Excerpt: Empress of Light
by James C. Glass
Mei-lai-gong came to Shanji in the form of an infant, and the world welcomed her with early morning light of Tengri-Khan reflected from the glassy surface of the Three Peaks she had created only weeks before her birth. One peak glowed pink, the other two laced with swirls of red and green, rising like jewels beyond the high cliffs across the valley from Wang Mengnu's great, domed city.
Kati had felt increasing discomfort the day before; the position of her baby had suddenly shifted, and although the pain in her back had subsided, there was new pressure in her groin that brought her near exhaustion by evening. She used her hands, drawing from the light of Tengri-Khan to relax her muscles and bring new energy to her child, although there seemed little need for that. Yesui had been extremely active all day, constantly turning, shifting position, and always there was that tiny hand exploring and the wonderful energies coming from it, spreading everywhere.
Still, Kati was weary by the end of a day of continuous meetings, first with the nobles, then a group of factory managers from the east who listened sullenly to her lecture on their responsibilities to the workers under her new regime. Later in the day, she wrote orders for three of them to be replaced; having probed their minds, she'd found them to be immovable from the old ways, yet they'd not been honest enough to openly disagree with her. She would let them know that nothing could be hidden from the Empress of Shanji. The meeting with the Council of Ministers went well enough, but all were men, and everytime Yesui performed some new aerobatic that brought a gasp from her mother, they looked as if anxious to flee before their Empress could drop her child before their very eyes.
She retired to her quarters earlier than usual, and lay down on the canopied bed brought from the rooms she'd occupied as a ward of the Emperor, the bed on which Yesui had been conceived the night before a short but terrible war bringing Kati to the throne of Shanji. Energy drained, Kati watched Tengri-Khan's red disk settle down towards the summits of Three Peaks, then dozed. She was awakened by Huomeng's return, but kept her eyes closed at first as he padded quietly around the room so as not to disturb her. When she opened her eyes, she saw him standing by the little wooden crib brought to them by the Tumatsin, rocking it back and forth with his foot, his back to her.
"I think it will be filled soon," she said, and he turned around, startled.
"Did I wake you?" he said, coming over to sit on the edge of the bed, and taking her hand in his.
"I was just dozing," she said, squeezing his hand, "and Yesui has been very active today. I think she is eager to leave her little place, and be with us in the light."
Huomeng stroked her forehead, leaned over and kissed her lightly as his hand moved to her swollen belly.
"She's quiet, now. Do you feel her?" asked Kati.
"No movement," said Huomeng, looking concerned.
"I meant with your mind, not your hand. Do you feel her presence as I do?"
"I feel something -- yes. A kind of watchfulness, but no images. Did you really see her with you in the gong-shi-jie on the day of the explosion over Three Peaks?"
"Yes," Kati said patiently. "I felt her there, and the little green tendril of flame that followed me everywhere could only have been her. I've never seen such a thing before." They had discussed this several times before now.
"But how could she? She's not even born yet. How could she be so aware?" Huomeng rubbed her skin softly. "There is such warmth beneath my hand when I touch you here."
"It feels wonderful," said Kati, raising her hips slightly to meet his touch, and he grinned.
"Soon you will not be so fragile," he said.
"Soon," she said, and reached out to playfully tousle his hair.
He kissed her again, longer this time, then stood up. "Do you want something to eat? I'm starved."
"Not tonight. I just want to rest. Tanchun will fix something for you, and you can bring me honeycakes and tea for later."
"I will be quiet when I return," said her husband, making her giggle when he tip-toed comically from the room. His mask was put aside, as it usually was for her, and she felt his nearly childish excitement over the coming birth of their child.
Kati sighed contentedly and watched Tengri-Khan disappear below the peaks, the sky there now deep red. She listened for a mental sign from her daughter, but there was nothing. Do you sleep, Yesui? Are you ready to be born yet? I feel so strange. I think the time is near.
She wondered if Mandughai was watching her, then dismissed the thought. First Mother would be busy now with the return of her troops to Tengri-Nayon. Perhaps they'd already arrived there. Nearing sleep, mostly through the habit of years, Kati felt the urge to go to the gong-shi-jie, the place of creation, to wander among the auras of planets and stars, to feel the swirling energies of the purple light there which moved at her command. She suppressed the urge, for if she went now to the gong-shi-jie, Yesui might follow her, and the last time had seemed traumatic for the child. Kati was still haunted by the events of their return: the black, snake-like energy field writhing behind the green flame that was surely Yesui, the terrible explosion above Three Peaks turning rock into colorful glass, then Yesui kicking furiously in terror within her mother's body.
