I have heard the Twelfth Sage say the Honorable shall inherit the earth, and I concur. Yet surely this shall be after the Dishonorable are finished spitting on it.
For here am I encased in rose jade, yet allowed to speak all because of the curse I put on Prince Shem of Hasp.
I was born a nameless pauper, dragged through years of hunger and thirst by the thief who called himself my father. He did me one kindness by getting himself beheaded for cutting the pocket of the Emperor’s Vizier. I may have been ten, or perhaps nine. My memories of that time are deliberately vague.
From then on, I lived quick and dark and careful, cutting drunkard’s pockets in the night, sleeping with the maggots behind the empty ambrosial barrels belonging to the Blue Dragon Pleasure House. At times I even helped the amber-robed bath girls carry their water, read their tea leaves and listened to them gossip about their clients. They would stroke my cheeks and joke about my growing up.
I hated that, but I toiled with their water and drank their fragrant tea.
This was my life until I met Shem, first heir to the Imperial Throne of Hasp that Glitters upon the Eastern Sea.
Shem was all a first son should be. He was the Emperor’s joy, crafty, a strong warrior, ruthless and wary. By the age of twenty-two, he had already destroyed his three older brothers and was well on the way toward ending the lives of the five younger.
But I digress. This is not a tale of how Shem eviscerated his youngest sibling. It’s a story of curses.
That particular false dawn, I lay behind the biggest barrel, just beyond a reeking puddle of mingled evacua. A loud noise cracked my restless dream. I did not recognize first Heir Shem immediately as the four strapping young men disgorged themselves from the Blue Dragon’s nether end. It was their barking laughter and their loud curses to the Ten Raucous Deities that roused my curiosity. They appeared to be guarding a fifth young man just coming out, still tying his costly robes.
I was actually toying with the idea of picking his pocket, when a noise to the other side of my barrel told me someone was lurking there. I saw a weapon’s shadow too, cast by the light from the Dragon’s door. A blowpipe! The lurker planned to shoot one of those young men. I felt his bad intent even before I came fully awake.
I had less than a heart beat to act, but even so I did. I leaped at him even as his weapon pointed and he blew. I knocked the lurker flat. I heard later the poison dart lodged in the door just beside the Prince’s face.
Just then the man I’d flattened took care of me. I was but a child. His strong arms gripped me hard and slammed me into the barrels. He kicked me in the stomach. Suns and moons exploded behind my eyes as I fell. I remember running feet, loud shouts, and a horrid scream as I lay in a puddle of old urine.
Then, because I was stunned, I heard little but the steady noise of one pair of boots crunching through fish bones and crusted filth. Not even when they stopped where my nose lay pressed to the stones, did I open my eyes.
The assassin, I wondered, come back to finish the job?
The smell of this person, the costly spice of oranges flowed over me as he grabbed me. My stomach heaved on rich perfume, as it had not while lying in stale piss.
“You saved my…” he began.
I vomited across his boots.
“Balls of the Perifat!” he swore gripping my scruff, shaking me so hard my teeth rattled. “You locust dung wretch.”
I looked at him then, saw two of him and knew him at once because of the imperial dragon tattooed on his high cheekbone. He was about to hit me, I saw easily enough. But he stopped.
“Serpents of the lotus,” he said, holding me suspended like some odiferous cat destined for drowning, “It’s a little whore.”
“I’m not a whore, Exalted One, may your divine mother dine on the plums of wisdom with her revered kindred. I am a soothsayer,” I lied. I was a beggar who slept behind the inn barrel of a whorehouse. Ah, but I dreamed like a sage.
The denial of whoredom tangled together across my lips with a ten year old need to be heard if only once by an imperial prince.
He guffawed at me, much to my anger. He dropped me and wiped his fingers on his silken trousers. That angered me more, but how was I, a lowly cutpurse to say so without losing my head as my father had?
Yet I had felt the assassin’s presence before seeing the blowpipe’s shadow and if in some way I could impress on the Prince that I did have powers, maybe a sage’s life could be mine? For does not the Seventh Sage say: far better the breath of choice than that of fear?
