Excerpt: 'Under Heaven'

Under Heaven
Under Heaven
By Guy Gavriel Kay
Hardcover, 592 pages
Roc Hardcover
List price: $26.95

The birds woke him from the far end of the lake.

He had attempted a formal six-line poem several nights ago, their strident morning noise compared to opening hour at the two markets in Xinan, but hadn't been able to make the parallel construction hold in the final couplet. His technical skills as a poet were probably above average, good enough for the verse component of the examinations, but not likely, in his own judgment, to produce something enduring.

One of the results of two years alone had been his coming to think this, most of the time.

He dressed and built a fire, washed himself and tied back his hair while boiling water for tea. He glanced in the bronze mirror he'd been given and thought about taking a blade to his cheeks and chin, but decided against such self-abuse this morning. The Tagurans could deal with him unshaven. There was no real reason to even tie his hair but he felt like a steppes barbarian when he left it on his shoulders. He had memories of that, of them.

Before drinking or eating, while the tea leaves were steeping, he stood at the eastern window and spoke the prayer to his father's spirit in the direction of sunrise.

Whenever he did this, he summoned and held a memory of Shen Gao feeding bread to the wild ducks in their stream. He didn't know why that was his remembrance-image, but it was. Perhaps the tranquility of it, in a life that had not been tranquil.

He prepared and drank his tea, ate some salt-dried meat and milled grain in hot water sweetened with clover honey, then he claimed his peasant-farmer straw hat from a nail by the door and pulled on his boots. The summer boots were almost new, a gift from Iron Gate, replacing the worn-out pair he'd had.

They had noticed that. They observed him closely whenever they came, Tai had come to understand. He had also realized, during the first hard winter, that he'd almost certainly have died here without the help of the two forts. You could live entirely alone in some mountains in some seasons — it was a legend-dream of the hermit-poet — but not at Kuala Nor in winter, not this high up and remote when the snows came and the north wind came off the mountains.

The supplies, at new and full moon without fail, had kept him alive — and had arrived only through extreme effort several times, when wild storms had bowled down to blast the frozen meadow and lake.

He milked the two goats, took the pail inside and covered it for later. He claimed his two swords and went back out and did his Kanlin routines.

He put the swords away and then, outside again, stood a moment in almost-summer sunshine listening to the shrieking racket of birds, watching them wheel and cry above the lake, which was blue and beautiful in morning light and gave no least hint at all of winter ice, or of how many dead were here around its shores.

Until you looked away from birds and water to the tall grass of the meadow, and then you saw the bones in the clear light, everywhere. Tai could see his mounds, where he was burying them, west of the cabin, north against the pines. Three long rows of deep graves now.

He turned to claim his shovel and go to work. It was why he was here.

His eye was caught by a glint to the south: sunlight catching armour halfway along the last turning of the last slope down. Looking more narrowly he saw that the Tagurans were early today, or — he checked the sun again — that he was moving slowly himself, after a moon-white, waking night.

He watched them descend with the bullock and the heavy-wheeled cart. He wondered if Bytsan was leading the supply party himself this morning. He found himself hoping so.

Was it wrong to anticipate the arrival of a man whose soldiers would rape his sister and both mothers and joyfully sack and burn the family compound during any incursion into Kitai?

Men changed during wars or conflict, sometimes beyond recognition. Tai had seen it in himself, on the steppes beyond the Long Wall among the nomads. Men changed, not always in ways you liked to recall, though courage seen was worth remembering.

He didn't think Bytsan would grow savage, but he didn't know. And he could easily imagine the opposite about some of the Tagurans who had come here through two years, arriving armoured and armed, as if to the stern drums of a battlefield, not bringing supplies to a solitary fool.

They were not simple, easily sorted encounters, the ones he had with the warriors of the Empire of the Plateau when they came down to him.

It was Bytsan he saw, as the Tagurans reached the meadow and began circling the lake. The captain trotted his bay-coloured Sardian horse forward. The animal was magnificent, breathtaking. They all were, those far-western horses. The captain had the only one in his company. Heavenly Horses they called them in Tai's own land. Legends said that they sweated blood.

The Tagurans traded for them with Sardia, beyond where the divided Silk Roads became one again in the west, after the deserts. There, through yet more harsh mountain passes, lay the deep, lush breeding grounds of these dragon steeds, and Tai's people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries.

Horses mattered, a great deal. They were why the emperor, Serene Lord of the Five Directions and the Five Holy Mountains, was steadily engaged with the Bogü nomads, supporting chosen leaders among the kumiss-drinking yurt-dwellers north of the Wall, in exchange for a supply of their horses, however inferior they might be to the ones from Sardia. Neither the loess-laden soil in northern Kitai nor the jungles and rice-lands of the south would permit the grazing and breeding of horses of any real quality.

It was a Kitan tragedy, had been for a thousand years.

Many things came to Xinan along the guarded Silk Roads in this Ninth Dynasty, making it wealthy beyond description, but horses from Sardia were not among them. They could not endure that long desert journey. Women came east, musicians and dancers. Jade and alabaster and gems came, amber, aromatics, powdered rhinoceros horn for the alchemists. Talking birds, spices and food, swords and ivory and so much else, but not the Heavenly Horses.

So Kitai had had to find other ways to get the best mounts they could — because you could win a war with cavalry, all else being equal, and when the Tagurans had too many of these horses (being at peace with the Sardians now, trading with them) all else was not equal.

Tai bowed twice in greeting as Bytsan reined up — right fist in left palm. He had acquaintances — and an older brother — who would have judged it a humiliation had they seen him bow so formally to a Taguran. On the other hand, they hadn't had their lives guarded and preserved by this man and the steady arrival of supplies every full moon for almost two years.

Bytsan's blue tattoos showed in the sunlight, on both cheeks and the left side of his neck above the collar of his tunic. He dismounted, bowed, also twice, closed fist in palm, adopting the Kitan gesture.

He smiled briefly. "Before you ask, yes, I brought wine."

Excerpted from Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Copyright 2010 by Guy Gavriel Kay . Excerpted by permission of Roc Hardcover, a division of The Penguin Group. All rights reserved.

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