Fiction Excerpt: “The Turning of the Tiles”

Fiction Excerpt: “The Turning of the Tiles”

By Iain Rowan

Illustrated by Bernie Mireault
from Black Gate 8, copyright © 2005 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
“The Turning of the Tiles” is a sequel to “Looking For Goats, Finding Monkeys” in Black Gate 6.

“You,” the guard said, and pointed at someone behind me.

Everyone else in the market stood very still, as if time had stopped. An elderly woman stood with her hand out, halfway through counting her change. A small boy froze in position while his spinning top reeled slower and slower around him, until it eventually toppled with a rattle that made everyone move their eyes, but nothing else. The guard had creaked through the west entrance to the market, his lacquered armor reflecting the brightly colored bunting that stretched across the tops of the market stalls like a thousand kites fallen to earth.

“You,” the guard said again, slapping his hand hard against the leather of his scabbard. “Now.”

I looked behind me to see whom he had come for. There was nothing but a few feet of empty cobblestones, a box of rotting fruit, the roughly plastered surface of a wall, a strong smell of lemons.

“Last time,” he said. So I walked.

This world can be an unkind and dangerous place at the best of times, and there is no sense in making it worse. Baiting angry dogs, swimming at midnight while drunker than a bear in a performing show, mentioning that any of the ladies of the House of Delights on Teng Street looked suspiciously masculine, these were all foolish. Disobeying an order from a member of the Imperial Guard of the Throne of Endless Waters went beyond foolish. And yet, as I walked, I was aware of the paradox. To disobey was suicide, they had the imperial warrant and I had seen them casually behead a man in the street for no reason other than he coughed when the guards had called for silence. And yet often, to obey was also suicide. We lived in a city at war, a war which had lasted for seven years, and although the fighting was many hundreds of miles away the war brought terror, and the war brought knocking at doors and arrests in the street and families whom you knew disappearing in the middle of the night and never being seen again, never being spoken of again.

The guard gestured towards the entrance at the far end of the market, where slops and rubbish were taken out and thrown into the river. I walked towards it, wondering if I were to end my time lying stupid and cold and bleeding amidst the city’s discarded vegetables. We reached the gate, and the guard pushed me through. Behind me the sounds of the market started up again as though nothing had happened, but they seemed very far away, like those of a half-remembered dream. A few yards in front of me the river lapped greasily at the shore. A small boat was drawn up on to the scatter of rotting food, and a man sat in it who nodded at the guard.

I felt a palm like iron in my back, pushing me forwards. The message was unmistakable, and I did not wait to be told twice. I walked towards the boat, scrambled over the side, and sat down on one of the thwarts.

“No,” the boatman said. He had obviously been to the same school of rhetoric and public speaking as the guard. He lifted some rough sacking from the floor of the boat. Again, there was no mistaking the message. I lay down on the floor. Deck, I think they call it, in the proper nautical jargon. Or is that only big boats? Whatever, the wood was rough, and damp, and smelt of fungus and wet dogs. All the light went out of the world, as the sack was thrown over my head. I heard the guard grunting, the boat slithering over splitting fruit with a noise that again made me think of decapitation, and then we were afloat and the river took us. Oars began to creak, and the boatman began to breathe in time, each breath strained as if he were about to cough. I began counting the breaths, although for what purpose I have no idea. At the time it seemed very important. Creak, creak, wheeze. Creak, creak, wheeze. I was in mortal fear of my life. I had been seized by authority for no reason that I could think of. I was lying on wet, uncomfortable wooden planks. For all I knew, I was experiencing the last moments of my life. Which is why I feel rather embarrassed about admitting that after not very long, I fell asleep.

When a hand shook me awake, I thought that the blanket still covered me as everywhere was dark. Then light flared, and the boatman touched it to a lantern, and I saw that we were now underground, the boat rocking gently at the side of a small stone landing stage under an arched roof. Some way back, beyond a small semicircle of light was the world, and freedom. The boatman took my arm, pulled me onto the landing, and we walked away from the world.