I was done with sleeping in urine, and I refused to be one of the ambrosia girls after being on the streets forever.
“I knew one would come intending you harm, Exalted One,” I said lowering my rebellious eyes from his face, “May your radiant feet ever walk the bones of your enemies.”
Just then his companions returned dragging the much beaten assassin face down by the arms. Now he looked diminished. Little more than a trampled fowl in his black tunic and cowl. It was still too dark to identify him, but I was confident now I could use this incident to my advancement.
Emboldened, I continued, clear yet humble. “I would have shouted earlier, oh, Most High, but I knew he must be caught in the act itself. So, I waited for the instant I felt his evil mind rush toward the moment of the dart’s release—may celestial glories grace your every breath.”
If I’d had sleeves I’d have folded my hands obsequiously within them.
I bobbed lower anyway, as is worthy of a cutpurse addressing the first imperial Heir in a back alley after exiting a whorehouse.
“You read his mind?” Shem said. There was curiosity now amid the scoffing tone. I do have some faint share of empathy within me. I sensed his interest there in the dark.
“May the stars sing at the shine of your smallest toenail, I did, Your Gloriousness—for does not the Tenth Sage say that the power to foretell may rise even out of a dung heap?” I thrust as much surety into my statement as hunger and desire could lend me. I would have promised my first born—given I should grow old enough to bear one—to the God of Imps, for the chance to learn wizardry at the Academy of Twelve Sages.
(And surely one of those imps was whispering to me now?)
“Who is he then and who sent him?” Shem toed the limp form on the ground with a vomit-splattered boot.
“An assassin as I have said, but his mind is clouded by the one who sent him.” I grew a little imperious and gestured toward the Blue Dragon and one of the Prince’s companions. “Bring a lantern that I might gaze into the assassin’s traitorous eyes. Once I am able to see his eyes I can read his mind.”
I knew most of the thieves and assassins in the district. None were accommodating or gentle toward me. Any story I made up about this one would mostly be true. Shem was powerful but he still had brothers and sisters living, never mind the scores of lovers he had slain and thrown aside since he learned the way of the pillow.
Shem grunted in agreement and waved in his companion to place the lantern by the unconscious assassin’s head.
I squatted to identify him.
Though one of his eyes was gone, his gray beard was bloody from froth from his lips and his nose was broken, I still knew him well. The man’s name was Chameleon and he was the only person in my short life I truly did love. He and I had been playing mahjong and discussing dreams of wizardry by the Fountain of Doves since I was but a baby of five.
I had three choices. To lie and let them kill him. Unthinkable. To tell the truth and die myself. Equally bad. Or think fast and save us both.
In that instant, what I possessed of intelligence told me the assassin had fled and my poor Chameleon had been mistaken for their quarry.
Shem’s bullies had leapt on the gentle philosopher, kicked him half dead and dragged him back here.
“Who hired you to kill me, Vermin?” Shem snarled before I could say anything. He kicked Chameleon so hard he rolled sideways. With a scream of anguish I threw myself to the stones to grab my friend, to keep him from rolling into my own fresh vomit. A gout of blood shot from his mouth.
His lungs were torn. I knew it was so. He was about to die and I could not save him. My lie was going to kill him now. Despair and guilt swept through me.
I didn’t care now what I said. I knew it was over and my one friend in the whole world was done for. Because of me.
“Brotherhood of the Twelve Sages,” he wheezed, so hard I think it was only I who heard as I put my head down beside his mouth. “You must live for me. Take my name. Do not grieve.”
His teeth were broken and his lips swollen to the size of egg rolls. His breath bubbled.
“What did he say?” Shem demanded.
I had to say something.
“He told me his master is in the House of the Twelve Sages,” I said. The words flowed from my lips like a river in spate. My brain burned with the need to speak. I believe now, as I believed then, that the Sages themselves spoke through me. “Honored One, this man is inno—
The end of my word echoed the snick of Shem’s dagger drawn sharp across my friend’s throat as Shem grabbed him up and executed him. A gout of dark blood drenched me where I knelt. Chameleon’s blood warm and iron thick.
