Monday, January 18, 2010

The Nan Tu (The Southern Migration) - Southern Swallow Book II excerpt by Edward C Patterson

“We all lived in the shadow of K’ai-feng’s ashes now. No denying it. However safe we felt, the world hung by a silken thread.” So begins the second book of the Southern Swallow series — The Nan Tu (The Southern Migration) by Edward C Patteron, and like the first book, The Academician, it is told by K’u Ko-ling, servant to the Grand Tutor, Li K’ai-men. The Emperor Kao has proclaimed that his court and government will migrate to the south, a progress filled with adventure, intrigue, war and tragedy, thus setting a series of events in play that shaped the Middle Kingdom.

Set on the broad canvas of Sung Dynasty China, The Nan Tu is a tale of love, separation and sacrifice. Yet heroes emerge from the ashes and restoration is within their grasp. From the mountain lairs of bandits to the sweep of the fleet at sea, The Nan Tu will transport you to a world that should have never been forgotten. Still, there are more important things than empires and history. There’s love and destiny — the destiny of Li K’ai-men’s relics and the enlistment of his helpmates to guard over the membrane of time.

The Nan Tu - Southern Swallow Book II
Publisher: CreateSpace
ISBN: 1449994202


Chapter One
The Dragon’s Teeth

We all lived in the shadow of K’ai-feng’s ashes now. No denying it. However safe we felt, either under the cold towers of Ch’i-chou or within the remnant palaces at Ying-t’ien, the world hung by a silken thread. The barbarians were poised to cut that thread. Who could prevent it? The new emperor, my lord, Prince Kang? He ascended the throne like a parrot in a cage, looking for a nod to do so. My master, Li K’ai-men? He had a clear eye, a keen mind and a bag of paranormal tricks, but he couldn’t stay the tide. Would it be the generals? They proclaimed their worth and vitality. Yet, not one could guarantee our safety.

I did know one thing. This vast land — this land in disunion and turmoil would not be put to rights by me — K’u Ko-ling, poor son of a cowcumber farmer from Gui-lin. I had already lived several lives beyond most piss ant farmers, and now was set to take my ease on the battlements, watching the world crumble. When it did, I would touch my master’s hand and find some recourse in his secret magic, but as long as he remained the Grand Tutor to the Emperor Kao, I was stuck in the latrine.

There’s no easy exit for those who serve . . . not even for a boy prince now elevated to the dragon throne. Heaven chooses her sons, but Heaven leaves them to find their own way. It seems unfair to me. I mean, it’s like being struck by lightning and putting out the fire with your own piss. Not a keen prospect. Still, if we were to survive these times, we depended upon this youth, who preferred riding to ruling.

I am an ignorant fool, never expected to understand the contours of politics. All I needed was my daily bowl of noodles and a woman once a week, now that my fat-ass wife was off with my mistress in the wilds at Nan-chang. Still, I had seen too much to put aside my instincts.

These men — the Emperor, my master, the hive of generals, the sea of misguided bureaucrats, officials and academicians — they all looked for approval. Heaven usually intervened with a comet or the birth of a three-headed cow, but the only unusual occurrence was the absence of unusual occurrences. With the Jurchen still hovering across the northern border and a rival dynasty nominally ruling at K’ai-feng, the world looked for legitimacy. The world looked to the wilds at Nan-chang, to that wily fox — the old Dowager Empress, the only legitimate creature in the Empire by dint of her long-standing maternity as the Mother of the Nation.

Now I scarcely recall my real mother, but if the Dowager Empress were my mother, I would have spent my days hiding in the latrine. What must have gone through His Majesty’s head while he waited for the blessing of this woman? And to think that my mistress and my master’s heartfelt companion, Fu Lin-t’o, were hostages at Nan-chang, along with my fat-ass wife. But the less I say about her, the better.


In the central hall’s dim light, the Dowager Empress sat in silent thought, playing with the dragon’s teeth, although she knew they were two small pearls dangling from a golden pendant — this pendant pinned to her robes. Yang Yu-yuan saw that the assembly waited upon her, the full Nan-chang court hushed in her presence. Tao Fan stood like a statue, casting a long shadow across the hall. Nearby, Lady Lin and the Princess Chia sat on cushions. And there were others — some summoned and some not, but all waiting on the Imperial silence while the Empress pondered her finger, caressing the dragon’s teeth.

A wintry wind blew through the gray hall, making it too cold to sit long without shivering, or so Fu Lin-t’o thought. He was among the summoned, sitting behind his mistress, Mei Lin, Li K’ai-men’s wife. Fu had sat for two watches, the chill creeping into his feet — feet that still ached from his injuries. He had been managing to walk with the aid of Chou Bei, the steward. However, Chou Bei was not there today, remaining behind with the household women. So Fu Lin-t’o’s support came from Mei Lin, who was heavy with child and barely able to buttress a full-grown man. Mei Lin’s son, Li Pao-xien was also present and squirming. In fact, many children had been summoned, including three-year-old Prince Meng.