The landing turned into a narrow path, and the path turned into stone stairs that wound upwards. The stone was damp and slippery, and I put out my hands to steady myself, but the boatman pushed me forwards and I continued climbing until the stairs opened out into a passage, and a guard who looked the twin of the one in the market took me by the arm and led me to a wooden door, banded by iron. He knocked. There was silence for a few moments, and then a dry voice said “Enter” and the guard opened the door, pushed me through, and then slammed it shut.

The man behind the desk was small, small to the point at which people on the street might look twice to see if he were a man or a child. They would regret doing so. His eyes were hard like jet and he gave the impression of being a stranger to mercy and compassion. His face was wrinkled like skin on milk. He stared at me for some time, and I stood there in silence. After a moment or two it occurred to me that it was not a good idea to engage him in a staring contest, so I dropped my gaze to the floor, and this seemed to please him, for he began to speak, his voice like rustling leaves.

“So. Dao-shi, the exorcist. No, Dao-Shi the famous exorcist. In demand across the city, by rich and poor alike. Banisher of vengeful ancestor spirits from the bedrooms of noble daughters, lifter of curses from rich merchant’s counting halls. Dao-Shi.”

I didn’t like the way he said my name. It gave me the impression that he was weighing the words, as if to decide whether to spit them out, or to chew them up and swallow them.

“You have quite a reputation, Dao-Shi. In our cultured and modern world, most enlightened men sneer and laugh at the superstitious nonsense of peasants and credulous noble fools with more money than brains. They’re wrong of course. But I do not need to tell you this, a man of your great experience.”

I bowed my head modestly. I thought it politic not to mention that most of my income was earned doing theatrical tricks under the name of exorcisms for the benefit of superstitious peasants and credulous noble fools with more money than brains. I didn’t regard myself as a fraudster, more the provider of a service. My customers got what they wanted, peace of mind, and the security of knowing that the home was free from supernatural influence – which of course it was. And I got what I wanted, which was mostly round and golden and clinking in my pocket. Until a year ago I hadn’t even believed in the existence of ghosts. Since a certain encounter which had served to change my mind I had been rather less cynical in my beliefs, had spent some time learning genuine ritual rather than doggerel, and had even successfully banished two more genuine spirits, visitants from places beyond our understanding. Still, the truth, Dao-Shi, banisher of a grand total of three ghosts, did not sound as impressive as the praise that this man was lavishing upon me. But imperial guards didn’t usually drag citizens off the streets simply so important officials with cruel eyes could praise them.

“I am an important official in the government of the Emperor of the Endless Waters,” he said, and I tried not to look as if I were nervous that he had just read my mind.

“I can read your mind,” he said, and I gave up trying to manage my expressions at all, and just stared at the floor. “You are wondering who I am, why you have been brought here. Whether you will leave here alive.”

The thought had crossed my mind.

“I am Fei-Shen, and serve his imperial majesty through humble office of government. I am one of a number who think with a like mind, a number devoted to preserving our glorious state, to defeating the enemy in this war, and to rooting out the traitors within our own walls. We have work that needs to be done, work that for now we do not wish to have associated with the government, and you have been identified as a worthy candidate to serve his emperor and to carry out the task.” His mouth made the shape a smile does. “You have the talent required, and you have a reputation for discretion.”

I may have been in fear of my life, but praise is praise, and I felt my shoulders going back and my chest puffing out somewhat.

“And of course, you are of lesser consequence to your country than some of our alternative choices, should matters go wrong.”

My shoulders dropped again, and my chest relinquished the effort of puffing out in favor of my belly, which did such things naturally.

“I hope, master,” I said, “that you are as certain in your heart of how strongly I can bear the burden of trust as I know that I am. Forgive me if I sound immodest, but my profession rests on discretion; aside from that, it is simply in my nature to keep the secrets of those who confide in me.”

“In your nature, hm? Good, good.” He smiled, and I could swear that his face made a sound like crumpling parchment. “I am pleased that it is. Such good fortune means that we would never have to resort to unfortunate measures to assure your silence. That would be regrettable…”

Threat wrapped up in silk and ribbons, then duly delivered. I nodded, trying to assume the expression of a man who staked his life on vows of silence every day of the week.