I moaned. No quiet Sage’s voice could present me with a proverb for this. I expected Shem’s boot in my own face, now he thought he had what he wanted. He would level the house of the Twelve Sages next. I knew this as clear as I knew grief.
I drove myself to speak to Shem, looking up at him over the crumpled and soiled body of my friend. I must save the Sages and their House now at the cost of another lie. Again the words flowed out of me as if from another source.
“The answer does not lie in killing the Sages, Honored One—may the wrath of your eyes ever cleanse the pustules of the ungracious—but in killing the asp who lies hidden in their bosom of holiness. The Sages themselves are without stain. I swear it on my own soul. I swear it on the name of your Imperial Sire. I swear it even as I knew the intent of the assassin to dispatch you.”
“And you know this how?”
My words flowed out unchecked, a warmth of surety flooding me. “I read his mind, Sire, as I said. The light struck his eyes and I saw. Your enemy is of high noble blood, he and that other one he commands were too much a shadow in a dying man’s mind, but I know he commands one who serves the Sages. Let me go to the House of Sages, as your spy. I will learn the name of the one who plotted this terrible thing.”
Shem tugged at the slender beard on his chin. The stink of death already came from the corpse between us. Shem’s thoughts chased across his lamp lit face. There was no justice there at all. No. It was the idea of finding and twisting his enemy between his fingers until he screamed for death that made Shem listen to my words.
“I give you the span of a moon. Find my enemy and you shall live.”
“With the Sages?” My voice stayed miraculously steady as I asked this.
Shem gave a curt nod. There was no justice in that either. He could change his mind. I knew this as clearly as I breathed, but it had to be enough.
“Find him,” Shem repeated. He gestured to his bullies, drove his bloody dagger carelessly back into his belt and turned from me. He was done.
They left me there with my dead friend and the smell of rot around us, cursing Shem and all his heirs to come, from the depths of my angry soul.
The Academy of the Twelve Sages lay just beyond the Fountain of Doves, which in turn lay removed from the Imperial City by three walls, a river and the entire teeming quagmire of Hasp.
I climbed up the three hundred lotus stairs to the portals of entry, bathed, spiced and wearing a cheap saffron robe provided by Jasmine Blossom, one of the bath girls at the Blue Dragon. I hadn’t wanted to ask her for help but I knew I dared not approach the Sage’s realm covered in filth.
Jasmine Blossom had only asked that I assist her should the Golden Dove of Luck ever nest in my hair.
This high up the smells of dung and blood, smoked meats, cooked noodles, spoiled fish and the clamor of ox drivers, the scream of children, the braying of animals, the discord of too many people crammed together, grew transparent and light as soap bubbles, grew exalted as the chime of bells and the joyful swoop of skylarks.
I told the acolyte at the gilded Dragon door that I was called Nameless of Hasp and I told him the Imperial Heir had sent me there for training.
“Come in Nameless One, may you earn a glorious name within these halls.”
The tone of his voice, squawky with the onset of puberty, told me otherwise. Beggars turned soothsayers for a night had arrived on the Sages’ doorstep before this but none who claimed they had the Imperial Heir’s approval. The youth eyed me up and down from his lofty height of five feet none, his bright orange-yellow silks glinting in the holy sunlight, his dark eyes beady as a crow’s.
I knew a runner would be sent to Shem to determine the truth of my story. I prayed to the Golden Dove of Luck that Shem wanted my services enough to actually say he’d sent me. I had no imperial seal. I had only my determination to succeed and to avenge my friend Chameleon. If I died in that attempt, it did not matter to me.
If I could live among the Sages for but a little while, perhaps, I could learn enough to both pray for the continuance of Chameleon’s spirit and gain enough forgiveness to be born again as a Sage and live forever.
Nevertheless my resolve was tested dearly that first week. My cheap saffron was torn from me and I was given a dun tunic of sacking. I saw no Sages at all. Instead I was assigned to a vicious oaf named Yaag, who beat me and set me to pot scrubbing.