Now was not the time; she would hold Yesui in her arms before again taking her to the gong-shi-jie. The thought was her last of the evening. Her eyes closed, the matrix of twinkling, purple lights was there for a moment, and then she fell peacefully asleep.
But it seemed only moments later she was awake again, and Huomeng was warmly beside her. Her hands were clenched into fists, and there was a strong squeezing sensation in her lower body. She sat up with a gasp, and the squeezing intensified. The sheet beneath her legs was saturated with wetness. Fright turned to excitement with recognition of the signs. She prodded Huomeng's shoulder with her hand. "Wake up, dear, and get Tanchun to call my physician. Our child has decided it's time for her birth."
Huomeng was instantly awake. "Now?" he gasped.
"It's just beginning," she said calmly.
Huomeng leaped naked from the bed, and immediately crashed into something in the darkness.
"You do not have to rush so. We have time enough," she said.
"Yes, yes," he said. He found a light and hobbled to a chair draped with his clothes, then dressed. "You still insist on it being here? It would be much safer for both of you if you were in hospital."
"Our child will be born in this bed. I'll have it no other way," she said firmly.
Huomeng smiled as he struggled quickly into his shirt. "Empress or not, you will always be a Tumatsin, but I love you anyway."
"The mother of your child is pleased to hear that," she said serenely, but clenched her hands as muscles within her were suddenly as hard as stone. She opened her mouth, and breathed deeply as Huomeng fled from the room.
In moments he was back, with Tanchun pushing past him at the door. Well into her forties, the servant of Kati's foster mother Weimeng now served Kati as well, and was still slender and lovely. She ordered Kati out of bed, and had Huomeng walk her around the room while the bedsheets were changed. Other servants arrived with towels and basins, and a polymer tub, empty, on a cart. Unlit candles were placed around the room, Kati's shrine brought out from a cabinet and placed before the open door to her balcony, beyond it the sparkling of stars above the western horizon. Kati knelt with effort before the shrine, and arranged the elements there: the three candles, greenstone bowls with incense and sweetgrass. Huomeng helped her rise again as the physician arrived, a Moshuguang named Zhan Zheng, who had impressed Kati with his loving care of young mothers among Shanji's rural people in the east. He was well acquainted with home-birthing traditions, and respected them, even for his Empress.
Kati lay down on the bed for Zhan Zheng's inspection, and he was pleased with his findings. "She is well-positioned," he said. "I do not think your labor will be long. You may walk a little and meditate while you can. The contractions will soon become quite forceful."
Two nurses arrived, one of them a young woman newly trained in the great eastern city of Wanchou, and obviously thrilled by the honor of attending her Empress at such a time. Kati felt the fleeting desire for the presence of a Tumatsin mid-wife, but it had not been possible to arrange on short notice, and she reminded herself that the vast majority of Shanji's peoples were represented in the room. The lights of the room were dimmed as Huomeng walked her around again, and she lit each candle with a wave of her hand. With only the candles providing light, she knelt again at her shrine and passed her hand over it, igniting candles, incense and sweetgrass, breathing in their scents and going deep within herself. The purple matrix of stars was instantly there, and she moved towards it, felt Yesui stir inside her as a contraction came. There was no sensation of pain, only effort. She did not go to the gong-shi-jie, just hovered before it, focusing only on a single, purple star, a single entrance to the place of creation.
The light comes to me, and goes forth from me, and I am one with it. I bring it forth to give energy to myself and to my child for the task at hand. Come to me.
And the light came forth, waving filaments of purple from each twinkling star, rushing towards her until she felt warmth, first in her head, then spreading downwards to shoulders, arms and chest. Yesui suddenly turned within her, as if startled, then was quiet again as the warmth reached Kati's legs, permeating the hard muscles there until they seemed liquid. In one rush, her body was both relaxed and energized, and she sat erect to straighten her spine, a low growl escaping from her throat with a slow exhale of breath.
It was very quiet in the room. Kati opened her eyes, saw her hands cupping each other in her lap, an oblong shape of blue plasma floating just above them. "Ahhh," she breathed, and the plasma flowed into her palms and was gone.
