Read The Embers of Heaven Online

Authors: Alma Alexander

Tags: #Historical, #Fantasy

The Embers of Heaven

Embers of Heaven

 

Alma Alexander

 

Sky Warrior Book Publishing, LLC

 

© 2012 by Alma Alexander.

 

Second Edition.

 

All rights reserved.

 

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

 

Published by Sky Warrior Book Publishing, LLC.

PO Box 99

Clinton, MT 59825

www.skywarriorbooks.com

 

This is a work of fiction.
 
All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental.

 

Editor: M. H. Bonham.

Cover art by Laura Givens.

Cover layout by Mitchell Davidson Bentley.

Publisher: M. H. Bonham.

 

Printed in the United States of America

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Acknowledgments

 

My thanks to my invaluable beta readers, whose input clarified many things for me – Neil, Sharyn, Nick, Glenda, Bil. You helped make my characters come alive for me, gave them an extra dimension, laughed with them and wept for them. I am grateful. Jerry gave me the inspiration to begin the book, and by virtue of that began the thoguht process that created the whole storyline, by introducing me to the work of young artist Daniel Conway, and most specifically the image called “Her Silent Silhouette” (which can be seen at
 
http://www.arcipello.com/site/viewpic.php?id=160 )

 

My husband Deck, as always my first reader and a consummate editor without whose input this would have been quite a different and a diminished book, has a lot to put up with while I am in the throes of carving out a new novel. My eternal gratitude for his patience, his kindness, his unfailing optimism in the face of authorial despair, and for making me stop writing occasionally in order to eat lunch (which he also cooks!) or take a few moments to rest my soul by gazing out into the serenity of our cedar woods.

 

I owe a great debt to the writers of the numerous articles and more than twenty-five books which I read in order to be able to write this one. In order to recreate my fictional and fantastical counterpart of what we in our world know as China, I have devoured books on Chinese history and its many revolutions, biographies of many of the leading political figures as well as those of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary events of the Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution, books on cultural history and on geography and on kinship and family in China. All of this was treasure which was carefully gathered in order to build up my own version of the land of which I wrote, the alternative fantasy China called Syai where the events of this novel take place.

 

Special thanks to Jill, without whom none of the miracles of the past few years would have happened, and to Katie and Susan, my British editors, who believed in “Embers from Heaven” from a time before the beginning – when the entire story existed as nothing more than a synopsis and a writer’s vision.

 

Alma Alexander

 

Dedication

 

When Jill first asked if there was a sequel,
 
I said no – until it became impossible to keep saying that, because I was holding it in my hand.

 

So this one is for Jill, with my thanks.

 
 

Water.

 

They were lost in a world of it, their ship slicing through the silky waters of the open ocean, prow pointed to where the sun rose out of the water every morning. The ocean was smooth, cobalt blue, reflecting only sky. Sometimes there would be porpoises racing the ship or playing in its spreading wake; sometimes, a long way away, something huge and dark broke surface with fin and blowing spray—but days went by with nothing in the world but sun and sky and sea, and the days were long.

 

The nights were longer still, quiet, soundless except for the creaking of the ship and the splash and lap of water against the hull. Out on the prow there was a space where ropes were coiled and empty barrels were tied up in a raft right up near the bow of the ship. It made a good comfortable nest, and the hiss of parting waters as the ship cleaved them made for a gentle lulling lullaby.

 

It was there that the first dream came to Amais.

 

At first, curled up in a comfortable loop of thick twisted rope, she might have believed that the sounds of water lapping against something hard and solid actually came from the sea and the ship she was on—but the sound was wrong for that. It was the sound of water breaking on something stationary, not a traveling ship’s hull. And after that, when she blinked and looked around, it was easy to see that she had left the ship far behind and was in some strange and yet oddly familiar place.

 

There were two people in the dream, aside from the dreamer herself: a woman and a little girl, holding hands. They had their backs to the dreamer. She could not see their faces; she could not see the woman clearly at all, just the shape of her in silhouette through the translucent parasol that she carried, open, and which covered her slender body down to her waist. They were both wearing old-fashioned, almost antique gowns, court garb which existed only in paintings and in stories; the little girl wore her long dark hair loose except for a topknot high on her head, held by two black lacquer hairpins. Behind them, steps with a broken wooden hand railing led down into dirty water splashing against the bottom step, floating debris bobbing in it and piling up against the rise of the stair. It was dark, but there was a fey light about, something that resembled the way the sky looked when it was reflecting a huge but distant fire.