“Protégé of the First Heir are you? This I doubt,” Yaag grinned, “Never mind the Palace has informed us we might put you to work. Hah, the very robe you wore proclaims your origins. Which of the drabs in the Street of Red Lanterns shoved you out of her dirty thighs, you little whore? How long before you grow old enough to try and spread your own legs in here?”
My ears burned but I said nothing. I wanted to strike back, but I knew it would call unwanted attention and any hope I might have to use my month well would be gone.
I wondered at Yagg’s origins though, for does the Eighth Sage not say: the hound comes from the bitch and the dung from the eagle?
Hard though it was to follow his orders and stay out of the way of his pinches and his wandering fingers I mostly managed. The scullery was damp but the place where I slept was warmer and cleaner than my former wormy bed. The kitchen smelled of bamboo and incense, ginger, roast duck and egg-drop soup. I listened to the cooks as I bought them hot washed crockery.
There were plots in the city, troops and armies swelled beyond our borders. Troops led by a strong king named Whenus who carried a mighty sword. Within Hasp, Shem’s faction still supported him and he grew in power; they scrambled toward him like rats to the soundest ship. I listened carefully for plots brewing within the very walls of my kitchen, but of these I heard nothing.
But my powers were growing even as I ate good scraps and my body filled like a once-starved kitten’s.
Though I was removed from the Sages by a maze of stone walls and rice paper screens, the sputtering talents that had let me read the bath girls’ tea leaves and sense the approach of Shem’s assassin began to flare in the glow of the Sages’ massive kitchen.
They blazed to life with full force that night at the end of my second week as we scrambled to prepare a feast for the coming of the Emperor’s third and most beloved concubine to have her fortune told as to an auspicious time to conceive. This longed-for child would be so far down the line of succession as to be no threat to Shem at all. The third concubine, beloved or not, was after all only a concubine and the first and second concubines each had three boys already.
It was a joyful opportunity for a feast and the mood in the kitchens was full of cheer—that is until I brought my last set of soup bowls in and set them down upon the cutting table. The tingling began behind my eyes deep in my forehead and the handles of the top bowl grew frigid. My fingers ached.
Poison, whispered a soft voice, deep in my brain.
I took the stack of vessels carefully and went quietly to the head cook. I did not look toward Yagg, who would surely clout me for presumption if he guessed my intent.
I put the nest of bowls down without making a show of it, though by now touching the one on top had nearly frozen the bones on my index finger.
“Someone is going to slip poison into this tonight,” I whispered to him, setting the one bowl beside the others and picking up the pot he had just used.
Cook glared at me but he read the truth on my face. He noted the bowl my finger had rested on and nodded.
I went back to work. Scullery and Kitchen were chaos that night and I had no more time to wonder, not until the small hours of the morning when all washing was done and the remaining feast scraps were laid out for all to devour.
It was then the great Cook came to me and shocked me silent. He grabbed me beneath the arms and lifted me barefoot to the tabletop. There, amid the succulent scraps and smells of goose and spring rolls and pork dumplings he turned to the workers and acolytes surrounding our table.
“This child has brought us the Emperor’s grateful reward. Her warning has saved the life of our beloved third concubine and that of the child to come.” Cook clapped a vast and joyful hand to my back. “The assassin was caught in the very act of putting his powder into her soup, and for this his head will fall.”
“Who?” came the voice of Newt, an acolyte who was just completing his kitchen level of service in the Academy.
“Who among us is missing?” Cook answered him.
We looked amongst ourselves, eyes meeting eyes all about the stony space and found our answer. Cook would never speak the traitor’s name again but the missing one was Yagg.
And I was to rise, along with Newt, into the Academy proper.
Yet I had not yet learned who was behind Yagg and I had but two weeks left of the moon Shem had given me to find out.
The scowling student who came to the kitchens for me the next morning gave me such a shove between the shoulder blades as we ascended the stairs that I tripped and barked my knees and shins. Thus I had to enter the academy itself blooded like an urchin. I wondered if I’d see Newt again and if he’d be my ally; and I wondered if this bully were the friend of Yagg, whose head must surely even now adorn the dragon gates before the city.
I could see his bloody head there, grinning like an evil Rakshassa.