Why did the old lady want the children? Fu Lin-t'o thought.

There was yet another sitting on the cushions — Lady Lin, a scion of the original founding bloodline, and her son, an older boy, perhaps four, who constantly broke the silence with his chirping lip-bubbles, amusing Fu Lin-t’o, who called the boy Sparrow. Sparrow was regal despite his age and conduct. He was the Count of Wei. Every one of the Count of Wei’s chirps elicited a grumble from the Dowager Empress, who still pondered in the silence and played with her twin pearls.

“You must be quiet,” Lady Lin whispered to her son. “Be like Prince Meng.”

Fu Lin-t’o was thankful that Prince Meng was quiet today. He was usually a handful, and Li Pao-xien was generally loud. Fu felt like a child, waiting in this unnatural silence. If he could run, he would have attempted it, but the hall was stocked with grim warriors — local generals who mourned for the loss of the capital. The Dowager had summoned some, although others just drifted in from broken commands.

Finally, the Dowager stirred, her formidable headdress nodding to Tao Fan. Her ermines shimmered in the dim light. Tao Fan approached her, bowing to catch his mistress’ whispered command. Then, the eunuch turned about, his pruny, gloomy face directed at Mei Lin. He approached her, his baton pounding. Fu Lin-t’o stirred, and prepared to stand. However, Tao Fan noticed the attempt and squelched it.

“I suggest, Master Fu, that you take your ease.”

“As you wish, Lord Tao.”

“I am not a lord, nor will I ever be one.”

Tao Fan’s voice carried through the hall, the entire assembly hugging his every word. He turned to Princess Chia.

“My mistress wants the child.”

Princess Chia nodded, and then stood. The amah followed her as she shuffled to the throne.

“The other one too,” the Dowager commanded.

Tao Fan glanced at Lady Lin and the Count of Wei. She too was upstanding, guiding her son toward the formidable woman.

“The Grand Tutor’s lady also, and his spawn.”

Tao Fan nodded. Mei Lin gathered herself and Li Pao-xien with difficulty. Fu Lin-t’o disregarded Tao Fan’s command. He tottered to those misshapen things that once he had called feet.

“You must stay,” Tao Fan said.

“Mistress,” Fu said, ignoring the eunuch. “Give me my nephew’s hand.”

Mei Lin complied, and then together they trundled toward the throne.

“Desist,” Tao Fan shouted, pounding his baton twice upon the floor. He evidently had forgotten that Fu Lin-t’o had saved his skin in their flight from K’ai-feng. It was always the way with the palace vermin. Fu ignored him, fully expecting the next pounding of the baton to be across his back.

“Let him come,” Yu-yuan croaked. “It is befitting that the paramour should lead the brat.”

Once they reached the first step beneath this icy lady, they bowed deeply, awaiting her bidding. Li Pao-xien squirmed under Fu’s grasp, but Fu pulled him firmly forward. It was not easy, because the pain in his injured feet, especially the right one, was excruciating. Fu did all he could to maintain proper form. Still, the Dowager held them in her gaze, staring to each in turn, all the while fiddling with those damned pearls.

I would dearly love to tear that pendant from her chest and stick it up her ass, Fu Lin-t’o thought.

His eyes shifted to Mei Lin, who trembled. Was this fear or the cold? Probably both. Finally, Her Majesty, the immortal Dowager Empress Yang Yu-yuan, stood. Everyone knelt, a relief from the standing. Fu heard armor clattering, brocades rustling and an anticipated murmuring that, after two full watches, the great woman was about to let the commandments fly.


“Is Prince Meng well?” she asked Princess Chia.

“With all my heart, Your Majesty. He is as healthy a baby as you could ever see.”

“Ugly then, is he not, the gods cursing us.”

The Princess smiled, and then nodded.

“Ugliest child under Heaven, Your Majesty.”

“Good. The descendants of T’ai-tsung always have been wretches and always shall be so.” She turned toward Lady Lin. “And how is your son?”

“Blessed with good health, Your Majesty.”

“Ugly also?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“But less so than Prince Meng,” the Dowager suggested. “A fairer child and thus drawing Heaven’s jealousy.”

“Fairer than his cousin,” Lady Lin confirmed.

“It has always been the way with the descendants of T’ai-tsu that they are fairer and thus losing their turn in line. Still, the two great lineages stand before me as I look to Heaven for the signs.”

Suddenly, she gazed at Mei Lin. Her hand went to the pendant again.

“When Heaven favors a new claimant of the mandate, there are signs,” the Dowager continued. “I have searched my heart for such signs. The Emperor Ch’ing still lives. It was unfortunate that he retired me to this fortress instead of allowing me my place at court, but he still lives. Thus, we have an Emperor still . . . and a dynasty.”

