days (gone now) when fighting skills were respected. Barbarians like the Kislik or Xiaolu killed from horseback with arrows, then raced away like the cowards they were.
His brother didn’t know he had a bow or he’d have claimed it for himself as Eldest Son. He would then, almost certainly, have broken it, or let it be ruined by dampness, since bows needed caring for, and Ren Tzu wasn’t the caring-for sort.
It had been his teacher who had given the bow to Daiyan.
Tuan Lung had presented it to him one summer afternoon a little more than a year ago, alone, after classes were done for the day, unwrapping it from an undyed hemp cloth.
He’d also handed Daiyan a book that explained how to string it properly, care for it, make arrow shafts and heads. It marked a change in the world, in their Twelfth Dynasty, having books here. Teacher Tuan had said that many times: with block printing, even a sub-prefecture as remote as theirs could have information, printed poems, the works of the Master, if one could read.
It was what made a school such as his own possible.
It had been a private gift: the bow, a dozen iron arrowheads, the book. Daiyan knew enough to hide the bow, and then the arrows he began to make after reading the book. In the world of the Twelfth Dynasty, no honourable family would let a son become a soldier. He knew it; he knew it every moment he drew breath.
The very thought would bring shame. The Kitan army was made up of peasant farmers who had no choice. Three men in a farming household? One went to the army. There might be a million soldiers, even more (since the empire was at war again), but ever since savage lessons learned more than three hundred years ago it was understood (clearly understood) that the court controlled the army, and a family’s rise to any kind of status emerged only through the jinshi examinations and the civil service. To join the army, to even think (or dream) of being a fighting man, if you had any sort of family pride, was to disgrace your ancestors.
That was, and had been for some time, the way of things in Kitai.
A military rebellion that had led to forty million dead, the destruction of their most glittering dynasty, the loss of large and lucrative parts of the empire . . . That could cause a shift in viewpoint.
Xinan, once the dazzling glory of the world, was a sad and diminished ruin. Teacher Tuan had told them about broken walls, broken-up streets, blocked and evil-smelling canals, fire-gutted houses, mansions never rebuilt, overgrown gardens and market squares, parks with weeds and wolves.
The imperial tombs near the city had been looted long ago.
Tuan Lung had been there. One visit was enough, he’d told them. There were angry ghosts in Xinan, the charred evidence of old burning, rubble and rubbish, animals in the streets. People living huddled in a city that had held the shining court of all the world.
So much of their own dynasty’s nature, Teacher Tuan told them, flowed like a river from that rebellion long ago. Some moments could define not only their own age but what followed. The Silk Roads through the deserts were lost, cut off by barbarians.
No western treasures flowed to Kitai now, to the trading cities or the court in Hanjin. No legendary green-eyed, yellow-haired dancing girls bringing seductive music.
No jade and ivory or exotic fruits, no wealth of silver coins brought by merchants to buy longed-for Kitan silk and carry it back west on camels through the sands.This Twelfth Dynasty of Kitai under their radiant and glorious emperor did not rule and define the known world. Not any more.
Tuan Lung had taught this to that same handful of them (never in class). In Hanjin, at the court, they still claimed to do so, he said, and examination questions expected answers that said as much. How does a wise minister use barbarians to control barbarians?
Even when they carried wars to the Kislik, they never seemed to win them. Recruited farmers made for a large army but not a trained one, and there were never enough horses.
And if the twice-yearly tribute paid to the much more dangerous Xiaolu in the north was declared to be a gift, that didn't change what it really was, their teacher said, over his end-of-day wine. It was silver and silk spent to buy peace by an empire still rich, but also shrunken—in spirit as well as size.
Dangerous words. His students poured wine for him. “We have lost our rivers and mountains,” he sang.
Ren Daiyan, fifteen years old, dreamed of glory at night, swung a bamboo sword in a wood at dawn, imagined himself the commander sent to win their lost lands back. The sort of thing that could only happen in a young man’s imagining.
No one, Teacher Tuan said, played polo, perfecting their horsemanship, in the palace or parks of Hanjin the way they had once in Xinan’s walled palace park or city meadows. Red- or vermillion-belted civil servants didn’t pride themselves on their riding skills, or train with swords or bows, vying to best each other. They grew the nails on the little fingers of their left hands to show the world how much they disdained such things, and they kept the army commanders firmly under their thumbs. They chose military leaders from their own cultured ranks.
It was when he’d first heard these things, the boy Daiyan remembered, that he’d begun coming to this grove when tasks and rain allowed, and cutting himself swords.
He’d sworn a boy’s oath that if he passed the examinations and arrived at court he’d never grow his little fingernail.
He read poetry, memorized the classics, discussed these with his father, who was gentle and wise and careful and had never been able even to dream of taking the examinations.
The boy understood that Teacher Tuan was a bitter man. He had seen it from the beginning of his time in the academy, a clerk’s clever younger son being taught to write properly, learn the teachings of the Masters. Clever, diligent, a good brush stroke already. Perhaps a genuine candidate for the examinations. His father’s dream for him. His mother’s. So much pride, if a family had a son do that. It could set them on a road to fortune.
Daiyan understood this. He’d been an observant child. He still was, at the edge of leaving childhood behind. Later this same day, in fact, it would end.
After three or four cups of rice wine, their honourable teacher had sometimes begun reciting poems or singing sad songs about the Xiaolu’s conquest of the Fourteen Prefectures two hundred years ago—the Lost Fourteen—the lands below the ruins of the Long Wall in the north. The wall was a meaningless thing now, he told his pupils, wolves running through it, sheep grazing back and forth. The songs he sang distilled a heart-torn longing. For there, in those lost lands, lay the surrendered soul of Kitai.So the songs went, though they were dangerous.
2013 Guy Gavriel Kay