My psychic senses were waking up. The anger welling up from the youth behind me tasted like sour cabbage. He was jealous and something more I couldn’t fathom as yet. Did he know I could partly read him? I hoped not or I’d be little use to Shem.
I tried to ignore my weeping knees and entered the alabaster hall of acolytes for the first time. My insides twisted like fermented noodles as I beheld the place of my dreams at last.
The echoing chamber with its jade plinths smelled of ancient parchment dry as shed snakeskin. The vast space rustled with the sound of hundreds of green-robed students reading scrolls and turning pages. Leaves of wisdom eons deep.
“This is Shem’s child, then?”
A deep voice spoke behind me.
I turned from the hall with its many plinths, each surmounted by a fantastic sea creature.
Who had spoken? There was no one there. Even the student who had prodded me up the stair had vanished as though the floor had swallowed him.
“Why do your knees bleed? Nameless of Hasp?”
I recoiled as the deep voice spoke again. It seemed to come from the air itself. I swallowed and bowed. This was the House of Sages after all. It could be an invisible Zepheer, or even one of the Raucous Deities for all I knew. Even in the sewers I’d heard of this place.
“I tripped on the stair, Ancient One,” I said bowing where I stood. “I am most clumsy.”
I owed the lout who pushed me nothing, but does the First Sage not say it is none but the louse who may condemn the python for his slither?
“And in so condemning he becomes the python’s meal,” continued the voice finishing my thought. “You have studied the Sages, Small One?”
I nodded, and bowed again, not certain if I was more astonished at this voice reading my mind or by his acceptance of my lie. “You honor me, Ancient One.”
“Look to your right,” said the voice.
I did as he commanded.
Upon the plinth beside me sat a giant tortoise of gray jade. He looked so ancient his deep eyes were buried behind caves of horn. The eyes were opaque. Unmoving.
Yet they saw me.
A deep subterranean chill shuddered through me: The chill of power that knows itself.
“Have I permission to question you, Ancient One?” I whispered. I clutched the folds of my kitchen robes to me. I had not yet been granted robes of blue and I desperately hoped I was not overstepping my place just now. Yet why would the Tortoise of the Plinth have spoken to me if he didn’t wish to answer me?
“You may question if they are the right ones.”
I nodded. “Why am I here, Ancient One?”
It was as though my question brought him to life. The membranes parted across his jade eyes and the irises beneath sparked at me like two flashes of sunlight beneath the sea. His wattle neck stretched from his armor and his wicked beak pointed toward me.
“Chameleon spoke to me of you. Destiny brought you, and destiny shall have its way with you as it has with me.”
That made me wonder. Who was he and why was he here?
“I am Sombrero,” he replied as if I had spoken. “And you are Chameleon now in memory of he who died.” A puff of amusement or perhaps a fleck of ancient sand coughed out of him. “I like you am a fixture of this place, though unlike you I am well-seasoned by curses.”
He knew I had cursed Shem at the death of my friend. Cursed him with my entire soul.
Sombrero’s speckled eyes regarded me. “You do not ask for blessings little Chameleon?”
“I ask for knowledge, Ancient One. Blessing or curse, I have dreamed of knowing all my life.”
He could not nod, but I felt his approval deep in my mind.
“And you shall have knowing here for good or ill. Blessings may be curses. You must weigh each carefully before casting your will upon the waves. For surely as you breathe, the tide will cast your wishes back upon you.”
“You tell me only what Chameleon told me every day when he lived, Venerable Master.”
“This is true and now you must take up his path here, you must learn the hour of the tide’s turn. As I once did.”
He blinked and suddenly in a vision, I saw the ocean before me. I stood high above it. High above it forever, watching for the day my curse would recoil upon me. Watching the tide bear a ship toward me, and a man holding an immortal sword.
Sombrero’s wattle neck shrank back within his shell, his ancient head bobbed once as membranes shuttered his gaze and he was nothing but a gray jade statue once more.
“Choose well,” said a voice deep in my mind.
“Come,” said a familiar voice behind me and there stood Newt, looking perplexed and already dressed in blue robes. “What are you doing, girl, talking to the air?”