"I am ready," she said. Huomeng helped her up and took her back to their bed, where Zhan Zheng and his entourage awaited her. They laid her down gently, her arms relaxed at her sides, eyes closing, breathing deep, and before her was only swirling, purple light from a place without time. Time did pass, she was told later, nearly three hours of it, but there was no pain, no sense of effort, only the swirling light that came to her in pulses of increasing frequency until finally she heard a voice from far off.
"Here she is. Quietly, now. Kati, wake up! She's here!"
Pressure on her chest. She opened her eyes, for one instant illuminating her chest in green to see a form lying there, rising up and down with her breathing, the physician bending near to examine it. "She's perfect," he whispered, "and still asleep. I think she slept through the whole thing. Bring the tub, now."
She is not asleep, thought Kati. I feel you, my daughter, both your presence and a new awareness I've never felt before. You sense a new touch, a new part of my body, a breath of night air from Shanji, but mostly the warmth of the pretty light that surrounds us both. Do not open your eyes yet, for there is more to feel, and the light will keep you warm.
Zhan Zheng lifted Yesui slowly, carefully from Kati's chest and floated her in a tub filled with warm water. Sounds of flowing water, and a sudden squeak of complaint, then stillness. Huomeng appeared at Kati's bedside in candlelit gloom, taking her hand in his, eyes glistening. "She is beautiful," he whispered, "like her mother."
The child was soon dried, wrapped tightly, and placed in her mother's arms. "Come closer," said Kati, and Huomeng sat on the edge of the bed. Together, they looked down on Yesui's face: the bow of her mouth, the button nose, the crown of her perfect head with wisps of dark hair. Her brows were knitted, as if she awaited a new sensation: a touch, or a sound.
"Yesui," said Kati. The baby's eyebrows raised, her lips parted. Her eyelids seemed to glow.
When she opened her eyes, she was looking straight up at her father, and his face was suddenly illuminated in emerald green.
There was a collective gasp from the people standing at the foot of the bed.
"Ohhh," murmured Huomeng. He reached out a finger to touch Yesui's tiny hand, and she grasped it, her glowing eyes clearly focused on his face.
"You are surprised," said Kati.
"She is a newborn child. How can she --"
"I draw from the light, and the light comes to me, and the glow of my eyes only signifies my connection to the place of creation. I bring it forth so --"
The three of them were suddenly illuminated in the light from Kati's eyes. Still grasping Huomeng's finger, Yesui turned her head and looked up at her mother's face. Her eyes widened, their glow brightening. The bow of her mouth quivered, then curled upwards at its edges.
She recognizes me, dear, from our brief time in the gong-shi-jie. The smile is real, not something from a gas bubble, and her eyes are truly focused. Her connection with the place of creation is already made, as you can see. You do not yet recognize your own daughter, Huomeng.
"What do you mean?" whispered Huomeng.
"You do not recognize the being the Moshuguang has worked for a thousand years to create, the being who will bring matter as well as light through, and from, the gong-shi-jie."
"The Three Peaks," whispered Huomeng, and she knew the truth had come to him.
"Hot gas and dust from our own sun, and not by my effort. I will build a shrine there to commemorate her first miracle. All of you, now, come closer, and look down on the face of the Mei-lai-gong."
The others drew near, gazing with quiet reverence at the child's glowing eyes. Yesui's smile disappeared as she looked at each individual. When her gaze came to the young nurse from Wanchou, the woman bowed deeply before her, eyes glistening.
Yesui looked again at her father, then her mother. The smile returned, and she kicked her legs hard within the tight wrapping, making a little cooing sound, and turning her head towards Kati's warmth. She squirmed suddenly, and whimpered.
"She's hungry," said Huomeng, shaking Yesui's hand gently, the little claw still clamped firmly on his finger.
"I will fix enough to last until your milk comes in," said Zhan Zheng, and he hurried from the room with the young nurse right behind him.
Yesui fussed only a moment while he was gone, and then her eyes closed in sleep. When they awakened her for a liquid meal, the glow in her eyes had vanished, and for the moment she was simply their child, sucking eagerly, mother and father taking turns in holding the polymer bottle that fed her. And when the first light of Tengri-Khan was on the Three Peaks, Huomeng took her outside on the balcony for her first glimpse of the world of Shanji. He held her up, turning her, watching her eyes move, eyes narrowed against the light, but targeting all she saw and dwelling for a long moment on the distant summits of Three Peaks.
She fell asleep in his arms, and Huomeng carried her back inside to Kati. They spent the morning studying her face, examining every part of her, and both would fondly remember that quiet, peaceful time.
