Friday, May 14, 2010

An Excerpt From Under Heaven

The following passage occurs beside a lake where the hero, Shen Tai has buried war dead for two years. My sole difficulty in sharing it with you was deciding where to stop, as my eyes and heart wanted to continue reading.

That's a problem inherent to the novel.


His instincts had been dulled by solitude, two years away from anything remotely like blades pointed towards him. Keeping an eye out for wolves or mountain cats, making sure the goats were pinned at night, did nothing to make you ready to deal with an assassin.

But he'd felt something wrong about the guard even as Yan had ridden up with her. He couldn't have said what that feeling was; it was normal, prudent, for a traveller to arrange protection, and Yan was sufficiently unused to journeying (and had enough family wealth) to have gone all the way to hiring a Kanlin, even if he'd only intended to go west a little and then down towards the Wai.

That wasn't it. It had been something in her eyes and posture, Tai decided, staring at the swords. Both were towards him, in fact, not at Yan: she would know which one of them was a danger.

Riding up, reining her horse before the cabin door, she ought not to have seemed quite so alert, staring at him. She had been hired to get a man somewhere, and they'd come to that place. A task done, or the outbound stage of it. Payment partly earned. But her glance at Tai had been appraising, as much as anything else.

The sort of look you gave a man you expected to fight.

Or simply kill, since Tai's own swords were where they always were, against the wall, and there was no hope of notching arrow to bowstring before she cut him in two.

Everyone knew what Kanlin blades in Kanlin hands could do.

Yan's face had gone pale with horror. His mouth gaped, fish-like. Poor man. The drawn sword of betrayal was not a part of the world he knew. He'd done something immensely courageous coming here, had reached beyond himself in the name of friendship ... and found only this for reward. Tai wondered what his tidings were, what had caused him to do this. He might never know, he realized.

That angered and disturbed him, equally. He said, setting the world in motion again, "I must assume I am your named target. That my friend knows nothing of why you really came here. There is no need for him to die."

"But there is," she said softly. Her eyes stayed on him, weighing every movement he made, or might make.

"What? Because he'll name you? You think it will not be known who killed me when they come here from Iron Gate? You will have been recorded when you arrived at the fortress. What can he add to that?"

The swords did not waver. She smiled thinly. A beautiful, cold face. Like the lake, Tai thought, death within it.

"Not that," she said. "He insulted me, with his eyes. On the journey."

"He saw you as a woman? That would have taken some effort," Tai said deliberately.

"Have a care," she said.

"Why? Or you'll kill me?" Anger within him more than anything now. He was a man helped by rage, though, steered towards thoughts, decisiveness. He was trying to see what it did to her. "The Kanlin are taught proportion and restraint. In movement, in deeds. You would kill a man because he admired your face and body? A disgrace to your mentors on the mountain, if so."

"You will tell me what Kanlin teachings are?"

"If I must," Tai said coolly. "Are you going to do this with honour, and allow me my swords?"

She shook her head. His heart sank. "I would prefer that, but my instructions were precise. I was not to allow you to fight me when we came here. This is not to be a combat." A hint of regret, some explanation for the appraising look: Who is this one? What sort of man, that she was told to fear him?

Tai registered something else, however. "When you came here? You knew I was at Kuala Nor? Not at home? How?"

She said nothing. Had made an error, he realized. Not that it was likely to matter. He needed to keep talking. Silence would be death, he was certain of it. "They thought I would kill you, if we fought. Who decided this? Who is protecting you from me?"

"You are very sure of yourself," the assassin murmured.

He had a thought. A poor one, almost hopeless, but nothing better seemed to be arriving in the swirling of these moments.

"I am sure only of the uncertainty of life," he said. "If I am to end here by Kuala Nor and you will not fight me, will you kill me outside? I would offer my last prayer to the water and sky and lie among those I have been burying. It is not a great request."

"No," she said, and he didn't know what she meant, until she added, "It is not." She paused. It would be wrong to call it a hesitation. "I would have fought you, had my orders not been precise."

Orders. Precise orders. Who would do that? He needed to shape time, create it, find some way to his swords. The earlier thought really was a useless one, he decided.

He had to make her move, shift her footing, look away from him.

"Yan, who suggested you hire a Kanlin?"

"Silence!" the woman snapped, before Chou Yan could speak.

"Does it matter?" Tai said. "You are about to kill us without a fight, like a frightened child who fears her lack of skill." It was possible─just─that goaded enough she might make another mistake.

His sheathed blades were behind the assassin, by his writing table. The room was small, the distance trivial─unless you wanted to be alive when you reached them.

"No. Like a Warrior accepting orders given," the woman amended calmly.

She seemed serene again, as if his taunting had, instead of provoking, imposed a remembrance of discipline. Tai knew how that could happen. It didn't help him.

"It was Xin Lun who suggested it to me," Yan said bravely.

Tai heard the words, saw the woman's hard eyes, knew what was coming. He cried a warning.

Yan took her right-hand sword, a backhanded stroke, in his side, angled upwards to cut between ribs.

The slash-and-withdraw was precise, elegant, her wrist flexed, the blade swiftly returned─to be levelled towards where Tai had been. No time seeming to have passed: time held and controlled. The Kanlin were taught that way.

As it happened, he knew this, and time had passed, time that could be used. Timelessness was an illusion, and he wasn't where he'd been before.

His heart crying, knowing there was nothing he could have done to stop that stroke, he had leaped towards the doorway even as she'd turned to Yan─to kill him for speaking a name.

Tai screamed again, fury more than fear, though he expected to die now, himself.

A hundred thousand dead here, and two more.

He ignored his sheathed swords, they were too far. He whipped out the open door and to his right, towards the firewood by the goat pen. He had leaned his shovel on that wall. A gravedigger's shovel against two Kanlin swords. He got there. Claimed it, wheeled to face her.

The woman was running behind him. And then she wasn't.

Because the faint, foolish, desperate idea he'd had before entered into the sunlit world, became real.

The wind that rose in that moment conjured itself out of nothing at all, without warning. From within a spring afternoon's placidity, a terrifying force erupted.

There came a screaming sound: high, fierce, unnatural.

Not his voice, not the woman's, not anyone actually alive.

The wind didn't ruffle the meadow grass at all, or stir the pine trees. It didn't move the waters of the lake. It didn't touch Tai, though he heard what howled within it.

The wind poured around him, curving to either side like a pair of bows, as he faced the woman. It took the assassin bodily, lifted her and hurled her through the air as if she were a twig, a child's kite, an uprooted flower stalk in a gale. She was slammed against the wall of his cabin, pinned, unable to move.

It was as if she were nailed to the wood. Her eyes were wide with horror. She was trying to scream, her mouth was open, but whatever was blasting her, claiming her, didn't allow that either.

One sword was still in her hand, flattened against the cabin. The other had been ripped from her grasp. She had been lifted clear off the ground, he saw, her feet were dangling in air. She was suspended, hair and clothing splayed against the dark wood of the cabin wall.

The illusion, again, of a moment outside of time.

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