The audience murmured again, especially the military component. Fu Lin-t’o thought these words might have stirred them to some cause — a common thread among them. The Emperor may have been captured. He may have been dragged off with his father and the entire court, save one. However, that didn’t mean his reign was over. In fact, a new reign period had not been proclaimed.

Suddenly, the murmur increased. A gentleman drifted through the rear portals, his arms held high like trophies. It was Xie K’o-chia, the Councilor of the Left Bureau of Military Affairs, long associated with the Dowager Empress. In fact, Li K’ai-men once told Fu Lin-t’o that Xie K’o-chia was a creature of that woman — that woman who would control the world.

“Councilor Xie,” Yang Yu-yuan said, and then sat again.

The man came forward, his entourage few and dusty; his sandals muddied and his coat not the finest. He smelled of horse. He evidently did not observe protocol before delivering his tidings, although he was two watches late. He bowed.

“My lady,” Xie K’o-chia said. “May Heaven watch over your sacred heart. May the wisdom of the House of Chao stir from your tongue and give us peace.”

“Peace,” she said. “Peace is the one thing we do not have. Tell me. Does Chang Pang-chang and his flatulent dynasty still stand at K’ai-feng?”

“It does not, my lady. General Tsung Tse has retaken the capital.”

Yu-yuan smiled for the first time since she called this court gathering.

“Chang Pang-chang is dead then?”

“He lives.”

She stood, her arm sweeping the air, her finger pointing to her creature. Xie K’o-chia squinted, but did not budge.

“I demand that Chang Pang-chang be executed at once,” she shouted.

“My lady,” Xie said, his demeanor respectful, but firm. “Please forgive my boldness, but as your councilor I must remind you that such a proclamation is reserved for His Majesty, may he live ten thousand years.”

The Empress spit, returning to her seat with a thump.

“Who rules here? In this place, Xie K’o-chia, who rules here?”

“Within these walls, my lady, you do. Within this aging heart, you do. But as for all-under-Heaven, that is a question on which we solicit your grace to consider.”

“Well, at least, I rule your heart, Xie K’o-chia. I will rest easy tonight knowing that. As for my brother-in-law’s children, I believe we have an issue that will not disappear — unless we have a sign that Heaven favors one of them.”

Xie K’o-chia bowed again.

“My lady, might I suggest that we do have a sign.”

The hall murmured again. Breastplates rattled. Fu Lin-t’o prepared for the worst. If this sign acknowledged that the captured Emperor was still the Son of Heaven, this woman would proclaim herself regent in his absence. Fu was sure of it.

“Speak,” she said, fidgeting with the pearl pendant.

“That K’ai-feng was taken and the House of Chao deflowered,” Xie Ko-chia said, “is a sign of Heaven’s intemperance with your nephew, the Emperor Ch’ing. Prince Kang, the Duke of Ch’i is the only free remaining son of the retired-Emperor Hui. Again the succession goes to a brother.”

“He is too young,” Yu-yuan snapped.

Or not young enough, Fu Lin-t’o thought.

“He was declared Emperor by the northeastern divisions under Han Shr-chung,” Xie Ko-chia said.

“So he has teeth behind his claim.”

“I have heard, my lady, that he’s reluctant to ascend the dragon throne, but the signs are with him.”

The Empress stared at the Princess Chia as if to say this is your fault. You have given us an alternative, but alas you are here instead of with your husband.

“Signs? You keep saying there are signs, but you only tell me of human frailty and the strength of arms. Heaven does not speak in such terms.”

She rubbed the pendant.

“He was proclaimed in the shadow of Mount T’ai,” Xie said.

“Mere geography.”

“Then, we must also consider the number. The number . . . nine.”

Yu-yuan’s face puckered. She appeared disturbed, as if a cricket made a nest in her robes.


“Nine, my lady.”

“Yes,” she whispered. Her face brightened to its full dimness. “Yes. Nine.”

“Nine dragons seen across the sun.”


“Nine Emperors have ruled the Great Sung.”

“Nine, indeed.”

Yu-yuan’s husband was number seven; unlucky number, that.

“Prince Kang is the ninth son.”

Yang Yu-yuan twitched at this. A grin blossomed across her face, but then vanished as she slowly stood, stretching to her full stature, her ermines cascading to the floor.

“The ninth son,” she said. “That he is. The ninth and the one I loved most. The one I nurtured at my breast. Indeed, that is the sign, Xie K’o-chia.” She turned to Tao Fan, who slammed his baton to the floor three times. “Let the royal seal be offered to the ninth son of my brother-in-law, the retired-Emperor Hui. And may we hold true to the will of Heaven and the nine dragons that have dotted the sun.”
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1 comment:

Victor J. Banis said...

Gosh, Ed Patterson just gets better and better with each outing. He writes some of the best prose to be found in published fiction today, and some of the best informed. Huzzahs! Great stuff, Ed.