“It is this.” He leaned back again. Message delivered, he no longer had to look at me, and could go back to his inspection of the ceiling paint. “Our Emperor’s forces of course are winning this war against the barbarian filth from across the mountains. I expect the fighting to be over within a year, and our armies triumphant.” I had heard similar words three years ago, when my son went off to fight. And similar words two years ago, when I buried him. “As we grow ever stronger, and advance ever more against the enemy, so they grow more and more desperate. They know that they cannot hold, they know that we shall break them, and they resort to desperate and unholy measures.”

Desperate was reasonable — I had been a desperate man at times myself — but I did not like the sound of unholy. It sounded dangerous. I nodded, trying to assume the expression of a man who dealt with desperate and unholy horrors every day of the week. Then I realized that Fei-Shen was still staring up at the ceiling, so I gave up.

“You are a man who possesses knowledge about such things. Tell me, tell me if you have heard mention of the Serevoi.”

“The Serevoi,” I said flatly. “Ah, the Serevoi.”

“Quite. The Serevoi.”

There was silence for a while.

“Quite. Well, you will know of its nature then, this foul spirit. It creeps and stalks and spies, hiding and concealing itself, seeing all, hearing all, making no sound until it reports back to those barbarians who summoned it from the hundredth hell it came from. It creeps and spies, and takes innocents from the street to satisfy its hunger.” I was surprised by his concern for innocents from the street, having witnessed the imperial guard beheading innocents from the street because they did not bow low enough when men like Fei-Shen were carried by. “This is how low our enemies will stoop. They are among us, in this city. Our enemies, or those who would aid them — no, do not pretend surprise, there are those of our own kind who would betray us.”

It hadn’t occurred to me to feign surprise, but I did not correct him. It was common knowledge that the enemy had their spies in the city, their saboteurs. The government oscillated between periods of denial, spiriting suspects away in the middle of the night in the pretence that no enemy could possibly remain undetected and that therefore there was no enemy and anyone who said that there were was a traitor, and periods of brutal openness, hanging suspects heads from street corners as a lesson to us all. The strategy of choice depended on how the balance of power in the imperial chamber shifted, and who had the ear of our doddering emperor and god that particular week.

“It is these traitors in our midst who have summoned the Serevoi. They have set it loose to spy out our secrets, the disposition of our forces, the strength of our trade, to give all this away to the enemy. We know this from one we have caught.” Fei-Shen lowered his eyes for a moment, and made the smile-like expression again. “After careful persuasion he agreed to talk to us, and told us all he knew.”

I tried hard to control the shiver that ran through me at the thought of what a man like Fei-Shen meant by persuasion. It was ever the tyrant’s way, to take language and to bend it to their own purpose until words were soldiers in their army. I tried hard, but I think I failed, because he smiled again, and this time there seemed to be genuine pleasure in it.

“Which is why you now stand here, Dao-Shi, a man who is about to give glorious service to his emperor, even if he is not aware how.”

I did not like the sound of glorious service. Humble service, well-rewarded service, valuable service, any of those phrases would have gladdened my heart. Glorious service though, was a phrase used in remembrance, in eulogy to martyrs.

“I cannot see how a humble man such as I can be of any service to one so great — ”

“You will defeat and imprison the Serevoi.”

I preferred Fei-Shen when he was being elliptical.

“But sir, I cannot — ”

“You are an exorcist, are you not?”

“Yes sir, but the ghosts I banish are humble household creatures, malignant ancestor spirits, vengeful but not, not of this sort. The Serevoi is a war spirit, sir, created by our enemies, by their most powerful shaman — ”

“Dao-Shi. Either you are an exorcist, in which case you will undertake this task and succeed, or you are not an exorcist, and therefore a fraudster, and I shall have you dragged from here and pulled asunder by horses. Which are you — an exorcist, or not an exorcist?”

To give Fei-Shen his due, he knew how to clarify a difficult decision so that the answer appeared like the sun breaking through clouds.

“I am an exorcist, sir.”

“Good. Then you shall defeat the Serevoi.”

The complete version of “The Turning of the Tiles” appears in Black Gate 8.

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