Later, they would wish for such peaceful times, and the quiet joys known to parents of normal children. But Yesui was the Empress of Light. She was the Mei-lai-gong.
Copyright © 2000 by James C. Glass
James C. Glass
Toregene awoke to the turbine scream of a flyer, and discovered that her right leg was numb. She'd been crammed in the spider-trap like a cork in a bottle since dusk, and had somehow worked her right leg beneath her in sleep. No feeling there, clear up to her hip, and her neck and shoulders ached from the hours of hunching forward in the tiny space. For a moment she dared not move, and listened.
The flyer had passed right over her position, so low she could smell aromatics still raining from its wake. The engine whine diminished as the craft sped west towards the mountains, then steadied. Instinctively, Toregene opened her eyes and concentrated on the darkness, emptying her mind of any vision that might attract a Searcher. The spider-trap was at the edge of a cliff overlooking Hulagu valley, a precariously placed but strategic spot beneath adolescent Tysk clinging to rock, but the patrols were daring and thorough, and there were always Searchers among them to invade the mind of an intruder.
Toregene listened for the snap of a twig, the crunch of a boot on needle-carpet, and heard only the caress of wind on the trees. The earth around her smelled of humus and damp roots. Something crawled across her cheek, and she flicked it off with a finger.
After some moments, she dared to move, pressing her back against dampness and straightening the pinned leg. Feeling returned, the pricks of a thousand knives, the pain a Searcher's beacon if one were nearby. But now she was fully awake, and aware. This late at night, without even moonlight to guide their steps among the tangle of trees and brush, the ground troops would be confined to the valley, and rely on flyers to locate and report any pesky bands of Tumatsin who dared to interfere with the Emperor's occupation of their lands.
The flyer had made a great circle, and was now north of her, engine throbbing as the pilot cut back power for the return descent to the valley. Toregene sat up and pushed on the woven-needle roof of the spider-trap, raising it a half-meter on silent hinges, and staking it open on the side overlooking the valley. She got up on her knees, and looked out in time to see the flyer descending into the valley to a landing place behind a cluster of pre-fab buildings. Beyond the buildings stood great earth-movers at the edge of Tumatsin barley fields, now stubble, even the gleanings gone to the Emperor's warehouses.
Two men got out of the twelve-seat, bubble-canopied craft, and the orange of their auras was a good sign the patrol had been routine. The men entered one of the buildings there, and immediately the surrounding area was flooded with light from a dozen panels around the circumference of the encampment, a hundred or more troopers suddenly strolling there, all heavily armed. Toregene smiled, for there were no auras to be seen among the many men who magically appeared with the lights. They were merely projected images of some sort to give the illusion of a heavily guarded camp. Even so, Toregene scanned the area carefully, especially near the earth-movers poised for the destruction of Tumatsin fields, huge machines with tires the height of two men, and gleaming blades to level the earth for the Emperor's new living space.
She found two auras by the earth-movers, a third strolling the area around the metal buildings, a fourth walking the camp perimeter just outside of the light panels. Four troopers guarding the entire camp, at least two more inside the buildings, and how many more? Four, perhaps eight at most, she guessed. A single squad of Tumatsin warriors could take the camp and destroy it in a single night.
The thought frightened her, for Temujin would certainly vie for leadership of such an attack, and her marriage to him was but a week away. Her report could endanger the life of her chosen bahadur before their love could be formally confirmed or consumated, though they had been together many times.
And for what purpose? Destruction of the earth-movers was at best a delaying action, and retaliation was certain to follow, as it had against the tiny valley ordu of Dejmat, a dozen Tumatsin murdered by laser fire for simply refusing to leave the homes of their ancestors.
Tengri-Nayon glowed red near the zenith, the home-star to which their ancestors had fled, the distant companion to yellow Tengri-Khan, which warmed the world of Shanji. The time of closest approach of the red star was within a generation, ending another two-hundred year cycle which had only once brought the invading horde daring enough to challenge the Emperor of a thousand years past.
In a few years, Tengri-Nayon would be the brightest star in the sky, and in twenty-five the cycle would be closed again. One more chance, but no more, for Toregene was certain that in another two hundred years there would be no Tumatsin left to greet their ancestors.