“Didn’t you see?” I said. Should I tell him the great Tortoise had named me Chameleon after my friend?
He stared at me like I was blabbering mad. “See what?” he said frightened. “You don’t want to see anything,” he hastened to add. “It’s an honor to serve the Sages, and to study here, but if you see things here, you go mad.”
“Oh,” I said, and my voice went very small.
I didn’t want to go mad and I looked with new understanding at the plinths about the hall, upon each one a fabled creature of every color of jade known to man: crocodile, frog, squid, octopus, crab, and so on. I had thought them all statues. Decorations. Now I knew they were not.
Including Sombrero on his plinth, there would be twelve of them.
Twelve Sages encased in jade. Cursed and waiting.
It was long before any of them spoke to me again.
During those first weeks they appeared to be no more than statues though food was ceremoniously brought to their plinths every evening and it was always gone by morning.
No one ever saw them eat, or wanted to.
I studied to my heart’s desire and that was as food to my spirit. As my moon of spying came to an end, my soul did not worry. Some part of me knew a resolution would come.
And so it did.
The stories of King Whenus and his wonderful sword, filled Shem’s heart with greed and he determined it was time to go on conquest. All thoughts of my search for Prince Shem’s assassin were ousted by the First Heir’s lust for battle, pillage and the theft of Whenus’s sword.
Shem came to our Lotus Temple to be blessed and to witness fortuitous auguries done on his behalf. I saw him through clouds of incense smoke: his feet braced wide, his big red-robed body a mountain of self satisfaction, his scimitar a wicked red curve at his side. Others before Shem had battled King Whenus for his magical sword: a maker of heroes, unbreakable, unquenchable and alive, or so it was rumored.
All had failed.
I watched First Heir Shem swagger from our temple as if he already possessed this immortal sword. He was surrounded by his bloody companions, all of them confident and mighty and I was tempted to curse them all again. Instead I prayed that King Whenus would kill our Prince and have done. After all, possessing such a blade must render the king un-slayable, shouldn’t it?
A year passed, during which time I learned to wear the routines of the Academy and the First Heir’s absence like a comfortable robe.
Then Shem returned, stinking of plunder and bearing at his side the richly jeweled blade of Whenus in its gilded scabbard. The skull of Whenus came as well, mounted on a pike like a banner. My academy-trained senses told me that smooth and bleached cranium had belonged to a handsome, enlightened man.
It is said if you meet the Sage upon the road you should kill him, so that he might ascend to the heavens, but this was different. You don’t parade an enlightened man’s skull around like conquest and you don’t turn it into a drinking cup either.
Shem did both. He swore moreover that Whenus had fooled him. That the sword of Whenus was a fraud and not immortal at all and that he would grant a fortune in horses, women, and gold to anyone who could find for him the true Sword of Ages, if such a blade even existed.
Shem’s bravado and his certainty knew no bounds. How I loathed him.
I had ascended to the green robes with a saffron collar, and to a name.
I was now Rose Chameleon. One of those honored acolytes who bring the nightly tribute of food to the Sage’s plinths, but I knew my time of reprieve was over. First Heir Shem was not only bold, he had the memory of a snapping turtle, and he would be coming tomorrow to hear me tell him the name of his enemy.
I had been expressly asked to hold Shem’s linen napkin at his banquet of celebration. It was not my intent to play his game any longer, but ah, I still had so much to learn; so much I wanted to learn. If I could but stay among the Sages forever and learn all there was to know, I would have been content.
As it was, desperate to find a way to deal with Shem as Newt and I wandered the Sages’ hall that night with our offerings, I whispered my worries to Sombrero hoping he would wake once more and tell me what to do.
He did not. Only dust motes stirred as I set down his food.
Beyond us Newt was ‘feeding’ the First Sage: a huge gold jade frog seated within a bowl of stone lotus flowers.
“What manner of curse turned all of you to jade?” I murmured under my breath.
No answer came, and I moved to the Tenth Sage. The Crocodile sat upright upon his green jade tail, rising up a full two man-heights tall, reading a stone book. He peered down as if it held the world, and the light of the painted hall lanterns gleamed off his grinning rows of teeth.