 

That was all. The water, the stairs, the two incongruously clean and elegant women in their rich court gowns, as though waiting for death or for rescue, trapped on a high point while fire and flood raged around them. Just like on the ship—there was water everywhere, but this water was dark and bitter and lifeless and life-taking. It was the aftermath of something, a disaster beyond words. Only a little bit away from the edge of the lowest stair that it washed it was black and opaque and somehow passively threatening, as though it were about to rise, engulf even this last little spot where they clung to survival and safety.

 

Water, water lapping. Water, spilled, insistent, all-enveloping—like a primeval world, the world where the earth had yet to rise from the sea of creation. As though a world was ended… or was about to begin.

 

The little girl turned her head, slightly—not quite full profile, just enough to cast a glance back to the spot from where the dreamer of the dream watched, hovering like a transparent and incorporeal ghost behind the two figures on the platform at the top of the drowned stairs. The child’s face was obscured by strands of wind-tousled hair, but she had huge dark eyes, enormous in her pale face, glittering with their own light, the light that might have been knowledge, or recognition, or pity.

 

Then she turned away again, her long dark hair spilling back across her shoulders, falling to where a formal sash was tied in the ceremonial way, so that a long train of it fell over the knot at the back of her waist and flowed down the back of her gown. The train had writing on it, but it was not something that the dreamer could read—at least not here, not now, not in this half-light, not before the rest of the dream was made clear. The little girl held on to the older women’s free hand with an air that managed to be both terrified and protective at the same time.

 

The sky was pearl gray, streaked with improbable shades of cinnamon and apricot; the air was alive with breezes that whipped and collided and teased the waters below into an unquiet whispering sound.

 

It was the end of the world.

 

It was the beginning.

 
 

The Language of Lost Things

 

“The old gods dwell in their abandoned temples in your memory—sad places dusty with disuse, with dark altars empty of offerings. But they endure the weight of these with what power they may claim as long as their names are remembered, until the hour in which they are finally and irrevocably forgotten. Then they blow away like dust in the wind, like the cold ashes from the dead altars. On such ashes as this our world is built. In it the footsteps of new gods may one day leave traces of their passing, on their way to their own cold oblivion.”

 

The Book of Old Gods

 

 

 

One

 

There were only two questions that governed Amais’s existence.

 

When she would wander out of the house still wearing some esoteric item of Syai clothing her mother, Vien, kept carefully folded away in a wooden chest, or proudly step out, to the snickers and astonished stares of her peers, with her hair in what she fondly believed was a good rendition of a hairstyle once worn by Empresses at the Syai court, her mother would strip off the offending garments or impatiently tug Amais’s wealth of thick curly hair out of its badly pinned and unruly coils into a semblance of order with a wooden comb, and murmur despairingly, “Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

 

But when Amais rebelled at learning the long and ancient history of her ancestral land and her kinfolk, or refused to go hunting for incense or some out-of-season fruit required for sacrifice to the spirits of those ancestors in the small shrine set apart in what was in effect a larger shrine to Syai itself in her mother’s childhood home—citing the fact that none of her friends had to do such outlandish things, in effect ‘being like everyone else’—the wind would change. Vien’s face would assume an expression of martyred sorrow, and she would ask instead, “Do you have to do what everyone else does?”

 

Perhaps it would have been easier if it hadn’t been for the two grandmothers and the games they played for the souls of their bewildered granddaughters, Amais and, in her turn, Nika.

 

Vien’s mother, the grandmother Amais knew as
baya-
Dan, hardly ever set foot outside the door to what, on the outside, was a perfectly ordinary white-washed little house tucked away at the end of a village street behind what was almost a defensive barrier of ancient olive trees. Inside, its shutters usually closed to keep out the bright sunshine and shroud the rooms within in a permanent twilight; the place might have been transported from a different world. Candles and fragrant incense burned on little altars draped with scarlet silk; scroll paintings and poems written in the long elegant script of
jin-ashu
, the ancient secret tongue of the women of Syai, hung from the walls. A low table held all the paraphernalia needed for a proper tea ceremony, and it was at her grandmother’s knee that Amais learned how to perform one properly. It was something that seemed to be a fit and useful thing for her to know while she was steeped in the dreamy atmosphere of what
baya-
Dan insisted on calling the True Country; it all seemed ludicrously silly when Amais stepped over this magic threshold and back into the real world, where the golden sunlight of Elaas glinted off the bluest water in the world and the white walls of the village houses clinging to the hillside. But inside, in
baya
-Dan’s enchanted house, it was the only thing in the world that made any sense.