Toregene ducked instinctively as the door to the largest building below her opened, spilling forth light. Four men came out in full battle-dress, carrying rifles, walking through the images of countless troopers to replace the real men guarding the encampment. Raucous laughter came from the open door, and music. Toregene quickly revised her estimate of troopers to sixteen, waited until the replaced guards had entered the building and closed the door again before she crawled out of her spider-trap. She pulled out her sachel and lowered the roof carefully, smoothing over the seams with a light covering of needles before slinking away from the edge of the cliff and onto the faint game trail leading away from it. Her leather-clad feet made no sound. Tengri-Khan would rise in a few hours, and it was a two hour walk to the temporary orduTamujin had set up to keep watch on the valley.
She walked easily in the darkness, for the sky was clear, and starlight was sufficient for the eyes of a Tumatsin woman. But with the blessing of such sight there was danger, for the great cats who hunted the meadows and crags ahead could mistake her for one of their own, and become territorially agressive. The musky perfume she wore was in turn a message of danger to the cats, who could not know she traveled unarmed except for the small blade at her side. They would associate her scent with the bands of two-legged predators which killed silently at great distance with re-curved bow and arrow.
The trail rose gradually to a rock fall at the base of a granitic spire, and along a narrow shelf to a skree field to the south. Toregene stopped there briefly to retrieve the goat-leather bag of fluorescent fungus from her sachel. The bag was half-filled from collecting along the way to her observing post, but she'd passed up three glowing clusters of the delicious seasoning under trees bordering the meadows on the way back to the ordu. She would take full advantage of her night travel.
She crossed the skree field, and the trail reappeared, heading down into thick stands of White Bark and shining Tysk, and above the tree tops loomed the sharp peaks of granite and schist extending tens of kilometers to the great sea west, hundreds of kilometers north and south.
Shanji. The mountain world. Home of a people united in ancient times, but split for a thousand years by the mixing of blood with foreign invaders from a red star.
Toregene navigated the trail by feel in the inky darkness of the forest, alert to the slightest sound. An owl passed over her, and she heard the whisper of its gliding flight. The cry of a Shizi from afar announced a new kill in the night, and brought a flutter to her heart. She came out onto a meadow and circled, quickly finding the first cluster of fungus she'd passed by, lacy strands glowing blue like magical spider-web on needle-carpet beneath a young Tysk. She brushed away the needles, and pulled the entire plant from soft soil, putting it carefully in her bag so as not to break any of its fragile tendrils and thus preserve full flavor. She picked a second clump at the end of the meadow, where a steep ridge began, then followed the trail upwards among stands of trees clinging tenaciously to weathered, crumbling rock.
At the summit of the ridge was a grand view both east and west: mountains as far as the eye could see in one direction, the yellow glow of the Emperor's domed city in the other. Toregene did not pause there, but hurried on, for the summit was barren and her silhouette visible for miles around. Exposed at the summit for only a moment, she now felt a prickling sensation at the back of her neck, a sudden sense of urgency in returning home to report what she'd seen.
She descended to a skree-covered saddle and looked west to see a flickering point of light set between two spires pinching at the night sky like a thumb and forefinger. The signal fire beckoned her home to the ordu placed in the canyon behind the spires, still an hour's walk away. She wondered if Temujin would be awake to greet her.
She traversed the second summit on the west flank, following the faint groove of a trail made by mountain goats, skree shifting and chattering beneath her feet. Ahead of her, a dark shape suddenly appeared, crouched on the trail, eyes glowing yellow in starlight.
Toregene froze where she stood, withdrawing her blade from the sheath at her side, feeling the rush of blood and adrenalin bring The Change upon her.
Her vision brightened, and she saw the big cat clearly, hunched over the carcass of a small goat on the trail. She felt the ache of incissors thrusting forth in her mouth, the sudden tension around her eyes. The Shizi crouched as if to spring at her, then sat upright with sudden recognition. Toregene growled softly, a low rattle coming from deep within her, then held out her single, steel claw and waved it towards the west.
"I will pass through here," she said. "Take your kill with you, and go."
The cat paused only an instant, then grasped the dead goat's neck in its mouth, dragging it easily off the trail and down the skree slope to a log which lay there. Only after it was settled watchfully did Toregene move again, treading softly past the pool of blood on the trail, the blade still in her hand.
As her enhanced vision began to fade, she looked back to see that the animal had begun to feed again. The throbbing of her pulse lessened, tension leaving her mouth and eyes as she squinted again at the trail, adjusting once more to her normal night vision. She returned her blade to its sheath, and hurried on.