The pages of the book itself were raised toward the Dome of Doves.
What did those pages say? I wondered.
Maybe the book face was blank, but suddenly I was seized by a desire to find out. A peek only, I decided, leaping to the plinth and from there to the bent stone knee. I stretched as far as I could, just enough to see the open pages.
I did not see the huge jaws open behind me. I only understood the depth of my folly when they snapped me up: head, shoulders, and torso. Tenth Sage’s maw was great enough to hold my whole self. As my breath stilled, the three words I’d read on the stone page returned to me:
Rose Jade Chameleon.
I woke on my narrow pallet unaware of how I had come there, yet stunned by my memory of being devoured by the Crocodile Sage. A hovering Newt came to my bedside and told me how he’d found me lying unconscious at the foot of Tenth Sage’s plinth. My offering of fish had vanished. The Crocodile Sage’s book had vanished also.
I did not tell anyone what I had done or that Tenth Sage’s book and all it contained now rested in my mind. I did not tell him that I was to be the Thirteenth Sage one day.
Tenth Sage had been waiting for me to crawl upon his plinth. He had encased himself in green jade for centuries waiting for his own curse on Hasp to unfold.
Now I was jubilant.
I would pay for my curses as Tenth Sage had, but it was worth the sacrifice.
That night I took my place at First Heir Shem’s side, the white linen napkin across my arm, soon to be soiled with duckling fat and replaced a score of times as Shem gorged himself full. Beneath his notice, I heard him speak openly of doing away with the beloved third concubine’s small son simply because he could. The child would never be a threat to him, yet just because the babe lived and was loved, Shem wanted him dead.
As the tables were broken down after the feast, and the dancing girls prepared to perform, Shem grabbed me and forced me to kneel at his feet like a hound.
“You will tell me what you have found now, little soothsayer.” Shem belched loudly and crossed his boots upon my back. A dancing girl with belled anklets swept by. The cinnabar scent of her silks brushed my nose.
I sneezed, and spoke, as the Crocodile Sage had instructed me the night before. “It was King Whenus, Most High, may the thousand white doves of truth pluck the maggots of woe from your smallest nose-hairs. Whenus who tried to have you killed. He knew you planned to attack him.”
I sighed. “Alas, that he is now dead and you cannot determine from him where he hid the real Sword of Ages.”
“Aha!” The boot heels on my back dug in harder as Shem stiffened. “So I thought. This bauble I wear is fakery.”
“Certainly not worth the trouble of your putting it on, Most Divine, may the camels of mercy bring fruitful caravans to those you befriend,” I replied, trying hard not to wriggle with pain. “The true Sword of Ages brings immortality.”
“That bastard,” Shem cursed and slurped more ambrosia. “Is there no way to determine it’s hiding place? Is there no Sage wise enough to scry it out for me?”
He took his feet from my back and unbuckled his sword belt with disgust. “This for whoever gets me the real sword.” The jewels upon the belt rang and sparked against the floor as he heaved Whenus’s sword away.
Unburdened, I stood and retrieved the priceless scabbard from the floor. The sheathed weapon balanced between my hands, a perfect instrument of death. I longed to draw the blade, and strike off Shem’s head. But I’d be dead before I got it halfway free, either from Shem’s dagger or one of his bully’s swords.
Well and good there were other ways to exact revenge.
Beyond us the dancing girls twirled, yet all felt distant as I faced Shem, the sheathed sword held to my chest.
“There is a spell of translocation I might perform, Most High. If you desire strongly enough the powers of the Sword of Ages.” I held his narrowed eyes without a qualm. “For a small boon I will do this.”
“Done,” he agreed, “Given you do as you promise.”
I smiled. “Will you give this sword to your divine father’s third concubine, that her son may own it when he comes of age?”
His companions gasped as one.
Shem’s countenance darkened. “You jest.”
“I promise you a life of immortality on earth. Does an immortal worry about a boy with no future?”
He blinked in surprise and looked anew at the scabbard I clutched. The cheek with his imperial dragon tattoo twitched a little. He judged my worth and also the changes in me since we’d met in that dark alley just over a year ago.