 

Baya
-Dan had been born in Elaas, as had her own mother, and her mother’s

 

mother before her. Her forebears had lived out their own tranquil lives in the midst of an alien society. They married their own kind, from within the community, with the women keeping ancient traditions alive in the home while the menfolk pursued the work of trade and commerce which had brought their ancestors out from Syai a long time ago—sailing trading ships, keeping ledgers, building fortunes.

 

But for
baya
-Dan it had been so much more than that.

 

When she was no more than sixteen, her path had crossed with the black-sheep scion of the Imperial family—a Third Prince, a ‘spare’ aristocrat, from within the core of the Imperial family itself, one who professed to be bored with protocol and the puppet play of Syai’s ancient Imperial Court and who said he had chosen to leave it all behind and seek his fortune in the world. It was never mentioned that he might have sensed the winds of change that were about to scour his country and his family and had taken whatever steps he could to escape the storm. The young Dan had been reared properly in all required traditions, she was the right age, she was presentable, and her father had put enough aside for a generous dowry. Dan herself had been young enough to be impressed by the fact that she had married an Imperial Prince, and she had somehow taken this elevation in status to mean that she was single-handedly and personally responsible for the safekeeping of the traditions of Syai, here in the alien lands so far from her ancestral shores. The conviction had deepened when she had allowed a particular festival and its sacrifices to slide one year, and the very next voyage that her husband had undertaken had been his last. Dan had taken the blame for the storm that had taken his ship, with the loss of the cargo and all hands. The commercial blow to the family’s fortunes had been considerable, but the personal loss was far more grievous to Dan, who had responded by retiring to a tiny house in a fishing village, on an island far from the commercial hub of the mainland, and withdrawing into her own small world where it was easy to pretend that the world outside, the Elaas of the sunlit seas and laughing, beautiful people, simply did not exist.

 

Her daughter, Vien, had been kept on a tight leash, intensely protected and guarded, both sheltered and imprisoned deep within the shrine to Syai that her home had become. For her, the world outside was the free air outside a cage. The more Vien’s mother wrapped her in Syai’s soft but bitingly tight trammels of tradition and responsibility, the more she was cocooned in the shadows of her candle-lit and incense, the louder the laughter outside her windows in the moonlight nights rang in her own soul.

 

Her mother had chosen to lead a life far more traditional than even her peers back in the True Country now led. Vien was taught everything that a high-ranking court lady should know. She was taught how to read and write
jin-ashu
script and the subtle nuances of the women’s language, memorized imperial lineages dusty with antiquity, learned about the secrets of her gender and her race. Far away from the real Syai, inexorably changing under the weight of its history, Vien learned how to lead a life rooted in fairytale and dream, presented with the vanished world of her ancestors as though it had been a living and vital thing, asked to accept the reality of things that either no longer even existed or were fast fading away. But here on the island, isolated even from such news as filtered through from Syai to the expatriate community on the mainland which Dan had abandoned, it was just as easy to believe that such things as the ancient and sacred sisterhood of
jin-shei
still governed the relationships of every woman in Syai, and that Emperors were chosen on the basis of an Empress-Heir’s prophetic dreams.

 

Vien endured this for long weary years. Her childhood slipped away, fossilized in these ancestral halls. But the world outside was ever louder in calling to her, ever more insistent in its presence—and Vien finally chose to utterly rebel against her suffocating heritage. She became the first of her line, since the family had left the shores of Syai centuries before, to truly step outside of her heritage.

 

Somehow, in spite of her sequestered life and sheltered existence, she had managed to make the acquaintance of Nikos. He was three times forbidden to her—he was not of her kind or of her culture; he was a simple fisherman with no fortune; he was younger than Vien, who was in her early twenties by the time their paths had crossed, by a handful of years.

 

They were married in the moonlight, in a temple of Nikos’s people, by one of his priests.

 

Dan had simply disowned her daughter.

 

Nikos’s widowed mother, Elena, had not been overjoyed either at her new daughter-in-law. But Nikos was her last surviving son, and after a short period of friction Elena had simply concluded that Vien was not so much disrespectful and recalcitrant as genuinely ignorant of any kind of life other than what she had known in her mother’s house. So Elena put aside her pique and turned, instead, to teaching Vien how to prepare fresh fish, how to use Elaas herbs in her cooking, how to bake the particular sticky sweets of which Nikos was so fond, how to erase as much as possible of the sing-song accent with which she—even though she had been born in Elaas—spoke the language of the land outside her mother’s makeshift temple to Syai.