She descended to a series of bluffs leading to the knife-ridge which made a great arc to where the signal fire had been placed. By the time she reached the second bluff, Toregene's fear had not totally disappeared, and she still had the feeling she was being watched. She tried to blank her mind, but failed. Now she was leg-weary, her feet sore from treading on sharp skree, and Temujin's face was suddenly in her mind, his wry smile, finely-arched nose and laughing eyes, the long braid of black hair that fell over his chest when they made love.
She held that vision, and plunged ahead down a grassy slope to the final bluff before the ridge. But the disquieting feeling still would not go away, as if there were a watchful presence nearby, and Toregene wondered briefly if the Shizi had a mate which was now following her. She avoided the center of the bluff, and crossed near the trees lining its edge, picking up her pace with sudden apprehension.
A twig snapped, and she turned to see three dark shapes rushing towards her from the trees.
She turned to run, the final ridge only meters away, but she was tackled from behind, landing on her stomach with an explosion of breath and a terrible weight on top of her. Lights danced before her eyes as her arms were pulled roughly behind her, and she felt the bite of leather thongs on her wrists. Rough hands secured her ankles as well, then seized her shoulders and flipped her over on her back as she gasped for breath.
Toregene found herself looking up at the grinning faces of three soldiers of the Emperor. Two stood over her, the third kneeling at her feet and holding her blade in his hand. Young men, eyes glittering dangerously, yet amused. The one with the knife leaned over and dragged the flat of the blade across her throat.
"Look what we've found; a changeling bitch all alone, and far from home on such a cold night. I think we've caught ourselves a little spy."
"No, no," said Toregene, finding her breath at last. "I'm gathering herbs, and I'm close to home. This is Tumatsin land, so how am I a spy? I had a little sack with me when you attacked, but I dropped it."
One of the standing men held up the little leather sack. "And here it is," he said.
"Yes. The herbs are difficult to find in daylight, but glow in the night. I was collecting them."
The man opened the sack, withdrew a pinch of glowing lace and wrinkled his nose. "Smells like dung," he said.
"They add flavor to our soups. Please, let me up. I've done nothing wrong." Even as she said it, Toregene knew she was found out, for that presence was there again, probing her mind as she tried to blank it.
The man turned her sack upside-down and shook it, scattering the fluorescent fungus on the ground. "You will have no need of this, I think. The dead have no need for soup."
"No!" she cried, struggling. "I've done nothing!" Adrenalin surged in her body, and now it was as if she was seeing the grinning faces in daylight.
"Ohhh, see how her eyes glow. The light of passion is in her eyes, Majin. I think she wants you." The two standing men laughed.
The kneeling one reached over and poked her in the stomach with her own blade. "I will enter her with this after I'm satisfied. She's my captive, Shan, but I'm generous to my friends. Dispite your jokes, you and Xiao will enjoy a moment with her before the end."
"Let me go!" growled Toregene, writhing and straining at her bonds. The pressure on her gums was now fierce, and she growled again.
The three men stared at her, and Shan was fumbling at his leather pants. "One should not pass by such an opportunity, but do put something in her mouth. I don't want to be bitten and infected with changeling diseases."
Toregene struggled furiously, writhing like a scalded snake, but suddenly her mind clouded, paralyzed by a terrible force that made her shiver. A deep voice came from the darkness among the trees.
"Enough of this. Stand back, all of you. Shan, quit fumbling with your pants. You look like a child giving self-pleasure."
The three men jumped back, auras changing to blue from being startled as another man came forth. The first thing Toregene saw was the huge arch of his nose, the distended, vein-lined dome of his frontal-lobes. A Searcher, taller than the others by several centimeters, his eyes fathomless blackness in her enhanced vision.
"She is a spy, Mengmoshu," said Shan.
"Indeed she is, though she speaks the truth about using the night to gather her herbs. Mostly she has been observing our camp from a place I can now locate. We have been negligent in scanning the rim of the cliff overlooking the valley. She knows our strength there." The Searcher's aura was the red of Tengri-Nayon, with radiating streamers in gold. His mind clamped down on hers like a velvet claw, and now she lay motionless, unable to speak, screaming silently.
"Then she must die," said Shan. "It is a cold night, Mengmoshu, and we have been patroling without women for two weeks. Certain pressures of our manhood could be relieved here before we kill her, and with all the Shizi prowling about, the evidence of our feast will surely be gone by early morning."
Mengmoshu looked down somberly at Toregene, considering for a long moment, then said, "I understand, but the flyer will return within the hour, and we must walk to the rendezvous. There's no time for what you desire, Shan. I will act in behalf of all of us."