“I could make you do this—without reward,” he purred.
I lowered my voice. “Even though your promise was made and I do not fear to die?” I had power over him just then and I knew it. There was no one I loved in this place and certainly not in the blighted city of Hasp enough to worry for—except perhaps for Twelve Jade Sages and they, just now, were untouchable.
The room was silent. All could see a change was taking place and I, young Rose Chameleon was to be the Crocodile Sage’s instrument.
“I have the power to bring the Sword to you, but you must be willing to accept all it offers without reserve. You must be willing to leave your country to whatever befalls, to go out in the world and take unto yourself unbridled wealth, everlasting acclaim, deathlessness and the adoration of every hero who crosses your path.”
“Of course, I accept all that.” Avarice gleamed from Shem’s oily face. His narrow chin hair waggled as he nodded with enthusiasm. His muscular frame tensed as though he planned to leap across the ages.
I was desperately glad he, and his bullies about me, could not read my heart. He had already set the first part of my spell with his agreement.
“Then we are agreed, Shem of Hasp that Glitters upon the Eastern Sea. Take out your dagger and nick your palm and mine and let our blood mingle to seal this bargain.”
Shem eagerly did so while the entire company at his banquet of celebration watched us: Sage masters, serving acolytes, dancing girls and royal companions. Shem did not know I already had jade blood running through my veins and that as our bloody palms clasped, the city of Hasp began to die. The spell the Crocodile Sage’s book gave to me was already flowing through the waterways of Hasp. They had one moon. Whores assassins, beggars, common folk, merchants, sailors, visitors and beasts. All must leave or turn to stone.
“Now,” I said. “Speak after me: I take on the geas of the Sword of Ages for honor and for good. I do this with good will until one comes who shall willingly accept it from me.” He did not see the smile teasing the corners of my mouth.
“I take on…” Shem repeated all after me and added. “You can’t imagine I would ever willingly give such a sword to anyone.”
“Your choice.” I shrugged and snapped my fingers.
One might drain a cup of ambrosia in greater time than it took Shem to transform into the Sword of Ages. His motor skills went first. His fingers fused together, then his legs. His arms snapped to his body. The last to go were his eyes and his mouth. They became the pieces of jet and diamond that adorned his pommel. Shem’s ruby garments became the color of his leathern grip.
I too was transforming by then. Dropping to my arms and knees, sprouting a tail. Turning to Jade.
Shem’s screams of outrage continued throughout his change.
He went unanswered. As a mighty sword he was far more impressive than ever he’d been as a Prince. No doubt each potential hero who took him up and used him would believe him a wonder.
Before my powers became compromised by my own change I turned to my friend Newt, who had also been called to serve at table.
“Take him up, friend Newt, for now he is yours and no other. Use him as best you may, Newt of Hasp. And when you are done with him, drive him deep into a stone for the next hero to find, for it is he who is immortal and filled with power and not the one who bears him.
Legends will come about because of him and bards will sing the names of those who wield him for good.
Now go to the House of the Blue Dragon and find a bath girl named Jasmine and tell her to leave Hasp as soon as she may. Go with her to the Emperor’s beloved third concubine and her beloved babe. Take them away with you and this with my heart upon it.”
While I could yet move, I gave him King Whenus’s sword.
Until Shem, First Heir learns to honor others; until he has, with the powers I have given him, raised up the last hero on this earth, he and I will remain as we are: I a stone chameleon encased in rose jade and Shem trapped in steel as the Sword of Ages.
Here I wait among my jade kindred. The Crocodile Sage sits beside me, his curse delivered on Hasp that Glittered in wealth and in might upon the Eastern Sea. Hasp is no more. Not even a memory. The sands of time have broken even the shore and the tide on which it stood. The waters have retreated far to the west and dunes now cover our great Dome of Doves.
Yet you, young traveler with the sword of Whenus King of Ur, you who are many ages descended from a beloved son of a beloved third concubine. You have found me. You have heard me as none before.
Will you help the thirteen Sages who sit before you?
If so, look into my eyes: the rose-jade eyes of Nameless Chameleon.
Look, if you dare.