 

All that changed when Amais was born.

 

In Dan’s own inimitable and high-handed manner—she had been married to a Prince, after all, and had never forgotten that she could claim the title and the privileges of an Imperial Princess if she so chose—Vien’s mother had sent word that her granddaughter was to be presented to her in her home at a certain auspicious hour.

 

Elena had snorted in outrage and had counseled a rebuff of the same magnitude that Dan had administered to Vien herself on what was obviously considered a highly unsuitable marriage. But Vien had rocked her small newborn daughter in her arms, and had dropped her gaze in the face of her mother-in-law’s sharp comments.

 

“She is my mother,” Vien had said, finally. “I owe her my respect, at least. And this is her grandchild, after all.”

 

Elena had thrown her hands up in the air, in the expressive manner of her own culture, in a way that Dan would have considered a vulgar show of emotion in public and could not have even conceived of ever doing. “Mark my words,” Elena had said darkly, “no good can come of it.”

 

Vien had offered up the child as she had been commanded, and Dan, holding her granddaughter in her arms after first wrapping her up in a scarlet birth-cloth taken from one the many cedar chests in her house, had inspected the drowsing child’s features closely.

 

“Her skin is too fair, and her eyes are too slanted, like a cat’s…. Oh well, I suppose that can’t be helped, under the circumstances.” Dan said critically. She sniffed, giving the impression that she was holding back from saying far worse. “Be that as it may. You will bring her to me every day. For an hour or so, while she is still in swaddling clothes. After… we will see.”

 

“Whatever for, Mother?” Vien said, looking startled and not a little trapped. Perhaps her mother-in-law’s words were coming back to echo in her mind.

 

“So that I can start teaching her, of course,” Dan said, in a tone of voice that indicated that Vien was simple-minded not to know this already. “She has unfortunate aspects to her lineage but she was born on an auspicious day. That means that her life will matter. She will be given in abundance, but whether joy or sorrow I cannot tell. It may matter how much she knows of her people and her past, when the Gods come knocking at her door asking for her.”

 

“Ridiculous,” Elena had snapped when Vien, a little bewildered, returned to her husband’s house with her daughter in her arms. “The child is a helpless baby, not a scion of the gods. What else did she have to say on the matter, your mother?”

 

“She named her,” Vien said. “The child’s name is Amais.”

 

“That’s a mouthful,” Elena said trenchantly.

 

“It means ‘Nightingale’,” Vien added helpfully.

 

“Ridiculous,” Elena said.

 

But Nikos had, somewhat unexpectedly, taken Dan’s side and had overruled his mother.

 

“This is all she has left,” he told Vien in the darkness of their room at night, with the contested child sleeping the sleep of the innocent in the crib he had made for her with his own hands. “Let her have that much. Amais is a beautiful name, and it means a beautiful thing. We can give our daughter that gift.”

 

So Amais was taken dutifully to her maternal grandmother’s house every day. She seemed content to be there, perhaps lulled by her grandmother’s quiet melodious lullabies, quite happy to kick her baby heels on the piles of cushions which Dan provided for her. Later, when she started to crawl and then to toddle, Dan placed no restrictions on her activities in the house, merely removing small grasping hands gently from draperies when they looked about ready to come down on the child in a heap. Amais grew up to the sound of her grandmother’s voice, first the songs and then the poetry that was read to her while she listened, rapt, not understanding half the words but happy to be in the circle of
baya
-Dan’s world. For a while, she was too young to know how different her two worlds were, the world of twilight and old protocol where she was a sort of princess-heir wrapped in silks and scarlet, and the world of sunlight and sea where she ran gurgling with childish laughter while running from foam-tipped waves breaking from a sapphire-colored sea as they lapped at her round heels.

 

Amais grew into a chubby, moon-faced toddler with round cheeks and what looked like far too much forehead. Dan had been right—Amais’s fair skin was scorched into angry red blotches if she did not protect it from the sun, and her eyes had not been of the degree of roundness required of a princess of the imperial blood. But the eyes in question had quickly turned from the guileless blue of babyhood into an improbable shade of golden brown flecked with green, and her hair, the despair and secret pride of both grandmothers, was a serendipitous mix of Vien’s hip-length mane that fell thick and straight like a black waterfall and Nikos’s riotous curls, and framed Amais’s face in huge smooth waves.

 

On this, both grandmothers were in full agreement.

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