Shan snorted, and the other two men's eyes narrowed with displeasure. "You claim privilege of rank, Mengmoshu?"
Toregene felt a slight release of the force paralyzing her mind and body as the Searcher turned to face the smaller man.
"Do you question my rank or authority here, Shan? Would you speak of this to others?"
Shan stumbled back a step, eyes wide, his aura flickering as if sucked from him. "No -- no, of course not. We are in your service, Mengmoshu. You are the chosen of the Emperor here."
"Good, Shan. Humility leads to wisdom. Now, pack your things and leave. I will catch up with you shortly."
Mengmoshu leaned over, and pulled Toregene to a sitting position as the other men returned to the trees. She tried to cry out, but full paralysis had returned, and she could only grunt as he gagged her with a cloth taken from his pocket. He lifted her up like a child and carried her to the trees, setting her gently down on soft needle carpet, his face expressionless.
"Shan, bring me the woman's blade. It must appear that she somehow fell on it."
Shan appeared, handing over the knife and looking down at her with barely controlled lust in his eyes.
"Now go, all of you. I do not wish an audience for this."
"Yes, Mengmoshu," said Shan. "We will walk slowly, so you can catch up. You cannot control the mind of a Shizi."
"I will follow," said Mengmoshu, and Toregene heard the crunch of footsteps going away from the trees. Mengmoshu turned his head to watch them leave, then knelt at her feet and stuck her knife into the ground there. He loosened the thong at her waist and pulled down her pants, but she felt no cold, no physical sensation of any kind, her body numb while her mind screamed in agony and shame. He untied her ankles, then removed her pants, and spread her legs to receive him, for she wore no undergarments.
Eyes fixed on hers, the Searcher loosened his own pants and pulled them down before leaning over her, face close. He raised her hips and thrust himself into her, but still she felt nothing.
"I feel your terror as if it is my own, but there is a purpose here," he whispered. "Now, listen to me."
He began to rock rhythmically, and she heard his voice, yet his lips did not move.
I do not follow any Gods, but obey the spoken will of my ancestors. If the Gods exist, then I pray they have brought you to me at the proper time in your cycle. What I do is a test of the Gods, and I risk damnation in shaming you, but there are those of us who hear the voice of our First Mother, those of us who work for one, undivided people on Shanji, united in purpose and in blood. I am bred Moshuguang, the magic light, the chosen of the Emperor. And I give my seed to the Tumatsin to create those people, and perhaps -- something greater. Now -- now -- now.
Mengmoshu rocked furiously, and grunted with sudden release, sweat beading his forehead while she lay beneath him, still feeling nothing. He withdrew from her, pulled up his pants and sighed. He leaned over her closely, and whispered, "In a moment I will be gone. You must --"
"Mengmoshu, aren't you finished yet? You should not walk alone on a moonless night."
It was Shan's voice, a loud whisper, and not far away.
Mengmoshu was startled, his aura flashing blue. "I gave you a simple order, and you have not obeyed it!" he growled. "I think of your safety. A Shizi is prowling only ten minutes from here, and I came back to accompany you. Hurry!"
The Searcher sighed again. "A complication," he whispered. I will release you for an instant, and in that instant you must scream as best you can. It is your death if you do not.
He looked down at her, and suddenly her own knife was in his hand, gleaming in starlight, coming up in a high arc and down towards her heart in a single deathstroke, and the scream that had started in her mind came out as a horrible, muffled rattle ending as quickly as he'd released and taken hold of her again.
The knife struck the ground only centimeters from her side.
Mengmoshu rolled her paralyzed body slightly to one side, cut the bonds on her wrists, and lay the knife beside her. He put a finger to her lips, then to his own and stood up, giving her one last look before walking away.
"She's dead?" asked Shan.
"Yes. The Shizi should do the rest. We need to hurry."
Toregene heard their footsteps grow fainter, and she was suddenly cold, sharp needles digging into her bare legs and buttocks. She lay there for several minutes, not daring to move, her vision still enhanced from fear -- and anger. A foreign seed lay within her; she could feel its fluid excess oozing. She felt humiliated, dishonored, contaminated, unfit to be called Tumatsin. It seemed as if her vagina was suddenly on fire, and tears came to her eyes. She suppressed a sob, lest a Shizi be near.
