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climbed into the tree. It had seemed so familiar, and now she realized why.
She had smelled the scent many times before, when visiting the wives and
daughters of her father's peers. The smell was jasmine blossom. Vain women
enjoyed rubbing the flower over their bodies as a type of perfume.
Finally, Wu answered the emperor's question. "I don't know that it was a
man. In fact, now that you mention the possibility, it seems likely the spy was
a woman."
Ting frowned and started to say something, but the emperor cut her off.
"What else can you tell us?" he demanded. "You must remember everything."
Along with the two sergeants commanding the guards who had been
watching her, Wu spent the next twenty minutes answering questions about
the incident in the Garden of the Virtuous Consort. At length, it became
apparent that nothing more would be learned by continuing the interrogation.
The guards had seen nothing but Wu falling out of the tree. The Chief Warder
of the Imperial Armory in the Department of Palace Services was summoned
and asked to examine the black rope recovered from the scene. He reported
that any officer could have taken it out of the armory and no special note
would have been taken of the fact. Wu could add little to her description, aside
from saying she believed it likely that the figure had been a woman.
The only thing she did not report was the scent of jasmine that had
convinced her the spy was female. A whiff of perfume could be interpreted as
flimsy evidence for such an assertion, and she did not want to give Kwan
another chance to cast doubt on her story.
Finally, the emperor said, "We can't determine the infiltrator's identity from
what we have learned tonight. However, with the aid of the heavens, we will
soon catch him or her. Until then, we will refrain from any further political
bickering and concentrate our energies upon finding this spy " The Divine
One glanced sternly at Kwan, and then Wu " and upon teaching our children
better manners than our parents taught us."
With that, the emperor rose and walked into the darkness behind the
throne. His servants followed with their torches. A few paces later they all
disappeared, stepping through a hidden doorway reserved for the Divine One
and his attendants.
As soon as the emperor was gone, Minister Kwan furrowed his thousand
wrinkles in spite and stared at Wu for several moments. When she did not
flinch, the old man rose and briskly left the hall, his guards following close
behind. Ju-Hai was the next to leave. He turned to Wu and clasped her
hands. "You are a very lucky woman, my dear," he said. "Your punishment for
speaking against Kwan so harshly would have been much greater if the
emperor were not so fond of Batu."
"Fond?" Wu said indignantly. "Having him investigated for treason is
fondness?"
Ju-Hai nodded. "When the danger is so great, the emperor cannot let his
personal feelings interfere with caution. He must be suspicious of everyone
and everything."
Wu shook her head sadly. "Thank you for trying to comfort me," she said.
"But even I can see that the rumors have had their effect on the Divine One."
Ju-Hai sighed. "As long as I have any influence with the emperor, you need
not worry about your husband's reputation."
"You are a true friend, Minister," Wu said, bowing to Ju-Hai. "If there's ever
anything I can do for you "
The minister shook his head. "Think nothing of it. What I do, I do for the
good of the empire. Ting will take you home. I'll visit when I can."
After Ju-Hai left, Ting Mei Wan broke into a fit of chuckling. Wu continued
to stand in the middle of the floor, frowning in puzzlement. Finally, she asked,
"What's so funny?"
Ting stopped laughing. "You and your son," she said. "I've never heard
anyone speak to a mandarin like that. I thought you were trying to choke
Kwan on his own anger!"
"The thought hadn't occurred to me," Wu said, wishing that she possessed
such a cunning mind. "I'll remember it in case the opportunity arises again."
She paused to let the subject drop, then bowed to Ting. "I also want to thank
you for your support, Minister."
Ting grew appropriately serious, then stood and returned the bow. "Minister
Chou has done a great deal for me. When he calls for support, offering it is
the least I can do."
The mandarin walked to Wu's side. "Now, tell me how Batu disappeared
with five provincial armies! What can he be planning?"
Wu caught the whiff of a familiar scent and was reminded of her father's
admonishment to trust no one. Consciously changing the subject, she asked,
"How will I ever keep Ji and Yo happy inside that little house?"
Ting chuckled at the obvious tactic and took Wu's arm. "You are careful,
aren't you?"
As the mandarin started toward the exit, Wu quietly inhaled. There was no
mistaking the fragrance. The Minister of State Security smelled of jasmine
blossoms.
9
Shihfang
Along with his aide and the twenty-four nobles under his command, Tzu
Hsuang stood atop a long bluff. The bluff overlooked a shallow valley that, in
some primordial time, had once served as the bed of a river nearly a half-mile
wide. All that remained of the river now was a deep, slow-moving brook that
meandered through three hundred acres of barley fields.
On the opposite side of the valley sat the town of Shihfang. Like all Shou
municipalities, Shihfang was enclosed by a defensive barrier. Little more than
a ten-foot wall of packed yellow earth, the barrier was broken only where
towers flanked the single gate. The town was unusual in that it had been built
on high ground, atop a bluff similar to the one upon which Hsuang and his
subordinates stood. Wisps of gray smoke drifted out of the few chimneys that
rose above the wall. From one bell tower came the steady, measured
clanging of the town's single warning bell.
Hsuang did not see a reason for the sounding of the alarm. Shihfang
remained untouched and there was no sign of impending attack.
Nevertheless, refugees were pouring out of the hamlet as if the place had
already fallen. The old noble did not understand why. As far as his scouts
could tell, there was not a barbarian within twenty miles. Still, there had to be
a reason for what he saw.
Thousands of people choked the narrow road that crossed the valley from
Shihfang and turned eastward at the base of Hsuang's hill. On their backs, the
peasants balanced long poles from which hung plow shares, effigies of their
gods, sacks of grain seed, and a few other meager possessions. Wealthier
refugees pulled two-wheeled rikshas loaded with bolts of silk, polished
wooden tables, ceramic wares, and other household goods. Here and there,
servants shouldered the palanquin of some minor bureaucrat or a team of
oxen drew the overloaded wagon of a rich landowner. In the midst of the
throng was a lone camel with a bulky, box-like seat strapped to its back.
Hsuang could just make out a figure sitting beneath the seat's silk canopy.
The old noble pointed at the seat, which was known as a howdah. "That
looks like someone important," Hsuang said to his aide. "Perhaps he can tell
us what is happening here. Fetch him."
"Yes, my lord," the adjutant answered. He immediately turned and ran [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]




 

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