When she was satisfied the men were gone she sat up shivering, removed the gag and pulled up her pants. She cradled the knife in one hand, and for one brief instant considered plunging it into her own heart. She was stopped by a single thought; her life had been spared, her humiliation a thing forced upon her by another. Of what was she guilty?
Her feeling of self-disgust returned in moments, but by then the knife was returned to its sheath. She breathed deeply and adjusted her clothing, crept out from the trees and sought a deeper calm by carefully picking up the scattered threads of glowing fungus on the ground. One delicate thread at a time, she refilled the sack, her normal night vision returning by the time she finished the simple task.
She began to walk, and her momentary self-control dissolved again. She was suddenly shaking, her knees giving way so that she fell twice before reaching the broad ridge trail. Her muffled sobs were of shame, and grief, the grief of a woman violated and dispoiled by the Hansui seed burning within her. Her people would grieve with her, but Tumatsin law was clear. She would keep her status in society, but there would be no marriage to Temujin, no children of his body for her, a life without family, a maiden aunt to the children of others. Her hand went to the hilt of her knife, but again there was hesitation, an instant of anger, and her knees stiffened.
Now she was running the trail, knife in hand, and it was as if daylight had come early. She growled low, suddenly hoping a Shizi would come after her, attacking within sight of the signal fire. She thought of plunging the knife into its open mouth, the claws tearing at her stomach and groin, the foreign seed spilling out with her blood as she stabbed again into an eye and through to the brain. Quite suddenly, Toregene did not want to die. She wanted to kill. And with that thought came resolution not to so easily give up her heart's desire, even if it meant giving up a virtue she'd been taught as a child.
The virtue of honesty in all things.
The signal fire was less than a kilometer ahead, and a shadow moved before it. Temujin? Had he waited up for her? She was desperate for his embrace, his touch, that sweet breath in her ear as he held her. She ran harder, dislodging skree that tinkled like broken porcelain down the steep slopes on either side of the trail. More shadows around the fire, men standing up, watching her approach.
Three men -- and Temujin was not one of them. She stumbled into the glowing circle of firelight, and fell to her knees, gasping for breath as the men clustered around her.
"Shizi -- chased me -- I fell," she gasped. "On the far ridge -- two of them -- and troopers -- I don't know how many. They saw me -- came after -- I ran -- then the Shizi --I --" Her breath exploded in a burst of tears.
A man knelt before her to put a comforting hand on her shoulder. It was Kuchlug, Temujin's closest friend. He pulled the knife from her clenched fist, and put it back in her sheath. "You're safe, now. The cats have given up the chase. We saw the flyer over there a few moments ago. Temujin has gone down to report it, but he'll be back soon. Your hands are cut and bleeding! Ogadai, get some hot water for us! Uzbek, go down and tell Temujin that his bride has arrived safely!"
Uzbek sprinted from the circle of light as Kuchlug held Toregene's trembling hands in his, looking closely at her. "It's all right, now. Temujin will be here soon."
"The camp," gasped Toregene. "There are many soldiers guarding it. Too many -- and now they watch us from over there. They will see every move we make. We can't --"
Kuchlug squeezed her hands. "Not now. Save your report for Temujin. For now, you rest, and clean your wounds in privacy. Your things are in the low tent behind me. Ah, here is hot water for you."
Ogadai had returned from the fire with a bulging, goatskin bag. Kuchlug helped her to her feet, and she took the bag. "My brown pack is in the tent?" she asked.
"Yes. Everything you left behind. Take your time, even sleep a little before Temujin returns. We will keep watch."
Toregene hugged him, and he grinned. "I'm filled with envy for my friend," he said. "Now go."
At the edge of the firelight, she found the tent and crawled inside, squinting in the gloom. She laced up the entrance flap halfway so there was still some light coming in, then rummaged in her pack for cup, cloth and the bag of special tea that was always with her since she'd been betrothed to Temujin. Laced with white root and jin-hua, the tea had thus far prevented the conception of a child by their frequent love-making before marriage. But Temujin was Tumatsin, and she was now dealing with the seed of a Hansui Searcher, her time of possible conception near or immediate. She made the tea strong, and gulped down a cupfull, burning her mouth. She made a second cup, let it cool while she dabbed her hand wounds clean with the cloth, then drank the tea down. She soaked the cloth with tea and washed her genitals, flushing them twice with hot liquid, then again, wincing with pain.
She lay on her back, feeling the hot liquid working its way down inside her body. Hurry, she thought, and was suddenly consumed by a horrible fear.
Copyright © 2000 by James C. Glass